A Bryce Harper Position Study

While the announcement of Bryce Harper as the number one pick overall was hardly surprising, one thing did surprise a lot of people about the National's pick. Harper, who has been a catcher at the junior college level, was announced as an outfielder. The always persuasive Dave Cameron, at Fangraphs, applauded their apparent repositioning and set off a big debate amongst the readers. While I have the highest regard for Mr. Cameron's baseball knowledge, the idea that an upper tier-hitter who can catch (even provides at or below average defensive) would be less valuable than a top hitting, good defensive right fielder strikes me as wrong at first glance. If there is anything that people like the Fangraphs and BtB staffers have taught me though, it is that first looks are often deceiving. I thought I would take a look at some numbers (via Fangraphs) and see what the measurable difference really is.

Just looking at the average WAR of qualifying players from the period of 2007-2009, it would appear that the average starting catcher (3.3 WAR) is significantly more valuable that the average right fielder (2.7 WAR) This is deceptive though, since I am only considering qualifying players for both and, as such, the RF group is more than twice as large. I think this is somewhat appropriate, however, since it is largely the best hitting catchers who qualify and we certainly expect Harper to fit with that group. Still, it creates a sizable bias, which I will address in a minute.

Bias or not, the difference in value can almost entirely be explained by the positional adjustment. Right fielders are hurt by an average adjustment of -6 while catchers get a robust 9, a total difference of well over a win. The stress of the position can be seen in the batter's box though. The average right fielder produced almost 15 RAA while the average catcher produced only 5.26. That difference would likely even larger if we considered the same number of catchers as right fielders as these are mostly the top catchers we are looking at.

Since we are talking about an elite talent though, I think it might be more helpful to look the elite players at each position. Taking the averages of only the top five for each season from both groups paints a different picture. The top tier of right fielders was worth an average 5.38 WAR while the best catchers were worth only 4.66 WAR. The difference stays pretty much the same (RF: 27.74/ C:18.57) but the top right fielders each season save about 10 runs a year with their gloves as well as raking, while the top catchers are not by and large a great defensive group rating a just about average. Also it is worth pointing out that the best catcher in baseball has not had a higher WAR than the best right fielder in baseball in any of the past 3 seasons (even Mauer's 8 WAR MVP season last year was worth less than Ben Zobrist's 8.3 WAR 2009 and Magglio Ordonez's 8.2 WAR 2007 season)

To justify staying behind the plate, Harper would need to hit significantly better than the best catchers typically do and produce average defense. From what scouts are saying it is hard to imagine that he will be anything other than a below average defensive backstop. Moving to right field would therefore mean a higher overall value based on his raw skills and what has been typical of the best players at the two respective positions. While it might not be intuitive, the value of a top hitting, good defensive right fielder often does exceed even the best hitting of catchers. A player with his skills would seem to have every chance to be among the group represented by the top tier right fielders. While he would have a long difficult journey head of him to attempt to be in the top tier of catchers and may have to move anyway. With a projectable difference of almost a full win, the decision is not real that close.

This is not to say that a great hitter should automatically be moved off catching. It's simply the best way to value out a certain type of player and Harper fits that mold perfectly. Mr. Cameron, it seems, is right once again.