Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of people getting down on Jordan Pacheco. The majority of the complaints focus on his defense – one comment going so far as to call him a disaster at third base – while other complaints center around his relative lack of power hitting, especially since third basemen are historically considered power hitters. While there may be some merit to these complaints, they’re wholly unjustified when put into the context of the entire 2012 season. It also shows how fickle, and sometimes impatient, fans can be when they arbitrarily give up on players who deserve more consideration.
For starters, Pacheco has performed well in his rookie season. Let me repeat that, this is Pacheco’s rookie campaign. That alone should earn him some slack, but some people are incapable of looking past the surface. As of Sept. 13, Pacheco has put up a slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .307/.341/.416 in 401 at-bats while striking out only 51 times. He’s also managed to drive in 43 runs while hitting in every spot in the batting order, hitting .353 with runners in scoring position. Finally, he’s hitting .275 on the road while the team average is .238 and we all know the troubles Rockies players have hitting on the road. On the defensive side in 82 games at third base (that’s the position I’m focusing on for comparison purposes later), he’s made 9 errors in 172 chances for a .948 fielding percentage; good for 28th out of the 36 players with at least 100 chances at 3B. While he’s still got a lot of work to do, he’s a far cry from defensive disaster (see: Ryan Braun, 2007). People also tend to forget that Pacheco was a second baseman in college, a catcher in the minors, and made into a corner infielder in the majors. Is it any wonder that he’s not the best defender after all that shifting around? And again, I can’t stress this enough – HE’S A ROOKIE.
So, did the Rockies have a better choice this season? Since they didn’t trade for any third baseman during the season, their choices boiled down to Nelson, Jonathan Herrera, and DJ LeMahieu in the majors; Brendon Harris and Brandon Wood in AAA, and prospect Nolan Arenado in AA. Let’s take a look at the 2012 offensive numbers first (minor league numbers for Harris, Wood and Arenado).
With the exception of Harris, Pacheco’s outperformed everyone except Nelson’s slugging, and Harris’ career major league slash is .260/.318/.383, also a loser to Pacheco. Offensively speaking, Pacheco is and was the best option. How about defensively (full disclosure: advanced fielding metrics are dubious at best. My goal is to portray what they actually did, not what they might have done in comparison with what other players might have done)?
|Pacheco||.946 fielding (9 errors in 172 chances)|
|Nelson||.931 fielding (10 errors in 145 chances)|
|Herrera||.986 fielding (3 errors in 208 chances) – 0 errors in 20 chances at 3B|
|LeMahieu||.992 fielding (2 errors in 248 chances) – 0 errors in 6 chances at 3B|
|Harris||.901 fielding (15 errors in 152 chances)|
|Wood||.898 fielding (10 errors in 98 chances)|
|Arenado||.952 fielding (23 errors in 475 chances)|
At first glance, Herrera and LeMahieu appear to be superior until you take into account their lack of third base experience – Herrera has had a total of 38 chances at 3B in his 4-year career and LeMahieu made 4 errors in 22 chances at 3B last year with the Cubs. Arenado is almost dead even and Harris and Wood may or may not be using mitts. This leaves Nelson, who most people have mistaken for a great fielder. Not only has he been worse than Pacheco this year, he put up a .917 fielding percentage in limited time at third base last year. Oddly, this misconception has perpetuated throughout the season; becoming even louder over the last couple of weeks. I have no idea what fantasy land it’s coming from, but I’m guessing they ride unicorns there.
Taking offense and defense into the equation, it’s clear that Pacheco was the correct choice for this season, though not by a large margin. So, what should the Rockies do at third base going forward? Well, barring a pick-up through free agency or trades, we’re left with several different options involving the players above, plus, some options that are a little (or a lot) outside the box.
To start with, we can eliminate Harris, Wood, and Herrera. Harris and Wood are perennial minor leaguers, plus Harris will be 33 next year, and Herrera has proven to be a valuable utility man at best. Now it gets a little more difficult. We can probably count Arenado out for next year as most scouting reports have him at least one year away from the majors. The only way he starts at third next year is if he goes absolutely bonkers in spring training and I mean to the tune of hitting .700 with 15 home runs. Of the remaining three, LeMahieu has the weakest bat, so unless he turns into Mike Schmidt during the off-season, he’ll begin 2013 as a backup infielder. That leaves Nelson and Pacheco, who are basically the same hitter and fielder. Pacheco has slightly better numbers on both sides of the ball, but the clincher is that he is one year younger. This decision is made easier by the fact that Nelson was given the job at the beginning of the season and lost it to Pacheco. But what about other ideas?
Scenario 1: Helton goes to the bench, Pacheco plays 1B, and Nelson plays 3B. Assuming Helton is healthy, this option degrades both the offense and the defense. Even crippled, Helton’s numbers were very similar to theirs (.238/.343/.400).
Scenario 2: Tulowitzki moves to 3B, Josh Rutledge moves to SS, and either Pacheco or LeMahieu plays 2B (Take away Helton again and you can play all four of them). This scenario satisfies the extremists who believe Tulo should move to 3B, but this option will never happen. Do you really want to move a once-in-a-generation shortstop simply to reduce the risk he might get hurt again and increase the risk he plays worse because he’s angry about the move? Yeah, me neither. And it goes without saying that anyone else at shortstop is a major defensive downgrade from Tulo.
Scenario 3: Rosario moves to 3B and Pacheco catches. This scenario has become much more plausible (and frightening) due to Rosario’s inability to catch a baseball, regardless of where it is thrown. He’s allowed 19 passed balls and 49 wild pitches as catcher this year and is making everyone wonder why they didn’t leave Pacheco to catch and teach Rosario 3B while they were in the minors. However, it does satisfy the nitpickers who think it’s critical that a corner infielder hit with power, even though the Rockies have two power-hitting middle infielders when middle infielders are traditionally non power hitters.
So, what do I think the Rockies should do? Unless the Rockies’ pitching improves by several orders of magnitude, next year is a throw-away year, the so-called heir-apparent, Nolan Arenado, is at least a year away from the majors (and the Ian Stewart wounds are still fresh), and the Rockies still have to solve the Michael Cuddyer/Tyler Colvin/Todd Helton logjam at 1B. Given those things, I think Pacheco has earned the job for 2013. And who knows, if Pacheco goes to the same Tulo/Giambi training camp that helped Dexter Fowler develop some power, maybe Pacheco will become the next Mike Schmidt.