For now, Orlando Arcia’s value on defense outweighs his offensive struggles

Atlanta Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia returns to the dugout after striking out. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia returns to the dugout after striking out. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

On the off day on Monday, the Braves’ Orlando Arcia began feeling pain and dizziness. He decided to go to the dentist, where they discovered an abscessed tooth. They extracted the tooth, which left him unable to go to the ballpark for a few days.

While his teammates faced the Giants, Arcia was at home with his wife, Elena, and their twin daughters, Mia and Isabella. They took care of him.

And, of course, Mia and Isabella loved having dad home.

“I was really happy to spend the time with them, and it was just fun because they kept saying they were taking care of me, which was true,” Arcia told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through interpreter Franco García. “They were bringing me food, they were bringing me drinks and everything. They were kind of pretending as if they were the ones taking care of me for a change.”

Now, Arcia is back at work, where he and his teammates are trying to gain momentum as the All-Star break approaches. Thus far, Arcia and the Braves haven’t lived up to expectations – though they’ve held a comfortable above-.500 record for most of the season. Many Braves are underperforming.

Arcia is one of them.

A year ago, he made the National League All-Star team. Thus far this season, he’s been one of the worst-performing hitters in MLB.

He’s been terrific defensively, but entered Saturday batting .211 with a .581 OPS. He had six home runs and 23 RBIs. And in a win over the Phillies, Arcia went 0-for-3 with a walk (an intentional walk) and a strikeout.

At the beginning of play Saturday, Arcia had hit .174 since the start of May – tied for the fourth-worst mark among qualified hitters. His .500 OPS over that span was the sixth worst over this span.

Still, the Braves have stuck with Arcia as their starting shortstop.

“I’m extremely grateful for their continued support and confidence they’ve placed in me,” Arcia said. “I’m not trying to lead anyone on or defraud anyone. I’m confident that things are going to start sort of going the way we expect them to.”

Why does Arcia believe his bat hasn’t been there this season?

“Yeah, it’s tough to say,” he said. “I think you could break down everything, whether it’s how hard we’re hitting the ball or if we’re missing the ball entirely. So there’s so many things that are out of our control that I try not to pay too much attention. Really, all we can do is try to put the ball in play and if it falls, then be grateful that it did.”

It seems the Braves plan to continue running Arcia out there – at least for now. And it isn’t difficult to see why they haven’t overreacted to his poor offensive first half.

The reason: It’s difficult to sacrifice defense at shortstop. Outfielders can be positioned to minimize their weaknesses, and if a second baseman botches a ball, he’s close enough to first base to still make the out. But shortstop? You need defense.

If Arcia were a so-so defender, this would be a different conversation. But he’s not.

In 2010, the Brewers signed Arcia out of Venezuela. “It just kind of motivated me to focus on having good hands and being able to play good defense,” he said. And so this is where the defensive prowess – at least professionally – truly began. Arcia worked with Brewers coaches, like infield coordinator Bob Miscik. They became integral to his development.

Arcia is a terrific defensive shortstop. He features elite hands and a strong arm. He passes the eye test.

And that eye test is friendlier than the metrics. He ranks 11th among shortstops with two Defensive Runs Saved, which means, in simple terms, that he’s two runs better than the average shortstop. Outs Above Average is a range-based metric that measures fielding skill, and Arcia is 13th among shortstops with three Outs Above Average. (We must be careful to not weigh these half-season samples too heavily.)

Take this example: In 2019, after Dansby Swanson suffered an injury, the Braves went with Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo at shortstop. While Camargo featured upside at the plate, neither he nor Culberson could make the routine plays at short. The Braves went out and brought in Adeiny Hechavarría.

The point: They valued defense at the position.

They still do. And Arcia brings that.

Over the winter, the Braves projected Arcia to bat eighth and Jarred Kelenic ninth in their lineup. Arcia has never been the key to offensive success for Atlanta, even if he put together a career year in 2023. The Braves’ disappointing offense has much more to do with their stars struggling at different points – and the loss of Ronald Acuña Jr. – than Arcia.

In recent weeks, many Braves fans have wondered why the team hasn’t called up Nacho Alvarez, who is crushing Triple-A pitching and making a lot of nice plays.

Entering Saturday, Alvarez was batting .354 with a 1.028 over 82 at-bats in his first time in Triple A. He had five homers and 17 RBIs over his first 19 games.

Alvarez is 21 years old, though. He’s been incredible for the Stripers, but he just arrived in Gwinnett. He’s still developing. The league’s pitching is seeing him for the first time.

Then there’s this: If the Braves are going to call up a young shortstop, they must have everyday playing time and be totally convinced that he’ll outperform any other option.

And at this point, the Braves likely want to see Alvarez get more time in Triple-A. They want him to play every day, which he cannot do in the majors unless he starts. If someone goes on the major-league injured list, the Braves could give Alvarez the call. But for now, it seems the club wants him to spend more time in Triple-A to continue developing.

This can change. Who’s to say Alvarez won’t blast six homers next week? What if Arcia’s struggles become far worse? Perhaps Alvarez eventually gets a look up here.

And if the Braves were to ever pull this trigger, they’d need to know with near certainty that Alvarez would perform consistently up here. This isn’t as easy as some think. In 2019, Austin Riley struggled mightily after the Braves brought him up. This season, top prospect Jackson Holiday went 2-for-34 in the majors before the Orioles decided they’d seen enough and sent him back down to keep developing.

If Arcia were to be replaced, Braves manager Brian Snitker would likely use Zack Short. Snitker has shown the willingness to find the hot hand if hitters are slumping. Short is 7-for-51 with 11 walks since the Braves signed him, but he plays a great shortstop. This is why the Braves targeted him when he became available. He’s a better shortstop than Luis Guillorme, whom Atlanta dealt to the Angels before bringing in Short.

Orlando Arcia (left) celebrates with Jarred Kelenic in the dugout on June 15, 2024 in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Arcia has tried to not let his offensive struggles leak into other parts of his game. He strives to be the same guy regardless of the results at the plate.

“Honestly, being a teammate,” Arcia said of how he does this. “Just because things aren’t going my way doesn’t mean I can’t be there as a teammate or support my teammates in their (situations). If I have a bad at-bat, I can’t focus on myself. As soon as that happens, I have to turn my attention to being a good teammate and supporting everyone else. That helps me be that way. And then also, just doing my job defensively. Just maintain my focus and make sure that I’m playing good defense out there, and not letting whatever struggles I’m having offensively affect my play out there on the field.”

Even if he hasn’t produced offensively, he’s valuable to the Braves because of his tremendous defensive ability. As a shortstop, run prevention might matter more than run production. The plays a shortstop doesn’t make can kill a team.

Throughout his struggles, Arcia’s teammates have had his back.

“It means a lot – a lot, a lot – just to have that support,” Arcia said. “For us as a group, it’s all about the unity that we have with one another. I think one thing you can expect out of all of us is we’re all going to take the field and we’re going to give our best effort, no matter what. Whatever happens, is going to happen. But one thing that we know is we’re going to go out there as a united front and give our best effort.”