The Tyranny Of The Corner Label

At some point in baseball history, someone decided that there were two groups of player types – “up the middle guys” and “corner guys”. For whatever reason, it was decided that defense was important at catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field, while offense was the priority at third base, first base, left field, and right field. Little guys were shuffled towards the middle of the diamond, big guys were contained in the corners, and the self-fulfilling prophecy became a convention.

The problem is that this is an overly simplistic way of separating players, and it doesn’t actually reflect where each position draws its talent from. Rather than cutting the diamond in two, we should really slice it into thirds based on the traits that actually land players at one spot or another.

The True Premium Athletes – SS, CF

It’s no secret that the best athletes in the game play shortstop. On nearly every high school team in the country, the shortstop is the best player on the field. However, there are some top notch athletes who don’t play shortstop, and it’s simply due to the fact that they throw left-handed. One of the prerequisites for playing SS is being able to throw with your right hand, and so the super athletes who throw with their left hand end up moving out to center field.

Because the right-handed throwing premium athletes can play both shortstop and center field, but the left-handed throwing premium athletes are essentially confined to center field, the pool of talent available at SS is inherently smaller than CF. This is why it’s harder to find a good hitting shortstop than any other position on the diamond.

The Good Athletes – 2B, 3B, and RF

This is the main area where the middle/corner divide breaks down. Second and third baseman are essentially children of the same parents, as they’ve been pre-selected to be right-handed throwers who were either judged to be too large or too slow to stick at shortstop. The tall kids with good arms go to third base and the short ones with iffy arms go to second base. Beyond that, there’s really not a big difference between second base and third base, which is why you see so much crossover between those positions.

Right field is the landing spot for left-handed throwers who aren’t quite good enough to stick in center field, and it is also the primary landing spot for a large right-handed thrower who was moved off of shortstop but had problems adjusting to the quick reaction times necessary at third base.

The Mediocre Athletes – LF, 1B, and C

These are the three positions where handedness and size don’t really factor in all that much. Left field is the spot for outfielders who don’t have the arm to play right, while first base is the spot for big guys who don’t move well enough to cover much ground. Because of the inherent advantage in having a tall left-handed first baseman to receive throws, there are some players at the position who could handle an outfield job but whose skills are best suited to first base.

Catchers often have similar athletic abilities to LF/1B types, but they are the ones who also have strong arms and aren’t overly tall, allowing them to be nimble enough to have good footwork behind the plate. There are also mental requirements for catching that a lot of players don’t measure up to, which makes this a shallow talent pool as well. You could argue for catchers being given their own section, but it’s becoming more and more common for catchers to share time at first base as they get older, suggesting that there is a natural shared talent pool here.

These are all generalities, of course, and there are examples of a player at every position who doesn’t fit the stereotype. However, breaking down the positions this way better reflects the actual peers for each position, and especially helps eliminate the bias against third baseman, who are unfairly compared against different player types who have different skillsets. This middle/corner breakdown is likely part of the reason why third base is the most underrepresented position in Cooperstown, and shifting away from that kind of mindset would help us better understand the value of players at differing positions.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

Excellent point with regards to the HoF.

In general I think people may understand position adjustment less today than they did in the olden days, particularly wrt awards.

Great catchers used to routinely win MVP awards even thought their raw totals weren’t the gaudiest in the league. Likewise excellent SS w/o big hitting stats. Jorge Posada has numbers that would have made him a slam dunk HoFer if he played in the 30’s or 40’s.