Time shares among position players are great; they add value. Positional flexibility is also valuable, regardless of how a team takes advantage of it. This year, the D-backs look poised to take advantage of both of those things, in a way that could affect their place in the standings. Chris Owings and Brandon Drury each played a second position last year, in addition to second base — and now, three games into the 2016 season, they have three starts in the outfield between them.
Before getting into how much of a benefit we may be talking about by using Owings or Drury the way that the Rays used to use Ben Zobrist — what does that mean, and why is it helpful?
There’s not much new under the sun, and in baseball, there are lots of ways to take advantage of positional flexibility. One of the most common has been the utility infielder — helpful mainly because it’s hard to roster a backup for every individual infield position. The other is the same kind of thing in the outfield, as all teams run with at least two players capable of playing center field, and as with the D-backs for much of the year last year with Ender Inciarte, that fourth outfielder could also be counted on to back up in left and right, as well.
A “Zobrist type” is different than that. In some ways, Inciarte was the closest thing to the definition in recent years with the D-backs, because in addition to playing three positions, he seemed to be a starting-caliber player, and he seemed to get near-starting caliber playing time. When we say “Zobrist type,” though, we’re often talking about a player who can move in and out of the infield, and not just a player who gets frequent starts in three outfield spots. Martin Prado also recently gave the D-backs many of the benefits of a “Zobrist type,” as he was counted on at different times to play three different positions capably — but the D-backs frequently installed him at one position at a time.
All told, a “Zobrist type” is a player who starts about as much as any starting player, but who also plays an infield spot — and who could see regular playing time at three different positions consistently. The value of having a player like that on the roster isn’t fully obvious. But think about it:
- The team can limit plate appearances for true backups. A “Zobrist type” is a starter-caliber player, and by covering three positions, that kind of player can essentially eliminate the use of true backups. If the player is starting 80% of games, that means two other players can also start 80% of games at two of the positions — leaving a solid 60% of starts at a third position for a fourth player. We’ve talked about these 4-man, 3-position time shares at this site since the site began, and the benefits are profound. Backup players need to play some to stay ready to play at other times, but what if you don’t really need them at all?
- The team can give players timely rest days. Limiting playing time for true backups is great, but limiting playing time for the starting-caliber players is also helpful. Keeping players fresh has its own benefits, as we may have seen with A.J. Pollock at the beginning of last season. But players generally play close to full time, or rarely. A “Zobrist type” allows a team to include a player somewhere in the middle, possibly a lefty hitter who struggles badly against lefty pitchers. Interchangeable parts mean giving rest days to the player to whom having a day off has the biggest benefit, whether it’s from dings and dents that might not otherwise have turned into a day off, or from platoon advantages at the plate.
- The team has more pinch options during games. This is an advantage that Joe Maddon‘s Rays rarely had a chance to enjoy, as it matters much more in the National League. The number of double switch possibilities usually has to do with the number of positions your bench players can play. Not so for a team that has already started a “Zobrist type” — if you have a bench player that can play one of that type’s positions, he can essentially fill in at all of that type’s positions. Pretty cool.
- The team can fill in more easily for injured players. That’s what we’re talking about right now, but think of all of the possibilities. Like we said with #2, a “Zobrist type” can help with small ailments or bruises, but it can do so much more. Not all injuries fit neatly into 15-day stints, and if a team can use a “Zobrist type” to cover a player’s position for three or five days at a time while someone gets better, they’re able to navigate situations like that seamlessly. And if you already consider Owings to be a “Zobrist type,” you’re seeing that in the D-backs’ response to the Pollock injury, as well.
- The team has more player acquisition options. Zobrist’s Rays took advantage of his flexibility in every season, but a team is also free to do something more along the lines of what the D-backs did with Prado. Zobrist’s Rays could have acquired a standout second baseman during his tenure, kicking him to short and right field. If they had the opportunity to trade for a promising right fielder, they would have been positioned to do so without the worry of keeping Zobrist’s stick in the lineup. Again, if you see Owings as a “Zobrist type” already, you could also apply this to the D-backs’ decision to not sign the aging Michael Bourn to help cover center field.
All-around stats like WAR don’t account for all of these ancillary benefits from a “Zobrist type” — they just bean count the value of their time at each position, individually. That’s fine. But it’s a benefit to a team for a “Zobrist type” to have a third position at which they don’t do as well; Zobrist had a dropoff in value at shortstop that was greater than the WAR positional adjustment between short and his other positions, and you could say the same for Prado and second base. Having the option of using those players at less-than-ideal positions was valuable, for all of the flexibility reasons above. That should add to the value of a “Zobrist type,” not subtract from it, as it did with WAR for both Zobrist and Prado.
With all that in mind: can the D-backs take advantage of this kind of situation this season?
Chris Owings as “Zobrist Type”
Owings has started 222 games in the majors as of this writing: 98 at short, 122 at second, and now 2 games in center field. If the center field thing is to continue (and all signs point to yes, in some capacity), that’s a pretty great template for a “Zobrist type,” especially since those positions are typically regarded as the hardest, with the possible exception of catcher (and if Owings needs a template to follow, it might be that of former catcher Craig Biggio, who did pretty darned well moving to second and then center).
Owings might not quite be a full time starter, but that doesn’t prevent him from adopting a Zobrist role; in a 4-man, 3-position time share, it’s frequently the case that one player is starting close to half time. Owings has already grabbed one start against a RHP starter in center field, and if there’s still playing time to be had for him at second base, he could end up starting half time, with Socrates Brito also moving over to spell Yasmany Tomas from time to time (and possibly David Peralta, as well). Owings probably won’t get meaningful time at short this season, not with Nick Ahmed showing signs of improvement at the plate and most-days second baseman Jean Segura likely to move to short when Ahmed isn’t playing, in favor of other second basemen Owings, Drury and Phil Gosselin. But Owings’s shortstop ability still figures into things.
With only partial seasons at any position, we have to take advanced defensive statistics with a grain of salt (or three), but it’s worth noting that Owings has actually fared better at short than at second; that might not continue, but it’s some indication that there wouldn’t be a steep dropoff in the other direction, as Zobrist himself had throughout his career. Heck, with an arm that was clearly not a liability at short, you could even guess that Owings might be able to handle a Chone Figgins-like “super sub” role by adding third base to his portfolio.
As things stand, though, by starting frequently and being able to play short, second and center, Owings donates these benefits to the cause:
- Complete injury insurance for Ahmed, Segura, Drury and Gosselin. Not one of those players would need to be replaced by a similar player if he hit the DL, opening up the possibility of rostering a more promising hitter like Peter O’Brien rather than a journeyman infielder.
- The D-backs would also derive a significant benefit from being able to hide Brito from lefties if they choose, a pretty significant benefit all on its own: at all levels last year, Brito hit .319 with a robust .841 OPS against RHP, but a scary .213 with a scarier .558 OPS against LHP.
- Another strong possibility, and one we’ve already seen this year: Owings being able to man center means that in any game they like, the D-backs can remove Yasmany Tomas in favor of Brito as a late-inning defensive replacement (possibly with a double-switch benefit, to boot). Either Owings is starting, in which case, Brito can come off the bench for that purpose — or it would be Owings that would be plugged into the lineup, with Brito moving over.
- If Owings starts 50%-70% of games as a “Zobrist type,” there’s yet one more benefit to be derived: Owings could hit better. Playing Owings less than full time will aim him at LHP more frequently than the average player sees them. This is a less certain benefit, as Owings has actually fared better against RHP (73 wRC+) than against LHP (56 wRC+). But as Jeff has sagely put it, reverse platoon splits are not something we should count on to carry over from year to year. Most of that reverse split comes from putrid results against lefties last year (28 wRC+), something we could easily connect to Owings’s new swing and two-handed finish as he battled back from shoulder surgery.
That’s a pretty great mix of benefits, especially when you consider the alternatives as scrap heap guys who may be replacement-level players in Jason Bourgeois or Michael Bourn, or as promoting Evan Marzilli way before he’s truly ready to contribute. The model could work. And if Owings continues to look more and more comfortable in center, the benefits don’t need to cease when A.J. Pollock eventually returns.
Brandon Drury as “Zobrist Type”
Is Owings even the best candidate on his own team, though? It’s helpful to be able to spot Tomas with Brito when the fancy strikes, but if Brito would have been playing anyway, that’s really only like replacing Tomas with Owings, and Tomas has actually been the better hitter. As comfortable as Owings has looked in center, Brito is probably at least as good a center fielder right now — and so the true benefit would come if the difference between Brito and Tomas defensively were bigger than the difference between Tomas and Owings offensively. Nine times out of ten, I’d vote defense. In this case, though, it looks like the Tomas bat is more valuable.
With all of the D-backs’ moving parts right now, the only situation that has me puzzled is right field. Who on this Sedona Red earth is David Peralta’s backup in right? Peralta has seemed to improve against LHP, but make no mistake: there is still a pretty big platoon split there, mostly because he’s battered RHP so much. As noted above, Brito is not a guy you want to aim toward LHP right now, and it’s not like Owings has a recent history of beating up on LHP. If Brito is Peralta’s backup in right, we’re looking at a situation where the CF’s bat doesn’t necessarily play up, but the RF’s bat plays way, way down. Bouncing Tomas back and forth doesn’t seem like a great answer, but it might be the best one on offer if Owings takes on a “Zobrist type” role.
Enter Brandon Drury. Drury’s been shagging in left, and got the start in left just yesterday. Including Drury in the left field mix doesn’t fix the right field situation. But if Drury is an option in left, can’t he be an option in right, instead? He’s got the arm to play third base, and arm strength and accuracy is really the only big difference between your average left fielder and your average right field guy. Consider the benefits if Drury were starting 50%-70% at third, second and right:
- As injury insurance, Drury prevents the need for a particular roster replacement for Owings, Gosselin and Jake Lamb. That’s not as long a list as Owings’s version. But unlike with Owings, Drury is insurance for a starter that does not otherwise have a starter-caliber replacement: Lamb. In the event that nightmare happened (and it did last year), Drury would slide right in and get the lion’s share of plate appearances. Gosselin would be the backup, and Owings might be the emergency starter there.
- The benefit of being able to sit Peralta against lefties is enormous, about as big as being able to hide Brito. Peralta had a respectable 83 wRC+ against LHP last season, but that is worlds away from his Goldy-like 150 wRC+ against RHP. The D-backs should not miss any opportunity to get Peralta facing a RHP. Right now, the Drury-less plan to aim Peralta away from LHP would be starting two players who hit .211 or worse against LHP last year in Brito and Owings. That seems exatly like the type of situation a “Zobrist type” is supposed to help a team avoid.
- Double-switches and defensive replacements would also be more of a thing. If Drury is starting in favor of Peralta in right, he need not be replaced if it looks like Peralta can be aimed at a RHP later in the game — he could just be moved. Ahmed could be taken out, with Segura moving over and Drury moving to second. Drury could slot over to third. And if Owings were starting that day at second, Drury’s bat could look like the more attractive one to keep in the lineup. Moving to right field is probably not as helpful a possibility; leaving Peralta out of a lineup is about rest, and taking him out of a game early doesn’t really help with that. As you can guess, I also love the idea that if Lamb sat against a LHP, Drury could start at third — but stay in the game by moving to second if Lamb got the opportunity to face a RHP as a pinch hitter.
- Finally, Drury is… a good player. Most of Drury’s Double-A time came last season, and he played just 63 games at Triple-A. But ZiPS and Steamer both have Drury performing at the plate at a level (76 or 79 wRC+) a bit higher than Owings (73 and 74 wRC+). Both players could continue to improve, no question. Drury probably does have the higher ceiling.
To some extent, the D-backs could use two “Zobrist types” this season, but because they overlap at second base, using both is not twice as valuable as using one. Regardless of how they are used, the playing time conundrum caused by rostering Owings, Drury and Gosselin at the same time is difficult. Gosselin overlaps with Drury more than with Owings, and in a Drury-less infield, Gosselin has a more pronounced role — especially if Gosselin also started in left from time to time.
To treat both Owings and Drury as “Zobrist types,” Gosselin probably gets edged out of the picture, and his roster spot probably gets used in another way (either a hitter like O’Brien, or another catching option like Tuffy Gosewisch?). And this is how it could look:
- Jake Lamb starts 80% of games.
- Brandon Drury starts 20% of games, especially against LHP starters, occasionally yielding to Lamb later in the game.
- Nick Ahmed starts 80% of games.
- Jean Segura starts 20% of games, especially against RHP starters, as Ahmed has one of the bigger platoon splits on the team.
- Jean Segura starts 60% of games, especially against LHP starters, when Ahmed will almost definitely be playing shortstop.
- Chris Owings starts 20% of games, especially against RHP starters (since he would not be needed to start in CF).
- Brandon Drury starts 20% of games, especially against RHP starters (less likely he’s needed at third).
- Frequent late-game switches, particularly in games started by Owings.
- Yasmany Tomas starts 80% of games, yielding to Socrates Brito late in games a couple of times a week.
- Socrates Brito starts 20% of games, almost exclusively against RHP starters.
- Socrates Brito starts 50% of games, almost exclusively against RHP starters.
- Chris Owings starts 50% of games, against all LHP starters and against about one-third of RHP starters.
- David Peralta starts 85% of games, including all games started by a RHP.
- Brandon Drury starts 15% of games, all of which are games started by LHP.
That makes for start% of: Peralta 85%, Lamb 80%, Ahmed 80%, Segura 80%, Tomas 80%, Brito 70%, Owings 70%, and Drury 55%. Injuries or dings and dents would change all that around, probably in favor of Drury but also Owings and Brito. That’s eight players starting more than half the time, and only getting starts at six different positions.
What’s not to like?
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