March 9, 2005
The Value of Horses
Every year, a team has to line up the right employees--or the wrong ones--to pitch more than 1,400 innings of baseball. It's in the rules: there's got to be someone out there on the mound or they'll forfeit.
Last year, the four teams with the fewest innings pitched averaged just 67 wins. The four teams with the most innings averaged 87. The average difference between the two groups was 48 innings pitched, which might seem to prove that losing saves wear and tear on a team's pitching staff except that losers usually have to face more batters, so it's a wash.
So is a pitcher who gives his team at least 200 innings some sort of hero of the revolution?
In a perfect world, the five-man rotation would do its bit to the tune of about 1,000 of those innings, figuring somewhere over six innings per start for each man. The last team to do this was the 2003 Seattle Mariners, who got the requisite 33, 33, 32, 32 and 32 starts from their front five. They totaled 1,012 innings. Four of them--Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Ryan Franklin and Joel Pineiro--notched more than 200 innings each. Gil Meche did not.
Getting 200 innings each out of four pitchers is a relatively rare occurrence these days. The Cubs and Yankees also did it in 2003, but no team could boast that many last season. In fact, only the Twins had as many as three such pitchers in 2004. For the last four years, the number of major leaguers who have pitched 200 or more innings has been pretty well locked in between 42 and 45, or about 1.4 per team. This is in the wake of the 2000 season, a year that saw the lowest-ever total of men throwing 200 innings on a per-team basis (1.23).
When we think of 200-inning eaters, we tend to think of the old days when starters were expected to go the route and the concepts of pitch counts and formalized rest patterns were not as developed as they are now. In reality, though, baseball has been to this level of 1.4 200-inning men per team before, but for different reasons. In 1953, just 23 big leaguers (1.44 per team) threw more than 200 frames. Granted, they averaged 239 innings each as opposed to the 215 of the 200-inning Class of 2004, but it is a number that seems to run counter to what we generally assume about that era. (We should also probably throw the Class of '53 a five-percent bone for having a shorter schedule.)
When the 1980 Athletics boasted five men with 200 or more innings each, everyone thought of it as some kind of throwback to a time gone by. In reality, it was a remarkably rare occurrence. Only the 1977 Dodgers and 1957 Tigers had done likewise in the previous 25 years. As Steven Goldman points out, the rigid-starting-rotation concept was just a sometimes thing in baseball of the 1950s.
One need look no closer than the staff manipulations of Casey Stengel to see that there were other forces at work when it came to assigning starts. His first two years in New York (1949-50) were fairly standard, with four and three men respectively getting at least 30 starts. For the rest of his Yankee tenure, though, it was never more than two. Six times either one or no Stengel Yankee made 30 starts. From 1957 to 1960, only Whitey Ford (with 31 in '58) was given the ball more than 30 times.
In 1968, after a couple of years at around two per team, the count shot up to 2.8, which demonstrates that at least some of this is outcome-based. When things are going well--and, as we know, they were going very well for pitchers that year--they got to stick around and throw more innings. Also, if you had been a pitcher in 1968, wouldn't you have wanted to be pitching as often as possible?
So, is simply showing up enough? As [insert name here if you like] wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2005 when discussing Tim Wakefield, "…200 innings of league-average pitching, [is] a commodity not nearly as easy to find as it might seem." In the majority of cases, throwing 200 innings is a signpost of quality in and of itself. It's pretty obvious: the more a pitcher shows he can be trusted, the more innings he'll get to pitch. Outside of Denver, you just don't find many pitchers with negative VORPs getting 200 innings worth of work these days. Jaime Navarro of the '97 White Sox was the last non-Rockie to achieve that distinction. Unless a manager is incredibly thick-headed or simply does not have any other alternatives, a Firestarter Class pitcher is not going to get that volume of work.
James Click provides us with a list of those pitchers since 1972 who did get that kind of work in the midst of seasons in which they were below replacement level.
Pitcher, Team: Innings pitched, VORP
Pedro Astacio, 1998 Rockies: 209.1, -28
In the struggling workhorse department, here are the most innings pitched by men with a non-positive VORP (since 1972):
IP: Pitcher, Team, VORP
While it may be some time before we see another 19-19 season, Bibby's 1974 campaign is an interesting place to begin a discussion about innings eaters. If you could guarantee going into a season that you could rely on 264 innings of basically neutral pitching, would you take it? (Bibby and Fergie Jenkins combined to face more than 40 percent of the batters who opposed Texas that year.) Assuming it might take two or three guys without portfolio to bridge that gap, I think a lot of general managers would go for it. Predictable comfort often trumps the possible success of the unknown.
SKROO UPPS (Skroo Upps is a copyrighted feature of this author)
Last time out found me speculating on which former Montreal Expo would be able to outlast all the others to become the final active former Expo. In the course of that discussion, I wrote this line about Vladimir Guerrero: "…easily the most talented active player ever to wear a Montreal uniform…"
So focused was I on former Expos in their 20s, that I forgot about some older ex-Montrealers who, while not having a shot at the last-man-standing thing, can make the claim to being the most talented active former Expo. As several of you pointed out, Pedro Martinez has a right to make some noise on that count. Then there's Randy Johnson. One would be remiss not to mention Larry Walker, although his career history-adjusted EqA is .308 to Guerrero's .316. Through the age of 28--Guerrero's playing age last year--Walker had posted just two .300+ EqAs out of six tries. Conversely, Guerrero only has one sub-.300 EqA in seven tries. If he elevates his game in his thirties the way Walker did, look out.