Let’s start with Freddie Garcia, to whom the Braves have entrusted the fate of their 2013 post-season – to some extent at least. Is Garcia a terrible starter? I don’t think anyone knows that. The Braves apparently think not. They think that he is at least better than Alex Wood or Paul Maholm. (I’ll get to Wood in a second.) In addition, they seem to think that his post-season experience will help them/him today. Freddy Gonzalez was quoted as saying this:
“You start looking at the rotation and see how young they are and how inexperienced they are, then you look at Freddy Garcia’s experience, you look at his postseason starts and postseason innings, so you give him an opportunity to do that,” Gonzalez said. “I think he knows how to maneuver himself through a Major League lineup. He’s shown that this year.”
While I think that is more of an excuse for Teheran’s poor performance last night than a ringing endorsement of Garcia, there may be some merit to that argument. I also think that Atlanta’s decision to use Garcia over Maholm and also Alex Wood’s demotion to the pen is mostly predicated on the Brave’s incorrect emphasis on recent, small samples. Garcia has something like a 1.65 ERA with the Braves since being acquired on Sept. 1 or so. Oh, that’s in 27 IP. I don’t have to tell you how meaningless 27 innings are in terms of future performance.
Still, there is some argument as to what Garcia’s true talent level is now. I think it is around 14% worse than the average starter. I think Steamer (a very good forecasting system designed by the very smart and knowledgeable Jared Cross) rates him about the same, ZIPS likes him more (around a league average pitcher), with Pecota somewhere in between. Don’t take those assessments as the gospel.
Dave Cameron, on Fangraphs today, points out that he has been around league average, xFIP-wise, for the last few years, however, he is likely on the last legs of his career at the present time, his regular FIP has not been good, and no team even wanted him until the Braves picked him up off the scrap heap.
So, all told, given all the evidence, it is likely that Garcia is a well-below average starter.
What about Alex Wood or Maholm? Maholm actually has decent numbers and decent projections across the board, a little below average, perhaps akin to a typical #3 or #4 starter. He appears to be a better choice than Garcia. Cameron, in that same article referenced above, says:
And while Maholm has a pretty solid track record, his results were pretty terrible after a strong start, allowing a .368 wOBA in the second half of the season. His massive platoon splits — righties have a career .349 wOBA against him — are also a pretty poor fit for a start against a team that features guys like Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, so it’s understandable than the Braves didn’t particularly want to give Maholm the ball in this game either.
All of that is nonsense. How he has done “after a strong start” is irrelevant other than how it has changed our projection for him (a little, but not much – we have plenty of data on him), assuming that he is healthy. And Maholm being a poor fit for the Dodgers because of the righties Puig and Ramirez? Huh? Who cares who the righties are? It is how MANY righties that counts. The Dodgers have 3 lefties in their lineup out of 8, which is 38% of their lineup, while Maholm has actually faced only 19% lefties in his career. (I am not sure that Schumaker remains in CF versus a “tough” lefty pitcher.) Managers typically stack their lineups with righties against him. If anything, the Dodgers lineup is ILL-suited to face a lefty pitcher with large splits! So now, Maholm is looking a LOT better than Garcia.
What about Alex Wood (second round 2012 draft pick and high on the Braves’ prospect hierarchy)? I love his projection. I have him projected at 10% better than a league average starter – around a #2 starter. His 2013 rookie season has been spectacular (and under the radar). Go look at all the pertinent numbers. And his minor league numbers are above reproach. Go look at them too. Why was he relegated to the pen? I assume because he had 2 bad starts in September, which is ridiculous, but typical behavior by stupid teams. And yes, for the record, I consider the Braves, and especially Fredi Gonzalez, stupid teams/managers, at least when it comes to convention versus sabermetrics, or more appropriately, fiction versus fact (yeah, yeah, I know they’ve won lots of games over the years, yada, yada, yada).
Wood appears to be, by far and away, the best choice to start today’s game. Of course he is already in the pen and has already pitched as a reliever in the post-season, so that cannot happen. Big mistake by Atlanta, fighting desperately not to go home for good. How much of a mistake? With Maholm over Garcia, I have the Braves winning 2.5% more often than with Garcia pitching. With Wood on the hill, the Braves win a colossal 7.9% more often than with Garcia! So I see your, “Wood had 2 bad games in September,” and I raise you, “8% in WE!” That’s twice the value of Joe Maddon’s “I’ll bat Delmon F. Young rather Matt Joyce because, you know, well, you know, I’m Joe Maddon!”
All that being said, what is the absolute best alternative? We’ve all mentioned it before, and Dave Cameron reminds us:
I’ve written about the case for skipping the starter in elimination games many times before, and this is the kind of game where an all-hands-on-deck approach is most warranted. Garcia might be their best option to start the game, but there’s no reason to let him try and pitch himself out of impending doom. If the Dodgers start stringing some hits together, get someone up in the bullpen, and be ready to make the move to put out any fires that arise in any inning in order to keep the game close.
Yes, of course. You don’t need or want a starter when you don’t have an ace, especially in a post-season elimination game! Pick your 3 best relievers, although you can save your closer and possibly set up guy for the last couple of innings, and roll them out there one at a time, either until they face the order 1 time or they come to bat. Speaking of – the first time Gonzalez lets Garcia bat rather than a pinch hitter and then removing him from the game, the first time I will say what an idiot he is. Also, when you bring in your relievers try and pay attention to the L/R matchups. For example, you have Crawford leading off and Gonzalez batting 4th. Make sure that your lefty reliever pitches to both of them. Basically when you switch pitchers, make sure that at least for the first batter, you have the platoon advantage.
Now, lets get to this idea of when to take out your starter other than for a pinch hitter or after he has gone through the lineup once (if you are going to only allow him to pitch one through the lineup), or 2 or 3 times.
Cameron above says, “If the Dodgers start stringing some hits together, get someone up in the bullpen, and be ready to make the move to put out any fires that arise in any inning in order to keep the game close.” David Schoenfeld, in his Sweetspot article today, talks about how Fredi should have taken out Teheran after he allowed X number of runs or hits. I am afraid all of that is nonsense. The reason is this:
There is no evidence (that is code for, “it ain’t true”) that how a starter has pitched at any point in the game has any relevance (predictive value) to how is going to pitch to the next batter or for the rest of the game. Given that, your decision to remove your starter or not should have nothing to do with whether he has just gotten hammered or is pitching a shutout through 6 or 7 innings.
What does matter is two things and two things only: How good he is in general (independent of how he has pitched thus far in this game) – basically his current projection, and how many times he has faced the batting order. (Of course, if a pitcher has thrown a lot of pitches and is tired, it may be time to take him out no matter what.) We know that each time through the order, a pitcher gets decidedly worse, independent of how many pitches he has thrown and independent of how that batting order has done thus far in the game. This is an extremely important concept, and one that NO manager has any inkling of. (Managers know about the “times through the order thing – you hear announcers talk about it all the time. But they often ignore it and they use other incorrect assumptions to trump it – such as, “My guy has been pitching great, so surely I should leave him in there even though he is facing the lineup for the 3rd time.”)
What are the consequences of using the ubiquitous, “Ill leave him in there if he is pitching well, and I will take him out when he allows X number of runs/hits balances against how many innings/pitches he has thrown among other things?” Well, since it really doesn’t matter when you take him out along those lines, what happens is when you take out a good or great pitcher after he has gotten hammered and put in a worse pitcher (after accounting for any time through the order penalties, and platoon considerations, etc.), you cost yourself WE. What happens way more often is that you allow an inferior pitcher to continue pitching when he has thus far pitched well. That costs WE as well, and usually a lot. It is not uncommon to see a bad pitcher pitch an extra inning or 3 when there is a reliever who is a run better that should be in the game. For 2 innings, that is .22 runs or around 2% in WE. That’s a lot to give up.
Caveat: I realize that you can’t be yanking pitchers left and right when they are pitching well and always allowing pitchers who are getting hammered to keep pitching. You will lose the trust of your players and perhaps impede the development of some of your pitchers – but surely there is a happy medium.
BTW, and I don’t mean to pick on Schoenfeld, as he is very smart and writes mostly good, sabermetric-oriented articles on ESPN, here is my response to today’s Sweetspot piece (which is NOT good – the piece that is):
In your article on Teheran and the Braves, you are assuming that Teheran would have continued to pitch poorly at any point in time that he DID pitch poorly and you would have taken him out.
Do you have any evidence of that? Making an argument that he “should have” taken him out because he did in fact allow more runs is a ridiculous argument and you know that.
If Kershaw or Scherzer allows a few runs and then allows 5 more, “should” the manager have taken him out too before those 5 runs scored?
Obviously in all case, had the manager taken the pitcher out, those subsequent runs would likely not have scored, but, absent a crystal ball, the manager cannot know that at the time he has to make the decision.
Now, the point about having fast hooks in general in the post-season is a good one. That is because you don’t worry about tiring your pen during a 162 game season. But, what does a fast or slow hook mean? If there is no evidence that how a starter HAS been pitching has any predictive value for the rest of the game (which I am afraid there isn’t), then when SHOULD you take out a starter?
I would submit that you “should” take out a starter any time you have a better option in the pen, talent-wise (and L/R matchup-wise), without being ridiculous, and without burning up your relievers for that game or for the rest of the series (e.g., you don’t put your best reliever in the game in the 3rd inning even though he is better than the starter). You can wait until fairly late in the game OR until he HAS pitched badly ONLY FOR PR purposes and for the purposes of not offending your players!
That means that the talent of the starter has a lot to do with it. If your starter is Teheran, then very much you want him to pitch as little as possible REGARDLESS OF HOW HE IS DOING, since almost every one of your relievers is better than he is, especially after Teheran has faced the order 1 or 2 times. If your starter is Kershaw then most of your relievers are worse than he is at almost at any point in the game.
But, to fault Gonzalez for not taking out Teheran because he went on to allow a few more, is not a logical argument, unless, again, you think that Freddy was supposed to know that Teheran would come out and allow 2 more runs and 4 more hits. If you don’t take out him out after 2 good innings, it is NOT correct to take him out after 2 bad innings! You can’t have your cake and eat it too! As you say, he was one pitch away from getting Crawford out in the 2nd inning. If it is correct to leave him in there if he gets Crawford out, how can you say that because he threw a slider which was not even awful, that it is now correct to take him out? That makes little sense.
Wouldn’t the reliever who replaced him have just about the same chance as allowing those 4 hits and 2 runs? Would you fault a blackjack player for hitting a 12 against a dealer’s 10 if the player busts and the dealer had a 6 in the hole?
Finally, what is the Braves’ obsession with Gattis? He is clearly a very poor defender in LF (he played a little LF in the minors, but mostly catcher). And he is not that good on offense. Why not play B.J. Upton in left? Oh, I forgot for a second – the Braves are also obsessed with small samples and, “What have you done for me lately?” They think Upton is a terrible hitter. But, even if he is not nearly as good as we used to think that he was, he is a true CF’er and therefore going to be a well-above average defender in LF. He is probably 20 runs better (per 150 games) than Gattis in LF. Is it reasonable to think that he is anywhere near 20 runs worse than Gattis on offense? Again, if we don’t attach some ridiculous weight to how he has done in 2013, I don’t think there is any argument to make in favor of that. In fact, if I run both players through my sim, Upton and Gattis, with Upton in the lineup, the Braves add another 2.5% to their WE!
I mean, how much win expectancy can the Braves and Gonzalez give away before the game even starts!