Phil Hughes as Shutdown Reliever

Since June Phil Hughes has been recast from disappointing former top starting pitching prospect to shut down reliever. He started off as a sixth/seventh inning guy, but by mid-July had established himself as the 8th inning setup man to Mariano Rivera. His numbers are great 11.36 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, and a sparkling 1.26 ERA (1.77 FIP), but built, partially, on a lucky 0.274 BABIP and under 3% HR/FB.

This year Hughes added a cutter and got rid of his slider (this was also true of his early stint as a starter), and as a reliever has stopped using his change. So he is a three pitch guy: a four-seam fastball, a cutter and his big 12-6 breaking curve. As a reliever he throws about 65% fastballs, with the rest an equal split of curves and cutters to RHBs and almost all curves to LHBs.

In the pen everything has gotten much better, as expected. His fastball and cutter have gained speed (fastball from 91.8 to 94.5 mph and the cutter from 87 to 89 mph). Both the pitches are in the zone more often and gotten more whiffs. His fastball, as a reliever, has more rise and is higher up in the zone, making it more of an extreme whiff/flyball pitch. As a result it does not get as many ground balls, but induces more pop-ups.

It is important to remember these numbers are from just 70 innings (35 as a starter and 35 as a reliever). So there are serious small sample size issues. He is most likely performing above his true talent level as a reliever, even in indicators that are not luck based (K and BB rate, whiff rate, in zone rate). In addition as a reliever all his ‘luck’ indicators changed from unlucky to lucky. His BABIP went from .317 as a starter to .274 as a reliever, and his HR/FB from 12% to 2.9%. Pitchers have some control over these, and maybe as a reliever he can keep them lower, but some of his improvement from a starter to reliever has been luck and some, probably, over-performance of true talent.

Phil Hughes will be the Yankee’s 8th inning man for his year and the playoffs, but next year it will be interesting to see what they do. Using the FanGraphs WAR valuation an elite reliever is worth about the same as a just slightly above average starter (this year Joe Nathan is worth about as much as Tim Wakefield and Mariano Rivera is worth the same as Gil Meche). So the Yankees would have to think the difference in his performance as a starter and reliever is much larger than that of the average starter to justify keeping him in the pen next year.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

48 Responses to “Phil Hughes as Shutdown Reliever”

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  1. lincolndude says:

    This is only marginally related, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while and this seems like a reasonable place to raise it.

    Replacement level FIP is lower for relievers than for starters. Is it possible to leverage this by lowering the number of innings pitched by starters, or even doing away with the traditional 5-man, 6 IP per start rotation?

    It seems like someone could gain an advantage by turning disappointing “starters” (long-innings guys) into good “relievers” (short-innings guys), and then doling out more of the traditional starter innings to a large pool of those relievers.

    Might not be fun to watch, though.

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    • Christian says:

      I like the idea. The only problem I see is that it would tire out arms and require one to carry extra pitchers. Instead of a 5th starter, you could use a 4 inning guy followed by a 2 inning guy, which might be more effective. Would it be worth carrying the extra pitcher?

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      • lincolndude says:

        I’m thinking more along the lines of guys going 2-3 innings every 2-3 days. Say your higher usage guys end up averaging 1 IP per game. With about 1450-1475 innings to fill in a season, you could do this handily with about 10 of these guys.

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    • Toffer Peak says:

      You should check out this article.

      “To enable starters to continue to have large workloads while minimizing innings pitched per game would require a complete re-working of usage patterns. One method would be to follow a tandem starter routine that, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to call SOMA: Shorter Outings, More Appearances. Under SOMA, starters would be paired up to pitch every third day, tossing 3-4 innings each per game. After accounting for off days, SOMA would allow a team’s best starters to appear in around 60 games and rack up 200-240 innings per season—similar to their current workloads—with minimal impact on bullpen usage.”

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  2. Tom B says:

    so, as a starter he would have to be better than gil meche or tim wakefield (who are both… eh) to be comparable in value to the G.O.A.T. and one of the best relievers in baseball over the last 5 years?

    i think that’s a pretty obvious choice. there is no doubt in my mind that hughes becomes a starter. not only a starter, but an ace.

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  3. Sam says:

    There is very little chance that Phil Hughes is a reliever next year. He is a 23 year old with very good stuff who had his usual lumps pitching in AL East as a starter. He will follow the Joba path. Cashman is not stupid, and the Yankees have a glaring hole at number 5 spot right now, and has very little indication of what they might be able to get out of Chien Ming Wang.

    I think they will look to the market and try to get a guy like Rafael Soriano to be a set-up reliever.

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    • Matt Harms says:

      Can we please give up on the whole “Man, the AL East is TOUGH” thing when it comes to talking about players on the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays? Almost every division in baseball has two solid teams in it, and playing for the Yankees means Hughes will never have to face A Rod, Teixera, and the rest of the lineup. The other teams in the division aren’t that much tougher than most divisions in baseball.

      It’s spread like wildfire on here, especially in the comments on the Smoltz article the other day. Give it up, already.

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      • Sam says:

        You may want to check other players who have seen their performance gone south upon arrival to AL East. It is a legitimately tough division. The Rays and Red Sox are two of the best offenses in baseball, and Baltimore is pretty good too with Jones, Markakis, Scott, Roberts, Reimold, Wieters. I would also argue that this year, Blue Jays were a pretty good offense when Hughes was a starter.

        So, yeah, AL East is tough. This very site ranked all AL East teams in the top 20 at the beginning of the year, with Red Sox, Rays and Yankees being the top 3, in that order.

        This has nothing to do with Smoltz, although he is a data point. Also, a young pitcher is going to have some lumps, but it definitely is harder in AL East.

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      • Tom B says:

        this is a pretty poor analysis of the al east, can you see through your hate-filled goggles? the blue jays and orioles could be perennial wild card contenders if they were in any other division. they could probably win divisions if they were in the NL.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Let’s see here, AL East teams are 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 12th, and 15th in runs scored. They’re 1st, 3rd, 4th, 11th, and 16th in OPS. They’re 1st, 2nd, 4th, 11th, and 17th in wOBA. But yeah, pitchers don’t have it rough in the AL East. When the worst team in the division has a league-average offense, the second worst is good, and the top three are elite, that doesn’t provide any issues at all.


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      • Thelonious says:

        If your definition of a “solid team” is a team of the quality of the Sox or Rays, then actually no other division has two teams of that quality.

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    • Theodore Hoppe says:

      What month is this, December?
      Who cares about next year in the beginning of Sept.? The Yankees are in first lace in the East, and I would rather be thinking about why Hughes has only pitched 4 innings since August 12. The Yankees can’t afford to use Hughes in just the 8th inning of a save situation Maybe there saving his arm for the playoff since they have a lead.

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  4. Matt says:

    The plan is for him to start next year. He’s not a former starting prospect: He’s just helping the team out where they needed him most.

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    • Matt B. says:

      Heir apparant to Mo, no doubt in my mind.

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      • Jamal G. says:

        You can have as little doubt in your mind as you please, but, the fact remains that Phil Hughes will be one of the Yankees’ five starting pitchers in 2010. I don’t see why anyone would even debate this.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        For the same reasons why Francessa argued (read: screamed) for two years that Joba needed to be in the pen – confirmation bias and an over-inflated notion of the importance of 60 late-game innings.

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      • Tom B says:

        listening to fatcessa will only cause migranes

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  5. Jack's Son says:


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  6. AndrewYF says:

    Hughes doesn’t necessarily have to be a touch above average in order to justify him being in the rotation. He probably won’t be, and moving him to the rotation will still be the right idea. Hughes’ greatest value will likely come down the road rather than next year, and the only way to have a chance at that value is to put him in the rotation in 2010. He’s definitely not going to the bullpen, even if he performs like Clay Buchholz (god forbid!)

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  7. Thomas says:

    Remember nobody expected Wang to be injured. Who knows what next year will bring. AJ has health issues from the past and CC has thrown like 1000 innings in 4 years time already. Wang may never come back and Pettitte may not re-sign, especially if they win the WS. You can’t have enough starters!

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  8. DA – I just updated Hughes in the comments of the THT piece. No more change-ups since the switch, better cutter/fastball, but not as good with the curve/sinker, although the sinker has basically been shelved.

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  9. 21645 says:

    “…disappointing former top starting pitching prospect….”

    jon miller was saying similar things about phil on the sunday night broadcast.

    phil as a starter was not washed up or failed.

    in fact he actually had several real good starts leading into his “demotion” to the pen, including an 8-inning gem at texas.

    the move to the pen was a situational/roster/young-guy-innings decision. he was never a failure or a disappointment as a starter.

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    • Rob in CT says:

      He was a failure/disappointment to those who had sky-high expectations (the result of hype + the craziness of some fans) and thought he’d dominate right off the bat. I’m pretty reasonable, and yet my expectations were higher than they should have been, given his age and the difficulty of moving from the minors to the AL.

      I wish they hadn’t done that botched Wang return. Hughes could be in the rotation (outpitching Sergio Mitre, at the very least).

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  10. AlecTrev says:

    It seems a bit misleading to use Wakefield as your “just slightly above average” starter WAR-wise when he has missed a month.

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  11. pine tar man says:

    there really is no reason to think that hughes’ performance as a reliever is better than it would be if he were a starter. he’s been pitching with confidence lately, and confidence is an incredibly important thing for a young pitcher. he got shaken by a few poor starts. as a reliever, hughes has been steel. if that steel were to carry over into starting, he’d be just as good a starter as he’s been a reliever. i’m not saying that he’ll pitch to a sub-2.00 era. but i am saying that he’s been very good as a reliever and would probably be just as good a starter. After all, only some guys come into the pros as relievers. Others are failed starters. Others are just guys who have 2 really good pitches, which is only enough to go once around the order.
    Hughes fits none of those categories. With three + pitches and new-found confidence that he can get out ML batters, Hughes could be a very good starter, even if he throws “just” 93 and not 96. An improved changeup would put him into the #1 starter category.
    Unless Hughes demonstrates next spring that he can’t throw 91+ fastballs late into the game, he should be re-converted to the rotation for 2010. He’s going to be good.

    Now, Joba, on the other hand, maybe should go in the opposite direction. BACK to the bullpen. Not this season, but next. Have Hughes replace Joba in the rotation, and Joba replace Hughes in the bullpen.

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  12. MDS says:

    joba n phil werent untouchable to other teams b/c they want to have good relievers. they will be developed into good to great starters. the yanks can buy some more relievers next year. phil is still very young

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  13. jrb says:

    The Yankees should wait see how Hughes does in the post season to see if he will remain in the bull pen or move into the rotation in 2010

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  14. Rob in CT says:

    It seems premature to stick him in the bullpen for good, and the Yankees have been saying all the right things in that regard. I’m happy he’s having a run of success in his current role, but I want to see him starting again next year.

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  15. Steve from Rockland says:

    Fangraphs “WAR” is TOTAL NONSENSE and totally invalid. I’ve been a baseball fan for over 50 years and have 30 credits ABOVE a Masters in math. That and many other so-called statistics like range factor, fielding runs, etc. are PURE NONSENSE. THEY HAVE ZERO VALIDITY, BOTH BASEBALL WISE AND MATH WISE. THEY ARE MADE UP BY “MATH NERDS(GEEKS?)” WHO TRY TO PUT A NUMBER ON EVERYTHING, WHEN ANY MATH MAJOR KNOWS THAT YOU CANNOT DO THAT WITH ANY VALIDITY (YOU CAN ONLY DO IT FOR CERTAIN THINGS). A FULL MATHEMATICAL EXPLANATION WOULD TAKE PAGES. I’ve heard several baseball people, like Gene Michael, basically laugh at those “statistics”. Michael’s words were to the effect: you can’t quantify defense in any way-you have to watch the player play.

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    • Tom B says:

      If you can’t stand the stats, what are you doing on this website? Nobody cares about your 40 year old masters in mathematics, modern statistical analysis has long passed by your knowledge, if you are even telling the truth. Nobody I know that has a masters speaks like a 12 year old internet superstar.

      And there is nothing wrong with the stats in context. Sure the number by itself is irrelevant, but used as a point of comparison it’s perfectly legit. A man with a masters in mathematics would actually understand what a “frame of reference” is.

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  16. steve from Rockland says:

    You can believe what you want, but those statistics (while interesting) have no mathematical validity. Look up “cardinality” in any Statistics textbook and you’ll see one reason for my comment. Many intelligent people mis-understand (or just don’t understand) advanced math. For example, many baseball fans think “over MANY games, things tend to exactly even out ” (I’ve heard many announcers say that). However, the fact is, as the number of trials (games, etc.) increases, the probability for things to “exactly even out” becomes infinitely small. Any stat text (see binomial distribution) will verify that. I got to this website through a link -I had never heard of it. By the way your comment about modern statistical analysis is ridiculous-I still teach Statistics and Calculus (college level)-the stats ARE STILL BASED ON THE SAME MATHEMATICAL PRINCIPLES INVALID STATISTICS HAVE NO VALIDITY EVEN WHEN COMPARED TO THEMSELVES OR OTHER INVALID STATISTICS. I saw one so called statistic (I don’t remember where) that “showed” that Gil Meche was as valuable as Mariano Rivera. I’m supposed to take that seriously??? Your resorting to insulting me (what kind of math background do you have?) is also ridiculous.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      Why is it ridiculous to even consider the possibility that someone who pitches three times as many innings as someone else could be as valuable as the second pitcher (and this is a Yankee fan asking)?

      You saying the math is invalid doesn’t mean dick. Explain why, and try doing it without the CAPS lock screaming.

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    • Tom B says:

      way to completely miss the point steve. i think you are barking to the wrong crowd.

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  17. steve from Rockland says:

    Hi Kevin. Two things-nobody who watches the Yanks every day as I do could possibly think anyone other than Rivera has been their MVP since 1996 (and they have obviously had starters much better than Gil Meche, who is pretty good. To explain here about the Stats is impossible (not a put-down in any way) since it would take teaching the first couple of weeks of a stat course to properly explain why. I’m certainly not anything like a genius-I know many people smarter than I am, but they don’t know math since it’s not their field of expertise. A quick example-some of these stats assume that “things even out” over many games. That is mathematically wrong! For example if you toss a coin 4 times, the prob. of 2H,. and 2 T=.5; for 8 tosses P(4H,4T)=.375; for 100 tosses, p(50 H, 50T)=.0795). When the # of “trials” gets into 5 figures, the prob. of things evening out is very close to 0. If you doubt these figures, look in a Stst book (Binomial Distribution Table or google Binomial Probability Calculator. I’m sorry if I upset a few people-I’m not trying to show off-and, I love baseball and its stats, but I don’t like the fact that people publish and push those stats as if they are really mathematically valid, when they are not. Of course some of the new stats are fine, like OPS and WHIP because they don’t violate any mathematical principles and baseball-wise, they make sense.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      Actually Steve, I’m going to dispute both of your assertions. First of all, I am also a Yankee fan who watches them nearly every day, and I disagree that Mariano Rivera is the most valuable Yankee. Obviously, he has a leg up on most others from the Torre/Girardi era, since he’s been there the entire time, but I would argue that Jeter has been more valuable, at the least, simply because he has more of an effect on the game than Rivera does. Regardless, if you reject WAR, then it’s a subjective question that there’s no real answer to. Secondly, from what you posted, it appears you have a misunderstanding regarding how statistics are applied in baseball. They don’t say everything WILL even out. I’m not sure what you are trying to refer to. As far as your example, search Emilio Bonifacio on this site, and read some of the articles written about him in early April. Trust me, statisticians understand that if you flip a coin four times and it lands heads all four, that doesn’t mean it’s a weighted coin. Flip it a thousand times, or a million, and you get a much closer approximation of its fairness

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  18. Steve from Rockland says:

    Kevin, I wasn’t arguing Jeter vs. Rivera (even though I disagree-you definitely have a really good argument), I was pointing out how ridiculous it was to compare Rivera and Meche. Anyway, for example, there is an underlying assumption in range factor that different teams’ players at the same position will have just about the same opportunities to make plays. That is not true-their teams play different schedules, opponents play different lineups against different pitchers (and even against the same pitchers at different times), the batters do not hit the same # of balls within x feet of different fielders (and of course not at the same speed, and in the case of infielders, how do you account for the batters’ speed?). Also-no one watching the game sees and knows the catcher’s signals, which cause infielders to shift their weight before many pitches, depending on the scouting report on the hitter, which we don’t see. So-how do you accurately determine whether a particular ball should have resulted in an out? Or: how do you determine what the percentage should be for a fielder to get to/make a play on a ball? I don’t know what you think of “fielding runs”, but the so-called stat leads to the most ludicrous conclusions I’ve ever seen. Such as: Jim Rice was a better outfielder than Mickey Mantle; Don Mattingly was only an average/below average fielder; Horace Clarke (“Horrible Horace”) was one of the best defensive players in the American League for 2 seasons; the 2 worst defensive first basemen I’ve ever seen, Dick Stuart and Ron Blomberg(one of my favorite players) were just barely below average; Billy Cox, a tremendous third basemen was poor ; and Willie Norwood was only a moderately bad outfielder. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Norwood (Twins-I think 1982) but he was unbelievable. Even though sometimes you hear “Every fly ball is an adventure”, even the worst outfielders catch almost everything. Norwood was the exception. One Minnesota sportswriter used to write “Willie Norwood, Twins flychaser (but not fly catcher…”); another one made up a GREAT Jeopardy question: The answer is “Catch 22″. What’s the question???—What does Willie Norwood do with 100 fly balls? That’s how awful he was! One other comment-you can’t use past stats to predict future outcomes because every situation is different (in Statistics, very often things are valid only when “all other factors are the same”). I can’t remember the number, but I think when a pitcher walks the leadoff man in an inning, he scores between 40% and 60% of the time. When Mariano Rivera walks the leadoff man, do you think there is a 40-60% chance that he’ll score?

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  19. tunglashr says:

    I know this is a two+ week old thread, but I have to say something. Anyone who says ‘infinitely small’ and claims to have a mathematics background is either lying or incompetent. I have a college mathematics background. There is no such thing as infinitely small. The extremes are infinitesimal and infinitely large. This goes a long way to explaining his complete misunderstanding of how statistics are applied to baseball. It may seem like a minute detail or nitpicking to someone outside of academic mathematics, but trust me, this is very important.

    Defensive statistics are just as valid as offensive and pitching statistics. We dont judge pitchers on how they look on the mound. We judge them on how they convert pitched balls into outs. We dont just hitters on how their swing looks on the jumbotron. We judge them on how they put balls into play. The same goes for defense. It doesnt matter how often a guy makes a routine play look spectacular. Defensive stats tell us how often they get to balls and make outs. They arent perfect, but neither is OB or opponents OB.

    Sabermetrics are statistics that are valid within their frame of reference. They arent predictive and they arent fact.

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  20. steve from Rockland says:

    Your comment is partially right. Technically-infinitely small is not correct, but it is now pretty much accepted as okay to use (I did post that comment at close to midnight after getting up at 4AM(which I do 4 days a week) so I’m not always fully awake when checking e-mail, etc. Your using the word incompetent is laughable. You may have a math background, but how many Stat courses have you taken? Most people(including many math teachers) do not understand the math behind many stats and therefore cannot really know when and how to properly apply them. I taught college Statistics for almost 20 years. Just about every defensive statistic in baseball is meaningless, as any scout or GM will attest to(I’ve spoken to several long-time scouts,and they laugh at those numbers (and others not pertaining to defense). Defensive stats mainly tell how often a ball is hit near enough to a fielder (and at a speed where it can be handled). They do not show how good a fielder anyone is. Every individual player has different balls hit near him(different distance from him, at a different speed, on different grass(height, thickness), from different batters (different speeds), so they never get the same opportunities to make plays. Also, these things do not exactly even out over time. Also-nobody watfching a gasme can say “that ball was 7.8 feet to the shortstop’sright, at 97.4 MPH, so he should have gotten to the ball and gotten an out”. I think your enthusiam for baseball is great, but your belief in those stats is just plain wrong.

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  21. noseeum says:

    Steve from Rockland, you apparently seem to believe that because a statistic doesn’t give you 100% predictive certainty, than why bother examining it?

    That’s ridiculous. Just because a stat doesn’t give you 100% certainty doesn’t mean it’s worthless.

    WAR does not attempt to discuss the true talent of a player. It looks at the actual data of actual games played, compiles the data on all of the events that player was involved in, compares his success/failure, chances, etc. etc. against a replacement level player and assigns a number of wins above replacement based on a clear, well defined set of metrics for every subset of the game.

    It’s not made out of whole cloth.

    Taking defensive metrics specifically, yes of course you can’t look at one individual play and say “it was in his zone, so he should have gotten it.” But you can certainly look at all shortstops in the history of baseball, see that the average shortstop gets to X% of balls hit into a certain zone, see that Ozzie Smith gets to a much high percentage than average as well as many outside his zone, and conclude that Ozzie Smith is a heck of a short stop. Zone ratings do not attempt to grapple with individual plays. They put them all into a bucket and see what comes out.

    These metrics show that Derek Jeter was a subpar short stop for the past several years, but to the lay fan, he may just think all those hits up the middle were just that. Hits. Jeter has always been fundamentally sound, so he “looks” like a good fielder. He is a good fielder. He just had limited range. But this year he’s dramatically improved going to his left. I’ve seen plays he’s made this year that I know he never would have gotten to last year. And UZR reflects that.

    The question for any stat’s usefulness is, “does it improve our understanding of the game and who is succeeding at the game?” In both UZR and WAR’s cases, the answer is undeniably yes. It matters not whether they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt who’s the best defensive player in baseball. No one ever gave them that much credit. They are data points, pieces of evidence a critical thinking person uses to piece together the entire story.

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  22. noseeum says:

    Now, onto Mo. The Yankees have 97 wins this year. Rivera has pitched 62 1/3 innings in 62 games.

    Even if he had a save in every one of those games, he’s pitched one inning per game, and the team delivered a lead to him over the previous 8 innings. If you accept the fact that any pitcher pitching any inning has some positive value to his team (with the obvious negatives subtracted for giving up runs, hits, and walks), then you must accept that a pitcher who pitches only 62 innings must pitch phenomenally well to overcome the huge contribution even a mediocre starting pitcher makes via additional innings. So Gil Meche has pitched 129 innings, about twice as much as Mo. Even a losing pitcher adds value because he eats up innings that better pitchers don’t have to waste their energy on. So Mo is useless without a heck of a lot of other people making very positive contributions to the Yankees.

    You have to accept, just on his limited role alone, that it would be very unlikely for any closer to be the most valuable player on a team. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s very unlikely. If anyone could be, it’s Mo, but before declaring something that’s highly unlikely, you should probably dig deeper and see what you find. And looking at highlight reels of the past 10 years doesn’t count as digging deeper.

    Or you can just continue to yell at anyone who says something surprising to you.

    Notice no one said “Meche is as good as Mariano.” Just “as valuable” because of the number of innings he’s contributed to his team.

    This is no knock on Mo. He’s a special talent.

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