How have these 6 position switches gone?

May 30th, 2024

A third of the way into the 2024 season, it’s time to check in on one of the more interesting subplots of last winter: How are all those big stars who took to new positions working out? Most notably, that was Bryce Harper becoming Philadelphia’s full-time first baseman, or Mookie Betts making the mostly unprecedented move to shortstop, but it wasn’t just them, either. There were more than a few similar moves.

Are they working? Let’s find out.

But first: What does it mean to play a “new” position? It is, honestly, somewhat arbitrary.

Harper famously learned first base on the fly last summer, but 2024 was the first time he entered a season knowing he’d play the infield. It’s not like Betts didn’t get a few reps at short last year, but again, 2024 was the first time he’d be strictly an infielder. Had Aaron Judge played some center before? Sure, some. Had he played it anywhere near as regularly as he’s doing this year? No way.

We’ll skip past the numerous corner outfield swaps – like, for example, Judge’s new Yankees teammates Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo – and focus on the players who have made more interesting changes.

Bryce Harper, Phillies 1BHow’s it going? Fantastic.

Much was made of Harper’s willingness and ability to jump right into first base last year, coming off the Tommy John surgery that had limited him to designated hitter, simply because the Phillies needed it. With the injured Rhys Hoskins out for the year, first base had been a trouble spot, and with Harper at DH, they’d been forced to play Kyle Schwarber in the outfield. The overall defense had suffered for it, so Harper’s ability to play first competently allowed all the pieces to fall into place, and the fielding improvement was noticeable.

To fill in on short notice is one thing. To permanently move to the position and study for it all winter is another. So how’s that going? Harper’s +4 Outs Above Average rank as second-best among first basemen, behind perennial fielding standout Christian Walker. In fact, between his regularly strong hitting, his defensive value, and some down years from other stars, it’s not a reach to say: Harper is now the best all-around first baseman in the game (or at least that’s what WAR says).

So what, exactly, has he done well? Avoiding mistakes, for one; he’s missed just four opportunities that Statcast graded as being 90% likely or higher, and even one of those was when he slipped on a wet field in April.

He’s shown the ability to make the diving play on grounders against the fastest men in baseball …

… and dive to grab a shot off the bat of one of the hardest-hitting lefties in the game …

… and the ability to make a play that would be very unfamiliar to a right-handed outfielder, which is to collect a grounder, turn to his right, and fire to second base.

Last year, Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson said he believed Harper could be a Gold Glove first baseman. Because Walker exists, that might not happen in 2024, but what we’ve seen shows that it’s a real possibility sometime soon.

Mookie Betts, Dodgers SSHow’s it going? Good enough.

It’s important to remember here that the bar for success was not “being an elite Gold Glove defender,” because as great as Betts is, that was never really a realistic expectation. As we detailed in depth when the move was made, it would be a huge win here if Betts could merely handle the position capably. Being an average shortstop, in other words, would be a tremendous success.

Of course, the numbers do us no favors here. Statcast’s OAA has him as slightly below average, at minus-4. Defensive Runs Saved, however, has him at +5, which would put him as one of the two best defensive shortstops in the game. Some of each might be about the vagaries of one-third of a season of defensive metrics, but it’s also instructive to see how the Dodgers view him, as reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.

Wrote Rosenthal: Betts’ first three steps to either side are excellent, Dodgers infield coach Dino Ebel said, and he gets to balls other shortstops cannot reach. Most of his miscues have come on throws, a result of learning the different arm angles necessary at the position.

If we break down Betts’ OAA into “fielded the ball” and “completed the play,” we can see it aligns exactly with what Ebel said. Betts is 0 – average – at range, which indicates no problem, and he’s -4 at completing the play, which does point to throws. (Six of his seven errors have come on throws.)

Which, again, is exactly as expected for a 31-year-old playing the position full-time for the first time in years. Betts is almost certainly going to be the starting shortstop for the National League in the All-Star Game – and it won’t just be because of his bat.

Aaron Judge, Yankees CFHow’s it going? Quite well.

Judge had played 120 career games in center entering 2024, so maybe this isn’t new-new. But look at the percentage of his innings in center year-by-year ..

2016 through 2020 // 0%
2021 // 15%
2022 // 56%
2023 // 23%
2024 // 94%

.. and remember how uncertain the new-look Yankee outfield seemed like it might be defensively with Soto and Verdugo, neither rated as terribly strong defenders, arriving in the Bronx. This had to work, lest the light-hitting-but-strong-defensively Trent Grisham be forced into more regular duty than expected.

It has, collectively, worked out quite well. Rather than being the porous unit many expected, the Yankee outfield rates as seventh best in Outs Above Average. That’s largely because Verdugo and Soto have each upped their defensive games, but it’s also because Judge has competently handled center, posting a good-enough +1 OAA thus far.

It’s how he’s doing it, though, that is most interesting. It’s not that he’s really made any spectacular plays, because he hasn’t; he’s 0-for-10 on turning the hardest opportunities (those with a Catch Probability of 50% or less) into an out. But he’s also perfect on the easiest chances, the ones with a Catch Probability of 75% or more. There’s value in great-looking catches, to be sure. There’s as much or more in just making the plays you should make.

Even more importantly, he’s been available. Judge started 44 of the first 57 Yankees games in center, and that number likely would have been higher had he not slid to left field for a few games in late April when Verdugo was away on paternity leave. The move has obviously not had an impact on his offense, which remains thunderous as ever. At 32, this setup still isn’t the ideal long-term arrangement. But for now, it’s working even better than expected.

Tyler Freeman, Guardians CFHow’s it going? The metrics and eye test disagree.

Freeman has become a regular highlight reel for the Guardians. Even just over the last two weeks, you can find highlights titled “Tyler Freeman’s incredible sliding catch,” “Tyler Freeman’s diving catch,” a different “Tyler Freeman’s diving catch,” and “Tyler Freeman’s amazing diving catch.” Are we just very good at video titles that make people want to watch cool baseball plays? Perhaps, but it also helps point to what the Freeman experience in center field is: never boring.

It’s because of that – and, likely, the zero errors made – that Freeman looks to have solidified his standing with Guardians fans. On the other hand, he’s posted minus-2 Outs Above Average. What’s the discrepancy here?

It’s exactly what you’d expect from an inexperienced outfielder who appears to be a tremendous athlete, really. He has above-average sprint speed (77th percentile), yet the jumps he’s getting on the ball are among the weakest in the game. Slow to react to the ball, he’s then outrunning his mistakes, which means that a play that looks this incredible …

… doesn’t show up as being impressive in the metrics, because he got a jump four feet slower than average. An average jump, then, might make this a nice running catch. An above-average one might just get you there without running at all.

But it’s important to remember that Freeman had played exactly one professional inning as an outfielder before this year, and even that was in the ninth inning of a 10-0 rout last summer. His move to the outfield this winter came because the Guardians had too many shortstops, and a lack of confidence in incumbent center fielder Myles Straw. If the outcome here is “who is surprised that an inexperienced outfielder doesn’t yet have elite reactions,” well, that’s what you’d have figured, right?

If Freeman can manage to stay around average to ever-so-slightly-below in his first year on the grass, that’s an achievement in and of itself, especially if experience brings even more improvement. A few years back, the Guardians tried to turn Amed Rosario into an outfielder, an experiment that ended quickly. This one feels a lot more opportunistic.

Christopher Morel, Cubs 3BHow’s it going? Not ideal.

Is it a “new position” when it’s the one you played more than any other in the Minors? Perhaps not, but it is still a new situation for Morel, who had played six positions in his first two seasons with the Cubs and actually had started more games at designated hitter than anywhere else. In 2023, he’d made just four starts at the hot corner, and even this past winter, he was viewed as a multi-positional player, the best way to get his electric bat in the lineup.

Instead, once Spring Training opened, it was clarified that Morel would be the team’s regular third baseman, and indeed, every single inning he’s played this year has come at third. While everyone was clear-eyed about the work-in-progress nature of the move, it hasn’t quite worked out so far, as Morel’s minus-10 OAA puts him as the weakest fielding third baseman in the game. Unlike Betts, that splits out evenly at -5 between “fielding the ball” and “completing the play.”

It’s possible that further experience might bring improvement. It’s also possible, however, that with third-base options Nick Madrigal and Patrick Wisdom still on the roster, a change in playing time might be coming.

The Padres middle infield swapHow’s it going? Fine, if somewhat unimpactful.

Shortly after Spring Training camp opened, the Padres made a surprising announcement: shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Ha-Seong Kim would swap positions. Though Bogaerts rated reasonably well at shortstop, no one doubted that Kim was the superior fielder, and the move was made to get ahead of future seasons, not only about 2024.

Bogaerts, unfortunately, injured his shoulder recently and will miss much of the season. But last year, the San Diego middle infield rated an above-average 9th, and this year, the San Diego middle infield has rated … an above-average 12th. Last year’s April/May Padres allowed a .243 BABIP on grounders. This year’s April/May Padres allowed … a .243 BABIP on grounders. It’s fine. It made sense at the time, as it still does now. It just hasn’t really moved the needle much.

That said, it wasn’t just about these two, was it? The same team that already moved a shortstop to third base (Manny Machado) and a shortstop to first base (Jake Cronenworth) and a shortstop to right field (Fernando Tatis Jr.) came up with another shortstop (preseason No. 12 overall prospect Jackson Merrill) and found another position to move him to (center field), in part due to lack of outfielders after the Soto trade.

Merrill, 21 years old, has posted an above-average +2 OAA in center field, as well as a throwing arm clocked as fast as 99.6 mph. Consider that position switch a win.