It’s the latest installment of our continuing turn-back-the-clock exercise, as we bring back past articles and arguments to remind you and us of what’s changed, and what hasn’t.
Today we dip into the mailbag to cover a number of topics related to recent columns. First, a question stemming from the article on starters’ support of relievers:
I noticed Phil Niekro and Steve Sparks are both on the list of most-helped starters. I would hypothesize that knuckleballing starters are ‘easier’ to help out than their straight-throwing brethren because of the extreme difference in speed/movement between a knuckler and a typical reliever’s mid-90 mph heat. What do you think?
–S.S. (no, not Steve Sparks)
Good theory. Many other readers were wondering the same thing, and sure enough…
Kyle Lohse got no help last Sunday. The Minnesota starter was fairly effective in his outing against the Brewers, surrendering three runs through 6 2/3 innings, and leaving a bases-loaded, two-out situation for Aaron Fultz to deal with. If Fultz could retire Brady Clark, Lohse would have a Quality Start on his ledger, and the Twins would still be in the game. Instead, Fultz and successor Joe Roa surrendered a single and two walks, the game got out of hand, and Lohse was blamed for three extra runs that he only played a small part in allowing.
A few months ago, I talked about one side of this story–measuring how well relievers handle their inherited runners. But what about the starters? How much can bullpen support distort their numbers during the course of a season or a career? One way of measuring this is to compare the expected outcome of those inherited runners to the actual outcome. For example, those three runners Lohse left for his relievers with two outs would be expected to score 0.7 runs on average. That’s based on this year’s league scoring numbers, as well as the impact the Metrodome has on scoring. Since all three runners actually scored, Lohse’s relievers cost him 2.3 runs for that particular outing. Add those numbers up for a starter, and you have a measure of the season- or career-long bullpen support he received.
Brad Sullivan, RHP, Age 22; A’s 1st round pick in 2003 out of the University of Houston
2004 Stats: 64 IP, 39 SO, 23 BB, 4.92 RA
Sullivan was a strikeout machine in college, but he’s been anything but in his brief pro career. His velocity is reportedly down from his days in Houston–he topped out at 91 the night I saw him–and he’s striking out a mere 14% of California League batters this season, an abysmal percentage for any pitcher, let alone a power guy.
The Matt Cain/Sullivan matchup I saw was an interesting contrast in pitching motions. As I wrote Wednesday, Cain’s motion was smooth and easy, with lots of leg drive. Sullivan’s delivery seemed much more effortful, with a lower arm slot and a very heavy whip of the arm as he throws. It’s a similar delivery to fellow ex-Cougar Ryan Wagner (although not at Wagner’s level on the painful-just-to-watch scale). It’s too early to give up on Sullivan–he’s in the perfect organization for developing minor league pitchers–but at the moment he looks like the latest casualty of college overuse.
It’s hard to beat minor league baseball for a low-cost, low-hassle evening at the ballpark. I’ve been spending quite a few of my evenings lately in California League parks, mostly checking out teams in that league’s Northern division. Today and Friday I’ll run down some of the prospects on the five teams in that division, covering the High-A affiliates for the Giants, Rangers, A’s, Rockies, and Devil Rays.
There’s no rigorous method for choosing prospects listed here. In particular, the omission of certain players (like Vince Sinisi and John Hudgins in today’s piece) shouldn’t be read as a dismissal of them as prospects.
The Indians are struggling at six games below .500, and it’s not hard for their fans to spot the main cause of their troubles: the bullpen. Indians’ pen has actually been pretty good in the past week, but their bullpen numbers are wretched for this point in the season. That raises the question: Is this a historically bad bullpen?
The big story here is the arrival of the young guns. Two catchers who demonstrated strong throwing arms in the minors, Kevin Cash and Gerald Laird, are showing that their ability translates to the major leagues. While Victor Martinez looks like the Next Big Thing at catcher based on offense alone, Cash’s superiority on defense makes up a big portion of the current offensive gap between the two. The same is true for Laird, whose all-around performance makes him a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate despite his recent hitting slump. We wondered in our last catching article who the young heirs to Jason LaRue and Mike Matheny were. It looks like we might have our answer.
One big issue I didn’t address when I wrote about the wrong-headedness of the earned run rule last month is the idea that, while the rule may have outlived its usefulness today, it was necessary and meaningful in the error-filled early days of baseball. An old friend, Steve Thornton, put the argument well in a recent letter:
Your article on UERA, and the follow-up piece in Mailbag, are interesting. While I agree with you that the current system hasn’t made a lot of sense for the past 50 years or so, I think you’re missing, or glossing over, the history of the earned run.
We at Baseball Prospectus occasionally hear the complaint that we make the game too complicated, with all the numbers and bizarre acronyms we throw around. So today I’m going to do my part to simplify the game. I’m here to suggest that baseball and its fans would be better off without one of its most fundamental, and most complicated, scoring rules. It’s time to ditch the “earned” run. The earned-run rule is widely accepted, or at least tolerated, throughout the baseball world, even in sabermetric circles. There are several reasons for that. For one thing, there’s 116 years’ worth of tradition behind the rule. I learned the rule because my dad learned the rule because his dad learned the rule, etc. ERA is on the back of every pitcher’s baseball card, and it pops up in nearly every baseball-related article or news report you’ll see. For another thing, believing in “earned” and “unearned” runs isn’t nearly as harmful as, say, believing that RBI are meaningful for evaluating hitting. You have to pick your battles, and in the big scheme of things, this one may not be a battle worth fighting. Perhaps most importantly, the earned-run rule might have gotten a pass because it’s designed to achieve what everyone agrees is a noble goal: separating pitching from fielding. But good intentions aren’t enough. The earned-run rule is a lame and counterproductive attempt at solving the pitching/fielding conundrum, one that deserves to be put out of its (and our) misery.
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.
There aren’t many places to hide on a baseball field surrounded by 40,000 spectators, but one place you can enjoy relative anonymity is the coaching box. Most season ticket holders would have a hard time naming their team’s third base coach, never mind the casual fan.
So it isn’t necessarily a good sign that Cubs third base coach Wendell Kim is already well-known in Chicago after having spent just a year there. An even worse sign is that most Cubs fans know Kim best by his nickname: Wavin’ Wendell. Kim’s reputation for sending runners to their deaths at home plate preceded his arrival in Chicago, and it’s only grown since he’s been there.
Of course, reputations can be unfair, and reputations about baserunning in particular are difficult to check, since baserunning numbers don’t show up in the box score or the stats page. So who are the teams who make the most outs at home plate, and elsewhere on the bases?
“…and the tough-luck loser in tonight’s game is…”
We hear the above quote in dozens of post-game wrap-ups every year. A starting pitcher goes seven or eight innings and gives up only one or two runs, but his team’s offense can’t produce anything, so he gets stuck with an “L” next to his name in the box score. The fact that “tough-luck loser” is such a commonly invoked cliche suggests that it’s widely recognized that the “L” isn’t doing a very good job of measuring the starter’s contribution, at least in those situations. But that still doesn’t stop the W/L record from being possibly the most prominently used statistic to evaluate starting pitchers in major media baseball coverage.
The idea behind the pitcher’s W/L record is flawed on its face. Wins are a team thing, after all, not a pitcher thing. If the offense fails to put runs on the board, or if the bullpen melts down in the late innings, the starter won’t get the win no matter how well he pitches. Conversely, if the offense is having a great night (or if they’re going up against the Rangers, which is pretty much the same thing), the starter doesn’t have to do anything more than last five innings to get the W.
It’s awards season again, with people across the country anxiously awaiting the results of the Oscars, the Pulitzer Prizes, and of course the most prestigious award of them all. Yes, it’s time for the third annual Golden Gun Award, honoring last year’s most valuable catcher arms. The winner is the major league leader in Stolen Base Runs Prevented (SBRP), which measures the number of runs a catcher saves his team by throwing out opposing basestealers. It is calculated from the number of opponent steals (SB), the number of runners the catcher throws out (CS), and the number of runners the catcher picks off (CPO), using this simple formula:
SBRP = 0.49*(CS+CPO) – 0.16*SB
And the winners are…
Brian Sabean has brought a fair amount of criticism on himself with his low-key approach to this off-season, creating the world’s largest chapter of the lunatic fringe in the process. So it’s no surprise that he faced his share of skeptical questions from Giants fans during his live chat on mlb.com earlier this week. But it was his answer to a fairly innocuous question that raised the most eyebrows among the “fringers”:
Q: Did you ever make an offer for Vladimir Guerrero?
Sabean: In a word: No. If we had signed Guerrero or [Gary] Sheffield, we would have been without [Jim] Brower, [Scott] Eyre, [Matt] Herges, [Dustin] Hermanson, [Brett] Tomko, [A.J.] Pierzynski, [Pedro] Feliz, [J.T.] Snow, [Jeffrey] Hammonds, [Dustan] Mohr and [Michael] Tucker–obviously not being able to field a competitive team, especially from an experience standpoint, given our level of spending.
A few items from the mailbag generated by The
Man With the Golden Gun: 2002, which ranked baseball’s best catcher
arms using a measure of Stolen Base Runs Prevented (SBRP):
I was glad that you concede that your analysis is biased against players that have a solid reputation. It strikes me as a limited phenomenon anyway. Only the real newbies are likely to get much of a bump from extra throwing opportunities against uninformed opposition. All catchers with good reputations will benefit by the comparison to the Piazzas of the world who have so many attempts against them.
I did note in the original article that a catcher’s reputation
influences the number of steal attempts against him, and that the
number of steal attempts in turn affects his Stolen Base Runs
Prevented rating. But I wouldn’t say the analysis is biased against
players that have a solid reputation.
It all comes down to what you’re trying to measure, skill or value.
If you’re trying to measure skill–how strong, accurate, and
generally impressive a catcher’s arm is–then yes, you would want to
give extra credit to those catchers who prevent runners from even
attempting to steal.
In the spirit of Better Late Than Never, it’s time we present the
second annual Golden Gun Award, honoring last year’s most valuable