Baseball Observations at the 40% Mark
The baseball season is now over two-fifths complete, so I thought I'd weigh
in with a few thoughts that I had while trying to write a poignant essay about
conquering compulsive procrastination.
The Nine-Man Rotation
My favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, has an undeniably bad pitching
staff. Any way you break it down, they are terrible: they have
bad starters, bad closers and bad middle relievers. A case could be
made that they only have three or four above-average pitchers on their staff—Jason
Schmidt, Brett Tomko, LeTroy Hawkins and Scott Eyre—and Schmidt has
some of the worst stats in baseball. Can anything be done to salvage
this dismal season? Probably not, but after looking at the following
data I have an idea:
WHIP of SF Giant Starters by Pitch Count as of 6/16/05
||1.17, but ERA=10.54
While two-fifth of a season doesn't provide enough data for a sure-fire study,
the above data indicates that the Giants might be better off if their
starters were limited to sixty or fewer pitches.
If he were to limit his starters, Giants' manager Felipe Alou could only
expect them to make it through three innings, five tops. To make up
the lost innings, I propose that the Giants switch to a nine-man rotation,
- One starter who pitches in the traditional manner (preferably Schmidt
- Four teams of two "starters" who would collectively be responsible
for making it through seven or eight innings.
- The remaining three pitchers on the staff would be responsible for the
eighth or ninth innings (with additional help coming from underworked starters
on rest days).
- Some "starters" could get periodic traditional "full"
starts—perhaps every third start—if their pitching results seam
to indicate that they can maintain excellence past their pitch quota.
Also, if a "starter" is on fire during his start, the manager
could decide to allow him to continue pitching past his quota until the
first sign of trouble.
- Teams could adapt this, based on the number of starters who are suited
to make 90-100 pitches. For example, the Astros could use a eight
man rotation with both Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt pitching full starts
and three "starter teams." (Andy Pettitte, whose WHIP this
year jumps nearly half a point after his 60th pitch, may be better suited
- Noah Lowry—the first half of the "starter team"—would
start a game and throw sixty pitches, reaching the fourth inning.
Let's say he leaves the game with one on, one out and a left-handed batter
at the plate.
- Kirk Rueter—who pitched four innings three days ago and is on the
day's "rested starter team"—is available as a lefty specialist
to throw about 10-15 pitches. He gets the batter out.
- Felipe Alou then brings in the second half of the "starter team,"
Brett Tomko, to finish off the inning. He throws his sixty pitches
and gets the team into the seventh inning.
- Jesse Foppert, the second half of the "rested starter team"
gets the first two outs of the seventh.
- Scott Eyre—one of the three designated relievers—finishes
the seventh and pitches the eighth.
- LaTroy Hawkins pitches the ninth. If he falters or if the game goes
into extra innings, one half of the next day's "starter team"
can finish off the game (in that case, the other half would make a traditional
start the next day, with the three designated relievers and two "rested
starters" able to support him). The "rested starter team"
from two nights previous also would be available for limited duty in an
emergency. If the game goes past fourteen innings, utility infielder/knuckleball
specialists would finish the game (more on that later).
The Yankees attempted something similar during the 2004 playoffs, with Javier
Vazquez and Kevin Brown splitting starts. However, this was a move of
desperation rather than a calculated strategy. Both were sore-armed
and untested in this role, and the playoffs are not an ideal time to experiment.
Baseball could stand to use a little more innovation. Many basketball
and football coaches—Don Nelson and Bill Walsh, for instance—aren't
afraid of radical new strategies; these sports are more dynamic than baseball
because of them. While I'm not saying that what I'm proposing is necessarily
a good idea, it is innovative and may have the following benefits:
- The team would get ample media coverage, and all press is good press.
- The Giants would be utilizing a commodity that currently isn't highly
valued: starting pitchers with a track record of success for 60 pitches,
but who fade after four innings and therefore are not valuable to teams
with traditional starting rotation.
- This strategy aims to allow each pitcher to throw an optimal number of
innings. There are a lot of decent middle relievers who deserve to
throw more than 75 innings a year but don't have the ability to throw 200
quality innings, and some starters who throw more innings than they should.
- The pitching load—in terms of innings and days of rest—would
be more evenly distributed throughout the pitching staff, possibly reducing
- "Starting teams" could be comprised of two complementary pitchers,
in order to make it difficult for teams to tailor their lineups to a particular
starting pitcher. For instance, lefty/righty, fastball/junker, slow
- "Starters" would generally be available to pitch as specialist
short relievers on their middle rest day(s).
- Managers could create more favorable pitching matchups in important situations
throughout the game, particularly earlier in the game.
Difficulties that would need to be ironed out:
- The "starters" responsible for actually starting the game would
only be eligible for a loss, unless they complete five innings. However,
they could make up for this through "vulture wins" in long relief.
In the long run, the wins and losses should balance out, as long both members
of a "starter team" take turns beginning games.
- Most players, managers, fans and the media are reactionary fools when
it comes to innovation. However, if Mike Krukow, Bill Walsh and Noam
Chomsky promoted this notion, it would fly in the Bay Area; plus, it wouldn't
hurt if this idea actually works.
- The terms "starter" and "starter team" would need
to be improved upon because radio play-by-play would sound awkward if commentators
had to say: "That's it for Lowry today. His quote start
unquote lasted only two innings, which puts pressure on the second half
of his quote starter team unquote, Brett Tomko." On TV, the cameras
could pan to the booth so that the color commentator could do air quotes,
but eventually that would become annoying.
I would make one additional change, as well: teach all position
players in the minor leagues how to throw a knuckleball, so that in future
years, the team's utility players can double as mop-up relievers in blowouts.
With luck, one or two might even become decent pitchers.
Generating Value Through Easy Saves
Currently, nearly ever Major League team has a designated closer, who gets
about 80-90% of the save opportunities. The best rationale for this
scenario is that on a team with many good relief pitchers, it is handy to
know that the ninth inning is taken care of, so that the manager has room
to get favorable situational matchups in the earlier innings, without having
to worry about holding onto a lefty or righty specialist for late in the game.
Still, in cases where the closer is not the best relief pitcher on the staff,
this arrangement is not fair, given that closers command higher salaries than
comparable setup men.
Many commentators and fans have made the argument that a team's best relief
pitcher should be used at the most strategically important situation, such
as in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and the opposing team's star
up to bat. That is probably a good idea, although I prefer this idea
developed in Moneyball: Michael Lewis explained how the Oakland
Athletics purposely used their most effective reliever, Chad Bradford, as
a setup man, so that he would not earn any saves, thereby keeping his monetary
value down. That, I think, is very clever.
Provided they aren't going with a nine-man rotation, I'd like to see a team
play around with these ideas:
- Excite fans through Rookie of the Year hype by giving the easy, two- or
three-run save opportunities to a promising rookie (who, not coincidentally,
is far from free agency, but can become more valuable for trade purposes
through this conceit). If there isn't a likely rookie, give these
saves to a veteran, inflate his value and then trade him.
- Occasionally bring the closer into the seventh inning bases loaded scenario
for practice dealing with high tension situations.
- Bring the closer into games when speedsters are on first, to give the
closer practice holding good base stealers on base. It seems like
many closers have trouble with this in the playoffs, so maybe a little more
exposure to such situations during the season would pay dividends.
- I suspect that many teams designate a closer largely to avoid the "closer
by committee" situation that fans and the media love to hate.
If you plan to have multiple closers, give the positions flashy titles that
fans and the media will embrace, like a) The Curtailer, b) Southpaw Doom
(a pitcher used when several lefties lead off the ninth), and c) Wusshammer.
Instead of complaints about a team's "closer by committee," talk
radio will be filled with Bigdawg Dave from Concord calling in to whine,
"I can't believe Felipe went with The Curtailer to start out the ninth
because if you look at the numbers, Helton is only hitting .148 against
Wusshammers this year."
More Things I'd Like to See Implemented
- Get rid of metal bats in college and instead use bats made out of recycled
plastic (the type used for fake wooden decking). I know there's a
chemist out there who could make this work. There'd be fewer 35-7
games, pitchers wouldn't have to fear for their lives, and the "thwomp"
of the plastic bat would be preferable to the current "ping."
- Outlaw the pencil-thin bat handles that break easily and require players
to use the old-fashioned thick-handled bats. Home runs would go down,
but probably not below the 1980s levels.
- I'd like to see an in-depth study on how catchers influence pitching statistics.
I'm sure one has been done already, I just haven't seen it.
- Standardize the stadium radar guns so that when a pitcher's velocity increases
by three MPH from one start to the next, fans know that it is legitimate
and not due to a park's "fast gun."
- Toe and shin guards for everyone. Also facemasks for pitchers and
batters. The chemist who comes up with the plastic bats no doubt can
create a relatively comfortable see-through faceguard.
- Eric Chavez: get rid of your high leg kick. Apart from verve and
style, a batter's high leg kick doesn't have much use. Barry Bonds,
Ted Williams and Babe Ruth did not have high leg kicks (although Sadarahu
Oh did). Imagine a golfer or tennis player with one—I guess
that would basically be Happy Gilmore.
Steroids Don't Just Make Your Gourd Big
The sudden drop in the productivity of a number of star players makes "Guess
the Steroid User" a time-consuming parlor game. The list of underperformers
includes at least a dozen recent 30-hr sluggers: Jim Thome, Carlos Beltran,
Todd Helton, Aubrey Huff, Adrian Beltre, Bret Boone, Jason Giambi, Mike Lowell,
Mike Piazza, Steve Finley, Lance Berkman, Sammy Sosa, and, of course, Barry
Not counting Bonds, who hasn't played this season, this group of All-Stars
is on pace to collectively average a mere 13 home runs apiece. Sosa
and Finley are tops among this group, but are only on pace to hit 20.
A similar crash has happened to many of the elite pitchers, which certainly
doesn't prove anything, but makes speculation entertaining.
I recommend reading Ron Shandler's article from February on
the benefits of steroids. I found the list of players' body weights
and their corresponding home run rates particularly interesting.
On a parallel topic, Michael Lewis writes about power hitting in
his New York Times article, Absolutely,
Copyright Jeff Lewis 2005