Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Unimportant History

Over the weekend, the Twins took a tough split against one of the league's best teams. Last night, they watched their bullpen once again blow a lead against one of the league's worst teams. Sigh.

Beyond some recent tough losses, recently there has been even more of a sense of annoyance. Annoyance at having to continuously face the onslaught of major media stories about Fransisco Rodriguez's "historical run" at Bobby Thigpen's save record.

It's true that the relative unimportance of this record has already been tackled by many major writers, but it's hard to ignore when the only real story over the weekend seemed to have been Rodriguez's 49th and 50th saves. The most common point to make, and perhaps the most important thing, is that Rodriguez's talent has nothing to do with the production of save opportunities that has allowed him to make a run at the record. A combination of luck, an often mediocre offense, and a great pitching staff outside of K-Rod helped produce the 55 save opportunities that have allowed Rodriguez to make this run.

This brings up several points to consider. One is that the save itself and the save opportunity is usually converted and the statistic itself isn't all that meaningful. The majority of three-run and even two-run leads are saved. Therefore, as a raw number, the amount of saves is not as important as save percentage. Granted, 50/55 save opportunities amounts to around a 91% save percentage, which is very good. However, our own Joe Nathan (92.1%), Joakim Soria (92.3%) and Mariano Rivera (97%) have significantly higher save percentages. What is the difference? Nathan has had 38 save opportunities and Rivera only 33. In fact, Rodriguez has had 16 more save opportunities than anyone else in the majors.

That certainly seems to suggest that Rodriguez's pursuit is not any more impressive than what Brad Lidge has done this year, converting all 31 save opportunities has had for the Phillies. In fact, that arguably not only makes Lidge the better closer, but also the more valuable one. Same goes for Soria, Nathan, and Rivera. All three AL closers listed have WHIPs below 1, with Rivera's 0.72 blowing the competition away. What is Rodriguez's? An ugly 1.27, which is also reflected by his mediocre 62/29 K/BB ratio, or 2.14. Nathan's is an impressive 4.69, but Rivera's in an outerwordly 11.17 or 67/6.

Which once again begs another question. Why aren't fans also discussing what might be Nathan's best relief year, with sub-1.00 ERA currently (and now a 1.13 ERA partially thanks to Nick Punto's infallible defense). And why aren't fans discussing how Rivera, at 38, is also possibly having his best year, with opponents "hitting" .175/.205/.257 this year to go with a 1.53 ERA. Each are having incredible years, but have gone relatively unnoticed because while they convert saves better than Rodriguez, they just don't have that counting stat the media seems so obsessed with. Eventually, fans might lose their affinity for the overrated save, but for now, it is making a lot more news then it should, leaving better stories in the dust.

* Twins fans may have noticed the return of a familiar face to the bullpen via the trade. Eddie Guardado was acquired from the Texas Rangers for minor-league closer Mark Hamburger. (As a fun fact, Hamburger was not drafted, but rather signed through a Twins tryout camp, after displaying a mid-90s fastball.) Guardado is nothing near the All-Star closer the Twins had back in 2002 and 2003, as he only has 28 strikeouts (versus 17 walks) in 49 1/3 innings, which is not too impressive and suggests he's been somewhat lucky, but he also has only given up 38 hits. More importantly, while he is killing lefties (.167/.521 OPS), righties are not knocking him around too badly either (.252/.721).

Guardado was able to quickly help the Twins last night, working a quick, scoreless eighth inning. It will continue to occur to many Twins fans that the front office could have made claims on superior bullpen help, like Chad Bradford, but trading for Guardado while giving up very little is at least a solid move for the club. Guardado doesn't strike me as the solution to the eighth inning, but he may be a better option than anyone else at this point and any improvement is good with just over a month to go in the season.

* I won't comment too much on last night's game, as I was unable to finish it due to the sleep deprivation caused by law school interview season. However, watching the Twins offense flounder against Miguel Bastita was frankly embarrassing. They should have been able to produce more run support for Fransisco Liriano against one of baseball's worst starting pitchers. And seeing that Jesse Crain gave up a walk-off home run only increases my own worries about the bullpen. Clearly, there is only one reliable member and its not Crain.

While I am at it, though, I should point out that after a solid start last night, Liriano's ERA dropped to 3.83, giving the Twins a rotation of starters all with ERAs under four. (Baker; 3.74, Perkins; 3.90, Blackburn; 3.78, Slowey 3.74.) In terms of ERA, no one in the group particularly stands out, but having five young starters capable of putting up solid to outstanding numbers can only bode well for the future of the franchise.

Its too bad, then, that the media is largely missing this story as well, as shown by this response to a chat with Jayson Stark to a question by a Twins fan about why the Twins five-man rotation isn't considered amongst the best:

"SportsNation Jayson Stark: I hear you, Chris. But I go back to my point about the Phillies. These guys have been unbelievable strike-throwing machines. But pretty much this whole rotation consists of guys who the Twins hope will keep them in the game. And that's not normally a formula for October success. Having Joe Nathan on your team IS a formula for October success, but we're not debating bullpens or whole staffs this week. "

I'll grant that I'm glad Stark recognizes the great Nathan, and generally I like Stark as a writer, especially considering that he actually mentioned VORP in the introduction to his chat, but I'm not sure that I'd consider the rotation a group of starters that you hope will win you a game. Maybe that is the case with guys like Blackburn and Perkins, but Baker, Liriano, and Slowey have legitimately dominated teams this year and should continue to do so. Hopefully this is another story the larger baseball media recognizes soon enough.

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