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Spitballing: Position Players Moving Around January 24, 2014

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball, Economics.
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Earlier this week, I posted about Lucas Duda and how he’s being forced out of his natural position. This came up a few years ago for the Mets as well, when Angel Pagan was being forced out of the outfield – many fans suggested pushing him to second base (in the hole now filled by Daniel Murphy). The sense seems to be that players can move freely around the field, going wherever the team needs them. There are a couple of theories on this, and a couple of good examples, but it doesn’t always work out.

Typically, the best moves take someone from a more defensively-demanding position and move him to one that’s less so. Victor Martinez still catches occasionally, but he’s made a move almost entirely to the DH role and played more games at first base last year. Alex Rodriguez has also made some moves in that direction, moving from the very demanding shortstop position to the slightly less difficult third base (perversely, to allow the much lousier Derek Jeter to stay in his position), and mostly toward DH these days. Johnny Damon and Jorge Posada were among the revolving door of older Yankees to do time out of position at first base over the past few years, with varying degrees of success. On the other hand, even moves down the defensive spectrum don’t always work. Gary Sheffield was famously described as “painful to watch” at first by Michael Kaye. Kevin Youkilis was solid in his move from third to first, but the extra speed required for left field left him looking like he couldn’t hack it, and even though the corner positions are great places to stick a team’s best sluggers, it rarely makes sense to move a broken-down catcher there instead of to first or (rarely) third. Even a solid third baseman wouldn’t necessarily have the ability to cover ground needed by an outfielder, even if he had the requisite ability to predict the ball’s flight – a skill that probably needs time in the field to develop.

Pitching is kind of a weird exception. The best example in recent memory has to be Rick Ankiel, whose meltdown on the mound during the World Series led to his second career as an outfielder. On the opposite side, Juan Salas went from being a cannon-armed third baseman to pitching reasonably well, and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen has saved 53 games for the Dodgers since being converted from light-hitting catcher to closer. (He also has a lifetime .500/.667/.500 batting line, in the “Utterly Meaningless Statistics” category.) Similarly, Ike Davis went from being his college team’s Friday-night starter to the least defensively-demanding position (first base) in the majors.

Defensive position moves tend to be difficult to make. In Duda’s case, he’d technically be moving up the defensive spectrum, but it’s hard to even consider the speed required to be a competent outfielder on the same scale as the abilities of an infielder. It’s unremarkable to me that Johnny Damon was able to move to first, but putting Youkilis in left field a few years ago was a true head-scratcher. In order to move a player freely between the infield and the outfield, you’ll need a special kind of player unless you’re willing to give up a lot defensively. As an economist, I’m all about specialization given constraints; Duda’s constraints are just too tight to make this move work.

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