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Sunday, January 29, 2012
Position Production: Up the Middle

By Christina Kahrl

As we discussed in the first installment yesterday, performance at different positions invariably moves around a bit from year to year, but what about at the skill positions up the middle?

It seems as if not a winter goes by when you won’t wind up reading stories about the shortage of good catching (followed by the arrival of Koyie Hill on your team’s roster), or how landing people who can contribute at shortstop in the major leagues is difficult.

It’s sort of nonsense, because when you get right down to it, the standards for offense at catcher are stronger now than they were when we had just 26 or 28 teams. The amount of offense you can expect from your shortstops relative to league offense is higher now than it was in the glory days of the shortstop trinity of the ’90s, when Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez seemed to redefine offense from a position where Barry Larkin and Cal Ripken had been the standard.

But at the same time, we’re seeing players like Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia rank among the best players in baseball at second base, while Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp might have deserved their leagues’ respective MVP awards for their seasons in center.

First, let’s start with the performance levels from second base, shortstop, catcher and center field, from 1987-2011, using Clay Davenport’s Equivalent Average as our rough year-to-year guide. As noted before, .260 is the single-season baseline for the major leagues.

MLB Chart 2
Up the middle performance at the plate, 1987-2011
Straightaway, you can see how on one level the skill position versus corner position distinction comes across as a bit arbitrary, because it’s clear that center field isn’t like the other skill positions. Indeed, last year it ranked as the third-most productive position, behind first base and right field. With that in mind, what does this mean?

Center field is strong, but not that strong. Historically, center fielders have always delivered more at the plate than all of the other up-the-middle slots, and also more than third basemen have in the past 25 years, averaging .269 over that time to the .267 teams have gotten from the hot corner.

What’s unusual these days is that center fielders did more good on offense in 2011 than third basemen and left fielders, something fairly rare. The last time anything like that happened was in 1984 -- a year when center fielders led both leagues in homers, Tony Armas winning the AL crown outright with 43 bombs for Boston, while Dale Murphy tied Mike Schmidt with 36 in the NL. But that was also a season when both leagues boasted a half-dozen really good players in center.

However, the standards for excellence in center field were higher, much higher, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and were of course higher in the ’50s, when Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Larry Doby ruled the middle pasture. In 1954, center field was baseball’s premium offensive position, with a .287 EqA. So, not to knock Kemp or Ellsbury, or Curtis Granderson and Andrew McCutchen, but as good as they are, this isn’t a new golden age for center fielders.

Second base has passed third base. I got into this a bit yesterday, and this might be considered a transient phenomenon, because it has been historically. However, do you really want to bet against Cano, Pedroia and Ian Kinsler? What if Jemile Weeks and Dustin Ackley break out as sophomores? What if Dan Uggla, Kelly Johnson and Aaron Hill all have great bounce-back seasons? What if Rickie Weeks and Chase Utley were healthy all year? But that last point is part of the problem for sustained greatness at the keystone: It’s a physically demanding position, and being a great player for any length of time at second base requires a huge element of skill and a little bit of luck when it comes to staying healthy.

Now, if they all come through, then sure, we could see a multiyear run for second base to wind up as a bigger impact offensive position than third base. But I’ll believe it after we see it.

Who needs the Trinity at short? The offensive standard for short has been higher over the past decade than it ever was at any point since division play started back in 1969. Remember, that’s despite four rounds of expansion.

Looking back, what really made Jeter and A-Rod and Nomar stand out, as Larkin and Trammell or Ripken and Robin Yount had stood out, was that they were pretty much alone. That’s because there were superstars and then there was a lot of reason to love Omar Vizquel or Edgar Renteria, because things got ugly fast. You don’t really want to remember Neifi Perez, do you? Desi Relaford? I’ve probably brought up Rey Ordonez one time too often for polite conversation.

Today, you still have the lamentably necessary guys like Yuniesky Betancourt or Ronny Cedeno, or Alcides Escobar’s on-the-job education in the major leagues, but if these represent the worst, they’re better than the bottom of the heap that existed in the past. The floor has come up, and we still have the true superstars, like Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes. Let’s revel in their time, and also remember the Trinity, Ripken and Larkin as fondly as they deserve.

Catcher’s deep, still. Or, consider this another reason to not pardon the Angels for handicapping themselves with Jeff Mathis all these years, because there’s a difference between respecting a good receiver and ignoring his other responsibilities to playing baseball. (While we’re at it, there’s even less excuse for Drew Butera.)

Admittedly, being able to get Mike Napoli away from that kind of decision making and putting him in Texas is one way to improve matters. But keep in mind, with Victor Martinez moving out from behind the plate while Buster Posey and Joe Mauer missed big chunks of the season, catchers overall did a better job of contributing on offense in 2011 than they had in any year since 1997, so the overall depth behind the plate looks pretty good.

As you’ll notice from the chart, there’s been a lot of zigzagging around in catcher performance; it often drops behind shortstop, but sometimes tops it, and these days the two positions are running in tandem. Folks might still swear by Johnny Bench, but here again, we’ve got a lot of legitimate star-level talent out there; not just Posey and Mauer and Napoli, but also Brian McCann, Alex Avila, Miguel Montero, Carlos Santana and Yadier Molina. Then you can add in the durable catch-and-throw guys from the Jim Sundberg set, useful contributors at the plate and good receivers behind it: Carlos Ruiz, Matt Wieters, Russell Martin, and even Kurt Suzuki.

Put all of that together, and while we haven’t punched up this generation’s reputations with any special mystique, they can let their production be our guide. This may well be the deepest generation of catching talent in the history of the game, and there’s more coming, even with prospects like Wil Myers and Jesus Montero moving out from behind the dish. We still haven’t seen Jarrod Saltalamacchia really bust out. Austin Romine, Wilin Rosario, Derek Norris and Tony Sanchez are all on the way. If you love catching, you should love the present.

Tomorrow, to wrap things up we’ll have some fun talking about who best represents an average player at their respective positions.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.