Pirates Uncomfortable Throwing to Paulino

The Post-Gazette: 

There is no sign that the lunatics are running the asylum, but it should not be dismissed that the Pirates' pitchers -- unwittingly, in most cases -- played a role in management's decision to keep Raul Chavez and demote Ronny Paulino.

There had been a sense most of the season that pitchers felt uneasy throwing breaking pitches in certain situations, particularly with a runner on third. There also had been a sense that they struggled to find a rhythm in terms of wanting the same pitch at the same time. This was not unique to Paulino. Depending on the day or outcome, it could be the case with [Ryan] Doumit, too, although his defensive work has improved markedly this summer.

This is ironic, to me, in light of the Ronny-Paulino-is-great-at-calling-games debate we've had at various points in the past two years. Most of the evidence that suggested that Paulino was good at calling games was either dubious and anecdotal (pitchers praised his game calling a couple of times) or just plain dubious (Paulino had a better catchers' ERA than Doumit at certain points, and never mind that Doumit often had to catch some really bad pitchers, and that his sample size was tiny). All the serious evidence suggests that there are not important differences in game calling ability among major league catchers. The only reason why this debate ever came up is because Jim Tracy just didn't like calling pitches from the dugout. (Paulino called his own pitches; Doumit didn't.)

Now Paulino has fallen out of favor because both his hitting and his defense are terrible, and it turns out that people don't really think Paulino's catching is so good for pitchers anymore. And -- shocker! -- Paulino's catchers' ERA is a dreadful 5.51 this year. This time, the pitchers' beliefs about Paulino make some sense: I wouldn't want to throw a breaking ball to that guy with a runner on third, either. But I'll give Paulino the benefit of the doubt on this one, because the things I can verify are bad enough: he can't hit, and he can't play defense. That was clear enough last year, too, but thanks to Paulino's vaunted game calling, we had to put up with dozens more games of terrible play.

This is why it's generally not good to make arguments that fly in the face of decades of evidence. Players and managers and writers say things all the time for all kinds of reasons. It turns out that the likely reason why Paulino's game calling was such a big deal was because Jim Tracy was lazy. Remove the lazy guy, and all of a sudden nobody talks about the game calling issue anymore.

(UPDATE responding to Azibuck's comment below: I'm not saying--and haven't said--that pitchers' reluctance to throw breaking balls to Paulino with a man on third has anything to do with his game calling ability. I also think that the Pirates' pitchers may have a point this time. What I'm saying is that it's hard to measure the effects of these things, and both of them are really just red herrings anyway. The game calling issue arose repeatedly last year until, finally, it emerged that Jim Tracy just didn't like calling games from the dugout. That was it, really; that was the whole issue, and now that Tracy is gone we don't hear about it anymore. Now, the pitchers' lack of comfort with Paulino and his ability to catch breaking balls is an issue. Maybe the pitchers have a legitimate beef here, but the real problem, and the real reason this is coming up, is that Paulino can't hit or play defense. If he could, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be hearing about this. It's just a way for people to explain their dissatisfaction with other things.)

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