One Full Season and the Latos Conundrum

Reader Michael sends us this note:

Since so much of the media is saying that the Pads are a half-season fluke, but I knew they did quite well after the ASB last year, I figured I’d compile a chart of how teams have done if you add their post-ASB 2009 records with their pre-ASB records in 2010.

Michael’s findings may surprise you. Here are the 10 best teams over that time period:

Team        W  L  W-L%  RS  RA Pyth
Yankees   108 54  .667 889 670 .627
Braves     95 67  .586 768 599 .612
Rockies    94 68  .580 792 695 .559
Angels     95 72  .569 834 768 .538
Red Sox    92 70  .568 888 764 .568
Phillies   92 71  .564 770 659 .571
Cardinals  89 70  .560 718 597 .584
Rays       90 71  .559 771 693 .549
Padres     90 72  .556 680 629 .536
Rangers    89 74  .546 807 723 .550

The Padres check in at #9. If you go by Pythagorean records, they slip to #12 (Dodgers, Rangers, and Giants all push ahead).

Michael also presents a novel solution to a pressing concern:

A thought on the Mat Latos innings limitation problem. The main point is to have a 2.45 ERA pitcher with limited durability pitch only the most important innings imaginable. Sounds like it’s similar to the problem of managing setup men and closers. Since we know that Black, Hoyer and co. won’t let Latos pitch much more than six innings anyhow, on the days he’s scheduled to start, why not have the bullpen (perhaps including Gregerson, Adams, Bell, and co.) pitch the first three or four innings instead of the last three or four. Then if the Pads are within three runs on either side, have Latos pitch as scheduled, but if the game is a blowout either way, have him sit and let Stauffer, or someone else pitch and save those innings?

I’ve written a bit about the possible underuse of bullpens and elsewhere about the possibility of switching good bullpen pitchers to pitch an inning or two as an “opener” (esp. those with halfway decent bats such as Micah Owings or Brooks Kieschnick, since it’s likely in an away game that they’d bat once)… I think that with creative managing one could move even more important IPs to good pitchers and less important IPs to innings eaters than any of the MLB managers currently do.

Creative managing, eh? Well, that’s your problem right there.

On a slightly less facetious note, I like the unconventional thinking but see a few potential stumbling blocks:

  1. Baseball decision makers (along with most other humans) tend to be very risk averse. Given the opportunity to succeed or fail using tested or untested methods, many of us will choose the tested. The idea is that even if our course of action leads to poor results, at least we had a good reason for pursuing it and are not to be blamed for outcome (or if we are, then it is a problem of execution and not principle).
  2. We cannot know how a person accustomed to performing one role will adjust to another role “on the fly” without proper training. Yes, on balance, relievers have lower ERAs than their starting counterparts. However, this is no guarantee that every starter who moves to a relief role will take to it immediately or even at all. I am not comfortable with the assumption that Latos necessarily must be a 2.45 ERA pitcher regardless of role.
  3. Preparation for a relief pitcher is different from that for a starter. In Latos’ case, it may be a question of limiting not only innings but also appearances (both warming up in the bullpen and in-game). There’s a great quote from Billy Beane in Moneyball: “Baseball is a war of attrition, and what’s being attrited is pitchers’ arms.” This applies to games, seasons, and careers. Beyond the Padres current success (which most of the world did not see coming at all), there is the larger picture: Latos is one of the keys to the long-term success of this franchise; his arm must be protected at all reasonable costs.

In short, I like the idea of the idea, but I’m not sure how feasible its implementation would be in real life. Those whose opinions matter more than mine might take an even dimmer view. Either way, thanks, Michael. You have given us good food for thought.

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10 Responses »

  1. The Latos situation is particularly tricky; any change in usage that could be used to limit his innings could also be a change that could degrade his current performance.

    I would probably go with the spacing out of his starts, using Stauffer to fill in when needed. This way we can hope that Latos maintains his current rhythm and the criminally underused Stauffer gets some work. I am sure that there are certainly some problems with this tactic; there would be problems with anything but a magic age serum that allows his arm to throw 200+ innings. Or else we can try and move to a non-Verducci effect world; that would work also.

  2. I think the solution to the IP problem for Latos is simple, really. Rest him any time the team does not need a 5th starter.

    As far as I can tell, there are 3 more times this season where, because of days off, the Padres could go with a 4 man rotation instead of 5 man. Instead of giving each starter an extra day off, simply leave Latos out of the rotation, effectively skipping him for one game.

    That would put him at 29 starts (about 174 IP) as opposed to the 34 he would have had if he made every start. (The Padres skipped two Latos starts already by putting him on the DL for “The Sneeze”.)

  3. Reader Michael here: Agreed on all of Geoff’s responses/potential stumbling blocks. #3 is a key element that I don’t know about. If Latos is quick in warming up, then he could start his prep in the 4th inning of games where no team has a 2 or more run lead and come in in the 5th for 5 innings of work. In doing so, he (or any other good pitcher on inning restrictions) would avoid nearly half of all games (46%) where there is less than 20% chance of the outcome changing (data from

    On #2 — agreed also, though most pitchers moved to relief roles have their ERAs go down rather than up, so I think it’s more likely that Black would look like a genius rather than an idiot. Given that #1 is true, I’d think the best time to experiment is right after you’ve been given a 3-year contract extension.

    Of course, the best place to experiment would be in the low-minor leagues, but it seems that that rarely happens. For some reason, baseball teams do most of their experimentation (outside of marketing) at the majors rather than in lower levels. This trend contrasts with football, where it seems like so much innovation starts at the high school level, filters to the colleges, and only then appears in the NFL.

  4. Michael, I’m going to have to sort of disagree with where experimentation takes place. The Padres and many other teams have gone with “tandem” starters in the minors to better control the workloads of young pitchers. It’s typically been in the lower minors; I can’t recall it ever being used above A ball. You’re a lot more likely to see a Mitch Canham type used all over the field in the minors than in the majors.

    Ken Funck of BP published a study of pitcher usage patterns last year:

  5. @websoulsurfer

    The math is right, but 174 IP is almost 30 more innings than the team wanted him to throw this year. It’s half again the innings he threw last year, and 3x what he threw in 2008. If we make the second round of the playoffs, we could be looking at 200 innings on that arm. Maybe he survives it, but just skipping the 5th starter spot doesn’t keep his IP count where the team wanted it at the start of the year.

    A combination of David and Michael’s ideas could work, too, where Latos works 3, Stauffer gets the next 3, and then the bully takes over. That keeps Latos on a schedule and gets him near the 150 IP mark, with some gas in the tank for late September games. There are surely a few different ways to balance the goals, although as Daniel points out, it’s not easy.

    In September they may need to buy more folding chairs for the bullpen. As the jarheads might say, we could bring up every swingin’ dick on the 40 man roster.

  6. I remember the early limit being 150 innings, but Bud Black mentioned 180 recently. I expect Mat will be a 5-inning starter the rest of the way, or have his pitch count reduced. The DL stint eliminated the starts against the Braves and Dodgers, and replaced them with starts against the Pirates and Marlins. Those lower pressure starts may be part of the plan too.

    Then again, the Padres may risk allowing Mat to pitch more than the planned innings, thinking this is a special year and they have to go for it. They have an argument in favor of letting him pitch, the example of Carlos Zambrano. He pitched 117 innings (all but 9 in the majors) at age 21, and the next year pitched 214 innings. I’m assuming doubling the workload affects pitchers physically, not mentally.

  7. @Larry

    Then you have guys like Wood and Prior and many others, who were worked very hard at young ages and saw their careers end or go off-track. I don’t know that anybody would say it’s an absolute rule, but the weight of the evidence suggests that caution is the better part of valor. If they want to go for it, which is a legitimate decision, it seems the better course would be trading for an arm. Too bad the best arm on the market is so expensive and wants to go to St. Louis.

  8. Tom

    Your math is wrong. Latos pitched 50.2 innings for the Padres and 72.1 in the minors for a total of 123 IP. So half again Latos 2009 IP would be 184.1 IP. About two starts more than I am suggesting he would make if rested every time the team does not need a 5th starter for the rest of the 2010 season.

    The “team” has mentioned two numbers in relation to Latos, and they were 150 IP from Tim Sullivan the UT writer while the team was in camp and 170 IP earlier this month by Hoyer, so again it’s not 30 more innings than they wanted him to pitch. It’s only 4 more than Hoyer mentioned and 24 more than Sullivan mentioned.

    On June 15th Manager Bud Black said this –
    Padres manager Bud Black said Sunday that he has no immediate plans to limit Mat Latos’ innings this season. Latos has already pitched 72 1/3 frames this year and is on pace for right around 190. That would be quite a workload for a normal 22-year-old, but the NL West-leading Padres aren’t yet thinking about shutting down one of their best arms. “As an organization, we haven’t drawn that line yet,” said Black. Latos is 5-1 with a 1.96 ERA over his last seven starts.

    There is one more game in the last week of the season where Latos could sit if he is being readied to be part of 3 man rotation for playoffs. That would put him at under 168 IP and close to Hoyer’s stated limit of 170 IP.

    Pitchers are not rotated every 3 innings like they do early in spring training for a reason. Your starter is your best pitcher and he should go as long as he is effective if winning the games is your desired outcome. I think we all agree the Padres want to win.

    If you are going to try to correct me, get the math and the facts straight.

  9. @websoulsurfer

    Half-again is a general term. It’s pretty desperate to try to make a federal case out of a 9-10 inning difference between your 174 inning idea and an exact 150% multiple of how many he threw last year. And 24 is “almost” 30, which, if you’d bother to read without attitude, you’d see is what I wrote — “almost 30 more.” You also seem to have missed “doesn’t keep his IP count where the team wanted it at the start of the year.”

    A 170 limit suggests that the team has already decided to push things with Latos based on their success. Instead of adding 30 innings, which is the safer route and what they were ready to do in the spring, they’re willing to add almost 50 — and that doesn’t include possibly adding another 6-20+ high-intensity innings in the playoffs. This, for a kid who threw 56 innings in 2008.

    As GY brought up in this very post, pitchers are being ground up in a war of attrition. Traditional usage patterns may not be the best way to get the most value from those arms. Baseball is an emulative sport rather than an innovative one, and teams tend to do what everybody else does. That doesn’t mean that it’s the optimum way to use pitchers in general, or that it’s the optimum way to use a staff constructed like the 2010 Padres.

    No one (except you) is saying this is a simple decision. I’ll take any wager you care to mention that the Padres don’t think it’s simple. Maybe he throws 195 innings this year and it never bothers him. Maybe he throws 195, wins the deciding game of the World Series, and goes down with a shoulder injury in late 2011. Maybe he throws 165 and we miss the playoffs by one game and fans burn effigies of Hoyer for holding our ace out of the last week.

  10. @David: The good news is, we may be living in a non-Verducci effect world already:

    Still, I would prefer to see the Padres err on the side of caution with Latos.

    @Websoulsurfer: I think 174 IP is pushing the upper limit, but it’s not unreasonable. The Tigers got 170 out of Rick Porcello last year at age 20. Porcello has struggled this year, although how much of that is a direct result of his workload, I cannot say. Nor can I say that Latos’ case is the same as Porcello’s. Either way, the monitoring of Latos’ workload seems to me as much art as it is science. My suspicion is that any numbers that may have been bandied about are viewed more as guidelines than as hard and fast rules, subject to modification according to various factors.

    @Michael: Thanks again for providing the fodder for our discussion. You raise a good point about this being an ideal time for Black to take risks. That said, I’m not sure that Latos is the best test case. There is too much downside to messing around with him, IMHO, because of what he means to the franchise going forward. I do hope that the Padres are at least thinking about stuff like this, if only to keep all available options open until deciding on a course of action.

    @Tom: As you say, there is some uncertainty in the equation. Ironically, the Padres’ success is creating a bit of a problem in terms of how to handle Latos. It’s a nice problem to have, of course, but one that few of us foresaw a few months ago.

    Good stuff, all. We will see how it unfolds…