Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Know When to Move 'Em

This past Saturday, I got a chance to watch my Braves maul the Reds to the tune of a 10-2 loss. I managed to get good seats to the ballgame, right down the left field line. As I sat there baking in the afternoon sun, I got a close look at the Cincinnati ballclub. Unfortunately, getting a close look at Reds baseball is a mixed blessing.
Case in point: third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion is a 26-year-old, good-hitting fellow whose biggest problem is a tendency to throw the ball not quite close enough to the big fellow with a glove standing at first base. Currently in his fifth major league season, Encarnacion has none the less committed 77 errors in his big league career. He’s the only player in the league who gets his defense recorded on a spray chart.
His erratic arm is a serious problem, but I didn’t realize how serious it was until I got a new statistical take on it. John Dewan, with the help of Baseball Info Solutions, has developed a new method of rating defense: the plus-minus ratings. It’s much more accurate than simple fielding percentage, but is still simple enough for even a casual fan to understand. A player’s plus-minus rating is the number of plays the player makes that an average player at that position would not normally make (a positive number is good, zero is average, negative numbers are bad). The newest set of plus-minus ratings were published in The Fielding Bible: Volume II, the sequel to Dewan’s groundbreaking 2006 book The Fielding Bible. Simply put, Encarnacion doesn’t look good.
According to Dewan’s system, Encarnacion was the worst full-time defensive third baseman in baseball in 2008, with a plus-minus rating of -21. The next-worst was Melvin Mora, at -13. Encarnacion is also the worst in the MLB over the last three seasons; his rating of -51 is worse than Garrett Atkins (-42) and ex-third baseman Miguel Cabrera (-40). Dewan’s listings only go back to 2003, and it should be said that Encarnacion isn’t considered the worst defensive third baseman over that period (2003-2008); he’s the second-worst (Ty Wigginton’s -75 is far worse than Encarnacion’s -46).

His defense is so bad that it seriously counteracts what good he does at the plate. Even though he does hit in a hitter-friendly park, Encarnacion is a decent hitter; he compensates for a low batting average (.261 career) by drawing some walks (career .343 on-base percentage) and hitting some homers (career .445 slugging percentage). The problem is that, in order to stay at a key position with such poor defense, you have to hit like Derek Jeter. Needless to say, Edwin does not, making him a big drag on the Reds.
What I wonder, though, is what the Reds are waiting for. When he first came to the majors and was wild, that was understandable; he was in his early 20’s and was still getting a hang of his admittedly strong arm. But it’s four years later, and Edwin hasn’t shown any signs of improving at all. If a player is still this bad at age 26, there’s no use in waiting around for divine intervention. Sure, he might get better over time, but the Reds just don’t have the luxury of losing that much defense every year hoping for a miracle.
Now, Encarnacion is one of the better hitters the Reds have (although that’s not saying much these days), so they don’t need to get rid of him. They can simply move him to the outfield. There’s no one blocking him in left field (Chris Dickerson and Darnell McDonald are stop-gaps at best), so he can move out there and give third base over to someone who won’t do as much damage. Granted, we can’t be certain he’ll be that good in left field, either, but we can be certain that he will do less damage there. The Reds could stand to learn from what the Brewers did with Ryan Braun.
So why in the world don’t they move him? That’s a fantastic question, and I don’t really have the answer. They didn’t move him last year because he was blocked by Adam Dunn in left and Jay Bruce in right. Now that left field is open, why aren’t the Reds rushing to take advantage of an opportunity to limit the damage Encarnacion can do to them?
I think there are two main reasons, one of them understandable and the other not. The understandable reason is that Encarnacion’s bat doesn’t play nearly as well in left field as it does at third. A career 261/343/445 batting line is good for a third baseman, but for a left fielder it’s sub-par. But even this is faulty reasoning. The Reds can only play with the players they have, and right now they don’t have a good left fielder; the best they have is Edwin Encarnacion. Dusty Baker can only make out a lineup with the 25 players GM Walt Jocketty gives him, and right now that’s a poor bunch of hitters.
An even worse reason to explain the Reds’ inaction is a misunderstanding of team defense. The reason that guys like Chris Dickerson end up holding a bat in their hands at all is that they’re good defensive outfielders. More specifically, they are fast. Encarnacion is not particularly fast, so he doesn’t fit the mold of a left fielder. So Dusty Baker (the NL Central’s poster-boy for faulty reasoning) will keep playing the Dickersons and McDonalds of the world until someone forces him to stop. Witness his work in Chicago with the likes of Tony Womack and Corey Patterson. Baker doesn’t look at team defense in the sense of fitting the right man to the right spot regardless of their “type.” Just the opposite, really. Baker prefers type over substance. He puts fast players in the outfield even if they can’t hit, and he puts a strong-armed guy like Edwin at third, even if his throwing is woefully inaccurate. Dusty constructs his lineup in the same way, putting fast, hit-and-run guys in the #1 and #2 spots, even if they get on base slightly less often than the re-animated corpse of Ted Williams. But that’s another story.
I think the Reds just don’t understand the best way to construct a team defense, which is especially problematic if you’re a small-market team that has to do everything right in order to contend. But Baker is only somewhat to blame, since Jocketty’s off-season solution to the Reds’ outfield problems was to sign Willy Taveras, adding another center fielder to a team that already had four of them. Offseason rumors that the team might pursue Rocco Baldelli, or some other legitimate corner bat, proved unfounded. This was a shame, especially considering that corner outfielders are a very cheap commodity in the current market.
My guess is that the Reds release Encarnacion or just let him walk away rather than do a better job of utilizing him. He’s not a star on the level of Ryan Braun, so there’s no pressure on them to keep him in the lineup. But he is, unfortunately, one of their best assets. The only three hitters the Reds have that are better than Encarnacion are Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. The Reds don’t have a guy like Ryan Braun, which is why they simply have to settle for the likes of Encarnacion until somebody else comes along. And if they think that putting three or four clones of Tony Womack in the lineup will help them contend, they’re very mistaken.
A question for the readers: is there anyone else in baseball that you think is trapped at the wrong position? I’m not talking about expensive veterans like Jeter or now-former shortstop Michael Young, whose very status (and inexplicable Gold Gloves) stand in the way of a position shift. Instead, I’m thinking of young players who still have time to develop and thrive in a new role. The only one I can really think of is Rickie Weeks in Milwaukee, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


Richard said...

The evaluation of Encarnacion's defense has some caveats though. First, there are multiple defensive ranking systems and those systems sometimes, but do not always agree.

Second, the Reds' plans for Encarnacion need to be taken into account. His bat is valuable but not irreplaceable (like Ryan Braun, for example), Encarnacion is young enough to be valuable, but not truly a young star. So, with no compelling reason to keep him, but still finding him useful, why should he be moved to another position farther down the defensive spectrum that would hurt his trade value? Why move him to left field if there's a chance that he might end up blocking some true hitting prospect two years down the road? Right now, the Reds have a bunch of young pitching and some other solid prospects coming up. To me, it does make sense that the Reds keep Encarnacion in a place that maximizes his value since they lack an overly compelling reason to move him.

Lastly, there is always the chance that the lights flip on (or Baker stops fiddling with him) and Encarnacion turns into a decent defender ala Aramis Ramirez. He apparently has the tools and just needs the discipline.

So, with a lack of a strong reason to move him, might as well keep him there to maximize his trade value so the Reds get the maximum return in prospects for their next attempt at a contending team.

Aaron "W.K." said...

Richard --
You're right about the multiple defensive rankings. But all the numbers I can find more or less agree with Dewan:
Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs Above Average (at Baseball Prospectus) show Edwin at -13, -15, and -12 for his three full seasons.
He finished last in Revised Zone Rating last year, and next-to-last in the two years prior.
I don't agree that Encarnacion is maximizing his value at third. Any benefit the Reds get from having his bat at third is nullified by his terrible defense. They would lose a bit in moving the bat to left field, but it would be made up for by the improvement in defense.
And I don't see Edwin as blocking anybody. He's a free agent in a couple years, and I don't like his odds of holding down a starting job after that unless his defense improves or he hits 40 HR.
The Aramis Ramirez comparison makes sense. But I don't think the Reds can afford to hope. For every Aramis, there are dozens (or hundreds) of guys who don't make that great leap forward.