This is the latest great debate, outside of whether the Astros should trade Hunter Pence, if realignment makes sense and what to do with Hunter Pence. Still, the question of who should be starting at third base has been simmering for a while now.
Since last summer, when Chris Johnson was called back up and locked down third base for the rest of the season, he's been the assumed starter. He's got a ton of power potential, as he can hit home runs over the train tracks with ease. The problem is that Johnson never showed much of a track record in the minors to hit for that kind of power, even if he did have the potential for it.
Matt Downs had a nice career in the minors for San Francisco, but couldn't break through on the big league team. He didn't hit much in a short stint with the big league team and was taken off the 40-man roster, which is when Houston plucked him off waivers. He's played in a part-time role this season for Houston and shown a penchant for hitting home runs.
Johnson is playing in his Age 26 season, but is just seven months younger than Downs, who turned 27 on March 19. Neither could be considered a prospect any more and have similar upside in the starting lineup. So, what we're really talking about is whether Downs can hit better than Johnson enough while their defensive abilities equal each other. Let's look further at the comparison to see what's what.
CJ has now played in 169 major league games, accounting for 640 plate appearances. We're not talking about a small sample size now, though it will take some time to see what kind of major league hitter he will become. His line is less than impressive at .275/.308/.438, though his total of 17 home runs is decent for a single-season total at third base. As I've said before, there aren't very many third baseman in franchise history that have hit 18 or more homers in a season.
His biggest problem is that he's not very good defensively. He's got negative-20.5 Fielding Runs, according to FanGraphs and negative-29 Defensive Runs Saved over the past two seasons. He's also got -1.6 defensive WAR over that same period, according to Baseball Reference. Third base is a tough position to play, but by any measure, Johnson hasn't been very good.
That's similar to what Geoff Blum accomplished in the field over his final two seasons at third for Houston, but that's not a ringing endorsement. But, it's much worse than many of the third basemen Houston has employed in the past 10 years. Morgan Ensberg was no Gold Glover, but his metrics were much better than Johnson has put up, as were Vinny Castilla's. Even Ty Wigginton, who was somewhat stretched playing at the hot corner, didn't have as bad defensive numbers in Houston as Johnson has.
Downs is a more interesting case. With San Francisco, he played only second base in the majors, but did play third and first in the minors for the Giants. Of course, he only played 131 games at third in the minors, so we don't have a huge sample size to work with. For that matter, we have even less to go off of in the majors. He's played in 88 2/3 innings at third for Houston and has -2 Defensive Runs Scored at the position. If we average that out to 500 innings, that's -11 DRS, which is not good, but it's better than Johnson.
The thing about Downs is, while he's not a good fielder, he's better than Johnson overall. His dWAR at Baseball Reference is just a notch below 0.0 in each of the past three seasons. It's not promising, but it's good enough to hold the line if necessary.
So, we can reasonably assume that Matt Downs would be a better fielding third baseman than CJ. That leaves us with the bats. What have we seen out of them to show whether Downs deserves the shots.
Johnson has some big holes in his offensive game. His walk rate is pitifully low at 3.8 percent for his major league career and 3.1 percent this season. He's also only got a .163 isolated power average in the major leagues, which is low for his potential, but right in line with his minor league numbers and the projections by ZiPS for the rest of his season.
Downs has a pretty good walk rate overall, both in the majors or the minors, and it more than triples Johnson's at 10.3 for his major league career. That's a little higher than what he's shown in the minors, but based on that track record, we could peg it right around 8 percent. If Downs was able to sustain that, it'd be the third or fourth highest on the team.
He's also shown more power potential in the minors and majors. Downs' ISO has hovered around .190 in the majors and minors. It's had quite a bit of fluctuation, but there's enough evidence to assume it can stick there if he's given more playing time. That's still higher than Johnson, even if Downs doesn't have the power pedigree of CJ.
But, the fact is, Downs has two minor league seasons where he hit more total home runs than Johnson has ever hit at any level. I'm not saying he'll be as good, but there is certainly enough evidence of his power in the minors to assume that Downs could match what Johnson has done.
If Downs will walk more than Johnson and hit for about the same power, plus add better (if not good) defense at third, shouldn't he get a shot? I like the suggestion that Downs may start at second once Kepp is traded, but what to do until then? Should Houston install Downs at third and send Johnson down to play every day?
This isn't the biggest problem with the offense, so it's probably not a question that will get answered soon. But, I think there's a pretty compelling case to say that Downs should be starting at third.