In Friday’s column about the unfairness of Interleague play, longtime commenter Name asked if it was fair that the Marlins had to oppose Jacob deGrom six times while the Phillies only had to face the league’s best pitcher once. To me, that was almost apples and oranges because it’s virtually impossible for the way the games are managed today to prevent things like that from happening. And if it was something that was premeditated, then the last thing you’d want to do is maximize the times deGrom faced the Marlins because the Marlins were lousy and, relatively speaking, deGrom hasn’t exactly performed great against that franchise in his career. deGrom has a lifetime 2.62 ERA but against the Marlins, that number is 3.26 – his worst mark against any club he’s faced at least 10 times.

So much of managing today is paint by numbers, in order to remove as much second-guessing as possible. But it wasn’t always this way. When managers weren’t handcuffed by the front office, they could employ more creativity and look for ways to get the best out of their team. Few were better at this than Casey Stengel when he managed the Yankees in the 1950s. One way Stengel looked to get creative was the deployment of his star pitcher, Whitey Ford.

In the period from 1953-1960, Ford was third in the AL with 124 Wins. In this eight-year span, an AL hurler won 20 games 17 times but Ford was not one of them. He made the All-Star team six seasons and the two years he didn’t, he drew MVP votes. So, how could a hurler who was one of the top pitchers by almost any way you look at it, pitching for one of the best teams in the league, not win 20 games?

Stengel would jigger his rotation so that Ford would pitch against the top teams whenever possible. Let’s look at 1960. In the eight-team AL that season, three teams finished above .500 – the Yankees, Orioles and White Sox. Ford made 29 starts that year and if things were perfectly random, he would have made four starts against each of the other seven teams. Yet Ford made 12 starts against the Orioles and White Sox and threw in a relief appearance against Baltimore, too. He made just two starts against the cellar-dwelling A’s. In 1956 he made 20 starts against teams with a record over .500, compared to just 10 against teams with losing records. In 1955 in 16 starts against losing teams, Ford was 13-1. But he made 17 starts against teams with winning records.

When Ralph Houk took over in 1961, Ford more frequently pitched on a regular schedule, as 34 of his 39 starts came on either three or four days of rest. He ended up with 25 starts against teams with a losing record, compared to just 14 against teams above .500 and the result was a 25-win season. In 1960 he went 12-9 with a 117 ERA+. A year later he goes 25-4 with a 115 ERA+. Diluted talent with expansion certainly helped, as did the 10 extra starts in 1961. But more games against the dregs was a big factor, too.

Last year, deGrom had 18 of his starts come against teams with a .500 or better record and he went 3-5 with a 3.16 ERA. In 14 starts against teams with losing records, he went 8-3 with a 1.55 ERA. But if you were trying to move away from a strict 5-man rotation, you wouldn’t jigger things to have deGrom pitch against the best teams – you’d do it to have him pitch in day games. Last year, NL pitchers had a 4.31 ERA in day games. Lifetime, deGrom is 25-11 with a 1.85 ERA in those contests.

Might not be a bad idea to look to maximize Steven Matz’ starts in Miami, where he has a 1.38 ERA. Matz is also solid overall against the Braves (2.94 ERA) and Nationals (3.41 ERA) but you really need to limit his starts in Philadelphia (1-4, 7.33 ERA) and Colorado, where in three games he’s 0-2 with a 9.20 ERA.

We have an entire generation of fans who think that pitchers absolutely have to pitch in a regular rotation because that’s all they’ve ever seen. And yes, if you asked 10 starters at random if they’d prefer to pitch in a regular five-man rotation, you’d get nine or 10 “yes” answers. But again, that’s all they’ve ever known for the most part. Sure, maybe a guy went seven days between starts once and got bombed. But that would be making an opinion on an isolated incident.

You hear the phrase, “putting players in a position to succeed” and why shouldn’t we do that with starters? Is having Matz start in Philadelphia really doing that? If the Mets rotation was set up so that deGrom followed Matz and there’s a Sunday day game in Philadelphia – wouldn’t you rather see deGrom on short rest in the day game than Matz on regular rest in Philly? Or if there’s a rainout that allows a guy on regular rest to jump ahead of another pitcher to get a favorable matchup – like Matz in Miami – shouldn’t that be a strong consideration? The guy who gets jumped could make a relief appearance to keep sharp.

Back when George Bamberger – a guy famous for his work with pitchers – was leading the Mets in his only full season, the six pitchers with the most starts also each made at least eight relief appearances. It doesn’t have to be 32 games, 32 starts.

There’s a strong pull to do things the way they’ve always been done or the way that the other 29 teams are doing it. That’s why in, say, 2016 you saw 30 teams use a five-man rotation and employ a LOOGY in their bullpen. But in the last few years, we’ve seen the Rays embrace the opener, rather than designating five guys to perform exclusively as starters when they’re healthy. In 2018 the Rays won 90 games and last year it was 96. In 2017, when their top six pitchers in starts combined for 146 starts and 2 relief appearances, the club was 80-82.

It doesn’t mean that if you use an opener your team will win 90 or more games, too. It means that you manage to fit the talent on hand. It means that you can have success if you break away from the herd mentality.

Have the 21st Century Mets ever shied away from the herd mentality?

Seems to me they did just that when they opted to pick seven straight guys in the 2019 Draft to sign below-slot level deals so they could spend more money on two of their first three picks. And they received widespread praise when they were able to pull it off by signing those expensive guys and not busting their pool allotment. That was a great move. It would be wonderful to see more outside the box thinking employed throughout the organization. And to be clear, the hope is to see unconventional approaches designed to maximize wins, rather than to minimize expenses. One could argue that refusing to scout prospects in short-season leagues is shying away from the herd mentality. But that’s not done to increase wins.

So, let’s see more deGrom day games. Let’s limit the starts of Matz in Philadelphia. Let’s see Robert Gsellman with more multi-inning appearances than one-inning ones. Let’s see Jake Marisnick with 100 games played and 60 PA. Let’s see Robinson Cano and his $100 million contract on the bench. Let’s see Luis Rojas allowed to manage in a way to win the game, rather than to avoid second-guessing.

You know, assuming we have a 2020 season.

8 comments on “Jacob deGrom, Whitey Ford and the herd mentality

  • John Fox

    It was more than just matching up Ford against the better teams, Stengel loved to have Whitey pitch in Yankee Stadium because as a left hander he was less prone to yielding homers at the short right field porch. It came back to bite Casey big time in the 1960 WS when he waited until game 3, the first one at Yankee Stadium, to start Ford, and as a consequence he got only 2 starts in the WS, and he was very good in both, but the Yanks lost in 7 games.

    • Brian Joura

      From ’53-’60, Ford made 134 starts at home compared to 122 on the road.

      The 1960 World Series is certainly curious, as Ford started Game 1 in 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964 and with ’56 and ’58 on the road with Stengel managing. The Yankees won the pennant by 8 games, so they certainly could have set the rotation for Ford to start Game 1 again.

  • TexasGusCC

    I understand the thinking but although I’ve never pitched, I do hear pitchers talk about routines. They like to have an expected state of mind that allows them to mentally prepare for their next game and their arms used to the workload. If you start manipulating the rotation, first you may have a pitcher that isn’t rested enough – and that risks injury – and secondly the pitcher that is skipped will get offended. Maybe in Strat-O-Matic that sounds good, but I would not like my manager pulling me out because he thinks that I can’t do a great job.

    I understand Stengel’s thinking, but you confuse me when you say that Ford made 12 starts in 1960 against the top three teams when the average would be four starts per team. If he only made 2 against the A’s, it could have been a scheduling quirk like JDG last year against Philly. I’m sure Stengel like any manager will maximize his horse, but it can’t be done all year long.

    Whether it was Hershiser in 1988, Gooden in 1985, or Martinez on the Red Sox, there’s only so much you can do with him. Down the stretch in a season, a team may juggle a rotation based on matchups but that will only be once a month. After that, you have to let your pitchers pitch and see what happens.

    I agree with Gsellman being stretched out more, and using Lugo as a starter or at least an opener. Betances, Familia, Diaz, Wilson, Smith, and the rest need to pull their share of the load.

    • Brian Joura

      The Yankees were one of the three teams with a winning record and he couldn’t face them. So 12 starts against the top two teams and 2 against the worst team in the league. Could have been a coincidence but you see that same pattern throughout the ’53-’60 time frame.

      • TexasGusCC

        You’re right, duh to me. I read it too quickly. But I don’t know if today’s pitcher would go for that.

        • Chris F

          I agree Gus. I think there is less of a herd mentality than a very distinct pattern to preparation for a start. We know that changing that balance is not regularly greeted with open arms. The 5 day rotation seems to have a natural cadence.

          I also don’t care for this as it trains pitchers to accept failure in a set of circumstances (home v away, night v day, team), none of which is controllable in the post season. Much like Syndergaard with catchers, I think each needs to figure out how to solve each situation.

          • TexasGusCC

            “Much like Syndergaard with catchers, I think each needs to figure out how to solve each situation.”

            A beautifully written statement. That is exactly what the Mets don’t do. You have five different and unique starters, yet the answer was one singular answer. Where Bobby Cox had Charlie O’Brien catching Greg Maddux and always employing non-offensive catchers to keep his pitchers happy, the Mets decided that one size fits all. When I wrote the Ramos article, I noted that some pitchers actually did better with Ramos, such as Matz, Vargas, and Wheeler, and others had more success with Nido. Problem is, the Mets signed a free agent so they won’t let their employees dictate terms. The kind of approach that made LeBron James leave Cleveland the first time, then they spent four years hating that he left. To quote a well known prospects writer, #LOLMets.

            This may not be in tune with Brian’s point in the article, but it is true nonetheless.

          • Brian Joura

            But the 5-day rotation still leads starters to pitch on a day besides the fifth day around half of the time.

            JDG – 14X last year did not pitch on 4 days rest
            Noah – 16X did not pitch on 4 days rest
            Wheeler – 13X did not pitch on 4 days rest
            Matz – 15X did not pitch on 4 days rest

            I find it impossible to believe that if it was advantageous for any hurler to pitch on the fourth day or sixth day that he would melt.

            Also, it would be incredibly easy to give advance warning so that no one would come to the park unaware who was starting that day.

            Saying it can’t be done is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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