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Versatility or volatility? Defensive flexibility’s fine line

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It’s not the size of the boat but the motion of the ocean...or...something.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first talking points around the 2018 Cardinals centered on versatility. We’ve discussed it since the end of 2017 – how to accommodate José Martínez’s bat, the alignment of Matt Carpenter, keeping Jedd Gyorko active…the list goes on. Then, spring training gives us the emergence of Yairo Muñoz, a defensive chameleon (though his bat has yet to make the trip from Jupiter to St. Louis). Suddenly, Depth Charts projections have seven core Cardinal position players logging PAs at two or more spots on the field, with five registering at three or more.

That feels like a lot to me.

I set out to find a somewhat quantifiable way of representing just how versatile this 2018 team is, compared to the rest of the league. In that respect, I found what I was looking for. But, while defensive flexibility is normally lauded as a strength, is that always the case? I can’t concretely say it is, especially for these Cardinals – but more on that later.

The goal of this metric isn’t to develop a foolproof formula for a team’s defensive prowess; it fails to factor individual defensive metrics or a player’s overall value independent of team composition. The intention is to assess the versatility of a team’s position players, based on their share of plate appearances, regardless of skill level at their positions. The question to be answered is: For any randomly-selected plate appearance, how flexible will the batter’s positioning be, on average? It’s completely contingent on team composition. This info is particularly more useful to National League teams, given the frequency of pinch-hitters and double switches compared to their American League counterparts. It’s almost a utility rating, determining how flexible a manager can be with substitutions, situation withstanding.

Ultimately, it’s for fun. I’m not taking this to SABR.

The Formula

I began by taking the FanGraphs Depth Charts projections for each team’s position players (as of April 10) and dividing individual plate appearances by the team’s total PAs, assigning every batter a percentage of the team’s trips to the plate. The Cardinals looked something like this:

St. Louis Cardinals - PA%

Player PAs PA%
Player PAs PA%
Yadier Molina 510 9.81%
Francisco Pena 48 0.92%
Carson Kelly 42 0.81%
Jose Martinez 513 9.86%
Matt Carpenter 552 10.61%
Jedd Gyorko 289 5.56%
Kolten Wong 525 10.09%
Greg Garcia 138 2.65%
Yairo Munoz 190 3.65%
Paul DeJong 578 11.11%
Marcell Ozuna 578 11.11%
Tommy Pham 572 11.00%
Luke Voit 20 0.38%
Tyler O'Neill 14 0.27%
Harrison Bader 33 0.63%
Edmundo Sosa 7 0.13%
Oscar Mercado 7 0.13%
Max Shrock 7 0.13%
Dexter Fowler 578 11.11%

Guys like Edmundo Sosa or Max Shrock would only possibly get a chance in September, and we know that, but I still used every player projected for big league time in the interest of fairness.

Now for the positioning. I chose to adapt the FanGraphs positional adjustments to a 100-point scale and assign a rating to each player, depending on their anticipated positions:

St. Louis Cardinals- Utility Rating

Player C - 26.53 1B - 1.02 2B - 16.33 3B - 16.33 SS - 21.43 LF - 6.12 CF - 16.33 RF - 6.12 Utility Rating
Player C - 26.53 1B - 1.02 2B - 16.33 3B - 16.33 SS - 21.43 LF - 6.12 CF - 16.33 RF - 6.12 Utility Rating
Yadier Molina X - - - - - - - 26.53
Francisco Pena X - - - - - - - 26.53
Carson Kelly X - - - - - - - 26.53
Jose Martinez - X - - - X - X 13.27
Matt Carpenter - X X X - - - - 33.67
Jedd Gyorko - X - X - - - - 17.35
Kolten Wong - - X - - - - - 16.33
Greg Garcia - - X X X - - - 54.08
Yairo Munoz - - X X X X X X 82.65
Paul DeJong - - - - X - - - 21.43
Marcell Ozuna - - - - - X - - 6.12
Tommy Pham - - - - - X X X 28.57
Luke Voit - X - - - - - - 1.02
Tyler O'Neill - - - - - X - X 12.24
Harrison Bader - - - - - X X X 28.57
Edmundo Sosa - - - - X - - - 21.43
Oscar Mercado - - - - - - X - 16.33
Max Shrock - - X - - - - - 16.33
Dexter Fowler - - - - - - X X 22.45

Someone like Yadier Molina, only appearing at one position, comes away with a 26.53 total on the utility scale. Yairo Muñoz tallies an 82.65 because you could pretty much assign his position for the day by throwing a dart at a picture of the field. That score is then multiplied by the share of plate appearances (PA% * utility score), combining the player’s volume with their anticipated versatility. It doesn’t matter as much that Muñoz can play everywhere if he logs one-fifth of the PAs garnered by Matt Carpenter, a player with less utility.

The last step was to add the scores of every player, resulting in the team utility rating. One way to look at it is that it essentially condenses a team into one defensive player, evening their flexibility out over all plate appearances. A team of one-position players would get a 13.63 rating, and a team of super-utility players would net a 100. Go figure, neither of those will be represented in the results.

The Results

Shout-out to John LaRue for this fantastic graph template!

At first glance, you probably noticed that these numbers alone have absolutely no direct correlation to team success.

And that’s really my point.

For those of you who didn’t close the tab immediately after that last sentence, we’ll move on. Looking at the top 15 teams, only 4 have playoff odds of 50% or higher as of the writing of this article. That’s understandable, as seven of the top ten are either in a full rebuild or just finished one in the past two years. They’ve built teams that are reliant on a mixture of journeymen, veteran utility players, and young, versatile talent. The bottom 15 includes 5 clubs with statistically legitimate playoff chances. The team in dead last, the Nationals, has nearly a 75% chance of winning their division. Yes, there’s lots of baseball left to play, but those numbers still have value. The picture this paints, to me, is one of potential. Combined with team results, it’s a measure of versatility or volatility - how much control is afforded to their manager by their plan, and how well the organization is executing on that plan.

Let’s illustrate this point with a look at those Nats. This Washington club has a strong core and has built around that stability. Everyday production from a nucleus including Trea Turner, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton and Bryce Harper is supplemented by less-versatile platoon players at first base and catcher. Michael Taylor can hold down center, and Victor Robles is going to take that job any day. As a team, Washington is old - the second-oldest in the majors, at 29.8. They have players who are locked in at spots and won’t be moving around much because they provide consistent value at their position. Less decisions to be made. Not versatile, not volatile. Contrast that with the team above them in utility, the Giants, who also have an aging core and rank third in age at 29.7. Same strategy, with the likes of Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, et al., but a totally different expectation. Too much emphasis on player performance for the players they have. Not versatile, but volatile.

Now shift your attention to the team coming in at #4, right ahead of the Cardinals: The Dodgers. Los Angeles has built around versatility and analytical decision making, and it’s clearly delivered. They still have the obvious lineup staples, but they’ve developed strong platoons in such areas as catcher and second. They have stable players in Kiké Hernández and Chris Taylor who will provide substantial value all across the field by the end of the season. Probably most important of all, they have a manager who embraces analytics and - World Series hooks notwithstanding - generally makes sound baseball decisions. He’s able to handle the wealth of options at his disposal. Versatile, not volatile.

As an organization, the Cardinals have shown a desire to prioritize analytics with the addition of Mike Maddux, the development of a St. Louis-Memphis bullpen shuttle, and their ability to consistently develop (average) MLB talent. They’ve built a team reliant on a somewhat consistent lineup and defensive flexibility. This team has been designed where the fulcrum, the pivot point between versatility and volatility, is the manager.

That’s right. This is a Mike Matheny post.

There’s one area where Matheny believers and nonbelievers can agree: Historically, he hasn’t done well with multiple options. We tend to dwell on the bad more than the good, but if you briefly look through his tenure, you see:

  • Playing Allen Craig over Oscar Taveras so consistently that Craig had to be traded
  • Sticking with Jonathan Broxton and his 6.32 BB/9 for 20 appearances in 2017
  • Not using the same lineup more than four times in 2017
  • Leaving Greg Holland in on Monday to walk four batters (and a run) when he clearly didn’t have his feel
  • The Matt Carpenter double switch in Milwaukee

Matheny has historically operated on emotional, relationship-driven decisions. He’s not normally quick to pull a struggling player. He values the “leader of men” moniker. Conversely, when it’s not emotional, it seems more frantic or panicked. Randal Grichuk said of last year that it felt like you had to rake at the plate to get a start the next day. The middle ground is important.

I do think Matheny has the potential to competently manage this team. There are moments where good processes meet good outcomes, such as the double switch on Tuesday that brought in Greg Garcia and Jordan Hicks. Hicks pitched two innings, Garcia kept the game alive in a later plate appearance. The trick will be consistency in those decisions, and only time will tell if the adjustments made to the coaching staff deliver in that department. If the 2018 Cardinals are successful, defensive flexibility will be a large component of that success; they’re constructed that way. We know this team has potential. We know they’re versatile. Management will decide if they’re volatile.