In many aspects of life (professionally, socially, or otherwise), being merely "average" often carries a sort of negative connotation. Nobody blessed with even an ounce of motivation should aspire to be merely average at anything they do in their lives. Average is pedestrian. Average is mediocre. Average is unremarkable. It's an inevitable outcome for many of those in the general public, because (obviously) not everyone can date supermodels, party with superstars, amass incredible personal fortunes, and generally turn everything they touch into gold, or even come remotely close to accomplishing these things; after all, if most people could do these things, then that would no longer be exceptional or special, and that would become the new average.
While it's also true that no professional baseball player aspires to be merely average, and that ending up as such -- particularly if you're talking about a formerly heralded prospect -- often constitutes cause for disappointment, I feel like it's very easy to lose sight of the fact that being an average major league player is a much better thing than we sometimes make it out to be, and even easier to forget exactly what an average hitter looks like at each position. For example, we're all keenly aware that a league-average catcher lags significantly behind a league-average first baseman in terms of offensive output, but to what degree? This question appears easy enough to answer on the surface, but in order to render anything approximating a precise answer, we're going to have to drill down further into the data.
In July 2007, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus published an article on major league position differences built from the offensive statistics of the 30 players who had amassed the most total starts at each defensive position over the last three seasons; this approach allowed for the elimination of part-timers, injury fill-ins, and other players who really couldn't be regarded as consistent starters at a given position. I've taken the exact same approach here, except this time around I'm using 2008-10 statistics, which -- in theory, at least -- better reflect the current talent pool and offensive trends within the game, and as Goldstein did before, I've scaled every non-catcher position to 675 plate appearances, and catcher to 600 plate appearances:
Of particular interest is the 10-15 point drop in slugging percentage -- relative to the previous 2004-06 data set -- at the majority of these positions, with third base being hit particularly hard; four years ago, the hot corner averaged a baseline performance mark of .277/.347/.458, against a present day triple-slash mark of .268/.338/.440. That's a net loss of 27 points of on-base plus slugging percentage, which, in not so many words, means that it's now easier than ever to meet or surpass the league-average benchmark at the hot corner. This phenomenon can also be found at shortstop and at each of the outfield spots, albeit not to the same extent -- and not at all at catcher, first base, or second base.
So, we've established that this hypothetical lineup comprised solely of offensively "average" players at each respective position is, in fact, quite potent -- there are moderate power and on-base threats occupying every slot in the lineup, which goes a long way towards compensating for the lack of a truly intimidating offensive threat. We could stop here, or we could go a little bit further and determine what separates a "good" offensive player at a particular position from a "bad" one. Again emulating Goldstein's original methodology, I split each 30-player set into three equal subsets based on OPS --good for the top 10, average for the middle 10, and bad for the bottom 10 -- and also calculated the top five at each position, calling this grouping "elite":
The highlighting indicates my gut feeling as to which benchmark I feel each of the Rangers' eight presumptive starters are the closest; for example, my best guess is that we're going to see Julio Borbon post numbers in center field that are closer to what the average "bad" center fielder has posted over the last three seasons than to the average in any other category. I'm probably being a tad optimistic on Yorvit Torrealba (catcher), Elvis Andrus (shortstop), and Mitch Moreland (first base), and you could probably go one way or the other on some of these guys, but I think the key takeaway is that the Rangers' starters stack up rather well against the major league norms -- and that's before taking their defensive qualities into proper account.
This probably isn't the sexiest post you've read this spring, but I'd like to think it ranks right up there among the most enlightening, and I hope that you now have a somewhat better understanding of what it really means to be a "good," "bad," or "average" hitter.