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September 2, 2011 at 11:24 AM

Understanding the concept of power hitting and positions

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Listening to a radio show yesterday, it occured to me that plenty of folks out there tend to misunderstand the concept of getting power hitters at certain positions on the diamond. One of the on-air personalities said something along the lines of “I don’t buy into the concept that you have to have a power hitter at third base.”
Fair enough. Probably because that isn’t really a concept. And the people who think it is tend to misunderstand the whole debate. They even misunderstand it to the point where they start to get belligerent about it. I had an exchange with a reader later on in the evening who completely misses the point of power hitting, positions and Kyle Seager of the Mariners. We’ve discussed Seager before and the fact that he doesn’t project to be a typical power hitter, regardless of how well the past few weeks have gone for him.
And I can’t tell you how many readers have written in arguing that there is no rule that says you have to get a power hitter to play third. Again, no argument from me. I agree. There is no such rule. No rule that says a power guy has to play right field, or first base, or DH either. And I don’t know of too many people working in baseball who would ever try to make that argument. Because that isn’t what the whole power and positions discussion is about.
So, if anyone is confused about it, I’ll try to explain it quickly and concisely.
You need a certain amount of extra base power on every team. Why? Because if you stack a lineup full of singles hitters, you need to rely on every one of them to hit .300 and not be exposed to prolonged slumps at any given time. Because one home run swing can often do what four or five singles and walks cannot.
Teams have tried to buck that trend, including the Mariners. The results haven’t been pretty. Every good team tends to have middle of the order hitters that other teams fear. It changes the way lineups are pitched to. In a perfect world, you’d like to have power sprinkled up and down the order. Not always home run power, but extra-base ability in the form of doubles. That’s why we look at on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) a lot here, rather than simply home run totals. Used to be, the good teams would stack up a bunch of .900 or better OPS types. Now, with the Steroids Era having calmed down a bit, the definition of good power has dropped to anyone with an OPS of .800 or more.
But you need a good dose of such players to have a moderately successful offense.
Doesn’t matter whether they play third base, right field, second base or catcher. Heck, let the pitcher hit if he has a better OPS than your DH. Nobody will try to stop you.
But the facts of baseball life are: you have fewer middle infielders who can hit for power (and pitchers) than you do corner infielders and outfielders who can do it. Why? Because the guys needed to play the more athletically demanding positions up the middle tend to have sleeker bodies less given to power. There are always exceptions, like Alex Rodriguez when he played shortstop. But they are exceptions, not the rule.
And so, the entire position and power thing is not an argument about labels on where power hitters have to play. It’s really just a basic numbers argument.

If a team knows it needs a certain amount of power hitters to be moderately successful, you start looking for them where they are easiest to get — in the corners. The whole law of supply and demand. There are a ton of potential DH types out there because baseball is full of guys who can hit but can’t play a position very well. There’s a surplus.
That’s why the folks around baseball tend to say that DH is the easiest spot to fill. (Unless you’re the Mariners, but that’s another story).
The hardest spot to fill with a power hitter? Second base, shortstop, catcher and center field. There just aren’t enough guys at those skill positions on the diamond who can also hit for power. The ones who can do both come at a premium, which is why you’ve seen huge contracts given to guys like A-Rod, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and others. It’s why the M’s jumped all over extending Franklin Gutierrez, realizing that if his bat hit for even a touch of power, they’d have a very valuable commodity on their hands at a low price.
It’s why Dustin Ackley is more valuable to the team at second base than in left field. There are, in general, more left fielders out there who can hit for power than there are second basemen.
Now, clearly, if a team can corner the market on guys at typical non-power spots who actually can hit for power, well then, you’ve got a real lethal offense in the making. For instance, a team that has a power-hitting second baseman and catcher already can then go out and get the typical corner infield and outfield power guys from the baseball-wide surplus and stack the lineup with extra-base hitters up and down.
Got your Dustin Pedroia up the middle? Your Jacoby Ellsbury in center? Great, then throw them in a lineup with Kevin Youkillis and Adrian Gonzalez in the infield corners and David Ortiz at DH and watch what happens. All of a sudden, you’ve got one of the best offenses in the game and are a World Series contender.
So, back to the Mariners.
They have lacked power for years, as we all know.
And part of the problem is, the Mariners have been unable to field a team with power guys even at the easier-found positions.
One huge obstacle is that Ichiro is the right fielder. That eliminates power at one of the more easily-found spots. The M’s also cannot, for the life of them, find a suitable DH. So, the team has had to compensate by looking for power in the harder-to-find spots.
Unfortunately, they haven’t really had that either.
Instead, they compounded the problem by inking Chone Figgins long-term to play third base and he also lacks power. Left field remains a huge question mark.
So, with five power spots running on empty for years, the M’s would have to find added power at a bunch of non-traditional spots just to keep up with the average teams in baseball. Never mind the good offensive teams.
So far, they’ve yet to find it on a large scale.
Gutierrez has not demonstrated power in center. Brendan Ryan certainly doesn’t bring it to the table at shortstop.
Miguel Olivo brings home run power at catcher, but a lot of that is negated by his very low on-base-percentage when he isn’t hitting the ball out.
The one exception is Ackley, who is looking like a solid middle of the order hitter and again, doing it while playing an infield skill position.
But unfortunately, he’s one guy. And he alone doesn’t make up for all the other gaping power holes across the lineup.
Perhaps Mike Carp can be a full-time answer at DH beyond this one half-season. And perhaps Gutierrez can deliver the bat long expected from him if he comes to camp healthy next spring. Maybe Casper Wells can deliver power in left field.
But until the M’s start to find some answers to this basic numbers problem, a guy like Seager — of slender frame and who came up as a middle infielder — will always be a question mark power wise for the M’s if he plays third base. The M’s just don’t have enough power at the more easily-found spots to begin with.
Now, if Seager shows himself to be an .800-OPS-type over the longer haul, by all means, leave him at third base. But if he’s really a low-.700s guys who is better suited as an everyday major league second baseman, the M’s will again be putting themselves behind the eight-ball on offense to begin with.
Some will suggest there aren’t all that many .800 OPS third basemen around anymore and that Seager at third would be fine with even a mid-to-high-.700s OPS. Perhaps on a better team, that would be fine. Perhaps if the goal was for the M’s to be mediocre for years, that would work out. Or, if the M’s can suddenly find a bunch of .800 OPS guys at three other spots, you could contenplate a .760-OPS Seager at third. For next year, that might be fine. But not for a team with designs on winning a title.
So, in a nutshell, that’s the power and position issue. That’s the Seager issue. It isn’t so much about Seager — having a great debut — than it is about numbers elsewhere. Look at what the Red Sox bring to the table at both the traditional and non-traditional power spots, then look at the M’s.
Remember, the goal as stated by GM Jack Zduriencik is to build a championship team. To do that, this offense has to get better. Not just a few dozen runs better. More like a couple of hundred. And it will have to do that by getting a respectable middle of the order out there next April when the games start to matter again.
It won’t be easy. But it will be a heck of a lot harder if the team continues to fill the typical “power spots” in a lineup with guys who can’t hit for power.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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