As part of SB Nation United, you're going to be seeing some new voices at Gaslamp Ball, SBN "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community that write real good. We're beginning this week with Bill Parker, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.
Padres prospect Jedd Gyorko hasn't played a game in the major leagues yet, but a lot has been said about his defensive potential. Not much of it has been what you'd call encouraging. Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, ranking Padres prospects last spring, wrote: "Gyorko is short and stocky and doesn't run especially well. His defensive fundamentals are sound, but his range is a bit short and his arm is no more than average." Keith Law once said Gyorko can hit but "needs a position." Subsequently, he noted Gyorko's "thick, slow lower half" and "fringy defense," but admitted that he was "agile for his size, with soft hands that allow him to stay at third base even with a frame that looks made for first." Gaslamp Baller Wonko, on this very site, said "every position is unnatural to Gyorko," and compared him to a fire hydrant.
These evaluations of Gyorko's skills and physique concern his potential ability to stay at third base -- a challenging position, to be sure, but one that has featured such gazelle-like magicians as Miguel Cabrera, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Thome, Bobby Bonilla, Mark Reynolds, Phil Nevin, and the kneeless remains of Johnny Bench. You generally have to be a bit more athletic to play third than you do to play first or DH, but the bar is not as high as it is for the positions in the middle of the field.
Fortunately, everyone is agreed that Gyorko can really hit, and while his 2012 Triple-A numbers (.328/.380/.588) are inflated by a friendly hitting environment, it's hard not to get a bit excited about seeing him in San Diego. The problem is that first base is set for the foreseeable future, and with Chase Headley turning into an MVP candidate, he seems likely to hang around, too.
So, the position at which Gyorko is likely to open the 2013 season in the big leagues is...second base? Really? The guy who scouts worry might be a bit too big and awkward to hack it at the position of Reynolds and Cabrera might wind up filling the position of Theriot, Punto and Barney? That seems a bit odd, doesn't it?
Well, it is, but it's also part of a growing trend in baseball, and one that makes a lot of sense, when you really think about it. Visually, second base is the mirror image of shortstop, and for most of the 20th Century, that's just how it was treated by managers and front offices: the position was filled by short, quick, defense-first players who might not quite have the arm for short, for whom hitting was an afterthought, and who bunted a whole lot. They usually batted second in the order because ...Well, they just did.
And yet, there's a big difference between second and short. The much shorter throw means that not only can you get away with a weaker arm, but I'd argue you can get away with much less range -- having more time to get the ball to first lets the second baseman play back further and set his body more often. It also helps that he's playing in the left-handed hitter's pull field, so that he sees fewer hard-hit chances than shortstops will purely by virtue of there being more righties than lefties. The second baseman will handle a lot of chances -- a bit more than a shortstop does, on average -- but the average chance he handles is much easier than the one the shortstop does.
If you watch the game with that in mind, it becomes apparent that it's correct. The shortstop has a very, very tough job. The second baseman's job looks similar, but is actually much easier. It's not even close, and second is not substantially harder than third.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote about this in a series a few years ago (1, 2, 3), which began as an attempt to explain why FanGraphs' WAR gives second basemen exactly the same positional credit per season as it gives third basemen and centerfielders (+2.5 runs per 150 games, compared to +7.5 for shortstops). One of his interesting conclusions -- in addition to the general sense that, as I've been arguing, second base just isn't as hard as we all think it is -- was that among infielders not good enough to play short, teams were not sorting them to second and third based on actual defensive ability, but according to size: big guys to third, little fellas to second.
To some extent, this makes sense -- the second baseman needs to cover more ground (though, again, he has much more time to do it), so you might think littler is better, while the third baseman needs the stronger arm, which probably favors the big guy. But to a larger extent it just seems the result of tradition.
It's a tradition that teams are starting to break. In a trend that may have started with late-career Jeff Kent -- who as a defender was indistinguishable from a first baseman but for the fact that he often had "2B" behind his name. Unfortunately, the three newly-converted second basemen from reputedly "easier" positions who became Cameron's focus in those FanGraphs pieces -- Skip Schumaker, Mark Teahen, and Ian Stewart -- no longer make for great examples, because it turned out that they're all kind of terrible Major League Baseball players. Still, since then Gordon Beckham has shifted more or less successfully (defensively, anyway) from third to second, while Pirates' starting second sacker Neil Walker started his career as a catcher, then became a third baseman, and didn't play an inning at second until 2010, his last in the minors. Even plodding corner outfielder Michael Cuddyer saw limited time at second in 2009, '10, and ‘11, with not entirely disastrous results. Dustin Ackley was exclusively a first baseman and outfielder in college, but the Mariners stuck him at second from day one. None of these guys fit the old second base mold. They're relatively slow, they have a bit of power, and their bats are more valuable assets than their gloves.
Don't get me wrong: all else being equal, you're better off with a good second baseman than a bad one, but that's true at every position. What teams seem to be realizing is that all else is not equal, and guys who are vacuums at second are often black holes at the plate, and if you get a chance to trade a little D for a little O at second -- unlike at short or catcher -- it's not going to kill you.
I do worry a bit about Gyorko at second specifically with the Padres. With so few balls leaving the park, it seems to me that the ability to limit singles is more important than elsewhere, so if his range is really limited, that could be a problem (and this may well still be true even if the fences are moved in). But consider the upside: If Cameron Maybin can turn things around, the Padres will suddenly have above-average hitters at almost every position but second, and if Gyorko can provide the kind of offense it looks like he can and is merely adequate in the field, the lineup starts to look pretty exciting.
Sure, it's going to be weird to see a guy with a "thick, slow lower half" in the position at which Padres fans have recently seen the likes of David Eckstein and Orlando Hudson, but the Padres are just following a trend, and this looks likely to be a move in the right direction.