Suárez to short? Here's why it can work

March 18th, 2021

, a shortstop? Mike Moustakas, a third baseman? What on Earth are the Reds up to?”

There are approximately 11 billion reasons why baseball and life are different in 2021 than they were in 2015, but our current favorite example is happening out in the Arizona desert at Reds camp, where a sentence that would have been completely normal six years ago -- Suárez started 96 games at shortstop that season for the Reds, and Moustakas made 140 starts at third for the Royals -- now seems downright weird.

Of course, a lot has happened since then. Suárez moved to third base in 2016, replacing Todd Frazier, with Zack Cozart slotting into shortstop, and he’s been there ever since, aside from very brief cameos at his old home. Moustakas spent time at second base with Milwaukee in 2019 and moved there mostly full-time for 2020, though he played some first base as well.

Now, everything old is new again, seemingly. Suárez started at shortstop on Wednesday with Moustakas at third base, an arrangement that seems likely to play out for the rest of camp and could continue into the regular season.

“I feel very happy right now. I've been thinking about that for all my Spring Training so far,” Suárez said before the game. “The day is today, and I feel so good. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to be back playing shortstop.”

Will Reds fans feel that way? We’re all but obligated to find out. Here's what the Reds might be thinking.

1. Because the Reds need offense wherever they can find it.

“Infield defense is really important to us, but so is the offense,” said Reds manager David Bell.

Right. A big part of this, obviously, is that the Reds had an unacceptably poor shortstop problem in 2020, and they did almost nothing to improve it in the offseason. Cincinnati shortstops (veteran Freddy Galvis and rookie José García, plus utility man Kyle Farmer at times) hit .240/.300/.367 while playing short, the fifth-weakest line in baseball. Galvis then departed for Baltimore, and the Reds were unable to import available options like Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons or Didi Gregorius.

Instead, they planned to enter 2021 with some kind of combination of Farmer, García, Alex Blandino, Rule 5 pick Kyle Holder and Dee Strange-Gordon, who is even further removed from regular shortstop play than Suárez.

It wasn’t going to be great -- and it was a symptom of a larger problem, which is that the 2020 Reds lineup as a whole simply wasn’t very good. As a group, they hit .212/.312/.403 -- we don’t use batting average all that much anymore, but it’s worth noting that .212 was the weakest average in the game -- and only three teams scored fewer runs.

While Jesse Winker was excellent, you might expect some of that to resolve itself, just because so many quality Reds hitters had poor years. But with a rotation that’s now without Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani, why leave it to chance? We’re left with a pretty simple equation: Do you want a 2B/SS/3B trio of Moustakas, that group above and Suárez? Or top prospect Jonathan India, Suárez and Moustakas?

To that, we turn to the projections.

India, the fifth overall pick in the 2018 Draft, has been blocked at second and third by Moustakas and Suárez, and he’s been impressive so far in Arizona, hitting .348/.500/.565 in 30 plate appearances through Wednesday, though we hardly need to caution you about putting much stock into Spring Training stats. In 2019 across two levels of the Minors, he showed good on-base skills and limited power -- .259/.365/.402 -- so the various projection systems are similarly modest on him.

Still, he’s the best of a relatively weak crop

India: .295 wOBA
Blandino: .288 wOBA
Farmer: .284 wOBA
Strange-Gordon: .278 wOBA
Holder: .275 wOBA
García: .264 wOBA

… and beyond that, he's clearly the one with the best chance of becoming something more.

That's because what this projection shows is the median of thousands of projected seasons, without really giving you an idea of breakout potential. Put another way, is there much reason to think that 33-year-old Strange-Gordon, who has a .275 wOBA over the past three years, is suddenly going to break out? Are you more bullish on a 2021 breakout from García, who skipped both Double-A and Triple-A on his way to looking completely overmatched in the Majors, or a Rule 5 pick like Holder with a career .317 Minors OBP, or a recent Top 5 pick like India? That’s what the Reds are banking on. It’s a reasonable gamble.

2. Because what even is a position anyway?

We’ll get back to what kind of fielder Suárez is expected to be in a minute, but first, because it’s entertaining, do enjoy these videos of Suárez Definitely Not Playing Shortstop in 2020, because they’re important too.

Here’s a 5-3 in your scorebook.

Here’s a third baseman, we promise.

Definitely a 5-3.

This all mirrors what we talked about last month when we investigated whether Marcus Semien, who hasn’t played second base in the Major Leagues since 2014, could successfully move across the diamond from shortstop. It’s a little different -- moving off shortstop is considered easier than moving to it -- but you get the idea. In a world of regular shifting (only seven teams shifted their infield more than the Reds last year), positions are mere suggestions.

In 2020, Suárez played zero games at shortstop, but he had 46 opportunities in the shortstop area of the field. An average shortstop would have been expected to convert 28 of those, based on Statcast metrics that evaluate the difficulty of those plays, and Suárez made 29. He was fine.

In 2019, Suárez played zero games at shortstop, but he had 82 opportunities in the shortstop area of the field. An average shortstop would have been expected to convert 53, based on those Statcast metrics, and he got to 51. That’s below average, but not terrible; you get the idea.

You’d think that if the 2020 Reds had suffered such poor hitting at the six, they’d have at least received elite fielding, but that didn’t really happen either, as they were ninth best, or +2 Outs Above Average, in the shortstop area of the field. So it's not exactly like there's a Simmons-level predecessor to live up to.

Besides, just looking over the past five years, a period during which he'd played all of six games at shortstop, he's also had more than 230 fielding chances in that area. He came in at minus-2 OAA, or slightly below average, which all sounds ... about right.

It’s fair to point back to the days when Suárez was actually a regular shortstop, and to not be terribly impressed. In 2014 (with the Tigers) and ‘15 (his first year with the Reds), he was rated by Defensive Runs Saved as one of the weakest fielding shortstops in the game. That predates Statcast metrics, aside from the fact that the 2015 Reds shifted only 6.7% of the time, and it's difficult to put too much stock into them in 2021. (At the risk of falling prey to the annual "best shape of his life" trap, Suárez has reportedly lost weight this year, which helped put the shortstop idea on the board in the first place.)

You can’t really convert opportunities you don’t get, though, and that leads us to a very 2021 question, which is …

3. How many chances do shortstops even get?

Right. We talked about this a lot last winter, actually, when investigating whether Moustakas could handle the move to second base. At the time, we showed a chart specific to second base, which showed that between 2008 and 2019, second basemen received 25% fewer fielding opportunities. It’s not hard to understand why; strikeouts are up every year, and hitters avoid ground balls like the plague. It’s why the Dodgers, for example, have been able to get by with Max Muncy at second.

As it happens, on Thursday morning, while we were in the midst of investigating that same idea for shortstops, Eno Sarris of the Athletic went ahead and did the hard work for us. In 2007, for example, shortstops received .25 plays per inning. Last year, that was .16 plays per inning, a drop of about 35%. That's similar to what we found last year. It's still important. It's just less important.

Speaking of Moustakas ...

4. The Reds have done this before.

When we wrote about Moustakas, we said this:

This still definitely might not work. But the signs are there that it could. After a lifetime on the left side, Moustakas should have no problem with the throws, or the easy grounders, and second basemen just aren't asked to do the same job they once were. He doesn't need to be great, and he won't; he just needs to be competent, and there's reason to believe he can be. (Again: Muncy.) Ultimately, it comes down to this: Reds second basemen were dreadful last year, hitting a mere .221/.288/.390, one of the weaker marks in baseball. They were good but not great in the second base area, at +2 OAA. It's difficult to believe that Moustakas can't improve upon all that.”

OK, so … did he? Well, yeah.

On offense, as a second baseman, Moustakas had a .375 wOBA, which was actually the third-best second base line in baseball, and a massive improvement not only on the .288 wOBA the 2019 Reds second basemen put up, but also the wretched .198 wOBA posted as second basemen by the four other Reds who saw time there in 2020.

On defense, and we’ll acknowledge that a 60-game season is not ideal for defensive metrics, Moustakas was average. Both “as a second baseman,” and “playing in the second baseman’s area,” which of course has large overlap, Moustakas posted a 0 Outs Above Average. Zero might sound bad, and average might too, but they’re not. It’s 28th of 53, and surely no one would have expected a Gold Glove performance. If the idea was “he’ll add offense and not hurt us on defense,” which it probably was, then call that a success.

5. Has anyone done this recently?

The move back to shortstop after an extended absence is, as you can imagine, a rare one. You’re more used to shortstops departing for other positions, like Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, or some years ago … Suárez.

Still, we wanted to know. Suárez is 29 years old, and over the past three years he’s played all of six games at shortstop. Can we find similar players? We went back to 1969 and searched for players who had a season of at least 100 games, with 50% of those games coming at shortstop, after three consecutive seasons spending less than 20% of their time at short. A few of them were utility players who played many positions and didn't really fit the spirit of the idea -- Jamey Carroll, Ryan Theriot and Mark Loretta among them -- but those aside, there were only five examples over the past half-century.

2016, Danny Espinosa. After years as Ian Desmond's double-play partner, Espinosa moved over to shortstop to replace Desmond for 2016. He was roughly average defensively for a 95-win team, which is a good outcome. That pushed young Trea Turner to center; he took over short in 2017 after Espinosa was traded to the Angels, where he returned to second base.

2004, Michael Young. Young played both second and short in the Minors, but he took over second base in the Majors because Texas had signed Rodriguez to play short. When Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees, Young moved over, and he made five straight All-Star teams as a shortstop.

2000, Tony Womack. Womack played primarily second base in his first two years in the Majors, then mostly right field in his third, and in his fourth year, he moved to shortstop. That's where he was in 2001 when he singled off Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the World Series, one of the most important plays in history.

1985, Hubie Brooks. After parts of five seasons as the Mets third baseman, Brooks moved to shortstop late in the 1984 season when the Mets traded for Ray Knight, and Brooks stayed there when he was traded to Montreal in 1985. (The 1984 Expos got exactly zero home runs from shortstop, making the upgrade appealing.) Brooks was an All-Star shortstop for three seasons, then moved to the outfield in 1988.

So that's both "not very many examples" and also "no outright disasters, plus a few successes."

6. So is this worth it or not?

It depends on how you look at it. It’s not a better solution than if they had just gone out and acquired an actual shortstop, like Semien, Simmons or Gregorius, allowing India to force his way up. But since that didn’t happen, and none of the remaining shortstop options feel terribly appealing, this one feels worth a try.

The lineup should likely be somewhat better, depending on how quickly India (if he wins the job) adjusts. The defense might be somewhat worse, though Moustakas being a better third baseman than he is a second baseman is a bonus. Mostly, it's a high-risk gamble for a team in a winnable division that really needs to take some risks. If it doesn't work, that should be pretty evident early on. It's not like they can't go back to the original plan at pretty much any point.