Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kuip Pumps Seven!

Among my newsfeeds are Henry Schulman’s Giants blog and the Giants section from the Chronicle, the Mercury’s Andrew Baggarly’s Giants blog, and’s baseball page—which rarely tells me anything interesting.

Last night Tim Lincecum—who, I should emphasize, won the National League Cy Young Award in 2008—pitched eight innings of a 4-0 win over the Braves. This is what the ESPN newsfeed had to offer (and bear in mind that many of the titles predate last night’s Giants game by hours or even days:

Ooo! A lineup change for the Boston Red Sox! Somebody who was in the Brewers’ lineup, then evidently wasn’t, is back in! A pitcher who’s been canned by four teams from 2006 through spring training this year, and who hasn’t been healthy in five years, now plays for an independent minor league team! Some team’s gonna bring up a prospect! Some guys are injured! Other guys are called up! Someone hasn’t won a game in three years! A bunch of Mets are hurt! The new Tim Lincecum beats the Tigers! Whee! Is there a damn word about the Giants? I feel as though if there had been, it would’ve said “Atlanta Braves Rookie Medlen loses 4-0.” (Those items almost always give the complete city and team names, as if fans wouldn’t understand, say, just “Giants” or even “Nats.” Some potentially relevant stuff gets lost in those ellipses, because….)

Zach Greinke threw a complete game, giving up six hits and a run, walking none and striking out eight. Lincecum went eight, giving up zero runs on five hits and two walks, striking out eight. But Greinke apparently is the flavor of the month—no doubt he’s good enough. And since I didn’t use the newsfeed last year, I don’t know whether everything Lincecum did was covered, but ESPN’s history does not suggest as much.

Okay, I really don’t care that the newsfeed didn’t mention Lincecum or last night’s victory in particular. I honestly don’t. It’s just something I noticed because it’s symptomatic of the network’s general approach. I mean, even print-media sportswriters make fun of the fact that ESPN has rarely given Crap One about anything that happens outside of New York and Boston, and sometimes maybe LA. On the Giants newsgroup, we’d been complaining about this on and off for years, sometimes really dropping the hammer on ESPN. Once or twice, someone at ESPN would respond, saying something along the lines of, “Hey, I care about the Giants!” But that doesn’t really appease the faithful, who for the most part are cheesed off because aside from Giants fans, people only seem to care about the Giants enough to hate them, or at least to make fun of them for front-office foolishness or, more likely, the increasingly conspicuous failure of “San Francisco Giants: World Champions!” rings to exist.

The new MLB Network is a little better, at least—they sound almost like they know who a lot of the Giants players are, and they actually do show some highlights (which beats the snot out of ESPN’s common practice years ago—maybe they still do it; I wouldn’t know—of offering up a teaser about a Giants game during SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight, then failing to say anything about it by the end of the program). Plus, it’s probably unfair to criticize ESPN too heavily about the lack of even-handed baseball coverage, since those folks are mostly about college football and hoops anyway.

I mention the MLB Network because they said something about some team—I can’t remember who; nobody relevant—whose fans are impatient because their team hasn’t won a championship in 17 years, or 23, or 31, or whatever. Yesterday, while looking up something else, I happened upon a Reds’ fan blog that said, “It has been X number of days, X number of hours, and X number of minutes since the Cincinnati Reds’ last World Championship.” I suppose I visit the blog again so I could tell you what those X numbers are, but who cares? It’s only the Reds—it’s not like it’s important economy news, terror alert upgrades, the Giants, or major medical breakthroughs. Still, I can’t fault the misled—they’re misled. Each of us is entitled to his or her opinions, no matter how wrong and foolish they are for not being Giants fans. They can’t help it. (Well, they could, if they really wanted to be okay.)

Now, if you’re a faithful reader of this blog—well, first of all, you’re one of (and here comes a generous estimate) maybe half a dozen people, not counting me (and I don’t really read it except while I’m writing it), but second, you know very well how I feel about other teams’ fans moaning about their teams’ failures to win any World Series lately. Namely, you know I believe that only Giants fans have any real right to moan about their teams’ failures. And you know why. (Hint: 51 years and counting—and no sign of running out of numbers to count.)

Still, whaddayagonnado? I have learned—and this has been reinforced, over and over, possibly since long before any of my ancestors even came to this country—that I have no control over the Giants’ fortunes, except in situations such as the 2002 World Series. (If you read EEEEEE! afterwards, you know that the Giants’ failure was pretty much my fault. But that’s one of the many exceptions, not the rule.) It’s just that since so few of us have much control over our lives, you’d think a guy could have control over the baseball team he follows, but nooooooooo! I mean how fair is life? Shee.

This is why the Good Lord invented tabletop baseball games, which have been around since long before Major League Baseball even settled on a sacrifice-fly rule everybody could live with, and why they, and computer baseball games survive and thrive today. People want to win—or lose, but mostly win—on their own merit. And if they decide to helm their favorite Major League Baseball simulated teams, those teams can finally win, no thanks to the folks who run the real teams. Indeed, one of they main purposes of “replay”-type baseball games is to show how much better you could do than the people who ran the actual team did. And hell, if you don’t like the way things are going, you can cheat, if you really feel the need.

When David Beck and I were avidly working on our baseball game eons ago, we tended to keep the major leagues out of the picture, probably because we didn’t need any imaginary Giants frustrating us to death, too. So Dave had his NBL, and I had my various leagues. Eventually, in a gesture born out of desperation, Dave developed The NBL Superiority Overrule Roll. See, The Game had, annoyingly, more than its share of dice-rolls that, once a play was finally determined and carved in stone, still could overrule that play, turning a hit into an out and vice-versa. The NBL Superiority Overrule Roll took this to the limit: When frustration became too much to handle, Dave—and I, I must admit—would pit one of his NBL teams against a team we hated, such as… hmm… lemme think… what teams might we have hated in those days?… hey, how ’bout, oh, the Dodgers! And, under the premise that the NBL was superior in every way to the Major Leagues, every moment of Dodger success or NBL-team failure in such a simulation could be overruled and, essentially, reversed. Now, the overrules weren’t automatic. Oh, no. You’d still have to roll a 12-sided die, and depending on the result, a play might not be overruled at all. That’s how, after many NBL-vs.-Dodgers contests, the Dodgers finally scored their run. Of course, we had to do the same thing with the Giants, developing a Giants Superiority Overrule Roll. Perhaps you cannot see the attraction of laughing like a loon while Duane Kuiper jacks his seventh home run in as many innings in support of Renie Martin’s 143-0 perfecto over the Dodgers. Of course, one cannot spend too much time in such pursuits—ask those people who delight in stepping on ants—but its fun while the imaginary superiority lasts.

One of the first things I wrote for publication was a review of MicroLeague Baseball, back when I worked on a magazine that catered to 8-bit Atari computer owners. I liked MicroLeague a lot, really, and eventually I actually purchased—yes, Atari people: I actually purchased some software, rather than copying it—the disks that let you set up leagues, make trades, and compile statistics. And one of the teams I made up consisted entirely of Dodger players I heartily disliked (as opposed to just disliking them for the uniform they chose to wear), all of whom were turned into .160 hitters and 14.00-ERA pitchers (because I didn’t want to make the disparity too ridiculous). This team played frequently against what were then the current Giants, all upgraded to .750 hitters who were capable of hitting, say, 80 home runs a year, to say nothing of a bunch of 0.50-ERA pitchers.

Watching runners circle the bases รก la that part in “Baseball Bugs” where hundreds of opposing baserunners are doing a conga around the bases was a hoot, but for sheer hysterical giggling, you need to see opposing outfielder after opposing outfielder chase baseballs as far as possible before running out of room. Again and again. Hee. The best part—yes, I know: if this is the best part…—was that once the Giants reached 127 runs in a game, MicroLeague would freeze. Then the challenge was to see how soon they could get to 127.

Today’s the last day to get the new version of Out Of The Park Baseball for ten bucks off the retail price, and because I’m still not working, I shan’t indulge myself—although, hey, at this writing I almost have a job: that is, it was offered, then, at least momentarily, rescinded—so I’ll end up paying full price in the future. And now it’ll let you create players based on statistics you input, which means I may just have to pit a bunch of .750-hitting 2009 Giants against a Dodgers team that tends to cough up, say, 27 runs a game.

Even then, I wonder if would deign to put Giants-related headlines into my newsfeed.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Random Grumping

Lincecum. Cain. Sandoval. Those are the only players on the Giants’ 25-man roster whom I insist that they keep, and as much as I like him, I’m not entirely positive about Sandoval. But what do we hear today? Brian Sabean’s after somebody who can freakin’ hit. Well, that’s good, but the other part is that supposedly he’s shopping Cain. Well, heck, it could be worse: it could be Lincecum.

Part of the problem is that the Giants don’t have much to trade, at least not at the major league level. That is, the Giants’ most tradeable assets are guys they don’t want to trade. Or at least Lincecum. Occasionally we hear rumors about Bengie Molina, but how much could the Giants really get for a catcher in his mid-thirties; a man who, by himself, is The Argument for baseball to introduce the Designated Runner; a man who really seems to have trouble corralling pitches at the letters? Really, it’s hard to fault him that much, but he’s the Giants’ cleanup hitter, and his best OPS with the team was last year’s .767; this year it’s .766. Again, I like to use the trick, which really isn’t a trick, of dividing OPS by three to get an idea of how a hitter’s doing. That is to say, Molina’s OPS/3 is .255, which is about as good an OPS as .255 is a batting average. Molina doesn’t walk, which might lead you to think he makes up for it in his Big-Money sluggitude. He doesn’t. Right now he’s slugging .484, which is his best as a Giant to date, and that’s only 400 points below Barry Bonds’ slugging percentage in 2001. Now, nobody expects him to be Bonds—that would be ridiculous—but for crying out loud, a cleanup hitter slugging .484 isn’t doing a lot of cleaning up.

Molina, however, should hardly be the whipping-boy for the Giants’ troubles. I’m not sure who should be, though, because there are plenty of candidates including (but not limited to) Randy Johnson, Jonathan Sanchez, Aaron Rowand (who led off the game by taking an 0-2 pitch at his shins for strike three—have I complained enough about the umpires lately?), Travis Ishikawa, Rich Aurilia, Edgar Renteria, Fred Lewis, Brian Wilson…. It’s disheartening, isn’t it?

Johnson, by the way, has managed to throw two or three good games as a Giant, but EEEEEE! staffer emeritus David Beck compared the situation to that of Steve Carlton. This was a reference, as you old-timers know, to the Giants suddenly picking up the future Hall-of-Famer on waivers during the 1986 season—a guy once so great that when people mentioned “Lefty,” you knew who they meant—and hanging onto him long enough for him to go 1-3 with a 5.12 ERA… before Carlton announced his retirement from baseball… a week before he signed with the White Sox. (Yeah. “Retired,” we said. “Yeah, suuuurrrre.” He pitched into 1988.)

I told Dave I’d be delighted if Randy Johnson were putting up Carltonesque numbers—and I was talking about those 1986 numbers. Only because he pitched pretty well a couple days ago, his ERA dropped 60 points to 6.26. Until then, he’d given up a home run every four innings.

One thing Carlton and Johnson do have in common is that… remember that weird Levi’s commercial in the early ’80s, the one with the blonde in the tight jeans hollering, “Travis! You’re years too late!”? Well… while you’re busy trying to rid yourself of mental images of blondes in tight jeans—and good luck to you—here’s a list of some other players the Giants were years too late in acquiring: Moises Alou, Shawon Dunston, Steve Finley, Marquis Grissom, Yamid Haad, Orel Hershiser, Randy Johnson, Kenny Lofton, Mark Portugal, Dan Quisenberry, Benito Santiago, Darryl Strawberry, and Barry Zito. I know other teams do that as well, but put those guys on the field, and you’ve got an awfully impressive team. Except Haad. Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

Friday, May 08, 2009

All Right, I Did It

As threatened, and with little better to do, I ran an Out Of the Park Baseball simulation wherein I took the reins of a team that batted its pitcher eighth all year. That is, I ran one fictional, eight-team league, in which the pitcher batted eighth for my team, the Steamers. (The game came up with that name randomly. Since “steamer” has acquired a rude and widespread connotation, and is therefore reasonably funny, I chose to run that team, which comes from a city called “Team 4.” And since there are 15 more teams in two leagues, I’ll leave it up to you to guess the other city names. No peeking.) Once I’d set up this league, I made a copy of the league folder, then finished the simulation, called Pitchers Bat Eighth (PB8).

Then I completed the Pitchers Bat Ninth (PB9) simulation with the copy of the league—identical in every detail, except that the Steamers’ pitchers always batted ninth. In neither simulation did I want to knock myself out setting up the best possible team; nor did I want to play GM (or even on-field manager) and deal with trades (or in-game strategy). So to pare my roster to 25 players, I dumped as many of the one-star players as possible—see, players are rated in many ways, including number of stars. I have no idea how good my team actually is, but OOTP gave me a “manager’s score” of 21 out of 100—astonishingly bad, but then, it’s not as though I closely scrutinized day-to-day operations. Indeed, I was very much an absent figurehead. I’ve been called worse.

In the PB8 simulation, the Steamers went 72-90, finishing third in their division. They went 81-81 in PB9 and finished second in their (obviously not very good) division. (I still got a horrendous manager’s score of 28—I defy any other absent figurehead to do better.) I know that doesn’t prove anything, but I’m guessing that if I ran another, say, 999 simulations with each version, the results would support the notion that always batting your pitcher ahead of an actual major league hitter is a bad idea. Do the results tell us that it’s stupid to occasionally make this lineup maneuver? No. I could run another simulation in which a particular pitcher always bats eighth, or in which Wednesday was always Pitcher Bats Eighth Day, but I’m not going to. If I did, though, I have no doubt that the results would still show batting the pitcher eighth to be an unwise decision, even if the difference is just one win.

Here’s how my Steamers—interestingly, the only Steamers player whose name I remember is Jim Kirk—did in the respective simulations:

PB8 Steamers 72-90, 3rd place (of 4)
League Overall
H 1380 8th 15th
R 730 7th 15th
Avg .250 8th 15th
OBP .318 7th 13th
SP .419 5th 10th
OPS .737 6th 12th

PB9 Steamers, 81-81, 2nd place (of 4)
League Overall
H 1512 5th 9th
R 818 3rd 5th
Avg .259 4th 10th
OBP .326 5th 11th
SP .441 4th 6th
OPS .767 3th 7th
First, note that the PB9 Steamers averaged about four more hits every five games, so it should not surprise you that they scored about 0.9 runs a game more than the PB8 team. Bill James’ work showed that in a practical sense, 10 runs translated, more or less, to one “win,” so it would fit that the PB9 Steamers won nine more games than the PB8’s.

The above numbers still don’t prove anything, I realize that—small sample size, only a simulation, etc.—but still, in none of these categories did the PB8 Steamers outperform their PB9 counterparts. You can be certain that much of these differences had to do with the lineup change.

In any case, I really don’t want Bruce Bochy even to consider batting his pitcher anywhere but ninth.

More Bullpen Stuff

In case you failed to read the comments on my last couple of pieces about relievers, saves, and pitching staff size (in which case: shame on you), EEEEEE! staffer (I refuse to say “former”) David Malbuff responded to (not “former” either) EEEEEE! staffer David Beck’s comment about “Why not have 14-man staffs, all relievers?” David M. says, “I’m on the other side of this one. (Yes, I still exist.) Pick your nine best pitchers and let ’em get all the innings they can handle. Carry three catchers, two guys who can hit coming off the bench, and three utility men.”

That would be fine with me, actually. By now it should be clear that I’m very tired of 12-man pitching staffs (or worse), and the lefty-righty-lefty-righty dance makes me crazy. Also, if the tendency were to leave starters in until they simply could pitch no more (or the game ended), you’d have much more of a “thinking man’s game,” for want of a better expression. Pitchers would “pace themselves,” as they used to—it would be a return to, say, 1960s-brand baseball. You’d see pitchers getting by on guts and brains more than “stuff,” and there wouldn’t be any Jake Peavy Cy Youngs, wherein the winner never sees an eighth inning all season. The only downside would be the destroyed arms, but would that happen any more than it does now?

(The other thing is, the All-Time All-Star Baseball version of Sports Illustrated Baseball had nine pitchers per team—very few of whom were actual relievers….)

Dave (B.) and I had continued the overall discussion in e-mail and, as he points out in his comment here, the idea of a staff full of relievers is something he and I had discussed over the years, probably more than once. I don’t think either of us looks at it as ideal, but sort of the extreme version of the way pitching staffs are now.

In fact, at some point, probably at least 20 years ago, I tried doing the “two or three innings at a time” thing with the baseball game Dave and I had spent years developing. I’m pretty sure I got bored, but hey. Frankly, aesthetics aside, it makes loads of sense, although probably the manager would have to come up with these intricate little mini-rotations, like Casey Stengel’s fabled (i.e., true or not, but “fabled”) complex platoon system with the Yankees lineup.

You may remember that Tony LaRussa tried something like this several years ago, only he had his guys go four innings. Imagine being a starter on that club. Talk about unrewarding.

(Quick aside about LaRussa: He’s also the brain behind batting pitchers eighth occasionally—not that it hadn’t been done before. His rationale involved more RBI opportunities for Mark McGwire. This came up recently because Joe Torre did the same thing in a game against the Giants. This didn’t work out for the Dodgers—imagine my distress—but then, he’d put his number-five starter up against Tim Lincecum, which probably is a good time to perform an experiment like that. The actual distressing part is that Bruce Bochy was quoted as saying he might try that some day. I really hope he doesn’t, because his team will score fewer runs and, I dare say, win fewer ballgames. The pitcher’s spot, over the course of the season, will come to the plate more often than the actual major league hitter in the ninth spot, and that can’t possibly be a good thing. I might well do an Out Of the Park Baseball simulation just to see.)

I’m not advocating this—just thinking aloud—but I think it’d be possible to do the everybody-pitches-two thing with fewer pitchers—say, eight to 10—because everybody would be used to pitching two or three innings a lot. You could have a rotation(ish) like:

Fri Sat Sun Mon
Lincecum Zito Medders Johnson
Johnson Cain Romo Howry
Howry Sanchez Affeldt Affeldt
Affeldt Wilson Wilson Lincecum

And so on. (You know I’m just fantasizing because Sergio Romo’s in the mix.) You could, as much as possible, alternate lefties and righties for each trip through the lineup, and change up styles and such—e.g., backing up Zito’s 85-mile-an-hour fastball and sharp curve with Lincecum’s electric fastball and effective change, then Johnson’s 92 mph fastball and 89 mph slider, then Wilson’s 100 mph fastball and Nen-like slider. Something like that.

Course, that would change offensive strategies a lot, too, and it could be a real chess game, I guess. The logical endpoint, however, probably would be an Offensive Unit, a Defensive Unit, and a specialist pitcher for each of the other team’s batters.

Further, since this is mostly a discussion about relievers, Dave was whining—whenever you complain about a team you like, even a little, that doesn’t do well and which isn’t the Giants, it’s whining; when it’s about the Giants, it’s (a) analyzing, and (b) relevant—about the Angels blowing a 9-4 lead and losing 10-9 to the Yankees, whom Dave may dislike even more than the Dodgers, if such a thing is possible. “No bullpen is this bad,” he whined about the Angels (or I said in analysis of the Giants—as opposed to “in analysis about the Giants,” which, well, let’s not go there).

I am confident that the Angels and their wads of cash will be able to address the situation effectively. As Giants newsgroup vet Jonathan Bernstein has pointed out over the years, the thing with a bullpen is that except for your closer and one or two other guys (like the setup dude, and often not even him), you’re dealing with pretty interchangeable parts. A guy like Doug Henry—remember him?—throws hard, gets guys out nonstop, then breaks down… so you go and find John Johnstone, who’s more or less the same guy, at least until he breaks down, and then you go with… well, whoever—I mean, it didn’t work all that well for the Giants, but still.

Dave said he simply couldn’t think of any team whose bullpen was as atrocious as the Angels had been up to that point. “I cannot see how any team ever could ever have been this bad to have had so many huge leads and blown them in the last two innings,” he said. “Small leads, yes, even moderate leads, maybe.”

Without actually checking, my recollection is that the Giants were about this bad in 1996. It was different, though: they got lit up without regard to the score, really, and since they didn’t take many leads into the late innings, it wasn’t as heartbreaking, at least not in the sense Dave is talking about.