Home > MLB > The relative value of a Middle Infielder in top-level Baseball

The relative value of a Middle Infielder in top-level Baseball

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I’m not a basketball guy by any means, but the devotion of die-hard basketball fans to the value of a big man–even when field goal percentage is at an all time high–has always struck me as a bit perplexing.  Of course, having an interior threat is a huge advantage.  In general, the best teams have the strongest interior threats.  This is because the best teams have the best players, in general.  Having four strong players can separate the great teams from the other contenders.  And I don’t think any team has perfected the five guard offense, which means that interior players are obviously valuable.  The best players in the NBA, and even in college these days, all seem to be either guards or smaller forwards.  The proliferation of the three point shooting game has been one critical element, but it appears to me that to win in today’s game, you need not only to be able to play offense on the perimeter, but that defense on the perimeter might be even more important.

I’m most definitely a football guy, as the post distribution on this here sight might have had you guessing.  In football, a sustainable running game is huge competitive advantage over teams who can’t run the ball, but the best five offenses in the game every year are all throw-first teams, and the bottom five offenses every year all lack the ability to throw the football.  Perfecting the running game can separate you from the other ten teams around the median, all of which can throw the football, but need that balance to be able to sustain drives.

Running can make the difference between winning and losing in football, but it doesn’t make the difference between the Raiders and the Chargers.  If the Raiders woke up tomorrow morning with an offense that could sustain a 4.6 YPC average, they would still not be the favorite in the division, or really even a threat.  They would become much less of a pushover for the Chiefs, but the Chargers would just do what they have always done to them (the Raiders haven’t beaten SD since 2003 — the year before Drew Brees became Drew Brees).  It seems silly to cite a declining running game as the reason for underachieving expectations in football.  Sure, the decline might have been a factor, but no team is throwing all of it’s eggs in that basket at this point.  It’s a crutch.

It’s no secret that excelling at middle infield has become sort of a forgotten art in baseball.  There are great infielders in the game today, among them Derek Jeter, and Chase Utley, and Dustin Pedroia.  2009 was a year where all sorts of second basemen and shortstops got in on the fun: Aaron Hill, Ben Zobrist, and Marco Scutaro all had excellent years by any standard.

But baseball execs do not speak with words.  They use dollars to communicate.  And the dollars show that the most valuable players in the game don’t play the middle infield.  The highest paid players in baseball do two things primarily: they pitch and they hit.  Second basemen who can hit get paid like corner outfielders…while corner outfielders who can get get paid like first basemen and top pitchers.

But the most striking thing about middle infielders and salary structure might be that, with the exception of the elite players at those positions, salary structure seems to correlate best with how long these guys have been with their organization.  Orlando Hudson signed with Minnesota last week for one year-$5 million just a year after signing with the LA Dodgers for one year-$3.4 million.  The point of mentioning this is not to suggest that $5 million dollars is chump change or that Hudson should be paid more for what he offers.  Hudson has the 6th highest contract value on the Twins according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.  He and shortstop JJ Hardy are about $2 million behind Carl Pavano in 2010 salary.  And the Twins are one of the only teams in baseball who value their middle infielders in the tier right behind their superstars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.  They are also, coincidentally, a team that is quite comfortable simply going with farmhands at the position year after year if they don’t have an “elite” option.

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Hudson is a similar player in career value to A’s second baseman Mark Ellis, who is the third highest paid player on cash-strapped Oakland.  Ellis is one of two players for the A’s who commanded a contract extension beyond arbitration years.  Oakland, historically, plays the baseball market very well (if you’re reading this article, you probably won’t ask for a reference regarding that claim), but it’s very safe to say that Mark Ellis probably would not have been able to beat $12 million on the open market without signing for 4+ years.  I’m confident this is because, while even in a bad year Ellis can justify his contract (value of a marginal win aside), the league wide perception is that even the league’s worst teams have a farmhand that is worth at least as much as Ellis.

Placido Polanco was able to land 3 years-$18 million this offseason, which is obviously a bigger contract than Ellis or Hudson have been able to land, but not on a per-year basis.  Polanco is well worth the money spent, but one of the biggest underlying factors in the move for Philadelphia is that now, Chase Utley can be moved to a position where his contract doesn’t stand out quite as much from the rest of the pack.  The Polanco deal actually decreases the average contract for a second baseman significantly.

Right now, the second highest-paid second baseman in the game is Robinson Cano, who is something like the 7th highest paid position player on his own team.  The first and third largest second baseman contracts in MLB history (according to Cot’s, and excluding Utley) belong to Brian Roberts, a former Orioles farmhand turned superstar, turned overpaid leadoff man.  In fact, the most valuable second basemen in the game tend to be as noteworthy on the open market as the light-hitting second basemen whose only true value to a baseball team is their ability to play other positions.

To this point, the focal point has been on second baseman, but the same phenomenon is found in the shortstops market as well.  The biggest difference is that overall salary structure is much higher for the shortstops because having the ability to stand out there at short and hit homers has created an overvalued player of sorts. Michael Young, the player I have linked to here, has actually exceeded his contract in terms of marginal value every year since coming up in 2002, according to FanGraphs.  But at the price of a premium shortstop, Young is now a third baseman coming off a career year with the bat.  It seems doubtful he will ever be worth the yearly value of his contract for it’s duration.

Like at second base, there’s no market here below the elite level (Jose Reyes/Miguel Tejada/Hanley Ramirez/Jimmy Rollins/etc).  Marco Scutaro got two years-$12.5 million on the open market from Boston, and he was the best of the free agent class by far.  Those who make it to the elite level are not there because of defense, and tend to be moved to a position that maximized the value that teams have overpaid for.  Derek Jeter is a rare exception, for reasons that have to do in large part with intangibles.

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While teams have been quicker to pull the hook on shortstops than on their second baseman (based on anecdotal, but pretty clear turnover at the SS position), teams are still by and large satisfied with limited production at the position as long as the incumbent can field the position.  Turnover at the shortstop position tends to happen not when a player isn’t hitting, because each organization is loaded with shortstops who can’t hit above 7th or 8th in the major league lineup.  But when a player ceases to be a true shortstop, and is redefined as a light-hitting baseball player without a position (not to be confused with the much more valuable utility player who can still play a poor man’s shortstop off the bench), then teams move on without that player.  This tends not to happen as much with second baseman.

Turnover, however, is not really what I’m talking about.  Like the second baseman, the salary structure is completely out of whack at shortstop.  The aforementioned Twins have in consecutive years 1) extended farmhand Nick Punto for $4 million a year for two years, and then 2) not only offered arbitration to Stephen Harris, but bought out his first two years.  The only way either Punto or Harris will see extended time at shortstop this year is if a much more justifiable gamble on JJ Hardy doesn’t pay off, but both moves are still bad for optimal salary structure.  Meanwhile, defensive whiz Adam Everett has now played for the Tigers for $1 million and then $1.55 million in consecutive years, both open market contracts.  Jack Wilson, another defense-first player, will make $5 million a year over the next two years for the Mariners (he at least knows how to hold a bat).  Another open market contract.

These shortstops are coming on the extreme cheap for two reasons: because players are receiving extensions through arbitration for simply being a good organizational soldier, and because the obscenely low middle infielder replacement level standard seemingly justifies any extension on a shortstop (you’re still the exception here, Dayton Moore).  Organizations across the country have always been thin on shortstops who are actually prospects as shortstops, but pretty much everyone who plays the position for a whole year finishes with positive value, based on his positioning if nothing else.

Players who actually provide defensive and offensive value at shortstop (such as Scutaro) should be in much higher demand than the market suggests they are, but middle infielders are simply not paid as other baseball regulars, at least not to be regulars.  It’s the reason that Scott Boras can look at Dave Dombrowski in the eye and suggest that 2-3 WAR player Johnny Damon should receive his $7 million dollars in a lump sum instead of deferred payments, and the team that couldn’t afford (2.5-3 WAR) Polanco can’t just laugh in his face.  Damon is being offered more money for the 2010 season than either Curtis Granderson or Polanco made one year ago, has no other offers on the table, and yet, it’s the contract’s net present value–not dollar amount–that is keeping the sides apart.

Middle infield wins and corner outfield/infield wins are simply not valued on the same scale.  Having organizational goodwill does nothing for an outfielder that cannot hit or field.  Replacement level outfielders are much more likely to be non-tendered in their arbitration years than similar valued infielders.  It’s simple: outfielders, third basemen, and first basemen are still the currency of baseball.  While the defensive market is valued pretty well on the whole, players are still paid by their value to a batting order.  And while there is clearly a difference between players that hit 7th, 8th, or 9th in a strong lineup, and those who hit there in a weak one, the differences are not reflected monetarily in players that can’t hit higher in the order on that weaker lineup.

Which returns us to the original question: are middle infielders in baseball the equivalent of the post defender in modern basketball, or run defenders in modern football?  Are the differences between the best baseball teams and worst baseball teams pretty much independent of the players who play in the middle infield for those teams?  I ran a quick regression on shortstops and second baseman 2009 WAR vs. team wins, and I found that, overall, there’s a weak correlation between this one year sample, and team wins in 2009 (r-squared = 0.21).  The correlation is significantly stronger with shortstops than with second baseman.  It’s not a very large sample, but based on the evidence, it seems tentatively okay to conclude that teams do win largely independent of their two middle infielders, and of second baseman in particular.  That’s not saying much, but you could probably predict wins a lot better looking at the value of a team’s three best hitters or three best pitchers than their middle infielders.

So when you evaluate a move such as the Cardinals taking OF Skip Schumaker and turning him into a full time second baseman, you can kind of see the attitude by baseball executives towards those middle infielders encapsulated.  The move means little in terms of good-for-team or bad-for-team, rather, it’s an example of a team going out of its way to keep a player within the organization.  Schumaker didn’t make very much difference in the outcome of the NL Central–which was won by St. Louis.  The Cards failed to advance in the playoffs because Albert Pujols slugged .300 and Chris Carpenter and Joel Pinero combined to give up 8 earned runs in 9 innings.  Maybe if they invested heavily in middle infielders, they could have made it a round further.  Or maybe next time, Pujols will hit two homers in three games.  Superstars will always decide the outcome of small sample occurrences, and the available evidence suggest that, while the salary structure of the middle infielder might be off, it’s probably not worth holding your breath until they get equal treatment under salary law.

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  1. February 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I could offer up an additional premise for the nature of middle infield salaries. The value of these players is almost entirely dependent on the fact that they play shortstop of second base and the lower positional baseline that comes with playing there. For high value first basemen, or corner outfielders, particularly in the AL, the value will remain even if they have to move positions (whether due to a change in defensive skills, or a minor league prospect coming up who needs room to be made). For a middle infielder, there is much higher variability in their potential wins added to the team. This has been most evidenced by a lot of the ‘slugger’ type middle infielders who have larger body types and eventually become unable to play any middle infield position without costing their team a large amount of runs. Even if the player is currently playing a competent shortstop, there is a stronger likelihood that physical skills might decline and seriously hurt the defensive value of the player, necessitating a move away from the middle infield and destroying the value.

    Another likely outcome is the arrival of prospects to the majors who also derive their value from playing those positions. While organizations like to think they have a pretty accurate timeline when good minor leaguers will hit the majors, it is far from being completely accurate and unexpected and faster arrivals occur. If a shortstop was ready to be promoted on a team with a mid-tier shortstop, it would be almost impossible to get value from both of these players. However, for corner outfielders and infielders it is much easier to move players around and get value out of everyone.

    Remember that the expected value is a weighted average of all probabilities of expected returns. Defensive decline and prospect congestion are both outcomes that hurt non-elite middle infielders more than corner outfielders and infielders, and their value is subsequently hurt. Those who are paid ‘elite’ salaries are those who would still be valuable if moved away from their position, meaning that the aforementioned outcomes are not nearly as hurtful to their value.

    Finally, the correlation of .21 just shows me that 21% of wins are explained by the middle infielders, which is more than their share of at bats and defensive contribution. This would be evidence that they are more important than their individual contributions, but you also have to consider some dependence as teams with great shortstops have frequently addressed a lot of other needs first. The starting middle infielders probably make up about 20% of offensive opportunities and I’ll assume a 10% contribution to runs prevented. This would cause one to expect a 15% r^2 value (.5 * .2 + .5 * .1 ) if the variables were independent. Since this is not the case, one could say that the wins added are pretty proportional to what you would expect from 2 starting position players.

  1. February 22, 2010 at 2:20 am

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