Tony Jackson Joins the Anti-Sacrifice Bunt Alliance


Though we all groan every time “columnists” like Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers decide to focus their tired shtick on the Dodgers, I’ve always felt that beat writers Tony Jackson, Dylan Hernandez, and Ken Gurnick consistently produce solid work, often being the first to break news and generally providing an informed, balanced viewpoint to readers. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect – it was only a few months ago when I got on Jackson for employing “blown saves” when discussing Jonathan Broxton, for example – but even if the Dodgers don’t have the quantity of beat writers they once did, the quality is still there.

It’s with this in mind that Jackson deserves credit for putting pen to paper on a topic that’s long been known in the stats community, but which the casual fan has been slow to accept: sacrifice bunts are almost always the wrong choice.

Jackson:

The sacrifice bunt is the most counterproductive strategic ploy in the game.

And Mattingly, in apparent attempt to conform to conventional baseball wisdom, put it on twice in the final innings against the Diamondbacks, resulting in the Dodgers giving away at least one and possibly two outs at critical junctures of what became a one-run loss.

Yes. YES. A million times, yes. Jackson is referencing the final two innings of yesterday’s embarrassing loss to Arizona, a game in which Chad Billingsley and Kenley Jansen held the Diamondbacks to just one hit and an unearned run (partially due to a blown pickoff play which Jamey Carroll took blame for). The Dodgers, as has become an epidemic this season, managed just three hits from the regular lineup (Billingsley’s double was the fourth), dooming Billingsley to another undeserved loss on his way to a 10-13, 3.20 ERA season.

In the 8th, James Loney led off with a double (a momentous occurrence that probably deserved a post of its own), before being replaced on the bases by Tony Gwynn. Mattingly had Rod Barajas bunt him over to third, despite Gwynn being fast enough to score from second on most hits and despite Barajas being one of the only Dodgers showing any semblance of power.

Jackson summed up what happened next:

Except that the guy behind him, righty hitting rookie Jerry Sands, didn’t come up. Instead, Mattingly sent Dioner Navarro to pinch hit — now he takes the unconventional route, burning his backup catcher — to face the right-handed Hernandez because Navarro is a switch hitter, with all of his hits this season coming from the left side.

Only this time, Navarro didn’t get a hit. This time, he struck out on three pitches.

So much for giving yourself two chances to get the run in. Now, having chosen to simply give up one of your three outs, you are left with one.

Jay Gibbons popped out to left, and the threat was wasted. In the 9th, Carroll led off with a single, and Mattingly tried unsuccessfully to employ the sacrifice again, asking Aaron Miles to sacrifice Carroll to second. Miles couldn’t handle that task twice, and once he was finally allowed to swing away down 0-2, struck out. There’s a good chance Miles wouldn’t have grabbed a hit anyway, but two of the final six outs the Dodgers were given were simply thrown away by the employment of the sacrifice.

Here’s where I can help Jackson, though:

I have no data to support my case here, other than more than a decade of watching a big league baseball game almost every day and a long-building skepticism about the effectiveness of this age-old strategy. One of the arguments that could be made in Mattingly’s favor is that the Dodgers have such a weak offense that they have to try to create runs. I say the exact opposite, that their offense is so weak they simply can’t afford to be giving up outs when they have only three of them per inning to work with.

Jackson’s completely correct, but even if he doesn’t know it, there is plenty of data to back him up. Let’s head over to the run expectancy charts over at tangotiger.net, which allow you to select a baserunner/outs situation and is defined as “presenting the average number of runs that scored, from that base/out state, to the end of that inning”, based on the results of all games played over a certain time period.

When Loney (replaced by Gwynn) doubled to lead off the 8th inning, the Dodgers had a man on second with no outs. After Barajas’ sacrifice, they had a man on third with one out. Which situation usually results in more runs, based on every time each has happened from 1993-2010?

Avg. number of runs scored, 1993-2010
Man on second, no outs: 1.170
Man on third, one out: 0.989

How about in the 9th inning, when after Carroll’s single, they had a man on first with no outs? Mattingly’s goal was to get Carroll to second with one out, but when Miles failed, the result was a man on first with one out.

Avg. number of runs scored, 1993-2010
Man on first, no outs: 0.941
Man on second, one out: 0.721
Man on first, one out: 0.562

As you can see, in each case, the highest likelihood of scoring a run was to allow the next batter to swing away, not to give away an out in the hopes of securing one more base. In the 9th inning situation, the damage was particularly severe, since the sacrifice wasn’t successful.

There are, as Jackson notes, some rare times when the sacrifice bunt is appropriate. If, for example, the pitcher had been batting in either of these situations, then you can certainly make the argument to try to get an extra base to go along with the out the pitcher is almost certain to make. But as ineffective as Barajas, Sands, and Miles have all been at times this year, the better choice was to let them hit – particularly in the 8th inning, when the fleet Gwynn was already in scoring position and likely able to score from second on most hits.

I don’t know if Mattingly knows those numbers, but he disappointingly said after the game that it was an easy decision, one he’d do again. I’ve been generally pleased with Mattingly’s performance so far this season, but if there’s one area he’s proven to be infuriating, it’s with his use of bunts. As we saw yesterday, such decisions can directly harm the run production of a team that’s already terribly struggling in that arena.

******

No official decision has been announced yet, but it sounds more and more likely that Blake Hawksworth will be headed to the disabled list, and that his replacement will be Javy Guerra, who would be making his major league debut. As I said yesterday, there’s not much in the way of immediate reinforcements ready in ABQ, so it’s not a total surprise to see them dip down to AA Chattanooga instead.

A Valuable Learning Opportunity

During today’s ESPN chat with Tony Jackson and Angels writer Mark Saxon, a question about Jonathan Broxton inevitably came up:

Rachel (Hattiesburg)
Hi guys. Can we expect J Broxton to return to the stellar closer he was a couple years ago? Or does he lose his job early? Thanks

tony jackson
Hey Rachel. Judging by the way he pitched late last season, I’m not sure he has a closer’s makeup, but we’ll see. Don Mattingly insists he does have that makeup, and he bases that on the fact that Broxton was never that bad until late last year. But if you look at his career saves percentage, it isn’t that great. They’re going to give him the job for about a month to prove he can still handle it. But if he struggles out of the gate, I think you’ll see a change.

I agree with Jackson’s overall premise – that Broxton has about a month to prove himself – and I generally like Jackson’s work. But the use of “career saves percentage” completely kills me. On the list of “stats that mean absolutely nothing,” it comes in ahead of RBI and only slightly behind wins in my book, and since that message just got disseminated to a wide ESPN audience today, it’s a great chance to illustrate just how meaningless it is.

Saves and blown saves, of course, are generally useless on their face; they’re a manufactured stat that only tells you who happened to be pitching during a predetermined and precise set of circumstances, namely in the 9th inning with a lead of up to three runs. That means the stat alone is heavily dependent on many, many factors outside a pitcher’s direct control – and that works both ways, because Broxton’s well-remembered June meltdown against the Yankees didn’t even count as a blown save, because he came in with a four-run lead, despite that game being basically the definition of blowing it.

Yet they’re constantly misinterpreted as having some sort of significant insight into a pitcher’s performance. Remember when Francisco Rodriguez set a record with 62 saves in 2008? What people conveniently forget is that due to a quality yet low-scoring Angels club, he also set the record with the most save opportunities of all time. That year came in 120th of all-time on the WXRL scoreboard, a much better indicator of Rodriguez’ place in history. Need I remind you of Shawn Chacon‘s 2004, in which he somehow put up 35 saves despite going 1-10 with a 7.11 ERA?

If citing saves are bad, citing blown saves are worse. It’s one thing to say that Broxton blew 7 of his 29 save chances last year. That alone is somewhat misleading, because it neglects the fact Casey Blake let a potential double play through his legs in the Phillies game, or again that the Yankee game didn’t even count. At least he was the closer. At least he was coming into games in the 9th inning with the chance to win or lose them.

But to cite his career blown save percentage? That’s just unfair. Remember, from his debut in 2005 through mid-2008, Broxton wasn’t the closer. He was the setup man, mainly to Takashi Saito. Setup men work in the 7th and 8th inning, not the 9th, and that means that it’s by definition impossible to collect saves, only to blow them. Blown saves are even particularly more meaningless in those innings, since that doesn’t even necessarily indicate that the game was lost. So sure, by the end of 2008, Broxton had 19 career saves and 19 blown saves. Is anyone really thinking that all his quality work in those years made him a 50% closer? Of course not; if so, you’re penalizing him for things he never could have done.

Again, I like Jackson, and I certainly understand the trepidation towards Broxton. Let’s just please not damn him publicly with numbers that have no actual meaning.

******

Hey, great news for anyone who thought Kenley Jansen wasn’t going to make the team. Molly Knight tweets:

Mattingly says Jansen will work 7th inning typically, 8th when Kuo is unavailable and could close if Broxton has gone three days in a row.

No Good Can Come of This

Starting the day with bad news… the rumors flying around the Dodgers blogosphere are suggesting that Dodgers beat reporter Tony Jackson of the Daily News has been let go, based on a report by Josh Suchon on DodgerTalk (which MSTI will be on this Sunday! More on that to come). Jackson hasn’t posted on his blog since reporting that Scott Elbert was sent down on Wednesday, and while that might not seem like that long of a time, it is when you consider he usually posts several times a day – and there’s been roster moves and a game since then.

If this is true, it’s a huge mistake and a blow to the entire Dodger online community, because TJ is a constant source of breaking Dodger news. Seriously, if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen me quote or reference him at least three times a week. But now with this and with the same thing happening to Riverside P-E reporter Diamond Leung recently, real-time informed Dodger updates are going to be harder to come by. And that hurts everyone, from casual fans to serious bloggers.

Really, how is it that valuable resources like Jackson and Leung lose their jobs, and uninformed jokers like Bill Plaschke and TJ Simers can keep theirs? Life’s just not fair.

In actual baseball news, the downside of the 13-man pitching staff reared its head almost immediately last night, when Eric Stults had to pinch-hit for Cory Wade with one out and one on in the 8th inning last night. Stults failed to get a bunt down, and the Dodgers had already taken an 8-5 lead, so it ended up not being crucial – this time. But with the Padre bullpen falling apart, a real hitter might have been able to continue the rally in progress and blow the game wide open, rather than keep it within shouting distance (not that the Padres really had any chance against Jonathan Broxton, but still.)

Of course, many more 1.2 inning starting performances and we’re going to be seeing a 15-man pitching staff. James McDonald, we supported you for a starting job all winter and spring. What are you doing to us, here?

Alright, What the Hell is Going On Here?

Tony Jackson, LA Daily news, July 7th:

the Daily News learned that sometime in the days leading up to that deal, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt nixed a trade that would have brought Sabathia to Los Angeles, along with Indians third baseman Casey Blake and utility man Jamey Carroll.

McCourt’s reason was financial, according to multiple industry sources. But that is a charge McCourt flatly denied.

Tony Jackson, LA Daily News blog, July 8th:

I was told this morning, by a source completely separate from the ones from which I got the earlier story, that Matt Kemp WAS involved in the aborted trade for Sabathia, Blake and Carroll, and that either Jon Meloan or James McDonald also was involved. 

Dylan Hernandez, LA Times, July 8th:

McCourt said a trade with the Indians was a real possibility at one point. “I think the deal as it started out had a potential to be a deal that wouldn’t have compromised the goals of this organization,” he said. “I think the deal, as it evolved, got to the point where it became unacceptable to the organization.”

The talks are believed to have started out with the Dodgers offering two players, one of them being third baseman Andy LaRoche, for Sabathia, but came to include several other players on both sides. Sabathia will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Ken Rosenthal, FoxSports.com, July 9th:

The Dodgers not only could have had Sabathia, but also Indians third baseman Casey Blake and infielder Jamey Carroll without giving up any of their top young major leaguers, according to major-league sources.

The Indians would have received a package that included the following types of players, if not the exact names: Third baseman Andy LaRoche, right-hander Cory Wade, Class AA right-hander James McDonald and Class A catcher Carlos Santana.

Will Carroll, Baseball Prospectus, July 9th:

The Dodgers continue to confuse everyone. “Some want to buy, some sell,” I’m told. One faction of the front office wants to deal for a shortstop and is focused on Jack Wilson or David Eckstein, while another (which appears to hold sway with the McCourts for now) want to see if Nomar Garciaparra can hold the position down. Teams simply don’t want to deal with the Dodgers because of the confusion over who has final authority. One front-office source told me that the Dodgers have made deals, only to have ownership pull out at least twice.

So let’s recap: Matt Kemp WAS in the deal. Matt Kemp WASN’T in the deal. The Dodgers could have acquired Sabathia, Blake, and Carroll without including Kemp, Billingsley, Kershaw, Martin, Loney, or Ethier. (!!!!!!!!) Or just LaRoche and someone else for Sabathia. And that Colletti had a deal done, except that McCourt put the kibosh on it. Twice. Or he didn’t. But if he did, it was because of money. Or it wasn’t. Ned Colletti’s in charge. Or McCourt’s pulling the strings. Or, says another source of Rosenthal’s,

Others believe that assistant general manager Logan White exerts an inordinate amount of influence, discouraging trades of players that he once selected as the team’s scouting director.

This is getting completely out of hand, and it’s hardly the first time around here, is it? It’s getting to the point where it doesn’t even matter if you side with McCourt, Colletti, or even White (MSTI chooses White!) on decision-making, you just want to know that someone is actually in charge over there. I mean, look at what Carroll says: “Teams simply don’t want to deal with the Dodgers because of the confusion over who has the final authority.” How is that even possible? Is McCourt meddling too much? Is Colletti not assertive enough? This is the kind of internal politics that I really hate discussing – partially because you’ll never get a straight answer from anyone, but mostly because it distracts from where the focus really ought to be: on the field. You know what? That proposed deal for Sabathia/Blake/Carroll? I probably make that deal. I hate to give up LaRoche, but the thought of getting those players without giving up Kemp is mind-blowing. If the Dodgers aren’t going to be able to improve their chances at the playoffs because of some internal “whose is bigger” contest (sorry, Kim!), then that’s an insult to the fan base. Guess what, guys? Get it together. NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL ISSUES. GET THE JOB DONE, OR GET OUT OF THE WAY.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

And Hey, Maybe Kevin Elster’s Available Too!

Ken Rosenthal has a new “Full Count” video up over at FOXsports.com. Which, thanks a ton, FOX, for not allowing me to embed your videos here. That’s helpful. Now I’m going to have to point out that as stupid an idea as it is to have Rosenthal talking under what appears to be a rain delay, it’s even stupider when the rain effect is so bad that it just looks like the highway speeding by under his face. Like forcing Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on us wasn’t bad enough.

Anyway, Rosenthal has two tidbits of Dodger-related information, which I will present to you in reverse order, because it serves my purposes.

It no longer is a given that the team will exercise Brad Penny’s option for next season, and that could potentially lead to a trade before July 31st. The Dodgers might just prefer to get something for Penny in return rather than pay him a $2 million buyout at the end of the season. Penny’s ERA in May? 8.82.

Now, we have no idea whether this is really the feeling in the Dodger front office, or just Ken Rosenthal trying to come up with some news he heard from the ex-girlfriend of the cousin of the mailman of Ned Colletti’s high school math teacher. Doesn’t this seem unlikely in just about every way? I can’t argue that Penny has been anything but a huge disappointment this year, of course. But I find it hard to believe that they would trade him or not pick up his option, although I would admit that if there had been any chance of him getting a long-term extension that’s gone out the window for now. Why trade him? His value is at the absolute lowest it’s been in years, so that doesn’t make sense – and it forces the team to rely on either Clayton Kershaw or Jason Schmidt down the stretch. As for not picking up his option, that’s silly. His option next year is for $8.75 million. You tell me where you’re going to find a guy who started the last two All Star games and finished third in the Cy Young voting last year on a one year deal for under $9 million. Of course you pick it up.

Besides, Penny hasn’t been a complete disaster here. We’re not talking about the Andruw Jones of pitching. Don’t forget, he won four out of his first six starts this year. As recently as May 2 – a month ago tomorrow – he was 4-2 with a 3.29 ERA, having not allowed more than four earned runs in any of his first seven starts. Of course, he’s gone off the cliff since then; in his ensuing five starts he has four losses and a no-decision, having not allowed less than four earned runs in any of them. While again, he hasn’t been effective, there’s something to be said for his just plain being unlucky, too: in the last month, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, generally considered to be a stat that the pitcher has little control over) is .391, which is completely unsustainable and points to either a ton of hits falling in the wrong places and/or the defense not helping him out.

Hey, there’s always the possibility he doesn’t come out of this or reveals an injury, and if either of those happen then maybe I rethink my position. But I think it’s insane to consider getting rid of a pitcher with a good history of sucess and an incredibly reasonable option for next year based on what is essentially a lousy month.

Back to Rosenthal:

The Dodgers talks with Rafael Furcal about a long-term contract were growing serious just as Furcal was sidelined by his lower back strain. Now the Dodgers might need to think twice about locking up another frequently-injured player long-term.

This is really going to be a tough call. We’ve all seen how brutal this offense is without Furcal, and especially how bad Chin-Lung Hu has been at the plate, so this might really be shaping up to be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-dont situation. For his part, Hu says it’s all mental:

“I think too much about where my legs should be, about having my hands up,” Hu said. “I forget about what the pitcher wants to pitch to me.” He’s 0 for his last 15, while his batting average has sunk to .170. He should be taking at-bats at Triple-A right now, but the Dodgers can’t afford to send him down with Rafael Furcal sidelined.

Tony Jackson also reports that the Dodgers are trying to add a veteran shortstop, as the two-headed-monster of Hu’s great glove and terrible bat paired with Luis Maza’s adequate bat and mediocre arm just can’t work all season:

Dylan Hernandez, Diamond Leung and I got a few minutes with Ned Colletti in the tunnel after the game. Said he might be getting close to acquiring a veteran utility infielder who could better plug the gap while Furcal is out, or if Furcal is out again later in the season.

He doesn’t mention who, of course. Mlbtraderumors.com has a list of the shortstop trade market going here, but most of those names are starters of varying skill who probably would either not come cheap or not be happy going to a bench role once Furcal comes back. Here’s one veteran infielder I really hope it’s not, though:

Longtime major-league infielder Jose Vizcaino, 39, now a special assistant with the Dodgers, said he hasn’t completely ruled out coming back as a player next season. Originally signed by the Dodgers out of the Dominican Republic, Vizcaino spent 18 seasons in the majors with eight different clubs, including two stints with the Dodgers.

He last played in the majors in 2006 with St. Louis, when his career ended because of an injury.

This is going to blow your mind; I looked up his career stats at baseball-reference intending to make a snarky joke like “his career also ended due to being subpar at the game of baseball,” but this is beyond even what I expected. Jose Vizcaino played in parts of 18 seasons between 1989-2006. Jose Vizcaino had a season where he had a 100 OPS+ (i.e., league average for that season)… zero times. Not once. Not only that, other than a 90 OPS+ in 2002, he hasn’t even been within 20% of league average since 1996! But hey, at least he’ll be 40 next season.

Finally, some fantastic news out of the minors: Andy LaRoche has begun playing some second base in AAA! In his first start there last night, he was 1-4, but more importantly didn’t commit an error and even got involved in a 6-4-3 DP. This is something I’ve been on for a while (namely here and here) so I’m glad to see him finally getting some time there.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg