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Relief pitchers at the bat

So. In last night’s glorious victory, my Giants managed to get Jeremy Affeldt to the plate. Mr. Affeldt is a relief pitcher with a total of nineteen plate appearances in fourteen years in the major leagues. That is somewhat misleading, actually, since nine of those at-bats came when he was a starter in the American League: Since coming to the senior league in 2006, Mr. Affeldt has appeared in 576 games and has ten plate appearances. Including the one last night, which was his second of the year.

I should say—I assume that any Gentle Reader will know that in baseball, pitchers are expected to be terrible hitters. There’s a reason for this: pitching is by far the most valuable skill for a baseball player to have, so a good pitcher who can’t hit a curveball gets to keep playing, while a good outfielder who can’t hit the curve gets as far as the Cape Cod league and then nowhere. This gets heightened, as the incentives on young pitchers are toward specialization, and then, well, the point is that pitchers can’t hit. In the junior league, they even have a sort of mercy rule where pitchers don’t even have to try. It’s embarrassing, frankly. Even in the National League, though, where starting pitchers have to take their turn at the plate, they do so every five days, and often leave the game after two or maybe three at-bats. Relief pitcher, however, like Mr. Affeldt, hardly ever get to hold a bat in a game, and there’s a reason for that.

Except… I’ll pause a moment here to ask the baseball-savvy amongst y’all to guess how many pitchers have batted for the Giants in relief appearances this season. Quick guess, c’mon. No, more than that. OK, I’ll give: nine different relievers have batted, for a total of twenty-two plate appearances. I looked up other teams with similar records: the Mets have brought three relievers to the plate, the Cubs and the Nationals four, the Pirates and the NL team from greater Los Angeles five. Nine seems like a hell of an outlier.

This is a thing that has bugged me about our manager, Bruce Bochy, for some time. I have written before about his propensity for the double-switch, which burns an extra guy off the bench. I hate that. To be fair, though, our starting pitching is weak—our innings pitched per start is league average (5.9), more or less even with the Cubs, but the Mets league-leading average at 6.3 doesn’t seem like such a humongous difference. Well, our percentage of starts that aren’t crappy (the official name of the stat is Quality Start, but I think of it as Not-crappy Start, which is a useful distinction) although at league average (again, about even with the Cubs) is significantly below the Mets. They have endured only 35 crappy starts; the Dodgers and Pirates 42, the Nats 46, the Giants have survived 51. Sixteen more crappy starts from starters potentially means more than sixteen opportunities for a relief pitcher to bat, but that still doesn’t make up for the difference between the Giants 20 and the Mets three. Even the Cubs have only 14 relief-pitcher plate appearances, and their starting pitching is if anything a touch worse than ours, as counted by going deep into games.

The roster construction contributes as well, of course: the Giants have effectively a four-man bench. They are carrying thirteen pitchers, the eight starters on any given day, and then the backup catcher, two outfielders and an infielder. You can’t burn the backup catcher too early, in case you need him later, and on any given day one of the three remaining players may be day-to-day, meaning not hurt enough to be off the active roster but not really well enough to play. The Cubs also carry thirteen pitchers; the Pirates, Mets, Dodgers and the Nats are currently carrying 12, but I don’t know if that has been true all season. At any rate, presumably the Giants and Cubs have the extra relief pitcher because they don’t have as good starting pitchers, so that one problem has two ways of making it extra-likely that the relief pitcher comes to bat. Joe Maddon for the Cubs, however, has managed to keep it confined largely to long man and sometime starter Travis Wood, giving only three chances for his other relief pitchers to come to the plate. It’s true that Giants long man Yusmeiro Petit has eight of the relief pitcher plate appearances, and I suppose I’ll toss in former starter Ryan Vogelsong’s two as he appears to be taking a long man role, but that still leaves seven other relief pitchers making twelve outs. Twelve! That’s insane! Who sends relief pitchers up to the plate like that?

Well, and that would be certain Hall-of-Fame manager Bruce Bochy, the guy with three pennants in five years, plus winning those exhibition series against the junior league. Which means… I’m starting to wonder if it’s Bruce Bochy that’s got the right idea, and everybody else who is wrong.

Not that it’s good to have relief pitchers with bats in their hands. It’s clearly bad. But everything is a trade-off, isn’t it? Perhaps we have all been exaggerating how bad that actually is, enough that we have been making the wrong choices to prevent it. Think about strikeouts for a bit—strikeouts are obviously bad for hitters, and modern statistical analysis has not changed anybody’s opinion about that. If anything, we’ve recently started valuing contact more in the sense that we recognize that batters have less to do with the rate balls in play turn into outs or hits than we previously thought, and so in some sense when the ball goes into play, anything can happen. On the other hand, when I was a kid, a high strikeout rate for a batter was only acceptable for a power hitter: it was recognized that more strikeouts for more homeruns was a reasonable trade-off, because everybody digs the longball. More strikeouts for more walks, for instance, would not have been considered valuable at all. Now, a guy who sees a lot of pitches, strikes out a lot, walks a lot, gets his singles and doubles but not a lot of homeruns, well, he wouldn’t be a star, and it sure as hell is irritating to watch him strike out, but at least some people will be willing to accept the tradeoff. Maybe relief pitcher plate appearances are like that. Maybe my Giants are getting enough benefit out of the roster, the double-switches, the pinch-hitting early in the game, to make up for all those outs.

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.