One thing saberists and traditional baseball fans can agree upon is that Mark Reynolds’ defense at third base has been horrible. Reynolds’ is dead last in MLB in UZR, UZR/150 and Fielding Percentage. That’s right, of all qualified players in the MLB this year, Mark Reynolds is the worst defensively and its not particularly close. However, Reynolds’ has produced at the plate. He has posted a (AVG/OBP/SLG) triple slash .214/.324/.470, which is right in line with his ZiPS projection of .221/.321/.469. Given his age (28), it is safe to expect this kind of production from Reynolds offensively for the next 3-4 years. With the profile of a power hitter at the plate and Roger Dorn defensively at third base it is intriguing to imagine Reynolds leaving the hot corner and taking up residence at first base. This week in O’s By the Numbers we’ll look at the ramifications of this change of address. We will also silently marvel at Reynolds’ ability to be emotionally unaffected by a young boy’s journey to free a beloved killer whale named ‘Willy’ (photo courtesy of Orioles Hangout).

Mark Reynolds is unimpressed by 'Free Willy'

One obstacle preventing moving Reynolds to first base, is the recent acquisition of Chris Davis. Once an elite prospect, Davis is currently a poor man’s Mark Reynolds offensively. Davis possesses Reynolds’ high strikeout rate and elite power but not Reynolds’ ability to walk. The result is that Davis is a replacement level first basemen (0 Wins Above Replacement) with the opportunity to become a below average first baseman (1-2 Wins Above Replacement). Given that the Orioles gave up talent in Koji Uhera (1-1.5 Wins Above Replacement) to acquire Davis, they should give him the chance to develop unless the opportunity cost of moving Reynolds to first demands replacing Davis. Note: For a full writeup on the Davis acquisition please read Daniel Moroz’s excellent post on Camden Crazies.

Unfortunately, the opportunity cost does not necessitate such action. The two most widely held beliefs about why Reynolds should play first are 1) he would be less of a liability defensively and 2) his offensive skills fit the profile of a good first baseman. In reality neither is true.

Lets begin by examining Reynolds’ career performance playing first base. Throughout his MLB career Reynolds has played 279 innings (~ 31 games) at first base. During those innings his defense has been even worse than it has been this year at third base. This year at third Reynolds is costing the team ~30 runs every 150 games. However, if Reynolds was at first and playing defense at his career level, he would be costing the team ~36 runs every 150 games. Its important to note that UZR (which these figures are based on) can take several seasons to stabilize and that Reynolds career numbers at first are based on a paltry sample size. Furthermore, one could argue that if Reynolds played first base everyday then he might improve. However, the point remains: Reynolds has done nothing defensively at first base in his career to indicate that he would be less of a defensive liability than he is at third. Furthermore, Reynolds has shown during his career that he can be average defensively at third. Below is a graph of Reynolds UZR rating at third base for each of his MLB seasons.

Mark Reynolds Season by Season UZR/150

Until 2011 the graph could not have looked more encouraging! Since 2008, Reynolds improved every year culminating with a positive UZR/150 (above average) in 2010. Then 2011 happened. It seems safe to assume that Reynolds’ is having the worst defensive year of his career and that his true talent level is not this far below average. However, given this year as evidence I do think one would have to concede that Reynolds will never be an average defensive third baseman. Certainly, it is not ideal to have a below average defensive third baseman, but compared to the prospect of moving Reynolds to first it is preferable.

Offensively, a move from third base to first base makes Reynolds significantly less valuable to the Orioles. This decrease is due to what makes a player valuable to begin with – production relative to their peers. Dave Cameron covered this in a recent post at Fangraphs:

There are a lot of great hitting first basemen: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira, among others. Just those seven are all considered elite, franchise cornerstone type players, but the fact that there are seven guys at that level at the same position should tell you something about the scarcity of that kind of player. 23 percent of all teams in baseball have a first baseman who could easily be considered one of the best players in the game, and is paid as such.

Even the second tier of first baseman are pretty darn good hitters. We haven’t mentioned the likes of Paul Konerko or Ryan Howard, who routinely get MVP votes and are lauded as two of the games premier run producers. At first base, though, they can’t even crack the top rung. The bar is just set so high. In 2011, the average line produced by all first baseman is .270/.344/.449, good for a .793 OPS.

Recall, Reynolds’ current production is .214/.324/.470 (a .794 OPS) which makes his offense average for the position. In contrast, Reynolds’ current triple slash ranks him as a top 5 offensive third baseman in MLB.  These types of positional adjustments are factored into advanced valuation metrics like WAR. In fact, if we use Reynolds’ career defensive production at first base and pair it with his 2011 offensive statistics he would be very close to a replacement level first baseman, which is what the Orioles have in Chris Davis. So, while the idea of moving Reynolds to first may seem to quell some of the Orioles many woes in actuality it only exacerbates them. Compared to Reynolds, what Davis lacks in his ability to walk he almost makes up for in his defense. Furthermore, based on his 2010 defense, it seems more likely that Reynolds will defend better at third than he would at first.