Roster management and why it’s important
(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. Itâ€™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 itâ€™s frequently mocked.
Bad roster management can be overcome with great talent, and great roster management canâ€™t save horrible teams, but between those extremes it makes a great deal of difference to a teamâ€™s success. There are two ways this happens:
-Managing the 25 man and 40 man rosters
-Picking the dayâ€™s lineup (including role management)
The general manager does the first, with a lot of input from different people in the organization, and the teamâ€™s manager does the second, with the general managerâ€™s influence depending on the organization.
Iâ€™m going to focus on the rosters and how they’re put together (roster construction). Lineup construction will be a different article.
Letâ€™s talk about knapsacks. Or the knapsack problem. Hereâ€™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 theyâ€™re committed to. Theyâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s an example. A teamâ€™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
â€¦ and so on
Ideally now, the manager wouldnâ€™t be a consideration, but realistically, he is. If a manager only succeeds with a veteran bullpen, the teamâ€™s shopping list will include â€œ1 veteran relieverâ€. If they canâ€™t handle platooning, it would include â€œregular starter for each positionâ€. Youâ€™d love to have a manager who could use any tool handed to them but theyâ€™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 donâ€™t commit a ton of thought to these kind of issues really clash. For every roster spot, thereâ€™s a tradeoff between:
– Player talent
– Player cost
– Playerâ€™s potential contribution to the team, given the teamâ€™s current composition
One way to look at this is to make a list of the teamâ€™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 youâ€™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, heâ€™ll be known to everyone who spends time thinking about this stuff. On a roster, by filling the â€œcatcherâ€ need as well as the â€œspeedâ€ need, youâ€™re freed up to try strange things at other positions.
So we can look at an outfield and say â€œthe left fielder really needs a glove for the late innings, so the primary use of a backup outfielder will be defenseâ€¦â€ 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 youâ€™d reasonably expect. Experience and the seeming certainty of next yearâ€™s performance mean that a track record sometimes nets a player a contract his talents donâ€™t warrant.
This is why sometimes, teams throw up their arms and say â€œscrew itâ€. 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 theyâ€™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 arenâ€™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 isnâ€™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 youâ€™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, youâ€™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
-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 â€“ 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, itâ€™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 â€“ a manager who doesnâ€™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. Itâ€™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, itâ€™s sometimes just as weird to watch.
Similarly, if a manager doesnâ€™t want or doesnâ€™t know how to use a certain tool, it doesnâ€™t matter if you provide them with the greatest tool ever. Finding a fragile slugger whoâ€™d make a stellar pinch-hitter and occasional left fielder or first baseman doesnâ€™t help the team if the manager doesnâ€™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)
Iâ€™ll give you a million â€“ no, no, two million â€“ for that Camaro
This is where the most words are written and energy is expended â€“ teams spending too much on something they think they need, showing that theyâ€™ve got a narrow focus and arenâ€™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 youâ€™re willing to pay next to nothing? Depending on who youâ€™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 Lewisâ€™ 1999, and he hit .240/.303/.309).
My point, though, is that finding a utility infielder who canâ€™t hit is extremely easy. Itâ€™s easier than finding a random DH in the minor league free agent list. Or a pinch-runner who canâ€™t hit or field. Thereâ€™s no need to pay a ton of money for a skill set thatâ€™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?
Thereâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s the problem. For many of the advantages of good roster construction, we canâ€™t put numbers to it. If you have a good backup catcher who can play regularly to keep the starter well-rested, we canâ€™t know how badly the starter would have declined through the season otherwise.
Say that thereâ€™s a catcher who can hit but canâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 â€œchance to score one runâ€¦ 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. Thatâ€™s only a difference of .8 runs between the two. A run! Whatâ€™s that worth, really?
Now I would argue that itâ€™s quite likely in a situation like that those outs are going to be particularly important, because it means the teamâ€™s better in close and late situations holding on to a lead (or a tie). And itâ€™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.
Itâ€™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 â€“ thatâ€™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, itâ€™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 thatâ€™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? Itâ€™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 isnâ€™t that important, and itâ€™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 teamâ€™s success or failure.
Take, for one example, the Aâ€™s. The Aâ€™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 whoâ€™s available who might help us? Is it worth it to find a backup corner infielder? Whoâ€™s interesting on the minor league free agent list, and whatâ€™ll it take to stash them in Sacramento? Every waiver wire transaction gets looked at by someone, and if they think thereâ€™s a player available thatâ€™s better able to help the team than the guy they already have, theyâ€™ll start that conversation.
Sometimes they suck at it, and sometimes they decide not to take chances, but this is part of why the Aâ€™s only take so much damage from injuries: theyâ€™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 â€œenh, the kid plays good defense, heâ€™s cheap, letâ€™s go worry about our rotationâ€. The Aâ€™s may end up accepting that that kid is the best option for now, but not because they donâ€™t care, or because they donâ€™t think itâ€™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 Iâ€™d run the risk of overthinking all of this stuff (â€œUndersecretary for Minor League Catching, find me all switch-hitting catchers in AA or AAA last year. I need names, stats, projections, and summary scouting reportâ€¦â€)
Itâ€™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 shouldnâ€™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 doesnâ€™t make it unimportant, though, because unlike the success or failure of any one playerâ€™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 theyâ€™re willing to work at it. The wins are there. All teams need to do is work for them.