Thursday, October 9, 2014

Your On The Field of Play Championship Series Primer

American League: Baltimore vs. Kansas City. Here's one of the more unlikely matchups. Before the season, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and ESPN all picked the Orioles to finish last in the American League East. (I had them in fourth.) BP and FanGraphs had the Royals in third in the American League Central, below .500, while ESPN had them second with 83 wins. (I had them in second, too, though with 89 wins, a totally lucky guess.)

Let's start with a couple striking similarities. By just about every advanced fielding metric, these two teams play the best defense in the American League. The Orioles have done it despite losing two top fielders to injury, catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado

They also have two of the best bullpens in the league. The Orioles' reliever ERA of 3.10 is third in the league, and the Royals' 3.30 is fifth. The Orioles have been helped by an unusually low batted average on balls in play, .274, second lowest in a league where the average is .292, while the Royals relievers have allowed home runs on only 7.5% of fly balls, lowest in the league compared to an average of 9.2%. So they've each been a little lucky. The Royals have blown only 12 saves all year, second lowest in the league, while Orioles led the league in Holds (save-qualifying leads preserved for another reliever) with 97. Their starters had virtually identical ERAs, 3.60 for Kansas City and 3.61 for Baltimore.

After defense and pitching, though, the teams diverge. The Orioles were first in the league in homers with 211, 34 more than the next-highest club. The Royals were last with 95, 16 lower than the next-lowest. The Orioles struck out in 21% of their plate appearances, the fifth highest in the league, but the Royals were the toughest team to fan in the league. The Orioles led the league in isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average, a measure of power) and the Royals were last. The Royals led the league in steals, handily, with 153 (31 more than the next highest). (As Rob Neyer pointed out, though, the Royals' two speedsters, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore, combined for zero runs scored during the Divisional Series. Zilch.) The Orioles were last in steals, handily, with 44 (19 fewer than the next lowest). The Orioles scored 48% of their runs on homers, first in the majors; the Royals got 25% of their runs via the long ball, last in the majors. When they made contact, Royals batters hit 47% ground balls, second most in the league, and 32% fly balls, second fewest. Orioles batters hit 37% fly balls, second most in the league, and 43% ground balls, fourth fewest.

Then there are the managers. The Orioles' Buck Showalter is widely viewed as a brilliant strategist as well as a great motivator. He's a near-certain choice for AL Manager of the Year. The Royals' Ned Yost...well, not so much.*

To me, Showalter vs. Yost favors the Orioles, as does the Orioles offense vs. the Royals offense. The starting staffs, on paper, look pretty even, though, as I mentioned in my Postseason Primer:
Overall, there's part of me that thinks that the Orioles have been doing it with mirrors: Starting rotation led by Chris TillmanWei-Yin ChenBud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez, 54-29 with a 3.44 ERA after a combined 109-104, 4.16 ERA in their prior seasons?

With the two bullpens, expect a lot of six-inning games. The average American League team won 87.5% of games it led after six innings this year. The Royals led the league with a 94.2% percentage, and the Orioles were third at 91.1%. (The Twins somehow snuck in ahead of the Orioles at 91.2%, though their pitchers had to protect 21 fewer leads after six than the Orioles.) Some may worry about the Orioles' dependence on the long ball, especially given that the Royals gave up the third fewest homers this year (128) and the second-lowest percentage of home runs on fly balls (8.2%), but I showed that relying on the home run doesn't harm a team in the postseason. So I'll give a nod to the Orioles bats and the guy in their dugout.

National League: St. Louis vs. San Francisco. I don't have as much to say here, for a simple reason: I don't get the San Francisco Giants. They lose to injury their best on base threat (Angel Pagan) and top slugger (Michael Morse) not named Buster Posey, and they win. (Morse has been activated for the Championship Series, though it's not clear whether he'll be limited to pinch hitting.) They pick up Jake Peavy and his 4.72 ERA from Boston at the trade deadline and he responds with a 2.17 ERA over 12 starts. In a four-game Divisional Series win, they hand the ball to Tim Hudson (8.72 ERA in September) for one start and Ryan Vogelsong (5.53 ERA in September) for another and they give up two runs over 13 innings. They have an OK bullpen (3.01 ERA, third in the league, though clearly helped by an unsustainably low .256 batting average on balls in play) and they put up a 2.33 ERA against the Nationals. I thought the Nationals-Giants series was the most one-sided going in. I sure got that wrong.

Then I compare them to a Cardinals team that was only tenth in the league in runs scored (the Giants were fifth), scored only 16 runs more than they allowed (51 for the Giants), and were 32-23 in one-run games during the regular season, an indicator of luck rather than skill (the Giants were 18-22). As in the other series, there's a manager question, with the Giants' Bruce Bochy, described in an article today as one of the best managers of all time, against St. Louis's Mike Matheny, who, among other things, is in only his third year piloting the Redbirds. 

Overall, I see more questions with the Giants than with the Cardinals. I also see a lot of familiarity: The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, and the Cardinals won in 2011 and lost in 2013. This will be the second straight Giants-Cardinals NLCS and the fifth straight year that one of the two teams will be the National League's representative in the World Series. By contrast, the Orioles haven't been to the ALCS since 1997 and the World Series since winning it in 1983. This'll be the Royals' first ALCS appearance since they won the World Series in 1985. Sentimentality will reside with the American League this year.

* You'll hear Yost is hated by the statsheads. There's some truth to that, as he doesn't really play the percentages, but the media gets the story wrong. They say the stats guys decry stolen bases. That's not right. Stolen bases make sense if the gains from steals outweigh the downside from getting caught. In order for that to be true, you have to be very good at stealing bases, and the Royals are, as their 81.0% success rate was second only the Yankees' 81.2% in the American League. And stolen bases make a lot more sense for a singles-and-doubles team like the Royals than a homer-centric team like the O's. (Side note: The Royals have run wild in the postseason, stealing seven bases in their wild card game and five more in the Divisional Series against the Angels. They got six of those wild card steals against Oakland catcher Derek Norris, who threw out 17% of baserunners attempting to steal this year. The steals against the Angels were with Chris Iannetta behind the plate. He threw out 30%. Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph threw out 40%, tied for the best percentage among catchers in over 50 games, so the Royals will have a harder time stealing on days Joseph's behind the plate.)

The second trait of Yost that gets cited a lot is bunting. Here's the problem with bunting: In 2014, of teams with a runner on first and no outs, they scored, on average, 0.81 runs per inning. Teams with a runner on second and one out--the desired outcome of a sacrifice bunt--scored, on average, 0.62 runs per inning. So a sacrifice with a runner on first and no outs reduces scoring by 0.19 runs per inning. Runner on second with no outs? A sacrifice reduces scoring by 0.15 runs. Runner on first with one out? Reduces scoring by 0.19 runs. First and second with no outs? Reduces scoring by 0.13 runs. Sacrifice bunts reduce runs scored. This isn't a theoretical construct. This is actual data from actual games.

Now, that's not to say that they're always bad. When there's a bad-hitting pitcher at the plate, sacrifice away. I was emailing last week with a friend who's an Angels fan. We were talking about the eighth inning of last Friday night's game, Royals and Angels tied 1-1. Angels outfielder C.J. Cron led off with a double, bringing up catcher Chris Iannetta. Iannetta didn't bunt, and instead flew out to center fielder Jarrod Dyson, who nailed pinch runner Collin Cowgill trying to advance to third for a double play. In that situation, a sacrifice to move Cowgill to third with one out would've decreased the expected runs scored in the inning for the Angels. But it would have slightly increased their chance of scoring scoring one run (probably all they'd need), and would have slightly increased their chance of winning as well. Basically, a sacrifice would have increased the chance of scoring one run but decreased the chance of scoring more than one. So a bunt in that situation, where just one run would've made a big difference, would've made sense (except that Ianetta apparently can't bunt).

The more controversial bunts are when position players bunt, particularly in early innings, when the goal is to score runs, plural, not just one run. And guess what? In 2014, Yost had the Royals position players lay down 30 bunts--tied for sixth in the league. You know who was fifth, with 32 position player bunts? Buck Showalter's Baltimore Orioles. The image of Ned Yost as a mad bunter, whether portrayed by the media or by statheads, really isn't true. (He went crazy in the wild card game, with four bunts, but had only one sacrifice in the three games against the Angels.)

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