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February 15, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
Inspecting the Spectrum, Part I: The Cold Corner, Again
As so often happens, my recent Replacement-Level Killers and Vortices of Suck miniseries have focused my attention on the landscape of offensive production at each position. Back in July, while putting together the midseason Killers, I was struck by just how awful a year it had been for third basemen. Age, injuries, and mysterious slumps had sapped the production of so many hot cornermen that their collective True Average (.253) trailed that of second basemen (.256)—a seven-point swing from the year before, a change that couldn't simply be explained by Chone Figgins' switch in positions. As someone who internalized Bill James' defensive spectrum before I was old enough to drive, this anomaly fascinated me.
For my money, the defensive spectrum ranks among the most useful concepts James introduced during his Baseball Abstract days. Cobbling together from various Abstracts, James defined the spectrum—DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS—as an "an arrangement of defensive positions according to raw abilities needed to learn to play each," with "speed, agility, reaction time, and throwing" the primary ones. His key observation was that offensive ability increases the further left a position sits on the spectrum, due to the selective pressure applied to the talent pool, while defensive ability increases the further to the right a position sits. It's much easier to find players who can hit well while filling the less defensively demanding positions, an observation that has an intuitive appeal for the casual fan, for it explains the seemingly endless supply of big galoots who can mash but wear iron gloves, as well as flyweight middle infielders who can pick it but can't hit their weight.
The spectrum (which has changed over the course of baseball history) also explains why players drift leftward as they age and develop, sometimes long before they reach the major leagues. A high percentage of major leaguers played shortstop or center field during their amateur days, but gravitated to easier positions as they rose through the professional ranks and proved themselves as hitters. James excluded catchers from his spectrum, but they fit on the far right once you let go of speed as a consideration and observe positional drift over time. See Bryce Harper and Jesus Montero for the latest examples, Jayson Werth for a relatively recent high-profile one, and Joe Mauer for a future one.
James' model has numerous applications, whether you're a general manager, a scout, a fantasy player, or a Prospectus writer trying to skate across the February tundra until pitchers and catchers report to spring training. But how well does the model hold up to observation? When he introduced the concept to the masses in the 1982 Abstract, James wasn't relying upon any particular offensive metric to make his point, and a cursory skim through my Abstract library, I can't find where he did so at all. With our more modern tools such as True Average—a total offensive metric that expresses a player's production per out on the scale of batting average—we can check some of his assumptions, and spot inefficiencies in the distribution of talent.
True Average makes clear that reality isn't as neat than James would have you believe. Check this chart of annual TAvs by position—strictly divided up by a player's position while batting, as opposed to where the player generally played over the course of the season, as one would find in our sortable stats—dating back to 1950:
It takes several moments to wander through that messy thicket, but it's worth the time. For starters, note that first base and shortstop tend to rank as the extremes in any given year, but that exceptions exist. From 1950 until the mid-1980s, left field and right field occasionally laid claim to the heavyweight title—particularly during the times of Ted Williams and Hank Aaron—and have been battling vigorously for runner-up status over the entire stretch.
Designated hitters entered the fray in 1973, but have been consistently underperforming relative to their far left position on the spectrum. Only in 1983, when they had an edge of less than one-tenth of a point (.27556 to .27547), did they actually overtake first base, while in 1991 they fell shy by just about the same margin, .2759 to .2758. I’ve got a whole article on that topic (the underperformance, not the fourth-place decimals) in me for the near future. A great deal of the time, DHs haven't even been able to outhit corner outfielders—an oddity that I suspect reflects a split between teams employing more or less full-time DHs like David Ortiz and those who scramble to fill the slot with fourth outfielders or spare infielders intermingling with less-than-fully-healthy position players trying to keep their bats in the lineup.
The center field line is particularly worth following; in the 1950s heyday of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider, the position even outranked first basemen a few times, but as that trio declined, so did the position's production, settling more toward the middle of the pack and jockeying with third base for fifth place during the DH era. Second base and catcher have seemed to mirror each other through the years, with the former finally overtaking the latter as an era of Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter gave way to an era of Ryan Sandberg, Lou Whitaker, and Roberto Alomar. Shortstops went into a lengthy trough from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s—you wonder why I grew up immersed in futility infielders like Mario Mendoza, Doug Flynn, and Pepe Frias—when the likes of Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, and Alan Trammell helped close the gap, while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter lifted them even further.
Such trends are worth closer looks for an article to be named later, but what should be clear is that the gaps between certain positions are small enough that the historical ebb and flow of talent at those positions can alter their relative standing. This might be more clearly illustrated via a smoothed version of the graph above. Here I've used a five-year rolling average:
The inefficiencies are easier to spot. Right fielders, who are generally more defensively skilled than left fielders if only because of their ability to throw, have more or less equaled left fielders in terms of offense for the past 40 years, and have actually been ahead for most of the post 1993-expansion era. Designated hitters, as noted previously, have lagged significantly below expectations, and only begun to achieve some level of parity with corner outfielders since 1993 expansion. Third base, center field, and second base have converged over the past 30 years, though the men in the middle pasture did not go down without a fight. Furthermore, drastic improvements at shortstop and the leveling off at first base have decreased the spread of hitting talent from top to bottom, to the point that it's smaller than it's been at any time in the period:
That shrinking gap is another piece of evidence on how the level of talent in the majors has increased over time. We know that athletes are much better conditioned than in earlier decades, and with the fall of segregation and the increasing number of players from Latin America, Asia, and even Europe and Australia, the player pool is larger than it's ever been, so it shouldn't come as a huge shock that teams are finding shortstops that can hit with more regularity.
Back to the third basemen: By the end of the season, they had recovered their production somewhat, but they didn't overtake second basemen, finishing with a .2567 TAv, compared to .2575 for the second basemen—that's a .0008 gap, folks. Both round to .257, but we know better. For the hot cornermen, that not only represented the first time since 2003 that they'd fallen below the league average of .260, but also their lowest mark since at least 1950, as well as a seven-point falloff from the year before:
That seven-point drop was actually the second-largest at any position; the largest was a massive 12-point drop in left field, to the point that they fell behind center field for the first time since 1966—a topic for another day, I promise. As I asked last July, just what in the name of Larry Wayne Jones is going on?
There were 35 third basemen—here I'm using players who spent the majority of their time at the position rather than a strict breakdown, which may muddy the waters a bit—who had at least 100 plate appearances in both 2010 and 2011. Of those 35:
• Seven improved by 10 points of True Average or more from the previous year. Of those seven, two (Greg Dobbs and Brandon Wood) were sub-replacement level players in 2010 who, even with huge improvements, remained below average in 2011. Another one of the seven, Chase Headley, actually had a lower VORP because his 25-point gain was offset by a 235-plate appearance decrease in playing time due to injury. At 28.5 years of age (weighted by plate appearances), this was the youngest group, with a collective .281 TAv.
• Seven improved by less than 10 points, two of whom (Andy LaRoche and Jose Lopez) were still below replacement level. This group was older at 30.3 years of age, but also the most productive, with a .286 TAv.
• Nobody declined by less than 10 points.
• 21 players—60 percent of the group—declined by more than 10 points. This group was the oldest, at 31.1, and by far the least effective, with a .242 TAv.
One hundred plate appearances in back-to-back seasons is a pretty low bar for playing time, of course, one that doesn't exactly reflect a whole lot of commitment to a struggling player. Raising the bar to 300 PA in both seasons, we see a slightly more normal distribution, with five players increasing by more than 10 points, three by 0-10 points, and 10—just over half—declining by more than 10 points. The two groups were fairly similar in age, 29.4 years for the improvers, 30.0 for the decliners, but with a huge gap in productivity, with a .298 TAv for the former and .252 for the latter. Here are the individuals:
While Sandoval and Ramirez enjoyed particularly strong rebounds, stars like Rodriguez, Wright, and Zimmerman had significant falloffs, though they still managed to be productive. Decent players in 2010 like Polanco, Valencia, Johnson, McGehee, and Inge joined Tejada among the ranks of the undead. Missing from that second set are some aging players who had solid to good 2010 seasons but missed too much time in 2011 due to injury or ineffectiveness to qualify: 37-year-old Casey Blake (.266 to .254), 39-year-old Melvin Mora (.263 to .193), and 36-year-old Scott Rolen (.292 to .246). Youngsters fell off the cliff and lost playing time as well, namely 24-year-old Pedro Alvarez (.269 to .195) and Ian Stewart (.270 to .169).
Missing from the matched sets entirely are players who migrated away from the position and improved such as Jhonny Peralta (.262 playing mostly third base in 2010, .287 as a shortstop in 2011), Michael Young (.267 as a third baseman in 2010, .299 as a DH in 2011), and even Nick Bleeding Punto (.238 as a third baseman in 2010, .293 as a second baseman in 2011), as well as those who migrated to the position and declined like Figgins (.245 as a second baseman in 2010, .199 as a third baseman in 2011), Juan Uribe (.263 as a shortstop in 2010, .205 as a third baseman in 2011), and Kevin Youkilis (.347 as a first baseman in 2010, .297 as a third baseman in 2011). Brett Lawrie’s (.338) and Scott Sizemore’s (.283) arrivals were offset by those of Lonnie Chisenhall (.254) and Mike Moustakas (.251). As the Chippers, A-Rods, Miggys, and Rolens fade, the future of the position is in those newcomers’ hands.
Without going back and creating more matched sets from older years—something that's a pain in the ass for one man and a spreadsheet, but with the PECOTA rollout occupying the data elves this week, my best option on deadline—I strongly suspect that 2011 was something of a perfect storm at the hot corner, a combination of age-related declines, injuries to stars, collapses of non-stars, bad luck in terms of position shifts, and perhaps some regression to the mean after their strongest five-year stretch since the early 1980s.
Drops of such magnitude aren't completely uncommon; over the past decade, they've happened about once every two years. First basemen fell seven points from 2009-2010, catchers dropped eight points from 2006-2007, second basemen fell eight points from 2005-2006, left fielders seven points from 2004-2005, right fielders seven points from 2003-2004, catchers another 10 points from 2000-2001. The left fielders from 2010-2011 are something else, though—something I'll tackle in an upcoming article.