Yesterday, we looked at position adjustments and the interesting relationship between second baseman and third baseman. Despite 2B being considered a premium defensive position, there’s little evidence that the players who occupy the second base position are actually better defenders than the guys who play third base. Both groups come from the failed SS pile of players, but there’s one big difference – the guys who end at third base can hit a lot better than the guys who end up at second base. Why?
My theory – body type, especially height. The tallest listed players in MLB who are playing either SS or 2B are Hanley Ramirez and Alexei Ramirez, who both stand at 6’3, but could be described as wiry thin. With Alexei moving to SS for 2009, the tallest listed major league second baseman will be Jose Lopez, who claims to be 6’2, but I call total B.S. on. In reality, the real tallest second baseman is probably one of Mark Grudzielanek or Chase Utley, both of whom stand 6’1. The average second baseman is 5’11.
On the other hand, the average height of third baseman in 2008 was 6’1. Troy Glaus is 6’5. Mike Lowell and Scott Rolen are 6’4. The only 3B who stand less than 6’0 are Adrian Beltre, Melvin Mora, and Chone Figgins, and Mora and Figgins both have moved around the diamond quite a bit.
It seems apparent that when teams are sorting out where players who been deemed not good enough to handle SS should go, the overriding determining factor is body type, and specifically height. Tall players simply don’t go to second base, and short guys don’t go to third base regardless of their actual defensive abilities.
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the results of a few players based on Tom Tango’s Fans Scouting Report.
Player A: 86 instincts, 72 first step, 61 speed, 87 hands, 90 release, 41 strength, 75 accuracy
Player B: 91 instincts, 82 first step, 61 speed, 90 hands, 96 release, 55 strength, 92 accuracy
I think most people would agree that first step and instincts would be more important at third base (along with arm strength, naturally) while speed and hands would be more important at second base. Based on the above, Player B would seem to be a better fit for 3B, skills wise, if a team was trying to decide which positions these two should play.
Player A is Eric Chavez, and Player B is Mark Ellis. Both are considered terrific defensive players, and helpfully for this discussion, both are teammates, so their ratings came from the same pool of fans, and their organization has already had to make the position assignments with both players on the roster. Chavez, listed at 6’1/217, ended up at third base, while Ellis (5’11/190) was placed at second base.
A’s fans think they have almost identical skills. Why did Chavez end at third and Ellis at second? Body type. Ellis is small, Chavez is big. Chavez fits the profile of a third baseman offensively, while Ellis does not. It seems entirely likely that if Ellis was a few inches taller and could hit better, while Chavez was a few inches shorter and had a bit less power, the two would flip positions, even if they had the exact same defensive skills they do now.
We could go on and look at other examples – does anyone really think Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen, Evan Longoria, or Ryan Zimmerman couldn’t play a quality shortstop or second base if asked to? Why were they moved to third base, anyway? Do we have a good answer for this besides “they look and hit like third baseman”?
I don’t think so. To me, it appears that players are separated into 3B and 2B based on things that have little to do with their actual skills, and more about a proxy for what kind of package those skills come in. Perhaps there’s a competitive advantage here for a team that’s willing to take a 6’3 or 6’4 plus defender and shift them to second base instead of third base.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.