Monday, June 27, 2011

Moving Jose Bautista to 3B Makes Sense

Let us start with the obvious. Jose Bautista is the best hitter on the Blue Jays. Is he really the best hitter in the American League, as he has been so far this year? That's open for debate - it was only a couple years ago that Bautista wasn't yet good, and Miguel Cabrera still exists. However, in 2011, Bautista leads the AL in walks and home runs, enabling an amazing .325/.468/.655 stat line. In exactly 999 plate appearances since the beginning of last year, his stat line of .280/.406/.628 places him among the elite players in the game. Over the same time frame, Josh Hamilton has a similar .343/.397/.604 stat line, in 250 fewer plate appearances.

While Bautista has spent the year coldly annihilating American League pitching, Toronto 3B have been completely anemic:

Jayson Nix 13740.1790.2550.3330.589
Edwin Encarnacion 8710.2070.2410.3410.583
John McDonald 5610.1800.2260.2800.506
Mike McCoy 2300.1500.2610.1500.411
Chris Woodward 400.0000.0000.0000.000
Team Total 30760.1830.2430.3080.552

None of the people who played 3B this year for Toronto have an OPS even as high as Bautista's slugging percentage. If it weren't for the Seattle Mariners, the Blue Jays would have the least production at the position in the league.

So let's answer some questions you might have:

Will moving Bautista hurt his offensive production?
That's hard to imagine - great hitters don't stop being great just because they play a different defensive position. Also, he's not moving to a more physically demanding position, like shortstop or catcher, just a harder one. Looking at his 2009 stats, he did hit for less power while playing 3B, so it is worth keeping an eye on. My worry, though, is that he's playing over his head. If Bautista hits something like .290/.415/.575 in the second half, it may be interpreted as a decline in production and met with calls to move him to his more "comfortable" position, rather being accepted as a more accurate representation of his actual skills.

Also, remember that 3B in general has fewer great hitters than right field - so even if his offense does regress a tad at the position, the difference between Bautista and the average-hitting 3B will be greater than between him and the average-hitting RF.

Isn't Bautista a pretty terrible defensive 3B?
It seems that way, yes - he was never good in Pittsburgh, and it's doubtful he's gotten better. Two things about that though. First, Bautista is a bad defensive right fielder. Second, while Nix and McDonald are acceptable (ok - McDonald is pretty good), Encarnacion is probably even worse than Bautista is. So let's get him out of the picture entirely. The question is really whether Bautista is so much worse defensively than Nix and McDonald that it would cancel out the amazing increase in production. Let's pretend that Nix and McDonald are at replacement level when we combine their offense and defense. Bautista's offense has been over 11 wins more than a replacement level right fielder since the start of 2010, a higher standard than a replacement level third baseman. Since that's about a year and a half, call it 7.5 per year. In the last four years, zero 3B have been more than 2 wins below replacement for the course of the season. Chipper Jones, a pretty notorious 3B, was -1.3 dWAR in his worst season. That means Bautista would have to be almost four times as bad at 3B than the next worst - even if that were possible, if he were anything close to that, they'd pull the plug on the experiment long before we got to that point. So even if he's the worst defensive 3B in baseball, his total production makes him a huge upgrade anyway.

Isn't moving Bautista just moving the problem around rather than fixing it?
The average 3B in the AL hits only .239/.310/.378 while the average RF hits .264/.340/.425. The reason for this is that there are more people out there who can play RF acceptably than can play 3B. The Jays think they have RF who are at least capable of outproducing they guys they've used at 3B, which means rather than moving the problem, they'd be creating an opportunity.

At first glance, it looks like they have more than enough talent on hand to meet that unambitious goal. The candidates:
-Juan Rivera is hitting .253/.317/.378 this year - slightly below his career numbers, particularly in the power department, but not far from what would be expected of a 32 year old given Rivera's production at his peak.
-Travis Snider, a constant source of frustration among Jay fans, hit a paltry .184/.276/.264 to start the year, earning him a trip to AAA Las Vegas. However, he is still only 23, and has a career .246/.313/.423 line in the majors, as well as .324/.396/.468 since returning to the minors. Even considering how good a place Vegas is to hit (no double meaning intended), it's hard to imagine that's a complete fluke. Snider would be a significant upgrade over Nix/McDonald/Encarnacion offensively.
-Adam Loewen - yes, the former pitching prospect for the Orioles what seems like forever ago. Loewen has hit .314/.376/.564 in AAA in his attempt to become the new Rick Ankiel. 43 extra base hits in 312 plate appearances can't be ignored, but the 78 strikeouts give pause.
-Eric Thames (no relation to Marcus) is hitting .352/.423/.610 in his first attempt at AAA, after an impressive .288/.370/.526 in the more pitcher-friendly New Hampshire ballpark last year. He's a little old for a prospect at 24, but the production seems real. In 52 PA, mostly coming while Adam Lind was on the DL, he went .298/.365/.426, and he was recalled again on Friday.
-David Cooper, Toronto's first round pick in the 2008 draft, had generally disappointed in the minors up until this year when he arrived in Las Vegas, where he has a line of .371/.435/.576. Accentuating his line is his league-leading 29 doubles. Cooper spent a couple weeks with the major league club earlier this year, hitting .121/.244/.242. The fact that this is the first year Cooper has really hit, and the fact that he didn't produce in a short big league trial, may be two strikes against him. However, Cooper's status as a #1 pick and his impressive 28/20 walk to strikeout ratio may push him to the front.

I wouldn't go out and proclaim any of these players a budding superstar, but I feel confident that each of them could produce above a .600 OPS with acceptable defense, with an upside quite a bit higher than that. With the Blue Jays fading out of the race in the American League, it seems sensible to see both whether Bautista can handle being an everyday 3B while remaining productive and, if so, who among the cast of potential right fielders will move himself to the top of the list.

Photo credit: Keith Allison

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