Monday, April 22, 2019

TEN PARKS ARE DOMINATING THE EARLY-SEASON HR SURGE

Nine days to go in April 2019, and at least Robert Mueller hit a triple. (That last base is up to those who need to undrink the Kool-Aid.) In the fervid world of baseball, however, the "base" has taken over: we've even seen so-called analysts such as Eno Sarris and Matthew Baggerly don pom-poms and suggest that the Giants recalibrate their ballpark so it, too, can be a home run palace.

And to think that just last year some of these fine feathered folks who write for the increasingly embedded shrines of empty-headed analysis were decrying the aesthetics of a two-dimensional game. This year, however, as homers fly out of ballparks at a record rate, they seem to be as giddy and shell-shocked as that uncomfortably large plurality of Americans whose attention spans and senses of history are so attenuated that they can barely process the slow train coming for the carcass of the Orange Menace. 

Let's all be home run thugs together, they chant, suggesting that the inexorable pull of isolated power that is now reaching an historical extreme is now to be swallowed whole just as the escalating thuggery of politics is the "new normal." 

After all, if Jose Altuve can "stand and crank" (as Brock Hanke used to call those players who did little but swing for the fences whenever they occupied the batter's box) then it should be a universal law as iron-clad as the historical eschatology of G.W. Hegel (a philosopher whose interest in power was in no way isolated).

And it would thus seem to be, as the "barrel" frippery of sabermetric Anti-Christ Tom (Love Pie) Tango and the ergonomic eugenics of Ben "Frankenstein" Lindbergh take us into a world where athletics and elitism are blood brothers. The "proof" is in the rising HR/G rate thus far this April, and we are to bow down to the stone tablets of this new reality.

However, let's toss out an operating phrase that's parcel and part of Big Bad Baseball lore: not so effin' fast. Could there be a counter-pattern hidden in the data somewhere that belies at least part of this hegemonic hoo-hah that's turning the game into a raging staph infection? Might things not be as monolithic as they first appear?

Yes, folks, there is a glimmer of good news, and it's in the table at right. It's a breakout of HRs by ballpark that shows you the HR/G rates thus far in 2019, along with projected totals for the year--and compares those numbers to what occurred in the previous two seasons. There is a very intriguing sub-pattern here that bears scrutiny, one that just might be the beginnings of a "cure" for baseball's rash of home runs.

The current homer surge this month is being spearheaded by events in ten major league ballparks where the long ball is currently out of control. One of these parks--Camden Yards--has always been a homer haven, and right now things are beyond ridiculous there: their current pace of 2.6 homers/game would go beyond shattering the current record for most HRs hit in a ballpark (271 in Coors Field in 1997). Similarly outrageous numbers can be found in Miller Field and Citi Park (though the latter is currently by far the smallest sample size).

Right now six ballparks project to break the Coors Field record for HRs. These ten parks would have an average of 300 HRs each.

But the other 20 parks are not joining in with this HR madness. They are, for the most part, going the other way. They actually project to hit less HRs per park in 2019 than they did in 2018, and about 30 HRs less per park than in the "kaboom year" of 2017.

We averaged the three-year numbers for all the parks, and while HRs would go up again from 2018, the projection according to that average brings us in a bit under the 2017 numbers.

While we won't be surprised if Camden Yards does set a record for most HRs in a ballpark this year--a grotesque coupling of congenial ballpark and an execrable home team pitching staff--we expect that the current glut of HRs in these ten parks will dissipate. They may even hit enough homers at the Giants' Oracle Park to placate Sarris and Baggerly, the panting bandwagoneers who think that hitting homers is the only way to win. (The Giants, hitting just five homers in ten games at home this season, are 5-5 there--low run scoring environments actually encourage better relative home won-loss records...but don't tell those two post-neo nabobs of Homeric hoo-hah.)

We actually need more parks like Oracle Field, but the chances of that happening remain slim at best. What baseball still has to watch out for is a definitive counter-movement that neutralizes "launch angle" that, if implementable across all of the game, would put us at 1968 batting levels. If the current "Lords" are worried about attendance (possibly not, given how they're drowning in television money..) they might want to consider what will happen if baseball gets to the point where it is both low scoring and scores more than half its runs via homers. At that point the folks who natter on about the game being terminally boring will actually be right. 

We'll follow up on this table a bit later in the year and let you know which way the wind is blowing.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

FRANK ROBINSON: DOWNRIGHT UPRIGHT

Frank Robinson: A swing literally like no other...
Frank Robinson's passing last week reminded me of how I wound up wearing number 20 whenever I played "organized ball" (from Pony League to high school to fast/slow-pitch softball). It also prompted a stroll through the data at Forman et fils (just given a shoutout in the New York Times, BTW) to sharpen an entire range of recollection.

First, number 20. It came from Frank, stemming from my first trip to a major league ballpark in Los Angeles. (That is, if you can call the Coliseum a major league baseball park. It was big, to be sure: but that "Chinese fence"--offensive then, even more so now--in left was clearly a jive-ass kluge even to a callow eight-year old.)

The date was Sunday, July 9, 1961. I'd finally badgered my Dad to take time out of his workaholic schedule and schlep us to a game. (We'd moved to LA in 1959 just in time for the Dodgers to pull off their improbable World Series win; we were supposed to go to a game the next year, but two weeks before our scheduled excursion I rode my bike into an open intersection and was hit by a car. Riding barefoot like any fool kid at the time, I had my left foot torn up as part of the collision and spent the next six weeks in a cast: needless to say, the game was scratched.)

Even without the aid of the electronic box score (kudos to Retrosheet for bringing it all back home), the game was memorable. You're not likely to forget a first game when during it someone drives in seven runs.

Yes, that someone was Frank Robinson. The Dodgers had been chasing the Reds, coming into a weekend four-game series (the last before the All-Star break) in second place, three games behind. Their new ace, Sandy Koufax, had gotten hit hard in the first game of Friday's doubleheader: the Dodgers had dropped both games that night, 11-7 and 4-1. They'd regrouped on Saturday behind Johnny Podres (on his way to his best-ever season with the Dodgers: he'd finish the year 18-5), knocking out 14 hits en route to a 10-1 win--but Robinson had been hot (.375 over his last 50 games, with 16 HRs and 52 RBI) and he was primed for action on Sunday afternoon.

I can still remember the distinctive upright stance, and the hands swinging low, followed by a quick stride. There was contact, and--bam!--a high fly that settled over the ludicrous screen in left. It gave the Reds a 2-0 lead.

We were down fairly low, as tickets hadn't sold well at all for this game--and Robinson had seemed even bigger than his 6'1" frame. (The only guys who seemed bigger--Reds' pitcher Joey Jay, and a huge guy in the Dodgers dugout who didn't play but seemed to be grinding up the dugout railing bare-handed. You may recall his name: Frank Howard.)


I'd forgotten, but the game was remarkable for something that would never happen today: both Koufax and Don Drysdale pitched in relief.

In fact, they came into the game back-to-back. Koufax relieved Roger Craig with the bases loaded and one out in the third with the score tied 2-2: he struck out the first man he faced, but his on-again off-again nemesis Wally Post slapped a liner into center to drive in two runs--we call them "inherited runners" now--putting the Reds back in the lead, one they never relinquished. Drysdale relieved Koufax in the fifth, when Post was due up again. I remember being mystified that Drysdale then proceeded to intentionally walk Jerry Lynch, who'd been sent up to hit for Post. And I remember asking my Dad: "why couldn't the other pitcher have just walked the guy who was batted for?" My Dad's reply was the classic non-response: "That's a very good question."

He also didn't have an answer when Gene Freese's liner to center was caught by a charging Ron Fairly, who thought he had a play at the plate on Vada Pinson, but who then threw wildly to home, allowing the run to score and the two other runners (Robinson and Lynch) to take an extra base. Reds 5, Dodgers 2. The next batter, catcher Johnny Edwards (who hit .186 that year), was intentionally walked to get to pitcher Jay, who (as Forman et fils tells us) was at that very moment hitting 3-for-48 (.065) thus far in 1961 and currently had a lifetime .108 batting average.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the gnarliest headhunter
of 'em all? That big jackass DRYSDALE, that's who!"
My father had been enjoying a beer he'd just purchased from a vendor (who talked strangely while sweating profusely), but when Jay proceeded to line one into the right-center field gap, he began to swear--just as profusely. Two more runs scored, and it was hard to tell who had the more astonished expression on their face: Don Drysdale, Joey Jay, or my Dad.

Drysdale was able to work off his frustration during the next inning, however. After he'd allowed a double to Pinson, he then proceeded to hit Robinson with a pitch, at which point he was given the rest of the day off.

Frank didn't take the rest of the day off, however. In the eighth inning he hit his second homer--a wicked line drive off Dick (Turk) Farrell that kept rising as it rocketed into the left-center field seats about ten feet east of the silly screen. That made it 10-3, which became 11-3 when Freese homered later in the inning.

And in the ninth, Farrell--who'd been victimized by two consecutive infield errors--found himself facing Frank with the bases loaded. He got a slow curve over in the zone for a strike, but Frank was in a zone of his own and sent the next pitch rocketing toward left-center again.

This one wasn't hit as high, and stayed in the park, but it sailed over Fairly and made a thunderous sound when it hit the base of the wall. Three more runs scored, and Frank collected RBIs five, six and seven.

As we trudged back to our car afterwards (final score: Reds 14, Dodgers 3), I remember saying to my Dad: "Number 20 killed us." (And even though the numbers 7, 24, and 44 were far more iconic in the world of 60s baseball, when it came time for me to wear a baseball uniform, Frank's performance on that July afternoon cemented my choice of a lifetime.) As we all know, "number 20" (except for that one year when he actually played for the Dodgers, when Don Sutton wouldn't relinquish the number and Frank inexplicably wore number 36...36?) killed a lot of teams--and many opponents' dreams.

He was also a pioneer, a clubhouse comic, and a hitter who never quite was considered to be as great as two other superb right-handed sluggers whose careers were closely aligned with his: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Neither of those two incredible inner-circle Hall of Famers accomplished what Frank Robinson did, however: he won a Triple Crown (in 1966, after having been traded to the Orioles by a GM who had the temerity--and idiocy--to call him "an old 30"); he appeared in five World Series (equal to the combined totals of Hank and Willie); and--big "and"--he was the first African-American to manage in the big leagues.

Frank didn't quite match the HR output of Hank and Willie: that upright stance produced more line drives than they did. But his overall output was, at its peak, equal to theirs. The combined OPS+ chart for six-year peaks demonstrates that he was just as devastating in his own way. But due to the vagaries of All-Star game selection, he started only two All-Star games during his ten years with the Reds. The greatest troika of outfielders in the history of the National League started only one All-Star game together (1957).

Frank was a bit mercurial as a manager--as a former superstar, he could be excessively demanding. But he was very good at restoring equilibrium for struggling franchises. He could be irreverent and imperious at the same time, and pull it off. There was more depth to him than the other superstars who only seemed to shine more brightly. Rest in peace, Number 20...


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

JUST HOW MANY HR WILL MIGUEL ANDUJAR HIT?

Most of you know that Bill James has his own site, where he and a crew of significant lesser lights crank out content, most of it driven by Bill's wormhole-like gaze into the desiccated remains of sabemetric inquiry. Thanks to the continuing double-dribble of the Tango Love Pie™ (indisputably the Donald Trump of neo-sabermetrics, who's worked hard to pre-empt James in subtle--and not-so-subtle--ways), the "dialogue" between Bill's pet method for assigned a "single number" to player performances (Win Shares) and the tortured, mangled, compromised Wins Above Replacement has resulted in a series of tragic, retrograde "linkages" between concepts now wielded more as political tools rather than vessels of actual insight.

Recently Bill created a new Hall of Fame "projection system" which purported to bridge the "gaposis" between these two "tools of overreach" by force-fitting them, Jay Jaffe-style, into a silly set of gradations that ignored the essential incompatibility of the two methods. The results added little to nothing to currently existing approaches to that knotty problem, which (as noted last time) requires a lot more nuance than any of these fine feathered folk are willing to pro for vide to it.

But that's NOT where we're going here, actually. We're here today to address a totally different topic--a side issue that stemmed from Bill's most recent effort to elasticize his pet method (Win Shares) into a slippery new-old vernacular (a refashioned variant of "winning percentage"). Critiquing that unfortunate effort--which, like so much of what Bill works on in his dotage, needs much more space than he's either willing or able to devote to it--will have to wait for another time, but suffice to say that it's yet another unfortunate concession to modeling imperatives that produces no actual/practical result with genuine utility in the real world (and by that we also mean the current "real world" inside baseball itself, which is increasingly beset by measures that lead us down multiple rabbit holes simultaneously).

In the midst of that effort, Bill--as he's often wont to do--suddenly shifted gears and moved from theory to colloquialism (a writing strategy that he's over-employed to the point where it's long since teetered over into self-parody; folks are so used to this writerly tic of his that they've become unable to distinguish between legitimate and gratuitous uses of this furtively defiant sleight-of-hand).

In this instance, the subject shift was to the Yankees' rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar, who had an impressive power year (even in the context of another semi-absurd "power year" for baseball) as a 23-year-old in 2018: 27 HR, 47, doubles, .527 SLG. These are all solid numbers: his OPS+ is also solid at 126. All very respectable, even if he's overly aggressive at the plate (just 4% base-on-balls percentage, and an extremely low OBP/SLG ratio), a factor that often retards further offensive development.

Bill, however, decided to enter into his "blurt mode" once he'd encountered Andujar's name on his team-by-team "winning percentage" lists. He gushed out a statement to the effect that Andujar could hit 400 lifetime HRs. He offered no accompanying context whatsoever. When challenged by several skeptical readers, he added nothing but his own first-hand observation of Andujar and the admonition that he trusted his own judgment more than those who challenged his assertion.

Of course, we've all become used to such discussion in "chat" situations by now; by the same token, Bill's use of social media has, over time, become aggressive to the point of bellicosity (an unfortunate sign of the times we live in that's difficult for anyone to successfully avoid). But rather than dwell on that issue, it suddenly became clear that a better approach would be to find how to place that remark into some kind of actual historical context.

And that led to an effort to concoct, just as Bill has done himself on so many occasions, an intriguing little jackleg study that could put Andujar's 23-year-old 2018 season into a perspective capable of generating a range of lifetime HR predictions. To do so, it was also desirable to avoid the overused and not very reliable chestnut of projection tools that Bill had developed back in his pre-dotage days: the Brock2 system (or Brock6, or 201.1, or whatever "final version number" it had stalled at back in the days of yore before it wound up in the lost universe of floppy disks.) If Bill had dusted it off for such a projection, it probably would have produced a lifetime 400 HR projection for Andujar; but given its set of assumptions and the almost comically optimistic results it produces, it clearly makes sense to omit any reference to it.

No, there had to be a better way than that. And so, after quickly soaking my head (at last following the kind long-term advice from such a sizable plurality of you...) I struck upon a way to do. The control study would be to create a list of 23-year old hitters with 20+ HRs and with an OPS+ tightly in the range of what Andujar had posted in 2018. (Since his was--remember?--126, the search range was 125-129.)

As you can see in the table below, this actually produced a robust little list of players--17 in all, beginning with Harlond Clift in 1936. Adding to the seasonal data for each player, we focus on HRs hit prior to age 24 (15 of the 17 on the list had played at least a significant portion of a season or seasons as a younger player), followed by HRs hit from age 24 on.

This data permits us to create an average expected career HR total for the group, factoring in the highest achievers (Jim Thome, with 20 HRs in 98 games during his age-23 year in 1994, who wound up with 612 lifetime HRs; Andruw Jones, with 36 HRs in this fifth major league season at age-23, whose career total was 434) to those who flamed out (Ellis Valentine, Tommie Agee, Carlos Baerga, Billy Butler, Nate Colbert, Clift, and Cesar Cedeno, all who wound up with less than 200 lifetime HRs). It was clear from this initial list that Andujar was in a group that would produce far fewer than 400 HRs--35% fewer, in fact: the group's average lifetime HR total was 257.



But looking at that list again, and adding some more precise parameters, we can refine our projection in a way that better takes into account Andujar's power profile.

We like to measure "power profiles" by using a stat we call ISOBA. (You might recall it from earlier posts: ISOBA measures the ratio of isolated power to batting average. The higher it is, the more power-based the hits that are being produced.)

Andujar's ISOBA is .774, while most of the players on the list (including those with less than 200 lifetime HRs) had a significantly lower ISOBA value. So, to better predict Andujar's likely career HR total, we need to remove those players (Valentine, Agee, Butler, Baerga, Vern Stephens, Ron Santo).

We added two layers of refinement: first, a lifetime HR projection for the players on the list with ISOBA higher than .700, and second, a subsequent projection using only those players whose ISOBA was higher than Andujar's (exit Clift and Cedeno). The projection range calculated for these two groups is shown above in two locations: in the boxes as the far right of Andujar's stat line, and again in the "HR 23+" column (down at the bottom where the numbers are displayed in a light green background).

What they suggest is that Andujar's likely range for his career HR total is between 274 and 317.

So is Bill is right that Andujar "could" hit 400 HRs. Two players on this list--Thome and Jones--did so. Of course, Andruw had an 80 HR head-start from breaking into MLB as a teenager, while Thome proved to be a bonafide Hall of Fame slugger. Both players showed significantly more strike zone judgment at this age than Andujar has (12% for Thome and 8% for Andruw, as opposed to just 4% for Miguel) and this is a factor that can't be discounted as a likely retardant for sustained career success.

But Bill would have been much more comfortably connected to the level of rigor that people assume exists in his work if he'd revised his statement to say that there's a good chance that Andujar will hit 300+ HRs.

So why did he opt to go with the 400 figure? Was there actually something else behind that number, which just appeared out of thin air and reads like one more of his patented "fanboy excited utterances" (you know, like "Don Mattingly: 100% baseball, 0% bullshit": sheesh...) used as his preferred form of stylistic lubricant? Apparently not: his responses to skeptics in the subsequent chat sequence do not open any doors with respect to a viable rationale...

One final note, not related to Bill's "excited utterance." Note that the player on the above list with the lowest total of offensive WAR in his age-23 year is Jim Thome--who happened to wind up with the most lifetime HRs of anyone on the list. That's because even "offensive WAR" is subject to distortion, befouled by positional adjustments and insufficient attention to rate stat and league-relative valuations. It's untrustworthy as a gauge of overall and/or future value: in short, it's as much of a hot mess, honey, as a radioactive Tango Love Pie™ left randomly out in the sun...

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

THE UNCONSCIOUS DESIRE FOR A TIERED HALL OF FAME...

1939 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Cooperstown NY...
This is a topic that needs a great deal of numerical annotation--in fact, it would probably require a book to cover properly (and we've already had two seminally misguided efforts on the Hall of Fame in book form--Bill James in muckraking mode and Jay Jaffe in glorified hack mode: while the book could definitely be sold to a publisher, the question is more whether it has any chance to undo the damage already done).

But so many perspectives continue to be omitted from the discussion that it just might have to be done. The Hall of Fame needs transformation from within, and none of these smug outsiders (including yours truly) are going to penetrate the shifting veils that create more problems than they solve. We need an entirely different approach to make a Hall of Fame that absorbs its historical errors and points a way toward a more scrupulous approach to greatness.

The matter of a "tiered" Hall of Fame, where three levels of achievement are recognized and separated from one another, is an idea that's floated around since the mid-1980s, when Tom Hull (better known as a music critic) devised a vast project for a group of semi-sabermetrically inclined participants which operated on such a concept. These folks (and their names, aside from Tom's, mine and Brock J. Hanke's, are being withheld to protect the innocent) were known, at least for a time, as the Baseball Maniacs. (You can see that they were even mentioned in the first edition of James's Historical Baseball Abstract...)

Inner circle, middle circle, outer circle: these terms were explicitly part of Tom's scheme, and while the project didn't complete itself due to a level of effort that was virtually impossible to sustain, the tiered idea has wafted around the edges of subsequent "sabermetric consciousness" ever since.

Thirty-some years later, it's time to dust off that idea again and re-examine all of the vagaries of Hall of Fame selection to demonstrate how this approach can put to rest an entire series of stalemated arguments. (Assuming, of course, that some of those people can be convinced to take the bit out of their teeth...)

As for the current Hall of Fame voting (which announces later today), we expect Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay and Edgar Martinez to make it over the 75% threshold which allows them "front-door" entrance to Cooperstown. But are any of these players "inner circle" Hall of Famers? Should we use the convention of "voting consensus" to make these determinations? Does induction in the first year eligible make one a member of the "inner circle"? In the case of Edgar, would his (presumed) election on the 10th year of eligibility make him an "outer circle" Hall of Famer?

The knee-jerk answer is "no," but that answer stems from a series of imprecisions and imprecations that are attached to the process. A tiered structure is implicit in several ways, including the difference between election via the BBWAA (the "front door") and the various Keystone Kop-like incarnations of the Vets Committee ("the side-car door"). A different perspective on the Hall's history and a different approach to the data that is now wielded like a blunt instrument over stat-based "eligibility requirements" needs to evolve in order to untie the Gordian knot that is suppressing the possibility of a creative resolution to the Hall's perpetually divided consciousness.

It's a some-day project, sooner than later, hopefully--where there's life, there's hope. (As is the case that 2020 will restore sanity to the White House and finally put Dick Allen into Cooperstown. Does Dick really need to die before he's inducted? There's an amendment in the Constitution that should be protecting him--and us--from that.)

Oh, yes: here's my Hall of Fame ballot, in case anyone wants to know...

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffleld

Mine is a tactical ballot. Left off for purposes of down-ballot strategy are Halladay, who figures to get in anyway, and Todd Helton, who figures to get more than enough votes to set up an eventual induction. Ramirez, Kent and Sheffield need more votes from the BBWAA to either boost their chances down the road or strengthen the arguments that will be subsequently discussed by some cockamamie incarnation of the Vets Committee. If Kent gets to 50% before falling off the ballot, the Vets Committee will (as Vets Committees have done in the past) read that as a reason to pull the trigger for him.

But there might be a more interesting way to conduct the voting that works in conjunction with a "tiered" approach. Is that too complicated for the roiling world of public discourse? Should there be several linked voting mechanisms that get combined to produce a consolidated set of voting results that accommodate tiers?

Right now, the knee-jerk answers to those three queries are: yes (a positive), yes (a negative) and HELL NO. The job of the next book about the Hall of Fame (whether written by yours truly or some other poor unfortunate...) will be to turn around these knee-jerk responses and make the Hall of Fame into something that doesn't exist anywhere else: a truly interesting hagiographic institution.

As we like to say (when we remember to come here)...stay tuned.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

McCOVEY'S PEAK

Willie McCovey's passing reminds us of those paradoxical times when people thought it was amazing when a ballclub had four players who could hit 20+ HRs a year. (Examining that phenomenon as it existed in the four decades in which McCovey played is not part of this post, but it'd make an interesting follow-up...we'll try to remember to do that.)

What we're here to do today is a bit different. We want to examine McCovey's peak, which was a bit later in manifesting itself than what is usually characterized by sabermetric theory. (Truth told, peaks built around single seasons, such as the age 27 shibboleth, are ultimately not very useful--either for predictions or evaluations. We need more years, and we need to see peaks in the context of some number of years.)

And so, here, we're dusting off one of our favored "flavors of peak"--the six-year version. We require that a player collects at least 2500 plate appearances over those six years to be eligible to appear on a peak list--for which we resolutely (read: stubbornly) sort it by the old-school, "highly flawed" OPS+.

OPS+ is flawed, but what isn't? "Better" measures quickly become far too wonky and don't provide significant advances in understanding offensive ability--which is 90% responsible for the selection criteria involved in Hall of Fame arguments. (The other 10% are what people spend countless hours chasing their tales about.)

So, a useful basic approach to evaluating a hitter's historical achievement can still be found in OPS+, which is league and park adjusted--the basic and useful necessary adjustments. And, as noted, six-year increments give us a benchmark for how well a player can sustain a "peak" performance. When measured against all the hitters in baseball history, it's both illuminating and meaningful.

When we do this for McCovey, we see he has a great "stretch" (pun definitely intended...) from age 27-36 clustered in five six-year measures (ages 27-32, 28-33, 29-34, 30-35 and 31-36). In these five age ranges, McCovey ranks in the all-time top ten for OPS+ for six-year averages.

Most of this is driven by the three great seasons he had in a row from 1968-70, where his aggregate OPS+ tops out at 188. But the seasons surrounding these, particularly the years from 1965-67, weren't exactly chopped liver: McCovey's OPS+ for those years was 159. The backside (1971-74) was lower, but not that much lower (148 OPS+). All of that, and the forces of age as they impose themselves upon hitters, explains McCovey's continuing lofty position in the six-year rankings all the way out into the age 31-36 range.

And regarding the Hall of Fame, it's instructive to look at the leaderboards for six-year OPS+ to get a sense of how many hitters with lofty rankings over these "half a HoF" snapshots wind up in the Hall of Fame. We won't do anything systematic with that here--but let's look at the age 27-32 range with respect to who's in/out of the HoF.

The guys in the Hall are the ones in white type. As you can see, 21 of the Top 30 guys on this list have been inducted. (Several others ought to be inducted eventually--Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols. And we can always hope that the Vets Committee--or whatever they're calling that overdetermined clump of misdirected ersatz lobbyists these days--will see fit to put in Dick Allen before he dies. That would bring us up to 26 out of 30.)

Rights, wrongs, and rants notwithstanding, we can see McCovey here at #10, where he's in fine company. RIP, Willie...


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

SHREDDING THE BULLPEN: A WORLD SERIES SUCCESS STORY

Following up on our discussion of what happened to the Astros in their ALCS matchup with the 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox, we thought it might be worthwhile to see if playoff teams--and World Series winners in particular--showed a pattern of hitting well against relief pitchers. (You should know that the Dodgers, the first losers in two consecutive World Series since the Rangers did in 2010-11, had their bullpen shredded by both of the teams that beat them--the Astros in 2017, and the Red Sox this year...the Dodger relievers posted a 5.48 ERA in the just-completed Fall Classic.)

Thinking more globally, we went back to the data at Forman et fils (baseball-reference.com) to look at the overall performance vs. relievers over the past decade. (That gives us nine years of data to work with--a total of 270 data points--just shy of what's needed to win twelve slightly used Dodger Blue™ cupcakes.) Do teams that make the playoffs hit better than average against relievers? And do teams that win the World Series exceed the average of "garden variety" post-season teams?

The answer to both these questions is "yes." The table at right breaks it all out for you. Teams that
made the post season have their OPS+ vs. relievers displayed in bold type. Teams with a 120 "sOPS+" (Sean's acronym, not ours!) are shown in scalding orange; we've also color-coded teams with 110-119 (pale orange), 100-109 (yellow), and--on the opposite side of the spectrum--teams whose "sOPS+" is less than 85 (pale, pale blue).

At the bottom of the chart you have some averages--these are yearly "sOPS+" averages for the playoff teams. As you can see, the figures are uniformly above league average: for the nine years in question, the average "sOPS+" is 107.

Finally, note the cells with the double-thick lines around them. These are the World Series winners. And, yes, the World Series winners (as seen in the double-thick-lined box at the very bottom right of the table) are better yet on average than their post-season also-rans. Over the past nine years, World Series winners have an aggregate "sOPS+" of 112 vs. relievers.

Now, doing well in this statistic doesn't guarantee you a trip to the post-season; after all, it's only one component of team performance. There are many examples of teams doing well in this statistic who didn't make it to the playoffs at all. But if you do make it, having an offense that is able to do damage against the opposition's bullpen seems to give you a measurable advantage with respect to winning the World Series.

(And to complete another historical tidbit that was given a teaser above: teams that lost consecutive appearances in the World Series include not only the 2017-18 Dodgers and 2010-11 Rangers, but the 1991-92 Braves, the 1977-78 Dodgers, the 1963-64 Yankees, the 1952-53 Dodgers, the 1936-37 Giants, the 1923-24 Giants, the 1921-22 Yankees, and two teams--the 1911-12 Giants and the 1907-09 Detroit Tigers, who are the only teams to lose three World Series in a row. By doing it this year and last, however, the Dodgers have joined the Giants as the only teams to have three instances of "two-time loser" syndrome in the World Series. To match their Bay Area rivals, they'll need to make it back to the World Series next year--and hit the skids again...)

Friday, October 19, 2018

REGARDLESS...

...of your opinion about the call that clearly affected the outcome of Game 4 in the ALCS between the Red Sox and the Astros, there is one incontrovertible (and ironic) fact.

The Astros' bullpen, which had posted only one sub-par month (July, 5.19 ERA) during a season of exemplary achievement, picked a most unfortunate time to regress, giving serious ground in three games during the ALCS. Their overall ERA for the series (5.79) was actually better than their overall performance.

The Red Sox bullpen, considered suspect by many, managed to bend but not break during the series--and that made all the difference.

Peeking out from the stats is the fact that both pitching staffs were having trouble with their control. Red Sox pitchers averaged 5.09 BB/9 during the series, which looks a lot more like 1949 than 2018. The Astros were better (four walks per 9 IP), but this is still well above the regular season MLB average.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

POST-SEASON SNAPSHOT: A SIGH OF RELIEF FOR THE BULLPEN

So, OK, this is not really a "post-season" snapshot. There are no stats on post-season bullpen performance in this post.

What we do have, however, is a meditation on the changing perspective on the bullpen and its strategic importance for success that reverts back to more straightforward stats in order to capture those changes.

No one needs to be reminded that relief pitching is undergoing a transformation--the Tampa Bay Rays have made sure of that. We can expect more relief innings over the next couple of years as other teams attempt to emulate their "opener/delayed-starter-in-relief" strategy that was seemingly such a success.

But the value modeling that sabermetrics has imposed upon the game doesn't see it that way. Those numbers suggest that relievers did less to help their teams win games in 2018 than was the case in the previous seasons. Those modeling stats presume a different reality than what people see when they watch an individual game. And they tell us, year in and year out, that relief pitching has a net negative value in the overall model. This season, relief pitching had its most negative overall value according to Wins Above Average than has been the case in nearly half a century.

Is this hard to believe? Not for some. We find it hard to imagine, however, that teams whose bullpens post similar ERAs over a season can have significantly different WAR values. Of course, ERA has been "proven" problematic at the individual pitcher level by the recent attempts to use batter vs. pitcher (BvP) stats the go-to measure; but individual pitchers are not the only measurement aspect that we need to define and evaluate.

In fact, with the increase in reliever innings, it actually becomes more important to develop better aggregate measures for overall team performance in this area. And part of that effort should be to more tightly relate it to actual wins and losses.

And that's what we can at least start to do...by putting together these various measures in scatter chart relationships. The ERA+/WAA scatter correlation shows a lot of discrepancy in the -2.5 WAA range, with ERA+ values being all over the chart. Some high-achieving WAA teams are actually have sub-par ERA+ values.

How, then, is this any real advance over a ERA+/WPCT scatter correlation? While there are always teams who "beat" their WPCT projections based on their ERA+ (due to the fact that such teams give up extra runs in games already lost.

The solid correlation in the 90-110 ERA+ region with WPCT demonstrates that there's general set of principles that remain in operation in the mid-range of the distribution, but that it frays a bit at the extremes. That's a more natural set of relationships based on real-life game situations. It suggests that there's more meaning in reliever WPCT than has been claimed for the past twenty years.

And the game is changing in ways that will likely reinforce this. When we look at the final month of the 2018 season, we see several interesting aspects of how this is manifesting itself.

In September 2018, we can see that certain teams experienced "make-or-break" months with respect to the post-season in terms of bullpen performance. The table at left sorts relief pitching in descending order of ERA.

Looking at it, we can see how one team (the Brewers) clearly rode their bullpen performance into the post-season.

And we can see how two teams (the Cardinals and Diamondbacks) wound up falling short of playoff appearances due to the poor performance of their reliever in the final month. (The third team coded in green, the Mariners, were caught and passed earlier in the year by the A's, who rode their bullpen into the playoffs.)

The color coding here is of some interest. Seven of the teams with the best performance from their bullpens (seven of the twelve with better-than-average ERAs) wound up in the post-season. Three of the top four teams in September bullpen performance are still competing in the post-season at this time (Brewers, Dodgers, Astros--only the Red Sox had a subpar performance from their relievers in September, and they managed to keep a lid on things in enough of their appearances to generate more relief wins than losses).

Relief pitching is not broken out sufficiently in the otherwise overly-parsed situational data for us to know why the Braves could go 9-3 with a 5.05 ERA, but we can make an educated guess: their mop-up relievers in already lost games gave up a lot of runs. A team like the Indians (who suffered a virtually complete reversal in bullpen performance in 2018 after a fine season the year before) managed to blow leads at crucial moments, saddling themselves with losses, but they did not pitch poorly in already lost games.

What we can tell you is that the playoff teams in 2018 posted an aggregate 65-34 record in September games where decisions were picked up by relief pitchers. We'll let you decide if you think that is as meaningless as many still seem to think is the case.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

VITAL SIGNS: END OF SEASON

Ah, the September song. Is it a preview of "coming attractions" as regards offense?

Joe P., who felt the urge a couple months back to double down on the "take and rake" offense, would doubtless point to the fact that run scoring levels are still relatively robust (4.45 per game in 2018, and 4.44 in September) and dismiss the dip in batting average (BA) for the month (.243) as being meaningless. (After all, batting average is meaningless, n'est-ce pas? So long as isolated power (ISO) can remain at all-time highs, offense can remain "robust enough.")

But such is not going to be the case if one other factor continues to follow its trend line. The rise in strikeouts--more specifically, the rise in the percentage of strikeouts that occur in plate appearance where a batter has two strikes on him--will at some point have a cratering effect on batting average, which will domino in to on-base percentage (OBP) and slugging average (SLG).

Our chart at right shows the K-to-2-strike percentage as it's evolved from 1988 to 2018 (these are the only years where the play-by-play data is detailed enough to capture this info). As you can see, this percentage is slowly but inexorably on the rise and has risen by 30% over thirty years--with the fastest rate of gain occurring in the past decade after a long lull due to the "baked-in" effects of the offensive explosion.

Additionally, BA and tOPS+ values for two-strike situations have been decaying over this time frame. (The tOPS+ stat measures the OPS value of the two-strike PA against the overall OPS. This was close to fifty percent in 1988 and remained relatively constant throughout the explosion until 2009; now, however, that figure has moved down into the low forties. BA is declining along with it, with two-strike PAs reaching a new low this year (.173).

The direction of the trend lines means that the so-called "smart adjustment" that Joe P. touts (admirably defending the tenets of an increasingly senile sabermetrics) is pushing everything into perilous territory. Not only is the game becoming more two-dimensional offensively, but it's skating into a risky region where additional pitcher adjustments will bring BA down to levels seen in two months during 2018 (September: .243, June: .245) for the entire season.

Note that HR totals did recede this year (from the absurd 1.27 in 2017 back down to 1.15). But keep in mind that such levels have to at least be sustained in order to keep offense "robust enough." Pitching adjustments, in two forms--experiments with in-game pitcher usage, and analyses to counteract the "launch angle" phenomenon that was partially responsible for the HR spike--are beginning to make themselves felt. It's unlikely that hitters are going to adjust to such alterations by pitchers in a short period of time--leaving it highly likely that home runs will drop and strikeouts will continue to rise...

...Which will result in batting averages that look disturbingly similar to what we saw in the mid-to-late 1960s.

How far can HRs drop? That's harder to predict until we see more evidence of pitching staffs improving. In 2018, we had an unusually high number of really bad teams and really good teams. Several of the really bad teams barely improved their HR allowed rates, while the really good teams showed a higher rate of improvement. When such improvement becomes more uniform, it will begin to effect teams that managed to improve their HRs hit in 2018 and a more pronounced decline will set in.

As you can see in the final comparison chart for R, HR, and BB (each month in 2018 is compared with the R/G, HR/G and BB/G from its corresponding month in 2017), the decline here was consistent but relatively uniform. (BB/G has a frequent pattern of being higher in April and September, due to weather and/or roster issues...as you can see, June was the biggest outlier, but that's because the HR rate was simply insane in June 2017 and it drove R/G up toward "offensive explosion" levels.)

A uniform year, such as was the case in 2018, is often followed by a more jagged change in the following years.

Next year we'll run these numbers for two parallel years, showing the months of 2019 against their analogous months for 2018 and 2017. And we'll be back a bit later this month with a look at big swings in BA, OBP and SLG at the league level over the history of baseball. Stay tuned...