Immediately after the Nationals drafted Bryce Harper, they moved him from catcher to the outfield. The move made sense: Harper’s bat was something special, and the toll that donning the tools of ignorance takes is heavy. In order to accelerate his offensive development, keep him safe, and lengthen his career, it was decided that he was now an outfielder.
This makes perfect sense, and isn’t so much about the player’s skills as it is about maximizing his personal production and value. Bryce Harper the catcher may not have been excellent–maybe his offense never would have developed, maybe his career would have been shorter, and maybe his defense would’ve stunk–but Bryce Harper the outfielder is special.
Harper played all three outfield positions during his rookie season, but in 2013 the Nationals added Denard Span to the outfield mix. Span is–maybe was–a good defensive center fielder. Young Harper moved to left and right field, mostly. And that’s fine … the Nationals benefitted from Harper’s pretty-good defense in the corners, though he never seemed to have as much defensive success as he did during his debut in center field. The Nats had two great seasons with Harper in the corners, so the move is a win, right?
Maybe. But perhaps we should consider the sacrifice made for Harper when the team moved him to the corner. As much work as the ballplayer does on the field, the manager makes the lineup card, and the front office provides the players to the team. Bryce Harper was moved to a corner outfield position, the same way he was moved from catcher to the outfield … but this time, it’s possible that the positional move cost him overall value.
With the advent of WAR metrics, we can understand just what the difference in value is between players at different positions. Thanks to the work of Tom Tango and other sabermetricians, positional adjustments have been discovered. We can quantify the relative value of one position, compared to another. Positions of extreme value like catcher and shortstop give a player improved WAR values, where first base and those corner outfield positions take it away. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, players see potential value stripped away because they’ve been shifted from center field to an outfield corner, or because they are exiled to first base.
In many cases, a move down this positional spectrum should come with improved defensive ability at the new position: for example, a good defensive center fielder should be even better in right field. But these moves aren’t always a linear progression. Players who’ve spent years honing their abilities in one space learning how to track a fly ball or get in front of a grounder, may be lost at first take in a new role. Just because there’s a 10-run positional adjustment in moving from third base to left field doesn’t mean that success is assured, or that the transition will be smooth. Just ask Hanley Ramirez, or the many catchers who’ve tried their hands (and feet) in left field like Todd Hundley and Kyle Schwarber.
WAR is a good metric for many reasons. It’s the best tool we have for recording a player’s overall value. But it cannot take into account this bit of context, and as such we see potential value … value that could and should be earned by players chucked aside, lost to history. In 30 years, no one will remember why Bryce Harper was moved out of center field … they’ll just remember that he was a right fielder.
When Alex Rodriguez came over to the Yankees, perhaps this issue was never more relevant. There was no way A-Rod was ever going to take over shortstop from Derek Jeter, so he slid over to third base–a position lower on the defensive spectrum. Rodriguez’s skills weren’t the driver of this move, as he had already established himself as a solid, if not good, shortstop. The early years of UZR coincided with his last two seasons in Texas, where he put up over 10 runs of value with the leather.
Almost immediately after moving to third base, his numbers dropped precipitously–Alex never seemed to be anything more than an average-ish third sacker by advanced metrics. The trouble here is that it is difficult to discern the breakdown between how much of this drop was due to the natural skill attrition that came with moving into his 30s, and how much of it was due to moving off his natural position.
I think it stands to reason that–at least for 2004, maybe longer–Rodriguez would have earned more personal value by playing shortstop. The drop in positional-adjustment runs from shortstop to third base is approximately five runs over a full season. If we presume that Alex would have posted a slightly-lower version of his previous shortstop defensive rating (let’s say he’d have a UZR of 8.0, rather than 11.2), and that the positional adjustment on his season is roughly 7.5 runs, then that puts him at +15.5 runs added for his defense in 2004. If you compare that to his actual numbers–UZR of 9.1 at 3B, plus 2.5 runs for playing third base–we get +11.6 runs, a net change of about four runs.
Make no mistake: this is not a huge difference. Wins Above Replacement metrics already have large error bars thanks to the methodologies they employ and the way the metrics that make up the framework are calculated. While 0.4 fWAR in a season could be a rounding error to some, over the long term, these types of gains or losses could mean a lot.
It’s not just WAR that can be affected by these issues. During some seasons, players are limited in awards selections based on the positions that they are posted at. In the American League, shortstop was a wasteland in the first half of the 2015 season. Before the advent of Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor near the months of June and July, no six in the AL seemed very worthy of the designation "All-Star." Meanwhile, talented third baseman Manny Machado was in the midst of yet another stellar season as the Orioles’ franchise player.
Originally a shortstop, Machado was moved off the position as he debuted in the major leagues, thanks to the presence of J.J. Hardy in Baltimore. While Machado was a good defensive shortstop, Hardy had years of data establishing him as an ace with the leather. Now, despite his earth-shattering talent, Machado hasn’t won an All-Star starting nod over the past few seasons, thanks to fellow MVP candidates Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson playing the same position. This past season, there’s an argument to be made that Machado, while not the best third baseman in the AL, would have been the best shortstop in the AL.
Here’s another way to look at this: who is the greatest first baseman in Red Sox history? I ask because over at BP Boston, Jake Devereaux was working on his historical all-Sox team, and we batted about some options. To me, it came down to this: is it Mo Vaughn, David Ortiz, Jimmie Foxx, or Carl Yastrzemski? Foxx and Vaughn were true first basemen, but neither spent an enormous amount of time with the team. David Ortiz was primarily a designated hitter, and Yastrzemski primarily an outfielder, but both played some first base and had much more stellar Boston careers than either Foxx or Vaughn.
To me, the answer is Vaughn, because he was a "true" first baseman. But all that would have had to have happened to change my answer would have been for Vaughn to have been lined up at designated hitter instead of first base most of the time. Mo Vaughn was never a good fielder, and if the Red Sox were composed just a little differently, he could have been a DH by trade for most of his tenure. As for David Ortiz, well, if the AL didn’t have the DH, he certainly would have played first base every day, as his tremendous bat carried enough value to prop up his sketchy defense.
All this goes to show is that our perception of history–the all-time lists we make, the All-Star teams players did or didn’t make due to their competition at a position, the WAR numbers that were "too high" or "too low"–all of it is colored by the way GMs and managers deployed their resources. There’s an element of true talent level that will never be captured in these numbers, and the exploration of context and "what ifs" certainly aren’t perfect, but it can give us a richer understanding of how valuable a player could have been, should have been, but never was.
Most players probably aren’t considering their long-term legacies when they swap positions. The changes they make aren’t likely to move the needle in huge amounts in any direction, so it’s more important for these players to consider their teams’ needs, and the immediate challenges presented by practicing the skills needed to succeed in the place they’ve been moved to. When we perform our analysis, it may color our perceptions of players on the fringes, especially now that we understand the importance of defensive value. Greatness often wins out, but sometimes a player on the cusp of All-Star, Hall of Fame, or MVP status might be pushed under the imaginary line.
It’s important to remember that sometimes, teams put players in a position where their overall numbers (by WAR), ability to win awards, or legacy can all be affected. And it’s simply by running them out, day after day, at a less than optimal position. What’s good for the team is not always what’s best for the player’s Baseball-Reference page.
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Bryan Grosnick is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score, an author of Baseball Prospectus, and a columnist for Baseball Prospectus - Boston.