April, 1, 2011
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesSure Neil Walker can hit, but can the Pirates stomach his defense at second?Friday's Chicago Cubs home opener provided an interesting contrast. The Cubs have 2011 aspirations to try and live up to, while the Pittsburgh Pirates do not. Yet both teams have a similar problem: experimentation at second base.
Whatever comes out of the two teams' beakers remains to be seen -- this isn't the periodic table or your high school chemistry class, so results will vary.
The Cubs' situation involves one of spring training's surprising outcomes. Darwin Barney scrapped his way into the Opening Day gig after favorite Blake DeWitt handed back the job heading into Arizona action. DeWitt's difficulties with turning the double play and making good contact aren't the sort of thing you can easily overlook. As skipper Mike Quade explained to the beat posse last month, the ability to turn the tough double play matters to him.
DeWitt is sort of a duckbilled platypus of the infield. He has a bat that profiles better at second, with a walk rate around 10 percent and an ISO around .120, but a glove that really plays better at third. If you've got Ryne Sandberg's sort of thunder coming from second base, maybe DeWitt is somebody you could carry at third, but the 2011 Cubs aren't that team.
In contrast, Barney is the sort of grinder that is easy for a manager to love. At second or short, he's rangy, strong-armed, and hustler who will chase down anything afield if you let him. But as admirable and worthwhile all that is, projecting Barney's performance via PECOTA, ZiPS, or any other forecasting model, gives you a guy who might struggle to post an OBP or SLG of .300. The glove can play, the bat ... well, did we mention he gets his uniform dirty?
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireDarwin Barney will hustle all over the diamond, but his bat is a liability.
The third wheel in the Cubs' keystone combo is platoon masher Jeff Baker, a five-position supersub with a career .908 OPS versus southpaws. Rarely given the opportunity to do more than that, Baker did manage to hit everybody in 2009 while spotting for the Cubs at second. But a career 28 percent strikeout rate versus righties -- because good right-handed off-speed and breaking stuff eats him up -- can make him a bit tough to live with. It isn't like that strikeout rate's getting traded for Jeff Kent-like power.
Bringing up Kent, however obliquely, takes us to the Pirates' decision to continue with the Neil Walker experiment at second base. Like Kent at the outset of his career, there are questions over whether Walker is nimble enough around the bag to manage at second. (Kent's bat created a fairly high tolerance for his unglovely play in the field.)
The hope with Walker is that he can do likewise, after slugging .462 as a rookie last season. If he does it, it'll be despite defense that even DeWitt would outclass. Whatever flavor of defensive metric you prefer -- Total Zone, Plus/Minus, UZR, or Colin Wyers' new Fielding Runs metric at Baseball Prospectus (best to refer to them all with caution) -- Walker's previous season at second was several shades of awful. Love the bat, hate the glove, but it isn't like the Pirates' shot at a title hangs in the balance. They can afford to experiment.
How did all this turn out on Opening Day? Barney scrapped and slapped, lucking into a second base hit on the Pirates' second muffed infield popup of the afternoon. Walker mashed, jacking a full-count slam on a Ryan Dempster fastball in the fifth, and then setting up another run with his two-out seventh-inning double. He also played defense about as well as you'd expect an ex-catcher, as poor infield defense created both of the Cubs' runs.
But Walker wasn't alone in being part of the problem, because one player alone didn't generate the worst defense in baseball (per Baseball Prospectus's Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metric). How long the Pirates want to afford Walker's defense at second owes something to the decision to stick with Pedro Alvarez at third base for as long as possible. Alvarez's series of defensive gaffes Friday provided a reminder that he probably won't be a third baseman forever. He was responsible for the Cubs' first-inning run, with a single off his glove followed by a two-base throwing error. If Alvarez makes the move across the diamond to first later this year -- presumably after they tire of or flip one-year rental Lyle Overbay -- then Walker's trek to the hot corner seems sure to follow.
As for the Cubs' quest to find an appropriate heir to the Sandberg spot on the lineup card, you can expect more three-way shuffling. After the Arizona-inspired fascination with Barney gives way to his expected performance, Quade will have to revisit what to do with this position. Maybe DeWitt can be risked in the field when more fly ball-oriented pitchers like Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza start, while Baker will always hurt lefties. Tinkering's well and good, but at some point, the experiment had better yield up something resembling a lasting answer.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. She helped found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, and has written her "Transaction Analysis" column ever since. She was voted into the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 2008 as one of its first four Internet columnists. You can find her ESPN archives here, and follow her on Twitter here.