Up-The-Middle Players Narrow Production Gap With Big League First Basemen

See also: Teams Wonder Where First Base Prospects Have Gone ($)

Only one first baseman, the Astros’ Jonathan Singleton, ranked among the Top 100 Prospects in baseball this spring. The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo joined Singleton on the 2012 preseason list, bumping that year’s total to two.

As you might imagine, that level of representation is historically low. Never before had fewer than three first basemen ranked among the Top 100, and the average number per list since 1990 has been six.

A list of the top 100 major leaguers today might also include fewer first basemen than it once did. That’s because traditional bat-first positions at the left end of the defensive spectrum—first base, left field and right field—have been ceding offensive ground to up-the-middle positions since the mid-1990s.

Put another way, the gap between a league average first baseman and a league average shortstop today has rarely been smaller during the post-1961 Expansion Era.

While many of today’s brightest stars play first base—think Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols or Joey Votto—the position’s overall level of production in 2012, as measured by OPS, was closer to the major league average OPS than at any point since 1991. In both seasons, first basemen were about seven percent better than the league average. Shortstops reached their peak levels at 2007 and again in ’11, both times coming in at three percent below average.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, let’s view OPS relative to the major league average at four representative positions, two at each end of the defensive spectrum.

 

OPS Index At Both Ends Of Defensive Spectrum

 

The thin black lines shadowing each position represent three-year moving averages, which serve to even out the random fluctuation from year to year. Using these trendlines, we see that the first base OPS index has dipped this low before, but not since the early ’90s. Meanwhile, the left field index is in complete free-fall and has not been appreciably lower during the past 25 full seasons.

At the other end of the spectrum, the shortstop and second base indices have risen steadily since the mid-’90s, each peaking in the late 2000s before cresting in about 2010.

Catcher production (not shown) has climbed steadily since 2002, and thanks in part to terrific seasons by Buster Posey and Yadier Molina in ’12, major league backstops recorded their highest OPS index (99) last year since the expansion year of 1977.

Just as they had theories to explain the dearth of first-base prospects in the minors, major league front-office executives offered possible explanations for the narrowing of the production gap between positions. They don’t think it’s a case of baseball having fewer elite power hitters on the corners than it once did. Rather, they think the up-the-middle positions have fought for—and won—their larger stake.

Body By Cal

Big-bodied shortstops like Cal Ripken in the 1980s and Alex Rodriguez in the ’90s helped alter the industry perception as to who could play the position. Tall, muscular third basemen like Scott Rolen and Troy Glaus helped redefine that position’s profile in the late ’90s. Today, 6-foot-5 catchers like Joe Mauer and Matt Wieters are proving that the position is no longer exclusively the domain of squat players with limited athletic ability. Led by players like Rickie Weeks, Robinson Cano and Neil Walker, a dozen starting second basemen today have listed weights in excess of 200 pounds. Only Michael Young crossed that threshold a decade ago.

In an earlier generation, all cited players might have been shifted down the defensive spectrum to less-demanding positions. These days, major league teams seem willing to adjust their runs created/runs allowed equations, sacrificing some marginal defensive value to add excess offensive value at premium positions where plus bats are more scarce.

That catchers, shortstops and second basemen are progressing to the league-average OPS suggests that more offensively-accomplished—and in many cases, more physical—position players are taking on more challenging defensive assignments in today’s game.

“I think this is both nature and nurture,” said one front-office executive with an NL club. “I think that bigger, talented players are playing premium positions because we have better athletes and people are getting bigger, but also the mindset with front offices and coaching staffs has been that ever since Ripken it can work.”

He’s not overstating his case. Across the board, today’s major league regulars are uniformly larger than they used to be. Sampling player height, weight and body-mass index at each position at 10-year intervals reveals that players, in the aggregate, have a BMI 12 percent greater in 2012 than they did in 1992.* For this exercise, players with 400 plate appearances (300 PAs for catchers) in the sampled season are considered regulars and are counted toward the total.

 

BODY-MASS INDEX • MLB REGULARS • 1992 vs. 2002 vs. 2012
1992 2002 2012 20-YEAR
POS BMI (HT, WT) BMI (HT, WT)
BMI (HT, WT) BMI CHANGE
C 25.7 (6-1, 195) 26.4 (6-1, 199) 29.3 (6-1, 221) +14.0%
SS 23.7 (6-0, 173) 25.6 (5-11, 185) 26.6 (6-0, 196) +12.2%
2B 23.9 (5-11, 172) 25.4 (5-11, 184) 27.1 (5-11, 195) +13.4%
CF 24.0 (6-0, 178) 26.0 (6-1, 194) 26.4 (6-1, 202) +10.0%
3B 24.9 (6-1, 187) 26.0 (6-1, 197) 28.7 (6-1, 219) +15.3%
RF 25.0 (6-2, 195) 26.1 (6-1, 197) 27.0 (6-2, 209) +8.0%
LF 24.8 (5-11, 180) 26.5 (6-1, 203) 27.8 (6-2, 215) +12.1%
1B 25.4 (6-2, 199) 26.7 (6-3, 212) 28.5 (6-3, 228) +12.2%

 

Sure enough, third basemen (+15.3 percent), catchers (+14. percent), second basemen (+13.4 percent) and shortstops (+12.2 percent) have seen the largest physical gains in terms of BMI during the past two decades. Those positions are most responsible for cutting into the offensive advantage held by outfielders and first basemen.

Furthermore, that teams are electing to go with more physical players at demanding defensive positions may explain why second basemen (+8.6 percent) and catchers (+3.7 percent) are actually hitting more home runs today per 700 plate appearances than they did in 2000, the height of the high-octane era. Third basemen (-7.4 percent) and shortstops (-12 percent) have weathered the two smallest declines in home-run output in that time.

Enhanced Run-Prevention Strategy

One reason teams may have deemphasized defense today is because fewer defensive chances exist, especially in the later innings of close games.

With strikeouts at an all-time high (19.8 percent of plate appearances last year) and with batting average (.255) and on-base percentage (.319) down at late-’80s levels, converting balls in play into outs isn’t as quite as important as it once was. It’s still important, of course, but if you don’t get the current batter, you have a much better chance of retiring the next one in the context of today’s game.

Check out the distribution of outcomes versus major league starters at three 10-year intervals. The walks column (BB) includes intentionals and hit by pitches.

 

OUTCOMES AGAINST STARTING PITCHERS • 1992 vs. 2002 vs. 2012
IN PLAY OUT OF PLAY
YEAR HIT OUT
SUM   HR BB SO SUM
1992 21% 54% 75% 2% 9% 14% 25%
2002 21% 51% 72% 3% 9% 16% 28%
2012 21% 50% 70% 3% 8% 19% 30%

 

The rate of plate appearances ending in hits, homers or walks against starters have remained fairly constant over the past two decades, but a five-point increase in strikeouts in that time has correspondingly raised the out-of-play percentage from 25 to 30 percent. That’s five percent more PAs in which the defense need not lift a finger. Those same in-play and out-of-play rates for relievers at the same 10-year intervals:

 

OUTCOMES AGAINST RELIEF PITCHERS • 1992 vs. 2002 vs. 2012
IN PLAY OUT OF PLAY
YEAR HIT OUT
SUM HR BB SO SUM
1992 20% 52% 72% 2% 10% 16% 28%
2002 20% 49% 68% 2% 11% 18% 32%
2012 19% 47% 66% 2% 10% 22% 34%

 

More than one-third (34 percent) of PAs versus relievers in 2012 did not involve the defense, thanks to a 22 percent strikeout rate that’s six points higher than it was in 1992. This means that—in the abstract—a defense’s success at converting balls in play into outs actually becomes less important as the game progresses. That’s because late-inning relievers as a whole rack up more strikeouts (22 percent) than they allow non-homer hits (19 percent). That wasn’t the case 10 years ago, let alone 20.

In addition to fewer balls in play leading to fewer defensive chances, a few other factors also may be helping teams cover for having defenders who may not be as rangy as their predecessors. As typified by the use of shifts on lefthanded pull hitters, teams today have much more sophisticated batter-tendency reports, which enables them to position the defense in an optimal fashion. This is particularly true for the game’s elite hitters, around whom opponents draw up more detailed game plans.

Another factor that covers for reduced defensive range is the near-extinction of fast artificial playing surfaces in the majors. Only Tampa Bay and Toronto feature artificial turf these days, but as recently as 1992, 10 of the 26 big league stadiums (39 percent) featured a non-grass playing surface.**

Performance Deflation

The use of performance-enhancing substances in baseball, particularly prior to the institution of the drug-testing program in 2005, is a thorny issue. No one really knows which players used or when they used or for how long they used.

However, multiple front-office executives believe that diminished PED use today helps explain why production, as measured by OPS, has not declined evenly across the defensive spectrum. At the height of the high-octane era, 1998 through 2000, teams scored 5.00 runs per game. During the three most recent full seasons, 2010 through ’12, they scored 4.33 per game. The league-wide OPS declined by 6.2 percent between those three-year windows, yet some positions have been hit much harder by the runs-scored recession than others.

 

OPS BY POSITION • THREE-YEAR WINDOWS
POS 1998-2000 2010-2012
CHANGE
1B .860 .792 -7.9%
LF .815 .752 -7.7%
RF .837 .776 -7.3%
MLB .772 .724 -6.2%
3B .780 .734 -5.9%
CF .780 .738 -5.4%
2B .750 .710 -5.4%
SS .727 .693 -4.7%
C .740 .707 -4.5%

 

“If more (slugging first basemen and left fielders) used and got a boost in power,” an NL executive said, “it would stand to reason they would have a more precipitous dropoff.”

Another mirrored that sentiment, saying that differences in production could be a matter of volume and also proportion. That is to say, a player with natural plus power on the 20-80 scouting scale might receive more benefit than a player with fringe power. Those players with plus power tend to stack up in greater numbers at the least demanding positions.

For example, if a 60 power hitter jumped a grade to 70 through artificial means, then his home run output would be expected to increase from the 20-26 range to the 27-34 range. Keep in mind that the average first baseman in 2000 was hitting nearly 30 home runs per 700 plate appearances—and corner outfielders about 26—and you can imagine the pressure to keep pace felt by players at the left end of the defensive spectrum.

At the other end of the scale, a middle infielder seeking to move from 45 fringe to 50 average in the power department would need to set his sights on 12-14 home runs per 700 PAs, the positional middle ground of the day. Any player using artificial means to reach those heights would be obscured by the record number of players hitting 35-plus home runs—the industry standard for 80-grade power—during the late ’90s and into the aughts.

 

Players With 35+ HR

 

Note that 1994 and ’95 were truncated strike years, so those player counts are artificially low, but the larger point stands. The largest quantity of 35-home run hitters in baseball history occur in 1996 and ’00 (27 players), 1999 and ’01 (24 players) and 2006 (23 players). Even if you quibble with the home-run threshold applied here, a similar trend exists in the number of qualified batters with slugging percentages of .500 or more. An all-time record 61 players slugged .500-plus in 1999, followed by 55 in 2000, 51 in ’98, 49 in ’01 and 48 in ’03.

 

* Data also sampled at 1982, but the BMI increase from ’82 to ’92 turned out to be just +1.9 percent.

** Parks with artificial surfaces in 1992: Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, Minnesota, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Seattle and Toronto.

The Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool and league-splits displays were essential to the creation of the figures and tables herein.