Friday Fungoes: Hot Corner Hypothetical

When I first encountered this question, it was posited slightly different than how I'm ultimately going to present it to you. Here's the original question: As general manager of a hypothetical team, you are left to determine who your team will be better of with manning third base - Harmon Killebrew or Brooks Robinson. Thanks to hypothetical suspension of free agency, you get either player for his entire career. There's no question Killebrew was the better hitter, and likewise no question that Robinson was the superior defender. Who do you choose?

I wanted to update the players in this question a little bit, so my modification is this - would your team be better with Chipper Jones or Scott Rolen at third base?

Jones has the higher career OBP - .402 to .366 - clearly a result of a higher walk rate - 14.3% for Jones to 10.6% for Rolen - and helped by a lower strikeout rate (13.4% to Rolen's 16.5%). Jones' career ISO is also a bit better, though it's closer than you might think: .228 to .212. His career counting stats also are more impressive, a consequence of carrying his better rate production across nearly 2000 more plate appearances than Rolen. As with Harmon Killebrew (542.2 batting runs against 133.3 for Robinson), Chipper Jones is clearly the better hitter - 598.8 batting runs for Jones to 282.4 for Rolen - and it's not even particularly close.

What Rolen has in his favor, though, is precisely what Brooks Robinson had in his. He's decent enough at the plate to be a solid contributor in the lineup, but where he absolutely blows Jones out of the water is in the field. Jones has been worth -41.6 fielding runs over his career, while Rolen has contributed 160.5, the most of any third baseman in the last twenty years, and third behind Robinson (294.0 fielding runs!) and Buddy Bell (176.0) since World War II. Robinson likewise obliterated Killebrew in the field, 294.0 fielding runs to -79.0 for Harmon.

Of course, if you look at their entire careers, Jones has the edge in WAR, for sure - 87.5 fWAR to Rolen's 73.9 (84.9 rWAR to Rolen's 66.2) total. So maybe the choice is pretty easy. But maybe it's not. Thanks to his legendary power and excellent on-base marks, Killebrew posted 78.4 fWAR (61.1 rWAR) while never being more than a poor defender at third. Robinson, a decent hitter and legendary defender, accumulated 94.6 fWAR (69.1 rWAR). Obviously each one of these players has different merits to his case, and we can't say Killebrew and Jones (or Robinson and Rolen) are perfect analogues. What we can do, however, is discuss whether we'd rather have a hitter like Killebrew or Jones, or a defender like Robinson or Rolen, playing third base on our hypothetical team. Which is it for you?

17 thoughts on “Friday Fungoes: Hot Corner Hypothetical”

  1. To some degree, it depends on the rest of your team-
    If the team has a bunch of singles hitters, a rangy shortstop and a good left fielder, I'd go with Chipper or Harm.
    If the team has some great hitters, a so-so shortstop and _elm_n playing in left, I'd prefer Brooks or Rolen.

    I think I'd pick the hitter and try to build around him, since I believe it's easier to find good defensive players to play around him than it is to find good offensive play to help score runs.

    1. I've been thinking about doing a "rest of your team" version of this post, provided I can find examples at each position. I have some ideas for second base, shortstop, and center field.

  2. Assuming the player isn't a butcher at the position (e.g. Miguel Cabrera), I would put the best player at the position. I think about -10 runs is the limit where I start to consider the better fielder instead of the better player. I know WAR takes that into account already and I trust its model, I just would prefer to not have such an obvious deficiency.

    1. Dido. I don't want a position player whom Frank Robinson has to shed tears over. Short of that, go with the better WARrior. Chipper and Harmon. (I can haz Mike Schmidt?)

  3. So we'd have them for their entire careers, not just their prime? I'd think it'd be worth it then to compare how each player did at their peak and on the decline.

    Also, salary differences.

    1. We have them for their entire career, no free agency. Veteran minimum for everyone!

      1. Veteran minimum! Yay!

        I still think we'd need to look at year-by-year comparisons and severity of decline, etc. Hypothetically, given reasonably similar career WAR, I'd probably tend towards the more consistent player. Unless for a couple of years I had the rest of my team set up beautifully, then I'd want to line up the guy burning brightest during those years.

        I'm too lazy to go do the research though. So we'll stick with "Chipper is handsome."

  4. My papa always said the best defense was a good offense. Can't win if you don't score. Gimme Chipper.

    Though I agree with a previous caller that it would depend on my team's makeup. If I'm the 1995 Indians, I'd take Rolen at third base over Jim Thome, because we're going to score enough runs anyway.

    1. Feels funny to pick Chipper Jones because of durability. At least more recently, since he played 150+ games 1996-2003.

  5. I'd take the great hitter. As they age, the great hitter can move over to first or DH and still contribute. When the defender ages, his bat won't play at first or DH, so he's pretty much done. Plus, defensive skills tend to go before offensive.

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