Some Thoughts From Week One
Based on my observations of the team from the first week, as well as my observations of the reactions of others to those same events.
1. Perhaps the best thing to come out of week one was the Endy Chavez Small Sample Size Hot Streak. Going into the season, the only people who were remotely excited about the idea of a slap-hitting no power guy in left field were the nerds who have been advocating for the undervaluation of defense in prior years. Had Chavez started the year 3 for 30, the public sentiment would have shifted fairly strongly to LF being some sort of Griffey/Balentien combo, and Wakamatsu would have had his preference for defense challenged pretty quickly.
However, Endy’s single-fest has made it fairly simple for Wak to tell Junior “look, you’re great and all, but I can’t bench the guy who hits .380 and plays great defense – you want to win, right?” So, it’s made the Junior-as-DH plan a lot easier to pitch to both Griffey and the fan base, and that’s only good news for the team. In the long run, there’s probably no more important roster decision that needs to be made than keeping Griffey off the field as much as possible, and the Endy Chavez hot streak helped make that more realistic.
However, it’s apparently also given some people the idea that Endy Chaez isn’t a lousy hitter. No one’s advocated for Chavez more than I, but we have to be realistic in our expectations – Endy Chavez is a terrible hitter. That hasn’t changed just because he won a bunch of coin flips. He has a batting average on balls in play of .407 – his career mark is .297. That’s not skill – that’s good luck. He’s finding holes, and while I love that he’s finding holes, there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to think that this represents some kind of new expectation for his offensive performance level. He’s the worst hitter on the team (okay, he might be better than Rob Johnson), and he should hit as low in the order as possible when Ichiro is healthy. This idea that he should hit 2nd to “ride the hot streak” assumes that hot streaks are predictive, and it’s been proven that they aren’t. Thank the world for its gift of a good offensive week from Chavez, move him to the #9 hole, and keep trying to win games.
2. The bullpen posted a 2.37 ERA last week, but it was the scariest 2.37 ERA of all time. Their combined walk rate was 5.21 and 40% of their balls in play were outfield fly balls, so even while they got some key outs and held almost all of their leads, they didn’t exactly pitch well. I’m as big a David Aardsma fan as anyone, but let’s not kid ourselves – he was no relief ace this weekend. Pounding the upper half of the strike zone with four seam fastballs when you don’t have a great idea of where it’s going isn’t exactly going to make you the new Mariano Rivera.
This bullpen is remarkably interesting, but also still a pretty real concern in the short term. The idea of collecting a bunch of live arms and sorting them out as the season goes on is a good way to build a bullpen, but inherent in the assumption is that some guys will be pretty bad in the process of sorting themselves out of the equation. Those bad outings are going to hurt the team, and if the team keeps playing close games, those implosions are going to occur in high leverage outings, which is going to lead to losses for the club.
What we have right now is a bunch of guys pitching at similar levels, which is the exact opposite of sorting things out. When Tyler Johnson comes off the DL, who goes away to open up a roster spot? Corcoran was the last guy to make the team out of spring training, but he was also pretty good last year and has a terrific sinker that makes him a useful situational reliever. This team needs a LH reliever, though, and with a lot of options for RH specialists, maybe he’s the guy who loses out, but it’s not an obvious call one way or another.
While we’re talking about the bullpen, we have to talk about Wak’s usage so far. Yesterday, he brought Aardsma in to replace Bedard with Giambi/Holliday/Cust due up. He took out an LHP and brought in an RHP with two LH hitters due up in a one run game. If McLaren had done this, I’d have flipped out and gone on some long rant about platoon adantages, but I didn’t. This either reflects on a bias that I have that is interfering with my ability to cover this team objectively or reflects a built up trust in Wakamatsu’s intellect that creates a benefit-of-the-doubt that didn’t exist with prior managers. I guess it’s up to you to decide whether that benefit-of-the-doubt is a bias or is built on a reality that our new management team actually knows what they’re doing.
3. There’s a remarkable amount of wisdom in not extrapolating from early season results – way too many wrong conclusions have been drawn from small sample size data and a lack of understanding of the variability in performance in narrow time spans. My Endy Chavez paragraph up above is based on the premise that luck can be a massive factor in the results of 30 plate appearances. However, some things stabilize faster than others, just due to physical limitations in abilities. Endy Chavez can hit .400 for a little while, but he can’t slug five home runs in a week. He’s just not strong enough.
Likewise, flyball pitchers can’t run up 60% GB rates and bad pitchers can’t post exceptional BB/K rates. Even though it’s only 13 innings, Bedard’s 15/1 K rate suggests that he posseses an ability that guys like Carlos Silva don’t have. You will never see a Carlos Silva-level pitcher run a 15/1 K/BB rate in 13 innings. Last year, guys like me who are constantly warning about small sample sizes whiffed on Cliff Lee despite an amazing April where he pitched like Johan Santana. When we see extremely good or bad performances in the true outcome categories, we need to give them some amount of real credit. You can say “it’s only two starts” all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that Erik Bedard has established a level of ability that he simply didn’t have last year. That should be exciting to you.