Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Recently Tyler Kepner of the NYT decided to anoint Max Scherzer as the best pitcher in baseball. (To be completely accurate, he called the "perfect pitcher for the times we live in"--which might have a lot of different meanings, of course, but we'll take him on face value when he ties this claim to baseball's rampant romance with the so-called "Three True Outcomes").

Of course, greatness in pitchers has long been tied to the qualities that Scherzer (and many others before him) possess--low hits allowed and high strikeouts. While starting pitchers are unlikely to pile up the sheer numbers of innings pitched that led to strikeout totals approaching 400 K's in a season, they are riding the rise in strikeouts to K/9 averages that would seem breathtaking to the men who hold the "numbers version" of the strikeout record.

Kepner is "all in" for the worship of these rate stats (as we must admit we are as well--or, at least, for relievers, who've gone beyond surreal and otherworldly to simply unimaginable: paging Josh Hader).

But we're more interested in the other extreme--the one encompassing scarcity. That is found in the realm of hit prevention. The aforementioned Hader is--at least for now--pushing that envelope into something akin to the dead-letter file with his impossible 2.3 H/9 average. That figure is so far beyond even the most willful suspension of disbelief that we'll just trail off into silence, and wait for the conclusion of the 2018 season to see what Hader's rate looks like.

So that brings us back to Scherzer, who's been preventing hits at a prodigious rate the last two seasons. Anything below seven H/9 is excellent, but Scherzer is down there in the sub-six region, which is close to the best of all-time.

Here at BBB, of course, we prefer our Quality Matrix (QMAX) measure for starters, and it's long been an axiom that the greatest seasonal performances among starters are also the years where their hit prevention--as measured by the QMAX "S" score--is the best of all time. The top two starting pitcher seasons remain Pedro Martinez in 2000 (2.00 S/1.79 C/3.79 T .835 QMAX WPCT or "QWP") and Bob Gibson in 1968 (2.09 S/1.59 C/3.68 T .831 QWP).

We've had a lot of starters down in the two's for "S" scores since, but no one has gotten down to that level, before or since. Or--have they?

Did we miss something when we compiled and computer starting pitcher performance via the lens of QMAX? We sure didn't think so when we assembled the data almost seven years ago in this blog post about the QMAX stats for pitchers who won the MVP Award. But, as Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon when Jack (playing "Daphne") finally admitted he was "a man" in Some Like It Hot: "Nobody's perfect."

And it turns out we did overlook someone--a rather well-known someone, in fact, who compiled the lowest QMAX "S" score in history. Yes, it's just a tad lower that Pedro's 2000 season. Yes, his overall QMAX score is higher, and his QWP (adjusted for a running average of expected win values which fluctuate according to run scoring levels) is lower.

Who is that man, you ask? Well, one thing is for certain: he's not named Daphne.

The answer: Luis Tiant. In 1968, as Bob Gibson was tearing up the National League, Looie was doing something similar over in the AL. Just before the All-Star Break that year, Tiant's ERA was 1.11, right in Gibson territory. He didn't hold that level, of course--otherwise we'd all know about his hit prevention, which was better than Gibson's. Tiant finished with a 1.60 ERA and a 21-9 record, but he had no chance to win the Cy Young Award in '68: Denny McLain (31-6 for the first-place Tigers) made sure of that.

But here's Tiant's QMAX chart for '68. Check it out, because it produces the lowest QMAX "S" score for any starting pitcher in history: 1.97.

Yes, it's just barely better than Pedro, who came it at exactly 2.00 in 2000. Did you expect him to shatter it? Yes, the level of precision as measured to a second place to the right of the decimal point is probably pointless. But a record is a record, and it belongs to Looie.

Note the ten 1,1 games (best possible performance in terms of hit/walk prevention). Note there are no games in the orange-colored zone we call the "hit hard region." Looie had a few games where his control was off, which brought his "C" score up to 2.26--which is still damn fine.

Which brings us back to Scherzer and 2018 and hit prevention in an age where (as we've just discussed, in the previous post) hits are becoming longer but scarcer. Is Max really the guy who's leading the charge into the empyrean realm of hit extinction? Is he, as Kepner suggests, the perfect pitcher for these times?

The answer: Of. Course. Not. (Jeez, you guys have surely been suffering through this blog long enough to know that was coming, n'est-ce pas?)

Max is having a fine year (2.13 ERA, 8-1). He's striking out a lot of guys. But QMAX tells us that he's having...a fine year, not a superhuman one. His QMAX values: 2.64 S, 2.91 C, 5.55 T, .658 QWP. His won-loss record is a couple of games better than his actual value thus far.

So who is "the perfect pitcher for these times" (at least at this very moment)? If you've been paying attention, you're not going to be surprised. The answer is...

Justin Verlander.

Since moving to the Astros, Verlander has returned to his 2011 Cy Young/MVP form--and a good bit more. His ERA in his 17 starts for the defending World Champs is right down there in '68 Gibson territory: 1.09. His QMAX values thus far this year feature a "S" score that's equal to Martinez in 2000 (2.00). His "C" value is a bit higher (2.17), but there have only been a dozen starting pitchers who've had a better "T" score than his current 4.17 over the course of a full season.

Verlander isn't quite striking out as many per nine innings as Scherzer (10.8 vs. 13.7), but his hits per nine is 4.7 as opposed to Max's 5.9.

Can Verlander stay in this territory? Odds don't favor it, of course. But then again many folks probably wrote off his September performance with the Astros as a nice little short-term return to peak form. After all, he's been nothing like this since 2011.

But right now, with a half-season's worth of starts under his belt with the Astros, Verlander is truly the closest thing to a "perfect pitcher" out there.

[NOTE: Scherzer is on his game tonight as we finish up here: seven innings, two hits, no runs, one walk, and eleven strikeouts. He's got three Cy Youngs, but he's got a ways to go to get ahead of Verlander. Stay tuned...]

Sunday, May 27, 2018


"OK, boys...on three!!"
Well, that was a crock. The "MLB Committee Studying Home Run Rates" issued a report this past week, and it's first and foremost a circle jerk.

"No change in the just carries farther."

Cue Jim Gosger popping out of the hotel room closet in Ball Four with his immortal "Yeah, surre."

It's clear that something went haywire with quality control over a three-year period at Rawlings, and this contributed to the historic 2016-17 homer spike. We understand that Rob Manfred--first and foremost a slick lawyer--is not going to let this stick to him if he can avoid it. And that's what this report is primarily all about. Proving, mostly, that academics and the post-neos who dominate sabermetrics will do the circle jerk cover-up in exchange for a continuing place at the banquet table.

The Tango Love Pie: still a toxic concoction for the
overall health of baseball...
Of course there's more to this story than just Manfred-the-shyster-magician and his misdirection. There's also the "perfect storm" of Tom Tango, "barrels," and "launch angles." What we like to call the "Tango Love Pie" was semi-exonerated as a "primary causal agent" in all this (and others in the post-neo cabal contributed to muddying the waters with overly-parsed "analyses" that deflected from the potential impact of all those batters swinging from the heels).

One gets the distinct sense that no one in the analytical community really wants to know how this happened. And Manfred-the-shyster-magician has generated sufficient sleight-of-hand to insure that the Big Finger will not wind up pointing at him.

So that leaves us with the question of what actually DID happen to make homers go up by 46.5% in three years. It's very clear that it was a combination of factors, several intrinsic to the increasing senility of baseball's analytic component, and several random factors that turned 2016-17 into a perfect storm.

Here are those factors:

--The continuing fetish of the long ball, which the post-neo sabermetric community has joined.
--The implementation of hitting strategies that follow from this escalating fetishization.
--The parallel love for pitchers who throw at high speed but have less movement on their fastball and have fewer effective alternate pitches at their disposal.
--A turnover in effective relief pitchers at the point where the first three factors could commingle to maximize the increase in HRs allowed by relievers.
--A lax effort to curtail quality control problems concerning the manufacture of baseballs that could carry further in part due to new hitting strategies and in part due to...
--An unusually hot spring in 2017 that created a "perfect storm" of home run activity for two months (mid-May to mid-July).

And, that, kiddies, is what they call multivariate analysis. Now baseball's purported brain trust ought to be able to do that. But they didn't. They didn't come close.

Baseball has been down this road before--just without all those math majors in their cubicles. The 50s brought us more homers per hit, and when expansion in 1961-62 created an uptick in offense, baseball's brain trust decided that they need to do something--so they changed the strike zone. What happened?

Just what might happen again now. Offense sputtered. Pitchers adjusted to the favorable conditions. Hitters didn't. They had to rescind the changed strike-zone rule in order to boost offense.

So, today, as offense fell off its historic peak from 1993-2006, the subsidence included a decline in HR/G and isolated power (ISO). Around 2013-14, that clearly had overcorrected, and an influx of good young pitchers and the strategy of increasingly using "one-note" relievers brought offense to a level that hadn't been so low since the 1988-92 "de facto strike zone change" (of which we've had many in the past two decades...kind of like the "proxy wars" we've seen being fought in all those far-flung places around the world).

But all through this time, baseball was becoming more enamored of the low-average slugger. With batting average discredited as a statistic measuring value, it became easy for teams to look for players whose ISO was high enough to pick up the slack in terms of overall slugging average. And the post-neos could chime in about how this was the way to score more runs with less hits--a kind of "pass-through market efficiency" that would be a painless way to boost offense despite the pervasive decline in on-base percentage (OBP).

And so what had formerly been a scarce commodity in baseball (because its perceived worth was limited) slowly morphed into the new fad. With BA high in 2000-05, there was no need for such a hitter type. But later in that previous decade, certain teams began to collect these types of hitters.

That trend has escalated in the present decade, as our chart at left demonstrates. What was once a trace element in baseball strategy is now becoming pervasive. In 2018, even with a downturn in offense and HR/G, we have essentially one player of this type per team getting significant playing time.

We can break this phenomenon down to another level of granularity, to see how it has become pervasive (as opposed to merely an incidental strategy). If it were only incidental, it would remain a phenomenon on the fringes of player development and acquisition--more specifically, this type of hitter would cluster in one age range or another.

Players who are at the beginning of their careers or at the end of their careers are likelier to manifest these types of statistical extremities.the younger players either gain BA and add value by maintaining their secondary statistics ratios, or they don't stick. Older players who had greater established value due to higher BA and secondary statistics ratios can afford to lose BA if those secondary ratios remain steady, so teams might play them for an extra year or two until all of these elements decline to the point where they aren't cutting it.

So you'd expect to find very young and very old players on this list. And, in the table above, you'll see a lot of them there. But as the fetish for this type of player grew, something else has started to happen--these players are now showing up more and more in the prime years of their careers--from ages 25 to 32.

In short, baseball is institutionalizing the low-average slugger.

If this trend continues--and there is no reason to believe that items 1-3 in the "factors" list above have suffered any reversals amongst baseball's "brain trust"--then we are likely to see a continuation of the current decline in BA that has cropped up thus far this season. Right now this difference is in the 8-10 point range, which is negligible enough that post-neo sabes will dismiss it out of hand. But consider the fact that HR levels are currently dropping off at a rate fast enough to bring the 2018 average below 2016 levels. That means that teams are starting to figure out how to combat at least some of the factors that resulted in the HR spike.

You can see a capsule history of the five-year HR phenomenon in the table at left, which breaks things out by team. These are the pitching stats, not the hitting stats, because we want to know if pitching adjustments will be the factor in what happens to offense in an age that loves the long ball not wisely but too well.

The teams in 2015 who started the upward trend from 2014's low ebb of HR/G (0.86) are shown in yellow--the Braves, Tigers, Phillies, Padres, and Mariners--are shown in yellow. Several of these continued to increase their HR/G allowed rates across both 2016 and 2017. They were joined by a number of other teams in 2016--the Reds, most spectacularly (in the year in which Cincinnati hurlers set a new record for the most HRs allowed in a season).

And you can see what followed in the "perfect storm" season last year--everyone gave up at least one HR/G, and a total of 12 teams were over 1.3 HR/G. (Note also that we show .500+ WPCT teams with their HR/G averages in red type...the order in the midst of this storm was that teams with lower HR/G rates were the teams who made it to the post-season. But then the Dodgers and Astros put on a home run derby in the World Series.)

No one knew what to expect with respect to all this in 2018. (The post-neo-sabes didn't care, so they weren't invested in expecting anything. Bill James, more voluble than ever over at his pay-per-view site, has remained silent. Tom Tango has simply tossed more "barrels" on his Love Pie-making machine (now endorsed, fittingly enough, by Tim Tebow and the ghost of George Foreman).

What we see, though, is that some teams are adjusting. Exactly how they're doing so is not yet something we can tease out--and, frankly, some of this could change as we hit the summer. You have good teams from 2017 dropping their HR/G rates and you have bad teams from 2017 doing the same (and becoming good teams, at least so far--see the Braves, Phillies, Mariners, Angels, and A's).

Now some of these teams have yet to drop below their 2016 levels (which is what the far right-hand column measures--trying to show which teams are getting close to some kind of sanity regarding HR/G allowed). But 18 teams are back below 2016 HR/G levels at this point--and BA allowed is dropping because the hitters aren't ready to make their own adjustments.

Joey Gallo: see the ball, hit the ball--but mostly MISS the ball...
If hitters don't make any adjustments--and they aren't being encouraged to do so by anyone in those math major cubicles--then we might see BA take another, more significant nose dive in 2019, as more teams figure out how to re-optimize their pitching staffs for minimizing HR/G. We might be talking sub-.240 for baseball as a whole next year.

That would mean another jump in "low-average" sluggers--up to the high 30s or so. With the climate of acceptance for players like Joey Gallo, this is certainly a plausible outcome.

And that will send R/G levels in the general direction of 2014 again, much like what happened in the early 70s once pitchers adjusted to the re-instituted rules changes of 1969.

Here's a fun fact: HRs are up this May (1.17/G) from April (1.08/G). Run scoring, however, is down two-tenths of a run (4.25, down from 4.47). BA is down, walks are down. The more that happens, the harder it will be to make it up with increased ISO, if HRs don't go back to their "perfect storm" numbers of last year (extremely unlikely). The result: we'll have a game that is boringly two-dimensional on both the x and the y axis: painfully limited offensive variety and low offense. Take a bow, post-neos: if anyone should own this impending circle jerk, it's you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


Portly pitchers are paramount in baseball. Every schlub in America (and, increasingly in outer space as well...) can get behind a girthful galoot who cuts a graceless figure on the pitching mound. (And everywhere else, for that matter.)

These guys make it possible for the avoirdupois-challenged to retain big-league fantasies in spite of all evidence to the contrary. (Also the age-challenged, the brain cell-challenged, and those who still think they should be taking the Pepsi challenge.)

And that's why all of you (and I do mean all of you...) should be lumbering with joy--careful with that axe, Eugene!--to discover that the "Bishop of Bellyfat" is on his way back to the big leagues from the (fat) farm.

That's right, fans of slo-mo belt-buckle-loosening replays: Vidal Nuño is back. (And how appropriate that he's going to be with the Tampa Bay Rays, a team whose mascot has the slow, undulating motion that's genetically linked with all of nature's less-than-svelte creatures.)

One of the other great things about Nuño is his lifetime winning percentage. You read it right: .192. Yes, a buck ninety-two...about half what it costs per gallon to get gassed in certain "unfavored nation" portions of the United States. (We all might be wondering which will happen first: the Orange Menace getting impeached or California seceding. It's a tough call...)

Nuño's lifetime WPCT belies the fact that he's not really a bad pitcher. We suspect he's actually going to start for the Rays, though we don't know how many innings he'll get when he does (Kevin Cash having become such an unpredictable fellow--see previous post). With Jake Faria sidelined for a couple months, the Rays have a slot for a starter...or, at least, an "opener" (see previous post...) and we can't think of a better person to occupy such a nebulous role as Nuño, who currently has the third lowest lifetime WPCT for pitchers since 1900 with at least 25 decisions. (His actual won-loss record: 5-21...)

We wouldn't be surprised to see Vidal perform in all three of these roles during his tenure with the Rays--as "opener" (1-2 innings at the start of the game); as "delayed starter" (inserted on the mound in the second or third inning, following the "opener"); and, last but not least, as "legit" starter who goes as far into the game as fate and circumstance allow.

Nuño must be glad to be away from Arizona (though, to be fair, the D-backs are doing a lot better this year than the woeful 2014 squad he joined). It's quite a feat to go 0-8 for a team when your ERA+ is 110, but if anyone can cut a less-than-svelte profile against the grain of common sense, it's Vidal.

Of course, as you can see, he's had to "grow into" his role...but as we all know, with age and wisdom comes gravitas...and Lord knows that Vidal is working harder against gravity than most when he goes into his pitching motion.

Let's enjoy it while it lasts--and let's hope that the "fat lady" doesn't cramp his least for awhile.

Monday, May 21, 2018


Sergio Romo says he's ready to start 81
times (but doesn't expect to...)
As always, the too-folksy-for-his-barf-bag Joe P. skirts around the issues involved in Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays' deployment of our old pal Sergio Romo as a "starting" pitcher twice over the weekend in their series against the Los Angeles Angels.

Joe both ignores the deep history of the argument (the idea of using a reliever to "start" stems from the 1960s) and the actual nature what of the Rays have been doing this year to exercise his penchant for irrelevant analogy.

How odd is that Joel Sherman, of all folk, actually spends more time discussing the strategy behind having the reliever "start" than ol' folksy Joe, who should remember what ultimately happened to his idol Harry Houdini.

Joe worries that we won't like a game where managers do something odd. Joe is a fool, because the game is calcifying before his eyes and he just sits there writing the same glib tripe, inflected with the increasing senility of the "sabermetric" movement that is primarily responsible for the game's onrushing two-dimensionality.

Kittredge is actually back in the minors... he
could start (3.68 ERA) but he couldn't relieve
(14.43 ERA!!)
Now, of course, when oddity becomes commonplace, that creates a massive cognitive dissonance in the minds of those who conjure hobgoblins from the specter of consistency. What if everyone did what the Rays have done--let a reliever "start"? Would the Heideggerian structure of being dissolve into a puddle of medicated goo? Would every third fan have to start wearing Pampers™ because they'd be wetting their pants in response to Andrew Kittredge (insert your own "for Crissakes" here...) "starting" the game?

Matt Andriese, the third wheel....
Because, actually, you know, Kittredge has started three games this year for the Rays. What Joe and Joel Sherman (and virtually everyone else) have missed is that Tampa Bay has gone a good bit further with their experimentation in this area than merely giving Romo a couple of back-to-back "starts." Along with ol'Sergio, there's Kittredge and Matt Andriese, who've been used to "start" and go anywhere from 2-3 innings (usually about once through the batting order).

So that's a total of seven games this year where the Rays have let a reliever "start." (Though we are no fans of Brian Kenny, we do appreciate his term "opener" here--though perhaps we could get more "down home" and call these events "church key starts"...and remember to open up a cold one whenever you see the wacky Romo warming up prior to the game.)

Seven times! Paging Chicken Little, for Crissakes. (My turn.) The fact is that the Rays are doing something that other teams should be trying. We should not worry too much about the long-term effect of experimentation, nor should we start making aesthetic judgments about things that we've not seen in operation. Heideggerian being, ya know, preserves the possibility of other modes of being, even as it folds in on itself and becomes pretzel logic.

Why shouldn't teams like the Marlins and the Reds--hell, even Joe's Royals, who are back in the swamp after their flukish rise against 93% of "sabermetric wisdom"--why shouldn't they experiment with pitcher usage in this way? What's the worst that can happen? That they'll lose more ball games? Joe's pretzel logic is that we shouldn't have to watch such experiments, they're meant for a laboratory or a bordello or the island of Dr. Moreau where we walketh with zombies.

Of course, the exact opposite is true. We want competing ideas operating in parallel, in order to see what happens in real life. Kudos to Kevin Cash for doing something that 90% of insider "analysts" would not go on record to recommend to their bosses., you ask...can such an idea work? Well, of course: even Joe says that. He just thinks the average fan will turn gooey if the "starter" doesn't "start." Our position is that teams should try anything they want to, even if it's "sabermetrically sound." Their mission is to win games, and they should try anything short of cheating to accomplish that goal. If that means the law firm of Romo, Kittredge and Andriese, then so be it.

Ryan Yarbrough, the man who warms up
right after the game begins...
We sent our pal Buzzy the Fly down to Anaheim over the weekend to eavesdrop (like us, he's been involved in other things for awhile, but you never know when or where either of us are likely to turn up...) and find out how Cash has sold this idea to his starting pitchers. It turns out that all he's actually done is to convince one of his starters to begin warming up right after the game begins. That would be Ryan Yarbrough, who's a rookie and is presumably more pliable than the established starting pitcher. Of the seven games the Rays have done this, he's been the second one in the tub five times.

And guess what? In those five games, pitching four to six innings beginning in the second, third and fourth, he's got a 1.92 ERA. In the three games he's actually started the game in the first inning, he's got an ERA of 4.91.

Now, of course, it's way too soon to know if such an approach can actually make some pitchers better. But the early results are positive, and intriguing. Since ol' Joe went folksy instead of faux-theoretical over all this, we should remind him (and you) that the original rationale for starting relievers, as espoused in the early 60s by Earnshaw Cook, was to gain an extra hitter at-bat early in the game. (Cook was a cranky contrarian, but this was the early 60s, and it's humorous to note that the cranky so-called contrarians who've grown up in recent years like kudzu adjacent to his carcass keep kicking him for not having the right kind of snark. A pox on their houses...)

Kevin Cash: more eloquent when not wearing the
"tools of ignorance"...
How far will Cash and company take this idea? Will "analysts" and "mediots" (that quaint term that used to kinda sorta differentiate between what are now two widely overlapped populations...) decide to bombard him with questions about this? Will they grill Yarbrough about it? Will they treat this as some kind of three-headed dog (Roky Erickson fans, take note!)?? Or will they for once in their lives just shut their yaps and let the experiment proceed?

(We've heard from Zack Cozart on the subject...he's on record as saying it's "bad for baseball." OK, to be fair, his precise words were "not good for baseball." But he then said it was "weird" and suggested that batters should know who they're going to be facing, particularly early in the game. Oh, and that batters should, like, have an expectation of facing the same pitcher three times in a game."

Well, Zack, we hate to break it to you, does not owe you a "starting pitcher" when you come to bat. They simply owe you a pitcher. Even in the first inning. You might want to read what Kevin Cash said about it. You can read it here, in the article at The Big Lead.

The writers there are reasonably sure that this idea is going to become much more commonly deployed in baseball. We can only hope they're right.