Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bad Ideas Even If They Work

There have been a lot of things to second-guess in the playoffs already this year, but I want to focus on two of them here. In the aftermath of Joe Girardi's disastrous decision last night to bring in a reliever--with two outs and nobody on base--who subsequently gave up two straight hits to lose the game, Girardi's defenders (starting with the manager himself in his post-game remarks) simply state that "it was the right move, but it just didn't work out." His critics note that the pitcher Girardi removed, David Robertson, had just retired two batters with ease and appeared to be throwing very well, so with no crisis looming there was no reason to think that he needed to be replaced by another right-hander.

I'd like to take the criticism one step further. I've done a ton of research on relief pitching, and one conclusion that keeps jumping out from the data is that it is pointless to remove a pitcher who is effective. One study I've done looks at relievers who enter in the 8th inning and don't give up any runs (either their own or inherited runners). In other words, they have worked successfully. Until the mid-1980s, such a pitcher was allowed to start the 9th inning more than 90% of the time. Today, that figure is down around 12%. Managers have developed a mind-set that certain pitchers are to be used in certain roles and situations regardless of what has come before. But my study shows that the success (i.e. save) rate was a little better for the pre-1990s relievers who pitched the 8th and 9th innings than it is for the bullpen committees so popular today.

The logic behind this is simple. Pitcher A demonstrates that he is throwing well by getting batters out--in last night's case, the first two batters Robertson faced. Pitcher B is an unknown quantity. He might or might not have his good stuff. If he does, he is likely to be as effective as the pitcher he replaced. If he doesn't, he is likely to blow the game, as Alfredo Aceves did last night, surrendering two sharp hits and the ballgame.

This is hardly the first time this month that a manager has jettisoned an effective pitcher and subsequently lost the game. In Game 2 between the Dodgers and Cardinals, the Cardinals led 2-1 heading to the bottom of the 9th inning. Adam Wainwright pitched a terrific game, allowing only one run on three hits in eight innings. In the 8th, he loaded the bases with two outs but Tony LaRussa left him in, and he responded by sawing off Matt Kemp and getting an easy out to end the threat. Somewhere between being sharp enough to retire Kemp and walking to the dugout, Wainwright evidently ran out of gas, because LaRussa replaced him to start the bottom of the 9th. Trever Miller retired one batter and hit the pines in favor of a slumping Ryan Franklin. Minutes later, the Dodgers scored two runs off Franklin to win the game, helping send the Cardinals home early and leaving Wainwright to think he could have done better if given the chance.

Watching last night's game, I marveled at how announcer Tim McCarver continues to live up to the worst expectations of baseball fans who soured on his over-analysis years ago. He made a big deal of Girardi's visit to the mound with two outs and two strikes, trying very hard to figure out what Girardi was telling Andy Pettitte. His conclusion, stated several times initially and repeated a couple of innings later when he revisited his point, was that Girardi was reminding Pettitte that he should "expand the strike zone" against the batter, Vlad Guerrero. This is the same Vlad Guerrero they made sure to show footage of when he hit a pitch on one hop. It's hard to think of a batter from the past 20 years who swings at more pitches outside the strike zone than Guerrero does, with quite a bit of success. Did McCarver really think that Pettitte (a borderline Hall of Fame candidate) needed to be reminded that it wasn't essential to throw the ball in the strike zone in order to get Guerrero to swing?

Andy Pettitte has been in this kind of situation more times than Girardi has. Whatever Girardi said to him, I can't believe he made a trip to the mound (with his pitcher one strike from being out of the inning) to point out Guerrero's habits. Whatever Girardi said, I think all the visit amounted to was a big distraction of Pettitte's concentration. He was focused on getting that last strike. Here came Girardi to complicate things. A moment later, Guerrero took a fastball just off (or just on) the inside corner and drilled it into the stands for a game-tying two-run home run.

On the other hand, when Girardi brought Aceves in to replace Robertson, both McCarver and Joe Buck criticized the move. As I did at home. It isn't second-guessing when you criticize the move before you see the result. McCarver echoed my logic above: why remove a pitcher who's working effectively? But I have a bigger problem with the move: even if it worked, it was pointless. This was the 11th inning of a game following a 13-inning battle. Girardi had only two pitchers left in the bullpen, Aceves and Chad Gaudin, primarily a starter this season. Because of an earlier maneuver, the Yankees had no designated hitter, meaning their pitchers would have to bat. He had already used one pinch-hitter to bat for Mariano Rivera.

My point is that even if Aceves had retired Howie Kendrick instead of giving up a single, Girardi would still have been in worse shape than if he had let Robertson pitch to him. He needed to conserve his pitchers in that spot. Giving himself one less pitcher gave him one less option as the game went on and put him that much closer to using his last pitcher and having no flexibility at all. It's one thing to match up pitchers (lefties against lefties, as in the Trever Miller move discussed above) in a crucial situation. But two outs and nobody on base is not a crucial situation, and neither reliever had a significant enough history against either of the Angels hitters due up to make a clear case for thinking Robertson was a liability. There was going to be a more dangerous spot further on, when Robertson was either tiring or due to face a batter who could win the game with a hit, when Aceves (or Gaudin) was an obvious upgrade on the mound. Or the innings would pass smoothly, Robertson would need to come out for a pinch-hitter, Aceves would push as far as he could, and then Gaudin could come in.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Last night's game in Anaheim was far from broke when Girardi decided to fix it. Then it broke into little pieces. But even if Girardi's fix had worked at the moment, it still would've left his team in a weaker position in the game.

Another kind of ill-advised decision occurred in Game 2 between the Yankees and Angels, and it probably cost the Angels the game. Situation: bottom of the 13th, tie game, one out, Yankees on first and second. Melky Cabrera hit a sharp grounder in the hole between first and second. Angels second baseman Maicer Izturis raced to his left and made a nice grab of the grounder, then pivoted quickly to throw to second for the force. The throw sailed wide, rolled away, and the runner scooted around from second with the winning run.

The throw stank, but not as much as the decision to make it. Suppose Izturis had gotten the force at second. What would've happened. With runners on first and third and two outs, the Angels would not have held Cabrera on first. His run didn't matter, and the defense would have let him take second base. It happens all the time. In other words, the Yankees would have had runners on second and third within a pitch or two--exactly what they would have had if Izturis had been sensible enough to throw to first.

There was absolutely no reason for Izturis to attempt the force play. That might be important in the early innings of a game, when you want to keep runners out of scoring position. That might also be more acceptable if there were no outs instead of one, because the force would keep open the possibility of a double play. But Izturis was moving toward first base when he fielded the grounder. It would have taken little effort to get the out at first. Instead, he made a pivoting (wild) throw to second--when there was nothing at all to be gained by a force play.

My inclination is to say that Izturis hadn't thought things out in advance and that it was a bad decision in the heat of a panicky moment. On the other hand, thinking things out in advance didn't do Girardi any good. Of course we don't know what would've happened if Izturis had gotten the out at first or if Robertson had stayed in the game. The outcomes might have been the same. But that won't change my view: the wisdom of a decision sometimes hangs on the issue of whether a successful short-term result actually gives you a better chance of winning.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Slice Of Life

Apart from my blogs on Woodstock, I haven't used this site to interject real life into my ongoing discussion of various games. Today I feel compelled to share a tale of two strangers. When I aspired to be a fiction writer, I had a great title for a collection of stories: Strangers I Have Known. It's still a great title, I just never wrote the stories. I certainly lived them, especially in Las Vegas where tourists were quickly sized up, swarmed, digested, and spit out.

This is a recent story, in fact from the past two weeks. It's about two men I met, one day and one universe apart.

The first was part of a "heart partner" program set up earlier this year at the local hospital. It's a good program in which an upcoming heart bypass patient is paired with a former bypass patient. Last week my wife celebrated the first anniversary of her bypass, and a day before that milestone we had lunch with her latest heart partner. In these meetings, the program pays for the two patients and their spouses/caregivers to have lunch. We spend the hour answering questions and sharing our experiences. Our experience was all positive: a terrific surgeon and hospital staff, rapid progress, less pain and incapacitation than expected, less assistance required, a sunny attitude and plenty of support, and a minimal recovery time. We convey the importance of trusting the ICU nurses who have seen it all and are anticipating everything that could go wrong; the need for patience and satisfaction with small daily progress; the value of having a spouse give lots of physical and emotional support, and so on. We've done five of these lunches, and four of them have been fine. The couples have communicated well, both their fears and hopes, we've answered their questions and put them at ease, and everyone has felt positive about the surgery.

Then there was the couple I'll call Ed and Edna, both about 70 years old. She's having the surgery, reluctantly but ready to get it over with. We got our food, sat down, and started by telling her that the surgery wouldn't be awful as she expected and telling him that he wouldn't have to help her as much as he thinks he will. "Oh, I ain't helping her!" he exclaimed with finality. "She wasn't there to help me when I needed it. I ain't helpin' her! I'll drive her to the hospital and drive her home, but that's it. I don't know how she's gonna eat."

That was for openers, and the next 45 minutes didn't get any more promising. My wife lost her appetite; I was speechless. "I got my own problems," he went on. He clearly had Parkinson's and showed us the patient bracelet that confirmed that he had surgery earlier in the week. He also had the surliest attitude I've ever seen a man display toward his wife. We gathered that they had been separated for awhile, while she tended her dying sister, their closest relative. The sister died a month earlier. "I couldn't see her on the street," he conceded, "Plus she owns half the house, so she's back." Isn't that precious? His sneering hostility made Archie Bunker seem like Gomer Pyle.

He got to the heart of his beef soon enough, telling us about the time in the not-too-distant past when she was so sick that a priest gave her absolution. "You'd think getting absolution would make you think you're getting a fresh start," he told us. "But not her. She just kept eating and drinking the things she's not supposed to." He turned to her. "You brought this on yourself. You want me to tell them more? They won't like it."

We already didn't like it. He pointed to a stain on her sweater and bragged about how she was eating something and wouldn't shut up, just kept yapping and yaddaing until he bopped her (or the food) lightly enough to send the food flying onto her clothing. Nice. We tried for awhile to give them something positive to take into the surgery. She was scared of the whole thing but knew she had to have it done and was ready. He was adamantly opposed to her and anything she wanted to do. He had his own problems. My wife and I gave each other WTF looks but decided to hold our tongues, first because it wouldn't change anything and second because we have better things to do with our energy. We left there shaking our heads, having met our match in that obstinate bastard.

Here's the kicker. It came midway through lunch, after he did the absolution riff and quizzed my wife on her attendance record at Mass. Ed turned to me and asked, "are you Jewish?" "Yes," I replied. He turned to Edna and nudged her shoulder. "I told ya!" he said.

Good luck, Edna.

The next day at work, I got a phone call while playing with some research. It was the Hall of Fame museum bookstore, located just outside the Giamatti Research Center entrance. The nice lady there calls me when someone buys one of my books, so I can inscribe it personally. I scooted downstairs quickly and entered the bookstore with a "who's the person with impeccable taste?" In this case it was a 70ish gentleman I'll call Bob. He had a still shrink-wrapped copy of This BAD Day In Yankees History which I was happy to sign for him. "I'm actually a Yankees fan," said Bob, "though I got pretty disenchanted with Steinbrenner in the 90s and I've lived in Houston since 1980." I signed the book and we stood in the bookstore talking. He was a distant relative of Hall of Famer Mel Ott, so we talked about going to games at the Polo Grounds. Also talked about NY Giants history, and when I noted that I wrote a book about the 1911-1912 Giants, he got himself a signed copy of that one, too. I bring this up not because it proves how easily my books sell themselves, but for a reason that will become clear later.

Bob and I moved into the more spacious atrium in the library lobby to continue our conversation, about the old-time Yankees (he grew up watching them in the 1940s) and his favorite player, Joe DiMaggio. I took him out to a photo that's part of the museum's media exhibit, and told him a good DiMaggio story related to the photo. He laughed robustly and told me what a great time he was having in Cooperstown. He was on his way to Albany to pick up a brother or sister who'd be traveling with him. They were going to see a bunch of the sports Halls of Fame, starting with Canton before coming to Cooperstown, then heading east to Springfield and finally the tennis HOF in Newport. There was some leaf-peeping planned elsewhere in New England, all in all quite a trip. "Good for you," I said.

"Well," he smiled. "I have bone cancer and lung cancer, so I have to have my fun while I can." Indeed.

There you go. Who knows how long Bob has. He doesn't know. But get him someone to drive him around New England in October, give him a couple of books to read, and turn him loose. That's the kind of person I want to be around, people like Bob and my wife who extract everything they can out of each day. Let's not take that last phrase for granted. Did we manage to extract something positive from lunch with Ed and Edna? Sure. We learned that once in awhile there is a free lunch, even if you do pay for it in other ways.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Hurrah

About a year and a half ago, I wrote my first blog on this site. It was about the start of the new baseball--make that the new fantasy baseball season. Since then, I've managed to refrain from pretending that anybody else would care about my fantasy teams. But as my fling with fantasy baseball approaches its final weekend, I want to pause here to discuss some of the things that have made it so much fun and a few of the reasons why I'm giving it up.

The last few years I've been in several fantasy leagues, but the only one which really matters is the "big league," a 16-team Yahoo.com league whose managers are mostly current and former Hall of Fame comrades. It's highly competitive and would be even if money weren't involved. The fact that the winner can make a couple of hundred bucks just makes us try even harder. In three seasons, my Gabe Sox have finished second, first, and fourth (just out of the money--3rd place gets your money back), all of them by a point or half-point. The league is that close. As of yesterday, I'm in 3rd place, a half-point ahead of the 4th-place team. It would be satisfying to finish in the money one more time.

There are two great things about managing a fantasy team in a competitive league. One is that it keeps you in close touch with what is happening in the majors. You follow not only your players but all those prospective free agents and guys you might trade for. Is Adam LaRoche having his usual awful first two months? Maybe he can be acquired cheaply before he begins his usual second-half surge. Keep an eye on who's being used in which relief role. Holds, a worthless stat in reality, counts as much as home runs in our league. Find out who's being used when the team is ahead, and stay away from the relievers who aren't. Rookies coming up always draw a lot of attention, because fantasy managers know that it usually isn't the guys you draft who make the difference, but rather those mid-season call-ups who catch fire. Look at this year's fine crop of rookies in the National League; every one of them has made a difference, and none were drafted before the season started. So you're forced to pay close attention to all teams and players, more than you would if you weren't being paid to.

The other great thing is the education you get from running a team during the roller-coaster ride of a major league season. Choosing starting lineups, figuring out who might do the best against today's opponents, riding hot players, benching cold one, wheeling and dealing, contending with injuries and the disabled list, abandoning favorites who aren't producing, juggling the roster, and getting involved in the daily nitty-gritty of keeping your team at the top of the standings--it's all as close as we'll get to understanding how tough it is for the professionals.

This season, the Gabe Sox have had huge problems with injuries. Two of the first three hitters I drafted--Josh Hamilton and Carlos Delgado--spent the majority of the season sidelined. Delgado may never be heard from again, and I missed his run production. I picked up Todd Helton as a free-agent first baseman and he's had a pretty good season, though without the big run production Delgado would have provided. As it turned out, the infield has provided the bulk of my team's offense, led by Mark Reynolds, a big bargain as a 12th-round pick. In a league where strikeouts don't count against your team, Reynolds is a superstar, providing power and stolen bases. Up the middle, I've had two very solid performers, Dustin Pedroia (my 3rd-round draft choice) and Michael Young. Along with catcher Brandon Inge, they formed the nucleus of my offense, which has been one of the best in the league all year. Two outfielders also contributed a lot: Jayson Werth and Ichiro (though his runs scored and stolen bases haven't been what I expected).

My offense hasn't been a problem, but my pitching was horrible the first half of the season, especially my starters. Adam Wainwright has been a worthy ace all along, but Jon Lester and Ryan Dempster got lit up regularly until July. That trio was supposed to dominate the league, but midway through the season my team ERA was the fourth-worst in the league and I wasn't winning much either. So when Hamilton came off the DL, I traded him for Matt Cain. Though Cain stopped winning games and took a few poundings, overall he has pitched well for me, especially early on, and with Lester and Dempster pitching much better, my ERA and WHIP have climbed into the league's top half.

I never did find a satisfactory fifth starter this season. Drafted Randy Johnson but he was done after a few weeks. I tried a "starter du jour" rotation for awhile, isolating one free agent starter each day I thought most likely to pitch well and/or win, but they invariably got bombed. Later in the season I picked up Tommy Hunter of Texas, who gave me a few good starts before faltering and getting torched. Then he pitched a complete game as a free agent and I grabbed him again, just in time for him to get pounded for six runs by the Angels in his last start. Ouch!

The last two months have been the reverse of the season's first two months for the Gabe Sox. As my starting pitching came around and my team ERA dropped from 4.6 to 3.9, my offense disappeared. Inge banged up his knees and has been helpless at the plate. Reynolds hasn't recovered from a bout with the flu, and his production has tailed off. In July, I traded Werth for Joe Nathan, who arrived just in time (as part of a plan to get to the top of the league in saves) for my previous #2 closer, Chad Qualls, to bite the dust. So Nathan, who's been fine, has only kept my bullpen where it was with Qualls, in the middle of the pack. Michael Young's injury really hurt, as his production was steady in many categories. Even Ichiro missed a week down the stretch. I've had a few hitters--Jose Lopez, Felipe Lopez, and Cody Ross--fill in adequately but without doing anything special. So the offense has been a real struggle the last two months, fighting close battles in home runs, runs, and RBI, and eventually giving up on stolen bases.

Despite the injuries and the pitching woes, the Gabe Sox actually held first place for a few weeks midway through the season. In August things went sour, and with teams named Sonic Death Monkey and The Spider Monkeys taking over the top two spots in the standings, I felt the need for dramatic action. So I changed my team name to the Monkey Sox, reasoning that "you have to fight monkeys with monkeys." Within days, other managers had followed suit; the Haymakers and Frisco Discos became the Haymonkeys and the Frisco Monkeys, respectively. I've treaded water as the Monkey Sox, while the Haymonkeys are now just a half-point behind Sonic Death Monkey for 1st place. Yesterday, I changed back to the Gabe Sox. In my last hurrah, I'm going down fighting under my own name. You're done making a monkey out of me!

So there has been plenty of excitement mixed in with the frustration and the agonizing over personnel decisions (but at least you don't have to deal with agents). I've enjoyed being one of the few people to linger over the amazing accomplishment of Milwaukee reliever Mitch Stetter, who was picked up by the Gabe Sox the day before he launched a record-setting streak of 15 straight outs recorded by strikeouts. I've enjoyed following games on the computer in the evenings, visualizing how it will look in the box score if this or that Gabe Sox stalwart hits a home run next time up and occasionally having that very sequence of numbers appear on the screen when I check the box score again.

Then there are the negatives, including the perverse rooting interests it creates, so often conflicting with your real-baseball concerns. I'm a Reds fan and try to have at least a couple of them on my team (for the same reason that I refuse to have any Yankees or Dodgers on my teams). This season, the Gabe Sox backup catcher was Ramon Hernandez until he got hurt, and then I didn't have a Reds hitter on my team, only bullpen stud Arthur Rhodes. But a few weeks ago I picked up Johnny Gomes because he kept hitting home runs. He hit a couple for me, too, and then came the day in September when I benched him. The Reds played a day game, which I took in on my computer at work. In the 1st inning, Gomes came up with the bases loaded. Great! Well, not so great. Great for my team (the Reds), but I found myself rooting against Gomes. If he hit a grand slam, I'd be pissed at myself for benching him on the Gabe Sox. He popped up, and I felt elated. That elation bothered me. My natural rooting instinct was perverted by this artificial competition. Later in the game, Gomes hit a three-run home run. And I was pissed, doubly this time because of my guilt about rooting against him in the 1st inning.

The issue there is whether I really would've cared about Johnny Gomes if he hadn't been on the Gabe Sox at the time (I've since dropped him). Yes, I would've cared, perhaps not as strongly but certainly more purely. I realized that last night during the 9th inning of the Mets-Nationals game. In the fantasy league, I'm fighting for points in the saves category. In the final week, I'm one ahead of someone and two behind someone else, a potential 1 1/2-point swing. My big closer all season has been Francisco Rodriguez, who saved his first 20 attempts with the Mets but has struggled hugely ever since. The Mets haven't gotten him many chances for saves, and he's blown some in spectacular fashion. So last night he entered the bottom of the 9th with a 4-2 lead. I really needed that save. The first batter hit a sharp grounder to short which was bobbled, and the throw to first was late. Although Mets announcer Gary Cohen recorded an error in his scoreboard, it was officially ruled a hit. A very cheap single. Pretty soon, the bases were loaded on another hit and a walk. K-Rod got a couple of outs, then walked Adam Dunn to force in a run. I couldn't watch any more. I abandoned the television and went back to the computer. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I saw the result on the small screen: a game-ending grand slam. Not only did the key save vanish, but because of that awful scoring decision on the first batter, all five runs were earned. If it had been properly scored an error on the shortstop, all the runs would've been unearned, and it wouldn't have put a couple of ERA points in jeopardy.

So that's what pissed me off--not that the closer for a team I root for blew one more game in a season that has long since been irrelevant, but that he got nailed for five earned runs at a time when my staff is struggling to hold onto a couple of vital points. I should've been able to laugh off K-Rod's latest explosion, but instead I took it personally. Instead of shaking my head at the shortstop for screwing up the play, I wound up pissed off at the official scorer for a home-town hit call that might deliver a fatal blow to my pitching staff.

I've lost count of the number of times I've added a pitcher to my roster when he was pitching against the two teams I root for the most in reality. Or I've had a pitcher starting for one of my teams against a pitcher from another one of my teams. The fantasy has gained priority over the reality, and while that might be appealing in some respects, ultimately it creates conflicts that aren't that much fun.

Next year, I'm going to try to regain a healthy perspective by discarding the fantasy leagues and once again becoming a productive member of society. This decision was made easier by a policy adopted in August by the place where I work. The filtering system they've installed in our computers to limit access to Dangerous Internet Sites has targeted the Yahoo page used for two of the three fantasy leagues I play in. Several of us have protested, arguing first that any site with baseball content should be okay at an institution supposedly devoted to baseball, and second that we are collectively more tuned into baseball history as it is being made because of our devotion to the league. Our arguments were made to no avail. We were told that there is no game-playing on work computers and that we will have to confine our league activities to home. God forbid we should have a little fun while keeping pace with current baseball events!

I think this is a short-sighted, Draconian [look it up!] policy. Two mornings a week, I get to my office at 6 AM, and you'd think it would be okay for me to spend a little pre-work time taking care of my fantasy teams. Or a few minutes during my lunch hour. But no. It's home or bust. The problem is that this policy has already cost my team. I know of four instances where Gabe Sox players who were in my starting lineup wound up not playing during afternoon games, and there was nothing I could do about it. Instead of substituting another starter, I was stuck with a non-playing performer. So far, this has cost me production in runs, runs batted in, and strikeouts. I might finish 4th, out of the money, because this policy prevented me from getting those three RBI which subsequently cost me the deciding point. Don't you think that would be frustrating? Wouldn't it be foolish to invest the kind the time and effort, study and rooting, that I've put into this season, only to have it crash and burn because someone thinks I might tarnish the sanctity and reputation of a hallowed American institution by checking fantasy-league standings in my office at 6 AM?

Here's to the Gabe Sox and a fast finish this weekend, enough to get back an investment I will not make again. Next season, instead of grinding out all those evening results, I'll read some good books, or maybe write one. When someone calls me at work to ask me about that hot new rookie, I'll just have to say that I never heard of him. And then I'll forward the caller to one of my colleagues who has.