Monday, August 25, 2008

Dice-K's Misleading Record And The False Perception Of Brilliance

While many aspects of the sudden availability and blind adherence to stats may have diminished the game slightly and distracted from the human element in an evaluator's ability
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to judge a player, that availability has put certain numbers and players into a better context of whether or not they're any good and whether or not their records should be taken at face value. One such player, whose record indicates dominance, but whose other stats aren't particularly impressive, is Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In years past, when most fans didn't have the time or patience to scour through a pitcher's hits/innings pitched ratio; number of homers allowed; WHIP; ERA+ and whatever else, there was the won/lost record and the ERA and perhaps the team's record in games started by that pitcher. Other than that, there was little else to go on. Now, with the web, everyone can get the entire story from beginning to end at the click of a button. In looking past the gaudy 15-2 record of Matsuzaka, it's clear that he hasn't been all that good this year and has in fact taken advantage of being on a very good team with a very good bullpen to accumulate that
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The problem with Matsuzaka is that even his other stats make his year look better than it actually is. Along with his record of 15-2, he's allowed 105 hits in 132 innings; struck out 117; allowed 10 homers; has a 1.38 WHIP; a .218 batting average against; and a 2.98 ERA overall. In looking at his individual game performances, it's clear that he's being handled very gingerly and put into the best possible situations to accrue that record----2008 Gamelogs. Here are the facts:
  • In eleven of his 23 starts, Matsuzaka has been unable to complete six innings; in eight of those, he's only gone five.
  • He issues a lot of walks----78 in 132 innings is not good----and has only pitched into and past the seventh inning nine times.
  • He has had seven games in which he's allowed zero earned runs, and a few of them have
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    been dominant----April 1st against the Athletics and April 30th against the Blue Jays for example----but he throws a lot of pitches and for the amount of money the Red Sox spent to get him, he's been a middle of the rotation starter at best who's a sure bet to need bullpen help in almost all of his starts. I don't think that's what teams who bid so vigorously on Matsuzaka's services had in mind when the process was going on.
  • Matsuzaka's numbers are like a circle; he keeps his ERA down because he throws so many pitches that he can't go further than five or six innings and the Red Sox get him out of the game before he blows up and his ERA can become bloated. He takes advantage of the deep Red Sox bullpen and that the lineup can score plenty of runs for him, so his overall won/lost record looks better than it would if he were playing for a team like the Blue Jays, who can't score; or the Mets, whose bullpen comes in carrying a gasoline can.
This reminds me of one of the greatest examples of a team that spent money on a pitcher based on little more than his won/lost record and pretty much got the exact same pitcher that
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he was before----the Royals 1990 signing of Storm Davis.
In the years before he became the "genius"/Hall of Fame executive and "architect" of the Atlanta Braves string of National League dominance, John Schuerholz was one of the many average to slightly above average GMs amongst the rabble of the 80s and 90s. Schuerholz was taken in by Davis's two years with the Tony La Russa Athletics at the height of their powers in which he went 35-14, with numbers that were otherwise horrible across the board. After the 1989 season, Schuerholz went on a spending spree which netted not only Storm Davis for three years and $6 million (it was a lot of money for a pitcher in 1990), but also reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Mark Davis for $13 million over four years. Mark Davis should've been better than he was, but it was easy to see what they were going to get from Storm Davis.
Storm Davis pitched deeply into games occasionally----1989 Gamelogs----but for the most part he pitched his five or six innings and allowed the Athletics powerful offense----Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Terry Steinbach, etc, and their deep and well-organized bullpen with an in-his-prime closer Dennis Eckersley----to win 19 games. The Athletics knew what Storm was when they let him leave via free agency, confident that his performance could be replicated and more for far less money with a guy like veteran Scott Sanderson for one-year and $750,000. (Sanderson was far better than Storm Davis ever was.)
For a supposed "genius", it's strange that Schuerholz
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didn't realize those facts; that he couldn't look past that gaudy 19-7 record and realize that $2 million per year was a lot of money for a pitcher who allowed 187 hits and 19 homers in 169 innings. It would be predictable today what would happen to a pitcher like Storm Davis; that he would get pummeled in Kansas City, would wind up in the bullpen and be dumped. The Royals sent him back on his original team the Baltimore Orioles after the 1991 season for a no-hit catcher named Bob Melvin (the same Bob Melvin who's now the Diamondbacks manager).
This type of decision shows what fine line it is from perceived idiocy to perceived genius. Schuerholz has gotten the credit for the Braves rise, but he had little to do with building the foundation of that team. Tom Glavine was drafted in 1984 when John Mullen was the Braves GM; John Smoltz was acquired from the Tigers for Doyle Alexander by none other than then GM Bobby Cox; and Chipper Jones was drafted by Cox only because Todd Van Poppel so vehemently
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insisted that he was going to college (he didn't after he was drafted by the Athletics and turned out to be a historic bust).
Schuerholz's reputation as a "genius" has been further established by how the Braves have collapsed since he kicked himself upstairs to the presidency of the club and allowed new GM Frank Wren to bear the brunt of what looks to be a long rebuilding project to begin in Atlanta. Could it be that he saw the handwriting on the wall and wanted to insulate himself and his reputation by not having his fingerprints on this version of the Braves? By leaving it to Wren and Bobby Cox to try and clean up? Is that the mark of a genius?
In all, the Red Sox have probably gotten what they wanted from Matsuzaka on and off the field. They established a market in Japan where the Yankees had previously been the dominant force and they've gotten a decent, if not as great as advertised, starting pitcher. If nothing else, this puts the full results of a GM and a player into their proper perspective. Like Storm Davis, Matsuzaka has put up a great won/lost record, but his results are really quite
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mediocre and the designations of genius or "Cy Young Award contender" are thrown around too liberally without the full story; just as a 15-2 record looks great on paper, Schuerholz benefited from the decisions made by others, went from throwing money into the toilet for the Royals to joining a team in the Braves whose foundation was already established, is writing books on his management technique, is seen as a brilliant front office operator and will wind up in the Hall of Fame. Fair or not, it's the perception and not the reality that is remembered even if there are those that know the truth.

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