Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Monday, April 12, 2004

Houston’s Problem: Jimy Williams

These days, good third baseman are hard to come by in Major League Baseball. There are really only a few top-tier third basemen around: Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen, and now Alex Rodriguez. So when a team develops a third baseman from its minor league system who can not only hold down the position with the bat, but actually posts better than average numbers, he should be a considered a valuable commodity.

Morgan Ensberg, who started this season's Opening Day at the hot corner for the Houston Astros, is such a player. After refining his skills in the Astros’ minor league system, he developed into a Major League asset at the plate last season. In fact, Ensberg was one of the most productive third base bats in limited 2003 action. Clay Davenport’s Equivalent Average (“a measure of total offensive value per out, with corrections for league offensive level, home park, and team pitching”) statistic ranks him third among third basemen, taking into account the fact that Ensberg benefited from Minute Maid Park’s juiced numbers. But numerous other statistical methods reveal the same results.

According to Runs Created, Ensberg was nothing short of excellent in 2003. While Mike Lowell, who generally assumed to be an above average third baseman, created 90 runs in 492 AB, Ensberg created 70 in 385 AB. Translated, this evens out to:

Lowell 492 88.7 .180
Ensberg 385 75.0 .194

Ensberg bettered Mike Lowell in terms of the Runs Created stat in 2003. If they had played the same number of games, Ensberg would have faired better than Lowell. How about Win Shares?

Lowell 492 23 .0467
Ensberg 385 17 .0442
According to Win Shares, too, their values are almost equal.

Incredibly, Ensberg's Runs Created per 27 Outs – a measure of how many runs a lineup of solely Morgan Ensberg would produce in nine innings – is higher than any other National League third baseman, including Mike Lowell (6.36). He trailed only surprise Bill Mueller and Melvin Mora, who was injured for much of the end of the season, in third baseman RC27 rankings last season.

Ensberg, by almost any measure, is among the best-hitting third basemen in baseball. Nonsabermetric-minded fans should take special note of his impressive home run totals. Twenty-five homers in one season is pretty good for anybody, but it's a great total coming from your third baseman's bat. Indeed, Ensberg hit 25 home runs, but he accomplished this feat in fewer then 400 at-bats last season. His 15.4 AB/homerun ratio was the same as Manny Ramirez’s. That’s some pretty good company. Extrapolating his power to a full 550 at-bats, Ensberg would have hit 35 out of the park, bringing him towards the elite soil cultivated by Eric Chavez and Scott Rolen among Major League third basemen.

With fewer than 400 at-bats, Ensberg obviously didn’t play the 2003 season as Houston's regular third baseman. Let's see. He wasn’t injured. And he didn’t go on the DL. Then what kept his potent bat out of the lineup?

Jimy Williams, the Astros' manager. Last season, if you can believe it, he split time with world-renowned heavy-hitter Geoff Blum (and his mind-altering career line of .262/.326/.408). It’s bad enough that Williams mismanages his pitching staff with every opportunity, but last season he single-handedly kept his Astros out of the playoffs by insisting on Blum at third base. Williams’ passion for Geoff Blum was one of the wonders of the baseball season last year.

Gerry Hunsicker, it seemed, was determined to prevent Jimy from again mismanaging the Astros out of the playoffs. So the General Manager, in an effort seemingly solely aimed at eliminating Williams’ third base options, traded Blum to Tampa Bay over the winter for an ordinary relief pitcher, Brandon Backe. So, I thought, Ensberg will finally get the hot corner all to himself. What I should have noticed was that Hunsicker made the monumental mistake of acquiring another backup third baseman in Michael Lamb before the season began.

And again, by the second game of the season Ensberg was already watching the game from the bench. From the view here at Talking Baseball, Jimy Williams is looking more and more foolish every day. Ensberg, arguably a top-tier third baseman last season, is being benched in favor of Mike Lamb, who lost his opportunity to even retain a spot on a Major League roster last season.

Given these choices, which would you want playing the hot corner on your team?

• Player A: a 28 year-old who last season hit .291, reached base 38 percent of the time he took the plate, and slugged .530 with 25 home runs in 385 at-bats, or
• Player B: a 28 year-old who last season accumulated only 38 Major League at-bats, but in 2002 hit .283, reached base 35 percent of the time he took the plate, and slugged .411 with nine home runs in 314 at-bats?

Player A, Morgan Ensberg is clearly the better hitter. Player B, Michael Lamb, is obviously inferior with the bat.

“Well then,” you respond, “Lamb must be a defensive wizard, and Morgan must be walking around third base with his hands in his pockets.

Au contrere, mon ami. In fact, among players spending at least 750 innings at third base, only one NL third baseman accumulated a higher fielding Win Shares per 1000 innings. Take a guess as to who it was and how similar their numbers were. Now look:
		WS/1000 INN

Lowell 3.74
Ensberg 3.73

Furthermore, both Ensberg’s fielding percentage and his Range Factor were better than league-average for third basemen in 2003. Mike Lamb’s career fielding numbers are atrocious. He is well below league average in career fielding percentage at third base, and his range factor has been decreasing since his debut in 2000.

Last season, instead of playing his best option at third base, Jimy Williams consistently platooned Morgan Ensberg with Geoff Blum, who ended up with a paltry .262/.295/.379 line. Ensberg, on the other hand, dominated Blum in ever statistical category in 2003, but he couldn’t receive the nod to become the regular starting third baseman. This season, he faces a lowly Mike Lamb challenging him for playing time. After the 2003 season the Ensburger enjoyed, Lamb should be waiting on Morgan’s table at dinner, not replacing him in the lineup.

Yes, Lamb had a better spring than Ensberg, who was bothered by elbow problems and missed a few games because of personal reasons, but Morgan clearly should have been the Astros’ regular third baseman in 2003 and should be playing every day this season. In the first week alone, Lamb has started in one-third of the Astros’ games.

It’s not Ensberg’s offense that keeps him from holding down a starting job. And it’s not his defense either. So why isn’t he starting every game for Houston? Aside from my first suspicion, which is that Jimy Williams is not sane (have you seen how he deals with his pitching staffs?), he must either hate Morgan Ensberg or have a strong distrust of third basemen in general. While I can only speculate on his personal feelings, it's interesting to note that the last time he allowed one third baseman to receive over 400 at bats in a season was in 2001, when he decided to play Shea Hillenbrand every day even after he began faltering at the plate (he ended up with a terrible seasonal line of .263/.291/.391). And it was six seasons ago that a team he managed featured an everyday third baseman accumulating over 500 at-bats.

After this careful analysis, I can’t even come close to explaining Jimy’s actions. Therefore, I’m reverting back to my original hypothesis, that Jimy Williams is insane. The only way he can prove me wrong is by starting Ensberg over Lamb at least 90 percent of the time. But Dave's already proved Jimy's insanity beyond reasonable doubt.

I’ll be following who Williams sends out to start each game and you can too, by checking the new sidebar as the season progresses.

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