Monday, October 31, 2011


Some comments on the World Series a bit later, we have some unfinished business before we slip into "Awards Season" in November.

We'd discussed the Ptolemaic MVP Method earlier in the month and laid out the method in detail back in Part 2, which you can access here. We're going to move through the American League data rather swiftly here, but will try to refer to some of the points raised earlier.

Briefly, each two month "epicycle" (see Part 2!!) awards points to players who excel in OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, and RBI. (The latter two are concessions--you can call them "sops" if you wish--to the "mainstream" world. While the sabe folks have made strides, it's also true that they tend to make it harder to drag the rest of the unconverted along.)

These get added up over the course of the season from five interlocking two-month-long snapshots of hitter data (we'll address the issue of pitchers and the MVP below).

What's interesting to note here is that two-month snapshots seem to prove that a third of a season is a sufficient "leveler" of achievement that you don't have a slew of fluky achievements in any of the stats being measured. We don't have six guys with 1.200+ OPS in every two-month snapshot (at least we didn't in 2010--it might be different back in 1996--we'll go back and check that out one of these days.)

Let's get to the data. (Before we do that, however, let's note that the data here is courtesy of the extremely useful Day-By-Day Database that's available to all for free at David Pinto's Baseball Musings site. Here is April-May:

Brings us back to that blissful moment in time when Jose Bautista gave all of us another reason to realize why Keith Law was such a problematic choice to be the "pioneer" inside a major league front office and a dubious selection as a BBWAA member. Semi-cheap shot aside, there's still time for the overall deal that the Blue Jays (ironically enough, Law's old employer) made with Jose to turn out a net negative, but after Jose's 2011 season, odds are about 1 in 100 that this can happen.

What a two-month period it was. And it shows us how we award extra points. They are awarded when a player exceeds a .500 OBP and a .700 SLG over a two-month period. Bautista is the only hitter in 2011 to be awarded these bonus points. [EDIT: there's an omission in the chart...Mark Teixeira should be awarded a point for his 15HRs. We'll fix that at the end: it will have little or no impact on the final results.]

On to May-June:

By the end of June, the Red Sox were firing on all cylinders (before Kevin Youkilis began to give ground to nagging injuries). And we haven't yet seen the rise of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, either--that's coming. [EDIT: Mark Teixeira again shows us another area where it's possible to add bonus points, that area being in isolated power. His .300 ISO despite a very indifferent batting average reflects his league-leading HR total for May-June. It's not included here because we applied only when the player didn't get points for HRs and RBIs in the "epicycle."]

Bautista is coming down to merely superstar--as opposed to superhuman--levels.

Look quickly, for this is the only appearance of Alex Rodriguez on these charts.

On to June-July:

As noted above, witness the rise of Pedroia and Ellsbury. In this two-month snapshot, the Red Sox have five hitters on this list--the most that any team was able to place in any "epicycle." (The Rangers have four in June-July--Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, and Michael Young. The Mike Napoli Era is about to begin...)

Another interesting thing to notice, though it's a bit off-topic here, is the difference in Adrian Gonzalez' walk totals this year, when he was surrounded by a very strong supporting crew in Boston, from what those numbers looked like over the past few years in San Diego.

Note the nice, but otherwise unnoticed two-month stretch from Nick Swisher.

Also notice how close the OPS values are for Jose Bautista and Mark Reynolds here. One an odds-on MVP candidate, and the other the "all or nothing" king of the breeze. In any "epicycle" there will be a few strange bedfellows...

Pedroia just misses bonus points for HR and RBI, which may cause some teeth-gnashing somewhere. We could talked into giving a bonus point for a 1.100+ OPS over an "epicycle," given that it's something that happened only four times during the season in the AL. But we didn't do it this time.

Now let's look at July-August:

A very good hitting epicycle, we cut it off at a higher level than in the previous snapshots. Bautista, after a slow (for him, at least) June-July, got back in the groove in August to challenge for the top spot in OPS. However, top dog here is clearly Mike Napoli (the man Mike Scioscia disinvited to dinner).

We see the late-season ascendance of Ellsbury and Ortiz, and here is the power surge from Curtis Granderson (a .328 ISO, just under Bautista's .336).

The sabe crowd will decry this idea, but should we give a point for a .350+ BA? It happened only ten times across the five AL epicycles in 2011. It's not part of the system at the present.

Finally, the "last epicycle" (August-September):

If not .350, how about .400? Miguel Cabrera is the only player in baseball during 2011 to have a two-month stretch where he hit .400+. We're inclined to think that we shouldn't bother with BA, but it's at least worth discussing. In a few of these years, such tiny point increments could make a difference as to whom the Ptolemaic system sees as the MVP. (If you're paying attention to the Tot column as it's been floating by, however, you'll know that 2011 is not going to be one of those years.)

We stuck Pedroia on here just to show how much his performance cooled off as the season moved toward its end. Surprisingly, as measured by OPS, Ortiz was the Sox' best hitter in August-September, despite Ellsbury's power surge.

Down in seventh place for the "last epicycle," we see Jose Bautista coasting home. We'd written back in August that we felt the race was a blanket-toss between him and Gonzalez and Granderson. Note that those two guys faded away more than he did.

Meanwhile, Cabrera and Napoli are charging down the stretch, and it's probably not that much of a coincidence that their two respective teams had the best records during September.

Should there be another point added for runs scored minus runs scored on homers? Do we want to credit someone for the spikiness of their ability to score in a concentrated portion of the year? The standard there might be 30 more runs scored than runs scored on HRs, with a minimum of 10 HRs hit over the epicycle. We would have awarded this eight times over the course of five AL epicycles. Ian Kinsler is the one who did it in August-September.

So, after all that, we add up the Ptolemaic points, factor in the rankings for OPS+ and WAR, add from left to right across your dial, and we wind up with the not-especially-surprising conclusion that Jose Bautista is the AL's 2011 MVP. If we'd had this method up and running in August, we wouldn't have suggested that we simply throw a blanket over Jose, Adrian and Curtis.

This (at left) would be the order of voting that we'd place on any MVP ballot that we were asked to fill out.

What about Justin Verlander, you ask? Earlier we'd suggested that the Tigers' ace could be a consideration in the voting if he was able to win 25 games, with his other stats remaining intact. That was a bit too simplistic. A pitcher really needs to have two factors going to crash into the MVP race, especially given that there is a separate award handed out for their achievements. They need to win a huge percentage of their games and they need to excel at all the other stats--not just leading the league, but doing so at a historically rarified level.

Sandy Koufax' 1963 MVP award can speak to some of these issues, though it will be controversial to some because his ERA+, as measured by the standard method for computing park factors, is too low to be considered dominant (though the WAR data, compiled from total runs allowed and a method that rewards quantity of work as well as quality, contradicts this conclusion). 

Koufax won 20 more games than he lost--that seems like a good starting benchmark for letting a pitcher into the discussion. His team went 34-6 in his starts--that's a matter of luck (and good relief pitching), but it's something that needs to be given some weight when determining the point when a pitcher crosses over into MVP territory.

Verlander is right on the cusp in terms of personal wins, but his team was 25-9 in his total games. Great, but not historic. His expected winning percentage based on runs scored and runs allowed in the games he participated in is .747. His team's record in those games was .735 (25-9). Koufax' expected winning percentage based on runs scored and runs allowed was .806. That works out to 32-8 over the games he participated in. So the Dodgers did a little better than that projection (2 games), but it's not an outrageous amount. The Tigers came in just about right on Verlander's projection (about two-fifths of a win low, actually).

To crash into an MVP race as well as the Cy Young race, a pitcher should at least score .800 on his expected winning percentage using runs scored/runs allowed. Verlander had a great season--he's a Cy Young winner for sure. But he's just below the threshold of being let into the MVP discussion as we see it.

Is he a better candidate than many of the hitters at the top of the Ptolemaic charts? Absolutely. If the concept of separation wasn't something that we considered to be important, he'd at least be fifth on the list, and possibly as high as third. But we have an award for pitchers already, and we should really reserve crossover for cases that are historically unique, that are based on the context of the individual season.

The conclusion here is that we shouldn't consider a pitcher for MVP at all unless we can demonstrate that he should be voted #1. Koufax in '63 has a case to be made for that, while granting that some of his stats (especially when adjusted) can be used as counterarguments. Verlander only has his WAR total to make the case for him, and while that's impressive, it's not quite enough given the principles discussed above. Clearly, YMMV.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


While we are holding our breath to see if the infamous BBBA "voodoo" will bring us a seven-game series, it's a good time to thank Tony LaRussa, whose overwrought genius has been in roadkill mode over the past week, taking his team from what could have been a five-game closeout into an uphill struggle requiring that magical (but increasingly elusive) seventh game. Perhaps this has been Tony's plan from the start.

But before we press on to the ostensible subject of this post, we also want to put forth our favorite pet theory concerning Tony. He's not known for his modesty when it comes to managing or much of anything else, but this year he showed a great deal of personal courage by coming to work looking like something from a Ed Wood horror film.

The theory is that it was all a smokescreen: this wasn't a case of the shingles. It was the aftermath of plastic surgery.

Swelling is not unusual with a face lift, especially one that's centered around the eyes. The amount of swelling that Tony had was extremely unusual, of course, but that's because he is the kind of singular fellow that anomalous events happen to with uncharacteristic regularity.

Such as his surreal managerial performance in Game Five, a classic case of someone's facelift being too tight and affecting the proper flow of blood in the brain.

(Hey, you gotta admit that it's a more plausible reason that the one Tony offered up after Game Five went awry...)

• •

Let's move on. Albert Pujols' three-homer game in Game Three received a lot of justified attention, with the usual back-and-forth on the quality of the feat in terms of that most favored realm of baseball--Eternity. (It's especially privileged during October, the month where the game swells up like a peacock, coming dangerously close to overstaying its welcome.)

We are not here to assess Albert's Arlington depth-charging in terms of such an eternal pantheon. We simply want to take a look at the entire event set--all 126 instances where a hitter has slugged at least two homers in a post-season game.

First, let's note that the reporters (99.9% of them) underreported the incidence of three-homer games in the post-season. They focused on the World Series, where legendary players have been the only ones to manage the feat--legendary figures who, until Albert dared to join the ranks, were all Yankees.

It seems only fair to report here that there are four other players who have hit three homers in a post-season game. Should we sweep these guys under the rug because they didn't happen to do it in the World Series? The post-season is now everything beyond the regular season, at least until Bud Selig's dying act as Kommisar serves to invert this relationship.

The other players to hit three homers in a post season game are:

--Bob Robertson, Pirates vs. Giants, 1971 NLCS
--George Brett, Royals vs. Yankees, 1978 ALCS (the only 3-HR game in a losing cause)
--Adam Kennedy, Angels vs. Yankees, 2002 ALCS
--Adrian Beltre, Rangers vs. Rays, 2011 ALDS

It's a more wide-ranging list, with one Hall of Famer (Brett), one possible Hall of Famer (Beltre), and two definite journeymen (Robertson and Kennedy).

So what would you like to know about these 126 multi-homer games? You can find out exactly who they are by plopping yourself over to the page singled out herein at Forman et fils.

As always, we start out with a chart that shows the basic frequency distribution of post-season HRs by decade. It's cheerfully noted at the outset that there is nothing especially electrifying here, given that the expansion of the post-season in 1969 and 1995 explains the jump in post-season HR. Still, it must be said that the jump is rather impressive despite this relativizing fact.

Next up is a table showing the leaders for most multi-homer games in the post-season. It's impressive to note that even with all of the expanded opportunities to have multiple homer games, the all-time leader in this category is still Babe Ruth. The Bambino did it four times.

The only other player to do it more than twice is our old friend Manny Ramirez. We miss ol' Manny, and harbor a not-so-secret wish that he could have found a way to hang in there with the Rays and made at least one more post-season.

The folks who've had two multi-HR games in the post-season are by and large a distinguished group, with the possible exception of a singular fellow named Willie Mays Aikens. Willie will certainly have his defenders: his lifetime OPS+ is 123, which isn't the worst of those players on this list. It's the cocaine and the prison record that makes Willie more than a bit infamous. The record that Willie might hold (this is one that Bill James probably knows, given his penchant for "popular crime") is the longest prison sentence handed out to a major-league baseball player (fourteen years). I'm guessing that it isn't the record. In any case, Aikens is one of only two players to have multiple-homer games in the same World Series: he pulled off this feat in 1980. Twenty-nine years later, Chase Utley became the second player to do it. Ironically, they both played for losing teams.

This might be a good time to toss in a tidbit about players having multi-homer performances in the same game. This has happened three times, beginning with the only teammates to ever do it. Wanna take a guess? Yes, that's right, it's Ruth and that other guy--you know, the one named Lou Gehrig. They did it against the Cubs in Game Three of the 1932 World Series.

The others? Troy O'Leary and Jim Thome did it in a game between Boston and Cleveland in the 1999 ALDS. Four years later Eric Karros and Chipper Jones did it in the 2003 NLDS, the one that pitted the Cubs vs. the Braves.

Care to know which team has had the most post-season multi-HR games? C'mon, you already know the answer to that question. (Hint: it ain't the St. Louis Browns.) Our chart of the multi-HR games by team spells out the obvious, but it also tells you how often the team with the multi-HR performance proves to be the winning team. The effect is massive, as a certain class of analyst might say: teams have a collective 98-27 record in games where someone on their team hits two or more HRs (a .784 WPCT).

The other thing that comes to light from perusing this table is the fact that the World Series still holds the edge in the overall number of multi-HR games (although that may be due to the head start that the Fall Classic enjoyed from 1903-68). Since 1969, the two rounds of division playoffs have accounted for 73% of the post-season multi-HR games: it's only a question of time before the non-World Series post-season will overtake the World Series in the overall list. After all, there are far more playoff games than World Series games.

Finally, for those who must know: the breakdown by position for players who hit two or more homers in a post-season game. Totals as follows: 1B 24, LF 22, RF 21, CF 18, 3B 17, 2B 11, C 7, SS 4, DH 3.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


We don't want to disturb the Occupy Wall Street efforts or anything, but baseball has been squeezing its fans over the past thirty years in a way that, chart-wise at any rate, resembles the reprehensible efforts of the "trickle-down" crowd.

What's the beef? The decline and the downright dearth of seven-game World Series. There ought to be some Keynesian principle that could prop up this particular crisis--but, frankly, short of packing the Supreme Court we can't think of how to manage it.

The chart, which recycles our favorite motif in this timespan of the baseball season (the coin-flip), tells all. The golden age of 7-game World Series occurred in the first thirty years of the Boomer generation, and since then everything has gone into the crapper.

Little did any twenty-something know back in the mid-70s that the seven-game World Series would need to be placed upon the Endangered Species List along with big hair, bell-bottoms, and a metric ton's worth of other dubious cultural artifacts that Dan Epstein is still trying to turn into a reality series. (It seems as though big hair is not quite out of fashion, especially down on the Jersey shore.)

Some salient facts regarding this urgent crisis:

"Actually, it was all Bob Haldeman's idea!!"
--We have not had a seven-game Series since 2002, the same year that Dick Cheney became the sole member of the Trilateral Commission.

--The last time we had three 7-game series in a row was in 1985-1986-1987--a blatant effort on the part of the Reagan administration to divert our attention from Iran-Contra.

--Prior to that, the next trio of 7-game series, from 1971-73, was tied into the various phases of the Watergate break-in: the bungled planning, the bungled operation, the lack of concern on the part of a war-dazed electorate in the '72 election, and the invention of the designated hitter (first thought up by that arch-fiend John Ehrlichman).

--The great four-year run of 7-game World Series, from 1955 to 1958, coincided with the greatest as-yet-unrevealed covert operation in American history: the painstaking, systematic replacement of health-challenged President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a robot. (The robot exhibited a number of glaring speech deficiencies, but neither the public nor any of the various members of the branches of government were able to tell the difference.)

"Aw, sh*tf*ck, folks, there's no reason that
those Red Sox pitchers should lay off the Budweiser!!
After watching my Pilots play, I say: keep 'em comin'!!"
Conspiracy theorists are hard at work concocting lurid scenarios for the two other 7-game threepeats in 1945-46-47 and 1925-26-27, and we'll pass these along to you just as soon as these folks have been returned to the appropriate mental care facilities. (Wait, you mean to tell me that there are no mental care facilities for them to go to? Jeez, we know exactly what Joe Schultz would say about this!!)

The great run of seven-game World Series occurred in a twenty-four year period from 1952 to 1975, in which there were fifteen to-the-limit Fall Classics. That's fifteen out of a grand total of thirty-three. How could we know that we'd peaked as a nation?

Man those barricades, boys and girls!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


But let's look at it anyway. Sometimes you just gotta make charts, just as other recalcitrant, curmudgeonly types just gotta go do a numbers-numbing study. It's as natural as breathing through an iron lung.

So the question is: do teams that play well in, say, the last month of the season get any traction in the post-season? We must unfortunately limit ourselves to study such a question with more recent years, as the entire notion of the playoffs (and the odds of reaching the ultimate destination, the World Series) has been diminished thanks to the efforts of Bud Selig and a gaggle of massive media companies in various stages of meta-conglomeration.

We won't put you through the whole study--because unlike some folks, we know (yes, we really do!) when the data is pointing ominously toward randomness: real randomness, not the kind sometimes ascribed to pitchers with respect to balls in play. But the charts are kinda fun, and they will help illustrate the point being made in our title.

So here's the first one. We calculated the won-loss records for the final 27 games of the regular season for the eight 2011 post-season teams. These were placed into the post-season grid. The "heat mapping" here (not nearly as psychedelicate as what you'll find for batters and pitchers elsewhere) tells you whether the hotter or the colder team won in the particular round.

The data for 2011--not complete as yet, of course, since the World Series begins tonight--shows that in four of the six post-season series, the "hotter" team prevailed.

Of course we can all see the flaws in this approach right from the start. The Rangers-Tigers ALCS gives it to us in a nutshell right away. Does it make sense to characterize a team that went 20-7 as a "colder" team? 20-7 is a .741 WPCT.

It's kinda silly--among other things, the thought of it makes us long to see Ida Lupino slap "silly boy" Cornel Wilde around in Road House (before vamping him in that skimpy bowling outfit--and believe us when we tell you that there's nothing sillier than "bowling noir").

So we'll press on with a flawed concept, because it's preferable than bowling alone. And besides, the charts are kinda neat. We'll only bother to show you two more of these, however, since we know they are silly and flawed (just like that Mexican fire opal ring that Humphrey Bogart bitterly remembers giving to his murdered wife in Dark Passage, which leads to that paradoxical noir notion that you should never give a dame what she wants, because as soon as you do, she doesn't want it any more).

So here are the same "hot-cold" charts for 2010 (where you'll see that "hot" teams emerged victorious in six of the seven post-season series--now that's a factoid that was just begging to get some airplay on Fox Sports, nicht war?) and for 2006 (a chart that should probably be burdened with one of our patented irrelevant allusions, in this instance to a particular Miles Davis album--doubly, and evocatively irrelevant if one considers the style of jazz being played on that particular LP).

It's pretty clear that despite the pretty charts, the data here just isn't of much use at all. We would probably find it more interesting to discover if playoff teams exceed their seasonal winning percentages during the last month/last 27 games. What we see when we do that--or when we look at the ebb and flow of such percentages over time--is that this, too, fluctuates a good bit, with some years possessing playoff-bound teams that were hot at season's close, and others where they were less so.

We can do this data a different way--one that's more meaningful, but that will--alas--simply also point out the essential randomness at work here. We can look at the rankings of the eight teams in terms of their last-27 game WPCT, and look at the rankings of the winners and losers in the World Series. When we do that, of course, we see that the average ranking of the winner is only slightly better than that of the loser (4.3 to 5), which is all right in the old fair-to-middling range anyway--and the final screw-turn is that in the fifteen World Series since 1996, the team with the lower last-27 game WPCT has won eight times.

So even this very selective endpoint reinforces our coin-flip metaphor. 

OK, there is one other possible way we can look at this to see if there is any type of hot-hand carryover into post-season results. To do that, we expand the number of games from 27 to 45--a little more than a fourth of the season.

And then we look at all the teams, from 1969 to the present, who played at least .667 baseball (at least 30-15) over that span of games. And we see how they made out.

How did they make out? First we need to remember that there are two eras of playoffs in need of defining here--the two-round playoffs from 1969-1963 and the three-round playoffs that began in 1995. (We've drawn a line in the chart to show where the first era ends and the second begins.)

One fact that comes out of this is that there have been 53 teams who have played .667+ baseball over the last 45 games of the season in this 43-season time span. So this happens almost every year, and we've had a run of multiple teams doing this in the same year for awhile now. There have been 23 such occurrences in the past fourteen years (1.67 per year), as opposed to 30 in twenty-five years during the two-round playoff era. There was only one instance of three teams being this hot over the last 45 games prior to 1993: that was in 1980, and--as the chart shows--none of these teams even made it into the World Series!
Fear not, felonious friends: if you click on Ye Olde
"Innocent Victim" Scarlett here, she'll get "bigger."

Of course, with the Wild Card in place, it's much more difficult to dominate down the stretch and be shut out of the post-season. It has only happened to two teams in the three-round era: the 1998 Blue Jays and the 2005 Indians.

Currently, if you play .667 or better in those last 45 games, you're a 90% lock to be in the post-season. In the two-round era, that probability was only 70%. So, as Scarlett Johannson and an army of Internet hackers can tell you, it pays to get hot!!

The odds of winning the World Series once you get into the Post Season are now 1-in-8; from 1969-1993 that was 1-in-4, so we are probably at or around a 1-in-6 shot at this point. Right now, nine hot teams out of 53 (just a bit over 1-in-6) have won the World Series. Texas can be the tenth. Fifteen hot teams made it to the World Series (just under 30%), and of those fifteen (would you please keep your eyes on the text, OK??) nine of them (60%) were winners.

So, after all this, let's figure that Texas is slightly favored to win, simply because they'

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Man Ray hits the bricks to monument a sadist...
the 18th century version of Larry Lucchino.
The theory of why the Red Sox have such dangerous allure is linked--more to the point, joined at the hip--to the writings of the Marquis de Sade and the great Internet pornographic psychologist Gert Martin Hald. Getting, er, deeper into the subject--that is, beyond the virtual unanimity of correlation between males and pornographic imagery--Hald and others note that a sullen exterior seems to induce the greatest amount of "arousal" amongst users.

"There must be an obstacle to overcome," Hald notes, with only the faintest trace of a smirk on his face, "especially for the sizable majority of males who do not possess a natural affinity for seduction rituals." And when one transposes this always-repressed urge to dominate from the sexual arena to other, seemingly less fetishized social rituals, the need to commingle submissiveness with arrogance--a variation of the Gnostic impulse toward ecstatic annihilation--is nothing more or less than an unstoppable force.

Ergo the Red Sox, who continue to occupy a role that is a weird amalgam of the feminine characters in medieval romance, but with a fatal twist. They are not Beatrice buoying a tattered but transformed poet through a mid-life crisis; they are much more like the maidens trapped in the tower whose suitors must climb perilously to their rescue. And all the feudal force of history forces them to climb with one hand tied behind their back: while their romantic-sexillectual zeal inspires their perpetual effort, they fail to take into account the presence of history's cruelest lodestone--the immovable object.

In the medieval tale, the knight only occasionally slays the dragon. And the dragon (best characterized, perhaps, as the force that keeps civilization from achieving utopia) has a nasty tendency to regenerate.

Charlie knows all about free-fallin'...
That immovable object? That won't-stay-dead dragon? Why, who else but the Yankees.

"Reversing the curse," like keeping the dark forces at bay, is only a temporary achievement. What one has to admire in the rich but frightening tapestry of Red Sox history is its instinct for extremity--which is why all this psychosexual connection is not simply a parodic description. Seven years after vanquishing an eighty-six year old dragon, four years after tempting fate by winning a second time, the Sox suddenly discovered that the earth wasn't simply moving under their feet, but that a giant, unavoidable chasm had suddenly, irrevocably, swallowed them up. Before anyone could do anything about it--before they could even sense it happening--they had reached terminal velocity.

Carl Crawford, late September 2011...
So...exactly how did the mashed remains that came to earth with a final, sickening thud in Baltimore just over two weeks ago get that way? Yes--of course--'twas a fall from a great height, but what pushed them out of the airplane? Who snapped the braided hair? Exactly what immovable object knocked them out of the sky?

Mythically, folklorically, it was the Yankees, to be sure (and we'll examine a curious possible "mythic" interpretation regarding that in a bit). But the great feudal pestilence from just under two hundred miles to the southwest had very little presence in the sacher-masochian September that the Red Sox (and their helplessly bound fans) experienced.

While the post-mortemizing has created both a figurative and literal lividity producing a level of corpse discoloration beyond any levels of measurement known either to medical professionals or mass media, what's clear is that the major systemic failure was the starting pitching. "Free-fall" was induced by a 7.08 September ERA from the starters, but what our first post-mortem table (at right) also shows is that the entire staff was infected with a malady best known as "pernicious strike deprivation anemia"--or, in laymen's terms, they all turned into wild-ass lefties. As the table shows, both starters and relievers were afflicted by the disease, but the severity of the problem was located squarely with those (purportedly, at least) beer-swillin', chicken-eatin' starters.

The 118 BBs handed out by the Red Sox staff in September was the highest monthly total in the AL during 2011.

To get a better sense of what was happening throughout the free-fall, we can turn to our old pal QMAX (Quality Matrix). Nothing is better equipped to characterize the shape of performance, and via looking side-by-side at the monthly starting pitching data through the QMAX lens, we'll be able to better see the exact shape of catastrophe.

Our charts compare the starting pitcher performance for the Red Sox in August and September. As you will see in the basic QMAX charts, the comparison couldn't possibly be more stark. The basic QMAX averages confirm that the Red Sox' starters had a control meltdown in September that was even more pronounced than their decline in hit prevention.

In terms of what was happening on a game-in, game-out basis, however, the contrast is much more dramatic. Simply looking at the location of the starts in the QMAX matrix grid (once you're oriented to know that the upper left corner is best, and the lower right corner is worst) will tell you the story.

The September chart is a depiction of the type of catastrophe that is usually reserved for that unfortunate individual who either has a major breakdown in pitching performance from previous years or is someone  pitching for a perennial league doormat or its surrogate, the exceptionally hapless expansion team. What chills the blood here is that this represents the collective efforts of seven pitchers--Josh Beckett, Erik Bedard, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, and Kyle Weiland. It is really hard to get seven guys to pitch this poorly for an entire month. (Consequently, we searched in vain for a group portrait.)

The QMAX range data (at left)--the ones that provide percentages for the key performance areas depicted on the chart--shows that the "hit hard" games more than doubled in September. The loss of anything resembling control also resulted in a radical diminishing of "Tommy John" starts--the boxed area at the lower left of the QMAX chart, the region where pitchers can often be successful in spite of the probabilities inherent in the QMAX data, and where the Sox had a disproportionate number of starts in August. (Usually the highest percentage of "Tommy John" starts in a season for any individual pitcher is around 35%--it's highly odd to see an entire starting staff approach such a percentage, even in only a month's worth of games.)

Andrew Miller, witnessing yet
another unfortunate trajectory...
The Red Sox made a few decisions about their starting staff that look odd in retrospect. No, we're not talking about putting Tim Wakefield in for the injured Daisuke Matsuzaka. The first odd choice came when Clay Buchholz went down; instead of promoting Kevin Millwood, the Sox brought up Andrew Miller, one of their pet reclamation projects. Miller had been pitching well in AAA, but he reverted to his erratic ways once promoted.

Kevin Millwood in Pawtucket: in search of a Margarita
to waste away with...
The Sox were on a roll offensively at this time (they averaged a bit over 6.5 runs/game in July), so having some dike leakage wasn't costing them anything.

At the end of the month, however, they decided that they weren't going to give Millwood a chance at all, despite Miller's inconsistency. They shopped for a veteran starter who would allow them to play hunches with their fifth starter slot, acquiring Bedard from Seattle after a noteworthy volte-face on the A's Rich Harden. Millwood's time limit for promotion to the major leagues as specified in his Red Sox contract expired, and he wound up in Colorado (where he pitched a good bit better than Miller or Wakefield).

Bedard, well-known as a "fragile" pitcher--so much so, in fact, that teammates would caution him from sitting down too quickly in order to ensure that he might not suffer a freak mishap--managed to stay healthy for the month of August; but he put too much "wiggle" into a pitch on September 3rd, and while it didn't shut him down for the rest of the year, it probably should have. His last two starts, in the final grip of terminal velocity, had absolutely no braking effect for the Sox.

Tito: "A little early for that much snow, ain't it?"
Theo: "If we run, only one of us will get buried..."
But let's not get too deep into second-guessing, lest we wind up as sullen as the press, the fans, the owners, and quite probably the players themselves, who can't help but be fed up with being the pseudo-pornographic targets of an outside world fixated on the interminable forensic fetishizing with which the New York-Boston rivalry keeps foul odors flying (no matter how many exterminators are called). Many of them probably wish that they could simply skip town the way that Terry Francona and Theo Epstein are doing.

And, subterranean truth be told, it's probably Theo's fault--not so much for being so overrated, or for any of his actual (and very real) deficiencies. It was the hubris inherent in trying to upend the nature of the universe, baseball division. And that bravado extended all the way to the head-to-head matchups that the Red Sox had against the Yankees during the EJE (for those who've forgotten our fencing forays at the Baseball Think Factory with the potent, potioned, Parsifal-like Red Sox Nation, that's an acronym for the Epstein-James Era, which is now over).

The bruising, brawling yearly head-to-head competition was much closer during the EJE than at any other time in history, and while Theo can take pride in knowing that during his watch the Sox managed to eke out an edge over the Evil Empire (84-82), he might want to ponder the fact that such an occurrence seems likely to be one of the main reasons why the avalanche of misfortune came rumbling down the mountain a good bit ahead of snow season this past September.

The great forces of a mythic universal order, as manifested in the seedy grandeur of a game whose business bloat is at maximum volume level, are making their counter-moves. It is a humbling and wondrous experience, for when it comes, it spares no one. It would be best to keep this in mind, and--despite any and all desires to the contrary--to try to remember (try, try, try) this very cosmic, catastrophic September.

Friday, October 7, 2011


In the midst of wild card and post-season excitement, we didn't get around to updating the Pennant Race Index we formulated for you awhile back. We can thank the Braves and Red Sox for salvaging 2011 from what would almost certainly have been the most boring overall pennant outcome in the past sixteen years.

Even with the wild card madness on the final day of the season, 2011 still graded out as the fifth most boring pennant race over the time span--though possibly a better measure for the purposes of day-to-day involvement can be found in the shaded numbers which represent the number of "post-season slots" that were extremely contested in any given year.

When we do that, we see that 2011 didn't have a widespread set of close races as was the case in 2007, where five post-season slots were within two games of their closest rivals.

There have been 35 such slots over the past sixteen years, or about 2.2 a year. 2011 is just under that average, but far off the pace set in 2002, when no one was closer than 2 1/2 games.

As has been the case fully half the time (eight seasons out of the past sixteen), the NL wildcard race remained a nail-baiter, with only one game separating the post-season team from the "see you next year" squad.

It's mostly thanks to the NL Wild Card chase that the race for the fourth slot has proven to be markedly closer than the divisional chases. And 2011, with its collapsing "shoo-ins," produced the closest Wild Card average ever.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Mister Fister himself.
I'm here to tell you what you already know, which used to be a guaranteed way for making said practitioner rich and famous, but that's subsequently been outsourced to a distant realm beyond the ozone layer as a result of Internet intervention. (Who knows where all that extra money goes!!)

If you're following baseball at all, you already know that Doug Fister has been pitching extremely well of late (well, not quite so well in that weird, wacky "Game One" in the Yankees-Tigers series that baseball and the Great Media Conglomerate foisted off on us last week--but prior to that, at a level approaching unconsciousness).

Such a seemingly incongruous development is one of those cockle-warming stories that baseball is especially good at providing--transitory transcendence, long odds put through a threshing machine a la the scene in Border Incident where George Murphy is turned into fertilizer, and the strange-but-true relationship between the underdog and the urge for ululation (a topic that Jennifer Dziura, formerly the Princess of Bagels, is about to tackle while wearing nothing but cream cheese in her next one-woman show).

Funny, ain't it, how this "get yourself off" thingee looks
mysteriously like a jock strap...
Mister Fister's ascendance has a been this season's secret stroke of genius, unexpected but filled with potential for explication (though one would be wise to not wear the device depicted at left while attempting to do so). The tools we have at our disposal seem to indicate that the little world of baseball analysis just might be getting closer to taking its statistical data down to the level of an individual game (the point we made fifteen years ago, when we suggested that full acceptance of the precepts involved in advanced analysis would require some such form of "granular integration").

Which, come to think of it, just might be possible with the assistance of said "apparatus."

Of course, no one named Fister is likely to be much more than a flash in the pan, but, by Cracky, we can hope, can't we? Once we have dispensed with (most of) the childishness in the preceding grafs, an examination of various stats that examine the apparatuses (apparati?) that assist us in describing the shape of pitching quality (the ones that go beyond a mere re-casting of earned run average) will show that some potential for breakthroughs in this area are actually on the horizon.

Back in the little so-called "basement world," we have visual tracking aids (PitchFX) that can characterize the details of pitching. (In fact, these are boardroom tools, that point us toward the need for collectivization within the monopoly world of baseball--but that's a diatribe for a different day.) These tools make it possible to measure batter vs. pitcher stats (the BA/OBP/SLG suite of pitcher stats that finally emerged in the 90s as play-by-play data began its initial ascendancy) as a function of individual pitch type. That's why reforming Stalinist stathead Dave Cameron can utilize such data, rendered in somewhat dubious fashion as "Runs Saved by Pitch Type," as part of a Fangraphs post last month that suggests we do not underestimate the improvements that Fister had been making since being traded to Detroit at the end of July.

Hand in hand with this, we have hit type data, another breakout from an observational overlay on play-by-play data, that permits us to make a crude but promising set of categorizations. The key one, as Bill James and others have noted, seems to be the line drive, when, once we isolate it, seems to be an important trend line for pitcher effectiveness. (Actually, the data as it's being applied now doesn't quite rise to the level where it supports the previous assertion, but that's because it isn't currently being applied at the level of an individual's being aggregated as part of the mostly misguided attempt to leach out "luck" via the BABIP/DIPS model.)

These two tools permit some more educated soothsaying, at least. Cameron was able to note that Doug Fister was mixing his pitches more effectively once he'd left Seattle for Detroit, and had improved markedly in using his change-up as an out pitch.

But what remains lacking in this is a framework that describes the quality in each start from a standpoint of hit prevention. Our original tool for this purpose, the Quality Matrix (QMAX for short), got lost in the stampede to the BABIP/DIPS model. It needed only some refinement in terms of overlaying extra-base hits--and a tie-in to the "hit type" data that has emerged in the past several years.

When we bring QMAX into the picture to look at what's been happening with Doug Fister in 2010-11, we can first see that his improvement this season preceded his trade to Detroit. The QMAX grid, focusing on hit prevention/walk prevention, distributes individual starts into the matrix categories, which possess probabilistic quality designations related to team winning percentage. The three basic charts, shown at right, show how Fister was making marked improvement even before he was traded. The fourth "shape chart," below at right, which provides percentage data for the key regions defined on the matrix chart, puts that data into numerical form.

The shape chart shows that Fister's improvement in 2011 was more dramatic than what any of the other available measures suggested to be the case in late July. While it could not predict that Fister's ability to prevent hits would undergo such a dramatic (and possibly short-term) transformation, it clearly pointed to the fact that Doug's actual quality level was significantly higher than the then-current conceptual consensus. In particular, his success at preventing hits (as represented in the percentage of "top hit prevention games"--the S12 category--and the percentage of "hit hard games"--the HH category) had already been transformed prior to the trade to the Tigers.

What's far more interesting than this, however, is the possibility that hit type data, when merged with QMAX, can give us a much better sense of the integration of performance variables. (The pitch type data has possibilities as well, but it may be limited by the fact that the distribution of pitches thrown may not produce a sufficient quantity of information for each individual pitcher--though it's too soon to be sure of that.) We can map hit type data--particularly the incidence of line drives--to the QMAX "hit prevention" axis. When we do that for Fister, we find out that the percentage of balls in play that are line drives goes up in a linear fashion across the axis.

Actually, the data is more interestingly suggestive than that--though we must temper any rush to judgment by noting that the results described below are likely more individualistic in nature, since Fister  has a pronounced ground ball pattern.

The chart at left shows the traditional pitcher stat results filtered through the QMAX grid--or, more accurately, over key segments of the grid (figure below, at right): the "hit hard" section at the bottom; the "Tommy John" or "TJ" region at the lower left, where finesse pitchers try to strand runners despite giving up more hits than innings pitched; the "top hit prevention" region (top two rows on the chart); and the "elite square" (the four matrix boxes at the upper left corner of the chart, where the very best game performances reside).

What's extremely interesting in Fister's case is that the raw percentage of fly balls allowed (column in pink) in these various breakouts barely changes. It's the percentage of line drives and ground balls that fluctuate (look at the G/L column in orange). In his worst games, Fister gives up a bit more than twice as many line drives as he does in his best games.

Now, as we said, it's far from being this simple. Different pitchers will have varying relationships with respect to the hit types, and they need to be studied with respect to other measures (including the BABIP/DIPS formulations, which remain high-level regression-style modeling approaches, built under the assumption that we can't penetrate into the game level at all). But pitch types and hit types and QMAX may just take us there yet.

There are some other game-level fluctuations that need to be measured on a game-by-game basis. Currently we collect the hit-type and pitch-type data without looking at it in terms of individual games. Forman et fils seems to be of two minds about this data--giving us matchless breakouts of the batter vs. pitcher data for hit type, but at the same time giving us double-counted line drive and fly ball data that problematizes our ability to do any analysis with it.

What could help would be a series of hit type charts that go into the game at the inning by inning level. We would be looking for in-game changes in hit type ratios, and for fluctuations in result vs. the overall average result by hit type.

Some examples of these charts are shown on the right. The first one, which charts one of Fister's fine September performances during the Tigers' stretch run, shows that he induced nine ground ball outs over eight innings (we should number them for you, but the horizontal lines should give you the idea of when the innings change) without giving up a single hit.

He wasn't quite so fortunate with fly balls in this game, though the A's were only 1-for-7 (but the one hit was a homer). With line drives, it appears that Doug might have been a bit lucky: the A's were 2-for-5, but the average BA on line drives is around .700, so he dodged at least one hit, maybe two.

Let's contrast this with a game earlier in the year, when Doug wasn't so much in command of his game. (In fact, this is probably his worst start of 2011.) More line drives than ground balls--we already know that this is bad, and it was this way from the very beginning of the game. The White Sox were 8-for-9 on line drives! They were 5-for-9 on fly balls, with two doubles. We had to add a special column marked with an asterisk (*) to show all of the extra plays that entered into the game due to all the baserunners. (The red numerals, which unfortunately don't show well, indicate a hit where a run is scored.)

Note all that extra shading. The darker shades in each hit type show when the count has one or two strikes in it when the ball is put in play. Black areas indicate a ball put in play on the first pitch. Whole lotta data goin' on here...

Let's look at just one more of these hit type charts...this is the one for the "start" in Game 1 of the ALDS that Doug made on October 1st. This one is even more interesting because it shows the sudden shift from line drive to ground ball to fly ball that occurred over the course of the game.

Fister fights his way out of a jam in the "first" (it's actually the second), then cruises on grounders/strikeouts in the next two innings before he suddenly begins to elevate the ball and the Yankees start to hit him. In the final inning, things fall apart due to control issues, some bad luck (two straight ground ball hits) and, of course, the grand slam that was surrendered by Al Alburquerque right after Doug was removed from the game. The Yankees were able to do some uncharacteristic two-strike hitting (we added that breakout to show how much data can be assembled this way), going 3-for-6.

Everyone has observed this type of trend in a game without actually quantifying it before--a pitcher is effective doing one thing, then suddenly is unable to do that thing anymore, trouble comes in a cluster, and even a return to the type of pitching that was effective earlier doesn't work. As you can see in that final inning, Fister had two outs when the ground ball approach came back to bite him: such fine lines are hard to draw with mere numbers.

Mister Fister and the fist of Joe Louis, his reward from the
fans in Detroit for going 8-1 down the stretch.
The line drive-to-ground ball ratio of this game looks pretty good, but Doug gave up one more hit than he should have in each of the three hit types. We can start to quantify "luck" at the game level, instead of at the BABIP/DIPS "model' level.

So what will happen with Doug tonight? Your guess is as good as mine. But what we know is that he has improved a great deal in his second year, and he has a chance to be a very good pitcher for some time to come. I suspect even a smattering of Yankee fans--at least the male ones, at any rate--will find it hard to root against a man named Fister.