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Rafael Furcal’s Amazing Season

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=furcal&iid=9278118″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9278118/los-angeles-dodgers/los-angeles-dodgers.jpg?size=500&imageId=9278118″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

It’s not 2005 all over again, but SS Rafael Furcal of the Dodgers is having one of those “best infielder in the league” kind of seasons.

You wouldn’t have known it — at least I did not realize it — until going to the stats.  Furcal is on pace for the best defensive season of his career, according to UZR.  He’s having the best offensive year of his career, keeping off the disabled list for any substantial period of time.  Furcal, if he stays healthy, is poised to best 5 wins above replacement for the first time in his eleven year career.  Furcal is the driving force behind the L.A. Dodgers’ chase for the surprisingly competitive NL West; he’s the one irreplaceable part of their machine.

What makes Furcal’s season even more amazing is that his prime years were very well defined: from 2004-2006, he was in the discussion for best shortstop in the league.  Even then, Furcal never had one season where he was the dominant force at the position: he had a 4.7 WAR career year for Atlanta in 2005, and finished second in the league behind Miguel Tejada.  He posted 3.9 WAR the next year for Los Angeles, but was suppressed out of the top ten by a historically great year for Shortstops, including Derek Jeter’s MVP caliber post-30 season.

Then the Dodgers’ investment appeared to look a lot worse.  Furcal failed to post a positive UZR in any year of his first Dodger contract.  He struggled in 2007 at the plate and in the field, and then in 2008, he lost a torrid start to season ending injury.  The Dodgers could have cut ties right there after spending $39 million for one good season, but decided to re-sign Furcal at a “reduced” rate ($10 million per year).  This was a difficult decision for the Dodgers, because most of their contracts from 2009 and 2010 include a lot of deferred money.

But it appears to have been the right decision.  A healthy Furcal worked on his defense, and showed improvement in 2009, but his power disappeared at the plate.  That defense plus a .711 OPS added up to a 3 WAR season for Furcal, who figured to be at that level for the rest of the contract, playing up to but not exceeding his contract.  This season, he’s blown all that out of the water.

I could probably spend the rest of this article writing about how Furcal is playing great defense for a team that is greatly struggling defensively (no other regular is playing above average defense).  I could talk about Furcal’s .394 wOBA, and how it’s second on the team to Manny Ramirez, and while Manny has spent about half the year on the DL, Furcal made just a short trip, and came off 15 days later in top shape.

But, defense aside, when you think of this year’s Dodgers offense, you can’t help but defer to the perception that all-star Andre Ethier has been the driving offensive force, his clutch hitting pulling the Dodgers out of countless situations.  Perhaps you’d think about Ramirez’ doubles splitting the gaps, and the towering home runs he is still capable of.  Both Ethier and Manny have been valuable hitters this year, but the Dodgers BEST hitter has been Furcal.

Of course, Russell Martin is having a typically valuable season as well, and James Loney is in the middle of his best season since 2007, a year that could become a career best with one hot week.  Furcal isn’t the only reason the Dodgers are within striking distance in their division, not with the trio of aces: Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda, and Chad Billingsley keeping batters guessing.  He’s not wowing observers with pure power like Jonathon Broxton is.

Raffy Furcal is simply slugging .507 from the shortstop position when offense is as depressed as it’s been in the last 20 years, and with that kind of production, he’s blowing all other shortstops out of the water, not to mention his Dodger teammates.  Furcal’s best slugging season in offensive-friendly Atlanta was .443 in 2003.  He’s setting all sorts of personal records this year, and if he has any kind of encore in 2011 for Dodger fans, the team will come up as far ahead on this Furcal contract as they did behind on the first one.

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