February 18, 2003

News and notes (and one big, fat retired guy)

Baseball Prospectus recently posted an interview with Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson.

I think Rick Peterson is one of the best coaches in the game today and you all know how I feel about the Oakland organization as a whole.

The interview was fabulous and Peterson gave thoughtful, substanitive answers that are both interesting and insightful.

Some of the stuff he talks about in the interview is absolutely fascinating...

Peterson on developing pitchers:

We have pitchers do focused exercises. So since hip rotation velocity directly correlates to fastball velocity, we have them work on exercises to improve that rotation. We do strengthening exercises for the rotator cuff and elbow to prevent injuries. That's on top of more conventional throwing programs and running programs.

We did personality factor tests to learn more about each player. When we first rolled out these tests, there were norms for people like teachers and lawyers, but not for professional baseball players. For example one test measures whether a person is self-motivated or works better through instruction. What we found is that self-motivated, practical thinkers tend to fare well in baseball. By keeping your motivation up, you overcome the fear, worry, and doubt which can hurt performance. Then we look at an umbrella of skills in 12 major areas. Those include: keeping things in perspective, self-knowledge of strong points and limits, discipline, and ability to learn.

We want to quantify as much of the process as possible, whether it's mechanical or psychological. The expression I like to use is: In God we trust, all others must have data.

Peterson on preserving young arms:

We're very cognizant of volume, of pitch counts. We monitor those throughout the season. We'll watch pitch counts incredibly closely, where we count pitches thrown in the bullpen, in pre-game routines, all of that's taken into account. We had only two starts all year over 120 pitches--we're very conservative in that regard.

We work hard to prevent injuries. Our trainers do a tremendous job of using proactive elbow and rotator cuff conditioning programs--they're working at preventing injuries before they happen. We're also proactive in maintaining the delivery. If something's off, we'll stop everything and make sure to fix it. You hear people in baseball all the time say if it's not broke, don't fix it. My question to them is: Do you change your oil every 3,000 miles? Do you check the tread on your tires? Why would you wait until your engine blows up or you get a flat? It's tough to be a good pitcher in the big leagues if you're not pitching.

Peterson on communication within the organization:

We're all very close in this organization, and I think that gives us an edge. Having worked with teams on both ends, what I've seen is that small- and big-market teams are run so differently. There have been times when I was in other organizations, that it took five steps to get my message to the top of the chain. Some people feel they can't be inundated with every little detail.

Small-market teams have budget restraints, so they don't have so many layers of management between say, a pitching coach and the general manager. I have daily physical contact with Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, which obviously makes for open communication. It gives them more insight into daily organizational activity. From my perspective I can see and have input into what the team's bigger goals are.

Peterson on building a pitching staff on a budget:

There's a great core competency here in getting those diamonds in the rough, polishing up those stones, then putting them in the right setting. We've had guys come over here, earn opportunities to perform, and then perform exceptionally well. One thing (Beane) and (DePodesta) have done a great job with is getting diversity in the bullpen at a low cost. Billy Taylor was just above sidearm. We've had power arms like Isringhausen, guys like Mecir, Doug Jones, they're all different. Our philosophy is to take a look at what are our individual pitchers' strengths.

With (Bradford), we discussed how he wants to attack lefties. Last year he did much better at it. Almost everyone who pitches well in the big leagues does so because they have excellent fastball command, since in the big leagues they're all great breaking ball hitters. We wanted to make sure he could repeat his delivery to improve command of his fastball. Then he'll throw all these different looks at a batter. He pitches from the stretch all the time, but he'll change up his tempo. We've really worked on maximizing his strengths.

Peterson on drafting pitchers:

(Beane) gives me a list of potential picks. He has me look at videotape to make sure there are no red flags in a pitcher's delivery. Every year in baseball there are so many guys with great arms that get drafted, even though they had big delivery problems. There are certain things in a delivery that are almost impossible to fix, and if they show up, we'll pass on the guy.

My job is to isolate things like hip rotation, which as I mentioned earlier is directly correlated to fastball velocity. About 60% of that rotation is done through the core of the body, from the rib cage to the knee. So a college guy that throws 92, we want to find a way for him to generate more hip rotation, and there are usually ways to make it better. Another guy that throws 91, if his delivery's tremendous, there's not a whole lot you can do to improve that. Hudson tops out at 95-96 now. When he signed he was in the low 90s.

I loved the interview so much that I'd like to reprint the whole damn thing here, but I won't.

Make sure you head over to BaseballProspectus.com to check out the full interview.

After reading it, my belief that the A's are the best organization in baseball was reinforced and I am now a huge Rick Peterson fan.

The A's have developed 3 outstanding young pitchers - Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, all of whom are "aces." They've also got another potential ace on the way in Rich Harden, who should be in Oakland by mid-season.

While there is an element of luck in almost anything regarding drafting players and turning them into stars, luck comes most easily to those that work hard and have a plan, which is something the A's are extraordinarily good at.

They are willing to try new things, they are willing to take risks and they always have a plan in place - a plan that they stick to.

Oakland has some of the best people in all of baseball in their organization - from Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta at the top all the way down to Rick Peterson on the field.

Elsewhere on the internet...

I came across this story over the weekend in USA Today: "Red Sox: Stats the way to go"

Basically, it is a story about the new Red Sox front office.

It focuses on Theo Epstein (of course) as well as Bill James, and the impact both will have on the Red Sox, particularly in regard to their "non-convential bullpen."

First of all, the idea that a bullpen without a "closer" is non-convential is pretty sad.

I've said this before and I'll certainly say it again - it is very disturbing that a statistic as utterly meaningless as the "save" has had such a dramatic impact on the way teams construct their roster, the amount certain players are paid and the actual way managers go about managing their ballclubs.

Somewhere along the line, it became "convential" to use your best relief pitcher in the 9th inning of a game you're leading by 2 or 3 runs.

Now, that is an important situation in a ballgame, but don't you think you could make better use of your best reliever?

Aren't there other players that could probably pitch an inning without allowing 3 or 4 runs to score?

Instead, wouldn't the best reliever be better used in a tie-game in the 8th or 9th inning? Or to protect a 1-run lead with 2 men on base in the 7th?

Oh no. The majority of teams today have a "closer" that they only use when winning a game by 1-3 runs in the ninth inning.

Tie-game in the 9th? No chance, better bring in the 2nd best reliever - we wouldn't want to use our best guy in the most important spots.

Anyway, Bill James, Theo Epstein and the Red Sox are doing the unthinkable this season - they are going to have a bullpen without a "closer."

And that is what this USA Today article focused on.

Here are a few quotes:

"We aren't trying to set a trend," says Epstein, so taken with the idea that he didn't re-sign 40-save closer Ugueth Urbina. "We are trying to win as many games as we can. I'm sure we will hear about it if it doesn't work."

They may not be trying to set a trend, but they are certainly trying to break a trend.

And Theo is right on the money saying they'll hear about it if it doesn't work.

Heck, even if it does work, they are going to hear about it.

The first time Alan Embree blows a lead in the 9th inning or the first time Ramiro Mendoza gives up a game-ending homer? I will guarantee there are articles the next day talking about how the Sox don't have a true closer and how they never should have allowed Urbina to go.

Meanwhile, Ugueth Urbina saved 40 games last year, but he also blew 6 of them.

Is it really that much of an accomplishment to have won 40 out of 46 games when you had the lead in the 9th inning, particularly when most of those games included 9th inning leads of 2 or 3 runs?

Of course not.

Ugueth Urbina is a good pitcher and a good pitcher makes for a good "closer."

There is no special skill involved, it is simply a matter of pitching well, just as being a good setup man is simply a matter of pitching well.

Eddie Guardado had been a very good reliever for the Twins for several seasons and they decided to give him a shot at the closer job last year.

He saved 45 games and now he is an official "closer."

Eric Gagne showed a lot of potential but struggled in the starting rotation.

The Dodgers decided to try him as the closer last year.

He saved 52 games.

John Smoltz was a great starting pitcher for many years.

He had some injuries and Atlanta decided to limit his innings by turning him into their closer last year.

He saved 55 games.

The list goes on and on.

Do you think Mike Williams or Jose Jimenez or Kelvim Escobar have some magical skill that makes them "closers" or are they just nice pitchers who were put into a role where they could accumulate a stat called "saves"?

By the way, those 3 guys saved 46, 41 and 38 games in 2002.

You want your pitchers to be pitching in the best possible situations for them, in spots where they can provide the most value to your team.

That means not holding your best reliever back until you have a 3-run lead in the 9th inning.

The Red Sox are bucking a trend - a very stupid trend - and they are smart for doing so, even if your local sportswriter says differently after they blow their first lead of the season.

Another quote from the article:

Stats people and the Red Sox are a lot alike. Stats people believe they don't get proper respect in baseball. The Red Sox haven't won a World Series since 1918. It's time to think outside the box.

And they did, especially when you consider that in the last 10 years 52 of 72 postseason teams had a closer with at least 30 saves. Last October the Yankees were the only one of eight teams that didn't have such a closer, but that was because injuries limited Mariano Rivera to 28 saves.

This is an example of that thing I hate, which is a writer using some random stat to "prove" his point.

In this case it is 30 saves and the relationship they have on post-season teams.

First of all, teams that make the playoffs win a lot of games and have a lot of opportunities for saves.

I don't care how good Mariano Rivera is, he is not going to be able to save as many games on Tampa Bay as he is on the Yankees.

Secondly, simply saying that 52 out of 72 playoff teams had a 30-save closer is extremely misleading.

What if I said 72 out of 72 playoff teams had a second baseman.

You'd say "wow, 100%!" (okay, maybe not you, but a less intelligent person)

On the other hand, 100% of non-playoff teams also had a second baseman.

See, you don't get a real feel for whether or not something is important unless you examine it further than the sportswriter wants you to.

Let's take a look at last year for an example: 18 Major League pitchers reached that magical number of 30 or more saves.

If 18 pitchers saved 30+ games last season and playoff teams tend to have more saves (and wins) to go around than non-playoff teams, why is it such a big deal that 72% of playoff teams over the past 10 years have had one?

Like the writer says, 52 out of 72 playoff teams over the past 10 years had a 30-save closer.

But guess what, 60% of all the teams in the entire league had a 30-save closer last year!

And it wasn't just last year.

There were 14 pitchers in 2001 that recorded 30+ saves, and another 5 guys that had 27 or 28.

In 2000, 16 pitchers recorded 30+ saves and 2 other guys had 29 each.

In 1999, 17 pitchers had 30 or more saves.

In 1998, 16 different pitchers saved 30 ballgames.

The point is that every year there are 15 or 20 guys that save 30+ games in the Major Leagues, which makes the fact that 72% of all playoff teams have a 30-save closer not-so-important, to say the least.

A useless, random stat used to try to prove an equally useless and random point.

If I didn't know better, I'd think Phil Rogers had penned the article.

But, I digress...

The quote that really got me nice and steamed was this one:

The Red Sox have had problems with stats guys. In 1997 one of their stats experts suggested, on the basis of research, that Tim Spehr, a weak-hitting catcher with a .198 career average, bat cleanup.

It is almost as if people around baseball think that guys that use computers and talk about on-base percentages are walking around with 2 heads and 3 eyes or a 3rd arm growing out of the side of their head or something.

The actual quote used here is just completely ridiculous and flat out false.

First of all, Tim Spehr never even played for the Boston Red Sox, which makes the entire "story" completely implausible.

How could a Red Sox "stat guy" have suggested they bat Tim Spehr cleanup when Tim Spehr wasn't even on the damn team?!

It sounds like something some old-time baseball guy said one day when he was asked about some guy in the front office working on "stats."

"Hey Bill, what do you think of these new ideas that the front office is coming up with?"

"Ah what the hell do those nerds know anyway? I heard they wanted us to bat Tim Spehr in the cleanup spot. TIM SPEHR!"

And so, a legend begins.

Nevermind the fact that Spehr was never a member of the Red Sox.

It's okay though, it isn't as if the author of this story, one Mr. Mel Antonen, could have easily checked on the accuracy of that quote he used.

Oh wait, he could have: Tim Spehr's career statistics

It took me about 30 seconds to "research" it, but, then again, I am a "stat guy."

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?

And finally...

I saw the following story on ESPN.com yesterday afternoon and it made me very sad:

Rockies down a body after Garces retires

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Veteran right-hander Rich Garces, who signed a minor-league contract with the Colorado Rockies on Jan. 24, has announced his retirement as an active player.

Rich Garces was one of my favorite baseball players and now that the man dubbed "El Guapo" has retired, the Rockies are "down a body."

And oh what a body it was!

So long El Guapo.

May your retirement be relaxing, may your nachos all have cheese on them, may your ribs be extra saucy and may all your donuts be creamed filled.

Oh, and may all your pants have elastic waistbands.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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