I remember there being a time in my life when every discrete little event in a baseball game meant the world to me, when my reactions to the natural ebb and flow of each game most closely resembled those of somebody with a manic-depressive personality, and when I was so fixated on the minutia that I was virtually blind to the bigger picture. Save for the post-season (which is an altogether different proposition), that time has pretty much passed for me, and I'm thankful for that. You learn more about the game, you get a bit older, your perspective changes, and though you're still capable of watching and fully appreciating each individual game, you no longer have to descend into a neurotic state as you do it.
And since the trade deadline, it's been even easier for me to avoid getting overly wound up over the in-game setbacks, the unexpected, deflating rallies by the opposition, and everything else of that sort. A few months ago, a late-and-close situation was cause for abundant concern -- if Texas was ahead, it meant relying on a once-porous bullpen to bring the game home, and if Texas was behind, it felt as though a death sentence had already been imposed. Now? I just can't help but maintain a fairly substantial degree of confidence. The Rangers' win expectancy was turned upside-down -- from 96.9 to 41.7 percent -- in a span of just two innings yesterday afternoon, and yet I never seriously felt as though the game was slipping away. Maybe I'm vesting just a bit too much faith into the Uehara/Adams/Feliz three-headed monster, but it's funny how their mere presence can alter your perception of the Rangers' ability to lock up late-and-close games.
There was, however, one bullpen soldier who failed to execute when needed yesterday, and his latest failure does have some people wound up: Darren Oliver, a key piece in last year's run to the playoffs and still-quality reliever in the present whose political capital is running out. I say that he is still a quality pitcher in the present not to purposefully antagonize anyone, but because it is the truth: he's allowing around two-thirds of a home run per nine innings, he's still maintaining a strikeout-to-walk ratio in the vicinity of 4:1 (though the strikeouts have dropped off this year, from 9.5 K/9 down to 7.9 K/9), his BABIP has plummeted from .310 to .254, and his left-on-base percentage is still sitting in the 76-77 percent range. Hell, his ERA has even fallen by nearly half a run relative to last year. Why, then, are we so perturbed by his mere presence in close-and-late situations?
As you might already suspect, the answer is wrapped up within the concept of game leverage. Last year, FanGraphs began publishing a new Tom Tango-devised pair of statistics for relievers called "shutdowns" and "meltdowns," with a shutdown being a single appearance by a reliever where he contributed at least six percent to his team's overall win expectancy, and a meltdown being an appearance where he subtracted at least six percent. Last year, Oliver logged 22 "shutdowns" against just nine "meltdowns," which wasn't exactly within the realm of the elite, but was still rather acceptable all things considered. The year before that, it was 23 shutdowns against 10 meltdowns. And one more year before that, it was 19 shutdowns against only nine meltdowns.
But this year? This year, it's just 13 shutdowns against 12 meltdowns, with that latter figure being tied for the third-most meltdowns by any given relief pitcher in the majors this season, and easily beating out the seven meltdowns incurred by Neftali Feliz and Arthur Rhodes. What had always been a ratio of greater than two-to-one is now a ratio right around one-to-one, or, more specifically, 1.08, which ranks 112th out of 135 qualifying relievers this season. That's troubling, to say the least. That said, win probability and its derivatives aren't predictive in nature, so I don't think you can simply go out and declare that Oliver will continue pitching poorly in higher-leverage game situations -- hell, he could go out and begin turning that back around tomorrow, and it wouldn't surprise me too much. It's certainly worth keeping an eye on, though.
Now that I've thrown some heat towards the pitcher who allowed Oakland to scoot their fifth and sixth runs across the plate yesterday and knot the game up, I can throw some plaudits in the direction of the player who had been wearing on me for quite some time: David Murphy. It's been a bad year for Murphy, arguably bad enough to warrant non-tendering him after this season and trying to look for a superior fourth-outfielder solution on the open market, and in addition to struggling from a context-neutral standpoint, he's also posted up the worst WPA (-1.50) of any Ranger to take the field this season. You'd have serious difficult putting any kind of positive spin on his performance this season, and I think even Murphy would be inclined to agree with us on that point.
So, naturally, Murphy banged home the eventual game-winning run with a two-out single in the eighth inning against a legitimately dominant Andrew Bailey -- a play that bulked up the Rangers' win expectancy by 36.3 percent, and now, from a WPA standpoint, now stands out as Murphy's fourth-most valuable plate appearance of his entire major league career. One of the derogatory (and straw man-attacking) remarks that you sometimes see flung around by those in the vehemently anti-saber set is that the games aren't played within the confines of a spreadsheet ... but the thing is, I agree with that. Most saber-inclined types do agree with that. And Murphy's hit illustrates one of the beautiful things about baseball: unexpected things happen. Great players screw up. Struggling players rise up to become heroes. I wouldn't dream of having it any other way.