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More thoughts on Hank Blalock and defense

A few more things, having digested the announcement of the Hank Blalock move...

At the end of the day, I think this reflects an organizational decision that has been made about the prioritization of defense.  It is interesting to note that, a few years ago, there was discussions about how Billy Beane had decided that the "undervalued" commodity in the game is no longer OBP, but defense, and was making decisions accordingly (notably involving Mark Ellis and Mark Kotsay, two guys considered elite defenders). 

And this really isn't anything new.  Twenty years ago, in his last Baseball Abstract, when he was distilling down the fundamental principles of what he had gleaned from his studies, Bill James stated that much of what we think of as being pitching is actually defense.  The problem is that, while there are accepted methodologies for being able to pretty accurately and precisely evaluate how good someone has been offensively, it is much harder to objectively measure defensive performance.  The cutting edge work that is being done in the field of sabermetrics right now, both within front offices and out there in the general public, is being done in measuring defensive performance. 

In any of the problems that the Rangers have traditionally had is that it seems like they've built this team backwards.  Everyone acknowledges that TBIA is a hitter's ballpark, and everyone acknowledges the need to have a groundball pitching staff that doesn't allow a lot of walks.

However...move forward a couple of steps in this thought process.  If you are going to have a groundball staff that doesn't walk many guys, you are also going to have a relatively low strikeout staff.  Because, think about it...if you have a pitcher that doesn't allow many homers, doesn't walk anyone, and strikes out a lot of guys, you have a Cy Young Award winner.  If you don't have an elite pitcher who can do all those things, you have to choose what to prioritize.  And the organization has pushed a "pitch to contact" mantra within its minor league system.

Now...the obvious result of having a "pitch to contact" groundball staff is that you are going to have a lot of balls in play.  But that doesn't do you any good if you have a lousy defense, particularly a lousy infield defense...allowing lots of ground balls that guys don't have the range to make plays on just means you are going to give up lots of hits and die a death of 1000 cuts, and have frustrated pitchers to boot.

So...having an organizational philosophy that gives you a groundball, "pitch to contact" staff is pointless if you don't back up that staff with a solid defense, particularly a solid infield defense.  And that need for a solid defense is something that John Hart never particularly seemed to acknowledge, but that it seems Jon Daniels has.

Think about it...why hire Ron Washington?  Yes, he was the anti-Buck, a guy who the players loved and who would speak his mind about anything, sometimes to the point that you'd wish he'd check himself a little more.  But he also has the reputation as a defensive guru, a guy who is responsible for turning Eric Chavez into a Gold Glover, a guy who is considered one of the best teachers of infield defense in baseball.  And if you are going with the Oakland model -- looking for a manager who is going to be malleable and implement what the front office wants, as Randy Galloway suggested last week is the case here -- then these sort of ancillary benefits are going to be deemed more important.

You have the Rangers acquiring guys like Josh Hamilton and David Murphy and Milton Bradley, guys who have reputations as quality defensive outfielders.  You have the Rangers drafting Julio Borbon -- considered a top-notch defensive centerfielder -- last year, and targeting David Paisano as a part of the McCarthy/Danks deal.  You have the Rangers going after Elvis Andrus, considered a terrific defensive shortstop, in the Braves deal.

All this seems to tie in with the notion that the organization feels that, along with committing to a groundball, pitch-to-contact staff, it has to commit to having quality defenders behind the staff, so that there is synergy in play, so that you are not only getting lots of balls in play, but converting lots of those balls in play into outs.

Which leads us to Hank Blalock.  Hank Blalock is, by most accounts, not a good defensive third baseman.  With Blalock and Michael Young at third base and shortstop, the Rangers had possibly the worst defensive left side of the infield in baseball. 

I think the organization believes that Blalock and Young have defensive issues that make moving them off those positions, at some point, a necessity.  And I think the knowledge that Young is going to have to move somewhere, and is probably best suited to moving to third base (where, if he's solid defensively, he probably would give you the most value), made the organization more open to moving Blalock than they otherwise would have been.

Would I have moved Blalock at this point?  No.  I'd rather have Blalock at third, and a Frank Catalanotto/Chris Shelton platoon at first base, than Blalock at first base and a grab bag of Ramon Vazquez, Travis Metcalf, and German Duran at third base.  I think Duran is the only guy of that trio that is going to hit well enough to be a regular there, and I don't think there's a realistic long-term solution at third base within the organization at the minor league level.

But I think that is part of the thought process that led to making the move now, particularly given that Blalock volunteered to move to first base.  I think that, from a political standpoint, it is going to be easier for the Rangers to tell Michael Young, this offseason, we need you to move to third base because we have no one else who can really handle the job now that Hank has moved.  And I think, whether Hank is still here in 2009 or whether he's dealt before then, the fact that Hank has voluntarily moved off the position, and that there's no obvious long-term solution in-house, is going to make the move of Young to third more palatable inside the clubhouse.

I think the organization feels it has to get better defensively on the left side, and that Elvis Andrus will ultimately be the answer there.  I don't expect him to be ready next year...I anticipate that you'll see someone like Adam Everett -- probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball that doesn't play in Colorado -- or some other veteran stopgap will be added on a one year deal for 2009, or else Joaquin Arias will be thrown in there (assuming he can finally throw).

But I think this move, random as it appears, really is part of an overall organizational shift.