Blue Jays and The Next Big Efficiency

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 29: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs tags out Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox at second during the sixth inning at Fenway Park on April 29, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 29: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs tags out Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox at second during the sixth inning at Fenway Park on April 29, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Could multi-position eligibility be the “next big thing” in baseball … and might the Blue Jays be ahead of the curve?

Paradigms in baseball are constantly changing.  Remember the scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane signs Scott Hatteberg and converts him from catcher to first base, all because of his high on-base percentage?  At that time, OBP was not valued as highly as it is today .  Oakland was one of the first teams to recognize and invest in this efficiency, and it served them well.

Over the years, there have been several examples of teams recognizing and exploiting efficiencies, and the pattern is always the same. The first teams to recognize these opportunities tend to do very well, at reasonable prices.  Then, when the trend becomes clear, the price goes up to the point where the “win” is no longer there.   Remember when top Cuban and Japanese players could be signed on the cheap, or when (as recently as 2015) Kansas City’s “three headed monster” of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland cost an aggregate of $22 million?

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

Thinking of these efficiencies, and how they have changed the game, got me to wondering what the “next big thing” might be.  For a while, I thought it might be StatCast data, particularly about exit velocities and barrels.  The Blue Jays seem to have embraced the predictive value of these stats – they explain the Justin Smoak extension in 2016, the Kendrys Morales signing, and the Randal Grichuk trade.  All of these players were “statcast darlings”, with actual performance far below what statcast predicted.  Of these, it is hard not to see Smoak as a win, though the jury is still out on Morales and Grichuk.

My next thought was that outfield defense could receive more attention.  For years, corner outfield has been seen as a place to park a team’s biggest bats with the smallest defensive ability.  A colleague of mine likes to repeat an old saying “What do you call the DH in the National League?  A left fielder”.   I was wondering if more teams would start pursuing the Adam Eaton model rather than the Jose Canseco one.  Could it be that the fielding contribution of players is generally undervalued?  But this efficiency appears to have already been recognized – though more in a quiet evolutionary way than a sudden revolution.

But there may be one more efficiency that has not yet been fully appreciated.  And it is one in which the Jays might be leading the pack.

The value of the multi-positional player.

Now, the idea of a multi-positional player is not new.  But in many (most?) cases it was seen as a fallback for players whose offensive abilities were limited.  If a player were good enough to play second base at a major league level, people would say, they should be playing second base full time rather than being a “utility infielder”.  There were a few exceptions, but they were rare.  But in the last few years, the paradigm has shifted.  More *good* players have been asked to play multiple positions – in 2017, for example, Marwin Gonzales of Houston played six position, with an aggregate 144 wRC+.

Having a Zobrist* on your team brings multiple advantages.  Injured players can be replaced with a stronger bat than a Ryan Goins or Darwin Barney, and a Josh Donaldson or Troy Tulowitzki can be rested without sacrificing too much at the plate.  In addition, having a Zobrist gives flexibility late in the game when making decisions about pinch-hitting and pinch-running.  And yet the Jays were able to get a player like Yangervis Solarte for a relatively low prospect cost.

So why do I say that the Jays are ahead of the curve?  Well first, because they have to be.  Knowing that players like Tulo and Devon were high injury risks made finding backups a priority for the 2017-18 offseason, and a Zobrist provides greater flexibility than a single-position backup.  It also sends a powerful message that they let Russell Martin – the teams #1 catcher –  play second and third, even for a few games.  But the Jays are also innovating in the minors, deliberately developing positional flexibility in players like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. , Cavan Biggio, and Ryan Noda.  Perhaps even more important than what they have done with those individual players is the change in perception of multi-position ability from the last resort of a marginal player to something to be proud about.

The bottom line

They say that the best measure of how General Manager’s value a particular skill is how much they are willing to pay for it in free agency.  It will be interesting to see what kind of contract Marwin Gonzalez gets for 2019 – and whether we see a price surge for Zobrists similar to what happened for top relief pitching a few years ago.  But hopefully the Jays, by developing their Zobrists in-house, will face any such trend from a position of strength.

Next: Blue Jays' John Gibbons on Kendrys Morales

*Yes, I am inventing a new term.  If a complete game shutout with less than 100 pitches is a “Maddux”, and an attempted steal of an occupied base is a “John Anderson“, then I get to call a player with above league average offense and mlb-level defense at multiple positions a “Zobrist”.