Who Is Baseball’s Most Well-Rounded Position Player?

The title of this post is a question I asked in my own head yesterday. As to what precise set of circumstances led to the question, I can’t say — nor does the effort required to conduct a full audit of my memory seem justified. The main virtue of the question is that it’s led to the production of Content, which one finds below and which has allowed the present author to delay briefly his perpetually imminent dismissal from FanGraphs. And perhaps it possesses a second virtue, as well: that those, having wondered idly the same thing, might now observe an attempt at supplying an answer.

And, in fact, the answer probably does have some real-live implications. Yesterday in these pages, for example, Craig Edwards performed an examination of Chris Davis’s free-agent candidacy. Edwards found something that isn’t likely to surprise anyone — namely that, whatever Davis’s virtues, a broad base of skills isn’t one of them. His power is prodigious; his contact abilities and defensive acumen, decidedly less so. To whatever degree Davis is compensated this offseason, he will be compensated for his power on contact. To the degree that Davis is successful in the future, it will be for that same trait.

Meditating on Davis in this way naturally leads to the equal and opposite line of inquiry: which player is least dependent on a single skill or trait?

To answer the question, I utilized the Steamer projections available here at the site. To begin, I found every batter projected to record 100 or more plate appearances in 2016, a collection of about 500 players. I considered the members of this group the ones most likely to compose 2016’s position-playing regulars. Next, I prorated all the remaining players’ projections to 600 plate appearances. The presence of catchers in the sample, which type of player tends to average fewer plate appearances in a season, perhaps distorts the outcome slightly. But not greatly. And not to such an extent that it appears to affect the results in a substantive way. What I did next was to calculate the z-scores of the ca. 500 players by three categories, each representing a different means by which a hitter might provide value: park-adjusted batting runs, baserunning runs, and defensive runs (which last figure includes both positional adjustment and projected fielding runs).

Finally, I endeavored to identify a small group of players who might regarded as “candidates” for the distinction of Most Well-Rounded. In this case, that meant isolating all the players who were projected to record z-scores of +0.5 or better in the three categories mentioned above (batting, baserunning, and defense).

This produced a collection of eight players, featured below. Note that all column headings preceded by a -z- represent z-scores. zAvg denotes the average of all z-scores in question.

Most Well-Rounded Players, Attempt No. 1
Name Team Hit BsR Def zHit zBsR zDef zAVG WAR
1 Jason Heyward FA 15.4 2.2 7.5 1.6 1.6 1.0 1.4 4.7
2 Carlos Gomez HOU 2.4 2.3 8.5 0.6 1.7 1.1 1.1 3.5
3 Lorenzo Cain KCA 3.1 1.3 9.1 0.6 1.0 1.1 0.9 3.5
4 A.J. Pollock ARI 4.7 1.3 7.0 0.7 1.0 0.9 0.9 3.3
5 Xander Bogaerts BOS 7.3 0.9 4.7 1.0 0.7 0.7 0.8 3.4
6 Matt Duffy SFN 2.5 0.9 6.0 0.6 0.8 0.8 0.7 3.0
7 Todd Frazier CIN 4.5 0.7 4.2 0.7 0.5 0.6 0.6 3.0
8 Devon Travis TOR 2.0 0.7 3.7 0.5 0.6 0.5 0.6 2.8

By this methodology, free agent Jason Heyward represents the most well-rounded of major-league position players — by some margin, in fact. Nor does this necessarily represent the very greatest of surprises. Regarding Heyward, the author has certainly thought, in a vague way, that he hits well and runs well and defends well. The reader has likely harbored the same notions. And the numbers support these impressions: indeed, Heyward is the only player projected to produce batting, baserunning, and defensive runs at a rate one full standard deviation better than the hypothetical league average.

As for the remaining names, it would be difficult to mount an argument against any one player’s case for well-roundedness. All seven of them produced at least two wins this past year — even Devon Travis, despite recording just 238 plate appearances — and all did so by means of wide-ranging competency, as opposed to one elite skill or another.

As for notable omissions, the reader might question the credibility of this methodology on the basis of Mike Trout’s absence from the table above. In fact, Trout’s exclusion is the result of decimals: while his projections call for him to produce batting and baserunning runs at a rate that exceeds the mean by multiple standard deviations, the precise figure for his defensive forecast yields a z-score of 0.464. In other words, if you’re offended by Trout’s omission, recognize that it was the result almost of a technicality.

That said, there might be a weakness inherent to the methodology employed up until this point — namely, that it has focused very much on broad, run-based outcomes, particularly on the offensive side of things. With regard to Chris Davis, I noted before that his lack of contact is what puts so much pressure on his power. Which is to say, not only are Davis’s results reliant almost exclusively on one source (his offensive production), but his offensive production is also mostly reliant on one source (his ability to hit home runs), as well.

To address this lack of nuance, I added three other metrics with a view to better capturing a well-roundedness not merely in the number of runs produced, but also in the means by which they’re produced: walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power. Given the addition of the categories, I needed to lower the threshold for eligibility slightly in order to arrive at a collection of players of similar size to the one above. Below, then, are all the players to record a positive z-score (so, 0.0 or better) in all six of the relevant categories.

Note: given the quantity of categories, I’ve omitted all raw totals — and included only z-scores — for spatial reasons. Note also: strikeout rate z-scores have been inverted. In other words, batters who are projected to record strikeout rates lower than league average receive positive scores.

Most Well-Rounded Players, Attempt No. 2
Name Team zHit zBsR zDef zBB% zK% zISO zAVG WAR
1 Jason Heyward FA 1.6 1.6 1.0 1.1 1.0 0.7 1.2 4.7
2 Mookie Betts BOS 1.8 2.2 0.3 0.4 1.6 0.8 1.2 4.5
3 Josh Donaldson TOR 2.1 0.2 1.2 1.2 0.2 2.0 1.2 5.4
4 Carlos Correa HOU 1.4 0.3 0.6 0.5 0.6 1.0 0.7 3.9
5 Anthony Rendon WAS 1.3 0.4 0.7 0.8 0.6 0.5 0.7 3.8
6 Marcus Semien OAK 0.5 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.1 0.4 0.3 2.4
7 Aaron Hicks NYA 0.2 0.6 0.1 1.0 0.0 0.0 0.3 1.9

All the names here are compelling for one reason or another. Josh Donaldson‘s broad collection of skills, for example, has just conspired to earn him an MVP award; Carlos Correa’s, a Rookie of the Year one. Despite a lack of size or pedigree, Mookie Betts has likely established himself as decidedly above-average player. Aaron Hicks, meanwhile, enters the 2016 season as an interesting case study after having been traded to the Yankees.

What one finds ultimately, however, is that, even by this larger set of criteria, Heyward still distinguishes himself as the best among his peers, receiving a projection of +0.5 or more standard deviations better than the mean by all six criteria. And as a testament to the extent of Heyward’s well-roundedness, one finds that all of Heyward’s z-score figures fit within a narrow range, from +0.7 to +1.6. The implications of those results, rendered into English, resemble something like this: among all of the game’s above-average players, Jason Heyward is the one whose value is least reliant on any one source of production. In the event that one part of his skill set suffers, it’s unlikely to exert a catastrophic influence on his overall value. He is, perhaps, less vulnerable to attrition than almost every other player in the league.





Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

Carson,

I’m curious if you might be inspired to do a season-in-review Five NERDiest Games of 2015 recap? Using some sort of methodology like dramatic swings in win probability, number of lead changes, game time, or maybe the “top pitching duel” of the year, etc. For those of us with MLB TV who grow sad in January and need to find some replays for solace.

P.S. Interesting book title.

Confused
7 years ago

What’s the book’s title?

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago
Reply to  Confused

At the bottom of the post:
“Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.”

Keith Murdoch
7 years ago

Spirited Ejaculations?

Mr Slave
7 years ago

Ooh! Jesus Christ.