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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What’s the Count? Anything and Everything

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Numbers, numbers, numbers. Major-league baseball swims in them, and 21st-century technology makes it all too easy to raise the numerical sea level. The Observers love baseball numbers dearly, but the latest milestone got them wondering which stats are really worth the obsession.

Frank: So Randy Johnson is the 24th pitcher to win 300 games—and maybe the last?

Artie: I don’t buy that. I know the arguments—the five-man rotation, shorter outings because of the focus on pitch counts— but for most of his career Johnson was part of five-man rotations.

Frank: Same with Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the previous three to make the list. And Clemens and Maddux passed 350.

Artie: Remember Early Wynn in the ‘60s? He took three years to get his last 16 wins and finish at exactly 300. That was in the era of four-man rotations, and there was talk that he might be the last 300 man. It took almost 20 years for the next one, Gaylord Perry in ‘82.

Frank: But in the 27 years since then, there have been nine more 300 guys.

Artie: On ESPN.com, Jayson Stark wrote that besides the obvious key of longevity, a guy has to get better with age. Stark pointed out that Johnson had only 64 wins when he turned 30.

Frank: Among current pitchers, CC Sabathia has a shot at 300 if he stays healthy. He turns 29 next month and has 122 wins.

Artie: Stark cited Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt.

Frank: Let’s punch up their stats... Halladay just turned 32 and has 141 wins. Oswalt has 131 and turns 32 in August. And don’t forget Johan Santana, who’s 30 and has 116 wins.

Artie: Granted, it’ll be tougher to get to 300 because of the mania for pitch counts. That’s a bigger factor than five-man rotations.

Frank: Has human physiology changed so much in 40 years? Imagine what Bob Gibson would have done if a manager said, “Gibby, you’re past 100 pitches so take a shower.”

Artie: Or Steve Carlton or Nolan Ryan. Wouldn’t be pleasant.

Frank: Somehow, people got addicted to the term “quality start”—at least six innings, three or fewer earned runs. Would Gibson consider a 4.50 ERA “quality”?

Artie: And once the starter is gone, there’s all the modern math of the bullpen.

Frank: It’s getting etched in stone that a manager uses a seventh-inning guy and an eighth-inning guy, and the closer only in the ninth. God forbid the closer comes in early, or with men on base.

Artie: And God forbid that a manager has to make a change as early as the sixth. There’s no blueprint for that.

Frank: Today’s manager is almost paralyzed by this rigid dependence on a distinct “role” for every reliever. In the Brewers’ second game at Florida, Ken Macha used Jorge Julio in the sixth to protect a two-run lead, even though Julio was below the bottom of the barrel, and Julio coughed up the game.

Artie: And the next day, Julio was unemployed.

Frank: Why use a guy you had no confidence in? Macha said it was because the bullpen was overworked and Mark DiFelice was ailing. But he used Todd Coffey in the seventh and Seth McClung in the eighth. Is there something about pitching in the sixth that those guys wouldn’t comprehend? Seems like any pitcher’s role is to get guys out, period.

Artie: Mike Marshall, the old Dodger closer, says, “Closer, schmozer.” If the game is at a critical point when you lift the starter, even if it’s the sixth or seventh, use your best reliever. Otherwise, by the ninth you might have no use for a closer.

Frank: Rich Gossage made it to the Hall of Fame by arguing that he was a different species of closer because he’d often come in before the ninth, and with men on base. I’m not saying Trevor Hoffman would gripe if Macha used him before the ninth, and I’m sure Macha would if it was Game 7 of the World Series. But otherwise the game plan is so regimented that it’s almost inconceivable.

Artie: Well, the guy with the saves is the guy who makes the most money, ain’a?

Frank: But who’s to say the last three outs were the toughest? The opponents’ 3-4-5 hitters might be up in the seventh or eighth.

Artie: That’s Marshall’s point. Use your best guy when the game is on the line.

Frank: Another thing about bullpens. We’re getting to the point where no reliever is allowed to go more than one inning. Pitch counts are so damned important for the starters but meaningless for the others?

Artie: How does a bullpen get overworked? Routinely using three or four guys over the last three innings, that’s how.

Frank: I saw a game last year at Yankee Stadium. Andy Pettitte went 6 1/3 innings and Kyle Farnsworth finished the seventh in eight pitches to hold a 3-2 lead. But did he keep going? Nope, Joba Chamberlain was the eighth-inning guy then. So Joba came in, walked two guys and gave up a three-run homer to lose the game.

Artie: But hey, Joe Girardi followed the blueprint.

Frank: The more pitchers you use, the more likely that one is gonna stink that day.

Artie: Managers are just buried in numbers.

Frank: Our friend Rick Horowitz, the columnist and baseball buff, says anything that can be counted in baseball will be counted. And if a stat gets embraced by Billy Beane or Bill James, it becomes the Bible.

Artie: You never saw the WHIP for pitchers until a couple of years ago, and it’s no big revelation. Guys who give up more walks and hits per inning will be less successful.

Frank: Not that all the “new” stats are redundant. As kids we never heard of on-base percentage, but it truly is a better gauge than batting average.

Artie: Now there’s OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage. That’s no great insight—some guys hit more doubles and homers.

Frank: Rick clued me in to another new stat. The box scores on ESPN.com now have columns marked “#P,” which show how many pitches each batter faced in the game. It’s fashionable, citing the great Yankee teams of the ‘90s and the Red Sox of this decade, to talk about the supreme value of “working the count.” Those teams also are great at working the fans’ patience; five Yankee-Red Sox games since 2006 have taken more than four hours for nine innings.

Artie: Here’s what confuses me. Take the thing with Rickie Weeks: It was said he needed to be more selective at the plate, but at the same time I’d read how he let too many good pitches go by. Well, which is it?

Frank: When Don Rowe was the Brewers’ pitching coach in the ‘90s he preached “The Plan.” It amounted to the self-evident notion that you should throw a first-pitch strike because if you don’t you’ll really have to throw a strike the next time, and if you go to 2-0 you’ll REALLY have to throw a strike. Now, for the hitter, if the first pitch is gonna be a strike, why wait to swing?

Artie: I think young guys get mixed up, like Corey Hart at the end of last season. He was tired, yeah, but he also didn’t have a clue at the plate.

Frank: The umpires help hitters “work the count” by calling a puny strike zone. As I said last year, the letter-high strike would get guys swinging and keep games moving. And gee, pitch counts would go down!

Artie: Since we’re repeating ourselves, back to 300-game winners. It sure helps to be on good teams. I know a guy who, if he’d pitched for better teams, would have reached 300 easily!

Frank: Someone with the initials B.B.?

Artie: Bingo! The Dealin’ Dutchman, Bert Blyleven, proud owner of 287 wins even though he was on only three playoff teams—three!—in 22 seasons.

Frank: We’ll get him in the Hall of Fame yet.

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