Why yanking Rich Hill from a perfect game wasn't really a decision at all

MLB columnist

Nothing beats abject foolishness exposing itself, and Rich Hill’s coulda-been perfect game was a good lesson in the clown-shoery of those who suffer from serial impatience. One segment of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ fan base focuses its criticism of president Andrew Friedman’s tenure on how he’s too future-focused and not interested enough in today, now, 2016. And along comes Hill, perfect through seven innings, and when manager Dave Roberts yanks him, that same class of people throws a fit … even though Roberts did it with the rest of 2016 in mind.

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Roberts has nothing to feel bad about. Nothing. Hill is angry, and that’s fine and understandable. He’s allowed. Dave Roberts’ job, though, is to best position the Dodgers over 162 games and, hopefully, for 20 or so more after that. And the notion that individual achievement supersedes what’s best for the team when the calendar has turned to September and the playoffs are nigh is flat wrong.

The truth is …

1. Rich Hill has not earned any sort of moral high ground when it comes to health. He is 36 years old. In his next start, he should surpass his second-most innings ever thrown. His innings total so far this season: 95.

So, yes, it’s a bummer that the skin on Hill’s fingers is as thin as that on the bodies of those as aggrieved as they were about Roberts’ decision to forgo the crack at the perfecto because the Dodgers need someone to pitch Game 2 in the National League Division Series. If the blisters that cost Hill six weeks this summer don’t reappear, the decision is that much more validated. And if they do, this isn’t exactly a Stephen Strasburg situation.

It’s pretty simple: The Dodgers without Rich Hill are a good team that probably could make a run at the World Series still. The Dodgers with a healthy Rich Hill, on the other hand, may well be the team best positioned to make a run at the Chicago Cubs. Because as good as a rotation of …

2. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey (or Jason Hammel) looks, one with Clayton Kershaw, Hill, Kenta Maeda and Whoever Else Of The Dodgers’ Other Eight Starters Roberts Goes With is formidable enough to back a lineup that has scored more runs per game since the All-Star break than every team but Colorado and Boston.

The Cubs’ offense, actually, is middle of the pack, though pair it with a team ERA that at 2.67 is more than three-quarters of a run better than the next-best team, and the Cubs are playing better than .700 baseball in the second half.

Tough though it is to be overshadowed during that time period with a 1.65 ERA, Lester has been by Hendricks, whose 1.36 second-half ERA lowered his league-leading season mark to around the magical 2.00 threshold. Lester essentially has matched Hendricks nearly number for number, and the Cubs have rewarded him by lining him up to start Game 1 of the playoffs. And he has pitched himself onto plenty of Cy Young ballots, too, though …

Max Scherzer is 16-7 with a 2.78 ERA this season. (Getty)
Max Scherzer is 16-7 with a 2.78 ERA this season. (Getty)

3. Max Scherzer has cemented his spot as favorite with a pretty glorious stretch of pitching himself. Since the Quality Start statistic somehow has wedged itself into the baseball lexicon despite its minimum threshold – six innings, three runs – being anything but quality, perhaps we can rebrand it as a High-Quality Start and make it seven innings and two or fewer earned runs, which seems to better represent what hardcore fans and the general public alike regard as actual quality.

Nobody has more High-Quality Starts than Scherzer this season. Seventeen times he has gone at least seven and allowed two or fewer earned. The next best: Justin Verlander and Chris Sale with 14.

And it’s not just his volume of excellent starts. Scherzer leads the major leagues with 203 2/3 innings and 251 strikeouts. Nobody in the NL has a better strikeout-to-walk rate, either. His ERA isn’t as good as Hendricks’, or even Lester’s, but at 2.78 it certainly doesn’t have the optics problem of most AL Cy Young candidates’, whose start with a 3.

In fact, outside of Adam Wainwright, the potential Game 1 starters for all the NL playoff contenders – Scherzer, Kershaw, Lester, Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard – are in the 2.00s. It’s a pretty heady group, and whereas the AL playoffs could be a slugfest, you need pitching to survive in the NL. So, naturally …

4. Seth Lugo is here to save the day for the Mets. Because nothing says savior quite like a 26-year-old rookie chosen in the 34th round out of a Division II program who had a 6.50 ERA at Triple-A and in 48 2/3 innings since being called up to the big leagues has posted a 2.40.

There’s going to be plenty more about Lugo later in the week with 25 Things You Didn’t Know About Baseball, because his curveball deserves more space than 10 Degrees allots, but his presence has proven invaluable to a Mets team that, against all odds, is in a pretty spectacular position to play again in October.

Flash back to Aug. 19 – funny enough, the day of Lugo’s first start. The Mets lost 8-1. They dropped to 60-62. Their playoff odds, that day, were under 7 percent. That was before Neil Walker joined Lucas Duda and David Wright on the disabled list, before Jacob deGrom went down with an arm injury, the same day Steven Matz missed a start for a shoulder issue from which he hasn’t come back. The Mets have every reason to have collapsed, and they’ve somehow managed the very opposite. They’ve won 16 of 21 since.

Having a worthwhile fill-in is incredibly valuable to a team, and that’s something the Chicago Cubs may well need to recognize as the season nears the finish and …

5. Jason Heyward cements his place as the worst hitter in baseball this year. Were Heyward simply on a one-year deal, or even something a bit longer or more substantive, the Cubs at this point would’ve dispatched him to the bench to play defensive replacement in the late innings of close games. Because he’s in the first year of an eight-year, $184 million deal, though, Heyward represents a problem that goes deep enough to cause serious introspection and discussion.

Because the truth is: Heyward has hurt the Cubs this year. And that wouldn’t be the case were Javier Baez and Jorge Soler not, you know, real. But they are. And come October, when Joe Maddon’s managerial musical chairs stops and cede to a more consistent lineup, Anthony Rizzo is going to play first, Addison Russell shortstop, Kris Bryant third and Dexter Fowler center. Ben Zobrist will be at second base, unless Baez is at second, in which case Zobrist will man left. Willson Contreras will be catching, unless it’s Miguel Montero, in which case Contreras will be in left. And that leaves Soler positionless, unless he’s in right, which he almost certainly deserves to be seeing as how Heyward has hit this year.

Among players with at least 500 plate appearances, Heyward has the lowest OPS in the major leagues by nearly 40 points. His glove in right field is great, sure, but not great enough to warrant a .226/.296/.314 slash line. Heyward is hitting .121/.121/.121 in September – four hits, all singles, no walks in 33 at-bats. With the magnifying glass going from simple lens to triplet in October, the focus on Heyward could be that much greater. And it will continue into the offseason, when …

Mark Trumbo has hit an MLB-leading 41 home runs for the Orioles this season. (Getty)
Mark Trumbo has hit an MLB-leading 41 home runs for the Orioles this season. (Getty)

6. Mark Trumbo tries to make the case that bats are suddenly an undervalued commodity. Yes, it’s true that much of Heyward’s cost came in hitting free agency at 26, but still – Trumbo leads the major leagues in home runs with 41. So what does that get him?

The acquisition cost for one year of Trumbo was … a journeyman backup catcher. The trade of the offseason may well have been Baltimore nicking Trumbo from Seattle for Steve Clevenger. The issue with Trumbo, though, will be the same as it’s ever been: For his prodigious power, he simply doesn’t get on base. Never has Trumbo done so over a full season even 32 percent of the time. His career mark is closer to 30 percent.

Even in a class that isn’t exactly a cornucopia of bats – the best include Yoenis Cespedes, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Justin Turner, Ian Desmond and Josh Reddick – a not-really outfielder like Trumbo provides a fascinating case. Especially if the qualifying offer sticks around and he’s tagged with it. Calling himself baseball’s home run champion would be nice, though …

7. Brian Dozier is doing his best to snipe that title from him. Brian Dozier. You know, the second baseman for the Twins. The Twins! They’re in Minnesota and they’re terrible. OK, they’re really terrible. But still, Dozier is on a silly run.

He has 25 home runs since the All-Star break. That’s 25 home runs in 229 at-bats – one every 9.16 at-bats. In other words, since the second half started, Brian Dozier has hit a home run roughly as often as Babe Ruth did during his 60-homer season and more often than Roger Maris when he walloped 61. In the past decade, only seven times has a player hit more than 25 after the break: Ryan Howard (30 in 2006), Howard and Carlos Pena (26 in 2007), Jose Bautista (30 in 2010), Miguel Cabrera (26 in 2012) and Chris Davis (28) and Carlos Gonzalez (27) last season.

Dozier – who did not make the All-Star team, by the way, because Eduardo Nunez did – is hitting .319/.364/.738 this half, a torrid run that brought to mind the first, oh, three months of …

8. David Ortiz‘s farewell season. Not that he’s been mediocre or anything since July 1. Papi is one of just 20 players with a .900-plus OPS since then. It just hasn’t been the 1.100-plus he carried into that day.

Still. There are days like Sunday, when the Red Sox are in another patented slugfest, this one against the American League team that may be able to duke it out with them better than any, the Toronto Blue Jays. And up steps Ortiz, 40 years old, remember, against Joaquin Benoit, whom he owns in the same metaphysical fashion Mr. Robot does Elliot. And then Benoit throws him a changeup, because it’s a good-bordering-on-great pitch, sure, but one he shouldn’t, under any circumstances, leave over the middle of the plate, because when he does bad things happen. Except he left it over the middle of the plate, and a bad, bad thing happened.

Days like Sunday make you wonder why the Red Sox, with their plus-163 run differential, aren’t running the hell away with the AL East like they should’ve long ago. That question has tangible answers, and yet even with a two-game lead over Toronto and Baltimore, and with the New York Yankees lurking like the overachieving weasels they are, it’s enough to scare Boston. And that makes …

Rick Porcello is 20-3 with a 3.21 ERA for the Red Sox this season. (AP)
Rick Porcello is 20-3 with a 3.21 ERA for the Red Sox this season. (AP)

9. Rick Porcello an even more important person to these last three weeks than he already is, words that in March would’ve inspired fear along the Fens but today brings a fair bit of calm.

Part of it is the wins. And, look, wins are not a terribly useful statistic. You can even excise the word terribly there and not be wrong. This is not a defense of the win, because as Tim Brown so dutifully notes, one need throw only one pitch to earn a win.

When a starting pitcher reaches 20 wins in the era of a five-man rotation, though, he is good. Not because of the wins. The wins just indicate that, yes, this is a pitcher of quality. Over the past 25 seasons, a pitcher has won 20 games 79 times, and every one of those, his adjusted ERA has been better than league average. One was close – Jack Morris, naturally – and Rick Helling’s 4.41 ERA was an unsightly steroid-era outlier.

By and large, though, 20-win pitchers are really good, and Rick Porcello falls into that category. No qualified starter has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than his 5.55-to-1. He averages 6 2/3 innings per start. That four-year, $82.5 million extension through 2019 no longer wears the mark of a Ben Cherington mistake. This season alone, Porcello may be worth half the value of the deal. He would make a formidable Game 2 foe for Carlos Carrasco. And, if it gets to that point, for …

10. Rich Hill in the World Series. Crazy words to read, right? Last year, at this time, Hill was preparing to make his first start in the major leagues since 2009, when he bombed out with a 7.80 ERA in Baltimore. Hill had pitched well, if wildly, as a reliever with the Nationals’ Triple-A team, ended up with the independent Long Island Ducks for two starts, signed with Boston and threw well in Triple-A for five starts and, on Sept. 13, got his crack back at a big league rotation.

Four excellent starts later, he was offered $6 million and a rotation spot by Oakland, and 14 superlative starts after that, the Dodgers traded three prospects for him and Josh Reddick. And once the blister healed, all Hill has done is throw 19 shutout innings, allowing six hits, two walks and striking out 20. He hasn’t been everything the Dodgers hoped. He has been more.

So as amazing as it would’ve been to become the 24th major leaguer ever to throw a perfect game, Rich Hill has a chance to win a World Series ring, and that is a sacrifice worth making. Hill knows his skin better than anyone, and if he believes it would’ve withstood two more innings and a pitch count of more than 100 for the first time in more than two months, well, he might be right.

A manager’s job, though, is to assess risk and make the prudent decision. Not the safe decision. The smart one. Sometimes those two end up in the same circle of the Venn diagram, and this happens to be one of those cases. So however sick to his stomach Dave Roberts was, and however many beers he needed to wash away the feeling that he’d done a player dirty, he’ll live knowing he made the right choice. It was clear, much clearer than when he pulled Ross Stripling from a no-hitter earlier this year, and the sort that takes great conviction to make.

Hill will bounce back and keep throwing his rising fastball and his absurd curveball and all the other things that make him the Comeback Player of the Century. And if October comes and he’s still healthy, it will only serve as the sort of validation Roberts deserves, the kind that reinforces something that needn’t be: When the choice is team or player, it’s not really a choice at all.

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