Mariners Analysis

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eric O'Flaherty and the rules of baseball

It's fun to see Felix pitch so well, but I have long maintained he is the true number one on this staff and Bedard on opening day was purely for political purposes.

But we know Felix is good and has unlimited potential. This is only a news flash to those that haven't paid attention and tried to focus more on "maturity" and less on the 96 mph fastball and killer assortment of offspeed pitches.

Assuming Silva pitches well tonight (which is not a given, although the A's offense will help) and Raul continues to hit, many casual fans are going to look at the team like this:
- Starting pitching? Check
- Offense? Check
- Defense? Not sure if that's important, but Sexson is the tallest 1st basemen around so Check...
- Bullpen? Great, except for that stupid EOF!!

I am predicting this bullpen is going to get a lot of attention in the coming weeks. If the starters keep the pen rested and Putz returns soon, McLaren and company may get by for awhile. But eventually the pen is going to cost us wins, and I'm guessing it's sooner rather than later (history says Silva is not a Cy Young candidate, for example).

In order to look at the present bullpen, it helps to restate one of the many truisms in baseball.

Relievers who are good one year might suck the next.

It's a simple but time tested rule. It has cost the Yankees a lot of money trying to prove this rule to be incorrect, but it is foolish to try. For a number of reasons, a guy can be unhittable one year, and be the Mariners EOF the next. Why?

A couple of reasons.

First, it helps to remember most relievers are failed starters. Teams not run by Bavasi draft guys to be starters first, and if they can't make it for whatever reason they move to the pen. It could be health issues, it could be inability to get through a lineup, a plus pitch but nothing else etc... but generally guys start, fail, then go to the pen. Some fans forget Putz was a starter in the minors and went to the pen because he had no future in this league in a rotation and needed to find his niche (and of course we are glad he did).

But those issues that kept the pitcher from the starting rotation often creep back in when they enjoy success in the relief role. Maybe they experience the 1,000th little nagging injury that forces a small, but noticeable change in their mechanics. Or maybe they were a one-hit wonder and the league simply figured him out. But regardless, relievers are constantly tinkering with new pitches because they know history says their shelf-life as an effective hurler is limited.

A second important point is sample size. When a guy only faces in some cases one or two hitters a game, he can go quite a while and put up some impressive numbers when in reality he may not be that good. EOF was effective for part of last year. He should not be considered a given because he was good for part of a season.

This is all part of a larger mistakes fans make when evaluating a team from year to year. They looked at last years bullpen, assumed a level of performance based on '07 for this year and figured losing Sherrill was no big deal. They want to cherry pick the players they expect to do better, and never take a hard look at who might fall back.

Turnover is normal for a bullpen. Guys should be expected to regress and improve not only from year to year, but month to month during a season. In my opinion, this is the biggest area where a pitching coach and manager can earn their paychecks. In the business world, there is a simple mantra for this type of management: Know your people!

And here's why I think the Mariners are in trouble. The team and the manager is so focused on roles, they are losing sight of the bigger picture.

As evidence, I present Rhodes and Morrow.

Very different career paths, both in the same place. Unproven, but about to be put in difficult positions that might cost the team runs.

Now a casual fan might immediately question how Rhodes is unproven. They will point to his years of effective relief. But let's go back to our previous statement to not rely on the past as a guarantee of future performance. Just as financial institutions will caution to not let past performance cloud your vision of the present, let's not forget Rhodes has never come back from TJ surgery as a 38 year old.

He has no idea if he is really ready to pitch. He wants to pitch. He wants to get a major league paycheck. But McLaren is gambling, because he doesn't know either. If the team let him face batters for a month in AAA, we might have a better idea. Spring training gave us all kinds of warnings signs. Do we really think a couple of weeks in Tennessee solved anything?

And don't even get me started on Morrow. The papers can quote all the crap they want about how many pitches Morrow has learned, but he hasn't shown it on the field.

The same manager who was caught off guard with EOF's failures is now putting Rhodes and Morrow in situations they are not prepared. Expect lots of fireworks in the bullpen over the next couple of weeks.

In fact, I guarantee it.

Just as long as Carlos Silva doesn't win the Cy Young.