Lots of good comments in the post yesterday about things we’d like to learn about baseball. I’d like to expand on a few of the ideas, and maybe we can flesh out some thoughts to pursue, or at least plan to pursue them once we figure out how. The most intriguing ones, to me, were based on the concepts of performance being affected by teammates.
There were three suggestions that got at this kind of relationship, in different ways.
1. Catcher defense/pitch sequencing
2. Defense’s impact on developing a pitcher
3. Line-up synergy
In all three of these concepts, the idea is that one player is significantly impacted by the presence of another player. In general, statistical analysis doesn’t really account for any scenarios like that at the moment. We kind of throw our hands up in the air when it comes to catcher defense, and we create player projections in a context neutral environment and then add minor adjustments for things like park effects, but leave it at that.
From a practical standpoint, that’s okay for now. We don’t have any evidence that we should be doing anything differently, and you can’t just make up an adjustment for something that may or may not exist. But it’s not much of a stretch to think that there may be some kind of effects here that we’re missing.
The catcher/pitcher stuff is obviously ripe ground for study. With the accumulation of Pitch F/x data, we’re starting to get to the point where we can get some legitimate sample sizes, and start comparing what one catcher calls to others. We can look at trends of pitch usage and look for sequences of pitches that may be more effective than others. I think there’s a lot to be discovered in this area, and I’d expect it to be one of the major areas of study for statistical analysts in the next few years.
The interaction between a pitcher and his defense may be a little harder to study, but is also worth doing. Vince Gennaro, a professor at Columbia and a consultant to a lot of MLB teams, has recently done some work on the secondary effects of defense, quantifying the change in pitching staff usage for teams that flash the leather. They shift a lot of innings from their bad relievers to their good relievers and their starters, allowing for the distribution of innings to be more heavily skewed towards the top end of their talent pool.
However, there’s even further to drill on this issue. Do pitchers change their pitch selection based on the quality of their defense? If they have a bunch of gold glovers behind them, do they pitch more to contact? Does the resulting drop in baserunners result in lower stress pitches, which allow them to work deeper into games? These are benefits to the pitcher that have not yet been explored, but should be.
Finally, there’s the line-up synergy suggestion. This one, I’m a little less sure of, but would still think its worth our time to dive into. The protection theory has been studied to death and mostly debunked, but it isn’t hard to come up with scenarios where the performance of one hitter does affect others. It’s well known that nearly everyone hits better with men on base than with the bases empty, so anyone hitting behind an OBP machine should get a boost in performance, simply from that effect.
But there’s also other possible synergies, I would think. Having a balanced line-up of LH and RH hitters should limit a manager’s ability to play the match-ups late in games, reducing the amount of times a hitter has to face a same-handed pitcher in higher leverage situations. This would be especially important for a guy like Curtis Granderson, who should almost certainly hit between two RHBs. You could also argue for putting a left-handed groundball hitter behind a high on-base guy in order to take advantage of the hole created when the first baseman has to hold a runner on. These may not be huge changes, but they may add up enough to be worth considering.
While baseball is the most individual of team sports, it is not solely a one-on-one match-up at all times. If we look hard enough, I’d bet we’ll find ways that teammates do, in fact, influence the performance of those around them.
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