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Random Observations after One Month of Baseball

May 1, 2014
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

Baseball can be a quirky game, especially if you’re a pitcher. Take the case of lefty Luis Avilan of the Atlanta Braves, who appeared in 111 games before suffering his first loss. Avilan came up with the Braves in 2012, appeared in 32 games, and had a record of 1-0. He had a fine season in 2013, appearing in 75 games with a record of 5-0 and an earned run average of 1.52. He made it through three appearances this season before suffering his first big league loss on April 10.

Avilan entered that game in the top of the seventh inning with the score tied 4-4. He gave up a single to Daniel Murphy and then struck out David Wright. With Curtis Granderson batting, Murphy advanced to second on a wild pitch; Granderson walked and Murphy stole third. Avilan rallied and retired Ike Davis on a pop up. With two on and two out, manager Fredi Gonzalez made a pitching change, bringing in rookie Gus Schlosser. Juan Legares greeted Schlosser with a soft single into right field, scoring Murphy and putting the Mets on top 5-4. The Braves never overcame the lead and, since Murphy reached base while Avilan was pitching, Avilan took the loss.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, since 1900, only three pitchers made more appearances than the 111 Avilan made before suffering their first loss. Clay Rapada was 8-0 in 152 games with the California Angels from 2007-2013 before taking a loss. Mike Gallo appeared in 135 games with the Houston Astros from 2003-2005, went 3-0 before his first loss. Manny Delcarmen appeared in 115 games with the Boston Red Sox from 2005-2008 and had two wins before his first loss. And Josh Roenicke also appeared in 111 games with the Cincinnati Reds, Toronto Blue Jays, and Colorado Rockies between 2008 and 2012 and had five wins before suffering his first loss.

Going so long before being charged with a loss is more a sign of the times than a testament to these pitchers’ ability. In this day of specialization in baseball, Avilan appeared in 75 games last season, but pitched just 65 innings.

But baseball has an odd way of evening things out. Four days after Avilan suffered his first loss, he entered the game against the Philadelphia Phillies in the top of the eighth inning with the Braves leading 5-1. Avilan’s bread and butter is getting out left-handed hitters and the Phillies had three lefties and a switch hitter due up. But Avilan got off to a shaky start when he walked Tony Gwynn leading off the inning; consecutive singles by Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley loaded the bases. Avilan then demonstrated what makes him such a valuable component of the Braves’ bullpen by carving up slugger Ryan Howard and getting a strikeout.

Gonzalez decided to stay with Avilan with the right-handed-swinging Marlon Byrd coming to the plate. Gonzalez perhaps was looking ahead to the next batter, lefty Domonic Brown. Byrd foiled the strategy with a single to right field, scoring Gwynn and Rollins; the Braves still led 5-3. While Gonzalez slept, Brown launched a three-run homer to right-center field and, just like that, the Braves trailed 6-5.

For some reason, even after giving up five runs, Avilan stayed in the game. After the horse clearly had bolted, Avilan finally slammed the stable door by retiring Carlos Ruiz on a fly to right and Cody Asche on a pop to first base.

But Ryne Sandberg must have gotten a hold of the same sleeping potion that affected Gonzalez. With regular closer, Jonathan Papelbon, unavailable, Sandberg called on lefty Jake Diekman to nail down the win. Diekman immediately got into trouble by walking lead-off batter B.J. Upton. Freddie Freeman hit a slow grounder that Utley slowly flipped to second, too late to retire Upton; a walk to Justin Upton loaded the bases. Diekman bore down and struck out Evan Gattis on three pitches, leaving himself with a chance to escape if he could get Dan Uggla to hit into a double play. But Diekman served up a slow, dangling slider that hung out over the plate and Uggla sent it deep into the left-center field seats. The Braves led 9-6 and David Carpenter came in and retired the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth to earn the save. The win went to Avilan, which sort of evened things out for him taking the loss a few days earlier.

Another quirky aspect of this game came when Phillies’ reliever B.J. Rosenberg gave up consecutive home runs to Gattis, Uggla and Andrelton Simmons. According to Retrosheet, it was the first time a relief pitcher had given up home runs to the only three batters he faced in a game.

In Defense of Bryce Harper

The Washington Nationals, picked by many experts to win the National League East this season, are off to a so-so start after the first month of the season. On April 19, their new manager, Matt Williams, decided to yank Bryce Harper from the lineup due to “lack of hustle.”

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

In the sixth inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Harper chopped a one-hopper directly to pitcher Lance Lynn, who tossed it to first base. Harper did not run hard out of the batter’s box and he peeled off the baseline as soon as first baseman Matt Adams caught the toss from Lynn.

Even if Adams had somehow misplayed the toss from Lynn, Harper’s effort, or lack thereof, would have had no effect on the play. If Adams had bobbled or dropped the ball, he had plenty of time to recover to get the out no matter how fast Harper had been running. And if Adams had completely missed the toss from Lynn, then Harper could have walked the rest of the way to first base. Short of Harper pulling a pistol and shooting either Lynn or Adams, he was going to be out on the play. No amount of hustle was going to make a difference.

Hustle is perhaps the most overvalued commodity in sports and it amazes me how many fans, managers, and broadcasters buy into the myth that hustle erases the gap between good and mediocre players. Worse are those in baseball who do not recognize false hustle: dashing to first base on walks, diving headfirst into bases when there isn’t even a need to slide, diving for balls when the fielder has absolutely no chance of gloving the baseball. It’s ironic that Williams chose to bench Harper for lack of hustle when one of Harper’s most irritating traits is his tendency to employ false hustle.

Matt Williams has been around baseball for a long time. As a first-year manager, he is going to make some mistakes; benching Harper for lack of hustle, in this instance, was his first.

Speaking of Over-valued Commodities

Just below hustle, the sacrifice bunt, and the stolen base, the most over-valued statistic in baseball is the save. A relief pitcher can earn a save by: finishing the game without relinquishing a lead of three runs or less; finishing the game and preserving the lead if at the time the relief pitcher enters the game, the potential tying run is in the on-deck circle; pitching at least the final three innings of a game without giving up the lead.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I’m not saying relief pitchers cannot save games, I just don’t believe a pitcher necessarily deserves a save for finishing a game without giving up the lead. Most saves seem to go to relief pitchers who enter the game in the ninth inning with no runners on base and finish the game without giving up the lead.

In a game between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves on April 23, starting pitcher Aaron Harang began the seventh inning of a 1-1 game by walking Casey McGehee and then giving up a single to Derek Dietrich. Manager Gonzalez summoned right-hander Jared Walden from the bullpen. Walden promptly struck out Adeiny Hechararria, Jarod Saltalamacchia, and Greg Dobbs. The Braves scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth and then closer Craig Kimbrel shut down the Marlins in the top of the ninth.

Kimbrel received the save but, in reality, Walden actually “saved” the game. When Walden entered the game, the score was tied and the Marlins had two runners on base, one of whom was in scoring position. If baseball insists on awarding saves, they at least should give them to the pitchers who actually get their teams out of danger.

After Further Review

After a month of watching the new instant replay system, I think baseball should pull the plug on reviewing calls and go back to letting the umpires do their jobs. The replay system stops the game while the umpires stand around and wait for someone in New York to second guess their calls. And, as is the case in the NFL, even with the replay, they still don’t get all the calls correct.

But my problem with the replay is more basic. Fans, players, managers, and general managers accept that players will make errors; heck, baseball even accepts players who strike out more than 200 times a year. But, apparently, the only people in baseball (or other sports, for that matter) who are not allowed to make mistakes are the umpires.

Baseball was just fine without the designated hitter, inter-league play, and giving home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star game. And baseball was a better game before this instant replay nonsense infected the game.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2014 11:33 am

    The “save” is the most overrated stat in sports…but how can you disregard the stolen base? Anything that puts the runner in scoring position is infinitely valuable. The Cardinals would have had ZERO shot at winning the 1982

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    • May 1, 2014 1:51 pm

      Thanks for the comments, Gary. The stolen base, in most cases, is a high-risk, low-reward tactic, which is the same reasoning behind my stance on the sacrifice bunt. There have been some teams, especially in the past, where the stolen base may have helped. In 1982, the Cards stole 200 bases, but they also were caught stealing 91 times. They really had only two players who had any business attempting steals–Lonnie and Ozzie Smith; and even L. Smith was caught stealing 26 times. K. Hernandez stole 19 bases but was caught 11 times. Willie McGee, who basically was in scoring position whenever he was on first base, stole 24 bases, but was caught 12 times. Ken Oberkfell stole 11 bases but was caught stealing nine times. The Cardinals had plenty of team speed, which led to more runs, but I’m not sure how many of those runs can be attributed to the stolen base. This is what’s great about baseball–knowledeable fans debating these typse of issues. Are you a Cardinals fan? Back when I wrote a weekly column for my local newspaper, I periodically would get on my soap box about how little Hall of Fame support Ted Simmons received. Maybe he isn’t a Hall of Famer, but compared to some catchers that are in, he stacks up fairly well.

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  2. May 1, 2014 11:34 am

    World Series without the stolen base.

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  3. May 1, 2014 2:07 pm

    Sorry, Hugh…I’m an Oakland fan. Who were strangely enough “against” the stolen base according to that “one book.” Our stolen base percentage is 90.5 this year….even with the advent of the slide step. I think my main point is that it shouldn’t be underrated because it’s so difficult and could possibly put up crooked numbers. (which inevitably leads to frazzled starting pitchers on the bench) What are the chances of some 8 or 9 hitter with no chance in hell of knocking in a batter with a shot in the gap? Probably less than a guy trying to steal with zero or even 1 out and moving station to station. Where is Bill James when you need him? 🙂

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    • May 1, 2014 2:51 pm

      Hey, I’m going to Oakland for a game in about a week and a half. Going to catch a game there and one in San Francisco. I’ll be writing about the trip right here. Was it 1976 when Oakland led the world in stolen bases? Even Sal Bando got in on the act.

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  4. May 1, 2014 2:09 pm

    great blog by the way…i look forward to more posts.

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