Catchers, second basemen, shortstops and center fielders are hitting better than they have in at least 50 years, relative to the total offensive production in Major League Baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com and its Play Index.

Rk I Split Year G tOPS+ tOPS+tot BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip sOPS+
1 at Def. Pos. 1960 2472 98 98 .259 .326 .377 .703 .277 100
2 at Def. Pos. 2014 4860 98 98 .256 .315 .379 .693 .301 100
3 at Def. Pos. 2013 4862 98 98 .256 .317 .388 .705 .298 100
4 at Def. Pos. 2012 4860 98 98 .257 .319 .395 .714 .298 100
5 at Def. Pos. 2011 4858 98 98 .258 .319 .392 .711 .296 100
6 at Def. Pos. 1969 3892 97 97 .252 .322 .355 .677 .278 100
7 at Def. Pos. 1992 4212 97 97 .257 .322 .365 .687 .286 100
8 at Def. Pos. 1990 4210 97 97 .260 .324 .373 .697 .288 100
9 at Def. Pos. 2008 4856 96 96 .268 .331 .403 .734 .303 100
10 at Def. Pos. 2007 4862 96 96 .270 .332 .410 .742 .303 100
11 at Def. Pos. 2005 4862 96 96 .267 .327 .405 .733 .296 100
12 at Def. Pos. 1961 2860 96 96 .261 .329 .384 .713 .279 100
13 at Def. Pos. 1993 4538 96 96 .267 .332 .387 .719 .295 100
14 at Def. Pos. 1991 4208 96 96 .259 .322 .371 .693 .288 100
15 at Def. Pos. 1985 4206 96 96 .257 .322 .375 .696 .281 100
16 at Def. Pos. 2010 4860 96 96 .259 .324 .387 .711 .296 100
17 at Def. Pos. 2009 4860 96 96 .266 .330 .405 .735 .300 100
18 at Def. Pos. 1974 3890 95 95 .257 .320 .354 .673 .280 100
19 at Def. Pos. 2006 4858 95 95 .273 .332 .415 .748 .304 100
20 at Def. Pos. 1970 3888 95 95 .256 .324 .368 .692 .280 100
21 at Def. Pos. 2004 4856 95 95 .269 .329 .415 .744 .299 100
22 at Def. Pos. 2003 4860 95 95 .267 .328 .408 .736 .297 100
23 at Def. Pos. 1999 4856 95 95 .273 .342 .417 .759 .304 100
24 at Def. Pos. 1997 4532 95 95 .269 .334 .402 .736 .303 100
25 at Def. Pos. 1983 4218 95 95 .260 .321 .374 .695 .283 100
Rk I Split Year G tOPS+ tOPS+tot BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip sOPS+
26 at Def. Pos. 1976 3878 94 94 .254 .317 .342 .658 .279 100
27 at Def. Pos. 1975 3868 94 94 .257 .322 .356 .678 .280 100
28 at Def. Pos. 2002 4852 94 94 .263 .324 .399 .724 .294 100
29 at Def. Pos. 2001 4858 94 94 .265 .326 .408 .734 .297 100
30 at Def. Pos. 2000 4858 94 94 .271 .341 .418 .760 .301 100
31 at Def. Pos. 1998 4864 94 94 .266 .331 .400 .731 .299 100
32 at Def. Pos. 1994 3200 94 94 .269 .336 .400 .736 .301 100
33 at Def. Pos. 1989 4212 94 94 .254 .315 .357 .671 .282 100
34 at Def. Pos. 1988 4200 94 94 .255 .313 .362 .675 .282 100
35 at Def. Pos. 1986 4206 94 94 .256 .322 .375 .698 .284 100
36 at Def. Pos. 1984 4210 94 94 .258 .317 .368 .685 .283 100
37 at Def. Pos. 1982 4214 94 94 .261 .319 .372 .691 .283 100
38 at Def. Pos. 1979 4196 94 94 .263 .326 .376 .702 .284 100
39 at Def. Pos. 1996 4534 93 93 .269 .334 .404 .738 .299 100
40 at Def. Pos. 1987 4210 93 93 .262 .326 .391 .717 .290 100
41 at Def. Pos. 1981 2788 93 93 .253 .315 .349 .664 .276 100
42 at Def. Pos. 1978 4204 93 93 .256 .319 .358 .677 .277 100
43 at Def. Pos. 1995 4034 92 92 .264 .331 .391 .722 .296 100
44 at Def. Pos. 1980 4210 92 92 .261 .320 .364 .684 .284 100
45 at Def. Pos. 1977 4206 92 92 .263 .324 .375 .699 .286 100
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/19/2014.

As you can see, four of the five highest tOPS figures—in essence, the (park-adjusted) percentage of the league’s average OPS for all plate appearances—are the last four seasons. That’s about as conclusive as it gets. Up-the-middle defenders are delivering more offensive punch, relative to their leaguemates, than ever.

Let’s unpack this finding. It’s interesting on its own merit, but the phenomenon—I hope that word isn’t too hyperbolic—is actually a product of a few other trends within the game, some of which you know about, others of which you might not.

First of all, catchers, second basemen and shortstops are exclusively right-handed throwers, and therefore, tend disproportionately to be right-handed batters. That matters, because (and one could, conceivably, find this to be an even more interesting finding) right-handed batters had both a better BABIP:

Rk I Split Year G BAbip BAbiptot Diff SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS
1 vs RHB 2014 4859 .300 .299 .001 2.98 .251 .310 .390 .699
2 vs RHB 1970 3887 .282 .281 .001 1.83 .253 .321 .385 .706
3 vs RHB 1961 2860 .280 .279 .001 1.72 .256 .321 .391 .712
4 vs RHB 2013 4862 .297 .297 .000 2.70 .253 .314 .394 .708
5 vs RHB 1989 4212 .283 .283 .000 2.00 .252 .314 .376 .690
6 vs RHB 2007 4862 .302 .303 -.001 2.21 .268 .331 .420 .751
7 vs RHB 2000 4858 .299 .300 -.001 1.91 .269 .338 .433 .772
8 vs RHB 2012 4857 .296 .297 -.001 2.68 .255 .315 .407 .722
9 vs RHB 1978 4204 .279 .280 -.001 1.67 .255 .317 .378 .695
10 vs RHB 1960 2472 .276 .277 -.001 1.70 .253 .318 .384 .702
11 vs RHB 2006 4858 .299 .301 -.002 2.21 .267 .330 .427 .757
12 vs RHB 2004 4856 .295 .297 -.002 2.26 .264 .326 .424 .750
13 vs RHB 2005 4862 .293 .295 -.002 2.22 .262 .325 .416 .741
14 vs RHB 2003 4859 .292 .294 -.002 2.18 .262 .326 .420 .745
15 vs RHB 1987 4210 .287 .289 -.002 1.94 .260 .325 .415 .740
16 vs RHB 1990 4210 .285 .287 -.002 1.95 .255 .319 .388 .707
17 vs RHB 1984 4209 .284 .286 -.002 1.93 .257 .315 .382 .697
18 vs RHB 1986 4200 .284 .286 -.002 1.99 .255 .319 .396 .715
19 vs RHB 1992 4211 .283 .285 -.002 1.92 .253 .317 .378 .695
20 vs RHB 1982 4213 .282 .284 -.002 1.79 .259 .318 .389 .707
21 vs RHB 1981 2788 .277 .279 -.002 1.70 .253 .314 .368 .682
22 vs RHB 1969 3892 .274 .276 -.002 1.88 .243 .312 .361 .673
23 vs RHB 1999 4856 .299 .302 -.003 1.94 .268 .337 .430 .767
24 vs RHB 1996 4534 .298 .301 -.003 2.02 .266 .334 .425 .759
25 vs RHB 1997 4532 .298 .301 -.003 2.19 .261 .327 .411 .738
Rk I Split Year G BAbip BAbiptot Diff SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS
26 vs RHB 1998 4864 .297 .300 -.003 2.17 .263 .328 .417 .745
27 vs RHB 1995 4033 .295 .298 -.003 2.02 .263 .331 .418 .749
28 vs RHB 2010 4860 .294 .297 -.003 2.34 .257 .320 .401 .722
29 vs RHB 2001 4858 .293 .296 -.003 2.33 .260 .323 .417 .740
30 vs RHB 1993 4538 .291 .294 -.003 2.03 .261 .324 .401 .725
31 vs RHB 1983 4218 .282 .285 -.003 1.81 .257 .317 .387 .704
32 vs RHB 1991 4208 .282 .285 -.003 1.94 .253 .318 .386 .704
33 vs RHB 1988 4200 .279 .282 -.003 2.08 .251 .310 .378 .689
34 vs RHB 1994 3200 .296 .300 -.004 2.03 .266 .330 .425 .755
35 vs RHB 2008 4856 .296 .300 -.004 2.17 .262 .327 .413 .740
36 vs RHB 2009 4860 .295 .299 -.004 2.20 .260 .326 .415 .741
37 vs RHB 2011 4858 .291 .295 -.004 2.42 .253 .316 .397 .714
38 vs RHB 2002 4852 .289 .293 -.004 2.21 .257 .321 .408 .729
39 vs RHB 1977 4206 .283 .287 -.004 1.76 .259 .321 .396 .717
40 vs RHB 1979 4196 .282 .286 -.004 1.66 .261 .322 .395 .717
41 vs RHB 1985 4202 .277 .281 -.004 1.80 .253 .317 .389 .706
42 vs RHB 1974 3890 .277 .282 -.005 1.67 .252 .316 .363 .679
43 vs RHB 1975 3868 .277 .282 -.005 1.61 .251 .318 .366 .684
44 vs RHB 1976 3878 .276 .281 -.005 1.67 .250 .313 .354 .667
45 vs RHB 1980 4208 .281 .287 -.006 1.77 .258 .315 .380 .695
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/19/2014.

and a near-equal OPS:

Rk I Split Year G OPS OPStot Diff
1 vs RHB 2014 4859 .699 .700 -.001
2 vs RHB 2012 4857 .722 .724 -.002
3 vs RHB 1990 4210 .707 .710 -.003
4 vs RHB 1991 4208 .704 .708 -.004
5 vs RHB 1970 3887 .706 .711 -.005
6 vs RHB 1992 4211 .695 .700 -.005
7 vs RHB 1989 4212 .690 .695 -.005
8 vs RHB 1995 4033 .749 .755 -.006
9 vs RHB 2010 4860 .722 .728 -.006
10 vs RHB 1986 4200 .715 .721 -.006
11 vs RHB 2011 4858 .714 .720 -.006
12 vs RHB 2013 4862 .708 .714 -.006
13 vs RHB 1982 4213 .707 .713 -.006
14 vs RHB 2007 4862 .751 .758 -.007
15 vs RHB 1987 4210 .740 .747 -.007
16 vs RHB 1978 4204 .695 .702 -.007
17 vs RHB 1988 4200 .689 .696 -.007
18 vs RHB 1981 2788 .682 .689 -.007
19 vs RHB 1996 4534 .759 .767 -.008
20 vs RHB 1994 3200 .755 .763 -.008
21 vs RHB 2005 4862 .741 .749 -.008
22 vs RHB 1985 4202 .706 .714 -.008
23 vs RHB 2008 4856 .740 .749 -.009
24 vs RHB 2000 4858 .772 .782 -.010
25 vs RHB 1998 4864 .745 .755 -.010
Rk I Split Year G OPS OPStot Diff
26 vs RHB 2003 4859 .745 .755 -.010
27 vs RHB 2009 4860 .741 .751 -.010
28 vs RHB 1979 4196 .717 .727 -.010
29 vs RHB 1983 4218 .704 .714 -.010
30 vs RHB 1960 2472 .702 .712 -.010
31 vs RHB 1999 4856 .767 .778 -.011
32 vs RHB 2006 4858 .757 .768 -.011
33 vs RHB 1993 4538 .725 .736 -.011
34 vs RHB 1984 4209 .697 .708 -.011
35 vs RHB 2004 4856 .750 .763 -.013
36 vs RHB 1977 4206 .717 .730 -.013
37 vs RHB 1974 3890 .679 .693 -.014
38 vs RHB 1976 3878 .667 .681 -.014
39 vs RHB 1961 2860 .712 .727 -.015
40 vs RHB 1969 3892 .673 .689 -.016
41 vs RHB 1975 3868 .684 .701 -.017
42 vs RHB 1997 4532 .738 .756 -.018
43 vs RHB 2001 4858 .740 .759 -.019
44 vs RHB 2002 4852 .729 .748 -.019
45 vs RHB 1980 4208 .695 .714 -.019
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/19/2014.

to those posted by left-handed batters, making 2014 the most righty-friendly offensive environment on record. This is where I’m probably not telling you anything terribly surprising: We know that the changing strike zone and defensive shifts are killing left-handed batters. Still, now you know: There has literally never been a worse time to be a left-handed batter, nor a better time to be a right-handed one. That’s part of the explanation for our positional paradox. (By the way, though, one part of the reason for the handedness phenomenon is that fewer and fewer bad right-handed hitters are getting the chance to hit.)

Those shifts help explain the phenomenon in another way. Because they exist, teams can afford to play one or two players up the middle who might otherwise be considered defensively substandard.

Here’s the other thing that plays to the advantage of our suddenly-slugging up-the-middle men:

Rk I Split Year G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Total 1930 2468 .312 .296 .356 .435 .790
2 Total 1921 2458 .309 .291 .348 .403 .751
3 Total 1925 2456 .306 .292 .354 .411 .765
4 Total 1922 2476 .305 .288 .349 .401 .749
5 Total 2007 4862 .303 .268 .336 .423 .758
6 Total 1929 2458 .303 .289 .353 .417 .770
7 Total 1924 2462 .303 .286 .348 .394 .742
8 Total 1999 4856 .302 .271 .345 .434 .778
9 Total 1936 2476 .301 .284 .349 .404 .753
10 Total 2006 4858 .301 .269 .337 .432 .768
11 Total 1923 2466 .301 .284 .347 .391 .738
12 Total 1997 4532 .301 .267 .337 .419 .756
13 Total 1927 2472 .301 .284 .345 .393 .738
14 Total 1996 4534 .301 .270 .340 .427 .767
15 Total 2008 4856 .300 .264 .333 .416 .749
16 Total 1994 3200 .300 .270 .339 .424 .763
17 Total 1998 4864 .300 .266 .335 .420 .755
18 Total 2000 4858 .300 .270 .345 .437 .782
19 Total 2009 4860 .299 .262 .333 .418 .751
20 Total 2014 4860 .299 .251 .314 .386 .700
21 Total 1926 2468 .298 .281 .345 .389 .733
22 Total 1995 4034 .298 .267 .338 .417 .755
23 Total 2004 4856 .297 .266 .335 .428 .763
24 Total 2013 4862 .297 .253 .318 .396 .714
25 Total 1934 2446 .297 .279 .342 .397 .738
Rk I Split Year G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS
26 Total 2010 4860 .297 .257 .325 .403 .728
27 Total 1920 2468 .297 .276 .335 .372 .707
28 Total 2012 4860 .297 .255 .319 .405 .724
29 Total 1928 2462 .297 .281 .344 .397 .741
30 Total 1937 2476 .296 .276 .343 .399 .742
31 Total 2001 4858 .296 .264 .332 .427 .759
32 Total 1931 2472 .296 .278 .339 .391 .730
33 Total 2005 4862 .295 .264 .330 .419 .749
34 Total 1935 2456 .295 .279 .341 .397 .738
35 Total 2011 4858 .295 .255 .321 .399 .720
36 Total 2003 4860 .294 .264 .333 .422 .755
37 Total 1993 4538 .294 .265 .332 .403 .736
38 Total 2002 4852 .293 .261 .331 .417 .748
39 Total 1939 2462 .293 .275 .344 .397 .740
40 Total 1932 2466 .292 .276 .337 .400 .737
41 Total 1938 2446 .290 .274 .343 .396 .739
42 Total 1987 4210 .289 .263 .331 .415 .747
43 Total 1980 4210 .287 .265 .326 .388 .714
44 Total 1990 4210 .287 .258 .325 .385 .710
45 Total 1977 4206 .287 .264 .329 .401 .730
46 Total 1984 4210 .286 .260 .323 .385 .708
47 Total 1986 4206 .286 .258 .326 .395 .721
48 Total 1979 4196 .286 .265 .330 .397 .727
49 Total 1991 4208 .285 .256 .323 .385 .708
50 Total 1992 4212 .285 .256 .322 .377 .700
Rk I Split Year G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS
51 Total 1983 4218 .285 .261 .325 .389 .714
52 Total 1933 2452 .285 .269 .330 .376 .706
53 Total 1919 2236 .285 .263 .322 .348 .670
54 Total 1940 2472 .284 .267 .334 .392 .726
55 Total 1982 4214 .284 .261 .324 .389 .713
56 Total 1989 4212 .283 .254 .320 .375 .695
57 Total 1975 3868 .282 .258 .327 .374 .701
58 Total 1974 3890 .282 .257 .324 .369 .693
59 Total 1988 4200 .282 .254 .318 .378 .696
60 Total 1976 3878 .281 .255 .320 .361 .681
61 Total 1985 4206 .281 .257 .323 .391 .714
62 Total 1973 3886 .281 .257 .325 .379 .704
63 Total 1962 3242 .281 .258 .326 .393 .719
64 Total 1970 3888 .281 .254 .326 .385 .711
65 Total 1914 3758 .281 .254 .322 .337 .659
66 Total 1941 2488 .280 .262 .334 .375 .709
67 Total 1948 2474 .280 .263 .341 .382 .723
68 Total 1950 2476 .280 .266 .346 .402 .748
69 Total 1978 4204 .280 .258 .323 .379 .702
70 Total 1953 2480 .280 .264 .336 .397 .733
71 Total 1964 3252 .279 .250 .313 .378 .690
72 Total 1961 2860 .279 .258 .328 .399 .727
73 Total 1981 2788 .279 .256 .320 .369 .689
74 Total 1945 2460 .278 .260 .329 .355 .684
75 Total 1944 2484 .278 .260 .326 .358 .684
Rk I Split Year G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS
76 Total 1949 2480 .278 .263 .344 .384 .728
77 Total 1958 2470 .277 .258 .325 .394 .719
78 Total 1946 2484 .277 .256 .328 .360 .688
79 Total 1947 2486 .277 .261 .336 .377 .713
80 Total 1959 2476 .277 .257 .324 .392 .716
81 Total 1960 2472 .277 .255 .324 .388 .712
82 Total 1966 3230 .276 .249 .310 .376 .686
83 Total 1915 3728 .276 .250 .319 .332 .651
84 Total 1971 3876 .276 .249 .317 .365 .682
85 Total 1916 2494 .276 .248 .312 .326 .638
86 Total 1918 2032 .276 .254 .317 .325 .642
87 Total 1969 3892 .276 .248 .320 .369 .689
88 Total 1957 2470 .275 .258 .324 .391 .715
89 Total 1951 2478 .275 .261 .337 .386 .722
90 Total 1954 2472 .275 .261 .333 .390 .723
91 Total 1965 3246 .274 .246 .311 .372 .683
92 Total 1956 2478 .274 .258 .331 .397 .729
93 Total 1967 3240 .274 .242 .306 .357 .664
94 Total 1917 2494 .274 .248 .312 .324 .636
95 Total 1943 2476 .273 .253 .323 .344 .667
96 Total 1963 3238 .273 .246 .309 .372 .681
97 Total 1972 3718 .272 .244 .311 .354 .664
98 Total 1955 2468 .272 .258 .332 .394 .726
99 Total 1952 2478 .271 .253 .327 .370 .696
100 Total 1942 2448 .271 .253 .323 .350 .674
Rk I Split Year G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS
101 Total 1968 3250 .269 .237 .299 .340 .639
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/19/2014.

Don’t look for the obvious factoid in this table. It isn’t there. Let me explain what I’m getting at.

The 2014 season ranks 20th among the 101 seasons listed in terms of league-average batting average on balls in play. That should surprise you, because in runs scored per team per game, the 2014 season ranks 82nd out of 101. Let me put that in context, with a table I generated myself (!), instead of one from Baseball-Reference (although, still using their delightful data):

BABIP and Runs Per Game

Season R/G BABIP BABIP Rank (by league BABIP, since 1914)
1989 4.13 .283 56
1992 4.12 .285 50
1974 4.12 .282 58
1978 4.10 .280 69
1942 4.08 .271 100
2014 4.07 .299 20
1969 4.07 .276 87
1964 4.04 .279 71
1946 4.04 .277 78
1981 4.01 .279 73
1976 4.00 .281 60

This illustrates something I noticed a while ago, but was having trouble articulating. I can do that better now. The rapid rise in strikeout rate has broken the moorings that tied BABIP to run scoring. Because all batters strike out relatively often (only four qualifying players had a lower strikeout rate than the league-average rate from 1945), players are selected, more than ever, for their ability to hit the ball hard—and better athletes hit the ball harder. Since the best athletes play in the middle of the field, it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ve enjoyed a more prominent role in offenses throughout the league, especially because the left-handed sluggers that normally populate first base and the corner outfield spots are being marginalized by an oceanic strike zone.

Think about the guys who rack up great BABIPs each year, or, if you prefer, simply ponder the best athletes the game has to offer. The top names that come to mind for me are Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons, Carlos Gomez and Andrew McCutchen. People who loved the Royals this October will think of Lorenzo Cain. That’s five right-handed up-the-middle players. Simmons isn’t a good hitter, but he’s a better one than similarly gifted defensive shortstops were at his age, from Ozzie Smith to Omar Vizquel. The others are superstars. The reason is that they all happen to be playing in a league more welcoming to their skill set than any previous iteration.

We need to adjust for this. Positional value is diminished right now, in a way I would say is very real. The game’s most underrated players, at this moment, might just be guys like Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz. When Sam Miller talks about the bomb-ass line, we might need to adjust the figure he found downward. Solid, above-average corner bats, even if not monster mashers, are more valuable than ever. Another name you could put in the same category, maybe even as a better fit: new St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward. Though a corner outfielder with a 108 OPS+ last season, Heyward has tremendous value, not only because of his great glove, but because he’s a more than serviceable left-handed hitter, position be damned. You need good hitters, and good hitters are harder to find than ever, and what position they play matters less than ever, and a lefty bat who can thump right-handed arms is harder to find than ever. It’s a brave new world (though not, for Heyward, a Brave one; Hey-O!), and this information should inform your valuation of players.

I hope you enjoyed digging into this the way I did. What a fascinating set of trends, when placed side-by-side this way. What a revelatory inquiry this has been.

Next post:
Previous post:

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1.  Violent Variance: Why The Red Sox Want Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval (UPDATED) | Banished To The Pen
  2.  White Sox Add Melky Cabrera, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop | Banished To The Pen
  3.  To Be Young, and To Suck: Checking in on the Futures of 3 Struggling Young Hitters | Banished to the Pen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *