Weekly Mailbag: Market Inefficiencies, Backup Catcher, and Didi!
I admit it: I’m going through baseball withdrawal. There’s something about the first week of November and seeing the first snow flurries (I’m in the Northeast for my day job) that make baseball seem very far away. Luckily, we’ve all got our SSTN community right here to help ease the pain.
This week, we’ll talk about market inefficiencies, the backup catcher situation, and Didi! Let’s get at it:
John asks: How do the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s develop good contact hitters and solid pitching staffs with low team payrolls?
Both the Rays and the A’s have very forward-thinking front offices that understand the necessity of unorthodox practices due to their financial situations. Whenever I think about these teams, I think about Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. As entertaining as the movie was when it came out years ago, I thought the book did a far better job of really getting to the heart of where baseball front offices were going. It really wasn’t a story of analytics vs. tradition, at least at its core. Moneyball, and by extension the A’s organization, was really about finding market inefficiencies so that their dollar went as far as possible.
The idea of finding market inefficiencies obviously remains today and is part of the very fabric of working in front offices throughout baseball. Much as many fans (and even some writers) like to reminisce about the good old days when George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees, George’s impulses and knee-jerk reactions would not have played in modern baseball. Fans complain that the Yankees are not willing to use their financial might enough to gain an advantage (a fair, reasonable opinion), however running a team like George would likely result in inconsistent team play and severely bloated payrolls. Every team in baseball is trying to find market inefficiencies within their own economic sphere, so baseball has moved well beyond some of the group-think policies Moneyball uncovered.
Which brings me back to John’s question. The Rays and the A’s realize that they cannot compete dollar-for-dollar with the Yankees when it comes to finding elite hitters and pitchers. Thus, they develop strategies that put the players they have in the best position to succeed. Chief among the policies the A’s and Rays have developed is the idea of the bullpen game.
In my opinion, the Rays have done this the best. Even if the player development side of their operation was perfect, the Rays would be unable to develop enough pitching on their own to staff a traditional 5-man rotation and bullpen that can compete in the stacked AL East. The Rays have taken pitchers who do not traditionally profile as impact players to fill out the pitching staff and put them in positions to succeed.
The poster boy for this idea is Ryan Yarbrough. Ryan Yarbrough is the type of pitcher who would get lost in the Yankee minor league system. The Yankee system is full of high-velocity, high-spin rate freaks. Yarbrough’s fastball is among the slowest in baseball, sitting in the mid-high 80 MPH range, though he utilizes varying shapes on his sinker and cutter to keep hitters honest. Yarbrough also has a very good change-up that he is able to use to great effect. That said, Yarbrough is not someone teams would typically want to see attempt to turn a lineup over more than twice, nor is he the type of pitcher who would thrive in a 1-inning role due to his relatively unspectacular offerings. The Rays do not use him in a typical role, though. Over the last two seasons, Yarbrough has pitched 289 innings while starting in just 20 of his 66 appearances in that time. Yarbrough typically appears as the “bulk” guy, the pitcher who enters after the opener throws 1-2 innings. Yarbrough’s average appearance is just 4.3 innings long, though he has been roughly an average pitcher during that time despite stuff that would never lead one to project average performance from Yarbrough. The Rays found a way to take an oddly shaped peg and create a hole to fit.
That is the modus operandi of great organizations like the A’s and Rays. Those front offices exploit market inefficiencies and help put the players they develop in the best positions to succeed consistently. To be fair, the Yankees do this as well – their player development staff has a reputation for helping pitchers add velocity and spin rate in the minor leagues, making fringe prospects more projectable as they rise through the minor leagues. We’ll see if that eventually helps the big league club.
Brian asks: When we get to Spring Training, who will be the Yankees’ backup catcher?
You all know that I am not the biggest Austin Romine fan, but I have trouble arguing with the idea that he has been a perfectly acceptable backup catcher over the last couple of seasons. Catcher is among the thinnest positions across baseball, so if you get a backup catcher that is better than replacement level, particularly in extended stretches, you have to consider yourself lucky. The Yankees have had that luxury over the last two seasons as Romine developed into a fine option as a backup catcher. Imperfect, but fine. Romine would not even approach average performance offensively if he were forced to play every day, and the consensus is that he has a weak arm for a catcher, but he has done enough the last two seasons to justify a healthy Free Agent commitment this off-season.
I have a hard time seeing the Yankees bringing back Romine if the Yankees are trying to keep the payroll in check. I really believe that some team is going promise Romine more playing time and money than he will receive as a Yankee. The Yankees can install Kyle Higashioka as the backup catcher without rocking the boat. Higgy knows the pitching staff already, and if his minor league numbers are any indication, he has pop that could manifest itself at the Major League level with more playing time. Most importantly, the Yankees can pay Higashioka nearly the league minimum next year. Given the fact that we all want the Yankees to spend money on some of the big Free Agent arms available on the market, I think backup catcher is one spot where the Yankees will look to save money.
I think Higashioka will come to Spring Training as the backup catcher, and the Yankees will also sign a veteran defensive specialist to a Minor League deal to hang around, just in case.
Jim asks: Was it a mistake not to give Didi the QO?
I wrote about this more extensively yesterday, but I didn’t explicitly talk about my opinion regarding the decision itself. I love Didi, and he’s been my favorite player over the last few seasons. I completely understand the Yankees’ decision based on the current economic environment, and obviously it is still a possibility that Didi returns to the Yankees on a smaller Free Agent deal.
I don’t think that it would be fair to characterize the decision as a mistake, per say. The Yankees are obviously conscious of their payroll, regardless of what any outside observers think about that. With that in mind, they made the financially prudent decision. That said, I would have been willing to offer Didi the Qualifying Offer. If Didi had a year like last year over 600 plate appearances, $17.8 million is a slight overpay. If he has years like he had in 2017 and 2018, $17.8 million is a steal. That’s a good gamble, as far as I’m concerned.
Beyond that, many have made the argument that the Yankees have a crowded infield for next season. To that, I say: GOOD! We all saw the number of injuries the Yankees sustained this year; give me as much depth as humanly possible. Too much depth has a way of sorting itself out over time.
That said, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the Yankees have big plans to re-shape the infield for next year. A certain big-name infielder is available in Free Agency (Anthony Rendon), and rumor has it that some impact infielders are available on the trade market. The Yankees have some marketable trade pieces, and they may decide to cash in this off-season.
In any case, yes, I want Didi back, but I think the Yankees have significant plans for the infield this off-season, so calling the decision a mistake is pushing it a bit.
That’s all for this week! As always, thanks for the great questions, and I’m continually grateful to see new names in the inbox each week – jump into the action! Email your mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back next week with another mailbag – have a good weekend!