Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Someone is finally doing it: Tampa using “Openers” instead of “Starters”

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Sergio Romo; Tampa's new #3 starter.

Sergio Romo; Tampa’s new #3 starter.  And #4 starter sometimes … photo via Zimbio.

The Tampa Bay Rays, thanks to a run of injuries to their starting rotation this spring, and perhaps a bit of typical organizational ingenuity, are doing something this year that has a lot of people talking; they’re essentially using a closer-quality pitcher to start games, get through the top of the opposing team’s order the first time, then hands it over to the real “starter” (or in most cases longer man) who pitches a typical starter-length outing.

They seem to be sticking to conventional outings for their two best starters (Chris Archer and Blake Snell) even now, but spring training elbow injuries to planned starters Brett Honeywell and Jose De Leon (both Tommy John surguries), plus recent injuries to #3 starter Jake Faria, Yonny Chirinos  (not Laurel Chirinos!) and Nathan Eovaldi and a lack of upper-end SP prospects has led them to this point.

This strategy is getting put to its biggest test over the Memorial Day weekend series they have with Baltimore, announcing that they’ll be “starting” relievers all three games.

So far this season, they’ve used the strategy at least twice; with Sergio Romo starting on back to back nights.

  • 5/20/18: Romo pitches the first and strikes out the side before handing off to starter Ryan Yarborough, who pitches 6+ and gets the win.
  • 5/21/18:  Romo, going back to back nights, faces the first 6 batters; walks two, gets the other four out, zero runs; the rest of the game is a bullpen game, but the team loses to Shohei Ohtani and the Angels.

Of course, reaction to the moves is already as you’d expect it to be, given our current climate of hot-take/knee jerk reactions.  You’ve got “get off my lawn” types talking about how this isn’t “good for the game.”  You’ve got Joel Sherman (who has been around the sport long enough to know what they’re doing) calling the strategy “Bizarre.”  And you’ve got progressive types like Houston’s A.J. Hinch praising the move.


 

So, what do I think of this?

Well …. honestly this is the natural evolution of the trend towards specialized relievers that we’ve been seeing lately.  A mediocre/failed starter can be converted to a highly valuable reliever by just having them throw harder and focus on mastering two pitches instead of attempting to master three or four, and it happens All The Time.  See Rivera, Mariano and Eckersley, Dennis for hall of fame exhibits A and B here (ok .. to be fair Eckersley was by  no means a failed starter … but he would not be in Cooperstown had he not become a dominant closer).

Well, what if you had an entire roster of specialized relievers instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on a rotation?

Take the Nats: our top four starters this year are earning north of $80M this season.  What if you had spread that $80M around on a bunch of closer/near-closer types, the kinds of guys who go for significantly less per annum?  What if you had an entire team of guys like Ryan Madsen ($7.6M) or Sean Doolittle ($4.3M) or Brandon Knitzler ($5.5M).  Heck, why not load up y our team with pre-arb guys like Sammy Solis ($560k) and Matt Grace ($557k) and spend that $80M on improving the out-field players?

I’ve often wondered if a team couldn’t just have essentially 12 relievers and would basically turn every game into a bullpen game.  What if you deployed your staff kind of like this:

  • Three “Closer” quality guys (like our Doolittle)
  • Three solid RH 7th/8th inning types like Madsen and Kelley.
  • Three left-handed match-up guys (Solis, Grace)
  • Three long-men types who could soak up innings but who can’t turn over a lineup more than twice (kind of like Jeremy Hellickson but perhaps more like a 4-A starter, or what Edwin Jackson is doing in AAA).

You take half this squad and they’re the A-team; that gives you 5-6 arms to pitch the first game of the week.  Then, they all get a break and the other 5-6 arms get the next game.  In a typical week every reliever then gets three to four days off with off-games and off-days.   The long-men only go every two days, since you’re asking them to do 3-4 innings, but still get plenty of rest.  So a pattern of games could look like this:

  • Game 1: Closer1 pitches the 1st, RH1 and LH1 combine to pitch 2nd and 3rd.  Longman1 comes in and throws 4th through the 7th.  Then depending on where you are in the game he returns for the 8th or you go to your RH2/LH2 guy before handing off to Closer2 in the 9th.  So that’s 5 to 6 arms used in the first game.
  • Game 2: Closer3 starts.  RH3 throws next two innings.  Longman2 throws innings 4-7.  LH3 finishes it out, perhaps throwing Closer1 a second day in a row if need be.
  • Game 3: Closer2 starts.  Perhaps you go right to Longman3 for a 5 inning stint.  Back to RH1 and LH1 for the 7th/8th, then either let these guys do a 2 inning stint or go back to Closer3 for back-to-backs to finish the game.

So the workload for a 3-game series goes like this:

  • Closers: 2 innings each with an off-day
  • RH guys: 2-3 innings each with an off-day
  • LH guys: 2-3 innings each with an off-day
  • Long-men: 3-4 innings each with two off-days

That’s basically 27 innings across three games, assuming your middle relievers throw a couple of 2-inning stints in there, or one of your long-men does 4 innings instead of three.

Tell me why this wouldn’t work?  Everyone gets a ton of rest, and if you burn out one of your longmen you just call up re-inforcements from AAA to do mop-up games here and there.  You always have a closer going against the top of the order in the first inning, then you try to work it out so that you can do match-ups the next time they come up with a 7th/8th inning quality guy.  The best hitters on the other team will eventually get a shot at your “long man…” but under this plan, they’re getting four at bats generally against four different arms.  That’s going to give the advantage to the pitcher every time; batters don’t get to study up the opposing starter every night for research; they’re going to be seeing gas, trick pitches and one-trick ponies that have ridiculous BAAs and BABIPs thanks to their specialty.


So, who would love this?

  • Owners.  no more 9-figure contracts for starters who have like a 50% injury rate.
  • Some Pitchers: more opportunities for guys who just couldn’t cut it as starters but who crush it as releivers.

Who wouldn’t like this?

  • High end starters: less jobs, less demand for you.  Maybe.  I mean, right now Tampa is sticking with their two solid starters and only doing this for the other slots.  Maybe a team with two Aces like the nats just lets them roll normally then does this kind of bullpen game the other three games out of five.
  • Any baseball fan born before 1970, since they hate any change, any game modification.  I mean come on, there’s people demanding that we ban the shift (including the commissioner).
  • The Players union; you’d have to think salaries would plummet
  • Maybe most every baseball fan?  Offense drives fan interest … and this plan is specifically designed to neutralize the opposing team’s best hitters.

Thoughts?

My 2015 End-of-Season Awards Predictions

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Hopefully his MVP vote goes better for Harper than this day did. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 538595765 ORIG FILE ID: 490330798

Hopefully his MVP vote goes better for Harper than this day did. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Everyone does an “Awards Prediction piece.”  This post for me is kind of a running diary throughout the season, with the final predictions written at season’s end but then not published until after the WS ends/Awards season starts.

A few awards have already been given out, ones that I don’t necessarily try to predict anymore:

  • Fielding Bible Awards: not an official award but certainly a better way of evaluating defenders than the Gold Gloves (though, to be fair, they’re getting much much better at identifying the true best defenders year in, year out).  No Nats awarded.
  • Gold Glove Finalists: announced with 3 finalists for each award; Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos named as finalists but neither will win.
  • Hank Aaron awards for “Most Outstanding Offensive Player” in each league: Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson, who not surprisingly is who I chose for my MVP predictions.  I kinda wish this was a more prevalent award than the constant arguing we have about MVP.
  • Relievers of the Yearformerly known as the “Fireman’s reliever awards” and now named for legendary relievers Mariano Rivera/Trevor Hoffman: won this year by Andrew Miller of the Yankees, Mark Melancon of the Pirates.
  • Sporting News Executive of the Year: Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulis, who announced he was stepping down the same day he got the award.
  • A whole slew of other Sporting News annual awards: google “sporting news baseball awards 2015” and you can see players of the year, pitcher of the year,  post-season all-star teams, manager of the year, etc.

I put all these dates and links plus a whole lot more into my “off-season” calendar, which will publish soon now that the season is officially over.

(random self promotion related to the Sporting News: they recently published one of my quora.com “answers” titled “Are there Any cities that should have an MLB team,” an answer that I wrote referencing back to this blog for previously published/researched information).

My Final Predictions:

  • NL MVP: Bryce Harper
  • NL Cy Young: Jake Arrieta
  • NL Rookie: Kris Bryant
  • NL Manager: Terry Collins
  • NL Comeback: Matt Harvey
  • AL MVP: Josh Donaldson
  • AL Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel
  • AL Rookie: Carlos Correa
  • AL Manager: Jeff Bannister
  • AL Comeback: Prince Fielder

These are not always who I think *deserve* the awards necessarily, just how I think the voters will vote.  There are some really close races.  Here’s my thoughts:

  • NL MVP: Bryce Harper wins for three main reasons: 1) his season is one of the best of the last 50 years.  2) there’s no obvious candidate on any of the division winning teams (no sorry, Yoenis Cespedes doesn’t count) and 3) Even though the Nats didn’t win the division, they were in the race nearly the entire season.  No excuses here.  You might see some non-Harper votes b/c some middle aged fat slob of a homer writer has some misrepresented axe to grind but he should win easily.
  • NL Cy Young: Jake Arrieta: I can’t believe I’ve selected Arrieta over Greinke, but Arrieta’s 2nd half will, again, “win the narrative.”  Kershaw has been unbelievable too (and my fantasy team in the championship is proof), so really you can’t go wrong with these guys in any order.  I think it goes Arrietta, Greinke, Kershaw.  Side note; so, is the Baltimore pitching coaching staff the most incompetent in the league or what?  How does Arrieta go from being a 6ERA starter in Baltimore to a guy who is posting a sub 2.00 ERA in one of the best hitter’s parks in the league?
  • NL Rookie: Kris Bryant: for a while I thought this was Joc Pederson‘s to lose … but Bryant kept hitting and Pederson sat.  Wow are the Astros kicking themselves for drafting Mark Appel over Bryant or what??
  • NL Manager: Terry Collins: There’s no team in the NL in a more surprising position than the Mets, so Collins wins the award that our own Matt Williams so richly “earned” last year.  I wouldn’t be surprised though to see Joe Maddon get this given how great the Cubs were.
  • NL Comeback Player of the year has to be Matt Harvey; there’s nobody else really close in the NL.
  • AL MVP: Josh Donaldson: There’s just no reason Mike Trout shouldn’t win this award … except that voters are a fickle bunch and fall for the story.  Donaldson is a good story, playing on a good story of a team in Toronto.  He wins.
  • AL Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel: He was the best in the first half, the ASG starter, and no there’s no reason not to think he finishes off the season.  In fantasy he was like a 15th round pick and he’s a top-10 producer.  Amazing.
  • AL Rookie: Carlos Correa: If you want to argue that Francisco Lindor deserves this, I wouldn’t disagree.  I’m guessing Correa has the name power with the voters though and wins out.  Lindor has a much better average and is a superior defender, but Correa has 20+ homers, a benchmark number that will get him the votes.
  • AL Manager: Jeff Bannister: Even though Toronto is a surprise team, getting the talent handed to you like that is not the mark of a champion manager.  What is going on in Texas is nothing short of amazing.  At the beginning of the season the had an *entire rotation* on the D/L: Darvish, Harrison, Perez, Scheppers and Holland.  Scheppers may not have stayed there very long, but they looked like a 90-loss team, not a divisional winner over the likes of LA and Houston.
  • AL Comeback player of the  year goes to Prince Fielder for returning strongly from his neck injury.  If Alex Rodriguez had missed a year due to injury instead of litigation, he would likely be the winner.  By the way; how good was Alex Rodriguez doing color work for Fox Sports at the World Series?  He was damn impressive to me, great analysis, well spoken, well-dressed of course … and could not have provided more contrast to Pete Rose if they had found those two guys out of central casting.

So, how did the major awards evolve over the course of the season?  By my sense, the awards kind of went like this from April to September:

  • NL MVP: Stanton to Harper, maybe Goldschmidt, no definitely Harper, narrative Cespedes but has to be Harper.  Nobody else makes sense to take it away from him on narrative.
  • NL Cy Young: Scherzer early, definitely Scherzer, maybe Cole, suddenly Greinke in the lead, Kershaw coming on fast late but Arrieta’s 2nd  halve clinches it.
  • NL Rookie: Bryant and Pederson early, Pederson stretching a lead … but then Pederson gets benched while Bryant continues to play.  Some talk about Duffy, but still Bryant.  Too many homers.
  • AL MVP: Trout to Cabrera, back to Trout, then Donaldson takes over despite Trout’s phenomenal season.
  • AL Cy Young: Hernandez early, Keuchel strong mid season, Grey fading, Sale making a name but still Keuchel despite Price’s excellent season.
  • AL Rookie: Travis/Souza early, Burns making a name, but Correa is the leader most of the season, Lindor making noise late, Correa holds on.

As with last year’s version of this post, instead of printing links to writers early and mid-season predictions, I’ll just throw those links into the monthly reviews for context.   This post is more like a season-long diary of the evolution of these awards; the sections were written in each month as the season progressed.

BaseballMusings maintains a Cy Young tracker stat, which is useful to identify candidates but not really a predictor.


April
:

Here’s some early candidates out to fast starts.

Opinions this month: Symborski‘s ZIPS predictors after one month.

  • MVP candidates: Trout/Cabrera again in the AL.  Adrian Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt in the NL.
  • Cy Young candidates: Felix Hernandez in the AL, Kershaw and Scherzer in the NL.
  • Rookie of the year candidates: Devon Travis and Steven Souza in the AL, Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson in the NL.

May:

Harper NL Player of the month, after getting 2 straight player of the week awards.  Scherzer wins NL Pitcher of the month.

  • MVP candidates: Trout stretching lead in AL, Jason Kipnis and Nelson Cruz also high in bWAR.  Bryce Harper has stretched a massive WAR lead in the NL, Goldschmidt #2.  Anthony Rizzo entering the discussion.
  • Cy Young candidates: Dallas Keuchel and Sonny Gray in the AL, Max Scherzer really standing alone in the NL; closest WAR pitcher in the NL is Aaron Harang and he isn’t likely to keep the pace.
  • Rookie of the year candidates: Still Travis and Souza in the AL, Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson in the NL are both explosive players and will be hard to catch.

All Star Break

  • MVP candidates: Probably still Trout and Harper.  Goldschmidt is nearly as good but Harper has the narrative.
  • Cy Young candidates: Dallas Keuchel and Zack Greinke were the All Star starters and may be the leading candidates. Scherzer needs to get some run support; he’s barely above .500.
  • Rookie of the year candidates: Former Nat Billy Burns is in the bWAR lead, but Carlos Correa likely gets the nod.  In the NL, Bryant/Pederson have a commanding lead but Matt Duffy starting to put his name out there, and if the Cubs would just let Kyle Schwarber stay in the majors he might hit his way to the title.

Mid August

  • MVP candidates: Trout has competition in the form of Josh Donaldson in the AL.  Nobody’s close to Harper in the NL, still.
  • Cy Young candidates: In the NL, Scherzer’s star has faded while LA’s two aces have each had a significant scoreless innings streak and could finish 1-2.  Also in the NL; deserving candidates Jacob deGrom, Jake Arrietta and Gerrit Cole.  In the AL, it still looks like a dogfight between Gray and Keuchel.  But David Price is coming on strong post-trade and Chris Archer should get some top-5 votes.
  • Rookie of the year candidates: Its the year of the rookie; never before have we seen so many high-impact rookies in the league at once.  The AL seems set for Carlos Correa, with guys like Roberto Osuna, Andrew Heaney and Lance McCullers chasing him.  The NL has a number of candidates.  Bryant and Pederson have gotten the ink, but guys like Matt Duffy, Jung Ho Kang, Noah Snydergaard and Randal Grichuk are also worthy players.  Taylor Jungmann, Kyle Schwarber and even Joe Ross are also rans in the race thanks to later callups.  Bryant may win thanks to name recognition, but in other years any of these guys would have been candidates.
  • Managers of the  Year: we’re 100 games into the season, early enough to see some trends in the “Award-given-to-the-manager for his team unexpectedly overachieving the most in 2015” award.  In the AL, clearly Houston is the surprise team and in the NL the Mets are the surprise team, so we’ll go with A.J. Hinch and Terry Collins.
  • Comeback Players of the Year: Early candidates include Brett Anderson, Jeff Francoeur, Danny Espinosa and perhaps Matt Harvey.  In the AL, I think it has to be Alex Rodriguez or perhaps Prince Fielder.  Perhaps Chris Davis comes into the mix too.

September

  • MVP candidates: In the AL: Donaldson has overtaken Trout thanks to a huge end-of-season push and Trout’s injury.  In the NL, the Nats downturn may have opened up the door for both Anthony Rizzo and Andrew McCutchen.  That is if we listen to “narrative” about how teams need to be playing meaningful games.  Of course that being said, the Nats are playing very meaningful games; they’re trying to chase down a divisional leader so maybe the narrative still works for Harper.  But  not after a home sweep, when NY beat writers start beating the drum for Cespedes .. .which would be ridiculous since he only played a couple of months in the NL.
  • Cy Young candidates: In the AL, it probably comes down to Keuchel and Sale, with Price in the mix too thanks to his sterling season for Toronto post-trade.  In the NL: Arrietta has had the greatest 2nd half in baseball history; can he overtake Greinke?
  • Rookie of the year candidates: In the AL: Francisco Lindor making some noise but its still Correa.  In the NL, Pederson has gotten benched so it looks like Bryant is the leader, despite Duffy’s better season by WAR.
  • Managers of the  Year: at this point the “surprise” teams are the Mets and suddenly the Rangers.  I’ll go with their managers Collins and Bannister.  Some in the NL think Maddon and the Cubs are really the surprise team and they’re kind of right … but I maintain the Mets are even more so.
  • Comeback Players of the Year: I’ll go with Harvey in the NL, Fielder in the AL; nobody’s giving A-Rod an award.