GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Right before the start of spring training, Cincinnati prospect Nick Senzel received a phone call at his home in Knoxville, Tenn. It was from Reds headquarters. The club had a question for its top rookie-eligible player: could he handle shortstop?
“I said, ‘Yeah,’” Senzel told FanGraphs recently in Arizona. “And they got me there now.”
Even before taking the call, the No. 2 pick of the 2016 June draft was taking ground balls at third, second, and shortstop — and even fly balls in the outfield — on the playing surface of Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the baseball home of his alma mater, the University of Tennessee. A third baseman in college, Senzel wanted to make himself as versatile as possible entering this season.
It was prescient planning, as the Reds have since begun one of the great experiments of the spring.
As players advance through professional baseball, as they age at the major-league level, they typically move down the defensive spectrum. What is so interesting about Senzel playing shortstop, even if it’s short-lived, is that it represntns a case of a player moving up the spectrum.
There is an argument to be made that more teams should be identifying players who can move to more challenging positions. Why? Because over the last decade, about 20% of defensive opportunities — as in batted balls in play — have evaporated. In this three-true-outcomes environment, it’s easier to hide a bat, to trade some glove for bat, when the ball is less of a threat to reach the field of play.
There were 60,249 “plays” by defenders in 2007, according to FanGraphs data. Last season, there were just 49,809 — or roughly 10,000 fewer.
Consider opportunity trends by position:
It’s not just Senzel. Paul DeJong, who appeared at a variety of positions during his junior campaign at Illinois State, received over half the Cardinals’ starts at shortstop last season. Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis were deployed in center at times in 2017, aided by a staff that recorded the highest strikeout rate of all time. Dee Gordon is transitioning to center field in Seattle.
Could it work? Could teams benefit from more aggressive defensive assignments? Could it be the next big thing? Or at least a little thing at no cost to clubs ever in search of efficiency and hidden value?
Senzel believes he can stick at short and has ambitions to make the team as the club’s starter out of spring training, although the realities of how clubs manipulate service time make that all but impossible. Still, Senzel reported early to camp. He’s worked with Barry Larkin. He’s participated every day in a particular drill where rubber balls are thrown off a wall, forcing Senzel to quickly reset his feet and transfer the ball into throwing positions.
“I think I can do it,” Senzel said of playing shortstop. “I think people make too big a deal [about position labels]. Go throw him out there, man. We are athletes. If you feel like you can play, go out there and show what you can do. You will know if you can’t.”
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) March 11, 2018
While Senzel’s bat could help at a number of positions, the Reds have focused Senzel’s work on the left said of the infield. And with Eugenio Suarez entering his age-26 season and having just authored a 26-homer, four-win season at third base, shortstop is the more viable left-side opening.
“Early in the offseason, it was a lot of different positions, but mainly, now, it is third base and short with the priority on short,” Senzel said. “Just ongoing communication with [Reds GM] Dick [Williams] and [Reds manager] Bryan Price… The main thing is simplifying it. They don’t want me hopping around, and I don’t necessarily want to be hopping around, you know, playing a different position every time I’m out there. We’ve just stuck with third and short. And as I get more comfort at short, I’ve noticed it’s been easier to transition back to third because I feel lighter on my feet. Hands are working good. It’s just kind of an easier transition.”
Reds incumbent shortstop Jose Peraza’s bat and baserunning were 22 runs less than average last season, and his glove was also below average for a shortstop according to DRS (-6) and UZR/150 (-8.7) measures. Moreover, with fewer balls in play, the positional adjustments in WAR formulas might also need to be updated.
Given that Peraza has a career 75 wRC+, given that the Reds ranked in the middle of the pack in strikeouts and have room for growth with a full season from Luis Castillo, Senzel-to-short, in this environment, might have staying power.
How difficult is it to change positions on relatively short notice? To move up the spectrum when the lights are on? To learn more about those who have experienced this firsthand, I traveled to visit the Reds’ spring training neighbor in Arizona, the Cleveland Indians.
Last season, largely out of necessity, the Indians stuck Chisenhall in center field in April. Chisenhall had recorded all of eight innings of experience at the position. Later in the season, after Bradley Zimmer broke his hand, the club placed Kipnis in center. Kipnis had last regularly played the position at Arizona State, and not at all since Rookie ball.
How did they fare?
Chisenhall played 164 innings in center field, where he produced 0 DRS but a -16.8 UZR/150. There were some tough moments, but he also lacked an offseason to prepare.
“I was OK,” Chisenhall told FanGraphs. “You just need to catch a ball [to become comfortable]. From my memory, I think I misplayed one or two balls. If you’re an outfielder, you are shagging in center, left, right. Left is most difficult just because of spin, handling the ball from righties… I wasn’t Zimmer out there, but you try to use instincts and try to be crafty.”
Kipnis produced -3 DRS and -6.8 UZR/150 in 71 innings, but he had this moment in the ALDS:
Both players seemed open to the idea of more radical defensive strategies, including the prospect of players moving up the defensive spectrum, in the future.
Teams are becoming more creative. For instance, the Phillies are experimenting with swapping corner outfielders in response to a specific opponent’s batted-ball tendencies. Mike Hattery wrote a fascinating piece for The Hardball Times in November about the future of platooning and defensive versatility if current batted-ball trends continue.
Kipnis notes it is easier to move out to the outfield than to shift to the infield because of the reaction times. A defender cannot have a misstep, generally, in the infield. He also said that transitioning from position to position, moving up the spectrum, is made easier with modern scouting and defensive-alignment data.
Chisenhall and Kipnis, the part-time 2017 center fielders and spring clubhouse neighbors, are aware and appreciate that defensive flexibility is only going to become more important as the game becomes more specialized and bloated bullpens stretch rosters.
“You see teams using more platoons, defensive replacements late in games,” Kipnis said. “You put in the offensive guy early, you get the lead… and he comes out for a better defensive player. It’s kind of the reverse of having a pinch-hitter come in late, basically.
“The game dictates. Players who are skilled in one area, who have a defined skill, like this guy has a defensive glove that we can put in late — you have to be above average or special [in an area] to get on the field. If you are just average, you are not going to find it.”
Chisenhall has transitioned from a college shortstop at South Carolina, to a third baseman early in his professional career, then to right field at the major-league level. He had kept sliding down the defensive spectrum — until April of last season.
“Power is easier to find,” Chisenhall said. “Guys who are athletic and can move around, that’s a huge asset. Kip moving to center, he’s been up the middle, it’s instinctual. You are using your athleticism. I think Dee Gordon is doing it.”
He is, and maybe others will soon follow Gordon to up-the-middle defensive versatility.
In Milwaukee camp — about 10 miles to the east of the Reds and Indians in Maryvale, Ariz. — the club has five outfielders and three spots after signing Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich. Their next most valuable outfielder is 25-year-old Domingo Santana, coming off a 3.3 WAR season and 30 homers. Given the glut of options, veteran Ryan Braun was sent to first base last week with his outfield glove still on his left hand. (His first-base glove still needs to be broken in.)
He provided his impressions of the experience to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
“I felt OK,” Braun said. “I used my outfield glove just because it felt most comfortable. There was no strategic advantage; I just don’t have my own first base glove broken in so the outfield glove felt more comfortable.”
That Braun has a new glove is telling of a search for increased versatility, of another spring experiment. Perhaps more and more players will require more and more gloves. Is the attempt to move Braun yet another example of a team exhibiting less concern about defensive ability in today’s batted-ball environment?
Brewers manager Craig Counsell acknowledged his awareness of those same batted-balls trends.
“You start looking at that, the ball being hit less, the positions the ball is being hit less to,” Counsell told FanGraphs. “I think at this point, we are still valuing defense and seeing what the difference is. I think it’s something we’re aware of that the ball is being put in play less.
“My thought is, if we go the other way [away from defense], and the game starts going the other way, then you are stuck a little bit, too. I don’t know that strikeouts will continue to go up, because I think players will adjust.”
Perhaps. That said, there’s been no evidence of the strikeout trend slowing. As Jeff Sullivan recently noted, even fewer balls are being put in play this spring. There’s perhaps never been a better time to trade gloves for bats.