Keith Law, ESPN’s resident baseball analyst, is one of the best in the business. He takes both languages of baseball — the statistical, new-school approach and old-school scouting — and speaks them fluently, combining the best of both worlds, interweaving them seamlessly.
And while our opinions tend to parallel greatly, I do, however, have to kindly disagree with parts of his latest post (warning: ESPN Insider; password protected) analyzing the Michael Bourn signing with Cleveland.
In there, Law describes the signing as an odd fit, saying, “Assuming [Michael Brantley or Drew Stubbs aren’t] dealt, this probably pushes Nick Swisher to first base, hurting his value slightly, and Mark Reynolds to DH, which does the same.”
But is that really true?
Defensive metrics, as we know them, are an imperfect science — at best. So much so, in fact, that it’s widely regarded that a sample size of one full season isn’t reliable enough, and three years of data is a far more accurate portrayal.
Ultimate Zone Rating Per 150 Games, or UZR/150, is typically recognized to be on the forefront — or among the metrics on the forefront — that most accurately describes a player’s defensive contributions. And it’s been discussed — I cannot currently find the link, but I will continue to search — how fly ball pitching staffs tend to inflate outfielders’ UZR/150 totals, because they simply have more fielding options, basically overvaluing them.
So, how does this relate to shifting Swisher to first base and Reynolds to DH?
Progressive Field, or Jacobs’ Field as it will forever be known, has for whatever reason a tendency to slightly inflate groundball tendencies. Couple that with the fact that the Tribe’s rotation has three starting pitchers who have typically generated a ton of groundballs — Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, and Brett Myers — and it stands to reason that there will be a lot of worm-burners in Cleveland in 2013.
Good. Great. Groundballs are fantastic — if you have a solid defensive infield in place.
And prior to Bourn signing, Reynolds looked to be the Opening Day first baseman. But the team would suffer more than with Reynolds than, say, if Nick Swisher were there.
Reynolds has always been an awful fielder, so much so that his 2011 season at third base — -30.3 runs — will go down as one of the worst in baseball history. And his conversion across the diamond last season, his first real extended stint, still cost the Orioles about six runs below the average first baseman. He is what he is: an atrocious defensive player.
His offense, however, has been another story. In 3443 plate appearance, his production has been 9% better than the league average. But, again, his defense has been so bad that he’s averaged about 1.5 fWAR per season. Remove the defensive shortcomings, and that total now jumps to somewhere in 2.0-range, if not higher.
Swisher, on the other hand, is actually a contributor on both sides of the ball, posting a strong bat to go along with a solid-average glove at first. Admittedly, his glove plays better in right field. But remember: this is groundball staff. Meaning: less chances to contribute defensively in the outfield, especially with Michael Bourn roaming out there now.
So would the shift hurt both players? No, not really.
Reynolds’ production should improve, getting his Swiss cheese glove off the diamond and placed safely under the bench. And any perceived decline in Swisher’s defense — which should be negligible given his track record — should be absorbed due to a lesser amount of fly balls he would have seen in right field.