Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hitting by Position, 2014

Of all the annual repeat posts I write, this is the one which most interests me--I have always been fascinated by patterns of offensive production by fielding position, particularly trends over baseball history and cases in which teams have unusual distributions of offense by position. I also contend that offensive positional adjustments, when carefully crafted and appropriately applied, remain a viable and somewhat more objective competitor to the defensive positional adjustments often in use, although this post does not really address those broad philosophical questions.

The first obvious thing to look at is the positional totals for 2014, 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 most notable deviations from historical norms (which, when limited to one year, are strictly trivia rather than trends) were present in the outfield, where all three spots provided essentially equal production. The shape was not equal--centerfielders had a higher batting average and lower secondary average (.213 to .236) than did corner outfielders. Catchers also outhit their usual levels, bringing the three rightmost positions on the defensive spectrum together around 95% of league average production. DHs rebounded from a poor 2013 showing (102 PADJ) to get back to their historical level.

Of course, a DH-supporter like myself can’t avoid commenting on pitchers, who are wont to set a new low every couple years but went so far as to fall below the negative absolute RC threshold in 2014, with a -4 PADJ eclipsing 2012’s 1 as the worst in history. Pitchers struck out in 41% of their plate appearances, double the rate of position players (20%). Still, I’ll take a moment and provide the list of NL pitching staffs by runs above average. I need to stress that the runs created method I’m using here does not take into account sacrifices, which usually is not a big deal but can be significant for pitchers. Note that all team figures from this point forward in the post are park-adjusted. The RAA figures for each position are baselined against the overall major league average RG for the position, except for left field and right field which are pooled. So for pitchers, the formula for RAA was fun to write this year, since it involved adding the league average performance (well, subtracting the negative):

RAA = (RG + .15)*(AB - H + CS)/25.5



This marked the second straight triumph for Dodger pitchers as most productive, with Zack Greinke again the standout, although his numbers were much less gaudy than in 2013 (this year he hit .200/.262/.350). Pittsburgh’s hurlers extended a complete power outage to a third season; while they topped Miami and Milwaukee in isolated power thanks to a Gerrit Cole home run, their two extra base hits (Vance Worley doubled) were the fewest. This comes on the heels of 2012 (one double) and 2013 (zero extra base hits), giving them a three year stretch of 894 at bats with two doubles and a home run (.006 ISO).

I don’t run a full chart of the leading positions since you will very easily be able to go down the list and identify the individual primarily responsible for the team’s performance and you won’t be shocked by any of them, but the teams with the highest RAA at each spot were:

C--MIL, 1B--DET, 2B--HOU, 3B--WAS, SS--COL, LF--CLE, CF--PIT, RF--LA, DH--DET

More interesting are the worst performing positions; the player listed is the one who started the most games at that position for the team:



I will take the poor performance of the Jeter-led Yankee shortstops as an opportunity to share some wholly unoriginal thoughts about the Didi Gregorius trade. I have no particularly strong feelings on Gregorius’ long-term outlook; I’ll leave that to the projection mavens and the scouts. However, some remarkably silly columns have been written about his assuming Saint Derek’s mantle. One sneered that he wasn’t likely to be a long-term solution. This is probably true, but most major league lineup spots are filled by guys who are long-term solutions. A minority of teams have a long-term answer at shortstop, let alone a ten-year answer.

But more importantly is that even a static Gregorius could be an immediate boost to the Yankees. No team in baseball got less out of the position offensively, and fielding? (Rhetorical question). Last year, Gregorius hit .222/.279/.356 in 292 PA (3.4 RG); Jeter hit .253/.294/.309 in 616 PA (3.1 RG).

I like to attempt to measure each team’s offensive profile by position relative to a typical profile. I’ve found it frustrating as a fan when my team’s offensive production has come disproportionately from “defensive” positions rather than offensive positions (“Why can’t we just find a corner outfielder who can hit?”) The best way I’ve yet been able to come up with to measure this is to look at the correlation between RG at each position and the long-term positional adjustment. A positive correlation indicates a “traditional” distribution of offense by position--more production from the positions on the right side of the defensive spectrum. (To calculate this, I use the long-term positional adjustments that pool 1B/DH as well as LF/RF, and because of the DH I split it out by league):



My comments on frustration are based on the Indians, who have often had a negative correlation but this year exhibited a more normal profile. The Tigers +.88 is about as high as you’ll see. Of course, offensive positions were their biggest producers with Cabrera and the two Martinezes, and their right fielders were their fourth most productive position. They did get more out of second than third or right, and more out of catcher than shortstop, but otherwise they were fell right in place.

The following charts, broken out by division, display RAA for each position, with teams sorted by the sum of positional RAA. Positions with negative RAA are in red, and positions that are +/-20 RAA are bolded:



Washington led the majors in RAA from both their corner infield spots and the entire infield. Giancarlo Stanton almost single-handedly led Miami to the majors top outfield RAA total. Atlanta had the majors worst RAA from middle infielders. Philadelphia’s corner infielders had the lowest RAA in the NL.



I was bullish on Milwaukee this year, which looked smart for four and a half months before they wound up with an overall season record close to where most people picked them to finish. One factor I cited was how bad their production from first base had been in 2013. While the Brewers did not replicate their dreadful -37 RAA first base performance from ’13, they only gained a win or so by improving to -26, still the worst first base production in the NL. 84% of their first base PA went to Lyle Overbay (628 OPS as a first baseman) and Mark Reynolds (632), who had basically the same overall production with different shapes. And so it was no surprise that for the second straight year, Milwaukee had the NL’s most oddly distributed offense by position (based on the correlation approach described above). Cincinnati had the majors worst outfield production, and consistently so from left to right (-24, -20, -18).



The Dodgers were the only NL team to be above average at seven of the eight positions, but their catchers went all-in as the NL’s least productive unit. Los Angeles tied Pittsburgh with 123 total RAA, but they did it with opposite production from the backstops (the Pirates’ +24 was a perfect offset for LA’s -24). Dodger middle infielders led the NL in RAA. San Diego was on the other end of the spectrum, the NL’s only team with just one above-average position, with catcher once again serving as the exception. The Padres infield was the least productive in MLB.



Boston went from having one below-average position in 2013 to having just two above-average in 2014, which is how a team can go from leading the majors in total RAA to ranking second-last in the AL. Their infielders were the worst in the AL with a total of -46 RAA; their outfielders only tied for second-last, but matched the total of -46. Yet much of the winter discussion regarding the Red Sox has involved how they will parcel out their outfield surplus.



Detroit led the AL in corner infield RAA thanks to first base. Just eyeballing the charts, the Indians may have been the most average in terms of combining roughly average overall RAA with close to average production at many positions. Minus the outfield corners, there weren’t many extremes in Cleveland.



The Angels led the AL in outfield RAA; the corner outfielders washed each other out for a total of -4 RAA, but the Trout-led centerfielders could not be washed out. Houston had the majors best middle infield production, but the worst corner infield production, and the latter exceeded the former by 24 absolute runs. The Astros had three -20 positions (the corner infielders and left field, so get your JD Martinez victim of their own success jokes in); so did the Reds, but just barely (two of theirs were -20 and the other -24). Seattle had the AL’s worst outfield, largely due to trotting James Jones out there for 72 starts, then seeing Austin Jackson crater when they acquired him to address the problem. Texas had eight below-average positions, but made their one bright spot count with the AL’s best third base RAA.

The data for each team-position is available in this spreadsheet.

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