They don't make second basemen like they used to. And that's a compliment.
Though the 2017 MLB season will be here before anyone knows it, one thing that still stands out from 2016 is the success that second basemen had. From Jose Altuve to Brian Dozier to Robinson Cano to Daniel Murphy to Ian Kinsler and many more, you could look in any direction at any moment and see a second baseman doing something great.
Appearances can be deceiving, as they say. But not in this case. According to FanGraphs WAR, second basemen had their most productive season ever:
|Most Second-Base WAR in a Single Season|
Mind you, these figures do come with some "yeah, buts."
These numbers are inflated by the league's expansions (both games and teams) over the years. FanGraphs also counted second basemen who weren't really second basemen—namely, Washington Nationals phenom Trea Turner and St. Louis Cardinals veteran Matt Carpenter.
However, that's not a small gap between 2016 and the other years. It's a big one, and it doesn't take a deerstalker hat or a magnifying glass to deduce how it came to be.
Last year's second-base revolution didn't happen on defense. Nor did it happen on the basepaths. It happened in the batter's box. With a collective weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 101, second basemen outperformed the league average for offense for the first time since 1924, when there were only 16 teams in the league.
How? Why, with power, of course.
One way to look at it is that "second basemen" hit 691 home runs with a .154 mark in isolated power (ISO). Another way to look at it is that players clubbed 585 home runs with a .160 ISO while playing second base. Either way, you're looking at never-before-seen numbers for the position.
It wasn't all one guy's doing. Dozier led the way with 42 home runs but was just one of a record 13 second basemen who smashed 20 or more dingers.
The previous record? Just nine.
"It has been amazing," Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor told Ted Berg of USA Today in September. "When you see the amount of home runs the second basemen have across the American League, and really throughout Major League Baseball, it has become a highly offensive position."
Where all these power-hitting second basemen have come from is a tricky topic best left to Berg. But in regard to whether this can continue, it bodes well that the power explosion at second base wasn't out of step with leaguewide happenings.
It feels like just yesterday that home runs were trending toward extinction. There were only 0.86 home runs per game in 2014—the lowest mark since 1992. Then there were 1.01 per game in 2015 and 1.16 per game in 2016—the second-highest mark ever after 2000.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said at the 2016 All-Star Game that this has nothing to do with a juiced ball or performance-enhancing drugs. Disputing either point is about as simple as walking into Mordor, so...you win this round, Commissioner.
And yet it doesn't necessarily take PEDs or a juiced ball to inject more power into a hitting environment.
"Every hitter knows that to get paid [big money], all he has to do is hit 25 home runs," a veteran hitting coach told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated in June. "And nobody cares about striking out anymore. It's no big deal. So what you get are more hitters selling out more often for the long ball. And as velocity keeps going up, you get more home runs."
Hitters have indeed responded to escalating velocity with more power against fastballs since home runs hit that nadir in 2014. It seems they've also taken the latest in hitting metrics to heart, showing improvements in exit velocity and launch angle from 2015 to 2016:
|Notable Hitting Changes: 2014-2016|
|Year||ISO vs. FB||Exit Velo (MPH)||Launch Angle (Degrees)|
If things stay the same in 2017, then it's not the environment that's going to slow second basemen's power-based roll. It'll come down to individual players and what they have to offer.
Some of them are good bets for more of the same. Dozier, Rougned Odor (33 homers in 2016), Jonathan Schoop (25), Altuve (24), Jason Kipnis (23), Starlin Castro (21) and Logan Forsythe (20) are safely in prime territory and have been either keeping their power steady or pushing it skyward.
Others are hard to count on. Cano (39 homers), Kinsler (28) and Murphy (25) will all be 32 or older in 2017. Neil Walker (23) is 31 and coming off season-ending back surgery. This is a veteran foursome that could find it difficult to repeat the big-time power spikes they experienced in 2016.
Others simply can't be counted on. Barring an unforeseen development, Jean Segura will be moving back to shortstop in 2017 after hitting 19 of his 20 dingers as a second baseman in 2016. Jedd Gyorko, who hit 13 of his 30 homers as a second baseman, may play third base primarily.
Thus, it's not fair to expect the same suspects from 2016 to do the heavy lifting for second basemen all over again in 2017. The unusual suspects need to pick up some slack.
Start in San Diego, where Ryan Schimpf is slated to be the Padres' everyday second baseman after he cranked 20 homers in only 89 games as a 28-year-old rookie in 2016. After he posted by far the highest average launch angle of any hitter who put at least 100 balls in play last year, it's clear he has the swing to keep that up.
Move on to Chicago, where Javier Baez is gearing up to be the Cubs' everyday second baseman. He hit 14 home runs in 142 games as a 23-year-old in 2016, and he has the bat speed and raw power to improve on that.
Now to Arizona, where Brandon Drury is slated to play second base for the Diamondbacks. He hit 16 homers in 134 games as a 23-year-old in 2016. As a dead-pull hitter with good raw pop, he should have more where that came from.
And Anaheim, where Danny Espinosa will man second base for the Los Angeles Angels. He clubbed a career-high 24 homers as a shortstop in 2016, mainly by upping his launch angle. That kind of stroke will fit right in as he returns to his old position.
Not to be overlooked elsewhere are the Colorado Rockies' DJ LeMahieu and the Toronto Blue Jays' Devon Travis. LeMahieu became more than just a singles hitter in winning the National League batting crown in 2016. If Travis is all the way back from the shoulder trouble that delayed the start of his 2016 season, he could recapture the impressive power he flashed as a rookie in 2015.
The star in waiting is Yoan Moncada, who was the big prize for the Chicago White Sox in the Chris Sale trade. He's rated as baseball's top prospect at second base by MLB.com. Part of the equation is an above-average power tool, and even that may be underestimating the musclebound 21-year-old.
Of course, it'll take more than just power for second basemen to provide as much total value in 2017 as they did in 2016. They'll also have to get on base and run the bases—and catch the ball when in the field. A downturns in any department could spoil the effort.
As long as the power remains, though, the star power that second basemen achieved last season won't diminish. And for that, second basemen have the big boxes checked.
All they have to do now is play the games.
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