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Posnanski’s Radical Idea

Pretty much everyone loves Joe Posnanski, including me. But while “Poz” has been perhaps the most prominent advocate of objective analysis among “mainstream” sportswriters, few would call him a “radical.” His blog post today, in the aftermath of a series of Tweets and counter-Tweets regarding Matt Thornton‘s appearance in last night’s All-Star Game, however, paints a different picture. While he doesn’t explicitly say so, Posnanski implicitly has a pretty radical idea about what sort of pitcher belongs (and does not belong) in the All-Star Game.

While acknowledging that Matt Thornton is a good middle reliever, Posnanski does

not want to see a middle reliever, no matter how good, pitch with the game on the line in the All-Star Game. I just don’t. I’m not necessarily overjoyed by the way managers use their staffs, but I know the realities of the game — managers put their best pitchers in the rotation, and they put their best reliever in the closer role, and they take the best of the rest (or the young pitchers they are trying to break in) and put them in middle relief. Some thrive in that role. And their value tends to be undervalued by everyone … including me.* But that doesn’t make it interesting in any way.

This is set up by this perfectly reasonable point:

Middle relief is a specialty position. It’s extremely important in day-to-day baseball, but, to me at least, the All-Star Game is not day-to-day baseball. It’s a game for the best. And in a league that has Lee, Liriano, Lester, King Felix, Verlander, Price, Greinke, Weaver, Sabathia, Pettitte and many other great, great starting pitchers, I’m sorry, I don’t want Matt Thornton pitching in the most important moment of the game. I don’t buy that having that “experience” of pitching the seventh inning with runners on is of great value, not in this kind of game. Give me the best pitcher.

Poz is right: we want to see the best pitcher out there, and we know that relief pitchers are generally relievers because they aren’t good enough to start. Yes, most fans would rather see Zack Greinke or Jon Lester than Matt Thornton — they are better pitchers than Thornton.

The “experience” point is also excellent, and pushes this idea over into the “radical” category. After all, if the “‘experience’ of pitching the seventh inning with runners on” isn’t important in the All-Star Game, then really, why would “experience of pitching in the ninth” be any different? The “experience” issue is a major part of the basis for modern closer “position,” one of the myths that sabermetric analysis has been debunking for a while. Closers do what they do because, just like every other reliever, most of them couldn’t handle starting for some reason or another. This gets at the heart of Posnanski’s implicit radicality: if we want to see the best pitchers, why should any relief pitchers make the All-Star Game?

If we agree with Posnanski that Matt Thornton isn’t good enough to pitch in the All-Star Game, which relievers are left? Among qualified relievers 2008-present, only two had a better FIP than All-Star Scourge Matt Thornton (2.50): Jonathan Broxton (2.13) and Mariano Rivera (2.36). Has Thornton been lucky on home runs? Here is an exhaustive list of qualified relievers with a better xFIP than Thornton (2.84) 2008-present: Broxton (2.32) and Rivera (2.57).

Of course, Rivera and Broxton are both “proven closers,” but even if you buy that load of “clutch” nonsense (you shouldn’t), as Posnanski pointed out, that kind of “experience” shouldn’t matter in the All-Star Game. In any case, leverage accounts for just how important the situations in which the pitcher has been placed in have been. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) helps us properly value “mere specialists” by incorporating leverage into their valuation as well as how much they’ve pitched. Since 2008, Matt Thornton has accumulated 5.9 WAR. Which relievers are ahead of him? You guessed it: Jonathan Broxton (6.9) and Mariano Rivera (6.4).

Maybe guys like Rivera and Broxton could make an appearance in the All-Star Game, if all the starters were used up or something, but hey, if we don’t want to see Matt Thornton, one of the most valuable relievers (middle or otherwise) in the game over the last few seasons, what’s the point of having relievers on the roster at all? Heck yeah, I’d rather see King Felix pitch than Matt Thornton. I hope Posnanski uses his prominent position to advocate for the position logically implied by his arguments.

However, I suppose in one way Posnanski should probably be happy that Matt Thornton was the reliever inserted into the game. Can you imagine the backlash Posnanski would have endured from Royals fans in his hometown of Kansas City if he’d tweeted about the silliness of Joe Girardi putting in Joakim Soria, someone Thornton has clearly outpitched the last several years?