Archive for Research

How to Think of Postseason Contention, Elimination

We’re at that time of the regular season during which most teams are making a final push to clinch a spot in the postseason. Some teams (such as the Cubs) have basically already clinched a spot and some others (such as the Twins) are already mathematically eliminated. Most teams fall somewhere in between.

Many baseball fans will look at the standings every day in September. If they see their favorite team is leading its respective division, they’ll hope that, for the rest of the regular season, that team win will more games than anyone else in the division, thus allowing that team to become the division champion. This is guaranteed.

If they see, on the other hand, that their favorite team is not leading its respective division, they will check the number of games remaining and the number of games by which their team is behind the division leader. If the number of games remaining is greater than the number of games behind, then they can hold out hope that their team can win the division by winning all its remaining games, while the division leader loses all their remaining games. Unfortunately, this is not always guaranteed.

The type of error is made not only by Average Joe sports fans, but also professional sportswriters.  This article will describe these tricky scenarios in which teams are eliminated from postseason contention.

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Dave Dombrowski Has Been Good at Trading Prospects

Know this — Dave Dombrowski likes to make trades. He was first named a general manager back on July 5, 1988, assuming the title of “youngest GM in the game” back before it was cool with the Montreal Expos. He made his first trade on July 13. His aggressive nature was sometimes just off center stage, as the teams he had previously helmed — the Expos, Marlins and Tigers — have rarely been media darlings. But now he is running the Red Sox, and they get plenty of coverage. While that level of coverage might not be fair or warranted, his deals are being scrutinized hard these days. Is he gutting the farm system? Or does Dombrowski know how to pick ’em? I thought I’d take an objective stab at his trade record.
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Tommy John Surgeries: 2016 Update

It’s no secret that, over the last few years, the number of Tommy John surgeries has increased across all levels of baseball. As we emerge from the All-Star break, let’s take a snapshot of the current state of Tommy John surgeries at the professional ranks.

New Tommy John Surgeries
Let’s start with some good news. The number of Tommy John surgeries at the major-league level is down in 2016 compared with the last couple of seasons. Comparing totals at this point in the season over recent years, there have been fewer Tommy John surgeries to date this year than any since 2011.

MLB Tommy John Surgeries, By Year
Year MLB TJ Surgeries
2016 12
2015 20
2014 24
2013 15
2012 26
2011 8
2010 6
2009 17
2008 8
2007 12
Surgeries before July 12 of each year

In the past five seasons, I’ve attempted to track Tommy John surgeries at the minor-league level more closely than in prior years. This information is much more difficult to collect, and certainly there will be many surgeries missing from the list every season. Looking only at surgeries known to have been performed by this time in the year, however, the 2016 campaign looks more like 2012-2013 than the last two years where surgery counts had spiked.

Known MiLB Tommy John Surgeries, By Year
Year Known MiLB TJ Surgeries
2016 38
2015 60
2014 63
2013 44
2012 39
Surgeries before July 12 of each year

So the most interesting question here is: has something actually changed to cause the number of Tommy John surgeries to drop this year compared with the last two seasons?

I can’t say that I know the answer, but I suspect it’s due to a number of factors.

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Are Veterans Better at Slump-Busting?

Way back at the winter meetings, Brad Ausmus said a thing that I found interesting. It’s stuck with me ever since, gathering moss as I’ve pondered it occasionally. But by itself, it raised my eyebrow and set me on a path.

“Especially hitting,” began Ausmus. And continued:

[W]henever you recover from a struggle or go through a slump, you fall back on that experience anytime it happens again. That’s absolutely true. I can tell you that from experience. That’s why veteran players are much better equipped to handle slumps than young players just because of the experiences.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but before we ask the players and the numbers, I thought it would be interesting to call back to a psychology experiment with which I once assisted in college. In a study colloquially called The Beeper Study run by Laura Carstensen at Stanford University, we found that getting older led to more emotional stability and happiness.

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Introducing the Batter-Specific Run-Expectancy Tool

Today at FanGraphs, we’re introducing an interactive run-expectancy tool that incorporates the batter’s skill into the run-expectancy value. The tool, developed by the rather incredible Sean Dolinar, allows the user to input a few factors, including one to account for the batter, and in turn spits out a number estimating how many runs will be scored for the rest of the inning.

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The Slider Moves Differently to Different Locations

I gave Royals’ right-hander Chris Young a bit of an incredulous look — “You’re throwing the slider a ton this year!” He shrugged. Sure. “It’s okay, you can throw it inside and out, and it’s been good. But it moves a little differently depending on where you throw it.”

Young then mimicked the release point when trying to throw a slider inside to a right-handed hitter, and then he showed where the release point might be when throwing it outside to a right-handed hitter. One was straight to the plate, and the other had more side-to-side finish to it.

If you’ve pitched competitively — or, at least, possess more experience than my own, which is limited to throwing a whiffle ball to my kid while he imitates Julio Franco — this may be old hat to you. But to me, it was surprising and also totally logical at the same time. I immediately wanted to know what this looked like.

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What Pitchers (and Numbers) Say About Pitching in the Cold

Maybe it was the fact that she spent her formative years in Germany, while I spent most of mine in Jamaica and America’s South, but my mother and I have always disagreed about a fundamental thing when it comes to the weather. For her, she wants the sun. It doesn’t matter if it’s bitter cold and dry; if the sun’s out, she’s fine. I’d rather it was warm. Don’t care if there’s a drizzle or humidity or whatever.

It turns out, when we were disagreeing about these things, we were really talking about pitching. Mostly because life is pitching and pitching is life.

But also because the temperature, and the temperature alone, does not tell the story of pitching in the cold. It’ll make sense, just stick with it.

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Baseball’s New Approach to the Changeup

Baseball can be slow to change. We’ve had this idea for decades that certain pitch types have platoon splits, and that you should avoid them in certain situations because of it. Righties, don’t throw sliders to lefties! It’s Baseball 101.

Think of the changeup, too. “Does he have a changeup?” or some variation on the theme is the first question uttered of any prospect on the way up. It’s shorthand for “can he be a starter?” because we think of changeups as weapons against the opposite hand. A righty will need one to get lefties out and turn the lineup over, back to the other righties, who will be dispatched using breaking balls.

As with all conventional wisdom, this notion of handedness and pitch types should be rife for manipulation. Say you could use your changeup effectively against same-handed hitters, for example. You could have a fastball/changeup starter that was equally effective against both hands, despite the history of platoon splits on the pitch.

To the innovators go the spoils. And we’re starting to see some innovators.

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Has the League Lost Its Two Strike Approach?

Ask a current major league batter about his two strike approach. Watch the words stop coming out of their mouth.

About twenty minutes into a long conversation with Josh Donaldson about his approach to swinging the bat, we got to what he can do to deal with the low and away pitch in counts where he has to protect. I didn’t realize it, but I’d asked for his two-strike approach. “I don’t really want to get too in depth into that,” he said, shutting off the inquiry.

Brandon Moss, the most loquacious of interviews, just laughed when I asked him about how his approach changed. Quickly, I learned not to talk about it.

But it was still out there. And when Paul Konerko told me (during another long conversation about hitting) that he felt like a strikeout was a weakness, my ears perked up. He’d tell me about his two-strike approach. He wasn’t in the league any more.

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Maybe Ground-Ball Pitchers Actually Are a Bad Bet?

Maybe you remember, but a couple of years ago, Bill James went on a rant about ground-ball pitchers. It started with a bang:

Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball. Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball, in any era, and what you will find is that 80% of them are not ground ball pitchers. They’re fly ball pitchers.

And it got louder. James felt that they got injured often, and flamed out. “They’re great for two years, and then they blow up,” he wrote. “Always.”

The response was swift.

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Are Player Types Aging Differently Now?

At ESPN, they recently wrapped up their prospects week. I thought I’d zag from that zig, however, and instead wrote a piece for Insider about 30-year-olds and how they’ll age. Using some research from Jeff Zimmerman on aging by player type, I tried to spot some 30-year-olds who are about to go into the tank, and some that might age better than we expect.

But while working on the piece, I asked Zimmerman to update the research on player-type aging, starting in 2005. That’s the year baseball stiffened their steroid policy. Here’s something strange: in this, what we might call the “post-PED era,” it appears as though certain player types have begun aging in an entirely different way.

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Team Win Projections vs. Actual Win Totals, 2007-Present

Full-season team projections cause some heated arguments. If a team finishes the year with fewer wins than expected, fans want to know why their club underperformed projections. If a team overperforms its projections, meanwhile, those same fans will insist that forecasts in subsequent years lack the ability to detect their club’s particular strengths and are thus useless.

Here at FanGraphs, we have only been doing full-season projections for a couple years, but just about every week I see a mention of the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals’ projected record of 79-83. If I search Google for “79-83 Royals FanGraphs,” I get over 11,000 article links. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular topic. Rarely does a club, following a pair of World Series appearances, then proceed to fail to break even. But that’s what the numbers suggest for 2016.

While FanGraphs has produced team win projections for only a couple seasons, Replacement Level Yankee Weblog (RLYW) has been publishing win projections for years. Since 2007, to be precise. Given this larger sample, I thought that it might be worthwhile to compare the projected win values produced by RLYW to the actual final win values produced by teams. So, with the permission of RLYW editor SG, that’s what I’ve done here.

I hate to disappoint anyone, but there are actually aren’t any great findings in the plethora of graphs to follow. I did find a couple interesting artifacts of the data, but no game changers. Instead, I see the following mainly as an additional data point in many past, present, and future discussions.

To start with, here is how projected and actual values have correlated.

projwin_2007-2015_720

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An Attempt to Quantify Pitcher Deception

Deception seems impossible to quantify. How are you going to put a number on something like the Invisiball thrown by Yusmeiro Petit? The ball is there, and then it isn’t, and then it’s back! Put that in your number machine, nerd boy.

Except, hidden in that description of the Invisiball is a possible guide. The release point. The release point is a huge moment for the hitter — it can tell him about the type of pitch and type of movement he’s about to see even before the ball is released.

Think of Brad Ziegler. You see that arm dragging along the ground, and you know the ball is going to move down and away from you. You adjust. Think of Darren O’Day. You see that arm slot, and you think the ball will drop, and when it doesn’t, you miss his Submarine Riseball. Tyler Clippard! You see that over the top and you think the ball will rise — and his fastball does, but not his changeup.

So maybe deception is deviation from the expected movement given a pitcher’s arm slot. Or at least that’s maybe one sort of deception. It probably won’t help us understand Petit’s Invisiball any better, but it may give us something with which to work on this hard-to-define aspect of pitching.

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The End of the Terrible Number-Two Hitter

If you’ve recently spent time with other humans, it’s likely that you noticed that they tend to be overconfident about how well they understand the world around them. Think of all of the people you know who have tried to weasel their way out of admitting they were wrong even when presented with strong evidence that they had misinterpreted a situation. Humans are bold and unapologetic in their declarations and do not like it when you point out that they’ve made a serious error.

It’s hard to criticize people for that when it seems to be a pretty fundamental aspect of the species. It’s not good or bad, it simply is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy little moments when someone makes a compelling argument and then the world totally destroys their hard work by changing around them.

For example, two political scientists once wrote a book called Congress’ Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House which was the first major scholarly account of how a minority party operates when it expects to be in the minority for the foreseeable future. It’s a well-researched book and was well reviewed when it came out. Unfortunately for the authors, it came out in January of 1994, just 11 months before the Republicans would win control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It was a perfectly fine analysis, it was just totally detached from the reality of American politics almost immediately.

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Dallas Keuchel and Pitcher Plate-Discipline Aging Curves

The first time Dallas Keuchel broke out, it was because he found a new pitch. Moving from the curve to the slider really pulled his arsenal together. The second time he broke out, it was for reasons that were both more complicated but also just as conventional — it looks like Keuchel merely threw fewer pitches inside the zone, while getting batters to reach and swing just as much. More swings on pitches outside of the zone means more misses and more strikeouts.

All of that is nice, but it’s hard to know which breakout is easier to believe. Our intuition probably tells us that the first is less delicate — he needed a breaking ball, and he found a good one, and it should remain good. But batters could adjust more easily to the second one, couldn’t they? Just lay off more of those balls?

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How (Not) to Set Up a Fastball

Pitch sequencing, in my opinion, is the next big thing in the field of baseball research, and despite what Samsung might like to tell you, it isn’t here yet. There has been some tremendous work done, but we’re still a long ways away from aggregating findings into one clearly defined picture of how pitch sequencing exactly works.

But we might as well continue to add to the findings. I looked at one aspect of pitch sequencing – shifts in the called strike zone – last month. Next, I’m looking at how best to set up different types of pitches. We’ll start with four-seam fastballs, and, so as to keep it simple for now, focus just on the fastball and on the pitch immediately beforehand. Not pitches before that in the same at-bat, not pitches to the same batter earlier in the game, not pitches to that batter from a different game.

Intuitively, you might expect changing speeds on the batter to be an effective way to mess with their swing and timing. A changeup, then, should be a good pitch to set up a fastball – changeups are generally 10-plus mph slower than the same pitcher’s fastball. Curveballs, too, should be decent setup pitches, as should sliders to a lesser extent. (Sliders are usually thrown harder than curves.) As it turns out, though, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Contact

Contact% = Foul balls + balls in play per swing

There’s some year-to-year variation, but, by and large, changeups are ineffective ways to get swings and misses on the fastballs which follow them. Now, bear in mind, the scale here isn’t so large – it’s a few percentage points each way. But it’s still pretty clear that changeups, as well as curveballs, don’t help the pitcher throw a better fastball the next pitch.

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A Primer on a New and Improved KATOH

My role here at FanGraphs is to write about minor league players. Nearly all of my articles focus on the output from my KATOH projection system, which produces long-term forecasts for players who are still in the minor league phase of their careers. Today, I’m unveiling some updates to my model that will be reflected in my analysis from this point forward.

I’ve been meaning to work these updates into KATOH for quite some time now, but haven’t had the chance to finish up until now. Some pieces of this took a bit longer than expected, and day job stuff along with this year’s onslaught of prospect debuts pushed things to the backseat a bit. But I’m all caught up now and ready to unveil my new and improved KATOH. Here we go!

Rather than just putting out a straight leaderboard, I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to explain some of the inner workings of KATOH. I wanted to say something more insightful than “These are the best prospects because math.” That’s why this piece runs 2,000+ words without reference to a single baseball player. If you’re just interested in the output rather than the nitty-gritty, check back after Thanksgiving for KATOH’s top 100 list. I just wanted to get all of this background stuff down in one place, rather than cluttering future pieces with extra information.

*****

Obligatory Technical Details

The general framework of my model is largely the same as it’s always been. As I did in the past, I deployed a series of probit regressions to see what factors are most predictive of major league performance. For each player, I generated probabilities that he would achieve certain benchmarks through his age-28 season: play in the major leagues, earn at least 1 WAR, earn at least 2 WAR, etc. These percentages gave me a probabilistic outlook for each player, and enabled me calculate an “expected value” for his WAR through age 28.

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The Reds’ Plan, Rebuilding, and Team Volatility

The Reds rumors are coming in hot and fast, or at least hot and fast for the weeks right before Thanksgiving, when most of baseball seems to be watching football. Mostly, it’s the obvious scuttlebutt: Aroldis Chapman and Brandon Phillips are available, for packages of varying quality, and mostly for players close to the major leagues.

Depending on what you think of the Reds and their current competitiveness, you’ll read “listening to any and all offers” differently. If you like the Reds’ young starting rotation, you think you might sell anything that’s not nailed down for 2017, meaning the focus is on jettisoning Jay Bruce and getting a haul for the Cuban closer. If you think there’s no hope and the division is too awesome for the Reds, you think they should probably trade Todd Frazier, and maybe even Joey Votto.

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The Consequences of Changing an Umpire’s Eye Level

A while back, Jeff wrote this article on an Edinson Volquez pitch to Jose Bautista in the ALDS, and a commenter left this comment:

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 7.41.47 PM

This is a good comment. I like this comment. I decided to investigate this comment. And, as it turns out, StroShow was spot on.

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Is Baseball Bad at Bunting?

During the fifth inning of Game Two, as Alcides Escobar attempted to bunt against Jacob deGrom, Harold Reynolds decried the current state of bunting in professional baseball. Even after he admitted that hard throwers are hard to bunt on, he went on a mini tirade: “I know it’s hard to get one down against a guy that throws this hard, but I’ve never seen this bad of bunting. Ever. Ever! In baseball, just across the board. I know Escobar can handle the bat, but we see this every night. They have to move the runner. Not just the Royals, but across the board.”

The moment was probably lost for a couple reasons. For one, Escobar decided to swing-away after two failed bunt attempts, and promptly tied the game with a single to center. There was too much excitement to think too deeply about the state of bunting in our game. Now we have a second to breathe, though.

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