June 24, 2008
Transaction of the Day
The Return of Pigpen
Byrnes wound up missing 25 games, and in Pigpen's absence, Bob Melvin sort of lurched from option to option in left field, giving Jeff Salazar eight starts, Chris Burke eight as well, Romero a token trio (time ill-spent), and Conor Jackson six late in the stretch once it became clear the others weren't going to help the Snake attack shed its ineptitude. In part, this was predictable enough-Salazar remains merely an adequate fourth outfielder, Romero's a Triple-A lifer who runs like the first-base coach should carry a lasso and delivers a modest amount of contact, while Burke's abortive career seems like it will never deliver on its former promise.
Part of what really hurt about losing Byrnes was how he was (and might still be) an asset in all phases of the game. Depending on your defensive metric of choice, Byrnes was either the best or among the best left fielders in the game-that's worth something. Byrnes was also just shy of the 2007 leaderboard for Equivalent Baserunning Runs (EqBRR), which Dan Fox provided in his essay "The Tortoise, the Hare, and Juan Pierre" in BP2K8. Again, that's worth something. With so many things not going right for the D'backs, it would be easy to get hung up on the fact that Byrnes wasn't hitting, but generally speaking, the alternatives to Byrnes weren't hitting, and I guess I take the broader view that there are so many things amiss with Arizona's offense that Byrnes' multiple virtues cannot be anything but helpful if his hamstrings are anywhere close to 100 percent.
It's also important to recognize that at the plate, Byrnes is a depreciating asset, and someone projected before the season to wind up somewhere in the vicinity of average production for a left fielder in 2008. Adequacy may not sound so great, but add in the defense and the baserunning, and that's a player with enough different virtues that he can help do the sorts of things that statheads might turn their heads to, but which we can't discount in terms of things like morale or inspiration: a great defensive play, an extra base taken, you name it. I've banged on the folly of his extension in the past, but that money's already spent, and the team's commitments and immediate future are much more in the hands of its younger players. The money lost is money that might have been spent adding a star player to a lineup that might wind up needing one, but if Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, and especially Justin Upton all pan out, it's just money.
What I think might get lost in the discussion of Byrnes' utility, however, is that we need to separate the player from the mistake money he's making, and instead think about what he gives the team should it instead want to get a little more active in granting Chad Tracy's lefty power bat a chance to really get going, and not automatically at Conor Jackson's expense. Certainly, for their struggles both Justin Upton and Chris B. Young have earned opportunities to spend time in the cage instead of the lineup, but with the experimentation of putting Jackson in left, Byrnes' flexibility at all three outfield positions, Tracy's availability at either infield corner, and even Reynolds' limited experience in the outfield, the Snakes have options:
Player 1B 3B CF RF LF Byrnes X X X Jackson X ? X Reynolds X X ? Tracy X X ? ? Upton X Young X
I'm leaving out that Reynolds has experience at second base in the minors, and Jackson appeared at third base a couple of times last season, because as talents go, these seem like emergency-only or extra-inning options. Now admittedly, in left Jackson appears to be decisively ungood, but if left field defense matters some, you're still talking about very few chances per game, and in a universe that makes Kevin Reimer possible, you can make allowances. That would make moving Byrnes around to spot for Upton and Young against a few more right-handers possible, with Tracy slotting in at an infield corner. It might be a lousy way to put your money to work, and it might be especially lousy for Jeff Salazar's playing time, but the D'backs will be better off spreading the best playing time around to their best bats-and that means continuing to make room for Tracy until he proves he can or cannot return to his days of mashing against right-handed pitching.
There's another way to handle this lot, platooning not simply by handedness but also as a matter of other discrete skills; not every lefty hitter hits every kind of right-handed pitcher, for example. The Inside Edge data that ESPN.com provides subscribers suggests no especially easy solutions there, however; both Upton and Jackson struggle terribly against breaking stuff from right-handers, and since we're talking six players for five slots, you can't automatically excuse both of them against curveballers with any regularity. Besides, investing in Upton's potential for development makes sense, so taking your lumps with him now and again is just part and parcel of the decision to keep him up and play him regularly in the first place. Elsewhere, it seems Mark Reynolds can hit a curve but not a slider, and Chad Tracy's significantly better off hitting right-handed fastballs than breaking pitches. It's all interesting, but it's the sort of data that gets used in conjunction with scouting reports instead of superseding them. It's basically information worth keeping in mind as you mix and match, but it's also not especially new; long before statheads existed, managers were assessing their players' abilities to hit different pitch types, above and beyond simple platooning. I always turn back to the example of Earl Weaver having multiple lefty bats in overlapping roles, with John Lowenstein or Pat Kelly around to jump on a right-handed fastball, and Terry Crowley to kill off-speed stuff. Admittedly, that was when we had real benches and a much more dynamic game in terms of in-game tactics, instead of the plodding dullitude of eight-man bullpens.
Thinking on Weaver and what the Snakes have at their disposal, it's that sort of mixing and matching that I'm hopeful we see more of, in part because the data's more readily available (not everyone was taking notes as thoroughly as Earl did in his day), but also because the point isn't to get hung up on who's regular and who isn't, especially when you have potentially overlapping talents. A certain amount of friction's to be anticipated, of course-players want to play, and they should. I'm reminded of the stories of how cranky Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer would get over getting platooned by Casey Stengel-and in the same way that Stengel's an enduring role model for his ability to entertain the fourth estate while giving them very little (a key element of the job today), it would be nice to think that today's manager won't shrink from using all of his worthy regulars regularly enough to keep them all feeling regular.
I wouldn't be me if I wasn't also reminded of Napoleon's marshals, in that Napoleon was able to find discrete purposes for many of them that allowed them to be employed to good effect-among the many options, there were reliable selections like Lannes with the advance guard, Murat with the cavalry, and Berthier for administration, or Massena for pillaging and Poniatowski for tokenism-but not all of them got that, and all of them had ambitions to be the stars of their own shows. There as here, though, the goal was for the team to win, albeit not so much with the world conquest and megalomania in the case of the D'backs front office.
Thanks to Marc Normandin for his research assistance.