In a few days, people will gather together to mumble the words to Auld Lang Syne and to begin 2016. I'm old enough that I remember when "2000" was shorthand for "the unimaginable future" so I suppose that 16 years later, we've probably actually gotten to the world of The Jetsons. It's always nice at the end of the year to look ahead and to try to figure out what baseball will look like in the next five years. Not in the sense of which teams are poised for a run of dominance and which ones might be better suited trying to build a time machine to get to 2020 as quickly as they can.
Today, I'd rather look at what recent developments -- maybe ones that you might have missed -- say about what the game itself might look like in 2020, particularly through the lens of the kinds of players whom we are likely to see more (or less) of in the next five years.
1) A new type of pitcher
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Larry Lyons is a pitcher. Chances are that you've never heard of him because I made him up. But if he were real, the convention is that I would introduce him using two pieces of information. Is he right- or left-handed (or Pat Venditte) and is he a starter or a reliever? We've grown accustomed as a sport to think of pitchers as living in one of two boxes. You're either a guy who goes seven innings or you're a guy who pitches one inning. It's strange because there are a few numbers between one and seven that are perfectly good numbers. Why don't we have pitchers who have the specific job of pitching three or four innings? There are "long relievers" in the game, although that's a job you usually get as a punishment for either being the new guy just up from Triple-A or having a few bad outings as a starter.
If you didn't watch a lot of Tampa Bay Rays baseball this year, you might not have noticed that the Rays seemed to be running a bit of a pitching experiment. While the Rays didn't do it every night, they had a lot of nights where their starter would pitch only twice around the order (18 batters) and then let the bullpen handle it from there. Of course, the problem with a starter who only faces 18 batters is that he only makes it through four or five innings. Enter Matt Andriese, the future of pitching. His final line MLB line for 2015 wasn't all that impressive. He pitched 65.2 innings and notched an ERA of 4.11, just slightly above league average. But the way that the Rays used him was interesting. Andriese made eight starts for the big club and 17 relief appearances. His starts generally lasted 18-ish batters, but he made several multi-inning relief appearances.
Starters who can provide even adequate results for 32 starts of seven innings each will be rewarded with a $15 million per year contract. The problem is that teams sure do spend a lot of time trying to find those guys. In theory, there's a need for 150 of those guys in baseball and some guys are probably in the role who just aren't cut out to go seven innings time after time.
The Rays -- who have always been specialists at MacGuyvering a roster together out of bits of duct tape and toothpicks -- seemed to take a different approach. What if they had guys in their system who had the stuff to turn a lineup over twice, but not three times? Why force those pitchers into a role where they are asked to do something that they are not good at? Instead of chasing after guys who could give them seven innings, why not just use what they had already on-hand and build their roster around what the guys on their roster are good at?
Not surprisingly, the Rays finished near the bottom of the league, getting only 5.6 IP per start from their pitchers and had 33 starts in which the pitcher did not last past 80 pitches (third-fewest in MLB). What stands out though is that their compatriots in those extreme areas of the list were teams like the Phillies, Rockies, Brewers and Diamondbacks, whose starters gave up more runs per start than the league average. The Rays were actually much better than the league average, suggesting that Rays starters weren't getting pulled because they were being shelled, but because of a plan.
It also meant that the Rays were near the top of the league in relief innings pitched. But if those are the resources that you have on hand, why not build your strategy for winning games around those, rather than trying to adhere to the model that the starter must go six or seven innings or it's a failure? The great psychologist Albert Ellis coined the term "must-erbation" to describe maladaptive behavior that came from a person who did something because s/he felt that it "must" be done a certain way, rather than questioning whether it actually had to be done that way. Perhaps the Rays have broken through to a new thought pattern, and others will follow.
But what to call Matt Andriese? He's not a starter. He's not a reliever. We're going to need to get comfortable with a new word.
2) Getting flexible
Kris Bryant played center field for the Cubs this year. In fact, Bryant played first base, third base and all three outfield spots. In one game on Sept. 28 against the Royals, Bryant started the game at first base, moved to center field, shifted to right field and finally made his way to third by the end of the day. Bryant won the NL Rookie of the Year Award for his versatility (and perhaps because of his prodigious bat), but he's part of a bigger trend within the game toward building players who are more versatile with the gloves that they wear.
There have always been utility infielders and fourth outfielders and guys who were left fielders who would take balls at first and play there a few games. But 2015 was a banner year for the multi-positional regular. In 2015, 18 players appeared in at least 81 games and played at least five games at four different positions. From 2010-2014, the numbers of players fitting that description had been 8, 10, 12, 11 and 12. Of the 18 players who wore at least four hats, eight of them also wore a fifth hat (Mike Aviles, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Flaherty, Marwin Gonzalez, Brock Holt, Kelly Johnson, Brad Miller and Sean Rodriguez), up from four in 2014.
The nice thing about a player who can fill more than one spot on the lineup card is that he provides real value to a team. Flexibility has effects that can be felt in the standings. For example, having a player who can competently handle two positions allows a manager to create a "mixed position" platoon. A team with a guy who can handle both second base and right field (hello, Ben Zobrist) and who is worth a regular lineup spot no matter what can find a right-hand hitting second baseman and a left-handed hitting outfielder to "platoon" with each other, with the multi-positional guy bridging the gap. It allows the manager to insert a defensive specialist into the outfield while removing the defensively suspect second baseman. And maybe more importantly, it allows a manager to give players days off and have them covered by the better players on the bench, and not just the .213 hitting utility infielder who is there exclusively for the reason that he's the only other guy on the roster who can play shortstop. Plus, if you have a player who can play all over the field, maybe that near-useless utility infielder's roster spot can be used to carry an extra reliever.
As teams start to realize the value of this sort of flexibility, expect to see more players trying their hand at different spots as they come through the minors. Not everyone will become Brock Holt, who made the All-Star team and played all seven non-battery positions in 2015. But as a manager doesn't mind making the box score type-setter's job a living nightmare, that flexibility might just allow him a more free hand to make better strategic moves.
3) Have no glove, will travel
The Kansas City Royals won the World Series (and the last two American League pennants) boasting two rather unique features. They had an amazing bullpen, and they had the best outfield defense that anyone could remember. It's not that the only way to win a World Series is to copy these two strategies, but suddenly, teams seem more willing to look at outfield defense. Defense in the outfield was long considered something that only the center fielder had to be any good at. Left and right fielders were often chosen because they were minimally competent at catching flyballs and very competent at hitting the ball 500 feet when presented with a hanging curveball.
There has always been an idea in baseball that a team with a good center fielder can "cover" for a bad corner outfielder because the center fielder will gobble up more balls in the alley. That sounds great until you do the math on that.
In a typical outfield setup, the left and center fielder (or the right and center fielders, it doesn't matter) are standing about 275 feet from the batter. The foul lines make a 90-degree angle, so we'll assume that 30 degrees of that angle is "left" field, 30 is "center" and 30 is "right" and that the fielders are standing in the middle of their "field." That means that if we drew two lines from home plate to the left fielder and then to the center fielder, they'd be 275 feet long and have an angle of 30 degrees between them. For those of you having bad flashbacks to your trigonometry course, you might know what's coming next. According to the cosine law, we can calculate that the left and center fielder are about 142.35 feet apart from each other.
The "average" MLB baserunner gets down the line from home to first (90 feet) at a rate of about 4.3 seconds. If both fielders rate at that average speed, and -- on the crack of the bat -- both men ran directly at each other, it would take them about 3.4 seconds before they could slap hands. That means that at the very least, a ball would have to hang in the air for 3.4 seconds before the center fielder could even begin to enter left fielder land, and that's if it's hit to the exact part of left field that is the absolute closest to him. A lot of flyballs hang in the air for 3-4 seconds.
Yes, a faster center fielder would be able to get there more quickly, but the thought that he'd be able to cover everything in center field and some of left just doesn't stand up to mathematical scrutiny. There are going to be many more balls hit that will either drop or be caught based entirely on the defensive abilities of the left fielder, and there's not a thing that the center fielder can do about it.
Prior to the advent of good defensive metrics, there was little understanding of how much value a good (or a bad) defensive outfielder could bring to (or subtract from) a team, so teams would generally just look for guys who could rake with the bat. But we now know that the spread between a the best and worst corner outfielder can be roughly 40 runs of value.
A team carrying a guy who is all hit and no field, especially a National League team that doesn't have that designated thing, has to consider whether that's a good idea. Maybe he hits enough that it covers his defensive liabilities (see: Bautista, Jose), and that's fine. But perhaps a team should go for the guy who's a decent hitter and a good fielder over the guy who will put up 30 homers. Runs count whether the batter produces them by hitting doubles or prevents the other team from scoring them by running down a ball in the alley or in the corner. Teams have become more cognizant of this.
So, expect to see fewer players who are there just to mash. We've entered an era where we've seen how important defense is, and we can put a number to it. It means seeing fewer home runs and more great catches on the highlight shows, which might delight some and make others groan, but there is no doubt that MLB is going that way.
4) The super-setup guy
This offseason, we've seen the emergence of a roster strategy that might come as a bit of a surprise. The Red Sox traded for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, two elite relievers. (And they already had Koji Uehara!) The Dodgers, who already have Kenley Jansen on the books attempted to trade for Aroldis Chapman. Although the trade was called off due to reports that Chapman had been involved in a domestic-violence incident, it shows that the Dodgers were interested in a second high-end reliever for their roster.
Conventional wisdom about bullpens has long revolved around the save statistic. There are plenty of problems with the save and what it has done to bullpen management strategies, but the most insidious is that it has built a cult of the Proven Closer. Not only have guys who have accumulated saves been overpriced in the market even though they weren't good pitchers, but we've come to over-focus on the guy who records saves as the most important member of the bullpen.
The save is much more an indication of when someone pitched than what he did. Suppose that the starter leaves the game after six innings and his team is up by three. Pitcher A pitches a scoreless seventh. Pitcher B pitches a scoreless eighth. Pitcher C (for closer) comes in and gives up two runs, but his team escapes with a one run win. Pitcher C gets a save, while A and B get ... a "hold". Raise your hand if you know who led MLB in "holds" in 2015. (Tony Watson of the Pirates with 41).
It's led to the idea that a team should focus its bullpen resources on that closer. It's not that teams should ignore who it pitching in the seventh and eighth innings, but that the only spot worth making sure was staffed by someone elite was the closer spot. Why pay a guy closer money to pitch the eighth? After all, while the eighth inning is important, it's not as important as the ninth inning. While that's true, doing a little math shows us that while the closer's job is more important, that doesn't make the eighth inning guy unimportant.
There's a stat known as win probability that comes in handy here. Any situation in baseball can be described by the score (and how far apart the two teams are in runs), the inning, the number of outs and the placement of any runners. This is why your scoreboard app tells you that Boston is beating Chicago 5-2 in the top of the seventh inning, but Chicago has runners on second and third with one out. We can look back in history and see how many times the home team has won in this sort of situation. Since 2000, this exact situation has happened 85 times, with the home team winning 70 of those games, 82.4 percent. So we say that in this situation, Boston has a win probability of 82.4 percent.
Going into the bottom of the ninth with the visitors up by one run, the visiting team has a win probability of 81.8 percent. Hardly a guarantee, but things are looking good. If the closer blows it, his team is either headed to extra innings (where it will win about 47.3 percent of the time) or head to the showers after a walk-off loss (win probability is zero). That's a pretty big swing.
Going into the bottom of the eighth with the visitors up by one, the visiting team has a win probability of 70.1 percent. If the eighth-inning reliever messes up and lets the home team tie the game, his team's chances of winning have dropped to 47.4 percent. If he allows the home team to go up by one run (by giving up two runs), his team is now down to a win probability of 13.0 percent. All hope isn't yet lost, but ... wow that's a big change in their chances.
Teams are recognizing that while you might not get a save for your work in the eighth inning, it's a very big deal. And they are starting to think about making sure that they have someone really good to staff that inning. Expect to see more top-flight relievers head to teams that don't seem to need "a closer" and being installed in the eighth inning. In a world that over-focuses on saves, it doesn't make sense. But looking at it through the mechanics of how a baseball game is actually won and lost, it does.