Analysis of Russell-Baez Shortstop Debate More Intriguing with Manny Machado in the Picture

Despite Sunday’s 7-1 loss, Chicago Cubs fans could still celebrate the return of the teams’ best double-play combination. And it only took two innings for Addison Russell and Javier Baez to turn one of their patented fast, athletic double plays (video here).

Baez detractors will probably harp on his current slump, hitting just .202 with one walk and a .576 OPS over his last 27 games. On the other hand, despite a 31% K rate, Baez has still added 14 RBIs to his NL-leading total. But this piece isn’t about Baez’s offense. It’s about how Russell at short and Baez at second benefits the team best.

This wades into the long-running “Who should play shortstop?” debate. It’s a strange debate because, on one side, most metrics and professional evaluations decidedly favor Russell. On the other side, pure fan emotion favors Baez. With the usual qualifier that modern defensive stats are far from precise, here are some key defensive numbers:

This shows Baez leads Russell in just one category: “hard plays made.” These are plays Fangraphs measures where the typical shortstop has an even chance or worse of making. These types of plays represent 10-15 percent of all shortstop chances. In addition, Baez’s sample size of just 65 chances in this category could represent a small-sample variation.

Perhaps using an advanced sports technology would allow us to analyze plays better than just from watching a video replay. As with most defensive appraisal at this point, however, the best analysis must always include the eye test by examining each player’s mastery of fundamentals and how these affect plays and game outcomes. So, let’s examine one representative play from the second inning of Friday’s game against the Pirates.

On the mound: Mike Montgomery, off whom the Pirates’ Corey Dickerson lines a grounder up the middle. It hits the slope of the mound and angles slightly toward shortstop. Attempting to corral the ball before throwing, Baez slides into the outfield but the ball bumps off the end of his glove. The stadium applauds the high-energy effort, and both the Pirates and Cubs TV announcers comment on what an athletic attempt it was.

However, further review of this difficult play indeed confirms Baez’s athleticism, but also reveals small flaws in technique that prevented Baez from attempting a throw.

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Click to enlarge

The two photos at right show the beginning of this play. The top one shows the positioning of Baez and Ben Zobrist (at second base) just after contact. The lower photo shows the play after the ball has passed the mound.

In the lower shot you can see how Baez is just starting his break. Zobrist, though, has already crossed over and moved a half step toward the ball. But Baez’s plus-rated quickness lets him get close enough to try a sliding stab at the ball.

The next photos below show his slide from two angles. Legs bent, and his throwing arm is flying up. Grass stains everywhere. Exciting, replay-worthy stuff. And yet, not the optimal approach for catching this ball. This is because by sliding feet first, Baez limited his glove reach. Some might even say his glove could have reached this same point without sliding at all.

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An eye-catching effort from two angles, but not the optimal technique.

By comparison, Russell generally only leaves his feet if absolutely necessary and usually via a head-long dive. This extends his reach, thereby increasing his chance of gloving a ball like this. Russell would then spring to his feet and attempt a hurried throw that may or may not have beat a runner like Dickerson.

It’s also possible Russell might not have needed to dive at all, if he got the same break as Ben Zobrist. Can we assume Russell would have? I’m going out on a limb here and say “probably.” Consider the below play from Saturday’s Pirates game the next day.

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With a half-step better break, Russell stays on his feet to reach this ball.

With another lefty on the mound (Jon Lester), the Pirates ground one more ball up the middle. Notice that the pictured ball is a similar distance past the mound as on the Baez play. Like Zobrist, Russell has already crossed over and nearly completed a full step toward the ball. This good break does not result in a highlight-reel attempt, just a clean put-out and fewer pitches added to Lester’s pitch count.

This is why Manager Joe Maddon is fond of saying, “I like boring defense.”

This analysis doesn’t suggest Baez is a poor defensive shortstop. As I noted in my defense report card earlier this month, Maddon is right when he calls Baez “a good shortstop.” This gives the Cubs perhaps the best backup shortstop in baseball. But Russell’s stronger technique in this and many other areas is why most baseball insiders consider him a Gold Glove contender, provided he stays healthy to play enough games.

Some might consider it unfair to critique Baez on one difficult play and not credit him for his fearless foul-ball catch the series before against the Phillies. But the Cubs do not lose Baez’s foul-ball ability by shifting him to second base, as demonstrated Saturday by Baez’s game-ending grab near the right-field stands.

This is why my ideal defense features Russell at short and Baez at second. It’s also why I personally only want Manny Machado – be it by trade or free agency – if he plays third base (with Kris Bryant moving to the outfield). This would add Machado’s bat and improve third-base defense. Win-win.

From what I’ve seen of Machado at shortstop, he often looks like a third baseman playing the position. He plays without his hands close together and without the speed and glide. I’ve heard several teams’ internal analytics rate Machado as just average at shortstop. This would put him at least a notch below Baez and two full notches below Russell.

While Machado would certainly improve the Cubs’ lineup, he also weakens you at a key up-the-middle position. This puts Machado in the company of Silver-Slugger-winning shortstops with average defensive skills. This includes All-Star players like Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra, Hanley Ramirez, Ian Desmond and Garry Templeton. Can you guess how many world championship teams they played shortstop for? None.

So, just give me that Russell-Baez combo and a shot at another title.

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