The Challenge of Stephen Drew Changing Positions

I think it’s safe to say Stephen Drew‘s in a pretty weird position. He’s a free agent, and he’s 30, so he’s not super old. He spent last year playing with the eventual MLB champion. By our numbers he was worth 3.4 wins, and he was worth 3.4 wins in 124 games, as a team’s regular shortstop. It’s easy to make a case that Drew ought to be highly desirable, but here he is, available at the end of January, and no one seems to want to give him more than two years. If reports are to be believed, Drew’s got himself a pretty weak market.

And more than that, increasingly there are rumors that Drew would be willing to play other positions. That is, Drew would be willing to not play a premium up-the-middle position, to make himself more marketable. According to Peter Gammons, a year ago Drew wasn’t quite so flexible. This could be interpreted as a sign of desperation, as teams just aren’t really looking for shortstops anymore. Desperation or not, if the rumors are true, Drew starts to look a little different. But what could be expected if Drew were to shift to second or third base?

You think about the Yankees. The Yankees have Derek Jeter at short, but nothing sexy at second or third, and it couldn’t hurt to have more depth behind Jeter than Brendan Ryan since Jeter might not actually be good. You think about the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have Jose Reyes at short and Brett Lawrie at third, but a total cluster-platoon at second, and the Jays would like very much to contend. You can see how it could help Drew to market himself as an infielder, instead of just as a shortstop.

You’re familiar with the positional adjustments that are built into the WAR formula. For these purposes, the positional adjustments can tell us a simple thing: if Drew were to change positions, his new infield position would have a lower positional value. However, he would also be better defensively, relative to his new peers, and that improvement would basically cancel out the reduced value of his position. The idea would be that Drew as a second or third baseman would be Drew as a shortstop, with a higher UZR and a similar overall Defense rating. The idea would be that the transition would be pretty simple, and Drew wouldn’t end up any less valuable.

Another approach here is to take a look at the results of the Fan Scouting Report. Below, a table, comparing Stephen Drew to 2013 big-league shortstops, second basemen, and third basemen. Shown are Drew’s career ratings, because the sample is bigger and because his career ratings aren’t meaningfully different from his 2013 ratings. You can quibble with the methodology all you want but we might as well explore what the numbers suggest.

Pool Instincts First Step Speed Hands Release Arm Strength Arm Accuracy Overall
Drew 64 63 59 66 70 60 69 64
SS 60 61 59 58 59 60 57 59
2B 55 55 53 53 54 46 56 53
3B 55 50 46 54 54 56 53 53

The fans who submitted ballots find Drew to be a slightly above-average defensive shortstop. That also would make him a well-above-average defensive second or third baseman. There’s no category in which he rates below average, compared to any position. He has a big edge in Hands, Release, and Arm Accuracy. What you get from this is that Drew seems to have all the tools. And why wouldn’t he? He’s been trusted as a shortstop, and being a shortstop is really hard.

But something we also have is history. Not Stephen Drew’s history — Drew’s only ever played shortstop — but a history of other guys who’ve played short and moved. I’ll tell you right now this isn’t extensive. Still, I looked for guys who played at least 1,000 innings at short in a year between 2002-2012. Then, out of those guys, I looked for guys who played at least 500 innings at a different position the next year. I was left with a sample of all of 10 players, since ordinarily, if you can still play short almost every day, you stay there. Three players moved to second base, six players moved to third base, and one player moved to center field. Here are those players:

For each player, I calculated Def per 1,000 innings. The year before moving, these players averaged 6.0 Def/1000. The year after moving, they averaged 0.5 Def/1000. Their UZR/1000 dropped by a little over two runs, despite generally shifting to easier spots. As for the shortstops who remained shortstops, year-to-year their average Def/1000 was stable, nudging from 5.9 to 6.0. Their UZR/1000 changed from 0.8 to 0.9. Based on a very small sample, there’s reason to believe the position switches cost some value.

Eight of ten players lost about four or more runs by Def/1000. Tejada and Guillen stayed the same. No one really made an improvement, which is something you’d probably expect, since these players were selected for position switches. Maybe they were perceived to be declining. It is, again, a small sample, a far smaller sample than I’m usually comfortable with, but I think this could also be pretty easy to explain.

If you’re a shortstop, you have the tools to play elsewhere, especially if you’re talking about second or third base. This is why shortstop is so far to the left on the defensive spectrum. But defense is about both tools and familiarity, and there’s going to be an adjustment period when you’re learning new ideas and responsibilities. So much of playing a position well is reps, in order to brand certain things into the muscle memory. You can accumulate reps only so fast, and in the initial stages, there could and should be a higher probability of making a mistake. It’s only over time that what’s learned can start to feel like instinct.

Manny Machado, obviously, had little trouble moving over to third, and last year he was perhaps the best defensive player in all of baseball. Yet the numbers say he was much better in 2013 than he was in 2012, even though in 2012 he was statistically outstanding. Perhaps Machado, too, had to overcome an initial adjustment period. It would be a weird thing if he didn’t.

So while Drew might be open to playing other positions, and while there’s certain value in flexibility, Drew also might struggle at another position, particularly at first. As a second or third baseman, he might be a half-win less valuable, and as much as that feels like it could be noise, it’s also valued at some millions of dollars. Given enough repetitions, Drew could presumably make himself pretty good almost anywhere. That would matter for August and September and 2015 and 2016. Yet the short term also matters for potential suitors, and in the short term, Stephen Drew is a shortstop with an open mind.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


51 Responses to “The Challenge of Stephen Drew Changing Positions”

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  1. RF says:

    I think you might be missing an age effect. By definition, players are going to be older the year after a position switch than they were the year before, and that might be having and effect on their average defensive ratings.

    I also think it’s unfair to consider a IF-OF switch, as there are solid reasons to believe that it is not comparable to an IF-IF switch, and Drew is not going to be playing any OF no matter where he goes.

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    • The shortstops who stayed shortstops, the year after, were equally fine. They were presumably younger as a group, but still. And while I agree the OF transition isn’t exactly comparable, eliminating it (Hall, 2006-2007) doesn’t change the numbers at all.

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      • John says:

        Could there be some selection bias (i.e., the players that moved were moved because they were no longer serviceable at short, or poor defenders in general) at play here?

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  2. Jonathan Leiter says:

    Hey may have an open mind, but teams aren’t willing to split with that draft pick.

    He’s one of those guys who desperately should have taken the QO

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    • AK7007 says:

      He’s one of those guys who represent a huge mistake in collective bargaining by the union. The MLBPA should have seen these situations as detrimental to a fair number of their members, but obviously didn’t fight hard enough.

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      • GilaMonster says:

        It also helps are fair amount of their players, typically those who make less.

        For every Drew or Morales that is hurt, there is an Omar Infante or Cory Hart benefiting.

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        • RC says:

          “It also helps are fair amount of their players, typically those who make less.”

          Who, exactly? Nobody has taken a qualified offer, as far as I know.

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        • Atreyu Jones says:

          The new system helps all those players who would have had draft pick compensation tied to them under the old system, but don’t anymore.

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      • HawkeyeCub says:

        Why are people complaining about the harsh impact on players? Under the QO system, they get a one year guaranteed deal at a higher AAV than they would likely get otherwise. And, unlike say the franchise tag in the NFL, they get to take it or leave it and take their chances on the market. The problem is players and agents not realizing when the QO is a good deal for them.

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        • coldseat says:

          Perhaps you’re undervaluing the security of a long term deal. NFL contracts are generally not guaranteed.

          Perhaps limiting the number of times a team can QO a given player may be a better balance with the 2nd year upping the QO $ amount, just as the nfl franchise tag is.

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    • Atreyu Jones says:

      Well, it’s the combination of the money and the draft pick. I bet a few teams would be willing to part with the pick if he was willing to sign for $8-9m per year.

      Also, we’ll have to wait until he signs for a worse deal than the QO before knowing for sure if he made a mistake.

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  3. GilaMonster says:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Yankees’s to move Jeter to second and place Drew at SS regarding this hypothetical?

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    • Damian Di Giulio says:

      Jeter posted fielder rating of 1.6 in 2003, A-Roid a 18.2. His vanity wouldn’t allow a switch for his ‘friend’ then, he’s not going to move now.

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      • GilaMonster says:

        The difference is that Jeter was in a position to make demand then. He certainly isn’t now.

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        • Elbo says:

          Apparently, he is. He had a 9.5M player option and demanded a raise even though no other team would pay him anything like that. And a raise he got.

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      • Ed says:

        The concern with the Jeter/A-Rod situation wasn’t about 2004, but more about the remainder of their contracts.

        A-Rod was tall for a shortstop, much bulkier than Jeter, and had started putting on more muscle (probably from the steroids). The concern was that if he continued to bulk up that he’d loose mobility and wouldn’t handle shortstop well.

        A-Rod already showed signs of losing range at 3B toward the end of his first contract. If he had stayed at short, he wouldn’t have lasted there for more than a few years. They always feared that, and that was just as big a part of the decision as Jeter’s ego.

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        • bookbook says:

          I don’t think A-Rod’s size was ever actually a consideration. He wasn’t just a little bit better than Jeter defensively at SS, he was much much better. A-Rod wasn’t as big as Cal Ripken, who he was constantly being compared to. He was also faster and more athletic. At age 28, no one thought A-Rod was within several years of needing to move off the position. It turned out that a solidly above average SS wasn’t nearly as good defensively at 3b, which was unexpected, but not likely a reflection of aging or steroids.

          PS please spell “lose” correctly. It’s a pet peeve of mine.

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  4. Damian Di Giulio says:

    Drew was the 6th most valuable SS in 2103. He had less ab’s than the 12 guys behind him, minimum 500 ab’s. I can’t believe a draft pick is the holdup. As a Phillies fan I realize Ruben tomorrow Amaro won’t sign him because he is five years to young. Still that leaves 20ish, depending on younger SS’s development, other teams that would upgrade if they sign him. My guess is his demands more so than his positioning.

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  5. Mr Punch says:

    It’s an unusual situation in that Drew isn’t just good enough to get a decent contract somewhere one would think – he’s good enough that he’d be a clear upgrade at short for a number of tems that hope/expect to contend, starting with the Yankees. He’d certainly improve the A’s, who btw have a college 2B at SS now.

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    • scatterbrian says:

      Oakland should sign Drew, move Jed Lowrie to 2B, and jettison Alberto Callaspo.

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      • dustin says:

        Drew played a stint for the A’s in 2012 and did not impress. They didn’t pick up his $10 option after the season, and he ended up signing for almost exactly that w/ the Red Sox.

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        • dustin says:

          Sorry that should be “$10 million option”

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        • scatterbrian says:

          His stint in Oakland was only 172 plate appearances, and still managed to hit around league average. The other points aren’t very relevant.

          The thing is Oakland has few positions at which they can improve, and 2B is chief among them. In signing Drew and moving Lowrie to 2B, they would be improving both 2B and SS (at least defensively).

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        • LaLoosh says:

          That is a very marginal upgrade for the A’s so I don’t see them plunking down 10M to do it.

          As someone else said, if Drew’s price drops to 8M or 9M, he prob has several offers to choose from. He’s a guy with flaws who may have his best years in the rearview mirror. It’s about the price, imo.

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        • BretWilliams says:

          With the A’s focus on growing or trading young talent, I doubt they would part with the pick to get him, even before getting to the money aspect, which is likewise significant to them.

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        • scatterbrian says:

          Replacing Eric Sogard with Stephen Drew is a marginal upgrade? And even if Drew’s price were to drop, how many contending teams would a) step up with an offer, and b) guarantee him a starting gig?

          The A’s first round pick will be pretty low, so it wouldn’t be that much of a loss.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          it’s Sogard/Callaspo I assume with a little Nick Punto mixed in maybe. Yeah, I think for the right price the draft pick wouldn’t be too much of an issue. I think that if the price is still 12M or 13M per it’s a very big issue.

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        • scatterbrian says:

          Drew’s asking price would certainly have to drop for the A’s to consider him. My thought is if Drew is lowering his price and willing to play other positions in order to land a job, that’s when the A’s can swoop in and offer him a starting SS gig. Maybe he’d even be willing to take a one-year deal and re-enter free agency next season (without a QO attached).

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  6. Franco says:

    I think the more likely problem is that he’s holding out for a Peralta like contract. The contenders either have a good SS already, don’t have any money or have Jeter. Plenty of crappy teams like the Mets would love to have him but have little incentive to pay for his downside years. It’d be nice to stink a little less in 2014 but not enough to justify stinking a little more in 2016+.

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  7. Mr. Jones says:

    How do you feel about this being your 666th post, Jeff Sullivan?

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  8. jdbolick says:

    Are we really sure that other teams are interested in Drew at a different position or is this based off of Jon Heyman’s now discredited rumor about the Yankees going after him? Ever since that happened I’ve been hoping for a FanGraphs article analyzing Heyman’s coverage of Boras clients over the years.

    As for the earlier comments about the qualifying offer, while fourteen million is obviously a lot for us, it’s not difficult to understand why players would prefer longer term security for more total money at a lower AAV. Even if you believe yourself to be a $9-10 million a year player, it can make sense to turn down $14.1 million for a single season if you believe you can secure that long term deal in order to avoid risk of injury or performance decline. I think most of us agree that the current situations seems unnecessarily punitive. I mentioned a potential fix of having the draft pick forfeiture only apply to multi-year contracts, or even 3+ year contracts if you prefer.

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    • LHPSU says:

      A solution for me would be to allow teams to sign a QO FA to a 1-year deal for exactly the same amount as the QO. It won’t really increase their leverage in multi-year deals and the teams will get the desired effect of lower salaries, but it at least allows marginal free agents to sign somewhere for 1 year other than their old teams.

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      • SlickRick says:

        Why is a “solution” needed? These players we’re talking about all had the chance to play for 14M in 2014 and turned it down. They were all well aware of the risk they were taking in doing so. I don’t think these few players deserve our sympathy right now. And if they passed up the 2014 payday at the uring of their respective agents then they were at least complicit in that decision, but it’s still ultimately their call to make.

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        • jdbolick says:

          It’s one thing for a guy to overestimate his market and pass on a nice contract only to settle for something less. What we’re seeing now is guys having difficulty finding a contract offer at all. This provision was never intended to be a penalty on free agents but rather on wild-spending teams. I believe I adequately explained why an athlete might reasonably turn down the qualifying offer, whereas you seem to be arguing that players should be forced to always accept it.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          wait, you don’t know at all if this is about Drew/Boras not getting any offers or still holding firm on getting a price they want – i.e.: 12M or 13M per yr for 3 yrs. I think this is the issue. I assume that at a more reasonable 8M or 9M he’d have several teams in the mix.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          in addition, we are talking about only a handful of players who seem to fall in the cracks each year – players who’ve overestimated their value/market like Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew. The players saw how long Lohse and Bourn waited a year ago and it didn’t deter them from turning down the 14M this time around. For the rest of the elite FAs, the draft comp is far less an issue.

          Ervin Santana and Ubaldo will get contracts regardless of the compensation issue. The 3 who are really affected by this are Morales, Drew and Cruz. And they’ll all find deals if they drop their asking price enough to compensate for the draft pick. But they all had to know (or should have known) this would have been an issue for them.

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        • RC says:

          I agree a bit.

          I wouldn’t be all that surprised to hear them announce that Drew signed a ridiculous 4/52 deal with someone, and that it wasn’t an issue of no offers, but of holding the line.

          That being said, the whole QO system is a bit ridiculous. It’s pretty much a system designed to hurt the middle.

          The system would be a whole lot better if there were only picks gained, not picks lost.

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  9. Shankbone says:

    Half the players in the sample group played for the Giants. At the end of their careers. And they drafted Stephen Drew’s brother, one of several teams to go on that merry-go-round.

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  10. coldseat says:

    Maybe WAR likes Drew more than his actual “true” value or at least more than most teams/scouts. He cost a pick + a big financial commitment and maybe few see him as the difference maker that WAR does.

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  11. bookbook says:

    Maybe some teams are wary that Drew’s performance–his best in years–won’t hold up outside of Fenway? His OPS at home vs. righties was over 1.005. vs. .732 on the road. (He OPSed less than .600 vs. Lefties both at home and on the road.)

    He had far fewer K’s and more BB’s at home vs. righties. Maybe he saw the ball better there? Maybe the sample size is too small for the split to be anything more than a fluke, but if I’m looking at a $30 million plus investment, I’d be cautious…

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    • shthar says:

      I think they’re more worried about him vs lefties…

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      • RC says:

        Even being shitty against lefties, he’s one of the 5 or 6 best SSs in baseball.

        Also, almost everyone hits better at home

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        • LaLoosh says:

          I don’t think so. There are 8 better off the top of my head: Tulo, Hanley, Reyes, Segura, Desmond, Andrus, Hardy, Lowry. I’d put Drew in the next group with Peralta, Everth, Aybar, Miller, & Simmons.

          Plus 5 of the top 7 prospects in baseball are SSs.

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        • Mr Furious says:

          I am assuming RC means 5 or 6 best *fielding* SSs in baseball, not overall? He is easily in the top handful defensively, and in the right lineup that defense is worth carrying him. And it’s not like he’s exactly a terrible hitter…

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        • LaLoosh says:

          he’s clearly not that either. he’s good defensively but not top 5 or 6. Simmons, Hardy, Andrus, Cozart, Tulo, Alexei, Desmond, Alcides, Crawford and of course Ryan and prob Florimon, all better… maybe Yunel too. That’s 12. Maybe you make a case to squeeze Drew past 2 or at best 3 of those. Then he’s 9th best glove at SS which isn’t nothing. But let’s not put him into the top 5 or 6.

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