Author Archive

The Size of the Strike Zone by Count

I recently became fascinated with the strike zone and its effective boundaries. The strike zone laid out in baseball’s rule book is simple; it extends a total of 17 inches across the width of home plate, between the hitter’s knee and midsection and covering the entire depth of the plate. The strike zone as it actually gets called by umpires is complex. It shifts quite significantly depending on the handedness of the hitter for one.

That’s not the whole story though, not even close. The dexterity of the hitter isn’t the only significant variable in how the strike zone is called. Compare the following two strike zone heat maps, fitted from 2012 data on called pitches to right-handed hitters.

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The Angels are Creating Outs in September

I was previewing the Angels and Mariners series that began on Tuesday, kicking off the final nine games of the season for both teams, when I noticed how well the Angels ranked in my metrics. That the Angels are good is no surprise, but the magnitude to which they had improved since they last played the Mariners at the beginning of September caught my notice.

Since that last preview, the Angels went 15-7 with a massive 104-58 run differential. But where did has the dominance burst forth? Over those 22 games, the offense posted a .734 OPS which is only three points above the American League average. On the pitching side, the staff has a 21.7% strikeout rate, a 6.4% walk rate and 3.4% home run rate compared to league averages of 19.4%, 8.2% and 2.8%. That’s an above average line, but not an outright dominant one.

Lacking a breakout in either the bats or arms, it really highlights how well the defense has played. Read the rest of this entry »


What Makes a Pitcher’s Count?

What’s a pitcher’s ultimate goal? In the grand scheme, it’s to help win games. A pitcher needs to do his part to keep runs to a minimum — and strikeouts are the best way to accomplish that. Walking, or hitting a better, can’t help. Those outcomes (plus avoiding home runs) are the three rates, each with somewhat separate skills that most of us watch when evaluating pitchers.

And getting ahead in the count is at least partially responsible for all three outcomes. In my first look at pitching ahead to batters I defined a pitcher’s being ahead in the count as having it 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2. Conversely, batters were ahead in 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1 or 3-1 counts. Those demarcations were made by simply taking the greater number, aside from full counts.

The aggregate numbers support the difference between the two types. In my self-identified pitcher’s counts, batters are held to a .204/.211/.303 line this season. Shifting to a hitter’s count, the batting line more than doubles to .342/.472/.609. Clearly a pitcher benefits when he’s ahead, but I wanted to know about home runs, as well, and whether this was a good division of counts.

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Dustin Ackley Might Finally Be Adjusting

Dustin Ackley has a strikeout problem. It’s not a problem new to him at this level. Last season in the American League, average hitters struck out on 18% of his trips to the plate. Dustin Ackley did so in 21%. However, it was new to him overall. In the minors, Ackley was terrific at avoiding strikeouts. With Tacoma in 2011, Ackley struck out on 12% of his PAs whilst the average PCL hitter would strike out 18% of the time.

The low strikeouts in the minors made sense. Ackley was billed as a polished hitter with good contact skills and a good eye for the strike zone. And indeed, Ackley has had fewer swinging strikeouts than average at every level, even including his two years now in the Majors.

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Ahead in the Count

Blake Beavan is not an exciting pitcher. He doesn’t have electric movement or blazing speed. At least, his pitches don’t. I haven’t seen him on the dance floor. Although he once threw in the mid-90s, he doesn’t much anymore and he mostly throws fastballs in the strike zone that look rather pedestrian and ordinary. He looks like the sort of pitcher who should get shelled a lot and/or play for the Twins. Perhaps there’s something in his delivery that is interesting, but we don’t have the technology yet to deduce it.

As it happened, Blake Beavan was facing the Twins a little while back. While trying to come up with a new way to summarize a very typical Blake Beavan start, I noticed that he had thrown an unusually high, even for him, percentage of strikes (74%) and furthermore, that he had thrown a first-pitch strike to 20 of the 24 batters that he faced. Blake Beavan’s one Major League skill is his control and those are both excellent rates.

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Giving up the Count Advantage

Last night against the Angels, Hector Noesi served up another home run on an 0-2 count. As a fan, having a pitcher of my team give up one of those is up there with one of the more disheartening occurances in an individual baseball game. The count is as lopsided as it can be in favor of the pitcher. To go from that to the single most hitter-friendly outcome is a jarring, unexpected and sometimes crushing whiplash.

And since I watch* Mariner games and almost only Mariner games, I have a disproportionate sense that every 0-2 home run in the history of baseball have been given up by Mariner pitchers**. Perhaps you feel that way about your team too. But personal observation is a crude and misleading way to go about forming beliefs unless you want to look like a big stupidhead the second you run into a person*** with actual data.

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Keep the Votes Open

Ballots to vote on player selection to the All-Star Game are out and have been for a few weeks now. Their announcement generated the expected scorn from those who (rightfully) deride a voting process so influenced by early season results. I’ve personally stopped caring much about the All Star Game, but the season was basically two weeks old when voting began. That’s lame and unnecessary on baseball’s part. It’s not as if they have a need for voting to begin early. They’ll get votes; they’ll get plenty of votes.

However, instead of that usual track of criticism, I’m going to attack the voting process from the other side. It doesn’t begin soon enough. Namely, it should begin right after the conclusion of the previous All-Star Game. Why not? Right now, All Star selections too often reflect great starts to seasons, but what of great ends or even middles? The player who had a poor first half in 2011 but great second half is forgotten when it comes to All Star time unless that second-half hot streak continues into the next season. But if voting were always open, then that player would garner votes during his hot streak and possibly then hold on for a spot when the cutoff for selection ended.

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More on Pinch Hitting

I am a skeptic on the benefits of pinch hitting. I don’t think that it is always a poor decision, but I do think that too often an incomplete accounting of the factors involved are considered and managers, everyone’s favorite scapegoat, are disproportionately blamed or praised, largely on a results-based basis. Pinch hitting is difficult. Hitting is difficult enough, but the first trip up to the plate is even harder on the hitter. Additionally, the decision usually has more consequences than just this hitter or that one for this one plate appearance. Detailed analyses of pinch hitting is not new, but when left-handed Michael Saunders hit against left-handed Brian Fuentes this morning in the top of the tenth inning while right-handed Casper Wells sat on the bench, I decided to do my own digging.

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The First Overall by Actual Record

Prior to the 2005 version, the Major League draft used to alternate picks between the American and National Leagues like they also used to do with home field advantage in the World Series before Bud Selig had to dip his meddlesome fingers in. There are some well-known times when the first overall pick did not go to the team with the worst record in the previous season.

The most recent was when the Padres got to select ahead of the Tigers in 2004 despite the 2003 Tigers having happened. Luckily for the Tigers, the Padres picked Matt Bush and the Tigers landed Justin Verlander. I don’t think they’re crying foul over that missed opportunity.

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The Best Relative Strikeout Seasons

Read about the worst relative strikeout seasons here.

A natural extension of seeking to identify the worst pitching strikeout season in baseball history is to find the best. That covers the two extremes. I suppose I could do the most average strikeout seasons next, but (yawn) I had to go take a nap after just writing that sentence.

What I really enjoy about looking at baseball in this way is that it often gives me a fresh perspective on history that I’ve long lost the ability to recall. Such is the case here where exploring the topic of lots of strikeouts led me to a lot of reading about two pitchers in particular from baseball’s past that I hadn’t thought about, statistically, in a while.

Before I get to them, Pedro Martinez’s remarkable 1999 season deserves a digital nod of acknowledgement. It takes a mountain of talent to rack up enough strikeouts to more than double the league rate when that rate is already as high as 16%, but that’s what Pedro did in ’99, striking out 37.5% of batters he faced. It’s in the top ten of all time and the best since integration.

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The Worst Relative Strikeout Season Ever

In the past, while researching pitchers that had started team’s Opening Day games, I came across the name Glenn Abbott. Abbott had been the Mariners’ Opening Day starter a few times including in 1979, the team’s third year in existence. During that season, Abbott would go on to be pretty awful over 518 batters faced. Notably, he struck out just 25 hitters that year, a 4.8% strikeout rate that I found fascinating in its ineptness.

Late last week however, Jeff Sullivan reminded me of the 2003 Detroit Tigers and a Lookout Landing reader noted Nate Cornejo’s season that year in which Cornejo fanned a mere 46 hitters over a larger 842 batter sample. Amazingly, Cornejo netted 1.9 WAR that year. Cornejo’s strikeout rate was superior to Abbott’s by a touch, but it struck me that because of the changing nature of the game, with strikeouts more frequent in 2003 than in 1979, that Cornejo’s season was perhaps worthier of enshrining.

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Home Runs Up and Down the Zone

The topic of Charlie Furbush and his elevated (but small sample) home run rate came up for discussion between Jeff Sullivan and I over the weekend and it got me thinking. That’s not true. It would be impossible for it to have gotten me thinking; otherwise I need to talk to the Red Cross about some new and unusual first aid techniques. It did direct my thinking however and the first hypothesis that came to my mind was that to wonder if maybe Furbush’s pitch locations played a part in his home run proclivity. Specifically, I wondered if Furbush was elevating his pitches. That seemed a plausible engine for more home runs.

However, such an explanation relies on an assumption that elevated pitch location does in fact open up a pitcher to a higher home run rate. Usually that’s in part attributed to simply more fly balls coming from pitches above the knees and not actually an increase in home run rate as we typically (per fly ball or ball in air) measure it. I decided to look at both. Using pitch F/X, I grabbed all the batted balls and separated them into horizontal bands. It turned out that the two plots (one using home run per ball in air and the one below) aren’t radically different.

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Albert Pujols’ Contract in NPV

A month ago, Albert Pujols agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It was a deal that the media and public mostly ignored due to the intense coverage of the trade that sent Nick Schmidt to the Colorado Rockies as the player-to-be-named-later in San Diego’s Huston Street acquisition. Who could  forget what a monumental day that was? Apparently desperate to get back in the limelight, Pujols and the Angels have released final terms on the contract between the two. I now will cede to their wishes and relay that information.

Pujols will be guaranteed $12 million this year, followed by $16 million in 2013 and then $23 million in 2014. That’s followed up with $1 million raises each season, concluding with a $30 million payday in 2021. There’s a bunch of other stuff in there, and that’s probably what took so long to write out and agree upon. But these are the most important figures, totaling $240 million for sure over 10 years.

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When the Home Runs Are Hit

Are home runs more likely at the beginning of games when the air temperature is typically marginally warmer than at the end? That is the question that I recall in my head, but I am unsure if it drove me to split home run rates by inning or if it formed as a question that could possibly be addressed by data cross tabbed in that manner. Regardless of which came first, I did end up looking at home runs per inning, but I don’t think you can say much of anything about temperature changes during the game from this.

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A Possible Effect on Relievers from the New CBA

As a Mariner fan, I was searching for a distraction yesterday. The terrible news of Greg Halman‘s death this morning weighs heavily and I wanted to think about anything else for a little bit. There is no proper transition to the run-of-the-mill machinations of the baseball offseason. Any attempt seems glib and unimportant; because it is. Baseball is just a game and countlessly more important things will happen and be ignored today than a rumor about Andrew Bailey, but it gave me an escape for a moment.

It’s not that the rumor or tweet itself is of much importance. The Athletics are shopping Andrew Bailey around and in a seller’s market for closers, appear likely to trade him. That is hardly a surprise. Andrew Bailey is really good and valuably cost-controlled for the next couple years. Of course teams are interested.

However, the rumor kicked off a thread in my brain and I realized something. Under the new CBA, free agent compensation has changed and a direct consequence is that almost all relief pitchers will fall outside Type A now and in the future. It used to be that if you were a team that believed it to be in need of an outside closer, you could dip into free agency, but have to pay market price and likely surrender a high draft pick. Or you could attempt to trade for a closer, pay less salary, keep your draft picks and even have a chance to add some when said closer went to free agency.

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The New Playoff Probabilities in 2013

The Houston Astros are heading to the American League and baseball is headed toward balanced divisions (numerically at least) and 10 playoff teams. There are many fans in Houston upset at the move, but one aspect that they ought to consider being excessively happy about is the team’s improved playoff probabilities under the forthcoming new alignment.

Currently baseball is a mess of uneven odds. The squads in the AL West only have three foes to compete with for a division crown while the Astros and others in the NL Central have five each. Furthermore, American League teams only have ten others to battle with for the current single wild card spot. National Leaguers must outpace 12 others in the race for baseball’s second chance bracket. Between the years of 1995 (no playoffs in 1994 remember? Good thing the new CBA’s already done) and 2012, there were four separate probabilities for making baseball’s postseason depending on which division a team played in.

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Spreading the Media Love Around

The Braves traded Derek Lowe in a salary dump in another seeming example of team’s not looking much beyond won-loss and ERA records. Options are being picked up and contracts are being voided. Tony La Russa retired. There is plenty of news afoot about established Major League stars and quasi-stars. This is not about one of those.

A few days ago, during the World Series in fact, news came out that the Houston Astros had re-signed Brandon Barnes to another Minor League contract with a Spring Training invite. Big whoop, you think sarcastically to yourself. And you’d be correct to think so; a Brandon Barnes transaction is not worthy of a lot of hoopla. You probably don’t know who he is. Many Astros fans probably don’t know who he is. He’s a career minor leaguers who has never been rated a top prospect and over 71 games at Triple-A this past season he batted .197.

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The Weather of Park Factors

During the Sportscenter running before the start of yesterday’s World Series game, ESPN did a segment on some trends associated with cold weather* baseball. The numbers discussed ranged from biometric data (your grip strength and reaction time ability both decrease dramatically in cold weather) and some of the resulting baseball numbers such as that batting average drops and errors increase in cold weather.

*Link goes to one produced about football, but the same biometric data applies.

I do not think any of the above should surprise you. I found it fairly intuitive. I can recall with great clarity that my fingers do not seem as dexterous when suffering from cold. What I hadn’t done before though was make the explicit connection between the biological nuisances of cold and the dynamics of a baseball game. Think about how reduced grip strength can impact a pitcher. Some of his control is going to be diminished, but probably not evenly so as offspeed pitches require more of a grip than a fastball does. And writing of fastballs, think about how an increase in reaction time affects a hitter trying to distinguish between pitches and then make contact with a 90+mph pitch.

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Ron Hunt Got Hit Like Nobody Else

This post is not about the ongoing playoffs. I wanted to give fair warning to those that are only concerned with that. I did draw inspiration from the playoffs however. I was watching the Tigers-Rangers game during the curious third inning hit by pitch and went to the internet to see if it mattered that the pitch hit the dirt first before the player* when I began researching players proficient at finding their way on base via the plunk.

*it does not seem to matter according to second-hand sources, but could not find that outlined in the official rule book

When discussing players that get hit by pitches, Craig Biggio’s name is typically among the first to come forth, or possibly Don Baylor depending on the age of the people involved in the conversation. Neither of them interested me however when it comes to plunkings though and for the same reason. Both Biggio and Baylor had large strikeout and walk totals to go with their painful free passes.

In contrast, consider Ron Hunt. A second baseman during the expansion era, Hunt made a couple All Star games but otherwise made little dent in baseball history, except in being hit by pitches. Ron Hunt was hit 50 times in 1971, which destroyed the previous record by a whopping 19. That number is made more interesting to me by Hunt’s 58 walks and his 41 strikeouts. He was hit more often than he struck out! That’s an incredibly rare, if not, unprecedented achievement over a full season. Hunt’s 50 times reaching base via getting hit accounted for almost 20% of his OBP. If, somehow, all 50 of those had been outs instead, Hunt’s OBP would have been 80 points lower.

While 1971 was the clear pinnacle, it was by no means unique for Hunt who led the league in HBPs for seven straight seasons despite usually playing only about 120 games a year. Past the Hughie Jennings era, nobody has a higher HBP per game rate than Hunt though two recent players, F.P. Santangelo and Carlos Quentin, do have slightly higher HBP/PA rates over shorter careers. Quentin’s might be difficult to keep up now that HBPs have stopped their mid-2000s climb.

Over Hunt’s career he ended up with 243 HBPs, 555 walks and just 382 strikeouts. Hit by pitches accounted for over 20%. Only Fernando Vina has managed to have a similar combination of the three, though he had many fewer walks and played during a time (the “Steroid era”) that had about 60% more HBPs than Hunt’s mid-60s to mid-70s time frame. Overall, I’m not sure that contextually, there a player that made a bigger use of getting hit than Ron Hunt.


Casey Kotchman as Luck Example

Baseball games are not perfect simulations. They’re not good ones, or even mediocre ones. They’re downright awful. When we design, engineer and execute proper simulations or models, we are often dealing with scales on the order of thousands of repetitions to become comfortable with the probability of the results. Baseball runs through it once.

Granted there are lots of smaller, more repeated samples within the larger single sample. That helps keep some of the noise down, but not nearly all of it, or most of it. Baseball is a noisy game dominated in many ways by what is commonly called luck and people by nature are just terrible coming to grips with that.

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