Bo Porter and the Value of Trying

You may have seen mention of it. Considering it happened during a game between two of the worst teams in baseball, you’ll be forgiven if you hadn’t.

The Houston Astros visited the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. The Astros came out strong, getting two runs in each of the first two innings. They wouldn’t score any more. The Diamondbacks would, however. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Houston was leading 4-3. Lefty Tony Sipp was coming off a fairly effective seventh inning and was brought out again to face Arizona’s three best hitters. Well, sort of. Here’s how the eighth inning played out:

sippinlf

Sipp got by Parra, but manager Bo Porter wasn’t comfortable with him facing Paul Goldschmidt. And rightfully so, as Goldschmidt has a 163 wRC+ against lefties this season. But instead of sending his reliever to the dugout, Porter moved Sipp to left field.

Sipp did this first:

sippsmiles

Then it hit him:

sippshrug

When Goldschmidt walked, Sipp moved back to the mound to face Miguel Montero, who has a wRC+ of 2 against lefties. This was the result:

monterok

Sipp was removed for Kyle Farnsworth. The bullpen held the rest of the game, and the Astros won.

It’s a little unfair to call this an “National League move,” since there wasn’t even a double switch. This move would have cost the same amount of pitchers/fielders in the junior circuit. Porter just sent his pitcher to right field for one batter and crossed his fingers, with the hopes of bringing him back. Jerome Williams screwed up the plans (as he’s wont to do), but it still worked out. It had some razzle dazzle, but in the end Porter was just looking to leverage one of his best relievers.

The Astros have two very good lefty relievers in Sipp and Darin Downs. Houston needed its bullpen quite a bit to get through the previous series with Minnesota, and Sipp had the freshest arm by one day. Sipp has been quite excellent this season. San Diego released him on May 1, but the Astros immediately snatched him up. As of now, he’s striking out 38% of the batters he faces, walking 4% and he has a 69 FIP-. Sipp, along with Downs, Chad Qualls, Josh Fields and Matt Albers are anchoring a bullpen that must seem like a godsend to Porter this season. This isn’t to say it’s a good bullpen. It’s not. It ranks second to last in ERA, seventh worst in FIP and seventh worst in WAR. But consider that last year’s Houston bullpen was literally the worst in baseball history. This season, there was no where to go but up. And Porter is trying to use his newfound kind-of-weapon to the fullest.

With some help from Jeff Zimmerman, we found 27 instances (within the Retrosheet era, since 1950) in which a pitcher was placed into a defensive position, then was moved back to pitcher. Those pitchers went to the outfield 13 times, first base seven times, third base six times and second base once. There was the time that Stan Musial pitched for the Cardinals, and another in which Jim Rittwage did a switcheroo in the fifth inning. Other than that, these events all happened in the later innings and in high-leverage situations. For example: Our old friend Davey Johnson once had Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell play musical pitcher in an extra inning game for the would-be champion New York Mets.

These things are fun to look at and fun to think about. But with the exception of the Musial shenanigans and whatever was going on with Rittwage, these are strategic moves. They are made with the hopes of winning games. It’s unorthodox — and Diamondbacks fans might boo — but if it gives the team a chance to win, it might be worth it. Bo Porter should know, he did the same thing in 2012 — though it didn’t turn out as well.

Dexter Fowler is playing above his usual level. A 24-year-old George Springer was the eighth best-hitting outfielder in baseball in May. We’ve documented how Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel are playing out of their minds. There’s a very good chance this Astros gravy train is going to slow down.

But Houston is 29-37. At this pace, the team would finish the season with 91 losses — 20 fewer than in 2013. Due to the fact that our playoff odds rely on pre-season projections, we have them at about a 0.5% chance of making the playoffs. But they’re 18-12 in their past 30 games, and 12-8 in their past 20. I doubt there are many dreams of the postseason for the Astros, but winning certainly feels better than losing. That’s especially true when the culture in Houston has involved losing for so long.

The 2011-2013 Astros were mostly about getting through the season. Throw some quadruple-A guys at the wall, see what sticks. Trade everything that isn’t nailed down. But now the Astros are interesting. Young talent works wonders that way. And when a team is interesting — when a team is starting to look more like a baseball team than a garbage fire — why not give it a go? Why not give the young guys a taste of what could be to come, perhaps sooner than most people thought?

Porter could have called in a gassed Downs. He could have tried his luck with Jerome Williams against Montero. He could have done a lot of things that might have worked out. But a good run is a good run. And whether it’s sustainable, when some players (and the manager) have experienced 324 losses in the previous three season, sometimes trying is OK. Good win, slap hands. Who knows, a sniff of a .500 record isn’t totally out of the question. And a .500 record would seem like a World Series sweep in Houston these days.

 




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David G. Temple is a systems analyst who writes for FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. He has contributed to The Classical and The Platoon Advantage. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

28 Responses to “Bo Porter and the Value of Trying”

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  1. here goes nothing says:

    I LOVE THIS. Been waiting for this to become more of a thing for a long time. Pitchers should always have the ability to play a position in their back pocket specifically for this purpose. This is looking in the real long term, since this is an entire shift in how players are developed, but one of the biggest areas for experimentation (within the existing rules) and growth is in blurring line between pitcher and position player.

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    • tz says:

      I’d love to see Micah Owings come back to the majors as a middle reliever for just this reason. You could pinch-hit him for the previous pitcher, use him for a few innings and let him “switcheroo” into the OF if you need to use a LOOGY, and then let him bat the next time out so you’re not burning up PHs.

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      • Bobby Ayala says:

        Yes, then you could have a below-replacement pitcher, a below-replacement fielder, and a below-replacement hitter all rolled into one!

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        • AK7007 says:

          I’d actually say that he’s still got a 100 wRc+ in him. But has lost the ability to pitch much at all, as you say.

          It’s more about the idea of prime Owings teleported to 2014 Bo Porter’s hands than it is about current actual Owings in anybody’s hands. Players like him require celebration, not snark. Stop hating fun Bobby.

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  2. thuerk says:

    I bet Mo would have loved to do this.

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    • TheVerbalFan says:

      But that would have meant there was a pitcher the manager preferred over Mo, and I don’t think that ever happened.

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  3. CompmanJX3 says:

    I’d love to see a manager put a LOOGY in left and ROOGY in right and play matchups without burning through the bullpen.

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  4. Eric R says:

    If you had a LOOGY and ROOGY who each was a decent enough corner OFer, so long as you play your cards right with where they fall in the batting order [relative to when either would be due up], you could potentially get a couple of innings in a single game out of the pair [rather than the typical 2-3 batters combined].

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    • Aaron (UK) says:

      A sufficiently athletic pair of starting pitchers could manage the whole game in the AL. Ideally against a team with an 5/4 split of batters.

      What happens when a switch hitter comes to the plate, though? Who has to commit first?

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      • jacjacatk says:

        You’d lose the DH in the AL doing this, so you can’t make special use of it with SP as I think you’re suggesting. Losing the DH might still be worth the cost in some spots with relievers, though.

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        • Aaron (UK) says:

          Ah yes – I think (someone correct me if I’m wrong) you wouldn’t actually lose the DH but one of your pitchers (i.e. the starting LF) would have to hit? The DH could hit for the other guy.

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        • matt w says:

          Wouldn’t you lose the DH as soon as the official pitcher went into the field? The DH can only hit for the pitcher, correct?

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  5. Jon L. says:

    With just two switches, a pitcher could easily qualify for the win, a hold, and the save. How would the official scorer handle this? (I think he would quit.)

    As to the above: The batter would get to choose which way to bat after the pitcher has been announced. In the case of a switch-pitcher, the pitcher still has to choose a pitching hand before the batter picks a side of the plate to stand on.

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    • Persona non grata says:

      Thankfully for the scorer, you cannot qualify for a hold or save if you are the winning pitcher.

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      • AC of DC says:

        Rule 10.19(b) is what states that. In such an instance (the prospective Winning Pitcher being reinserted and converting a Save situation) I assume that no Save is recorded.

        I retain this bit of trivia because it came up ages ago during discussion of the aforementioned McDowell-Orosco game, in which (if I remember rightly) McDowell, who had pitched the 13th, was still in the OF when Orosco closed it out in the 14th, so theoretically could have entered a Save situation on his own Win. (I suppose I could verify this by clicking the link above, but I’m trying to impress strangers with my knowledge of useless baseball factoids!)

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    • DerekDM says:

      From a high school game this week, a manager brought in his top pitcher to save a one-run game. The pitcher gave up a run, though, and it went to extras. Another pitcher came in to pitch the 8th while the “closer” went to short. The team scored one in the 9th (HS game is just seven innings) to take the lead again, and he again went to the pitcher, who converted the save this time. Blown save and save in the same game?

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  6. Chris from Bothell says:

    Great googly moogly, I didn’t even know this was possible, let alone something a manager would do in a major league game that actually counts in standings and everything.

    I don’t know why, but I thought that once someone moved to a position they couldn’t move back, and once a pitcher had stopped pitching for that game they couldn’t pitch again.

    Perhaps my beloved / beleaguered Mariners could solve some of their left field problems this way…

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  7. Cheesewhiz says:

    Regarding the Astros, I’d have to say that in hindsight Ed Wade deserves a good amount of credit. Seems that his skill is rebuilding bad or fading teams. He put together the core that led to a WS ring in Philly. And he put together a core in Houston that could lead to big things (Springer, Singleton, Castro, Cosart), or at least respectability.

    Sadly, it also seems that he never gets to stick around for the good times. The bad will generated by blowing up a team followed by several years of bottom feeding is what sticks to his reputation, not the ability to rebuild an organization from bottom to top.

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    • Plucky says:

      It is possible to over-hate on Ed Wade, but let’s not pretend he’s anywhere close to average, let alone good. He took over this team, and 3 years later put this team onto the field with an above average payroll while sporting a bottom-5 farm system. His 4 drafts have produced 2 useful players (Castro & Springer), hopefully soon a third (Foltynewicz), and perhaps a 4th (DeShields) someday. Castro and Springer are of course fine players, but that’s a weak haul from 4 drafts. Pointing to them, his mancrush on Bourne, and the Pence trade prove that Wade was not utterly incompetent, but the bottom line is the franchise was in far worse condition when he left it than when he took it over. He got the GM job because he was the only guy who told uncle Drayton he didn’t need to start a rebuild, and then he spent 3 years proving himself wrong.

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      • Plucky says:

        I forgot to include Keuchel in the list of useful players (2009 draft), but giving Wade partial credit for what he’s done this year after defining replacement level for 2 seasons is a stretch

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  8. stonecutter7 says:

    Did Sipp throw any warmup pitches the second time?

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  9. AK7007 says:

    With as many pitchers shagging BP flyballs as there are, I don’t know why more managers don’t do this. (although I would probably only allow it with the bases empty)

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  10. John C says:

    I remember Davey Johnson switching pitchers like that, and I think I recall Whitey Herzog doing it once or twice with the Cardinals, too. If the pitcher you’re hiding in the outfield is a good enough athlete, you can generally get away with it. Most managers just don’t have the guts to risk it if something goes wrong.

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    • cass says:

      It’s nice that you remember, but if you had bothered to read or skim the article, you would have seen that was already covered.

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  11. David K says:

    The reference to the Mets flip-flopping between Orosco and McDowell brought back memories for me. Growing up a Met fan, and moving away from the NY Metro area where we couldn’t get the Mets games on cable, I happened to be lucky enough to catch that game when visiting my grandparents in Florida, who happened to have WOR on their cable lineup.

    This article summed up the craziness of that game, beyond just the two pitcher swapping stuff:

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/baseballs-craziest-game/

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  12. Andrew Martinez says:

    “And a .500 record would seem like a World Series sweep in Houston these days.”

    We had one of those back in 2005 and it sucked.

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  13. peopletocakeratio says:

    if some unorthodox manager wanted to give this a shot, it seems to me that there are a few avenues to explore. they would require some planning going into the season, but could be worthwhile if implemented well.

    1) a pitcher that was a converted position player would brush up on fielding their old position. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Category:Converted_to_pitching
    2) determine if any position players have pitching experience/ability. (or started as pitchers http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Category:Converted_from_pitching)
    3) have the entire pitching staff take some time shagging baseballs in the outfield.

    if you have pitchers that can jump into the field for a batter, you won’t necessarily be forced to burn another reliever. also, if you have a converted position player, you can reasonably ask them to play the field for an inning or two while you plug in another pitcher for certain batters.

    another evolution of this idea is to develop a LOOGY position player to jump on the mound and face a lefty and head back to the field until they’re needed again.

    another possibility is having a pitcher/position player in the lineup for use in a situation (think post-conversion rick ankiel without the yips) where a starter’s getting roughed up early. swap out the pitcher with the position player to get out of the inning, hopefully eliminating the high-stress pitches it would have taken the starter. you know, the kind of game where everything seems to fall apart in the second or third inning and the starter can’t seem to throw strikes. it could give the pitcher a rest and a chance to re-focus and come back the next inning without stressing their arm too much.

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