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Reaching for the Intangible – A Statistic for Versatility

Written by , Posted in General

Disclaimer: I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, so the outcome of this could be inconclusive. Think of this as more of a data science experiment than anything. Let me know what you think, I plan to continue crunching numbers.

Background
Over the last couple years, as the Cubs have come into their new persona, one word has been thrown around quite a bit: Versatility. What is versatility? According to the Google, versatility is the ability to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities. A simple concept to grasp, versatility in baseball is the ability to move around the diamond and contribute at multiple positions. The less than casual fan may say “so what? Only one person can play a position at a given time, so why does it matter if someone is able to move around?” First and foremost, you have to account for injuries. The baseball season is, as players describe it, a grind. With 162 games in 180 days, its argued that nobody is ever playing 100% healthy. Having athletes who can fill in and relieve a regular starter is something you probably chalk up under the category of “intangibles”. This is an attempt to measure that. Aside from injuries, a team has to account for their roster configuration, mainly speaking, managing a pitching staff. Having versatile players allows a club to focus on filling out their bullpen and pitching needs. As you know, the Cubs like giving chances to quite a few arms over the course of a season in hopes a diamond in the rough can help in the postseason. Where this might hurt a team, especially with the national league style of play, is having pinch hitters for those key moments late in the game. Something that versatility specifically helped the Cubs was allowing them to carry three catchers for most if not the entire season. It also helped that one of those catchers, Willson Contreras, was athletic enough to play the outfield to keep his bat in the lineup. This article is a shot in the dark attempt to put some math behind the concept of versatility and I will use the 2016 Cubs roster to help me do so.

Determining a Player’s Versatility
For starters, we will account for the eight positions on the field, leaving out the pitcher. Pitching is such a specialized skill in the game that you don’t see much versatility when it comes to pitching or pitchers.

(But Trevor, what about when Travis Wood and Pedro Strop played left field? What about when Miguel Montero pitched? Fair points, but the pitchers in the outfield had more to do with Joe Maddon being who he is than it did with versatility. And seeing a position player pitch comes under one circumstance, blowouts. Therefore, pitchers and the pitcher’s mound are left out of the equation. I am also not accounting for DH, because anyone can be a DH, it doesn’t take any extra athleticism or versatility to be a DH.)

So here’s how I lay it out. One point is given to a player that has at least one complete game at a position. One eighth (0.11) of a point will be given to a player who has played a position but did not play a complete game. Stats will be taken from Baseball Reference over the entirety of the player’s career. I considered using innings to determine the point system, but decided against it (I might revisit this later).  In terms of versatility, I believe that the ability to play the position is the optimal factor, not necessarily service time. Playing a full game is enough to say they can contribute there regularly if need be, and playing there at all means your manager is confident you can at least hold it down. There you have my point system.

I’ll use Kris Bryant as an example. Kris’ total will be 5.11 points. One point a piece for his games at third base, first base, and each of the three outfield spots. He receives 1/8th point for his contribution at shortstop. Based on that point system, here is how the 2016 Cubs break down.

Albert Almora – 3 points (LF, CF, RF)

Javy Baez – 4.11 points (1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF)

Kris Bryant – 5.11 points (3B, 1B, LF, CF, RF, and SS)

Jeimer Candelario – 1 point (3B)

Chris Coghlan – 6 points (LF, CF, RF, 1B, 2B, 3B)

Willson Contreras – 3 points (C, LF, 1B)

Tim Federowicz – 1.11 points (C, 1B)

Dexter Fowler – 1.11 (CF, RF)

Jason Heyward – 2 points (RF, CF)

Ryan Kalish – 3 points (LF, CF, OF)

Muneori Kawasaki – 3 points (2B, 3B, SS)

Tommy La Stella – 2 points (2B, 3B)

Miguel Montero – 1 point (C)

Anthony Rizzo – 1 point (He technically played 2B for an out, but if you remember that game it was more of a technicality than it was Joe saying “go play second”. So I did not count it.)

David Ross – 1 point (C)

Addison Russell – 2 points (SS, 2B)

Kyle Schwarber – 2.11 points (C, LF, RF)

Jorge Soler – 2 points (LF, RF)

Matt Szczur – 3 points (LF, CF, RF)

Ben Zobrist – 7 points (1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, RF)

Determining a Team’s Versatility
A perfect case would be every player getting one point for every position. For this exercise I used 20 players. Twenty multiplied by eight gives us a maximum of 160 points. The Cubs’ team total was 53.66 which I then divide by the maximum score to get what I am calling the versatility quotient. For comparison, I did this for all five teams in the NL Central, the results are as follows:

Brewers – 0.358

Cubs – 0.335

Reds – 0.317

Pirates – 0.303

Cardinals –  0.302

Conclusion
According to this statistic that I totally made up, I may or may not have determined that the Cubs are not the most versatile team in the NL Central. Probably not what you were hoping to hear, but hey, I warned you I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. For those of you who are mad at me I offer you the gift of a statistic that has the Cardinals in last place. You’re welcome.

Going Forward
I plan to keep working at this in hopes something comes out of it. Keep an eye on the comments for the Versatility Quotient for each of the remaining teams in the league, and modifications to the point system. I already plan to narrow the number of players from 20, based on innings played. This will eliminate the random players from a team’s taxi squad and September call ups whose contribution over the long haul was minimal. I feel like these players may skew the results a bit, but I guess we will find out.

Let me know what you think. Whether you think I’m onto something or if I’m wasting my (and your) time, I want to hear what you have to say.

All statistics were retrieved from Baseball-Reference. They do incredible work, check them out for your next stat related inquiry.

  • Bruce Fritz

    I think this is interesting and I do enjoy learning about new ways to analyze the game.

    One thought/suggestion: Account for the amount of time spent at multiple positions in a positive way. For example: Starting 80 games each at 2 different positions like a true Swiss Zobrist Knife should be considered a more truly versatile player than someone who played 159/1 games at two positions due to some strange emergency spot start.

    And if you want to truly get advanced someday, it would be interesting to incorporate some sort of defensive rating like UZR. Schwarber plays multiple positions because he’s going to hit 108 homers this year and has to stay in the lineup somehow, not necessarily because he’s valuable at multiple defensive positions. Or to not pick on Schwarbs, it’s more valuable for Contreras to play C+LF than someone to play two similar positions like LF+RF.

    • JTBarrett16

      So now the stakes are being raised to 108? I like it.

    • Brad Lyerla

      Yes. And yes.

    • JTBarrett16

      I too was thinking something along those lines account for the innings played at the position. Like if someone is moving somewhere in an emergency vs someone like Bryant or Contreras who can actually play more than 1 position.

  • Sherm

    1. Yes. You are crazy. Unquestionably.

    2. That was very enjoyable to read.

    I’m not sure if it’s total genius or completely absurd…but I liked it and will look forward to seeing where it goes.

  • Cogs’ 6.0 versatility score is just part of what makes him a sure thing future first ballot HOFer