Purgatory Online

Monday, January 19, 2004

On Friday, I closed by noting that the Angels could be a better team defensively with Jose Guillen at first and Darin Erstad in center, instead of with Guillen in left and Erstad at first. So what keeps them from doing so?

The first reason is inertia. Guillen has never played first base, while Erstad played there full-time in 1997 and half-time in 1998 and 1999. It's a lot easier to shuffle the pieces so that everyone's playing a position they're already familiar with than it is to teach someone to play somewhere new - even if first base isn't particularly demanding. Additionally, Guillen throws with his right hand, which is considered somewhat of a liability when playing first - you have to reach all the way across your body to field most of the balls hit to you, then either turn all the way back or complete a full circle to throw to someone covering first. Not a debilitating handicap, to be sure - the list of right-handed-throwing 1Bs in the majors is actually pretty long - but maybe enough to think twice about moving him there when you've got an experienced lefty available in Erstad. Now, personally I'm not convinced by this logic, since the Angels would have all of spring training to teach Guillen how to play at first, but it's at least a cogent argument.

I'm somewhat less sanguine about the other argument I've seen advanced, which is that Erstad is likely to hit better once he makes the transition to first base. Proponents of this line of thought point to Erstad's 2000 season, in which he went .355/.409/.541 in 676 at-bats, as evidence of his true potential, and claim that his balls-out, anything-to-make-the-play style in center field has left him with various injuries that reduce his effectiveness at the plate.

There is only one problem with this theory, and that is that it is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.

Consider: in that 2000 season, Erstad played 142 games in the outfield. Now, 112 of these were in left, while only 30 were in center, but surely it should raise a few eyebrows that his best - by far - offensive season occurred after he left the warm-n'-comfy confines of first base. His other two decent offensive seasons came in 1997 and 1998, a two-year stretch in which he averaged .298/.357/.476. Erstad did play first base for the majority of those two seasons, but spent significant time in left field in 1998. Beginning in 2001, of course, he's been subpar offensively, falling from that .355/.409/.541 high water mark in 2000 to a ghastly .252/.309/.333 in his injury-shortened 2003 campaign (he played in a total of 67 games).

So the story that some people tell themselves is that Erstad was progressing nicely through the late 90's, and had his breakout season in 2000. Even though he had played 297 career games in the outfield by the end of that season, they say, his injuries hadn't built up yet, and thus he was able to have a "true" Darin Erstad season at the plate. And then it all went to hell in 2001, because the injuries started to catch up with him and hamper him at the plate. Now, I suppose that if you squint your eyes and tilt your head, you might start to buy that story. Until you looked at these numbers:

2001 - .998 / 2.90 (+ 0.23)
2002 - .998 / 3.39 (+ 0.61)
2003 - 1.000 / 3.09 (+ .0.31)

Those are Erstad's fielding percentages and range factors (with the amount over the league average range factor in parentheses) as a center fielder for the last three years. Erstad's defense has been utterly spectacular during the same time his offense has suffered. But if his offense is suffering because of injuries he sustained while playing defense, wouldn't we expect to see a decline in the field as well? Would he slow down a step while chasing flies, or maybe be unable to extend himself quite so far while diving, if he's really suffering from injuries caused by precisely those activities?

Not necessarily, of course. One can always come up with scenarios in which such a thing could happen. But I don't think it's likely.

So the Angels are gambling: they're gambling that, unlikely as it is, Erstad will return to some form of offensive productivity following his move to first base (as opposed to gambling that they could put him in center and not have him end up spending significant time on the DL). If it works out, it's brilliant - no one denies that Erstad should stay off the DL more while playing first, and the abuse his body takes when he plays center is a long-term concern. If it doesn't, they've still upgraded the team, just not as much as they could have using a different defensive alignment.