Wednesday, April 29, 2015


This is a Pirates blog, but I'd like to talk about a Cardinals player. Adam Wainwright is St. Louis's best pitcher. Going into last weekend, he led Cardinals starters in innings and ERA. Last year, he led Cardinals starters in innings and ERA. In 2013, he led Cardinals starters in innings and ERA. He missed 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he was used somewhat cautiously in 2012. But in 2010, he was second on the team in innings (by 4.2) and led in ERA. In 2009, he led the team in innings and was second in ERA. From 2009 to 2014--including his missed Tommy John season and his recovery year--his 2.83 ERA was the third best in baseball (behind Clayton Kershaw's 2.33 and Felix Hernandez's 2.73) among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched. He'd been credited with 92 wins, the fourth most (after Justin Verlander's 106, Jered Weaver's 96, and Kershaw's 93).  He finished second in the voting for the Cy Young Award in 2010 and 2013 and third in 2009 and 2014. That's four top-three finished in six seasons, one of which he missed and one of which he was coming back from major surgery. All told, Wainwright is not only clearly the Cardinals' best pitcher, he's also one of the best in baseball, probably the second best in the National League after Kershaw.

And he's done for the year. This is what happened to him on Saturday:

Diagnosis: Torn Achilles tendon. Out for the year. Injury expert Will Carroll (that's his Twitter handle, too: @injuryexpert) notes
Surgery and rehab has developed over the past few seasons and players in the NFL and NBA have come back well. That bodes well for Wainwright.
That's good for Wainwright and the Cardinals, but only for 2016. For 2015, they'll have to make do without one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. In a National League Central race that's expected to be tight, with the Pirates and Cubs seen vying for second place behind the Redbirds, it's looking a lot more like a three-team race. (As of this morning, the 13-6 Cardinals are a game ahead of the 12-7 Cubs and three ahead of the 11-10 Pirates).

Somewhat surprisingly, Wainwright's injury has re-ignited the designated hitter debate. As you almost certainly know, given that you're reading this blog, the American League has a designated hitter for the pitcher and the National League does not. This has been the case since 1973, so with the DH now in its 43rd season, it would be, as lawyers would say, settled case law, one might think. One would be really, really wrong. The discussion of a universal DH has set off a free-for-all on the internet. I'm not surprised. I attend a lot of baseball lectures and conferences, and saying something along the lines of "abolish the DH" or "we shouldn't have two leagues playing two different rules" is a guaranteed applause line. And I don't mean polite applause, I mean the kind of applause that political candidates get when they're talking to their supporters: Loud, enthusiastic applause, punctuated by whoops and whatnot.

The relationship to Wainwright is that if he hadn't been batting, he wouldn't have ruptured his Achilles tendon. (Probably not. He could've ruptured it pitching or fielding or jogging in the outfield between starts. We'll never know. But since he didn't have a history of Achilles problems, this looks much more like a fluke accident than one waiting to happen.) So if we have a DH, we don't have Adam Wainwright rupturing his Achilles tendon getting out of the batter's box, and we don't have Chien-Ming Wang, a 19-game winner for the Yankees in 2006 and 2007 and off to a 6-0 start in 2008, injuring his foot in an interleague game and pretty much never being the same pitcher again. 

Now, let me give you two disclaimers:

  1. I think the prevention of pitching injuries is not a great justification for the DH. Yes, what happened to Wainwright and Wang and others is terrible. Had they not been batting, I'd wager, they wouldn't have gotten hurt. But what happened to them is pretty rare. We don't get a lot of pitcher injuries from swinging the bat or running the bases.
  2. I'm pretty agnostic on the DH issue. I'm mildly in favor of expanding it to the National League, for reasons I'll explain below. But I'm OK with leaving things as is, and I'd be OK if major league baseball were to abolish it. I just can't see getting worked up over the issue. It doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game, one way or the other. 
That being said, I'm going to show you a graph. I do a lot of charts and graphs here, and I know that it's a bit much for some of you. So this'll be the only one for today. And I'm not going to tell you (yet) what it is. I'm just going to present it and let it sink in, OK? Here goes:

Here's how you should perceive a graph like that: It's measuring something that's in steady decline. Ignore the scale on the left, and this could be something like infant mortality rates, or percentage of Americans engaged in agriculture, or proportion of homes heated by wood, or something. It's a pronounced, consistent, downward trend.

OK, enough mystery. I used a statistic called wRC+. It's an overall measure of offensive contribution computed by FanGraphs. It stands for weighted runs created. The + means that it's normalized: It adjusts for each player's home park and the year in which he played. The average wRC+ every year is 100. Good hitters are above 100, weaker hitters are below it. All-star Andrew McCutchen had a wRC+ 168 last year, the best in all of baseball. Since the average is 100, McCutchen's 168 means that he was 68% better than the average batter last year. Light-hitting middle infielder Clint Barmes had a 79 wRC+, meaning he was 21% below the league average. I'm not saying that wRC+ is the perfect measure of offensive performance, but it's a consistent calculation that evens out the variations between high-offense and low-offense eras.

Anyway, the graph is the combined wRC+ for pitchers beginning in 1901. That's a pronounced, consistent, downward trend. PItchers are getting worse and worse at batting. And, when you think about it, that's not surprising: Pitchers don't bat. There's a DH in high school. There's a DH in college. (Note that the DH in high school can be used for any hitter, not just the pitcher, and in both high school and college, a manager may elect not to use the DH if the pitcher's a good hitter.) There's a DH in the rookie and Class A levels of the minors. There's a DH in Class AA and AAA unless both teams playing a game are National League affiliates and agree not to use it. The list of leagues in which the DH is not used is shorter than the list of leagues that use it. The holdouts are the National League, Japan's Central League, Japanese high schools, American Legion, and Little League. That's it. I'm probably missing some obscure leagues, but it's not uncommon for a National League pitcher to not swing a bat in a game from the time he leaves Little League until he reaches the high minors.

So even if the American League were to eliminate the DH, pitchers would still be lousy hitters, because they don't learn to hit as they're developing. Yes, that might change with time if other leagues drop the DH as well, but there's no guarantee that they will.

We're left with pitchers being almost automatic outs. When you hear about good hitting pitchers, you hear about Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke, among others. Bumgarner, somewhat famously, hit more grand slams last year (two) than Derek Jeter did in his entire career (one). Greinke provided these memorable moments during the Dodgers' Divisional Series against the Cardinals:

So yeah, a DH would deprive fans of seeing Bumgarner and Greinke hit. But hold on: Bumgarner's career slash line (batting average/on base percentage/slugging average; the average in the majors last year was .251/.314/.386) is .160/.201/.247. Greinke's is .214/.263/.325. You may have heard of Mario Mendoza, the 1970s-era weak-hitting shortstop. Sometime in the late 1970s, some player--the identity's unclear--coined the term "Mendoza Line." Back then, Sunday newspapers listed overall batting and pitching statistics for the players in each league. They'd list batters in descending order of batting average. Due to space limitations, they wouldn't display every batter, just those above a minimum level. It seemed that the last name listed among hitters would always be Mendoza's. He habitually hit around .200. The player in question talked about starting the season so slowly, he was "hitting below the Mendoza line"--his batting average was so low the papers didn't even bother printing it. It's come to mean, in common usage, a batting average of .200. 

Well, Mario Mendoza's career slash line is .215/.245/.262. That means that Greinke's hitting a little better, and Bumgarner a good deal worse, than the man whose name signifies futility with the bat. And they're the best of the bunch. Last year, pitchers as a whole batted .122/.153/.152. So far this year, they're even worse: .095/.119/.109. 

So if you like the DH because it adds offense, fine. If you don't like it because it takes away strategy, OK. If you like it because you don't want to see a pitcher who's cruising get pulled by a pinch hitter, I see your point. If you don't like it because it removes things like pinch hitters and double switches, I get it. If you like it because it'd prevent injuries like Wainwright's, sure. But you really can't say that the DH takes the bat out of the pitcher's hands, because pitchers haven't had a bat for a long time. There have been, in baseball history, 66 pitchers who batted at least 500 times and maintained an OPS+ of 50 or more, which means that their on base plus slugging was at least half of the average. Of them, only one--Carlos Zambrano--started his career in this century. All but eight retired before the American League adopted the DH in 1973. Exactly two-thirds were done playing before the end of World War II. Pitchers capable of much more than laying down the occasional bunt have been out of baseball for a long, long time. Getting rid of the DH, whatever its merits, isn't going to bring them back.

That's why I'm in favor--just mildly--of expanding the DH to the National League. I don't get any enjoyment from watching pitchers at the plate. Yes, there's the comic relief of Bartolo Colon's at bats, but they just can't hit, and that's not going to change. 

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