Study: Assessing Positional Value In Baseball

We’ve addressed the value of team offense, defense, and pitching, as well as the value (or lack thereof) of high-end relievers. However, is there a way for us to assess the importance of players at each positions? One of baseball’s most commonly used statistics is Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which assesses the value of players relative to the replacement-level player. Nonetheless, it is unclear if certain positions in baseball are more valuable than others, and by how much. Today, we’ll aim to answer that question; I’ve compiled data on each position since 2000 in order to create a hierarchy of importance.

To assess the significance of each position, I am using a very similar method to what Pro Football Focus has used to quantify positional value in the NFL. We’ll be looking at the mean WAR provided by each position, as well as the net runs they produce/save, from the start of the 21st century. By going back to 2000, we’ll make certain that certain outliers, such as Mike Trout and Barry Bonds, don’t skew the results of our findings. Without further adieu, let’s rank each position!

Before we start, let’s explain the statistics used. We’ve already defined WAR, but Offensive Runs Above Average and Defensive Runs Above Average will also be used. 10 runs is equal to a win, while the defensive rating follows a specific positional adjustment.

#1: Center Field

Since 2000, center fielders have posted the highest mean WAR (2.02) of any position in the MLB. Interestingly, it’s not as though the results have been confounded by Trout’s consistently terrific numbers, as evidenced by the figure below:

CF WAR vs. Season

The mean WAR totals for all center fielders from 2000-2019 (97.58) is actually slightly higher than from 2015-2019 (97.42), which weighs Trout’s numbers more – there aren’t any clear confounding variables present. Meanwhile, center fielders are the only position that provides positive value both offensively and defensively; it’s not a surprise that they generate significantly more runs (204.075) from the mean than any other position. Honestly, when taking both the nets run provided and the mean WAR, center field is easily the most important position.

#2: Starting Pitchers

The usage of starting pitchers has continued to decreased, but that doesn’t mean their value has decrease at all. Actually, the mean WAR for starting pitchers (1.97) has slightly improved when comparing the past five years to the whole 21st centuries. Now, whether it’s better to have one to two high-end pitchers or just a well-rounded group of average pitchers remain in doubt. Still, based on how much they impact the game when they’re on the mound, it’s clear an average starting pitcher is more valuable than an average player at any other position besides center field.

#3: Third Base

Right now, we’re in the middle of a potential evolution of the third base position, as it’s the home of more talented and athletic players than ever before.

3B WAR vs. Season

3B Off vs. Season

Surprisingly, third base hasn’t become more of a defensive-minded position, but rather one with significantly more offense. With players such as Alex Bregman, Anthony Rendon, Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, Yoan Moncada, and Rafael Devers, all under 30-years-old, it’s clear that the production of the position isn’t changing any time soon. Therefore, in order for teams to not suffer from a competitive disadvantage, they need to strive for high production from the third-base position.

#4: Shortstop

Similarly to third base, the offensive production at shortstop has only increased, as teams continue to place a higher priority for that rather than defense. In fact, 2019 marked the first time in the 21st century that shortstops had a positive offensive runs above average (5.6), which is staggering considering how deficient the position was for offensive producers (-523 OFF 2000). Also, just like with third basemen, plenty of the game’s top shortstops are under 30-years-old, while some of the game’s premier prospects (Wander Franco, Bobby Witt Jr.) play the position; it’s a position that is on the rise in terms of value and continues to evolve.

#5: Catcher

Based on defensive runs above average, catcher (338.83 mean DEF) is by far the most valuable position. Yet, it’s such an offensive-barren position, so the average catcher actually generates negative 1.49 runs above average, compared to other positions. Additionally, unlike third base and shortstop, it’s a position that has actually declined offensively (-304 OFF 2000 vs. -512.1 OFF 2019). Yasmani Grandal and JT Realmuto are the only catchers projected by ZiPs to have a WAR above 3.0, while 15 shortstops are projected to accomplish the same feat. Simply put, although catcher defense is very important, it’s such a talent-deficient position, and because of that, teams can get away with not having a very productive player behind the plate.

#6: Corner Outfield

Center fielders play the most important position in the MLB, but the same cannot be said about the players who line up next to them. Both left fielders and right fielders struggle to provide value defensively, making offensive production a necessity rather than a luxury. However, teams can combat this with trying to put athletes at the corner outfield spots- the goal should be to build an entire outfield of center fielders. Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Joey Gallo, and Ronald Acuna Jr., for example, all are athletic enough to play center field, which makes them naturally more valuable than players like Nick Castellanos and Trey Mancini, who struggle even at the corner outfield spots. This is precisely why athleticism still matters a lot when evaluating prospects- the flexibility to play all three outfield spots has more significance than many realize.

#7: Second Base

Outside of an outlier 2016 season (70.9 OFF), second base continues to be a defensive-minded position. However, it will be interesting to see if that changes soon. Due to increased usage of shifts, some teams have begun to devalue defense at second base, such as the Dodgers (Max Muncy), Reds (Mike Moustakas), and Brewers (Moustakas and Travis Shaw). Still, at the this time, most of the top players at the position – DJ LeMahieu, Ozzie Albies, Kolten Wong, David Fletcher – are superb defenders, although second base as a whole isn’t a very deep position. Hopefully, prospects such as Gavin Lux and Nick Madrigal can change that, but plenty of successful teams have been able to get away with subpar production at the position.

#8: First Base

Not counting designated hitter, first base is the position that gets hurt the most by positional adjustments with their defense. Therefore, in order to make an impact, players at the position have to be extremely talented offensively, which has become a problem in today’s MLB:

1B OFF vs. Season

1B WAR vs. Season

As demonstrated by the two graphs, there hasn’t been as much offensive production by first basemen, which has led to a significant decrease in their mean WAR. No first baseman posted a fWAR of 5.0 this season, and that includes Pete Alonso, who hit 53 home runs and posted a solid .358 on-base percentage. Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera are rare exceptions of dominant first basemen, but in general, it takes a special all-around hitter to stand out at the position.

#9: Designated Hitter

It’s pretty self-explanatory why designated hitters aren’t super valuable. While first basemen and corner outfielders have the ability to provide at least some value defensively, designated hitters can not, so they have to be excellent offensive contributors. With the growth of two-way players, it wouldn’t be a surprise if teams continue to de-value the designated hitter position, especially since it can be used as a mini-rest day for everyday players. For context, Edgar Martinez, considered one of the greatest hitters of all time, had to wait until his final season to make the Hall of Fame, while no designated hitter posted a 4.5 fWAR or higher lasts season. In my opinion, there isn’t much logic for teams investing long-term for a designated hitter.

#10: Relief Pitcher

Even though relievers are being used more, the mean WAR (0.29) of an average reliever has not changed. In fact, this stems exactly from the arguments I made in Study: Why High-End Relievers Aren’t Valuable In Today’s MLB.

Essentially, given the volatility of relievers and the depth needed to fill out a bullpen, I’d actually value a reliever less than the mean WAR; there is no way to know if you’re going to get ideal production from them, and it’s clear their value doesn’t merit the large contracts many are receiving.

So that is the official hierarchy of the specific positions, ranked by value. For another perspective, here is a nice way to get a quick view of the value of each position:

Position vs Mean WAR (2000-2019)-2

The gap between the different positions, particularly at the top, is very slim, and as we know, every win above replacement is the same. However, is it? The typical “average” player is much different at every position; average center fielders, third basemen, and shortstops provide more value than average first basemen and second basemen. In my opinion, teams could use positional value to know where to hide their weaknesses, and where to invest long-term. Especially over a long period of time, it’s difficult to predict how a player will perform on a yearly basis, but if they play one of the more valuable positions, they’ll be a better investment- even if a center fielder is just simply an average player, they are likely to be more valuable than an above-average first baseman.

Now, it’s worth noting that the more important positions are ones that require more athleticism, but that should only place a greater value on young, athletic stars. Positions such as first base and corner outfield, on the other hand, are easier positions to play, so they can be reserved for older players. Obviously, I’d rather have a 6 WAR first baseman than a 4 WAR center fielder in a given season, but over time, the probability is higher that the center fielder ends up being the more valuable player, based on the innate worth of the position.

Most of the time, in youth baseball, the best players are placed at shortstop, pitcher, third base, and center field. Well, it appears that even in Major League Baseball, those are still the key positions, and are thus the foundational areas of a sustainable contender. When assessing the state of their franchise, I’d recommend that front offices take into account positional value, and place a high emphasis at finding long-term answers at the more valuable positions.

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