Rob Neyer says goodbye to ESPN

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Rob Neyer has announced that after 15 years — which is about 300 in Internet years — he’s leaving ESPN.  Rob is going to keep writing, of course — we don’t know where, but a little bird tells me that we’ll hear more about that part tomorrow morning — but this is still pretty major news. As long as there has been Internet baseball writing, Rob has been over at ESPN, so in many ways this is the end of an era.

While Bill James is rightfully credited for revolutionizing baseball analysis, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the revolution doesn’t happen — or at least doesn’t happen as quickly and as thoroughly as it did happen — without Rob Neyer. Rob, who was once James’ assistant, popularized sabermetrics via his ESPN column/blog, reaching far more people in his first few weeks as an Internet writer than the number of people to whom James sold his original Abstracts. He was the gateway drug for stat geekery. At least he was mine.

It was 1998. I was fresh out of law school and was working my first real job. Somewhere during my seven years of higher education I had regressed from baseball fanatic to a mere casual fan. I still followed the Braves, but I wasn’t nuts about it. I watched baseball, but I missed a lot of what was going on.

It was then that I discovered Rob’s column, and it was nothing short of a revelation. Five days a week, this voiceless man in red faux flannel would challenge nearly every lazy assumption I had about the game. Telling me things like RBIs weren’t the most valuable measure of a hitter. That strikeouts weren’t the worst thing in the world. That Dante Bichette wasn’t really any good.

Rob didn’t make his pronouncements from on high and expect you to take his word for it. He showed his work. He encouraged you to run the numbers yourself. He wrote in a clear and uncomplicated voice that made even the most complicated concepts seem quite simple, which was extremely important to a mathophobe like me. I read Neyer every day.  He, more than any person or event, rekindled my love for baseball that had gone somewhat dormant in the 1990s.

I began writing about baseball myself at a now-defunct webzine in 2001. There is no question I never would have done so without Rob Neyer’s influence and inspiration.  While that ‘zine tanked in early 2003, I considered it a success because at some point during the run Rob, who must have been forwarded the link by one of my 11 readers, sent me a nice email telling me that I had done a good job on a particular piece of analysis. That email was the biggest reason why, a few years later, I felt like I was good enough to start my Shysterball blog. I didn’t care that absolutely no one read the thing for the first couple of months. Rob had once seen my work and said it was good and that was all the validation I needed.

But then people started reading Shysterball. Why? Because Rob started linking it.  At first just a couple of random “this is neat” links. Then, in November 2007 he mentioned Shysterball prominently during one of his ESPN chats.  My traffic took off.  I was asked to write some guest columns on other websites that got some notice. Eventually I was asked to move Shysterball to The Hardball Times, and from there I was asked to chip in part time on the blog that became HardballTalk. In short, I owe my career to Rob Neyer.

Thank you for all of your great work for ESPN, Rob.  Good luck with all of the great work you’ll surely do in the future.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.