It Works Both Ways With The Decried Save Stat

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While I disagree with much of what the hard core stat guys say about relief pitching and in the “we’ll tell them what to do and they’ll do it” concept of dealing with players, the struggles of highly paid closers Heath Bell of the Marlins and Frank Francisco of the Mets; the injuries and money/prospects tossed down the tubes for the Reds’ Ryan Madson and Andrew Bailey of the Red Sox; the Angels’ demotion of Jordan Walden; and the Giants’ scrambling to find a replacement for Brian Wilson have again opened a legitimate argument of how and when to deploy the best relievers.

It absolutely makes sense to use the best relief pitcher in the most important circumstances and not as a rote decision in the ninth inning.

But it works both ways.

If teams are interested in having their best relievers willingly agree to shun the watered down save stat they’re going to have to do something other than order them to do as they’re told or convince them to be team players.

They’re going to have to pay them.

The mistake teams have made with the closer-by-committee and using a well-intentioned and, on paper, logical strategy is that they choose a lot of cheap, found and unproven pitchers in the role without one who can be trusted as a “fireman”.

It’s in the same category as the creation of the save stat to begin with. The pitchers of yesteryear who were called the “closers” were pithing around 140 innings a year and multiple innings per appearance.

Good intentions and strategy being what they are, it eventually become twisted.

Is Tony LaRussa truly to blame for the “one-inning save” as is generally believed? No. He was just using his then-closer Dennis Eckersley in a highly analytical way because Eckersley was older, had less bounceback ability in his arm and was more effective pitching one inning at a time than if he was used for 2-3 innings as closers generally were when the defined bullpen roles came into vogue.

LaRussa used his closers in a conventional manner before he stumbled onto Eckersley and he also had a very deep and diverse set of relievers—Rick Honeycutt, Todd Burns, Gene Nelson—to get him to Eckersley.

It was the copiers of LaRussa like Jeff Torborg who took the lunacy to its extreme, logical conclusion and pitched his closer in a save situation and, almost exclusively, for one inning. Period.

Now it would take an innovator to change the template and a front office to say to the pitchers, “We don’t believe in the save stat here. We’re going to pay you as if you’re accumulating saves, but you won’t be accumulating saves.”

Like everything else in baseball—the downfall of complete games; the widespread use of relief pitching; relief pitching specialization—it would take one team to try it and succeed and then other teams would follow suit.

Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see this as a method when it should be changed.

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Donnieball

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There is not one player on the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster that can make a claim to having been better than an in-his-prime Don Mattingly.

Not one.

Even those who have superstar potential like Matt Kemp can only hope to be mentioned in the same breath with Mattingly.

That’s how great he was; how dangerous he was. In fact, you can make the Koufax/Puckett argument for Mattingly’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Both Sandy Koufax and Kirby Puckett had their careers derailed by injuries. Koufax’s arthritic elbow forced him from the game at the height of his powers at age 30; Puckett had glaucoma and was done at 35.

They’re in the Hall of Fame because of Koufax’s dominance over a 5-year period and Puckett’s combination of greatness and what he “would” have achieved had he played another 3-5 years.

Because Mattingly was sabotaged by back problems, his production took a dive from its tremendous heights; but from 1984-1989 there was not a better player at the plate or in the field than Mattingly.

Trapped as an innocent bystander in the Steinbrennerean purgatory of the Yankees in the 1980s, he never got the chance to show his wares on the big stage.

As the Yankees turmoil mounted and the revolving door of teammates and managers spun and spun and spun, Mattingly was at the center of the clubhouse—the hapless victim of circumstance—as things came apart.

It was only when he was a mere shell of his former self; when those back injuries limited him to being good as opposed to great and robbed him of his power and George Steinbrenner was suspended that the foundation of the late-90s championship teams was able to break ground under Gene Michael and Buck Showalter.

In a cruel irony, Mattingly retired the year before the Yankees 1996 championship.

Passed over for the manager’s job following Joe Torre’s ouster, he left and joined Torre with the Dodgers. It can be said—reasonably—that Joe Girardi was the wiser and safer choice because of his experience; but it can’t be discounted that had GM Brian Cashman chosen Mattingly as his manager, he would never have been able to fire him.

Ever.

No GM wants a manager he can’t fire.

Now that he’s the manager of the Dodgers, we’ll see whether the lack of experience will be mitigated by his status as a megastar player who’s seen it all; done it all; experienced it all. Mattingly can look at the swirling drama of the McCourts’ divorce, shrug and say, “You wanna know about nuts? I’ll tell you about nuts.”

How does this translate to managerial success?

Easily.

For every player who’s willing to play as hard as possible and respect his manager and coaching staff, there are those who try to exert their perceived authority and use a large contract and big numbers to bully their “bosses”. We saw it with Hanley Ramirez and Fredi Gonzalez last year.

After years of tolerating and dancing around Ramirez’s diva-like behaviors due to the player’s skills and close relationship with owner Jeffrey Loria, Gonzalez punished Ramirez for an egregious lack of hustle and engaged in a public spitting contest with his star player. In the short-term, Gonzalez was supported by the players, contemporaries and public opinion; eventually he was fired in no small part because of Ramirez. He landed on his feet with the Braves with his self-respect intact.

The attitude of certain star players was exemplified in Ramirez essentially saying, “Who’s he to say anything to me? He never played in the big leagues.”

Well, Mattingly not only played in the big leagues, but he was the MVP in 1985 and, as said earlier, was better than anyone on the Dodgers roster. In what would be an unsaid retort, Mattingly could put forth the aura of, “I was better than each and every one of you, so don’t come at me with that ‘who are you?’ horse(bleep).”

He wouldn’t say it because it’s not in his personality; but it helps that he wouldn’t have to say it.

If you saw Kemp’s hustle on Friday night in which he went from first to third on a hit-and-run ground out, it’s a good sign for the Dodgers that they’re playing hard and smart—the enigmatic and hard-headed Kemp in particular.

What people fail to understand when selecting a manager is that strategy is sometimes a small part of him doing his job; it’s not just about “I’m the manager, do what you’re told.”

As was shown with Ramirez, a star doesn’t have to exert much effort (literally and figuratively) to get the manager fired.

Controlling the players and the clubhouse can be far more important than the negligible lineup choices, pitching changes and whom to pinch hit—many of the results of said maneuvers are based on luck.

Mattingly knows what it’s like to be a superstar player and doesn’t have the peacock ego and rampant insecurity to make sure everyone knows he’s in charge by repeatedly saying it; he’ll be able to defer to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on what to do with the arms; to ask coaches Trey Hillman, Davey Lopes and Tim Wallach (whom he beat out for the job) what they think without being threatened.

He’ll make his mistakes, but the players not wanting to let Donnie down will overcome them.

And he’s accustomed to lunacy.

That’s why he’s going to make it as a manager.

My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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