Thursday, February 5, 2009

Now Playing Second Base...Seriously?

So I guess I need to be the last Royals observer to comment on the news that the Royals are seriously considering – I can’t believe I’m writing this – the idea of moving Mark Teahen to second base.

I’ll happily confess to laughing off the idea at first. Teahen has played 256 games in his career at third base, 229 games in right field, 31 in left, and 23 at first base. These positions all have something in common – they tend towards the bottom of the defensive spectrum. Teahen’s athleticism has helped him to carve out a nice role as a four-corners utility player even though he has only one above-average season with the stick on his resume. But playing the four corners – or even center field, which Teahen has done six times – is one thing. Playing the middle infield is quite another.

Bill Simmons has argued that sports teams would benefit greatly if they created a job for a “Vice President of Common Sense”, someone whose job it was to keep the front office from clearly self-destructive decisions. A VPoCS would have kept the Royals from trading Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez, and would have earned the Mets a pair of division titles in 2007-08 by blocking the trade of Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano.

You’d have to think that a VPoCS would veto this idea, on the simple grounds that second base isn’t a position you can learn at the major league level. I love outside-the-box thinking as much as anyone, but moving a 27-year-old player to a position he hasn’t played since his freshman year of high school isn’t outside-the-box, it’s outside the boundaries of common sense. Especially when that position is second base, which after catcher is the most dangerous position on the field.

So no, when Sam Mellinger first reported this, I didn’t take it seriously at all.

But the Royals apparently are. Trey Hillman is serious about it: “We are definitely going to take a look at it.” Weeks before the news was made official, Mark Teahen was game: “[I]t’s something that I’d be willing to try, definitely if it assures me of being in the lineup every day.” Even Joe Posnanski thinks it’s a winning idea: “I think this is precisely the sort of risk-reward thinking the Royals should be doing right about now.”

And having looked into the idea a little more, I’ll admit that there’s some genuine merit to it. Dave Cameron wrote an interesting series of articles back in December that argued, in essence, that there is no evidence to suggest that second base is any more difficult to play defensively than third base, and that players who switch from one position to the other generally handle either position equally well.

Moreover, Cameron makes the point – one I agree with – that teams seem to separate players into “second basemen” and “third basemen” based as much on body type (specifically height) as on the skills needed to play the position. If you’re 6’3”, you’re a third baseman; if you’re 5’10”, you’re a second baseman. And because height correlates with power, this explains to a large degree why third basemen are better hitters than second baseman overall, even though the defensive demands at the two positions are similar.

A lot has been made of the fact that Teahen, at 6’3”, 210, would be one of the tallest second basemen in history. That’s certainly true, but I don’t think that you can take the leap and assume that Teahen is too tall to play the position. Teahen would be an unconventional second baseman, but “unconventional” does not equate to “bad”. Cal Ripken (6’4”) was an unconventional shortstop, but was so far removed from “bad” that he helped establish a new convention at the position – a convention that paved the way for Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Hanley Ramirez (all 6’3”) to play shortstop as well. I see no reason why a 6’3” player can handle shortstop but is too tall to play second base, so the fact that 6’3” second basemen are so rare strikes me as more of an historic anomaly as anything else.

Okay, I can see one potential reason why height might be more of a concern for a second baseman than for a shortstop. It’s the same reason why second basemen tend to develop more poorly than shortstops – what we call Brent Gates Syndrome. Second basemen turn the double-play pivot with their backs to the runner, which makes them susceptible to injuries, and in theory may also make them susceptible to minor but repeated leg traumas that over time may sap a player of his abilities. (I suspect this is what happened to Carlos Febles, for instance.)

Would a tall player be more susceptible to leg injuries? Possibly. There’s a good deal of evidence that catchers beyond a certain height – 6’1” or 6’2” – are more susceptible to injuries and tend to move out from behind the plate at a young age, probably because the constant squatting and standing is not good on the knees, and that stress on the knees is accentuated in tall players. (The original study for this was done by Bill James in, if memory serves, the 1987 Baseball Abstract. Since then, Mike Piazza showed no ill effects from being 6’3”, and Joe Mauer has raised the bar all the way to 6’5”. On the other hand, Mauer is 25 and has already dealt with knee injuries for years.)

This is a long stretch of an analogy to make, but I want to present both sides of the story here. In any case, I’m not really worried about the injury risk at second base for Teahen, both because he has shown himself to be a durable player throughout his career, and – not to be heartless – the fact is, he’s not so valuable that an injury would be all that crippling to the Royals.

Third base to second base transitions have worked in the past, most recently last year, when Akinori Iwamura moved from third to second to accommodate Evan Longoria. Iwamura handled second base surprisingly well – he was probably better there than at third – and the defensive upgrade at two positions was a big part of the Rays’ historic improvement defensively. As best as I can tell, Iwamura had never before played second base regularly as a pro, either in the US or in Japan. Then again, he did win six Golden Gloves in Japan at third base. And Iwamura is 5’9”.

Among the players that Cameron points out as playing both third base and second base last year, a pair of Rockies stands out. Jeff Baker (6’2”, 210) had never played second base in the majors before last season, and was a third baseman throughout his minor league career. With Garrett Atkins entrenched at third, Baker spent most of 2006 and 2007 rotating between first base and the corner outfield spots, but last year, at age 27, Baker played 49 games at second base. Judging from the fact that he made his first two starts at second, this was a transition that was likely planned during spring training or before. He wasn’t very good at second base, but then he wasn’t very good at third base either.

Baker’s teammate, Ian Stewart (6’3”, 205) was also tried at second base last season, after coming up through the minors exclusively as a third baseman. Stewart was a rookie and just 23, so he’s not directly comparable to Teahen, but the fact is that his body size did not dissuade the Rockies from trying him there.

So I guess this can work, but pardon me for remaining skeptical. It’s true that third basemen can adjust to second base more easily than is commonly recognized, and it’s true that getting a third baseman’s bat at second base is an upgrade. The problem is that it’s not clear how this pertains to Teahen, because Teahen really isn’t a third baseman any more. He hasn’t played third base regularly since 2006, and his only time spent there over the last two years came when he filled in for 19 games when Alex Gordon went on the DL. In those 19 games Teahen’s work only served to remind us why he had been the one to move to the outfield in the first place: he’s not a very good defensive player at third. Moving Teahen to second base is less reminiscent of Akinori Iwamura than it is of Gregg Jefferies, who was a butcher at both positions but slightly less destructive at the hot corner.

Even if Teahen manages to handle second base with some level of adequacy, it’s not clear whether his bat justifies the defensive hit. We’re talking about a player who has one above-average offensive season in his four-year career, a guy who hit .255/.313/.402 last year. Alberto Callaspo, the incumbent at the position, hit .305/.361/.371 last year. The fact that the Royals are even talking about moving Teahen to second tells you how confident they are that Callaspo can repeat those numbers.

I share those concerns – Callaspo has neither power nor speed, and his entire skill set revolves around his uncanny ability to make contact. (Callaspo has struck out just 34 times in 399 career at-bats.) You can hit .300 with that kind of contact ability, but Callaspo has to hit .300 to justify a starting job, because he’s not contributing in any other way. And without the speed to leg out an infield single a couple times a month, it’s going to be hard to sustain that average. The difference between a player like this with speed and a player like this without speed is the difference between Luis Castillo five years ago and Luis Castillo today.

Throw in the DUI and domestic violence issues with Castillo Callaspo, and it’s good that the Royals are looking for a Plan B that’s more threatening than The Spork. At the same time, I think Callaspo has earned the right to play every day and prove that last year isn’t a fluke. Power, speed, and defense aside, he did hit .305 last year, he will take a walk, he switch-hits, and he’s still just 25. Having definitively proved last year that he can’t play shortstop, he has negligible value as a bench player, so if he’s not playing every day he’s useless. Callaspo has too much potential for the Royals to bury him without giving him the opportunity to play himself out of a job.

So that’s one problem I have with this idea – as low as the odds are that Teahen learns to play a passable second base, the odds are even lower that the mix of offense and defense that he brings to the position proves more valuable than what the Royals can already get from Callaspo.

If the Royals were a Strat-o-matic team and the players were cards that could be swapped in and out whimsically, there would be a way to get everyone some playing time. Teahen starts in good home run parks and when Greinke is on the mound. Bloomquist starts occasionally against left-handers or when Hochevar pitches; Callaspo gets the rest of the playing time. Teahen supplements his at-bats by starting a couple times a month at third, left, right, and first base, and is the first left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench.

Players are not Strat-o-matic cards, but it’s a good exercise for a manager to think of his players purely in terms of their skill sets, their strengths and weaknesses, before figuring out how to deploy them. When he was hired, one of Trey Hillman’s strengths was supposed to be his willingness to use his entire roster in just such a fashion. We saw glimpses of that last season, but if Teahen handles his second base audition well enough, Hillman has the opportunity to prove his chops by the way he apportions out playing time at second base.

But my biggest issue with Teahen at second base is simply that I think the Royals are floating this idea out there for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think the Royals want to try Teahen at second base because they’ve suddenly become willing to sacrifice defense for offense, or that think he could be the second coming of Jeff Kent over there. I think the Royals want to try Teahen at second base because they don’t have any idea what to do with Teahen. Well, they did have an idea – they wanted to trade him, and don’t believe Moore’s denials – but that didn’t work out. The way the market has cratered for league-average talent, I can’t say I’m surprised. Why trade anything for Mark Teahen and his $3 million salary when you can sign Eric Hinske, as the Pirates did, for half that?

You could argue that the Royals should just cut Teahen rather than pay him the salary he’s going to make in arbitration. If Teahen hits like he did last year, he’s not worth $3 million. The argument for keeping him isn’t simply that he might approach his 2006 form again, but that if he does, you then get to keep him at below-market value for 2010 and 2011 as well.

But he can’t justify his salary if he’s not getting at-bats. I suppose this is one way of getting Teahen those at-bats. I think it’s worth a try, and I credit the Royals for entertaining the idea. I also think that come Opening Day, we’ll have already long forgotten the idea that the Royals ever thought Mark Teahen could play second base.