PAMPERED PITCHERS AND THEIR ENABLERS

By Murray Chass

March 6, 2011

Pitchers have never had so many friends – in baseball itself and on the periphery of baseball. People keep coming up with excuses for pitchers and more crutches for them than for a legion of Tiny Tims.

Along with excuses, people keep lowering the standards for pitchers. People in my once proud profession are probably mostly to blame because the younger generation of baseball writers have led the rush to the dark side, believing their new view of statistics is more significant than the view of the older writers that has prevailed for as long as baseball has been played.

Consider the transformation the pitching fraternity has undergone in recent decades. It began with the advent of the five-man pitching rotation, with starters pitching every fifth day instead of every fourth day. Then came the pitch count with 100 pitches set as the limit.Warren Spahn 225

Then it was decided to place a limit on the increase in the number of innings a young pitcher could pitch from one year to the next. All of these “advances” were made in the interest of preserving pitchers’ arms, preventing injuries.

The game’s alleged pitching experts were so focused on preventing injuries that they didn’t think of the possibility that the changes in the ways young pitchers were being trained were the cause of injuries. Pitchers were being pampered, and it was as if their arms were placed in glass cases to preserve them.

“Warren Spahn believed the more you threw the stronger your arm would be; he never got hurt,” said Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner, who interviewed the 363-game winner for the first volume of his three-volume oral history project.

Spahn wasn’t the only pitcher with that belief. Tommy John, a more recent major league pitcher, believed in throwing every day. But the advocates of that practice became overwhelmed by the pamperers and the limits guys.

The changes, however, weren’t just physical. The changers got into pitchers’ heads as well.

About 25 years ago, baseball writer John Lowe, then writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, created a statistic he called Quality Start. If a starter pitched six or more innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs, he received credit for a Quality Start.

Pitchers came to love the statistic and embraced it psychologically. They soon became convinced that all they had to do was last six innings, and they had done their job. Managers contributed to that six-and-out mind-set by adding the bullpen job of set-up man to the closer and then set-up man to the set-up man.

The computer, too, has contributed mightily to a flood of statistics that have altered the perspective of the game for their advocates. These statistics apply to hitters as well as pitchers and have created a revolutionary change in baseball watching and baseball coverage and two distinct groups of fans and writers.

Age basically determines where the advocates of the two different statistical worlds reside. I have made no scientific study of the makeup of the two groups, but I would guess that most fans and writers older than 50 continue to live by the basic old statistics with which they grew up while the majority of fans and writers under 40 have embraced the new-age statistics spewed out by the computers with which they have grown up.

I’m not sure where the group in between those ages falls, but I would guess they are more willing to consider the new-fangled stuff than their elders.

I have been thinking about the new statistics recently because of the criticism I have received from readers and opinionists – my new word for the proliferation of “experts” that the Internet has spawned – and I set out to take an objective look at the stuff cascading over from the dark side.

I really had good intentions. But I was interrupted in that endeavor by e-mail from younger readers telling me it was about time that I realized the insignificance of using number of wins to judge pitchers.

Tim Lincecum2 225The e-mail came in response to a column that traced the decline of pitching standards: from the Cy Young awards Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum won with 16 and 15 victories, respectively in 2009, to the 13-12 record Felix Hernandez won with last year to the 1-11 record Ross Ohlendorf won his $2 million salary arbitration case with this year.

“Please allow me to be the latest young-un to inform you that your outlook on baseball is hilariously outdated,” wrote Matthew Carley, who did not give his age. “To say that wins are the most important statistic for a pitcher is like saying that ‘countries taken over’ is the most important statistic for a world leader.”

Leaving aside the geopolitical (I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in a baseball column) analogy, let me say that I didn’t write or imply that “wins are the most important statistic for a pitcher.” But I will say here and now that pitchers are paid to win games, and not $2 million for one victory.

“Wins are absolutely dependent upon the following,” young Mr. Carley continued: “luck, run production, adequate defense, and playing for a team that isn’t as terrible as the Pirates.”

As I read that passage, two words came to mind: Warren Spahn. I wonder if young Mr. Carley is familiar with that name.

With 363 victories, Spahn was the all-time winning left-hander, but I think he might have been the best pitcher of all time throwing with either arm. He lost four seasons to the war years (that’s World War II, young-un), from the age of 21 through age 24.

But given one of the primary excuses for pitchers not winning games, this, I think, is my favorite Spahn statistic: the man gained 25 percent of his victories, 91 of 363, when his team scored three or fewer runs.

That means in those 91 wins, Spahn’s team scored only one, two or three runs, and Spahn still won. Bob Waterman of Elias Sports Bureau also found, using pitchers I asked him to check, that with their teams scoring three or fewer runs that Jim Palmer gained 81 victories, 30 percent of his 268 career total; Ferguson Jenkins, 67 of 284, 24 percent, and Robin Roberts 64 of 286, 22 percent.

I chose those pitchers because of the prominence of their 20-win seasons, a standard us old-uns have long held dear. Spahn was a 20-game winner 13 times in a 17-season stretch from 1947 through 1963, and Palmer did it eight times in a nine-season span in the ‘70s. Jenkins, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Roberts, in the ‘50s, each had six successive seasons of 20 wins or more.

Twenty-five or 50 years from now, will fans and writers be recalling how Hernandez had a stretch of six successive seasons of 6.0 WAR ratings? Will they be able to explain what a WAR rating is?

Lowe, now writing for the Detroit Free Press, at least, had simplicity in mind when he created quality starts. “I said this has to be simple,” he related in a telephone interview, “something that can be written about for readers to easily understand. You can’t have to explain to readers what the statistic is.”

What is WAR? Well, it stands for “wins above replacement.” And what does that mean?

Baseball-reference.com says it is “a single number that presents the number of wins the player added to the team above what a replacement player (think AAA or AAAA) would add.”

I don’t think that definition fits Lowe’s idea of simplicity, and that’s not even the complete definition. Furthermore, that doesn’t say how to compute it. I think computing is left to a favored few, and they apparently don’t all agree on the formula. I think I read that different outlets have different ways of computing it. What kind of statistic is that?

With batting average, it’s hits and at-bats. Earned-run average is earned runs and innings pitched. There’s only one way to compute them.

I have considered WAR and VORP (“value over replacement player;” yes there’s that replacement guy again), and I have a basic problem with them. The replacement player isn’t real; he’s a myth, and I’ve never seen a myth play baseball. It’s like fantasy baseball. That stuff isn’t real either.

Let’s look at one statistic that is determined by real players and real numbers, Lowe’s quality start.John Lowe 225

“I got the idea in 1983 and ’84,” Lowe (at right) said. “I was hearing managers saying they were looking for six innings from their pitchers. I heard Whitey Herzog say ‘all I want from my pitchers is six good innings.’”

That’s where six innings came from. And the runs? “Six and two is too stingy, six and four is too much. I wasn’t going to get into a more than or less than. This was new and had to be understandable.”

Why the need for a new statistic? “I didn’t like e.r.a. as a definitive stat,” Lowe said. “One bad start could wreck your e.r.a. But I never said don’t look at wins and losses.”

I have never liked the idea of a Quality Start and have never referred to it. For me, a pitcher has to do better than a 4.50 earned-run average, which is what three earned runs in six innings is.

“That’s average,” Lowe said. “I’m not saying 4.50 for a whole year was quality, but would a manager take a pitcher at three in six? A reliever can give up two runs in one inning and get a save. That’s an 18 e.r.a. I’m not saying Quality Starts replace wins, but when judging a pitcher in this era he could pitch well but not get a win because of a variety of circumstances.”

I am not the only baseball writer who has no fondness for Quality Starts and other newer statistics. In the interest of giving readers the views of others I asked for opinions from the two baseball writers I have most respected during my many years covering baseball.

Marty Noble Moss Klein 225I will readily acknowledge that Moss Klein (left), retired baseball writer for the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger, and Marty Noble (right), long-time baseball writer for Newsday of Long Island and now for MLB.com, are closer to my age than to that of the rookie on the baseball beat, but I don’t have enough experience with the rookies to know if I should respect their views.

Here’s Klein on quality starts:

“I was critical of the statistic way back in 1986 or so, and was chastised by Bill James in one of his books. My contention is that a quality start could, in the extreme, mean a 4.50 ERA. James ridiculed that, saying that most quality starts come out to a far better ERA. My response was, So what? Why have a statistic that makes it possible for a 4.50 ERA to be termed ‘quality?’

“To me, a six-inning start still leaves a lot to be desired (like three more innings.). And finally, why is a stat such as ‘Quality Starts’ needed? It’s like the old ‘game-winning RBI’ which was misleading and basically useless.”

Noble said, “Quality starts bugged me from the first day,” adding, “I’m never going to measure a guy by the number of 1-0 wins, but the best pitchers can win regardless of their support.”

Klein called the recent “devaluation of wins” a mistake.

“Remember when it used to be said of good pitchers that ‘they do what it takes to win’ and of certain pitchers that ‘they’re good enough to lose,’” he added. “Granted, there are always hard-luck pitchers who consistently pitch strong games but get minimal hitting support.

“But I always felt there was a class of pitchers who would win 2-1, and another class of solid pitchers who, in big games, would lose 3-2. Wins are still the most important stat. Felix Hernandez was declared the Cy Young winner, but I didn’t hear anybody declaring the Mariners the AL champs. Why? They didn’t have enough wins.

Noble said these days “most stats aren’t predicated on who wins but added, “That’s kind of silly. Isn’t that the reason for playing?”

As for the new statistics, Noble said, “You can’t quantify everything. That’s the charm of the game. You can have 18 hits and lose by 5 runs when the other team has 6 hits.

“There’s more new stuff because there are computers. In the past we couldn’t figure out these things. It’s the computer more than anything else. These guys grew up with computers. There are guy who make money creating these stats.”

And the advocates of the statistics, Noble added, forget that people play the game.

“They ignore the David Eckstein factor,” he said. “He’ll do something that will piss you off,” he said, something, he meant, that you can’t find in the statistics. Or “Jeter late in a game,” adding, “Jeter was seen as the worst player at all positions but who else makes that play against the A’s in the playoffs?”

Klein says the biggest problem with what he calls the modern statistics as they are ‘narrow, specialized statistics that are portrayed as being so much more significant than the ‘simple’ stats (RBI, OBP, etc.) – and no statistics can accurately evaluate the player.

“They are occasionally interesting, and they can point out strengths and weaknesses. They might be worthwhile if you’re simply participating in a fantasy league, but if you’re dealing with real life you have to see the player in action, the way he responds to key situations.

“Some players thrive on pressure situations, some can’t deal with them. That’s important. Some players pile up great numbers in early-inning, big-lead, no-pressure spots – and do well in the fancy, new-fangled numbers. Others can be counted on to deliver the key hit with the game on the line in the eighth inning. That’s the player I want. The biggest problem with the ‘new stats’ is they turn the players into robots, not people. And for now, at least, it’s still people who are playing the game.

 

FIRED: PORT, BURNS, HAMILTON

As reported here last week, the baseball operations department in the office of the commissioner is in the process of major changes. Besides the hiring of Joe Torre as head of the department, three employees were let go last Thursday, though no announcement was made.Mike Port 225

The three are Mike Port, a former general manager, who was vice president for umpiring; Ed Burns, vice president for baseball operations administration, and Darryl Hamilton, the former major league outfielder, who worked in on-field operations. No replacements were announced.

Burns had worked in the commissioner’s office since 2001 and Port and Hamilton since 2005.

In an e-mail Friday, Port wrote, “Yesterday I was advised that due to a ‘restructuring’ of the Baseball Operations/Umpiring Department my position had been ‘eliminated.’”

“I’ve been in baseball long enough to believe that when one door closes another one opens,” said Port, who was the Angels’ general manager from late 1984 to late 1991 and also served as the Red Sox interim general manager for part of 2002 when Theo Epstein left the club.

Several months ago, as vice president for umpiring, Port fired his special assistant, Bruce Froemming, who was a major league umpire for a record 37 consecutive years.

In a telephone interview Friday, Port acknowledged his action, which was later overturned, but declined to provide details, saying only that it was a work-related issue “that needed to be dealt with.”

 

STORY OF A ROYAL RELATIONSHIP

Mike Port’s loss of his major league baseball job and Duke Snider’s death made it a tough week for Peter Bavasi, a former major league club executive, now retired, but he was able to smile at the recollection of the pair’s “deep connection” with each other.

Duke Snider 225“Duke joined the fledgling Padres in 1968, many months before the club took flight in 1969,” Bavasi recalled in an e-mail that involved his father, Buzzie, the noted San Diego general manager. “Like many of us from the Dodgers, Duke joined Buzzie in San Diego. None of us had titles in the early days of the franchise, we just tackled jobs that needed to be done.

“Duke started signing players for a Padres farm system in formation. His very first signee was a young college infielder named Mike Port. Years later, Duke liked to say, ‘The first player I ever signed went to the big leagues and he’s been there nearly 39 years.’ This is true, you can Google it up.

“Duke saw something special in Mike beyond his baseball playing skills – which were terrific, were it not that he knocked himself out throwing rounds of daily spring training batting practice over the top and then took several infield drills every day throwing from the side.

“By the time he arrived in the Padres’ first minor league camp, Mike could hardly lift his arm. He was released (a regrettable assignment that fell to me as the San Diego farm director). A few weeks later, we hired Mike as the general manager of the Key West Padres, skippered by Don Zimmer. Mike’s front office career was off to a fast start.

“Duke had predicted, ‘Mike Port will excel in any baseball job he is given.’ Duke’s scouting judgment was perfect in that regard. Mike has excelled in each of his many baseball jobs. And he has gained a legion of baseball friends and admirers along the way, which is how the true wealth of a baseball man is valued.

“Mike was promoted to the Padres front office in 1973 and he has been in the big leagues ever since, holding a lot of prominent jobs. Duke took pride in Mike’s many achievements and successes. He was a mentor to Mike throughout Mike’s long baseball career.

“Until today.

“This week, baseball lost two good men. One forever, the other until a club in distress picks up the phone. We can be sure Duke will be looking down approvingly, rooting on Mike Port.”

When I told Port about Bavasi’s e-mail, he provided a post-script.

“He gave me a signing bonus of $1,000,” Port related, “and said ‘Cash it right away before Buzzie sees you play.’” And Port added, “I take credit for making Duke an announcer because Buzzie saw me play and said ‘we have to get Duke in the booth before he signs any more of these guys.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.