Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hitter vs. Position Player

By Mark Smith
He's so big because he's such a great hitter and Fielder.
While watching Mommy and Daddy fight on the site yesterday, I got caught up in some wording in their argument. During the Common Man’s opening statement, he mentions “hitter” and “position player” interchangeably, and while Bill points out the difference and TCM surely knows the difference (you all know the difference), it’s a common correlation that’s often made. I find that fascinating because A) pitchers do hit occasionally and B) we all know there’s a difference. So why do we see this all the time?

First, let’s make sure we understand the distinction. “Hitter” is a term meant to only refer to the offensive contributions of player at the plate. If we’re talking in stats terms, that means wOBA, the triple-slash line, wRC, OPS, etc., and it does not include baserunning, fielding, or pitching. “Position player” refers to a player that plays C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, RF, and DH, and it is not used for pitchers. In statistical terminology, we rank them by fWAR, rWAR, VORP, WARP, etc. by including their hitting, baserunning, and defense. In effect, when we talk about things like the MVP Award, “position player” is the term we want.

But clearly that isn’t always the case. MLB created the Hank Aaron Award to name the best hitter in the majors, and the Silver Sluggers are for the best hitter at each position. Gold Gloves are for the best fielders, but that doesn’t include hitting at all. The Cy Young is for pitchers, so that doesn’t count. And the MVP includes pitchers (for better or worse). While I won’t argue what side of the Pitchers-as-MVP debate I’m on, I find it interesting that there’s no award that rewards the whole position player.


I wonder if the main reason is that we’ve undervalued defense for so long. There was never a time when “hitter” and “position player” were perfect synonyms. People recognized that defense was part of a position player’s value, but it seems as though the thinking for a long time was, “Offense >>>>> a player’s contributions on defense. We’ll note if he’s on the extreme ends on the spectrum defensively [really good or really bad], but if he’s somewhere in the vast grey area, we’ll assume it’s equal. If we measure a player, go to offense, and defense is a tie-breaker.”

I imagine the reason that defense gets discounted is because we expect the player to make the play he makes, but we forget the plays he should have made but didn’t or the play he made but shouldn’t have. It’s essentially the problem people have when making defensive metrics. When a guy fields a ball, we expect him to make that play, and most of the time, he does. We ignore the other plays because it’s hard to tell if he should have made the play or if someone else would have. On the flip side, we expect the guy on offense to fail, and it’s a pleasant surprise when he gets on. We get positive feelings back when he gets on, but we don’t get terribly negative feelings when he doesn’t. Defense is the exact opposite.

This isn’t to say, of course, that offense = defense in value. The potential for offense is essentially infinite. If you can get a lineup full of perfect hitters, you will score an infinite number of times, and while that’s not impossible, it should tell you that the potential for offensive growth is unfettered. Defense, on the other hand, is limited to 27 outs. Sure, they could have to field a bunch, but if they’re really good, they can only make 27 plays, which they almost never have to make. So having a really good offense is better than having a really good defense (I think), and having a really good offensive player is better than having a really good defensive player.

Even with that, defense still holds a significant part of a player’s value. Adam Dunn would routinely lose 1.5-3 wins of value because he was so bad on defense. Now, most people understand this. Most people understand that defense plays a significant role in measuring a player’s value to a club. Yet, most Hall of Fame discussions center on offense, most awards given out to position players are based on offense, the All-Star ballot has the players’ offensive stats but not even a qualitative description of a player’s defense, and by far most stats focus on offense. I don’t know if that has to do with history and socialization, the distrust (possibly rightly placed, though I think the mistrust is a bit overblown) of defensive metrics, or the general ambiguity of measuring defense in general, though I guess it has a bit to do with all of these.

Nonetheless, I find the situation fascinating. Here we have two terms that are related but not synonymous, and yet, we (myself included) often use them as though they are synonymous, even though we know better. It’s not a major mistake, and maybe it’s only barely worth mentioning. I, however, find it interesting that it happens, and I think the baseball world will have taken a significant step forward when we stop equating the two in such a manner … or when we discover it really is that way.

6 comments:

Bill said...

Fun stuff. But if it's weird that "hitter" and "position player" are used interchangeably in part because pitchers also hit, then it should be noted that "pitcher" is also a position. So neither term really effectively excludes pitchers. Maybe we need to think up a new term...or just go with "non-pitcher."

Mark Smith said...

Good point. Though I will say that there is a noted difference between a position player and pitcher. No one would ever refer to a pitcher as a position player, but some pitchers, Carlos Zambrano and Micah Owings for example, are referred to as hitters.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

"I find it interesting that there’s no award that rewards the whole position player."

Willie Mays Award!

(I'll stop at some point, I promise.)

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Fun post. I think we do have sort of an unofficial award now. In the Fangraphs' era, we all know how to go to their leaderboard and click on each position and find the most valuable player at each position. Maybe Fangraphs needs to take the bull by the horns and create an award of their own based on that.

Mark Smith said...

Need to be careful about just clicking on the leaderboard and taking it at full value. It's a handy tool for starting out and limiting the candidates, but you have to use some context to get a better answer.

Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

Great post! I would love to see some sort of award given to the best players at each position. Fangraphs may not be the best tool to use. I like the "Fielding Bible Awards" method where they have a panel of 10 voters like Dewan, Neyer, Tango, Gammons, James... and award points for each player on the ballot of 10.