The Dual 2B/3B Players

Continuing on with the second base/third base discussion, I figured it would be helpful to look at all the players who were given some kind of significant amount of playing time at both positions in 2008. Which guys did teams decide were good enough to be more than emergency fill-ins at both 2nd and 3rd, and what traits did they share that made them eligible to move between both spots?

Here’s the list of guys who got at least 50 innings at both 2B and 3B in 2008:

Willy Aybar
Ryan Raburn
Ronnie Belliard
Ramon Vazquez
Pablo Ozuna
Omar Infante
Nick Punto
Matt Tolbert
Martin Prado
Mark Loretta
Mark DeRosa
Marco Scutaro
Juan Uribe
Jose Castillo
Jeff Baker
Jamey Carroll
Ian Stewart
German Duran
Felipe Lopez
Donnie Murphy
Craig Counsell
Clifton Pennington
Chris Gomez
Chone Figgins
Brendan Harris
Blake Dewitt
Augie Ojeda
Aaron Miles

The list contains the usual assortment of utility players that aren’t all that interesting in terms of the discussion we’ve been having. Guys like Ozuna, Punto, Tolbert, and Vazquez are given roster spots that essentially require them to play multiple positions, so the fact that they did so isn’t a big surprise. The guys on the list that I find interesting, however, are Aybar, Baker, Stewart, Belliard, DeRosa, Carroll, and DeWitt. Let’s take a look at this group.

Aybar – 5’11/200 lbs, short and stubby body type. Played both 2B/3B in the minors, but spend 2/3 of his games at 3B. Played primarily third base in the majors, but has racked up 192 innings at second base over the last couple of years. His UZR at second base is much better than at third base (small sample size caveats apply).

Baker – 6’2/210 lbs, decently athletic. Was a 3B/1B/LF/RF in the minors, and up until this year, had just played those positions in the majors. Not particularly well, either, getting a negative UZR score at all four corner spots in his career. Was given 370 innings at second base this year, and while his defensive numbers suck there too, they’re better than we’d expect considering how little UZR thought of him at 1st/3rd.

Stewart – 6’3/205 lbs, good athete. Exclusively a third baseman as a professional until this year, when the Rockies gave him 93 innings at second base. His UZR was much better at second than at third, but again, the sample is tiny.

Belliard – 5’10/214 lbs, short and fat. Spent almost his entire career at second base, but split time between 2B/3B this year. Was just not good at third and downright awful at second. The epitome of the height bias – if he was 6’3 or 6’4 with the same mass and defensive skills, he’d never play second base, and people would scoff at you for thinking he could.

DeRosa – 6’1/205 lbs, decent athlete. Spent his early career as a utility guy, racked up lots of playing time all over the field. Basically the same defensive ratings at both second and third, and interestingly, not that different at SS either.

Carroll – 5’9/170 lbs, short and skinny. Had the worst arm ranking of any second baseman in the Fans Scouting Report, and has still racked up nearly 1,000 major league innings at third base. Really, if you think teams are sorting 2B/3B based on arm strength, explain Jamey Carroll playing third base.

DeWitt – 5’11/175, pretty good athlete. Like Aybar, a 3B/2B coming up through the system, with a majority of his time spent at third base. Spent most of his time at third this year, but got 193 innings at second base late in the year. UZR liked him at third, deosn’t like him at second, but again, that’s all very small sample stuff, since he was a rookie.

Overall, the list of guys who were allowed to play second base and third base leans towards the shorter end of the spectrum. The Rockies bucked the trend by giving Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker time at second base, and if UZR is to be believed, it worked. Overall, though, very few tall third baseman were allowed to play second base, and among those who spent time at both positions, there wasn’t a huge difference in their ratings at either 3B or 2B. For those who have been selected as worthy of playing both, they seem to be about the same at either one. While the tall guys can’t play 2B bias continues to show up, it seems that teams are okay with short guys (even ones with noodle arms, like Carroll) playing third base in limited roles.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the selection bias aspect of this group, and ask what we can infer about those who weren’t allowed to spend any time at second base.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

10 Responses to “The Dual 2B/3B Players”

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  1. David says:

    “Really, if you think teams are sorting 2B/3B based on arm strength, explain Jamey Carroll playing third base.”

    disclaimers: I know nothing about the Expos whatsoever. first of all, Jose Vidro was entrenched at the 2B spot for several seasons before Carroll came up from the minors. Carroll in the minors before 2002 was a 2B / 3B / SS in that order. but in 2002, he played 83 games at 3B and only 29 at 2B. this could have been for multiple reasons – my guess is that they knew he wouldn’t get playing time ahead of Vidro, and they had a hole at 3B that they thought he might fill.

    I don’t think that decision had anything to do with body type or arm strength. Vidro was the full time 2B from 1999 to 2004, Orlando Cabrera was the full time SS for that same period, and so Carroll’s only possible role was 3B. it’s the same thing with A-Rod moving to 3B when he came to New York. it’s not because he was a failed SS that “profiled” better at 3rd; it’s because they already had an established shortstop in Jeter, like him or not.

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  2. RPC says:

    Think quick feet allows a player to become a great second baseman. Shorter players have shorter strides and can move around the four hole, and make the plays at second when the ball is hit to the left side. Shorter players are closer to the ground and can be quick to the ball at third because their glove is laready their. I’ve played and second base is tougher because you are more involved and it is in quick moves.
    Arm strength is only good if it is accurate and these utility players have it because they know that they are at the major league level for their defense and have to stay solid, especially with their throw.
    Willy Aybar is becoming my favorite player because of his defense and his bat. He can play all four infield positions.

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  3. lookatthosetwins says:

    One thing I’m wondering is if there are arm strength/accuracy type stats that aren’t based on fans scouting reports. I would assume it would be pretty easy to measure the time it takes for the throw to get from 3rd to 1st. I’m sure scouts do this all the time. If data like that is available, it would be interesting to see how someone’s arm strength comes into play for a second basemen vs. a third basemen.

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  4. Terminator X says:

    There is absolutely a mechanical correlation between having shorter legs and having a faster acceleration – yes, acceleration, not speed. It takes world class sprinters 40+ meters to achieve top speed in a straight line on a track, a typical baseball player on dirt would be MUCH worse. “Speed” is a misnomer here, what we are really talking about is acceleration or explosiveness. Top speed is more or less irrelevant when discussing infield defense, and a definite a red herring. It might be semantics, but using “acceleration” and/or “explosiveness” instead “speed” could create less confusion. But with regards to athletes with longer legs, they do typically accelerate slower, all other things being equal (though there are exceptions to everything). It takes more power to get those long legs moving, and anyone who took a basic anatomy/physiology class in college will understand that longer muscles simply take longer and more energy to contract, resulting in slower acceleration.

    Of course, total height does not always correlate with leg length – I’ve seen 5’8″ guys with legs the same length at 6′ guys. Leg length seems to be more important than height here. I don’t imagine the leg lengths of players are available anywhere on the net…

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    • david h says:

      This all sounds intuitively correct, but if it was actually true, third basemen who move to second should see a decline in defensive performance. Dave is saying that this is not the case.

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      • Terminator X says:

        It is correct (in generalities). Longer limbs DO take more energy to move and are typically slower to accelerate. The only way it would not be true is if explosiveness was the only factor in how good a defender is – it’s not. It’s merely one factor, and I’m offering a possible explanation as to the bias towards shorter players at 2nd.

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  5. Eric M. Van says:

    The entire premise of this argument, all three posts of it, is demonstrably incorrect.

    “This is because the population of both positions is made up almost exclusively of players who were deemed inadequate for shortstop. … Both groups come from the failed SS pile of players …”

    Except in the sense that *all* MLB players are inadequate or failed SS because they played the position in Little League, this simply isn’t true. The average (median) MLB 2B last year had 199 games of professional experience at SS; the average 3B had 11. There were 20 converted SS out of 28 2B (excluding Iwamura and Iguchi, whom I’m not sure about), but just 10 converted SS of the 30 3B (only 6 of whom were really converted due to inadequacy). The clear majority of MLB are not failed SS in any sense of the concept.

    Here are the professional games at SS for everyone. (This took a good hour or two of diving through old Baseball Guides, because fielding data on b-ref is very incomplete for the low minors.)

    First, the 2B, with the converts listed first:

    Lopez, F., 1095
    Grudzielanek, 1007
    Barmes, 868
    DeRosa, 649
    Phillips, 577
    Sanchez, 382
    Cabrera, A., 377
    Lopez, J., 370
    Ellis, 366
    Johnson, 364
    Polanco, 266
    Casilla, 217
    Kennedy, 201
    Roberts, 196
    Kinsler, 184
    Pedroia, 138
    Cano, 70 (split time first 2 years)
    Kent, 41 (converted mid-1st year)
    Matsui, Y
    Ramirez, Al., Y

    Inglett, 45
    Uggla, 18
    Durham, 3
    Castillo, L., 2
    Hudson, 1
    Kendrick, 0
    Utley, 0
    Weeks, 0

    And the 3B (Rodriguez and Hall not converted because of inadequacy, and Vazquez and Castillo not really regular 3B):

    Rodriguez, 1437
    Guillen, 1101
    Vazquez, 947
    Hall, 778
    Castillo, J., 466
    Cantu, 463
    Jones, 362
    Figgins, 313
    Mora, 250
    Reynolds, 135

    Feliz, 25
    Encarnacion, 19
    Glaus, 18
    Blake, 15
    Lowell, 13
    Zimmerman, 9
    Beltre, 7
    Bautista, 2
    Crede, 1
    Gordon, 1
    Hannahan, 1
    Ramirez, Ar., 1
    Atkins, 0
    Buscher, 0
    DeWitt, 0
    Kouzmanoff, 0
    Longoria, 0
    Rolen, 0
    Wigginton, 0
    Wright, 0

    Given that most MLB 2B *are* failed SS but very few MLB 3B are, the observed difference in offense between the two positions is exactly what you’d expect. And it would appear that the clear majority of MLB 3B are assigned there at the beginning of their professional career because they are deemed unable to play either SS or 2B.

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  6. Dave Cameron says:

    Except in the sense that *all* MLB players are inadequate or failed SS because they played the position in Little League, this simply isn’t true.

    Right, because Little League and the NCAA are the same thing.

    Give me a break, Eric. Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Glaus, and Evan Longoria all played shortstop in college. Longoria moved to third base because Long Beach State had this kid named Troy Tulowitzki. Pretty much every major league third baseman has played SS competitively. They get moved because they’re deemed to be too big for the middle infield. Conventional wisdom says that this is true, but there’s no evidence to support the claim.

    If you have any evidence that the pool of 2B are better defenders than the pool of 3B, let’s see it.

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  7. Eric M. Van says:

    You are absolutely correct in asserting that guys who were converted from SS while in college could be counted as conversions. So let’s add Orlando Hudson and Chase Utley to the list of converted 2B. Now you’ve got 79% converts vs. 43%, as opposed to 70% vs. 33%.

    So it’s still true: most MLB 2B are failed SS, but most 3B are not. More often than not, they were moved off the position at about the time they graduated HS, probably about three or four years before the age where the average 2B is moved from SS. That’s the first indication that 2B skills are much closer to SS skills than 3B skills are.

    The whole methodology of comparing difficulty by looking at people who were asked to play both positions may seem to make sense at first glance, but it doesn’t begin to hold up to scrutiny. It’s like asking whether it’s harder to write a limerick or a sestina by looking only at the works of people who wrote them both (in fact, the sestinas will probably be better). Limiting the study to people who only performed both tasks is the equivalent of assuming that there are no people capable of performing one but not the other–which is answering the question you are trying to ask.

    The evidence that 2B are better defenders is right there before your eyes in the offensive difference between the two positions. There is tremendous incentive to move guys as far to the skill end of the defensive spectrum as possible. The 2005 Red Sox had Bill Mueller blocking Kevin Youkilis at 3B and Mark Bellhorn crashing and burning at 2B, but no one suggested that Youkilis play 2B, because that’s a wacky idea. (And this is a team that aggressively challenges conventional wisdom, one that once went after a top defensive FA 3B to fill their SS hole despite the player’s almost complete lack of experience at the position.)

    I’m sure there are many other examples you could find of teams that could have improved themselves markedly had they moved a 3B to 2B, if in fact no defense would be lost by such a move. But it just doesn’t happen. Yes, there’s a lot of conventional wisdom, thinking within the box, and outright stupidity in MLB management. But it doesn’t take a real act of genius to look at a guy and say, hey, we could get his bat into the lineup if he could only play over here. Earl Weaver did it 25 years ago when he realized there was no good reason to play Cal Ripken at 3B. The fact that no one is breaking ranks with the CW on the 3B to 2B move indicates that it’s based on a rational assessment of the actual skills involved.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      That’s the first indication that 2B skills are much closer to SS skills than 3B skills are.

      Or, it’s the first indication that the height bias permeates down into amateur baseball.

      The fact that no one is breaking ranks with the CW on the 3B to 2B move indicates that it’s based on a rational assessment of the actual skills involved.

      Really, Eric? 2B are better than 3B because MLB is a completely rational marketplace where nothing is ever valued incorrectly for long periods of time?

      I present to you “the closer”.

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