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A contact hitter in the minors, Brian Dozier hit 42 home runs in 2016 (Photo by Diamond Images)[/caption]
FORT MYERS, Fla.
—When the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy
finished runner-up in National League MVP balloting last year and the Astros’ Jose Altuve
placed third in the American League, it opened eyes in the industry.
Elsewhere the Rockies’ D.J LeMahieu
hit .348 to win the NL batting title, and the Twins’ Brian Dozier
clubbed 42 home runs to rank third in the AL.
The Mariners’ Robinson Cano
hit .298 with a career-high 39 homers, and the superstar looked more like he was 27 than 33, his actual age.
People inside and outside the game want to know: Was the preponderance of dominating offensive seasons by second basemen in 2016 just an anomaly? Or is second base now a dominant offensive position?
Several theories abound, though the prevailing one is that in today’s game many of the best players just happen to play the keystone spot.
Power plays big in the post-steroid era, with some teams sacrificing a great glove for a player who can hit 20 homers a year. There’s also a difference of opinion as to what teams look for at second.
"The game goes in waves,” a scout for an AL club said. "It’s hard to say it’s a natural power position now. You always had a few guys who played there and had power, like Joe Morgan and Bret Boone
. But I think it’s just a phase where a lot of the best players coming up right now are second basemen.
"You have certain positions where you look for power, like at first base or corner outfield. But at second you’re looking for a complete player with good actions in the field and a good line-drive stroke. Then if the power is there that’s a bonus.”
Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff had a different view and sees the change in the big leagues re-shaping the way amateur players are evaluated.
"The profile for middle-of-the-diamond guys has changed,” Radcliff said. "Speed and quickness and agility used to be the primary traits. Now with prospects we think more of the power—the bat. It’s not a bat-control guy anymore. The offensive side of the second-base profile has elevated substantially, and that (trickles) all the way down to signing younger guys internationally.”
As strikeouts continue to rise in the major leagues, so does the need for power to produce runs. Much of that muscle last season came from second basemen flexing their muscle.
Second basemen hit an all-time record 585 home runs in 2016, with 15 different players going deep at least 20 times. The question is whether or not this power production is merely a one-year spike in a season in which 5,610 home runs were hit across the majors. That total ranks second all time only to the 2000 season, which saw 5,692 homers.
Defense Still Matters
Opinions vary as to whether all the defensive shifting has anything to do with who plays second base. With power at a premium to counteract all the power pitchers in the game, managers and scouts said they might sacrifice a bit of defense to get more offense at second base, if a team has that type of player. But slick glovework hasn’t been ignored.
"With the defensive shifting you can maybe keep some guys at second base who normally may have to move to a different position,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, "and they’re still able to handle the position defensively, and that increases the offensive output.”
Twins manager Paul Molitor can relate, having played all over the diamond during his 21-year, Hall of Fame career. That includes 400 games at second base. But it was always his bat, with a career .306 average, which kept him in the lineup.
"It’s a little bit surprising that we have such a large number of people who are hitting home runs at that position,” Molitor said. "But it’s good for the game. I think when teams look to balance their offense and defense, if your personnel allows you to turn that into an offensive position, as opposed to generations past, then that’s a good thing.
"We’re fortunate here to have Brian, a player who I didn’t see coming on like this six or seven years ago. But in the American League, in particular, we have a lot guys at that position who can really swing it and are excellent defenders.”
Dozier said only time will tell if second is truly considered a power position. However, he said the increased need for offense has teams rethinking who plays there.
"At every position, you have to hit to play now,” he said. "It’s just how the game has gotten better. Yeah, you want to be strong up the middle defensively, but you need that offensive threat in the lineup as well. If you can find that guy who can do both, then those are the ones who play.”
Power On Contact
The major league strikeout rate has increased by 23 percent since 2007, which represents a sea change in how the game is played. With so many relief pitchers throwing in the high 90s with a swing-and-miss slider, teams are making contact with the ball less often, which in turn emphasizes the importance of power when contact is made.
"I see a couple things in the post-steroid era,” said Dozier, who hit just 32 home runs in four years of college and parts of four minor league seasons combined. "You see strikeouts are up, and that has to do with pitching being better than it has ever been. They throw harder with more movement.
"People are starting to realize that power is the rare commodity. And if you can take more chances to produce that power, if it means you strike out a few more times, then you’ll take a few more strikeouts with a few more homers since it produces runs.”
Molitor said he expected the emphasis to return to speed and defense in a drug-tested game, but it hasn’t happened that way.
"I think in the post-steroid era we all had to make an adjustment to see how the game was going to unfurl,” Molitor said. "Speed and defense returned a bit. But what we’re seeing now, as the strikeouts continue to increase and people use their pitching staffs effectively, hitting the ball over the fence has kind of regained value.”
The 34-year-old Rickie Weeks
knows all about the shifting second-base profile. The 13-year big league veteran is attempting to catch on with the Rays as a platoon first baseman, DH and righthanded bench bat. Back in 2003, the Brewers made Weeks the highest-selected second baseman in draft history when they chose him No. 2 overall out of Southern, where he was the College Player of the Year.
Weeks’ defensive play graded as less than ideal at second base most of his career, but his bat kept him in the lineup, and he was a key cog in the Brewers’ 2008 and 2011 postseason teams. He hit a high of 29 homers in 2010 as well and has hit 159 homers in his career.
"Coming in, there was an emphasis on defense,” Weeks said. "But for the most part they just wanted me to be me. There wasn’t an emphasis on hitting for power or home runs. But I was blessed with some power, so as I adapted more at the big league level, and the power came with that.
"But you really can’t put your finger on why things have changed to more power at that position. Teams tend to mirror each other. So if one team has a power-hitting second baseman, the other teams start looking for a player like that.”
A More Athletic Position
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Jose Altuve has the complete modern second-base skill set (photo by Bill Mitchell)[/caption]
Weeks’ new Rays teammate Brad Miller
is part of the discussion because Tampa Bay is moving him to second base this season to get his bat into the lineup. A shortstop in his college career at Clemson, Miller troubled scouts with his defensive inconsistency as an amateur and as a pro.
Miller hit 30 home runs last year playing shortstop and first base for the Rays after coming over via trade from the Mariners. He also committed 14 errors in 105 games, and advanced defensive metrics pegged him as a below-average defender.
"I just think there’s a lot of really good players who happen to play second base,” Miller said. "I don’t think there’s an emphasis where they’re told, ‘You’re playing second, so do this,’ or ‘You’re playing first, so do this.’ ”
As for his own adjustment, Miller said he doesn’t let what happens in the field affect him in the batter’s box.
"As a professional you have to separate those things,” he said. "At this level it’s what’s expected of you. I know I’m there to provide power. Defensively, I’m trying to keep it simple. Catch the ball and throw it accurately”
Rays bench coach Tom Foley was a steady infield reserve during his 13-year big league career. He said the two dominant positions in the majors now are third base and second base.
"Not only offensively, but also defensively because of the shifts,” Foley said. "In the past you might think the guy can’t play short because of his arm, so let’s move him to second. But now he has to make that long throw from short right field, so he has to have at least an average arm.
"Now teams are looking for offense all over the field, and (second base is) a position that’s come up with many outstanding defensive-offensive players.”
Red Sox all-star second baseman Dustin Pedroia
didn’t think the onslaught of power at second base is a trend.
"I just look at it as a position where there are a lot of athletes,” Pedroia said. "If you’re a good athlete there’s a lot of things you can do on a baseball field. Some guys have more power. Some have more speed and are faster. But all of them are good athletes and can help their team in different ways.”
And more athletes are on the way. This spring the White Sox released Brett Lawrie—himself a former third baseman who had been shifted to second—because they know they have Yoan Moncada waiting in the wings.
Moncada won the Minor League Player of the Year award last season in the Red Sox system, and this year he ranks No. 2 on the Top 100 Prospects list. That’s the highest ranking ever for a second-base prospect on the Top 100, surpassing the mark previously held by Weeks.
Dozier was known as a line-drive, contact hitter at Southern Mississippi when the Twins made him an eighth-round pick in 2009. He said his evolution as a power threat began in 2013 when he hit 18 homers.
"For me, it was a total revamp of my swing,” he said. "I went from trying to use the whole field and spraying the ball to trying to get extended and pulling the ball to left field.
"I can still spray the ball. But it might limit my power. We get so caught up in just the home runs. But guys across the league are hitting doubles and triples, and their extra-base hits are off the charts. For me, that’s the power aspect of it, when you can drive in guys from first base consistently.”
Dozier said trend or no trend, better offense comes from year to year adjustments by hitters. And that will never change.
"That’s about one thing: getting smarter each year as to what pitchers are trying to do to you,” Dozier said. "I know they’re thinking, ‘Bust me hard inside because I want to pull the ball.’ They’re going way in or soft away.
"I’m thinking the same thing they are. So I have to continue to make adjustments each at-bat, knowing that not to give that guy on the mound too much credit, because they make a lot of mistakes.
"They’re not going to get that two inches off the plate every time. And when they make that mistake, (the batter) can’t miss it.”
And as 2016 indicated, many of those mistakes against second basemen landed in the bleachers.
Joel Poiley is a freelance writer based in Tampa. Jake Kaplan contributed to this story.
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Daniel Murphy (photo by Ed Wolfstein)[/caption]
Second basemen not only hit an all-time position record of 585 home runs in 2016, but also they blurred the line between their position and left field in terms of extra-base hit proficiency.
Second basemen combined for an isolated slugging percentage of .160 last season, which when compared with the major league average for non-pitchers (.166), works out to an index of 96, or about four percent below average. Left fielders produced an ISO index just a few ticks higher at 98. Here are all positions sorted by greatest ISO index in 2016.
What truly makes second basemen unique is that even with the increased power output they showed in 2016, they didn’t sacrifice as much contact as other positions to get to that power. The position-wide strikeout rate of 17.7 percent was about 16 percent better than the league average for non-pitchers (20.6 percent).
No other position made as much contact as second basemen did in 2016, which is truly remarkable considering their power-hitting exploits.
|Second basemen come in all shapes and sizes in 2017, but for the most part, they come from other positions. Here’s a breakdown of the way projected Opening Day second basemen entered pro ball, and what position(s) they played along the way.
• Shortstop (12): Prime examples include Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist, Brian Dozier, D.J. LeMahieu and Joe Panik.
• Second Base (4): Devon Travis, Kolten Wong, Ryan Schimpf and Whit Merrifield.
• Other (3): Daniel Murphy and Logan Forsythe shifted from third base; Jason Kipnis moved from the outfield.
• Shortstop (4): Starlin Castro, Jose Peraza, Jonathan Schoop and Jonathan Villar played plenty of shortstop before settling in at second.
• Second base (4): Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Cesar Hernandez and Rougned Odor have been primarily second basemen from the get-go.
• Shortstop (2): Brandon Phillips and Brandon Drury.
• Other (1): Neil Walker was a prep and minor league catcher whose bat emerged after a move to third base, though he eventually settled at second.