Should the Orioles Just Install a Pole At Third Base?

Last night, MLB.com's Britt Ghiroli passed along a few words from Buck Showalter:

You are going to see Mark start out at third base in the spring. That's where we would like for him to play. We think Mark is a lot better than he's shown statistically. I think he's going to come in [to camp] lighter and little more nimble.

[snip]

We know Chris can play a plus first base and we think Mark is a lot better than he showed last year. There are still some things we are looking at [this offseason], but right now, I think that's the plan.

Right, so, my immediate reaction on reading this was to literally yell out loud in my office at work. Which is admittedly not very mature of me, but, gosh, do we all remember Mark Reynolds 2011? Defensive statistics are a difficult thing to really grasp, but Reynolds as a third baseman registered the fourth worst season by Defensive Runs Saved (the Baseball Info Solutions' advanced defensive metric) in fangraphs' entire database at -29. In English: Mark Reynolds cost the Orioles 29 runs compared to an average defensive third baseman. The last third baseman to showcase himself that poorly was Ryan Braun in 2007 (-32 in comparable innings). Ryan Braun is now a mediocre left fielder.

I watched him all summer, and those numbers seem pretty dead on to me. Awful. Just awful.

That was the gist of what flashed through my brain when I heard that it was the Orioles' big plan to just send Reynolds right back out for 2012. Well, that and some sarcastic ideas about the efforts the O's have undergone to improve their rotation while basically completing ignoring their league-worst defense.

But then I actually spent more than half a second thinking about it.

Okay, so the first we have to do here is banish all variations on the phrase "His bat plays at the position". That phrase is highly relevant when talking about total value of a player and it is particularly relevant when talking about free agency. It is irrelevant for this problem, because the O's already have their principle players. They simply need to find the optimal configuration for them.

Okay, so let's do this as fairly as we know how. The Orioles have two potential 3B starters to choose from, Reynolds and Chris Davis. Here, in no particular order, are their defensive numbers at the hot corner, per about a half season (585.1 inning, to be exact):

-14 DRS, -11 UZR

-6 DRS, -4.5 UZR

The reason we took it by 585.1 innings is because that's all Chris Davis has logged as a third baseman at the major league level. Even in that small sample, he is still easily twice as bad as Mark Reynolds. Yes, Davis is the first set of numbers and Reynolds is the second. It would be especially egregious to stick Chris Davis at third, even compared to Reynolds. And just like that we know that the Orioles aren't ignoring the numbers. Far from it, in fact.

But what about the designated hitter? Mark Reynolds has publicly stated that he doesn't want to DH, that he can't play as well when he DHs, and that he will probably be upset if he is put into the everyday DH role. I understand the sentiment, because the DH is really kind of half a player. That said, Mark Reynolds has been a DH for exactly zero games in his career, which is a really small sample for him to draw from and conclude that he can't do it.

The Orioles are going to have a ninth batter for all 162 games next season beyond their eight starters, and I see the following candidates: Endy Chavez, Jai Miller, two of Matt Antonelli/Ryan Flaherty/Robert Andino (with the third manning second), and Taylor Teagarden. It doesn't seem to me to be especially optimal to use any of these guys for their bats. They are all valuable in their way for their gloves. So it makes sense to me that the best thing to do would be to simply upgrade the worst defensive starter with one of these stronger gloves, and move that bad defender to DH.

If I had to put money down, it would be on Nolan Reimold DHing to open the season (barring another signing, of course) with Chavez or Miller in left field. Is Nolan Reimold a worse defender in left than Mark Reynolds is at third? That is almost certainly more of a question for the scouts than the stats people, but Reynolds has a pretty good track record at this point in his career and all of it is distinctly below average, and not by a slim margin.

Look, after the tumultuous past decade, it's super easy to point at the Orioles saying "We're going to go into the spring with Mark Reynolds as our third baseman. We believe in him." and then point at how even they got so tired of him last year that they moved him to first (where he was still statistically terrible) and just say "Classic Orioles". But this has sort of come into focus for me since I was yelling in my office yesterday. Mark Reynolds is clearly a very proud man who wants to work hard and play defense and the Orioles saying they support him going into Spring Training is admirable and respectable. Maybe it will blow up in their faces and they'll look foolish and need to make a change, but that's a pretty small price to pay for working with one of your better players instead of against him.

And just maybe it'll work out okay. Stranger things have happened, you know.

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