Culprit uno (1982-2008)

Pitch him all you want,
But if you miss October,
I’ll point and I’ll laugh.

Two senryus ago, I started investigating the teams who, minus their pitcher who was at least five games under .500, would have managed a better record than the pennant/division winner that year. This one wraps up in a slightly different fashion, because of a few things:

1) The ’80s were a highly competitive era with very few teams completely hopeless in a given year;
2) The wild card did the same thing from 1995 forward; and
3) The reliever issue. As more closers were paid to pitch only in close games, a small mistake or two gave them a loss even when they were pitching quite well overall. There are some bad middle relievers that could be culprits, but very few would argue that Tom Henke‘s 0-6 record with a 2.49 ERA, 0.926 WHIP, and a league-leading 34 saves was the reason the Blue Jays missed the playoffs in 1987. Regardless, the culprit list is skewed a bit because of the closers and other highly leveraged relievers.

From 1901-45 there were 25 such pitchers to make the table, eight of whose teams made the playoffs anyway. From 1946-1980, the split was 39/22. From 1982-2008 (excluding both major strike years), the split is 118/47. 2008 alone had six of these pitchers (Justin Speier at 2-8 for the Angels, Clay Buchholz at 2-9 for the Red Sox, Jon Rauch at 0-6 for the Diamondbacks, Kyle McClellan at 2-7 for the Cardinals, Brandon Backe at 9-14 for the Astros, and Aaron Heilman at 3-8 for the Mets). Given this article’s smaller temporal scope, I’m simply omitting the tables and hitting the high points. If you’re interested in the tables, feel free to e-mail me. Sometimes you just have to have a spreadsheet with tons of stats. It’s like a midnight snack, except this snack has Tom Henke.

The analyzed pitchers this time would have put their teams at least five games up without their records.

Rich Gale, 1982 San Francisco Giants

The trade was intriguing, at least: Jerry Martin, a solid centerfielder coming off a down year, was shipped to the Royals in December 1981 for Gale and Bill Laskey. Laskey was young and had performed reasonably well at Omaha in ’81, while the 28-year-old Gale’s four-year ERA+ record in the majors went 125, 76, 103, and 66. The trade also cleared the way for Chili Davis to take over for Martin. Laskey performed better in the majors as a rookie than he had at Triple-A, with a 13-12 record and solid peripherals; Davis turned in a league-average OPS+ as a rookie, which was better than the veteran Martin had produced. The pair helped put the surprising Giants just two back of the Braves. Rich Gale helped them stay two back, as well, just from the other end; a 7-14 record and a frightening 1.609 WHIP (10.2 H/9, 4.3 BB/9, and 5.4 K/9. Yum.). The WHIP led only to a 4.23 ERA somehow, tenth best since 1901 for all ERA qualifiers with so high a WHIP, but that’s not a credit or anything. After a 3-8 first half, Gale’s ERA and W-L totals improved, but his WHIP got worse, even with a 1.11 July (he went 3-2, 1.96 in that month). After an August in which his WHIP cleared two, he was banished to the bullpen with similar disaster.

So whose fault was it that Gale continued to take his turn in the rotation? That July did extend his time a bit much, but I’ll call it neutral although it’s more like it’s everyone’s fault at once. The rotation aside from Laskey and fellow rookie Atlee Hammaker was as bad as Gale, just without as much proof in the end results, as Renie Martin and Alan Fowlkes had WHIPs around 1.6 as well.

It was so bad that aging comeback reliever Jim Barr made nine starts and career reliever Al Holland made seven, just because they were decent pitchers at all. Phoenix was no help either; their team ERA was 5.58 with a staff that looked about as bad as the major league one and in all the same ways. So who else was there to throw, and who else had a track record of success? In a rotation of majority rookies, Gale was as good as it got, and that July was pretty nice. The personnel around Gale was just that bad that he had to stay in. Yeesh.

Danny Jackson, 1987 Kansas City Royals

Jackson went 9-18 from the left and Mark Gubicza 13-18 from the right. It’s no wonder the Twins finished two games ahead of this bunch; what’s surprising is that it was only two. However, don’t blame the the pitchers, but instead look at the manager in conjunction with shortstop Angel Salazar.

Sure, the offense as a whole was last in the AL in runs. But Salazar is a special case entirely. Salazar, who I presume was a defensive whiz, had established a career high in OPS+ the previous year … at 59. An offensive slump in 1987 pushed him to 23, or in more conventional terms a frightful .205/.219/.246. Aside from fellow shortstop Buddy Biancalana (38 OPS+), everybody who took an at-bat for the Royals in 1987 was at least twice that good, and the rest of the regular lineup cleared 72 in OPS+.

Of all players since 1901 to receive at least 332 plate appearances, the only worse hitting season by OPS+ was put up by Bill Bergen. (Del Young‘s 1937 was also a 23, but he played for the Phillies; no expectation there.) Mario Mendoza was better. Rafael Belliard was better. Salazar’s contemporary Steve Jeltz was better (he posted a robust 66 OPS+ in ’87). If these guys were the D-students of the class, Salazar was the one who walked into the final, wrote his name on it, and left.

How do you take two pitchers with ERA+ above 110 and give them awful W-L records? Give them negative run support. Way to go.

Bob Sebra, 1987 Montreal Expos

Sebra, the hotshot righthander traded to Montreal in the infamous Pete Incaviglia vicarious draft of ’85, had performed well in a half-season in the bigs in ’86, but his 6-15 record for a team four games back made him look a bit culpritish this time around. This one, however, is entirely neutral. Sebra’s 4.42 ERA was no different than those of rotation mates Neal Heaton (13-10, 4.52), Bryn Smith (10-9, 4.37), and Floyd Youmans (9-8, 4.64). Sebra’s K/9 of 7.91 was third in the NL and his K/BB ratio eighth, highlighted by a 32 strikeout, 4 walk June.

After July, however, Sebra tanked and was moved to the bullpen with disastrous results; he never struck out more than 5.7 per 9 again, and was done after 1990. It’s a shame his one promising season didn’t look that good when it was happening and was never replicated, but given that most of Buck Rodgers‘s pitchers were at the same level or thereabout, it’s no fault for taking the one who’s fooling a high total of batters and seeing if he figures the rest out.

Chris Bosio, 1988 Milwaukee Brewers

In terms of being 25, right-handed, fading out in the middle of the season to be put in the bullpen, and on teams that came close after not having done so since the early ’80s, Bosio and Sebra were similarly situated. Bosio was no power pitcher, though; even with his 3.36 ERA, he struck out 4.2 per nine (though with few walks). And unlike Sebra, Bosio’s move to the bullpen was unexpectedly successful. The league batted .383/.421/.500 against him as a July starter; once in the bullpen to close in place of a hurting Dan Plesac, the league slugged under .250 against him. (And no, Angel Salazar was in the NL that year, so it wasn’t because he was facing natural .250 sluggers.) All told, Bosio was one of the most useful 7-15 guys of history. Credit to Tom Trebelhorn or his coaches if they forsaw Bosio’s sudden ace closing. At the very least, it’s neutral in terms of fault.

Walt Terrell, 1988 Detroit Tigers

Terrell’s seasonal ERA+ numbers through 1988: 106, 102, 101, 106, 91, 105, 97. Career record through 1987: 66-55. Terrell was about as league-average as you could get, but his record was slightly inflated from being on good offensive teams. In ’88, that run support disappeared and Terrell lost seven quality starts en route to a 7-16 record for a team that ended up one game back at the end of the season. That set a culprit record for most games up when subtracted.

(For playoff teams, it’s a tie: Steve Avery‘s 1995 Braves and Justin Speier’s 2008 Angels would have finished 27 games up without their records.) Terrell was probably due for some correction from his career record, but 7-16 was a bit harsh, and a 3.97 ERA doesn’t say “take me out; I’m ineffective” (especially when Doyle Alexander and Frank Tanana each were 14-11 while pitching worse). And it couldn’t happen again, could it?

Walt Terrell, 1989 San Diego Padres

This time, his pitching was a bit more deserving of his 5-13 record; similar peripherals in the non-DH league meant it his numbers looked was worse all around. He took the loss in of his quality starts, so the offense had its problems when he pitched, but for a team that finished three games back, that was no comfort. Of all the culprits discussed, the Padres were the most proactive about ridding themselves of him, flipping him at the trade deadline to the Yankees for an underperforming Mike Pagliarulo to plug the third base hole (it didn’t work) and getting a rotation replacement in Don Schulze (also didn’t work). Schulze was replaced by 1988′s first pick Andy Benes, who excelled down the stretch to undo some of Terrell’s damage. Perhaps the Pads should have caveatted their emptor a bit after 1988′s performance, but to trade your problem in an attempt to solve other ones is a fine idea and a credit to the management. Neutral. Oddly enough, Terrell pitched awfully for the Yankees but went 6-5. Baseball is weird.

Terrell is one of seven two-timing culprits, including: Joe Decker in 1970/76; Mike Moore in 1984/87; Duane Ward in 1989/90; Brian Anderson in 2001/02; Brett Tomko in 2005/07; and Jeff Weaver in 2006/07. Amazingly enough, not only was Terrell was the first back-to-back offender in the group, he’s the only three-timer, going 2-7 for the 1990 division-winning Pirates (and deserving every bit of that record). It’s something to be known for, I guess. Gotta have something.

Darryl Kile, 1995 Houston Astros

Rockie-Mania may hog the memories, but Terry Collins’ Astros were only one game worse. Subtracting Kile’s 4-12, 4.96 (78 ERA+) would have helped. The 26-year-old Kile continued his struggles of ’94, chief among them the double-digit wild pitches and the 5.2 BB/9 (though with a healthy strikeout rate). As we’ve seen time and again, a teammate did the same things and got away with it, in this case Doug Drabek‘s 10-9, 4.77 performance. Was Kile’s starting through August warranted? Yes and no; I’m not sure how to call this one, so I’ll call it neutral in the interim.

Kile left six of his starts with the game tied; three of those ended with him getting the loss, so presumably the bullpen couldn’t bail him out. I have no idea what the usual percentage of “inherited losses” is, but that seems a bit high. Leaving in the middle of an inning six times with a tie and runners on seems a bit high, too. Maybe Collins wanted his starters in there too long. (The recipe calls for six innings at three runs, you idiot, not 6.2 at four!) In any event, there was nobody at Tucson to take Kile’s place.

Tuscon won its division by 10 games (87-56), but only one pitcher won more than six games. That one pitcher was Donne Wall (17-6, 3.30), who was older than Kile and performed worse after taking his place in the rotation in September. The other callups went to the Houston bullpen and didn’t do well there, so why would Collins have put them in the rotation? The main problem was likely that they relied on Kile overmuch and didn’t cultivate other options, given that his 1994 was a bit wild and struggling. There’s no right answer here.

John Franco, 1998 New York Mets

And so it is fitting to close with our only closer culprit. Franco saved 38 games for the Mets, who finished one game behind the Cubs-Giants tie for the wild card (how odd would it have been to have a three-way tie across three divisions?). But Franco also lost eight games and won none; his 3.62 ERA was okay, but it was his second-worst season to that point. He was a star closer gone vaguely human, and it was insufficient.

As we’ve noted, closer losses are somewhat common, given the situations in which they’re placed. Also in contrast to the previous culprits, if you’re Bobby Valentine and John Franco is still saving games at his usual pace, are you going to replace him? Whatever the case, five of Franco’s losses were from July 5 to July 31. Half of Franco’s losses were from giving up one run, and three of them were from him entering the game in extra inning ties. The Mets’ bullpen of the year was reasonably deep, with Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell both high quality and Greg McMichael performing adequately as the fourth guy, but Valentine had his roles, and Franco’s was not only to close but to work in extra innings, so he had more losses pinned on him than would be expected. If the game was a reliever’s to win, it would be a “lesser” reliever. Cook, Wendell, McMichael, and Mel Rojas, knight of the 6.05 ERA, combined for a 23-10 record, which is of course quite good. It’s partially on Franco’s pitching that he was tagged for eight losses, but it was also Valentine’s way of using his closer that did it. For a stretch in July, it didn’t work out, but the rest of the time it was all right. Neutral.

Conclusion

I was surprised at how few of the culprits were tough-luck victims, or how often the manager had no other good options, particularly in this installment. That isn’t to say that maybe the GM shouldn’t have the manager’s job so difficult, but applying rational basis review,, I see no reason why this decision does not pass constitutional muster.

For the foregoing reasons, the opinion of the Circuit Court is affirmed.

(Sorry, went into law school mode for a bit there. Wrong part of my life.)

The other thing I derived from the study is how many teams had such strong core talent that it almost overrode a weak supporting cast. The next profile in this list would have been 2000-era Pete Schourek for the Red Sox, but the 1999 wild card winners had two would-be culprits in Mark Portugal and Tim Wakefield. Dan Duquette wasn’t surrounding his core with acceptable talent, but Pedro Martinez was so sickeningly good in those years that it made up for it many times. Likewise, it didn’t matter that ’95 Steve Avery was bad when Greg Maddux was nearing perfection. You don’t bank on that as a GM if you’re smart, but you can do a bad job at the margins and still run a playoff team. That could explain some things, but it should be heartening to fans under intelligence-repressive regimes.

References & Resources
Same as the last two.

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