Thursday, September 29, 2011

On competitive integrity

by Jason Wojciechowski

Last night, I noticed a couple of people arguing that the Yankees should be using their bullpen to actually try to win their game against the Rays rather than tossing out players like Scott Proctor and Cory Wade and muddling through it. One of them screamed at his 11,000 followers in all-caps and called them morons. The other, Friend of TPA William Tasker, engaged in a reasonable conversation with me about the rules for this type of situation. You can guess who this post is aimed more toward, because I'm not going to be doing any yelling here -- how a team that is either out of contention or has its playoff spot locked up should behave in games against teams that are still fighting is a sticky wicket, and I don't pretend to have the answers. I promise that anybody who disagrees with me in the comments on this will not be called a moron.

Precisely because of said wicket, though, my position is that, short of collusion, teams should be free to behave as they like without their ethical standing being called into question. I don't believe that we can develop any reasonable set of standards that is competent to govern all the variables in play. This is particularly true because teams already make day-to-day decisions about the relative importance of winning the contest that stands before them versus the next N games. Teams use strict five-man rotations, balance bullpen work (put Joe Torre to one side), start backups every once in a while, replace starters in blowouts, and so forth. None of this is necessarily about playoff positioning because it happens in June just as much as September. Keeping in mind, then, that the background assumption is that teams are not playing 100% for victory every day, here are some of the decisions that would need to be constrained by ethics if we want to take the Tasker Integrity Position (TIP).

First, starting pitchers. A starter typically has more effect on a baseball game than a reliever does, so if we're worried about reliever usage, we should be worried about starter usage as well. Teams prefer to line up their starting rotations so as to get their best hurlers pitching in the early games of their playoff series if they have the luxury of doing so. To the extent that this would result in a team missing, say, C.C. Sabathia when they'd otherwise have had to face him, the TIP would presumably disallow this. Perhaps TIP proponents are ok with this, but if they're not, I'm curious if there is a principled distinction to be drawn between starter usage and reliever usage. I can't think of one.

Second, the lineup. With the aforementioned background that starters don't start every day whether it's pennant-race time or not, how are we to judge whether, to take the Yankees again, starting Jesus Montero behind the plate instead of Russell Martin violates the TIP? Martin needs days off, especially because he's a catcher. How many days off in September against contending teams is too many? What if he has a minor injury that isn't even worth discussing with the media but results in Joe Girardi deciding to give him a little more time on the bench?

Third, the non-closer bullpen. With a closer, it's easy -- when Joe Girardi doesn't bring in Mariano Rivera to protect a one-run lead in the ninth, he is obviously not going all-out to win this game. But what about the sixth inning of a close game? Judging a manager's bullpen usage from the outside is hard enough without adding the additional factor of ethically requiring that manager to be making (what he thinks is) the optimal move at all times. When a manager goes to a mediocre LOOGY against a left-handed slugger instead of a good righty with little platoon split, is he just getting the lefty work? Does he think it's the right decision for winning now or the right decision for winning later? Maybe we can judge from his past usage of said lefty, but what if he's a recent addition to the team, or just back from injury?

The theme that I think emerges is our existing difficulty in evaluating managers. Even assuming an attempt to win each game, we're still just guessing about who is managing well and who is not. Individual decisions may be angry-Tweet-worthy, but pulling all those decisions together into a coherent whole seems to be beyond us.

If we have no idea how to have a principled, evidence-based discussion about Manager of the Year voting, then I am extremely dubious about implementing the TIP. My ethical spidey-sense tingles as much as anybody's when Mariano Rivera sits in the bullpen and watches his teammates blow a close game to the Rays while the Red Sox are in free-fall, but if we can't all align our spidey-senses into some general common ground about what is and is not permissible, then I think we just have to let it go. The schedule does what it does -- some years, a team struggling for the playoffs will face a team that doesn't care, and others, it will be matched up head-to-head with its rival. It may be frustrating to simply shrug our shoulders about this, but I think we can at least be united in one thing: at least it's not the NFL.


The Common Man said...

"I promise that anybody who disagrees with me in the comments on this will not be called a moron."

Don't write checks your butt can't cash.

George Diaz said...

I like to put my two cents former HS baseball coach and current HS basketball coach...we play the game and take care of our team and our players...that's exactly what the Yankees did...they put themselves in a position to take care of their bodies, minor injuries and rest while still getting some work done for the post season. They don't own it to anybody to run their starters out there simply cuz someone else is fighting for a spot...well that's their problem...not the a manager I would have done the same as Joe Girardi did last night...not only cuz I wanna rest and get my starters ready but most importantly to see which one of those young pitchers and position players will make the final roster spot and which ones will be on standby playing simulated games in case a replacement need to be called up...nuff said...

T said...

Here's what I say to angry Bostonians today:

If you're really gonna blame the Yankees for not playing at "full power" against Tampa, all Boston had to do was beat the Orioles.

Who (if I were a team in need of a win) I'd still rather play at full power than the Yankees team fielded last night.

Boston (and its fans) have nobody to blame but themselves. The Yankees clinched their playoff spot (and seed) far enough in advance that they had the luxury of resting guys as needed.

And as the Yankees, I see no issue in brining some of your younger (or less used) players in to some unusual circumstances, since come playoff time who knows what they'll be called on to do.

For once I side with the Yankees. Though I will would take particular pleasure in watching them beat the Yankees in the ALCS (if it comes to that)

Nothing like the Wild Card team beating the team that essentially "let them in".

Kevin S. said...

If only the Red Sox had their own chance to win an extra-inning game against Scott Proctor and the SWB Yankees' split-squad lineup... oh.

Bryan said...

There's no doubt that in this situation, the Red Sox have no one to blame but themselves. I also think a manager in Girardi's situation last night has no obligation to play his best lineup and start his best pitchers.

It did feel dirty to me that, once the Rays started climbing back, Girardi seemed to make an effort to lose the game. Luis Ayala was suffering, and Robertson and Rivera were both available, each had thrown just 11 pitches the night before, and they had a day off coming up. Once Wade blew it, leaving Proctor out there to rot and replacing most of the starters felt like a belligerent attempt to lose the game and make the rain delay that much more painful for the Red Sox.

Maybe I'm reading too much into Girardi's intentions, but I think David Stern would have fined an NBA coach for trying that hard to blow a game.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

Bryan, I think your comment is instructive -- it's possible that Girardi was actively throwing the game, but I think it's just as possible that he genuinely did not care and only wanted to use pitchers that would not matter one iota going forward unless he was absolutely forced to do something different. These two opposing possibilities and our inability to resolve the question without a mind-reading machine point up why, in my opinion, we can't get into the ethics of a manager's actions -- it's just too hard to know what's actually going on.

TCM, the passive voice has failed me again. Folks, I cannot speak for anyone but myself. TCM will probably call you a moron if you act like one. Bill definitely will.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

The TIP. Wow. What an honor. Or not. Heh.

I think that overall I would have been fine if Soriano had come out for the ninth. At least he is a guy who has closed games before. But you are probably right about all this. It just felt all wrong. I agree that Boston has to blame themselves. All they had to do is win a ballgame against the last place club.

Anyway, thanks for the piece, and the mention, even if it might be dubious at best.

ben schwartz said...

I am a Yankee fan old enough to remember Mickey Owen missing Hugh Casey's third strike on Tommy Henrich that led to a Yankee win in a 1941 World Series game. I have never felt worse about being a Yankee fan, not even in 2004, than I did listening to Giradi's handling of the game against the Rays. Aside from letting Ayala face Langoria with the score 7-2 and letting Proctor pitch the second longest--in terms of pitch count--game of his career, and the longest since 2005, how does Girardi justify pich-hitting Posada for Cano in the 10th? Would that ever happen in a game Girardi did not want to lose?

Ben Schwartz

Bill said...

Sure, absolutely--it would happen in a game in which Girardi didn't care whether he won or lost, but was more interested in protecting his players. Like Spring Training or the All-Star Game. That's really the way that game should be viewed from the Yankees' perspective; there was no reason for him to treat it as anything more than that, and it would been kind of irresponsible of him if he had.

ben schwartz said...

If I counted right, Cano had 661 regular season plate appearances. I don't see that leaving him in to hit is a substantial risk that he would be less able to perform in the playoffs. Further, he is the DH and there's no risk that he will be injured in the field if he is left in. If he gets on and you want to run for him that's a different story.

On the other hand you take a pitcher who may stll be recovering from arm trouble (operation in 2009) and let him throw more than 50 pitches. Would you have relieved him with a position player in the next inning?

That this was an important game to Baseball is demonstrated by the attention paid to the outcome in the last two days. But one of the teams was not trying to win. Apparently the Phillies approach to the Atlanta game was more professional.