Oh, What a Week

Exhilarating and exhausting week here at Futility Central, full of travel, deadlines, and media:

• On Monday (Labor Day), I worked from home and watched most of Pedro Martinez’s comeback outing, which I then discussed with Joel Blumberg on WGBB SportsBreak, which aired later that afternoon. As I said during the discussion, I was quite impressed to see Pedro grit his way through five innings; even with less stuff than he had before, his mastery of the mental side of pitching will serve him well and will certainly help the Mets down the stretch.

• Tuesday morning, I headed down to Washington, DC, for an evening bookstore appearance to promote It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over. Around 30 people came out to Politics and Prose bookstore to hear what Clay Davenport and I had to say about the book, not a bad showing given how little advance publicity we were able to give it at BP. Several readers old enough to remember the races I wrote about had nice things to say about my chapters, particularly the 1967 one, which meant a lot to me; it’s always good to know not only that you’ve brought something memorable back to life but that you’ve provided some new insights along the way. I’m not sure I could ask for a higher compliment than that when it comes to my work.

• Tuesday also saw publication of my latest Hit and Run piece at BP. This one took a close look at quality starts and at BP’s Support Neutral metrics to evaluate the work of starting pitchers. Both individually and on a team level, there’s a great deal of overlap when comparing what the two types of stats are telling us:

As defined by [Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John] Lowe, a quality start is one in which a pitcher goes at least six innings and allows no more than three earned runs. It’s a simple and elegant stat that suggests a pitcher did a reasonable job of keeping his team in the ballgame. And while it’s possible for a pitcher to earn a quality start with a game ERA of 4.50, such instances are rare. In the aforementioned ESPN column, [Rob] Neyer found that in 2005, the average quality start featured a game ERA of 2.04, a non-quality start 7.70 — that’s not a misprint, it’s Boeing’s next jet — and the 6 inning/3 earned run/4.50 case constituted just 9.2 percent of all quality starts.

Based on this year’s numbers, a team getting a quality start wins 68.0 percent of the time, on par with the 67.4 percent Neyer reported based on 1985 and 2005 data…

…As a metric, SNLVAR [Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement] certainly has its advantages over quality starts. It adjusts for ballpark and opposition strength, strips out things a pitcher can’t control like run support and bullpen support, and expresses the result in wins above replacement level. For my money, it’s the best metric in the BP toolbox with which to measure starting pitchers, and as such, I use it every week in the Hit List, along with its bullpen sibling, WXRL. However, you can’t eyeball SNLVAR over a cup of coffee and a page full of box scores, nor can you impress mixed company with such an unwieldy acronym, one which brings to mind that old Serak the Preparer line: “To pronounce it correctly, I would have to pull out your tongue.” The humble quality start is perfect for just such occasions.

Then again, the quality start metric does lack the zazz we at BP like to apply to things, so it’s worth passing along a little tidbit from Keith Woolner: our Support Neutral family can provide a sophisticated approximation of quality start rate if we untether ourselves from replacement level and turn towards league average via the per-game stat SNLVA_R (Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added Rate). Simply put, a pitcher’s SNLVA_R + 0.5 is the percentage of the time his team would win a game given average offense and bullpen support. So for Jake Peavy, who’s got an SNLVA of 5.3 in 28 starts and thus an SNLVA_R of .189, his team can be expected to win at a .689 clip. That’s tops among pitchers with 100 or more innings this season.

The piece was accompanied by an Unfiltered entry which clarified my decision to use a definition of quality starts that excluded unearned runs, which generally isn’t how we roll at BP.

• Back from DC on Wednesday, I attended that evening’s Yankees-Mariners game with an old college friend named Ben (readers may remember him from my wife’s fabulous 2003 Game Seven story). After leaving his law practice, Ben has spent the last two years traveling around the world. “Since I last saw you, I’ve been through 25 countries,” he told me. With the desire to catch up and the stresses of the week — which included arrangements to close on my apartment at the end of the month — weighing on me, I didn’t even bother taking my scorebook to the game. Ben and I simply kicked back in our seats in Section 601 of the upper deck, right behind home plate, and concentrated on baseball and beer, hootin’ and hollerin’ and just having a good time.

We watched Philip Hughes, who’d been torched for 15 runs in 16.2 innings over his last three starts, overcome some early trouble to give the Yankees six solid innings with six strikeouts. After yielding two walks and an HBP in the first two innings, he surrendered a two-run homer to Raul Ibañez in the third inning — it could have been a three-run job had the umps not blown a call at second base, when Ichiro Suzuki was out stealing after a single — and when he yielded a leadoff double to Ben Broussard to start the fourth, it looked like he might be in for another quick exit.

But from that point on, Hughes faced the minimum number of hitters to get through six. Broussard was moved over to third on an infield grounder, but Hughes struck out Jose Lopez and got Yuniesky Betancourt to pop out to end the threat. The only other baserunner he allowed was Ibañez, who was nailed stretching a single into a double to lead off the sixth, though apparently the umps had also victimized Ichiro in the top of the fifth when they called him out on a bang-bang play at first base. Still, it was a good outing from the kid. In light of the injury concerns regarding Roger Clemens (my nickel, based on his comments, says he’s got a bone spur) and the ineffectiveness of Mike Mussina, they’ll need more where that came from if they want to play into October.

The Yanks could do almost nothing against Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. In the bottom of the third they got their first hit, a solo homer by #9 hitter Jose Molina. His next turn at bat, he collected the Yanks’ second hit, leading off the sixth with a single and boldly — or foolishly, given how slowly he runs — taking second as Lopez dropped the relay throw. Seriously, you could time the guy with a sun dial.

That hit went for naught, and following an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning from Joba Chamberlain (first time I’d seen him in person), the M’s were still ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, when Alex Rodriguez, who’d been doubtful before the game after banging up his ankle in a collision with Adrian Beltre the previous night, bashed a solo homer to leftfield, his 47th of the year. When Robinson Cano reached on another error by Lopez, Washburn’s night was done even though he’d allowed just three hits.

In came George Sherrill to face Shelley Duncan, a hacktastic over-age rookie whose swing is all-or-nothing. We watched in amazement as Duncan squared around to bunt. Ben was sure he was going to get one down; I was in total denial. “Attempting to bunt and getting one down are two different stories, and this guy doesn’t have it in him to complete the job.” One pitch later he’d done just that, sending Cano to second.

At this point, Sherrill lost the plate, walking Jason Giambi and Wilson Betemit, who was playing third base while A-Rod DHed. With Molina looming on deck as Betemit worked the count in his favor, I saw Jorge Posada don a helmet and move to the edge of the dugout. “Watch,” I told Ben, “if Betemit gets on to load the bases, Posada’s going to pinch-hit for Molina.”

“But he’s got two hits!”

“Yeah, and he also just got his bell rung.” Molina had taken a foul ball off the mask in the top of the inning. “Posada’s going to pinch hit because Torre knows he’s good at working the bases-loaded walk.”

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Posada took four balls in a row after fouling off the first pitch, and we exchanged high-fives as Ben laughed, “That’s why they pay you the big bucks!”

Mariners manager John McLaren, who’d already endeared himself to the crowd by arguing over both Ichiro calls, came out for the second time of the inning. This time he summoned Eric O’Flaherty, who yielded one run when Johnny Damon legged out an infield grounder to prevent a double play, and another when Melky Cabrera singled to rightfield. Brandon Morrow came on and instantly yielded a two-run double to Derek Jeter, bringing up A-Rod again.

“Come on, A-Rod. Two in one inning!” howled Ben. Boom! Another shot to left centerfield for Rodriguez’s second home run of the frame and his 48th of the year, tying his own Yankee record for righthanded batters. It was the first time I’d ever seen a player hit two in one inning, and the first time a Yankee had done so since Cliff Johnson in 1977. Amazing!

By the time the dust settled, McLaren had made four pitching changes as the Yanks scored eight run on four hits, four walks and an error to make the score 9-2. Just like the night before, the Yanks had broken open a close game in the seventh. They would add one more run and win going away. Good stuff.

• Thursday found me back on the Amtrak, headed to Philadelphia to make a TV appearance on Comcast SportsNet’s “Daily News Live” show with host Neil Hartman and panelists Rich Hofmann and Mark Kram from the Philadelphia Daily News. On a 90-minute show that alternated between baseball and football in a 30-30-15-15 format, I had the final segment, but at virtually every commercial break, the host plugged the book and my appearance, showing the cover and mentioning my name.

Finally, after some time in the makeup room to keep me from looking as sweaty and disheveled as the week had made me feel, I was on. I did somewhere between eight and 10 minutes, answering Hartman’s questions about the methodology which determined the races that made the book, explaining their relevance to the current races (the Phils, after blowing a six-run lead the night before in gut-wrenching fashion, were down to about a 25 percent shot at the playoffs according to BP’s Playoff Odds report), kicking around the Phils’ 1964 collapse and discussing my 1959 chapter. It was difficult to provide too much detail in such a short time, but I think I used what I had pretty well, and made the most of my brief moment in the spotlight. I’m hoping to get a clip to put up on the site soon.

• Finally, having gone to Philly and back on the same day, I returned home to finish this week’s Hit List, one that featured a no-hitter, a near-perfect game, an imperfect game, Network, Old School, C. Montgomery Burns, a poorly-timed look at Troy Glaus’ turnaround, and a whole lot of season-ending injuries. I always like the Hit List to feel like a wrap-up of a full, rich week, but this one only scratched the surface of my adventures. Still, given the chaotic circumstances under which it was produced, I’m proud that it went up more or less on time. Aside from the season-ending list, it’s the last one I’ll be writing given an upcoming trip to Europe. I’m ready for that vacation.

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