America’s Other Pastime

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While I am willing to temporarily grant Peter King the title of “King,” I must insist that he not overstep the bounds of his football kingdom. In this week’s MMQB, King makes a series of unsubstantiated statements about Major League Baseball, the most egregious being his 2009 solution for the New York Mets’ bullpen problems:

i. I will be shocked if K-Rod is on any team but the Mets next year. How can the Mets not sign him, even if it’s for $18 million a year, or some such number? This is the second straight year the bullpen has ruined the Mets’ season, and they’re moving into a new stadium, charging fans absurd prices for tickets. Those fans won’t settle for Brian Fuentes.

Rodriguez, as you are probably well aware, now holds the record for the most saves by a closer in a single season (60 and counting). Many casual baseball fans and media members have taken to calling his 2008 season the greatest ever by a closer. If you look past K-Rod’s one gaudy statistic, however, his numbers this season do not look quite so dominant.

While K-Rod has saved 60 games this season, he has also blown seven save opportunities. By contrast, the Phillies’ Brad Lidge has yet to blow a save this year and the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera has only blown one. No one is paying any attention to Rivera’s phenomenal year (since the Yankees are not a playoff team) and Lidge’s perfect season (a feat only accomplished by the juiced-up Eric Gagne) has received significantly less recognition than K-Rod breaking the saves record. As sexy as the saves record sounds, how meaningful an accomplishment is it, really? Rodriguez’s team, the Angels, has been involved in an inordinate amount of close games, providing him with, by far, the most save opportunities in the league (and in baseball history). While he has done a lot with the opportunities presented to him, he has not distinguished himself, in terms of the quality and consistency of his play, from the other top-tier closers in the league. I am unwilling to accept K-Rod’s season as one of the greatest of all-time, because he has only saved 90 percent of his opportunities in a year when two pitchers (Lidge and Rivera) have saved 100 percent and 97 percent of their opportunities, respectively, in a similar number of innings.

That being said, one can hardly dispute King’s claim that Rodriguez would make the Mets’ bullpen better. What I take issue with, however, is his implicit belief (likely fueled by the media-created hype surrounding K-Rod) that Rodriguez, at this stage of his career, is a significantly better pitcher than the Rockies’ Brian Fuentes.

King directly compares K-Rod and Fuentes, so I thought that it would only be fair if I did the same—except I will use actual statistical evidence to back up my claims.

2008 Stats (Through September 21st):

Brian Fuentes

G      GS  CG   IP      H      R    ER    HR    BB    SO

66    0    0    61.2    46    22    19    3    21    80

W    L    SV    HLD    BLSV    WHIP    ERA

1    5    29       6        4       1.09    2.77

Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez

G    GS    CG    IP    H      R      ER   HR  BB    SO

73    0    0    65.1  53    21    17    4    34    74

W    L    SV    HLD    BLSV    WHIP    ERA

2    3    60      0         7       1.33     2.34

Fuentes’s numbers this year, other than saves, are quite similar to K-Rod’s. Fuentes has converted 88 percent of his save opportunities, a slightly lower percentage than Rodriguez. The numbers indicate that Fuentes has been a bit more overpowering while maintaining better control of his pitches, striking out six more batters and walking 14 fewer batters than Rodriguez in three fewer innings pitched. Fuentes has allowed significantly fewer baserunners, as evidenced by his 1.09 WHIP (Walks plus hits per inning pitched) as opposed to K-Rod’s alarmingly high 1.33. One can make the case for either pitcher, but it is ignorant of statistical evidence to proclaim K-Rod’s season to be significantly better than Fuentes’s, record book notoriety aside.

One could argue that the difference in age between Rodriguez (28) and Fuentes (32) is a factor in judging the future prospects of both pitchers, but the argument would not last very long. Fuentes has shown no signs of decline, as his numbers improved across the board this year. K-Rod, on the other hand, has seen his strikeout numbers go down and his walk and WHIP numbers go up in each of the last two seasons.

Consider, also, the 2008 salary numbers for both pitchers. According to ESPN.com, Fuentes makes $5 million this season, while Rodriguez makes $10 million, and both pitchers will be free agents at the end of the season. On the open market, sportswriters and league insiders believe that K-Rod could garner as much as $20 million per year for five years. Fuentes, a pitcher with far less hype surrounding him, is likely to cost a pitching-needy team (such as the Mets), at most, $10 million per year. King maintains that the Mets’ fan base “will not settle for Brian Fuentes.” But when presented with a choice between two similar pitchers, does it not make the most sense for management to choose Fuentes, who will cost roughly half as much as K-Rod? King complains about the Mets’ “absurd prices for tickets,” yet opines that they should dole out an absurd amount of money for an overvalued pitcher, rather than explore a less expensive option that would likely provide a similar statistical gain.

The moral of the story, Your Majesty, is that you should stick to picking the winners in NFL match-ups and save the inherently flawed baseball analysis for those who are paid to mass-produce it (i.e. Jon Heyman).

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