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Cuddyer at Third Base: Crazy Like a Fox!

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Last Friday afternoon marked the opening of Twins interleague play in National League ballparks with a three game series in Philadelphia. And considering the glut of outfiielders and designated hitters between Delmon Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome, with only three outfield positions available. Against LHP Cole Hamels on Saturday, the choice was easy given Kubel and Thome's struggles against left handers. But on Friday and Saturday, Gardy faced a difficult decision - who sits? When Friday evening rolled around, many of us were shocked to see Cuddyer's name penciled in at third base. There was a ton of discussion in that night's game thread, lots of good points both ways. Many, including me, were surprised to see Gardy play Cuddyer over healthy rookie Danny Valencia. While Cuddyer was originally drafted as a shortstop, when he was initially called up in 2004 and 2005 he saw 138 games at third base, 59 at second base, and only 15 games in the outfield. But he hadn't played third since 2005, meaning there would be plenty of rust. Others, including Gardy, believed it was a better idea to put as many bats as possible in the lineup, defense be damned.

Who was right? There were many comments, but not a lot of quantitative analysis...until now. I'll provide more detail below the jump, but in the end I believe the difference between Cuddyer and Valencia starting at third is minimal (1.8 runs in Cuddyer's favor over the course of a season). So on a neutral field, it appears Gardy made the correct decision. And in a bandbox like Philly where seemingly every fly ball ends up in the seats, one would have to believe Cuddyer's ability to hit fly balls tilts the scales even more in his favor.

I'm going to keep this one simple using the two primary components of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) player valuation. I'm also going to evaluate from a strategy standpoint, what is the best strategy long term, rather than an armchair analysis, how did it work out during those two games. Frankly, the Twins split the games and only one ball was hit Cuddyer's way, so armchair analysis tells us very little.

Player wOBA wRC UZR/150 Total RAA
Michael Cuddyer .360 +13.6 -15.0 -1.4
Danny Valencia .320 -8.2 +5.0 -3.2
Brendan Harris .302 -18.0 -15.0 -33.0


Obviously, this analysis depends on the projections I use for each player. Since projections aren't really my area of expertise, I use the ZiPS projections for the remainder of the year where available. For Valencia, the ZiPS projections weren't available so I decided to use a wOBA of .320, a slight improvement of his .318 wOBA to date, figuring he'd find some power later in the season but it would be offset by his luck (so many ground balls finding holes) balancing out. Defensively, Valencia has graded very well (+60 UZR/150) in an extremely small sample size. Danny has looked good out there, but not uber gold glove good, so I went with +5 for the season. Cuddyer hasn't played third base since 2005, but for his career he's a -10 according to UZR, so I took off another five runs due to rust. 

As the numbers show, Cuddyer and Valencia end up pretty close, less than two runs apart. But the numbers are in Cuddyer's favor, meaning Gardy made the correct decision as far as I can tell. We'll see if he uses the same strategy this week in Milwaukee. And just for the record, starting Harris at third is a BAD idea.

What do you think?