Friday, June 01, 2007

Looky There: It Is Over

Unless it turns out to be even more of a disaster than Tuesday’s game, I’ve decided to take sole credit for last night’s trade of Armando Benitez, assuming that the decision was based on my previous blog entry. In his blog, Steven Rubio calls attention to Brian Sabean leaving “no doubt he was unhappy that he was forced by public opinion to consummate a trade that leaves the Giants with no experienced closer.” Sabean said, “Apparently the fans, the press and some people in the clubhouse felt he needed to go.”

Steven says, “Brian Sabean’s job is to make the Giants as good a team as he can. His job is not to act on the basis of public opinion… I may think that he'd be better off listening to me, I have in fact been quoted in public about my negative opinions of Sabean, but the idea is that Sabean use his noggin to reconsider his methods, not that he whines like a baby and says ‘ok, HAVE it your way!’”

Sabean has an interesting approach to laying blame, namely one of not looking in a mirror. That’s “interesting,” not “unique.” I mean, how many GMs do cop to making dingleberry moves? (And how many should?) Usually they don’t blame the fans, though. Or teammates of the problem children at hand. And the press… well, everybody blames them, but I don’t have a problem with that.

Still, I understand Sabean’s desire not to badmouth his departing bozo player, and that’s sort of noble, while at the same time sort of covering his butt. Also, I think that if it’s fair to say “Who knew?” about the results of Sabes’ acquisition of Jeff Kent eons ago (and it is), It’s just as fair to say the same thing about the signing of Benitez. I mean, as a Giant, the guy’s ERA was 4.10—bringing his lifetime ERA up to 2.99. The guy saved 35 in three years—as opposed to 47 in 2003 alone—and blew 15, astounding numbers that really weren’t indicated by past performance. Now, sure, he’s had some big-game meltdowns in the past, but hey, he was tied for 23rd in MVP voting in 2003, right? I mean, there were *signs* that as a Giant he might not be the pitcher he was in 2003, but still: who knew? I don’t really fault Sabean for signing the guy in the first place (actual dollar figures aside), because it was reasonable to believe that he’d have chalked up three times as many saves in these three years, and that his ERA would be, say, three-quarters of a run lower, at least.

“Armando Benitez is a better pitcher than the boo birds seem to realize,” Steven says, “but he plies his trade as a closer, the most overrated position on the roster (not the most worthless, but the most overrated, meaning the position where the player is likely to be overpaid relative to his contributions, meaning the position where an astute GM can make a difference, meaning a position where a more traditional GM will overpay). Benitez was signed for $21.5 million. He has now been traded when his trade value is [very] low, with the Giants having to pay $4.7 of the remaining $5 million on his contract. Looking for a whipping boy? Who signed Benitez to that contract?”

Sabean is no more immune than most other GMs to the Seductive Qualities of Closer Numbers (SQCN). As I’ve pointed out a number of times in EEEEEE! over the years, “saves” is a gaudy statistic that is too heavily emphasized. How so? Well, when do closers enter a game? Nine times out of ten, it’s when it’s a save situation. What’s a save situation? Here’s what Rule 10.19 in the baseball rulebook says:
The official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when such pitcher meets all four of the following conditions: (a) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team; (b) He is not the winning pitcher; (c) He is credited with at least a third of an inning pitched; and (d) He satisfies one of the following conditions: (1) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; (2) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batters he faces); or (3) He pitches for at least three innings.
Closers usually enter the game before an inning starts, when they’d have to get three outs with at least a one-run lead. Even when they enter during an inning, a save is still possible even with a five-run lead (i.e., with the bases loaded and the tying run on deck). In other words, success is pretty much built in. Even though the rule is defined better than the one for individual pitching victories, it’s a lot easier to get a save than a win. In fact, it might be fair to say that it’s as easy to get a save as it is for a starting pitcher to get a win when his team scores, say, four runs in the top of the first.

Also, because closers usually have to pitch just one inning in any given appearance, their ERAs, as a breed, are lower than those of other pitchers. So while an ERA below 4.00 is good for a starter (and lots of relievers) these days, it’s horrendous for a closer. In fact, anything over 3.00 is pretty unsatisfactory. Thus, often, when a GM sees a free-agent closer available, he sees those 40 saves, that 2.80 ERA, and licks his chops. Perhaps he doesn’t see those 10 blown saves—which doesn’t sound like much, I suppose, but it is—and those 12 decisions, many of which are the product of blown saves.

Not only that, but some closers—Robb Nen comes to mind—will come right out and say that they just don’t concentrate, at least not as well, when it’s not a save situation. Why? Because it’s the saves that get them the big money, not the scoreless innings with nothing on the line. Indeed, some of these guys aren’t nearly as intense when their team’s lead exceeds one run. This, I suppose, is what passes for mental toughness.

The “closer mentality”—that is, the tendency among major league managers and general managers to overvalue the role of the closer—has been discussed many times over the years in the Giants newsgroup. Mostly we bemoan the fact that the flashiness of the save statistic and the normal closer-type ERA causes teams to heavily emphasize the closer role itself, if not the pitcher in it. These factors also determine how well closers get paid, which in turn places even more emphasis on the role itself.

Instead of sticking someone in the closer pigeonhole and sticking with it all year, if a manager were to let other factors dictate which pitcher closes on a given day—factors such as game situation, who’s been pitching well, who’s rested, etc.—know what would happen? Anarchy. Why? Because ballplayers like having specific roles. Apparently. The other night, with the Giants ahead 3-0 in the ninth—the night after Benitez’s final implosion as a Giant—you know who closed? Brad Hennessey. Why? Purportedly because Benitez’s knee flared up during the previous night’s fiasco; not because Hennessey was the right man for the job at the time.

But what if Bruce Bochy had said before the game that in closing situations, he planned to use the pitcher he thought had the best chance of doing the job well, rather than using a designated closer? Well, maybe Hennessey gets his save that night, but then maybe we see Steve Kline or Kevin Correia or even Vinnie Chulk (or Benitez) in save situations over the next several days. And you know what we’d read in the papers? Grousing from unnamed relievers about how nobody knows what his role is. It’d just be too confusing. Pants would be wet. Skies would fall. Hence guys like Benitez keeping their jobs for years, and doing them poorly. Hence guys like Matt Herges and Tyler Walker, once ensconced in the closer role, racking enough saves to keep the closer role without necessarily pitching well.

As you know, if you read my previous entry, I completely lost patience with Benitez, right around the time Sabean did. Indeed, on KNBR yesterday, he said, in so many words, that we should expect to see the problem addressed within 24 to 48 hours—which I’m sure most people interpreted as “There’s a trade coming.” And indeed there was. The new guy is reliever Randy Messenger, a big dude with a sparkling ERA—which in this case is to say he’s been awfully lucky, given that he’s allowed something like 36 baserunners and only seven have scored.

Messenger’s probably not going to be the closer, so who is? My joke, and I hope it is a joke, is that it’ll be Hennessey until he goes cold, then Correia until he goes cold… and then maybe Tyler Walker (who’s back in the system, recovering from an injury). Then who? Brian Wilson, who was supposed to make the team this spring but stank too bad? Jonathan Sanchez, a recent departee to Fresno? I don’t suppose it matters too much with this team—as long as the new closer isn’t Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum, d’you hear?

Meanwhile, what you may well have missed yesterday was something that lots of on-air radio people might call “good radio,” but which I call uncomfortable, namely a shouting match between Sabean and KNBR’s Ralph Barbieri. Now, in such circumstances, the radio guy is always gonna win because his voice will be louder than that of the guy on the phone, but Barbieri almost always interrupts his guests anyway, and his approach was (not entirely without reason) very accusing. These two guys went at it a few years back over Sabean’s failure to pursue, let alone sign, Vladimir Guerrero, and Sabes hung up loudly. And yet, to their credit, they’re both professional enough, apparently, not to let these squabbles prevent subsequent amiability. We’ll see after yesterday’s, though.

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