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More on catchers

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.

5 Responses to “More on catchers”

  1. JohnnyTwisto Says:

    Very interesting to see this all visually represented.

    And unless there's a way to do this that I can't think of, this must have taken a long, long time to collect all the data. Thanks.

    There's a lot of interesting stuff to think about here...

  2. Andy Says:

    It was done manually but took only 15 minutes or so.

  3. whiz Says:

    Very interesting plots.

    The rise of the good-hitting SS is not surprising. The fall of CF may indicate that fielding is being emphasized more there, or just that there are not as many all-round athletes (Mays, Mantle type) playing the position.
    Corner outfielders are high, as expected, and more or less indistinguishable over the long run.

    I'm a little surprised that DH is not higher, as they only need to hit. I guess a lot of the good hitters are still good enough in the field and don't need to be "hidden" in the DH spot.

    There seem to be more positions above 100 than below. Since OPS+ is measured relative to league average, I guess that pitchers' batting stats are included in the league average OBP and SLG that is used in calculating OPS+, so that if pitchers were included it would average out to 100.

  4. JohnnyTwisto Says:

    Good observation on the pitchers. I'm pretty sure pitchers' hitting is removed when B-R calculates OPS+ for individual players, but it appears you are correct that it is left in for the purpose of the positional splits. It would be interesting to see pitchers added to the above charts. I believe their hitting has been on a steady decline since the beginning of professional baseball.

    There really aren't (and haven't been) that many regular DHs. It tends to be a spot that players are rotated through, for a rest or because they have a minor injury. I think you're right that most players who are really good hitters are athletic enough to play a position.

    I was looking at center fielders a while ago. Throughout baseball history, there had always been at least one Hall of Fame CF active, and usually a few. But there were none active between the retirement of Willie Mays and the debut of Kirby Puckett (10 years), and the only guy since Puckett who seems likely to be elected is Ken Griffey. A preponderance of the very best players in history have been CF. I'm really not sure why that no longer seems to be the case. Maybe some of those players are staying at SS now? But the drop in CF hitting began well before the rise in SS hitting. If major league teams are accepting less offense from CF now, should HOF voters take that into consideration when assessing the merits of someone like Dale Murphy or Bernie Williams?

  5. Andy Says:

    I didn't include pitchers because their numbers were so low compared to the rest--around 10 ranging down to less than zero. Definitely they really balance things out.

    Of course, if I plotted only the American League, there should be much closer balance around 100 since the pitchers rarely hit.