MLB Analysis: Importance of Controlling the Middle

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In many sports, a key to controlling the contest is controlling the center of the field, court, gridiron or wherever the sport is played.

There’s no doubt that controlling the center of a baseball field, from the catcher through the middle infielders to the centerfielder, has long been thought of as a key to success. The team’s best all-around athlete is often its centerfielder. That’s been true historically from Ty Cobb to Matt Kemp with Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, and a host of others before and after them. The team’s catcher is often, in spite of cracks about the “tools of ignorance,” the smartest player on the team. Many of them have been fine coaches and managers. The Yankees’ two most recent managers, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi, were both catchers.

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Both Bay Area managers, Bob Melvin and Bruce Bochy, are former catchers. Mike Scioscia was a fine catcher and is currently the longest tenured manager in MLB. As to middle infielders, the game has revolved around them since at least the beginning of the modern era. Franklin Pierce Adams (there’s an American name if I’ve ever heard one) even wrote a poem, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” about the Chicago Cubs’ 6-4-3 combination of more than a century ago. I remember watching the likes of Mark Belanger and Davey Johnson from the Orioles, and Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger from the Cubs. More recently Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel worked infield magic for the Indians, and combinations like Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler provide visual evidence that confirms the continuing importance of middle infielders.

Is the traditional wisdom right? Does a baseball team need to be strong up the middle to contend? To try to answer that question I took went to to look at 2011 team UZR by position for two teams. I picked the 2011 Rangers, 96-66, because if there’s anything to this idea, their UZR for “up the middle” should be high. I then picked the 2011 Orioles, 69-93, because, conversely, if there’s anything to this idea, their UZR for “up the middle” should be low (in spite of the fact that the Orioles, on the last day of the regular season, provided us all with one of the most exciting nights of baseball I can remember). As I understand it, a UZR of 0.0 represents the average player in the league. A player with a positive UZR performed at an above average level, whereas a player with a negative UZR performed at a below average level.

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Understanding all the caveats about the utility of the UZR statistic, and especially the shortcomings of one year’s data for an individual player, I did the following: I looked at the UZR for the three positions of shortstop, second base, and center field. Given how a UZR is derived, it makes sense that a catcher’s defense is not measured with this statistic. Therefore, II did not include defensive statistics for catchers.

I added the Rangers’ total UZR for each of the 3 positions for 2011 and came up with a single number, and I did the same thing for the Orioles. I realize you can’t compare the UZR of one position with that of another, but you should be able to compare a team’s combined UZR of three positions for one year with another team’s combined UZR of the same three positions for the same time period. I also realize that one year’s UZR is not seen as sufficient by those who developed the statistic for drawing meaningful conclusions about an individual player’s performance, but I want to see if there’s any positive correlation between this “up the middle” UZR and a team’s success in a single year.

The combined “up the middle” UZR for the Texas Rangers for 2011 was +28.5; and the combined “up the middle” UZR for the Baltimore Orioles for 2011 was -4.0. It looks like the “up the middle” UZR might be helpful. But how? What’s the utility of the stat?

If you’re trying to put a team on the field that’s successful, you might start thinking about how the performances of these players combine to affect success. Rather than focus on an individual position, recognize the collective nature of play and how the positions are interconnected (beyond standard connections such as double plays or assists and putouts) to get a clearer picture of how a team can engineer success. These stats may point the way. For instance, a weak UZR at one of these three positions might be overcome by a combined “up the middle” UZR that is bolstered by the UZR from the other two positions.

If you manage to snag two above average players at the other two positions, maybe you don’t need to panic, and can indeed succeed at a an above average level, so long as your total “up the middle” UZR is also sufficiently above average. Also, in retrospect, the stat may indicate that an individual weakness at one of these positions was not responsible for your team’s poor performance so long as your total “up the middle” UZR reflected collective quality in the positions. That allows a team to focus on other areas that may need improvement over past performance rather than being distracted by an individual’s performance that isn’t negatively affecting in any significant way a more important collective performance. Something to think about, at any rate.