Primum non nocere – the Latin phrase meaning “First, do no harm.” That sentiment is drilled into physicians from the beginning of medical school, but perhaps it should be emblazoned on every dugout wall in baseball as well. In the ALCS, we saw two managers over-analyze situations, causing harm to their own team time and time again, and now it appears that Charlie Manuel may be on the verge of following in their footsteps.
Manuel will send Cliff Lee to the hill on Wednesday for Game One of the series, as he should. However, he has not been willing to disclose the rest of his playoff rotation, and reports are surfacing that he may go with Pedro Martinez in the second game in lieu of Cole Hamels. The rationale appears to be based on recent performance – Hamels has struggled in the first two rounds of the playoffs, while Martinez was able to hold down the Dodgers in his NLCS appearance.
However, at some point, you have to step back and realize that recent performance simply cannot overcome what we know about the respective abilities of the two pitchers. Hamels is the better pitcher by a significant margin. It’s not even close.
The appearance of Hamels’ struggles this year are mostly just noise. His 2009 FIP of 3.72 is exactly equal to his 2008 FIP, as his walk, strikeout, and home run rates are nearly identical. The ERA jumped by over a run per game due to a 55 point increase in his batting average on balls in play. He was a bit lucky last year and a bit unlucky this year. Overall, he’s the same guy he was a year ago when he led the Phillies to a World Series title and was being crowned the new young ace of the National League.
Martinez simply isn’t in that league anymore. He did a nice job down the stretch for the Phillies, but even in a limited sample of nine starts, he wasn’t as good as Hamels. He pounded the strike zone and missed some bats, but his fringe fastball up in the zone led to a ridiculously low 29.5 percent ground ball rate. Not surprisingly, he gave up a bunch of home runs, which is consistent with his performances over the last several years. He throws enough strikes and has a good enough change-up to be effective, but he’s prone to throwing a couple of meatballs each game.
To decide to go with Martinez over Hamels, you have to significantly undervalue the gap in talent and overvalue everything else. Pedro may have a history with old Yankee stadium, and you might prefer a guy with his personality on the mound, but that stuff doesn’t make up for the fact that Cole Hamels is a far superior pitcher to Pedro Martinez right now. Mike Scioscia made a similar mistake by going with Joe Saunders due to non-talent reasons. It’s not a good idea.
The Yankees have it right – throw your best pitchers as often as possible. Hamels is the second best pitcher on the staff. He should start game two. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
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