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May 19, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Slow hook versus quick hook

One of the more noticeable changes in the Nationals pitching this season is that the starters are going deeper into games. Last season, the starters were 29th of 30 teams in innings pitched per game, on average recording only 15.5 outs per game.  So far this year, they are averaging 18.2 outs per game (almost an additional inning per game), ranking 13th in MLB.

In general, this is a very positive development. It’s certainly good to have starters go deeper into games and place less stress on the relief staff. Jim Riggleman has accomplished this without ever running up large pitch counts.

Despite my general support for this change, I do think there are a few situations where it would have been better strategy to not try to keep the starter in quite so long. One example was in last night’s game, in which Tom Gorzelanny pitched against the Mets in New York. Although he allowed only one run in the first five innings, he had not been sharp—having allowed four walks and six hits. He had faced 24 batters and his pitch count was up to 99.

In the bottom of the sixth, trailing the Mets 1 to 0, he allowed a lead-off single to Scott Hairston, who advanced to second on a flyout by Ruben Tejada. Niese then struck out, and Gorzelanny faced Jose Reyes, who was two for three against him. This is where, in my opinion, it was time to go to the bullpen. The important consideration is that pitchers tend to pitch significantly worse the fourth time through the opposing lineup, as batters have become accustomed to their pitches.

To illustrate, so far this season opposing batters have hit .270 against Nats starters. In the fourth time through the lineup (admittedly a small sample of just 25 plate appearances), they’re hitting .333. Over larger samples, we see the same effect. Over Gorzelanny’s career as a starter, opponents have hit .267, but in the fourth time through the lineup, they’ve hit .288. For Liván  Hernández‘s career (a much larger sample), opponents have hit .284 when he’s started, but .302 the fourth time through the lineup. The Book (by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin) documents that this is a systematic tendency.

Instead of lifting him, Riggleman had Gorzelanny issue an intentional walk to Reyes (a topic for another post sometime), and he then gave up a double to Justin Turner that scored both runners. Riggleman then lifted Gorzy, but the damage was done as the Nats now trailed 3–0. Of course, since the Nats ultimately were shut out, an earlier pitching change wouldn’t have made a difference. Nevertheless, I think it’s better strategy not to press a starter to continue when he’s allowed a baserunner and has started his fourth time through the lineup.

A similar situation took place in Hernández’s  May 3 game against the Phillies, when he was left in the game after giving up a lead-off single to Victorino in the seventh inning (and fourth time through the lineup), trailing the Phils 2 to 1. Victorino advanced to second on an out and then scored on a single by Howard, before Riggleman lifted Liván. Another close game slipped further out of reach.

I’m not saying to never let a pitcher stay in for the fourth time through. I’m just saying—especially in a close game where the starter isn’t pitching sharply—to have a reliever ready and be ready to yank the starter at the first sign of trouble. Also, late in a close game, be willing to send in a pinch hitter for a pitcher (except maybe for Jason Marquis and Hernández, who seem to hit better than most of our bench). For example, in John Lannan‘s April 30 game against the Giants, he was allowed to bat in the bottom of the sixth of a 1–1 tie. In the seventh, he got into trouble and gave up the winning run (after another infamous intentional walk, this time to load the bases). I think the smart strategy would have been to lift him for a pinch hitter.

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