The Trouble With Tracing: Pitching Changes and Cautionary Tales

October 26, 2017 by Darren Clarke

Baseball is beautiful. Never more beautiful than in October. The summer game blossoms in Autumn. Where once the baseball world blurred with too much heat, too much humidity and too many meaningless baseball games, Autumn provides welcome definition, Autumn provides cool, blue, skies and winner-takes-all outcomes. Autumn baseball provides daring and drama. It provides success and failure. It provides a perfect stage for the most talented among us to be glorious, to be tragic, to be average.

Watching gifted people compete against one another when the stakes are highest is always fun. And if you watch just enough, it’s always a bit frustrating. I have watched just about every game of these playoffs. I have borne witness to jolly pin striped giant Aaron Judge stealing a home run from Fransisco Lindor, to the once light hitting Didi Gregorious almost single handedly crushing the mighty Cleveland Indians, to the Cubs bullpen seemingly putting out fires with gas laminated Joe Maddon poetry. And I have borne witness to an absurd amount of knee jerk pitching changes.

There has been so much to love in these playoffs and there has been so much for me to yell at my TV about. On the yelling at the TV front mainly there has been managing, lots and lots and lots of managing. If there’s one thing watching this year’s baseball playoffs has driven home it is this- Nothing is sexier in managerial circles these days than pitching changes.

The playoffs begin with ten teams and a world full of potential narratives. And then teams and narratives start getting knocked off. One by one each almost good enough or almost lucky enough team and each almost true, almost manifest, narrative, comes tumbling down to be almost immediately forgotten. The idea that it was Cleveland’s year, that Joe Maddon was too smart, that the Yankees were done after two games in the Houston series, that Houston was done after five games in the same series. Done. Gone. Obsolete.

The playoffs chug along until there are only two teams left. Two teams, the World Series, and whatever shreds of all the would-be narratives that manage to limp their way to the brightest of lights.

Game One of the World Series was defined by Clayton Kershaw pitching a lights out seven innings. Kershaw and his herky-jerky delivery and killer curve ball allowed only one run on a mere eighty-three pitches. Despite the low pitch count, despite the brilliant performance, Kershaw was replaced in the eighth by Brandon Morrow. In the ninth, like clock work,  Morrow made way for Kenley Jansen.

The decisions were unsurprising. It’s what managers do these days. Regardless of the particulars of Kershaw’s start he was coming out. And it worked.

Morrow was great in the eighth, Jansen closed it out nicely in the ninth. Perfect.

Game Two of the World Series found Dodger manager Dave Roberts looking to a similar formula only to a more drastic degree. The solid start was shorter, the pitching changes quicker, the Morrow-Jansen tandem employed earlier. And it didn’t work.

Going into the eighth, having allowed only one run, LA was using its’ sixth pitcher. In the wake of this latest playoff pitching change frenzy a quiet narrative that had managed to make its’ way to the World Series had fully reared its’ head: Over managing of pitching staffs.

In this evolving, analytics first, feel second, world we live in, all things must kneel before the alter of the percentages, the odds on favourite, of the most likely, before they can be considered worthy of implementation. You either follow the new religion or get consigned to derision. You either follow this new religion or lose your job quicker than a Yasiel Puig bat flip (or bat lick for that matter).

All must bow before the great God of You Cannot Let Your Pitchers Go Through the Order a Third time. No matter the amount of pitching carnage along the way to obeying this new God. The genuflecting continues.

The idea in and of itself isn’t a bad one and it is one that has tons of valid support. The more times batters see a pitcher the higher their success rate. Thus, swapping out a starting pitcher for a different set of stuff and mechanics before hitters get their third look has reaped benefits for teams. These playoffs the idea was used in conjunction with two other more recent philosophical endeavors, 1) Use your best pitchers in, “high leverage,” situations earlier in the game, an idea that really came to prominence with Andrew Miller in last years’ playoffs, and 2) That the group of people considered a teams’ best pitchers out of the bullpen might extend beyond just relievers to “available” starters. The most obvious recent example of liberally using a starter in a relief role would be Madison Bumgarner on the way to the Giants winning the 2014 Series. This year we have seen a whole boat load of guys who haven’t traditionally pitched in relief, i.e. Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., all suddenly thrust into making relief appearances at significant moments.

But here’s the problem- Just because something is a good idea generally doesn’t mean it is a good idea situationally. People and moments aren’t easily wired for absolute, one-size fits all, fixes. So what works with Madison Bumgarner might not work with Max Scherzer, and what might be a good idea in terms of removing Pitcher A before a third time through the order might not the best idea when Sonny Gray has only allowed one hit through five innings.

Which brings us to Rich Hill on Wednesday night. Through four innings Rich Hill had thrown only sixty pitches, had struck out seven and had only allowed one run. Rich Hill looked great. But, like Sonny Gray, Rich Hill, great stuff be damned, was taken out of the game. The Great God of Analytics has spoken and it says that, as it turns out, the bird in your hand is not quite as good as two in the bush.

There has been a litany of hyperactive managing this offseason but watching Dodgers manager Dave Roberts change pitchers like he really, really, wanted the fate of the game to get into the hands of Brandon McCarthy at some point, was by far the most extreme case of it.

Watching the pitching change orgy climax in a disappointing loss for the Dodgers though reminded me of a story a good friend of mine told me long ago when we worked at a factory together.

The story was told to me by one Sidney Lindsey. Suffice it to say, Sid was by far the most charismatic story teller I have ever met. Moreover, Sidney had a knack, an affection, for aiming his stories most precisely at the many deficiencies I had as a young man.

This brings us to the story of the Two Burglars.

Two burglars had decided to rob a convenience store late at night after it had closed. As the owners lived above the store it was vitally important that they were quiet. Their plan was simple: The first burglar would climb a ladder and break into the store while the second burglar stood watch outside.

When the first burglar managed to get inside the darkened store he almost immediately knocked over some cans of food and was forced to dive behind some shelves to hide. Awoken from his sleep the owner of the store came down the stairs moments later with a shotgun and shouted, “Who’s there?!?!?

The store was completely silent until the quiet was broken by a distant, “Meo-wwwww.

The owner pulled up his gun, breathed a sigh of relief and spoke out loud, “Just the cat…”

The owner went back upstairs.

The rattled burglar stealthily snuck back outside.

Once back outside the first burglar told the second burglar what had happened and how he’d escaped by pretending to be a cat. He asked the second burglar to go inside this time while he stood watch outside.

The second burglar quickly managed to infiltrate the store but he also managed to quickly knock over some more cans. The owner, carrying the same shotgun, clad in the same bath robe, descended back down to the store, yelling a little more frantically this time, “Who’s there?!?!?

Crouched behind the same shelves that the first burglar had  hidden behind just moments ago the second burglar thought of the first burglar’s story and decided to break the silence, “Just another cat…


The owner shot him dead.

When Sidney told me the story I laughed immediately. Sidney had his poker face on though, “You like that story buddy?”

I smiled, “Love it. That’s a great story.”

Sidney continued with the straight face, “Good. Because you’re the second burglar.”

And that’s the problem with tracing. In doing something just because it seems like everybody else is doing it. In trusting that change in and of itself is the cure. It doesn’t work just because its’ sexy and blindly following the new religion won’t necessarily keep you safe. Ask former Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Girardi who just a fews days ago was removing Sonny Gray in the fifth inning of a game he was pitching brilliantly in. Girardi who just today was fired by his GM Brian Cashman despite the fact he guided the team to being but a win away from the World Series.

All is fair in love, war and bloodless analytics. All is on display on the Autumn stage.