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August 14, 2009

Checking the Numbers

Anatomy of a Good Problem

by Eric Seidman

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The Boston Red Sox entered the season with a surplus of starting pitchers under contract, some of whom were considered to be locks in the rotation, with others serving as insurance policies, spot starters, or deadline chits. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka were considered locks, and the final two spots were to split up between Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny, Clay Buchholz, John Smoltz, and Justin Masterson. What a difference a few months make. Dice-K has disappointed and attributed issues to training regimens lost in translation. Wakefield landed on the disabled list with back issues after getting his invitation to the All-Star Game. Penny has shown signs of life but is in the midst of a flaky, up-and-down campaign. Smoltz performed poorly enough that the team actually felt it necessary to sign Paul Byrd, and Masterson joined the Tribe as the main attraction in their return on Victor Martinez. Suffice to say, best-laid plans as they pertain to starting pitching depth are in no way guaranteed to come to fruition, and an abundant supply can become scarce almost overnight.

Since depth has been so tough to come by, employing a multitude of capable starters has been termed a "good problem" as managers and executives alike are forced to figure out the proper divvying up of starts, all while managing egos and normal rest patterns. An astute observer may point out at this juncture that a long list of employed starters should never be considered a problem, especially when the list is placed in the current context wherein several teams struggle to even go two pitchers deep in terms of effectiveness. The current Phillies pitching staff is the most recent to be deemed problematic in a positive sense, as the team now boasts six or seven starters for the traditional five-spot rotation. While the Red Sox seemingly implemented this plan before the commencement of the season by signing Smoltz and Penny in advance, a wide array of interesting circumstances forced the Phils hand to act similarly within the season.

Rewind the hypothetical remove of last December's vantage point, when the Phillies were riding high after winning their championship. At that particular point in time, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, and Joe Blanton were guaranteed spots in the rotation. Many figured that Jamie Moyer would return, but his negotiations with the club had not gone smoothly, inviting some speculation that the hometown hero could actually sign elsewhere. Then Moyer signed a two-year, incentive-laden contract, with an overall base value of $13 million. Many also figured that J.A. Happ, about to enter into his official rookie season, would hold down fort in the fifth and final position. Unfortunately for Happ, the frustration derived from a lack of job security was only beginning, as the team announced the signing of Chan Ho Park on the same day as the re-upped with Moyer. Though Park had been effective for the first time in several seasons while relieving for the Dodgers, he apparently reached a loose verbal agreement with new GM Ruben Amaro Jr., who agreed to afford Park the opportunity to pitch out of the rotation, a provision Amaro denied to comment on for quite a while.

As 2009 rolled around, the Phillies had Hamels, Myers, Blanton, and Moyer set as rotation stalwarts, with Happ, Park, Carlos Carrasco, and Kyle Kendrick competing for the final spot. The latter two faded rather quickly throughout the spring, but Happ and Park stayed neck and neck with one another. Though Happ certainly could have staked claim to having performed better than his new colleague, he didn't perform substantially better to the point that Amaro would renege on his verbal agreement with Park. As it so happened, Happ moved to the bullpen and fit right in, as the suspension to J.C. Romero opened the door for another lefty to stick around.

Park got off to a very slow start, as did just about everyone in the rotation. In fact, when Happ graduated from the bullpen on May 23, here is how the starting rotation shook down:


Name     GP  GS   IP    H  HR  BB  SO   ERA
Myers     9   9  58.0  59  15  19  43  4.34
Hamels    7   7  36.1  42   8  9   38  4.95
Park      8   7  34.1  41   5  17  21  7.08
Blanton   8   8  44.1  57   9  17  37  7.11
Moyer     8   8  41.1  61  12  14  21  7.62

Over the first month and a half of the season, the Phillies starting staff basically stunk up the scoresheets, with Brett Myers and his 4.34 ERA topping the list, a remarkable feat in and of itself given that he had served up 15 home runs in a mere 58 innings; Myers appeared on pace to break Barry Bonds's record from the opposite side of the spectrum. Hamels and Blanton also surrendered their share of jimmy-jacks, but had produced very solid strikeout and walk numbers, suggesting future improvement. Regardless, the defending champions-a team expected to contend all year and vie with the Mets for the divisional crown-were throwing three pitchers with ERAs in excess of 7.00 to the mound each week. The Park Project finally had its plug pulled, and Happ seamlessly transitioned over.

Four days after Happ made his inaugural 2009 start, Myers suffered what was initially ruled as a season-ending injury. Farmhand Antonio Bastardo received the call, meaning that the Opening Day rotation had transformed into a quintet of Hamels, Blanton, Moyer, Happ, and Bastardo-four lefties and a righty. While that label might not be as catchy as the classic Guttenberg film with a similar title, the performances of the non-Bastardos certainly bested that of the Police Academy star. Bastardo made five starts with a 6.75 ERA before himself getting hurt, leading to veteran Rodrigo Lopez replacing the young lefty. Lopez had worked his way back from elbow surgery, and performed relatively well, with a 3.62 ERA and a 17/8 K/BB in 27 1/3 innings of work.

Though the performances of both Bastardo and Lopez certainly could have been worse, the Phillies wanted to solidify and stabilize their rotation, thus marking both the signing of Pedro Martinez and the never-ending speculative saga centered on Roy Halladay. Happ had been considered a required piece in any return for Toronto's ace, and Martinez was more of an insurance policy in case such a transaction actually became feasible. In the end, despite all of the hoopla connecting the Phillies and Halladay as an eHarmony match made in heaven, the return became too steep and Amaro somehow managed to extract both Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco from the Indians in exchange for Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, and Lou Marson, all touted prospects at one point or another, but none of whom were reported to be on the Blue Jays radar. Joe Sheehan aptly summed it up, the Phillies got 85 percent of Halladay for 65 percent of the price.

Interestingly enough, from the point Happ joined the rotation and up until Lee made his first start in red pinstripes, the four stalwarts all substantially improved their performance, meaning that the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner was essentially joining a hot television program already in progress. Here are their numbers over this next span of two months:


Name      GP  GS  IP    H  HR  BB  SO   ERA
Blanton   11  11 74.0  64  11  17  65  2.31
Happ      13  13 84.1  74  11  26  59  3.09
Moyer     12  12 72.0  70   9  19  44  4.00
Hamels    13  13 81.2  87  10  12  67  4.19

The rotation had come a long way, with its minimum ERA set at 4.34 early on and its maximum mark of the same metric at a lower 4.19 in the Happ era. Things get a tad hazy from here on out as controversy brewed for, well, no real apparent reason, though the reasons suggested made sense to some extent. In acquiring Lee, the Phillies were able to hold onto Happ, bumping Lopez to the bullpen and solidifying the rotation at Lee, Hamels, Blanton, Moyer, and Happ. However, Pedro Martinez soon began his rehab work in the minors and despite the fact that the acquisition of Lee pushed him into surplus status, he clearly has a storied career and heralded track record; Pedro's status precluded his getting kicked to the curb, meaning he was going to eventually make the club and almost certainly be given the opportunity to start.

Overreactions were easy to find while Martinez rehabbed with regards to wondering which member of the rotation would shift to the bullpen to make room for the diminutive Dominican. Lee, Hamels, and Blanton weren't going anywhere, with the bookending members of that group pitching extraordinarily well, and with Hamels still showing signs of turning his season around. The most likely scenario involved Happ moving back to the bullpen for all sorts of mainstream reasons that sound good if no thought is required, but failed to hold up otherwise, ranging from how Happ previously pitched out of the bullpen to how Moyer couldn't possibly learn to warm up that quickly, and going all the way to how Moyer's character and supposed street cred with the Phillies should invoke a respect factor. If Moyer's replacement were to be Kendrick or Bastardo, I might agree with the above sentiments, but the team had to give Pedro a chance. Regardless of the drastic dropoff in performance from Happ to Moyer, though, the former seemed much more likely to revert to relief duty.

After all, it was pretty tough to imagine Jamie Moyer moving to the bullpen, especially when he had signed a multi-year deal in the offseason; on a one-year deal there would be no real issue, but what happens with him next year if he has to go to the relief corps right now? Relievers making $6.5 million or more are generally considered to be sure things, and absolutely nobody knew what to expect from Moyer out of the pen, instead treating the move similarly to phantom disabled list trips.

Happ silenced all of the speculation by providing his own answer to the question, tossing a complete-game shutout with 10 strikeouts against the Rockies. That made Moyer the official odd man out, whether his fate involved a stint on the disabled list or a new role in the bullpen. When Martinez finished his rehab outings with an impressive 11 strikeouts in six innings, Amaro announced that Moyer would be moving to the bullpen, a decision that has come under rather intense scrutiny these days given the question marks surrounding Martinez as well as the incentives that are unlikely to kick in with Moyer receiving much less playing time. However, incentive-laden contracts are structured the way they are to safeguard the risk inherent in a move. The Phillies were not sure what to expect with Moyer so they built in provisions essentially saying that if he performed well, he would make more money. He was not performing well, and if he had been for a longer period of time, the Phillies might not have felt as inclined to sign Martinez or go full-throttle in the direction of Lee or Halladay. Not to say that an effective Moyer is anywhere close to touching Lee or Doc, but that better performances from his end could have helped the team build up a very healthy lead in the division, eliminating the need for any type of rotational boon. On a pre-game show last week, Phillies commentators noted that Moyer had been following a solid outing with a rough one, alternating for nine or so starts; backing up their assertion are the following game scores, in order from June 23 to July 27: 59, 43, 59, 28, 78, 33, 63, 30. With Moyer's consistent inconsistence, it seemed wise to take a shot with Pedro. If it doesn't work after a couple of starts, no harm and no foul, and Moyer gets his desired job back.

This also isn't exactly akin to the tough decision faced by, say, the 1988-89 Mets, who had to bump Rick Aguilera to the bullpen-and who at that point was much better than both Moyer and Martinez-because of their front five of Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, David Cone, Bob Ojeda, and Sid Fernandez was performing at an All-Star level. Deciding between Moyer and Martinez at this point was actually more in line with the Yankees choosing between Sergio Mitre and Brett Tomko. Unfortunately, everything Pedro does is going to be compared to everything Moyer had done in some way, as the latter really does have enough character tickets accrued to cash in the prize of fan adulation and benefit of the doubt.

What most failed to realize when choosing sides in this Celebrity Deathmatch or balking at the idea of six-man rotation is that other extenuating circumstances are present. First off, Cole Hamels has clearly struggled this year, and the major cause may be fatigue from logging so many frames in the regular season and postseason last year. Happ has never pitched this much in the majors before, and is on pace to eclipse his highest innings total from combined MLB/MiLB action in years past. Both Lee and Blanton have been munching innings, so the four starters not named Martinez or Moyer could all benefit from either a skipped turn in the rotation or an extra day or two of rest. If certain pitchers are adamant about remaining on four days' rest and pitching every fifth day, the team can still find ways to ensure that these hurlers toe the rubber on their regularly scheduled days while a couple of others receive a bit more rest.

A good problem implies that the solution can only benefit the team, however the word 'problem' carries negative connotations, suggesting that an actual issue is at hand. For a team like the Phillies, who won the World Series last year and have their eyes set on another this season, having enough depth in the rotation that either Moyer, who had been flaky but improved lately or Martinez, who hit 92-93 mph in his first start and showed signs of potential rejuvenation, would be relegated to the bullpen is a fantastic development. If Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro Jr. play their cards right, the Phillies will have enough effective pitching to lock up the NL East over the next month, all the while keeping their key contributors healthy and rested enough to sustain their effectiveness through October. The last thing a contending team wants is for its pitchers to flame out in the process of actually making the playoffs. The Phillies' moves, barring something catastrophic, should all but assure this best-laid plan comes to fruition.

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

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