15 April 2014

How It All Went Wrong Fast in Philly Last Night

They made history in Philly last night -- and not just a little bit. And no one could have predicted it going into the eighth inning.

At that point, the two starters and two relievers had combined on a 2-1 affair, with all the runs coming on dingers by Ryan Howard and Evan Gattis. Bravers starter Ervin Santana was in line for the win, sporting a dandy six innings of four-hit ball with two walks and 11 punch outs.

It got quickly better as reliever BJ Rosenberg put his name in the record books. He faced three batters and the results looked like this: Evan Gattis - home run; Dan Uggla - home run; Andrelton Simmons - home run; now pitching, Luis Garcia. Atlanta led 5-1.

Luis Avilan joined Rosenberg by allowing a walk, three hits and a three-run jack to Dominic Brown in a five run eighth that put Philadelphia ahead 6-5. Spoiler alert: Avilan got the win -- the first time in 80 years that a pitcher earned the W with five earned runs in one frame. 

Jake Diekman came in for the Phils to finish it off and proceeded to strike out the side. Unfortunately for him, that came after he walked the Upton family en route to an Uggla grand slam. Uggla and Gattis combined for four hits in 10 trips to the plate -- all four of them home runs.

And that's how a 2-1 game after seven became a 9-6 final whose winning pitcher had the worst performance of the night.


14 April 2014

A Quick Scamper Around the Basepaths

Here is a one-question IQ test.

Which is better:

1. Running out a ground ball and getting thrown out at first.
2. Getting thrown out at first while diving into the bag thereby tearing a ligament in your thumb and missing six-to-eight weeks.

Sorry Mr. Hamilton: you failed the test. You'll have to return to the disabled list.

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When Paul Goldschmidt took Tim Lincecum yard in a weekend affair, it shocked absolutely no one. The Diamondback slugger has stepped to the plate 24 times against The Freak. He has 13 hits. Seven of them have left the ballpark. 

Tim? Does the term "intentional walk" mean anything to you?

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Charlie Blackmon update: When last we visited with the Rockies' lefty-hitting centerfielder, he was crushing the ball. He's cooled way off -- to .488/.500/.707, with just two whiffs in 44 visits to the plate. 

He does lead the majors in triples. With one.

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For last Monday's home tilt against the Angels, the then 3-3 Astros, coming off a spanking of the same Anaheim squad the previous day, drew a zero rating on television. According to Neilson, not a soul in the Houston metro area watched a Monday afternoon game featuring, if not anyone of interest on the home side, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and CJ Wilson.

That zero is 17,936 less than the number of people who witnessed it live.

It's actually the second zero rating for the American League's worst team. They pulled a zilch in a late September contest against Cleveland last season. But at least that one followed 14 straight losses and had to compete head-on with a Texans game.

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Here's some good Astro news: Hurler Scott Feldman has allowed a run on seven hits -- in three starts. That 0.44 ERA looks really shiny . . . until you discover that he's walked eight fanned seven and hit five batters in 21 innings.

Feldman's ERA (0.44) is among the league's best. His strikeout rate (3.0/game) close to the worst. If one of them doesn't change soon, the other will.

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In 46 plate appearances so far, Phillies second-sacker Chase Utley has gotten aboard safely 26 times and pounded nine extra base hits. That's positively Bondsian . . . except Barry was seven years older and did it over a whole season.

06 April 2014

Stuff You Notice When Baseball's Back

For Pete's Sake
In 448 plate appearances for St. Louis last season, Pete Kozma slammed a solitary home run. 

During the off-season, the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to replace Kozma at short with a four-year, $55.5 million contract. 

It took Peralta eight plate appearances to match Kozma's home run total. Eight plate appearances later, he'd doubled that total.

Do the Cardinals even know how to do anything wrong?


You're On the Mark, Teixeira
Mark Teixeira is off to a fast start this year. The Yankee first baseman reached the disabled list in just four games with a strained hamstring. Last year he needed 15 games for the hamstring to keep him off the field. That's $45 million right there, Brian Cashman.

Charlie Blackmon Update
The baseball world breathlessly awaits updates on slugging sensation Charlie Blackmon. The Rockies outfielder followed his six-for-six game with a three-for-four performance. Slacker! They were all singles, dropping his slugging percentage 23 points.

Blackmon now paces the NL with a .600 batting average and a .619 OBP. That's half a million dollars right there, Brian Cashman.

#Karma
Ryan Braun has one hit and one walk in 17 plate appearances. According to this report by Richard Justice, a lingering thumb injury is holding him back. Or is that just his conscience?


05 April 2014

Opening Week Nibblings

It's been a Lake Wobegon kind of first week of the season: everything's been above-average.

Take Cliff Lee's opening day start for the Phillies. He faced the minimum 27 batters. That got him through just five innings, during which he got shelled for 11 hits, a walk, and eight runs, while recording just one strikeout. And "earned" the win in a 14-10 scrum.


Two days later, Matt Garza, now representing the good people of Milwaukee, who gave admitted cheater, self-righteous liar and cynical media-manipulator Ryan Braun an ovation, also faced the minimum 27 batters. It got him through eight solid frames against the Braves, during which he limited them to a run on two hits, a walk and seven strikeouts. He took the loss in a 1-0 game.

Hyun-jin Ryu got the loss that he earned in the Dodger home opener when the Giants lit him up for three walks, eight hits and eight runs in two frames. The four relievers who followed -- Jose Dominguez, Brandon League, Chris Withrow and Jamey Wright -- shut out and no-hit the Giants, surrendering just one walk and fanning 10.  

And then there was Mark Buehrle, late of the Toronto Blue Jays. His masterful first start against Tampa Bay came within an out of a complete game four-hit shutout. What was remarkable was the Buehrle struck out 11 Rays -- only the second time he's reached double-digits in his outstanding 15-year career. Even more amazing in a game where three-quarters of all strikeouts require a swing and a miss, Buehrle earned eight of his "K"s looking.

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A gentleman named Charlie Blackmon has apparently accumulated nearly 500  plate appearances with Colorado over the past three years. Who knew? He even hit .309 in spot duty last season. In the Rockies' fourth game this spring, Blackmon torched Diamondback pitchers for three doubles, a home run and two singles in six trips, a 1.000/1.000/2.000 slash line.   

Suppose that was the lefty centerfielder's first game (it wasn't). How many games could he go with a mediocre performance, like a single in four plate appearances, before his batting average dropped below .300? The answer is, it would take 21 more games to fall to .300. He would drop below that mark in his 23rd game. Until then, Blackmon leads the NL in slugging percentage at .963 -- after five tilts.

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You may have noticed that the Houston Triple-As claimed victory in the first two games of the season against the New York Hall of Famers. You might have wondered: what are the odds of that?

Let's do a little supposing and then a little (but not too much) math. Suppose the Astros are a 100-loss team and the Yankees are a 90-win team. Reasonable assumptions, right? And let's suppose that playing in Minute Maid* confers upon the home team a five percent advantage and upon the visitors an equal penalty. What's the likelihood that a .383 squad whips up on a .556 opponent twice in a row?

* Could you find a more pansy name for a ballpark than that? They should have stuck with Enron.

In that scenario, assuming they are what the projections say they are, Houston has a 43% of winning each game. But the odds that they take both is just 18.6%, or less than one-in-five. The Yanks had only a 32% chance -- about one in three -- of sweeping the first two contests. Game three went to New York, so Houston won the series two games to one. The chances of that were roughly one in three. Which is why it wasn't front-page news.

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You want shocking? How about this: Craig Kimbrel is toying with batters again. He's faced nine of them and whiffed six. The league is batting zero against him, with a zero OBP and a zero slugging average. There was that sharply hit infield grounder though. 


04 April 2014

Best & Worst New Metrics Part III: OPS

The days of explaining why batting average, home runs and RBIs don't adequately capture an everyday player's performance are long gone. Even the retrogrades who cling tenaciously to the old numbers recognize in their hearts why on-base percentage and slugging percentage are more comprehensive and why RBIs don't tell a useful story.

Adding on base and slugging gave us OPS, the shorthand statistic of choice to seamheads in the seamheady early days of the sabremetric movement. But analysts cannot live by OPS alone; indeed, OPS and its close relations, like OPS+, now long in the tooth, have become something of an anachronism, rarely used to make anything but the crudest point. 

The reason is simple: not all OPS is equal. Seamheads have long known that OBP is more important than slugging, about 20% more when talking about run creation. So simply adding the two numbers devalues on-base percentage.

OPS is not park-adjusted, position-adjusted or competition-adjusted. The narrative it creates doesn't describe whether a batter hits same-handed pitchers or has to be platooned. It's also largely irrelevant when discussing leadoff hitters, whose OBP is invaluable and whose slugging is not very valuable at all.

OPS was good to the analysis community in its prime, but has lost a step and is now little more than a veteran presence off the bench, backing up starters TAv, WAR/WARP and their ilk. We thank OPS for its contributions, particularly for introducing fans to better ways to measure players. and wish it the best of luck in its future endeavors.


02 April 2014

Bryce Harper Isn't Good, And Don't Say He Is

In his brief Major League Baseball career, young Bryce Harper has averaged a .272 batting average with 21 home runs and 58 RBI, while scoring 85 runs. Add in some dynamic baserunning and defensive play and he's provided the Nationals with an average of 4.3 wins despite missing 23 and 44 games in his two seasons.

That is the resume of a good player -- an above-average starter on any team, but not quite an All-Star. 

But Bryce Harper is not a good player.

Bryce Harper is an all-time great player whose odds of making the Hall of Fame are somewhere in the vicinity of 50%, with the bad half of the equation due almost entirely to possible injuries down the road.

In the Minor Leagues, it makes a big difference whether a prospect is 19 or 21. A good high-Single-A hitter at 19 is an organizational star. At 21 he's a guy.

Bryce Harper has hung two big boy seasons on his MLB opponents before he could legally buy a drink. He's made adjustments, been adjusted to and made new adjustments, and he's still getting better -- and bigger and stronger. He boosted his OBP 28 points last year to .368 -- higher than Jacoby Ellsbury's -- and that was despite a knee damaged by a pair of outfield wall collisions.

To get real perspective on Harper, here is the thin air in which he flies: The most similar 20-year-olds to him are George Davis, Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Ty Cobb and Buddy Lewis. Alone outside the Hall, Lewis was a fine-hitting third baseman and outfielder who lost three critical years to WWII, but nonetheless hit .297/.348/.420 for his career. And he wasn't half the player at 19 and 20 that Bryce Harper has been.

Harper's five-tool talent and competitive fire are undeniably world class; the only question about him is whether he can harness his desire and remain on the field. And that's the profile of a great player.

31 March 2014

Past Results Do Not Guarantee Future Performance

Here's a little pre-season prediction: Burke Badenhop will pitch 62 1/3 innings out of the Boston Red Sox pen this year. He will allow 62 hits, six homers and 12 walks. He will strike out 42 batters and get credit for two wins.

Here's the logic: Last year for Milwaukee, Badenhop pitched 62 1/3 innings, allowing 62 hits, six homers and 12 walks while striking out 42 batters. He was credited with two wins.

In 2012 from Tampa Bays' bullpen, Badenhop pitched 62 1/3 innings, allowing six homers and 12 walks while striking out 42 batters. A model of inconsistency, he allowed 63 hits and earned three wins. However, he has picked up two wins in four of his six seasons, finishing 2-3 in three of them.

About the only thing about the Bowling Green graduate that hasn't remained the same is his employer. Drafted by Detroit, he's thrown for the Marlins, Brewers, Rays and now the Red Sox since 2008.

It's quite likely that this will be the only time Burke Badenhop (theoretically) gets to see his name in this blog. Unless the prediction comes true. Then he's going to see it in a lot of places.


28 March 2014

The Number in Miguel Cabrera's Contract That Makes No Sense

The most surprising aspect of Miguel Cabrera's new extension, which kicks in after the current contract expires in two years, when he'll be 33, isn't that it continues to pay into his baseball dotage (age 41 season) or that it commits the Tigers to shelling out $31 million-a-year until 2024 or that it guarantees his grandchildren another $290 million or that the Detroit pulled the trigger on it a year-and-a-half before they had to.

The most surprising aspect of this story is that a guy who's hit 30%-87% better than league average every year since 2004, a guy who's topped .300 eight times, a guy with 365 home runs and 1260 RBI, who's earned eight All-Star selections and received MVP votes for 11 seasons . . . is just 31 years old. How could this be?

Miguel Cabrera entered the Major Leagues at age 20 in 2003 and outpaced league average with his bat. A fixture at third by season's end, he helped the Marlins win the World Series. It seems like a generation ago, back when Ice Cube was a rapper, Blockbuster video was the hot new thing and Todd Zeile manned the hot corner for the Montreal Expos.

By the following season Cabrera was authoring a line of .294/.366/.512 with 33 home runs. And then he proceeded to improve. Dramatically. 

Since 2004 -- that's 10 years ago -- Miguel Cabrera has been one of the five best hitters in the world. In his last three seasons, Cabrera has averaged .340/.427/.609 with 77 extra base hits (38 doubles, 37 homers) in a park not particularly accommodating to offense. That's 77% above league average, a number that's Gehrigian. Or if you prefer aMaysing (except better.)

At age 31, he's two peak seasons from the Hall of Fame, three if he experiences normal decline. And then he'll have eight more years, at $31 million-a-year guaranteed, to gild that Hall of Fame lily.

We're numb to the millions. But Miguel Cabrera's only 31 years old? That's crazy talk.


27 March 2014

BABIP: From the White House to the Outhouse

Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) burst onto the baseball landscape like a meteor, illuminating life on the diamond in its wake. By measuring the part of the game largely outside the control of the pitcher (and somewhat outside the control of the batter) it appeared to separate skill from luck.

If the Royals' Billy Bulter hits .341 on balls in play in 2012 and Shane Victorino hits .278, might that not suggest that Butler was crazy lucky and Victorino not so much? If we were making predictions about the following year, might we not temper Butler's prediction and enhance Victorino's on the notion that luck will average out?

The answer, it turns out, is: well, maybe. After cuddling up beside BABIP for several years, seamheads started to notice that it had some idiosyncracies. BABIP just likes some guys better than others. Speedsters are particular BABIP sweethearts because they can get on base without hitting the ball hard. Ichiro rocked a .357 BABIP through 2010, but as his speed has waned, he's suffered three sub-.300 BABIPs since.

Worm killers romp with BABIP because ground balls tend to find holes more often than fly balls. That's offset by the fly balls that do make safe landing, which tend to result in extra base hits. Pop-ups are BABIP death and line drives are BABIP medicine, for obvious reason. And batters can control their BABIP to some degree. The aforementioned Ichiro didn't just hit the ball; he often placed it, much to BABIP's delight.

BABIP can start the narrative, but not complete it. Certainly Butler doesn't have foot speed on Victorino, but he launched many more line drives and many fewer pop-ups than Victorino in 2012. That suggested there might be some staying power in those numbers; i.e., there might be some skill involved.

In 2013, Butler did, in fact, maintain an above-average BABIP, losing just 15 points from his 2012 rate. But Victorino, rejuvenated in Boston, "regressed" beyond the mean and up 43 points. Some of that was the result of doubling his line drive rate and much of it was pure serendipity, from a lot of bad in 2012 to a little good in 2013.

It's even more pronounced for pitchers, whose results are affected by the defense behind them, defense that remains largely intact over the course of a season. Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez allowed a .240 batting average on balls in play, despite fairly pedestrian rates of line drives and pop-ups induced. Fernandez looks highly promising, but BABIP strongly suggests a return to earth in 2014. 

Conversely, all-world starter Justin Verlander played second fiddle to Max Scherzer in Detroit last year, in part because of a high BABIP-allowed (.316). Verlander allowed a lot of line drives, but probably not enough to explain all of BABIP. Likely the Tiger statues at third, short and first contributed to balls getting through. A bounceback may be in order, particularly with Miguel Cabrera moving to first, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta leaving town and Ian Kinsler joining the infield.(Why didn't this matter for Scherzer? A. Luck. B. An 11% higher strikeout rate. Dr. Strangeglove can't flub your strikeout.)

So BABIP is useful, particularly at the extremes, but it isn't quite the revelation originally envisioned. Pure luck is hiding in every facet of the game,but in the nooks and crannies, not out in the open for BABIP to see in its entirety.

25 March 2014

The Best and Worst Advanced Metrics, Part One

The advanced number-crunching has been shedding light on the baseball universe for well-nigh a generation now, sufficiently long, and sufficiently entrenched into the fabric of the game, that it should hardly be called new anymore. 

It's also been stirring the baseball pot for long enough that we have competing analyses, overlapping metrics and even obsolete "new" statistics.

The new analysis has given us a bouillabaisse of acronyms and measuring sticks: WAR and WARP, OPS and wOBA, FIP and FRA, BABIP and Zone Rating, and the projections systems PECOTA, ZIPS, STEAMER, MARCEL, etc. 

As you might imagine, some are more useful than others. Over the next few weeks, let's sift through them and see which make it through our colander. First, the king.

The grand, high, exalted, mystic ruler of offensive statistics is Offensive Wins Against Replacement, or oWAR, the alpha and omega of offensive stats. oWAR considers a player's offensive contributions in total, adjusts for the park and compares it to a replacement level player at the same position. It helps us compare Robby Cano to Miguel Cabrera even though the latter plays an offensive position and the former a defensive one. Indeed, it helps us compare players across eras, relative to their competition.

Suppose you want to compare 60s and 70s Yankees second baseman Horace Clarke to just-released outfielder Jeff Francoeur. You can do so, despite the passage of years and different positions. Dan Shaughnessy or Murray Chass might note that Francoeur hit over .280 four times., slammed 140 bombs and knocked in 100+ runs twice while Clark hit .280 once, totaled 27 homers his entire career and never reached 50 RBI in a season. In their eyes, Frenchy was clearly a more valuable asset at the plate.

oWAR tells a very different story. It corrects for era -- the late 60s represented the basement of offensive baseball -- and for position -- the bar is set lower for keystoners. Clarke wasn't a better hitter than Francoeur but he would have been more difficult to replace. Francoeur was worth two wins over a replacement outfielder in his career while Clarke was worth 14 wins over a replacement second baseman.

That's because, although Francoeur hit 8% better compared to league average, Clark stole three times as many bases at a much higher success rate, played a position that required more defensive skill and came to the plate 300 more times. (This assumes Francoeur is done. It does appear that way.) 

(Clarke took home about $350 grand in his career. Francoeur's grandchildren can thank the Marvin Miller and the MLBPA for $26 million in career earnings.)

The glaring shortcoming, or rather, limitation, of oWAR (and its many cousins: VORP, wRC, BWARP, etc.) is that it doesn't address the bottom of the inning. If Clarke had been a butcher in the field and Francoeur a magician, the latter might have been more valuable. (Not only isn't that the case, adding defense actually accentuates the difference. But there are other players for whom it's more of an issue.) Fielding statistics are still not wholly reliable, though they are improving all the time, which is why WAR and WARP are not yet among statistical royalty. Their day is coming, though.

Next time, we'll consider the life and times of BABIP, which created an epiphany in baseball analysis and was then relegated to the dog house.


22 March 2014

If It Ain't In A Baseball Stadium, It Ain't Opening Day

Inaugurating the baseball season
  • in Australia, 
  • on a cricket field,
  • in the middle of our night,
  • on the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament,
  • two weeks before the rest of the season begins
is as relevant as a vice presidential speech. 

It's as real as calling the thoroughly-ignored play-in games of the NCAA hoops tournament the "first round."

We believe that's Opening Day the same way we believe Vladimir Putin is committed to democracy.

Let's wait until Opening Day to get excited about Opening Day. Brief respites in Spring Training, even if they count in the standings (Dodger 3, Diamondbacks 1), aren't regular season games; they're Balfour family reunions.

Yasiel Puig would agree. He went 0-5 in the leadoff spot, with three whiffs.

16 March 2014

The Next Frontier In Baseball Analysis

Okay, so that's settled. Baseball front offices have completely bought into the new analysis that values on-base percentage, slugging percentage, BABIP, stolen-base efficiency, defensive efficiency and defense-independent and park-independent pitching statistics rather than batting average, homers and RBIs, raw steals, fielding percentage and pitching wins. The sports media and ordinary fans are coming around too.

In the marketing field, they say that a corporate tagline begins to become effective just about the time the company gets sick of it. In baseball, the same thing is happening. No sooner has all of baseballdom finally acknowledged that the number crunchers were on to something (save for a handful of writers like Murray Chass and Dan Shaughnessy who have carved out a niche clinging to the Stone Age) than the seamheads have moved on.

For the past seven seasons, MLB ballparks have been equipped with cameras capturing the path, break, speed, strike zone position and result (ball, strike, hit, out, etc.) of every single Major League pitch (Pitch/FX). The information that can be gleaned from the data beggars the imagination. The percentage of pitches thrown by any given pitcher that are balls or strikes, swung at or taken, the mix of pitches, etc. are now public knowledge. Anyone with too much time on their hands can mine the data for percentage of pitches a pitcher threw outside the strike zone that were offered at by the batter and what percentage of in-zone pitches were taken for strikes. Anyone with 25 spare hours a day can compare how a pitcher approaches righties as opposed to lefties, day games versus night games, early innings versus late innings, etc. (Ditto for batters.)

Below is just one of the many charts, graphs and tables that comprise Pitch/FX's treasure trove of material (Thank you Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus.) It documents Craig Kimbrel's pitch selection (one change-up his entire career!) and the average velocity and movement of each pitch type. As you can see from the headings, this is a mere tip of the iceberg.



Pitch/FX also allows us to follow the results of these pitches, as seen below in this swing rate graphic. Note how Kimbrel induces 60% of batters to take their cuts at pitches down the middle but above the strike zone. (The percentage of pitches thrown outside the zone that batters swing at is the O-swing rate. Good pitchers tend to have high O-swing rate. They are fooling people. Batters with high O-rates may be good hitters but are not very selective.)


Batters also take for strikes a third of the pitches he fires right down the middle. The percentage of pitches in the zone swung at is called the Z-swing rate. Good pitchers have relatively low Z-swing rates. Batter with low Z-rates tend to be selective hitters who walk and strike out a lot.


This information is incredibly useful for evaluating pitchers and hitters because it reveals a heretofore hidden part of the game. It is likely that Pitch/FX could have showcased and explained the special genius of Greg Maddux, whose shockingly ordinary repertoire yielded league-leading strikeout totals, probably because of a low Z-rate swing % (i.e., lots of called strikes) and a high O-rate swing % (lots of weak contact.) You can just imagine the on-field adjustments that can be wrangled out of this vast ocean insight.

The same information can disassemble a batter just as quickly. Teams are pouncing on the goldmine of data Pitch/FX is uncovering. And starting this season, there will be even more gold to mine.

Teams are now placing cameras afield to capture the movements of defenders and compare them with the most efficient path towards the ball. These cameras will monitor jump, speed and path of the defender and the speed, path and height of the ball when (if) caught. It is the next frontier and it promises quantum leaps in accuracy of defensive statistics. It will tell us why, for example, Jacoby Ellsbury's blazing speed doesn't translate to more fielded balls than average. And it will reveal the special genius of Derek Jeter, who will be getting out just in time.

All this will increase the premium of smart front offices and give low-income teams like Tampa opportunities to win with lower-cost talent. It could also reduce parity as front-office prowess, perhaps particularly in the number-crunching departments, rises in importance compared to on-field ability.

In any case, it's a bold new world and more than ever, those slow to adapt will feel the wrath of the competitive marketplace, even as they earn hosannas from dinosaurs like Chass and Shaughnessy.