The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

 

October Surprise

As noted in my previous post, with the Dodgers out of the playoffs, I was pretty skittish about investing much emotional energy in the remaining ALCS battle as the Red Sox stormed back to force a seventh game against the Rays after being down 3-1. Moments after sitting down to Game Seven, I was IMing friends following Dustin Pedroia's first-inning homer. "Two batters in and I'm ready to chew a limb off," I wrote.

Luckily, Game Seven turned out to be one for the ages, and I emerged with limbs (if not fingernails) intact. Pedroia's homer was the only one hit the Sox would collect off Rays starter Matt Garza until the seventh inning, by which point the upstarts from Tampa Bay had taken a 2-1 lead against Jon Lester, courtesy of an RBI double by Evan Longoria in the third and an RBI single by Rocco Baldelli in the fifth. Garza struck out nine Sox hitters, seven of them swinging, making their lineup look old and impotent -- such a joy to see David Ortiz and Jason Varitek flailing after all the grief they've caused over the last few years.

Former Dodger Willie Aybar added an insurance run via a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh, and after Boston's Alex Cora (another former Dodger) reached on an error by Jason Bartlett to start the eighth, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon pulled Garza and essentially traded pitchers for outs, maneuvering through his battered bullpen to get the most favorable matchups.

Maddon used four relievers to get out of the eighth, the last of whom became the story of the night. As the overall #1 pick in the 2007 draft, David Price is hardly an unknown in the baseball world, but with just 15 big-league innings under his belt to that point in time, bringing him for such a crucial situation -- two on and two out in the eighth, with J.D. Drew at the plate and all the money on the table -- was still a gutsy move. At Baseball Prospectus, where we've touted the Rays as contenders since pitchers and catchers reported, the idea that Price could get key innings in the postseason was one that's been circulating for awhile, but watching that possibility come to life nonetheless made for stirring theater: "David Price in October Surprise."

Price struck out Drew on four pitches, the last of them a 97 MPH low-and-away fastball against which Drew tried to check his swing. He came back to nail down the ninth inning, walking Jason Bay but going through a very weak bottom of the order like a hot knife through butter. Mark Kotsay fouled two off to fall behind O-2, took two balls and then struck out looking on a pitch similar to the one that capped Drew's at-bat, Varitek went down swinging against a slider over the middle of the plate, and pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie grounded to second base to seal the game and the pennant for the Rays. Thriling stuff, not only to see the stake hammered through the heart of the Red Sox but to see the upstart Rays get one step closer to completing their amazing worsst-to-first journey.

For today's Prospectus Hit and Run column, I took a look at the turnaround of the Rays' bullpen since last year, when they were the worst in the majors according to BP's Reliever Expected Wins Added metric (they were first this year) and virtually tied for the worst since 1954 (as far back as our play-by-play-based database goes) in Fair Run Average, their runs allowed per nine innings after adjusting for their performance in handling inherited runners. I looked at the nuts and bolts involved in turning such a historically awful unit around and the historical precedents for doing so:
Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman couldn't be blamed for wanting to burn the bullpen to the ground and start over, and that's almost what they did. They signed free agents Troy Percival and Trever Miller, and shifted 2007 starters Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell to the bullpen. Here's what they got (relief stats only):
Name              IP     FRA  WXRL    LEV
J.P. Howell 89.1 2.78 4.6 1.41
Dan Wheeler 66.1 2.94 2.1 1.84
Grant Balfour 58.1 0.96 3.4 1.34
Jason Hammel 50.2 5.81 0.7 0.84
Troy Percival 45.2 5.26 1.7 1.51
Trever Miller 43.1 3.32 1.5 1.07
Gary Glover 34.0 6.21 0.5 0.81
Al Reyes 22.2 4.86 0.0 0.98
Chad Bradford 19.0 2.65 0.8 1.53
David Price 8.2 1.20 0.1 0.60
Percival, who'd come out of retirement to put together a nice second half in St. Louis in 2007, was installed as the closer, and despite serving stints on the DL in June and July, he saved 27 games and put up a 3.69 ERA into mid-August before injuring his knee while fielding a bunt. He was rocked for seven runs in his first four appearances upon returning, lost his closer job and pitched sparingly while dealing with assorted maladies, and was left off of the post-season roster. Balfour and Wheeler, acquired in separate deals near the 2007 trade deadline, both filled in for Percival, with the former coming up from Triple-A Durham and carving out a roster spot for himself in the closer's absence. Howell emerged as a multi-inning lefty stopper, giving Maddon a much more versatile palette to draw on for the late innings, while Miller did solid work as a lefty specialist. Meanwhile, 2007 mainstays Glover and Reyes both struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness and were cut loose in midseason as more effective pitchers were added to the roster; Reyes was designated for assignment shortly after the team traded for Bradford in early August.
The year-to-year increase in WXRL ranks as the greatest of all time:
Year   Team        WXRL   Prev   Diff
2008 Rays 15.2 -1.8 17.0
2007 Indians 13.5 -1.5 15.1
1996 Padres 16.0 1.3 14.7
1970 Phillies 11.3 -2.7 14.0
2001 Astros 13.3 -0.4 13.7
2002 Twins 16.7 3.5 13.2
1993 Dodgers 11.8 -1.1 12.9
1992 Indians 10.4 -2.4 12.8
2006 Mets 17.8 5.0 12.8
2004 Cardinals 15.0 2.4 12.6
1974 Braves 5.9 -6.6 12.5
1991 Braves 7.8 -4.6 12.4
1996 Yankees 14.2 1.8 12.3
1998 Padres 15.9 3.8 12.1
2007 Royals 10.4 -1.6 12.0
1989 Cubs 8.8 -2.4 11.2
2002 Braves 18.9 7.9 11.0
2004 Padres 11.0 0.6 10.4
1992 Astros 11.1 0.8 10.4
2000 Mariners 12.0 1.8 10.2
2007 Braves 11.4 1.2 10.2
The list is heavily weighted towards the modern era, where bullpens get more usage than in the past and thus generate higher WXRL totals and larger year-to-year fluctuations. Nonetheless, such improvement is a good indicator for success. Fourteen of those 21 teams made the postseason, five of them (the 1991 Braves, 1996 Yankees, 1998 Padres, 2004 Cardinals and now these Rays) won the pennant, while the 2006 Mets and 2007 Indians came within a game of doing so. Oddly enough, those Yankees, who benefited from Mariano Rivera's first full year in the bullpen, were the only team here who actually won the World Series.

My money says the Rays could be the second one. Given the similarly long layoffs that seemed to hamper both the 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies, teams that clinched the pennant early while the other LCS went the distance, I think the Phillies are actually at a disadvantage having rested for six days. After all, it's not like the extra rest will spur them to start Cole Hamels -- the best starter in the series -- three times instead of two. Furthermore, the Rays enjoy the edges in both topline talent -- an idea Joe Sheehan and I explored in a little exercise that will run tomorrow at BP -- and in all of the non-Hamels pitching matchups. They're my pick in six games, and I'll be cheering for their amazing story to continue. Go Rays!

• • •

Quick post-pub side note: ESPN's Jayson Stark has some interesting stuff on the link between the drawn-out postseason and the less-than-competitive World Series we've seen in recent years (three sweeps in the past four years, with the 2006 five-gamer the exception):
• In the 25 years of the two-round division-play era, there were only five World Series in which at least one team had five or more days off before the Series started -- and only two in which one team had four more days off than its opponent.

• But in the 14 postseasons since the expansion to three rounds, we've already had EIGHT years (including this one) in which at least one team had to wait around for at least five days for the World Series to begin.

• And now, for the first time ever, we've seen three straight years in which one of these World Series teams had a full week between games. The Phillies can only hope that's not as dangerous a development for them as it was for the 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies.
The aforementioned 1996 Yankees also fit the bill as a team that struggled upon taking time off. They clinched the AL pennant on October 13, then had to wait until October 20 to start the World Series. The Braves, who had clinched on October 17, pounded the Yankees by a combined score of 16-1 in the first two games before the Yankees shook off the rust and stormed back to take the next four (thanks to Nick Stone for the reminder on that front).

Good stuff, definitely something Bud and the boys at MLB should consider -- particularly getting rid of those non-travel off days that have sprung up like mushrooms over the past few years while pushing the World Series ever closer to November.

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