First off, many thanks to all of you for the wondrous outpouring of support that you have given me and my friend Mazen. It’s easy to search the web and come across forums and comment boards that make me double-check the locks on my doors and wonder what kind of country my daughters are growing up in. It is deeply gratifying to be reminded once again that the vast majority of Americans are wonderfully tolerant people who not only believe in our constitutional rights, but are willing to stand up in defense of the rights of every other American. I thank God every day that I was born here. I don’t thank my parents enough that they immigrated here.
And thanks to those of you who shared a different perspective as well. You have as much right to your opinions as I have to mine, and it’s not fair for me to expect you to see my point of view if I refuse to see yours. Social progress comes from a free exchange of ideas, and that can’t happen if free speech is muzzled.
So let us not speak of this again, and hope that there will be no reason for me to break into our regularly scheduled Royals coverage again anytime soon. (Or, God forbid, that I should have to write something like this again.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of what I’ve been preoccupied with lately, I’m in a weird philosophical mood about the Royals. Maybe it was the sight of Kyle Davies proving, once again, that what limited success he has had this year has been the product of serendipity more than talent. Davies has a 4.66 ERA this season, and all things considered you’d take a 4.66 ERA from your fifth starter.
But even that modest ERA is deceptive. Batters have hit .298/.368/.477 against him this year, virtually indistinguishable from what they hit last year (.284/.369/.494), when he had a 6.09 ERA. The reason he’s been able to walk the tightrope this year – at least occasionally – is that while hitters are slugging .563 against him when the bases are empty, they have a modest .375 slugging average with men on base. There’s no reason why a pitcher should do that much better from the stretch than from the windup – if there was, pitchers would pitch from the stretch all the time. Davies’ performance is a mirage, one that seemed to evaporate before our eyes on Friday.
But my point isn’t that Davies is worthless and should be discarded like so many pitchers before him. On the contrary, my point is that Davies is clearly a pitcher with talent, and the fact that Davies – and so many pitchers like him – bounce around from team to team tasting only occasional success represents a failure of creativity on the part of major league baseball teams.
The Royals have another guy on their staff who, like Davies, debuted to much promise only to see that promise leak out over time. Robinson Tejeda had a 3.57 ERA as a rookie with the Phillies in 2005. His ERAs after that read 4.28, 6.61, and 9.00 (in 6 innings) this season before the Rangers designated him for assignment.
Tejada was used exclusively a starter in 2006 and 2007 even as he became increasingly ineffective. He’s been used exclusively as a reliever since he was picked up by the Royals, and you’ve seen how effective (if not flat-out dominant) he’s been ever since: in 21 innings, he’s allowed just 10 hits while striking out 23.
Tejeda fits the profile of struggling starter turned dominant reliever: a hard-throwing right-hander with control and home run issues. But the Royals have another converted starter in their bullpen who, like Tejeda, was picked up for nothing and has been a revelation after his career as a starter went up in flames. What’s interesting is that Horacio Ramirez is the polar opposite of Tejeda: he’s left-handed, pitches to contact, and keeps the ball down. Tejeda owes his improvement in the pen to the fact that he’s blowing hitters away a lot more; Ramirez’s secret is that he’s getting even more sink on the ball (his G/F ratio this season is an excellent 2.63, compared to a career figure of 1.68) while throwing nothing but strikes. In 24 innings he has just 11 Ks, but he’s surrendered just one homer and walked just one batter.
I can’t stress this point enough: relieving is easier than starting. It’s much easier to go through a lineup once then it is to go through it four times. It’s easier to air it out – or focus on hitting the corners and keeping the ball at the knees – for an inning or two than to pace yourself for six or seven innings. Some pitchers may benefit more than others, but almost every starter in the majors would perform better on an inning-for-inning basis if they pitched in relief. The difference isn’t enough to justify making your 200-inning ace into a 70-inning closer (the Joakim Soria debate revisited), but it is enough to justify taking your borderline #5 starter and seeing if he can become a quality setup man. As a general rule of thumb, you should never give up on a pitcher until you see what he can in relief.
Just take a quick look at the closers around baseball. Bobby Jenks was released – flat-out released – by the Angels in 2004, and a year later as closing for the world champs. Granted, his release was precipitated by being hurt, but the fact is that Jenks pitched for the Angels for five seasons, and made a grand total of three relief appearances. The man threw
Mariano Rivera never made a relief appearance in the minors; he was a solid prospect as a starter, but never showed a hint of dominance until he was moved to the pen. Joe Nathan started for two years with the Giants, with ERAs of 4.18 and 5.21. After one good year in middle relief he was packaged to the Twins in the infamous A.J. Pierzynski deal. And that’s just a look at the
My point isn’t just that the Royals should hesitate to give up on Davies until they see how he handles a stint in the bullpen, although that’s certainly true. My larger point is that the inherent advantage to pitching in short stints presents a hell of a market inefficiency that a small-market team with nothing to lose could exploit. If 12-man pitching staffs are here to stay – and unfortunately that appears to be the case – why not use all that manpower to try something really radical? Why not make all your pitchers relievers? Take your three best starters and tell them they’re going to throw 3 innings or 60 pitches every third day. Pair them up with a good reliever – ideally someone who throws from the other side – who will be expected to throw 2-3 innings or 50-60 pitches every third day as well. Now you’ve got 5-6 innings covered in every game from 6 pitchers, and you can use the other 6 guys on your staff in traditional relief roles.
Your three best pitchers would be limited to roughly 160 innings in this kind of setup, but on the other hand, being limited to short stints probably means they’ll be 160 awfully effective innings. If Greinke or Meche know they’re only out there for 60 pitches, they’re going to be able to step it up a notch. And if three innings a start doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind you’re getting 54 starts from them.
By now some of you are thinking that all the stress I’ve been under the last few days has knocked a couple of screws loose. But not only is this idea not inconceivable, it’s not even that original: it’s already been tried before, albeit briefly.
Darling, Witt, and Welch were the traditional “starters”, but did not actually start the games, entering in the middle innings instead. Why? Because they would not have been eligible for the win had they started and thrown less than five innings. (Many thanks to this link for the exact details.)
The plan lasted for about a week, partly because of the resistance to the idea and partly because it didn’t seem to work. Looking at the names above, it’s obvious why it didn’t work – none of the pitchers were any good. The entire pitching staff consisted of longtime veterans who were pitching on fumes, or overhyped rookies who would never amount to much (I’m looking at you, Todd.) The A’s gave up the most runs in the league that year – which is why La Russa was desperate enough to try something that radical to begin with.
I’m not frustrated with the fact that the Royals would never consider such a move so much as I’m frustrated that no team in the majors would consider it. Say what you want about La Russa (I know I have) – as a manager he’s creative, and he’s original. The fact that we lament the “LaRussaization” of modern baseball – the incessant pitching changes, the pitchers who appear in 70 games and throw 40 innings – is not the fault of La Russa so much as it is the fault of so many other managers who, lacking any originality of their own, simply ape what the successful guy is doing.
I had to watch “Casablanca” when I was in college and at first I wondered what the big deal was, because the film was full of movie clichés – until it hit me that the reason so many scenes seemed clichéd was because so many of the movies I had seen had cribbed ideas from “Casablanca” in the first place. La Russa is sort of like “
It’s easy to forget that baseball strategy from a generation or two was radically different than it is today. Fifty years ago, the notion of a “pitching rotation” didn’t exist: managers selected their starting pitchers based on the team they were facing and the park they were in, and if that meant starting Whitey Ford on 2 days’ rest, or letting him skip the series against the Senators and letting him pitch on 6 days’ rest instead, so be it. Thirty years ago, it was absurd to suggest that a team should use its best reliever in save situations only. Twenty years ago, the notion that your closer only came in to start the ninth inning was ridiculous.
Baseball strategy has evolved, but in the case of pitching strategy it has devolved – there are piles of evidence that suggest the straitjacket approach to pitcher usage is counterproductive to the whole goal of winning. Today it’s considered radical to use your closer for two innings; it’s considered unthinkable to go to a four-man rotation. One of these years a team is going to break out of the box and try something new, and it’s going to win them some games. It’d be nice if that team were the Royals.
Hey, I said I was feeling philosophical. And weird.
Anyway, on some level Dayton Moore does get it, because he’s the guy who put together this bullpen in the first place. Right now, six of the seven guys in the Royals’ pen have ERAs under three, and yes you read this sentence correctly. Two of them (Tejeda and Horacio) are failed starters who were picked up for free. One of them (Leo Nunez) is a converted starter who was inexplicably rushed to the majors by Allard Baird. Two of them (Mahay and Ramon Ramirez) were relievers before the Royals acquired them. And Soria, of course, was starting in the Mexican League when the Royals drafted him.
Relievers come from all walks of life, and pretty much the most inefficient way to acquire a good reliever is to pay the going rate for established talent. Compare this with Allard Baird’s approach, which included paying actual US currency to sign Ricky Bottalico, and which was followed by trading Johnny Damon to land Roberto Hernandez – well, there’s really no comparison.
Even as I'm writing this,
Given that the Royals picked up Horacio for nothing just three months ago, they just got an intriguing outfield prospect for free. Josh Newman, another lefty recently acquired on waivers, takes Horacio’s place. Given the nature of relief work and