Thursday, July 19, 2012

Middle Management

A Game of Skill:
Professional football coaches, analysts, scouts, and players often use the term "skill players."  Skill positions include the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, corner back, and safety.   Players at these positions are generally leaner and faster than linemen, and must provide skills such as throwing and catching that their more bulky teammates need not showcase.  What does the term "skill position" or "skill player" have to do with America's summer pastime?  Baseball, like its cousin football, can classify certain positions as needing more adroitness than others.  For argument's sake, no doubt every position in baseball needs skills, talent, and athleticism.Yet, the architects of an MLB roster must place greater emphasis and analytic energy into filling the positions of catcher, shortstop, second base, and centerfield.  One might place pitcher into a similar category, but for the sake of brevity let's reserve that for a separate discussion.  

Looking up the Middle:
Dr. Egon Spengler

To quote Dr. Egon Spengler from the movie Ghostbusters, "What are we talking about here?" Well, doctor, that's a great question.  I, not we, mention skill positions because I argue that they truly matter when forming a winning team.  I mentioned that baseball's skill positions are those that reside up-the-middle.  If one were to stand at home plate and look directly toward centerfield the positions in direct view are classified as the up-the-middle positions.  

No one who has ever played or followed baseball would disagree with the statement "Catchers are uniquely different from any other player on a baseball field."  Catchers have the onerous duty of protecting the most coveted spot on the baseball field, home plate.  They must know everything the pitcher knows, be able to throw out runners attempting to steal a base, perform their role as receiver, and hit at least well enough to remain in the line up on a nightly basis.  

While no position is as multifaceted or has as much responsibility as the catcher, shortstops play an important role as well.  Shortstops must simultaneously cover the most ground and deal with the most plays in the infield.  More righties play baseball than lefties; thus more ground balls are hit to the left side of the field than the right.  In addition, the shortstop must have a stronger and more accurate arm than the second baseman, while also playing an important role in all attempts to steal second base.  Often overlooked but no less important, the shortstop also plays a crucial role in directing and executing cut-offs from the outfield.  This list of responsibilities only covers the defensive tasks required of an MLB shortstop; the offensive duties are vast, but vary from player to player.  Overall, the shortstop is the captain of the infield, and usually constitutes either the top defensive talent or vocal leader on the team.  

Can You Spot the Up-The-Middle Positions?
Second base, while not requiring as many tools as shortstop, has many obligations.  The second baseman combines with the shortstop on double plays, cut-off throws, covering second on stolen base attempts, and most importantly, patroling the right side of the infield.  This last responsibility can become more difficult when the first baseman must cover first base in case of a pick-off attempt.  Speed, quickness, and range, constitute only a few of the necessary tools needed to play second base.

Finally, let's talk center field.  Defensively, the center fielder covers the most ground in the outfield, and must have a good arm in order to throw out runners attempting to reach second or third base.  Communication becomes paramount when playing centerfield as the centerfielder must range towards his counterparts in right and left field often, doing so while hoping to avoid a collision.  Some of the most athletic and talented players ever have roamed centerfield including Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ty Cobb.  

As in the construction of a skyscraper, a solid foundation is vital.  While every position makes up 1/9 of the starting line up for an MLB team, these 4 position players are less replaceable than the other 4 (recall we have exempted the pitcher).  We speak often of wins above replacement or the value of a replacement player, but rarely, amidst all of this talk of replacement, do we remark that certain positions are not as replaceable as others.  Skill positions require specifically skilled or multi-skilled athletes that are not often found in left field, right field, third base, and first base.  

Often times, when I analyze a team the first thing I look at is the play and statistics of the skill position players.  Think about the best teams in baseball right now.  The Rangers, Angels, Yankees, and Braves all have very good up-the-middle combinations. (For a list of every team's fWAR up-the-middle positions click HERE)  The Rangers have the highest combined fWAR of any catcher, shortstop, second base, center field composite in baseball at 11.1 fWAR.  Josh Hamilton, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler are all indevidually having solid seasons.  The amalgam of Kinsler and Andrus provide above average to stellar defense up the middle for the Rangers.  Last season Kinsler and Andrus each had a UZR (a defensive metric incorporating a player’s range ) above 7.0, and this season both have been adequate up-the-middle.  While catcher Mike Napoli is experiencing a dip in every offensive category this season, Josh Hamilton's scorching start to the year has statistically made up for the regression of the Texas catcher.  

This chart shows the mean, median, range, and standard deviation of every 2012 up-the-middle position in Major League Baseball using fWAR as the evaluating statistic.

Standard Deviation
Turning the Double Play

Using UZR as our defensive metric of choice, the best defensive shortstop in MLB is Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners, and the best second baseman is Robinson Cano of the Yankees.  You may have never heard of Ryan but Cano is a household name. He will compete for American League MVP this year.  Ryan adds little offensively, but due to his defense, he has saved about 14 runs from scoring this year.  That's about twice as many as the second best defensive shortstop in the majors, Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs.  Ryan's value comes almost completely from his defense.  Despite being far and away the best defensive shortstop, Ryan has only a 1.7 fWAR which is just above average for all MLB shortstops.  

Center fielders have it all.  They can run, jump, hit for average, hit for power, and play a highly valued skill position.  The best players in MLB in 2012 thus far have been center fielders.  Four out of the top 10 players according to fWAR this year play centerfield.  They are Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, the Braves Michael Bourn, the Tigers’ Austin Jackson, and Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout.  Ever heard of these guys? If you haven't, I would advise learning about them, because all 4 are now and will be the best overall players in Major League Baseball for years to come.  

Eight years, $160 million dollars.  That is the contract recently signed by Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp. Orioles center fielder Adam Jones recently signed a 6-year $85.5 million contract and others like B.J. Upton (Rays) and Michael Bourn (Braves) will soon be far wealthier men. Why will these players be paid so much money? Production.  Center fielders not only hit for average and power, but they also play great defense, and steal bases.  These deliverables, performed at a high level, usually lead to large contracts and, occasionally, world domination.  

Two of the best defensive catchers in the majors are Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz.  Include Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, and you have just identified a pair of players who have already signed huge contracts, Mauer and Molina, and a pair who will soon demand large sums of money, Ruiz and Posey.  Oftentimes, teams care less about offensive production from their catchers because of the value placed on a catcher's defense.  The four aforementioned catchers all hit well in addition to playing above average defense, and thus, like the center fielders mentioned above, represent some of the most complete players in all of Major League Baseball. 

Making the Big Money

What can we conclude from all of these data? Up-the-middle positions represent the keystone of a baseball team.  The 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies, Minnesota Twins, and St. Louis Cardinals all have up-the-middle combined fWARs of 8.2 or above -- at least one standard deviation above the mean -- which proves that these squads will most likely remain competitive this season and have strong foundations on which to build for years to come.  

While up-the-middle position players represent the most complete athletes in baseball, corner outfielders, third baseman, and 1st basemen get much of the publicity and money.  The top 15 largest contracts ever signed in baseball history have been as follows: 

Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez 
3B (Contract #2)
Albert Pujols
Joey Votto
Prince Fielder
Derek Jeter
Joe Mauer
Mark Texiara
C.C. Sabathia
Manny Ramirez
Matt Kemp
Troy Tulowitzki
Adrian Gonzalez
Miguel Cabrera
Carl Crawford

Nine of the 14 non-pitchers on the list play a corner outfield, 1st or 3rd base.  Interestingly enough, the positions getting the largest contracts are not the same as those with the highest valued players.

In the End:
Whether you are at the ballpark, watching on television, listening on the radio, or checking the scores on the internet, next time you want to evaluate a team about which you know very little, check the players at catcher, 2nd base, shortstop, and centerfield.  If those players are solid, the team may be more formidable on a game-to-game basis than perceived by the general public.  

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