clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Freddie Freeman is moving to third base, and the odds are against him

New, comments

The headline I wanted was “Freddie Freeman is moving to third base, where he’ll flop,” but that seems rude.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Hello, it is me, grizzled baseball writer, here to tell you another old-timey baseball story. Back in the olden days of the internet — about 2012, or so — the Tigers announced that Miguel Cabrera was going to move from first base to third base to make room for Prince Fielder. The internet had jokes. It was a fun day. It was a fun year.

Except while Cabrera was bad, he was bad in an acceptable kind of way. His defensive stats didn’t cause FanGraphs’ servers to fail. Tigers pitchers weren’t all stricken with calamitously high ERAs. He was a below-average third baseman. No more, no less. There are third basemen playing baseball in 2017 who are as rough as Cabrera was in 2012.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Tigers’ plan succeeded, mostly because of the players who took Cabrera’s place. But if you’re looking for an example of a team moving a player to third base successfully, even when it made no sense at the time, there you go. It wasn’t such a wacky idea after all.

This comes up now because the Braves moving Freddie Freeman to third base when he comes off the DL. They’re not considering it. They’re doing it. Freeman’s cast is off, and he’s working with Braves infield coach Ron Washington.

It’s not that hard to play third base. Tell ‘im, Wash.

It’s really not that hard! Here, I’ll get you started ...

Oh, come on, don’t run away from your fame.

While that might be a fake quote, this is some real information from the same article:

Freeman played third base in high school and for five games in rookie ball a decade ago in 2007.

That means Freeman has a steep, steep learning curve. So steep. Incredibly steep. Consider that in the last decade, there have been 129 different players who have logged at least 100 games at third base in the majors. Of those players, 36 of them played fewer than 50 games at third in the minors.

Of those 36 players with limited third base experience in the minors, 35 of them played second base or shortstop. The only exception was Brandon Inge, who was primarily a catcher. He learned third base at the major league level. Even Josh Donaldson and Pablo Sandoval, who were primarily catchers, had more than 50 games at third in the minor leagues before they were called up.

There are other exceptions to the middle-infield rule. Todd Frazier was primarily a left fielder in the minor leagues, but he still played more than 250 games in the infield before reaching the majors. Travis Shaw was primarily a first baseman, but he also had more than 100 games at third. Greg Dobbs was a first baseman, but he had more than 250 games at third.

Of those three players to move to a more difficult position on the defensive spectrum, Frazier and Shaw were successes. Dobbs was pretty rough at third base, though if he hit like Freeman, he would have stuck around for decades, of course. So if you’re a Braves fan looking for optimism, look toward Frazier and Shaw.

Except don’t forget that each of them had more than 100 games at third in the minors, and both of them played minor-league games at third in their first professional season. The are not comparable to Freeman, who is 27 and has played five games at third base as a professional. (He was 17 and made three errors on 13 chances, if you’re scoring at home.)

And it’s not like Freeman has had stellar defensive numbers over his career at first, either.

We’ve been here before, and I’m not talking about Miguel Cabrera. Because for as rusty as he was, he had hundreds of games as an infielder in both the majors and minors. He was a shortstop for years. Freeman moving to third base isn’t even close to Cabrera moving back to third. It’s hardly even the same genre. The same goes with Frazier or Shaw, both players who received plenty of experience at third in the minors after converting.

We’ve been here with Yonder Alonso.

"Maybe I can get in there and, obviously, it will give me more value to the team if I can do that," Alonso said on Wednesday. "Third base was my position growing up. It comes easier than the other two positions."

Total games played at third in the majors: 14

We’ve been here with Carlos Santana.

Infield coach Mike Sarbaugh and scout Trey Hendricks in the Dominican working with Carlos Santana at third base.

Total games played at third in the majors: 26

Heck, we’ve been here with Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Jimmie Foxx, with uninspiring results. It’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard to play third base without a lot of previous experience as a middle infielder. There are notable success stories with catchers, but they almost always had infield experience in the minors.

Freeman succeeding at third would be unprecedented, at least when it comes to players from the last decade.

The reason the Braves are trying this is because they are enjoying the punishing bat of Matt Adams, who has spent the last two months hitting like Not Matt Adams, and my money is on one of the two scenarios occurring:

  1. Adams is traded
  2. Adams quietly regresses to his career numbers, and Freeman slides back over to first

That isn’t to say that I’m against the Braves trying this bold move. If Freeman can succeed at third, that would make a wildly productive player even more productive. The Braves aren’t going to make the postseason this year, so there’s not a whole lot to lose. When the Giants moved Pablo Sandoval to third base (to keep Bengie Molina behind the plate), it was a radical decision. It paid off beyond their wildest expectations, with Sandoval even receiving a (deserved, I swear it) Gold Glove nomination in 2011.

If the Braves can do that, they’ll be a much better team with a stronger foundation. Just like if the Yankees could move Aaron Judge to third, or if the Mets could move Lucas Duda to third.

It’s only slightly more likely to succeed than those other two scenarios, though. The Braves are moving Freddie Freeman to third base, and I applaud their inventiveness and ... bravery.

This probably isn’t going to work, though. As long as everyone knows that going in, we’re cool.