In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.
What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.
Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.
Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.
These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.
Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.
Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.
With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.
Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.
I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”
The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.
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