Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Going For The Hat Trick

My latest Banished to the Pen article is here. In it, I talk about fastballs. If you've been watching the postseason at all, you know that the Mets have pitchers who throw the ball really, really hard. If you've been paying a lot of attention, you may have read that the Royals were arguably the most successful team in the majors this season at hitting the fastest pitches. As I point out, both those are true. However:

  1. The Royals were very successful at hitting pitches thrown 95+ mph, but less so with really, really fast pitches, based on work by mlb.com's Mike Petriello.
  2. The Royals pitching staff throws very hard as well, and the Mets hitters struggled against very fast pitches.
I conclude that while people may be overestimating the ability of the Royals to hit the pitches the Mets are likely to throw at them, they may also be underestimating the problems Mets hitters may have with Royals pitchers.

On that note, I'd like to point out my record for predicting this year's postseason series. Let's ignore the wild card games, because they were just one game each. (I got the Cubs right and the Astros wrong). Among the four Division Series games, I was 3-0 (correctly predicting Cubs over Cardinals, Royals over Astros, and Blue Jays over Rangers) if you exclude the Mets (whom I thought would fall to the Dodgers). In the Championship Series, I was 0-1 (play along with me here - I thought the Blue Jays would beat the Royals) if you exclude the Mets (whom I thought would lose to the Cubs). In other words, I was 3-1 if you exclude the Mets. That's not bad! But I got the Mets wrong twice, making me as good as a coin flip at 3-3. 

The point is, I'm going to try to keep the streak going. I'm going to pick the Royals in the World Series. I think their hitters will have more success against the Mets pitchers than people may think, and I think their pitchers will have more success against the Mets hitters than people may think. Specifically, as I pointed out in the article linked above, the Mets were one of the worst teams in baseball at hitting very fast fastballs, which the Royals throw a lot. Further, the Mets' hitters' tendency to hit fly balls (fifth most frequently in the majors) plays into the Royals' pitchers' tendency to yield fly balls third most frequently in the majors). Fly ball/ground ball tendencies are similar to rightly/lefty match-ups: Hitters tend to do better against the opposite type of pitchers. So the fly ball-hitting Mets should do better against a ground ball-yielding team (like, e.g, the Dodgers, who were second in the majors at yielding ground balls) than against the fly ball-yielding Royals, and the fly-ball yielding Royals should do better against the fly ball-hitting Mets than against a ground ball-hitting team (like, e.g., the Pirates, who were sixth in the majors at hitting ground calls). (Neither the Mets pitchers nor the Royals hitters had a pronounced fly ball/ground ball tendency, so there isn't a notable match-up when the Mets are pitching.)

That being said, my choice of Kansas City probably means that New York will win. You're welcome, Mets fans.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Your On the Field of Play Postseason Guide - Championship Series Edition

I batted .500 in the wild cards round, getting the Cubs over the Pirates but not the Astros over the Cubs. I did better in the Divisional Series round, correctly picking Toronto over Texas, Kansas City over Houston, and Chicago over St. Louis, missing New York over Los Angeles. (For those of you who listened to my Banished to the Pen podcast appearance, my pick of Toronto over Los Angeles in the World Series is already kaput.) 


The American League Division Series offered the possibility of interesting Championship Series matchups: Power vs. power Toronto/Houston. All-Lone Star State Texas/Houston. Instead, we've got what was probably the most likely outcome: The two teams with the best record in the American League. Both American League Division Series went the full five games, so the teams have equally depleted pitching staffs. Toronto will start Marco Estrada tonight, David Price tomorrow afternoon, and Marcus Stroman Monday night against the Royals' Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, and Johnny Cueto, respectively.

This series, like Kansas City's against Houston, features some contrasts in hitting, though fewer than in the Division Series. The Blue Jays led the league in home runs; the Royals were second to last. Toronto drew the most walks, Kansas City the fewest. But the Blue Jays don't pair strikeouts with power: They had the fourth lowest strikeout rate, though Kansas City had the lowest by far. As a result, while the Royals get kudos for making contact when they swing, their contact rate, second in the league, isn't dramatically higher than that of the Jays (seventh), and the Jays are less free-swinging, chasing the second lowest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone as the Royals chased the second highest

Both teams made big pitching acquisitions at the trade deadline, with the Royals adding Cueto and the Blue Jays getting Price. Since the All-Star break, Blue Jays pitchers allowed the lowest rate of hard contact on batted balls, the third highest rate of soft contact, and the lowest rate of home runs on fly balls. The Royals were seventh on all three measures. Over the full season, the Royals had the better bullpen, but the two teams' relievers were very close in the season's second half, with a 3.33 ERA for Kansas City and a 3.35 ERA for Toronto. Toronto's relievers struck out fewer batters but walked a lot fewer. 

Toronto got here by playing one of the most memorable playoff games ever in the deciding Game Five. Kansas City's Game Five win was much less exciting. But it's not a carryover of momentum or emotion or heart that's going to decide the series. It's talent, and from what I can see, the Blue Jays have more at the plate and in their starting rotation, with the Royals having better fielders and a better bullpen. I'll take the Blue Jays' plusses over the Royals'. Toronto in six.


There could be as many four dates on which there will be both ALCS and NLCS games: Saturday the 17th and Tuesday the 20th for sure, Wednesday the 21st and Saturday the 24th depending on how far the series go. Gee, which of the two games on those dates do you think will get the prime time slot: Kansas City (No. 31 media market in US) vs. Toronto (No. 1 in Canada, a nation with a population less than that of California), or Chicago (No. 3 in US) vs. New York (No. 1)? [UPDATE: I wrote that before MLB announced the official start times. I was 75% right. The Cubs-Mets game is prime time on October 17, October 20, and, if the ALCS goes to five games, October 21. It'll be the afternoon game on October 24, but only if the ALCS goes to seven games.]

These two teams are surprisingly similar. You think of the Cubs, and you think of young hitters, and you'd be right: per Baseball Reference, Cubs hitters are the second youngest in the league. You think of the Mets, and you think of young pitchers, and you'd be kind of right: Baseball Reference lists the Mets as the seventh youngest, but that's thrown off by the presence of 42-year-old Bartolo Colon; remove him and they're second or third youngest. But here are the similarities:

  • On offense, both teams are extreme fly ball hitters. The Cubs and Mets were 1-2 in the 15-team National League in percentage of batted balls that were fly balls, and 14-15 in the percentage of batted balls that were grounders.
  • When they hit the ball in the air, they left the park more than average: the Cubs were fourth in homers/fly balls, the Mets fifth.
  • They both refused to chase pitches outside the strike zone. The Mets swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside the zone, the Cubs the second lowest.
  • Batters had a hard time making contact against both pitching staffs: The Mets were 11th in contact rate, the Cubs 12th. And they kept fly balls in the yard, as Mets pitchers were tenth in homers/fly balls, the Cubs eleventh.
  • Both pitching staffs struck out a lot of batters, though, contrary to perception, the Cubs hurlers struck out more, with the highest strikeout rate in the league. The Mets were fifth. Both avoided bases on balls, as the Mets had the second lowest walk rate and the Cubs the fourth lowest.
  • Both teams' pitchers induced a lot of grounders, with the Cubs and Mets ranking sixth and seventh in percentage of batted balls hit on the ground.
There were some differences. The Cub hitters struck out more (first in the league) than the Mets (eighth), but they also walked more (second highest walk rate, the Mets were sixth). Mets pitchers were more fly ball prone, and Cubs pitchers more line drive prone.

I'm picking the Cubs in seven for three reasons. First, once you adjust for their respective home fields, the Cubs had a better pitching staff. Park-adjusted offense is a bit of a tossup (the Mets overall appear to be a bit better), but park-adjusted pitching isn't. Second, the Cubs's last game was on Tuesday, so their pitching staff will enter the NLCS pretty well rested, while the Mets won't have Jacob deGrom available until the third game of the series, and it's not clear when Noah Syndergaard, who pitched only one inning yesterday but warmed up multiple times, will be ready to go. Third, while both teams came on strong during the second half of the season, the Mets had a considerably easier schedule. Beginning July 28, the Mets played 63 games, going 39-24: Six against the Yankees and Pirates, against whom they went 1-5; nine against the Nationals, who were in meltdown mode; and 48 against teams that finished .500 or worse. The Cubs, over the same stretch, played better--45-19--against a much tougher schedule that included 19 games against teams that qualified for the postseason. As a result, Baseball Prospectus calculates the Cubs with 96 third order wins (based on run differential and quality of opponents) compared to 88 for the Mets. I expect a close series between two similar and evenly matched teams, but I think the Cubs are the better club.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Wild Card Game of Inches

This postseason has had no shortage of stories: Utley's slide, Gibbons leaving in Cecil to pitch to Napoli, the Royals' singles vs. the Astros' homers, Price in long relief in a blowout, Molina's thumb...yet to Pirates fans, we're on the outside looking in. We're still stuck on Jake Arrieta's shutout last Wednesday in the wild card game. During last night's Cubs-Cardinals game, a lot of Pirates followers must've said, as my wife did, while watching Arrieta surrender four runs on five hits and two walks in five and two-thirds innings, "Why couldn't he have pitched that way against the Pirates?" After all, he was unhittable against the Bucs: Complete game shutout, five hits and no walks, eleven strikeouts. The Pirates didn't have a chance.

Except...they sort of did. This article by Dave Cameron of FanGraphs is the best post-mortem I've read of the wild card game. It's not long, and it's a good read, but if you want to skip it, Cameron's point is that the Pirates did have a chance against Arrieta. In the sixth inning, Arrieta hit third baseman Josh Harrison. Sandwiched around Harrison's stroll to first, four Pirates batters absolutely smoked four batted balls. Each left their bats traveling over 100 miles per hour. Balls hit that hard are usually base hits, often for extra bases. But instead, the Pirates got:

Now, this wasn't all bad luck on the Pirates' part. Every one of the batted balls was hit on the ground or on a line drive. None of them were hit in the air, where they would've had a good chance of landing in the outfield for extra bases, or over the fence, and that's due at least in part to Arrieta's skill as a pitcher. But other than Snider, every one of the Pirates' screaming hits went right to a Cubs infielder--Polanco to third baseman Kris Bryant, who made a juggling catch on the fly, and McCutchen and Marte to shortstop Addison Russell, who couldn't handle McCutchen's shot but turned Marte's into an inning-ending twin killing. Let's say those balls were hit just a couple inches to the left or right of where they were. Snider singles up the middle. Polanco's rocket goes down the left field line, resulting in a double, runners on second and third. Harrison's hit, loading the bases. McCutchen singles to center, runners advancing a base, and Marte does the same. Now it's a 4-2 game with one out and the bases loaded. Or maybe Harrison scores on Marte's single, making it 4-3. One out, Cervelli and Walker due up. It would've been a different ballgame, and it turned on a four balls that were nailed, going right into fielders' gloves, instead of just out of their reach. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Parity Year

Here is my most recent FanGraphs piece. (It made The Best of FanGraphs list for last week!) It revisits the work I did in September on parity between the two leagues. At the time, I noted that the American League, perceived as being weak this year, in fact is overall better than the National League (as measured by interleague won-lost record). I attributed the perception of weakness to the near-record level of parity in the American League, with neither notably strong nor weak years. As measured by the standard deviation of wins, in fact, the American League in 2015 had, at the time, the highest level of parity in the 30-team (since 1998) era. 

With the regular season in the books, there are two conclusions. First, parity in the American League didn't turn out to be the highest of the 30-team era. It was the highest of all time. Here is a list of the standard deviation of wins, i.e., the "plus or minus x" amount in the phrase, "The average team had 81 wins, plus or minus x." Here's a list of the ten seasons with the lowest standard deviation of wins since 1901:

The American League this season was the most equal league in major league history.

Despite that parity, the American League clearly was the superior league, for the twelfth straight season:

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Let's Go Mets

In case you missed it, last night's Mets-Dodgers game was marred by a nasty play in the seventh inning. In a move that Pirates fans will find depressingly reminiscent of the season-ending injury to Bucs shortstop Jung Ho Kang, the Dodgers' Chase Utley, running from first on a ground ball, tried to break up a double play by barreling into Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, not starting his "slide" until he was nearly past second base, well to the right of the bag, breaking Tejada's leg. If you want to see the play, it's all over the Internet. I'm not going to link to it here. As the owner of precisely zero healthy knees, I tend to turn away when it comes to leg injuries.

Utley's slide--like that of the Cubs' Chris Coghlan into Kang--was fairly clearly legal under baseball rules. The question is whether it should be. People say, "it's part of baseball," but that's not a compelling justification. Hitting a baserunner with a thrown ball in order to put him out used to be part of baseball. Spitballs used to be part of baseball. Home plate collisions used to be part of baseball. Baseball's gotten rid of of these. The NCAA requires players to slide on the ground--not perform rolling blocks aimed at the fielder's knee--and only along a straight line between the bases (Coghlin was well to the outfield side of second when he hit Kang, Utley less so), and baseball's survived.

Several smart commentators--Grant Brisbee of SB Nation and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, to name two--already have pieces up calling for changing the rule on takeout slides. Such a rule change will undoubtedly lead to howls of protest. Remember that this is the same mindset that predicted myriad problems and threatened a boycott when the rules were changed to make players stop leaving their gloves on the field between innings. Tradition dies hard, but sometimes it really does need to die.

I really had no rooting interest in this series. After last night, though, let's go Mets.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Your On the Field of Play Postseason Guide - Division Series Round

Well, that was clever. Wrote the previews, then forget to publish them. These are a day old. Sorry.


Texas vs. Toronto: This series is viewed as the most lopsided among the Division Series, with Toronto heavily favored. I agree. Texas' big trading deadline acquisition, lefthanded starter Cole Hamels, will start in the second game on Friday and, if necessary, in the fifth game on Wednesday. However, the Blue Jays have the best record in the American League against lefties. They scored the most runs in the league (5.7 per game; the Rangers were a distant second at 5.1) and gave up the fewest (3.7; the Rangers were eighth at 4.6). I could see the Blue Jays sweeping this one. [Note: I wrote this before the Rangers won last night's game, 5-3. I still think the Jays will win the series. I'm assuming third baseman Josh Donaldson and right fielder Jose Bautista, who left Thursday's game with injuries, are healthy.] For a more comprehensive look at this series, see my Banished to the Pen colleague Barry Gilpin's preview here.

Houston vs. Kansas City: Another series with a clear favorite, as the Astros fell out of the American League West lead late in the season and struggled to qualify as a wild card, while the Royals had the best record in the American League. However, the Astros overall played better ball than their record indicated, based on the underlying statistics, while the Royals won five more games than their run production would predict. These two teams are a stark contrast: Houston hits home runs and strikes out in bunches, Kansas City batters led the league in contact and had the lowest strikeout rate, by far. Kansas City had a surprisingly weak rotation and a shutdown bullpen; Houston's rotation was solid, anchored by likely Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, and a bullpen that looked gassed down the stretch. I'm favoring the Royals in five because the Astros will get only one game from Keuchel and because the Royals pitchers were very effective against fly ball hitters, and no team hit a larger proportion of fly balls than the Astros. [Note: I wrote this before the Astros won last night's game, 5-2. I'm not feeling good about that prediction; if the Royals don't win today, it's going to be a real struggle for them.] For a more comprehensive look at the series, see my Banished to the Pen preview here.


Chicago vs. St. Louis: The Cardinals had the best record in baseball, but the Cubs had the third best. Like the Astros, the Cubs have a Cy Young candidate, Jake Arrieta, who was used in the wild card game and will thus be available in only Game 3 of this series. Unlike the Astros, who faded in the stretch, the Cubs had the best record in the National League in the second half of the year, scoring the second must runs in the league and allowing the third fewest since the All-Star break. The Cardinals are relying on a number of players coming off injuries who may or may not be at their best: catcher Yadier Molina, pitcher Adam Wainwright (who'll be available only out of the bullpen), and outfielders Randal Grichuk, Matt Holliday, and Stephen Piscotty. Pitcher Carlos Martinez is out with a shoulder injury and first baseman Matt Adams, recovering from a leg injury, is not on the Division Series roster. I pick the Cubs in four games. For more detail, see my Banished to the Pen preview here.

New York vs. Los Angeles: It's hard to imagine a New York vs. Los Angeles series not getting top billing, but the longtime Chicago/St. Louis rivalry and the Cubs' history (107 years since their last World Series championship) may take center stage. The story of this series will be pitching: the Mets' young guns vs. the Dodgers' two Cy Young contenders, lefty Clayton Kershaw and righty Zack Greinke. (The secondary story will be the Madoff-scammed financially constrained Mets vs. the more-money-than-God Dodgers.) Both teams had surprisingly good offenses (the Dodgers were seventh in scoring and the Mets eighth despite both playing in pitcher-friendly parks) and strong closers with OK-not-great middle relief. I'm taking the Dodgers in five games, as the Mets' record was juiced by playing in the very weak National League East (the club was 43-43 outside of their home division) while the Dodgers bullpen, a perennial weakness that helped torpedo their last playoff appearances, seemed to have found its footing after the All-Star break. For more detail, see my Banished to the Pen colleague Darius Austin's very thorough preview here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Fast Thoughts on Another Early Exit

Russell Martin led off the seventh inning on October 1, 2013 by hitting a home run on a full count against Cincinnati Reds reliever Logan Ondrusek. Do you remember the play? Me neither. But it was the last run scored by the Pirates in a wild card game. Since Martin's blast, the Pirates have gotten nine singles and one walk and no runs in 21 innings of wild card baseball.

  • I wish I'd have been wrong about my predication, but Jake Arrieta really is unstoppable. I think the Pirates would have had a shot if the wild card game were a series, but one game against Arrieta is unfair for anyone.
  • Yes, Arrieta could have defused the situation that precipitated the bench-clearing incident in the seventh by just taking his base, but come on, Tony Watson was totally in the wrong by hitting him with a pitch. Yes, Arrieta's pitch that sailed near Francisco Cervelli's head was scary. But does anyone really think it was anything other than an accident? This macho "gotta protect my teammates" nonsense is what put Andrew McCutchen on the disabled list a year ago. I've said it before: Someday, baseball is going to have another Ray Chapman moment, and it's going to make all this eye-for-an-eye retaliation crap involving throwing hard objects at 90+ mph seem really, really irresponsible and stupid.
  • You hear a lot about the importance of games in September during the pennant drive. Well, the baseball season's 162 games long, and each game's important. As I pointed out on Sunday, the Pirates would have won the division had they played as well against the Brewers and Reds as did everybody else. The Pirates opened the season by dropping three straight in Cincinnati. They lost three in a row in Milwaukee right after the All-Star break. Had either of those April or July series been reversed, the Pirates would be secretly happy that they'd have to face Arrieta only once in the Divisional Series against the Cubs, which would open Friday night at PNC Park. Every game matters.
  • We've got the whole offseason to think about this, but the Pirates have some decisions to make. Aramis Ramirez and A.J. Burnett are retiring. J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo, and Sean Rodriguez will be free agents. Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Mark Melancon, Chris Stewart, and Cervelli are entering their final year of arbitration after decent to very good seasons, meaning they're going to cost the Pirates a lot more money and will be eligible for free agency after next season. Other arbitration-eligible players include Watson, Jared Hughes, Jordy Mercer, and Jeff Locke. Economics may force roster changes.
  • Pirates won't be winning any awards this year. McCutchen will probably be in the top five, maybe the top three, for MVP, but Washington's Bryce Harper locked that down months ago. Gerrit Cole had a great season, but Arrieta and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke were on a higher plane than anybody and will split the Cy Young vote. Jung Ho Kang was not going to win the Rookie of the Year even before he got hurt--the Cubs' Kris Bryant will get it--but he ought to be in the top three. Clint Hurdle managed the Pirates to the third most wins in franchise history, but the Mets' Terry Collins and the Cubs' Joe Maddon guided perennial losing teams to the postseason; Maddon looks to be Manager of the Year.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Your On the Field of Play Postseason Guide - Wild Card Round

We'll do this one playoff round at a time. As Gregg Easterbrook would say (before he signed with the NY Times and became much more boring), All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back.

American League Wild Card Game: Astros at Yankees. It's pretty ridiculous to try to predict the result of a short series. Say there are two teams, A, and B. They play 100 games against each other. A wins 60, B wins 40. In terms of won-lost percentage, that's roughly the Pirates playing the Braves. If you do the math, you'll see that the inferior team take a seven-game series 29% of the time. It'll win a best-of-five series 32% of the time. And, of course, it'll win one game 40% of the time. For closely-matched teams, the difference is negligible. And that's over five or seven games. The fewer games, the greater the variance. A one-game play-in? That's why Joe Sheehan calls the wild card the "coin flip game."

Anyway, the American League Wild Card game will have the Yankees hosting the Astros. Neither have exactly covered themselves in glory of late, as the Yankees lost six of their last seven games, going 10-16 since September 7. The Astros are 13-17 since the end of August. Both teams were in first place, the Astros as recently as September 14 and the Yankees on August 24, before losing their leads. But, as Rob Neyer recently pointed out, there is little evidence that performance at the end of the year has a bearing on postseason performance, and I found the same last year. So let's look at Tuesday's game without the baggage of recent play.

When you consider a postseason series, you evaluate each team's pitching, hitting, and defense as a whole. In a one-game play-in, though, one player--the starting pitcher--plays an outsized role. Last year, the Giants eliminated the Pirates because Giants starter Madison Bumgarner had a very good game (four hit, ten strikeout complete game shutout) and Pirates starter Edinson Volquez didn't (five runs allowed in five innings). That's not always the case--last year's crazy Royals-Athletics wild card game came down to bullpens and baserunning--but in one game, one starting pitcher can dictate the outcome.

The Yankees will go with Masahiro Tanaka. He got lit up (six runs in five innings) in his one career start against the Astros, on June 27 against in Houston, but you can't draw any conclusions from one start. He has the lowest ERA in the team's rotation (3.51; rookie Luis Severino's is 2.89 only 62 innings). He had a 3.22 ERA in April, was shut down in May, 4.35 in June, 3.67 in July, 3.18 in August, and 3.06 in September, during which he sandwiched three very strong starts (21 strikeouts, one walk, 15 hits in 21 innings, 1.29 ERA) around two bad ones (eight strikeouts, two walks, 11 hits in 11.1 innings, 6.35 ERA). One worrisome trait: He allowed 1.46 home runs per nine innings, the fourth highest rate in the league for pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, which isn't ideal against an Astros team that hit 230 home runs this year, second only to the Blue Jays' 232.

The Astros are going to start Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel had a fantastic season. He led the American League in wins (20), WHIP (1.017), innings (232), and ERA adjusted for home park (62% better than average). He was second in ERA (2.48), home runs per nine innings (0.7), and hits allowed per nine innings (7.2). He was fifth in strikeout/walk ratio, tied for fifth in strikeout (216), and tenth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.4). He'll probably win the Cy Young Award, and if he doesn't, he'll almost certainly finish second. On paper, Tanaka can't compare to him. But there are two problems with Keuchel against the Yankees:

  • He had a crazy home/road split: 15-0, 1.46 ERA, .474 OPS allowed at home; 5-8, 3.77 ERA, .698 OPS allowed on the road. He'll be pitching on the road. (In fairness, his one start this year at Yankee Stadium was fantastic: seven innings, three hits, no walks, no runs, nine strikeouts.)
  • He pitched six innings, throwing 99 pitches in Friday's 21-5 Houston victory over Arizona. That means he'll start Tuesday's game on three days rest. He's never done that as a starter. This article, by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, explains that the history of starters pitching on short rest in the postseason is not good.

If Keuchel falters, Houston's game will be in the hands of its relievers. The Astros have a better bullpen ERA, but that's misleading. New York has two of the best relievers in baseball, Dellin Betances (1.50 ERA, struck out 39% of the batters he faced) and Andrew Miller (1.90 ERA, struck out 41% of the batters he faced). In a close game, those two, and perhaps former Pirate Justin Wilson (3.10 ERA) are all that opponents will face. The rest of the bullpen's 4.72 ERA shouldn't be a factor in a close game. The Astros, whose 3.27 bullpen ERA was better than the Yankees' 3.70, have more evenly distributed quality arms but don't have anyone to match the Yankees' top two, arguably top three.

On offense, the teams have similarities. The Yankees were eighth in the league in batting average, the Astros were eleventh. The Yankees were sixth in on base percentage, the Astros were eighth. The Yankees were third in slugging percentage, the Astros were second. The Astros, as noted, were second in the league in home runs, and the Yankees were fourth. They can each draw walks; New York was second in walk rate, Houston fifth. They both like to hit the ball in the air; the Astros and Yankees were 1-2 in fly ball rate and 15-14 in ground ball rate. They had some differences: The Astros led the league in stolen bases with 121 while the Yankees were third to last with 63, and the Astros led the league in strikeout rate while the Yankees were ninth. But overall, the offenses are similar. 

It's worth mentioning that the Astros have the youngest team in the league at the plate (average age, per Baseball Reference, 26.6 years) while the Yankees have the oldest (31.1). But the Yankees have the third-youngest pitching staff (27.4) and the Astros the second-oldest (29.4). I can't see how that's relevant in a one-game play-in, though, unless the game lasts, I don't know, four or five years.

The Yankees finished the year with a 45-36 record at home, the seventh best in the league, and were 42-39 on the road, one of only four American League teams with a winning record on the road. The Astros somewhat famously tied Toronto for the best home record in the league, 53-28, but their road record of 33-48 was second worst in the league and enough, in my view, to make them the underdogs Tuesday night. Keuchel on short rest and the Yankee bullpen are additional reasons to favor the home team.

National League Wild Card Game: Cubs at Pirates. Listen, and understand! Jake Arietta is out there! He can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Two Lousy Clubs That Messed Up the Pirates' Season

The Pirates finished the year with a 98-64 record, the second best in all of baseball. That ties them with the 1979 and 1908 clubs for the third most wins in franchise history. (The 1909 Pirates won 110 and the 1902 club won 103.) The Pirates' record, however, included a losing record against two of the worst teams in the game, the Cincinnati Reds (8-11) and the Milwaukee Brewers (9-10).

Let's break that down. In games in which the Reds didn't play the Pirates, they were 53-90. In games in which the Brewers didn't play the Pirates, they were 58-85. So in their non-Pirates games, the two clubs combined for a 111-175 record, a .388 winning percentage. Had they played at that pace in their 38 games against the Pirates, they would have won .388 x 38 games = 15 games, losing 23. Turned around, the Pirates would have gone 23-15 against the Reds and Brewers.

The Pirates were 81-43 in their games that weren't against Cincinnati or Milwaukee. Had they gone 23-15 against the two clubs--that, is had they been as successful as the rest of the teams in the majors were--their record would have been 104-58. That would have given the Pirates the best record in baseball. They would be enjoying four off days, looking forward to Wednesday's wild card game between the Cardinals and Cubs to see whom they'd face at home to kick off the Division Series on Friday.

Trailing 30 - And That's a Wrap

Here is an explanation of this weekly feature, listing the best and worst of past 30 days, made possible by FanGraphs' Leaders application. Comment for the week: Predictions for September Players of the Month: David Ortiz in the American League, Bryce Harper in the National League. Pitchers of the Month: David Price in the American League and (of course) Jake Arrieta in the National League.

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Los Angeles     18-10     1. Chicago         21- 8
2. Boston          17-11     2. Pittsburgh      18-11    
   Toronto         17-11     3. Miami           16-11         
4. Texas           17-12     4. Los Angeles     16-12   
5. Bal, Cle        16-12     5. San Francisco   15-12        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Oakland         10-17     1. Cincinnati       9-20      
2. Kansas City     12-16     2. Philadelphia     9-18 
3. Detroit         12-15        San Diego        9-18      
   Seattle         12-15     4. Milwaukee       10-18
5. New York        13-16     5. Atlanta         11-15

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Choo, Tex        .385     1. Prado, Mia       .350  
2. Betts, Bos       .375     2. Yelich, Mia      .349      
3. Eaton, Chi       .363     3. Gordon, Mia      .342           
4. Pillar, Tor      .358     4. Harper, Was      .330          
5. Beltre, Tex      .339        Inciarte, Ari    .330       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. McCann, NY       .179     1. Ramos, Was       .145         
2. Headley, NY      .186     2. Owings, Ari      .150       
3. Bradley, Bos     .187     3. Utley, LA        .182
4. Castillo, Bos    .198     4. Taylor, Was      .193           
5. Dozier, Min      .200     5. LeMahieu, Col    .202      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Choo, Tex        .489     1. Votto, Cin       .466           
2. Betts, Bos       .444     2. Harper, Was      .451         
3. Davis, Bal       .443     3. Prado, Mia       .419         
4. Encarnacion, Tor .435     4. Granderson, NY   .417         
5. Eaton, Chi       .429     5. Goldschmidt, Ari .413      
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Ortiz, Bos       .716     1. Harper, Was      .758        
2. Rasmus, Hou      .658     2. Carpenter, SL    .706   
3. Trout, LA        .653     3. Arenado, Col     .607       
4. Encarnacion, Tor .652     4. Davis, Mil       .606       
5. Bautista, Tor    .632     5. Cespedes, NY     .602        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Bautista, Tor       9     1. Harper, Was        11
   Encarnacion, Tor    9     2. Davis, Mil         10        
   Machado, Bal        9     3. Arenado, Col        8
4. 4 with              8        Bour, Mia           8
                                Carpenter, SL       8

   Runs                         Runs    
1. Choo, Tex          26     1. Harper, Was        22        
2. Betts, Bos         25     2. Carpenter, SL      21     
3. Bogaerts, Bos      23        Yelich, Mia        21
4. Davis, Bal         21     4. 3 with             20
   Machado, Bal       21                             

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Beltre, Tex        33     1. Arenado, Col       28        
2. Ortiz, Bos         26     2. Bour, Mia          24      
3. Bautista, Tor      25     3. Castro, Chi        21       
4. 3 with             23     4. Harper, Was        20
                                Rizzo, Chi         20
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Andrus, Tex         9     1. Gordon, Mia        11
2. Pillar, Tor         8     2. Blackmon, Col       6     
3. Lindor, Cle         6        Inciarte, Ari       6   
   Marisnick, Hou      6        Pagan, SF           6
5. 4 with              5     5. 2 with              5
   Saves                        Saves
1. Street, LA          9     1. Ramos, Mia          9
2. Boxberger, TB       8     2. Jansen, LA          8
3. Miller, NY          7        Melancon, Pit       8
   Tolleson, Tex       7     4. Axford, Col         7
5. 4 with              6        Casilla, SF         7

   ERA                          ERA
1. Anderson, Cle    1.09     1. Arrieta, Chi     0.39
2. Quintana, Chi    1.50     2. Strasburg, Was   1.24
3. Hill, Bos        1.55     3. Teheran, Atl     1.62
4. Santana, Min     1.88     4. Lackey, SL       1.78
5. Duffey, Min      1.95     5. Peavy, SF        1.96

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Doubront, Oak    8.04     1. Heston, SF       6.04
2. Brooks, Oak      7.76     2. Nicolino, Mia    5.40
3. Holland, Tex     6.19     3. Cashner, SD      5.34
4. Cueto, KC        6.14        Zimmermann, Was  5.34
5. Archer, TB       5.81     5. Leake, SF        4.85

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Hill, Bos        0.66     1. Arrieta, Chi     0.57
2. Dickey, Tor      0.85     2. Strasburg, Was   0.72
3. Tomlin, Cle      0.89     3. Scherzer, Was    0.76
4. Estrada, Tor     0.91     4. Lester, Chi      0.786
5. Quintana, Chi    0.97     5. Peavy, SF        0.791

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Carrasco, Cle      43     1. Scherzer, Was      57     
   Keuchel, Hou       43        Strasburg, Was     57
3. Richards, LA       40     3. Arrieta, Chi       46
4. Ventura, KC        38     4. Kershaw, LA        43
   Verlander, Det     38     5. Gonzalez, Was      42

Friday, October 2, 2015

Next Up: The Suddenly Competitive Cincinnati Reds

Not for anything good, mind you. Here are the teams with the eight worst records in the majors as of the All-Star break: 
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 29 62 .319  --
Milwaukee    38 52 .422  9.5
Miami        38 51 .427 10
Colorado     39 49 .443 11.5
Oakland      41 50 .451 12
Cincinnati   39 47 .453 12.5
San Diego    41 49 .456 12.5
Seattle      41 48 .461 13

Here's where it was at the start of September:
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 52 80 .394  --
Miami        53 79 .402  1
Colorado     53 76 .411  2.5
Atlanta      54 77 .412  2.5
Cincinnati   54 76 .415  3
Milwaukee    55 75 .423  4
Oakland      58 74 .439  6
Seattle      61 71 .462  9

And today:
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 62 97 .390  --
Cincinnati   63 96 .396  1
Atlanta      64 95 .403  2
Colorado     66 93 .415  4
Oakland      66 93 .415  4
Milwaukee    68 91 .428  6
Miami        69 90 .434  7
Detroit      73 85 .462 11.5

Why's this relevant? Well, the worst record earns you the No. 1 pick in next summer's amateur draft. That's valuable. First picks, historically, do considerably better than other picks, even No. 2. So the difference between being the worst and the second-worst is significant. Cincinnati's been making an impressive drive for the that top draft choice! (And what in the world have the Marlins been thinking?)

How Are They Doing Lately? When a team moves up in the ranks of the worst teams in baseball, it's not because they're doing well. The Reds have lost 12 in a row going into the season-ending weekend series at PNC Park. The 1993 Reds also lost 12 straight, and the team could tie the 1930 and 1945 Reds with 13 straight losses tonight. (The all-time franchise record of 19 straight losses, set in 1914, is out of reach.) Unsurprisingly, Cincinnati has the worst record in the league over the last 30 days, 9-19. They've scored 4.0 runs per game, .001 runs per game more than the fourth-worst Cardinals, while giving up 5.6 runs per game, easily the most in the league, over a half a run more than the next-worst Braves.

What's Going Right? I've mentioned this a number of times, but two pitching figures that can reflect luck are batting average on balls in play and percentage of baserunners stranded. Most players and teams tend toward the league averages (.299 batting average on balls in play and 73% strand rate in the National League over the past 30 days). The Reds have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play and the stranded the lowest percentage of baserunners over the past 30 days, indicating they've probably been a little unlucky. 

What's Going Wrong? Over the past 30 days, the Reds are eleventh in the league in batting (.248), 13th in on base percentage (.308), and 13th in slugging (.388). They've struck out the fourth most frequently and walked the fourth most infrequently. They've had the second lowest rate of hard contact in the league. And the pitching has completely melted down; the bullpen ERA of 4.70 is the third worst in the league over the past 30 days, and the starters' 5.82 ERA is the second worst. 

Who's Hot? Joey Votto is closing out a sensational season, batting .329 with a .487 on base percentage and .482 slugging percentage over the past 30 days. He's got a .547 on base percentage in the second half of the season. The only players who've bested that over half a season are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds. Second baseman Brandon Phillips (.317/.336/.433 slash line) is also winding up a strong second half; his .759 OPS trails only the Mets' Daniel Murphy (.824) and the Pirates' Neil Walker (.762) among regular second basemen in the National League since the All-Star break. Closer Aroldis Chapman, in limited save opportunities, has a 0.93 ERA and 16 strikeouts and just four hits allowed in 9.2 innings, covering the last 30 days.

Who's Not? No Reds starter has an ERA lower than 4.73 over the past 30 days, including the weekend's starters, Keyvius Sampson (6.52), Brandon Finnegan (6.00), and Josh Smith (7.07). The weakest bats over the past 30 days have been those of left/center fielder Jason Bourgeois (.237/.297/.335), utility man Ivan DeJesus (.222/.246/.370) and catcher Tucker Barnhart (.179/.238/.196).

What's the Outlook? The Pirates can't completely coast. Their magic number over the Cubs for home field in Wednesday's wild card play-in game is two, meaning they need a combination of two victories over the Reds and/or Brewers victories over the Cubs over the weekend to put the game in PNC Park. But we should expect to see some position players get time off. As for the Reds, they have to hope the Phillies can extend their four-game winning streak at home against the Marlins, opening the door for Cincinnati to nab the top draft pick next summer.