Friday, February 28, 2014

Things I Didn't Know: NL East

In coming weeks, you will have innumerable opportunities to read previews of the upcoming season. I dug through last year's results and came up with items for each team that you probably won't see in the previews but that I thought were interesting.

I started with the NL West and Central. Now, the NL East.

Atlanta Braves, 96-66: So that's why they're giving Craig Kimbrel all that money...Relief pitchers, as a group, are not terribly consistent. A good bullpen one year can be lousy the next. The Brewers were fifth in the NL in reliever ERA in 2011, last in 2012, and third last year. The Dodgers were 14th in 2011, third in 2012, 9th last year. You get the picture. They bounce around. Except the Braves. The Braves have been first, second, and first in reliever ERA the past three seasons. That's amazing consistency. And Kimbrel, who's led the league in saves each of the past three years, has a career 1.39 ERA. You know how many pitchers have an ERA that low through their first four seasons, minimum 200 IP? One guy: Craig Kimbrel.

Washington Nationals, 86-76: The Nats were a team of extremes last year. They had a 24-41 record against teams that finished at .500 or better. No team had fewer wins against such teams. They also had a 62-35 record against teams with losing records. Nobody had more. Part of this was because they play in the NL East, where they were one of only two teams with a winning record, but that was true in the NL West too, and neither the Diamondbacks nor the Dodgers matched the Nationals' dominance of bad teams or inability to beat good ones.

New York Mets, 74-88: The Mets were a losing team last year, but they were the fourth-best road team in the NL last year, one of only four to finish above .500 on the road (41-40). That, of course, meant that they had a losing record at home. Only the Mets and Cubs lost were worse at home than on the road. The Mets were the fourth-best team in the NL on the road and the second-worst at home. Mets fans who wanted to see their team win had to travel. 

Philadelphia Phillies, 73-89: The Phillies scored the third fewest runs in the league last year, 610, which is bad enough, but that figure is inflated by the games they play at home at Citizens Bank Park, a hitters' park, where their 344 runs scored ranked fifth in the league. Which means that on the road...Yeah. Awful. Scored 266 runs; only the Marlins were worse. Fewest road home runs in the league. Second-fewest doubles. This was a terrible offense, masked by the home ballpark.

Miami Marlins, 62-100: The Marlins finished last in the National League East. They had the worst record in the league. They were really bad. So, given my west-to-east order of presentation, they're the last NL team I'll hit. So it's by coincidence, not design, that I saved the best for last: This is the most amazing tidbit I found. THE MIAMI MARLINS HAD THE BEST WINNING PERCENTAGE IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE WHEN LEADING A GAME AFTER SEVEN INNINGS. I'm serious. Quick, who was their closer? (Steve Cishek, 34 saves) Who were their setup guys? (Mike Dunn, Chad Qualls, A.J. Ramos) How in the world did they win more of the games that they led after seven (41-2, .953 winning percentage) than the Dodgers (71-4, .947), Braves (72-6, .923), Cardinals (86-6, .935), and Pirates 74-5, .937), other than that they played a lot fewer of them? I don't know either. But they did.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Things I Didn't Know: NL Central

In coming weeks, you will have innumerable opportunities to read previews of the upcoming season. I dug through last year's results and came up with items for each team that you probably won't see in the previews but that I thought were interesting.

I started with the NL West. Now the Central.

St. Louis Cardinals, 97-55: You know how I found that while the best pitchers get hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, swinging at pitches outside the zone doesn't seem to hurt hitters? The Cardinals are my case in point. Top five Cardinals hitters, measured by OPS: Matt Holliday .879, Matt Carpenter .873, Matt Adams .839, Yadier Molina .836, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig, .830. Top five Cardinals hitters, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone: Molina 36.4%, Adams 33.1%, Craig 32.2%, Holliday 31.7%, Beltran 31.5%. All those swings at pitches outside the zone didn't hurt them. 

Pittsburgh Pirates, 94-68: The National League had a losing record (146-154) in interleague play last year. But don't blame the Pirates. Their 15-5 record was easily the best in the league. Chop that down to a more league-average 10-10 and the wild card play-in game that Pittsburgh hosted (and won) would've been in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Reds, 90-72: The role of the leadoff hitter is to get on base, and no team struggled with that more in 2012 than the Reds, whose leadoff hitters had a paltry .254 on base percentage that year. (That's not a ton better than their pitchers' .176). Then the Reds got Shin-Soo Choo via trade before last year, and they had by far the best leadoff OBP, .415, in the league, with Choo accounting for all but 96 of the team's leadoff plate appearances. Now Choo's in Texas, so who's going to lead off? Here are some bad answers: The guys who batted second for the Reds (.281, the worst OBP in that lineup slot), the guys who batted fifth (.307, 12th), and the guys who batted seventh (.298, tenth). 

Milwaukee Brewers, 74-88: The Brewers first basemen were remarkably terrible last year. How terrible? Their .629 OPS - compiled via a .206 batting average, .259 on base percentage, and .370 slugging percentage - was not only the worst among National League first basemen, it was worse than all but the Cubs second basemen, all but the Reds and Marlins catchers, and all but the Mets, Marlins, Cardinals, and Cubs shortstops. Put another way, the Brewers first basemen had an OPS 52 points lower than the average National League shortstop.

Chicago Cubs, 66-96: I pointed out in the Diamondbacks comment that a good record in one-run games (the Diamondbacks had the league's best last year) is no guarantee of continued success in tight games, as Arizona has gone from first to worst to first the past three years. There's hope in that for the Cubs, whose 20-33 record in one-run games last year was the league's worst. That would suggest the Cubs' one-run game performance, and thereby the team's overall record, should improve this year. On the other hand, the Cubs tied with the aforementioned Diamondbacks for the worst record in on-run games in 2012 as well, so maybe this is yet another Cubs curse. They have somehow managed to have a losing record in one-run games every year since 2008.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Things I Didn't Know: NL West

In coming weeks, you will have innumerable opportunities to read previews of the upcoming season. I dug through last year's results and came up with items for each team that you probably won't see in the previews but that I thought were interesting.

National League first, going left to right, so starting with the NL West.

Los Angeles Dodgers, 92-70: There were only four teams in the National League with winning records on the road. Of them, the Dodgers had the best record, 45-36, even though their overall record was only third best in the league. Often teams that play in idiosyncratic ballparks (Dodger Stadium is one of the league's more extreme pitchers' parks) have a hard time on the road. Not the Dodgers.

Arizona Diamondbacks, 81-81: The Diamondbacks had the best record in the league in one-run games, 34-21. Despite what you hear about that indicating tenaciousness, clutch ability, or a strong bullpen, a lot of it's luck. Arizona led the league in one-run wining percentage in 2011, with a 28-16 record. In 2012 they finished 13 games lower in the standings as their one-run game record cratered to 15-27. The best teams in one-run games in 2012 were the Reds (31-21) and Giants (30-20), who lost 7 and 18 more games in 2013, respectively. Winning one-run games is generally not a repeatable skill, so doing well at it one year often results in a slide in the next.

As an aside, remember the big trade before last season in which the Braves sent Martin Prado and four others to the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson? Everybody laughed that one off after Upton had a huge April, with a .298/.402/.734 slash line and 12 homers, while Prado struggled to .217/.266/.348. Well, for the rest of the season, Upton hit .256/.343/.409 while Prado hit .298/.348/.433. Take away April and Prado was the better hitter! But Johnson, who was viewed as almost a throw-in in accounts highlighting Prado and Upton, was as good or better: .321/.358/.457 for the season, tipping the trade, so far, in Atlanta's favor.

San Diego Padres, 76-86: San Diego had a disappointing team ERA of 3.98 last year. The league average was 3.74. It's tempting to blame that on Petco Park, as the fences were brought in last year and the Padres hurlers gave up 80 home runs compared to 62 the year before. But the problem wasn't Petco, it was the pitchers. Away from Petco, Padres pitchers had a 4.78 ERA, the worst in the NL. Petco's still a pitchers' park, and it helped mask the pitching staff's shortcomings.

San Francisco Giants, 76-86: Giants pitchers were fourth in the league in strikeouts with 1,256. Cain, Lincecum and others throwing heat? Hardly. The team threw fewer fastballs (four-seam and two-seam combined) in the league, 50% of pitches thrown, at the lowest average speed, 90.0 MPH. The Giants threw a ton of sliders, 26% of pitches thrown, easily the most in the league.

Colorado Rockies, 74-88: As I noted, there is evidence that the best pitches for Coors Field, the Rockies' hitter-favoring thin-air home park, are sliders and cut fastballs. The Rockies apparently didn't read the whole article I referenced. They threw 19% sliders, tied with the Brewers for the third most in the league, but only a little over 1% cutters. Then again, their only pitchers who used a cutter much were Chad Bettis (5.64 ERA), Jon Garland (5.82), and Jeff Francis (6.27), so maybe we need more evidence that the pitch can work at Coors. In the meantime, perhaps they should talk to the Giants' pitching coaches about slider proliferation.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Derek Jeter and Workplace Etiquette

The encomiums will be endless, and this isn't one of them. Rather, it's a cool story that Joe Sheehan threw out as an aside in his newsletter (which is fabulous and a subscription I recommend highly - you can get it here).

In 1994, the Yankees had the best record in the AL when the strike ended the season. In 1995, they were second to Boston but were the wild card team, losing to the Mariners. So hopes were high heading into 1996. But their switch-hitting shortstop, Tony Fernandez, broke his elbow in spring training. Management wanted 22-year-old rookie Derek Jeter, who had hit .306 with a .383 on base percentage in four minor league seasons, to play short. Principal owner George Steinbrenner, though, was unimpressed with Jeter during 15 games in New York in 1995, as he hit just .250 with a .294 on base percentage, striking out in over 21% of his plate appearances. Steinbrenner had his eyes on Mariners shortstop Felix Fermin, a slick fielder who had batted .317 in 1994 but had lost his job in 1995 to two future Yankees: Luis Sojo and rookie Alex Rodriguez. To get Fermin, Steinbrenner wanted to trade a 26-year-old Panamanian pitcher who'd struggled to a 5.51 ERA in his rookie season (a lot of rookies in this story), throwing 67 innings split between starting and relieving. The pitcher: Mariano Rivera

So to review: Steinbrenner wanted to trade Mariano Rivera for a shortstop coming off a .195 batting average in order to avoid playing Derek Jeter.

The moral of the story, of course, is that sometimes it's OK to talk your boss out of doing something really stupid.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Kiner's Korner Kloses

Ralph Kiner has died at age 91. People remember him as a longtime Mets TV announcer, but in his day, he was a devastating hitter.

Kiner played from 1946 to 1955, a fairly short career. Here are the leaders in various batting categories during those years:
    Home Runs                Runs Scored    
1. Ralph Kiner      369    1. Stan Musial    1,178
2. Stan Musial      289    2. Pee Wee Reese    978
3. Ted Williams     267    3. Ralph Kiner      971
4. Gil Hodges       239    4. Ted Williams     921
5. Hank Sauer       238    5. Jackie Robinson  886

    Runs Batted In           Slugging Percentage
1. Stan Musial    1,107    1. Ted Williams    .642
2. Del Ennis      1,029    2. Stan Musial     .595
3. Ralph Kiner    1,015    3. Duke Snider     .552
4. Ted Williams     955    4. Ralph Kiner     .548
5. Yogi Berra       898    5. Ted Kluszewski  .511

    On Base Percentage       On Base Plus Slugging
1. Ted Williams    .490    1. Ted Williams   1.131
2. Stan Musial     .431    2. Stan Musial    1.027
3. Ferris Fain     .424    3. Ralph Kiner     .946
4. Elmer Valo      .414    4. Duke Snider     .935
5. Jackie Robinson .411    5. Larry Doby      .892
6. Ralph Kiner     .398

In 1951, Kiner batted .309 and led the league in home runs, runs scored, walks, extra base hits, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and on base plus slugging. He was second in total bases and runs batted in. He finished tenth in the MVP vote. Among those ahead of him was his teammate, Murry Dickson, a pitcher who went 20-16 despite a worse-than-average ERA.

Why doesn't he get more recognition for being a great hitter? I think there are four reasons:
  1. He played at the same time as Ted Williams and Stan Musial. As you can see, they completely dominated the mid-40s to the mid-50s, even though Williams missed all but 43 games in 1952-53 when he served in the Korean War.
  2. As I noted, he played for only ten years. He was just 32 when back problems forced him into retirement.
  3. He didn't hit for a high batting average: .279 lifetime, over .300 only three times. People focus on batting average, even though, as I've shown, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and on base plus slugging are all truer measures of run generation.
  4. He played for some bad ball clubs. From 1946 to 1952, he was with the Pirates, who had one winning season during that span and a remarkable 42-112 record in 1952. In 1953 he was traded from the last-place Pirates to the second-to-last-place Cubs, who were 7th in 1954 as well. He ended his career with a good Indians team in 1955 that finished three behind the Yankees. He never played in the postseason.
He led the NL in homers every year from 1946 to 1952. Nobody's matched that streak. He hit 51 homers in 1947 and 54 in 1949, making him one of only five clean players to top 50 twice (Ruth, Griffey, Mantle, Mays).

As I said, people remember Kiner as a TV announcer. They should remember him as a great hitter as well.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Because the Mere Mention of Alex Rodriguez Inflates my Pageviews

I present this masterpiece from Notgraphs of He Who Gets Named All the Freakin Time's trip to the Dominican Republic last December.

Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, and Joe DiMaggio

There was apparently a football game the other day, and some people think the guy who played quarterback for the losing team choked. I know this because I heard on MLB Network Radio and saw on the internet comparisons between the quarterback and the ultimate post-season choker and all-around villain, Alex Rodriguez.

I don't pretend to know enough about the NFL to comment on whether Peyton Manning falls apart in big games. But as for baseball...In 75 postseason games, Alex Rodriguez has batted .263 with 13 homers. He has a .369 on base percentage and a .464 slugging percentage, giving him an .833 OPS (that's on base plus slugging). An .833 OPS is pretty good. It would have ranked 30th among what would be 141 batting title qualifiers in 2013, right between Yadier Molina (.836) and Carlos Santana (.832). And, of course, in the postseason, Rodgriguez faced better pitching than Molina and Santana did over the course of the season.

I was going to write something about how if Rodriguez is a choker, then Ty Cobb (.262/.315/.354, .668 OPS) and Ted Williams (.200/.333/.200, .533 OPS) were completely useless in the postseason. But it's not really fair to base that on 17 games (Cobb) or 7 games (Williams). So I decided to make a list of all players with 200 or more postseason plate appearances. Note: There is no good list of this, so I probably missed a few compiling it more or less by hand. That's OK. I'm sure I got most of them. I wound up with 51 players with 200 or more postseason plate appearances. 

Where do you think Rodriguez' .833 OPS ranked among the 51? Well, some guys are infielders like Omar Vizquel and Mark Lemke and David Eckstein who aren't really paid to hit, so maybe Rodriguez was 30th? Or 35th? I mean, he defines choke, right?

Nope. Eighteenth. He's nowhere near Carlos Beltran (1.128 OPS), Albert Pujols (1.046), or David Ortiz (.962). But he's ahead of most players. Ahead of almost two-thirds of them, to be precise.

Hall of Famers he's behind: Mickey Mantle (.908), Reggie Jackson (.885).

Hall of Famers he's ahead of: Rickey Henderson (.831), Roberto Alomar (.829), Yogi Berra (.811), Joe DiMaggio (.760), Frankie Frisch (.711), Joe Morgan (.671), Phil Rizzuto (.650).

Other Yankees he's behind: Hideki Matsui (.933), Bernie Williams (.850), Derek Jeter (.838). 

Other Yankees he's ahead of: Paul O'Neill (.828), Johnny Damon (.775, mostly not as a Yankee), Jorge Posada (.745), David Justice (.717, same comment as Damon), Scott Brosius (.696), Gil McDougald (.689), Robinson Cano (.686), Tino Martinez (.672), Chuck Knoblauch (.663).

As I said, I can't speak to Peyton Manning. But the whole Alex Rodriguez, Choke Artist thing has been totally overplayed. Unless we're prepared to call Paul O'Neill and Joe DiMaggio and Joe Morgan choke artists too. For that matter, give Rodriguez just one more single in the postseason, and he has a better OPS than Jeter. That could cause some heads to explode.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What's Going On With: Francisco Liriano

2011 27 MIN AL 9 10 .474 5.09 26 24 134.1 125 76 14 75 112 80 1.489
2012 28 TOT AL 6 12 .333 5.34 34 28 156.2 143 93 19 87 167 78 1.468
2013 29 PIT NL 16 8 .667 3.02 26 26 161.0 134 54 9 63 163 117 1.224
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/30/2014.

What's The Story? The Pirates plucked Francisco Liriano off the scrap heap. As you can see, he was a pretty bad pitcher in 2011 and 2012, compiling 5+ ERAs both years. ERA+, which measures ERA relative to the rest of the league, adjusted for home park, says he was 20% worse than average in 2011 and 22% worse in 2012, when he split time between the Twins and White Sox. Then he broke his right (non-pitching) arm in the off-season. The Pirates signed him for $1 million, and for that $1 million, they got one of the ten best left-handed starters in the National League. He went from being 22% below average to 17% above average, per ERA+. How did he do that?

If You Don't Want to Read All the Rest of This: He stopped throwing his fastball, which wasn't all that great a pitch anyway. As a result, he became a ground-ball machine in front of a Pirates defense that was one of the best in baseball at positioning themselves for balls hit on the ground. Fewer fly balls also meant fewer balls leaving the park. 

What's He Throwing?
Against Lefties:
Year   Fastball  Sinker    Slider   Change
2011      21%     39%       39%        0%
2012      20%     34%       46%        0%
2013       0%     53%       45%        2%

Against Righties:
Year   Fastball  Sinker    Slider   Change
2011      27%     22%       26%       25%
2012      23%     26%       29%       22%
2013       0%     38%       27%       35%

Year   Fastball  Sinker    Slider   Change
2011      25%     26%       29%       19%
2012      22%     28%       33%       17%
2013       0%     41%       37%       22%

"Francisco, he're's the deal. Your fastball sucks. Stop throwing it." Can you imagine the conversation that went on? OK, technically, a "fastball" is a four-seam fastball and "sinker" is a two-seam fastball. But still. The four-seamer is the key pitch in most pitchers' repertoires. He relied on his sinker a lot more and also threw more changeups. He threw more sliders overall but that's because he faced more left-handed batters.

What's Wrong With His Fastball?
Miles Per Hour:
Year   Fastball  Sinker    Slider   Change
2011     91.6     91.8      85.4     84.1
2012     92.9     92.9      85.6     85.7
2013              93.0      86.9     86.5
Well, I suppose that when your fastball and sinker have basically the same velocity, you might as well go with the pitch that has more movement. Everything was a little faster last year.

What He Gave Up:
2011             Whiff/                   HR/
Year      Swing% Swing% GB%   LD%   FB%  FB+LD
Fastball   21%    11%   34%   14%   38%    9%
Sinker     20%    12%   55%   15%   28%    7%
Slider     36%    43%   50%   14%   28%   11%
Change     32%    43%   57%   12%   27%    3%

2012             Whiff/                   HR/
Year      Swing% Swing% GB%   LD%   FB%  FB+LD
Fastball   33%     9%   35%   20%   43%   13%
Sinker     38%    18%   50%   21%   21%    2%
Slider     55%    43%   41%   19%   31%   10%
Change     43%    44%   49%    8%   38%   12%

2013             Whiff/                   HR/
Year      Swing% Swing% GB%   LD%   FB%  FB+LD
Sinker     36%    14%   52%   23%   23%    7%
Slider     50%    42%   52%   24%   29%    3%
Change     53%    35%   55%   30%   12%    0%
(see glossary at end for column definitions)

Three things stand out about that fastball: They didn't generate a lot of swings-and-misses (15%-20% less than the typical lefty), it's his only pitch that didn't get hit on the ground a lot, and when it was hit in the air, it went over the fence a fair amount.

Why Did He Make the Change? Recall this post, where I linked to an article from the Pittsburgh Tribune describing how the Pirates last season used data to shift their fielders around based on opposing hitters' tendencies. However:
Shifts are only as effective as the number of groundballs hit into them. The second prong of the Pirates' comprehensive run prevention strategy was tied to increasing their pitchers' groundball rates. Defensive change began on the mound. 
How do pitchers produce groundballs? They must throw effective two-seam fastballs.

Two-seam fastballs are sinkers. Fewer fastballs that produce fly balls, more sinkers that generate grounders. Liriano's change in repertoire was in keeping the Pirates' strategy. Among his teammates, A.J. Burnett threw 25% fastballs and 36% sinkers in 2012. Last year his split was 22%/37%. Jeff Locke hardly threw his sinker at all (7% of pitches) in 2012, he threw it 29% of the time last year. Charlie Morton threw his sinker a lot on 2012 (42% of pitches) but he threw it more last year (57%). Reliever Mark Melancon doesn't have a sinker, but he used his curve and cut fastball more, both of which produce grounders, while reducing his proportion of fastballs from 31% in 2012 to 7% in 2013. Liriano was just the most dramatic case.

What Does the Future Hold? Liriano was historically good against left-handed hitters last year. Among lefties with 25+ starts, he allowed the fifth-lowest batting average (.131), second-lowest on base percentage (.174), second-lowest slugging percentage (.142) and lowest OPS (.321) in history against left handed hitters. His slider was unhittable by lefties: in 79 at bats, he allowed four singles and a double and got 35 strikeouts. That won't last. On the other hand, his batting average on balls in play, often an indicator of luck, was .292 compared to a league average of .296. Only 4.6% of his fly balls left the park, compared to a league average of 7.1%, so he'll probably regress some there. A few more homers, less dominance against southpaws...still no reason to think he won't be a fine pitcher again in 2014.

(All data here from Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference.) 
Glossary: Swing% = percentage of pitches at which batters swung; Whiff/Swing% = percentage of swings that missed the ball; GB%, LD%, FB% are percentage of batted balls that are ground balls, line drives, and fly balls, respectively; HR/FB+LD = percentage of fly balls and line drives that are home runs