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The Mets are just five games out of first place in the NL East, so I was
going to do a column on exactly how this happened. My mother is a big Mets
fan, bless her heart, and when I mentioned my intention, she about disowned
me, mindful of
the evil
things I’ve done to the Padres
over the past two
seasons.

So, being the good son, I’ll set the Amazins aside for now, and write about
something else.

Dave Pease, BP’s Webmaster and all-around good guy, sent me this
after
reading yesterday’s Daily Prospectus
:


[Scott] Rolen is the second best third baseman in the NL? Seen a
Padres game lately, Joe?


He wasn’t the only reader to react this way, as my contention that Rolen had
established himself as the #2 man in the NL at his position–behind
Chipper Jones–caught a number of people by surprise.

Let’s get one objection out of the way: Albert Pujols hasn’t played
enough third base to be part of this discussion. He’s had an amazing season,
one of the all-time great rookie campaigns, and he is a huge part of the
Cardinals’ being wild-card leaders. But he’s played just 423 2/3 innings at
third base, which is just over a third of his total innings in the field
this season. Part of that is manager’s decision, but he does have a .748
Zone Rating, which would rank him about even with Aramis Ramirez as
the second-worst glove man in the league. His DP-to-errors ratio–one
quick’n’dirty way of evaluating a third baseman–is 17-to-10, below the
benchmark of two-to-one. There are sample-size issues here, so this isn’t
the final word on Pujols’s defense, but the performance analysis works
against him right now.

Pujols may be the best third baseman in the league a year from now, but
let’s let him establish that he’s a third baseman at all before comparing
him to guys with 1,000 innings at the position.

That leaves the guy to whom Dave is referring, and the name that showed up
most often in my inbox: Phil Nevin. Nevin is having a huge season,
almost ten years after being the #1 overall pick in the 1992 draft. It’s
kind of hard to believe he was considered a prospect flop, acquired from the
Angels for Andy Sheets, less than three years ago.

Nevin has clearly outhit Rolen this season, and overall since coming to the
National League:


             AB    H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  EqA  EqR
Nevin 1999  383  103  27   0  24  51   1  0  .269 .352 .527 .284   61
Rolen 1999  421  113  28   1  26  67  12  2  .268 .368 .525 .282   66

Nevin 2000 538 163 34 1 31 59 2 0 .303 .374 .543 .296 90 Rolen 2000 483 144 32 6 26 51 8 1 .298 .370 .551 .285 75

Nevin 2001 496 152 28 0 36 66 4 4 .306 .390 .581 .325 105 Rolen 2001 517 152 38 1 22 64 15 5 .294 .376 .499 .297 89


The two players raw numbers look fairly close in 1999 and 2000, but Nevin’s
home park–Qualcomm Stadium–is a much tougher place for hitters than
Rolen’s Veterans Stadium. At the plate and on the bases, Nevin has been
about 15 runs per season better than Rolen for the past two years, or
between one and one-and-a-half wins.


              Inn    PO     A    E   DP    Pct.     RF      ZR
Nevin 1999    533    36   130    3   13   .982    2.81    .847
Rolen 1999    962   112   225   14   21   .960    3.15    .869

Nevin 2000 1213 97 242 26 22 .929 2.52 .775 Rolen 2000 1080 89 245 10 14 .971 2.78 .818

Nevin 2001 1117 84 238 25 24 .928 2.60 .759 Rolen 2001 1222 95 303 10 20 .975 2.93 .830


The gap between these two players in the field is wide. Toss out range
factor–which can be badly distorted by opportunities-and focus on Rolen’s
big edges on Nevin in fielding percentage (which very roughly measures
efficiency) and zone rating (which is a good measurement of range). These
advantages have been constant for two seasons. Rolen is one of the best
defensive third basemen in the game, while Nevin is one of the worst.

People who see the Padres more than I do emphasize that Nevin doesn’t get
much help from Ryan Klesko, who they say handles throws poorly. That
needs to be considered, although my observation is that Nevin has problems
going to the line and has poor hands. I don’t see Rolen enough to proffer
any subjective opinion about him.

The issue is whether Rolen’s advantage with the glove over Nevin is worth
more than one win or so a season, which would pull him even with the Padre
slugger. My judgment yesterday, without getting this deeply into it, was
that it does. Today, having looked more closely, I’m even more convinced.
Rolen is saving between 25 and 40 hits per season, some of them doubles,
that Nevin is allowing. Linear weights–just to use one tool–calls 20
singles and five doubles 12.3 runs, which is the low estimate of the
difference between the gloves of Nevin and Rolen, and would just about make
up the gap between them at the plate.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the defensive metrics we have today, and
this analysis demonstrates that shortcoming. That said, when the defensive
metrics all point in the same direction, and they agree with the
established reputation of the players, I’m inclined to agree with the
conclusion.

So I stand by this: Scott Rolen is the second-best third baseman in the
National League.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.

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