Jeff Baker: Starting Second Baseman

We’re pleased to welcome the newest member of the FanGraphs staff, Bradley Woodrum, to the site. He coined the term Luck Dragon and created some fantastic videos this winter, as well as writing for about 150 different places around the web. We think he’s going to be a great fit here at FanGraphs.

On June 17, 2010, Jeff Baker cracked a Dallas Braden changeup so hard it dangled in the Chicago sun for about 30 seconds before some lucky fan 20 seats to the right of me caught it. When Baker made contact with the ball, it sounded like he fired a pistol, and the fans, taking their queue, jumped from their seats like runners jumping from the starting blocks.

I was not the least of the runners, perhaps far more surprised than the common fan at Baker’s uncanny power display. I knew his hitting ability was a tick under league average, but little did I realize the reason (his dramatic platoon split). Seeing him only occasionally had created in me a skewed perspective of the┬ásecond baseman, making his offense seem unremarkable and his defense altogether forgettable.

The Cubs acquired Jeff Baker from the Colorado Rockies in 2009 for minor league reliever Al Alburquerque (real person). In 2008, Baker had shown sufficient ability to hit lefties and embarrass himself against righties. Now, as Spring Training 2011 draws its final breathes, it seems the prototypical platooner has found himself a legitimate shot to become an everyday kind of guy.

The Blake Baker/Jeff DeWitt Option
Going into the Cubs camp this year, it appeared Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker would be preparing for a straight-up, righty-lefty platoon. However, DeWitt has performed well beneath expectations (in not hopes) this spring and now looks poised to lose his spot — possibly on the roster as a whole. He has hit poorly (.439 OPS), and his defense at second base (never a friend of UZR) has caused even Mike Quade to squirm a little.

On top of the present troubles, DeWitt’s hitting at the major league lever level has never made many chicks dig him. Consider Baker and DeWitt’s career splits:

wRC+ Versus RHP
Baker: 69
DeWitt: 85

wRC+ Versus LHP
Baker: 129
DeWitt: 105

So Baker plays Vladimir Guerrero against lefties, but his platoon partner plays a slow, not-so-good-at-fielding Ryan Theriot against righties. DeWitt has something of a comparative advantage against righties, but Baker’s ~1000 innings at second base have earned him a career UZR/150 of 4.3 — or a “Hey, that’s pretty good.” on the PAW Scale (the Perfectly Arbitrary Woodrum Scale).

The originally framed Cubs second base platoon promised to trot DeWitt out onto the clay against the majority of starters. But, with suboptimal offense and increasingly questioned defense (career -9.3 runs per UZR/150), DeWitt looks more and more like a replacement player.

The Other Guys
Enter Darwin Barney and Marquez Smith, two minor leaguers who form the yin and yang of the Cubs potential in-house backup plans. Barney appears to be a defensive maven, one whose slick glove and athletic dives were foretold in Mayan prophecies and have since rolled from many a praising scout’s tongue. However, Barney also promises to compete with Koyie Hill in the backup catcher’s dramatic race to beat Carlos Zambrano‘s 2011 wOBA. In the last two seasons — at AAA mind you! — he was yet to crack a .325 wOBA.

Whereas Barney cannot hit, Marquez cannot field. Well, actually, whispers around the discredited Cubs blogosphere claim Smith, a native of my hometown (Panama City, FL — go something!), is in fact a slick-fielding third baseman. Despite that, he has played on 32 minor league games at second, with most of those starts coming in 2008. One would expect — with Aramis Ramirez blocking his way at 3rd, and merely a series of ham sandwiches blocking his way at 2nd — Smith and the Cubs would have happily tried moving the youngster east across the mound several years ago.

Why? Dude can hit. He has jumped a level each year since joining the Cubs in 2007, hitting with increasing power and patience as he moved. In 2010, he abused AAA pitchers to the tune of .384/.574 and .412 (OBP/SLG and wOBA). One would think, even if his defense resembled a scarecrow with a glove tied to its face, Smith would be worth moving around a bit.

The Full-Blown Baker Option
However, Marquez Smith (free him!) remains at third, Darwin Barney looks poised for a bench slot (though he may challenge DeWitt for some ABs), and Blake Baker/Jeff DeWitt should still at least start the season in their platooned roles. If worse comes to worst with DeWitt, though, and he finds himself in Iowa, the Cubs may indeed turn to Baker.

Jeff Baker has never really received every day opportunities. Instead, he’s been pretty strictly platooned for most of his major league career. We cannot say for certain how he would perform given a chance to consistently face his arch rival, right-handed hurlers, but he should improve at least a bit against them. It certainly appears his defense could benefit a Cubs infield lately riddled with rookie miscues and lumbering veterans.

A starting Jeff Baker likely promises not-so-much offense (think 95ish wRC+), but plus defense. In a world without DeWitt, Darwin Barney could spell both Starlin Castro and Jeff Baker throughout the season. Baker could hit those occasional, majestic home runs, and Barney can do his duck, dip, and dive routine in late innings and rare starts.

The Cubs have a suddenly legitimate shot at winning the NL Central (given some of the injury woes of their rivals), but the 2011 Cubs roster does not make them predisposed to achieving this goal. If the Cubs want to make the most of their chance, they need to realize what I discovered on June 17 last year; they need to see Baker’s worth relative to their roster, and they need Jeff Baker in a bigger role.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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