By In Baseball


Several of you have reached out because I have not been adding many new posts lately (except links to my NBC work). It’s true — I’ve been absolutely swamped for the last few months. I have started some pieces to put on here but just have not finished them. I think it will pick up a little bit now, but no promises. For instance, I just got the Microsoft Surface Book and I’m planning to get the iPad Pro later this week, so I’m hoping to have a review of those two coming up.

I also have a Ken Griffeyish thing that I hope to finish later today. Stay tuned.

In the meantime …

From NBC SportsWorld:

But baseball is the symbol. Major League Baseball is the game most like American life. Nobody goes undefeated in baseball. Unlike football and basketball and hockey, baseball has no salary cap (though there is a luxury tax that somewhat mitigates things). Baseball is the only major professional sport where one team (say, the Los Angeles Dodgers) can make and spend many multiples of another team (say, the Miami Marlins). So, how do you win if you are the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s? That was the question of Lewis’ superb book, and to this day it has a huge effect on the way baseball is run.

“So,” a reporter asked Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore after his team won the World Series, “would you consider yourselves the anti-Moneyball team?”

“No,” Moore said. “Not at all.”


* * *

And …

From NBC SportsWorld, Week 9 of my return to Browns fanhood.

This includes a new adjective I invented for the occasion … Tarkentonian. I like that word a lot because anyone of a certain age will know EXACTLY what it means.


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34 Responses to Bucksense

  1. AB says:

    If it is about either Griffey, or both, I look forward to reading it. Also, anything Tarkentonian would appeal to me. When I think on that era, I was a huge fan of the Purple People. Alan Page remains near the top of my list of pro athletes.

    Happy Birthday Marines.
    Semper Fidelis.

  2. Freddie says:

    Just one more thing regarding relievers. The Royals took failed starters like Davis and Hochevar and not only made relievers out of them, but also, it most cases, limited them to a single inning. This I think was the biggest “moneyball” innovation of the Royals. You take someone who can’t start, but has three or four good pitches a good hard fastball, a two seam cutter, a slider and a changeup and limit that guy to a single inning and almost any starting pitcher becomes Mario Rivera. A pitcher can throw as hard as he possibly can for a single inning. He can use all four of his pitches because he doesn’t have to “save” anything for the later innings (either pitches or arm strength). If you manage him this way, he can pitch a single inning every day. The only downside is he will throw so hard that he will blow out his elbow (see Hochevar last year and Holland this year), but you don’t care so much because you just try to get out of them what you can while they are under contract. Also, you tell your starters (take for example Chris Young) and tell him to just get you through the opposing lineup twice. Don’t hold anything back. Pitch as hard as you can for as long as you can and use all of your pitches starting in the first inning. Then, when you falter, we have a bunch of guys in the bullpen that will each throw one inning and put all kinds of pressure on the other team’s offense.
    It really works and the Royals are a hugely innovative team. Dayton Moore gets a lot of credit for that.

    • Kuz says:

      Yeah, almost any starting pitcher becomes Mariano Riverva. This is satire, right? Too bad the 1990’s Atlanta Braves didn’t know this.

      • Freddie says:

        Wade Davis threw 72 innings last year and 67 innings this year. His ERA last year was 1.0. ERA this year was 0.94. Mariano Rivera in his prime (2003-2007) averaged around 65 innings a year. His ERA in those years ranged from 1.38 to 1.94. So yes, limiting Wade Davis to an inning per appearance has turned a failed starter into Mariano Rivera (or yes, perhaps a bit better than Marino Rivera, in his prime).

        • I wouldn’t call this “innovative”. Teams have been lining up the late innings for one inning pitchers for over a decade. Look up the 2011 Braves trio of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel some time. Or even the 2002 Braves with Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond and John Smoltz. That’s just the two best Braves trios of relievers over the last decade+. The idea of a starting pitcher going 6 innings and turning it over to a pre-determined lineup of (ideally) power arms is hardly new. I think what the Royals did was execute that philosophy much better than anyone else last year.

          I also wouldn’t call putting failed starters in the bullpen as exactly innovative either. Removing struggling starters and putting them into the bullpen has been going on forever. Now, most struggling starters become struggling relief pitchers. So again, the Royals struck pay dirt on failed starters who turned into lock down relievers.

          Bottom line: Many, many teams have the same strategy as the Royals. The Royals have just done it better than anyone else the last two years. There is no guarantee that they will execute this well next year, either. Pitching can be very fickle. This year’s lock down 8th inning guy gets injured or his velocity drops or he can’t get the ball over the plate next year. Every year is a new year.

          • Freddie says:

            I disagree. The Royals have been “better at it” for a reason, not only luck.

            Regarding your examples, none of the Braves 2011 trio started a single game in their entire careers. They were all relievers from their first game in the majors.

            The 2002 Braves were even worse. Remling did not even pitch in the major leagues until he was 31. Hammond did not become a reliever until he was 36. And of course, John Smoltz was not a failed starter. He only began relieving after he turned 40. Wade Davis started relieving at 28 (his prime). Hochevar started relieving at 29 (again in his prime years). Starters are more valuable than relievers. The Royals gave Davis and Hochevar every chance to prove themselves to be able to start. However, they moved them into the bullpen in their prime years (not at the end of their careers). Every year is not a new year when you’re 28 or 29 years old. Injuries sure, (and I mentioned the increased chance of injury in my initial post), but what the Royals did was truly innovative. They were willing to move failed starters into single inning situations in their prime years.

          • Foob says:

            Agreed, the idea of converting struggling starters to one-inning relievers is most definitely not a new idea. Thing is, 200 innings from a good starter is always more valuable than 70 innings from a great reliever just due to volume, and it’s always easier to find relievers on the cheap, so teams want to give pitchers every chance to succeed as a starter before making the switch.
            If we want to look at examples where converted starters have become dominant relievers, Dennis Eckersley and Eric Gagne spring immediately to mind. There are also plenty of cases of starters who struggled in the minors before becoming top relievers in the majors (Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon, to name just three). Aroldis Chapman was a starter throughout his Cuban career but switched to the pen (amid a lot of debate) to start his MLB career.
            And then there’s the best example of a failed starter being moved to relief and becoming a Mariano Rivera-calibre closer: Mariano Rivera.
            It’s not foolproof; I’d never suggest that putting any old starter in the pen will result in them morphing them into a lights-out machine. Given the Royals’ success, though, some teams may decide to give up on struggling starters sooner than they otherwise would in hopes of building a bullpen full of aces or getting the most out of their asset value

          • Freddie says:

            Of course the idea of using failed starters in the bullpen is not new. An idea doesn’t have to be new to be innovative. The difference with the Royals is that they put their players in the position to be the best value to the team as possible. Ned Yost has said it countless times, and it sounds like a cliché, but it is their philosophy and it affects every decision they make. It is Moneyball 2.0.
            Pitching for as long as I can remember has been based on the idea that innings are very valuable to a team. If you have four pitches, like Wade Davis, you can go through a lineup multiple times because you can hold one or two of your pitches back for the third time through the lineup (or you can hold back arm strength and use one of your best fastballs in the fifth or sixth inning to get out of a jam). That is the Tom Seaver “Art of Pitching” theory, and he didn’t make it up. It has been around for generations.
            If you couldn’t be a starter with four pitches, there were two possible things they would do with you. They would make you a long reliever with four pitches (to get more innings out of you) or they would take one or more of your pitches away and make you a short reliever. After all, you don’t need four pitches if you’re never going to go through more than an inning or two. Mariano Rivera got through his entire career with only two pitches. Learn to throw two pitches well (or really well) and you will be a pretty good reliever.
            What the Royals have done is they have taken starters with three or four pitches and said, “use everything in your arsenal for as long as we keep you in.” And it is a philosophy that is staff-wide. Look at Chris Young again. When he starts he uses everything in his arsenal from the very first pitch. Most teams, even with a guy like Young will tell him to hold a pitch back for the third time through the lineup. Look at Joe Blanton, who pitched for the Royals for a time this year. That was his philosophy. They teach that mentality, but they also search for people who have that mentality.
            Also, look at Kelvin Hererra. Last year, he was a lights out pitcher who only threw two pitches. If Hererra had been on any other team, he would have been told to keep doing what you’re doing until you fail, then we’ll think of something to try to help you. But the Royals spent the offseason teaching him a slider. That makes him a more effective pitcher, even in single inning situations. The Royals put players in a position to succeed. They have taken Moneyball and added the human factor. Escobar enjoys leading off, so he leads off. It puts him in a position to be successful. Individual success leads to team success.
            Moore, Yost and the Royals are not only innovative, but groundbreakingly so. Innings are important, getting on base is important. But if we take your skill set, and put you in the best possible position to be successful, your success will become team success. If they were to award a noble prize for baseball, Moore would win hands down.

        • Spencer says:

          So one guy becomes better than Rivera for 2 seasons and that means “almost any starter can become Mariano Rivera”?

          I don’t think you know how things work.

          • I agree. And the other counterpoints that somehow the Royals are doing something different and “Innovative” is just silly. That’s not taking away anything from the Royals. If you do something, in this case lineup a lock down bullpen, better than anyone else & win the World Series…. that’s awesome. They won. They rule. But, that doesn’t mean they did anything innovative. Even lining up a team behind a solid defense isn’t new. The Mariners were trying to do exactly that a few years ago. And they sucked. Nobody called it “Innovative” then. They called it a terrible, failed idea and head rolled for it.

            There are very few new ideas in baseball. It’s the least innovative sport in the country. In fact, Billy Beane noticing that walks and getting on base equated to more runs was considered “Innovative”. I can tell you that any 12 year old that played Strat-o-Matic noticed that guys with lots of walks on their card got on base and scored a lot of runs. But Beane was innovative. I guess he played SOM as a kid & had two eyes in his head.

            The comment that Smoltz didn’t become a reliever “until he was 40” is just silly. Check BBR before commenting. He was 34. He wasn’t a “failed” starter. He was just unable to be a starter because of injury. That’s another reason why guys end up out of the rotation and in the bullpen. It’s just that Smoltz happened to be particularly successful at it. Putting Smoltz as a closer wasn’t particularly innovative either. At minimum, Eckersley was the model. There were others that just weren’t as successful. It just worked out well, so people started calling it “Innovative”. That word is highly overused these days.

          • Freddie says:

            And I think that’s the difference. If you believe that nothing that Billy Beane did was innovative because people my high school coach in the seventies used to say “a walk is good as a hit son,” then nothing meets your innovation standard.

    • John Autin says:

      KC is no innovator in either SP-to-RP conversions or 1-inning relief stints. Both trends have been in place for many years. What’s more, they actually switched Davis *back* from RP to SP after getting him from Tampa. They were very slow to get the message on Hochevar, giving him 5 full years of SP failure in the majors, even though he’d done almost nothing in the minors to deserve that chance. By comparison, Tampa made the move with Davis at age 26, after 2 mediocre full years in MLB. KC switched Hochevar at 29, after 5 bad years.

      • Exactly. Give KC credit. Not for finding the formula. The formula was already widely used. Give them credit for putting the right pieces in the right place over the last two years. Give the pitchers and the team credit for executing the plan very well. EVERY team seeks to find the right combination of relievers to steer the team through the final 3-4 innings. Very few starters are expected to pitch more than 5-6 innings anymore, so it’s obvious that you have to have a plan (that includes great pitching) for the late innings. The difference is that KC had the guys to lock down those innings and other teams weren’t as good at it. That’s all. That’s not innovation. That’s excellent execution. Having a good plan is useless if you don’t have the players to execute it.

    • John Autin says:

      From later remarks, it appears that Freddie didn’t know that Davis was a reliever in his last year with Tampa. Okay, then … Credit KC for innovatively accepting what had already been proven. 🙂

  3. DjangoZ says:

    Considering Frost was being satirical, perhaps best to not use that quote in this situation. 🙂

  4. Andrew G. says:

    I love how often you’ve been writing at SportsWorld, Joe. Seems there’s a new piece or two up almost every day. Whether it’s here or there, I’m just happy to have had so much great content from you lately. Thanks.

  5. Roberto says:

    Do you think you will ever go back to finish the list of “100 Greatest Baseball Players”? That was some of the best sportswriting I’ve ever seen (but everything you do is great).

  6. I love the comments about the lead-off man who couldn’t get on base, and Royals executives saying this is why the front office should stay out of deciding the lineup.

    First, as to constructing the lineup, Lindsey Nelson recalled having Walter Alston on the pre-game show and asking if it really mattered who batted lead-off, etc. Alston pondered for a second and said, if you think about it, it only works in the first inning, because after that it would be unusual to have the lead-off man leading off again. He also asked Alston what he had learned from about 20 years of managing (at the time) and Alston said that if you put your team out on the field, interesting things happen. Well, it’s a human game, and humans aren’t always consistent or easily explained.

    As to the front office, it seems to me that the manager can take the information–the analytics–and make the team he puts on the field better. But I think back to Earl Weaver using that information and deciding where to bat people, according to their numbers but also who they were playing and who was pitching against them. All of which is useless if the front office says X needs to lead off and the manager knows X gets nervous about that, so no matter how well he does, it can upset the clubhouse.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Are there many teams where the front office decides the lineup? This arguments seems to be one of those assertions that those brainiac front office guys are interfering the manager’s decisions. I certainly agree the manager should make out the lineup and that it probably makes a very marginal difference at best who bats where. But, if that’s the case, managers are spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about the lineup. It’s hard for me to believe that the front office guys would disagree that it’s humans playing the game and that there is randomness to their performance. In fact, that’s part of what sabermetrics says, that much of baseball is random. The point is not to have a rigid delineation of who bats where based on statistical analysis but to give the manager data that he can consider and use or not use as he sees fit. It’s fine that the Royals found something that works that is not what one would expect, but the point is, it is outside the norm. No manager, whether sabermetrically inclined or not, would say, let’s try putting the guy who never gets on base at leadoff. The Royals found that, in this particular case, it worked, but it’s certainly not a position you should start from.

      • I think how I read it was that Dayton Moore brought it up to Ned Yost & Yost agreed that moving Escobar down in the order was a good idea. If you’re the GM, of course you’re going to question your Manager on some of their decisions. The key, to me, is whether the ultimate decision is still the Manager’s. If the GM is truly making decisions for the Manager, that’s a bad idea.

        That’s apparently one of the big reasons that Frank Wren was fired as Braves GM, for insisting that Fredi Gonazlez keep playing BJ Upton and Dan Uggla, because they were big FA signings of his, despite the fact that neither one of them could hit at all. The new regime has, in fact, asked Fredi to play the young players this past year. After all, it’s a rebuilding year. But they also gave him a contract extension so he’s not being held accountable for the inevitable losses that come with potentially losing lineup decisions in the short term.

  7. DanO says:

    I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not with the Ipad review, Joe, but just post when you can. I prefer reading you on this site (specifically because of the comment section), but anywhere is perfectly fine.

  8. Brent says:

    One thing about Escobar leading off that has been tangentially mentioned but not explored a lot is the idea that in the AL it is only in the first inning that the leadoff batter is distinguishable from any other batter in the lineup. What I felt from watching the Royals was that Escobar had an inordinate amount of success in the first at bat of the game when he led off, compared to his other at bats. And since that is the only at bat that it really matters if he is the leadoff batter or the #9 hitter, that could be a *gasp* sabermetric reason for him to lead off.

    Do the numbers support my subjective feeling? Well, Escobar was a .257/.290/.320 hitter in all situations in 2015. Leading off the game he was a .281/336/.382 hitter. Not Rickey Henderson territory, but 45 points higher in OBP and 60+ higher in SLG.

    Does this logically make sense? Sure. Escobar is a first pitch fastball hitter. For their first pitch of the game pitchers like to throw a fastball. I would suspect that the first pitch of the game is a fastball a vast majority of the time. We saw in the playoffs that even when it was really clear that Escobar was looking to swing at the first pitch, the opposing pitchers still would throw him a first pitch fastball for a strike.

    Is it possible that Yost’s hunch that Escobar leading off was helpful to the Royals wasn’t so far fetched?

    • invitro says:

      No. The main reason you want a good hitter to bat leadoff is that he’ll get more plate appearances. You don’t want a hitter like Escobar getting more PA, unless you know something about him that isn’t reflected in his stats.

      • Brent says:

        Of course, you could think if the extra plate appearance as the first one, not the last one, which again, he seems to be better at the first plate appearance, especially when it is the first batter of the game.

        • It was a good point that Escobar did, in fact, excel leading off a game last year. Career wise, he hadn’t led off much (only 6 times) before last year. So, he has 156 career at bats as a leadoff hitter. That’s a very small sample size. Escobar’s career totals leading off any inning in over 600 ABs and you see a return to his normal career averages.

          My concern would be that last year, leading off a game, was a very small sample size. Statistics suggest that he may not give you that kind of production over a longer career & more at bats. It worked last year. Next year? Ehhhhh, we’ll see. I suspect not. Managers tend to notice these things, especially as they’re written about. If Escobar is seeing, and hitting, a lot of first pitch get-me-over fastballs, then Escobar will likely start seeing different pitch sequencing.

      • Chris H says:

        This is true, but the significance is pretty small. A leadoff hitter will typically get one additional at bat about 89% of the time, compared to the #9 hitter; that’s about 145 plate appearances a year. Another 50 points in OBP works out to about 7 or 8 times on base all year; once every three or four weeks. That might be worth 5 or 6 runs; maybe half a win.

        In other words, it’s statistically as likely as not that batting Escobar leadoff made no difference to the Royals compared to some (basically imaginary) other leadoff hitter. And in any case, the effects of that are likely to be swamped by other factors: his first-pitch prowess, his baserunning, the effect on other hitters by moving them around in the lineup, and whatever other intangibles you want to mention.

  9. Chris H says:

    I think the Moneyball advantage begins with defense, and the success resulted from pushing that to its furthest conclusions. Principally, by playing better defense, the Royals exploited their advantage on batted balls in play so many ways that it becomes decisive.

    1) Among pitchers, they could devalue strikeouts, knowing that the advantage of Ks over batted balls is diminished by their defense. So they could avoid paying the premium for strikeout pitchers.

    2) Pitching to contact devalues the opponents’ bases on balls, reducing the OBP that opposing teams have paid for. It also devalues working the count, a tactic that against the Royals is likely to result in pitchers’ counts.

    3) Having starters who pitch to contact magnifies the effect of one- or two-pitch power arms in the bullpen, who are relatively cheap.

    4) Offensively, putting the ball in play exploits the other team’s defensive inferiority. This seems to me a relative advantage and not an absolute one; lineups full of mashers (the Blue Jays) still ought to score more runs. But from Moneyball perspective, exploiting this relative advantage frees resources for other uses. (And the relative advantage certainly showed up against the Mets.)

    5) Running aggressively, ditto; and note that baserunning speed and defensive range are likely to be correlated, especially among outfielders.

    As for the bullpen strategy, I don’t think converting starters is all that novel. What is (more) novel is having almost no concern for stretching another inning or two out of one’s starter. And, for a team pitching to contact, that third time through the lineup may be more problematic, as weakly hit balls become line drives and one’s advantage in BABIP starts to diminish. On the other hand, against a team making contact, the other team’s determination to stretch the starter into the seventh may be more costly.

    Some numbers would obviously help verify this – not right now, but maybe later.

    – Chris.

  10. KHAZAD says:

    The most interesting thing for the Royals to me was the emphasis on contact, going against the norm in that area.

    For years, DIPS pitching stats have rated pitchers largely on their ability to pile up K’s and limit walks, and the idea (whether you agree with it or not) that the number of hits given up when contact is made is mostly luck. The concept that Batting average on balls in play would tend, over the course of time, would tend to regress to the mean (about .300) for most.

    But for all those years, teams ignored K’s from the offensive side, and the pluses of limiting them were completely overlooked. For instance, let us say team strikes out 100 less times over a certain period of time, and instead makes contact. That team would usually go 30 for 100 in those at bats, which would in turn get them 30 more at bats, in shich they would get 9 more hits, etc. In the end, every strikeout you avoid is worth about .428 hits. so the team with 100 less strikeouts would get 42 or 43 more hits and also would have 100 more contact outs where a runner on base might move be moved up.

    Much has been made of the Royals outscoring teams in innings 7 and later in the postseason. Some of that is how the teams were constructed. (The one advantage some of the teams had over the Royals was starting pitching. Not so once we got to the bullpens, the Royals had the clear advantage there. With that knowledge, there were also a few times opposing managers, afraid to go to the bullpen and trying to ride with a pitcher doing well, left their starter in long enough for the Royals to solve him.)
    Some of it though, is that the Royals struck out 67 guys in those late innings and struck out only 34 times themselves. That translates to about 14.5 more hits, and 34 more contact outs just with a normal Babip. Now the Royals actually had 28 more hits and 12 more walks in those late innings than their opponents. Was the rest some kind of clutchiness, the difference in the talent level of pitching opposed, or luck, I don’t know. But the basic contact is a big part of it, and it is a part that has been overlooked by other teams.

  11. Matt Perry says:

    Hi Joe. I just wanted to alert you to the fact that the Robert Frost poem from which you quoted doesn’t exactly mean what your piece indicates you think it means. The poem, “The Road Not Taken,” goes like this:

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    The conventional wisdom is that the poem means you should take the less trodden path, that you should go your own way and be different if that’s what you’re inclined to do. This is a great message in general, but it is much too simple and clichéd for someone with Frost’s talent. Note the following lines in the poem:

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,

    Had worn them really about the same,
    And both that morning equally lay…

    Frost tells us three times that the two paths are identical: “just as fair,” “really about the same,” and “equally lay.” The second road has “perhaps the better claim,” but this possibility is refuted with the “really” and “equally” that follow.

    At the end of the poem, where the famous “And that has made all the difference” line is, the voice is no longer that of the narrator. The voice is that of the narrator’s future self, the version of himself “ages and ages hence.” What he’s telling us is that he will someday lie to his listeners–and to himself–that he took the road less travelled. When he chose a road, he knew the two roads were the same, so he just made an arbitrary choice. But–and this is the underlying message of the poem–we retrospectively construct narratives that make sense of our lives and of our choices (and usually impart positive attributes to ourselves), even though so much of what happens–and of what we’ve done–is random.

    I wonder if some of this same kind of retrospective narrative building is happening now with the Royals. I know you love the concept of narratives driving baseball analysis and decisions, so I wonder what you’d think about applying this alternate interpretation of Frost’s poem to the current analysis of how the Royals built the awesome, thrilling winning team they have now.

    Thanks for all of your wonderful writing. I’m glad you chose this path, not that of tennis superstardom.

  12. MikeN says:

    >I just got the Microsoft Surface Book and I’m planning to get the iPad Pro later this week,

    Talk about a victory splurge.

  13. kgb4pl says:

    Joe, one other point struck me while reading this beautiful deconstruction of the Royal’s methods. For years now, we’ve seen Ks go up, runs come down and pitching power go up. KC hitters did one thing better than anyone else – they made a ton of contact, and the portion of contact above the league average wasn’t all weak-squib type. In other words, they could hit good pitching, just not for a lot of power.

    Now, look at the Ks per team. KC had about 360 Ks less than the league average – that’s about 2.25 more batters getting out making contact, as opposed to striking out. That means teams had to get 23.25 outs via plays made against KC, compared to 21 outs against other teams. That’s 10% more plays, against quality contact, against a team that runs hard. Add to it the fact that a low walk percentage combined with a high hit count means that KC was getting on base significantly more by putting the ball in play than your average team (last in walks, 2nd in hits)

    Is it just possible that, given the number of “lazy” outs that teams got against all others, they just could not handle the additional 15-20% more plays they had to make? If most other teams play a certain way, and one team is off the norm by this much, it surely must be really off-putting.

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