Our Man On Mediocrity, Movie Star Looks, and Other Baseball Conceits

07.2.2005 | Tim Marchman | Sports

The flaw for which major league decision-makers are most routinely overcriticized is their preference for the safe and familiar. As a columnist or fan, it’s easy to deride the Yankees as foolish for preferring mediocre veterans like Mike Stanton and Paul Quantrill, who were cut by the team yesterday, to unproven young players who are likely no worse — and possibly quite a bit better — and will certainly be paid a lot less, thus freeing up money for other needs.

But it’s also easy to forget that there is a lot of value in predictability. In any given season, the vast majority of players will do more or less what they have done in the recent past, and the Yankees were hardly insane to expect that Stanton and Quantrill would do what they usually do, which is pitch well enough to help the team.

With all that said, it’s easy to take risk aversion too far. Every single reliever who’s pitched significant innings for the Yankees this year has been an expensive veteran. Even Tanyon Sturtze,who sported a 5.47 ERA last year as an emergency starter and long reliever, is making $850,000 this year; any team that can run Sturtze, Quantrill, Stanton, Buddy Groom, Felix Rodriguez, and Tom Gordon out in front of Mariano Rivera has clearly developed something of a bullpen monomania. For that reason, the release of Stanton and Quantrill doesn’t really strike me as a case of unfair scapegoating, but a considered and reasonable attempt to fix a genuine problem.

There are two dangers in building a bullpen the way the Yankees have. The first is that a lack of diversity in bullpen construction meant to put a floor on the performance of your relievers ends up putting a ceiling on it as well. When every one of your relievers has an easily traceable track record, the chances that any one of them will collapse are greatly lessened (though not, as the Yankees have shown this year, eliminated). But so are the chances that any one of them will break out and do something you wouldn’t have thought possible.

The other is that by choosing safe veteran pitchers, you have to pass over pitchers who have established themselves as better. Ask Colter Bean, the 28-year-old reliever whose two innings for the Yankees this year brought his career total all the way up to 10 1 /3. Bean has the misfortune of not being able to break a pane of glass with his fastball, but he’s an excellent pitcher nevertheless. He’s been pitching for Triple-A Columbus since 2003, during which time he’s posted a 2.68 ERA in 191 2 /3 innings, striking out 228 and walking 69. He’s probably not the guy you’d want facing the middle of the Red Sox’ lineup with the game on the line, but anyone who strikes out more than a batter an inning for three years running in Triple-A deserves a real shot in the majors.

Minor-league performance matters. The difference between Triple-A and the majors is a lot smaller than people think, and it’s mainly that the stars play in the majors. If a pitcher can strike out a man an inning in Columbus, he can be trusted to pitch to the lesser players in any big-league lineup.

This realization is the secret to the success of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who for years have been building one of the best bullpens in baseball out of players no one has ever heard of, and who get paid nothing. 38th round draft picks, minor-league veterans who have been released by seven teams, 20-year-olds in their first seasons as relievers — all have pitched brilliantly for the Angels over the last few seasons.

Some of the Angels throw gas, and some of them practically roll the ball up to the plate. None of this seems to matter to the organization so long as its pitchers are successful. The Angels’ willingness to overlook occasionally sketchy backgrounds in their quest for pitchers who simply get hitters out has become a huge advantage for them.

That doesn’t sound like a big secret, and it isn’t. The Angels are as risk-averse as the next team; they’re just willing to consider what a pitcher has actually done in the minor leagues, rather than coming up with reasons to dismiss it. With the recent changes in the Bronx, the Yankees finally look like they’re ready commit to a similar common-sense approach. The three pitchers who are effectively replacing Quantrill and Stanton — Scott Proctor, Jason Anderson, and Wayne Franklin — have minor-league records that indicate they can be very effective relievers if spotted properly.

Proctor and Anderson strike out about a man an inning, with good control; neither is going to turn into Goose Gossage, but they’re big improvements over what the Yankees have been running out on the mound. Franklin has repeatedly been used as a starter in the majors, and failed in the role, but as a minor league reliever he’s been effective. These are good pitchers, who will do more to help the Yankees win than the men they’re replacing. They certainly can’t be worse.

The odd thing of it all, though, is that Colter Bean remains on the farm. He’s better than Franklin, Proctor,and Anderson. If the Yankees are going to admit that what you do matters more than who you are — which is what this latest round of changes amounts to — they ought to go all the way and admit that it’s also more important than how you do it.



Of all the players I’ve ever seen wearing the uniform, Carl Pavano looks the most like a Yankee. Listed at 6 foot 5 inches tall and 241 pounds, with long, lean limbs and the handsome, slightly weathered mug of a boxer turned movie star, Pavano looks for all the world like someone you’d see in an old photograph with his arm draped over Joe DiMaggio’s shoulder.

While the business of baseball may reward good looks, the game of baseball does not. It should not be taken as an insult to Pavano to suggest that if he had the same statistics, the same injury history, and the same physical ability, but stood 5 foot 9 inches tall and had a face like a fire hydrant, he would not have been signed to a 4-year, $44 million deal this past winter. Despite his classic pitcher’s build, handsome features, and history of dalliance with movie stars, Pavano is not and has never been a star on the mound, but rather an occasionally solid pitcher.

Pavano’s flaws were evident even after he went 18–8 with a 3.00 ERA for the Florida Marlins last year. Even leaving aside his spotty history — 2004 was just the second season in his eight-year career in which he was even league average, and only his second time throwing more than 200 innings — it was clear that his performance was a mirage. While Pavano pitched well, keeping the ball down and not giving up many walks, his record was in large part a reflection of the fine defense behind him, the good pitcher’s parks in which he played a disproportionate number of his games, and a bit of luck. As I wrote in this space in March in reference to the Pavano signing, “Sometimes you wonder what the Yankees are thinking.”

Predictably enough, after moving from the National League to the American League, and from a team with a fine defense to one with the worst in the league, Pavano has posted horrible numbers in 2005.The 29-year-old’s 4–6 record and 4.77 ERA don’t even tell the whole story, as he’s also given up 13 unearned runs (he gave up six all of last year). Of the 55 AL pitchers who had thrown at least 75 innings going into last night’s games, only seven had allowed more runs per nine innings than Pavano’s 5.94.

In truth, though, Pavano hasn’t pitched all that much differently than he did last year. In 2004 he struck out 5.4 men per 9 and walked 2.0.This year, those numbers are 5.0 and 1.6, respectively. The main differences are in his home-run rate — he’s allowing 1.53 per 9 this year, as opposed to .65 last year — and his hit rate, which has gone from 8.6 per 9 to 11.6.

While Pavano has not pitched as well this year as he did last year, both those changes are due partly to context. Florida’s home park and the other pitcher-friendly parks of the NL East do a lot more to suppress home runs than those in which Pavano has pitched this year; combine that with his diminished ability to keep the ball down, and you have a lot of home runs. Similarly, his hit rate is partly a matter of not pitching as well, and partly a reflection of defense and luck. The difference this has made is staggering.

Years ago, the baseball historian Bill James invented a formula to measure how many runs a hitter had created — called, sensibly enough, Runs Created. Because it encompasses all offensive events, penalizing for double plays, giving credit for walks, steals, and so forth, it’s far more accurate than measures like runs scored or RBI, which are, of course, largely dependent on context.

Put Pavano’s numbers over the last two years through James’s formula, and the results are pretty telling. Last year, the opposition created 3.81 runs per 9 against Pavano, which is equivalent to what Bret Boone, a .237 hitter, is doing this season. This year, the opposition is creating 6.39, which is equivalent to what Alfonso Soriano is doing.

Of course, we don’t need a Bill James formula to tell us that batters have hit a lot better against Pavano this year than they did last year, or that he’s turning every hitter he faces into Soriano. The interesting part comes when you adjust Pavano’s hit rate. If he were allowing hits at the same rate as last year, he’d have given up 96 this year, rather than 129. After adjusting for the fact that with fewer hits allowed he’d induce fewer double plays and face fewer hitters, running his numbers through the formula with last year’s hit rate instead of this year’s leaves his Runs Created per 9 at 4.59 — meaning that rather than Soriano, Pavano’s opposition would be hitting like Seattle outfielder Jeremy Reed, whose batting line of .270 BA/.341 OBA/.371 SLG is hardly imposing.

In other words, if the Yankees’ defense were as good as the Marlins’, we’d clearly see Pavano for what he is — an average or slightly-above average pitcher who needs his fielders to make plays, who pitched above his head last year and has left too many balls up in the strike zone so far this year. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are a great many teams that could use a pitcher of Pavano’s ilk — the Yankees aren’t one of them, though.

That this outcome was entirely predictable, and was in fact predicted by many, says a lot about the Yankees’ free agent policies, which sometimes seem to be influenced less by common sense than by whether or not a player looks good in pinstripes or has dated Alyssa Milano. Among the many problems the Yankees will have to solve when the off-season arrives, this may be foremost among them.

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From time to time, a baseball player puts up numbers so outlandish they just don’t register with anyone.

You could characterize Barry Bonds’s 2001–04 run this way, putting aside the issue of how exactly it was accomplished. Last year, Bonds walked 232 times, breaking the National League record for the fourth time; Babe Ruth still holds the American League record he set in 1923, when he walked 170 times, which also happens to be the highest total in a season by anyone other than Bonds. To put Bonds’s accomplishment in context, the difference between first and fourth place on the all-time walk list is equal to the difference between fourth place and 118th place. For all the hype and press coverage surrounding Bonds since 2001, it will probably be quite some time before we realize just what we witnessed over the last few years.

Another such performance is taking place this season in Houston, where Roger Clemens is leading the league in ERA with a mark of 1.51. He is allowing a .182 opponents’ batting average and a 0.95 WHIP, both the best in his long and storied career.

This is bizarre and inexplicable. Had Clemens retired before this season — or, for that matter, before last season, when he went 18–4 and quite nearly pitched the Astros into the World Series — he would have been rightly lauded as probably the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. Still, the seven-time Cy Young winner will turn 43 in a month, and he is just not supposed to have a 1.51 ERA.

Clemens’s magnificent 2005 campaign has been relatively unremarked upon, for several reasons. For one, Houston is a horrible team, and that’s affected Clemens’s record. The Rocket has given up three or fewer runs in all but one of his 15 starts this year, but with the worst offense in baseball behind him, he has gone just 6–3.At one point, he worked three consecutive games in which he pitched seven innings, gave up no runs, and earned no decision.

A second reason for the oversight is that Houston, despite its enormous size and importance to the national economy, lies on the margins off the national press’s map. The most important factor, though, is that it’s just hard to be surprised by anything Clemens does. Supposedly washed up at 34, he won two Cy Youngs with Toronto; at 38, seemingly having settled into a role as a reliable workhorse but not a top-tier ace, he went 20–3 for the Yankees; at 41, after he’d retired, he won yet another Cy Young. Why shouldn’t he have his best season at 42?

It should surprise no one then, that Clemens is on pace to have the best season in history for a 42-year-old pitcher, and in fact by any starter 40 or older. One could argue for the 41-year-old Cy Young’s 1908 campaign, when he pitched 299 innings with a 1.26 ERA, but that was obviously a different game than the one played today. In the interests of apples-to-apples comparisons, consult the chart below, which measures Clemens’s season against the best had by starters 40 and older since baseball began to integrate in 1947.

Aside from reminding us that Dennis Martinez has a stronger Hall of Fame case than anyone seems to think, the comparison to other excellent 40-somethings shows that Clemens is pretty much on another planet this year. Comparing him just to other older starters doesn’t really do him any justice; there have, after all, been only 67 seasons in history where a player 40 or older pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Clemens is after bigger game this year: At this point, he is on track for one of the greatest seasons in history.

Clemens’s current ERA, if it holds up, will be the best, relative to his league, in baseball history. It should also be noted that he is accomplishing this feat while playing in a good hitter’s park in front of a defense that features, among other horrors, a 39-year-old outfielder — Craig Biggio — at second base and a first baseman coming off knee surgery — Lance Berkman — playing left field.

Can Clemens keep it up? Almost certainly not, if only because his performance is unprecedented in the long history of the game. Even so, it doesn’t much matter whether he ends up winning an eighth Cy Young Award. What does matter is that one of the very best ever to play the game is showing that something we would have thought was impossible isn’t, provided a player is willing to put in the work. The great Satchel Paige was still a very good pitcher at 46 years old, and he didn’t have the benefit of modern medical technology. Can Clemens do what only two men have ever done, and win his 400th game? Probably not, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

 



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