Since members of the Milwaukee Brewers started dropping like flies, there are scores of new problems and new possibilities in aligning the Brewers’ roster. Ryan Topp discussed potential Shortstop replacements yesterday, presenting good examples of the type of players the Brewers might reasonably hope to acquire in the center of the diamond. The Brewers also have a general vacancy at first base, currently occupied by some combination of Brooks Conrad and Travis Ishikawa. Any long term vacancy at first base seems to scream for a long-term solution, and Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez are two such lightning rods on the Brewers’ roster; they certainly have the best bats for 1B. Add in Taylor Green and George Kottaras, and it appears that the Brewers once again have a full gang to work at first.
I have to admit, I would probably have been in the camp of people that thought Aramis Ramirez should eventually move to first base, if you had asked me a few months ago. However, recently I noticed that Ramirez has not ever played at first base during his entire professional career. So, that’s certainly an unlikely move for the Brewers to make in the middle of 2012, maybe even during the entire duration of his contract. Could it really be the case that Ramirez’s career without one appearance at 1B results in his never moving there?
This opened up a whole new set of questions to my mind, which, as always, means that it’s time to throw some spaghetti at the wall.
In general, I framed my question about Ramirez within the defensive spectrum itself: is it likely that a 3B without any professional appearances at 1B would ever move there? Here, I turned to the idea of the defensive spectrum, which suggests that there is a progression of difficulty between defensive positions, explaining the combination of offensive production and defensive demands across the diamond. Tom Tango’s definition is clear and to the point, so I cite it in whole (you should check out his site, TangoTiger, for all sorts of excellent baseball resources):
The defensive spectrum is an arrangement of the fielding positions (excluding catcher and pitcher) devised by Bill James as a way of explaining the difficulty of defensive positions and positional scarcity.
The defensive spectrum reads:
(Catcher is not included in the spectrum, as it is deemed to be a special case.)
The positions on the left side of the spectrum are those that take a minimum amount of ability to play defensively, and thus are often occupied by more productive hitters. As players age, they tend to move leftward on the spectrum, being moved to less demanding positions as their defensive skills decline. Shifts to the right on the spectrum are deemed unusual.(TangoTiger, 2008)
Some of this should be intuitive with how we experience baseball. For instance, we would be hard-pressed to name many ballplayers that start their career at 1B or LF and move into the infield; but, there are many players that start their career at an infield position (or two), gradually working their way out to greener pastures.
In my pet case of Aramis Ramirez, it certainly seems like Ramirez could move from 3B to 1B without incident, given the defensive spectrum and the progression of difficulty from 3B to 1B. BUT, I think there’s a lot more to baseball fielding than that, especially when considering labor and contractual terms. Corey Hart’s case is extremely interesting here, as he has some professional experience at 1B, but is also approaching his last contract year and could have his labor value affected by a positional shift (i.e., how is his value affected by hitting the market as the potentially-best available RF, versus a RF-1B?)
Furthermore, I think there’s a certain level of defensive determinism at the major league level that accompanies the defensive spectrum. Given the rare occurrences of players moving to a more difficult position in the middle of their career, I think it’s perfectly clear that if a player can stick at a difficult defensive position and be effective, they will already be playing there. There’s no accident in the MLB; it’s not that Rickie Weeks or Nyjer Morgan or Ryan Braun or Aramis Ramirez can play shortstop and they just don’t; the mere fact that none of those players currently start at SS in the MLB proves that they are not MLB SS. I know that sounds like a rather arbitrary argument, but I think that if we examine most player records, we will see that it’s true.
(LOGICAL SIDE NOTE: Doesn’t most determinism look arbitrary? For instance, if divine determinism were true, and all of our actions were accounted for by the will of God, we might be able to construct a whole set of arguments about why the greatness of God and the power of God accounts for our actions; at some level, though, the power of God results in coercive facts about reality that amount to no more than “Because God said so.” I believe this is exactly the same with MLB shortstop, which is typically regarded as the most difficult position to play, and the most important defensive position on the diamond. We can create all sorts of arguments about the difficulty of SS determining how players move around the diamond, but at some point, the power of that argument simply means, “well, it’s because SS said so.” I believe player records back that up).
Beyond defensive determinism, there also seems to be a general feeling that if a player signs a contract at a certain position, or gained their reputation at a certain position, they stay at that position even beyond their actual defensive usefulness. We might call this the “Derek Jeter Rule,” because even though Mr. November might have had fewer chances to complete dramatic jump throws from the hot corner, he should have been moved off shortstop the moment the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez. Of course, given Jeter’s reputation and legacy, that just wasn’t going to happen, which provides a perfect example of how labor intrudes baseball strategy. Prince Fielder’s offseason negotiations highlight this point (he wanted a contract as a “1B,” not a “DH”), and we might also include Aramis Ramirez in this category (he’s never stepped off 3B in his entire MLB career).
This might sound pointless, but in order to study the likelihood of certain Brewers players moving to first base, I decided to study 2012 MLB players that have already played multiple positions (excluding position players that served as pitchers in blow outs or extra innings games). In my survey, I looked for a few things:
(1) What positions does the player currently play?
(2) When did they first switch to that position?
(3) Did they play those positions in the minors?
My feeling going into this was that most MLB players that play multiple positions at the MLB level also played those positions at the minors. The basic fact that approximately 85% of MLB players only play a single position lead me to expect that moving players around the field is not taken lightly by MLB clubs.
Before we head into large lists of players, let’s talk about the results of this 2012 survey. I looked at approximately 112 MLB players that have played multiple positions during the 2012 season thus far. Those players included:
-28 LF / RF / 3B / 1B
-73 players based around SS, 2B, or CF
Of these players, the vast majority played each of their positions at the minor league level. I am surprised that a similar percentage of players based around LF / RF / 3B / 1B were trusted to try new positions at the MLB level as those based around SS and 2B:
-4 LF / RF / 3B / 1B did not play 1B in the minors
-4 LF / RF / 3B / 1B did not play their particular OF position in the minors
-1 LF / RF / 3B / 1B did not play 3B in the minors
-28 SS / 2B / “utility” players did not play at least one position in the minors
-7 SS / 2B / “utility” players learned more than one position at the MLB level
Even though a surprising percentage of corner outfielders / corner infielders were trusted to play a new position at the MLB level, it seems clear that shortstop and middle infielders are trusted with more defensive responsibility at the MLB level. For instance, 10 of the “utility”/middle infield players trusted with new positions at the MLB level played that new position at 2B, 3B, or CF. While a sizable percentage of corner gloves learned 1B on the job, that’s simply not the same as jumping to 2B or 3B or CF in the big show.
We might devise a few basic rules:
(a) If you play at SS, you can reasonably be trusted to move anywhere else (this is even the case with a below average SS such as Yuniesky Betancourt, moved to 3B without prior experience).
(b) If you’re as good as Miguel Cabrera, you can play wherever passable to guarantee that your bat is in the line up.
(c) If you played middle infield in the minors, but not in the majors, you can still be trusted to move to 1B in the big show.
(d) If you’re a 3B in the MLB or the minors, you can reasonably be expected to play the corner outfield.
There are some excellent examples of rule (c) in 2012 MLB: Edwin Encarnacion, Sean Burroughs, and Casey McGehee each played 1B at some point this year, even though they never played that position in the minors. However, Casey McGehee played catcher and middle infield positions in the majors and minors, Encarnacion was once a shortstop, and Burroughs played second base.
Mark Trumbo is probably the most interesting corner-position case in 2012 MLB, as he plays 3B (among other positions), without having ever played that spot in the minors. He was a first-baseman and corner outfielder in the minors, which might suggest that there’s a certain glove profile at those positions that can be trusted at 3B, even without prior experience. However, if that’s the case, Trumbo is still the only example I found of a player making that move.
In the entire league, Skip Schumaker is probably the most interesting case whatsoever, as he moved from the outfield to second base without any previous professional experience at that position. He played some 3B in the minors, and he also could be trusted with each OF spot, which leads me to believe that we can consider this is a “utility” move. Of course, keep in mind that Schumaker played nearly 950 fielding innings at corner outfield positions, and did not play any infield position prior to his move, which means that it’s not like a full-time centerfielder moved to the middle infield.
Now, we might call Schumaker a utility player, as I said, but this is a Brewers blog, so I feel obligated to create a new rule:
(e) The Cardinals can do whatever they want because they carry the tradition of baseball and are therefore more inclined to make proper decisions about moving utility outfielders to the infield.
In general, one would not expect Aramis Ramirez to move to first base in the middle of a season without previous experience at the position. Even though 3B is a more difficult position than 1B, Ramirez does not necessarily have the defensive experience at other positions in the minors that suggest that he could simply be moved to another position. Furthermore, he is fresh off a free agency contract signed as one of the top (if underrated) offensive 3B in baseball, and that label and his value shifts completely if he moves across the diamond.
Corey Hart is a more intriguing case for first base, given his nomadic defensive history, which includes professional appearances at CF, 3B, and 1B, as well as the corner outfield. Furthermore, the Brewers discussed working at 1B with Hart earlier in the season, which means that he is also prepared for a move due to spring exercises at the position. However, the question of shifting the value of a veteran comes into play with Hart, too, as Hart will be entering the last year of his contract. His value might not be completely different as a 1B, but it is different, and his offensive expectations would also be greater at that position. Certainly, RF is also a bat-first position, but there is some advantage to Hart becoming a free agent as a RF, rather than a 1B.
George Kottaras, Travis Ishikawa, Brooks Conrad, and Taylor Green are all strong options for the 1B opening. Even though Green does not have a ton of work at 1B in his professional career, he comes from the middle-infield in his minor league career, and his ability to move around the diamond makes him a strong candidate to receive some MLB work at 1B. Ishikawa and Conrad obviously have professional experience at 1B, and so does Kottaras, which makes a move less awkward for him, too.
If this sounds like throwing the kitchen sink at one of the Brewers’ problem positions, well, it is. However, I am optimistic that having a whole gang of 1B options gives Ron Roenicke the flexibility to work with a hot bat. Furthermore, he can play percentages and make in-game moves however he pleases, and Conrad and Green add the option of moving to other positions to accomodate other in-game moves at 1B. Given that Green, Ishikawa, Kottaras, and Conrad all have good reason to fight for an MLB job, I’m not convinced that having multiple options for the open position is a bad thing.
(1) I placed corner gloves together, given their relative proximity on the defensive spectrum.
(2) Most players with middle-infield-first MLB positions were placed in the “Utility” chart. If one of their entries actually says “UTIL,” that means they actually played pretty much the whole field. “IF” or “OF” should mean that the player played SS-3B-2B-AND-1B, or LF-CF-AND-RF, but given the fact that I worked on this with only two eyes, I may have misused that a couple of times (as in the case of Casey McGehee, who should not have “IF” as his minor league position).
(3) Catchers get their own category.
Interesting Cases: Edwin Encarnacion, Sean Burroughs, Miguel Cabrera, and Casey McGehee; Lars Anderson, Matt Carpenter, Brett Pill, Aubrey Huff, and Mike Trumbo.
Interesting cases: M. Prado, J. Pacheco, J. Lopez, M. Scutaro, C. Izturis, W. Bloomquist, B. Zobrist, D. Ackley, Al. Gonzalez, S. Rodriguez (1B); N. Punto, J. Arias, J. McDonald, T. Greene, B. DeWitt, M. DeRosa (single OF); J. Baker (2B); E. Escobar, Y. Betancourt (3B); E. Nunez, W. Betemit, M. Izturis, M. Young, R. Andino, B. Zobrist, J. Hairston, E. Burriss (multiple positions).
Interesting Cases: Y. Molina (1B), W. Rosario (3B), J. Mauer (RF).
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.
TangoTiger. “Defensive Spectrum.” 1 March 2008, accessed May 8, 2012. http://www.tangotiger.net/wiki/index.php?title=Defensive_Spectrum