Honest Question

What does a saber-savvy organization look like on the field?

The questions oscillates from easy to difficult as you appraise it. Obviously, sabermetrics have made certain advances in research that could easily be played out on the field, though, and if we could answer the question, we might be able to look at how a team actually plays on the field and compare that to our Saber Checklist. So, what does a saber-savvy team look like on the field?

I have some suggestions, and I’d love to see yours. Most of mine concern the precious nature of outs and the platoon advantage, but there are other ways to see a saber mindset impacting the game on the field directly. And feel free to question the ones I have up there — it’s hard enough to sum up sabermetric research as a monolith, and even harder to draw a straight line from that research to the play on the field.

* Fewer sacrifice bunts than league average, especially put down by position players.
* Fewer intentional walks than league average.
* More positional platoons on the field.
* Less rigid bullpen structure, including a platoon at closer.
* High on-base percentage hitters at top of lineup, regardless of speed.
* Strong defensive backups that are often used as defensive replacements.
* Fewer long term contracts on the field (is using this as an ‘on-field’ item cheating?).

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

23 Responses to “Honest Question”

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  1. That last item isn’t cheating. In my “real life” analytics job, smart financial decisions often lead to better results down the road.

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  2. MikeS says:

    Fewer bunts could be due to having really good hitters, lots of power hitters or at least no very weak hitters. If the manager feels confident the hitter can get a hit to advance the runner or has a good chance of an extra base hit then he won’t bunt as much.

    Or if he has a bad pitching staff and feels he is going to need more than one run.

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  3. Kris says:

    A lot like Eric Sogard, probably.

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  4. Illinois glass M. Michael Sheets says:

    I think this is highly dependent on the team. A saber-savvy Yankees team looks different than a saber savvy Oakland team just given the finances. The Cardinals/Royals/Brewers/Rockies type saber-savvy squad is a different answer than the Yankees. It also depends on ownership’s goals. If the goal is to put the best product possible on the field with little regard to payroll (Dodgers this year) or if the goal is to find the best way to spend 65 million will lead to a different answer.

    There will be overlap, for sure, but I don’t think it’s formulaic.

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    • williams .482 says:

      Whatever his goal, Mr. Snakeskin boots is hardly the saber-savy sort.

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    • P_Dow says:

      I’d argue “Saber-savvy” and “Yankees” don’t belong in the same sentence. Sure, the Yankees have the highest team SLG and OPS, but doesn’t that come from the fact that they buy talent and the Sabermetric stats come with the talent? Isn’t the point of Sabermetrics to find the players for cheap?

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  5. Person says:

    Aren’t the 3rd and 6th points often exclusive, given the hard cap of a 25 man roster? So-called defensive specialists are often weak with the bat, and so-called bench bats are often poor defenders. That’s what relegates them to bench roles in the first place. There ARE exceptions, of course, namely guys who are plus defenders and can at least hit opposite handed pitchers hard. Is your implication that a saber-savy organization hoards these types of players at the expense of true single-skill guys?

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Not really, considering like you say, you could get a guy that can hit one side and play strong defense… I guess what I’m saying with those two points is that they would get value out of players other teams thought were flawed. Instead of focusing on the flaws, they find a way to use them to their strengths. Does that make sense? This is tough, trying to find a way to spot a saber team on the field.

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  6. juan pierres mustache says:

    i’d say it’s almost impossible to quantify something like this, though i don’t disagree with any of your proposed criteria. my problem with laying out specific actions that define “saber-savvy” is that i think the most important point is to be flexible and willing to try out new approaches, breaking from baseball’s traditional knowledge when needed. If we were writing this list ten years ago, it’d probably be basically “walks are good, Ks aren’t really so bad, you shouldn’t bunt ever, put OBP guys at the top of the order, and don’t steal unless you’re really good at it”. now that we have better ideas about defense (among other things) and power isn’t at it’s early 2000s peak, the correct saber-strategies are different, and I really see no reason why that same pattern wouldn’t repeat over the next decade.

    To give a specific example of why I think this is a difficult exercise: the rockies’ 4-man rotation, in my opinion, is a saber-savvy strategy, in that they looked at what resources they had, presumably looked at the numbers and decided that shielding a poor pitching staff from a 3rd time through lineups was a good idea, and tried out something pretty unprecedented. obviously, it hasn’t been all that successful, and I wouldn’t feel that some other club that tried it was necessarily saber-savvy–I just think it’s the kind of thing that a saber-savvy organization in a down year with weak rotation options should consider. I think willingness to adopt risky/original strategies is something that’s hard to quantify, but to me is one of the most significant factors in what counts as a saber-savvy club. The Rays are obviously the poster boys for this, and I’d be willing to wager that any list you make now will need updating once they come up with their next new idea.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      It’s going to be hard, but I’m trying to do it for right now. Can I add “uses innovative pitching staff strategies?”

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      • juan pierres mustache says:

        sure. i guess more succinctly what i was going after is that there should be consideration for teams that actively develop and use these ideas first, rather than teams that just copy what saber teams do when it works (see: targeting strong defensive players, for example). that said, maybe i’m just thinking too much about the difference between saber-minded front offices and saber-friendly on-field actions. did not intend to suggest it wasn’t a useful idea, so apologies if that’s how it came across–i guess i’m curious if you’re thinking of “saber-savvy” in a descriptive or predictive way, because i was thinking predictive but in re-reading i see that maybe that’s not what’s being discussed.

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  7. DD says:

    How about “uses a significant number of defensive shifts and realignments”?

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  8. MG says:

    The only problem with a saber-savvy team is that it become predictable. The game basically becomes a math equation where you put in the situation and you know what the team is going to do. Only Player X is going to steal so the rest don’t need to be worried about on the base paths. Relief pitcher Y will come in in this situation while relief pitcher Z will come in during a different one. Granted this doesn’t predict the outcome for these moves just what the team will do.

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    • DD says:

      And it’s not that way now? When the leadoff guy gets on in a one run game, late, unless it’s Ryan Howard batting next, the hitter is bunting. there is plenty of predictibility now.

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  9. Jack says:

    Probably a lot like a fencing team.

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  10. Choo says:

    They would never pay significant cash for relievers, regardless of payroll flexibility, choosing instead to stockpile interesting and/or under-appreciated arms during the off-season – think Padres and Mariners.

    The classic utility guy is a tough one. Bill James loves Willie Bloomquist. Dave Cameron hates Willie Bloomquist. Everybody loves Allen Craig, but he’s not a classic utility guy, either. What the Mighty Sabers do with the end of their bench depends on the makeup of the rest of their roster, but I like the Cardinals’ approach of not being afraid to let a good prospect add bench value to the major league roster versus giving him everyday PA’s in AAA.

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  11. Max says:

    No closers. Instead, a fireman for high-leverage situations.

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  12. Tom O says:

    I’d suggest something a few commenters have brushed on – a true saber savvy team would also address issues of game theory, rather than become predictable. There is a whole chapter on game theory in The Book, where they talk about things like bunting a certain amount of the time to keep your opponent guessing in the field, things like that. A really sabermetric team would be flexible as well: some teams shift a lot, but use a standard one-size-fits-none shift, while the teams we commonly think of as sabermetrically inclined are flexible defensively, and employ a number of combinations in the field, tailored to the situation, the hitter, the pitcher on the mound, etc. This can come back to the idea of game theory as well – perhaps a sabermetric team decides that they don’t want to steal a lot, like the Moneyball A’s, because it isn’t worth the risk. If they rarely steal, then perhaps opportunities will arise where it is advantageous to steal a base, because the opposing team is unprepared, and they can gain a free base, or even force an error and gain more bases or runs depending on the situation. A true sabermetric team would know when to be flexible with its strategies in order to take full advantage of the situation.

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