Or Maybe They’ll Just Cut Him on March 15
A baseball player’s career takes on a shape that is necessarily defined by his statistics. Many factors contribute to ballplayer’s reputation – Did he play on championship teams? Was he considered a good teammate? Was he well-liked by the media? Did he have off-field problems – but what remains forever is the statistical record. A player’s statistics, in essence, tell a story.
I am certainly not the first person to make this observation. Years ago, Bill James wrote an essay about how baseball statistics tell stories. His premise was as engrossing as it was childlike: by simply creating a “career” statline for an imaginary baseball player, one could compose a narrative encapsulating this imaginary player’s entire career without even writing one word. You could simply infer things – positions, skills, physical characteristics, even injuries – from these made-up stats.
One “story” James told was of an outfielder, a young star who could have been great, but whose career was interrupted by a devastating injury. You could see from the imaginary player’s made-up statistics exactly when this injury occurred (during the early portion of what should have been the player’s prime) and exactly how it affected him (he lost most of his speed, which affected all related skills). Although he returned to full-time play, the player was never the same; you could see this, too, from his statistics. He became nothing special. “Retiring” a few seasons later, James wrote poignantly, the player would fade from the baseball world’s consciousness – until many years later when people would look again at the player’s early-career statistics and reflect on how great he was, if only for a few seasons.
All of this, James showed, was drawn from some lines of made-up statistics. Well, here’s a real story.
Miguel Batista’s story is of perseverance and adaptability. He made his second major league appearance four years and four months after making his first, then he waited another two years after that to earn his first major league victory. His career imploded at the age of 29 with 18 ridiculously awful appearances – a 1.87 WHIP?! 19 homers in 65.1 IP??!! – only to regroup when he turned 30. He never dominated and never had good control, but he somehow contributed in a variety of roles. He’s been a starter, a swingman, and even a closer. He’s pitched very well on occasion, well enough most of the time, and, when he’s pitched horribly (as in 2000 and 2008), he’s adapted enough to bounce back. He’s not a remarkably different pitcher now than he was a few seasons ago, just older. Batista’s time will be up someday – maybe this season, maybe not – but when it is, the record will show that this guy with thoroughly pedestrian rate stats somehow lasted 15 or so seasons and, on the whole, was pretty successful.
I guess I just appreciate the story of pitchers who, although never great, gave it all they had for as long as they could give it. They're not really all-stars, but they are - I don't know - Tim Belcher All-Stars (or, TBAS).
The problem with a TBAS, I readily acknowledge, is that he will give out one day – and when he does, the results are in the realm of Don Mossi ugly. Take a look at Batista’s 2008 season, if you dare: 4-14, 6.26 ERA, absolutely hammered, more walks than strikeouts. But the story's hook is the revelation that a TBAS is not done. Was Tim Belcher done when he led the league in losses in 1994, walking more than he struck out? Nope, he had another 50+ victories in him, a resurgence where he tossed nearly 700 innings over a three-year stretch. These guys can pull it together; because they’re familiar faces, teams will give them the chance to do so. And, as a fan, I find it pretty fun when a TBAS pans out. It’s a good story.
Recall Hector Carrasco back in 2005. Now there’s a story: Jimbo dug him out of the Korean League. I don’t think anyone had any clue how much Carrasco would end up contributing, but that’s the fun of it.
Of course, one man’s story-telling is another man’s dumpster-diving. Haven’t the Nats waded in enough dumpsters the last couple of seasons? Maybe so, but there is a scenario where Miguel Batista could contribute positively to the Nats this season. My reasoning here is even (mostly) in good faith, not a post hoc attempt to concoct a plea to see if Batista’s “story” continues another season.
Batista’s occupied a variety of roles over the course of his career. For several years, he was primarily a starter (although he still appeared in relief a handful of times); another year, he was a closer. Forget those roles. If Batista takes a regular turn in the rotation or serves as the closer, then things have gone horribly wrong and the Nats are seriously screwed. Unless he's completely done, however, Batista can help the Nats.
Let’s review the pitchers the Nats have acquired this offseason, the ones who are likely to see significant action at The House Tony Tavares Kind of Vaguely Helped Build: Marquis, Capps, Bruney, Guardado, Walker. Marquis is a starter; the other guys are relievers. That's four relievers, Burnett would be the fifth, and Clippard would be the sixth. Among those relievers, what stands out?
Aside from Clippard, they pitch no more than an inning at a time.
Last season, Batista appeared in 56 games, all in relief. He pitched more than an inning in 25 of those appearances. He went two innings 15 times, and recorded more than six outs on three more occasions. Granted, a lot of this occurred in garbage time, but the Mariners stretched him out. I don't know if any Mariner fan would go as far as saying Batista was an asset (they're pretty much just relieved that he's gone), and Fangraphs rates him as essentially replacement level last year. But, if you're the Nats, having a guy around in the bullpen who can soak up a couple of innings at a time when needed could be something approaching helpful.
Take a look at what the manager with the nerd glasses has done with the Rays. The past two seasons, Maddon has picked a guy early on to work long relief. He picked a better guy in 2008, J.P. Howell, than he did last year, Lance Cormier, which is kind of fitting given the quality of those two teams. But Cormier did exactly what his manager asked. By the end of May, Cormer had appeared in 18 games; he had four outings of three innings or more, exactly as many times as he pitched an inning or less. Aside from mopping a couple of lopsided wins, Cormier was basically used in the fifth innings or earlier half the time.
As with Howell the year before, Cormier's role became more tightly defined as he earned Maddon's trust. But, while he was in the long relief role, Cormier essentially allowed Maddon to play match-up with his other relievers in the way a modern manager likes to use his bullpen.
Isn't this similar to how Clippard was used during the second half of last season? Sort of. In 23 of his 41 appearances, Clippard pitched more than an inning. But this wasn't long relief by design; it was working a guy like a horse out of sheer necessity. Clippard was pitching multiple innings while entering the game in the seventh or eighth inning, because Riggleman trusted almost no one else. But that's the reason why Rizzo signed relievers like he was hitting the bread aisle at Safeway - he needed to give The Riggler more options. (Whether they can be trusted is another matter.) Clippard's workload will probably reflect these new options. Riggleman might still trust him, but he won't be stretched out quite as much - and his role last season wasn't quite what Batista's could be this year.
So let's assume the Nats carry a dozen pitchers, with a seven-man bullpen. (I'm not saying they should, but I'm assuming they will.) There's a closer (Capps), three righty middle-men (Bruney, Clippard, Walker), and two lefty situationalists (Burnett and Guardado). Batista, as the seventh man, could be the long man and fill in gaps wherever he's needed, whether temporarily up a spot in the rightly reliever chain in case of injury to one of the other guys or when a spot starter is needed for some reason.
Give Batista 45-50 appearances covering 65-70 innings - or, you know, cobble together another unholy alliance of Logan Kensing, Kip Wells, and Jorge Sosa to cover these innings, one crappy inning at a time. What's to lose?
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No, none of this stuff applies at all to the Shawn Estes signing. Guys who haven't been league average for almost a decade should probably just give up.