Judging the Royals

Can Cheslor Cuthbert play second base?

Royals infielder Cheslor Cuthbert
Royals infielder Cheslor Cuthbert jsleezer@kcstar.com

The Kansas City Royals expect to get third baseman Mike Moustakas back in 2017 so they have to figure out what to do with Cheslor Cuthbert. He’s out of options so Cuthbert can’t be stored away in the minors; if the Royals are going to keep him they have to find Cuthbert a job in the big leagues.

And that gets us back to the original question: if Mike Moustakas is going to play third base, can Cheslor Cuthbert play second base?

The competition

As it currently stands Cuthbert’s competition for the second base job would be Raul Mondesi, Whit Merrifield and Christian Colon.

Mondesi is the best defender of the four candidates, but hit .249 over five seasons in the minors and .185 over 135 at bats in the big leagues. If you’re a weak hitter, but a great defender, you can stick in the big leagues as long as you make enough great plays; getting hits or taking away hits amounts to the same thing – winning. But you have to make an awful lot of great plays to make up for a .185 batting average.

That’s why corner guys (left field, right field, first and third base) have to hit; they don’t touch the ball often enough to make up for poor offense.

In 2016 Whit Merrifield hit .283 and slugged .392, but one of his strengths is versatility; last season he played left field, right field, second base, third base and first base. Having a versatile utility player makes life easier for the manager; he can rest his starters while getting the utility player at bats and in the later innings that versatile player makes in-game decisions easier. Merrifield can also be used as a pinch hitter or pinch runner and guys like that can sometimes be more valuable coming off the bench; you can use them when it matters most.

That brings us to Christian Colon and in the past his strength has been offense, but in 2016 Colon hit .231 in 147 at bats. Colon’s arm and range are questionable and those are pretty big questions to have in an everyday second baseman.

Arm and range

Since we’re on the subject: how do you measure a second baseman’s arm and range?

For starters, forget metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating. UZR is basically a guesstimate made by a bunch of guys watching game film. (If you want to know more about UZR, go back and read what I wrote about Eric Hosmer and the Gold Glove.) It’s difficult to measure a player’s range if you don’t know where he was positioned to begin with and UZR doesn’t include that all-important factor.

So if you can’t just look up a number, that means you actually have to watch a player play and when you watch him play pay attention to what a second baseman does on plays up the middle or plays in the hole to his left. If Raul Mondesi makes these plays and Christian Colon doesn’t, you don’t need a complicated metric to tell you which player has better range – you can see it.

And if a second baseman gets to one of those balls up the middle, does he have enough arm to get an out?

Lots of arms look good when the player is moving toward the base they’re throwing to, so look for plays where the throw is made from a dead stop or moving away from the target. That’s where arm strength – or the lack of it – will show up.

If the ball is dying as it reaches first base that tells you something; if the ball stays on a level trajectory and has good carry that tells you something else.

The 6-4-3 double play

This used to be the play that would make or break second basemen. On a 4-6-3 double play the second baseman feeds the ball to the shortstop, who can see the runner coming. On the 6-4-3 double play the shortstop feeds the ball to the second baseman, who has his back to the runner.

In the old days aggressive runners were allowed to blow up the second baseman so it took nerve for second basemen to hang in there and turn a 6-4-3. A second baseman needed the footwork required to dance around a sliding runner and still make a good throw to first base without getting killed in the process. These days runners are more likely to peel off out of the base paths because if they flip the second baseman, umpires are likely to call the runner at first base out anyway.

Nevertheless, watch Cuthbert’s footwork around the bag. On a close play is he willing to step toward a sliding runner to make a throw to first base or does he try to come laterally across the bag and get out of the runner’s path? Another technique is for the second baseman to stay behind second base and keep the bag between himself and the sliding runner, but that costs momentum on the throw.

The new rules make the 6-4-3 an easier play for a second baseman, but how Cuthbert handles it will tell you something about his comfort level when a runner is bearing down on him.

Pay attention to tags

In the old days infielders straddled the bag, received the ball and dropped a tag straight down on the runner. These days lots of infielders come out in front of the bag, receive the ball and then reach back to make the tag. Old-timers think the guys who come out in front of the bag are soft because those infielders are trying to avoid contact.

On the other hand, if you get hurt you can’t help your team and the Royals 2016 season went south – at least in part – because some key guys got injured.

Royals infield coach Mike Jirschele says he prefers his infielders to some out in front of the bag to take a throw, but if they’re going to do that to protect themselves they need to let the ball travel. Don’t reach out and catch the ball and then attempt to sweep the tag back to the runner; that takes too long. Receive the ball as close to the runner as possible, then drop the tag on him.

We’ve just scratched the surface

I’m already trying to figure out how to wind this thing up and we still haven’t talked about pop ups or arm angles or any of the other stuff a second baseman has to deal with. But for now, let me leave you with this thought:

Everything you need to know about a ballplayer is right there on display; you just have to know what to look for. Once you know where to look you can see which guys are afraid and which guys have guts, which guys are bad teammates and which guys are good ones, which guys are protecting their numbers and which guys are putting the team first. To me this is the fun of watching baseball: there are a thousand story lines if you know where to look, but you actually have to watch the games to see them.

You want to know if Cheslor Cuthbert can play second base?

Watch him play.

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