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This week, for Effectively Wild, Ben and I were asked this by listener Steve:

If there was a team of all catchers, and also a team of all first basemen, and each of the nine position players (ignoring the DH). Which of the nine teams would you think to be the best?

Considering we have been asked nearly every variation of this question at some point (all catchers vs. all pitchers; all Kershaws vs. all Trouts; etc.) I might as well answer it. What follows is inconclusive, because I invite you to suggest corrections to my presumed lineups, but once said corrections have been suggested, considered, and, when appropriate, implemented, the results will be conclusive. Each player must have played at least 50 percent of his games last season at the team to which he is assigned. Finally, we're naming a DH for each team, but we're not going so far as to assume the pitcher won't hit. Consider the DH to be in parentheses.

Bracket style:

Slow People Region

Catchers

  • 1B: J. Lucroy
  • 2B: Y. Gomes
  • 3B: S. Perez
  • SS: B. Posey
  • LF: E. Gattis
  • CF: R. Martin
  • RF: J. Jaso
  • C: Y. Molina
  • DH: D. Mesoraco
  • P: D. Butera

vs.

First Basemen

  • 1B: J. Abreu
  • 2B: J. Mauer
  • 3B: E. Encarnacion
  • SS: J. Baker
  • LF: B. Belt
  • CF: P. Goldschmidt
  • RF: N. Swisher
  • C: S. Vogt
  • DH: M. Cabrera
  • P: C. Davis

As much as possible, these assignments intend to represent a proven concept: Vogt, for instance, can catch. We know this, because he has already. In some cases, the concept has been only briefly attempted, as with Butera and Davis, with (we hope) good results. Sometimes these attempts are extremely dated, as with Buster Posey at shortstop. And sometimes we make assumptions: Jeff Baker played second base last year, so I'm comfortable saying he's probably better at shortstop than, say, Prince Fielder, even though I haven't seen either play shortstop.

Anyway, in this case the only clear structural advantage the catchers get—it's tough as hell to catch, and most humans can't do it—is undone by the presence of Vogt. Molina is probably four wins better than Vogt, as a catcher, but there is no other position at which the catchers have an obvious advantage; Other than Gattis, no catcher on our roster has even recently played the position to which he is slated to start on this roster. It's not as though the first basemen are much more versatile, but at least Goldschmidt has played a game at center, and Encarnacion has real and sustained experience at third, and so on. And they'd outhit the catchers by about a million.

The First Basemen win!

Moved Off Original Position Region

Second Basemen

  • 1B: H. Kendrick
  • 2B: I. Kinsler
  • 3B: D. Pedroia
  • SS: B. Dozier
  • LF: D. Gordon
  • CF: J. Altuve
  • RF: B. Zobrist
  • C: N. Walker
  • DH: C. Utley
  • P: R. Cano

vs.

Left fielders

  • 1B: R. Zimmerman
  • 2B: J. Upton
  • 3B: A. Gordon
  • SS: D. Ackley
  • LF: M. Brantley
  • CF: B. Gardner
  • RF: S. Marte
  • C: J. Willingham
  • DH: M. Holliday
  • P: B. Harper

In both cases, most/many of these guys ended up here because they slid down the defensive spectrum, so there's some history at other positions to draw from and also clear limitations—arm strength for the 2B, mobility (and arm strength) for the LF. The second basemen might nearly match the left fielders for outfield range, if not overall defensive skill; while the second basemen have the substantial edge at infield defense. Both have a former catcher to catch, and neither has a pitcher. At least the left fielders have Harper, who has a huge arm and surprisingly good mechanics. The offensive edge is clear for the left fielders, but not as big as you'd think: Collectively, the left fielders have a projected .283 True Average (.740 OPS); it's .274 (.731) for the second basemen. A very close matchup. It goes, narrowly, to the left fielders, because I don't believe there's an arm strong enough to pitch currently playing second base.

The Left-Fielders win!

Stayed At Original Position Region

Center fielders

  • 1B: D. Fowler
  • 2B: M. Betts
  • 3B: D. Santana
  • SS: B. Hamilton
  • LF: A. McCutchen
  • CF: C. Gomez
  • RF: L. Cain
  • C: M. Upton
  • DH: A. Jones
  • P: M. Trout

vs.

Shortstops

  • 1B: I. Desmond
  • 2B: J. Segura
  • 3B: B. Crawford
  • SS: T. Tulowitzki
  • LF: H. Ramirez
  • CF: J. Reyes
  • RF: E. Aybar
  • C: M. Gonzalez
  • DH: S. Castro
  • P: A. Simmons

Both teams are doomed at catcher; so far as I can tell from about 20 minutes of clicking, it's likely that no player who spent half of last season at either shortstop or center field has ever played a professional game at catcher. I put Marwin Gonzalez there because he's played a bunch of positions; I put Upton there because if he got hurt I wouldn't miss his bat, and so I could type M. Upton for the first time. The center fielders have the edge at offense (.276 TAv to .267), but the shortstops have so much more defensive depth. Further, I have a lot more confidence that Random Shortstop can handle center field better than any center fielder—even one like Hamilton, or Santana, chosen for their recent histories at shortstop—could handle infield. But the real difference is on the mound. There are reports that Mike Trout threw in the 90s as a high schooler. Okay. Simmons threw 98 in college, and it doesn't take a scout to see who has the far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far better arm today. Furthermore, converted pitchers are much more likely to come from the infield than the outfield, because they have the short arm strokes needed for accuracy. The shortstops win.

The Shortstops win!

Strong Armed Power Hitters Region

Third Basemen

  • 1B: E. Longoria
  • 2B: M. Carpenter
  • 3B: A. Beltre
  • SS: M. Machado
  • LF: M. Prado
  • CF: J. Harrison
  • RF: K. Seager
  • C: J. Donaldson
  • DH: A. Rendon
  • P: P. Sandoval

vs.

Right Fielders

  • 1B: G. Stanton
  • 2B: S. Victorino
  • 3B: R. Braun
  • SS: J. Bautista
  • LF: H. Pence
  • CF: J. Heyward
  • RF: Y. Puig
  • C: J. Werth
  • DH: J. Bruce
  • P: Ichiro

Both pitchers come mostly from legend, players of considerable color and unique skill sets who get attention for everything they do, or could hypothetically do. Ichiro is "a former high-school pitcher" who longs to pitch again, and who reportedly threw 92 as recently as 2009. Sandoval threw a bullpen session as a left-hander, and could do the Venditte thing if he had the chance. I don't see an edge to either of them, really. Each has a catcher with experience, though that experience is much more recent (and more realistic) for the Third Basemen. The right fielders have the edge, offensively—at .292, they have the best projected TAv of any position but first base—but the third basemen project well, too, at .284. So it comes down to the defense, and here the difference is substantial: That's a legit shortstop, a legit second baseman, and, of course, one of the best defensive third basemen ever. Two of their outfielders have plenty of recent experience in the outfield, the center fielder has CF speed, and we know whoever they put at right field will have the arm for the position. Not only that, but all sorts of guys with broad defensive skill sets (Lawrie, Turner, Arenado) are hanging around, unused. The right fielders, meanwhile, are hanging their hopes on Shane Victorino playing 2B as a 19-year-old, and Jose Bautista playing some third base in 2011. And Ryan Braun. I might actually put Jay Bruce at third base before I'd put Ryan Braun back there.

The Third Basemen win!

Second Round results

Third Base beats First Base!

Shortstop beats Left Field!

Third Round results

This all comes down to how much you believe Sandoval and Simmons can really pitch. I take the third baseman overall. I also think it's conceivable that Simmons could have a 3.00 ERA right now, and that Sandoval might not get below 9. I have no way of knowing, but obviously that would make the difference if it were true. But even Simmons could only pitch a couple hundred innings in a year, and from there the difference should flatten out, so:

Third Base beats Shortstop!

Championship Game

Pitchers (first-, second- and third-round byes)

  • 1B: S. Doolittle
  • 2B: S. Santos
  • 3B: M. Leake
  • SS: J. Nathan
  • LF: Z. Greinke
  • CF: A. Ogando
  • RF: S. Cousins
  • C: K. Jansen
  • DH: D. Haren
  • P: C. Kershaw

vs.

Third Basemen

  • 1B: E. Longoria
  • 2B: M. Carpenter
  • 3B: A. Beltre
  • SS: M. Machado
  • LF: M. Prado
  • CF: J. Harrison
  • RF: K. Seager
  • C: J. Donaldson
  • DH: A. Rendon
  • P: P. Sandoval

The pitchers, in case you're wondering, are mainly chosen based on previous conversions. Is it useful information to know that Joe Nathan played shortstop in rookie ball? A little bit? But I have no idea how anybody else would do at shortstop, and they almost all hit terribly, so.

Here's where the hypothetical gets hard. I think the Third Basemen would be a slightly above-average defense, overall. I think the pitchers would be approximately 150 runs worse than average, defensively, not including catcher.

Beyond that, we know four things:

  • Clayton Kershaw over the past two years has allowed a .195 True Average against opponents who otherwise had a .252 TAv. We'll adjust Kershaw's expected TAv against up to .200 against a league-average group of hitters.
  • Pitchers generally had a .138 True Average as hitters in 2014, against opponents who otherwise allowed a .260 TAv. Our pitchers are selected in part for their ability to hit, though some haven't hit regularly for five years. We'll adjust this by hand to .155.
  • Our third basemen project to have a .284 True Average, relative to a league average of .260.
  • We're going to speculate, based on the observed results of other position players pitching, and on the presumption that Sandoval will be a little worse, and on the presumption that position players throwing mop-up duty don't often face strong and focused competition, that Sandoval would allow a .310 TAv to a league-average group of hitters.

Using Log5, then, I get this:

  • The hitters would have a .220 TAv against Kershaw, excluding the effects of his defense behind him.
  • The pitchers would have a .190 TAv against Sandoval, excluding the effects of his defense behind him.

I'm willing to accept that this undersells what a bunch of pitchers would do hitting against a bunch of position players pitching. But we not only have to find those extra 30 points of TAv somewhere, we have to find enough to overwhelm 150ish runs of defense. There's probably 25 runs of baserunning separating these teams, too.

Again, this is not final. But for now, I'm calling it:

The Third Basemen win!