The Success of Jeff Nelson and other urban legends
The Mariners’ most vexing dilemma in spring training so far? They have too many solid pitchers, quoth the Sunday Everett Herald.
Given that too many good players is always a pleasant problem, I was pleased to read an article with this premise. I was even more pleased to read the sub-headline, “The success of Jeff Nelson and Aaron Sele gives Seattle 16 pitchers for 12 spots,” because I had thought Nelson was struggling. Eagerly, I dove into the article, anxious to get some positive news.
In the next-to-last paragraph, here’s what I found:
Nelson, who pitched for the Mariners from 2001-2003, has an unimpressive 7.20 ERA but has allowed one run in his past three outings and has three strikeouts in his past two innings. The swings and misses tell Nelson that his best pitch, his slider, is working.
Holy Small Sample Size, Batman! He’s got three strikeouts in his last two innings! Quick, lock him up to a multi-year deal, like we did with Shiggy and Villone.
Most importantly: I am shocked that I just read an article about the outstanding spring a guy with a 7.20 ERA is having. Really puts all those “Aaron Sele has pitched nine straight scoreless innings” stories in perpective.
But wait! There’s more. The Herald’s Kirby Arnold continues by saying that just about every pitcher offers something that will make it hard to keep him off the team. For example, “Shigetoshi Hasegawa, J.J. Putz, Scott Atchison, Julio Mateo, George Sherrill and Nathan Bland all are pitching well … and Matt Thornton is a rare power left-hander who the M’s believe will dominate left-handed hitters if he solves control issues”
But check out the following quote from the Sunday TNT, where Mike Hargrove says that “Nathan Bland, Matt Thornton and George Sherrill have not yet pitched well enough to make the team.” This seems to blow up Arnold’s theory that every pitcher is wowing management. And for those keeping score at home, yes, these may be the first unflattering remarks Hargrove has said about anyone in spring training. I’m sure Bland, Thornton and Sherrill feel special.
Speaking of small sample size, this Nathan Bland Arnold praises is the same Nathan Bland that “turned heads” with four early scoreless innings. Yes, four. Then he got shelled, but that seems to be unimportant. Like Nelson’s impressive last two innings, it’s the impressive small sample that Arnold wants to focus on, not the gnarly small sample.
First upshot: From my perspective, the problem isn’t too many good arms — it’s too many undistinguished arms, pitchers that are promising in some ways but flawed in others.
Second upshot: it’s silly for ballclubs to make important roster decisions based only on spring training performances. It’s even sillier for media folks to project roster decisions based on the parts of spring performances they like.