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Primate Studies
— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Swingmen, Firemen, and LOOGYs

Walt analyzes historical changes in how relievers are utilized.

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Starters, Swingmen, and Firemen



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This piece began when I wanted the answer to a fairly simple question: how do relievers’ ERAs compare to starters’ ERAs?  In this modern era, relievers are used more and more.  Debates about bullpen usage or the HOF worthiness of relievers pop up frequently on Baseball Primer.  In a recent debate, I tossed my long-held (but unsubstantiated) suspicion that relievers’ ERAs are lower than starters’ and therefore even a park/era-adjusted stat like ERA+ may not, on its face, be a good indicator of how dominant a reliever was relative to his peers because it compares the pitcher to a league average.

 

As often happens, in trying to answer a simple question, one discovers other neat tidbits along the way.  But first, one must wrestle with the devilish details of definitions.

 

What’s a reliever?  I wanted to come up with a definition that would make sense over all (or at least most) of baseball history.  Pitcher usage has changed substantially over time, from a time when starters were finishers to a time when starters were also relievers to our current level of specialization.

 

An important caveat:  I am using the Lahman database.  This contains information on games and games started but does not separate out innings pitched in relief vs. starts.

 

To capture those three usages of pitchers, I devised the following classification scheme, looking only at pitchers who pitched at least 20 innings in a season:

 

            Starter:  A pitcher for whom at least 80% of appearances are starts

            Swingman:  A pitcher with at least 3 starts (but at least 20% relief appearances)

Reliever: Fewer than 3 starts (but at least 20 IP)

 

It’s possible that pitchers with a small number of IP in a season will be “misclassified”.  For example, a pitcher who made two 7-inning starts and two 3-inning relief appearances would be someone I’d consider a “swingman” but would be classified as a “reliever”.

 

Pitcher Usage over Time.  The first neat tidbit not related to the question I’m answering is how the use of these pitching roles has changed over time.  Table 1 looks at the distribution of these roles among all pitchers with 20 IP in a season, by decade:

 

Table 1

Percent of Pitchers by Usage Type and Decade

Pitchers with 20+ IP in a Season Only

 

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Starter

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Swingman

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Reliever

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Pre-1900

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84.15

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12.08

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3.76

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1900-1909

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59.43

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32.84

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7.73

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1910-1919

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25.18

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60.03

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14.79

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1920-1929

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24.71

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57.10

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18.19

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1930-1939

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24.18

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57.79

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18.03

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1940-1949

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26.56

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51.35

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22.08

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1950-1959

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24.26

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48.87

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26.87

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1960-1969

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28.59

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35.86

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35.55

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1970-1979

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35.51

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27.60

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36.89

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1980-1989

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37.15

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23.01

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39.84

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1990-1999

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36.75

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18.53

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44.72

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2000+

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

35.66

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

19.00

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border-top:none;mso-border-top-alt:solid black .25pt;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

45.34

 

 

Perhaps more informative is to look at the percentage of innings pitched:

 

Table 2

Percent of Innings Pitched, by Usage Type and Decade

Pitchers with 20+ IP in a Season Only

 

style="border-collapse:collapse;
mso-padding-alt:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

 

 

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border-left:solid black .75pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:
none;background:#BEBEBE;mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

 
style="width:57.05pt;border:solid black .25pt;
border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

Starter

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border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

Swingman

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background:#BEBEBE;mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:
0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

Reliever

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

Pre-1900

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

92.39

style="width:63.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .25pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

7.12

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
border-top:none;mso-border-top-alt:solid black .25pt;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

0.49

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1900-1909

style="width:57.05pt;border-top:none;border-left:
solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

71.37

style="width:63.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .25pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

27.27

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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

1.36

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1910-1919

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

33.37

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

63.20

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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

3.42

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1920-1929

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

36.63

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

57.89

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

5.47

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
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mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1930-1939

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
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align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

35.12

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

58.56

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

6.33

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1940-1949

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

40.26

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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
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50.87

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margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
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8.87

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align="right" class="MsoNormal"
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mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1950-1959

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
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align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

39.29

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

48.36

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
border-top:none;mso-border-top-alt:solid black .25pt;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

12.35

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border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1960-1969

style="width:57.05pt;border-top:none;border-left:
solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

47.36

style="width:63.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .25pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

34.11

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

18.54

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1970-1979

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solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

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style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

56.41

style="width:63.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .25pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

24.28

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
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padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

19.32

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1980-1989

style="width:57.05pt;border-top:none;border-left:
solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

55.82

style="width:63.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .25pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

21.05

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
border-top:none;mso-border-top-alt:solid black .25pt;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;mso-layout-grid-align:
none">

23.13

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

1990-1999

style="width:57.05pt;border-top:none;border-left:
solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

57.11

style="width:63.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .25pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

17.04

style="width:63.0pt;border:solid black .25pt;
border-top:none;mso-border-top-alt:solid black .25pt;background:white;
padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

25.85

style="width:59.0pt;border-top:none;border-left:solid black .75pt;
border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;background:#BEBEBE;
mso-shading:gray;mso-pattern:gray-925 silver;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

align="right" class="MsoNormal"
style="margin-top:3.0pt;margin-right:0in;
margin-bottom:3.0pt;margin-left:0in;text-align:right;page-break-after:avoid;
mso-layout-grid-align:none">

2000+

style="width:57.05pt;border-top:none;border-left:
solid black .25pt;border-bottom:solid black .25pt;border-right:none;
background:white;padding:0in 3.0pt 0in 3.0pt">

      align=“right” class=“MsoNormal”

Walt Davis Posted: January 15, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 18 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. bob mong Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608381)
To answer your question, at least partially, of whether Pinch-hitters may not be as good as DHs on average (or maybe they are, anyone know?):

in 2002:

AL DHs had this line (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS): .265/.448/.343/.791 in 9099 plate appearances.
AL PHs had this line: .215/.331/.295/.626 in 1183 PAs.
NL PHs had this line: .229/.347/.307/.654 in 4104 PAs.

A few observations:
(1) at least in 2002, pinch hitters hit appreciably worse than designated hitters.
(2) even though NL teams use PHs more (four times as much) and should, therefore, be more willing to spend more money on their benches and should therefore get higher quality hitters on their bench, NL pinch hitters were almost as bad as AL pinch hitters. That was most surprising to me.
(3) pinch hitters, across leagues, are just plain awful hitters. Or pinch hitting is so difficult that even good hitters struggle at it. I was surprised at how bad pinch hitters hit, even in the NL. Of course, if these pinch hitters could hit well, they probably would be starting.

And finally, Mike, of "Mike's Baseball Rants," goes into much more detail about reliever usage over the years in his "Hall's of Relievers" series on his blog, which has so far come through baseball history up to the 1960s:
<a >Part I</a>
<a >Part II</a>
<a >Part III</a>
<a >Part IV</a>
<a >Part V</a>
   2. tangotiger Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608382)
Walt, good article.

A couple of points:
1 - ERA: Component ERA, or FIP or something else would be more appropriate, especially with the inherited runners thing. I suspect that much of the differences will be explained by this.

2 - If right now the best relievers happen to also pitch the least amount / game (or there's a large number of them), then I would expect that those guys to have better relative ERAs.

3 - If you have 1 batter relievers, those guys should have better stats, because they'll get the benefit of the lefty/righty matchup. In fact all relievers should have this benefit to some degree (the less they pitch, the more likely they'll have it)

4 - The unanswered question is if the change in pitching responsibility contributes to the different performance levels. And for that, you need to have a study that shows the same pitcher as a starter and reliever, which itself has many problems associated with it as well.
   3. Walt Davis Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608387)
Does everybody else see the graphs? Cuz I don't. :-)

First, to clean up my own obvious mistake:

Regarding the hypothesis that the average batter faced by an NL reliever is more similar to an AL batter than those faced by NL starters (due to the PH-DH quasi-equivalency) ... the hypothesis still makes sense as a partial explanation for the league difference. However, my "test" of the hypothesis is actually a truism given the data. To wit, we started with:

ALR ERA/ALS ERA < NLR ERA/NLS ERA

That's what hipped us to the league difference. To look at the hypothesis, I looked at NLR ERA/ALR ERA vs NLS ERA/ALS ERA. Well, that's just a rearranged version of the above (multiply both sides by NLS ERA; divide both sides by ALR ERA). In other words, we already knew that NL relievers' ERAs were more like AL relievers than NL starters were like AL starters, so this isn't further evidence of anything.


Bob, thanks for running the PH/DH comparisons. I knew NL PH's weren't as good as DH's, but like you I didn't expect them to be that bad. By the way, I think your OBP and SLG are reversed -- or DHs get on base like madmen. :-) Anyway, PHs are better than pitchers, so this is likely at least part of the league difference.

Also I only saw the link to the other reliever study after I had submitted this (which was a couple weeks ago). His study does look more thorough in some regards though I haven't read much of it. Quite the coincidence that we'd do this simultaneously.

Tango of course brings up many good points:

1 - ERA: Component ERA, or FIP or something else would be more appropriate, especially with the inherited runners thing. I suspect that much of the differences will be explained by this.

Really? Given the number of innings we're talking about across these groups of years, I'd expect differences between ERA and component ERA to even out. Or am I misunderstanding component ERA?

2 - If right now the best relievers happen to also pitch the least amount / game (or there's a large number of them), then I would expect that those guys to have better relative ERAs.

I'm not sure which point you're addressing here. One could be: maybe we'd have seen the same improvement if Smoltz, Rivera, et al pitched multiple innings. This is quite possible.

The other could be: if they took their best long relievers and turned them into short relievers, you'd expect short relievers to be better (relatively) than the long relievers of the past. The logic of course is that the long relievers of 72-86 were a mix of good relievers (Gossage et al) and back of the bullpen guys; now if the Gossages become short relievers, we'd expect short relievers to have better ERAs.

That should be true, but it has the converse that you'd expect the remaining long relievers to be worse than the average long relievers of the past and they don't seem to be (although that's what I expected to find).

Of course it's possible that we see that along with an increased ability to recognize good relievers.

As noted in the text, I wouldn't call this analysis in any way definitive. I'm not sure a definitive study is possible with the lahman database. I'm just trying to point out that something's going on here that folks might want to take a look at.

3 - If you have 1 batter relievers, those guys should have better stats, because they'll get the benefit of the lefty/righty matchup. In fact all relievers should have this benefit to some degree (the less they pitch, the more likely they'll have it)

That makes sense, but surprisingly, we didn't find this for LOOGYs.

But I'm not sure I completely buy the last part. It's true that managers will often try to get the platoon advantage with their relievers, but (1) there seem to be a lot of managers locked into "this guy pitches the 8th, this guy pitches the 9th, no matter what"; and (2) the opposing manager often tries to take the platoon advantage back. I wonder if the underperformance of LOOGYs is partly due to this -- if he's really a good LOOGY, the other team will send up a RH pinch-hitter in many/most cases.

And the platoon disadvantage that starters face might also be counter-acted by pinch-hitting. The starter might face the poor- but switch-hitting SS 3 times while the reliever gets to face the reserve OF that bats from the same side.

4 - The unanswered question is if the change in pitching responsibility contributes to the different performance levels. And for that, you need to have a study that shows the same pitcher as a starter and reliever, which itself has many problems associated with it as well.

I think that answers a different question like whether turning failed starters into relievers works.

I guess the two unanswered questions I'd like to see answered would be: (1) during the 60's and 70's, what were the starters' ERAs (or CERAs or whatever) in those late innings and how do those compare to what the relievers did as starters' innings declined? and (2) during the transition from long to short relievers, you presumably did have a lot of pitchers who made that transition, so how did they do pre/post?

I suppose I could take a stab at the 2nd question with the Lahman database.
   4. tangotiger Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608391)
The images should be
http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image002.jpg

http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image004.jpg

http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image006.jpg

http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image008.jpg

http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image010.jpg

http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image012.jpg

http://www.baseballprimer.com/articles/relievers_files/image013.jpg
   5. Dan Szymborski Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608392)
I can't see the images either on MSIE and I'm at a loss as to why not.

I'm going to re-write the entire article, but leave it up meantime because the graphs are not the "meat" of the article.
   6. Walt Davis Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608396)
And don't blame Dan or anybody else at primer for the graphics problem. The big problem is that I used word to turn this into HTML for me (I'm lazy) and word never uses 1 line of straightforward HTML where 10 lines of needlessly complicated code will do.
   7. bob mong Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608398)
Walt, you are right: I did switch OBP and SLG. Hope nobody was too confused by that :)

And further, I hope you didn't think that I was denigrating your article by mentioning the series at "Mike's Baseball Rants" - I think your article is great (though a little hard to follow without the images; I will have to re-read when it's fixed) and that Mike's series complements & confirms it nicely.
   8. fracas' hope springs eternal Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608399)
One reason PHs don't hit as well as DHs: In the NL, they're less likely to be pure pinch hitters and more likely to be utility fielders. Example: Joe Shortstop, #8 hitter, makes the last out of the 6th; Sam Starter pitches the bottom of the inning; Scrub Smith (who may even be Joe Shortstop's defensive replacement) leads off the top of the 7th via the double-switch. For that plate appearance, Scrub is a PH, but he's on the roster for his ability to play short.
   9. Dan Szymborski Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608404)
It appeared OK when I used Mozilla, too, when I posted it, so I had figured it worked until I saw comments to the contrary. I sometimes forget that Mozilla is so much better than MSIE.

I'm on MSIE right now and I see the images now, so I really hope the rest of you do now, too!
   10. tangotiger Posted: January 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608411)
From 1999-2002, starters posted an ERA 9% higher than relievers.

In the same time period, their OBA was almost a match, but the SLG was 7% higher for starters. In this example, OBAxSLG is a good proxy.

I would say that the difference between the two is accounted for by the inherited runners issue.

Therefore, if the peripheral ERA say you should be 4.50, the reliever will show up as 4.44 and the starter as 4.54 (more or less).

As for the greater the sample, the less we should see of this, this is inaccurate. The bias will remain every year. It's like a leadoff hitter's RBI total not matching well to his SLG. It's inherent in the position, regardless of your sample size. In fact, the larger the sample, the more we will see this.
   11. Jay Jaffe Posted: January 16, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608412)
Nice work, Walt. I'm banging away on a piece about relievers myself, trying to dissect starter innings and reliever innings via Retrosheet, wishing the breakdowns were more complete and easily obtainable across the history of the game. Painful to realize that it just ain't so.

Just a random thought from a guy whose bedtime has passed:
on LOOGYs, it seems to me that since the guy is essentially being called upon to face one batter and get one out, OBP allowed is worth looking at, a simple indicator of the pitcher's success or failure. Seems to me if he's a true LOOGY, that's the real nut of the matter, not whether/how the next guy screws things up.
   12. Marc Stone Posted: January 16, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608416)
Great study, Walt.

There are a couple of problems looking at LOOGYs that you didn't consider.

If a LOOGY is successful he will usually face only 1 batter. If he is unsuccessful he may be pulled or he may be kept to face another lefty coming after a IBB to (or pitching around) a righty. This creates a bias in the averages because successful appearances almost always involve fewer batters faced than failures. This tendency can occur with other pitchers but to a lesser degree; at least some of their successful outings are as long or longer than their failures.

This is also why OBP may not be informative, too many IBB to face a second lefty.

Adjusted Runs Prevented would be an unbiased metric because the IBBs cancel out with success.
   13. Walt Davis Posted: January 16, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608417)
Sorry, I'm not following you Tango. Not to say you're wrong, but to say I can't follow what you're saying.

From 1999-2002, starters posted an ERA 9% higher than relievers.

In the same time period, their OBA was almost a match, but the SLG was 7% higher for starters. In this example, OBAxSLG is a good proxy.


Proxy for what? Presumably ERA, but what's the multiplier? Anyway, if OBA is the same but SLG is 7% higher for starters, then OBAxSLG is 7% higher for starters. You found a 9% gap in ERA. From this, it seems like most of the difference is explained by relievers allowing a lower SLG (i.e. pitching better).

I would say that the difference between the two is accounted for by the inherited runners issue.

Based on...? I only ask because it seems to me that relievers often leave the game with runners on base too. Given the way they're used now, I'd see that closers rarely leave inherited runners ... but then given how they're used now, they rarely come in with inherited runners.

Therefore, if the peripheral ERA say you should be 4.50, the reliever will show up as 4.44 and the starter as 4.54 (more or less).

I'm not following where these numbers come from.

Let me ask a question. For a team, shouldn't peripheral ERA match actual ERA? It's quite possible that I don't understand what peripheral ERA is, but it's my understanding that it's an estimate of how many runs a pitcher "should" have given up based on the number of hits, HRs, etc. that the pitcher gave up. So an individual pitcher may have been lucky or unlucky, and we expect that to even out over a pitcher's career such that his real ERA converges on his peripheral ERA. But that holds as well if we look across players in a season -- the mean ERA and the mean peripheral ERA should be the same (on average, etc.). I don't see why that doesn't hold here.

As for the greater the sample, the less we should see of this, this is inaccurate. The bias will remain every year.

If in fact it's bias, yes. What I was saying is that ERA may not be a particular good measure of how well a particular reliever pitched because there's a large random component to it. But averaged over many pitchers and innings, ERA should be an accurate reflection of how many hits, HRs, etc. pitchers gave up, which is another way of saying ERA should match peripheral ERA.

Just to nitpick, peripheral ERA is the estimate, actual ERA is what peripheral ERA is trying to estimate. So, from a statistical standpoint, if there's bias, the bias is in the estimate, not what we're trying to estimate. If peripheral ERA consistently underestimates ERAs for starters and overestimates for relievers, that's evidence of a problem with peripheral ERA (at least as it's used to estimate individual ERAs).

Now of course one can argue that ERA is not a good measure of what we want, which is really what you're arguing. And that's fine, I don't even disagree with it necessarily. Now, you've looked at OBA and SLG and found that relievers have done better.

It's like a leadoff hitter's RBI total not matching well to his SLG. It's inherent in the position, regardless of your sample size.

If you can establish that it's inherent in the position, which I haven't seen any evidence of yet.

We're expecting snow tonight which means I have an excuse to stay home (one of the benefits of living in the south and not having much to do at work tomorrow anyway), so maybe I'll get a chance to look at this in other ways.
   14. tangotiger Posted: January 16, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#608419)
It was midnight when I wrote that, so I usually am not to clear at that point!

Peripheral ERA, by definition, must match the actual ERA (on either a league or team basis). Let's say we establish a peripheral ERA on a team basis, so that the peripheral team ERA and the team ERA are always a match.

Now, individually, they won't match, due to either sample size, context, or other biases (inherited runners). We take a large sample (from 1999 to 2002), and that should take care of the first two (more or less). The question now is how does the peripheral ERA compare to the actual ERA, when looking at starters and relievers.

Now, I'm lazy, so I'm using peripheral ER = OBA * SLG * x (without any league or team adjustments), which may be wrong. The starters' peripheral ERA was 7% higher than relievers, but their actual ERA was 9% higher. That difference, 2%, I attribute to the inherited runners (assuming that I've accounted for the other 2 biases). That 2% works out to about .10 runs / game, hence the 4.44 v 4.54 ERA.

As for relievers leaving runners to other relievers, I was only looking at relievers as a group. Therefore, only starters can leave runners for the relievers group.

Of course, with my little Peripheral ERA shortcut, and only looking at 4 years, that .10 runs / game may not be significant.

Hope all that was clear?

   15. Walt Davis Posted: January 18, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#608445)
You know, I just realized something -- you can't preview posts when you're posting to an article. Sorry if this formats like crap.

First the big comment, then another post for the smaller ones:

To address, at least in part, the question of whether to use ERA or not, I?ve looked at relievers vs. starters also in terms of K/9, BB/9, and HR/9. Unfortunately, the Lahman database doesn?t separate intentional walks from unintentional ones. First, here are the % differences between relievers and starters for 5-year periods from 72-01. A negative number means the relievers gave up fewer. First the AL:

Years ERA SO BB HR
72-76 -4.8% 10.2% 22.1% -11.5%
77-81 -4.2% 16.1% 26.2% -10.7%
82-86 -7.9% 15.6% 15.5% -12.4%
87-91 -9.5% 14.9% 13.7% -9.0%
92-96 -6.9% 16.9% 17.8% -5.6%
97-01 -11.5% 16.5% 14.1% -15.2%


And the NL:

Years ERA SO BB HR
72-76 4.4% 0.9% 24.0% -7.8%
77-81 -6.0% 12.5% 22.0% -14.0%
82-86 -6.3% 9.0% 18.3% -11.0%
87-91 -6.3% 14.6% 19.4% -10.7%
92-96 -5.3% 20.4% 26.1% -6.4%
97-01 -7.5% 15.6% 23.4% -8.9%

So, relievers not only have lower ERA, they also have more Ks per 9 (by about 16% the last 15 years) and give up fewer HR/9; however, they walk more guys (presumably some intentionally).

Now let?s look at short relievers only relative to starters over the last 15 years. First the AL:

Years ERA SO BB HR
87-91 -14.2% 28.5% 15.6% -8.1%
92-96 -11.2% 24.6% 18.0% -9.6%
97-01 -13.6% 21.0% 15.9% -18.5%

Years ERA SO BB HR
87-91 -7.0% 13.3% 20.7% -15.2%
92-96 -4.3% 23.2% 30.4% -5.1%
97-01 -9.3% 19.6% 25.1% -11.4%

It might be useful to look at the raw numbers for each and calculate OBP, SLG, OPS for balls not-in-play. So, for the period 97-01:

AL starters: 6.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, and 1.15 HR/9

That means that, per 9 innings, the average AL starter 97-01 allowed 10.55 balls not-in-play. 4.35 of those resulted in the batter successfully reaching base, giving us an OBN (i.e. OBP not-in-play) of 412. 1.15 of those were HRs, resulting in 4.60 TB and a SLN of 626. So:

AL starts: 6.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.15 HR/9, OBN 412, SLN 626, OPN 1038
AL shorts: 7.5 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 0.94 HR/9, OBN 387, SLN 445, OPN 832

NL starts: 6.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.07 HR/9, OBN 393, SLN 558, OPN 951
NL shorts: 7.9 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, OBN 385, SLN 429, OPN 814

Following from DIPS, the results of BIP should be roughly the same in the two groups. Unfortunately we can?t calculate the % of BIP per batter faced precisely from these data, but Voros provided a formula for estimating it in one of his pieces and, as one might expect, relievers allow fewer balls in play. From 97-01, in the AL starters allowed .73 BIP per batter faced; short relievers .69 (.72 and .67 in the NL). Using the above numbers and a rough estimate that the OPS on balls-in-play is between 650 and 700, I get an OPS against difference of about 50 points in the AL and 30 points in the NL.

Therefore, for now at least, I have to conclude that the ERA differences between starters and relievers that we?ve seen over the last 30 years are largely, if not entirely, ?real.?

This doesn?t necessarily mean that relievers are ?better? than starters. First, guys with good fastballs (and therefore usually good K rates) are often slated for bullpen duty. Second, by pitching limited innings, presumably they can put more into each inning. Third, it might be worth it to look at the starters? numbers after dropping the 5th starter ? we know the back of the rotation drags the starters? numbers down (though the effects are seen in the 70?s and early 80?s when 4-4.5 man rotations were still used). But it does suggest that the expanded use of relievers has been a good strategy overall.
   16. Walt Davis Posted: January 18, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#608446)
Tango -- OK, I get you now. I thought you were saying that all or most of the difference was due to inherited runners. I find it perfectly plausible that 2% of the 9% difference is inherited runners, though....

James et al -- My brain hurts when I think about the inherited runner issue.

1) I don't think I agree that this "hurts" starters. If they kept pitching, they'd give up some of those runners. What the right "expected" rate is I don't know, but BP offers their variety. Some starters ERAs are helped by their pens, some are hurt. Given that the average reliever performs better than the average starter, starters' "bequeathed" runners should score at a slightly lower rate than the starters' "sole-responsibility" runners, meaning that starters are usually "helped"....unless they're being relieved by the teams 3rd or 4th best reliever. :-)

Anyway, within a team, I'd expect the starters hurt by the pen and the starters helped by the pen to even out (for a given team's pen); and for a league, it ought to balance out between teams with good pens and teams with bad pens. So if my logic and assumptions are right, the league starters' ERA should be just right.

2) I can see how relievers are helped by it, but I'm not sure it's how others look at it. I don't have any particular problem with not charging them for inherited runners that score -- whoever put them there in the first place is most to blame. I could see penalizing the reliever if he allows runners to score at a higher rate than the starter (i.e. he's responsible for the difference). Or someone here once suggested dividing responsibility for the run based on what bases they're on (and maybe # of outs). But basically a reliever who comes in with the bases loaded and gives up a single is, in my eyes, no worse than the reliever who comes in with the bases empty and gives up a single. Or to put it another way, I have serious doubts that stranding inherited runners is a skill (after controlling for other indicators of pitching skill), so I'm reluctant to debit or credit relievers for their performance with inherited runners.

Where I think they benefit, and I think James was touching on this and maybe Tango too, is that they are often in the nice situation of coming in with 2 outs. They give up that single, but then they only have to get 1 out, not 3, to erase that runner. This must benefit their ERA to at least some small degree. Of course that's at best an indirect result of inherited runners (e.g. they wouldn't be in the game at all if the other guy hadn't put runners on base).

3) On closers, I'm still torn. They rarely leave inherited runners -- but when they do, it's usually because they really stunk and there are lots of them. And it usually means the game's essentially over, so they're probably usually relieved by pretty bad relievers.

But, given that I'm not sure we should penalize relievers (much) for allowing inherited runners to score and since closers rarely leave inherited runners, seems to me their ERA should be just about right.

JDW -- I think you're right that swingman is too broad. It's something of an artifact -- when I first started this analysis, all I was trying to answer was whether relievers performed better than starters in the modern era. I wasn't interested in swingmen at all, I just needed a residual category to dump non-starters/relievers into. Later I thought I might as well look at some other questions while I was at it, but didn't put much thought into redefining my categories. I did try to partially address these questions in the article, noting that the role had changed quite a bit and that, during the swingman era, being defined as a starter or swingman was often only the matter of a couple relief appearances.

Howard & Key -- on LOOGYs, there's only so much that can be done with the Lahman database (which contains seasonal totals). I defined LOOGYs as guys who averaged less than one inning per appearance. If you're over 1 inning per appearance, seems to me you have to be coming in for more than 1-2 batters most of the time. So Mike Remlinger is not a LOOGY even though he may occasionally be used that way.

On Honeycutt, I'm way too lazy to re-run things just to pull one guy out, but I can say that the number of super-LOOGYs (guys with less than 2/3 ip per appearance) are few. So at least we're still at the point where LOOGYs are occasionally called upon to pitch an entire inning.

Now league differences are worth a quick run. Doesn't look like there's much difference. If anything, the AL jumped on it sooner, showing significant LOOGY usage by 89 while the NL doesn't show it until 91. It looks like the NL didn't really catch up, and maybe took a slight lead, in LOOGY usage until 99.

   17. User unknown in local recipient table (Craig B) Posted: January 20, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#608455)
Walt,

I finally had a chance today to read your article, which has excellent work in it. I'd like to address a couple of points.

First, you said in discussion that I don't think I agree that this "hurts" starters. If they kept pitching, they'd give up some of those runners... Some starters ERAs are helped by their pens, some are hurt. Given that the average reliever performs better than the average starter, starters' "bequeathed" runners should score at a slightly lower rate than the starters' "sole-responsibility" runners...

Which is true to some degree, but the fact remains that starters are charged with runs, but not with all of the hits and walks that are required to score those runs. I agree that starters' "true ERA" isn't affected much by this fact (although it makes for a large amount of variability due to bullpen performance).

On to the second point...

Is it possible that differing reliever usage in the AL and NL leads to the different relative ERAs of AL and NL pens? In the NL, relievers are used more at the start of innings, due to having been pinch-hit-for in the previous half-inning. In the AL, there is more flexibility to bring in a reliever in the middle of an inning. This would tend to transfer some amount of blame for runs from AL relievers to AL starters, hence making their bullpens seem better than they are due to the inherited runner issue.
   18. tangotiger Posted: January 21, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#608460)
Craig makes an excellent point, which was also brought up in Eric Enders' article a few months ago.

Say that a starter always leaves in the 7th inning, 0 outs, and bases loaded. There is an expectation that about 2 runs will score out of those 3 runners, on average, in this situation. So, over 30 starts, there are 60 additional runs that are scored. However, as Craig points out, that would happen over 30 innings.

Because a starter's ERA is based on IP (outs) and not PAs, then you do have the situation where bequeathed runners unfairly inflates a starter's ERA.

To take this to the extreme, and to make the point, a starter pitches to 1 batter, walks him, and leaves the game, every game. No outs, no innings. But, about 12 runs over 30 games. 12 runs / 0 outs, but also 12 runs / 30 PAs. With PAs as the denominator, we don't have this issue, but with outs, we do.

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