23 June 2009

Buster's Questionable "Olnalysis" of Rockies' Huston Street

ESPN's Buster Olney writes, at the beginning of a 2,800-word "blog post", that Rockies closer Huston Street has experienced dramatic improvement due to the smallest of changes:

...Bob Apodaca, the Colorado pitching coach, approached him and told him he wanted to make a rather major alteration. "We'd like you to move to a different part of the [pitching] rubber," Apodaca said.

Street didn't buy it. Not then, anyway. But after a mediocre spring training, and after he allowed four runs in his first four relief appearances in the regular season, Street had an open mind. He shifted from the left side to the right side of the rubber, and after he had done it for a short time and saw what the change did for him, he couldn't even imagine moving back to the left. "I don't know why things work out the way that they do," Street mused Sunday, "but they do."

Since those first four outings, Street has excelled, posting a 2.33* ERA, converting saves in 15 of 16 chances. He is 8-for-8 this month as the Rockies have made their push back from deep in the NL West standings to over .500, capped by Street's picking up the save Sunday, closing out the Pirates.

*Editor's note: Actually it was 2.22. I'm just sayin'.

Articles like this one always make me laugh, about how changing from one side of the pitching rubber to the other made someone a better pitcher, or how an offseason training regimen or starting to jog everyday or eat more granola or something made some former star a better player again. Usually it's just normal statistical fluctuation, but of course sportwriters can't write about that because

A) it's boring and

2) ZZZZZzzzzzzz......

So they talk to the pitcher, who probably has never taken a statistics class, or a physiology class or a physics class, for that matter, and he explains to them that this and that is the reason for his sudden success. This is much more interesting, or at least less sleep-inducing, than Chi-square distributions and bell curves and standard deviations and all that rot, and anyway, by next week nobody will remember what he said or what Buster wrote because they'll have moved on.

Olney's explanation for the improvement is as follows:

When throwing on the left side of the rubber, Street could throw strikes against left-handed batters by running a fastball over the outside corner, no matter how flat it was -- and the ball would have to travel a longer distance from his hand to the corner. But once Street was on the right-hand part of the rubber, it forced him to be more disciplined in his mechanics. He'd have to get on top of the ball properly to throw it for strikes to the outside corner to lefties, and inside to right-handers. If he didn't throw the ball correctly, it would drift off the plate.

"I've got more of the sinking action than the running action," Street said.

In case you're wondering, the difference in the distance to one side of the plate from one side of the pitching rubber or the other is, at most, about 0.4".

Four-tenths of one inch.

Or, as they say in France, "almost nothing".

It's a simple geometry problem, with a right triangle, 60.5 feet on one side and two feet (the width of the pitching rubber) on the other. The hypotenuse of that triangle is therefore 60.53 feet, or 60 feet, 6.4 inches. That 0.4" difference represents an increase of 0.7% compared to throwing from the other side of the rubber. No wonder Street's been so fatigued!

Street really was quite terrible in those first four games of the season, or at least in three of them. In mid-April, having pitched only four times in the team's first eight games, Street had an 0-1 record with one Save and a 13.50 ERA. Then he supposedly made this change, and over the next four games he was...

...still pretty lousy.

No Wins or Losses, but no Saves either and only one Hold, to go with a 5.79 ERA in those games, though he struck out six and walked none in 4.2 innings. The real improvement followed that. From April 26th to June 21st, he had 15 Saves, two wins and no losses, 27 K's and eight walks in 23.2 innings, to go with a sparkling 1.52 ERA.

The real improvement was not in the walks, as Olney's "analysis" (or shall we say, "Olnalysis"?) suggests it would be. In the first eight games of the season, Street issued only one walk in 7.1 innings. After that, Street's walk rate more than doubled, from 1.23 per nine innings to 3.08 per nine.

The real problem was that he allowed three homers and three doubles in those first seven innings and change, while in the 23.2 innings after that he allowed three extra base hits total (two homers and a double).

Technically, if he's getting more sink on the ball, this would be one result, and so maybe it is helping. But if so, it's because he's being more consistent with his mechanics, not because of which side of the rubber he stands on before he winds up to throw. He could have done this from either side of the rubber if he'd just been diligent about his mechanics.

Looking at this from the other perspective, if Street now has to force himself to "get on top of the ball" more because he can't throw a strike to the outside corner otherwise, shouldn't he now be susceptible to having the ball run back over the middle of the plate when he's trying to throw inside to lefties? If he gets lazy or fatigued and doesn't get the proper sink on the ball, now he's susceptible to allowing doubles and homers, rather than walks. And yet, just the opposite has happened, he's allowed fewer extra base hits, but more walks.

It still comes down to making sure his mechanics are maintained properly, which he can (theoretically) do from either side of the rubber. The real reason for his marked improvement, I think, is that the Rockies' level of competition has changed drastically from that first three weeks of the season. Street faced the Dodgers and Phillies, ranked #1 and #2 in the National League in Run scoring, in six of his first nine games, and his ERA took a beating for it.

Of the 24 games since, 12 have come against teams in the bottom half of the majors in run scoring, and among those, San Diego, Houston, and Seattle are three of the five worst teams in baseball at scoring runs. To me that makes a lot more sense than four tenths of an inch difference causing Huston Street to finally get his mechanics straightened out, and this after having been pretty darned successful in the first 247 games of his major league career.

Olney closes that portion of the blog post this way:
Street cited something that Troy Tulowitzki said recently -- that the Rockies are beginning to expect good things to happen. "You don't know whether success creates that mentality, or whether that mentality creates success," Street said. "I think it's a little bit of both."
Look, pal, that's just plain lazy.

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time studying the Bible with friends from my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group, using something they called the "inductive method" of study, which essentially seeks to determine what the original author meant to convey to his or her original audience. In a group of 10 or 15 students or more, we would discuss one small section at a time, say, 10-15 verses of the Gospel of Mark, and inevitably, at least once per session, we would come to some kind of impasse.

One student would suggest that Mark was trying to say this, and another would suggest he was trying to say that, the interpretations being mutually exclusive, of course. And after a while, someone would suggest that, "Maybe it's a little bit of both!" This happened so often and so consistently that we coined a term for it: "The Relativistic Third Option." Sometimes, it might have been the best way to interpret something, as certain passages can be interpreted in several ways, none of which is inherently inconsistent with the rest of scripture.

But usually we were just being lazy. It's often hard work to figure out which of two mutually exclusive options is the correct one, and in this world of post-modern ideas and tolerance and relativism, people are too often satisfied with wuss-out explanations like, "It's a little bit of both."

Either your "winning mentality" put you in a position to help make good things happen, or you got lucky, started to win and then tried to think about what else you could do to help the team win more. There is no such thing as "a little bit of both" in this case.

Why doesn't anybody ever just say, "I don't have any idea"?

Stumble Upon Toolbar

12 June 2009

What's Wrong With Wang?

On the heels of yet another loss to the hated Red Sox, and entering a crucial series with the hated Mets, the New York Yankees have some 'splainin to do. Namely, they have a pretty tall order explaining the continued presence of one Chien Ming Wang in their starting rotation, given that he seems, statistically, at least, to be no closer to returning to the form that twice amassed 19 wins for them.

Those storied* times, the salad days of 2006 and 2007, seemed much farther than two years away as I watched Wang unravel yet again on Wednesday night against the Red Sox, allowing four runs, including six hits and three walks in less than three innings of work. Believe it or not, that start actually constituted an improvement for him, lowering his ERA ever so slightly from 14.46 to 14.34. Oh goody.

*Not steroid.

Much of the talk about Wang has centered around his heavy sinking fastball, and the idea that he somehow needs to either get his velocity back or his mechanics straightened out so this pitch can again be the grounder-inducing menace that so frustrated the American League in 2006 and 2007. The trouble with this, however, is that he's got all his velocity back, averaging 91-92 mph and often hitting 95 mph on the radar gun with his 4-seam fastball.

The problem isn't his fastball. It's the lack of anything else.

According to FanGraphs.com, between 2005 and 2008, Wang threw his fastballs (including the 4-seam and the sinker) 76.5% of the time, with a velocity averaging between 91.8 and 93.1 mph. This year, while his velocity is just as good (91.7 mph average), he's throwing one or the other of his fastballs 84.7% of the time, a significant difference from his usual modus operandi.

Moreover, most of the extra fastballs are coming at the expense of his slider. Previously he threw the slider about 15% of the time on average, ranging from 12.9% in 2005 to 17.1% last season. This year he's used it only 11% of the time, meaning that there are about half a dozen pitches or more per start that used to be sliders but are now fastballs. And of course, Wang has been getting tattooed all year, so we have to wonder if this is somehow related, right?

This in itself may not be significant, but it got me to wondering why Wang (or his catchers) would be so reluctant to use the slider this season, when he seemed to use it more often and with greater success in the past. Looking at the MLB Gameday data for his last two starts and comparing them to a good start from last year gave me a possible answer:

The slider isn't, well, sliding.

Last year, Wang pitched a complete game, 1-run 2-hitter against the Red Sox in April, no small accomplishment given that those Red Sox finished second in the AL in Runs Scored in 2008 and eventually won the Wild Card. During that game he threw 93 pitches, and according to MLB Gameday, 20 of them were sliders. In addition to the speed of each pitch at release, Gameday provides two measures of the pitch movement, "Break" and "Pitch F/X".

According to MLB.com, Break is

"a measurement of the greatest distance between the trajectory of the pitch at any point between the release point and the front of home plate, and the straight line path from the release point and the front of home plate."
That is, I think, the Break is a measure of the difference between where the ball actually ends up and where the batter might think it would end up if gravity and/or spin were not factors.

By contrast, Pitch F/X "is the measurement of the distance between the location of the actual pitch thrown over the plate, and the calculated location of a ball thrown by the pitcher in the same way, with no spin..."

That leaves the method of that calculation as an open question, of course, but assuming that these guys have some idea what they're doing, this seems the more relevant number for our purposes. The batter will assume that the pitch is going to "break" down, if only due to gravity. Even Daniel Bard's fastball, clocked between 98 and 100 mph on Tuesday night, showed a "Break" of three to five inches.

For the record, Wang's fastball/sinker seems largely unchanged, showing a Break of 5-8" and a Pitch F/X of 10-14 " in that complete game against the Red Sox last April. This year, in his most recent start, the fastball was just as fast, showed a typical Break of 5-8" and a typical PFX of 10-13 inches.

But Wang's slider? Last year its PFX averaged 4.05" (with a range of 2-7), but in his two most recent starts, it's averaged just 2.3 inches, almost half of what it once was, and often only zero or one inch. No wonder Posada doesn't want to call for the slider. It isn't fooling anyone because it doesn't do anything, having almost the same trajectory as a pitch thrown without any spin at all, according to MLB Gameday and Pitch F/X. For batters, this is a win-win situation. Either they swing at the occasional slider, which has hardly any spin on it, or they wait on the fastball, which is Wang's only other quality pitch.

The slider is a subtle pitch, so much so that Pitch F/X often has trouble distinguishing it from a cut-fastball and/or even a changeup. It's thrown with a sideways spin that causes it to drift laterally, across the strikzone, in the opposite direction of the pitcher's throwing arm. Because it gets no assist from gravity, the slider doesn't break as much as a curveball does, but it does ehough that it ends up several inches from where you'd expect, either out on the end of the bat or in on your hands, depending on what kind of hitter you are.

The best sliders in baseball (Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Chad Billingsley) usually break only 5 to 8 inches or so, but there are plenty of pitchers whose sliders sit in the 4-inch range. But two inches (and often one or none) simply isn't enough to fool major league hitters, who are so well trained that they make mid-swing adjustments in hundredths of a second, and so strong that they can hit a ball out of the park while breaking the bat.

Whether this is a physical problem for Wang or not, I don't know, but I doubt it. Perhaps his foot still hurts, and he's somehow favoring it, throwing the slider less often because it bothers him physically. This is unlikely, as any difference in his delivery due to throwing the slider would be tantamount to "tipping" his pitches, and batters would have picked up on it long ago.

Perhaps he's still rusty, having missed some time due to the foot injury, and doesn't yet have the "feel" for the slider. This seems very likely to me, as pitchers often talk about how difficult it is to get a feel for their sinker, slider or cutter, and how much practice this takes. Having missed more than half of last year, and having thrown only about 21 innings so far this year in the majors (plus 13 scoreless innings in AAA) Wang's a little behind on his usual regimen.

Maybe this means that with a bit more practice, he'll get that feel for the slider - and with it, his confidence in the pitch - very soon, enabling him to keep hitters a bit more honest and not so frequently serve them the heater they already expect. I just wish the "practice" didn't have to come in Yankee Stadium, and against the damn Mets.

Admittedly, I have not looked over all the available data. Wang has thrown hundreds of pitches this year and thousands in his career, and I simply don't have the time to examine every one, but this hopefully gives us an idea of where to look for answers the next time Wang takes the mound.

UPDATE: My apologies for the false information, but it turns out that Wnag's next start is scheduled for Wednesday, against the Nationals, not Sunday. That was Burnett's regular spot, and he pitched well for once. Wang should have been scheduled for Today, Monday, which is an off day and (it would seem) a perfect opportunity to skip Wang in the rotation.

Instead, for some reason Joe Girardi has chosen to start him on six days' rest and push the rest of the rotation (other than Sabathia) back a day against the Washington Nationals. Maybe Joe agrees with my assessment that Wng just needs more work, and figures that if there's any team he can beat, it's the Nats (16-45).

Stumble Upon Toolbar

10 June 2009

Yankees Need to Step It Up Against Red Sox

Well, it's been a whole month, so I guess we were due to resume the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. As you'll no doubt recall, when last we met our heroes - or, at least the last time the Red Sox met them - they were a sad sack of a team, hovering about the .500 mark. Xavier Nady, Brian Bruney and Alex Rodriguez were all on the Disabled List, and the ineffective Chien Ming Wang would soon join them, as would Jorge Posada.

To make things worse, none of their big name free agent acquisitions seemed to be panning out. Mark Teixiera was hovering around the Mendoza Line, while CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett both had ERAs around 5.00. Additionally, the patchwork bullpen, put together mostly on the cheap from the Yankee farm system, had failed them miserably, allowing a composite ERA of almost 8.00 in their first five games against Boston, though they'd done mostly respectable work against the rest of the league.

That team lost all five of its early season contests against the Red Sox, with the starting pitching largely to blame, as they got only one Quality Start in those five games. That performance - Andy Pettitte's 6-inning, 4-run (3 earned) outing on April 26th - met those requirements in name only, and anyway the Yankees could do nothing with Justin masterson that day.

The third inning of that game, when the Yankees had a 1-0 lead, marked the last time the Yankees have led the Red Sox in their season series, including last night's 7-0 loss. The Sawx scored a run in the bottom of that inning and then three more in the 5th (including Jacoby Ellsbury's infamous steal of home plate) and have had no reason to look back since. Indeed, the Yankees have given them no reason to glance over their shoulder.

So, with the season series resuming Tuesday night, the Yankees had good reason to be in high spirits. They had Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada back, and Chien Ming Wang slated to start the second game of the series. Mark Teixiera had found his stroke since A-Rod came off the DL, and several Yankees (Damon, Jeter, Cano, Cabrera) were hitting around .300, many of them with power. They sat atop the AL East, with the best record in the league coming into the game....

...and then they lost miserably.

A.J. Burnett, the big name pitcher who came up so very small against the the Yankees' biggest rival in April, managed to lower the bar for himself even more last night, allowing five runs (three earned) without escaping the third inning. Granted, he's faced the toughest slate of hitters in MLB this year to date, but still, more is expected of a man who's earning more money than the gross domestic products of some small island nations.

Burnett's fastball was plenty fast, usually in the 95-96 mph range, but he seemed to have little idea (or interest) in where it would end up. Working quickly, as if to get it over with rather than to get batters out, Burnett threw 84 pitches - less than half of them for strikes - with his curve proving to be especially erratic. He threw only five of 16 curveballs for strikes, and one of those was a single by Kevin Youkilis anyway.

With the curve clearly not working, the Red Sox could just sit on the fastball and wait for him to throw a rare strike. And when he did throw strikes, they were belt high, out over the plate, which is why the struggling David Ortiz was able to hit one of them 420 feet into the stands in center field, only his third homer of the season.

What's more, it seems from looking at the pitches on MLB Gameday that Burnett all but refused to pitch anyone inside, perhaps out of fear of another suspension for not actually hitting someone. JD Drew's 2-run double in the second inning, on an 0-2 pitch, was hit off a 96 mph fastball that was supposed to be inside (based on where Posada had set up behind the plate) but ended up on the outside corner. Nobody's fastball is good enough to leave it out there and expect to get batters out.

The relief, such as it was, did better but was hardly impressive. Neither Brett Tomko nor Jose Veras threw even half of their pitches for strikes, and though David Robertson was OK, and the group as a whole allowed only two more runs in over five innings of work, the Yankees' hitters couldn't touch Boston's pitching, getting only two hits off them all night.

Tonight Wang takes the hill against Tim Wakefield, who's 7-3 this year but is only 10-17 with a 5.03 ERA against the Yankees in his career, so those who do baseball handicapping would presumably say that the game is up for grabs. Wang, for his part, has been dreadful as a starter this year, 0-3 with a 23.62 ERA, but perhaps he's on the mend and can give the Yankees six solid innings for a change. If not Phil Hughes will be available out of the bullpen, but by then it may be too late.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

29 May 2009

Even the Los Angeles Dodgers' Pitchers Can Improve

Rob Neyer commented yesterday on the Dodgers' pitching staff and their general manager's efforts to improve on the (apparently) un-improvable:

The Dodgers could cruise to 90 wins and the division title without making a single move the rest of the season. They're that good and the rest of the division is that bad. But right now they've got one ace (Billingsley), two guys who are pretty good (Kershaw and Wolf) and a bunch of guys you wouldn't want within six miles of a postseason start. Not the way they're pitching lately, anyway. (I still have high hopes for McDonald, and Kuroda was solid last year.)
This was in response to an L.A. Times piece about Ned Colletti looking for pitching. Neyer's probably right about the Dodgers' quality relative to the rest of their sad division, though I'm as sure as Rob, and fortunately I have my own Sports Blog from which to pontificate.

For one thing, I'm not convinced that either the Padres or Diamondbacks' hitters can't get their act together and make this an interesting race. Both teams have several guys who are woefully underperforming for no obvious reason, and some of them are bound to find their stroke and bounce back.

Neither am I convinced that Casey Blake, Juan Pierre and Orlando Hudson will continue to hit anything like what they've done so far. Granted, Rafael Furcal and, to a lesser degree, Russel martin have been disappointing with the bats this year, but otherwise, the Dodgers are mostly flush with over-achievers. Yet again, the odds are not in their favor for that to continue.

But the most tenuous threads holding the Dodger fabric together weave through the pitching staff, especially the starters. In particular, counting on Randy Wolf to continue to be healthy and/or good for the rest of the year is a fairly dubious enterprise. He hasn't pitched 200 innings in a season since 2003, and from 2004-07 he averaged just 94 innings and 17 starts, with a combined record of 24-18, 4.62 ERA.

He managed to toss 190 innings in 2008, though his ERA in Houston and San Diego (4.30 combined) was a lot closer to his career mark (4.20) than this year's performance to date. The 2.84 ERA he's posted so far would be not only a run and a half below his career average (at age 32) but also almost half a run below his career best of 3.20, posted in 2002. Somehow that seems unlikely.

The reason for Wolf's unprecedented success is obvious. His BABIP this season is a ridiculously low .247, fully 50 points below the league average, and something over which Wolf has little if any control. So he's bound to regress some, and probably soon. That will leave the Dodgers with ONE pretty good option (Billingsley) and a lot of question marks:
  • Two talented but erratic youngsters (Clayton Kershaw and John McDonald),
  • a decent but injured veteran (Hiroki Kuroda),
  • three 30-something re-treads (Eric Milton, Jeff Weaver and Wolf, when he falters),
  • and an organizational soldier pressed into everyday service (Eric Stults).
I don't blame Colletti for trying to improve his pitching staff. Smart general managers can look at a team that's winning and see how it could be even better or might need improvement down the line. Guys like the White Sox' Ken Williams don't recognize good fortune when they see it, leave the roster alone, and end up in third place instead of first.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

22 May 2009

Projecting the Next 300 Game Winner(s)

In light of the Big Unit's chase for his 300th win, Joe Posnaski had a recent co-column for Sports Illustrated with Bill James and has just blogged his own piece on the nature (and unpredictability of) 300-game winners. Both are great stuff, full of well-written insights and clever commentary that most of us only dream of being able to produce. His point, in both cases, can be summed up in the one word that Joaquin Andujar gave us: Youneverknow.

More specifically, Joe says the one thing you can't know is whether a guy will win 300 games based on what he does in his 20's, and I have to agree with him there. We've seen too many guys who were just awesome in their 20's (Bert Blyleven, Jim Palmer, Robin Roberts) who didn't quite made it to 300, and others (Doc Gooden, Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean, Don Drysdale) who never got close.

Joe says you can tell better by what they do in their 30's, especially their late 30's, and illustrates the point with the careers of several pitchers who were great after their mid 30's:

So, it’s really impossible to predict. Randy Johnson only had 99 victories at age 31. Phil Niekro only had 97 victories at age 33. Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, Early Wynn … these guys did not look like great bets for 300 when they reached their mid-30s. But they won a lot of games late in their careers. Niekro, as a knuckleballer, just kept going and going and going. Perry had a late career renaissance — he won 21 games as a 39-year-old and 47 more after that. Warren Spahn won 20-games or more seven times after he turned 35. Randy Johnson was probably at his very best from age 35 to 40. And so on.
He's got a point, but I disagree that Ryan and Perry and Spahn and Wynn weren't good bets to make it to 300 by their mid 30's though. Each of them had about 200 wins by the end of their age 35 seasons, and all were above average workhorses, if not spectacular. That turns out to be a pretty good bet, actually.

If you look at the 17 pitchers (including Randy) who've won 300+ games since 1900, 14 of them (82%) had about 200 wins (Perry had 198) and an ERA+ of 110 or better by the end of their age 35 seasons. The other three are Johnson and Niekro, two guys who had to take half a career to learn how to pitch, and the ironically named Early Wynn, who got his 300th and final Win in July of his age 43 season.

  • Johnson had so much potential, so he was always going to get his chances. Lefties who throw 100 mph don't grow on trees, you know. But he also had so many control problems that he didn't have his first decent season until 1990, when he was already 26.

  • Niekro, a knuckleballer, did not make it to the majors until he was 25, and did not have a productive season until he was 28, again because of control problems, although obviously for different reasons.

  • Wynn was basically a better than average innings eater who lucked into playing for the Indians in the 50's and later the White Sox, both during their peaks. Good teams will get a lot of wins for a pitcher who provides a lot of innings.

  • These three are the exceptions, though, not the rules. You can certainly look at Wynn and Randy and Niekro and say "Youneverknow", and that's true, but it doesn't give us any kind of hint at what we might know, down the line. For that, you have to look at correlations. What do the guys who win 300 games have in common, earlier in their careers, and how likely are they to go on to win 300 games?

    As I mentioned, excluding the guys who thrived in the late 1800's, there are 17 pitchers who have won or will win 300+ games. As of their mid 30's, i.e. after their age 35 season, 14 of these had at least 195 Wins and an adjusted ERA at least 10% better than the league. Eighty-two percent is a pretty high correlation, though it should be noted that 41 pitchers meet those requirements, and only 14 of those have made the 300 mark. Still, 14 out of 41 is 34%, better than one in three odds.

    At the moment, Andy Pettitte is the only pitcher in baseball who meets these criteria, and giving him one in three odds to win 300 games sounds just about right to me. That may be a little too generous, given that he probably can't survive long if he loses any more off his fastball.

    Andy had 201 Wins and a 118 ERA+ after that age-35 season, i.e. 2007, and currently has 219 Wins and an ERA+ of 116, though the trend is of course not in his favor there. But it's not out of the question for him to keep posting approximately 200-inning seasons with a roughly league average ERA, winning about 15 games per year, since the Yankees will always have good hitters.

    The next step down would be Roys Halladay and Oswalt, plus Mark Buehrle, each of whom had or has at least 125 Wins and an ERA+ of 120 or better through (or in) their age 31 seasons. The Chicago White Sox Schedule is filled with themlikes of the Royals and Tigers, so Buehrle especially should get his shot at racking up the necessary wins. Tim Hudson also met those criteria, but his injury will hamper his chances severely. Johan Santana, only 30 and with 114 Wins already, will likely join them by the end of 2009, as will C.C. Sabathia, who needs only 4 wins to reach 125 and is only 28.

    Eight of the 17 pitchers to win 300 games since 1900 met those criteria at one point, though so did 29 other pitchers who never got to 300. Eight in 40 is 5-to-1 odds, so there's a decent chance that one of the six (C.C., Buehrle, Hudson, Santana and the two Roys) will eventually make the 300 mark. None of them has better than a 20% chance, but as a group there's a good chance that one of them is the next 300-game winner. We just don't know which one, yet.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    19 May 2009

    Why the Yankees Dominate the Minnesota Twins

    The Yankees completed a four game home sweep of the Minnesota Twins last night, stretching their current winning streak to six games, four of which were won by only one run. This improves the Yankees' overall record to 21-17, bringing the team within 4.5 games of the Blue Jays for first place in the American League East division.

    A brief look back at the four games:

    Friday - Yankees 5, Twins 4: In a game started by two youngsters of whom much is expected, Phil Hughes and Felipe Liriano were both gone by the end of the sixth inning, leaving the game to be decided by the bullpens. Justin Morneau hit two homers and Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer each hit one, as did the scrappy Brett Gardner, his second in two days. This one was an inside-the-park job, though, more his game than the one he hit in Toronto the night before.

    Down 4-1 in the 6th, the Yankees scored a run in the 7th and then three more in the bottom of the ninth, the last two on a walk-off, bases-loaded, two-out single by Melky Cabrera, who's gone a long way toward redeeming himself from both his horrid 2008 season and my skepticism of his value to the team. Twins closer Joe Nathan took the loss, while the Yankees' best reliever never left the bullpen, which came in handy for...

    Saturday - Yankees 6, Twins 4
    (11 innings): Nick Blackburn and Joba Chamberlain started, and each pitched reasonably well, but again the bullpens would decide matters in the end. Morneau and Mauer each homered off Joba, and Mark Teixeira hit a three-run jack in the third, his 8th of the year and drove in his 4th run of the game with a game-tying single in the bottom of the 8th to make it 4-4.

    Bucking standard closer procedure, manager Joe Girardi brought in a well rested Mariano Rivera in the tied 9th inning, and he threw two scoreless innings to keep the game going. Without their own closer (who had thrown 27 pitches the night before, his fourth consecutive day of work) the Twins were forced to turn the ball over to journeyman lefty Craig Breslow, who walked Teixeira and then allowed a walk-off homer to Alex Rodriguez, his first hit in the new Yankee Stadium.

    Sunday - Yankees 3, Twins 2: On the anniversary of David Wells' perfect game against the Twins in 1998, this game was appropriately a pitching duel that remained scoreless until the 7th inning. Twins' starter Kevin Slowey provided the best pitching line of the day, going 7.2 innings with eight strikeouts, no walks, and only two runs allowed. Yankees' starter A.J. Burnett walked six and needed 123 pitches to get through 6.2 innings, again leaving the game in the bullpen's capable hands.

    Alex Rodriguez hit another homer, a solo shot off Slowey in the 7th. A double and two sacrifices tied the game at 2-2. Jonathan Albaladejo pitched out of trouble in the 7th and then back into it in the 8th, whereupon journeyman batting practice pitcher Brett Tomko rose up from the ashes to get two outs with the bases loaded and preserve the tie.

    Girardi brought in Rivera in the tied 9th inning again, and was not disappointed as he pitched a scoreless inning. Alfredo Aceves kept the Twins at bay in the top of the 10th, which allowed Johnny Damon's one-out solo homer in the bottom half of the inning, for the Yankees' third straight walk-off win.

    Monday - Yankees 7, Twins 6: Andy Pettitte pitched 6.2 innings allowing 12 hits, one walk and four earned runs in the only game of the series in which either starting pitcher got a decision. Twins starter Glen Perkins got only two outs and allowed six earned runs in the worst start of his career, and has not had a Quality Start since April 19th. On the plus side, R.A. Dickey provided 4.1 innings of scoreless relief as he continues his comeback as a knuckleballer.

    Mark Teixiera homered from both sides of the plate and A-Rod smacked his third bomb in three games, back-to-back with Teixiera in the first. Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span each homered for the Twins, the latter coming in the 8th off Edwar Ramirez. He and Phil Coke made the game interesting in the late innings, allowing the Twins to come within a run before finally capping the game and the sweep with a grounder to second base.

    Overall, the Yankees were not exactly dominant in the series, winning the four games by a total of five runs, three of them in their last at bat. But their starters were mostly solid, the offense scored just enough and the bullpen posted a 3.07 ERA in almost 15 innings of work.

    Winning close games in your last at-bat is not a recipe for long-term success, however, as anyone who knows anything about sports odds will tell you. The Yankees have actually been outscored over the season despite their winning record. Most of that is die to the 22-4 drubbing they received at the hands of the Tribe last month, but even removing that game puts them only slightly in the black.

    Amazingly, the Yankees have dominated the Twins in this millennium, winning 40 out of 58 contests in the regular season, plus six of eight in the postseason, for an overall record of 46-20 since 2001. This is the second best winning percentage they have against any team in the AL in that span, behind only the dismal Kansas City Royals.

    They do have higher winning percentages against some NL teams in Interleague play, though these are only in a handful of games. Oddly enough the Yankees' worst winning percentage is against the Reds, to whom they have dropped four of six contests. Fortunately they only occasionaly play a series in the Cincinnati Reds schedule.

    Regardless, the Yankees' continued success against the Twins is quite remarkable. You'd expect that the team with the best overall record in this century would do well against the lowly Royals, who have been the worst team of the 2000's, who have had only one winning record (83-79) in the last decade and a half. No surprise there.

    But the Twins? They've got the 7th best record in all of baseball in that time, a .543 winning percentage in spite of their small payroll. They've had four playoff appearances in the last eight years, two Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a catcher who wins batting titles, a continuing influx of young pitching talent...so how are they so terrible against the Yankees?

    At Yankee Stadium (either of them) it's even worse. At the Metrodome the Twins are actually somewhat respectable, with only a 13-16 record agains tthe Yankees, but in New York? The Yankees are 24-5 at home against the Twins since their last World Series victory, including a current stretch of eight in a row going back to July 2007. The Twins have not won a series against the Yankees in New York since 2001, and in one stretch went two whole seasons (2002-2003) without winning any games at all against the Yankees, losing 13 straight.

    And there really isn't any explanation for it. The Yankees have generally been a better team than the Twins in the last eight seasons and change, but that much better? No, of course not. The Yankees tend to play better at home, just like most teams, but again, not that much better. Maybe it's just a combination of being slightly overmatched and slightly intimidated by the big crowds in New York.

    Maybe it's the Yankees' propensity for hitting homers combined with the Twins' inability to prevent them. In the last eight years, the Yankees have never finished worse than 4th in the AL in home runs hit, while the Twins have only once finished better than 8th in the AL in homers allowed. Interestingly, they usually do much better than that in ERA, finishing no worse than 7th each of the last eight seasons, with an average of less than 5th.

    But it seems they have kept the team ERA down mostly by avoiding walks, and therefore extra baserunners when they allow all those home runs. The Twins have finished in the first or second in fewest walks allowed each of the last eight years, with the exception of 2002, when they were 3rd. The Yankees, however, generally have fairly patient hitters, having been in the top three in drawing walks seven of the last nine seasons, including 2009. That puts a damper on the Twins' strategy perhaps, and lets the Yankees in the door. And so when the inevitable homers are allowed, the Yankees get more bang for their buck than most other teams do, since they tend to have more runners on base.

    But it's really the homers that are killing the Twins. Indeed, the Twins have allowed 90 home runs to the Yankees in the 58 games they've played since 2001, a rate of 1.55 HR/game, slightly above the Yankees' overall rate of 1.34/game in the past eight years and change. Twins pitchers, accustomed to allowing about 1.1 homers per game, must find the Yankees quite a shock. Too bad for the Yankees they only get to play them a few times a year.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    18 May 2009

    More Yankees Ticket Shenanigans

    In these harsh economic times, I have to wonder why the Yankees think this view is worth $85 per ticket.

    They call it the "Batter's Eye View" because the seats are in the Bleachers Cafe, above the batter's eye, i.e. the background against which the hitter at the plate sees the incoming pitches. In the old Yankee Stadium, this was a large area of old bleachers that were painted flat black, but these days, there is a cafe there with tinted glass windows, and the Yankees decided to charge people for the privilege of sitting in that cafe.

    These are perhaps not unlike the rooftop seats across Waveland Avenue in Chicago, behind Wrigley Field. Except in that case, the Cubs found a way to make a profit off their neighbor's real estate, and so it's no longer possible to watch every game in the Chicago Cubs schedule for free anymore. The Yankees did them one better, and just incorporated the restaurant (and the lousy view) into the ballpark.

    The Yankees, like most of the rest of MLB, have been having some trouble selling tickets, with attendance down over 100,000 from last year's pace to date. They lowered prices on some of the most expensive tickets in the house, but those were so preposterously overpriced to begin with that even some of the new prices are pretty ridiculous. Wow, two seats near the dugout for only $2,500? Yeah, I guess I don't need that used car after all.

    But this may be the shadiest and most ridiculous ploy yet. An email I received from the Yankees today offered a special promotion on these seats in the cafe above and behind center field, which nominally cost $125 each. The seats in the sports bar just below this are $90 each. No free food. No free drinks. Just seats. And these about as far from the action as you can get without actually leaving the Stadium.

    By contrast, bleacher seats cost just $14 each, and have about the same view (unless you're stuck here).

    That's right folks, for almost ten times the price of a bleacher seat, you get...shade. And air conditioning. But wait! Not ten times, not nine times, not even eight or seven times...but for a limited time only, thanks to MasterCard, you can get these seats, with their horrible view of almost everything except the center fielder's back, for just over SIX times the cost of a bleacher ticket (plus TicketMaster fees)! Yay!

    The email promo offers you a $40 "discount" on the seats in the cafe for this week's games, i.e. Monday through Thursday nights, which brings them down to just over $90 per seat, with fees. All of these games start at 7:05 PM, so the shade probably isn't necessary. And, since it's supposed to be nice all week, the air conditioning probably isn't needed either.

    The normal price for these seats is $125! Where else but Yankee Stadium would you be expected to shell out more than a hundred bucks for such a terrible view?

    You know how department stores sometimes offer you "free" stuff to promote things, and to get you to spend money there? They'll offer, say, a watch or a pouch full of cosmetics "with a $50 value" if you spend $100. Except the watch or the cosmetics can't actually be bought in their store or anyone else's. It's produced and packaged expressly for this promotion, so they can say it's got a value of damn near anything they want, because you have no way to prove otherwise.

    So you spend your $100.37 to get your watch "with a $50 value", but when you look at it more closely you realize that the watch is made in some sweatshop, has a cheap plastic strap, a cheap digital timepiece, and a cheap plastic fastener. And you're pretty sure you got one nicer than this from a bubble gum machine once. Or the dollar store, you forget which.

    Anyway, that's what this promo is like. If you go to the Yankees website and look at their seating and pricing page, they don't list a price for these seats. You have to check the special page for these tickets, because they're being discounted so much that their nominal value has little real meaning.

    While you can buy these tickets at full price, I suspect that most of them get sold at a discount, sponsored by a different company each week, probably. They call the view "one of the most unique in the stadium" which of course is true of any seat in the stadium, strictly speaking. Then they jack up the price to unreasonable levels and give you a "discount" so you feel like you're getting a bargain.

    On the other hand, the Cubs and the Rays offer similar seats in their parks, so maybe I'm just missing something here. Whatever it is, at those prices, I think I'll keep on missing it, thanks.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    08 May 2009

    Book Review: The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

    As the field manager of the New York Yankees from 1996 to 2007, Joe Torre epitomized class and dignity on the baseball field, so it's fitting that even his book's title and cover are classy. A simple title, with no ridiculous subtitle that's four times as long as the title itself. The authors should really be listed as Tom Verducci with Joe Torre, as it's clear that Verducci does the writing in this relationship, and that Torre is mostly there to narrate and provide quotes.

    The front cover is graced by a simple, dim picture of Torre in the corridor at Yankee Stadium, en route to the locker room, his well known number six on his back, shoulders slumped a bit with age and all the years of turmoil in Yankeeland, but still proud and determined.

    The back cover shows him being carried off the the field by his players, presumably after the 1998 World Series, waving to the crowd, recent tears still wetting his deep set eyes. The photo, a little out of focus, hints at the fleeting nature of this one-of-a-kind run in Yankee history, this one-of-a-kind manager's tenure there, and suggests that perhaps there was more to Torre and those great Yankee teams than we knew.

    And there certainly was.

    Not that this is a tell-all book. For one thing, Torre has too much class to dish out juicy details of other people's personal lives, or compromise people's standing in the game, or otherwise make a quick buck at the expense of others. There's no shortage of interesting anecdotes or good quotes, both from Torre and others, but this is not a ground-breaking tome like Ball Four was 40 years ago.

    Verducci starts the book with the story of how Joe became the Yankees manager, the idea that he was the Yankees' fourth choice, and that even after he was hired, there were rumors that George Steinbrenner was still trying to convince Buck Showalter to return. What a way to start a new job, right?

    From there he moves on to how Torre helped inspire a work ethic, a "desperation to win" in those players in the late 1990's, how he got them to play ball the right way and to work at winning, every day. His young shortstop, Derek Jeter, was a big part of that, leading by example right from the start, teaching everyone around him how to play baseball the Yankee Way, how to carry yourself, how to act, and how not to. Torre and Jeter naturally became very good friends, and Jeter earned the respect due a team captain even before he bore the official title.

    The following paragraph, about the famous "Flip Play" in the 2000 playoffs against the Oakland A's, demonstrates both Jeter's amazing baseball instincts and Verducci's writing prowess:

    "Jeter made a play that only could have been made by a player with supreme
    alertness, the mental computing power to quickly crunch the advanced baseball
    calculus needed to process the trajectory and speed of Spencer's throw and the
    speed and location of a runner behind his back, and the athletic and
    improvisational skills to actually find a way to get the ball home on time and
    on target while running in a direction opposite to the plate."

    OK, so it's kind of a run-on sentence, and he lays it on a little thick, but it's still solid, informative, colorful writing that paints the picture he wants. Besides this, the run-on nature of the sentence conveys the urgency of the play much better than more traditional punctuation choices would have.

    For Torre's part, of course, teaching a bunch of guys how to win consistently is a lot easier when you've got so much talent with which to work. Teams that include Jeter, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and others ought to win all the time. Right?

    But even at that, they never seemed to consider themselves entitled, never rubbed it in their opponents' faces, never took winning for granted. As Billy Beane said,

    "And one thing about getting beat by the Yankees: They did it with class. It was
    as if they beat you in rented tuxedos." (p. 51)

    Torre also addresses some of the controversies of that era, specifically the steroid issue and how it affected the Yankees' clubhouse. Because Tom Verducci is really the one writing this, he can paint a picture of the era with broader strokes than Torre could have by himself. He discusses the happenings in baseball as a whole, how records were falling both left (homers) and right (attendance), how everyone was making money, and how nobody took the issue of performance enhancing drugs too seriously.

    Though I don't remember ever having heard of this at the time, apparently former Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling was one of the first to blow the whistle on the steroid issue, at a players' union meeting in 1998. He challenged his fellow players to crack down on PEDs, to help make sure the game was played the right way, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He repeatedly stated that, at least in his opinion, the increasing prevalence of steroids in baseball was forcing some otherwise clean players to consider using PEDs themselves, just to remain competitive.

    Which of course was exactly what was happening. Unfortunately, Verducci includes three nearly identical quotes from Helling on the same page to make this point, despite the fact that they read like a skipping record. And Major League Baseball and the MLBPA ignored Helling and others who were sounding the PED alarm at the time, and we all know how that turned out.

    For his part, Verducci states, Torre was innocent of the whole thing. "You had two guys from New York doing all the talking in the Mitchell Report. That's why you have more information on New York players."

    "Steroids?" Verducci asks, innocently, "He [Torre] knew nothing about them. He never saw them." Torre indicates that he didn't want to go probing, uninvited, into the players' lives, and so he never asked those questions, presumably content that whatever they were doing was working, and decided to leave "well enough" alone.

    You can believe that if you want to, and it's Torre's privilege to present himself how he wants to in his own book, but he and Verducci must take the baseball watching public for fools if they think many of us are buying that explanation. Even if it is true, it makes Torre out to be a little too naive, a little too "hands-off" to truly be an effective manager. The players would never respect and follow someone they thought could be so easily duped.

    The book contains a great many anecdotes about the normally private and confidential rituals of the clubhouse, including this gem about Roger Clemens' pre-game preparation:
    Clemens lost himself in his usual pregame preparation. which typically began with cranking the whirlpool to its hottest possible temperature. "He'd come out looking like a lobster," trainer Steve Donahue said. Then Donahue would rub the hottest possible liniment on his testicles. "He'd start snorting like a bull," the trainer said. "That's when he was ready to pitch." (p. 132)
    Listen, I'm as open minded as the next guy, but if I never have to read another story about one man rubbing liniment on another man's balls as long as I live, it will be too soon. Some things just shouldn't be shared, OK? Like balls.

    In addition to all the material from Torre, Verducci mines a wealth of information from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, pitcher Mike Mussina, and several other players to whom Torre was close. He discusses the ways in which George Steinbrenner would try to micromanage and manipulate people, how different people on Steinbrnner's staff, such as Randy Levine or George's sons, behaved toward Torre, how Brian Cashman, in the end, chose to cover his own ass rather than go to bat for Torre.

    He also relates not a small number of stories on Torre's dealings with different players. He talks about how Gary Sheffield's efforts on the field varied with his mood, how David Wells was constantly causing trouble of one kind or another, and how the Yankees were warned about Carl Pavano:

    "Tim Raines told me, 'Pavano? He's never going to pitch for you. Forget it.' Borzello said. I said, "What?" He said, 'The guy didn't want to pitch in Montreal. There was always something wrong with him. In Florida, same thing. He didn't want to pitch except for the one year he was pitching for a contract. I'm telling you, he's not going to pitch for you." (p. 319)

    The Yankee Years, while not entirely chocked full of these kinds of tidbits, certainly has no shortage of them either, plenty to make the chapters interesting. There's not much earth-shattering stuff here, not any really, but there's plenty of inside gossip and other information that we all wish we could have known at the time.

    We all know the baseball side of things. What happened is in the record books for all to see. But a book like this offers us some rare insight into the reasons for why things happened or didn't happen, at least in one manager's opinion. The Yankee Years is a worthwhile read for this reason and more, for Yankees fans and Torre fans and anyone who rooted against them all those years.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    29 April 2009

    Phil Hughes Vying for Joba's Job-a?

    The Good News: Phil Hughes pitched well last night against the Tigers. He used 99 pitches to shut them out for six innings, allowing only two hits and two walks while fanning six.

    The Bad News: People are starting to talk about putting Joba Chamberlain back in the bullpen.

    The New York Daily News' John Harper makes some good points, but may be reaching a bit here:

    For now, at least, they seem firmly committed to keeping Chamberlain in the rotation. But part of the equation here is that he shows no signs of being a dominating starter.
    Well, he was pretty dominant against the Royals two weeks ago, but admittedly he had a tough time with Cleveland and Boston, two of the better offensive teams in baseball. It seems to me that three starts are not much of a barometer for whether he's going to be dominant.

    For example, Mike Pelfrey and Scott Baker are both young pitchers, struggling more than Joba in their three 2009 starts. But they both pitched well in 2008, and nobody is talking about replacing Pelfrey's starts in the Twins' or the New York Mets schedule. Admittedly, neither of their teams has the potential glut of capable starting pitching the Yankees seem to have, but still, the analogy is worth considering.

    One of the reasons Harper suggests changing Joba's role is that he would be able to throw harder and emote more freely in short stints out of the bullpen, rather than having to pace himself as a starter does, and therefore be more effective.

    Since spring training the fastball velocity has been an issue, as he throws mostly around 92-93 mph now as opposed to 96-97 when he was relieving.

    And while his celebrations as a reliever may have been a bit over the top, he seemed fueled by the emotion and let-it-go fire he could pour into a one-inning stint, as opposed to pacing himself as a starter.

    The combination of lower velocity and a mostly placid demeanor have baseball people wondering what's wrong with Joba.

    "There shouldn't be that kind of difference in velocity between starting and relieving," one AL scout said Monday. "When (Josh) Beckett is right, he's topping out at 96-97 from start to finish.

    Well, not quite that high, and not all the time, but sure, let's say he's right about Beckett. So what?

    Beckett has made exactly three regular season relief appearances in his major league career, and those were six and seven years ago. We have no way to compare whether the 4-5 mph drop from starting to relieving is appropriate or normal, at least not from Beckett. Maybe Beckett would be able to throw 102 mph if he only had to pitch one inning a night. Maybe 96 mph IS "pacing himself" in Beckett's case, a scary thought indeed.

    One of the few examples we can use of a starting pitcher being used for short stints is at the All Star game. Though they usually work at more modest velocities, pitchers who know they'll only be throwing one inning tend to dial it up a bit more when they get called in to pitch. Brad Penny, who typically works in the 90-91 mph range, threw 95-96 mph when he started the 2006 All Star game, knowing that he wouldn't go more than two innings.

    The fact of the matter is that anybody with any sense who discussed this issue last year knew that Joba would likely not throw as hard as a starter, would not dominate the way he did out of the pen in 2007-08. Nobody compiles a 1.53 ERA and strikes out almost 12 batters per game as a starter, at least not for very long, not in this era. If you were expecting that, you were mistaken.

    But Joba can still be a good or even great starter, given the chance, without registering a "99" on the stadium gun every time he releases the pill. And perhaps if Pettitte and Sabathia and Burnett and Hughes and Wang are all pitching well, and taking up every start in the New York Yankees schedule, Joba would be the logical choice to relieve. But at this point Wang is a question mark at best, and Hughes has made exactly one good start.


    Why would it be so bad to put Joba back in the bullpen?

    Rob Neyer answers that question:
    I've always come down squarely on the side of Chamberlain starting, for the simple reason that a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a great relief pitcher. Or rather, that a great starting pitcher is more valuable than a great reliever, and there were (and still are, presumably) some observers who believe that Chamberlain can become a great starter.
    Chamberlain doesn't even need to become a great starter, though obviously that is still the hope. Neyer said it right the first time: A good starter is more valuable than a great reliever.

    Last year, Jamie Moyer and Gil Meche and Kyle Lohse and Paul Maholm were all good, but not great starters. Each pitched around 200 innings with an ERA just under 4.00. Each had a VORP of about 40 (i.e. they were worth about 40 runs more than a replacement level starting pitcher over the same number of innings.)

    By comparison, the best relievers (Scott Downs, the Mexicutioner, Brad Ziegler, Joe Nathan) were all around 30. Mariano Rivera was almost 35, but he's the exception to several rules, the one about the value of relief pitchers notwithstanding. So if Joba is healthy enough to pitch close to 200 innings, and good enough to compile an ERA under 4.00, he'll be worth about ten runs more than he would if he were to pitch only 70 innings with an ERA around 2.00. Got it?

    Ten runs isn't an enormous amount, but it's probably about one win, and in what is shaping up to be a tightly contested AL East, one win might make all the difference. But, as Billy Mays says, wait, there's more.

    You see, 70 innings with a 2.00-ish ERA is about the maximum that we can hope for from Joba as a reliever. Sure, he could post a 1.50 ERA. He could pitch 80 or 90 innings. But the Yankees would either have to use him more often or for longer stints, and given their history of handling the kid with, well, kid gloves, that's not likely.

    As a starter, however, Joba could still thrive. It will be enough if he gives us 180 innings with a 3.75 ERA, but he could still find a groove and rack up 210 innings with a 2.99 ERA (his career mark as a starter) which would make him,

    A) Worth about 60 VORP, i.e. twice as valuable as a very good reliever, and

    2) One of the best starters in MLB.

    Putting him back in the bullpen effectively eliminates this possibility.

    Are we really ready to throw Joba's career under the bus after three starts in April? Give the man a chance to build up some stamina. Give him a chance to prove himself against some other teams. Give him a chance to throw more than 93 pitches.

    He doesn't have to be great to be worthwhile as a starter. He just has to be good.

    But he still might be great. Don't take that away from us.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    24 April 2009

    Giants Free Passes Just Around the Corner

    MLB.com's Chris Haft writes that the San Francisco Giants are issuing fewer walks this year, and their pitchers are therefore having more success at preventing runs.

    Besides yielding five runs while finishing 4-1 with three shutout victories
    on their recently completed homestand, the Giants issued just 10 walks. This
    went a long way toward limiting their season total through 14 games to 53.

    That ranked only 10th in the National League entering Thursday, but it's a considerable improvement over last year, when San Francisco's 652 walks were third-most in the league. If pitching and defense were the chapter headings to the Giants' outline of success as the season began, reducing walks was a critical subcategory. Too many free passes would devalue the talent of their pitching staff.

    "The more it's talked about, it actually makes it all worse," pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "But you know what? You have to face it. It's not going away."

    The subject of walks may linger, but the walks themselves have been dwindling. In the past four games, Giants pitchers have walked one batter in three games and two batters in the other. Opponents worked for the few runs they mustered.

    Is this really such a big deal?

    The Giants did walk 652 batters last year, which was second most in the NL, not third, and their rate per nine innings of 4.067 just slightly edged out the Pirates at 4.06 per nine innings for worst in the NL. In the majors, only Baltimore walked more batters per game than the Giants in 2008.

    This year, as Haft says, the walks are down.

    To three-point-nine.

    Right now they're 7th instead of 16th in the NL in walk rate, but the rate itself is not much better than it was last year, and frankly, it's still pretty early in the season. Matt Cain (career walk rate of 3.8/9IP) and Jonathan Sanchez (4.6) and Barry Zito (4.4 walks/9IP since joining the Giants) and Tim Lincecum (3.6) are still on the team, and are not likely to suddenly stop walking batters.

    The one bright spot is that this year Randy Johnson takes the starts that last year were given to Kevin Correia and Brad Hennesey and Matt Palmer, who all walked quite a few batters last season. Johnson, though not the dominant ace he once was, only walked 44 in 184 innings last year, and can probably teach yougsters like Lincecum, Sanchez and Cain a thing or two about throwing strikes.

    More likely, though, everyone will continue to pitch largely as they have always done, with perhaps a few slight improvements due to age and experience. Other personnel changes that may help, according to Haft:
    The Giants don't want an excess of walks from their relievers, either. That's largely why they signed free agents Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry, who maintained excellent control in 2008, and gave chances to non-roster right-handers Brandon
    Medders and Justin Miller. Medders issued five unintentional walks in 15 exhibition innings; Miller was even more precise, walking one in 12 1/3 spring innings.

    Those four relievers have combined to walk 3.9 batters per nine innings, same as the team average, and as I mentioned, only marginally better than last year's staff.

    And as for saving runs? Well, certainly they did OK in the last few games, though it should be noted that these were against the Diamondbacks, who finished 10th in the NL in Runs Scored last season, and the Padres, who finished dead last. Most likely the Giants' pitchers experienced a brief respite from their usual complacency about free passes when faced with a couple of teams that both struggle to score runs anyway.

    Just like all the hype about the homer binge at Yankee Stadium last week, it's still pretty early in the season, and any assessment about the nature of either a team or a building is generally pretty premature.

    Articles like this get written all the time, especially early in the season. Six years go I wrote something calling Peter Gammons out when he wrote about how the 2003 Baltimore Orioles hitters were suddenly walking a lot more often than their 2002 selves had, describing a change in philosophy that supposedly the whole team had bought into. The 2002 O's had walked only 452 times, second worst in the AL that year, and their team OBP of .309 was also second worst.
    Well, in the end the 2003 Orioles actually walked less, only 431 times, and while they did improve two spote in the OBP ranking, it was because they got more hits, raising the team batting average from a dismal .246 up to a semi-respectable .268. But in the meantime, it looked like a good story to Gammons.

    Baseball writers are always looking for a reason for a change or improvement, and are quick to lend credence to changes in approach and philosophy for any perceived improvement, especially if they happen to be the beat writer for a particular team. But more often than not, these things are just flukes, and they are frequently magnified by the fact that so few games have been played, so the numbers can be more easily skewed.

    And just like that, they can be skewed back. Over the next month, the Giants will be playing the DOdgers six times, the Mets three, the Rockies five times, and the Cubs twice, in addition to the Nationals and the Diamondbacks. Let's see if the walk rate improves any fiurther.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    20 April 2009

    Analyzing the New Homer Happy Ballpark

    There is a new ballpark from which balls are flying out at a record pace. Home runs are jumping off the bats of both the home team and its opponents, much more so than in the team's road games, begging the question of whether this new park is going to play like Coors Field. Or at least, like Coors Field used to play.

    I'm talking, of course, about Chase Field in Arizona.

    Granted, it's not that new. But the Diamondbacks and their opponents have hit 23 homers in their nine home games, but only one homer in their three road games, to date. This gives Chase Field a Home Run Park Factor of 7.667 right now, meaning that it is more than six and a half times easier to hit a home run in Phoenix than it is in a neutral MLB park.

    That number is asinine, and is obviously a result of the fact that the Diamondbacks have played only a handful of games. Chase Field has always been a hitter's park, as we know, but nothing has appreciably changed about it from the last several years. Since 2001, the home run park factor in Arizona has averaged about 1.07, meaning that it's about seven percent easier to homer there than at a neutral park. Seven percent, not seven hundred percent, mind you.

    This year, the D-Backs have hosted the Rockies, the Dodgers and the Cardinals, three teams that can hit pretty well. The Dodgers were a little below average last year in run scoring, but they've largely revamped their lineup. At bats that last year were mostly handled by an aging Jeff Kent and the three punchless musketeers of Angel Berroa, Blake Dewitt and Juan Pierre are now largely taken by Orlando Hudson, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake and Manny Ramirez.

    The Rockies and Cards were both in the top half of the NL in run scoring last year, and in similar, though somewhat muted fashion, some of their offseason moves represent "addition by subtraction" as well. Willy Taveras, Cesar Izturis, and Adam Kennedy, are gone, and their replacements have helped to shore up the offenses of each team. Admittedly, there are some holes in this theory, as some of their hitters haven't really hit their stride and others are overperforming at the moment, but generally I think this makes sense.

    Nevertheless, we can see why the Diamondbacks' pitchers have had a hard time at home. And similarly, we can see why the Arizonas have themselves hit so many homers at Chase Field, facing the likes of Aaron Cook, Glendon Rusch, Joel Piniero and some inexperienced relievers. their three road games, against a rebuilding Giants team in the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, have helped to skew the sample.

    No doubt, as the season plays out and the D-backs both face and provide better pitching, the homers will slow their torrid pace and we'll return to our regularly scheduled season of only moderately crazy home run rates, instead of the ridiculous ones we have now.

    In a related story: The New Yankee Stadium.

    There are probably a few sillier notions going around than the one that says the Yankees' new digs are a homer haven, but offhand, I can't think of any right now.

    After this weekend's opening series against the Cleveland Indians, as you've no doubt heard by now, the New Yankee Stadium is being hailed as "Coors Field East". The Yankees have hit nine homers in their four home games, to go with the 11 hit by the tribe. That's 20 bombs in just four games, and if you want to be thorough about it, you can add in the seven homers hit in the two exhibition games against the Cubs earlier this month.

    At the pace suggested by these first four regular season games, you'd expect 405(!) homers to be hit over the course of the year, a ridiculous number. For comparison's sake, the most homers ever hit in a ballpark in one season is (I believe) 303, set by the Colorado Rockies in 1999, who hit 144 homers in their 81 home games, but also allowed 159.

    At this rate, then, the Yankees' sea-level ballpark, with dimensions almost exactly the same as their previous home, located literally right across the street from this one and facing in generally the same direction, would have to allow about 1/3 more homers than the homer-happiest ballpark in history at the peak of the steroid era. Which, as I said, is ridiculous.

    There have been suggestions that while the official dimensions are the same, the walls themselves are a little bit closer in some areas, especially the right field short porch, though these differences make up less than 10 feet in any one location, and usually more like four or five feet. Similarly, the outfield walls are shorter in a few places, though not very much shorter, and anyway, if you watched Chien-Ming Wang and rookie Anthony Clagett (ahem...) pitch on Saturday, you'd know that few of these homers are just barely clearing the fences. Most are no-doubters, and so we're left to wonder what other forces are at play here.

    The elevation and direction are the same. The dimensions are the same, mostly. One suggestion deals with the new, big scoreboards in centerfield, perhaps blocking the wind that used to keep some fly balls in the park, but this too is an insufficient explanation. The old park had a big scoreboard and billboards all the way across the outfield, more than 100 feet high probably, and so while the big, new video board might be bigger than the old one was, it should not make this much of a difference.

    The problem in both cases (that is, Chase Field and new Yankee Stadium) is that so little of the season has been played. The Yankees have played just 5% of their 2009 home schedule. Drawing any conclusions from these four games, with no apparent reason for the high incidence of homers to be blamed on the ballpark, is foolishness at best, yellow journalism at worst.

    Isn't it just possible that, say, the baseballs themselves are juicier or that the Yankees' pitching staff still has some kinks to work out? or that, you know, it's a statistical fluke? It would be like assuming that all of the 2,900 miles of Interstate 80 are straight and flat and largely devoid of traffic after having driven only the portion that goes through the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

    I think I'll drive a bit further before making my decision, thanks.

    UPDATE: In light of the fact that Accu-Weather has weighed in on this issue, and thinks it may be new wind patterns due to the slightly different profiles of the former and current stadia's grandstands, I decided to posit my own theory on how the wind and weather may be affecting the baseballs hit at the new Yankee Stadium.

    Possible Old Yankee Stadium Wind:

    Possible New Yankees Stadium Wind:

    Hey, my approach is about as scientific as theirs is.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    09 April 2009

    Carl Pavano Makes History Again, Sort of

    Carl Pavano made his (not) much anticipated return to a major league mound this afternoon, toeing the rubber for the Clevelands against the Texas Rangers in Arlington.

    Pavano gave up nine runs, all earned, in only one inning of official work, striking out one and walking three. He allowed two homers, a double and three singles, and faced three batters in the second inning before being sent to the showers. He left two runners on base, both of whom scored eventually, one on a sacrifice fly, the other on a fielder's choice.

    This should be no real surprise, as Pavano has been neither healthy nor effective for half a decade, and his spring training stats (5.70 ERA in 23 IP) did not exactly inspire confidence. But still, an ERA of 81.00?

    It's not often you see a pitcher give up at least nine runs without getting more than three outs. Since 1993, this has only happened 15 times, which is more than I would have guessed. The last occurred in August 2008, when Brian Bannister let the Yankees have a 10-spot en route to a 15-6 drubbing. An interesting point of note: Kansas City has doled out four of those 15 games, while nobody else has more than two (Arizona).

    Bronson Arroyo also did it last year, in June, giving up 10 of the Blue Jays' 14 runs in an embarrassing loss. Such a game occurred only once in 2007, but it was perhaps the worst start in history: 11 earned runs, two outs by Houston's Jason Jennings against the Padres. Someone should have told him he wasn't pitching in Colorado anymore.

    The most this has happened in a single year was the four times it occurred in 2006, twice due to the Royals' horrendous pitching. One of those, Mark Redman's 9-earned run, one out start against the Tigers in late September, might be even worse than Jennings', if we use ERA as the barometer. Redman's ERA for that game was (I kid you not...) 243.00!

    Then it only happened about once per year, going back to 1993. Interestingly, some of the pitchers who did this weren't really all that bad. Arroyo last year was already mentioned, but Orlando Hernandez did it in Y2K, Tom Gordon in 1995, and Ben Rivera in 1993, each of whom won 12 games in the year this happened, though Rivera had an ERA over 5.00 for the year, and only won the games he did because he was pitching for the eventual NL champion Phillies.

    Rookie Jason Simontacchi did it in 2002, when he won 11 games for the Cardinals. Ryan Madson did it in 2006, when he won 11 for the Phillies, though admittedly, he was much better in relief than starting that year, and hasn't started since that year. Redman also had 11 wins in the year he did it, albeit with an ERA of almost 6.00.

    But before that? Wow, this almost never happened. Going back to 1954, which is as far as Baseball-reference.com's searchable gme database goes, there are only three more games ivolving at least nine earned runs and three outs or fewer, less than one per decade.

    Before 1993, you have to go back to 1987, when Houston's Bob Knepper surrendered nine earned runs to the Cubs in just one official inning, during a season in which he led the NL with 17 losses. Houston stuck with him, though, and he went 14-5 the next year, but then he went 7-12 for two teams the following year and was done. (Interestingly, Rick Sutcliffe gave up seven runs and six walks in five innings in that game, but got the Win!)

    The last one before that was in 1976, when journeyman Joe Decker of the Minnesota Twins gave up 10 runs to the Royals (remember when the Royals used to be able to score 10 runs?) in one of the last starts of his career. He lasted about another month, and then disappeared from the majors for three years, before attempting a brief comeback with the recently formed Mariners in 1979.

    And finally, lest you think that such things only happen to lousy pitchers, the first such start belonged to none other than Bob Gibson. Excuse me: Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, in 1967. This was a down year for him, only 13-7, 2.98 ERA in 175 IP, but still, nine runs in one inning? Actually, two thirds of an inning? The Cardinals would eventually win the World Series that year, with Gibson finishing 22nd in the MVP voting, but that day the Giants had their way with him. I guess the wind was blowing out at Candlestick Park.

    This really doesn't mean much, except that Pavano is likely on his way out, which we all knew anyway. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they're counting on him as their #3 starter.

    In case you had any doubts about how the game has changed in the last decade and a half, think about how these out of control pitching performance used to happen about once every 10 or 12 years, and now they happen about once a year.

    Good thing we got this year's out of the way quickly!

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    08 April 2009

    Using Draft Signing Bonuses to Predict MLB Performance?

    From an interview with Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver in the Baltimore Sun's blogging branch:

    TD: I did want to ask you about [Orioles catching prospect Matt] Wieters, because PECOTA seems to have an almost unprecedented crush on him. I was wondering what you made of that?
    Nate Silver: [...] The Double-A team Wieters was playing for, when you look at park effects and league difficulty, it was a really tough year for hitters in Double-A. And so that gets ratcheted up quite a bit. The Eastern League was very competitive. He did about as well as any player can do down at that level. He's a big guy. That translates pretty well. And we look at the size of a guy's signing bonus because that has some predictive value. The fact that he has a very big pedigree in college and that more often than not, guys who are drafted that high tend to pan out. That combination of things led to a really aggressive forecast where, if he played for a whole year at that level, he could be an MVP contender.
    The bold emphasis is mine.

    For the record, Wieters is projected to hit .311/.395/.546 with 31 homers and 100 RBI this year, despite the facts that he has only one year of pro experience and it's all been at Single and Double-A. For reference, that's about as well as Kevin Youkilis or Mark Teixeira did last year, and is easily the most optimistic projection for a rookie player that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system has ever made.

    I saw this over at Rob Neyer's newly-formatted blog on ESPN.com, and I thought that rather than waste all my thoughts commenting over there, where someone might actually see them, I would lay something out here. This way nobody will ever read it, and it can't fall into the wrong hands, er... eyes. Whatever.

    Anyway, I understood some of why PECOTA would suggest that a young player with so little pro experience would play at such a high level in his rookie year. After all, such a feat is not unprecedented. Mike Piazza hit the cover off the ball at AA and AAA in 1992, and then easily won the NL Rookie of the Year in 1993 at age 24, hitting .318/35/112 for the Dodgers.

    He was, it should be noted, a year older, and put up his gaudy minor league minor league numbers at a higher level than Wieters did last year, but the analogy is there. Also, as Neyer pointed out, Johnny Bench won an MVP award at age 22, though he did so after having already played a few seasons in the majors, not as a rookie. Joe Torre, Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Gary Carter and other catchers have hit very well at age 23 or so, but most of those had some seasoning in MLB before that.

    And of course those were all before PECOTA. Back in the day, we used to have to rely on scouts and guesswork to figure out how well someone would perform, but today there is an array of different methods, all scientific in some form or another, to do this job. Bill James, ZiPS, PECOTA, and a half dozen others all have some proprietary methods for guessing at how well players will do in the future, with varying degrees of success.

    Once in a while you get to peek inside a little, as when Baseball Prospectus introduced and explained PECOTA a decade ago. For the most part, though, these systems remain hidden, and the specific formulae are always closely guarded secrets. But Silver let the cat out of the bag in this interview, and I can't believe nobody has yet picked up on it:

    Signing bonuses??!?

    I can understand using players with comparable stats, comparable positions, comparable body types, ages, and etc. to try to figure out what someone might do, but signing bonuses? That essentially means that PECOTA is putting some semblance of trust in what the drafting teams think of their draftees' worth, right?

    I'm not saying the teams don't know what they're doing, but there is an inherent danger in this approach. Talent and potential aren't the only thing to go into this process. Teams who have more money to spend can afford to give bigger signing bonuses, though I doubt a structured settlement company would figure their payouts like this.

    The Yankees, for example, routinely give their picks more than "slot money" because, well, they're the Yankees. Or because they're trying to convince a player to sign with them instead of going to college, or playing another sport. Similarly, Scott Boras clients get more than anybody else because he's the best agent in the business.

    Theoretically then, a Yankees' draftee, who wanted to go to college, affiliated with Scott Boras could easily get a bigger bonus than someone drafted 10-15 spots ahead of him. This, despite the fact that he's presumably not as talented, and yet, somehow, PECOTA would increase his projection because of it.

    How far down the draft order does this consideration go? Just the first round? the first two, or five? The whole draft? Probably not. And for how long is this a factor? Just with rookies, or after a year or two of minor league experience?

    In any case, most of the time, this is probably irrelevant, as I doubt that PECOTA makes a distinction between a bonus of $220,000 and $250,000, or between $19,000 and $30,000, or whatever. But when you start getting into the millions, well, I have to wonder.

    Wieters got $6 million from the Orioles, almost as much as 2005 #1 pick Justin Upton got from the Diamondbacks. These are Upton's PECOTA projections for 2007 and 2008 as well as the performances on which those were based and the actual performances in the following years, for comparison:

    2006 Performance: .263/.343/.413 in 501 PA in Class A, at age 18
    2007 PECOTA: .255/.318/.413 (12HR, 10 SB, 62 Runs and 53 RBI in 529 PA in MLB)
    2007 Actual: .221/.283/.364 in 152 PA in MLB, after hitting .319/.410/.551 in 100+ games at High A and AA

    Looks like PECOTA missed high and wide with this one. Upton was only 19 in 2007, but BP thought he would be just a hair below the average NL hitter that year (which was .266/.334/.423, according to Baseball-reference.com). Instead, he hit more like the average NL pinch hitter (.228/.311/.358) which is to say, like a guy who does not deserve to play regularly.

    2007 Performance: .319/.410/.551 in 456 PA in A and AA, at age 19
    2008 PECOTA: .271/.349/.471 (20 HR, 92 Runs, 78 RBIs, 18 SB in 642 PA in MLB)
    2008 Actual: .250/.353/.463 (15 HR, 42 RBIs, 52 Runs, 1 SB in 417 PA in MLB, after 15 decent games in AAA)

    PECOTA got pretty close to the mark here, though. Despite the 21-point gap in batting average and the lack of steals, Upton's actual OPS was within 0.004 of his projection, albeit in a lot less playing time, which is difficult to project. So perhaps the signing bonus thing doesn't factor in once they've got a couple of years' experience to use for evaluation purposes.

    Other 2007 draftees who got several million in signing bonuses either don't have a PECOTA projection for this year (Andrew Brackman) or have projections that seem pretty reasonable (Mike Moustakas, David Price, Josh Vitters) given what we have seen of them in the minors.

    I also checked Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs' pick in 2005 who got a record $7.25 million so that he would pitch instead of playing football. His projection for last year indicated that he would stink very much bad in the majors, which he surprisingly did not, though their projection for him in 2008 says much the same (6.60 ERA).

    I can't check everyone, of course, but my suspicion is that the signing bonus thing doesn't play a very big role. I'm just not sure I get why it should play any role at all. Silver's explanation for using the signing bonus is that "it has some predictive value" but of course, generally, the guys who get more money in the draft are the ones the teams think will be good major leaguers anyway, so there ought to be some correlation there.

    This winds up as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the the players who are expected to be good are given a lot of money, and then the players given a lot of money are expected to be good. Seems to me there must be a better way.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar