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"Lou is not talking about mechanics when he goes out to the mound,"
~Chicago Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Understanding Pitching

Well, here's my shot at Pitching 101. Now, my views aren't as popular as Mr. Lewis or Mr. James or Mr. Beane. Or even Mr. Ed, but here it goes anyway.

Pitching. Taking a little ball wrapped in leather around an ever-changing center, perhaps humidified (hello Denver) but never altered all that much (at least in the last 25 years) and trying to throw it by a big ol' dude sitting there spitting in your direction with a big piece of hickory in his hands. Some call it the most important part of the game. But, that assumes your offense scores at least one run. Right, Matt?

What do you do? What is successful? What in the world was I thinking?

Well, first off, the role is different for starters than it is for relievers. That's pretty obvious, I realize, but many teams don't get the subtleties involved in knowing how to measure the difference between a successful starter and a successful reliever.

First up: ERA.

ERA. The old stand-by. Earned Run Average. Basically, how many runs does a pitcher give up (not counting errors, even his own, but I'll get to that) over a nine inning stretch. What is usually called "good" is anything below 3.33. Why? Because people like threes. .300 batting average. Three bases and one home plate. Three outfielders. Three beer minimum in the Wrigley Field outfield. Ya know, symmetry. But seriously, The general rule is score me three or four runs, and I'll get you the win. For A Starter.

For a reliever, however, there is a much more important stat. A statistic ignored by many old timers in the game (like Dusty Baker for instance). I'm talking about WHIP. No, no, not the ol' cat o' nine tails, but Walks and Hits per Inning Pitchted. Simple enough, isn't it? Should be, but for some reason, lot's of people still only look at the silly ERA for relievers. Why is this a problem?

Well, to start with, when a reliever comes in the game, he usually has runners already on base. Now, if he gets into a little bit of trouble, with say two runners on, and gives up a two hits and a walk, he may get out of the jam without surrendering a single "earned" run, although he allowed both inherited runners to score. Those earned runs get tacked onto the person you are relieving. This is what Joe Borowski was the master of in his early Cub days, and may be pulling off in Tampa Bay. This has no impact on your ERA, but it doesn't reflect that you are not that great of a reliever. I mean, the runs scored, your team probably loses, but you can still walk off the mound with that ERA sparkling. Doesn't make sense does it?

So, WHIP, boys and girls, is the top of the heap for important stats in my book, especially for relievers. Basically 1.30 is a good line to draw in the sand. Below and you're doing alright. Above, and you might just be a powder keg looking for a match. A starter can allow an extra runner or two now and again (because they are going to get a chance to get out of the jam), but ask anyone who knows or cares and they'll tell you, if you keep letting runners on base, sooner or later it'll bite you in the ass.

Now, on the good side, if you rock and come in a tough situation and don't allow runners on base, your future's so bright you gotta wear shades. Ugh, I can't believe I said that, but you get it. No baserunners allowed = success as a reliever = Wins = Cash Money, my man. Ya dig?

So, ERA for starters is cool, but WHIP is what relievers should be graded on and are a great indicator for starter's success as well.

Oh, and about errors, if a pitcher makes an error, like throwing the ball into the stands instead of the first baseman's mitt, it doesn't count against his ERA. He's a bonehead, he might lose the game, but his ERA doesn't take the hit. So, one could say fielding is important to success and Wins as well. Speaking of...

Second up: Wins.

OK, this'll sound funny to some of you, but Wins are possibly the most overrated stat a pitcher is measured by. I mean, it really isn't as indicative of a pitchers stuff as WHIP, ERA or even Opponents BA. If you pitch for the Yankees, and your team can score eight runs with one hand tied behind their back, then wins will come even for mediocre pitchers (Mike Mussina 4.34 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, but has 14 wins - Not that Mussina is mediocre, but you get the picture). But, if you pitch for, say, the Astros, and your ERA is 1.51 and your WHIP is 0.92 (are you serious?), your record could be 11-6, like Roger Clemens.

How can you say wins don't matter? I'm not saying that. I'm just saying wins are more indicative of offense and other factors then of pitching prowess. Unless you just can't pitch. Then your record might look like this: 5-13, 6.56 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. Right, Jose? Can you say Lima Time? Is that like Happy Hour? Cause, they need some extra beers in KC to wash that taste out of their mouth. Not like Greinke is doing much better, but at least he's young and might turn the corner. If he gets lucky and gets the hell out of Kansas City.

Last, but not least: Innings Pitched.

OK, this won't take long. The more innings you can pitch, assuming your name's not Jose Lima, the more you help your team. Obviously, this is in the "generally speaking" category, but the more you can keep the bullpen rested and ready for "Emergencies Only", the better off your team will be. The bullpen is a necessary element of the game (duh) but you need to keep their arms loose and connected to their bodies. If they are heading out there five or six times a week to save your sorry ass, then trouble is lurking just around the corner. Especially in late August and early September.

However, don't be like Dusty Baker and keep your starters in until blood comes shooting out of their fingertips (ok, slight exaggeration) and have them throw 140 pitches in meaningless encounters. He may be singurlary responsible for the early demise of Kerry Wood and hampered the development of Mark Prior. You have 12 pitchers on the roster for a reason. The Marlins' Jack McKeon is an arm killer too, as Dontrelle Willis has found out the last three years. Although Willis, so far, is still throwing gas, with guys like A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett just coming off surgery and frequent trips to the DL and Willis fading every year, don't you think it might be smart to take 'em out a little early in a game or two?

Just a thought.

Oh, I'd better say that the White Sox have the fifth best team ERA in the bigs and are tied for fifth in WHIP or my brother and Suzanne will kill me for sure (however, they are 21st in team BA and 28th in team OBP, so they're all about pitching). Although Mark Buhrle is looking tired lately (only Chris Carpenter averages more innings per outing) losing three of his last four starts. His ERA for the month of August is a decent 3.46 and WHIP was 1.27 as well, but they might want to spot start someone and give Buhrle, Garland and Garcia an extra day off to prepare for the Playoffs. They're going to need them to win those 3-2 and 2-1 games.

OK. Did that clarify anything or just make you feel dizzy and a little sick to the stomach. I have that effect on people. Even when I shower.

Please feel free to pick me apart and tell me what a fool I am. I'm no Leo Mazzone. I simply focused on stats for this Unrestricted post, and some pitchers do perform well, stats be damned. Maybe one or two. In the last 10 years.

Have a nice day.

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