Introducing NERD

Last week, as part of his Thursday Throneberries, Rob Neyer wrote — in re the Why We Watch post that I’d submitted to these electronic pages — he wrote that “the only thing missing [from said post]… is a points system that would let us put a number on each game.” That is, Neyer was curious if it might be possible to assign points to each game on a particular day in order to tell which might be most appealing to the sabermetrically inclined viewer.

Neyer’s challenge put a bee in my proverbial bonnet. And when you put a bee like that in Carson Cistulli’s bonnet — proverbial or otherwise — he’s not gonna stop until that bee is either dead or, if not dead, at least captured and successfully rehabilitated.

Which is why I’ve spent every waking minute of the last five or so days — and some of the sleeping minutes, too — working on the problem.

A few minutes of consideration reveal two facts:

1. It’s a big-ish task, this, to devise a points system for every possible aspect (pitching, hitting, uniform design, stadium, broadcast team, etc.) that might contribute to the viewing experience.

2. Despite the verity of point 1, it seems as though we can say with some certainty that pitching matchups — because the pitchers are constantly playing — go the greatest way towards making a game either compelling or not. Therefore, that’s where I’ve elected to start.

So the question I posed to my own brain is: what makes a starting pitcher interesting to the baseball nerd? And also: of the things that might make a pitcher interesting, which of them are easily measured? And finally: what ought one call a stat designed to address these urgent questions?

The last question is the easiest to answer. Were I to construct a stat designed to appeal to the baseball nerd, I’d call that stat NERD. What would/does it stand for? Hard to say, but it just feels so right.

Now, as for the first two questions there, let’s take a look at some possible answers.

Components of Pitcher NERD
• Pitcher Ability (xFIP)
At the center of the baseball nerd’s quest is the desire to understand, quite simply, who is good at baseball and who is less good. While, as Tommy Bennett rightly notes, metrics that evaluate process (as opposed to outcome) aren’t flawless, Expected FIP (xFIP) is both pretty damn sweet and pretty freaking accessible.

• Strikeouts (SwStrk%)
Swinging strikes correlate very highly to strikeouts — are, in fact, more predictive of future K rate than K rate itself. Also, they’re awesome to watch. Yes, strikeouts are a part of xFIP, but there’s a pleasure to the strikeout that ought to be recognized. It represents a pitcher’s total pwn-ing of his opponent. Consider: despite having absolutely no ties to San Francisco or its environs, I consider it a great privilege to watch Tim Lincecum throw his change-up. Yeah, the crazy wind-up is pretty sweet, but his change-up — which gets whiffs about 25% of the time — is what really gets the party started.

• Strike Throwing (Strike% of Total Pitches Thrown)
It’s nice to watch a pitcher who throws a lot of strikes — even those not of the swing-and-miss variety. Phrased differently, it can be super boring to watch a pitcher who doesn’t throw strikes. Consider Rich Harden of 2009. He had a swinging-strike rate of about 16% in 2009, but he only threw about a league average number of strikes. That’s enough to make him less watchable. (And, of course, he’s much harder to tolerate this season, now that he’s getting about half the swing-and-misses.)

• Luck (ERA-xFIP)
It’s a fact: nerds like watching regression happen. Scientists are efforting day and night to figure out why — to no avail as of yet. Anyway, it’s a fact.

A Note on Weighting the Components
Though each of the components listed above probably all contribute to making a pitcher interesting, that’s not to say that each of them ought to be weighted equally. Value luck too heavily and Charlie Morton is the most interesting player in the world. Do the same to swinging strikes and Brandon Morrow makes his way to the top of the charts.

As the goal of this exercise is not to uncover an objective truth — like, for example, how many runs a player has produced or how much he might be worth on the open market — but rather to address questions of an aesthetic nature, I’ve allowed myself to abide by intuition in assigning weights to the components in consideration.

Here’s how I’ve opted to go about it.

Calculating NERD
To calculate NERD, I found each pitcher’s z-score (standard deviations from the mean) for cats 1-3. I multiplied the xFIP score by 2, divided both the swinging strike and strike percentage scores by 2, and then added Luck to the total.

In re that last part, about luck, a couple notes: I opted only to add bad luck to the overall equation. A pitcher who’s overperforming his xFIP is less interesting to me (and to baseball nerds, in general, I’m guessing) than one who’s underperforming it. If a pitcher’s ERA-xFIP is less than 0 (i.e. lucky), I just counted as 0. In other words, I only real care about pitchers who will seem to be improving.

Also: I capped the Luck “bonus” at 2. Otherwise, seriously, Charlie Morton is the highest-ranked pitcher.

Adding a constant (in this case, 4.69) gives all 150 or so pitchers (with 20+ IP) a score between 0 and 10, with average exactly at 5. I had to round the top two guys down to 10 and the bottom three guys guy up to 0, but that’s it.

The Final Equation
Looks like this:

(xFIPz * 2) + (SwStrk%z / 2) + (Strike%z / 2) + Luck + 4.69.

Here are the current top 20 starters (with 20+ IP) by NERD:

Here are the bottom 20:

Bill James once suggested that, if a stat never surprises you, it’s probably worthless. This is an idea I embraced while attempting to fine tune NERD. Which is to say, I wanted it to be occasionally surprising.

For example, one might wonder how Randy Wells ranks higher than the very talented Tim Lincecum. Well, in addition to actually being quite good so far this season, Wells’ ERA is almost a full point above his xFIP. With time, the former is likely to crawl back down towards the latter. When it does, Wells will very likely not occupy his current spot. Still, in the meantime, it’s worth wondering when we’ll see Wells’ luck turn for the better.

Future Considerations
Pitcher NERD is definitely not complete. Undoubtedly, it makes sense to consider at least a couple-few more components. Components such as (though not limited to):

• Player Age/Experience
Rookies are exciting. Young players, generally, are exciting. It makes sense to factor something like player age or service time into the equation.

• Repertoire
My good friend Leo writes, “Should a guy like Justin Verlander be higher because he throws 100 MPH? That’s fun to watch.” The same friend also would like see Ubaldo Jimenez further up the charts. And who can blame him: watching Jimenez pitch is fun.

• Fat Heads
Vincente Padilla has one. That should count against him somehow.

If you’re interested in fooling around with the weights, by all means utilize this spreadsheet that I’ve uploaded to Google Docs. It also includes data for 2009, which saw Javier Vazquez, Ricky Nolasco, Roy Halladay, Tom Gorzelanny (!), and Tim Lincecum finish in the top five.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

44 Responses to “Introducing NERD”

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  1. OremLK says:

    Rate of hit batsmen should have a huge positive effect. Because while it may not be fun, it’s certainly interesting!

    Like, the guy who hits the first three batters then strikes out the next three swinging should definitely be the most interesting man in the world.

    It also feels like Strike% should instead be weighted so that streakiness is ameliorates the negative effect of a lower percentage. A pitcher prone to being locked in for awhile then having a sudden bout of wildness is a lot more interesting than a pitcher with more evenly distributed inability to find the strike zone. In other words: The more balls you throw in one inning, the less negative impact each ball has.

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  2. Joe West says:

    Extra point should go to pitchers who pitch fast (example: Mark Buerle). No one wants to watch 4 hour long games between the Yankees and Red Sox.

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  3. MattEthridge says:

    Nice. It’s got me thinking about hitter NERD. Since with hitters we usually want to see them rake, perhaps there can be an element of inverse pitching NERD in there. Or does that actually ruin hitter NERD? Is it better to watch the Yankees, for example, go off on the hapless Orioles? Or to see their mighty bats match up with the NERDiness of the Rays pitching staff?

    I guess I just answered my own question. You don’t really need hitter NERD, because good pitching matchups are what make good games, and what makes the late inning raking worth watching. Maybe there should be some element of opposition hitting prowess in pitcher NERD, a dash of park interest, and call it good.

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  4. Jake says:

    Not only should you get bonus points for throwing fast, but there should be bonuses for throwing knuckleballs.

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  5. Greg says:

    Pace, or time between pitches, has gotta be in there somewhere. As someone who’s seen both Halladay and Steve Trachsel pitch in Toronto, the fact that Doc doesn’t pointlessly waste 45 minutes by constantly shaking off the catcher and regrouping makes him a lot more enjoyable to watch.

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  6. Evan says:

    I like the system, but I think you need to do more research into quantifying the interest that stat nerds have in the various “components of pitchers” and weighting them properly based on this. A statistically significant poll of the target audience seems like the best solution. There may also be points of significance you are missing. I find GB% to be a factor of interest.

    I’m hoping you address other factors as you move forward. For example, is a potent lineup from top to bottom vs. a good pitcher better than watching one or two sabermetric superstars in a lineup? Can we ever answer the question, what is the best game to watch?

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    • danny woytek says:

      Hate to get even nerdier, but it’s gonna be hard getting a statistically significant poll with a non-random sample. Self selection internet users do not a statistically significant poll make.

      But to the point, probably can’t answer the question but it doesn’t hurt to propose possibilities.

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      • edxs says:

        This is probably okay because NERD wants the opinions of these self-selectors (nerds), not the general population.

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  7. Matt S says:

    I agree with Jake. Any metric that says it is less interesting to watch a knuckle baller than an ordinary pitcher is flawed. The interest is tied to the high drama produced by utter reliance on a trick pitch that often might not work, but is ruthlessly effective when it does. So many of Wake’s starts are agonizing but a fair number are also things of rare joy and beauty.

    I think going forward, the pitcher NERD should be weighted against both opposing pitcher NERD and an opposing lineup strength NERD. While it is fine to have a pitcher’s duel, it is pretty dull if it is the result of a master hurler owning a light hitting, free-swinging line up. One hitter can be interesting, but the game needs a steady stream of conflict to really draw you in. Wouldn’t Shields and the Rays against Baker and the Twins be more fun than Lincecum’s giants vs Oswalt’s Astros. I think so.

    Anyway, good piece. Very thought provoking.

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  8. Josh says:

    Commentators have to be factored in… negative point for Joe Buck.

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    • John Franco says:

      +1. Any game with Vin Scully broadcasting is immediately pegged on the positive watchability scale.

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  9. Complainer says:

    Blame can also be placed on ESPN (and all other networks) who sometimes add an extra :30-:60 to each commercial break

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  10. Chris says:

    You should add something for historical performances (not the individual’s historical performance, but like club / league / MLB records). For instance, Ubaldo now is working on a club record for shutout innings and is only the third pitcher in history to go 10-1 with a sub 1 ERA (one of them being a dead ball era pitcher, the other was Gibson). That to me is even more interesting than a hard luck pitcher trying to get back on track.

    And I agree with some of the other commenters who say that a pitcher’s repertoire should be factored in with knuckleballs and Zito’s massive curves being high and guys that have ‘meh’ arsenals get ranked low.

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  11. Colby Lewis is heartbroken, Carson.

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  12. Tree says:

    Pitcher’s over 40 with a dozen “different” pitches should also get a bonus.

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    • oPlaiD says:

      PRARL, or Pitcher Repertoire Above Replacement Level, should certainly be a factor.

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  13. kris says:

    You should definitely take the absolute value of the Z-Scores on cats 1-3 because if there’s one thing that I find entertaining, it’s pitchers getting absolutely lit up. On that note, stolen bases allowed also contributes to my sadistic enjoyment of this game.

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  14. John Franco says:

    I was thinking that I must not be nerdy enough because I don’t necessarily like to watch regression happen. But I thought about it some more and I *do* like to see whether a pitcher can successfully fight off the powers of regression. I’d just rather that he win the battle than lose it, at least for the start that I’m watching.

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  15. tbad says:

    Definitely agree with the point about knuckleballers – maybe we could quadruple their NERD or something. But on the whole regression note, I’d far rather watch a player overperforming his xFIP get lit up. I get Nats games because I live in Baltimore and every time Livan takes the hill I watch eagerly and await God’s (read: regression’s) wrath on his soft-tossing ways.

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  16. G-Ballz says:

    Ultimately, to find the best game, we’d need a GLOBAL NERD formula. This would combine several formulas, including but not limited to:
    – Starting Pitcher NERD
    – Bullpen NERD (to account for bullpen quality after the starter leaves)
    – Batter NERD
    – Team Batting NERD (to account for matchup quality)
    – Something incorporating current winning percentage (possibly to be included with Team NERD numbers)

    More thoughts on Starting Pitcher NERD:
    – Bonus for each Cy Young won (i.e. +0.5)… love seeing highly decorated pitchers
    – Bonus for Complete Game percentage (maybe over last 3 years)
    – Bonus for those among the 10% fastest workers (i.e. Buehrle)
    – Bonus for number of hit batsmen (maybe # of beans * .05)
    – Negative points for those among the 10% slowest pacers
    – Negative sliding scale for those with walk rates over 3

    Other general NERD thoughts:
    – Bonus for player who’s likely a future Hall of Famer
    – Bonus for player in top 5 of a major stat category as of gameday (i.e. BA leader, 3rd in ERA, etc.)

    So many things come to mind once you think about this topic for a little while! Very interesting idea.

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  17. pressure says:

    I’m going to suggest that there be some type of “hype” component in there. Or at least integrated with with players who are overperforming their xFIP. Basically calculated as the difference between popular opinion and sabermetric opinion x player popularity. I’m also going to have to agree that watching regression “the other way” can be equally intriguing. Personally, I’m looking forward to Carlos Silva’s next start.

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  18. Any system that doesn’t show Tim Wakefield being one of the most interesting pitchers active is per se badly flawed. He is unpredictable game to game, inning to inning and pitch to pitch. When the knuckler is working, the pitches themselves are fun to watch. It’s fun to watch the batters flail; it’s fun to see them laugh or shake their heads after especially lively knucklers. He is capable of pitching an absolute masterpiece or losing a blow-out. He can win despite giving up huge homers; whenever a runner is on third, there’s the danger of a passed ball. It is so obviously wrong for him to be in the bottom 20 that it should have flagged the fact the the formula was not ready for publication.

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  19. Darien says:

    There should also be a component to account for pitchers with especially entertaining mechanics, such as the way Lincecum looks like his limbs are all about to fly off in different directions, or how Carlos Marmol nearly falls over toward first base. Maybe a “weirdness” stat that accounts for these things, and trick pitches like the knuckler and the eephus, and oddities like Jimenez’s velocity or Zito’s curve or Rivera’s broken bat rate.

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    • Jishwa says:

      Does anyone actually throw an Eephus pitch? I can’t think of anyone…unless you count all of Jaime Moyer’s pitches as Eephus pitches…

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  20. danny woytek says:

    BTW, Neyer called you Sparky!!

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  21. Swo says:

    I question any list that deems Tim Wakefield unfun to watch… there needs to be some kind of knuckleball quotient…

    that said this is truly an interesting idea. and the list seems to be pretty accurate as to what I would like to see in a pitcher.

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  22. Bronnt says:

    Love, love the effort that went into this. I don’t necessarily agree with the decision to discount lucky pitchers, though. For example, I’m just waiting for the bubble that Livan Hernandez is floating on to pop. It’s a factor that would draw some interest for me, on a case to case basis-I’m certainly not watching every Nate Robertson start waiting for him to implode.

    Also, obviously, it’s just strange to leave Jimenez off this list.

    But all in all, brilliant work.

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  23. Jay says:

    I just like guys who work at the extremes, be it strikeouts, walks, groundballs, “luck”, age, velocity or orthodoxy of delivery.

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  24. Trev says:

    Seeing that Chris Tillman has no score, how about adding a component for pitchers (or any other player) making their major league debut (or just recently after). I would just use the Baseball America Top 100 list, but you could use the fangraphs Top 10s, etc. Any player involved in the game should get a bonus. And Stephen Strasburg should get an automatic 10.

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    • teejay1324 says:

      I agree there should be something added in for young starters. Maybe a point if they’re still qualified as a rookie, or a point if they’re 24 or younger. Something along those lines.

      Maybe something for guys on the other end, say a point for anyone starting a game over 40? Always interesting when an old guy turns out a good outing.

      Really neat idea.

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  25. natebracy says:

    How long the pitcher lasts ought to affect the watchability. Does he go 5-6 or 8-9?

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  26. Jishwa says:

    Any type of article\equation\system\whatever that spawns a negative Steve Trachsel reference is okay with me haha.

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  27. jGreen says:

    Morrow, Ely, Carpenter, Masteron, Wells and Haren are 6/8 of my fantasy rotation. Is there some kind of nerd currency I just earned for this feat? Nerd points? I’d like to redeem those nerd points for sortable SwStrk%. It’s literally the only thing I want that this website doesn’t already have.

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  28. Ray says:

    So basically, Dan Haren shouldn’t be as bad as he’s been this season.

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