Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Giants Ain't Misching Misch

The Giants sent Pat Misch down to the minors Sunday to bring up Kevin Correia from the DL. In addition, it was noted that Yabu is now in a setup role and the Giants currently have no one in the long relief role. The rest of the bullpen - Chulk, Hinshaw, Taschner, Sadler - will have to pitch in when needed.

He's Starter Material

The Giants emphasized in reporting on his demotion that they wanted him to continue getting experience as a starter, and thus sent him down for that reason. However, Bochy also noted that he will be used primarily as a starter, which means that he could see some relief duty as well. It was also noted that Misch occasionally showed flashes of good pitching, but Bochy said he needed to get "better command of the ball down" to succeed consistently in the Majors.

Player Development

Which brings to mind a question I've been thinking about for a while: what is the best course of action for player development of a pitcher? A number of people on Giants communities have complained about the Giants player development, in particular claiming that they screwed up Jonathan Sanchez the past couple of years by keeping him up and relieving instead of down and starting. I just took that as general Sabean bashing, which I'm getting tired of, so sometimes it goes in one eye and other the other. But, this little voice in my head said, what if they are right, at least in Sanchez's case?

Learning Curve

Now, I'm no expert, but I do know some things. Earl Weaver, for one, believes that the best way to introduce a prospect into the majors is to bring him up first as a reliever and let him get acclimated to the majors slowly, because the majors is hard enough to fathom, let alone to get the pressure that comes with starting in the majors. Bring him up, let him get used to the majors on his own terms, and meanwhile put him into situations in the majors where he can have some success and learn a little.

And that makes sense in terms of how the Giants have handled their young starters, perhaps this is the influence of the late Pat Dobson, who used to be Sabean's arguably most trusted advisor. Cain and Lincecum are mature beyond their years and so they came up as starters and not relievers because they were ready.

Correia, on the other hand, appeared overmatched as a starter, after some early success, and thus got put in the bullpen to learn there until he was ready to return to starting. They gave him that chance last season by trading away Morris then shutting down Lincecum. And kept a rotation spot open for him to compete with Sanchez for this season.

Sanchez Not the Most Mature or Learned Pitcher

In Sanchez's case, he has given me some indication this season that his head was probably not all there yet, and perhaps still isn't quite there yet, but close enough. He has made a number of public comments about himself and the team this season that suggest that he's a bit of a headcase and immature, unlike Cain and Lincecum when they came up.

One egregrious example this season was when he got pulled early from a game and he publicly complained about it. Any pitcher that does not understand that when you walk so many hitters even before you reach the 6th inning, you are going to get sent to the showers early. Somehow, he didn't learn that in STARTING PITCHER 101 that a lot of walks are bad, that a lot of walks get you an early shower.

Another thing you should know better is not to talk to your manager through the media. That's not going to make your road easier and could make it harder. That's life.

Quality Over Quantity

That's one mistake I think people who are complaining are making, overvaluing quantity over quality. Some of these people think that it would have been better for Sanchez to start in the minors rather than relieve in the majors, and justify their thinking by saying that his success as a starter validates their thinking. However, pitchers don't always need to pitch in order to develop.

What is better for player development, pitching in the minors against hitters who are mostly AAA with a few AAAA quality hitters, or facing MLB hitters on a regular basis? Obviously, some pitchers are still figuring things out and need to pitch regularly in order to learn how to throw. But at some point, once you know how to throw, facing minor leaguers who don't really know how to hit at the major league level don't really help you develop, in fact, it could hinder you as you get into bad habits because things you do down there don't always work up in the big leagues because the hitters are better and smarter and more experienced.

Sanchez Has Stuff to Get MLB Hitters Out

The Giants judged that Sanchez would not learn as much starting in the minors as he would relieving in the majors. And his stats as a reliever the past two seasons support that decision. Jonathan Sanchez clearly can get major league hitters out regularly. If he wasn't ready for major league hitters then why was his peripherals so good against them?

For one, his H/9 was 9.4, meaning he held major league hitters to about a hit an inning, which is very good. His HR/9 was 1.0, meaning he was OK at that. His K/9 was 9.3, which was great, and he improved from season to season, with 7.4 in 2006 and 10.7 in 2007. Likewise his K/BB, overall 1.9, which was borderline bad, but in 2007 he had a 2.2 K/BB ratio, which was OK. He was really only bad at walks, with a BB/9 of 5.0 over the two seasons.

Overall, he peripherals were OK to good against MLB hitters as a reliever which means that his pitches were major league ready. In particular, he can strike out major league hitters regularly with his pitches, which showed that he didn't need to learn to throw in the minors. Rather, he needed to learn how to pitch in the majors.

If he had been starting in the minors, he would have been dominating hitters but learning nothing much from each game started. Because it is one thing to throw, as most pitchers do in the minors, but it is another thing to be a pitcher, which what most young pitchers need to learn to do if they have any hopes of having a long term career. You can see this in the difference between Cain and Lincecum, Cain is still learning to pitch, reverting back to bad habits occassionally, whereas Lincecum has continuously learned and improved himself in the short time he has been in the majors, he is learning to become a pitcher.

Sanchez clearly has the stuff to get major league hitters out, but just needed to figure out how to use his pitches to greater effect, something he wasn't going to learn in the minors by dominating them, it would be like a high school kid pitching to little leaguers - he can get most of them out, but he won't really learn anything. However, the Giants rotation was already full of pitchers who could hold their spot in the rotation, so Sanchez was left out of the rotation and placed in the bullpen.

But really, he was still pretty raw after the 2006 season, based on his stats as a reliever, so I don't think he was ready to start at the beginning of the 2007 season. However, if Lincecum wasn't around, it wouldn't have surprised me if Sanchez would have gotten a chance to start, he would have been a fine #5 starter once the season started, but the Giants were still trying to win with Bonds, and thus added a vet with low risk, high reward potential in Ortiz and a high risk, high reward pitcher in Zito.

Misch Still Has Some Learning To Do

Misch, on the other hand, was not that dominating in terms of strikeouts, whether starting or relieving in 2008. In fact, in the last two seasons, while he was able to keep hitters from hitting when he was relieving, it was like batting practice when he started. Something about starting makes Misch a batting practice pitcher so far in the majors.

And, overall, for the past two seasons, he hasn't been striking batters out, he hasn't been dominating them with the regularity that Sanchez showed while he was up as a reliever and now as a starter. Misch has been off and on with his ability to strike out hitters and, again, for some reason, he is extremely hittable as a starter. It happens, but that means he needs to go down to the minors because we have no space in the rotation nor bullpen for him to learn up here, there are still things he needs to learn as a thrower to become an effective pitcher in the majors.

Mr. Big "Stuff"

Some pitchers never learn how to become an effective pitcher in the majors and some pitchers just have that "stuff" that major leaguers talk about in pitchers. Like Cain and Lincecum, Sanchez has that "stuff" while Misch, lacking that "stuff", has to work harder and needs to make up for that by learning another pitch or getting better at locating a pitch in the strike zone. That is something you can practice in the majors or minors.

In an ideal world, he can learn up in the majors but there are only so many beat-downs before you lose your confidence. And he has been totally beat down by major leaguers when he is starting, not so much when he is relieving. And there is nothing wrong with that, he just might be not suited for starting and best suited for relieving. There is no shame in that.

In addition, for now, he's insurance in case we lose any of our starters to injury. Sometimes a team's circumstance requires you to go to a place that you have already done well in and thus you wait your turn. So he goes down to AAA and starts in order to be ready to jump in should the worse happens, because you never know. Particularly when it comes to pitchers, the most delicate of major league baseball players.

Not Everyone Needs to Start to Be a Good Pitcher

But looking at the circumstances, it seems to make sense that for Sanchez, being in the majors as a reliever was better for his development as a pitcher. Just look at Russ Ortiz. He was a reliever coming up, but then the Giants converted him to starting when they brought him up to the majors. Meanwhile, they started Rod Beck all through the minors but then brought him up to be a reliever.

Sanchez already had the pitches for the majors, otherwise he would not be able to strike them out with great regularity. What he needed to learn was to figure out how to pitch to the hitters and get them out without walking them. Ideally, he probably would have learned that quicker as a starter in the majors, but a spot was not open for him.

So the choice became, does he relieve in the majors or start in the minors? I think relieving in the majors was better for his development, because he probably faced more major league hitters as a reliever - and with more regularity - than he would have starting in AAA. To me, starting him in the minors would have just wasted the wear and tear on his body, because what he needed was quality hitters not quantity of pitching. That is something people have forgotten


That got me to thinking and I looked around for a bit of info on TINSTAAP (for those who don't know: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect). Here is what Gary Huckabay of Baseball Prospectus fame said about TINSTAAPP, which he first wrote about long ago, and which another author of BP quoted from more recently in this linked article when Huckabay wrote on it again:
When I first wrote that “There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect,” it meant two things, one of which has kind of become lost over time. Yes, it means that pitchers get hurt at approximately the same rate that methheads swipe identities and lose teeth. That’s what all pitchers do, not just prospects. But it also had another meaning—that guys who are totally blowing people away in the minors like they’re so many hot dog pretenders before Kobayashi are absolutely not pitching prospects—they’re already pitchers, and more time in the minors only means time off the living, pulsating clocks that are their labrums, rotator cuffs, and elbows.
That's all I've been saying above about Sanchez, with my attempt to explain why. I would have led off with this had I remembered sooner, but, in any case, I think it is worth noting. Sanchez was ready for the majors, he just didn't have a spot in the major league rotation to learn while the Giants were trying one last time to win with Bonds. Pitching him in the minors would have just wasted his pitching lifespan.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote this a little too early, here's a link to MLB story on Sanchez: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080616&content_id=2942880&vkey=news_sf&fext=.jsp&c_id=sf&partnerId=rss_sf

    It mentions something similar to what I wrote:

    When he made his Major League debut in 2006, Jonathan Sanchez's abundance of talent was more a curse than a gift.

    The Giants didn't want to leave him in the Minors. His stuff was too good, and he was too talented to languish in Triple-A. But he wasn't ready to be a full-time starter, so San Francisco made him a long reliever. He struggled in that role for two years, unable to develop a consistent pitching rhythm...

    Against the Rockies in his last start, Sanchez had his worst outing -- statistically speaking -- in a month. He got the win despite allowing seven runs in five frames. But the fact that he stuck around for five innings without his best stuff had Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti excited.

    "That was the kind of game that last year, maybe even at the beginning of this season, he might have been out of there a lot quicker," Righetti said. "His maturity as a pitcher means a lot to his performance."

    Inexperienced pitchers are often unsure of their ability to throw different pitches for strikes, Righetti said, so they panic at the first sign of trouble. But with time and a steady routine, "you learn what you need to do."

    Sanchez didn't have the luxury of a steady routine when he first came to San Francisco. As a reliever, he might have been called upon to pitch on three consecutive days, or he might not get the call for a whole series.

    That hurt Sanchez more than other hurlers because he throws his changeup and breaking ball better when he's got time to settle in, Righetti said. In short appearances, Sanchez would throw all hard stuff and run strictly on adrenaline.

    With longer outings with which to work, Sanchez said his "pitches are sharper," and he's "feeling better, more comfortable."

    The numbers bear that out. With Sanchez on the mound, the Giants are 11-3, so Sanchez has contributed to more than a third of their victories. Sanchez has allowed two or fewer runs in nine of his 14 starts. He's starting to live up to the promise that comes attached to any left-hander with four Major League-caliber pitches.

    "He got pushed into that reliever role and was moved a little quicker than we would've liked," Righetti said. "But I always knew I wanted him as a starter. He's beginning to earn that."



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