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What History Tells Us About Third Basemen Moving to First Base

Posted by Andrew Luedtke , 15 January 2020 · 1,631 views

miguel sano josh donaldson infield defense
What History Tells Us About Third Basemen Moving to First Base Last week I wrote a blog titled 127 Feet where I tried to answer the question "Should Miguel Sano play 1B or 3B in 2020?". Well, that question has been answered in a BIG way by the Twins front office with the news of Josh Donaldson signing with the Twins.

So, I am repurposing some of the points I made in a prior blog to show the history of slugging, right handed 3B, transitioning to 1B.

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

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.

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. 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.

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.

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

Miguel Sano:

Sano Stats

Now, you probably are wondering, how does Miguel Sano compare to these players? 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.

Additionally, I looked at 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 dedicating 100% of his focus to the position. From his press conference yesterday, he said he is committed to play wherever the Twins put him. Now, that position is 1B

Sano is young and athletic enough where there is hope that he should be able to transition into an average defensive 1B relative to the rest of the league. It helps he has spent some time there. It's not a completely new position like him playing RF in 2016 (gasps).

In every scenario listed above, each player was a better 1B than 3B relative to their peers at those respective positions. Fans should not worry too much about Sano as there is no doubt Donaldson at 3B and Sano at 1B upgrades the entire Twins infield for 2020 and beyond.

  • Oldgoat_MN, nclahammer and ToddlerHarmon like this

Jan 16 2020 07:22 AM

Agree. Sano should be better at 1B than 3B; win, win.

Yeah I agree. I've heard a lot of talk about Sano losing his greatest strength as a fielder being his arm by moving to first base. While he's got an absolute cannon, almost half of his errors were on throws. While that doesn't mean learning to scoop and whatnot will be easy, if you eliminate those errors and the range he has to cover to be effective, he could cut down on some mistakes.

    • stringer bell likes this
Doctor Gast
Jan 16 2020 09:40 AM

I believe Sano has soft hands & quickness to be come a very good 1B man plus the athleticism & willingness to learn will be a great asset. His fault is the inability to range left on grounders which won`t matter now although ranging right could be. I think he could be very good on pop ups except maybe going back (we`ll have to see), scooping low throws& maybe handling high throws. He`ll have to learn to handle cut offs. Hopefully the transition won`t affect his hitting but once he hit his groove everything will fall in place

The whole world knew it was only a matter of time.

i was a little excited to see Kiriloff at 1st base this year. Now wondering where he can come in or is he held back another year when Cruz is gone?


i was a little excited to see Kiriloff at 1st base this year. Now wondering where he can come in or is he held back another year when Cruz is gone?

He can get his chance from an injury or from outplaying Rosario.Rooker is probably the guy most hurt by this development.