When the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a mammoth free agent contract this winter, one of the first things baseball fans considered was where on (or off) the diamond Fielder and incumbent 1B Miguel Cabrera would play. Soon after the signing, the Tigers announced that Cabrera would be moving across the field to his old position: third base. This move was widely derided by many - not only due to Cabrera's poor defensive performance at third before his move to first base, but also due to the fact that many thing Cabrera has "outgrown" the position.
Put simply, as many baseball players fill out, develop, and add mass, coaches tend to move them off premium defensive positions like shortstop, second base, and third base. But does size actually matter in terms of defensive performance? Do bigger and taller players have a noticeable disadvantage in playing a position that requires quick reflexes and mobility?
The hypothesis I seek to disprove is fairly simple: the larger a player is, the more their defense suffers at third base.
There's one major problem with this line of analysis, however. Height and weight are notoriously difficult to quantify accurately. The figures available at any given time can be misrepresented or inaccurate, either on purpose or accidentally. In addition, weight can fluctuate on a daily basis, and certainly changes over the course of the long baseball season. So I used the data available, pulling size information from ESPN.com's team roster pages. In addition to the size info for Cabrera, Ramirez, Trumbo, and Houston's Brett Wallace, I pulled up the data for 31 more players. All of these players either logged considerable time at 3B during the 2011 season, or look to start at the position during 2012. Then, I grabbed UZR/150 and Fan Scouting Report numbers for each of the players, to give context to their defensive capabilities beyond the conventional wisdom.
|Miguel Cabrera||Tigers||6'4"||250||-4.1 (*)||0|
|Hanley Ramirez||Marlins||6'3"||230||-10.2 (**)||-3|
|Mark Trumbo||Angels||6'4"||220||5.5 (*)||0|
|Brett Wallace||Astros||6'2"||262||-6.9 (*)||-1|
|Brent Morel||White Sox||6'2"||220||1||6|
|Kevin Youkilis||Red Sox||6'1"||220||-3.7||2|
|Brett Lawrie||Blue Jays||6'0"||215||15.7||1|
(*) - Fielding data is for 1B, not 3B
(**) - Fielding data is for SS, not 3B
What can we take away from this table quickly? (I mean, aside from the sometimes-glaring differences in single-season UZR/150 sample and the FSR scores for defensive players.) The largest players at the third base position, in terms of both height and weight, are actually pretty good defenders. Scott Rolen, at 6'4" and 247 pounds, is a legendary defensive player, who's managed to continue to field at a high level late in his career. The pound-for-pund heaviest 3B in the game, San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval, played solid D last season both from a numbers and from an eye-test standpoint. Of players 6'3" and taller, only Pedro Alvarez looks to be a below-average defender, if you consider Ryan Zimmerman's 2011 UZR/150 an abberation on a solid defensive record.
Miguel Cabrera, if his listed height and weight are accurate, would compare to Rolen in terms of size. While Rolen has years of skill and practice at the position, he also proves that pure size does not inhibit his ability to get to balls or field his position. Meanwhile, Hanley Ramirez's size compares to another former shortstop, Alex Rodriguez. At 6'3" and around 230 pounds, the comparably-sized players to Hanley include Alvarez, Rodriguez, and Zimmerman.
The one thing to point out is that these players who have a few inches of height and some extra pounds have proven to be more injury-prone than some of the smaller players. This is in part due to players like Jones, Rolen, and Rodriguez being late in their careers, but Zimmerman has also been banged up of late.
There's a simple dichotomy between (arguably) the best defensive 3B in baseball and the weakest 3B in the game. Evan Longoria of the Rays consistently earns raves from scouts, as well as scoring high in advanced fielding metrics such as UZR. The virtual opposite of Longoria is Baltimore's Mark Reynolds. Reynolds is a disaster in the field, and offers such poor defense that some metrics read him as being three wins below replacement with the glove. Both Longoria and Reynolds are listed as 6'2" and 220 pounds.
There are players of every build who play good defense, and players of every build who play bad defense. Juan Uribe, Pablo Sandoval, and Adrian Beltre are examples of shorter, slightly heavier players who play good-to-great D. Players of average height and weight like Mark Reynolds and Danny Valencia can be bad defenders, the same way players of similar build like Longoria and Brent Morel have solid glove skills. Most of the players under 6'0" and under 200 pounds played solid D last season, but that doesn't rule out positive defensive performance from larger players.
The most important thing that I could draw from this exercise is that height and weight don't necessarily seem to correlate with defensive ability. Players like Sandoval and Rolen prove that players of Cabrera's (approximate) size can be successful in defense at the hot corner. When a talent evaluator indicates that a player needs to move off the hot corner due to a player's body filling out, make sure that in addition to adding mass, their critical fielding skills specific to the position are in decline as well. Whether Cabrera has the chops to play effective defense at third is another issue, and whether he's putting himself at additional injury risk by playing the position is an open question. But just because they are tall and a bit heavier than average, doesn't mean that Miggy, Hanley, Trumbo, and Wallace will necessarily be bad fielders at third.
Height / weight data from ESPN.com. All other statistics from FanGraphs.com.