Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Astros Third Base Conundrum

When Brian McTaggart of tweeted out a question Monday regarding how Astros fans felt about the signing of SS Jed Lowrie to a three-year contract, I replied with a one-word response, "Underwhelmed." A friend of mine responded, "he's solid, likely declining, but front loaded contract, and not a markedly better option available than him." I don't disagree with that, but there are other factors involved in molding my opinion.

I will admit that I was somewhat put off by Jed Lowrie's response to the buttshot heard 'round the world last year. Fine, have your say and move on. But the response lingered on for over a week which I found to be a bit excessive. I'll admit that I am not a professional athlete (not even close!), but it seems to me that getting plunked on the heinie is not worthy of a daily press briefing. But I digress. (Don't I always?)

Seriously, I have no lingering issues with the aforementioned unfortunate episode. I actually like Lowrie. I had a very nice conversation with him one day about his trip to Africa. I even gave him a little advice for an upcoming trip that he and his wife were taking to Ecuador. Dang it, I'm digressing yet again.

I also do not have an issue with his play at shortstop. I think he is solid at the position and will bring some needed stability to the position, plus he will provide a solid, albeit unspectacular, bat in the lineup. I'm not wild about signing him for three years, but so long as he doesn't soil the bed linens, and assuming that there isn't a repeat of anything like this incident, the Astros should be able to trade him in a year or two if need be. So even that isn't a particular problem for me.

My problem lies with the idea that, in the event that Carlos Correa is ready for the major leagues in late 2015 (as I think will be highly likely), the Astros have stated that they will just move Lowrie on over to third base until Colin Moran or Rio Ruiz are ready to play at the hot corner on the big stage. Jed Lowrie has played precisely 83 games at third base in his major league career, the majority of those in 2008, none since 2011. Lowrie has a decent bat for a shortstop, but will not provide the offensive output you want to see from a corner outfielder. I'm not a huge fan of shoving guys into positions just to find a place for them if their talents don't dovetail well with the position.

So, let's have a little chat about third base. Matt Dominguez has been a fan favorite when it comes to his defense, but his bat has always been a question mark, and he has not necessarily given the Astros the answer to that question that they wanted. The third base job is his to lose in Spring Training. The problem is that he may very well do that if he doesn't show marked improvement with the lumber. Jeff Luhnow has alluded to Marwin Gonzalez as a possibility at third. Personally, I feel that Marwin's best use is as a utility infielder. Third is not his natural position, and he has shown himself to be a much better middle infielder.

The presumed third basemen in waiting, according to the Astros front office are Colin Moran and Rio Ruiz. Let's take Ruiz first. I think Ruiz is going to be a terrific player, but he is at least a year away, more likely two years. He needs the time, the at-bats, and the continued development at third base. He should not be rushed. He will let us know when he is ready. So, let's put Rio to the side for the time being.

Colin Moran has only played 28 games at AA. He can definitely hit, but he has not developed the power that is expected from a third baseman yet. When I saw him in Corpus at the end of the season, I was left a bit bewildered by what I saw from him. And then I read this EXCELLENT piece in Baseball Prospectus that put my thoughts into words beautifully. I'm not sure that Colin Moran is ultimately even going to be a third baseman, much less the Astros third baseman of the future. I'd love to see him prove me wrong, but in any event, I cannot see him being legitimately considered for the position in 2015.

So, apparently there are no other options at third base for the coming season? Well, yeah, there is another option. And for the life of me I can't figure out why this player gets no love from the front office. Let's take a look at Matt Duffy:

  • Hit .293/.367/.468 in his four years in the organization
  • Hit .302/.340/.455 in 49 games in Corpus in 2014 before his promotion
  • Hit .279/.333/.448 in 87 games in Oklahoma City after his promotion
  • Hit .354/.374/.469 in August (OKC) in 28 games

Matt Duffy can hit. He's always been able to hit. And he always makes the adjustments he needs to make. I have no reason to believe that he can't make the same adjustments in Houston. He can hit to all fields although his power is to the left side. He would love the Crawford Boxes. His lefty/righty splits got a little lopsided for the season (.256/.311/.383 vs. RHP and .382/.410/.649 vs. LHP), but they evened out a bit for Oklahoma City as he hit .267/.322/.419 against righthanders at the higher level. Over his career, he has had reasonably good lefty/righty splits.

Still doubtful? Let's dig a little deeper for our SABR minded friends. (Click on the name for the player's Fangraphs page.)

Matt Duffy in 2014
wOBA at AA: .361
wOBA at AAA: .343
WRC+ at AA: 128
WRC+ at AAA: 100
ISO at AA: .153
ISO at AAA: .168

Colin Moran in 2014
wOBA at A+: .340
wOBA at AA: .341
WRC+ at A+: 110
WRC+ at AA: 114
ISO at A+: .100
ISO at AA: .107

Matt Dominquez in 2014:
wOBA: .260
WRC+: 63
ISO: .115

Jed Lowrie in 2014:
wOBA: .300
WRC+: 93
ISO: .106

Duffy seems to stack up pretty well by those parameters as well. He does fall short in walk rate (4.9% for the season up to 6% at OKC) and strikeout rate (18.7%) when compared with Lowrie and Moran, but he represents an improvement over Dominguez.

So, Duffy's defense must be awful, right? Wrong. He is a solid defensive player. I specifically talked to him (and with his coach and manager) about his defense in this interview from 2013 because I had seen such an improvement from him in that area. In 2014, Duffy had a .961 fielding percentage and a 2.49 per game range factor in his 70 games played at third base (he was moved to first base for a number of games). Not quite as good as Matt Dominguez's 2014 numbers (.972 fielding percentage and a 2.53 per game range factor), but not that far off either. (The last time Lowrie played third base in 2011, he had a .948 fielding percentage and a 2.79 per game range factor.)

Competition is a good thing and I hope that Matt Duffy is given a legitimate opportunity to compete for the Astros third base job. I think he has earned that much. What he does with the opportunity is up to him, but I think he may surprise some people.

Oh, and one more thing to like about Duffy ... having been hit by pitches 41 times in one season (in 2012) shows that he knows how to take a hit by pitch.

Anywho, since one is limited to 140 characters at a time, "underwhelmed" was the best response I could come up with on short notice. With all of that said ... Welcome Back to Houston, Jed Lowrie!*

*provided that you don't block Carlos Correa for a nanosecond and don't take up residence at third base


  1. Jayne, i am also a big Matt Duffy fan. He has consistently put up good numbers at all levels. i first became interested in Duffy when I saw him in spring training in Kissimmee. He drove the ball harder than any other player at the minor league complex.

    1. And his power hasn't even finished developing yet!

    2. Jayne, very good article. I too am not "overwhelmed" with the Lowrie signing. The Astros need a 3B - not a SS. I think Margo, Petit, or Villar could handle SS until Correa. IMHO, 3B & 1B are the problems. How does Lowrie help those positions? I'm sorry to see Petit go. I would rather see him at third than Matt. I don't believe that Margo can handle 3B. I can't see that Jed will improve this team. Oldstro.

    3. Thanks for the note. I've seen Margo at third a couple of times and it wasn't particularly pretty. I really like him, but not at third. And, yeah, Petit got the short end of the stick on this one. I would have liked to seen a little more of him at the MLB level.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. Lowrie is fine at shortstop for this year, until Correa comes up. If Correa is anywhere close to the talent that is being touted, there will be no room for Lowrie at short. Lowrie is not a third baseman....and I'd rather have Domingo at third until Moran or Ruiz are ready. Bottom line they will be paying a tidy sum for a utility infielder until they trade him (again). Would have rather spent that money on another starting pitcher. Do we really believe we can go into the season with either Folty, Wojo, Buchanan, Deduno or White as that starter? Maybe Folty will be a good starter a couple of years from now....the others, well, I don't know.