When it comes to bullpen use in Philly, the tail wags the dog

27 Comments

Twice this past week we’ve watched the Phillies lose in walkoff fashion while their best relief pitcher, Jonathan Papelbon, sat on the bench.  It’s maddening, really, but that’s what has passed for conventional bullpen usage in this day and age: you do not use your closer in a tie game on the road.

Why?  Nothing to be saved! And the closer is there to save games! Never mind that by, you know, not allowing game-ending hits, a game is likewise saved. There’s no statistic called a “save” for that situation, you see, so it doesn’t count.

That’s not an exaggeration. Charlie Manuel, asked about that policy, put it in pretty stark terms last night:

“I’m not supposed to use him … I don’t get a chance to use him. We’re not supposed to use him. We’re not going to burn him out early in the season when we can’t get to him … We never do that.  It’s just not the way it is. Papelbon is in the ninth inning for a save. When we ever have a lead, when we start the ninth inning, he’s gonna save.”

“Can’t get to him?”  “We’re not supposed to use him?”  I’ve never seen such a clear instance of the tail wagging the dog.  It’s your team, Cholly!  You can do anything you want!

I don’t mean to pick on Manuel here, because just about every manager does this.  As Matt Gelb notes in his story from last night, it has become almost unheard of for managers to deploy their closer in anything other than save situations. The teams who get great bullpen work overall get it because they have some awesome relief pitcher who, by accident of seniority and contract, is not officially the team’s closer. Ryan Madson in Philly last year. David Robertson in New York pre-Mariano injury. Jonny Venters in Atlanta.

But Philly doesn’t have that. Not anymore.  They have the most highly paid reliever in baseball history sitting on his keister while people like David Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, Brian Sanches and Michael Schwimer blow games.

Oh, wait. Those games weren’t blown. Because they weren’t lost in save situations. How silly of me.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
20 Comments

On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.