Friday, December 22, 2006

Historical Hitting by Postion

I’m excessively fond of chiding the National League as the “Neanderthal League” at every available opportunity for their refusal to use the designated hitter. I don’t wish to discuss the DH here per se, but use one argument against it that you’ll occasionally see as a springboard for discussion.

Sometimes the anti-DH argument will include the rhetorical question, “Why stop at pitcher? Why not have a defensive shortstop and a DH for him, or a defensive catcher and a DH for him.” While it is true of course that you could put together a better offense by completely ignoring defensive ability, there is absolutely no comparison between the performance of shortstops relative to the population of hitters at large and that of pitchers. In order to believe that the circumstances would become such that there would be popular support for a similar shortstop or catcher DH, one must assume I would think that shortstops, like pitchers, have progressively seen their offensive levels decline relative to hitters as a whole.

And this is a useful point for a brief discussion of offensive positional adjustments throughout the decades. While this question is just one part of a tangled web of questions dealing with how to value players at different positions, I’m not going to discuss that issue but just the historical facts.

On my website, there is a chart showing offensive PADJs broken down by into the ten decades from 1900-1998. There are a couple issues with this chart; first, it considers a player only at the position he is listed at first in Total Baseball. In other words, the position in which he played the most games in a given season is his position. If a player appeared in 25 games as an outfielder and 24 as a first baseman, he is 100% an outfielder. Secondly, it does not account for the three outfield positions, but lumps them altogether. And thirdly, it uses the flawed model of basic Runs Created to evaluate each player’s offense.

With the exception of problem two, in which we lose valuable data on the breakdown between outfield positions, I don’t believe that the other two flaws are particularly consequential when dealing with a large group of aggregated players.

Looking at the chart, one of the most interesting things is that third baseman were worse hitters then second baseman in the 1900-1929 period. It is not until the thirties that third baseman hit better then second baseman. This phenomenon has been noted by other analysts, notably Bill James in Win Shares; I’m just pointing out that this data agrees with the earlier conclusions (which of course it should since the other studies were constructed similarly).

Getting to the issue of offensive balance between the positions and whether or not it has declined historically, if you look at the field non-pitching fielding positions (here catcher, first, second, third, short, and outfield), you will see that the standard deviation of position adjustment was higher in the early days then it is today:
1900: .154, 1910: .143, 1920: .156, 1930: .156, 1940: .132, 1950: .122, 1960: .151, 1970: .159, 1980: .134, 1990: .135, 1900-1998: .134

“1900” means the ten-year period starting in 1900 (1900-1909), and so on. In fact, the highest standard deviation came in the 1970s when the DH was adopted. In the 70s, shortstops hit at just 77% of the league average (only aught catchers hit worse, 76%). But this is still a far cry from pitchers’ best showing, 45% in the aughts and the twenties. Pitchers showed a pattern of steady decline to as low as 30% in the 60s and 70s when the DH came of age and 26% and 27% in the eighties and nineties.

The best offensive showing by any position is the first sackers of the 1930s, 129%. In an eight team universe, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and later Hank Greenberg and Johnny Mize are bound to wreck some havoc on the overall figures.

Anyway, you can pursue the chart yourself if you wish for other interesting things. The main point I wanted to make is that at no time in twentieth century major league history has the balance of offensive production between the positions been greater then in the 1980s and 1990s. While the chart does not include 1999-2006, I do not believe that the trend would be significantly different.

It is possible I suppose that the DH itself has had some impact on this. DHs would probably be stuck at 1B or a corner outfield perch in earlier times, and allowing them their own category would allow defensive specialists to sneak in the field at those positions while maintaining overall offensive output. This could cause the balance between the fielding positions to be greater then it would be in absence of the DH. First base offense has been essentially unchanged since the 70s, but outfielders have dropped a little bit. But even if this effect is significant, I don’t believe that it is significant enough to mask a markedly worsening balance or collapse of short, catcher, or other low-offense positions. In fact, shortstops have bounced back relative to the league hitting as a whole form the aforementioned 77% in the 70s; the composite league comparison compares to all hitters, including DHs.

I don’t think that the historical data shows a significant trend, taking a full century view, towards more or less of a balance. But it clearly does not show the widening balance that would justify concerns about multiple DHs becoming a possibility. And if you think that I’ve wasted your time with some rudimentary stuff and this whole thing was an excuse to get a post up finally and bash the NL some more, you might be on to something.

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