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March 13, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Step to the left... or to the right?

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week I noted that Nate Silver expanded upon Bill James' initial work on aging patterns to show that hitters tend to peak between ages 25 and 29, cresting at 26 and 27, with some understandable variations by position. Speed-based players like middle infielders and center fielders peak toward the earlier side of that range, while catchers develop more slowly, and third basemen, who tend to be slower and thicker, peak later and retain a larger share of their value over a longer period of time.

Nate's findings mesh with another concept that James introduced to the masses in the 1982 Baseball Abstract, the existence of a defensive spectrum which runs like so:

1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C

The positions at the left end of the spectrum are easier to defend, but carry higher offensive demands, while the positions to the right prioritize defensive skill over hitting ability. Note how well the 2008 Equivalent Averages by position match up with that spectrum:


Pos   EqA
1B   .283
LF   .276
RF   .276
3B   .270
CF   .268
2B   .264
SS   .255
 C   .252

As players age, they tend to drift to the left side of the spectrum; many a superstar was drafted out of high school or college as a shortstop, only to gravitate to a less challenging position as his body filled out and he developed as a hitter. Gary Sheffield-stormy career and all-is a prime example. Drafted as a shortstop, he moved to third base during his second year in the majors, then to right field in his sixth, and these days he's playing out the string as a DH. Attempts to move players to the right rarely work out as well. We have yet to reach the Ides of March, and already the Cardinals' attempt to convert outfielder Skip Schumaker to second base appear headed for oblivion.

Figuring out when to move a player to a different position is a tricky business. Prospects are often shifted before reaching the majors, either based upon the needs of their clubs, the desire to expand their defensive utility, or, particularly with catchers, to maximize their offensive potentials and lengthen their careers. Down the road, older players are often shifted after losing a step in the field; 10-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. became a corner outfielder at 37.

Quantifying the long-term impact of moves is rarely possible, but here's a look at some of the factors in play regarding potential position shifts that have been proposed:

Chase Utley, Phillies 2B
Recently, colleague Steven Goldman observed that "the 30s are rarely kind to second basemen." Utley, who is coming off of surgery to repair a torn hip labrum, passed that milestone back in December. It remains to be seen whether his typically outstanding defense (+19 FRAA last year) suffers in the short term, or if the injury could mark the beginning of a more typical large-scale decline. If the latter is the case, he's got plenty of headroom to withstand a position shift given last year's .311 EqA and a career mark of .304. Acknowledging the presence of first baseman Ryan Howard, right fielder Jayson Werth (second on the team last year with a .301 EqA ), and left fielder Raul Ibanez (signed to a three-year deal this winter), third base would seem to provide the easiest out, but the hot corner is no picnic either, and the move is out of the question this year.

Victor Martinez, Indians C
Never known for his defense, Martinez improved his success in nabbing would-be base thieves in recent years while also dabbling at first base to keep his potent bat (career .295 EqA) in the lineup. Hamstring and elbow injuries limited him to just 73 games, two homers, and a .260 EqA last year, though backup Kelly Shoppach's .301 EqA and 21 homers in 403 plate appearances provided a silver lining. PECOTA sees the 30-year-old Martinez and place-holding first baseman Ryan Garko as equal offensively, forecasting both for .266 EqAs this year. That's substandard for the position, but Martinez's strong track record suggests that he could exceed that forecast given less time behind the plate, thus keeping Shoppach's bat and glove in the lineup. Expect to see Martinez starting at least 25 percent of the Tribe's games at first, though he may not be the only potential position-shifter vying for at-bats there. Power-hitting prospect Matt LaPorta (the key swag from the CC Sabathia deal), is the longer-term candidate, but he's currently marking time in left field, the position he assumed only after being drafted. He's progressed from inevitable comparisons to Ron Kittle (whom James called "worst young outfielder I have seen since Greg Luzinski") to the point of serviceability, but his lack of range inevitably tickets him for first base.

Chipper Jones, Braves 3B
The 37-year-old Jones presents a quandary for the Braves, ranking as one of the games' most irreplaceable players, but one who frequently needs replacing nonetheless. He's batted .342/.435/.592 over the past three years, while averaging just 124 games per season due to injuries. Never a stellar third baseman (though our new play-by-play defensive metrics hold him in much higher regard than our older system), he's resisted a move off of the hot corner ever since returning from a left field sabbatical that ran from 2002 to mid-June of 2004. In a vacuum, a move to first would make sense, but the Braves have nobody ready to take over at third, and they're still trying to salvage the acquisition of underpowered Casey Kotchman from the Angels in the Mark Teixeira deal. This one's not going to happen anytime soon.

Jeff Clement, Mariners C
Former Mariners GM Bill Bavasi didn't become the architect of baseball's first 100-loss team to exceed $100 million in payroll by making moves that made sense. Even with Clement considered one of the organization's top two prospects entering 2007 and 2008, Bavasi re-signed starting catcher Kenji Johjima to a three-year, $24 million extension in April 2008 while ignoring the 32-year-old's potential for decline. Johjima's EqA crashed from .272 in 2007 to .229 last year, but he still started about three times as many games as the 24-year-old Clement, who himself struggled to a .234 EqA while splitting time at catcher and DH. PECOTA foresees a string of .280-ish EqAs in Clement's future, but dislikes his defense enough to suggest he'll cost more than one win a year behind the plate, echoing the sentiments of scouts never sold on his throwing ability. Throw in a recent knee surgery, and a move to first base or DH appears academic, though the presence of both Russell Branyan and Griffey-like Clement, both lefties-are blocking the way.

Joe Mather, Cardinals OF
As the potential shift of Schumaker attests, the Cardinals aren't afraid to employ surplus outfielders elsewhere on the diamond. With Troy Glaus shelved for April, they've got a hole at third base, and they're currently auditioning the late-blooming Mather, a 26-year-old corner outfielder who played third in college but hasn't seen regular duty there since 2004. Mather's PECOTA forecast for this year calls for a .265 EqA, with a high of .273 down the road-a level of productivity better suited to the hot corner. Reports out of the Cardinals' camp suggest he's already sewn up the Opening Day spot, and his newfound versatility enhances his chances of sticking around once Glaus returns.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

doncoffin
(422)

An historically-oriented question. The Dodgers, in the 1970s, did a lot of shifting players between positions--Garvey from 3B to 1B; Russell and Lopes from OF to SS and 2B, respectively; the failed attempt to move Guerrero from OF to 3B. The moves of Russell and Lopes are among the few that I know of in which players succeeded in moving from less to more demanding defensive positions (although both received much criticism for their defense). Is the set of successful move larger than that?

Mar 13, 2009 10:34 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

You're right that the Dodgers of the Seventies tried to move players against the natural flow of the Defensive Spectrum quite often. It was an idea that had been in the organization since the Branch Rickey days; his term for it was "coconut snatching." Among their other successes were Joe Ferguson and Bob Stinson, who converted from outfield to catcher and enjoyed substantial major league careers (the latter primarily beyond LA).

I'm sure there have been others in different organizations, but they're escaping me now.

Mar 13, 2009 11:36 AM
 
Leitch

Cal Ripken is one

Mar 14, 2009 08:25 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Yes, though the line was always blurred as he established himself. Ripken was drafted out of high school as a third baseman, played exclusively at shortstop in rookie ball in 1978, played more third than short over the next few years in the minors, played more short than third during his 1981 cup of coffee, began the 1982 season as the Orioles' regular third baseman, switched to shortstop in early July, and stayed there until 1997, when he moved back to third.

Mar 14, 2009 09:56 AM
 
Random

How 'bout Pete Rose? Seems he skipped left and right a couple times.

Mar 14, 2009 15:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Ira

I'm very suprised that you failed to talk about Michael Young. I know his move isn't proposed, but actually acted upon, but I would be intrigued to hear what you thought might happen for him. He's also one of the very rare cases of a player moving up the defensive spectrum and then thriving there when he moved from Second base to shortstop, and then, against all expectations, started flashing gold glove level defense at short. Now, with a move to third, will he start hitting 30 homers per year? Personally I doubt it, but he's exceeded expectations before.

Mar 13, 2009 10:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I spent a bit of time talking about Young in last week's Outside Help piece on the AL West (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8588), much to the consternation of some Rangers fans who seem to believe that getting Elvis Andrus to the majors immediately is a higher priority than seasoning him in Triple-A and strategically starting his service clock so as to retain him a year longer. I mean, would they rather have him available as a 20-year-old in 2009 or as a 26-year-old in 2016, a point when the Rangers presumably won't be staffing their rotation with the Padillas, Millwoods and Feldmans? From where I sit, the answer is so academic it hardly seems worth asking.

As it was, today's piece also ran on ESPN Insider, where we're on a word count, and so I didn't have the space to address the move of Young again. The answer is no, I wouldn't expect his offensive output to suddenly start conforming to a more third baseman-like level of production. At 32, he is what he is, a decent hitter for a middle infielder but an underpowered one for a corner spot.

Mar 13, 2009 11:46 AM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

sorry, 2015. Miscounted my fingers.

Mar 13, 2009 11:47 AM
 
phuturephillies

Utley was moved to 3B in the minors because the Phillies had Polanco, but the experiment did not go well, and he was eventually moved back to 2B. His arm is merely average, and you can see in his throwing motion that its something he's had to work at quite a bit to even be average in terms of accuracy. I don't think he'd work at 3B at this point.

Mar 13, 2009 12:04 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

You're right. He spent 2002 there and fielded .918 with 28 errors and 17 double plays, an untenable performance, and one I wish I had noticed in putting together this piece.

Score that E-5.

Mar 13, 2009 12:32 PM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

And if the official scorer is charitable enough to rule that one a hit, you can still add an E-5 on me because Mather never went to college He was drafted out of high school as a shortstop.

Mar 13, 2009 12:37 PM
 
phuturephillies

No worries. I think hes definitely athletic enough to play the position, John Dewan has talked about his instincts and positioning as being huge assets at 2B, and I'm sure it would carry over to 3B, but his throwing arm just isn't what it would need to be, and Ryan Howard isn't exactly an errant throw vacuum at 1B, so I think it could lead to a lot of unearned runs. The one caveat is outside of Jamie Moyer, the Phillies other four starters are all flyball pitchers.

Utley is, if nothing else, the poster boy for hard work and diligence. When he was coming up, everyone assumed he'd always be a butcher in the field and his bat would carry him. He was very mechanical, and if you watch his throwing motion now, he's still very mechanical, but he worked his tail off, and coupled with his baseball IQ, it made him one of the best defenders at the position.

Mar 13, 2009 15:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

Re: Chipper Jones
Do the current DT Cards and/or PECOTA cards reflect the new defensive metric? Jones is listed at -12 FR for 2006 on his PECOTA card, -9 on his DT card, and still a whopping minus 180+ for his career. Is that the kinder, gentler score, or the same old?

Mar 13, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The cards have not been updated yet. It's overdue and I doubt it will happen until after Clay is done maintaining the fantasy depth charts.

Mar 13, 2009 12:39 PM
 
Bebo Pilotto

What about Alexi Ramirez? He is shifting from 2B to SS after last year moving (at least theoretically) from center to the keystone. Will a constant move against the grain hurt the Cuban?

Mar 14, 2009 16:36 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I'd worry most about Ramirez's defense at shortstop. Our numbers have him -5 runs in 121 games at 2B, while UZR has him at -6.9. That doesn't exactly create a lot of confidence in the integrity of the White Sox's infield defense.

Mar 14, 2009 19:52 PM
 
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