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In praise of the mandated off-day

Load management is working, even if we grind our teeth.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Every afternoon, the Yankees Twitter account posts the lineup for the day’s game, and someone that 27 MLB teams would fall over themselves to sign is sitting on the bench. Once a week its Giancarlo Stanton, then the next day it might be DJ LeMahieu, and after that Josh Donaldson.

This is a deliberate and calculated choice. Part of it comes down to the Yankees having so much talent that it’s just too hard to get them all into starting slots — you only have nine lineup spots, how do you sit Matt Carpenter, but also how do you sit Giancarlo Stanton? — but it’s more a function of load management. The Yankees are betting that any potential losses in the one game a week where Stanton, or DJ, or whomever, sits is offset by the gains made by having all their best players healthy for the biggest games of the year, division matchups, and of course the postseason.

This is often met with varying degrees of criticism. Some old man yells about how Longbones McCauley played 400 games in the summer of 1904. There are other, I think more good faith, concerns around players getting into a rhythm, whether moving guys in and out of the lineup every day helps or hurts them.

This is, admittedly, pretty quick analysis, but if you look at the six likely AL playoff teams, and the three worst AL teams, kind of everyone uses a lot of different batting orders with no real impact on how well they do. The Athletics have moved players around the most, and they’re terrible, the Twins have done it the second most and they’re good, and the Royals, in a very Royals way, have been the most consistent with their lineups while being the worst team in baseball. Having good players, as many as you possibly can, is more important than the routine, because you can change someone’s routine.

One of my favorite anecdotes about the Yankees comes from when Zack Britton was traded and the first thing he was handed when he walked into the Stadium was an iPad with video of every single pitch he’d ever thrown in his career. It was a level of depth and analysis that Britton just didn’t have access to in Baltimore, and it changed the way he prepared for every game. A veteran relief pitcher, probably the archetype of “creature of habit”, was able to change his routine when exposed to the systems and processes that could make him better.

I think this is the same with these mandated rest schedules. If you just tell a player, with no context or plan, “Hey you’re sitting today” out of the blue, yeah, I think some guys will be turned off by that. If you sit players down and explain “this is our strategy, here’s why we think it’ll work, can we count on you to play your role”, players are going to adapt their routines. Ballplayers are creatures of habit, to be sure, but they’re also masters of making adjustments.

That all this is working really well also helps buy-in. It’s easy to explain load management to Stanton when these mandated rest days have helped him play 188 games between this year and last, compared to 199 his first three years in the Bronx. He’s hitting better than any season in pinstripes as well, so its not like the off-days are keeping him from performing at his best. Indeed, the worst hitter in the group most frequently rotated is Josh Donaldson, with a perfectly respectable 113 wRC+. Everyone else has produced good — DJ and Gleyber Torres hovering around 120 — to MVP-caliber performance.

There’s going to be a time when this rotation of players becomes an issue. Picking your nine best players when preparing for a playoff series is the obvious one. Fortunately, baseball has a way of solving these problems for you. I’m willing to bet that come October, one or two of the guys that are part of this load management system will be hurt or performing below everyone else’s level, making them the odd one out. Until that happens, everyone’s playing well even if, aside from Aaron Judge, everyone’s only playing 88 percent of the time. Until that performance changes, I’m still going to roll my eyes at the daily lineup tweet, but that’s about as much energy as it deserves.