The Blue Jays Roster: Bench Crisis? What Crisis?

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Sep 12, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

A major league baseball active roster consists of 25 players.  In the AL, this is customarily made up of 9 starting hitters (including the DH), 5 starting pitchers, a 7-man bullpen and a 4-man bench.

The bench is usually designed to provide backup for every fielding position.  As such, it is usually composed of a second catcher, a middle infielder (who can back up SS and 2B) a corner infielder (1B and 3B) and a 4th outfielder.

Teams obviously try to have the best players possible on their bench.  So the ideal bench player would likely be someone with starter-level abilities.  But the reality is that players who consistently put up starter-level stats usually end up as … starters.   In fact, in 2014 the average bench delivered only marginal fWAR value.

So suppose that the average bench player can generate a fWAR of 0.5 in ~300 PAs.  What do you want that player to look like?

Bench player as backup

Sep 23, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

One school of thought is that the primary role of a bench player is to back up the regular players.  Under that paradigm, the bench player should be similar to a regular, just not as good.  Such a bench player would customarily have either an average bat with below-average defense, or average (or plus) defense with a below-average bat.  They would ideally have no weaknesses so pronounced as to prevent them from playing every day, if required, when a regular was unavailable.  As bench players of this type would bring nothing special to the table, they would customarily only be used  when a regular was unavailable or needed rest.

Munenori Kawasaki in 2014 would be an example of this kind of backup.  Muni had a 2014 wRC+ of 78, with no significant splits (by comparison, the average MLB SS had a wRC+ of 87). He is a career -0.8 UZR/150 at 2B and +1.9 at SS – both more than acceptable for a bench replacement.  Mune has good baseball smarts and plays with full effort.  As a fill-in, he would be completely acceptable.

Bench player as specialist

But there is a second school of thought that sees bench players in a different light.  Under that school, a bench player is seen less as an emergency backup and more as a specialist who brings certain, very particular skills – though usually as the cost of offsetting weaknesses.  Under this paradigm, the bench player should actually be better than the starter in some area, and would expect to be called upon when that area was needed.

Aug 20, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

An example of this second type of bench player is Steve Tolleson.  Steve has a career wRC+ of 81 – not far off Kawasaki’s 2014 figure of 78.  But Tolleson has extreme splits.  In 2014, he had an extraordinary wRC+ of 137 against LHP.  This is higher than Robinson Cano, or Brian Dozier, or Ian Kinsler achieved against lefties that year.  But Tollenson’s wRC+ against RHP in 2014 was a jaw-dropping -4.    The Jays, fully aware of these splits, used Tolleson primarily against left-handed starters and as a pinch-hitter against LHP off the bench.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

A second example of this bench-player-as-specialist concept was Ryan Goins in 2013.  Goins had a very poor wRC+ of 61, but an exceptionally high rating on defense.  As bad as his offense was, his stats would have extrapolated to a fWAR/600 of 1.5.  Entering the 2014 year, there was considerable debate over whether (assuming that he did not win the starting 2B role) his exceptional defense would make him a desirable player for the Toronto bench.  It was argued that he could be a late-inning defensive substitution in close games, where his glove would be of more value than his bat.

One final example, from the Blue Jays’ past, is Rajai Davis.  In 2013, Davis entered camp as the bench outfielder.  This was despite his 2012 wRC+ of 84 and an UZR/150 of -12.5 in LF.   But Davis brought another element:  speed.  His 46 stolen bases in 2012 were second only to Mike Trout’s 49, and Davis did so in 150 less PAs.   Again, one superb tool compensated for other below-average ones.

Next: 2015 Blue Jays Bench