Sunday, February 24, 2008

Spring Training Questions: Second Base

The style of play between Brendan Harris and Alexi Casilla could not be more different then, say, the local customs of their respective hometowns of Albany, New York and San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. The 27-year-old Harris presents a what-you-see-is-what-you-get workman-like fielding approach and in his first full major league season finished with an impressive .286/.343/.434 batting line with Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Casilla, spoken of by scouts teeming with potential, has shown flashes of unbridled quickness in his limited play in 2007 yet did nothing offensively (.222/.256/.259) to convince management that second base should go through him in the spring of 2008. Both are hoping to be the starting second baseman for the Twins come March 31st and both have two distinctly different offerings. (Yes, you could argue that Nick Punto should also be considered for the position but for all intents and purposes Punto stands as much of a chance as Ralph Nader did for being President in 2004.)

Offensively, the advantage goes to Harris who has both more minor league seasoning and major league exposure to boot. Developmentally, Harris has been the beneficiary of two additional seasons in the minors to hone his skills at the plate. In six minor league seasons and 2,490 plate appearances, Harris compiled a batting line of .294/.359/.467 while walking in 8.7% of those plate appearances and striking out in 15.9%. Casilla during his four seasons in the minors had 1,589 plate appearances and batted .298/.368/.374 and walking in 8.9% and striking out in 10.2%. In 2007, both Casilla and Harris were given the opportunity to put their talents on display. As Harris was given more than 500 plate appearances to showcase his bat. Casilla meanwhile was shipped between Minneapolis and Rochester and only compounded 204 plate appearances in that time. Harris's .286/.343/.434 was punctuated with 50 extra base hits (33% of his hits went for extra bases) as Casilla produced an easily forgettable .222/.256/.259 with just 6 extra base hits (14% xbh%).

The right-handed batting Harris also proved particularly adept at hitting left-handed pitching, a problem in 2007 and exacerbated in by the departure of Torii Hunter. In 162 plate appearances against left-handed pitching last year with Tampa, Harris hit .345/.411/.487 adding 14 extra base hits (28% xbh%). The switch-hitting Casilla, on the other hand, in 92 career plate appearance against lefties from the right side of the plate in 2006 and 2007 hit .271/.292/.318 with only 4 extra base hits (17% xbh%).

Defensively, the two are very dissimilar. While Harris is more of your straight-forward gloveman with mediocre range, pundits have described Casilla's talent as "electric" even though there is no real metric to measure this. This also seems to be the logic present when considering starting Casilla over Harris. I've heard Bert Blyleven repeat this mantra when Casilla was in the line-up and wondered what exactly the commentator was quantifying this as. You won't find that stat column addressing this on but rather as a talking point on Baseball Tonight. Sure, it is indicative of a potential upside but how does this transfer as to on the field immediately?

One could gauge this on the ability to track down balls that are typically out of the standard second-baseman's zone. In 2007, Casilla and Harris both played over 400 innings at second, and both playing on home games on the rapid surface of fieldturf. The Hardball Times reports that during that span, Casilla showed that he had the motor to nab 13 balls out of zone before they reached right-fielder Michael Cuddyer territory in 421 innings. These 13 plays put him in the company with other highly touted second base prospects with good range like Cleveland's Andrusal Cabrera (321innings), Tampa's BJ Upton (416 innings) and Chicago White Sox's Danny Richar (491 innings). Meanwhile in Harris's 404 innings he managed to wrangle down only 2 balls out of zone. This number gives Harris the dubious honor of logging the most innings in the American League at second base but recovering the fewest amount of balls outside of the zone. The next closest to Harris with significant time charted at second was Kansas City's Estaban German who in 406 innings made 9 plays out of zone. Under this definition Casilla would obviously cover more breadth while Harris would let some balls that Casilla would be able to make a play on bleed through to the outfield.

Another measurement of what could qualify as "electric" is how quickly a second baseman can start and pivot on a double play ball. In Casilla's limited time with the Twins in 2007 he started 16 double plays. This shows a quick release from the exchange of the glove to the throwing hand coupled with a dart of an arm. Harris, on the other hand, started 9.

(Aside: Of course this stat does not put anything into context because it does not account the instances when the players failed to convert a double play ball. Had there been a statistic that showed how many balls COULD have been turned - given the right circumstance - into a double play this would have give a better framework for judgement on the differences between Casilla and Harris's defense. For instance, Casilla's 16 double plays started out of 36 possible situations in which a double play could have been converted is only a 44% conversion rate. If Harris had 9 double plays started out of 12 possible situations would have been a 75% double play conversion rate. This is a statistic that needs to be tracked in order to properly analyze the fielding abilities of a middle infielder.)

Likewise, Casilla turned 23 double plays while Harris turned 17 in that time-frame. Being able to both cover the base and make a quick turn are two qualities that a second baseman in the major leagues needs. Casilla's 23 double plays turned was just 3 short of the double plays turned by Luis Castillo (26) during his 2007 tenure with the Twins, completed in 205 fewer innings played. This shows that Casilla has a strong, quick arm and pivot 90 feet from first base.

Naturally, the numbers above are (somewhat) reliant on several mitigating factors out of the infielder's control including (a) the amount of groundballs induced by the pitching staff and (b) the capabilities of the shortstop partner. Both Alexi Casilla and Brendan Harris had several pitchers that were above average in groundball percentage. Casilla benefited from having starting pitchers Boof Bonser (45%), Matt Garza (48%), Carlos Silva (48%) in addition to relievers Juan Rincon (49%) and Matt Guerrier (47%) all of whom were above the league average in groundball percentage of 43%. Harris, meanwhile, had starters Edwin Jackson (45%) and JP Howell (46%) and relievers Shawn Camp (57%), Brian Stokes (48%) and Casey Fossum (45%) that induced above the aforementioned league average of groundballs.

Having a more sure-handed shortstop partner creates more opportunities to execute a double play. Harris's most common middle infielder comrade, according to Baseball-Reference, was Josh Wilson whose RZR was .736. When Casilla was in the infield his most common partner was Jason Bartlett whose season RZR was .804. Clearly, Casilla was blessed with a better shortstop in 2007. All things being equal in 2008, both would benefit from the increased defensive capabilities of Adam Everett.

The rotation in 2008 is still a question-mark with the 5th rotation spot vacant now that Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Carlos Silva have left. Newcomer Livan Hernandez was more of a flyball pitcher (41% fb%) as is internal candidate Kevin Slowey (50% fb%). This may suggest that the Twins will not have the luxury of having as many ground balls overall in 2008 as they did have in 2007.

A characteristic that typically correlates with the label of being "electric" is that the play of the prospect is littered with errors. This is particularly true with Casilla. To date, Casilla has not proven to be in the same category as Harris who has shown to be nearly flawless. In 143 games in the minors at second, Casilla made 25 errors (.17 errors per game). Harris in his 239 minor league games at second made 17 errors (.07 errors per game). While Casilla has clearly proven that he has the record to make big plays, he has yet to show that he is sure-handed enough to make ordinary plays. In his 421 innings, Casilla had a .784 RZR and committed 10 errors (8 on fielding). This RZR put him slightly above BJ Upton (.783 RZR) but below Luis Castillo (.801). Harris's play incited confidence as he finished with a .826 RZR, only committing one error in that time. This .826 RZR placed him above regulars like Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Los Angeles's Howie Kendrick.

All things being considered, Harris would provide the kind of defensive stability that Ron Gardenhire respects (as was evident by the choice of starting Juan Castro over Jason Bartlett rather than let the prospect learn on the job) but also would add a potent bat to the lineup, one that may suffer lethargy from two positions, shortstop and center, in 2008. Harris also would provide a solid right-handed bat against left-handed pitching and alleviate the amount of errors due to growing pains. As I had previous noted, a healthy Adam Everett at shortstop would exponentially increase the play of the middle infielder to his left. With all of this in mind, Brendan Harris should be the starting second baseman. I do not want to dismiss Casilla as someone who should be sent to Rochester either. His impressive range and quick-hands as highlighted above by his double play started/turns as well as the plays made out of zone merits time in a major league line-up. His presents on the roster allows for Gardenhire to sit the left-handed batting Mike Lamb when there is a lefty on the mound and shift Harris to third and play Casilla though the everyday second baseman should be Harris.