Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Let's stick with those Dodgers for the moment (well, sort of...the player we'll be discussing is, in fact, an ex-Dodger). It is surprising to virtually everyone that as of today the Boys in Blue are sporting the best record in baseball. As impressive (and unlikely) that current state of affairs might be, however, consider that LA (in the midst of Chris Capuano's hot streak, as noted last time) traded away someone who is currently outpitching everyone in the Dodgers' starting rotation.

Who's that? (Hey, we put his name in the title!) It's James McDonald, given a grand total of five starts by the Dodgers in 2009-10 before being summarily exiled to Pittsburgh for two months' worth of Octavio Dotel. This is one of those type of trades that all manner of sabe types (classic, neo, post-neo, meta-post-neo...) universally despise, even in the context of a "trade deadine" stretch run, and particularly when the pitcher has gotten so few opportunities in the role he'd been envisioned in by the organization while they were developing him.

(OK...yes, Clayton Kershaw supporters, the 2012 CYA winner is still tops. But imagine what the Dodgers might be like had they kept McDonald in the place of, say, Aaron Harang.)

McDonald's exit is part of the Joe Torre legacy--ol' Joe is not someone who appreciated the talents of young pitchers. He probably was a victim of his own post-season success in 2008, when he looked so impressive as a surprise addition to the Dodgers' playoff roster, fanning seven in five innings of relief work. After breaking camp in the rotation going into 2009, James struggled in the early going and found himself back in AAA in May. Returning in late June, he was shuffled back into the bullpen and was (predictably) inconsistent--it was a role he'd never played previously in his career.

Armed with extra battalions of spare relievers and starter reclamation projects in '10, Torre simply took one more look at McDonald--a mid-season start after a stint in AAA--and when that one didn't turn out so well, they walked him off the gangplank and into the Pirates' leaky little dinghy.

McDonald worked out some kinks in the Pittsburgh rotation last season, pushing past long-ball and control issues. Smoothing out his delivery, and developing a baffling new pitch (an off-speed slider), James has started 2012 with a bang: his QMAX score of 5.20 (2.5 S, 2.7 C)is nearly two points lower than what he averaged last year. A 90% success square ranking, while clearly not sustainable, is pretty electrifying.

Let's spend the last portion of our time here looking a little more into what's behind the current uptick in McDonald's performance. Craig Brown over at Fake Stats weighs in regarding the new pitch and how it has changed the landscape for James: we went a bit further and broke out the Brooks data into a chart that shows the distribution of pitches for 2011 and 2012 by count.

Legend: FA-fastball; SI-sinker; SL-slider; CU-curve; CH-changeup; A-Ahead; B-Behind; E-Even (1-1, 2-2), 2K-with 2 strikes, 3B-with 3 balls; 1st-first pitch (0-0 count)

What we are still missing in the data coming to us from the PitchF/X suite (so far as we can tell, at any rate...) is the type of pitch thrown on the precise count that decides the outcome of the plate appearance.  So the best we can do with the above data is show the distribution of the pitches thrown on each count, as captured in the Brooks data (but not broken out in the format we're showing here).

When we do that, we see that the marked increase in slider usage by McDonald is probably (emphasis mine) helping him on the first pitch (of course, there's no way he's going to hold opposing hitters to a .481 OPS on the 0-0 count all year--that's where some of the regression is going to come from). More subtly but possibly more sustainable, however, are the gains show at 0-1, 1-0 and 2-1.

James is throwing many more sliders on the first pitch, more sinkers, less fastballs, and half as many curves. He's cut back on the curve ball on two-strike counts, but this doesn't seem to be making a lot of difference--he was already effective with two strikes, as are most pitchers. By throwing the slider more on the 1-0 count, James seems to be able to keep the ball in the park: the 1-0 count was a bit of a disaster for McDonald in '11.

More cross-mapping of this data just could tell us some things, and might be the place where we'll be able to verify how pitcher performance alters, for both good and bad. So far, these indicators have been applied in a manner that's  mostly global: it's probably time to start seeing how well they can work when applied with greater levels of granularity.

In the meantime, keep an eye on J-Mac. He's wearing Don Drysdale's number (53) and right now he's doing a pretty good imitation of ol' Big D.

Monday, May 28, 2012


So how is Chris Capuano doing it? Will the fulminating fricative force that sends its gassy effluence upward from foundation slabs across our befouled nation have to scratch off a grudge mark from the tally sheet of Dodger GM Ned Coletti, or will the currently high-flying veteran lefty (7-1, 2.14 ERA) misplace his absestos suit and return to his former occupation as a human torch?

QMAX shows that Chris has improved markedly this year in hit prevention, though no one (including us) would claim that ten little old starts counts for enough to hang a hat (even an ass-hat) on.

A larger sample (breaking Capuano's lifetime starts down into segments that are close to single season numbers--28 starts per grouping, save for the most recent, which covers but 26...) shows that Chris has never shown any marked ability to prevent hits--as measured by "top hit prevention" (S12) and "hit hard" (HH) percentages.

His current fifteen-start HH average (23%) is the lowest it's ever been, something that he matched only during 2006, when (pre-injury) he looked as though he might be more than a #4-#5 rotation type.

Similarly, his top hit prevention (which has never been very good) has suddenly shot up to its highest percentage in his career.

What's behind this? Might be a time where the more detailed stats can guide us toward a more definitive notion of whether Capuano has found a new level of pitching prowess, or whether he's just had a hot streak.

First, the Fangraphs data shows that while Chris is giving up more fly balls than ever before (45%), he's managing to keep the ball in the park (only 6% of his fly balls allowed have been HRs thus far in '12). Next, the split data at Forman et fil shows that batters are only hitting .135 off him when they've hit fly balls this year, about 90 points below his lifetime average. Measured by OPS, that difference increases to nearly 300 points.

It's also possible that someone in the Dodgers' organization may have figured out that Chris pitches better with five days rest. Half his starts this season have come under such a scenario, and Capuano has been extra sharp so far (4-0, 1.07 ERA). It will be interesting to see if the Dodgers make any effort to target that performance feature over the course of the year.

There's clearly some early-season luck at work, however. Capuano has allowed just a .111 BA (4-for-36) with men in scoring position this year (.406 OPS; lifetime is .750, and he's never finished a season under .650).

We aren't quite so keen on the PITCHf/x data, where we see that Capuano's fastball has suddenly disappeared into a "sinker" that was totally unidentified in previous breakouts. The velocity charts indicate that this "sinker" is within a fifth of a mile per hour of the fastball velocity rate, but somehow the PITCHf/x system has become sensitive enough to detect a different trajectory. Given that Chris' fly ball rate has gone up this year, we're forced to wonder about this.

The big issue with Capuano is stamina across the season; over his career, his ERA in the second half of the season has been more than a run higher than in the first half (4.97 vs. 3.68). The QMAX monthly data splits indicate that Chris starts to lose his edge in June.

So can Capuano keep the ball in the park as the season moves on? That's the big fat question, without doubt. That rate has jumped up 35% in the second half of the year over the course of Chris' career.

We'll soon see if Chris can keep his fly zipped. If he can, this might turn into one of the most unexpected turnarounds in recent memory. But Capuano will need to sustain this kind of changed pattern over the next couple of months before anyone should decide that what they've seen thus far in '12 is for real.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Joe: Doesn't need the cap the way Mike does, but could use a
splashier coat & shirt to add flair to his grumble...
OK, we'll play along here. It's probably semi-coincidental (how's that for hedging?) that several of the old,  tragically diaspora-ized crew from Baseball Prospectus popped up (they always did have a strong tendency to uppercut...) to warn us off the surprisingly successful 2012 incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles.

Mike: "I've always been better
than a 'replacement-level' singer!!"
Our knee-jerk reaction (which began to coalesce way back in 1997, meaning that this is the fifteenth anniversary of our yeoman efforts to merely look askance at the misbegotten moonings of the MBA cadre) was simply to take the opposite tack from what Rany Jazayerli, in full bluster mode at (g)Rantand--and Joe Sheehan, cementing his position as the Mike Love of neo-sabermetrics over at SI--were putting forth.

"fWAR!"..."bWAR!!" "fWAR!!"..."bWAR!!!"
But that's too simple. As those of you who clothespin your nose and come over here when not exercising better judgment already know, we are attracted to complication. And so rather than merely concluding "more BP alumni asshattery," we decided to examine Sheehan's article at greater length, mostly to see how the grammar and rhetoric of neo-sabe orthodoxy was holding up as it slouches toward its post-adolescent years. (Rany's material remains so one-note that it still fits into the original Stalinist model that propelled the post-neo-sabe movement into its current mystical WAR zone, where the "dance of the dueling uber-stats" continues apace even as each competing pirate-boat furiously retools its wind machines to offset their slackening sails.)

Sheehan, however is cagier, lurching (with a curious, overly assured professorial tone) toward a position neither prone nor supine but more off-handedly propped up, like one of those posed porno shots--conjuring up another worrisome sub-genre of "neo" discourse, one that the traumatized taxonomist is forced to term (though not without justifiable trepidation) "meta-neo-sabermetrics."

Ol' Uncle Joe is more avuncular here than in most of his narratives, borrowing from "post-neos" (the FanGraphs folks who've glommed into the old BP/SI hegemony) as he carefully suggests (well, possibly only in comparison to Rany's contemptuous dismissal...) that the O's early success (how dare these guys get in the way of us continuing to sell the Rays' story!!) is founded on shaky, probably unsustainable factors.

Adam Jones: "Hey,, man, I
can keep hittin' 'em just this much farther
and that gets 'em just over the fence, see?!"
What does Joe borrow? FanGraphs' ballyhooed but largely uncorrelated stat, home runs per fly ball (HR/FB). Last time we checked, this stat had only one proven application--as a metric (there, we said it!) for pitcher performance. Here's where the "meta" comes in. Joe, looking to take (as opposed to break) new ground, implies a correlation for offensive success in his use of HR/FB to characterize the O's early run scoring in '12.

Joe's strategy in the piece is to use variations of a "regression to the mean" argument to suggest (note the use of the world "probably") that the O's aren't quite ready to step up and contend. "Unknown" relief pitchers overachieving, "unsustainable" HR/FB ratios--these are the rhetorical undergarments of a grammar still more ideological than scientific.

There's no mention of exactly how much better the O's are doing at run prevention (the exact number, -1.12, is a figure that might call too much attention to itself). There's a discussion of how the O's have a poor defense (though no corroborative reference is provided; indeed, the O's are committing more errors than most AL teams--but so, for that matter, are the Rays).

Dylan Bundy: maybe the next Roy Oswalt, but the O's might
need the current one to be able to make the post-season.
Joe is also quick to display his knowledge of Baltimore's farm system, as he plants the "kiss of death" on 19-year-old pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, whose first thirty innings in the SAL, to be sure,  have been electrifying--but the idea that any young pitcher will simply leap to the majors and dominate is far-fetched at best. [UPDATE: The O's have promoted Bundy this weekend--from low-A to high-A.] Hey, it sounds good, though, doesn't it? It's some canny misdirection disguised as long-term thinking--an echo of the "success cycle" kitchen-sink morass that played such a key role in the genesis of the Moneyball myth.

Dan Duquette, showing that he's been watching videotape
of Mike Love's gesticulatory prowess...
We couldn't find a previous Sheehan reference to Dan Duquette (the man who still gets too little credit for the Red Sox success in the first half of last decade), but the passive-aggressive phrasing suggests that Joe may have said something disparaging somewhere along the line when the former Sox executive took over in Baltimore last winter--thus what we in the biz like to call the "covering qualification," which is a statement that attempts to convince that the writer really had a more open mind back at the point in time when he/she made a sweepingly dismissive statement.

All in all, it's a skilled, slightly overwound example of "meta-neo" journalism, carefully positioned to allow for some prognosticative leeway should the O's continue to thrive. It alludes to deep numerical forces that sound empirical even if no point of connection has actually been made to how games are actually won and lost.

Tommy Hunter: the deeper into the game he goes,
the worse things get.
Sheehan might have looked at the O's pitchers' inning-by-inning performance, which indicates that the O's starters need a short leash in the sixth inning, the flashpoint of danger for most of the staff so far in '12--a collective 7.43 ERA. (The inning-by-inning stats also strongly suggest that Tommy Hunter should be moved to the bullpen.)

So what can we leave you with, after you've bravely waded through another of our more braken-than-thou desconstructions? How about some historical facts, based on the results of all the teams in baseball history who were 29-17 after their first 46 games played. Sound good? And possibly useful, at least for setting some odds as to how things might turn out from this point until the end of the 2012 season as regards the O's?

OK, fair enough. Not counting the '12 O's, there have been 74 teams since 1901 who've started the year exactly 29-17 after 46 games. Of those teams, 29 have finished first (league or division). Two teams made the post-season via the wild card (ironically, both were Red Sox teams--one of them being the fabled 2004 squad, which--yes--started 29-17).

So 45% of the teams that started 29-17 continued into the postseason.

69 out of the 74 teams finished at .500 or better. (Remember that Rany assured us that the O's would finish under .500. That's happened only five times--or just 7% of the time.)

We could find no usable correlation between teams' Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PWP) after 46 games and their eventual won-loss record. So the fact that the O's are playing better than their runs scored-runs allowed suggests is not a serious predictive factor, despite what the ideologues would like to have you believe.

The O's fate in '12 is clearly in the hands of their pitchers and how well they hold up. As the chart shows, the starters are the area of most concern at the moment. To not fade away in the stretch, the O's might want to take a flyer at Roy Oswalt, who could replace Hunter in the rotation and give them a chance to make the post-season. It's a three-to-four win swing that will probably make all the difference in what is a much more balanced AL East than at any time in recent memory...

Monday, May 21, 2012


Exactly fifty years ago today (May 21, 1962), the Los Angeles Dodgers began a nineteen-game stretch over sixteen days, during which time they went 17-2, making up four games in the NL standings against the San Francisco Giants, setting the stage for one of baseball's most memorable pennant races.

People remember that race due to the post-season playoff between the two teams, but the early going in 1962 has gotten a bit hazy. It was the stretch beginning on this day fifty years ago that signaled exactly how remarkable the race between the longtime rivals would be.

The Giants got off to a great start, winning 19 of their first 24 games, fueled by a ten-game winning streak from April 25 to May 4.  With Willie Mays hitting homers at a lusty pace, they averaged just under seven runs a game in April, despite barely giving Willie McCovey any playing time. Their bats stayed hot into May, and they were flirting with a .300 team batting average midway through the month, on a pace to score more than a thousand runs in the newly elongated season.

On May 21st, the Giants came to Dodger Stadium for the very first time. They were 28-11. The Dodgers (23-15) were four-and-a-half games behind. Maury Wills was hitting only .230. Manager Walt Alston was juggling infielders, looking for the right combination: at the moment he was riding a hot streak from a young second baseman named Larry Burright. (It would prove to be Larry's only such hot streak.)

Contrary to one of the great received myths of sabe-tinged baseball history, Sandy Koufax did not simply arrive at Dodger Stadium in a blaze of glory when Walter O'Malley's gift from the Los Angeles City Council opened its doors on April 10, 1962. Building on his 1961 breakout season, Koufax pitched well over the first six weeks of the season, but his home ERA going into his start against the Giants on May 21st was 2.95, only slightly better than his road performance at that point (3.18).

This game is the true beginning of the Koufax that the world now remembers. While it didn't come close to his most spectacular performances (four no-hitters, 15+ strikeout games, etc.), Sandy would begin an astonishing skein of pitching beginning with this five-hit, one-run, ten-strikeout outing against the Dodgers' high-flying arch-rivals.

The QMAX season excerpt shows how dominating Koufax would be during this skein, which would be interrupted by his celebrated finger injury--a condition that, in actions diametrically opposed to what a baseball team would do today, Koufax would pitch with for more than a month before it would force him onto the disabled list for nearly two months.

And it's this time frame that began the Dodger Stadium dominance that Koufax is known for--in some cases to his detriment. His ERA over these thirteen starts was 1.49, but that figure was 0.79 in his friendly new home park (as opposed to 2.36 on the road).

But we're really not here to reopen the long, lingering numberologist nit-picking about Koufax and his home park. It needs to be noted that Koufax was only one of three starters who pitched well (but not spectacularly) from May 21st to June 6th as the Dodgers pushed their way into a pennant race with the Giants. Sandy's best pitching in 1962 would occur from mid-June to mid-July, and the Dodgers would push into the lead as the Giants would suffer from that infamous "June swoon" that has periodically visited them.

The numbers indicate that the Dodgers primarily put their hitting clothes on during this nineteen-game stretch. Particularly notable in this area are Ron Fairly, Tommy Davis, and Jim Gilliam. And this marks the turning point for Maury Wills, too--he would hit well and go on a stolen base rampage over the last two months of the season.

The Dodgers took a page out of the Giants' playbook and averaged nearly six and a half runs per game over this span--a figure that will induce double- and triple-takes from those who remember the anemic offenses that the L.A. boys were sporting throughout the rest of the 60s.

But this was 1962, the year before the strike zone change, and the Dodgers were still a team with a lot of offensive weapons. That was amply apparent in this stretch of the season, and it was their hitting that propelled them into what by June 6th had become an exciting, see-saw race with more drama than just about anything outside of a double-barrelled collapse that came down to the final day (as in September 2011). The '62 race had all that--and more. Three more games, in fact.

[NOTE: Dodgers hitting and pitching stat slices courtesy of David Pinto's Day-By-Day Database.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Stephen Strasburg (ever notice that he's never called "Steve"? maybe he needs a girlfriend named "Slim"...) got roughed up yesterday, allowing three runs in the first inning and eventually losing his first game in 2012.

"You know how to pitch, don't you
Steve? You just put your fingers
together and...throw."
Stuff like this will happen to everyone--some more frequently than others.

From the QMAX (Quality Matrix) perspective, however, Strasburg's off-day was a first for him. It represented the first time that one of his starts registered as a "7" in the QMAX "S" column (for "stuff", measuring overall hit prevention). That's the worst possible score you can get: Strasburg had eluded it over his first two dozen big league starts.

Overall, "Steve" (who probably won't change his name to Harry Morgan just to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for vintage black-and-white movies) is (as Bacall says to Bogart at an entendre-laden juncture in The Big Sleep) "doing alright," as a glance at his basic career data (2.44 ERA, 11.1 K/9 and 163 ERA+) clearly indicates.

QMAX adds some nuances, however, so we thought the occasion of what will probably be a rare occurrence would be a good point in time to trot out the entire arsenal. (Please, no references to being "stung by a dead bee.")

Here's the Strasburg career in a QMAX nutshell. What's emerged thus far is that he's not--at least, not yet--a dominating hit prevention pitcher, as he's barely registering in the very top hit prevention category. What "top" hit prevention he's doing is in the more moderately dominating "2" region.

We added a "Success Square Analysis" feature, which shows the tendencies within the overall region where the pitcher is doing his best work. That 32% in the "outer" region is about twice as high as is ought to be, and suggests some chance of regression.

And that 8% figure for the "1" range (measuring it birectionally) in the "QMAX Range Probability" data (the figure rendered in baby blue...) is only around league average.

Overall, of course, things are quite rosy for "Steve," as a 76% "success square" measure will attest. But he's not yet on a course that makes him the type of truly dominating ace that we've seen in various guises over baseball history: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax at his peak, Justin Verlander last year. He still has a ways to go to reach that level.

Still, a kid pitcher who's putting you in the 50% probability range for the top two performance categories every time he takes the mound is clearly nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it's something that one should probably whistle about, if they could only put their lips together and...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


We are scornfully amused (as opposed to viscerally disgusted...tease out that reference, Darren Voila!) [misspelling intentional] at the recent mugging for the Hall of Fame voters indulged in by Johnny Damon.

Damon's nickname is "Caveman" (or so at least is the claim at Forman et fil, and if you can't trust those guys, you really can't trust anybody--what's that you say? Those WAR rankings? [insert extended throat-clearing noises here]) and his antics with the Times' Tyler Kepner (who may well have that slightly glazed look on his face as a result of too many interactions with Damon over the years...) are a throwback to the type of Chatty Cathy sportswriting--or is that Talky Tina??--that still holds sway in those dwindling newsrooms across what's left of our great nation.

We used to like ol' Johnny, especially when he had those Geico locks, but just like Tina, we've slowly but inexorably grown more homicidal (though not correspondingly higher-pitched a la June Foray...) about his increasingly self-important self-disclosures. Nothing that's going to get us locked up as yet (sorry to disappoint some of you...), but the level of self-congratulation that Damon has been evidencing places him  in the company of those endless self-promoting post-meta-neo-sabesters who have become a daunting little coterie over the course of the Moneyball ablution.

Damon has had a nice, long career that was blessed with excellent timing, benefitting from the offensive surge and the penchant for veteran players that co-existed with it. He has amassed a solid hit total (2730 as  of this writing, which ranks 56th all time). He seems personally most proud of his run scored total (1647, currently 34th all-time, third among active players), even though it should be clear to anyone that this total is inflated by the era in which he played, his presence on elite offensive teams during much of the preceding decade, and the fact that he batted high in the batting order, giving him a much better chance to score than would otherwise be the case.

But Damon isn't in any way a better player than Vada Pinson, another lefty-swinging centerfielder who played the bulk of his career for the Cincinnati Reds, whose career counting stats are remarkably similar to Damon's. When you adjust for era, Pinson is a better player, and he was certainly a better player at his peak than Damon.

Vada still has about 30 more hits than Damon; he has more homers (and triples--ha!) than Damon. It's clear that as a young player he was much more highly thought of by his team: the Reds batted Pinson third for a number of seasons.

Pinson had an extremely early peak even by baseball standards: either age 22 or 24, depending on what measure you use. Damon, by contrast, continued to have solid seasons well into his mid-30s after having been barely a league-aveage hitter up through the age of 26.

The comparison chart, at first glance, seems to favor Damon--that long, sustained performance into the twilight of his career has a lot of counting stats that build up to boost his case. But focus on that OPS+ value and remember that 1966-75--the years of Pinson's long decline phase--represent the lowest collective run-scoring environment since the deadball era. And focus on the fact that Pinson was a lot better than Damon as a younger player.

And then focus on the fact that Vada Pinson, as good as he was, as close to great as he was as a young player, is in no conceivable way a Hall of Famer. And if we are saying that--the great honking bellwether for the largest possible of all possible Halls of Fame--if we are saying that, then realize that these are two guys who are quintessential icons for what others (whose names shall be suppressed so that Talky Tina will not pay their daughters a fateful nighttime visit...) call The Hall of Very Good.

So Johnny, please just focus on trying to hit well enough to stay in the majors this year, and if you actually make it to 3000 hits (a magic bullet benchmark from caveman days), then you can talk it up and we won't take umbrage, or want to cancel your subscription to the resurrection as well as your god-damned car insurance.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


As much as we'd prefer to avoid discussing the AL East, what with the over-emphasis on the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry that continues to plague baseball the way bimbos dominate the nightly news cycle, the point has to be conceded: the damn division is shaping up to be extremely interesting in '12.

What with the Orioles staying aloft into the middle of May (though we can't help but expect some serious retrenchment any day now) and the Blue Jays riding their starting pitching to something a little closer to mid-gray in terms of dark horse contender status, all five teams are generating interest. (And, no, we don't think the Red Sox are out of the race in any way, even though their struggles have been bloody over the first six weeks of the season.)

At right is a quick summary of the teams thus far (most through Saturday's games). As you can see, the O's have gotten the jump inside the division, winning 12 out their first 18 contests against division rivals [NOTE: they lost earlier today to the Rays, 9-8, so they are now 2-1 against Tampa Bay].

The data also shows that the Red Sox' starting pitching, despite a recent uptick over the weekend, is still struggling in the wake of last September's epic collapse.

Ryan Sweeney has turned into
a doubling fool for the Sox...
There's little trouble with the Boston offense, however, As a matter of fact, the Red Sox have already hit 100 doubles in only 34 games thus far in '12, which puts them on a pace to shatter the major league record for most doubles by a team (currently held by the Texas Rangers, who hit 376 in 2008). At their current pace, the Red Sox project to hit 476 doubles--an absolutely surreal number. The team's HR totals are down from previous years, but with four players (David Ortiz, Ryan Sweeney, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez) on pace for 50+ doubles, the Sox might just make a run at this record.

Brandon Morrow: leading the charge
on the mound for Toronto...
At the bottom of the chart we have breakouts for starter and reliever ERA by the teams, and we can see that the O's have gotten stellar work out of the pen thus far in '12 (that 2.07 ERA is currently second in the AL behind Texas). The Yankees' pen has thus far survived the loss of Mariano Rivera and is in the process of turning in another solid performance.

The big surprise thus far is the performance of the Blue Jays' starters. Four of the five have been at least solid, and the Jays hold out hopes for 21-year old righty Drew Hutchison, who has defied his draft pedigree (15th) by racing up the farm system.

The Rays have won a lot of one-run games thus far in '12, but they too have had solid starting pitching (despite mega-hyped rookie Matt Moore's early struggles) and they figure to keep on winning at home.

We'll close this quick post with a chart that we hope to convince the head honcho at Forman et fil to automate some time soon. What is that, you say? It's a chart showing monthly ERA breakouts for team starting pitching. (We want that same thing for relievers, too, but we're too lazy to break that one out by hand, at least right now.)

Yes, we know that ERA is no longer considered to be such a spiffy stat by those on an endless vision quest, but we still like it's interesting to see how consistent teams are from month to month.

For example, in 2011 the Rays were the only team in the AL to have its starting pitchers post a sub-4.00 ERA in all six months of the season. (All sub-4.00 monthly ERAs are shown in bold type.) That consistency clearly served them in good stead as they were able to stay within range of the playoffs (though we all know that the Red Sox, with their 7.08 starting pitcher September ERA, were more responsible for the Rays making the post-season than Joe Maddon's team was).

The monthly breakouts show that AL starting pitching had a solid first half in 2011, then took a nosedive after the All-Star break. This year, the starters had a solid April, but have been giving ground in May. At the moment (remember, we're only halfway through the month...) the Yankees seem to have turned things around with their starters, while the Red Sox (despite some uptick over this past weekend) are still struggling. The month-by-month breakout also explains why the Royals and Twins have been having so many problems in the early going.

We'll do similar snapshots for the other divisions as the spirit moves us (though it just might be the bowels that do the trick, which was more like what was the case whenever we contemplate the AL East).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Amelie Mancini just returned from a West Coast road trip--one that did not (alas) coincide with a similar journey by her adopted team (the New York Mets), but...after many good times and (unsurprisingly...) a trip to several baseball stadia, she's back in Brooklyn.

Which, glory of glories, means a new series of her singularly sensational baseball cards. Series #3 from her company, Left Field Cards has been released--it features marvelous moustaches. As has become the tradition, there are two packs of cards, five to each pack, and Amelie has demonstrated her artistic acuity in classifying the intricate sub-species of facial hair.

As you might expect, the players represented in this new series are dominated by those who played in the seventies and eighties:

Pack 1--Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez, Rollie Fingers, Eddie Murray, Al Hrabosky.
Pack 2--Rod Beck, Bill Buckner, Goose Gossage, Mike Schmidt, Catfish Hunter.

Before you go to the site (where you should plunk down the nominal purchase price--for yourself, a friend, or a family member), take a moment to see if you can match the names of the moustaches that Amelie has created with the players who wore them on the ballfield.

Give it a shot. We've given one answer away already--actually, two (if you're paying attention). That should get you started.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


We are never surprised at our astonishment when the month of May rolls around and the latest trio of inductees for the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals is announced.

Terry Cannon and Albert "Buddy" Kilchesty are among the most creative and insightful baseball historians anywhere, and their "anti-institution" continues to grow in stature even as it defiantly refuses to create a home for itself more permanent than a post office box.

This year (#14 for those who like to count such things) is no exception--or is it? On first glance, the Reliquary voters have designated three wide-ranging individuals (Dr. Frank Jobe, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, and Luis Tiant) who personify one of the three elements we've identified as the hallmarks of a Shrine of the Eternals inductee.

Extremity--The mild-mannered Dr. Jobe, now 87, pioneered a radical tendon replacement surgery that was named after Tommy John (who was its first recipient). As Dr. Jobe himself admitted (in an interview with Tom Hoffarth of the L.A. Daily News), the original concept seemed so extreme at the time that he was initially reluctant to propose it to John. While such surgery (and many others) are now commonplace, this was a moment of radical innovation equaled only by a scant few since the invention of the game itself.

Adversity--After reaching his peak in 1965 with a 21-win season for the Minnesota Twins, Jim "Mudcat Grant" has fashioned a second career around the issues of equality and opportunity for African-Americans. While steeped in the rural traditions of black culture, Grant's horizons were expanded upon his 1958 arrival in Cleveland--under the guidance of Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. His book, The Black Aces, focuses on the rarest of all feats achieved by African-Americans since the integration of baseball in 1947: 20+-win seasons by black pitchers. (There have been only fourteen...they are listed below.)

Otherness--No one will ever mistake anyone else for Luis Tiant. Blunt, brash, infinitely colorful with or without his cigar, El Tiante was an electrifying presence on the mound. Even now, at 71, he still shoots from the hip in a way that reminds you of his indelible "peek-a-boo" delivery that is part of baseball legend. He is still a wayward character, inscrutable and layered beneath his smirky bravado, whose career fits his personality--often brilliant, sometimes wretched, but never ordinary. Mark Armour's SABR bio does a fine job of capturing these facts, and touches upon Tiant's status as a Cuban exile--a subject that is more fully addressed in Jonathan Hock's compelling documentary about him, The Lost Son of Havana

So why the hint of a qualification? It has nothing to do with the inductees themselves: the uncanny ability of the Reliquary voters to join together three distinct individuals who embody the dominant themes that drive the Shrine's selection criteria is fully intact. They are 14-for-14 in that respect.

The only sign of trouble is, possibly, amongst two of the inductees. It's located in a fundamental difference of opinion about a matter of race that's surfaced with respect to Grant's book (The Black Aces). Tiant, shooting from the hip a few years back, indicated his disappointment in Grant's decision not to include Latin pitchers in his book. (For the record, there are as many Mexican, Cuban and other West Indies-based pitchers who've won 20 or more games in a season as there are African-Americans...see below.)

We'd all like to see both Grant and Tiant in Pasadena this July for the Shrine of the Eternals ceremony. Terry Cannon is aware of the issue, and if anyone can find a way to soothe any lingering ruffled feathers that may exist over this matter, he's the man to do it. The Reliquary has a great opportunity here to bring all three inductees to the dais this year--something that an organization so steeped in the history and lore of the game is rarely in a position to achieve. It's never happened before.

That's why we're holding our breath. Bring 'em home, Terry!

[BLACK ACES: Don Newcombe, San Jones, Bob Gibson, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Earl Wilson, Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue, Al Downing, Mike Norris, Dwight Gooden, Dave Stewart, Dontrelle Willis, C.C. Sabathia]

[LATIN ACES: Dolf Luque, Camilo Pascual, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, Mike Cuellar, Ed Figueroa, Joaquin Andujar, Fernando Valenzuela, Teddy Higuera, Ramon Martinez, Jose Lima, Pedro Martinez, Esteban Loaiza, Bartolo Colon, Johan Santana]

Friday, May 4, 2012


With the possible career-ending injury to the great Mariano Rivera (yesterday evening, an ironic fluke injury sustained while Mo was doing what he loved best other than closing ballgames--shagging flies in batting practice) we reach what the folks in traffic enforcement like to call an "uncontrolled intersection."

There are no stop signs on the Internet superhighway when it comes to punditry, and it took less than three hours for two separate and incompatible strains of discourse to emerge--one built around the hard-boiled, economics-based structural approach, and the other based on a scrambled-eggs deployment of aesthetics. The former coldly reminds us that the innings Rivera pitched aren't as important as is often claimed (though such claims are, in reality, much less frequent than those who complain about them are willing to acknowledge). The latter takes us down into a grotto of sentimentality and myth, ladling its milky residue that's routinely squeezed by the practitioners of personality cults.

There's a middle way, of course, but it's plainly and simply excluded. In the ongoing need to differentiate themselves in some way--any way--from the mainstream press, the structural economists (we like to call 'em "neo-sabes," in case you've just emerged from a tin can that doubled as a makeshift space vehicle) need to tarnish, diminish, tear down, and ultimately destroy the current deployment pattern for relievers. Their conclusions (which don't really rise to level of "findings" because the science is always partial in both senses of the word...) are that "closers" are a pernicious categorical myth that's been inflicted upon modern baseball.

But even as they say this, a large preponderance of the same cadre of thinkers advocate an increased usage of relievers due to the measurable effects of focusing on fresh arms late in the game. What is ultimately being advocated, of course, is a "system" in which starters will go five innings and be replaced by a succession of four "closers."

Mo Rivera was one of the exceptions to the rule--or should we say, to the corollary that any Tom, Dick, or Ugueth could crawl in on his belly in the ninth inning and take care of business. His sustained level of performance flew in the face of that precept, so he's created a double dread in the schizoid underpinnings of neo-sabe theory. Schizoid? Yes, based on the mutually exclusive but nonetheless-joined-together categories of fan interest and scientific detachment.

The "warrior model"...
Mo made it possible to experience fear and loathing even while rooting for him. He was an exact harbinger of the type of player who may yet emerge as our civilization pushes itself into its own margins--the android athlete. The very fact that Rivera is an extremely low-key individual added to this otherworldly, superhuman aura--and tangled all these rootless, unexamined ideas and feelings together in a way that (mostly) distorted the historical lens with which to view him.

The irony in the nature and context of Rivera's injury leads to the second blind alley--what we might call the "fallacy of aesthetic hierarchy." Confronted with news of a possible career-ending injury, some wish to make a determination regarding which form of ending is preferable--as if we were critiquing a film or a play. While an aesthetic approach is potentially interesting, it requires something more than a simple binary ("better to go out at your best on your shield"--the warrior model; or "better to be brought down from the level of the gods by age"--the kingly model).

No, the simple lesson in Mo's dance-impairing, possibly career-finishing injury is simply this: he's human after all. He will still be the same unique historical personage if he comes back and pitches well, if he comes back and doesn't have it any more, or if he never comes back.

What should matter to us is that we have now seen the full measure of his humanity, and while it is sad that it had to happen in the way that it did, it is a moment filled with meaning for those who will look at it outside the lenses they've imposed upon themselves.

[UPDATE: Rivera has announced that he plans to pitch again. Peter Gammons--once his obligatory "look how smart I am" opening paragraph--has written a heartfelt column about Mo's character--the exemplary man that lurks inside the android's shell.]

Now, briefly, on to an intriguing discovery here in the second month of the '12 season. We have serious walkmen popping up again. It could be that as whatever exactly it is that has brought pitching back into a more dominant position in the game is starting to spawn a willingness to use players with a more extreme approach to hitting.

That approach? Leave the bat on your shoulders.

Individual players with such an approach are starting to pop up on the radar screen: A. J. Ellis for the Dodgers, getting his first chance at age 31 to be a starter in the majors.

Oops...sorry...we meant
the "other" Carlos Santana...
And then there are the Cleveland Indians. We're now more than a tenth of the way through the year, and the Indians are on pace to walk 800 times for the year. That hasn't been done since the great "walk spike" that occurred in the American League in the years immediately following World War II.

At 6'5", a most unlikely walkman:
Shelley Duncan
Lewie Pollis anatomized the position-by-position change in the Indians' walk rate (we still like to call it BBP...) this year (thus far) as opposed to 2011. What seems clear is that the Tribe has two bonafide "walkmen" (as we used to call them back in those quaint days when people were using portable cassette players) in Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner. Given the injury histories already attached to these guys, it's clear that any shot that Cleveland has to push toward the Holy Grail of 800+ walks is dependent upon these two staying healthy all season.

The Tribe seems to have also allowed several players to channel their "inner walkman." Journeyman Shelley Duncan (of the famed Duncan family), used as a platoon player in Cleveland for the past couple of years, became a markedly more selective hitter in the minors; in his last (partial season) stint at AAA, he had more walks than hits. If he can stay in the lineup against all comers (and the Tribe is giving him a shot to do so thus far), he could add 80-100 more walks to the total. The well-traveled Jack Hannahan, no kid (like Duncan, he's 32) is also someone with an elevated walk rate in the minors, and could add 70-90 walks to the mix. And Shin-Soo Choo, though he's still underperforming a good bit from his 2008-09 levels, has also drawn 80+ walks in a season.

So, quick'n'dirty: let's say 120 from Hafner, 115 from Santana, 95 from Duncan, 85 from Hannahan, 80 from Choo...that's just under 500 walks from five guys, meaning that we need 300 more from four lineup slots. It is a long shot, but even a more sophisticated model has to figure that the Tribe has a good shot at cracking 700 walks this year. As we always say here...

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Wandy Rodriguez, missin' his Gatorade...
So, on the morning after Jered Weaver throws a no-hitter, here we are touting the exploits of a non-descript little lefthanded pitcher with a sub-.500 lifetime record and a wacky name. Are you surprised?

Probably not. As already noted, Wandy Fulton Rodriguez (Fulton?) is a little left-hander. One of our weak spots--and understandable, too, given that any taxonomist worth his classification scheme would plop us right into that category. (We're still rooting for Fabio Castro, a really little lefty--all of 5'7"--who's now making the ground tour of Triple-A after a spilt cup of coffee with the Phillies and just might get another shot in Oakland this season. There are tons of these guys, and we'll get around to them one of these days.)

Wandy has pushed past 200 lifetime starts without most of the world really appreciating how good he's become--though, as we'll see, the Astros probably let a short-term hot streak affect their contract talks with him a couple of years ago. Most of the talk about Wandy in the numbers-embedded "mom's basement" bunkers right now is centered on just when the Astros should get rid of him: the ideological lockjaw that's been set in stone automatically assumes that a new regime in Houston with some ties to numberology will want to clean house, and that a 32-year old lefty who's under 6' tall but probably overpaid should be cashed in for prospects just as soon as the appropriate "sleight-of-hand moment" presents itself.

But sometimes the best thing an auteur can do is to forget that he is one, and that just might be the best plan for Jeff Luhnow and company. Especially when the last 50 starts that Wandy has made indicate that he really has reached a new level...

The progression in the chart (where we reference ERA and the basic version of our own QMAX numbers) is unmistakable. And thanks to the hit prevention range data (the ones marked "S12%" and "HH%", which show the percentage of games in which Wandy is shutting down the opposition and the ones where the opposition is getting to him), we can see that over his first 150 starts, he was making slow progress from what began as a marginal career, ERA drifting downward in part due to the slow change in offensive levels, and a mild improvement in the percentage of "top hit prevention games ("S12%").

In those last fifty starts, however, he has picked up the pace, improving in all directions at once. A pitcher who can get his QMAX "T" score under six is right on the fringes of being an ace: while Wandy is not quite there--and we really don't expect him to do that--he has evolved into a truly fine pitcher, one who's more consistently able to do what he wants to when he's on the mound.

We were talking about how the previous Astros ownership may have gotten overly enthusiastic about Wandy and his improvement when they handed him a big contract at the beginning of last year. Why did that happen?

Probably because they were looking at a shorter performance subset. We've broken out Wandy's QMAX profile (the basic overall "T" score) and his ERA for running 15-game averages over his whole career in the chart. As you can see, there is a spectacular dip (remember, lower numbers are better and lower on the chart is also better....) at a point on the graph that just happens to coincide with the end of the 2010 season.

What's happened since then is that Wandy has had the most stable set of readings in both areas since coming off his performance peak. No, of course, he's not as good as he was for that fifteen-game stretch (and a similar one back in 2008-09), but the roller coaster ride has stopped.

But the 2010-11 offseason was the point at which Wandy got his contract, and that's one of the reasons why the Astros made an effort to unload him last year (in a waiver deal with the Rockies that fell apart). As far as we're concerned, they're much better off for not having done that. Consider the following...

Next year, in the AL West, three of the road parks in which Wandy would be pitching (assuming that Luhnow keeps his trigger finger away from that little red button...) will be much more favorable to him than three of the parks where he faces NL Central opponents (Wrigley: 5.08 ERA; Miller: 5.88 ERA; PNC: 4.96 ERA). While there was some concern about Wandy pitching in the AL, the fact is that he's had more trouble with the long ball in Wrigley Field and Miller Park than anywhere else; pitching in Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle should be a much better deal for him. Overall, it looks like a solid net gain.

So whenever we send up our flares for Wandy, we send them along with a message that dares to disagree with the "emperor's new wisdom" that he should be send packing by the Astros. Let's extend that heterodox gospel by way of a musical metaphor from the old-school soul of William Bell, remindin' us that it's not so good an idea to give something away ("You Don't Miss Your Water...") without being sure that we really know what we've be listening, now, Mister Jeff??