If you don’t know anything about positional adjustments, stop reading now. Go to Fangraphs and read this primer on defensive based positional adjustments. You’d be well served to read some of the more specific examples like this 2B/3B comparison or the CF discussion. If you were unaware of the differences between offensive and defensive positional adjustments, you may enjoy this conversation but it’s unnecessary to understand the rest of the post.
The short version is that it is more difficult to find a capable catcher or shortstop than it is to find a capable 1B or DH. Supply and demand dictates that those scarcer commodities should be valued higher accordingly.
So lets see if we can phrase this another way. My catching prospect projects to be a league average hitter. I also have a corner outfield prospect that projects to be a league average hitter. In all the farm systems across baseball, there are 20 catchers that project as league average hitters. In all the farm systems across baseball, there are 75 corner outfield prospects that project as league average hitters. Assuming the catchers and outfielders are all average defenders, we’d rate them as equally valuable commodities without positional adjustments.
Obviously that doesn’t make sense though. When I have two holes to fill and there are 20 that can fill one hole and 75 that can fill another, there’s more competition for the 20 and thus they’ll be paid more. It’s pretty simple conceptually and I’d like to think it’s an unargumentative concept as well. The devil, as always, is in the details. I won’t attempt to broach that subject (visit The BOOK Blog for more info) but needless to say there are some error bars surrounding those values.
The positional adjustment is often used in the valuation of free agents and major leaguers. Should it not also trickle down to prospects as well? If the ranking of prospects is supposed to be indicative of both absolute ceiling and likelihood to reach that ceiling (plus the probabilities of other percentiles), the thresholds that each player has to breach would seem like an important inclusion.
Bryan Anderson is going to be the chief example of this among our prospect rankings. Will he ever make the pure offensive contributions of Daryl Jones? Probably not. Relative to his peers, however, our expectations are lowered. Accounting for the fact that there are very few players capable of catching 100+ games a year and being a decent hitter is crucial to determining Anderson’s overall value as a player and not just as a catcher.
Consider that last year the Cardinals paid Jason LaRue to hit for a .253 EqA and Yadier Molina to hit for a .263 EqA. A translation of Anderson’s AAA line to the MLB (only adjusting for league not age) was a .249 EqA. At the very minimum, Bryan Anderson is a backup catcher in the MLB. That’s a potential $1M saving every year. What if you assume growth from replacement level. Something like a .280 EqA (.280/.360/.400) would make Anderson a positive with the bat. When catchers are non-negatives with the bat, they become instant +3 win players assuming they aren’t horrible defensively.
Reconciling a lower offensive ceiling with a scarcer defensive skill set is an inexact science in the big leauges. In prospects, the same is true. Neither of which is a reason, however, to ignore positional scarcity.