“You ever see that movie, ‘Multiplicity,’ with Michael Keaton? It’s like they keep making a bunch of Chone Figginses and putting them all over the field. He comes up with a lot of big plays no matter where you put him.”
– Derek Jeter on Chone Figgins
Chone Figgins had a horrible postseason. His 5 for 38 performance with 11 strikeouts and just three runs scored against the Yankees and White Sox over the last couple of weeks was difficult to watch. Of course, the Angels’ offense as a whole was anemic in the ALCS and scored just 11 runs in five games and hit .175/.200/.266 against a White Sox staff that threw four successive complete games, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since the 1956 Yankees threw five in a row. For the postseason the Halos hit .227/.254/.368, so Figgins was in good company.
But all of that does not wipe away the fine and distinctive season that Figgins turned in. While Figgins cannot really be called a regular at third base other than the postseason since he played in just 56 games there, logging 437.3 innings, he did play it as often and certainly better than any other Angel. (Dallas McPherson played about 50 more innings but not as well.) But in that role where he also played 42 games at second base, four at shortstop and 72 in the outfield, he led the league in stolen bases with 62 and scored 113 runs.
His speed at third base got me to wondering how often a third baseman fit the profile of Figgins. What I found out was that a season like Figgins’s from a more or less full-time third baseman is a throwback to the days of yesteryear.
Since the end of the deadball era, Figgins in 2005 become one of only four third basemen (who played over 100 games) to steal 50 bases in a season. Can you name the other three?
A third baseman who stole 40 or more bases in a season has occurred 94 times in history, but just 24 times since 1915.
That profile of a third baseman with plenty of speed and little power is strange to the modern baseball fan, because third base is commonly viewed as a position where power is primary and therefore speed and defensive ability are secondary. It wasn’t always that way. In the first half of the last century, third base was usually considered the more demanding defensive position. As a result, great hitters such as Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer and Nap Lajoie manned second while slick fielders like Jimmy Collins, Pie Traynor, Stan Hack and George Kell were placed at third. Over time, the small-ball of earlier years replete with bunting and chop hitting (which a good third baseman can impact) gave way to more station-to-station baseball where second base was considered the more key defensive position. As a result, third base became populated with more productive hitters like Eddie Matthews, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Matt Williams and Chipper Jones while second base was held down by the likes of Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Richardson, Felix Millan and Manny Trillo.
This is illustrated in the following graph where the OPS (on-base plus slugging) of second basemen and third basemen are compared from 1900 to 2004 for those players who played in 100 or more games at the position.
As you can see, the OPS of third basemen typically trails that of second basemen until we get into the 1940s. In fact, in the periods 1900-1924 the average OPS of a second sacker was 704, while that of a third baseman was 689. From 1925 to 1950, however, the positions swapped with second at 745 and third at 764, and the gap increased to over 70 points in the 1951-1975 time frame. Since 1976, however, the gap decreased to around 50 points and more like 40 points since 1993.
The relative importance of the various positions has been captured in the Bill James notion of the Defensive Spectrum. The spectrum arranges the defensive positions from least to most demanding. It was James’s insight that shifts from right to left on the spectrum occur as players age and that those from left to right are rare and seldom work (the exceptions being a move like Cal Ripken’s shift to shortstop and the occasional catcher moving to the outfield ala Brian Downing and Craig Biggio). In the modern game the defensive spectrum looks like this [1B – LF – RF – 3B – CF – 2B – SS]. But as you can see from the graph the spectrum in the early part of the century was more like [LF – RF – 1B – 2B – CF – 3B – SS] with first base also considered a more demanding position because of the prevalence of bunting and chop hitting.
It’s interesting to note from the graph that the gap between the two positions appears to once again be closing. I chalk this up to the realization on the part of some teams that second base also provides an opportunity to place a more offensive-oriented player. As a result, players such as Jeff Kent, Alfonso Soriano and Todd Walker are being slotted there more frequently.
The Angels have made personnel decisions that have bucked the modern system before. For example, they moved Darrin Erstad from the outfield where he was a fine defender (9% above average according to Baseball Prospectus>Baseball Prospectus) with an adequate bat to first base in 2004 where he’s still a fine defender (9% above average) but with a sub-par bat for the position (10 runs worse than average in 2005). But with the promise of Dallas McPherson as a 40-homer kind of guy I doubt we’ll see Figgins continue his postseason role as a throwback in 2006.