Are Pitchers or Position Players Better Franchise Cornerstones in Today's MLB?

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJune 12, 2014

Choose your weapon.
Choose your weapon.Duane Burleson/Associated Press

The question we're here to discuss doesn't feel original. That might be because it's not, as I'm fairly certain it's been baseball discussion fodder for a long time.

The thing is, though, that it might actually be a better question now than ever before. I'm not sold the answer has changed, mind you, but the debate sure has.

The question I am referring to is the one in the headline of this article, but I'll put it here for good measure: If a Major League Baseball franchise wants a cornerstone player, should it wish for a great pitcher or a great position player?

Position player is the easy answer, and we have a stock answer for why: Whereas the best pitchers are only going to play in 30-odd games and pitch 200-some-odd innings, the best position players can give you as many as 162 games, upwards of 600 plate appearances and over 1,000 innings in the field.

This is nothing you haven't heard before, and it still rings true. If we're talking strictly about value to be gained on the field, there doesn't seem to be any contest.

That is, unless you feel like taking WAR's word for it.

Wins Above Replacement would have us believe that it's absolutely possible for a great starting pitcher to be just as valuable as a great position player. Consider, for example, the 10 best non-Mike Trout WARs—just to make things fair—posted between 2010 and 2013 in FanGraphs' eyes:

Top 10 Non-Trout WARs, 2010-2013
PlayerPOSYearWAR
Justin VerlanderSP20119.2
Jacoby EllsburyCF20119.1
Clayton KershawSP20138.8
Roy HalladaySP20108.6
Jered WeaverSP20118.5
Matt KempCF20118.4
Josh HamiltonCF20108.4
Andrew McCutchenCF20138.2
Roy HalladaySP20118.0
Cliff LeeSP20117.8
FanGraphs

(Note: For any fellow nerds out there, I'm using RA-9 WAR for pitchers rather than FIP-based WAR, so as to focus on real value rather than hypothetical value.)

Take Trout out of the equation and pitchers have produced four of the top-five WARs over the last four full seasons, as well as six of the top 10.

Granted, this isn't anything new. Between 2006 and 2009, the second-best WAR was authored by Zack Greinke in 2009, and five of the top-12 WARs overall belonged to starting pitchers.

I'm sure you'd find plenty more examples like that in other cherry-picked spans from baseball history. It's in WAR's nature to believe that great pitching can be extremely valuable, and great pitching is not a new invention.

There is one thing that's changed, however, and that's how it's become easier for great pitching to happen on a consistent basis.

Jun 2, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw (22) delivers a pitch against the Chicago White Sox at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

You've surely noticed how pitching-crazy MLB has become. The league's collective ERA experienced a sharp drop to 4.08 in 2010. Last year, it dropped to 3.87. So far in 2014, MLB's ERA is even lower at 3.81.

This is partially owed to the ability of the pitchers themselves, which shows up particularly in their collective increase in average velocity since the early 2000s. Also happening is a decreased reliance on heat in favor of other weapons. When it comes to stuff, today's pitchers aren't messing around.

But then you can factor in how much offense has gone down ever since MLB started giving a damn about performance-enhancing drugs in 2005, a stance that has recently gotten stronger.

Then you can factor in how, as ESPN’s Jayson Stark noted in 2012, today's pitchers are armed with more information on opposing hitters than ever before. Finally, you can factor in how the information age has changed the way teams view defense, as defensive shifts are no longer just for Ted Williams and David Ortiz.

Even umpiring has been impacted. Jon Roegele wrote for the Hardball Times earlier this year that the strike zone is "more than five percent bigger" than it was at the start of the PITCHf/x era in 2008. That means more strikes for pitchers, and more strikes invariably lead to more outs.

Beyond the reality that there are a lot of good pitchers out there and a lot of money to be spent, changes like these could be fueling MLB's increased willingness to spend big bucks on pitchers. With the game geared toward keeping runs off the board, investing in pitchers has become easier to justify.

But then you remember the injury problem.

May 20, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (16) fields questions from reporters during a press conference at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

We don't have much of a database when it comes to the MLB disabled list, but here are a few tidbits from the spreadsheets that BaseballHeatMaps.com has for 2010 through 2013:

DL Data for Hitters and Pitchers, 2010-2013
YearHitter DL StintsPitcher DL StintsAvg. Hitter DL DaysAvg. Pitcher DL Days
201020923742.961.0
201125225140.058.6
201224623948.573.7
201326225842.769.4
BaseballHeatMaps.com

It's not that pitchers have been getting hurt more frequently; in that regard, things are about even. But when pitchers have gotten hurt, they've gotten really hurtand it's not getting any better.

BaseballHeatMaps.com also tracks Tommy John surgeries, and there have been 45 of those already in 2014. Also, several pitchers have had Tommy John surgery for the second time, a reminder that the first surgery isn't always a permanent fix.

Point being: For all the advancements that have been made to enhance pitcher performance, keeping pitchers healthy is still baseball's Holy Grail. As long as that's the case, pitchers are going to be far more at risk of breaking than position players are.

You want your franchise cornerstone to be there from year to year. Due to the threat of serious injury, there's a far greater likelihood of a franchise pitcher not being there from year to year. Tagging a pitcher as a franchise cornerstone has become more easily justified, but it's not safe just yet.

Not that this should all be about whether position players or pitchers are better business, mind you. We can also get into the matter of which of them is better for business.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

We know that great pitchers can draw a crowd. Look at Safeco Field every time Felix Hernandez starts, or how Jose Fernandez was helping attendance at Marlins Park before the baseball gods smote his elbow.

There's an obvious catch, however: Though a great starter can draw a crowd at home, that same great starter is only going to start at home in roughly half of his 30-odd starts. 

A great position player is different. Maybe he doesn't fill as many seats as a great starter every time he graces the diamond, but he'll help fill seats in as many as 81 home games. That's going to add up.

Lastly, there's the question of whether the rise of pitching in recent years has done anything to diminish the star status of great position players.

It's hard to argue that it has in light of how six of the eight players picked for MLB's big marketing campaign for 2014 are position players. For last year's big campaign, it was two of 10.

Jersey sales offer another clue. According to CNBC, MLB.com, the Los Angeles Times and MLB.com, there were  no more than three pitchers in the top 10 in jersey sales between 2010 and 2013.

You figure this is partially due to fans gravitating toward players who can do more than just throw a baseball to a target. Another part of it is that fans tend to gravitate toward players they get to see every day. You know, the usual.

But you also wonder if there's something else going on. 

When you recall the Steroid Era, you recall the game being dominated by hitters. The dominance of hitting meant great pitchers were harder to find, so any team that had one possessed something special.

Well, the tables have turned. In a pitching-dominated league, it's great hitters that have become harder to find. Now any team that has a great hitter is in possession of something truly special. If ever there was a time for fans to latch onto the guys who wield the bats, it's now.

In summation: I dunno, you guys.

Now's a good time for pitchers to be franchise cornerstones. The great ones have always been capable of accumulating value, and now the game is skewed toward their success. Hence the reason the discussion has become more complicated than it was even as recently as a few years ago.

But the injury thing is a pretty big deal-breaker. Add in the built-in appeal that great position players have and how the modern game may be heightening that appeal rather than diminishing it, and they still look like the way to go for cornerstone players.

Maybe the answer to our big question will finally change in a few years' time. Until then, the stock answer still works.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com or FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

 

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