Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Did Yu Know?

Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish is one of the best right-handers in baseball. He also has a first name that sounds just like the work you. This, per Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus, has proved to be irresistible for mlb.com headline writers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - July 26


This was actually an important play, as Miami was leading Houston by two runs with the Astros threatening, runners on the corners and nobody out.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reality Check: Defensive Shifts

Tom Verducci writes about baseball for Sports Illustrated and talks about on the MLB Network. He's a smart guy and a great writer. He's passionate about the game as well, writing on occasion about ways it could be better. He did so last week, proposing that baseball do something to limit defensive shifts: moving fielders to one side or the other of second base in order to take advantage of hitters' tendencies to hit the ball there. You know, like this:
Verducci cites the situation pictured above in particular, when the player at the plate is lefthanded, he tends to hit balls to the right side of the infield, and, in addition, he's slow. (I can't speak to the speed of the guy at the plate in this picture; I can't make him out.) He cites slow left-handed batters who pull having down years: Chris Davis, Ryan Howard, Jay Bruce, Adam Dunn, Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo, David Ortiz, and Adrian Gonzalez, among others. He has a pretty convincing table: batting average on balls in play (i.e., excluding at bats that result in strikeouts or home runs) for left-handed hitters when they hit the ball to the right side of the infield:
   2005   .379
   2006   .386
   2007   .353
   2008   .358
   2009   .350
   2010   .351
   2011   .332
   2012   .313
   2013   .323
   2014   .301

In 2010, Howard, McCann, Ortiz, Bruce, Dunn, Choo, Curtis Granderson and Adam LaRoche all were among the best lefthanded hitters in the game. None of them were All-Stars this year. Fewer hits to the pull field – into the shift – is one reason. Throw in former All-Stars Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, two more slow-footed sluggers (and using only their numbers batting lefthanded), and you can see how the shift is harming lefthanders...
Ignore that some of those guys haven't been good for years. His point, that the shift's affected lefties since the Tampa Bay Rays started becoming shift-happy in 2008, seems to be borne out by the numbers above. His solution: That baseball should look into establishing an "illegal defense rule" that'd limit the number of infielders on either side of second base to two. 

Verducci's proposal met with a fair amount of criticism on the Internet, partly because he's proposing a pretty significant change to the rules of the game. I don't really buy that. The rules of baseball aren't inviolable; we added replay and removed home plate collisions this year. If there's a problem in the game, let's address it.

The problem I have is that I'm not sure the response Verducci's proposing--limiting defensive shifts--will address the problem of a decline in offense, simply because there's not a lot of evidence I can see that shifts are the culprit. I'm going to show you a somewhat busy table, so let me explain the columns. The first one, Year, is self-explanatory. BABIP is the batting average on balls in play--that is, the batting average when the batter puts the ball in play (doesn't strike out, walk, get hit by the pitch, etc.) and doesn't hit a home run. Ground is the batting average on ground balls. L vs. L is the batting average for left-handed hitters--the focus of Verducci's research--against left-handed pitchers. L vs. R is the batting average for left-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers. If defensive shifts are hurting offenses, particularly with lefties at the plate, we should see all of these batting averages decline with time, as shifted fielders turn what used to be hits into outs. Here's the table:
   Year    BABIP  Ground  L vs. L  L vs. R
   2005    .295    .233    .295     .299
   2006    .301    .236    .294     .302
   2007    .303    .239    .301     .312
   2008    .300    .237    .298     .302
   2009    .299    .232    .286     .299
   2010    .297    .234    .299     .298
   2011    .295    .231    .291     .301
   2012    .297    .234    .287     .299
   2013    .297    .232    .293     .300
   2014    .299    .237    .297     .307

Do you see any evidence from those number that defensive shifts--which have grown in popularity especially in the last couple years--have hampered offense? I can't. As of today, the batting average on balls in play at its highest level since 2009. The batting average on grounders is the highest it's been since 2008. Left-handed hitters are hitting better against lefties than any year since 2010 and against righties since 2007. Offense is surely down, but it's not because defensive shifts are resulting in plummeting batting averages. So I don't see a need to legislate against shifts.

As to why offense if down: batters are striking out in 20.3% of plate appearances, the most in history--the rate's risen for nine straight years--the walk rate's declined for five straight years and is now at its lowest level since 1968, batters are hitting balls on the ground,  which produce a lower OPS than balls hit in the air, at the highest rate since stats became available in 2002, and the percentage of fly balls leaving the park has declined for two years, to the lowest level since 2011. That's why. Sounds like a problem of good pitching rather than innovative defense.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

...And That's Why, 10 Years Later, ESPN and FOX Show Only Yankees-Red Sox Games

Big hat tip to Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk for realizing the significance of this date. Take it away, Craig: 

On July 24, 2004, the Yankees were cruising. They had an eight and a half game lead over the Red Sox, who were tied with the Twins for the wild card. They beat the Red Sox 8-7 the night before. A month before that they swept Boston in the Bronx. On this Saturday, New York was up again, 3-0 in the top of the third when Alex Rodriguez stepped up to the plate to face Bronson Arroyo.
 A-Rod wasn’t yet the pariah he would become. Yes, a lot of people hated that he made the money that he made, but he had yet to be implicated in the PED story. He had yet to be caught cheating on his wife and dating pop stars. He had yet to strike narcissistic poses in glossy magazines and be on the outs publicly with his team. He was merely the best player in the game at that point who had maybe-a-bit-too-publicly forced a trade to a contender the previous winter. But heck, the Red Sox were actually the front-runners for him. Even struck a deal with Texas to acquire him, only to see it nixed by the union because A-Rod –selflessly! — had offered to rework his contract to make it happen.
But A-Rod had driven in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of the Yankees victory the previous night and the Sox were a tad frustrated.  Then this happened:

It was a pretty good brawl as far as these things go. Not the half-hearted shoving you typically see these days. But it wasn’t a terribly special brawl. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Sometimes we see them with more haymakers. But one thing did make this brawl special. This picture:

I link to the entire Hardball Talk piece at the top of this. (And I'm no lip reader, but is Rodriguez repeatedly shout "vacuum" to Varitek? Home plate must've been messy or something.)

Rodriguez and Varitek were both ejected, and the Red Sox won a wild game, 11-10. Of course, this was the year the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and won their first World Series since the War of 1812 or something.

But more significantly, July 24, 2004 firmly established a Yankees-Red Sox narrative, a cultural marker that we're still stuck with, ten years later, when almost everybody on both of those teams is out of baseball (the only players still with the two clubs are Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and, of course, Rodriguez), and neither team is particularly good. It's come to define baseball rivalries, and the networks show clips of the brawl when they do their endless promos for their endless series of Boston-New York televised games.

Sweet Play of the Day: July 23

You may have seen this play from a couple week ago, when Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton somehow evaded a tag in a game against the Pirates:

Last night, Braves outfielder Jason Heyward pulled off a similar move against the Marlins. The thing is, Hamilton's listed at 6'0", 160, and widely acknowledged to be the fastest player in baseball. Heyward's a fabulous athlete, but he's also 6'5", 245, so there's a lot more of him to contort along the baseline.

(Note that the Marlins third baseman is Casey McGehee. Note, too, that when I discussed what a nice year he's having, I didn't talk about defense.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Yankees Fans, Meet Chase Headley

Yesterday the New York Yankees traded their third baseman this year, Yangervis Solarte, and minor league pitcher Rafael De Paula to the San Diego Padres for third baseman Chase HeadleySolarte was an interesting story this year, as the 26-year-old rookie posted a strong .299/.369/.466 slash line through the end of May but a paltry .154/.267/.192 thereafter. Headley wasted no time endearing himself to the Bronx faithful, with a walkoff RBI single in his first game:

What's Good About Him? Headley was a fantastic player in 2012, with a .286/.376/.498 slash line and a Gold Glove. He was first in the National League with 115 RBI, fifth in total bases with 301, seventh in runs scored with 95, eighth in home runs with 31, and ninth in on-base percentage. That he compiled his offensive numbers at Petco Park, the most extreme pitcher's park in baseball, makes them doubly impressive.

What's Not So Good About Him? Well, every year since. In 2013, his slash line was .250/.347/.400 - still above average, considering Petco Park, but not star level - and his home runs and RBI fell from 31 and 115 in 2012 to 13 and 50 in 2013. So far this year he's been simply bad: .230/.296/.353, with 7 homers and 33 RBI--lousy timing, considering that he's a free agent at the end of the season.

So What Should Yankees Fans Expect? Getting away from Petco should help. Headley's batting average at home was actually higher than on the road this year, but only two of his seven homers came at home. Yankee Stadium is a good hitter's park, so Headley's moving from a tough stadium to a much more favorable one.

A return to his 2012 season doesn't seem likely. That year, over 21% of fly balls went over the fence. Every other year of his career, it's been less than 11%. So 2012 stands out as a fluke. Also in 2012, he slugged .568 against fastballs and .583 against offspeed pitches. He's never been higher than .440 as a regular other than 2012.

So if 2012's out, how about 2013? Headley was above average that year. He's swinging and missing less often than last year, he's not swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and the percentage of his fly balls that are home runs is barely down. What has changed is his batting average on balls in play: From .319 last year to .286 this year. (The National League average was .297 last year and .299 this year). As I've mentioned, most players' batting average on balls in play hovers around the league average. So you can make an argument that Headley's performance this year has been due to random variation rather than declining skills.

So you put it together, and you've got a guy who had a great fluke season in 2012 followed by an OK year in 2013. He's declined in 2014, but that's in part due to bad luck, and his batting stats in general have been hurt by his home park. Now, they should be helped.

So it's reasonable for the Yankees to expect something approaching league-average production from Headley for the remainder of the year. The question is what happens after that. With good production, will Headley sign a free agent contract to stay in pinstripes? Or will they let him go, given that they have another third baseman who'll be back next year--a 38-year-old to whom they owe $61 million for 2015-2017 as well as a $6 million bonus after his sixth home run next year?

Sweet Play of the Day: July 22

Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin and Yankees catcher Brian McCann haven't lived up to expectations. Martin, in his second year as Texas's center fielder, hasn't improved at the plate (.698 OPS last year, .696 this year), striking out more frequently and hitting fewer extra base hits. McCann, in the first season of a five-year, $85 million free agent contract signed before the season, has a .294 on base percentage and .373 slugging percentage, both career lows. They both remain in the lineup, though, in part because of their strong defense. Those paths crossed last night, as Martin turned what would have been McCann's eleventh home run of the year into an out.