14 September 2011

Wakefield, Rivera Milestones Very Different; Notes on AJ Burnett's "Improvement"

Some interesting milestones were reached last night in games across the AL East, at least.

  • Though it came in a crushing loss to the woeful Orioles, Tampa Bay's Johnny Damon became just the 9th player in MLB history with 200+ homers and 400 or more steals.  Four of the nine (Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan) are already in the Hall of Fame and by rights, Craig Biggio will be someday soon.  Barry Bonds and his dad, Bobby Bonds, are both on that list, as is Marquis Grissom.  
  • The Ageless Wonder (as in "I Wonder why he's still pitching in the majors"), Tim Wakefield finally won his 200th career game.  A somewhat less exclusive club than Damon's, Wake is the one hundred and eleventieth pitcher since 1871 to reach that milestone, and he has the highest career ERA in that club, though with adjustments for ballparks and time frame, he's only 16th worst.  
  • And Mariano Rivera, a truly ageless wonder, notched his 600th career Save, being only the second man to do that.  Trevor Hoffman was the first, and he's no longer adding to his 601 career Saves, so Rivera will likely lead the pack before the year is out.  
I'll be the first to grant you that Saves are mostly a junk stat, a self fulfilling prophecy, overrated at best and at worst truly misleading.  But holy cow, 600 of anything in baseball is kind of a lot, don't you think?

Even so, we don't need that stat to say how good Mariano Rivera has been in his career.  There are 126 pitchers who have amassed at least 100 career Saves, and Rivera has the lowest ERA (2.22) of any of them. 

His 2.22 career ERA is the best among active pitchers, and has been for four years running.  (This isn't terribly unusual for a relief pitcher, as they tend to have lower ERAs in general, and if they stick around long enough, eventually amass 1000 or more innings.  Lee Smith, John Franco, Kent Tekulve and Hoyt Wilhelm have all held this honor for multiple years.)
He also has the best winning percentage among pitchers with at least 300 career Saves, which is certainly a testament to the fact that he;s always pitched for good teams, but is also a sign that he manages to hold on more often than he chokes.  You know, in case the 600 Saves weren't enough for you in that vein.

His 205 adjusted ERA is the best of all time for pitchers with at least 1000 innings under their belts, and that's one category in which he's not likely to be caught any time soon.  No starting pitcher will ever do it, as they simply throw too many innings to ever be that good at relative run prevention for a whole career.  For reference, Pedro Martinez is the next man on the all-time career list, and he had a career mark of 154.

Zach Grienke had a 205 in 2009, when he won the Cy Young award.  Roger Clemens won seven of those - two more than anyone else in the history of MLB - and his mark is 143.  Among active pitchers, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana each have two Cy Young Awards, but are all around the 140 mark, and are unlikely to somehow significantly improve as they age.

The only remote possibility of anyone passing him is Jonathan Papelbon, who has a 201 ERA+ in 422 career innings.  But he'll need to actually improve, to be as good as he was from 2006-09, and that for another whole decade, to knock Mo off that hill.

If you'd like to compare him to  other elite relief pitchers, we can do that.  Dennis Eckersley won a Cy Young Award and an MVP in 1992, pitching 80 innings and striking out 93, with a 1.91 ERA and 51 Saves.  That performance was worth 3.0 WAR, according to baseball-reference.com.  Mariano Rivera has had 12 years that were about that good or better.  That's basically his whole career since 1996, excepting 2002, when he was hurt for part of the year, and 2007, when we was merely very good. 

Or, to put it another way, if you add up the Cy Young year performances of every reliever to ever win the award, (Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Gagne, Eck, Mark Davis, Willie Hernandez, Sparky Lyle, Steve Bedrosian and Mike Marshall) you get a 67-39 record, 334 Saves and a 2.03 ERA (201 ERA+) in 1009 innings.  Rivera, for his career, has a better adjusted ERA than that conglomerate, a better WHIP, better walk rate, better K rate, and therefore a better K/W.  He also has an additional 198 innings with 14 walks, 216 strikeouts and a 3.18 ERA, or essentially two and a half more seasons worth of Cy-worthy relief efforts.   

If you prefer modern metrics, Rivera's WPA of 56 is the best of anyone with at least 100 career Saves, far ahead of John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, both around 40.   His WAR of 55.9 is behind only those two, though they both had a lot of starts to help in that department.  Roy Halladay is only slightly ahead at 59 WAR, which should give you an idea of how valuable Rivera has been to the Yankees.

No active relief pitcher is even close to him, as Frankie Rodriguez has only about 22 WAR in his career.  Among pitchers with fewer than 100 career starts, Rivera's 55.9 WAR are far and away the most, almost 50% more than Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage, both at about 40.

Anyway, congratulations to Mo the Yankees, one of the greatest of all time.


On a separate note, and of more immediate importance, AJ Burnett seemingly pitched quite well last night, allowing two runs in six innings, with mercifully only two walks and 11 strikeouts.  But before we go crazy saying that he's "turned a corner" or "found himself" or "doesn't suck", let's look at the facts:

  • The mariners are the worst hitting team in the American League.  They have averaged a paltry 3.41 runs per game this year.  So, in Burnett's six innings, they would have been expected to score 2.27 runs.  
  • They actually scored two runs, so Burnett saved about one quarter of one run better than an average AL pitcher. 
  • Actually, it's worse than that.  Because SafeCo Field is so tough on hitters, they've averaged only 3.23 runs/game at home.  So Burnett saved 0.16 runs.  Whoopee.  
How bad are the Mariners' hitters?  Well, not as bad as last year, when they averaged just 3.17 runs per game, the lowest mark by any MLB club since before the institution of the Designated Hitter rule.  In fact, they're the first American League team since 1971-72 to average fewer than 3.5 runs per game for two consecutive years as well.  At that time, however, about a third of the league averaged 3.5 runs per game or less, so clearly these Mariners are much worse, relative to their context.

There have been teams this bad for a year, on occasion, during the last three decades, but they always find a way to improve the next year.  The Mariners are the first team not to make a significant improvement after such a terrible year, improving just three tenths of a run since 2011.  Maybe 2012 will be their year to go from "atrocious" to just "bad". 

But, in any case, let's not get too excited about Burnett's apparent improvement until he faces real major league hitters, OK?

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