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March 17, 2014

Baseball Therapy

The Viability of Burying a Bad Bat

by Russell A. Carleton


Team captain and 39-year-old farewell tour participant Derek Jeter is currently the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. That is the way of things and has been since I was in high school. But the Yankees also have Brendan Ryan on their roster. Ryan is a noted defensive wizard while Jeter is [must…not…make…Jeter fielding joke]. However, Ryan “hit” only .197/.255/.273 last year in 349 plate appearances. Is there a case to be made for Ryan as the starting shortstop based on his defensive prowess? Keep in mind that the Yankees could bury Ryan in the batting order to limit his exposure, move the ever-under-appreciated Brett Gardner up to the two-spot, pinch hit for Ryan late in the game, and enjoy that sweet glove for eight innings a night. Is that enough to overtake De-rek Je-ter?

Let’s go one step further and assume that Jeter will return to his 2011 and 2012 form. In those years, he was worth 1.4 and 3.0 Wins Above Replacement Player, respectively. Ryan, in those same years, was worth 3.5 and 1.9 wins, based mostly on his stellar defense. Thanks to Jeter’s injuries and Ryan’s offensive nosedive, the two checked in at roughly replacement level last season. Even discounting Ryan’s expectations a bit, could we not make the case that while they have two very different skillsets, they are at least in the same ZIP code when it comes to overall value?

Okay, so the Yankees aren’t actually going to bench Captain America in favor of Brendan Ryan, but the Yankees aren’t the only team facing this sort of a decision. This is a classic bat vs. glove positional battle. The Dodgers seem confused about whether to play Alexander Guerrero at second base, despite the fact that he does not appear to own a glove. Their other option is to play some utility type there who has a decent glove, but not much of a bat. Michael Morse and Gregor Blanco have a similar dynamic going in San Francisco.

What’s the cost of carrying a starter who can’t hit? It’s true that a team really can bury him in the nine-hole if they want. But what if a team tried carrying two of these players? Three?

It’s only in the last decade that advanced defensive metrics have been publicly available to give us a full understanding of how much defense matters. With the implementation of WAR(P), it’s become easier to roll both defensive and offensive numbers into one uber-metric. Now we can directly compare players with very different skillsets against a common baseline, although there is a weakness in WAR(P) for which we need to account. The offensive component in WAR(P) is generally based on the idea that each event that a player generates has a certain run value (e.g., a home run is worth roughly 1.4 runs). The idea is that we pretend that all players live on “average teams” and that they always bat in “average situations,” with an average number of runners on base. Home runs are worth more when there are runners on, and some teams employ hitters who are better at getting on base than others. For WAR(P), where the goal is to create a context-neutral common baseline to use for comparison, pretending that everything is average is a feature. But for teams making decisions about their specific circumstances, it’s a bug.

Consider our Jeter vs. Ryan debate. Let’s return to the halcyon days of 2012, before Jeter hurt his ankle (and before Brendan Ryan was a member of the Yankees), when he posted a line of .316/.362/.429. In 2012, Ryan put up a slash line of .194/.277/.278. Had Ryan been a member of the Yankees and their only option at short, he would have been hitting ninth, meaning that other hitters would have been moved up higher in the batting order out of necessity. Not only that, but Ryan’s general aversion to getting on base would have meant that there would have been fewer runners on when the lineup flipped over.

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Related Content:  Batting Order,  Derek Jeter,  Lineup,  Brendan Ryan,  Offense,  WARP

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