The Position Battle That Isn’t: Third Base in Oakland

It is to say nothing new or bold to note that spring-training stats and performances are to be regarded as one might regard a neighborchild holding a pair of tweezers for no discernible reason — which is to say, with suspicion.

There is, first of all, the issue of limited sample size (which leaves authors like the present one performing regression gymnastics). Beyond that, spring training offers a wider variation in the level of competition. One could, for example, face Roy Halladay and then both Austin Hyatt and B.J. Rosenberg in the same game, producing a 2-for-3 effort even after a three-pitch strikeout against the major leaguer of that group. Finally, there is also the question of player intent. As was noted on Twitter recently (by whom, I’ve unfortunately forgotten), Barry Bonds posted a 2:13 BB:K in 45 at-bats during the 2007 edition of spring baseball — before producing a 89:54 UIBB:K ratio that season. There’s reason to believe that Bonds, as many veterans are likely to do, was experimenting with this or that part of his game.

Now, with all of those reasonable statements stated, allow me to submit one that is slightly less so (although only by a little) — namely that, for players who are competing for their baseballing lives, spring-training performances are a relevant piece of the overall information puzzle.

The Oakland A’s, at the very least, seem to think this is the case, as — in a development that approaches Dewey-defeats-Truman levels of notability — manager Bob Melvin has announced that he has no announcements to make regarding the team’s starting third baseman, even with Oakland’s season opener in Japan now less than a week away.

When would-be starter Scott Sizemore suffered a torn ACL at the end of February, it appeared as though Josh Donaldson was the immediate favorite to replace him. Indeed, Donaldson has not only made the majority of starts at third base for Oakland this spring, he actually leads all spring batters in innings played, with 118 (note courtesy Jane Lee of MLB.com, linked above).

Except, things have gone poorly for Donaldson, offensively speaking. In 52 at-bats, he has a 5:14 BB:K and no home runs, which places him at about the 10th percentile of spring batters in terms of expected offensive production. Meanwhile, Eric Sogard has played his way into consideration at third base, posting a 5:4 BB:K while hitting two home runs — an effort that places him at roughly the 95th percentile of all spring offensive performances.

The spring numbers aren’t to be regarded in a vacuum; they do, however, augment what information we already possess about the players in question. Sogard has posted roughly equal walk and strikeout totals throughout the minors. That he’s doing so this spring is unsurprising — and that he could at least come close to doing so in the majors is a possibility. Donaldson, for his part, has generally posted average-ish walk and strikeout rates, while showing more power than Sogard — albeit much of the latter showing up in both the California and Pacific Coast Leagues, which are hitter-friendly.

Of course, all of this discussion is to ignore the final point — that the necessity of naming an Opening Day starter exists at all. If the A’s think that Donaldson and Sogard are more or less equally valuable as third basemen — Donaldson showing more with his power; Sogard, with his glove (which is probably a marginal plus at third base) and contact ability — then there appears to be a real chance that they could form a functional platoon, with the left-handed Sogard taking the strong side of same.

In fact, given their respective versatility, Sogard and Donaldson are uniquely suited to a platoon arrangement, with Sogard profiling as a plus defensive sub (when he’s not in the starting lineup) at basically every position but shortstop, and Donaldson capable of serving as a third catcher or able pinch-hitter against left-handed relievers.

In the final analysis, the A’s are likely to benefit from expressly not naming a full-time starter, but instead by allowing two useful pieces to play roles that maximize their respective values. Sogard and Donaldson are likely not the solution for a championship-caliber club. But a platoon of the two is probably an ideal arrangement for the current iteration of the A’s.



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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.


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