The Future of Versatility: A Tool for Platoon Advantage

Austin Barnes’ ability to play well at multiple positions increases his utility and versatility. (via TonyTheTiger)

Aside from the flyball revolution, the seemingly unending rise in strikeout rates, spiking breaking-ball usage and bullpenning, major league baseball has seen other trends move forward in 2017. Of course, with the game in flux and specialization becoming the norm, it is difficult to isolate the next movement or changes that will shape organizational strategy, but it may very well be versatility development.

The hip conversation, and rightly so, revolves around versatility as it relates to pitcher-hitter deployment. Shohei Ohtani and Brendan McKay represent the newest fixation with soaking value from the versatility skills of special talents, much as the Padres did in 2017 with Christian Bethancourt, and perhaps humorously, the Minnesota Twins achieved with Chris Gimenez. While this narrow portion of the fewer than one percent of the population who are capable of playing baseball have shown the potential roster value of their both-sides-of-the-ball skills, there is a very slim group of players who can even attempt this crossover, let alone succeed at both roles to the level necessary.

While Babe Ruth was successful in generating significant WAR value from both the mound and the batter’s box, Rick Ankiel was the most recent example of something close to a potentially successful hybrid. Despite Ohtani’s brilliance, we have yet to see success from him in both roles at the big league level. Those who may share his potential skill set probably can be counted on two hands at the moment, and perhaps only McKay is being developed for the purpose of this deployment.

Indeed, Ohtani–and to a lesser extent McKay–are the headline, the sexy part of a much larger shift in baseball toward versatility to create roster value.

Jose Ramirez is in a larger sense an example of the team value created by versatility, especially from an impact player. This is because the value is not only the ability to produce at each position where he is deployed, but also because the ability to choose where to deploy him means Cleveland can choose the position he should not man based on roster strengths. Jason Kipnis is on the disabled list? Shift Ramirez to second base because Cleveland has Yandy Diaz to insert at third base and little depth at first.

Ramirez’s breakout came when he replaced Michael Brantley in left field in 2016, so Cleveland could optimally deploy players at infield positions. This is easily explained in the larger context and is potentially too simple a line of reasoning, but in the day-to-day, inning-to-inning sense, versatility provides dynamic tools to the manager.

Over the past few years, managers have aggressively sought platoon advantage. Due to the large gap between the number of right-handed and left-handed pitchers, left-handed hitters operate with a platoon advantage far more often. However, roster limits mean teams are fairly limited in their ability to use these advantages in game.

First, you only have four or five players to deploy depending on bench size. Second, this player pool usually is limited in terms of versatility. The backup catcher and defense-first middle infielder, for example, narrow the pool.

Therefore, the logical development would be to increase the number of players capable of playing multiple positions, specifically, versatility between corner infielders and corner outfielders. This has become an especially interesting potential trend in the era of dingers and whiffs.

The past decade of baseball has seen a seemingly massive effort to limit the impact of defenders as a whole, with the game shifting away from the already limited influence of elite defenders in a couple of ways.

First, there are far fewer balls put in play today than there was just 10 years ago. The strikeout spike over the past few years, tied in part to rising velocities and arsenal usage changes, has in many ways limited the pitcher-defense interaction.

Below is a graph showing seasonal strikeout averages per qualifying hitter.

(via ESPN)

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

As strikeout rates continue to rise in the pursuit of more power and because pitcher advantages in terms of stuff, the number of balls in play is radically diminished.

Further, the rising frequency of home runs creates a diminishing frequency of plays a defender can actually impact during a batted-ball event. Finally, teams have discovered the capacity to hide infielders and outfielders by using shifts at an ever-increasing frequency.

(via Beyond the Box Score)

Combining the increased frequency of strikeouts, home runs and shifts over the past five to seven years, one quickly discovers that the number of balls an individual defender actually impacts is becoming increasingly scarce. Therefore, especially for teams at the top end of the strikeout percentage leaderboard, quality of defender has become less important to consider in terms of the pitcher-defense interaction. (It should be noted that teams dialed back shift usage by a small amount in 2017.)

In discussing Cleveland’s decision to use Kipnis in center field for the 2017 postseason, FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik highlighted the rapid decrease in the number of balls hit to center field zone over the past 10 years.

(via FanGraphs)

Center field reflects the overall decrease in the numbers of balls in play in major league baseball. Further, while there remains a solid volume of plays for outfielders, a dominant proportion rests in the bucket of routine plays that even a below-average defender makes with great efficiency. The elite defender adds higher efficiency in making low-probability plays that make for a small proportion of a shrinking batted-ball pool. This is all to say that defense, and the value of above-average defenders, has been impacted by baseball’s current trend toward swing-and-miss and a juiced baseball.

As defense becomes less valuable, roles become more specialized, and bullpens shift towards heavier, earlier, and more frequent usage, managers and the organizations themselves must come up with a counter of sorts.

One such response to the increasing managerial controls over pitching match-ups and defense is to deploy a more versatile set of position players who empower managers to create advantageous match-ups even when bullpenning is wielded earlier in the game.

This is easy to submit as a solution but potentially harder to envision as practical matter. One must consider a few different possible player types, the first being the third baseman/corner outfielder. Increasingly, third base is demanding of elite athletes with strong arms who, with a little developmental effort, also serve a useful purpose in the outfield corners, especially right field.

Teams have taken to this conversion recently, be it with Alex Gordon, Lonnie Chisenhall or Nick Castellanos. Their athleticism allows for sufficient range, and their arms turn into weapons. Teams like Cleveland have tried this effort a lot recently be it Diaz or Carlos Santana against a National League squad, though Santana’s case was a first baseman going to right field. The reverse has been deployed as well with Chipper Jones moving from left field to third base.

In each case, however, the development was sort of bungled or implemented as an action of last resort. In this situation, it is not done for the purpose of optimizing a manager’s ability to play match-up baseball but rather to find a way to place a formerly elite prospect in a position to succeed.

The future of versatility also will be built upon players who can play a high-level position 10 or 15 times a season in order to create matchup advantages. A strong example of this player is Austin Barnes producing value at two higher-value positions, allowing the Dodgers to do match-up-based starts at either position. Another example would be Cleveland’s development of Francisco Mejia as a potential third baseman who can also play behind the plate a significant portion of the season while providing offensive value at the hot corner. The Dodgers are built on versatility in many ways, be it Chris Taylor or an amorphous outfield used to find holes in the batter-versus-pitcher match-up. The Houston Astros relied heavily on Marwin Gonzalez playing numerous positions in 2017, providing power, and a left-handed-pitcher-killing bat all over the lineup. And of course, versatility’s elder statesman, Ben Zobrist, played five different positions for the Cubs in 2017, and he started at least 10 games at second base, left field and right field.

Positional flexibility is the future. Perhaps it will involve a bench entirely composed of versatile players with infield-outfield experience or a catcher who can play another position besides first base. As bullpens become more and more specialized, position players will become more and more diversified in order to create platoon advantages. Organizations that embrace this advantage fastest have and will continue to thrive.

References & Resources

Mike is a student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He has served as a Resident at FanGraphs, and writes at Waiting For Next Year. Follow him on Twitter @snarkyhatman.
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Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

It’s an valid qualitative point that defensive impact is decreasing, but can we try to quantify that?

Over those past ten years, BIP% has gone about 75% to 70%, basically with K% changes. Total chances for defense went down by 7%.

Now if CF chances went down 30%, where did they get moved to?

You can also make a case that the value per chance has gone down, but it’s not obvious that shifts would do that, versus move the value around. Or a case that positioning has been equalized, which is plausible, but can we quantify what percentage of defence was positioning?

Because deflating defensive values like from +7 runs to +6.5 runs per season — that’s 7% with total BIP decrease — doesn’t change roster shape much.

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

this thing eats paragraph breaks sorry

6 years ago

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