Recent years have seen an interesting few seasons for the Cincinnati Reds. They’ve been significantly better than they were prior, admittedly not a high bar to climb. Still, considering that virtually every year between 1999 and 2010 saw us tune baseball out in the summer (and one season as early as May!) we can’t complain too much.
That doesn’t mean we can’t complain at all.
Before we go further, NDNS’ official editorial stance on Dusty Baker is as follows: we do not advocate his firing, but we would not have extended his contract when it was up last year, not would we extend his contract in the future were we in charge of those decisions. Still, a team with as many financial challenges as the Reds should not lose money paying someone not to coach that they could use on players. In other words, we believe they should honor the deal they made with Baker while we do not approve of the deal in the first place.
The reason for this is the all-too-frequent inexplicable decision. Batting someone second who gets on base 24% of the time. Giving up outs and bunting a runner to second base for a soon-to-be-walked Joey Votto. Almost exclusively (until forced to do so by circumstances) using your most talented pitcher in the ninth inning of games the team already leads, rather than when he is needed most.
Do these decisions make or break a season? No. Is it possible they swing the odds once or twice a year and turn a win into a loss? We suspect that to be the case. Have there been times when a team missed the playoffs by one game?
We don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but we expect a professional National League manager to know how to execute a double switch, even in slightly unorthodox conditions. We expect a manager to take responsibility for losses and give credit to players for wins. We expect a manager who does what he can to put his players in positions that make a team win most likely, not to execute questionable strategy for the sake of a player’s individual statistics.
It doesn’t seem like too much to expect.
After today’s 1-0 extra inning loss by the Reds, I did some research and found that they’ve won about four fewer games than their statistics say they should.
For some reason having mathematical evidence that my team isn’t playing as well as it should be is refreshing. Guess that means I’m not just being a blind homer who thinks his team should be better than it is.
This might be one of one posts that no one reads because the title is confusing. It might be one that no one reads because, well, no one reads this site anyway. But you never know – you might find it interesting so we’ll just put our heads down and push forward.
Anyone who knows us well knows that we have little pet theories for everything. It’s probably a futile attempt to understand and gain a modicum of control of the world around us (look, another theory) but who really knows for sure? What’s important is that the theories are there. Why not explore some of them?
Today’s theory is an attempt to discover what is most precious in various sports. Which resources – in economic terms – are those which should be prized over others? It should be noted that we were inspired by a bit in a post over at Redleg Nation:
Imagine two teams. These teams each have nine identical hitters. Team A has 9 hitters with an OPS of 1.000. Team B has 9 hitters with an OPS of 1.250.
These are awesome teams, both. But they come buy their OPS’s in very different ways.
The “hitters” on team A never get a hit. Their slugging is .000. But they walk every plate appearance. The hitters in on team B only hit homers and they hit them once every four at bats, so they bat .250 and slug 1.000.
Which team scores more runs?
The answer of course, it team A. Team B is an offensive force, good for 9 runs a game. But team A never makes an out, so desptie the lower OPS, they score an infinite number of runs.
What a fascinating (to us anyway) thought experiment! It beautifully showcases what the most valuable resource in baseball is: the out. Each team only gets 27 of them in a regulation game. No matter how clever your manager is or how talented your players are, the minute you get your 27th out, the game is over.
Looking at it from that point of view we find it hard to argue with the notion at, all things being equal, a baseball team that minimizes the number of outs it creates will be more successful than one that doesn’t. All things are not equal of course, but we would argue that the only reasonable strategy one could take in managing a ball game would be one that applies no matter how good your players are. Teams with good players can throw away outs and not be punished for it as often as a less-talented team, but make no mistake: they’re still punished.
This is all just to set up our next discussion. What is football’s version of the out? Is it a down? A possession? A play? Nice try, but no. It’s probably obvious to both of you who are still reading that in football, basketball, hockey, and most other sports the finite resource is time.
No matter how good a head coach is and how talented his players are, when the last second of the last minute of the game runs out the game is (almost always) over. So is the best team the team that runs the most plays possible, or is it the team that most efficiently uses the limited time it has?
It’s an interesting question, because unlike baseball where each team gets 27 outs, in football the two teams share the time available. This, we theorize, makes the question of resource management much more complicated. How does a team most efficiently use time? Is a team that controls the clock and has a powerful defense (like the late 80’s/early 90’s Giants) more efficient than a team that operates at breakneck speed (like Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams) and scores as quickly as it can? In college football the trend seems to be – complaints from Nick Saban and Bert Bielema notwithstanding – moving towards fast-paced, no-huddle offenses. In college basketball the average pace seems to be slowing down. Which is more efficient?
To be honest, we have no idea. But we’re very curious.
There was a bit of a hubbub on the Twitters yesterday when MLB Network’s Brian Kenny took Dusty Baker to task. You see, Dusty left Homer Bailey in yesterday’s game somewhere between 2 and four batters too long (I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true) and the Reds ended up losing by the runs Bailey gave up to those batters. After the game Dusty explained that Homer had pitched well and he was trying to get him the win by keeping him in the game as long as he did.
Brian Kelly pointed out how ridiculous that mindset was and many of us who follow the Reds on a semi-daily basis rejoiced. It’s nice to see someone in the media repeat what you’re thinking.
What struck us as odd was that it took an outsider to what we’ll call the mainstream Reds media to point out the idiocy in putting team success behind an individual’s statistics. We follow most of the local Cincinnati reporters who work the Reds beat and not one of them had anything to say regarding Dusty’s explanation.
Furthermore – and this is entirely based on our own observations and is thus completely unscientific – it seems as though those I referred to earlier (professional journalists on the Reds beat) are quick to respond or downplay fan complaints with Baker’s managing. For example, Drew Stubbs leading off last year, Zack Cozart batting second this year, Aroldis Chapman closing, Aroldis Chapman never coming into a close game before the 9th inning, etc.
It’s weird. They’re much less likely to reflexively defend players this way, and some – WLW is notorious for this – have been known to slam players that would have been popular otherwise (Adam Dunn nods knowingly.)
What’s the explanation? Is Dusty such a good guy that a supposedly impartial, professional journalist will scream “small sample size” at one fan complaint and then turn around and use a stat from an equally small sample to deride another? His players are quite fond of him, there’s little debate about that – but it’s worth asking if those reporters whose job it is to objectively gather and disseminate information about the team are really doing so.
Marvin Lewis doesn’t appear to get this as much (although we don’t follow the Bengals beat as closely as the Reds so we could be wrong) but there is one mindset we’ve observed from some media members regarding both. That mindset is that because the Reds and Bengals were terrible prior to Marvin and Dusty’s arrivals, fans of those teams should put this in perspective and just enjoy the success they get.
We reject this view.
Reading this post this morning, it seemed like a good opportunity to examine the save rule in baseball and the incentives it provides managers and players, and the behaviors that result from them.
In the linked article, John Erardi argues that the Reds should trade closer (and freak of nature) Aroldis Chapman if they’re not planning on using him as a starting pitcher. Which apparently they aren’t, given what has happened in Spring Training the last couple of years.
It’s hard to disagree. Chapman pitched fewer innings than Josh Roenicke and Matt Belisle, both pitchers who at one time pitched for the Reds and no longer do, mainly because they’re run-of-the-mill relievers and run-of-the-mill relievers are a dime a dozen. No offense intended to those two – especially Belisle who we met at a Reds-Rockies game last summer – it’s not personal, it’s just how baseball is. In all 101 pitchers threw more innings than Aroldis Chapman did last year.
Now, we stipulate that innings pitched aren’t the end-all be-all of a pitcher’s effectiveness, but they are a quick and easy metric we can use in discussion. Consider that even a replacement-level left fielder that plays half the time will be in the field for seven times as many innings as Chapman was last year. A solid-but-still-replacement-level starting pitcher who makes 30 starts in a season probably pitches twice as many innings as Chapman did in 2012. And many of those innings will come in game situations where getting an out or three is pretty important to the team’s ultimate chances for victory.
With the official adoption of the save rule in 1969, baseball (perhaps unknowingly) changed roster construction and in-game pitching management for good. They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but we rarely imagine all the possible outcomes of a particular action. They probably just wanted to measure the effectiveness of relief pitchers in a way they couldn’t before, but the decision paved the way for the specialized bullpen and the dark days of Tony LaRussa switching relievers EVERY OTHER BATTER FOR THREE FREAKING INNINGS EVERY DAMNED NIGHT.
Before saves were a thing, every game had a winning pitcher and a losing pitcher. Whoever pitched the ninth inning wasn’t perceived to be nearly as important as who pitched the first five. If you go to Las Vegas and look at the betting lines at any sports book you’ll see that the first five innings of MLB games are still things on which you can place a bet. It’s our contention that the reality hasn’t changed. What good is a fireballing reliever if your starting pitchers are awful? What good is a great closer if your position players can’t hit well enough to get him a lead? Because in this day and age most closers – the best relievers in a pitching staff – don’t come into tie games or games where the team’s behind, because their job is to pick up the Almighty Save. It’s a situation where the well-being of the team is secondary to the accumulation of individual statistics. And that’s not generally considered to be a good thing in a team sport.
It’s hard to blame the closers themselves – they get paid to collect saves. So it’s not hard to imagine a closer – or more likely his agent – lobbying a manager to only bring in a reliever in a “save situation” (we’ll discuss this further in a minute.)
It’s hard to object to putting relief pitchers in regular roles. When people know what to expect they generally perform better, no matter the field. So it’s hard to (on the surface) fault a manager for saying “X, you’re pitching the seventh, Y the eighth, and Z the ninth every night.” That’s good personnel management, right?
On the other hand, a manager’s job is to win baseball games first and keep individual players warm and cozy on the inside second. What good is an awesome closer if a less-talented pitcher gives up a lead before the closer can get into the game*?
* – For example, on June 4th of this year the Reds were leading the Rockies 4-3 going into the eighth inning. The Rockies had the top of their order due up. Before five batters had stepped to the plate the score was 5-4 Rockies and that was that. The two perennially good hitters on Colorado’s roster batted that inning – for almost certainly the last time in the game – and they faced someone who was not the Reds’ best reliever. In fact, Chapman didn’t ever come into the game at all.
The save rule is not completely to blame – it’s just a statistic after all. Unfortunately statistics can be misunderstood. Never forget that all a save really measures is how many times a relief pitcher finished the ninth inning after entering the game with a lead of up to three runs (or pitched the last three innings after entering with a lead of any size which – being rare – don’t really belong in this discussion.) That’s it, though. There’s no separate measurement used that shows how often a reliever came in to face the other team’s best hitter with the bases loaded in the eighth and got him out, but then was pulled for a pinch hitter in the bottom of that inning, letting a lesser pitcher get out three less-talented hitters in the ninth. Unfortunately a lot of fans, managers, and front-office personnel seem to think that a team needs an awesome closer with the right mental make-up to finish games because the ninth inning is different from any other inning. Otherwise they wouldn’t have a stat for who finished it, right?
Personally, I think it’s crap. Look at this year’s closers for every major league team and unless you’re a serious baseball fan, most of those guys you’ve never heard of. A lot of the ones you have heard of are guys you never heard of until they saved 40 games in a season and got a big contract, only to have less success later. They’re not bad pitchers by any means, but we’d wager that the majority of them started out as regular middle relievers and didn’t fail when put into the ninth-inning-closer role. If you’re a relief pitcher in the major leagues, chances are you can get opposing batters out – at worst – seven out of ten times. Even an average pitcher with a 4.50 ERA only gives up one run every two innings. Why not use him in the ninth and save your best reliever for the situations you need him the most?
At the end of the day these arguments don’t make a huge difference. Bullpen management does not make or break a season. But it’s worth asking if an offensively-challenged small-market team should really be paying upwards of $5 million a year to a guy who only pitches one inning every other day.
I really couldn’t put it any better than this.
Major League Baseball is discussing with prospective Astros owner Jim Crane possible compensation for agreeing to move the team to the American League.
As a Reds fan I can honestly say I’d probably miss the Asstros a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, I really dislike them, but I have a little more respect for them historically than I do for some of the other teams in the NL Central (cough…Cardinals…Cubs…cough.)
On the other hand, I’m in favor of anything that shakes things up. No major sport in this country has it exactly right, so let’s tinker with them, right?
H/T Dale Franks on Twitter