Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What's Bugging the Statheads About This World Series

Every postseason, it seems, engenders a de rigueur response from someone in the media about how one team or the other or the style of play or something infuriates the stats guys, sabermetricians, Moneyball crowd (my favorite term of disrespect, because it misses the point of the book, which is exploiting market inefficiencies, not statistical analysis), whatever. This year's Series brought out a larger-than-usual number of such columns, given that both teams don't hit a lot of home runs, strike out much, or draw a bunch of walks. The Giants were 17th, 17th, and 21st in the majors in home runs, strikeouts, and walks, respectively, while the Royals were famously last in all three categories, the first such team to make it to the Series. Add the Royals' penchant for stolen bases (153, first in the majors, 11% more than the second-ranked team) and sacrifice bunts to extend the narrative.

Not that any of this is really all that true. I mean, yes, the Royals were last in those categories during the regular season, but, as I pointed out after Kansas City won the ALCS, they made it to Series by hitting an above-average number of homers, walking at a much higher-than-average rate, and striking out about as frequently as everyone else. As for the speed, well, the Royals have attempted only five stolen bases in the ALCS and World Series, and were successful only twice, so the stolen base has been more a detriment than a weapon for them.

But there's one thing that both managers have done that's fair game for criticism from he analytic community: Sticking with their starters too long. The times through the order penalty (TTO) refers to what happens to starting pitchers each successive time they face the opposing team's lineup. The longer a pitcher goes, not only does he get tired, but the hitters get used to his delivery and timing, making it easier to make contact.

In 2014, for example, in batters' first plate appearance against a starting pitcher, they batted .246 with a .304 on base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage. They hit home runs in 2.3% of plate appearances, walked in 7.1%, and struck out in 21.1%.

In the second plate appearance, batters' slash line improved to .256/.313/.395. They homered in 2.3% of plate appearances, walked in 7.0%, struck out in 19.1%.

In the third plate appearance, the slash line was .268/.327/.421. Per plate appearance, batters homered 2.7% of the time, walked 7.4%, and struck out 17.7%.

The pattern is pretty clear: The more times a pitcher faces a batter, the more hits, home runs, and walks he gives up, and the fewer strikeouts he gets. 

This has played out in the Series:

  • In Game Two, the teams were tied at two runs apiece after five. The managers kept their pitchers in, even though both were facing batters for the third time. In the top of the sixth, Royals starter Yordano Ventura allowed two singles and was lifted. Reliever Kelvin Herrera put out the fire. In the bottom of the sixth, Giants starter Jake Peavy allowed a walk and single, was pulled, but both runners scored, and by the time the inning ended, the Giants were losing 7-2. Both starters ran into problems the third time through the order, though only the Giants were burned.
  • In Game Three, the Royals were up 1-0 after five. In the top of the sixth, Royals manager Ned Yost let starting Jeremy Guthrie bat, and he grounded out. Giants starter Tim Hudson then faced Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar for the third time. He singled, left fielder Alex Gordon doubled him home, and a groundout and a pitching change later, first baseman Eric Hosmer drove in Gordon. In the bottom of the inning, Yost's decision to let Guthrie bat came back to bite him, as Guthrie allowed a single and a double and then, facing center fielder Gregor Blanco for the third time, a walk. Again, the Royals bullpen put out the fire, as the Royals won 3-2. Again, both starters ran into problems the third time through the order.
  • Game Four was a blowout, with the Giants winning 11-4, but the Royals had a 4-2 lead going into the fifth inning. Starting the bottom of the fifth, facing Giants second baseman Joe Panik for the third time, Royals starter Jason Vargas gave up a double. Yost relieved him, so there wasn't much damage, though Panik came around to score in an inning which the Giants tied the game. Vargas gave up a third-time-through-the-order hit that at the time was costly.
I'm not including Games 1 and 5, because the Giants jumped to a first-inning 3-0 lead in the first game, and besides, Madison Bumgarner, who started both games for the Giants, has been invincible in the postseason (six starts, 1.13 ERA, 0.67 WHIP). He also has had a minimal TTO penalty this year, with batters compiling a .706 OPS against him in their first plate appearance, .603 in the second, .675 in the third. (The league average OPS in 2014 was .694.)

Tonight, the starters are Jake Peavy for the Giants and Yordano Ventura for the Royals. Here's how batters did against them in their starts this year:

First plate appearance258205912272363.229.290.372.6622.4%24.4%8.0%
Second plate appearance263285913181754.224.276.373.6482.8%18.9%5.9%
Third plate appearance220347117482240.323.387.545.9333.1%15.7%8.6%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/28/2014.

First plate appearance245115210312054.
Second plate appearance241336013182657.249.326.411.7373.0%21.1%9.6%
Third plate appearance18118485142042.265.340.370.7102.0%20.5%9.8%
Generated 10/28/2014.

Peavy has been pretty good through the first couple times through the order but he's collapsed the the third time through. That .933 OPS that he's allowed--well, Mike Trout, who will be the AL MVP, had a .939 OPS this year. Giants manager Bruce Bochy really shouldn't let him pitch after he's gone through the Royals lineup twice.

As for Ventura, he's been nails the first time through the order, but below average thereafter: the .725 OPS he's allowed the second and third time through the order compares to an AL average of .706.

Presumably, both pitchers will be on short leashes tonight, with the Giants one win from the championship and the Royals one loss from elimination. But if we see, say, Peavy come out in the sixth to face the Royals lineup a third time, clinging to a one- or two-run lead, we could see more sixth-inning fireworks (12 of the 42 runs scored this Series, nearly 30%, have come in the sixth inning, during which starters are typically facing the opponents' batters a third time), courtesy of a failure to understand the times through the order penalty.

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