‘Zig when they zag’ is a popular strategy for sustained success, whether it be in selling sneakers or winning baseball games.
Major League Baseball has seen a healthy dose of trends in recent years, and perhaps that can be blamed on Moneyball in the present era. Just in the past few years, the Chicago Cubs’ model of loading up on young positional talent and the widely-used model of building a super-bullpen have become prevalent.
If the Blue Jays had won the World Series, there surely would be a home run model that teams followed aimlessly for a few seasons.
By the time these trends are obvious to the public, however, it’s too late to copy them. Bullpen arms, for example, have already skyrocketed in price after seeing the impact they’ve had recently. That stock has already spiked, and the time to “buy in” has passed. So, where to next?
One candidate for the next trend in baseball is developing relief arms and doing it on purpose.
The majority of young pitchers who are drafted or signed are put on the track of being a starter. Roberto Osuna was, Brett Cecil was, and some take longer than others to reach their eventual niche in the ‘pen. Sometimes that move requires a nudge from years of poor performance or even a significant arm injury.
Young starters hold a huge value — just look at what Toronto is getting from Aaron Sanchez for a minimum salary — so that’s not likely to go away. The market could, however, tempt teams to be more aggressive with certain pitching prospects by using them purely as relievers. Even in the MLB Draft, this could have an impact with college relievers being taken slightly higher.
Zach Jackson is an example of this from the Blue Jays’ system. The former Arkansas pitcher was taken in the third round by Toronto this past summer, and after a brief debut in the lower-minors, the 22-year-old could conceivably open the year in high-A Dunedin this spring (though a stop in Lansing is also possible).
Jackson has a power arm, but his biggest weapon is a hammer curveball that he uses to rack up strikeouts. His control remains an issue, but if that smooths out with another year of development, he could be a very fast rise through the system given his experience in college.
In free agency, salaries of $5 million or more are being given to arms that, in all likelihood, will post an ERA of ~3.75 with a WAR of 0.2 to 0.4. ‘Normal’ has become very, very expensive.
If a steady stream of drafted and developed arms like Jackson can rise up and do the same, however, then that team will have a notable advantage over their competition. Again, this is much like Osuna, who has been worth 3.1 WAR in his first two seasons at 20 and 21 yeas old. Since Osuna was drafted and developed in-house, those seasons come at a price tag of ~$500K. On the open market, those seasons cost over 20 times as much.
Furthermore, a drafted relief arm will hit the majors and pitch for their original team in their early and mid-20s. By the time relievers reach free agency and sign elsewhere at age 28 or 30, they’re at a point where regression is typically seen at a high rate from their position.
The mass access to information in modern baseball might mean that, oddly enough, we’re beyond having many more “big” breakthroughs in strategy. Teams know so much at that point that advantages must be found in smaller, more pro-active ways. Prioritizing cheap, young bullpen arms over expensive, old bullpen arms is, despite its risks, zigging when they zag.