May 12, 2004
Can Of Corn
Jimy's Poison Pen
As Joe Sheehan observed in a recent group e-mail, this practice reached its nadir last week when Williams, unwilling to go to Dotel, who'd worked the three previous days (twice logging eminently undemanding and wasteful Jimy Saves), saw inferior relievers fritter away a ninth-inning lead to the Braves and eventually lose it in the 10th. Thanks to the Jimy Save, the Astros' best reliever was a feckless observer to the conflagration unfolding on the field.
All of this leads me to wonder just how poorly Williams has managed the Houston bullpen. In short, Williams is riding the early-season hot streaks of Brad Lidge and Dan Miceli, both of whom have been excellent in the early going, by giving them more high-leverage innings than he's giving Dotel. Because Lidge and Miceli are presently pitching so well, this seemingly hasn't exacted much of a price. Seemingly. Still, Williams' misuse of Dotel is manifest, and if it keeps up, it's going to hurt the Astros over the course of 162 games in what figures to be a hotly fought race in the Central. It'll only get worse if and when Lidge and Miceli return from the firmament.
First, let's take a look at what the PECOTA weighted-mean forecasts say about the Houston coterie of relievers. Below, I'll rank every Astro pitcher who's made a relief appearance as of May 10 according to their projections. To remove workloads from the calculus, I'll slot them based on projected Value Over Replacement Pitcher (VORP) per inning:
Pitcher Projected VORP/Inning 1. Octavio Dotel 0.292 2. Ricky Stone 0.155 3. Chad Harville 0.150 4. Brad Lidge 0.139 5. Dan Miceli 0.129 6. Brandon Duckworth 0.098 7. Brandon Backe 0.049 8. Jared Fernandez -0.042 9. Mike Gallo No Projection
PECOTA, coming into the 2004 season, saw Dotel as handily topping the field as the best Astro reliever. I agree. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2001, Dotel has been among the game's elite. The aforementioned Lidge and Miceli place near the middle of the pack. Although Lidge isn't the caliber of Dotel, I think PECOTA's forecast for him--77 innings, 4.57 ERA--is a bit gloomy. Lidge showed poor control last season, but he fanned 97 in 85 innings and did a fair job of keeping the ball in the park considering the environment. Still, he's no Dotel. Miceli's projection, on the other hand (61.1 innings, 4.48 ERA) seems about right. He had a nifty 2003, but the preponderance of the evidence suggests he was pitching over his head.
As for who's garnering the most critical innings, I'll use run differential as the determinant. Below the relievers are ranked by the average absolute value of the run differential for the games in which they've appeared. Allow me to parse that clunky syntax for you...I'm using absolute value to eliminate the problems that ensue when negative values are introduced. For instance, without using absolute values, a reliever who enters one game with his team down by seven runs and one game with his team up by eight runs would have an average differential of +1, which would lead you to believe he's been used in high-leverage situations. By using absolute values of run differentials, his average is 7.5, which more accurately reflects the quality of his innings. In terms of leverage, the lower the average differential, the more important the appearances:
Pitcher (Appearances) Avg. Run Diff. 1. Lidge (16) 2.81 2. Miceli (17) 2.94 3. Dotel (15) 3.00 4. Gallo (10) 3.20 5. Backe (15) 4.33 6. Duckworth (5) 4.60 7. Harville (8) 4.75 8. Stone (6) 5.00 9. Fernandez (1) 9.00
As you can see, Lidge and Miceli are being used, on average, in ballgames that are tighter than those in which Dotel is appearing. That shouldn't be the case if the Astros are concerned with optimal usage. Over the long haul, Houston would be well served to have the run-differential list more closely resemble the VORP list above, so that the better relievers are working the crucial innings. Still, if Lidge and Miceli continue outperforming projections, having them pitch in situations of critical mass is certainly defensible, but they still shouldn't be ahead of Dotel in the leverage queue.
For this next list, I'm classifying a "high-leverage inning" as one in which the opposition has the tying or go-ahead run at the plate or on base. It's more narrowly defined than the save rule, but that's by design. Below, I'm ranking Astro relievers by the percentage of their 2004 appearances that qualify as high-leverage, according to the definition I've just provided:
Pitcher (Appearances) High-Leverage % 1. Lidge (16) 31.3 2. Dotel (15) 26.7 3. Miceli (17) 23.5 4. Duckworth (5) 20.0 5. Stone (6) 16.7 6. Backe (15) 13.3 7. Harville (8) 12.5 8. Gallo (10) 10.0 9. Fernandez (1) 0
Dotel fares better than Miceli by this measure (as does Harville), but Lidge remains the reliever of choice (whether Williams realizes it or not--bet liberally on the latter) when the game is most in peril. To cast this another way, I'll look at what percentage of appearances came in "close game" situations, which I'll define as games in which the score was tied or the Astros were up or down by a single run:
Pitcher (Appearances) Close Game % 1. Dotel (15) 33.3 2. Lidge (16) 31.3 3. Harville (8) 25.0 4. Miceli (17) 23.5 5. Duckworth (5) 20.0 5. Gallo (10) 20.0 7. Stone (6) 16.7 8. Backe (15) 13.3 9. Fernandez (1) 0
Finally, Dotel comes out on top. Exactly one-third of his appearances are of this nature, but Lidge isn't far behind. Lest this sound like modest praise for Williams, I'll point out that Dotel should be comfortably atop all three lists, not just narrowly ahead on one.
Here's a couple of examples of when and how Dotel should've been used differently. While hindsight may be 20/20, the idea is to identify suboptimal usage of the Astros' best relief pitcher, so that hopefully it'll happen less often going forward.
That's only two games to date that meet this pair of conditions: a) the Astros lost, and b) Dotel was improperly deployed. On the other hand, if Williams, in his use of Dotel, is going to bungle things this badly twice for every 31 games, he could possibly cost the Astros 10-and-a-half games in the standings by the time the season is done. And that's only the games that the Astros lost. In others, Dotel has been used unwisely, but Houston, sometimes by happy accident, prevailed nonetheless.
Mismanagement of the middle innings is by no means indigenous to Houston; it's a widespread and long-standing trend in baseball that's underpinned by the easily debunked notion that the game's most critical outs occur, ipso facto, in the final frame. But that misunderstanding in tandem with the noxious Jimy Save makes this perhaps the worst-run bullpen in the game today.
From my purview, the Astros are the most talented team in the Central and perhaps the National League as a whole. I think they'll go on to win the division, and I even picked them to make the World Series. If those things do come to pass, it'll be tempting to conflate team outcomes with managerial acumen. Don't do it. Williams may have other merits, but in terms of division-of-labor in the bullpen, he's striking a blow against his team's chances.