Is Hitting or Fielding More Important Up the Middle?

From SABR member Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus on April 14:

It’s a timeworn adage that a ballclub must be strong up the middle to win a championship. Spend a few minutes on Google and you’ll find decades worth of grizzled baseball men expounding upon the virtues of having above-average players at catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field. A few years ago, Bill James wrote that the importance of strength up the middle was “[p]erhaps the first lick of old baseball wisdom that I ever encountered.”

Given the way talent is distributed across what James called the defensive spectrum, which runs 1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C, it makes sense. The positions on the right are the premium ones defensively; the offensive bar is lower than for those on the left. It’s much tougher to find above-average hitters to fill the premium defensive slots, and teams are at a considerable advantage when they do.

To examine the importance of this principle, we totaled the offensive and defensive contributions of each team’s up-the-middlemen (starters and backups) using Batting Runs Above Average, Fielding Runs Above Average, and (for catchers) Baserunning Runs Against for all teams dating back to 1995. Since these are positions of the highest defensive importance, you might expect the fielding stat—FRAA—to correlate most strongly with winning percentage. Yet FRAA‘s correlation with winning percentage over that span is a meager .15, while for catchers’ strength against the running game, it’s -.03—essentially no correlation at all. On the other hand, up-the-middle BRAA correlates with winning percentage at a much stronger .54. Including both BRAA and FRAA edges it up to .57.


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Originally published: April 14, 2011. Last Updated: April 14, 2011.