Sep 11, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (13) throws over to first base to get out New York Yankees left fielder Alfonso Soriano (not pictured) in the ninth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Yankees defeated the Orioles 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
"“It’s much more difficult for a shortstop or second baseman to move to third than vice versa… At second and shortstop, you can position yourself after the ball is hit. You just don’t have time at third.” – Brooks Robinson"
Javier Baez had been drafted out of Arlington Country Day School in the 2011 draft as a shortstop. Now the Chicago Cubs are talking about him being exposed to second or third base but they still believe in him at shortstop. This represents a common practice around Major Leagues and why not? Shortstop tends to be one of the most athletic positions on the diamond and typically demands a great glove, great leadership qualities, a strong arm and incredible instincts.
Now with that being said, does being a shortstop give you the ability to play a perceived “easier” position at third base? It is an unwritten rule that if a shortstop doesn’t turn out, he will be moved to a position he can play better: a corner. Now, if you have the tools in order to play shortstop, you have the athleticism to play third. There is no argument there. Some players who have made successful transitions to third base might cloud your mind but how many of the true big league third basemen over the last 3 years played in the minors as shortstops?
Of the top 19 (most that qualified) from first in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) to last, I took the top 20 third basement who qualified. Here is the list of who made it and what position they played in the minors (primary position):
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Only four of the 19 players who qualified had spent a bulk of their minor league careers at shortstop, while 11 of the 19 players played third as their primary position. Most of the guys on the list were drafted as shortstops but playing shortstop at the high school level isn’t really comparable to that of the minors or even in college. It is also interesting to see that there are a couple catchers on the list.
While most of the current “true” third basemen spent the bulk of their careers at third base, it is not impossible for a player to make a successful conversion to another position. With the athleticism and ability required to play shortstop, this isn’t really a surprise. The real question becomes do you have the rare mixture of courage, reaction time and instincts required to play the position.
Baez has spent the bulk of his minor league career at short (100% so far, if you don’t include DH) and while he is rumored to have good tools defensively, it certainly isn’t translating into results yet. While errors are not the best statistic to judge defense, a .934 fielding percentage isn’t exactly ideal. Over at Baseball America in a chat with J.J. Cooper, a fan pondered why Baez isn’t being called up. Cooper responded citing defense as a big problem, with throwing errors seeming to be the downfall of Baez.
Carlos Santana is another player hoping to move to third and it will be interesting to see how he fares at his new position. Now even though he is not a shortstop, catchers still have a history of making decent third basemen. Brett Lawrie pops up in my mind as a successful catcher turned into a third baseman.
Mar 7, 2013; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez throws to first after forcing out Chicago White Sox shortstop Angel Sanchez (5) during the eighth inning at second at HoHoKam Park. The runner was safe at first. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
It is not fair to rule out Baez as a third baseman. It just shouldn’t be perceived by fans that he is a lock to be a plus third baseman if he fails at shortstop as the positions have similar but some unique requirements. With the number of throwing errors currently being a problem at shortstop for Baez, I can hardly imagine that improving at third. With Bryant reported to have a steady glove and a lot of experience at third, perhaps it is time to ponder second base or even a move to the outfield. As nice as shortstop putting up those numbers sounds, maybe it is time to temper expectations and see how he handles second. His bat plays anywhere, so I wouldn’t put too much strain on the “he needs to play a premium position” notion. I am not suggesting the Cubs give up on him at shortstop but wherever he plays, he projects be a special player.
While third base is often considered a position where you “stick” somebody who can’t handle a premium position, it deserves recognition as a position with high barriers to entry. Somebody who can play third base well is a rare commodity, and is often the result of a team sticking player after player at the position, hoping one would stick. Since so many players play third base at some point in their careers, it makes sense that we have come to expect the player to be able to hit like his counterpart “corner infield” position at first.
Tim Kurkjian said in best in his article when he stated “Third baseman is a place of contradiction, an orphan position, a lonely station where few players want to play but where many have, briefly and often, poorly.”