Sunday, September 30, 2012


It's a rare day indeed when one gets a phone call from a spider.

But today was just such a day.

"Hi, Bub!" (I will always be "Bub" to a small coterie of affectionate animals who don't seem to know that the term they use isn't particularly affectionate in nature.)

"Hi, Webbie," I replied. For those breathless tones could be no one else.

I could hear the little black-and-orange spider vibrating on the other end of the line.

"It's been so long, Bub."

"C'mon, Webbie, your black-and-orange guys won the World Series just a couple of years ago."

The silky voice sounded slightly abashed. "I know. I shouldn't be greedy."

"Oh, go ahead, be greedy!" I laughed. "We're getting into that time of year where the days grow short and it's almost OK to be greedy."


I knew that the little spider had been waiting for something even more magical--a matchup in the World Series of the two teams who wore his colors. And Webster (that was the name on the package when we'd liberated him from the supermarket shelf way back in the fall of 1996) had been waiting for those two teams--the Giants and the Orioles--to get into the playoffs again for almost as long as we'd known each other.

"Go ahead, Webbie--dream big!" I counseled him.

"OK, Bub" was the reply. I could tell that he wasn't quite ready to do one understood long odds better than he did. Things hadn't worked out back in 1997, and that tender heart had been dashed.

Let's all put aside our usual rooting interests and see if we can't find a way to engineer a World Series that will feature black and orange on the day when everyone will be awash in those colors.

It's the least we can do for a cute, kindly, sensitive, and long-suffering little spider, n'est-ce pas??

Thursday, September 27, 2012


What is a "back end" batting performance? It's essentially the second half of the year--defined, for our purposes, as July 1st to the end of the regular season. As always, David Pinto's Day-By-Day Database makes this data easy to come by.

We're just going to look at the most notable "back ends" from 1957-1966--the first ten years of what's available (if you're out there lurking, David, we're still hoping that you'll find time to push backward in time and incorporate the game log data that Retrosheet has made available back to 1918).

We've listed the player(s) who won the Most Valuable Player Award in red ink. We've also put leaders in various offensive categories in bold type. As you'll see, Roger Maris hit the most homers from July 1st on (at least in the 1957-66 time frame) with his total of 34 (en route to his controversial 61 in 1961).

But as you can see, for the second half of '61, Maris was nowhere near the best hitter in baseball, or even in the American League.

Our fiftieth anniversary year (1962) contains a surprise: the Dodgers' Frank Howard led the NL with 84 RBI in 85 games over the last half of the year. Impressive as that was, it still didn't hold a candle to the second half turned in by Frank Robinson, who made the strongest possible bid to win back-to-back MVP awards but came up short in the topsy-turvy voting that year.

It's also hard to fathom how the San Francisco Giants wound up falling short in the 1963 NL pennant race given their incredible troika of hitters they had working for them that year. Someone named Koufax might have had something to do with it, of course--and the fact that the Giants' pitching faded away in the second half (2.94 ERA the first half, 3.80 in the second--and 3.80 was not good in 1963!).

But clearly the most astonishing "back end" performance on this list is the one turned in by the great Ted Williams in 1957. Teddy B. had to sit out games due to age and injury, but when he was in there he was otherworldly (as a .418 BA and a 1.347 OPS would tend to indicate).

There are no "unknown soldiers" on this list. With a half-season's worth of data, that's rarely the case. So enjoy the flying-high boys of summer (where have we heard that phrase before??). We'll return with  another installment of this list soon.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Do you remember this chart?

Sorry, silly question...there are more charts thrown around in the world today than a barrel full of monkeys (a phrase as ubiquitous as the actual image of such simian abundance is elusive).

It's the chart we showed you about two weeks back, when we were discussing ways to define quality of play and how to display the discrepancies in actual won-loss record ("what really happened") from the Pythagorean Winning Percentage ("what should have happened").

If you are truly paying attention, however, you'll notice that this chart is an update of the one we displayed earlier. About 20 games' worth of the season have passed since the earlier chart was compiled, and this updated version adds in four more increments of the 30-game snapshots that were being tracked to show how actual WPCT and PWP vary. It's expressed in percentages...if you played .400 ball (12-18) but scored runs at a pace that suggest a .333 WPCT (10-20), you'd be playing about 16% better than your projected level of performance.

And this chart shows the fluctuations over 30-game snapshots for the teams in the 2012 AL East, capturing that data at five game intervals (1-30, 6-35, 11-40...116-145, 121-150).

What we see here is a bunch of jagged movement, which is to be expected. We also see something rather novel--one team (the Orioles) consistently outplaying its 30-game projections across the entire span of the data.

Now this chart doesn't help us know how well these teams are actually playing. We see whether they are exceeding their projections, or coming up short--but their won-loss records aren't shown here. It would make for a messy chart, to say the least. We'll keep looking for how to display the full data set, but we can go somewhat further with this direction in a couple of ways that should prove interesting.

Here's the same data as the chart above expressed in cumulative terms:

As we can see, the Orioles have been remarkably consistent in exceeding their performance projection. The Tampa Bay Rays began in a similar mode, but as the season went on, their ability to exceed their projection decayed--ironically, because they were doing such a good job of preventing runs that they literally couldn't keep up with what their run differential was doing to their projection. (It's a bit of a glitch in the PWP formula, particularly in smaller sample sizes).

It might become something of a vicious pattern in a team's psychology to be playing so well that you can't keep up with the number of games you should be winning: there's no way to verify such an idea without looking at an array of good teams who played below their Pythagorean projection, but it's interesting to see how the Rays have had such a linear decline in their "actual vs. shoulda been" numbers over the course of the 2012 season.

Again, we don't get the sense of the quality of play with this chart, just the sense of how much better or worse than that phantom WPCT the team has been doing on a cumulative basis.

There's one more conversion of this data that we can do that might be the chart to display for both mainstream fans and those who are more "numerically possessed." We can take this data, map it against the expected number of wins as they accumulate over the course of the season, and cumulatively track how many games above or below the PWP a team is. Playing consistently above one's level would produce a kind of linear progression up the chart as a team put more games between their PWP and their actual won-loss record.

So when we do that, we get a chart like this one:

And, yes, what we see for the Orioles is exactly what was described: a team that slowly, relentlessly, inexorably gained ground on its own projected won-loss record. By continuing to win close games (their record in one-run games right now is the best in major league history, and their record in games decided by two runs or less is the second best), they've kept their margin (as expressed in games) on something very closer to a linear ascent.

We're still grappling with how to show the WPCTS (actual and Pythagorean) in conjunction with this approach in charting the differences between them. The amount of data necessary to provide a full picture of what's going on here may have to focus on one team at a time. We'll be cogitatin' on it over the off-season.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Let's wade in hip-deep with what will be the raging question of the early off-season...the question of the AL MVP.

But while we get our waders on, let's discuss what the Ptolemaic MVP method is and what it isn't, just to clarify for those of who might want to know.

The method is intended, in a manner similar to what Bill James was doing with Hall of Fame voting, to predict who the actual voters for the MVP will do when they cast their ballots. It is a work in progress, because we haven't been able to take it back through history yet to determine how well it lines up with actual MVP voting.

The method doesn't try to factor in defense, baserunning, positional adjustment, or any of the other nuances that it could, for two reasons: first, these tend to be transient aspects of MVP voting in the real world, and second, because these nuances are not nearly so well-defined as their proponents claim (often falling victim to our cautionary observation that these nuances are being wielded like sledgehammers).

So, for those who are still here, let's recap how the Ptolemaic MVP data is collected and assembled. Every 5-7 days after we get two months into the season, we start taking snapshots of batting performance. (We can do this thanks to David Pinto's Day-By-Day Database. Thanks again, David, for all that you do.) From May 31st to September 20th, we've got 19 two-month snapshots that have been "graded" in seven offensive categories: four rate stats (OPS, OBP, SLG, and BA) and three counting stats (R, RBI, HR).

Mike Trout: Don't worry, we'll be getting to him soon...
We add up the point totals in each category, add the categories together, and voila--a Ptolemaic MVP score for each "epicycle" (see our earlier essay on Ptolemy for a more detailed explanation of that term). We then add each snapshot total together over the course of the season, and the MVP race is on.

Above you've got the current update for the National League. (Yes, we're still putting those waders on...) What we see in the Ptolemaic MVP data is that players with a solid run of two-month snapshots can linger on the list even after they either experience a performance decline and/or suffer an injury (e.g. Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto). That can work against the customary ranking methods in a number of ways, and will produce one or two results in a season that will make some folks scratch their heads. For example, Matt Holliday, who rode a half-season hot streak (in 83 games from April 23 to August 1, he went .354/.442/.608, with 67 RBI), scores well in the Ptolemaic MVP sweepstakes.

So one shortcoming in the method is that it doesn't adjust downward when players subside. What they've earned they keep. There is no "negative" function to adjust for such a phenomenon. But we could argue that the sustained two-month peak is something worth taking into account; exactly how to do that without creating some distortions is a matter to grapple with.

Miguel Cabrera: the man whose run at the Triple Crown
may well provoke some sustained tantrums from
numberologists come the middle of November...
We've also (for the first time) broken out the totals by category and displayed them. This adds another shape component to the data (and those who used to read BBBA know that we have always defended "shape" stats against those who would focus solely on "value"; the new componentizing of WAR at least attempts to address the idea of "shape," but its current application runs a grave risk of distortion and apples-oranges conundrums).

We're seeing more of that than we'd like in the AL MVP race--particularly as it's being framed by WAR proponents, whose goal is to change the landscape of the voting to match their numerical results. (They would argue that what they are really doing is to better reflect reality, to account for defense, baserunning, positional adjustment; the question is whether their methods do that in a sufficiently reliable way to supplement or supplant more traditional methods.)

At this point in time, the answer to that question is a resounding "no." This is not the place for a detailed examination of the reasons for arriving at that conclusion, but defensive metrics are plainly and simply a mess--inconsistently thought out, peculiarly applied, with confounding results. (The progenitors of the method, in attempting to defend it, have been trying to give it "oomph" by putting into a framework comparable to the Pythagorean Winning Percentage--which is showing some of its own anomalies again in 2012. They've also suggested that fielding results are as variable on a year-by-year basis for individuals as is the case for batting results--an assertion that is laughable on its face. Translations into runs above average for fielding results use interpolations of events that can't be measured in anything remotely as precise as what's used for offense or pitching, and the attempt to tease out the "significant" fielding events--those that are crucial either contextually or in terms of degree of difficulty--has resulted in overstating the level of difference between best and worst.)

So when a system such as WAR incorporates a defensive method that has a built-in "overstatement danger", it can produce an aggregate result that makes a very fine season (like the one Mike Trout is turning in this year for the Angels) into one that seems as though it is "historic" (a favorite term of those following in the footsteps of the neos: it's one of their uses of "narrative" as they look to control the rhetoric of baseball discourse in the Icarus-like arc of the "consultancy culture" that's producing increasingly mixed results in MLB's cauldron of insiderdom).

Trout is having a great year, no doubt. And it is "historic"--at least in the sense that he's added his name to the list of stellar 20-year old players who've entered the pantheon of wunderkinden. He looks certain to be the seventh player of that age to post an OPS+ of 160 or higher (the other six, order of accomplishment: Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, and Alex Rodriguez).
But guess what--none of those players were MVPs in their respective 20-year old seasons. (Yes, two of them--Cobb and Ott--played at times when such an award didn't exist.) Williams finished fourth; Mantle third; Kaline and A-Rod finished second. Now you can argue that all of these results were incorrect; but in a couple of cases where that argument actually holds, there's a player with at least as much of an argument for the award as the 20-year old phenom (in 1939, it's Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx; in 1952, it's Bobby Shantz and Larry Doby--remember there was no Cy Young Award in 1952); in 1955, it's Mantle; in 1996, it's Ken Griffey, Jr.).

And in 2012, Miguel Cabrera is the potential obstacle keeping Trout from joining Fred Lynn and Vida Blue as the only players to win the MVP and the Rookie of the Year Award in the same season. Going by offensive data, it's an extremely close race between the two.

Proponents of WAR will spend a good bit of time between now and mid-November arguing for the efficacy of those ancillary measures, which appear to propel Trout into a level of achievement virtually beyond the realm of understanding. We suspect, however, that the voting will look a good bit like what the numbers in the AL Ptolemaic MVP race are currently displaying.

It will be close--despite any separation in WAR claimed by its proponents on the basis of other aspects of the game (aspects that have been dubiously quantified). Anyone who expects Mike Trout to win the MVP in a runaway from Cabrera is smoking something that has more than mere medicinal value.

We're not quite satisfied with the way the Ptolemaic MVP is deployed, and some amount of thought will be applied to it over the off-season. We'll post periodically on it over the off-season, and we'll follow through with the final totals early next month, along with a few other variations on it that may prove to be of some interest, particularly to those with a penchant for "shape" as well as "value."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Well, the girl (Debbie Reynolds as Molly Brown) may be
"unsinkable," but she (and the O's) better not venture
too much further out on that tree limb....
The highly improbable story of the Baltimore Orioles continued into the wee hours last night, as the seemingly unsinkable ones rallied with two in the ninth in Seattle to knot the score at 2-2 and then proceeded to play an entire games' worth of extra innings before pushing over two more in the 18th for a 4-2 win.

It was the fourteenth consecutive extra-inning win for the O's (now 14-2) on the season, and it serves to burnish their mystique a bit further as they continue their quest for the post-season.

Our old "pal" Joe Sheehan, having bet on what we earlier revealed to be a "7% solution" (teams that were 29-17 to start the season wound up at or over .500 in 93% of all cases), has officially gone down in flames, as the O's have firmly passed the 81-win horizon. Soothsaying ain't for sissies, even in the "neo" sub-culture that tends to sweep even the loudest of incorrect predictions under the rug.

But let's focus on what the title says we're supposed to be focusing on, OK? And that is...the subject of extra-inning games. Fourteen consecutive wins from inning ten on is remarkable, but it's not a record. The 1949 Cleveland Indians won 17 consecutive extra-inning games, but they didn't make the post-season. (Back then, of course, you either won the pennant or you went home. Things are much more flexible now.)

Let's ask a few questions about extra-inning games using the Orioles as a point of departure.

1) Just how good is 14-2 relative to other performances? Using all teams where data is available (roughly from 1918 to the present, which can be located at the Play Index at Forman et fil), the O's currently rank 15th all time with that 14-2 mark. If they should play another one and lose, they'd drop down to 33rd all time.

When we limit the data to teams who played at least ten extra-inning games in a single year, however, the O's move up to 9th place. [EDIT: With yet another extra-inning win in Seattle on September 19, the Orioles moved to 15-2 and fifteen wins in a row, and are now 14th and 7th on those respective rankings.]

It seems that extra inning games and success have found a way to rendezvous in Cleveland. Not only did those 1949 Indians have their record 17-game win streak, but they finished 18-1 in extra-inning games that year. Another Indians team that might be more familiar to many of you, the 1995 squad, actually went undefeated in extra-inning games, going 13-0 that year. They made it to the World Series,   where they won another game with extra frames, but went 1-4 in nine-inning affairs.

The 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates were 19-2 in extra-inning games. And the 1969 Bucs went 12-1. So there is apparently something in that industrial corridor (high concentrations of ground glass, perhaps?) that seems to produce performance extremes in extra innings.

On the other side of the coin, the 1969 Montreal Expos were 0-12 in games with extra frames. (They were 52-98 in all the others.) This years' edition of the Astros are currently 1-11. The 1982 Twins finished 1-12 in extra-inning games.

2) Who has won the most extra-inning games? Who has played the most extra-inning games? All  of this is also available at Forman et fil. It turns out that those 1959 Pirates hold the record for most wins in extra innings, with the 19. The 1988 Expos and those 1949 Indians each won 18. The 1999 Braves won 17.

The record for most extra-inning games in season (so far as we know--keep in mind that we're still missing the records for most of the deadball era) is 31, set by the Boston Red Sox in 1943. Their record was 15-14, which reminds us that there used to be a small number of extra-inning games that ended in ties, before the rules about that were cleaned up...that stopped occurring around 1983, according to the data.

The team in the fewest extra-inning games? The 1936 St. Louis Browns, with just three. The team with the fewest games with extra frames thus far in 2012: the Yankees, with just six.

3) What is overall historical percentage of extra-inning games? Ah, good--the perfect excuse for a chart. The overall percentage is 9.3%, or about 15 per 162 games. As the chart shows, that percentage has been going down at a noticeable rate since 1993 (see the summary table for more data). There wasn't time to cross-reference extra-inning games against league runs per game, but we suspect that there's a significant correlation there.

What's interesting in the chart is that spike in 1943--apparently ye olde balata ball and its downward impact on run scoring that year just got everyone's knickers twisted and they just wanted to keep playing and playing and playing (13.8% of all games went long). There was a similar spike in 1957: it might be interesting to look at those two years to see just what was going on...

It's kind of ironic that in an age when pitching staffs have become swollen and bloated (kind of like what would have happened to Molly Brown if she had allowed herself to get stuck in a Utah mining camp...), the percentage of extra inning games would, well, sink. There's an oddly comforting irony in that, at least for those of us who are comforted by irony.

4) What about all-time team won-loss records in extra-inning games? After nearly 100 years of data, do the WPCTs even out? Boy, what a great question...but let's spend a few precious lines of text patting ourselves on the back for asking it (when, in fact, we are merely trying to take up enough space--you know, the thing that journalists called--back when we actually had journalists--"column inches"?

Before any term that used the word "inches" was not immediately subject to the vagaries of the porn police?

And yes, those of you who've camped out here and gritted your teeth--bad habit, by the way, you better go see your dentist--know that we really can keep it up all night, but for the sake of saving you from throwing your laptop across the room in disgust, we will cease and desist right after we mention that Debbie Reynolds is actually a good bit sexier than just about anyone is willing to give her credit for...

Don't believe us? Clearly, then, you've never seen the original version of "Debbie Does Dallas"...) [EDIT: Yes, yes, we are only joshing: Debbie was never so promiscuous, though daughter Carrie Fisher freely admits that her mom had "terrible taste in men."]

The short answer (does anyone remember the question?) is no. (And yes, lit fans, either David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen or William Gaddis or Ralph Cusack once constructed a parenthesis that went on for upwards of a hundred pages, so don't think we're anywhere the extra-inning record for chronic digression.) As you can see, the Cincinnati Reds have been paying off someone for the better part of a century, managing to amass nearly a hundred more wins than losses in extra-inning games.

But look who's second on the list (if you don't count the small sample sizes, of course. You should use the small samples only when you are preparing your carry-on luggage, so that you won't get arrested for having subversive shampoo.) Yes, yes indeed: our old friends, the Baltimore Orioles, blessed by a change of venue and a new name provided by baseball's version of the witness protection program.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Typecasting and scapegoating go hand in hand in the post-postmodern age, thanks to the swiftness that folks can take umbrage at virtually anything. The Internet sometimes seems like nothing more than an invitation to a hissy-fit, creating information in the place of knowledge and privileging the one-liner as the ultimate instrument of distortion.

Now we are not really complaining, merely observing--and we are trying hard not to cross the line that virtually everyone in the little world of baseball has done over the past couple of decades. We are content  to be misunderstood, even maligned, for in that there are true seeds of freedom--the freedom to engage anyone, anything, everyone, everything. Of course our negativity is exaggerated; we don't mind that folks are more comfortable characterizing it that way.

And so of late we've been a bit more sympathetic to the situation that Bill James has found himself in--though apparently Bill isn't particularly perturbed about it. (There has been a lot of flak directed at him about Joe Paterno, but much of this is due to his loyalty to Joe Posnanski, the beleaguered author of Paterno's biography--a volume whose sycophancy was almost as bare-assed as a Playboy centerfold. Not a good plan in the midst of the Jerry Sandusky firestorm...)

Bill decided a few years ago to put on a public face (aka front himself at his own web site...) and risk these extremes of snark and sycophancy, and he's been pretty darned indefatigable about it, even if the results are predictably mixed. His web page is almost worth what it costs to join, and that's more than one can say for any other so-called "oasis of advanced baseball theory" that's out there trying to separate you from your money.

Best of all is that Bill does occasionally write some fascinating articles about baseball--most of them utilizing his new "Lego-land" approach to modeling topographical patterns that collide with his still-restless mind. He is deeply into the continuous sequence modeling approach, having created a useful (and entertaining) look at who the best starting pitcher in baseball is at any one single point in time.

But there is more breadth to Bill than just numbers. (This is something that his hopelessly sycophantic friend Joe P. is actually right about.) And that more all-encompassing approach to history is evident in his essay about determining eras in baseball history (an essay written back in late July).

It's a fascinating approach, built around identifying key events, key players, key rule changes, key points of change in various subelements (such as the benchmark value for leading the league in various offensive categories), and assigning them a point value (similar, in fact, to how we do some of the work in our QMAX system for starting pitchers).

To give you sense of what's involved in that, we've excerpted a piece of Bill's description of these "items of change."

Once he does that, Bill can then identify the years where the greatest amount of change is/has been occurring, and then massage that into a grouping of eras.

What we were struck by, however, was the fact that such a great idea was being put to the service of such a nebulous historical construct. Particularly when that idea could be used to characterize, if not exactly measure, the actual rate of change occurring in baseball from its infancy as a professional sport to the present day.

Now, it turns out that Bill's method of quantifying the elements of change can be displayed as a separate sum for each year. Those peak single-season sums are what Bill uses to determine eras. But if you plot them on a graph--and if you cluster that data into multi-year totals--you can see what the rate of change is in baseball across time.

We're looking at the rate of change by summing two years of Bill's data: this captures the ongoing effects of the changes as they overlap. This is a more dynamic approach to the data than what Bill did with it, and while it's still simply an abstraction, it's a powerful visualization.

The big peaks (1880s, 1893-4, 1920, 1961-62, 1969, 1994) make sense in the context of what Bill has identified as the elements of change.

The slow period in the 1980s certainly reflects Brock Hanke's notion that the owners recoiled from the particular changes on and off the field in the 60s and 70s and tried to "freeze-dry" the game for a good long while.

We can smooth this data out a bit more by rendering it in four-year totals. This tends to put the "peak" of change a bit further back from the point in time where the individual yearly peaks occurred, but it might be a better representation of the "perceived rate of change," since people don't tend to catch up to change right when it happens.

Bill is still coming up with highly creative ways to think about baseball. While we're a bit surprised he didn't think of this application, we are grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate once again why he has been a singular mind in this strange little field for so long.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


There was something particularly satisfying about the random (OK, the title says "accidental," but random is really a better word for it...) scheduling quirk that pitted the two teams that no one expected to in the playoff hunt against each other late in the regular season.

Of course, these are the two "vowel" teams, the A's and the O's. One team left for dead due to fire sale tactics in the offseason, and the other consigned to its customary doormat role.

What do the two teams have in common? Not much. They both have excellent bullpens that have supplied most of their overall won-loss advantage in 2012 (Oakland 24-11, 2.86; Baltimore 28-10, 3.09). And they've both played extremely well against the AL East (A's 27-16; O's 35-24).

They've both done extremely well in extra-inning games (O's 13-2, A's 9-3).

Both teams have 16 games remaining, but the quality of competition is quite different. The O's play the M's next (they've handled them well so far in '12: 5-1), followed by 13 more games against the AL East (six against the Red Sox, four against the Jays, and the last three games of the season vs. the Rays in Tampa).

The A's have seven games left with Texas (they are 6-6 vs. the Rangers thus far), including the last three of the year at home. We will be there for game 162, but it probably won't be a game in which the division title is at stake, since the A's also have six games left against the Tigers and the Yankees on the road in front of their four games in Texas.

It just might come down to a fight for the final playoff slot for these two...or Cinderella may have to part with both her slippers.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


The role of a pundit (in whatever form he/she may take...) is to butt into things, to determine with audacity whether to reveal truth or veil it in a layer of smoky gauze...all of which returns us to the sharp but deeply sad observations of W.B. Yeats in his famous poem "The Second Coming."

Poets may be excused their sweeping judgments if their language reaches a certain level of conviction and nuance; pundits often seem to be operating from the ambient conditions described in Yeats' poem, and the current situation appears to spring from the fact that where once there were nuances, there are now only sledgehammers. Walking on a narrow path with sheer cliffs on either side is an arduous task; fewer and fewer even attempt it.

Such a wistful jeremiad as represented in the vagrant thoughts above can stem only from news that provokes melancholy when it is first encountered--and the initiating incident in this case is the announcement that the great hitter Lance Berkman, beset with injuries over the past several years, is seriously contemplating what is most certainly a premature retirement.

We will delve what consequences such an act will have on Lance's chances at enshrinement in the Hall of Fame might be (as various pundits have already done, most of whom go nowhere without their finely-tuned sledgehammers...) at a point later on in time, as there are several tools in our personal "bag of tricks" that might shed some interesting light on such an issue.

But first, it needs to be said that Lance has been--and is--one of the most fascinating hitters to come along in many, many years. His occupation of the batter's box is not the swagger of physical presence--he's not channeling Mark McGwire or Mike Schmidt. How could he, with the nickname "Fat Elvis"? No, what Berkman brought to home plate, much like the great Edgar Martinez, was a sense of highly disciplined purpose, a level of in-game and in-situation intelligence that telegraphed itself in every detail of his actions while in and around the batters' box.

It was precisely the combination of conviction and nuance that produced at-bats with the quiet sheen of great verse, a silent kind of rhythmic eloquence that radiated within every plate appearance. With Lance, as with Edgar, one could sense something heightened, an alteration of the experience that was uncanny--it is reflected in two features of their stats: moderate power, and the innate ability early in the count to create a subtle advantage that resulted in reaching base via walk far more often than what would otherwise be expected. Both Lance and Edgar had twice as many plate appearances that concluded with them ahead in the count than behind--as contrasted with the major league average, which is much closer to 50-50.

The apex of Lance-watching probably occurred in the tension-filled appearance in Game 6 of last year's World Series. Here you could see everything in his eyes that can be seen in his high school photograph, first brought to our attention by a man not unfamiliar with the poetry of the diamond (Dayn Perry). And in those crucial at-bats, we saw all of that conviction, nuance, and calm determination in his every movement, in each minute engagement that transpired during those moments. Clearly a case of the right man in the right place at the right time.

It's too soon for that to come to an end, Lance. Much too soon. Please change your mind. Get well, come back. Don't take that away from us just yet. We're not ready to say goodbye. We'll never be ready to do that.

Monday, September 10, 2012


If you've looked at our first post on this subject (and the accompanying graph), you'll know that there is more work to be done in creating a good representation of what might best be termed the difference between a team's real-world won-loss record and their true quality of play.

For purposes of this demonstration, we are fortunate to have the highly unusual performance of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, whose path to a possible post-season berth will translate into a series of even more interesting graphics than what was shown last time.

The first way to get past the simple run differential chart that was posted previously is to measure the difference between a team's actual winning percentage and its Pythagorean projection (PWP) in a series of 30-game snapshots. We've telescoped the data here by presenting those snapshots in five-game increments (1-30, 6-35, 11-40...on up to 106-130--a bit behind the current data, but more than sufficient for demo purposes).

For this chart, using the AL East only, we've calculated the difference as shown in the chart title--as the percentage between actual WPCT and PWP. (Expressing this total in projected games won might seem preferable, but those differences seem larger than they actually are when expressed in 30-game snapshots; percentages provide a more evocative picture of how much a team is deviating from what its RS/RA ratio suggests its WPCT should be.)

The chart shows the fluctuations in this WPCT/PWP relationship over the course of the season, giving us the degrees of over-performance/under-performance for each AL East team. It's not possible to show it on a simple line chart, but the O's greatest period of over-performance in 2012 coincided with the points in time when the team was struggling the most (had its lowest 30-game WPCTs). As we noted in our discussion of the O's earlier (you know, the one with the damn Cheerios and the Tango Love Pie™), the team's ability to avert a greater collapse during their rough patches in June and July was instrumental in keeping them within range to make a run at contention.

The chart also shows that the Red Sox have been under-performing in this respect for the entire season, but we suspect that the loud moaning from Massachusetts has made this painfully obvious to everyone.

The irony--perhaps even the paradox of this chart--is that the Tampa Bay Rays are actually playing so well right now (their pitching is having a simply phenomenal run) that there is no way for their actual winning percentage to catch up to their PWP, at least in 30-game snapshots. It's one reason why PWP is usually a suspect tool at this sample size level, and why you cannot take this chart as any kind of predictive instrument.

What it does reveal is that it's possible to consistently play over one's head for most or all of a season, thus reinforcing the ideas first propounded by Bill James in the 1989 Baseball Abstract (the one the year after Bill "broke the wand," edited by Brock J. Hanke and Rob Wood, featuring yours truly as designated court jester...), which is simply that "luck in baseball does not even out over the course of a 162-game season." The chart above is a fine demonstration of this generally unheeded principle.

We'll be back with more on this tomorrow.

Friday, September 7, 2012


I happened to be in the Bay Area and at the Oakland Coliseum this past Wednesday afternoon, a ballpark that I've frequented hundreds of times over the years; despite its architectural impoverishment, it has always been my favorite place to view a baseball game due to the configuration of the center-field bleachers, which provide a perfect vantage point for tracking defense and are among the very few bleachers with backs on the seats.

Unfortunately, the seats also provided a perfect view of one of the most alarming events that can ever happen in a baseball stadium--a screaming line drive hit back through the middle with such force that the pitcher literally has no time to even react to the ball.

And that's exactly what happened in the fourth inning, when A's starter Brandon McCarthy threw a 3-1 slider to the Angels' Erick Aybar. The resulting line drive off the bat of the Angels' shortstop was so sharply hit and its trajectory was such that it bisected McCarthy's follow-through. In short, Brandon had no chance to react to the ball, as our freeze-frame indicates. (You can see the blur of the baseball as it is literally less than a foot away from striking McCarthy in the head.)

As has been reported elsewhere, the sound of the ball striking McCarthy was a frightening echo of the sound of bat meeting ball just a split second earlier. As Brandon tumbled to the ground, the entire stadium rose to its feet in shock and fear. Remarkably, the ball ricocheted to A's third baseman Josh Donaldson, who had the presence of mind to field the ball and throw Aybar out at first by an eyelash before rushing to the mound in order to aid his fallen teammate.

It's a miracle that there are not more incidents of this type in baseball, but such an occurrence does raise the question as to how pitchers could be better protected. There is no easy answer. McCarthy suffered a fractured skull and will miss the rest of the 2012 season, but it could have been so much worse. [EDIT: McCarthy's injuries have turned out to be somewhat more serious than originally thought, and he will be facing several weeks of tense recovery time, with a return to the mound being a good bit further off than what seemed to be the case after he walked off the field under his own power.]

Such a sobering moment might well signal what many have been anticipating for the A's--a downturn of their fortunes after a heady run in the second half of '12. Oakland is still the AL leader in homers since the All-Star break, their offense boosted by the long-ball heroics of Chris Carter and Brandon Moss, both of whom didn't reach the major league squad until June. The A's had closed to within three games of the Texas Rangers in the AL West after their Labor Day weekend sweep of the Red Sox, but against the Angels they looked as dazed as McCarthy after he'd been struck by Aybar's line drive. With McCarthy out for a second time (he'd previously missed seven weeks, during which time the A's had managed to work around his absence) and a schedule that features games mostly against contenders over the balance of the season, the A's appear to have arrived at their crossroads.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Just a quick shot for now, as we are on the road for the next few days...but we'll get this idea started and supplement as possible during our period of scrambling around.

All the discussion of "playing over one's head" engendered by the Baltimore Orioles got us to thinking about what is the best way to represent team performance in a chart.

It's particularly important when doing so to capture some kind of running totals for this, because the use of "season to date" information is sorely lacking in context. (Many folks have pointed out that the O's roster is much different in September than it was in May, which is true...we need a way to capture some kind of "in medias res" for teams as their performance fluctuates during a season.)

So we'll start with this one. We'll take a succession of 30-game snapshots, and they'll be organized around the concept of run differential (a favorite of those folk who are in a bend-or-be-bent relationship with the mainstream media). It's a good place to start, though like anything else, it's not the final word.

We'll just do the AL East, given that it continues to be the lightning rod for all things that matter in the little world of neo-sabermetrics. Warning: the chart is a little busy, but we've made it as big as possible in order to make it possible to follow the lines:

As we said: a little busy, but you can see that the Orioles have been running on baseball's version of deficit spending for a good portion of the season. Following the Red Sox line, we can see how their run differential has gone down the drain in the last forty games or so. The Yankees have been pretty steady all year, though they are giving ground of late. Right now the Rays are playing better than anyone else in the AL East for the entirety of the 2012 season. And the less said about the injury-riddled Blue Jays, the better.

But this doesn't encompass the actual won-loss records of the teams, so it's one of those gauzy "should have been" characterizations. There must be another way to synthesize this with the actual results, and that's what we'll start to tackle next time.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Fifty years ago this evening, the Dodgers extended their lead in the NL to 3 1/2 games over the Giants with a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Braves. Johnny Podres (12-10) won his eighth game since July 15th, going seven innings and striking out 11. Willie Davis' two-run single in the bottom of the seventh brought in the tying and go-ahead runs for the Dodgers; Ron Perranoski picked up his 16th save (ninth in the past six weeks).

The Giants lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 10-5; the Giants' woes began when  Juan Marichal (17-10 but only 5-5 in the past six weeks) gave up four runs in the first. Vada Pinson went 5-for-5 for the Reds; Leo Cardenas and Gordy Coleman each drove in three runs.

The Dodgers were still having trouble replacing Sandy Koufax in their rotation since the flamethrowing lefty was shelved due to a mysterious finger malady. From July 15 to September 1, Koufax's rotation slot was 3-4 with a 5.95 ERA. However, as the chart shows, the Dodgers were still getting better pitching than the Giants during this time frame.

Over in the AL, the Yankees continued to snap out of a late August tailspin (eight losses in ten games from the 23rd through the 29th, including being swept in back-to-back doubleheaders by the Orioles on the 24th and 25th) with a 3-1 win over the Kansas City A's behind Ralph Terry. Elston Howard's two-run triple in the sixth inning was the decisive blow.

Despite a propensity for giving up the long ball, Terry was pitching exceptionally well for the Yankees, who played 35 games in the month of August, a pace that is literally unthinkable today. From July 15 through September 1st, they played 55 games (33-22). As the major league pitching leader chart (above) shows, about half those wins came from Terry (9-2) and Whitey Ford (7-2).

One of Terry's least impressive victories occurred on August 19th when he allowed four homers (eleven hits overall) and seven runs in another game against the A's. However, he pitched a complete game thanks to the fact that the Yankees racked up three touchdowns worth of runs against KC that day, posting a 21-7 win. Howard had two homers and a triple, dricing in eight runs that day, while Mickey Mantle had seven RBI. All in all, the Yanks were 10-for-19 with runners in scoring position that day.

Terry's workload in this seven-week stretch (just under 100 IP) is more than a bit mind-boggling. However, eight of the top twenty pitchers in this time slice had 80+ IP during this stretch.

'Twas a very different time...