My complete disinterest in Pirate games these days and my rising level of lab work to do have put me way behind on the news cycle lately, but yesterday long-time Pirate and Jack Wilson announced that as soon as the 2012 playoffs end he'll be retiring from baseball. Wilson was released by the Braves at the end of August, but has apparently been hanging around the team for their stretch run and will be in Pittsburgh with them to close out the 2012 season.
I always had a pretty complicated player/fan relationship with Wilson; his defense was nothing short of spectacular, but for his best seasons we didn't even have the imperfect fielding metrics that we have now. He was playing in an era of offense when everyone's understanding of offense was increasing, with his real value tied up in something that most fans (myself included) had a hard time properly evaluating. As a result, I spent a lot of time pointing out that Wilson's offense wasn't nearly as good as it was sometimes played up to be, but I never realized what a truly great shortstop he was until after his time as a Pirate had ended.
Going by Defensive Runs Saved, Clint Barmes has been worth about 14 runs in the field to the Pirates this year. That's pretty good; his defensive WAR at Baseball-Reference is 2.2, which means that he's the sixth-best defensive player in the National League this year. That means that as putrid as Barmes's bat has been, he's still been above-replacement as a shortstop this year. In 2005, DRS says Jack Wilson was worth 32 runs at shortstop. That gave him a dWAR of 4.1, which lead the National League by almost a full win (Craig Counsell was second with 3.4 dWAR). In 2004, Wilson's career year at the plate, he hit .308/.335/.459 with 41 doubles, 12 triples, and 11 homers. His WAR that season was 4.5. In 2005, his offense dipped badly, to .257/.299/.363 with 24 doubles, 7 triples, and eight homers. His glove was so spectacular that year that his WAR was still 3.9. He never played anything that resembled a full season after 2005.
In the Bucs Dugout thread about Wilson yesterday, Vlad posted this defensive highlight reel. It's long, but you should find time to try and watch it today. What's most impressive to me is that in his prime, there was no play Wilson couldn't make. He could range all the way to his right to backhand the ball and make an off-balance jump-throw strike to first from shallow left field. He could bare-hand a dying quail in front of second base. He could make plays behind second base with enough presence of mind to flip the ball to a second baseman, who would be better positioned for the throw. He could leap to snag a liner or track a pop-up all the way down the left field line, and if there was ever anyone on base for those plays he was always immediately ready to snap a throw where it needed to go to catch a sleeping runner.
Watching Wilson play short as a Pirate was always a pleasure, but I think that maybe he's the sort of player that can only be fully appreciated when he's gone. When Clint Barmes comes to town and has a solid season with a glove, but you notice every single time his feet get tied up on an off-balance throw or he can't quite get to a ball in the hole and you can't quite figure out why, but then you watch the Jack Wilson highlight video and you realize that Barmes is fine, he's just not quite Jack Wilson and that that's what your brain expects a good defensive shortstop to look like. As it turns out, that's not really a fair standard to judge anyone by.