April 14, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Up the Middlemen
It's a timeworn adage that a ballclub must be strong up the middle to win a championship. Spend a few minutes on Google and you'll find decades worth of grizzled baseball men expounding upon the virtues of having above-average players at catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field. A few years ago, Bill James wrote that the importance of strength up the middle was "[p]erhaps the first lick of old baseball wisdom that I ever encountered."
Given the way talent is distributed across what James called the defensive spectrum, which runs 1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C, it makes sense. The positions on the right are the premium ones defensively; the offensive bar is lower than for those on the left. It's much tougher to find above-average hitters to fill the premium defensive slots, and teams are at a considerable advantage when they do.
To examine the importance of this principle, we totaled the offensive and defensive contributions of each team's up-the-middlemen (starters and backups) using Batting Runs Above Average, Fielding Runs Above Average, and (for catchers) Baserunning Runs Against for all teams dating back to 1995. Since these are positions of the highest defensive importance, you might expect the fielding stat—FRAA—to correlate most strongly with winning percentage. Yet FRAA's correlation with winning percentage over that span is a meager .15, while for catchers' strength against the running game, it's -.03—essentially no correlation at all. On the other hand, up-the-middle BRAA correlates with winning percentage at a much stronger .54. Including both BRAA and FRAA edges it up to .57.
Having good hitters up the middle, in other words, is far more important to winning than having good fielders. The reason is simple: the spread between good and bad hitters is far wider than that between good and bad fielders. Teams rarely suffer replacement level fielding for any length of time the way they do subpar hitting.
In the Wild Card era, 18 of the top 25 teams in up-the-middle RAA have made the postseason, 14 as division winners, while just two of the top 25 finished below .500. Cracking the top 15 no less than five times and winning two of the group's three world championships are the Joe Torre-led Yankees, who featured Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and a rotating cast of second basemen; the 2007 edition, with Robinson Cano at second base but without Williams, is among these. Also making the list five times are the Alex Rodriguez-era Mariners, with Ken Griffey Jr. part of four of those teams. The other champion from these ranks is the 2008 Phillies, whose up-the-middle core—Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino—ranked even higher in 2007:
Meanwhile, none of the bottom 59 teams (out of 474) in up-the-middle RAA made the postseason, and just four of the bottom 100 did, with the 2006 Cardinals (Yadier Molina in a down year, plus Aaron Miles and David Eckstein weighing down a late-career Jim Edmonds), who won the World Series despite an 83-78 regular season record, the only champions from among that sorry lot. Only 18 of the bottom 200 teams made the postseason, with four winning it all.
As to the implications for this year's teams, we can use our PECOTA projections for each team's up-the-middle players and our upgraded Playoff Odds Report—which combines this season's results to date with our PECOTA-based team projections—to sense how the contenders stack up:
Most teams, you'll note, get below-average hitting performance from their up-the-middle players; unlike VORP, BRAA isn't adjusted for position, and most teams' production comes primarily from their corner infielders and outfielders. The clear exception is the Rockies: led by Troy Tulowitzki, Chris Iannetta, and Dexter Fowler, Colorado's middlemen project to be the majors' most productive by far, even with their muddled second base situation. Thanks particularly to Tulo, their collection is one of just six who project to be above average with the stick. The Hanley Ramirez-led Marlins contingent (Ramirez, John Buck, Omar Infante, and Chris Coughlin), Yankees, Braves, Diamondbacks, and Phillies are the only other teams with enough above-average bats to lift their mid-diamond collections into the black offensively.
When defense is included in the mix, just five teams project to be above average, with the Rockies and Dodgers the most bona fide contenders of the bunch. Of the teams with at least a 30 percent chance of making the playoffs, seven hail from the upper half of the table, compared to four in the lower half, and none among the bottom seven. Lower the bar to 20 percent and the split is eight and five, with the Tigers (Alex Avila/Victor Martinez, Will Rhymes/Carlos Guillen, Jhonny Peralta, and Austin Jackson) figuring as the closest thing to a contender among the bottom seven.
One area of interest is the cluster of NL Central contenders just above them. The Brewers' pair of abjectly replacement-level middlemen (shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and center fielder Carlos Gomez) offset the presence of Rickie Weeks, but their unit projects to be on par with the Cardinals because of PECOTA's surprisingly low opinion of both Yadier Molina and Colby Rasmus (the latter due to -8 FRAA defense). Just above those two are the Reds, whose offensive advantage from the Ramon Hernandez/Ryan Hanigan catching tandem is offset by the Paul Janish/Edgar Renteria black hole at shortstop. As with Rasmus, PECOTA is particularly down on Drew Stubbs, whose offensive production improved considerably last year, and whose defense is lauded by observers but less so by our forecasting system.
The up-the-middle business only takes you so far. Most offenses' butter-and-egg men (to borrow a term from Vin Scully) come from the infield and outfield corners, and pitching is no small matter either. Still, it's worth remembering that any team whose mid-diamond players step up offensively will considerably boost their team's chances of reaching the playoffs.