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How Much v. How Well — Michael Jordan as “6th Man”?

2011 June 2
by Brian Goff

In 1968, Gates Brown hit .450 as a pinch hitter and .370 in total with an OPS of 1.12.  Yet, Brown did not register in the year end MVP voting.  His AL record 107 pinch hits did not garner in Hall of Fame ballots in his name.  Neither did they for Lenny Harris whose 207 career pinch hits leads the majors.  Why not?  These contributions, while noteworthy and taking place often in pressure-packed situations, reflect a small number of contributions relative to full-time position players.

Yet, Mariano Rivera’s will certainly enter Cooperstown.  He also finished second, third (3 times), and fifth in AL Cy Young voting while pitching less than 3-4 times less than starting pitchers.  Let me make clearRivera is terrific, and has pitched incredibly well for a long time.  But … Gates Brown.  In the year that Rivera finished second in the voting, the next four players pitched 2.5-3 times as many innings — not exactly a Gates Brown to Carl Yastrzemski comparison but in that direction.  In 2010, Roy Halladay pitched 4 times more innings than Rivera.

Fixation on the incremental effect (a per nine innings stat like ERA or ERA+) rather than total impact on wins promotes this kind of elevation of a player beyond his contribution.  Of course, Rivera’s career “Wins above Replacement” value places him second among active pitchers and 64th all time.  This figure is influenced by his longevity (which should matter), but also by the fact that even enhanced performance measures, such as WAR, suffer an apples-to-oranges problem.  It’s really an extrapolation problem — Rivera’s ERA as a starter would not be as low as JC Bradbury clarifies in his book, The Baseball Economist (JC also has other, more technical issues with WAR).

Beyond player valuation measurement and debate, I wonder (as others have) about the under-use of players like Rivera by managers.  In the simplest economic terms, managers try to maximize wins based on using resources at their disposal.  Simple models like this work surprisingly well in many situations, but they don’t capture all interesting behavior.  The complexity of managerial tasks leads them toward systems and templates (heuristics) that have worked for others.  Tony LaRussa’s success in using Dennis Eckersley as a 9th-inning-only “closer” prompted a whole era of copy-cat managers.  The ability to get batters out in high pressure situations is different and more valuable than outs with the game likely in or out of hand.  Yet, as many others have noted, the 9th inning may not be the most pressure-packed relief situation.  Sometimes, key outs arise in the 7th or 8th. Pre-Eckersley, managers used their best relief pitcher in these settings and for longer outings, depending on the situation.  Bruce Sutter and other relievers in his era pitched 100-125 innings per year.  Rivera, as “setup guy” pitched over 10o innings but only 60 to 80 in his closer role.

Who would think using Michael Jordan as 6th man would be optimal?  If playing only limited minutes in the 2nd and 4th quarter, his per-minute numbers could have been astronomical.  Also, he could have been around and fresh for the key shot at the end of the game.  The flaws in such a managerial strategy leap out.  I don’t want to draw the analogy too far.  Some pitchers due to mechanics or other factors may not be as well suited to starting roles.  LaRussa may have thought in terms of extending an aging pitcher’s career in using Eckersley the way that he did.

3 Responses
  1. Barry Duffman permalink
    June 2, 2011

    I think it has to do with the manager trying to protect his job. If the standard practice is to use your closer in the 9th only, then any deviation from that will leave the manager open to criticism. It will take a manager secure in his job, like LaRusa, to use their pitchers more effectively. Then maybe more managers will start doing the same. It is similar to football coaches refusing to go for it on 4th down even though the statistics make it pretty clear it is worth the risk in the long run. If the coach/manager gets fired, there is no long run for them.

  2. michael c permalink
    June 3, 2011

    fangraphs.com has great analysis of the relative value of certain game situations. If you weight plays based on their impact on winning and losing the game, Rivera is as valuable as all but the most important position players (WPA or win probability added). A key stat is the “leverage index” of a play, basically normalize the marginal value of a plate appearance to the average one. When a closer comes in the game, up only 1-3 runs, the value of each out is greatly magnified – Rivera’s career LI is 1.86, meaning his outs/runs prevented are worth 86% more than the average pitchers’. If you add up these weighted values, Rivera is #2 in the last 10 years of all pitchers behind Halladay with only 1/3 of the inning pitched. Rivera has averaged 3.2 WPA per season for his career (6.4 team wins over average) which is a top 10 number for active players. These situational stats are the best way of comparing relievers to batters to starters since they take into account the varied circumstances of the different contributions. While this article’s analysis would seem to disparage Rivera’s Hall credentials, I suggest that he is not only worthy of Hall consideration, but his contributions are actually comparable to the best players ever – including starters and hitters.

  3. Dan permalink
    June 7, 2011

    If a manager brings his closer into get out of a jam in the 7th inning and the team loses the game in the 9th because the teams 3rd best reliever fails he’ll be criticized by the press and the fans because the relievers were confused about their roles.

    If a manager brings in his closer to pitch the 8th and 9th and said closer loses the game in the 9th, the manager will be criticized by the press and the fans for asking more than one inning for pitchers used to their role of one inning at a time.

    If the closer gets out of the jam in the 7th and the other relievers close out the 8th and 9th the press and the fans will say how lucky he was.

    If a manager departs from the standard of the setup man for the 8th and the closer for the 9th you will start seeing stories in the press about how the bullpen is confused about their roles and how they are being used. Every hit or walk will be attributed to this confusion and why oh why can’t the manager figure out how to use his personnel.

    But if the closer blows a game in the 9th too many times it is obviously the closer’s fault and the manager can’t be blamed because he doesn’t have anyone that can handle the pressure. See Ryan Franklin circa 2011.

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