In which the manager's decision to yank Jason Motte in last night's ninth inning isn't questioned. No sir, not at all.
As those pundits who reflexively criticize we sabermetric types like to remind us, baseball is not a tabletop game. As Bill James pointed out on more than one occasion, you can actually learn a lot about baseball from running through a few hundred simulated games, but leave that aside for now. The key here is the one thing you cannot get out of two-dimensional player-cards: an insight into their current ability to perform, an instinct, a feeling. The card is always ready to go, but the actual player the card represents is not nearly so dependable. He might have a cold, or a mild groin strain, or a bitter divorce, or a hundred other things that aren’t visible from the press box or your living room sofa.
No baseball simulation that I know of has an option for randomized “not that into it today” diminishment of a player’s abilities, or “severely distracted,” or “slightly out of whack.” In games, they are what they are. In real life, they vary from day to day. We must concede this, as we always have conceded it. Further, we must concede that one of the people in a better position to know these things about St. Louis Cardinals players in particular is Tony LaRussa. His information is more complete than ours. That doesn’t mean he or any manager will always be correct or wise or even lucky, it just means that he’s operating on perhaps one more level than we are.
The foregoing is a preamble to a defense of LaRussa’s decision to yank Jason Motte in the top of the ninth inning of World Series Game Two, a move that was attacked as over-managing the moment that it happened. The difficult thing about being a manager is that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Back on September 23, I took LaRussa to task for being too passive with Jason Motte in a key game against the Mets. The Cardinals took a 6-2 lead into the top of the ninth at St. Louis, and LaRussa brought Motte in to finish things out:
In his second postseason as a starter, the 1952 World Series, Brooklyn first baseman Gil Hodges had a miserable time. In seven games he went 0-for-21 with five walks and one RBI. The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in seven games, and Hodges was the official goat. Hodges played in another four World Series and he never had another bad one, hitting .337 with four home runs in 26 games, yet he never did stop hearing about what happened in ’52, and that terrible series may have helped keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
I think about the “Snodgrass Muff” a lot because, like “Merkle’s Boner,” it’s a good example of how unfair life can be. “Snow” supposedly cost the Giants the 1912 World Series against the Red Sox—the last World Series the Sox ever won, you’d think, from the way folks are carrying on this year—but he was only a contributor. The two teams were playing the eighth game of a seven-game series, a previous game having ended in a tie, at Fenway Park. It was the bottom of the 10th inning. The Giants had just gone up 2-1 in the top of the frame by scoring an impossible run against Smoky Joe Wood, on in relief. Christy Mathewson was still in for the Giants.
If insurance companies covered baseball leads, the Cardinals’ carrier would surely have deemed Thursday’s loss to the Mets an act of God. After all, the LaRussians carried a 6-2 lead into the ninth inning only to see the Mets score six runs against their closer. As They Might Be Giants sang in, “She’s An Angel,” “These things happen to other people; they don’t happen at all, in fact.”
That’s almost literally true—they don’t happen at all. You know how given a three-run lead in the ninth inning, a closer—any closer—will convert about 96 percent of the time? Give a team a four-run lead in the visitor’s ninth and they’re going to convert about 100 percent of the time. The winning percentage of teams in that situation over the last 50-plus years is .987. It is very, very hard to blow a lead like that, and yet the Cardinals, the team of supposedly expert reliever usage manipulated by the Bobby Fischer of Bullpens, managed to do so. As they say, that’s why they play the games.
Of course, most teams with a four-run lead don’t have Jason Motte coming into the game and putting on a performance that couldn’t have been worse had it been paid for by Arnold Rothstein. Motte didn’t allow a hit to the Mets, but he walked leadoff man Willie Harris, saw Nick Evans reach first base on a Rafael Furcal error that aborted a potential double play, and walked Jason Pridie. The bases loaded, Motte capped a memorable afternoon by walking pinch-hitter Justin Turner to force in a run. At that point, quick-draw LaRussa, who had not been as quick as one might have expected in this series, finally brought the hook, but neither Fernando Salas nor Marc Rzepcynski could stem the tide that had now been unleashed. The flood was exacerbated by some shaky defense from the Cardinals, not only Furcal’s error but also bad positioning on the part of left fielder Shane Robinson, who had come into the game for Allen Craig and was caught playing shallow on a drive to left field by Ruben Tejada that went for a double and tied the game.
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Despite the barkers, the colored balloons, and Mariano Rivera, there is no Closer Mountain.
As Mariano Rivera tied and then broke Trevor Hoffman’s record for career saves, the YES Network’s Michael Kay kept referring to Rivera being “alone atop the mountain of closers.” Sometimes he said “alone atop the mountain of closers with Trevor Hoffman,” which doesn’t make much sense, because how can you be alone with somebody except in literary depictions of alienated romance, presumably not what Kay was talking about? In any case, Closer Mountain is more aptly described as a pimple, because most closers last about as long as the typical skin blemish and are about as memorable no matter how many saves they have. Compared to Rivera (and Hoffman as well), they are no more than transients traveling between obscurity and obscurity.
Rivera has been the Yankees’ closer since 1997. In that time, he has had eight seasons of 40 or more saves. You well know that saves are a vastly overrated statistic due to the way they seem to indicate leverage but really don’t, so don’t take that as a measure of quality, but rather of the fact that someone felt he was worth running out there with a lead—with the exception of the occasional Joe Borowski ’07, you don’t get a chance to pile up that many saves while pitching poorly.
The saves are the secondary by-product of the two elements of Rivera’s game that make him so valuable: First, he’s simply an exceptionally good pitcher. His current 2.22 ERA ranks ninth all time, 1,200 innings and up division. Literally everyone above him pitched in the Deadball era. The closest pitcher who was primarily a reliever is the Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, who had a 2.52 ERA overall and 2.49 in 1872 1/3 innings as a reliever, just about all of which was compiled in a less challenging run environment than the steroidal 1990s and 2000s.
Prince Fielder says he's leaving, but with the rest of their core intact the team should continue to contend.
I’m looking for Prince Fielder on our WARP leader list and I can’t find him. Oh yes, there he is, down at number 29. Hey, no shame in being the 29th-most valuable player in the majors—there are roughly 890 players who aren’t having seasons as good as you are. Fielder is also the fifth-ranked first baseman behind Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Miguel Cabrera. This is an exalted place to be, but does it make you irreplaceable?
On Wednesday, Fielder acknowledged that his stay with the Brewers is probably almost at its end: “Being real about it, it is probably the last year.” In their hearts, Brewers fans already knew this to be the case, but no doubt some have been holding out hope that a competitive offer and a tug on the old heartstrings would keep Fielder in Wisconsin. That seems unlikely to happen, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Brewers have an $84 million payroll this year, ranking 16th in the majors. Assuming that Fielder is going to receive a payday somewhere in the range of the $20 million presently paid to Ryan Howard, Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira (who leads first basemen with $23 million), he is going to consume a chunk of the team’s payroll as disproportionately large as his own body. It is the rare first baseman who is actually worth that kind of distortion, and Fielder is not one of them.
Taking MLB to task for their petty stance on 9/11-related hatwear.(Warning: some politics.)
Note: I’m going to get political here. As Kevin says in his podcast posts, don’t say you weren’t warned.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by an ineffectual tantrum from the Commissioner after his pathetic, money-grubbing minions were called out by the Mets after they were banned from wearing caps honoring first-responders on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.
Why would Jim Crane resist moving to the AL West, and should he?
The certification of Jim Crane’s bid to buy the Houston Astros has now gone on longer than the Vietnam War, albeit with fewer casualties, and seems to have just as much hope of wrapping up early. Yesterday, a Houston Fox outlet reported why: the commissioner is waiting on Crane to commit to moving the 49-year-old franchise to the American League West.
If the move is a potential deal-breaker for the commissioner (the article perplexingly suggests both that it is and it isn’t), you would think Crane would give the nod—better to have a baseball team in the AL West than to not have one at all. That said, moving the Astros to the American League has implications for the franchise’s value in terms of how much it will cost to put a representative team on the field, and we’re talking about more than the salary of a competent designated hitter.
Certainly the expectations are higher. Since 1996, the first full season under the three-division alignment, it has taken an average of 95 wins to earn the division title. The division has also seen five 100-game winners. The NL Central required an average of 93 wins and has had just three 100-game winners, and the requirement has been dropping—the average for the last five seasons (2006-2010) is just 89 with only one team, the 2008 Cubs, winning more than 91 games.
How unusual is it to make the playoffs with a light-hitting outfield like that of the Braves, and have they taken the right steps to fix it?
The day the Braves reacquired outfielder Matt Diaz, pitcher Derek Lowe out-homered Atlanta’s outfielders 1-0. This was not at all a shocking development. Braves outfielders have been, as a group, among the worst in baseball this season.
Diaz, who hit .305/.353/.461 in five seasons with the Braves after being dismissed by the Rays and Royals organizations, has looked totally lost this year, hitting just .259/.303/.324 with no home runs in 100 games with the Pirates. A .335/.372/.538 hitter against southpaws with Atlanta, he has hit a mild .295/.342/.362 against them this season. League-wide, right-handed batters are slugging .406 against lefties, and have a .332 on-base percentage.
That association with the Pirates could cause any veteran to experience something resembling chronic fatigue syndrome can be taken for granted, but reeling in Diaz for the stretch drive must qualify as a desperation move; the outfielder has always been a defensive millstone, and when you have a 33-year-old bat-only player who only qualifies as offensive in the sense that the number of outs he has made causes the discerning observer to pinch his nose, he can hardly be called an upgrade—unless, that is, you’re talking about the marvel that is the Braves’ outfield.
Fielding problems have undone the Showalter renaissance of 2010.
Despite their recent strong play (a six-game winning streak ended on Sunday), the Orioles have at times this season flirted with losing 100 games, an ignominy they have somehow avoided since 1988 despite their 14 consecutive losing seasons. It was not supposed to be this way. Last season’s abrupt turnaround from a 32-73 record under Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel to 34-23 under Buck Showalter seemed to indicate a newfound competence, one that was supposed to be further improved this year by a young starting staff that would a year older, a year better, and augmented by top pitching prospect Zach Britton, Baseball Prospectus’s #17 prospect coming into the season.
A team doesn’t get to lose 95 to 100 games without all phases of the operation disappointing. Orioles batters have excelled in one area, hitting home runs, but have done so at the expense of putting runners on base. Orioles batters have the fourth-highest home run total in the American League, but are last in walks drawn. Despite a league-average .257 batting average, their inability to reach base means that they rank only 10th in on-base percentage. Put it all together and you have a team that ranks ninth in runs per game, and one that struggles to score if it doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark. The Orioles lead all of baseball in one category, the so-called “Guillen Number,” the percentage of team runs that come as a result of its homers. The Orioles actually outrank the Yankees at this, with 43 percent. In their case, it is not a good thing.
None of this is surprising; it was clear heading into the season that the organization’s attempts to revamp its offense were at a nascent stage of development compared to the pitching. The season-opening rotation of Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman, Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen—with an injured Brian Matusz waiting in the wings—was supposed to give the Orioles a cadre of electric hurlers who would grow into dominance and haul the team back to competitiveness in spite of the team’s lack of promising young position players. Instead, Orioles starters have put up the highest ERA of any rotation in the game (5.29) and struck out the fewest batters (439). The average AL starting pitcher has an ERA of 4.10 this season. Of their most frequent starters, only Guthrie (4.42) and Britton (4.54) are on the good side of 5.00; Matusz, who has spent all season coping with a mysterious case of diminished velocity, has a stunning 8.92 ERA in eight starts.
I am not strictly opposed to a player on a non-contender winning the award, which has happened on occasion (think Alex Rodriguez of the last-place Rangers in 2003) although I admit that's a tougher one for me since the word valuable suggests that the players' achievements did not go for naught and actually helped a team play into October…
…[S]ince the award is for mostvaluable player, and not most outstanding, the effect a player had on the pennant race should be vital. If someone else wants to interpret most valuable as synonymous to best, they can. And if someone else wants to interpret it as being valuable to a particular team, they can, too. But there is plenty of precedent to suggest it means valuable in the league.
It is always shocking to me today when you look into the dugout and you see the manager, a couple of coaches, and a small handful of players. Where is everybody? We are told that some are in the clubhouse watching video, some are taking practice swings in the indoor batting cages, some getting treatment from the trainers. Some are… well, we don’t know, but we’re supposed to believe they’re all industriously applying themselves to the game, only out of sight. We have to take their word for that, though intuitively we know it can’t be completely true—do you always apply yourself with 100 percent concentration when your boss isn’t watching?
We also have one manager on record complaining about the empty dugout phenomenon. When Joe Torre was with the Yankees, he looked around one day when the team was at bat and realized that the only person in the dugout was him and the batter in the hole. Thereafter, he apparently restricted mid-inning trips to the clubhouse, perhaps by a system of hall and bathroom passes.
That popping sound you heard out of Anaheim this week was not the closing fireworks at Disneyland, but the sound of the air escaping from a divisional race. The Angels were just two games behind the Rangers after beating the Blue Jays at Toronto on Friday, but since have dropped five straight, including three against the Rangers at home. In the first three games of the four-game series, the Angels were outscored 19-10, scoring four, three, and three runs, respectively.
Some of the letdown in the Rangers series has been bad timing; the Angels opened the four-game set on the back end of their rotation, so the rookies Garret Richards and Tyler Chatwood (who may moonlight as a character in a Jane Austen novel) started the first two games, a problem compounded by Richards straining his groin and departing after just two-thirds of an inning. Ervin Santana pitched and lost Wednesday, while Jered Weaver will complete the series, but should the Angels salvage the series’ final contest, trimming one game off of what is now a seven-game deficit will hardly have much impact.
This state of affairs, in which the Angels failed to take hold of a winnable race, is attributable to the lack of flexibility on the part of manager Mike Scioscia and a strange passivity on the part of general manager Tony Reagins and owner Artie Moreno. I don’t want to beat on the Jeff Mathis issue too much given that it’s so glaringly obvious, but you can’t escape the fact that what was until recently a close race was shaped by Scioscia’s choice of backstop/suicide weapon. Mathis, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson total up to -0.3 WARP this season. The Angels have often been within a couple of games of the Rangers, a space exactly the dimensions of the better catcher that the Angels don’t have—and/or Mike Napoli.