March 26, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Baltimore Orioles: Unearth
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: how production comes from unexpected places for the Orioles and Marlins.
By now, the bit players in Dan Duquette’s great masterpiece are well known. By now, their value is being debated and critiqued as part of the franchise’s master plan for the future. By now, men that few had heard of and even less cared about are key pieces on the organization’s chess board.
Names like Caleb Joseph and Steve Pearce never inspired fear in opposing managers, at least not until last season. Guys like Alejandro De Aza were cast off by other organizations, only to find a home on a playoff-bound club. Jimmy Paredes was cast off by one of the worst teams in baseball to spend time in the minors with both 2014 ALCS teams, even producing nearly half a win over 18 games in Baltimore. The list goes on. Here is a table that I included in the Orioles’ essay in Baseball Prospectus 2015 that shows the top five teams in terms of bench production last season:
Not included in that list are two of the biggest contributors to the O’s success last season: Steve Pearce and Caleb Joseph. Both were omitted because they received too much playing time to meet the bench-player requirements used to create the table. Neither was expected to be a key contributor (or ever really), but the two combined to produce an additional 6.9 WARP (this includes 1.3 WARP from BP’s new CSAA numbers for Joseph). Below is an exhaustive list of every bench and role player that donned an O’s jersey last season.
None of the above players were expected to be big contributors for the Orioles in 2014. Some of the guys were acquired via trade when their teams soured on them or couldn’t find place on their rosters for them. Pearce and Joseph are the highlights on the list but players like David Lough, Delmon Young, and Ryan Flaherty all played big roles in a successful season.
The remarkable thing about that list is that only three of the fifteen players on the list produced negative WARP last year despite the collective reputations of the group. Dan Duquette has a long history of being able to find contributors on the waiver wire; it’s one of the things that helped him find success in Montreal and Boston. In Baltimore, Duquette has been fortunate to couple this knack for finding unwanted contributors with a manager that has shown a deft hand in deploying those assets.
It’s important not to ignore Buck Showalter’s role in the team’s success with these unwanted players. Showalter has embraced Duquette’s emphasis on depth and utilized these players in ways that extracts positive value without betting the house on every player being able to sustain their small sample size successes. Delmon Young’s signing is a perfect example. The Orioles were chastised for signing the flawed slugger, but his 2014 season can’t be categorized as anything but a success. Young has two primary problems: he can’t hit righties and he’s a butcher in the field. Well, Showalter avoided those issues with aplomb. 62 percent of Young’s plate appearances came against lefties, and he saw less than 160 innings in the field. The result was the second best offensive and defensive seasons of Young’s career.
Similar stories could be told about Paredes, De Aza, or Lough, all of whom saw their playing time correlate closely with their strengths on the field. Duquette builds a 40-man roster full of cast-offs and flawed players and Buck Showalter deploys each in such a way that success is much more likely than it would be if such care wasn’t taken to maximize the players’ talents.
2015 is likely to be yet another season where Duquette and Showalter will be put to the test. Paredes is making the case to be included on the 25-man roster with a strong spring. Catching depth in the form of Steve Clevenger, Ryan Lavarnway, and J.P. Arencibia will be tested. Mid-season cameos from Julio Borbon and Rey Navarro could very well be in the cards. And there’s no doubt that this team will rely more heavily on some of those names from the table above, specifically Pearce, De Aza, Joseph, and Young. Duquette and Showalter will need to manage their talent wisely, and the Orioles’ playoff hopes will rely on how well they do that. If recent history holds any predictive value, the 2015 Orioles might be a lot better than many think they can be.
Baltimore’s Moneyball isn’t about targeting on-base guys or spending on injured draft picks. No, Baltimore’s Moneyball is all about acquiring the players that nobody seems to want and finding ways to extract as much value out of the talents of these flawed players as possible. For the Orioles, it’s all about playing to the strengths of your front office and manager. And you know what? It has worked.