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Callaspo, Trumbo, and the Third Base Profile

The always-excellent John Perrotto recently reviewed some of the Spring Training position battles in the American League. He helpfully includes comments from scouts on each situation. One quote that caught my eye was with respect to the Angels’ third base situation:

This is very interesting. Callapso is a pretty good hitter, but he doesn’t profile as a third baseman. Trumbo has holes in his game, but he does have pop and I think he’ll play a passable third base. It would be hard to take a kid that hit 29 homers last year, send him back to Triple-A, and try to sell that to the fans. But I know Mike Scioscia, and I know Callapso is his kind of player, so I’d be really surprised if he started Trumbo ahead of Callapso.

What struck me was the idea that Callaspo does not “profile” as a third baseman, apparently (judging from the context) because of his offense. The scout is probably thinking of power. Callaspo had a .086 ISO last season (.108 career), while Trumbo had a .223 ISO and 29 home runs while playing first base for the Angels and coming in second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.

The scout thinks that Mike Scioscia will prefer Callaspo, probably largely based on fielding, as Trumbo has no professional experience playing third. But does Trumbo’s offensive “profile” really gives him any edge over Callaspo?

The first thing that leaps to mind is that Callaspo is likely to be far better in the field than Trumbo. Trumbo is considered to be fairly athletic for a first baseman, and the scout does say that he thinks Trumbo will be “passable.” Still, Trumbo has never played third in the professional baseball prior to this Spring Training (it is going smashingly so far). Callaspo, on the other hand, started out as a shortstop prospect for the Angels prior to stints in Arizona and Kansas City. While he moved to second base where he was, to say the least, not exactly Frank White, when he got a shot at third base in Kansas City in 2009 it was clear both visually and “metrically” that third suited him much better. One is probably on safe ground saying that while Trumbo might have a shot at being passable, Callaspo is a good bet to be substantially better.

But, again, that is not what is at issue here. After all, subjective notions of being passable or having better tools do not tell us how much better Callaspo would be in terms of runs saved in order to compensate for the purported difference in hitting. Fielding metrics claim to give us some idea, but even their most ardent defenders will admit that the error bars on fielding metrics are much larger than those for batting metrics.

So what is the problem with Callaspo’s offense “profile?” Well, the quote does not say specifically, but it is fair to infer that the issue is that Callaspo does not hit for much power. That does not mean that Callaspo has to be Mike Schmidt. But it seems the background of the traditional conception of third base offense is lurking in the background — something like a .250/.350/.450 line.

One way of responding to this would be to say that a player like Brett Gardner does not match the traditional “profile” for offense at left field, and he seems to do the job for the Yankees. However, that might not be persuasive on its own for the hypothetical traditionalist. After all, he or she might have doubts about the relative value of Gardner’s fielding for reasons mentioned above — perhaps that does not outweigh Gardner’s apparently “insufficient” offense.

This is not to dismiss the fielding issue, as it is obviously important. But what about the notion of an “offensive profile?” It would be understandable if one assumed that Trumbo’s 29 home runs made him more valuable at the plate than Callaspo last season. However, we do have ways of establishing the relative value of events using linear weights-based metrics like wOBA. However, the simple heart of my overly-lengthy response is this: Trumbo’s 2011 wOBA was .327 (.254/.291/.477), and Callaspo’s was .330 (.288/.366/.375). Trumbo was worth six batting runs above average, while Callaspo was worth about seven in fewer plate appearances.

Trumbo is younger, of course, so perhaps after making appropriate adjustments, he comes out better. ZiPS does see regression for Callaspo this season, projecting his 2012 wOBA at .314. However, ZiPS sees Trumbo 2012 wOBA as being…. .314. So there is no help there, either.

This is not meant as an attack on some mythically-dogmatic “traditional scouting” conception of positional offense or anything like that. Yes, it would have been quick enough to say that Callaspo is just as good a hitter. What makes this worth going over at greater length from my perspective is that the lure of power over everything else (and Callaspo does pretty much everything better than Trumbo other than hit for power) still tempts even trained observers.

The Angels do have a dilemma when it comes to Trumbo`s fate, as he is part of a three-player DH morass with Bobby Abreu and Kendry Morales. Some difficult decisions have to be made, but moving Trumbo to third base and benching Callaspo is not the right solution given the investment the team has made in winning now. Callaspo’s glove is the main reason he should play at third over Trumbo, but it is not that it “makes up” for an offensive gap between the two. Callaspo is not only better with the glove, he is just as good with the bat.

Mike Scioscia has understandably taken a lot of grief over past miscues such as the Mike NapoliJeff Mathis situation. However, if Callaspo is going to get the third base job because he is “Scioscia`s kind of player,“ then Scioscia should be commended for having his kind of player being simply better in this case.