2013 Reds / Reds - General

How baseball teams get better

How do major league baseball teams get better? That was the topic of two articles published separately yesterday.

“How the Pirates Built a Playoff Team” was written by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs. He outlines several explanations for why the Pittsburgh Pirates have improved so dramatically this season.

Pirate general manager Neal Huntington has endorsed modern analytics. Huntington has used modern views on defensive efficiency to improve the Pirates through emphasis on ground balls and made the organization aggressively use data for defensive shifting.

The Cameron article takes this theory a step further and explains how Huntington used advanced metrics (like FIP and xFIP) to identify pitchers who were undervalued by other teams. They were able to acquire Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and A.J. Burnett, and relatively cheaply at that.

The idea that a pitcher can be primarily evaluated on his walks, strikeouts, and ground balls is still a pretty unpopular opinion with a lot of people. It feels wrong to essentially ignore all the other parts of baseball, especially when you see a guy give up tons of hits and home runs and then hear some nerd with a spreadsheet explain that those don’t actually mean that he’s a bad pitcher. A lot of teams — most teams, I’d say — still prefer to evaluate pitchers based on some kind of runs allowed basis. The Pirates, though, bought into the idea that they could build a pitching staff with fixable underachievers. … In all three cases, though, the Pirates chose to buy low on a talented arm who had seen his stock fall because of things that could reasonably be expected to not continue. Those moves gave them two frontline starting pitchers and one of the best relievers in the National League this season.

According to Cameron, the Pirates were also successful because they were willing to ignore entrenched position stereotypes. In the cases of Neil Walker (2B) and Starling Marte (LF) they put better players on the field even though Walker and Marte didn’t fit normal rules for how players at those positions should look and perform.

But instead of buying into the notion of needing power from the corners and defense up the middle, the Pirates just found a way to put their most talented players on the field, and if that meant playing a speed-and-defense center fielder in left, then so be it. Marte has responded with a breakout season, providing remarkable value with his legs on both offense and defense. Rather than thinking his speed would be wasted in a corner spot, the Pirates gave Marte a chance to show what he could do, and he’s been one of the NL’s best left fielders this season. … The idea that players at certain positions need to have a particular offensive skill set is almost entirely outdated, and the Pirates have done well to ignore those norms, putting players at positions where they might not look like the part and getting significant value in the process.

The Reds may have done this somewhat with the acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo to play CF. But also consider Choo playing LF with Billy Hamilton in CF even though Choo isn’t a classic left fielder like Ryan Ludwick.

In sum, the Pirates under Huntington’s leadership are embracing the next generation of Moneyball. In 2013, it paid dividends with the club making the postseason for the first time in over 20 years.

“Accountability instilled in Reds’ pitching staff” was written by Reds beat writer Mark Sheldon. It’s about Bryan Price and assistant pitching coach Mack Jenkins. Price not only preaches a philosophy of accountability, he and Jenkins also follow through. Sheldon details how this approach has influenced the mindset of the entire pitching staff, even its top stars like Mat Latos and Homer Bailey. One example:

As mild-mannered and pleasant as Price usually seems, he can also effectively show that he’s all business and deliver a clear message when it’s time to criticize. Bailey learned that in a July 26 game at Los Angeles, when he was late covering first base on a Carl Crawford infield single. … “I come back in the dugout, and [he said], ‘You were late to first base. That’s unacceptable.’ I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. It’s my fault; it won’t happen again,'” Bailey said. “And it didn’t. It’s about the little things we all must do right. … We are all held very accountable on certain things, as far as pitching goes. If you can’t do that when you come up, you’ll be sent out.”

This anecdote occurred four starts after Bailey had thrown his second no-hitter.

Jeff Brantley has made the point that Price’s approach, of setting high standards and always challenging the pitchers to improve, has made a huge difference. The Reds pitching staff has clearly continued to excel in 2013 under Price’s leadership and carried the team back to the postseason.

Sheldon implicitly makes a strong case for Bryan Price becoming a manager.

If the Reds’ position players were held up to that level of accountability from Dusty Baker, they might cut down on the fielding errors, lack of plate discipline and horrific base running mistakes. But that would fly in the face of Baker’s preferred philosophy of being a “players’ manager.”

30 thoughts on “How baseball teams get better

  1. This ties in well with yesterday’s Dusty Baker conversation. I like a player’s manager, but you need an enforcer too. While the pitchers have Price, the hitter have Jacoby. If you have a player’s manager at the top to create the tone in the club house, and pitching/hitting coach just under enforcing the standards you might just have something.

    Back to the first part of this post, I’ve watched a lot of Pirates this year. If the Reds were way up, or way down I’d flip over to the Bucs game. The Pirates are often a different team when they play teams other than the Reds. They are a pesky team. They wear out the opposing pitchers. Most of them can’t hit, but I like their spirit. They have a lot of talent no doubt, but this year they’ve have a fight in them. You can believe they will play until the last out and regardless of the score will be trying to win with every at bat. That comes from the Manager. It’s the same place where bean-ball comes from. I don’t like that, but it is just another aspect of a team with talent that has DECIDED to win.

    • @TC: I think the approach to this comment is the same as one I made but will not likely be scorned because of semantics.

      That aside, the common retort is that the hitting coach “probably” wouldn’t make a difference.

      So, why do we have one? It’s to instill a philosophy about winning the inning.

      Winning the inning. Get 3 hits in the first inning, you ought to get 2 runs — not 0.

  2. Another thought, the team has done very well embracing Moneyball 2.0. But they’ve gone further by chosing guys who know success (i.e. Burnett) and guys who don’t quit. They have some pretty good sabermats, but their player evaluation is strong throughout.

  3. Great post, Steve. . . I agree completely with the notion that the accountability that Price has instilled among the pitchers would be good to have across the board. However, I would prefer that Price be locked up long term as pitching coach, so he could further hone and maintain the veritable miracles he has worked. When it comes to the Pirates, does their analytics department deal mostly with pitching, defensive positioning, and optimizing lineups (at least which eight will take the field on any given day) or is there some pre-game (batting order) and/or in-game input from the department regarding decision making? . . . I believe that once this Rubicon is passed, the era of the baseball “manager,” as we presently think of it, may be changed forever.

  4. How do we know that the position players don’t have the same level of accountability as the pitchers? Saying “won’t happen again” or having a “won’t happen again” attitude doesn’t mean that the player won’t make another similar error.

    • @Greg Dafler: We don’t. And I hope they do. I supposed we’d have known it for sure if Sheldon’s reporting had included anything about how this same accountability he researched occurred beyond the pitching staff. While it’s just inferential reasoning, I found it interesting that none of the pitchers said anything about Baker. The article as a whole didn’t credit Baker the slightest bit for establishing this policy.

      If the position players had the same level of accountability, I think the article would have mentioned that it came from Dusty’s leadership, not Price’s.

      • @Steve Mancuso: If we can make these inferences, then we can extrapolate that to assume that our criticisms of Jacoby are warranted.

        The idea that he works in subordination to Baker, therefore the hitting woes aren’t all Jacoby’s fault … that’s why I am confused when suggesting that replacing Jacoby wouldn’t help because … well, hitters learn their craft in the minors and can’t really change.

        But we can imply that pitchers DO get better with better help.

  5. This is what I was saying (about Bryan Price) yesterday. Resign him. Extend him. As pitching coach, or manager. But he needs to stay. Inspiration, motivation, expectation. And now I’m adding accountability to my list. Those things work, in baseball and in life.

    Now where do we get a hitting coach like that?

    • @Chris DeBlois: It’s more than hitting. It’s also defense and base running.

      The difficulty in locking up Price long term as the pitching coach — something I’d obviously favor if possible — is that he apparently has the ambition to be a manager. That’s why I speculated yesterday that it’s hard to see him staying with the Reds if they hire someone else as the manager.

      • @Steve Mancuso: Agreed. I also agree with @Johnu1 that Eric Davis might be a good choice as a Reds coach. I can see him being good with hitting philosophy, approach, and mechanics. But I also think he’d be a great addition relative to defense and base running. They certainly need someone like that. I would be thrilled to see Price elevated to manager with Eric Davis as hitting and/or bench coach. But if Price’s ambition is to manage, by all means let him manage the Reds. Do we really think that his approach of inspiration, motivation, expectation and accountability wouldn’t extend to hitting, base running, and defense too? I think it would.

        • @Chris DeBlois: Me, too. Plus, he’d instruct his coaches to do it. The managers with pitching backgrounds (Bud Black, John Farrell) still seem to get credit for handling their pitching staffs well. So I don’t think the Reds would lose all his pitching strengths by making him manager. I hope holding on to Dusty Baker doesn’t cost us losing Price in the interim.

        • @Chris DeBlois: Man, love seeing ‘old’ rehashed comments – like Eric Davis as hitting coach. I know I have not been alone in installing ‘Eric the Red’ as batting coach and Price as manager (been talked about all year). I believe that has been suggested for months, maybe all the way back to Oct 2012 – when Dusty was inexplicably rehired.

          Until the Reds ownership wakes up and smells the roses (like a one and done), then the Reds are stuck with Dusty.

          Not buying in to the Reds playoff chances – the Red’s leadership is stagnant – maybe Dusty can bring Cory Patterson or Willy Taveris back.

  6. Sorry, I’m not buying that the Pirates brass are the smartest guys in the room. While I do give them credit for embracing defense, in most of those cases, the choices they made were done so because they had no other options due to budget constraints and the like. Liriano was undervalued not because people ignored his peripherals, but because he was always hurt. Burnett essentially was banished by the Yankees to the Siberia (at that time) of the majors—Pittsburgh.

    It’s taken them 20 years to become a slightly better than average team. Even over the last 5 years, you would think their player development would yield more than it has.

    Color me unimpressed.

    • @Sultan of Swaff: I think I buy this. I do think they’ve managed to play competitive baseball by reducing the incidence of stupidity.
      What turned it for the Parrots this year was Russell Martin. They do have a nice core of young talent and it’s still cheap.

    • @Sultan of Swaff: It depends on how you define “slightly better than average team”. The stats suggest that they should be an upper 80’s win team. Even though they are 1 game ahead of Cincinnati in the standings, their run differential suggests that they should be 8 games behind the Reds.

      Pittsburgh’s pitching and defense (measured by runs allowed per game) is second in all of baseball. However, their offense is below NL average, 9th out of the 15 teams.

      Is 88 wins, slightly better than average or just above average?

  7. And while I agree that the top-down Pirates organization focus on sabremetrics is a contributing factor in their success the past couple of seasons, I think that, like the Reds, their scouting and development of players has been the primary driver to get them to this level. Drafting the right players, having them develop into the players they are, and then making right decisions on who to keep, who to trade, etc. They’ve had a lot of things work out the right way for them.

    I think what the sabremetrics angle does is then help you stack the cards in your favor. If the outcome of any single game between two equally talented teams is basically a coin flip, then any slight advantage you can give yourself helps.

  8. Focus on the Reds here, and was interested in Brantley’s comments last night about having to soon make a call on a No. 1 catcher next year. Cowboy emphasizing that Mesoraco and Hanigan are both suffering from the platoon approach. One of them needs to get the everyday job, Cowboy said.

    • @Johnu1: I heard that too but he was strongly leaning toward Mes as the starter. He was pretty clear about that. Mes needs to play 75% of the time. The ball jumps off his bat and Brantley also mentioned their timing of throws to second are better with regular reps.

      Hanigans an offensive liability now.

      • @Zabka84: Mesoraco is going to be a very good defensive catcher eventually. I hate to compare, since I like Hanigan. Hanigan was a much better hitter 2 years ago than he is now. I don’t think he ever really got healthy this year.

      • @Zabka84: This one’s a no brainer. You have one year left of a rapidly declining Hanigan and multiple years of a still-developing Mez. I agree with the Cowboy, the Reds did Mez no favors by playing him in fits and starts. Plus you’ll have Barnhart in 2015 after a year in AAA finishing school……if not sooner.

        If Hanigan can’t stay healthy or hit above the Mendoza line, his ABs from mid-2014 on would be better spend on Barnhart.

      • @Zabka84: Somebody please pour a bucket of cold water over D Baker and wake him up. So many small adjustments really need to be made to tweak the Reds – and don’t count on D Baker to make them as he’s too sound asleep at the wheel.

  9. After last night’s loss, the only thing to settle that’s relevant to the Reds is the location of the play-in game and who gets the best record in the NL.

    My strong preference (assuming we win the play-in game) is to face the Braves. I like our chances vs. them in a short series and I like our chances vs. the Dodgers and Cards in a longer series.

    This much I know—we’re gonna find out on Tuesday if Latos is the stud #1 we envisioned when we traded for him.

  10. Mostly teams get better by having the best players, playing them the majority of time, and by having competent managers. Mostly.

    • Mostly teams get better by having the best players,

      But I think this post illustrates how you define and isolate who the best players are can vary wildly. Pittsburgh got out of a decades old hole by moving away from “baseball card stats” and finding ways to get a team going. I’d say position by position, the Pirates have very few players you’d say are not replaceable… McCutheon and Marte, maybe Alverez. They don’t have the best talent, but they do well and maximize what they have.

  11. My understanding of advanced metrics is that they are tools useful in identifying under-valued players and skill sets and, as such, are particularly useful for teams with limited budgets, and there is a lot to like about this approach. I’m not the first to observe, however, that Oakland’s early success in the advanced metrics era was at least partially due to talented and expensive pitching, not just under-valued obp guys. I also recall (perhaps inaccurately; I’m old) that Billy Beane once acknowledged that a team built this way did well in the regular season, but was prone to faltering in the post-season when the competition was stronger. It seems to me that keeping both approaches to talent evaluation and game strategy in mind makes sense, though how one would manage this is unclear to me.

    • @greenmtred: I don’t remember Beane saying the problem was the stronger competition, but just that so much of the postseason is getting lucky. I remember reading Bill James in the 1980’s. He calculated that the worst team in baseball would beat the best team in baseball about 4 times out of 11 in a seven game series. In the postseason, both teams are among the best, so it is essentially a coinflip.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s