Sunday, March 31, 2013

"BARREN MONTH" ENDS...TWO-YEAR HR LEADERS

A new low for posts-in-a-month, we are still cranking on our Don Murray film...will provide more info about it and the web site that will shortly be up for it, in case you are interested. Spring training is best spent in a daze anyway, and this year you could call it a blur (our old nickname at the Post Office, in fact).

April will be better, or at least more plentiful (and when we say that please remember T.S. Eliot's line about April in Four Quartets). But to get back in practice, and to provide a soup├žon of historical perspective with which to goose you into the 2013 season, kindly peruse the following chart, which shows the 55-year data pattern for most homers hit over a two-year span.

Note that in 1973-74 the two-year leader hit fewer HRs than Mark McGwire hit in 1998 (or, of course, Barry Bonds three years later...Barry would never speak to us again if we didn't remember that he holds  the record that's keeping both recent record holders out of the Hall of Fame). Ignore 1981-82, of course, because of the strike season (the "7-10 split" season known as Bowie Kuhn's Folly). But note that in 1988-89, while both Big Mac and Barry Big Head were in their formative major league years, the two-year HR lead again skidded down to just 70.

As Bill James noted, we're getting back to "normal" in terms of most offensive numbers (except strikeouts, which are offensive in a different sense of the word...). That spike (shown in the area shaded in black) is spectacular (and remains highly suspicious to some). The 2011-12 leader, Curtis Granderson, had "only" 84 HRs over the two years in question. That's actually below the 55-year average for the two-year leader, which is 90.

Grandy is not likely to be the two-year HR leader for 2012-13, but he had a ten-HR lead over his nearest rivals (Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera). Our money, if we were wagering it, would be on Giancarlo Stanton.

As we write this, the season has already begun, and last year's lowly Astros, winners of just 55 games in 2012, are alone in first place as April Fools' Day beckons to us. Justin Maxwell, tools player quasi-extraordinaire, gave us a thrill by slapping out two triples (!!) to help the league-swappers knock off their new in-state rivals (the Texas Rangers) by a score of 8-2.

We hope Bo Porter will not expect this to happen too often, but--hey, we'd take it, too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

NOLAN RYAN: THE POWER OF THE "POWER PRECIPICE"

OK, really swamped with non-hardball projects of late, so March has done more than half its lionizing thing without us...thus we'll give you something big, bold, brawny and arduous (you can pick up the internal association therein without our usual application of the sledgehammer, n'est-ce pas?)

We were struck recently (just a glancing blow, fortunately) by an off-hand remark about Nolan Ryan. The utterer attributed it to Bill James, though we've not had time to verify the reference. (No matter: despite what might otherwise seem to be the case, there's no intent in this essay to "bash" anyone...just making that clear in case someone erstwhile Jack Kruschen-type alerts Rob Neyer to the goings-on here.)

That remark, boiled down to its most prosaic formulation, suggested that when Ryan had his control he was unbeatable, and when he didn't he wasn't. Sounds like good advice (but that didn't stop Linda Ronstadt from loving some sweet-talking heartbreaker in a what seemed like an endless series of lachrymose ballads...) as well as a large dollop of early sabermetric common sense.

There were numbers in the formulation that went something like this: 5+ walks in a game, struggle; 3 or less walks, unbeatable. But as with many of the binary formulations that informed early efforts (and that are still, how shall we say..."psychologically influential" even today) to deconstruct baseball statistics, this one doesn't really stand up to a full sniff test.

But it does lead us into some interesting areas that aren't quite as settled as the heterodox orthodoxy would have us believe. (Cue up the music, folks...it's QMAX time again!)

It turns out that when we break out Ryan's career starts (all 773 of them, available one by one at Forman et fil), the idea that he was unbeatable when he had better control is roughly three-fourths true.

The data is all here, compiled into your basic counting stats, well-known rate stats (ERA, H/9), and then some variously recondite calculations (the basic QMAX "S" and "C" values; QMAX's ERA predictor--named QERA; and, finally, the fabled FIP value). A lot of intriguing stuff here, so let's get right to it.

First, there's the raw interest in knowing exactly how many games with various amounts of walks allowed--Ryan has been retired for twenty years now, but he's still one of the most indelible presences on the mound (even if he's nowhere near the level of the all-time greats).

It's amazing to find out that he had 232 starts in which he walked five or more batters; that he had only 27 starts (just 3%) where he didn't walk anyone. And it's very interesting to note that his ERA in games where he walked five batters isn't all that different from his ERA in games where he walked only three.

In fact, it's downright weird to discover that Ryan's ERA in games where he walked five or more batters is lower than it is in games where he walks three or four batters.

And it's very interesting to note the divergences in Ryan's QERA and FIP through this sequence of breakouts.

Now, we know (even before it's pointed out to us by our super-modeling brethren...) that QERA and FIP aren't attempting to measure the same thing. But the predictive qualities that are claimed for FIP (that its reliance only on the so-called "three true outcomes" to fashion a massaged model of ERA is a truer picture of future performance than anything else) run into a few thorny issues when we look at how it handles cluster of starts where the pitcher has high walks and low hits.

And there's no better place to examine that discrepancy between the predicted and the actual than in the region of the QMAX chart (as you'll see in the many matrix breakouts that show the shape of Ryan's start distributions by the number of walks/game) in the upper right corner.

That is what we've taken to call the "power precipice": the area where pitchers give up a good bit fewer hits than the league average per nine innings, and a good bit more walks than the league average per nine innings. It is a range that is shockingly close to the level of success that pitchers achieve in the upper left corner of the QMAX chart, where they have similar success at hit prevention and have lower than average walks per nine.

Nolan Ryan may be the king of the power precipice: we'd be extremely surprised if there is any pitcher (other than possibly Bob Feller) who has more starts in that region. His total of 184 "power precipice" starts represents just under one-fourth of his career total (24%, to be exact). That number encompasses five seasons' worth of starts.

In those games, Ryan's won-loss record is 101-57. (OK, you don't like won-loss records.) His ERA is 1.87--and this is happening in games where he's walking an average of nearly six-and-a-half men per nine innings! He's allowing just over four hits per nine innings (which works out to about three-and-a-half hits per actual start, since his starts in these games last about seven-and-a-half innings).

FIP's assumption that the variability in hits on balls in play is low enough to simply ignore the extremes in performance creates a situation where the method predicts that Ryan's ERA will be nearly 90% higher than what it actually is in these games (referring back to the big chart above: 3.55 vs. 1.87).

QERA suggests that Ryan has gotten some breaks in terms of what that ERA ought to be as well, but it's nowhere near that divergent. This is because QERA, using the QMAX "S" and "C" values to calibrate the relative importance of hit prevention and walk prevention, does not throw out ninety percent of the hits based on a modeling assumption or sixty percent of the outs that involve a fielding play.

FIP makes an assumption about how baseball works and applies it monolithically to a model that suggests that the weighted average of the "true outcome" events is sufficient to characterize quality. That is not without some value, but it's clear that certain combinations of those events produce serious discrepancies with the actual results in the games where those event combinations occur.

That doesn't completely invalidate it, but it points out that these mega-modeling methods are not nearly as robust or as granular as they have been claimed to be.

The chain of QMAX charts that have been running down the right side for awhile now give us a glimpse as to how the shape of performance is distributed across walks/game. Ryan proves a general rule that has been jettisoned in the FIP concept: the more walks a team draws, the fewer hits they will make. (Of course, there are clearly exceptions in individual games; but the available data for this is now vast and as you move rightward on the QMAX grid--even in those regions where the pitcher is being hit hard, in the 5, 6, 7 "S" areas--the hits/9 IP declines.

Ryan has one anomaly in his data: the 7BB/G group, where his H/9 rises. But the rest of the progression, once you get past the very small number of starts where he allows no walks at all, is linear.

The QMAX range summaries tell us a bit more in this regard. Note, for example, how consistent Ryan's "top hit prevention" (the S12 rows from left to right across the QMAX chart) are all the way across the walks/game spectrum. The fact that he gets into that range--even if it's over on the right of the QMAX diagram (and above you can see the rightward drift as his walks/game rises)--is what allows him to remain a successful pitcher even when he is having major control problems.

Note that Ryan is hit hardest when he walks three men in a start (24%). Note that his Power Precipice percentage jumps sharply in the 3-5 walks/game range--it increases nearly fivefold.

This is why Ryan's ERA in games with five or more walks per start is not dramatically different from his ERA in games where he walks three or fewer per game (3.29 to 3.03). FIP predicts that ERA to be a lot farther apart (4.15 to 2.85).

Finally, here are the ERA values for each cell on Ryan's QMAX chart. (This is for his entire career, all 773 starts). You see how there's a strong tendency for him to sustain success in the upper right corner, while he struggles more in the middling regions of the chart. He is clearly a below-average pitcher when he pitches in the outer reaches of the success square (the 3,3-3,4-4,2-4,3 area): pitchers with less "stuff" and more "control" have less of sharp break there. Also, he's only intermittently successful in the "Tommy John" region (the one at lower left, where control pitchers manage to thrive despite giving up more hits than innings pitched). When he's giving up hits, he's really in trouble, even in those areas of the chart where most other pitchers manage to be successful.

The other sharp break here is between "2S" and "3S." Ryan fades as badly in the rightward movement across the "3S" and "4S" zones as anyone we've seen.

So what's clear from all this? Pitchers like Ryan, who are hard to hit and who have an intermittent kind of wildness, can be just about as successful in the outer reaches of wildness as they are in their more conventionally "great" performances (the ones in the yellow four squares at top left, the region we call the "Elite Square"). Once Ryan moves into more conventional hit/game regions, he becomes much less effective when his control deserts him--much more like a normal pitcher. One of these days we'll put the FIP values up for a chart like this--and that might turn out to be the best way to spot-check the value of that highly-ballyhooed stat: we just might find that there's a pattern to what it predicts well in terms of actual results, and what it does not. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE MITTEL-WEST, BUT...

...but you can't take the Mittel-West out of the boy. (In the little world of sabermetrics, this little homily is beyond truth.)

And we are reminded of this today, as we peruse Joe P.'s latest p(r)oof positive.

It's what we call "yack-at-her" (which is how you'd pronounce YACATR if you could actually pronounce it).

What is YACATR? It's "Yet Another Column About The Royals."

"Joe...the way you've been moving around lately, it makes me worry about your heart,
your kidneys, your liver...live now, pay later, Diner's Club!!"
Oh, yes. If our old pal Jack Kruschen (the great character actor who was Oscar-nominated for his role as Dr. Dreyfuss in Billy Wilder's classic The Apartment) were here, he'd be dusting off one of his signature lines:

"Mildred!!! He's at it again!!!!!"

This behavior on Joe's part almost...but not quite...makes us think that he's actually tuned in to our periodic chronicling of his woeful and increasingly wayward homerism.

What's his latest reason to keep that over-exposed sad sack team from the western edge of the Mittel-West in black type? Well, the Royals are on fire in spring training. They've won eleven in a row.

But, you know, the Mariners are 10-2 thus far in the spring. No one is using it as a reason to write about them in the sportswriting equivalent of soft-focus lighting.

As we noted in an earlier post, if it were the Pittsburgh Pirates (the Royals' NL doppelganger of decrepitude over the past two decades) who were doing this, good ole Joe (on his--what, fifth? sixth?--employer in the past fourteen months...) would have produced nary a squib about them.

Joe is careful at this stuff, of course. He readily acknowledges that spring training records don't have much correlation with regular season results. But he really wants to work himself up into a reasonable facsimile of a lather anyway. When all is said and done, this is simply an excuse to trot out some more hopeful hokum.

Now he could have done some research, just for fun, to see exactly how teams with excellent spring training records fared in the regular season. That would have provided a bit more of a smokescreen for what he was up to here. And it would have been a lot more interesting than what he wound up writing as well.

So, Joe, we'll do our part and provide a look at the last seven years' worth of outcomes for teams who've had at least a .625 WPCT in spring training games.

That data is in the table at left. There have been twenty-eight teams who qualify over the past seven years. Fourteen teams have had a better season than in the preceding year; fourteen have had a worse season. Six teams have made the playoffs (as shown by the "x" marking the spot) after having missed the post-season in the previous year; five have missed the playoffs after having been in the post-season the previous year.

The overall average change for these teams in the season during which they've played well in the spring  in terms of the previous year's performance: an improvement of slightly more than one game.

All types of teams are on the list, from 100-game winners to 100-game losers. The type of team that has improved in the season where spring was sweet is split evenly between those who leap up from sub-.500 ball and those who've played over .500.

It's an interesting list, even if it offers us no predictive clue. The Royals have two teams on the list already, from 2006 and 2011. They improved their record from the previous season each time, but they were poorer teams in the previous year than the 2013 squad's predecessors were last year. (In the case of the 2010 team, however, not all that much better.)

Joe would be better off looking at the road ERAs of James Shields and Wade Davis (when he was last a starter...), and remembering that even though the Royals have developed what looks like a solid bullpen, you still have to hand over the game to relievers while the games are within sufficient reach to really benefit from it (as was the case for the O's and A's last year).

The bad news for those with Mittel-West blood coursing feverishly through their veins is that the teams from their region have had a dismal regular season on the heels of their spring sproing: those ten teams have combined for an overall -51 over the past seven years. Now that's what we call a depressed region...

[EDIT: One of our readers pointed out that the teams on the above list who were under .500 in the previous season did markedly better than the overall results we reported. While that's an even tinier sample size, it's a good point and deserves to be mentioned.

We looked at the teams that played under .500 in the previous year (10 teams) and those that won 71-76 games, the range in which the '12 Royals reside (6 teams). The result was virtually identical in each case: these teams improved markedly in the next season after their solid spring. The average improvement: 11 games.

So, if the Royals should hit in the middle of that improvement range, they'd wind up with 82 wins at the end of this season.

We're sure that Joe and the cadre of Royals fetishists within the clique du nombre will be ecastatic with that. Should that happen, prepare yourself for what could be record levels of heavy breathing in the 2013-14 offseason. Stay tuned!]