Thursday, April 8, 2010

Off Night Viewing

The baseball season is just five nights old and already the Yankees have their second off night of the year. Such is life early in the season. If you're looking for baseball action tonight, the Mets have the Fish at 7:10, and MLBN will be carrying the Cubs at the Braves at the same time. Witness the wonder that is Heyward!

In other sports, the NHL regular season is winding down. The Islanders, long eliminated from the playoff hunt, play the Penguins in the final regular season game at Pittsburgh's Igloo. The Devils are at the Panthers, and the Sabres visit the Bruins in a game that has major implications for the Rangers slim remaining hopes of making the playoffs.

On the college side, the Frozen Four drops the puck tonight from Ford Field in Detroit. The unseasonably warm weather and high humidity may make for some interesting ice conditions on the makeshift rink at the football stadium. Interestingly enough, it's the same rink that was used at Fenway earlier this year for the NHL's Winter Classic and Hockey East's Frozen Fenway.

Both games will be on ESPN2. Cinderella RIT, with Connecticut native and big time Whaler fan Jared DeMichiel between the pipes, takes on mighty Wisconsin in the 5:30 game. In the 8:30 night cap, top overall seed Miami (of Ohio, not Florida) takes on Boston College.

Miami lost the National Championship Game in heartbreaking fashion last year, squandering a two goal lead to evil BU in the game's final minute before losing in OT. BC bounced the RedHawks from the tourney in each of the three previous years. Earlier this season, Miami student manager Brendan Burke, son of Toronto Maple Leafs (and former Whalers) G.M. Brian Burke died in a car crash. There are a lot of reasons to be pulling for Miami in this game, but you all know where my loyalties lie.

Whatever your choice for tonight, enjoy it. We'll be back with more baseball in the morning.

Why We Overvalue Relievers

Earlier this offseason, Joe DeLessio of New York Magazine did a countdown of the most important Yankee players. His number 1: Mariano Rivera.

Those of you who are sabermatrically-inclined probably just responded with a collective eye-roll. Wins Above Replacement ranked Rivera as only the 5th most valuable pitcher on the Yankees last season, behind CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes. When you include position players, Rivera drops to 15th, just behind Brett Gardner.

How is that possible? Dave Cameron explains:
While the quality of [relievers] work is very high, the quantity is low, which limits their total value. It’s nearly impossible to rack up huge win values while facing less than 300 batters per season. Yes, each of those batters faced are more critical to a win than a regular batter faced, but this is accounted for in WAR.
It's not to say that WAR is a perfect measure - I don't think anyone believes that Brett Gardner is more irreplaceable/valuable than Rivera - but if the numbers are even close, then it's clear that people (media, fans, etc.) tend to overvalue relievers. When you look at these numbers, it becomes clear that some front offices share this skewed view and are willing to overpay them as well.

Why is that? Perhaps a series like the one the Yanks just wrapped up can shed some light.

None of the six pitchers Joe Girardi and Terry Francona called upon to start the last three at Fenway games factored into a decision. Only Sabathia and Lackey were particularly close - both of them watching their lead evaporate under the watch of the man who relieved them. Therefore, each contest was decided by pitchers who entered the game via the bullpen.

Chan Ho Park was on both sides of that equation, taking the loss on Sunday night after allowing a two run homer to Dustin Pedroia and getting the win last night after throwing three scoreless innings while the game was knotted at 1. Jonathan Papelbon had a similar experience, converting a save on Friday and blowing one last night. Each played the role of goat and hero just a few nights apart.

While WAR can objectively weight the contributions of pitchers by leverage, we as fans can't hope to be nearly as unbiased. As a close game progresses, stress and anxiety in the attentive viewer build. Our joy and frustration are multiplied by those factors and relief pitchers are the one major variable in the equation. The lineups are essentially the same but as the stakes within the game increase, the faces on the mound change.

And that's why someone would try to make the case that Mariano Rivera is the most important player on the Yankees. He might not be the most important from a zero sum sabermetric perspective, but he is on a purely observational standpoint, if you have a rooting interest in the team, Mo is the man. CC Sabathia throws far more innings, but they don't seem to have as much on the line. Mark Teixiera plays in almost every game, but most of his contributions occur under ordinary circumstances.

When Rivera enters the game, as a fan, you can exhale. We've seen him do it so many times before, it's hard not to be confident. You trust that he's going to get the job does until he doesn't - and then you assume that he'll do it next time. Conversely, the three innings that Chan Ho park pitched felt significantly more tense and uncertain. The difference between them is in that respect more than commensurate with their respective abilities.

Of course, Mo did what he usually does during the past two nights. He gave up just one baserunner and the go-ahead run never came to the plate. A couple of late nights at the office and two saves in the book.

It might not show up in advanced stats or translate to as many wins above replacement as we would assume, but Rivera and other trustworthy relievers contribute greatly to the enjoyment of rooting for the team. If you spend enough time reading about and understanding the principles of sabermertics, you should realize that his importance is magnified in your mind. But when a save situation rolls around, he really does seems like the most important guy on the team.

Yanks Claim Huffman

Good morning Fackers. The Yankees filled the final opening on their 40 man roster yesterday, claiming Chad Huffman from the San Diego Padres, who had been DFA'd to make room for Matt Stairs.

Huffman is a soon-to-be 25 year old outfielder with four years of professional experience. He was San Diego's second round selection in the 2006 draft and rose to AAA for the first time last year. In 135 games at Portland, Huffman hit .269/.361/.469 with 20 HR. He's a career .289/.385/.474 hitter and has spent minimal time at first base in addition to the outfield corners.

Longtime San Diego GM Kevin Towers, now working as a special assignment scout for the Yankees, likely had a large say in making the claim. I'm sure Towers knows Huffman well, but I can't help but be a little a curious about the claim.

Despite being a right handed hitter, Huffman does not fair well against lefties, posting just a a .191/.308/.331 line against them last year according to As such, he's not exactly a solid insurance policy should the Yankees decide to part ways with Marcus Thames. Further, his batting line last year, while impressive, is buoyed by the hitting friendly Pacific Coast League, and carries a Major League Equivalent of just .236/.310/.392 with 16 HR.

Huffman's presence also adds to the considerable log jam at Scranton. Jesus Montero will see the lion's share of playing time behind the plate, and may also DH on his days off. He's backed up by Chad Moeller, but P.J. Pilittere and Robby Hammock are also on the catching depth chart. Pilittere can also play first; Hammock can play both the infield and outfield corners.

In the infield, Kevin Russo, Reegie Corona, and Eduardo Nunez figure to rotate through second base, third base, and shortstop. Juan Miranda will man first, but Jorge Vazquez will see time at both infield corners and DH once he comes off the DL.

In the outfield, Huffman joins Jon Weber, David Winfree, and Colin Curtis as corner outfield options. Fellow 40 man roster member Greg Golson will be the center fielder. Outfielder Reid Gorecki is not listed any of the affiliates' rosters, but as of yet there has been no news of his release.

Scranton's season starts tonight against Buffalo, the Mets' affiliate. The official roster should be released at some point later today. Perhaps that, and these first few games will offer some insight as to how the line ups and playing time will shake out.

Game 3 Recap

1. Dustin Pedroia led off the bottom of the third with a double to left. After retiring Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis, Andy Pettitte surrendered David Ortiz' first hit of 2010. His base hit to right plated Pedroia to give the Sox a 1-0 lead.

Scott Schoeneweis relieved John Lackey to start the seventh. Jorge Posada laced a one out double to center. Schoeneweis fanned Curtis Granderson for the third time in four career meetings between the two. Schoeneweis gave way to flame throwing Daniel Bard, but Nick Swisher was undeterred. He fouled off three straight fastballs, registering at 97, 97, and 99 MPH according to GameDay. On the fourth pitch of the at bat, Swisher pulled a single through the right side. J.D. Drew's throw was in time to get Posada, but Martinez could not handle it cleanly. After a less than graceful stumble past the plate, Jorgie went back to tag the dish and tie the score.

3. Leading off the top of the tenth, Granderson jumped on an 0-1 Jonathan Papelbon fastball and deposited it in the right field stands for his second home run as a Yankee.

4. Following consecutive walks to Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter, and Nick Johnson, Mark Teixeira hit a slow bouncer to short, allowing Gardner to score an insurance run on the fielder's choice.

IFs, ANDs & BUTs
  • After marathon sessions in the series' first two games, tonight's game, despite being an extra inning affair, was the shortest of the series at 3:21

  • Much of that had to with this being the lowest scoring game of the series, which in turn had to do with both Andy Pettitte and John Lackey, despite not factoring in the decision, turning in strong performances.

  • The Yankees got a scare on the opening play of the bottom of the first, as a collision at first base between Pettitte and Jacoby Ellsbury knocked Pettitte to the ground, skinning his elbow and banging his head against the turf. He recovered, and eventually settled down, to scatter nine base runners and allow just one run over six frames

  • Pettitte beaned Youk with a 90 MPH pitch in the bottom of the fifth. Derek Jeter took a 2-2 cutter in the elbow leading off the sixth. Neither was intentional, and the two plunkees and WBC teammates shared a laugh at first as Jeter took his base.

  • Despite the strong performances from the starters, the pitching star of the game was the recently maligned Chan Ho Park. Park allowed just one hit on only 36 pitches over three scoreless innings. I was afraid that running him out for the ninth was pushing the envelope a bit, but Park delivered. He made five relief appearances of three innings in 2009.

  • Despite his RBI, Mark Teixeira is now 0 for 12 on 2010. Nick Johnson is now 0 for 9. No word yet as to whether the media has questioned either about their horrendously slow starts.

  • Derek Jeter grounded out to short twice; he did the same in both of the series' first two games and added a seeing eye single by the shortstop in game one.

  • Randy Winn once again replaced Nick Swisher for defense, taking over in the bottom of the tenth. It annoyed me when this would happen last year as I felt Swisher was defensively superior to Johnny Damon. With Brett Gardner in left this year though, subbing for Swisher appears to be a prudent move, as Winn grades out extremely well as a right fielder.