If you had a team that was in complete or semi- “rebuilding” mode, and you wanted to start quite nearly from scratch, and implement some of the smartest analytical techniques into your team philosophy, what might you do? In the rest of this article, I detail some examples of what said hypothetical team might want to do. I assume that the team has a middle-of-the-road farm system and an average operating budget, and that they want to accrue wins as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. I also assume that they have installed all of the state of the art ball and player tracking systems in their major and minor league ball parks that they possibly can.
What’s first? Well, the ballpark. Build the field to have a lot of foul territory–mimic the current Oakland A’s stadium. Even though park factors seemingly have no effect on wins, I think mimicking the A’s would be a good choice for cost efficiency. This move would allow you to stockpile high FB% pitchers who are going cheap nowadays. It would enable you to take cheap, mediocre pitchers–the price for pitching is getting out of control nowadays–and give them a chance to put up great numbers.
Next, infield shifting–do it more. No one shifted more than the Orioles last year, and studies have shown, along with even player anecdotes, that there should be even more shifting done than the O’s did. Use opposing batter spray charts to determine where and when to shift, and do it as much as possible. You might even look to hire more multi-position eligible players as they might find it easier to handle shifting abilities. Ben Zobrist might be the most important player for the Tampa Bay Rays, defensively.
Next, develop and train hitters who can pull the ball with power. It would be nice if your team was full of guys with all-fields power, but they are more rare, and thus more expensive. Start teaching them to bunt well from the minors in order to be able to beat the eventual shifts they will see in the majors. Hire the foremost bunting coach in the world for your staff.
Pitch framing–teach it from the minors and don’t let players like Jose Molina get signed by the Rays for so cheap money. If possible, make clones from Molina DNA.
Keep your best relievers in the 7th, 8th, or high leverage situations only. Sign a cheap closer each year from the scrap heap and watch him go to another team the next year as a free agent! Game the system to keep your best young relievers stuck at a low price. Their low save totals will help keep their arbitration numbers down.
Try to sign your best young players to long term deals. The more Dustin Pedroias you can accrue the more payroll flexibility and WAR you will have at your disposal. This one is easier said than done. But if you can pull it off, you will make your team more attractive for incoming free agents. And don’t be afraid to commit long-term to speedy players, as the data seems to say they age well. The more tools a player has, obviously, the less risk his contract is if one of the tools breaks down.
Speaking of signing free agents, try to stay flexible in your 5th SP or 4th OF spot. It seems like there are always guys left over at the end of the FA signing season who are forced to sign bargain contracts–Ervin Santana and Nelson Cruz, for examples from this year. Try to find cheap platoon solutions when you have a player who struggles against a certain type of pitcher.
At the end of the day, this article is just a collection of some of the ideas that a mediocre team could implement to try to win now and for the near future. Many teams are already implementing some of these ideas. If you have any further “smart” hacks that you think should be the gold standard for teams looking to improve in a cost-efficient manner, I’d love to hear it in the comments section.