Yesterday, we looked at what team's could do to streamline their teams into playoff-spot-grabbing machines. But alas, not all teams will be so lucky. Only eight teams will punch a ticket for October baseball, and the rest will hit the links without so much as a Heidi Klum "auf Wiedersehen." As instructive as it can be to look at what teams can do well, sometimes the best lessons are forged in fire learned in failure. Today's box score looks at the phenomenon of unraveling.
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As of today, the Milwaukee Brewers stand 7.5 games back in fourth place in the NL Central. According to today's BP playoff odds, they have a scant 2.3% chance of making the playoffs. Appropriately, the axe has fallen in Milwaukee. Yesterday, they fired pitching coach Bill Castro (the staff ranked 27th in the majors in ERA). They designated Bill Hall for assignment (he of the .270 wOBA and 0.2 WAR). And finally they sent SS J.J. Hardy down to Triple-A, seemingly paving the way for the Alcides Escobar era. It appears to jibe with the old aphorism "don't lose with seniors," doesn't it?
Well, not so fast. Hardy will be 27 next Wednesday, and is still under team control. Several commentators have begun to wonder if it might have something to do with service time. Here's Dave Cameron:
If Hardy would have remained in the majors through the end of the year, he’d have had five full seasons of service time, gotten a raise in arbitration, and been eligible for free agency after 2010. If he stays in the minors for three weeks, he will fall just short of a full year of service in 2009, which would make him a 4+ year arbitration guy again this winter and delay his free agency until after the 2011 season.
But the timing is critical. Triple-A Nashville's season ends on September 7th (at the Shrine on Airline), which means they had to send Hardy down on exactly the day that they did if they wanted this plan to work. Here's Tango's calculation:
A service year is 172 days. An MLB season has around 183 service days (and weirdly, the playoffs I don’t think even counts). So, if JJ is kept in the minor leagues until the minor league season is over, he could end up this year with only 171 service days.
That's some pretty clever stuff. My guess is that, after Hardy put up a dreadful first half, the Brewers were hoping Hardy would bounce back in the majors after the break. But that plan was dashed when Hardy was even worse in the second half (.611 vs. .681 OPS). So instead they waited until the last day possible to send him down, and now they've got cover for doing so since he has been hitting so terribly.
This will no doubt upset a lot of people (as it did Dave Cameron), but frankly I just don't see the problem with it. It's the general manager's job to win games, and if this is how Doug Melvin thinks he can best win ballgames in the future, then why shouldn't he do it?
Bullpens are such an easy scapegoat. They are forced to pitch some of the highest-leverage moments in games, they are often asked to pitch to only a handful of batters, and they're usually not guys fans are too emotionally attached to (except for RJ Swindle--that guy is awesome). So when teams fall back to earth, or out of contention, or from unbeatable to merely division-leading, it's often the bullpen that gets blamed.
In Houston, the Negative Nancys are already beginning to blame not the bullpen itself but Cecil Cooper's utilization thereof. Here's The Houston Chronicle's Jose de Jesus Ortiz:
Guys like Sampson and Arias must be honest with Cooper and tell him there are days they cannot take the ball. Cooper had his career and made his money as a player, and now he's likely to try to sacrifice all the arms to avoid being fired after the season. Sampson and Arias are still trying to establish themselves in the majors.
This is the kind of thing you hear about a lot, especially when a team begins to slide out of contention. Even good teams are hearing mumblings about the bullpen. Here's Vincent Bonsignore of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune:
A bullpen that's been so reliable also is starting to show vulnerability after being leaned on so much this season.
Ramon Troncoso gave up four runs Sunday and has given up seven in his last seven games. Guillermo Mota gave up a run on two hits in just two-thirds of an inning a day after giving up Kelly Johnson's winning, pinch-hit two-run home run Saturday.
All those nights Torre had to call on his bullpen could be taking a toll.
Certainly for Joe Torre, the claims of bullpen abuse are not new. So I decided to see if there was anything to these allegations. Using b-ref's Play Index tool, I searched for game streaks where a reliever had one day of rest or fewer. Here are the longest ones:
Peter Moylan (ATL) - 11
Guillermo Mota (LAD) - 9
Russ Springer (OAK) - 9
Randy Choate (TBR) - 9
Peter Moylan (ATL) - 9 (distinct streak, no overlap)
Mike Gonzalez (ATL) - 9
Kiko Calero (FLA) - 9
You can see the full results here. It's fascinating to me that there is so much usage of two guys (plus Eric O'Flaherty, who appears further down the list) on the Braves, and neither of them is the closer. And yet, because they haven't had a bad streak no one is blaming Bobby Cox of overtaxing the bullpen.
The signing deadline for players taken in the June Rule 4 draft is fast approaching (Monday at midnight). Helpfully, Marc Hulet looks at the non-Strasburgs yet to sign. Also of note recently is a two-part series over at BP in which Kevin Goldstein polled some scouting directors about changes to the draft. The one thing they were nearly unanimous about was the need to allow trading of draft picks. The money quote:
While everyone has their concerns about the idea, especially with teams just dumping nearly everyone had a solution to that, or just plain didn't care. "Teams are big boys," said another official. "If they're silly enough to give their pick away for nothing, that's their problem."
Lord knows teams already make dumb decisions. If you need more proof of that, check out Jayson Stark on the race to sign Strasburg.
I'm curious what you think about bullpen usage. Which managers seem to ride their horses too hard? Which ones are too timid with their best relievers? Are there any mama bears among the crop of major league managers?
It seems to me that Bobby Cox must be doing a pretty good job, if he's been able to lean on his top guys successfully. Am I wrong to think that?