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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Ike Davis and Appreciating OBP *UPDATED*

April 19, 2010

I never thought I’d put “Mike Francesa” and “interesting” together in the same sentence but a Mad Dogless Mike had former Mets GM and all-around nincompoop Steve Phillips on his WFAN radio show this afternoon, to talk about Mets rookie 1B Ike Davis. Davis got the call this afternoon and he’ll be debuting at first and hitting 6th for The Mets tonight against The Cubs. What peaked my interest in the exchange was the talk of how On Base Percentage is more greatly appreciated than ever before (“due to Billy Beane and the whole Money Ball phenomena,” said an audibly bitter Phillips) and how the ability to tell a ball from a strike, is “the 6th tool,” to use when evaluating a players skills.

Appreciating the batter’s eye is ancient history to anyone who cares about baseball, let alone has a fantasy team. I don’t really like to play in a league without OBP, since I understand how Batting Average only really tells a small part of the hitter’s story. It feels foolish and inauthentic to simply use AVG, when there are plenty of useful players who may not be hitting, but are still getting on base. Isn’t the object of the game – to not get out? What Francesa and Phillips (and most of the baseball media) fail to acknowledge is that “Moneyball” has nothing to do with OBP in particular. Billy Beane was simply looking to take advantage of market inefficiencies when constructing a team on a limited budget. Now that smart front offices (most with far deeper pockets) have caught on to OBP, “Moneyball” is moving on to the next undervalued facet of the game, defense. I don’t expect these guys to grasp that kind of higher thinking but I thought today’s conversation was a nice start.

One guy who’s playing “Moneyball” right now is Yankees DH Nick Johnson. Johnson is hitting an anorexic .158 on a 6 for 54 drought. His OBP however, is currently .402. Not all together unexpected in such a small sample size, especially when you consider Johnson’s switch back to the AL. If you’d like to see why Johnson is hitting at such a poor clip, you need not look any further than his .217 BABIP. But lets not get crazy now. The old guys just got that OBP was imporant. We don’t want to throw too many numbers at them. Well Francesa brought up Johnson, in regard to the changing perceptions in baseball towards OBP. In spite of the anemic AVG, the New York media is not getting on Johnson, Francesa said, due in large part to the newly found appreciation of OBP. Speak for yourself, but ok, that’s cool. Johnson isn’t in fact terrible because his AVG currently is. Of course, Francesa immediately undid any good will he may have garnered from me, by comparing Davis to Jason Heyward, since both display a good eye (Davis BB 11.2% of the time in 233 AA PA last season) and Heyward’s probably the only rookie he can name. Welcome to New York, no pressure kid.

I think Davis projects fairly similarly to Johnson. Perhaps he doesn’t have as great a command of the plate as Johnson, but he projects a little more pop. I’m not sure about his glove, but Davis did look like The Mets best 1B back in Spring Training. That’s not saying a great deal, but it might be enough for Jerry Manual to keep his job for a couple of weeks, if Davis provides a spark. Davis is worth a flyer in deep leagues and could make an impact in 12 team leagues, particularly if you use OBP.

*Note: I think the comparison that Keith Hernandez made during last night’s game was perhaps more accurate. John Olerud’s rookie season, compare somewhat favorably to Davis’ minor league numbers. It’s tough judge Davis on his past as he suffered from a strained oblique muscle last season, which he blames for sapping his power.

Mike Axisa, over at Fangraphs disagrees, point to Adam LaRoche as a better comparison. What do you think?

Davis went 2-4 with an RBI in his first game. Nice first game!

Good luck Ike. You’re going to need it.

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