What MLB Teams Can Learn From The NFL

Over the last five years, one trend has taken the National Football League by storm – shared responsibilities at running back. After years of wearing guys down as every-down backs and watching elite players suffer from short careers, NFL teams have decided to minimize the wear and tear and maximize their offensive weapons by acquiring two complementary players to share the workload and give the team greater flexibility in what they can do on the field. By taking advantage of individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as shuffling the players in and out to keep them constantly fresh, teams have found that they can get better performance and more longevity from their backs. The every down running back is becoming a thing of the past.

Perhaps its no coincidence, then, that the Milwaukee Brewers – who play just down the road from one of the most storied franchises in the NFL – have also jumped on the job sharing bandwagon for the most strenuous physical position on the baseball diamond. By having a pair of complementary catchers share the position, the Brewers are finding that they can get quality production at a fraction of the market rate.

In fact, through Wednesday’s games, the Brewers catching tandem had combined for a .343/.455/.771 batting line that was better than any other team has gotten from their backstops so far this year. While they obviously won’t keep hitting that well – those marks would fit right in to Babe Ruth’s career – they’ve shown that they can provide some strong offensive performance by playing the match-up game.

Lucroy, the right-handed half of the pair, has hit left-handers extremely well in his Major League career, posting a .294/.322/.512 mark against LHPs. In fact, nearly all of his power has come against southpaws, as he’s averaged one home run every 17.7 plate appearances against lefties, but has required 77.9 plate appearances versus right-handers for every home run hit agains them.

Kottaras, the left-handed bat, is exactly the opposite. He’s hit .242/.317/.466 against right-handed pitching, but managed just a meager .184/.308/.327 line against lefties. Like Lucroy, he maintains his ratio of walks to strikeouts fairly well against pitchers from both sides of the plate, but he drives the ball much better against opposite-handed pitchers.

Beyond just their differences in handedness, Kottaras and Lucroy also bring different approaches and skills to the table. Lucroy is the superior defender, which is why he gets more playing time even as the right-handed portion of the platoon, while Kottaras has a discerning eye at the plate that Lucroy doesn’t yet possess. This allows manager Ron Roenicke to determine who should play on a given day not just based on whether the opponent is throwing a right-handed or left-handed pitcher, but also play to the strengths and weaknesses of his own team and that of the night’s foe.

For instance, on April 11th, Roenicke chose to start Kottaras against Ryan Dempster and the Cubs. Dempster is right-handed pitcher, but he’s a right-handed pitcher who can struggle with his command and has a long history of high walk rates to left-handed hitters. Since 2002, Dempster has walked 12.5% of the left-handed hitters he’s faced compared to just 7.7% of the right-handed batters who have stepped in against him. Not surprisingly, Kottaras did well against Dempster, going 2 for 3 with a single and a home run, and then worked a ninth inning walk off Carlos Marmol – another RHP with serious command issues that Roenicke knew would likely pitch if the Cubs had a lead late in the game.

Major League teams have traditionally utilized their backup catcher in more of an alignment that stresses regularity, lining them up as the “personal catcher” for one of the members of the rotation in order to make sure that the starter gets a break every fifth day, and then working in the backup in day-game-after-night situations to further limit the starter’s workload. However, this kind of rigid pattern leaves teams open to the randomness of the schedule and doesn’t offer any opportunity to take advantage of match-up advantages that present themselves throughout the season.

Keeping your left-handed back-up catcher on the bench against a right-handed pitcher, only to start him the next day against a lefty simply because it’s his turn, is inefficient and gives the opposing team free outs that they don’t need. The personal catcher system also breaks down if the starter gets injured, as a tandem system gives both catchers the opportunity to work with each member of the rotation so there is no adjustment period if one of the two catchers has to become a regular for a period of time.

Using a tandem catching alignment could also help help stave off deterioration in late season performance. Last year, Major League catchers posted a .303 wOBA in September after posting a .309 mark during the first five months of the season. For other positions, offense is higher in September due to the warmer weather patterns, but the effects of a long year of crouching behind the plate can carry over to a catcher’s offensive performance down the stretch. It’s not a coincidence that the Rangers got a monster October from Mike Napoli, who was more of a 1B/DH in the early part of the season before moving to more regular catching duty in the second half of the year. By keeping his legs fresh, they got maximum offensive production during the playoffs, and were able to ride his bat straight to the World Series.

The benefits of a job share behind the plate are simply too great to ignore, and Major League teams will eventually follow in the footsteps of their NFL brethren. The only question now is how long it will take for other teams to begin copying what the Brewers are doing.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

3 Responses to “What MLB Teams Can Learn From The NFL”

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  1. MustBunique says:

    From an MLB franchise’s standpoint this makes perfect sense, and I would be surprised if more teams didn’t go in this direction. From a fantasy standpoint, NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

    Think any other positions will follow suit? I realize that catcher is most grueling and therefore would yield the most benefits of this type of strategy, but what about SP’s? Do you think that teams will start to head into the season with 7 or 8 MLB level starters (yes, MLB level is ambiguous, perhaps replacement level or above is better) ? Or perhaps go to a 6 man rotation? I think the toll that starters’ arms take over the course of a season is also grueling enough that the benefits yielded from extra rest may be substantial. Thoughts?

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  2. MustBunique says:

    Such great discussion on these Fangraphs+ boards. I used to wonder why nobody commented on the articles. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle.

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  3. chuckb says:

    This makes a lot of sense and seems to be what the Rays and Red Sox have done, to a degree, in recent years. The other thing it does is that it negates some of the disadvantage of not having an elite catcher. Elite catchers are so hard to come by that teams can get pretty good catchers and platoon them in this type of situation and end up with a much better situation than a lot of other teams with a “starter” and a “backup” catcher.

    On a similar note, as a Cards’ fan, I’m starting to wonder how Yadi will hold up given his pretty intense workload to start the season. Coming into the season, I thought that new manager Mike Matheny, a former catcher himself, might rest Yadi b/c he knew better than most how grueling catching can be. Molina, however, is 2nd to Mauer in catcher PAs but Mauer has only played 12 games at catcher. If the Cards end up in the postseason, it’ll be interesting to see how Molina performs if he keeps up this pace.

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