Where Do We Go From Here?: Maybe Defense is an Overvalued Asset

On March 29, 2013, as MLB prepared to break spring training and embark on another summer of swings, the New York Times ran an article about the upcoming season and league wide trends. The gist of it is summarized by the headline, “Strikeouts on the Rise,” but just in case you weren’t sure where they were going with it, they also provided this helpful subheadline:

There were more strikeouts in 2012 than at any other time in major league history.

The Times, of course, wasn’t breaking news with that article. The meteoric rise in K’s had been explored for some time on the sabremetric webs. Multiple theories had already been bounced around as to the drivers and causes of the steady increase in strikeouts, including but not limited to such ideas as “hitters just don’t care because we’ve stopped shaming them for swinging and missing” all the way to “the rise of specialty relief roles sends fresher arms throwing harder into the games where tiring starters once remained for at least another inning or so.” By 2013 we were not only to the point where the Grey Lady was picking up the previous work and running it as a spiffy little interactive graph, but to where MLB itself was convening committees to look at the “problem” of too many strike outs and the resulting drop in offense.

Since then, the trend has not let up. In 2012, the season prior to this article, the league K’d a total of 36,426 times. The raw totals for the next three seasons (2013-15): 36,710; 37,441; and 37,446, an increase of roughly 1% a year. No matter how you slice the numbers, the trend is still obvious, notable, and increasing. More and more Major League at bats end with the hitter making a U-turn back to his dugout and the catcher tossing the ball around the horn while the next guy digs in.

The direct impact of this trend has been done to death. Offense is down, as is power. Teams are looking for new hitter profiles that might be more successful in a low offense environment, including the much ballyhooed return of Joe Simpson’s “contact hitter.” But one thing that hasn’t been fully fleshed out is how the rise in K’s impacts the rest of the game. One thing we can be certain of is that as the number of at bats ending with contact decreases (i.e. K’s rise), so too decreases the number of plays a defense has to make behind the pitcher(s.) An increase in strikeouts directly reduces the value of defense. And thus, the value of defenders.

The worst reading imaginable of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is that “slugging and on base win baseball games.” First, that’s been known for years; it was a maxim of Branch Rickey back in the 40s, at the very least. The more proper reading of Moneyball is rather, “teams with limited payroll flexibility must find and exploit market inefficiencies.” That is to say, a club that can’t simply buy its way into contention like the Yankees (and now Dodgers and perhaps Angels and Cubs) must be smarter than the competition. They must find undervalued assets and acquire them, preferably at the cost of overvalued assets.

In the 1990s, the undervalued assets were unathletic looking sluggers who controlled the plate and walked a lot. The overvalued assets were “RBI men” and fast guys with low OBP’s that “just look like a leadoff hitter.”

In 2015, it is quite possible that the undervalued assets are those relievers averaging 2 K’s per inning out of the pen any time after the 6th. And the overvalued asset? Quite possibly, it’s the wizards with the gloves, who are no better than anyone else at milling around and waiting for the catcher to start the ’round the horn throw as the batter walks back to his dugout in what used to be shame.

Sabermetrics is the search for new truths and ways of thinking about baseball. I don’t know if the Braves’ current plans and theories will pan out. It’s a brutally difficult game to succeed at, at any level. But I do think they have a plan, and I think that plan is backed up with something more than John Hart’s gut instinct and John Coppolella’s Magic 8-Ball. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. As for me, I’ll continue to breathe and see where it goes from here.

28 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here?: Maybe Defense is an Overvalued Asset”

  1. The tough thing to wrap my head around in this idea is that those spectacular plays are not nearly as valuable over a long season as you think they are. It’s kind of like the Groucho Marx quote – “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” Except this time the eyes might really be lying.

  2. Andrelton’s defense may be overvalued, but failure to make contact is not his problem. Consistently solid contact, maybe.

    I want my Andrelton back.

  3. Baseball defense is about making the routine plays. Always. Without fail. The spectacular plays are so at the margins that it’s hard to put a value on them. The year to year variance there is just so high.

    Offense is down, therefore the value of guys that can help increase offense is going up. Run-prevention is like 75% pitching (imho – I know I just made up a number, but it’s definitely not 50/50). So the value of individual defenders is indeed diminished.

    Also, if you can score more, the importance of your team’s collective defense overall goes down.

    The big question: how do we score more. Right now I’d say the strategy appears to be to assemble the Cuban National Team and see what happens.

  4. And, if fewer balls go over the fence, then that means the ability to catch the ones that don’t go as far goes up.

    And if this high strikeout and “possibly overvalued defense” era, the AL team in the past 2 World Series fits (a) low strikeout and (b) good defense. That certainly can be luck.

    The strikeouts have gone up as the strike zone has lengthened tremendously. Keep the strikezone constant and that trend will probably stop.

  5. The trend with having 5 relievers throwing 98 and coming in the game in the 5th or 6th has to account for most of it. KC is the poster child for that bullpen composition. All those guys just flat bring it. Their starters aren’t nearly as good by comparison.

  6. Great by-low candidate. That’s really low considering a strong 2014. I’m probably missing something.

  7. @4, “And, if fewer balls go over the fence, then that means the ability to catch the ones that don’t go as far goes up.”

    I disagree. Just as many outs have to be made regardless of how many go over the fence (27), and if fewer go over the fence, the value of a single (the type of hit that Andrelton would tend to prevent) is reduced, and the value of preventing said singles is reduced.

    Singles, just like walks, are more valuable when someone homers after them.

  8. Two good buy-low candidates this week with Carpenter and Norris. Minimal investment, but good rebound candidates.

    The offseason is more sufferable with these dink-and-dunk deals, for sure, but I doubt the Braves sign 8 guys like Bud Norris to spend the $20M they have to spend. Eventually they’ll bring in someone who will impact the roster, and one would have to assume there will be a corresponding trade to accommodate said player. If they bring Minor back (and the money available is reflecting his projected arb figure, correct?), you pretty much have the rotation filled. The bullpen has a lot of bodies, but they could certainly bring in an impact arm there. But for the lineup, you’ve got starter money tied up at C, 1B, SS, RF, CF, and LF, so you could only bring in a FA at 2B or 3B to relegate the current starter to the bench, IMO. The Winter Meetings should be pretty interesting with the, for better or for worse, flexibility the Braves have.

  9. The Cubs acquired Rex Brothers, a good, young lefty, for a 17-year old with a live arm. Would I be right to conclude that a guy in our system like Ricardo Sanchez (the now-18 year old we picked up from LAA for Kyle Kubitza) would be able to get us a lefty reliever like Rex Brothers? And if so, do you trade the prospect considered to be #18 in the system by FanGraphs for a lefty reliever that’s cost-controlled until 2018? Methinks that’s a trade a rebuilding Braves should make in order to keep the team competitive while they transition.

  10. He’s worth more to the Cubs because they expect to win all three years they’ll have him. Their needs are limited and immediate. The Cubs can’t afford the opportunity cost of throwing out a lesser reliever for 2 months and losing the division by one game.

    The Braves would be acquiring him to placate fans, not to win. The Braves’ needs are plentiful and are not urgent. The Braves can afford to send out lesser relievers and see who sticks. That’s one of the few advantages of being at the bottom of the competitive cycle. You obviously can’t hold open tryouts with all 25 roster spots. But lefty reliever is a great place to catch lightning.

    Ricardo Sanchez may be a stud reliever for us for 6 years. Or he may never pitch for Atlanta. But he also might be traded for something we need more than a lefty reliever, and he may be traded later, after he shows a little something against higher competition, and therefor bring more back.

    Trading real prospects for left handed relief help would be a waste if resources in two different ways.

  11. In fact, if we already HAD Rex Brothers, the proper course if action would be to trade him to the Cubs for a 17 year old with a live arm. We are the Rockies, we are not the Cubs.

  12. I don’t agree for one second that the Braves won’t make moves to placate fans, and let me tell you why.

    Objectively speaking, if the Braves could go to bed, sleep through a 100 loss season in 2016, and wake up in 2017, then they would. 12 months of player development, 12 months getting bad contracts off the books, sign them up. But they can’t. The Braves lost 20% of their attendance from 2014 to 2015. And if you look at average fan perception (which you can read in excruciating fashion on the Braves’ Facebook account), the average fan is irate with the Braves and thinks that every player will be traded for a minor league pitcher or a pitcher of beer. Nick Markakis was signed last offseason to placate fans. That’s why it’s so confusing for people on here, and some seemingly intelligent people can’t wrap their minds around why the Braves signed him. It was to placate fans. It was to not completely tank. It was to tell fans, “We’re still trying to compete! Haven’t you heard of Nick Markakis? He’s a Gold Glover, a veteran, and established big leaguer!”

    They’ll do it again this year. They can’t lose 95 games again. They can’t see another 20% drop in attendance. They can’t have 13K in attendance in August next year. They will sign players that run counter to the long-term vision of the rebuild (Markakis) so as to not lay all of their cards on the table. As a result, they’ll try to win 80 games this year, even if it’s not in the best interests of the franchise. Atlanta is not a sports town that can survive a complete tank (not that there’s many who can, but cold, miserable Philadelphia can, and that’s why the 76ers can pull it off). Look at the attendance after mid-July. It completely plummeted. The Braves can’t afford that again.

    But yes, they may not see the value in dealing a legitimate prospect for a stopgap reliever, when the historical approach has been to go by committee. But the Braves will trade a prospect that they’ve acquired in the last 12 months for an established major leaguer or sign one, and it could very well be just to make the fans happy so they’ll walk through the turnstiles.

  13. Signing a guy for just money and one of 25 roster spots is cheaper than trading a prospect for him.

    They may sign a reliever, but he won’t be top shelf. They’ll probably sign several. They won’t trade for one, at least they won’t trade any real prospects.

    I mean, if Rex Brothers had been a free agent, they might have signed him. They won’t give up a prospect and pay him arb rates, which for a non-closer reliever, aren’t that different from free-agent rates.

  14. When John Hart was Executive of the Year, and when Billy Beane was first making his name, it was a simpler time. Most FOs were run by an ex-minor league catcher willing to pay for RBI and pitcher wins and grit. In poker terms, it was a home game that you could dominate just by having read “Super System” during your morning crap for a few weeks.

    Now every team* has its small army of quants who read that ol’ Michael Lewis book when they were 19 and grew up thinking they’re the genius who’s going to find the Next Market Inefficiency. Guess what, guys? The new market inefficiency is the thing’s been poked to death eight ways to Sunday over the last decade, and you’re not going to beat this market any easier than you’re going to beat Wall Street or Vegas. In poker terms, it’s the casino table full of poker lifers waiting for the odd drunk tourist to drop in.

    I have no doubt that the Braves regard Coppolella as a very talented quant-type, but I have older friends and relatives who regard me as a very talented tech support person because I know how to Google a problem and follow instructions. That is to say, I have no idea whether he’s actually any good, but I do know he’s gone all-in on trading everything not nailed down for pitching lottery tickets and Hector Olivera. It’s *a* strategy and it might work (so is throwing “rock” every time in rock/paper/scissors) but to believe it’s the vanguard of the New Market Inefficiency when almost every team at every market-size level is playing that game… eh.

    I’m just as willing to believe he might just be 25th in a class of 30** highly competitive quants. We’ll see, I guess.

    *except you, Diamondbacks
    **I mean 29; see *

  15. I’m not sure if I agree that non-closer relievers are earning as much in arbitration as in free agency. Darren O’Day is an established, non-closer reliever, and he’s rumored to be looking for $7-9M per. He may not get it, but that could be an indicator of the free agent market. You’re probably right that there’s not a huge variance, but last year Neshek got $6M per, Motte $4.5M, Romo $7.5M, Janssen $5M, so you’ve got some established non-closer relievers out there earning more than a 25-28 year old reliever in his arb years would earn. Is it enough to give up a prospect for them? You’re right, probably not.

  16. If having a strategy to be successful that the other teams don’t possess is not the way to be successful, then what is? Resources, like the large market teams have? Then why is there so much parity in MLB?

    I think the Braves are simply convinced that they do pitching well. It’s not a market inefficiency; it’s an organizational identity. They feel they can bring a pitcher into the organization and send him out better than they found him. I don’t think that’s being a Michael Lewis disciple.

  17. Bud Norris… hopefully he can rebound so the Braves can dump him in July for some pitching prospects.

    Exciting stuff.

  18. @16

    In the spring of 2010, when talk of market inefficiency was all the rage, I remember reading some pieces appreciative of the job Jack Zduriencik had done building a roster of defensive whizzes. While those pieces didn’t exactly ignore the fact that exploiting this market inefficiency led to the inclusion of Casey Kotchman, Jack AND Josh Wilson, Jose Lopez, and many other such players on the roster, there was considerable intrigue as to how it would work out. It…didn’t.

    Which is to say, installing “exploiting market inefficiencies” as the centerpiece of your approach is fine when the market inefficiency is OBP — the most important attribute in the game. But if you go too far with it, you run up against the problem that a ballplayer is a collection of attributes, and sometimes having one can mean you lack another more important one.

    It does remain a valid way to organize one’s thoughts about a problem. That said, I eagerly await the day that a young staffer bursts into a GM’s office and breathlessly announces, “I’ve identified the new market inefficiencies — scouting and player development!”

  19. There aren’t any half-hearted moves that will placate the fans. Nick Markakis certainly didn’t placate fans. The bar for placation is to do something like sign Heyward. And then do something equal or better than that two or three more times.

  20. @22 excellent point. Contrarian strategies are good when the collective herd is wrong. You have to wonder how inefficient the baseball market really is, given the resources and self-awareness of the market in general.

    Collecting a bunch of guys that aren’t good at baseball isn’t exploiting a market inefficiency. Neither is signing a bunch of pitchers with hurt arms. It’s contrarian, yes, but probably inefficient.

  21. I think perhaps, if there’s an “inefficiency” being exploited, and I’m not sure there is, that it might be that teams shy away from guys who look like they’ll need TJ surgery, and in the immediate aftermath of TJ surgery, but once recovered, there seems to be no long-term penalty to be paid, as to their dollar or trade value.

    I think the Braves may have identified teams reducing value of guys by 50-60% in the period close to their surgery when the risk of the surgery is much lower than that number.

    Obviously there’s no value to collecting post TJ guys for their own sake. But if you’re going to be making a trade, they aren’t s bad guy to target if they come at a discount and recoup most of their discounted value shortly after acquisition.

  22. Worth noting, @25, is that the teams probably aren’t discounting the value of the post-TJ guys because they think they won’t recover, but more likely for roster reasons. When a guy is drafted, you begin a countdown to when they must be 40-manned, and once 40-manned you begin expiring options, etc.

    When a 20 year old in High-A goes down with TJ surgery, generally there’s a season of lousy results, pitching hurt, followed by surgery, a completely lost year, and then half a season of struggling to get your stuff back. Suddenly a kid who has great stuff but never pitched above High-A, and pitched lousy when he was there, needs to be rostered to avoid losing him in the Rule 5, so you’re bumping a reasonable AAA depth guy (Ryan Weber) to carry a guy you have no intention of giving ML innings to (Max Fried.) Thats a tough spot of you expect to compete. Roster spots aren’t so valuable when the marginal value of wins is lower.

    Alot of teams

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