Thursday, February 10, 2005

re: Around the Horn: Bullpen

Quick reactions to Ken Gurnick's Around the Horn: Bullpen, though this feels redundant to me:

Of all the "Moneyball" assumptions about Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta, the one he really laid to waste was the minimization of the closer.

That's the one that had Eric Gagne fans dreading that DePodesta would include the franchise's greatest reliever in one of the many winter housecleaning moves to redistribute payroll, the way the Oakland A's did with Jason Isringhausen and Keith Foulke when DePodesta was an assistant there.

One of the great "Moneyball" misconceptions is that the sabermetrically-inclined devalue the importance of a dominant closer. That's inaccurate. The argument is that certain pitchers are overvalued because they have been used in the ninth inning. That's without question true; Jose Mesa and Dan Kolb come to mind from just this past offseason.

Eric Gagne is simply a great relief pitcher. He pitches most in the 9th inning, and pitching in the 9th inning is typically very valuable. So part of his recent value comes from him having pitched in the 9th inning in the recent past, but his ability - and thus his future value - doesn't derive from him having pitched in the ninth inning.

Jose Mesa, on the other hand, is a solid reliever but no great shakes. By virtue of recording a lot of saves last season, the Pirates awarded him a $2.5 million contract this season, pretty out of line with his actual value to Pittsburgh.

Pitching successfully in the 9th inning is a skill unto itself, but the distribution of talent among major league relievers in this skill is such that it's not a skill worth considering in most cases. A group of pitchers whose talent means a 3.50 ERA will probably all fare the same as "closers" because the added requirements of pitching in the ninth inning aren't substantially different from what pitching successfully in the rest of the game requires. There may be a few pitchers who excel or flop with a small lead in the ninth, but determining who they are is tricky and most people's attempts to do so are based on small samples. Looking at who has been a closer in the past will tell you next to nothing, and it's the last question of any relevance I would ask about a reliever.

Thus, the notion that closers are overvalued is not an argument that teams don't need good relievers or that good relievers shouldn't be used to protect leads. It's an argument that relievers become overvalued once they are deemed closers.

On top of that, the examples Gurnick cites as closers the A's included in "winter housecleaning moves to redistribute payroll," Isringhausen and Foulke, were both free agents, and the A's made a very strong effort to retain Foulke. Gagne, on the other hand, still had two arbitration-eligible seasons. Apples and pomelos.

The world knows well Gagne's achievements, but it's easy to overlook the spear carriers that make it possible. For the better part of two seasons, Guillermo Mota set up Gagne, but DePodesta dealt Mota at the trade deadline last July because that's what it took (along with Paul Lo Duca and Juan Encarnacion) to get Brad Penny.

Well, he also got Hee Seop Choi and Billy Murphy, although Murphy was squandered on Steve Finley. Mota certainly pitched well for the better part of two seasons, but the only time he was the "set-up man," so to speak, was in 2004; that 8th inning role was Paul Quantrill's in 2003.

The reason DePodesta was willing to include Mota and tamper with the chemistry of the best bullpen in the game was his confidence in relatively unknown Mota-clone Yhency Brazoban, who quickly hop-scotched from Double-A to Triple-A to Gagne's new setup man in a matter of months.

Must be a nature vs. nurture thing, since Mota's clone is three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter. Brazoban is much more of a power pitcher than Mota, although they were both converted position players who were traded to the Dodgers. Maybe Brazoban is a Felix Rodriguez clone, too.

In any event, while Brazoban is good he's also easily the current Dodger most overrated by Dodger fans, non-Izturis category. Anyone check out his walk rate? When Brazoban is posting a 3.90 ERA in August and voices murmur about how the Dodgers ruined another can't-miss prospect, I'm going to be very angry.

Carrara is fearless and durable with the kind of mental makeup to rebound from a bad outing.

He would have to be after his 2003 campaign.

Duaner Sanchez might be the most intriguing arm behind Gagne's. He was picked up off waivers last winter, and his first full Major League season was a huge success with a 3.38 ERA over 80 innings.

Sample size + defense + park factor. Duaner is backing up Yhency on the overrated index. He's not bad at all, but he hasn't had a K:BB over 2 in two and a half seasons above AA. He has a ways to go.

Wilson Alvarez has the resume to be the fifth starter, but Tracy believes he is better suited as this stage of his career as a left-handed reliever, an area where the Dodgers lack depth. Non-roster candidates to back up Alvarez include Mike Venafro and Kelly Wunsch.

Alvarez is far too good of a pitcher to be used as just a lefty-killer. He also has shown a reverse platoon split of late, though that's probably more small sample hijinks than anything else. While the notion of there being an 8th-inning guy is highly problematic, if anyone should be it it's him.

Also, the quality of the lefties that DePodesta acquired for free this offseason is solid. Frank Brooks, whom Gurnick doesn't even note has blessed paw status, would be a pretty good LOOGY if given the shot. His AAA numbers last season don't look too good because the Pirates tried converting him back to a starter for a little while. Also, Kelly Wunsch has been a pretty good major league LOOGY for several years, though he's too liberal with the BB and HBP to be a top-tier lefty.

Ken Gurnick is the best mainstream writer to cover the Dodgers since Bob Nightingale left the LA Times. While you may have a minor quibble with him from time to time, at least you are not shredding the paper like you are with the current crop of Times wtiters. He also seems to know a lot more about baseball than the other mainstream writers. I think we're lucky to have him.
Stephen Bright
I agree that he's pretty good. Just trying to keep him honest, so to speak.
Brazoban's walk rate is nothing to behold; neither is his G/F ratio. Beware of the flyball pitcher, says I; that's a fellow likely to loose one out of the park.
It is striking how sabermetricians who derive a great deal of glee from making fun of the Dodger fans who draw inferences about Hee Seop Choi from 62 career Dodger AB's think they can look at Brazoban's first 33 major league innings and sum up his control. In truth, Brazoban's control is quite good. For all of 2004, at three levels, his line was 96 IP, 28 BB's, 105 K's. There is nothing wrong with 28 walks in 96 innings, and the K-rate is great. Brazoban was clearly tired by September, as his effectiveness in all departments declined, otherwise his numbers for 2004 would be even better. He had never pitched more than 60 innings in a season before. And people talk about Gagne being over-worked because he pitches 82 innings a year.
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