Bottom of the fifth, runner on third. The inning has already gone awry for the Rockies and Juan Nicasio, but there’s a chance to get out of it. There are two outs; the count is 1 ball, 2 strikes to Lonnie Chisenhall. Nicasio induces a sharp, bouncing ball near the left field line, and the third baseman gets there, but it bounds just off his glove into left field for a run-scoring double. It’s now 5-2, Cleveland, and the night is officially over for Juan Nicasio.
This is a play that would have gotten the Rockies out of the inning two weeks ago (and, honestly, it’s a play that most third basemen probably make most of the time, so I don’t want to be too hard on Charlie Culberson). And while it was hardly crucial to the overall outcome, it was difficult not to think about what might have been were it not for a headfirst slide in Atlanta.
We all knew the Rockies would miss Nolan Arenado; he was having the sort of season that screams “breakout.” Offensively he was contributing in the fashion Rockies fans had been hoping for since he tore through the Arizona Fall League in 2011. And defensively it seemed like he had only improved on his Gold Glove level defense. Many a heart broke when it was announced he would be out until at least June (though, the specialist in Cleveland said he didn’t require surgery, which makes this the only good thing to come out of Cleveland since The Drive). But after seeing this play on Friday night in Cleveland, I said to myself “Boy, self—it sure seems like losing Arenado is hurting us in big ways. But how much are the Rockies missing him?” I set out to find the answer by comparing what they’ve gotten from Nolan to what they’re going to be getting in his absence.
I started by limiting the question to defense, as the Rockies are obligated to play someone at third base, no matter how terrible. I also limited the scope of this exercise to players currently on the 25-man roster, for reasons that we will discuss later. Firstly, I checked the errors and fielding percentage. Errors are totally up to the official scorer, and are therefore terribly subjective, but it’s something that we can all see and does help tell us about opportunities guys simply missed on defense. Then I looked at more advanced metrics, specifically Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating (click the links for a little primer on each of these metrics), in order to see what the numbers had to say about the situation. While defensive metrics are still clearly in their infancy, and using them to draw conclusions in a single season is a suspect practice due to the inevitable small samples involved, they are helpful in giving us a more complete picture of what’s happening on the field. I then looked at Inside Edge Fielding from Fangraphs to account for the “eye-test.” Inside Edge Fielding is a handy tool which classifies defensive plays based on the likelihood of them being converted into outs (to learn more about Inside Edge Fielding, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs used this data recently to tell us just how awesome Troy Tulowitzki is, and it is well worth your time). This is a convenient way to account for those WOW plays to which we are accustomed to seeing from this defense. Now, let’s get into it.
Losing Arenado’s Defense
And last year, in addition to being the first rookie third baseman to win a National League Gold Glove since ever, Arenado finished second in all of baseball with 30 Defensive Runs Saved. For context, he topped the previous best score on record of 25 by Ryan Zimmerman in 2009. Manny Machado was the only third baseman to finish higher, with 35 because holy cow can Manny Machado field a baseball. For more context, anything above +10 in a single season is considered excellent. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how pretty it was to watch him play.
But what about this year?
By the traditional numbers, he seemed to be taking a step back, with 7 errors (good for a .958 fielding percentage) in 422 innings, compared to his 11 in 1110 innings last season. However, when we examine the advanced metrics, we see that, through about a third of the season, Nolan is already at 9 defensive runs saved. While it would be foolish to assume that this automatically puts him on pace for another 30 DRS this year—remember, anything above +10 DRS over a whole season is considered top tier—we clearly see that Nolan’s defense has been right on par with last year. In fact, according to Inside Edge Fielding, Nolan seems to be right on track. Here we see that Nolan has not lost a step, having already converted 3 plays deemed “Remote” (1-10% chance of being converted into an out) into outs in 15 opportunities, compared to his 3 in all of last year in 17 opportunities. Maybe this is indicative of an increase in range, or maybe it is just small sample size noise–or both! The larger point is–this may come as a shock to some people–Nolan Arenado, despite the errors, is pretty good at defense.
And, oh yeah, he’s still really fun to watch.
The good news is Nolan won’t require surgery and should be back within a month or so. But the bad news is the answer to “How much are the Rockies going to miss Nolan?” is “A whole lot.” But the question remains, how bad is the bad news? Let’s look at the options Walt Weiss has at third base defensively to find out.
I Don’t Know is on Third
Option 1: Culberson at Third Base
All due credit should go to Charlie Culberson: he has stepped in admirably on the defensive side of the ball (Well, at least he hasn’t exactly been Ty Wiggington over there), and seemed to be Manager Walt Weiss’ preferred option at first. However, it should be stated that these are the first innings Charlie has recorded as a Major Leaguer at third base. It is clear to even the untrained eye that Charlie doesn’t own the same range as Nolan (but, who does, right?). With only 3 put outs and 15 assists to this point, the advanced stats are incredibly unreliable for drawing any kind of conclusions. For curiosity’s sake, though, let’s take a look at the Inside Edge data for Charlie.
|Charlie Culberson (2014)||Opportunities||%Converted|
We see that, while he hasn’t had many opportunities, he has yet to convert any of the plays considered “Remote” or “Impossible” hit his way. This isn’t shocking, of course—those types plays are exactly the kind that either aren’t made, or only made by the top third basemen. But when we (unfairly) compare him to Arenado, it’s clear the Rockies are losing the range that has made Golden Nolan such a delight to behold at the hot corner. Charlie has done well with what he has, but it’s the plays that he never gets close to that have really hurt thus far.
“What about other third basemen on the roster?” you might ask. And this would be a very valuable question indeed. What would happen if we shuffled about our defensive alignment, tried to recreate Nolan in the aggregate? Besides the obvious lineup challenges, there are challenges with this approach as well.
Option 2: LeMahieu at third base, Rutledge and/or Culberson at second base
|DJ LeMahieu (Career)||Second Base||Third Base|
The thing to keep in mind about moving LeMahieu across the diamond is you are taking an excellent second baseman (10 DRS last year, 7 DRS already this year) and moving him to his, at best, second best position. In just over 200 career innings (VERY small sample, defensively), DJ has graded out as slightly below average at third base (1 DRS, -0.2 Ultimate Zone Rating). As it was for Culberson, the culprit is not so much errors as a lack of range, as DJ has gotten to only 4 balls deemed “Unlikely” and none deemed “Remote” or “Impossible.”
The numbers here are clear: DJ LeMahieu is an excellent defensive second baseman. Moving him over to third base grants us a merely average third baseman. And what do we get at second base? The two most likely candidates on the current roster would be either Josh Rutledge or Charlie Culberson. What do the numbers tell us?
|MLB Career at Second Base||Josh Rutledge||Charlie Culberson|
It’s pretty clear: from a defensive perspective, moving LeMahieu to third base would be a terrible idea. This doesn’t even take into account how much our pitching staff, which is fifth in the league in ground ball percentage, would lose by having a clearly inferior defense behind them (for more on the value of this defense for the pitching staff, check out this article from our own Eric Garcia McKinley on infield shifts . No, DJ needs to stay at second base—no sense getting weaker at two positions, no matter how much value Rutledge could add with his bat and his legs.
Option 3: Play Cuddyer at third base
Remember when I said I was limiting the options to players currently on the 25-man roster? Part of that is because the Rockies seem dead set on continuing with “Operation Carry 6 Outfielders.” What if, instead of moving someone from the infield over to third base, the Rockies moved one of those 6 outfielders in to play third base?
This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Michael Cuddyer and Josh Rutledge started taking grounders at third base during batting practice while they were still in Atlanta, and Cuddyer got the start at third base for the final two games in Cleveland. From a lineup construction standpoint, this seems to be good option—but how does it hold up defensively? Rutledge has yet to log an inning at third base at the MLB level, and I couldn’t find any record of him playing there in the minors. And so, in order to simplify the conversation, we’re going to relegate Josh to a bench role.
Cuddyer, meanwhile, is a defensive liability in his own right in the outfield, though he’s merely below average at first base (-6 DRS in his career). He hasn’t started at third base since 2010 (which means there is no Inside Edge data for him there), but he did log a descent amount of innings there, so let’s take a look at the—AAGGHH!
|Michael Cuddyer (Career)||Outfield||Third Base|
Wait, this guy plays outfield defense on a regular basis? On purpose? Sorry, I don’t know what I was expecting. It should be stated that, while his defense tends to give back a lot of value, Cuddyer is an incredibly valuable player offensively (2014 wRC+ of 131 makes him 31% better than the average player offensively this season), and is easily the best offensive option we’ve discussed (Culberson: 16 wRC+; LeMahieu: 72 wRC+; Rutledge: 107 wRC+). But, considering the raw number of innings he has played at third, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to play Michael at third base in the interim. When you further take into account the fact that we have 6 outfielders who are playing well (or, in the case of Carlos Gonzalez, expected to play well any day now…any day now…), maybe playing Cuddyer at third isn’t so crazy after all. Who would be replacing him in the outfield? Let’s look at the cast of characters, and throw in their wRC+ numbers for the sake of comparison:
|Career||Carlos Gonzalez||Charlie Blackmon||Corey Dickerson||Drew Stubbs||Brandon Barnes|
While an older Cuddyer is probably not even going to be as “good” as he was with the Twins at third base, it does seem to be a viable option, since he was clearly the worst defensive player among the outfielders on the roster. Unlike in the case of moving LeMahieu to third base, there are superior options defensively in the outfield, which makes this a clear case of addition by subtraction. The best part of this plan is that it not only improves the outfield defense while only slightly—okay, okay more than slightly—hurting the infield defense, but it maximizes the Rockies offensive potential by getting Michael Cuddyer and (likely) Corey Dickerson’s bats into the line-up. This is especially appealing when we consider the fact that it more than makes up for Nolan’s offensive contributions (110 wRC+) as well.
Bringing this up seems a little brutish, but the Rockies are only 2-6 since Nolan went down with an injury. While causation does not necessarily equal correlation it seems logical that losing an All-Star third basemen would lead to fewer wins.
If you want to sum up the whole point of this article in 140 characters or less, Andrew Fisher (formerly) of Purple Row has you covered:
In a very short time, Nolan Arenado has become the second most valuable Rockie in terms of difficulty to replace.
— Andrew Fisher (@PoseidonsFist) May 31, 2014
But the difference between the 2014 Rockies and the teams of years past is that this team has some depth to cover for injuries like this. And so, crazy as it may have seemed when he trotted out to third in Cleveland for his first start since 2010 at the position, the numbers support the idea of playing Michael Cuddyer at third base, and moving the surprisingly productive pack of outfielders into increased roles. It seems to be the least impactful option for the defense, as it limits the below-average defenders to just 1 of the 7 non-battery positions. Yes, Cuddyer at third base represents a huge defensive drop off from Nolan Arenado, but that was to be expected from the start. But this plan also allows the Rockies to stuff their lineup with above average bats, which will at least partially make up for the defensive downgrade.
In any case, if it’s all the same to you, Nolan, we’d rather have you back sooner rather than later.