May 5, 2010
The Designated Jester
The myriad components that make up a baseball team, perhaps the most slippery to isolate and quantify is "team chemistry." Pitching, batting, fielding, speed, power, leadership, strategy, clutch performance, fundamentals, lineup balance, health, luck—each of these, when assembled properly, can make up the DNA of a championship ballclub, and sabermetricians are constantly engaged in a sort of Baseball Genome Project, trying as best they can to tease out and quantify each individual factor. Most of these relate solely to the performance of players between the lines, and it’s here that baseball’s gene sequencers have made the most progress, making their way (as Colin Wyers recently described) toward accurately identifying the relationship between the components of each player’s on-field performance and a team’s wins and losses.
It’s those components that rely more heavily on the contributions of non-players (e.g., coaches, general managers, trainers, manufacturers of horseshoes and rabbit’s feet) that are the most difficult to quantify. No baseball analyst worth his salt would argue that soft factors such as "team chemistry" don’t exist—anyone that’s played a team sport is well aware of the impact a team’s mental state can have on its performance, and while it may be news to Murray Chass, most of the folks working with baseball statistics have played some baseball. It’s just that such factors are notoriously difficult to isolate.
Which brings us to the curious case of former first baseman and current MLB Network analyst Kevin Millar. Coming off a sub-par year in Toronto, the 38-year-old former Red Sox "Idiot" spent his spring trying to make the Cubs’ roster, not so much as an on-field contributor as an off-field class cut-up. At this point in his career, Millar’s only remaining tool is his declining bat, but he’s well known in baseball circles as a "good clubhouse guy," and if any team should be expected to place a high value on team chemistry going into this season, it would be the North Siders. The Cubs spent much of their offseason sponging out the toxic mess Milton Bradley left behind at Wrigley Fieldping the mercurial outfielder to Seattle for Carlos Silva and bringing in Marlon Byrd’s hustling overachiever act to man center field. So, despite his questionable utility on the field, Millar’s veteran steadiness was given a long look.
Spring training was rife with stories of a new, fun-loving attitude amongst the players, many of them featuring Millar as Designated Jester, orchestrating a Cubs Idol music competition here, cracking up an uptight Randy Wells there, working overtime to ensure the Cubs’ whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. Yet when push came to shove, the Cubs decided to head north with Chad Tracy at the end of the bench, seemingly placing a higher value on the ex-Diamondbacks slugger’s lefty bat, relative youth, and ability to spot for Aramis Ramirez at third base than Millar’s patented clubhouse alchemy.
For Cubs' fans still suffering post-traumatic stress from watching the likes of Aaron Miles and Jake Fox fill in for A-Ram during his 2009 DL stint, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable choice. But Millar disagreed, making this case for the importance of the clubhouse intangibles he can provide over any game-day situational utility:
"All that stuff on the bench, to me for that spot, that 25th spot, was overrated. Because that 25th spot, you’re not playing anyway. Whether it’s 80 pinch-hit at-bats or whatever it is, you’re fed to the wolves off the bench, and it’s a role that, hey, there’s more to it in my opinion. You need a veteran guy on the club. That’s a fact. You need a guy to lean on. You need a guy to ask questions. It’s not so much about the stats, whether they get a hit or not in the eighth inning or ninth inning, that’s not why we’re paying that guy. You understand? These starters are supposed to do that. But your bench players are the guys who really are almost like player-coaches, you know; they know their role. And you’re not rooting for the guy to get out so you can start the next day. You’re not trying to get four hits in that pinch hit role ‘cause you’re gonna start the next day. No, no, no, no, no. You’re a bench player, period. That’s what I signed up to be."
Essentially, Millar seems to be saying that using a roster spot on a veteran player who has little on-field utility is not only a smart move, but a common move. This got me to wondering: Is he right? Do players like the late-career Kevin Millar, with a declining bat and no speed or defense to contribute, commonly find roles at the end of a team’s bench? And if so, can players clinging to the bottom rung of the defensive spectrum, with little or no pinch-running or defensive replacement utility, even having a bad year with the stick, have a role on a winning team? Does the presence of such a Designated Jester lead disproportionately to success? Or would that player’s lack of on-field achievement provide too much drag for the rest of the club to overcome?
To find out, what’s needed is to isolate a cohort of veteran bench players that bear a passing resemblance to Millar’s current profile, and see (a) how common they are, and (b) how successful their teams are. The criteria used to identify this cohort was necessarily subjective, but here’s what was used: players in their age-31 season or older, with a range of 80-300 plate appearances, no more than three stolen bases, no more than five appearances at any position other than first base, who put up a Total Average of .260 or less (i.e., below average for all players, but especially low for a part-time first baseman). This seemed like a reasonable picture of the veteran 25th man Millar was describing.
After getting a raw list of players (thanks to Eric Seidman), I went through and eliminated those who made the list solely due to injury, and wound up with a total of 50 player-seasons since 1985. The chart below lists the 21 players in this century that fit the profile, starting off with the Designated Jester himself:
*Team made playoffs
Of the 50 player-seasons in the last quarter century that fit the profile, only eight of them (16 percent) involved a player on a team making the playoffs, with an average win total of 81. In other words, on average there are only two teams in a season who employ such a player, those teams are just as likely to lose as to win, and they’re a little less likely than others to make the playoffs—small sample caveats apply, of course, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to indicate that keeping a subpar veteran on the roster does much to increase a team’s chances to win.
One number does seem significant, however: the attrition rate for these players. Fully 60 percent were in their last major-league season, and 32 percent were released at some point during the year. Only nine times were these players back with the same team for the next season: Julio Franco (Mets, 2007, though he was soon released), Tony Clark (Diamondbacks, 2006), Hal Morris (Reds, 1999), Sean Berry (Brewers, 1999), Gerald Perry (Cardinals, 1992), Pat Tabler (Blue Jays, 1991), Dave Bergman (Tigers, 1985 and 1986), and Chris Chambliss (Braves, 1985). Tabler’s 1991 season in Toronto is the only instance of a sub-par bench player re-upping with a playoff team—the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992, and Tabler then retired.
Given that most of these players didn’t keep their jobs, it seems this is a list of aging players who spent the year proving their bat could no longer carry them, thus neither would their team. Apparently, clubs value a veteran bench player’s contributions on the field far more highly than whatever psychological benefit he can provide running the Kangaroo Court, assembling shaving cream pies, or organizing seed-spitting contests. And rightfully so. In the age of the 12-man pitching staff, each bench spot takes on additional importance, and few teams can afford the luxury of a bench player who can’t really help on the field. You’d think Millar would realize this—after all, the pinch-running exploits of Dave Roberts in the 2004 ALCS are the most famous recent instance of a bench player helping a team win a championship. If that roster spot had been given to, say, Eric Karros, the Red Sox may not have made their incredible comeback. And who was it Roberts was pinch-running for in Games Four and Five? Kevin Millar.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t value in having someone like Millar on the ballclub—just not on the active roster. Does it have to be a player that takes on the role of Chief Inspector of the Fun Police? Wouldn’t it be wiser to hire a recently retired "positive clubhouse influence" guy and put him on the bench? After all, baseball is the only major sport where coaches wear the same uniforms as players, so the team’s Designated Jester could blend right in without having to be on the 25-man roster. Muhammad Ali had "Bundini" Brown to keep him loose, nominally as a trainer, but Bundini didn’t actually train anyone. Seabiscuit shared his stall with an old range horse named Pumpkin that seemed to calm him, but only one of them actually raced. Chemistry and mental attitude are certainly important in sports, but not so important that a baseball club can afford to just punt a roster spot in the name of good vibes, not when better options are available.