Posted by Andy on April 1, 2010
As the season nears, it's always interesting to hear fans talk about their own teams. I hear lots of talk about hitting, such as whether the team can beat last year's home run total, and lots of talking about starting pitching and the closer. I almost never hear anybody talk about middle relief.
You might want to think a little more about your team's middle relief.
Check out the following plot showing number of runs scored by inning in MLB in both 2009 and the average over the years 2000-2009. This sort of data is available here.
Before I continue the discussion of middle relief, let me address some basic things about this plot:
- Note that I scaled the y-axis to include only 1500 to 3000 runs.
- The run scoring is always highest in the 1st inning, which makes sense since a team's best hitters always bat in the 1st.
- The run scoring is always lowest in the 9th inning, although this is mainly an artifact. Teams that win at home (other than walk-off wins) don't bat in the 9th so the run total is artificially low. I bet if I looked at run scoring by just the visiting team, scoring would still be a little low in the 9th inning thanks to the occasional presence of the home team's closer, who is usually one of the best pitchers on the team.
- After the 9th inning, the lowest-scoring inning is always the second inning (this is true in every individual season 2000 to 2009.) This is because most often, the lower part of the batting order comes up here. By the time we get to the 3rd inning, there is a lot of randomness in terms of which players are batting. Think about it this way--when does a team's leadoff hitter usually bat for the second time? If his team scored a couple runs in the first two innings, he'll probably bat in the second inning. If not, he'll usually bat in the third inning. if his team didn't get anybody on base at all, he won't bat until the 4th inning. So it's tough to predict who will bat when once you get past the first couple of innings.
Here's the entire point of this post: after the 1st inning, the inning that always has the most scoring is the 6th inning. That's true for every season 2000 to 2009. What are the reasons for this? There are three obvious ones I can think of:
- Starters tire significantly by the 6th inning and performance starts to worsen
- By the 6th teams are more likely to use a pinch hitter when a run-scoring chance presents itself, meaning a better hitter is likely to bat
- Once the starter leaves, the guys who relieve in the 6th inning are the worst pitchers on the team.
Most readers are probably familiar with Bill James' argument that closers should not be saved for the 9th inning but rather should be used in key situations in the 6th through 8th inning, when many games are decided. Instead, most teams are trotting out guys with ERAs well over 4.00.
Here's a different angle that approaches this same issue: think of teams to win the World Series in the last 15-20 years. Chances are you can name some of their middle relievers. How about Duane Ward in 1992, Greg McMichael in 1995, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson in 1998, Brendan Donnelly in 2002, Mike Timlin in 2004, Neil Cotts in 2005, and lots of other guys.
The bottom line is this--teams with lousy relievers allow more runs when it counts. The difference isn't huge, but it's a real trend. The middle relief guys probably make the difference of 3-5 wins per year--doesn't sound like a lot, but it could be the difference between your team winning 87 games and going home and winning 92 games and going to the playoffs as the wild card.
So, are you worried about your team's middle relief?