By Larry Dierker
August MLB Waiver Deals in Pitching
Isn’t it interesting that so many teams made pitching moves last Thursday?
- The Mariners moved Felix Hernandez to the bullpen.
- The Red Sox did the same with Drew Pomeranz
- The A’s acquired Fernando Rodney
- The Cubs signed Jorge De La Rosa
- Kenley Jansen was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and will not pitch for a month
- Kelvin Herrera was disabled with a shoulder injury
I wonder if the Dodgers and Nationals will attempt to find another closer?
The flurry of activity may be the precursor of more Dog Day deals as teams with playoff aspirations cue up for the pennant race in September. I’d bet on it. Pitching is almost always the key.
Year after year, the teams that play in October are the teams with the best pitching. In the days of yore, before complex analytics, a few baseball geniuses claimed that pitching was somewhere between seventy to ninety percent of winning.
How Could That Be?
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that half of winning a baseball game is the runs you score and the other half is the runs you allow. So how can pitching, or more accurately pitching plus fielding be more than fifty percent?
In my opinion, the old timers weren’t morons. They may not have qualified for ivy league schools, but they could look at team ERAs and see that the teams that advance to the playoffs give up fewer runs than the teams with losing records. And they could also see that some hard-hitting teams don’t make it.
This fact does not escape the GMs who get a lot deeper into analytics. It’s similar to OPS (On-Base Percentage plus Slugging Average). Anyone who can pass a middle school math class can figure out on-base percentage and slugging average and add them together. That gives you a good approximation of hitting. It’s about what you get from ERA – real close to actual value. There are nuances, no doubt. Ballparks can be hitter or pitcher friendly. Some fielders have more range than others, which doesn’t show up in ERA. That sort of thing.
Still, most contending teams look for pitching rather than hitting for September. This year, they have almost three more weeks to get it done if they plan on using the player or players they acquire in the postseason. What happened last Thursday may only be the first volley.
Good Pitching and Team Confidence
So now I am going to venture out on a limb and talk about something that cannot be quantified – confidence. It is my theory that the Braves won their division 14 straight times because they had a deep-seated belief that they would win every time they ran out on the field. They were confident they could win, regardless to whom they were facing, because most of the time they only needed to score a few runs. The opposite is also true.
When I was managing the Astros, we got caught in that trap in the first season at Minute Maid Park, which was Enron Field at the time. It was obviously a better hitter’s park. All of our pitchers were used to the Astrodome, where most long fly balls were caught. They started pitching defensively, ran a lot of long counts, and walked a lot more hitters than they ever had before. We were shell-shocked, and we lost our confidence.
Our hitters failed to take advantage of the smaller field for some unknown reason. We were in last place halfway through the season before our bats came alive. We ended up hitting our way into fourth place. Our pitching didn’t get much better, but by the end of the year, we were among the best offensive teams in the league. When all was said and done our record was 70-92.
This is why baseball experts say…
“You Can Never Have Too Much Pitching”
Good starting pitchers give a team confidence. These days, you have to have a good bullpen too. It used to be enough to have a good rotation and a good closer. Now you need good set-up men too. It doesn’t help to get six or seven good innings out of your starter if the bullpen has trouble holding a lead. So, how does this theory hold this year? Well, the teams with the lowest ERA are the Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, D-Backs, Yankees, Phillies, and Cubs in that order.
You get the idea. Every contending team except the Mariners is in the top half of the ERA list. Oddly enough, the Mariners are also below average in team OPS. They have fashioned a good record without great overall pitching because when they do get a lead, they hold it. Edwin Diaz has 46 saves in 49 tries.
Looking at OPS, most of the best hitting teams are also among the best pitching teams, but not all of them. The Rangers are the sixth best hitting team but have no chance to contend. The Rockies still have a chance, but they are only ninth best on offense. They probably have to start hitting better to win the West or even a Wild Card berth.
They actually have good enough pitching to be in the upper half, but Coors Stadium is really an anomaly. It’s so hitter-friendly that the Rockies could win with a high team ERA if they led the league in hitting, which they have done more than a few times. The Angels and Reds are in the top half in offense but have no chance to make the playoffs.
The NL Central is the most interesting race in the sense that the Cardinals still have a chance with a puny attack. The Brewers are contending too, while they’re occupying the middle ground in both offense and defense.
Waivers Gone Bad
It will be interesting to see if the teams that are in contention now are able to augment their pitching in August. There is plenty of time left. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cardinals trade for a big bat. Only one thing will prevent these teams from going for it this year – the waiver rule. Oftentimes, one contender will claim a player who is on revocable waivers to prevent a trade that will help an opponent. That claim will block the deal as the waivers would almost always be revoked.
But not always. There is some risk in making the claim to block a deal. Once in a great while, a team has a very expensive player, like Albert Pujols, whom they are willing to trade. If a team claimed him, the Angels could force that team to keep him, thereby shedding his salary.
That’s how a waiver deal can fail big time. The team that wants Pujols can’t get him. The team that doesn’t want him has to keep him, and continues to pay his salary. Either way, the Angels lose him and get nothing in return except payroll relief.
Sometimes You Get Lucky
On August 22, 2010, the Giants claimed Cody Ross to prevent the Padres from claiming him. The Marlins did not pull him back, so the Giants were stuck with him. But he did play some and the Giants won the West. Then Cody Ross spent the most memorable two weeks of his entire career. He hit five home runs and drove in ten runners in post-season play as the Giants became World Champions. They wouldn’t have made it without him. He hit two homers off Roy Halladay in the NLCS, three in that series, and was named MVP.
That seldom happens these days because most star players have no-trade clauses in their contracts. But Cody Ross wasn’t even a star player until the Giants got him.
Last year, Justin Verlander had a no-trade contract and no team claimed him, probably because of his salary. He gave up his no-trade option to get into the pennant race. Then Verlander pitched the Astros into the World Series. That didn’t go unnoticed.