Sports

It’s Time for Half the Teams in Baseball to Get Weird

Really, really weird.

Billy Hamilton slides headfirst into home base.
Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds slides into home to score a run during the seventh inning of the game against the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park on June 24 in Cincinnati.
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

With the end of the baseball season in sight, half the teams are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. No one will fault these bottom dwellers if they simply show up for work and do their jobs for the final five weeks. Simply letting the season run out, however, would be an enormous waste. Teams that are out of contention have the unique opportunity to face the world’s best competition (this isn’t the minor leagues) playing at full speed (this isn’t spring training) in games that don’t matter (this isn’t the start of the 2019 season). Now is the time to look for a competitive advantage to be deployed when meaningful games roll around next April.

There is a first-mover advantage to finding value in new ideas. It took years for the rest of baseball to catch up to Oakland’s love of players with high on-base percentages, even though a straightforward statistical analysis shows their value. The Rays are still the only team to regularly use an “opener” (a relief pitcher who starts the game) despite the idea’s strategic merit. Teams are squeamish about asking players to try new things when the potential downside is that everyone looks like an idiot. Normal failure is fine and expected. Failure on account of defying conventional wisdom requires public explanation, and no one wants to explain a novel idea that doesn’t work.

Yet those who are willing to get weird will sometimes get rewarded, and there is plenty of uncharted territory for teams to explore. The last-place Cincinnati Reds, for instance, have several unusual players who might be deployed in creative ways. Consider Michael Lorenzen, a reliever who is entirely unremarkable in almost every way: a right-hander who is reasonably good against righties, not so much against lefties, and without the stuff to be a starter. There is, however, one thing he does better than every pitcher with the exception of Shohei Ohtani, and that’s hit.

Pitchers who can handle the bat are generally seen as offering their teams a fun, if not especially meaningful bonus. Sure, they chip in a few more hits, and they can be an extra pinch hitter in a long game, but that’s about it. But for one inning this season, the Reds glimpsed the possibility of something more. Earlier this month, Lorenzen entered a game as a right fielder, playing an inning and getting a hit in his only at-bat. Why not take this gambit a step further, letting him patrol a corner outfield spot, taking the occasional at-bat, while the Reds have a lefty pitcher on the mound. Lorenzen could swap positions with the pitcher to face right-handed hitters in key spots or just to provide a different look, perhaps during the second time through the lineup. He could also pair with a lefty reliever, so they would have the platoon advantage against every hitter for innings at a time. Yes, Lorenzen would have to keep his pitching arm loose while playing the field, and the lefty pitcher would have to be comfortable in the field as well, but these seem like obtainable goals for a team willing to experiment.

Discovering and working out the nuances of a limited two-way player could yield significant value down the road. The assumption has always been that players can only get good enough at either pitching or hitting, not both, because the demands of each are simply too large. Ohtani is already challenging that theory, as may Rays prospect Brendan McKay, but let’s assume that for most players, the assumption is largely true. It’s still easy to imagine training a few relievers to play the outfield and working with them to figure out how best to keep their pitching arms loose.

While Lorenzen is a relatively obscure player, the Reds are better known for having two of the fastest players in the game, Billy Hamilton and José Peraza. Hamilton is one of a handful of regular starters who derive most of their value from their speed. Despite this, Hamilton has only attempted a steal 23 percent of the time he’s had an opportunity. (Last year he did so 33 percent of the time.) Might there be a way to take advantage of his speed more often?

Earlier this year, a writer for FanGraphs suggested that the Reds could bring Billy Hamilton off the bench, using him as a pinch runner at the first available opportunity. And yes, the Reds ought to at least try this, given that Hamilton is extremely valuable once on base but has tremendous difficulty getting there. While Hamilton scoffed at that idea, he and his team might be more amenable to a go-for-broke strategy on the bases. Occasionally a runner will break from first a second too early and the pitcher will simply throw to the first baseman, who immediately throws to second to get the runner. Once in a while, if a base stealer is fast enough, or the first baseman is too slow in converting his end of the play, the runner will pilfer the base anyway. What would happen if the runner prepared for this possibility, taking a huge lead then breaking for second at the pitcher’s first move? In other words, might a base stealer reliably steal second off of the pitcher and first baseman as opposed to the pitcher and catcher? The ball travels roughly the same distance in this scenario as it does when a runner steals third, something Hamilton has done successfully five times in five attempts this year. Furthermore, if the pitcher simply throws a pitch, the base is likely as good as stolen.

There are inevitable nuances to making this work, and it probably needs to be deployed selectively so pitchers can’t adjust. Still, what’s the harm in finding out? The Cubs, who just traded for Terrance Gore to be a pinch runner in the playoffs, might sneak in an attempt or two to see if it’s worth breaking out in the postseason.

The rise of the infield shift presents yet more opportunities for experimentation. The shift, for all its flaws as a strategy, has made life difficult for a certain class of pull-heavy hitters, who now see a large percentage of their ground balls go for outs. For those on losing teams, now is a perfect opportunity to work on bunting away from the shift or on an alternate swing that could send the ball reliably to the opposite field.

Pitchers also ought to try new pitch mixes and grips—maybe someone out there’s been working on an Eephus. A lot of players likely have ideas that are a little too weird to try when the team is contending, but some of them might work. After all, the Astros got to the World Series last year in part because Lance McCullers Jr. threw 24 consecutive curveballs to an explosive Yankee lineup in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. Sometimes, weird wins.

Are any of these good ideas? I honestly don’t know. But to win, teams need to eke out extra value where they can. This means using players efficiently and using time efficiently. While noncontenders will bring up minor leaguers to get a taste of the majors in the final month of the season, they should think about this time more expansively, actively searching for hidden caches of value on their current rosters or their next ones. Those that don’t think creatively shouldn’t be too surprised if they find themselves in the same position the next season and the season after that.