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.

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