A-Rod To Third Or 6 To 5 (By the Bronx Transportation Authority)
by Mike Carminati
I don't want to divert my attention from the quest for a Holy Grail in relief pitching (especially to answer questions like "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"), but I saw Tim Kurkjian spout off about A-Rod's move to third would at least initially hurt his defense. He claimed to have performed some sort of statistical analysis on the subject, a chuckle-fest in and of itself. He cited the fact that the ball gets to third basemen more quickly as the crux of the problem. They also apparently take a goodly number of balls off the chest according to the redoubtable Sir Tim, who must have come straight from a replay of Corbin Berson's pathetic attempt to play the hot corner in Major League
First, third base has changed more than any other position over time. James devoted, I believe, six different formulae to the study of third basemen throughout baseball history in Win Shares. Second, I think most will tell you that short is a more physically grueling position. Third, if the Yankees were so concerned about D, they would put Rodriguez at short and install Jeter, a player incapable of going to his right anyway, at third.
The last two of those points get me to thinking. Sure, A-Rod will need to adjust defensively as he learns third. Kurkjian pointed to Rico Petrocelli, who was also moved to third at the age of 28, but looking at Petrocelli's defensive stats, it looks like he adjusted quickly. His range factor at third in his first year was at the level he would attain over the rest of his career. Sure, it was not as good as compared to the league average as his shortstop numbers (though it was well above average), but it still contradicts Kurkjian's claim that A-Rod's D would suffer for a short while and then he would readjust to his previous level.
Of course, a study of short-to-third position changes and the subsequent defensive issues of the guinea pigs in such a study would be quite involved. It would have to factor in the player's age, a means to standardize the stats over time, a means to translate stats from one position to the other over time, etc. Therefore, I won't attempt it.
I will, however, take a look at how just such a move affects a player's offensive stats. Does playing a less physical position aid one's offense? Or does learning a new position at the major-league level negatively impact one's offense? (Keep in mind that my favorite third-sacker is Mike Schmidt a man that played shortstop throughout his tenure at Ohio University and who was playing third base at the major league level within one season.)
OK, first who qualifies for such a study? I searched for all shortstops who played at least 80 games (half a modern season) at that position one year and then played at least 80 at third base in the next. Forty-two men qualified (actually, just 38 since Buck Weaver, Dave Chalk, Woody English, and Eddie Kasko made the list twice). Then I calculated their percentage stats and compared their shortstop season to their third base season. I found that the average player's slugging and OPS went up 3%, his on-base percentage went up 2%, and his batting average went up 1%. The average age of just such a player was 28 (in his third-base season), so some of the increases may be explained by maturity. However, if A-Rod experiences the same sort of improvement (and ignoring the change of home park) his numbers for 2004 would be: .302 BA, .404 OBP, .620 Slug, and 1.022 OPS.
Do I expect Rodriguez's offense to better his 2003 MVP numbers? Not really. Yankee Stadium is a much harder park to hit in than Arlington, especially for right-handers. However, there is little evidence that the move to third will affect his offense, and that after all was the reason the Yankees grabbed him.
Of course, A-Rod's move to third makes him less of a "special" player. If his stay at the hot corner is a long one, his claim on the title of greatest shortstop of all-time becomes tenuous at best. And the pool at third is more cramped. He'll still be the best third baseman but not by the mile that he led at short. 'Tis a pity.
Anyway, here are the players who moved from short to third and their stats (with A-Rod's "projection" at the bottom). The first set of stats is for year one (short) and the second for year two (third):