Early Season Vent
April 23, 2006

I don't mean to beat a dead horse, honestly.  But it bears repeating that numbers don't tell the whole story about a game or a player.  Example #12,804:

On April 21, John Patterson shut down the Braves line-up.  Through seven innings he had allowed just two hits and struck out eight with no walks.  But in the eighth inning, after Jeff Francouer fouled out, Brian McCann hit a double to center field.  No biggie, Patterson still had a 3-0 lead and he had Tony Pena, a career .247 hitter over six years in the minors just called up and already zero-for-two in the game, coming to bat.  Pena, as expected, hit a squibby grounder to Nick Johnson for what should have been the second out.  However, Johnson made a move like he was going to take it himself, then braincramped by changing his decision to instead toss to Patterson.  Patterson, seeing Johnson's initial move, slowed then had to speed up to get to the bag.  Johnson then lobbed the ball about as slow as it can be tossed and still be airborne to Patterson who got to the bag just a millisecond later than Pena.  It was ruled a base hit but it was clear that it would have been an out without the poor decision making on the play.  What is problematic is that it had to be ruled a hit because mental errors and mistakes like that can't be counted as errors due to several reasons, not the least of which is the "reasonable effort" stipulation.  Both players made a reasonable effort to record the out, but simply didn't get it.  McCann moved up to third on the "hit". 

Back to bad decision making... the next batter, Matt Diaz hit a lazy flyball to right field, but inexplicably Jose Guillen held on to the ball after making the catch and did not throw home until McCann is almost half way to the plate.  The throw arrived late and up the line so McCann easily scored, turning what should have been merely out number two into a run scoring sac fly.  Had Guillen thrown the ball immediately, McCann would have been forced back to third, or had he continued to pursue his run scoring opportunity, been thrown out for an inning-ending double play.

Still, Patterson had a 3-1 lead with two outs and Pete Orr at the plate.  Orr hit a line drive to center, but instead of playing deep or moving to cut off the ball to the gap and hold Orr to a long single, center fielder Ryan Church charged and tried to make a play for it by diving, falling at least three feet short of intercepting it.  The ball rolled to the wall and by the time Guillen had gotten to it, Orr was on his way to third with a two out triple.  Score: 3-2.

So Frank Robinson came to the mound thinking that Patterson was done - even though only one of the last three balls in play should have been a hit - and "relieved" Patterson with Mike Stanton.  As you can see by the box score, Stanton yielded a single to the next batter, Wilson Betimit, in short order, thus costing Patterson the lead and a win. 

The point is that Patterson got charged with three earned runs in that inning but had the fielders behind him played competently he would have likely finished the eighth inning with his shutout in tact.  Moreover, two of the plays that aided in Atlanta's run scoring effort are commonly viewed as gross mistakes that should be called errors but can not be scored that way because of the way the scoring rules read.  Yet they still generate numbers in the boxscore, numbers that don't accurately reflect what occurred on the field.  And these are offensive numbers.  Imagine the gaps in reliability for defensive numbers.

In the final analysis, this won't affect the perception that Patterson is a very good starting pitcher.  However, assuming these aren't isolated incidents Patterson's overall numbers will not accurately reflect how good he really is.  I'm not saying that the Nationals have bad defensive players - far from it.  But almost every player has a gap in judgment every once in a while.  The Nats just happened to bunch several together that night.  But think about all the pitchers who pitch in front of suspect defensive players or pitch to a catcher who is predictable in his pitch selection or doesn't block balls in the dirt very well.  We don't yet have very reliable defensive metrics, but even with all the numbers we do have there are still fairly sizable gaps in our understanding.  Is it possible that team defense has much more effect on a pitcher's effectiveness than the park he pitches in?  Oh yes.  Even on offense, is it possible that Roberto Petagine's success in the minors and in Japan are illusory, that he's really just the Quadruple A hitter the scouts have been saying he is for all these years?  I would say definitely yes, especially since the Red Sox - a team that has embraced sabremetric evaluation - passed on keeping him in the fold this year after having him last year. 

Speaking of numbers, there are plenty of hitters getting off to lousy starts.  We don't know how many are being robbed of hits by great defense (or lousy in the case of hard hit balls being ruled as errors) but there are quite a few who have fallen well short of expectation to this point.  Frank Thomas, Gary Matthews, Travis Lee, Aaron Boone, Bobby Crosby, Magglio Ordonez, Johnny Damon all have two things in common.  The first is that historically they all get off to very slow starts: April is their worst month for offensive production.  The second thing is that they are all on my Tout Wars team.  Ouch, but only for now.  But the point is this: we're just three weeks into the season and no one believes that those guys will continue to struggle as badly as they have.  Nor will Casey Kotchman, Khalil Greene, Jim Edmonds, Brad Wilkerson or Aramis Ramirez continue to hit under .200 all year.  Check their career trends.  Almost all of those guys who are slumping early in the season are typically slow starters and this is just par for the course, albeit a little extreme.  Even if some current slumpers typically get off to a fast start, there's still no reason to panic.  Very, very rarely does anyone with any track record hit that terribly over the course of a full season.  And the converse is just as true - Brandon Phillips' will not continue on his current pace for 300+ RBI, Nick Swisher will not come close to hitting 72 homers nor will Kenny Rogers or Wandy Rodriguez come within wafting distance of winning 24 games.  Stay the course and if you are feeling bold, trade for a couple more slow starters.  Chances are that you'll get a bargain for cents on the dollar and put your team in a better position for the rest of the summer.