The Challenge of Stephen Drew Changing Positions

I think it’s safe to say Stephen Drew’s in a pretty weird position. He’s a free agent, and he’s 30, so he’s not super old. He spent last year playing with the eventual MLB champion. By our numbers he was worth 3.4 wins, and he was worth 3.4 wins in 124 games, as a team’s regular shortstop. It’s easy to make a case that Drew ought to be highly desirable, but here he is, available at the end of January, and no one seems to want to give him more than two years. If reports are to be believed, Drew’s got himself a pretty weak market.

And more than that, increasingly there are rumors that Drew would be willing to play other positions. That is, Drew would be willing to not play a premium up-the-middle position, to make himself more marketable. According to Peter Gammons, a year ago Drew wasn’t quite so flexible. This could be interpreted as a sign of desperation, as teams just aren’t really looking for shortstops anymore. Desperation or not, if the rumors are true, Drew starts to look a little different. But what could be expected if Drew were to shift to second or third base?

You think about the Yankees. The Yankees have Derek Jeter at short, but nothing sexy at second or third, and it couldn’t hurt to have more depth behind Jeter than Brendan Ryan since Jeter might not actually be good. You think about the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have Jose Reyes at short and Brett Lawrie at third, but a total cluster-platoon at second, and the Jays would like very much to contend. You can see how it could help Drew to market himself as an infielder, instead of just as a shortstop.

You’re familiar with the positional adjustments that are built into the WAR formula. For these purposes, the positional adjustments can tell us a simple thing: if Drew were to change positions, his new infield position would have a lower positional value. However, he would also be better defensively, relative to his new peers, and that improvement would basically cancel out the reduced value of his position. The idea would be that Drew as a second or third baseman would be Drew as a shortstop, with a higher UZR and a similar overall Defense rating. The idea would be that the transition would be pretty simple, and Drew wouldn’t end up any less valuable.

Another approach here is to take a look at the results of the Fan Scouting Report. Below, a table, comparing Stephen Drew to 2013 big-league shortstops, second basemen, and third basemen. Shown are Drew’s career ratings, because the sample is bigger and because his career ratings aren’t meaningfully different from his 2013 ratings. You can quibble with the methodology all you want but we might as well explore what the numbers suggest.

Pool Instincts First Step Speed Hands Release Arm Strength Arm Accuracy Overall
Drew 64 63 59 66 70 60 69 64
SS 60 61 59 58 59 60 57 59
2B 55 55 53 53 54 46 56 53
3B 55 50 46 54 54 56 53 53

The fans who submitted ballots find Drew to be a slightly above-average defensive shortstop. That also would make him a well-above-average defensive second or third baseman. There’s no category in which he rates below average, compared to any position. He has a big edge in Hands, Release, and Arm Accuracy. What you get from this is that Drew seems to have all the tools. And why wouldn’t he? He’s been trusted as a shortstop, and being a shortstop is really hard.

But something we also have is history. Not Stephen Drew’s history — Drew’s only ever played shortstop — but a history of other guys who’ve played short and moved. I’ll tell you right now this isn’t extensive. Still, I looked for guys who played at least 1,000 innings at short in a year between 2002-2012. Then, out of those guys, I looked for guys who played at least 500 innings at a different position the next year. I was left with a sample of all of 10 players, since ordinarily, if you can still play short almost every day, you stay there. Three players moved to second base, six players moved to third base, and one player moved to center field. Here are those players:

For each player, I calculated Def per 1,000 innings. The year before moving, these players averaged 6.0 Def/1000. The year after moving, they averaged 0.5 Def/1000. Their UZR/1000 dropped by a little over two runs, despite generally shifting to easier spots. As for the shortstops who remained shortstops, year-to-year their average Def/1000 was stable, nudging from 5.9 to 6.0. Their UZR/1000 changed from 0.8 to 0.9. Based on a very small sample, there’s reason to believe the position switches cost some value.

Eight of ten players lost about four or more runs by Def/1000. Tejada and Guillen stayed the same. No one really made an improvement, which is something you’d probably expect, since these players were selected for position switches. Maybe they were perceived to be declining. It is, again, a small sample, a far smaller sample than I’m usually comfortable with, but I think this could also be pretty easy to explain.

If you’re a shortstop, you have the tools to play elsewhere, especially if you’re talking about second or third base. This is why shortstop is so far to the left on the defensive spectrum. But defense is about both tools and familiarity, and there’s going to be an adjustment period when you’re learning new ideas and responsibilities. So much of playing a position well is reps, in order to brand certain things into the muscle memory. You can accumulate reps only so fast, and in the initial stages, there could and should be a higher probability of making a mistake. It’s only over time that what’s learned can start to feel like instinct.

Manny Machado, obviously, had little trouble moving over to third, and last year he was perhaps the best defensive player in all of baseball. Yet the numbers say he was much better in 2013 than he was in 2012, even though in 2012 he was statistically outstanding. Perhaps Machado, too, had to overcome an initial adjustment period. It would be a weird thing if he didn’t.

So while Drew might be open to playing other positions, and while there’s certain value in flexibility, Drew also might struggle at another position, particularly at first. As a second or third baseman, he might be a half-win less valuable, and as much as that feels like it could be noise, it’s also valued at some millions of dollars. Given enough repetitions, Drew could presumably make himself pretty good almost anywhere. That would matter for August and September and 2015 and 2016. Yet the short term also matters for potential suitors, and in the short term, Stephen Drew is a shortstop with an open mind.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

I think you might be missing an age effect. By definition, players are going to be older the year after a position switch than they were the year before, and that might be having and effect on their average defensive ratings.

I also think it’s unfair to consider a IF-OF switch, as there are solid reasons to believe that it is not comparable to an IF-IF switch, and Drew is not going to be playing any OF no matter where he goes.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Could there be some selection bias (i.e., the players that moved were moved because they were no longer serviceable at short, or poor defenders in general) at play here?