Roster Flexibility is Baseball's New Inefficiency

The movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt (shown here), has brought sabermetrics and small-market strategies to the public. Now its time for the next (albeit small) shift in the baseball market.

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.

Yankees Acquire Stephen Drew and Martin Prado

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images); from http://boston.cbslocal.com/2014/05/20/report-red-sox-sign-stephen-drew/

The impossible has happened - for the first time since a minor trade in 1997, AL East rivals Yankees and Red Sox have completed a trade, swapping infielders.  The Yankees have sent utilityman Kelly Johnson (currently on the DL) to Boston and received Stephen Drew in return.  According to sources, Drew has been told that he will become the team's primary second baseman, replacing Brian Roberts, who has been DFAed.

Both Johnson and Roberts have not provided the Yankees with much this season, both offensively and defensively this season - Roberts leads all 2B in errors - and while Stephen Drew has not been all that impressive this season (.176 AVG, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 0.3 WAR), he is strong defensively, provides the Yankees with some flexibility around the infield, and there is the hope that a change of scenery and a pennant race will spark his bat.

Also today the Yankees traded power-hitting prospect Pete O'Brien to the Diamondbacks for 3B/OF Martin Prado.  Prado, who is under contract for next season, has a .270/.317/.370 line with 5 HR, 42 RBI, and 1.3 WAR.  While not exactly a big bat, he does provide the Yankees with power in RF, his expected position in the Bronx, and will serve as a definite upgrade.

Based off the last two weeks, it is clear what Brian Cashman's strategy this July was - for a fringe playoff team like the Yankees, rather than gambling the (limited) farm for an outside shot at October, he made several minor gambles that could greatly improve the team - Chase Headley, Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado - all while giving up only replacement-level players and low-level prospects.

How will this gamble pay off?  We won't know until October.

The Yankees Problem - They Can't Get on Base

Gardner and Ellsbury lead a weak Yankees offense..........picture from http://itsaboutthemoney.net/archives/2014/04/15/gardner-and-ellsbury-living-up-to-new-contracts/
Given that the Yankees have lost 4/5 of their starting rotation, common sense would dictate that the Yankees' number one problem this season would be pitching. But so far, it has not. Thanks to an elite bullpen and strong outings from the likes of Chase Whitley and Shane Greene, New York has has a 3.81 team ERA, smack in the middle of the AL, a solid 1.255 WHIP, and are 3rd in the league with 857 K (for reference, better than last year's rotation, which carried the team, and the 2009 championship team).

Just like the trainwreck that was 2013, and despite the acquisitions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, the problem this year is hitting - and in some cases, this year's offense has been worse than last year's. Let's compare the two:
                         2013                2014 (scaled to 162 G)
     AVG              .242                         .252
     OBP              .307                         .313
     H                   1321                        1385
     R                    650                          634
     HR                  144                          136
     SB                   115                          114

Neither of these are all that inspiring, but it's amazing to realize that in a lot of ways, last year's lineup did better - a lineup which gave regular ABs to Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Jayson Nix, Travis Hafner, and even Chris Stewart, who combine this year to have a line of .229 AVG/5 HR/35 RBI/-0.5 WAR!

So what, exactly, is the problem? After replacing those guys with Ellsbury, Beltran, and McCann, while also seeing a surprise run by fan-fav Yangervis Solarte and the returns of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, this offense was supposed to be at least consistent, if not flat-out dangerous. But it's not - why?

It seems cliche, but it's really simple - they can't get on base. As already mentioned, this team has an OBP of .313, 12th in the AL; only Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have OBP over .350, which is what I consider a "good" OBP; again, for perspective, in 2012, Eric Chavez's was .348.

This team needs to simply get on base more. Unfortunately, that's a case of easier-said-than-done, especially this point in the year. Ellsbury and Gardner must continue to produce, as must Jeter and Teixeira. Brian Roberts and McCann must continue their recent hot streaks. Beltran needs to get fully healthy and drive the ball. Chase Headley must continue to recapture his old self. And Girardi must play the hot hand whenever he can, like Francisco Cervelli right now.

But most importantly, this team needs to capitalize whenever a runner finds himself in scoring position; this offense-starved team cannot afford to leave runners on base, because they simply don't find themselves there all that often. Fortunately for them, the Blue Jays lack pitching, and the Orioles' offense isn't much better.

Yankees' best chance in 2014 - a prayer

The AL East is still wide open, and at  only 5 GB, the Yankees are by no means out of the race.  But unlike the other teams, however, the Yankees have one major problem - they simply don't have any readily-available ways to upgrade the team, and must rely on the team they have already assembled to perform.

At the moment, the Yankees roster consists of a lineup with seven regular starters, a three-way platoon at third base, and a revolving door at DH (as long as Beltran is "healthy"), as well as three semi-reliable starting pitchers, two rookie starters, and a strong-but-overworked bullpen.  Beyond Kelly Johnson, who can play 3B, 2B, 1B, and LF, and Francisco Cervelli, who has in a pinch played 1B, 2B, and 3B when needed, but is primarily the backup catcher, this team has extremely little roster flexibility. 

The team needs starting pitchers and power bats, and while there are some possible acquisitions on the trade market, the team simply lacks the prospects to get anybody worthwhile - and even if they could, patching one hole does not fix this team.  While having Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee would certainly boost the rotation, without swift returns from Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda, the rotation cannot see that big of an upgrade to make that much of a difference - and even so, it might be too little, too late.

There is some hope that the lineup can turn it around - at least, more hope here than that the rotation can sustain itself in Tanaka's absence - but even so, the question is raised, "Is it enough?"  Brian Roberts is due for a big second half, as his sabermetrics show that he is underperforming by far (for example, his BABIP is significantly below his career norms.  And Brian McCann is starting to hit lately, going 12-for-35 with two doubles in his last 8 games; while it would be nice for him to hit for more power, the key to it all is getting on base, which he appears finally to be doing.

But again, the Yankees still might not have enough hitting.  Since his flip over the wall early in the season, Beltran has not been the same, hitting a mere .216 with a .271 OBP, and honestly, he should just be shut down for the season and get back to health for 2015.  Ichiro has performed admirably in RF, but he is a lesser-quality version of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, and he's flat-out just not exhibited any power.  

Just like with pitching, the Yankees could go and acquire hitting help - Adrian Beltre or Chase Headley come to mind - but at the heart of it, they simply just need who they have to perform, with the possibility of bringing up minor leaguers to fill in the blanks (e.g., Jose Pirela).  Ultimately, the Yankees must pray that the players they have begin playing like the players they need.

2014 Yanks Mimics Nickolodeon TV Show

Disclosure - I own none of these logos, unfortunately

Anybody who has grown up in the last, I don't know, twenty years or so has almost-certainly regularly watched Nickolodeon's live-action sitcoms, ranging from All That and Kennan and Kel to all-time classics Drake and Josh and iCarly, and quite possibly the most recent show, Sam and Cat.

I know this seems kind of strange, but in a lot of ways you can definitely compare some of the Yankees' previous few seasons these shows.  The World Series champion 2009 Yanks were like Drake and Josh - seemingly one-dimensional, but a master at what it did (Yanks - slugging; 7 starters hit 24+ HRs; show - high school boys being boys).  2011 and 2012 were iCarly - pretty solid all around; nobody truly head-and-shoulders above everybody else, but together, they worked very well.  And 2013, believe it or not, can be described as most closely resembling the sketch comedies of All That - lacking cohesion, but somehow, someway, it did what it was meant to do (although in the case of the Yanks, not nearly as well as hoped).

Which brings us to the 2014 Yanks, who at time of writing sit a mere 47-47, missing 4/5 the rotation, and with a struggling offense.  Perhaps coincidentally, they happen to be most like the recently-canceled so-called hit Sam and Cat.  Before I continue, however, a little context is in order.

Sam and Cat stars Jennette McCurdy (Sam) and Ariana Grande (Cat), and is a spin-off of previous Nick shows iCarly and Victorious.  Both of these shows were immensely popular, and both of these actresses amazing.  Yet, despite all the rave reviews, the show never generated the hype that Drake and Josh, or iCarly, or even Zoey 101 did.  Having watched a few episodes, I can authoritatively say this - on paper, there is literally no reason this show should not be good; the stars are well-known, the acting is very good, the characters complemented each other nicely, the jokes are on point.  But it's just missing....something (FYI, that something is guys the same age as the girls, but that's besides the point).

Sound familiar?  The 2014 Yankees, on paper, had the big names (Beltran, McCann, Ellsbury, Tanaka), the pitching depth (8 possible starters on Opening Day), a lineup with a mix of speed and power which, although lacking a true superstar, had solid players throughout the lineup.  Add the surprises like Yangervis Solarte and Dellin Betances, and this team looked as good as any in the East.

And yet....there's something missing, and I don't mean the starting rotation on the DL that is better than half the league's rotations, or the high-paid bats who just haven't awoken, or the surprises who have come back to Earth.  I can't tell you what it is, but it's there.....I mean, it's not there.  This team lacks something.  It's not heart.  It's not effort.  It's not passion.

I don't know what it is, but without it, this team isn't going anywhere, just like Sam and Cat.

Panic Time in the Bronx? Almost.

image from cbssports.com, 7/9/14; article with image by Dayn Perry

Generally speaking, when you lose three-fifths of your Opening Day rotation to the DL, things are very bad, unless of course you have Masahiro Tanaka carrying the team with a 12-4 record with a 2.51 ERA, in which case things are merely bad.  But then when that Tanaka goes on the DL with elbow inflammation, with the unspoken threat of Tommy John surgery looming.....well, then maybe it's time to throw in the towel and start planning for 2015.

Except this is the Yankees, and this is the AL East, and this is 2014, and despite a series of injuries devastating the pitching staff and sapping Carlos Beltran's power, New York still finds themselves 3 games out in the division.  Despite that, the way the Yankees minus Gardner and Tanaka have been playing, that deficit might seem insurmountable, and if Tanaka has to miss any extended length of time, it might make serious sense to punt the season away.

But it's still early July, and for now, the Yankees are, as I said, within a series sweep of the Orioles of first place (who they happen to be playing next, coincidentally).  Best case scenario - the team plays solid baseball, their ace only misses 15-20 days, and the team approaches the trade deadline in good position to make a run for the division.  Brian Roberts's and Brian McCann's bats might finally awake, as they have been showing signs of life  recently.  Yangervis Solarte, returning to the Bronx after tearing up Triple-A Scranton with a .600 batting average, might regain his early-season form.  Cashman may pull his magic and end up with some serious front-of-the-rotation help.  Brandon McCarthy might be the 2014 version of Aaron Small.

Point is, these next two weeks will be crucial for the Yankees' season.  Everything might just fall into place, and they may remain in the thick of the race.  But if they begin to fall apart, or if Masahiro Tanaka becomes Tommy John's next victim, then it may just be time to start panicking.

Yanks hopeful and planning, but not desperate....yet

David Kadlubowski/azcentral sports; photo from azcentral.com 8/28/2013

The Yankees are not desperate, no matter what some reporters may tell you (I'm looking at you, Joe Giglio).  This weekend, as you are all aware, Brian Cashman pulled another fast one, trading the lefty reliever Vidal Nuno to the Diamondbacks for Brandon McCarthy, and then designating the struggling Alfonso Soriano for assignment.  

Let's start with the trade - yes, Brandon McCarthy is not having a great season, with his 5+ ERA and subpar record, but in no way does it compare to Nuno's horrendous 5.42 ERA.  McCarthy's peripherals show that he may very well bounce back in the second half - he is a groundball pitcher, which plays well for Yankee Stadium, and keeps the ball in the ballpark, unlike Nuno.  And, again, unlike Nuno, McCarthy eats up innings, which should help a depleted-but-elite Yankees bullpen.  There is a very realistic chance that this trade turns out to be a steal for the Yankees, which cannot be said about Nuno.

Now, regarding Soriano's DFA-ment: yes, I feel bad for the guy.  But it was time.  Both baseball-reference and Fangraphs have him as by far the worst player on the Yankees, performing at a below-replacement-level both at bat and in the field.  He hadn't had a hot streak all season, and he honestly looked lost at the plate.  He was swinging blindly at sliders in the dirt like always, but he wasn't catching up to the fastballs and hanging sliders like he used to.  On this offense-starved team, keeping this guy in the lineup on even a semi-regular basis wasted roster space and hurt the team's chances at winning.

The perfect part of this weekend's moves was the fact that it still keeps Cashman's options open.  The Yanks have already been linked to Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee from the Phillies, and hot prospects utilityman Jose Pirela and 2B Robert Refsynder might provide the spark that sets the offense ablaze, should the Yanks promote them.  Wheeler has been having a solid season at AAA and could rake - at least for a time - in the bigs, and Solarte should recover his stroke back down at Scranton (honestly, his peripherals show he's bound for some positive regression soon), Roberts looks good, and the Beltran/McCann/Ellsbury trio are bound to start hitting better.  Francisco Cervelli looks like he might hit himself into a semi-regular spot in the lineup.  And the All-Star break will do everybody good, as they all clearly need some rest, especially that bullpen.

There's a lot to fear with this team, but there's also a ton to be hopeful for.

75 Years Later, Lou Gehrig's words still ring true

July 4, 1939.  It was Independence Day, in the latter days of the Great Depression, on the eve of the bloodiest war in history.  But that day, what would be remembered most had nothing to do with politics, or economics, or anything of that sort - on that day, one baseball player ruled the day.

Two months after voluntarily pulling himself out of the lineup - ending his famous streak - the Yankees honored their first baseman, cleanup hitter, and captain, who was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Through his brief speech - which, because he was so emotional, he almost did not give - Gehrig reminds people generations later what baseball truly is: a game, nothing more.  To the man, what mattered most to him were his two families, his biological family and his baseball family. 

And that's what we have to remember, and especially on this holiday, the Fourth of July.  While everybody is out eating hot dogs and watching fireworks, remember Gehrig's speech, and remember how he ended it:

"...I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

No matter how your life is going, just remember, live life as if it were you last - because you never know where it might take you.

What is wrong with these New York Yankees?

Rich Schultz/Getty Images; image from espn.go.com

41-42.  Minus-37 run differential.  Projected Win-Loss of 37-46.

And $200M+ worth of payroll just this year.

There are a few questions on everyone's minds regarding the AL East - why is everybody so bad, why are the Rays among the worst teams in baseball, why the World Series champs got swept by the Cubs, and when will David Price be traded?  But especially for Yankees fans, one question rings above all else - what are wrong with these New York Yankees?

True, technically speaking, that run differential means the Yankees are playing far above where they should, but they are vastly underperforming expectations, especially after adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Kelly Johnson, Yangervis Solarte, and Masahiro Tanaka, added to the returns of Michael Pineda and Derek Jeter from injury.

Despite injuries to 3/5 of the Yankees rotation - and, after CC Sabathia's setback last night, no return in sight - the pitching staff has not been much of a problem, thanks to a string of excellent starts from Chase Whitley, solid performance from Hiroki Kuroda, and of course the expertise of Masahiro Tanaka, with enough bullpen depth to cover for poor performances from Vidal Nuno (and everyone besides Tanaka at least once).  Their team ERA of 3.98 ranks a respectable 8th in the AL, which, while certainly not great, should be enough given the Yankees' typical offensive production.

There lies the problem - the Yankees aren't scoring enough runs, ranking 12th in the AL with merely 330.  But the question is, why?  What are they doing wrong?

Ultimately, I think this is a two-fold problem - one, a matter of identity, and the other of patience.  For starters, despite the "Bronx Bombers" moniker and what would you expect from a lineup with guys like Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Alfonso Soriano, the Yanks rank 10th in the AL with only 71 HR.  Soriano's production has just not been there, and the team as a whole is not mashing the ball like they may be expected to.  Instead, they need to manufacture runs, and to an extent they are trying - they rank 3rd in the AL with 60 SB.  But honestly, given that they have both Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, that is too low a number for them; both should be on pace for 50 steals each, and they just aren't.  Stolen base threats tend to put pitchers on edge, help avoid double plays, and are more conducive for hit-and-runs.  With this lineup, that will help generate more runs.

Patience is where this team truly lacks, however.  They currently rank 11th in the AL with a measly .316 OBP.  That just is not good enough, as you cannot score runs if you don't get runners on base.  To put it in some perspective, the 2009 Yankees won the World Series to the tune of a .362 OBP, a full 50 points higher than where they are now.  This team needs to draw more walks, and take advantage of the shift.  While I'm not saying Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira should be bunting down the 3B line on every play, but when leading off an inning, all you need is a baserunner - they can slap it the other way.  And if Ellsbury/Gardner is on base, they can pull the old steal-2nd-pop-up-beat-SS-to-3B trick.

Basically, the Yankees need to get runners on base, and from there, make things happen.  Whether they acquire some big bat off the trade block or bring up more help from AAA, they still need to do the same thing.  In the end, it all comes down to scoring runs.

Yankees Need Righty Complement to Yangervis Solarte

Picture from zimbio.com - April 23, 2014 - Source: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America)

The New York Yankees are running a very strange 3B platoon at the moment - Kelly Johnson against righties, Yangervis Solarte against lefties.  The strange part?  Solarte hits a solid fifty points higher against righties than Johnson, while posting a measly .230 against lefties (better than Johnson's .207, but still not that great).

Now, I'm not skilled enough to know whether it's advantageous to play a platoon where you have two guys hitting .230 on their respective sides, or one hitting .280 and the other .207, but in any case, this has to stop.  Surely there are better alternatives than this, right?

Maybe - if you play minor leaguers out of position - in particular, Jose Pirela and Robert Refsynder.

First player - Jose Pirela.  He's a natural 2B, who has played a little SS and 1B, which makes me believe he can also pick up third fairly quickly.  He's Scranton's second best hitter, with a .316/.360/.452 line in 301 AB, with 7 HR, 33 RBI, and 10 SB.  Clearly he would definitely make a great platoon partner for Solarte....except, perhaps, for one thing: he played his first career game in RF tonight.  That means Alfonso Soriano's time is short, but that still leaves us a big hole in that platoon.

Which brings us to our second guy, another natural 2B, Robert Refsnyder.  In case you have not been paying attention, this guy has been tearing up AAA since being promoted from Trenton a few weeks ago.  He's posting an otherworldly .371/.500/.629 line with 3 HR and 2 SB in just 19 games.  Continuing in the season's trend of playing 2B at the hot corner, Refsnyder would fit right in, and would likely take some AB from the league-average Brian Roberts.

On its own, these two moves would not mean all that much, unless of course they revitalize the dormant Yankees offense.  But right now, the Yankees have to maximize their production, and simply by having Kelly Johnson and Alfonso Soriano play half the time, they are not doing that.

In this flawed AL East, where this very-flawed team still is in the thick of things, giving away outs is not something they can afford to do.