The Importance of Team Roles - Part Two

The Importance of Team Roles - Part Two

Last week I evaluated the Phillies performance in the five most important jobs on the baseball diamond. To recap, they were: 1. Ace of the staff, 2. The number two starter, 3. The cleanup hitter, 4. The number three hitter, 5. The number three starter.

These top five jobs are the heart and soul of a baseball team and should be paid roughly 50% of the team's active payroll. The Phillies biggest needs are finding an ace and a number three starter. Will Brett Myers and Ryan Madson step up and fill those roles or will the Phillies be forced to make a trade? Also, it is time for the Phillies to bat Howard in the clean-up spot against right-handers.

The next five most important jobs on the baseball diamond are: 6. The leadoff hitter, 7. The catcher or the shortstop (defense up the middle), 8. The closer, 9. The two-hole hitter, 10. The five-hole hitter. Let's review these roles and take a look at how the Phillies stack up.

6. Leadoff Hitter
By definition a leadoff hitter deserves the most plate appearances because of his ability to get into scoring position ahead of the power guys batting in the three, four and fove holes. Solo home runs won't win many games and outs made with the bases empty are unproductive. The leadoff hitter must have a high on-base percentage and be fleet-footed enough to steal a base or score ahead of a throw on a shallow sacrifice fly or a grounder to the right side. The faster the runner, the more ways he can reach base and score with less than two outs. A team lacking a good leadoff hitter typically struggles to score runs, whereas a great leadoff hitter can manufacture runs almost by himself. Recall what Juan Pierre meant to the Marlins while they were beating the stuffing out of the Phillies in recent years. Remember what Dykstra meant to the 1993 Phillies. Consider how the 2005 Phillies struggled to score before Rollins finally adjusted to the leadoff role in the middle of last season. Two quintessential leadoff hitters are Ichiro Suzuki and the Phillies' greatest table-setter of all time, Rich Ashburn.

Where do the Phillies stand?
When Jimmy Rollins dramatically improved his approach at the plate in the middle of last season he became a superstar in every way. Most teams would love to have him, especially with his reasonable contract. Typically, a team's leadoff hitter is a speedy centerfielder. Since Rollins key role is as leadoff hitter, his gold-glove at shortstop is a major bonus. Put another way, there are fewer great leadoff hitters than there are slick fielding shortstops. This means that J-Roll's job batting leadoff is slightly more important than his job in the field. Early last season Rollins appeared unsuitable for the leadoff job and seemed to fit only in a role as "defender up the middle"; since then Rollins has silenced all talk of moving him down in the order. If Rollins were a poor fielder, he would still bat first but perhaps would have to move to third base. Because J-Roll is both a great leadoff hitter and a gold-glove shortstop, he is a definite candidate to be the Phillies 2006 MVP.

The Phillies leadoff options after Rollins are Bobby Abreu, Aaron Rowand and back-ups Shane Victorino and David Dellucci. Abreu makes the most sense since Utley fits in nicely batting third, but would Abreu accept the role? Let's hope the Phillies don't have to find out.

7. Defender up the Middle (ranked: Catcher, Shortstop, Second Base, Centerfield)
If you want to give your pitchers the best chance at success, you have to throw around a little leather. A great defender in the up-the-middle positions can make a huge impact. As the battery mate of all the pitchers, the catcher plays a key role in a team's overall pitching success. Since pitching is the most critical element to winning or losing, a good catcher is mandatory. The catcher must be the field general, a top strategist who relays signs and designs pitch sequences. He handles the ball on nearly every play and must be able to block pitches, deter base runners and block the plate. Catchers are also usually clubhouse leaders. Since the modern era began, the great teams typically have a great catcher. Bob Boone in 1980 was no exception, especially in the post-season. If a team's catcher bats third or fourth, then the seventh most important job becomes one of the other up-the-middle defenders. The shortstop is more important than the second baseman, who in turn is more valuable than the centerfielder.

Where do the Phillies stand?
With Mike Lieberthal's skills on the wane and his touchy knees preventing him from playing everyday, veteran lunch-pailer Sal Fasano was a good acquisition. Still, the Phillies catching is a slight weakness in comparison with the best backstops in the National League. While the current tandem will give a solid effort behind the plate most nights, look for AAA backstop Carlos Ruiz to see time in Philly this season for an early look as a potential "catcher of the future". Meanwhile, the Phillies' other up-the-middle defenders are all quite strong.

8. Closer
A great closer must be mentally tougher than the hitters he faces with the game on the line. More, he cannot allow yesterday's game to affect him today. But how many more wins is a great closer worth to a team? The difference between having a "great" closer and a "good" closer is difficult to determine based on the save statistics in vogue today. A blown save does not necessarily mean that a team loses. For instance, Oscar Villarreal has blown all three of his save opportunities with Atlanta this season and yet he is 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA. Tom Gordon is four-for-four in save ops so far and yet he still took a loss when he gave up a run in a tie game. Nor are all saves equal.

Perhaps the best way to measure a closer's relative worth to a team is by using a variation of Bill James' hotly debated Win Shares formula. According to this measure, elite closers Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner were worth 11 WSAB (WSAB = Wins Shares Above Bench), i.e. 11 more win shares than another closer in his place would have made. Since there are three win shares per team win, this amounts to less than four games a season better than a "bench" reliever would have been.

Personally, I think closers are over-rated and over-paid in today's market since they pitch in far fewer innings than other pitchers. While there is a huge psychological boost in having someone who can consistently close the door, the closer's role is filled a little more easily than any part of a top "Big Three" in the starting rotation.

Disagree? Let's look at the 2005 Champions, the Chicago White Sox. While closer Dustin Hermanson had a fantastic season pitching 57 1/3 innings and notching saves in 34 of 39 opportunities (.872), the White Sox also got excellent closing from Shingo Takatsu and Bobby Jenks, who converted 14 of 17 save opportunities between them (.824) while pitching 68 innings combined. And it was Jenks who closed during the playoff run, suggesting that closing is much easier when your starting pitchers have demoralized the other team.

Where do the Phillies stand?
With Tom Gordon closing the Phillies are in great hands. I doubt that Wagner would have been worth more than three more Phillies wins than Gordon this season. According to the win shares analysis, Gordon was worth six WSAB in 2005, which means the difference between Gordon and Wagner was less than two wins. And Gordon may yet have a better season in 2006. At Wagner's money, the Mets are taking a huge risk for comparatively little overall reward versus using a merely good closer. Certainly there is a drop off from Wagner to Gordon, but in terms of overall impact, it isn't as much as fans seem to think. The Phillies, like most teams, have far bigger pitching fish to fry. Letting Wagner go at that money was the right decision, even though he went to the rival Mets.

9. Number Two Hitter
Next is the two-hole hitter. Why not the five-hole hitter, who is typically more of a slugger than the two-hole hitter? Because a two-hole hitter will average one more plate appearance per game than the five-hole hitter. Also, the two-hole hitter has a more varied and complicated role at the plate than a five-hole hitter. As a table-setter, he must make contact, own a high on-base percentage and like the leadoff hitter he should have speed. If the leadoff man reaches base, a two-hole hitter must hit and run, take pitches while the runner steals, or advance the runner with productive outs. This will ensure that the middle of your lineup will be seeing fastball strikes with men in scoring position instead of curveballs in the dirt with the bases empty. Ideally a two-hole hitter should be a switch-hitter or lefty who hits to the right side to move runners on groundouts.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Last season the Phillies traded Placido Polanco despite the fact that he was one of the most capable two-hole hitters in baseball. Even if Ugueth Urbina were still in Philly pitching the best baseball of his career, Polanco would have been more valuable batting in the two-hole at third base. But bygones are bygones and now the Phillies are using an atypical two-hole hitter in Aaron Rowand. Rowand is a good hitter and has the requisite speed but he is a right-handed pull hitter and tends to strike out at a higher rate than is desirable in the two-hole. This means that he will have to hit at a much higher average to be effective at manufacturing runs since most of his ground outs will be in front of the runner, who will then have to hold his ground at second base instead of advancing to third. Perhaps, like the Yankees' Derek Jeter, Rowand will make up for this with a boost in power and a knack for hitting in the clutch. Still, Abraham Nunez should start over David Bell against right-handers and bat second. If Rowand struggles at all in the two-hole, Chase Utley can move up to take his place. Another option is to have left-hander Bobby Abreu bat second while Utley moves into the three-hole.

10. Five-hole Hitter
The five-hole hitter must be a clutch-hitting power threat in order to protect the cleanup hitter. If opponents pitch around the cleanup hitter, which they often do, then the five-hole hitter must have the power and average to make that strategy fail. If the cleanup hitter cannot play, typically the five-hole hitter will assume the cleanup role, further enhancing his value.

Where do the Phillies stand?
In general, Pat Burrell or Ryan Howard should be in the five-hole when they are not batting cleanup. Chase Utley is one of the better clutch hitters in baseball and makes an excellent five-hole hitter. Or Rowand could bat fifth when Nunez starts at third base and bats in the two-hole. Finally, David Bell hit .400 against left-handers last season and would make a decent five-hole hitter against them this year. If the opposing manager brings in a right-hander to face Bell, manager Charlie Manuel could counter by pinch-hitting lefty David Dellucci and then bring Nunez to replace Bell the rest of the way.

Summary of top roles five through ten
Without solid performance in these next five jobs you diminish the effectiveness of your top five. As such, roles five through ten should earn roughly 25% of the total payroll.

The Phillies have the players to match up with the best competition in baseball in these roles, though manager Charlie Manual hasn't yet made the most of his roster in building his lineup. Rowand can be successful in the two-hole, but he is probably better suited for the six-hole. Switch-hitting Nunez is probably the best man on the team for batting in the two-hole. In 2005 Nunez hit .352 with just 19 strikeouts in 105 at-bats while batting in the two-hole for the Cardinals.

David Bell and Abraham Nunez should be in a straight platoon at third base with Nunez batting second when he starts. When you start David Bell against a right-hander you may find that he leaves a lot of runners stranded. Bell's average over the last three years against right-handers is .235 vs. .311 against lefties, a whopping .76 point differential. Meanwhile, batting Howard anywhere below the five-hole is a mistake. If you are concerned with Howard swinging at bad pitches, why would you bat him lower in the order against a right-hander where he will see nothing but bad pitches with David Bell behind him? So far Manuel hasn't shown a knack for putting his players in the roles where they are most likely to succeed.

Next week: ranking the next five most important jobs on the diamond, 11-15.

Check out Part One of the series.

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