There’s a good argument to be made that second base is one of the worst positions in baseball history, in terms of value. On the defensive spectrum, the positions in the middle of the diamond are traditionally valued due to their relative difficulty compared to third base, first base, and left and right field. However, in terms of defensive value, second base is arguably not as difficult (or, perhaps, as important) as shortstop, centerfield, and catcher, for various reasons. Naturally, the second baseman must be able to perform some very specific duties on the infield — especially concerning double plays — but, similarly, the centerfielder typically covers the most ground in the outfield, the catcher calls the game (or relays managers’ calls), and the shortstop runs the defense (usually relaying signals positioning other fielders, or even signaling pitches for the outfielders, in some cases). At the very least, one can note that second base is in some peculiar position: valuable enough to be included with the middle-diamond positions, but perhaps the least significant of those positions.
In terms of offensive production, second base has been one of the least productive positions of the last fifty years, in both the American and National Leagues (but, especially the American League). While the position was once less important defensively (Bill James makes a strong historical argument about the defensive shift at second base, for instance, noting that the defensive requirements for someone like Rogers Hornsby were different than contemporary second basemen), that relative lack of defensive importance has not carried over into offensive strength; rather, for most of the last 50 years, there is little to no suggestion in the offensive production at 2B that managers “hide” bats there (like they might hide bats at 1B, LF, etc.).
Meanwhile, when offensive value declines at second base, defensive production does not necessarily increase. There is not a necessary correspondence between defensive improvements and offensive declines at the position over the last fifty years. While we might note general trends, that Range Factor / per Game was higher during the deadball / contact-oriented eras of the 1960s and 1970s, and that lower range factors corresponded to the 1980s offensive boom at second base in the NL, there is not a corresponding relationship, where, for each decline in production there is an increase in defensive performance.
If one were to spend even a day following the Milwaukee Brewers and their fans during the 2013 season, one would get the idea that Rickie Weeks poses some grand problem to the club. No matter how narrow the topical scope, no matter the winning or losing streak, no matter the runs scored, no matter the weather, the issue inevitably jumps at everyone: what can the Brewers do to improve second base? What do the Brewers do with Weeks?
In this post, I want to take that question from an extremely wide focus. I want to place the question about what the Brewers should do to address Weeks’s performance in the context of what the Brewers can accomplish at second base. In this case, we can look at Weeks’s place in the organization, as well as the development of 2B within the National League. For, I believe that there are any number of labor and development issues associated with the Weeks issue: (a) Weeks has a contract with a 2015 option that vests after a certain number of PA between 2013-2014, or a healthy 2014 and full slate of PA; (b) Scooter Gennett is still developing his glove and bat in the minors; (c) the Brewers’ other infield replacements are spread around the diamond at the moment.
If ever there were a slump with a perfect storm of issues keeping the slumping player on the field, this was it — one wonders the extent to which Weeks’s service to the Brewers organization and contract options keep him on the field, just as one wonders whether rushing Gennett to the majors to rep[lace Weeks would truncate his development at second. Add in other injuries, and Weeks is literally a player without replacement — forcing other roster movement (exposing other players to waivers, or sending other players to the minors) to get Gennett to the majors, for instance, would be short-sighted, given that Gennett himself is developing his glove and might not yet be an MLB-caliber starting second baseman. In a way, forcing Gennett to replace Weeks forces undesirable roster moves, as well as forcing the question of whether Gennett can cut it in the big leagues. It is not worth replacing Weeks by forcing the issue with Gennett, so that leaves us biding time until the other infield replacements (Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt) are freed from third base and/or first base.
1982-1991 NL: .695 league, .701 second base (4.54 RF/G)
2002-2011 NL: .742 league, .742 second base (4.23 RF/G)
1992-2001 NL: .742 league, .732 second base (4.37 RF/G)
2002-2011 AL: .756 league, .732 second base (4.40 RF/G)
1972-1981 NL: .695 league, .666 second base (4.72 RF/G)
1962-1971 NL: .686 league, .652 second base (4.69 RF/G)
1962-1971 AL: .688 league, .651 second base (4.55 RF/G)
1992-2001 AL: .768 league, .732 second base (4.39 RF/G)
1972-1981 AL: .706 league, .666 second base (4.74 RF/G)
1982-1991 AL: .727 league, .685 second base (4.51 RF/G)
In 51 seasons from 1962-2012, National League second basemen produced nine seasons worth of OPS that were average, or just slightly below the average OPS (within .004 to .007, usually); they produced 15 above average seasons. That leaves 27 seasons notably below the NL average OPS. Meanwhile, in the American League, second basemen produced five below average seasons that came within .001 to .007 points of the league OPS; every other season at second base was notably below average.
Significantly, the above average seasons by NL 2B were not isolated, but mostly occurred in stretches of consecutive years: 1985-1992, 2000, 2003-2005, and 2007-2009. After the 2009 season, NL second basemen were average or slightly worse, but still within shouting distance of league production.
One might hypothesize that the American League 2B are so much worse because AL teams can spend their resources on the Designated Hitter. The story would go, “since AL teams can spend money to add another strong bat without fielding obligations, they can look for defense-first from their 2B.” That’s true for 27 of 51 seasons, from 1962-2012; AL 2B produced stronger Range Factor (per Game) than NL 2B 27 times over that time period. However, twelve of those stronger Range Factor seasons occurred when both positions were notably below average. Furthermore, during either their above average seasons or near-average seasons, the NL 2B produced better Range Factors than the AL 2B, and it should be noted that some of the AL 2B Range Factors that are better are not better by much. So, it would be hasty to make some kind of general rule that says, “when the AL 2B posted below average seasons, they were more defensively minded than NL 2B.” It could just be, in many cases, that the NL had better 2B, all-around, than the AL during several historical stretches.
2013: Beginning of a New Era:
After a stretch of 15 above average or near-average seasons from 1985-2012, second base production by the Senior Circuit plummeted to start 2013. This production is even lower than the AL 2B, who are in the middle of a streak of four consecutive below average seasons. If you think that Weeks’s slump is bringing down 2B in general, think again. Of the NL 2B with 10 or more games, here is a list of the players that are average or worse:
Neil Walker: .253/.352/.342
Alberto Gonzalez: .217/.269/.391
Alexi Amarista: .250/.291/.365
Dan Uggla: .177/.301/.342
Jedd Gyorko: .236/.303/.303
Josh Wilson: .231/.286/.346
Josh Rutledge: .211/.280/.333
Darwin Barney: .200/.265/.333
Danny Espinosa: .182/.222/.351
Donovan Solano: .253/.320/.275
Marco Scutaro: .237/.286/.299
Rickie Weeks: .167/.272/.252
Daniel Descalso: .154/.200/.212
Notably, this list includes some strong players, or players that one would expect to be better (like Weeks). Certainly, Neil Walker‘s performance is average thus far, but one would even expect him to produce better than a .694 OPS. The same goes for Dan Uggla, Danny Espinosa, and even Marco Scutaro and Daniel Descalso, among others.
One could argue that, given second basemen such as Darwin Barney, this list shows that NL General Managers are leaning toward defense once again. But, this isn’t the case; at least eight of the players on that list are below average defensively at second base. One might have a better argument that the league is simply entering a downturn for second base production. Historically, the position has been bad, and the upturn from 1985-2012 might not have been a sign of things to come; it could have been a rather lucky or uncharacteristic stretch of player development.
Allowing Gennett to develop into a strong glove at second base could be more important for the Brewers organization, given the sudden downturn at 2B. While the position is not necessarily a defensive strength for the NL, looking toward defense-first at a position that lacks offensive production could allow the Brewers to maximize positional value without spending big on a bat (think Darwin Barney, again: strong defense, passable offense if the downturn continues). Given this historical turn, and potentially below average offensive future at 2B for the NL, allowing Gennett to iron out his glove in the minors could be one of the most important tasks for the Brewers.
One of the most interesting aspects of this potential downward turn for the NL 2B is Rickie Weeks’s legacy at the position. While NL second basemen produced an OPS of .742 from 2002-2011, Weeks’s production over that time was .255/.354/.435 in 3338 PA — that’s a notably above average line for a 2B, even adjusting for the strongest seasons in Miller Park over that timeframe. If you’ve ever wondered why the Brewers offered Weeks an extension, and also why the Brewers endure his slumps, it’s because his offensive potential and profile has been above average at 2B. There might be 100 different reasons for his current slump, and there might be 100 different reasons to argue that he will no longer be able to reach the level of 2005-2011 production, but the fact is, Weeks is a veteran with a history of production at 2B, and that undoubtedly influences organizational decision making.
The decision about how to handle Weeks’s slump is bigger than replacement players, and it’s bigger than 2013. If the Brewers handle Gennett properly, and allow him to develop, he could eventually take over for Weeks, giving the Brewers a different look at 2B during a potential downturn for the position. However, so long as the NL 2B continues to produce seasons that are close to the league average, one should expect the Brewers to hang onto every last ounce of Weeks’s production at the position. For, in the middle of such shifts, dancing with the devil you know is almost always an easier organizational decision. The most valuable decision might be more difficult for the organization to make, but given Gennett’s development, that decision might be a year away, anyway.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2012.