Sunday, July 30, 2006

REPRISE -- Sutter's Mill-Stone: Herman Franks's Fallacious Fable  

Reliever Bruce Sutter received his Cooperstown enshrinement this weekend. When he was elected earlier this year, there was a lot of hair-tearing about it because the memory of Sutter's career was of a fragile 1-inning guy who appeared only as a modern "closer" -- a guy who got to walk onto the field only to begin a 9th inning in a game his team was ahead. The reality was far different. I'm reprinting this piece from January for new readers.

In the U.S. anyway, individuals' childhood life issues too often become pillars of their management practice. Some people are programmed to feel "it's not fair", and if they are proactive, that urge may drive them to try to right wrongs. In the more passive type personalities, that urge frequently drives them to sit on the sidelines and wait for some unfairness to happen, at which point they will point it out or complain or whine about it. Because these people believe cognitively that life is unfair/bad, when they hear info that asserts something unfair happened, they are likely to jump on it because it fits their world view. Sometimes in that particular case that view is false, unsupported by the data or other forms of reality, and since, more often than not, their complaints are supported by data, they don't even bother to check to see if the "news" is true.

This week something happened that was a perfect illustration of the "it's not fair" chorus singing off-key.

Bruce Sutter was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame. Worse, a better candidate, Rich Gossage, wasn't, falling short again. Amplifying the it's-not-fairness of the whole situation is that at least one person with a vote suggested he's always opposed Gossage but now that Sutter was in, he'd vote for Gossage, which is akin to saying "I've always opposed the froth-at-the-mouth Talibaptist maniacs in Iran, but now that our ally in Baghdad is supporting them, I will, too".

A fair number of people have railed against the Sutter installation citing the apocryphal story spread by Cub ex-manager Herman Franks that:

  1. Franks had developed the method of using Sutter only with a lead and only for an inning.
  2. In earlier seasons, Sutter had failed in the second halves of seasons, probably from overuse, and Franks learned to reserve/preserve the reliever for fewer, more important, situations.
  3. Sutter had therefore been the precursor to the classic "Clean 9th" closer (term mine), coming into games almost exclusively in a save situation, almost exclusively at the beginning of the 9th inning.

There's at least one problem worth noting. Franks' story is false on all three counts.

That apocryphal story is believed by many for good reason. Bill James cites the story in his fine Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers. Paul Votano reinforces it in his book Late and Close: A History of Relief Pitching. In the discussion around Sutter HoF candidacy and his success, many commentators, including my own favorite, Steven Goldman of YES Network, have taken Franks' comments as frank. A small handful support Franks and therefore Sutter (perhaps that really they support Sutter and therefore Franks) while most oppose Sutter cite Franks' alleged invention as an abomination and, therefore, oppose Sutter's induction. Sutter is seen as some fragile couple-of-batters trust fund kid who had decent stuff but lucked into a cushy job.

These kind of problems occur beyond baseball all the time. People hitch their energy to a story, either to support its moral or oppose it, even when the story is a gilded telling of something untrue, or once-true-now-passé. Detaching them from that emotionally-triggered, behavior-shaping story is harder than getting a $2 microbrew at a major league ballpark.

FACT: Franks never used Sutter in a lead situation in a Clean 9th half or more of the time.

Franks managed Sutter in Chicago from 1977-1979. If this evolutionary innovation story was true, the actual pitching lines for their final year together would reflect this. It doesn't.

Here's a key indicator, a chart that shows how many innings Sutter pitched in each of his appearances in 1979:

Innings ~# of 1979 games
< 1 7
1 14
1-1/3 5
1-2/3 10
2 16
> 2 10

Franks was just as likely to use Sutter for more than an inning as an inning or less. The mode average use was 2 innings, the median 1-2/3. Sutter pitched 5 innings once. Bruce Sutter wasn't the Woman of Kleenex, (repoz...you must read that link) the foil to Goose Gossage's Man of Steel. He wasn't Gossage, but neither was he Tony Fossas.

Sutter's effectiveness and swell career stats are not a function of being coddled. In his last serious season of use, closing for Whitey Herzog's 1984 St. Louis Cardinals:

Innings ~# of 1984 games
< 1 5
1 15
1-1/3 or 1-2/3 10
2 29
2-1/3 or 2-2/3 6
3+ 6

Median and mode average for appearance length was 2 innings. If anything, it's possible that he could have had a longer successful career if Herzog hadn't gotten him into 71 games where he notched 122 innings (and I don't know how many times Herzog warmed him up without putting him in a game once warmed).

Someone with better Retrosheet tools who wanted to could build a chart like this for every season Sutter labored, but a quick glance says the others would show a pattern similar to 1979. Sutter was simply not a Clean 9th, quick-in-quick-out guy. Others invented that rôle -- not Franks with Sutter.

FACT: The stats don't indicate Sutter wore down in the second half of his seasons with Franks..except for the last season in which Franks alleged he was using him differently.

The following tables are drawn w/data from Retrosheet.

1977        G  IP     H  BFP  HR   R  BB    ERA
April       8  11.2   7   41   0   1   0   0.77
May        15  29.2  14  103   2   4   2   0.91
June       15  26.2  19  105   0   4   8   0.68
July        8  16.1   9   65   2   6   4   2.20
August      4   3.2   2   16   0   0   3   0.00
September  11  17.1  16   71   1   5   4   2.60
October     1   2     2   10   0   1   2   4.50

1978        G  IP     H  BFP  HR   R  BB    ERA
April       9  13.1  10   59   1   7   8   2.03
May        10  18     9   70   1   3   4   1.50
June       10  17    12   70   2   6   8   2.65
July       12  17    12   64   2   2   1   1.06
August     11  17    20   74   2  11   4   5.82
September  12  16.1  19   77   2  15   9   6.06

Month       G  IP     H  BFP  HR   R  BB    ERA
April       5   7.2   5   29   0   0   2   0.00
May        10  19.1  14   80   2   6   7   2.33
June       10  17     6   62   0   2   5   1.06
July       10  16     3   60   0   3   7   1.12
August     15  21    19   83   0   5   3   1.29
September  12  20.1  20   89   1  13   8   5.75

In 1977, Sutter was flat out fantastic. July and August were brilliant, and even if you pour his crappy October game into September and he still has a Baserunner/9 of 11.2 and an ERA under 3.00.

In 1978, he was truly fine in July and truly poor in both August and September. Franks didn't throw Sutter out there any less. This one season is where he flagged in August and never perked up.

In 1979, the year Franks allegedly managed him for lesser first half use to preserve the reliever, Sutter didn't show up until after the 11th game of the season. In April, Franks used him less than he had the year before (over 11 fewer games, so perhaps no different per game), in May he actually used him more inninings and the same number of games as he had in '78, and then in June, the same number of games and innings both. In the second half of 1979, he used Sutter in more games and more innings than he had in the "lesson learned" 1978.

It's clear that in terms of games, total innings, or length of appearance, Franks never markedly altered his use of Sutter. And again, Sutter was not the poster boy for the "Clean 9th" closer. Sutter has become a lightning rod for the "it's not fair" folk -- the actual career has been distorted by the untrue (probably not malicious, just not verified) claims of a manager, the fact that bullpen use has been dis-optimized by lazy managers and players seeking comfort in highly prescribed rôles, the pursuit of a univerally-accepted as goofy statistic, the save, and finally, the idea that somehow he's being held up to Rich Gossage as an either/or Ahura Mazda Less-Filling-Tastes-Great duality totem on which to beat 5/9ths time. Ridiculous.

I have a research paper on what I believe to be the actual origin of the Clean 9th closer. I'll run that in some form in a different forum later.

The same sort of story distorts non-baseball organizations regularly.

A friend of mine was working with a software company that had their main product upgraded annually, always near the beginning of each year. Technical support demand always went up temporarily as a result. The people who worked in techncial support were going nuts, because even though the company knew they were going to have this predictable demand surge every year, they wouldn't hire temps to sub for people who could do support or hire temp support agents. Morale was rock-bottom in support and in customer service (the people who got to hear the customers complain).

Management wouldn't try to hire any temp help. The "reason", actually a creation myth, was that because the software company had a contract to develop custom add-ons for their main product specifically for a customer that was a defense contractor, that everyone working in the company was required to have a security clearance, and because it routinely took about four months to get one, it was not feasible for the company to hire any temporary staff. Everyone thought this was terribly unfair, one of those insurmountable problems, like Soviet Communism or the IMF that even though everyone knew it was a terrible abusive failure, we somehow just had to learn to live with and say "it's not fair" whenever we thought about it or talked about it.

My friend was skeptical, so he started nosing around trying to find where this draconian regulation was invented. Not, certainly, but the Defense Department. I got to collaborate with my friend on searching out the citation. Here's what we found.

The human resources department had hired an expensive contractor to research what security requirements they needed to apply and to whom once they started developing for the weapons customer. The contractor had called someone at the customer's legal department. The client's paralegal stated a truth, that everyone who worked at the weapons customer had to have a clearance. The contractor took that back to our company as a requirement. They instituted it, and it sat unquestioned for four years.

There was so much instituional inertia and fear of letting this unfairness go ("what if they make the rule that we have to but we've already changed it?") that it took two more years and untold dollars and customer ill-will before they actually changed the requirement.

People who see the world through "it's not fair", if they're passive, can come close to sabotaging the very fairness they crave. The best start to changing that is examining the basis for the unfairness, never with the assumption that it's an insurmountable given, that the story of why it has to be is true, but asking the skeptical questions and following up until, like a good historian or ethnographer, you know enough of the truth to accept or spike the story.

Don't let your cognitive setting affect the way you make decisions or view others. There's plenty of unfairness out there, just not as much as people are programmed to see.

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