By The Common Man
The most important position in baseball is one that never even takes the field. Heck, there isn’t even any uniform. Before taking a slugging shortstop a la a circa 2000 Alex Rodriguez, or a heady catcher like vintage Yogi Berra, or a patient table-setter like Rickey, or a lights out starter like Sandy Koufax or Tom Seaver, The Common Man wants to make sure he has the right man making the decisions as to who fills those spots. The most important position in baseball today, bar none, is the General Manager.
Think about it. Before a team ever gets put in the field, a General Manager has to craft and hone his roster. Indeed, the GM is responsible for making sure that a team has a Joe Mauer or a Derek Jeter or a Steve Carlton, instead of a Rod Barajas, Neifi Perez, or Oliver Perez. The GM sets the tone, determines what kind of team will be on the field, and is ultimately responsible for the future directions of the team.
And the GM has much more control over the day-to-day operations of a ballclub than he or she is generally given credit for. If the GM is doing the job properly, a manager shouldn’t be forced to make important decisions about playing time and lineup construction. A good GM can construct a team so that even the least gifted managers (TCM’s looking at you, Bob Boone) should know how players should be deployed. And indeed, a good GM can work in synch with his manager to ensure that these plans are carried out. Look at, for instance, how Terry Ryan worked with Ron Gardenhire or how Theo Epstein works with Terry Francona. Both manager and GM were on the same wavelength, conformed to the same philosophies, and respected the hierarchy that was necessary for maintaining discipline and order on a ballclub.
If you’re starting a team from scratch, you need to trust the man or woman putting it together. A smart GM, one who is adept at finding undervalued resources, judging talent (both on the field and in the front office), and managing people, is a competitive advantage no matter what the context of the rest of the baseball universe is. Low scoring, high scoring, speed oriented, or station to station, a good GM can find ways to succeed while zagging, as others are zigging. And in an era like today, where baseball GMs are savvier than ever before, having one that stands out is even more important. Theo, Jack Z, Sandy Alderson, Jed Hoyer, Jon Daniels, and Andrew Friedman. Terry Ryan, Kevin Towers, Frank Wren, Walt Jocketty. It doesn’t matter what school the GM comes from. If he or she is smart enough, your team will have the lead before the first pitch gets thrown.
Well, I've decided to take this more literally. My most important position has to actually be a position, as in one that is played, on the field. Here are the ones I can eliminate, roughly in order of how easy it is for me to eliminate them:
- Left field, right field, and first base. There's a reason that on your Little League team, the kid who couldn't throw at all played left field, the kid who couldn't run at all played first, and the kid who couldn't really do anything played right.
- Third base. The forgotten position, in many ways. There are fewer third basemen in the Hall (among those selected as players) than any other position. That's a crime, on one hand, overlooking some truly great players, but on the other hand, it's pretty strong evidence that the position itself isn't the most important on the diamond.
- Second base. If your second baseman were better in the field, he'd be playing short. You can't make an argument that 2B is more important, on the whole, than SS.
- Catcher. A lot of smart people will tell you that catcher is, in fact, the most important position, and it makes sense. But even a great catcher can catch, at the very most, 140 games a year. Twenty to thirty times, at a minimum, he's going to hang you out to dry, almost certainly stuck playing one of the worst hitters on your roster, simply because of the nature of the position. Plus, I suspect (and it's not much more than a suspicion) that catcher defense is a lot less important than most people, even the sabermetrically inclined, realize or want to acknowledge.
- Pitcher. In each game, the pitcher that happens to be on the mound is, I think, the most important player on the field. But then he doesn't take the field again for four days or a week. Rationally, it all pretty much comes out in the wash: if Roy Halladay and Albert Pujols are both worth eight wins over replacement over the course of the season, it makes no difference that one did it in 34 games and one in 162. But this is a much more subjective concept we're dealing with today, and it's just really hard for me to say that a guy whose very spot will be taken, 85% or so of the time, by one of eleven or twelve other guys is the most important guy on the team. Pitchers are out.
- Shortstop. Always the best athlete on your Little League (or high school or college) team, sees the most action, makes the longest throws, gets the girl, saves the day, etc. In the majors, though, they're often not expected to hit, really. And as important as shortstop defense is, a poor shortstop can be bailed out, to some extent, by a phenomenal third baseman or second baseman, or even just by truly inspired defensive positioning. When by contrast...
Defense in center field is incredibly important. Not quite as important as at shortstop, I suppose, but unlike shortstops (and whether fairly or not), center fielders are expected to hit like "outfielders," too.
And there's no way to hide a bad center fielder. He has to make too many difficult plays in all directions for a good left fielder or a good right fielder to bail him out...and generally that's not even an option, since the left and right fielder generally will have the same skill set as the center fielder, but less, you know, skill (if they were any good at it, they'd be playing center themselves). The center fielder does it all, or is expected to, and with no safety net.
Now, baseball rosters are big enough that no one strength is enough to carry a team, and no one weakness is enough to bury it. But it's awfully hard to win without at least a pretty good center fielder. The 1995 Braves did it, and the 2003 Marlins, but among world champs over the last 20 years, that's pretty close to being it. I don't think it's a coincidence that four of the top twelve position players in career WAR were primarily center fielders, and if you give Joe DiMaggio back the years lost to WWII, you might be able to make that five. If you can find someone who can do everything well that a center fielder is supposed to do well, you've got probably the best possible base on which to build a good team.
I expect I'll be close to the only one who picks center field in this exercise, and, I don't know, maybe that's the way it should be. You can make strong arguments for shortstop, pitcher and catcher, too. But all else being equal, I'd build my team around the guy in charge of that huge swath of land in the middle out there.
Other contributions are up from:
Andrew Kneeland at TwinsTarget.com
Kirsten Brown of k-bro's baseball blog says Starting Pitcher
Jesse Lund of Twinkie Town votes for Catcher
CapitalBabs at Knuckleballs gets even more existential on us than TCM did
Jim Crikket, also at Knuckleballs, says Starting Pitcher
Andrew of Off the Mark splits his vote