Tuesday, December 31, 2013


A brief respite from the avalanche of "non-save situation" data, so that we can briefly focus on the question that has plagued numbers guys for almost as long as most of 'em have been shaving...

...namely, do starting pitchers "pitch to the score"?

There have been several attempts to address this thorny issue, not the least of which is related to the annoying claim of some MSM writers when pressed to justify their support for Jack Morris over the long, agonizing years of his HOF candidacy.

Most of those were a bit over-ingenious (one of the things that "non-MSM" writers increasingly fail to apologize for when they are going on the attack in order to make the world safe for over-ingeniousness).

So we thought there might be a simpler way to look at the matter, particularly in light of the fact that Forman et fils has been kind enough to fork over ready access to the "splits data" from their massive files.

Part of that "split data" looks at the performances of pitchers with respect to the run support they receive. This has been broken into three "buckets": performance when the pitcher receives 0-2 runs; when he receives 3-5 runs; and when he receives 6 or more runs.

We can capture that data and make a side-by-side list of it (as we've done for the 50 pitchers with the lowest ERA in low run support games...er, that's 50 pitchers meeting that criterion, plus two "jokers" to round out the deck).

Now we should note up front that the list (at left) doesn't include everyone: the data isn't so easily accessible that we can get it for each run scoring category. Additionally, many pitchers from the deeper recesses of the past are not complete enough to meet our minimum standards for inclusion: 75+ GS  in low run support games (0-2); 100+ GS in moderate run support games (3-5); and 80+ GS in high run support games (6+). And even at that, some of the data here represents partial careers (most prominently Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander).

Nonetheless, what the data shows us is that, in one way or another, a large plurality of pitchers do "pitch to the score." Twenty-two of the top fifty pitchers in low run support ERA show a pronounced pattern where their ERAs get worse in a linear fashion as their run support increases. And there are a few we neglected to highlight (in yellow) who conform to this pattern in less dramatic ways.

As a side note, it probably won't surprise you to discover that the top five pitchers on this list in terms of low run support ERA are all in the Hall of Fame (Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Alexander, Stan Coveleski, and Tom Seaver). Sorting the list this way turns up a lot of HOFers (24 out of 50, if we get brazen and include a few folks who are likely to get in soon--Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and--yes--Roger Clemens). Oh, yes: please note that if you're counting the bolded players, you'll get a number that's one shy of our "24" figure: we forgot to bold the name of Jim Bunning with the other HOFers.

The most spectacular manifestation of "pitching to the score" on this list belongs to Chris Carpenter. We wonder if Tony LaRussa knew just how much Carpenter tended to rise to the occasion depending on his run support. If so, that would provide another explanation as to why he left CC in that 1-0 game with the Phillies during the 2011 NLCS that got Mickey Lichtman's knickers twisted around his windpipe to such an extent that he's forever become a piece of talking sandpaper.

And this is as good a time as any, then, to introduce our two "jokers" in the deck--Jack Morris and Dave Stieb--two 1980s starting pitchers who've been given no small amount of heavily freighted comparison over the past decade (one that, as we finally fade the age of terrorism into the rearview mirror, will eventually be described as the time of the "Morris Wars"). Those attempting to stuff the toothpasty Morris back into the tube will be heartened to know that he most definitely does not pitch to the score, at least not by a classic "linear" definition. But those who want to claim that Jack's ERA was fluffed up by some "coasting" in high run support games have some ammo to work with, too.

One thing is for damn sure, however. Dave Stieb didn't pitch to no stinkin' score. And, in the eyes of those who want to find a way to enshrine counter-intuitivity in the Hall of Fame, that makes him a hero. Or, should we say, as we remember to quote Jim Bouton, a god-damned hero.

We'll do a little more with this data a bit later on. Meanwhile, back to that strange world of the "non-save situation"...

Sunday, December 29, 2013


A quick look at the individual landscape that has come into play in the "non-save situation" (NSV) over time (with especial emphasis on the last decade or so)...

What the heck is Mariano Rivera doing in an essay dealing with
pitcher wins in non-save situations? 
While overall decisions are up (an all-time high of 26% of all decisions came from NSV situations), the wins and losses are spread around in a random pattern. Ironically, the explosion of roster slots devoted to relievers and the increasing "specialization" of the bullpen is giving more relievers access to (what we demonstrated in Part 2) "tie game" point-of-entries.

In the 1980s, there were 23 pitcher-seasons in which a reliever won ten or more games in NSV situations. That figure dropped to 10 in the 1990s (though there were 17 additional pitcher-seasons with 9 wins). Since 2000, there have been only seven such seasons (last pitcher to do so: Alfredo Aceves in 2009).

From 1986-1999 (the fourteen-year period adjacent to 2000-13), there were four pitchers who had 50+ wins in NSV situations (Roger McDowell, Eric Plunk, Mike Henneman, and Paul Assenmacher). Over the last fourteen years (2000-13), no pitchers have come close to winning 50 games in these situations; only two pitchers (Mariano Rivera, with 42; Octavio Dotel, with 41) are over 40.

And yet there are more NSV decisions than ever before.

Who are the relievers with the best lifetime WPCT in NSV games? Using 20 wins as a minimum, there are five pitchers with .800+ WPCTs: Doug Bird (.824, 42-9); that man Aceves again (.815, 22-5); Wes Stock (.813, 26-6); Brendan Donnelly (.806, 29-7), and Grant Balfour (.800, 28-7). Keeping in mind that the NSV category is not a zero-sum (or, in this case, a .500 proposition), you might not be surprised to discover that the lowest WPCT for pitchers with 20+ wins is not shockingly low (.438, or 21-27, compiled by Dan Wheeler).

The worst individual season for a reliever with 10 or decisions was turned in by the Red Sox' Jim Willoughby in 1976: he went 2-10 in NSV situations. Willoughby had a 2.60 ERA over 72 IP in such situations that year. That's what one can call a nightmare season.

You know, now that we look at him a bit more closely,
Eddie Yuhas really does sort of resemble a...a vulture!!
As you might expect, our old pal Roy Face has the best-ever single-season WPCT in NSV situations, going a cool 13-0 for the Pirates in 1959. (As you probably recall, he was 18-1 for the year). Two other pitchers went 11-0 over a single season: the aforementioned Mike Henneman for the 1987 Tigers, and Matt Herges--who did the same thing for the 2000 Dodgers.

You may not be all that surprised to discover that Phil Regan, on his way to a celebrated year as all-purpose bullpen ace for the 1966 edition of the Dodgers, went 12-1 in NSV situations. But you will probably be astonished to discover that Eddie Yuhas went 11-1 in such situations for the 1952 St. Louis Cardinals. (Actually, you are saying--in spite of yourself--"Who is Yuhas?"...yes, you know you are.)

Naturally, Eddie is the answer to the question "Who is the fifth guy in MLB history to go 11-1 in NSV situations, behind Bob Stanley, Doug Bird, Charley Kerfeld and Al Hrabosky?"). Unlike the rest of those guys, however, that 1952 season was effectively Eddie's only year in MLB. A starter (and an indifferent one, at that) in the minors, Yuhas became a bonafide "vulture" in his rookie season, but tendinitis left him permanently on the sidelines after just two games in '53.

Who had the most lifetime NSV wins? Na-ah. You'll have to come back for that...

Sunday, December 22, 2013


OK, now that we've established that there is a queer sub-set of pitching records that consistently avoid zero-sum outcomes, what does that mean? Just what is it, anyway--what games are these, how many of them are there, and what do we do with it now that we've discovered it?

A "non-save situation" (which we'll sometimes abbreviate as "NSV") has several possible identities. Let's examine them.

First, they are relief appearances. You could say that all starter innings are "non-save situations," but that's silly--sillier, in fact, than the definition of a save (which contains a few moments of unintentional hilarity).

We are looking at what relievers do when they are not in a game moment where they are trying to protect a close lead. What are the components that are part of what is a compound class of situations?

For one, you have games where a reliever comes in with the score tied. (These will prove to be the ones that contribute most to the wins and losses which fall into the "non-save" situation, as we'll see shortly.) Then there are games when the reliever enters with his team behind. (A smaller number of decisions--which, as you can surmise, are tilted heavily toward wins--manifest themselves from these situations.) And there are games where the reliever enters with a lead too large to be considered a save situation (most +4 situations, and everything above that). And, finally, there are games where the reliever enters with a lead that would be a "save situation" except for the fact that the inning in which he enters is too early (prior to the seventh).

Now, yes, there's some artificiality in this construct...BUT, it's interesting how this grouping of components creates a steady winning result. To get a sense of how many wins and losses come from where, we're going to use one of our favorite "punching bag" franchises, the Kansas City Royals, to walk us through how it works.

It turns out that the Royals' relievers, unbeknownst to even their ardent admirers, turned in a near-historic performance in "non-save situations" in 2013. The two charts at right demonstrate this in different ways. The top chart shows the top ten ERAs turned in by teams in "non-save situations" over the past fifty-six years (from 1958 to 2013...we picked 1958 because it's the first year where the records are 100% complete). The 2013 Royals are ninth on that list.

You'll notice, though, that most of the teams on this list come from the 1960s and early 1970s; thus they reflect an age in which pitching was at its zenith (and when run scoring was at its nadir). To correct for this, we created the second chart, which uses a version of ERA+ that's customized to the aggregate major league performance (measured in ERA) for "non-save situations.

When we apply that, and run the numbers again, we see that the 2013 Royals are actually the fifth best in terms of ERA+ during "non-save" situations. That's an incredible performance, and in large part due to that level of effectiveness, the Royals had a 31-16 record in games that were decided from "non-save situations."

We'll look at that performance in greater detail below, but first let's focus on what else these charts can tell us. We included the next season performance for the teams on both lists. There are five common teams on each (1966 Dodgers, 1969 Orioles, 1972 Pirates, 1976 Yankees, and 2013 Royals.) Only the Royals failed to reach the post-season. They also had far more decisions (a total of 47) that came about as a result of these situations than the other; the '69 O's had 40, but the others had far fewer--with the '76 Yankees having only 20. That leads to a question about the historical rate of frequency for "non-save situation" decisions, but let's defer that for just a minute while we look at what the "next year" data tells us.

What we see from the "next year" data is what often happens in other partial measures of won-loss results (WPCT in one-run games, for example). We see a regression to the mean here (remembering that the "mean" for these "non-save situations" is .574, not .500. On both charts, the level of effectiveness (as measured by ERA) and in terms of wins and losses (WPCT) drops noticeably in the "year after" data. (Individual teams, of course, often "beat the odds" in multiple seasons--we see that in the case of several teams on each list--the '69-'70 Orioles and the '76-77 Yankees, just to name two from the "common teams" on both lists.

Won-loss performance in "non-save situations" might be a better yardstick of "team luck" than the Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PWP), though we've seen that it's more correlated with winning in general. Still, if we look at the Royals' .660 WPCT in these games and compare that to the historical average (574), we see that they're between four and five wins above expectations for the number of decisions they had. It looks like their relievers, pitching in the tighter spaces of games that were up for grabs, were able to snag extra wins for their team in 2013.

Now let's get to the components of this performance. (By the way, not easy to do with current breakouts: Forman et fils takes you only part-way. For pitchers who both start and relieve, you have to go into the game logs to break out the data, which is just what we did for Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza, who mostly started for KC in '13.)

The tie-game data shows us that these are often do-or-die situations. The average percentage of decisions accounted for by "non-save situations" is 20% over the 1958-2013 time frame, but the Royals (47 decisions) were closer to 30% overall, and 39 of those decisions came from 90 games in which relievers entered into tie games, a figure well over 40%. (Of course, you can actually win a game in which you give up the lead while you're on the mound, which is what happened to Louis Coleman: the Royals took back the lead after he'd surrendered it and he got a "cheap win" out of it.)

So the Royals went 23-16 in games where pitchers entered with the scored tied; they went 8-0 in games when they rallied from behind with a reliever on the mound. (Bruce Chen won three of those before he was put back in the starting rotation; Louis Coleman got two wins in "come-from-behind" appearances.)

So this little exercise with the Royals gives us some perspective on how decisions break out of "non-save" situations. It appears that upwards of 85% of them derive from relievers coming into tie games, and that the overall winning percentage for this component is probably right around .500. The rest of them derive from "come from behind" scenarios, and the overall winning percentage for that component is around .975 or so--there just aren't all that many games where a pitcher blows a five-run lead and is tagged with a loss.

Right now we don't know where that total of eight come-from-behind reliever wins that the Royals posted in 2013 sits in the relative order of things. Is it high, low, or somewhere in between? It's not easy to generate right now. What's clear is that the Royals' relievers pitched extremely well in all of the other component situations that go into the "NSV" bucket: their collective ERA outside of tie games was 2.02. That, too, isn't easy to anatomize with currently available data: do relievers generally pitch better in "low leverage"? The Royals' relievers certainly did in '13; we'll need to look at that data in much greater volume and detail to understand it.

Let's circle back to the question of the percentage of decisions that happen in NSV situations, and how that may be changing/fluctuating. Our final chart (for this installment, at least) shows how that percentage has changed. This running three-year chart actually undersells the trend--in 2013, this percentage hit an all-time high at 26%.

This is almost certainly due to the increasing use of the "squadron" approach to relief pitching. If the Tango Love Pie™ adherents have their way, and starters get pulled in an uber-Sparky Anderson scenario just after their second time 'round the batting order, we'd see this figure jump a good bit higher, probably somewhere close to 40%. That would tend to knock down the WPCT in NSV situations, because that seems to be the correlation (2013's highest-ever total of decisions produced only a .551 WPCT for the total number of decisions in NSV situations). That'd actually muddy the waters in terms of identifying the value in this data, but that's what happens when modelers go beyond predictive functions and decide to be prescriptive instead.

More data to come in our next several installments. 'Tis a brave new world for "neos"--"neo-traditionalists," that is.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Modeling continues to be the "rage" in the post-neo age of sabermetrics, though it is being supplanted by a hybrid approach that is desperate to granularize that process down to the lowest possible level. Such approaches are really trial and error (mostly the latter...), but it's part of a process that is exceptionally eager to leave behind anything resembling traditional statistics.

But what if certain breakouts of traditional data, sub-sets of data that comprise their own niche, can lead us to perspectives and insights that do as much or more than the increasingly hyperbolic uber-modeling efforts? (You could say that DIPS--Defense-Independent Pitching Stats, if you've been down in a bomb shelter for the whole of the 21st century--is modeling based on traditional stats. But what we want to find out is whether there are combinations or selected subsets of traditional stats that can, without recourse to extreme levels of modeling abstraction, tell us things that we don't already know.)

It's just possible that one of these might exist in the form of a stat that's been hidden in plain sight as part of the data set at Forman et fils (and, to defiantly digress for a moment...we wonder if with the departure of Neil Paine for the greenback pastures of the shiny new 538.com, this means that we need to lop off the "s" in "fils" again...but we'll let that pass--for now, at any rate).

What's that stat? It's called the "non-save" situation. It captures most, but not all, of the wins and losses that are credited to a team's relief pitchers. We'll define just what that means in greater detail in part two, and we'll go much further in subsequent installments.

For now, however, consider the 50+-year history of wins and losses as they manifest themselves in the "non-save situation." This is no zero-sum scenario, as the chart demonstrates. Since 1958 (which is when the data starts to become complete), pitchers who record decisions in "non-save situations"--let's start using NSV as our abbreviation du jour--have a winning percentage of .574.

Yes, that's for all teams over that 56-season timespan. The average team, over all that time, wins games at a clip that would produce a 93-69 record over a 162-game season. (Of course, no one gets close to that many decisions--and the number of decisions fluctuates from team to team in each and every season.)

The chart also shows the NSV winning percentage of teams that make it to the post-season. If this were a random thing, that WPCT should be equal to or lower than the overall NSV winning percentage.

Of course--otherwise we wouldn't be writing this--it's not. The average figure (which, like the overall NSV WPCT, fluctuates from year to year) turns out to be .637.

There's something odd happening here, and, as our getting-really-long-in-the-tooth pals from Buffalo Springfield would say, what it is ain't exactly clear. We're going to spend some time over the next week trying to clear it up for you, so...you can't say you haven't been warned.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


You may have been one of those who scoffed at our notion of "tactical Hall of Fame" voting. (It would be hard to separate such scoffing from the general derision that seems to invade any aspect of a discussion about the HOF, however.) But the good folks who are on the latest incarnation of the Veterans Committee have done just that with their recent trifecta of inductees (Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre).

And that is (mostly) a good thing--though it would be nice if the Committee could actually find a way to induct a player of at least semi-recent vintage on the sole merits of their playing career. This still seems to be an event that has been blocked by some type of childhood trauma, however....some kind of "group therapy" may be needed to make that possible once again.

Of these three, Torre is the closest thing to a on-field Hall of Famer; his playing career has much to recommend it, including a nifty reinvention once he arrived in St. Louis. As a manager, he's clearly the least of the three, though he had an undeniably impressive run with the Yankees.

Pinstripes, George....pinstripes, dammit!!
Cox and LaRussa have undeniable managerial credentials, and it's a fine thing that these three--who are so close in age--will go into the Hall at the same time. That's what we call good tactics...even if what the Vets Committee is doing is more than a bit transparent.

Our old sparring partner Jay Jaffe suggests that George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Ted Simmons, and Marvin Miller should (have) be(en) selected. We don't have a problem with any of that (no spit-takes, Jay!!), though it's a cryin' shame that George and Billy are both no longer with us--it would have been worth the trip to Cooperstown to see the two of them on the same dais.

And it would have been so touchingly American to see a convicted felon and an incorrigible alcoholic be given the fist-in-glove treatment at the holier-than-thou HOF.

But we'd add another name to the list--Tommy John. Forget all the numbers preachments, please. Tommy is in the 99th percentile in terms of squeezing the most out of his talent, a consideration that rarely if ever comes into play for those who spend their lives wielding spreadsheets. And part of that involves having had the courage to be the very first pitcher to undergo a procedure that, at the time, was  a complete crapshoot in terms of its potential for prolonging a career.

Tommy John and Dr. Frank Jobe, back in the Pliocene era...
Ironically, John's achievement may have been victimized by the subsequent ubiquity of the procedure. It's easy to forget just how cutting-edge all of that was back in 1974.

That pioneering step--coupled with the fact that Tommy won more games after his surgical milestone than he had prior to it--is more than enough reason for the Vet Committee to give him the nod.

It also doesn't hurt that he's alive.

So while it's great to see the three managers get their due--and the HOF will take advantage of the photo ops they'll provide, particularly if the BBWAA takes a powder again this coming January (chances are slim, but it pays to consider all possibilities)--the Vets Committee really needs to start putting players into the Hall.

They can start doing just that with Tommy John.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Yes, we started our "astral" teams (that's actually astrological, but we figure some of you would turn up your nose if you read that in the title block...) with Sagittarius because we are part of that signage--and while most of you are indulging in the vicarious super-consumerism that is America's true national pastime these days (in the thrall of watching ballplayers and GMs mastering the art of exchange...), we are looking for new ways to slice'n'dice history.

After all, there will be time enough to evaluate all of this off-season feeding frenzy...hell, it's not even winter yet.

So, meanwhile, let's get a sense of how pitchers and hitters sort out when we start placing them into astrological buckets.

What we find in Sagittarius (birthdays between November 22 and December 21) is a group of ninety players with significant enough career achievements to make the cut onto a master list. We're probably going to find some variation in the strength of squad as we follow this idea through the zodiac--there have been studies that indicate that baseball birthdays tend to cluster in the second half of the year--but, for now, ninety seems like a reasonable benchmark.

We have 56 hitters and 34 pitchers on the master list, which we've broken out in those two categories. You will see the Hall of Fame players' names displayed in red type. There are currently a total of 14 who are enshrined: 11 hitters (seven outfielders: Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Medwick, Al Kaline, Larry Doby, Jesse Burkett and Joe Kelley; one second baseman: Tony Lazzeri; two catchers: Johnny Bench and Gabby Hartnett; and one utility player: Deacon White) and three pitchers (Hoss Radbourn, Fergie Jenkins, Lefty Gomez). Five other players, however, are highly likely to be inducted in the future: Craig Biggio, Ivan Rodriguez, Larry Walker, Mariano Rivera and David Wright). Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the longtime DP duo for the Phillies, are probably longshots.

There are enough players here to make up two forty-man rosters, and the question we'll confront as we go further into the issue of "astral" teams is whether we should make an "A" squad and a "B" squad, or whether the two squads should be "balanced." The former idea would seem to be the more interesting way to go, allowing for three eventual comparisons via simulation games--the "A" league, the "B" league, and a series of "A" vs. "B" faceoffs.

For the Sagittarius "A" team, we've tossed together most of the Hall of Famers and the better pitchers. That 25-man squad looks like this:

Pitching: Starters--Radbourn, Jenkins, Mussina, Gomez and Tiant; Relievers--Rivera, Marberry, McDaniel, Nen, Hall.
Catching: Bench, Hartnett, White.
Infield: Starters--Stovey, 1b; Lazzeri, 2b, Rollins, ss; Wright 3b; Subs--Johnson, Kuenn, Collins.
Outfield: Starters--Cobb, lf; DiMaggio, cf; Kaline, rf; Subs--Kelley, Minoso.

For the "B" team, we've taken the so-called "lesser" players and given them that hard-to-patent but you-know-it-when-you-see-it "underdog mentality":

Pitching: Starters--Reulbach, Appier, Shawkey, Finley, Flanagan; Relievers--Smith, Henke, Papelbon, Soriano, Righetti.
Catchers--Rodriguez, Freehan, Scioscia.
Infield: Starters: Vaughn, 1b; Utley, 2b;. Bell, ss; M. Williams, 3b; Subs--Biggio, McAuliffe.
Outfield: Starters; Medwick, lf; Doby, cf; Walker, rf; Subs--B. Johnson, C. Williams, Nilsson.

Before we con one of our long-time, bleary-eyed associates into playing the games that go along with the full complement of teams to be assembled for this "astral" plane, we'll assemble the full forty-man rosters for each of the teams in The Zodiac League. Who knows...maybe we'll interest someone in publishing the results in something resembling real time.

We'll do what all good astrologers suggest and follow the ecliptic: look for the next installment (Capricorn) during the Xmas-New Years' interregnum.