The evolution of offensive production at each position

With another season of baseball almost upon us, so to is another six months of enduring the same tired refrains from our television and radio announcers. Because televised spring training games are too often the first reminder that the mute button may have been the greatest invention of the 20th century, it’s difficult at times to remember that not all of this recycled rhetoric is entirely baseless.

Some of it will be obviously true, and some will be very obviously untrue, but some of these anecdotal axioms spoken during the course of a game will outright stump us.

For instance, when each of our favorite teams arrives for a series in Baltimore this summer, it is likely that we will hear quite a lot about Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken and how his career “changed the position forever”.

This certainly seems plausible, but I’ve been burned too many times before by the hyperbole of mainstream broadcaster narrative to simply assume this is true based upon the frequency with which it is repeated. So I decided to see for myself.

A quick Google search led me to a quasi-study at Business Insider. The author alleged that shortstop OPS had in fact risen only alongside the leagues’ OPS. Of course, OPS is not the best evaluator of offensive production, and a study really ought to include both league and park-adjustments to satisfy the hungry analyst.

So I ran a quick query on my Retrosheet files and found that the exact opposite was true—that shortstops have become substantially more productive at the plate since Ripken’s debut in 1981.

Little did I realize at the time that Fangraphs already offers these incredibly helpful positional splits:

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Since Ripken arrived in Baltimore in 1981, up until his retirement in 2001, the average wRC+ for major league baseball shortstops has improved significantly, from 75 percent of league average to 85 percent. Of course this won’t exactly come as a shock to those of us who remember the feverishly-hyped “big three” in the late ’90′s when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra seemed to help usher in the new wave of offensively potent shortstops.

These days, that torch has been passed to the likes of Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki. How much of this offensive explosion from the league’s shortstops is actually owed to the Iron Man remains a matter for debate, however.

Of course, if shortstops are on the rise, then it’s only natural to suspect that another position has therefore been on the decline. Let’s make a quick trip around the horn, then, and evaluate the changes in wRC+ for all infielders over the past six decades:

image

Other than shortstop, it appears that the infield positions have remained at relatively stable levels of offensive production over the last half century.

For a while during the 1990s, it seemed as though baseball’s third basemen were heading down a dark road, slipping all the way to 90 wRC+ in 2003. But the position’s offensive reputation has been properly restored just recently with the emergence of several hot bats from the hot corner. Alex Rodriguez famously made the shift over from shortstop in 2004, while players like David Wright, Evan Longoria, Jose Bautista and now even Miguel Cabrera have also had big years to help redeem the position.

The league’s first basemen experienced a noticeable slump when the American League introduced the designated hitter to the game in 1973. It’s reasonable to assume that many teams in the junior circuit shifted some of their hottest hitters from first base to the DH slot in the lineup at that point. Recovery took a little more than a decade, but by the late ’90s first basemen had fully returned to their pre-DH levels of performance.

There was a tremendous surge in catchers’ hitting over a 15-year period from 1970-1985, after which the position promptly returned to its historical levels of offensive production. This plateau owes most of its existence to the peak seasons of Hall of Fame backstops Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter, as well as a strong supporting cast that included Thurman Munson, Joe Torre and Ted Simmons.

But the outfield is where we find the true loss of offense of the last 50 years:

image

All three outfield positions have fallen dramatically in offensive vigor since the outfield’s heyday in the 1960s. When there were finally no more traces of the terrific New York triumvirate of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Sniderremaining in baseball, center fielders rapidly began a steep descent into lackluster performance at the plate that ultimately reached its nadir in the early 2000s. At that point, major league baseball’s center fielder was as ineffective with the bat as its second baseman (about five percent below league average)—something that baseball had not seen since the earliest days of the live ball era in the 1920s.

Left fielders have witnessed a similarly sharp decline, with the exception of a fierce but brief surge at the turn of the century. This strange intermission is probably wholly attributable to the superhuman feats of a singular left fielder named Barry Lamar Bonds from Riverside, Calif. After Bonds’ retirement, the position immediately resumed its decline, essentially matching the level of center fielders’ production in recent seasons.

Left field used to be the residence of Goliaths. Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson were just a few of the left fielders that would terrorize pitchers back in the ’50s and ’60s, but since then the position has grown rather quiet. Matt Holliday may be the best left fielder of the last five years, and as good as he is, he pales in comparison to the offensive giants of the past. Ryan Braun may be the position’s only hope.

Right fielders, outside of the peak Bonds era, seem to have evolved into the decidedly superior corner outfielder since at least the mid-1970s. There was cause for concern in the early ’90s that the position was weakening, but right fielders soon returned to their top spot in the outfield hierarchy. Notable right fielders that include Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez led the charge in the earliest years of the new century.

Implications

Heading back to 1900, we can see the wavering tides of offense from each position is often more than simple randomness. More often than not there are clear landmarks in the history of the game that can be credited for each transition period—the introduction of the DH, the rise of Astroturf, a change in run environment, etc.

I’m sure there are quite often multiple reasons for any of these shifts, but it’s likely the primary suspect in most of these cases would simply be a change in the appreciation of the defensive value of the position in question. Are managers and front offices in recent years now valuing outfield defense more than they have in the past? And is this in turn leading to the sharp decline in offensive production from the left and center field positions especially? These are certainly questions I hope to explore here at the Hardball Times in the very near future.

But what also interests me is the uncommon explanation. Are there reasons other than defense that may be causing these changing trends in offensive contribution from the varying positions?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

References & Resources
All stats come from Fangraphs and Retrosheet.

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Comments

  1. William said...

    I believe that the most important change in the past half century has been the narrowing of differences in offensive production by position. In the 1960s the best offensive position was over 60% more productive than the worst, whereas in the 2000s the difference was down to about 30%, half the difference.

    This can be attributed to a general increase in the athletic quality of the pool of major-league baseball players.  Their abilities form a bell curve with a “wall” on the right side determined by the limits of human potential, and as average ability increases, the bell curve becomes steadily more compressed against that “wall”, and hence with steadily reducing percentage difference between the stars and the replacement-level players.

  2. James Gentile said...

    The ‘compression’ effect you mention is something that interests me a great deal. It has been suggested more than once that pitchers can be seen as a form of constant for hitting skill throughout the years. Pitchers’ wRC+ continues to drop dramatically compared to the rest of the league, which may be evidence of the rapidly inflating talent pool. (As demonstrated by the chart from the “back to 1900” link in the closing paragraphs.)

  3. William said...

    One early sabermetric study I read decades ago looked at players’ in batting averages in each major league over time. As expected, the ratio of the standard deviation of individual BAs to league BA increased the further back you looked, but was actually less in the very early years (NA and earliest NL).

    This is explainable if we assume that the talent pool in the earliest years was so poor that most regular players were nowhere near modern playing levels, and so few players were “good” that the league SD was relatively low. As the league got better, there were more “good” players, so the SD went up, but most players were still quite bad. Eventually, the percentage of “poor” players declined to the point that league SD started to decline, and that process has continued to the present day.

    It would be interesting to see the same thing redone using RC or other modern stat.

    It would also be interesting to compare absolute league SDs and relative league qualities (by looking at players who switched leagues) for major leagues in the same year (NL vs AA and NL vs AL) and see if there is a useful correlation between the two numbers.  If it exists, this would allow for a measurement of absolute league quality over time, which would certainly be of great general interest.

  4. David P Stokes said...

    I wonder if part of the decline in OF offense in the last 30 years or so might be due to the decline in stolen bases.  LF and CF are prime postions you expect SB from.

  5. Bill Rubinstein said...

    These trends may be related to the narrowing of fielding ability, with fielding averages constantly rising, and the gap between the best and worst fielders at a position constantly decreasing. In olden days, a team might have used an outstanding glove man who couldn’t hit because he saved the team runs that way, but today there is little difference between an outstanding fielder and a mediocre one, so a team is more likely to use a good hitter whose fielding is below average.

  6. James Gentile said...

    I also feel obligated to mention that while shortstops’ offense has improved in the post-Ripken era, it is really just returning to the level it was at prior to the 1970s. Shortstops were not as productive at the plate during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but their performance to day matches that of the ‘50s and ‘60s

  7. James Gentile said...

    @David, Fangraphs current version of wRC+ does not include SB and CS, so that should not explain the decline in these tables.

  8. Guy said...

    I think William is exactly right:  what you are mainly seeing is the narrowing range of offensive talent.  Strong positions are becoming weaker, and vice-versa.  There are two main exceptions.  One is 1B, where offense has not declined.  My guess is that teams have become more aggressive at moving good-hitting OF to 1B when their defense doesn’t measure up (which also reduces offense from the OF). 

    The other exception is C, where offense has also remained steady, while other weak-hitting positions have improved.  That’s a bit of a mystery.  Perhaps it’s because the act of catching itself reduces offensive production, apart from the players’ offensive talents (as Tom Tango has demonstrated).  There is no reason that would change, and with rising pitch counts per game perhaps the wear-and-tear on catchers is actually rising.

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