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May 8, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Baseball Sandbox Experiment

by Sam Miller

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When Ken Rosenthal wrote about his interview of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow last week, he included this line: “Some think the "team of the future" is making frequent use of shifts merely to gather information for the future. Not so, Luhnow said.”

Just like that, in two sentences, Rosenthal introduced us to a conspiracy that we were unaware of, then quoted a denial of it. I’ll take the Astros at their word, and trust that they’re—

Hey, why are you winking at me? No, I’m serious. I’ll take the Astros at their wor—

Stop winking at me. I mean it. I believe the Astro—

Ugh, you cynics are the worst. Really, if the Astros felt like testing some new theory of defense in game situations, it would be easy enough to do it on backfields, instructional leagues, rookie ball games, places where nobody’s watching and winning doesn’t matter. Look, money-saving service-time shenanigans are one thing; opting not to invest short-term expenses on a lost cause is one thing; but, thus far, so far as we know, no baseball team has used its pitiable place in the winning cycle as justification not to try to win once it actually takes the field. Doing so would be a whole new doctrine for tanking, one that I don't believe has existed at this level of the sport to date.

But now imagine with me: What if they were doing experiments just to gather research for the seasons that matter to them, or were at least open to the idea? What if you had a team that was, under practically no circumstances, going to compete for an achievement of significance this year? In a ruthless, business-oriented approach to running a team, every asset would be maximized for future profits, and one of the assets that a bad team has is that it gets to play 162 games however it wants to play them. You and I can’t run an experiment using real-life baseball action. A major-league team can, theoretically. If chaining a top prospect to the minors for a few months just to take money out of his pocket is considered moral in Major League Baseball, why not a few controlled studies?

So here are the rules: The experiment has to look enough like baseball that you don’t get expelled from the league or otherwise sanctioned. For that matter, it’s probably best that even your own players can’t suss out your motives, lest morale suffer when they realize that despite all their range they’re still just a rat in a cage. So it has to either be invisible or a credible effort at winning.

It can’t otherwise do damage to your team’s long-term goals. Studying what would happen if you let all your pitchers pitch through a UCL strain or labrum tear, for instance, might be fascinating, but we’re trying to win (future) baseball games here. If you learn something that nobody else watching you can learn, that’s even better, but we’ll consider any gained knowledge to be useful. What do you do? Here’s my team:

Pitch selection randomized. Part of pitch selection involves trying to trick the batter. The batter, though, knowing you’re trying to trick him, adjusts his expectations to incorporate the possibility of trickery. Which might lead the pitcher to try to trick him by throwing the least tricky pitch. At which point the batter, annoyed that the pitcher is standing on the mound like a gol’ dumb Starting Lineup action figure, will call timeout, and that’s why no baseball game in history has ever been completed before mom called everybody home for dinner. The point is: The trickery aspect of pitch selection helps only if you’re trickier than the other team. If they’re trickier than you, then every choice you make costs you. So what happens if you randomize things? You take all the batter’s smarts and use them against him (or at least neutralize them). Maybe this is the right way to play! Further, nobody’s really come close to cracking the pitch sequencing mystery, partly because there are so many layers of context to each pitch selection that it’s hard to speculate on counterfactuals. Randomizing pitches could actually make it quite a bit simpler to isolate the effectiveness of each type of pitch in each situation and sequence.

Further, it’s probably best that you don’t just randomize pitch selection. Randomize which plate appearances will feature randomized pitch selection. Half the time, you can outsmart the hitter, who will never know he’s being outsmarted. The other half, you neutralize the smarts. (Also, this way you can actually compare the randomized pitch selection to the traditional method and determine whether it’s poppin’.)

Two fast outfielders, five infielders, whole grip of groundball pitchers. Answers about four questions at once: 1. Could two outfielders, with exceptional speed, approximate anywhere close to the coverage of three typical outfielders—who, after all, overlap on a number of plays, and whose theoretical range currently covers ground (foul territory, where a ball dropping is less damaging; the stands, where a fielder can’t go; the lines, where contestable balls are probably hit less frequently) that isn’t all that valuable to cover. Certainly, two fast outfielders can’t literally cover as much ground as three average ones, but given the limited size of a baseball field, they might functionally cover an acceptably close amount, if… 2. The range added to the infield was sufficient. Might it be? Consider an example of what happens when a third infielder is added to one side of the diamond:

The shift has worked on Ortiz this year. The average major leaguer has a Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .232 on ground balls. Ortiz has hit 81 groundballs, 70 of which were hit into the shift on the right side, and has only eight hits (.114 BABIP).

Alas, though, there’s a problem with such shifts:

Ortiz compensated by going the other way. He has hit 20 opposite field liners and grounders, and 16 have been hits (.800 BABIP), many of which would have been routine outs with a regular defensive alignment.

So add a fifth infielder and, instead of having a shift with a wide-open field for the batter to hit into, you simply choke off his favorite hole without sacrificing anywhere else. Anywhere, at least, except for the outfield, which then raises the third area of inquiry that this would illuminate: 3. How much can batters decide whether to hit a groundball or a fly ball? Part of what makes the shift interesting for an analyst is that it tilts the incentives enough that we get to see whether hitters are willing to do something different; further, we get to see whether they are capable of doing that something different. This year, we’re seeing whether all sorts of players are capable of laying down a rough bunt. But what about hitting a fly ball down an unguarded line by choice? And what about hitting a fly ball by choice 4. against a grip of groundball pitchers? Groundball pitchers generally already aim to get groundballs. But what if you tell them that a fly ball is particularly lethal, because there are no outfielders (or, at least, two-thirds as many)? Can groundball pitchers get even more groundballs in this scenario?

If a five-man infield can get a groundball pitcher’s groundball BABIP down to, say, .100, then does the groundball pitcher have the freedom to completely ignore strikeouts (because practically any ball on the ground will be an out) and see a corresponding decrease in walks and home runs? If he can, under these unusual circumstances, get his groundball rate up to, say, 80 percent, with a BABIP on grounders of .100, then perhaps he becomes totally unconcerned with walks, knowing that he’s got something like a 50 or 60 percent chance of a double play from the next batter. Might this pitcher, by being terrified of fly balls, totally immune to the threat of groundball hits, absolutely apathetic toward missed bats, and largely unworried by walks, be able to increase his groundball rate to even higher than 80 percent? Or would the batter’s role in this struggle then come into play, and might he be so single-mindedly focused on hitting fly balls that his agency neutralizes the pitcher’s will? We don’t know! We could know! All of these numbers are probably unrealistic! But maybe they're not! Long live teams tanking!

(Side note: If it turns out that five infielders is so good that it’s too good—that, in essence, it creates the same inefficient overlaps that we were trying to smooth out in the outfield—then it might conceivably free a five-infield team up to hire low-range sluggers to play the infield, even in the middle infield. Imagine not having to pay a shortstop premium anymore, either in dollars or in sacrificed offense.)

Starters all pitch in relief on throw days. Not an original idea, and we haven’t seen it implemented because there are good reasons it might not work. But it’s not an original idea because there are all sorts of reasons it might work. Imagine getting 30 elite relief innings from each of your starters at no cost. What’s that, three free WARP per year?


Pitchers not allowed to throw within, say, three mph of their max velocity. If they do, they get fined. What does this do to health? What does this do to movement, command, durability, stamina? Safe to say pitchers have an idea already, but what happens when they’re really committed to this way of pitching, spending months doing it? It’s probably the case that this era’s big-time velocity is good for pitchers and bad for hitters. It might not be. Would be fun to be the team that discovered this.


An all-bullpen staff, obviously. This is the first thing I’d test. This is the “I wish for unlimited wishes” of having a baseball organization to screw around with. It seems inevitable that at some point in 10 years, 30 years, 50 years, we’re going to see the all-bullpen staff, nobody throwing more than 50 pitches in a game, nobody facing a lineup three (or even two) times. The only obstacle to it eventually happening is that somebody will have to be first, and it could be scary, if not disastrous: Will you run out of pitchers? Why do you run out of pitchers—because of injuries, or because of extra-inning games, or blowouts, or because half of your pitchers will turn out to be terrible, or because you spend too many outings pinch-hitting, or what? How do you adjust for this? How hard is it, in reality, to find pitchers mid-season who can slot into this rotation? How many runs a game do you allow, and how cheap can you build that staff for? Can you reap extra benefit by switching pitcher styles, velo pitchers followed by junkballers? What does a knuckleballer in the third and fourth inning do? Do you still have a closer? Do the same guys start every time, or do first-, middle-, and late-innings distinctions disappear completely?

Is there a way to get more innings out of your best pitchers (as in the current model) without tiring them out? Is there a way to get your best pitchers in higher leverage (as in the current model) without ruining the rhythm of the experiment? Can a manager be trusted to pull a pitcher after three innings if he looks great, or does the temptation to stick with the effective pitcher always ruin the plan? Can you use your Triple-A team as little more than a storage warehouse for pitchers? Can you, as Zachary Levine suggests, rotate these arms from Triple-A to the majors and have them pitch eight out of 10 days in the majors, then basically just rest for 10 days in the minors, until they’re eligible to come back up? How strong is this staff in September? How healthy? How much do you sacrifice in platoon advantages? How do the players take to their new roles, knowing they won’t get wins or saves reliably? Bottom line: Can a staff of relievers mimic the league’s reliever ERA over 1,458 innings for the cost of 12 pre-arb relievers and scrub ex-starters?

(I’d also like to see pitchers skip the minors completely, or skip from Low-A to the majors. It feels somewhat likely (if not actually likely) that we’re wasting the best years of a number of pitchers’ careers by developing them in the minors, while their arm strength is at its strongest. Would be interesting to see how many Jose Fernandez’s are out there—not as good as Fernandez, obviously, but capable of pitching roughly as well in the majors as in the low minors.)

Hit against the shift every time. I’m not as interested in bunting as much as hitting toward the hole. I just want to see to what degree batters can change the direction and trajectory of their batted balls. So far, based on Ben Lindbergh’s series, it appears that once a batter demonstrates he’ll bunt against the shift, the third baseman will stand reasonably close to a normal position, but the shortstop’s natural position remains unguarded. So hit for it every time. For all the analytic interest in the shift, and the possibility that this is a major change in the way the sport is played, such that we will never consider defensive positions in the same static way again, it seems possible too that the shift is incredibly beatable and can be eradicated like polio with just a bit of effort. (Might also not be.)

Just get some guy. Not just any guy, but some guy from the pool of guys who get hired to be GMs these days: Smart guy (or gal), baseball background, but not a former pro ballplayer. Let him do whatever crazy stathead stuff he wants—one of those optimized lineups that look so funny, a near-total ban on sacrifice bunts and pitchouts, closer by committee. Have him walk out and pull his famous, highly-compensated ace in the sixth inning of a no-hitter because we like our chances with the bullpen instead of risking a third trip through the order with the same pitcher. The point isn’t whether any of this crazy stuff would work; the point is just to see how the team reacts. There’s an idea out there that teams won’t respond to a manager who didn’t wear a uni from birth to death, and we might see that idea played out the first time a batter grounds out to the right side to move a runner over and gets scolded instead of buttslapped by his manager. But maybe not. Maybe the manager pulls the strings, and the players get used to it and get their leader-of-men fill from their coaches who would, naturally, still be Baseball Men capable of saying “horseshit” every eighth word. If it turns out that we’re overestimating the players’ reliance on ex-ballplayers to fill out their lineup cards, then the team that discovers this would have literally (literally!) billions more managers to choose from. Could be an advantage.

And if it fails, then you get to fire your manager before the next season, a guaranteed fire-up-the-team move before they start competing for real again.

You can certainly do better than this, given a team playing for nothing and 162 real-as-ruin baseball games to experiment with, so what would you do?

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

33 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


I like the idea of having a "piggyback" rotation of six "starters". Your #1 pitches 4 innings of game 1, then your #4 pitches the next 3 innings of game 1 and then you turn it over to your standard bullpen. The pattern is repeated with the remaining starters until game 4, then #4 starts and pitches 4 innings and your #1 pitches the next 3 innings. That way, each of the pitchers gets about 7 innings of work every six days, which should conserve them over a full season and no pitcher should have to go through a lineup more than twice.

This would, of course, screw up traditional statistics and the pitchers would likely rebel, but I'd be interested in seeing if it would work.

May 08, 2014 06:07 AM
rating: 3
Johnson Magic

I like this idea. Frees up starters to think in terms of 60-70 near max-effort pitches, instead of conserving / allocating effort across 110 pitches. MPH does seem to have about the strongest causal relationship with limiting opponent BA. Let's free up our pitchers to throw a higher percentage of max effort pitches by reducing their targeted pitch load on any given outing.

May 08, 2014 07:08 AM
rating: 0

The Rockies did this in 2012 I think. It, uh, didn't work.

May 08, 2014 07:33 AM
rating: 0

Not really, though. They had a six man rotation, but they weren't piggy-backing starters or anything like that.

May 08, 2014 09:08 AM
rating: 0

If I recall correctly the Rockies weren't doing this with Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, and Old Hoss Radbourne, but instead the pitching staff of the Colorado Rockies. So, chances are whatever strategy they tried would be an epic fail. Also, n=1.

May 08, 2014 09:17 AM
rating: 5

Tony La Russa tried something like this in 1993, using six starters in a three-day rotation. The theory was to use a pair of starters in tandem everyday, each of whom would go 50-60 pitches. It happened in July, after the all-star break, and the experiment ended pretty quickly. The guys who weren't good enough to pitch a solid 6 innings weren't able to throw a solid 3 innings either.

I think Sam's idea for an all-bullpen staff could work, but you still have to have guys that can pitch. A staff of twelve lousy pitchers is going to be lousy no matter how you spread them out.

May 08, 2014 09:40 AM
rating: 0

Just great is all.

May 08, 2014 07:43 AM
rating: 2

I would go with a partial tandem start/bullpen rotation. Take for example the Phillies with 3 legitimate starting pitchers in Lee, Hamels, and Burnett. Rather than have them 1,2,3 in the rotation you split them up. Your other two starters form a pair that pitches on 2 days rest between the traditional 2 and (4 or 5) slot in the rotation. These two starters are guys who normally get shoved into a bullpen role because they can't get through a lineup a 2nd and 3rd time due to a lack of a 3rd pitch. Your bullpen is theoretically rested from your top starters and allows you to cover in the holes of your tandem team, and theoretically could allow you to carry 1 fewer reliever. Meanwhile you maximize the talent in your org by turning guys who may be one inning relievers into 6 inning a week pitchers (2 starts ~3IP each). You also free up a bench spot for a marginal AAAA positionless masher or platoon player.

May 08, 2014 07:49 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member King Kaufman
BP staff

I agree with the general thinking here, which I'd sum up as: The major market inefficiency right now is bullpen usage. Managers not matching their best pitchers with the highest-leverage situations—the "closer" issue—gets the most attention, but I think the biggest inefficiency is something that's been talked about here: Limiting relievers to 1 inning in most cases because ... I don't know why because.

I think the major dividing line between tiers of pitchers is how many times they can be counted on to get through a lineup. Obviously there are gradations within these tiers, but I think those are the big tiers. Good starters have the skill to get through a lineup three times on a good day. Right now baseball sets up a dividing line between them and relievers, who are generally trusted with one inning, with a few exceptions, "long relievers," who will get longer assignments, but usually on the losing end of lopsided scores, so there isn't much value beyond saving other guys.

It seems logical to me that while there are probably pitchers who burn out after one inning because of the max effort, there are probably pitchers with enough skill and stamina to get through a lineup one time, which could be 3 innings. And I think there are starters who can get through a lineup twice, but not three times. I bet a lot of fifth starter types would have much better numbers if they were always yanked after the 18th batter, at the latest.

Telling some starting pitchers "Get me through the lineup twice," or once, rather than "Get me to the sixth/seventh inning," I bet, would yield better results. Similarly, I bet that using max or near-max effort relief pitching for 2-3 innings at a time rather than one would pay dividends. I'd love to see a system that tests these theories. You wouldn't have a mutiny from the starters who matter. They'd still have the same job. Get me through the lineup three times, and then quick hook after that. You might get some yelping from prima donna relievers who think their job is 1 IP and then grab that Budweiser, but who cares about them.

May 08, 2014 09:05 AM

Agree completely. I cringe when I hear an announcer -- or manager -- refer to a "7th inning" guy. The everyday use of guys for one inning has to have contributed to more injuries, burn out, etc. Use your best guys for 2-3 innings, and plan to then rest them appropriately.

You'd be able to get by with 5 or 6 relievers (your best non starter arms), with the 3-4 who follow working similarly in AA/AAA.

May 08, 2014 10:50 AM
rating: 0
Nathan Aderhold

This gets all my votes.

May 08, 2014 21:55 PM
rating: 0

I know it's been done before, but I'd be serious about this. I'd find the smallest person in the world and have them DH on an AL team. They would DH until they walked then I would replace them with a pinch runner. I'd say they would get at least 150 walks in a season hopefully on 1 at bat per game. Hopefully no one would bean him.

May 08, 2014 09:19 AM
rating: 1

Yes, I don't get why this is illegal. Seems like discrimination.

May 09, 2014 08:27 AM
rating: 0

I would also paint the inside of the visiting team clubhouse in pink and the roof of the visiting dugout pink with flowers and butterflies.

What if you painted all of your bats white? Would it make it more difficult for the SS to see the ball come off the bat and delay your reaction time.

PS I could do this all day.

May 08, 2014 09:26 AM
rating: 1

Randomized pitch selection would mean more offspeed stuff which means more walks and a higher run scoring environment. It might only work with a pitcher who has the same command of his fastball.

May 08, 2014 09:30 AM
rating: -1

Wow... I never noticed that CespedesBBQ is on BP... I enjoy your Twitter Feed- thanks for being wacky.

May 08, 2014 09:53 AM
rating: 0

Nobody said the distribution had to be uniform between pitches--you can weight it however you want, it just has to be random.

May 08, 2014 10:35 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Right, like ClownHypothesis said.

May 08, 2014 10:44 AM

Okay one more.... until there are two strikes I wouldn't have a catcher (is that even legal?) I'd just have my catcher play 1st base without leg pads.

I wouldn't do this if there were men on base and I wouldn't do it with a fast batter who can bunt well, but having 5 infielders or 4 OFers would be cool.

May 08, 2014 09:37 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Sadly, not legal

May 08, 2014 10:44 AM

What about stadium shenanigans? Let's say you look at your lineup and you have no credible power threats, but good speed in your outfield. Move the fences to 450+ feet, make them 15' high, and approximate baseball from 100 years ago?

Do all changes to stadium dimensions require league approval? Can they be done at any point, even small changes during the season?

May 08, 2014 10:11 AM
rating: 0

I'm pretty sure this is the second question I've sent to the effectively wild email that has ended up in a piece.

May 08, 2014 10:21 AM
rating: 0

I'd settle for just two lab projects.

-- Stop the nonsense of one-inning closers (most mediocre at best) accumulating this stupid stat called saves. So the rule: closers, holders don't exist! Go at it.

-- Forget about trying to save your elite arms. Go in the other direction, Back to the Future sort of. Use the heck out of your best arms for 3-4 years, count on their breaking down (which they do anyway!)after that, and call it a day. So the rule: Hit the accelerator on the Jose Fernandezes: pitch them every FOURTH DAY at least, go back to three days rest. Leverage to the max their healthy time. No one really knows when/how they are breaking down. Noah would currently be starring as Thor on Broadway, not Bartolo; Taillon would have saved game 7 of a Bucs' championship last year; Ventura (not Robin) would have led the Royals to the ALCS last season ...

May 08, 2014 10:38 AM
rating: 0

Isn't that what MLB did in the 1960s during the 4 man rotation era?

May 09, 2014 09:57 AM
rating: 0

Nice article.

What it highlights is that overall, one of baseball's major challenges is its eternal drive to "play it safe" and follow tradition. That a book and motion picture could be written about a team trying out the radical idea of building a team around OBP is indicative of how extremely conservative baseball's culture is. Yes, the crazy idea of using hitters who are better at avoiding making outs! Now the big radical idea is having fielders stand where the batter is likely to hit the ball! That's just insane!

There are many baseball teams without a lot to lose, at least some of the time, yet few of them would ever risk much in the way of going against convention. There will be teams well out of contention on August 1st who could try something different for 2 months and generate some data. They will not do so.

May 08, 2014 11:49 AM
rating: 7
BP staff member King Kaufman
BP staff


May 08, 2014 12:05 PM

You nailed it. This is absolutely what I have been ranting about for months. I have been on a crusade to attack the shift with the bunt or, if the 3rd baseman stays home, attempt to go through the 6 hole. It can't be less effective than what Lucas Duda did last week. A team that is out of it from game 1, like the Astros, would be wise to experiment with these various out of left field ideas. One idea the article mentioned concerned using starters on their throw day. I am old enough to remember Allie Reynolds, who was a tremendous pitcher, being used in relief regularly for the Yankees between starts in the early 50's. I would kill to see 5 man infields. As the article mentions, all the possibilities that would emanate from that would be beyond fascinating. I am already contemplating Bradley and Victorino running all over Fenway Park.

May 08, 2014 20:16 PM
rating: 0

I agree and I think one of the primary factors here is player compensation. Most players are playing for their next contract and they are very aware that a season where their team deploys a strategy that will inhibit their ability to reach certain statistical standards (pitchers' wins, saves, etc.) will damage their overall value. Arbitration and free agency is still very reliant on those kinds of traditional measures and if a player has a season in his history that doesn't look right statistically, it can hurt his value.

I think that player revolt/players association troubles would be a real issue for any team that wanted to test these theories at the big league level.

May 12, 2014 07:10 AM
rating: 0

8 starting pitchers, 1-4 pitch innings 1-5 of each of their games, pitchers 5-8 pitch innings 6-9, two relievers on hand for emergencies, that's an old school 10 man staff, leaving more bench players for platoons and subtsitutes. With each starter basically working a starter workload, you don't have to worry about stretching out a reliever to be a starter, you can trade them as starters to teams running more traditional usage. Basically it would be like extended spring training for the pitchers, The ones who do well get to be part of a more traditional rotation when the team improves, the ones who do less well go to a more traditional bullpen or get traded, the ones who really do poorly go back the minors or get released.

Limited pitch counts could allow a permanent return to a 4 man rotation. The damage occurs from the fatigue in the later innings when a pitcher who should be removed is forced to "gut it out"

May 08, 2014 13:28 PM
rating: 0

"...despite all their range they’re still just a rat in a cage" Oh dear Sam, that line was just smashing.

May 08, 2014 14:01 PM
rating: 5

"How much can batters decide whether to hit a groundball or a fly ball?"

Shouldn't we be able to somewhat tell this based on how batters perform in obvious sac fly situations (as in, a sac fly would tie or win the game)? Even better if it was an obvious sac fly situation + a ground ball would lead to a double play. This sounds like a Russell Carleton study (if it hasn't already been done yet).

May 09, 2014 06:54 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Click the link at the end of that sentence.

May 09, 2014 06:55 AM

I just read the article in the link and in my, our, battle against the shift the author concludes that hitters should be able to, at least, choose which side of 2nd that they want to hit the ball. Directing the ball is much easier than elevating it, and it does not seem unreasonable to expect the best in the world to be able to do that even if hitting a baseball is, like, really hard. Many of these ideas are fascinating but someone has to be willing to stomp on tradition. Defense and the shift have already struck first but the stodgy lifers with the bats in their hands have been slow to respond. Who knows but attacking the shift might be the precursor to 5 man infields.

May 09, 2014 09:33 AM
rating: 0
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