2012 Sabermetric Teams: The Market for Saber Players


Casey Kotchman is in many ways a man without a home — a player equal parts under-appreciated and over-valued, who irks both old and new schools at the same time. Old school analysts say his defense is amazing, but they cannot quantify it, and in 2011, they claimed his cleared vision meant he finally learned how to aim the ball “where they ain’t,” but he’s still a .268 hitter with little power. The new school says he’s worth about 7.6 runs per season defensively, but worth ~1.1 WAR per 600 PAs — not good — and his BABIP was high 2011, so he should not be able to repeat his success.

Despite his inability to build a consistent following of fans in the baseball outsiders communities, Kotchman seems to have some insider communities very much interested in him, as Tom Tango points out:

Kotchman’s last four teams: Redsox, Mariners, Rays, Indians. Can we say that a team that signs Kotchman is saber-leaning?

Indeed, after spending five and a half seasons on the Angels’ and Braves’ rosters, Kotchman has begun to shuffle around with the Nerdz, most recently signing with the Cleveland Indians. It makes sense too — Kotchman’s lack of power keeps him cheap, and his strong defense keeps him amorphous for the old school teams, while the new schools might have different valuations on Kotchman, they can at least quantify his contributions and better know how he fits.

Then, on Monday, the Houston Astros signed Justin Ruggiano, long-time Tampa Bay Rays outfielder who was never good enough to stick on the Rays’ roster, but who possesses strong defensive chops and above average patience. His lack of power and ~.290 batting average, however, must make him a mystery — or at least an undesirable asset — to the old school teams.

Upon Ruggiano signing with the Astros, a once highly old school team, my reaction was all: “Welp, that’s one more team to compete with” — and then it occurred to me! No only have the Astros entered the realm of, so to speak, saber-minded organizations, but so have the long-backward Chicago Cubs.

Suddenly the league looks very different.

Let me continue with massive caveat. I am by no means an inside man, a fellow with access to and a rolodex of contacts within major league organizations. It is my understanding that the few teams who do know of me know me much like the police know where and when to find certain homeless individuals, know the patterns and haunts of the possibly-mentally-deranged fellow who slowly pushes the shopping cart and mumble-sings to himself about Dan Johnson and SIERA.

That is to say: I do not make this list with a great deluge of certainty. Some teams we know, obviously, very well. The Athletics, Indians, Cubs, Astros, Rays, and Red Sox all obviously belong to a very specific group. Others, like the White Sox — who employ Rick Hahn, a saber fellow from all I have heard — seem somewhat on the fence.

So please feel free to debate with me! Tell me which team is in the wrong place and where it belongs and why.

Also, it is worth mentioning that there is no such thing as a “saber player” per se. Not only do analysts and teams have different means of valuating a player, there also exists the pressing demand to find the undervalued player. Someday, almost inevitably, the .300-batting-average hitter with good clubhouse chemistry will become undervalued, and at that point he will be a “saber player.” (Okay, maybe that’s a stretch.)

And we must also note that being highly analytical does not mean being always right. The Tampa Bay Rays may be run like a Wall Street financial institution, but all their diligence and research could not predict Pat Burrell’s struggles. And despite Boston’s best analytics, they did not — in retrospect (retro being a generally unfair -spective for analyzing free agent signings) — do themselves any favors in signing John Lackey.

Likewise, old school teams will still make great decisions. Jim Hendry saw something in Ryan Dempster and he transitioned from not-great starter to acceptable reliever to great workhorse starter — a transition few saber clubs would probably attempt. Still, the highly analytical organizations make move that tend to make sense to us, the sabermetric community, and because it is hard to be certain about all 30 organizations, we are left with analyzing their transactions and their comments to divine how they lean — an overwhelming task (and precisely the reason I am looking for feedback).

Well, without further pontification, I present the market for saber players:

Alphabetical by mascot.

Highly Analytical Organizations

Oakland Athletics
Houston Astros
Toronto Blue Jays
Chicago Cubs
Arizona Diamondbacks
Cleveland Indians
Seattle Mariners
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
Pittsburgh Pirates*
Texas Rangers*
Tampa Bay Rays
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees

In Between Organizations

Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals*
Toronto Blue Jays
Philadelphia Phillies
Cincinnati Reds
Chicago White Sox

Old School

Los Angeles Angels
Atlanta Braves*
Los Angeles Dodgers
Baltimore Orioles
San Francisco Giants
Miami Marlins
Washington Nationals
Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals
Detroit Tigers
Minnesota Twins

*I’m especially unsure about these teams.

We could substitute here “Highly Analytical” with “Saber Leaning,” but it is my understanding that some organizations who we would identify as such would not call themselves saber leaning because it has a connotation of ignoring scouting — a negative side-effect of the Moneyball era I am guessing. In fact, sabermetrics is more the search for knowledge, not the praise of numerals. Scouting is a big and important part of sabermetrics, but I digress.

So let me know what you think. What organizations are in the wrong place? Why?

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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David Wiers

+1 for the article

+10 for the picture and caption.