On Sunday, Cavan Biggio took his place at the fifth position he’s manned this season, trying his hand at third base for the first time in his MLB career.
Biggio saw two balls come his way on the day, one was a 103.5 mph hotshot he was unable to contain, the other a routine grounder he handled with ease.
Those two plays don’t tell us much about whether Biggio has what it takes to handle third base at the highest level, but the fact he was on the left side of the infield at all shows how confident the Toronto Blue Jays are in the 25-year-old’s ability to be a super-utility player.
He wasn’t there because he was the only guy available. On this roster, there are no fewer than four other players (Travis Shaw, Santiago Espinal, Joe Panik, and Jonathan Villar) capable of playing that position — five if you count Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Biggio was given the opportunity because the Blue Jays see the value in having him move all over the diamond to create flexibility elsewhere in the lineup.
In short, the Blue Jays are using Biggio as though he’s their own Ben Zobrist.
To be clear, that’s an extremely lofty comparison. Zobrist was one of the most underrated players in the game for years. In a five-season span between 2009 and 2014, the former Tampa Bay Ray ranked fifth in the major leagues with 33.6 WAR. It would be shocking to see Biggio reach those heights.
Even so, mentioning the two players in the same sentence has gone from absurd to reasonable as Biggio continues to produce in the majors. When the Blue Jays started moving the former fifth-round pick around the diamond at Double-A in 2018, they probably envisioned him as a versatile bench player — if he cracked the big leagues at all. Now, through 146 MLB games, his numbers look eerily similar to the career statistics of the best utility man in recent history — a player who had an enormous impact on how front offices think about the concept of positions.
There are a few stylistic differences offensively. Zobrist sprayed more singles, while Biggio’s OBP is driven by a robust walk rate. The former was also more of a groundball and line-drive hitter, while the young Blue Jay is a high launch angle flyball specialist. It’s still remarkable how close these numbers are.
Of course, there’s a big difference between maintaining a level of production over a 14-year career and putting them up in the equivalent of your first MLB season — but there’s no specific reason to believe Biggio will slow down. His extreme plate discipline is an elite skill that isn’t going away, he’s never benefitted from extreme BABIP luck, and his career Expected Batting Average (.250) and Expected Slugging Percentage (.406) are awfully close to his actual numbers. The chances of Biggio remaining a lineup staple who gives you above-average production out of virtually any position–even non-premium spots like the corner outfield spots–seem pretty good.
Where there needs to be room for doubt in Biggio’s quest to be Zobrist 2.0, is with his defence. Not only was Zobrist capable of filling in at multiple positions, but he also excelled at quite a few of them. In particular, his work at second base was outstanding — as was his work in both corner outfield spots.
|Position||Career DRS||Career UZR||UZR/150||wRC+||Exit Velocity|
That’s truly special, and it doesn’t even include the fact he gave his teams 203 innings of scratch centre field (+1 DRS, 0.0 UZR) and 1779 frames of playable shortstop (-11 DRS, -1.0 UZR). This is the part of the Zobrist profile that’s hardest to replicate, and the one Biggio will probably never match.
At this point, it seems likely that the leadoff man is a solid second baseman. In 1007.2 innings of work, he’s posted a +1 DRS, a +1.1 UZR, and a Stacast OAA of +5. That gels with the eye test as well. Biggio looks the part of a solid cog at the keystone, rather than a true defensive difference-maker. In the outfield, it’s too early to say. While he has 74th percentile Sprint Speed, Blue Jays fans have seen enough of Teoscar Hernandez to know that top-notch wheels don’t guarantee strong defensive work out there. For what it’s worth, the defensive metrics don’t like Biggio as an outfielder so far (-3 DRS, -2.9 UZR, -1 OAA), but it’s only been 182 innings.
It takes a while to know what a player offers defensively, especially when their efforts are spread around the diamond, but it seems unlikely that Biggio’s glovework is ever going to take him to Zobrist’s level. Despite his success at second, he’s only played two innings of shortstop in his professional career, and appears unlikely to play there for an extended period in the majors. His chances of being a Gold Glove-calibre corner outfielder also feel slim.
That’s OK. It would be unfair to expect Biggio to match the skill set of one of the most singular, and effective, players of the last decade. The fact there’s a comparison to be made at all says incredibly flattering things about Biggio — and despite the differences in defensive acumen the sophomore’s 3.5 WAR per 600 PA is within spitting distance of Zobrist’s 3.9.
The Blue Jays’ desire to make Biggio into their Zobrist is audacious. The fact he’s nearly there is truly impressive.