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I Stand Relieved
2006-09-10 10:40
by Philip Michaels

Lord knows I don't want to get the reputation as The Guy At Catfish Stew Who Splits Hairs Over Other People's Blog Posts. "Oh, Ken? Yes, he writes these intelligent, literate posts and takes sensational photographs. And the other guy? Um... bit of a hothead. Prone to flying off at the slightest provocation. Sure, he knows his way around a hollowed-out plastic football filled with Tennessee microbrew, but otherwise, he comes across as a bit of a pill." And I'm not going to argue with you on any of those points. Man, I wish I could read something that strikes me as unadulterated bunkum and just choke it down with a Coke and a smile. But I can't. It's my curse.

The latest Thing to Set Me Off is this Drumbeat post from Chronicle baseball writer John Shea:

With an offense that ranks so low in so many categories and a closer who has been on and off the availability list and repeatedly asked to pitch in the eighth inning because the manager has more faith in him than any setup man, it's all about the rotation.

(Emphasis added.)

In a way, we live in a golden age for baseball writing. The Internet has made it possible for more voices to advance more ideas to an audience probably beyond Bill James ever imagined in his wildest fever dream back when he was writing the Baseball Abstract during his shift as the night watchman at a pork-and-beans factory. You want statistically-minded baseball analysis, you don't have to look for too long. You want an alternative to Plaschke-style pabulum, it's out there. Occasionally, you might even see a term like VORP sneak its way into the sports pages, should some old-guard sports editor wind up asleep at the switch.

But I think we could get a thousand statistically-inclined monkeys typing at a thousand typewriters, and we're never going to see widespread appreciation of sabermetric ideas. You just aren't going to see SNLVA or EqA on the backs of Topps cards anytime soon. There will always be dozens of columnists standing at the ready to churn out columns about how good team chemistry begets winning baseball instead of the other way around. And when it's time to hand out awards, there's always going to be some guy -- I'm going to guess that the words "John" and "Kruk" will figure prominently in his name -- who will argue that the Cy Young Award should always go to the guy who's racked up the most wins. You're just not going to come out ahead in that argument.

And so you have to pick your battles. That's why I'm focusing all of my rhetorical weaponry on the conventional wisdom mouthed by Shea up above -- this idea that elite relief pitchers should only be used in the ninth inning and only if it's a save opportunity. If I can play any part in making that line of thought go the way of the discredited science of phrenology before I leave this earth, then I will consider my life well spent.

It seems like a simple enough concept to grasp: If you find yourself in a jam prior to the ninth inning, why leave your best reliever to twiddle his thumbs in the bullpen? Bring him in at that moment, lest you find yourself with no lead to protect in the ninth. And yet, whenever a manager summons his relief ace in the eighth -- or, heaven forfend, the seventh -- the chattering classes act like he's instructed his players to take the field on unicycles and blowing slide whistles. Thankfully, whatever Ken Macha's other failings in managing a pitching staff, the understanding that going to your best pitcher when the situation calls for it is a sign of strength, not weakness is not among them.

On my never-ending East Coast Road Trip, I polished off Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders, the last chapter of which is devoted to how Joe Torre -- generally thought of as one of the more astute managers in the game today -- lost a close game in the 2003 World Series without ever employing the services of Mariano Rivera -- generally thought of as one of the best relief pitchers in history. Instead, Torre decided to use Jeff Weaver -- generally thought of as something other than a good pitcher -- while keeping Rivera in reserve for a save opportunity that never came.

Earlier this year, I watched an A's-Yankees game where Torre decided it was better to bring in Scott Proctor than a fully rested Mariano Rivera to pitch in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame. That the A's won the game almost immediately probably won't matter to the Yankees as they cruise to yet another AL East title. But, given the rate at which Oakland is squandering its division lead, that win sure will come in handy for the A's.

So I think the takeaway message here is, holding off on using your best reliever because it's not a save situation almost always ends in heartbreak. And the few times it doesn't, it should anyhow.

It's also worth noting that using the best reliever at his disposal for more than an inning at a time is hardly a new page in Ken Macha's playback. Back in 2003 -- the last time before Street's arrival that Macha could signal to the bullpen to start the ninth without setting off a wave of inadvertent cringing throughout the Coliseum -- 10 of Keith Foulke's 43 saves required him to get more than three outs. This includes a six-out save against Boston on August 12 and a five-out save against the Blue Jays later that month. Whether it's the 2003 version of Keith Foulke or the present-day installment of Huston Street, Ken Macha apparently has grasped an important facet of resource management: when you find yourself in a jam before the ninth inning and you've got a guy capable of putting out the fire, maybe you bring him into the ballgame early.

Maybe it's an idea Macha can try to pass on to John Shea. Perhaps some brochures would help him grasp the concept.

And while we're on the subject of nitpicking a single throw-away sentence in a weblog post, just who are these setup men that Ken Macha supposedly has no faith in? Kiko Calero, who leads the team in appearances? Joe Kennedy and his rapidly descending ERA? Justin Duchscherer, who filled in so ably for Street during his absence (five saves in as many opportunities)? True, Macha doesn't seem to have much faith in Chad Gaudin, but that's somewhat inexplicable, considering he had a 20 1/3 inning scoreless streak going up until Saturday night (when no pitcher wearing an A's uniform was covering themselves with glory). I mean if you can point out these unreliable relievers, John, we'll give 'em a talking-to.

The 2006 Athletics are a flawed team in many ways -- bullpen reliability is not one of them.

2006-09-10 10:49:14
1.   Linkmeister
The same theory is often advanced over at Dodger Thoughts. Why go with less than your best when you desperately need outs?
2006-09-10 10:54:38
2.   Philip Michaels
1 Because then, Bill Plaschke will write a column calling you a computer-using nerd, and it seems as if current members of the Dodger regieme will accept any fate other than that.
2006-09-10 11:17:03
3.   Ken Arneson
Macha is good at following formulas. His formula for when to use his best relievers is spot-on correct, as you point out. His formula for when to bunt/steal, and when not to, is pretty good, too. But his formula for when to take out a starting pitcher still needs work.
2006-09-10 12:16:39
4.   Linkmeister
2 Nah. Using your best reliever would be going with your Heart & Soul or possibly your Chemistry, so it would be all good with Bill.
2006-09-11 00:40:39
5.   scarface
Yeah, I agree Macha's "formulae" for relievers generally seems ok within the context of single games, though it appears to me that he could afford to spread the load a bit more in multi-day contexts. Having decent relievers all around might make him look a little better though.

Anyone think Haren's poor performance of late has been due to tiring out at the end of a full, uninterrupted season?

At any rate, thankfully, the A's continue to have a somewhat soft schedule - after TB, it looks like they'll miss Santana's turn vs Minnesota.

2006-09-11 11:10:08
6.   joejoejoe
I think Joe Torre has finally learned to use Mariano Rivera more than one inning when the situation calls for it. This year Rivera has 59 appearances and 71 IP. That's more IP/G than in any year since he was John Wetteland's setup man in 1996.

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