Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nationals Review: Second Base

What happened to the Nats at second base this season demonstrates how important a thorough plan is. It isn't enough to just identify the front-line talent and to sketch out a starter, but you need to have backup plans in case the first doesn't work. In past seasons, when Jose Vidro wasn't available, the Nats turned to mediocrities like Bernie Castro and (yes, I'm about to say it, so deal) Jamey Carroll.

This year, when plans fell through, the Nats had a capable backup, and we didn't see a repeat of the dreaded Spivey/Ohka trade.

This was especially important because the Nats have NO upper-level infield depth. None. It's a vast wasteland of crap.

So on Opening Day, when Guzman's injury forced Lopez to short, the Nats were in capable hands with Ron Belliard, one of Bowden's turned-over-rock finds, manning the position for the bulk of the year.

Belliard started out red hot, hitting .444 over his first 9 games while batting 7th. With the team's offensive struggles -- remember that inability to ever score in the first? -- there was a loud clamoring for him to be moved up. So Acta threw him in the 2 spot and he quickly cooled.

I remember writing at the time that the move was a bit premature. Belliard's hot streak was entirely batting-average driven. He hadn't walked at all and when some of those singles would stop falling in, his numbers would drop, and the Nats would have a crappy batter at the top of the order.

So what happened? Well, those singles stopped falling in. Like clockwork. Belliard started every game at second, batting second, through May 5 (when Guzman returned). In that stretch, he hit .225 .281 .292 and managed to score just 4 runs despite batting where he did.

After Guzman's return, Lopez took over again at second, shifting Belliard to the bench -- a move that was trumpeted as a strengthen of the bench, which to that point had been as woeful as the Blanco-led '05 version.

Until Guzman's injury on June 24, Lopez got the majority of starts at second, save for a once-a-week appearance by Belliard. And Lopez, sadly, performed about as "well" as Belliard had. His disappointing season continued, despite a few big hits, and he managed to hit just .215 .253 .355, all while batting first or second in the lineup.

The Nationals found some sweet relief from their second-base misery when Guzman went down for good. Lopez shifted back to short (where he still didn't hit much) and Belliard was given the job for good, save for a few appearances here and there by D'Angelo Jimenez.

Belliard was a hitting machine in July. His .295 .358 .484 line helped spark the offense and he seemed to be hitting a double just about every time the Nats needed one and this was coming off a hot-hitting June where he played mostly off the bench. When August rolled around, he cooled off a bit, but rebounded to finish strong down the stretch in September: .330 .362 .495.

Along the way, Belliard earned himself a 2-year contract extension and played himself into, at least, a utility role. He's a good guy to have around on the bench, a decent NL-type player, and as he showed, he won't kill you if you have to turn to him when your original plan goes to hell.

  • Offense

    Belliard ended up with a pretty solid season overall. He hit .290, ripped 35 doubles and was a league average hitter with a 100 OPS+ -- not bad for an infielder!

    If we look at his RC totals, he comes out slightly better than that.

    The average NL 2B created .178 runs for every out. Belliard's 386 outs time .178 means an average 2B would've created 69 runs. Belliard created 71. So he comes out just slightly better than average, in a group with Kaz Matsui, Luis Castillo and Dan Uggla.

    I don't have Felipe's numbers broken down by position (and there'd be sample size issues there anyway). If we do the same calculation with him, an average 2B would have created 87 runs given the number of outs he used. Felipe, however, only created 69, making him nearly 20 runs below an average 2B (over the course of the entire season). Yikes.

    Had he played second, that total would've made him the third worst 2B in the league, just ahead of the undead Craig Biggio and the .290-slugging Adam Kennedy.

    Here's your pointless numerical masturbation stat o' the day: If Chase Utley had put up Felipe Lopez' line, the Phillies would've scored about 65 fewer runs last year. Imagine what that number would've been had he not lost a month after Lannan's HBP!

  • Defense

    Belliard has a pretty unique defensive style, playing deeper than just about any other 2B in the league, likely to help compensate for his somewhat limited range. The tradeoff seemed to be worth it, and he was definitely an upgrade over the statuary that occupied the position last year.

    I don't think he was an asset, per se, but he played where he needed to play to minimize his weaknesses. He was just below middle-of-the-pack in range factor. He made just 6 errors, good for second in fielding percentage -- no small feat with Young at 1B.

    The strength of his game (as the announcers told us every game) was his ability to turn DPs. He turned the 6th highest total in the league despite having the 9th most innings, a pretty good indication that our eyes weren't deceiving us.

    The defensive stats don't really give us a good read on Lopez. They have him pegged roughly average in most categories, though it's tough to draw broad conclusions from the limited time he was there. To my eye, he was quite good. The things that make him a weak shortstop -- namely poor footwork and an inaccurate arm -- aren't quite as important at second. And he had worked the entire offseason and spring on the transition to the new spot. I don't think he'll ever be an asset at second, but in his best years, he could be an average defender.

    If we again look at the Reds Blogger's attempts to convert range into runs, we can get a little sense.

    Belliard checks in at basically dead average, -1 run over the year. Lopez also comes in at one below. And Jimenez shows up at .5 runs above average. It's a big crapbag of average! The only one of those that seems funky is Jiminez' but 1) it's a really small sample and 2) I think our minds are recalling some of his disastrous SS play and letting that bleed over.

  • Overall

    Belliard's an average hitter and an average defender. That's a pretty good player, and a true bargain at $1.5 million or whatever the hell they're going to pay him.

    Lopez? The jury is out. He clearly had a terrible year with the bat. If he reverts to past form, he could be ok.

    Just to check, let's see how his track record compares. I'll use the same weighted formula I did before (3 times his '07 performance + 2 times '06 + '05). Over those three years, we get an established level of 79 runs created while using 477 outs.

    Over those 477 outs, the average '07 NL 2B would have created 84 runs, so Felipe is only slightly below average, on the order of 5 runs -- and remember, that's HEAVILY counting his terrible '07 season. If he repeats his '06 or '05 seasons, he's a slight asset with the bat.

    Which is the real Lopez? This year's version or the one of the last two seasons?

    If it's last year's version, the Nats have their in-house solution: just plug in Belliard. If it's the previous version, then the Nats aren't doing too poorly.

    It's a position that's easily upgradeable in theory, but there ain't much out there. Seems like the Nats' best option is to hope that the player they traded for is the player they get. Bad years happen. Even to good players.

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