Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hit Ball, Catch Ball
By Blogger

With the MLB All Star ballots counted and the squads selected (for the most part), it seems a good time to publish a whimsical thought experiment Ben and I conducted the other day. The question we pondered: Would you rather have the best offensive lineup possible, or the best defensive lineup possible? My knee-jerk reaction is that I'd much rather have the best offensive lineup because, in my mind, the difference between a great hitter and a bad hitter is greater than the difference between a great defender and a bad one; the great hitters couldn't be all that bad on defense, even with the butchers among them.

To answer the question, Ben and I reached consensus on two lineups following these ground rules:

1) A player must have demonstrated that he can play the position we assigned him. In other words, if we had decided that Randy Winn is the best hitting center fielder, but Carlos Delgado is a better hitter, we could not say that we would put Delgado in center field just to make the offense better. On the other side, one might think that Derek Jeter would make a tremendous defensive first baseman, but since there is almost zero evidence that would work (Nomar notwithstanding), that kind of positional chicanery was out of bounds.

2) If we couldn't decide between multiple players for the Offensive Team, then defense would be the tiebreaker. Offense was the tiebreaker for the Defensive Team. Otherwise, we paid no attention to the quality of the player's defense when choosing the Offensive Team, and paid no attention to offense when choosing the Defensive Team.

3) By "best", we mean the players that we would want this season.


We started with offense, using all the numbers and intuition at our disposal...

OFFENSIVE TEAM

Catcher - Joe Mauer
We debated the merits of Mauer versus Victor Martinez, and, in the end, we decided that since Mauer's season last year is comparable to Martinez's best seasons, and Mauer is only 23 and presently having a monster year, he's the better choice. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that he runs the bases well and is the better all around athlete.

First Base - Travis Hafner
Fact: The past three seasons, Travis Hafner has been David Ortiz's equal with the stick. In fact, Ben and I had no problem choosing Hafner ahead of Ortiz because he's out-OPSed Papi in a home park equally as average as Fenway (if anything, Fenway is FAR more conducive for doubles than Jacobs Field). If you're wondering why we chose Pronk over the best hitter in baseball...

Third Base - Albert Pujols
Pujols actually rated above-average defensively as a third baseman, by Rate and Range Factor. But that wasn't our concern here. Obviously, Pujols had to be on this team; the only question was which position he should play. We chose third base, because it came down to whether we wanted David Wright, Miguel Cabrera, or Travis Hafner for the other position, and Hafner is the best among those three.

Shortstop - Alex Rodriguez
By trade, I am an English Language Arts teacher. English teachers struggle with the prevailing notion that opinions can't be wrong. Well, I will not accept debate on this point. Alex Rodriguez is the best offensive shortstop in baseball, perhaps in history. If you think someone else playing today is better, you are wrong.

Second Base - Chase Utley
Among players for the Offensive Team, Ben and I argued longest over who should be the second baseman. On the one hand, Utley has been a patient cleanup hitter type for three seasons, and on the other, Alfonso Soriano has slugged and stolen like mad for five years. In the end, despite Soriano's running threat, Utley's equal power and loads more patience combine to make him the more potent offensive force.

Left Field - Manny Ramirez
He hasn't started to decline yet. Barry Bonds's long flyballs aren't leaving the yard at the same rate, and when pitchers realize this his OBP will drop as he gets challenged more often. Again, the question was whether we'd prefer Manny or Wright (Pujols in left or at third), and, even in his mid-30s, Manny comes out on top.

Right Field - Miguel Cabrera
Again, did we want Cabrera or Wright (Pujols in right field)? Cabrera gets the nod because he's five months younger and has a full season's worth of experience and success on Wright. Though Cabrera's supposedly a natural third baseman, at least one metric suggests the Marlins might be better off putting him elsewhere. Thus, Pujols gets the nod at third. Again, since offense is our main concern, we were hard pressed to find anyone who's a better hitter.

Center Field - Lance Berkman
Two years ago, Jim Edmonds would have been in the conversation. Five years ago, so would have Bernie Williams. I brought up Brian Giles for discussion, but we quickly dismissed him upon deciding that he's at the start of his decline phase, even after accounting for PETCO Park. Ben argued long and hard for Carlos Beltran, but though Beltran has had one more season in the bigs than Berkman (Carlos is also one year younger), he's only had one truly monster season, while Berkman has had three. Though Beltran is the far better baserunner, one of the best basestealers of all time, the totality of his offensive game simply doesn't match up to Berkman's hitting prowess. Even if you want to argue that park effects have played a part, you'd be wrong because Beltran played his entire career in (sometimes extreme) hitter's parks until signing with the Mets. As for Berkman, the Juice Box has played as a moderate hitter's park except for last season, when it actually played as a pitcher's park. Finally, Berkman was the Astros' regular center fielder in 2002 and is still a reliable corner outfielder, so, while Beltran would be the choice if we were considering the complete ballplayer, Berkman is the choice to play center for this exercise.

Moving on to defense, using Tangotiger's Fans' Scouting Report, ESPN's listings for Zone Rating and Range Factor, Baseball Prospectus's listing for Rate, and our own impressions of general opinion for our standards...

DEFENSIVE TEAM

Catcher - Yadier Molina
We had a hard time choosing between Molina and Brian Schneider, and I kept thinking we'd choose Schneider. However, the preponderance of evidence brought us to the youngest of the Backstoppin' Molina Brothers.

First Base - Derrek Lee
Lee has a sterling defensive reputation, has been regarded as a slick fielder for years, and there are numbers that support the notion. I briefly considered Darin Erstad, but his play there has been alternately brilliant and average. That Lee is one of the better-hitting first basemen available was bonus.

Third Base - Scott Rolen
Now that we're out of the Catcher/First Base Hell, the numbers available to us make a little more sense. This year, Mike Lowell is outperforming his previous career norms, which aren't as dazzling as his reputation would suggest. Rolen, on the other hand, is once again among the best in the majors in each of our major statistical categories and is still held in high regard by the more subjective sources we browsed. It's been this way for years. The only other third baseman whose reputation rivals Rolen's is Eric Chavez, and his numbers simply aren't as impressive, this year and in years past.

Shortstop - Adam Everett
He's been a top defensive shortstop for years, but when the numbers say he's the best defensive shortstop this season in a landslide, we only needed moderate endorsement from scouting reports to slot him in here.

Second Base - Orlando Hudson
Hudson's numbers are down this year, but he's been a whiz with the leather for several years running. After taking stock of scouting reports and general reputations, the only other guy on the list ahead of him statistically that we could take seriously was Mark Grudzielanek. While it makes sense, in a certain light, that The Grudz would rank so highly, having come up as a shortstop, and while his numbers look pretty good next to Hudson's, his reputation doesn't compare to the 2005 Gold Glover, nor does his ranking on the Fans' Scouting Report.

Right Field - Ichiro!
He's almost universally regarded as the best right fielder in baseball. If the Mariners were smart, they'd play him in center field, where he played in Japan, and where he'd probably still be a plus defender. The numbers are good enough to justify the reputation, so this selection was probably the easiest for the Defensive Team.

Center Field - Mike Cameron
Since leaving Seattle, Cameron's numbers say he's been merely very good instead of off the charts, as he was in 2003. However, since Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones have each lost a few steps, and most of the other top defenders by the numbers are youngsters without much of a track record, Cameron is the choice. The only other candidate we considered was Vernon Wells, whose numbers this year and in recent seasons are excellent. But while the Fans' Scouting Report likes him almost as much as Cameron, the Padres' center fielder is still the first name that comes up in these discussions, which has to count for something, and there are still numbers that say Cameron is clearly better than Wells.

Left Field - Jose Guillen
Sure, we could put Wells in left field, but Guillen has such a cannon for an arm, and he's always been a great corner outfielder, that it's hard to justify choosing a career center fielder with no corner experience over him. Alex Rios is one of the better young outfielders in the majors, but Guillen is still in his prime, has the track record, and is actually having one of his best defensive seasons this year.

Let's compare the lineups:

OFFENSIVE TEAM
That's right. We thought Mauer was the most logical leadoff hitter.

C - Mauer
SS - ARod
3B - Pujols
1B - Hafner
LF - Manny
CF - Berkman
RF - Cabrera
2B - Utley


DEFENSIVE TEAM
Wow. That's still a formidable offensive squad, with only two certifiable black holes in Everett and Molina.

RF - Ichiro!
2B - Hudson
1B - D. Lee
3B - Rolen
LF - Guillen
CF - Cameron
SS - Everett
C - Y. Molina


I think my first instinct was correct, that I'd rather have the best possible offense than the best possible defense. However, if there is a major conclusion I would draw from this exercise, it's that giving primacy to defense when building a team is a perfectly viable strategy, especially since they would be far cheaper. The Defensive Team we put together is actually a pretty decent offensive squad, while the Offensive Team only has one plus defender (Mauer) and two average-to-good defenders (Pujols, ARod) with the rest being potential disasters. The outfield, in particular, would absolutely need a defensive specialist for late-inning duty, perhaps a center fielder, with Berkman shifting to left. Though the Offensive Team wouldn't do their pitchers any favors (except maybe scoring seven runs per game), they're probably the better team.

2 Comments:

Blogger Matt Brown said...

This is a fascinating topic. What makes the question tough is that you're limiting the pool of available players to active major leaguers. If you opened the pool up to all players currently in the majors and minors, I would take the hitting team hands down. There are probably one or two absolute defensive whizzes in the minors who, if you put them up against major league pitching, would make Yadier Molina look like the second coming of Johnny Bench by comparison.

Taking this to an extreme, the skill of hitting is much rarer than fielding in society as a whole. You could find several guys playing in any rec league in this country who could play left field as well as Manny Ramirez. You'd have a much tougher time finding players in rec leagues who could hit major league pitching even as well as Yadier Molina. You never hear people say that the toughest thing to do in sports is fielding a baseball. Even the worst hitting major league position players have a basic level of competence.

BUT...

Restricting the pool to major leaguers makes it much tougher, and I think I would actually choose the fielding team in this case. I think you can draw a rough parallel with the hitting team to the way the Yankees have built their team for the last five years. They go after the most expensive free agents, who are nearly always the most powerful hitters. This strategy has made it possible for the Yankees to pretty much cruise into the playoffs, but has made it extremely difficult for them to advance once they get there. In the playoffs you are facing consistently strong pitching, which has a way of equalizing the lineups and making the "little things" like defense, speed and cohesive team play more important. These "little things" are the things that your team will not excel as much at if you are selecting them solely for their bats.

Another prediction I have is that the hitting team would be much streakier than the fielding team, simply because hitters go on tears and get into slumps much moreso than do fielders. A good fielder, with few exceptions, is basically always going to be a good fielder day in and day out. It's not something that ebbs and flows during a season nearly as much as hitting. So I think the hitting team would likely have two-week stretches where it looked absolutely unbeatable, but would also be more prone to slumping. The fielding team would be less likely to run off a double-digit winning streak, but also less likely to go into a multi-week funk.

In the end, I predict the hitting juggernaut would win a few more regular season games, but the glove men would be the more formidable foe come playoff time.

5:12 AM  
Blogger Mycue23 said...

I liked the article, however, while I'm a big proponent of Arod, I don't think he's the best offensive SS of all time. I stil believe that honor belongs to Honus Wagner.

12:16 PM  

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