The fireman and organizational incentives

When Rafael Soriano joined the Yankees, the cause célèbre of Yankee bloggers quickly became the use of Soriano as a fireman in the bullpen. EJ Fagan from The Yankee U and our own Ben Kabak have both discussed it recently in detail. In a nutshell, the Yankees now have two closers in Rivera and Soriano. Given that Rivera will pitch the ninth and that the eighth inning isn’t always the highest leverage moment that the bullpen will face, they argue persuasively that the Yankees should use Soriano to put out fires, whether those fires arise in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings. This concept is logical and well-founded, yet I think there’s a good reason to believe that the Yankees, or most other organizations for that matter, won’t employ it in 2011.

It’s no secret that the New York media is unforgiving. While Brian Cashman seems to avoid a lot of the nastiness, plenty of reporters assume a sarcastic and critical approach towards Joe Girardi. Their Twitter accounts during games are rife with jokes about Girardi’s matchup binder, and they seem to enjoy playing “gotcha” with Girardi’s information about player injuries and explanations about decisions. Very simply, an unorthodox idea like using Soriano as the fireman would likely be met with criticism in print, in the airwaves and on the internet. One can imagine the reaction if Soriano blew a lead in the sixth inning and the Yankees lost the game, or if Soriano saved a lead in the sixth but saw Joba Chamberlain surrender the lead later in the game.  It’s easy to picture the back page of the New York Post with a gigantic headline like, “Bonehead: Why is Joe Girardi using his $35 million dollar man in the sixth inning?”

Of course there is a very good answer to this question, one built on data, logic and research. But it’s a complicated answer and it doesn’t lend itself to a sound bite. It’s easy to say that Soriano is our “eight-inning guy, period”. It’s way more difficult to explain that the manager is going to try to maximize win probability by utilizing the best relievers in the highest leverage spots. It would also require Girardi to explain why Rivera isn’t used in the highest leverage spots, and only in the ninth inning, a question which would require him to admit that this idea is a bit of a hybrid between the traditional use of a closer and the more sabermetric-inclined concept of leverage and probability. In a media environment not known for kindness, friendliness to new ideas or nuance, one can imagine how badly this would play out. Who’s ready for a summer of arguing with the beat writers!

Of all the reasons not to do something, though, worrying about how the New York media would perceive you has to rank near the bottom. This reason would also be moot, and Girardi wouldn’t be the focal point of the criticism, if it was clearly communicated that he had the full confidence of the organization to execute this plan. As such, whether Rafael Soriano is used as a fireman or strictly in the eighth inning is a question of organizational incentives, a cost-benefit calculation that all relevant actors in the organization have to perform. Traditional bullpen management works well enough. Put another way: traditional bullpen management is orthodox, accepted by fans, media and other organizations alike. There may be a much better way to do it, but no one at the moment seems to be trying it. The potential gain is not losing a lead, something that most people assume as a given anyway. Think about it: in the best-case scenario the team doesn’t surrender a lead that it already has. The downside risk is a bit greater. For one, the team could actually lose the game in question, should the fireman give up the lead. The manager could lose the faith and confidence of the fans, or worse, his superiors. Ultimately it’s at least possible that that the manager could lose his job.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a very good sense of what organizational incentives are like for the New York Yankees. Our knowledge of the inner-workings of the Yankee organization is quite limited. Our first-hand information is self-selected by the GM and the Manager, or comes at times of unrest and dissension (the Cashman-ownership split on Soriano, for instance). Our second and third-hand information is even more problematic. It comes through the conduit of reporters and leaks. Often times one has to wonder whether the information made public is designed to serve some sort of  Machiavellian purpose. What part of the organization is leaking this information and why? Are they attempting to undermine another part of the organization? Are they lying in order to throw competitors off the scent? Is this simply good information? But this is about as deep as most fans can go. We simply will not know what Cashman and his cadre of advisors did this winter in secret. We won’t know if they looked at the possibility of a four-man rotation, batting Cano second or using Soriano as a fireman. We won’t hear about the ideas that they entertained, researched, debated and ultimately rejected.

As such we have to at least consider that the concept of Soriano as fireman has been explicitly research and rejected by Yankee management. Yet we also have to consider the flipside, that the organization is more by-the-book in certain areas, and that taking big risks in high-profile situations isn’t encouraged. This would mean that no matter how sound or logical the concept is, the Yankees will never be the first team to adopt it. Ned Yost of the Royals perfectly captured this sentiment yesterday when asked about the concept of a fireman. Kings of Kauffman has the quote:

Yost is still a baseball guy, and there’s a way things are done in baseball and a way to not do things.  Innovation isn’t a popular idea.  Using Joakim Soria in an early situation might make sense by the numbers “but you won’t catch me doing it.”

This is an unsatisfying feeling and it’s one familiar to anyone who has worked in a corporate environment and found that doing things as they’ve been done in the past and not looking like an idiot is more important than trying to invent new ways of doing things and possibly failing. It’s flat frustrating when the best idea loses out to the more familiar idea. It’s also bad organizational management, because it aligns the interests of the employees with keeping their jobs and not screwing up, rather than allowing a certain amount of room for failure and fostering innovation and productivity. But the Yankees don’t particularly need to reinvent the wheel. They don’t need to discover untapped markets of value like the Rays or the Athletics need to in order to succeed. In New York, where the lights are as bright and as hot as anywhere on the planet and where “what have you done for me lately?” is a way of life, there is little margin for failing and looking dumb.

This summer, Girardi is going to leave Soriano and Rivera chucking sunflower seeds against the plexiglass as a lesser reliever blows a lead. Sergio Mitre may pitch the 13th inning of a tie game on the road while Rivera waits for the team to get the lead before coming in. When this happens, it’s important to recognize that it’s not necessarily because Girardi is thickheaded or stubborn, too smart for his own good or intentionally trying to annoy the curmudgeonly beat writer crew, although the latter would be spectacular. Girardi may be a very public face of the Yankees, the one who projects authority and whose face is on television every night, but ultimately he’s another organizational actor subject to peer pressure criticism from his superiors. What Girardi doesn’t want to become is another Jeff Zucker, who risked job safety and ratings certainty on an unknown quantity with arguably higher upside and long-term success only to have to back out of it when it turned difficult. At that point, Zucker’s fate was written on the wall. It was only a matter of time before the house came down.

For Once, Conventional Pitching Wisdom Actually Right

Originally, this article was going to be about comparing the projected starters for 2011 to some of our past rotations and general pitching staffs. This involved finding out who started, how many starts they made, and so on. I was then going to take the 2011 season projections for our current group of starters and compare them. Then I’d insert Millwood, Garcia, and Duchscherer to see how it changed. I’d probably slot in Lee and Pettitte just to make myself sad, too. With this in mind, I sat down in front of my computer and, like any baseball nerd, opened my Excel spreadsheets. I plugged in the numbers and took a sort of weird, futuristic glee in having my computer calculate stuff for me.

The more I went into this, the more I also realized that a successful pitching staff is almost stupidly formulaic. For once, it’s just like they say: healthy, good starting pitching wins ballgames. Wins championships, even.

In an ideal world, you have five guys who make thirty-something starts a piece, and they all go six to seven innings, and you have a bullpen with just the right combination of righties and lefties, a LOOGY or two, a longman, and a closer. But let’s be honest, that’s impossible. It’s never going to happen. Pitchers are going to get injured. They are going to suck. Sometimes, these things might be related (looking at you, Jeff Niemann!). Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you need to pick up an innings-eater who is, at best, an okay pitcher, and sometimes a midseason trade is going to leave you struggling to figure out what you’re going to do with your rotation at all. An anonymous source tells me you can’t predict baseball.

The closest the Yankees ever got to this ideal pitching staff in the modern dynasty era was (no surprise here) 1998.

In 1998, Cone won 20 games and threw 200+ IP. The perfect game had not yet arrived. (AP Images/Elise Amendola)

It’s beating a dead horse to talk about how amazing the 1998 New York Yankees were, but on just the pitching side of things, they rocked it: the five starters (Pettitte, Wells, Cone, Irabu, and El Duque) started 142 games. 14 of the 20 games they didn’t pitch in were thrown Ramiro Mendoza, who had a 3.87 ERA in games he started. Mendoza threw an amazing 130 IP that year, including a complete game; three out of the five starters (Cone, Pettitte, and Wells) threw over 200 IP. Mo picked up 36 saves. The Yanks won 114 games and the World Series. It was a good year to be a Yankees fan.

In more recent history, the 2009 Yankees did pretty good on this formula too. Four starters threw 30+ games for an ERA in the rotation of 4.08. The 32 games that were not thrown by starters were picked up by five other guys – Mitre, Wang, Aceves, Gaudin, and Phil Hughes. They used these opportunities to show us why they weren’t starters themselves (or not yet starters, as the case may be), and why we needed healthy starting pitching. Aceves threw one game (4IP, 3ER), and Wang posting an amazingly terrible 11.38 ERA and a 2.176 WHIP in games where he started, giving up 6 homers. The best ERA between those five? Chad Gaudin. Gaudin posted a 4.76 ERA in six starts; Hughes had a 5.45 in seven. Funny that Gaudin spent the next year being thrown into what seemed like every September game to the great distaste of many Yankee fans, and Hughes was an All-Star starter.

That’s not to say the Yankees haven’t gotten this one wrong, too. The last thing you want is too many pitchers throwing starts. In 2008, 13 different pitchers started games. These were included but not limited to: a 2IP rain-delay started by Brian Bruney (who posted an ERA of 0.00 as a starter that year!), a start by Kei Igawa (3 IP, 6 ER) and 9 starts by Ian Kennedy, who posted an 8.35 ERA in the rotation. Only Pettitte and Mussina made over 25 starts that year; the next person down was Darrell Rasner, who made 20. Three different pitchers made between 10 and 15 starts. How can a team win when there’s no real consistency about who’s going to take the mound and how well they’re going to do? Needless to say, other teams capitalized on the Yanks’ disadvantage. Four out of the five 2008 Red Sox Starters made 25 starts or above: only Buchholz missed the cut with 16. Four out of the six 2008 World Series Champion Phillies starters made 25 starts or more, and their rotation started 158 games.

No surprises here: get a lot of production out of your starters and you’ll go far. But more than just production, you need the decent numbers, too. The 2010 Yankees, for example, used only 8 starters. Every man in the rotation hit 20 starts, and only Andy’s injury kept him from breaking 25 with the rest of them. Seems like after a few years we’ve finally figured out how to consistently put a guy on the mound in the Bronx: now if only we could find someone better than Sergio Mitre.

Rays land Damon … and Manny

Via Jon Heyman, the Rays have agreed to terms with both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Damon gets $5.25M and some incentives, Manny gets just $2M. That’s the steal of the offseason right there. Tampa gets some much needed punch, even if both guys are well into their decline phases. Not even $8M for the pair? Unbelievable.

The Blue Jays traded Vernon Wells earlier tonight, freeing up a ton of cash in the future. Yeah, the AL East is not gonna be fun.

Open Thread: 10-0

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I think we all remember Aaron Small and the job he did for the 2005 Yankees, but here’s the interesting thing about that season: he won ten games, but only made nine starts. He didn’t strike anyone out (4.38 K/9), but he kept the walks down (2.84 uIBB/9) so his FIP was rock solid at 3.88 (3.20 ERA). Small did benefit from some major homerun luck though, since his ground ball rate wasn’t spectacular (43..9%) but his 4.5% HR/FB ratio was. His 4.79 xFIP was far more indicative of his true talent level, which he demonstrated in the 2006 season. The Yankees signed Small to a minor league contract six years ago today, and I think it’s safe to say they had no idea how important he would end up being. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we’re thankful for his service.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Isles, Knicks, and Nets are all in action tonight, but it’s Friday. Go out an live a little. Enjoy.

Vernon Wells headed to LAnaheim

Update (9:37pm): The Angels aren’t getting any cash in the deal, they’re talking on the full $86M. Unreal.

Update (7:16pm): Ken Rosenthal says it’s Wells for Napoli and former Yankee Juan Rivera. Toronto is paying part of Vernon’s salary, but it’s unclear how much.

Via MLBTR, the Blue Jays have traded Vernon Wells to the Angels for Mike Napoli. This is not a joke. The Angels really took Wells and the four years and $86M left on his deal for Napoli, who’s still in his arbitration years and has out wOBA’d Wells .361 to .342 over the last three years. I don’t know what the hell the HaLOLos are doing, but it’s tough not to love the job Alex Anthopoulos has done so far in Toronto.

Given the Angels current state of apparent dismay, I think an Alex Rodriguez for Jered Weaver and Dan Haren offer is in order.

Long on tune-ups for Tex

Tom Verducci caught up with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long recently, and the two spoke about a few things that Mark Teixeira has to tighten up offensively moving forward. One is his chronic slow starts, but the other two involve collapsing on his back leg and using the whole field. Verducci throws out a Jason Giambi comparison as a scare tactic, but the Giambino had a .396 OBP and a .249 ISO in his last five years with the Yankees. Give me that with Tex’s defense, and the last thing I’ll do is complain. Either way, it’s a short and interesting read, so check it out.

The RAB Radio Show: January 21, 2011

With everything pretty settled for the Yankees — we’ve talked enough about Andruw Jones at this point that it’s not worth revisiting — Mike and I take the show down a different path today. ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark wrote an article detailing the most underrated player by position. Mike and I don’t agree with a lot of them, so we run down our own lists.

Podcast run time 37:19

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