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127 Feet: Should Miguel Sano Play 3B or 1B in 2020?

Posted by Andrew Luedtke , 08 January 2020 · 1,114 views

miguel sano defense josh donaldson
127 Feet: Should Miguel Sano Play 3B or 1B in 2020? 127 feet, 3 3/8 inches - the distance between third base and first base. In other words, the distance Miguel Sano might be asked to move this season.

Even the casual Twins fan following the 2020 offseason knows that the front office is in talks with free agent 3B, Josh Donaldson. And before that, there were reports at the beginning of November the Twins were interested in Todd Frazier, also a free agent 3B option. It was assumed, and then reported on, that if the Twins were to acquire a 3B, that would mean Miguel Sano would shift from 3B to 1B - a common cycle in MLB history for big slugging right handed hitters who typically move from 3B to 1B, then finally to DH by the end of their careers.

It got me thinking, how have other players before Sano fared in their transition from the hot corner across the diamond to man first base?

In the below post I will show some recent examples (in the last 20 years) of players who did just that.

My focus will be on Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, and Ryan Zimmerman.

I will be evaluating them in two different ways:

1. Their defensive and offensive metrics in their last season as a full time 3B
2. Their defensive and offensive metrics in their first season as a full time 1B

The defensive metrics I am using are a combination of your typical, pre-analytics, back of the baseball card stats, errors and fielding percentage, and more modern metrics like defensive runs saved (DRS), ultimate zone rating (UZR), and UZR/150 which is just that stat scaled to an average number of chances for a season.

*Note: You can find more info on these stats from Fangraphs. I realize they have their limitations ie. UZR doesn’t factor in shifts and is a "relative positional average" compared to the other players in the league at that position, some positions are obviously harder to play than others as is the case here. But nonetheless, this is what we are going to use for this exercise.

As a rule of thumb, negative (-) = bad

At the end of this article, I will present my conclusion based on my findings from this exercise and ask for the community’s opinion on which position does Sano give the Twins the most value.


Miguel Cabrera:

Miguel Cabrera Stats


Let’s start with Miguel Cabrera who Sano drew early comparisons to at the beginning of his career.
Cabrera started as a SS with the Marlins but quickly converted to 3B and stuck there until 2008 - his first year in Detroit. He was a full time first basemen until 2011, then the Tigers moved him back to 3B for the 2012 and 2013 seasons (his back-to-back MVP seasons) before ultimately moving him back to 1B for good in 2014.

He was never a strong defensive 3B (career -58 DRS and -5.6 UZR/150)

Offensively in 2007, his last year on the Marlins, Cabrera was solid, of course, with a .320/.401/.565 and 34 homers.

Defensively however, that was a different story.

In 1,310.2 innings he committed 23 errors, had a fielding % of .941, -19 DRS, and -5 UZR/150.
In 2008, his age 25 season, he moved to first base full time (for the first time). His metrics relative to his 1B peers were much improved from 3B.

In 1,245.2 innings his fielding % was .992, -7 DRS, and a -4.2 UZR/150. Not gold glove worthy but no doubt an improvement from the prior year. Offensively, his stats took a “dip” but he was still a very solid player. His overall WAR, however, you will notice was nearly cut in half from 5.2 to 2.8 - something to keep in mind as you determine the overall value of a 3B vs. 1B.

Albert Pujols:

Albert Pujols Stats


Personally, Fat Albert is one of my favorite baseball players of all time. As I kid, I wore #5 because of him. I know nobody cares - so moving on.

Drafted as a 3B in the 13th (!!!) round in 1999, Pujols quickly made his way to the majors making his debut in 2001. He made the Opening Day roster after H.O.F. 1B Mark McGwire said not putting Pujols on the team “would be one of the worst moves of his (Tony LaRussa’s) career”.

Pujols is a little odd compared to the rest of the group because the Cardinals never really had a true position for Albert until he moved to 1B full time in 2004. In years 2001 - 2003 he played 3B and LF because the Cardinals had *checks notes* 34 year old Tino Martinez at the first sacker in 2002. So, for the data below I combined his 3B metrics from 01 and 02.

In total, he played 96 games, 727.2 innings, committed 16 errors, had a fielding % of .938 and -6.9 UZR/150. (DRS apparently was not tracked prior to ‘03).

In his first year at 1B in 2004, his age 24 season, he made the transition flawlessly. In 1,338 innings he had a positive 7 DRS and 3.7 UZR. Offensively, he was a monster winning a silver slugger, finishing top-3 in the MVP voting, and was an All-Star.

Pujols of course remained at 1B the rest of his career, picking up Gold Gloves in ‘06 and ‘10 before ultimately limping out the rest of his days as the Angels DH.

I think Sano would take even a fraction of Pujols’ career as his ceiling.

*Note a couple things about Pujols and Cabrera: They both transitioned from 3B to 1B at relatively young ages. Miguel Sano will be 27 in May, 2020. If he moves to 1B, he will be older than both these players when they made the switch.

Ryan Zimmerman:

Ryan Zimmerman Stats


Drafted as a 3B, the Nationals first ever pick in a Major League draft was Ryan Zimmerman. Mr. National. I am sure he enjoyed the 2019 World Series win more than anyone. It was fun to see him get there.

He made his Major League debut in the year he was drafted (2005) and played 3B until 2013.
Overall, he was a VERY solid 3B (Gold Glove winner in 2009, if you care about those things) where he posted a positive 52 DRS, and 33.5 UZR for his career in 9925.2 innings. Shoulder injuries led to his downfall.

However, we are going to focus on his last year at the position and his subsequent move across the diamond.
In 2013, his aged 28 season, Zimmerman played 1,245.2 innings, committed 21 errors (.945 fielding %), and a -13.7 UZR/150. Offensively, he was solid posting a 124 wRC+ in 633 PA’s. This is all coming off of a shoulder surgery after the 2012 season, mind you.

At the end of the 2013 season, he was having injury issues again to the point where 2014 was basically a wash. His spot at the hot corner was taken by a fella by the name of Anthony Rendon. So in 2014, Zimmerman played in LF. It wasn’t until 2015 he took over at 1B.

His first year at 1B was solid defensively when he played. He only got into 93 games but played 792.1 innings of 1B, only made 4 errors (.995 fielding percentage), -1 DRS, and -.1 UZR/150 - not bad!
Offensively, he was barely above league average. It wasn’t until 2017 where he returned with authority. Again, keep in mind his health.

Overall, a very good transition over to 1B from 3B for Zimmerman.

Edwin Encarnacion:

Edwin Stats


Last on this list is the parrot-keeper himself, Edwin Encarnacion. Edwin has had an interesting career to say the least. People forget he started as a 3B (albeit a butcher of one, more on that in a minute).

Edwin was drafted in the 9th round by the Reds in the year 2000 as a 3B. Does anyone know who the Twins selected #2 overall that year? Bonus points if you do. It was Twins legend, Adam Johnson (who?) Adam Wainwright and Chase Utley were taken later in the first round. Sorry to pour salt in the wound...

He played there through his 2010 season, his first full one on the Blue Jays. I think they said, uh, yeah, I’ve seen enough.

In 95 games, 841.2 innings he made 18 (!!) errors. But somehow *only* posted -4 DRS and a positive .5 UZR/150.
After that he pretty much was positioned as a part-time DH and 1B.

His first “full” year at 1B was in 2012, his aged 29 season, when he broke out offensively. He played 68 games at first, 583.1 innings and was serviceable despite a -9.2 UZR/150. Note, it is tough to use this stat for less than a full season’s worth of data.

For his career at 1B he played 4,170 innings from 2011 - 2019 and was not awful with -20 DRS across all years and a -3.8 UZR/150.

(A hot take of mine was that the Twins should have signed him for the 2020 season. Obviously, that didn’t happen but imagine that lineup).

Comparatively, his 3B career numbers (hold your laughs) were -52 DRS, -48.4 UZR, and 114 errors across 5,751.2 innings. He was a much better relative 1B than 3B.

Miguel Sano:

Sano Stats


Now, you probably are wondering, what is the point of this if you can’t compare it to Miguel Sano himself? Well, here you go.

Across 91 games in 2019 at 3B, Sano committed 17 errors (.926 fielding percentage), -5 DRS, and a -19.9 UZR/150. If you are like me and watched every game this year you might say something along the lines of “ only -5 DRS, it felt more like - 50”. Kidding, kidding.

Honestly, I felt when Sano first came back from his injury, his defense was fine. He tailed off as the year went on. If he is average or slightly below average, with his bat, I think the Twins are OK with that.

They know he is not going to win any Gold Gloves. Many questions remain: Is he better off at 1B than 3B long term? What Sano defensive position gives the Twins the best chance to succeed in 2020?

Now, many things go into this. Especially with how the Twins play baseball. Keep in mind they shift often and Sano plays all over like diamond sometimes asked to play the SS position with lefties up. I have no doubt that the Twins have their own metrics where they grade their players, but, we as fans, have Fangraphs.

Just for fun, I pulled up Sano’s career defensive metrics at 1B. Again, SUPER small sample size. He’s played 233 innings there, -2 DRS, and a -5.3 UZR/150. That is without really knowing how to play the position properly. Seems on the surface less of a liability than having him at 3B.

You would assume that if the Twins made the decision to put him at 1B for *good*, they would dedicate the time and effort to train and coach him. Can we get Ron Washington, the infield guru, on this Twins staff PLEASE? If he can get Chris Pratt to play 1B, he can get Miguel Sano to as well (Moneyball joke).

Conclusion:

Screenshot 2020 01 08 At 9.33.04 PM


Now that we all have the facts in front of us, I will present to you my opinion that literally nobody asked for.

I believe seeking a defensive upgrade at 3B would improve the overall team drastically. It would be preferred that the player has at least equal offensive metrics to CJ Cron, since that is who is ultimately being replaced here.
Josh Donaldson is the dream scenario (believe me, I am praying to the baseball Gods daily). But, a player like Todd Frazier also could be a fit. Not to mention, trade possibilities (Kris Bryant, anyone?).

Doing this exercise also gave me a lot of optimism that players can make the switch on the fly to 1B and have done it without being too much of a liability, and in most cases above, much less a liability at 1B than 3B.

Some of the arguments against moving Sano are that he is too young (Pujols and Cabrera were younger) and that he has more value as a 3B (2 of the 4 players listed above had a better WAR in their first season at 1B than their last at 3B). I think it’s easy. Move him to 1B.

I would love to hear your feedback.

What position do you think Miguel Sano should play in the 2020 season, and why?

  • nclahammer, TwerkTwonkTwins and Patrick Wozniak like this



I really do not like the defensive metrics. Defense to me is an eye test thing, and like you stated Sano doesn't pass!With all the shifts and 3B moving to traditional SS puts a premium on defense at 3B, and the need for greater lateral movement.  I think a lot more balls get hit and hit hard there and the opportunity to make plays is significant.

 

I think a move to 1B is perfect for Sano. Sano is an athlete, I know moving him ot 1B takes away his best asset, his arm, but a lot lets hard hit ball and a lot less asking to cover significant ground.

 

With a good amount of time at spring training working on footwork and scoops I think Sano will be fine full time at 1B.Having the need to just knock the ball down and flip to pitcher and staying home at the corner will help.I think Sano will look ok at 1B and wont seem to be such a liability improving the pitching and defense significantly.

I don't know that Todd Frazier is the upgrade I'd want to move Sano off 3B for. He had 1 DRS at 3B, and paired with his declining offense which is already a nonfactor against right handed pitching, I don't see him being a noteworthy difference. It seems like if we want to make an all encompassing upgrade it's Donaldson or bust.

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Andrew Luedtke
Jan 09 2020 08:38 AM

Thanks for reading. I agree. I think the sooner they declare Sano a 1B, if they are going to move him, the better. In a perfect world they would have announced to Sano as they were packing up their lockers after the playoffs that he should focus on 1B this offseason. That being said, he had to "learn" RF in a month in 2016. Remember that disaster? 1B I believe is easier to play and he has played there before ie. he actually owns a 1B mitt. If they don't move him this season, I wonder if they move him next if he has a similar defensive year. 

I really do not like the defensive metrics. Defense to me is an eye test thing, and like you stated Sano doesn't pass!With all the shifts and 3B moving to traditional SS puts a premium on defense at 3B, and the need for greater lateral movement.  I think a lot more balls get hit and hit hard there and the opportunity to make plays is significant.

 

I think a move to 1B is perfect for Sano. Sano is an athlete, I know moving him ot 1B takes away his best asset, his arm, but a lot lets hard hit ball and a lot less asking to cover significant ground.

 

With a good amount of time at spring training working on footwork and scoops I think Sano will be fine full time at 1B.Having the need to just knock the ball down and flip to pitcher and staying home at the corner will help.I think Sano will look ok at 1B and wont seem to be such a liability improving the pitching and defense significantly.

 

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Andrew Luedtke
Jan 09 2020 08:49 AM

I too hope they aim higher than Frazier if they make this move, however, would Frazier be a better 2020 fit than the remaining 1B free agent options or internal options? This is assuming we miss out on JD, of course. 

 

2019 stats:

 

Todd Frazier

 

.251/.329/.443 with 21 HR's, 106 wRC+, 1.9 WAR - and just about average defense at 3B

 

Mitch Moreland 

 

.252/.328/.507 with 19 HR's, 112 wRC+, .7 WAR in 91 games - just about average defense, almost assuredly be a step up from Sano defensively at 1B

 

Marwin Gonzalez

 

.264/.322/.414 with 15 HR's, 93wRC+, 1.4 WAR - having Marwin play 1B or platoon hurts his greatest ability which is being versatile. 

 

After seeing this laid out, yeah, I hope we land Donaldson or make a trade?

 

I don't know that Todd Frazier is the upgrade I'd want to move Sano off 3B for. He had 1 DRS at 3B, and paired with his declining offense which is already a nonfactor against right handed pitching, I don't see him being a noteworthy difference. It seems like if we want to make an all encompassing upgrade it's Donaldson or bust.

 

"Should Miguel Sano Play 3B or 1B in 2020?"

 

Yes. (copywright, Chief)

    • USAFChief likes this

 

"Should Miguel Sano Play 3B or 1B in 2020?"

 

Yes. (copywright, Chief)

ninja'd.

 

 

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specialiststeve
Jan 12 2020 08:32 PM

Preferably 1B ....