Monday, May 21, 2018

RAYS RAISING A HAIR-SPLITTING ISSUE...

Sergio Romo says he's ready to start 81
times (but doesn't expect to...)
As always, the too-folksy-for-his-barf-bag Joe P. skirts around the issues involved in Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays' deployment of our old pal Sergio Romo as a "starting" pitcher twice over the weekend in their series against the Los Angeles Angels.

Joe both ignores the deep history of the argument (the idea of using a reliever to "start" stems from the 1960s) and the actual nature what of the Rays have been doing this year to exercise his penchant for irrelevant analogy.

How odd is that Joel Sherman, of all folk, actually spends more time discussing the strategy behind have the reliever "start" than ol' folksy Joe, who should remember what ultimately happened to his idol Harry Houdini.

Joe worries that we won't like a game where managers do something odd. Joe is a fool, because the game is calcifying before his eyes and he just sits there writing the same glib tripe, inflected with the increasing senility of the "sabermetric" movement that is primarily responsible for the game's onrushing two-dimensionality.

Kittredge is actually back in the minors... he
could start (3.68 ERA) but he couldn't relieve
(14.43 ERA!!)
Now, of course, when oddity becomes commonplace, that creates a massive cognitive dissonance in the minds of those who conjure hobgoblins from the specter of consistency. What if everyone did what the Rays have done--let a reliever "start"? Would the Heideggerian structure of being dissolve into a puddle of medicated goo? Would every third fan have to start wearing Pampers™ because they'd be wetting their pants in response to Andrew Kittredge (insert your own "for Crissakes" here...) "starting" the game?

Matt Andriese, the third wheel....
Because, actually, you know, Kittredge has started three games this year for the Rays. What Joe and Joel Sherman (and virtually everyone else) have missed is that Tampa Bay has gone a good bit further with their experimentation in this area than merely giving Romo a couple of back-to-back "starts." Along with ol'Sergio, there's Kittredge and Matt Andriese, who've been used to "start" and go anywhere from 2-3 innings (usually about once through the batting order).

So that's a total of seven games this year where the Rays have let a reliever "start." (Though we are no fans of Brian Kenny, we do appreciate his term "opener" here--though perhaps we could get more "down home" and call these events "church key starts"...and remember to open up a cold one whenever you see the wacky Romo warming up prior to the game.)

Seven times! Paging Chicken Little, for Crissakes. (My turn.) The fact is that the Rays are doing something that other teams should be trying. We should not worry too much about the long-term effect of experimentation, nor should we start making aesthetic judgments about things that we've not seen in operation. Heideggerian being, ya know, preserves the possibility of other modes of being, even as it folds in on itself and becomes pretzel logic.

Why shouldn't teams like the Marlins and the Reds--hell, even Joe's Royals, who are back in the swamp after their flukish rise against 93% of "sabermetric wisdom"--why shouldn't they experiment with pitcher usage in this way? What's the worst that can happen? That they'll lose more ball games? Joe's pretzel logic is that we shouldn't have to watch such experiments, they're meant for a laboratory or a bordello or the island of Dr. Moreau where we walketh with zombies.

Of course, the exact opposite is true. We want competing ideas operating in parallel, in order to see what happens in real life. Kudos to Kevin Cash for doing something that 90% of insider "analysts" would not go on record to recommend to their bosses.

So...now, you ask...can such an idea work? Well, of course: even Joe says that. He just thinks the average fan will turn gooey if the "starter" doesn't "start." Our position is that teams should try anything they want to, even if it's "sabermetrically sound." Their mission is to win games, and they should try anything short of cheating to accomplish that goal. If that means the law firm of Romo, Kittredge and Andriese, then so be it.

Ryan Yarbrough, the man who warms up
right after the game begins...
We sent our pal Buzzy the Fly down to Anaheim over the weekend to eavesdrop (like us, he's been involved in other things for awhile, but you never know when or where either of us are likely to turn up...) and find out how Cash has sold this idea to his starting pitchers. It turns out that all he's actually done is to convince one of his starters to begin warming up right after the game begins. That would be Ryan Yarbrough, who's a rookie and is presumably more pliable than the established starting pitcher. Of the seven games the Rays have done this, he's been the second one in the tub five times.

And guess what? In those five games, pitching four to six innings beginning in the second, third and fourth, he's got a 1.92 ERA. In the three games he's actually started the game in the first inning, he's got an ERA of 4.91.

Now, of course, it's way too soon to know if such an approach can actually make some pitchers better. But the early results are positive, and intriguing. Since ol' Joe went folksy instead of faux-theoretical over all this, we should remind him (and you) that the original rationale for starting relievers, as espoused in the early 60s by Earnshaw Cook, was to gain an extra hitter at-bat early in the game. (Cook was a cranky contrarian, but this was the early 60s, and it's humorous to note that the cranky so-called contrarians who've grown up in recent years like kudzu adjacent to his carcass keep kicking him for not having the right kind of snark. A pox on their houses...)

Kevin Cash: more eloquent when not wearing the
"tools of ignorance"...
How far will Cash and company take this idea? Will "analysts" and "mediots" (that quaint term that used to kinda sorta differentiate between what are now two widely overlapped populations...) decide to bombard him with questions about this? Will they grill Yarbrough about it? Will they treat this as some kind of three-headed dog (Roky Erickson fans, take note!)?? Or will they for once in their lives just shut their yaps and let the experiment proceed?

(We've heard from Zack Cozart on the subject...he's on record as saying it's "bad for baseball." OK, to be fair, his precise words were "not good for baseball." But he then said it was "weird" and suggested that batters should know who they're going to be facing, particularly early in the game. Oh, and that batters should, like, have an expectation of facing the same pitcher three times in a game."

Well, Zack, we hate to break it to you, but...baseball does not owe you a "starting pitcher" when you come to bat. They simply owe you a pitcher. Even in the first inning. You might want to read what Kevin Cash said about it. You can read it here, in the article at The Big Lead.

The writers there are reasonably sure that this idea is going to become much more commonly deployed in baseball. We can only hope they're right.