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Are players from the 1980s under-represented in the Hall of Fame?

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Can Jack Morris eventually be the first "1980s Starter" to make the Hall? Photo John Iacono via si.com

First off: I’m not a “small hall” guy.  (How can you, when looking at the litany of obscure players the Veteran’s Committee has already enshrined while the current ballot has literally a dozen names that you can make an argument for?)  So naturally I want to see enshrinement for a larger number of the “marquee” names in baseball’s history.  I view the Hall of Fame as a museum dedicated to the game, and recognizing all the eras of the game for better or for worse.  I’m for expanding the current ballot and If I had a vote i’d be maxing out the 10 names with a desire to put a couple more guys on.

I’m also distinctly of the opinion that maybe the era of baseball just prior to today’s is underrepresented in Cooperstown.  Specifically, my theory is that the massive boom in offense that the game has seen in the last 20 years coupled with a distinct shift in the way pitching staffs are managed has led to voters and fans to discount and dismiss the accomplishments of players specifically from the 1980s.

MLB.com has a show called “Prime 9,” where they list the best 9 players/teams related to certain topics.  Recently they showed the “Best 9 players of the 1980s” by position, and it led me to use that list as a starting point for a discussion of marquee players from the 1980s and to decide whether or not the decade is under represented in Cooperstown.

Here’s Prime 9′s top player by position and their Hall of Fame status.  Throughout this entire article, Blue == Hall of Fame players while Red == non-Hall of Fame Players.

  • RF: Dwight Evans: fell off HoF ballot on his 3rd attempt in 1999.  Max votes: 10.4% in 1998.
  • CF: Dale Murphy: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2013.  Max votes: 23.2% in 2000.
  • LF: Rickey Henderson: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2009 with 94.8% of the vote.
  • SS: Cal Ripken Jr: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2007 with 98.5% of the vote.
  • 3B: Mike Schmidt: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1995 with 96.5% of the vote.
  • 2B: Ryne Sandberg: 3rd ballot HoFamer in 2005 with 76.2% of the vote.
  • 1B: Don Mattingly: on current ballot, his 13th attempt.  Max votes: 28.2% in 2001, his first year on the ballot.
  • C: Gary Carter: 6th ballot HoFamer in 2003 with 78% of the vote.
  • SP: Jack Morris: on current ballot, his 14th attempt.  Max votes: 67.7% this year.

Four of the Nine players listed as “Best of the Decade” are not in the Hall of Fame.   I think there’s something wrong here.  I know Morris is incredibly polarizing and probably never gets in, while the other three guys (Evans, Murphy, Mattingly) each had knocks against them related to durability and peak that prevented them from being enshrined.  Perhaps these are future Veteran’s committee picks.

I know the above list is arguable; perhaps those players aren’t necessarily the “best” at their positions for the decade.  So lets talk about the leading candidates per position who didn’t make the Prime-9′s list, and their own HoF status.  The MLB show didn’t distinguish between SP and RPs so I’ve separated them out below, nor did they distinguish between the OF positions like they did for the team selected above.

I’ve included the guys in the above “Prime 9″ list in the lists below for ease of analysis by position.

(Coincidentally; as you read the vote percentage totals, keep in mind that a voting percentage of less than 1% means that the player got only a handful of votes from the 500+ votes tallied each year, a woefully small number).

Outfielders:

  • Dwight Evans: fell off HoF ballot on his 3rd attempt in 1999.  Max votes: 10.4% in 1998.
  • Dale Murphy: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2013.  Max votes: 23.2% in 2000.
  • Rickey Henderson: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2009 with 94.8% of the vote.
  • Andre Dawson: 9th ballot HoFamer in 2010 with 77.9% of the vote.
  • Tim Raines: on current ballot, his 6th attempt.  Max votes: 52.2% this year.
  • Dave Parker: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2011.  Max votes: 24.5% in 1998.
  • Fred Lynn: fell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 1997.  Max votes: 5.5% in 1996.
  • Kirk Gibson: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 with only 2.5% of the voting.
  • Dave Winfield: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2001 with 84.5% of the vote.
  • Kirby Puckett: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2001 with 82.1% of the vote.
  • Tony Gwynn: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2007 with 97.6% of the vote.
  • Pedro Guerrero: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1998 with only 1.3% of the voting.
  • Jim Rice: 15th ballot HoFamer in 2009 with 76.4% of the vote.
  • Daryl Strawberryfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2005 with only 1.2% of the voting.
  • Jack Clarkfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1998 with only 1.5% of the voting.
  • Andy Van Slyke: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 without receiving a single vote.

This makes for 16 total outfielders on the “Best of the decade” list.  Of those 16 outfielders, 10 are not in the Hall of Fame.  Would you say that the position is under-represented in the Hall if only 6 outfielders from an entire decade of the sport are enshrined?   Maybe, maybe not.   To say nothing of the fact that 2 of these 6 HoFame 80s outfielders (Rice and Dawson) were heavily criticized upon enshrinement for being voted in based on remnants of “old man” statistics.

Jack Clark you say?  50 Career WAR.  That’s nothing to shake a stick at.  Higher than a number of Hall of Fame hitters.  I remember him being more of a power hitter than he turned out to be.  He just couldn’t stay healthy; only 5 seasons where he played close to a “full season” in 18 years in the league.   I remember him fondly from my childhood; my family is from San Francisco and I always rooted for the Giants as a kid.

Middle Infielders:

  • Cal Ripken Jr: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2007 with 98.5% of the vote.
  • Ryne Sandberg: 3rd ballot HoFamer in 2005 with 76.2% of the vote.
  • Garry Templetonfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1998 with only 0.4% of the voting.
  • Ozzie Smith1st ballot HoFamer in 2002 with 91.7% of the vote.
  • Alan Trammellon current ballot, his 12th attempt.  Max votes: 36.8% last year.
  • Robin Yount1st ballot HoFamer in 1999 with 77.5% of the vote.
  • Lou Whitaker: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 with only 2.9% of the voting.
  • Dave Conceptionfell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2008.  Max votes: 16.9% in 1998.

Lots of baseball pundits have lamented Whitaker’s fate, while plenty others vociferiously argue for Trammell, who had the misfortune of being both the 2nd best offensive SS (to Ripken) and the 2nd best defensive SS (to Smith) of his era simultaneously, thus being overshadowed by both.   Conception was about an equal at the plate to Ozzie Smith but only about half the Gold Gloves, but still seems like he deserved a bit more credit than he got in the voting.

Third Basemen

  • Mike Schmidt: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1995 with 96.5% of the vote.
  • Wade Boggs: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2005 with 91.9% of the vote.
  • George Brett: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1999 with 98.2% of the vote.
  • Paul Molitor: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2004 with 85.2% of the vote.
  • Terry Pendleton: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with only 0.2% of the voting.
  • Tim Wallachfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2002 with only 0.2% of the voting.
  • Buddy Bellfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1995 with only 1.7% of the voting.

Four first ballot hall of fame 3rd Basemen played in the era (even if most consider Molitor primarly a DH later in his career) which is saying something considering there are only 12 full time 3rd baseman in the Hall from all of history.  The all-star game starters for the entire decade were almost entirely Schmidt, Boggs and Brett.  The others I fully acknowledge are “stretches” but did each have several all-star appearances during the decade.

First Basemen

  • Don Mattingly: on current ballot, his 13th attempt.  Max votes: 28.2% in 2001, his first year on the ballot.
  • Steve Garvey: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2007.  Max votes: 42.6% in 1995.
  • Eddie Murray: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2003 with 85.3% of the vote.
  • Keith Hernandez: fell off HoF ballot on his 9th attempt in 2004.  Max votes: 10.8% in 1998.
  • Mark McGwireon current ballot, his 7th attempt.  Max votes: 23.7% in 2010.

Not much to say here: There seemed to be a definite lack of quality first basemen for the decade; only one is enshrined in the Hall.  Many of the all-star 1B appearances early in the decade went to aging stars Rod Carew and Pete Rose, who by that point in their long careers had been moved to first base for defensive purposes. McGwire’s issues are obvious (and he’s clearly more well known for his exploits in the 1990s, so its arguable if he even belongs in this 1980′s centric discussion).

Catchers

  • Gary Carter: 6th ballot HoFamer in 2003 with 78% of the vote.
  • Carlton Fisk2nd ballot HoFamer in 2000 with 79.6% of the vote.
  • Lance Parrishfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 with 1.7% of the voting.
  • Benito Santiagofell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2011 with 0.2% of the voting.
  • Darrell Porterfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1993 with zero (0) votes.
  • Tony Penafell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2003 with0.4% of the voting.
  • Bob Boonefell off HoF ballot on his 5th attempt in 2000. Max votes: 7.7% in 1996.
  • Terry Kennedyfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1997 with exactly one (1) vote.

Yes, I’m really stretching for 1980s catchers.  Basically Carter made the all-star team every year for the NL while Fisk made half the All Star Starts for the AL during the same time.  The backups were generally catchers having a decent first half, many of whom never made an other all-star team.  Boone was better than you remember, hence his hanging around the bottom of the ballot for a few years.

Closers/Relievers

  • Lee Smith: on current ballot, his 11th attempt.  Max votes: 50.6% in 2012.
  • Bruce Sutter: 13th ballot HoFamer in 2006 with 876.9% of the vote.
  • Dennis Eckersley:  1st ballot HoFamer in 2004 with 83.2% of the vote.
  • Rich Gossage: 9th ballot HoFamer in 2008 with 85.8% of the vote.
  • Jeff Reardonfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2000 with 4.8% of the voting.
  • Tom Henkefell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 0.6% of the voting.
  • Dan Quisenberryfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1996 with 3.8% of the voting.
  • Kent Tekulvefell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1995 with 1.3% of the voting.
  • Willie Hernandezfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1995 with 0.4% of the voting.

I’m not going to vociferously argue for Relievers/Closers to be inducted, since I think they’re mostly overrated in terms of their contributions to wins.  But I will say that a couple of these guys were far better than you remember.  Take Tom Henke: career 157 ERA+, which was better than either Sutter or Gossage PLUS he had more career saves (311 for Henke compared to 310 for Gossage and 300 for Sutter).   How exactly are two of these three guys Hall of Famers while Henke got exactly 6 votes out of 515 his first time on the ballot?   These voting patterns just seem drastically inconsistent.


All the above though pales in comparison to what we’re about to see.

Starters

  • Jack Morris: on current ballot, his 14th attempt.  Max votes: 67.7% this year.
  • Steve Carlton: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1994 with 95.6% of the vote.
  • Dave Stewart: fell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 2002.  Max votes: 7.4% in 2001.
  • Frank Violafell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2002 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Rick Sutcliffefell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2000 with 1.8% of the voting.
  • Dave Steibfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 1.4% of the voting.
  • Bob Welchfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2000 with 0.2% of the voting.
  • Brett Saberhagen: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2007 with 1.3% of the voting.
  • Orel Hershiser: fell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 2007.  Max votes: 11.2% in 2006.
  • Dwight Goodenfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2006 with 3.3% of the voting.
  • Mike Scott:  fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1997 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Rick Reuschelfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1997 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Fernando Valenzuelafell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 2004.  Max votes: 6.2% in 2003.
  • Nolan Ryan: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1999 with 98.8% of the vote.
  • Denny Martinez: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 3.2% of the voting.
  • Bert Blyleven14th ballot HoFamer in 2011 with 79.7% of the vote.
  • Jimmy Keyfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 0.6% of the voting.
  • Ron Guidryfell off HoF ballot on his 9th attempt in 2002.  Max votes: 8.8% in 2000.
  • John Tudor: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1996 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Roger Clemenson current ballot, his 1st attempt.  Max votes: 37.6% in 2013.

Here is where I think I really have a problem with the Hall of Fame treatment players in the 1980s; I think the entire generation of Starting Pitchers has been generally underrated and overlooked.  Look at this list of pitchers and look at the number of guys who failed to even stay on the ballot for more than one season.  Meanwhile, you can argue that the three guys who ARE on this list who are in the Hall of Fame (Carlton, Ryan and Blyleven) all actually “belong” to the 1970s; they just happened to have longer careers that bled into the 1980s.  Clemens appears here because his late 80s debut was so strong but clearly he’s a player of the 90s, and his reasons for non-inclusion thus far are obvious.

Do you mean to tell me that NONE of these other 1980′s starters merits inclusion to the Hall of Fame?  That an entire decade of starting pitchers doesn’t historically merit inclusion?  I’m not going to argue that all (or most) of these players belong, but it is kind of shocking that so many of the leading pitchers of that era were given so little consideration.

My biggest beef may be with Saberhagen.  Here’s the side-by-side stats of Saberhagen and a Mystery pitcher we’ll identify in a moment:

Wins Losses IP K’s ERA ERA+ bWAR
Saberhagen 167 117 2562 2/3 1715 3.34 126 56
Mystery Player 165 87 2324 1/3 2396 2.76 131 50.3

Pretty close, no?  Saberhagen contributed more WAR and was nearly this player’s equal in ERA+, which adjusts to the eras.  Mystery player’s W/L record is better … but then again, havn’t we learned that wins and losses are meaningless stats now?   A couple more facts here: Saberhagen won two Cy Young awards while the Mystery player won Three.  Saberhagen led the league in ERA just once while Mystery player did it 5 years in a row.

The Mystery player here (if you havn’t already guessed) is none other than Sandy Koufax.  Now, I’m certainly not saying that Saberhagen is the equal of Koufax, certainly not when you look at Koufax’s last 5 seasons or his 4 no-hitters.  My point is this: Koufax was a first ballot hall of famer … and Saberhagen got 7 votes out of 545 ballots.   Saberhagen may not be a Hall of Famer but he deserved to be in the discussion longer than he was.

Others have mentioned the lack of support for Dave Steib, who had a relatively similar statistical case to Saberhagen.  Similar career bWAR (53.5), similar ERA+ (122), and similar injury issues that curtailed his career.  Steib’s award resume isn’t as impressive (zero Cy Youngs but 7 All-Star appearances in his first 11 seasons), and he was basically done as an effective player by the time he was 33.

There are some other surprises on this list too.  Jimmy Key you say?  Go look at his career stats and you’ll be surprised just how good he was.  186-117, a 3.51 ERA (which sounds mediocre) but a career 122 ERA+.  A couple of stellar seasons (two 2nd place Cy Young votes).   I’m not saying he’s a hall of famer, but I am saying that he was better than you remember.  There’s absolutely pitchers in the Hall with worse ERA+ than Key’s.


Coincidentally, you can make the argument that many of these players really “belonged” to a different decade, if you wanted to really just focus this discussion on the 1980 decade.

  • Fisk, Boone, Conception, Parker, Lynn, Rice, Garvey, Carlton, Ryan, Reuschel and to a certain extent Winfield were really players who mostly “belong” in the 1970s.
  • Blyleven and Brett’s careers equally spanned both the 70s and 80s.
  • Gooden, Van Slyke, Puckett, McGwire, Clemens and Pendleton had careers that started the late 80s but who flourished mostly in the 1990s.

But, I think the point is made, especially when it comes to pitchers.  So I left all these players in.


Here’s a couple other ways to look at the best players of the 1980s.  Here’s a list of the top 20 positional players by “Win Shares” for the decade (data cut and pasted from an online forum).  As with above, blue=hall of famer while red indicates not.

1. Rickey Henderson 289
2. Robin Yount 274
3. Mike Schmidt 265
4. Eddie Murray 250
5. Tim Raines 246
6. Dale Murphy 244
7. Wade Boggs 237
8. Dwight Evans 230
9. George Brett 229
10. Keith Hernandez 221
11. Pedro Guerrero 221
12. Cal Ripken 219
13. Alan Trammell 219
14. Gary Carter 215
15. Jack Clark 213
16. Lou Whitaker 205
17. Andre Dawson 204
18. Ozzie Smith 204
19. Paul Molitor 198
20. Dave Winfield 193

Most HoFame pundits lament the lack of support for Raines specifically, but it is interesting to see how high up both Murphy and Evans fall on this list.

Now, here’s Pitcher WAR accumulated in the 1980s.  I took this data from a posting on BeyondtheBoxScore blog back in 2010, who was arguing (of course) why Jack Morris didn’t deserve to be in the hall of fame.  However, the table here also illustrates nicely who were really the best pitchers of the decade, and most of these guys are in the list above.

Rank Name bWAR From To Age Wins Losses
1 Dave Stieb 45.2 1980 1989 22-31 140 109
2 Bob Welch 35.1 1980 1989 23-32 137 93
3 Fernando Valenzuela 34.8 1980 1989 19-28 128 103
4 Bert Blyleven 34 1980 1989 29-38 123 103
5 Orel Hershiser 32.8 1983 1989 24-30 98 64
6 Roger Clemens 32.3 1984 1989 21-26 95 45
7 Nolan Ryan 30.8 1980 1989 33-42 122 104
8 Dwight Gooden 30.2 1984 1989 19-24 100 39
9 John Tudor 29.7 1980 1989 26-35 104 66
10 Bret Saberhagen 29 1984 1989 20-25 92 61
11 Charlie Hough 28.7 1980 1989 32-41 128 114
12 Jack Morris 27.9 1980 1989 25-34 162 119
13 Mario Soto 27.3 1980 1988 23-31 94 84
14 Teddy Higuera 27.3 1985 1989 26-30 78 44
15 Rick Sutcliffe 26.7 1980 1989 24-33 116 93
16 Rick Reuschel 25.7 1980 1989 31-40 97 82
17 Steve Carlton 25.6 1980 1988 35-43 104 84
18 Ron Guidry 25.5 1980 1988 29-37 111 72
19 Frank Viola 25.1 1982 1989 22-29 117 98
20 Dan Quisenberry 24.6 1980 1989 27-36 53 43
21 Mark Gubicza 24.6 1984 1989 21-26 84 67

I’m not sure why he ran this list to 21 players; perhaps he really likes Mark Gubicza.

Notice the same 3 names appear here as appeared above for Hall of Fame starters.  Also notice the surprisingly high appearances of players like Soto and Higuera; I didn’t even include them in the above analysis, perhaps providing my own bias because certainly I wouldn’t have included these two in any conversation about the best pitchers of the 80s.  But the point is now made statistically; of the 20 best pitchers by WAR for the entire decade, only 3 are enshrined in the Hall.

I havn’t done this analysis for other decades but I’d be surprised if other decades were so underrepresented.  Think about how many obvious hall of famers pitched in the 1990s;  Just off the top of my head: Clemens, Mussina, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson, Pedro, Schilling and perhaps eventually Hoffman and Rivera.   Maybe guys like Cone and Pettitte deserve more thought.  Lee Smith is still on the ballot.  That’s a lot of names for one decade as compared to what’s happened to the 1980s guys.


So, after all this, do we think the 1980s players are underrepresented in the Hall?  I count 17 positional players, 3 relievers and 3 starters from the era.  Perhaps the answer is, “there’s plenty of positional representation but the Starters are not fairly represented.”

Why are there so few starters from this era enshrined?  Did we just see a relatively mediocre time period in baseball with respect to starting pitchers?  Did we just get unlucky with the longevity and injury issues related to the best pitchers of the era (Hershiser, Saberhagen, Steib)?  Did changes in bullpen management that came about in the 90s (lefty-lefty matchups and more specialized relievers) combined with increasing awareness/sensitivety to pitch counts (100 pitches and you’re out) contribute to this fact?   If you’re a starter and the assumption is that you’re pitching 9 innings no matter what your pitch count is, you’re going to approach the game differently and pitch with a different level of effort than if you knew you were getting the hook after 100 pitches and/or in roughly the 6th or 7th inning.  Did this contribute to more mediocre-appearing ERAs for starters of this era?  Is that a good argument to use, as compared to 90s’ and modern pitchers who go all-out for 7 innings and then sit (versus starters of the 90s, who would often face the 3-4-5 of the opposing team a FOURTH time in the late innings while sitting on 140 pitches)?

What do you guys think?

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 2/19/12 edition

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RIP Gary Carter, one of only two Montreal Expos enshrined in Cooperstown. Photo via garycarter.org

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.  I try to publish this about weekly or if it gets up to about 1500 words, so that it’s not to voluminous.

Nationals In General

  • Mark Zuckerman writes about a favorite topic of mine w/r/t the current Nats 40-man roster and its construction.  See here for a similar discussion of the 2011 Nats (along with analysis of the 8 playoff teams) from last October.  Clearly the more players you’re using as your “primary 15″ that were developed in house, the better you’re doing as a player development machine.  But there’s also the measure of cashing in those prospects in order to acquire resources.  (Coincidentally the “primary 15″ of a team means its 8 starters in the field, 5 rotation members, setup man and closer).  By last year’s end, the Nats were starting 9 of these 15 as players developed in house and were down to just three acquired via FA/Waivers.  That’s a massive step up from just a few years prior, when most of the team was FA/Waiver pickups.  We’ll revisit this topic once the 25-man rosters for teams are finalized and play starts in April.
  • The Washington Franchise leads the league in employment of Negative WAR players over the past decade.   A staggering 31% of our players in this time have shown negative WARs per season.   This is not surprising given what we know of the construction of the first few iterations of the Nationals; Zuckerman has done studies in the past related to the staggering number of players the Nats have played at the MLB level who, after leaving us, never appeared in a major league game again.   The last time Zuckerman did this study that I could find was Nov 2010, when he identified 59 such players just since 2005.  I don’t know what percentage that is of all players who appeared for us in that time-frame, but it seems high.  (note: I just did some analysis and will return with a blog posting on this topic soon).
  • Back to the negative war topic, here’s a list of such negative WAR seasons for the 2011 iteration of the team: Alex Cora, Jesus Flores, Chris Marrero, Steve Lombardozzi, Matt Stairs, Livan Hernandez, Doug Slaten, Brian Broderick, Yuniesky Maya, Collin Balester and Chad Gaudin.  That’s 11 of the 44 players who appeared in the majors for us last year, or exactly 25%.  So we’re not exactly out of the woods yes; clearly we continue to employ a ton of players who end up hurting the team.  (For the record I used bWAR instead of fWAR for this, since its a bit easier to see that data.  But i’d guess the analysis would come out the same for either measurement method).
  • Another article on Edwin Jackson and pitch-tipping.  Is it possible that a player could play for years and never have a hitter teammate tell him he’s tipping his pitches?  I think it depends on what team the pitcher plays for.  Mike Mussina infamously was told he tipped his change up once he moved to the Yankees, and he made the adjustment that enabled his stellar 2006 season.  Maybe the team should have just kept its mouth shut about their thoughts and not told every reporter in every press conference that they think their new $11M pitcher is flawed.

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • Interesting thoughts on whether “4-A” players really do exist and how to quantify them from Fangraphs.com.  Read through the comments for some better thoughts.  For me, this issue touches on two opinions I’ve been growing.  1st; yes there does exist 4-A players; the Nats have shown to have a slew of them recently.  Guys whose minor league performance literally disappears upon reaching the majors.  I don’t know how to quantify it but there’s clearly guys who bounce freely between the two levels and seem destined to max out as such a 4-A player.  2ndly: Is AAA now a “lesser” league than AA?  Perhaps not with all systems (for example, Tampa Bay insists all their prospects play full seasons at each level, as does Atlanta), but for the Nats we’ve seen some interesting promotion behavior lately.  Stephen Strasburg got hit harder in AA than in AAA during his brief minor league apprenticeship, but the difference is rather slight.  But watching the games you got the distinct feeling that his AA competition was getting decent wood on the bat, while in AAA it was like he was pitching to little leaguers.  This goes to my theory that AAA is morphing into a “spare parts” league, where teams stash backup utility players (mostly catchers, middle infielders, relief pitchers) who are on the 40-man and can quickly be recalled to fill a spot, while AA is the place where your rising prospects play full seasons in preparation for promotion to the majors.  Jordan Zimmermann never pitched a AAA inning, rising from a full season in Harrisburg straight to our rotaton.  Strasburg probably could have done the same.  Will we see Bryce Harper jump straight from AA to the Majors or will the strategy of Mike Rizzo going forward be more Tampa-esque, requiring each prospect to “master” each level rising upwards?
  • A surprise team lands Yoenis Cespedes, namely the penny-pinching Oakland A’s in a 4yr/$36M deal.  4 years and $36M!?  That’s more than they will spend in payroll on their entire TEAM in 2012.  Maybe.  That’s a lot of cash for a completely unproven, if talented player who I’d say is not entirely MLB ready.

General Baseball News

  • Excellent article on the Demise of the Spitball and other Doctoring techniques from Grantland’s Jonah Keri, whose writing I’ve always liked and who is working on a historical retrospective on the Montreal Expos franchise.   Keri’s article talks about the Kenny Rogers pine-tar incident in the 2006 World series, but I don’t consider that “doctoring” the baseball.  That was simply using pine-tar to get a better grip on a cold, wet night.  Not that its legal; just different from the more conventional definition of a “spitball.”   Keri’s conclusion as to why the spitball has disappeared is attributed to the invention of the modern split-fingered fastball (attributed to Bruce Sutter) and to the lack of proper teachers (the craft of doctoring the ball has been handed down generation to generation by pitching coaches).  But honestly I believe the decline is more attributable to two other factors; the lingering stigma of getting caught being higher now post-PED era than every before, and the fact that the true “spitball” is damn difficult to throw (imagine trying to “throw” a baseball with the same motion you might use to squirt a pumpkin seed from your fingers?  That’s what throwing a spitball is like to a certain extent).
  • In typical modern day sabrematrician blogger nerd fashion, someone at a stats-oriented site goes about attacking another writer’s observation column.  In this case, it is someone at Baseball Prospectus attacking the Verducci Effect.  I can’t argue with his stats (other than to quibble with the lack of publication of his control group for comparison), but I suspect he misses the point.  I don’t think Verducci passes this list off as a statistical study; i think its passed off as a subjective list of candidate pitchers who HE THINKS may regress.  See, there’s the rub.  He’s already done the breakdown from the “control” group of pitchers who may be candidates for his study but whom he thinks may not be in jeopardy.  So I’m presuming that, because of this pre-selection and expression of opinion this is no longer a statistical study but an opinion piece.  I’d liken it to analyzing statistically the results of an amateur scout’s player recommendations; sure you could run one in order to judge a scout’s prognostication ability, but there’s so much variation in what happens to players once they sign that it wouldn’t be meaning ful.  I guess my take away is this: Verducci does a pretty durn good job of predicting red-flags for these pitchers (84% over the past 5 years), that maybe we should just recognize his study for what it is, and not overanalyze it to try to discredit it.
  • A nice article about another favorite topic of mine: the relationship between Wins and salary.  The familiar narrative is that payroll discrepancies are killing modern baseball, and to a certain extent I do agree; its no coincidence that the high payroll Yankees have only missed one playoff appearance in the nearly-20 years since the wild card era began.  But the ratio of wins to salary is dropping.  Why?  Because several teams have sacrificed several seasons to basically reset and start over.   Tampa Bay and Texas are the best recent examples, but we’re also seeing remnants of this theory here in Washington and starting anew in Houston and Chicago.
  • Nice little Intro to Sabremetrics from Espn-W.  The author doesn’t go into the real in-depth stats that a lot of people are gravitating to but does cover the basics.  OPS, Fip, UZr, wOBA, Vorp and WAR.  Now if we could only decide on a standard WAR.  :-)
  • Another classy move from baseball’s classiest organization; the Miami Marlins.  Yeah, lets un-retire the number of a former employee who died tragically since, well, he didn’t work for the current ownership group.

General News; other

  • Excellent article at Grantland.com on the Effects of CTE and the possible future (end?) of Football as we know it.  This is something I have been saying for a while and agree with; the increased awareness of concussions and their relationship to the longer term effects (the affliction known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE) may soon start to really change the way that people think about the sport.  More to the point, as a parent does the thought of repeated concussions inflicted on your young football-playing son give you pause?  It would for me.  Read this article and it makes some very good points.  90,000 recorded pre-collegiate concussions per year?!


Starting versus Closing

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Should we try Clippard as a starter? Absolutely! Photo: NationalsDailyNews/Meaghan Gay/DCist.com

Baseball writer extraordinaire Tom Verducci posted a fantastic article today talking about Neftali Feliz‘s proposed move from the Rangers closer to the starting rotation.  The article touches on a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while; Starting versus Closing.  It also is literally the best summation I’ve seen yet describing why the save is over-rated, closers are overpaid and why you’d rather have starters versus relievers.

Lets face it; for the most part relievers are failed starters.  A few get drafted or signed as relievers (Washington’s Drew Storen being one local example), but most starters are drafted as starters and work their way through the minors as starters.  Some starters discover that they can’t develop secondary pitches, but their primary pitches are so fantastic that the club (rightly) turns them into relievers.  This especially allows hard-throwers (think someone like Joel Zumaya) to have a career despite the fact that they only really have one pitch and throw with such effort that they could not possibly last 6+ innings.

Minor league relievers definitely make the majors, but most often as either LOOGYs or rubber-armed replaceable right-handers (think Miguel Batista) out of the bullpen.  In recent  years the desire to have more and faster throwing arms out of the bullpen has led to more pitchers opting to become relievers sooner, but they still are converted out of starting roles for either performance or fragility.

Two items from his story that I’d like to comment on:

1. Managers don’t use Closers in the most high-leverage situations. I could not agree more.  When is the best spot to use your best, most reliable reliever?  In a one-run game in the 6th when your starter runs out of gas and loads the bases with one out?  Or at the beginning of the 9th inning of a 5-3 lead?  Verducci is right; managers in the modern game are slaves to the save statistic and will not bring in their closer unless its a “save situation.”   But he also notes what is common knowledge; that you could be putting out the 12th man in your bullpen and probably have only a slightly worse chance of getting 3 outs without losing the game for your team.  Per the article, 94% of 2-run leads in the 9th inning are won irrespective of who you put out there, and that percentage has not changed significantly over the past 50 years of baseball.  Joe Posnanski also wrote about this same topic in November with similar results, finding that teams in the 50s closed out games with the same regularity as teams now, but without high-priced one-inning closers.

Luckily for the Nats, we look to have 3-4 different guys who are of sufficient quality who we CAN bring in to a game in the 6th and get a high-leverage situation.  Storen, Clippard, Burnett or newly acquired Henry Rodriguez all seem to fit the bill.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a manager in Riggleman who is in the “slave to the save” category.  Matt Capps was brought in to be the closer and he closed games.  That’s it.  It is safe to say that if Riggleman decides on a closer, that’s going to be his role and that’s that.

The save stat is ridiculous and most people know it.  You can get a save in a game where you give up 2 runs and 5 hits in a 1/3 of an inning.  You can get a save when you perform mop up duty but let the score get too close while you rubber-arm your way through a meaningless blowout.  The save takes nothing about the pitcher’s performance into account; only whether or not the game ended while he was on the mound and the win was preserved.

But the save stat, and its monster creation the specialized one-inning closer, are here to stay.  Prospects come up through the ranks specifically to be closers, free agent players will only play for certain teams if given “the chance to close.”  Closers are well paid, and their pay is directly tied to this flawed save statistic.  Statisticians have tried to create a better set of metrics for middle relievers (“Holds” mostly) but the reality is that closers have high leverage in salary situations while middle relievers are lucky to get paid a bit more than the veteran’s minimum.  Verducci touches on this ridiculousness, pointing out that Papelbon‘s higher salary in 2011 than Cole Hamels despite the relative levels of production for their teams.

Ironically, some Major League managers *know* this fact, but continue to trot out their best reliever for a 3-out save at the beginning of the 9th inning in a 3-run game.  They do the same as the other 29 managers because the radical idea that backfires directly leads to termination.  No manager is willing to risk their job to try to do something the right way.  To say nothing of the reaction of a highly-paid FA closer who is suddenly told he’s going to be primarily used in the middle of the 7th to clean up the starter’s mess.

It makes you wonder if there’s a better way.  Here’s two radical suggestions:

1. Comprise a bullpen with no named closer role, and tell the entire 7-man bullpen they’re doing closer-by-committee.  It may infuriate fantasy baseball players and the union (since saves translate to salary for their FAs), but it probably placates an entire roster of wanna-be closers.  Imagine if 5 of the 7 guys in your bullpen (leaving out the LOOGY and long-man) know they may be brought in to rescue a game in the 6th or close it out in the 9th, and their roles change on a daily basis based on use.  That to me is a far better situation than pre-naming a closer (which invariably is the best guy out there) and then never using him until the 9th.

2. Comprise an ENTIRE pitching staff of long-men relievers.  Imagine if you didn’t have starters at all, but an entire bullpen of guys who were geared to pitch 2-3 innings every other night.  You would never have a need for specialized closers or even high-priced starters.  You’d rotate through who got the start, the starter would go 2-3 innings, then the next guy would go, and you’d repeat this until the game was over.  It’s kinda like spring training but all year.  Since these guys are only throwing 2-3 innings, they should be able to repeat this task multiple times in a week.

There’s 54 regular innings to be had per week mid-season (6 games at 9 innings per).  54 innings divided out by 12 guys in the pen means about 4.5 innings per WEEK per pitcher.  If you split those 4.5 innings up across three games you’d be pitching (say) 2 innings on monday, 1 on thursday then 1.5 on saturday.  That’s pretty manageable.  Plus if everyone else is doing the same, you can rotate through the guys and slightly adjust based on how they’re pitching that day.

Plus, think about how CHEAP this pitching staff would be.  12 middle relievers could not possibly cost your team more than about $15-20M annually in salary, even if they were mostly on veteran contracts.  Roy Halladay makes more than that in 2011 just by himself.

Coincidentally, this is exactly what Tony LaRussa tried at one point in the early 90s with the Athletics.  Unfortunately his experiment ended quickly, failing less because of execution and more because of lack of support from his players and management.  Its just a matter of time before someone tries it again.


Here’s the second item i’d like to comment on:

2. Starters are FAR more valuable than Relievers or Closers.  Last year in the midst of Clippard’s fantastic middle-relief run I asked myself, “Why isn’t Clippard in the rotation?”  He pitched 91 innings spread out over 78 appearances and only gave up 69 hits.  He maintained an 11.1 K/9 ratio, which is better than any starter in 2010.  91 innings was good for 4th on the entire staff in 2010.

The leading argument i’ve read for Clippard staying in the bullpen relates to the nature of his stuff.  He’s got a sneaky good fastball, a decent curve but his bread and butter pitch is the change-up.  Apparently the knock on him is that hitters adjust to him more quickly and thus he makes more sense in a relief role.  In a starting role hitters would be getting their third crack at him in the 5th or 6th inning, right when he’s tiring and right when he’s vulnerable.  In relief, he can “show” all his pitches in one at bat and work each batter individually, then leave the game before his “stuff” is exposed.

Clippard was a starter his entire minor league career, and his minor league numbers were pretty good.  He always maintained a small hits-to-IP ratio, a good k/9 ratio.  It wasn’t until he reached the majors that suddenly he couldn’t start.  I think perhaps he’s either gotten pigeonholed or he’s psychologically set in the reliever mind-frame now.

A quality starter gives your team 6+ innings, works through the opposing team’s batting order nearly 3 full times and keeps your team in the game.  6-7 innings at a 3.00 era is invaluable for your team’s psyche as it tries to win game after game.  Leaving just 2-3 innings a night for a bullpen staff of 7 means that there’s fewer days when your staff is over worked and you have to give up games for lack of bullpen arms.

How about using career WAR as a bench mark?  I don’t really like the career WAR analysis (since it is an accumulator stat and a mediocre guy with 22 years of experience appears to be better than the best pitcher of his day who only had a 15 year career).  But it is telling in this situation.  Here’s a link to career WAR for pitchers at baseball-reference.com.  And here’s the rank of the 5 best relief pitchers of all time (the 5 relievers currently in the hall of fame), along with the rankings of some of their active contemporaries who seem likely for the hall.

Lname Fname Career WAR Rank
Smoltz John 38
Eckersley Dennis 46
Rivera Mariano 69
Wilhelm Hoyt 121
Gossage Goose 133
Hoffman Trevor 215
Wagner Billy 238
Sutter Bruce 315
Fingers Rollie 325

Smoltz and Eckersly both started for large portions of their career, hence the high rank.  Mariano Rivera is clearly (in my mind) the greatest reliever who has ever played and his career WAR shows.  But notice how low closer-only guys like Sutter and Fingers are on this list.  Both are currently below modern day starters Ted Lilly and Kevin Millwood, again guys who are hardly listed as being among the game’s elite.

By means of comparison, Trevor Hoffman, who is ranked 215th all time is ranked just ahead of one Freddie Garcia in all time WAR.  Now, is Freddie Garcia a serious hall of fame candidate?  Not likely; he’s currently on a minor league contract offer with the Yankees after nearly washing out of the game two years ago.


Oh, coincidentally, I absolutely think Felix should be in the rotation.  As should Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati.  Because they’ll be able to help your team win on a much more frequent basis.  You always want the chance of 180 innings of quality versus 60.  Its that simple.