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Arizona Diamondbacks 2017-18 off-season issues #7: Third base

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Is Jake Lamb the answer, or the problem?

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San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Darin Wallentine/Getty Images

We now enter the realm of the “somewhat concerned,” with 57.2% of respondents scoring this between three and six on the the worry scale. Still not an enormous amount of concern, but with only 15% below that range, and more than double above it, this is clearly an area not to be ignored. The overall average came in at exactly 5.00.

2017 starters

  • Jake Lamb: 143
  • Adam Rosales: 10
  • Daniel Descalso: 6
  • Ketel Marte: 2
  • Brandon Drury: 1

Production

  • 0.9 bWAR below average at the position (21st in MLB)
  • .245/.345/.484 = .829 OPS, 34 HR, 117 RBI

2018 depth chart

  • Jake Lamb
  • Brandon Drury
  • Daniel Descalso
  • Ketel Marte

At first glance, it may seem to be odd to have any concerns about a position where our regular starter hit 30 home-runs and drove in more than a hundred. But the further you look into the numbers, the more there’s reason to wonder whether Lamb is indeed the long-term solution for the team at third base. There are three areas in particular which are potentially problematic.

1. Defense

Lamb’s fielding has always been problematic, but this season was pretty much the worst it has been. By defensive WAR (dWAR), he was worth 1.1 wins below replacement. That ranked 18th of 19 qualified third basemen in the majors. UZR is no kinder, rating Jake at -6.9 runs, 17th of 18. His poor range was particularly responsible for that. But there’s no doubt having reigning Gold Glover Paul Goldschmidt on the receiving end for his throws, helped stop Lamb from having more than 14 errors (tied for fourth in the majors). Defense is why Lamb’s value by bWAR ranked 33rd among the 37 players this year with thirty or more homers, and why the position was below MLB average for us.

2. vs. left-handed pitching

  • vs. RHP: .282/.386/.552 = .938 OPS
  • vs. LHP: .144/.269/.288 = .557 OPS

This has been a thing, every season since Lamb made his debut in 2014, with an OPS split of at least two hundred points. But it got completely out of hand this season, to the point where we really have to ask whether we need someone to platoon with Jake (albeit on the minor end of the platoon). The standard defense has been that Lamb is fine against left-handed starters, but struggles especially badly against relievers. While certainly a factor, through the first five innings, Lamb’s OPS against left-handers this season was .686, still 270 points worse than he produced vs. righties. That’s not a split, it’s a chasm.

3. Second-half slump

  • First-half: .279/.376/.546 =.922 OPS
  • Second-half: .204/.332/.403 = .735 OPS

For the second season in a row, Lamb produced an All-Star caliber campaign up until the break, before falling off a cliff after the All-Star game. While the gap wasn’t quite as large as in 2016 (when the OPSs were .983 and .663), they still show Lamb running out of steam. Going a bit finer, the chart below shows Jake’s monthly splits, over the course of his career: you can clearly see the precipitous fall once the calendar turns to August.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this year. In June, it was “More than last year, Lamb believes his preparation and relationship with hitting coach Dave Magadan will help him improve in that regard. Lamb has already seen progress in turning around rough patches before they become more than a blip on the radar of a very long season.” But by September, it became, “A stat line that’s sagged in the second half of the season compared to the first half isn’t the only difference Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo has detected... He’s missed on pitches that he previously squared up, and Lamb hasn’t found himself in as many hitter-friendly counts as he did earlier in the schedule.”

Fix or replace?

Possibly a bit of both. It may be that stamina is the problem, with Jake simply running out of steam in the final two months of the season. If so, then platooning him with a right-handed hitter at third-base would take care of both the LHP and 2nd-half issues, and might help a bit with defense as well. The obvious candidate is Brandon Drury, who was far more a third baseman when coming up in the minors (346 starts there; nine at second; nine at short) and is much more even-keeled with regard to platoon numbers (career splits of .782 vs. .760). As discussed previously, this could be accomplished by shifting Chris Owings to second, with Ketel Marte being our regular shortstop.

Alternatively, we could trade Lamb and give Drury the job full-time. After all, the latter put up more bWAR, by a 1.6 to 1.4 margin, than the former, despite 155 fewer plate appearances. But full disclosure: fWAR violently disagrees, rating Lamb at 2.5, behind only Goldschmidt among our position players, and twice as much as Drury’s 1.2. So your opinion on the wisdom of this, likely depends on which metric you believe, and thus how valuable you consider Lamb to be. But Jake’s cost will be significantly higher in 2018: no longer a league-minimum player, he’s projected to receive $4.7 million in his first year of arbitration - and that price will only rise further thereafter.