That is the very question Derrick Goold set out to answer at his fine “Bird Land” blog earlier this week. As always, he assumed a calm, fact-based tone to try to either support or dispel the feelings of some about one of many volatile issues this winter – that the St. Louis Cardinals’ left-handed relief corps for 2009 is a downgrade from the crew rostered the previous season.
Goold went beyond the obvious factors of salaries, health concerns and the basic stats to consider the primary role for the three newcomers, Trever Miller, Charlie Manning and Royce Ring – how they have fared against left-handed hitters previously. The term used in support is “LOOGY”, or Lefty One-Out GuY.
After looking at measures like batting average, slugging, walk and strikeout rates, as well as mix of pitch types thrown, Derrick’s conclusion is that this 2009 crop could be just fine against lefty hitters. A few supporting quotes:
“Miller is clearly the lefty specialist they desired. With the others, the Cardinals cannot be sure of their roles or their expected contributions, as (pitching coach Dave) Duncan said, ‘yet.’”
“Both Manning and Ring have the look of a lefty who could perform in a more specified role.”
This is a well-presented case that might go a long way in soothing the concerns, especially of those who look first at salaries to judge a player’s worth. In fact, it was Derrick’s third article reviewing different aspects of Miller’s effectiveness against left-handed hitters.
At first blush, I accepted the conclusion and moved on to other matters. Yet the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I was that the analysis was complete enough for me to hang my hat on.
Is there more to consider?
Sure, getting out left-handed hitters is the primary textbook-defined role of a left-handed reliever. I readily accept that.
- Yet especially on a Tony La Russa-managed club, is there really such a thing as a LOOGY?
- Is potentially choosing from among three options for a LOOGY the best question to ask?
(By the way, the population of competitors is four if you include minor leaguer Ian Ostlund, who has yet to appear in the majors, but did score an invite to major league spring training. With no MLB results, Ostlund is excluded from the work that follows.)
We all know that in some cases, opposing managers will send up pinch hitters to disrupt the lefty-lefty match-ups, yet one could assume the left-handed reliever is being asked to come into the game and get out an important opposing batter, one that would not be taken out of the game.
Yet how often does a La Russa-Dave Duncan left-hander come in to pitch to just one left-handed hitter and then exit the game?
Certainly some outs are more crucial than others, but if the pitcher remains on the mound for more than one enemy batter, odds are high that next hitter is going to be a right-hander. Further, that next man up could easily be in just as crucial of a game situation as the previous left-handed batter.
In other words, my hypothesis is that the Cardinals need lefties that can get out right-handed hitters almost as badly as they need ones that can retire left-handed hitters.
Obviously, if that is the case, considering stats against lefties only is not going to provide the full picture.
How often did Ron Villone and Randy Flores face lefties?
I am going to use 2008 results to help me demonstrate this. I submit that the La Russa-Duncan usage patterns for left-handed relievers are pretty set at this stage of their coaching careers. Therefore the ability to assume 2009 deployment from 2008 usage seems reasonable, especially when considering the long course of 162 games.
We’ll start with the usage of the two from 2008, Ron Villone and Randy Flores.
|2008 Cards||Game appearances||% Game App||Batters plate appearances||PA/App||% PA|
First, note that when the two appeared in games, they each faced at least one left-handed hitter (LHH) 90% of the time. Check.
While Flores went up against right-handed hitters (RHH) more often than Villone, it is worth noting that in almost 2/3 of their collective appearances, the two left-handed relievers also faced at least one right-handed hitter.
So much for LOOGY-ness.
Going on to the right of the table, we see that they both averaged three batters faced per appearance in 2008. In terms of pure numbers of batters faced, the pair of lefties actually pitched to MORE right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters last season.
Put aside pure LOOGYness then; how did they do in facing just one batter?
Now, we’ll pull out the game logs of the two from last season. In this analysis, we are not looking at the handedness of the batter. Instead, the view is of how the LH relievers were used and how they fared in single-batter outings.
In other words, when Villone or Flores came in to face just one batter, whether righty or lefty, did they get their man?
|2008 Cards||Game appearances||One-batter appearances||% 1ba||One out gotten||% 1out|
To clarify, note that I did not show how each pitcher fared against their first batter faced in EVERY appearance, regardless of duration. Instead, I looked at their results in appearances when only one batter was faced. Of course, none of this assesses the cruciality of the situation.
Therefore, this is clearly just a subset of what the full first-batter results were, but still are enough to further deflate the LOOGY myth, I believe.
Last season between the two, they faced just one batter slightly under 40% of the time. In other words, Villone and Flores were NOT used as a “one-out guy” over 60% of the time.
In terms of results in their one-batter outings, collectively the two were able to secure the out only 54% of the time.
In Flores’ case, I noted an interesting pattern. From the start of the season through June 1, he was a perfect 6-for-6 in getting that one out. The rest of the way, he went an awful 2-for-8.
Now, we’re getting closer to the essence of the real issue, I think.
How do the new guys stack up?
Let’s shift gears to the new lefties and see how they compare, using their 2008 regular season results.
|2008||Game appearances||One-batter appearances||% 1ba||One out gotten||% 1out|
The first thing to note is that these three were used less frequently to face one batter than did the Cardinals pair from 2008, 33% vs. 39%. So this analysis is over an even a smaller subset of their total body of work than it was for Flores and Villone.
It obviously says nothing about the results when any of these pitchers are left in to face more than one hitter in a given game, which is exactly what happens the vast majority of the time (2/3). So it should not be considered an indicator of total results in any way.
Yet, in the one-third of the time they were used against one batter in 2008, the three new Cardinals collectively came through over 75% of the time. Needless to say, that is considerably better than the 54% mark from the Cardinals’ departed pair from last season.
It might offer a ray of hope if I could get past the fact that these pitchers are likely going to see far fewer one-batter appearances with St. Louis than they did in their previous pitching locales. I have no way of projecting if those rates would continue on a different team at a higher frequency of deployment in the situation.
How about first batters retired of all types and inherited runners?
Straying even further away from the LOOGY definition, we will conclude with first batter-retired efficiency in all outings of all durations as well as inherited runners that scored.
I believe these two measures are better gauges than most everything else presented here previously.
|2008 Cards||Appearances||1st batter retired||% efficient||Inh runners||IR scored||% scored|
|2008||Appearances||1st batter retired||% efficient||Inh runners||IR scored||% scored|
Together, the two 2008 Cardinals retired their initial batter about 2/3 of the time, with Flores coming in 7% better than Villone. The three newbies in total are basically the same as the 2008 bunch, with Miller equivalent to Flores and Ring lining up with Villone at the low end. Among this group, Manning is average.
Where the new Cardinals really shine is in the important area of inherited runners scoring. Miller leads the way at a stingy 16%, with Ring right behind. The worst of the three, Manning, was the same as Villone at 23%. As Cardinals fans likely remember, Flores was simply awful in 2008, as almost 40% of the runners that were on base when he came in eventually crossed the plate.
Had Villone and Flores managed to deliver a 19% rate in these situations last season, seven fewer runs would have been charged to them and to the Cardinals.
Finally, something I can get a little more excited about!
- Most of the time, St. Louis Cardinals’ left-handed relievers are not deployed against just one batter, whether lefty or righty, making LOOGY an exception.
- Last season, the length of Cards lefties appearances were greater than one batter 60% of the time, averaging slightly over three batters each.
- These lefty relievers actually faced more right-handed hitters over the course of the 2008 season.
- Therefore, using results against left-handed hitters only as a predictive measure of success would seem incomplete, at best.
- Using an very narrow approach of looking at only one-batter outings to remain true to the spirit of LOOGY, we found that the three 2009 Cardinals newcomers were substantially more efficient in that specific role in 2008 than were the two departed left-handers.
- While the three new left-handers allowed first hitters-faced, whether lefty or righty, to reach base last season at basically the same rate as Villone and Flores, the new Cards were markedly better at stranding inherited runners.
To get back to the initial question, “Did the Cardinals improve their lefty relief?” To date, my reply is “perhaps”, though not necessarily for the exact same reasons as Goold.