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December 20, 2004 12:00 am

The Class of 2005

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Jay Jaffe

Along with the three hitters he named last week, Jay Jaffe sees three qualified pitchers among the 11 on the Hall of Fame ballot.

The 2004 election saw the writers tab just the third reliever for induction, as Dennis Eckersley joined Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers among the bronzed legends. While Eckersley's dominance and his usage pattern ("Just the Saves, Ma'am") contributed mightily to his election, his decade as a starter and the stats he garnered in that role mean that his ascension offers us little insight on the writers' view of what makes a Hallworthy reliever. The standards for starters may be somewhat easy to discern, if lately a bit unrealistic, but with a growing number of quality relievers on the ballot, the continuous evolution of the closer role, and the paucity of standards to measure them by, sorting out the bullpen elite poses a hefty challenge to voters.

One of the great lessons of the sabermetric revolution is the idea that the pitcher doesn't have as much control over the outcome of ballgames (as reflected in his win and loss totals) or even individual at-bats (hits on balls in play) as he's generally given credit for. Good run support and good defense can make big winners of mediocre pitchers on good teams, and .500 pitchers of good hurlers on mediocre teams. As such, it's important to examine the things over which a pitcher has control and account for those he does not.

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March 25, 2004 12:00 am

Making the Most of Your Inheritance

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Michael Wolverton

One of the most important differences between a starter's job and a reliever's is that relievers often have to enter the game with a crisis already brewing. In addition to the normal pitching responsibility of preventing batters from coming around to score, the reliever often has the task of preventing runners already on-base from touching home as well. His handling of those inherited runners is a critical part of his overall job performance, but it's one that gets very little attention in mainstream baseball coverage. It doesn't show up in ERA or any other widely available stat; and while you'll occasionally hear a mention of a reliever's "stranded runner percentage," that's not a number you'll find listed in the tables of your morning paper. Besides, just measuring the percentage of inherited runners that were stranded (or the percentage that scored) doesn't paint a complete picture of the inherited runner issue. For one thing, in many cases those inherited runners are still on base when the reliever leaves the game. If Joe LOOGY comes in the game with a runner on second and none out, he strikes his batter out, and then gets taken out of the game, it doesn't make sense to count that runner as "not stranded" or "not scored". To see this in practice: Tom Martin was easily the majors' best reliever in percentage of inherited runners scored, according to STATS Inc.'s list, and Buddy Groom was the AL leader. But those ratings of Martin and Groom, both situational lefties, were inflated by the fact that they didn't finish innings nearly as often as the average reliever. They didn't allow their inherited runners to score partly because they were taken out of the game before they had a chance to.

Besides, just measuring the percentage of inherited runners that were stranded (or the percentage that scored) doesn't paint a complete picture of the inherited runner issue. For one thing, in many cases those inherited runners are still on base when the reliever leaves the game. If Joe LOOGY comes in the game with a runner on second and none out, he strikes his batter out, and then gets taken out of the game, it doesn't make sense to count that runner as "not stranded" or "not scored". To see this in practice: Tom Martin was easily the majors' best reliever in percentage of inherited runners scored, according to STATS Inc.'s list, and Buddy Groom was the AL leader. But those ratings of Martin and Groom, both situational lefties, were inflated by the fact that they didn't finish innings nearly as often as the average reliever. They didn't allow their inherited runners to score partly because they were taken out of the game before they had a chance to.

To get around that problem and others, it makes sense to think of inherited runners in terms of potential runs. When a reliever comes into the game with a runner on second and none out, there's a 65% chance that runner on second will score. If the reliever gets out of the inning without him scoring, he's saved 0.65 inherited runs, compared to average pitching. If the runner does score, he's "saved" -0.35 inherited runs. And if he strikes out a batter and then leaves the game, lowering the chance of the runner scoring to 41% in the process, he's saved 0.65 - 0.41 = 0.24 inherited runs. That's the basic approach to inherited runners we take in our reliever report. It gets a little more complicated than that since we adjust for park difficulty, but you can get the gory formulas in the glossary. The rankings in those reports show the best and worst each season at handling inherited runners. But because of the relatively small sample sizes, those lists can be subject to some fluctuation from year-to-year. What we want to look at in this article are the guys who have a long-term track record of successfully handling inherited runners, running back to 1998 (i.e., all the years for which I have the data).

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January 14, 2004 12:00 am

The Class of 2004

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Jay Jaffe

The Baseball Writers of America's standards on what constitute a Hall of Fame pitcher are in a curious spot now, both when it comes to starters and relievers. Spoiled by a group of contemporaries who won 300 games from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s (Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro), the writers haven't elected a non-300-winning starter since Fergie Jenkins in 1991. That Perry, Sutton and Niekro took a combined 13 ballots to reach the Hall while Ryan waltzed in on his first ballot with the all-time highest percentage of votes is even more puzzling. Apparently what impresses the BBWAA can be summarized as "Just Wins, Baby"--which is bad news for every active pitcher this side of Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Of the 59 enshrined pitchers with major-league experience, only two of them--Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers--are in Cooperstown for what they accomplished as relievers. While the standards for starters are somewhat easy to discern (if lately a bit unrealistic), the growing number of quality relievers on the ballot, the continuous evolution of the relief role, and the paucity of standards to measure them by present some interesting challenges to voters. If there's an area in which performance analysis has struggled mightily against mainstream baseball thought, it's in hammering home the concept that the pitcher doesn't have as much control over the outcome of ballgames--as reflected in his Won-Loss totals--or even individual at-bats--hits on balls in play--as he's generally given credit for. Good run support and good defense can make big winners of mediocre pitchers on good teams, and .500 pitchers of good hurlers on mediocre teams. As such, it's important to examine the things over which a pitcher has control and account for those he does not. Once again, the Davenport system rides to the rescue.

[Note: The research for this piece, and much of the writing, was done prior to the Hall of Fame voting results being announced.]

INTRODUCTION

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Full 1998 Numbers o Glossary of Statistical Terms

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