Defensive Maneuvers in the Dark

Oh, interleague play.  You are quite the vixen, aren’t you?

According to Nick Carfardo at the Boston Globe, the Red Sox are considering the possibility of shifting Gold Glove first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from first base to right field for two or three games during the team’s nine game jaunt through the National League.  The goal?  With the designated hitter rule not in effect for interleague games played in NL parks, this move would allow David Ortiz, one of the Red Sox’s hottest hitters, an opportunity to see some playing time at first base; his only viable position on the diamond.

According to Terry Francona, this possibility has been discussed with both parties.

“We’ve talked to him. We’ll see. I’m glad he’s willing to do it. I don’t want David to sit nine straight games … maybe a couple of times … I know he’s done it. We’ll see.”

While no one wants to see Papi sit for nine consecutive games, does anyone really want to see David Ortiz playing first base, and Adrian Gonzalez aimlessly wandering right field?  I certainly don’t.  Personally, I find the whole idea to be terrifying; one that could be hilarious and torturous, all at the same time.  Still, I’m going to try to put aside my initial emotional reaction, and look at this rationally.

Offensively, the addition of Ortiz, and (presumably) subtraction of J.D. Drew from the lineup is pretty much a no brainer.  This season, Ortiz is mashing the ball to the tune of a .432 wOBA.  Drew, on the other hand, has struggled mightily, posting a career worse .297 wOBA.  The difference between the two batters has been 24 weighted runs above average (wRAA), or 2.4 offensive wins above the replacement level (WAR).  Considering the Red Sox have only played 72 games thus far, that difference is pretty significant.

Now, let’s look at the potential defensive effects of such a move.  Ortiz is slow afoot; has little to no ability to move laterally; and fields the ball with an iron glove.  In other words, he’s the opposite of everything you’d want in a first baseman.  Statistically, in 248 career games at 1B, he posted a -3.6 UZR.  While that number might not seem bad, we need to remember that he produced that number in a sample that’s roughly half the size of what’s optimal.  In essence, his UZR has little to no value or meaning.  Furthermore, outside of taking a few ground balls in Spring Training and earlier this week during pre-game warm-ups, he hasn’t played 1B in close to a year.  With Ortiz another year older (he’s in his age-35 season), he’s likely worse than we remember him being the last time we saw him put on a glove.  This, of course, could lead to a few defensive adventures around the first base bag.

Gonzalez, on the other hand, is everything Ortiz is not…at least defensively.  Despite his painfully slow speed on the base paths, A-Gone is surprisingly quick and spry around the bag.  He’s shown excellent defensive range; above average lateral quickness; good movement while covering the bag; and an accurate throwing arm.  Unfortunately, moving him to right field negates most (if not all) of his positive defensive attributes.  For starters, while speed isn’t a requirement in fielding the position, foot speed as slow as Gonzalez’s will likely be a detriment to both his performance and the team.  Secondly, he’s only played one Major League game in RF during his career; that was with Texas in 2005.  As a result, he lacks the experience to read fly balls correctly; run appropriate routes; and display adequate range in the outfield.  Outside of that singular experience, he’s been rightfully relegated to 1B and DH where he can be the most productive.

I’m sure some (or even most of you) might be thinking, “Who cares?  It’s two or three games.  How bad could they be defensively?”  In a way, you’re correct.  Over the course of two or three games, the amount of damage A-Gone and Ortiz could do is seemingly minimal.  Still, allow me to provide you with two real life examples for how bad it could get.  The first example  is Vladmir Guerrero who was so poor defensively during last year’s World Series that Rangers manager, Ron Washington, was forced to pull him from the lineup during games played in San Francisco.  Granted, the situation was different in that this occurred during the World Series (and perhaps a bit extreme), but Guerrero’s defensive performance contributed greatly to the Rangers loss in Game 1.

The second example comes by way the San Francisco Giants from earlier this season.  With an injury to right fielder Cody Ross, and the emergence of first base prospect Brandon Belt, Giants’ management decided to allow the defensively challenged Aubrey Huff to play right field to start the season.  While Huff had past experience playing the outfield (346 games), he’d never showed an ability approaching anything resembling “adequate” at the position.  Regardless, the Giants put him in RF, and disasterous results ensued.  According to the eye test method, Huff was a butcher; rating at the “avert your eyes” level.  Statistically, he was as bad if not worse.  In only 86 innings, he managed to produce a -8.6 UZR.  Think about that for a second.  Huff cost his team nearly an entire win just based on 86 innings in RF!  Though it’s unlikely he would’ve remained on the horrid pace that predicted his defensive value being -119 runs over 150 games, he likely would have reach an echelon of defensive crappiness known only by the likes of Adam Dunn, Brad Hawpe, and Ryan Braun (third base edition).

My point in bringing up these two examples is not point out extreme cases where the “defense matters” meme works.  Instead, my purpose is to show that a poorly thought out defensive alignment can have an affect on a team’s ability to prevent runs and win ball games.  While the Red Sox are neither playing in the World Series, nor planning on letting Ortiz play every day (or even most days) on this nine game road trip; the defensive alignment with Ortiz at 1B and Gonzalez in RF could sway the outcome of a game (0r worse, multiple games) in their opponent’s favor.  (This, of course, makes no mention of how it might affect the pitching staff and their performances on the whole.)  Still, with the Yankees lurking closely behind the Red Sox, it makes little sense to trade run creation for run prevention; especially given how much of a downgrade the Ortiz/A-Gone move would be on defense.  Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to risk injuring Gonzalez when it’s completely unnecessary.  The Red Sox could avoid controversy, and end up better off by sitting A-Gone for 2-3 games to allow Ortiz play, rather than allow Gonzalez to play right field.

What are your thoughts?  Should the Red Sox shift Gonzalez to RF, and allow Ortiz to play 1B?  If so, for how many games?  What do you think the effects on the team/defense will be?  Let us know by sharing your feedback in the comments below!

Categories: Adrian Gonzalez Boston Red Sox David Ortiz

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

3 Responses to “Defensive Maneuvers in the Dark” Subscribe

  1. Matt D. June 22, 2011 at 2:10 PM #

    I think it should go as follows, Gonzo, Ortiz Gonzo Gonzo Ortiz Gonzo Ortiz Gonzo Gonzo, with each player getting at least one at bat per game

  2. thesexyburger June 23, 2011 at 5:30 PM #

    Definitely do not play Gonzo in Right.

  3. Jim U. June 24, 2011 at 2:57 PM #

    JIm U.

    I think Francona should use Papi only in a pinch hitter role in Pittsburgh and Philly. BIg Papi is my favorite Red Sox player, but the defensive downside of having him play first base and AG play right field in the same game probably outweighs the potential offensive advantage. Indeed, during the past 10 games, Ortiz is batting .243. If the Sox win these two series, then maybe Ortiz should play first base and AG play right field in one or two games in Houston. This way Ortiz could get in a total of 12 to 15 ABs in the 9 games. This assumes 6 pinch hitting appearances in the first two series and having Ortiz play 1B in one game in Houston and pinch hit in the other 2 games in Houston, OR, 8 ABs playing 1B in two games in Houston plus a pinch hitting appearance
    in the third game. Admittedly, this would not be ideal from Francona's viewpoint, but, on balance, perhaps the best solution for the team.