Saturday, August 10, 2013


Before we get into the wonky-but-delightful QMAX data, let's quickly note that there are a gaggle of folk who are waiting to exhale right now. Why? Well, because the Royals--who've had a mad, roller-coaster type of season thus far, have gotten as hot since the All-Star break as they were cold in May and have edged into the fringes of the playoff race.

Oddly, that charge has created a bit of a "gag rule" situation for the tiny but influentially voluble KC contingent--you know, the guys who get identified around here with their first name and the initial of their surname. (Actually, it's probably toughest for Bill J., since he is more classically bifurcated by personal and professional identification. And if you're wandering over to Bill's site these days, you've probably noticed that he's been in a much mellower mood than in years past...stemming, no doubt, from the current success of his employers. Fear not, Bill, that will change...)

Bruce Chen: transcending the "bubble to baseball" barrier...
The Royals have been on a 17-4 run since the All-Star Break, but they've gained only half a game on the Tigers, who've gone 16-4 in that stretch. Both teams are being led by their pitching. Before Ervin Santana got lit up yesterday (the Royals won anyway), KC starters had a 2.44 ERA since the ASB.

A good bit of that comes from the dramatic and, yes, heartwarming re-emergence of Mister Enigma himself, Bruce Chen. Here at BBB we've always loved the inscrutable Mr. Chen, a guy who has seemingly worn out every welcome but ours. After a downright dicey season in the Royals' rotation last year, KC got creative and made him into their "long man" (something to praise the Lord and pass the ammo about, in fact, since just about everyone else has tossed this concept into the dumpster).

He was fine in that role, but when Luis Mendoza struggled, KC brought B.C. back into A.D. and the man of a thousand mysterious smirks has made Peter Lorre (and AL batters...) look like amateurs ever since. His first start produced six innings of one-hit, shutout ball, and he's not been appreciably worse in any of the four GS that have followed: as of now, his ERA as a SP (um...should that be "an SP"??) is 1.14.

But the Royals' starters, good as they've been, haven't matched the work turned in by the Tigers' rotation during the same timespan. Comparing ERAs tells us something: the Royals have a fine 2.78 ERA in their last 21 games, but the Tigers' starters are pretty much otherworldly at 1.87. As always, however, QMAX can give us more context.

Here are the QMAX matrix charts for the Royals and Tigers starters over their last 21 games (through games of August 9th). The basic averages show that the Tigers' starters are significantly better at hit prevention: 2.9 vs. 3.9. The range data shows what you ought to be able to pick out with the naked eye from the matrix start: the Tigers' starters have been exceptionally good at avoiding "hit hard" games during the two teams' concurrent hot streaks. Their "hit hard" (HH) percentage is slightly under 10%. The Royals' starters? 33.3%. ("Hit hard" games produce an average team WPCT of a little more than .250.)

There's also the matter of the ratio between "top hit prevention" games (the ones in the top two rows of the QMAX chart) vs. the "hit hard" games (the ones in the bottom two rows.) The Tigers have better than a 5-to-1 ratio in these over the past 21 games (57% to 10%), while the Royals are only a little above break-even (38% to 33%).

We can calculate an estimated ERA for the starters using all of the probabilistic data that gets collected as part of QMAX. Though it doesn't use an algorithm that includes HRs like FIP (which doesn't quite do what it sets out to do, for reasons we've touched upon previously), the QMAX ERA (QERA) is a good estimate of what a "zero degree" reality would produce for a starter (or even a group of starts by multiple pitchers) based on probabilistic adjustments.

When we do that, we see that the Royals' starters have an QERA (think of it as an expected ERA) of 3.67. Their actual ERA, 2.78, was a good bit better. Why? Some luck in stranding runners, in both innings wholly pitched by starters and by those where the Royals' relievers came in during the middle of an inning. Royals relievers have stranded 14 of their last 15 inherited runners over this 21-game span. That's one reason why the Royals have been 6-1 in one-run games and 8-1 in close (≤ 2 r) games since the ASB.

The Royals' starters have a QWP (Quality Winning Pct.) of .567 over the last 21 games. That's good, but it's not the type of performance that would, by itself, drive a 17-4 run. Excellent relief pitching, including five clutch performances dampening opposition rallies, combined with an uptick in the Royals' batters' performance with RISP, has added roughly four wins to their totals.

Verlander: starting to look like his old bad self instead of merely being bad...
The Tigers, by contrast, are doing a good bit more of it with their starting pitching. Their QERA is 2.22, and they project to an aggregate .671 QWP all on their own. (And remember, they are beating their QERA: their actual ERA over the span is 1.87.) For much of the season, Justin Verlander has been the fourth best starter on the staff; with his recent return to form, the continued proficiency of Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Annibal Sanchez, and a stretch of better-than-average pitching from Rick Porcello, the Tigers are on a roll.

One of these days we'll figure out a QWP-like number for relief pitchers and for hitters; these will combine with the QMAX data for starters to give us a better breakout of value. It just might be one that will provide a more complete, more accurate gauge of a team's quality of play during any given stretch. It would also take into account the strength of schedule: while you'd expect an old Royals skeptic (read: lampooner) to point out that KC has done a lot of damage lately against bad teams (10-2 vs. 7-2 against .500+ teams), the facts are that the Tigers have had virtually the same profile (they are 11-1 vs. bad teams, 6-3 against good teams). All of this has to get factored in to such a measure. (Chances are that the great neo-sabe orthodoxy will reject it out of hand, of course, but--as you know if you're reading this--that's never stopped us.)

[EDIT: Bill J., probably hoping for a split in the Royals-Red Sox series at this point--there's less margin for error for the Sox than you might think--can breathe easy tonight: the Sox cooled off KC, 5-3, giving Jeremy Guthrie another "hit hard" outing along the way. The Tigers took apart Phil Hughes in the Bronx tonight, hitting three HRs, including #35 from Miguel Cabrera.

Next week is KC's biggest series of the year--five games in Comerica Park. They've more than held their own against the Tigers thus far (5-3), so one should not scoff at their chances. But they need to come up big in that series if they are going to really be credible. Don't exhale yet, gentlemen!]