Dan Duquette and Avoiding the Awful

So can we just go over this one more time? I know everyone knows about it, but it’s still freaking crazy. The Orioles are in the ALCS. That’s already pretty nuts. But Ubaldo Jimenez, who they gave a lot of money to, was bad. He’s not on the roster. Matt Wieters played 26 games before getting hurt. He’s not on the roster. Manny Machado managed half a season before getting hurt. He’s not on the roster. Chris Davis basically just sucked. He’s not on the roster. Even if, in March, you had a program of your own that predicted the Orioles would get this far, your program still would’ve been wrong about how it all happened. The Royals? Great story. The Orioles? Great story, too. There are so many reasons why so many people seem to find this year’s ALCS more compelling than its senior companion.

Clearly, the Orioles have gotten contributions from enough other people to make up for the missing or underperforming stars. Clearly, the Orioles assembled some depth. This all got me thinking about Dan Duquette, and a certain principle. One way to improve a roster is by adding more good players. Another way to improve a roster is by eliminating the bad players. Of course, you want to do both, but in theory you can either raise the ceiling or raise the floor. It seems to me the Orioles haven’t given much in the way of playing time to the truly bad. It seems to me that would be a credit to the organization. To what extent, though, is this actually true?

Duquette was introduced as an Orioles employee in November 2011. So, the team’s had three seasons under his control, so let’s use that as our window. We’ll examine data from between 2012 – 2014.

WAR and replacement level give us a really neat baseline. That baseline being: 0.0 WAR. No matter the playing time, a replacement-level player would be expected to generate a WAR of 0.0. And in theory, there’s never any excuse to play someone who’s performing worse than that. We know that some of that playing time is inevitable, but this is how I’ve chosen to test things. I looked at players who finished with negative WAR in each of the last three seasons. I then sorted them by team, and I did some basic addition. Following is a table with two columns. One’s got team names in it. The other’s got the three-year sum of negative WAR. Browse!

Team Negative WAR, 2012-2014
Rays -8.3
Athletics -10.4
Nationals -10.8
Braves -11.0
Angels -11.5
Orioles -12.6
Cardinals -13.3
Tigers -13.3
Rangers -13.6
Giants -14.2
Royals -14.5
Red Sox -14.5
Diamondbacks -15.3
Pirates -15.3
Yankees -15.5
Blue Jays -16.5
Brewers -16.6
Rockies -17.0
Reds -17.6
Mets -18.0
White Sox -18.3
Mariners -18.6
Indians -18.7
Twins -18.8
Dodgers -18.8
Padres -19.9
Phillies -21.0
Marlins -21.3
Cubs -22.4
Astros -28.1

Naturally, there’s a strong relationship between this and overall team success. And where do we find the Duquette Orioles? Sixth place, about four wins from the top. All the negative players the Orioles have played since 2012 have accounted for about -13 wins or so, or an average of a little over four a season. Our sample mean is just below -16 WAR. Our sample standard deviation is right around 4 WAR. The Duquette Orioles have been about one standard deviation better than average, in terms of avoiding negative contributions.

In 2014 in particular, the Orioles have shined in this regard. All the negative players combined for just -1.8 WAR. Orioles pitchers accounted for 1.7% of league-wide negative pitcher WAR. Orioles position players accounted for 0.9% of league-wide negative position-player WAR. Of course, the Orioles are 3.3% of major-league baseball.

And we can look at this a different way. The Orioles gave just 3.2% of their innings this year to negative-WAR pitchers. The league average, excluding the Orioles? 13.4%. And, the Orioles gave just 3.2% of their plate appearances this year to negative-WAR position players. The league average, excluding the Orioles? 19.4%. The Orioles, this season, suffered some hardships, and they lost possible star-level contributions. Surprising awesome seasons from guys like Steve Pearce and Nelson Cruz have helped to make up for this, but the Orioles have also been helped by a relatively strong bottom of the roster. The depth guys have been adequate, so the Orioles have been able to avoid spending too much time on statistical black holes.

Some of that, as always, is noise, but some of that is a testament to Duquette and the Orioles’ organization. As much as a lot of people get tied up in worrying about the top of a roster, Duquette hasn’t lost focus on the significance of the bottom, and gaining one positive win is no more helpful than avoiding one negative win. The Orioles of recent years have been deep, and this Orioles team has needed its depth the most, and as you’ve noticed, they’re still alive in the playoffs. In a sense, this year’s team captures Duquette’s philosophy in a nutshell. It’s effective even without too much star power, and it’s a handful of breaks away from being ahead 2-0 in the ongoing series. Duquette wanted to have the stars, too, but they’ve managed without.

To awkwardly change gears real quick at the end, there’s also something to be noted here about Andrew Friedman, Ned Colletti, the Rays, and the Dodgers. You see the Rays at the top of the table, with just -8.3 combined negative WAR. The Dodgers are at -18.8, toward the bottom. While the Dodgers, over the last three years, have combined for seven more positive WAR than the Rays, the Rays have been better by about 4 WAR overall, because they’ve been able to have better depth. Friedman has always accumulated talent beyond just the active roster, while Colletti had weaknesses on the active roster.

So with Friedman bolting for Los Angeles, this is an area where I’d expect pretty quick improvement. The Friedman Dodgers will be better prepared for emergency, and they should have plenty of decent players around if and when they need to go past the first 25. This is a way that Friedman had to stay a step ahead in Tampa in order to compete, but it’s not like that lesson will be forgotten just because he has access to a lot more money. No one wants injuries or surprising underperformance, but generally those things can’t be avoided, so the better prepared you are, the better your team’s chances of survival. Friedman and the rest of his staff will work to make the Dodgers more bulletproof. The Brandon League contract can exist for only so long.

To try to tie this stuff together, I guess, we can look to the AL East. There, one executive was held in high regard, and as he bolts for a far different market, he’ll take with him a belief in the importance of depth. And another executive remains, and though his reputation isn’t nearly the same, it’s beginning to look like he’s sharper than he was given credit for. At the top of the roster, the Orioles are decently strong. Yet the top of the roster’s just a fraction of the roster in total.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Alex
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Alex

Wasn’t a knock (of several) on Duquette in Boston that he built very top-heavy rosters?

tz
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tz

The biggest knock on him that I remember is the players complained about how often he churned the roster, which at the time was a lot compared to other teams – though not crazy if viewed against current GMs.

And if you do go with a stars-and-scrubs approach, it’s super important to be able to sift out positive WAR players for the back end of your roster, which Duquette has always been able to do. It’s interesting to see the Tigers just behind the Orioles on this list, with their stars-and-scrubs approach and fellow ex-Expo GM.

Finally, you have to avoid giving oversized contracts to guys who run the risk of becoming negative WAR players. Dombrowski really dodged a bullet for the Tigers when he unloaded Fielder, simply because he could easily become another Ryan Howard type albatross later on in that contract.

Oh yeah, another great article Jeff!