Friday, May 8, 2015

The Precedent of 1984. No, Not That 1984

No book changed my life more than the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract. As a kid, I was a baseball fan and a numbers geek. The 1982 Abstract (1982 was the year of the first mass-published Abstract) was the first time I saw how closely the game and the numbers could work together. It deepened my love for the game, and that's stayed with me all these years.

One of the controversies that James addressed was the old saw that "baseball is 70% (or 80%, or whatever) pitching." In the Abstract (it might not have been 1982; cut me some slack, this was over 30 years ago), James analytically demonstrated that the actual number is a lot lower, like 50% or 45% or something. (I don't recall exactly. See the last parenthetical caveat.)

I don't remember the exact year nor the exact figure, but I do remember that it was really controversial. The traditionalists--and there were a lot more anti-stats types back then than there are now--jumped all over it, using it as evidence that James didn't know what he was talking about.

Then 1984 happened. It was like an episode of Laverne and Shirley, when they'd be talking about morons or losers or something and then Lenny and Squiqqy appeared. (This may be the first Laverne and Shirley analogy in a baseball blog.) If baseball's mostly pitching, then the better-pitching teams should be the most successful, right?

In 1984, a National League team led the league in ERA with 3.11. Overall, the team allowed 3.50 runs per game, also the lowest in the league. So the team clearly had pitching, which was viewed as the key to success. On the other hand, its offense was weak. The prior year, the team had been third in batting average, fifth in on base percentage, and fifth in slugging percentage. In 1984, those ranks fell to seventh, eleventh, and seventh.

OK, before continuing with 1984, let me point out a similar team: The 2015 Bucs. The 2014 Pirates were third in batting, second in on base percentage, and third in slugging. This year, even after yesterday's outburst, they're 13th in batting and on base and 14th in slugging. But the pitching's been stellar: third in ERA (just .02 behind the Mets), third in runs allowed per game. 

Now, if you buy that baseball is 80% or 70%, or something like that, pitching, then shouldn't a team that is a league leader in pitching also lead the league in wins? Well, the 2015 Pirates are 13-15. There are ten teams that have won more than 13 games, including just two (the Mets and Cardinals) with a superior ERA. The 2015 Pirates would seem to show that baseball isn't 70% pitching.

Anyway, back to 1984. Into the argument over whether the game's mostly pitching, a team, Lenny and Squiggy-like, walked into the argument leading the league in ERA with a below average offense. Did the pitching carry them? Certainly not. The team finished last in its division, 75-87, after finishing second the year before. The pitching staff was good, but the offense prevented victories. Good pitching, bad team. 

That team, in that season, vindicated James. The timing couldn't have been more opportune. Good pitching fell prey to bad hitting. The game couldn't be mostly pitching. Maybe, people thought, this analytical stuff can work.

That team, the 1984 club that finished last despite a league-leading pitching staff? The Pittsburgh Pirates.

I'm not going to torture the metaphor. The underperformers in 1984 included Dale Berra, Bill Madlock, Marvell Wynne, Doug Frobel, and Lee Mazzilli. The only one of that quintet who'd been a perennial All-Star was Madlock, who was coming off a batting championship. This year's batting slump is more surprising, given the caliber of the players slumping. And, of course, there's hope that last night's 7-2 win will prove to be a turning point (though any game in which Kevin Gregg, who's now allowed five runs to the Pirates in 1.1 innings, throws 34 pitches has to be viewed as a unique opportunity for batters). But there is a parallel, and it's that as good as the Pirates pitching staff's been this year, they need more at the plate in order to win. But you probably already knew that.

Next Up: St. Louis Cardinals

How Are They Doing Lately? You're kidding, right? The Cardinals are 21-7. That's the best record in baseball.

What's Going Right? Well, they're fourth in scoring, 4.50 runs per game, and they're allowed only 2.82 per game, which is a quarter of a run fewer than any other team in the league.

What's Going Wrong? Their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, is out for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon. They've hit only 19 homers, tied for the third fewest in the league. Not a lot more to complain about here.

Who's Hot? Other than a handful of guys listed in the next paragraph, sort of the whole team. Left fielder Matt Holiday leads the league with a .477 on base percentage, third baseman Matt Carpenter is fifth in slugging, and Michael Wacha and his 4-0 won-loss record is fourth in ERA. 

Who's Not? Right fielder Jayson Heyward has been the weakest offensive performer over the past 30 days: .230/.270/.320 slash line, but he's heated up as late. Yadier Molina's .264/.309/.322 isn't bad by the standards of contemporary catchers but a far cry from his .313/.361/.481 2011-13 peak. The two pitchers who've auditioned for the rotation spot vacated by Wanwright's injury, Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney, have an 8.10 ERA in their two starts, allowing 16 hits and walks in 6.2 innnings. 

What's The Outlook? The Cardinals are hot. They've won nine of their last ten, and they're 18-4 after a 3-3 start. They've got to cool down at some point, right? Too bad for the Pirates that they won't trade for Kevin Gregg.

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