If you’ve heard this part or if you just don’t feel like engaging in foreplay, skip ahead. I won’t be upset.
Over the offseason the Padres traded Logan Forsythe, infielder Maxx Tissenbaum and pitchers Matt Andriese, Brad Boxberger and Matt Lollis to Tampa Bay for Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn. Basically, a bunch of spare parts for a good lefty reliever and somewhat of an unknown.
Hahn’s “question mark” status stems from his needing Tommy John surgery in 2010, very shortly after being drafted out of high school, then recovering in 2011, and then not really logging a ton of innings since then. But he started to look pretty sharp last year in limited action.
Now, Torres wears the big funny hat, but since making his MLB Debut on June 3 against the Pirates, Hahn has made the deal look a lot sweeter for the Padres. But more importantly, Jesse Hahn has exposed something interesting about the way the game changes and how going against the current of change can be incredibly useful.
Hahn spots the fastball, sitting at 91, but his curveball stands out when you watch him. It’s an old-school, slow twelve-to-sixer, and it certainly passes the eyeball test as being utterly filthy, inducing a lot of bad looking swings… and misses.
But that’s not all. His change-up, which sits at 83mph, has been extremely effective as well. In order to quantify this, I’ll turn to Fangraphs. They keep track of a metric called wCH/C. In basic terms, this is a park, luck and league adjusted measure of the value of a given change-up expressed in runs above average, per 100 times thrown.
Hahn’s wCH/C of 4.16 would put him well ahead of any qualified starter (if he were one himself), dancing past Felix Hernandez’s 2.83 mark this season. (R.A. Dickey actually leads the league per Fangraphs, but I have my suspicions about how mis-categorization of his pitches might be influencing that result, so I skipped down to Hernandez.)
This extraordinary compliment of off-speed stuff has Hahn striking out 8.6 batters per nine, and has propelled him to a 2.28 ERA, which is slightly outperforming his xFIP (3.39), largely due to a low BABIP (.233) and a high strand rate (80%). But that curveball though!
Watching Jesse Hahn’s curveball is fun, and it sent my mind racing one night. It was as if suddenly all the dots connected.
There is a trend in MLB toward pitches which involve maximum arm speed. That basic package is a 93mph fastball, a hard breaking ball and a change-up. The key to throwing a good slider or changeup? Max arm speed. The split finger is thrown this way as well. I believe this could be giving Jesse Hahn’s curveball an added advantage in two ways.
First, hitters may be less concerned with arm speed. If everything a hitter sees features max arm speed, a hitter can no longer use the speed of the arm to judge what pitch is being thrown, so why should he pay attention to it? If it is increasingly unnecessary for hitters to judge arm speed, this would mean the slower arm Hahn uses to throw his curveball is not being noticed as a dead giveaway like it might have been to hitters in previous eras.
Second, batters are used to a harder breaking ball with a more side-to-side break, as compared with the top-to-bottom shape of Hahn’s offering. The data backs this up:
We can see here that the use of the curve has curtailed since PITCHf/x data started being collected in 2007. We can also see that the curve that is being thrown, is coming in faster, and that the shape of Hahn’s curve is not only markedly more pronounced than the average curveball, it’s even further removed from the shape of the slider, which is the predominant breaker around the league today. Another differentiating factor is that Hahn’s curve averages 74.3mph, as compared with the 77.3mph curveball of the league at large.
The Take Away
All this is to say that Jesse Hahn has a freakish hook, a dandy Charlie, and he locates it well too, but the fact that it’s also different probably contributes to why it’s so effective. Hahn’s curve helps to illustrate the fact that running the opposite direction of a trend can lead to great things. After that thought occurred to me, I watched a start by Odrisamer Despaigne, who is really a complete throwback to the starters I watched as a kid in 1992. I watched him in a different light and I really enjoyed it. Jesse Hahn’s curveball bent the lens through which I watch baseball and I am richer for it.
Even with this season’s weak free agent class, there were deals to be found for the rotation in need of an excellent arm. Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren and Shawn Marcum were probably the best high-upside bargains. While Marcum is still out there, Washington was able to snag Haren on a one-year “prove-it” deal worth $13MM, and McCarthy signed a back-loaded two year pact worth $15.5MM, heading to Arizona. With options dwindling it seems increasingly likely that teams looking to improve for less dough will have to part with more than money by exploring upgrades via trade.
One of the worst players on the block market is Ubaldo Jimenez. Many fans may remember him from his electric first half in 2010. But he is no longer that pitcher. Though just 28 years old, the right-hander’s skills are fading rapidly. In 2012 he was one of just three starters to throw 175 innings or more, and still produce less than .5 WAR.
Heater in Trouble
Ubaldo Jimenez’s average fastaball velocity was the highest among starting pitchers from 2008-2010, peaking at 96 mph. That was in 2009. Last season, his heater clocked a tic below Jeremy Guthrie’s at 92.5 mph. The Major League average was 91.8 mph. In terms of pitch values, Ubaldo’s fastball was 18 runs worse than average last year. What happens when a fireballer loses his fireball?
For Jimenez, it has meant doubling the use of his change-up (18% of the time), and adding a splitter in 2010. He has also relied more heavily on a two seam fastball (its slower avg velocity does not count against that of the four seamers). But the effort to shift away from his most troubled offering has not paid off.
The Deeper Problem
Felix Hernandez was tops with an average fastball velocity of 96 mph in 2007. Last season, his heater averaged 92.4 mph. But Felix hasn’t struggled through his velocity dip. What is different about Jimenez?
Hernandez has great control and terrific secondary stuff. Over time, Ubaldo’s slider has lost depth, and hitters have become more selective against him, while he has become more erratic. In 2008, Jimenez’ slowest pitch was 20 mph behind his fastball. That differential shrunk to 15 mph in 2012. The real setback has been an inability to keep the ball on the ground.
To have your splitter produce groundballs just 35.6% of the time, which Ubaldo accomplished last season, is a special feat on its own. But his fastball and slider each produced ground balls at a rate below 30%, something none of his pitches had done before 2012. The collapse of his GB%, and rising BB/9, along with the fact that hitters no longer have to worry about the steep differential between his pitch velocities, have combined to destroy a pitcher who seemed headed for stardom.
If your team trades for Ubaldo, hope the Indians pay that salary and that you only have to give up a fringe prospect or a spare part to get him. While certainly not disastrous (because of the low projected cost of completing a swap), any deal for Jimenez will be a waste of time.
The Bright Side
Maybe time travel will become commercially available at some point during the 2013 season, and a lucky GM can go grab 25-year old Ubaldo Jimenez, passing him off as the late model for long enough to make a push for the post season. Personally, I’ll be going back for a 19 year old Satchel Paige, but I’m a little old fashioned.
*All amazing stats by amazing Fangraphs
Petco Park is finally going be altered. Total balance between offense and pitching is not the goal of this effort. Petco will always be tilted in a pitcher’s favor due to the lack of elevation and the cold, moist air of the bay off it’s concourse. The goal of initiating a construction project on the field in San Diego is to balance offense overall, and to balance offensive output between right handed and left handed batters. A nice side effect of any such maneuver is that Petco will no longer be such an extreme environment. Let’s take a look at the new dimensions and how they would have effected last year’s offensive numbers.
With the modifications, the fence in right field will extend from what was the middle notch of the short porch and run all the way to the alley in right center. This takes rightfield in by 11 feet at the end of the porch, 14 feet in straightaway right, and 20 feet in the alley. Not to mention the fence will no longer be the ridiculous behemoth it once was. The out of town scoreboard will be relocated, though it’s future home has not yet been revealed. A seemingly more visually subtle change in left center will actually impact offense almost as much as the changes in right. You can see that fence will be bumped forward by 12 feet in the gap. The visitors bullpen will be moved behind the Padres bullpen, behind the wall, to the left of center. This removes a long lamented hazard from the field of play.
To study the possible effect of the new dimensions of the park, we need to look at batted ball data in the form of spray charts.
I wanted to find spray charts that would allow me to see what the result of each Hit on the plot was (single, double, triple, homer), but I could not find a source this detailed. Because of this lack of data, I had to estimate that deep plot points for a Hit, must have been doubles. I took outs that landed beyond the new boundary of the field and added four total bases for a home run, and for each Hit beyond the new boundary, I added two total bases (to account for the change from a double to a homer). I have no way of knowing if the spray charts (from foxsports.com) are totally reliable, and therefore relied on guesswork, to an extent.
Because of this, the following data is scientific in only the most casual definition of the word, but can provide us with a idea of how Petco may play in 2013.
We see that Chase Headley (a switch hitter) would have ended up benefitting the most from the 2013 layout, with Will Venable and Yonder Alonso (both lefties) tied with Carlos Quentin in second. John Baker and Alexi Amarista (also lefties) fall in the 5 and 6 spots. It is notable that the two top power hitters on the team (Quentin and Headley) would gain the most in terms of total bases. It is also notable that Will Venable gains a disproportionately high number of homers and total bases compared to his season totals. This makes sense, due to the fact that he is a dead-pull lefty.
But let’s try to figure out what a whole season at the new Petco looks like. To do this we need the rate at which total bases and home runs are being increased per plate appearance (the change in TB/HR divided by the total home PA of the players sampled, including those players who experienced no change.) Then we need to multiply that rate by the number of total home PA the Padres had last season to find the adjusted TB and HR totals. We can then compare the adjusted totals with others from around the league. We can do the same with the opposing teams.
The Padres had bad pitching last season, due to a high attrition rate in the rotation. So it should come as no surprise they would have given up the second most home runs of any staff, in a more balanced park. In 2012 they allowed the 17th most longballs in the Majors. At the plate, the Padres would have moved into the middle third of offenses, as opposed to the finishing in the bottom five in each category.
The New Era
The changes to the playing field at Petco look rather subtle, but the impact on offense could be quite substantial. However, more important than increasing offensive production in the immediate term, the Padres are counting on the alterations to help the club shape it’s future. They have a surplus of talented prospects in the farm system and a new ownership group upstairs that wants to lure hitters (not just pitchers) to San Diego. By neutralizing what was an extreme environment they are completing a fresh start, renewing the faith.
The most furious internet trash talking and fist shaking of 2012 has been, without compare, over who should win the AL MVP award. Now that the votes have been shat, and Miguel Cabrera is the mantle guy’s new best customer, we may feel that the storm is over. But this ordeal is still with us. The rift between those of us who are willing to assimilate new information and the militant traditionalists mirrors society in some disturbing ways.
Much like the debate between people of faith (traditionalists in a more extreme sense) and atheists, there is one side bonded by sentimentality and fear, and another, operating on reason. You cannot combat emotion with reason.
The specific arguments have been made by so many over the last few months, I would rather address Mitch Albom and those like him, who resort to a cast of logical fallacies to make their “argument.”
They filled their ballots out with Miguel Cabrera’s name at the top, but make no mistake: They did not vote for Miguel Cabrera. They voted for ignorance, the status quo, themselves. They masquerade as the “Common Man,” against rationalists, who they have painted as the intellectual elitists. Why being an elite intellectual is something people have become so averse to being is absurd, but has it’s roots in mass culture.
The traditionalists have said that Cabrera’s team made the playoffs and that is why he is their MVP. Trout’s team won more games against far better competition.
The traditionalists claim purity because they stick to the old guard stats. But batting average, home runs, and RBI have nothing to do with defense or baserunning. How exactly can you claim purity when you ignore two thirds of a position player’s game? How is paying equal credit and attention to defense and baserunning tantamount to blasphemy?
The traditionalists have said it is ridiculous to vote based on a bunch of stuff “nobody can recalculate, anyway,” to paraphase Albom. This assumes that just because he can’t figure it out, that it has no function, or if it does, it couldn’t possible fulfill it. Do you know how to calculate the force of gravity, Mitch? No? And yet, somehow it has managed to keep you from floating into the sky, where you can get mulched by an jet engine.
Perhaps his most compelling argument is as follows. Ahem… “Nerrrds!”
Yes, traditionalists, increase ignorance in your own image. Let us promote the notion that having the desire and ability to learn something is to be chastised.
These scribblers of nonsense should be embarrassed. Albom says that baseball is being bogged down by “situational stats.” When in fact the mission of advanced statistics is to provide comprehensive measures of value. This demonstrates that he doesn’t even know what he professes to be a nemesis of.
As men who are paid to write about baseball, these men have not only a responsibility, but every opportunity to read up on advanced statistics, to review the new figures until they know them well, until they can measure players using them, until they understand what each stat measures or predicts. They choose ignorance in their profession, and promote it in public. The arrogance that chooses, enforces and promotes ignorance is beyond all other arrogance.
In itself it does not matter that Miguel Cabrera is the MVP and Mike Trout is not. It does not matter that CBS and so many others are promoting ignorance, when it comes to baseball. In fact, there is justice in baseball. MLB franchises are not run by luddite, hack writers. They are run by people who must constantly adapt, and that means that they pay advanced statistics a high degree of attention.
What disturbs me is that it accurately represents a part of our culture. A large sector of our society chooses traditionalism, falling for commercial love, and commercial patriotism. And all because anti-intellectualism is promoted by those who stand to benefit most from ignorance and indifference. An intellectualized general public is a positive force. Do not believe the shit vendors.
To read Mitch Albom’s latest bon mot, click the following: Ass hat.
This may seem like two separate articles, but the All WAR team actually led me to an interesting conclusion regarding the Diamonbacks, a team I have been struggling to figure out all year. This conclusion led me to another about the division in general. And honestly, I think the numbers speak for themselves. There isn’t a lot to say about the guys on the All WAR Team other than the obvious, which is that they have played well.
The All WAR team is comprised of the players with the best WAR at their respective positions, with the six best remaining position players on the bench. We also have the top five starting pitchers. However, I had to leave off relievers, for whom WAR seems to me a flawed statistic. This is especially true within the NL West given the weird situation the Rockies have created with their whacky, new bullpen management strategy. As for the players who made it, there are a few obvious guys, and a few surprises. But, more than anything, I think this shows us where the balance of power is within the NL West in terms of star players.
NL West: All WAR Team
C – Buster Posey (6.8)
1B – Paul Goldschmidt (3.3)
2B – Aaron Hill (5.0)
3B – Chase Headley (6.3)
SS – Hanley Ramirez (2.7)
OF – Angel Pagan (3.9)
OF – Andre Ethier (3.4)
OF – Carlos Gonzalez (3.1)
SP – Clayton Kershaw (4.9)
SP – Wade Miley (4.3)
SP – Madison Bumgarner (3.4)
SP – Matt Cain (3.4)
SP – Trevor Cahill (2.9)
BE – Miguel Montero
BE – A.J. Ellis
BE – Dexter Fowler
BE – Cameron Maybin
BE – Shane Victorino
BE – Jason Kubel
Divisional Standings with All WAR Player Counts
- San Francisco (4)
- Los Angeles (5)
- Arizona (6)
- San Diego (2)
- Colorado (2)
The Diamondbacks’ Lost Season
The Arizona Diamonbacks are a team with a lot of talent in a lot of areas. Let’s take a look at some numbers but before we do, lets have a little primer on xFIP. Expected Fielding Independent Pitching is basically ERA, which has been adjusted to examine only the things, which a pitcher can control. For this reason xFIP is adjusted for any runs a defense has saved or cost the pitcher or pitching staff. xFIP also accounts for any deviation from an average HR/FB rate. This last bit helps to park-adjust the number and it eliminates some of the luck involved in giving up (or not giving up) home runs. If your xFIP is lower than your ERA, that means you have pitched better than the results indicate. If you outperform your xFIP in ERA, you have been lucky. Believe me this is going somewhere.
xFIP v ERA
- Arizona: 3.84/3.97
- Los Angeles: 3.93/3.44
- San Francisco: 3.98/3.72
- San Diego: 4.04/3.88
- Colorado: 4.23/5.11
- San Francisco: 25.4
- San Diego: 24.4
- Arizona: 23.1
- Los Angeles: 18.3
- Colorado: 16.8
- Arizona: 3.8
- Los Angeles: 1.7
- San Francisco: -0.6
- San Diego: -1.5
- Colorado: -4.7
- San Diego: 97
- San Francisco: 97
- Colorado: 92
- Arizona: 92
- Los Angeles: 87
What the Numbers Mean
Conventional wisdom is that pitching and defense win championships. By this standard the Diamondbacks should be about three weeks from snagging the NL West Pennant, given their division leading UZR/150 and xFIP. But conventional wisdom has been proven wrong quite often in baseball statistics over the last decade. Perhaps Arizona is an example of this.
With Los Angeles contending, despite placing last in wRC+, and fourth place San Diego sitting tied with division leading San Fran’ atop the wRC+ rankings, offense isn’t telling the story either. So what is telling the story of the West at the moment, from a statistical perspective? Well, it seems to be the same thing telling the story of the Diamondbacks in 2012.
Bad Luck and Inconsistency
After a torrid start ( 5 home runs, 13 RBI, and a 270 w RC+ through 11 games), Chris Young pounded his shoulder into the hulking center field wall at Chase Field. He headed to DL to mend, only to return a trembling shadow of his April self. Since May, he has hit .202 with just 9 homers in 79 games. His season wRC+ sits at 95, 67 points worse than in 2011.
Meanwhile Justin Upton has battled himself and a few nagging injuries to shape another disappointing “even numbered year.” Lately he has worked himself back to average (100 wRC+), but played so poorly early on that Kirk Gibson decided to bench his young right fielder, fueling trade rumors. But Upton has not been the only inconsistent member of the club.
Jason Kubel has 29HR. However, only 7 of those have come since the end of July. Kubel is batting .157 since August 1. Last season’s 21 game winner and staff ace, Ian Kennedy went 1-5 with a 5+ ERA in May. He hasn’t pitched quite so poorly since, but has rarely posted back to back outings of quality. And while other teams sometimes receive a boost from young pitchers making regular starts for the first time (Kris Medlen, Andrew Werner, Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Estrada, and Matt Harvey are recent examples), Arizona was forced to suffer a trio of disastrous debuts from Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin and Trevor Bauer. Corbin has started settling down a bit, with a regular turn, but Bauer was exceptionally terrible, walking over seven batters per nine in addition to being thoroughly pounded.
With all the inconsistency and no fortune in their favor to mask their flaws, the Diamondbacks are on the outside of the Pennant Race looking in. Even saving twice as many runs on defense than the nearest division rival has them under-performing their xFIP and surprising some with their struggles this year, nearly as much as they did with their 95 regular season wins in 2011.
Those Lucky Dodgers Come Back to Earth
Many feel the Dodgers have been pitching over their heads, and in fact, the xFIP/ERA comparison backs this up. The Dodgers have out-performed their xFIP by over half a run, which is not sustainable. This is exceptionally true for a team that has played middle of the pack defense (when compared to all MLB teams). These two factors, have been seriously catching up with them over the last month. Their luck is no longer present to mask horrific offensive slumps from Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Shane Victorino, as it masked a rag tag corpse of position players during first half injuries to Kemp, and Mark Ellis.
Now with Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsly both out for the remainder of the season, the Dodgers will require huge stretch performances from Josh Beckett and Joe Blanton. Talk about Dodger Blue.
The Rockies Can’t Wait
Speaking of unlucky, another slew of injuries, a pack of inconsistent young pitchers, an almost totally lost season for Troy Tulowitzki, and the most inept manager in the game (Jim Tracy), have pock marked 2012 for a desperate franchise. Young hitters continue to blossom in numbers (Tyler Colvin, Josh Rutledge, and a totally revamped Dexter Fowler), while young starters wish they had played independent ball rather than signing with Colorado. One can hardly blame them. It would be challenging to find a fan base more anxious for football season.
The Surging Padres
Luck and inconsistency touched the Padres early. The club went 34-53 before the break due to an unconscionable attrition rate among starting pitchers. This saw the Padres adding the equivalent of chopped up old tires to their roster (Jeff Suppan, Kip Wells, Ross Ohlendorf). Adding to the abhorrent pitching, a defense best described as “freshly coiled” failed to pick of an offense which simply melted lazily in the gleaming summer sun.
But miraculously, the Padres are 37-24 since the All-Star break. The dual hitting coaches, Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell, have finally delivered Chase Headley, the elite power hitter, to Padre fans. He is just two dingers shy of a 30/100 season. Meanwhile, rookies Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal (who, together I have dubbed The Great Grandalanso) look like bats to build around. Even the middle infield, a source of such bountiful misery early on, has been revitalized by the terrific (occasionally jaw dropping) defense of SS Everth Cabrera, along with the 2B tandem of hot hitting Logan Forsythe and the ever-energetic “Little Ninja,” Alexi Amarista.
The Giants Hold Steady
The Giants have had no such luck. And if you’ve been paying attention, that’s a good thing. Despite losing their best hitter to a toxic combination of selfishness, stupidity and vanity, the Giants have ket rolling along. The finely tuned ecosystem that it is, when one tree falls in the Giants rotation (Tim Lincecum) another, just as grand, takes it’s place (Madison Bumgarner). Marco Scutaro has complimented a much improved offense, and Hunter Pence has provided even more consistency, despite not truly emerging as a cornerstone. Buster Posey is a picture of perfection, if he could run, he would be Mike Trout. They have a deep bullpen, a good bench, and play solid defense. This means that the Giants do not have flaws, which are masked by luck. When Pablo Sandoval was injured, when they lost Brian Wilson for the season, when Santiago Casilla failed as closer, they supported these points of weakness with real strengths. They deserve this division and they are sure to get it.
The most talented do not always succeed, but time always expires for the lucky ones.
We have come a long way, and we have learned a lot from Part 1and Part 2of this series. Part Three will cover the pitfalls of the traditional offensive statistics of Batting Average, The RBI, and by association, The Run. We will be examining suitable replacements for these statistics, as well as detailing what it is that makes them suitable as such. We will use our new tools to take a look at whether the Dodgers are getting as much of an upgrade as many fans believe, and we will weigh him against the best hitter in The Far Division. If you want to play catch-up first, as always, please do so.
The Hit and Batting Average
A screaming line drive that finds the seats halfway up the bleachers at Dodger Stadium. A nubber in no-mans land that big, fat Bartolo Colon cannot get to in time. What do these things have in common? They are both a Hit.
This alone illustrates the failure of the Hit to accurately separate luck and success at the plate. But the fact that batting average is totally dependent on the Hit makes it much more troublesome. This is because batting average is still entrenched as the go-to stat of your hometown TV crew. And .300 is still looked to as the cutoff between the best and the rest, in terms of batting prowess. This is all incredibly misleading, given that the cornerstone the stat (the Hit) is cracked.
The RBI and the Run
Perhaps the second most problematic hitting stat, and one that is almost always referred to, in detailing the feats of great hitters, is the Run Batted In. When a batter hits a solo home run he drives himself in, and tallies one. The same value is assigned when a batter grounds out to second base, scoring a runner from third. The first batter created the run all by himself, he crushed a pitch into the seats. The second batter got lucky that there was a runner on third when he came to the plate. His RBI is actually a function of what someone else accomplished (the runner who got himself to third) and vice versa. A runner who reaches on an error and scores on a double, gets credit for a run. He is rewarded, despite failing at his job.
This line of logic can be extended to players who have a lack of RBIs or Runs. If nobody gets on in front of you, or nobody drives you in, there is nothing you can do about it. You can skillfully perform valuable actions all day long, but your team will not score runs. Meanwhile the lucky batter behind the good batters drives in run after run. Obviously if you drive in 100 runs you have to be doing something right, but the point remains.
The RBI, like the The Hit, and rest of the old guard statistics, is a record of what happened, but it does not tell us anything about how valuable a hitter is, and it is far less likely to tell us whether he will again be valuable in the future.
Gonzalez (Mr. Lucky) v. Posey (The One Man Wrecking Crew)
Through Saturday, August 26th Adrian Gonzalez has 89 RBI, and Buster Posey has 80. Adrian Gonzalez is batting .299, Posey .326. Both players are performing at an elite level by both of these measures. But let’s use advanced metrics to drill deeper.
What is valuable about a hit? The batter reaches base, and no out is recorded. But a walk accomplishes the same goal. In fact, so does getting hit by a pitch, which certain batters, like Carlos Quentin can actually own as a repeatable skill. The stat that counts all the ways a hitter achieves this desirable thing, is On Base Percentage. But OBP is limited, too. If you just walk, or just hit singles you don’t produce a lot of runs on your own. The extra base hit and the stolen base are ways of maximizing offensive value.
The stat that counts the aggregate total of your ability to move yourself along the bases with the bat is Slugging Percentage. But what about creating value with your legs, as in the case of stolen bases? A comprehensive stat (the best kind of stat, as mentioned earlier in this series) that measures all of these things, and weights them according to their impact on run scoring, is weighted On Base Average (wOBA). Think of this stat as our metric replacement for Batting Average, where .340 is above average and .400+ is elite.
In 2011 Fangraphs calculated wOBA as follows:
wOBA = (0.69×uBB + 0.72×HBP + 0.89×1B + 1.26×2B + 1.60×3B + 2.08×HR + 0.25×SB -0.50×CS) / PA
A stat that more accurately depicts the amount of runs a player generates on offense (the goal that RBI and Runs try and fails to achieve), is called weighted Runs Created plus (wRC+). It is based on wOBA, but gives us a number of runs, which is a little more tangible and result oriented. The plus just means that it is adjusted relative to league average (league adjusted), and to account for any advantages or disadvantages a player may have in differing venues (park adjusted). A wRC+ of 100 is average. This stat will serve as our metric replacement of Runs, plus RBI.
So let’s follow up on Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Posey, shall we? The two are good to compare, because neither player is very speedy, so we won’t be muddying things up with who might have been stretching more singles into doubles, etc.
Adrian Gonzalez has the greater RBI total, but with his lack of home runs (16) and walks (5.6%) he has managed a .342 OBP, and a .472 SLG, to give him a .347 wOBA, and a 114 wRC+. He ranks above average.
While striking out at nearly the same rate as Gonzalez (Posey: 16%, Gonzalez: 15.6%), but walking over twice as often (11.6%), Posey has managed a .403 OBP. He has outslugged Adrian by .064 points (.536), and has created 40 more runs by wRC+ (154), with an elite wOBA of .398.
Add speed to Posey’s caliber of hitting ability, and you’re talking league leader. Because of his tremendous wheels, Mike Trout has the top wRC+ figure this season, with a 172. Posey ranks 5th, and Gonzalez ranks 60th. Trout also leads the majors in wOBA at .434, while Posey ranks 6th; Gonzalez is buried at 52nd. Taking into account that Los Angeles’ principal first basemen in 2012 (James Loney 70 wRC+/.273 wOBA, and Juan Rivera 69/.271) have put up stunningly similar and severely bad numbers, the Dodgers are still getting a major upgrade at 1B. But don’t let the old guard stats fool you. He is not elite, like he would be if measured by his batting average, which is just .001 off the sacred .300 mark, or by his RBI total, which is the 4th highest in baseball.
The conclusion of this series is still forthcoming. It will feature an examination of the aggregate of all facets of the game, an acknowledgement of the things that advanced metrics cannot do, and a confirmation that the most elite performers in the game, as measured by metrics, are also most dynamic players in the game to watch with our eyes.
Time for the second installment of this series, which, in my more sinister moments, I have envisioned as the death rattle of unrefined statistics. If you haven’t yet read it, please catch up with Part One of the series.
I spent the last post detailing what old guard statistics cannot do. But it is important, in discussing the evolution of baseball statistics, to mention what they can do. The Error and the Assist recorded a thing that happened. Truly, they weren’t meant to do anything more. The problem is that they have been used for more.
Let’s put it this way. You don’t dance with a mop. A mop is not a woman. But the men that designed the mop didn’t fail because a mop is not a woman, a mop still has a simple elegance and it accomplishes its simple goal, just as the Error and the Assist accomplished theirs.
What advanced statistics want to give us is not a mop, but a sexy lady. That’s not very clear… Advanced statistics are meant to determine value. To determine value, they must be comprehensive. It should be noted that in many cases one stat alone cannot be comprehensive, though some (like wins above replacement, more commonly referred to as WAR) attempt to.
Sexy Ladies to the Rescue
Let’s return to the questions one should ask to determine the value of a fielder.
- What balls can he get to? (Range)
- Does he make the plays he can get to? (Fielding Ability)
- What throws can he make? (Arm Strength)
- Can he throw it where he’s supposed to? (Arm Accuracy)
- Does he know what to do when he has the ball (Baseball IQ)
One of the most terrific (and terrifically complicated) statistics devised to handle defensive value is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). One of it’s components is an extremely intimidating mathematical operation that is not interesting. What is interesting is that UZR takes into account what type of play a defender had to make based on how hard a ball was hit, where it was hit to, and how far the fielder had to go to make the play, as well as how far he had to throw the ball to complete it. Toss all that in the boople bopple machine and the math component calculates whether this was a play that an average defender would have been able to make. Then, over time, a player’s UZR goes up as he makes plays that an average defender can’t, and it goes down as he fails to.
So, where the Error offers only the raw number of instances in which a fielder failed, UZR tells us whether a guy can make play after play that most guys can’t, or whether he is Wilson Betemit. It assesses range, arm strength, fielding ability and arm accuracy all at once. There are stats that are intended to assess each of these skills independently as well. Many are variations of Runs Saved. We can calculate, based on the same factors UZR takes into account, how many runs a fielder saved his team with his arm or with his range. Thanks Sexy Ladies.
The Ethier Situation
Though he is a total Adonis, Andre Ethier did not play Gold Glove defense in 2011. The sole challenge to my argument is that Andre Ethier has a big gold trophy of a glove in his living room. It should be pointed out that by no means was Ethier’s award exceptionally unjustified, but that his story is particularly compelling for reasons pertaining to the Error.
Andre Ethier did not make a single error last season. So the guys who didn’t watch him all year, that somehow get to vote for Gold Gloves, saw a zero on a spreadsheet, and mindlessly obeyed it.
But let’s see how Ethier stacked up against other rightfielders in 2011 using Sexy Ladies:
- Andre Ethier saved 1.7 runs by not making errors, which was tops in the NL and second only to Nick Markakis (1.8).
- He cost his team .2 runs with his arm, landing him 20th overall, 8th in the NL. Jeff Francoeur led in this category saving 9.3 runs, while Jayson Werth led the NL with 5.4 runs saved.
- Ethier saved only 3.8 runs with his range, placing 12th overall and 7th among National Leaguers. Fellow National Leaguer Justin Upton saved 15.4 runs with his range to lead all of baseball.
- His UZR per 150 games (which levels the playing field by illustrating what each player would do given equal opportunity) was 6.8. 7th overall, 4th NL. Rookie Jason Heyward topped the NL rankings here at 12.7, while Josh Reddick paced the Majors at 18.3.
Jason Heyward was probably the National League’s most well rounded defender in right last season, placing first in UZR/150 as mentioned, and also placing 2nd in the NL by saving 10.6 runs with his range, as measured by RngR (range runs).
What we learn from Ethier’s place between old statistics and new is that making all the plays you get to does not prevent as many runs as having the ability to create more plays for yourself. Anybody watching intently would have suspected this, but new statistics crystallized it as the truth that Errors, Putouts and Assists were distorting.
* All stats are from the amazing fangraphs.com and the line about Ethier being an Adonis was provided by artist Kim Alexander at a Dodgers game we attended earlier this season.
Come Into The Light
As we gallop, tassels gleaming, into a new era of intelligently designed baseball statistics, many old ways will fall out of favor. This is as it should be. Peel the leaches from the afflicted’s body and check out the future, where you can buy medicine at a gas station. Do not live in darkness my friends.
For the uninitiated, just know there has been a lot of discussion as to how to measure defensive value properly, and some very impressive solutions have been devised. Though it is widely acknowledged that there are still many things defensive stats cannot do, they continue to leap forward, while broadcasters and talk show hosts continue to laud high fielding percentages. As the first installment of the four part ‘Adieu Ancient Statistics’ series, this article will cover old defensive statistics and their pitfalls.
What Are Defensive Statistics For?
Let’s just start by deciding what it is that we want to know about a fielder. Five is a nice round number, lets pick five questions defensive stats should answer.
- What balls can he get to? (Range)
- Does he make the plays he can get to? (Fielding Ability)
- What throws can he make? (Arm Strength)
- Can he throw it where he’s supposed to? (Arm Accuracy)
- Does he know what to do when he has the ball (Baseball IQ)
Of the five questions we need answers for, in order to properly assess a fielder’s quality, the Errors stat attempts to address only two of them: Fielding Ability and Arm Accuracy. If he boots it: Error. If he throws it away: Error. But what about the balls a fielder can’t get to? He can’t make an error on the play, but he isn’t doing his job as effectively as a fielder who can get to that ball. What about the guy who can get to balls nobody else can? When a ball goes off the fingers of his glove at a spot on the field that most fielders can’t even get to, he is charged with an error. You can see how the Error falls short in assessing range.
The Assist has it’s shortcomings as well. A player records an assist by throwing a baserunner out. But the Assist treats a pitcher’s ten foot underhand toss to first base as an equal to Dave Parker’s famous laser beam from the 1979 All-Star Game. It does not measure arm strength because it has nothing to do with how difficult the throw is. The Assist also fails to measure the dozens of runners that elect not to take a chance against a right fielder with a cannon. We need a stat that can give us an idea of Arm Strength.
The Putout is even more pathetic. A Putout is recorded when you catch a batted ball on the fly, or when you tag a base or baserunner for an out (this includes catching a throw with a foot on the bag for a force out). As a means of measuring defensive ability at the Major League level I think it is hardly of any value to ask ourselves whether a player is capable of touching someone while a ball is in his glove, stepping on a base, or catching a throw. It screams even louder that catching a third strike is worth the same Putout as Mike Trout robbing a home run.
To get fielding percentage we add stupid “Putouts” and worthless “Assists.” Then we divide that number by the sum of Putouts, Assists and useless “Errors.”
To summarize: we start with something as silly as allowing gravity to pull your foot down onto a white pillow, sometime after you somehow managed to gain possession of a ball, but before a runner arrives at said pillow. We then add the amount of times you may have either thrown a ball from Jupiter to Mars or just rolled it across 7 inches of grass to the first basemen. Then we divide that by those two things plus the amount of times you made the awful mistake of covering twice as much ground as Matt Holliday only to have the baseball hit the heel of your outstretched glove as you save a run by keeping a ball from going into the gap.
So it begins to make sense that old magistrates in powdered wigs decided Andre Ethier is a Gold Glover, because this is the method they tried to use to figure it out.
And this says nothing of comparison. What about catchers? Is the way they play defense even remotely akin to the way a centerfielder must play defense. A catcher has to frame pitches, call a game and he occasionally gets run over by Mike Trout going full speed while he is standing still. What about the fact that there are actually nine, totally different positions on the diamond, each demanding a unique skill set?
To be continued…