Back in May, Rob Neyer of ESPN Insider called 'games' the most underrated statistic in baseball, supplanting on-base percentage as the stat most overlooked by GMs.
Stated simply: "A great number of games tells us a great deal," Neyer wrote, "and a little number of games tells us very little."
It's a simple point, but I’m glad I remembered it because it lends expert credence to the uneasy sensation I had driving home from Allentown two nights ago.
I started thinking about the number of times Ryan Madson and Ugueth Urbina warmed up during the apex of a ballgame and wondered how I would feel seeing Aaron Fultz or Julio Santana warming up instead.
As best as I could, driving home in the dark, I tried looking ahead to next summer. I'll put it in a realistic context using the 2006 schedule: June 11, a Sunday afternoon game at RFK, final game of a four-game series, bottom of the seventh. Jon Lieber is sitting on a 3-2 lead and trying to notch a 'W' for the first time in three-straight, very-good starts.
After watching him for over a year, I’ve seen enough to recognize when Lieber is out of gas. He makes a face. It’s the same face I’m seeing now.
The inning begins with three quick pitches and he's immediately down 3-0 to Nick Johnson. The third pitch cuts high and tight on Johnson's hands, but it's over just enough to allow Johnson to lace it up the middle for a hit. Before Aaron Rowand can toss it back to the infield, Charlie Manuel is walking to the mound. Lieber accepts a soft pat on the back; Manuel will turn it over to the bullpen to preserve the win. Allowing Lieber to pitch this long had been a mistake. He doesn’t need to motion for the lefthander; he’s already in motion.
The lefthander, Fultz, had a surprisingly good season in 2005, easing into some low-pressure duty until supplanting the aging Rheal Cormier as the team’s top left-hander next to Billy Wagner.
Here in 2006, he's already pitched 31 games, most on the team and half of what he pitched all of last season. He was effective for the first two months, but was hit hard his previous two outings, charged with a blown save in Friday night's game.
The newspapers are uneasy. There’s talk of trading to acquire help for the back end of the bullpen and a growing belief the relievers won't hold out the season. Santana had been tested in the late innings but was falling out of favor. Poor control was spreading like a virus throughout the bullpen, snaring Tejeda first, then Rodriguez. Manuel was so desperate to avoid a meltdown that Cormier had been seeing action in tight spots, and was outperforming all of them.
It reminded the press of last June, when Ed Wade had finally traded Placido Polanco, sending him to Detroit for Ugueth Urbina when the same bullpen unease crept over the club.
Counting his time in Detriot, Urbina had pitched in 81 games in '05. Madson, who was now a part of the starting rotation, pitched in 78.
Together with Wagner, who collected 38 saves in 75 games, fans had a very bitter appreciation for what they had lost. Only a few months before, Wagner wasn’t worth the money it would take to resign him. Neither was Urbina, even before Venezuela. Madson’s 4.14 ERA over 78 games was seen as a significant step backward, even though nearly all the damage came in the final month of the season. It was believed he would help the team more as a starter.
I’m driving past Lehigh Valley Hospital and daydreaming about a set-up man, feeling guilty for under-emphasizing bullpen in my daily posts. Maybe I should check myself in, I thought. I'm not sure what's worse: That I'm contemplating the Phillies bullpen at 11 p.m. in December, or that I've just convinced myself that Bobby Abreu, the team's best player, should be traded for a nondescript reliever.
How do I write it, I wondered, without convincing readers I'm nuts?
I'll write it this way: Johnson crossed home.