The Most Important Position In Baseball

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.

1. Catcher

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.


19 Responses to “The Most Important Position In Baseball”

  1. Giving Starting Pitchers Their Due | Knuckleballs Says:

    […] Andrew at Off the Mark […]

  2. Doctor_Teh Says:

    In terms of your analysis of catcher, can you elaborate on why you think that because catcher has the rarest supply of good batters that automatically makes it the most important fielder? While I’m not necessarily disagreeing that the catcher is, it just seems like a bit of a jump, unless I am missing something (which is probably the case). I would just like to hear your thoughts on that.

    I completely agree on GM. That was the first thing i thought of when I saw the headline.

    • Andrew Says:

      Sorry about that. I found that there are very few catchers that excel offensively compared to all other positions, so that meant that if you have a good hitting catcher, he should be considered far more valuable than a good hitter at any other position.

      As for defense, this is much harder to justify, since we can’t readily compare catcher defense to other positions. However, I felt that calling a game, having to block pitches, throw out base stealers, etc. was enough to say that catcher is the toughest defensive position, and thus why having a good defensive catcher was very important. You could say I was alluding to Bill James’ “defensive spectrum,” where he ranked the difficulty of all positions. Catcher was ranked the hardest defensive position, and first base was the easiest.

      A lot of times, we consider a “good” player to be someone that can produce a ton of offense. However, I used Mike Napoli as an example of someone that provides plenty of offense, but loses playing time to someone like Jeff Mathis (good defense, no offense) because Mike Scioscia is willing to sacrifice offense for defense. A “closer to home” example is Drew Butera over Jose Morales (who in my opinion isn’t that great offensively anyway).

      • Doctor_Teh Says:

        I guess I’m still not sure I agree with the leap you are making. I agree that catcher is the hardest position to find a good player that plays every day. That being said, I don’t think that automatically makes it the most important, which seems to be your assertion.

      • Andrew Says:

        Yeah, now that I think about it, I do see that I’m making quite a jump there.

        You: 1, Me: 0

  3. ben Says:

    I coached youth baseball. If you wanted to make outs, you put your best kid at first base.

    Therefore, first baseman is the most important position in baseball.

    • Andrew Says:

      I disagree for two main reasons:

      1) To be good at first base, you really only need to be able to catch a ball. Just like when I responded to Doctor Teh above, I think of the “defensive spectrum” where 1st base is considered the easiest position to play.

      2) Strikeouts and fly outs count, also.

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  5. Doctor_Teh Says:

    I still would perhaps consider C the most important non-GM position, since they do have an impact on a very large amount of plays per game, and can really add to a lineup if they are a good batter. The only issue I see there, is that, much like your issue with proclaiming a pitcher who doesn’t play in every game the most important, catchers get many more days off than other batters..

    Perhaps a good SS could be the most important in that case?

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  8. justme Says:

    I vote catcher….a bad catcher can really handicap a good pitcher and a good catcher can make a mediocre pitcher look good. He calls the pitches, sets where they are going, and helps minimize the number of pitches by keeping control of the wild pitches.

    Next, I vote outfield…because even it the pitcher only throws the equivalent of “batting practice”, a good outfield will just catch those lovely popups and end the inning quickly.

  9. Rich nata Says:

    Catcher is the hardest position to play and the most important. They call pitches, have to make sure bad pitches don’t end up wild, back up first base on ground balls, block the plate, have a good arm to keep base runners from stealing bases or just taking a huge lead.

  10. Rich Nata Says:

    Its one of the few positions where you will sacrifice offensive numbers for just to have a defensive stalwart

  11. Catchers_Gear Says:

    I’m a catcher. So i know from catching that nothing happens until i put down a finger to the pitcher telling him either a pitch or a pick call. Therefore catchers are most important.

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