Thursday, June 11, 2009

Limiting the probability of success

I am absolutely perplexed with how Twins manager Ron Gardenhire uses one of his best pitchers Joe Nathan. He is following current day conventional wisdom about how a manager should use a closer, but still it seems to make so little sense that I find myself scratching my head. For those of you who don't follow the Twins often I can tell you pretty much the only times Joe Nathan will be used:
  • At the start of the 9th inning when the Twins have a lead of 3 runs or less.

  • At the start of the 9th inning when the Twins have a lead of greater than 3 runs, but Joe Nathan hasn't pitched in a long time and Gardy (nickname for Gardenhire) doesn't want Nathan to get rusty.

This isn't anything strange since most managers use their closer in the same way, but my question on that is why. Why limit your best pitcher to such a predefinied situation? Why do managers think the 9th inning is more important than the 6th, 7th or 8th inning? I have seen just as many teams lose the game in 7th inning as in the 9th inning. Managers need to stop thinking of the 9th inning as being this super special inning with mystical powers that need a designated closer.

Let's look specifically at my favorite team the Twins. How do the Twins use Nathan and why I am I so perplexed? I would like to at first highlight the fact that Nathan is one of the Twins best pitchers by looking at Nathan's stats. Below are Nathan's team rank by stat by year with the team rank being in parenthesis. For example ERA - 2009 (1st) means that Joe Nathan is leading the Twins with the lowest ERA among all pitchers.

  • ERA - Nathan - 2009 (1st) , 2008 (2nd), 2007 (1st), 2006 (2nd), 2005 (2nd), 2004 (1st)

  • WHIP - Nathan - 2009 (2nd), 2008 (2nd), 2007 (2nd), 2006 (2nd), 2005 (tied for 1st), 2004 (2nd).

  • K/9 innings -2009 (1st), 2008 (2nd), 2007 (1st), 2006 (2nd), 2005 (2nd), 2004 (2nd).

As you can see from the above stats he is pretty good and also extremely consistent. In ERA, WHIP and K/9 innings he finished first or second in team rank every year since he joined the Twins in 2004. Now let's look at how many innings he pitched compared to other Twins pitchers with the team rank listed last:

  • 2009 - 23.1 innings pitched - 9th

  • 2008 - 67.2 innings pitched - 10th

  • 2007 - 71.2 innings pitched - 8th

  • 2006 - 68.1 innings pitched - 10th

  • 2005 - 70 innings pitched - 9th

  • 2004 - 72.1 innings pitched - 8th.

How is that one of the Twins best two pitchers year in and year out hasn't finished in the top seven of innings pitched? How does that make sense? Wouldn't it make more sense to pitch your best pitchers more? The batting equivalent would be if Gardy decided to give Joe Mauer 200 at bats and Delmon Young *600 at bats.

*Strange thing I found was that last year Carlos Gomez came up to the plate 577 times, Delmon Young came up 575 times and Joe Mauer came up to the plate 536 times. That doesn't make much sense, but for this argument I am going to focus on the pitchers.

A perfect real world example would be yesterday's game between the Twins and the As. The Twins and the As were tied 3-3 in the 9th inning and Gardy sent out Sean Henn to face the As. He walked the only batter he faced before Gardy decided to bring in Matt Guerrier. Three batters latter the As are celebrating a win. Why in that example wouldn't Gardy use Nathan? The game was close, so go out and try to win the game. Better yet try to give your team the best chance of not losing the game by throwing out second rate pitchers like Henn and Guerrier. The goal at the bottom of the 9th inning in a tie game on the road is to extend the game and Nathan gives the Twins the best chance of extending the game. In a tie game on the road in the 9th inning the only way to win again is to be able to get your hitters to the plate at least one more time. If you don't get to bat anymore then you are guaranteed a loss. Also, in this situation it would have been even better for the Twins to extend the game one more inning because the top of the lineup was scheduled to hit if there was a 10th inning.

It seems to make sense to me not to limit your best pitcher to such a detailed time. If the game was close in the later innings I would bring Nathan in to pitch as many pitches as was smart for both his health and effectiveness. There is always the chance that Nathan is able to have an easy 9th inning and could come back and even pitch the 10th inning. Just pitch him up into a certain pitch count point. By doing this you would have your best pitcher pitching in close games and giving yourself the best chance of winning. Yesterday ended with Henn getting the loss, Geurrier walking off the mound after giving up the winning hit, and Nathan sitting unused in the bullpen. That makes no sense to me.


Eric said...

K, let me first say I love the game of baseball. I keep up with stats more than I actually sit and watch the games, and as a Fantasy Baseball Participant the past 8 years, I think I'm somewhat knowledgeable about the game. (yes, I just used Fantasy Sports to pump up my résumé)

That being said, I agree with your arguments - in theory. I simply cannot agree with you across the board though. Part of Nathan's effectiveness is that batters don't see him all that often. Gardy doesn't use his closer in tie game situations because 1. he's not going to pitch more than one inning, and 2. pitchers who would normally be middle relief are changing their mentality to become the closer in this specific situation. I know that sounds ridiculous, but Yogi said it best, "Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical"

I must comment on your footnote, as well. In 2008 Delmon Young played 152 games, had 575 AB, but walked only 35 times. Joe Mauer, on the other hand, played in 146 games, had 536 AB, and walked 84 times. I'm sure you know that a BB does not count as an official at bat, so it makes sense that free swingers like Young would have more AB's than others.

I'm proud of your Twins. Johnny tells me they selected Dozier from USM. Suh-weet.

Kevin Malphurs said...

Eric - Good points...let me try to answer all of them.

1. I used to love baseball, but after the 1994 strike I stopped caring about the sport. I only starting caring again back in 2006 during my first year up here in Minnesota. I love the Twins and unless they are playing I don't really care much about baseball.

2. Nathan could pitch more than one inning if the inning is a quick inning. If he only threw 8 pitches to get 3 outs then he could easily come out for another inning.

3. Why does he have to only pitch one inning? As long as he is still successful I think you should push the limits.

4. Agreed on the mental part being important.

5. Good point on the walks on my footnote. In my mind Gomez and Young should combined get similar amount of at bats as Mauer and not even be as close as they are in plate appearances.

6. Johnny told me about Dozier and I am really excited to see him play on Sunday and hopefully for the Twins in the near future. They could use a shortstop or 2nd baseman at all levels, so Dozier will definitely be given a shot if he is good.

The main point is that the Twins should find a way of getting Nathan in the game more and have a way of him getting more innings in. He is there best pitcher and he is too often on the bench.