About Strasburg’s Innings Today

I wasn’t at the park at Opening Day today. I had to tune in and listen to it on the radio.

I missed a hell of a time to be there. The Nats beat the hated Marlins 2-0 behind two Bryce Harper homers and seven shutout innings from Stephen Strasburg.

Indeed, Strasburg was out of the game after only throwing 80 pitches. The sound of fans griping about yet more “kid gloves” treatment for Strasburg could be heard all over Twitter. Strasburg was dealing–why limit him now?

Even Barry Svrluga, veteran Post-ie, seemed to take issue with the sudden, unwelcome appearance of Captain Hook:

Here’s why Strasburg was out of the game with 80 pitches: the Nats have the day off tomorrow (Tuesday), and the bullpen is currently hurting for work.

In the last week of Grapefruit League play (including the exhibition game against the Yankees), going back to last Sunday,  the Nationals relievers that are on the actual big-league staff right now have pitched only 16.2 innings.

Would I love to see a complete game shutout from Strasburg? You bet. But there’s no reason to leave Strasburg hanging out there on a cool, misty afternoon to get a complete game just for the sake of getting a complete game. I would prefer to see Strasburg–or any starting pitcher, really–get a complete game any day but Opening Day.

Later this year, there will be periods during which the bullpen will be taxed. There will be long extra-inning night games that last into the wee hours of the morning, followed by brutal afternoon games, followed by travel. There will be times where a starting pitcher doesn’t get through a lot of innings. There will be doubleheaders. There will be stretches where relievers will appear on three consecutive nights–like Storen did when he entered the game in NLDS Game Five.

I would much rather that a Strasburg complete game happen during one of those periods, where it does the most good. An opening day win against the Marlins (who are expected to be the worst team in the division) is nice. A complete game, saving a tired bullpen in the middle of a tense series with the Braves would be much, much better.

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Regarding Henry

OK, Nats town. Drew Storen is hurt. Brad Lidge is hurt. You need a relief pitcher for the 9th inning.

Imagine, then, that you had a pitcher in your bullpen who has a higher strikeout rate (10.19 K/9) than Gio Gonzalez (8.75 K/9). When batters do put the ball in play against him, he they bat .293 [BABIP], at about he same rate as against Jordan Zimmermann. He gives up about as many ground balls (42.5%) as Brad Lidge (42.9%) and fewer (36.1%) fly balls than Drew Storen (37.5%). And, unlike Storen (8.3% HR/FB), his fly balls very seldom (4.7%) go for home runs. Indeed, the remarkable thing about this pitcher is that he hardly gives up any home runs at all–he has the second-lowest HR/9 rate on the staff at 0.18 HR/9.

So, given that sort of track record, it might not be wholly unreasonable to assume that such a pitcher, entering any given 9th inning with the bases empty, should be a viable option. High strikeout numbers, decent ground ball percentage, and fly-ball numbers that indicate weak contact should add up to three outs, game over.

That pitcher, Nats town, is Henry Rodriguez since 2008.

Yes, his BB/9 rate (5.73) and wild pitch rates are very high–he leads the staff, and last year led the league in wild pitches. But, again, remember: he’s entering with the bases empty. On average, then, he should be able to strike batters out, or cause them to pop up.

Most of Nats town wants Henry’s head on a pike. He’s had a very bad week, giving up soul-crushing walk-offs in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Those sucked. But it cannot be stressed enough that, given Henry’s profile as a strikeout pitcher that does not give up too many home runs, those were the least probable outcomes.

Personally, I was shocked by the walk-offs not because the Nats lost–this is a ballclub that lives by the walk-off, after all, and it stands to reason that over time the club would die by the walk-off. I was shocked because Hot Rod gave up home runs, which he almost never does.

Should Henry be a closer? Probably not. Since ’08, his Shutdown/Meltdown ratio is 1.222 (22 shutdowns/ 18 meltdowns). In a high-leverage situation, you want to go with a reliever that has, generally, been more effective in putting his ballclub in a position to win than not. That’s why you want someone like Drew Storen (59 SD, 22 MD, 2.68 SD/MD) or Brad Lidge (96 SD, 30 MD, 3.2 SD/MD).

Except neither Storen nor Lidge are available. Henry Rodriguez is far from a perfect solution at closer for the Nats, but until Storen or Lidge gets back, Henry’s past form as a high-strikeout/low-home-run pitcher put him in the picture for at least some save situations.

Postscript: Psychology/Mentality. I try not to get into players’ mentality or psychology in this blog. I’ve known some of my friends and family for years, and at very close quarters, and I’ve found it pretty hard to get inside their heads sometimes to figure out what they’re thinking or feeling at any given moment. It would stand to reason that it is idiotic for me to think that I could form a decent opinion of a ballplayer’s mentality. I don’t talk to Henry. I only see him from the upper deck of the ballpark, or on TV, or as described by Charlie Slowes & Dave Jaegler on the radio, or as reported to me by the press corps following the Nats.

What I see, given the aggregated data, is a pitcher who’s had a very bad week. Nothing more.

Looking at the Bullpen: Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Not even in my most optimistic moments would have said that the Nats would win two in a row out of the gate! As I write this on Easter Sunday morning, the Nats are sitting pretty, sharing first place atop the National League’s Eastern Division with the Mets (the Mets!).

And all this despite a lackluster debut for Gio “the Motown Kid” Gonzalez. The Nats won yesterday behind the unexpected heroics of former Hiroshima Carp Chad Tracy, and some absolutely phenomenal pitching from the “B” bullpen, with Craig “Matinee Idol” Stammen in long relief, followed by Ryan “Firework” Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, and some pitching from Hot Rod that was pretty frickin’ bueno.

The Nats’ late-inning heroics aren’t great to my stomach lining, though. I’ve been wondering how I could better quantify the feeling I have when relievers come in. I attempted this earlier, of course, when I introduced my heartburn index–but I’m now convinced that the heartburn index doesn’t give a complete picture.

Fortunately, FanGraphs has ridden to the rescue again, with a new, and, I think, extremely helpful, pair of statistics for measuring relief pitcher performance: Shutdowns and Meltdowns. As the proponent of the new stats explains them:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are two relatively new statistics, created as an alternative to Saves in an effort to better represent a relief pitcher’s value. While there are some odd, complicated rules surrounding when a pitcher gets a save, Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

Nats fans are by now intimately familiar with WPA, thanks to the hard work of Federal Baseball. The squiggly-lined graphs he pots after every game show the ebb & flow of the game as measured by WPA. A “Shutdown” happens when a reliever bends the line towards the Nats’ favor. A “Meltdown” happens when a reliever bends the line in favor of the opponent. The Shutdown/Meltdown stat pair thus give us a good indication of whether a reliever is helping or hurting his ballclub–which is kind of neat!

So what does that mean for the Nats bullpen in 2012? Using my standard measuring interval (2008-2011 seasons), here’s how the pitching staff looks:

 Name  Holds  Saves  Blown Saves  Shutdowns  Meltdowns  Heartburn
 Brad Lidge  9  100  16  92  28  6.85
 Tyler Clippard  64  1  18  77  35  5.22
 Sean Burnett  54  8  9  63  42  5.62
 Drew Storen  13  48 7  59  22  4.34
 Henry Rodriguez  13  2  4  13  13  8.51
 Tom Gorzelanny  7  1  2  12  5  6.01
 Ryan Mattheus  8  0  0  7  6  5.63
 Craig Stammen  2  0  0  5  2  4.09

A few things jump out at me at once:

  • Since 2008, Brad Lidge is unquestionably the Shutdown King of the current Nats bullpen. The 100 Shutdowns mean that he left his ballclub in a better position to win after his appearance than before one hundred times–and only made them worse 28 times. This makes me wonder whether Philadelphia unloaded him more because of his relatively high heartburn factor than any other measurable quality as a relief pitcher. On the other hand, Lidge’s ridiculous 2008 season may have gone a very very long way towards inflating his stats here. In any case, Lidge was pretty good on opening day this year.
  • We all know that Tyler Clippard is an awesome relief pitcher. He was an all-star in 2011. But now we have a clearer idea why. He’s second only to Lidge in shutdowns since 2008, and leads the staff in Holds.
  • Sean Burnett has collected 63 shutdowns since 2008–apparently, while I was averting my eyes in terror. The more I study him, the more I am forced to conclude that I have been terribly unfair to Burnett over the past few years.
  • We also now have a better idea why Drew “Batman” Storen is such a good reliever. He hasn’t been relieving nearly as long as Lidge, but he’s already accumulated 59 shutdowns. His 2.68 Shutdown/Meltdown ratio is second only to Lidge’s.
  • Henry “Hot Rod” Rodriguez is, by this set of measures, not even nearly in the same class as Storen or Lidge. 13 Shutdowns and 13 Meltdowns, giving him an abysmal SD/MD ratio of 1.00–the lowest on the staff. I’m still hoping that he will improve during 2012 and pitch to his potential, though.
  • Tom Gorzelanny has a shutdown/meltdown ratio of 2.40. That’s fourth, behind Lidge, Storen and Stammen. I guess he really is better as a reliever than as a starter? Then again, he’s only recorded 12 shutdowns, total–so maybe we don’t know enough about him to judge.
  • I was expecting a tighter correlation between high shutdown numbers and low heartburn index numbers. That’s not what we see. Lidge, for instance, ought to give me more heartburn than his shutdown numbers suggest. Mattheus looks pretty bad next to his heartburn near-equivalent Burnett–but then, Mattheus hasn’t had all that many chances yet.

If the Nats’ starting rotation can routinely get through 6 or 7 innings, there are enough high-shutdown arms in the bullpen to keep the game in hand. This is very encouraging news for the rest of 2012.