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Editor Note: the numbers in the post have been updated.
Last year, I pontificated as to whether Adam Dunn was as “underrated” as sabermetrics types make him out to be. In what I labeled “Valuable Post Script,” I noted the following:
As a right fielder, Dunn’s cumulative batting and fielding production gets a -7.5 positional adjustment (UZR measures all defense equally; Fangraphs accounts for differences in fielding difficulty between positions in WAR calculations through positional adjustments). As a DH, Dunn would get a flat -17.5 positional adjustment and a zero fielding rating. In other words, as a DH, Dunn gets just -17.5 runs subtracted from his batting line. As a right fielder (or left fielder, for that matter), Dunn gets -7.5 subtracted from his batting line in addition to his lackluster fielding. Thus Dunn, like anyone with a consistent -10 or worse fielding glove at RF/LF, belongs in a DH role.
As noted then and expand upon now, at some point, a player’s defense is so poor, so sub-par, so Adam-Dunn-like, that a player just simply should have his glove Mark Kotsayed.
Fangraphs, which uses the UZR system to account for a batter’s WAR (except catchers, for whom the plus/minus system is used), gives the following pro-rated defensive adjustments per 150 games by position to account for the ease/difficulty of the position:
Catcher: +11.6 runs (again, plus/minus system is used for the fielding)
First base: -11.6 runs
Second base: +2.3 runs
Third base: +2.3 runs
Shortstop: +6.9 runs
Left field: -6.9 runs
Center field: +2.3 runs
Right field: -6.9 runs
Designated hitter: -16.2 runs
Clearly, all “average fielders” (UZR/150=0) belong in the field. At the worst, an “average” fielder playing first will cost you 12.5 runs per season, whereas that player, at DH, would burden you with 17.5 runs. Even most below-average fielders belong in the field, at least depending on what position they play. A poor first basemen who costs you less than half a win per 150 games played is clearly worth having (or at least not worth not having) at the slow corner.
While clearly someone needs to play each of the nine field positions for eight or nine half-innings per game, there are just flat out some players who should be plopped at DH. What this threshold is varies by position, as follows:
Catcher: -27.8 fielding runs
First base: -4.6 fielding runs
Second base: -18.5 fielding runs
Third base: -18.5 fielding runs
Shortstop: -23.1 fielding runs
Left field: -9.3 fielding runs
Center field: -18.5 fielding runs
Right field: -9.3 fielding runs
Using these thresholds, here are three-year data (to help smooth out small sample fielding volatility) of all fielders who have played a minimum of 1,500 innings at a given position, put to the “should you be a DH” test via their three-year UZR/150 ratings. (Because Fangraphs’ WAR system doesn’t use UZR data to determine the value of catchers, they are omitted here.) The results are presented below. Click to enlarge. You can download my DH data sheet by clicking here.
Hitters are categorized into three categories: should be DHed (UZR/150 is below the threshold); maybe should be DHed (UZR/150 is less than five runs above the threshold), should not be DHed (UZR/150 is above the threshold). Within the later category is a sub-group of players who contribute +3.0 WAR to their team by playing the field. The residuals (guys who should not be DHed, but provide less than +3.0 WAR defensively) have been omitted from my presentation below. You can find them in the data sheet (or by the process of elimination).
Here, we find players with the worst defensive reputations in baseball. Dunn is not listed as an outfielder (he has played fewer than 1,500 innings in the outfield over the past three seasons, but his career OF_UZR/150 of -13.3 would have landed him a spot), but he’s nonetheless representing first basemen everywhere. All but three of the players on this list are corner outfielders, the traditional “put your slugger here when first base is blocked” vacuum. The other three are first basemen. This should not come as a surprise. Given the comparative “ease of fielding” in the corners (a 10-run swing in difficulty compared to center field), I wonder if there’s really an excuse for being that bad. We also see the reason why teams were reluctant to sign Jermaine Dye, who allegedly refused to play first base/DH for a team.
Here again, we almost exclusively find first basemen and corner outfielders. Almost, because Jorge Cantu and Vernon Wells tried really hard to make this list. Note the following: Ryan Braun, who was untenable at third, is almost unplayable even in left. Ditto with Miguel Cabrera, substituting first base for left field. Chris Davis, Jason Bay, Corey Hart and Aubrey Huff also are borderline unplayable in the field, assuming that you have another option who can play at replacement level. We also find old/aging/injury-prone players like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Pena. These hitters should probably be DH-ing just to keep their health/longevity in check.
And finally, those guys who you play at DH only if Ozzie Guillen is your manager
Here we find many of the true “Gold Glove” fielders of baseball: Jack Wilson, Franklin Gutierrez, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Ryan Zimmerman, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford. The list is sprinkled with premium position players (positional adjustments greater than zero), though one sub-premium position player, free agent Crawford, made the list as well.
Omar Vizquel, whose career wOBA is .313 and whose wRC+ is below 90, is not listed here, due in part to his two-year stint as a utility fielder. Nonetheless it is worth noting that his three-year UZR/150 at shortstop, the hardest non-catcher position to play defensively, was +17.4. At least Ozzie started him at DH in only one game.