After a few weeks of compiling 2013 fielding positions, Vernon Wells, Will Middlebrooks, Eric Chavez, Jurickson Profar, and Yonder Alonso have the strangest cases of moving to different fielding positions around the diamond. Otherwise, the vast majority of MLB teams only move players to positions they have already played in the minors. As I’ve written recently, I call this “defensive determinism.” This basically means that teams are not likely to simply assess their players’ fielding abilities and tools and play them at an appropriate position for those skills; rather, once players make it to the MLB, their basic roles on the diamond are overwhelmingly determined by their minor league roles.
-The Red Sox gave Middlebrooks one start at 1B, and four total innings of work at 2B. Middlebrooks only played 3B in the minors.
-Wells made a couple of strange positional changes during two May games. On the 8th, he moved to 3B after a series of pinch hitting moves in the top of the 9th inning. During a blowout on May 15, he moved to 2B as another fielder moved to pitcher. Finally, the Yankees also gave Wells one start at 1B on August 5. Wells did not have any infield experience in the minors.
-The Rangers moved Profar around the diamond in order to give the rookie chances to break into their loaded roster. Profar started four games at LF, despite have no professional experience in the outfield. He is a strong example of (a) clubs’ willingness to move SS to other positions when necessary, and (b) clubs’ willingness to give a “blocked” rookie a chance to play in the MLB.
-As I documented earlier, Alonso served a couple of emergency roles around the diamond as manager Bud Black played his percentages.
-Chavez has served roles as a part-time / emergency OF, SS, and 1B in at least eight of his seasons. He only played 3B in the minors.
-In addition, there are few position players that have also pitched in the minors. This means that when there are fielders moved to pitcher in blow-outs or emergency situations, those are truly emergency roles with little-to-no precedent available. (Interestingly enough, I also found five fielders with pitching experience in the minors that did not pitch in 2013. Blake Lalli is included among position players that do have some professional experience as a pitcher.
In general, there are three key roles around the defensive spectrum. These roles help to divide the players that work at more than one position during one season:
(1) Middle Infield Pedigree: These players typically have experience at 2B and/or SS in the minors, and 3B experience might even come along with this group of players. Once these players gain professional experience at SS, their teams are likely to move them around to fielding positions at which they are inexperienced. In my 2012 survey, those shifting players based around a middle infield pedigree were moved to new positions much more frequently than corner players (of 73 utility players at the time of that survey, approximately 28 did not have experience at one position before their MLB move, and 7 learned more than one new position in the MLB). My survey of the 2013 season adds 73 more utility types, this time with only 14 moving to positions they did not play in the minors).
In general, the prevalence of SS (or 2B) that play elsewhere should show that if an organization needs to move a player to a new, unfamiliar position, they are more likely to do so with a middle infielder.
(2) Corner Fielding Circuit: It’s rather surprising how thoroughly established the 1B-3B-LF-RF circuit is in professional baseball. While one might not be surprised if a primary 1B, 3B, LF, or RF moved to an easier position on that circuit in their career, there are many MLB players that played several of these positions during their minor league career. In May 2012, I found that of 28 corner players, eight players did not have 1B or OF experience, while another player did not have 3B experience. My 2013 survey adds 43 more corner-types, with only six that did not play one of their positions in the minors. In fact, at least 22 of those players gained minors experience at 1B and and OF position, and 10 played at all four corner positions on the farm.
The Brewers’ Juan Francisco is included in this group of 10 career 1B-3B-LF-RF players, which should provide another argument for keeping him in the organization; he basically has a few different roles into which his power potential can fit.
(3) Catchers: According to some arguments, catching is not a position that is even included on the defensive spectrum. Due to the nature of the position, including its physical and mental demands, catchers cannot be judged in the same way as other players. Not surprisingly, in 2012 I found one of 11 catchers did not have previous experience at their new fielding position. In 2013, six of 21 catchers did not have previous experience at their new position. Of course, Jonathan Lucroy is included among these six catchers, as the Brewers used some 1B chances to rest Lucroy and fit his bat into their emergency/replacement 1B situation in 2013.
Ultimately, although fans might like to think that fielding positions can be learned by players, or that players work at fielding positions due to a system of merit, players’ fielding positions are largely determined by their previous professional pedigree. This is an important aspect of roster building — even the “easiest” fielding positions on the diamond are not necessarily easy for any given fielder to learn (as evidenced by the 2013 Brewers’ replacement issues at 1B). The idea that just any SS, 2B, or 3B can be shifted around the diamond does not suit the reality of how MLB general managers or organizations train their fielders (save for the St. Louis Cardinals).
This deterministic pattern of moving players around the diamond raises interesting questions about how the Brewers have handled first base over the last year and a half. While one might argue that defensive determinism does not justify over-paying for players like Corey Hart, it does lead one to wonder if the Brewers could have focused on lower-priced replacements with 1B experience. In this case, Sean Halton and Francisco do not present a bad case for 1B on a middle-of-the-road club; but, are there low-priced 1B options that the Brewers could use without sacrificing their future?
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Disciples of Uecker. “Around the Diamond and Back.” May 8, 2012.