Thursday, July 18, 2013

Who's Your Third Baseman?

In a series of tweets over the past couple of days, I have completely rethought my method of analysis. I had already written the post discussing third base but just deleted it--no editing, no touch-ups, I just threw it out and started over. I'll begin with the chart:

Learn to love this chart, since THIS will be my metric going forward--ignore the past posts on shortstop, first and second where I introduced something new and said THAT was going to be my metric. This chart has two very simple elements:
The horizontal axis is the player's 2013 salary (from Baseball-Reference)
The vertical axis is the player's dollar value as calculated by FanGraphs. It's a handy measure that turns arcane WAR numbers into easy-to-understand dollars.
Any point ABOVE the line indicates the player is delivering greater value than his contract, and any point BELOW suggests the player isn't playing up to his contract. Not all data points are labeled. 

The range of data points from Eduardo Escobar to Josh Donaldson represents young players making around $500,000 with a wide range of value. Manny Machado had an excellent first half--here's the list of all-time doubles by the All-Star break:

1 Edgar Martinez 1996 85 42 393 315 79 109 2 22 78 74 46 .346 .471 .702 1.172
2 Manny Machado 2013 96 39 435 413 57 128 3 7 45 16 71 .310 .337 .470 .807
3 Craig Biggio 1999 87 38 406 356 65 104 0 8 44 39 63 .292 .374 .466 .840
4 John Olerud 1993 87 37 372 304 58 120 1 15 69 59 29 .395 .492 .671 1.163
5 Chuck Knoblauch 1994 83 37 374 338 63 108 3 4 45 27 37 .320 .377 .482 .859
6 Lyle Overbay 2004 86 37 371 326 48 112 1 10 62 38 72 .344 .407 .555 .962
7 George Burns 1926 78 36 334 312 53 112 2 3 56 9 19 .359 .390 .516 .906
8 Earl Webb 1931 73 36 324 283 55 104 2 10 55 41 22 .367 .448 .615 1.062
9 Paul Waner 1932 72 36 328 304 54 114 7 5 44 22 7 .375 .417 .589 1.006
10 Mike Sweeney 2001 87 35 382 342 70 114 0 21 65 35 43 .333 .391 .620 1.011
11 Magglio Ordonez 2007 83 35 363 313 70 115 0 13 70 46 37 .367 .446 .604 1.050
12 Joey Votto 2012 83 35 357 287 50 100 0 14 48 65 64 .348 .471 .617 1.087
13 Craig Biggio 1994 87 35 387 337 65 108 4 5 42 43 50 .320 .402 .493 .894
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/17/2013.
I'm not sure it's that big a deal given the number of games played and his pace has slowed a bit to a projected 65-66 doubles, one off Earl Webb's record of 67 in 1931. Besides, prior to this year, had you ever given this record one moment of thought? All of this is irrelevant, however, since he's 20 and will only improve. And to the extent that it matters (more on this further down), he's the best-fielding third basemen so far this year.

The clear class of the league are Miguel Cabrera, David Wright Josh Donaldson and Evan Longoria. The scariest thing about Cabrera is that he's only 30 and could conceivably continue to produce like this for the next three or four years. I wrote a post on the future of first base in which I speculated that big contracts for first basemen may be a thing of the past, and 2016 will test that notion when Cabrera becomes a free agent. He'll be 33 and the question of the day will be whether he gets an Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder-type of contract. I argue those contracts are relics, but he may be the one exception if he maintains his production--he's that special a talent. And one last thought--look how far his data point is from anyone else--he makes that much more, and has PRODUCED that much more than any other third baseman. Yeah, his defense is REALLY holding him back.

David Wright is signed through 2020 at $134+ million, with the only question being when the decline phase of his career starts. He's been dinged up since 2009 but appears healthy this year, and he's the least of the Mets problems. Evan Longoria is the best example of the new type of player contract--the Rays locked him up in 2008 during his rookie season and haven't been disappointed yet. He's only being paid $6 million this year, but the real money begins in 2017 when it jumps to $13 million. That's a problem for the 2017 Rays. Josh Donaldson is a complete enigma to me--he emerged this year at the age of 27 and is hitting like he never has in the majors. The A's have time to figure him out since he's not arbitration-eligible until after the 2015 season.

There's excellent talent on first contracts, led by Pedro Alvarez and Kyle Seager. I was all set to write off Alvarez earlier this year since he was hitting only .200 with 10 homers and 29 RBI through May. Since then, different story--.306 average, 14 home runs and 33 RBI. Kyle Seager appears to be for real and could be an integral part of the Mariners going forward. Jose Iglesias will force the Red Sox make some choices--stick with Will Middlebrooks (an unlabeled point near Eduardo Escobar) at third, cut Stephen Drew loose after the season and have Iglesias play short or displace Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks is only 24 and probably too young to write off, but it's a good problem for the Red Sox to have. Don't view Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom as the future for the Cubs as much as players having decent seasons--if 2013 #2 overall draft pick Kris Bryant can play third and master major league hitting, he'll be the answer as early as late 2014. 

Adrian Beltre is right where he should be, playing about as well as he's being paid. He started his career so young that at age 34 he's in his 16th season. He's had very solid seasons for the past three years and the Rangers have him through 2016, so the question becomes when the decline begins--if he can produce, he's a Hall of Famer. Juan Uribe is playing very well for the Dodgers and Chase Headley will be arbitration-eligible after this season. His production is nowhere near what it was in 2012 and he's already 29, so it will be interesting to see how the Padres handle him.

On the wrong side of the line are players like Aramis Ramirez, Michael Young, Pablo Sandoval and Ryan Zimmerman. Ramirez has been banged up this year but has been a solid producer his entire career, and if he bounces back can help the Brewers. He might be their answer at first depending on what they have in their farm system. Michael Young is on his way out as he's a free agent after this year and will sign for far less than the $16 million he's making this year. Zimmerman and Sandoval are the question marks--Sandoval is only 26 but his offensive production has been middling for the past two years. He'll be eligible for free agency after 2014 and might not get a big payday. Ryan Zimmerman DID get the big payday and is locked up through 2020 for a cool $120 million. When you look at his career numbers, I'm not sure he's truly a power hitter as his home run numbers yo-yo year by year. The Nationals will be in an interesting spot as Stephen Strasburg becomes arbitration-eligible after this year and Bryce Harper after 2015--they already have a payroll near $120 million and those two (and also Jordan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond) will be in line for big paydays.

Whenever third base is discussed, it's often mentioned it requires a mix of offense and defense. I'm not sure that's the case since anywhere from 60-80% of these player's value comes from their bats. Think about it--a third basemen doesn't really have to range that far to his right because of the foul line (but this play by Michael Young on the Sunday, July 14th White Sox-Phillies game deserves to be seen) or that far to his left because of the shortstop. Very few putouts are made at third, steal attempts of third are a fraction (10-15%) of second and base runners don't need to be held. Fielding is almost entirely a function of positioning, in that if a right-handed hitter hits a line-drive shot, even Brooks Robinson won't get to it unless he's RIGHT THERE. They don't even field bunts very often (around 20 per team a year), but do need a strong and accurate throwing arm. This doesn't appear to have ever been difficult to find, since the record books are filled with no-hit/good-field third basemen--they just didn't have very long careers, because it's been long known that the fielding isn't critical. Make your own conclusions and look at in-depth fielding metrics from Baseball-Reference.

I'll illustrate this with a Miguel Cabrera's hitting spray chart from Brooks

Get out the magnifying glass to see the point I'm going to make. Miguel Cabrera might not be the best example in that he's not fleet of foot, but when he hits the ball to the left side of the infield, it's an out. I'm not positive (I'm going to ask Dan Brooks when he starts tweeting today), but we can see the relative paucity of errors--I think it's  the yellow dots labeled "Other". Cabrera has reached base on an error 30 times since 2007, which seems to correspond well with the yellow dots. One last point--errors are skewed slightly in favor of fielding than throwing (329 vs. 277 in 2012), implying that it's not just getting to the ball, but making an accurate throw that matters.

I suspect third base will become very much like first in that except for very rare instances like Miguel Cabrera, teams will reload instead of spending significant amounts of money on what are essentially one-tool players. There are seven players making $10 million or more this year, of which only three are worth it--don't think for one moment that GMs don't know this and won't act on it going forward.

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