Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Big Data Baseball

I like Travis Sawchik, Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune. I read his work and I link to it a lot. He's smart, is a sharp writer, and does a great job of doing what I try to do: weave some advanced baseball analytics into traditional baseball analysis.

Last month, he published a book, Big Data Baseball, that chronicles the 2013 season, during which the Pirates ended the longest streak of losing seasons in North American Sports. I think interesting sports books covering the recent pass are extremely challenging. I really enjoyed the books 1954 by Bill Madden and The Machine by Joe Posnanski, but the events they chronicled--the 1954 baseball season and the 1975 Cincinnati Reds--aren't recent, so the authors could let the narrative of the season, no longer fresh in readers' minds, tell a good piece of the story. The same goes for the book I'm reading now, Dan Epstein's Stars and Strikes, about the 1976 season. 

By covering a recent season, Sawchik can't just tell us what happens day to day. We remember the season, how Andrew McCutchen became an MVP, how Francisco Liriano was Comeback Player of the Year, how the Pirates beat the Reds in the wild card game. When Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, his bestseller about the Oakland A's, he had exclusive access the the team's general manager, Billy Beane; he literally sat in on several of his meetings. Sawchik didn't have such a luxury. Athletes "write" books about teams of recent season--think of Johnny Damon's Idiot, published after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004--but they're more playing off the celebrity of the "author" than anything else.* An upcoming book on the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy by ESPN writer Molly Knight, uses the reporter's insider access to tell behind-the-scenes stories not previously revealed. 

Sawchik, by contrast, analyzes the steps the PIrates took to reverse decades of losing baseball, weaving them into the narrative of the season. He lays out the changes that management identified and how they were effected throughout the organization. That, task, I feel, is tougher, and I also feel that he pulls it off.

The thing about the Pirates is that, just like the Moneyball A's, their success is attributable in part to their embrace of quantitative analytical methods ahead of the competition. The Pirates were arguably less noisy about it than Oakland, but they were among the first to emphasize defensive infield shifts and two-seam fastballs (aka sinkers) in order to induce opponents into hitting ground balls to infielders positioned to turn the grounders into outs. They were also among the first to understand the virtues of catcher framing: the ability of some catchers to turn borderline ball/strike calls into strikes by catching, or framing, pitched balls in a way to increase the probability of umpires calling the pitches in the Pirates pitchers' favor.

To illustrate this, Sawchik focuses on key personnel. The first one is manager Clint Hurdle, who had to be convinced of the thinking behind the changes and then sell them to the Pirates players. Hurdle didn't attend college. He was a star high school player, and as I pointed out in my post about baseball's amateur draft, the best players in baseball are drafted right out of high school, since baseball, unlike basketball and football, doesn't outsource player development to the NCAA. Hurdle was a first round pick in the 1975 amateur draft, and after a sensational 1977 at AAA Omaha (.328/.449/.529 slash line) was one of baseball's mostly highly touted rookies in 1978. His career never took off; in parts of ten major league seasons, he batted .259 with just 32 homers over 1,391 at bats. But he worked his up through minor league and major league coaching jobs to eventually six full years and parts of two more as manager of the Colorado Rockies (the only manager to lead the team to the World Series) and, since 2011, manager of the Pirates. The Pirates, after hot starts, collapsed in both 2011 and 2012 to fourth place finishes below .500. Despite his lack of a college education, though, Hurdle's a smart and thoughtful man, and when the front office showed him the data supporting the changes involving shifting and sinkers and framing entering the 2013 season, he embraced them.

From there, Sawchik tells the story of the 2013 season, weaving in the stories of key players than exemplified the Pirates' embrace of new metrics. There's the now-departed catcher Russell Martin, signed to a free agent contract after two years as the Yankees' primary catcher, picked up for his top-of-the-charts framing skills. There's pitcher Charlie Morton, an extreme sinker pitcher who had scuffled to a 5.06 career ERA from 2008 to 2012 before the shifted Pirates infield rewarded his groundball tendencies (he leads the league in groundball/flyball ratio this year, 3.77, and was first in 2013 as well), turning grounders into outs. There's lefty Francisco Liriano, signed to a bargain basement $1 million one-year free agent contract after five awful seasons following Tommy John surgery (4.75 ERA, 12% worse than the league average) and an offseason broken arm. As I discussed here, he completely abandoned his four-seam (rising) fastball in favor of his sinker, yielding a 16-8 record, 3.02 ERA, and the aforementioned Comeback Player of the Year Award. There's hometown hero, second baseman Neil Walker, who became a key player in all those infield shifts, resulting in his range factor (putouts plus assists) per game rising from fourth in the league in 2012 to first in 2013. Sawchik introduces these players as he describes the chronology of the 2013 season, culminating in the win over the Reds at PNC in the Pirates' first postseason game since George Bush--George H.W. Bush, not George W. Bush--was in the White House.

All in all, I thought it was an entertaining read, particularly the pieces about Hurdle, who's got a lot more going on than his somewhat rotund, red-faced, gum-chewing TV persona would indicate. Sawchik does a great job introducing advanced metrics like catcher framing and defensive runs saved without getting lost (as I sometimes do) in the numerical minutiae, making the book, like Moneyball, attractive to both numerically-oriented fans and those more focused on the game on the diamond. 

*I know, using scare quotes around the words wrote and author is kind of a cheap shot. Political writers have taken all the fun out of scare quotes, using them to trivialize their opponents' positions. (Think of liberals decrying "deregulation" or conservatives railing against "stimulus.") That being said, I mean, I like Pedro Martinez a lot, but you can't convince me that, in his new autobiography, Pedro, by PEDRO MARTINEZ AND MICHAEL SILVERMAN (those are, roughly, the font sizes on the cover of the book), Pedro actually said or wrote this:
I gathered as many smooth and flat stones as I could hold in one hand. The sea was still, and I skipped rock after rock across the glass surface, following the spiraling arc of the rippling tendrils until the stone skidded to a stop and slid slowly underwater.
And that goes double for Johnny Damon, sorry.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Trailing 30 - June 28

Here is an explanation of this weekly feature, listing the best and worst of past 30 days, made possible by FanGraph's Leaders application. Comment for the week: We're close enough to the end June to predict Players of the Month. American League: I'd vote for Miguel Cabrera but I expect Albert Pujols will win. Among the pitchers, there's a case to be made for Chris Sale, Taijuan Walker, and Chris Archer, with a nod to the latter for the surprisingly good performance of the Rays. In the National League, looks as if Nolan Arenado is well-positioned to win the top player award (I'd go with Giancarlo Stanton or Paul Goldschmidt) while Max Scherzer seems the choice for top pitcher.

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Toronto         18- 9     1. St. Louis       19- 8
2. Tampa Bay       18-10     2. Pittsburgh      17-10    
3. Baltimore       17-10     3. Cincinnati      15-11         
4. Kansas City     15-10     4. Chicago         14-13   
5. NY, Oak         16-11     5. Arizona, SD     14-14        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Boston          11-17     1. Philadelphia     7-19      
   Seattle         11-17     2. New York        11-16       
3. Detroit         10-15     3. Atlanta         12-16      
4. Chicago         11-16        Milwaukee       12-16
5. Minnesota       12-16     5. San Francisco   12-15

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Cabrera, Det     .402     1. Tulowitzki, Col  .394        
2. Pillar, Tor      .379     2. Goldschidt, Ari  .388      
3. Kipnis, Cle      .363     3. Harper, Was      .359           
4. Machado, Bal     .351     4. Turner, LA       .352          
5. Burns, Oak       .339     5. Heyward, SL      .348       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Sanchez, Chi     .165     1. Desmond, Was     .160          
2. Garcia, Chi      .170     2. Galvis, Phi      .169       
3. Rios, KC         .181     3. Ramirez, Mil     .178
4. Ramirez, Chi     .190     4. Norris, SD       .178           
5. Napoli, Bos      .190     5. Duda, NY         .183      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Cabrera, Det     .500     1. Goldschmidt, Ari .512           
2. Kipnis, Cle      .450     2. Harper, Was      .457          
3. Gordon, KC       .433     3. Tulowitzki, Col  .447         
4. Bautista, Tor    .426     4. Coghlin, Chi     .434          
5. Fielder, Tex     .426     5. Votto, Cin       .427      
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Pujols, LA       .786     1. Stanton, Mia     .784        
2. JD Martinez, Det .681     2. Arenado, Col     .705     
3. Trout, LA        .653     3. Goldschmidt, Ari .704       
4. Cabrera, Det     .621     4. Frazier, Cin     .701       
5. Machado, Bal     .605     5. Harper, Was      .667        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Pujols, LA         14     1. Stanton, Mia       14
2. JD Martinez, Det   10     2. Arenado, Col       12        
3. Valbuena, Hou       9     3. Frazier, Cin       10
4. 3 with              8     4. 3 with              9
   Runs                         Runs    
1. Gardner, NY        27     1. Arenado, Col       24        
2. Pujols, LA         25        Frazier, Cin       24     
3. Machado, Bal       22     3. LeMahieu, Col      21
4. Bautista, Tor      21     4. 5 with             20
   Zobrist, Oak       21        

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Pujols, LA         28     1. Arenado, Col       35        
2. JD Martinez, Det   24     2. Posey, SF          26      
3. Machado, Bal       21     3. Stanton, Mia       25       
4. 3 with             20     4. Frazier, Cin       24
                                Goldschmidt, Ari   24
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Burns, Oak          8     1. Hamilton, Cin      18            
2. Reyes, Tor          7     2. Blackmon, Col      11     
3. 4 with              6     3. Revere, Phi         9   
                             4. Marte, Pit          8
                             5. 2 with              7
   Saves                        Saves
1. Britton, Bal        9     1. Melancon, Pit      12
   Holland, KC         9     2. Rosentha, SL        9
3. Clippard, Oak       8        Ziegler, Ari        9
4. Boxberger, TB       7     4. Chapman, Cin        8
   Perkins, Min        7        Ramos, Mia          8

   ERA                          ERA
1. Gallardo, Tex    0.69     1. Garcia, SL       1.03
2. Price, Det       1.45     2. deGrom, NY       1.21
3. Archer, TB       1.80     3. Martinez, SL     1.85
4. Walker, Sea      1.91     4. Hammel, Chi      2.01
5. Sale, Chi        1.98     5. Ray, Ari         2.08

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Martinez, Tex    6.35     1. Lohse, Mil       7.56
2. Elias, Sea       6.21     2. Harang, Phi      6.56
3. Weaver, LA       6.12     3. Cashner, SD      6.55
4. McHugh, Hou      5.00     4. O'Sullivan, Phi  6.00
5. Samardzija, Chi  5.94     5. Hellickson, Ari  5.45

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Sale, Chi        0.80     1. Scherzer, Was    0.62
2. Walker, Sea      0.87     2. deGrom, NY       0.67
3. Archer, TB       0.89     3. Garcia, SL       0.69
4. Buerhle, Tor     0.91     4. Liriano, Pit     0.84
5. Gallardo, Tex    0.92     5. Kershaw, LA      0.84

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Sale, Chi          63     1. Kershaw, LA        57     
2. Keuchel, Hou       46     2. Bumgarner, SF      47
3. Walker, Sea        44     3. Scherzer, Was      45
4. Archer, TB         41     4. Liriano, Pit       44
   McCullers, Hou     41     5. Arrieta, Chi       41

Friday, June 26, 2015

Next Up: The Atlanta Braves

Earlier this week, I addressed concerns that the Pirates can't win against teams with a winning record. It's true that they have a losing record against teams playing .500 or better. But so do most teams. In fact, the Pirates are now sixth in the league in winning percentage against .500 or better teams. But here's another issue, as they enter play against the 35-38 Atlanta Braves: They haven't played a lot of games against good teams. The Cardinals have played 38 games against teams at .500 or better, 34 against teams with losing records. The Cubs have played 38 games against better teams, 33 against those with losing records. For the Pirates, the split is 30/42. I'll do a strength-of-schedule post sometime later, but the team is going to face some tougher competition as the season moves forward.

How Are They Doing Lately? Not great. They're 13-15 over the last 30 days. They've scored 4.1 runs per game, fifth in the league, and allowed 4.4 per game, the fifth most. So the problem's been pitching more than hitting. They lost two of three to the Pirates earlier this month, and the three games this weekend are the last time the two clubs will meet this season. 

What's Going Right? The Braves are batting .268, third in the league over the last 30 days, and they're second in on base percentage, .327. So they've been getting on base a lot. The starters have a good ERA, 3.54, fifth best in the league, but with the lowest strikeout rate and the seventh-highest walk rate. No team's starters have kept the ball in the strike zone more than the Braves (53% of pitches in the strike zone over the past 30 days), but they're not fooling batters with pitches outside the strike zone, as batters have swung at less than 29% of pitches outside the zone, second fewest in the league. 

What's Going Wrong? The team's slugging .367 over the last 30 days, third worst in the league. They've hit only 16 homers, tied for fewest in the league, and 43 doubles, tied for the fifth fewest. They lead the league in singles over the last 30 days, with 201, 19 more than the second-place Pirates. So the Braves have hit a lot of singles but lack power, and that's limited their ability to score. The bullpen's been a weakness all season, and the 4.44 relievers' ERA over the past 30 days is the third worst in the league.

Who's Hot? The Pirates won't face the Braves' best starter, Shelby Miller (2.65 ERA over the past 30 days), but the three they will face have been pretty good: Williams Perez (2.32 ERA, but walking nearly a batter every other inning), Julio Teheran (4.28 ERA but a gem in his last start, seven one-hit innings against the Mets) and Alex Wood (2.97 ERA). Closer and former Pirate Jason Grilli has a 0.75 ERA and seven saves over the last 30 days and reclamation project Jim Johnson (7.09 ERA last year with two teams) has a 2.77 ERA and two saves. Rookie second baseman Jace Peterson and center fielder Cameron Maybin have been a solid one-two punch at the top of the lineup, with on base percentages of .373 and .367, respectively. Shortstop and fielding wizard Andrelton Simmons has batted .320 with a .371 on base percentage over the past 30 days, albeit with only three extra-base hits.

Who's Not? Take away Grilli and Johnson and the Braves bullpen has a 5.76 ERA. The Braves' best hitter, Freddie Freeman, just hit the disabled list, and he accounted for seven of the club's sixteen homers over the past 30 days. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski has a .286 on base percentage over the last 30 days, and the team's had a sinkhole in left field all year. 

What's the Outlook? I said this the last time the teams met, and I'll say it again: The key for the Pirates will be to get to the Braves' starters early to get at the middle relief underbelly of the Braves' bullpen and keep the ball out of their former teammate Grilli's hand.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Going the Other Way

My latest FanGraphs Community post is here. It's called "Going the Other Way," and it's about players who have gone from pulling the ball to hitting to the opposite field. I got interested in the topic when I wrote about Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison earlier this month. I noticed that, at the time, he'd changed from pulling the ball (i.e., hitting to left field) the ninth most frequently in the National League in 2014 to the the 12th least frequently in 2015. (He's currently pulling the 21st least frequently out of 77 this year.)

You hear a lot that with defensive shifts stacking infielders on one side of the diamond or the other for extreme pull hitters, batters would benefit from hitting more to the opposite field. So I looked at the players who've most dramatically changed from pulling to going the opposite way this year (Harrison's ninth on the list) and, for good measure, those who have gone to pulling more. Does it make a difference? My conclusion: 
[T]he data indicate that changing one’s approach–going from pulling to hitting to the opposite field, or, for that matter, vice-versa–does not appear to have a systemic change in batting outcomes. It works for some players. It doesn’t work for others. 

Next Up: The Cincinnati Reds

After an off day, the Pirates will try to get back on track after the weekend's shellacking on the hands of the Washington Nationals (three losses by a combined score of 19-3). They open a three game series tonight against the Reds, against whom they're only 1-5 so far this year.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Reds are 14-12 over the past 30 days, which isn't fabulous, but it ties them with the Cubs for the third-best record in the National League during the period, trailing only the 19-8 Pirates and 18-8 Cardinals. Yes, the four best teams in the National League over the past 30 days are all in the Central division. They've scored 4.5 runs per game over the past 30 games, second in the league, and allowed 3.8 per game, fourth fewest. So they've been pretty good. Fortunately for the Pirates, they won't face their longtime nemesis, Johnny Cueto, whose elbow is bothering him. He was scheduled to start tonight's game but he'll rest until Friday. The Pirates will instead face Josh Smith, in his first major league start. That might sound promising, but the Pirates faced the Milwaukee's Taylor Jungmann in the Brewer's first start, and lost 4-1, as the rookie allowed one run over seven innings.

What's Going Right? Well, when you're second in runs scored and fourth in runs prevented, a lot of stuff's going right. They're only ninth in batting over the past 30 days but sixth in on base percentage and second in slugging. They've hit the second most homers and drawn the fifth most walks. They have the sixth-best starters' ERA and the sixth-best relievers' ERA over the span. 

What's Going Wrong? The bullpen's blown five saves, the second-most in the National League over the past 30 days. And the Cueto injury is worrisome. He's the team's best pitcher and most valuable trade chip--more on that in a sec--but he started only 24 games in 2011 and 11 in 2013 due to health issues. The Reds are hoping he holds up in this odd-numbered year.

The Reds also face a fish-or-cut-bait issue. They're 32-36, fourth in the Central, 12.5 games behind the Cardinals and 6 behind the Cubs for the second wild card, tied with the Padres, with four other teams between them and Chicago. One of their best starters, Homer Bailey, is out until sometime next season with Tommy John surgery. Do they keep pushing for the postseason this year, or do they see what they can get for Cueto in a trade? Do they try to trade closer Aroldis Chapman, who's arbitration eligible next year? These questions won't get answered in the three games with the Pirates, but they hang over the club.

Who's Hot? Third baseman Todd Frazier's been on fire: .339/.368/.761 slash line over the last 30 days, first in runs scored, second in homers, tied for second in RBI. First baseman Joey Votto's been really good too, at .308/.427/.637. Frazier's first in the league in slugging, Votto's fourth in on base percentage. Center fielder Billy Hamilton has struggled to get on base (.289 on base percentage in the past 30 days), but he's put pressure on pitchers when he gets on, leading the majors with 14 steals. Every starter--Cueto, Mike Leake, Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen--has been OK, though the latter two get an unusually small number of strikeouts. In the bullpen, Chapman's out on paternity leave, so the closer role will shift to J.J. Hoover. Chapman, as usual, has struck out a ridiculous number of batters--43% of the batters he's faced over the past 30 days. compared to a league average of 22%--while Hoover, who's allowed no runs in his last 13.1 innings, has struck out a below-average 14% of batters.

Who's Not? Second baseman Brandon Phillips (.226/.258/.298 over the past 30 days) is showing his age, but the only other Reds batters with poor results of late are part-timers. He's neither hot nor cold at the major league level, but tonight's starter, Smith, is a 27-year-old rookie, and 27 is pretty old to be breaking into the majors. 

What's the Outlook? The Pirates are facing a Reds team that's played well lately. The big question, to me, will be whether the Pirates pitchers can cool off the Reds' hot bats, especially Frazier's (four homers in six games against Pittsburgh). 

Pete Rose

You may have heard that ESPN published evidence that Pete Rose bet on baseball games while he was a player, in contrast to his insistence to the contrary.

Two things about Pete Rose:

  1. I never cared for him all that much as a player. I mean, I fully acknowledge he was one of the best ever. But I always found him to be overly self-promoting and, on his most famous team, the mid-1970s Big Red Machine, only the third-best player on the club (Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, if you must ask). He was a leadoff hitter with a .375 on base percentage, which is very good but not great. He was a lousy base stealer (57% lifetime success rate), didn't hit home runs (160 lifetime), and, while he played a lot of positions, left field was the only one he played particularly well. But he had amazing longevity, and was very, very good overall for a very, very long time.
  2. People get upset that he's lied about his gambling, pretty much every step of the way. Maybe it's a moral failing or something, but I just don't get excited about lying. Pete Rose lied, Alex Rodriguez lied, politicians lie, all true enough, but let's face it, you and I lie a lot, too. When lies get people hurt, yes, that's bad. When people lie to cover their butts, as Rose or Rodriguez did, well, is it really that different from the lies we tell when our boss asks us about the report we forgot to complete, or our spouse asks us whether we remembered to get bread on the way back from work*? I just don't see it.
While I don't get excited about lying, I do get excited over rules. And there's really only one that's relevant here: 
Rule 21 Misconduct, (d) Betting on Ball Games, Any player, umpire, or club, or league official, or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.
He bet on baseball while he was in uniform. Open and shut. There isn't a statute of limitations. He's permanently ineligible, which means he can't go into the Hall of Fame. Period. The newest revelations don't change that at all.

*No, my wife usually doesn't read this. So don't tell her, OK? And for the record, she generally doesn't eat bread.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Quality of Competition

The Pirates were swept over the weekend by the Nationals. Going into the series, Pittsburgh was on an eight-game winning streak. The reversal of form isn't a complete surprise, though, given that the winning streak was against three of the worst teams in baseball (Brewers, Phillies, White Sox), while Washington leads the National League East (after sweeping the Bucs).

This raises a concern: Are the Pirates a team that beats up on weak teams, but can't compete with good ones? Studies have shown that a poor record against teams with winning records portends problems in postseason play.

So far, the Pirates are, indeed, doing well against poor competition. Here's the record of National League teams against clubs playing below .500:

 Cardinals    22- 9 .710  Braves       21-16 .568  Rockies      17-18 .486
 Dodgers      31-13 .705  Padres       14-12 .538  Nationals    16-17 .485 
 Pirates      24-12 .667  Cubs         17-16 .515  Giants       21-23 .477
 Mets         19-10 .655  Reds         14-14 .500  Phillies     10-15 .400
 Diamondbacks 15-10 .600  Marlins      10-10 .500  Brewers       5-14 .263

Uh-oh. The Pirates have the third best record in the league against teams below .500. So they've been vulnerable to better clubs, right? Here are the NL teams against opponents playing .500 or better:

 Giants       17-10 .630  Reds         18-22 .450  Marlins       20-31 .392
 Cardinals    23-15 .605  Padres       20-26 .435  Brewers       20-32 .385
 Cubs         20-14 .588  Diamondbacks 19-25 .432  Rockies       13-21 .382
 Nationals    21-16 .568  Braves       14-19 .424  Dodgers        8-18 .308
 Pirates      15-18 .455  Mets         17-25 .405  Phillies      14-32 .304

So, yeah, the Pirates have a losing record against teams that are playing .500 or better. But so do most teams. And, in fact, they're fifth best in the National League against teams with winning records. So there's really nothing to worry about, so far, which is more than can be said for the playoff contenders in New York and Los Angeles.