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A “true” second baseman

It’s kind of been while...

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago that Thairo Estrada was considered a shortstop, and not a particularly touted one at that.

Paul Sporer in a ranking in March of 2022 has him as 54th out of 60 shortstops. In stints with the Yankees over the 2019-2020 seasons, Estrada bounced between 5 different positions: outfield corners, everything but first in the infield. He made more starts at short than second in 2021 with the Giants as back-up to Brandon Crawford and Tommy La Stella/Donovan Solano while still logging innings at third, left, and right. Before the 2022 season, Estrada was still viewed as a utility man, a plug-in-play given the health status of others or what was being served as the arm-of-the-day.

How that year went down was not ideal for many, but it facilitated Estrada’s breakout. The continued failure of Tommy La Stella —the apparent second baseman when signed to a three year contract in 2021—made 3 appearances at the position. Estrada made 102 (775.2 innings), while his 140 games played was third most on the team. It was the first time a Giants player had logged more than 100 appearances at second base since Joe Panik did in 2017.

Though second was clearly the greatest need, Estrada’s services were still required elsewhere. He played 286 innings over 37 games at short, 86 innings over 19 games in the outfield, and 16 innings over 3 games at third. Yes, 73% of his appearances came at second, but it was clear based on his defense that he had yet to learn the intricacies and delicacies of the position. He made the hard plays look easy and the easy plays look bafflingly hard. Paradoxical on the surface, but as Grant Brisbee pointed out in an article for The Athletic in June of 2022 (subscription required), each defensive position on the diamond has their quirks that requires a period of adjustment no matter how good of a defender someone is. A base level of athleticism and skill will bag you an occasional web-gem, but it takes innings, games, months, sometimes a season to learn a position and learn the league from that position’s vantage point.

Thairo Estrada was not a second baseman in 2022. Not yet. The amount of exposure he got at the position was never the plan. A fortuitous turn though, and maybe one of the smartest decisions the Giants made in early 2023 was to let La Stella go, tell Estrada he was the second baseman, and give him no safety net to really nail home the point.

Sink or swim, and Estrada swam.

The growth made on defense wasn’t a miracle of engineering. The move from short to second isn’t like suspending pavement across a mile wide strait between Fort Point and the Marin Headlands. It just required permission and time. Definition can be freeing. Shorn of the “utility” label and deemed “the second baseman”, Estrada was able to become one.

By most metrics, Estrada was one of the best defensive gloves in the league last year. His 1.5 Defense rating on Fangraphs jumped to 15.6. Outs Above Average and Runs Above Average (RAA) grew from innocuous 0’s to 20 and 15 respectively. A decent argument can be made for Estrada being the most valuable position player on the Giants these past two seasons. The offensive profile strays from the typically reserved Giant and has been decidedly average in terms of end-of-season stats (108 and 101 wRC+ in ‘22 and ‘23), but his growth defensively as well as his speed and intuition as a base runner and basestealer make him the most well-rounded member of the club.

In 120 games in 2023, Estrada appeared on the field as a second baseman 102 times (85%). Using this statistical framework, we can put Estrada’s 2023 in context of other notable San Francisco “true” second baseman.

The 100-appearance mark holds no inherent significance other than it’s a good chunk. A three-digit number! Percentage-wise, it’s somewhere between a simple and super-majority in the 162 game season. It filters out, maybe cruelly, the periphery of San Francisco infielders—the Donovan Solanos and Ryan Theriots and Joey Amalfitanos and their 90-appearance years. But scanning the season totals of players like Jeff Kent, Robby Thompson, and Tito Fuentes, 100 feels low and more than generous.

The 85-percent—another arbitrary but inarguable mark. If you’re a second baseman, you shouldn’t be playing anywhere else. Maybe 66% or 75% of time spent is plenty (nor do I think the names and seasons change much if you toggle between those numbers), but Estrada appeared at second base 85% of the time last year, so that’s what is required for the purpose of this article.

Since 1958, a player has matched or bested these “true” second baseman qualifications in a season for the Giants 43 other times between nineteen different infielders (note: linked list is missing a couple seasons in which players don’t have enough games played, but had enough appearances at 2B, ex. T. Fuentes’ 1974). It’s not a rare occurrence, which shouldn’t be surprising—it is common practice to send out a second baseman in every game.

But this ragtag bunch starts to thin considerably when we look for longevity, effectiveness, and a combination of both.

Only seven players during the club’s West Coast tenure have achieved this “true” second basemen status in consecutive seasons: Panik (2), Ray Durham (5), Kent (6), Robby Thompson (8), Tito Fuentes (4), Ron Hunt (2), and Chuck Hiller (2).

Hal Lanier could’ve been on this list but played too many games at shortstop in 1966. Panik had three seasons in which he missed the 100-appearance total by 10 or less, including 99 in 2015. Fuentes did it 5 times in all as a Giant starting in 1967, but he lost the second base job to Hunt in ‘68 before reclaiming it in 1971 and going on his four-year run.

Fun aside about Hunt: in each of his three seasons with the Giants, he had an On-Base Percentage higher than his Slugging Percentage. Of course, he’s an infielder who played in the 70’s so power expectations were already low, but his OBP was spiked due to his hit-by-pitch totals. In the ‘68 and ‘70 seasons, he was clunked by a pitcher more times than he recorded an extra base hit. Each year with the Giants he led the Majors in HBP, then moved onto Montreal where he paced baseball for three more years, getting bruised by the baseball a record 50 times in 1971.

Thairo Estrada has not tied two “true” second baseman seasons together yet. He’s still among the team’s rank-and-file, the one-and-dones like Marco Scutaro, Freddy Sánchez, Rennie Stennett, and Joe Morgan (the truest true second baseman), but seems well poised to become the 8th player on that more exclusive list. It shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine him stringing together a nice little streak while he’s still under team control through the 2026 season.

Second basemen have historically been a scrawny, below-average bunch when it comes to offense, so in terms of effectiveness, it’s no surprise that his average bat is an above average boost compared to a lot of his peers. Tacking on Estrada’s 2.3 bWAR filters out nearly half of the seasons and players on the aforementioned list.

His season’s WAR is the third highest on the list in the least amount of games played behind Ray Durham’s 3.2 in 110 G in 2003, and 2.6 in 120 G in 2004 (though it does seem unnecessarily nit-picky to exclude Panik’s 2015—his best year—in which he accrued a 3.5 bWAR in only 100 games but just 99 appearances at second).

Combining effectiveness and longevity, the list of players who matched both Estrada’s 2023 playing time as well as his WAR over multiple seasons gets whittled down even further to four.

Jeff Kent and Robby Thompson cleared those hurdles by plenty six-times (Kent’s lowest being 3.5 in 1999; Thompson’s 3.4 in 1986). Durham did it three times while Hunt did it twice.

Kent is the obvious outlier here when it comes to offense production. His career OPS+ is 155. His lowest season mark as a Giant was still an above average 105 in 1997, his first year in San Francisco. His adjusted OPS never dropped below 125 in the following five seasons and peaked at 162 in 2000, the year he won the National League MVP award. Kent laced 37 doubles or more, launched 22 home runs or more (including 37 in 2002), and drove in at least 100 runs in each of his six seasons.

No, Kent is untouchable—not as a fielder, but his heavy bat easily made up for any defensive lackings. The switch-hitting Ray Durham had a knack for getting on base that Estrada doesn’t quite have. Aside from 2007, his final full year as a Giant, Durham’s OBP always flirted with .360 while his double totals danced around 30. Notably too Durham hit 26 home runs in 2006, more than doubling the previous season’s total. Is that kind of spike possible for Estrada? Maybe not to that extreme, but Durham’s combination of speed and power that he showed off in his younger days before his San Francisco days could be within reach. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing a 20 SB - 20 HR season from Estrada.

In terms of longevity, Robby Thompson is likely out of reach. The San Francisco-era leader in appearances at second base started his 11 year career when he was 24 and didn’t start to slow until his age-32 season. Offensively he profiles closest to Estrada: a career 105 OPS+ with a slash line of .257/.329/.403/.733. Nothing flashy there, just meat and potatoes, a working man’s second base bat with a solid glove on the other side of the ball.

More than that too, Estrada, as the winner of the 2023 Willie Mac Award, has exhibited some of Thompson’s attributes that go beyond numbers. Scrappy, tough—Thompson was the clubhouse leader on a lot of great late-80’s, early 90’s teams. His best season, when he won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, earned an All Star nod, and finished 15th in MVP voting, was the year San Francisco won 103 games. While Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell were duking it out as the Pacific Sock Exchange in 1989, Thompson quietly accrued a 6.1 bWAR.

It’s reasonable to expect Estrada to repeat, or best, his 2023 playing time and WAR in at least one of these coming seasons. Doing so would put him a step above most in San Francisco’s history of “true” second baseman.

If he can do it twice, three times, or more, he’ll write his name among rarer company.