Worst Case Scenario: Third Base
By Chris Hannum
It’s always best to be prepared for the worst thing that could possible happen – if only to marginally improve your chances of surviving it. So… Here’s the second in an ‘n’ part series examining the Tigers weakest spots and the worst we can expect if Dave Dombrowski is completely and totally stymied in any attempt to find an upgrade. The first part looked at the problems at second base and came to the conclusion that a platoon of Will Rhymes and Danny Worth would be only slightly below average (if I had to put a number on it, I’d say 1.8 WAR). Here I’ll look at the second major reconstruction project: Inge’s home at third.
Brandon Inge was signed to a fairly lucrative deal prior to the 2011 season on the expectation that with a plus glove and a minus bat he would provide roughly league-average production overall. The key assumptions were a much better than average glove – giving the team about one win that way – and a bat that even if below average was still above replacement level – giving the team another win at the plate. After Inge’s debacle in 2011 we are left with the new expectation of average defense (or very slightly better) and a replacement level bat. Roll all that together and you get a replacement level player.
From Dave Dombrowski’s roster musings, it sounds as though the team doesn’t have the roster space to keep Don Kelly as a pure reserve resign Wilson Betemit for a repeat of his platoon with Inge. The most likely scenario would be that Inge would continue to platoon, but would do it with Don Kelly instead. For Inge, that could be a big plus. While Inge has never hit well overall, he has always hit lefties a lot better than he has hit righties – so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect an OPS in the .730 to .750 range from him as a platooner. Despite last year’s mediocrity, he did put up a .717 OPS against lefties… He’s also aging and has had some knee problems, so it could be that splitting time gives a little bump on defense as well.
And now we get to the rancid pad of butter that’s spoiling our lunch: Don Kelly as the team’s third baseman 70% of the time. Kelly is a plus defender at a variety of positions, but it’s in the outfield where his raw speed really allows him to shine. Last year as a third baseman Kelly’s UZR/150 was 3.3, as an outfielder 11.4. That 3.3 is exactly the same as what we got from the declining Inge. Kelly is really best thought of as a terrific outfielder who has additional value because he is able to competently play in the infield as well.
So, we’re not getting an improvement in defense by platooning rather than simply starting Inge. But how well can we expect Kelly to hit? The answer is: at about his career averages. Kelly has been a part-timer for as long as he’s been in the bigs, and he only has about one full season of plate appearances under his belt. There is, therefore, a big danger in making assumptions based on that small sample… But, as a part-timer Kelly has almost never been used against lefties – only 3 of his career 133 starts have been against a southpaw. His career OPS is .648 and his career OPS against righties is .672 despite an enormous (small-sample) L-R split. Sadly, despite what Kelly’s minor-league record might lead us to believe that OPS is weighted towards slugging and not on-base-percentage. He’ll be swinging and missing a lot and not walking much, but because of his speed Leyland will still feel that irresistible desire to bat him second. Before you assume that – because he’s fast – Don Kelly would be doing amazing things with his legs to help the Tigers win ballgames, I’ll point out that his career BsR is -0.1 runs.
In a nutshell, we should expect a defensive contribution from the pair of about 3 runs (0.3 WAR) and an OPS of about .680. This would make Tigers third basemen – offensively – roughly the equal of the Twins’ Danny Valencia (or at least the poor man’s version they saw in 2011). I would expect that the replacement level baseline will be in the neighborhood of a .610 OPS at third, so an OPS of .680 would still have some value: giving in the neighborhood of 0.8 WAR. Add the offense and defense together and you get a 1.1 win guy. Doesn’t sound that great, eh? WEEELLL. Just so you know, it’s an 0.6 win upgrade over the aggregate production the Tigers got at third in 2011, something that would bring us almost (but not quite) up to the level of production that the Royals got at third last year. SO. A Kelly-Inge platoon is actually a step in the right direction? Well, well, well.