Moneyball - everybody knows it. Baseball fans, moviegoers, the tourists from Luxembourg and Palau.
At heart, "Moneyball" is very simple - exploit the inefficiencies of the current baseball market to put the best product possible on the field. It is both simple and complex, looking at things like flyball/groundball rates, BABIP discrepancies, platoon splits, and most famously, OBP. It's constantly evolving, constantly finding new sources of inefficiency, constantly redefining itself in the ever-changing baseball atmosphere. And, despite popular belief, it's not just the ideology of the small market - both the Yankees and Red Sox are known to heavily use sabermetrics and follow these principles.
Well, lately, I've been thinking about what the next inefficiency in baseball will be, and I noticed a trend.
1. Analysts are making a huge deal about the Yankees playing many players out of position this season (Kelly Johnson, Yangervis Solarte, Brendan Ryan, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado)
2. Ben Zobrist has done everything except catch, and has accumulated 34.5 WAR over 9 seasons
3. The Rays traded ace David Price for a mid-rotation pitcher and a utility player (Nick Franklin)
For a while, that first one was really bugging me - I played in various local baseball rec leads for ten years, and I spent time literally everywhere except 2B and behind the plate. These guys are major league ballplayers; at some point in their lives, all of them were the best players on the field, and so probably played SS and/or CF. In my mind, while I understand changing positions is not the easiest thing to do in the world, it's not as big of a deal as people make it out to be. All it takes is some - *gasp* - practice. Especially for shifts like SS to 3B, or any position to 1B.
Now let me make myself clear - a player learning a new position can not and will not become a defensive whiz overnight. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes mistakes - and unfortunately, sometimes in games too; oftentimes, the mistakes made aren't physical, but instead mental (for example, Brian McCann did not know what to do against the Blue Jays) . While a player might know in theory what to do, in the heat of the game he might panic and freeze. That's understandable, and does explain why many teams are reluctant to play guys out of position.
Which is exactly why I believe that this exact sort of thing will become the new inefficiency exploited by teams. Right now, what's stopping a team from pinch-running for their first baseman in the top of the ninth of a tied game? The fact that the only other player on the team who can play first base is DH-ing. Pinch-hitting for the weak-hitting second baseman? The other 2B is playing third, the LF only has three career innings at 3B, and the team has no OF on the bench.
When a situation arises where a player is played out of position, it becomes a big deal. Remember that epic 13-inning game between Boston and New York on July 1, 2004? After Derek Jeter bloodied himself in the stands, people forget what happened next - 3B Alex Rodriguez moved back to his natural SS, RF Gary Sheffield moved to 3B, Ruben Sierra moved to RF, Bubba Crosby moved to LF, and DH Bernie Williams took the field in center. Or that game on July 7, 2003, when Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano were injured in the first inning? Robin Ventura played 2B for the first time in his career. Vernon Wells played both 2B and 3B last year; same with Francisco Cervelli; remember Lyle Overbay, right-fielder?
Point is - all these games are etched in my mind, just like all those games where a fielder comes in to pitch. At the time, it's either funny or scary, depending on the exact circumstances of the game. But it's not that big of a deal - in no cases were there any catastrophes in the field; in fact, Vernon Wells made a neat play at third base!
These guys are all professionals; they can all play ball. That's why I think teams are about to place more value in players who can play multiple positions competently. It's much easier to mix-and-match during a game when half the players on the field and your entire bench can play three or four positions each, especially for a National League team. Resting players and giving them half-days off as DHs also becomes easier when you have multiple options at every position, and especially if you have a few guys who can play catcher in addition to one or two other positions.
Unlike platoons, OBP, and the focus on BABIP and sabermetrics, player flexibility is not going to revolutionize baseball; it is extremely unlikely you can build a team centered on players who can play three or four different positions. But it will give managers more options and peace of mind in the field, and might just be worth a few wins - and that's all that might stand between October golf and October glory.