According to UZR/150 (courtesy Fangraphs), the best defensive second baseman in baseball last season was Chase Utley with +12.9 mark.   The worst was Skip Schumaker with a -17 UZR/150.    You can make what you want of UZR/150 or any other defensive metric:  they all have flaws and they are all subject to small sample sizes.   The common theme amongst the sabremetric community these days is that it takes three years of defensive statistics to equal one year of offensive data.

If you are into zone ratings when it comes to defense, Utley had a Revised Zone Rating of .840 in 2010 – good for 5th overall.   Schumaker’s was a horrid .769, which was dead last once again.  

Interestingly, both players manned second base for almost an identical amount of innings:  Utley played 1007 innings, Schumaker 1014.   Combining putouts, assists and errors, Utley made a defensive play 5.23 times per nine innings.   Schumaker made a defensive play 5.19 times per nine innings.   It is an admittedly simplistic sampling, but it sure appears that second basemen, the good, the bad, the indifferent,  generally all have about five fielding chances each game.

We can delve into double plays started, double plays turned, positioning, passing eye tests, plus hands, plus feet, plus instincts….you name it, you can factor that into whatever defensive analysis you want to rely upon, but I am going to take the very lowbrow route.

If a second baseman gets on average five defensive chances per game and plays 140 games, that comes out to 700 chances per year.   Using last year’s numbers, Utley’s zone rating implies that he got to 7% more balls than Schumaker and one time every 180 chances or so, Schumaker made an error that Utley would not have made.   In this very crude analysis, those differences, spread over 140 games would mean that Chase Utley made plays on 49 more balls than Skip Schumaker and that Skip would boot six more balls.

That makes for a grand total of 55 plays at second base that seperate the best defensive second baseman of 2010 from the worst.   All around, I can actually feel far better statistical analyzers than myself shivering at the absolute crudeness of the above math!

Now, what does this have to do with the Royals and their very important, very thrilling, oddly played win last night?  Not a whole lot, other than in regard to the lineup that Ned Yost trotted out and then stuck with for eleven innings.  Chris Getz got another start at second base over Mike Aviles, after getting the start over Wilson Betemit the night before.

We’ll ignore the Betemit part of this equation for simplicity sake (after the above fielding analysis, simple is the word of the day) and just compare Getz and Aviles:

  • Getz 2011: .220/.310/.275/.585, 4XBH, 7SB, 14BB, 12SO
  • Aviles 2011: .265/.299/.531/.830, 14XBH, 8SB, 4BB, 21SO

And for their careers:

  • Getz: .248/.314/.313/.628
  • Aviles: .295/.325/.432/.756

IF Chris Getz was the best fielding second baseman in the game and IF Mike Aviles was the worst, Getz turns 55 balls into outs over 140 games that Aviles does not:  basically two plays every five games, four plays every ten games.

In those ten games in which Getz makes four defensive plays Aviles does not (again assuming Getz is the best defender in the game and Aviles the worst), Aviles would not only get a hit, but get an EXTRA BASE HIT five more times than Getz would.   So, what is more valuable?   Four defensive plays made or five extra base hits?

What if, really NED what if, Chris Getz is not the best defensive second baseman on the planet?   Is he better than Aviles?  Yes.   Is he 55 plays better than Aviles?  My guess is that it might be half that number.   If that is truly the case, then the equation becomes two defensive plays versus those five extra base hits.  Simple math, but a simple answer as well.

Of course, Chris Getz and Mike Aviles do not play in a vacuum.   They play second base next to a player who, right now, is a defense only shortstop.  Alcides Escobar, to date, has played superb defense.   He is a joy to watch in the field, but he makes us all wince when at the plate.

Escobar is going nowhere:  the Royals believe in him (so do I, actually) and they have no real option to replace him even if they did not.   Alcides Escobar and his .532 OPS are in the lineup to stay.   Als0 in the lineup will be the offensive liabilities of the Matt Treanor, Brayan Pena and, at some point, Jason Kendall. 

Name a contending team that didn’t have good defense up the middle?  Name one that had three guys up the middle with OPS below .650?   (Yes, I know Treanor is above that mark right now, but if you want to bet on that lasting…). 

I am all for good defense, but the Royals are currently struggling to score and Mike Aviles is a guy who can simply hit.  Sure, he does not walk enough, but he is about to overtake Getz in on-base percentage as it is.   How big a penalty are you willing to pay for Getz’s defense and better, but not tremendously better, base running?

Long term, neither is the ‘solution’ at second base, but not every change has to be ‘the final solution’.  The Royals give up too much when they play Chris Getz at second base and sit either Aviles or Betemit.   If we were talking about shortstop or catcher, the two most important defensive positions, then this column might have a different angle.   We are talking, however, about second base.

Aviles may not even be average in the field, but he is not a butcher (a/k/a Alberto Callaspo).  Getz is probaly above average in the field, but he is not a gold glover.   The difference, when factoring in the times one can effect the game with their glove, is not enough to justify keeping the bat of Mike Aviles on the bench.

Are the Royals playing to win this year or are they hoping that Chris Getz can nudge his OPS over .700 and be an average player sometime down the road?