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April 20, 2005

Prospectus Today

Avoiding the Trap

by Joe Sheehan

I've been pounding the desk pretty hard about not reacting too strongly, or for that matter, reacting at all, to the first dozen or so games of the season.

Of course, by doing so, I box myself into a corner a little bit. After all, I can't say three weeks are meaningless and then build a column around the greatness of Brian Roberts or the question of whether Greg Maddux is done.

The hardest thing to do is to not react to events that reinforce the notions you had coming into the season. After the Dodgers lost on Opening Day to the Giants, there was a flood of content about how flawed this team was, and how Paul DePodesta was on the hot seat, which was just a silly overreaction to one game. Fast-forward two weeks and two massive comeback wins later, and the Dodgers are the toast of baseball, holding the game's best record.

It would be just as wrong, however, for me to now write about how DePodesta's decisions have been validated by his team. We can't draw those conclusions yet, any more than we can conclude that the Yankees are in trouble or that Jose Reyes (no walks, 12 strikeouts) needs some time at Triple-A or that Danny Kolb isn't going to work out. I held all those opinions three weeks ago, and I hold them now, but I need to see more.

So with that in mind, here are some general notes that have been running through my head. It's not quite Bullet Point Friday, but it'll do.

 

  • Strawmen can be frustrating. Take the idea that those of us who watch young pitchers' pitch counts are up in arms over the Marlins' five complete games so far this season. The "pitch count watchers" are largely my friends and colleagues, and none of them--not a single one--has expressed any concern over the usage of Dontrelle Willis, A.J. Burnett or Josh Beckett.

    That's because complete games aren't the relevant data point. Pitches are, and the Marlins starters haven't thrown enough to create concern. No Marlins starter has gone past 114 pitches in a start, and if Jack McKeon does that all year long, he'll earn nothing but huzzahs from the gallery. It's starts of 120 pitches or more--and at that, repeated work at that level--that gets the watchers concerned. McKeon hasn't come close to that, and until he does, there's no reason to criticize him.

    The key is that Willis, Beckett and Burnett have been economical in those complete games. They've averaged 11.8 pitches per inning, or about 106 per game. When a Marlins starter hasn't been that efficient, such as when Beckett threw 108 pitches in six shutout innings on Opening Day, McKeon hasn't pushed him regardless of his effectiveness.

    Pay attention to pitch counts, not complete games. The latter are just an artifice of the scoring system, and have little to do with pitcher usage. Let me go back to something I wrote two years ago:

    There's no reason to make this about heart, or guts, or training, or the fact that kids today blah blah blah or any other of the many reasons we hear and read why pitchers don't complete games in modern baseball. It's merely evolutionary. A paradigm shift that lets go of the old notion of a pitcher's job--to complete the game--and embraces a new one--to pitch effectively as long as possible without risking injury--would go a long way towards keping pitchers healthy, which makes for a better brand of baseball. Complete games would still happen, but they would happen naturally, when a pitcher was performing well and doing so with a minimum of effort. More importantly, the complete game would cease to be a mark of manhood, and merely become another
    statistic.
    That article is worth taking another look at if you have the time.

     

  • I've gotten a number of e-mails about Gary Sheffield, who was a popular topic during a radio gig yesterday as well.

    The consensus among my readers was that Christopher House was trying to interfere with Sheffield in some way, most likely by flipping off his cap. I can see that, and agree that there was a bit more malice in his movements than I thought there was. I think the Red Sox have done the right thing by taking away his season tickets. Whether the punishment necessarily fits the crime is open to debate, but the punishment certainly suits the larger goal of dissuading fans from interfering with balls--and players--in play.

    The bigger picture is why I think, even though he handled himself fairly well, Sheffield needs to take a short suspension. He did shove the fan after the contact and before throwing the ball back to the infield, and I think it's worth reinforcing the idea that players cannot go after fans in the stands. I'm not someone who thinks people should be punished to set an example, but in this case Sheffield did do something wrong, and to not acknowledge that through disciplinary action sets a precedent with which I'm uncomfortable.

     

  • It's probably just me, but it feels like we've seen an unusual number of great pitchers' duels early this season. The Tim Hudson/Roger Clemens matchup Monday was probably my favorite so far, with Clemens' working out of a seventh-inning jam perhaps my favorite moment of the young season. It was just a great game, one the Braves eventually won in 12 innings, 1-0

    Of course, that was the same night that the Reds came back to beat the Cubs 7-6, and the Yankees put up a 13-spot in the second inning on their way to a 19-8 win over the Devil Rays.

    To me, those three games indicate why I love baseball so much. You can never know for sure what kind of game you're going to get on any given day, and the possibilities are virtually endless. Any game has the potential to be a taut pitchers' duel or a 20-run slugfest. The same two teams can play completely different ballgames from one day to the next. The A's and Angels played a series over the weekend with final scores of 6-1 (was 2-1 after eight innings), 1-0 and 7-6, each with its own kind of tension, each with its own standout performances.

    This is the problem soccer has, and to an extent, the problem the ancient sport of ice hockey wrestled with before its demise. There's no broad range of possible outcomes. You just don't see 7-6 hockey games any longer; the style of play doesn't allow for it. Heaven knows you don’t see that in soccer.

    But in baseball, while you have a general idea of what you're going to get, the game never loses its capacity to surprise. The Devil Rays bounced back from the 19-8 shellacking to beat the Yankees last night 6-2, and if you weren't surprised by that, you haven't watched the Devil Rays much.

    There will be 15 games played tonight, and there will probably be a 15, maybe a 20-run spread between the lowest-scoring game and the highest-scoring one. We don't know who will be at the top or who will be at the bottom. Some team that Vegas lists as a 2-1 underdog will win, and somebody you've never heard of will do something great, getting their uni on "Baseball Tonight."

    It's not knowing who that will be that keeps us coming back.

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

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