A couple days ago, Andrew Kneeland of Twins Target posed an interesting question: What is the most important position in baseball? He made sure to mention that the question is deliberately vague and open to interpretation, and that is what I intend to do.
To me, there are two positions that are very important. The first is certainly up for debate, and the second one is something I feel most people would have overlooked, but upon second glance would realize that it makes plenty of sense.
When I first thought about this question, I started evaluating all the positions on the field. Looking at pitchers, some issues quickly jumped out to me. Starters only pitch every 5th day, and you can’t rely on just one pitcher carrying your entire team (just ask Felix Hernandez). As for relievers, they pitch more often than the starters, but with fewer innings, and closers are overrated (was Jon Rauch really as big of a disaster as you expected?). If you’re focused on getting an impact reliever, either you are an ignorant general manager or your team is stacked at every other position.
Now, I would move on to the position players. Here, I feel a little more statistically-inclined to determine which position is of most importance. First, I want to see how many players had an OPS over .728 sorted by position, and had at least 500 plate appearances last year (.728 was roughly the average OPS for all batters in 2010; the position was determined by FanGraphs; the minimum plate appearances is what is necessary to qualify for the batting title).
C = 4
1B = 20
2B = 9
SS = 8
3B = 13
LF = 13
CF = 21
RF = 23
DH = 7
Note: Some players were counted as playing multiple positions. For example, Jose Bautista was counted as a 3B and LF. I decided to ignore this issue. Also, although the number of DH that had an OPS greater than the league average is very low, remember that less than half of MLB teams use a DH.
As we can see, catcher has the fewest number of players that had an above-average OPS in 2010 (Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Brian McCann, Mike Napoli), and of these four, Mike Napoli and Victor Martinez saw a significant amount of time at 1st base as well.
Now I would compare defense among the positions, but there’s a huge issue because we don’t have a good way to measure catcher defense, especially when comparing it to other positions. However, I feel that we would all agree that we hear commentators talk about catcher defense far more than defense at any other position. Don’t believe me? Think of all the times you hear about a catcher’s arm, or ability to block pitches, or calling pitches. Good offensive catchers are rare, but it couldn’t save Mike Napoli, as his poor defense as a catcher not only cost him playing time over the past couple seasons, but it also made him a great candidate to replace Kendry Morales at first base.
2. General Manager
The explanation for this is very short. Certainly a good catcher or shortstop can anchor a team and can become a good building block, but it takes one person to get this player and all the others that go onto the field. A good general manager can be the difference between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals (at least at the major league level). Of course, it takes time for a general manager to see results from what he wants to implement, but he has a larger influence over how the team performs on the field than any other person simply because he decides who is on the team. That is why I believe you could also argue that a general manager is the most important position in baseball.