Last July, I began a long post on the first-half usage of Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala at my old blog, Nationals Inquirer. I never finished the post and consequently never posted it. Given the news that Ayala is lost for the 2006 season owing to an ulnar collateral ligament injury in his right elbow, I decided to revisit certain aspects of the post. In particular, I began to write:
Friday night, the Baseball Tonight gang took a moment to marvel at how automatic Chad Cordero has been this season. After allowing sufficient time to gape in awe at the 0.87 ERA and 28 saves (15 in June alone), the host noted that Hector Carrasco, not Cordero, closed out the afternoon's 4-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs, despite the obvious save situation.
Tim Kurkjian regarded Frank Robinson's decision to use Carrasco, which bucked the pro forma summoning of the closer in such a spot, as an eminently wise one. Kurkjian noted that set-up man Luis Ayala is on pace for 92 appearances, which would be the most by a pitcher in a long, long time. In addition, Kurkjian expressed concern for Cordero, who is younger and is also on pace for a ton of outings (82 or so).
Jeff Brantley, the BbTn analyst (of what quality, you may judge), acknowledged Kurkjian's point, but sort of pooh-poohed it as superficial. He said (and I'm paraphrasing, of course):
"Yeah, they've been in a lot of games, but what I'm concerned with is how long they're out there when they're in the game. Is it lots of innings, or is it just an inning. Look at Ayala: does he has 45 appearances and 65 innings? No. He's about an inning per appearance. What about Cordero? Same thing. No biggie."
Kurkjian countered by saying, "Yeah, but they're pretty high intensity innings both of them pitch." Brantley shrugged a bit and gave Kurkjian a "Hey, I was the closer, Kermit" look.
This mini-round-table discussion coincided well with the high-water mark of Ayala's 2005 usage, which was exceedingly high, just short of Moses-and-the-Flood high. As Kurkjian noted, Ayala was on pace to pitch in 92 outings at the time of the Baseball Tonight episode. By the All-Star break, Ayala had appeared 49 times, pitching 53 innings. This pace did not continue, in part because it would have been rare to do so and in part because Ayala was unable to do so.
Here is Ayala's breakdown by month:
April: 14 games, 13.1 innings pitched
May: 14 G, 17.1 IP
June: 17 G, 17.1 IP
July: 11 G 11 IP
August: 10 G, 11.2 IP
September: 2 G, 0.2 IP
As you can probably tell, something was bothering Ayala during the second half; in fact, the ailment was a bone spur in Ayala's right elbow, which essentially ended his season on August 21. Ayala pitched in only two more games, allowing a devastating game-ending home run against the Braves on September 1 and retiring the only batter he faced against the Giants on September 22.
In a Washington Post article dated September 21, 2005, manager Frank Robinson noted the heavy first half usage had "kind of taken a toll" on bullpen mainstays like Ayala. As for Ayala, he noted some regret that he could not be on the mound to help the team:
We will revisit this type of desire from Ayala in a moment.
* * *
As noted, Ayala is now lost for the season, and Nationals' officials are not at all pleased with the manner in which Ayala was lost. Nor are some Nationals' players, including Jose Vidro. Nor, somewhat strangely, is Ayala's agent, Joseph Longo. Rarely has the cause of an injury been so precisely pinpointed, but if murder was the case, then the World Baseball Classic is being held without bond:
"We thought it was a bad decision to let him pitch," [team president Tony] Tavares said by phone Friday from Washington. "It doesn't take a genius to figure this out. You know what [off-season elbow] surgery is like on elbows. It takes time to rebound from them." . . .
"Our medical staff has advised me that they don't believe that this injury would have happened if he had been in the care of our medical staff and on our plan," Bowden said. "This is a devastating injury. It's a devastating loss to the club. . . . He's irreplaceable. You can't replace Luis Ayala. Not through your farm system. Not through a trade."
Vidro, the Nats' oft-injured second baseman, was critical of Ayala's decision to pitch for Mexico in the WBC; specifically, Vidro stated that he could have played for the Puerto Rican team but felt out of duty to the Nats he was better served sitting out the tournament, fearing he could damage his problematic knee.
Ayala, through his agent, is pleading a certain patriotic insanity defense, or entrapment, or something:
If this is the crux of the story, then I've buried the lead with all of this talk about what Tim Kurkjian and Jeff Brantley said last July. And, yes, I do think there is more to this story than the Mexican team screwing us over fiercely and thoroughly. In a world where some people can say a pitcher is hurt before the pitcher says he knew he was hurt, I don't claim to have the answer. But I do think there is more here than Tavares or Bowden or Vidro or Longo represent.
* * *
First, the loss of Ayala---while certainly significant---does not amount to an "irreplaceable" catastrophe. As important a pitcher as Ayala has been, I nevertheless believe Bowden is overreacting. Further, some things create an inference that Bowden believed Ayala's role potentially needed replacement or at least alteration, most significantly Ayala's offseason elbow surgery and the decisions to sign Felix Rodriguez and to bring back both veteran lefty relievers, Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton.
Prior to last season, Rodriguez had been a heavy-duty middle reliever/set-up man in the Ayala mold. Between 2000-04, Rodriguez averaged about 70 appearances and innings pitched per season, with a 2001 season (80 appearances, 80.3 innings, 91 strikeouts, 9-1, 1.68 ERA, 239 ERA+) that, besides 10 fewer innings, surpasses anything Ayala has ever dreamed of. Of course, Rodriguez is not the same pitcher he was in 2001, but he has decent odds at a respectable bounce-back after a 2005 season marred in part by a freak injury. Sure, there were some discourging signs in Rodriguez's performance last year, which is why he was picked up on the cheap. For one, his strikeout rate bottomed out; however, he know this can't be too much of a deterrence to Bowden, because Ayala's strikeout rate has declined, too:
As for Eischen and Stanton, how well do you remember that glorious 10-game winning streak last June? Pretty well, right? Well, let's see:
Question: How many appearances did Joey Eischen make during the winning streak? Answer: Zero. He was out of action, having planted his arm in the RFK Stadium turf a month prior.
Question: How many appearances did Mike Stanton make during the winning streak? Answer: Zero. Stanton hadn't yet been acquired on waivers.
Question: How many appearances did any Nats' lefty reliever make during the winning streak? Answer: Three. And they were all by C.J. Nitkowski. In his first appearance during the streak, he tossed 1.1 perfect innings. In the other two, he failed to retire a batter. You might remember that third appearance, on June 7 versus Oakland; it was his last as a National.
- Question: How many appearances did Luis Ayala make during the winning streak? Answer: Seven. He made seven appearances during the 10-game winning streak.
Yeah, that's "irreplaceable." It's also superhuman.
And Jim Bowden, for all his seemingly hyperactive qualities, is no simpleton. He knows that a pitcher is unlikely to sustain success at Ayala's first half pace, especially after the pitcher has started developing elbow problems. So he acquires a reliever with a history of absorbing 70-80 inning seasons. He brings back two lefty relievers---veteran lefty relievers, guys in whom Robinson would have confidence to employ in the seventh and eighth innings. He brings in a couple of starting pitchers in Brian Lawrence and Ramon Ortiz who if nothing else (and before Lawrence's injury), could provide innings in the third and fourth rotation spots, whereas only the third spot provided innings last season.
You see where this is heading? From all appearances, Bowden was trying to cut back Ayala's role, relieving Ayala's burden. And this would be sensible enough---as Harper notes, Ayala was due for a break last season. Bowden, it would seem, was trying to do so this season.
And why would that be? One would imagine---again, sensibly enough---that the team's trust in Ayala's future or health was not so implicit, that there was a chance Ayala could not handle a heavy burden coming off elbow surgery. Maybe the team could foresee Ayala spending some time on the disabled list; maybe Ayala would need some time during the season to build up strength. At any rate, given the nature of relief pitching, it's not "irreplaceable" to find one guy who could replace another guy's 45-65 appearances with effective performance.
In other words, the term "irreplaceable" seems either overblown or designed to harken memories of Robo-Ayala from June of '05. If it's the former, then the sentiment is fueled by emotion, which well it could be. If it's the latter, I'm thinking the sentiment is in large part rhetoric.
II. WORKLOAD, LOAD OF WORK
Underlying this entire discussion, obviously, is how much Ayala has pitched in his three seasons with the Expos/Nationals, especially his last two, most especially last season. If Tavares and Bowden want the WBC to be the headline, fine, but we must acknowledge that Ayala's workload is the subtext. A controversy exists because Ayala allegedly pitched hurt, and he pitched hurt because he was already hurt, and he was already hurt because he was coming off elbow surgery, and he had elbow surgery because he was hurt before that, and he was hurt before that because . . .
. . . because he had been pushed so hard? Well, it's at least certainly possible. Bone spurs don't come out of nowhere, right?
Luis Ayala appeared in 81 games in 2004. That rates 51st all-time, about 30th during the modern era of bullpen usage, which we'll arbitrary set at 1990 onward. This is nothing tremendously unusual, I suppose, although at age 26 he was one of the younger pithers that far up the list. Still, no matter how you slice it, 81 games and 90.3 innings pitched is a hard workload for a reliever---not without precedent, but hard. Given his 18 decisions in '04 (6-12), I am presuming those were 90.3 high-leverage innings; he allowed 30 runs all season and was pegged with 12 losses, so it was not like he was inexplicably surrendering huge leads during garbage time. Nevertheless, like I said, Ayala was worked hard in '04, but in not in a particularly notable fashion.
Now, as for '05 . . . yeah, that was a particularly notable workload, alright. As Kurkjian noted, Ayala was on pace to appear in 92 games---and this wasn't one of those "On April 15, he was on pace for X" types of things. The season was already half-over when Kurkjian spoke.
Where would 92 appearances have ranked all-time? Third. Tied for third all-time. The last time a pitcher appeared in 90 or more games? Kent Tekulve, in 1987.
More than a handful of modern relievers have appeared in between 80-89 games in a season, though most of these pitchers have either been a) hardened veterans, who presumably are used to the workload, or b) lefty one-out guys (so-called LOOGYs), who do not face as many batters per appearance as a righty like Ayala. Nevertheless, the history of these guys is spotty at best, with many of them taking one of two courses following their 80-89 appearance seasons:
- marked ineffectiveness the following season (e.g., Jim Brower, 89 appearances in 2004, 5.37 ERA in '05; Billy Koch, 84 appearances in 2002, 5.77 ERA in '03, out of baseball after '04; Paul Quantrill, career-high 89 appearances in 2003---third straight season with 80-plus---followed by 4.72 ERA in '04); and/or
- subsequent injury (e.g., Oscar Villarreal, after an inexplicable 86 games as a 21-year old rookie in 2003; Rod Beck, 81 appearances in 1998, only 71 combined in 1999-2000 and extended injury problems thereafter; Kelly Wunsch, 83 appearances as a rookie LOOGY in 2000, limited to 33 appearances with a 7.66 ERA in '01; Sean Runyam, 88 appearances as a rookie LOOGY in 1998, limited to only 15 more games his entire career; Stan Belinda, 84 appearances in 1997, only 69 games combined the next two seasons, though unfortunately that must be attributed to multiple sclerosis; Brad Clontz, 81 appearances in 1996, only 71 appearances in '97-98 and out of the game two years later).
Let's just say that a devastating injury was not unforeseeable.
III. $#!% HAPPENS
I'll confess that all of the above sounds tailored to suggest that Ayala's precise injury would have occurred anyway, no matter his usage or treatment in the WBC. I sort of want you to think that, because now I'm ready to drop the hammer (or at least the pick-ax) that this isn't what I'm saying at all.
In fact, I think what the Nats are saying about Ayala's participation in the WBC makes a lot of sense. Ayala was coming off of an injury, and the team objected to his participation. Some committee formed by MLB and the Players' Association essentially overruled the objection, and the team subsequently relented. Ayala gets injured, and the team is understandably mad. Plus, if you've ever seen MLB executive vice president for labor relations Rob Manfred testify before Congress---and, of course, we all have, about a year ago exactly---you can imagine how smarmy he sounded when he told told MLB.com this:
I like the World Baseball Championship, and I am glad that several Nats have chosen to represent their respective nations in the tournament. Nevertheless, Luis Ayala probably should not have been a part of the thing (even if he was barely a part of it, anyway).
Still, what the Nats are saying is that-plus; indeed, "plus" much more. According to the Post article, Bowden has gone from on February 20 stating that the team "couldn't prove medically that [Vidro and Ayala] couldn't play" to claiming on March 18 that the team "[doesn't] believe that this injury would have happened if he had been in the care of our medical staff and on our plan."
That, my friends, is quite a claim. On the scale of grandiose statements, He would have gotten injured is dwarfed by We, and only we, could have prevented this injury.
Why? Because injuries happen, and it seems there is not a tremendous amount you can do to stop them. And, if anyone should know this, it should be the Washington Nationals: one day your prospective No. 3 starter is tossing around on the side, and the next day, BLAM! Torn labrum.
In summary, it is very easy to claim that negligent handling by the Mexican team caused Ayala's injury---and, based on contemporaneous accounts of Ayala's final performance for the Mexican squad, that claim has substance. But it should be harder---miles harder---to claim that the injury would not have happened otherwise, if Ayala were under the team's care. And, given Ayala's yeoman-like work in '04 and superhuman work in the first half of '05, this second claim is not something I'd make lightly.