20 November 2003

AL MVP Debate, Part II

This is Part II of Boy of Summer's MVP Thoughts. You can read Part I here.

As I mentioned, some sportswriters are really not happy about this, perhaps most notably, Jayson Stark. As Rob Neyer confirms, Stark is a prince of a guy, so I'll be as kind as possible. However, it should be noted again that I think he's dead wrong on this issue, and that I think he's not much of a statistician, when you get right down to it. Most baseball writers would take that as a complement.

Examining Jayson Stark's MVP criteria is not as easy as it sounds, becasue he seems to keep grasping at different things, anything, to get people to believe him instead of the Rules.

If you've read Stark's columns for any length of time, you've learned that he's a pretty good journalist. He gets good stories, and he writes them well. He's interesting and creative and seems like a decent fellow. But he seems to have something less than a firm grasp on how statistical analysis ought to be utilized. One of the worst things you can do with stats, and one of the things that Stark does fairly often, is to pick an arbitrary number that seems to support your point, and don't bother to give any other information that might make your point look anything less than salient.

In an article he wrote in September about why A-Rod shouldn't be the MVP, he said, "Since 1994, when baseball broke into six divisions and created twice as many pennant races, no player from a losing team has finished within 100 points of the winner. That includes A-Rod last year. And it undermines his candidacy this year."

OK, he picked 1994 because of the break between the two and three division formats, meaning that there are more contenders and therefore (theoretically) more potential MVPs. But the 100 points could have been anything. It sounds like a nice, round number, but it's arbitrary.

When players have MVP voting clauses written into their contracts, they're written by placement, not point totals. And while what Stark says is true, it's misleading. Players from losing teams have been as high as second or third in the voting on several occasions in that timespan. A-Rod was second in 2002, Griffey was second in 1994, and Frank Thomas finished third to Griffey in 1997, all playing on losing teams. Players from non-playoff teams have been up pretty high in the tally as well, including Carlos Delgado (4th in 2000), Griffey (4th in 1998), and Mo Vaughn (5th in 1996).

That same article made three "key" points in the argument against Rodriguez's candidacy for the AL MVP:

1) WHAT PART OF "VALUABLE" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? - Stark argues that the BBWAA has almost always chosen a player from a winning team for the MVP, so why should we change that tradition now?

2) WHERE WAS HE WHEN THEY NEEDED HIM? Stark argues that A-Rod faded when his team sank from contention in June, and that he didn't consistently produce the way an MVP should.

3) THIS ISN'T 1991 - Stark argues that an MVP should only come from a losing team if there are no true/close pennant races, and therefore no clear player who makes the differene between his team making the playoffs or not.

Let's take these on one at a time...

1) WHAT PART OF "VALUABLE" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? The meaning of the word "valuable" has nothing to do with the context of the object in question. The Hope Diamond would be no less valuable in the bottom of a landfill in Staten Island than it is in the Smithsonian, it just wouldn't be as useful. Once the diamond's recovered, the landfill would admittedly be somewhat less valuable without it.

The fact that baseball writers have traditionally used winners, especially playoff contenders, to determine the MVP does NOT mean that it should be this way. History held many 'traditions' to be perfectly acceptable right up until someone showed that there was a better way. Ever read a short story called 'The Lottery'?

2) WHERE WAS HE WHEN THEY NEEDED HIM? This has to be Stark's weakest argument. He cites the following as evidence that Rodriguez was not the MVP:

So as the ship sank, he sank with it. It really wasn't until his team's season was essentially over that he began compiling many of these alleged MVP numbers.

He hit the second-most home runs in the league in April (8). But he was 10th in May (6), 20th in June (5) and 21st in July (5), before leading the league in August (15) and September (7).[Ed. NOTE: A-Rod was 5th in the AL in Sept.]

He was fifth in the AL in RBI in April (22). Then he fell to 44th in May (13), 34th in June (15) and 17th in July, before leading the league in August (31) and ranking third in September (15).

OK, how about slugging percentage -- a stat that doesn't depend on the contributions of anyone around him? He was fourth in the league in April (.667). But then he was 54th in May (.462), 31st in June (.540) and 37th in July (.505), before an .849 August (first) and .594 September (fifth).

Does that sound like an MVP season to you? It doesn't to us.

Well, Jayson, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't but since you don't give us anyone else's numbers to compare with A-Rod's, how are we to know whether it does or not? He could have picked a lot of other stats (runs scored, on-base%, etc.) but I suspect that he chose these because they supported his point. I'm going to use OPS (on-base% + Slugging%) to try to rebut his point, because it's a pretty good rough measure of a player's offensive contributions, apart from his teammates contributions, and also because I didn't feel like charting all of the possible stats.

Here are the monthly ranks for for each of the top ten MVP points-getters:

April May June July Aug Sept Avg (T) Avg (5) Season
Delgado 1 5 14 12 16 10 9.7 8.4 1
Ramirez 16 40 6 4 20 2 14.7 9.6 2
A-Rod 3 49 22 26 1 13 19.0 13.0 3
D. Ortiz * 45 18 11 3 5 16.4 16.4 5
Posada 18 36 40 25 11 6 22.7 19.2 10
Beltran ** 16 43 17 9 14 19.8 19.8 12
V. Wells 58 19 9 23 31 12 25.3 18.8 13
B. Boone 23 10 17 18 68 25 26.8 18.6 15
No-mah 49 11 10 44 28 92 39.0 28.4 20
Stewart 54 38 *** 24 44 51 42.2 42.2 32

First, a few explanations:

Only the top 100 players, in terms of at-bats, were rated each month. I had to cut it off somewhere.

*David Ortiz wasn't the everyday DH in Boston until June, but he amassed essentially one month worth of at-bats between April and May, which got him an OPS around .800, which would rank him around 45th in the league in any given month, hence the 45 in May and nothing in April.

**Carlos Beltran was injured the first month of the season and only got 38 at-bats in April.

***Shannon Stewart got only 33 at-bats in June.

The Avg(Tot) column is the average rank of the totals for all six months of the season. The Avg(5) column is the average of the player's five best months, which helps to normalize for players who didn't get enough at-bats in a particular month to qualify due to injury (Beltran and Stewart) or platooning (Ortiz). It also gives some grace to players who may have had one really off month that skewed their average. The Season column is the overall rank of that player for (you guessed it) the season.

OK, with that said, what can we learn from this?

A) Carlos Delgado is the only player who meets Stark's criteria of "consistently" producing. He's the only player in the top 20 in every month, never straying higher than 16th (Aug), and therefore ranked 1st overall at the end of the year. However, based on Stark's insistence upon players from winners and playoff contenders, Delgado's no good either. The standard deviation in his rank (which I didn't post here) was two and a half times smaller than anyone else's on the list.

B) Manny Ramirez, A-Rod, Vernon Wells and Bret Boone are the only other players who rank in or near the top 30 in the AL five out of six months. Other players either didn't qualify for a month or had more than one month in which they ranked over 30th.

C) Nomar Garciaparra was particularly flaky, ranking as high as 11th in May and as low as 92nd(!) in September. Ouch. Still, he managed to finish a solid 20th at the end of the year.

D) Jayson Stark's pet candidate, Shannon Stewart, was so valuable that he never ranked higher than 24th, and easily averaged the lowest among the lot. Even when he was supposedly somehow turning the Twins around and leading them into the postseason, he ranked as the 44th and 51st best hitter in the AL down the stretch. And Stark wants you to vote for him?!?

Regarding the fate of the Rangers with relation to Rodriguez's play, the fact that the team was as close to the .500 mark as they were (25-27 on May 29) was essentially a fluke, a mirage created by the ability of the early season to skew our views of reality (remember when we thought the Royals were contenders?).

The team's Pythagorean record at the end of May (the wins and losses you'd expect them to have based on the total runs scored and allowed) was a couple of games worse than what they actually had, which means that they'd been lucky to do as well as they did to that point. Certainly, there's no denying that June was Rodriguez's (and the Rangers') worst month, but there aren't many players who avoid a 3-week swoon all season, and the man couldn't do anything about the Rangers' pitching staff's 6.63 June ERA. And besides, A-Rod's worst month (49th in OPS) is about as good as Shannon Stewart's average month (42).

3) THIS ISN'T 1991 Stark contended that MVPs only come from losing teams whn there are no pennant races. This simply isn't true. He uses the AL's only example (Cal Ripken in 1991) because it supports his point. But if you dig just a little deeper, and choose another league to analyze, I don't know, let's say...the National League, you find that this isn't the case at all. Andre Dawson won the NL MVP in 1987 on a Cubs team that finished last, even though both the Mets and the Expos finished within four games of fisrt place in the NL East.

Also, in 1959, when Ernie Banks won the NL MVP on a losing Cubs team, both the Braves and Giants finished within four games of the Dodgers, who won their first pennant in LA. So we see that the Senior Circuit doesn't necessarily discriminate against a truly great and valuable player just because there are pennant races and good players on the teams vying for them.

Stark's post-mortem article on the MVP debate revisits the issue of tradition, which we've already addressed, so I won't get into that again. However, he also asks "Where would the team have finished without him?" and answers it accurately: Last. Again, though, his answer is uninforming and misleading.

In any other division in all of MLB, the Rangers (71-91) would not have been last. They were, admittedly, the worst team in a relatively strong division, but taking A-Rod away and replacing him with Joe Average Shortstop costs the Rangers something like six to ten wins in the standings, which is a lot. I'm sure that as bad as the Rangers were last year (and the year before that, and...) a lot of Texans are really glad that they didn't lose 100 games in 2003, and A-Rod is a major reason for that.

If that's not Value, then value doesn't exist.

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18 November 2003

AL MVP Debate, Part I

The following is the first of a two-part series on the 2003 AL MVP results. Just like the Wachowski Brothers, I found that I had way too much preachy, self-important, overblown and ultimately disappointing crap to fit into only one offerring. Sorry. Stay tuned for Part II.

I was having trouble coming up with something to write about the AL MVP Award being given to Alex Rodriguez (finally). I was going to find the instructions for the award somewhere and then re-vamp them with a bunch of tongue-in-cheek crap about clutch hitting down the stretch and fighting for a pennant and such, but then it occurred to me: They actually got it right for once. So I don't hafta do that. Wait til next year.

Several people, including David Pinto and my hero, Rob Neyer, argued that not only does A-Rod deserve the award, but that he might actually win it this year, as no offensive American Leaguer was really having a standout season besides him. Turns out they were right.

Others, however, most notably Everyone's Favorite Empirical Scientist Jayson Stark, are actually upset about this occurrence. Can you believe that crap?? I mean, A-Rod has easily been the best player in the AL for the last half decade, and the BBWAA finally finds a way to actually give him one award, and Stark's pissed about it??

It turns out that I found the actual ballot instructions at Aaron Haspel's God of the Machine, who had found them on (are you ready?) Jayson Stark's home page. When he argued that A-Rod didn't deserve the MVP last year either.

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.

The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters.

Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Let's look at each of these criteria individually, shall we?

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

The main argument against A-Rod, or any other great player on a losing team for that matter, is that the team still wouldn't have won even if he sucked. Which is a true statement, but limited in its usefulness. The writer of the ballot instructions seems to understand that a player can have value even if his team is stinking up the joint, and frankly, the Rangers weren't really that bad in 2003. Oh, their pitching was terrible, but they were among the best offensive teams in the majors, and had a record (71-91) identical to or better than four other teams in the AL. So A-Rod's value clearly was not completely wasted on a truly awful team, as Aubrey Huff's or Dmitri Young's was.

The irony here, as a fellow blogger pointed out last year, is that the argument against thinking that an MVP must come from a winner is right there in the instructions: The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier. And the definition of "value" is given right there in the instructions as well: Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense. So the strength of a player's offense and defense actually defines his value, regardless of his team's position in the standings.

And if this is the case, then A-Rod has to be the MVP. By almost any objective measure you'd ever pick, he was the best player in the AL last year. First in the league in homers, runs scored and slugging percentage, second in RBI, 3rd in OPS, and eighth in walks and On-base %. Bill James' Win Shares has him tied with Carlos Delgado atop the AL, according to David Pinto. A great hitter, who plays great defense at a tough position, with no obvious competition as the best player in the league? Sounds like an MVP to me.

2. Number of games played.

No problem there. Alex Rodriguez suited up and played 161 games. The game he missed? Sept 24th, at Oakland, after playing in 546 straight games. Say what you want about him being overpaid, but the dude shows up to work. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Rangers lost that game, so there you go: Every time A-Rod doesn't play, they lose. How's that for value?

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

Boy, I don't see how anybody could coplain about this. Again, he may make too much money, but you don't ever hear him complaining about being underappreciated, about the "daily grind," about the fans, about anything. He just straps on his gloves, laces up his cleats, goes out there and kicks butt. And then the Rangers' pitching staff squanders his efforts by giving up all those runs. Personally, I'd be complaining, but he doesn't.

4. Former winners are eligible.

Not a problem. A-Rod's been shafted in the MVP voting at least two or three times previously, so there's no conflict here.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

Well, that won't be necessary, although this is what killed A-Rod's chances in '96, when he and Ken Griffey Jr. ('member when he was good?) split the MVP voting, even in their own city, and the trophy went to Juan Gone.

So we see that based on the criteria set forth by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Alex Rodriguez clearly should be (and is) the AL MVP for 2003.

But some are still not satisfied...

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13 November 2003

George Steinbrenner: Crusader for Justice

Can somebody please explain to me who decides the order in which the BBWAA announces the winners of the different awards for the year? And more importantly, how they do it? I understand making the announcement about the Rookies of the Year for both leagues first and on the same day, as these are easily the least significant awards given out, and deserve the least hoopla (remember Bob Hamelin? Pat Listach? Mark McGuire?!! Ok, so Listach wasn't that bad.)

But how does the AL Cy Young, by itself, get sandwiched between the RoY and Manager of the Year Awards being announced together? And how did Esteban Loaiza finish such a distant second?

A much more significant controversy is the AL Rookie voting. KC Royals' SS Angel Berroa won the award by the narrowest of margins over Yankees' OF Hideki Matsui, 88 to 84 points. A lot of people have made a stink about Matsui's being left off the ballot by two sportswriters, but of course Angel Berroa was also left off two ballots, so essentially they’re on even ground, and it all seems to come out in the wash anyway.

However, Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune took the law into their own hands, and that’s got to stop. We're not talking about Death Wish here. Nobody's life is ultimately going to be significantly affected by this, but the fact that there is so little accountability among these journalists, that nobody can do anything about the blatant and admitted disregard for the rules, is troubling.

These two sportswriters both admitted publicly that although Matsui technically qualifies for the award based upon MLB's rules for such, they didn't feel that he should be elligible, because of his vast experience playing in Japan.

Jim Souhan put it this way: "I just could not in good conscience pretend that Hideki Matsui, this great player from what I consider to be a major league, was on the same footing as a 22-year-old kid trying to learn to hit a major league curveball. I think it would be an insult to the Japanese league to pretend that experience didn't count."

Is not this exactly why you are wrong, Jim? You know neither the players nor the rules that govern them. First of all, Berroa's 25, not 22. Secondly, maybe this has already occurred to you by now, but NOBODY ASKED YOU WHO SHOULD QUALIFY as a rookie, they just asked you to rate the people who DO qualify. And to rate Matsui somewhere below one of the three best American League rookies for 2003 means that you’re either not very bright or just not paying attention.

Personally, I may consider the college I-AA Patriot League to be a major league, but MLB doesn't. So if someone comes out of Lehigh University, directly to the pros, and blows away the competition for a full year, he'll probably win the award, regardless of my opinion, because opinion should only matter when judging quality, not qualifications. That's why we have rules. That and to avoid traffic accidents.

Noted shipbuilder, multi-millionaire and Crusader for Justice, George M. Steinbrenner III, decried Souhan's and Ballou’s decisions.

“…I firmly believe that a great injustice has been done to Hideki Matsui. […]This year's voting farce, where the appropriate qualifications for the award were blatantly ignored, clearly demonstrates unfairness to first-year players from Japan. And that must be stopped."

OK, let’s get one thing straight: Steinbrenner is only concerned about justice so much as it serves his own purposes. You didn’t see him out there blasting the two writers who left Pedro Martinez (league-leading 2.07 ERA, 23 wins and 313 Ks) off their MVP ballots in 1999, when Ivan Rodriguez (24 walks, 25 steals essentially negated by getting caught 12 times) inexplicably won the trophy. But he’s not wrong about the “farce.” He’s just a little disingenuous.

And I wouldn’t say that there’s really any sort of general “unfairness” to Japanese players as a whole, since three of them have won the Rookie of the Year awards since 1995, and one of them even won an MVP (albeit one that should have gone to Jason Giambi). Hideo Nomo and Kaz Sasaki both pretty clearly blew away the rest of their competition in 1995 and 2000, respectively, but I would be curious to know whether or not Souhan or Ballou left them off their ballots at the time.

Souhan responded to George Steinbrenner’s criticism of his decision by saying, “When Mr. Steinbrenner spends multiple millions to lure an MVP-caliber player from a major professional league, he should be embarrassed that such a high-profile player is vying for the Rookie of the Year award, and not the American League MVP award."

Perhaps. But again, that’s not the issue at stake here. Sure, shelling out $21 million for someone like Matsui ought to net you something more than an approximation of the aging Tino Martinez, but that’s hardly the point. Hideki Matsui was a 3-time Japanese Pacific League MVP, a perennial ~.320 hitter with 35 to 40+ homers and 100 walks in Japan. Isn't the fact that he couldn't even hit .290 with 20 homers and 70 walks in the American League evidence that maybe the Japanese Pacific League is NOT a "major league"?

Sure, Ichiro made a pretty good transition, and maybe with a year under his belt, Matsui will settle in and start hitting like they expected him to, but maybe not. Maybe it's just easier to translate a slap-hitter's skills from one league to another than it is to become a power hitter in a league where the parks are bigger, the season is longer and the ball is thrown harder. Or maybe Jim Souhan is right and the rest of us are morons.

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06 November 2003

With Apologies to Rob Schneider...


The Don-Man!

Donnie Baseball!



The Donnenator!

Don-Don, the Piper's Son!

The Last Don!


OK, that's getting annoying.

As you may have heard, Don Mattingly has been named the new hitting coach for the New York Yankees.

Donnie replaces Rick Down, who was such a failure that he only managed to help the 2003 Yankees to the third most runs scored in the AL, fourth in the major leagues (a slight decline after his pupils led all of MLB in 2002). He was so lousy that the Yankees outscored their opponent, 21-17 in the World Series, 30-29 in the ALCS and 16-6 in the ALDS (that’s 67-52 in 17 playoff games, if you’re scoring at home.)

The problem with Down was that the Yankees hitters picked the wrong time to let the Law of Averages catch up with them. Throughout the first two rounds of the postseason, the Yankees had gotten a run almost anytime they needed it. They managed to come back and prevent Pedro Martinez from beating them not once, but twice in four games against The Hated Boston Red Sox, and seemed to have little trouble with the Twins at all. They managed to beat the Twins and BoSawx despite hitting only .228 with runners in scoring position in the playoffs overall, because their opponents only hit .188 in that situation.

Throughout the year, the Yankees had used the Bill James/Billy Beane model, getting enough guys on base that it wouldn’t matter in the long run, if they “hit well in the clutch.” Brian Cashman and others in the organization apparently knew enough during the regular season to realize that “clutch hitters” don’t really exist, at least not in the sense of players who can predictably hit in the clutch. But Down was canned for this offense anyway, which is like firing the head of security on a cruise ship because the ship disappears in the Bermuda Triangle.

There’s a lot of research that says essentially that we don’t have any idea who’s going to hit well in a given situation in any particular year. For example, Larry Walker won the NL MVP award in 1997, leading the NL in On-base %, slugging % and home runs, and driving in 130 RBI while hitting .366. He then followed up that campaign with another stellar .363 season (the first of his three batting titles), but managed only 64 RBI. What happened? Did he suddenly start to “choke”? Did the pressure of following up an MVP season prevent him from remembering how to hit when it mattered most? Or did he just have a fluke season in which most of his hits didn't occur when there were guys on base? You can guess my answer. (Hint, the very next year, 1999, he hit .379 and had 115 RBI in fewer plate appearances than he'd had in 1998.)

So if there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, then the Yankees hitters can't really be blamed for choking, and more importantly, the Yankees hitting coach can't really be blamed for somehow not teaching them how to hit in the clutch. The problem with that is that it's much easier for me to say that, sitting here at a computer desk in Pennsylvania, than it would be if I were Rick Down...

KING GEORGE: Rick, you let us down. Boys didn't hit in the clutch! What do you have to say for yourself?!

RICK DOWN: (timidly) Well, Mr. Steinbrenner, you see...there's not really any such thing as a clutch hitter in the first place...

KG: NONSENSE! Tim McCarver and Joe Morgan talk about them on television all the time! Why don't we have more of them!?

RD: (really timidly)See, Mr. Steinbrenner, I was thinking that if we got guys on base often enough, it wouldn't matter how they hit in the clutch, in the long run...

KG: We don't have a long run! We only had seven games and you failed to get them to hit when they needed to!!

RD:(cowering under the desk) Actually, we outscored our opponents in every round of the playoffs, Mr. Steinbrenner. We should have won the games...


In the end, managers and coaches are hired to be fired, because the Players' Union won't allow you to just jettison a player making $15 million, even if he does suck. Down should find no shortage of suitors for his talents.

In the meantime, much-beloved former firstbaseman, much-missed Yankee Icon and Boy Of Summer's childhood hero Don Mattingly will take over what should be an easy task but won't. He's been given plenty of talent with which to work, and may get more in the free-agent signing season, but is also being asked to improve on a team that scored more runs than any other team but Boston during Down's 2-year watch. Forget about Sigfried and Roy "Live at the ER", that's a tough act to follow. Donnie will be on the hot-seat from Day One, and if the Yankees get into mid-May and they're not "hitting in the clutch" the Boss will not be happy.

And Donnie may decide that he likes raising horses and kids better than batting averages after all.

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04 November 2003

Billy, Can't Be a Hero

I had theorized, back in February, that the Phillies had what they needed to get to the post season for the first time in a decade. This was presented, however, with the caveat that if they did not make it, don't blame me, as View From the 700 Level indicated, but rather blame their bullpen. I said that the Phillies would probably be in the top 5 in the NL in runs scored, and they fell right in at #5, with 791 runs, more than everybody but Houston, St. Louis, Colorado and Atlanta. And Colorado almost doesn't count.

I suggested that their top four starters were all better than average, ~200 inning workhorses, and they were, though none of them were as good as I'd hoped. I also suggested that Brandon Duckworth could break out, though when I said that, I meant as a pitcher, in Philadelphia, during the season. Instead, it turns out, Duck-Man broke out from Philadelphia, after the season, in a trade to Houston. But I'll get back to that.

And I suggested that the Phils' bullpen could fall apart, with Joe Table losing his job to somebody in April. Boy was I wrong on THAT one! It took until August! And then again in September.

So anyway, knowing that the Phils in fact did not make the postseason, and knowing that thier bullpen was widely villified as the reason for this faltering, I looked up the numbers, and found something quite curious:

The Phillies' bullpen had the 5th best ERA in the NL (3.72), better than Atlanta's, and a winning record (23-20), despite blowing 23 saves in 51 chances. So I broke it down:

Regulars 306 17 9 5 11 52 333.1 292 110 21 122 225 6.08 1.24 2.97
Closers 89 5 11 27 6 4 83.2 95 59 7 50 64 6.88 1.73 6.35
Others 42 1 0 1 1 0 57.2 57 30 10 23 44 6.87 1.39 4.68

Interestingly, the Mesa/Williams two-headed monster only blew six saves all year. Six.
Tim Worrell blew seven all by his lonesome, and people think he's pretty good.

The greater portion of those 18 screw-ups belongs to the five guys who pitched most of the middle relief innings, and did so generally pretty well. Terry Adams, Carlos Silva, Rheal Cormier, Dan Plesac and Turk Wendell had a combined 2.97 ERA, which is very good, though some of them may have been a bit over their heads last season, especially Cormier, Plesac and Adams. Of course, Cormier and Plesac have the same thing going for them that Jesse Orosco does: They're not dead yet.

The few remaining relief innings (only ~57) were average. Nothing wrong with that.

But Mesa and Williams didn't just blow saves, didn't just lose games. These guys failed in spectacular fashion, giving up 9th inning homers, walking in the winning run, many of them right in the midst of the wild-card race, which, as it turns out, is a no-no. So the memories of their blow-ups is etched in the minds of Phillies fans everywhere, while Worrell's, for instance, are forgotten, because the Giants won 100 games and their division easily.

Whether or not those guys are all back, the point is that Billy Wagner, as great as he is, cannot be expected to save the franchise and propel them into the 2004 postseason all by himself. He's not going to compensate for 12 blown saves in middle relief, and he's not going to make up for a mediocre bench (7th in the NL in OPS). He's not going to get Pat Burrell to hit better than .209, etc.

All other things being equal, Wagner maybe makes this an 88- or 90-win team, which might just be enough for the Wild-Card. But as we all know, all other things are never equal. Burrell might not bounce back. Jim Thome might get old. Marlon Byrd might hit a sophomore slump. Mike Lieberthal probably won't hit .313 again. Placido Polanco probably will go back to hitting like, well, Placido Polanco. None of these things can be accurately predicted, and any of them might deprive B-Wag of the opportunities to save the games (franchise) that would make his $9 million salary money-well-spent.

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