Saturday, December 3, 2011

Stringing Together Question Marks

By Dan Hennessey

Once again, this weekend, we welcome in Dan Hennesey, who headed up Baseballin' on a Budget, the SweetSpot Network's Oakland A's blog. Check him out on Twitter.

Every team has question marks entering a season. The question might be regarding who will make the team or fill a certain role. It could be regarding the health of key players. It might even be where in the range of a player's abilities he will perform. Whether in the lineup, rotation, or bullpen, minimizing questions marks can separate good teams from bad teams.

Teams need breaks for a successful season, both health- and performance-related. When a player is injured, the question is not only who takes his spot. It's also who takes the replacement's spot, and the concept of "chaining" is often underestimated in this consideration. For starting pitchers, it's usually pretty easy. Pitcher gets hurt, guy from Triple-A takes his spot. Very easy to measure that effect.

It's a little more difficult to quantify in the bullpen. Last year I wrote an article detailing how little I thought the loss of Joe Nathan would effect the Twins. In it I tried to show that even at the extremes, a bullpen might have a five or six game swing on the standings. Given that most of these guys are going to pitch fewer than 70 innings, it's a bad idea to spend too much money on any one pitcher. It's terrific ammo for making fun of decisions like this one.

I think the idea of chaining can apply even more in the lineup. If a team has a backup that's not a huge drop-off, or a backup that they're not counting on starting somewhere else, it's a huge advantage. The marginal value of the change matters more than the absolute value of the original player. Also, a team is more likely to experience a major setback if there's more uncertainty with respect to the backup plan,

Take the 2012 Cleveland Indians as an example. After not exercising Grady Sizemore's $9 million option, they re-signed him for $5 million in 2012, and if he plays well, he can make up that remaining $4 million. Between 2005 and 2008, Grady Sizemore was worth 27.4 WAR according to FanGraphs, behind only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, and Alex Rodriguez. He hit .281/.372/.496 over those four seasons while providing above average defense in centerfield.

Over the last three seasons, he's played in just 210 games, hitting .234/.314/.413. He'll be just 29 entering next season, but injuries over the last three years have ravaged him. As a fan, I think "I know he won't be 2007 Grady Sizemore any more, but if we could just get 75% of that." 75% of that would still be 25 homers and 25 stolen bases, and an OPS+ near 110. More importantly, it would be 120 games from Sizemore.

Having that bat in centerfield eases the offensive hit the Indians take from having Michael Brantley in left. Brantley is an average player at best, certainly valuable as a complementary piece and a good defender, but he's a slap hitter. If Sizemore is ineffective or injured, Brantley likely takes his job, and someone worse than Brantley takes over in left. All of a sudden, the Indians have a significantly below-average outfield.

The odds of Sizemore being able to play a full season are significantly below 100%. The odds of him finding his pre-2009 abilities might be lower. Together those odds suggest the likelihood of a Sizemore-like season from Grady in 2012 are slim; what's worse, the Indians don't have much of a contingency plan in the event that Sizemore doesn't find it. Sure, the Indians will save some money. But none of that money is going to be spent to find another option in centerfield.

The Indians absolutely could make a run at the AL Central crown next season. To do so they'll need their fair share of breaks along the way. The number of breaks needed is important, but the probability of each occurring, and the plan if that break doesn't occur, may be even more vital.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Excellent article. Perhaps the biggest difference from an Indian team and a richer team might be in how much these chains you explain so well might cripple the team while a richer team can simply buy a new chain if they have to. Excellent read.

Professor Longnose said...

Yes, excellent article. In fact, you should start a 30-part series on each team's contingency plans. I would love to read it.