January 28, 2004

The Infield of Doom

In the wake of Aaron Boone injuring his knee and likely being out for the entire 2004 season comes this, from yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

NEW YORK -- With the Yankees almost certain to lose Aaron Boone for the 2004 season, they've stumbled upon a surprise, in-house option -- Gary Sheffield.

The recently signed free agent, who's played the outfield exclusively since 1994, told GM Brian Cashman he would re-convert to third base if necessary. Sheffield broke into the major leagues as a shortstop in 1988 with the Brewers, but then played 25 games at third in 1989 before making a full conversion in 1990, playing 125 games there.

Sheffield also was the Padres' everyday third baseman in 1992. Overall, he's played 466 games at third base in his career.

Should Gary Sheffield go back to manning the hot corner, New York's infield would look like this:

1B   Jason Giambi

2B Alfonso Soriano
SS Derek Jeter
3B Gary Sheffield

Somewhere, Kevin Brown is balled up in the fetal position, weeping uncontrollably.

There are a lot of jokes one could make here, but I will avoid them and simply say that you know your infield defense is bad when Alfonso Soriano is the best defender in the entire bunch.

Jason Giambi will be 33 years old in 2004, he had knee problems last season and he was New York's designated hitter for about half the year. Even at his best, Giambi wasn't much more than an average defender at first base, and his best appears to be long gone.

Derek Jeter is, in the minds of many, an extremely good defensive player. I suspect if you asked the average Yankee fan or Tim McCarver, you would hear that they think Jeter, in addition to being "Clutch" and flat-out "dreamy," is also one heck of a defensive shortstop. On the other hand, if you prefer to ignore Tim McCarver and crazy Yankee fans and instead rely on your own eyes and, more importantly, the more advanced defensive statistics around today, you will see that Derek Jeter's defense is fairly horrible.

He has a cannon for an arm and he is extremely athletic, but he simply lacks the range and that quick first-step that are so essential for a shortstop. Personally, having watched Jeter hundreds of times and having seen how he ranks on several very good defensive metrics, I am convinced he is one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball, if not the worst.

Jeter's double-play partner is Alfonso Soriano, who was once as awful defensively as Jeter is. While Jeter's skills defensively have gone down in recent years, Soriano has actually improved as he's matured and gotten more experience at the position. I know this may sound as crazy to some fans as me saying Jeter is horrible defensively, but I actually think Alfonso Soriano is an "average" defender at second base now.

So those are the guys Gary Sheffield is volunteering to join. It's just like when Flounder pledged the Delta House to join Bluto, Otter and Pinto.

As you read above, Gary Sheffield has not played a single inning at third base in over a decade. In addition to that, even when he was a full-time third baseman (1990-1993), Sheffield was not a good one. Having not played the position for 11 years and having aged 11 years during that time as well, I think it's safe to assume Gary Sheffield would be a horrendous defensive third baseman at this point. Which would allow him to fit right in with his infield teammates, of course.

If the Yankees do decide to let Sheffield play third base in 2004, I assure you their infield defense will be the worst in major league baseball by a fairly large margin. I also think there is a good possibility that an infield of Giambi-Soriano-Jeter-Sheffield would be the worst defensive infield in the history of baseball.

You have two players (Sheffield, Jeter) who are good bets to be the worst defenders at their position in the entire American League. You have another (Giambi) who, if healthy, might be able to scratch and claw his way to simply being really bad. And then you have Alfonso Soriano, who is in a position to be the "smartest kid in the dumb class" by simply being mediocre at second base.

Of course, an infield of Giambi, Soriano, Jeter and Sheffield would also probably be among the best offensive infields in baseball history, and that kind of hitting will make up for an awful lot of awful defense. Still, all the offense in the world won't do anything to keep Kevin Brown from waking up screaming in the middle of the night, with nightmares of slow ground balls trickling into the outfield and bunt singles down the third base line.

You see, Kevin Brown is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in all of baseball. He uses his tremendous sinker/slider combination to induce ground ball after ground ball after ground ball. In fact, Brown ranked third in all of baseball with a ground ball/fly ball ratio of 3.37. Only Derek Lowe (3.92) and Brandon Webb (3.44) induced a higher percentage of ground balls than Brown.

Brown spent 2003 pitching with a very good infield defense behind him in Los Angeles. Cesar Izturis, Alex Cora and Adrian Beltre are all among the top defensive players at their position. Brown's numbers from last year were phenomenal (2.39 ERA, .236 opponent batting average) and they were already in-line for a drop as a result of his coming to New York and switching infield defenses. If Sheffield moves in at third base, Brown's numbers will likely take another hit.

Actually though, as long as you're not a Yankee fan who dislikes seeing ground balls sneak through the infield, this whole Kevin Brown in New York thing could be a pretty interesting little experiment in 2004. Basically, we could all find out what happens when you take one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers and you move him from a team with one of the best infield defenses in baseball to a team with one of the worst infield defenses in baseball.

Even without Sheffield at third base, it's a damn good study in the effects fielders have on pitchers. With Sheffield in the mix, it could be one of those Frankenstein "I've created a monster" type experiments.

I really think the Yankees should take Sheffield up on his offer to play third base this season. I mean, if you're going to have a bad defense, why not go all-out and make it really bad? I'm talking Alfonso Soriano is the best of the bunch, Kevin Brown is smashing something in the dugout between every inning and Derek Jeter isn't the worst defender on the left-side of the infield bad.

It could be a lot of fun for everyone. Well, everyone except Kevin Brown.

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

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