Here’s your latest “What’s Wrong With Baseball” discussion, and there’s not one PED reference!
There are few things in sports that are worse than a bad relief pitcher. Very few. No matter how great or intense a game can be, all it takes is a reliever who can’t throw strikes to bring the game to a screeching halt and ruin the enjoyment of a game. Last spring I watched an amazing Nationals/Dodgers game featuring Stephen Strasburg versus Clayton Kershaw. It was as good as advertised. Then Henry Rodriguez came in for the Nationals and couldn’t find the strike zone. When he did he got pounded, and he blew Strasburg’s chance at a win. The game went into extra innings and another reliever gave up a home run to the first batter he faced. In fact, overtime in baseball is worse than any other sport because it generally becomes a matchup of bad relievers.
One of the craziest things about baseball is how they score statistics for relief pitchers. And it’s not like one thing. The three most important statistics for pitchers are ERA, wins, and saves. Here are several things I would change if I were the commissioner.
1) Vulture wins. Last August, White Sox reliever Addison Reed came into a game with a 4 run lead. He allowed 5 runners to score, recorded only two outs (one being a run-scoring sacrifice fly), and comes away credited with a win. The day before, in a tight game between the Angels and Red Sox, Ernesto Frieri came in to pitch the ninth with a one run lead. He promptly gave up a home run to the first batter he faced. In the tenth inning he allowed another run. He was the winning pitcher of record.
Rockies’ middle reliever Rex Brothers (yeah that’s one person) blew 5 saves (leads) and still the back of his baseball card shows an 8-2 record. Ryan Cook blew 7 leads for the A’s and yet finished with a 6-2 record. How does that happen?
A few years ago, Alan Embree “earned” a win without even throwing a pitch.
The letter of the law is this: after the starter leaves the game, the pitcher on the mound immediately prior to his team taking the lead gets credit for the win. Look, that’s not good enough! There has to be some aspect of “effective pitching” to qualify for a win.
Solution: If a starting pitcher does well and leaves with the lead, and his replacement blows the lead and his team regains it soon after, give the win to the starter. Or at least, use some discretion on identifying who pitched the best and deserves the win. Vulture wins don’t make anyone happy.
2) ERA – inherited runners who score. I understand that baseball views the runners that cross home plate a responsibility of the pitcher that put them on base, but what about the guy actually pitching when they score?
Imagine this hypothetical situation: with two outs and no one on base, a starting pitcher gives up a single. The manager makes a pitching change, and the new relief pitcher walks the next three batters. He doesn’t even come close. The third walk forces in a run. After that he gives up a long fly ball to left field for the third out. The run scored goes against the starting pitcher’s ERA, one of the most important stats for a pitcher. The relief pitcher is removed from the game next inning. His ERA for the game = 0.00.
Actually, it’s not too hypothetical at all. In a Pirates/Cubs game last summer, James McDonald was yanked in the fourth inning of a 1-0 game with the bases loaded. The first reliever gave up a double, allowing two runs to score. The reliever was relieved, and the next pitcher gave up an RBI base hit. Even though McDonald left with a 1-0 game, he was charged with 4 earned runs. Those two relievers, the guys that were actually on the mound when all those runs scored, the box score shows them pitching squeaky clean. Couple base hits, that’s it.
White Sox’ pitcher Nate Jones appeared to have a pretty decent rookie season with a respectable 2.39 ERA. But then you notice that he allowed 24 inherited runners to score (44%). Suddenly he doesn’t seem very effective.
Enough with starting pitchers getting blamed for reliever’s shortcomings.
Solution: There are two actions, letting him on base and letting him score. Split the responsibility. The first pitcher is only half liable. Each inherited run that scores = +0.5 ERA for the starter and +0.5 ERA for reliever. Official scorers and statisticians deal with 1/3 and 2/3 innings pitched; I think they can handle half an earned run.
There is room for compromise. Runners on third already can be the sole responsibility of the pitcher who got them there. But for runners on second and especially first, it’s a team effort and the “blame” can be shared.
3) Saves. Under current rules, a save is recorded when a relief pitcher finishes a game his team wins and either 1) he enters with a lead of three runs or fewer; 2) enters with the potential tying run either on base, at the plate, or on deck); 3) he pitches effectively for at least three innings.
There is no more overly inflated stat than saves. I was thinking about how silly the save rule the same time that Jim Caple published this great article about it.
When you think of the greatest relief pitchers of all time your mind undoubtedly goes to Rivera, Hoffman or Eckersley. You probably don’t remember Quisenberry.
Some thirty years ago there was a relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals named Dan Quisenberry. In 1983 he tallied 45 saves. (What’s so great about that? Jim Johnson saved 51 games for the Orioles last season!) Consider this: Quisenberry appeared in 69 games that year and threw 139 innings. That’s an average of two innings per appearance. (And with that heavy dose of long late-inning work, Quiz ended the season with an ERA under 2.) Compare that to Jim Johnson’s 71 games and 68.2 innings. Yes, that’s less than one full inning per appearance. Who was more valuable?
Quiz led the league in saves in each of 1982-1985. Let’s compare that to modern times. Jonathan Papelbon was the only closer to finish in the Top Ten in saves from 2007-10, the best four-season stretch of his career. Most people will consider him one of the current league’s premier closers, so let’s take a closer look:
- Quisenberry 1982-85: 161 saves, 297 appearances, 533 innings (+236)
- Papelbon 2007-10: 153 saves, 257 appearances, 262 innings (+5)
Translation: Paps, like any of the other 29 closers, rarely did anything more than wait until the start of the ninth inning to run in from the bullpen. My, how things have changed.
One of the toughest things to do in all of baseball is getting called into the middle of the 8th inning of a one-run game with a couple (or three) men on base. Yet managers nowadays will hold off bringing in their best weapon available so that he can trot on out to start the ninth inning with nobody on base in order to record as easy a “save” as rules will allow. And even stranger, the value for relief pitchers is mostly determined by how many of these cheap saves he can tally. Rafael Soriano just signed a $28M contract to pitch the ninth innings for the Nationals (as long as they have a 1-2-or 3 run lead). The afore-mentioned Papelbon is in the middle of a $50M contract with the Phillies. Heath Bell signed a $27M contract with the Marlins and then after being among the worst pitchers in baseball was finally shipped off to Arizona. This silly stat is killing the pocketbook of MLB owners.
What are they paid so much to do? “Don’t screw up.” That’s all.
Unfortunately, some guys can’t even handle that (John Axford = 8 blown saves, Alfredo Aceves, 7, etc. etc.).
Some more crazy save facts:
- August 23, 2007, Wes Littleton “saved” a 30-3 game.
- There have been two 19-run “saves,” in 1999 and ’96.
- May 4, 2012, Joel Peralta recorded one out in a game the Rays led by 5 runs, and earned a “save” for his performance.
- May 30, With a Mariners’ 12-run lead, Hisashi Iwakuma allowed five hits and three runs over three innings and received a “save.”
It’s time for a little prudence.
Solution: As Jim Caple writes, no more cheap saves. No more five-run saves.
“Saved” a three-run lead, seriously?
Also, each ballpark has a hired official scorer. Give them something to do; make them relevant. If a team wins a close game, let the official scorer decide who “saved” the game. Maybe it was the guy who pitched out of a bases loaded jam in the sixth. Maybe it was the reliever who pitched two scoreless innings. Maybe it was the setup man who struck out two in the eighth with men on.
Doing this would help managers manage in a more sensible way, using their best resources to give them the best chance of winning in the most crucial moments; not just helping some appointed player accrue stats so he can sign a fatter paycheck in the winter.
In 2011 Yankees’ David Robertson had a stretch of 10 straight strikeouts with the bases loaded. Talk about a closer! Craig Kimbrel is great (no really; he’s amazing), but what about Eric O’Flaherty, who allowed just one of 22 inherited runners to score?
Adjusting the save rule will allow managers to feel more confident at any point in a game, keep salaries for relief pitchers more reasonable, and reward the other pitchers that are the real reason games are won and losses avoided.