Hanley Ramirez: Third base or shortstop?

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
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Hanley Ramirez Daniel Shirey/US PresswireDefensive metrics aren't kind to Hanley Ramirez at either shortstop or third base.
Hanley Ramirez, not known as a defensive whiz in his six seasons as a shortstop, was moved to third base this season when the Miami Marlins signed Jose Reyes. Much was made of the move, regarding both Ramirez’s willingness and ability to handle it.

After being acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers near the trade deadline, he’s essentially split his time between the two positions. That could change with shortstop Dee Gordon currently on a rehab assignment.

So which positions should he play? We use statistics, precedent and "Baseball Tonight" analyst Aaron Boone to come to a decision.

The case for third base
No defensive stats, standard or advanced, have been friendly to Ramirez as a shortstop. From his first full season in 2006 through last season, only Yuniesky Betancourt and Rafael Furcal committed more errors at shortstop than Ramirez’s 113 and only Betancourt and Derek Jeter had fewer Defensive Runs Saved than Ramirez’s minus-67.

Those three were far worse than any other shortstop; Julio Lugo and Felipe Lopez had minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved, the next-fewest during that span. That means Ramirez, Betancourt and Jeter cost their teams nearly twice as many runs as any other shortstop in six years.

Perhaps most surprising is that Betancourt, Jeter and Ramirez continued to play shortstop. Only five players have logged at least 7,000 innings at the position in those six years, and three were the three worst shortstops according to Defensive Runs Saved.

Ramirez wasn’t showing a ton of improvement at shortstop either. After posting his two highest fielding-percentage seasons in 2009 and 2010, last season was the worst of his career. According to Defensive Runs Saved, he had his second- and third-worst defensive seasons the past two years, costing the Marlins 19 runs in 2009 and 13 runs last season. In his first three seasons in the bigs, he cost his team 34 runs at shortstop, compared to just 30 the past three seasons, only about a half-win improvement.

The Fielding Bible Plus/Minus said that last season was the worst of his career for double-play percentage (percentage of double-play opportunities completed in which he was involved) and tied for the worst, with 2007, on ground balls to his right.

“You’re reading the ball in a completely different way” at third base, Boone said. In the infield, “you’re using your feet, creating as many good hops as possible -- something that comes with experience.” So we shouldn’t expect Ramirez to be the best third baseman in the league after just half a season.

The case for shortstop
Pointing to the experience that Boone mentioned, Ramirez had shown improvement, albeit minimal, in the middle of the diamond. According to the Fielding Bible Plus/Minus, Ramirez had his best season in 2011 both on ground balls hit right at him and to his left.

He also showed a penchant for making the spectacular play. Last season Ramirez had nine Web Gems, tied for third among all shortstops with Elvis Andrus and Troy Tulowitzki, among others.

This season, despite the need for patience as he learned a new position, there have been few signs that he is picking it up. The only third baseman with fewer Defensive Runs Saved this season than Ramirez is the Rockies’ Jordan Pacheco.

“He’s got the tools of a shortstop, and he’s not so bad that he has to be moved from the position yet,” Boone said.

The start of his career was remarkable for a shortstop -- through his age-25 season, Ramirez accumulated 22.3 Wins Above Replacement, sixth among shortstops in the expansion era.

That has a lot to do with offense, of course, which can’t be ignored in this debate. As recently as 2009, Ramirez put up more than seven Wins Above Replacement, the sixth-most in the majors.

According to this post from Baseball Reference, Ramirez’s offense would be worth nearly four times as much at shortstop than at third base, considering the value at each position.

Where should he play with the Dodgers?
“He can play either position well enough that he should play wherever his team needs him,” said Boone.

The Dodgers have a young shortstop in Gordon who hit .300 and stole 24 bases in limited time as a rookie last season, and has already stolen 30 bases this season. At third base they’ve used eight players, playing only one of them for more than 210 innings.

So obviously Ramirez should man the hot corner in L.A., right? Not so fast.

Gordon posted a .562 OPS in 327 plate appearances this season before his injury, the second-lowest among shortstops with 300 plate appearances. And only two players have cost their team more runs this season at the position.

And Ramirez has already cost the Dodgers a run in just 70 innings at third base -- more than a full win worse than the rest of the team’s third base contributors this season, who have combined for 11 Defensive Runs Saved.

The answer
Gordon has struggled in the field and at the plate this season, and is still working his way back from an injury. The Dodgers acquired Shane Victorino to put at the top of the order and provide the spark that Gordon wasn’t.

Ramirez has been playing shortstop in August -- through the end of July, Dodgers shortstops had a .610 OPS, 25th in the majors.

At third base, they’ve mostly mixed and matched with veterans who have played the position well but struggled at the plate this season. Since August, with Ramirez as shortstop, they’ve settled on Luis Cruz at third, and he hasn’t disappointed. He’s hitting .352 with a .934 OPS this month -- he hit .258 with a .722 OPS in July. And he has five Defensive Runs Saved in just 121 2/3 innings at third base -- only seven third basemen have more this season.

For the rest of this season, Ramirez should stay at shortstop with Cruz at third base. Where Ramirez plays next season should depend on how Gordon and Cruz perform in spring training at shortstop and third base, respectively. Let one of them win the job and use Ramirez at the other spot.

John Fisher is a researcher in ESPN's Stats and Information group.

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