Roster management and why it’s important

DMZ · October 28, 2006 at 5:44 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

(another in our series of more basic explanatory articles, like Dave’s excellent evaluation post. I’ve been chewing on this one for a long time, and am likely to substantially revise it again, so if you’ve got comments, suggestions, questions, please let us know)

Roster management is how an organization puts together the team on the field. It’s how to build a whole that is as great as possible given the parts available. Bringing the subject up for debate and study is one of the great and unrecognized contributions of the stathead community, and also one of the reasons it’s frequently mocked.

Bad roster management can be overcome with great talent, and great roster management can’t save horrible teams, but between those extremes it makes a great deal of difference to a team’s success. There are two ways this happens:
-Managing the 25 man and 40 man rosters
-Picking the day’s lineup (including role management)

The general manager does the first, with a lot of input from different people in the organization, and the team’s manager does the second, with the general manager’s influence depending on the organization.

I’m going to focus on the rosters and how they’re put together (roster construction). Lineup construction will be a different article.

Let’s talk about knapsacks. Or the knapsack problem. Here’s the knapsack problem as short as I can get it: the knapsack is small, and you need to put items in it to go camping. Start packing.

For any major league team, the knapsack starts partly filled. Even the worst organizations have players they’re committed to. They’re good and under contract, young and promising, or at least decent and cheap.

But as every team heads into the off-season, they really only have some portion of the puzzle assembled.

Here’s an example. A team’s headed into next season and it considers a few positions inked in:
1 starting pitcher, young, erratic, amazingly talented, still under team control
1 starting pitcher, modest in talent, signed to a long-term deal that makes him essentially impossible to trade
4 good young relief pitchers, all right-handers
1 center fielder, productive, immensely popular with fans
1 LF/DH, left-handed, the public face of the team, popular, with a long-term deal that makes him essentially impossible to trade
2 middle infielders, good, young, under team control
… and so on

Ideally now, the manager wouldn’t be a consideration, but realistically, he is. If a manager only succeeds with a veteran bullpen, the team’s shopping list will include “1 veteran reliever”. If they can’t handle platooning, it would include “regular starter for each position”. You’d love to have a manager who could use any tool handed to them but they’re amazingly rare and generally not available.

What happens then for each remaining roster spot is a tradeoff. This is where serious baseball analysts and people who don’t commit a ton of thought to these kind of issues really clash. For every roster spot, there’s a tradeoff between:
– Player talent
– Player cost
– Player’s potential contribution to the team, given the team’s current composition

One way to look at this is to make a list of the team’s existing weaknesses and attempt to fill them. Some are easy: if you need a catcher, for instance, the number of people with that skill set are small. If you need defense in a backup catcher, there are more options than if you want offense from your catcher, but in both cases the list of potential candidates is fairly short.

In the same way, some needs are more naturally met from particular positions. If your team is slow, and you need some subs to play against weak-armed catchers and work into close games as pinch-runners, generally speaking you’re shopping on the outfielder/middle-infielder aisles.

This is why catchers with odd skillsets seem at times like fetish objects of the stathead community. If a generally unremarkable catcher steals 35 bases in AAA, he’ll be known to everyone who spends time thinking about this stuff. On a roster, by filling the “catcher” need as well as the “speed” need, you’re freed up to try strange things at other positions.

So we can look at an outfield and say “the left fielder really needs a glove for the late innings, so the primary use of a backup outfielder will be defense…” and whittle it down to a couple of names.

At the same time, you can see that obviously that means that certain qualities in bench players would be sought after and potentially valued far outside their actual value to a team. This happens. General managers love flexible players who can play multiple positions, for instance, and switch-hitters are often valued far above what you’d reasonably expect. Experience and the seeming certainty of next year’s performance mean that a track record sometimes nets a player a contract his talents don’t warrant.

This is why sometimes, teams throw up their arms and say “screw it”. They run out a bullpen entirely composed of right-handed relievers, or burn an extra roster spot for a second backup corner infielder to get a switch-hitter.

Pitchers fit into this a little differently, since they’re all throwing a ball to a catcher. The job of a any pitcher in the rotation is the same as the others, and the relief staff, invented and artificial roles aside, all have the same job. Some pitchers aren’t required to throw farther, for instance, or use a different-sized ball.

Within that, though, the same principles apply. Given the constraints a team has to work with, you want to find players who will help the team as a whole, and who will have the chance to make the most of their skills.

For instance, if a team knows that their pitching staff isn’t particularly durable and is likely to leave a lot of games in the fifth or sixth inning, it becomes more important to have some relievers who can pitch long relief well, because a bullpen entirely of one-inning wonders who burn out after 20 pitches would collapse quickly.

And knowing you’ve got a fragile rotation, it makes sense to spend more to stash a couple of reasonable starters on your AAA team (and the 40-man roster) for the probable breakdown of one or more of those guys.

You also will want to play to your home park and team. In a spacious home park with a good outfield defense, you can take on fly ball starters. In a much smaller one, you’ll want to find groundball machines, and hopefully your infield defense is up to the task.

To sum all of that up, then, the problems at hand are
-limited roster slots
-limited resources
-requirements of the manager

Why do fans grind their teeth over this stuff?

Right player, wrong role, meet wrong player, right role
Given a glaring need for a bench player who can play shortstop defensively, the team manages to turn up a perfect backup catcher they stick on the roster – even though they already have one.

Sometimes, this can be hidden opportunity: a team that can accumulate a surplus of a valuable commodity can trade it for what they need. Most of the time, though, it’s pointless gluttony.

Give a monkey a FN-FAL
I touched on this a little earlier, but managers have certain tendencies that put additional requirements on the roster. This shows up two ways – a manager who doesn’t get a defensive sub will find, somewhere on his roster, a guy he decides is the best man for the job and use him as that. The player may be the best defensive sub, relatively, on the bench, but may not be an effective player used that way. It’s like if a manager, with a staff of ace right-handed relievers, decided that he needed a left-handed reliever so badly that he forced two of them to throw left-handed. When this happens with position players, it’s sometimes just as weird to watch.

Similarly, if a manager doesn’t want or doesn’t know how to use a certain tool, it doesn’t matter if you provide them with the greatest tool ever. Finding a fragile slugger who’d make a stellar pinch-hitter and occasional left fielder or first baseman doesn’t help the team if the manager doesn’t pinch hit or rest his regular players.

(The issue of picking the right player for a position is going to be in the second post)

I’ll give you a million – no, no, two million – for that Camaro
This is where the most words are written and energy is expended – teams spending too much on something they think they need, showing that they’ve got a narrow focus and aren’t adaptable.

No matter how you define it, the concept of the replacement level player is pretty easy to understand: what do you get if you’re willing to pay next to nothing? Depending on who you’re talking to, there are different ways to measure how good that player is, but defense is the easiest thing to find. You could, if you were willing to, sacrifice offense entirely and find a best-of-class center fielder who hit .000/.000/.000 for the season, but that would kill your team (possibly the worst full-time center field season ever was Darren Lewis’ 1999, and he hit .240/.303/.309).

My point, though, is that finding a utility infielder who can’t hit is extremely easy. It’s easier than finding a random DH in the minor league free agent list. Or a pinch-runner who can’t hit or field. There’s no need to pay a ton of money for a skill set that’s easily replaceable.

How great is the effect of all of this, this seemingly trivial selection of players and Tetris-style fitting of skills to gaps?

There’s no good way to tell. The complementary skill part is smaller than we sometimes make it out to be, while the player selection for the complementary roles is significant.

Sucks, I know.

Here’s the problem. For many of the advantages of good roster construction, we can’t put numbers to it. If you have a good backup catcher who can play regularly to keep the starter well-rested, we can’t know how badly the starter would have declined through the season otherwise.

Say that there’s a catcher who can hit but can’t throw, and I argue that he needs a defensive replacement, especially for late-and-close games against a speedy team. The team instead picks a random cheap guy who is never used as a defensive replacement.

What does that cost the team? Say there are sixteen games a year that cry out for the catcher the team doesn’t have, and the manager is fully willing to do it if only he had the tool to use. During those sixteen games, during the innings the hypothetical backup catcher would be replaced by his defensive whiz counterpart (say two innings a game, so 32 innings), even against aggressive opponents, there might be six steal attempts. Heck, call it ten.

Astounding Arm will throw out half those guys, Horrible Arm will throw out 20%. A runner advancing from first to second increases the run expectancy ~ +.2, while throwing that runner out is good for ~ -.4 (and yeah, this is straight run and not “chance to score one run… bear with me).

AA gains two runs by throwing out five, loses a run for allowing five. HA gains .8 by throwing out two, and loses 1.6 by allowing eight. That’s only a difference of .8 runs between the two. A run! What’s that worth, really?

Now I would argue that it’s quite likely in a situation like that those outs are going to be particularly important, because it means the team’s better in close and late situations holding on to a lead (or a tie). And it’s also likely that one of those outs might be the difference in a particular game between winning and losing, which is worth a lot of money.

It’s still not huge. And the same thing holds for decisions like putting a good defensive replacement on the roster to sub in for a lead-gloved second baseman, or for that matter an immobile left fielder. A 4th outfielder who can get some quality pinch-hitting appearances as well is still only going to make a few extra runs in that capacity all season.

Picking the actual players is a lot more important than the kind of fine potential matches we like to speculate about (a left-handed outfield requires a right-handed 4th outfielder). The difference between a really crappy backup catcher and a really great one might be twenty runs, though – that’s two wins on the board, and it far outweighs considerations like whether one of them can switch-hit or not.

Given the choice, of course, you want the team to press every advantage and put together a harmonious unit with well-balanced skills. When they go shopping,

In assembling a pitching staff, it’s potentially huge. Take the example of stashing a decent backup pitcher in AAA. If that guy gets only sixty innings in ten spot starts over the season, the difference between getting those innings from a horrible pitcher and a not embarrassingly bad one is easily ten runs over those starts, and that’s a game.

Which brings me back around to the original point. Why care about roster construction if the difference is only a game in any of these choices? It’s because no team makes just one choice. Depending on where their starting point is, every team makes a handful of decisions on how to build a complete 25-man roster, and then another handful in who they choose to put on the 40 man (and so be readily available to sub in).

Each of those decisions isn’t that important, and it’s rare that teams have a choice between great backup catcher and horrible one, or awesome long reliever or no long reliever, but each of the decisions they make helps or hurts the team, and totaled, can determine a team’s success or failure.

Take, for one example, the A’s. The A’s spend an enormous amount of energy on this kind of thing. What happens if we lose our second baseman? Our outfield defense sucks, what can we do about it, and who’s available who might help us? Is it worth it to find a backup corner infielder? Who’s interesting on the minor league free agent list, and what’ll it take to stash them in Sacramento? Every waiver wire transaction gets looked at by someone, and if they think there’s a player available that’s better able to help the team than the guy they already have, they’ll start that conversation.

Sometimes they suck at it, and sometimes they decide not to take chances, but this is part of why the A’s only take so much damage from injuries: they’re rarely stuck running out guys who are significantly below replacement level, because they make roster management a priority. Many teams will look at a decision like the backup catcher and go “enh, the kid plays good defense, he’s cheap, let’s go worry about our rotation”. The A’s may end up accepting that that kid is the best option for now, but not because they don’t care, or because they don’t think it’s worth their energy.

What if the decision to get a perfectly suited fourth outfielder only means a few runs a year? Do you want to leave those runs on the table? I know if I was in charge of a team, if anything I’d run the risk of overthinking all of this stuff (“Undersecretary for Minor League Catching, find me all switch-hitting catchers in AA or AAA last year. I need names, stats, projections, and summary scouting report…”)

It’s the same thing that makes me love the Earl Weaver-style managers, who look for any possible advantage they can find in matchups, strategy, or in-game tactics, trying to squeeze out an extra run they shouldn’t be able to get and turn those advantages into games, pennants, and championships.

All of the roster construction mistakes and successes a team makes might not amount to the difference that a breakout season by a young prospect or the collapse of an aging regular does. That doesn’t make it unimportant, though, because unlike the success or failure of any one player’s season, how successful a team is in managing its roster is almost entirely a product of how smart they are, how prepared they are, and how hard they’re willing to work at it. The wins are there. All teams need to do is work for them.


24 Responses to “Roster management and why it’s important”

  1. TomC on October 28th, 2006 9:39 pm

    Very good post Derek. It is not just good baseball teams that look for every advantage to do better, however, it’s true of all successful organizations.

    It seems too often, however, that poorly run baseball teams staff their front offices based on cronyism, nepotism, or (worse) personal whim. The bad baseball teams seem focus on avoiding blame for their mistakes. The bad teams seem to accept losing as simply bad luck.

    The good teams are always looking to get better. I have read plenty of accounts of the Yankees, for example, insisting on quality at every level – from the towels in the locker room to the selection of free agents. The A’s are another example of a team that is not willing to simply passively accept what comes their way. You may not like the Yankees or the A’s but you have to admire their commitment to winning.

  2. todda70 on October 28th, 2006 10:45 pm

    Long time first time. Great post Derek, and I pre-ordered the book today. I hope you guys do a feed in PDX again. I’ll get Rob N to come, and I can get your autograph, too!

  3. Typical Idiot Fan on October 28th, 2006 11:23 pm

    Long post is LOOOOOONNNNNGGGG!

  4. Hooligan on October 28th, 2006 11:52 pm

    You didn’t mention anything about WHY information is stored at the edge of the black hole just beyond the event horizon if the portal’s gravitational pull isn’t decreasing. Try to squeeze that in on your next draft.

    Good stuff, though. The ultimate job for any stat-head would be to GM. We fancy ourselves analysts, and the GM has to do more of that than the manager. Although, the manager does have a more cut-and-dried protocol to follow; like you said, there isn’t much hard info on roster managment to be scrutinized. So while a manager can largely follow the odds, it takes an analyst that’s also a creative thinker to bring a great roster together.

  5. mark s. on October 29th, 2006 1:33 am

    Wow, … So details matter, huh?

    Great stuff, really great stuff.

  6. mln on October 29th, 2006 1:39 am

    This article is longer than War and Peace. Cut to the chase: Who are the Mariners going to sign/deal for in the offseason?

  7. LB on October 29th, 2006 1:58 am

    I have read plenty of accounts of the Yankees, for example, insisting on quality at every level – from the towels in the locker room to the selection of free agents.

    Tony Clark, Enrique Wilson, Bubba Crosby, Felix Heredia, Scott Proctor, CJ Nitkowski, Brad Halsey, Tony Womack, Matt Lawton, Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright, Al Leiter, Paul Quantrill, Andy Phillips, Miguel Cairo, John Flaherty, Terrance Long, Kelly Stinnett and Sir Sidney Ponson all say, “Hi!” For that matter, so does Randy Johnson. If Corey Lidle were still with us, he’d join in, too.

    And that’s just players from the last three seasons.

    NY’s front office spends an aircraft carrier full of money on their starting lineup and the rotation and the last two guys in the bullpen. Then they get down on their knees to pray that their lack of depth won’t be exposed due to injury or the oncoming of general suckitude. When it is (and always, it is), they use their payroll advantage to take on salary dumps.

    Not to worry. I’m sure those towels in the locker room made up for the fact that the organization spent more than a billion dollars on payroll and luxury tax with no rings to show for it in this century.

  8. noel on October 29th, 2006 2:03 am

    Great post. DMZ for GM!

    How did the M’s take so long to get Ichiro! into center field?… even though it was obvious that the roster would be vastly improved by doing that?

  9. DMZ on October 29th, 2006 2:30 am

    Having read “War and Peace” not that long ago, I can state that this is substantially shorter.

    Also: I’d like to keep comments here on the article, rather than specific questions about this off-season (and so on) which we’re going to be dealing with in later posts. I promise.

  10. greymstreet on October 29th, 2006 6:22 am

    War and Peace? It’s about some Russians…

  11. mln on October 29th, 2006 9:14 am

    re: #1 The Yankees indeed insist on quality in everything they do.

    They have the fanciest post-game buffets. They have scented and perfumed soap bars in their showers. And they even have specially designed athletic cups that are personally form-fitted for each member of the Yankee roster. (Don’t ask who does the personal form-fitting) 😉

    The Big Stein will spare no expense to provide the Yankees with every luxury. If only the Mariners did the same.

  12. msb on October 29th, 2006 9:29 am

    #9– and Napolean hasn’t made a cameo appearance yet.

  13. Evan on October 29th, 2006 10:20 am

    “a team that can accumulate a surplus of a valuable commodity can trade it”

    This reminids me of the time Oakland signed every available left-handed pitcher in baseball. They couldn’t use them all, but they knew there would be a demand for them later.

    Damn, Billy’s good at this stuff.

  14. CCW on October 29th, 2006 10:43 am

    One point that I think belongs in this article is that the price of doing what the A’s do, and what DMZ is advocating, and paying extremely close attention to all of this stuff, is relatively tiny. You could hire 5 guys whose only job it is is to analyze roster management issues, and pay each of them $80K/year, for the same price as one leage-minimum ballplayer. In other words, there is absolutely NO excuse for an organization not being on top of these concepts.

  15. CCW on October 29th, 2006 10:59 am

    Another concept that you might consider throwing in here, DMZ, is a bit more on the defensive spectrum. I know you touch on it, but, in my mind, it’s one of the basic concepts of roster management that some teams just don’t get. In other words, offense being equal, C > SS > 2B > CF >> 3B >> RF > LF > 1B > DH.

    I put the >> in there because the gap between up-the-middle players and the corner players is particularly high. That’s one reason it will be so frustrating if the M’s, who have exceptional up-the-middle talent, fritter the opportunity away.

  16. Typical Idiot Fan on October 29th, 2006 4:09 pm

    This reminids me of the time Oakland signed every available left-handed pitcher in baseball. They couldn’t use them all, but they knew there would be a demand for them later.

    Let’s assume that every other ballclub does the same thing the A’s do and sign the lefties too. And useful bench players. And other valuable roster guys. The A’s then don’t have a surplus of squat. Part of the nature of the success that Beane has enjoyed is that everybody else DOESN’T do what he does. If the rest of the league starts, then eventually the idea saturates itself.

    It wont happen, of course, so in the meantime party on.

  17. DMZ on October 29th, 2006 4:16 pm

    I disagree. It’s not that the rest of baseball doesn’t do what he does. They do, but he’s moved on by then (see: drafting college players, or high-OBP machines). The A’s aren’t about finding some opportunity or approach and then relying entirely on that: they’re also comparing the different values in approaches, and willing to change how they build their teams if they see that they can do well with a different method.

    That is extremely hard to mimic.

  18. noel on October 29th, 2006 10:37 pm

    So is Bavasi good enough to do this roster management stuff, or do the M’s need to go find the next Billy Beane?

    Considering that Bavasi has a higher payroll than Beane does (and so should have more flexibility), how much longer will it take before the M’s can outperform the A’s?

  19. gwangung on October 30th, 2006 8:44 am

    Considering that Bavasi has a higher payroll than Beane does (and so should have more flexibility), how much longer will it take before the M’s can outperform the A’s?

    As long as it takes to fire some of the other people around him that have input into player evaluation.

  20. colm on October 30th, 2006 9:04 am

    It’s called looking for competitive advantage by seeking out commodities that the market currently undervalues. You don’t look for the BEST player on the market, you look for the best VALUE player on the market.

  21. Livengood on October 30th, 2006 10:49 am

    “. . .they even have specially designed athletic cups that are personally form-fitted for each member of the Yankee roster. (Don’t ask who does the personal form-fitting).”

    On this:

    Check out the video. No mere words can describe this.

    In all seriousness, the Yankees are a poor example of looking to exploit small advantages. Their “commitment to winning” is almost exclusively a combination of platitudes and enough cash to cover up the multitudes of mistakes they make.

    On other comment, Derek. Although I fully understand the concept of replacement level talent, it has always struck me as slightly flawed because near-ready MLB talent cannot move freely and seems to be far more valued than the theory seems to suggest it is (or should be). Yes, there is minor league free agency, and the Rule 5 draft, etc., but has anybody ever really looked at what it takes to pry loose from other organizations the kind of guys we’re talking about? Because I dount they come for “next to nothing” (though I admit I could be wrong about this).

  22. Livengood on October 30th, 2006 10:56 am

    Man, what a load of poor grammar and spelling. Sorry about that; it’s early.

  23. Evan on October 30th, 2006 11:22 am

    Replacement level talent isn’t prospects who are under contract – it’s minor league free agents and guys in the independent leagues. Freely available means freely available.

  24. DMZ on October 30th, 2006 11:39 am

    There have been substantial arguments about how to define replacement level because of that problem. Do you make a functional definition (“Who’s actually out there and free?”), a statistical one (replacement level is defined as the worst player at each position/the best guy in AAA/the average guy in AAA), and so on. It’s true that it’s not always as easy to find a replacement level talent as the concept is explained.

    All definitions have some problem, and it’s true that teams often don’t have a replacement-level guy readily available and can’t manage to get one when they need one.

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