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.

RkISplitYearGtOPS+tOPS+totBAOBPSLGOPSBAbipsOPS+
1at Def. Pos.196024729898.259.326.377.703.277100
2at Def. Pos.201448609898.256.315.379.693.301100
3at Def. Pos.201348629898.256.317.388.705.298100
4at Def. Pos.201248609898.257.319.395.714.298100
5at Def. Pos.201148589898.258.319.392.711.296100
6at Def. Pos.196938929797.252.322.355.677.278100
7at Def. Pos.199242129797.257.322.365.687.286100
8at Def. Pos.199042109797.260.324.373.697.288100
9at Def. Pos.200848569696.268.331.403.734.303100
10at Def. Pos.200748629696.270.332.410.742.303100
11at Def. Pos.200548629696.267.327.405.733.296100
12at Def. Pos.196128609696.261.329.384.713.279100
13at Def. Pos.199345389696.267.332.387.719.295100
14at Def. Pos.199142089696.259.322.371.693.288100
15at Def. Pos.198542069696.257.322.375.696.281100
16at Def. Pos.201048609696.259.324.387.711.296100
17at Def. Pos.200948609696.266.330.405.735.300100
18at Def. Pos.197438909595.257.320.354.673.280100
19at Def. Pos.200648589595.273.332.415.748.304100
20at Def. Pos.197038889595.256.324.368.692.280100
21at Def. Pos.200448569595.269.329.415.744.299100
22at Def. Pos.200348609595.267.328.408.736.297100
23at Def. Pos.199948569595.273.342.417.759.304100
24at Def. Pos.199745329595.269.334.402.736.303100
25at Def. Pos.198342189595.260.321.374.695.283100
RkISplitYearGtOPS+tOPS+totBAOBPSLGOPSBAbipsOPS+
26at Def. Pos.197638789494.254.317.342.658.279100
27at Def. Pos.197538689494.257.322.356.678.280100
28at Def. Pos.200248529494.263.324.399.724.294100
29at Def. Pos.200148589494.265.326.408.734.297100
30at Def. Pos.200048589494.271.341.418.760.301100
31at Def. Pos.199848649494.266.331.400.731.299100
32at Def. Pos.199432009494.269.336.400.736.301100
33at Def. Pos.198942129494.254.315.357.671.282100
34at Def. Pos.198842009494.255.313.362.675.282100
35at Def. Pos.198642069494.256.322.375.698.284100
36at Def. Pos.198442109494.258.317.368.685.283100
37at Def. Pos.198242149494.261.319.372.691.283100
38at Def. Pos.197941969494.263.326.376.702.284100
39at Def. Pos.199645349393.269.334.404.738.299100
40at Def. Pos.198742109393.262.326.391.717.290100
41at Def. Pos.198127889393.253.315.349.664.276100
42at Def. Pos.197842049393.256.319.358.677.277100
43at Def. Pos.199540349292.264.331.391.722.296100
44at Def. Pos.198042109292.261.320.364.684.284100
45at Def. Pos.197742069292.263.324.375.699.286100
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:

RkISplitYearGBAbipBAbiptotDiffSO/WBAOBPSLGOPS
1vs RHB20144859.300.299.0012.98.251.310.390.699
2vs RHB19703887.282.281.0011.83.253.321.385.706
3vs RHB19612860.280.279.0011.72.256.321.391.712
4vs RHB20134862.297.297.0002.70.253.314.394.708
5vs RHB19894212.283.283.0002.00.252.314.376.690
6vs RHB20074862.302.303-.0012.21.268.331.420.751
7vs RHB20004858.299.300-.0011.91.269.338.433.772
8vs RHB20124857.296.297-.0012.68.255.315.407.722
9vs RHB19784204.279.280-.0011.67.255.317.378.695
10vs RHB19602472.276.277-.0011.70.253.318.384.702
11vs RHB20064858.299.301-.0022.21.267.330.427.757
12vs RHB20044856.295.297-.0022.26.264.326.424.750
13vs RHB20054862.293.295-.0022.22.262.325.416.741
14vs RHB20034859.292.294-.0022.18.262.326.420.745
15vs RHB19874210.287.289-.0021.94.260.325.415.740
16vs RHB19904210.285.287-.0021.95.255.319.388.707
17vs RHB19844209.284.286-.0021.93.257.315.382.697
18vs RHB19864200.284.286-.0021.99.255.319.396.715
19vs RHB19924211.283.285-.0021.92.253.317.378.695
20vs RHB19824213.282.284-.0021.79.259.318.389.707
21vs RHB19812788.277.279-.0021.70.253.314.368.682
22vs RHB19693892.274.276-.0021.88.243.312.361.673
23vs RHB19994856.299.302-.0031.94.268.337.430.767
24vs RHB19964534.298.301-.0032.02.266.334.425.759
25vs RHB19974532.298.301-.0032.19.261.327.411.738
RkISplitYearGBAbipBAbiptotDiffSO/WBAOBPSLGOPS
26vs RHB19984864.297.300-.0032.17.263.328.417.745
27vs RHB19954033.295.298-.0032.02.263.331.418.749
28vs RHB20104860.294.297-.0032.34.257.320.401.722
29vs RHB20014858.293.296-.0032.33.260.323.417.740
30vs RHB19934538.291.294-.0032.03.261.324.401.725
31vs RHB19834218.282.285-.0031.81.257.317.387.704
32vs RHB19914208.282.285-.0031.94.253.318.386.704
33vs RHB19884200.279.282-.0032.08.251.310.378.689
34vs RHB19943200.296.300-.0042.03.266.330.425.755
35vs RHB20084856.296.300-.0042.17.262.327.413.740
36vs RHB20094860.295.299-.0042.20.260.326.415.741
37vs RHB20114858.291.295-.0042.42.253.316.397.714
38vs RHB20024852.289.293-.0042.21.257.321.408.729
39vs RHB19774206.283.287-.0041.76.259.321.396.717
40vs RHB19794196.282.286-.0041.66.261.322.395.717
41vs RHB19854202.277.281-.0041.80.253.317.389.706
42vs RHB19743890.277.282-.0051.67.252.316.363.679
43vs RHB19753868.277.282-.0051.61.251.318.366.684
44vs RHB19763878.276.281-.0051.67.250.313.354.667
45vs RHB19804208.281.287-.0061.77.258.315.380.695
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/19/2014.

and a near-equal OPS:

RkISplitYearGOPSOPStotDiff
1vs RHB20144859.699.700-.001
2vs RHB20124857.722.724-.002
3vs RHB19904210.707.710-.003
4vs RHB19914208.704.708-.004
5vs RHB19703887.706.711-.005
6vs RHB19924211.695.700-.005
7vs RHB19894212.690.695-.005
8vs RHB19954033.749.755-.006
9vs RHB20104860.722.728-.006
10vs RHB19864200.715.721-.006
11vs RHB20114858.714.720-.006
12vs RHB20134862.708.714-.006
13vs RHB19824213.707.713-.006
14vs RHB20074862.751.758-.007
15vs RHB19874210.740.747-.007
16vs RHB19784204.695.702-.007
17vs RHB19884200.689.696-.007
18vs RHB19812788.682.689-.007
19vs RHB19964534.759.767-.008
20vs RHB19943200.755.763-.008
21vs RHB20054862.741.749-.008
22vs RHB19854202.706.714-.008
23vs RHB20084856.740.749-.009
24vs RHB20004858.772.782-.010
25vs RHB19984864.745.755-.010
RkISplitYearGOPSOPStotDiff
26vs RHB20034859.745.755-.010
27vs RHB20094860.741.751-.010
28vs RHB19794196.717.727-.010
29vs RHB19834218.704.714-.010
30vs RHB19602472.702.712-.010
31vs RHB19994856.767.778-.011
32vs RHB20064858.757.768-.011
33vs RHB19934538.725.736-.011
34vs RHB19844209.697.708-.011
35vs RHB20044856.750.763-.013
36vs RHB19774206.717.730-.013
37vs RHB19743890.679.693-.014
38vs RHB19763878.667.681-.014
39vs RHB19612860.712.727-.015
40vs RHB19693892.673.689-.016
41vs RHB19753868.684.701-.017
42vs RHB19974532.738.756-.018
43vs RHB20014858.740.759-.019
44vs RHB20024852.729.748-.019
45vs RHB19804208.695.714-.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:

RkISplitYearGBAbipBAOBPSLGOPS
1Total19302468.312.296.356.435.790
2Total19212458.309.291.348.403.751
3Total19252456.306.292.354.411.765
4Total19222476.305.288.349.401.749
5Total20074862.303.268.336.423.758
6Total19292458.303.289.353.417.770
7Total19242462.303.286.348.394.742
8Total19994856.302.271.345.434.778
9Total19362476.301.284.349.404.753
10Total20064858.301.269.337.432.768
11Total19232466.301.284.347.391.738
12Total19974532.301.267.337.419.756
13Total19272472.301.284.345.393.738
14Total19964534.301.270.340.427.767
15Total20084856.300.264.333.416.749
16Total19943200.300.270.339.424.763
17Total19984864.300.266.335.420.755
18Total20004858.300.270.345.437.782
19Total20094860.299.262.333.418.751
20Total20144860.299.251.314.386.700
21Total19262468.298.281.345.389.733
22Total19954034.298.267.338.417.755
23Total20044856.297.266.335.428.763
24Total20134862.297.253.318.396.714
25Total19342446.297.279.342.397.738
RkISplitYearGBAbipBAOBPSLGOPS
26Total20104860.297.257.325.403.728
27Total19202468.297.276.335.372.707
28Total20124860.297.255.319.405.724
29Total19282462.297.281.344.397.741
30Total19372476.296.276.343.399.742
31Total20014858.296.264.332.427.759
32Total19312472.296.278.339.391.730
33Total20054862.295.264.330.419.749
34Total19352456.295.279.341.397.738
35Total20114858.295.255.321.399.720
36Total20034860.294.264.333.422.755
37Total19934538.294.265.332.403.736
38Total20024852.293.261.331.417.748
39Total19392462.293.275.344.397.740
40Total19322466.292.276.337.400.737
41Total19382446.290.274.343.396.739
42Total19874210.289.263.331.415.747
43Total19804210.287.265.326.388.714
44Total19904210.287.258.325.385.710
45Total19774206.287.264.329.401.730
46Total19844210.286.260.323.385.708
47Total19864206.286.258.326.395.721
48Total19794196.286.265.330.397.727
49Total19914208.285.256.323.385.708
50Total19924212.285.256.322.377.700
RkISplitYearGBAbipBAOBPSLGOPS
51Total19834218.285.261.325.389.714
52Total19332452.285.269.330.376.706
53Total19192236.285.263.322.348.670
54Total19402472.284.267.334.392.726
55Total19824214.284.261.324.389.713
56Total19894212.283.254.320.375.695
57Total19753868.282.258.327.374.701
58Total19743890.282.257.324.369.693
59Total19884200.282.254.318.378.696
60Total19763878.281.255.320.361.681
61Total19854206.281.257.323.391.714
62Total19733886.281.257.325.379.704
63Total19623242.281.258.326.393.719
64Total19703888.281.254.326.385.711
65Total19143758.281.254.322.337.659
66Total19412488.280.262.334.375.709
67Total19482474.280.263.341.382.723
68Total19502476.280.266.346.402.748
69Total19784204.280.258.323.379.702
70Total19532480.280.264.336.397.733
71Total19643252.279.250.313.378.690
72Total19612860.279.258.328.399.727
73Total19812788.279.256.320.369.689
74Total19452460.278.260.329.355.684
75Total19442484.278.260.326.358.684
RkISplitYearGBAbipBAOBPSLGOPS
76Total19492480.278.263.344.384.728
77Total19582470.277.258.325.394.719
78Total19462484.277.256.328.360.688
79Total19472486.277.261.336.377.713
80Total19592476.277.257.324.392.716
81Total19602472.277.255.324.388.712
82Total19663230.276.249.310.376.686
83Total19153728.276.250.319.332.651
84Total19713876.276.249.317.365.682
85Total19162494.276.248.312.326.638
86Total19182032.276.254.317.325.642
87Total19693892.276.248.320.369.689
88Total19572470.275.258.324.391.715
89Total19512478.275.261.337.386.722
90Total19542472.275.261.333.390.723
91Total19653246.274.246.311.372.683
92Total19562478.274.258.331.397.729
93Total19673240.274.242.306.357.664
94Total19172494.274.248.312.324.636
95Total19432476.273.253.323.344.667
96Total19633238.273.246.309.372.681
97Total19723718.272.244.311.354.664
98Total19552468.272.258.332.394.726
99Total19522478.271.253.327.370.696
100Total19422448.271.253.323.350.674
RkISplitYearGBAbipBAOBPSLGOPS
101Total19683250.269.237.299.340.639
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

SeasonR/GBABIPBABIP Rank (by league BABIP, since 1914)
19894.13.28356
19924.12.28550
19744.12.28258
19784.10.28069
19424.08.271100
20144.07.29920
19694.07.27687
19644.04.27971
19464.04.27778
19814.01.27973
19764.00.28160

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.

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