Saturday, May 22, 2010

Thoughts While Watching the Mets and Yankees

It's not often that I get to see much baseball anymore since I don't have cable, so tonight I was treated to the FOX game of the week: Yankees - Mets. Mike Pelphrey pitched very well, and the Mets survived despite the Yankees eighth inning threat.

Joe Buck and Tim McCarver announced the game. I'm not a fan of either of them; they're both too full of themselves for my taste. McCarver did talk about something that caught my attention though.  He spent some time talking about a recent SI story in which Nolan Ryan shared his view that pitchers today ought to be able to throw as many pitches in a start as pitchers in Ryan's day did. I didn't see the article, but I assume Ryan's reasoning is that pitchers are generally in better shape than they used be. McCarver seemed to suggest he agreed with Ryan, although if he came right out and said so, I missed it.

I don't know if pitchers today are able to throw as many pitches as they were allowed to throw back then, but I do strongly believe that they shouldn't throw that many pitches, for two reasons. First, the game has changed dramatically. Batters work the count much better than they used to, rarely giving an at bat away. This means pitchers have to be very precise with their pitches. They can't just throw it close and wait for the batter to hit their pitch. When a batter works his way into a good count, he's got the leverage in the at bat, forcing the pitcher to throw something meaty. When the pitcher has to throw a hitter's pitch, the stress on the pitcher is greater.  Since the batters are better at getting into these counts now, I believe that pitchers are not able to throw as many pitches on a consistent basis as pitchers in Ryan's day did.

Even if pitchers are able to throw that many pitches, I don't think they should do so. My second reason is that more than ever before, baseball players are viewed as a very expensive investment for a team. Pitchers are asked to push the limits of what the human body can do. There has been a lot of work done to show that overworking pitchers leads to injury, with the Reds' own Dusty Baker being the poster child for his handling of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in their Cubs days together. The fact is, pushing a fatigued body to attempt to perform on a regular basis for the marginal benefit that could be gained with a few extra pitches at the end of a long start just doesn't outweigh the long-term business risk posed by such a maneuver.

As I typed entry, the Reds won and regained first place from the Cardinals. Johnny Cueto was coming off two excellent outings, but threw 113 pitches in his last game. In an earlier post this week, I noted that Baker had given his pitchers an extra day off when throwing more than 110 pitches. I speculated that he wouldn't do that with Cueto this time around, and I said it would cost the team before this stretch of games was over. Dusty didn't give Cueto the extra day; however, he did the next best thing.  Despite Cueto pitching another excellent game and the game being in an AL park (where there is no temptation to wait till the pitcher's spot in the lineup to hit for the pitcher), Dusty pulled Cueto after just 6 innings and 93 pitches. A few years ago (maybe even last year), Dusty doesn't make that move. The fact that he did gives us Reds fans hope that we may be able to manage our considerable talent well enough to give St. Louis a run for their money. Hopefully he keeps it up.

Nix Gets Redemption

The Reds bounced back tonight after the crushing defeat Thursday at the hands of the Braves.  Laynce Nix got a little redemption, hitting a homer and two doubles one night after the walk-off grand slam by Brooks Conrad in the Braves stunning seven-run ninth glanced off Nix's glove.  After seeing the replay today, I wondered today why Heisey wasn't inserted as a defensive substitution in the ninth inning yesterday.

The obvious answer is that the score was 9-3 entering the ninth last night - a seemingly insurmountable lead.  Dusty Baker was probably looking at it as an opportunity to get his little-used bench players some playing time in a low-leverage situation and not as a lead that needed protecting.  That seems perfectly rational too, as fangraphs listed the win expectancy (WE) as 99.8% at the end of the eighth inning.  Even when Cordero was summoned with the bases loaded and a three run lead, the Reds had a WE of 81.5%.

Looking beyond the obvious answer though, I found another answer.  Laynce Nix is actually a pretty good left fielder.  I wasn't aware of this, and he certainly didn't look it on the replay I saw.  I looked him up on fangraphs though, and found that Nix has a career UZR/150 of 10.0 in left field.  Not only that, but prior to last year with the Reds, Nix's most significant playing time came as an above average center fielder with the Rangers for the better part of the 2004 season.  That season, Nix put up a 4.2 UZR in 875 innings, ninth-best among all players who logged 850 or more innings in center field that year.  On what should be an excellent defensive team - surprisingly, fangraphs lists the team UZR as -0.5 so far in 2010 - it is easy to overlook the solid defensive play of Nix.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Win Today (Pay Later?)

In my blog post a couple of days ago, I mentioned that it appears that Dusty Baker has improved upon his tendency to overwork his starting pitchers.  In the Reds first game since seizing first place from the Cardinals, Johnny Cueto pitched seven strong innings, allowing 7 hits including a home run and striking out 7 against one walk.  Cueto was cruising through the first six innings, throwing just 92 pitches.  Cueto's spot in the lineup was due up to start the seventh, and Cueto was throwing well, so it was pretty obvious to let Cueto pitch.  Cueto threw 21 pitches in the seventh despite facing just four batters and getting three of them out.  The strategy payed off nicely though, when pinch hitter Chris Heisey, batting for Cueto, led off the seventh with a triple igniting a 5-run rally and putting the game away.

The end result, however, was a 113 pitch outing for Cueto.  In my prior post, I mentioned that each time a Reds starter had gone more than 110 pitches this season, Dusty Baker has given the pitcher an extra day of rest before the next start.  My guess is that Baker will break from that strategy for Cueto's next outing, as tonight was the fourth game of a 20-day stretch with no off days.  With the Reds starting rotation averaging 6.85 innings pitched per start over the last two weeks, the bullpen is well rested and could have easily been called on to get the last out of the seventh.  Of course, Cueto would not have been in line to earn the win then.  Cueto has been pitching well of late, but it wouldn't surprise me if he struggles a bit before the end of this brutal stretch in the schedule.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

First Place

It's obviously still very early in the season, but the Reds victory over the Cardinals today pushes them into first place.  From all the accounts I read, it sounded like everyone (on both teams) was saying all the right things about it being early in the season and the Reds needing the victory more than the Cardinals.  It's just one game, but psychologically it was a big one for the Reds.  Winning not only pushed them into first place, but it also meant that the Reds won a series against St. Louis for the first time this year.  St. Louis is widely regarded as the NL Central favorites, so the Reds needed to see that they could hang with the Cardinals to confirm that they can, in fact, be contenders this year.  I doubt the Cardinals are going to worry too much about falling back to second, but it will be good to see if the Reds can keep this lead for the next two weeks until the teams meet again on the Cards home turf.

Another Solid Outing for Leake - and for Baker

Mike Leake gave the Reds six solid innings tonight, beating Cardinals stalwart Adam Wainwright in the process.  Leake gave up a Colby Rasmus home run and walked three while striking out five.  For the game, Leake threw 97 pitches - 60 for strikes - continuing an encouraging trend for Leake and the Reds.

It has been my belief for some time that the Reds have turned a corner and are starting to become a fairly well run organization.  They've got a lot of young talent in the minors, and they seem to be making smarter investments in the team.  In my mind, the big thing holding them back now was Dusty Baker.  As the season has progressed though, I'm finding myself wondering if Dusty's learned a few things himself.

I've have two main complaints about Baker over the years.
  • He has been known to favor veterans over younger talent.
  • He has a history of abusing his starting pitching.
Dusty has shown some promise on both fronts this year.

I really thought there was no way that Leake,  Wood, or Chapman would win the Spring Training battle for the fifth starter spot, so I was quite surprised when Leake got the nod.  Of course, the more veteran options were terrible, and the Reds really had no choice but to select between the youngsters.  Still, at the end of Spring Training, I was not so believing that anything had changed.  The top young position prospects - Frazier, Heisey, and Francisco in particular - really didn't see much playing time in the spring and weren't sent down until just before the season got underway.  In Francisco's case, he initially made the club - to pinch hit instead of play regularly - but that was just until Leake had to be placed on the active roster on his first day to pitch.

Since then though, Baker has really shown me something in his handling of the Drew Stubbs situation.  Clearly, Stubbs is struggling at the plate.  Between that and the atrocious handling of the Willy Tavares fiasco last year, I fully expected Baker to sour on Stubbs.  To his credit, Baker has stood by Stubbs, and his effort to move Stubbs down in the lineup to help rebuild his confidence appears to be a good move even with no real viable options at the top of the order.  In the six games since the move, Stubbs is 7 for 24 with two homers and 8 RBIs (according to  In addition to Stubbs, Baker has been giving more playing time to Ryan Hanigan as well, which I'm glad to see.  I'd still like to see Heisey get more time, but with Gomes hitting well right now, it's understandable that Heisey's not getting more opportunities.

The other thing I've been pleased to see is that Baker has overworked his starting pitchers nearly as bad as in the past.  I was particularly worried about Leake, given his lack of professional experience.  Baker hasn't allowed him to throw more than 106 pitches in a game yet though.  We'll have to see if Baker will be able to pull Leake when he finally labors through a start.  Baker hasn't been so kind to Homer Bailey so far this year.  Bailey has been allowed to throw more than 110 pitches twice so far this season, going as high as 121 pitches on May 1 against the Cardinals (when he REALLY shouldn't have been allowed to face Pujols in that final at bat).  Still, that doesn't compare to the end of last season when Baker allowed Bailey to throw 112 or more pitches in 7 of his final 9 starts (including 6 in a row).  Bronson Arroyo has not thrown more than 109 pitches in a game this year, but he threw more than that in ten different games last season.  Aaron Harang already has five games this season where he's thrown fewer than 105 pitches after having only 10 such games all last year.  On the other hand, Harang has thrown games of 116 and 121 pitches already this season.   Johnny Cueto did go as high as 118 pitches on May 5, but other than that hasn't topped 110.  (Of course, last year Cueto never topped 112.)  Also encouraging is that after each of the five games where a Reds starter has exceeded 110 pitches (twice each by Bailey and Harang, once by Cueto), that pitcher was given an extra day of rest before his next start.

If Dusty can keep this pitching staff healthy and can take make use of some of the nearly-ready talent in the high minors down the stretch this year, the Reds may just have enough to make a run at the Wild Card (if not the Cardinals).  That's still not likely to happen, but it is a whole lot likelier than I thought it was when the season began.