April 22, 2003
The Week in Box Scores, April 14-20So far, this column has been a day-by-day review of factoids. That's a fun and profitable way to review box scores, but this week I have re-oriented Box Lunch toward a topical focus, using Earl Weaver's maxims to introduce a variety of subjects. There's little worth knowing about baseball that Weaver hasn't already covered, and so far I have found more than 40 observations in Weaver on Strategy that are relevant to things we can study using box scores as the primary source. This week the emphasis is on how managers select and use their rosters.
"When a manager has been pushing the same buttons day after day and losing, he'd better start pushing different ones."
Alan Trammell is doing the drunkard's walk. On Wednesday he started Bobby Higginson in center field. It was the first time Higginson played the position in the majors, and he hasn't played there since. And then on Saturday, with his team sniffling along at 1-14 and losing its 16th game 9-2, Trammell had Craig Paquette pinch-hit for Higginson. It was the eighth inning and Royals reliever Albie Lopez was working on his fifth consecutive scoreless inning, so maybe it was despair, and maybe it was the managerial equivalent of Brownian Motion, but the move had no strategic justification. Removing your best hitter is the worst way to start a rally. Paquette is Trammell's de facto designated pinch-hitter, so maybe he was trying to keep Paquette fresh. Pinch-hitters come in cold and they can't really be kept fresh, but even if you could crisp them up with two or three swings every other day, what would be gained by wasting one of your stars' turns on a bag of sand like Paquette? It wasn't a platoon decision. Higginson is a lefty and Paquette and Lopez are righties. If Higginson was injured you can't tell by the box scores; he had played the previous inning and was back in the lineup the next day, and there was nothing in the next day's news about an injury to Higginson. All I can think of is that Trammell was either conceding the game by giving him a breather or--this has to happen sometimes--a leisurely bathroom break.
"On my bench I emphasized hitting, because the bench guys are around for offense."
Tony La Russa has had a successful career and Bill James rated him highly in his book on managers, but La Russa has a reputation among analysts for being too clever by half. He uses strategies as aggressively as any manager, and he constructs his rosters to allow him maximum in-game flexibility. He loads his bench with players whose principal value is that they can play a few positions adequately, but too often this leads him to choose players who can't produce runs. In the late innings, when you need to score, players like Miguel Cairo, Kerry Robinson, and Wilson Delgado won't do you much good. On average, pinch-hitters do poorly, and players lose about 40 points of batting average when they pinch-hit, so that it's rarely a percentage play to pinch-hit for anyone other than your pitcher. The odds are more in your favor if you stock your reserves with a few Gashouse Gorillas, as Weaver did. But if a player starts off with meager offensive attributes, pinch-hitting will only exacerbate his weaknesses, and a manager who selects a bench of guys who hit like utility infielders is actually limiting his flexibility.
"The most important job a manager does each day is fill out his lineup card."
But sometimes you do the wrong thing and it works out. Last Wednesday, La Russa started seven righties against lefty Wayne Franklin. It was a decision based partly on injuries, but mostly it looks like a case of the cutes. Fernando Vina had been resting a sore right hand, so Delgado, a switch hitter, started at second base, but the remainder of the lineup was right-handed. Instead of Jim Edmonds, Eli Marrero got the start in center field, with Cairo in left and Eduardo Perez in right. La Russa backed up Matt Morris with a trio of guys playing out of their established positions. It's true that Marrero has been making a smooth transition to the outfield, and he played three-dozen games in center last year, but he's not really a center fielder. Edmonds must not have been hurt too badly, because he came into the game in he eighth inning to play center field, with the Cardinals leading 15-2. Robinson took over in left, pushing Cairo from left to second, Marrero from center to right, Perez from right to third, and Delgado from second to short. In the next inning, Marrero moved to first and Orlando Palmeiro came in to play left.
La Russa has been spotting Edmonds in and out of the lineup. But as Will Carroll told me: "It's La Russa over thinking, mostly, but there's also something to playing Edmonds in the so-called high-leverage situations and protecting him from injury. Now, the problem is that any injury is going to be singular rather than usage-based, so it doesn't make much medical sense...but it IS La Russa." And only La Russa would lead off Cairo when he has Renteria in the lineup, and only La Russa would drop Renteria all the way to sixth to bat behind Cairo, Marrero, and Perez. This wasn't an aberration; the day before, La Russa had Delgado batting second and Renteria sixth, and he's regularly batted Renteria in the bottom third of the lineup. Sometimes stunts work out, but over the course of a long season they catch up to you. The Cardinals are already 0-5 in one-run games. Luck has something to do with that, but so do the lineup, bench, and bullpen. This isn't a team built to get through October, but it's not built for a division title either.
"In theory a batter should have 20 at-bats against a pitcher before you can get a true reading on how well he will do."
Dusty Baker's shamanistic gift for coaxing last gasps out of dead careers has worked with Mark Grudzielanek but it's time to let Eric Karros expire. Karros has been splitting time with Hee Seop Choi, but Baker isn't using a strict platoon. Karros has spotted Choi, but the reverse hasn't been true. Baker's letting Karros hit righties, but only 11 of Choi's 56 plate appearances have been against lefties. In the second game of the season, after Choi smacked a double off Tom Glavine on Opening Day, Baker started Karros against Al Leiter. On April 11, in a high-pressure situation, Baker left Karros in to face Mike Williams, although Choi was available off the bench. Last Saturday, Choi was lifted in the 10th inning so Ramon Martinez could face Scott Sauerbeck. A couple days before, with the Cubs beating the Reds 15-3, Baker pulled Choi to let Karros bat against Felix Heredia, even though there could hardly be a better time to let Choi get exposure to a lefty.
For the year, Choi is hitting .300/.500/.675. In his 11 plate appearances against lefties, he has walked five times, hit a double, and struck out only twice. Baker is bringing Choi along in phases, but at some point you're not only wasting at-bats but also impeding progress. With the exception of Karros, it's in everyone's interest to let Choi earn his 20 at bats too.
"I believe young pitchers have to serve an apprenticeship, both for their own good and the good of the team."
With a revamped rotation and a new manager, the Royals have started the season 14-3. It's the worst thing that could have happened to their young pitchers. Their pitching has been one of April's shocks because, as Rob Neyer has noted, the five pitchers in Kansas City's rotation had combined for 21 victories going into 2003. One of Earl Weaver's most well-known maxims is that the best place for a rookie pitcher is in long relief. By necessity or design, the Royals have gone completely the other way. Of the Royals' four very young starters, only Jeremy Affeldt has served an extended apprenticeship in the bullpen.
Major League Major League Major League Games Starts Relief Innings Runelvys Hernandez 12 12 0 Jeremy Affeldt 34 7 44.2 Miguel Asencio 31 21 11.2 Chris George 19 19 0
Weaver's idea was that you'd stunt a pitcher's growth if you throw him into the rotation too soon. He was thinking in terms of winning a pennant. When you're trying to win, you don't experiment with the kids. The Royals had pretty much given up on winning the pennant in 2003. Now what? Now the fans are interested and the tills are trilling. Now you stick with the experiment as long as you're remotely competitive, even if your starters would be better off working in low-leverage situations.
So far Kansas City has been fattening up on a soft schedule. They're 4-2 against Chicago, but 10 of their wins have come against Detroit and Cleveland. If you follow the Royals through the box scores, you can see that the most of the rotation isn't ready for prime time. Affeldt, their lone groomed starter, is already on the DL. He and Runelvys Hernandezare 5-0 between them and earning their victories. But Affeldt will be missing from the box scores for at least a couple of weeks, and then intermittently for the rest of the year, because once a blister rises it's usually a problem all summer.
Chris George's slot in the rotation isn't guaranteed. He was effective in his first start at home against the Indians and then again in Cleveland, but the White Sox punished him. His strike rate was just below average in the Cleveland games, but in 12 innings he walked only two. With seven strikeouts, he wasn't overpowering, but he kept the ball on the ground. Against Chicago, his strike rate dropped and the hits and walks spiked. George isn't wild but he isn't a control pitcher either. It looks like he might be "wild in the strike zone," a pitcher who is usually around the plate but unable to locate his pitches precisely where he wants them. Bad lineups don't pose as much of a problem to a guy like this, especially if he has a good defense behind him, because he doesn't have to worry so much about putting the ball in play. But against good lineups, he'll get cautious. He'll walk more batters, and when he has to throw the ball over the plate, on cripple counts for example, he'll get hit, sometimes hard. Cleveland is near the bottom of the American League in runs so far, but Chicago is sixth and finished last year third. Against the White Sox, George gave up three unintentional walks in 4.2 innings, a wild pitch, and seven hits--four of them home runs. He just doesn't have the stuff to thrive against the best teams, and games like that are going to become more common for him.
Even with the Royals winning every game he has started, Miguel Asencio looks like he's in over his head. He has put a lot of men on base, has had trouble throwing strikes in every start, and in three of his four games he has had more walks than strikeouts. The one good thing he has done is get a lot of groundouts, but he doesn't have the stuff to adjust if hitters start moving up in the box and waiting him out. Good lineups will beat him up. Like George, against the better teams he'll have to nibble. If he keeps nibbling, his walk rate will go even higher. If he decides to challenge, his hit rate will spike. The Royals will need to shelter him. They have series coming up against Minnesota and Boston, but it doesn't look like Asencio will take a turn against either team the first time around. Instead, he'll face Toronto and Baltimore and maybe survive until mid-May, but it's his place in the rotation that should be most at risk, especially with Albie Lopez and Kris Wilson pitching so well in middle relief.
Lopez was primarily a starter until last year, when the Braves used him out of the bullpen. He'll probably take Affeldt's place for a while. The Royals would be better off with him and Wilson in the rotation, rather than George and Asencio. Like Affeldt, Wilson has been properly Weavered. Over the past three years, Wilson has been in 61 games for the Royals, 46 of them in relief. He has limitations, especially against lefties, but his control is impeccable and he won't give Pena the agita Asencio will. As the back end of the rotation gets buffeted around by the better lineups, Lopez and Wilson should have progressively more crooked numbers in the IP column of their pitching lines, and by year's end should net at least two dozen starts between them.
"The bullpen tends to take care of itself. As a manager, I went with the hot hand. Whoever was getting the job done for me in relief is the one I would use again and again, until he stopped getting out the hitters."
For all of the fascination it causes, Boston's bullpen is founded on two simple principles: Bullpen talent ought to come fairly cheaply because many pitchers can do the job, and you use your best relievers in high-leverage situations whenever they occur. With no foreordained roles for your relievers, interchangeability lets you to define your best reliever as the one with the hot hand. For the first week of the season Chad Fox was, in effect, Grady Little's go-to guy. Fox's first three appearances were in high-pressure situations. He wasn't up to the task. Since then, when the game has been in jeopardy Little has used Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin, Brandon Lyon, Kevin Tolar, and, after a time out in middle relief to reestablish his bona fides, Fox. Lately, Timlin has had the hottest hand, and you can expect to see Little using him until he cools. Timlin made three appearances this week, good for six innings, three hits, no walks, and five strikeouts. He won two games and managed to preserve one of Pedro's victories, something Fox had failed to do twice.
Tolar and Jason Shiell are new names popping up in Boston's box scores. They have taken--at least for now--the places of Alan Embree and Bobby Howry in the bullpen. Tolar and Shiell make a lefty/righty tandem that illustrates the bounty of cheap, good relief talent that toils thanklessly in the high minors. Neither player made it into the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2003, and neither has much roto value, but both could have important roles in keeping the Red Sox bullpen staffed with reliable pitchers. They both did well at Triple-A last year:
Player Organization Affiliate ERA G IP H BB K Tolar Pirates Nashville 2.54 44 78 66 27 82 Shiell Padres Portland 2.78 56 74 62 29 74
Tolar is 32 years old and has consistently had a strikeout rate well over one per inning and a strong ERA, but before this season he had pitched in less than 10 major league games. In most organizations he'd be a minor league lifer because of his age, but the Red Sox rescued him from the Pirates organization, and there's no reason he can't spend at least five years in the majors. In the minors, Shiell racked up a decent amount of strikeouts, had a good control ratio, and kept the ball in the park. Theo Epstein brought Shiell with him when he left San Diego, and he's only 26 so there's plenty of time for him to have a career. Most other organizations are wasting exorbitant sums on players no better than this. Boston's not the only team making use of freely available, unheralded talent, but the Red Sox are getting the most publicity about it, and the better they do with this, the higher the talent and IQ of front offices will be.
"There is no way to avoid sore arms, but you want to keep them to a minimum."
I can't think of a good reason why Buck Showalter left Ryan Drese out there to run his pitch count to 137 against the Angels, a lineup not known for patience, when the Rangers had an 8-4 lead after five innings and Drese had lasted just 38 pitches in his only other start.