May 24, 2012
Inside The Park
About Big Threes in Baseball
Since the NBA playoffs are currently going full throttle, this seems as apt a time as any to explore a basic concept of roster construction from that league to big-league baseball. Of course, many of you will disagree with this necessity of this because you don't like the NBA. Some of you will deny the very existence of professional basketball. That's okay. Trust me, this is a baseball article.
The Inside the Park series is about stories, but sometimes there in no particular story angle to what otherwise seems like a fun idea for an article. That's the case here. During the offseason, and after the Prince Fielder signing, I read a number of analyses of the Detroit Tigers that described their roster as top-heavy. Insofar in that there is criticism in that observation, the issue is that such a team is going to be more vulnerable to an injury to a key player. When Victor Martinez was injured, Detroit was able to throw the GDP of a good-sized nation Fielder's way, but such an option doesn't exist once the season begins. If Fielder or Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander were to go down, the Tigers would be perhaps be sunk even give their tepid competition in the AL Central. They would likewise be more exposed in the event of less-than-elite performances by any of the aforementioned trio. In fact, that may be happening already.
This notion was on my mind when the Tigers were in town for their first trip to Chicago earlier this season. That meant a chance to spend time with one of my favorite baseball people, the one-of-a-kind Jim Leyland. And I did manage to spend some time with him while hanging around the Tigers' clubhouse. Fielder was in the corner, his locker situated near the media's preferred hovering spot. I enjoyed that because at Wrigley Field in his Brewers days, it was hard to get near Fielder. The Brewers are touchy about the tiny visiting clubhouse there and will chase away reporters that seem just to be hanging around, BBWAA badge or not. Of course, that's kind of what a baseball writer’s role in the clubhouse is—to hang around—so it's an annoying policy. You can usually manage to get what you need, unless what you need is to talk to Zack Greinke. I always got the feeling that Fielder was the ringleader behind this hyper-sensitivity in regards to the players' personal space.
Anyway, Fielder was sitting in the front of the clubhouse, while Cabrera was wandering around the back and Verlander sat a table with some other pitchers mocking the media and its sheep-like movements. Again, the topic on my mind was top-heavy rosters, and given the setting, I couldn't figure out how to form this into a set of questions. So I waited around until we were ushered into Leyland's smoke den of an office. He didn't look up or acknowledge anyone present, even after someone turned on a television camera. He responded to questions, but the answers were curt and sometimes consisted only of a head shake or a shrug. He was not in a chatty mood. Again, I could not fathom any way to ask about top-heavy rosters and get anything like an interesting response. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that he would have taken the question as a shot at the "other 22" on his roster. I asked him some stuff, but not about that. Perhaps the topic was better left alone.
But it surfaced again a couple of weeks later when the Dodgers were in town. Los Angeles also has what might be considered a top-heavy roster. By a methodology that I'll introduce in a bit, the Dodgers got 58 percent of their WARP last season from three players—Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda. As with many teams, you have to wedge a third player in there to get a "Big 3," and sometimes a team really has a "Big 1." The 1985 Royals got 23 percent of their WARP from George Brett, who almost trebled the total of the No. 2 guy on the team, Bret Saberhagen. The Royals, of course, won the World Series that year, so that roster model worked out fine.
I was hanging by the Dodgers dugout before the game when I noticed Stan Kasten sitting nearby. It had been three days since L.A.'s new ownership group officially took control of the ballclub, and that day was Kasten's first in-person appearance at a game as the Dodgers' team president. He's quite a chatty fellow but had been muted for months by a gag order that Bud Selig slapped on the interested parties until the team's sale process was 100 percent completed. Kasten was almost euphoric in his willingness to talk to anyone and everyone. I got about a half-hour with him. Since he's one of the few people in professional sports to have held a high-level position in both baseball and the NBA, we talked at length about both sports.