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Mudville: April 14, 2024 11:14 pm PDT

Offensive Defense

BY DEB SEYMOUR

Once upon a time, of the nine positions on a baseball field, there were positions that were known as “hitting positions” – and positions that were more thought of as “defensive positions.”

The primary defensive positions were the middle infield positions, and that was why players like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra changed the concept of shortstop within the context of the game they played – because these were shortstops who became more known for their hitting over the course of their careers than their defense, though none of them were poor defenders.

One is a Hall of Famer, one might have become a HOF’er if he’d stayed healthy, and one may still become a HOF’er if steroid users are ever more openly accepted into the Hall.

Of course, Cal Ripken wasn’t simply a defensive shortstop, and nor was Ozzie Smith – who hit 28 home runs for his entire career, but finished with almost 2500 hits (2460, to be exact). But Cal and Ozzie were more on the anomaly side in the day in which they played – automatic Hall of Fame-type anomalies, to be exact.

Then along came Alex, Derek, and Nomar; and they represented an alteration in the way the shortstop position was considered. These guys could really hit. They broke the mold.

And the current crop of “best at their position” shortstops are hitters, as well. Going into Friday’s action, just for example, Corey Seager of the Texas Rangers was leading the pack with a .648 slugging percentage, Bobby Witt, Jr. of the Kansas City Royals was slugging .496, and Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays was slugging .488 before he had to go on the IL this past week.

A few other well recognized shortstops with slugging percentages below .450 or even below .400 are more in the category of “you never hear about them this season,” even if their defense has been stellar. Rookie Anthony Volpe of the New York Yankees is in this group, who is slugging .401 but has a pretty decent fielding percentage of .976.

(As an aside, Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays is in the “best in kind” category of shortstops as well; but given his current situation, we’ll not discuss him any further at this juncture.)

The irony is that the fielding percentages of some of the more recognized shortstops in the game this year are basically negative numbers; and so what used to be considered one of the two primary defensive positions on the field is no longer in that category – in fact, it’s a legitimate question whether solid defenders who can’t hit, and, more importantly, don’t hit home runs – are going to win any gold gloves at the shortstop position any time soon, at this point.

Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr (7) as seen during a MLB game between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals on September 06, 2023, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The most purely defensive position on the field, however, has always been second base. A mere 20 years ago (note: a very short snippet of time in the history of the game) there was still an awful lot of hand waving about solid second basemen who couldn’t really hit; the comment was usually, “yeah, but he plays second base, so does it really matter?”

Roberto Alomar is probably the most salient second baseman to have broken the mold, as his stats are almost mind-blowing for a second baseman of the era in which he played. Nap Lajoie had put up some comparable (even slightly better) numbers about a century earlier; Charlie Gehringer was quite the hitter; and Eddie Collins for all intents and purposes leads the pack all time – but the perception of the position didn’t really change based on their respective top tier numbers.

In 2004, Robbie Alomar finished his career with a WAR of 67.0, and not just because he could defend his position. Here are some pretty sparkling second baseman hitting stats: 2724 hits, 210 home runs, and a career batting average of .300. His career slug was .443 and his career OPS was .814. Not too shabby.

Compare Alomar to some of today’s most notable second basemen:

Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers has made the partial move from outfield to second base, and as one of the best overall players in the game today, his numbers haven’t really suffered. Mookie is slugging .609 and batting .314 overall, and playing a pretty decent second base when he’s at that position.

Marcus Semien of the Texas Rangers is batting .277 with a .463 slug. That’s in the top quartile for second basemen in today’s game; and with a .990 fielding percentage, most teams would take that at second base in a heartbeat.

Marcus Semien #2 of the Texas Rangers hits a solo home run in the eighth inning during the game between the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on Wednesday, September 6, 2023 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tim Heitman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Ozzie Albies of the Atlanta Braves is batting .267 with a .500 slug. His fielding percentage is .988; and he’s arguably one of the overall top second basemen in the game today.

That some of these current numbers are representative of the full career numbers to date for the best second basemen in today’s MLB tells you something about the groundwork that Robbie Alomar (and a bit later, Robinson Cano) laid for the re-imagination of the position.

Gone are the days when everyone was focused on the best double play combos in the game; now, if a middle infielder has a merely above average fielding percentage – but can hit with the best of them – his value is rewarded accordingly.

Now we come to the catching position, however, because just about everyone will endorse the idea that first base, third base, and all three outfield positions are considered hitters’ positions – and have been since the dawn of the game.

The catching position is, in a way, the most interesting of the lot, because it has gone in the diametric opposite direction of the two middle infield positions. Nowadays, a starting catcher can basically not hit at all – as long as his pitch framing and behind the plate blocking are top tier.

So, essentially, what was traditionally a slugger’s position – a slugger who could call a good game and act as field general (no coincidence so many major league managers were catchers in their playing days), has suddenly morphed into a position all about who has the best analytics in terms of the pure catching duties assigned to that role.

Moreover, teams are using more and more catchers per season and so-called starting catchers are playing fewer and fewer innings overall, so that represents a change to the impact of the position, as well.

And this is why Philadelphia Philly catcher J. T. Realmuto stands out so much in today’s game. Realmuto is among the last of a dying breed – a catcher who is known for both his offensive abilities as well as his defensive prowess. Realmuto’s career WAR to date is 32.9, and that’s a pretty high number for someone whose position commands a much lower average WAR in today’s game.

J.T. Realmuto #10 of the Philadelphia Phillies reacts to flying out during the third inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on September 06, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Realmuto’s slug this season alone is .472 – a number you won’t see for many catchers in the 2023 game.

Adley Rutschman of the Baltimore Orioles looks to be another exception to the rule in today’s game, as far as catchers go. He’s only in his second year, so it’s hard to yet draw any significant conclusions – but he’s certainly burst onto the scene with a bang, and not just because of his defense. Rutschman’s slugging .421, and that’s pretty outstanding for even a decent young catcher.

Yasmani Grandal of the Chicago White Sox is another hitting catcher who comes to mind, though his averages and percentages have taken a dip since his NL days. His career high in slugging was .520 in 2021, and he had consistently slugged in the .400s over his career before that.

But there’s a reason Yadier Molina was considered the best catcher of the Molina brothers (no offense to either Benjy or Jose), and it’s not simply that he was better in the catching duties department. Molina completed his career with a 42.1 WAR, a .399 slug, and 2168 hits. He played in the majors from 2004-2022 and is a pretty sure first ballot HOF’er.

Most HOF catchers were expert game callers and hitters. Not merely expert pitch framers nor “the ball stops here” backstops.

Sure, some were better at the actual catching role than others; but when you think about Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, and Pudge Rodriguez – is the first thing you think of their pitch framing or how few passed balls they had?

The game is constantly evolving, and it should – and will – continue to do so. But when it overcorrects itself in one aspect, we have to hope it’ll swing back again to a steady middle ground and stop hyper correcting in that category.

When too much (or too little) offense and too much (or too little) defense start to become liabilities in certain areas of the game, we have to hope the pendulum will swing back and begin to re-solidify what made the game so popular in the first place.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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