CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Future Shock: Hitting ... (05/13)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article You Could Look It Up: ... (05/12)
Next Column >>
Premium Article You Could Look It Up: ... (05/21)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Wait 'Til Next Year: T... (05/14)

May 14, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Roster Crunches

by Steven Goldman

the archives are now free.

All Baseball Prospectus Premium and Fantasy articles more than a year old are now free as a thank you to the entire Internet for making our work possible.

Not a subscriber? Get exclusive content like this delivered hot to your inbox every weekday. Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get instant access to the best baseball content on the web.

Subscribe for $4.95 per month
Recurring subscription - cancel anytime.


a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Purchase a $39.95 gift subscription
a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Already a subscriber? Click here and use the blue login bar to log in.

Given the sorry state of the economy, if the size of major league rosters wasn't of great concern to the MLBPA, it is possible that Commissioner Selig would be floating the idea of a roster reduction to save money. That's what happened during the Great Depression, when rosters were officially dropped to 23, and as a practical matter were sometimes smaller, with teams simply opting not to replace injured players. Rosters were reduced to 24 again in the 1980s, again in reaction to stiff economic times, and did not snap back to their old shape-which had been in place since 1919-until 1990. Though such a reduction might keep a few salaries in the owners' pockets, it would further strangle in-game tactics, the increasingly anachronistic practice of move and countermove being choked to death by the human kudzu known as relief pitching.

Of the 30 major league teams, three currently carry 13 pitchers, 26 carry 12 pitchers, and one, the Angels, carries 11 (they are currently carrying a third catcher, which allows them to use Mike Napoli as the designated hitter). For the vast majority of teams, that means that their contingent of reserve position players consists of, in addition to the inevitable reserve catcher, two extra infielders and two extra outfielders. There is some variation based on a team having a versatile sub like Brent Lillibridge, Willie Bloomquist, or Alfredo Amezaga, who can play all around the diamond, which allows them to carry one fewer reserve of either variety-for example, thanks to Lillibridge the White Sox currently have three "official" outfielders on their roster but seven infielders, including Lillibridge, eight if one pretends that Jim Thome will get a chance to use his first baseman's glove for the first time since June 13, 2007. The teams with 13 pitchers have an even more compressed bench. The Athletics are carrying just one extra infielder and two spare outfielders (one of whom, Jack Cust, is the DH on most nights), the Cardinals have just one extra outfielder (Nick Stavinoha), as do the Dodgers (Xavier Paul).

The devotion to ever-larger chunks of roster to pitchers has largely put an end to the defensive specialist, the platoon player, the professional pinch-hitter. The kind of platoons created by Casey Stengel or Earl Weaver are largely a thing of the past. No more Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling, no more John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke. Today, a Manny Mota would be out of work and Smoky Burgess would have eaten himself out of the league. Dusty Rhodes, who propelled the World Series-winning 1954 Giants by hitting .355/.430/.776 in 31 games as a reserve left fielder as well as pinch-hitting .341/.370/.545 (plus two pinch-hits in the World Series) would have been stuck in the minors. Homer Bush, who as a rookie in 1998 was utilized by Joe Torre as a pinch-runner, defensive substitute, and spot-starter, a role in which he hit .380/.421/.465, would have spent the season in Columbus, Ohio instead of making a small but valuable contribution to a historic championship team.

These players have been replaced by workfare for pitchers. Few organizations possess 13 quality arms, let alone an adequate number of innings to spread among them. Having 13 pitchers on your roster means that even if you can't boast good pitching, you can at least say that you have lots of pitching. Opportunities have arisen for these lesser arms due to the confluence of a reduction of work for both starters and relievers. Twenty-five years ago, starters threw an average of six innings per start, teams went to the bullpen fewer than 300 times per season, and each reliever they called upon was used to get about five outs. Today, starters average fewer than six innings per start, teams go to the bullpen close to 500 times a season (closer to 450 in the American League), and relievers are asked to get an average of three outs before being themselves relieved. Appearances in which a reliever pitched less than a complete inning have swelled. In the National League of 1984, teams averaged 55 such appearances. In the National League of 2008, teams averaged 141 shortened outings (the Mets, spurred by their miserable pen, had 237). These truncated appearances represented 29 percent of all relief games.

The simultaneous expansion of relief pitching and reduction of relief innings can largely be accounted for by the rise of the lefty specialist, the "lefty one-out guy" or "LOOGY." Their usage is problematic, as they typically will face more right-handed than left-handed hitters; once the pitcher is in the game, the opposing manager controls the matchup and is free to pinch-hit-or would be, if he wasn't carrying two or three similarly limited pitchers. Many of these pitchers would not be on big-league rosters if not for the futile pursuit of these single-batter matchups, and in that sense teams are doubly mis-prioritizing. The platoon factor is a powerful thing in baseball, but quality is the greater driver of results, which is to say that the ability of a pitcher outweighs his handedness, and that while most lefties are limited to some degree by a lefty pitcher, they can still hit a bad one. With the game on the line, better that left-handed hitter be facing one of the team's best right-handers rather than its best pitcher who happened to be left-handed.

There are also other qualities that go into batter-pitcher matchups that seem to have been forgotten, factors that play out at the individual level. This is something Stengel, the man who did more to make baseball aware of the power of platoon matchups than any other figure in history, observed more than half a century ago: if your left-handed reliever specializes in throwing curves, and your scouting report tells you that the lefty-hitter at the plate kills the curveball, you'd be better off leaving your right-hander out there.

The current strategies, counterproductive to execute and tedious to watch, are not going away anytime soon, and even if they did, the old ways won't return. Awareness of the dangers of high pitch counts has reduced the total number of innings available to starting pitchers. It takes 230 or 240 innings to lead the league in innings pitched now; 25 years ago, it took 260, 270, or more. That means more innings available for relief pitchers. Similarly, the days of 10-pitcher staffs are gone, both because of the increased work required of the bullpen and more compressed modern scheduling. Even if, thankfully, not every team is convinced of the efficacy of carrying 13 pitchers, they will almost certainly not be weaned off of 12. It's only a matter of time before Mike Scioscia succumbs to the conventional wisdom of carrying multiple lefties in the pen, something he hasn't done for years, and then there will be none.

What this means, of course, is that if we're going to return strategic flexibility to the game, we need a roster innovation, not a reduction for these trying times, but an expansion-a very specific kind of expansion, the addition of an extra roster spot reserved for position players only. Pitcher spots can be capped at 12 or even 13, but never more. And if the economy continues to worsen and austerity measures really are called for, well, Bud, you can always hack another pitcher off the cap.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Rosters

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Richard Bergstrom

What about a roster innovation where a pitcher also serves as a backup to a skill defensive position or as a pinch hitter? Last year, the Cubs used Marquis often as a pinch runner, Marquis and Zambrano (and Wood I think) as pinch hitters.

May 14, 2009 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
cbirkemeier

Wood had 0 PA last year, so I think you can cross him off your list.

May 14, 2009 13:40 PM
rating: 0
 
jdseal

This is a topic I've thought about for a long time. I LIKE pinch runners and third catchers and defensive substitutes and supersubs that play a bunch of positions, pitchers who can pinch hit and position players who can pitch; these are the "regular guys" who are fun to root for and it makes following the "chess match" of the game more interesting.

The thing I've thought about is reducing roster sizes (making owners happy!) in "stealth" mode. Rather than just outright say "you only get 24 guys", the same aim could essentially be achieved by putting further limits on roster flexibility. Make the DL minimums longer, so teams are more reluctant to use them. Make it harder to send guys up and down by changing the rules around "options", or making a longer minimum stay with fewer exceptions. I think casual fans (who support the game) get more interested and stay more interested if the cast of characters doesn't change so rapidly.

Salaries would be reduced by having less time with guys being paid major league salaries not on the 25-man roster. Going on the DL doesn't change your salary, so many teams are paying 28-30 guys at a time.

I'm not sure what the net effect of this would be. Maybe the players would howl just as much as if the roster limit were reduced outright. What I would LIKE to see would be that teams would have to carry more positional flexibility in their 25 guys. They would probably have to have 3 guys who can catch and 2 utility infielders, to maintain some in-game flexibility if one guy is out for a week but not DL'ed. I think this would force more 14-11 if not 15-10 roster construction. Maybe even a return to the 4-man rotation.

To play devil's advocate, what MIGHT happen is that teams would feel the need to carry even more pitching, so they would have their precious 2 LOOGYs even if one LOOGY has a minor injury. Or that teams would ride their pitchers through minor injuries or to too many innings in truly irresponsible fashion.

But I think somewhere in there is something that could make analysis-friendly types and crusty old-timers alike happy (as well as owners and anyone who has to buy a ticket to support the teams).

May 14, 2009 09:37 AM
rating: 3
 
OonBoon

Attempting to limit the flexibilty of teams to dispose of their roster slots as they please would be futile. No team would agree to a forced distribution of rostered players.

I do like where JDseal is going, though. My thought is have your relief guys practice with a first baseman's glove. Bring in the LOOGY and shift your ROOGY over to 1B to cover for your lead gloved masher, swap back and forth as the matchups indicate, then swing in your 1B defensive specialist after you're done micro managing.

I expect most teams would be well served to drop a marginal pitcher or two in favor of runs prevented/ runs scored via glove man or masher. Do you think all those old guys out there waiting for a phone call- Piazza, Thomas, Bonds, etc.- wouldn't be a better pinch hitter than your backup catcher? I sure as shooting say they would be better.

May 14, 2009 10:38 AM
rating: 2
 
David Coonce

I actually prefer the idea of adding a 26th man.

Putting a pitcher out to play defense, bringing in another pitcher, then bringing back the first pitcher seems likely to lengthen the games even more, never mind the mockery it would create if the ball were actually hit to the pitcher playing, say, right field. Plus, what the heck would the box score look like?

I do, very vaguely remember this being done in a playoff game in the mid-late '80s. Maybe by Kansas City? I think they moved their starter to right for one batter, brought in the lefty, then put the righty back out after that single batter. Not sure how to look that up.

I think 11 pitchers should be plenty - with offdays and lack of double-headers, a team's 5th starter should be, in most cases, available to pitch in relief 10-15 days a month. And heck, name the last man on every major league staff, and try to tell me there's a compelling reason to keep him on the roster.

BTW, Piazza actually announced his retirement last season.

May 14, 2009 13:24 PM
rating: 0
 
cbirkemeier

I like most of your reasons, but really, you're worried about what the box score would look like? If you're trying to enhance the appeal of the game to casual fans, I don't think it matters what it does to the box score. The people that pay attention to them already like the game and will continue to like it even if the box score gets messier.

May 14, 2009 13:50 PM
rating: 0
 
MountainCat

And, wouldn't it be nice if we had fewer pitching changes so the games could get done in under 3 hours

May 14, 2009 12:30 PM
rating: 0
 
DandyDan

What there really ought to be is a limit on number of pitching changes per inning. It ought to be a maximum of 1 in the middle of the inning, with the exception of allowing for injuries. That would lower the number of pitchers on the roster because they wouldn't feel like they have to use all of them.

May 14, 2009 14:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Did I miss something? I thought this article was about bringing strategic flexibility back to the game of baseball, and not about length of game time.

I think strategic flexibility will come. An extra roster spot would most likely be wasted. I mean, if there is enough room on a team to hide a Rule 5 player on a major league bench (or in a major league bullpen) all year, there's definitely enough roster spots.

May 14, 2009 14:52 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

The slowness of the game is an extremely relevent side point that was alluded to "current strategies . . . tedious to watch".

May 15, 2009 22:35 PM
rating: 0
 
krissbeth

Are teams using the high minors as a virtual bench? They do this to some degree as a virtual bullpen, bringing in guys to spot start or if the bullpen's gassed. Do they do it for the bench too?

May 14, 2009 17:08 PM
rating: 0
 
JoshC77

I like the idea of adding an additional roster spot, but why not make it a dedicated ‘Rule 5’ roster spot? If that player happens to get hurt and has to go on the DL, he has to be replaced by a player in your organization who was eligible for that Rule 5 draft. This would give some of these long-time minor leaguers a chance to play and prove themselves and would offer teams a chance to add a roster spot at a reduced cost without cutting roster spots for established players. You could also get really crazy and add two rule 5 slots, one for a pitcher and one for a position player.

May 15, 2009 05:10 AM
rating: 0
 
anderson721

I'm pretty sure Lasorda threw a pitcher out in RF at least once. I want to say it was Valenzuela, but I have a hard time imagining how that could be. I have pondered a few times why teams don't do this. I think the chance of a defensive gaffe are outweighed by the split advantage + the advantageof just using your 2 best relievers.

May 16, 2009 04:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I missed this, but it looks like the Red Sox did it back on May 1st with Javier Lopez and Johnathan Van Every.

http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/recap?gid=290430130

Looks like Valenzuela spent a little time in left field, right field and first base.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/v/valenfe01.shtml


May 16, 2009 23:56 PM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny

I personally despise LaRussa-ball (the tedious shuffling in of relievers for one-batter matchups) and what it has brought to the game: the over-reliance on middle-relief, the five-inning start as an acceptable performance and the over-valuing of closers and other one inning specialists (the 8th-inning man, the 7th-inning man, etc.) I fear we will soon be subjected to babbling sports-talk media idiots raising the ugly specter of teams not having that invaluable 4th-inning man. This type of game is tedious to watch even for a lifelong fan like me.

My preferred solution is a hard limit on the number of pitchers teams can carry on their rosters. I would say 11 is enough for anyone. This would put the onus on starters to pitch more innings and managers to junk the extravagant use of relief pitchers we see today and managing according to the save rule (the most ridiculous and overrated statistic in baseball).

I get the part about being careful about innings pitched. My counter is that it's not like pitchers are getting hurt less often than they did back in the day of the 4-man rotation or the dreaded 10-man pitching staff. Hell, even those one-inning boys are spending lots of quality time on the DL.

Pitchers, managers and their training methods and game strategies will adjust. If the players of 30-40 years ago could handle the 4-man rotation, complete games and the use of relievers in fireman roles rather than following a pre-defined script then there's little reason that today's more capable and better conditioned players couldn't handle a move in that direction.

May 16, 2009 11:52 AM
rating: 0
 
Drungo

If you despise LaRussaball, change the playing rules: enforce both a minimum bat weight, and a strike zone from the bottom of the knees to the shoulders enforced by something like a real-time version of PitchFx or Questec.

That's the key to reversing the trends of expecting less from pitchers - limiting offense. Go back to 3.5 or 3.75 runs/game and you probably won't see 300+ inning pitchers, but you might see 275.

Of course, the hitters and the fans will probably howl just as loudly about this as the pitchers and the fans do about 4-hour games with three or four homers and six pitching changes a team.

May 18, 2009 08:56 AM
rating: 0
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article Future Shock: Hitting ... (05/13)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article You Could Look It Up: ... (05/12)
Next Column >>
Premium Article You Could Look It Up: ... (05/21)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Wait 'Til Next Year: T... (05/14)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Premium Article Minor League Update: Games of May 1-3, 2015
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Baby Blue Jays Crash T...
Fantasy Article The Buyer's Guide: Ubaldo Jimenez
Premium Article The Call-Up: Austin Hedges
Premium Article Raising Aces: Postmortem: Chris Sale vs. the...
Premium Article What You Need to Know: Jake!
Premium Article Monday Morning Ten Pack: May 4, 2015

MORE FROM MAY 14, 2009
Premium Article Prospectus Hit and Run: Ranging Far Afield
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Moyer at 46
Premium Article Under The Knife: Medical Mysteries
Premium Article Wait 'Til Next Year: Trimming the Field

MORE BY STEVEN GOLDMAN
2009-05-26 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Bad Offense Recital
2009-05-22 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Ryan Zimmerman
2009-05-21 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: The Relaunched
2009-05-14 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Roster Crunches
2009-05-12 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: The Importance of Bein...
2009-05-05 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Kevin Youkilis
2009-04-30 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: The Squat Tax?
More...

MORE YOU COULD LOOK IT UP
2009-05-26 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Bad Offense Recital
2009-05-22 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Ryan Zimmerman
2009-05-21 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: The Relaunched
2009-05-14 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Roster Crunches
2009-05-12 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: The Importance of Bein...
2009-05-05 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: Kevin Youkilis
2009-04-30 - Premium Article You Could Look It Up: The Squat Tax?
More...