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August 18, 2007 at 2:26 PM

Being a Contreras-ian

That was quite the wild finish last night, wasn’t it? Partly because of that fluke shot grand slam, which probably happens one in 1,000 showdowns between Danny Richar and George Sherrill, and also because Jose Contreras kept the game within reach. As I mentioned last night, Contreras did show something — besides that he shouldn’t be trusted to throw to first base when Ichiro is legging out an infield hit. That two-base throwing error cost Contreras an unearned run, otherwise he was at four-earned over seven innings and that’s pretty good. Probably could have gone eight innings the way he was pitching, though it was his first start since being banished to the bullpen and with all the stressful innings he’d worked earlier the Chisox weren’t going to push it.
Plenty of positive reviews for Contreras this morning. This blog item I read out of Chicago, citing our own USS Mariner, makes a pretty good case for why the outing means that Contreras is unlikely to be traded. Sounds strange, I know. The fact that a guy with one win his last dozen starts and an ERA worse than Horacio Ramirez’s is even considered a possible trade pickup by multiple teams is bizarre enough. But now, are we really at the point where a decent outing in a so-called trade “audition” really makes the guy less likely to be dealt? Well, 2007 is sure shaping up as the year of the wacky and this just falls right into stride with the rest of what’s gone on.
At this stage, if the Chisox really are seeking value in return for Contreras, I’ll be the contrarian and tell everyone to forget it. You know, I agree with those of you who say that win totals aren’t everything. They aren’t. But the folks who say win totals mean nothing are being just as foolish. Of course they mean something. Somebody brought up Tom Glavine being a 300-game winner and talking about the exclusive club he’d joined. Of course, it’s exclusive. Of course it means something. Any of you think Horacio Ramirez joins that club if he pitches for a good team the rest of his career? He’s on a pretty good team right now, rated fourth in all of baseball in the latest power rankings from Fox Sports. Yeah, he’s 7-4, but that just makes him mediocre instead of barely breathing record-wise.
Now, when I look over at Contreras, I start asking myself similar questions, only in reverse. Does pitching for a lousy team like the White Sox mean that Contreras is getting a record that’s been inflated in a very poor direction? We went into this last night: he does have a lot of decisions. Now, what does that mean?
Back in 2003, the Detroit Tigers had a young left hander, Mike Maroth, who was en route to becoming the first pitcher since Brian Kingman in 1980 to lose 20 games in a season. All season long, we were told that Maroth was a star of the future and that it was a tribute of sorts that he’d earned so many decisions — losing or otherwise — to be able to qualify for 20 losses.
And that Tigers team, losers of 119 games, certainly qualified as awful.
So, let’s look at what happened to Maroth that year. He finished 9-21 with a 5.73 ERA and an ERA+ of 75. So, his ERA was 25 per cent below that of an average major league pitcher when park factors were looked at. Now, let’s take a gander at Contreras. He’s 6-15 with a 6.18 ERA and an even worse ERA+ of 73. But wait just a minute. The Chisox may be a bad team, among the worst in the AL at the moment. But they are not one of the worst teams of all-time the way those Tigers were.
And I’m very concerned about the more recent numbers put up by Contreras — namely, the fact that he’s got just one victory as a starter since May 21. Let’s look at the scores of some of those games:
He was down 9-0 by the third inning of a 16-3 loss in New York on July 31.
Had a 5-2 lead by the fourth inning of a home game against Detroit on July 25, but was trailing 8-7 by the fifth and lost the game 13-9.
Was down 5-3 by the fifth inning of a game against Boston prior to that and lost by a 10-3 score.
Trailed 5-1 in Baltimore by the fifth inning of an eventual 5-3 defeat prior to that.
Was down 6-2 by the fifth inning of a 9-6 home loss to the O’s one start previous.
That’s five consecutive outings in which Contreras had given up a very Horacio Ramirez-like five runs or more by the fifth inning. After that, he was banished to the bullpen for a couple of stints, then, last night, trails 5-0 by the fifth before his team hits the slam and loses 5-4.
Anyone see a pattern developing here?
Some pitchers lose because of hard luck. Maroth had his share of those in 2003. Their offense doesn’t score runs, or a call or two doesn’t go their way. And some guys lose because they are destined to lose. Some guys make it impossible for their team to win most of the time.
The last thing the M’s are going to need is a guy who gives up a run an inning until the fifth and then toughens up. Small sample size? Maybe it is. But the six weeks left in the season are also a small sample size. The M’s need a pitcher who offers improvement over what they’ve got.
They also need a guy who can win. The mere fact of being able to go seven innings may have spared the bullpen some long-term wear and tear back in April or May. It would have been very welcome, in fact. But right now, it’s not enough. It has to be about winning as well. It will do no good for Contreras to fall behind 5-2 by the fifth, then pitch the M’s eight good innings in a 9-7 loss. They need a guy who can keep the game at 3-2, or 2-1 in the fifth or sixth, so the M’s can rally for a 4-3 win. It would be very nice to get a guy capable of carrying a 3-1 lead into the sixth so the bullpen can hold on.
That would be an upgrade.
What Contreras has shown every single start since June does not bode well in that direction. The M’s can lose a 12-2 game in which Ramirez gets chased by the fifth, or they can lose a 5-4 game with Contreras falling behind 5-0 by the fifth and lasting seven innings. A loss is still a loss.
As we’ve mentioned with Raul Ibanez and Jose Vidro, the totality of their seasons to this point will not matter as much going forward as their more recent showings. There is simply too little time left to play to start worrying about long-term projections. This is about a quick-fix, an immediate need. And right now, based on what Contreras has shown, I’m not sure an argument can be made that he is indeed enough an an upgrade to make a difference in the won-lost department.
It’s not a black-and-white call. There is plenty of gray here. But having thought it over and looked at the numbers, this is what strikes me. This is one instance when, with six weeks to go in a pennant race, the ability of a pitcher to win games by not going out and losing them early could be very key.



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