Home > Kansas City Royals, MLB > The Limited Value of Positional Baselines

The Limited Value of Positional Baselines

I have long despised the variable of defensive positioning in determining a hitter’s value.  Now, I’m well aware that the average first baseman will outhit the average middle infielder in any given year.   I also realize that you can’t put 5 overweight average hitting first basemen in your everyday lineup every day and expect to win games.  That’s elementary stuff, which, I think misses the point.

My problem with positional baselines have to do with their disregard to the quality of individual defensive play.  Conventional positional baselines adjust the offensive statistics of a defensive whiz such as Cesar Izturis, and a glove-butcher like Michael Young (when he played SS) at the same level.  There’s a large defensive difference between Elvus Andrus and Yuniesky Betancourt, but they are both given the offensive baseline of “shortstop”.

My logic is as follows:  players who post severely below average defensive numbers are likely playing out of position, whether or not their team realizes it.  Adjusting offensive numbers for the fact that their defensive value comes at a premium is pointless if you could be getting the defensive production from anyone on your roster, including the pitchers.

You could do this with any statistic that uses positional baselines, but I’m going to use VORP because it’s easy to understand (offensive runs above replacement level) and it doesn’t factor in any defensive value outside of the position played.  Take the curious case of the Kansas City Royals.  If we ranked their best hitters as rated by VORP, among their positional lines, they look something like this:

  • 2nd Baseman Alberto Callaspo – ranked 10th (17.9)
  • 3rd Baseman Mark Teahen – ranked 13th (19.5)
  • Shortstop Willie Bloomquist – ranked 17th (7.5)
  • Catcher Miguel Olivo – ranked 19th (5.9)
  • 1st Baseman Billy Butler – ranked 20th (9.2)
  • Centerfielder Coco Crisp – (still) ranked 30th (4.3) [out for season]

With the exception of Butler at first base (which I’ll get to in a second), those are all positive contributions from players at premium defensive positions.  The Royals rank 30th in the MLB in VORP because of a lot of sub-replacement performances at SS, but mostly because they are getting penalized for not having productive corner outfielders and DH’s in the system.

By far, those are the positions at which VORP shows the highest amount of variance, and the Royals don’t have a hitter among the top 30 at either outfield spot, nor do they have a DH ranked in the top 16.

VORP’s solution to make the Royals a league average offense–given the list above–is to acquire/develop two or three league-average hitters at non-premium defensive positions.  1) This is an expensive/long-term solution, 2) the Royals are going to look worse than this in VORP at the end of the season, despite likely offensive improvement, and 3) this completely ignores why the Kansas City Royals are a bad baseball team.

The Royals have an organizational logjam at first base.  Billy Butler is the best defender of the bunch, which is damning to all involved.  Mike Jacobs can barely be considered a defensive player at all, he’s arguably out of position at first base, and can’t remotely be considered for any other position.  Kila Kia’ahue is tearing up triple-A for the second consecutive year, but he’s another guy who profiles best as a DH.  Down the road, 19 year old prospect Eric Hosmer figures to be this teams first baseman/power threat, and he might be athletic enough to play a corner outfield spot, but for right now, is strictly a first baseman.

It’s simply not true that any of those players could actually gain value by moving to the corner outfield, however, this is exactly what defensive baselines suggest.  It seems like a simple solution: just slide Alberto Callaspo over to SS, DFA Jose Guillen, move Billy Butler to Right Field, call up Kila to play first base, wham, you have a good baseball team, or at least one that produces more runs above replacement than it currently does.  Uh, not exactly.

The easiest and cheapest way for the Royals to improve is to work on the defense: move players to LESS demanding defensive positions.  You could get better contribution from Alberto Callaspo at third base*, from Willie Bloomquist at second base, from John Buck or Brayan Pena in the outfield or at DH, and from Mark Teahen in the outfield.

*-Of course, there’s a logjam at third base as well.  It’s just a poorly constructed organization.

flickr.com/Baseball player photos

flickr.com/Baseball player photos

This is more or less what the (admittedly flawed) Yuniesky Betancourt trade was about.  It allows the Royals to get more value out of their existing players.  The acquisition of Coco Crisp allowed the Royals to get more value out of David DeJesus.  The emergence of Callaspo allowed the Royals to get more value out of Mark Teahen and Willie Bloomquist.  The development of Miguel Olivo and Billy Butler’s defense and power helps out the value of Brayan Pena and Mike Jacobs.

Defensive baselines simply obscure this effect because they see the team moving offensive players with value to positions where their offensive value gets mitigated.  But in reality, the offensive value of the player has not changed.  He’s simply a more valuable defender.

The assumptions made by positional baselines assume that if a team is lacking in production at positions where the baselines affect the production negatively, those positions can be replaced externally.  This is sometimes true, but often, a fallacy.  And it affects the very thing that positional value sets out to measure.

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