Friday, May 30, 2008

Ride Your War Horses Into Battle

I'm a facts-and-circumstances guy. I hate zero tolerance rules and, more generally, I hate any system in which people who know a thing or two are divested of their discretion to make informed, subjective judgments. Which is why, like Lou Piniella, I didn't lose any sleep over Zambrano throwing 130 pitches in Wednesday night's victory over the Dodgers:

Manager Lou Piniella had a handful of good reasons for leaving Carlos Zambrano in for 130 pitches in Wednesday night's game against the Dodgers."It was cool, he was throwing the ball well, I would have been booed out of the park if I took him out, and Carlos wouldn't have been happy if I took him out," Piniella said. "It was the right thing to do to leave him in the ballgame . . . I mean, 130 pitches, for a big, strong kid from Venezuela? Once in a while [it's OK]. I'm not talking four or five times in regularity, but once in a while the game dictates that you need to do that, and [Wednesday] night it dictated it, so we let it go.
I think that's right. Zambrano wasn't laboring. He was still working quickly. His velocity seemed good. I don't know a tenth about pitchers that Lou Piniella and Larry Rothschild do, but I would have left him in too.

The focus on pitch counts and innings pitched in recent years has been nothing short of revolutinary. Things like "the Joba Rules" would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, and basically every organization has their own variation on them, even if they're less publicized. On the whole that's probably a good thing, at least with respect to young pitchers. If I were running an organization I'm certain that I would take a cautious approach to developing young arms too. Indeed, my disdain for bright line rules aside, I would probably institute hard pitch counts until I was really really familiar with the individual tolerances and limitations of my pitching prospects.

But I'd be far less careful with experienced horses like Zambrano. As long as you're giving him normal rest between starts, are keeping him to a routine (i.e. not yanking him in to pitch four innings of relief between starts), and have experienced guys like Piniella watching him for signs of fatigue, I don't see why you should let a pitch count determine when you yank him. Guys like him (i.e. physically mature, experienced pitchers with sound mechanics) used to pitch a ton of innings back in the 60s and 70s, and I don't believe that the injury rate for starters was radically different then (please, someone tell me if I'm wrong on this).

I'm not suggesting a return to 300 IP seasons, necessarily, but by stretching the number of innings and pitches a guy like Zambrano throws, you are decreasing the number of pitches and innings thrown by guys like Jason Marquis, Ted Lilly, and Bobby Howry, and that's going to help the Cubs win.


John Lynch said...

I do not understand the Ted Lilly hate out there.

Here's a guy with ERA+ of 119, 102, 119, 80, 106, and 122 since 2002. That 80 was put up in an injury plagued year in Toronto. He's got a career K/9 of 7.7 and his career K/BB ratio is 2.25.

Is he a great pitcher? No. But I don't understand why he's used as example of a guy from whom a team would try and keep the ball.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Don't read too much into the Lilly Comment, John. I merely used him as an example of a starter on the Cubs who isn't as good as Carlos Zambrano (which is all of them). It's perfectly reasonable to think of Lilly as a fine pitcher while acknowledging that, if you're a Cubs fan, you'd rather have Big Z on the mound than him.

John Lynch said...

Yeah, I know. I just have a soft spot for Mr. Lilly. For whatever reason, he's used an awful lot as an example of a poor pitcher. I gets tiring. I do get that you'd rather have you best pitcher throw as much as possible, no matter who the alternative is.

Drew said...

John, I hate myself for saying it, but I think you're guilty of Gilding the Lilly.

I'm sorry.

Mark Runsvold said...

It's really amazing how little everyone knows about the use of pitchers. If one team figures something out and starts using its pitching staff more efficiently it could be a huge advantage, though nobody has tried the bullpen ace model yet.

As I understand it, the future is in looking at joint loads when trying to see who has good mechanics and who doesn't, who can throw 130 pitches and who can't.

Pretty exciting stuff.

Anonymous said...

mark - the red sox employed the bullpen ace model in 2003.. james' first year with the club. it didnt work, however, b/c of.. well, grady little for the most part. you may remember a bullpen that had embree, timlin, kim, and williamson.. all of whom were quite good at that time.

they now use something similar with papelbon and okajima.. those two guys are used in the highest leverage situation starting in the 7th inning.. not the 8th as most clubs use. although, most clubs dont have one "ace" reliever much less two.

i agree with you entirely on the way teams use pitchers. i think its typical of the convential and almost pre-historic thinking used by many baseball teams. they seem afraid to push the envelope and afraid to try new things for fear of failure and looking stupid in a community that is so stuck on traditional thinking.