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Fair AND Balanced? What the heck is positional balance?

fair and balancedThey say you can never have enough pitching. But the Hall of Miller and Eric can’t be all pitching. Those pitchers need a catcher after all! But how many backstops should we honor? And who’s going to field all those ground balls? And hit them? How many shortstops are too many and how many would bring us up short?

The HoME rules encourage us to seek balance among the positions. The question is what balance looks like.

Too much? Too little? Too bad?
If we look at other Halls, we might get a sense of what balance looks like, or doesn’t. Here’s how they break down percentage-wise by a player’s primary defensive position:

   FAME  MERIT  STATS
=======================
 C   6%     7%     7%
1B   9%    10%    10%
2B   9%     9%     7%
3B   6%     7%     7%
SS  10%     9%     8%
LF   9%    10%     9%
CF   8%     8%     7%
RF  12%    10%    10%
DH   1%     1%     1%
SP  28%    26%    33%
RP   1%     1%    +0%

Hall of Fame right fielders (25) nearly double up the inductees at catcher and third base (13 each). In the Hall of Merit the biggest gap lies between first base and shortstop left field (23 each) and catcher and third base (16 each). As for the The Hall of Stats, it has a nearly 60% gap between first basemen (22) and catchers and centerfielders (14 each). In fact, every Hall has catcher, third base, and centerfield below the average rate of induction for position players.

We’ve elaborated previously on some reasons why backstops, third sackers, and centerfielders might have fewer Hall-level careers among their ranks. By contrast, first basemen are mashers, shortstops are usually the most gifted athletes on the field, and right fielders tend to combine strong hitting and certain helpful defensive skills with longevity.

How about pitchers? Their number is, perhaps, a matter of taste. Fame and Merit have arrived at 27–29 percent. Stats says a full third. We might look at this very scientifically and ask ourselves how many outs a pitcher is really responsible for. In today’s game, where the league strikes out seven hitters per nine innings, the answer is at least 27% (based on 25.5 outs per game, or 8.5 innings). After that you’re on your own for estimating how pitchers should be credited for inducing fieldable batted balls. Some say they get hardly any credit because data suggests most pitchers don’t show any repeatable ability to control batted-ball outcomes (DIPS theory). Others might say pitchers deserve some credit because it its possible that to become a big league pitcher you must have a certain ability to induce weak contact, which explains why the data on balls in play appears random. Still another point of view: pitchers do affect batted balls, but weakly. For the sake of argument, then, let’s say pitchers get ten percent of the credit for outs on balls in play. When combined with Ks, their fingerprints are on about a third of all outs. That’s only in today’s game, however. In the 1920s and 1930s, when the league struck out a mere 2.5 to 3.5 batters per game, pitchers would be responsible for about 20 percent of outs if we gave them ten percent of the credit for fielded balls. Of course, they may have pitched to contact more back then, so perhaps DIPS theory breaks down under different strategic circumstances? Pretty sticky stuff.

What if we try to make it simpler: Half the game is run-prevention, and if a half of that is pitching, a quarter of all Hall members ought to be pitchers. Or if we say not half of run-prevention but rather two-thirds is pitching, then one-third of members ought to be pitchers.

There’s another, even less objective way to look at it, too. When you start examining actual candidates, their quality peters out pretty quickly after 60–65 pitchers, or 28–31 percent. No offense to Frank Tanana, Dwight Gooden, or Kenny Rogers.

Taking a position—or nine
Personally, I suspect 30 percent or fewer pitchers is ideal, but that’s drawn from the intuition built up by looking at pitchers for hours on end. So let’s say among friends that 60 pitchers makes sense. Since we’re aiming at 212 players, that means 152 hitters. Divide 152 by the eight throwing positions, and we’re at exactly nineteen per position—plus a noseful of DHs.

So how many is too many or too few at each position? Fourteen is about three-quarters of nineteen, and twenty-four is about twenty-five percent more than it. The former amounts to about seven percent of the HoME’s eventual size, and the latter to eleven percent. Pretty close to how the Halls of Merit and Stats break down by percentage. To my eyes, however, it feels unbalanced. Could we do better? I think so, yes. Catchers are by far the toughest guys to find balance for—they age out fast and their annual production isn’t very strong compared to other positions. But at third and center, there’s enough talent, even if the positions are a little shallow.

Future non-shock

Of course, there’s another aspect of all this that has gone unsaid. We don’t have to necessarily achieve perfect balance the very moment we catch up to the real Hall—provided we have set ourselves up to achieve it soon thereafter (assuming we will continue our elections well into the future). Like the real voters, we will know who the eligible players will be for the next five years after our latest election.

Take centerfield. If we believe that Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, and Andruw Jones might all make the HoME, then we might be willing to take fewer low-end centerfielders knowing that better ones are on the way. We might have the choice of voting for a less impressive centerfielder like Hugh Duffy due to concerns about positional balance or adding another shortstop like Dave Bancroft who is a better overall candidate. With a trio of strong centerfielders on the way, why not take the shortstop instead of diluting our institutional standards? In this scenario, electing fifteen or sixteen centerfielders by 2015 makes sense—especially because the real Hall isn’t likely to expand so rapidly that they outpace our plan for balance.

Yeah, but why bother?
The million pixel question: what’s the point? Of course, we won’t achieve perfect 8 x 19 balance. It’s essentially guaranteed due to the likely election of three DHes (Martinez, Thomas, and Molitor).

We’re an alternative to the Cooperstown museum. Their electorates have had a lot of trouble identifying not only the right guys, but also, from our chart above, the right balance across the diamond. They’ve hosed catchers and third basemen and whiffed on finding top-notch centerfielders. Thanks to this project, we understand much better now why they’ve struggled with catchers and at the hot corner. We want to avoid the same mistakes and weak links they’ve created while ensuring that deserving players get a plaque from us.

Baseball is not like football and basketball, where even today Tom Brady or Michael Jordan alone can make you a winning team. It’s the least individual-oriented sport of the four majors despite having the most dramatic and important one-to-one confrontations. And everyone takes his turn at those confrontations. You can’t win without a catcher, so why not honor them in more appropriate numbers? After all, it was Casey Stengel who said, “You have to have a catcher. Otherwise you’ll have a lot of passed balls.”

—Eric

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Fair AND Balanced? What the heck is positional balance?

  1. Thought-provoking article. If I may start at the end, just to get it out of the way, I do disagree with your assertion that a football player alone can make a winning team. Tom Brady’s closest baseball comp probably is Derek Jeter, and some would say that the Captain alone makes a winning team (just look at his career! Also see Cassell, Matt). For what its worth I do agree with you on basketball, where multiple top 25 players is a requirement to win it all; winning the World Series or the Super Bowl requires a team effort not an effort by two or three players. But I know that isn’t your point.

    One of the founding tenets of HoME is to seek balance amongst positions and eras, and I also have felt uncomfortable with this approach. This article seems like a good time to let you two know about my strong personal conviction (or mild response based on an interesting piece). It always being easier to critique than create I just think the numbers need to speak for themselves. I like to think of Bizarro world where pitchers for the first 80 years of baseball only pitched 5 innings every 5 days and relievers were critical and pitched 20-25 years at a time until the 1960’s when pitchers started throwing complete games. Would you be filling your HoME with 19th and early 20th century Relievers?

    The natural endgame of a perfectly balanced world would elect the same number of each position from each period, and that just makes no sense. While the number of hitters may stay the same (or change one time) the quality of player changes. From my myopic perspective I’ve seen 3 hitters whose talent, potential and performance coincided at a young age – Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout. CF, SS and CF but they were talented enough they could play whatever position they wanted at a young age. They developed into who they wanted to be, and that won’t result in a standard deviation. Catcher, in particular, won’t have people who excel at lower levels – and those that do it make it (thanks Buster) will need to move eventually to save their patellas. Second Base also will be an in-between slot until left-handed and right-handed batters equalize (unlikely). Great fielders will move to SS and great hitters will move to 3B; you will be left with people who outperform their prospect level – everyone else will be using 2B as a waystation (let’s call it Mid Space 4).

    Wow, that’s a longer missive than I intended. I should have said less, so I wouldn’t appear so silly (I really thought the Rooster was going to be a great player but I neglected to take into account how gullible I was as a child). But I will close with two point:

    1. If the Hall of Merit has 23 first basemen and 23 shortstops, why are there 10% 1B but only 9% SS? If I can’t dazzle you with brilliance, I will try to baffle you with a rounding error.

    2. These pieces have been great reads. I appreciate you taking the time to write them, share them and welcome feedback. It is at least a surrogate for the loss of Baseball I am feeling right now.

    Posted by mike teller | March 11, 2014, 6:34 pm
    • Hey, Mike, thanks for your thoughtful comment! To address #1 first, the HOM doesn’t have 23 SS, they have 21. They have 23 LFs, which in the HoME STATS spreadsheet I list correctly…but which I screwed up in preparing the article! I have edited the article for accuracy, and struck the inaccurate info. ‘Preciate the catch. Free content shouldn’t be free of proofreading!

      #2, glad you like!

      Worth noting again that we “encourage” positional balance but don’t mandate it. Miller may have another take on this, but part of the reason we opted for this was to remind ourselves to avoid potential pitfalls we’ve seen at the Hall in upstate New York, where the discrepancies are largest. Perfect positional balance is unlikely and perhaps undesirable. But pursuing the idea makes us dig deeper to ask whether Ernie Lombardi’s career, relative to his peers at catcher, is as impressive as, say, Bobby Bonds’ career relative to right fielders. Even though Bonds undeniably produced more total value, you still have to have a catcher. It’s a pretty knotty question that we are far from answering. And this is where that old saw “It’s the Hall of ____, not that Hall of Stats” comes into play, just in a more analytical way. But you’re right that in the end, catchers don’t last, and their position, even with all the things we know how to account for, destroys their value. And that’s the juggling act.

      So we do the best we can. That’s the job we’ve given ourselves. Weigh the evidence, see what makes sense, try to be consistent. Thanks for joining us all along the journey so far!

      Eric

      Posted by eric | March 11, 2014, 8:32 pm

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