Second base is an interesting position that affords teams multiple ways with which to fill the position. If the team can generate offense from other positions, a defense-first player can be used and strengthen the team up the middle. If the player is a plus bat relative to the position, he might allow teams to use a less-potent bat at short or third. There is no one way to correctly fill the position, and this year, teams are taking many different approaches.
The basis for this post is this Tableau data visualization, which plots a player's FanGraphs Dollar Value ($FG$V) on the horizontal axis and his pro-rated (roughly around one-third as of this writing) 2015 salary on the vertical. By imagining a line crossing through the 0-0, 1-1, 2-2 points and so on, it can be argued that players to the right of that imaginary line are delivering more value than their contracts, and those to the left are delivering less. I wish I could create a real line, but I can't.
On December 11th, 2014, the Dodgers made two trades--the first involved sending Dee Gordon to the Marlins, and the second brought them Howie Kendrick from the Angels. The movement of Gordon to the Marlins made some sense, since it created a spot at second for Alex Guerrero. Obtaining Howie Kendrick essentially meant the Dodgers swapped Gordon for an older, more expensive Kendrick, even though it cost them little. All that is out the window as, of this writing, Guerrero is being used in left and Kendrick is having a very solid season at second for the Dodgers.
What no one saw was the start Dee Gordon would have, being among the best position players by fWAR for any position. He was batting .403 as recently as May 19th, which I strongly suspect can't be sustained throughout the rest of the season. As of this writing he leads the majors in hits and batting average, and even if he cools off and "only" hits" .300 by season's end, that's still valuable. He has no power, so his contributions are in getting on base and scoring runs.
There are enough data points that moving the Date slider shows movement over time by the players. The data goes back to May 17th, and moving the slider day by day shows Jason Kipnis of the Indians overtaking Gordon like a planet in apparent retrograde motion overtaking another in the night sky. This table shows both player's fWAR at the beginning of this data series through Saturday:
|fWAR||May 17th||June 6th|
That's quite a three-week span for Kipnis. He's already nearing his 2014 marks for home runs and RBIs, and added almost 100 points of OBP. Baseball Prospectus Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) still places him in the bottom of the pack for second basemen, so he's not perfect, but his offensive production far outweighs what defensive deficiencies he may have. Read Murphy Powell's post for a further discussion of Kipnis' resurgence.
Every ounce of value the Tigers derive from Ian Kinsler is a pure plus over not having the albatross of Prince Fielder and his contract on their books through 2020. Leaving aside the fact that Fielder could be an outstanding replacement for Victor Martinez this year, Kinsler continues to provide offense and and good enough defense to justify his use. Whatever woes the Tigers are going through now cannot be laid at his feet.
Logan Forsythe's excellent season so far is discussed in this BtBS post by Nicolas Stellini, so I won't belabor it other than to state that no one saw it coming is an understatement. The Rays might be trying to turn him into their next Ben Zobrist as he's played three different positions and DHed as well, but there's only one Ben Zobrist, and he's fallen back to Earth after being traded to the Athletics, largely a result of knee issues. With the A's treading water, there are rumors Zobrist might be on the trading block, with one rumor having him going to the Cubs. That's just what the Cubs need--more middle infielders.
Who's that lurking in the upper left corner of the data viz, the home of the overpaid and underperforming? Why, it's none other than Robinson Cano, subject of the first post I ever wrote for Beyond the Box Score! When the Mariners signed Cano I didn't really care about the money as much as the years and the place, since just about any power Cano demonstrated in Yankee Stadium was going to be wasted in Safeco Field. This is a gross simplification since he only plays half his games at home, but I didn't think the Mariners were close enough to contending that he was the final piece to push them over the hump. I was incorrect last year as the Mariners remained competitive until the end of the season, but Cano might have entered the decline phase of his career sooner than expected. It's too early to state that definitively--at 32, there's no reason why he can't bounce back, but for the Mariners' sake, he better do it soon if they want to be competitive this year.
There's a lot of bad and overpaid on the left side of the chart, headed by one of my former faves, Chase Utley. He was as dependable as they come until around 2010 and then seemed to enter his regression phase, only to bounce back very nicely in 2014. Alas, the Phillies by then were (and are) a backyard tire fire, and now he's just an overpaid appendage on a team that really doesn't need him, and his performance won't drive up his trade value. His contract is Phillie-friendly--beginning in 2016, the big dollars don't vest unless 500 plate appearances are reached in the previous seasons. I see fewer plate appearances in his future.
Stephen Drew has more lives than, well, I can't think of a good metaphor. He at least started the year with the Yankees, the first year since 2011 when he began the year on a big-league roster, showing the resilience that had him on rosters at the end of years. His luck may be running out. The Aaron Hill of 2009 and 2010 was a pretty good one--the one of 2015 will still be owed $12 million in 2016.
I should also note the nice solid pack of young players like Joe Panik, Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Devon Travis and Kolten Wong. I'm not exactly sure when Joe Panik will play a series in Comerica Park so we can have the Panik in Detroit comments, he never played in the Southern League so we can't think about Panik on the streets of Birmingham, and I won't dignify Panic! At The Disco with a comment, but he's playing a very good second base that ended the Marco Scutaro era. Jose Altuve continues to put up outstanding offensive numbers and is having the best season of any player 5'-6" or shorter this year. Devon Travis is a real surprise in Toronto on a team that is really surprised to be three games under .500 through Saturday, given the offseason acquisitions they made.
It's interesting to note that only one second baseman was chosen in the first round of the 2014 draft, and he was a sandwich pick. The habit of drafting second basemen in the first round seems to have died off, and there's a good chance that teams are drafting shortstops and moving them to second as needed. This would explain why generally the defense is pretty solid among these players.
As these posts unfold, it becomes pretty clear that around 8-10 teams are in excellent shape at a given position, 6-8 teams are sunk, and the rest are in flux, either waiting for the next generation to develop or muddling through until they can fix the situation through a trade, free agency or a change in fortune. Players like Kipnis, Altuve and Dozier are the real deal, and the other teams are looking to replicate them, preferably at low cost and with plenty of years of team control, since second basemen don't appear to be aging well these days.
Previous posts in this series: