Grades so far: Infield

The Cubs are 33 games into their 2011 season and it seems a good time to check on how players are doing. I’ll break it into four parts. Click the link below to read more.

Catcher

Geovany Soto is off to a slow start. He’s hitting just ..226/.322/.387 (.320 wOBA). It’s a 94 wRC+ so he’s been just a bit below average. He’s added 1 run on fielding and he plays a premium position so it’s not as bad as you may think. It’s not as good as we’d like though. He has come on of late. He’s hit well over the last few games so hopefully it was just a slump. A .253 BABIP despite a line drive rate over 21.2% suggests that he’s been awfully unlucky so far. He’s also had an infield fly ball rate over 15%, which is more than double his career 7% rate. He hasn’t been as unlucky as you’d think based on his LD rate because of all those easy infield flies, but still unlucky.

Koyie Hill has played in only 5 games and stepped to the plate 15 times. He’s had a wOBA of .341 in those plate appearances.

As a team, the Cubs catchers have been middle of the pack in wRC+ at 95.

First Base

Carlos Pena has been the primary first baseman with Jeff Baker getting the second most playing time. In fact, Baker has played 1st nearly as often as he has 2nd.  Pena hit his first home run of the seasonIn Los Angeles and then added a second and third home run after flying out to the warning track about a dozen times. Pena is now hitting .198/.327/.314 (.295 wOBA). He has as many bunt singles as he does extra base hits (four). Almost 25% of his hits have been bunts. He’s a good bunter and has taken advantage of the defensive shift. His .259 BABIP looks horrible, but then you notice it was .222 a year ago and just .250 in 2009. The current rate may actually be above true talent level. It’s hard to imagine, but it might be.

The Cubs have limited his action vs lefties, which is a smart idea. He isn’t very good vs lefties and he and Baker make a perfect platoon situation for the Cubs.

I’m including Baker here as a 1st baseman so we can look at DeWitt as the other 2nd baseman. Baker has played 6 more innings at 2nd than he has at 1st though. Baker has gotten off to a very hot start thanks to a .412 BABIP. It’s not like it’s been lucky though. He won’t sustain the 28.8% line drive rate that he has, but so far he’s earned that BABIP. His current GB/FB rate is 1.85, which is quite a bit higher than his career rate. The groundballs are only slightly increased, but the flyballs have become line drives, which of course is a good thing. Mike Quade has made the mistake of playing Baker too much vs righties already this season. Because of a hot bat, he insisted he remain in the lineup and it paid off early, but he’s always been terrible vs righties. This year is no different. While he has a ridiculously good .488 wOBA vs lefties, it’s .280 vs righties. He’s also gotten more plate appearances vs righties than lefties.

The Cubs rank 22nd in wRC+ at 1st base and have been worth -0.1 WAR so far.

Second Base

We’ve already talked about Baker who we thought would at least be one side of the platoon entering the season along with Blake DeWitt. It hasn’t worked out that way. DeWitt has played just 9 innings at 2nd base and Baker played the 43 we already mentioned. Darwin Barney got the start on opening day and hasn’t given Mike Quade any reason to rethink the starter at that position since. Barney has played in 221 innings at 2nd. Barney is batting .316/.336/.412 with a .330 wOBA (100 wRC+) and has been worth 1.3 runs on defense. Barney’s swing percentage this season is only 43.2%. For a comparison, Soto has swung at just over 40% of the pitches he’s seen in his career. The extremely patiet Carlos Pena has swung at 45.7%. Only once has he swung at fewer pitches than Barney has so far this season (43.1% in 2007). On huge difference though is that about 48% of the pitches Pena has seen in his career have been inside the zone. 53.8% of the ones Barney has seen this year have been inside the zone. Pitchers are throwing him strikes yet he’s still working the count to get his pitch. Barney will never be a great player, but I think he can be about league average for a few years. At league minimum salary, that’s damn good production.

Oddly enough, Barney has only had 20 plate appearances vs lefties this season compared to 100 against righties. He’s basically been sitting against the side of the platoon that he’d fare better against and has still been an above league average hitter so far. Vs lefties, Baker is better to it makes sense, but it would be nice to see more of what Barney could do if he didn’t have the platoon disadvantage so frequently. In those 20 PA, Barney has a .432 wOBA and it’s .310 vs righties.

Blake DeWitt only has 27 PA this season and has hit .308/.333/.462 (.351 wOBA). The Cubs thought 2nd base was going to be a position they might have trouble with entering the season. A year ago it was laughable that Baker would play everyday and there was talk early on him doing just that. That’s a sign of how bad the position was thought to be early in spring training. Darwin Barney emerged as the starter and Blake DeWitt who was almost cut at one point, has hit fairly well without any playing time to speak of.

Third Base

The idea that Aramis Ramirez had returned to form at the end of last season can be put to rest. So far he’s hit .273/.336/.364 with a .309 wOBA and an 86 wRC+. His line drive rate is a little better than last year’s career lose 15.8%, but if you use the current 17.1% to estimate BABIP, you get about .291. His actual BABIP is over .308 and his career BABIP is .288. He’s hitting a lot more balls on the ground this season and fewer fly balls as well. His home runs per fly ball rate is a career low 2.2%. Even last year it was 11.6%. ZiPS projects .344 wOBA the rest of the way, but I think that’s unlikely. I do expect a few more of the flies to leave the yards, but he’ll have a lower BABIP too. I’m guessing he’s probably not much more of a .320 wOBA hitter at this point in his career. He’s just not very good and I couldn’t have been more wrong when I said that I thought he’d opt out. I thought last season was rather unlucky and parts of it he was his old self. Can’t say that anymore.

Shortstop

Starlin Castro has played all but one game here. Darwin Barney gave him a breather a couple days ago in the hopes that it could help him get back on track. I’ve complained several times in recent days about Castro in various threads here so I’m not going to say much. He’s taken a step back so far. Here are all the things that are worse this season compared to his rookie season:

OBP
SLG
OPS
OPS+
ISO
BABIP
BB%
BB/K
WPA
RE24
REW
Clutch
DRS
Total Zone

UZR is already -1.9 and it -2.1 last year. It’s almost worse and we’re a month into the season. The Total Zone and DRS are already worse.

Castro got off to such a terrific start and has come crashing back to earth. So far this season, Castro is quite a bit worse than he was a year ago. It’s not really even close. I don’t know what that means the rest of the season, if anything at all, but I was thrilled to hear Quade talk about how poor his plate discipline is yesterday. It’s atrocious and while it’s probably never going to be great, you hate to see him take such a step back. It’s early though and he’s still very young, but the early results this season have not been promising. Fangraphs has him worth .5 WAR while Baseball Reference has him as a slightly worse than a replacement level player (-0.1 WAR).

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