Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza

George Kontos came into last night's ballgame in the top of the seventh, in relief of Madison Bumgarner, who had pitched six shutout innings as the Giants built a 2-0 lead. Kontos faced three batters, all of whom hit the ball hard. The first two landed safely for base hits, and Dave Righetti came out to talk with Kontos. Whatever he said didn't help much; Brandon Barnes ripped a 0-2 pitch directly at Jarrett Parker in left, who fortunately caught it. That was enough for Bruce Bochy. Out he came, off to the dugout went Kontos, and into the game came Javier Lopez to get a key strikeout. With two down, in came Cory Gearrin. D.J. LeMahieu drove in one run with a base hit, and Nolen Arenado followed with a three-run homer. Lead gone, game effectively over. The first two runs, including the tying run, were charged to Kontos.

And Kontos was credited with a "Hold" by the official scorer.

George Kontos is eligible for arbitration after this season. He and his agent can take, among other things, his sterling record of "Holds", including this one, before the arbiter and make a case that this proves he deserves more money and perhaps a long-term deal. Sure, it's somebody else's dough, but there are only 25 spots on the Giants roster, and there's a strong bias in favor of "proven" major-leaguers with the stats to back it up.  Wins and losses depend on these decisions. And they depend on players who do their job.

Did Kontos do his job last night? Of course he didn't. Is the point of a cumulative statistic, one that is directly tied to wins, to acknowledge a player who does his job? Of course it is-- or ought to be.

We don't mean to rag on Kontos. It's been a tough year for him. Last year he was one of the most reliable pitchers on a very thin staff. Everyone goes through struggles and outright failures in this game. Our point is that we're not supposed to reward them for it.

The (admittedly unofficial, but quite widely used) "Hold" rule reads thus:

A hold is awarded to a relief pitcher who meets the following three conditions:

1. Enters the game in a save situation; that is, when all of the following three conditions apply:
(a) He appears in relief (i.e., is not the starting pitcher); and
(b) He is not the winning pitcher; and
(c) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
(i) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and maintains that lead for at least one inning
(ii) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck
(iii) He pitches for at least three effective innings.
2. Records at least one out.
3. Leaves the game before it has ended without his team having relinquished the lead at any point and does not record a save.

A pitcher may enter the game ahead by three runs, walk the bases loaded, get yanked by his manager, and still earn a "Hold"-- even if the next batter hits a game-winning grand-slam home run. He left the game before the lead was relinquished, and is not the losing pitcher. He gets a "Hold"-- that is, if he doesn't choke on it first.

Yes, we know that accurate analysis of  baseball statistics often intends to isolate an individual player's work from that of his teammates, in order to remove bias and accurately judge his unique contribution, That doesn't apply here. Earned runs are already charged to pitchers who have left the game. That's a settled and accepted issue. This statistic, if it is to be meaningful, must include that factor in its definition.

The job of a relief pitcher in close games often comes down to trading runs for outs, assuming there is a cushion to work with. A closer with a two- or three-run lead can afford to do this, because his job is an endgame-- when the opposition runs out of outs, the game is over. For a middle-inning man or setup man, it can be more complicated, and more difficult. They often come in with men in base and in scoring position, as both Lopez (who did his job, and earned his Hold) and Gearrin (who didn't, and earned his Loss) experienced last night.

Was Kontos in position to trade runs for outs? Yes, with a two -run lead, even in the seventh, that's a defensible assessment. Had he gotten through the inning, all three outs, while allowing one run, we'd still have the lead and he'd have earned his Hold. Had he allowed the one run and gotten two out, but needed Lopez or Gearrin to get the third out and preserve the lead, that would be OK too. Had he done as he did, but with Gearrin striking out Arenado instead of allowing the homer, Kontos would have gotten only one out and been charged with one run-- but the lead intact. Will that do? Let's say it will. Even up. Run for out. Tit for tat. Okay.

Now, doesn't this indicate that a "Hold," to at least some degree, would depend on what another pitcher does? Sure it would. Just as a "Win" depends on it today. And part of the issue here, we believe, is that the people who came up with the "Hold" rule based it along the same guidelines that determine the "Save" rule. We believe that's an incorrect assumption. A "Hold" has more in common with a "Win" than it does with a "Save," and ought to be evaluated in a similar light.

How, then, ought the "Hold" rule be rewritten? Obviously, it's item (3) which causes the problem, So, how about:

"3. Leaves the game before it has ended without his team having relinquished the lead at any point in that same inning, and does not record a save."

That would sure take care of it-- but it would also deprive Javier Lopez of his "Hold," and he did his job in spades. More broadly, it would cost any pitcher who gets the first two outs of an inning, even if he's perfect, any time his successor(s) blow(s) the lead later that same inning.  Too heavy-handed. We need more nuance.

"3. Leaves the game before it has ended without his team having relinquished the lead at any point, is not later charged with a tying run, and does not record a save."

You could still give up a two-run homer in a 3-0 game, and as long as you get one out and the lead sustains for that inning, you get the Hold. Seems to us that's liberal enough, and you all know how we feel about liberals.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Glorious Fourth

If you understand that the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, is the founding document of the American nation, then chances are you've got your priorities straight. And when you read it, if you can say, to yourself and out loud, "Yes, that's me, that's what I believe," then you are truly an American-- because "American" is a state of mind and an attitude, not merely a result of birth or citizenship. 

The Glorious Eleventh

Inning, that is. Well, maybe "glorious" is overstating it just a tad, but we'll take the wins when and how we get 'em. Over the last thirty days the Giants' bullpen has blown eight leads by our count; this was one the club was able to rescue. Unlike many others, it was a solo effort: Cory Gearrin, charged with holding a 4-2 lead in the eighth, got one out, then gave up the tying home run to Jake Lamb after Buster Posey couldn't handle Paul Goldschmidt's grounder. Going against the grain, Bruce Bochy then left Gearrin in there to finish what was left of the job rather than play bullpen roulette. This kept designated closer/whipping-boy Santiago Casilla available to close out the 11th after the Giants had rallied to take the lead, and bless his heart, he did so-- but not without incident. Leadoff single, sac bunt, and then the old reliable, a wild pitch moving the runner to third with only one out. But Casilla then won the crucial AB, getting Brandon Drury on a sharp infield grounder. This allowed Welly Castillo, whose homer off Hunter Strickland had won Saturday's game for Arizona, to receive the old "unintentional intentional walk," baseball purists shuddering as the winning run ambled down to first base. Casilla then fanned Pete O'Brien on a 2-2 pitch and, for a change, that was it.

One of the comments on the Giants' site the other day plaintively asked whether Casilla had pitched even one three-up three-down inning in a save situation this year. That stirred our memory of Robb Nen back in 1999. A year after his tremendous inaugural season in San Francisco, the Nenster struggled through a nightmare year in '99, and after perusing our exhaustive statistical charts we determined, and triumphantly posted to the old Giants Usenet group, that Nen had not pitched a single three-up three-down ninth inning in a save situation all season. (He had in fact pitched one perfect inning that year for a save-- but it was a tenth inning, sports fans.) Whether we now take up the same research effort for Casilla is something we'll decide on later in the year.

Didja notice that Bochy's lineup yesterday had exactly one Opening Day starter at his preferred position: shortstop Brando Crawford? Yes, Posey was in there, but at first base, remember? And Brandon Belt, slated for a day off, was inserted at the last minute into left field. The rest of the crew featured catcher Trevor Brown, second baseman Grant Green, third baseman Ruben Tejada, Jarrett Parker in center field, and Mac Williamson in right. The game-winning hit was delivered by pinch-hitter Ramiro Pena, who in six tepid major-league seasons has never hit well enough to earn even 200 AB's-- but who is hitting .417 with 4 extra-base hits and 7 RBI in 36 at-bats with the Giants. His timely double scored Parker, who walked for the 14th time in his 87 at-bats, and who at 27 seems to be making his case for a big-league career at the Last Chance Saloon. 

Parker may want to get used to center field; word has it that Denard Span's neck stiffness may be enough to land him on the DL. Let's see, that would make five Giants starters disabled this year so far, including the entire starting outfield, and it would mean four on the DL at the same time (Matt Duffy, Joe Panik, Hunter Pence, and now perhaps Span).  

We confess that when saw Tejada's name in the leadoff spot next to that gaudy .160 average and .457 OPS (not OBP, mind you; OPS) we wondered if Bochy had lost his mind and was perhaps channeling those 1960s managers who all wanted their own Luis Aparicio (if you were Latin and a middle infielder in the sixties, chances are you were the leadoff man even if you hit .220). But Tejada, aside from his double and run scored in 5 AB's last night, has been a decent hitter most of his six-year career. His only real bad season was 2013. He bounced back the following year, and last year was his best yet, as he hit twice as many doubles in the same number of at-bats as 2014. He has no real power, but he will take a walk, averaging more than one free pass per ten AB's throughout his career, which is our own yardstick of minimum competence, and he's still only 26. A career .327 OBP is not a leadoff man's number, but it's not an absurd place to put him either, especially in this patchwork lineup. (Yes, we too would have preferred to see Green there.)   

Didja see "Boch" pull a rare "triple switch" in the eleventh last night? Pena had come in to bat for Josh Osich, who got the win; he stayed in the game at second base, replacing Green, who despite a fine 2-for-4 night yielded to pinch-hitter Angel Pagan two batters later. Why? Defense! Pagan went into left in the bottom of the frame, replacing Belt, who yielded his spot to pitcher Casilla. Did it work? Well, we won, didn't we?

Happy Independence Day to all who still treasure it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

"I'm My Own DH"

Okay, maybe we haven't a future as writers of novelty C&W songs. Still, from a purely baseball perspective, Madison Bumgarner's turn at bat last night-- a National League pitcher batting for himself in an American League park where the designated hitter rules supreme-- -- was about the coolest thing since, oh, since the last cool thing happened. Rising to the occasion, "Bum" led off the third inning with a ringing double that started an explosion in which six Giants scored before any were out, capped with back-to-back homers by Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford. From a purely team perspective, it gave Bumgarner and the Giants a lead that carried them to a much-needed win, avoiding a four-game home-and-away backyard sweep by those annoying Oakland A's.

The first three games of this series had seen a truly wretched start by Jeff Samardzija and a strange three-error frustration derby for Jake Peavy sandwiched around the beleaguered bullpen's most nightmarish meltdown of the season, a full-scale collapse that wasted 18 (!) Giant hits. In three games the A's scored 28 runs, knocked the Giants off their short-lived perch on baseball's top-dog pedestal, and gave doubters and worriers everywhere plenty to chew on. With ten days remaining until the All-Star break, it's gonna take more than baseball's best hitting pitcher thumbing his nose at the game's most controversial rule to keep Our Boys six or more games ahead of LA and in shape for a postseason bid. After taking the last two of three against their hated rivals three weeks ago, the Giants had fattened themselves with a 11-2 run against three certifiably weak teams and one struggling team. The A's, fighting to stay out of last place in the AL West, were supposed to be another pushover. They weren't. The next nine, up to the break, are against the Diamondbacks and Rockies, two division opponents going in opposite directions. Matt Cain may return from the DL during this stretch, and both Samardzija and the bullpen-- especially Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez-- will bear careful watching.

While Bumgarner's success is unlikely to motivate the MLBPA to abandon its tenacious support for the career-extending and gainful-employment-providing DH, we do hope it will slow down the rumor mill that earlier in the season all but conceded the National League was also about to adopt the rule. "Bum's" batting prowess is neither a revolutionary trend nor a one-time aberration-- it's a simple reminder that the game can be, and in this league ought to be, played the way it's been played since time immemorial. Vive le difference, and all that.

The Loneliest Number
Bumgarner's opponent, rookie Dillon Overton, put up a Game Score of 1 in yesterday's slugfest. The tale of the tape: eight runs, all earned, on eight hits plus three walks over three innings. This earned the young lefty a free one-way ticket back to Nashville, and is the worst start by any pitcher in any Giants game this season. The previous nadir, 8, was posted by Samardzija a little over a week ago during the Pittsburgh series. The Giants eased "Shark's" pain considerably that night by coming back to win.

Swooner or Later
You all can't wait for this to end, can you? The Giants went 17-10 in June, following a 20-8 May. That they did this despite Hunter Pence, Matt Duffy, Kelby Tomlinson, and, lately, Joe Panik on the DL, and Angel Pagan just returning from it, and with unfamiliar names such as Ruben Tejada, Ramiro Pena, Grant Green, and Conor (OK, we know him) Gillaspie playing major roles, testifies to this Giants team's continuing resilience, and to continuing good management. But Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti are facing a series of issues within the bullpen that they haven't had to deal with for years, and we expect that will be the focus of any personnel moves the club might make in the weeks ahead.