Archive for the ‘pitching’ Category

Drastically changing the mound height was a terrible idea. Let’s do it again!

August 13, 2009

Yesterday, Bill Conlin came up with quite the conlin.

In a nutshell (and I really don’t think I’m being unfair to his work at all, but you be the judge): with the pitcher’s mound higher than it is now, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Lefty Grove did good things. Therefore, baseball should raise the mound back to where it was in 1968. They lowered the mound after 1968. This was ostensibly to restore the balance between pitching and hitting, but really it was to restore the balance between the AL and NL. Because, see, the NL was more racially diverse, and was better. Rose led the league in batting average at .335 in the NL, while Yastrzemski led the AL at .301. There were a bunch of Hall of Famers in the NL, and only a couple in the AL. Bob Gibson is in the Hall of Fame, while the pitchers who put up great numbers in the AL in 1968 are not. Therefore, the NL was a whole lot better than the AL, and baseball saw this as a problem, so they lowered the mound just to make the AL as good as the NL again, and now they should raise it again. Ruben Amaro, Jr. doesn’t think they should do that. Ruben Amaro, Jr. is an idiot.

Have you already figured out how crazy this is? ‘Cause, frankly, this is a busy day for me, so I don’t have a lot of time to explain it to you. But here, look at this:
1968 AL: .637 OPS, 2.98 ERA, 3.4 R/G
1968 NL: .641 OPS, 2.99 ERA, 3.4 R/G

If Ichiro! were playing in the 1968 AL, Ichiro! would probably hit .350, even while Yaz finished second at .301. And that wouldn’t do a thing to change the balance or imbalance between the leagues. Randomly listing facts about the league leaders in certain statistics is just about the worst way you could possibly look at balance between the leagues as a whole. And in fact, Conlin doesn’t just list facts, he lies about them: in extolling the NL, he cites the fact that McCovey led the NL with 36 homers as though it shows you how much better the NL was, but doesn’t mention that over in the AL, Frank Howard hit 44 and Willie Horton hit 36.

To Conlin, the AL was embarrassingly atrocious; the NL produced “below-average but not anomalous offense.” Back in reality, though, the difference between the two leagues was essentially a rounding error (and they were both very, very anomalous). You know how I feel about Conlin generally, but this is poor even for him. In almost any other profession, if you put in the effort and showed the level of competence Conlin does in this piece, you’d be investigated and probably fired.

Here’s a big reason why I hate the writing of hopeless hacks like Conlin: they have the ability to take things I really believe in and, just by writing in support of those things, make me start looking for reasons to disagree with those things. I do think that lowering the mound was a short-sighted, kneejerk reaction to a very weird season (and a pretty weird five or six seasons). It was silly. They shouldn’t have done it.

Additionally, I don’t doubt that, in the beginning, the AL as a whole was slower to integrate than was the NL as a whole. The lag in some AL teams’ response to integration was deplorable, and I don’t doubt that it hurt competition. For a while.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the mound height is to blame for the high ERAs or low inning totals of today. Starting pitchers threw a lot more innings in the 1970s, low mound and all, than they did in the 1950s or 1960s. Pitching ruled, low mound and all, in 1988-1991. It’s a cyclical game. These things happen. Also, I’m not totally convinced (without research) that the competitive disadvantage from the AL’s collective racism lingered all the way to 1968, the year 22 A.J. (Anno Jackie, The Year of Our Jackie 22). The fact that the NL seemed to have all the great players of color doesn’t mean that the AL wasn’t trying. Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey were a lot better than Willie Horton or Tony Oliva, but they were all about equally non-white.

And on a third hand, or something like that, I totally agree with Amaro. Changing the mound height back to where it was more than 40 years ago would be exactly as drastic and rash a change as the one Conlin is denouncing for being too drastic and rash. There’s just no reason to do that, and there’s no reason to believe that doing so would do the things Conlin thinks it would.

Anyway, read the article, have a good laugh. The craziness and all-around logiclessness of the whole thing is really pretty amazing.

But then come back and tell me what you think of the mound height thing (or what you think you would’ve thought if Conlin’s article hadn’t turned you instinctively against the idea).

Luckiest and Unluckiest Pitchers So Far

May 15, 2009

One of the most interesting of many, many interesting things on FanGraphs is the pitching leaderboards’ E-F stat, which is simply the pitcher’s current ERA minus his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which I’ve mentioned a few times–an attempt to measure what his ERA “should” be, with defense, park and luck taken out of the equation). A negative number means the pitcher has been lucky — the ERA is lower than it “should” be — while of course a positive number means the opposite. So here are your leaders on both ends of the spectrum so far:

AL’s Luckiest: Trevor Cahill, A’s.
Cahill has put up some awfully strong-looking numbers for a rookie on a terrible offensive team: 2-2 with a 3.69 ERA in seven starts. His FIP, though, is an astronomical 6.18. Why? Well, he’s not striking anybody out, at just 3.23 per nine innings, and yet he’s walking more than one batter for every two innings, which gives him an awful 0.70 K/BB ratio. He’s getting by right now on some combination of luck, defense, and forgiving ballparks (he’s made four of his seven starts at home in the pitcher-friendly McAfee Coliseum, and another one at Safeco), having held batters to a very lucky .256 BABIP.
Prognosis: the kid’s 21 years old and a solid prospect, with a minor league history of very solid K rates (one of the best in the minors in ’08), respectable walk rates and almost no homers allowed, which makes me think the current flyball rate is a little fluky. He’s probably not really a 3.69 sort of pitcher right at the moment, but I doubt he’s a 6.19 one either. He should be fine.

AL’s Unluckiest: Gavin Floyd, White Sox.
Funny enough, Floyd was one of the luckiest in 2008, with a FIP of 4.77, essentially identical to this year’s 4.63. But his ERA in 2008 was 3.84; in ’09 to date, it’s 7.32. What goes around, I guess. Floyd is having more control trouble this year (4.81 walks per 9 to 2008’s 3.05), but is balancing it so far by giving up fewer HR (0.92 to 1.31). The big difference, natch, is the BABIP: he got unbelievably lucky last year at .268, and is unbelievably unlucky so far this year at .380.
Prognosis: Problem is, I don’t think the Sox or their fans would have been happy with even just a 4.63 ERA this year after what he turned in last year. So if you were expecting that, you’ll be awfully disappointed. Also, the HR rate drop doesn’t seem real; he’s giving up about the same percentage of line drives and fly balls and has an almost identical GB/FB ratio to ’08, so the only difference is that fewer of those fly balls have gone over the fence so far. That’s likely to regress, so if Floyd can’t find the strike zone more often, he could be in for a very rough year indeed. Just not 7.32 rough.

NL’s Luckiest: Jair Jurrjens, Braves.
3-2 with a 2.06 ERA in 8 starts (48 innings), Jurrjens’ start has led at least one dude (the bald guy from Princess Bride again) to believe he’s quietly becoming one of the best pitchers around. But Rob Neyer always points out that it’s really, really tough to succeed while striking out less than five per nine, and Jair is at 4.5, with a very unsustainable .244 BABIP. Accordingly, his FIP is 4.09 — still very respectable, but more than two runs higher than his current ERA.
Prognosis: Well, his opponent BABIP in 2008 was a very typical .311, but his strikeout rate was a much more palatable 6.64, and so he still posted a 3.68 ERA with a FIP that essentially matched it. And he’s only 23, so there’s reason to believe he’ll improve on even those solid numbers. His pitch speed and selection are very similar to what they were in 2008. If he can get that strikeout rate back up and start getting grounders again when it is put into play (his GB/FB ratio is less than half what it was last year) — and I don’t see any immediate reason to believe he can’t — he should be totally fine, even considerably better than the above-average pitcher his current 4.09 FIP suggests he is. He just hasn’t suddenly become Pedro Martinez or something.

NL’s Unluckiest: Ricky Nolasco, Marlins.
Strkeouts are good (7.5 per 9). Walk rate is up, but still very good (2.6 per 9). But his ERA is 7.78. FIP says it “should” be 4.34. Problem is, when a batter doesn’t strike out against him, he’s hitting almost .400.
Prognosis: That BABIP obviously can’t last, even with the Marlins’, um, unspectacular defense behind him. He is getting hit quite a bit harder than he was in ’08 — 26% of balls put in play off of him are line drives, compared to just 19% in both 2007 and 2008 — which is why that 4.34 FIP is up about six tenths from last year’s. He’ll be fine. I mean, he won’t win a bunch of games with the way the Fish are going right now, and he might not be the potential ace he looked like last year, but he’s at least an average pitcher, and is probably considerably better than that.

Something Old, Something New

April 18, 2009

That’s right: “daily” means seven days a week around these parts. But frankly, life is hard when you have a more-than-full-time job and a young child and are writing 1500 words a day. Daddy needs a break today–the Expectation Management series will continue tomorrow. Today, I just wanted to take a second and point out what happened (or what almost happened) last Wednesday, April 15.

And like everything that happened that day, it has to do with the number 42. That’s Tim Wakefield‘s age, and on April 15, he came within five outs of throwing a no-hitter. Wakefield would have been the oldest mortal to throw a no-hitter since at least 1954 (which is as far back as we have game-by-game data); Nolan Ryan did it at 43 and 44, but only two other 40 year olds have done it, Randy Johnson and Warren Spahn, both a little over 40 at the time. Ever the team player and typical knuckleball-throwing workhorse, Wakefield saw the game to its conclusion, ultimately giving up four hits and two runs (and walking away with an easy win), which keeps me from being able to say that he had the highest Game Score of anyone X old since Y and so forth, but still, it was a hell of a game, and was awfully close to really being something special.

Meanwhile, having just turned 21, Clayton Kershaw is very close to being exactly half of Wakefield’s age right now. Taking the mound in LA at about the time that Wake was finishing up his shut-down of the A’s in Boston, Kershaw had what looks like could have been the breakout game everyone has been waiting for from him, going 7 innings and surrendering just one hit and one walk while racking up 13 strikeouts. You have to kind of JaysonStarkify these numbers to make them sound historically special, but I think it tells you a little something. There are two pitchers since 1954 who have thrown at least 7 innings, allowed at most one hit, and struck out at least 13 in a game before their 22nd birthday–Kerry Wood and Kershaw. And true, Wood had maybe the best game anyone’s ever had in that game–going the distance, giving up just the one hit and striking out 20 while walking none–so to compare Kershaw’s performance to Wood’s is a bit misleading. But it says something that no one else has done it, doesn’t it? And Kershaw threw only 105 pitches, and might still be starting games regularly in five or seven or ten years. So he’s got that going for him.

I wish there was a point to be made here. But all I’ve got is this: in the same night, we saw one of the best performances you’ll ever see by a really old guy and one of the best you’ll ever see by a really young guy; one a right-handed knuckleballer who throws standing up almost stick-straight and tops out at around 70 MPH, and one a lefty flamethrower who throws like his very life hangs on every pitch. And that’s nothing if not something.

Thing One: Playing at Being a Pitcher

April 14, 2009

Note: Welcome to my new blog. I’m going to write about one thing per day–usually not nearly as long as what follows here. Some might be this long, others might just be a sentence. But I’ll do my best to have something every day. I hope you enjoy, and leave a comment.

One of my favorite things in baseball happened last night. And it’s not just that the Yankees were destroyed, though that being part of this certainly made it even sweeter. I’m talking, of course, about the rare and wonderful Pitching Appearance by a Non-Pitcher. They’re a little scary, usually pretty funny, always interesting, and often kind of stupid. What’s not to love?

For your comparative enjoyment:
Wang, real pitcher (for now): 1 IP, 6H, 8R, 8ER, 3BB, 1SO
Swisher, lovable schlubby Moneyball guy: 1 IP, 1H, 0R, 0ER, 1BB, 1SO

Nick Swisher typically has to be content with being the world’s best and least justifiable non-starting corner OF/IF, but last night, after starting at first for the injured Mark Teixeira, he was also the best of the Yankees’ five pitchers, the only one not to surrender a run to the mighty Rays. Pretty solid performance, and against a bunch of actual hitters: Upton, Aybar, Kapler (your embarrassed strikeout victim), Pena and Burrell. (From that picture, though–click it for a closer look–how is that kind of performance even possible? He looks like he doesn’t really know what that round thing is he’s holding, but he saw a picture of this sort of thing once and thought he’d strike a pose.)

So Swish’s performance got me thinking about the history of position players pitching. What’s the best pitching performance ever by a guy who obviously wasn’t in any way a pitcher? The worst? What kind of player gets the “honor” of serving as sort of the ultimate garbage man?

Well, it turns out that just as it does with everything else that matters in the world, has this covered. So for this blog’s inaugural something, we’re going to look at some of the more interesting ones. We’re going to stick to the recent years, though–it’s interesting and all that Frisch travesty #347Hall of Famer George Kelly pitched five shutout relief innings in one game in 1917 and got the win, but what I’m interested in is the tendency to use position players as pitchers in embarrassing blowouts, and for that we need to stick to the era for which we have online boxscores.

So what players make usable mop-up pitchers? If you, the manager, are going to do this at all, you know you don’t want to waste another real pitcher on a game that’s already over. But then who among your 13 to 14 non-pitchers do you pick? I assume that everyone pitched at least in high school and can get the ball over the plate, more or less; beyond that, pitching effectiveness really isn’t a consideration when it’s already 15-1. So how do you pick that guy?

My thinking would be that you want to give the players a little levity at the end of a long evening (and give the fans a reason to buy more food, if you’re at home), so they’re going to tend to be your happy-go-lucky boys, your fan and clubhouse favorites. But the bigger concern is the injury risk, right? I mean, pitching is hard, and unnatural, and almost all baseball players are going to need two working arms to hit and field and such. So you want someone who can pitch just a little, who is fun and likeable, who is in good physical condition and won’t do anything careless or stupid, and at the end of the day, frankly, you want someone you can afford to lose.

All of which is what makes The Canseco Incident so memorable, and probably part of what makes Kevin Kennedy the manager so forgettable; letting Canseco come in to pitch in what was a 12-1, lost-cause game is profoundly stupid on every possible level. He’s your best hitter and highest-paid player; he’s already shown himself to be kind of a screwball; he’s injury-prone and not exactly your prototypical lithe, wiry athlete; and nobody likes him. That was one of those managerial decisions that just smells like failure; in retrospect, the season-ending injury (which took hold a month later, but which the team admitted was related to the pitching) seems like almost a foregone conclusion, and the surprising thing is that the team that watched that reeking travesty from the other side, your Boston Red Sox, saw fit to bring Kennedy on as a manager just two short years later.

For the most part, though, I think that managers have pretty much done it right. The BBREF list is littered with names like Manny Alexander, Danny Heep, Lenny Harris, and Mark Loretta (ca. 2001, before his little flirtation with stardom)–guys who, if nothing else can ever be said about them, don’t try to do more than they can with what God gave them (unlike, say, Jose frigging Canseco). Good guys. Sensible guys. Role players. Usually, expendable guys. Of course, it’s the insane exceptions to this rule that are the interesting ones, but I think it’s all worth a look.

So, the Canseco debacle aside, here are some of the most interesting hitter-pitching performances in (retrosheet-era) history:

Missed His Calling: John Cangelosi, May 3, 1988; June 22, 1995; and July 21, 1997. Cangelosi, in his day job, was a good reminder to we sabermetritcally-inclined types that man doth not live by walks alone. He couldn’t hit for average, had no power, couldn’t field, and wasn’t an efficient basestealer. His switch-hitting and career .370 OBP certainly gave him some value, but wouldn’t he have been a lot more valuable as a switch-hitting, .370 OBP-having lefty finesse artist?

Lots of guys have thrown one scoreless inning, many with something Cangelosi is notably missing (a strikeout), but Cangelosi gets the nod for throwing 4 innings (which I count as the second-most since at least 1977; Jose Oquendo got through 6, but it wasn’t pretty), in three games spanning ten seasons, and never allowing a single run, with a career total of one hit allowed (a double), two walks and a wild pitch. Some highlights:

        • He pitched two innings in the 1988 stint, virtually unprecedented among non-pitchers.
        • He pitched for three different teams, but only two managers (Jim Leyland used him with both the Pirates and Fish).
        • The batters he retired include Sammy Sosa, Franklin Stubbs, Steve Finley, Wally Joyner, and fellow (but much less successful) ersatz pitcher Todd Zeile.
        • He also threw 3.2 innings as a minor leaguer with Denver in 1991, allowing one earned run.
        • It appears that he was drafted as an outfielder, and there’s almost no biographical info about Cangelosi online, and of course those minor league appearances happened after the first of his major league ones; so, where did his pitching prowess (such as it was) come from? I’m going to guess he was tired of being shuttled up and down from the minors and started fooling with a knuckler or something.

        Larry Harlow Award for Pitching Awesomeness: John ‘F.’ Mabry, May 28, 2000; October 5, 2001. I couldn’t decide who the all-time worst was among these two, so we’ll name the award after the first and give it to the second. Harlow takes the ERA crown with a sparkling 67.50 in his two-thirds of an inning. The 1978 game in which Harlow appeared (click his name above for the boxscore) is probably the most interesting in the history of pitching non-pitchers; Harlow’s appearance came in the first two thirds of the fifth inning.

        With the O’s down 19-5 to the fledgling Jays, old Earl Weaver got so disgusted with his pitchers that he turned the damn thing over to Harlow (an otherwise nondescript outfielder in his only year as a full-time starter) less than halfway through the game. Then, two outs and five more runs later, he actually pulled Harlow mid-inning in favor of catcher Ellie Hendricks, who threw 2 1/3 brilliant innings of shutout ball, the only pitches of his career. Finally (perhaps ironically?), Earl brought in for-serious closer Don Stanhouse to shut the Jays down in the 9th for a final score of 24-10. Crazy game, and I really wish I could find a recap somewhere. More (tangentially) about Harlow here, from whence this scan was stolen.

        Mabry actually made two appearances; I love the idea that his 0.67IP of three-hit, one-walk, two-run ball for the Mariners (following up a truly epic 9-run performance by the never-boring Jose Mesa) made the Marlins think that it was a good idea to use him in the same role the following year. But that second appearance was the true gem; down 15-3 to the first-place Braves at the end of a lost year and having already run through five guys who threw pitches for a living, manager Tony Perez (Perez managed the Fish? Really?) called on supersub John Mabry to tackle the bottom of the 8th.

        Mabry’s problem was that he lacked the one skill a pitching non-pitcher must have: getting the ball over the plate where they can hit it and get you out of this godawful mess. Three of the first six batters against him walked, and the other three all singled. Mabry finally induced the seventh batter, Marcus Giles, to ground out, but by then Perez had decided we had all suffered enough, moving Mabry to left field (apparently so he had a close-up view of the destruction he had wrought) in favor of real (replacement-level) pitcher Vic Darensbourg, who allowed a Julio Franco single before coaxing a DP out of Chipper, ending the carnage. Mabry’s final line for the night and season included 5 ER in a third of an inning for a shiny 135.00 ERA, bringing his career ERA up to 63.00 (7 ER in 1 IP: 6 hits, 4 walks, 3 outs recorded).

        Other Interesting Notes:

        • A nice subset of the good candidates laid out above are former stars who are no longer terribly useful players (thus expendable), but who are still fan favorites. Nine-time All-Star Davey Concepcion did yeoman’s work as a 40 year old in 1988, and Mark Grace fared less well as a 38 year old in 2002. Grace was one of relatively few to give up a homer in his appearance (to David Ross), but he did a pretty funny and dead-on impression of eccentric teammate Mike Fetters.
        • Wade Boggs is probably the best all-around player of the last 30 years or so to make a pitching appearance, and actually made two, but both (like Concepcion and Grace) came after stardom had passed him by, in 1995 with the Yankees and ’97 with the Rays.
        • Sadly before the retrosheet era, but Stan Musial has one pitching appearance to his credit (and in his prime, 1952, age 31). He’s credited with one batter faced, no walks, no hits, and no HBP. Apparently (according to this), it was an error on the third baseman that the batter (naturally) felt should have been ruled a hit.
        • Ted Williams did it, too, pitching 2 innings and giving up a run. According to this, it happened on August 24, 1940, at the close of a 12-1 loss. Williams was just 21 years old, and had already established himself as one of the game’s best hitters. Can you imagine the reaction if Evan Longoria or Jay Bruce were sent out in that situation today? Yikes.
        • Of the four players I know of to have played every position on the diamond in one game, two fared pretty well in their turns on the mound. Cesar Tovar threw a scoreless inning with a walk and a K, and Scott Sheldon struck out the only batter he faced in 2000 (which seems like cheating–shouldn’t you have to go an inning for a stunt like that?). Meanwhile, Bert Campaneris was a bit shaky, giving up a run and three baserunners in his inning, while Shane Halter (who had previously pitched a scoreless inning with the Royals) walked the only batter he faced — Matty LeCroy, which couldn’t have been easy — on the last day of the 2000 season…but did go 4-for-5 at the plate that day.

        That’s all for now…back tomorrow with something else (and something shorter).