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The Basics of Bench Building

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A good bench is often cited as one of those necessities for a championship baseball team.  However, we are too often given vague descriptions of what truly constitutes a solid unit.  Is it good pinch runners and late inning defensive replacements?  A good pinch hitter that can negate the value of an opposing left handed reliever?  Or is it guys who can fill in in the case of injury?  Well, of course it’s all of the above in some way or another, but in this article we can hopefully start to create a systematic approach to filling out a roster.

A bench player’s value is determined by a variety of factors which arise from unique situations.  These include platoon partnering, pinch hitting, spot starting in place of a resting starter and replacing an injured starter.  One has to also consider the opportunity cost of development for younger players who could be receiving greater playing time in the minor leagues.

A general manager should look to start building his bench with players who can provide the most value.  The potential value is not just determined by being a superior talent, but also the potential playing opportunities.  In addition, there is some exclusivity as the multiple players cannot perform the exact same role off the bench.  The value of a player who excels at pinch running is hindered by having a teammate with similar skills as they can’t both be employed in all high leverage situations.  As a result, the GM has to examine how an addition will marginally affect the total team performance, rather than just the player’s individual contribution.  In order to properly evaluate the value of a player, we should look at each component of his value.

Platoon Partnering

A platoon partner is a split between a starter and bench player, but we’ll call him a bench player assuming that a team already has a starter at every position.  This role provides arguably the most value of any bench position, possibly improving production by 100 points in OPS over a few hundred plate appearances.  Take the current Cubs 2B platoon of Jeff Baker and Mike Fontenot as an example.

Baker (career)
vs. LHP .285/.346/.543/.889
vs. RHP .262/.316/.411/.727

Fontenot (career)
vs. LHP .232/.286/.344/.630
vs. RHP 272/.348/.435/.783

It’s pretty clear that the Cubs are getting a pretty solid increase in production with the career numbers showing a 269 point improvement against left handed pitching and a smaller 66 points against righties. Not only does a platoon situation help produce runs in the starting lineup, but the platoon partner is also available for perform other bench functions which we’ll look at later.  It’s pretty obvious that a player that provides a potentially large platoon advantage should have high priority on the bench.

Injury Replacement/Spot Starter

While some might think that pinch hitting is the next important function at the bench, I would argue that an injury replacement or spot starter is more important.  This is because a player has many more potential opportunities to contribute in place of a starter than as a player getting a few plate appearances per week.  Using this reasoning, the best bench option is clearly not the best hitter or fielder, but the player who has the greatest chance to contribute positively.  This would have a tendency to favor outfielders over first basemen and would require some evaluation of the injury risk for the starting lineup.  Using the Cubs case again, Micah Hoffpauir is an inferior choice to Chad Tracy, not because he is a worse hitter, but because he can only provide positive replacement value at 1st base where the relatively durable Derrek Lee plays and rarely skips a start.  Meanwhile, Tracy can play 1st or 3rd at least averagely and even play in the likely event of an Alfonso Soriano injury or off day.  A player with multiple position flexibility (which means not just playing the defensive positions, but playing them well enough to actually add value to the team) also allows for better utilization of the rest of the bench, increasing team value.

Pinch Hitting

Pinch hitting is important, but in most cases, finding a good pinch hitter shouldn’t be the first priority.  Platoon partners and positional backups would be able to handle most situations, and the premium paid for better hitters would far exceed the marginal benefit in a small amount of plate appearances.  Nevertheless, a bench that completely lacks a hitter who can hit right handed pitchers well, or a starter with a terrible platoon split and no platoon partner both create noteworthy opportunities to add value.  If this is a unique need for a team, then it may be worth it to add a player primarily for this purpose.

Pinch Running/Defensive Replacement

While often cited as important elements of a bench, a pinch runner or defensive replacement will have an insignificant impact on the team.  The value is somewhat increased with a particularly slow or defensively inept team, but this role should not be actively pursued as there are extremely few actual situations where a substitution makes any difference.  Additionally, there are almost always players already occupying the platoon partner or backup roles that are capable of pinch running or playing defense.  This role would likely be the main reason for the 2010 Cubs to add Sam Fuld to the roster, despite the fact that he would add little platoon advantage, replacement value over other members of the team, or pinch hitting value.

Opportunity Cost of Development

Finally, adding a player to the 25 man roster in a bench role will almost certainly limit his at bats compared to starting in the minor leagues.  This is an important issue particularly for teams not expecting to contend since a win in the current year is valued at a lesser value than future wins.  Also, players in the minor leagues can still have value as backups on the depth chart in the event of a longer term injury.  On the whole, teams should keep their younger players in the minor leagues and avoid the hindrance of development.  Such is the case with the Cubs and Tyler Colvin.  While he could provide great value as 4th outfielder, it’s clear he has a lot to gain from another year in the minors.

Altogether, a bench should be made up of a players who can contribute positively in the greatest number of potential situations.  This goes farther than the simple addition of good players, but also considers where and when these players could fill in and have an impact.  Additionally, flexibility allows for greater utilization of all players off the bench in situations where they are best equipped to add value.

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