Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.
August 25, 2008 9:32 AM
Posted by Geoff Baker
Another visit by the Minnesota Twins? Love it how the baseball schedule lets the Mariners avoid one team for most of the season, then has them playing three series in less than a month. Almost as much fun as that September road trip in which the M's fly to Anaheim, then to Kansas City for four days, before heading on to Oakland (which is about an hour's flight from Anaheim). But I digress.
The Twins coming here will bring another nasty reminder to M's fans of how their team failed to unload Jarrod Washburn at the July 31 trade deadline, or afterwards in a waiver move that involved Minnesota. Remember, the idea behind the Twins claiming Washburn off waivers was that they were going to put him in their rotation and then make one of their starters into an eighth-inning set-up man. But Washburn was pulled off waivers when the teams couldn't make a deal.
So, how is the Twins' bullpen doing? Not very well. The Twinkies blew another late-inning lead on Sunday, this time to the Angels. It was the sixth lead blown in the eighth inning or later this season. You also have to question the overall stability of the bullpen. As we saw here in Seattle late last year, lacking a solid eighth inning guy can have a ripple effect on the entire bullpen. Anyone who watched the initial Mariners-Twins games this year cannot have been too impressed with Minnesota's ability to hold a lead.
The Twins were up 8-0 on Aug. 17, then gave up eight runs the final four innings before holding on for an 11-8 win. Minnesota was up 5-0 in the sixth inning the day before that, then gave up a six-spot before rallying for a 7-6 victory. On Aug. 5, the Twins had a 7-6 lead in the eighth only to give up a pair to lose the game. They were up 6-0 the night before that until Seattle scored one in the sixth and 10 runs in the seventh to hand the Twins a loss.
So, yes. The Twins bullpen was and still is a concern for a team that has fallen out of first place. Could a Washburn trade have helped? Maybe. We'll never know. Now, the Twins will have to wonder "what if?'' should they fail to make the post-season.
Teams that won't be doing that?
The Chicago Cubs, for one.
They went out weeks before the July trade deadline and made somewhat of a blockbuster move to acquire Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from Oakland for four players. It was a risky move at the time, given how Harden is known for being oft-injured.
The Jayson Stark column I referenced above had this tidbit:
In fact, one baseball man called Oakland's decision to trade Harden now -- while he's pitching great and the A's are still in a race -- a "serious red flag." Meanwhile, in a potentially related development, a scout we surveyed reported that Harden's velocity hasn't been quite the same in his most recent couple of starts, since his eight-inning, 11-strikeout two-hitter against the Phillies on June 26.
Harden has dominated since, posting a 0.47 ERA his last three times out. Oh wait, ERA "doesn't matter" right? OK, fine, he has his fifth double-digit strikeout game as a Cub, fanning 11. He's won four of his last five outings and the team is 6-2 when he starts. The Cubs have maintained a healthy 4 1/2 game lead atop the NL Central and the entire NL for that matter. Which was all the Harden deal was about. Winning this year. They'll worry about next year in 2009, after perhaps winning a World Series.
The team chasing the Cubs, a very fine Brewers squad, might be neck and neck with the Cubbies had they not been swept by Chicago at home a few weeks back. But the Brew Crew has the wild-card lead, largely because of their bold move to acquire C.C. Sabathia a day before the Harden deal went down. Milwaukee is now riding Sabathia every five days, some might say into the ground. He's thrown 120 pitches or more in each of his last seven starts. Oh well. He's a half-year rental and they gave up some pretty good prospects to get him, including U.S. Olympian Matt LaPorta.
Sabathia is 8-0 with a 1.59 ERA as a Brewer and the team is 9-1 when he starts. Or, if you will, his Fielding Independant Pitching since joining Cleveland is only 2.60. His line drive rate is still up near 21 percent for the season, but we'll forgive him. So will Brewers fans. He strikes a few guys out. If Milwaukee makes the playoffs, you would have a case that Sabathia is the NL MVP. I'm serious. As good as Pedro Martinez was for the Red Sox in nearly winning the AL MVP in 1999, you can argue that Sabathia has been even more valuable to the fortunes of this Brewers club -- even if it's been for only half a season. Shannon Stewart was fourth in AL MVP voting in 2003 in two months with the Twins.
So, another July deal paying off.
How about teams that sat on the sidelines and didn't make crucial moves?
Let's look at two teams that balked at the Washburn sweepstakes, the Yankees and Cardinals.
New York's starters' ERA is up from 4.41 to 4.61 (from July to August), while the relievers have shot up from 3.19 to 5.62. This is what inevitably happens when the rotation fails to take the pressure off a bullpen. New York's OPS has improved from .768 to .805 after a couple of moves to bring in some bats. Pudge Rodriguez has been a relative bust, but Xavier Nady is hitting .320 with a .993 OPS. But overall, the Yanks have remained rather staid.
They've played .500 ball in August and are 9 1/2 games out of the AL East race and five back in the wild-card standings. As of Aug. 1, they were 4 1/2 back in the division and 1 1/2 out in the wild-card hunt. So, merely treading water hasn't helped. The gains in offense have been offset by declines in pitching. The Yankees needed to get dramatically better and haven't. Could Washburn have helped? Perhaps a little. Maybe that could have carried over. But when they failed to make significant pitching moves, either for Washburn, a Harden, or Sabathia type, or both, their ship sailed. Only a major comeback will save them now.
As for the Cardinals, they might have benefitted more from a Washburn-type acquisition, if only for a morale booster in trying to keep pace with division rivals Milwaukee and Chicago. But they chose not to and are now 8 1/2 games out of the division lead and four back in the wild-card race. At the All-Star Break, right after the Harden and Sabathia deals, they were 4 1/2 out of the division lead and four back in the wild-card. So, they've kept pace with the Brewers, but not the Cubs. The funny thing is, the Cards' pitching did not collapse as folks had predicted. Joel Pineiro went 3-0 in August and helped the Cards keep pace until Adam Wainright came off the DL for the first time since early June. So, on one end, you can argue that not adding a pitcher at great expense was the right move for the Cards. On the other hand, you can argue that the only thing that will keep St. Louis from the post-season was that Milwukee and Chicago both added a starter in early July -- while the Cards sat and dithered about a pitching move that entire month.
How much difference would another starting pitcher have made in St. Louis? Again, we'll never know.
One team that was under pressure to make a move throughout July was the Tampa Bay Rays. They were hurting in the bullpen and facing question marks about how long they could hold on to a playoff spot. Well, not only have they held on, they've increased their division lead to 4 1/2 games over the Red Sox. Bullpen ERA has improved from 4.37 to 2.81 from July to August -- over a far heavier workload -- meaning the anticipated collapse never came. It still might come in September. The Rays did make one move, picking up submariner Chad Bradford off waivers two weeks ago for a player to be named. Bradford hasn't given up a run in his first eight outings, though he's put on a ton of baserunners and allowed a game-winning hit to the Angels with two out in the ninth last week.
We'll see how he pans out. But for now, at least, not giving up significant prospects in a major deadline move might be the best move the Rays could have made.
So, as you can see, there have been some winners, some losers and some undecideds so far. We'll see how the rest of the season goes, starting with that Twins bullpen tonight.
ADDITIONAL NOTES (11:25 a.m.): The usual folks are out today. Case is already made, Nick in pdx, make the contrary case if you have one. Or else, let Concentration Guy make something up for you.
Bootleg guy, it either matters or it doesn't. Make up your mind, please.
Greggy, I have no idea what it means either.
Interesting thoughts, DC. I believe you're on to something.
For Big Ebu, I don't think the Twins viewed it as a "Plan E" move a la Rick White. Had the M's followed up on one internal suggestion, which was to move Miguel Batista into the bullpen after acquiring another starter, then we could have compared those two moves quite easily. But neither the Twins in 2008, nor the M's in 2007, were willing to pull the trigger on that move. Seattle failed to make the playoffs in 2007. We'll see how the Twins fare this year.
For Zack, I refer you to the following comments:
11:45 AM, Aug 25, 2008
Geoff, seriously, why you would want to use a stat that gives the same credit for 6IP 3ER and 9IP, 0ER, 20Ks....or 5 2/3 IP 0 ER and 1/3 IP 11ER is beyond me. Then, you point to ERA in those starts as if it validates something. If this is the case, why not just use ERA? Wouldn't that give a more complete picture? I'm not even going to get started on why ERA is not what you should be using to validate your other statistics. This "analysis" is just an astounding display of statistical ignorance.
This gem from Fin yesterday:
I think you need to stop using ERA as an effective measure of a pitcher's skill, it's really a useless stat when you consider how it's dependent on the defense, and not to mention the reliever that possibly inherits runners on base.
And even this one from Fin again:
That's because the people who vote for the Cy Young winners measure on useless stats such as ERA, wins, or saves. If you look at all the Cy Young winners in the last 10 years or so, they have mostly, if not all, have been from contenders, which proves, having a good team to support a pitcher beefs up those stats. Try not to pride yourself on ignorance.
Not one of these three comments is discussing ERA in the context of what you are saying -- that it is relatively useless as a predictive tool. Our entire blog post yesterday centered around past performance, not predictive measurements. It looked at how M's starters were unable to emerge with victories when holding opponents to scant run totals, compared with the rest of baseball. I don't care how they got to those ERA numbers. The point is that they got them and the team was unable to pull out a victory for them as teams do throughout baseball.
So, to say ERA is useless in such a context is not only wrong, it is misinformed and totally off point. And I see more and more of that type of rigid argumentation every day, by folks who read a chapter of "The Book" or Bill James' work, and then misconstrue, for public consumption, everything that they learned.
As for the Cy Young Awards, they are based entirely off past-perfromance, like any awards. Not predictions on whether those pitchers can follow up the next year. In this case, ERA gives you a reasonable snapshot at how those pitchers did at preventing opponents from scoring in the past. I can tell you that just about every voter digs much deeper beyond that one stat. But in narrowing down the field, it's pretty useful. There are rare exceptions of outstanding pitchers having an ERA above 4.00 in any given year. And the additional factors, like ballpark, or pitching independant of defense, or innings pitched, might help you tell the difference between an ERA of 2.98 and 2.52 in a close race. But the name of the game is preventing runs and the good pitchers usually do it while maintaining a solid ERA. So, again, to suggest it's useless is wrong. It is a helpful tool, along with many others.
This is part of the disconnect I've seen lately between fans completely wedded to certain stats for "predictive" purposes and those trying to study past performance. A pitcher can have a good year and it can be a "lucky'' good year. But it remains a good year nonetheless. It doesn't make one stat "right'' and the other one "wrong'' in an analytical context of whether the year was good or bad. They don't award the World Series trophy to the team that looks like it will have the best record the next year. It goes to the one that produces the best results in any particular year. Regardless of how those results were obtained (see the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals). And life is full of surprises every year. So, you can never ignore acutal results at the expense of predictive models. Jobs in the baseball world are won and lost every day based on what actually happens. And ERA, in the proper context, is not as "useless" as some make it out to be.
For JI, in the same comments thread, don't just talk. There are too many talkers cluttering up the blogosphere already. You may have a valid point. But you have to show us why you are correct. Show us where the Phillies would be without Utley, or where the Cards would be without Pujols. Has Pujols made up the difference in the stadings with the Brewers? No, he hasn't. He's probably kept St. Louis in the playoff hunt, true. But I can argue that Sabathia has almost single-handedly kept Milwaukee in a playoff position. And that matters in MVP votes. This isn't a vote for the best VORP accumulator, or the Most Outstanding Player. It's about who is the most valuable, and how high the stakes are for the team receiving that value. At least, that's the way the vote has been approached by voters in recent years and I think it makes baseball's MVP race the most exciting in all of sport. You may be right, but put on your thinking cap and show us why we should take your word for it.