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Optimum Player Use


“There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.”

Henry Ford

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On Optimum Use

The way in which batters and pitchers are used can have a substantial effect on the degree to which they can or cannot perform up to their full abilities. Here we discuss ways to maximize what a team can get out of its players. (Some of these arguments are rather discursive: please muster your patience.)

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Position Players

Playing Time

Let us first set out the criteria. First, it is essential that every position on the field be backed up at least twice: that means that in a given game, the team can lose any two players and still field a defensively competent squad. A team can “lose” men in a game in numerous ways: injury, ejection, an illness or injury that does not rise to the Injury-List level but keeps a man out of service for a day or three; or even just being burned as a pinch hitter who does not remain in the game, or by being pinch-hit for.

Second is play time: a man must get enough to stay sharp, but not so much that he gets fatigued by middle or late season. Do we know what that means in numbers? Yes, at least approximately. Consider the (quite wise) old baseball saying: “Miss a day and when you come back you’ll notice it at the plate; miss two days and when you come back, your teammates will notice it; miss three days and when you come back the fans will notice it.” That’s suggestive, but scarcely definitive.

We did a broad-brush investigation a few decades ago and concluded that to play up to his innate abilities, a batter needs to play at least two-thirds of the time. That study wasn’t definitive, either, but we regard it as quite indicative, and believe that two-thirds playing time is the floor below which primary players (a term we will define more exactly a bit farther on) must not be allowed to go.

At the other extreme, the “iron man” who plays in almolst every game (or, indeed, all 162 games) should be a thing of the past. There will always be the occasional player who can do that over an extended number of seasons and still do well, but: a) “occasional” is very occasional; abd b) even with those few, we cannot really know if they mightn’t have done better yet with some reasonable rest.

We find it convenient to think of these things on the basis of a six-game cycle. There is nothing magic about that number, but—as we will see shortly—it is convenient, and is a reasonable approximation of an average baseball-season week.

Using such a cycle to reckon optimum use, primary players should get no fewer than four daus’ use out of six and no more than five days’ use. Now let’s see how that works out in detail.

Let’s start with the outfield. There being three outfield positions, in a six-day cycle there will be 18 man-days of play. We fill that out by having four “primary” players and one “reserve” player. The primary players are the ones who each get the regular play time of four or five days per cycle; the reserve is just that, an emergency backup who can play all three outfield positions well, but from whom little can be expected at the plate (else he’d be a primary player, on that team or some other). The reserve is there to provide the second part of that necessary double backing-up for each outfield position; he gets to play or bat only in blowouts or long extra-inning games or as an emergency fill-in.

The four primary outfielders can be designated LF, CF, RF, and “floater”. Ideally, the floater can play all three outfield positions; CF is the hardest, so he needs to be able to play it at least decently enough to do so once a week or thereabouts. Mind, if one of the nominal corner men can also play an acceptable CF, the floater need not have that capability; much depends on the exact distribution of positional skills among the available four men.

Who plays how often also depends, in this case on the batting ability (as measured by the TOP). In our six-game cycle, two of the outfielders play 5 days and two play 4 days (making 18 man-days, as required).

Next we consider the infield. It is convenient to consider the first baseman in a category by himself; normally, the first baseman will be one of the best batters on the team, so he will get 5 days’ play in each cycle; we will return in a bit to who fills in that sixth day.

The other infielders we schedule very much as we did the outfielders: four primary players comprising 2B, SS, 3B, and a “floater” who can play all three positions at least adequately (and with the same sort of comments on exact use and positional flexibility as for the four outfielders). And again, a reserve who can play all three positions well but who has little batting skill. And the play time is also parallel: two primary men play 5 days per cycle and the other two 4 days per cycle. And, yet again, every position is backed up at least twice.

At catcher, therew is a primary catcher and what we may call a secondary catcher (not a “reserve” in the sense we have used that term before, because the secondary needs to have at least some offensive capabilities). The primary, if he is a significantly better batter, catches 4 days of the cycle and fills in af 1B one day (so now that position is covered all six days of the cycle). The primary’s catching is best divided in the pattern C-C-1B-C-C-off, breaking up his catching into two-day runs. The secondary catches 2 days of the cycle, and this is the first issue: that’s not really enough to optimize his hitting.

If the secondary’s bat is decent enough compared to the primary’s, the primary could be cut back to 4 days per cycle, giving the secondary 3 days: still not optimum, but a lot better. But there is another possibility.

It puzzles us to this hour, and has puzzled us for decades, why more teams don’t recognize and capitalize on the obvious similarities in skill sets between third basemen and catchers: not fleet of foot but with quick reflexes, a strong throwing arm, and the ability to catch a fast-moving baseball coming at him with often-unpredictable movement. One would think that a man who can play one of those positions could readily be trained to play the other at least passably. Note that “trained”: despite the huge overlap in basic skills, one will not normally be able to just have the man change gloves and perform well, or even adequately (one recalls Bob Brenly’s experiences). And the training will normally need to take place fairly early in the man’s career—teams often try to move an aging catcher who can still hit to the third-base position, raely with much success (one recalls Johnny Bench’s experiences). But a little early cross-training, especially of catchers, could pay big dividends. Consider the catcher usage discussed in the previous paragraph: if either of the catchers, primary or secondary, could play 3B well enough to do it once a week or thereabouts, the difficulties vanish. Now the secondary can get 4 days’ play per cycle if the primary also plays 4 days (8 man-days between them, 6 as catcher and one each as 1B and 3B, the division between them depending on their exact abilities). Or, if the primary is so much better, he plays 5 days a cycle but the secondary can still get at least 3, half time being a lot better than one-third time.

We can clarify all that in a chart. In the one below, we do not assume that either catcher can play 3B. We designate the men so: the primary outfielders are of1 through of4; the primary infielders are if1 through if4; the catchers are c1 and c2; and the first baseman is just 1b. Note that we also show which primary players are available on each day as p[inch hitters. (We do not show the two reserve fielders, who are always available and never scheduled as starting players.)

Cycle DayC1B2BSS3BLFCFRFPH1PH2PH3
#1c11bif1if2if3of1of2of4of3if4c2
#2c11bif1if4if3of1of2of3of4if2c2
#3c2c1if4if2if3of4of2of31bof1if1
#4c11bif1if2if3of1of2of4of3if4c2
#5c11bif1if4if3of1of4of3of2if2c2
#6c21bif1if2if4of4of2of3of1if3c1

We used the designations shown to avoid confusion (we hope), but they would be these:

A few points: one, as explained above, the exact distribution of play time between the four primary outfielders and between the four primary infielders will depend on their individual TOPs: two of each will get 4 days and two of each will get 5 days. Above we arbitrarily gave the corner outfielders 4 days each, and gave the shortstop and the infield floater 4 days each. That 5-4 days distribution can easily be varied: we just didn’t want to repeat the Table with such simple changes made.

Point two: obviously, no team could ever adhere to such a schedule with absolute rigor: stuff happens, as they say. But it represents a useful “template” that management should strive to stick to as closely as day-to-day circumstances allow.

Point three: on any given day, there will always be three primary players available as pinch hitters for pitchers or as may be needed owing to circumstances (sucxh as injuries or ejections). That is besides the two reserve players always available for dire emergencies (such as the loss of two players, or an extended extra-innings game).

And finally, point four: the team really needs for one of its eleven non-catchers to have enough catching skills to serve as, effectively, the catching spot “reserve” third catcher. It is unlikely that both normal catchers will become unavailable in any given game, but it is certainly not impossible. Someone needs to have those skills, or be trained to acquire them.

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About Pinch Hitting and Platooning

These are probably the two simplest equations on this site:

pinch hitting = BAD (except with pitchers)

platooning = BAD

Teams that regularly platoon players, or pinch hit for non-pitchers based on handedness, are showing a lack of grasp of baseball analysis. Let’s see why, starting with handedness-based pinch hitting.

Pinch hitters suffer a disadvantage by coming to the plate “cold” as we might say. In the excellent analysis book titled simply The Book, Tom Tango et al. go through an in-depth analysis and reach this conclusion (on page 172 of the paperback edition):

“Because batters perform significantly worse when pinch hitting than when starting, bringing in a pinch hitter to face an opposite-handed pitcher is of minimal value unless the batter he is replacing is much worse.”

But The Book is now 14 years old. Surely non-starting batters today prepare better for possible pinch hitting? A study by Ben Clemens writing on the FanGraphs site (March 31, 2020) looked at that question. Here’s what he found:

“To look for changes, I decided to roughly replicate the pinch hitting study from 15 years ago…The right conclusion, to me, is that the penalty is there, just the same as ever.”

As they say on those TV ads, “But wait! There’s more!” Let’s now look at platooning starting players.

Once again, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel. In The Book, Tango et al. reach this conclusion (on page 158 of the paperback edition):

“[A] good right-handed hitter with an average platoon split is much better against lefties than an average right-handed hitter with a large platoon split (and of course, is much, much better against righties). Likewise, we see that the variation in platoon splits for left-handed hitters is significantly less than the variation in overall OBP or wOBA skill levels. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore variations in platoon for batters, but it does indicate that it is of secondary importance.”

In other words, a good batter is probably as good or better on his “bad” side than an average (or worse) batter on his “good” side. You can see, if you hunt about on the web, that others generally agree; here’s one example from a different FanGraphs analysis by the same Ben Clemens (August 17, 2020):

“In other words, which teams have the platoon advantage most and least often is often just a proxy for which handedness their best hitters are, and whether they have hitters good enough that they should play every day regardless of matchup.”

Putting a lesser hitter in the lineup for a better just because the lesser has the “platoon advantage” and the better doesn’t is just plain bad baseball.

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Line-Up Order

Fact: the higher in the lineup, the more seasonal plate appearances. The #1 slot gets about one-eighth of the team PAs, while the #9 slot gets about 10% (and the #5 slot, midway down, gets the average one-ninth). In 2019, the average MLB team had 6,217 Plate Appearances; that means that on average, the PA difference between the #1 slot and the #9 slot was a full 155 PAs*. Looked at another way, that’s about 17 annual PAs per slot increment (that is, moving from, say, #4 to #5 costs 17 PAs, and vice-versa for moving up from #5 to #4.) And at season’s end, the team runs scored—and thus games won—will change in some part owing to how high up (or far down) its better hitters are placed in the lineup.

* = In The Book, Tango et al., using actual PA data from 1999 - 2002, got 151 PAs as the average difference over those years. Obviously, the rule of thumb is quite good.

The naive begining would thus be to start with a lineup order based solely on TOPs (career TOPs, that is), with highest going first. But the matter is hugely more complex than that. Once again we are saved the trouble of re-inventing the wheel owing to the work of Tom Tango et al. as disclosed in The Book. Their analyses are thorough, fact-based, and—we feel—conclusive. Chapter 5 of The Book covers the matter, and is well worth examining, but we will here cut to the chase:

“Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2, and #4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth best hitters should occupy the #3 and #5 slots. The #1 and #2 slots will have players with more walks than those in the #4 and #5 slots. From slot #6 through #9, put the players in descending order of quality.”

Mind, immediately after they refer to “how little impact the ordering actually has.” It is also worth quoting this:

“Don’st consider the strikeout, or the ability of a hitter to move runners over on outs, when constructing your starting lineup.”

If you think all that through, you will see that it really doesn’t vary much from the naive “put ’em in TOP order” approach. The only difference is having the #3 hitter (who used, alas, to traditionally be thought of as the best hitter on the team) should be your fourth-best hitter. That makes a lineup that looks like this:

If the call is close on “Nth-best”, put the batters with the higher on-base percentages higher, and the ones with the higher total-base percentages (TB/PA) in the middle.

There is one final note on lineups from The Book, and it only applies to the National League, in which they play real baseball, with pitchers batting. The analysis has to do with the reality that when the lineup turns over, the fine hitters at the top will be a hair more productive if they have a hair’s worth more likelihood of batting with a man on base (see The Book for the details).

“The second leadoff hitter theory exists. You can put your pitcher in the eighth slot and gain a couple of extra runs per year.”

What’s meant there is that you flip the pitcher with whomever would normally be the #8 hitter: you don’t take a better hitter away from any other lineup slot. And to repeat, no, that does not work in the Clownball league.

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Pitchers

The Biology of Repetitive Stress

One does not need to be a sports physician to grasp some basic points about repetitive stress exercises. The key point for us is that fewer repetitions more often produce better per-rep results than more repetitions less often. Let’s turn that mouthful into a simple example.

Imagine an athlete doing weight-lifting exercises—say curls. Imagine that he or she is using a weight such that in a set of 10 repetitions, he or she can just barely complete the tenth curl. Further imagine that he or she is repeating a 10-curl set every 20 minutes. (This is only a thought experiment—it may not be realistic as to the exact numbers, but it is the principle we are looking at.) In an hour, the lifter will have completed 30 curls, and the last two or three in each set will be sloppy form because the lifter is always approaching his or her fatigue point for that weight lifted that many times.

Now suppose that instead of 3 sets of 10 curls every 20 minutes, the lifter switches to a regimen of 6 sets of 5 curls each every 10 minutes, for 6 sets in an hour (so still 30 curls). How will the lifter’s form will be on each fourth or fifth curl? Lots better is the answer.

Our use of pitchers is still, even well into the 21st century, ultimately derived from the 19th-century notion that the pitcher is like any other player on the field: he plays all nine innings. Anything less is a failure. Sure, we don’t consciously think that way, but down in the subconscious we still do. And it shows in pitching use.

We have at least finally noticed that a starter typically does materially worse in his third (and beyond) run through the opposition’s lineup. Part of that is the batters seeing his stuff for a third time, but another and definitely non-trivial part of it is fatigue. Today, the average MLB starter goes barely over 5 innings per start (5.18 in 2019). As a rule of thumb, the starter stays in till he shows signs that he is reaching, or has reached, his fatigue point; all too often, those signs are poor performance and thus excessive runs given up in an inning. By the time he is finally taken out, the damage is done. (That sort of pitcher management is what we have often referred to as the manager letting the game manage him, a parallel to the old criticism of an infielder “He let the ball play him”.) Surely there is a better way?

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A Better Way

Of course there is a better way. Indeed, there are several variations on “a better way”, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

The simplest in principle is a bit crude, but still likely a lot better than current practices. It is to schedule three pitchers per game, which we can refer to as the “opener”, the “primary”, and the “finisher”. The opener goes 2 innings, the primary goes 5 innings, and the finisher goes 2 innings. (We will deal later with the complications that arise if one of those men needs to be relieved ahead of schedule.) The advantages are these: no pitcher is over-extended; and each pitcher knows to a nicety just when he is coming into the game and how long he will be expected to pitch. The drawbacks of this simplistic approach are that an “inning” is a flexible thing: a man who is struggling, but not so very badly that he needs to be pulled, can throw a lot more pitches than expected. Further, also because the outings are innings-based, a given pitcher may see an opponent more times than expected. But it’s a conceptual starting point.

Other approaches possible could be based on pitch count or on number of batters faced. Those have substantial advantages over the naive 2-5-2 approach, but also problems of their own. The chiefest such is that neither of them will necessarily finish out a game. Take men faced, probably the best approach; we would like the opener and the finisher to face 9 men each (that is, go once through the lineup), and the primary 18 men (twice through the lineup). But that only totals 36 batters faced. Nowadays, the average per-game BFP total is 38, and that’s the average: individual games, even without extra innings, can easily run to a good bit more.

Let’s sidetrack to consider how such a method (9-18-9) would affect pitcher demands. Obviously, we take the primary pitchers back to four. The short-run pitchers need depends on how often a pitcher, once acclimatized to it, can pitch to 9 men (roughly, but not exactly, two innings’ worth). Obviously not every day; equally obviously, at least every fourth day. Despite decades of asking that question of presumably knowledgeable sources, we have yet to receive a definite opinion. Our own opinion is that asking a man to do that every second day is asking too much, but that it should be quite feasible to ask him to do it every third day (recall again that he will know exactly when he is coming in and exactly how long he will be expected to go, whch eases the warm-up demands). If we assume that, then we need six men for those roles (the task of opener and finisher would alternated with each man’s appearances). That means we require ten “scheduled” pitchers. Till very recently, that was a major drawback, but with the (long overdue) opening up of rosters to 26, allowing 13-man pitching staffs, it becomes feasible, as we have three relievers available.

Probably the best assignment of the three “unscheduled” men would be two “firemen” and a swing or utility man. The firemen would be used solely when the current pitcher is struggling and there is a crisis. A “crisis” can be readily and exactly defined by the readily available probable-runs tables that cover all 24 outs/runners-on cases. For example, if the appropriate Table shows that with runners on first and third with one out, the inning-total run expectancy (not counting any runs scored before getting to this situation) is 1.798, is that a “crisis”? It depends on your personal standards: the highest inning-run expectancy (in this particular Table) is 2.282, for bases loaded and none out; the lowest is 0.095—close to zero—for bases empty and two out. What level is a “crisis” depends on your tolerance for risk. Let’s say, just to get an idea, that you decide that 1.000 probable runs defines a crisis; then—and again, for this particular Table (more on that in a moment)—the following situations would be crises: none out and any runner or runners on except one man at first; one out and runners at first and third or second and third or bases loaded; and no situations with two outs.

If you raise your crisis pain threshold to 1.500 expected runs in the inning, there are only four “crisis” situations: one out and the bases loaded, or none out and runners on first and third or second and third or bases loaded.

We need to say a word here about “appropriate Tables”. The actual probability numbers in a run-expectancy Table depend on the “run environment”—that is, on the average number of runs per game. That average changes over time, and indeed to some extent by park. There are tools available that will generate a Table for any given run environment, and even for the identity of the batter at the plate. Using an inappropriate Table will give incorrect results. The sample Table from which we took the demo numbers above was based on a run environment of 4.15 runs.

But what one wants to set the “crisis” level at is immaterial to the gravamen of this discussion. The point is that the firemen are reserved for cases of a struggling pitcher in a crisis, however defined; when they come in, they remain in only till either the inning ends or the crisis dissolves (which can happen if the reliever gives up a big hit). After a fireman has been and gone, the usual approach would be to just bring on the next scheduled pitcher and go on from there; what that means, though, is that the finisher will almost surely be done well before the game ends.

Since the finisher will almost always be done before the game ends, what does one do when he is done? That depends. If the game is not quite close, one would probably bring in the swing man to finish it. Or, if one (or both) of the firemen have not had much work lately and the game is close to over, let one of them wrap it up. If the game turns into an extra-inning extravaganza and the swing man has been used up, one has to dip into the pool of other short men (the openers and finishers) or even the primaries. No one can claim that any pitching-use program will eliminate all difficult decisions, or work splendidly no matter what strangenesses come along. But this approach, 9-18-9 plus, is almost assuredly the best available.

Some further notes: this approach does not use—and indeed cannot really tolerate—pitching changes made more or less purely on handedness: no taking out a pitcher doing well just because the next batter is of the “wrong” handedness. While pitcher platoon differentials tend to be wider than those for batters, unless the current pitcher’s platoon differential is huge (in which case why is he on your staff?), the risk of replacing a man pitching well with a new man over-balances the platoon differential.

Also note that the stupid “closer” role has disapperared. Analysts have been consistently arguing for years that using arguably your best pitcher just to pitch one clean inning to finish a game is an absurd waste of his talent. That folly grew out of letting a stat control game usage. If Jerome Holtzman had never dreamt up and argued for the “Save”, we could have been spared these many years of mis-used pitching talent. The time to bring in your best is when the game situation is at its worst. That does not seem like rocket science.

Consider that the MLB average for scoreless innings pitched is between 70% and 75% of all innings pitched. (One source said 73%, while another source said 75%.) That means an MLB-average pitcher coming in to start the ninth inning with a lead, even of just one run, would get the save 74% (or so) of the time. The 2019 MLB average Saves rate was 62%; of course, not all Save Opportunities involve starting a fresh ninth inning, but then again not all involve a lead of just one run. Clearly, the “closer” role is a lurching zombie.

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