Fantasy Baseball largely functions in two main formats. There’s rotisserie - or roto - in which the tallies in various statistics are accumulated over the course of the entire season, with the grand totals (or rates, depending upon the particular stat) of each at the end of the year determining who did best. It’s the kind of format that rewards overall strategy, largely, and creates a large enough sample to render minor intricacies less significant.
There’s also the Head to Head format, however, which pits one team owner against another for a smaller amount of time - usually a week - at which point in time intricacy becomes much more prevalent. How many games a player plays per week, for instance, can be magnanimous in a way that owning, say, Scooter Gennett for seven games against Cincinnati Reds pitching could’ve made him more valuable for a one-week stretch than, say, Joey Votto hitting in rainy Safeco Field for only five games, an off-day, and a day of rest.
While Fantasy Baseball and real, live baseball largely operate as completely different realms, I’ve long thought about the way the two styles of leagues relate to the actual management of MLB teams. Not that one causes the other, particularly, but that they tend to mimic parts of each other. For big league teams, I’ve often considered the selection of everyday starters as a mirror for roto, since you largely roll them out there everyday regardless of who they’re playing or where they’re playing, since they’ve established their talent to the point where you know what you’ll get out of them in total by the end of the year.
With a team’s bench, bullpen, and utility players, however, it often becomes the manager playing matchups, using players in very defined roles at precisely the right time to maximize their utility. Horses for courses, if you will.
This here is a post on the Cincinnati Reds on a Cincinnati Reds blog, which means there’s an inevitable tie-in coming. This particular time it concerns the Reds' decision to leave Desmond Jennings off their Opening Day roster, since it comes with a large set of ramifications, as The Enquirer's Zach Buchanan noted yesterday.
Jennings has an opt out before Opening Day, and I'd guess he uses it. https://t.co/xSKUI38qSc— Zach Buchanan (@ZachENQ) March 28, 2017
To this very minute, Jennings hasn't yet opted out of his deal, but given his track record and that he's still just 30 years old, I'd be hard pressed to think he'd rather take a guaranteed bus trip to AAA Louisville instead of trying to latch on with any of the other 29 big league squads somehow. The same reason I think he'll take that path is the same reason I've been blathering to this point, and that's because I think Cincinnati's decision to let Jennings go seriously undervalues how he'd have fit this ballclub.
Last year, the Cincinnati Reds struggled awfully against left-handed pitching, sporting an ugly .699 OPS and owning an 83 wRC+ that ranked 27th in all of baseball. When you take into account that the otherworldly Joey Votto hit .314/.396/.465 in 182 PA against lefties last season - which was good for a 130 wRC+ - and it's pretty evident that the rest of the Reds were a different level of brutal while facing southpaws.
In fact, if you focus purely on the right-handed hitting portion of the 2016 Reds against left-handed pitching, the numbers get even worse. In total, they posted just a 76 wRC+ against lefties, which was far and away the worst such mark in all of major league baseball.
To harken back to the long-winded intro to this piece, it'd be one thing if the way the Reds chose to construct their roster sans Jennings featured a right-handed bat that could hit left-handed pitching in a cromulent fashion. Getting squeezed out in a like-for-like manner is a solid enough reason to see a player who could bring something to the table miss out. As it stands, however, the bench now consists of Scooter Gennett (a lefty bat with a career .187/.257/.254 line against lefty pitching), Stuart Turner (the backup catcher who hasn't played a game above AA in his career), Arismendy Alcantara (a switch hitter who has hit righties much better than lefties in his minor league career), and Patrick Kivlehan (a 27 year old rookie with 24 career big league PAs).
Pair that bench with an everyday eight that all played large parts in the team's complete inability to hit left-handed pitching in 2016, and it looks to me like a situational problem area that clearly needed to be addressed got pretty clearly neglected.
Back when Jennings signed his minor-league deal with the Reds, I was excited about his potential to bring a bat that could effectively hit lefties to the table - as well as to see him healthy and away from the previous home park that seriously sapped his stats:
Jennings, even if not what he once was as an all-around player, hits right-handed, and has consistently made a habit of belting left-handed pitching. For his career, he's hit .264/.346/.431 against LHP, that's something that could help him carve out a niche role on the active roster.
A healthy Jennings just might bring a bit more to the table than that, too. He's spent his entire 7-year big league career as a member of the Rays, but in that time saw the kind of home/road splits one doesn't normally see from a player who calls one stadium home for such a stint. In 1139 career PA in Tampa, Jennings hit a rather woeful .228/.310/.355, compared to a comparitively robust .261/.334/.428 in 1212 PA in other parks. Considering that Tropicana Field has consistently ranked in the bottom third among all big league parks in terms of offensive promotion per ESPN's Park Factor - even ranking dead last and second to last in his first two big league years - getting to see Jennings' production without the weight of his former home field could even bring more surprises to the Reds.
In fact, Jennings owns a 136 wRC+ against LHP in games outside of Tropicana Field in his career to date, having hit .295/.368/.483 in some 350 PA, good for a .370 wOBA.
If Jennings made the Reds' roster, he'd be due roughly $1.5 million, hardly a massive sum for a bench bat who fills a particular niche. Heck, Scooter Gennett's going to fill the role of lefty bat off the bench, and he'll be making a full million bucks more than Jennings this year. Instead, given the team's need for extra arms in the bullpen and a subsequent short bench, it seems they'll pin their hopes on Kivlehan as the designated hitter of lefties on the bench, something that's pinning a lot of hopes on a guy with such inexperience at the big league level.
(Kivlehan, for what it's worth, hit .284/.331/.552 in 124 PAs in the hitter-friendly AAA Pacific Coast League last year, but that's on a the heels of hitting just .262/.319/.403 in the same hitter-friendly PCL in 2015.)
I get that having or not having Desmond Jennings as a bench bat on the 2017 Cincinnati Reds isn't going to make or break anything. Letting him walk doesn't end any playoff chances, nor does it let a top prospect with insane trade value go for a song. What bugs me, I think, is that there was a clear void on the current roster that I think he clearly would've filled, and because the Reds opted to keep Kivlehan's ability to be the fourth best 3B on the active roster over Jennings' proven ability to hit left-handed pitching, that void still sits wide freakin' open.
Even if you're driving a 1973 Ford Pinto on a frigid highway in 2017, if the windows still work, you roll the damn windows up. You may still be driving 45 mph and getting passed by everyone else on the road, but at least you're not freezing yourself to death.