Callaspo, Defensive Positions, and Contact

The Angels have spent the last few off-seasons pursuing superstars and signin some of them, but even with the wallet open, they cannot fill every position in that manner. Prior to the 2011 season, one of their primary targets was Adrian Beltre, who ended up going to Texas. The Angels got revenge by taking C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton away, but I would imagine the Rangers are not regretting the signing of Beltre one bit, as he has spent his post-Seattle years building a potential Hall of Fame resume.

The Angels would love to have Beltre, too, but they have not exactly been hurting at third base. Alberto Callaspo, while not a Beltre-level superstar, has been pretty good for them the last couple of years. Callaspo was going into his last year of arbitration, but the team and player instead agreed on on a two-year deal for just under $9 million. The deal clearly fills a need for the Angels. Of more interest is how Callaspo demonstrates how it can take a little while for a player to get slotted into the right position in the field and can become a usable hitter despite only having one good skill at the plate.

The Angels got a nice deal here, as teams often do when dealing with players still under team control. Callaspo is probably between and two and three win player, and if the Angels had needed to tried to get a third baseman of equivalent value on the free agent or trade market, it would have cost them a fair bit more in terms of money or prospects. Callaspo is probably an above-average fielder, and while his bat is likely no better than average, that is not bad for a third baseman these days. Callaspo also has been pretty healthy the last few years. The Angels do not really have anyone in the minors knocking on the door at the moment, as Kaleb Coward, their first-round draft pick from 2010, will probably start the season in high-A. This deal only commits then to Callaspo’s age 30 and 31 seasons, so the Angels are getting more than a mere stopgap quality player at a stopgap price while avoids another long commitment to a player in his decline phase. One might question why Callaspo did not try to get more money or years given that he is just a year away from free agency — he is not Martin Prado, but as we will see, he might be a poor man’s version — but I am not mind reader, and my interest lies elsewhere.

Way back in 2004, Callaspo was a top 100 infield prospect for the Angels. Indeed, he spent a big chunk of his early years in the Angels’ system playing shortstop. Howeve,r his hitting dropped off a bit, and there were obviously questions about whether he could handle shortstop, so he also spent a fair bit of time at second. Moreover, this was back in an era when the Angels’ seemed to loaded with infield prospects like Howie Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, and Dallas McPherson. Obviously, some of those players have worked out better than others. Prior to the 2006 seeason, Callaspo was traded to Arizona for Jason Bulger. The Diamondbacks also seemed to be unsure of where to put Callaspo, who spent time at shortstop, second, and third in the minors. After a couple of years of that and some poor performances in brief major-league stints, and an arrest for domestic violence the Diamondbacks traded Callaspo to Kansas City.

The Royals also seemed unsure of what to do with Callaspo at the beginning of 2008. He finally made his way into the Royals’ regular lineup at second due to injuries and hit well. While his range at second looked so poor in that stint that the Royals briefly considered putting Mark Teahen at second base for 2009, Alex Gordon got hurt early in 2009, which sent Teahen back to third base and Callaspo to second. While Callaspo hit well, his defense at second base was pretty horrible. He clearly had a bat that was more than good enough to play the middle infield, but his fielding was horrible according to both the eye and the metrics. In 2010, Callaspo played a bit of second base, but Mark Teahen had been traded, which, combined with injuries and the need to jerk around Alex Gordon put Callaspo to third base. His range played better at third, and his arm also worked out there. Unfortunately for Callaspo, his bat tanked, and with Mike Moustakas knocking on the door, the Royals traded him to the Angels. In any case, he is now firmly entrenched as a third baseman. Six years ago, who would have thought that in 2012 that Alberto Callaspo and not Brandon Wood would be the Angels’ third baseman?

In one way, this is a obvious tale of a player moving down the defensive spectrum to find a position at which he can fit. It is still instructive. For one thing, there were reasons teams tried him at shortstop when he was a prospect. He seemed like he might have both the range and the arm. Whatever Callaspo might have looked like in those days, he was moved. It might have been because teams already had shortstop filled with better players, but it might also have been that Callaspo lower half thickened up as he moved into his early 20s, cutting into his range. Moreover, it does tend to jibe with the idea the population of second baseman and third baseman draws from a population of players who cannot handle shortstop. It also illustrates how a player from that group might see his fielding skills develop in ways that make him more suitable for third rather than second (or the other way around).

This is not to enter into the debate onto what is “harder” between second and third. While some players can probably play both, some players are better suited to one than the other. In Callaspo’s case, his range did not play at second, but is okay at third, where his arm allows him to make plays well. One can also imagine players from the failed shortstop population without the arm to play third well, but who have the range to get the the balls required from a second baseman and the coordination required to turn the double play. Callaspo simply took a while to find a team that needed someone to play third so that he could show that he do it well. A larger, if rather obvious point here might be that finding players who start as shortstops gives them a chance to move to various other positions if they cannot handle shortstop. A shortstop could end up just about anywhere else if his bat holds up, whereas a prospect who starts at third base has fewer options.

On the other side of things, rightly or wrongly, most people have greater expectations from a hitter at third base. However, as hinted at above, this post is not really abuot the basis for positional adjustments. In Callaspo’s case, he has managed to be a sufficient hitter while, for most of his career, really only having one good skill: making contact. For his career, Callaspo has a contact rate over 90 percent, which is why his career strikeout rate is a ridiculously good 8.6 percent. Until recently, Callaspo did pretty much nothing else. His walk rate has been about average for his career (a bit over eight percent). He does not hit for power — his .156 ISO back in 2009 is by far his best. Even that performance that was heavily doubles-based, and doubles are subject to a great deal of random variation from year to year. That seemed to be the case with Callaspo, whose isolated power has fluctuated around .1 for most of his career. Callaspo is not very fast, to say the least, so he is not going to help much on the bases or leg out too many extra singles.

Despite all of that, Callaspo is good enough with the bat to hold his own at third base (especially since his glove plays well there). It is basically because of contact. Indeed, Callaspo is not even a high BABIP hitter. Even in his best years with the bat (2009 and 2011) his BABIP was only around .310. But avoiding strikeouts does a lot for a player’s bat. This is not because strikeouts are all that much different from regular outs. It is because putting the ball in play simply allows other things to happen. Callaspo does not get an exceptional number of hits on balls in play, and the hits he does get on contact usually do not go very fair. He simply ends plate appearances with the ball going into play often enough that even given average (and below-average) rates of favorable outcomes, he is able to be close to average overall as a hitter (95 wRC+ career).

This does put a hitter on something of a razor’s edge: with just one skill, if that one skill goes, the player’s bat is toast, since there is not much power or patience to build on. In this connection, it should be mentioned that Callaspo’s walk rate has increased significantly, in double digits over the last two seasons. Aging is on his side in that regard. Thus, although Callaspo’s has does waxed and waned somewhat depending on his BABIP, it has been less extreme in that regard the last couple of years, as the walks have enabled him to have decent on-base percentages. As a hitter, Callaspo is basically a poor man’s Martin Prado (with a few more walks) — Prado has more power than callaspo, but is still below-average in that respect, and does not walk all that often (less than Callaspo lately). Both players have moved around the field in search of a position and ended up at third. Both players illustrate that it might take a while to find the right position, whether due to ability to an opening. Both players also illustrate that while a contact-first approach may be subject to BABIP fluctuations, it can work even in the absence of good power or many walks.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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