Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez give the Red Sox two strong offensive contributors struggling in the field, while the offensive production out of a position probably easier to play — first base — leaves a lot of room for improvement. Neither player is likely to be jettisoned, which is good because they shouldn’t be. A recalibration of what may be an imperfect positional alignment could pay dividends, especially with Dustin Pedroia on the road back to the team, Brock Holt on the roster, and a 13-8 finish to the first half that has put the Red Sox back in the periphery of the wild card race despite a -48 run differential.
Just over half a season of advanced defensive stats aren’t enough to gauge Ramirez’s future talent level in left, or tell us enough to convince us that Sandoval’s defense at third has deteriorated permanently. They are a fair description, however, of what has actually happened in the field — and it’s not good.
Among the 22 left fielders with at least 300 innings played at the position, Ramirez is dead last in UZR/150 with -36.2, about four wins’ worth of runs worse than average over a full season. That’s compared to the average left fielder, a threshold that is not exactly high. That suggests that in terms of what’s actually happened, Ramirez has cost the team two wins with his defense alone (-15.2 UZR so far, as well as -16 DRS) — and it’s not necessarily the case that the alternatives would be merely average out there in the first place. Last season, the Red Sox mish mosh of Jonny Gomes, Yoenis Cespedes, Daniel Nava, Grady Sizemore and others ended slightly above average with a 1.6 UZR/150.
Bad luck or not, Sandoval has set a new team standard for awfulness at the hot corner so far this season. At -25.6 UZR/150, Sandoval ranks 31st among 32 third basemen with at least 300 innings at the position, a hair’s breadth worse than Conor Gillaspie. The Red Sox have not been above average defensively at third base since the 2010 Adrian Beltre pillow contract year, getting increasingly soft at the position since then. Sandoval’s defense at third may not stand out the way that Ramirez’s in left field does, but in terms of total runs cost per UZR, it’s not all that far off (-12.5 UZR for Sandoval in 659.1 innings, versus -15.2 UZR for Ramirez in 535.2).
Despite a strong .287 TAv and the ability to put baseballs through the outfield wall, a face-palm-worthy -8.3 Fielding Runs Above Average has kept Ramirez’s WARP to just 0.2. Meanwhile, Sandoval has checked in with a -0.5 WARP. That’s due in part to struggles against left-handed pitching that may be behind him, but as with Ramirez, defense may still be the main factor: -7.0 FRAA.
Neither of those discrepancies are anything to shake a stick at, especially with Sandoval’s offense on the upswing. For all that, though, it’s first base that has somehow seemed to be the more urgent problem. Mike Napoli’s defense has still been above average (3.9 FRAA), but his offensive output has circled the drain (.238 TAv). It hasn’t been pretty, although considering this sport is all about entertainment, I’m not necessarily opposed to getting more David Ortiz at first.
Speaking in terms of stats up through today, and assuming for the sake of argument that both players would be better defensively at first base than they’ve been at their current positions, moving one of Ramirez and Sandoval to first base could be that kind of recalibration that solves two problems at once. Assuming that whoever replaced Napoli in the lineup would be worth at least a little bit more offensively, we’re talking about a swing of 2-3 wins, potentially, even with just 73 games left to play.
Moving one of Ramirez and Sandoval to first base could be that kind of recalibration that solves two problems at once.
If the Red Sox were to move either player to first, they might have a hard time picking between them. On the one hand, moving Sandoval is the safer solution; it’s not so big a difference, maybe, and with so much time at third under his belt, the Red Sox may be able to straddle the decision by having him play both positions a la Youkilis. If they’re comfortable moving Sandoval back and forth, Allen Craig or some other first baseman could be the functional equivalent of a backup everywhere around the field after Pedroia’s return, with Brock Holt moving off of third base and Sandoval moving over.
On the other hand, Ramirez appears to be having the bigger negative impact on defense as it is, and it’s not like he has no infield experience. Unlike with Sandoval, there’s reason to wonder if some part of Ramirez’s defensive shortcomings are a temporary adjustment; but more than Sandoval, there’s a reason to think that Ramirez’s current position just won’t work. There’s more to gain in moving Ramirez, and it probably causes less stress on the roster to boot; whereas the team might be leaning heavily on Holt to cover third if Sandoval is moved, there are at least a number of backup plans still in the outfield. If part of the idea is to get Craig in the lineup, it’s also worth noting that while Craig has been no Alex Gordon or Carl Crawford in left, he’s more than playable out there, with a -5.7 career UZR/150 and a -2.5 career UZR/150 in the outfield overall.
Before deciding which of the two players gets moved to first, however, the team still has to decide if making a change right now makes any sense at all. Here are some things that are true:
- At 42-47, the Red Sox may need to play like a very good team the rest of the way this season to make the playoffs. Even though just six AL teams have winning records; the Sox would have to be a .550 team for the balance of the season (40-33) just to finish over .500 at 82-80.
- The Red Sox are probably more than two adjustments away from playing better than a .550 team.
- Mike Napoli is still projected by PECOTA to provide a .295 TAv the rest of the way, and with at least seven batted balls over 90 mph going for outs in his last 14 starts, there’s still some reason to believe he’s been unlucky.
- Learning a new position while playing MLB games is hard, and probably comes with a not very awesome adjustment period.
- First basemen touch the ball a lot, and if any “adjustment leakage” involves routine plays, having a player adjust to first base may be more costly than at several other positions in the field.
- Ramirez and Sandoval can’t both move to first base right now, meaning even if a change is made and it worked, there may still be one significant problem.
- It may be that Allen Craig offers the best offensive upgrade possible right now, not counting Pedroia returning from injury.
The factors in play for whether Ramirez or Sandoval should be moved to first base right now seem to point in a “hey maybe that’s not such a great idea” direction, and there is the potential to make things worse. It could also cause some harm to the 2016 team as well, maybe especially so if it’s Sandoval moved to first. Maybe that’s part of why we’re seeing Ortiz play some first base right now. If the Red Sox can live with that solution for much of the rest of 2015, they might have Ramirez skip over to first and go straight to DH, with an offseason thereafter to see if first is workable for him from here on out. Otherwise, regardless of whether Ramirez or Sandoval are moved off of their current positions, the Red Sox need a whole bunch of things to break in their favor.
That may be precisely why it is a good idea, though. If you need to win at least 55% of coin flips to obtain a good result, you’re much better off flipping a coin once than twice. Shaking up the status quo at two positions with a single adjustment may increase the chances of making the playoffs even without affecting the range of possible outcomes. Like a decision to play Allen Craig, moving either Ramirez or Sandoval to first right now might be exactly the right type of gamble when making a long shot push — the kind of change that comes at no cost in talent or dollars.
Top photo by Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports Images
1 comment on “Should Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez Move to First Base?”
Don’t try to talk sense to Sox management. They aren’t listening.