|Wednesday, February 19
Updated: March 13, 1:11 PM ET
Unknown jewels out there, but not many of them
By Nate Silver
Special to ESPN.com
While managing the Tigers back in the 1980s, Sparky Anderson made it a rite of spring to shamelessly overhype a prospect or two from his team's decaying farm system. Their names will be familiar only to the truly obsessed and the truly faithful: Chris Pittaro, Mike Laga, Torey Lovullo, Jim Walewander.
Sparky made it a point to suggest that all jobs were open for competition based on spring-training performance -- Alan Trammell's and Sweet Lou's and Kirk Gibson's included. Most of the time, of course, Sparky was bluffing; replacing Tram with a rookie might have triggered a spontaneous outbreak of violence not seen in Motown since the riots of 1967. Worse yet, some of the time he wasn't kidding.
The prospect would proudly take the field on Opening Day in the Olde English D, struggle to hit above the Mendoza Line for six weeks or so, before being mercifully dispatched 40 miles south to resume his rightful place as a Toledo Mudhen.
Fans and the local media, always loyal to Sparky, were happy enough to play along with the joke; back then, after all, it was possible to laugh along with the Tigers, rather than at them. But the lesson is clear: Don't take too seriously anything you hear coming out of Florida and Arizona. Spring training is the one time of the year when, like the children of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, all the players, even on the Devil Rays, are above average.
How much really is up for grabs in spring training? The question is not straightforward to answer, so we'll start with the big picture.
Turnover on a baseball roster is every bit as natural a phenomenon as the leaves budding in spring; players debut, age and retire, their skills wax and wane. One way to measure the rate of turnover is to account for the percentage of playing time that is taken up by players who were not on their teams' rosters the previous season. That calculation is made, at various points in history, in the table below. (For position players, plate appearances are used to evaluate playing time, and for pitchers, innings pitched. Expansion teams in their first year of play are excluded from the analysis).
A good percentage of roster turnover is virtually unavoidable; it has transcended the rise and fall of new leagues, the birth of free agency, the integration and internationalization of the game, and Morganna the Kissing Bandit. Nevertheless, there have been enough ebbs and flows over the course of time that a brief history is in order.
In the beginning, roster turnover was high; during the Deadball Era, about 30 percent of plate appearances and innings pitched were accounted for by rookies or newly acquired players. The figure was higher still before the founding of the American League in 1901, when it was not uncommon for entire teams to change leagues and entire rosters to change places.
Things settled down a bit during what I've called the Golden Age, the happy time between the Black Sox scandal and the mass entry of players and other able-bodied citizens into the army prior to the 1943 season. Roughly one-quarter of plate appearances during the period were occupied by players new to their rosters.
After a predictable blip upward during the war years, turnover reverted to a figure close to its previously established levels during 1947-1957. Those years might well be called the Jackie Robinson Era, as they coincide almost perfectly with his career, as well as the gradual integration of the game. Turnover was just a little bit higher during the period than in the years immediately preceding and proceeding it, which can be accounted for by the slow migration of players from the Negro Leagues onto major-league rosters.
The move of the Dodgers and the Giants to California in 1958 ushered in the Expansionist Era. Baseball added eight teams during the '60s as it moved westward and southward and onto television screens everywhere. But rosters were as stable as they had ever been, with the exception of the emergence of a gap between turnover rates for pitchers and hitters, which was to grow wider as the years would pass.
Curt Flood began his fight against the reserve clause in 1970, but it was not until 1977 that free agents began to leave their teams en masse. Turnover rates that year were at as high as any time since the war years, as 33 percent of plate appearances and 32 percent of innings pitched were fulfilled by new players. But what started as -- well, a flood -- soon turned into a trickle. From 1977 until 1992, turnover rates were no higher than they had been in the Expansionist Era. The collusion of the mid-'80s artificially deflated roster turnover for a few seasons, but even discarding these years, roster turnover was no higher than it had ever been.
But then something happened. Shortly after Bud Selig replaced Fay Vincent in the commissioner's office in December 1992, the number of players switching teams began to crawl upward, and it has remained high. Turnover rates for hitters now hover near 30 percent, as high as they have consistently been in any period since the Deadball Era. The rates are higher still for pitchers; free agency and the ever-increasing specialization of pitching roles have conspired to reduce pitchers' job security to an all-time low.
Most of the difference, no doubt, is the result of veteran players changing teams as free agents. Due to the nuances of the definition of service time -- days spent on the roster is what counts, not at-bats or innings pitched -- it is difficult to go back in time and estimate exactly which players would have been eligible for free agency under current rules. A reasonable approximation can be achieved, however, by giving a player credit for each year in which he achieves the "rookie minimum" number of appearances -- 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched. In the table below, turnover rates are charted separately for veteran hitters who enter the season with at least six years of estimated service time, and those who fall below this threshold.
Up until the Curt Flood Era, teams favored a trial-by-fire approach, and younger players were replaced at a faster rate than more experienced ones. Nowadays, more and more front offices understand the decided financial advantage provided by players short on service time. They place more trust in minor league statistics, wait until a player is ready to contribute to recall him, then milk him for all he's worth until his arbitration clock runs out. It's the veteran players who change hands.
What has caused the high rate of player turnover in the Selig Era? Most of the period has been characterized by rapid economic growth, both of the Alan Greenspan boom economy in general and of baseball revenues in particular. In a market as dependent on local sources of income as is baseball, a greater surplus of wealth can very easily create greater differentiation in the ability to generate marginal revenue, especially when accentuated by profound differences in front office smarts. Jason Giambi is worth more in New York than he is in Kansas City, and the gap is greater than it was in the early days of free agency.
And so, Selig and his cronies have it half right; although recent seasons have been characterized by high turnover of veteran players, these conditions have arisen not out of any economic struggle, but out of baseball's abundance of wealth.
But we digress. What does all of this have to do with playing-time battles in spring training? Well, not very much. Jim Thome has changed uniforms this winter; he's not going to have a fight for playing time on his hands, even under hard-nosed manager Larry Bowa. The reality is that, whatever a manager might say to the contrary, there are only one or two spots on a 25-man roster that are open for competition each spring.
The ultimate spring-training warrior is the non-roster invitee. Even though Club NRI has previously included such VIPs as Garth Brooks and Michael Jordan, its admittance policy is not very exclusive. League-wide, there were 531 NRIs last year -- that's on top of a full contingent of 40-man rosters. Of that group, just 43, or about eight percent, managed to make an Opening Day roster.
Moreover, most players who win jobs in spring training play marginal roles throughout the course of the season. Here are the combined stat lines for the non-roster invitees who made their team's rosters last season:
Hitters: .254-.330-.391 in 4,197 plate appearances.
That's not a poor performance by any means; it's closer to league average than what we normally describe as replacement level, and most of those guys made little more than the league minimum. Nevertheless, last year's group of NRIs was an historically strong one, and even then, only three -- the Braves' miracle bullpen duo of Chris Hammond and Darren Holmes, and the Twins' Mike Jackson -- could reasonably be said to have a meaningfully positive impact on a pennant contender.
In an environment in which turnover is high, advanced planning takes on all the more importance. A high-revenue club must be familiar not only with the players on its roster, but also those on rosters throughout the league. A low-revenue club must develop and execute a long-term plan that accounts for the possibility of its players departing as free agents. Clubs can't afford to make these personnel decisions in the short time frame of spring training on a regular basis. A manager's impression of 50 Grapefruit League at-bats against pitching of questionable quality will not and should not normally be enough to overcome years of performance records, the advice of a team's scouting and training staff, and so on.
Baseball is baseball, and we'll be watching the spring games. There will be a handful of feel-good stories to follow, like Hammond last year, or Albert Pujols the year before him, or an age-defying Rickey Henderson in perpetuity. But more often than not, a team that is making its most important roster decisions in March is not going to be playing in October.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.