Friday, June 5, 2015

A Big Gamble

As I sit here in Chicago, desperately hoping that WGN will quit showing this Two and a Half Men and get us to some real baseball, I am a little dumbfounded by Anthony Rendon’s return. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ecstatic that Rendon is back in the lineup, I just can’t believe that Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo are confident sticking him at second base.

The Nationals’ argument in all this is that Escobar is hitting well and is comfortable at third base. Add in the fact that he has not played second base since 2007 with the Braves, and it seems like an obvious choice, or so the team would have you believe. I’m not convinced this decision is so cut and dry.

Granted, Escobar has been a positive asset for the Nationals since coming over in the Tyler Clippard trade. He has been hitting well, putting up numbers that would match his career best years. Too bad his defense at third can’t keep pace with his offense. Based on the eye test, he hasn’t looked terrible. Then again, playing next to Ian Desmond this year would make anyone look good defensively, so the eye test isn’t the end all, be all (Derek Jeter says hello as he watches a groundball go past him up the middle while holding his multiple Gold Gloves). What I see, and what I have to believe the Nationals see too, is someone who can handle balls hit right at him but hasn’t learned how to react to balls hit to his side at the hot corner. Defensive advanced stats are difficult to use in small sample sizes, but there is one set of numbers that could help us out. Inside Edge classifies every ball hit to a defensive position into 6 categories, based on the likelihood that a major league caliber player can make the play. They range from Impossible, which means that the play is literally impossible for a major league player to make, to routine, which means the ball is turned into an out 90-100% of the time. Here is how the numbers shake out for Escobar this year at third:

0.0%     (1)
0.0%      (7)
0.0%      (3)
20.0%     (5)
33.3%      (3)
97.0%    (67)

Sure enough, Escobar can handle the balls hit right at him very well. This shouldn’t be a surprise. He has the arm to make all the throws from third base and he was an adequate defensive shortstop not so long ago. However, the rest of the chart is painful. He has yet to make to a remote play or unlikely play, has rarely made the even plays and struggles to make the likely plays which should be turned into outs at least 60% of the time. A stellar defensive third baseman, Escobar is not.

Now, this decision isn’t all about Escobar. Rendon is obviously an important part of the Nationals current and future, but he’s not being treated like one right now. Playing third base last year, Rendon was healthy and garnered both Gold Glove and MVP consideration. That fact alone makes it hard to believe that this is even a discussion. Third base is generally considered to be a much more difficult position than second base, a position that requires a higher skill level, so why would you move your best defender off of the more challenging position in favor of a weaker defender? Even more perplexing, second base is known as the more physically taxing position of the two. Given the physics of turning a double play and covering on a stolen base attempt at second base, major leaguers playing the position have a tendency to develop foot, ankle, and knee problems. Why take the risk of putting Rendon back at this position, especially given his long medical history?

The biggest piece of information that is seemingly being brushed under the rug is the fact that when Escobar was acquired in the offseason, it was acknowledged by all parties that he was going to be the starting second baseman. Escobar spent all Spring Training honing his abilities at second base and even had to deal with a minor strain from all the extra work he was putting in re-learning the position. It was only when Rendon went down with an injury that Escobar shifted to third. If that injury never happens, Escobar is playing second base right now, so why would Rendon's injury change the long term plans? I’m not even 100% convinced that Escobar should see the field while Espinosa sits to make room for Rendon, but that's a topic for another day.

This could all work out just fine for the Nationals. That doesn’t make it the right decision, as there is nothing I hate more than judging a decision by the outcome and not considering the processes that got you to the outcome (and given that Escobar left last night's game with a wrist injury, it might not be a decision at all). Would anyone be happy if Rizzo announced he was moving Bryce Harper to catcher (a position he played as a high schooler, but a position that is more prone to fatigue and injury than outfield, thus increasing the chance of missed games) so Matt den Dekker could get more playing time at the position he likes? OK, that is a bit of an extreme, but this Rendon decision is not all that different. Rendon is a very important part of the 2015 Nationals and their drive for a championship. He’s also a very important part of the 2016 team and the 2017 team and the 2018… you get my idea. Playing Rendon at second is a risk the team doesn’t have to take. I sure hope that it all works out, but it’s going to be nerve racking watching Rendon try to turn two as a big catcher barrels down on him with an intention to break up the double play.

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