Fredi, why is Bonifacio still playing?
By Michael Jong
The question is simple enough.
Fredi, why is Emilio Bonifacio still playing third base for this team?
Going into the season, President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest recognized the Marlins’ biggest hole was their defense. This was evident from watching the club, and the numbers tend to support this premise. The following is the Marlins’ typical lineup, complete with UZR from last year.
SS Hanley Ramirez: -0.7
3B Jorge Cantu: -7.3
1B Mike Jacobs: -13.6
2B Dan Uggla: 1.6
LF Josh Willingham: 1.3
RF Jeremy Hermida: -9.3
CF Cody Ross: 11.3
Admittedly, UZR isn’t a fair assessment for individual players on a year-to-year basis, but you can take a look at FanGraphs totals for the last few years and get three-year values that give accurate picture, one that would likely be quite similar to the one shown here. If you follow the accepted convention that 10 runs = 1 win and that a replacement level player is league-average at his position, the Marlins’ mainstays combined to cost the team 16.7 runs, or about 1.6 wins, over the course of the season. Good defense from reserves like Wes Helms, who played a decent amount because of Mike Jacobs terrible lefty splits, and Alfredo Amezaga, who logged good innings in both CF and SS when Hanley was out with injury, brought the Fish’s UZR totals to a respectable -2.6 runs.
Of course, last year brought the revolution of defense into baseball as clubs found that winning teams like the rejuvenated Tampa Bay Rays and the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies were doing it in part because of their excellent defense (FanGraphs has both those teams at the top of team UZR at around 74 runs, 7.4 wins above average). So the Marlins decided to make some personnel changes around the diamond, the most dramatic being the shipping of Mike Jacobs away to DH for the Kansas City Royals in return for Leo Nunez. This move provided a twofold benefit:
1) It got rid of Jacobs and his sieve-like work at 1B.
2) It moved Cantu away from 3B, where he was highly ineffective, to 1B, where his defensive deficiencies could be hidden.
There was still a question of who would play the other infield corner position. Cantu could have stayed at 3B if the team elected to start Gaby Sanchez, reigning Southern League MVP, at 1B. The club also had Dallas McPherson, who wasn’t the sharpest at 3B but hit 42 HR in Triple-A last year, as an option.
However, the team went with an entirely different route. The club acquired Bonifacio, a light-hitting 24 year old in a deal that sent Scott Olsen and Willingham to the Nationals. They then planted him at 3B, citing his benefits as speed and an improved defensive glove at the hot corner.
Then that magical first week happened, and there were rave reviews abound about the speedster at the top of the lineup.
Since that first week or so, Bonifacio has been terrible. By the end of April, he had a meager .269/.306/.344 line, and that would soon diminish by May. In that month, he posted a horrid .235/.279/.277 line which is scarily close to his current .242/.287/.292 line. He hadn’t hit an extra-base hit since May 15 before last week’s pair of doubles, and he has only 8 extra-base hits all season long.
To put it all together, I’ll use wOBA as a method of describing a player’s level of total offensive performance. According to FanGraphs, Bonifacio has put up a .265 wOBA for the year. Keep in mind of course that a league-average wOBA would be expected to be somewhere around .340. In comparison, Cameron Maybin, who was demoted last month to Triple-A, posted a .261 wOBA.
These hitting woes wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Bonifacio had been playing stellar defense at 3B. But his current UZR is -5.8, meaning he’s costing runs with his bat and his glove. This, along with expected regressions in defense by Uggla, who clearly lacks the range to play 2B, and Ross
This still wouldn’t be all that much of a problem if manager Fredi Gonzalez would shuttle Bonifacio down to eighth in the order. Yet up to last week he was still leading off for the team! I’m not a huge proponent of the subtle benefits of batting order and of certain slots requiring certain things, but I do know that if you’re giving your worst hitter the most plate appearances on your team, you’re not helping your team win games as manager. Manager’s already don’t contribute much on the field; they actually don’t contribute anything directly to the field at all. All they can do is make the right decisions for the club and let the players decide it. Fredi should not be allowing Emilio Bonifacio to be deciding games for this team, neither with his bat nor glove.
It isn’t as if the team doesn’t have options either. They brought up Chris Coghlan from the minors in early May, and I remember Dave Cameron of FanGraphs and USS Mariner fame mentioning that it should signal the end of Bonifacio getting major playing time. Yet we’re a month past and he’s still batting second in the order while Coghlan has moved to left field, a new position for him. If the club wanted to play players with nothing in the way of bats, why not move Brett Carroll to LF, where his superior glove could help out the struggling outfield defense. At least in this situation, Fredi wouldn’t be tempted to give Brett Carroll a leadoff spot because of his “speed,” and Carroll would bring more than lip service to the team’s defense. They could try Coghlan at third, where he might have more success, and see if he’s worth a long-term look, especially with Dan Uggla’s ever-growing arbitration salary.
It’s mind-boggling how managers can fall in love with speed at the top of the lineup and ignore the most important things about hitters at the top of the lineup. The old adage says “you can’t steal first” and only a select few hitters can claim otherwise (Ichiro comes to mind). Emilio Bonifacio is not Ichiro.