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Assuming The Position 2006: Second Base
by Derek Smart
Like so many other counties in the Land of Cub, Second Base Prefecture suffered from a severe state of flux in 2005. In fact, outside of left field, no other non-pitcher position on the diamond saw fewer innings from their most used man, or saw more different players don the glove.
Of the 1,440 defensive innings the Cubs played last season, the man most often in the lineup, Todd Walker, only played in 797 of them. The next highest contributor was Jerry Hairston with 331 keystone frames, followed by Neifi Perez with 160, Jose Macias with 112, and Enrique Wilson, Ryan Theriot, and Ronny Cedeno sharing the remaining 37 innings between them.
That's seven different people getting time at second for the Cubs last year, a figure outpaced in the NL only by the eight second sackers fielded by the Reds and Nats. Constancy isn't necessarily a sign of quality - we've all seen bad players as fixtures in the lineup - but in most cases, having so many players working at a position, and not one of them taking a sizable majority of the available time, is an indication of plans gone awry. In the Cubs' case, the plan was to have Todd Walker start every day, unfortunate defense be damned, in order to have his power and OBP in the lineup.
The irony, of course, was that the Cubs chose Walker over fellow free-agent and incumbent starter, Mark Grudzielanek, partially for Walker's offensive superiority, but mostly due to the injury issues Grudz suffered during his time with the club. Naturally, they wanted their starting second baseman on the field more than off it. Naturally, Walker had two injuries on baserunning plays that limited him to the 797 fielding innings mentioned above, while Grudzielanek spent over 1,158 frames in the field for the Cardinals. Go figure.
In any case, Walker was, when in the lineup, very productive, particularly for his position. In fact, he was 12th in the Majors in VORP for second basemen, despite having only 433 plate appearances on the year (eight of the players ahead of him had over 150 additional PAs, and only Placido Polanco had fewer with 378). In that regard the Cubs certainly were getting what they expected.
Unfortunately, they were also seeing their expectations met on the defensive end, where Walker continued to struggle, although his issues, as always, had more to do with range and quickness on double-play turns than with errors. Walker, in fact, is a poster-child for the inadequacy of fielding percentage in describing a player's defensive abilities, as Walker has a lifetime fielding percentage exactly equal to the league average over his career.
But let's be fair: though Walker had a lot to do with the sadder than sad displays of skullglovery at the keystone, he was not alone in bringing a heavy dose of the shank 'n clank, as this quick gander at the team's collective RATE2 stats shows:
I know I've thrown some new stuff in there, so I've got some 'splainin to do. AdjG is "Adjusted Games," and it stands for just what your intuition is telling you: the approximate number of games the player in question spent fielding his position. RAA2 is fielding runs above average, normalized over time, and EQR is Equivalent Runs (a counting stat that measures a player's overall offensive contribution and is associated with Equivalent Average), which in this case, deals with the estimated offensive contribution by the player while at the fielding position in question.
While it's clear that Walker was quantitatively responsible for much of the defensive damage at second, it's also clear that no one else was helping much (unless you count the spifftacular two games worth of Enrique Wilson, at the cost of a heapin' helpin' of outs).
Of particular note is the lack of contribution from Neifi!, who was inexplicably bad. Don't, however, take this as an indication that the above is what one could expect were he to man the position (shudder) full-time. His RATE2 at second base over his career - nearly a full season's worth of work - is 107, which ain't half bad if you can bring yourself to ignore the inherent bat-foolery.
The overall point is that, as a group, assuming the "10 runs equals a win" standard, Cub second basemen essentially cost their club a victory with their gloves alone, when compared to an average second baseman (of course, Cub third basemen more than doubled that, but we're not here to talk about them).
Up until now I've ignored the EQR numbers I posted along side what are, otherwise, defensive statistics, but there's an important point to be made about Walker's overall contribution.
While it's true that an assumed full season of Walker would have docked another 4 runs from the defensive contribution at second, leaving it at an unpleasant -13, that's not taking the full picture into account. Do the same to his EQR, and you pick up 15 runs on the offensive end for a total of 101 EQR at the position, making 162 games of Todd Walker a net gain of 11 runs - and one win - over what the Cubs were forced to run out there.
These things are not black and white. Bad defense does not equal bad player, in the same way that good offense does not equal good player. We have to look at the entire picture in order to fully understand the impact on a ballclub, and in the case of Walker, while his defense might be difficult to live with, his production with the bat sure makes it easier.
But will the Cubs choose to endure his shortcomings yet again, or will they go in a different direction? Let's take a look at the club's likely options.
Todd Walker -
"I've decided I really like the guys who catch the ball." - Jim Hendry
Like a dozen black roses can give that ever so gentle hint that a relationship is over, so this quote from Jim Hendry must have clarified for Todd Walker where his relationship with the Cubs was headed. Namely, elsewhere.
Really, I can think of no more forceful way to let Walker know he's no longer wanted than to profess an amorous attachment to glove-work. That, and to give a player whose skillset is as close to your polar opposite as it's possible to bring into existence without DNA tinkering a guaranteed two-year deal, potentially worth more money, when the previous year's negotiations could only net you one season and the hope of a second.
It is a subtle, and perhaps even slimy way of kicking someone to the curb, but unless the team is utterly unable to buy or barter for a new shortstop, kicked Mr. Walker most certainly is. I understand the reasoning - Walker is, truly, madly, deeply awful in the field to the point where one has a hard time believing the numbers that tell you his contributions with the bat are worth the pain - and I even get why the mechanics of separation are so clunky. It's just that I've always liked Walker, so I suppose I wish the club could make the process a little less, I don't know, ucky.
Jerry Hairston - He's not a great defender, and not terrible either, but his only offensive contributions come from a middling OBP fueled in great part by an extraordinary capacity to be hit by pitches. He has no power, and while he has a little speed, he's not at all good at turning it into anything helpful. He also managed to get himself into the Dusty Baker Doghouse for a variety of mental mistakes last season, so while he may stay with the team as a reserve, it would be surprising if he got the majority of starts anywhere.
Neifi Perez - I believe I have expressed with clarity my stance when it comes to The Punctuated Man, so I'll spare you all an extensive rehashing of my position, except to say, if I haven't said it this way before, that during the 2006 season, for every at bat beyond the 200 mark Neifi! sees, an angel will lose his wings.
Ronny Cedeno - I expressed concern over his offensive abilities when discussing his possible use at short, so tack on another 50% more worry when you move him to second. The issue, of course, is that you're likely getting a less valuable defensive contribution from him, assuming he can actually handle shortstop (which he can), so now with a shift to second the expected contributions with the bat have to go up a half-notch or so in order to justify it from a production standpoint.
However, Cedeno does represent a happy medium between two extremes, and in that sense he's a solid option. He won't hit as well as Walker, or field as well as Neifi!, but he has a level of competence at both disciplines that makes him the more sensible, balanced choice. That is, if certain toothpick wielding leviathans see fit to write his name in the lineup.
Alfonso Soriano - His name keeps getting mentioned in trade talks, and while I can understand the shiny toy aspect of the attraction (bat go BOOM! legs go ZOOM!), I'm still a long way from buying into him as a viable answer to any question that contains the phrase "middle infield".
It is particularly galling to see his name bandied about in light of the Hendry quote noted above, because while he has his merits if one is willing to ignore his utter inability to discern what is and is not a strike, catching the ball ain't one of 'em. In fact, he is one of the few starting second basemen in the Majors that Walker would have a shot at comparing favorably to with the glove (in 2005, Walker's RATE2 was a dismal 93, which looks like a shining beacon of hope compared to Soriano's 83).
The simple truth is, what Soriano has to offer is power, speed, and very little else. Compare what he brings to the Cubs actual needs - OBP, OBP, defense, some speed, then a little more OBP - and it doesn't look like a fit to me. If the club is willing to sacrifice some glove-work in order to gain some offense, they should be retaining Walker's superior on-base skills and letting someone else pay the toll in talent and treasure that Soriano would exact.
I leave it at that because, while there are other theoretical options, none of them are ones I realistically see the Cubs pursuing.
So, what will the Cubs do? Or more importantly, what should they do. Supposedly, the word is that the Cubs' interest in Soriano has been mostly as a backup plan should they fail in their quest to sign Rafael Furcal, and since that failure is now a fact, it could make such a deal more likely. What the two things have to do with each other is anyone's guess, but it's my opinion that any deal that could possibly garner Soriano's services would be far more expensive than what his true production level should demand.
Add in that the similarities between him and Todd Walker are such that I now have a much clearer understanding of the old saw about birds, hands, and bushes, and I simply can't see any sense in dealing anything useful beyond Walker himself for the Rangers' keystoner. Besides, as I alluded to above, given the choice between Soriano's additional power and speed, and Walker's far superior (and far cheaper) on-base skills, I'll go with Walker every time.
Yet, although I do adore Todd with his walking and his popping and his charming scruffiness, I was still driven fairly insane by his basic inability to field his position, and if there's something unnoticed that could help the team tremendously, it would be giving the club's young starters a defense behind them that would give them the confidence to let some balls get hit and, by extension, give them the excuse they need to work more efficiently.
Neifi! would be the best choice in that regard, but since baseball hasn't seen fit to create a "Designated Fielder" rule, a balance must be struck. So, since Hairston may be balanced, he's simply not very good at anything, Cedeno it is, fraught with risk offensively, but with enough hitting potential and defensive chops to achieve the desired ancillary side-effects. Thus I say, long live Ronny, the King of Keystone County!
But that's not all. There's a wildcard in this, and it's whether Jim Hendry will acquire a shortstop at the Winter Meetings this week or not. He seems to be on Julio Lugo's tail, as are the Braves, but if that falls through things change in a big way, and unless he can be used in a package to significantly upgrade the outfield, the Cubs should bite the defensive bullet and stick with Walker, even if it's only to keep Neifi! on the bench.