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homer at the chalkboardAs we look ahead to the 2014 season, consider offseason moves, and project player performance, I think it’s important to reset our perspective on what “average” performance looks like in an increasingly offensively-challenged environment. Time was, it was easy to spot a “good” hitter – his OPS was at least over .800. Anything below that, and you started to wonder if the guy couldn’t carry third base. As you’ll see, that’s now hilarious.

Thanks to FanGraphs’ leaderboard tool, it’s relatively easy to determine league average performances in a variety of ways. To keep things simple, I’m looking only at the 2013 season, I’m looking only at the National League (because Cubs-related context is what we’re looking for here), and I’m excluding pitchers from the offensive side of the equation (we don’t care if a projected Cubs third baseman is outperforming the average pitcher at the plate).

In 2013, the NL average (non-pitcher) batter looked something like this: He hit .258, got on base at a .323 clip, and slugged .401. He put up a .318 wOBA.

Striking when you look at it that way, yes? Hitting .260? You’re above average. Getting on base a third of the time? You’re quite an asset. Slugging .500 – the former benchmark of a decent slugger – and you’re an easy All-Star.

Breaking it down by position (slash line, and then wOBA):

C: .246/.308/.383 – .303
1B: .256/.334/.416 – .328
2B: .254/.313/.375 – .303
SS: .255/.310/.371 – .299
3B: .254/.316/.392 – .311
LF: .253/.319/.396 – .315
CF: .257/.324/.389 – .315
RF: .264/.330/.430 – .332

Things to note:

  • The big bats reside where we have always thought they do, at first base and in the outfield.
  • Left field actually was home to a below-average crop of bats in the NL last year, though I suspect Ryan Braun’s return in 2014 will bump that number up a bit.
  • Look how far second and third base has fallen, in terms of offensive production relative to other positions.
  • Batting averages are almost identical across the spectrum.
  • If you can put a merely league average hitter at catcher, second base, shortstop, and/or third base, you’re going to be sitting pretty, relative to the rest of the league.
  • But, of course, you still need to have several above league average bats to produce a truly competitive offense.
  • In case you’re wondering, those numbers for the Cubs last year looked like this: .238/.300/.392 – .304. Woof.

As for pitchers in the NL last year, your averages look something like this: 3.74 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 3.81 xFIP. That guy was giving up 0.89 homers per 9, was striking out 7.49 per 9, and was walking 2.97 per 9. He had a 45.7% groundball rate.

Breaking it down by starters and relievers:

Starters: 3.86/3.82/3.83, 0.92 HR/9, 7.19 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 45.8% GB rate.

Relievers: 3.50/3.66/3.77, 0.82 HR/9, 8.06 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, 45.5% GB rate.

The numbers here give you some pretty easy benchmarks to remember. If a pitcher’s ERA is 4 or above, he’s decidedly below average. If his groundball rate is above 45%, he’s probably a groundball type. If he’s striking out 7.5 per 9, he’s just about average (I can’t believe it’s that high, by the way). And if he’s walking more than 3 per 9, he’s probably giving up too many free passes, especially if he’s a starter.

Consider your baselines revised.

  • Jim

    Love it. The nerd in me wonders what the deviation is (i.e., are all of the 2nd basemen hitting about the same, or is there a vast span). That could really be telling.

    Looks like my afternoon is now shot.

    • Chad

      I’m sure it follows a normal distribution with the majority around the mean and a few outliers nearer the tail of the distribution.

      • Jim

        You’re probably right. Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna pull some numbers anyways…

        • Chad

          Go for it.

  • CubFan Paul

    LF: .253/.319/.396 – .315

    I think Junior Lake can outperform that

    Add in his speed and defense & he should be quite valuable WAR wise.

    • ClevelandCubsFan

      Are you sure he can out perform this?

      First, the speed and defense. His speed is good, even very good. I’m not sure about his abiliity to harness it yet. He was 4/8 in stolen bases last year, which isn’t great. (Anything less than about a 2/3 steal rate actually hurts your team.) Defense? Right now he looks about average. His athleticism lets him make some pretty plays, but his lack lack of experience as a left fielder means he isn’t playing as well as he should be on some routine stuff. (Sounds like a certain left fielder we recently lost….) Maybe he can improve. I suspect he will some. How much?

      Batting… I don’t know though. I think his ceiling is probably above that. But his floor could be well below that. If his BABIP had been a more normal .320, he would have hit only .245 last yearn with a .295 OBP. That is slightly, but significantly, below average. Now, he’d still slug a commendable .533, which would be well above average, if we can assume he’d lose extra base hits at the same rate as singles. And all numbers are assuming he hits HRs at the same rates. Someone please check my math.

      In any event, this should be enough to show that Lake beating the average isn’t a slam dunk.

      • CubFan Paul

        “His speed is good, even very good”

        And that’ll translate on defense (range) and on offense (base hit bunts, doubles, & triples).

        “He was 4/8 in stolen bases last year”

        …Small sample size

        “but his lack lack of experience as a left fielder means he isn’t playing as well as he should be on some routine stuff”

        I’m not assuming he stays stagnant development wise, especially defensively.

        “If his BABIP had been a more normal .320…”

        He’s not a .320 babip player. I’m not sure why you want to take hits away.

        • ClevelandCubsFan

          CubFan Paul – I’ll grant improvements. Speed doesn’t always translate to defense though. I’ll admit the SBs are a small sample size but my point is really that we don’t know yet and he hasn’t shown us great basestealing yet.

          As for his BABIP… what do you think is realistic for Lake? His cumulative Minor League BABIP was about .343. That’s still too small of a sample to get an accurate read on him. But his 2014 BABIP with the Cubs was nearly .380–which is Ted Williams territory. It’s going to go way down… maybe not .320. But .320 is a very good BABIP, which is why I chose it. Maybe with his speed he’ll be a touch above that. But that would likely make him about average for AVG and OBP. I’m not taking hits away. I’m just trying to make a realistic pprojection based on past performance.

          • CubFan Paul

            “His cumulative Minor League BABIP was about .343 (*six seasons)*. That’s still too small of a sample to get an accurate read on him”

            I’m done.

          • hansman

            ” But his 2014 BABIP with the Cubs was nearly .380–which is Ted Williams territory. ”

            I think you are confusing BABIP with BA. Ted Williams had a .320 BABIP for his career. (Although, he only had a .344 career BA) He also never had a .380 BABIP in a season (hell, Rickey Henderson for his speed (SPEEEEEED DRIVES BABIP!!!!) had a career .305 BABIP)

            “It’s going to go way down… maybe not .320. But .320 is a very good BABIP, which is why I chose it.”

            This is very, very true and the reason why I am not counting on him “making it” yet and why the FO seemed so keen on moving Castillo out earlier in the offseason. Guys do not sustain BABIPs as high as Lake and Castillo had last year.

            • CubFan Paul

              “and why the FO seemed so keen on moving Castillo out earlier in the offseason”

              This was confirmed?

              • hansman

                I thought it was as confirmed as “Hey, we would really not mind trading this guy” things could be. I could be wrong.

      • TK

        Pretty sure he played VERY LITTLE outfield before doing so at MLB level . . . Id call what he did last year in OF quite impressive when you don’t cherry pick details. With a bit of experience, he very well could be an above average defensive OF, including CF.

        • ClevelandCubsFan

          TK. Could be. I hope so. But it took a much more talented player named Alfonso Soriano almost 10 years to figure it out. Just sayin’

          • TK

            How was Soriano more talented? We’re talking defense, aren’t we? Soriano was never considered talented defensively, at any position. And part of why it took him so long to end up as an at least decent OF is because he resisted the change for some time, then he started having all his lower body injuries. And he was already old when he made the transition. Theres no comparison to be made . . . Lake is much younger, more athletic, and seemingly willing and welcoming of the change (opportunity). He may never have Alf’s power, but he can be a MUCH better OF defensively, and very well can be above average offensively, relative to the numbers cited.

            • ClevelandCubsFan

              I meant all around Soriano was more athletic. Including all facets in that appraisal. But I don’t want to pick nits. Both were middle infielders who didn’t have the glove to stay in the middle infield. It’s a parallel. Again, I’m not saying Lake can’t do it. I’m just saying it’s not that simple. And I think it’d be foolish to EXPECT Lake to put it all together to stick as an above average MLB outfielder. It’s possible and the Cubs should (and will) give him a small window to try. I’m rooting for him. But he’s going to have to really battle to improve.

  • Isaac

    My goodness is that K/9 high. Unreal.

  • terencemann

    I guess this just cements that Welington Castillo is our star player or something?

    • TK

      And that Cubs fans should get off his arse with all their complaints that he ain’t good enough offensively.

  • Norm

    I think there is one problem with the Fangraphs leaderboards when you do a ‘by position’ analysis.
    If Starlin Castro had 600 plate app’s in a season, with 300 as SS and 300 at LF, Fangraphs will include all 600 of Castro’s PA at both SS and LF…double counting him.

    Maybe its not significant, but something worth pointing out.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      My instinct is that it doesn’t matter, because we’re most interested in putting guys where they play a plurality of their games. 50/50 splits like that are rare.

      I could be wrong.

      • Norm

        well it’s not only 50/50 splits. For example, the Padres have 1668 PA’s in RF to only 569 for the Phillies.
        So, if 4 people played RF, those 4 players will have their total PA’s listed at each position they played.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          I believe the only players included are the ones who have played a plurality of their games at the selected position. So, yeah, you’ll have oddities, but the 50/50 split time guy is the only one that would really mess with the numbers. Other guys – 70/30 or even 50/30/20 – should be considered as playing whatever that position is for the purposes of these numbers. Otherwise, you’d be excluding half the players in baseball. And it’s not like it matters what numbers the 50/30/20 guy put up while playing RF/LF/1B. It only matters what numbers he put up in total, and then what position we can best say he plays.

          • Norm

            Here are the ESPN numbers for players playing at a particular position….so Luis Valbuena for example, the 3B line will only include Valbuena’s 3B numbers and not any other position he played. Not a big difference in most cases, but 30 points of OPS for LF

            C: 245/307/379
            1B: 264/341/427
            2B: 260/319/390
            SS: 253/307/372
            3B: 258/324/404
            LF: 263/328/417
            CF: 259/329/394
            RF: 269/334/443

            • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

              “so Luis Valbuena for example, the 3B line will only include Valbuena’s 3B numbers and not any other position he played”

              I just don’t think that’s the right way to do this – if Valbuena has a huge game while playing second base, and then a down game the next day while playing third base, does that say anything at all about the league’s performance at 3B or 2B? Not at all. What matters is what he hit all year, and where he played a plurality of his games (because, for the purposes of this exercise, we have to give him a position).

              • Norm

                I hear ya, but it’s taking ALL of Valbuena’s PA’s and putting them at both positions, not just where he played the most.

                Look at that leaderboard link and click on LF and SS’s. The # of games should be equal, right?
                It has 3,051 games for SS and 5,228 games for LF.

                And LF’s have 5000 more PA’s than SS.

                There’s something off there….right? Maybe I’m wrong with what’s off, but there shouldn’t be 2200 more games for LF’s than SS’s.

                • DocPeterWimsey

                  There are two different issues here. How much did teams get from guys who played SS, and how much did teams get from guys who *can* play SS.

                  The former is good for asking why the Sox, A’s, Tigers, Cards, etc., were so much better than the Rox, Cubs, ChiSox, Astros, etc. in 2013.

                  The latter is good for asking: how can we maximize the potential for our position next year, and what can we expect the opposition’s compliments to do to us next year?

                  Given the latter, you want to include Valbuena’s numbers at both 3rd and 2nd.

            • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

              Put another way: I’m not interested in knowing what third baseman hit last year while playing third base. I’m interested in knowing the full-year performance of guys whom their team deemed capable of playing third base.

              • TK

                Thats the key . . . The fact that teams saw a player fit to assume the duties of that particular position, regardless of how many other positions he may play. Its about the quality of players teams deem fit to insert at each position, as in what is considered acceptable by most teams, not about any individual player’s individual performances ay any single position. Norm is just looking at it from the wrong direction.

          • Norm

            But most guys that play multiple positions are ‘utility’ players and usually not as good. So using all 400 of a utility players PA’s at more than one position will likely bring the numbers for BOTH positions down a bit.

            • Patrick W.

              Well yeah. That’s sort of the deal, right? If you have a guy who’s capable of playing position X part time, you can presume he’s capable of playing position X full time. So of all the guys capable of playing position X, here are the average numbers. Want to know how your guy stacks up vs. the average production you can get by putting anybody else (who’s capable) in position X? Here you go.

  • Jim

    So. When you run the deviation numbers (minimum 50 PA):

    Catchers, 2nd Basemen, and 3rd Basemen are the most deviant. This means that there’s a large gap between the upper few and the bottom few (which passes the common sense test).

    Center Field, and Left Field were the least deviant.

    1st, Right, and Shortstop were just right in the middle.

    The other thing that grabbed me was the deviation for slugging 3rd basemen, which was several percent larger than the other positions.

    What do the numbers say? Slugging 3rd basemen are rare.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      That’s actually pretty interesting – and, for some reason, unsurprising. C, 2B, and 3B seem like the three positions where you can really see a stud or a schlub, especially in recent years.

      • http://www.survivingthalia.com Mike Taylor

        I’m sure some full time platoon guys with the qualified requirements skew the numbers, too. Danny Velencia hit .371 in 100 PA vs. LHP out of 170 with 4 HR and a 1.031 OPS last year. He’s listed at 3B, so I’m guessing with more cases out there like his, power at 3B is probably more rare than advertised.

  • Spoda17

    “woof” … I actually laughed our loud when I read that… good stuff…

    Anyway, most, if not all, baseball analysts say that if your teams put up at least average numbers (at each position), you will be in great shape…

  • Bilbo161

    I like the logic but average players means average team, not good team. Average players are only good if your other players are great.

    • Patrick W.

      Seems covered, no?

      “But, of course, you still need to have several above league average bats to produce a truly competitive offense.”

  • Cubbie in NC

    Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA
    Donnie Murphy 0.255 0.319 0.53 0.366
    Ryan Sweeney 0.266 0.324 0.448 0.337
    Junior Lake 0.284 0.332 0.428 0.335
    Nate Schierholtz 0.251 0.301 0.47 0.331
    Welington Castillo 0.274 0.349 0.397 0.331
    Anthony Rizzo 0.233 0.323 0.419 0.325
    Luis Valbuena 0.218 0.331 0.378 0.315
    Starlin Castro 0.245 0.284 0.347 0.28
    Darwin Barney 0.208 0.266 0.303 0.252

    C: .246/.308/.383 – .303
    1B: .256/.334/.416 – .328
    2B: .254/.313/.375 – .303
    SS: .255/.310/.371 – .299
    3B: .254/.316/.392 – .311
    LF: .253/.319/.396 – .315
    CF: .257/.324/.389 – .315
    RF: .264/.330/.430 – .332

    Comparing the Cubs to the guys that are still on the roster shows that some offensive improvement is in order to get up to the average.

    Interesting that the Cubs ISO was very high. When they hit they got a bunch of extra base hits.

  • http://brianmyers.us BrianMyersUS

    Of course, we need to consider “what does average mean”?

    Average includes guys that sit on the bench but have a position. Players that get few AB’s and struggle due to a lack of playing time. Players that are simply not good enough to be starters, but are required should the guy in front of them go down.

    As a result, if your numbers are “average” then you are likely not good enough to be an “average” starter at your position. If an entire team is average, their starters are below average but their bench is above average (by bench player numbers). But since starters play more, the team will likely be slightly below average as a whole.

    • DCF

      Very good point indeed. When trying to predict a team’s performance, you have to consider the whole team’s expected performance over the whole year, because that’s exactly what you’re doing when analysing the past. or to put it another way, a team full of average starting players will really be a below average team, because some portion of AB will always come from bench players, utility guys etc. and those are of course routinely worse players than the projected starters.

  • dAn

    Brett,

    Great article. A lot of fans were not tracking this, and it’s nice for all of us to see the league averages by position.

    Another thing to keep in mind, along these lines, are park factors. Wrigley was the second most favorable environment in all of baseball last year for hitters, after Coors (see http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/parkfactor). So, we need to keep that in mind when we talk about things like pitcher ERAs of 4.00 being sub-par. That may not be the case for the Cubs, when you take park effects into account. That average starting pitcher with an ERA of 3.86 posts an ERA up around 4.22 or 4.23 in Wrigley. And of course, hitter statistics need to be adjusted, as well.

    That would seem to make the outlook for the Cubs offense even more bleak for 2014, but I am not as concerned as some other fans. Last year, the Cubs were 38 runs away from the median NL team, in terms of run production. Almost all of that difference can be accounted for by the bad RISP performance alone (which is something that doesn’t normally carry over from year to year). Then, when you look at all the guys whose BABIPs took a major nosedive last year (Rizzo, Castro, Barney, etc–plus other low BABIP guys like Valbuena who might be due for a bump), it seems quite likely that–without any significant personnel changes–the Cubs could be above the median in terms of run production next year. All that would need to happen would be for the Cubs to–as a team–have roughly a normal BABIP.

    It’s quite possible that–even with park effects taken into account–the Cubs could field about a league average offense in 2014.

    • ClevelandCubsFan

      But average pitcher at Wrigley would oversample Cubs pitchers at home. You’d need to weight the stats a little get a more accurate picture. (Consider if Cubs pitchers are half that 4.22 but combined for 4.40 at home. ….)

    • DCF

      I agree that the Cubs offense will be better in 2014 than i 2103, just because Rizzo, Castro, Barney most probably can’t possibly be as bad as last year. But let’s also keep in mind that (maybe) being a (slightly) “above median” team holds no real value in itself and is still far away from being competitive.
      An intereasting question would be, by how many runs would the run production have to increase for the Cubs to be competitive in the NL central?

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