On March 5th Jason Donald was hit by a pitch. It’s important to remember that for all the detours, that’s how this story really began.
Anyway, about three weeks after the HBP, the Indians’ groundbreaking coalition of doctors and medical staff were able to diagnose a fractured bone in Donald’s hand. Why the initial X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds missed the break I don’t know. But the Indians’ best-laid plans were thrown out the window, because even though they weren’t saying it publicly at the time, the plan was to open the season with Jason Donald manning the hot corner.
During that time—from when Donald was hit by that pitch until today—there have been some interesting developments regarding the third base job. First, all of Cleveland fell in love with a boy named Lonnie: he did hit the snot out of the ball for a few weeks, after all. And we’re a fickle bunch when it comes to falling in love with prospects. But Lonnie was sent back down to minor league camp for seasoning and development purposes. He’s no longer in the running.
Simultaneously, a boy named Luis hit four homeruns, reminding us of the pop he’s shown in the past—just daring the team to believe that he might have finally put it all together. After all, he’s only 25, right? And the front office can be a stubborn bunch when it comes to admitting that a player they brought into the organization just can’t cut it (see: Crowe, Trevor). So maybe Luis would get a shot?
Also during that time a retread named Jack Hannahan who has never hit enough to stick in the Big Leagues basically won the starting third base job for the Cleveland Indians. Let’s discuss.
First, with a mandatory nod to the small-sample size gods, here are his spring training numbers:
YAY! Those are, after all, better than Lonnie Chisenhall’s spring training numbers, so we must have found the best third baseman of ALL TIME!
OK. With that out of the way, let’s look toward Hannahan’s past numbers, which should be somewhat more instructive. Here are his career MLB numbers:
Ah. That’s more like it. He’s demonstrated the mediocrity you’d expect from a player who’s played with five different organizations in the past four years.
So what, if anything, can we glean from these numbers? A few things interest me. First, while he’s really below average across the board, you’ll see that his OBP is nearly 90 points higher than his batting average, suggesting some ability to work the count and take walks. His career walk-rate of 10.9% is, in fact, well above the average of around 8.5%. On the other hand, his slugging percentage and batting average are both pretty measly, meaning that he’ll likely be a bottom-of-the-order type. His .658 career OPS is actually worse than Jayson Nix’s 2010 campaign (.676). And when I looked at his comparables on Baseball-Reference, guess who #2 on the list was. Some guy named Dandy Marte. Ick.
So what’s the deal? Why is the team handing the hot corner to the worst candidate?
I’m sure you’ve probably already guessed this, but it would appear that a fairly big part of any decision to give Hannahan the job comes down the value he can provide with the glove. While I don’t believe he’s played enough to cite any of the advanced metrics, he’s generally been regarded as above average defensively.
And that’s actually more important than you might think—especially for a team that relies on groundball pitchers the way that we do. Last season, the Indians’ corps of third baseman played just terrible defense. Judging by UZR, they cost the club almost ten runs compared to what an average defensive third baseman would have—and they did this while offering almost no offensive value.
Perhaps letting Hannahan fill-in at third is the organization’s way of remedying the terrible defense from last season. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to start Chisenhall’s arbitration clock. Perhaps they still don’t believe that Valbuena can be anything more than a utility guy. Perhaps it’s because they want to believe they’ve struck gold on a guy on whom everyone else missed. Probably, it’s a combination of all these and more.
But how strange that all this started with Jason Donald, who has now played in 484 professional baseball games in his life. In three of those games, he played third base.