December 6, 2013
Get It Now!Hardball Times Annual is now available. It's got 300 pages of articles, commentary and even a crossword puzzle. You can buy the Annual at Amazon, for your Kindle or on our own page (which helps us the most financially). However you buy it, enjoy!
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Thursday, April 25, 2013
I worked from home today, which meant a consistent stream of sports news outlets streaming in the background for many hours. As such, I was subject to incessant chatter about the back-end bullpen situation for the Detroit Tigers. Normally when we think about the detrimental effects of the 24-hour cable news cycle, we apply it to much more serious matters than sports, but today I really began thinking about some of the outside the lines impacts of Detroit’s closer landscape in light of the modern media environment.
First, let me put my cards on the table. I hold the standard sabermetric-oriented beliefs regarding the closer role. Here are a few things I believe.
With all that said, here’s something else I consider relevant—a media circus is not good for a team; when your team is making the a-block of sports highlight shows for the wrong reasons, that is not a good situation. Players are professionals and it is their job to block out distractions and just play, but incessant questioning by the media and a team’s own fanbase can wear at a team and allow minor issues to snowball. It is through this lens that I question the way the Detroit Tigers have handled their bullpen situation in 2013.
So far the Detroit Tigers have either failed to or decided against bringing in an established closer to replace Jose Valverde in the offseason. They then led most to believe that Bruce Rondon was in line to open the season as their closer. Shortly before Opening Day, they optioned Rondon to the minors. They then announced they’d be using a closer by committee, though it appeared Joaquin Benoit was going to emerge as the closer. During this time, Valverde was pitching in the minors. Earlier this week, they called up both Rondon and Valverde. Valverde converted his first chance. Rondon failed to hold a lead today, allowing the tying run to score in the eighth, while the Tigers ultimately lost in ten.
If part of your job is to evaluate and question the moves across the league, or to find angles to second-guess the Detroit Tigers, you’ve stumbled upon a treasure chest. In terms of giving the media the rope to hang your organization, Detroit has basically done as much wrong as possible, even if the actual impact on winning games is less profound than portrayed.
Instead of essentially institutionalizing uncertainty and indecision and well as bringing back a player they lacked confidence in a mere few months ago, there were a number of other defensible avenues the team could have pursued.
For one, Detroit could have simply brought in a closer from outside over the offseason. Perhaps, there are strict financial and player value arguments against this idea, but it would have changed the discussion regardless of outcome. Detroit is a contender and a spender, so they are certainly in a position where spending a premium for an established closer is defensible. Additionally, had they added a Rafael Soriano type, the organization would largely shield itself even in the case of failure. One of the rubs between pure analytics and real-life team management is that among a fanbase and the media, not all failure is treated equally.
Hypothetically, had the Tigers brought in Soriano only to see him not get the job done, the majority of the blame would be placed on the player, not the Tigers organization. The fact would have been they brought in a player who had done a specific job before and he was asked to do it again, and was unable to do so. For the reputation of the organization itself, that’s a common and acceptable way to fail.
Another less messy way of going about assigning the job of closer would have been to pick a guy – Benoit was probably a decent enough choice – and run with it. Let him pitch himself out of the job or lock it in. This is not necessarily the ideal situation for a team with the expectations of the Tigers, but it’s certainly a common enough situation for teams around the league.
Finally, they could have simply brought a shaky Valverde back and looked for upgrades while letting him prove or disprove himself.
Instead, what they’ve done is open up every possible line of questioning, while relying on a highly questionable option, who has the pressure of essentially being a savior. He’s also fresh off a string of disappointing his team’s fans in the previous postseason.
Again, it’s not just if you lose, but how you lose that drives perception in the pro sports fishbowl and 24-hour cable sports news cycle. There will be a lot of teams whose bullpens will blow many games. There will even be teams who might be playoff teams but for horrible bullpen performances. But that won’t be big news and it won’t be tremendous fodder for everybody to question the wisdom of entire organizations. Last year, the Brewers likely could have made the postseason, if not for an absolutely horrible bullpen, and a seemingly endless string of blown saves by John Axford. The narrative there was that Axford was not performing, not that the Brewers were inept.
If the Detroit bullpen keeps blowing games, it will keep making news in ways that other teams’ bullpen failures won’t. If they were consciously attempting to implement a strategy that was unconventional, but in line with analytic-based understanding, I’d defend them all the way. But, frankly, it looks like they don’t really have a vision at all, and that’s a recipe to turn a molehill into a mountain in short order. The dominant narrative of Detroit’s 2013 season may depend on Jose Valverde taking this opportunity and really running with it.
Mets 7, Dodgers 3: Jordany Valdespin with a walkoff grand slam. See, good things happen when he doesn't try to bunt.
Reds 1, Cubs 0: Mat Latos tossed seven shutout innings and Broxton and Chapman finished it off. Tough luck for Jeff Samardzija, who struck out eight in six innings, but he's gonna have to get used to tough luck pitching for these Cubs.
Blue Jays 6, Orioles 5: The first extra innings loss for Baltimore in over a year. That covered 17 instances of free baseball. Oh well, luck comes and goes. Well, maybe it wasn't luck: the winning run came when Jim Johnson walked Maicer Izturis with the bases loaded, but still.
Cardinals 4, Nationals 2: The sweep. Stephen Strasburg had a rough first inning, but then he settled down and kept his team in the game, only to watch as Washington whiffed and ran its way out of a couple of would-be rallies. Strasburg's record now stands at 1-4.
White Sox 3, Indians 2: Alex Rios hit a two-run homer to help the Chisox earn a split. I'm not sure who let Zach McAllister leave the Columbus, Ohio he and I are so accustomed to, but he walked five and allowed five hits in five and two-thirds innings. Come back home, Zach. We'll go get some paella at Barcelona and then some Jeni's ice cream, maybe, and we'll never make you lave Franklin County again.
Rockies 6, Braves 5: I left for an early dinner reservation just as Fredi Gonzalez sent Jordan Schafer home on a botched squeeze play while up 5-3 and one out in the ninth. I figure that Gonzalez was tired of seeing the Braves hit the ball all over the ballpark without any of his own input and felt like he had to justify his existence by managing the hell out of that little situation. If he had let Coors Field's nature take its course I'm guessing one of the next two batters could have or would have hit the ball in the air to score Schafer anyway, the game wouldn't have been tied after nine and the Rockies would not have been able to mount this comeback win. And yes, if you think this is just some long distraction enabling me to overlook the fact that Craig Kimbrel coughed up two runs in the ninth, well, you're right.
Astros 10, Mariners 3: Baseball has 162 games and rarely does any one game matter or even mean anything all that much. But dudes, you just got scorched by the Astros. Three homers for Houston, which has four wins against Seattle in six meetings this year. The Astros have won only seven overall.
Diamondbacks 3, Giants 2: Brandon Crawford his a homer in the ninth to tie it, but Arizona won it on a sac fly and is now 5-0 in extra innings games this year. The new Orioles or something.
Red Sox 6, Athletics 5: David Ortiz had two hits and an RBI. Stephen Drew hit an RBI triple. Boston has won nine of 12. Oh, and the Red Sox sent Alfredo Aceves down to Pawtucket after this one, so it's like a total exorcism of that 13-0 loss the other night.
Tigers 7, Royals 5: Jose Valverde comes back and gets a save on his first try out. Victor Martinez drove in two. Welcome to 2011.
Rays 3, Yankees 0: Alex Cobb was dominant (8.1 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 7K), allowing only three singles. Not sure what beat writers do in games like this when there's really only one thing to talk about. I only have to write, like, three or four sentences. They have a whole story to fill. Maybe they can just CTRL-V "Alex Cobb" over and over again like the restaurant scene in "Being John Malkovich" or something.
Pirates 5, Phillies 3: Roy Halladay allowed only one hit and struck out eight in six innings and Ryan Howard and Chase Utley hit big booming homers. That used to mean an easy Philly win, but we're a long way from 2010. Brandon Inge came and hit a pinch hit RBI single to tie it in the eighth because of course he did. Then Starling Marte tripled in a run in the ninth as part of a four-run Philly bullpen failure.
Rangers 11, Angels 3: Texas with a nine-run fourth inning put this one away pretty early. Nelson Cruz with a three-run homer. Lance Berkman drove in four. Yu Darvish wins the Run Support Award for the night. The pitchers in the Angels part of the box score look like a list of names from the witness protection program.
Padres 2, Brewers 1: I suppose Milwaukee had to lose eventually. I didn't think Edinson Volquez would go seven innings without walking anyone eventually, but I'll be damned if he didn't.
It was 20,000 days ago that baseball great Frank Robinson had the greatest game of his career. At any rate, that’s what WPA says.
WPA is the “story stat” that tells us what the game felt like. A clutch homer in the bottom of the ninth to win the game scores far better than a generic fourth-inning shot because WPA is all about how each at-bat affects the win probability of the overall game. And what Robinson did 20,000 days ago had the biggest impact he ever had to help his club win the game.
It was July 23, 1958, and Robinson, a strapping young outfielder still a month shy of his 23rd birthday, led the Reds against the visiting Chicago Cubs. For whatever reason, Reds skipper Birdie Tebbetts had dropped Robinson to seventh in the batting order. That’s an odd placement, but given the damage he did from that slot, you can’t really argue with it, not on this day at any rate.
Early on, Robinson didn’t do much, flying out in each of his first two trips to the plate. But then again, these early at-bats rarely do much for WPA anyway. Robinson’s first clutch situation came in the fifth inning, as he came up with two outs and runners on first and second in a game tied, 2-2. Robinson made the most of it, belting a two-run double to give the Reds the first lead of the day. The club’s likelihood of winning rose from 56 percent up to 80.
Robinson flew out in his next trip up. Worse news awaited the Reds when the Cubs tied it in the top of the ninth, sending the game into extra innings. That gave Robinson his chance at real glory.
In the top of the 10th, former Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson hit a clutch solo home run to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead. Now the odds for a victory shifted dramatically in their favor. Obviously, the odds didn’t count on Robinson.
He was due up third for the Reds in the 10th. The leadoff man flew out, and then the next batter walked. You can figure out what happened next, right? Yeah, standing at the plate representing the winning run, Robinson smashed an offering from Chicago’s Don Elston into the left field seats for a walk-off, game-winning home run. The Reds' likelihood of winnings skyrocketed from a meager 22 percent up to a 100 percent lock.
Robinson only had two hits on the day, but those were two massive clutch hits that helped decide the game. In his two big moments, he drove in four runs in the Reds' 6-5 win. His three outs came in entirely inconsequential situations.
As a result, Robinson ended the day with a WPA of .969, nearly a full win all by his lonesome. That’s not a truly historic achievement, but it was impressive. It was the third-highest one-game total by a hitter in all 1958. And it was the best total Robinson ever had in a game, and that game was 20,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
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