Why you should care plenty about the guy at the end of the bench
You might have missed it last week, but the Texas Rangers signed Pedro Ciriaco to a minor-league deal and politely invited him to spend spring training. You might have even missed that if you are a diehard Rangers fan.
After all, Ciriaco isn’t exactly headline news. Something of a textbook utility infielder, he’s played in the majors in parts of six seasons for five different teams. He’s hit a total of five home runs in his career and has a career on-base percentage of .294. He turned 30 at the end of last season. I suppose that you can be forgiven for not really noticing a guy who might not even make the big club out of camp.
But maybe I could make the case that while the whole world is waiting to see what happens with Yoenis Cespedes in his free-agency quest, the baseball world also should be thinking about Pedro Ciriaco. And that a guy like Ciriaco might just have as much to say about your team’s chances in 2016 as that free-agent guy.
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Ciriaco is a fantastic example of what’s known as a "replacement player." If you’ve heard about WAR (wins above replacement) and you always wondered what exactly was being replaced, think of Ciriaco. The idea behind WAR is that if a team’s starting second baseman went down with an injury, it would have to put someone at second the next game. It would probably sub in its utility infielder (from the bench), call someone up from Triple-A or grab someone off the waiver wire. A guy like Ciriaco. The team is not likely to get much from him, but at least it would get something. When we compare players to "replacement level," we’re comparing them to guys like Ciriaco.
But here’s the thing. If there’s something that we know about baseball (and sports in general), it’s that there will be injuries. Plus, guys need days off here and there, so those replacement guys are going to get some playing time. How much?
For 2015, I took the 270 players who logged the most plate appearances over the course of the season, which gives us a good proxy for the "regular" players at each position in the big leagues. In the American League, that’s the eight position players and the DH; in the National League, it’s the eight regular position players and the "ace" pinch hitter (who probably gets some regular reps in the lineup). These guys were Group 1. I also looked at the hitters who logged the 271st most plate appearances through the 390th most plate appearances in 2015. These would be Nos. 10 through 13 in the position player pecking order. That’s Group 2. Then I looked at everyone else who logged at least one plate appearance in 2015. These would be the guys who for a good chunk of the year were in Triple-A or bouncing between teams.
Here’s the percentage of plate appearances (not including PA’s by pitchers) taken by each group in 2015:
Division of the workload
|GROUP||PERCENTAGE OF PA|
|Group 1 (regulars)||77.3%|
|Group 2 (bench)||15%|
|Group 3 (fillers)||7.7%|
One player can really grab only about 10 to 11 percent of a team’s plate appearances, and that’s if he plays most days and hits near the top of the lineup (where he will get a few extra turns). Of course, we pay attention when that guy signs, but not to the group of guys who will take up a quarter of the playing time.
Not surprisingly, the guys who are "the starters" take more than three-fourths of the playing time. But another way to think of it is that about a quarter of any team’s plate appearances will be staffed by guys who are bench players or guys who aren’t even full-time major leaguers. (There are probably a few guys in the "starters" group who weren’t slated to be starters at the beginning of the year, but through long-term injury to someone else moved from understudy to regular.)
Now let’s use WAR to see how valuable that can be. We all know that not all players are created the same. Some are Andrew McCutchen. Some are … Pedro Ciriaco. But even among starters, there are MVP candidates and there are the guys who are the most frustrating of all in that they are the 23rd-best guy in the league at their position. The sort of guy you wish your team would replace, except for the fact that everyone else who is available is worse. Now that’s also the case among the scrubs. There are (comparatively) good ones and not so good ones. When it’s among the scrubs it’s the difference between "Yeah, I guess we can make do with him for two weeks while Smith recovers" and "Smith had better heal up … right … now."
One way to look at how much of an effect that can have is looking at percentiles for WAR values among these groups. WAR itself is a way of expressing how much value a player brings to a team, denominated in wins. Percentiles are a way of figuring out how far apart people in a group are spread. Let’s say that we took all 270 of the "starters" group and lined them up from best to worst (using WAR as our ruler). The guy who was No. 135 would be in the middle, which would be the 50th percentile. The guy a quarter of the way from the bottom would be the 25th percentile, and so on. Let’s look at those percentiles for each group to see how much of a spread there is.
|GROUP||25th percentile WAR||50th percentile WAR||75th percentile WAR|
|Group 1 (regulars)||0.6||1.8||3.3|
|Group 2 (bench)||-0.3||0.4||1.0|
|Group 3 (fillers)||-0.3||-0.1||0.1|
For bench players, the spread is a little less. Guys at the quarter mark are about 0.7 wins worse than guys at the halfway mark. Among the filler group, it’s really only a difference of 0.2 wins. But here’s the thing to remember: Groups 2 and 3 take up about a quarter of the playing time as a group. Let’s say that a team was able to upgrade from a bunch of guys who were bad even for bench guys (25th percentile) to a bunch of guys who were mid-range bench guys (50th percentile).
It’s not surprising to see that the regulars are better players. But let’s look at the spread in talent. Suppose that you had a guy who was at the 25th percentile, but had a chance to upgrade to someone who was at the 50th percentile through a trade. That upgrade (on average) would be worth about 1.2 wins. Going from the 50th percentile to the 75th is worth about 1.5 wins. A nice upgrade.
By paying attention to the back end of the roster, the team would have guys who, on average, were a something like half-a-win better each. Upgrading a single position player in a similar manner would produce a guy who would contribute 1.2 wins more. Sure, that one guy is more valuable than any of the bench players and upgrading him is more of an upgrade than upgrading a utility infielder, but if you think of the bench guys as a unit, that unit takes up about 23 percent of the playing time on offense, compared to the 10 or 11 percent that the one position player can take up. In terms of raw power to affect a team’s performance over the course of a year, upgrading a team’s bench and fringe guys can have just as much effect as a reasonable free-agent signing.
It’s not that Ciriaco himself is going to make the Rangers or any team a bunch better, but if Ciriaco and his friends can put up some good numbers — and by good, we mean just compared to other bench/fringe type players — they can move the needle about the same amount as that free agent. So, when your favorite team makes moves like this, they are worth scrutinizing. Even if they aren’t that interesting in isolation, they are important when you put them all together. Putting together a good bench (and good depth in the minors) can be as important as a free-agent signing.
And, of course, every once in a while you end up with a guy like Francisco Cabrera at the plate in a key situation. Some readers will know the reference instantly, but for those who don’t remember Game 7 of 1992 National League Championship Series, Cabrera was the last man on the Braves bench, but ended up hitting with two outs in the ninth, the Braves down one, and runners on second and third. Cabrera’s single knocked in those two runs — the second when Sid Bream slid — and sent the Braves to the World Series. It also represented only the 13th time he had come to bat in 1992 as a member of the Braves. Baseball is a game of being prepared for anything.
So, how can a team end up with good bench guys and good "insurance policies" in Triple-A? When your third baseman pulls a hamstring, how can you make sure to have guys around to replace him who don’t want to make you pull your hair out? A lot of it goes back to the guys in your favorite team’s organization who rarely get any credit, despite the amazing work that they do.
You might know who your favorite team picked in the first round of the draft over the past few years, but whom did it pick in the second, third and fourth rounds? Those guys might not have gotten big bonuses or big news releases, but one of them might be manning the hot corner for a couple weeks. Your team’s scouting director (and all the scouts who work for the team) found that guy. The player development team taught him skills. The pro scouts found guys in other organizations who might make good minor-league invitees to spring training. Everyone wants to talk about the superstar who came through the system, but it’s overlooked how important it is to bring someone from embarrassing to minimally competent. If your favorite team has someone who is minimally competent sitting in storage, thank your local scouting and player development officials.
So the next time you hear that "in other news," your favorite team signed some veteran who you vaguely recall having once heard of to a minor-league deal, don’t pooh-pooh it. Guys like Ciriaco end up playing for every team — they play more than you might have guessed — and they are the glue that holds the team together in tough times, even if they aren’t guys you’ll remember in 20 years.