BY: ABACUS REVEALS
After coming up just 90’ short in their 2014 quest for a championship – owing much to both the starting and relieving brilliance of one man – the Kansas City Royals battled their way back to baseball’s biggest stage. A key cog in this Middle America Revival story has been manager Ned Yost’s bullpen crew. On the Royal Blue-print, the three-headed closing monster of Herrera-Davis-Holland is virtually an everyday “player.”
In 2015, KC’s relief corps witnessed but two Complete Game (CG) performances from the rotation guys. Those starters, moreover, pitched 7+ innings in only 35 outings, second fewest Long Starts (LS) in the league (No. 23 in MLB). In spite of such regularity of work, a Royal relief pitcher was charged with a losing decision on a mere 15 occasions, contrasted with 30 bullpen victories. That .667 winning percentage was tops among MLB relief staffs for 2015.
That last little piece of data might invite dismissal of the contribution of the team’s starting pitchers, especially given the mediocre returns (just four Royal triumphs in his 13 starts) on the late-season acquisition Johnny Cueto. But those starters posted victories at a .556 clip, which would still have won their division and been second only to Toronto in the AL.
The Royals’ World Series foe from Gotham City, with its rotation full of hard-throwing young arms, produced an almost identical starting-pitcher-showing as KC – NY: 64-51; KC: 65-52. The record of the Mets’ bullpen guys was a respectable 26-21, in the same 55 percent range as the rotation.
But Mets’ skipper Terry Collins had access to five starting pitchers who delivered at least nine LS’s – and that doesn’t include his Game 4 starter Steven Matz. (Oddly, the staff’s lone CG belongs to old geezer Bartolo Colon.) NY led the NL with 62 LS’s on the season (No. 3 overall).
Pro forma, Met starters earned the decisions of eight games during their 7-2 postseason path to the Finals. Conversely, a Royal bullpen pitcher had snatched five of their seven victories while incurring none of the four setbacks.
Both the Royals’ and Mets’ relievers fell into the bottom quadrant (No. 25 and 22, respectively) in rate of deciding games, well below MLB’s overall 31 percent – 1,495 No Decisions in 4,858 starting assignments. Tampa Bay’s bullpen got the decision in two out of five Ray games. The resurgent Cubs were next in line at a 39 percent rate of relief decisions. The least decisive ‘pen-men resided in Cleveland (just under 20 percent), Milwaukee and San Francisco (both at 23.5 percent).
Five relief crews could brag of a .600 winning rate for the season – the Brewers (.605), Angels (.612), Orioles (.620) and Pirates (.633) trail KC on the list. The bottom-feeders are Seattle (.368), Oakland (.404) and the Reds (.426). MLB bullpens as a whole finished 2015 27 games above .500 – 761-734 (.509). NL relief-men (.517) handily outperformed their AL (.501) brethren.
These contrasting philosophies regarding the construction and usage of a championship pitching staff offered to us in the 2015 Fall Classic have induced a thought from my second cousin and alter-ego, Horatio N. Proportion.
Consider two factors: (a) the case when the starting pitcher works deep into a game and (b) the starting pitcher’s non-involvement in the decision … LS’s and ND’s. (NB: these two events are NOT mutually exclusive – either, both or neither may occur in any game.)
Like “assist-to-turnover in basketball, let’s create the “LS-to-ND” ratio.
By this simple calculation, the Mets (1.319), followed closely by the perennially pitching-potent Cardinals (1.250), grade out best in the senior circuit and Top Five overall. NL playoff qualifiers Pittsburgh and the Dodgers likewise rank in baseball’s Top Ten.
On the other hand, Kansas City (who, let’s remember, opted not to retain a noted Long Starter in James Shields after 2014’s near-miss) sports the AL’s second worst score (.778), just behind the wild-card Yankees. Indeed, the only AL playoff qualifier with more LS’s than ND’s was Toronto (57:48, 1.188, No.5 in MLB).
To recap, four of the five AL playoff qualifiers posted a mediocre or worse LS : ND score; four of the five NL squads were MLB Top Ten. Such an anything-but-normal distribution defies both logic and the data. NL starters logged 646 LS’s and 751 ND’s, a ratio of .860. AL arms produced a near equivalent 744 ND’s, but 95 more LS’s and thus a near one-to-one ratio (.996).
Sometimes, things just don’t seem to add up – even when your Math is right. For instance, Toronto is joined in the AL Top Five by Detroit (1.104), Boston (1.186), Chicago (1.308) and Cleveland (2.031). (In the midst of an otherwise disastrous season, the Indians’ rotation did play an entertaining little game of “Can You Top This?” with CG’s for a week or so in late July.)
A logical pattern can be discerned in this data: the full-season scores of 21 teams decreased from what they’d been at the All-Star Break. Understandably, a regular starter’s endurance can be expected to wane over the course of a long season – Cleveland’s out-of-proportion showing was even more extreme (38:12, above three-to-one) at mid-season.
One final thought on the LS : ND ratio. Since these are two statistics compiled independent of the outcome of any game, perhaps what the scores reveal to us is an organization’s “Blue Print” for success on the pitching front. Little surprise, wouldn’t you say, that the Nationals’ stacked rotation finished in this Top Ten.
And skippers as far back as Sparky “Captain Hook” Anderson with the Big Red Machine of the ‘70’s have been playing a match-up zone defense with their bullpens – noted Scribe Bob Ryan has frequently and disdainfully bemoaned such tactics as “Creeping LaRussa-ism.”
Of course, back in those pre-historic times, if anybody had conjured up such a “metric,” they’d have used the Complete Game rather than the Long Start as the standard of excellence.
My thoughts on this season’s individual starting pitcher performances can be glimpsed here.