Can The Cubs Break Baseball WAR With A Bunch Of Shortstops?
Few would argue shortstop as the hardest defensive position to play without wearing the tools of ignorance. In the past day or two, baseball WAR has been a popular topic of discussion on Twitter, fueling another piece on the subject Tuesday. In the comments section, a reader challenged the idea of Andrelton Simmons being much better than Jason Heyward in right field just because he’s a shortstop. But for me, it’s not about what other positions a shortstop can play, it’s about the positions other players can’t. In the coming years, the Cubs have a chance to turn baseball WAR on its head by shifting a glut of up the middle players to other positions, causing a number of young players to slide down the defensive spectrum. The statistical fall out will be fun to watch.
Before breaking it down, here’s a personal list of defensive positions in order of difficulty to play. Catcher is on an island because of the rigors and nuances associated with the position, but keep in mind catchers can and do moonlight at other defensive positions. Second base and third base can also be argued since the hot corner receives an edge due to arm strength, but requires less athleticism than the second base position. Finally, first base ranks ahead of either corner outfield spot because he has the ability to play great defense and save lesser defenders at other positions by scooping bad throws. Admittedly, the level of arm strength and athleticism needed in right field is greater than at first base, so it’s another close call.
[C] – SS – CF – 2B – 3B – 1B – RF – LF
In the working world, many of us have heard the term, “the poop runs downhill”, albeit with a different word than poop. It’s a great explanation for baseball defense too. Shortstops sit at the top of the mountain and left fielders own the pooper scoopers. And while shortstops have the athleticism and throwing arm to slide down the defensive spectrum with ease, left fielders have little-to-no upward mobility due to being slower and less mobile. Baseball WAR attempts to rectify this with a positional adjustment, but how does one adjust for Adam Dunn at shortstop? If the answer is 15 runs, or one run every 10-plus games, then it’s time for me to rethink baseball.
Testing the other end of this theory will be the Chicago Cubs. With Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Arismendy Alcantara, Chicago has a quartet of current and former shortstops and one shortstop position on the field. Castro is the current starter and has been in the positive on defense since 2012. Regardless, Addison Russell is considered a strong defender at shortstop and may force Castro to second base. If this happened, Javier Baez would slide to third base, forcing Kris Bryant to right field or left field. If a move to right is in the cards, Jorge Soler will shift to left. Meanwhile, Alcantara, the former shortstop mans center field. With baseball WAR dependent on how other defenders at each position are performing, Chicago’s decisions can influence values at five positions on the diamond.
Castro: SS —–> 2B
Baez: SS —–> 3B
Bryant: 3B —–> RF
Soler: RF —–> LF
Alcantara: SS (2013) —–> CF
Admittedly, Alcanatara moved off of shortstop for Baez already, so one can argue him as a second baseman turned center fielder. Defensively, his being much better on the infield points to his moving back up the defensive scale and working to adjust. However, he’s still a positive defender at dual positions which supports the sliding scale in both directions.
Is it possible the Cubs will be loaded with players who accumulate impressive baseball WAR totals buoyed by strong defense, yet win 75 games? Better yet, is shifting players capable of succeeding at more difficult positions going to bring down the respective values of defensive darlings like Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon?
Baseball WAR: Defensive Value Comes From Tools & Skills
Ultimately, defensive ability comes from two things: tools and experience/skill at the position. Should the Cubs decide to spread this group of talented athletes around the diamond, it’s only a matter of time before each becomes a plus defender at his new position as experience catches up. MLB fans with a lesser understanding of a team’s minor league system often forget rookies (even struggling ones) have already navigated through the minefield of minor league baseball, leaving hundreds of lesser players in their wake.
From signing a professional contract to reaching MLB is a long haul. The vast majority of shortstops out of the high school, college, or international free agent ranks move off of the position because physical limitations force an organization’s hand. Exceptions happen (Bryce Harper to right field after playing catcher because of a prodigious bat), but general scarcity forces teams to leverage every asset to the fullest on offense and defense.
The Cubs are in a unique position due to a wealth of shortstop riches. When a Twitter conversation yielded the reply, “I guess our only choice is to throw Simmons/Cozart in RF for three years and measure”, the wheels began spinning and stopped on Chicago. Admittedly, moving a handful of players to lesser defensive positions does lower the perceived trade value of each player. But if Theo Epstein and company plan to stand pat and develop the kids, then it really doesn’t matter.
With starting pitching being the Cubs’ Achilles Heel moving forward, it makes sense to build a lights out bullpen to shorten games while stacking the proverbial deck on defense. Here’s to hoping Wrigley Field becomes the petri dish for baseball WAR in the coming years.
11 Sep 2014 / Mike Newman / 4
Categories: MLB Analysis
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