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April 8, 2009

Prospectus Today

Blowing Games, Blowing Leads

by Joe Sheehan

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Is there ever a must-win game in April? One of the standard arguments in the MVP discussion each season is that a particular player's performance was better in September, "when it counts," than it was at other times. The stathead counter to that is fairly simple: all games count exactly the same in the standings. That we know more about the arc of the season in September, or that a team has more time to make up a deficit in April, doesn't weight the games any differently.

The Braves and Phillies began their three-game series tied for first in the NL East. The Braves have taken the first two games, holding the Phillies to just one run total. The Braves exploited a key Phillies weakness in the first game, and have beaten up both Phillies starting pitchers. If they can win today, not only will they complete a sweep, but they'll go three games up on the Phillies. That reads almost like snark, but it's not; today's game will cause a two-game swing in the standings, standings that already favor the Braves. If it were September 8, this afternoon's contest would be the center of the baseball world. Maybe it shouldn't be, and I'm just missing something, but it's a very important game in determining who will eventually win this division. A two-game swing in the standings is massive, and if any team should know that, it's the Phillies, who won the East by a single game two years ago and by three-clinching on the next-to-last day-last season.

We miss the importance of these games early in the season because we're just not trained to look for them. But peek back a year, to April 20, 2008, and consider how important this sweep-avoiding win by the Phillies was. Think about how the Mets' bullpen failing to protect a tie, and the Phillies' bullpen throwing four shutout innings, was something of an introduction to the theme of the race. Think about how differently the last weeks of the season play out if the Mets have an extra two-game cushion in the standings.

Just because we don't know if a two-game swing will be important doesn't mean that we can't behave as if it will. Sure, these teams are going to play another 15 games, and there's plenty of time for story lines to develop. Math is math, though, and two games in the standings are enough to change an awful lot of baseball history. The Mets blew a 6-2 lead to the Brewers last April 13, eventually losing 9-7. The Mets finished one game in back of the Brewers for the NL Wild Card. You could argue that they lost that race on April 13.

The entire season matters. Each game counts exactly the same as every other, and working toward the elimination of the "when it counts" fallacy would be a very good next project for those of us in the advocacy wing of the performance analysis house.

It's not just the Phillies/Braves series that highlights this phenomenon. The Royals may be the least of five AL Central teams, but it's a division with so little separation that intradivisional games will be huge. Losing to the White Sox in a fairly ridiculous manner costs them ground that could be valuable. Blow a game with your fourth-best reliever to break a tie for first place in September, and they'll have your head; it's just as silly of a mistake in April.

  • The Astros' decision to sign Ivan Rodriguez was a low-cost, moderate-upside play. Rodriguez is mostly done, and there's not that much difference between him and Humberto Quintero-an underrated defensive catcher-at this point.

    If you're going to make it work, though, you can't invite Rodriguez to be a disaster for the offense. Rodriguez was, at one time, an interesting option as a #2 hitter. He hit for a very high average that gave him a good OBP, and his ability to get hits made him attractive for batting behind a player who could run. The tradeoff was that Pudge, even in his heyday, hit a lot of balls on the ground from the right-hand batters' box, so when he wasn't hitting doubles, he was often hitting into double plays.

    The 2008 version of Rodriguez comes with all the negatives of that package and none of the positives. He is, in fact, the anti-#2 batter: a low-OBP, low-power bat who hits a million balls on the ground (at an increasing rate-his three highest GB/FB ratios came in 2006, 2007, and 2008, peaking last year) and has lost most of his speed. Last year he grounded into a double play in more than one in five opportunities, after doing so at an 18 percent rate in '07.

    He brings absolutely nothing to the table as a second hitter. He makes Michael Bourn, who had a .288 OBP last season, look like Dustin Pedroia. Bourn will probably have a higher OBP than Rodriguez will, and he won't wipe out the runner in front of him as often as Rodriguez does. Do you know how bad a player has to be to make me advocate for Michael Bourn as a #2 hitter?

    I've taken you the long way around to this point: Cecil Cooper doesn't know what he's doing.

  • Then we have the Tigers. On January 24, the Tigers signed Brandon Lyon to a one-year deal. At the time, they made it quite clear that he wasn't promised the closer's job, just a chance at it, but by the time camp opened, he was considered the favorite for the job. A month later, Jim Leyland made it clear that he wanted to have one closer, though he wasn't specific about which candidate he favored. Lyon was so bad in March, however, that by the middle of the month, Leyland backtracked on that, saying, "I don't know that we'll have one closer." By the time camp broke, though, Leyland had come full circle, choosing Fernando Rodney, rather than Lyon, as his closer.

    (Thanks, Rotowire.)

    Take a look at that. The Tigers committed $4 million to Lyon in January, coming off of a season in which the pitcher had been a closer for most of the year, and where the Tigers had a vacancy in the role. They went into camp wanting a one-closer solution, with Lyon the frontrunner. Lyon, who even while collecting saves was no better than a middling reliever in the weaker league, was so bad that he pitched himself out of any share of the job.

    Then, in the first situation of the season where the Tigers need a good right-handed reliever, they go to Brandon Lyon, solely because it was the eighth inning and not the ninth. The game was on the line, runners on base, a win in the balance. Jim Leyland had definitively chosen Fernando Rodney as his guy... and yet he let Lyon, who had pitched his way out of an important role with the team for six weeks, pitch in the first high-leverage situation of the season.

    On top of the Kyle Farnsworth/Trey Hillman rant yesterday, you may be thinking I'm becoming a bit shrill on this subject. Maybe so, but it's time for this nonsense to end. There shouldn't be "eighth-inning" and "ninth-inning" relievers. Partitioning relievers by how many outs are left in the game was stupid when managers started doing it, and it's even moreso now, as we find every bullpen in the game set up this way.

    To all 30 managers, I issue this directive: Figure out who your best pitchers are, or more accurately, who your best pitchers are for various situations. For when you need a complete inning against the middle of the lineup; for when you need multiple innings; for when you need a ground ball; for when you need a strikeout; for when you need to get Jim Thome out. Then use them accordingly regardless of what time it is. Stop relying on the crutch of which inning you're in to make these decisions for you. Your pitchers want roles? Their role is to get guys out.

    These are not difficult concepts. Facing the middle of the lineup in the eighth is harder than facing the bottom of the order in the ninth, no matter how many ex-players who are invested in the myth of "closer" say otherwise. Stop using your better pitchers in lower-leverage spots. Getting four outs instead of three isn't going to break anything that wasn't going to break anyway, so stop losing games without getting your best pitcher into them.

    Bullpen management is horribly broken in today's game, and the first manager to fix it-Joe Maddon, I'm looking at you-is going to the Hall of Fame.

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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