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April 22, 2004

Breaking Balls

Strength Up The Middle

by Derek Zumsteg

You have to be strong offensively up the middle to win championships.

I hear this all the time. The theory is that it's harder to find premium players at catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field, and that once you've done so, finding the fill-in guys around the edges is much easier. This seems to make sense at first glance: There are so many guys in the majors (and minors) that could play a decent left field while hitting well that teams have to stack them like cordwood outside their Triple-A parks. And 1B/DH types are so plentiful it's silly.

But has that worked lately? The best way to look at the larger question of team construction would be to look at every team and find out how well up-the-middle strength correlated with wins. But I'm more interested in the narrower question of whether being strong up the middle is an absolute requirement for a team to win the championship.

I looked at the last six league champions to see how they rated offensively up the middle. The results:


2003
NL, Florida Marlins
C:  Ivan Rodriguez, 45.7 VORP
2B: Luis Castillo, .38.6 VORP
SS: Alex Gonzalez, 24.4 VORP
CF: Juan Pierre, 32.0 VORP
Total VORP up the middle: 140.7

That's good overall up the middle, led by a comeback year from Pudge, but it's not all that impressive.

AL, New York Yankees
C:  Jorge Posada, 55.9
2B: Alfonso Soriano, 58.3
SS: Derek Jeter, 47.4
CF: Bernie Williams, 22.9
Total VORP up the middle: 184.5

The Yankees got four more games in the standings out of the bats in premium defensive spots, though this raises an obvious follow-up, which is how much they gave back defensively with that crew (answer: about 25 runs).

2002
NL, Giants
C:  Benito Santiago, 30.5
2B: Jeff Kent, 83.8
SS: Rich Aurilia, 21.1
CF: Tsuyoshi Shinjo, 2.7 and Kenny Lofton, 9.9
Total VORP up the middle: 148

That's Marlins-good, but I want to note that Barry Bonds was worth 146.6 runs over a replacement player in 2002. Bonds was worth more to that Giants team than all the contributions from a pretty good World Champion team the next year. Geez, that guy is good.

AL, Angels
C:  Ben Molina, -9.8
2B: Adam Kennedy, 31.5
SS: David Eckstein, 29.2
CF: Darin Erstad, 11.2
Total VORP up the middle: 62.1

And they won it all. This team's offense came from traditional sources: right field (Tim Salmon), left field (Garret Anderson), and DH (Brad Fullmer), and third base (Troy Glaus), historically a fairly rich offensive position, now less so.

2001
NL, Diamondbacks
C:  Damian Miller, 22.4
2B: Jay Bell, 13.5
SS: Craig Counsell, 11.5
CF: Steve Finley, 19.4
Total VORP up the middle: 53.3

Wow, if you thought the 2002 Angels were weak up the middle, here's another step down. This team had a weak offense overall with only one strong player in Luis Gonzalez, who was worth 100.5 VORP in left field.

AL, Yankees
C:  Jorge Posada, 45.8
2B: Alfonso Soriano, 22.5
SS: Derek Jeter, 71.2
CF: Bernie Williams, 65.8
Total VORP up the middle: 205.8

(whistling) Boy, that was a sweet season for Jeter.

It's funny, too, that when it comes to the World Series, the last three have been won by the team with the weaker offensive players at the premium offensive positions. That means nothing, of course. For the 1998-2000 Yankees, all World Series champs, Chuck Knoblauch replaces Soriano with, uh, limited results, but they still were way, way more powerful interior-wise than their opponents.

In the NL, the 2000 Mets had Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo (who hit .324/.425/.542 that year! Half his games at Shea!), Mike Bordick, and Jay Payton--overall, a pretty good unit. The 1999 Braves had a bad set: Eddie Perez, Bret Boone pre-off-season weight-training revival, Walt Weiss, and Andruw Jones, of which only Jones was an asset in the batting lineup. The 1998 Padres featured Carlos Hernandez, Quilvio Veras, Chris Gomez and Steve Finley. Highest OBP of those guys was Veras, at .373, but his slugging percentage was .356. Highest slugging percentage, you wonder? Finley's .401. That is not a productive unit, even adjusting for the pitcher-friendly environment of Qualcomm Stadium.

Anyway, you can see clearly that championship teams don't have to be strong up the middle. Oh, it's nice. If I was starting a team, I'd take Yankees shortstop-in-waiting Alex Rodriguez and go from there. But if I can't get Alex, and I want to win this year, maybe I take Barry Bonds. While it may be easier to assemble a championship team when you have premium talent up the middle, it's also much harder to find those guys, too. One of the greatest qualities of baseball is that there are so many ways to build a great team. Even more than building on pitching over offense, or starters over relievers, teams that can't sign or develop quality middle infielders can still find ways to put pennants up in their home parks.

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