July 28, 2003

Eating Innings 101

I was thinking about my baseball watching habits yesterday afternoon when it struck me that the Toronto Blue Jays have become my favorite non-Twins team in all of baseball. When the Blue Jays are available for me to watch on DirecTV and the Twins aren't on at the time, I almost always watch them. And, unlike some teams, the quality of their announcers has nothing to do with why I watch them, since the Canadian broadcasts of their games aren't even available on MLB Extra Innings. Whenever I catch a Jays game, I am watching the broadcast of whichever team they are playing and, trust me, with the "quality" of some of these announcers, it says a lot about how much I like the Blue Jays that I am still able to watch them all the time.

As far as I can figure, there are 3 main reasons for my becoming a very big Blue Jays fan:

1) In the last year or so, I have become good friends with Craig Burley and, to a lesser extent, Kent "Coach" Williams. Craig and Kent are both Canadians and big Blue Jays fans, and they also help run the "Batter's Box" - which is the best place for Blue Jays information and discussion on the internet.

I talk baseball with them quite often and the discussion usually involves the Blue Jays or the Twins. And, just as I suspect they have become more interested in the Twins by talking to me, I have become more interested in the Blue Jays by talking to them.

2) The Blue Jays are one of the 3 "sabermetric teams" in baseball right now. Actually, I shouldn't say there are only 3 sabemetric teams right now, because that's probably not true. More like there are 3 "openly" sabermetric teams in baseball right now ("not that there's anything wrong with that"), the other two being the Oakland A's and the Boston Red Sox.

The A's and their GM Billy Beane have been in the spotlight for several years now while using sabermetric principles throughout their organization, and guys like me ("stat-heads" or whatever you want to call us) have sort of adopted them as our official team. Before he became the GM of the Blue Jays, J.P. Ricciardi was the director of player personnel for the A's, and played a big part in both the success of the team and the way the organization was run. Upon arriving in Toronto, Ricciardi turned the Blue Jays into a sabermetric front office and the results of that conversion can be seen in the organizational philosophies of the big league team and throughout the minor league system.

The A's are sort of like the baseball team equivalent of Pamela Anderson. I've been a big fan of them for a long time already and, while they are still worth admiring, it's nice to have a new sabermetrically inclined team like the Blue Jays to drool over...oops, I mean root for. I guess that would make the Blue Jays the baseball team equivalent of...I dunno, maybe Jennifer Garner?

3) Of course, the biggest reason why I have become such a big Blue Jays fan is that they are a very interesting team with a lot of good, young players. I mean, let's face it, if the Blue Jays were playing like the Tigers this year, it wouldn't matter how many of my friends were Tigers fans and it wouldn't matter how much the front office stressed the importance of things like on-base percentage, I wouldn't be watching them play every time I get a chance. The Blue Jays are playing well and they have a ton of young talent, and that's why they're fun to watch.

The majority of that good, young talent is in the hitting department. Actually, I should rephrase that: The majority of the good, young talent at the major league level is in the hitting department. The Toronto minor league system, thanks in large part to new organizational philosophies involving the draft, scouting and player development, is very strong and features quality and depth in both position players and pitchers. At the major league level however, it's all about offense right now.

The team is built around veteran slugger Carlos Delgado, who is having a tremendous season. Delgado has batted cleanup for the Jays all year long and, because of his impressive hitting (.310/.420/.617) and the great on-base skills of the guys batting in front of him, he already has 105 runs batted in on the year, and we're not even to August yet. Delgado is on pace to drive in over 160 runs this year, which would rank him among the top 25 single-season RBI men in baseball history..

While Delgado leads all of baseball in RBIs, his teammate, Vernon Wells, is second in the AL and not that far behind Delgado with 93. At just 24 years old, Wells is having a breakout, MVP-caliber season. He is on pace for 40+ homers, 40+ doubles and 140+ RBIs, all while playing a great centerfield

The rest of the Toronto offensive attack consists of a mix of veterans and youngsters. For veterans, there are guys like Greg Myers, Frank Catalanotto, Mike Bordick, Tom Wilson and, before he was traded, Shannon Stewart. While the group of younger hitters includes Orlando Hudson, Eric Hinske, Reed Johnson, Josh Phelps and the newly-acquired Bobby Kielty.

It's a very good and deep group of hitters and they are currently second in all of baseball in runs scored with 607, or 5.8 per game. Their offense has been so good this season that it has been able to hold up a sagging pitching staff. And, in the case of the lone Toronto pitcher having a great season, the offense has made him look damn near unbeatable.

Roy Halladay is currently 15-2 on the year. That's pretty amazing in itself, with the 15 wins leading baseball, but it's even more amazing when you consider Halladay started the season 0-2. After his first 4 starts of the year, Halladay was 0-2 with a 4.44 ERA. Since then, he has gone 15-0 with a 3.08 ERA in 20 starts, which is getting pretty close to completely unbelievable.

The amount of wins, the great winning percentage and the amazing winning streak have Halladay at the top of most "experts'" Cy Young Award lists. As any intelligent baseball fan knows though, a pitcher's wins and losses are not the best way to judge his overall performance. Many things can impact a pitcher's record that are beyond his control - bullpen support and offensive support being two of them. So, while Halladay gets all the attention from people like Peter Gammons, Harold Reynolds, Bobby Valentine and the other various ESPN "personalities," keep in mind that he is pitching with the second highest scoring offensive in baseball providing him with run support, which does a whole lot to make your record look nice and pretty.

Halladay has been great this year and is no doubt one of the best pitchers in baseball. That said, I wouldn't vote for him as the Cy Young winner right now and a good case could be made that there have been several AL pitchers better than him thus far. However, while he gets perhaps too much credit for his amazing win-loss record, I want to recognize Halladay for something he is doing that seems to be going completely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

Quite simply, he is eating innings like a fat guy at a buffet.

Halladay is leading Major League Baseball in innings pitched this year with 175 and is currently on pace to throw 270 innings. In an era when 200 innings is the benchmark for a pitcher being a "workhorse," 270 seemed like an incredibly high number, so I did some digging. Turns out, it's a really high number.

Here is the list of the pitchers who have topped 270 innings in a season over the last 15 years:

                    YEAR       IP     
Dave Stewart 1988 275.2
Roger Clemens 1991 271.1
Randy Johnson 1999 271.1

As the great Porky Pig says, "Eb-dee eb-dee eb-dee eb-dee...That's all folks!"

Only 3 pitchers have pitched as many as 270 innings in a season in the last decade and a half, and only Randy Johnson has done it in the last 10 years.

How is Halladay eating so many innings? Well, for one thing, he's going deep into almost all of his starts. He is averaging 7.3 innings per start and has gone at least 6 innings in all but one of his starts this season and has gone 7+ innings in 75% of his starts. He'll often give you 7+, but he doesn't often give you a full 9, having completed just 2 games all year, despite his huge inning totals. This is because the Blue Jays realize the importance of keeping a young pitcher's workload fairly low in regard to pitch count. Halladay is averaging 101.6 pitches per start, but has gone over 110 pitchers in a game just 5 times all season and has yet to go over 120 pitchers in a game.

It's not the innings that are likely to hurt a pitcher, because an inning can be 3 pitches. Rather, it is the repeated heavy pitch-count workloads of single games that, in my opinion, is the biggest danger for a young pitcher. A.J. Burnett, who is out for the year (and then some) with an elbow injury and about whom I have devoted thousands of words and dozens of entries to, was treated almost the exact opposite of how Halladay is being worked by Toronto.

While Halladay has topped 110 pitches in just 5 starts all year, Burnett averaged 109.5 pitches per start last season. And while Halladay has yet to throw more than 120 pitches in a game all year, Burnett threw 120+ pitches 10 different times last year, or in a total of 35% of his starts.

This is not to say there is a perfect cause and effect relationship here. Burnett got injured because he was overworked, that much I am sure of. But, overworking a pitcher does not always lead to injury, just as being careful with a pitcher does not always lead to perfect health. It's a good start though and the way the Blue Jays are handling Halladay is infinitely better for both the team's future and the pitcher's future than the way the Marlins destroyed Burnett.

Despite his team being careful with his pitch-counts, Halladay is no less a workhorse than Burnett was and, in fact, he is more of a workhorse than Burnett and is on pace to be more of a workhorse than all but three pitchers in the last 15 years. He is able to do so because he throws strikes.

Among the 102 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title right now, Halladay throws the 3rd-fewest pitches per plate appearance. The fewer pitches you devote to each hitter, the more hitters you face, and the more hitters you face, the more innings you can eat. It's a simply philosophy really and, when you think about it, it is the exact opposite philosophy that teams like the Blue Jays and A's preach to their hitters.

They want their hitters to make pitchers work, to take pitches, to wait for something good to hit, to make the opposing pitcher rack of huge pitch-counts. And then they teach their own pitchers to do just the opposite, to throw strikes, to make the hitter swing, to conserve pitches, to work more innings.

Halladay is 3rd in MLB in fewest pitches per plate appearance, while Oakland lefty Mark Mulder is 6th and Oakland righty Tim Hudson is 20th. Toronto starter Corey Lidle, who came to the Jays from Oakland this off-season, is currently tied with Mulder for 6th. Oakland lefty Barry Zito, who doesn't have the greatest control in the world, throws a lot of pitches, but even he is just 38th in most pitches per plate appearance.

All of which is why Halladay currently leads MLB in innings, Hudson is 2nd, Mulder is 6th and Zito is tied for 8th, all despite their teams being very strict with their pitch-counts. Being a workhorse means you eat a lot of innings for your team, it doesn't mean you have to be worked so hard that you need to be taken out back and shot after the season.

Roy Halladay is on pace to pitch nearly 20% of his team's innings this year, he's done some of his pitching in a 4-man rotation and he's very likely going to end the year with one of the highest innings-totals of the last 15 years. And yet, the way he is being worked - or not being worked - would make me feel more confident about him pitching 400 innings than most guys on other teams tossing 200 innings.

The wins are nice and they're probably going to get him a Cy Young Award this year, but the real story is not that Halladay has been able to rack up 15 wins thanks to great run-support, it's that he is pitching extremely well while eating innings at an astonishing pace, and is doing so without being worked in an extremely stressful way. In fact, now that I think about it, the real real story in Toronto isn't happening on the pitching mound, it's happening in the front office. For a baseball nut like me, that's something I can get excited about, and who knows, someday I may even forgive them for stealing my favorite player from my favorite team.

Link of the Day:
Batter's Box - "Opinions and observations about the Pastime, from a Toronto perspective"

Today's picks:
Arizona (Webb) -110 over Florida (Penny)
San Diego (Perez) +130 over Pittsburgh (D'Amico)
Milwaukee (Sheets) +105 over New York (Glavine)
Chicago (Clement) -115 over San Francisco (Moss)
Chicago (Buehrle) -100 over Kansas City (May)

Total to date: + 595
W/L record: 182-186 (0-2 yesterday for -260 and I am officially in a massive slump.)

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

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