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July 29, 2007

Future Shock

Positional Differences

by Kevin Goldstein

I talk a lot about positional expectations when discussing prospects, and although it's a fairly vague idea, it comes with some logic behind it. Obviously, a first base prospect has to hit more to make it than a shortstop does, or a center fielder who has to move to a corner needs to provide more offense to offset the change in positions. These are obvious things, but what happens when we try to quantify the logic behind these generally accepted rules?

To try to get a feel for each position, I compiled (or more accurately, I had William Burke compile for me) the statistics for the 30 players at each position with the most starts at that position over the last three seasons. That let us eliminate players who had jobs here and there, but are not purely defined as starters-guys in just because of injuries or bad planning-and instead lets us focus solely on guys who have jobs year in and year out. For each position, we then calculated the average players at each position, as well as splitting them into four groups, with some overlap-three sets of 10 (Top 10, Middle 10, Bottom 10), and then just the top five, or the 'elite' players at the position.

Let's start by looking at the average lineup. For these purposes, I use my own version of statistical notation, which instead of 162 games is 675 plate appearances, and 600 for catchers.


POS  AB  H  2B 3B HR BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG
C   541 147 30  1 15 45  83  3  2 .272 .332 .415
1B  586 166 36  2 27 75 109  3  2 .283 .369 .490
2B  606 170 34  4 14 52  90 12  4 .281 .342 .421
3B  600 167 36  3 22 61 106  9  3 .277 .347 .458
SS  612 170 33  5 14 48  93 18  6 .278 .334 .415
LF  597 167 35  4 24 65 110 12  4 .281 .354 .471
CF  604 168 31  6 17 55 101 23  7 .278 .342 .435
RF  597 167 35  3 23 64 108  9  4 .280 .353 .461

So that's your Joe Average squad. It's pretty clear that even with just a league-average pitching staff, this team would still win significantly more than 81 games, as this team was able to get full-time work out of every starter, rarely having to use backups. That said, there's no superstar on the team, nobody slugging over .500 or reaching base at more than a .370 clip. Still, it's a nasty lineup with no easy outs. The most interesting aspect of this set for me was the batting average, with all eight positions falling within a ten-point range from .272-.281. That tells me that it's the secondary skills that make all the difference.

A quick matrix using only OPS shows the differences between the positions, and how a switch of positions for a prospect might affect offensive expectations.

TO/FROM   C    1B   2B   3B   SS   LF   CF   RF
C        ---  110   14   57    1   77   29   67
1B      -110  ---  -96  -53 -109  -33  -81  -43
2B       -14   96  ---   43  -13   63   15   53
3B       -57   53  -43  ---  -56   20  -28   10
SS        -1  109   13   56  ---   76   28   66
LF       -77   33  -63  -20  -76  ---  -48  -10
CF       -29   81  -15   28  -28   48  ---   38
RF       -67   43  -53  -10  -66   10  -38  ---

Basically, you read this from left to right. If you have an average offensive catcher and you move him to first base, he needs to gain 110 points of OPS in his projection in order to be considered an average performer at his new position.

Now, if we go to the elite group, things change a bit. Here's your average elite player-again, average of the top five players at each position:


POS  AB  H  2B 3B HR BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG
C   528 159 34  2 19 61  78  3  1 .301 .375 .478
1B  572 176 36  1 39 92 115  6  2 .307 .405 .581
2B  600 180 42  2 22 59  99 14  5 .300 .367 .496
3B  588 184 39  2 35 75 110 11  3 .313 .394 .564
SS  609 194 38  5 18 54  92 17  6 .318 .377 .482
LF  573 176 37  3 33 88 118  7  2 .307 .402 .557
CF  594 168 30  4 28 67 108 19  4 .282 .359 .492
RF  588 176 35  1 29 74  94 14  4 .300 .380 .510

This is stud city, obviously, and it's no surprise that power shows up in spades; it's the biggest difference between the merely good and the truly great players. A less obvious point of difference is the gap between average, good, and great players for each position, which becomes greater as we move into the impact players. Here's a chart showing the average OPS for each positions three groupings, as well as the top five. I realize that OPS is far from the perfect statistic, but I'm using it for a couple of reasons: it's easy to calculate and understand, and it's position-neutral, which is key for what we are doing here.


POS   BAD  AVG  GOOD ELITE
C     666  748  826  853
1B    758  858  952  987
2B    702  762  820  862
3B    718  805  902  958
SS    666  749  829  859
LF    745  825  915  959
CF    691  777  837  851
RF    766  815  867  890

Looking at this information, we can turn to what it means for a couple of notable position-switch players. First, let's consider the lot of Pirates prospect Neil Walker: Walker moved from catcher to third base prior to the season. He's responded with his best year with the bat, hitting .293/.361/.481 for Double-A Altoona. For the sake of argument, let's say that's a reasonable expectation from Walker in the big leagues. Defense notwithstanding, that batting line would put him among the elite catchers in all of baseball, but as a third baseman, he's merely above-average, and 60 points of OPS below where the average is for the top 10 players at the position. The gap between positions tends to increase as players get better as well. In other words, Walker needs an OPS that is 57 points higher to be considered an average offensive third baseman as opposed to an average catcher, but the difference between him and good ones is 76 points, and elite, 105 points. So, while he's grown, he really could stand to improve even further.

Next, consider the plight of Cubs prospect Tyler Colvin. I'm going to pick on Colvin here because I just talked to a scout about him, who questioned whether or not he has the skills for center field, but this could really apply to any minor league outfielder who might have to move to a corner in the end, of which there are many. Now, Colvin's had a very good year, reaching Double-A in his first full season, and he's batting .294/.321/.477 overall. That said, he has an aggressive approach and is more of a gap hitter as opposed to any future power threat who's going to hit 30+ home runs a year. Taking his current batting line, he'd be above-average offensively as a center fielder, enough to be considered one of the betters ones around, but if he's forced to a corner, and most likely right field because of his plus arm, he's suddenly a liability with the bat and a below-average player for the position.

In the face of these kinds of normal moves, from a difficult position to an easier one, there's the example of Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson. Johnson's that rare incidence of someone going the other way. In his rookie campaign in the majors he was a left fielder, but he'd come up through the Braves' system as a shortstop, and while his range wasn't good enough to keep him there, moving him back into the infield by converting him to second base greatly increases his value, and in terms of helping shore up the lineup, it has been a key to the Braves season. Currently batting .288/.388/.477, Johnson would still be above-average in left field, but still well behind many players at the position, but those numbers put him in the elite class of hitters at second base.

So, you may want to clip that chart and laminate it, and refer to it any time a player makes a position change.

---

A huge debt of gratitude goes to William Burke for his assistance on the data for this article.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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