One game, one pitcher … who do you choose?


Somebody asked me this question on Twitter: If I could have any pitcher from any time pitch one game (say a seventh game of the World Series or the ubiquitous “pitching for your soul” scenario”) who would I choose?

I immediately typed: Pedro. 1999.

This is always my fallback position. Back in the Trivial Pursuit days, my mother would guess “Babe Ruth” on pretty much every sports question. She has actually become much more knowledgeable about sports, in part because of this mess of a blog, but back then it was always “Babe Ruth,” even on, you know, billiards or horse racing questions.

And that’s how I am with Pedro Martinez’s 1999 season. Any baseball pitching question can be answered, somehow, by: Pedro, 1999. I would actually like to answer ALL questions that way. When I go fill up gas, and the little pump screen asks: “Cash or Credit” I’d love to be able to type in: Pedro, 1999.

Anyway, the choice lit up the Twitter lines with the expected objections — what about Bob Gibson in ’68 or Randy Johnson in 2001 or Walter Johnson in 1913 or Sandy Koufax in 1965.* You could make an argument for those and a couple dozen more — Carlton in ’72, Gooden in ’85, Grove in ’31, Hershiser in ’88, Mathewson in ’08, on and on.

*Am I the only one who gets kind of annoyed when people put some sort of finality stamp at the end of their opinions? You know what I mean by finality stamp — someone will not just say “Sandy Koufax in 1965 was quite sprightly.” No, they will say something like “Koufax. 1965. End of story.” Or: “Gibson. 1968. The end.” Or: “Carlton. 1972. Period.” Or: “Old Hoss. 1884. Goodbye.”

What are these emphatic termination words supposed to achieve? I mean YOU put those words there, right? I didn’t miss some mediator coming in and ending declaring your viewpoint supreme, did I? It’s not like you pulled Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to confirm your opinion … YOU confirmed your opinion. How does that mean anything? Is this like the Internet equivalent of taking off your shoe and clomping it on the table like a gavel? Stop doing that. It’s stupid. Period. End of story. Goodbye.

Anyway there was one alternative to Pedro 1999 suggestion that I found interesting for a completely different reason.

The suggestion: Pedro in 2000.

This post is not actually about Pedro Martinez, not specifically, but about WAR. As I assume everyone reading this blog knows, there are two prominent variations of the statistic “Wins Above Replacement.” There is Baseball Reference WAR. And there is Fangraphs WAR. Best I can tell when it comes to everyday players, the two systems are fairly similar — any real variations on players’ totals probably comes down to how defense was calculated.

But the two calculate pitcher’s WAR differently and this might be seen mostly clearly in Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Martinez made the same number of starts and threw roughly the same number of innings both innings, which is helpful comparison purposes. In 1999, Martinez threw 213.3 innings. In 2000, he threw 217 innings.

The other numbers, though, are quite different:

1999: 19-7, 2.07 ERA, 5 complete games, 1 shutout, 160 hits, 313 Ks, 37 walks, 9 homers.
2000: 23-4, 1.74 ERA, 7 complete games, 4 shutouts, 128 hits, 285 Ks, 32 walks, 17 homers.

OK, before diving in, here is what Baseball Reference WAR says:

1999: 9.7 WAR
2000: 11.7 WAR

So Baseball Reference has Pedro’s 2000 season worth two extra wins.

Here’s what Fangraphs WAR says:

1999: 11.9 WAR
2000: 9.9 WAR

And it’s almost precisely reversed — Fangraphs has Pedro’s 1999 season worth two extra wins.

Obviously both seasons are all variations of awesome and we’re just picking between Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And you probably know exactly why the two Pedro Seasons are calculated differently but let’s go step-by-step here.

Baseball Reference WAR values the 2000 season more because Pedro Martinez gave up fewer runs and fewer hits. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s at the crux of things. Martinez’s ERA+ in 2000 was 291, which is the record for a season. In 1999 his ERA+ was merely an otherworldly 243.

So that’s at the heart of Baseball Reference’s process — Pedro Martinez gave up 11 fewer runs in 2000 (largely because the league hit an almost unbelievable .167 against him, 38 points less than the year before) and that meant it was a clearly better season.

Fangraphs WAR, meanwhile, doesn’t deal with ERA. It deals with the three things that Fangraphs believes a pitcher can control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs. In 1999, Martinez struck out an obscene 13.2 batters per nine inning (just behind Randy Johnson’s 2001 record) and he hardly walked anybody and, perhaps most overlooked, he gave up NINE HOME RUNS all season. Both of these seasons were smack in the middle of the Selig Era, when home runs flew like confetti, and to give up nine homers all year …

Well, let’s look at the top five in the AL that year in homers per nine innings:

1. Pedro, .380
2. Mike Mussina, .708
3. Freddy Garcia, .805
4. Omar Olivares, .831
5. Jamie Moyer, .908

That doesn’t look very close, does it?

Anyway, of the three things at the heart of the Fangraphs process he did two of them (strikeouts, home runs allowed) better in 1999 and the third (walks) was more or less a wash. So that’s why Fangraphs thinks 1999 was a clearly better season.

What makes this cool, though, is that it’s a great way to decide exactly which kind WAR speaks loudest to you. Which season do YOU THINK is better? If you think the 2000 season was better, then you are probably a Baseball Reference person. If you think 1999 — you’re Fangraphs.

I asked Tom Tango what he thinks and, as usual, he came up with an interesting way of looking at things. Looking at it another way, the question in play is this: How much control do you think a pitcher has on balls hit in play — yes, we’re crossing back to the famous BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).

If you think a pitcher has COMPLETE CONTROL over balls in play then you will naturally think that Pedro was a better pitcher in 2000 when his ERA and hits allowed were much lower. The BABIP numbers could not be more stark.

– In 1999, despite his dominance, Pedro allowed a .325 batting average on balls in play — which was actually the FIFTH HIGHEST in the AL.

– In 2000, Pedro allowed a .237 BABP — which was the LOWEST in the AL.

So, if you believe a pitcher has complete control over balls put in play then you will believe that Pedro Martinez learned a whole lot between the end of the 1999 season and the beginning of 2000.*

*I believe it is this Pedro gap, by the way, that helped inspire Voros McCracken to come up his theory about pitchers not having control of balls hit in play.

OK, but if you think a pitcher has ZERO CONTROL over balls in play, then you will definitely believe that Pedro was a better pitcher in 1999 and was just a whole luckier in 2000 (or had a team that played much better and smarter defense, which is in a way the same thing for a pitcher).

What Tango says — and I concur — is that it’s likely neither absolute is true. It’s likely that pitchers do not have complete control on balls hit in play, and it’s likely that pitchers are not entirely powerless.

“Since reality is somewhere between the two … we get into our conundrum: must we take a 0/100 approach to everything we track?” Tango asks. “Or, can we start to give partial credit? … No one likes the idea of partial credit, because it implies a level of precision that we can’t possibly know.”

Tango comes down closer to the side that a pitcher has limited control over balls in play. I again agree. I think there will still be studies and thought experiments that get us closer to that relationship between pitching and defense, but right now I lean just a touch more to the Fangraphs side. I think Pedro pitched a little bit better in 1999 than he was in 2000. That 313-37 strikeout to walk ratio is just absurd. Those nine home runs allowed, wow. I don’t think he was a full two wins better. But one game — we’re talking one game — I’m taking that Pedro Martinez in the middle of the Selig Era who didn’t let the ball in play much, who always kept it in the ballpark and who was good for 13 outs a game on his own.

And Tango? Well he says Baseball Reference and Fangraphs give us the extremes … and the answer, almost certainly, lies in the middle. And this is why Tango, when looking at Baseball Reference WAR, at Fangraphs WAR will split the difference.

This would make Pedro’s 1999 and 2000 seasons almost EXACTLY EVEN.

Which, if you think about it, is a good way to end this. Period.

Ron Darling rips Mets trainers after yet another player goes down with an injury

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Last night starter Robert Gsellman became the latest Mets player to go down with an injury when he strained his hamstring while running out a ground ball. He’s certain to go on the disabled list, making him the sixth Mets starter to go down this year. He’ll join Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Juan Lagares, Neil Walker, Matt Harvey, David Wright, Jeurys Familia and many, many other Mets on the DL.

Mets broadcaster Ron Darling is fed up with it. Last night, after Gsellman went down, he went off on the Mets trainers, who he believes to be enabling all of this:

“[These] trainers, get them in a room with some of the old trainers and people that took care of baseball players and how to keep them healthy. And get them in a room and try to tap into their knowledge on how you train baseball players — not weightlifters, not six-pack wearers — baseball players. They’re doing a disservice to their million-dollar athletes that they’re paying. It’s a joke to watch this happen each and every night.”

Here’s video of his rant:

Darling is certainly tapping into a frustration a lot of Mets fans feel. For years the Mets injury issues have vexed the fanbase, less so for the sheer number of them — other teams have had more DL trips for their players — than for the manner in which they were handled and/or discussed by the team. They’ve often been loathe to use the disabled list even when it makes sense to and have, at times, run guys out to play despite there being serious red flags which would counsel most teams from doing so.

But is he right about why the players are getting injured? It’s a commonly held bit of conventional wisdom that players using weight training and being muscular makes them more brittle, but I’m unaware of any science that backs that up (if you have some, please pass it along, I’d genuinely be interested in reading it). Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t, but Darling seems so certain about it.

He could be right. But I also suspect that Darling may be falling prey to some back-in-my-dayism that retired players often exhibit. Are players getting injured more or are they merely being diagnosed better? Are they getting more seriously injured, or are they just taken out of action more quickly rather than be left to play through injuries like so many old timers have claimed they had to back in the 50s, 60s and 70s? Fireballers used to try to hang on as junkballers after suffering elbow injuries that today would send a guy to surgery. There was a much greater tolerance for lumbering slow dudes who might take it easy with a bad hammy as opposed to getting shut down now.

None of which is to say that Darling is wrong, necessarily. Like I said, maybe there is something to the idea that weight training and musculature makes a player more brittle. But I am always loathe to nod along with an old player who says the science and medicine surrounding sports has regressed compared to where it was back in his day. It may be true, but it’s counterintuitive given how science and medicine usually work. And when you offer a counterintuitive take like that, I think you need more evidence than your frustration at an injury occurring in front of you in real time.

Bryce Harper is pretty clearly messing with people

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Not too long ago some rumors popped up about Bryce Harper wanting to sign with the Cubs when he hits free agency following the 2018 season. Such rumors are sort of silly this far out — and they almost always tend to be non-predictive of where the player eventually goes — but they tend to get folks excited or concerned, depending on who they root for.

With the Cubs in town to face the Nationals, Harper was asked about those rumors again. He wisely dismissed them, saying he had no idea where that stuff comes from. Which is what someone in his position should say.

Not that he’s not going to have some fun with it. Check out his Instagram post with friend Kris Bryant. Specifically, check out the hashtag:

#Back2BackOneDay is, of course, an implication that he’d be hitting behind Bryant in the same batting order.

Harper is no idiot. He’s not going to use social media, in the middle of a season, two seasons before he could even potentially play elsewhere, to send genuine signals about wanting to leave the Nationals and join the Cubs. He’s just messing with the rumormongers. As he TOTALLY SHOULD by the way, because rumormongers deserve to be messed with.

Not that the rumormongers won’t take this a genuine evidence of his intent. The rumormongers aren’t big on subtle humor.