Timing is Everything

I was watching the Yankees-Royals game on TV Wednesday afternoon when they gave the scouting report for Darrell May and mentioned that he had 17 losses this season. I was shocked, not because I thought May was a better pitcher than that, but because I hadn’t heard anything this year about anybody approaching 20 losses.

I hopped on the ol’ Internet, checked the league leaders and saw that May was leading the majors in losses thanks to a five-start losing streak. He only gave up three runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Yankees, but that was enough for his sixth consecutive loss and 18th of the season.

With 17 games left on the schedule for Kansas City, May should get three more starts. He only needs to lose two of them to reach 20 losses. But even if he loses his next one, Brian Kingman won’t be flying to Chicago or Kansas City to jinx May’s attempt at No. 20.

The reason, of course, is that Mike Maroth lost 21 games last year, becoming the first pitcher to lose at least 20 games in a season since Kingman did it in 1980. And now nobody cares if a pitcher loses 20 games. At least not for that specific reason.

This is a good thing, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with losing 20 games. You generally need to pitch badly to do so, but the number itself doesn’t transform your season from bad to disastrous. There’s no appreciable difference between losing 20 games and losing 19 games, which at least one pitcher did in seven of the full seasons between Kingman and Maroth.

But people see a nice round number and they notice that it hasn’t been reached in a long time and they decide that it must be a really bad thing to do. So several pitchers over the last few years had their spot in the rotation toyed with to provide fewer opportunities to lose that 20th game and several more pitchers had to answer stupid questions about pitching in the shadow of 20 losses and Jayson Stark wrote several columns featuring Kingman.

Maroth didn’t have his spot in the rotation toyed with, but he did have to answer plenty of stupid questions and Stark did write plenty of columns featuring Kingman. May probably won’t have to answer any of those questions and Stark certainly won’t be writing any columns featuring Kingman, and hopefully May won’t have his spot in the rotation toyed with.

May’s not having a good season, but he hasn’t been terrible. He’s 9-18 with a 5.48 ERA and 1.55 WHIP and he’s averaging 5.74 K/9IP and 2.74 BB/9IP. The only acceptable reason to remove him from the rotation is to give a young pitcher a chance to show what he’s got. However, three of the other members of Kansas City’s rotation have pitched worse than May, so one of them should get the boot if there’s a youngster in the Royals organization who simply must have a major-league start this year.

I will be very happy if May gets all three of the starts he’s entitled to the rest of this season, whether he wins them all or loses them all. He gives Kansas City a better chance to win than anybody they could use in his place, and it’s just stupid to hurt your team’s chances of winning (even when the season’s a total loss) to prevent a player from reaching a stat that isn’t all that bad.

Take a look at May’s line (listed first) compared with another AL pitcher this season:

G    IP   H    ER  BB  SO  ERA
28 174   217  106  53 111 5.48
28 171.1 205  105  61 105 5.52

Esteban Loaiza has a winning record (9-7), while May has a chance to lose 20 games. But is there much of a difference between what they’ve done this year? Loaiza has already lost his spot in the rotation because the Yankees have (at least) five pitchers who are better than him.

If the Royals had five pitchers who are better than May, then they should replace him. But they don’t, so they shouldn’t, whether he might lose 20 games or not. And I don’t think they will replace him, thanks to Maroth.

For a similar reason, I’m hoping Adam Dunn strikes out 19 more times this season. The record for strikeouts in a season, of course, is held by Bobby Bonds with 189 in 1970.

Since 2000, there have been six instances in which a player struck out more than 180 times, but did not reach Bonds’ mark. In some of those instances, the player in question got some days off near the end of the season specifically to reduce his chances of breaking the record.

As stupid as it is to pull a pitcher from the rotation because he’s about to lose 20 games, this is worse. You pretty much have to be having a bad season (these days, anyway) to have a shot at losing 20 games. You can set the single-season record for strikeouts and still be having a good season.

Jose Hernandez was having a good season when he struck out 188 times in 2002. He “missed” eight of the Brewers last 11 games that season, and Milwaukee lost six of those eight games. Would the Brewers have won any of them with Hernandez in the lineup? Nobody knows, but they certainly would have had a better chance, and their fans should have been irate that he wasn’t.

Preston Wilson was having a fine season when he struck out 187 times in 2000. In two of Florida’s last five games, he only entered the game as a pinch-hitter. His final strikeout came in the final game in the season, and one can only surmise that if he had reached 187 — or 188 — sooner, he might have seen more time on the bench.

Dunn has 171 strikeouts, which puts him on pace for 191 on the season. He also has 42 home runs, a .398 on-base percentage and a .581 slugging percentage. Along with Sean Casey, he’s been far and away one of Cincinnati’s two best players this season. If he gets benched at all down the stretch because he’s approaching a record that seems pretty bad, his manager should be fired, plain and simple.

A manager’s job is to win ballgames. You do that by using the best players available to you, no matter what numbers he’s getting close to. Dunn is the best player the Reds have available to play his position, and it shouldn’t make a difference whether he strikes out 175 times or 200 times this season.

It looks like Maroth’s milestone last year may have rid managers of the need to sit pitchers who are approaching 20 losses. Hopefully, Dunn can do the same thing for the need to sit hitters who are approaching Bonds’ record for strikeouts in a season.

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