After missing the Cardinals' last six games due to shingles, manager Tony La Russa has certainly returned with a bang. La Russa announced today that Albert Pujols, future Hall of Famer and current best first baseman on the planet, will start at third base.
This isn't entirely shocking, as Pujols made quite a few starts at the hot corner in 2001 and 2002. However, that was nine years ago. Since then, he's become baseball's best glove at first, accounting for 94 defensive runs saved (per The Fielding Bible) since '02.
While many may find it ludicrous to play a deserving Gold Glove winner at another position, it's worth considering that Pujols may be the Cards' best current option at third.
First, we need to consider how this move affects the team as a whole. With Pujols moving to third base, Allen Craig moves to right field and Lance Berkman slides up to first.
When possible, I'll use UZR and UZR/150 to evaluate each player's defense. It's the most comprehensive defensive metric, but it's really only useful when you have at least three seasons worth of data to analyze. For smaller sample sizes, I'll use The Fielding Bible's defensive runs saved.
In 2008, FanGraphs published an article establishing value adjustments for each defensive position. Of the three spots we're looking at here, third base carries the most weight. Both right field and first base carry negative values, with first base holding the least value of all positions.
The first player we'll look at is Berkman. In his younger days, the Big Puma flashed some pretty surprising athleticism. From 2002-2004, he used his range to post positive runs saved values all across the outfield, even notching nearly 1,000 innings at center field.
However, his range quickly deteriorated, and he wisely made the transition to first base. There, Berkman's defense did minimal damage. In nearly 6,000 innings at first base since 2005, Berkman has posted a positive 3.1 UZR/150. At this point in his career, first base is the best option for him.
Berkman playing at first opens up a spot in right field. Tonight, utility man Allen Craig will fill that spot. Craig is a 26-year-old fringe player who hasn't really logged a substantial number of innings at any one position. He's minus-one in the defensive runs saved category at third base this season, but we can throw that out because he's only played eleven innings at the position.
That said, Craig has logged a majority of his playing time in the outfield. While we're still working with less than 300 total innings, he's managed to post positive runs saved values in both left and right field. That's more than can be said for his play in the infield. While we don't enough information to make any conclusive judgments on Craig's defensive play, he hasn't done anything overly impressive with the glove. I think it's safe to assume he's a better option in the outfield than in the infield.
With Craig in right, we're left with Pujols at third, a position he hasn't played in nine years. As mentioned before, first base is rated as the least valuable defensive position in the game. It's tough to guess how someone's play there will translate to one of the most valuable spots in the infield.
Who is the Cardinal's best option at third base?
However, Pujols isn't just average at first base. He's exceptional.
Regardless of how easy the position may be, 94 runs saved is 94 runs saved. From '03 to '10, Pujols saved twice as many runs as any other first baseman in baseball. His UZR total during the same span is 61.8. The next highest total belongs to Mark Teixeira. It's 38.8.
Defensively, Pujols has ruled over his position with the same kind of dominance we've seen from the offensive side.
Until it's proven otherwise, I think Pujols could make a decent transition to third base if needed.
There's no indication that this move will last beyond tonight's game, but it's a situation worth watching. Regular third baseman David Freese will miss several more weeks with a broken hand. Until he returns, I think tonight's defensive alignment may be the best option for the team.