Dusty Baker Has No Leverage With The Stat People

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The problem with bloggers, armchair experts and even beat reporters is that they think they know everything based on the numbers, the statements of the participants and history even when they don’t know and much of their critique is based on personal feelings and not facts and reality.

Yesterday the Reds lost to the Pirates in the eleventh inning after manager Dusty Baker didn’t use closer Aroldis Chapman in what is referred to here on HardballTalk as “high leverage situations.” The same piece also asserts that Baker “utilizes his bullpen according to the save rule.”

I have no problem with criticism if it’s accurate, but “managing according to the save rule” is an all-encompassing accusation that is used to hammer home the indictment against Baker even if the numbers defy it. Baker has used Chapman in 27 games this season. 16 were in save situations and 11 weren’t. The statingest of stat-loving clubs have similar numbers with their closers:

Fernando Rodney, Rays: save situations – 16; non-save situations – 9

Grant Balfour, Athletics: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 11

Jose Veras, Astros: save situations – 13; non-save situations – 12

Taking into account that the Reds are 35-22 and have had more opportunities to use Chapman in save situations than the other clubs and that the Reds have had 12 games that are classified as “blowouts” in comparison to the A’s having had 16, the Rays 18, and the Astros 19 (mostly on the losing end), is there a significant difference between people who the stat guys think are managing correctly and what Baker’s done? Add in that for most of the season Baker has had two former closers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall to pitch the eighth inning and the argument for using Chapman in the eighth inning becomes weaker.

In order for Baker or any other manager to not manage according to the save rule would require a shifting of the entire bullpen to a perfect world scenario of varied arms and no particular role for any—the bullpen-by-committee. The bullpen-by-committee could work if there are young pitchers who can’t complain about their roles, veteran journeymen just happy to have a job, and a manager who’s comfortable in working in such a manner. This confluence of circumstances is hard to come by. In fact, in baseball today, it doesn’t exist.

And I thought the general rule of thumb was to use the closer at home if the game is tied or there’s a close deficit in the top of the ninth inning. If Baker was indeed holding Chapman out for the save opportunity, was it that terrible a decision if just about everyone—barring an emergency—does it? The “everyone” I’m referring to includes teams run by Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow who are idols in stat circles.

It got worse when Baker replied to a question as to why he didn’t use Chapman by saying, “That’s a manager’s decision,” he said. “You can’t put in Chapman all the time. I was saving Chapman for the (save). It’s easy now to say. I don’t know, man, maybe you should come down and manage.”

Chapman hasn’t pitched since Monday and has only pitched twice this week as Keith Law snarkily tweeted:

#allthetime RT @JYerina5: Dusty on why Chapman didn’t face Jones: “You can’t put in Chapman all the time” He has pitched twice this week

Let’s put Law in to manage a club somewhere and see how long he lasts with the amount of abuse the players would heap upon him as a non-player who’s really short, pompous and obnoxious before he ran away crying; how long he was able to take the scrutiny and sudden enemy status of those he thought were “allies” when he has a deer-in-the-headlights look at dealing with everything a manager has to deal with.

The critics wanted Baker to use Chapman in the eighth inning to pitch to Garrett Jones instead of having had Broxton do it. Broxton gave up a game-tying homer to Jones so this is the classic second guess. Is the strategic preference advocated by the “leverage” theory accurate? Yes, I suppose it is if the Reds had a dual-headed closer and used Chapman/Broxton interchangeably to get the admittedly meaningless stat save it would be, but they don’t. No team uses more than one closer, not even the Rays, A’s or Astros. Chapman has not pitched more than one inning since last August and needed to be shelved for a brief time in September because of shulder fatigue. Maybe he can’t pitch more than one inning.

The real culprits to Baker not using a lefty to pitch to Jones is the fact that he doesn’t have Marshall, who’s on the disabled list with a sore shoulder and that the Reds don’t use both Broxton and Chapman to close. If he had Marshall, we’re not talking about this because he would’ve had a lefty to pitch to Jones. If he used either Broxton or Chapman, Chapman might’ve started the eighth inning.

The question then becomes this: Would Baker have gotten ripped for using the myriad of alternatives because he didn’t have an explanation that suited the aesthetic of the critics who tear him to shreds no matter what he does or doesn’t do?

Don’t you think that Baker would’ve found a game to get Chapman into this week if he had the opportunity to get him some work? Chapman pitched on Monday May 27th and on Saturday night recording saves in both games. The game on Sunday was an afternoon game. Could it be that Chapman has something bothering him with his shoulder or elbow and is a bit tender if he’s used too much? He had shoulder problems last season, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there’s something tweaked and he was only available for one inning.

Could it be that Baker, in an admittedly clumsy fashion as evidenced by the response that was in the linked piece on HardballTalk, was trying to deflect that Chapman might be having some sort of an issue that the Reds don’t want anyone to know about? One that isn’t a long-term problem but could affect the way opposing teams stack their lineup and prepare their bench for the eventuality that Chapman might be used? The easy thing to do for the bloggers and “experts” is to take the decision and manager’s statement as to why he made the decision at face value and go to town in one of their favorite pastimes: unleashing on a manager they despise. It fits into the biases and beliefs of their constituencies that others could do a better job than the actual manager of the team whether they have the whole story or not.

Or maybe it was just a “manager’s decision” as Baker said, one he made based on the players he had available, the ones he didn’t, and the roles that have been assigned to relievers not just by him, but by every team in baseball. It just so happens that stat people hate Baker and use him as their case study of what’s “wrong” with managing. Except it’s everywhere and everyone else does pretty much the same thing.

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Aroldis Chapman—Starter or Closer?

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The Reds have experimented with Aroldis Chapman as a starter this spring after he spent the first three seasons in the majors as a reliever. He was their closer in 2012 and saved 38 games with dominant 122 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. Overall, in his three years, he’s thrown 135 innings and struck out 212. It’s obvious why the Reds would like to see how he’d do as a starter with those kinds of strikeout numbers and a Randy Johnson/Sandy Koufax potential for left-handed dominance if he has the durability to start.

Let’s look at the various factors in Chapman as a starter or reliever from the point of view of the participants.

Aroldis Chapman

He’s said he wants to go back to the bullpen. How much of an influence the player has on his role depends on the player, his contract, how much of a pest he can make of himself if he doesn’t get his way. Chapman’s statement that he wants to close was said in a sort of passive aggressive manner of, “I want to close, but it’s not my decision.”

Some players would exercise a self-fulfilling prophecy and say they won’t be able to start and stay healthy and effective over a full season if they want to be in the bullpen, and then come up with a malady that may or may not be psychosomatic. In the age of heavy stat use, the mental aspect is regularly ignored but no less important. Years ago, the Dodgers’ on-again/off-again third baseman Pedro Guerrero was so miserable at third base that it affected his hitting. When the Dodgers finally said enough and moved him back to the outfield, he went on a tear. It took Jonathan Papelbon to go to the Red Sox in 2007 and basically “save” their season by saying he wanted to close. It’s not to be ignored what the player wants.

What the Reds need

The 2007 Red Sox didn’t have a closer and were on the verge of making the same mistake they made in 2003 by going into the season without someone who could get the outs in the ninth inning and having it cost them games and teamwide confidence. The Reds are not in that position. They re-signed Jonathan Broxton to close if the Chapman-as-starter experiment worked. What they promised Broxton is unknown. Given the closer market and how it crashed, Broxton wasn’t in a position to be making demands that he be the closer or he wouldn’t re-sign. He’s making $21 million over three-years to soften his bruised feelings and gaudy save stats if he’s not closing.

The Reds don’t need Chapman as a starter. He’s competing with Mike Leake for the fifth spot and they’d be perfectly fine with the rotation they’d have with Chapman in the bullpen.

Management

GM Walt Jocketty is not an ideologue as Theo Epstein was when he continually insisted that he wanted Papelbon to start. Brian Cashman did the same thing with Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees succeeded in nothing more than destroying Chamberlain. Because of that, it’s clear that Jocketty believes that Chapman could be a very good starter and he’s not trying it based on theory or what’s popular.

With that 100+ mph fastball, a slider and a changeup that he rarely uses as a reliever, he certainly has the stuff to be as good as Johnson and Koufax were. At age 25, it’s a tough thing to relegate him to the bullpen for his whole career when there’s that chance that he could be a Hall of Fame, Cy Young Award winning starting pitcher if only given the opportunity. An old-school baseball man like Jocketty also doesn’t want to be seen as having his decisions dictated by the players or by new orthodoxy.

Manager Dusty Baker wants Chapman to close.

For all the outsider talk that closing will be “easier” on a pitcher’s arm, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, John Smoltz, did both and said that closing was tougher on him than starting was and he preferred being a starter. He was great at both. It depends on the pitcher.

If Johnson, Koufax or Nolan Ryan came on the scene today, it’s very possible that the powers-that-be would have said, “No way they can maintain this velocity over 220 innings. Make him a closer.” The White Sox made Rich Gossage a starter in 1976. His record was a dreadful 9-17, but the team was awful and he was mostly effective in the role. His strikeout numbers plummeted and he hated it. He was moved back to the bullpen and went to the Hall of Fame.

The best decision

Considering the Reds depth in the starting rotation, there’s no reason to move X here and Y there to accommodate the Z theory for the sake of it. They have five starters and their bullpen would be devastating with Sean Marshall, Broxton and Chapman in the late innings. If they weren’t legitimate World Series contenders, it would make sense to let Chapman start and see what happens. But they’re in it to win now and that’s not the time to experiment. For 2013, they should move Chapman back into the closer’s role and keep it in mind that he might be capable of starting at some other time in his career, just not now.

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National League Patience Or Panic?

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Earlier I wrote of the American League teams that either need to have patience or panic. Let’s look at the National League teams in the same predicament.

Miami Marlins

It’s safe to assume that Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria’s office is outfitted with escape hatches, listening devices, nefarious contraptions and trapdoors at various spots on the floor—one of which sends the hapless victim to the airtight, windowless room (complete with Lazarus Pit) in which Jack McKeon is kept.

There’s one small vent as a concession for McKeon’s cigar smoke.

Along with these amenities is, presumably, a dutiful assistant carrying a black box. Inside that black box is the panic button.

When said panic button is pressed, something happens: a manager is fired; a player is demoted; a son-in-law is sent to speak to the media; a pretentiously gauche extravaganza masquerading as art is activated; a fealty-induced political marker is cashed.

Something.

Is it time for the Marlins to panic?

Just about.

Already under investigation by the SEC for the way the new Marlins’ Stadium was financed, with manager Ozzie Guillen under siege for his pro-Fidel Castro comments and the team playing poorly, it’s not long before a Steinbrennerean missive is issued on stationary emblazoned across the top with the words:

From the Mildly Artistic Mind of Jeffrey L.

He learned his lessons from George Steinbrenner in terms of morally-challenged behavior under the guise of business and personal interests and now his team is eerily similar to the Yankees of the 1980s: expensive, underachieving, fractured, dysfunctional and disinterested.

Heath Bell and Jose Reyes have both been atrocious; Hanley Ramirez isn’t hitting; and, on the whole, they look like a group that not only doesn’t know how to play together, but don’t like each other very much.

Loria thought he was buying a contender and that the attendance to see that contender would be commensurate with the amenities of a new park and a good team.

The winning team would attract the real baseball fans; the nightclub, pool, dancing girls, acrobats, restaurants and art would attract the eclectic denizens of Miami who go where it’s cool regardless of the venue.

They’re seventh in the National League in attendance.

The team is flawed and, right now, just plain bad.

Loria’s finger is itching to hit that panic button and it should be because veteran teams in disarray tend to spiral out of control early once they sense the season is lost.

Philadelphia Phillies

No team could function with the spate of injuries that have befallen the Phillies. All they’re trying to do is keep their heads above water until Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee are healthy.

Manager Charlie Manuel has been trying to find a lineup combination that works. He’s playing small ball to account for the lost power and it’s failing. Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco aren’t hitting and as good as Freddy Galvis is defensively, the Phillies currently can’t afford to carry his popgun bat.

If they get healthy, they’ll be fine. The question is what level of Howard and Utley are they going to get when they return and how long is Lee going to be out with a strained oblique? They don’t want to fall too far behind, but the second Wild Card added this year makes it much easier to be patient even in a demanding city like Philadelphia.

Cincinnati Reds

Amid all the preseason talk that the Reds’ decision to trade chunks of their farm system to get Mat Latos and Sean Marshall and the pending free agencies (in 2014) of Joey Votto and (in 2013) of Brandon Phillips made them a “win now or else” team, they’re well-situated for the future with all their pieces in place.

Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs are all under team control for the foreseeable future; and they signed Votto, Phillips and Marshall to contract extensions.

The loss of Ryan Madson was a blow, but they’ve replaced him with Marshall and Aroldis Chapman can close if necessary.

The pitching has been solid; they just haven’t hit. This core of this Reds team was second in runs scored in 2011 and first in 2010. They’re going to hit.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants’ strength was in their starting rotation and that they had a deep, diverse and organized bullpen with a horse of a closer.

The rotation should be fine but the bullpen is in flux with the loss of Brian Wilson. Bruce Bochy is not the closer-by-committee type of manager, but that’s where he is as of now. He named Santiago Casilla as the closer and proceeded to treat him as if he’s just another arm in the bullpen as soon as he got in trouble in one of his first save chances after being dubbed the closer.

The lineup has been better than expected, but is still carrying potential black spots at shortstop, second base, first base and right field.

And Angel Pagan, being Angel Pagan, will inspire the entire team—individually—to strangle him at least once by forgetting how many outs there are; running the team out of an inning; throwing to the wrong base (or wrong team); or something.

The Giants don’t need to panic, but they do need to be vigilant that unless they settle on a reasonable plan with their bullpen, they’re going to fade by August.

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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Don’t Expect Miracles From Theo Epstein

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The Cubs paid a lot of money and are going to send undetermined compensation—a prospect or prospects—for the right to hire Theo Epstein while he still had a year remaining on his contract with the Red Sox—Boston.com Story.

Only hindsight will tell whether or not this is a wise move.

In similar fashion, the Red Sox were set to hire Billy Beane from the Oakland A’s after the 2002 season and send a young infielder named Kevin Youkilis to the A’s for the right to do so.

Beane backed out on the deal that was worth over $12 million and had some insane perks such as letting Beane spend a chunk of his time on the West Coast and run the Red Sox from there.

Retrospectively, it’s hard to see Beane having replicated the success enjoyed by Epstein and his staff with the Red Sox. Two championships; an annual contender with homegrown talent; and daily sellouts speak for themselves.

Now Epstein’s the man with the reputation.

But 5-years at $18.5 million? For a team president?

I’m dubious.

What’s Epstein going to do with the Cubs?

First he’s hiring trusted acolytes from the Padres and his days with the Red Sox including current Padres GM Jed Hoyer.

I wondered yesterday why the Padres were letting Hoyer go without compensation since he’s under contract through 2014, but they’re going to receive prospects from the Cubs as well.

I wouldn’t give up players for an executive, but this is the way business is being done today. Don’t automatically dismiss how good the prospects might be because few knew what Youkilis was before Moneyball.

If anyone’s thinking the Cubs are going to be a lean machine of inexpensive “finds” that the “genius” Epstein discovered using some arcane formula that he and only he knows, you haven’t been paying attention.

Back when Beane was set to take over the Red Sox, an important factor in his potential for success or failure is that the details of Moneyball and Beane’s strategies weren’t widely known because the book had yet to be published. He was operating from a personal strategy borne out of desperation that not all were privy to; now, everyone has the same stats and are, again, reliant on old-school scouting techniques; an intelligent manager; superior coaching; smart trades; good free agent signings; and luck.

Those who point to other clubs who’ve been successful on a budget aren’t delving into the requisite factors of a team like the Rays maintaining excellence without any money and a decrepit, uninviting ballpark—they’ve got a load of starting pitching from being so consistently terrible for years; locked up key components like Evan Longoria; and have been masterful at finding bullpen arms and putting them in a position to succeed with an altered approach and a superlative defense.

There’s a baseline of talent with the Cubs—just as there was one with the Red Sox when Epstein was placed in charge there. It’s not as deep nor as good, but they have some starting pitching with Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano (who’s a lunatic, but might be salvageable); they have Starlin Castro; and relievers Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol.

It’s not a barren wasteland and there’s no mandate to cut costs due to monetary constraints.

This whole series of events is a bit incestuous and reminiscent of the decried “old boys club” of yesteryear when former players or loyal executives were placed in the perch of GM rather than finding someone qualified to do the job with a breadth of experience in every aspect of running an organization.

Epstein, who wanted to leap from the Red Sox Hindenburg, got his out—and a lot of money and power—with the Cubs.

Hoyer is leaving a situation where he couldn’t spend big and is grabbing the Epstein ladder to be his top lieutenant and run the club on a day-to-day basis while Epstein acts presidential.

Another former Epstein assistant, Josh Byrnes, is taking over in San Diego.

This is a similar dynamic to that which was rebelled against with Moneyball—that “old boys club”. Outsiders have become insiders, except that now, it’s not a litany of former players and longtime employees, but young college graduates who cut their teeth as interns, crunched numbers and worked their way up; it’s reaching its logical conclusion with the failures of such names as Paul DePodesta, whose tenure with the Dodgers was a nightmare that cannot be conveniently laid at the feet of Frank McCourt as many set out to do in his weak defense.

Beane himself has become a punchline.

And that’s a far cry from what was essentially a blank check and contract that Red Sox owner John Henry used to lure Beane to the Red Sox.

In today’s world, a GM has to be savvy to finances, scouting, development and stats; he has to delegate; and he (or she—Kim Ng is going to interview for the Angels job) has to be able to express himself to the media, saying things without saying anything to get into trouble.

Epstein has all these attributes.

But so did Beane.

Could another GM candidate like Jerry DiPoto or Tony LaCava go to the Cubs and do essentially what Epstein’s going to do? What he did with the Red Sox? Spend money, draft well, make some trades that might or might not work out and cover up any free agent mistakes with more money?

Yes.

And could they do it at a cheaper rate than $18.5 million for Epstein; presumably another $5 million for Hoyer; and the prospects that are going to the  Padres and Red Sox?

Again, I say yes.

Time will tell if this was a smart move. Just as the Red Sox were fortunate that Beane backed out on them and they hired Epstein, the Cubs could see one of the people they had a chance to hire go elsewhere and become the man they think they’re hiring now, except another club will benefit from that unknown.

The Cubs got the man they wanted.

We’ll see if it works out or if they would’ve been better off to have had the negotiations come apart, leaving them to hire someone younger and with the same attributes that got Epstein the Red Sox job in the first place.

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