Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Pitching Revolution?

After watching Nate Robertson give up one hit through three innings a few weeks ago, I started to get pretty excited. A good outing from (the uncharacteristically strong so far this season) Robertson could really have bolstered my struggling pitching staff. Unfortunately, Robertson and the usually offensively challenged Seattle Mariners had other plans. By the time the fifth inning had ended, Robertson had been chased from the game, surrendering 6 runs and 9 hits over an inning and two-thirds.

While Robertson is by no means the reincarnation of Cy Young, he does have decent stuff and can get major league hitters out. Unfortunately for Nate, he was bitten by two "gotchas". First, it's tough in any sport to "lock it in" for a long period of time. Despite a rain delay, Robertson started the game focused and breezed through the Mariners lineup, but barring a truely special performance, that focus will wane sometime during the game. It's just too hard to be fully focused for over two hours every time a starter takes the hill. The second "gotcha" is that the more pitches a major league hitter sees against a pitcher, the greater the hitters chance of success. Despite being stymied for three innings, the Mariners used what they had seen from Robertson in their first at bats to go 9 for their next 16 and send Robertson to the showers. While I am certainly not a hitting coach, I bet seeing Robertson's release point and fastball during innings 1-3 lead to the Mariners success in innings 4 and 5.

Statistically there is definitely a drop off the second time a pitcher faces a lineup. Of the top 20 pitchers (by ERA as of 4/14), the average ERA increased from 1.10 the first time through the opponents lineup to 2.07 the second time. In fact, the only pitchers to significantly improve the second time through the line up were Josh Beckett and Brandon Looper, while 11 of the top 20 saw their ERA increase by over 0.9. Another example is John Smoltz. In the three years preceeding his move to the bullpen (and throwing out 2001 when he both started and relieved), Smoltz had an ERA of 3.04. During the three years that he was a closer, and following Tommy John surgery, his ERA dipped to 2.47. Of course upon his return to starting, Smoltz's ERA rose to 3.43.

Since baseball is a game of statistics, why would a manager allow his pitcher to remain in a situation where the advantage begins to slide toward the hitter? The answer, I suspect, is "that's how it has always been done." In the days before Tommy John surgery, pitchers regularly pitched 40+ games a season and often times did so while pitching complete games. Why would a manager send one guy to the hill that often? My guess is that there were fewer athletes with the ability to retire hitters in those days, so as a manager, you sent your stud out there as often as possible. These managers rarely used set-up men, closers or left handed specialists, mostly because the guy that started the game was the best for all situations (or at least perceived to be so). Today that is no longer the case, we know lefty-lefty match-ups tilt the odds toward the pitcher and that a closer has a better chance of getting the last three outs of ballgame than a starter who has already gone 8 innings.

Ok, so where does this revolution come in? If a pitcher is most effective the first time through a line up, why let them face the line up a second time? I propose using a "team of starters", three guys who pitch every three days and never face a line up for a second time. I predict this would be the best of both worlds, the "team of starters" would work on a set schedule, but would only be asked to focus in for three innings at most. Ideally a "team of starters" would be made up of a hard throwing righty, a crafty lefty and a guy who throws strikes (or a knuckleballer, those guys always screw up hitters). The idea would be that a hitter would be facing something completely different in his second at bat than he was in his first, increasing the pitchers chance of success.

Obviously this theory has some flaws. First a team would need nine "starters", teams have a hard time finding five quality starters, so nine might be a stretch. It also means that they would only have four additional bullpen spots. Any breakdown by the "starters" would require an effective mop up reliever. Second, it would cut number of innings that a manager would use his elite pitchers (of course those pitchers would be more effective and would effect more games). I'm guessing that a manager would be willing to pitcher his number one guy a little bit less to see his team give up 0.50 less runs per game.


plundoctor said...

I'm curious to see a Browns fan's interpretation of the draft and the direction of the team/prospects for a good season. Doesn't have to be in blog form, can be over in the forum. But i was curious anyhow.

GoodPointJoe said...

Another point worth noting is that the first starter would never get a win. I have a feeling you'd have some trouble luring free agent pitchers if you decided to do this strategy, since they negotiate contracts based on statistical performance.

My cousin or uncle (I can't remember which) had the idea of having a dedicated "winner;" this pitcher would come in after four innings if the team has the lead, pitch an inning or two, and be eligible for the win. It'd be a gimmick, for sure, but you might have a guy get 60 wins in a season, which would be a coup for a fantasy team. I need that guy.

One more thing to note. There are a lot of relievers whose ERAs are 4, 5, 6, or higher. I guess what I'm saying is that I would take a lot of starters' second time through the lineup over even one inning out of a lot of relievers.

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