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Carlos Quentin is the victim of the modern MLB roster, and he helps explain the offensive famine that has so starved us all for runs over the past five years. The Padres and Braves traded some bad contracts in order to balance out the Craig Kimbrel-for-prospects deal they struck on Sunday night, and Quentin was one of the spare parts rather casually tossed into the bed of the truck heading from San Diego to Atlanta. On Monday, Atlanta designated Quentin for assignment, an expected move that amounts to an admission: Quentin has negative value to both of the teams involved in this deal. His contract is simply a sunk cost, and the Padres got the Braves to pay what’s left of it. Quentin will, in all likelihood, hit the waiver wire during the next few days, and someone might claim him—though truthfully, I see only one promising fit, in Toronto, where Quentin could take Justin Smoak’s place as a bench bat, occasional first baseman and DH.

That’s actually a really good fit, though, and you know what? Five or 10 years ago, there would have been five other teams in a similarly good position to snatch up Quentin. He might even have had some asset value for Atlanta, instead of being waiver-wire fodder. That’s because, back then, teams were teetering between 11 and 12 pitchers on their rosters, instead of between 12 and 13. Go back 15 or 20 years, to the dimmest of my firsthand baseball memories, and you could find teams carrying as few as 10 pitchers on more days than not. In that era, Quentin—whose injury problems have derailed his career, but who remains a very good hitter, and whom PECOTA projects to post a .296 True Average this season—would have fit gorgeously onto any team’s bench. Every team could find room for a hitter of his abilities, even if he couldn’t be counted on to start.

To be clear, he can’t be: Quentin has averaged 76 games per season since 2012, hitting the DL four times, twice for problems with each knee. He doesn’t have a position. He can’t field adequately anywhere, and he can’t stay healthy when he tries. He’s only 32, and there’s plenty left in the bat, but if he never puts on a glove again, he’ll be worth more to someone than he will be if he does. His smaller-than-average platoon split over the last three years defies the notion that he fits best in a platoon role. He needs to play part-time, but he can do it against almost anyone. Still, he’s an albatross. Despite a 10th-percentile TAv projection—his more or less worst-case scenario—of .252, Quentin’s career is on life support.

The reason is that teams are so loaded with relievers that their bench spots all need to go to versatile players who can play a premium defensive position. You get a backup catcher, a fourth outfielder (who had better be able to play center), a utility infielder (who had better be able to play shortstop), and one other guy—maybe two, if you’re in the National League and carry “only” 12 arms. Teams are exceptionally wary of finding themselves shorthanded, which makes them reticent to give jobs to players who stand mostly to come off the bench (the professional pinch-hitter is dead, to the chagrin of Lenny Harris and Matt Stairs) and who lack durability. In 2001, 28 players who batted at least 100 times made at least 50 percent of their appearances as pinch-hitters. That’s an historical outlier, but as recently as 2007, the number was 19. From 1996 through 2008, there were never fewer than 15 such players. In 2014, there were only 13. (Only two of these pinch-hit specialists had league-average or better OPSes last year, marking the first time there have been so few since 1988.)

Nor are pinch-hitters used as judiciously as they used to be. Here are the average Leverage Indices of pinch-hit plate appearances for five selected seasons, league-wide:

Pinch-Hit Leverage, MLB, 1974-2014

Season

PHLev

1974

1.72

1984

1.70

1993

1.49

2004

1.36

2014

1.37

Blessedly, managers seem to have found a practical minimum, a floor below which they can’t reasonably let an opportunity to pinch-hit go by. Still, benches aren’t what they were. Maybe that’s the way it should be, but I doubt it. I don’t see markedly more useful players on most MLB benches, getting semi-regular playing time to counteract the effects of The Grind on a team’s everyday players. It seems to me that shorter benches are not only forcing teams to keep poor players who can be emergency stopgaps in multiple positions, but are making managers gun-shy about calling on a bench player even when the situation begs for it.

I have an ever-shifting estimate of the relative weight that should be assigned to various factors, when trying to explain the offensive downturn over the last six years. Here’s where I land today:

  • Changes in pitcher usage, including increased specialization and workload limiting of relievers, and shortening of starters’ outings: 35 percent
  • The growth and reshaping of the strike zone: 32 percent (in loose accord with the most up-to-date research on the subject)
  • Defensive shifts and other data-driven changes, wherein new information helps pitchers more than hitters: 13 percent
  • The increased penalties and tightened enforcement on PED and amphetamine usage: 4 percent
  • Natural selection, including position players being selected more for defense and other non-offensive skills, and including the shifting roster balance crowding out some good hitters: 16 percent

This is, with the exception of the research linked above on the strike zone’s impact, purely guesswork. Still, I feel pretty good about it, and if it’s even close to true—if the loss of Quentin and his ilk in the name of keeping more Darwin Barneys around is a greater culprit in runs lost than even The Shift or PITCHf/x are—then there’s a competitive advantage waiting for the first team to remember how to survive without the seventh arm in their bullpen.

Thank you for reading

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onegameref
4/09
Ryan Sweeney is in the same boat but remains capable of donning a glove on occasion. Neither player seems capable of staying healthy and therein lies the problem. Both will be well compensated for heading home but I suspect they would rather be playing for pay than sitting at home.
matrueblood
4/09
I'd argue, actually, that Sweeney is rather the opposite: He's held on longer than he should have because he can play all three OF spots with some aplomb. Dude can't stay healthy, like Quentin, but unlike Quentin, he also can't hit.
onegameref
4/10
True. If his Oakland season was his standard then he might be worth a gamble but I suspect he will be sipping pina coladas watching MLB network like the rest of us.
Muboshgu
4/09
I don't agree with Toronto being the best fit. Smoak is probably there more for his defense than his bat, as Navarro is DH and E5 is starting at first. Quentin couldn't hack it well enough at first to enter into a platoon with Yonder Alonso.
matrueblood
4/09
He absolutely *could*. He didn't, for the reasons listed above. In fact, Quentin has a better career OPS against RHP than against LHP, and he's about 100 points clear of Alonso in any case whatsoever. Carlos Quentin is a very good hitter. That's a huge linchpin for the argument of this piece. Do you fundamentally disagree there? Because if so, we can't have much of a debate.
Muboshgu
4/09
No, I do agree with the main crux of your piece, which is that increased specialization has led to less flexibility for benches to include hitters. I believe Quentin's case is significantly compounded by his injury history and defensive limitations. That said, I do expect him to latch on with an AL team before too long.
Muboshgu
4/09
And I meant Quentin couldn't hack it defensively, since the Padres took a look and didn't think he could handle the position.
matrueblood
4/09
Ahhh. Gotcha. Well, count me as one who would just hand a hitter a first baseman's mitt and let the rest be the rest. But too many MLB teams clearly feel differently.
swarmee
4/12
Are you the one who told Girardi to start A-Rod at 1B then? ;-)
fawcettb
4/09
The Jays aren't going to grab him either. EE isn't good to play 1b more than half the time, so they require Smoak's defense==which Quentin can't provide. In a sense, the demise of players like Quentin has more to do with the growth of pitching staffs than anything. The answer for baseball is to extend the 25 player rosters to 26 players.
BarryR
4/10
Or you could limit the pitching staff to 12, so teams only carry 2 LOOGYs.
newsense
4/09
Could the drop in PH leverage be a league-specific thing? More pitcher turnover is going to mean more PH opportunities in the NL but not the AL. Low leverage also makes a specialized PH less valuable.
matrueblood
4/09
In short, no. I did look at that. The effect is very real.
TeamPineTar
4/09
"there’s a competitive advantage waiting for the first team to remember how to survive without the seventh arm in their bullpen" The older heads in baseball have not forgotten. Without a lot of work, one of the stand-out features of October baseball the last few years has been roster disposition more reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s than of the last 20 years. In the 2013 World Series, both the Cards and Red Sox used only 10 pitchers. The Sox used 14 hitters in the six games. There was a lot of talk about RPs and their usage last fall in the Series, but the Royals actually trimmed their staff to 11 to beef up pinch hitting and other aspects of offense with RHH Willingham, Jason Nix, and designated runner-defender Terrance Gore. We are seeing what I infer is more optimal roster disposition throughout October, though September rules are just ridiculous. As Matthew suggests above, too, NL teams can generally afford a more fortified late-game offense by not populating a DH slot. I would love to see baseball limit pitching staffs to eleven and bring about much more exciting late-game scenarios throughout the season by having more offense available on the benches.
nyyfaninlaaland
4/10
Shortened pitching rosters in the playoffs are completely the result of more off days and the elimination of the 5th starter (who may join the pen and push out the least useful piece). This isn't strategy - it's common sense. Every team in baseball now employs at least 12 pitchers during the season. That is the optimal approach in the current state of the game or they wouldn't do it. I agree the better answer is expansion of the roster to 26. And while it's true the absence of the DH provides another late bench option to the NL, the penalty of batting the pitcher more than offsets any offensive gain this might provide.
jsheehan
5/02
Carrying 11 pitchers to play seven max-leverage games in nine days, no more than three consecutive, is still nuts. Pretty much every postseason roster features 1-2 pitchers who serve zero reasonable purpose in a best-of-seven series -- and a gaping hole or two on the bench where a league-average hitter should be. One problem is that because teams are all 13/12 or 12/13 these days, and 40-man rosters are larded with taxi-squad arms, it's actually hard for playoff teams to FIND extra hitters to roster. I think it was the Tigers a couple years ago who basically had every healthy, eligible position player on their 40-man on their playoff roster -- and still had just 14 of them.
sbnirish77
4/10
"I see only one promising fit, in Toronto, where Quentin could take Justin Smoak’s place as a bench bat, occasional first baseman and DH." Didn't Toronto just take a pass on a very similar, even younger player in Dayan Viciedo to go with Smoak?
matrueblood
4/10
May need to have a Carlos Quentin Day here or something. Guys, seriously, I don't... Quentin can hit. He can really, really hit, and that's the whole point here. Stop comparing him to people who can't hit.
sbnirish77
4/11
Really. Here is the PECOTA projection for 2015 Viciedo 513 PA .257/.302/.421 Quentin 250 PA .239/.329/.433 Those two players look pretty similar to me.
woodlc05
4/11
I've never thought two slash lines with a 27 point OBP difference looked pretty similar.
matrueblood
4/11
That's also with Quentin still projected for PETCO. There's a gap of 20-25 TAv points between the two. That's really significant.
shmage
4/10
This emphasizes something I have long advocated: the ML roster-sizer is TOO SMALL for the modern game, and it needs to be expanded to 27, preferably 28. With five starters, for elbow/shoulder-health reasons, limited to six or seven innings, seven relievers are needed. The 28-man roster gives space for a six-man rotation, a third catcher, and a real pinch hitter. Roster expansion is certainly something the union can get in negotiation in return for the owners' dream of a salary cap and also elimination of the execrable (and expensive) DH. Our world-class Mets broadcasters have started advocating this needed reform. Have they been joined by others?
nyyfaninlaaland
4/10
Almost completely disagree here. The respondent below points out how this roster expansion would likely contribute to even more expanded pitching staffs. And I'm not certain how many teams are clamoring for a 3rd C - only those with a good hitting, poor defensive one perhaps. Nor do I think all owners are clamoring for a salary cap - I wouldn't be surprised if the preferred trade off for such wouldn't be reduced revenue sharing - since the big spenders are also the big revenue producers. And how the elimination of the "execrable" DH - so we can watch pitchers like Fat Barty batting (good only for the laughs), most P's hitting under .150, and bunting with 1 out and a guy on 1B (there's good baseball strategy for you) - would positively contribute to offense in baseball escapes me. That pitchers now spend 3-5 years not batting in the minors doesn't bode well for improvement here.
BarryR
4/11
The more roster slots the more pitchers, the more pitching changes and progressively less offense. The Mets broadcasters are responding to the ridiculous Mets roster. They have stupidly chosen to carry 13 pitchers, which is totally unnecessary. Part of this problem is caused by keeping a rule 5 pick, although he is probably usable. They are carry several pitchers capable of pitching multiple innings (Rafael Montero, Carlos Torres, Buddy Carlyle) yet still have 13 friggin' pitchers, the backup catcher, the light-hitting middle infielder, and two platoon OF. They desperately need another bat and I am terrible frustrated that we have this stupid roster. We should be contending this year but we won't with this bench.
bhalpern
4/11
28-30 man roster. Must name 25 active for each game.
swarmee
4/12
If you want this, it's time to consider expansion teams. There are just not good enough players to expand rosters out to that many. The 25-man roster makes sense. Your impression is to add 90-150 additional MLB players? Have you seen the quality of the minor leaguers hitters we have now? Brutal! Adding just 3-5 players per roster is like putting 4-6 NEW MLB TEAMS on rosters. Yikes, and BORING!
stevemillburg
4/10
Roster expansion would only increase the time-sucking and offense-sapping parade of relief pitchers. Many teams would use extra roster slots to add even more relievers. Restricting a roster to 11 pitchers would still not stop the reliever parade. Teams would rotate relievers between the majors and minors to keep their bullpens stocked with fresh arms, effectively restoring 12- or 13-man bullpens. Instead of restricting reliever numbers, I'd restrict reliever use. Require each reliever to pitch to at least two or three batters. Or restrict a team to use of only four pitchers during the first nine innings of a game, except in case of injuries. Control fakery of injuries by requiring any pitcher removed from a game because of an injury to go on a disabled list. Managers use so many relief pitchers because that reduces offense. In order to boost offense, force managers to use fewer relief pitchers.
Justice
4/15
Assuming that teams aren't comfortable dropping that seventh reliever, I have two possible alternative solutions: (1) expanding the rosters to 27 throughout the season, including September (in my proposal, teams could call up extra players in September but could only use 27 in a particular game) or (2) follow the lead of hockey and allow teams to keep three or four extra players on the major league roster but can only dress 25 on a given night. Either of those options would lead to deeper and more talented benches and a better brand of baseball.