Anthony Rendon and the Future of Second Base

After finally giving up on the idea of Danny Espinosa being able to produce while playing with a fractured wrist, the Nationals have promoted top prospect Anthony Rendon to take his place on the roster. And, by doing so, the Nationals are going to become the latest team to join the growing trend of changing the second base profile.

Four years ago, I wrote several posts about the differences between second baseman and third baseman, noting that the main difference between the positions was basically height. Both second baseman and third baseman came from the pool of former shortstops who were deemed to not be good enough defensively for the position, and MLB teams shifted the tall non-shortstops to third base and the short non-shortstops to second base.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but there has unquestionably been a trend towards smaller players playing second and larger players playing third. The data, however, doesn’t suggest that there’s been a huge defensive difference between the two positions, and players who end up spending a decent amount of playing time at both spots don’t end up performing that much worse at one than the other.

At the time, there were a few teams experimenting with bigger second baseman. The Rockies tried both Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker at second base, while the Royals gave Mark Teahen some reps up the middle. None of these experiments were all that successful, in part because these guys weren’t very good players to begin with. At the same time, the Cardinals converted Skip Schumaker — an outfielder up to that point — into a second baseman, and while he was never particularly good there, he did show that the OF-2B conversion could work.

While those experiments weren’t all that successful, MLB teams haven’t stopped converting players into second baseman, and the recent round of attempts has been a lot more successful. In 2010, the Pirates turned their 6-foot-3 third base prospect Neil Walker into a second baseman, and he’s basically been their regular 2B ever since. Since the start of the 2010 season, Walker has hit .279/.343/.426, and while UZR hated his defense in his first season at the position, it’s rated him as just slightly below average ever since.

In 2011, the Mets made the same move with the 6-foot-2 Daniel Murphy, turning a guy who had primarily been a 3B/1B/OF into a more regular second baseman, and last year, Murphy played the position exclusively. Like with Walker, UZR thought Murphy was terrible in his first full season at the position, but reports have been much better this year, and Murphy has been lauded for working hard to become a capable defender at the position.

This year, the Cardinals went for round two of their second base conversion experiment, and this one has worked a lot better than the Skip Schumaker trial. Without a spot for 6-foot-3 Matt Carpenter, they turned their corner spot swiss army knife into a second baseman, and he’s picked up the position so quickly that he’s already established himself as one of the best overall players in the NL at the position.

At just 6-foot, Rendon isn’t part of the trend towards taller second baseman, but like Dustin Ackley, he’s another prospect who is being tried at second base despite a lack of experience there, under the belief that decent athletes can turn themselves into second baseman with practice. While Ackley’s bat got him shipped back to the minor leagues, he actually turned himself into an above average defender at the position in just a few years, even though there was a good amount of skepticism about his ability to make the transition.

Over the last five years or so, MLB teams have been continually pushing the bounds of who can play second base. The days of lumping players into vague categories like “up the middle” or “corner guy” appear to be nearing their end, with teams attempting to build better rosters by taking guys out of the “corner” pool and trying them at second base, a position that has historically lagged in offensive production.

It’s probably not a coincidence that teams are being more accepting of larger second baseman at the same time that strikeout rate is exploding across the sport. As strikeouts go up, the impact of defense goes down, and the penalty for having a worse defender is lessened. That isn’t to say that 2B defense doesn’t matter anymore, but defense at all positions matters less than it did even 10 years ago. Anthony Rendon might not have been able to play second base well enough to stick in a league where the league strikeout rate was 15%, but at 20%, perhaps he crosses the threshold into barely acceptable.

And, as Walker, Murphy, Ackley, and Carpenter have all shown, defensive performance at second base can be improved upon with effort. Each was supposed to be a liability in the field, but both the scouting reports and the defensive metrics support the idea that they’ve become at least passable fielders at the position. Rendon has only played eight games at the position in his professional career, so he’s probably going to make some mistakes early, but with patience, there seems to be some history on his side. That Rendon is probably not a good defensive second baseman right now does not necessarily mean he won’t be one in a year or two.

Of course, there’s one other issue with Rendon specifically, and that is his health. He missed most of last season due to an ankle injury, and his draft stock slipped in 2011 due to questions about time he’d missed due to ankle and shoulder problems during his college career. A major part of second base defense is being able to turn the double play, including turning it with a baserunner barreling into your legs in an effort to break up the throw. The questions over the wisdom of taking a player with a history of lower leg issues and sticking him at the position that has the most lower leg contact are valid. Rendon might not stick as a long term second baseman if his body is not able to hold up to the physical demands of playing the position.

But, with the Nationals in need of some offense and Rendon’s path to the big leagues blocked at the corners, it’s an experiment worth making. If Rendon can avoid injury, there’s enough promise in his offensive potential to make him a valuable second baseman, even with lousy defense. If the defense improves enough in time, Rendon could end up as one of the game’s better overall second baseman.

This one might not work out as well as some of the other recent conversions, and not every third baseman should be moved to the other side of the diamond. However, I do think the data suggests that teams have been too willing to accept an offensive void at second base while ignoring a potential pool of players who could handle the position and provide some real value at the plate as well. Rendon’s conversion is just another step towards the Major Leagues balancing out the talent pool, and it’s probably a step forward for the league as a whole.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

36 Responses to “Anthony Rendon and the Future of Second Base”

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  1. dutchbrowncoat says:

    there is a key defensive consideration between the positions overlooked in your post: throwing. the 3rd baseman is usually going to need a stronger arm than a 2nd baseman. it is very possible that the height splits between positions is actually a side effect of taller players tending to have stronger arms.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Jedd Gyorko too. Though he played some 2B in the minors, mostly 3B.

    Not tall, just chunky.

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  3. d_i says:

    I agree that it’s the right move for now and possibly next year too, but I still expect Rendon to spend most of his career with the Nats at 3b once Zimmerman goes to first. Could be wrong if this goes well but one thing is for sure: Zimmerman is going to first in the next couple years. I don’t expect Espinosa to be a 3 win player again, but if he gets surgery on the shoulder, he might be good enough to hold a job again.

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  4. CabreraDeath says:

    This seems awfully anecdotal to spot/designate as a trend, let alone a trend that has produced good results. Just b/c a few players didn’t work out – and now a few players are working out – doesn’t mean that there is any attributable reason for both outside of the individual talent level of those players at issue.

    I think the stronger point is the increase in Ks and the effect that is having on the importance of strong defenders up the middle, as you stated. I just don’t think mentioning specific players – both successful and not – adds to the strength of the aforementioned point. In fact, I think it lessens it, if for no other reason than being a distraction.

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    • evo34 says:

      There is no trend. This article is horrible…making massive generalizations without providing a shred of supporting data. Incredible that the author thinks MLB teams simply triage former shortstops by height rather than agility (handling a DP) and arm strength. The evidence for this trend: a post he wrote 4 years ago which also contained no significant data. The simple reality: some larger players are agile and can play 2B and some smaller players have big arms, enabling them to 3B — and all of it will be influenced by team needs. Nothing new or trending about that.

      Cameron seems to consistently struggle with the concept of anecdote vs. data (the latter involves actual work). And in this case, he can’t even maintain basic internal consistency within the (torturously long) post. In the third paragraph, he proclaims, “there has unquestionably been a trend towards smaller players playing second and larger players playing third.” The use of “has” implies it is still going on. So 2B-men are getting smaller, right? Then a few paragraphs later, he asserts, “Over the last five years or so, MLB teams have been continually pushing the bounds of who can play second base.” Uh. So which is it?

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    • evo34 says:

      Then the kicker: the guy in the friggin’ *title* of the piece, Rendon, is actually *not* part of the alleged “bigger 2B” trend he spends most of the article discussing. Rendon is in fact a short third baseman moving to second base — which, if we believe the author’s thesis, should exemplify the old school mentality of “all short guys go to 2B”. Yet, by a magical twist, this move is instead “probably a step forward for the league as a whole.”

      Finally, you’d think if you were going to write a whole article about Rendon moving to 2B, you’d bother to find out that the guy who is “probably not a good defensive second baseman right now”, actually played 2B exclusively growing up until his senior year of HS. Not to mention that most scouts thought he would end up back at second eventually. I.e., this move was anything but a boundary-pushing experiment representing a league-wide paradigm shift.

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      • frivoflava29 says:

        Let’s play nice; I’m all for disagreement, but I don’t see any point in attacking the author. It’s anecdotal, sure, but I’d say it’s notable nonetheless. Taller, bigger guys tend to have bigger, stronger arms, more of a necessity at 3rd than at, say, 2nd, which is where you’re going to need more agility. (I, at least, thought this was a longtime trend in baseball, or it was back when I was in little league and had to play 2nd because I couldn’t throw from 3rd. I’m curious to see if gravity has changed since then and would love it if somebody could write an article using strictly empirical evidence to prove whether it has or hasn’t.) But lately, as the author points out, MLB teams have tended to try out some taller guys at 2nd because, as he also points out, K% has been on the rise especially as pitching has become dominant again. Then we get guys like Rendon who fit what we otherwise presume is the bill, and we see that the future of the position may still lay in the same, short hands. Unfortunately it’s not something that we can measure with a stat like batted ball distance, and so yes, these are anecdotal changes, but I still find that an article like this — and maybe it is ultimately just the author’s opinion based on what you at least, in your (may I, torturously long) post, claim are objectively obtuse facts — is a nice respite from the numbers strewn across the site. And who knows if there could be implications? I guess let’s just not pay any attention to the game going on.

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        • evo34 says:

          So what, um, is your point? That there is a “trend” (unsupported by any data) that taller players are getting shifted to second base, and Rendon is, um, not part of this alleged trend?

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        • evo34 says:

          P.S. I love that a guy publishes a 1,200-word article and makes no reply to someone blasting him for it (or anyone else, for that matter). Tells you how much thought went into the original piece.

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  5. David says:

    Espinosa himself was a natural SS. He was moved to 2B in the first place to play alongside Desmond, not because of any inability to play the position. Assuming he can get healthy and recover some of his ability to hit, I predict a long career as a U(IN) with decent pop.

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  6. Las says:

    Some chicken and egg stuff going on here. Maybe part of the reason for the increased strikeouts are the big second baseman. Less scrappy hitters who make contact at a high clip.

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    • Bob M says:

      I don’t think a handful of players at one position is going to significantly alter league-wide rates. Even if you looked at all 2B in the league, I don’t think it would swing the strikeout rate 5% one way or the other.

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  7. BrooksRobinson says:

    Yeah, I mean, “… the Future of Second Base”? Maybe for the Nationals, but that’s their business. As for whether this is a broader “trend” in baseball, I think you’ve identified a handful of players who are good fielders but lack the arm to play on the left side of the infield (while also lacking the bat to play the left side of the outfield). I don’t think their height has much to do with their position assignment.

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    • Khris says:

      This. It’s all in the arm, nothing to do with height.

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      • Tyler says:

        Agreed. Great observation.

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      • Bad Bill says:

        Except that it isn’t, at least with some of the changes that have been made. Carpenter, to name one, goes back to third when David Freese is hurting, which is a fair fraction of the time. His arm isn’t in the upper third of major-league third basemen, but it’s been adequate for the job. Murphy also wasn’t a defensive disgrace at third before he made the change. In both of these cases it was recognized that the team would benefit from having them in the lineup somewhere, but third base was already occupied. Nor was Schumaker’s less successful move to 2B made because of arm strength; quite the contrary, that was maybe the one thing he had going for him there, an arm that was strong enough to play center field.

        No reason for a position switch can ever be reduced to a single variable, unless it’s health related (grouping “becoming grossly slow” under health here). Poor arm strength probably did contribute to the Walker move. It wasn’t the only reason for moving him, any more than Schumaker being short was why he got moved. Things are more complicated than that.

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      • George says:

        Agreed. The comments list taller second baseman, but there are also examples of shorter third baseman that were able to play there because of their arm strength (Chone Figgins, when he was good, and Alberto Callaspo come to mind).

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  8. BrianB says:

    Kelly Johnson. Came up in the ATL system mainly playing SS for 4 years. Then they moved him to LF when he reached AA, seeing that his bat was close to being MLB ready, but his glove was not. He was called up midway through the season and became ATL’s everyday LF. Then he had to have Tommy John during spring training in ’06. Came back, and they had decided to move him to 2B (where he had never played in his pro career) and the ’07 Braves went with a Willie Harris/Matt Diaz platoon in LF.

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  9. Keegs says:

    The Nationals highest ceiling is with a healthy, productive Espinosa playing second base. He’s an elite defender who has potential to have a 100-110 wRC+ bat, mostly based on the ability to run into one. That’s an extremely productive and valuable player, especially under team control. The plan isn’t to make Rendon a ten year second baseman; just to restore some respectability to the 2013 offense while Espinosa fixes himself for 2014 and beyond.

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  10. rageon says:

    I still remember being shocked that the Twins were willing to play Michael Cuddyer — a 6’2″ corner outfielder — at second base from time to time. My hope that it meant they were willing to be a more open-minded organization to such things has been proven to be misplaced, but still, it was something to take note of at the time.

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  11. Crumpled Stiltskin says:

    Since uzr works against an average, isn’t it possible that part of these below players seeming defensive improvement is that all these below average players moving to the position have actually lowered the average standard of play?

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  12. Ben says:

    Yes, Rendon is going to be a revelation for the no power, no field 2B crowd. In 2 years he’ll be a utility guy and nobody will care anymore.

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      Do you know who Anthony Rendon is?

      Do you know what power is?

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    • David says:

      Yes, Ben is going to be a revelation for the thoughtless mouth-breather, troll hard crowd. In 2 years, his mom will get a boyfriend and nobody will care about him anymore.

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  13. Stuck in a Slump says:

    I’m a little surprised that Gyorko and Kipnis weren’t mentioned in this. Kipnis was a LF when he was drafted, but was immediately converted to a 2B, his defense was a big question, but he performed well in 2012, and is doing even better this year, and his bat is decent enough. His .239/.309/.437 line isn’t going to set the world on fire, but his .197 ISO helps make up for it.

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  14. nilbog44 says:

    My philosophy: Get the best bats in the lineups and don’t worry about defense. As long as the guy you have at the position can make routine plays then the + bat more than makes up for it. I remember before last season started Keith Law was going on and on how much of a disaster Miggy would be at 3b. Nope. He makes the routine plays and he rakes. I don’t give a crap about players like brendan ryan. Most balls in play are routine grounders and fly balls anyway. It’s so much more important to have bats in the lineups than gloves.

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    • gorillakilla34 says:

      Yeah nice example. I’m sure every team has a pile of Miguel Cabreras lying around but no place to put them. You have to worry about a player’s ability to defend to a certain degree. You can’t just throw Adam Dunn in left or Lance Berkman in center because they can hit better than other options. Defensive runs count just as much as offensive runs. Yes Cabrera has worked out because his D hasn’t been a disaster and he has the best bat in the league. But obviously not every bad defender you throw out there will be the league’s best hitter.

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    • Edreese says:

      Last year’s Giants LOL @ you so damn hard.

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  15. Andre says:

    If Rendon has had serious ankle issues before, playing 2B could be a recipe for disaster. Sounds like Washington needs to make a deal.

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  16. D says:

    Made me wonder how dire is the Nats situation?

    Did a little research (OK a query) to see how often a team that is <.500 after game 59 has rallied to win 90+ games.

    Since 1980, 24 teams have accomplished this (out of 207 teams that won 90+), or 11% of 90+ game winning teams.

    Here are the teams, order by latest to cross over .500.
    2004 HOU
    1987 SFN
    2003 MIN
    1983 PHI
    2005 HOU
    2001 SLN
    1987 MIL
    2012 OAK
    2001 OAK
    2007 NYA
    2003 FLO
    2004 ATL
    1991 ATL
    2006 MIN
    2009 COL
    1983 CHA
    2005 NYA
    2001 SFN
    2006 OAK
    2000 SFN
    1983 NYA
    2002 OAK
    1980 BAL
    2005 CLE

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    • Baltar says:

      I was looking for a point to this “research,” either in words or something obvious in the numbers. I failed to find it.

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  17. Maverick Squad says:

    Could easily be a great utility IF- great defense at 2nd- great at SS. Even if his bat never gets to being decent he should be able to stick around. It’s a shame cos’ at one point he looked like he could be Dan Uggla with the bat but with GG defense to go with it.

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  18. ICR says:

    How about the fact that humans continue to get taller and taller, therefore second basemen will also get taller. Teams still draft high school talent up the middle and college talent for the corners. If you can’t play in the middle at the pro level and you can throw you go to third, if you can’t throw you go to second. It’s just a way of finding a spot for a bat more than anything else. When Utley was coming up there was no clear cut place to put him because he couldn’t throw AND couldn’t field. Maybe for some players it’s as simple as you can learn how to field, but your arm can only be so strong. Utley is 6’1 so where does that leave him (too tall to be in the classic frame category, but too short for the new ‘trend’. Is he an outlier in the middle of the bell curve)? The only relevant point this makes is that K’s are up and there is less risk in having less talented fielders, but that only stretches so far as you still have to be able to field the balls that are hit on the ground.

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    • Careless says:

      Americans are getting shorter and have been for several decades.

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      • ICR says:

        I know that was true of the decade from the mid 70’s to mid 80’s but it had reversed lately, particularly in American males over the past 20 years. And even if the average American has been getting shorter, I doubt that would be observed in the a population that is very athletic and healthy, as studies have observed a strong correlation between diet, healthcare and height.

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  19. JJ says:

    looks like we have a bunch of know it all here. learn to be polite people. the author wrote an article based on his point of view.. big deal. no need to be rude and confrontational. peace.

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