I have a tendency to look at reliever statistics with a jaded eye. While starting pitchers are relatively straightforward in their inning stress, relievers enter games with various levels of stress. While Joe Maddon noted that he likes some relievers to only enter in "clean innings" (no outs, with nobody on), sometimes relievers enter into dirty innings. I doubt enough emphasis is put on the leverage of the situation for relievers. The Cubs game Tuesday had two danger situations for the relievers summoned, and two entirely different levels of performance in them.
A fun read back in the day was Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." Among other things, he took a season, and came up with a Letter Grade on how well he did in each outing. If he avoided trouble entirely, he gave himself an A. If he stunk up the joint, he gave himself a failing grade. I'm leaving this innovative (at the time) method of assessment in my mind as I proceed today.
Imagine you're buying a lot of property. If you were doing so in, for instance, the 1930s, nobody particularly cared what the usage was under prior owners. In more modern days, it has become more important to assess the usage of the land tract in the past. While I'm no expert, the handling of a land parcel is different if, in the past, it has either been a park-like setting, or a filling station. If the land has a history of dangerous materials, it needs different levels of rehabilitation than if that isn't the case. Now that your mind is full of assessment data, let’s return to baseball.
In Tuesday's game, two Cubs relievers entered in a rather toxic environment. Duane Underwood Jr. entered with the bases loaded and one out in a two-run game in the second inning. He proceeded to fan two hitters. A bit later, Casey Sadler entered a 3-0 game in the sixth inning, with nobody out, and runners on the corners. If you were to assess the toxicity of both outings, which would you assess as more severe, and why?
It's clear that, in either situation, escaping without danger would be difficult. In Underwood's spot, the game was clearly more "hanging in the balance." The Cubs were still only down two, and had 21 outs remaining. In Sadler's case the Cubs were down to only nine outs left, and needed at least three more runs to win or tie. Underwood's situation had more riding on it. Sadler's had the infield in, which made escape more difficult.
Now, I'm going to cheat. This is almost like introducing the perpetrator of a 700-page novel in page 595. Nonetheless, I enjoy this idea, and want it considered as a long-term tool. In November, the Cubs will assess all the rostered players on a "keep" or "release" basis if they have team control still available. The pitching numbers, from ERA+ to spin rates and tunneling will be factored in. If you're even slightly a fan of baseball advanced study, assessing players for "keeper status" should be spinning around somewhere. Sadler's outing stunk, and bordered on a no-win environment. Underwood's was brilliant, but will be lost as "two outs in a loss" by all but the most astute observers.
As I write this at 4 in the morning on a Wednesday, I have no specific capability for measuring the toxicity and futility of a relief situation. However, as pitchers range from "high leverage" to "no leverage" with any amount of levels between, accurate assessments of relief pitchers ought to assess toxicity and futility. I'm not sold on that being the case, currently.
Those of you that love statistical computer dives, have at it. Tell me more accurately which relievers are more reliable in toxic situations. Yes, I realize the "inherited base runner" stat exists, but not all baserunner situations are the same. As the season ends, how should I know if Sadler or Underwood should be retained, and how their Tuesday performances helped you come to that decision?