Let me start by introducing you to my inspiration for this post. His name is Jim Bouton, former major league pitcher and author of ‘Ball Four,’ which reads as a diary of his 1969 season. If you haven’t read this book, you should, and maybe a few times. It’s dated, sure, but it’s an important piece of baseball history and by all counts one of the most influential and entertaining literary contributions to the sport. But I digress.
Bouton, while recapping his previous career exploits towards the beginning of the book, goes into some detail about his falling out of grace with Ralph Houk, then the manager of Bouton’s first major league club, the New York Yankees. He relates his belief that, before he was sold to the Seattle Angels, soon to become a major league expansion franchise as the Seattle Pilots, Houk choked Bouton’s talent by refusing to use him; “You can make a lousy pitcher out of anyone by not pitching him.” Bouton writes, “I’ll always believe that’s what Houk did to me.”
That got me thinking about David Pauley, introduced to us, fans of the Detroit Tigers, around this year’s July trade deadline. It is my opinion that Pauley, who came over from the Seattle Mariners along with Doug Fister, became known as a dud partly due to circumstances beyond his control. We casually dismiss him as a disappointment and it makes us even more grateful that Fister pitched far better than our expectations for him. That’s not really fair.
At the time of his acquisition, Pauley was the possessor of a 2.15 ERA and a reputation as a solid middle innings option capable of throwing some long relief. 14 appearances later, he had added a full point to his ERA and pitched himself off the Tigers’ playoff roster. Brad Penny, on the other hand, made it.
Why the regression after joining Detroit’s bullpen? Lack of use must have something to do with it. His first appearance for the Tigers came on August 2nd, seven days after his last with the Mariners. He was used sparingly for the next week and a half, entering just four games over a period of a dozen days and logging five innings. He certainly didn’t impress over his first few appearances, but it wasn’t a sample size large enough to make too many judgments. It seems that’s just what manager Jim Leyland did, however, and Pauley sat for nine days straight. He threw 14 pitches on August 24th, then sat three more days. He saw varied levels of success over his next three appearances in long relief, but was showing improvement concurrent with his increased usage. On September 3rd, his most impressive outing, he pitched three near perfect innings and needed just 29 pitches to do it. That performance, if you recall, allowed the Tigers to tie their biggest comeback in Comerica Park history, defeating the Chicago White Sox on back-to-back ninth inning home runs after trailing 8-1 in the fifth inning. Despite his regained success, he found himself watching from the bullpen for the next eight days. Following yet another long layoff, he returned to a state of great inconsistency and posted a 6.75 ERA over his final five games. As far as innings pitched, his workload was pretty fair in Detroit; it was three obscenely long breaks that killed Pauley.
Relievers across the major leagues this past season posted a 3.69 ERA in total, but that number shot up to 4.16 for relievers pitching on six or more days rest. It’s clear that, while pitchers can throw bullpen sessions and work out on days they’re not used, there is no comparison for real game situations.
EDIT–As pointed out by several readers, the statistics quoted in the above paragraph do not accurately prove the point I used them to. I am working to limit the sample to quality pitchers and I plan to provide an in-depth analysis on the correlation between a long layoff and performance in the near future.
EDIT 2–I can find no discernible correlation between a long layoff and effect on pitching performance for relievers across the board, but I tentatively maintain that certain pitchers can be affected by long rest periods and that David Pauley is one of those pitchers.
All in all, I think Pauley could be a pleasant surprise for us next year if he earns his manager’s trust. If you take out his 20 career starts, he has a 3.32 ERA and is holding batters to a respectable .246 average over 84 innings.
While much praise goes to the back-end of the Tigers’ bullpen, especially with the addition of Octavio Dotel, there is reason to believe their relief corp will be solid even beyond their big names.