Rethinking Pitching

April 27, 2010

It is often said that a Major League starting pitcher needs at least three pitches to be effective, while a decent reliever only needs two. The reason behind this is simple. The reliever will usually see a given batter only once before he is removed from the game or the game is finished. The starter on the other hand needs to get through an opposing lineup multiple times, since if he is doing his job correctly, he should be pitching the majority of the game. Managers use their pitchers based on a simple formula. The modern five-man rotation works on the assumption that the starting pitcher will throw around 100 pitches, once every five days. The rest of the six, seven or eight pitchers that a ball club might roster are used in relief of the starters, with various pitchers used in specialized roles that take advantage of a particular pitchers skill set.

In the essay, “Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go To Waste?” published in “Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong,” Keith Woolner from Baseball Prospectus illustrated the folly of modern bullpen usage. The particular problem that he brings to light is that of the modern relief ace being used in what might not actually be the highest leverage game situation. For example, in the 8th inning of a  4 – 1 game, would it not be more prudent for a team to bring in it’s best relief pitcher to face say, a trio of Ludwick, Pujols and Holliday, rather than holding back the relief ace to face Rasmus, Molina and Freese in the ninth?

I believe a lot of the folly of bullpen usage can be blamed on the creation of “The Save,” back in 1969. Relievers and their agents now had a (very much flawed) counting number to tally up and show GMs when it was time to negotiate a contract at the years end. Suddenly relievers had a stat of their own to point to when trying to quantify their abilities. Not long after the creation of The Save, it has become convention to only use one’s relief ace to start the ninth inning – in a save situation. So “the fireman,” who would come into the game in a late inning, high leverage situation and stay on to finish, became “the closer,” the ninth inning guy. Illustrating this, I’ll refer to a chart found in “Baseball Between The Numbers.” In 1974, a closer made his appearance in the ninth inning in just 8.8% of games. Fast forward to 2002 and we’ll see that this number has jumped to an astounding 68.2%, due I believe in no small part to the importance of The Save, when it comes time for off-season contract negotiations. God forbid the closer of a visiting team comes into a tied ninth or in extra innings – even if this makes perfect sense, since if the home team scores the game is over. Meanwhile modern managers save their ace relievers for a Save opportunity that might never arrive.

One need only look at Mets closer and holder of the single season Saves record, Francisco Rodriguez for an interesting take on the usage of modern closers. After recording a record 63 Saves for The LA Angels two season ago, in what was clearly not his finest year, K-Rod went on to sign a $12 million deal with The Mets, making him the third highest paid closer behind only the incomparable Mariano Rivera and the rather volatile Brad Lidge. Frankie may not have even been the most effective reliever on his team during his record setting 2008 campaign. Last week the Mets closer finished a game, where he entered with the bases loaded and one out in the 8th inning of a 3 – 1 contest. He recorded his first five out save in almost five years. Another case in point: during the memorable 20 inning marathon on April 14, 2010, Rodriguez claimed to have thrown nearly 100 pitches in the bullpen while warming up for a possible appearance in just about all of the game’s 11 extra frames. Never mind that The Cardinals repeatedly threatened to score, which would have ended the game right then and there. When The Mets finally did grab a lead, Frankie entered in the 19th inning, dead tired and proceeded to blow the lead.

If we accept that the idea of modern bullpen usage is strategically flawed, than perhaps the concept of the starting pitcher could be rethought as well. Yesterday I received a link from one of my opponents in my H2H keeper league. Thanks to Sean for bringing this great piece from The NY Times Freakonomics blog to my attention. In the article, a reader wonders if there are better ways to use pitchers period, not simply the closer, but the starter as well and along the way he brings up some very interesting points. I won’t cover them all, but here a few of the key elements to the debate:

  • Instead of starting the game with a starter, an “opener” is sent out to pitch the first couple of innings. The openers style would differ drastically from the following pitchers in an effort to mess up opposing batters timing. Think about how difficult it might be to hit a dancing knuckleball, after facing a fireballer.
  • If a pitcher is at an advantage the first time he faces a batter and that advantage is mitigated upon the batter seeing the pitchers offerings through the course of a game, would it not stand to reason that perhaps it would be best to only use a pitcher once through the batting order? That brings me back to my opening, since the need for starting pitchers to rely on third and fourth pitches would be lessened if we follow this model. Few starting pitchers, outside of a team’s best one or two, have effective third and fourth pitches.
  • As used now, a starting pitcher pitches until he fails to get batters out or succumbs to fatigue. Often the later will be the cause of the former. What if pitchers were used in a way that would see them pulled from the game before they ever lose effectiveness to fatigue?

More so than any other American sport, Baseball is a game of orthodoxies, many of which are not particularly sound from a strategic point of view. There are many factors at play when we talk about changing orthodox game strategies. Ego, money, ill-conceived statistics and downright stubbornness often stand in opposition to the path of reason. Sometimes, as in the case of bullpen usage, teams were better off sticking with the old ways of doing things. Other tried and true baseball concepts certainly deserve a rethinking. I can see the value of a reconfiguration of pitching usage – particularly in the case of teams who may not have particularly good starting pitching. While I’m not sure I’d love it from a fan’s point of view (I do so love to watch a starter fight his way through entire game) the ideas make a lot of managerial sense.

It wasn’t long ago that the importance of good ol’ On Base Percentage was under-appreciated. Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” which famously brought light to A’s GM, Billy Beane’s statistically driven model of exploiting market inefficiencies, changed that in a big way. Team defense has come under the microscope in recent years, as smaller market teams look to maximize their payrolls by exploiting new market inefficiencies. With the speed of information forming opinions within the baseball world at a faster pace than ever before, perhaps it’s time for a hard look at how pitching is handled as well.

What do you think? Would you like to see your team employ their pitchers differently? How do you think this reordering of pitching staffs would effect the game?

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Bloops and Bleeders

April 13, 2010

Random notes from around the MLB for April 13, 2010.

Chris Snyder might not be such a bad substitution for the recently shelved Miguel Montero after all. While showing decent pop with a career .167 ISO, the ‘Zona catcher’s shown surprising (to me at least) patience with a 12% career BB rate.

I was pretty heart broken when Montero went down with a busted knee this weekend, since I spent $12 on him in the Big Ballers League and was hoping for big things. With Webb on ice and Kazmir’s start delayed, I didn’t have a DL spot, so I was in a bind. I didn’t want to chance another owner grabbing Snyder in this deep, 2C league that counts OBP, so I dropped Montero for Snyder on Sunday afternoon. Not realizing that the waiver claim goes into effect immediately, Snyder was not in my lineup for his 1HR, 5RBI day. Sonavabench! It’ll take bold moves to win this league and dropping Montero for Snyder was one. Hopefully Snyder will suitably replace Montero’s pop. Picking up Cleveland catching prospect Carlos Santana in expectation of May call up was another bold move that I made today, but I’ll get into that later…

The other catcher on The Harlem Hangovers is The Cracka You Love To Hate, A. J. Pierzynski. AJP was involved in a strange call tonight that may have led to the break up of Toronto lefty, Ricky Romero‘s no hitter bid against the ChiSox. AJP was awarded first on a hit by pitch that did not seem to actually hit him. Upon replay it looked as if Romero’s breaking ball, that dove into the dirt, bounced up and missed the left handed AJP before going to the backstop. Pierzynski’s got crazy acting chops, because he immediately reacted as if he had been hit in his left foot, limping to first doing his best Daniel Day Lewis. He was not immediately awarded the base (I’ll give him an Oscar though) until an umpire pow wow cleared things up and despite the protests of Jay’s manager, Cito Gaston, AJP was finally given first. Pitching from the stretch, Slick Rick (not quite The Ruler yet) subsequently threw up a meatball to Alex Rios, who jacked it over the left field wall. No no-no for RR but he looked dy-no-mite tonight. Romero’s arsenal of off-speed pitches had Sox bats flailing to the tune of 12 K before his night was over. Kevin Gregg came on to finish it up in a 1-2-3 9th, with 2 K of his own – as if the Sox weren’t embarrassed enough tonight. Gregg is 3 for 3 in Save Ops in the young season since taking over for Side Show Bob.

I’ve been down this road before with Gregg, but SAGNOF bitches! Gregg looks for real this time. I know I’ve said that before. He’s like that ex hook up with for a one night stand and then instantly regret calling. I dumped Jason Hammel, who has a tough match-up in Atlanta this week for Gregg. I figure if Madson loses the closer job in Philly when Lidge comes back, I’ll need Saves. If he doesn’t, I’ll have an extra closer to use as a trade chip. If Gregg sucks it up as he is prone to do, I’ll dump him.

I guess Nate Robertson just looked good last week because he faced The Mets.

Clayton Kershaw went deep today. 5 1/3 for the W today against ‘Zona. Kershaw needs to pitch more efficiently or he won’t be touching double digit wins for the second season in a row.

Nice scheduling move by the MLB big wigs today. Seeing Godzilla come back to The Bronx to get his ring, at the home opener was pretty cool. The love the fans and his former teammates showed was really touching and Matsui could hardly contain his emotions when his name was called on the PA. The Yanks mobbed him and he was given a what was apparently a fake ring, before Girardi later copped and gave him the real one. Andy Pettite made a class move in Matsui’s first AB. With the fans screaming in adoration for last year’s World Series MVP, Pettite stepped off the mound to let the slugger acknowledge the praise. Matsui stepped out of the box, tipped his cap to the fans and went on to K against Pettite, who was in vintage form, going 6 scoreless. It’s easy to understand how the butterflies could have gotten to Matsui today. He ultimately went 0 – 5, ending the game by popping up a Mariano cutter. Yanks go to 12-1 in their last 13 home openers.

John Maine got predictably shelled tonight in Denver. He’s looked awful so far for my beloved Mets. Thank God for fantasy baseball because it’s going to be a long year for us Flushing faithful. This organization is in a complete state of Minayal. By the way Dave Trembley heard my cries of outrage last night and promptly yanked the venerable Miguel Tejeda from the clean up spot in Baltimore for the G-O-D. In the first of what will hopefully be many years of appearances in the 4 hole, Wieters went 0 – 4 with a BB and an RBI in the loss to the Rays.

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