Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Gagne's Activation: Innocuous Roster Move, or Sabermetric Test Case?

Eric Gagne is handed back the Rangers' closer job despite coming off of, oh, eleventeen years of injuries (the latest literally being a pain in the ass) and despite the fact that his replacement, Akinori Otsuka, is pitching pretty damn well. Why? Take it away Ron Washington:

"He knows how to close a ballgame down," manager Ron Washington said before his team played the New York Yankees. "So, even though he may have been in and out, he has knowledge. You can't teach that."

Setting aside the curious suggestion that one "can't teach knowledge," what, exactly, is involved in closing a game down that isn't involved in pitching effectively in other situations? Unless they do things really differently in Texas, a pitcher is trying to get guys out whether it's in the ninth inning with a three run lead or the fifth inning down seven.

That said, how this story fits into the myth of the closer doesn't interest me all that much.

I'm more interested in this story as a test-case of both Billy Beane's influence on his former employee, Ron Washington and the extent to which Rangers' GM Jon Daniels subscribes to sabermetric principles like many of the other baby-GMs hired in recent years do.

You'll recall that in Moneyball, Washington, then an A's coach, was portrayed old-fashioned and somewhat reluctant to adopt many sabermetric strategies. This reluctance, many argue, cost him a chance to take over as A's manager when Ken Macha left. The fact that he hired Art Howe -- another man who often found himself in the doghouse for not following the Beane orthodoxy -- as his bench coach leads one to conclude that Washington is content to play things old school rather than implement the strategies to which he was exposed in Oakland.

The whole Gagne-Otsuka situation, however, presents Washington with an outstanding opportunity to exploit one of those sabermetric strategies. As Bill James has demonstrated, the use of a team's best relief pitcher protecting three-run leads in the ninth isn't efficient. In fact, using your best reliever -- your "relief ace" -- when the game is tied late, a team can substantially improve its winning percentage. Games aren't "saved" in only the ninth inning, the logic goes, and they can very easily be lost in the seventh, so a right-thinking team would do well to use it's best guy at the most critical time, and not just when there's a chance to chalk up a formal save.

Given his comments about Gagne's "knowledge," it's very possible that Washington's demotion of Otsuka in favor of Gagne is a textbook example of favoring the "proven veteran*" despite having better options available. It's also possible, however, that the move is motivated by a desire to get the seemingly better pitcher, Otsuka, into higher-leverage situations while allowing his vet to feel better about himself in the less-important closer role. We may not ever know if that's his true motivation, but perhaps some of of Washington's other moves throughout the season will give us insight into whether that's what's really going on. He couldn't have spent all that time in Oakland without some of it rubbing off on him, could he?

Daniels too has the opportunity use the Gagne-Otsuka situation as a platform to exploit sabermetric thinking. Specifically, the Billy Beane-patented "pump and dump" strategy in which Beane instructed his field manager to designate his less-than-best reliever as the "closer," allowed them to collect a healthy save total, and then traded him away for a greater return than they were probably worth by virtue of the unwarranted value teams place on the save stat. Billy Taylor and Billy Koch are two examples that spring to mind, each of whom Beane managed to dump to other teams for better players (though Beane was arguably a victim of the pump and dump, albeit a seemingly willing one, in acquiring Koch from the Blue Jays in the first place).

Unlike Washington's adoption of the Jamesian relief-ace strategy, we need only read the rumor wire to see if Daniels is trying to turn Gagne and his $6M salary into trade bait for a desperate contender by allowing him to rack up a handful of easy, one-inning saves. Though the season is still young and Texas could theoretically contend, it's certainly what I'd do if I were in his position.

Whatever happens, this is the first time in years I've cared about what's happening in Texas.

*Otsuka is four years older than Gagne, but has five fewer years of MLB experience.