Baseball Observations at the 40% Mark
by Jeff Lewis

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

  1-15 16-30 31-45 46-60 61-75
Schmidt 1.09 1.85 1.60 1.32 2.09
Tomko 0.94 1.10 1.15 1.54 1.17, but ERA=10.54
Kirk Rueter 1.22 2.36 1.42 1.20 1.32
Noah Lowry 1.06 1.06 1.24 1.35 1.70

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, comprised of:

Example:

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:

Difficulties that would need to be ironed out:

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:

More Things I'd Like to See Implemented

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 Bonds.

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, Power Corrupts.

Copyright Jeff Lewis 2005

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