On competitive integrity

by Jason Wojciechowski

Last night, I noticed a couple of people arguing that the Yankees should be using their bullpen to actually try to win their game against the Rays rather than tossing out players like Scott Proctor and Cory Wade and muddling through it. One of them screamed at his 11,000 followers in all-caps and called them morons. The other, Friend of TPA William Tasker, engaged in a reasonable conversation with me about the rules for this type of situation. You can guess who this post is aimed more toward, because I’m not going to be doing any yelling here — how a team that is either out of contention or has its playoff spot locked up should behave in games against teams that are still fighting is a sticky wicket, and I don’t pretend to have the answers. I promise that anybody who disagrees with me in the comments on this will not be called a moron.

Precisely because of said wicket, though, my position is that, short of collusion, teams should be free to behave as they like without their ethical standing being called into question. I don’t believe that we can develop any reasonable set of standards that is competent to govern all the variables in play. This is particularly true because teams already make day-to-day decisions about the relative importance of winning the contest that stands before them versus the next N games. Teams use strict five-man rotations, balance bullpen work (put Joe Torre to one side), start backups every once in a while, replace starters in blowouts, and so forth. None of this is necessarily about playoff positioning because it happens in June just as much as September. Keeping in mind, then, that the background assumption is that teams are not playing 100% for victory every day, here are some of the decisions that would need to be constrained by ethics if we want to take the Tasker Integrity Position (TIP).

First, starting pitchers. A starter typically has more effect on a baseball game than a reliever does, so if we’re worried about reliever usage, we should be worried about starter usage as well. Teams prefer to line up their starting rotations so as to get their best hurlers pitching in the early games of their playoff series if they have the luxury of doing so. To the extent that this would result in a team missing, say, C.C. Sabathia when they’d otherwise have had to face him, the TIP would presumably disallow this. Perhaps TIP proponents are ok with this, but if they’re not, I’m curious if there is a principled distinction to be drawn between starter usage and reliever usage. I can’t think of one.

Second, the lineup. With the aforementioned background that starters don’t start every day whether it’s pennant-race time or not, how are we to judge whether, to take the Yankees again, starting Jesus Montero behind the plate instead of Russell Martin violates the TIP? Martin needs days off, especially because he’s a catcher. How many days off in September against contending teams is too many? What if he has a minor injury that isn’t even worth discussing with the media but results in Joe Girardi deciding to give him a little more time on the bench?

Third, the non-closer bullpen. With a closer, it’s easy — when Joe Girardi doesn’t bring in Mariano Rivera to protect a one-run lead in the ninth, he is obviously not going all-out to win this game. But what about the sixth inning of a close game? Judging a manager’s bullpen usage from the outside is hard enough without adding the additional factor of ethically requiring that manager to be making (what he thinks is) the optimal move at all times. When a manager goes to a mediocre LOOGY against a left-handed slugger instead of a good righty with little platoon split, is he just getting the lefty work? Does he think it’s the right decision for winning now or the right decision for winning later? Maybe we can judge from his past usage of said lefty, but what if he’s a recent addition to the team, or just back from injury?

The theme that I think emerges is our existing difficulty in evaluating managers. Even assuming an attempt to win each game, we’re still just guessing about who is managing well and who is not. Individual decisions may be angry-Tweet-worthy, but pulling all those decisions together into a coherent whole seems to be beyond us.

If we have no idea how to have a principled, evidence-based discussion about Manager of the Year voting, then I am extremely dubious about implementing the TIP. My ethical spidey-sense tingles as much as anybody’s when Mariano Rivera sits in the bullpen and watches his teammates blow a close game to the Rays while the Red Sox are in free-fall, but if we can’t all align our spidey-senses into some general common ground about what is and is not permissible, then I think we just have to let it go. The schedule does what it does — some years, a team struggling for the playoffs will face a team that doesn’t care, and others, it will be matched up head-to-head with its rival. It may be frustrating to simply shrug our shoulders about this, but I think we can at least be united in one thing: at least it’s not the NFL.