Fun With Numbers: How Good (or Bad) Would Aubrey Huff be at Third?

A little while ago, we found out that Aubrey Huff is open to the idea of playing third base again to help the Giants out while Pablo Sandoval is out of action.  It's a really nice offer, but it doesn't sound particularly appealing to me.  Aubrey is, at this point in his career, essentially limited to first base and left field. And even then, he's still something of a liability.  I don't know if the Giants are actually considering it or not- honestly, the idea is a wee bit frightening- but let's pretend just for a moment that they actually are.  How good, or bad, might he be?

Well, there are a couple of ways we can estimate Aubrey's (in)efficiency at third base. It uses a lot of assumptions, so you're just going to have to bear with me.  The first is what I call the "equivalency approach," which involves a whole bunch of little mathematical gymnastics:

  • I first took the weighted average of Huff's Fan Scouting Reports going back to 2008, so that we not only have multiple years of observations but a greater emphasis on his most recent season.  I then regressed these figures based on the level of disagreement between the voters-so, the higher the level of agreement, the more "unique" Huff is-and the greater the disagreement, the more we err on the side of caution and regress him to the mean.
  • I then placed each trait within a "bucket" to develop ratings for his range, hands, and arm.  "Range," for example, consists of the player's Instinct rating, their Acceleration and their Sprint scores.  "Hands" are the player's rate of making fielding errors-and "Arm" consists of both "Arm Strength" and "Accuracy."  A weighted average is then taken from each bucket based on the position-for example, Sprint speed isn't nearly as important as Instincts are for a third baseman, but it might be the opposite for a center fielder.
  • I then did the same for all Major League third basemen to construct a baseline with which to compare Aubrey to, which gives us...

Screen_shot_2011-05-24_at_10

A rating of 50 is exactly average.  Huff is nearly one standard deviation below the average when it comes to his mobility (one SD is ~20 points), so he'd likely be sub par in terms of the amount of ground he would cover at third (surprise!).  He's got slightly below average hands-we would expect him to commit more fielding errors at third than average, but not at a gigantic rate-and his arm appears to be well below average as well, suggesting that a shift to the hot corner might not be the best idea.

But...how does this translate into runs?

I generated equivalencies based on the SD of both the FSR and a hybrid Zone Rating based on both STATS, Inc. and Baseball Info Solutions data.  Huff's range rating corresponds to a ZR of .748; the league average third baseman over the last three years sits at .765.  Over 410 chances-the average amount of chances a third baseman receives over a full season-this translates into approximately -6 runs.  Given the Giants' strikeout/fly ball tendencies, however, their third basemen see about 360 balls in play, 50 less than the average.  This would change Huff's theoretical rating to only -5 runs per 1,440 innings, or about 162 games.*  Not good by any means, but not horrendous.

This only accounts for balls Aubrey theoretically can or can't reach, though- not dropped balls or errant throws.  Given his below average "Hands" and his estimated full season chances, we would expect Aubrey to cost the Giants an extra two runs per butchered grounder, and, given his below average throwing, another three runs.  When all is said and done, we would estimate Aubrey to cost the Giants ten runs over 1,440 innings, a little over a win.  That's pretty darn bad, but...surprisingly, not the end of the world.  This is his estimated true talent, though, so he would undoubtedly be among the worst everyday third basemen in the Major Leagues if the Giants played him there every inning.

Another approach, using the same scouting report information, is to generate similarity scores to compare Huff's attributes to that of other Major League third basemen (from 2008-2010).  Sticking strictly to range-the thing I'm most concerned with-Huff compares least favorably to Ryan Zimmerman, Brandon Inge, Chone Figgins, Evan Longoria, and Adrian Beltre.  I guess that doesn't come to much of a surprise.  He does, however, compare quite well to Jorge Cantu, Robb Quinlan, Ty Wigginton, Chris Woodward, Mike Lowell, and Greg Dobbs. With the exception of Woodward, all of these players compare favorably to Aubrey in that they're corner position players that aren't exactly what one would call "athletic."  Their collective total chances sits at 685-in other words, none of them were considered anywhere near full-time third basemen in the seasons they were evaluated-and the group ZR was .754, -4 runs per 1,440 innings. So, I take this to mean that the initial approach appears to have some basis in reality.**

The thing is, though, we're not talking about a full season of Aubrey Huff at third base.  We're talking about maybe a month or so.  That's about 250 innings, assuming Huff plays every inning-and, if he plays to his estimated talent level, he would cost the Giants about two runs.  And honestly, that's not really all that bad.  He'll see about 60 balls in play, and that's about it.  Then again, given the issue of sample size, there's about a 95% chance he'll either cost the Giants about ten runs or he'll save them about five-so, even though I've gone through all that math, that darned thing called "random variation"  could just screw everything up.

Of course, one thing that isn't accounted for in analyses like these is the issue of high leverage situations.  It may be bearable to place Huff at third for the early innings, but when you're close and late in the game, you'll probably be better off with a defensive replacement rather than Huff Daddy.

The other day, Grant said this:

Someone will crunch the numbers and write, "Belt should be a 12-run improvement at the plate, but Huff will swallow sixteen balls like a snake eating a turtle egg, and that invokes a little-known rule that gives the opposing team two runs every time, which means he STARTS as a -32 third baseman..." But I think Belt would need to hit, and hit a lot, for the move to be justified.

As it currently stands, ZiPS forecasts Mike Fontenot to hit right around the league average for the rest of the season, and Brandon Belt around +10 runs.  Over the span of a month, the difference is about three runs, and Fontenot's ratings at third indicate he'd likely be an average defender there.  So...based on this utterly crude hypothetical, it would appear to be close to a wash.  Which, in my mind, is a pretty nice upgrade from "no way, dude."

 

 

*There are a number of issues with this type of analysis, because 1) there is a higher degree of difficulty, in my opinion, with judging a first baseman's "position-neutral" skills.  This is due to the fact that first basemen see the least amount of ball in play opportunities of all the positions, and because they also rarely get a chance to show off their arms.  68% of all assists by first basemen in 2010 were to first base, and only 7% were to third.  All others were to second or to home.  There is also another larger issue, which is 2) the assumption that Zone Rating, even one that uses both data providers, works as a valid estimate of a player's defensive efficiency.

**Again, assuming you believe that defensive metrics have some credibility.

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