I have been following fellow blogger, Scott Barzilla with astrosdaily.com, for quite some time now. I recently asked him to be the first guest blogger on “In the Astros Blogosphere” feature that I will be entertaining weekly. Scott is an amazingly bright individual who spends his free time with his two year old daughter, playing golf and baseball. He probably has a better collection of Max Bishop memorabilia than you in his closet. Scott has a book coming out in the spring covering his first ten years as a teacher, which is entitled; Combating Ignorance: Inside and Outside the classroom.
Gambling vs. Investing
By Scott Barzilla
I’m sure you think you are getting stuck in a financial seminar, but really I am talking about two ways to build a bullpen. You can either gamble or you can invest. There are general managers out there that are good at both. Believe it or not, it is one of Ed Wade’s strengths. The concept is pretty simple. I’m sure most of you have noticed that bullpen performance tends to fluctuate from season to season. In many respects, bullpen performance is one of the categories that makes predicting the final standings difficult. The reason is that most prognosticators go by what happened last year instead of looking at what might happen.
When you look at the Astros for instance, you will see a very good bullpen. In particular, after Latroy Hawkins was picked up, the Astros bullpen was nearly spotless. Overall, it was easily one of the top five bullpens in the National League. Surprisingly, the Astros were one of the top five or six teams in the National League despite having a roster that looked mediocre or worse. This is one of the many reasons why some optimistic fans have picked them to win while most casual observers see the same mediocre roster. Before we go too far, we need to have a primer course in why relief pitching is so unpredictable.
You can split fans and analysts into three categories. First, you have your simpletons like Joe Morgan. They look at wins and losses. Most fans and analysts don’t fall into that category. They recognize that winning and losing is predicated mostly on luck. The second category looks at statistics like ERA and WHIP. However, much of that is also predicated on luck. The sabermetricians are the third category. We look at statistics called DIPS (defense independent pitching statistics). In other words, you can learn a whole lot more by looking at strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed than you can at ERA. In particular, another statistic (BABIP) really opens eyes.
Relief pitchers’ relative performance changes more from season to season than starting pitchers because of the sample size involved. In 200 innings, a pitcher’s luck will typically even out which makes using ERA a little more reliable. In 50 innings, a pitcher’s ERA is very dependent on luck. BABIP (or batting average on balls in play) fluctuates wildly from season to season and as BABIP goes so goes ERA. So, a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA might easily have a 5.00 ERA the next season without changing all that much. A good gambling general manager can take advantage of that.
In short, a gambler will sign guys who had down seasons expecting them to bounce back. If you look at BABIP for instance, you will notice that the league average BABIP usually comes in around .300. After you remove walks, strikeouts, and home runs, that is usually where most hitters and pitchers will wind up. If you find a pitcher that came in well above that then you can expect him to improve with even average luck. Some teams (like the Astros last season) came in below that overall. With a good defense, you can expect quite a boost in performance. Naturally, the reverse is true for pitchers with a very low BABIP. The temptation of the gambling GM is the same as the conventional gambler. It is easy to see success and expect that success to continue. Thus, the Astros have the same bullpen coming back. Here is a quick look at their collective efforts.
You might be thinking that ERAs and won-loss records are missing, but you really don’t need them. You know that Jose Valverde is the best pitcher based on his strikeout rate. You know that the two lefties are shaky based on their high walk and home run rates. This of course brings us to the whole art of gambling. The Astros gambled and gambled big on Geoff Geary and Tim Byrdak. Byrdak was an outrageously lucky bargain. The reason the house always wins is because the house knows you are stupid enough to keep playing long odds if your first play is a win. A smart gambler knows when he was lucky and walks away. The rest of spring will tell us if the Astros are smart enough to walk away from Tim Byrdak.
Geary was a gamble, but a calculated one given that he at least keeps the ball in the park. However, there are rumblings that he is on the trading block. If that is the case then the Astros could dodge two bullets and end up with another solid pen. If they keep Byrdak and Geary in place of someone else they could end up being a bad pen.
Investing always sounds better than gambling, but really they are not that much different. The only difference is that investing usually pays off over the long haul. In the short term, they are one in the game. If Ed Wade seems more the gambling sort we can’t blame him too much. Investing in the bullpen involves having live young arms that will tend to put up the kind of numbers that Valverde, Brocial, and Wright are putting up in the strikeout department. Once you get that, you simply bank on improvement as we hope to get from Wright this year. Since Wright is the only pitcher that can be called a prospect, Wade can’t do a whole lot of investing.
The trouble with investing is that those pitchers eventually become arbitration eligible or free agent eligible. So, the hope is that they get it before they become expensive. Wade would like to get to that point, but right now he has to keep looking for bargain players in the hopes they will strike it lucky with their BABIPs. The problem is that Wade has never mentioned BABIP before, so we don’t know if he agrees with the principles I’ve outlined. If he does, you can easily find a dozen or so guys that were bitten by the hit bug last year. Good luck and bad luck rarely repeat themselves two years in a row. Of course, it looks like Astros fans will have to hope that happens in 2009.
Once again, Scott, thanks for the insight and see you in the blogosphere!