The Many Faces of Average

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks

There is nothing wrong with league-average production. Too often, league-average becomes a four letter word, which is foolish. By definition, a significant portion of the baseball population looks up at league-average with envy.

Offensively, not all league-average hitters are created equally, of course. A shortstop who hits at a league-average rate is a very valuable player indeed, just as a league-average catcher makes a hot commodity. The offensive threshold at these positions is so low, even modest offensive up the middle looks like a godsend. Conversely, an average hitter at first base or DH isn’t much good, since they can’t be counted on to produce in other ways for their team.

Just as league-average offense means different things at different positions, there are many different ways to arrive at capital-a Average. As a matter of personal preference – what kind of league-average hitter would you prefer on your team?

There are different ways to consider “league-average” at the plate. Non-pitchers put up a .257/.322/.403 line in 2013. The league walked in 8.1% of their plate appearances and struck out in 19.3% of the times they came to plate. They posted a .146 ISO (slugging percentage minus average, basically calculating extra base hit power) and swung at just under 50% of the pitches thrown their way.

This creates, via the magic of linear weights, a 100 weighted runs created plus (wRC+, read more here). Adjusted for league and ball park, a 100 wRC+ is average.

If we wanted the define the most average hitter in 2013, it would probably be Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins. He put up a 101 wRC+ (100 OPS+) with a .244/.312/.414 slash line plus walk and strikeout rates of 8.2%/19.3%. A .170 ISO and 40% swing rate. For all intents and purposes, Dozier is the least remarkable hitter in baseball. He hit 18 home runs which is nice but he’s still as average as it gets.

Again – not without value. He played decent defense at second base and ended up worth around 3 WAR. Very average. Valuable enough for a bad team. But average in a boring, dependable way.

A player can be average without being Brian Dozier, thankfully. The world is full of delightful extremes. Consider J.J. Hardy.

J.J. Hardy is a borderline delightful baseball player. He’s a terrific defensive shortstop on a very friendly deal for the Baltimore Orioles. He’s a free agent at the end of the season so, even as he enters his 30s, will be a hot commodity on the free agent market.

In 2013, J.J. Hardy was a sliver under league-average at the plate, putting up a 99 wRC+. He did so in a rather unorthodox manner. Hardy’s slash line of .263/.306/.433 only tells part of the story. He hit 25 home runs in 2013 after hitting 30 and 22 the previous two years. His walk rate is considerably below average at 5.9%, but his strikeout rate falls well below league-average, especially for a power hitter (.170 IS0) at just 11.3%. Only five hitters in baseball matched that combination of low strikeouts and solid power.

Hardy is very patient for someone who doesn’t walk a great deal. He chases rarely and tends to be patient in the strike zone as well. He sees his pitch and swings at it, looking to drive it out of the park. This results in a high rate of fly balls, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. It simply limits the type production Hardy offers – home runs or bust, simply put.

On the complete other extreme is Gregor Blanco of the San Francisco Giants. Blanco is a speedy outfielder best known for his defense. Like, Hardy, he posted a 99 wRC+ in 2013. The way he arrived at that production comes in the form of a .265/.341/.350 slash. Well below-average power but Blanco draws walks at a high rate and posts higher in-play averages (BABIP) thanks to his speed and propensity to hit the ball on the ground.

Both Hardy and Blanco have offensive profiles consistent with the ballpark they call home. Hardy’s approach would not play nearly as well at vast AT&T Park just as Blanco’s triples would dry up at Camden Yards. Different horses for different courses.

It also comes back to a matter of personal preference. Do strikeouts frustrate you? Is a walk a wasted at bat in your mind? Perhaps the Blancos and Denard Spans (99 OPS+ over the last two seasons) of the world are more to your liking. Dig the long ball and patience? Michael Saunders and Mark Reynolds are here for your Three True Outcome needs?

Is there still room in baseball for TTO hitters? With offense on the wane, perhaps high walk, low average hitters are slightly overrated in our current atmosphere? Home runs no longer lurk around every corner, perhaps consistent contact is the current vogue? Then again, defense is valued like never before, with advanced scouting reports and positioning turning more and more balls put in play turning to outs.

Consider this the baseball Rorschach test. If you’re playing god and can pick a league-average hitter of your choosing, how would you build him? Weigh your preferences and lay it on me. C’mon, it’s January and we’ve all got A-Rod fatigue. Save yourself.