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The White Sox’s Third Base Conundrum

by Adam Kaplan

The 2022 White Sox haven’t had the season they thought they were going to have. They’ve been at the bottom of the league in most offensive categories while also struggling on the defensive side as well at times. Pursuant to Baseball Savant, the Pale Hose are 26th (out of 30) in Outs Above Average at -14 Runs Prevented. Per Fangraphs’ defensive rating, the Sox rank 28th.

The White Sox struggling both offensively and defensively make their decision on who should play third base quite the conundrum. The obvious debate among most Sox fans has been the one between Yoan Moncada – who has struggled in limited action- and Jake Burger – who has broken onto the scene this season. Moncada is a rebuild cornerstone, while Jake Burger is trying to make himself one. How should the White Sox proceed?


Jake Burger at Third

Because of how incredibly Jake Burger has been hitting recently, Burger’s bat absolutely needs to be in the lineup no matter what, so it would make sense that he should play at his, in theory, natural position of third.

However, Jake Burger has his flaws defensively. Per Baseball Savant, Burger is in the 15th percentile in Outs Above Average (OAA), and ranks 32nd (out of 37) among all qualified third basemen with -2 Runs Prevented.

For example, take Thursday, June 9th game against the Dodgers. Dylan Cease was on the mound in the Top of the fifth. Runners are at first and second with one out in the inning. Cease induced a ground ball that had Double Play written all over it, hit to Jake Burger. Instead:

Later that same game:

Jake Burger somewhat made up for his defensive struggles by going 2-for-4 in the game with a home run. However, in the next two games played, Burger was the team’s designated hitter.


Yoán Moncada at Third

Yoán Moncada has the reverse problem of Jake Burger – he’s good defensively, but has struggled offensively. In some respects, Moncada has been among the league’s worst hitters, which is a far cry from where he has been in seasons past.

Even with Moncada’s offensive shortcomings, he’s been above average defensively. He ranks ninth among qualified third basemen in OAA with +1 Run Prevented.

However, even with improved defense at third base, Yoán Moncada in the lineup still does not necessarily maximize the White Sox defensively because it pushes Jake Burger to DH. This is because the Sox also need to have Andrew Vaughn’s bat in the lineup, and if Burger is at DH, that means Vaughn has to play in the outfield. The issue here: Vaughn’s defense in the outfield is worse than Burger’s defense at third.

This is Andrew Vaughn’s StatCast card:

Vaughn is in the 1st percentile in OAA and Outfield Jump. Among 268 fielders, Vaughn is 267th in OAA at -7 Runs Prevented. 268 is Detroit’s Jonathan Villar, who mainly plays in the infield for them. Vaughn’s defense likely passes “The Eye Test” because his speed prevents him from getting to a lot of baseballs – in turn, fans process these as well-hit balls to the outfield, rather than catchable baseballs.


Josh Harrison at Third

The White Sox still have the same defensive problem of Andrew Vaughn being forced to play the outfield if Josh Harrison plays third (because Jake Burger still DH’s), but this is in theory should be better than Yoán Moncada at third if you believe in Josh Harrison’s bat.

Even though Josh Harrison has gotten off to a slow start to the 2022 season, his bat is still even the slightest of improvements over Yoan Moncada. The problem is that Harrison is not lighting the world on fire either. Harrison’s triple slash line on the year is .181/.256/.284, good for a wRC+ of 58. Part of Harrison’s offensive issues could be that he’s not getting consistent playing time and at-bats – if Tony La Russa makes Harrison the everyday third baseman, could his bat improve?

That being said, even if Harrison performs more like his career triple slash line of .265/.322/.396, his OAA at third base this year at an even zero runs prevented. It’s not clear if the total value Harrison will bring to the table will not only offset Andrew Vaughn’s defensive play but also the negative value Leury García will bring to the team.

In this scenario, Harrison starting at third every day means García is the team’s everyday second baseman. If Harrison plays third, the alternative to Garcia at second base is Jake Burger playing over there – another popular take by Sox fans – but Burger’s defense might end up being worse than at third, negating the pros of this potential format.

Still, the idea of Harrison at third base, Burger at second base, and Vaughn at designated hitter is intriguing. It would relegate Yoán Moncada to the bench (or maybe an IL stint and some time in AAA to get out of the funk he’s in). Harrison at third base, Burger at second base, and Vaughn not playing defense at all is probably the Sox’s current best combination of not being THAT bad defensively while still having good bats in the lineup. The hope is that Burger is able to keep up his bat while playing second and that consistent playing time does in fact help Josh Harrison at the plate.


Danny Mendick at Third

This is just a variation of Harrison at third base, Burger at second base, and Vaughn at designated hitter, though replace Harrison with Mendick once Tim Anderson comes back healthy.

Although, this scenario requires Mendick to consistently keep up the offensive pace he’s currently on and consistently positive defense once he moves to third (or at least not negative value).

As of June 12, Mendick’s bat needs to be in the lineup every day, even with TA healthy. On the season, he’s slashing .290/.329/.464, good for a wRC+ of 127. It’s great that this hot streak is coinciding with TA’s IL stint, but Mendick got hot right after Nick Madrigal went down for the year in 2021, and was ultimately never able to recover. His 2021 struggles were part of the reason the Sox ended up trading for César Hernández. As a result, there’s room for doubt when it comes to Danny Mendick’s past few weeks.

Further, Danny Mendick hasn’t been the greatest defender this year. While he was an AL Gold Glove nominee at second base in 2020, he’s in the 24th percentile in OAA in 2022. Among all players with at least ten games at second base, Danny Mendick ranks 58th of 83 in OAA with -1 Runs Prevented, and among SS with the same qualifier, Mendick is 41st of 81, with zero Runs Prevented.

Danny Mendick doesn’t have the greatest arm either. Fangraphs grades it at 50 – meaning it’s average. The reason this is potentially important is that even if he does have the infield defensive range, it wouldn’t optimize his skill set being the Sox’ everyday third baseman.

Danny Mendick would need to be better than Josh Harrison going forward (which may be possible) and Jake Burger would need to keep up his offensive pace while not being a detriment at second base (which he very well might be) in order for this solution to be viable. There are a lot of “ifs” for this scenario to work out well in a season where luck hasn’t seemed to break the White Sox’ way.


Conclusion

Below is a graph of the fWAR of several White Sox players this season:

PLAYERfWAR
Leury García-0.7
Yoán Moncada-0.6
AJ Pollock-0.5
Josh Harrison-0.3
Danny Mendick0.4
Andrew Vaughn0.4
Adam Engel0.4
Jake Burger0.9

Even with their below-average defensive plays, Andrew Vaughn and Jake Burger are some of the Sox leaders in fWAR. It shouldn’t be surprising considering how much Fangraphs values offense over defense, as their evaluation system believes that offense is more important to runs scored than defense. For example, Tim Anderson leads all position players on the Sox in fWAR at 2.1, despite missing a decent amount of time and being in the 24th percentile in OAA. That’s because his offense so far has made him a borderline AL MVP candidate.

As such, in theory, the White Sox can live with the below-average defensive play of Vaughn and Burger, since they are both doing so well offensively. Though, the Sox are still struggling defensively, and should still try and put themselves in the best defensive position possible. As such, that means the best solution for Andrew Vaughn is one that finds him taking the majority of the designated hitter at-bats. As a result, that means Jake Burger needs to play defense. We’ve all seen the videos of him working out at second base over the offseason, but even knowing this and understanding the White Sox’ predicament, the best scenario at current is any one that puts Burger at third base.

That being said, an outfield of Luis Robert, Adam Engel, and Andrew Vaughn, Jake Burger at DH, Josh Harrison at 3B, and Danny Mendick at 2B could be a convincing alternative. While Andrew Vaughn’s defense still leaves something to be desired, that construction still might be the best overall value to the team.

Once Yoán Moncada figures out his slump, this will likely be a moot point, and Jake Burger will be getting the majority of the designated hitter reps. But, for right now, it’s Jake Burger’s time.


What do you think? How do you think the Chicago White Sox should handle their third base position going forward?


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Featured Image: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports


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