The Issue of Positional Inequality

As we rolled out the Positional Power Rankings over the last week, several people noted that there were some pretty large variances in the WAR totals between positions. Indeed, if you look at the totals by position, you see two distinct groups:

Catcher: +107 WAR
Center Field: +104 WAR
Third Base: +101 WAR
Left Field: +81 WAR
Shortstop: +80 WAR
Second Base: +80 WAR
First Base: +78 WAR
Right Field: +74 WAR

Side note: The projected WAR totals here are higher than observed WAR totals because projections essentially put a lower bound on bad performances, with very few players projected for negative WAR. Because of injuries and the non-normal distribution of variance around a player’s true mean, it’s easier to underperform than overperform projections, and inevitably, there will be below replacement level performances in MLB next year. Because of this lower bound, the replacement level in this system is more like 39 wins, so adjust accordingly. Now, back to the subject at hand.

C/CF/3B are all expected to perform at a similar level, and that production is quite a bit higher than the LF/SS/2B/RF/1B group. Instinctually, this feels incorrect, but I think it’s probably worth talking about the reasons for why positions might not be projected to provide the same value.

As far as I can see — and I very well might be missing something, so don’t take this as the authoritative last word on the subject — positions could be forecast for unequal production for three reasons:

1. The distribution of playing time could be more heavily skewed towards starters at those positions.

2. The positional adjustment aspect of the WAR formula could be overstating the gap in defensive value between positions.

3. The natural cycle of talent could have pushed better players towards those top three spots at this point in time.

The first one is pretty easy to test, as we can just look at the projected PA totals for each of the 30 projected starters. Here are those totals, by position.

C: 421 PA, 66% of allocated PAs
1B: 560 PA, 80% of allocated PAs
2B: 532 PA, 76% of allocated PAs
SS: 554 PA, 79% of allocated PAs
3B: 551 PA, 79% of allocated PAs
LF: 530 PA, 76% of allocated PAs
CF: 546 PA, 78% of allocated PAs
RF: 544 PA, 78% of allocated PAs

We can basically eliminate this as a primary reason for the differences. The gap between the highest and lowest playing time allocation is just over 800 PAs, and both of those spots actually come from the lower performance grouping. Starting CFs are not getting significantly more playing time than starting RFs or LFs. Starting 3Bs are expected to play less than starting 1Bs. Starting catchers are correctly expected to play the least of any position, and yet they still come out on top in terms of total projected WAR.

That leaves us with points #2 and #3, with the former representing a potential flaw in the WAR calculation and the latter simply being a reflection of the shifts in talent over time. These aren’t as easy to test as point #1 was, and the reality might be that it’s some combination of the two. But, let’s talk through both of those points real quick.

For those who aren’t aware, the positional adjustments are a necessary component because defensive metrics calculate a player’s performance relative to his peers at that position, but an average defensive shortstop is almost certainly a superior defender to an average defensive second baseman. Same for center fielders versus corner guys, and third baseman versus first baseman. The positional adjustment is in the calculation in order to reward players for their ability to defend the more important spots on the field. The scale of the position adjustments, per 162 games played:

Catcher: +12.5 runs
First Base: -12.5 runs
Second Base: +2.5 runs
Third Base: +2.5 runs
Shortstop: +7.5 runs
Left Field: -7.5 runs
Center Field: +2.5 runs
Right Field: -7.5 runs
Designated Hitter: -17.5 runs

In other words, catchers get the most defensive credit of any position, then SS, then CF/2B/3B, then LF/RF, then 1B, then DH. This mostly follows the traditional defensive spectrum first popularized by Bill James, though it slightly eschews the idea of “up the middle” defenders by equating third baseman and second baseman as equally challenging defensive positions. If you’re interested in where these numbers came from, I’d highly encourage you to read the conversations on positional adjustments at The Book blog over the last few years.

Because we can assume that Major League teams are not stupid and that they understand the distribution of balls in play, it’s a pretty safe assumption that center fielders — as a whole — are always going to be better defenders than corner outfielders, and shortstops are always going to be better defenders than third baseman or second baseman. However, offensive performance doesn’t always follow this same scale.

Last year, for instance, the average center fielder hit .265/.330/.418, while the average left fielder hit .261/.326/.431. Meanwhile, catchers (.248/.318/.400) outhit both shortstops (.257/.310/.388) and second baseman (.257/.318/.383), while third baseman (.266/.327/.427) hit nearly as well as both corner outfield spots. For the three positions that are projected significantly better than the others, we essentially find evidence that their most recent offensive performance is significantly better than it has been historically, relative to their peers at least.

However, this doesn’t necessarily answer the question. Does this mean that catchers, third baseman, and center fielders are just better hitters now than they used to be while also maintaining the same gap in defensive performance that has been seen in prior years — meaning that this is just a cyclical talent boom at those three spots — or are Major League teams redistributing their talent around the field in a way that is narrowing the gaps between positions both offensively and defensively?

Mark Smith wrote about the evolution of the catching position two weeks ago, noting that the recent trend has catcher offensive performance spiking while caught stealing rates are steadily falling, which might suggest that teams have been more wiling to trade defense for offense behind the plate in the last few years. Just from an anecdotal perspective, you could find support for that idea in the crop of starting catchers being handed jobs this year — Jesus Montero, Wilin Rosario, John Jaso, and Tyler Flowers are all bat-first catchers that have poor-to-awful defensive reputations, but they’re all penciled in as big league regulars for 2013. Of course, there are also some pretty terrific defensive catchers at the beginning of their careers as well, and there have always been bat-first catchers in Major League Baseball. Just pointing at those four doesn’t prove that teams are definitely shifting towards offense behind the plate.

The same is true in the outfield. We could point to Shin-Soo Choo going to CF and Mike Trout going to LF as examples of how the defensive gap between the positions could be shrinking, but then that might be somewhat offset by increasing CF playing time for elite defenders like Peter Bourjos and Ben Revere. Anecdotal evidence just isn’t going to answer the question definitively, as you can find an example or two to support any conclusion you want to come to. I’ve seen people write that Choo’s move to center is a sign that teams are moving away from overrating defense, while ignoring the fact that the Angels chose Bourjos over Kendrys Morales, the Nationals chose Denard Span over Michael Morse, and that the Rangers are replacing Josh Hamilton with Leonys Martin.

It certainly seems possible that the positional adjustments for outfielders were based on the traditional model of a speed-and-defense guy in center flanked by a couple of lumbering sluggers in the corners, and that teams are beginning to adjust their rosters to include more speed-and-defense guys in the corners, which would narrow the gap between CFs and corner guys in both offensive and defensive performance. Mark Smith wrote about this too, and noted that it seems to be that left fielders are seeing an uptick in stolen bases and a downturn in power, which would go along with that theory.

But, again, that’s not conclusive evidence that the positional adjustments are outdated. If you believe in the offensive-dampening effects of PED usage, it could be that more corner outfielders were negatively affected by the limitations of chemical enhancement than center fielders, and has disproportionately deflated their offensive performance. It could also just be a normal fluctuation with a handful of great players all coming into their primes at the same time. This has happened before, as center fielders hit better than right fielders for a stretch of time when guys like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were running around the outfield. We can seek to explain these kinds of variances as much as we want, but sometimes, it really is just randomness.

I’m at least content that we were able to eliminate an error in playing time projections as a major influence of the differences in projected WAR between positions. The question of whether the positional adjustments need, well, adjusting, is one we’ll continue to explore. It’s possible that corner outfielders are both worse hitters and better fielders than they used to be, which would lead to the fixed positional adjustments overrating center fielders and underrating corner OFs. It’s possible that teams are now trading defense behind the plate to get more thump in the line-up, and that the positional adjustment for catchers is too high.

At third base, though, I think we might just have a pretty exceptional crew of talent right now, at least relative to the weak crop of second baseman and first baseman. Guys like Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, and Pablo Sandoval are excellent players, and the position is deeper than I remember it being in some time. We can’t look at the fact that 3B are projected for 25 more WAR than 1B as clearly wrong. There are natural cycles of talent, and in looking at the groups of players at each position, the idea that first baseman are currently as good as third baseman does not ring true.

Positional inequality is a real thing, and it does vary based on the population of players in the sport at any given time. That said, it’s worth investigating whether or not the fixed positional adjustments in WAR are overrating some positions and underrating others, and you can bet we’ll be writing more about that subject in the coming weeks.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Second base is way harder to play in 3…2…1