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Spitballing: Position changes June 3, 2011

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball.
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First thing’s first: this entry was prompted by Buster Posey and his horrific ankle injury, but it’s not just about him. The first time I started thinking about it seriously was last year, when the Mets’ Carlos Beltran was about to come off the DL and Angel Pagan‘s placement was in doubt. Either Gary, Keith, or Ron tripped my “Stuff Keith Hernandez Says” meter by saying that fans had suggested moving Pagan to second base to fill in for the ailing Luis Castillo, and commented that “You can’t just move a guy to second base.” Very true.

Similarly, it’s very hard to “just move a guy” to catcher, which is why a guy like Buster Posey is so valuable. In the National League, the median OPS+ for players with at least 100 plate appearances and who played more than half their games at catcher was 91. Posey’s OPS+ was 129 – that’s over 40% better. If instead you look at first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances, the median OPS+ is 107. All of a sudden, Posey’s offensive value-added drops to about 20% above average, and that’s before accounting for regression to the mean. Moving him to third base instead mitigates the damage and takes full advantage of his arm, but he’s suddenly a much less special player when he’s on the hot corner instead of behind the plate.

It’s also maddening to hear about efforts to move Derek Jeter to center field. Even though he’s on the downswing, he’s hit well above average every year from 1996 through 2009. Even last year, his 91 OPS+ was acceptable, especially considering his popularity. Granted, he costs his team runs on defense (he’s rarely had a positive defensive Wins Above Replacement), but his offensive contribution more than makes up for it. He’s 6’3″, making him more than big enough to move to first base, and first base doesn’t require him to have the range that center field would. After Jorge Posada hangs it up, splitting  the duties at first base and DH between Jeter and Alex Rodriguez will start to make more sense, and using homegrown prospects to take over at shortstop and third base ensures continuing fan loyalty.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention future Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Although his 2.000 OPS last year grossly overstated his batting ability (only two plate appearances, compared with a lifetime .229 batting average in the minors), Jansen is a success story in his move from catcher to fireballing reliever. That was an excellent move by the Dodgers system – they took Jansen’s innate ability (his cannon-like arm) and moved him to a position where his contribution would be optimized. Whether or not Jansen turns out to be a future dominant closer, he’s probably gotten more playing time as a reliever than he ever would have as a catcher, and he’s generated more value for the Dodgers.

Basically, player moves are difficult. It’s important to try to optimize a player’s contribution, and that needs to take into account his defensive talents instead of merely trying to find a place for him to play. I can only hope Buster Posey’s recuperation goes smoothly and there’s a value-maximizing slot for him with the Giants.

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