Had Baseball Prospectus existed in 1984, there are a number of topics we would not have been talking about. The debate about how best to use a closer wouldn’t have existed because the “one inning and only with a lead” doctrine had yet to be invented. 1984 closers who pitched more innings than 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne: all of them. Twenty relievers threw over 100 innings that year. The reason that Willie Hernandez was perceived to be so important to the Tigers, why Goose Gossage was considered the last piece in the Padres puzzle, was because they pitched in high-leverage situations. They could have saved 45 games if they had been used that way, but managers of the time thought it would be more useful if they pitched when the game was on the line. Like all pitchers, some relievers are durable and some are not. Bruce Sutter averaged 99 innings a season through 1984. After that year, in which he recorded a record 45 saves and had a 1.54 ERA, he became a free agent and was signed to a large contract by the Braves. Consistent with the Ted Turner touch o’ gold that persisted throughout the second half of the 1980s, Sutter’s arm immediately fell off. That was his problem. It was Eddie Haas’ problem, Turner’s problem. Twenty years later, it should not be Eric Gagne’s problem. Sutter was no cautionary tale–pitchers are largely immune from generalization. Each should be exploited according to the extent of his ability to remain healthy (with consideration being given to frequency of use, mechanics, weather conditions, pitches per appearance and the like), rather than at some mythical lowest common denominator level of work which is deemed “safe.”
Jeremy Reed had the best year of any player in the minors last year and has a very high probability of being an excellent player. I think a top-five ranking would be a just reward, and consistent with our emphasis on performance rather than tools. I absolutely do not understand why Reed would rank below Alexis Rios. He is Rios’ equal in every attribute except for plate discipline, where he has a substantial advantage, and his PECOTA profile is considerably better. I don’t think a couple of good weeks in Puerto Rico are enough to overcome that. Weeks is a stud and I think the objections to him are a bit overstated. I would like to get a scouting report or two on his defense, since his numbers were quite bad. I’m also not on board with the fear of ranking pitching prospects highly, though I’m sure there will be advocates for the opposite point of view. I think the *top* tier of pitching prospects is unusually good this year as compared with the top tier of hitting prospects, and I think we should make adjustments accordingly. If you want to get a bit more analytical about it, I don’t think it’s a matter of our overrating the risk associated with pitching prospects so much as it is our *underrating* the risk associated with offensive prospects, especially offensive prospects who have yet to reach Double-A. I like Marte a lot, and he has no real negatives, but placing him as high as #2 implies a scouting judgment of sorts; his numbers were good, but not overwhelming.
Since the recent signing of Greg Maddux by the Cubs, a flurry of “who’s got the best rotation” navel-gazing has ensued. In mainstream circles, the debate has generally come down to a derby comprising the Red Sox, Cubs, A’s and Astros, with the Yankees thrown in on occasion. Rather than listen to me pontificate on who I think has the best starting five, let’s see what the PECOTA 2004 Weighted-Mean Projections say. We’ll take the VORP for each projected member of the rotation and use the team totals to determine the rankings. For some clubs, the back spot or two of the rotation is up for grabs, but, irrespective of who comes out of the spring-training wash, the rankings aren’t likely to be substantially altered.
“…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.
The Astros upgrade on their rotation. The Selig’s finally announce their sale of the Brewers. And the A’s project to improve their offense, despite losing their star shortstop to the most expensive fourth-place team in history. All this and much more news from Houston, Milwaukee, and Oakland in your Monday edition of Prospectus Triple Play.