Old habits die hard. We have an image in our mind of what a player at each position on the field should be like, both offensively and defensively. If you’re asked to think about a catcher, the image that comes to mind is significantly different than if you were asked to think about a shortstop. For the most part these images serve us well. But one area where they may be lacking is our image of a second baseman compared to that of a third baseman.
Most people will think of the second baseman as a scrappy-type of player, one who’s not afraid of getting his uniform dirty and one who may not have the greatest offensive talent but one who will do everything he can to be useful. Meanwhile, the image of the third baseman is one of the slugger. He may not be the most athletic player around but he’ll give you the power that, say, a second baseman simply does not have.
The reality is that last year in the NL, the league’s 2B had a .754 OPS while the league’s 3B had a .779 mark. And the results were even closer in 2016, when there were only two points of OPS separating 2B (.778) from 3B (.780) in the senior circuit. It’s a far cry from 1980, when 2B in the NL posted a .652 OPS while 3B notched a .730 mark.
The Mets head into 2018 with Asdrubal Cabrera as their second baseman and Todd Frazier holding down the fort over at third base. Over the past two seasons, Cabrera has produced a .798 OPS in 1,108 PA while Frazier has a .770 mark in 1,242 PA. Their individual marks line up with the recent trend of offensive interchangeability between the two positions.
Yet, my personal comfort level with Frazier is higher than mine with Cabrera, in terms of being a productive overall player in regards to their position. And that opinion is supported by the preseason projections of both Steamer and ZiPS. The two projection systems see very similar offensive seasons for both players. But the defensive expectations are greater for Frazier. That edge leads Steamer to project a 2.1 to 1.2 fWAR edge while ZiPS forecasts a 2.9 to 0.7 edge for Frazier, in reasonably similar playing time.
The two-win separation between the players predicted by ZiPS feels right to me. And it wouldn’t be a big shock if the difference was greater than that. In my opinion, Frazier has an offensive upside that Cabrera does not. Cabrera has been a better offensive player than Frazier the past two years and it’s possible he might not have that same edge in 2018.
Frazier’s offensive output took a tumble once he was traded away from Cincinnati. Now, the Great American Ball Park is a good place to hit and we should have expected some dropoff in performance. But his home marks have been significantly worse than his road marks the past two seasons and it’s not like the ballparks in the American League cities of Chicago and New York are poor offensive environments. Here are the breakdowns:
H – .611
R – .932
H – .715
R – .813
What if instead of losing triple digits worth of OPS in his home park, Frazier plays the same both home and away? By no means is that guaranteed to happen in 2018. But it has to be considered among the possibilities. Having played the last two seasons in Citi Field, Cabrera’s projection seems to be more “solid” than Frazier’s. There’s a touch more volatility in Frazier’s forecast, just because we have less of an idea how he’ll fare. Maybe it makes no difference at all and the typical computer model forecast is right on. Or maybe Frazier can be better in his home park than he has been recently, giving a boost to his offense.
Meanwhile, the volatility that exists for Frazier on offense exists for Cabrera on defense. Cabrera was pretty lousy on defense last year, forcing a move away from shortstop. He saw time at both 2B and 3B last year, playing more at the hot corner once Wilmer Flores suffered his season-ending injury. In 274.1 innings at 2B last year, Cabrera posted a (-6) DRS and a 0.9 UZR. That type of difference over this small of a sample size is pretty common. But if we look at his career numbers at 2B, over a total of 2,048 innings, a consensus seems to be forming. DRS has him at (-4) while UZR has him at (-2.7).
Cabrera’s best defensive work at 2B came in his largest sample, when in 776.2 innings he notched a + 11 DRS and a 5.3 UZR. But that came in 2008 when he was 22 years old. We know that defense peaks earlier than offense for most players and it seems overly optimistic to expect a 32-year-old Cabrera to be a win (or more) better than average defensively in 2018.
But Cabrera doesn’t have to be a plus defensive player; he just needs not to be awful. He needs to be the type of fielder at 2B that he was at SS in 2016 (-4.7 UZR/150) and not 2017 (-13.8 UZR/150 – and worse by DRS). And no one knows what he’ll be like defensively this coming year.
Which one seems more likely to you – that Frazier will have an even H/R offensive split or that Cabrera will be below average but not awful defensively?
Frazier got off to an awful start at the plate in Grapefruit League play but has been warming up as Spring Training winds down. After 52 ABs, he holds a .250/.298/.442 mark – slightly better than Cabrera’s .713 OPS in 45 ABs. It’s impossible to make any conclusions based on this but it’s another data point in the interchangeability offensively between the two players.
It seems Frazier is ready to hit. Is Cabrera ready to field?