- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Name That Keystone

The second base position is currently undergoing some renovations. For the longest time, keystone cornermen were primarily thought of as defense-first players, making any and all offensive contributions bonuses. With the emergence of power bats like Jeff Kent, and, more recently, guys like Chase Utley and Dan Uggla, the reputation of the position simply isn’t the same. Otherwise, an all-defense player like Mark Ellis would garner as much attention as the all-offense player Uggla.

Many second basemen these days achieve the middle ground, with a solid bat accompanied by decent fielding skills. Below are the win values, from 2006-08, for four different mystery second basemen:

2B #1: 28 yrs old, +1.6, +4.9, +3.2
2B #2: 31 yrs old, +2.3, +3.1, +1.9
2B #3: 31 yrs old, +4.5, +3.6, -0.6
2B #4: 26 yrs old, +2.7, +3.6 +0.5

The bookends are the youngest of this group, with #1 appearing to be the most productive in this three-year span. Nobody comes anywhere near Chase Utley‘s +22.7 wins since 2006, but Utley is practically in an elite league of his own. Before the names of these players are revealed, I will let it be known that both #1 and #2 have reputations as being top-tier second baseman. Additionally, players #2 and #4 both missed significant time in 2008, leading to their lower win values that season.

In fact, let’s continue with the discussion of #2 and #4. #4 produced about a half-win better than #2 in each of 2006 and 2007, but played half as many games in 2008. In equal amounts of playing time, the gap in 2008 closes a bit. Regardless, since injuries are real and should not be automatically discounted, #2 has produced just +0.6 wins more than #4 throughout the last three seasons. Who are these players?

#1 = Brandon Phillips and #3 = Freddy Sanchez. #2 is current free agent Orlando Hudson, who, as I previously mentioned boasts the reputation of a top-tier second baseman. That leaves #4… Aaron Hill of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Yes, over the last three seasons, Hill has produced +6.7 wins to the +7.3 of Hudson, outperformed Hudson in two of the three seasons, and failed to repeat the feat primarily due to playing in just 55 games last season; Hudson logged just 107 himself, which amounts to two times the playing time of Hill. Why is it then that Hudson has such a prestigious reputation yet half of the baseball fandom could not point out Aaron Hill in a lineup surrounded by famous cartoon characters? Okay, maybe he could be pointed out in that lineup, but you catch my drift, right?

This is not meant to be a knock on Hudson, because an average of +2.5 wins/yr from a second baseman is still very good. However, his reputation seemingly elevates him past that mark. The major differences between the two are where the bulk of their value stems from. Outside of positional and replacement level adjustments, Hudson has an aggregate +24.8 batting runs and -12.7 defensive runs. Hill is largely the opposite, with -5.6 batting runs and +17.7 defensive runs. Fans tend to place a premium on offense so it makes sense that Hudson is more well-known.

Still, a run is a run is a run. Tom Tango likes to emphasize this point whenever possible: a run saved on defense = a run produced on offense. Hill might not swing a sexy bat but he sure knows how to use his glove. He is also five years the junior of Hudson. The O-Dawg is a very good player and will make whichever team signs him a bit better, but he is not necessarily an elite second baseman of the Utley or Roberts ilk. Even Phillips, three years his junior, looks better by comparison.

The second base position may be gradually inching closer to an offensive-heavy area, but league average hitters with very solid defensive skills are still extremely valuable, which seems to get lost in the Hudson-Hill comparison.