Monday, July 24, 2006

The Kansas City Royals are playing unexpectedly well this month -- their 6-10 July record coming into the Angel series improved their winning percentage -- but a split in Missouri is ugly nonetheless.

The series was bookended by our starters having uncharacteristically poor starts. Without looking it up, I'd guess that Ervin Santana's Thursday start, in which he walked eight men, was his overall worst since his debut. He did manage to battle and keep the Angels in the game for his short time on the mound, but his release point was a mess, his control was AWOL, and I don't think he had a real clue where the ball was going.

Jered Weaver closed the series with the worst start of his career, walking, if you can believe it, four men, while tying his career low in strikeouts with four. His command was off; his slider was inconsistent, his fastball just a bit better, and his change-up MIA. But he was facing a bad team and still had enough to dominate, though his ERA was inflated from 1.12 to 1.15.

Come to think of it, the middle two starts, from Bartolo and Kelvim, were also marked by pitchers scrappily keeping themselves and their team in the game. The Fat Man at this point has nothing, but you can tell he's putting all of the nothing he can into his effort out on the mound. Without his popping fastball he just can't be the same pitcher he's been for his career, and it shows in his performance, as he's only whiffed 30 batters this season, having worked just over 55 innings. This is far below what he's done in the past.

But Colon was able to fulfill the minimum requirements of the quality start, allowing three earned runs in his six innings (there was an unearned run in the mix, too). Kelvim did him one better, shaking off the rust by allowing three runs in his first inning on Sunday, but following them up with six shutout innings in which he allowed only five hits.

Continuing his season's theme, Escobar only struck out three guys, as many as he had K'd in his previous start. His apparently chronic elbow soreness certainly would appear to be a factor.

Though all of the starters this weekend might be considered to have done reasonable jobs of keeping the team in the game (with the possible exception of Ervin, who did a semi-reasonable job), the bullpen gets incomplete marks in this regard. K-Rod and Shields are as strong as ever, but getting to them can be rough as Brendan Donnelly struggles with his consistency and JC Romero has been disappointingly awful for much of the year, and has been so bad against right-handed batters that we'd be better off letting opponenets hit off of a tee.

(Aside: remember all the wailing early this season about Frankie losing it, being hurt, etc.? He's given up one earned run and one unearned run in his last 16 appearances, striking out 28 against 5 walks and 10 hits in 16 2/3 innings. He has had a couple of rocky outings in that stretch, but he's been fine. I just want everyone to remember that the next time he blows a save or two, which is going to happen some time.)

With Escobar's elbow flaring up, and the middle of the bullpen a wasteland, online talk once again turns to the possibility of moving Kelvim to relief. I suppose we're doomed to have this conversation every season, but it's pretty apparent to me that a healthy Kelvim Escobar is a key cog to our rotation. A good starter, which he continues to be, is just going to be more valuable than a seventh-inning guy.

Do you know about Tango Tiger's Leverage Index? Tango is the call signal for one of the internet's, nay, the world's, most innovative sabermetricians. If I can abbreviate a definition here without confusing people (including myself), LI seeks to determine how much certain situations affect the probability of a team winning.

For instance, early in a game, situations are neutral, so the LI will be around 1.0. But late in a game, say the bottom of the ninth when you're down by one and the bases are loaded with two outs, the LI is close to 11 -- that situation has 11 times the impact on winning than your basic early-game situation. (You can see a whole chart here.)

One way to use this tool is to look at innings pitched by relievers. Relievers pitch fewer innings than starters (sorry for the "duh" observation there), but a closer or set-up man will pitch innings that have a much higher LI, and therefore (inning by inning) may have a larger impact on winning.

LI for this season is tracked at the site Fangraphs, and the Angel page can be seen here. You can see that K-Rod's LI is 1.99, meaning that his innings have nearly twice as much important as neutral situations.

So Scot Shields has an LI of 1.62 in 53 2/3 innings; that's equal to around 87 innings of just normal importance.

Kelvim Escobar has an LI of 1.02 in 113 2/3 innings, the equal of 116 innings.

So, right there, you see that a starter will generally have more impact on his team's chances of winning than even a oft-used late-inning reliever. And if you moved Kelvim to the bullpen, his LI would be lower than Shields', probably around 1.50. Sure, you'd gain something as relievers have an ERA advantage over starters (the authors of The Book -- a troika including the aforementioned Tango -- found the advantage to be around 0.80 of ERA), but I just don't think there are enough important innings going around to make a move of Kelvim a worthwhile trade-off.

And that doesn't even consider the fact that Joe Saunders is unproven in the majors, and that while he looks like he's going to give it is all come hell or high water, Colon's body doesn't seem particularly reliable right now.

Of course, if Kelvim's health requires him to move to the pen, I'm for it. He'd obviously help the pen. It just that, if he's physically capable, his presence in the rotation helps it more.

Also, I think it is important to note that if Kelvim had entered Saturday's game in the 7th inning with the same score situation as he started the game with (Angels up by 2) and pitched exactly the same way to the same guys (obviously not a given), the Angels would have found themselves down a run going into the 8th. Instead, as a starter he was able to recover from a poor first inning and keep the Angels in the game long enough for them to win it. Basically, the argument for him in the bullpen would be stronger if he was actually showing evidence of performing significantly worse every time he goes through the lineup.
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