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September 15, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Junkballin'

by Jay Jaffe

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Tuesday night was a momentous one as far as forty-something pitchers earning round-numbered career milestones of questionable significance go. In Boston, Tim Wakefield wobbled but didn't fall down, earning career win number 200. Hours later and about 2,500 miles away in Seattle, Mariano Rivera earned his 600th career save. Wakefield labored to become the 108th pitcher to reach his plateau, while Rivera looked almost effortless in becoming just the second pitcher to reach his, but neither accomplishment changes how those venerable hurlers should be viewed in the context of history.

First, Wakefield. The 45-year-old knuckleballer needed a record-setting eight starts (plus one relief appearance) to add to his total of 199 wins, one more start than Steve Carlton needed to get over the hump in 1978, and—somewhat fittingly—two more than another ageless knuckleballer, Charlie Hough, needed in 1992. Both of those pitchers had a lot more left in the tank when they reached 200 than Wakefield appears to have left; Carlton would last another decade, win two more Cy Youngs, and push his career win total to 329 en route to Cooperstown, while Hough still had two seasons left in him, including a 200-inning league-average effort for the expansion Marlins in 1993.

Pitcher wins are, of course, not all that they are cracked up to be. As the familiar sermon goes, they are highly dependent upon the levels of support a hurler receives from his offense, his defense, and the bullpen behind him. In this age of high offense—scoring levels are still above where they were in 1992—as well as deeper lineups, longer at-bats, and increased reliever specialization, the complete game has become a relic from the distant past, with the percentages of decisions and wins collected by starting pitchers falling along with their workloads.

Since his previous win on July 24, Wakefield had actually received good support from both his offense (5.9 runs per start) and his defense (.287 BABIP), but his bullpen had blown a couple of leads, and he left two other games with tie scores. More problematically, he had pitched to a 6.90 RA and 5.23 ERA in those seven previous starts because of his inability to keep the ball in the park, yielding 1.5 homers per nine in those turns; that lone relief appearance was four innings of shutout ball mopping up a game that the Sox trailed 10-0. Wakefield managed just two quality starts out of those seven, and left before completing six innings three times; the Sox won just two of his games.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Wakefield is basically a replacement-level pitcher these days. He's been worth 0.2 WARP this year, after being 0.1 in the red last year, this while throwing nearly 300 innings with a 5.23 ERA at a cost of $5 million, a lousy return on investment even for the staff's 12th man. We can credit him for providing intangibles to the Boston roster and the clubhouse; on the former front, he affords the Sox some degree of additional flexibility due to his ability to take the occasional spot start, and on the latter, his eight nominations for the Roberto Clemente Award confirm his standing among the game's most solid citizens. Still, it's fair to wonder if a team having no end of trouble with their rotation as they limp toward the wild card could be doing more with his roster spot than treating it as a sinecure for a guy with a gopher problem and a trick pitch of decreasing effectiveness.

Look, I'm as much a sucker for an ageless knuckleballer as anyone, and I laud Wakefield's perseverance; at times he has not only been the majors' lone practitioner of the flustering flutterball, but he appeared to be the last of that special breed. I believe that in the interest of historical preservation, Major League Baseball should create a centralized knuckleball school where the Houghs and Candiottis and Niekros and Wakefields can tutor the next generation so that we wind up with more R.A. Dickeys than Charlie Zinks or Charlie Haegers. As painful as it is to think of the major leagues without someone around to knuckle down, it's just as painful to see Wakefield turn into a palooka. We would have thought no less of him and his remarkable career had he hung up his spikes with 189 wins at the end of 2009, and he would have produced no less value and negligibly fewer great moments had that been the case. That it took an 18-run outburst to overcome his inability to hold a lead not once but twice amid a six-inning, five-run slog to secure that elusive 200th win only underscores the ridiculously arbitrary nature of the milestone. In the heat of a playoff race, the Sox and their fans deserve better.

As for Rivera, his 600th save was smoother sailing. Protecting a 3-2 lead against the Mariners, he sandwiched a pair of swinging strikeouts of Wily Mo Pena and Kyle Seager around a single by Ichiro Suzuki, and was spared the resolution of a confrontation with Dustin Ackley, already Seattle's best hitter, when Suzuki was thrown out stealing by Russell Martin to end the game. The 41-year-old Yankee has been on a roll lately; since the end of the annual What's Wrong With Mariano Week just over a month ago, he has thrown 12 innings, allowed 10 baserunners, whiffed 16, and converted all 11 save opportunities. NWWMD: Nothing's Wrong With Mariano, Dude.

Rivera's full-season numbers are no less impressive. Sure, his 41 saves (in 46 opportunities) rank second in the league, a function of pitching for a strong ballclub, but it's tough to argue he's not in near-prime form. While his 2.05 ERA is his highest since 2007, his peripherals (0.5 homers, 1.1 walk, and 8.7 strikeouts per nine) are in such fine shape that his 2.28 FIP is his lowest since 2008, and his 9.2 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk rate is not only the third-best in the majors, but the second-best of his career. In short, he's still dominant.

That said, 600 feels like an ersatz milestone even if Rivera is just the second pitcher to reach it. For one thing, if wins aren't all they're cracked up to be, then neither are saves. Not only do they fail to distinguish between pressure-filled situations (entering with a one-run lead and a man on base) and cakewalks (starting the ninth with the bases empty and a three-run lead), but for the sake of the statistic, managers will unhesitatingly save their top relievers for the ninth inning instead of deploying them in potentially higher-leverage situations in the seventh or eighth, or avoid using them entirely in tie games on the road. The existence of one-inning closers hasn't made late-inning lead preservation any more efficient than in earlier eras, either.

Even if you grant that in such bulk, a flawed statistic takes on meaning—a similar argument to the one made in favor of career win totals—there's the matter of Rivera's 42 post-season saves, all of them more important and most of them more pressure-packed than the one he notched on Tuesday night. For another, Trevor Hoffman became the first closer to reach and surpass 600 just late last year, but only after he had been deposed due to ineffectiveness and the emergence of John Axford. Already the all-time saves leader, Hoffman went three months between saves 596 and 597 while carrying an ERA above 6.00, and it was only in the dog days of the season, when the Brewers were buried as far as the playoffs were concerned, that he was allowed to get on with the business of round-numbered pursuits. When Rivera passes him some time this week or next—he needs just two more saves to do so—it will feel like a racecar blowing past an upended turtle.

It's not as though that 600th save, or the 602nd, will change the conversation about Rivera, as in, "Wow, a number that ends in a couple of zeroes means it's time we start considering this guy among the great closers. Screw you, John Franco." We know that the gap between Rivera and Hoffman is already a sizable one; the last time I publicly updated the JAWS numbers in early 2010, Mo was at 82.6 career WARP/52.0 peak WARP/67.3 JAWS, while Hoffman was at 51.8/34.8/43.3. Colin Wyers' still-evolving version of WARP has done a number on those numbers, but the divide remains, and it will continue to grow as the Yankee pushes onward.

Still, what I said about Rivera over at the Pinstriped Bible on Wednesday while looking at a fascinating, unconsummated trade dating back to 1997 goes for Wakefield as well. These milestones don't change how we'll view these two pitchers' remarkable careers, but as they're much closer to the ends of their baseball journeys than the beginnings, there's no harm in stopping to smell the roses, so long as they don't cloud our vision about their current capabilities.

Looking for Trouble: A Notebook

• In Wakefield's win, the losing pitcher was Brandon Morrow, who was tagged for seven runs (five earned) in 5 1/3 innings. Morrow is in the midst of a truly odd season. The 27-year-old righty is whiffing an AL-high 10.2 hitters per nine, but thanks to elevated walk and homer rates (3.4 and 1.1 per nine) and a .310 BABIP, his ERA is a beefy 5.23, about a run and a half above what it "should" be; his FIP is 3.76.

It's exceedingly rare that a hurler punching out a man per inning has an ERA above 5.00. Among ERA qualifiers, it's been "accomplished" just two other times, by Brandon "Chuck and" Duckworth with the 2002 Phillies (5.41 ERA, 9.2 K/9), and by Ricky Nolasco with the 2009 Marlins (5.06 ERA, 9.5 K/9). Furthermore, only one other pitcher has finished the year with a double-digit strikeout rate and an ERA above 4.00; Hideo Nomo did so twice, in 1997 with the Dodgers (4.25 ERA, 10.1 K/9) and in 2001 with the Red Sox (4.50 ERA, 10.0 K/9).

Those are some widely varying run environments, so here's what the list looks like if we turn to ERA+:

Rk

Pitcher

Year

Tm

ERA+

SO/9

1

Brandon Duckworth

2002

PHI

72

9.22

2

Brandon Morrow

2011

TOR

82

10.17

3

Ricky Nolasco

2009

FLA

85

9.49

4

Mark Langston

1986

SEA

87

9.21

5

Don Wilson

1969

HOU

88

9.40

6

Hideo Nomo

1997

LAN

91

10.11

7

Darryl Kile

1996

HOU

93

9.00

8

Nolan Ryan

1988

HOU

94

9.33

9

Orlando Hernandez

2006

ARI/NYN

96

9.09

10

Nolan Ryan

1978

CAL

98

9.97

It's rare a starter with such a high K rate isn't even close to the park-adjusted league average in terms of ERA, but Morrow has been kept in the rotation during the second half even while being rocked for a 6.01 ERA and 1.9 HR/9 in 12 turns, that after posting a BABIP-charred 4.60 ERA while yielding just 0.5 HR/9 in the first half. At one point he went eight straight starts without serving up a gopher ball, but the fickle bitch goddess of regression has got him in her throes.

• With an ERA as high as his is, it's not surprising to find Morrow ranking among the major-league leaders in disaster starts. As originally defined by former Baseball Prospectus columnist Jim Baker, a disaster start is one in which a starter allows as many or more runs as innings pitched. It's the ugly flip side of a quality start, one in which a pitcher goes at least six innings while allowing three or fewer runs—a disaster because teams rarely win such games, and because they often burn through their bullpens just trying to find enough mops and buckets to get through nine innings.

Occasionally, the disaster start definition is limited to allowing more runs as innings pitched, and because the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index makes querying the latter definition much easier than the former one, here's what this year's leaderboard looks like:

Rk

Player

Year

Tot

1

Jason Vargas

SEA

9

2T

Jo-Jo Reyes

TOR/BAL

8

 

John Lackey

BOS

8

 

Livan Hernandez

WAS

8

5T

Javier Vazquez

FLA

7

 

Brandon Morrow

TOR

7

 

Francisco Liriano

MIN

7

 

Derek Holland

TEX

7

 

Jason Hammel

COL

7

 

Jeremy Guthrie

BAL

7

 

Brian Duensing

MIN

7

 

Fausto Carmona

CLE

7

 

Chad Billingsley

LAN

7

14T

Rick Porcello

DET

6

 

Carl Pavano

MIN

6

 

Brian Matusz

BAL

6

 

Colby Lewis

TEX

6

 

Phil Hughes

NYA

6

 

J.A. Happ

HOU

6

 

Tyler Chatwood

LAA

6

 

Nick Blackburn

MIN

6

 

Bronson Arroyo

CIN

6

No less than four Twins starters and three Orioles starters make the list, which explains why those two teams have the league's worst run differentials, but note that half the Rangers' potential playoff rotation is on the list as well. The surprise, though, is that Vargas, who pitches half his games in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, leads the pack despite having just a 4.49 ERA overall. In those nine starts, he's at 12.79, while in the rest, he's at 2.27.

• Call it the Curse of the Missing Hit List. Before Tuesday night, the last time A.J. Burnett had thrown a quality start was on June 29, the same day as the last Hit List appeared before going on a midsummer hiatus for retooling. A day after it relaunched in new daily form, Burnett went six innings while allowing just two runs against the Mariners. He escaped trouble early, changed mechanics midgame, and wound up striking out a season-high 11 hitters, a reminder of what compelled the Yankees to sign him to that $82.5 million deal in the first place. In case you were wondering where he ranks on the list above, he's in a 23-way tie for 23rd at five.

• Burnett threw two wild pitches in the start, pushing him to 25 on the season. Only four other pitchers have thrown more, just one of them in the past 45 years:

Rk

Player

Year

Tm

WP

1

Red Ames

1905

NY1

30

2

Tony Cloninger

1966

ATL

27

3

Juan Guzman

1993

TOR

26

4

Larry Cheney

1914

CHN

26

5

A.J. Burnett

2011

NYA

25

6

Jack Morris

1987

DET

24

7

Matt Clement

2000

SDN

23

8

Tim Leary

1990

NYA

23

9

Christy Mathewson

1901

NY1

23

10

Mike Moore

1992

OAK

22

 Wild, ain't it? Burnett probably has two regular-season turns remaining, and could challenge for second place before it's all said and done.  

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

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