The Importance Of Team Roles - Part Three

The key to winning in any sport is to place the right people in the right roles at the right time. In order to do that you must prioritize the roles and make sure you do not ask more of a player than he is capable of giving. It is the general manager's duty to put the best players available on the 25 man roster and the field manager's duty to play them in the roles where they are most likely to succeed on any given day.

The Phillies have not had the right players filling the right roles so far in 2006, a fact which is clearly reflected in their disappointing record through the first 17 games.

Last week I continued to rank the most important jobs on the baseball diamond. The top five are: 1. Ace of the staff, 2. The number two starter, 3. The cleanup hitter, 4. The number three hitter, 5. The number three starter. Players in these roles are the nucleus of any ball club - the priority of every good GM - and should earn up to 50% of the team's payroll.

The next five priority roles are those that most support the top five: 6. The leadoff hitter, 7. Defense up the middle, 8. The closer, 9. The two-hole hitter, 10. The five-hole hitter. Players assigned these roles should earn about 25% of the team's payroll, leaving just 25% of the payroll for the remaining 15 players on the 25 man-roster.

The Phillies top ten roles are filled by: 1. John Lieber, 2. Brett Myers, 3. Pat Burrell, 4. Bobby Abreu, 5. Cory Lidle, 6. Jimmy Rollins, 7. Mike Lieberthal, 8, Tom Gordon, 9. Aaron Rowand, 10. Chase Utley.

The Phillies most glaring problem is the lack of a true ace, followed by manager Charlie Manuel's insistence on batting slugger Ryan Howard 7th and starting David Bell ahead of Abraham Nunez. Howard and Burrell should share the duties of the cleanup and five-hole spots in the lineup, alternating according to the correct left-right match-up of the opposing starting pitcher. If the Phillies felt Howard was not ready to at least share the cleanup duties then they had no business trading Jim Thome - unless 2006 was meant all along to be a rebuilding year. Bell, meanwhile, should be a platoon player at best.

Also, the Phillies don't have a true two-hole hitter since trading Placido Polanco. While Aaron Rowand has hit over .320 so far, a closer look at the numbers suggests that he does not belong in the two-hole. For one, he is a right-handed pull hitter who will not advance as many runners with groundouts to the left side as a left-handed batter would by hitting groundouts to the right side. Advancing runners with outs is more important for a two-hole hitter than advancing them with hits, since making an out is more than twice as common as getting a hit for even the best of hitters. In other words, it is more important that a two-hole batter's outs are productive than simply relying on him to get a base hit. Even if Rowand hits .300, he is not likely to advance as many runners as a left-handed hitter who hits .250. Also working against Rowand in the two-hole is his high strikeout-to-walk ratio and his low pitches-per-plate appearance ratio, further diminishing the value of his outs.

Lefty Chase Utley is a better option to bat second because his outs are more productive, especially against right-handers. He is fast enough to beat out a potential double play or steal a base - in fact, he has a better success rate than Rowand - and he has much more patience at the plate. Utley hits far more balls on the ground to the right side than Rowand, suggesting that his outs would be more productive, and he sees far more pitches per plate appearance and draws walks at a much higher rate. A two-hole hitter sees on average one more plate appearance per game than the five-hole hitter and Utley is the man the Phillies should reward with that extra plate appearance. All told, Utley batting .250 in the two-hole would be more productive than Rowand batting .300. If leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins is doing his job, Utley's power numbers and knack for hitting with runners in scoring position will not be wasted in the two-hole. And Rowand is enough of a threat batting sixth to prevent opposing hurlers from pitching around hitters in the five-hole.

The next five most important roles are: 11. More defense up the middle (ranked: SS, 2B, CF), 12. Left-handed set-up man, 13. Number four starting pitcher, 14. Right-handed set-up man, 15. Number five starting pitcher. Let's see how the Phillies stack up.

11. Second Defender up the Middle (ranked: Shortstop, Second Base, Centerfield)
A big play in the field can give a pitcher a huge lift, especially the twin killing. Conversely, nothing brings a pitcher down more than sloppy defense behind him. If you don't have a shortstop or second-baseman among your top ten roles, you're next priority is to get a slick-fielder up the middle who can turn two with the best of them. Even if he is a below average hitter, he can always bat eighth. If your middle infielders are already filling roles among the top ten, then the priority position is the centerfielder, who is captain of the outfield.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Other than Mike Lieberthal, the Phillies' up-the-middle defenders are all being asked to perform in higher-priority hitting roles. With shortstop Jimmy Rollins, centerfielder Aaron Rowand, and second baseman Chase Utley, the Phillies are especially strong up the middle. Mike Lieberthal is the weakest defender of the bunch despite the fact that his primary job on the team is defense, but he still calls a good game and is a proven veteran leader. This leaves the Phillies to pick another position to plug into this second defender's role. For the Phillies this is going to be David Bell, since a third baseman requires more mobility and will see more difficult chances in the field over time than a first baseman. Defensively, Bell is somewhat enigmatic. He is just as likely to make a spectacular play as he is to boot an easy grounder. Yet over time his fielding percentage tends to be on the lower end of the scale and he is therefore not good enough as a defender to adequately fill this role. If Bell were a potent hitter who could fill a priority hitter's role, then the Phillies could easily live with his defense, but the fact is that Bell is a bottom-of-the-order batter with a slightly below average glove. Still, he is a veteran leader, a character guy and a specialist at hitting left-handers, suggesting that the role most suitable for him is as a pinch-hitting bench player. Technically Aaron Rowand should be the player slotted in this role, since he should be batting sixth instead of second.

12. Lefty set-up man
Why is a left-handed set-up man more important than the number four starter, who pitches in far more innings? Because good left-handed set-up men are much rarer commodities than good number four starters. It's a simple case of supply and demand. Not all games are close, but against the best teams the margin between winning and losing gets much tighter and the importance of the bullpen is magnified. A good left-handed set-up man can make a huge difference. This set-up reliever must not simply be a left-handed specialist who comes in for one batter, he must be able to handle an entire inning, finish games in non-save situations and occasionally even save a tight game when the closer needs a rest.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Arthur Rhodes hasn't had the best of starts to the 2006 season, but as a proven veteran he is an excellent choice to fill this role. Over time his numbers should fall in line with his performance in recent years as long as Charlie Manual shows a knack for using him in the right situations. Rhodes could pitch for any team in baseball and the Phillies are lucky to have him.

13. Number four starting pitcher
On any given day, the starting pitcher is the most important player on the field. Often, the fourth starting pitcher will face another team's number three starter if the opposing team has just had a day off coming into the series. As such, there must not be a huge drop-off from the number three starter to the number four starter. He must be able to deliver quality starts on a consistent basis and avoid meltdowns that lead to blowout losses.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Not only was Gavin Floyd a surprise to make the team coming out of spring training, he was named the team's fourth starter despite his limited and shaky performance at the major league level last year. Floyd has a lot of potential and the boost in confidence by being named fourth starter may make a difference…and then again it may not. Only time will tell. For now Floyd must be considered a huge question mark. Compare Floyd to last year's champion White Sox number four starter, John Garland, who went 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA in 2005. Without Garland performing as he did it is unlikely that the Sox win the division, much less the World Series. Meanwhile, if the Phillies fail to join the race soon it really won't matter how Gavin Floyd performs this season. Certainly a fourth starter can't be blamed as the Achilles heel if the three starters ahead of him aren't performing either.

14. Righty-set up man
Again, a set-up man is the bridge to the closer and typically pitches in games close and late. If he fails to perform well on a consistent basis the team will suffer a number of demoralizing losses late in games. He is slightly more important than the number five starter because he will factor into more games despite his much lower number of innings pitched and because there is a significant psychological impact of games decided in the later innings.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Ryan Franklin has the stuff to function adequately, if unspectacularly, as a right-handed set-up man, though he tends to give up a few too many long balls. With Gavin Floyd in the rotation, the question the Phillies have is whether or not Franklin will best help the team as a starter. What about Ryan Madson? In recent seasons Ryan Madson has performed exceptionally well as the right-handed set-up man - so well, in fact, that it became apparent that he could help the team even more as a starter. Madson's woeful performance in his most recent start was only one game. In Madson's other starts he performed excellently. It was Madson's great starting effort that stopped the Phillies four game losing streak to open the season. The Phillies went on to win in his next start, too, as Madson gave up just three earned runs in seven strong innings. Only Madson and Brett Myers have started two games that the Phillies went on to win. Perhaps this says more about the other starters than it does about Madson but it does suggest that the Phillies still need Madson in the starting rotation.

15. Number five starting pitcher
The number five starter is more important than some of the every day players - the seven and eight-hole hitters - because on the days he starts he is the team's most important player, whereas the batters at the bottom of the lineup are never the team's most important players. Sure, an eight-hole hitter might have a great day and carry the team to a win but it is not expected of him in the way it is expected of a starting pitcher. Put another way, a team is much more likely to overcome a terrible day by a seven or eight-hole hitter than by a starting pitcher. Any team with a solid five-man starting rotation will stay in the race through the summer. Usually a team drops out of the race because they have to give the ball to a sub-par starter two or three times a week. Even the Royals would stay in the race until Autumn if they could take any five starters, not including aces, from any other American League team.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Ryan Madson is the fifth starter in name only. In fact he is the team's fourth best starter, which makes him more valuable in the starting rotation than in the bullpen. After Madson's meltdown in his last start there will no doubt be calls to move him back into the bullpen but he should not be demoted on the basis of one bad day, especially since he performed so well in his first two starts. Even if Ryan Franklin flounders in the set-up role, Madson should not be moved unless he goes into a prolonged slump as a starter. As good as Madson is on most days, it is likely that he will overtake Cory Lidle as the team's third best starter as the season wears on, another reason to continue giving him the ball every fifth day.

Summary of roles 11 – 15
Roles 11 through 15 are important enough to garner 15% of the team's payroll. The Phillies have many fine players to fill these roles but they aren't getting the most out of them. Sure, they suffer from the domino effect of a hole at the top of the rotation but they also are misusing the talent they already have. Put it all together and you have an underachieving team. Reigning rookie of the year Ryan Howard should not be a peripheral player. By batting him seventh you are limiting his potential and sending him a bad message. Why boost Gavin Floyd's confidence by naming him fourth in the rotation while knocking Howard's confidence by moving him down in the order? Also, the Phillies could manufacture more runs with a different two-hole hitter, even if Rowand hits above .300 all year. Finally, it is simply unfair to everyone involved to ask David Bell to play every day.

Next week: rounding out the 25-man roster in terms of priority roles and measuring how the Phillies stack up.

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