Earlier today, we tackled what Robin Ventura's previous patterns with pitchers might tell us about how he might manage the 12-man staff this upcoming season.
Now, we turn our attention to the other 52 percent of the team, which is a lot simpler to discuss -- but a lot more difficult to project -- because Ventura had little flexibility before, and a lot more of it now.
His bench last year included two first basemen, a catcher who hadn't played above A-ball, and a jack-of-some-trades who became the only position player in White Sox history to post an OBP under .200.
This year? He has defensive subs, pinch-runners, platoon help, utility men, and a real, honest-to-goodness backup backstop.
Nobody has any real idea of what he's going to do with it, but we can try to come up with some guesses by using The Bill James Handbook 2015. You stay here. I'll scout around.
In each one of his three years at the helm of the Sox, Ventura has used a below-average amount of lineups. Even while sustaining the sizable jump he made in this category last year ...
- 2012: 75
- 2013: 116
- 2014: 115
...he's still below the league average of 128. If he had his druthers, he'd probably want to be closer to that first number, because injuries (Gordon Beckham, Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia) and trades (Beckham, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Alejandro De Aza) threw him into audition situations, which the Sox would probably want to avoid in 2015. Outside of second base, where there may have to be some trial-and-error going on, there's an identifiable first stringer at every position.
Likewise, most of his batting order should be ironclad. The first five are set (Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche, Avisail Garcia). Whichever rookie second baseman wins will probably bat ninth, with Tyler Flowers ahead of him. That leaves Alexei Ramirez and Conor Gillaspie, who will probably hit in that order most of the time.
However, Ventura will have the option of giving some starters more help. Gillaspie is vulnerable against lefties, so here's Beckham to at least provide a defensive boost. Flowers won't have to play day games after night games as long as Geovany Soto is functioning. With two options to help out a rookie second baseman, neither Micah Johnson nor Carlos Sanchez would be on their own during their rookie seasons.
The numbers suggests Ventura is a guy who would like to platoon more. For the first time in his career in 2014, more than half of his hitters had the handedness advantage (55 percent). That's still well short of the league average (62 percent), but considering that injuries have wiped out the Sox's two concerted efforts at time-share arrangements the last two seasons, it's not necessarily his fault.
2015 outlook: Ventura isn't going to turn into Terry Francona, but outside of third base and (potentially) DH, he really doesn't have to. He might be the most active when it comes to pinch running. He led the league in that category in 2012, and has been above average over the last two years. He'll have some easy calls if he's already planning on lifting Cabrera or Gillaspie for faster defensive subs, but he'll have to resist lifting Jose Abreu for a pinch runner, which has gotten him into extra-innings trouble a few times.
Otherwise, the biggest point of contention could be the deployment of LaRoche, who had significant platoon splits over his career in Washington:
- vs. RHP: .262/.362/.466
- vs. LHP: .216/.283/.375
The past says Ventura will be content to bat him fifth against lefties to preserve the handedness balance in the lineup. There isn't a lefty-killer on the bench who would clearly make better use of those at-bats, but dropping him down in the order would be a decent consolation prize if he carries his NL history into the AL (especially if he has initial problems adjusting to the league or the DH role).
Another thing that warrants monitoring once the season finds its groove: Despite Ventura's heavy reliance on set starters, his players haven't shown the usual, measurable signs of wearing down over the course of the season. With backups who deserve a greater share of the action, perhaps this is one area where Ventura can improve inadvertently.
At one point, Ventura was badly behind the curve when it came to aligning his defense. The Sox deployed a defensive shift just 72 times in 2013, by far the fewest in the American League (the average team shifted 336 times). As a result, the Sox lost three runs of defense due to positioning, the worst mark in the league.
However the message was delivered to Ventura, he heeded the call. According to the fourth volume of The Fielding Bible, the Sox increased their shifting by more than sevenfold -- from 72 shifts to 534.
It worked. The Sox gained 14 runs of defense, improving their ranking from the worst in baseball to the seventh-best. The quality matched the quantity, as The Fielding Bible says the Sox saved more runs by shifting than other teams who shifted more.
And it's a good thing the Sox improved in this area, because it basically represented all their improvement as a team. Bad news: They were 38 runs below average in terms of DRS. Good news: They were 55 runs below average in 2013.
Ventura did what he could with his bench in this regard. He continued to increase his usage of defensive subs at a steady clip, finally ending up above average in this category ...
- 2012: 23
- 2013: 33
- 2014: 44
... which is no small feat, given the limited skill sets on his bench for most of the season. The Fielding Bible called the Sox meaningfully below average at all four corner positions, but he only had Leury Garcia and Moises Sierra on hand, and Garcia wasn't experienced at any of those positions.
Take the numbers and stack them against the talent, and it looks like Ventura and his staff did what they could with available information to limit their losses
2015 outlook: I'd expect Ventura to continue increasing his use of shifts, especially since Abreu's adjustment to pro ball may have limited positioning options early on.
Likewise, I'd expect him to take his defensive subbing to another level, with healthy doses of Beckham (for Gillaspie) and J.B. Shuck (for Cabrera) in the late innings. Choosing to carry Sanchez instead of an extra pitcher for the first week of the season to help out Johnson is another piece of evidence here.
After that, it's out of his hands, with the hopes that Avisail Garcia and Abreu improve on the right side of the diamond with more reps. Either that, or Gillaspie becomes a better first baseman than Abreu, but I don't know if there's definite evidence of that yet.
After bunting perhaps too much in his first year, and very little in his second, Ventura broke his personal tie by calling for the fewest sacrifice attempts in baseball in 2014 (26; tied with Boston's John Farrell). The Sox also attempted fewer stolen bases (121) than the league average (124) for the first time in his managerial career.
On the other hand, he did call for more runners in motion than usual (150; league average 146), which might hint at a desire to become a little more active.
2015 outlook: I'm guessing the Sox will bunt more in 2015, but many of the "sacrifice attempts" will actually be legit attempts to reach base by Eaton or Johnson. Otherwise, this lineup isn't going to need them, especially with Cabrera hitting between Eaton and Abreu. Ventura sounds like he'll be happy to let Cabrera show off his own brand of bat-handling:
"I don’t want him to sit there and slap some to get (the runner) over. He can drive something, get something going early in the game, and then also with Jose (Abreu) right behind him, he should have some protection. It should work well."
The White Sox could look a lot different on the basepaths, though. The Sox brought in Vince Coleman to help the club's faster runners take advantage of their speed, and they stretched their legs by trying 31 steals in 31 Cactus League gams, with an acceptable success rate (71 percent).
With Eaton, Ramirez and Johnson starting, and Shuck and Emilio Bonifacio on the bench, Ventura might indulge in this sudden abundance of wheels, which might not be the greatest of ideas if Abreu, Cabrera, LaRoche and Avisail Garcia are hitting the way they should. It will probably take time for Ventura to strike a balance, but like every other area of the game, (in)action will be an option instead of a fate to which he's resigned.
The bullet points:
- Ventura consistently sticks with his starting pitchers, sometimes to his detriment, but a deteriorating bullpen may have a lot to do with reinforcing that habit.
- Ventura has a good idea of reliever leverage, even when short on proven options.
- Ventura doesn't really vary his lineups, but more due to a lack of platoon options and otherwise compelling reserves.
- Ventura ramped up his use of defensive shifting, and the Sox benefited.
- Ventura tries to stay out of the way with his in-game strategy if he can help it.
Ventura may not transcend the position, but as somebody who doesn't seem to force a style on a roster, doesn't burn (or burn out) players, uses available information and seems indifferent to outside forces, he has the makings of a good manager, even if he doesn't do a lot to sell it. We'll find out way more about him after this season, but best I can tell, if the new guys live up to their billing, Shrugball could be here to stay.