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Player Attitudes and Applied Sabermetrics

When we talk about “resistance” to the practical applications of sabermetrics “in baseball,” we usually mean front offices and managers. But players themselves might have their reasons for objecting to some of those applications, and it isn’t just ignorance. Let’s take a look at two possible cases and what might be done to overcome the issue.

One area in which players might resist applied sabermetrics is lineup optimization. Studies of lineups such as the one found in The Book have found that that second spot in the order is one of most underutilized spots in the lineup, and that the best hitters should generally hit first, second, and fourth in the lineup. Traditional baseball wisdom says that the best hitters should hit third and fourth, then the other spots fall around them — maybe a fast guy with on-base skills at the top, but not power (don’t “waste” his extra-base hits!), another power guy fifth, and so on. While attitudes towards the second spot are changing, it still often seems to be an afterthought for most managers.

While there are often good hitters found in number-two spots in the lineup, much of that happens on teams that have enough good hitters that they can put one there — it is rare that you find a team with only a few good hitters regularly putting one of them second. Last season’s Braves were a nice exception, with Jason Heyward hitting in the second spot for much of the regular season and in the playoffs. Of course, Heyward was a rookie, so it was easy to “make” him do it. However, can you imagine Joe Girardi getting Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira to do so [INSERT JOE TORRE/A-ROD 2006 PLAYOFFS JOKE HERE]? Do you think Ryan Zimmerman or Jayson Werth will be hitting second for the Nationals next season? Baseball tradition is a powerful thing, and given that “the best hitters hit three and four” is taught to most players from a very young age, it’s too easy to write off their potential resistance to doing otherwise when they have the “clubhouse pull” as merely due to ignorance. As far as other smart batting order, for example, using different batting orders against right- and left-handed throwing starters (not platooning, but, say, having a left-handed batter hit second against right-handed pitchers and moving him to sixth versus southpaws), well, the players don’t want to get out of their “routine.”

Of course, batting order isn’t that big of a deal — maybe two runs per season per “move” at most. A slightly bigger deal might be the usage of closers. Without getting into all the specifics, it has been shown again and again that always saving (ahem) the best reliever for the ninth inning is not the most efficient usage. For example, the eighth inning up by one is a higher leverage situation in which to bring in the “relief ace” than the ninth inning with three outs. But there are a couple of things at work here: stud relievers almost never go two innings these days (for the save or otherwise), even though they often did back in the 1970s and 1980s — check out the careers of Goose Gossage and Dan Quisenberry if you think this would shorten their careers. There are multiple different (if related) issues here (numbers of innings, leverage) with a number of reasons for resistance (concerns about injury, saves). Heck, the notion of the Holy Save can even pull the wool over the eyes of a smart guy like Jonathan Papelbon, who argues that the save is important because, um, it is a save:

A save is what it is. You save the game. It’s a situation in which the tying run is at the plate or on deck and the game is on the line.

Well said, wise one.

Again, you can get the details of the arguments about leverage and reliever usage elsewhere. But the players, just like the managers, have taken the “wisdom” that’s been handed down to them, and the stats that are still glorified in most mainstream sportswriting. Moreover, the “save” is still part of the Elias formula for ranking relievers (given how Type A status has affected reliever contracts, this might actually serve to lessen player attachment to it if they think carefully, although this situation might change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement). So it’s understandable why a closer might not want to come into the eighth inning of a one-run game for a two-inning save if it means he might not also be available for a three-run, one-inning save the next night.

These are just two examples of why players might resist these changes. It is easy enough to say, “tell them to do it anyway,” but is also pretty clear that is not how a major-league clubhouse typically works (especially with established and well-paid veterans), and I’m not sure that is such a bad thing. Managers are also motivated by what we might see as “external issues” — namely, keeping their job, and an unhappy clubhouse, or regularly trying unconventional strategies that don’t immediately work don’t really help with that project. So what can be done, long-term?

I won’t pretend to have a simple, easy answer. I do have some suggestions. The managerial level has been discussed many times: managers need to be treated as the middle-management types they are, so not only should they not be “in charge” of big-time decisions, they need to be defended by their superiors when the right decisions are made, and the front offices need to explain why such decisions are the “right ones,” particularly when they don’t work out in a particular game.

As for the players (the primary focus of this post), the issue is more complicated. I suspect that players view things like hitting third and the three-run, ninth-inning save a bit like David Letterman and Conan O’Brien saw Johnny Carson’s chair at the Tonight Show: as a prestigious thing to be dreamed about and attained no matter what sort of evidence is produced to show it was not what they think it is. In the case of the players, while some inroads might be made at the major-league level, the minor leagues might be the place to start changing attitudes about these things. Already in the minors, relievers should not be set into a traditional “role,” but shown that they can go longer, used in higher-leverage situations (on the major-league level, big incentive bonuses based on innings pitched into the 90s and 100s might suddenly help relievers “discover” just how durable they are). Perhaps top hitting prospects should already be hitting second in the minors or even moved around more often from spot to spot, simply to get used to the idea that second is a “prestige spot” or even that whatever other routines they need, hitting in the same spot in the order day after day is not one of them. While I don’t know of any studies of player comfort with regard to roles making a difference, I don’t want to discount the possibility. However, if such an issue does exist, it seems like weaning players off of such security blankets should begin before they ever see the majors.