In a surprise, the Blue Jays announced yesterday that Jose Bautista would not start at third base this season, but rather in right field. As a result, Edwin Encarnacion slides into the third base slot, and Juan Rivera becomes the team’s designated hitter. In a related move, the team also added Jayson Nix as a reserve infielder. The moves should make for a better defensive alignment for the Jays, and while the timing is a bit wonky, the outcome should not be.
Over the past two seasons, Bautista has played almost three times as many innings in the outfield as he has at third base, and 77 percent of his outfield innings have been in right field. And since he has stated this spring that he believes he is more valuable to the team in right field, the move makes sense on a common sense level. Statistically, it’s not so bad either.
UZR didn’t paint a pretty picture of him at either spot last season, but he has a positive DRS in right field the past two seasons, and a better track record there overall. And while Rivera’s one asset in the field is his arm, Bautista’s has been better. Looking at overall outfield Arm scores the past two years, Bautista checks in at 11.4 combined, while Rivera is at 6.7.
Of course, the reason that we have to look at outfield overall rather than just right field to get a good comparison between the two is the fact that Rivera has seldom played right field on a consistent basis during his career. The only time he did was during his first season of regular duty in the Majors, way back in 2004 with the Expos. Since then, he has averaged approximately 16 starts and 144 innings in right field per season, with a high water mark of 26 and 242 back in 2006. So while Blue Jays fans never really would have complained about his defense given the alternative, it probably wasn’t going to pretty out there for Rivera. Moved to DH, he can rest easy knowing that he won’t have to play the field on a regular basis. And while the Jays will hopefully be giving Travis Snider the most playing time possible, Rivera’s move to DH does give manager John Farrell the luxury of spotting him in for Snider against lefties.
On the other side of the coin is Encarnacion. To be modest, he has had his share of ups and downs throughout his career, but he did post some pretty strong numbers last season offensively – the best ISO of his career combined with the lowest BABIP of his career as well. Now, some of that is surely attributable to the small sample size, but if you look at the last three seasons in aggregate, Encarnacion’s .214 ISO ranks sixth among all third basemen (min. 1200 PA). In addition, his glove has steadily improved – both in UZR and DRS – the past three seasons, to the point where he was essentially neutral last year. While a one-year defensive sample can be dangerous, when you combine the fact that his UZR/150 at third was a full eight runs better than Bautista’s in 2010 with Farrell’s positive endorsement of Encarnacion’s newfound agility at the hot corner, you see that this decision really does have some legs.
But just in case Encarnacion is just another Grapefruit League mirage, the Jays covered themselves by adding Nix to their cadre of backup infielders. Like Mike McCoy and John McDonald, Nix possesses a superb glove. Unlike McCoy and McDonald, Nix has good power, and can park a ball every now and then. With Adam Lind still trying to learn the intricacies of first base, Nix could see time as a reserve at first base as well, as his bat has a better chance of playing there in small samples than either of the Mc’s. And while Nix did have some hiccups playing third last year, defense has always been his calling card. Even if he only has until Corey Patterson returns to prove himself worthy of a season-long roster spot, his acquisition not only represents a low-cost investment, it also shows that the Jays aren’t just crossing their fingers and hoping this shift works out.
By shifting Bautista full-time to right field before the season starts the Jays are, if not putting together their optimal defensive alignment, they are at least giving those affected the best chance to succeed based on recent history. That they were also able to acquire Nix gives them another alternative in case Encarnacion is not up to the task. The timing may kick the degree of difficulty up a notch in April, but over the course of the season, this looks like the right move for Toronto.