How we view good offensive players by position has changed significantly in the past 10 years. It is common knowledge that pitchers currently have a leg-up on the competition in 2015 and that the game is moving more towards a three-true-outcomes game, in which strikeouts are viewed as no big deal, walks continue to be stressed and the long ball is king.
It is no surprise that strikeouts are up all around baseball. While this can create some excitement and generate buzz when Corey Kluber strikes out 18 batters, at some point Major League Baseball will reach a point of diminishing returns (Rob Neyer has argued this is not good for the game for the better part of a year and a half).
Ultimately, there are ebbs and flows between offensive environments and eras dominated by pitching. With the offensive juggernauts of the 1990s and early 2000s having a bit of a stain in the eyes of some, it is no surprise that baseball has gradually and willfully let itself drift into a pitchers' wonderland.
Below is a breakdown of how each aggregate position has evolved (or offensively devolved) over the past decade. I will dive into some notes on each position, but it is worth noting how significantly some positions are affected by these shifts in offense. This data certainly provides reference points, so the next time we look at a shortstop with a .250/.315/.370 slash line and think "this player isn't any good!" we can take a step back and recalibrate our expectations.
Times have definitely changed since 2005 as the most productive offensive players often split time at other positions, or move off the position entirely. Sluggers like Mike Napoli, Evan Gattis, and Victor Martinez have moved from backstop. Even players who hit for average like Buster Posey and Joe Mauer transitioned to first base. The days of the 40-year-old catcher in the Carlton Fisk vein is likely behind us. Fisk regularly caught for the White Sox well into his 40s and continued to catch infrequently until he retired at 45.
Ten years ago, only Jason Varitek (Red Sox) and Jason LaRue (Reds) managed over 100 strikeouts, compared to 11 catchers this season who are projected by ZiPS to finish with more. Overall, catchers are lagging behind their predecessors, taking a six percent drop in isolated slugging.
First basemen production has been one of the least affected positions over the course of the last ten years. As is the case across baseball, strikeout rates continue to climb, but isolated power for first basemen is actually higher in 2015 than it was in 2005. Batting average has taken a step back (consequently, so has OBP) but walk rates have hovered around the same level or higher.
First base is an interesting case in a change in demographics. In 2005, established sluggers obtained the most value in weighted runs created. Players like Todd Helton (31 years of age at the time), Carlos Delgado (32), Richie Sexson (30), and Jason Giambi (34) were all in the top ten. This year there are some aging sluggers who continue to rake, players like 32-year-old Miguel Cabrera and 31-year-old Joey Votto, but with the youth resurgence within the game includes heavy hitters such as 25-year-olds Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo, and 27-year-olds Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Belt.
To put this into perspective, league average hitters at first base right now include Carlos Santana, Albert Pujols and Chris Davis. If we use the 2015 stats for a 2005 player, the closest is Shea Hillenbrand.
Interestingly, second basement tend to strike out less than any other position, but as expected the offensive trends remain the same. The top of the class is certainly experiencing a power outage (Robinson Cano's losing his swing doesn't help the cause). Among qualified starters In 2005, there were six second basemen with an isolated power between .201 and .249, this year, in 2010 there were three, and this year only Brian Dozier has an ISO over .186 (Dozier is at .254).
In the limited sampling we have this season, third basemen (like first basemen) are showing more power than in the past. The batting average has slipped a bit and the walk rates have decreased, but third basemen are collectively hitting with slightly more power than they were a decade ago. Which is pretty amazing considering there were four third basemen who hit more than 30 home runs in 2005 including Alex Rodriguez (48), Troy Glaus (37), Morgan Ensberg (36), and Aramis Ramirez (31).
This year we are witnessing a spread of talent, as there are four third basemen with a dozen home runs or more. Third base and first base seems to be selling out a bit of average for power.
Like their catching compatriots,shortstops are lagging way behind their recent predecessors at the dish. Averages are down over 20 points, OBP for the season is not even at a modest .300 and isolated power and wOBA is down nine percent.
Jhonny Peralta led all shortstops in isolated slugging in 2005 (.228) and currently is in second this year (.202) trailing only Brandon Crawford which is just one illustration of how the entire group is devoid of power.
Outfield used to be at the top of the hitting spectrum with first base but third basemen have taken over as the second-most productive offensive position. Offensively, strong outfielders are harder to come by in 2015 and some of them can hardly be described defensively competent.
Outfielders used to be the premium power positions and in 2005, 12 outfielders hit at least 30 home runs. In 2005, Andrew Jones led the class with 51 home runs, but Manny Ramirez was not far behind with 45. In 2010, Jose Bautista played a majority of his games in the outfield and hit 54 home runs, but the next highest was Adrian Beltre while the next highest was Carlos Gonzalez with 34. This season Bryce Harper and Nelson Cruz lead the way with 18 each though only Cruz is projected per ZiPS to reach 40.
Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano. Special thank you to Kevin Ruprecht for his help preparing some of the visuals.