Tuesday August 18th, 2015

Baseball’s silly season is just 14 days away. Yes, we welcome the September pennant races, when no sport can match the day-to-day excitement of baseball. Alas, it’s also time for expanded active rosters, when the most important games of the regular season inexplicably are played under rules not in place for the first five months.

And so we are subject to oddities such as 38- vs. 33-man contests, six lefthanded relievers in bullpens, pinch-running specialists and assorted other inequities that make September baseball a farce. The problem is particularly acute now because of the importance of bullpen usage and the economic boom that allows all teams to promote many young players. (Such was not the case for the 2000–01 Expos, for instance.)

People don’t pay much attention to the expanded roster fiasco—how could a few young players alter pennant races?—but September baseball got me thinking about some of the current myths in baseball.

Myth: Expanded rosters, which are designed to give prospects a taste of The Show, have little effect on pennant race baseball.

Fact: Offense dries up even more in September, and expanded rosters can alter history.

With even more relievers available, hitting becomes even harder in September. There have been more pitching changes in September than in any other month for five straight years, and the OPS for September has been the worst in any month for three of the past five years. And here are some recent examples of how expanded rosters change history:

1. The Cardinals’ 2011 world championship. Give Tony La Russa an expanded roster and he’s going to milk it for all it’s worth. La Russa’s Cardinals won six September games using 18 or more players. They clinched the wild card on the final day of the season, then went on to win the World Series.

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Complained one general manager at the time, “I don’t even know if they make the playoffs unless they have Tony La Russa using expanded rosters in September. They were winning games with Adron Chambers as a pinchrunner. There are just so many moves you can make in September that you can’t make all season long. It doesn’t make sense. We talk about it every year at GM meetings and yet nothing ever gets done.”

2. Terry Francona’s 2011 firing by Boston. The Red Sox collapsed in September of 2011, in part because of how Baltimore manager Buck Showalter used expanded rosters. The Orioles essentially knocked out Francona’s Red Sox by going 5–2 against them in September. Showalter used 40 pitchers in those seven games, a rate that would have been virtually impossible under normal baseball rules.

3. The career of Quintin Berry. Berry has 25 career stolen bases without being caught, the most since record keeping began. He is 8 for 8 in September, becoming an expanded roster specialist for three postseason teams: the 2012 Tigers, '13 Red Sox and '14 Orioles. (Note to contenders: think about trading for Berry; he is 34 for 40 stealing bases for Boston’s Triple A team, Pawtucket.) The Dodgers actually are training draft picks to be nothing but pinch-running specialists.

The team to keep your eye on this September is the Yankees. They have made an art of shuttling hard-throwing relief pitchers back and forth between the majors and minors. Fifteen relievers have appeared in less than 10 games for New York this year. GM Brian Cashman said at the trade deadline that even with Michael Pineda on the disabled list, he felt no urgency to find a starting pitcher because he knew he had Luis Severino to step in and because the deadline is only 31 days from expanded rosters. He said once he gets to Sept. 1, if he has to fill in a spot start he can do so with a parade of relievers on hand.

Myth: The Blue Jays can’t win with a 20-year-old closer.

Fact: You don’t need to show ID before you take the mound.

Roberto Osuna is not your typical 20-year-old pitcher. He was pitching for the Mexico City Red Devils in the Mexican League at 16. His father, Roberto Sr., pitched in the league for 22 years. His uncle, Antonio, pitched in the majors for 11 years. At age 12 he pitched in Japan for four months against hitters who were seven or eight years older. (And yes, he had Tommy John surgery when he was 18.)

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​Osuna throws in the upper 90s with a wipeout changeup and a preternatural calm. He is the youngest pitcher ever with multiple saves against the Yankees in one season—two of them at Yankee Stadium. He has not allowed an earned run in the ninth inning all year, while holding batters in the ninth to a .130 batting average. His stuff and poise are more important than his age.

Yes, it’s rare to find a closer for a contender who is this young. Only Terry Forster of the 1972 White Sox (29 saves) and Billy McCool of the '65 Reds (21 saves) had more saves at such a young age as does Osuna (13). Only one pitcher younger than Osuna ever saved a postseason game: Don Gullett, who was 19 when he saved Games 2 and 3 of the 1970 NLCS for Cincinnati. (Gullett was not the team’s regular closer.)

Osuna is a rarity. He throws strikes, keeps the ball in the ballpark and shows no discomfort in tight spots. Toronto has no hesitation about handing to him its biggest ninth innings since before he was even born.

Myth: Knuckleball pitchers send teams into hitting slumps.

Fact: You won’t find any such evidence this year.

It’s one of those hitting urban legends, like the Home Run Derby “ruining a swing.” Hitters have complained that just seeing a knuckleball pitcher for one night will undo their world-class timing and skill honed over years of play and practice. Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner recently floated this idea to the New York Post after his team faced knuckleball pitchers Steven Wright and R.A. Dickey in the same week.

If true, the Myth of the Knuckleball Effect would be most pronounced in the game immediately following the one in which a team ran into a knuckleball pitcher. You would expect a lower winning percentage and a lower batting average. So I checked the 34 games this year for teams immediately after they faced Wright and Dickey. The result? Teams were a perfectly inconsequential 17–17 with a batting average of .256 in games after facing a knuckleball pitcher. The major league batting average this year is .254.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Myth: Ryan Braun, now tied with Robin Yount as the Brewers’ home run leader, has returned to his All-Star hitting form.

Fact: He may have made the All-Star team this year for the first time since being busted for PEDs, but Braun is a very different hitter.

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We don’t know when Braun first started using PEDs. We know his usage goes back at least to 2011, when he was introduced to Tony Bosch, who ran the Biogenesis clinic in Miami, when the Brewers gave him a $105 million, five-year extension and when he won the NL MVP Award. Braun flunked a drug test in October of that year, though he denied it for a year and a half, even after news broke of his connection to Bosch. (Braun characterized Bosch as a “consultant” hired to help him appeal his failed test.) Braun finally accepted a 63-game ban in July 2013.

The player Milwaukee signed to a $105 million extension was on a Hall of Fame track from 2007 to '12. Since then, Braun ranks 32nd in OPS (min. 300 games), behind such hitters as Brandon Belt, Matt Carpenter and J.D. Martinez. Check out the before and after for Braun:

Years Avg obp slg ops ops+
2007–12 .313 .374 .568 .943 147
2013–15 .274 .339 .475 .814 122

It’s obvious that Braun is less powerful hitter, though it’s not all PED related. An injury to his right thumb has played havoc with his hitting. Braun still needs an injection every four months or so in which the nerves at the base of his thumb are numbed.

“I have good days and bad days,” said Braun, who in his best days always hit with a high two-hand finish. Sometimes the thumb injury will force him to let go of his top hand on the follow-through. “It depends how it feels, whether it’s one hand or two-hand.”

The thumb may explain another big change in Braun’s hitting: His pull power is disappearing. Braun has just 22 extra-base hits to the pull field in the past three years, less than he had in 2012 alone (24). Teams are defending him as if he were a lefthanded pull hitter.

“I don’t know how many times I hit a ball in the rightfield gap that’s an out instead of a double,” Braun said.

Braun is still a very good hitter—just not the power threat or the pull threat he was before his PED bust and thumb injury. Look at the radical change in his hitting profile over the past three years:

Years Pull Opposite Ratio
2007–12 372 187 1.99
2013–15 72 96 0.75

Myth: You need great starting pitching to win the World Series.

Fact: The past seven world champions ranked 10th, fourth, fifth, eighth, second, fifth and seventh in their respective league in starters’ ERA.

Baseball has become a bullpen game. Action and offense slow to a painful crawl once managers start the parade of relievers. Mound visits; the unnecessary dead time of stopping the game so that a substitute player, who has been warming in the bullpen, can warm up again on the playing field; “matchup” strategy … all of it is great for run prevention but terrible for pace of action and the thrill of late offense and comebacks. Add in the postseason schedule, with its surfeit of off days allowing top relievers to be available more often, and bullpens become even more important. The Giants won the World Series last year with more off days just in the postseason (14) than they had in their final 90 regular-season games (13).

If you’re looking for your next world champion, just forget about the ideals of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Orel Hershiser, Jack Morris and the like. Baseball was a different game then. Heck, forget about history as recent as the first 13 world champions of the wild card era (1995–2007), when 77% of them finished with a top-four rotation in their respective league. In today’s bullpen-dominated game, you’re better off looking for a great manager with a great bullpen.

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