February 19, 2004

Reader Mail (ARod to the Yankees Edition)

But first, the Aaron's Baseball Blog Quote of the Week:

"I'll tell you, but it's off the record. I don't want to see this showing up in emails or on some blog."


--- A journalist/teacher, when asked yesterday for inside information on a local sports story by a certain baseball blogger

Now, the emails...

My entry from Monday discussing the Alex Rodriguez/Alfonso Soriano trade generated a ton of feedback from readers. There were way too many to print and reply to here, but I tried to pick a couple that were similar to ones I got from multiple people.

From Steve:

Like you, I am a fan of ARod's. However, the events of the past few days have left me exasperated for a very odd reason - the amount of times I have been forced to hear that the Yankees have acquired "the best player in baseball." I believe that I have heard that phrase 4,261 times since Saturday.

Shouldn't baseball writers and commentators know at least something about baseball? Barry Bonds is so far and away the best player in baseball as to render the argument silly.

Maybe this ridiculous assertion that ARod is the best player in the game can be a topic for an article of yours in the future. Someone has to stop the madness. I nominate you.

Sure enough, I did a little searching and founds dozens and dozens of articles from the past week in which Alex Rodriguez was described, in one way or another, as "the best player in baseball." From Reuters and the New York Times to the New York Post and Sports Illustrated. Plus about 50 other various publications from across the country.

Since I have been nominated for the job, I'll try to answer this question as simply as possible: Basically, is Alex Rodriguez "the best player in baseball"?

This is a tough one to answer right off the bat for two reasons. First, are we talking about the past or are we simply speaking about going forward? In other words, does what a player did in the last three seasons impact this, or is it simply who the best player is likely to be in 2004 and beyond?

Second, the position Alex Rodriguez plays is very important here. He simply is not as valuable playing third base as he is playing shortstop.

I think the only way to really look at this in any sort of objective way is to figure out who the best player in baseball has been over the past few years. There are probably far more complicated ways of doing this, but for the purposes of this blog entry, let's just look at how Rodriguez and Barry Bonds compare in a couple of "all encompassing" stats.

(Yes, I realize there are other players beyond ARod and Bonds, but those two are clearly the top candidates for "best player in baseball" since 2001)

WIN SHARES

Bonds ARod
2001 54 36
2002 49 35
2003 39 33

First things first, Barry Bonds is shedding Win Shares like he's JLo and they're boyfriends. 54 to 49 to 39 in three years. Of course, he's also gone from 36 to 37 to 38 years old in that span, and the first two of those seasons were perhaps the two best offensive seasons any hitter has ever had.

Plus, even while dropping Win Shares left and right, Bonds' 39 Win Shares last year is a higher total than Alex Rodriguez has ever had in a season.

Now let's take a look at another good catch-all stat, Wins Above Replacement Position (WARP):

WARP

Bonds ARod
2001 15.8 13.1
2002 15.0 12.4
2003 13.0 12.6

Bonds is once again shedding value, but he's still the king (although he and ARod were very close in 2003).

I'd say even at 39 years old, Barry Bonds is "the best player in baseball" until proven otherwise. He's got three straight NL MVPs and has been better than Alex Rodriguez in each of the past three seasons. That said, if ARod plays shortstop in 2004, I think he has a 50/50 shot of being more valuable than Bonds.

From Peter:

Nice article on Rodriguez v. Jeter. I have some questions that I'm not bright enough to figure out on my own. It is this:

Is the hot corner a more difficult position to learn than short? That having been asked, if third is more difficult than short, wouldn't it make sense to have Alex, with his spectacular talent, take over at third, than Jeter, who would bungle it? Or perhaps you're thinking that short is, somehow, a more important position than third, so you'd want your best there, and let third soften up. Inquiring minds want to know.

To be honest, I am simply not qualified to answer whether third base or shortstop is a more difficult position to "learn." I played quite a bit of third base in my playing days, but not much shortstop. And I certainly didn't play either at a level even remotely resembling the major leagues.

However, it would seem fairly obvious to me that, regardless of which position is harder to learn, shortstop requires more defensive ability to play. In other words, if you've got the greatest defensive infielder in the history of the world, his best position, the place where he can provide the most value to a team, is going to be shortstop, not third base.

So, in that sense, you simply want your best defensive infielder at shortstop. In the case of the Yankees, that would be Alex Rodriguez, who has shown himself to be a very good defensive shortstop, winning back-to-back AL Gold Gloves.

Would Derek Jeter, as Peter says, "bungle" third base? I doubt it, but who knows. It depends on your definition of bungle, I suppose. In my opinion (and in the opinion of most defensive metrics), Jeter has been "bungling" shortstop for years now.

However, baseball history is filled with quality defensive third basemen who were (or would have been) bad defensive shortstops, and Jeter could certainly join that list. Heck, even if Jeter is just as bad at third base as he is at shortstop (relative to others at the position), the impact of his struggles there would be much less than at shortstop, simply because he would have fewer chances in the field.

There are some that think Jeter might be better served for second base than third base. I'm not really sure which spot I would play him at (I think third, probably) but I'm confident he wouldn't be any more of a detriment to his team defensively at either spot than he is at shortstop.

I mean really, Dmitri Young played 129 innings at third base last year and, as bad as he was, he didn't exactly kill the Tigers...okay, so maybe that's a bad example. My point is that it is far easier to play a "passable" third base than it is to play a "passable" shortstop.

Either way, if you give me a good defensive shortstop (Rodriguez) and a bad defensive shortstop (Jeter) and tell me to pick one for third base and one for shortstop, the good defensive shortstop is going to be playing shortstop, no matter how extraordinarily horrendous Jeter might be at third base.

It's really matter of picking which of these two alignments you'd rather have:

#1 (ARod at SS, Jeter at 3B)


Shortstop Very Good
Third Base Bad

#2 (ARod at 3B, Jeter at SS)

Shortstop Bad
Third Base Very Good

The choice there is obvious, to me at least. And that is assuming ARod would be very good at third and completely ignoring the possibility that Jeter might actually be good at third himself. Neither of those two things are givens. In fact, the only given is that ARod is good at shortstop and Jeter isn't.

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That's it for this week, thanks for stopping by. If you missed any of this week's entries (and you probably want to at least read Wednesday's, if you haven't already), here they are:

Monday: You're so vain, you probably think this blog is about you...

Tuesday: Three more years! Three more years! Three more years!

Wednesday: "Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas"

Thursday: Not So Gleeman-Length Thoughts

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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