Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hitting by Position, 2016

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 2016, 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:

Obviously when looking at a single season of data it’s imperative not to draw any sweeping conclusions. That doesn’t make it any less jarring to see that second basemen outhit every position save the corner infield spots, or that left fielders created runs at the league average rate. The utter collapse of corner outfield offense left them, even pooled, ahead only of catcher and shortstop. Pitchers also added another point of relative RG, marking two years in a row of improvement (such as it is) over their first negative run output in 2014.

It takes historical background to fully appreciate how much the second base and corner outfield performances stack up. 109 for second base is the position’s best showing since 1924, which was 110 thanks largely to Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins and Frankie Frisch. Second base had not hit for the league average since 1949. (I should note that the historical figures I’m citing are not directly comparable - they based on each player’s primary position and include all of their PA, regardless of whether they were actually playing the position at the time or not, unlike the Baseball-Reference positional figures used for 2016). Corner outfield was even more extreme at 103, the nadir for the 116 seasons starting with 1901 (the previous low was 107 in 1992).

If the historical perspective is of interest, you may want to check out Corrine Landrey’s article in The Hardball Time Baseball Annual. She includes some charts showing OPS+ by position in the DH-era and theorizes that an influx of star young players, still playing on the right-side of the defensive spectrum, has led to the positional shakeup. While I cautioned above about over-generalizing from one year of data, it has been apparent over the last several years that the spread between positions has declined. Landrey’s explanation is as viable as any I’ve seen to explain these season’s results.

Moving on to looking at more granular levels of performance, I always start by looking at the NL pitching staffs and their RAA. 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.

This is the second consecutive year that the Giants led the league in RAA, and of course they employ the active pitcher most known for his batting. But as usual the spread from top to bottom is in the neighborhood of twenty runs.

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:


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 am have as little use for batting average as anyone, but I still find the Angels .209 left field average to be the single most entertaining number on that chart (remember, that’s park-adjusted; it was .204 raw). The least entertaining thing for me at least was the Indians’ production at catcher, which was tolerable when Roberto Perez was drawing walks but intolerable when Terry Francona was pinch-running for him in Game 7.

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):

As you can see, there are good offenses with high correlations, good offenses with low correlations, and every other combination. I have often used this space to bemoan the Indians continual struggle to get adequate production from first base, contributing to their usual finish in the bottom third or so of correlation. This year, they rank in the middle of the pack, and while it is likely a coincidence that they had a good season, it’s worth noting that Mike Napoli only was average for a first baseman. Even that is much better than some of their previous showings.

Houston’s two best hitting positions (not relative to positional averages, but in terms of RG) were second base and shortstop. In fact the Astros positions in descending order of RG was 4, 6, 9, 2, 5, 3, D, 7, 8. That’s how you get a fairly strong negative correlation between RG and PADJ.

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:

Boston had the AL’s most productive outfield, while Toronto was just an average offense after bashing their way to a league leading 118 total RAA in 2015. It remains jarring to see New York at the bottom of an offense list, even just for a division, and their corner infielders were the worst in the majors.

Other than catcher, Cleveland was solid everywhere, with no bold positions--and in this division, that’s enough to lead in RAA and power a cruise to the division title. Detroit had the AL’s top corner infield RAA (no thanks to third base). Kansas City, where to begin with the sweet, sweet schadenfreude? Eksy Magic? No, already covered at length in the leadoff hitters post. Maybe the fact that they had the worst middle infield production in MLB? Or that the bros at the corners chipped in another -19 RAA to also give them the worst infield? The fact that they were dead last in the majors in total RAA? It’s just too much.

The pathetic production of the Los Angeles left fielders was discussed above. The Mike Trout-led center fielders were brilliant, the best single position in the majors. And so, even with a whopping -31 runs from left field, the Angels had the third-most productive outfield in MLB. Houston’s middle infielders, also mentioned above, were the best in the majors. Oakland’s outfield RAA was last in the AL.

Washington overcame the NL’s least productive corner infielders, largely because they had the NL’s most productive middle infielders. Miami had a similar but even more extreme juxtaposition, the NL’s worst infield and the majors’ best outfield, and that with a subpar season from Giancarlo Stanton as right field was the least productive of the three spots. Atlanta had the NL’s worst-hitting middle infield, and Philadelphia the majors’ worst outfield despite Odubel Herrera making a fool of me.

Chicago was tops in the majors in corner infield RAA and total infield RAA. No other teams in this division achieved any superlatives but thanks to Joey Votto and a half-season of Jonathon Lucroy, every team was in the black for total RAA, even if we were to add in Cincinnati’s NL-trailing -9 RAA from pitchers.

No position grouping superlatives in this division, but it feels like more should be said about Corey Seager. It seems like a rookie shortstop hitting as he did, fielding adequately enough to be a serious MVP candidate for a playoff team in a huge market for one of the five or so most venerated franchises should have gotten a lot more attention than it did. Is it the notion that a move to third base is inevitable? Is he, like the superstar down the road, just considered too boring of a personality?

The full spreadsheet is available here.

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