Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Love and Sabermetrics on the Softball Diamond

I jumped head first into managing a co-ed softball team during the summer of 2007. It was a memorable experience - especially since it introduced me to my soon-to-be-wife - and I've often thought about turning it into a book.

But I'd sat on that idea until recently, when Baseball Prospectus announced its BP Idol contest. Below is my entry, and hopefully an introduction to future posts about that fateful season.

It's the kind of thing that can only happen in an adult co-ed league. Four couples had gotten pregnant, meaning eight members of our team would be unavailable for the upcoming slow-pitch softball season – including our manager.

Our team was in danger of missing the season unless someone stepped up to manage. I knew I wanted to run a team someday, but I never imagined it could happen in only my third year in the league. Still, for better or for worse, I accepted the challenge.
The first step was to fill out the roster. I was lucky enough to have seven returning players, including myself. I was also lucky that these seven were hungry for playing time and (relatively) talented. More importantly, none of them was with child.

To complete the team, I called in every last favor I had, essentially digging up every high school classmate still in the area. But even that wasn’t enough, as the league rules dictate that we needed an even number of men and women in the lineup at all times. Apparently I didn’t know that many girls. So a coworker took the liberty of signing up not only herself, but her sister and a friend as well. Sure, the other girls had never played before, but at least we could all get a cheap laugh out of that, my coworker promised.

With a team together, it was time to pick a lineup. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to practice before the season, so my chances to evaluate the available talent were limited. Fortunately, this burgeoning stathead had some sabermetric tricks up his sleeve.

Without any statistics at the beginning of the season, I had to choose a batting order the traditional way. Our speedy, high energy guy would lead off. Of course, my decision was aided by his impassioned, two-page email to me explaining how hitting leadoff gets his juices flowing and can help spark the team. Our lone power hitter would bat third, and our most consistent line drive hitter (a guy who was greatly underappreciated on our past teams) would hit fifth. League rules required us to alternate men and women in the lineup, so I essentially ordered the girls in descending order by my limited understanding of their abilities. It just so happened that the girl who would be hitting second had a little speed, and the girl who would be hitting fourth had a little pop. To round out the lineup, and to avoid favoritism, I hit myself ninth and our lone unplaced guy seventh.

The next task was to configure our defense. Again, the league gave us a few guidelines. The pitcher and catcher had to be of opposite genders, and there had to be two guys and two girls each in the infield and outfield (with four total outfielders). As a starting point, I did some research and created an initial defensive spectrum for slow-pitch softball:

C – RF – 2B – RC – 1B – LF – LC – 3B – SS – P

Yes, this was largely based on the pre-1920s spectrum found on Wikipedia. My main premise was that slow-pitch softball is dominated by pull-happy righties, so the four spots on the left side of the diamond are the most valuable. Now, one could argue that catcher, right field, and second base are more valuable than where they are shown here. But the reality was that any alignment I put out on the field would have some holes, so I just tried to minimize the damage. As for first base – well, in baseball first base is low on the defensive spectrum because it doesn’t take much skill. But in slow-pitch softball, especially with this team, the ability to consistently catch a thrown ball was not a skill that could be taken for granted.
The preliminary spectrum set, I did my best to break each position down into a skillset, evaluating my players’ range, glove skills, and arm. The arrangement I came up with looked good – at least on paper. Our best infielder went to short – nevermind that he was left-handed. Of our two best women, one didn’t want to play outfield, so she went to third and the other to left. Our aforementioned speedy, high-energy guy ended up in left center while I manned right center. The remaining positions were filled by people who actually had experience at their respective spots, and for lack of a better options our slugger volunteered to pitch.

There may be no pride in taking a walk in slow-pitch softball, but this team needed all the help it could get – especially since a league rule gave guys two bases on a walk, intentional or not. (In addition, if a guy walked with two outs, the girl behind him had the option to take their normal at bat or also take a walk.) Fortunately, that rule didn’t differentiate between guys who normally hit the ball 400 feet and guys who normally hit the ball 40. So I preached patience, and it showed off to some extent, as the leader board for walks was peppered with both men and women from my team.

A few weeks into the season, the league batting stats were passed out, and I eagerly dug in. I had been waiting for the stats not only to check my own performance, but to use them to better construct my batting order. I planned to use Dave Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool, but I had to modify it to accommodate the guy/girl rule. It was nothing a little Perl hack couldn’t handle. The end result still had the girls in descending order by OPS, but this time it was the slugger batting second and the speedster (who apparently struggled in the transition to slow-pitch) batting fourth. For the guys, I found myself hitting leadoff, thanks in no small part to many dates at the batting cages with the then-right fielder (and my current fiancĂ©e). All the other guys slid down a spot. Sure, it took some explaining and convincing, but I pulled it off. Our high-energy guy accepted the move to third, and our ego-driven slugger tolerated the move to fifth after a white lie about giving him more baserunners to drive in.

As the season wore on, and the losses piled up, several members of the team found they had more important things to do than play for a winless softball team with a megalomaniacal manager. Late in the summer, we found ourselves playing with only nine people more often than not. That meant taking an out every turn through the lineup, a major blow for a team that already had trouble scoring runs. But perhaps more importantly, it meant one less fielder.

One time we faced the league’s juggernaut with only nine players. Knowing the opponents’ power-hitting potential, I pulled another trick out of my sleeve: the 3-4 defense. This wasn’t a Boudreau shift like many of the Major Leagues’ best lefties face today; it was four outfielders playing straight across with only three full-time infielders. I was normally overmatched at shortstop, but such was our personnel that day that I tasked myself with cover both middle infield positions. I did a few leaps and spins around the keystone sack to make things look impressive, but all in all there was too much ground to cover for me to be effective.

As it turned out, though, the 3-4 defense was our best option against that team. Later that year, we again faced the juggernaut with only nine of our own players. On that 95-degree day, I made the mistake of going with three outfielders, thinking the three outfielders we had were good enough to cover that ground. Three dehydrated outfielders and 30 runs (as of the time the scoreboard stopped counting) later, our winless team was handed what was perhaps the worst defeat in league history.

But we had fun. Oh, did we have fun! I haven’t been able to run my own team these past few seasons, but I’m still playing. I hope to make my triumphant return to managing in the summer of 2010. Hopefully the lessons I’ve learned will help the team win a few games. Or at least one. Hey, we have to start somewhere.