Some friends and I were having a nice discussion the other day about how good a certain baseball player has been over the last few years, and it gave me occasion to dust off one of my favorite concepts: A league-average player is a pretty good player.
No way, one friend said. League average is average. That’s not good.
The word average is one reason this is such a tough concept to get across, I think. We say something — a restaurant, say, or a TV show — is “average” when we mean it’s not that good, not worth going back to or going out of our way for.
And if I gave you a list of average players in any given league, by whatever measure, sure enough, you wouldn’t be thrilled. Using the blunt instrument measures of ERA for pitchers and OPS for hitters, the closest thing to league-average starting pitchers in 2010 were Derek Lowe and Doug Fister, while your league-average hitters were Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Note that I’m throwing out pitchers hitting, because they’re just a different species.
Lowe, Fister, Rodriguez and Pena are not the kinds of players who sell tickets on their own, at least not the 2010 versions of them.
But just because someone isn’t thrilling doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable. Players who can put up average performance in significant playing time are valuable because they’re pretty rare. As much as league-average guys fail to inspire awe, there aren’t that many of them. An average player is better than most other players in the league.
You need a few elite players to contend for the championship, but if you can plug a league-average guy into a position, you’re not just treading water. You’re ahead of the game at that spot.
Here’s what I mean. Not counting pitchers hitting, there were 645 players who made at least one plate appearance in the majors in 2010. Only 95 of them qualified for the batting title with an OPS at or above the league average for non-pitchers. That’s 16 percent of all position players, but they accounted for 35.4 percent of the non-pitcher plate apearances, 37.2 percent of the hits and 48.8 percent of the home runs.
Those numbers don’t change much if you consider players at their position. Ninety-nine players qualified for the batting title while putting up at least a league average OPS for their position. That is, an American League first baseman putting up a .788 OPS or an N.L. shortstop putting up a .713
The same thing happens with pitchers. Of the 635 men who threw a pitch in the majors in 2010 — including the odd position players who tossed an inning or two — 60 of them qualified for their league’s ERA title with a league-average or better ERA. That’s 9.4 percent of all pitchers, and they accounted for 28.3 percent of all innings pitched.
These guys — able to sustain average or better performance over significant playing time — are hugely valuable. They account for a disproportionate amount of the league’s production. But I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Am I really still reading this?”
Wait, that’s not what you’re saying. You’re saying, “But you’re talking about average and above, Mr. Man. You’re giving average players credit for the production of elite players.”
OK, so let’s remove elite players. Of course, elite is a slippery concept, but I think I’ve got a decent working definition: League average OPS, plus 10 percent. If you do that for each position, you get 50 elite players, about three per league per position.
If you just look at everybody vs. the overall league average, you get 23 American Leaguers who beat the league OPS of 736 by 10 percent and 27 National Leaguers who beat the league OPS of .746 by 10 percent. Remember, we’re throwing out pitchers’ hitting totals in both leagues, though that moves the needle only a bit in the A.L. So that’s 50 elite players. I’m comfortable with a definition of elite that yields 50 position players. You? OK, let’s use that group.
There were 95 hitters at or above league average in 2010. Taking out those 50 elite players, we’re left with 45 who had an average or better OPS, but were not elite.
Those 45 average or better but not elite players made up 5.4 percent of all non-pitchers. But they accounted for 15.4 percent of all non-pitcher plate appearances, and 16.1 percent of the hits and 16.8 percent of the home runs by non-pitchers.
When we’re talking about players who were league average or better but not elite, we’re still talking about the narrow top of the pyramid.
Know why? Because league average is pretty good.
There aren’t many guys who can be league average over sustained playing time. Having a bunch of them on your team is going a long way toward being a good team, because the alternative to that league-average guy is rarely an elite guy. It’s almost always a below-average player. After all, a majority of the players in the majors are below average.
I didn’t want to mention the name of the player my friends and I were calmly debating because he’s a problematic example of the value of a league-average player. I think you’ll see why when I tell you who he is in the next post, when I’ll put a couple of names to this concept that I think will illustrate the point beautifully.