Monday, December 17, 2012

Hitting by Position, 2012

Offensive performance by position (and the closely related topic of positional adjustments) has always interested me, and so each year I like to examine the most recent season's totals. I believe that offensive positional averages can be an important tool for approximating the defensive value of each position, but they certainly are not a magic bullet and need to include more than one year of data if they are to be utilized in that capacity.

The first obvious thing to look at is the positional totals for 2012, with the data coming from Baseball-Reference.com. "MLB” is the overall total for MLB, which is not the same as the sum of all the positions here, as pinch-hitters and runners are not included in those. “POS” is the MLB totals minus the pitcher totals, yielding the composite performance by non-pitchers. “PADJ” is the position adjustment, which is the position RG divided by the overall major league average (this is a departure from past posts; I’ll discuss this a little at the end). “LPADJ” is the long-term positional adjustment that I use, based on 2002-2011 data. The rows “79” and “3D” are the combined corner outfield and 1B/DH totals, respectively:



The 2012 positional RG averages demonstrate a fairly remarkable convergence near 4.8 for a number of positions (third base, the three outfield spots, and DH all between 4.75-4.85). While this is nothing more than a one year data fluke, it’s the kind of thing that is fun when you find it. One thing that has persisted is left fielders being outperformed by their stronger armed brethren in right, although 4.8 RG represents a bounce back from their pitiful 4.45 performance in 2011. The other most notable position performance came from backstops, who were close to league average and outhit the middle infielders. For an odd but meaningless fact, note the excellent stolen base record of DHs--their 80 SB% was the best of any position.

Pitchers reached a new low in 2012; their .06 RG is close to breaking linear weights, and their PADJ of 1 represents a new all-time low (the previous nadir was 5). The team pitcher data below (and all of the team data for all positions that follows in this post) are park-adjusted. RAA is baselined against the overall major league average for the position (with left field and right field pooled). It’s worth noting that the formula I’m using for Runs Created is limited to the basic categories, so sacrifices are ignored, which could make a difference for pitchers:



An eighteen run range between the best and worst team pitchers is pretty common. Washington’s pitchers were clearly the best, leading in both batting and secondary average. Cincinnati’s BA was only five points lower and they tied for second in isolated power (behind Milwaukee), but only San Diego’s pitchers had a lower walk rate than the Reds. At the other end of the power and overall offense spectrum was Pittsburgh. They were last with a -.7 RG and -8 RAA, but their isolated power was a woeful .003 (the next lowest was Houston at .018).

Pittsburgh pitchers mustered just one double in 290 at bats--I didn’t check, but it’s tough to imagine any teams in history have topped that. AL pitchers in aggregate came pretty close, though, with just three doubles in 282 AB (.011 ISO). All AL teams had a pitcher reach base safely except the Tigers, but their 0-13 was offset by seven sacrifices to lead the AL. The best hitting pitchers were Cleveland with a .290 across-the-board slash line (six singles in 21 at bats).

I don’t bother running a full table for the team leaders in RAA at the positions that actually hit, as these are usually uninteresting (Tigers third basemen were good offensively? You don’t say). The leading teams by position were:

C--SF, 1B--CIN, 2B--NYA, 3B--DET, SS--WAS, LF--MIL, CF--PIT, RF--STL, DH--NYA

I find it a lot more interesting to look at the worst positions (the player listed is the one with the most games played for the team at the position):



Kevin Youkilis takes a bad rap here as he had a respectable 720 OPS in 316 PA as the Chicago third baseman; his teammates combined for 466 in 339 PA. If you endeavor to score 1,000 runs for the season, it might be a good idea to make sure that you don’t get the worst offensive production out of two of your positions. No amount of corner power can mitigate that. Although Pittsburgh’s left fielders were the worst in total value relative to their position, Seattle’s shortstops had the overall worst performance with 2.5 RG. They were actually matched in production by their team’s pitchers, who hit a raw .227/.261/.273 for 2.5 RG (the park adjustment should not be applied to AL pitchers because all of their PA--except for rare cases that tend to involve Joe Maddon--come on the road). Obviously the pitchers’ performance came over a microscopic 23 PA, but it’s a factoid with some nice shock value.

A few years ago I wrote a bit about teams with unusual profiles of offense by position. This topic has been of particular interest to me in recent years because of the way the Indians have been constructed--often they have gotten good production from positions on the right side of the defensive spectrum while struggling at the more offensively-inclined positions. The easiest way I’ve come up with to express this numerically is the correlation between a team’s RG by position and the long-term positional adjustment (I’ve pooled left and right field but not 1B and DH in this case; pitchers are excluded for all teams and DHs excluded for NL teams, and I’ve broken the lists out by league because of this):



As I suspected, the Indians displayed one of the strongest inverse correlations between positional expectation and actual production with the most negative correlation in the AL. Cincinnati had the strongest correlation in the majors; contrasting the two Ohio teams should illustrate how these results came about:



The Reds got their best production out of first base and the corner outfielders, and their middle infielders and catchers had relatively low RGs. Only center field produced contrary to expectation in a meaningful way. The Indians, on the other hand, got no offense from first base and left field. While right field was productive as would be expected, the other top positions included the middle infielders and catcher.

Perhaps it’s my experience as an Indians fan speaking, but I feel that the type of pattern displayed by the Indians in recent years is the most frustrating as a fan. Cleveland has gotten solid production from catcher (Martinez/Santana), second base (Kipnis recently), shortstop (Peralta/Cabrera), center field (Sizemore/Brantley)...and has struggled to find first basemen (Garko/LaPorta/Kotchman) or left fielders (Michaels/Duncan/Damon/etc) who could provide league average (overall, not even relative to position) production.

The following charts give the RAA at each position for each team, split up by division. The charts are sorted by the sum of RAA for the listed positions. As mentioned earlier, the league totals will not sum to zero since the overall ML average is being used and not the specific league average. Positions with negative RAA are in red; positions with +/- 20 RAA are bolded:



Washington led the NL in infield RAA, with excellent performances from first base and shortstop. The Desmond-led shortstops stood out enough to lift the Nats to the NL lead in middle infield RAA, and they just missed leading in corner infield RAA as well. The worst production from corner infielders in the NL was a dead heat between the Phillies and the Marlins. Miami joined Cleveland and Seattle as the only teams with -20 RAA performances from both first base and left field.



St. Louis and Milwaukee boasted the top two outfields in the NL; the Brewers had the best production from corner outfielders in the majors, but St. Louis’ average production in center field gave them a higher composite RAA. Cincinnati’s offense was a conundrum, ranking fourth to last in the league in park adjusted R/G. Their component performance was better than that, but even so one might have expected more than a composite 20 RAA from their positions. The Reds’ center fielders were dreadful, though. Leading the majors in first base RAA may seem surprising at first glance, but much of Frazier’s hot stretch came as Votto’s replacement (884 OPS in 149 PA). Pittsburgh’s middle infielders ranked last in the NL, but at just -15 RAA. Houston was last in the majors in corner outfield RAA and their center fielders were only one run worse than Cincinnati’s for a total of -75 outfield RAA, 29 runs worse than the next sorriest outfit. That outfield belonged to the Cubs, who were also last in the NL in corner infield and overall infield RAA.



San Francisco’s offense was a wonderful example of above-average balance plus the MVP, enough to rank third in the league in RAA. Chase Headley powered the Padres to the NL’s highest corner infield RAA.



New York led the majors in middle infield and overall infield RAA. Boston’s outfield was the worst in the AL, and just two above average positions speaks to how poorly their season went. The amount of red on this chart is fairly staggering given the extent to which the media still hypes the difficulty of pitching in the AL East.



Detroit’s much-hyped duo contributed a whopping 90 RAA to lead corner infielders, but the black hole at second base gave 27 runs back, and the lack of any other standout positions aside from center once again reinforce just how stupid it was to mention “1,000 runs” and this team in the same sentence. Their corner outfielders were last in the AL in RAA. Minnesota was last in the majors in middle infield RAA, while Cleveland achieved the same with their corner infielders. In fact, despite Detroit’s 90 corner infield RAA, the division combined for -11 RAA from corner infielders as only Chicago got above-average production from either position.



Los Angeles led the AL in corner outfield RAA and the majors in total outfield RAA. The lack of offense in Seattle is as predictable as the rain and the votes for liberals, but marveling at it never gets old (unlike the other constants of Seattle life). Their corner outfielders were last in AL RAA and their infielders last in the majors. Only their catchers, led by John Jaso, were above average.

The full spreadsheet is available here.

Switching gears to some technical explanation, the position adjustments I am now using are based on comparing each position’s RG to the overall major league average. Previously, the adjustments I used were based on comparing each position to the league average with pitchers removed. The latter comparison is certainly cleaner, but it was inconsistent with how I was actually calculating RAA and RAR, which was comparing each player to the overall league average.

The new method is not perfect either; one could very persuasively argue that pitchers hitting should be removed from the league average for all computations. I’ve always subscribed to the notion that the league totals for any average-baselined stat should be zero, and that the league average should be the same whether one is comparing players or teams. If you take out pitchers from the league average, but leave them in for teams (and pitcher hitting does factor into actual team offensive output, even if the variance is much lower than for other positions), then you wind up with a league which rates as below average offensively.

Of course, the notion of looking at the leagues as self-contained units made much more sense when they were. Now the AL averages include not only pitchers hitting, but also performances compiled against NL teams. I cling to the notion of separate leagues for computational purposes because the separation is still great enough that it’s a better approximation than lumping both leagues together, but both are imprecise.

This is a particular problem for positional adjustments, because the AL average and the NL average include different proportions of pitcher’s hitting. In the pre-interleague days, even if one tied themself to using the league average including pitchers, it may have made sense to use a PADJ tied to all positions for the NL and less pitchers for the AL. I choose not to complicate things by using a different set of positional adjustments for each league, especially now that both choices are at least partially incorrect. This imprecision does not cause huge distortion, but I need to disclose it nonetheless.

2 comments:

  1. Did you miss me? I have 2+ years of your articles to catch up on.

    I have 2 questions for you:

    Do you think pitcher hitting will continue to get worse? And how bad does it have to get for the NL to adopt the DH. We're approaching sub .300 OPS.

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  2. Good to see you. Who would have thought that by the time you posted here again, Maryland would be in the Big Ten?

    I don't know if pitcher hitting can get much worse, but given that pitcher hitting has never improved over any appreciable length of time in the entire history of professional baseball, I certainly don't expect it to get any better. I am a big fan of the DH myself, although as long as it remains in the AL I'm not too concerned about what the NL does. There's been speculation that the new interleague format will encourage standardization, and the people who think that standardization would be eliminating the DH are kidding themselves.

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