Friday, April 17, 2015

AND THE FIRST COMPLETE GAME OF 2015 GOES TO...

We waited thirteen days into the 2015 season...and there were thirteen previous games in which a starter threw at least eight innings (including two outings by David Price)...but the first complete game of the year was turned in by a pitcher who'd thrown two consecutive "7S" QMAX games in his previous 2015 starts and had allowed 19 hits in 9 2/3 previous innings.

That's right...it's Josh Collmenter of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who blanked the reeling San Francisco Giants (last year's World Champs are now 3-9 to start the season) on four hits in a 9-0 rout.

Collmenter had a complete game last year, so this is not an example of virginity loss or anything. Those who were hoping for a more dramatic performance (last year, just for comparison, the Padres' Andrew Cashner tossed a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts to kick things off in the CG department) will be a bit deflated by the fact that Josh fanned only two Giants en route to his route-going performance.

With signs of increasing caution in starting pitcher usage swirling around in the early going, we've got the sense that this just might be the year in which the total number of CGs dips below 100 for the first time ever. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NOT PROMISIN', BUT: 2015 QMAX TOP HIT PREVENTION SCORES DAY BY DAY, BY TEAM

What that title means is that we aren't promising to keep this up the whole damn season, at least not without some automation (or, perhaps, locomotion...) from some of our auto-didact associates.

But, for now, here it is--a way to see when the best starting pitcher performances (according to the Quality Matrix aka QMAX) occur.


































Some explanations: 1) the squares with the extra-bold borders are for those games in which the team lost: at this level of performance, they are (of course) much rarer and thus don't overcrowd the chart;

2) why do we break out two types of "2S" game here...well, that's because an alternate formulation of the QMAX matrix runs in parallel with the one chosen so many years ago to be the basis for the method, one that creates the breakpoints based on the ratio of IP/H as opposed to simple subtraction (IP-H, with adjustments for extra-base hits).

We discovered that the overlay allowed us to further test the probabilistic validity of this model...and this shows up in the 2S range as sorted between IP/H levels. The 2S games where IP>(2*H) produces higher team winning percentages (just over .750 over many years of data, and 8-2 in the 2015 data thus far); while the 2S games where IP<(2*H) have a winning percentage around .640 and a 6-4 record.

Of course, the chart can be enjoyed for simply displaying the top games by team, by day. You could also add all the other "S" scores on it, and make it into an overwhelming piece of visual data--and, if you're not nice to us, that's just what we'll do.

An early surprise from this data is the fact that the Nationals, with their highly touted starting staff, are simply not putting up any top hit prevention games thus far. Nor have the Yankees, for that matter. [EDIT: as of today--Tax Day morning--they are now the only two teams without any top hit prevention games from their starters.]

Now if we could keep this up, we could see which teams have the worst luck in their top hit prevention games--another item in the game subject to randomness that would add some detail to why there is variation between projected and actual WPCT. Every little detail is worth tracking, n'est-ce pas?

Monday, April 13, 2015

WHAT THE DEVIL GOT INTO ANGELL?

Yes, yes, Roger Angell is a national treasure and all that. Even the "wild west" of America, as represented by the Baseball Reliquary, has acknowledged this at levels of extravagance that border on the unseemly.

But the Grand Old Man is (to borrow our earlier conceit...) putting the "limp" into "limpid" with his cheeky chastisement of "games that go on too long" (his recent New Yorker blog post, written after the Yankees/Red Sox' 19-inning game) and his call for curfew.

Sure, he still turns phrases gracefully: but it's now a grace mostly due to slow-motion rather than the bracing eloquence that used to come from his mastery of changing speeds. And he still knows how to be just as pretentious as anyone (including ourselves...) by invoking Higher Powers of literary achievement--though we'll take The Wasteland over some middling Shakespeare history play any day of the week--in order to mask the ultimately pedestrian nature of the subject at hand.

What deep old age may have robbed from Roger (and, to be fair, this is likely to happen to anyone who survives into that unique region of twilight) is the romance still latent in baseball's odd margins--in this case, as manifested in extraordinarily long games.

That romance might be less easy to appreciate at the ballpark, when the late night/early morning creates physical conditions that are, shall we say, sub-optimal. Or at home with the TV on, where the combination of image and sparse dialogue (if it is even that) can't help but create a soporific effect--often well before extra innings.

Dig that suit, Mel! If we run across you in this at 3 AM,
we promise that we'll be wide, wide awake!!
But consider the fan, of any age, with a SmartPhone, suddenly adrift on a Friday night somewhere, anywhere, in this benighted land, who finds that they can tune into a game played (up to) thousands of miles away, listening to the voices of the announcers (even the oft-maligned Sterling and Waldman) as they alternate reportage and repartee, grousing happily about the lateness of the hour, knowing that they  and the fans are getting something that they all-too-rarely get these days.

Namely, extra value. For free.

Those who've become too old, or too self-involved, or too whatever should simply sit this one out, go home, roll over and play dead. For in the wee hours there is a spectral magic in the game that comes through loud and clear to anyone who's willing to surrender themselves to it.

I remember as a kid, long before it was easy to get such nationwide reception, listening to the legendary 24-inning Mets-Astros game in April 1968, on a cheap radio in my upstairs bedroom, safely tucked away from the prying eyes and ears of my parents. The reception faded in and out, and at that hour (going on two in the morning) so did I; like Angell, I dozed off and missed several innings.

Only to wake up and discover that, against all odds, the game was still going on. I'd slipped back to sleep after the fourteenth inning and reawakened in time for the twentieth.

It was a moment of hushed astonishment, the pleasure of paradox delivered in a prosaic discovery made strange and wondrous, as if it were part of a dream.

Only baseball can do that, O ancient literary legend. It can, when it decides to, transcend time. We've taken so much else away from it (and from ourselves)--let's not take that away, too. Sometimes common sense is merely common. No curfews, old man!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

100-PITCH OUTINGS CUT IN HALF DURING 2015's FIRST 5 DAYS

Too soon, of course, to consider it to be a trend, but worth a quick hit in order to put it (so to speak...) "into play"...

There have been 19 starts with 100+ pitches from the starting pitcher over the first five-plus days (we fudge here, since the season had a single opening night game on 4/5...) of the brand-spankin' new season.

This contrasts with 38 such starts over the same time frame in 2014.

You are cautioned not to take this as evidence of increasing caution, but...there it is.

We will follow up...stay tuned.

[UPDATE: As of 4/16, this ratio is remaining pretty much the same as what was initially reported. Now eleven full days into the season, the total number of 100+ pitch count games is at 59, as opposed to 111 such games over the same span in 2014. ]

Saturday, April 4, 2015

OH, WTF...PLAY BALL ALREADY (WITH SLOW DRIP: 2015)

Reports of our demise...have been highly:

( ) anticipated
( ) appreciated
( ) exaggerated
( ) reciprocated

(Come to think of it, the answer is likely "all of the above.")

Instead of a demise (sorry to disappoint you...), there has been a flurry of action toward a different kind of "big finish" that will serve both as capstone and summarizing filagree for Unsung Hero, the little documentary about the life and times of forgotten actor-activist Don Murray that grew past its inchoate egress and will now comprise a genre unto itself (thanks in large part to the kind indulgence of its subject, a man who makes the Stoics look like post-modern adolescent whiners).

Soon enough (at last!) for that, but this is still something akin to a "baseball blog," and the metastasized world of ball, bat, glove, jockstrap and seventy gazillion dollars is going to gear up its groin tomorrow night with the Cardinals and Cubs (in a battle of, among other things, faux nostalgia vs. faux progressivism). Neither goes down easy, but only one tends to come back up, so you will probably figure out on your own which one we'll be rooting for.

So what will we be doing to cover (and you can take that verb in more than one way...) all this in 2015? Of course, there will be the continuing watch on complete games--the easy way to focus on the passing of the days while staying abreast of the game's ongoing malaise.

And, as you can see above right, we'll remain vigilant about that forgotten, swept-into-the-armpit curse known as "interleague play." The April schedule for those games-that-barely-whisper-their name is there, but we'll wait till May to put the sinister fluid bag back on display.

Of course there will be the usual ranting and raving as we see fit...plus Buzzy the fly has been cleared for takeoff and will doubtless get himself in and out of peril in some of baseball's ongoing "reckonings in little rooms." He's asked for more hazard pay, however, and so we just might have to start up a Kickstarter campaign for him, since we've spent some considerable cash on the Murray film.

So, with a hearty WTF, let's "play ball."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

QMAX & 20-GAME LOSERS/1: ROGER CRAIG 1963

We neglected to mention in our last post (so many moons ago: our "Rare Noir is Good to Find!" series just concluded in San Francisco yesterday evening...) that the advent of the five-man rotation (which begins in the mid-1970s) is the key event in the sudden and incontrovertible decline of the 20-game loser.

It's odd to note that this is also the social timeframe in which government management consultants  begin to perfect their ability to distance themselves from actual accountability for their work, which leads to partisan data manipulation and an internal bureaucratic system that permits a permanent political strategy of "running against the government." Baseball's current roster situation (more and more pitchers) is a result of something analogous: dispersal of blame protects all the individuals while allowing for a permanent outcry against the system. This mindset is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to stem the tide of pitcher injury--root causes and goal-oriented science become muddled in politicized muck.

For those starting pitchers not fortunate enough to the beneficiaries of such a system, however, the tag of "20-game loser" is able to attain a quasi-romantic hue and becomes an odd "badge of honor." We're going to examine some of these "20-game loss seasons" via the lens of QMAX and try to separate these  "big losers" into camps--those who pitched well and were inordinately unfortunate, and those who didn't. Along the way QMAX will provide shape statistics that augment and cast some new light on the more standard value statistics.

First up for such a treatment is Roger Craig, who managed to survive two 20-game losing seasons to become a longtime pitching coach and a major league manager. We focus here on his second 20-game loss campaign, the one that occurred in 1963.

You may recall that the strike zone was enlarged for this season and sent run scoring down into an abyss that hit bottom in 1968. Craig was one of the more victimized starting pitchers of this general trend: in his 31 starts in 1963, his team (the lowly New York Mets) scored only 2.29 runs per game. They were shutout in nine of his starts, scored only one run in six more. In 23 of his starts, the team scored three runs or less. That is an incipient recipe for 20+ losses, and Craig's won-loss record was 5-22 (5-21 in starts) . The Mets were 8-23 in his games started.

QMAX--and remember that it doesn't make its calculations using the actual runs allowed, but by a grid that plots hit prevention (modified for extra-base hits) and walk prevention (which also accounts for hit batsmen)--posits that Craig was actually right around a .500 pitcher in 1963.

He's a finesse pitcher, as the QMAX chart and the overall values (4.00 "S", or hit prevention; 2.39 "C", or walk prevention) demonstrate.

That "Tommy John" region (the box at lower left of the matrix chart) further confirms this. Eight of his starts fall in this region, as opposed to just one in the "Power Precipice" region (at upper right), where control is profligate but the pitcher is bordering on unhittable.

The "range data" (which quantifies the colored and boxed regions on the matrix chart) indicates that Craig was hit hard a bit more than a fourth of the time--but the basic chart tells us that when he was hit hard, he was really hit hard (all but one of these games in the "7S" row). He did manage to win one of these games (part of what was only the second two-game winning streak he had over the entire course of the 1963 season).

The photo above shows Craig changing uniform numbers: he was in the middle of an eighteen-game losing streak and he resorted to supersitition (#13) in an attempt to break it. It didn't help, because Roger was in a skein of games where the Mets were scoring absolutely nothing when he took the mound (in the ten-game stretch from June 22 to August 4, they scored a total of eleven runs).

We can use the QMAX matrix chart to capture a key aspect of this bad luck. Our modified matrix diagram (at right) shows won-loss records and ERAs for key regions. On this version of the matrix chart, we can see that the woeful lack of run support actually resulted in the Mets having a losing record (3-4) in his "elite square" games (which, collectively, produced a .705 WPCT for teams in 1963).

All this in spite of a 1.79 ERA.

[Two notes: 1) these regions show the "team record" for games in these regions, not just Roger's won-loss record; 2) the mid-region in the "success square"--the more intense yellow coloring--simply repeats the W-L and ERA for both segments.]

Finally, we can demonstrate the effect of control for a finesse pitcher by looking at the "C" region breakouts. For Craig, he was a very competitive pitcher when he had his control--a 2.49 ERA and a 7-12 team record in these games. But when his control was spotty, he was slaughtered: a 6.12 ERA and a team record of 1-11.

All current systems value Craig as just about league average (Wins Above Average is just under .500), but only QMAX can show you the component details by looking at the shape of his performance.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

THE DECLINE OF THE 20-GAME LOSER

We''ll get back to the idea of "blue collar" starting rotations a bit later, when we can process a little more of the data related to that concept. Let's shift gears here and take a look at what's happened to yet another baseball phenomenon that's approaching extinction.

What's that? Why, the 20-game loser, of course. A conversation with a long-ago colleague reminded us of the decline in this statistical category. As the chart at right indicates, we've had exactly one 20-game loser since 1980.

As you can see, there was a little flurry of 20-game losers in the 1960s/1970s, but that fell apart with a loud thump after 1980. The last team that had two 20-game losers: the 1973 Chicago White Sox. It's a feat that we seriously doubt will ever happen again.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

BLOWN BACK: THE ANATOMY OF "UGGLY RELIEF WINS" AND OTHER ABOMINATIONS...

There has been much ado--mostly in the form of noise--about the fact that assigning wins to individual pitchers is a flawed process. Much of this ado (and much of it is, in fact, about nothing) is tied to an ideology that has developed from the value measurement systems that are being forced down the public's throat by emboldened cultists wishing to actualize the work of Bill James (who would merely make a corrective notation in the historical record) by actively rewriting the official stats to suit their own desires.

Step right up for those Radioactive Tango Love Pies™!!!
Call us curmudgeonly (and believe us when we say that we've been called much worse...), but we think that it might make sense to quantify the extent of the flaw before mounting a mouth-foam crusade to toss away the historical record. In the rush to judgment and the desire to own a mandate to interpret history, these folks (as usual, a number of them aligned with the purveyors of the Tango Love Pie™) have proven to be eerie precursors of the current United States Congress, a large faction of which hope to hijack history as well as the government. They both share the same strange obsession: to unilaterally declare something utterly irrelevant and bankrupt, only to follow by attempting to replace it with something that is, in fact, far worse than what they were criticizing in the first place.

The first step to a semblance of sanity with respect to the assignment of pitcher wins is to actually anatomize the flaws and then determine the rate of their occurrence. As is so typical of the "neo-post-neo" faction now searching for market inefficiencies in the degree of tension in an athlete's jock strap, the analysts favor "big data" without actually synthesizing any of it.

We see, for example, that a number of scoring quirks existed early in the twentieth century that assigned a handful of wins to a starter who hadn't pitched five innings. And we see a few stray instances of inconsistent judgment calls by official scorers. When we add this up over the long history of the game, however, we see that these types of glitches account for 0.5% of the total games played.

Viva la revolucion, n'est-ce pas??

But there is an area where wins are assigned with a through-the-looking-glass quality. These occur directly in conjunction with inefficient relief pitchers who surrender a lead and receive a win when their team retakes the lead while the pitcher who was lousy is still the pitcher of record.

This occurrence is not accurately quantified in any official way thus far; there are only surrogates for it that do not directly address the actual frequency. Over at Forman et fils, they list the number of times the starting pitcher is "in line for a win" but the team goes on to lose--an interesting stat in its own right and one that might assist in understanding the efficiency of a team's bullpen, but one that doesn't get to the root of our issue at all since we are looking for "wins while pitching badly that were stolen from someone who pitched better."

There is one statistic that can get us to where we want to go, however. That stat is the "blown save."

It's a stat that is overlooked, even scorned, due to two factors: 1) its lack of historical pedigree and 2) due to its odd lack of precision that creates "save situations" in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. But it's precisely that lack of precision that affords us insight into the situations where what we've characterized (back up top in the title...) as "uggly relief wins."

In other words, wins as a result of blown saves.

So--how many of these are there? In 2014, there were a total of 59 "blown save wins"--wins awarded to relievers pitching badly enough to relinquish a lead, and then benefit from a go-ahead rally while they were still pitchers of record.

That works out to 2.4% of all wins for the 2014 season.

So what that means is that the cause celebre, this blight of all blights, constituting--apparently--the sellout of truth, justice and (God help us...) the American way, is focusing on a method that is perfectly reliable upwards of 95% of the time.

Reassigning 59 wins from relievers who've found this annoying little loophole seems a lot more reasonable than developing overwrought automated systems that reassign up to ten times as many wins in any given season.

Perhaps we need more history and more context? Would it be valuable to know if the percentage of "uggly relief wins" has changed over time? And maybe useful to have a sense of how the changes in the usage of the bullpen may (or may not) be affecting blown saves/blown save wins and this purported "conceptual crisis of the win"?

Well, of course we do. And Forman et fils is the place to acquire it. We spent some time (when we had it--as you may have noticed, we're not here a lot at this time because we have many, many other things on our plate...) looking at the data. And we've compiled a summary chart that gets us to the root of the matter.



The chart (above) starts with the actual number of blown saves in a season. We've condensed the data to reflect how the essential pattern has evolved. Accelerated bullpen use took hold in the mid-to-late 80s and was exacerbated by the offensive explosion in the 90s: we reach a peak at the very end of that decade. Things have declined a bit since, but seem to have plateaued.

Blown Save Wins (BlSvW) have also descended since the late 90s, and the percentage of "uggly relief wins" (UGG%) has declined back to pre-offensive explosion levels.

One of the other things that we thought might be significant here was to see if the ever-increasing use of relievers was having an effect on "uggly relief wins," particularly in terms of how long a reliever pitches in these. What's striking here is that from 1949 to the present, the vast majority of "uggly relief wins" come from pitchers who pitch at least one full inning (89% of them, in fact) while the percentage of blown saves that are an inning or more in duration is consistently between 50% and 60%.

That means that there's something structural about how "uggly relief wins" manifest themselves that resists any perturbing effect by the increasing number of relief appearances being made.

And interestingly, the percentage of blown save wins (same thing as "uggly relief wins," just in case that wasn't clear) in appearances equal or greater to a full IP is dropping. (That can be seen in the far right column, the one marked B!Sv1+% (yes, that "!" was supposed to be an "l"...fat fingers uber alles!) One wonders that if offense continues to decline, whether "uggly relief wins" will continue to drift downward.

So should we worry about the "uggly relief win" and how it has ruined the use of pitcher wins? No, of course not. But we don't expect this finding to gain much traction with the ideologues, who would like to take away texture and shape and all of the "imprecision" in value assessment that they imply, and try to do so with the zeal of a score of possessed mothers compelled to throw out bathwater and baby. (Give us spots on our apples, and leave us the birds and bees, already...)

Finally,  here's an astonishing fact related to blown saves in general that just dropped out of the data collection effort. It turns out that, over the last twenty years at least, the blown save--this is in general, now, for all outings identified this way, not just those that become "uggly relief wins"--is accompanied by an exceptionally high stolen base rate. It's not uncommon for the success rate in steals during blown saves to be upwards of 85% (in 2013, there were 91 SB, 14 CS in blown saves, or 86% to the good).

What does that mean?? Hard to say. But it's strange, and interesting, and more worthy of some fuss and fol de rol than the so-called "crack in the earth" purportedly produced by the fact that pitcher wins are not a perfect laboratory product.

Friday, February 27, 2015

MINOSO AND BOYER

We are loath to traffic in the bracing but often overly brilliantined "compare/contrast" franchise that Bill James invented in order to create a framework for literary form often masquerading as analysis. Such a technique reached its apex (or its nadir) in The Politics of Glory, where the dualist approach was so pervasive as to signal a potentially dangerous compulsion. (Of late, Bill has returned to this technique, improving on it by improvisationally adding more players to the comparison.)

As a stylistic device, it's often fascinating because there is a palpable psychological undercurrent that emerges from it that often transcends the mere content being discussed. The same cannot be said, however, for those who slavishly imitate the form that Bill invented. Contrarian philosophical urgency, which oozes out of Bill's toothpaste tube of discourse almost involuntarily, is replaced by a kind of wan sophistry (as embodied by the Lindberghs and the Keris and the bland inheritors of all the "prairie fire" numberists) that instinctively chooses limpid over lumpen.

To put it another way, Bill's work in this area has always been akin to a blue plate special which relied heavily on the prominent placement of side dishes, which often were plopped on the plate first in anticipation of the main course's arrival (often plopped down with the rough panache of a proud backyard chef). His inheritors have all shown the lamentable (but market-driven) tendency to go nouvelle, serving up tiny entrees on impossibly large plates with some festive food coloring festooned round its edges.

So you can sense our reluctance to traipse through those dangerous swinging doors. But, hey, when in Rome, right?

The recent passing of Minnie Minoso reminded us of just how long there has been a case bubbling over (as opposed to a case of bubbly delivered erroneously to your address...) about his worthiness for the Hall of Fame. Our view is that he's just on this side of that paradisiacal marker, but we would lose no sleep if a lobbying campaign carried him into Cooperstown. Thinking about this again on the occasion of his passing, we're reminded of Ken Boyer--a contemporary of Minnie's who also has been heavily touted for the Hall of Fame by the numbers crowd.

So before we could stop ourselves, we tossed together our version of a "comp" for these two. As you'd expect, ours is radically simpler than what you'd get with WAR (a system that clearly distorts the importance of fielding and uses a transient combination of coarse models and crude interpretations to overstate positional difference).

This radical simplicity is, indeed, radically simple: OPS+ and triples. (Not triples...again?? Fear not: this is our version of the Jamesian "side dish," applied here because we think it's interesting to look at category defined by its scarcity in the time frame being covered.) These are arranged in five-year totals/averages.

What we see here is (despite what is also a calculational strangeness in the offensive component of WAR) just how good Minnie was in this time frame.

That's eight straight five-year slices where he's in the Top 15 in OPS+, an overall stretch of twelve years. By contrast, Boyer has only one five-year slice where he cracks the Top 15. Minnie made it into the top ten four times.

Boyer surprises us, though, with his showing in triples. We had to remember (and without help from Brock Hanke) that Ken came up to the majors with some speed, and even played a passable center field one season early in his career. Playing in a league where ballparks conducive to triples were already giving way to the cookie-cutter stadia of the sixties, Boyer's 3B totals rank well even if they pale in comparison to Minnie's at their peak.

What probably keeps Minnie on the outside looking in with respect to Cooperstown, however, is his lack of a palpable peak at any point of his career. Numbers guys have meta-categorized such a region of players with the glib monicker of The Hall of the Very Good. In Minnie's case, he's probably more accurately in The Hall of the Very, Very Good. Boyer, a fine fielding third baseman (but not quite as good as the numbers guys have claimed) is probably straddling each of these regions.