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How Bad Is Too Bad At 3B?

After getting mostly ignored by the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, Ron Santo [1] was finally elected to the baseball Hall of Fame by the veteran’s committee this summer. Santo’s enshrinement was a victory for those who had championed his case for years, and suggested that perhaps even the folks in Cooperstown were coming around to the growing appreciation for the value of defense at the offensive-oriented corner positions. Just a few months after his election, however, several clubs have apparently decided that quality defense at third base is a luxury item after all.

The Tigers have gotten the most coverage for their decision to move Miguel Cabrera [2] back across the diamond to a position he was deemed too big to play back in 2008. However, the Angels are also toying with the idea of giving first baseman Mark Trumbo [3] some playing time at the hot corner after he was displaced by the signing of Albert Pujols [4], and the Marlins acquisition of Jose Reyes [5] means that Hanley Ramirez [6] – never known for his focus on defense to begin with – will grudgingly move over to third base. In all three cases, a team with hopes of contention in 2012 is showing some willingness to sacrifice glove work at third base in order to upgrade their offense. There’s no doubt that Pujols, Fielder, and Reyes will help their new teams win more games, but just how bad might we expect the new third baseman to be, and would these teams just be better off abandoning the experiment and finding another way to get those bats in the line-up?

Let’s start by looking back at history to see where teams have previously drawn the line and said “no mas” when it comes to butchery at the position. Over the last 10 years [7], the worst defensive season at the position belongs to Ryan Braun [8], whose 2007 rookie performance resulted in a UZR of -27.7 runs in just 112 games. He was so terrible at the position that the Brewers decided that it wasn’t even worth waiting for him to improve, and moved him permanently him to left field at the start of the 2008 season. The second worst performance on the list was posted by Mark Reynolds [9] (-22.8 runs) just last season, and like Braun, he was relieved of his duties and finished the year as the Orioles first baseman.

Mark Teahen [10] (-17.6 runs) in 2005 comes in third – he was able to last one more season at the position before the Royals finally moved him to the outfield. Special recognition also goes to Wes Helms [11], who put up a -14.7 UZR at third base in 2004 while only playing 67 games there for the Brewers. His defensive performance was so horrendous that the Brewers essentially turned him into a pinch-hitter in 2005, drastically cutting his playing time even though his OPS jumped from .692 to .815 in limited duty.

The evidence is fairly consistent – teams will tolerate a defender up to a point of around -20 runs per season before they decide that he’d be of more help to the team by playing a less demanding position. If you’re worse than -20 runs in a year, you’re probably not going to get to keep playing that spot for much longer.

Interestingly enough, that line in the sand matches up perfectly with the position adjustments [12] that are built into Wins Above Replacement. Since UZR compares players to an average defender at the position they play, a further adjustment is needed to compensate for the difference in value between average defenders at different positions. These adjustments were derived by looking at the relative performances of players who moved between positions, and line up with what you’d expect – center field is harder to play than left or right, shortstop is harder than second or third, and pretty much anyone can play first base. These position adjustments give the most reward (+12.5 runs per 600 plate appearances) to catcher, and the spectrum then goes shortstop (+7.5 runs), second base/third base/center field (+2.5 runs), left field/right field (-7.5 runs), first base (-12.5 runs), and then DH (-17.5 runs).

You’ll note that the difference in the position adjustment between third base and designated hitter is 20 runs, right in line with the mark where teams decide that their lead glove third baseman are better off at another position. In other words, Cabrera and Trumbo would have equal value to their teams as a DH if they were going to post a -20 UZR at third base in the 2012 season. If they were Braun-esque, they’d be more valuable by never taking the field to begin with.

The Marlins don’t have the DH as a fallback plan, so for them, the decision would likely be between having Ramirez play third base or center field. The position adjustments suggest that these two positions have similar value, though some players are obviously more suited to play one than the other. Ramirez’s physical skills (specifically his speed) suggest that he may be better in the outfield than at third base, but reports have him already unhappy with the move off shortstop, so taking him out of the infield entirely might not be practical if they want to keep him motivated. Still, if Ramirez is having line drives fly by him at third base in the first half of the season, a shift to center might be the best thing for both him and the franchise.

For the Tigers, Marlins, and Angels, adding offense was a priority this winter. It remains to be seen just how badly their defense at third base will suffer from the moves that were made, but one thing is for certain – Detroit and Miami are likely to be among the league leaders in opponent’s bunt attempts this year.