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Monday, June 21, 2010

Schultz Gets It Right, But How He Defends It Is Lacking

(First, a little background...)

Kenshin Kawakami's season has taken another ghastly turn.

In two-plus innings Sunday, the Braves' fifth starter gave up three runs on six singles to the Kansas City Royals and left only to see the runners he left on score. With a 5-4 deficit, the Japanese hurler was faced with the prospect of starting the season with ten losses and nary a single win. Fortunately for Kenshin, the Braves pulled out an 8-5 victory over Kansas City, leaving him where he was at the start of the day.

With Braves starter Jair Jurrjens nearing his return from a hamstring injury, the question for fans and pundits is who will be sent to the bullpen to make room for Jurrjens in the rotation? Many, if not all, agree that spot starter Kris Medlen should stay in the rotation and Kawakami should be banished to the pen. AJC sportswriter Jeff Schultz agrees, but how he defends the move is questionable arguing at best.

It's time for the Braves to end the Kawakami experiment

It all starts with the headline. The Braves didn't sign Kawakami just to see if Japanese hurlers succeed in the majors; they thought they had something with him. Kenshin means a lot more than being a Braves starter for a simple fact: he is the first Japanese player to play for them in the major leagues. That alone helped them bring solid set-up man Takashi Saito to Atlanta (1-2, 2.92 ERA, 141 ERA+, 24 2/3 IP, 34 K, .973 WHIP before his injury). It seems that it's easy to lose sight of this fact.

So I stood by Bobby Cox Sunday when he said he didn’t want to talk about any future decisions regarding Kenshin Kawakami, though he added, “He’ll make his next start.” Why? By default. Jair Jurrjens has at least another week of rehab left.

Excellent point to start. If Cox had come out and said that Kawakami was going to be demoted to the bullpen before he made his next start, Kenshin would have that hanging over his head while he's trying to hold off a Tigers team that's in contention in the AL Central.

And then I stood by Kenshin Kawakami as he deflected no criticism (a commendable character trait of his) and said of possibly losing his starting job: “I haven’t thought about that much. But being a starter, I’m not really doing my job right now, so I’m ready for anything that is coming.”

Again, no complaints. Kawakami readily accepts blame for things that go wrong, which is a trait that stems from Japan's corporate business-like culture. It's an honorable trait, but Kawakami's taking blame for his performance doesn't totally shield him from criticism, much like what's next:

Kawakami is baseball’s only $23 million fifth starter.

I'm not sure why Schultz dragged Kawakami's contract into this debate. It just shows the Braves tied up a few bucks into their rotation. Derek Lowe has a $60 million, four-year contract that was criticized from the start. Tim Hudson signed a three-year extension at $9 million per year just a couple of months after returning off Tommy John surgery which was questioned by some at the time. Only three starters (Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens and Medlen) are making less than $1 million this season.

If anything, Schultz should be blasting Lowe with a statement like that; there were times last year and now that Lowe was pitching worse than Kawakami.

He also has the distinction of being 0-9 for a first-place team.

That's not a particularly damning statement, as there are poor starters on first-place teams in general. The first-place Cardinals have had to deal with Kyle Lohse underperforming (9 GS, 1-4, 5.89 ERA, 1.711 WHIP), Texas has to attempt to contend with the inconsistencies of Rich Harden (13 GS, 3-3, 5.68 ERA, 1.677 WHIP) and Scott Feldman (14 GS, 5-6, 5.16 ERA, 1.566 WHIP), and there is Javier Vazquez's second go-round with the Yankees which included a demotion to the bullpen for a brief time (13 G, 6-6, 5.01 ERA, 1.286 WHIP).

Of course, when a pitcher is the only Braves pitcher in history to start the season with nine losses and no wins, he can't get away with much.

Only three other pitchers in the majors have lost as many games: Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez (3-10), Cleveland’s David Huff (2-9) and former Brave, now of Pittsburgh, Charlie Morton (1-9).

The Indians are in last place. The Pirates are in last place. The Astros are one-half game ahead of the Pirates. See where I’m going with this?

Unless you're implying that first-place teams aren't "supposed" to trot out players with nine or ten losses and few wins, I don't see where you're going with that statement. We can be better served by comparing all these pitchers' seasons in more detail:

Rodriguez - 14 GS - 6 QS, 3-10 (4-10 team)
75 1/3 IP
95 H
59 R, 51 ER (8)
34 BB
52 SO
6.09 ERA
1.712 WHIP
11.3 H/9
4.1 BB/9
6.2 SO/9
3.10 R/27

Huff - 13 GS - 4 QS, 2-9 (3-10 team)
70 IP
88 H
53 R, 47 ER (6)
30 BB
34 SO
6.04 ERA
1.686 WHIP
11.3 H/9
3.9 BB/9
4.4 SO/9
3.83 R/27

Morton - 10 GS - 4 QS, 1-9 (1-9 team)
43 1/3 IP
66 H
52 R, 45 ER (7)
16 BB
35 SO
9.35 ERA
1.892 WHIP
13.7 H/9
3.3 BB/9
7.3 SO/9
1.72 R/27

Kawakami - 14 GS - 6 QS, 0-9 (4-10 team)
75 1/3 IP
85 H
47 R, 40 ER (7)
25 BB
51 SO
4.78 ERA
1.460 WHIP
10.2 H/9
3.0 BB/9
6.1 SO/9
3.51 R/27

Now we see some more similarities: a high amount of hits, walks and unearned runs allowed, relatively few strikeouts, high WHIPs and ERAs, poor quality start ratios and extremely low run support. Kawakami is the best of these pitchers and has the highest amount of no-decisions because the Braves are a better team than the Astros, Pirates or Indians. However, that doesn't do much to salvage Kawakami's record.

It would be best to take this route, but Schultz tries to go it a different way:

Yes, Kawakami has received little run support in some starts but that hasn’t really been the case of late. He was handed a 4-0 lead Sunday against Kansas City and promptly doused it with gasoline and lit a match to it. He also committed his third error in his last two starts.

There's no question that start was the worst of Kawakami's major league career. Errors aren't necessarily bad if you can make pitches and limit the damage. At this point, it appears that Kawakami isn't very capable of doing that. That being said...

Further — and this is where all of those, “Oh, stop picking on him, meanie; don’t you know the Braves don’t score for him?” arguments fall apart — Kawakami’s ERA is 4.78.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is a glaring counter-example for that statement: Derek Lowe. Lowe's ERA is 4.77, but he's getting 5.79 runs per 27 outs of support. Lowe owes his 9-5 record (10-5 team) partly to that. If Kawakami had Lowe's run support, there's no doubt in my mind he'd have a similar record or one close to .500. The poor run support is a significant culprit.

Once again, because some of his defenders ignore this number: 4.78. That is the worst ERA on the staff among active pitchers, save reliever Jesse Chavez (7.33), who doesn’t really count.

I haven't ignored it, but you seem to be ignoring Lowe, whose ERA is .01 higher than Kawakami's, and he doesn't get this kind of criticism because he has the most wins on the staff combined with a high run support.

Kawakami also is yielding the most hits per nine innings (10.2), has allowed the most home runs (nine) and, it follows, the highest slugging percentage (.478).

See, things like this are where you should have been going all along! Lets compare Derek's stats to Kenshin's and see how they match up:

Lowe - 15 GS - 7 QS, 9-5 (10-5 team)
88 2/3 IP
89 H
49 R, 47 ER
37 BB
51 SO
4.77 ERA
1.421 WHIP
5.79 R/27
9.0 H/9
3.8 BB/9
5.2 SO/9
5.79 R/27

Lowe has a similar resume to Kawakami and has given up just two less home runs (seven), but he has a 9-5 record. Why? Run support, pure and simple.

Stop the madness.

Is it just me or does that statement not have enough feeling to it. It needs an exclamation point. Or two. Like this: Stop the madness!!

If Jurrjens is cleared following his next start at Gwinnett, this should be an easy decision for Cox: Keep Kris Medlen (3-0, 3.67 as a starter) in the rotation and put Kawakami in the bullpen.

Yes, exactly. Let's look at Medlen's starting record too:

Medlen - 8 GS - 5 QS
3-0 (7-1 team)
49 IP
49 H
22 R, 20 ER (2)
9 BB
32 SO
3.67 ERA
1.184 WHIP
9.0 H/9
1.7 BB/9
5.9 SO/9
4.89 R/27

Very impressive so far. I think Kris has the talent to keep that kind of a record going.

Granted, middle relief is not what general manager Frank Wren projected when he gave Kawakami a contract for over $7 million per year.

I don't think it's what anyone thought would happen. I thought that Kawakami would at least be a fourth starter when he came over here to Major League Baseball. I figured he'd have his struggles, and he did have them last year. But this year is just a whole 'nother league in struggling. It's rather unfortunate and kind of sad. You have to feel bad for the guy, even if you're trying to toss him out with the bathwater.

But Kawakami has shown an ability to strike people out. So maybe there’s something to salvage from this.

Think of it as salvaging the rear bumper after a front-end collision.

A car wreck of a season. Not quite a train wreck, but I suppose it'll suffice.

I can pretty much guess which way sentiment is going on this. I’ve got a poll up also. Let me hear ya.

You heard me here, Jeff!

The poll's choices are as follows:

What should the Braves do with Kenshin Kawakami?
  • Keep him as a starter
  • Put him in the bullpen
  • Sit him on the curb with a sign that reads "Owner will pay $7 million for you to haul away"
At 12:08 AM, EST on June 22nd, I voted "Put him in the bullpen".

60% (1,686) who voted said put him in the bullpen. 36% (1,020) said release him and eat the cost. 4% (92) said to keep him as a starter.

I don't agree with eating Kawakami's money and releasing him. With the way the money is being doled out in Atlanta, you can't just throw it away to a guy who isn't playing for you anymore; you have to get something out of him. Kawakami's better than this and he knows it. He can probably regroup in the bullpen and salvage something out of this year.

It is the correct move to put Kawakami in the bullpen because of his struggles. However, we can blame lack of run support as a reason for his struggles, despite the argument that Jeff Schultz provides.

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