Grady did Little waiting in naming closers

4/24/2003 - Boston Red Sox

After writing about the Yankees on Wednesday, my old friends in New England have demanded that I give equal time to their Red Sox. So I decided to take a quick trip through the last couple of days' worth of Boston newspapers, courtesy of the Planet Wide InterWeb.

First, I found this in the Globe:

After studying his options for 20 games, Red Sox manager Grady Little has settled on a plan for deploying his relief corps, using Chad Fox and Brandon Lyon as his closers.

''They've kind of showed us they're the ones who should be pitching the ninth inning,'' Little said (Wednesday) night before the Sox played the Rangers at The Ballpark at Arlington. ''That's what we've been looking for ever since we left spring training. They're a couple of guys we're not scared to go to, and they're a couple of guys who aren't scared to be out there, and that's what we need.''

Wow, he studied his options for 20 whole games? This, clearly, is a man who's got a firm grasp on the concept of "sample size."

I kid, of course. Twenty games usually means very little when considering the performance of a team, and it means even less when considering the performance of a player. And that goes double for a relief pitcher. Fox and Lyon have combined to pitch the grand total of 17 2/3 innings. In 17 2/3 innings, all they've kind of showed us is that they can get the ball all the way to the catcher without bouncing it.

And if Little's really been looking for somebody to pitch the ninth inning since spring training, then somebody hasn't been communicating too well. Ever since last winter, the Red Sox have been telling us that their relievers would not be locked into particular innings, that if the best reliever was needed in the eighth inning, then he'd be used in the eighth inning. But now Little is saying that he -- actually, the word he used was "we" -- has been looking for a closer all this time, and it just took him three weeks to figure out who his closer (or in this case, closers) should be.

What's strange here is that Little was supposedly on board with the program. Last winter, GM Theo Epstein told me that he and Little discussed this last season, long before Bill James -- widely considered the architect of the new-style bullpen -- joined the Red Sox as an advisor. And that Little was more than willing to try something different.

Unfortunately, battle plans often fail to survive first contact with the enemy, and in baseball terms 20 games is roughly equivalent to first contact. It's easy for people like me to tell people like Grady Little that 20 games doesn't mean anything, but 20 games can seem like an eternity to a manager, especially when those 20 games include a bunch of blown leads.

I just hope that another team will try this, but it will probably have to take another team that isn't playing for stakes quite so high.

The other story that piqued my interest was in the Herald, and written by Tony Massarotti. The gist is that with MLB using the Questec system to evaluate umpires, the men in blue have been calling a tighter strike zone, which has resulted in more walks. As Massarotti writes,

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, major league games this season were averaging 7.26 walks per contest entering (Wednesday's) games. That is an increase from 6.91 last April, which was an increase from 6.78 in April 2001. Prior to that 2001 campaign, Major League Baseball made a national story out of its intention to resurrect the "rulebook'' strike in an attempt to give the game back to the pitchers and speed up play.

Now the opposite is happening. In Tuesday's game between the Sox and Rangers, Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez matched a career high with six walks. Martinez is averaging 3.78 walks per nine innings this season, more than double his career Sox average of 1.85 entering 2003. Atlanta Braves ace and control specialist Greg Maddux is another pitcher whose walks are up this year (2.39 per nine innings) compared to the balance of his career (1.93).

As a result, runs scored and home runs are up over last year on a per-game basis.

(Jason) Varitek is among those who believe that Questec has caused umpires to shrink the strike zone again, a contention supported by the men who would know.

Well, again, it's pretty early to start drawing any sort of over-arching conclusion about walks and home runs and whatnot. But even if enforcing the strike zone is resulting in slightly more walks, so what? Massarotti quotes Grady Little saying, "From what we're seeing so far this season, generally speaking, I think the strike zone we're seeing is not conducive to the speed-of-game things we're supposed to see."

Since when was it the strike zone's job to speed up games? The strike zone is the strike zone, and the umpire's job is to call a strike when a pitch travels through the strike zone and call a ball when a pitch does not travel through the strike zone. If you let the umpire call the strike zone depending on his whim, then you wind up with idiots like Eric Gregg making it up as they go along.

Questec is one of the greatest inventions since the Phillips head screwdriver. If we want a bigger strike zone, we can build a bigger home plate.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.