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June 24, 2013

Baseball Therapy

The Zobrist Effect

by Russell A. Carleton


Last week, I began discussing a question that has puzzled the sabermetric community for a while. How do we put a value on a player's ability to play multiple positions? Most teams have guys who are capable of pulling duty at several places on the field, but they are bench/utility players who serve as backups. What to make of the player who hits well enough to be a starter and fields well enough at multiple positions to be worth starting there?

And so we introduce the Zobrist Effect, named for Ben Zobrist, the Tampa Bay Rays second baseman/right fielder/occasional shortstop. Much of the value that someone like Zobrist brings to a team isn't directly because of what he does on the field. It's in how Zobrist allows the Rays to construct their roster and use players to take advantage of the fact that they can move Zobrist around, if they need to. Perhaps we might begin to put some numbers to that fungibility.

In my estimation, there are three things that a versatile player allows a team to do. First, he allows a team to build a mixed position platoon (whether by handedness or some other factor) that they can use. Second, he allows the team to shift guys around in the late innings and replace an all-bat fielding butcher in one position with an all-glove no-hit player at another (with our super-utility guy bridging the gap). Thirdly, positionally flexible players enable a team to be much more efficient when it comes to giving players days off. But let's take each in its turn and see how the Zobrist Effect might play out.

Mixed Platoons
First, let's talk about why a platoon is actually a bad thing to begin with. A good hitter should be able to hit both left- and right-handed pitching. If he is the sort of player who can do one but not the other, it means that a team will need to either live with a hole in their lineup in some of their games or use a very precious extra roster space on finding someone to complement him. However, #ThereIsNoUnicorn, and sometimes, the only guy who's available is the guy who isn't great against lefties.

Then again, the platoon effect is one of the strongest statistical effects there is, usually checking in around 15-20 points worth of OBP in the league-wide aggregate. Champions are made by such shifts in OBP. The thing about constructing a good platoon is that often, the two players must play the same position. After all, if you're going to pull your righty-mashing third baseman against a lefty, someone has to play third base. What are the chances that a team can find two players who are of an opposite handedness, but roughly equal hitting talent (otherwise, one would just start), who play the same position, are worth the roster spot for their production from one side, and are happy playing in a platoon role? Because of the Zobrist Effect, a team might not have to find two players who both play the same position, just two guys whom the super-utility guy can be the bridge between. It expands the number of players that they might use to cobble together a platoon.

Exactly how valuable is that platoon effect for fringe regulars and other part timers, though? One thing to note is that the platoon advantage for this group is likely to be bigger than it would be for the general population, because the general population is loaded with players who are regular starters against both sides and have that role because they don't have much of a platoon split.

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