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April 17, 2014

Overthinking It

Lessons We Learned Yesterday

by Ben Lindbergh


On Opening Day, I jotted down an assortment of thoughts and threw them all into this article, below which reader “cmyiii” commented, “Something like this every day—or even just once a week—is worth the price of admission.” Daniel Rathman’s column, What You Need to Know, delivers that daily fix, but by the request of at least one reader, I’ll be doing the same whenever I have enough disjointed observations from a single slate of games to add up to an article. Daniel covered Johnny Cueto’s complete game, the Yankees’ day-night shutout, and a couple other topics in today’s WYNTK; my topic grab bag is below.

Trivia question: Which pitcher wore the jauntier cap on Wednesday, Fernando Rodney or Michael Pineda? Answer at the bottom.

  • The end of last night’s Mariners-Rangers game, the third of four between the two teams this week, was a perfect illustration of why winning one-run games isn’t a sustainable skill.

    In the bottom of the ninth, Mariners manager Lloyd McLendon called for closer Fernando Rodney, who entered the game with a one-run and Alex Rios, Prince Fielder, and Kevin Kouzmanoff (who continues to be in baseball) coming up. Rios flied to right, and Rodney got Fielder to strike out swinging for the second out. That’s when things went south for Seattle, albeit not really for any reason that reflected well on the Rangers. I'm fascinated by innings that unravel because of sequencing quirks and improbable misplays, and this was one of them.

    Rodney got Kouzmanoff to hit a weak grounder between shortstop and second, but Brad Miller was playing him to pull the ball farther to the left side, and he couldn’t quite glove it. Had Miller been playing a foot closer to the second-base bag, that grounder might have ended the game.

    The next batter, Mitch Moreland, walked on a full count, which brought up Donnie Murphy, who was pinch-hitting for Josh Wilson. Murphy grounded to short, and this time Miller was perfectly positioned. Unfortunately, his underhand feed was high, forcing Robinson Cano to jump off the base to keep it in the infield. While he was airborne, Moreland slid in safely at second.

    One pitch later, Rodney, perhaps frustrated by the poor play behind him, threw a 97-mph fastball to the backstop and didn’t get a good bounce off the brick, allowing Kouzmanoff to score the tying run.

    And on a 2-0 pitch, Leonys Martín sent everyone home with what MLBAM defined as a “soft line drive.”

    So, say it with me, Seattle fans. What if…

    …Miller had been a step closer to the Kouzmanoff grounder?
    …Miller had completed the routine throw to Cano after getting to the Murphy grounder?
    …Rodney hadn’t thrown that particular pitch past Mike Zunino?
    …the wild pitch had bounced right back off the backstop?
    …Martín’s soft liner had held up a little longer?

    And so on. Now, not every one-run victory is the result of a perfectly placed grounder and a normally reliable shortstop doing something he probably won’t do in his next 99 opportunities. But it’s much easier for one-run games to turn on this sort of happenstance than games decided by bigger margins, which is why one-run records are so unstable.

    The Rangers, who are trying to tread water until their injured core players come back, need a little luck to counteract the bad breaks they’ve already suffered and remain in the race. So far, they’ve gotten it, running their one-run tally to 5-2 to prop up an 8-7 overall record in spite of a -7 run differential. Texas has (or will have) the talent to turn that run differential around, but when a shakier team’s path to contention is blazed by a strong one-run record, it’s fair to expect that success to subside. The next time you start to believe that a team’s one-run record says more about their manager, their bullpen, or their will to win than it does the indifference of the universe to man’s endeavors, just think back to Brad Miller.

  • The White Sox dropped the second game of the inter-Sox series 6-4 in 14. The losing pitcher: utility infielder Leury Garcia, who was making his professional pitching debut.

    I’m all for position players pitching in blowouts—in fact, it’s one of the best things about baseball—but position players pitching in close extra-inning games seems like an indication that we’ve taken the pursuit of situational matchups too far. As Andrew Koo pointed out last season, the extra-innings position player pitching appearance is a relatively new phenomenon. It happened for the first time in 1988, and only three times through 2000. Seven of the 10 total occurrences have come since 2008. In one of those games, both teams had a position player pitch, but of the nine games where only one team took the plunge, that team lost seven.

    Garcia had some stuff—an 85 mph fastball that topped out at 88.4, an 85 mph sinker, and a 76 mph changeup—but going to a position player in a close game is akin to conceding defeat. This wasn’t some record-breaking marathon game—in fact, the 14th is the second-earliest inning in which a position player has been called upon to pitch. So why did the White Sox do it? They had already used all seven relievers, including Daniel Webb for three innings. In the eighth inning, Robin Ventura used four pitchers to get three outs, which left the rest of the bullpen depleted.

    Ventura considered using a starter but decided against it:

    I realize that starters aren’t used to pitching in relief, and that they might not want to do it. Paulino, who has worked out of the pen and hadn’t seen any action since April 12, is coming off serious surgeries in each of the past two seasons, so maybe it makes sense not to push him. But if we’ve gotten to the point where A) we’re using relievers so sparingly that position players pitching in extras becomes a possibility and B) we’re okay with essentially surrendering rather than ask a healthy starter (on his throw day, perhaps) to pitch an inning in relief, we’ve probably overreached in our efforts to chase the platoon advantage and protect pitchers.

  • St. Louis starter Joe Kelly hurt his hamstring attempting to beat out a bunt in the sixth inning of the Cardinals’ loss to the Brewers.

    Kelly, a former high school outfielder, is known for being a better hitter, fielder, and baserunner than the typical pitcher; as Rick Hummel wrote, he “prides himself on being a complete athlete and talks earnestly about someday beating out a bunt.” But if I were Mike Matheny, I’d ask him to stop talking about it, or at least to stop trying.

    I clocked Kelly at 3.85 to first on the play last night. Going by a scout’s recommendation to add 0.45 seconds to a home-to-first time on a bunt hit attempt, that would translate to 4.30 under normal circumstances—a below-average time for a right-handed hitter, but not by much. Still, pitchers don’t sprint to first nearly as often as position players, so you have to figure that the injury risk is slightly elevated in their case. In a truly crucial situation, you’d want anyone to bust it down the line, regardless of their conditioning, but in a truly crucial situation, a pitcher probably wouldn’t be at the plate. With two outs and no one on in the fifth, Kelly probably would have been better served by easing up on the throttle.

    Given the potential downside (and limited upside) to trying to beat out a single in most situations, I’d tell my pitchers to save their strength for the other half of the inning.

  • Masahiro Tanaka’s impressive first three outings made me wonder whether there’s anything to the theory that the league’s lack of familiarity with Japanese and Korean starters could contribute to hot starts to their careers. Six Japanese pitchers and two Korean pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings in their rookie season while starting at least 80 percent of their games. Here’s how their April stats (or in the case of Hideo Nomo, who missed April, their May stats) compared to their performance over the rest of the season:

    Period

    IP

    ERA

    K:BB

    April

    250.1

    3.27

    2.62

    Post-April

    1226.1

    3.77

    2.34

    The imported pitchers had a collective April ERA half a run lower than their combined ERA over the rest of the season, with a superior strikeout-to-walk rate. Maybe that’s suggestive, but given the sample size and the fact that April ERAs are lower league-wide, I wouldn’t say it’s significant.

  • Cliff Lee set an MLB high for the season by striking out 13 batters in the Phillies’ loss to Atlanta, and his heater maxed out at 91.2. That’s the first time in the PITCHf/x era that a pitcher has struck out so many in a start with a max velocity that low. Granted, the league strikeout rate has risen since PITCHf/x was first put in place, and the Braves are a low-contact team. But the achievement still speaks to the strength of Lee’s command, even on a day when he threw a career-high 128 pitches.

  • Andrew Cashner went 7 1/3 innings and allowed two runs (one earned) in the Padres’ Wednesday win over the Rockies. Cashner’s ERA over his last 15 starts, stretching back to July 22 of last season: 1.90. Yes, seven of those starts were in Petco Park, yes, his BABIP over that span is unsustainably low, and yes, his strikeout rate isn’t extraordinary (though when coupled with a high groundball rate, it’ll more than do the job). But it’s easy to see why Cashner is such a popular pick as the NL’s next ace—he’s already had ace-like results for half a season.

  • The Astros have a collective .189/.264/.349 slash line in 541 plate appearances, “good” for a .222 TAv (14 points worse than the Royals, who rank 29th). Of the 134 hitters who made at least 500 plate appearances last season, only Alcides Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Darwin Barney hit worse than the 2014 Astros have as a team.

  • Nice try, Yonder Alonso:

    With one out and runners on first and second, Alonso tried to pull off a double play by faking a dropped liner to preserve the force. But the tricky tactic backfired: The umpires saw through the ruse and declared it a catch, which rendered the ball dead. If Alonso had simply caught it cleanly and thrown to second, he probably could’ve doubled the runner off anyway.

  • For the second straight day, Mike Trout played a critical part in a ninth-inning comeback against the A’s that sent the Angels to extra innings; after losing on an 11th-inning Josh Donaldson double on Tuesday, the Angels won on a 12th-inning Chris Iannetta walk off on Wednesday. Historically, an away team with a one-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth has had an 80.6 percent chance of victory. But that’s the percentage for the typical away team, with typical opposing batters due up in the bottom of the ninth. Trout isn’t the typical batter. When Trout—who’s now hitting .323/.380/.646 through his first 71 plate appearances—is looming at the plate, on deck, or in the hole, the odds feel a lot closer to 50-50.*

    *Yes, we could calculate those odds, and no, they wouldn’t actually be 50-50. Even if the home team puts the first two batters of the inning on, its odds of victory are only 51.7 percent. This blurb was intended only to be today’s (first) opportunity to marvel at Mike Trout.

Trivia Answer: Rodney. Almost too close to call, but the right border of the shadow cast by the cap makes it conclusive.

Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance.

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

16 comments have been left for this article.

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