Wednesday, March 26, 2008

High Leverage

(Yes, that is A's pitcher and fashion magnet Joe "Cupcakes" Blanton dressed as a socket from some rookie hazing stunt, and no, I don't know why, or what it might mean to some greater personal issue... Moving on. Slowly.)

There's a term in baseball stat head circles that describes the relative difficulty of a game in which a relief pitcher works. If he's getting late inning work with men on base, that's called a high leverage situation; if he's going in when the game is a lost cause in either direction, that's low leverage. What yesterday's opening game in Japan between the A's and Red Sox shows is that the concept doesn't only work to describe specific games, but also teams.

Last morning's starting pitcher for the Sox, Daisuke Matsuzaka, is in about as low leverage a position as a man can be while costing a World Series champion over $100 million. He works with a stacked bullpen, in front of a great offense, with one of MLB's best defenses behind him, with a fan base that means that he pitches to a de facto home crowd 2/3rds of the year or more. (Actually, one could argue tht the road Sox fan base is actually a much easier crowd to work in front of, and that would be true in all sports. Witness Eli Manning's relative lack of diffculty away from the Meadowlands. The fact is that your road fan is an affluent type or an ex-pat, neither of which is likely to break out with much in the way of a dispiriting boo. Besides, if you get heckled on the road, you can just tell yourself it's the home team fans that are doing it.)

Dice is so low in his leverage, you wonder what his situation would be like if the Sox weren't Series champions. Actually, I don't wonder: I'd know that he'd be considered an overrated bust.

Meanwhile for the A's, Joe Blanton worked in a game where his third baseman (Jack Hanrahan, who did go deep) is a castoff, his shortstop (Bobby Crosby) has his defense challenged by constant injury, and his first baseman (Daric Barton) is a rookie who is only playing first because his glove didn't work out at any other location. The outfield and second baseman are presumed OK, but the offense will be a major struggle, and the bullpen, which was supposed to be the strength of the team, failed late, with closer Huston Street authoring the first blown save of 2008.

Blanton, assuming the A's were playing for anything other than positioning for 2009 and he's actually going to stay with the team, is high leverage, and even in Game 1 of a 162 game season, last night's failure to hold onto what is likely to be a rare early lead shows he's... well, like Matsuzaka, a nice enough pitcher, but one that shouldn't be put in high leverage situations.

Something to keep in mind, really, as you evaluate talent -- it's not just the numbers, or the way a guy looks. It's also the relative pressure of his gig.

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