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January 25, 2013
In A Pickle
My pet peeve as a consumer of writing on and analysis of baseball is a failure to properly employ a sensible baseline. This frequently occurs via the writer not applying any baseline at all, instead presenting statistics or other performance indicators denuded of context. In Hall of Fame arguments, what does it mean that Bert Blyleven won 287 games? Is that a lot, given the era he played in, the teams he was a part of, the number of games he started? What about Fred McGriff's 493 home runs? What do these numbers mean?
Or think about the ways MVP arguments sometimes proceed, where one candidate has a .390 on-base percentage and another has a .580 slugging and a third stole 42 bases at an 82 percent clip and a fourth had a 2.30 ERA in 210 innings. Do you know who to vote for in this scenario? It depends on what year it is, right?
Sometimes the second scenario arises because the writer is unsophisticated and does not recognize that numbers are meaningless without an anchor. Sometimes, though, there's an implied baseline that's theoretically common knowledge among readers, which is fine if you know who your readers are. A lot of us basement blogger types don't feel the need to reiterate every time we write what a good TAv is or how many WARP is enough WARP to be happy.
I've cheated. In that last sentence, I intentionally chose stats that are entirely designed to be comparable across eras. The baseline for TAv, for instance, is defined rather than empirically determined. For other stats, however, the league context changes. If we're not careful, if we don't keep our eye on the ball, offense can nose-dive and strikeouts can shoot through the ceiling and we can find ourselves impressed by Wei-Yin Chen's 7.2 whiffs per nine while missing that his strikeout percentage was actually below average for the year. Or we could get frustrated at Mark Ellis's mediocre .258/.333/.364 batting line without recognizing that he was actually seven points above the league average for second basemen in True Average.
Luckily, we have a report right here on this website that tells you positional batting lines back to 1950 so you can always figure out for yourself whether that first baseman in 1974 was a stud or a doofus. (Probably doofus. Have you seen 1974?)
What that report doesn't do is put a recognizable human face to the batting lines, and that's the service I'm here to provide. In this article, then, is 2012's All Mr. Average team, where I've chosen players as close as possible to the MLB-average line for their position by TAv, with an emphasis on finding someone who fits the average slash line, because the shape of average performance matters and because players in extreme parks who have perfectly average TAvs can confound the mental model more than they clarify: if I tell you that Everth Cabrera is a league-average shortstop with the stick, you might get the impression that league shortstops slugged .324. Shortstops can't hit, but they're not that bad. More importantly, Cabrera isn't that bad, either—Petco Park is just killer, especially for someone who bats lefty (or who, like Cabrera, bats lefty more than 70 percent of the time).
I also want to note that what we're not talking about is the average full-time starter. That would result in substantially higher lines by virtue of dumping out the garbage -- the teams that never find a solution at the position and shuffle through mediocrity all year, for instance, and the teams that lose their starter for significant periods of time and have to give many times more at-bats to inferior backups than they'd hoped. No, what we're talking about is the performance the league saw at that position in the aggregate—starters, backups, platoons, weird one-game appearances by out-of-position players, emergency Triple-A callups who shouldn't even be in the majors, the whole shebang. The point here isn't to advocate for the players below as a value proposition (among other things, we're not considering defense and baserunning)—it's, as I noted above, simply to put a human face and a human body and a human swing mechanic on the abstract set of numbers that represents average.
(The slash lines here are AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv.)
First base: .262/.336/.442/.278
As it is, as it was, as it ever shall be, you'd better bop if you want to play the cold corner. The only question, from year to year and decade to decade, is what "bop" means, exactly.
The 2012 answer to that question is embodied in Bryan LaHair, who hit .259/.334/.450/.276. This is of course hilarious because Bryan LaHair won't even be in Major League Baseball next year, having signed a two-year deal to play in Fukuoka. (That's in Japan.) Obviously, splits have something to say about that (.202/.269/.303 in the second half. That would be above-average for a pitcher), which is also unfortunate from the perspective of visualizing "average": LaHair was never average. He was either stunningly and weirdly good (for like a month) or he was awful, not even playable (all the rest). If you can, though, put the whole package together in your head-organ, because Bryan LaHair is what an average first baseman looks like.
Second base: .257/.318/.383/.254
Danny Espinosa played 126 games at second (and 36 at short) and led the league in strikeouts. He also hit .247/.315/.402/.255 and spent most of the year batting sixth or seventh (but never eighth). I honestly don't know what to tell you about Espinosa, which is kind of the danger about centering a column around the question of "who is the most average." It can get boring!
Wait, wait, where are you going? Come back. I promise I'll make it worth your while.
Here, look, Espinosa is sometimes heavily bearded. Keep that in mind about average second basemen. Beards.
It doesn't happen every year, but shortstops didn't fall very far from second basemen in 2012, despite no Robinson Cano–level talent buoying the entire position.
There aren't great options at short for our all-average team, mainly because the aforementioned Cabrera and Brandon Crawford straddle the mean True Average, but both play in run-suppressing parks, so their slash lines are misleading. Instead, look at Jhonny Peralta: .239/.305/.384/.244. Peralta had his worst year with the bat since 2006 and, for what it's worth to this discussion, doesn't appear to be able to play much defense anymore, either. He also stole one base in three tries. For all that, though, he was basically league-average as long as he was within a few inches of home plate, so do what you can to avoid the overall package from infecting your view of his hitting.
At the low-offense positions, an exercise like this can hammer home more than anything a concrete illustration of positional scarcity.
Third base: .266/.327/.427/.269
Third basemen hit like outfielders this year. I hope that this sentence creates delightful daydreams of Miguel Cabrera playing center.
Our league-average guy, though, is, shockingly, not Cabrera, but Hanley Ramirez: .246/.322/.428/.267. (Note that this is his Miami line, not his full season.) Like Peralta, Ramirez has seen better days. Like Peralta, Ramirez is probably not a shortstop, defensively. (He may not even be a third baseman—FRAA put him nearly 13 runs below average at the position in just 790 1/3 innings in Miami.)
And like Peralta, Ramirez has a perfectly average bat for his position. Or I guess for the position he played more often in 2012, since it appears that he's a shortstop again and damn the incredible number of seeing-eye singles and/or torpedoes. Either way, if you're thinking about third base league-wide and your mind's eye goes to the bad version of Hanley Ramirez, you're doing it right.
Honestly, the second basemen should be ashamed of themselves, getting outhit by catchers.
Our most average catcher by a systematic accounting of which player had his stat line fall closest to the ideal is Martin Maldonado, but since nobody knows what Martin Maldonado is or does, let me note Russell Martin: .211/.311/.403/.255. The batting average was low in 2012, but that's out of character, and the rest of the line is a dead ringer.
The other reason I like Martin is because, despite being a famous scouting success story of someone who didn't catch until he was already a professional ballplayer, he's my archetype of a catcher. He's compact and solidly built and he does this with his lips a lot. He's a catcher. It's nice how that worked out.
Left field: .261/.326/.431/.270
Left field is classically for bopping lumberers (it's where the A's stuck Jason Giambi briefly when first base and designated hitter were blocked up with Mark McGwire and Geronimo Berroa/Jose Canseco), but these days, the Jason Kubels are less prominent than the Melky Cabreras and Alex Gordons and Ryan Ludwicks and Carlos Gonzalezes. Defensive stats don't love these players all equally, but they're not Jason Giambi.
Unfortunately, Captain Average in left field is harder to find than examples of Captain ... uh, Captain Athletic And Good At Defense Or At Least Better Than Jason Giambi At It. The best I can do for you, discarding Juan Pierre and Daniel Nava for being too OBP-heavy and Michael Morse and Carl Crawford (weirdly) for having too much power, is point out Dayan Viciedo's .255/.300/.444/.266 line. Viciedo is beefy and in certain ways looks like what a left fielder "should" be, but one suspects "most average" is not what White Sox fans hoped for in that respect. And yet Chicago, led by Viciedo, saw their left field amalgamation outhit those of Detroit and Tampa Bay, each of which teams won at least 88 games in 2012.
Center field: .265/.330/.418/.271
The center field offensive renaissance/corner outfield offensive stagnation has been noted in a variety of places. We will not rehash it here. Except to the extent we already have by having this paragraph.
Shane Victorino played mostly left pasture in Los Angeles, but before he was traded there, he was the everyday center-man in Philadelphia, where he hit .261/.324/.401/.272. Pretend Victorino's mad 2011 never happened and this line is more or less what you get from his entire career. This is what he is: uninspiring in most phases of the game (don't sneeze at 39 steals in 45 attempts in 2012, though) and a completely reasonable hitter for center field.
The only thing that gives me pause about choosing Victorino as our representation of average is that I'd wager that 58 percent of you think only of these when I say his name. Just try not to. Think of him batting. Try!
Right field: .262/.327/.434/.273
Well, hell, that's basically exactly left field. Unfortunately, the crop of available players is exactly like left field, too—Tyler Colvin has too much slugging because of his park and Gregor Blanco doesn't slug at all, for instance.
In the end, here's what I'm running with: imagine the guy halfway between David DeJesus (.263/.350/.403/.273) and Nelson Cruz (.260/.319/.460/.274). This person was born in the ocean somewhere in the vicinity of Bermuda (which is the closest thing I can find between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic), goes about six feet, 215 pounds, and, I don't know, is married to someone he loves very much. Look, dammit, this Doctor Moreau stuff is hard. You try it.
I'm skipping designated hitter because it's not so much a position that people play as a spot that gives a manager flexibility in half-resting his regulars, rotating reserves through the lineup, and playing matchups. This is also not a new observation—I mention it only to explain why I'm not mentioning it.
One of the tenets that sabermetric-ish writers have focused on over the years is the idea that average is good. If you have a team full of average players, you're going to win a lot. You'd like to have stars, sure, but you'd really like not to spend money and roster spots and playing time on the dregs of the league.
As I noted in the introduction, most of the above players are not actually average overall (Hanley Ramirez, for instance, kills his value with his LOLfense, while Nelson Cruz, at least by FRAA, brings the noise in a good way), but I'd hope that this recitation of the list of average hitters does reinforce the appreciation we have for the positive value of average.