It has been brought to my attention recently that I’ve been contributing to BP Wrigleyville for about a year and a half and up until now, I have been in violation of the baseball blogger code by neglecting to do a Player A vs. Player B breakdown. Mea culpa.
You know the kind I’m talking about: The anonymous comparison of two random stat lines to prove a point about one of the players in question. For example, compare these two relief pitching legends in their greatest seasons…
PLAYER A: 2.09 ERA, 1.88 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9
PLAYER B: 0.00 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 1.00 WHIP, 0.0 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9
Player A is Mariano Rivera in his time with the 1996 World Champion Yankees–a 3.0 WARP season that set a personal high in a sterling career.
And Player B’s numbers are proof that Doug Dascenzo should have been a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer. Strangely enough, I didn’t find him in Jay Jaffe’s new book. I assume that’s because he omitted any player with a JAWS of ∞.
I tried pitching that to my editors but for some reason, they insisted on a piece founded in logic. So instead, here’s an interesting thought experiment regarding a couple of players on the Cubs’ current roster. Again, consider these two pitchers:
PLAYER A: 61.7 IP, 2.34 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 3.20 DRA, 7.9 K/9, 1.3 WARP
PLAYER B: 40.3 IP, 2.68 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 3.92 DRA, 12.3 K/9, 0.6 WARP
Both look pretty good, right? The kind of arms you’d want to have on your roster for a playoff run. Which is a good idea because Player A is Mike Montgomery at the moment the Cubs traded for him last year. Theo Epstein picked him up because the team had a hole at Pitcher Who Hugs Bryzzo After Winning the World Series.
And looking at those numbers, Player B appears to be a pretty good comp for the World Series Hero. He’s got a higher DRA but also a much bigger strikeout rate. It seems like he’d probably be good to bring into a tight game when Joe Maddon needed to stop a rally immediately and would probably be a key player in the postseason. As with Player A, those were his numbers when the Cubs acquired him for just those tasks.
Unfortunately, Player B is Justin Wilson.
You might not have been able to tell because the only way to make that pitching line look closer to real life is if in the middle of reading it, you were interrupted by Chris Bosio trudging out to grumble “Throw some Goddamn strikes.” And while the Cubs had grand plans for Wilson, right now the only time you’d call on him in the playoffs is if you wanted to piss off Dusty Baker by forcing all of his hitters to clog up the bases.
There is nothing that better illustrates how bang-your-head-against-the-wall maddening it is to project relief pitcher performance than those two stat lines. Between the small sample size of a bullpen pitcher’s performance and the high leverage situations in which he’s used, there is no quicker method to make the baseball gods look at a player’s PECOTA and say “That is adorable.”
Trading for relief pitchers is the best way for general managers to put out a quote that runs the risk of being mocked endlessly by snarky baseball bloggers in hindsight. Isn’t that right, Jed Hoyer?
“I think [the addition of Wilson] takes a little bit of a burden off a bunch of different guys, which is helpful for Joe.”
Unfortunately, it turns out that all of those guys were umpires nursing injuries that made it painful to call a strike.
Hoyer, of course, has done an excellent job putting the Cubs together as part of Epstein’s cabal of baseball geniuses. But as Wilson’s numbers since arriving in Chicago illustrate, even their collective baseball intelligence isn’t enough to accurately project bullpen performance.
And you can’t even fault them for making the trade. Given Wilson’s track record with the Tigers, it made a lot of sense. When the Cubs brought him on board, there was plenty of talk that not only would Wilson solidify the bullpen for this year, but he’d also project to take over the closer role when Wade Davis left for free agency. Which sounds laughable in retrospect, until you realize that the Cubs closer role has historically been filled by Dave Smith, LaTroy Hawkins, and Mel Rojas.
Even with fluctuations in relief pitcher performance, the Cubs didn’t count on Wilson losing all ability to find the strike zone. However, as Mark Gonzales reported in mid-August, “Wilson told Maddon before [August 11’s] game that he’s had bouts of wildness in the past.”
Perhaps the new market inefficiency is asking pitchers, “Hey, are there times when you treat the strike zone like Mia Khalifa treats your catcher’s DMs?”
Not only is it frustrating as hell to watch the best-laid plans for the bullpen go awry, it can also have a butterfly effect on the rest of the pitching staff. As Montgomery’s example illustrates, when a relief pitcher trade works the way it’s supposed to, it can be a thing of beauty.
Montgomery became a vital cog of the Cubs pitching staff last October—especially with Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon succumbing to late-season injuries. His bullpen-saving four innings pitched in the NLDS Game 3 marathon enabled Maddon to have the fresh arms he needed to hold the Giants at bay just in time for the Game 4 miracle.
And because he’d earned his manager’s trust, Montgomery was also there to answer the bell when Maddon asked “Who wants to throw the most important pitch in Cubs history?”
However, in Wilson’s case, his lackluster performance has caused Maddon to lean on his reliable arms much more heavily than he’d have liked to so late in the season. Because his major bullpen acquisition couldn’t be trusted, we’ve seen a steady diet of Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards, Jr. and Pedro Strop in every high leverage situation. And after carefully monitoring his usage throughout the year, Maddon has suddenly found himself pitching Wade Davis in four consecutive games.
That’s not all. In order to give the relief corps a second left-hander he could trust for the Cardinals series, Maddon decided to move Montgomery back into the bullpen, which meant the Cubs had to get creative in filling his rotation spot against the Mets. And that’s how Jen-Ho Tseng found himself making his major league debut with two weeks to go in a pennant race.
So in a way, a Justin Wilson pitch is like the voice in Field of Dreams. Because any one of them could make someone in Iowa’s dream come true.
Even though both mid-season bullpen trades over the past two years looked to be winners at the time, they could not have produced more wildly divergent results. That, unfortunately, is the nature of that position and part of the risk the front office takes when they make a deal for a relief pitcher. The only thing these trades have in common is that they’ve both made us say the same thing:
Looks like Mike Montgomery stepped up again.
Lead photo courtesy Kim Klement—USA Today Sports