Posted by Andy on December 11, 2008
Recently I wrote that the Red Sox should try to keep Jason Varitek because catcher's offensive contributions have been steadily in decline. My metric of 20 HR, 75 RBI seasons was (reasonably) questioned by some, so here is a less arbitrary way of looking at it.
Using the basic splits across the major leagues (such as can be found here) I've graphed OPS+ contributions by positions as far back as the data goes, to 1956.
Here is the raw data:
So remember that an average major leaguer comes in at 100. A quick look at the above graph reveals things like:
- Overall, there is far less spread among the positions today than there used to be, save for the early 1980s when the spread was also small.
- First baseman have been the biggest contributors, leading baseball almost every year. The difference was huge back prior to the mid-70s, when 1B's occasionally had OPS+ values as high as 130!!
- Other above-average contributors have been RF, LF, DH, 3B, and CF, with each of those positions being above 100 nearly every single year.
- Centerfielders have been on a continuous decline over the last 50 years. In the late 1950s, they were as highly ranked as 1B and the corner outfielders. By the 1970s, third basemen had caught CFs. In the last 5 years, CFs have now fallen below 3B.
- Catchers, shortstops, and second basemen have been below average nearly all years.
- However, while catchers show a steady decline over this 50-year period, 2Bs and SSs have come closer to the pack, consistently hitting 90 or higher the last bunch of years.
- Finally, and more to the main point of this post, catchers how now fallen to be the least-contributing group in baseball. They have been dead last or tied for last in 7 out of the last 8 years.
There are numerous other interesting things that can be gleaned from the above graph, such as the bumps up in 1998 for 1B and RF when McGwire and Sosa when on their HR-hitting sprees. I encourage you to take a more detailed look at the plot on your own.
For those who'd prefer a simpler view, I offer this 10-year average of the above data. So, for example, the data for 2008 is an average of the values by position for the years 1999 through 2008.
This graph very clearly shows the gradual and continual decline of catchers. They were close to average in the 1960s but have steadily fallen off. By this 10-year average, they've actually become the worst group in baseball in the last 2 years.
Accepting the fact that catchers are the least productive hitters, this doesn't mean that the Red Sox should accept a terrible offensive player at the position. What it does mean, though, is that they are unlikely to be able to find a catcher that is a truly significant contributor, and assuming that Varitek's value to the pitching staff is real and significant, I feel that they are better off with him than with some other offensively-average catcher.