Change of leagues can throw curves
NEW YORK -- This is the season Matt Clement wins the 18 to 20 games his wicked movement, high whiff total, and 2004 ERA (3.68) suggest he's eminently capable of. So his teammates have said for two months now.
However, consider one obstacle. The former Padre, Marlin, and Cub never has pitched in the American League. Same goes for the Yankees' Carl Pavano, a former Expo and Marlin, who starts opposite Clement today at 1:05 p.m. at Yankee Stadium.
"It's a different brand of baseball," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who also signed Wade Miller (a career NL pitcher) and David Wells (an NL pitcher in 1995 and 2004) in the offseason. "I don't think we expect guys to exactly replicate their National League performance.
"Not only are they changing leagues but home ballparks. They'll be pitching in Fenway Park as opposed to Wrigley Field or Minute Maid Park or Petco [Park]. They're also changing defenses. I think it's our job as we project performance from a scouting standpoint and a statistical standpoint that we take all those variables into account."
A study of the last 10 seasons shows that the ERA of a pitcher who ended one season in the NL and began the following season in the AL climbed by an average of 0.46. Clay Dreslough, the Lead Designer and Lead Programmer for the Baseball Mogul line of simulation games, did the following calculations, beginning with anyone who ended 1995 in the NL and began 1996 in the AL.
Those pitchers allowed 8,964 earned runs in 17,899.1 innings their last season in the NL, an ERA of 4.51. Those pitchers, in the AL the following season, allowed 10,175 earned runs in 18,415 innings, an ERA of 4.97.
One point that can skew the data should be considered.
"Pitchers tend to switch leagues after a poor season," said Bill James, senior baseball operations advisor for the Sox and author of the annual Bill James Handbook. "Derek Lowe going to Los Angeles now, rather than after his 2002 season. This creates a `weighted' sample, which tends to weight the data in a way you might not anticipate."
Lowe, for instance, had ERAs of 2.58, 4.47, and 5.42 the last three seasons.
"One would expect that he would have some tendency to recover, absent other changes," James said. "A pitcher has ERAs over a three-year period of 2.50, 4.00, 5.50, it is fairly likely that he will recover some in the fourth year, simply because he has not performed as well as he is capable of."
Bear in mind that the AL is the more offensive league. In the last 10 seasons the average AL ERA was 4.69, while the NL average was 4.32.
The most obvious reason why pitching in one league is different than the other is the bottom-of-the-lineup dynamic.
Forced to bat in the NL, the pitcher in the No. 9 spot in the order represents a near-automatic out. NL pitchers made 5,734 plate appearances last season in 2,465 games, equaling 2.33 per game. They hit just .146 with a .179 on-base percentage and .187 slugging percentage. Including pinch hitters, No. 9 batters in the NL hit .184 last season with 113 home runs and 702 RBIs.
In the AL, No. 9 hitters batted .244 with 156 home runs and 874 RBIs. In the case of the Red Sox, the No. 9 spot in the order came up 653 times last season and those who batted ninth combined to hit .262 with 12 home runs and 85 RBIs.
But it's not that simple. The presence of the pitcher in the ninth spot in the NL significantly weakens the eighth spot.
"Without question," said Bronson Arroyo, who pitched in Pittsburgh before joining the Sox. "You always know where the pitcher's at and you always know whether he's going to get that at-bat or not. You play for that last out, knowing if you can get two outs you can pitch around the eighth hitter or be very careful and know you can take that free out, especially late in a game when you're in a jam."
The No. 8 batter in the NL was walked 882 times last season, 202 times intentionally. AL No. 8 batters were walked 673 times, just 48 times intentionally.
Now, take a team such as the Red Sox, which Pavano must face today. Bill Mueller is likely to bat eighth, where he hit .354 in 178 plate appearances last season, tops in the American League (minimum 150 PAs). In the NL, Pavano could avoid Mueller and take his chances with the pitcher. Today, if he does that, he'd then have to face Mark Bellhorn, who hit 17 home runs last year.
"One more hitter for a lineup, almost two more to a lineup, that's going to the biggest adjustment," Sox catcher Jason Varitek said.
Curt Schilling found himself rather wrapped up in this topic when deciding whether to come to Boston in the fall of 2003.
"I think it's not as big a deal as you make it," he said. "I was very concerned with it last year, how it would affect pitch counts, the DH. When you get into the games it's just a little harder grind over here. That's the one thing they'll see first and feel more than anything."
Clement, a thoughtful but sometimes conflicted pitcher, has spent some time debating this topic and has discovered a personal upside.
Not having to face the pitcher "kind of takes some of the thought out of it," Clement said. "You had to play that game a little bit with the bottom of the order in the National League. Walk this guy, get to the pitcher, he might slug bunt on you, you have all kinds of bunt plays going on.
"With the pitcher, sometimes, they're up there taking and my ball's moving. So I'm not getting the swings some batters take on balls that start in and move out of [the strike zone].
"It's definitely going to be tougher. I'm not saying it isn't. I'm going to have at least one full batter and a half or whatever else with that eight-hole guy. You have to be prepared. You won't get that break in the lineup. If my ERA goes up, as long as I'm still being successful, I'll be happy."
Another variable is more anecdotal. Does a pitcher like to hit or doesn't he?
"I enjoyed hitting," said Miller. "But you don't have to think about getting a helmet, all that crap. You can sit there and relax. I think you lose energy running the bases, then going right to the mound. You don't have that rest or concentration."
Clement's feeling: "I like the fact that I don't have to hit. Hitting didn't bother me, but I can straight focus on pitching."
Arroyo and Miller said the best benefit to not hitting is that the manager no longer can use hitting as a reason to yank them during a game.
"For me I think it's easier to pitch over here not having to worry about the manager pulling me out after the fifth inning because we're losing, 3-1, and we've got second and third with one out and my at-bat's coming up," Arroyo said. "So for me I enjoy pitching in the AL much more because I know if I put a zero on the board I'm going to get to go back out there no matter what else is going on."
Said Miller: "That's probably one of the things that bothered me the most as a pitcher."
All of this AL-NL talk further emphasizes the significance of the relationship between Varitek and the pitching staff.
"It's still going to have to be about him," Varitek said of Clement. "Doug [Mirabelli] or I, whoever ends up catching, will to the best of our knowledge compile all our info to help him get somebody out."