By The Numbers: An Alternative Infield

With the injury struggles for Eric Chavez, the performance struggles of Bobby Crosby and Daric Barton and the impending free agency of Mark Ellis, the Oakland A's infield in 2009 has been a source of debate for many A's fans. Nathaniel Stoltz runs the numbers and gives his suggestions for how the A's could address their infield positions from within should they decide to go with a new infield.

By The Numbers—An Alternative Infield With the Rich Harden and Joe Blanton trades, the A's have continued to build for the future, a future which appears extremely bright. However, one primary area of concern going forward is the major league infield. Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby have been on and off the DL in recent seasons, Daric Barton has disappointed at first base and Mark Ellis' contract expires at the end of the season. Since all four infield spots are relatively insecure, I decided to examine other options.

If Barton continues to underperform, Chavez and Crosby continue to struggle with injuries, and Ellis leaves after 2008, who should the A's bring up to fill the void? To answer this question, we first need to look at the four infielders themselves.

The Current Infield

To examine the current infield, first we'll look at their composite UVI. Ellis has posted a .475 UVI over the last two seasons. Barton has a career UVI of .437. Chavez has a .477 UVI over the past three years. Crosby's career UVI is .413. Taken as a whole, the infield thus can be expected to post a combined .450 UVI over 162 games. An average infield gets a .495 UVI from first base, .446 from second, .429 from shortstop, and .465 from third base, averaging out to a .459 UVI. The .009 UVI difference between the A's infield and an average infield means that over the course of a season, the A's infield offense is about one win below average.

Can the A's construct an infield without those four players that is just as good? Let's start looking at all of the alternatives.

MLB-Tested Alternatives

The A's have tried several other infielders this season: third baseman Jack Hannahan, second basemen Eric Patterson, Donnie Murphy and Brooks Conrad, shortstop Gregorio Petit and first baseman Wes Bankston.

Hannahan has the most extensive MLB experience of the sextet, as he has amassed nearly a full season's worth of at-bats in the bigs over his career. However, his park-adjusted UVI in those at-bats is just .438, which isn't very good for a third baseman and well below Chavez's standard. Hannahan's solid glovework, defensive versatility and moderately powerful lefty bat make him a good reserve, but he doesn't look like a viable starting solution anywhere but short, a position he doesn't have much experience playing. He would also represent a marginal upgrade over Barton at first (although Hannahan's bat is nowhere near good enough for 1B), but since Barton is five years younger and has more upside, the difference is negligible.

Murphy, recently designated for assignment by the A's, has also struggled in extensive big league time, hitting an adjusted .201/.273/.344/.370 in 123 games. He has some power, a strong throwing arm and defensive versatility, but doesn't do anything else well enough to be more than Triple-A insurance for a good team.

The powerful Bankston has opened some eyes with his Oakland debut, but despite an initial surge, his production has not been very good on the whole (translated .259/.293/.389/.394). Since he doesn't have much big league time, however, it's important to look at Bankston's minor league track record to supplement the small-sample data. In three Triple-A seasons, Bankston has only hit .263/.303/.447/.442. Like Murphy, Bankston has good power and versatility (he can play third base and the outfield in addition to first), but unfortunately he also doesn't look to be a long-term solution. It is worth noting that his 2008 season in Sacramento translates to .300/.340/.548/.540, which is far above his 2006-07 performances in Durham. It appears that Bankston has been able to tap into his power better since switching organizations, but his plate discipline has remained poor (14 BB in 283 AB) and his major league performance has done little to inspire hope that that discipline will improve.

Petit has become something of a fan favorite in the A's community due to his excellent defense and 8-for-23 showing in his first 12 big league games. While Petit is the only one of the six MLB-tested players that is truly a plus defensive shortstop, his hitting actually leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Petit is an excellent example of the importance of a set of statistics that I call the Value Differences. These stats (abbreviated as VD1, VD2 and VD3) are simply the UVI of a hitter minus each of his triple-slash stats. Thus, if a player hits .200/.300/.400/.500, he has a VD1 of .300, a VD2 of .200 and a VD3 of .100. There is also a more all-encompassing version I call DVD (Double Value Difference), which is a player's OPS minus two times his slugging percentage (or, VD2+VD3). What the Value Difference stats measure is how underrated or overrated a player's triple-slash stats make him out to be. The higher the VD, the more the statistic in question (AVG, OBP, SLG or OPS) underrates the player.

While it's obviously a very small sample, Petit's adjusted line for his 12-game MLB cameo is .391/.440/.478/.484. This leads to a VD1 of .093, a VD2 of .044, a VD3 of .006 and a DVD of .050. All of those figures are extremely low; the averages are about .180/.115/.025/.140. What this means is that Petit's triple-slash stats overrate him quite a bit.

Of course, that's just a small sample, but the trend continues to his minor league numbers. While Petit has hit an adjusted .302/.346/.374 in his Triple-A career, his UVI is just .347, putting his VDs at .045/.001/-.027/-.026. In Double-A, his career .302/.358/.399 line features a slightly better, but still below-average VD line of .136/.090/.039/.129. In High-A, the trend continues with VDs of .138/.090/.015/.105.

Petit's VD's highlight a fundamental disconnect between his superficial offensive performance and his offensive value. He's hit an adjusted .302 in both Double-A and Triple-A, but his slugging didn't crack .400 and he couldn't manage even a .100 Isolated Power at either level. His patience is decent, but with a distinct lack of any extra-base pop, his offensive game is reduced to hitting a bunch of singles and occasionally walking. That skill set has its uses, but in Petit's case, its value gets further reduced by other shortcomings, particularly in the situational hitting and base-running departments. Petit hit into 20 double plays in 2006, and again in 2007, which is inexcusable for a fast runner with little power.

His career stolen base percentage in the minors is a dreadful 59% (48-91). He doesn't take many hit-by-pitches and strikes out more than most contact hitters do. All these little things start adding up and reduce Petit's VD ratings to very low levels. While the potential may be there for the slick fielder to be a reliable big leaguer, he needs to find a way to improve his base-running, discipline and power if he wants to be more than a glove-oriented reserve. If Crosby continues to struggle with injuries, Petit may wind up being the replacement, but a .347 career AAA UVI isn't likely to translate well in the near-term.

Patterson, acquired in the Harden trade with the Cubs, has also gotten only a brief taste of the big leagues, in which he has done little, hitting .196/.288/.286/.341 in 56 AB. However, his extensive Triple-A track record provides plenty of reasons for optimism. Patterson's Triple-A adjusted line is .314/.367/.489/.545, which translates to a .456 UVI in the majors. While his defense isn't particularly good, Patterson's 2009 offensive value should be very close to Ellis' if the latter leaves this offseason. At the very least, he should be effective in a platoon role against right-handed pitchers.

Conrad is similar to Patterson; he hasn't done much in limited big-league time (.158/.158/.211/.111 in 19 AB) but has nothing left to prove in Triple-A (.265/.341/.514/.545). Both Conrad and Patterson have .545 UVIs in their Triple-A careers. Patterson is younger and has more upside, but Conrad has more versatility and switch-hits, while Patterson only bats lefty. The two are the strongest candidates for the second-base job in 2009, and could both be given at the chance on the job. Conrad's versatility makes him a better fit for the bench if he doesn't win the 2B job next year. He's played some shortstop in Triple-A this year, and the A's best hope for offense at the position may be to put Patterson at second and Conrad at short, although the double-play combination would be well below-average defensively.

Minor League Alternatives

There are seven other possibilities in the upper minors: first basemen Casey Rogowski, Tom Everidge,and Sean Doolittle, second baseman Jesus Guzman, shortstops Mike Affronti and Cliff Pennington, and third baseman Jeff Baisley.

Rogowski is the owner of a career .483 Triple-A UVI. This season in Sacramento, he has hit a translated .299/.375/.492/.532 in Triple-A, a performance which translates to .257/.319/.405/.434 in the majors. While those numbers aren't great, especially at first, Rogowski's production wouldn't be a downgrade on Barton's, and it might be a good idea to give Barton a quick refresher in Triple-A while seeing what Rogowski can do with the A's. Rogowski can also play the outfield if needed, and is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman—in some ways, his defense evokes former A's 1B/OF Nick Swisher.

Everidge has bashed 86 homers in his minor league career, including 20 or more in each of the past three seasons. He has put up an adjusted .476 UVI in what amounts to one full year of Double-A, and all three of his triple-slash stats have increased for three straight seasons. Of course, Rogowski's .483 Triple-A UVI should get the call to Oakland before Everidge's .476 Double-A mark does, but Everidge is a bit of a sleeper to keep an eye on, and someone who could supply some much-needed power to the A's lineup in 2009.

Doolittle is a bit further away, but he has reached Double-A in his first full season after tearing up the Cal League (adjusted .317/.396/.584/.591 line) for the first half of the season. His bat has cooled down after the promotion (.245/.294/.422/.428 through Monday), but he clearly is on a fast timetable. Like Rogowski, Doolittle is a wizard at first base and a competent outfielder, although he doesn't have Rogowski's surprising base-stealing acumen. While Doolittle is third in-line – behind Rogowski and Everidge – to replace Barton, he has by far the highest upside of the trio and could move past Rogowski, Everidge and Barton by the next All-Star break. For now, though, he needs to improve his batting average and Isolated Patience (note the drop from .079 in High-A to .049 in Double-A) before he takes the next step.

Guzman opened eyes with a torrid beginning to his first season in the organization after signing as a minor league free agent. After hitting an adjusted .274/.342/.494/.502 in High-A High Desert last year, he hit better than .400 through April and destroyed the Texas League for 72 games in 2008 (.356/.411/.559/.571), forcing his way up to Sacramento. He didn't perform well there in 15 games (.254/.292/.390/.342) before hitting the DL in early July. Guzman needs a bit more time in Sacramento before he'll be ready for the bigs, but his defense is better than Patterson's or Conrad's, so if he can find a way to match their offensive output, he could sneak into the picture by 2010.

After beginning the year in Stockton, Affronti was called up to Sacramento earlier this year when the River Cats were in need of infielders, and then settled in Midland. He appeared in nine games for Sacramento in which he posted a .367 average. While Affronti has a .285 High-A average, .272 Double-A average and .367 Triple-A average over his career, he isn't ready for the big leagues yet. In 34 games between Midland and Sacramento, he has yet to draw a single walk, which puts his Double-A OBP at a lackluster .269 and keeps his Triple-A OBP at .367. Therefore, despite the good averages and gap power, Affronti's UVI ratings have been much less impressive than his batting averages in the Texas League and Pacific Coast League, with just a .355 mark at Midland and .420 at Sacramento. Affronti has shown he can hit for average, but needs to work on his plate discipline before getting serious big league consideration.

Pennington is quite different from Affronti in that his plate discipline is his best skill. Pennington owns a career .101 Isolated Patience in the minors, which is actually higher than his .093 Isolated Power. Pennington's glove plays better at short than Conrad's as well, which makes his combination of plate discipline and defensive versatility an interesting one. Pennington's career Double-A UVI is only .429, but, remember, that's exactly average for a shortstop, so while it's underwhelming compared to the overall .447 average, it's acceptable for his position. Furthermore, he's taken his game up a notch in 59 Triple-A games this year, posting an adjusted UVI of .501. Since he's shown no trouble adjusting to higher levels, improving his performance three straight years, Pennington's skill set could play well in the majors right now, at least as a reserve.

Finally, Baisley has had a stellar Triple-A debut this season, hitting an adjusted .320/.402/.544/.551 before landing on the DL with a stress fracture in his foot back in mid-June. He combined a well-rounded offensive skill set with good defense at third base. Like Rogowski, Baisley doesn't get much attention in a deep Oakland system, but he has done plenty at Triple-A to deserve a look once he is healthy again.

So, what exactly are we left with, assuming that none of the A's incumbent infielders are starting for the team next season?

First Base: Bankston has to show more plate discipline or he won't be more than a Triple-A player. Everidge needs to prove that he can hit Triple-A pitching before getting a major league look and Doolittle shouldn't be rushed because he simply isn't ready yet. That leaves Rogowski, who we can reasonably project about a .445 UVI, along with arguably the best 1B glove in the majors.

Second Base: Patterson's shown plenty at Triple-A to get the first look here, but he isn't a very good hitter against lefties, so he and the switch-hitting Conrad could form a platoon. With the platoon advantage, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a .480 UVI from Patterson and .450 from Conrad, leading to close to a .470 UVI for the position.

Shortstop: Conrad, Hannahan and Pennington are all options here, and all have very different backgrounds and skill-sets. Since Pennington switch-hits and has the most upside, he should get first crack at the job, but Hannahan and Conrad can be slotted as well. Pennington's skill set is one that is notoriously difficult to predict how it will translate to the majors, but given his pattern of improvement at higher levels, a .440 UVI is a fairly conservative prediction.

Third Base: Hannahan seems like the obvious choice, but unfortunately he doesn't make a whole lot of sense here due to a slight reverse platoon split in his career. Baisley can hit lefties well enough to be a good platoon bat, and Conrad is left over from the 2B platoon to play at third against righties. The two would combine for above-average defense at the position as well, and the infield on the whole would be slightly above-average defensively. Conrad hits righties better than lefties, so we can expect him to post a .475-ish UVI, with Baisley doing similar damage against lefties.

Reserves: Hannahan can spot at all four positions and provide decent hitting and good defense. He would make a good late-inning defensive replacement at second for the athletic but inconsistent Patterson. Rogowski, Conrad and Patterson all have outfield experience and can spot there if needed, with Hannahan or Baisley moving to first if Rogowski is in the outfield. If the A's are looking for a purely defensive reserve, Petit would be the best choice, as he offers above-average defense at short, second and third.

The Overall Picture: .445 1B UVI, .470 2B UVI, .440 SS UVI, .475 3B UVI = .458 composite UVI.

The alternatives improve on the current infield by .008 in current value, and given the relative youth of the replacements compared to the age of the current infield (especially Chavez and Ellis), the gap will probably widen slightly in 2009. Of course, the replacements are also cheaper than the current infield, which includes three high-salary players in Chavez, Crosby and Ellis, so the per-dollar production of the replacements is far greater. The replacements are .001 UVI below league-average on offense, and slightly above-average on defense. Given the team's current record, it would be wise to give some of the replacements an August/September look.

About The Author: Nathaniel Stoltz is a statistics minor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the creator of the "Ultimate Value Index" or "UVI" baseball statistic. He hopes to some day work in the front office of a major league team. You can e-mail him with questions or comments by clicking here.

Oakland Clubhouse Top Stories