The door for a regular spot in 2017 has opened for Brandon Drury, and that’s likely a good thing. In his rookie season, while he saw fairly regular playing time (112 starts), it was at four different positions. Most (79 starts) came in the outfield, a position he had to learn on the fly, and while by no means a “Let’s put Tomas at third!”-sized disaster, it was more of necessity than choice. This year promises to be different, new manager Torey Lovullo saying last month, “We asked a lot of him to shift over to the outfield. He did a great job, but we want to simplify things as much as possible... He's a bred infielder. He's an athlete that we asked to move to the outfield. I think he’s going to have a little bit of a relief knowing he’s got to prepare in one area.”
However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be in his most familiar spot. In 2013 and 2014, at South Bend, Visalia and Mobile, Drury was almost exclusively a 3B. In 2015, the split was 50/50 between there and second, and it’s at the latter we’ll likely see him this year, even though he made only eight starts there last season. The departure of Jean Segura, however, leaves the team in need of a default replacement, and while there are other possibilities, e.g. Chris Owings, Ketel Marte, etc. it seems more likely they’ll fight it out on the other side of the infield, at shortstop. There are two components to Drury at which we need to look: can he play second, and how will his bat hold up?
On the defensive spectrum created by Bill James, second base sits two slots to the right of third, indicating it’s a harder position. If players move, it’s generally by going down the spectrum to the left, e.g. shortstop to second, center to corner outfield, or just about anywhere to first base. For example, after spending more than 80% of his career at second base, former D-back Aaron Hill started 85 of 101 games this season at the hot corner instead. Drury will be making the opposite move, which is much less common.
Matt Carpenter on the 2013 Cardinals is the first to come to mind, but that was only for one season, and he returned to third in 2014. Similarly, Akinori Iwamura was also largely a one-year wonder, on the 2008 Rays. The most recent example is probably Brett Lawrie, who became a full time second-baseman for the Chicago White Sox last year, after his trade from Oakland, where he largely played at third (though did make 66 starts at second in 2014-15). While his bat was reasonable, posting a 99 OPS+, the defensive metrics were none too impressed with Lawrie in 2016, rating him between -4 and -6 runs compared to average at the position.
Lawrie played 2B in the minors, after being drafted originally as a catcher. However, his comments on the move back to second are worth looking at, for an idea of what Drury needs to do to succeed - surprisingly, not just sheer repetition. “I’m not going to take 100 ground balls. It’s not about that. It’s about taking the right procedures, the right foot work and doing things right and quality over the quantity. It’s definitely about the quality over the quantity and refining that.” The main advantage Brandon has, is likely a typically stronger 3B arm, due to the cross-diamond throws; we saw this year with Segura, a converted shortstop, how this can help playing second.
Second-base has seen quite the offensive resurgence of late. In fact, 2016 was the biggest year in recorded baseball history (we have precise data for OPS by position since 1974), with 2B producing a .771 OPS, nine points better than the previous all-time mark, set in 1999, and fifty up on the preceding year. They outhit every outfield position and finished just four behind the designated hitter. This was mostly the result of a massive surge in home-runs. The position hit 585 HR, over a hundred more than in any previous season. As a result, while Drury’s 2016 OPS+ of 103 was good for his age, it would be below 13 of 20 qualifying batters at second-base.
That may not be so in 2017. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs notes most of the top players at second are in their thirties, with few rising stars beyond Jose Altuve, and concluded “we are likely not seeing the start of a multi-year trend.” But can Drury sustain a 2016 campaign, which saw him break out with a line of .282/.329/.458? Given his youth - 24 last August - one would hope so, but Steamer and ZIPS are pessimistic. The projected triple-slashes for Brandon are .268/.315/.419 and .262/.306/.399, the resulting OPS of .734 and .705 well below the .786 he actually posted in 2016. However, John Sickel’s crystal ball, looking at a possible Drury career path, had him at or near last season.
New GM Mike Hazen seems more confident, saying earlier this off-season, “We’re going to try and get as many at-bats for our best players, so he would be one of those,” and also, “When you have a hitter of that caliber you want to find him at-bats... You find a way to get him on the field. That’s of the most critical importance, getting him in the lineup. The defensive position becomes secondary.” It certainly looks like Drury will be given every opportunity to hold down a spot in the line-up this year
As Michael wrote when discussing Drury’s breakout potential, he certainly has 40 double, 20 homer capability, along with the ability to hit .280 or better. But given the second half of 2016, where Brandon hit .296/.352/.469, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and am hopeful for even better than Mike’s prediction.