Often we at this end of the business discuss positions like they’re given, trying to second-guess and come up with the preferable lineup. I was recently struck by how little most of us on the outside know on the topic. I spend a great deal of time studying development issues, the why and how shortstop Gary Sheffield wound up in right field. Sometimes it’s organizational need; other times it’s growth and development. Yet despite the countless hours spent in research and the decades watching the game I miss.
In a recent Reds dissection I pontificated on Adam Dunn and his lacking as a left fielder, making the leap to Dunn as the first sacker and Triple-A Chris Denorfia coming up and playing the outfield. But a very knowledgeable person that knows the team well has just taken me to task. He makes the point that Dunn cannot adequately play the position. We tend to oversimplify the offense-only player by assuming he plays first when no other position is available for his deficiencies. But is this correct?
And the answer is no. Miscues and deficiencies are more visible in the outfield but are actually more lethal at first base. After all, which position is more involved in the defense? I find it curious that we as a group make this one common assumption when it goes against the grain of our Little League experience. Think about that – was the last kid picked on the schoolyard put at first or sent to left field, the wasteland pre-teen ball? It’s true the first base position requires less speed making the spot ideally suited to the big man; particularly those very tall like Dunn at 6-foot-6. But that doesn’t automatically make him capable of positioning, reacting or bless him with the footwork necessary to excel as a major leaguer at the position. In fact, he’s right handed and southpaws tend to move to their right better, throw to the second base double play with greater ease and make a longer target to the right, one of the few positions that skews to the glove on the right hand. In this case I made an erroneous assumption — at least according to one expert whom I believe – one that is common place but not any more forgivable.
Will Carroll produced an exercise on The Juice where he took a list of Gold Glove players, one at each position, and asked they each be reassigned to a different position to form the optimal defensive alignment. A majority of those that responded chose Greg Maddux to be reassigned to second base. I found this astonishing given it’s my contention that the second sack is the one position that is unique in the type of athlete that excels defensively and it has the lowest mortality age with only a couple over the age of 35 currently playing the position regularly. I used to play the position pre-teen as a southpaw, at a time when the double play was an anomaly, forced to move to centerfield later (a short, light-hitting centerfielder that had a predictably short tenure retiring to the gridiron as a running back in high school). Now 40ish, I couldn’t make a pivot without tearing up an abdominal muscle yet many believe the position requires a glove as a post ala Maddux.
As a fact it’s a position that has the shortest player averaging less than 5-11. Of the major league sample only three were over six foot, Mark Grudzelanek, Jeff Kent and Chase Utley, all 6-1 and known for their offense and considered limited defensively. In development there are few moves to second base from any other position except shortstop and the general rule of thumb for a failed defensive second sacker is a shift to the outfield, often to centerfield.
In prospecting it’s the most difficult position to project, with many of the top shortstops moving to second base by the time they reach the majors. It has been terribly predicted for decades with the highest failure rate, mainly due I believe to the notion it skews to the smaller man defensively, and prospecting is 75 percent offense oriented. In fact, I’ve taken to ignoring the low minor second baseman — who routinely fail at the higher levels –- for my prospect list, instead looking at indicators from Double-A and above expecting the rare top prospect that is too good to pass on ala Rickie Weeks and Josh Barfield.
All in all the most under analyzed, under predicted and underappreciated position in baseball.