Positions of Strength and Weakness
By Tom Tippett
You probably have a very good feel for the positions where your favorite team needs help and where they're pretty well set for next year. But it's not as easy to keep up with all thirty teams.
As free agent season gets into full swing, let's take a look at the offensive contribution each team received from each position in the 2002 season. Doing so will help explain what happened this past year and give us some insight into some of the off-season moves that need to be made.
The numbers in the following table show how each team ranked in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) at each position. If a player moved around, his stats are divided among those positions. (Stats were not park adjusted.)
Team P C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH ANA 9 13 8 3 3 6 2 9 3 3 4 BAL 10 10 9 7 7 13 9 12 9 14 14 BOS 11 5 14 10 6 2 1 6 2 2 5 CHI 7 9 7 4 5 9 8 8 1 4 8 CLE 6 14 1 8 12 7 13 10 11 1 9 DET 5 12 13 11 14 11 10 13 8 11 6 KC 13 6 2 13 10 14 11 3 14 12 10 MIN 2 3 11 9 9 12 4 2 4 10 1 NY 1 2 3 1 4 4 12 1 12 6 12 OAK 12 8 12 5 1 3 3 11 5 7 3 SEA 3 4 6 2 13 8 7 5 6 5 11 TB 8 7 10 14 11 10 14 4 10 13 2 TEX 4 1 5 6 8 1 6 14 7 8 13 TOR 14 11 4 12 2 5 5 7 13 9 7
Before we discuss these results, let's take a moment to go over how to read this table. You can look down each column to see how the teams (and by extension which players) ranked from top (1) to bottom (14) based on OPS by the players at that position. For example, at second base, the Yankees (mainly Alfonso Soriano) were number one, followed by the Mariners (primarily Bret Boone) and the Angels (mostly an Adam Kennedy / Benji Gil platoon). Tampa Bay (Brent Abernathy, Andy Sheets and Felix Escalona) was last in the league.
Reading across, you can get a snapshot of each team's offensive strengths and weaknesses. The Red Sox, for instance, were very good in the outfield (first, sixth, and second) and DH (second), pitiful (14th) at first base, and below average at second base. In other words, they have an excellent foundation, and a couple of targeted moves could make a big difference. Conversely, some teams have almost nothing to build on -- the Tigers were tenth or worse at eight (!) positions, while Tampa Bay was very weak in seven spots.
In the remainder of this article, I'll go through the positions and offer some observations about the players who had the biggest impact on these rankings and the teams that made the biggest moves, up or down, from 2001 to 2002. We'll skip the AL pitchers because they just don't get enough atbats to make a difference.
In all cases, the averages cited are OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) including only those atbats while playing that position, so they generally won't match a player's overall numbers. And keep in mind that we're looking only at offense; if defense and other contributions were included, these rankings would change.
Catchers: Ivan Rodriguez (.931 OPS while catching) led Texas to the top, but Todd Greene (1.070 OPS in 54 atbats) helped make up for a weak showing by Bill Haselman (.603, 175). That was enough to put Texas ahead of the second-place Yankees, where Jorge Posada (.865) got a little help from Chris Widger (.713) but none from Alberto Castillo (.384). Minnesota (A.J. Pierzynski and Tom Prince), Seattle (Dan Wilson and Ben Davis), and Boston (Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli) rounded out the top five. On the other hand, Cleveland's Einar Diaz and Eddie Perez didn't get the job done, but the arrival of youngsters Victor Martinez and Josh Bard gave Indians fans a peek at what should be a much more promising future.
First basemen: The top-ranked teams featured some of the league's best-known and most-feared sluggers in Cleveland's Jim Thome (1.148), Kansas City's Mike Sweeney (1.032), Jason Giambi (1.135 when not DHing) of the Yankees (who also used Nick Johnson, .691, quite a bit at this position), Toronto's Carlos Delgado (.949), and Rafael Palmeiro (.995 at 1B) of the Rangers. In other words, you needed a LOT of offense from this position if you were going to keep up with the Jones's. Which only underscores how much the 14th-ranked Red Sox suffered from the lack of production from Tony Clark (.564), Brian Daubach (.800), and Jose Offerman (.657). And how much the A's missed Giambi's bat despite a pretty good season from Scott Hatteberg.
(By the way, I took a lot of heat from a few Yankee fans last year when I pointed out that Tino Martinez ranked only 12th at first base in 2001, but the team clearly made the right move by replacing him with Giambi. Tino's Cardinals were 9th in the NL at 1B this year, while the Yankees moved up nine spots even though Giambi spent a lot of time at DH.)
Second basemen: With Alfonso Soriano (.877) starting all but seven games, it's no surprise to see the Yankees atop the pile at this position. Seattle's Bret Boone (.805) struggled early but came on strong in the second half to move into second place. I knew that Adam Kennedy (.799) and Benji Gil (.777 at 2b) had nice seasons, but good enough to put the Angels 2Bs third in the league? That was a surprise. Had Ray Durham not been traded, the fourth-ranked White Sox likely would have finished second, but Willie Harris's weak showing (.588) pulled them down to fourth by year's end. Oakland was next despite tinkering with the position for most of the year -- Frank Menechino, Randy Velarde, and Esteban German gave way to Mark Ellis and (to a much lesser extent) Ray Durham in the second half. Cleveland dropped from 2nd in 2001 to 8th in 2002 after the trade of Roberto Alomar to the Mets.
Third basemen: A promising young rookie helped his team finish second at this position, but it wasn't Hank Blalock of Texas, as many would have predicted eight months ago. It was the Blue Jays Eric Hinske who put up numbers that were second only to those of Oakland's Eric Chavez at the hot corner. Kudos to Toronto GM J. P. Ricciardi for acquiring Hinske from the A's and then backing him despite a flurry of errors early in the year. David Bell would have looked very good at third for Seattle, who ranked 13th because Jeff Cirillo couldn't match his Coors-inflated production from 2000-01. The other bottom-dwellers were Cleveland and Detroit, where Travis Fryman and Dean Palmer suffered from physical ailments. Fryman played but didn't produce, while Palmer couldn't get off the DL.
Shortstops: Miguel Tejada was a big winner in the MVP voting but ranked only third in OPS at his position. As expected, Alex Rodriguez (1.018) dominated. Not so certain was another terrific campaign from Nomar Garciaparra, whose surgically-repaired wrist was healthy enough for him to play regularly and belt 85 extra-base hits en route to an OPS of .884 as a shortstop. Tejada's .862 mark was nothing to sneeze at, of course, and he had some awfully big hits down the stretch, but my MVP vote would have gone to A-Rod. At .790, Derek Jeter was a distant fourth among the game's elite shortstops, while Toronto cobbled together a package of Chris Woodward (.799, 287 atbats), Dave Berg (.919, 40), and Felipe Lopez (.687, 271) to rank fifth. The White Sox, Tigers and Twins each dropped at least five spots in the shortstop rankings compared with last year.
Left fielders: The Yankees were only 12th at this spot because Rondell White never got it going at the plate. Believe it or not, that was a couple of steps up from their 14th-place showing in 2001. Detroit dropped from 4th in 2001 to 10th this year because Bobby Higginson had an off year and nobody stepped up during the time when he was out with injuries. The leaders at this position were Boston (Manny Ramirez with help from Brian Daubach, Cliff Floyd, and Benny Agbayani), Anaheim (Garret Anderson and Orlando Palmeiro), and Oakland (David Justice, Adam Piatt, and Jeremy Giambi). The A's moved up from 13th to 3rd in the past year.
Center fielders: Featuring a well-rounded offensive game and remarkable consistency, Bernie Williams was one of three players to lead an AL team to a repeat #1 ranking. (The others were Ivan and Alex Rodriguez in Texas.) Minnesota's Torii Hunter emerged to take the second spot, sneaking in ahead of Kansas City (Carlos Beltran), which dropped from second to third. At or near the bottom were Texas (Carl Everett and several others), Oakland (Terrance Long), and Cleveland (where Milton Bradley didn't exactly erase the memories of Kenny Lofton's best years). Tampa Bay's Randy Winn had a big year (for him) and carried his team from 14th to 4th, the biggest improvement shown by any team's CF corps. Winn will play in Seattle next year, so we'll have to see if his shoes can be filled by one of the Devil Rays' talented but very young OF prospects (Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli).
Right fielders: Once you get past the White Sox (Magglio Ordonez) at the top, there were quite a few surprises at this position. Raul Mondesi helped drag two teams (Toronto and New York) to the bottom of the table. Trot Nixon didn't have a great year, but did enough to help the Red Sox rank second. Tim Salmon had a nice bounceback season to put Anaheim into third. A group of youngsters (Dustin Mohr, Bobby Kielty, and Michael Cuddyer) propelled Minnesota into fourth. Seattle fell to sixth when Ichiro couldn't match his MVP season. Cleveland dropped from 1st in 2001 to 11th with the departure of Juan Gonzalez.
Designated hitters: Teams tend to rotate a lot of players through this position, so these rankings are often more of a group effort than an individual achievement. Ellis Burks had another terrific year as Cleveland moved from 3rd in 2001 to the top in 2002. The other top spots went to teams that featured DH specialists (Brad Fullmer, Edgar Martinez, and Frank Thomas) or used slugging 1B/OF types (like Manny Ramirez and Jason Giambi) quite often at DH. As you might expect, the league's worst hitting teams tended to have the most trouble finding someone to occupy this position.
Pinch hitters: Of the top five pinch hitting teams in 2001, four finished in the bottom six this year. Only Minnesota, which rose from third to first, was able to produce in a pinch two years in a row. Of the five worst pinch hitting teams in 2001, three finished in the top five this year. Kansas City remained in the bottom five.
National League rankings
Team P C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH ARI 8 6 3 2 8 11 7 4 8 8 9 ATL 7 15 8 16 14 5 3 3 6 9 11 CHI 14 10 7 6 9 3 14 16 2 5 7 CIN 13 7 10 4 13 10 6 7 9 7 10 COL 1 13 1 10 6 15 9 13 4 2 4 FLO 16 5 4 9 2 12 8 10 7 13 15 HOU 15 11 2 5 1 9 11 2 12 6 12 LA 4 8 12 11 10 16 10 9 5 12 1 MIL 10 16 5 15 7 1 13 14 11 16 2 MON 9 3 16 3 12 6 16 8 1 15 8 NY 12 1 11 8 4 14 12 6 16 10 5 PHI 6 2 14 7 3 7 4 11 3 4 6 PIT 11 9 13 14 15 13 2 12 15 14 13 SD 5 14 6 13 16 8 15 5 13 3 14 SF 2 4 15 1 11 4 1 15 14 1 16 SL 3 12 9 12 5 2 5 1 10 11 3
Pitchers: It's no shock to learn that Mike Hampton (.894) and Jason Jennings (.719) led Colorado to the top of this table for the second year in a row. Their home park helped, but these guys can hit a little, too. Also for the second consecutive year, the Giants finished second, with Russ Ortiz (.607) and Livan Hernandez (.577) leading the way. The Cubs dropped from 4th to 14th in the past year while Atlanta moved up seven places from 14th to 7th. Houston was 15th for the second year in a row.
Catchers: Some day, we'll be telling our grandkids that we were blessed to see Mike Piazza's entire career. Since 1993, the year Piazza became a regular, his teams have led the league in catcher hitting every season except the year he was traded, when his four months with the Mets carried them to a second-place ranking in 1998. This year, the Phillies were second thanks to Mike Lieberthal's comeback year. Montreal's third-ranked young tandem of Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider were a big part of the Expos success. For the fourth-ranked Giants, Benito Santiago and Yorvit Torrealba were equally good, posting OPS marks of .756 and .758 in a very tough park for hitters. The Marlins were fifth, but high-priced Charles Johnson managed only a .572 OPS in 243 atbats; Mike Redmond (.785 in 247 atbats) and Ramon Castro (.977 in 74 atbats) deserve all the credit. Johnson now belongs to the 13th-ranked Rockies, who hope he can rediscover the hitting stroke that disappeared midway through the 2001 season.
First basemen: Colorado's Todd Helton didn't have his best year but was good enough to lead the league. Without the help of Coors Field, the Rockies probably would have finished second behind the Jeff Bagwell-led Astros. The 3rd-ranked Diamondbacks split the playing time between Mark Grace (.750 OPS, 269 atbats), Erubiel Durazo (1.008, 182), and a guy who has become an amazing platoon player, Greg Colbrunn (1.026, 128). The position was a black hole for the Giants (15th), where JT Snow didn't have much success until the postseason, and Expos (16th), who traded Lee Stevens after a very poor first half and failed to get a miracle out of 41-year-old Andres Galarraga.
Second basemen: Jeff Kent helped San Francisco repeat at the top of this list, while Junior Spivey's breakthrough season propelled the DiamondBacks from 8th in 2001 to 2nd this year. Two teams moved ten places in the rankings from a year ago. Cincinnati's Todd Walker didn't have a great year, but his .778 OPS was enough to lift the Reds from 14th to 4th at a position where offense was scarce in 2002. The Brewers dropped ten places from 5th to 15th when newcomer Eric Young (.718 OPS in 476 atbats) got off to a horrible start and Ronnie Belliard (.462, 176) stopped hitting altogether. Atlanta brought up the rear when Mark DeRosa (.791 in 104 AB) missed two months with an injury and the group of Keith Lockhart (.624), Marcus Giles (.672), and Jesse Garcia (.341) couldn't get the job done at the plate.
Third basemen: The Braves topped the chart in 2001 when Chipper Jones was at third, but when Jones moved to left, Atlanta gave the 3B job to Vinny Castilla, whose .613 OPS was more than 400 points lower than Chipper's year-ago mark. As a result, Atlanta dropped to 14th. Houston, on the other hand, moved all the way from 11th to first. Last spring, we projected Morgan Ensberg to have a very strong rookie season, so some improvement was expected. But Ensberg (.707) lost the job in May and Geoff Blum (.827) did most of the damage instead. The Padres plummeted fourteen places, from 2nd to 16th, when Phil Nevin moved to first and another heralded rookie, Sean Burroughs (.571) failed to hit. When Burroughs went on the DL, Nevin moved back to third but managed only a .728 OPS as a 3B. Milwaukee rose seven places to finish 7th thanks to Tyler Houston and Mark Loretta, both of whom were traded away by season's end. Cincinnati dropped seven places when the 2001 combo of Aaron Boone and Dmitri Young duo became more of a Boone solo after Young was traded to Detroit. Florida rose six places behind Mike Lowell while the Pirates dropped all the way from 3rd to 15th when Aramis Ramirez slumped to a .668 OPS. Amazingly, the top three teams in 2001 were the bottom three teams in 2002.
Shortstops: It's a shame that Jose Hernandez got all that attention because the fans started rooting for him to set the new single-season strikeout record and the manager chose to sit him down. If I was running the Brewers, I would have lashed back with a speech about how Hernandez was the best hitting shortstop in the league and was playing very good defense so of course he's going to play and why doesn't everybody just shut up about the strikeouts.
Three teams improved their ranking by at least seven places: Atlanta got a big boost from Rafael Furcal's return from his 2001 shoulder injury, the Cardinals Edgar Renteria bounced back very nicely after an off year, and San Diego got a lot more out of Deivi Cruz than they did from D'Angelo Jimenez, Donaldo Mendez, and others in 2001.
Colorado plunged from 2nd to 15th when Juan Uribe (.629) was about as bad (or worse) as one can possibly be in that park. That was a surprise, as Uribe's OPS was a respectable .851 in the second half of 2001, a performance that was near the league average after taking Coors into account. This year, Uribe was outhit by pitchers Hampton and Jennings and was only 4 OPS points ahead of Denny Neagle.
Rich Aurilia couldn't match his huge 2001 season, so the Giants fell from 1st to 4th.
Left fielders: Most years, a team featuring Brian Giles (1.068) could expect to land in the #1 spot, but Barry Bonds (1.405) and the Giants have owned this position for the past three years. Atlanta moved all the way from last to third when Chipper Jones took over in left. Pat Burrell's big season helped the Phillies jump seven places. The big losers were the Dodgers, down seven places with the trade of Gary Sheffield; Houston, which dropped six spots when Daryle Ward slumped; Arizona, who were down five spots because Luis Gonzalez couldn't repeat his monster 2001 campaign; and the Cubs, who also slid five places when Moises Alou got off to a horrendous start.
Center fielders: This is the fifth and final position that saw a team repeat at the top. This time it was the Cardinals, where Jim Edmonds (.973, 469 atbats) got some help from Eli Marrero (.836, 89). The Astros Lance Berkman repeated in the number two slot. Atlanta's Andruw Jones and Arizona's Steve Finley rebounded from subpar 2001 seasons to help their teams to the 3rd and 4th rankings, respectively. The biggest improvement came from the Expos, where six players combined to lift the team from last to 8th. The biggest contributor was Brad Wilkerson (.899, 258 atbats), who doesn't have the range to play center. Endy Chavez (.781, 123) had the job at season's end. Colorado and Milwaukee each dropped nine places, with Juan Pierre and Jeffrey Hammonds struggling mightily at the plate.
Right fielders: There weren't any big surprises at this position. Montreal's Vladimir Guerrero led his team to the top spot for the second time in three years, with Sammy Sosa's Cubs the runner up. The other top spots went to teams headed by familiar names, Philly's Bobby Abreu, Colorado's Larry Walker, and the Dodgers' Shawn Green. In Cincinnati, Austin Kearns helped bring the Reds up to the middle of the pack. The Cardinals slipped five spots with JD Drew's knee injury holding down his production.
Designated hitters: With only nine games per team in AL parks, the DH rankings don't mean much. Many of the top rankings went to teams with older or defensively-challenged sluggers who were moved to DH for those games, guys like Bonds, Larry Walker (Col), Ron Gant (SD), Jeremy Giambi (Phi), Alou (Chi), Bagwell (Hou), Russ Branyan (Cin), and Erubiel Durazo (Ari). Some other teams were more inclined to put their top pinch hitter in this spot, and those teams tended to finish in the bottom half.
Pinch hitters: As was the case in the AL, there was almost no correlation between a high PH ranking in 2001 and 2002. Arizona dropped from 1st to 9th, Atlanta from 5th to 11th, and the Giants from 2nd to dead last. The Dodgers went from 12th to the top, Milwaukee from 14th to 2nd, the Cardinals from 10th to 3rd, and Colorado from 13th to 4th.
Major League rankings
Here are the overall major league rankings, with teams listing in order of their 2002 finish to give you a slightly different look. Bear in mind that limited playing time makes the inter-league comparisons largely meaningless at pitcher and designated hitter.
Team P C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH NY 2 4 4 2 6 6 28 3 27 13 27 BOS 27 13 30 22 10 2 3 11 9 6 9 TOR 30 26 6 26 2 7 14 16 28 17 17 BAL 26 24 17 18 11 24 20 23 23 23 30 TB 24 18 19 30 23 16 30 9 24 21 2 MIN 3 6 21 20 15 21 13 4 12 18 1 CHI 23 22 14 7 9 15 18 18 3 8 22 CLE 22 30 1 19 28 11 29 20 25 5 23 KC 29 17 3 29 18 30 27 7 29 20 25 DET 18 28 26 24 30 20 21 29 21 19 11 OAK 28 19 23 14 1 3 12 21 14 14 3 ANA 25 29 16 6 4 10 9 19 11 7 5 SEA 4 12 9 5 29 12 17 10 19 9 26 TEX 6 2 7 17 13 1 16 30 20 15 29 ATL 11 25 15 28 25 13 4 5 7 22 18 MON 13 5 29 4 22 14 26 14 1 29 14 PHI 10 3 27 11 7 17 5 22 4 4 12 FLO 21 8 10 13 5 25 10 17 8 27 24 NY 16 1 22 12 8 27 22 12 30 24 10 SL 7 20 18 21 12 5 6 1 15 25 7 HOU 20 16 5 9 3 19 19 2 17 11 19 CIN 17 10 20 8 24 22 7 13 13 12 16 PIT 15 14 25 25 26 26 2 24 26 28 20 CHI 19 15 13 10 19 8 24 28 2 10 13 MIL 14 27 11 27 16 4 23 26 16 30 6 ARI 12 9 8 3 17 23 8 6 10 16 15 SF 5 7 28 1 21 9 1 27 22 1 28 LA 8 11 24 16 20 29 15 15 6 26 4 COL 1 21 2 15 14 28 11 25 5 2 8 SD 9 23 12 23 27 18 25 8 18 3 21
Among other things, these tables highlights teams with balanced contributions and those with a couple of stars and a limited supporting cast. As Bill James has pointed out on a number of occasions, many teams have failed to win a title because they lacked enough average players.
Twenty-nine of the thirty teams had at least one key position (leaving aside P and PH for the moment) at which they ranked 20th or worse. Only the Astros had every position in the top nineteen, but even they had four positions (C, SS, LF, RF) that were below average. Even the Angels, often cited as having the most balanced batting order of any team in baseball, were subpar at three positions. And, for the second year in a row, San Francisco was decidedly unbalanced, leading the majors at two positions (three in 2001) but finishing in the bottom third at four others.
Every year, there are a few teams that squeeze more runs out of their hits and walks than anyone else, while others squander more than their fair share of opportunities. And it's quite possible that having a balanced attack is part of the equation. In my next article, which will analyze the 2002 standings and the outlook for 2003 by examining the relationships between wins and runs and between runs and the underlying batting events that create them, I'll spend some time on the impact of having a balanced lineup.