Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fourth Starter in the Playoffs

On Monday, I posted an article submitting four questions about the Twins' playoff roster for consideration. The topic that seemed to generate the most discussion was which starting pitcher might get the nod to start Game 4 of the ALDS, should there be one.

Right now, the choice appears to be between Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker or the Game 1 starter on short rest. None of those options seem all that unappealing, which is a good sort of conundrum to face. I can't claim to know what the right answer is at this very point in time, and if you think you do, you're probably wrong.

Ron Gardenhire made his current preference clear yesterday, laying out a planned playoff rotation that includes Blackburn as fourth starter. Gardenhire left the door open for adjustments based on what happens over the team's final handful of regular season games, but for now Blackburn stands at the front of the line for that fourth rotation spot in October.

Is Gardy on the right track?

All things being equal, you want Baker or Slowey to pitch a big game before you want Blackburn. They're better pitchers, capable of controlling a lineup with strikeouts unlike Blackburn who allows an insane amount of contact and can only dictate to a certain degree whether those copious balls in play turn into outs. Against a team filled with outstanding hitters like the Yankees or Rays, you want the guy who can get you some essentially guaranteed outs.

But all things are not currently equal. Blackburn has been steadily excellent since returning from a minor-league stint, with a hugely increased ground ball rate and a pair of strong outings against a playoff team. Meanwhile, Baker hasn't pitched into the sixth inning of a game in nearly a month and has been bothered by a sore elbow.

Slowey has battled arm issues late in the season as well, and while he's occasionally flashed brilliance he has yet to settle into a prolonged groove. While Slowey's overall numbers are drastically better than Blackburn's this year, it bears noting that Blackburn has delivered 13 quality starts to Slowey's nine. That includes four against AL playoff teams for Blackburn, one for Slowey.

A hardcore sabermetrician likely will not waver in claiming that Baker should be the guy, regardless of performance over these final games. After all, according to advanced statistics that filter out luck and defense, Baker's been the team's second-best starter this season.

The problem with strictly statistical analysis is that it tends to ignore the human aspects of the game. These aren't robots out there playing. Sometimes streaks can be meaningful. Guys have confidence highs and lows. They go through stretches where their mechanics get out of whack. They pitch through injuries that affect their results.

This might sound like a major endorsement of Blackburn, and it's not meant to be. I've been as low as anyone on the right-hander this season, and there was a point where the thought of him starting a postseason game would have induced nausea for me. But we know he's a streaky pitcher and right now he's undeniably going good. If he unravels in his final starts while his competitors excel and prove they're fully healthy, you re-evaluate. If no one looks up to the challenge, maybe a start from Francisco Liriano on three days rest is the most logical choice.

Above all, I'd encourage everyone to keep an open mind. The right answer now could very well differ from the right answer on October 6th. Only one matters.


On the road with.... said...

I am sure Blackburn will get the call and I understand where the decision is coming from. Baker HAS to be on the post-season roster though. He has the best chance to get K's of any long man option and given the Twins offense, a lock-down long man could hold the game until the bats could get the team back into it.

Probably not Scott Baker said...

I, as confirmed a stathead as you can get, don't have a problem with measuring someone by recent performances, but that's no reason to not use advanced metrics on those recent performances.

Blackburn's 4 September starts: 2-1, 29 IP, 1.86 ERA. Outstanding!

Blackburn's 4 September starts: 29 IP, 10K, 6BB, 1HR. Less good.

Baker's last start back: 5IP, 1BB, 7K, 0HR. Pretty good.

Blackburn's less of a question of being 100% by the time October comes around, but if Baker is anywhere near 100%, starting Blackburn over him is criminal, and the recent performances bear that out.

Nick N. said...

I just can't really put much stock into a start against this abysmal Indians team. If Baker gets a turn in that final Blue Jays series at Target Field, it'll be far more telling.

USAFChief said...

Personally, I think a three game sweep in the first round is the best answer to 'who is the fourth starter?'

Anonymous said...

criminal? just because baker strikes out more batters doesn't make him the better pitcher right now. pitchers can be successful by getting ground ball outs and blackburn is in one of those streaks right now. why not try to ride that out? people keep clinging to the notion that baker is a great pitcher. he's never been able to put it all together for more than a couple starts in a row. blackburn isn't a great pitcher either, but we have seen him go on great and terrible streaks in his short career so far. right now he is on a great streak. like nick said, if he starts to struggle, we can rethink this whole thing, but as of right now, it is criminal to put baker in there ahead of blackburn, even if baker is healthy or not. k/bb ratio is not the only stat to look at.

Ed Bast said...

I guess I don't understand why we automatically have to go with a 4-man rotation in a 5-game series. Let's say we play the Yankees. And let's just say the Yanks go up 2-1 (very possible). Game 4: CC vs. Blacky or Baker at Yankee Stadium. Is that really what we want to bank our season on?

Ed Bast said...

Comparing one pitcher's walks, strikeouts, and HR allowed over his last 4 starts to the same stats in another pitcher's last start, and presenting that as the definitive answer to the question, is pretty criminal in my book.

Anonymous said...

Ed Bast @ 8:13 AM

Amen sir! Especially as Nick points out Baker's stats were 5 IP vs a AAA team.

Jeremy said...

I like Blackburn on this one, simply because of the team's they're going to be playing, especially if it's Tampa. Tampa doesn't hit for average, they hit for power, even though they have a lot of speed. NY hits a lot of homeruns as well. Even if they hit Blackburn well they aren't going to be putting balls over the fence. If Baker / Slowey are off just a little bit, NY / Tampa will be putting up some home runs. For one game, I take my chances that hits of Blackburn find a glove. He's been very good since coming back from AAA and has demonstrated the ability to pitch deep into games.

Josh said...

Blackburn is the hot guy right now, so I expect that will be the most important thing in the Gardy Gut Factor that will determine it. While I'm not wild about Gardy's Gut Instincts to make these decisions, I think in this case it is probably the right call.

Blackburn is healthy and pitching well, with an ability to go deep in a game. Slowey has struggled with his control frequently this season, racking up high pitch counts and struggling to get out of the 5th or 6th inning many a time. Baker is HR-prone and coming off injury. Blackburn probably provides the lowest-risk.

I would prefer Baker in the pen over Slowey, because Baker's raw stuff will likely translate better, IMHO. he could be used in more than just a long relief role if needed and have success and the additional flexibility could be important.

Slowey's been an important part of the team's success this year, but I think he's getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

Beth said...

I don't have my scorecard available right now, but Blackburn seemed to give up a lot of fly balls in yesterday's game. Not sure if it means anything, but it was my perception.

Baker only has one more start before playoffs, so I have a feeling it takes a collapse by Blackburn and Slowey for a playoff spot for him. Which makes me sad, but it is what it is.

JimCrikket said...

A potential Game 4 is going to be on the road in Yankee Stadium or the Trop, not in the HR-killer Target Field. In that situation, I'm less concerned about getting a couple more strikeouts over 6-7 innings than I am about keeping the ball in the ballpark. If Blackburn's sinker is still sinking in October, I'll take my chances with him.

Anonymous said...

Blackburn is on fire right now. Opponents are hitting .216 with no power since he has returned. He don't strike that many guys out but watch him pitch. So many of his outs come on ground balls that are too slow to even dream of escaping the infield. He also induces a lot of weak fly balls. I know the sabre guys just group those all into "balls in play" or whatever but I think there is more to it. I've watched him play and it sure as hell seems like he is in control out there. People freak about "blackburn vs XXX" but opponents are typically only scoring 1 or 2 runs during blackburn games lately so I'm not so sure what all the worry is about. Pavano has been more shaky lately than Blacky and they both throw slow.

Hitters are not hitting Blackburn anywhere close to hard right now. He also is incredibly difficult to steal bases on, which would be great if we play Tampa.

Also look at it this way. Blackburn/Baker over Slowey seems almost a forgone conclusion at this point. So we are deciding between Blackburn and Baker. I'd say that Baker is more deserving of the nod just in pedigree but Baker also could be a mean reliever in a tight spot. Blackburn could long relieve but who really cares. Slowey and Perkins and Manship can all do that too.

I think Baker would be a flexible reliever able to go long or get a strikeout in a jam. And there are certain hitters out there that Baker absolutely owns. He has a slightly funky delivery that some hitters can't pick up.

Sorry Slowey! Blackburn starts with Baker out of the pen. Mijares in the pen as long as he proves he belongs in the next week. If he falters, then slowey or perk get in there.

We will be leaving good pitchers at home. It sucks for them but that is a good thing for the team.

Nick N. said...

And let's just say the Yanks go up 2-1 (very possible). Game 4: CC vs. Blacky or Baker at Yankee Stadium. Is that really what we want to bank our season on?

If Game 4 is an elimination game I'd probably trust Pavano on short test more than any of Baker/Slowey/Blackburn, which is why I'm slightly skeptical of the decision to have Liriano start Game 1. I can't imagine the Twins would let Liriano pitch on short rest, so if he's getting a second start in the series it's in Game 5 either way. Why not leave the door open for Pavano to start twice?

I don't have my scorecard available right now, but Blackburn seemed to give up a lot of fly balls in yesterday's game. Not sure if it means anything, but it was my perception.

He got 12 grounders to six fly outs, which is a darn good ratio.

Ed Bast said...

Nick, to me Gardy's falling into what I'll call the "Ace Trap" much like he does the "Closer Trap." Just as his closer is only allowed to pitch 1 inning in games in which the Twins lead by less than four, it seems his "ace" is obligated to start Game 1, no questions asked.

When you think about it, the only difference in the 2 scenarios is whether you prefer your #4/5/6 starter on full rest over your #2 starter and most durable pitcher on 3 days rest. I can't believe the Twins, or any other team for that matter, would vote for the former.

Part of me wonders if Gardy has even considered this. But who knows. Maybe we won't have to worry about it.

Anonymous said...

The reason I would leave Baker out of the equation is because I am not convinced he is fully healthy. He had 2 cortisone shots already. The fact that are 2 in a row is telling that there might be something else causing the inflammation, and I bet they don't want to run the risk. I wish I am wrong.

Anonymous said...

"hugely impressive", "hardcore sabermetrician". Going deep into the modifier play book.

"He got 12 grounders to six fly outs, which is a darn good ratio." GO/AO is alright if the game isnt charted but its potentially deceptive. I have no idea what the ball in play gb % was. Also it looks like they counted his double play as 2 ground outs which is sketchy.

I think choosing blackburn as the playoff starter is the worst option. And to the people that say nick blackburn is hot thats fine, but hes still not doing much to sustain a high level of performance. Its true that hes gotten more gb's and k's since his return, but his k rate has fallen back off. Whether hes striking out 3/9 like he was before the break or just over 3/9 like he has recently, the number is awful. And i know pitching isnt a strike out contest, blackie has walked more than slowey and baker too, the k rate is what makes blackie terrible. Ive never seen a pitcher have long term success striking so few hitter out. Guys like john lannan and carlos silva, guys with low k's and moderate gb, have put together lucky season and produced low era years but eventually the wheels come off. If the twins choose to pitch blackburn in the playoffs ill do what i always do when he pitches, cheer as hard as i can that he gets pounded.

It should be a no brainer to carry both slowey and baker even if they arent starting. Right now they are better relief options than rauch and guerrier. If they dont carry them both it will be the result of the common inability of the twins management to go a little outside the box. I think gardy wants to only carry 11 pitcher more because its convention to cut pitchers in the playoff than because it makes sense. In lots of cases it makes sense to not carry the 5th starter and a long man but for the twins carry 11 pitchers would allow them to carry 3 catchers and 2 utility infielders. There is 0 reason to carry 3 catchers. All of the bench players they are considering over baker, except morneau, are very unlikely to play except to pinch run for thome and perhaps as a defensive sub in the outfield. Not carrying more than 11 pitchers just because and refusing to use starters in meaningful relief innings because they are starters while still carrying morales and butera is absurd

Ryan said...

If the twins choose to pitch blackburn in the playoffs ill do what i always do when he pitches, cheer as hard as i can that he gets pounded.

So you are going to cheer against the Twins just because they play a guy you don't want them to play? A lot of people don't think we should pitch Blackburn but they still want the Twins to win. I don't know about anyone else but I'd rather win the World Series then have you feel vindicated for being right.

Dr. Truth said...

Yeah it's hard to find words to describe someone who cheers against his team because the starting pitcher has a low k/bb ratio. Talk about being obsessed with stats. Log off of Fangraphs for a couple nights and cheer for your club to finally win a playoff series for god's sake. You might have fun.

Anonymous said...

If the nick blackburn pitches terribly and the twins win in a shoot out thats ideal. When the twins do stupid stuff id rather see them pay then have them be successful and continue to do low percentage things, especially with guys gardy likes. And i absolutely cheer against a lot of twins: blackburn, punto, tolbert, butera, guerrier (although i have nothing against guerrier now that hes properly slotted as the twins worst rhp and not as their main set up man), etc. Every year nick punto starts out as a utility man but if he plays "well" for any period of time hell end up as an everyday starter. Eventually the fact that hes terrible catches up with him, and because gardy is a lot slower to pull his support from his guys and he is to give it to them, the twins end up with punto playing a significant number of innings as one of the worst players in baseball. If blackburn pitches well in the playoff game, that will translate to a longer leash next year. And it takes disasters for anything to happen, 4er in 6 innings wont do it. Nick punto hitting .200 for 70% of a season was the only way to get him off 3b and nick blackburn being the worst pitcher in baseball for half the season for him to get pulled. And even then its just temporary. Nick punto would certainly be the everyday 3b if he hadnt have gotten hurt during a time period where cuddy couldnt play 3b.

Erica said...

I still can remember with perfect clarity the end of Blackburn's 2008 campaign, ending in that game 163 loss. Blackburn showed a lot of nerve and the ability to pull it together for important games. Likewise, when the Twins' season was hanging on a good performance against Greinke during the final Royals series last year, Blackburn pitched an absolute gem (never mind the bullpen issues later in the game).

I'm sure many will hate this reasoning, but that's why I'd feel comfortable with Blackburn starting a potential game 4.

Dr. Truth said...

But Erica, what were his k/bb ratios in those games? That's what's important here.

Nick N. said...

Nick Blackburn threw more quality innings than any other Twins starter between 2008 and 2009, and also delivered numerous strong performances in key spots.

Cheering against a guy who has been that valuable to the team simply because you don't like his peripherals is exactly the type of thing that gives stat-heads a bad name and makes them look totally out of touch with reality.

Probably still not Scott Baker said...

When I said that "if Baker was near 100%", I meant that if he throws something resembling a good game in his last(2?) starts, but I should've made that clearer.
The point, really, was that Blackburn hasn't actually been pitching very well, over those four starts I mentioned he's walked six, struck out ten, and allowed one home run(that part's good), and put up a .236 BABIP. If the question is whether his recent performances are a sign that he's turned into a .236 BABIP pitcher(or even a .280 one), or if he hasn't, then, no, I'm going to be the cold heartless automaton who hates baseball(but for some reason watched about 1300 innings this year) and says that most of the difference is Blackburn getting lucky on balls in play, and I will stand by my claim that starting Blackburn over Baker(with the more emphasized caveat of Baker pitching more well) would be an egregious mistake.

Nick N. said...

The point, really, was that Blackburn hasn't actually been pitching very well, over those four starts I mentioned he's walked six, struck out ten, and allowed one home run(that part's good), and put up a .236 BABIP.

His GB rate over that span is also close to 60 percent, a fact that you conveniently gloss over. Against a power-laden lineup, do I want the guy who's in a groove and forcing opposing hitters to hit everything into the dirt, or a guy who may or may not be 100 percent healthy and has a tendency to give up home runs in bunches when he's not?

Most Definitely Still Not Scott Baker said...

Well, for one, there's a good chance that the Twins play the Rays, who aren't a huge power team, but who are the fastest team in baseball(164/209 in stolen bases? Really?), so maybe the idea of having 60% of your balls in play having the possibility of being infield singles isn't the best idea ever.

As an aside, though, Blackburn probably hasn't really increased his "true" GB% to 60%. Tim Hudson, Jason Masterson, and Derek Lowe are the only people who have GB% approaching that on the year(but ground ball rate versus not-ground ball rate is something that pitchers are believed to have a decent amount of control over, so maybe.)

Even on the home run issue, yes, Blackburn has only allowed one home run in the last four starts. But it was one home run on 22 fly balls. As I said before:

Career BABIP: .312
Last 4 BABIP: .236

Career HR/FB: 10.4%
Last 4 HR/FB: 4.5%

But we have to measure on recent performances? But these are things that pitchers(in the minds of people who hate baseball, anyway) don't have this much control over.

You can draw the conclusion that these results mean he's become a much better pitcher, and I'll draw the conclusion that these results mean he's been lucky.

Anonymous said...

Yeah i was going to point out that calling the rays a power team is a really terrible mischaracterization too. In fact, theres probably not many worse teams in baseball to pitch to contact against because there great team speed will turn into more cheap hits etc. Perhaps a little less time contemplating what it is that gives stat heads a bad name and a little more research.

RC said...

Grunching here, but when did evaluating pitchers more based on recent performance go from "Last three years, with weighing toward the most recent" to "Last three starts"? Six games is an abysmal sample size to draw any, and I mean *ANY* true conclusions about a pitcher's skills.

Frankly, I think the fact there's even a discussion is ridiculous. Jason Repko is batting about .333 in his last 6 starts. Kubel's at about .200. Hell, Repko is actually good at fielding, while Kubel has the range of a scarecrow. Do we have a new right fielder for the playoff run? Is anybody asking that question? No, because it's a ridiculous question to ask.

It's the same level of crazy to ask if Blackburn should start over Baker. The only reason anyone's asking the question AT ALL is because they don't have any idea how to actually quantify a pitcher's contributions to the team -- beyond outdated statistics created in the 1800s.

I don't say these things out of malice. I don't say these things because I think my view of the game is somehow objectively *better* than anyone else's. I enjoyed baseball for my entire life before I learned about more advanced quantification measures, and it doesn't offend me when people aren't interested in statistics.

What does offend me is when people claim to have some sort of insight, some sort of superior knowledge about what will better enable the team to WIN -- and then blow off any statistical investigation as nerdly hogwash. Gut instincts and personal observation are great for enjoying the game. Without emotion, baseball would be meaningless. But using those emotions and gut feelings to claim that it's a better strategic decision to put a historically bad pitcher up over a historically great one directly hurts the team.

It hurts the team because it enables Gardy to keep making these decisions. It keeps shoddy sportswriters in business, who further perpetuate the strategic myths of the Blackburns and Bunts. And it ultimately keeps these concepts, these outdated, ridiculous, mathematically wrong concepts in the zeitgeist of baseball strategy. And that decreases the team's chance of winning.

Read about sample sizes. Read about defense-independent pitching statistics. Read about WHY we should evaluate pitchers based on the things they control -- what they control -- and why they can actually control these aspects of their game vs. the things that happen behind them....

.....if you want to.

But if you don't... don't. Just don't tell me Nick Blackburn is a better pitcher than Scott Baker.

...unless you're privy to team medical information that doesn't make it to the general public. :)

Anonymous said...

RC is right. Jason repko is hot. We have to ride that out. Who would you rather have playing right field. An elite defender whos white hot at the plate like repko, or a bad defender whos really struggling at the plate and possibly injured?

Anonymous said...

"Nick Blackburn threw more quality innings than any other Twins starter between 2008 and 2009, and also delivered numerous strong performances in key spots. "

And making irrelevant, unqualified, unquantified opinions like this is why i dont care very much about what you think of my cheering habits. And lets not oversimplify my sentiment as being just about his peripherals. I also dislike him because i dont think hes very attractive and he sounds stupid.

I actually did think some about why i cheer against some twins. Its not just about being terrible, its also about being told by others, the media, the fans etc, that the terrible player is good. Hearing about all the big games blackburn has pitched in, applauding his ability to pitch to contact, hearing about his mythical sinker that is capable of generating ground balls at a league average rate, giving him a guaranteed contract for no reason, these things make me want to see him fail.

SolidTwinsTeam said...

I agree with what many have said concerning thing to keep in mind though is that if we face the Yankees in the first round, Blackburn has to be the guy. He has playoff experience against them (unlike the others) and was tagged for the win in both of our victories over New York this year. And yes, he is on a great streak right now and has found his sinker once more.

Ed Bast said...

RC, you do realize you called Scott Baker "historically great", right?

Part of the problem with the statistical argument is that the stat heads pick and choose statistics to support their case, and conveniently ignore others. You can find a statistic to prove/disprove anything.

Anonymous said...

Yeah everyone picks and chooses their statistics. Not exclusive to stat heads. And even if it were exclusive to stat heads it wouldnt be the problem with the statistical argument, it would be the problem with stat heads.

RC said...

The thing about us statheads is that we actually know what stats are statistically valid and which ones are garbage. You, on the other hand, do not, because you have done no reading on the subject and just look for ways to quantify your own gut feelings.

This is the last point I'll make on the subject:

Carl Pavano: 3.93 FIP, 4.00 xFIP
Scott Baker: 3.94 FIP, 4.03 xFIP

Practically identical.
One's the Twins' True Ace.
One might not even make the bullpen.
This is simply not the way to run a ballclub if you want to win.

Ed Bast said...

Running a ballpark based on theoretical numbers - things that did not happen in any baseball game ever played, but things that may have happened if baseball was played by robots in a bubble - that's the way to run a ball club?

Thank you for not saying any more on the topic, I don't think my brain can handle the increasing levels of idiocy. I still can't wrap my head around "historically great Scott Baker." Preposterous statement of the year 2010.