Change-UpJanuary 16, 2008
On the Margin - Positional Quality
By Patrick Sullivan

In each baseball game, both teams field players at the same positions. Other sports feature more interchangeability between the various players on the playing surface. Magic Johnson won the NBA Finals MVP as a rookie when he subbed for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center to clinch the title. Magic's big enough and tall enough to do that. While there will always be valuable guys like Chone Figgins playing baseball, needless to say, Jason Varitek could not have replaced a slumping Julio Lugo in the World Series.

This phenomenon engenders a situation in which, for the purposes of team construction theory, baseball contests end up amounting to a series of indirect, one on one match-ups. Let's stick with the Red Sox. Varitek was just ok by his standards in 2007 (.255/.367/.421) but he was good enough that on a given night, chances were the Red Sox had the better catcher than the other team. The same could be said of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez. None of these players is the best at their given position but more likely than not, better than the guy in the other dugout penciled into the lineup at the same position. Have the upper hand at enough positions, mix in solid pitching and you are in business.

Like anything else, quality at a given position in Major League Baseball will fluctuate. From 1996 through 2005, an annual average of 4.3 National League right fielders posted an OPS+ of 130 or better. You can see the full list here. Between 2006 and 2007, not one right fielder managed to post such a number.

Perhaps I am late to the game here but I think that positional quality at a given snapshot in time should factor into teams' talent assemblage. To break this down, let's have a look at the top-5 National League right fielders in 2007, according to Baseball Prospectus's VORP.

C. Hart     39.2
B. Hawpe    37.4
K. Griffey  31.1
J. Hermida  27.3
R. Winn     26.4 

So let's play GM now, National League GM to be exact. Such a weak top of the right field class screams opportunity to me. Sure, on the one hand you could throw a second-rate rookie out there and not take on too much risk because because even if he flops, other teams are not beating you too badly in right. On the other hand, a single bold move or exercising some creativity could net an enterprising team a decided advantage.

Take the Philadelphia Philles, for instance. They will be using a right field platoon of Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth. On the surface, there is not a whole lot to get excited about here. But let's look closer. Below are their respective three-year splits against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers:

           AVG   OBP   SLG
Jenkins   .292  .365  .504   
Werth     .243  .350  .389
           AVG   OBP   SLG
Jenkins   .209  .312  .372
Werth     .316  .413  .471

It looks to me like the Phillies might have managed to put together the NL's best right field for 2008. With an excellent southpaw-hitting right-fielder in the fold already and Jenkins out there and available, the Phillies acted. Jenkins is the sort of player who is often panned by some as exactly the sort of mid-market overpriced talent you should steer clear of. You pay up for premium talent, develop and play the scrap-heap for the rest of your team. The Phillies spotted the opportunity, however, and figure to be rewarded.

Another option in a situation such as this is to really go for the kill. What would it have taken to pry Magglio Ordonez away from the Tigers? With two years left on his albeit pricey contract, would it have been worth it for a team that's close but not there yet to part with some prospects for the opportunity to blow away the right field pool in the National League? Would the Angels ever part with Vladimir Guererro?

You don't make such a deal without careful consideration but to the extent that you would ever be willing to deal prospects for a name brand superstar player, isn't this precisely the sort of time to do it? Widespread mediocrity at a given position should trigger the aggressive, smart GM to get either creative, bold or both in order to net his team a quick positional advantage.


Always amusing to me when I see the position breakdown in a series preview and who has the edge where. We all know that in the end what matters in your run ratio, but this is a good way to organize one's thoughts about team construction.

Since you focused so heavily on RF, I just thought I would say that I consider RF and LF almost the same. Most players that can play one can get by in the other. So I think it may be more instructive to focus on what kind of production a team is getting from it's corner OF, for example.

There are other position pairs are also interchangeable to a lesser extent, like 3B/2B and 1B/DH. Teams need to look at all their options.

A poor-throwing LF would be a disaster in RF. In most stadiums, the RF also has to deal with the setting sun and more shadows than in LF.

I think as it is done here, the comparison of players by position makes sense, but it is a pet peeve with me that pre-season team comparisons are made that way. In fact I may have argued (quibbled over?) that point on this site before the 2007 season.

In a comparison of teams, it seems to me irrelevant if team A's Right Fielder is a better hitter than team B's. Suppose team A has the RF batting 3rd while on team B he bats #7? The only thing that matters when comparing right fielders is who is the better fielder. In other words, to use an example from a different position, Adam Everett is a better shortstop than Derek Jeter. That does not mean I would rather have Everett than Jeter, but if my choice is between Jeter batting second and Posednik batting ninth in LF vs. Crawford batting second and Everett batting ninth at shortstop, I might prefer the latter.

I always prefer that team comparisons are made by separating defense, which can be done position by position, and offense, which should be done by comparing lineups, not positions.

I do not think there is anything in your comment I disagree with, Bob.

All I was saying is that baseball is a zero-sum game and each team needs to field players at all of these positions. Given this, applying some of my thinking above can be instructive when evaluating at what positions you can gain your advantages more easily than others.

Oh, absolutely. That is why I began my comment as I did. I was not so much responding as digressing, although I think something in John McCann's post got me thinking about the issue I raised.

I would argue your point when you say that players are more interchangeable in other sports based on their position. Sure, Magic Johnson was a 6'9" point guard, and had the right size and skill set to play any position on the floor, but how many other players can you say that for? Would you start Jason Kidd at Center or Power Forward? Would you start Dwight Howard at Shooting Guard? Of course you wouldn't! Just as you wouldn't start Peyton Manning at Wide Receiver, LaDanian Tomlinson at Corner Back, or Tom Brady as an Offensive Lineman. Those players don't have the skill sets that would allow them to play those positions.

In football, you can line up with five wide receivers or three tight ends. The defense can play a dime or be in their goal line package.

In basketball, a team of five guards might have the speed, shooting ability, etc to knock off a bigger team.

In baseball, you play nine players (ten in the AL) at the same exact positions. All the time.

I think a good example of what you are talking about, Sully, is the 1970 Knicks/Lakers championship game 5. When Knick's center Willis Reed got hurt, NY used a lineup of small, quick players to harass Wilt and won the game. In essence, they played without a center. (Of course, they did get squashed in game 6, but with a hobbled Reed managed to pull out the clincher.)

Great post here

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Speak of trading for impact RFs.

What do you guys want to give me for Alex Rios?

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