How much will Guerrero Jr.’s move to first help the Blue Jays’ defence?

Shi Davidi and Arash Madani looked at the play of the Blue Jays in intrasquad action, with Vlad Guerrero Jr. making solid defensive plays at first base and Matt Shoemaker stretching to throw 93 pitches.

Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays made their biggest move of 2020. Although shifting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. from third base to first was not a transaction, it sent ripples through the organization.

The decision created uncertainty at third base, a spot that was originally thought to be spoken for – at least for a couple of years. Meanwhile first base, a position of presumed organizational weakness, now has a long-term solution. It’s great news for Travis Shaw, who will likely get to market himself as a third baseman on his next contract, and prospects like Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans, who could claim the position in the future. Less so for Rowdy Tellez, who could get squeezed out of the picture if Guerrero Jr. is locked in at first, and the club opts for a modern approach at DH that has players rotating in and out in order to rest or exploit favourable matchups.

As far as the Blue Jays are concerned, it’s more pertinent to consider whether the team will be better with the new configuration rather than its effect on individuals. In a shortened 60-game season where competing for a playoff spot is suddenly conceivable, that matters. It matters enough to have been the primary impetus for the timing of this move.

If we agree with the premise that the 2020 Blue Jays are better with Guerrero Jr. at first and Shaw at third than they would’ve been the other way around, the next question is just how much. To answer that, we first need to establish a baseline of what kind of defensive production they might have gotten from the pair prior to the switch.

What Guerrero Jr. at 3B and Shaw at 1B looks like

To figure this out, we’re going to use three defensive metrics, UZR, DRS and OAA to give us an idea of what Guerrero Jr. and Shaw bring to the table. While it’s valid to have a preference among these advanced stats, (UZR’s precision going to tenths of runs or OAA’s novelty and incorporation of Statcast data could appeal to you) the safest bet is using them all and averaging them together.

Before I throw a table at you, there are a couple of caveats worth mentioning. The first is that Guerrero Jr.’s career defensive stats come from an awfully small sample of less than a full year. However, it’s also worth noting that the eye test absolutely falls in the line with the picture these statistics paint. The second caveat is that Shaw is on the wrong side of 30, so based on what we know about aging curves it’s safe to assume he’s a little worse across the board than his career numbers suggest.

I’ve adjusted all of the numbers below to be per 50 games to approximate how many innings an everyday player might clock in at their primary position in this truncated season.

This is the result:

Player Vladdy at 3B Shaw at 1B Blue Jays Team D
UZR/50 -5.1 4.1 -1
DRS/50 -4.9 2.7 -2.2
OAA/50 -8.7 0* -8.7
Average -6.2 2.3 -4

*Shaw played less than 100 innings at first base since OAA started being recorded in 2017, so his rating of 0 should be taken with a massive grain of salt.

Although Shaw’s OAA plays with the numbers a little bit, the overall takeaway is clear. In a 60-game season at third base, Guerrero Jr. would be expected to cost the Blue Jays somewhere between five to nine runs – a number Shaw would’ve been unable to make up. You can massage these statistics to include expected improvement from Vladdy (although if he’d improved significantly over the off-season he probably wouldn’t have been moved off third) or age-related decline from Shaw, but ultimately it’s fair to say this configuration would cost the Blue Jays some runs, and four sounds like a reasonable estimate.

How about the new arrangement, though?

What Guerrero Jr. at 1B and Shaw at 3B looks like

We don’t have any numbers for Guerrero Jr. at first base, so we have to do a little projection here. The youngster was among the worst third baseman in the league in 2019, and he’s moving to a position where he has no professional experience that doesn’t showcase his best defensive skill – his arm. With that in mind, for now, I’m projecting Guerrero Jr. as a 25th percentile first baseman for 2020.

He has potential to be better than that, but it’s hard to expect him to excel at an unfamiliar position compared to his MLB peers – many of whom have played it at the highest level for years. That means all of his numbers are simply taken from the 25th percentile first baseman in each statistic last year and adjusted for a shorter season.

Player Vladdy at 1B Shaw at 3B Blue Jays Team D
UZR/50 -0.6 0.6 0
DRS/50 -0.3 1.4 1.1
OAA/50 -0.3 2.4 2.1
Average -0.4 1.5 1.1

Even with a far-from-generous projection for Guerrero Jr., this looks like a significantly better situation. The reason for that is twofold.

On one hand, it’s difficult to cost your team too many runs at first base, even if you are among the worst at the position in the league. By UZR, the difference between the best first baseman in the majors and the worst in 2019 was just 14.6 runs, and 21 of 32 qualified fielders at the position were rated between plus-2.0 and minus-2.0 runs. When you shorten the season, the impact is further diminished. Unless you have a stud like Matt Olson, or a disaster like Josh Bell, first base defence will do little to decide your club’s fate.

Third base is a different story, where the gap between the best and worst glovework was 24.2 runs according to UZR, and a whopping 55 per DRS. That’s where Shaw’s impact comes in. Because Vladdy is the central figure in this decision, the veteran’s ability with the glove has been overshadowed. Shaw has consistently graded as an above-average third baseman, and was a Gold Glove finalist as recently as 2018. He may not reach that level again, but it’s probably safe to assume he’ll be a positive at the hot corner with the potential to create more value than some subpar leatherwork at first would cost Toronto.

When the Blue Jays moved Guerrero Jr. to third, a great deal was made about how it could help take the pressure off his shoulders and unleash his bat. Considering the strong likelihood of the 21-year-old taking an offensive step forward in this year, that theory will probably be borne out regardless of whether the position swap is the cause or not. Because we’ll never know how he would’ve hit if he had stayed at third base, it will always be impossible to pinpoint the move’s value to Guerrero Jr. offence.

More tangible will be the defensive upgrade this team is likely to see. In a 60-game schedule, it won’t save an enormous quantity of runs – this projection suggests the total could be about five. But the runs it does save are far more likely to be significant as the Blue Jays hope to capitalize on the unpredictability of 2020.

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