Replacement level defined

Where or what is replacement level? This is a question that does not have a perfect answer. The concept in baseball is this: what is the quality of player you could get for the least cost, such as major league minimum, without having to give up value elsewhere? Minor leaguers will make no more than the league minimum when first called up, but the better ones have value. They cost money to sign and develop, and the best have significant value, in that they can often be packaged and exchanged for major league superstars. Minor league free agents are a perfect fit for replacement level.

In addition, over the course of the season many players will be released and available on waivers; picking up someone like Richie Sexson is a replacement level option. He made a lot of money from the Mariners last season, but when the Yankees picked him up they were responsible for no more than the pro-rated league minimum. Every organization has a steady supply of minor leaguers who are not prospects, but are needed so they can field six or more minor league teams each. These are also sources for replacement level. Of these cheap, non-prospects, only the best will be considered for major league replacement level. The majority of minor league players are worse than this.

Exactly how bad of a hitter do you have to be for consideration as a replacement level player? Tango Tiger has recently updated his position adjustments. These are based on defensive statistics, not offense. He looks at how players who play multiple positions perform when switching for one to another, with some consideration for handedness, as lefties do not play second, third, or short.

Tango Tiger's Position Adjustments
POSITION          POSITION ADJUSTMENT
Catcher            12.5
Shortstop          7.5
2B, 3B, CF         2.5
Corner Outfield   -7.5
First base        -12.5

If we consider a replacement level player to be 20 runs below major league average, you get this:

POSITION          REPLACEMENT LEVEL
Catcher           -32.5
Shortstop         -27.5
2B, 3B, CF        -22.5
Corner Outfield   -12.5
First base        -7.5

So if your catcher is average defensively, and 30 runs per 150 games worse than average, he is still above replacement level! This has good implications for Jason Varitek, who is a pretty bad hitter now, but with a -11 projection still two wins better than a replacement level catcher. This means he should still be able to command near $10 million per year, though Scott Boras’ comparison to Jorge Posada‘s contract is a bit out there.

Do these adjustments match the reality of what hitters are available at each position? In a discussion of what the Red Sox catching could look like without Varitek, someone jokingly mentioned the retired Doug Mirabelli as an example, and it actually turned into a serious discussion of whether or not he was above replacement level. This did not pass my smell test, as my instincts tell me that I could easily find 100 or so better catchers than Mirabelli, at least given his age (38) and not having played last year. If he’s above replacement level, and there are numerous catchers without major league jobs who are better than him, then perhaps we are setting the bar too low.

I’ll compare the position adjustments to the preliminary CHONE projections of players who should be about replacement level. For the first test, I look at the best players who would not be on a major league roster, assuming talent was evenly distributed. A typical major league team has two catchers, two 1B/DH/PH types, five other infielders, and five outfielders. Multiply by 30 and I’m looking at the 61st-best catcher, 61st-best 1B/DH, 51st-best at SS, 3B, 2B, and 151st best outfielder. I’m looking at offense only, I have not integrated the major league defensive projections with this list, and I do not have minor league defensive projections. What I get is this (outfielders are all lumped together):

Top players not in majors
POSITION          REPLACEMENT LEVEL
Catcher           -23
Shortstop         -24
Second base       -17
Third base        -10
Outfield          -12
First base        -8

I’m very close on first basemen and outfielders, but at the other infield positions and at catcher these replacement level players would be rated as well above replacement level using Tango’s adjustments. Because of the minor league system, the 61st-best player at a given position may not be easily available, and I should consider a lower replacement level. I’ll give that a try—looking at the 76th-best or 91st-best player, depending on position.

Top players not in majors
POSITION          REPLACEMENT LEVEL
Catcher           -30
Shortstop         -29
Second base       -23
Third base        -23
Outfield          -19
First base        -17

Now we are matching everywhere except first base. Remember, my outfielders include center fielders and corners, so their average replacement level, based on position adjustments, should be about -16 runs, not far off the -19 shown here. Second and third bases are perfect matches, shortstop and catcher are off by fewer than three runs. The only position that sticks out is first base; position adjustment shows replacement level at only -7.5 runs, and I’m showing -17. First base, however, is considered the easiest position to play, and if your first baseman goes down with an injury, you don’t have to replace him with your Triple-A first baseman. You can bring an outfielder in to play first, or slide a second or third baseman over. With designated hitter (included in my 1B pool) obviously replacing him is even easier.

If there is one adjustment I make, it would be to bring the first basemen and catchers closer to the center—use -10/+10 for their position adjustment instead of the -12.5/+12.5. This fits the observed replacement level data a bit better, but maintains their relative rank on the defensive spectrum—first base is the easiest to play, catcher is the hardest (that is, unless your name is Mike Piazza).

Finally, using my updated position adjustments, here are a few examples of players at each position who are considered replacement level. I think it helps to put some names and faces to the concept. Remember, defense is not included:

Catcher (-30 runs): Koyie Hill, Guillermo Quiroz, Yorvit Torrealba, Curtis Thigpen
First Base (-10 runs): Brad Nelson, Tagg Bozied, Jeff Larish
Second Base (-22.5 runs): Mark Grudzielanek, Keith Ginter, Jamie Carroll, Damion Easley
Third Base (-22.5 runs): Michael Costanzo, Jose Castillo, Geoff Blum
Shortstop (-27.5 runs): Ray Olmedo, Jolbert Cabrera, Chin-Lung Hu, Angel Berroa (Thanks, Raffy Furcal, for these two)
Corner Outfield (-12.5 runs): Craig Monroe, Emil Brown, Bobby Kielty, Laynce Nix, Brad Wilkerson, Eric (that contract sure) Byrnes
Center Field: (-22.5 runs): Tony Gwynn Jr., Jason Tyner, Corey Patterson, Nyjer Morgan, Jerry Owens

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