Anthony Rendon and the Future of Second Base

After finally giving up on the idea of Danny Espinosa being able to produce while playing with a fractured wrist, the Nationals have promoted top prospect Anthony Rendon to take his place on the roster. And, by doing so, the Nationals are going to become the latest team to join the growing trend of changing the second base profile.

Four years ago, I wrote several posts about the differences between second baseman and third baseman, noting that the main difference between the positions was basically height. Both second baseman and third baseman came from the pool of former shortstops who were deemed to not be good enough defensively for the position, and MLB teams shifted the tall non-shortstops to third base and the short non-shortstops to second base.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but there has unquestionably been a trend towards smaller players playing second and larger players playing third. The data, however, doesn’t suggest that there’s been a huge defensive difference between the two positions, and players who end up spending a decent amount of playing time at both spots don’t end up performing that much worse at one than the other.

At the time, there were a few teams experimenting with bigger second baseman. The Rockies tried both Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker at second base, while the Royals gave Mark Teahen some reps up the middle. None of these experiments were all that successful, in part because these guys weren’t very good players to begin with. At the same time, the Cardinals converted Skip Schumaker — an outfielder up to that point — into a second baseman, and while he was never particularly good there, he did show that the OF-2B conversion could work.

While those experiments weren’t all that successful, MLB teams haven’t stopped converting players into second baseman, and the recent round of attempts has been a lot more successful. In 2010, the Pirates turned their 6-foot-3 third base prospect Neil Walker into a second baseman, and he’s basically been their regular 2B ever since. Since the start of the 2010 season, Walker has hit .279/.343/.426, and while UZR hated his defense in his first season at the position, it’s rated him as just slightly below average ever since.

In 2011, the Mets made the same move with the 6-foot-2 Daniel Murphy, turning a guy who had primarily been a 3B/1B/OF into a more regular second baseman, and last year, Murphy played the position exclusively. Like with Walker, UZR thought Murphy was terrible in his first full season at the position, but reports have been much better this year, and Murphy has been lauded for working hard to become a capable defender at the position.

This year, the Cardinals went for round two of their second base conversion experiment, and this one has worked a lot better than the Skip Schumaker trial. Without a spot for 6-foot-3 Matt Carpenter, they turned their corner spot swiss army knife into a second baseman, and he’s picked up the position so quickly that he’s already established himself as one of the best overall players in the NL at the position.

At just 6-foot, Rendon isn’t part of the trend towards taller second baseman, but like Dustin Ackley, he’s another prospect who is being tried at second base despite a lack of experience there, under the belief that decent athletes can turn themselves into second baseman with practice. While Ackley’s bat got him shipped back to the minor leagues, he actually turned himself into an above average defender at the position in just a few years, even though there was a good amount of skepticism about his ability to make the transition.

Over the last five years or so, MLB teams have been continually pushing the bounds of who can play second base. The days of lumping players into vague categories like “up the middle” or “corner guy” appear to be nearing their end, with teams attempting to build better rosters by taking guys out of the “corner” pool and trying them at second base, a position that has historically lagged in offensive production.

It’s probably not a coincidence that teams are being more accepting of larger second baseman at the same time that strikeout rate is exploding across the sport. As strikeouts go up, the impact of defense goes down, and the penalty for having a worse defender is lessened. That isn’t to say that 2B defense doesn’t matter anymore, but defense at all positions matters less than it did even 10 years ago. Anthony Rendon might not have been able to play second base well enough to stick in a league where the league strikeout rate was 15%, but at 20%, perhaps he crosses the threshold into barely acceptable.

And, as Walker, Murphy, Ackley, and Carpenter have all shown, defensive performance at second base can be improved upon with effort. Each was supposed to be a liability in the field, but both the scouting reports and the defensive metrics support the idea that they’ve become at least passable fielders at the position. Rendon has only played eight games at the position in his professional career, so he’s probably going to make some mistakes early, but with patience, there seems to be some history on his side. That Rendon is probably not a good defensive second baseman right now does not necessarily mean he won’t be one in a year or two.

Of course, there’s one other issue with Rendon specifically, and that is his health. He missed most of last season due to an ankle injury, and his draft stock slipped in 2011 due to questions about time he’d missed due to ankle and shoulder problems during his college career. A major part of second base defense is being able to turn the double play, including turning it with a baserunner barreling into your legs in an effort to break up the throw. The questions over the wisdom of taking a player with a history of lower leg issues and sticking him at the position that has the most lower leg contact are valid. Rendon might not stick as a long term second baseman if his body is not able to hold up to the physical demands of playing the position.

But, with the Nationals in need of some offense and Rendon’s path to the big leagues blocked at the corners, it’s an experiment worth making. If Rendon can avoid injury, there’s enough promise in his offensive potential to make him a valuable second baseman, even with lousy defense. If the defense improves enough in time, Rendon could end up as one of the game’s better overall second baseman.

This one might not work out as well as some of the other recent conversions, and not every third baseman should be moved to the other side of the diamond. However, I do think the data suggests that teams have been too willing to accept an offensive void at second base while ignoring a potential pool of players who could handle the position and provide some real value at the plate as well. Rendon’s conversion is just another step towards the Major Leagues balancing out the talent pool, and it’s probably a step forward for the league as a whole.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

there is a key defensive consideration between the positions overlooked in your post: throwing. the 3rd baseman is usually going to need a stronger arm than a 2nd baseman. it is very possible that the height splits between positions is actually a side effect of taller players tending to have stronger arms.