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Can Miguel Andujar improve at third base?

The rookie’s defense was a cause for consternation last year. Based on recent history, is there a chance he can improve?

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MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

For the most part, Miguel Andujar had a wonderful rookie campaign. He finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, behind only two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani. He was a potent force at the plate, slashing .297/.328/.527. He never wavered throughout the year, maintaining a level of offensive consistency from start to finish, and tossed in some big hits in big moments to boot.

Of course, Andujar’s strengths came with glaring weaknesses on the infield dirt. Andujar’s defense at third base was so poor that manager Aaron Boone opted to take his bat out of the lineup late in playoff games in order to preserve infield defense. When it came to it, the Yankees viewed Andujar’s defense as enough of a liability to sacrifice his offense in the postseason.

I’m no defensive scout, but that harsh appraisal of Andujar’s defensive work does pass the smell test. He possesses a strong arm but not much else at third. His instincts and ability to anticipate were lacking last year, and he often appeared hesitant when throwing across the diamond. That’s not to mention his occasional tendency to simply boot a routine groundball.

Indeed, the advanced fielding metrics we have access to in the public came down hard on Andujar. Most notably, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) rated him 25 runs below average at third, the fourth-worst total in a season dating back to 2002, the period for which we have defensive data. Public fielding numbers are iffy and should be taken with a grain of salt, but in this case, the scouting report matches up perfectly with the numbers.

The question going forward is the extent to which Andujar can improve. Ultimately, whether Andujar can become passable on defense, combined with his ability to fight off regression on offense, will determine his ceiling as a player. Encouragingly, Andujar appears committed to getting better in the field, with Lindsey Adler of the Athletic (subscription required) writing that Andujar was spending the winter focusing on his footwork and positioning at the hot corner.

Time will tell if his work will pay off. For now, let’s do our best to gauge Andujar’s chances of improving at third. To do so, I examined Andujar’s peers at the bottom of the DRS leaderboard, and took a look whether players that performed as poorly on defense as he did showed improvement, or stagnated.

The worst DRS on record belongs to Ryan Braun, who was 32 runs below average as a rookie in 2007. The Brewers never let him play third again, and Braun settled in as a middling but serviceable corner outfielder. Unfortunately for Andujar, the Yankees’ corners are spoken for, so that option is off the table.

Nicolas Castellanos stands as second-worst, coming in 30 runs below average as a 22-year-old rookie in 2014, making him a solid comp age-wise for Andujar. Castellanos has improved somewhat since, recording -29 DRS at third base combined from 2015 to 2017, before moving to the outfield last year. The only other third baseman worse than Andujar was Garrett Atkins, who posted a -26 DRS in 2007 and recorded -9 DRS over the next two seasons before retiring.

In total, I found the ten worst non-Andujar seasons by third baseman in the first three years of their career and looked at how the players that played at least 100 games at third base in the ensuing three years did. This removes players like Braun, who moved off the position. The first column shows their DRS at its trough, followed by their total DRS at third in the following three seasons, and their DRS per 150 games over that span:

Worst DRS Seasons at 3B

Player DRS DRS next 3 years DRS/150
Player DRS DRS next 3 years DRS/150
Nicholas Castellanos -30 -29 -11
Garrett Atkins -26 -9 -10
Mark Teahan -21 -15 -10
Mark Reynolds -20 -17 -23
Hank Blalock -19 -10 -8
Ty Wiggington -19 -31 -33
Jose Bautista -18 -1 -1
Edwin Encarnacion -17 -15 -10
Danny Valencia -13 -6 -5
Mark Reynolds -11 -29 -11

On the whole, the players that, like Andujar, had awful defensive seasons early in their careers and stayed at third base managed to get a little better. None of them became good, but they generally managed to improve to “not completely awful” territory.

This analysis is limited by the inherent volatility of defensive metrics. We’re looking solely at the extremes here, so naturally the extremes are bound to regress. Not only that, but there’s something of a survivorship bias at play, as players that may have gone on to produce even more awful third base play (e.g. Braun, Miguel Cabrera) saw their time at the position cut.

That being said, I think we see a couple of clear paths emerge here for Andujar. There’s clearly a chance that he will at least improve to merely bad instead of terrible at third. There’s also the chance that he follows the likes of Braun to a different position if the situation becomes untenable.

Should he follow the first path, Andujar could raise both his ceiling and his floor. If he could combine a bat 30 percent better than league average with simply below average defense at third, he could approach All-Star caliber. His floor would rise to something resembling a second-division starter, should his offense regress towards the mean as his defense progresses.

If he has to move off the position, well, that’s a different can of worms for the Yankees. There’s nowhere in the outfield in the Bronx for Andujar, and while a transition to first seems plausible, Luke Voit and Greg Bird have much more experience at the cold corner. On the whole, the Yankees must hope that Andujar’s offseason focus on his defense yields dividends. Past butchers at third base have demonstrated that improvement is possible, and if Andujar can settle in as just below average on the dirt, he could reach another level as a player.