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Reconsidering the Designated Runner; or, The Nate Freiman Problem

Way back in the halcyon days of this franchise, crazy person and Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley proposed a proposition to introduce a Designated Runner. Just as the Designated Hitter enlivened the game by eliminating auto-outs from American League lineups, so too would the Designated Runner spice up baseball by taking away some of the lumbering musk-oxes of America's pastime. The idea never took off, but as I was considering Nate Freiman today, I found myself also considering the Designated Runner. And I even found myself wondering if the notion might have some practical application for the 2013 A's, even though they exist in a league which does not, and most likely never well, allow the D.R. So what follows is kind of a schizophrenic post. First, I'm going to talk about why I think the Designated Runner was--and still is--a good idea. Second, I'm going to talk about applying it to the 2013 A's.

Chapter 1: Why I Think Baseball Should Have the Designated Runner

The reasons I believe in the DH are twofold. First, I think it makes no sense to have pitchers hitting. I think the problem is not--and this is a common fallacy that I myself have often fallen prey to--that they don't work on their hitting as much, and more that they simply never were good hitters. Pitching is kind of a sixth tool, in a way. Plenty of players make it to the big leagues, and even stick around as journeymen, on the strength of just one tool, such as defense or hitting for power. Pitching is the same way. There are many great poets and many great songwriters, but very few people who are both. In much the same way, there are good hitters and there are good pitchers, but it's unrealistic to expect, say, Tommy Milone to be able to hit even at an Eric Sogard level. (See, I could have made a joke there. But I didn't.)

Watching pitchers hit is boring. And it also makes watching the guy ahead of the pitcher boring. The number-eight guy gets walked or pitched around in some way; the pitcher strikes out if he's lucky, GIDPs if he's not. Every once in awhile he blows your mind with a base hit or even an extra-base-hit. But by and large, the presence of pitchers in the batting order makes 22% of the baseball game boring.

The second reason the DH makes sense to me is that it allows aging sluggers to stay in the game. I'm glad a guy like Adam Dunn or Albert Pujols or Hideki Matsui or Vladimir Guerrero can keep playing even after the vagaries of time have taken their toll on his defensive capabilities. By the way, this is a tangent, but how on Earth is Guerrero out of MLB right now? Dude's not 40 yet and was a league-average hitter in 2011, his last MLB season. There HAVE to be teams out there with players worse than Vlad Guerrero.

At any rate, the Designated Runner would liven up the game of baseball in much the same way as the DH did. Bad baserunning can kill an inning dead, just like a terrible hitter can. At the same time, it could provide a way to get a guy some playing time even if he wasn't doing much else, and it could do something similar to what the DH does for aging sluggers, except in this case we're talking about people like Rajai Davis. You know, really fast guys who are pretty good on the basepaths, but they have trouble getting on base. Come to think of it, Chris Young was one of those guys for the early part of this season. Those are guys with a valuable tool, but a tool that comes with a built-in disadvantage. The other tools don't require you to also have a second tool, but baserunning does. You can't use your baserunning tool if you don't have the hitting/getting on base tool. The D.R. would bring a Rajai Davis back into baseball in a sensible way.

Also, I think if we did have a Designated Runner, rosters would need to expand to 26.

Chapter Two: The Designated Runner And YOU

What got me thinking about this was looking at Nate Freiman. Because while I think that, at this point, we're all naked and oiled for his bat, the guy is still at a solid zero WAR for the season. Some of that is due to his early struggles at the plate, and as his offensive sample size grows, it will become less skewed. In other words, he's the guy who put up 3.0 wRAA in May and June, not the guy who put up -1.7 wRAA in April. But even so, his value is damaged by his defensive shortcomings and his crappy baserunning.

The obvious answer to one of those problems is to just DH him. Have Smith DH against righties and Freiman against lefties. That does mean Moss is starting at 1B most every day, regardless of platoon splits, but I'm not sure that Freiman's offensive presence really outweighs his defensive liability, or the offensive liabilities of Moss hitting full-time. I don't really know where this leaves Chris Young, but while I do believe in Young's bat, at this point you can't be having guys sit just so Young can finish figuring it out. I guess you probably just rotate through the outfielders, giving guys an off-day when you can. He essentially becomes your fourth OF while Smith becomes the fifth OF and half of the DH platoon.

But if you're truly trying to maximize what you get out of Freiman's roster spot, making the most of his positives and eliminating or minimizing his negatives, you've got to find a way to keep him off the basepaths as much as possible. Now one thing to note is that Freiman does a decent job of keeping himself off the basepaths as much as possible, and I don't mean that as a burn: about 25% of the times he gets on base, it's an extra base hit. That's half the battle right there. You've only got 180 more feet to go, you're probably not going to be involved in any double plays, you've really cut down on the likelihood that you're going to make any serious blunders.

And yet, as we well know, Freiman can and will still make some boneheaded mistakes on the basepaths. Not horrifying, awful, gruesome mistakes, but mistakes that should be avoided. Some of them will stop happening with time, but some of them are probably a part of who the guy is. Plus, he's just plain slow. And it's also notable that while 25% of the times he gets on base it's due to an extra base hit, another 25% of the times are due to free passes. Guy's going to be decent in the OBP department. But once he gets on base, has he become a liability?

Now obviously, there is no actual Designated Runner in baseball, but I think something like one could be approximated, and not just for Freiman. Finley himself tried to do it with Herb Washington, but he really didn't understand what good baserunning actually was. The way I'd do it would be purely situational, and it would be used solely with the guys whose baserunning is so bad that it actually threatens to negate or significantly deflate the value they provide with the bat or the glove. In other words, Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman, and in some situations, Eric Sogard.

Here's how I'd do it. First you establish that you have one, or possibly two, go-to guys for the task of pinch-running. Who those guys are will be addressed later. If Freiman or Moss gets on base in the seventh inning or later, with the team down by more than one run or down by one run with two outs, they automatically get pinch-run for. If Freiman or Moss gets on base but no farther than first base, in the seventh inning or later, with the A's up by no more than a run, they automatically get pinch-run for. Before the seventh inning, Freiman and Moss will never be pinch-run for if they reach second base unless the game situation suggests that the A's need to scrape and scrounge for runs, like if we were facing King Felix on an off-day and somehow Mariano Rivera was in the Mariners' bullpen. Other than that, it's up to the manager's discretion when to pinch-run for these guys. There's also the Sogard question. I think if he reaches base at all, regardless of the base, in the seventh inning or later in a tight game, he gets pinch-run for, done deal, that's the way it goes.

Chapter 3: Step Forward, Those Who Would Serve.

Now the question of who your pinch-runners are. Now one way you could go about doing it is simply ditching Adam Rosales and filling his roster spot with a high-UBR guy with no other significant tools. Basically I'm talking about a Tony Womack type. Womack was a middle infielder who played from 1993 to 2006. He surpassed 1.0 WAR only once in his career and never had a WRC+ higher than 94. For his career--a career spanning 14 seasons, 1,303 games, and 5,389 plate appearances--he finished with a measly 1.7 WAR. And yet, out of the 7,899 men who have donned an MLB uniform since 1960, Womack ranks 18th in UBR. (If you're interested, Paul Konerko ranks worst.) Womack was worth five and a half wins over his career as a baserunner, putting him on par with Bert Campaneris, Chone Figgins, Jose Reyes, and Ozzie Smith in terms of baserunning, and ahead of people like Coco Crisp, Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter. Unfortunately for Womack, it was all he was good at; he was worth -5 wins on defense -2 wins with the bat. If it wasn't for his positional adjustment, he'd have registered a negative career WAR. Another example of this is Otis Nixon, who was worth four and a half wins on the basepaths but -14.5 with the glove and bat.

Who are the Tony Womacks, the Otis Nixons, of today? We're looking, here, for guys who can run but can't hit or field. The reason we're looking for them is that they'll come cheaply. Who are some candidates? Juan Pierre doesn't hit well--he's basically a middle-class man's Eric Sogard--but he was generally a decent fielder until the last couple years. But his baserunning has never been anything but pretty good. Plus he plays for the Marlins, who will once again be deadline sellers, but deadline sellers like to get things in return, which I'm not willing to do. Rajai Davis would be a good candidate for this kind of thing ordinarily, but he's apparently part of the Blue Jays' DH platoon or something, so they'd probably want at least a bucket of balls for him, and again, that's too expensive for this position.

Chone Figgins is such a bad hitter and defender that he doesn't even get to play baseball anymore, but he also appears to have lost a step as a baserunner in the last couple years of his career. Still, nothing's cheaper than a guy nobody will even pay to play in the minor leagues, so he's an option. While we're at it, Scott Podsednik is basically the same deal. Willy Taveras hasn't even played big-league ball since 2010 and is currently in the Kansas City farm system. The reason for these things is that he can't hit and he can't field. But he can run.

So if you go the route of using a whole roster spot just for a dedicated pinch-runner, it's going to be someone like Chone Figgins or Willy Taveras. Remember, this guy is only going to be running bases in situations in which a run is sorely needed. That's the player's sole purpose.

But maybe that's inefficient. I'd argue that wasting a roster spot on Adam Rosales is more inefficient, but we can debate that some other time. Let's say we concede the point that we're not going to just add a dedicated pinch-runner. The other solution is, "cobble together a designated runner from guys you already have." Which is basically what we already do with the DH position. In this scenario, the only real change you're making is that you're instituting a standing order that in certain situations, Brandon Moss, Nate Freiman, and Eric Sogard are going to PR'd for, with a complementary standing order that the preferred pinch-runners are so-and-so and such-and-such.

So who do we build our composite Designated Runner out of? Well, when it comes to Nate Freiman, our Designated Runner isn't even a composite. He's just John Jaso. Jaso can't hit lefties; Freiman can't not hit lefties. So if Freiman is in the game, Jaso shouldn't be. Which means that if the situation calls for Freiman to be PR'd for, your guy is Jaso. Jaso has compiled the team's third-best UBR while getting the seventh-most PAs. The only guy who's more efficiently racking up a strong UBR is Josh Reddick, who's been worth basically as much on the basepaths as Coco Crisp has, in 63 fewer plate appearances. But Reddick is going to play every day, so while he should get the nod for pinch-running duties if he's not in the starting lineup, he's not going to be an option most of the time.

Who else do we have? Chris Young. Young has been nearly as valuable on the bases as Jaso has, with nearly identical playing time. Given that he's not an everyday starter, he makes a lot of sense as a pinch-runner. Seth Smith can also be a pinch-runner, essentially functioning as the mirror-universe Jaso; where Jaso pinch-runs against lefties, Smith pinch-runs against righties. Finally--shocker--you're actually going to probably just want to straight-up use Adam Rosales for Eric Sogard every time. Rosales, who has fewer PAs than any other position player currently on the active roster aside from Freiman and Vogt, has been worth a full run on the bases. In a situation where you want to get Sogard's insane ass off the basepaths, call Adam Rosales.

Anyway. That's my story.

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