Hitter vs. Position Player

By Mark Smith

He’s so big because he’s such a great hitter and Fielder.

While watching Mommyand Daddy fight on the site yesterday, I got caught up in some wording intheir argument. During the Common Man’s opening statement, he mentions “hitter”and “position player” interchangeably, and while Bill points out the differenceand TCM surely knows the difference (youall know the difference), it’s a common correlation that’s often made. Ifind that fascinating because A) pitchers do hit occasionally and B) we allknow there’s a difference. So why do we see this all the time?
First, let’s make sure we understand the distinction. “Hitter” is aterm meant to only refer to the offensive contributions of player at the plate.If we’re talking in stats terms, that means wOBA, the triple-slash line, wRC,OPS, etc., and it does not include baserunning, fielding, or pitching. “Positionplayer” refers to a player that plays C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, RF, and DH,and it is not used for pitchers. In statistical terminology, we rank them byfWAR, rWAR, VORP, WARP, etc. by including their hitting, baserunning, anddefense. In effect, when we talk about things like the MVP Award, “positionplayer” is the term we want.
But clearly that isn’t always the case. MLB created the Hank AaronAward to name the best hitter in the majors, and the Silver Sluggers are forthe best hitter at each position. Gold Gloves are for the best fielders, butthat doesn’t include hitting at all. The Cy Young is for pitchers, so thatdoesn’t count. And the MVP includes pitchers (for better or worse). While I won’t argue what side of thePitchers-as-MVP debate I’m on, I find it interesting that there’s no award thatrewards the whole position player.

I wonder if the main reason is that we’ve undervalued defense for solong. There was never a time when “hitter” and “position player” were perfectsynonyms. People recognized that defense was part of a position player’s value,but it seems as though the thinking for a long time was, “Offense>>>>> a player’s contributions on defense. We’ll note if he’s onthe extreme ends on the spectrum defensively [really good or really bad], butif he’s somewhere in the vast grey area, we’ll assume it’s equal. If we measurea player, go to offense, and defense is a tie-breaker.”
I imagine the reason that defense gets discounted is because we expectthe player to make the play he makes, but we forget the plays he should havemade but didn’t or the play he made but shouldn’t have. It’s essentially theproblem people have when making defensive metrics. When a guy fields a ball, weexpect him to make that play, and most of the time, he does. We ignore theother plays because it’s hard to tell if he should have made the play or ifsomeone else would have. On the flip side, we expect the guy on offense tofail, and it’s a pleasant surprise when he gets on. We get positive feelingsback when he gets on, but we don’t get terribly negative feelings when he doesn’t.Defense is the exact opposite.
This isn’t to say, of course, that offense = defense in value. Thepotential for offense is essentially infinite. If you can get a lineup full ofperfect hitters, you will score an infinite number of times, and while that’snot impossible, it should tell you that the potential for offensive growth isunfettered. Defense, on the other hand, is limited to 27 outs. Sure, they couldhave to field a bunch, but if they’re really good, they can only make 27 plays,which they almost never have to make. So having a really good offense is betterthan having a really good defense (I think),and having a really good offensive player is better than having a really gooddefensive player.
Even with that, defense still holds a significant part of a player’svalue. Adam Dunn would routinely lose 1.5-3 wins of value because he was so badon defense. Now, most people understand this. Most people understand thatdefense plays a significant role in measuring a player’s value to a club. Yet,most Hall of Fame discussions center on offense, most awards given out toposition players are based on offense, the All-Star ballot has the players’offensive stats but not even a qualitative description of a player’s defense,and by far most stats focus on offense. I don’t know if that has to do withhistory and socialization, the distrust (possiblyrightly placed, though I think the mistrust is a bit overblown) ofdefensive metrics, or the general ambiguity of measuring defense in general,though I guess it has a bit to do with all of these.
Nonetheless, I find the situation fascinating. Here we have two termsthat are related but not synonymous, and yet, we (myself included) often usethem as though they are synonymous, even though we know better. It’s not amajor mistake, and maybe it’s only barely worth mentioning. I, however, find itinteresting that it happens, and I think the baseball world will have taken asignificant step forward when we stop equating the two in such a manner … orwhen we discover it really is that way.