. . . And Now For Some Major League Baseball
Filed Under: Opinion, Sports | Posted: 04/20/2012 at 4:07PM
Comments | Region: Iowa | United States
by Donald Croft Brickner
Fantasy baseball coaches aren’t the only ones catapulted into a bit of chaos during this 2012 major league season so far — so, too, are MLB managers, coaches and GMs. Something silently weird happened during MLB’s 2011 season — and it’s increasing in its impact this year, as well: fewer teams require an established closer any longer. And there’s an unanticipated reason for that.
I’m an oft-published online philosopher, not a sports writer, per se (although I once was — and even worked as the lone major league baseball statistician for two summers at The Miami Herald during the mid-1980s).
In any case, I have a rule about any and all anomalies — in the real world, and in sports: one ignores them at one’s own peril.
* * * * *
During spring training in February and March I did my yearly poring-over of all of the teams’ 2012 rosters, along with their stats from 2011 — it’s a yearly hobby of mine. And I began to encounter a couple of group statistics I don’t recall ever running into previously — you know, like ever.
Here’s the first example — and to emphasize the commonality of the stats (in this case, two sets of batting averages), I created my own made-up lineup of hitters who all shared the same peculiar, if seemingly-anomalous quirks.
See if you can guess the double-punch-line anomaly that follows:
1. CF Curtis Granderson (NY-A) .272/.258
2. RF Ichiro Suzuki (Sea) .281/.268
3. 2B Robinson Cano (NY-A) .314/.276
4. 1B Joe Votto (Cin) .309/.299
5. DH David Ortiz (Bos) .329/.298
6. LF Brennan Boesch (Det) .302/.276
7. C A. J. Pierzynski (Chi-A) .305/.263
8. 3B Jack Hannahan (Cle) .296/.226,
or, Lonnie Chisenhall (Cle) .260/.253
9. SS Mike Fontenot (SF) .255/.220
These players — all of whom bat left-handed — are among a total of 43 lefty hitters (switch-hitters weren’t included) with 100 at-bats or more who batted higher against left-handed pitchers than they did against righties (and six of them played for two teams). It’s not your everyday outcome. (BTW — there aren’t a lot of left-handed hitting shortstops in the majors, as a rule.)
That’s not a breath-taking percentage (or anomaly) in the overall scheme of 2011 statistics, as it turns out — just eyebrow-raising, given the quality of the players involved. But it proves to be mildly meaningful, particularly given that eight of the 10 players, above, were (and still are) American Leaguers.
More on that aside later.
* * * * *
The next anomaly I encountered — and this one is genuinely large statistically, and therefore more meaningful — had to do with every catcher who played in the majors in 2011.
Of those 109 catchers, check out the final batting averages of the following 30 of them:
AMERICAN LEAGUE: Craig Tatum (Balt), .195; Jeff Mathis (LA-A), .174; Drew Butera (Minn), 167; Rene Rivera (Minn), .144; Steve Holm (Minn), .118; Austin Romine (NY-A), .158; Gustavo Molina (NY-A), 167; Landon Powell (Oak), .171; Anthony Recker (Oak), .176; Adam Moore (Sea), 167; Kelly Shoppach (TB), .176; Jose Lobaton (TB), .118.
NATIONAL LEAGUE: Koyle Hill (Chi-N), .194; Welington Castillo (Chi-N), .154; Davin Mesoraco (Cin), .180; John Baker (Fla[Mia]), .154; Carlos Corporan (Hous), .188; J.R. Towles (Hous), .184; Robinson Cancel (Hous), .000; Dioner Navarro (LA-N), .193; Tim Federowicz (LA-N), .154; Hector Giminez (LA-N), .143; Wil Nieves (Milw), .140; Martin Maldonado (Milw), .000; Mike Nickeas (NY-N), .189; Brian Schneider (Phil), .176; Dusty Brown (Pitt), .107; Rob Johnson (SD), .190; Kyle Phillips (SD), .171; Eli Whiteside (SF), .197.
Some background statistics are in order here: of the 109 total catchers who played in 2011, 30 — yes, the 30 above, or a hearty 27.5 percent — had a tough time hitting the field with their ballcaps, all struggling to hit at least .200: that’s The Mendoza Line in major league-ese, which historically separates the poor from the awful.
In all, 61 catchers (29.5% of them hitting below .200) played in the National League last year, while 48 (25% hit below .200) played in the American.
* * * * *
Yet, there’s more: another 35 catchers (22 in the AL, and "only" 16 in the NL) — totaling another 32 percent of all 2011 catchers — hit between .200 and .239. Add in the sub-.200s, then, the total is 65.
Wrapping it all up, then: 65 of 109 catchers last season — almost 60 percent! — failed to hit higher than .240!
(Very few of the sub-.200s, by the way, are still with last season’s clubs — except those like the Cubs’ Castillo, the Reds’ Mesoraco and the Dodgers’ Federowicz, as they’re considered future talent.)
Anyway: why so many? Are catchers that lousy (…and, it must be noted, shortstops and third basemen weren’t much better)? Or, is something else happening outside the purview of most of our national sportswriters?
Yes: It’s something else. Most beat reporters likely just didn’t notice it.
And it’s kind of unsettling.
* * * * *
It’s not entirely clear how what follows happened — there are quite a number of possibilities — but in 2011 a flood of top-drawer relief pitchers, all at best secondary closers only (and none of them with had than three years in the majors) drenched both leagues.
Suddenly there were relievers in the teams’ bullpens who were not only better than the eighth-inning set-up guys (which itself is only a fairly recent historic development conceptually) — but they were better than many of the closers. Maybe even most.
By year’s end, there were more individual relievers who’d captured at least one save than in any season in recent memory.
* * * * *
Here are some numbers:
Thirty teams used 693 pitchers during the 2011 season, 501 of them right-handers (72.3 percent) and 192 of them lefties (27.7 percent) — which is a slightly greater split than what’s historically been perceived to be a two-thirds-righties to one-third-southpaws ratio.
Now, we’ll label these numbers as a Team Usage statistic. It refers to how many different pitchers every team used combined, whether any added relievers arrived from the minors, through free agency, trades, or what have you.
Some pitchers, thus, appeared with more than one team, and so were counted twice, above. (The assumption "Team Usage" makes here is that if a team requires adding a left-handed reliever, say, they’re going to get one — and the source becomes irrelevant — maybe even frivolous, as was depicted in Brad Pitt’s Oscar-nominated take on the A’s Billy Beane in the 2011 film, Moneyball.)
No matter — of the same 693 pitchers, 235 (38.9%) were mostly starters, and 458 (66.1%) were closers, relievers or spot starters.
"Mostly relievers" is our topic’s focus here — and in particular the 93 exceptional young pitchers — more than three per team average! — who burst onto the scene mostly just last season. Sixty of them were right-handers, while 33 were lefties (or 35.5% of the sample, which was significantly higher than the MLB average for lefties-per-team of 27.7%).
Here’s a partial listing of that sample, which required, going-in, that every relief pitcher made at least 30 appearances in 2011 to qualify for this 93-pitcher sample.
Again, none of these relievers were their team’s primary closer:
* = rookie
T 2011 Reliever (Team) G Sv IP H HR BB SO ERA
R Joe Smith (Cle) 71 0 67 52 1 21 45 2.01
R *Vinnie Pestano (Cle) 67 2 62 41 5 24 84 2.32
R *Al Albuquerque (Det) 41 0 43 21 0 29 67 1.87
R *Greg Holland (KC) 46 4 60 37 3 19 74 1.80
R Bobby Cassevah (LA-A) 30 0 40 28 1 19 24 2.72
R David Robertson (NY-A) 70 1 67 40 1 35 100 1.08
R Cory Wade (NY-A) 40 0 40 33 5 8 30 2.04
R Grant Balfour (Oak) 62 2 62 44 8 20 59 2.47
R David Pauley (Sea) 39 0 54 38 2 16 34 2.15
R Joel Peralta (TB) 71 6 68 44 7 18 61 2.93
R Casey Janssen (Tor) 55 2 56 47 2 14 53 2.26
R Koji Uehara (Balt/Tex) 65 0 65 38 11 9 85 2.35
R Mike Adams (SD/Tex) 75 2 74 44 5 14 74 1.47
R David Hernandez (Ari) 74 11 69 49 4 30 77 3.38
R Jeff Samadzija (Chi-N) 75 0 88 64 5 50 87 2.97
R Rafael Betancourt (Col) 68 8 62 46 7 8 73 2.89
R *Steve Cishek (Fla/Mia) 45 3 55 45 1 19 55 2.69
R Jason Motte (StL) 78 9 68 49 2 16 63 2.25
OTHER TOP RH NON-FRONTLINE CLOSERS IN 2011 ALSO INCLUDED: Jim Johnson (Balt); Alfredo Aceves (Bos); Jesse Crain (Chi-A); *Aaron Crow (KC); *Louis Coleman (KC); Luis Ayala (NY-A); Cory Wade (NY-A); *Fautino de los Santos (Oak); *Brandon Gomes (TB); Brad Ziegler (Oak/Ari); *Bryan Shaw (Ariz); Cristhian Martinez (Atl); Logan Andrusek (Cin); Jose Arredondo (Cin); *Sam LeCure (Cin); Matt Belisle (Colo); Matt Lindstrom (Colo); Edward Mujica (Fla[Mia]); Wilton Lopez (Hous); *David Carpenter (Hous); Matt Guerrier (LA-N); Mike MacDougal (LA-N); Kameron Loe (Milw); *Marco Estrada (Milw); *Pedro Beato (NY-N); *Michael Stutes (Phil); Jose Veras (Pitt); Chris Resop (Pitt); Mitchell Boggs (StL); Chad Qualls (SD); Luke Gregorson (SD); Henry Rodriguez (Wash); *Ryan Matthews (Wash).
NOTE: main closers Jordan Walden (LA-A) and Javy Guerra (LA-N) were both rookies in 2011. (All 30 main closers in MLB were RHs last season, by the way.)
Surprised? And that’s just the newly rising right-handers. Here’s a sampling of the lefties:
L *Chris Sale (Chi-A) 58 8 71 52 6 27 79 2.79
L Scott Downs (LA-A) 60 1 54 39 3 15 35 1.34
L Glen Perkins (Minn) 65 2 62 55 2 21 65 2.48
L Jonny Venters (Atl) 85 5 88 53 2 43 96 1.84
L Eric O’Flaherty (Atl) 78 0 74 59 2 21 67 0.98
L *Rex Brothers (Col) 48 1 41 33 4 20 59 2.88
L Antonio Bastardo (Phil) 64 8 58 28 6 26 70 2.64
L *Cory Luebke** (StL) 46 0 140 105 12 44 154 3.24
L *Josh Spence (SD) 40 0 30 14 2 19 31 2.73
L Jeremy Affeldt (SF) 67 3 62 47 5 24 54 2.63
L Bill Bray (Cin) 79 0 48 35 3 17 44 2.98
L Randy Choate (Fla/Mia) 54 0 25 13 3 13 31 1.82
L *Scott Elbert (LA-N) 47 2 33 27 1 14 34 2.43
L Mark Rzepczynski (Tor/StL) 71 0 62 50 3 26 61 3.34
OTHER TOP LH NON-FRONTLINE CLOSERS IN 2011 ALSO INCLUDED: Aroldis Chapman (Cin); Antonio Bastardo (Phil); Rafael Perez (Cle); Franklin Morales (Bos); Matt Thornton (Chi-A); Tony Sipp (Cle); Daniel Schlereth (Det); *Tim Collins (KC); Hisonari Takahashi (LA-A); *Matt Reynolds (Colo); *Rex Brothers (Colo); *Mike Dunn (Fla[Mia]); *Tony Watson (Pitt); *Daniel Moskos (Pitt); Sean Burnett (Wash);Craig Breslow (Oak); *Joe Paterson (Ariz); George Sherrill (Atl); *Sergio Escalona (Hous) Tim Byrdak (NY-N); Boone Logan (NY-A); *Cesaar Ramos (TB).
** Luebke also had 17 starts
*** Ours is not a primary reality
Oh, what — you’ve never heard of most of these people? Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. I hadn’t, either.
Here’s something else about this grouping: combined, all 93 of them averaged less than $1 million in salary for 2011.
(Seriously. Who pays attention to who pitches the middle innings of most games? Sportswriters and TV announcers rarely do.)
These middle relievers — it’s time to admit they’re just nameless guys, in the greater scheme of things.
(Who, comparatively-speaking, don’t get paid squat.)
* * * * *
Barely 10 games into the 2012 season so far, starting rotations — including the Angels, the Rays, The Yankees and the Red Sox among them — have been getting knocked around quite a bit.
The majority of MLB’s relievers, meanwhile, have been doing quite well — including a whole new slew of names just about no one’s ever heard of previously.
Several of the names featured in the 2011 sample, above, are now either starters, or closers — including some of the lefties. There’s also a few top closers again this year who are rookies.
What their overall impact may be on baseball now and in the future, is one question.
A second one is … where did all of these players come from!
* * * * *
Granted, not all of the pitchers highlighted were rookies — although most of those who technically weren’t had developed to the point in 2011 that, perhaps for the first time in their MLB careers, they had genuine impact with their teams.
One quick note, BTW, about the faux lineup of LH hitters at the beginning of this essay, who hit left-handed pitchers (including starters, obviously) "better" than right-handed pitchers: Noting again that eight of the 10 listed were American Leaguers, a point should be made that NL LH relievers were generally more overpowering — and that is the right word — than were their AL lefties’ counterparts. At least this was so in the sample provided.
Regardless, where all these guys come from isn’t entirely clear. Teams have been calling up younger players sooner — reaching down into Class A leagues is today a consideration — while so many big market teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Angels, Phillies, etc.) gutted much of their upper-level minor league systems of all-but-ready-to-go prospects last decade — particularly top-rated pitchers — in order to acquire veterans.
Or, of course, maybe this generation of pitchers has simply grown bigger and healthier, as have their peers — and also has electronic assistance tools that were unavailable to previous generations.
Off-setting some of this has been an outpouring of Tommy John surgeries that are not only far more commonplace than ever, but are affecting second- and third-year pitchers much more often.
The bottom line for now, though, is this: if you take the 93 top young non-closers mentioned above, and then toss in 30 2011 closers, as well as at least another 30 top-drawer veterans into the mix (the latter have all been ignored here), you end up with an average of at least five outstanding relievers per team. At least!
There’s never been anything like that before in my lifetime.
And it’s got to have all kinds of impact at the management levels.
* * * * *
Finally, I’ll close with my picks for team finishes for this new 2012 season, in which, at this writing, only some 12 games have been played so far.
(Team batting averages through 10 games are in parentheses:)
Tampa Bay Rays (.249) — The top four young starters are the best in the AL (on paper), and the team added power, and upgrades.
New York Yankees (.253) — One last, final hurrah for this as-yet still slowly-degrading team of old poops. The pitching is adequate.
Boston Red Sox (.281) — The talent’s here to win the division (once the team is healthy), but something’s wrong. No real esprit de corp.
Toronto Blue Jays (.231) — They have the potential to lead all of MLB in homers, and their dour pitching is a better: just not enough.
Baltimore Orioles (.256) — Vastly improved, notably their pitching. Their hitting should improve, too. Only look who’s ahead of them!
Chicago White Sox (.239) — With a big comeback from Dunn, this team looks happy with Ventura. Pretty good bullpen, okay rotation.
Detroit Tigers (.276) — Way overrated — after Fielder, Cabrera and Verlander . The division’s weak: not as good as anyone in the East.
Cleveland Indians (.238) — There’s some great young talent here. The overall pitching, while decent, is sporadic. Good vibes, though.
Kansas City Royals (.258) — There’s a lot of fresh talent, who could reach .500. A fair rotation, a great bullpen. But they need to believe!
Minnesota Twins (.258) –Simply woeful, almost everywhere — and how sad is that? Yes, there are good players here. Just not many.
Los Angeles Angels (263) — A great rotation will right itself, and a clumsy defense will be settled. The pitching will beat the Rangers’.
Texas Rangers (.267) — All the pan-clanging in the world can’t help Texas achieve a Series win yet. The lineup is stale, the starters iffy.
Seattle Mariners (.232) — The hitting will prove markedly upgraded and the pitching may be a pleasant surprise. Could finish at .500.
Oakland A’s (.201) — How Billy Beaneish, moving a rookie catcher to a starting third baseman: in the spring! Good trades not enough.
Washington Nationals (.247) — Upon the big additions of LF Morse and rookie CF Harper, the Nationals may bust a lot of chops loudly.
Miami Marlins (.244) — Still adjusting to a new park and manager, they have all the tools to make the playoffs (and beyond). Will they?
Atlanta Braves (..232) — Both the Braves’ offense and defense are held together by fumes — and the pitching’s simply not that good.
New York Mets (.252) — Against my better instincts the Mets could show real improvement everywhere this year. Good esprit de corp.
Philadelphia Phillies (.260) — Competing in what’s now the best NL division, their weakened hitting won’t support the great pitching.
St. Louis Cardinals (.299) — The Cards have everything a genuine contending team needs to make the playoffs. Who needs Pujols?
Milwaukee Brewers (.228) — Their off-season deals weren’t too bad, given they lost Fielder — but the injuries bug is long overdue.
Chicago Cubs (.236) — The Cubs don’t look like much as yet, but Theo’s teams historically make great deals after the All-Star break.
Cincinnati Reds (.205) — This team always looks good on paper of late, only something’s lost in translation. Do the Reds lack heart?
Houston Astros (.255) — Confident in knowing they can’t be as bad as they were in 2012, some young talent is rising: not quite to .500.
Pittsburgh Pirates (.188) — Yes, yes — they picked up a couple of decent veteran starters for 2012; but is a building plan yet in place?
Los Angeles Dodgers (.252) — Now blessed with Magical owners, the players will ride high knowing money’s there to further upgrade.
San Francisco Giants (.243) — With a mildly improved offense and the same great pitching (short their big closer), they’ll still compete.
Colorado Rockies (.264) — This is a pretty solid veteran team, and they appear to have found some pitchers who can pitch at Coors.
Arizona Diamondbacks (.237) — One of the most invisible teams in MLB, they have disarming hitting and pitching in a tough division.
San Diego Padres (.201) — They’ve yet to master playing in a tough home run park. So: move in the bleeping fences! They have talent.
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