The job of a team-specific reporter can be a tough balancing act. One must, in order to be of any use to anyone, try to critique and understand in equal measure. It was George Orwell who said that journalism is reporting what someone doesn’t want you to hear. Everything else is public relations.
At the same time, one cannot make accurate and measured critiques if they aren’t well informed and aren’t willing to understand the perspective of those they are trying to objectively evaluate. In other words, it is a fundamental part of our job here at BSN Denver to look for the best form of the argument behind why each team in Colorado — in this case the Rockies — is doing what they are doing. Which brings us to the question of the day:
What the hell is Jeff Bridich doing?
In order to understand what is happening now, first, we have to go back in time a few years. In order to fully understand the Ian Desmond signing and how if fits in with the larger strategy, it helps to know a little bit about two prospects who have been in the Rockies system that you’ve likely never heard of before; Luis Castro and Wilson Soriano.
BSN Denver has reported from games where each of those players has played every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher, sometimes even multiple positions per game. Neither guy has proven to hit quite enough to maybe ever make the Majors, but they serve as extreme examples of the kind of player theory Bridich has been working on since his days as the head of development. Long before he ever became the General Manager.
“Versatility” may be the word of 2017 but it began at least four years ago. The Rockies system is positively brimming with athletes who get moved around the diamond like near interchangeable pieces. More famous names like Trevor Story and Ryan McMahon have played multiple positions throughout their careers. David Dahl and Raimel Tapia (and all of the other outfielders) have been asked to play every spot out there. Dom Nunez was a shortstop and a second baseman and now he is a catcher. Jordan Patterson has played corner outfield and first base since entering the system. Forrest Wall was drafted as a middle infielder but moved almost exclusively to center field last season. The exact same is true for Pedro Gonzalez.
It’s not entirely uncommon for players to change positions in the minors, but all these guys have another thing in common beyond an ability to move around the field; a combination of speed and power. Most of these guys, including several pitchers in the system, were multi-sport athletes in high school or college. Remind you of anyone recently acquired to man first base?
And the theory appears to be that if you acquire an insane number of athletes who have all the things you can’t teach, enough of them will learn the mechanics of baseball. But this doesn’t just create versatile individuals, it eventually creates a cascading effect where you can build an entire team with multi-position players.
Much has been made about Bridich’s clear affinity for big pitchers with 95 mph+ fastballs and hard sliders, but its becoming clearer and clearer that he has a preference on the position side as well. You could say he is looking for players with a particular set of skills.
Floor and Drag
There’s an old baseball analogy that says if two guys run the same time to first base, one with excellent form and the other with sloppy form, you take the latter because if you can teach him the proper form, he beats the other guy to first.
Jeff Bridich has taken this philosophy organization-wide.
The idea is, you can’t improve upon a player’s floor, and that who a guy is at his worst matters almost as much, if not sometimes more, than who he is at his best. Again, this is cross-applied to the entire team.
The best statistic for understanding this premise is something called “Drag Factor” which was created by Matthew Gross. According to his research, there is a higher correlation between baseball teams losing games because of too many at-bats from substandard players as opposed to not getting enough production from their stars. In other words, it’s better to have guys that don’t hurt the team than it is to have guys who are more consistent at helping the team. In baseball, failure is more common than success, which turns the game into a war of attrition. Sometimes it feels like the team that wins the World Series is simply the last group of guys still standing at the end.
This concept drives home the point that any little thing simply given away is an opportunity lost. Traditional baseball logic dictates that you put big burly men on first base and in the corner outfield spots because less athleticism is required. But in a modern world of super athletes, these kinds of tradeoffs seem less and less necessary. And rather than viewing the individual player as a sum of his parts — i.e. suggesting he will make up for deficiencies in one area by excelling in another — Bridich appears to be avoiding that whole conundrum by filling his entire roster, regardless of position, with guys that can do everything well, even if they aren’t necessarily elite.
Perhaps the best individual example of such a player in all of MLB over the last few years has been Charlie Blackmon. Until last season when he hit 29 home runs, none of his numbers really blew you away. He is emerging as one of the best outfielders in baseball, but all along he has been contributing to his team by simply not subtracting in any area. You don’t have to hope one part of his game makes up for some other part, and if Jeff Bridich could wave a magic wand and make it happen, he would put a player like that everywhere on the diamond.
When this idea is employed team-wide you end up creating a far more consistent baseline for your club.
Unless you are Barry Bonds in 2002, power comes in streaks. So does hitting in general for that matter. But the things you can’t teach, the things nearly every player on this roster has, they don’t go away. Baseball has often been called a team game based on individual performance. But the “never let up, athletes are everywhere” doctrine builds a collective threat that keeps the opposition constantly on their toes.
Limiting the numbers of guys on the team who can’t run, or play defense, or make strong accurate throws, limits those little things that add up over the course of 162 to separate the contenders from the pretenders. But either way, Bridich appears to be rejecting the premise that one player’s deficiencies do not affect the next and this is why he has been amassing an army of athletic prospects while acquiring versatile veterans like Desmond and Mark Reynolds.
Say what you will about those signings or a multitude of others, but they didn’t come out of the clear blue sky, the bread crumbs were always there.
Join us for Part 2 as we jump into how this methodology works — or at least, is intended to work — and what some of the positive and negative short term and long term consequences of actually trying this at the MLB level could be.