Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Before we spend time and bandwidth befouling and buffaloing you with the QMAX esoterica that can be ladled onto the just-traded Jonathan Sanchez, let's just shake out heads at the sabe-world's continuing fixation with Kansas City.

The Royals really are no more inept than the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the godfather of sabermetrics didn't live and die with the Buccos during the formative years of the snark-crackle-pop of the sourest science this side of a stale SweeTart.
Rob Neyer, in a feeble attempt
at misdirection...

It's been twenty years since either team was worth a pitcher of warm spit.

Bill James moved on, but replacement-level fixationists such as Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli have maintained the tradition in ways that were more shrill and more dim all at once (a testament to their unique talents). 

Theo as St. George...
St. George as Theo
(hmmm...might be time to
let that hair grow out).
Thanks to these chimps, there continues to be enough buzz about this frabjously forlorn franchise to drown out a good bit of the bittersweet buzz that swarms around the Chicago Cubs (until Theo Epstein, proving himself to be the ersatz Joseph Campbell of baseball executives, decided to take his horse and his suit of armor to that other hotbed of boutique nostalgia).

Thirteen years ago, the buzz was all about the Florida Marlins. They'd slain all of their high-priced dragons, and they were about to prove how creative destruction would yield a new paradigm for how to ascend the ladder of success. For five years--1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002--this was the word as handed down from the Baseball Politboro: it really did have an odd Soviet feel to it.

The Fish fizzled in the pan for five years, getting about 45% of the way to the Promised Land. The A's stole their thunder, and helped to launch a perfect-storm collision between mythology and economics. Once they were abandoned by the best and the brightest, they made a couple of (seemingly) counterintuitive trades, and had a much belated (yet shockingly swift...) Miraculous Moment.

Eighty percent of all franchises have been in the post-season since 2003, but of the six who've been on the outside looking in, it's the Royals who get the most buzz. (For the record, the descending order of attention for the other perennial doormats: Toronto, Seattle, Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh).

By whatever measurement system one cares to apply, the Royals are the recipients of more attention per neuron-above-replacement than any team that hasn't been to the World Series since the Marlins made it. Though they ranked 30th in WPCT from 1995-2005, and 28th from 2006-2011, KC is about sixteenth in sabe-centric media coverage. This is all due to the lingering effect of the corps of writers who were able to gain a foothold in the national consciousness.

Consequently, the trade that sent our old pal Melky Cabrera (!!) to the Giants and sent Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals has created so much buzz in the past day that even we can't ignore it.

Of course, the two players involved are archetypes in and of themselves as these have developed in the neo-sabe age--players whose archetypal status creates and reinforces a pattern of privilege and taboo. The rat's maze of science and myth in the field as it's presently constituted is both as simple and elaborate as what Joseph Campbell et al have mapped out for us in the nether regions of hero worship.

• •

Jonathan Sanchez, contemplating Kansas City...
Ergo Jonathan Sanchez. Understand from the get-go that if J-Boy had been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the amount of discussion produced by  his relocation would have been roughly one-tenth of what's spread across the Internet in the past thirty hours or so.

While the Royals are clearly part of that (the sabe-centric world needs to bring this team out of its seemingly endless assignation with the underworld--it buttresses their belief system and honors their distant, curmudgeonly father), there's an added component that revs the scrutiny into overdrive.

And that's Sanchez' particular set of characteristics. He's a wild-ass lefty with enough raw stuff to make the mostly dormant codpieces of the sabe-set (vacant in large part due to the demise of the slide rule...) bulge with anticipation. During the Giants' annus mirabilis in 2010, Sanchez seemed to be on the brink of becoming. (Yes, that's a complete sentence...we are talking about sabe-centric myth, not the actual outcome whereby a wild southpaw occasionally turns into a Hall of Famer.)

Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner: the three remaining "Steampunk amigos"
give their wayward brother a muted but wacky farewell...
In 2011, however, he regressed. He got injured. And his protean personality appeared to grate on those who'd been able to ignore it in 2010.

All of Sanchez' potential, which remains writ large in the minds of the sabe-set due to the symbolism of his 2009 no-hitter, has been transferred to a team (the Royals) in need of a psychic renewal--one that's been receiving a kind of pre-emptive, repetitive prophecy for about four years now.

Yes, it's true. Sabermetrics has gone steampunk.

Obligatory, obfuscatory babefication...
All of which means it is a perfect time to dig deep into the QMAX bag of tricks in order to anatomize Jonathan as he goes off to meet his fate in the midwestern underworld. What makes Sanchez so much fun is that he embodies the most dramatic sub-region in the QMAX continuum--the dangerous, maddening, ex-PreRaphaelite zone known as "the Power Precipice." This is where wild-ass lefties are born--and where most of them die.

That right side of the QMAX matrix box is a thrill ride in the abstract and a nightmare in the concrete, pitch-by-pitch world. Watching some of these guys going through their motions will drive a reformed smoker to light up an entire pack all at once--sort of Beyond the Valley of the Full-Pack, if you get the drift.

It is a way-station, a place that is either passed through or buried within. Some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history began their careers here--and for many of them it was touch-and-go as to whether they would survive to make the rest of the journey.

We begin with Sanchez' 2009 season, because until he threw that no-hitter against the Padres on July 10th, virtually no one was paying attention to him--he had a 5.54 ERA and was probably a start or two from being demoted to the minors.

His next ten starts, however, got folks intrigued. He was still a bit wild (3.9 BB/9), but his K/9 was through the roof (11.4) and his ERA for all eleven games (including the no-hitter) was 2.75. For the first time in his career, he strung together five solid starts. By the end of the year, he was looking like an actual project.

The Power Precipice is that box enclosed within the QMAX diagram at the upper right. It overlaps with what we call the "Success Square" (a term we've chosen not to rename despite its unfortunate rapprochement with Jonah Keri's regrettable "Success Cycle", which was actually more akin to a money laundering operation). It's not an area where a "garden-variety" pitcher resides; the ones who do are usually called "hurlers." With ten such games out of 29 starts, Sanchez clearly was doing a lot of hurling.

Things seemed to get better in 2010, especially down the stretch, as all of the Giants' starters became Zen-like (except the original King of Zen, Barry Zito, a lefty making a mis-timed trek back into the Power Precipice). Sanchez posted a 2.48 ERA over his final eleven regular-season starts, including a classically rare 1,7 QMAX game (one in which the pitcher is literally too fast and wild to be hit, giving up virtually no hits but issuing more walks than innings pitched).

As you can see, there was some leftward shift in Sanchez' 2010 QMAX chart. (A leftward shift, despite what you read in the media, is always a good thing.) He actually managed to have a couple of starts land in the "Tommy John" region--sort of the "white dwarf" alternative world to the "red giant" apocalyptico of the "Power Precipice."

There are twice as many games in the "TJ" region than there are in the "PP" region: the "backwards" pitchers with the opposite ratio, like Sanchez, are usually euphemized with the word "colorful."

In 2011, the slippage is interesting (and worrisome). It isn't so much a regression to wildness (though that is clearly there, with a large jump in BB/9) as it is a decline in hit prevention.

Basically there are a bunch of games that used to be in the Power Precipice (where the probabilities of winning remain high) that have slipped into a more problematic region. That "3" zone, as measured horizontally across the QMAX diagram, has the greatest percentage drop in expected WPCT from left to right of any row in the matrix.

When we add up the range data and break it out into percentages for the three years (below left), we can see all of this with added clarity. Sanchez' top hit prevention games (the top two rows of the QMAX diagram) and his "Success Square" games are highly correlated despite being a different sub-set of games--normally a pitcher will have more "Success Square" games than "top hit prevention" games. To have such a pattern is to exhibit several different ways of being effective. Sanchez doesn't have that pattern. He's got a narrow bandwidth in which he can pitch well.

And the data shows that he is losing ground even in the portion of his game that's been his strength. The 2010 uptick in the "Elite Square" (the very best games, inhabiting the smaller yellow box at the upper left in each QMAX diagram) should have been followed by a push upward in the overall "Success Square" in 2011. That's often what happens when a sequence such as the one Sanchez had from 2009 to 2010 occurs. But it didn't happen here. That's not a good sign.

What's also possible when integrating the QMAX data with more mainstream stats is to project a "top performance ceiling" by taking the best consecutive starts from adjacent seasons and doing what Bill James used to call "game line assembly." We use eleven consecutive starts and assemble them from three consecutive years, which approximates a full season at what was the best from each year. The "Top 33" QMAX data shown in the table above (in green) is the assemblage of these "best starts" into a projection of a "peak season."

The diagram at right provides all of Sanchez' starts in these three subgroups, and provides the ERA for each eleven-game unit, along with the QMAX "S" (hit prevention) and "C" (walk prevention) averages. We sum up the data from the three years to show what the projected stat line would look like for this "peak season." We also see the raw totals for each subgroup.

What we also toss in, to add a little more spice to it, is the projected total stats at the same projected number of IP for each yearly group of eleven starts (in the grouping labeled "EXT"). What shows up strongly here is the decay in Sanchez' peak during 2011--a slight decline in hit prevention, the marked increase in walks, and the decay in strikeouts.

Back in the range data table we had a line marked "PROF"--that stands for "Profile." It's the aggregate QMAX range data for pitchers who average 61% of their games in the "Success Square." We put this in to compare the averages for all the other regions to the projected peak season shape that is created when we do the "game assembly." What we see there is how different the shape of Sanchez' projected peak is when compared to the average pitcher with this level of success. In order to be that successful with the type of raw numbers shown in the three-year summary diagram, Sanchez is pitching in the "Power Precipice" even more often than he is in real life (36% as opposed to 28%). He's got to reach historically low "Hit Hard" percentages (just 6%, about three times lower than the average pitcher in this range). His "QR ratio" (the percentage of good games where the pitcher exhibits excellent control) is impossibly low.

Tommy Byrne, taking dead aim between
Row A and Row Z...
The type of effort involved in pitching this way is virtually untenable. There are a precious few over the history of baseball who've pitched like this for more than just a few years--most notably our old pal Tommy Byrne, the true "King of the Power Precipice."

But Byrne played at a time when many pitchers in his league (the AL of 1946-55) had profiles that at least approached his; he's less out of whack with the AL norms for most of these seasons than Sanchez is in the present day.

The monomyth that Sanchez embodies is the wild-ass lefty who emerges from the underworld with 90+% of his stuff and 200% of his control. Pitchers who fit this profile are few and far between, but they are gods--Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson. They can probably be counted on Three-Finger Brown's pitching hand.

But the urge for the myth--tied to the sabe-set's need to untie the Gordian knot, to slay the Minotaur, to bell the cat, to sleep with a string of supermodels--is so strong that it can't be left unheeded. Especially when it's tied to the equally centrifugal force emanating from a parallel need to predict another underdog franchise resurrection--the desire to return to the amniotic fluid of sabermetrics itself, the ovarian waters in which the Royals have been dog-paddling for what seems like an eternity.

Like the umbilical cord itself, it's hard to let go of--even when you are unaware of its existence. These are deep, deep desires, and while we like to trifle with them here, to chide those who prefer to believe that they are simply men in lab coats, we do understand what's really at stake. One can only be buried alive for so long before one is simply buried.