I won’t, for a second, pretend to be a sabermetrician. However, I follow enough sabermetrics-focused baseball blogs and writers that I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the underlying theory of it all: Experimentation.
A big part of what has frustrated younger generations when it comes to the game of baseball has been a total lack of reasoning behind actions. Actions are taken with the reasoning of “This is how it’s always been done.” In my mind, and in the mind of those that dig through stats looking for actual reason-based actions to take, that’s not good enough.
However, it has never really mattered much what we think or what we say or what we even write, baseball was going to baseball the way that it does. Managers were going to continue taking the same actions because they were the actions the previous guy (who lost his job at some point, by the way) had taken.
Except, not anymore! Andy Green seems to be looking for reasons to his actions as Manager of the San Diego Padres, and also looking for actions he can take that previous Managers wouldn’t have dared to. To put it bluntly, Andy Green is a sabermetrician with the actual power to make decisions for a Major League Baseball team.
Example 1: Defensive Shifts
When the Padres hired Andy Green, the fans were told that the defense was going to “shift” a lot more to put players in good position to make plays. The Padres did a great job of that in Andy’s first year, and you could make cases for shifts improving the defensive metrics for nearly every regular starter on the field.
The good news? Andy’s not done…
“Ballparks aren’t all the same. The outfield is absolutely huge in Colorado. The infield in Arizona plays very fast. These things matter. How you choose to position your outfielders, and what you’re trying to take away… we have data that gives us, relationally to the fence position and how well the ball carries, where the outfielders should be in certain ballparks.
“In full shifting, I think we were in the top five or six last year. In partial shifts, I think we were right at the bottom of league usage; that wasn’t something we used productively. We’re going back now and analyzing all of our defensive positioning, and trying to make a determination on if some sort of pattern developed that we can change to make us better going into next year.
“We’ll have the analytics guys weigh in, and we’ll talk about it as a coaching staff. We need to make sure we have full buy-in on what we’re doing. And it’s different based on personnel. If we end up with a rangy shortstop this next season — the need to shift is mitigated to a degree by the range of your players. You don’t want to put three rangy players on top of each other. But if you have less range, you want to maximize the people in the places where they’re most likely to hit the baseball. That does factor in. Anybody that doesn’t factor that into the equation is probably leaving a key component out.”
Expect a lot more shifts from the Padres in 2017 and beyond.
Example 2: The New Outfield
Heading into this season, most people looked at the players that are expected to be on the Padres’ roster and assumed that Manuel Margot and Travis Jankowski would split time in Center Field with Hunter Renfroe in Right Field and Alex Dickerson in Left Field.
If you didn’t think Dickerson was good enough for an everyday spot (and many don’t), you might consider putting either Margot or Jankowski the starting Left Fielder.
Andy Green, of course, has a better idea.
“I do want to give a look at an alignment of Jankowski in right, [Hunter Renfroe] in center and Margot in left to see what that looks like,” said manager Andy Green, shortly before Wednesday’s first full workout for pitchers and catchers. “Throw two burners in the corners, and see how that plays. … Definitely not saying we’re doing that throughout the season. But we’re going to look at it in spring.”
Putting Jankowski and Margot, both of whom have a ton of outfield range, next to each other is dumb. Putting them on opposite sides of the outfield, with Renfroe’s cannon in Center Field turning grounders up the middle into singles instead of doubles, is brilliant.
Renfroe has played some Center Field in the minors, in case you were worried, and would fill the position just fine. He just wouldn’t have tremendous range, but that would not matter with Margot and Jankowski flanking him on either side.
Example 3: Christian Bethancourt
There’s some who think that those who follow sabermetrics do exactly as the stats tell them to. What they don’t realize is that, most often, the sabermetricians are the ones that are trusting their eyes and gut more than traditionalists.
With nearly any other Manager in baseball, Christian Bethancourt’s relief appearance on May 31st of last season would’ve been nothing but a good joke in the clubhouse.
A career Catcher, Bethancourt entered a blowout loss and threw 2/3rds of an inning. Here’s his stat line from the day:
0.2 IP, 2 BB (1 HBP)
That’s it! No walks, no hits, no runs allowed. Bethancourt showed an impressive fastball and that was enough to get Green’s mind going.
Two weeks later, he got another opportunity and went a full inning.
1.0 IP, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 H
That’s a fine line, but it’s not like he was pitching crucial at-bats here. However, it was enough for the Padres’ Manager to start an experiment that will come to fruition during Spring Training 2017.
Christian Bethancourt, career Catcher, is now a Catcher-Outfielder-Relief Pitcher. Not because the numbers said he should be, simply because Andy Green trusted his gut and didn’t accept “The way it’s always been done” as a good enough reason for not trying it.
Example 4: The Opener
Less than two weeks ago, Baseball Prospectus published a blog post about the most efficient way to use recently-signed Relief Pitcher Trevor Cahill.
When you can’t improve the talent on the roster, you have to look at changing how the talent you have is used. Perhaps Cahill is the linchpin to a bold strategy that could do just that: using a one- or two-inning relief pitcher to begin a game before turning it over to the “starter.” For years, I’ve advocated for a team (or teams) to give this a try, dubbing the relief-pitcher-in-the-beginning-of-the-game role the “opener,” a bookend to the end-of-game closer. This new pitching role could be used to get the team off to a better start than a middling starting pitcher might, before turning the game over to the pitcher who will likely throw the most innings.
One of the biggest benefits to using an opener is that it allows the Padres to put opposing teams on their heels, especially if the team tends to structure their daily lineups to obtain the platoon advantage. By using the right-handed Cahill early, then switching to the left-handed Richard or Friedrich, the opposing team must choose to do one of the following:
Source: The Padres and an Opening Gambit
I hosted the author of this post on the Generally Speaking podcast a few days later. We both admitted that it was a tremendous idea that now MLB Manager would be crazy enough to try:
Enter Andy Green, the MLB Manager that has nothing better to do that spend the Spring and much of the upcoming season experimenting and destroying illogical baseball traditions.
Here are the basics: The Padres have about 11 pitchers competing for rotation spots in camp. A handful of them have experience in the bullpen as well.
During the season, the Padres might plan to go through an opposing lineup approximately once with a certain starting pitcher. Then they might replace him with another starter — preferably of a different handedness — in the early innings.
The goal is simple: to quickly negate any matchup advantages in the opposing lineup, or at least force the opposing manager to go to his bench earlier than usual.
No matter how off-the-wall it may seem, if your idea is rooted in logic and reason, Andy Green is willing to try it and see what the result is. That makes him the perfect man to be calling the shots in the dugout for the San Diego Padres this year and for the years to come.
To follow the San Diego Padres’ weird journey, be sure to subscribe to the Make the Padres Great Again podcast.