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Brian Roberts, Yangervis Solarte, and small sample size

If only they could both be hitting at the same time...

"You have done well, my diminuitive friends!"
"You have done well, my diminuitive friends!"
Bob Levey

Entering the 2014 season, the Yankees' infield was a mystery. It's been a little over a month since then and not much has changed. The positions are still great question marks, as each one's respective wRC+ ranks among the middle of the pack of the 30 teams. Their third baseman rank seventh with a 119 wRC+, and that is mostly due to the hot start of  Yangervis Solarte. The 26-year-old rookie took the reins at third base when Mark Teixeira went down due to an early hamstring injury and Kelly Johnson moved across the diamond to cover first.

Solarte was on fire for the first two weeks of the season, batting .351/.431/.526 through April 19th, his first 17 games in the majors. He was even hitting for some surprising power with a homer and seven doubles, which ranked among the league leaders at the time. Meanwhile, second baseman Brian Roberts was off to an awful start in his first games outside of an Orioles uniform. Through April 19th, he was hitting an abysmal .175/.306/.250, a .556 OPS that even Chris Stewart would laugh at while gasping for water. Despite lasting awhile during at-bats and seeing a lot of pitches, he just did not demonstrate much pop at all.

To some fans' dismay (including myself), when Teixeira returned from his injury on April 20th, the finale of a series against the Rays, Kelly Johnson was the one saw his playing time cut, as Joe Girardi elected to keep Roberts' bat in the lineup at second base, even though Johnson could have theoretically just moved over to second base to keep Solarte as a regular. Given Roberts's slump and dismal numbers since 2011 (72 OPS+ in 133 games from 2011-13), it seemed odd to make Johnson be the odd man out. Johnson's no All-Star, but he at least demonstrated solid power while Roberts demonstrated... that he was alive, I guess. Roberts didn't make matters any better on the 20th by going 0-for-5 with a pair of strikeouts while Johnson rode the bench.

Since then though, fans have witnessed a reversal of fates for the veteran and rookie. In the two weeks since that series ended, Roberts has hit .326/.370/.372 in 11 games, a hot streak capped (so far) by his game-winning ninth-inning homer last night in Anaheim. During this time, Solarte has hit a bit of a wall. Over the same stretch, he has hit .207/.333/.276 in eight games. That might not seem so bad, but he actually started regressing in the middle of the aforementioned Rays series. Since his three-hit game with a homer in the series opener on April 17th, Solarte's triple slash is an ugly .179/.313/.231, a .543 OPS roughly identical to the one Roberts posted during his earlier slump.

So what does all this mean?

Well, of course. Early season statistics and small sample sizes are ever-notorious for creating false illusions about players. Simply refer back to Vernon Wells's 2013, when his .300/.366/.544 April made some people optimistic about his potential production; he ended the year at .233/.282/.349 and is currently sitting at home tweeting jokes about himself.

Every Hall of Famer in baseball history could look awful over a small sample size, and even the scrubs like Eduardo Nunez and David Adams can seem excellent using arbitrary endpoints. Previously a career minor leaguer who struggled the last two seasons in the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League, Solarte was not the ridiculously good hitter he looked like over the first two weeks. Given his previous three seasons of injury-riddled "meh" play, Roberts is unlikely to actually be revitalizing his career as his recent hot streak might suggest.

Joe Girardi is obviously aware of small sample size weirdness. He experienced a hefty dose of that himself in 2000 when with the Cubs at age 35, the career .267/.315/.350 hitter batted .302/.374/.415 in the first half, earning the only All-Star nod of his career. Girardi surely recognizes that hot streaks won't last. Johnson will probably go through a stretch at one point where he will be crushing the ball, too. The question is how to manage these three players and try to hopefully get them hitting at the same time.

The answer probably lies in giving these three infielders relatively equal playing time. To date, he's mostly been doing that, though as previously mentioned, Johnson has been receiving the short end of the stick lately. Girardi should not hesitate in substituting Johnson for the slumping Solarte at the moment--the kid is far from locked into the position after all. That doesn't mean that Solarte has to be locked onto the bench though, as he could still make appearances in a few starts per week. Similarly, when Roberts regresses, Girardi should not hesitate in playing the odd man out over him. (Hell, Solarte still has to prove that he's not going to suffer a Wells-like collapse.)

It will be a season-long challenge coaxing production out of the second and third base spots, but it's certainly not impossible. Avoiding a strictly everyday starter at both second and third could help Girardi's lineup. The Yankees just have to play to each infielder's strengths and not give too much preference to one over the others.