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Spitballing: Position Players Moving Around January 24, 2014

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball, Economics.
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Earlier this week, I posted about Lucas Duda and how he’s being forced out of his natural position. This came up a few years ago for the Mets as well, when Angel Pagan was being forced out of the outfield – many fans suggested pushing him to second base (in the hole now filled by Daniel Murphy). The sense seems to be that players can move freely around the field, going wherever the team needs them. There are a couple of theories on this, and a couple of good examples, but it doesn’t always work out.

Typically, the best moves take someone from a more defensively-demanding position and move him to one that’s less so. Victor Martinez still catches occasionally, but he’s made a move almost entirely to the DH role and played more games at first base last year. Alex Rodriguez has also made some moves in that direction, moving from the very demanding shortstop position to the slightly less difficult third base (perversely, to allow the much lousier Derek Jeter to stay in his position), and mostly toward DH these days. Johnny Damon and Jorge Posada were among the revolving door of older Yankees to do time out of position at first base over the past few years, with varying degrees of success. On the other hand, even moves down the defensive spectrum don’t always work. Gary Sheffield was famously described as “painful to watch” at first by Michael Kaye. Kevin Youkilis was solid in his move from third to first, but the extra speed required for left field left him looking like he couldn’t hack it, and even though the corner positions are great places to stick a team’s best sluggers, it rarely makes sense to move a broken-down catcher there instead of to first or (rarely) third. Even a solid third baseman wouldn’t necessarily have the ability to cover ground needed by an outfielder, even if he had the requisite ability to predict the ball’s flight – a skill that probably needs time in the field to develop.

Pitching is kind of a weird exception. The best example in recent memory has to be Rick Ankiel, whose meltdown on the mound during the World Series led to his second career as an outfielder. On the opposite side, Juan Salas went from being a cannon-armed third baseman to pitching reasonably well, and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen has saved 53 games for the Dodgers since being converted from light-hitting catcher to closer. (He also has a lifetime .500/.667/.500 batting line, in the “Utterly Meaningless Statistics” category.) Similarly, Ike Davis went from being his college team’s Friday-night starter to the least defensively-demanding position (first base) in the majors.

Defensive position moves tend to be difficult to make. In Duda’s case, he’d technically be moving up the defensive spectrum, but it’s hard to even consider the speed required to be a competent outfielder on the same scale as the abilities of an infielder. It’s unremarkable to me that Johnny Damon was able to move to first, but putting Youkilis in left field a few years ago was a true head-scratcher. In order to move a player freely between the infield and the outfield, you’ll need a special kind of player unless you’re willing to give up a lot defensively. As an economist, I’m all about specialization given constraints; Duda’s constraints are just too tight to make this move work.

Spitballing: Jim Thome and Recognition July 21, 2011

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball.
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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Jim Thome. Although he never played in my hometown, Buffalo was Cleveland’s AAA affiliate when I was a wee lad and so I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Indians. I also admire Thome’s small-town, farm-boy image. The PepsiMAX Clubhouse in the Corn ad showing Jim asking for autographs played off that image.

Thome’s pretty popular on the internet, based on the proportion of traffic I’m getting from searches for his name.  Kyle Kendrick (no, not that one) of the Winfield (Kansas) Daily Courier noticed, though, that media has been much quieter about Thome’s achievement than about Alex Rodriguez‘ same run last year. Kendrick blames the lack of coverage on Thome’s image:

Honestly, I believe it’s because he is too quiet and too humble for his own good. He isn’t flashy like Bonds, or flamboyant like Sosa or making it look easy like Griffey did. Therefore people, including the media, haven’t latched on to him like they have done with other hitters in the past. Add that to the fact that he’s never played more than one season in a very big media market town like New York or Boston or Chicago, and you may come to understand why he isn’t getting the bigtime coverage.

(Let’s leave aside the dismissal of three seasons in Philadelphia and three and a half in Chicago for a moment.)

It’s pretty clear to me why Derek Jeter‘s 3000-hit milestone got more coverage than Thome’s: Jeter is, for better or for worse, much more well-known than Thome. The average fan probably knows Jeter’s face, but it would take a much more interested fan to recognize Thome’s face. Jim was last an All-Star in 2006 and spent five and a half of the last six seasons  in the AL Central, meaning that the largest markets that he was regularly exposed to were Detroit and Chicago. (Granted, he spent half a season with the Dodgers.) He’s not well-known enough to be wildly popular, and he’s not hated enough (like Rodriguez) for people to take pleasure in any failure that might happen. As soon as A-Rod’s production slowed down, people started accusing him of choking. Thome’s been like clockwork throughout his career, but even if he did slow down, it’s no fun to call a likeable guy a choker. Gary Sheffield was a Met at the time he hit his 500th, so there was a bump in coverage from being with a large-market team, but he got a lot of coverage too. Is it any coincidence he was widely regarded as a bit of a tool?

As I said earlier, Thome will likely hit his 600th home run in August, and it’ll probably be only a few weeks before the September callups. Minnesota is five games back, but in third place in the AL Central, and 12 games back from the wild card. Thome probably won’t get his glory this postseason. Hopefully he’ll get his recognition when he hits #600, but whether or not he does, he’ll go down in history as the eighth member of an exclusive club that won’t expand for some time longer.

Spitballing: Position changes June 3, 2011

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First thing’s first: this entry was prompted by Buster Posey and his horrific ankle injury, but it’s not just about him. The first time I started thinking about it seriously was last year, when the Mets’ Carlos Beltran was about to come off the DL and Angel Pagan‘s placement was in doubt. Either Gary, Keith, or Ron tripped my “Stuff Keith Hernandez Says” meter by saying that fans had suggested moving Pagan to second base to fill in for the ailing Luis Castillo, and commented that “You can’t just move a guy to second base.” Very true.

Similarly, it’s very hard to “just move a guy” to catcher, which is why a guy like Buster Posey is so valuable. In the National League, the median OPS+ for players with at least 100 plate appearances and who played more than half their games at catcher was 91. Posey’s OPS+ was 129 – that’s over 40% better. If instead you look at first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances, the median OPS+ is 107. All of a sudden, Posey’s offensive value-added drops to about 20% above average, and that’s before accounting for regression to the mean. Moving him to third base instead mitigates the damage and takes full advantage of his arm, but he’s suddenly a much less special player when he’s on the hot corner instead of behind the plate.

It’s also maddening to hear about efforts to move Derek Jeter to center field. Even though he’s on the downswing, he’s hit well above average every year from 1996 through 2009. Even last year, his 91 OPS+ was acceptable, especially considering his popularity. Granted, he costs his team runs on defense (he’s rarely had a positive defensive Wins Above Replacement), but his offensive contribution more than makes up for it. He’s 6’3″, making him more than big enough to move to first base, and first base doesn’t require him to have the range that center field would. After Jorge Posada hangs it up, splitting  the duties at first base and DH between Jeter and Alex Rodriguez will start to make more sense, and using homegrown prospects to take over at shortstop and third base ensures continuing fan loyalty.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention future Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Although his 2.000 OPS last year grossly overstated his batting ability (only two plate appearances, compared with a lifetime .229 batting average in the minors), Jansen is a success story in his move from catcher to fireballing reliever. That was an excellent move by the Dodgers system – they took Jansen’s innate ability (his cannon-like arm) and moved him to a position where his contribution would be optimized. Whether or not Jansen turns out to be a future dominant closer, he’s probably gotten more playing time as a reliever than he ever would have as a catcher, and he’s generated more value for the Dodgers.

Basically, player moves are difficult. It’s important to try to optimize a player’s contribution, and that needs to take into account his defensive talents instead of merely trying to find a place for him to play. I can only hope Buster Posey’s recuperation goes smoothly and there’s a value-maximizing slot for him with the Giants.

Spitballing: Blanton in the Phillies’ Rotation February 25, 2011

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The Phillies have one of the best rotations, on paper, in baseball today. Although some people are measured in their optimism, including Jayson Stark, I think the important thing to remember is that we’re arguing over whether they’re “the best ever,” not if they’re going to be competitive. Rotations that bring this kind of excitement at the beginning of the year are few and far between. The Mets, for example, aren’t drawing this kind of expectation – guys like R.A. Dickey and Mike Pelfrey are solid, but they don’t have the deserved reputations of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton.

I’m hardly the first to say it, but Joe Blanton seems to be the odd man out. He’ll be making about $8.5 million next year. Blanton faced 765 batters last year, fourth behind Halladay, Hamels, and Kyle Kendrick. Immediately behind Blanton was Jamie Moyer with 460 batters faced. For the record, the fifth-most-active pitcher faced 362 batters in 2009 (Chan Ho Park) and 478 in 2008 (Adam Eaton). Let’s take that number and adjust it to about 550 batters faced, since Blanton will get more starts than most fifth starters and he’ll stay in longer since he’s a proven quantity. In a normal year, the Phils face about 6200 batters, so that means Blanton’s 550 will be about 9% of the team’s total. (That figure is robust even in last year’s Year of the Pitcher with depressed numbers of batters faced.)

According to J.C. Bradbury’s Hot Stove Economics, this yields an average marginal revenue product of 3.15 million. This figure is based on the average rate that pitchers prevent runs and the average revenue of an MLB team. Obviously, Blanton is a better than the average pitcher (ignoring his negative Wins Above Replacement last year) and the Phillies make more money than most teams, but this is a pretty damning figure.

The other thing to take into account is that Blanton’s marginal wins aren’t worth as much to the Phillies now that they have a four-ace rotation. He won’t get every start and he won’t be a 20-game winner. Even if he were, he’ll be providing insurance wins – he might have an extra ten wins over a AAA-level replacement, but chances are that those wins won’t make the difference between making the playoffs and missing them when you figure in the Phillies’ solid bullpen and run production.

Instead, let’s say Blanton goes to the White Sox, just to pick a team. Jake Peavy and Edwin Jackson combined for 765 batters faced, so plug Blanton in for Freddy Garcia with 671 batters faced – a worst-case scenario. That would be 10.85 % of the batters faced, bringing him up to about 3.8 million. In this case, though, you have a team who finished 6 games back and missed the playoffs. If you replace Garcia with Blanton, you stand a very good chance to make the playoffs. That’s another way of saying that the Phillies’ 6-game lead over Atlanta (the NL wild card team) was worth less than the Twins’ 6-game lead over the White Sox (when neither team had as many wins as the AL wild card).

Economists would refer to this as a diminishing marginal returns situation – when you have fewer wins, around the middle of the pack, each additional win is worth a little less. This captures the idea that taking a 110-win team and giving them 111 wins would cost a lot of money and not yield much extra benefit, but a 90-win team making 91 wins might let them overtake another team.

The upshot of all of this? Trade Blanton for prospects. Rely on the bullpen and develop a future starter. Roy Halladay won’t be competitive forever.