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April 6, 2011

The BP Broadside

Thanks to Soriano, CC will Finish with 299 Career Wins

by Steven Goldman

This morning finds me a bitter man, because I watched last night’s Yankees game. My sermon will be short and have the flavor of fresh almonds and peach pits. My anger comes in three varieties: I am vexed at Joe Girardi that Rafael Soriano, perhaps a grudging set-up man, was in a sleepy 4-0 game; I am vexed at Soriano himself for doing his Eddie Cicotte ’19 impression in the game; most of all, I am vexed by those reactionary boneheads who believe that pitcher wins can tell us a damnable thing about a pitcher’s quality.

For those who didn’t watch the action, a quick recap: CC Sabathia started for the Yankees, Brian Duensing for the Twins. The Yankees quickly got to the Minnesota lefty, scoring three in bottom of the first on Mark Teixeira’s fourth home run of the season and tacking on another in the next frame on an Andruw Jones solo shot. The Yankees stopped hitting after that and Duensing was able to get through seven innings, uncharacteristically striking out seven batters, but it seemed as if the four runs would stand up thanks to Sabathia’s dominance.

No matter how many innings you put on Sabathia’s bulky body, he never seems to falter. Granted, the 2011 Twins may present about as much of a challenge to a top pitcher as the 1911 Senators would, but he showed Gardenhire’s lads something extra on Tuesday. He allowed just two hits, both in the top of the second, and no runs, walking one and striking out six in seven innings. It was an ace-quality start from an ace pitcher.

With the Twins looking as if they had been rocked to sleep and the temperature dropping, Joe Girardi pulled Sabathia for the eighth; 104 pitches is plenty on a cold night in the first week of the season. David Robertson had been warming up. A man without a role since Girardi identified Chamberlain and Soriano as the seventh- and eighth-inning pitchers, Robertson, owner of a career rate of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, could have used the work. Nonetheless, the call was for Soriano, the bridge to Mariano, even though Rivera would not be pitching in such a lopsided game. The concept of leverage flows like quicksilver through Girardi’s mind, never stopping to define itself.

Despite the initial score, Soriano did everything he could to make the bridge necessary. He opened the eighth by walking Danny Valencia. Justin Morneau followed with a lineout to right, but Jim Thome drew another walk, and Denard Span singled to load the bases. Tsuyoshi Nishioka whiffed (something he’s already done seven times in 20 at bats) for the second out, bringing Joe Mauer to the plate. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Girardi pulled the plug right there and went to Robertson, or even his spot lefty Boone Logan—Mauer did hit only .272 against lefties last year, versus .365 against righties (his career mark against same-side pitchers is .302). No, I wouldn’t have gone to Boone Logan either, because (A) who the hell is Boone Logan, anyway (No, you had it right the first time—they’re not saying “Boone,” they’re saying “Boo.”), and (B) like many spot-lefties, he’s wild enough that there’s only a 50-50 chance he’ll pitch to the batter the manager aimed him at.

Girardi made no move. Mauer walked on five pitches to force in a run: 4-1. Now he called for Robertson to face Delmon Young. Young worked the count to 2-2, then lofted a dying quail to shallow right field, along the line. As Russell Martin said after the game, Robertson had done his job, inducing weak contact, but the ball was placed perfectly, and it dropped in just beyond the reach of the infielders and a sliding Nick Swisher. The runners had been off with two outs, and the bases were cleared: 4-4. After Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth, Logan finally came in to pitch the top of the tenth  and allowed the Twins to score the winning run without retiring a single batter. After, Soriano seasoned an already bitter loss with a hint of cowardice, ducking the reporters in the clubhouse. Nothing like phoning one in, or looking like you did, and then failing to take responsibility.

But Soriano’s silent sayonara is not the thing that gets me as much as the way his inept performance threw away a great performance by Sabathia—something that happens with regularity to starting pitchers in an age without complete games. This is as it should be—what matters is if the team wins or loses, not an individual pitcher’s record. However, despite Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young of last winter, individual wins still have their incoherent advocates.
Sabathia has 157 career wins, and I have no idea if he will get to 300 or not, but if he comes close and doesn’t quite make it, there will be some fool voters ready to lump him in with Tommy John and Jim Kaat, and yes, Bert Blyleven, who just barely made it after a fan uprising that could have toppled a Middle Eastern dictator. A man’s career will be judged on the basis of a statistic that tells us nothing about how the pitcher actually did.

Last night’s game provides a perfect example of why pitcher wins are so useless and how the many rationales deployed against the Hernandezes and Blylevens of the world—a great pitcher can overcome a bad team, a good pitcher just knows how to win, will somehow sense how many runs he can allow without putting the game in danger (a concept that flies in the face of causality and chronology), is just somehow able to not-lose—are so much bunkum. Sabathia came away with a no-decision last night, but what did he do wrong? He left leading 4-0. Short of pitching a perfect game, there wasn’t much more he could have done to put his team in a position to win. Yet, when it comes to count up his positive contributions, in the eyes of some this game just won’t have happened. Since he didn’t get a win, the game is invisible.

As I suggested above, embracing the idea that a pitcher can “know” just what it takes to win is to accept that pitchers have a supernatural ability to anticipate just how many runs are going to be scored in a game. If he allows a run in the first and his team goes on to lose 1-0, he failed to use this sense. If he allows three runs and his team scores only two, he’s not a hard-luck loser, he’s just a loser, because he didn’t know that the bats wouldn’t be there that night. And dumb ol’ Bobo Newsom, when he went 16-20 despite an ERA 23 percent better than league average in 1934, failed to anticipate that he should have been signed by the Yankees instead of the Browns. As for Sabathia, he didn’t deserve a win last night because he failed to foresee that he should have broken Joe Girardi’s arm before it could be raised to call Soriano to the mound.

Alternate strategies that would have gotten Sabathia a win included running out to the mound before Mauer’s at-bat and eating it, thus preventing Soriano from pitching to the decisive batter. It sounds extreme, but so was the loss, which represented not only the punting of a contest, but also the loss of confidence in a costly reliever and a missed opportunity for a great pitcher to add a point to a number that satisfies lowest common denominator fandom. A pitcher has a finite number of starts in his career; scratch a good one for Sabathia.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Rafael Soriano,  Boone Logan

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