Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Man, those pitchers are some fucking pussies

Get back on the mound, Dravecky.

One of my favorite things about baseball is the length of its season; summer has always meant, to me, the irreplaceable ubiquity of baseball. No other sport is so intertwined with a season that one cannot be thought of without the other.

However, one of the pitfalls of the 162-game season is the need to hear morons repeatedly say moronic things. Maybe Joe Morgan's most "charming" attribute is his insistence on introducing "new" concepts like batting average not being the most telling measure of offensive performance on every fucking telecast. Then, as a bonus, he tells us RBI is the most telling offensive statistic. And people still wonder why Donnie Moore committed suicide.

Joining that list of non-arguments that get bandied about in virtually every baseball telecast is an apparent (and overwhelming) antipathy to the "new school" method of preserving pitchers, which involves pitching coaches tracking pitch counts, innings and mechanical flaws that may indicate fatigue. In all cases, the emphasis is on attempting to keep pitchers from throwing while tired, or overtaxing arms to the point where something goes pop. Not all methods are equal in efficacy — there's an excellent argument to be made that the five-man rotation (which means fewer innings/more rest between innings for starters) has no real redemptive value beyond its now being the custom — but all are well-intentioned enough.

Pitchers, especially good ones, cost millions of dollars and are completely useless if they get hurt (as opposed to hitters, who can achieve some measure of usability when injured). Thus, it makes sense to handle them with care, even if it means erring on the side of babying. I've never been particularly sure why this concept is so offensive to some (Dusty Baker), because it makes so much sense (Dusty Baker). It's intuitive (Dusty Baker). Yet, people get absolutely riled up when the subject of complete games comes up (Dusty Baker).

Surprisingly, it's hard to find these people saying as much in print. But in the last week, I've heard Rick Sutcliffe, (surprise!) Dusty Baker and Orel Hershieser get a little frothy at the mouth when the subject of today's starting pitchers comes up.

Then, this morning, I read an old BP interview with Juan Marichal in which he stated this (God bless the ability to actually attribute something in this post):

We were broadcasting a game during the Dominican League season, and Manny Aybar had allowed just two hits in five innings and the game was tied at one. In the top of the sixth, a couple of hitters got on base and Licey manager Manny Acta took him out of the game. Why !? I just cannot understand why he did it. Those things surprise me a lot, because I pitched in a time when you were supposed to finish what you started. It was a different era. I remember guys that won twenty games, and completed just six or seven games. The moment they were going to discuss their next contract, the first thing the GM would say to them is that they didn't deserve a raise because they just completed six or seven games. Nowadays 20 wins means millions of dollars, and six complete games means you led the league. (Laughs)

I'm not accusing Marichal of being unhinged here; I understand his point, and he seems relatively composed. However, I guess the question is this: Who gives a fuck?!?

Things, besides the complete game and unlimited pitch counts, that are no longer a "part of the game":

• Segregation
• Rampant steroid use (or so we think)
• Rampant amphetamine use (or so we think)
• Excellent sports writing
• The spitball
• The 16-inch-high mound
• The Montreal Expos
• Connie Mack

We can safely assume that all of these things died a natural death, and in almost every case a welcomed death (except for Les Expos). I honestly don't hear color men complain about the fact that Greg Maddux can't take a fucking belt sander with him onto his 25-inch-high mound, but if Felix Hernandez leaves the game after the sixth inning because he's thrown 130 pitches, we get a fucking lecture from someone on how this kind of shit would have never happened 20 years ago, and no one was worse for the wear for it.

And this is precisely the kind of statement made all the time by "baseball men" that end up becoming the crux of so many arguments. There's no evidence to back up their recollections, only the anecdotal evidence that it seemed like guys were healthier back then, or something. And it's a disprovable argument, because injury reporting and care was pretty lax back in the day. I suspect the oft-cited regressive — if not outright nihilistic — culture of baseball back in the day and the fear of losing one's job forever — a very real fear before the era of collective bargaining and guaranteed contracts — more than likely caused a lot of pitchers to ignore serious elbow and shoulder injuries and continue pitching. Basing conclusions on information like this is like measuring changes in atmospheric temperature with the thermometer in your backyard.

(Aside: Here's a very interesting article from the Hardball Times in which the writer argues that pitch counts not only haven't helped keep pitchers healthy, but might actually be hurting them. He makes a few too many assumptions for my taste, and there's one massive logical gaffe regarding the usefulness of injury history for any era's highest innings-throwers [prize, albeit a shitty one, to the person who knows what it is] but it's important to note that there's legitimate argument to be made when it comes to the effect of pitch counts. The intentions behind them, however, are pretty clearly good.)

(Aside #2: It's relevant, but not central, to the argument to point out that today's conditions for pitchers are much more difficult than they were in the heyday of 300 inning starters. Ballparks are smaller, balls and bats are harder, hitters are smarter and better, and video research is prevalent. I am a firm believer that pitchers could "coast" a lot more in those days, when hitters in the last third of almost everyone's lineup had a better chance of curing cancer than hitting home runs, and "pitching to contact" didn't almost always mean "walking on the razor's edge of a seven-run inning." But since I don't have a lot of evidence to back this up, I'm putting myself square in the same boat as people who argue that pitchers got hurt less when they threw more. So, I'll leave it at that, and not base my argument on it.)

But let's say that I'm wrong for the sake of argument, and that things were the same — or maybe even better — in terms of injuries back in the day when Marichal and Warren Spahn were throwing 16-inning complete games. And that critics of the current pitcher use methodology are correct when they say it's possible that pitchers could simply condition themselves into pitching deeper into games, which would allow them to avoid fatigue-related injuries. Even if that's the case, doesn't it still make more sense to approach bullpen use the same way we currently do?

With rare exception, pitchers get less effective the more they throw. It's not only a matter of fatigue, though that certainly plays a role. Mike Marshall believes a pitcher should never face the same batter more than three times in a game, because there's only so many ways an individual pitcher can skin a cat. I think that makes a ton of intuitive sense, and I wish I knew how to mine the necessary data to prove whether there's a statistical basis for such an approach. Furthermore, the deeper a pitcher gets into a game, the more leverage there's likely to be on every at-bat. Starters are poorly suited to such situations, especially in the case of facing opposite-handed batters who feature large platoon splits that become more relevant as the game wears on. What honor is there in leaving Josh Beckett out there in the eighth inning of a two-run game to face Travis Hafner with a man on second? Doesn't it make way more sense to have Okajima face him?

I am a critic of the way many managers approach bullpen use, particularly when it comes to closers. But that doesn't mean bullpens should be pushed back to the margins; to the contrary, I'd rather have a situation where I'm only looking for my starters to go six or seven innings, provided I've got at least three guys in the pen (including one lefty) that I can deploy in late-inning, high-leverage situations where fresh arms are almost always more preferable to ones that have already thrown 100 or more pitches.

In other words, bemoaning the loss of the complete game is a little like pining for the hot ex-girlfriend who cheated on you; she may have looked nice, but at the end of the day you just couldn't count on the bitch.

P.S.: Baseball Prospectus is free this week. You all should check it out.

2 comments:

Tim McCarver said...

Periodic table?

The logical fallacy in question is the 'Biased Sample', I think, where: Sample S, which is biased, is taken from population P.
Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.

Thank you, google.

tim mccarver said...

In other news, I hear that they are having a N.A.M.B.L.A. appreciation night at Petco Park next Wednesday, which just happens to coincide with 'Free Candy for Prepubescent Boys' night.