The Inaugural THT Live Roundtable

This is the beginning of a regular feature you’ll see here on THT Live–it’s just too bad I couldn’t think of a catchier title to start off with. Feel free to leave your always witty suggestions in the comments.

Well the season ended yesterday with a bang, as the Twins defeated the Tigers in an extra inning affair. And what a game it was. Good pitching, big home runs, plays at the plate, and the home team walking off with the victory. What could be a better compliment to a long night of baseball than some roundtable goodness? This week features Pat Andriola, Alex Pedicini, Jeremy Greenhouse, as well as myself, Dan Novick. A Mets fan, a Red Sox fan, and two Yankee fans walk into a chat…I swear I’ve heard that one before. Enough introduction. On to the questions…

Question #1: Ryan Franklin has been awful for the Cardinals in September despite a stellar season overall. If the Cards are up by one on the road in the 9th inning, should Tony LaRussa stick with Franklin, or trust the ball to somebody else?

Pat Andriola: It depends. I think one of the worst things a manager can do with the bullpen is decide specifically who will pitch at what times prior to a game. This sets biases when it comes to game-time decisions. If TLR needs Franklin for an out in the seventh, he should be willing to use him, etc. But more importantly, he needs to be able to mix and match even if it is the ninth inning. There seems to be some precedent set with the relatively new role of the closer since it’s appearance in the latter half of the 20th century: you let your guy finish the inning, because goshdarn it, he’s a closer, and that’s his job. This goes along with much of the machismo that encompasses baseball; but more importantly, it creates disincentives for managers to ever pull their closer from the ninth inning, even if more favorable match-ups are available in the form of other pitchers. But LaRussa isn’t going to mix things up, and will probably stick to Franklin. Franklin only had 8.1 innings pitched in September and October, so the sample size isn’t big enough to get all too worried. However, his xFIP-ERA is 2.32, so we may be seeing the beginning of some regression. Long answer short, my response to the question was the first two words of what I wrote: it depends.

Alex Pedicini: The fact of the matter is Franklin has thrown just 8.1 innings in September and October, a rather small sample of his 61 total innings this season. While his command has been poor in recent outing (eight walks in those 8.1 innings) I doubt that La Russa is wavering in his usage of Franklin during the post season. Despite his recent struggles he is still getting ground ball outs (eleven grounders compared to four fly balls) and he hasn’t allowed a homerun since May 10. La Russa isn’t a hall of fame manager for nothing and I would be shocked to see him go to anyone else but Franklin in the ninth inning. When asked recently about Franklin’s struggles La Russa responded, “Ryan Franklin has been so valuable for us all year. He’s an excellent closer. He’s our guy. He knows it.”

Jeremy Greenhouse: Well, there shouldn’t really be such thing a defined role as a closer to begin with, so La Russa should weigh the game state and the batter appropriately, and then make his decision. I think Franklin is the best reliever in his bullpen, but Trever Miller is one of the best pitchers in baseball when it comes to getting lefties out, boasting a 38/6 K/BB ratio against 107 lefties faced this year. So I’d say if there’s a lefty La Russa wants to get out, Miller’s his guy. Then again, out of the bullpen you sometimes need a big strikeout or double play. Jason Motte’s got blowaway stuff that can overwhelm batters if you need the big punchout, Then La Russa has Dennys Reyes and Blake Hawksworth, a lefty/righty combo who induce grounders on half their balls in play. La Russa is infamous for overmanaging his bullpen, but the rules permit him to mix and match as many times in an inning as he’d like, so I don’t think he should rely on any one pitcher in the ninth inning.

Dan Novick: Smoltz should be in the bullpen for the playoffs partially because of their starting rotation depth. If Franklin falters, don’t hesitate to bring in Smoltz. Ryan Franklin did have quite a season this year, so it’s easy to ignore the small sample in September. But he had been teetering on the brink of replacement level for a long time before this season, so maybe this last month was just him returning to his old form. I don’t think La Russa is revolutionary enough to flip his bullpen strategy in the playoffs and go with the “sabermetric approach” of using your best pitcher in the highest leverage situation. Have Smoltz ready to go in case Franklin can’t get it together.

Question #2: What are your bold playoff predictions?

Pat Andriola: Russell Martin will hit a grandslam in the NLCS.

Alex Pedicini: Colorado will knock off the reigning champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games.

Jeremy Greenhouse: This time, I predict there will be two Octobers.

Dan Novick: The Cardinals will thoroughly dominate the NL playoffs. I’m talking sweeping the divisional series and winning the NLCS in 5 games or fewer. Carpenter and Wainwright are as good as it gets in these playoffs, and I don’t think anybody has a number 3 starter as good as Joel Pineiro.

Question #3: If you could change one rule in baseball, what would it be?

Pat Andriola: I would make a rule that you can switch the order so that someone already within the game could bat for somebody else, but not at the expense of either losing their spot in the game. You only get this once, and it can be for anyone at any time.

Alex Pedicini: It would have to be the all-star game format. I know this topic is a few years old now but in my opinion there is no way something as important as home field advantage in the world series should be decided by a meaningless exhibition game between the leagues. The home field should go to the team with the best regular season record. It is the most fair and effective way of dealing with it.

Jeremy Greenhouse: Only one rule? Shucks. I think I’d have to change the Rule IV Draft. I don’t think it’s fair that players who are not represented by the MLBPA have most of their salary and working conditions determined without any of their input. Thanks for not asking how I would make changes to the rule.

Dan Novick: I’m not sure if this qualifies, but I’d like to add a rule to the books. Give managers maybe one or two challenges per game where they can challenge literally any call. Outs on the bases, fair/foul calls, and homeruns would be done by instant replay in a booth on the side of the field. Balls and strikes will be determined right at home plate with the umpire looking pitch f/x via gameday on a handheld device (something as simple as an iPod touch would do the trick). I know some people don’t like the idea of instant replay, but if we had had instant replay for the last hundred years, would anyone want to get rid of it?

Question #4: Why do we as fans place such an overemphasis on bullpens?

Pat Andriola: Bullpens are a funny part of the game. Do fans place an overemphasis on them? Yeah, they typically overvalue relief pitchers. However, relievers shouldn’t be scoffed at. Sure, they individually don’t pitch that often, but as a team they make up an important chunk of a pitching staff, usually representing more than 1/3 of the overall innings pitched for a team. But to the question, I think the reason fans like the bullpen guys is because they are part of the game at the most “crucial” moments. Fans tend to like dramatic games, and dramatic games tend to be decided (in the fan’s minds) in the late innings. Thus, there is added importance to the later innings by the fans. Also, the fans feel that these are the more difficult outs to get in a game, as pitchers have leads to protect and the fans are on their feet, close to clinching the win, etc. Also, fans tend to use them as scapegoats pretty often, as their miscues are the most conspicuous to notice.

Alex Pedicini: I think fans tend to overemphasize bullpens for a number of factors, none more apparent than media coverage. Fans and media alike love to see a fierce, lights out closer enter the game in the ninth and seal the deal. He will get credit for the save, which really tells you nothing about how the player has pitched, but it looks good on his stat sheet. Just to give you an idea of how meaningless the save statistic is Brian Fuentes has led the league with 48 saves while posting a 4.48 FIP. Going along with what Jeremy said, fans tend to overemphasize the drama of late innings even if a team is protecting a comfortable three run lead. Fans may assume all games are decided in the final innings, although we know this is not always the case.

Jeremy Greenhouse: As fans, our attention is piqued in the later innings when relievers are already in the game. A lot of us don’t really pay attention to a starter’s performance in the 4th inning of a 3-run game. But when the leverage index is above 2, we’re intently watching every pitch, and chances are that a reliever is pitching. Dave Studeman is fond of calling WPA the story stat, but it’s also the fan’s stat in that the fan is only concerned with the story. I mean Joakim Soria had a WPA of 3.43 and WPA/LI of .81 while Joel Pineiro had a WPA/LI of 2.72 and a WPA of 1.09. To me, there’s no question as to who was more valuable to his team this year, and there’s also no question as to which pitcher fans would have preferred on their teams.

Dan Novick: I blame leverage index. But seriously, even if you’ve never heard of the term, everyone understands intuitively what it means. The later innings are more important than the earlier innings, assuming it’s a close game. That leads some fans to blow that level of importance out of proportion to the point where they make silly arguments such as “relievers pitch every other day, starters only pitch every five days, clearly relievers have more of an impact.” I may or may not have punched somebody in the face after they tried to explain that to me. Yes, the later innings are important, and we have leverage index to reflect that. But they’re not that important.

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