February 28, 2017
Baseball Needs Some New Words
Every once in awhile, there will be a delightful meme going around about words that are found in another language that convey a meaning we don’t have a single word for in English. Sometimes those words are culturally relevant to the speaker’s culture, though not more broadly (e.g., the somewhat disputed claim that Alaska Natives have dozens of words to describe different types of snow that English does not). Sometimes they are words that, upon learning what they mean, we wish we had in English.
Language is a powerful thing. All languages have words for the simple concepts and common objects found in their environments, but there are always going to be more complicated and abstract ideas that also need to discussed. Humans do this by creating new words. Consider “the internet.” The internet really isn’t a single thing, so much as it is a statement about the fact that millions of computers are linked together in a way that can share information and that presumably anyone could access this information. The ability to use that shorthand “the internet” makes it easier to talk about the societal implications of “the internet.” The concept has been deemed important enough to merit it’s own word.
But what do we do when we need to talk about something that doesn’t have a word? My personal favorite is the time when you write an e-mail with the intent to attach a file to it for the other person’s review, but in a fit of absentmindedness you forget to attach the file before you hit “send.” It requires a follow up e-mail in which you remember to attach the file, but you have to type out: “Sorry. I hit send before I attached. Here is the attachment.”
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could simply say: “Sorry, I groffled?”
Groffling is a problem. No, it’s not the most important problem facing the world right now, but it would be cool if someone could make a click-bait list of five tips to avoid groffling. That lack of a word makes it hard to conceptualize what we’re talking about, which would have made it easier to talk about it as a problem.
I’m looking to import some words into baseball. Perhaps if cricket or futsal or sepak takraw had these words, we could borrow them to use when we talk about baseball. I think they would make baseball a better sport.
Word #1: The state in which a team is not currently losing.
This one might be a head-scratcher at first, because we have the word “lead” or “leading” which seems to fit here. The problem with those words is that they specifically exclude situations in which the score is tied. It’s a perfectly natural construction to say that a pitcher is “in there to protect the lead” but it almost sounds grammatically incorrect to say “he’s in there to protect the tie.”
Let’s review a little #GoryMath first as to why this is important. The two most important runs in a baseball game are the run that ties the game and the run that unties the game, particularly in the late innings. So, if a game is tied (and a team is pitching), it means that they are in danger of giving up one of the two most important runs in a game. There’s been plenty written about managers and their reluctance to use the closer in a tied game (and I’m looking at you, Mr. Showalter), even though this is mathematically one of the best times to use a closer.
Maybe the problem is that our entire reward structure around bullpen use is tied to the word “lead.” The save rule specifically cites the need to protect a lead. In fact, if a pitcher comes into a tie game and preserves the tie, the record books treat it as if his team had been up by seven or down by seven. And we still live in a world where saves get paid. A tied game in the eighth inning is a more important situation than a three-run lead in the ninth, but that’s not how we name things.
The fact that we have a word for “lead” but not for “the fact that we are not losing yet” probably goes back to the cognitive bias known as “loss aversion” in which humans react more strongly to the thought of losing something that they have than they do to gaining something that they do not have, even if the two “things” have the same value. A lead is something valuable in a game that one team has. A tie means, by definition, that neither has it, so there’s nothing to take away. Consider the language used when a team does blow a two-run ninth-inning lead and loses. It’s a gut punch. Now think about the language used when a team lets a tie game “slip away.” They both go in the loss column all the same.
If we had a word that meant “the fact that we are not losing yet” it would be a lot easier for a manager to say, “Smith’s job is going to be protecting groffles in the ninth.” And maybe that would make the role happen. It would be easier to re-write the save rule to something that made more sense. And it would make managers be a little more efficient in their bullpen usage.
Word #2: A reliever who routinely goes multiple innings, though isn’t much more than an average reliever.
We know that there are starters out there who simply don’t have the stuff to turn over a lineup three times, which is what a starter has to do if he’s going to last 6-7 innings. But there might still be a shot at redemption for him. He might end up in the bullpen. Now, the fact that he’s a starter means he has experience throwing several innings at a time, even if the results weren’t that good.
But here’s a thought. Suppose our struggling starter has the ability and stamina to get through a lineup once, and on those first trips through he has an ERA of 3.93. There’s a reason I picked that number. It was the average ERA for a reliever in 2016. Starters, on the other hand, averaged a 4.34 ERA during their starts overall. So, for those first couple of innings, our guy is an above-average starter (which is probably why he keeps getting so many chances to start) but for some reason he can’t hold it.
Here’s the thing: While we can’t count on him to do a starter’s job, what if we could still keep him around for the ability to throw those three innings? Those three innings would not be elite level. They’d simply be average for a reliever. In a seven-man bullpen, he might be the fourth-best guy out there, so he does have value. And in a world where it’s rare for a reliever to go more than one inning, he’d have a superpower that others don’t.
Consider for a moment the following table. This is a breakdown of pitch counts for starters and relievers in 2016.
This guy wouldn’t be the sort you’d want in a high-leverage situation. He’s ... average. But there are ways for that guy to be useful. Got a game that you just need to close out from the seventh inning onward? Why not shave an extra inning off your starter’s workload and save two guys from burning a garbage-time inning each by having your groffle do it? Need a long man for a game that’s more 8-6 than 8-0? It’s nice to have someone who isn’t just an interchangeable arm. Have a game where you’re in extra innings, and it might become a game of “who can run non-embarrassing arms out there for longer?” You’ve got a guy who can go three innings of league-average relief. He couldn’t do it every day, but perhaps if this guy existed we could carve out some roles where he would be welcomed.
And is it really hard to believe this guy doesn’t already exist?
I don’t think every team must have one of these guys, but it seems a blind spot in the types of roles that could be out there. And there are guys who are now called by another unfortunate phrase: “failed starters.” Surely a few of them might actually work in this role. It’s not going to be glamorous work, but it could end up being very useful work. Maybe we just need to call them something different.
Word #3: A leadoff hitter who isn’t fast, but it doesn’t matter because he hits a lot of doubles.
Suppose you had two hitters. Both have a .360 on-base percentage. One hits 15 doubles a year and steals 40 bases. One hits 50 doubles and steals five. The first is a center fielder who combines speed with some good on-base skills. The second is a third baseman who combines gap power with some good on-base skills. Either would be a great player to have on your team and to hit high in the lineup. Maybe at the top of the lineup. If only there weren’t so much cultural baggage baked into the phrase “leadoff hitter.”
Someone who was paying close attention above probably noticed that I gave each hitter a total of 55 doubles/stolen bases, but changed how I allocated them. I get the idea behind the love for stolen bases. They literally turn a single into a double. Well, what if you skip the middle man and just hit the double to begin with?
It’s odd, because there’s an obvious patron saint for this type of groffle in Wade Boggs. There have also been a few “non-traditional leadoff hitters” floating around lately. Take the recent idea of Kyle Schwarber, leadoff man, for the Cubs. There was initial resistance to the idea of Scwarber as a leadoff hitter, because although he’s a pretty good hitter he’s slow. I think that’s pretty indicative of how powerful that “must be fast” dogma has been baked into the word “leadoff hitter.” It seems that we need another word that means “he hits first, he’s not fast, he provides value in another way, and that’s OK.”
Word #4: The importance of being a replacement-level player
We often talk about replacement-level players like they aren’t important. In fact, the flagship sabermetric stat—WARP—uses “replacement” as a metaphorical floor over which others stand above. There are contexts in which “he’s replacement level” really should be prefaced with the word “just.” An everyday player should hopefully be better than replacement level and if he’s not, that’s a disappointment. But what about in the context of player development? If a team’s minor-league system produces a player who projects to be a replacement-level arm or bat, is that a failure or a success?
If that’s all that the system produces, then that’s a failure. But we can’t fall into the trap of assuming that replacement level is some sort of naturally occurring minimum, as if any player given 250 plate appearances can—of course—at least produce at a replacement level. That isn’t true.
By definition, every team has a few replacement-level players on their bench. That’s OK. In fact that’s a good thing, because it means they don’t have something worse there. It also means that they don’t have to go out and spend in the free agent market for a player they don’t even want, who won’t produce very much. So, if your team gets a guy who “projects as a backup catcher” in a trade, that’s not a great haul, but if they traded away something that had limited value to begin with it’s not that they got back nothing. They got back some a groffle that they aren’t going to be dipping deep below replacement level.
I #Wanted To Write This
A small bit of tribute to the original idea that started this. Readers of BP will likely remember the Up and In podcast hosted by the now dearly departed Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks. Many will remember Jason’s love of the word #Want. I remember hearing that for the first time and realizing that it was a word that filled a need in my own lexicon of baseball. Becoming a professional baseball player is hard work, and some guys don’t have the desire to do the work that goes with it. Maybe they’d rather do something else with their lives (hey, their choice!) but you want to make sure that you have a guy who has #Want.
That concept was in my head, but I could never fully vocalize it. Bestowing a word on it made everything easier. I have to wonder how many other unsaid words are out there in baseball. How many ideas aren’t discussed for an easy way to communicate them? What things would we talk about more if we only had a word that could substitute for a 25-word description? (Indeed, what if we had a word that meant these “unspoken words?”) How many things would change?
Some of these things that I’ve highlighted are strategic arguments that have been made in the past, and the research has been done and the math all works out, and yet the change doesn’t happen. I wonder if the reason is that the final step is the groffle step. The unspoken word must be said.