Numbers as Narrative: Bell, Hernandez, Pujols

Scott Gray’s The Mind of Bill James is an excellent book — one whose entire contents I’m tempted to reproduce here except for (a) it’d break every copyright law in existence and (b) all that typing would hella exacerbate my ulnar claw.

Anyway, believe me when I say that Gray does an excellent job of demonstrating the wide-ranging import of Bill James’s work. Believe me, also, when I say that Gray is smart to occasionally quote at length from the Abstracts and other of James’s books.

Which, that’s exactly what he does at the beginning of chapter three of the aforementioned book. Regard, the Master at work:

When the numbers melt into the language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do, to become fiction and drama and poetry. Am I imagining things? Do not the numbers of Ted Williams detail a story of fierce talent and, by the char of their ugly gaps, the ravages of exquisite frustration that ever accompany imperfect times? Do not the numbers of Roberto Clemente spell out a novella of irritable determination straining toward higher and higher peaks until snapped suddenly by an arbitrary, but now inevitable, machina? Do not the stressed and unstressed syllables of Willie Davis‘ prime suggest an iambic indifference Is there not a cavalcata in Pete Rose’s charges? Is there no union of thrill and agony in Roger Maris‘ numbers? How else can one explain the phenomenon of baseball cards, which is that a chart of numbers that would put an actuary to sleep can be made to dance if you put it on one side of a card and Bombo Rivera‘s picture on the other.

First off, I’d like to mention how, despite being alone in my living room when I first read that, I still stood up and began a Hollywood movie-style slow clap.

Second off, here’s the exciting idea that James gives us: that numbers are able to take on a narrative quality.

My reaction when I read that was something like: hey, I wanna play along. Lucky for me, I have a platform to do that.

So what I did was to isolate three players whose numbers tell an interesting story. Here they are.

Heath Bell, RHRP, San Diego
The story that Bell’s numbers tell us is of a pitcher whose talent was, in the parlance of our 43rd president, misunderestimated. The guilty club? Shockingly, the Mets. Yes, the same team whose bullpen effectively handed division titles to Philadelphia in both the 2007 and 2008 seasons didn’t have space for a pitcher who was posting good fielding-independent numbers. Regard Bell’s first three MLB seasons:

Season	Team	IP	gmLI	ERA	tRA	tRA*	FIP	xFIP	BABIP
2004	Mets	24.1	0.93	3.33	3.81	4.08	4.24	3.02	0.290
2005	Mets	46.2	0.75	5.59	4.01	3.98	2.91	3.39	0.374
2006	Mets	37.0	0.59	5.11	5.69	4.60	4.25	3.21	0.394

That gmLI thing, in case you don’t know, is the average Leverage Index of all the times a pitcher enters a game over the course of a season. One (1) is average. Below one indicates a low leverage situation. What those declining gmLIs show us is a team (New York) becoming increasingly hesitant to hand over important situations to one of its relievers (Bell). And if you look only at Bell’s ERAs, you’ll understand why. Were Bell’s 2005 and 2006 ERAs indicative of his skill, then New York’s reluctance would make sense. But cast your eyes rightward to the end of those rows, and you’ll see the more likely culprit for Bell’s seeming mediocrity: way inflated BABIPs. The most likely reason for Bell’s poor showing was a combo deal of bad luck and shoddy D. His tRA of 5.69 in 2006 is a red flag, but the regressed version (tRA*) from StatCorner and all the other sorts of metrics all say Bell wasn’t far off from his established levels.

In Novemeber of 2006, San Diego GM Kevin Towers sent Ben Johnson to New York for Bell and Royce Ring*. Johnson disappeared after 2007**. As for Bell? Ta Da!:

Season	Team	IP	gmLI	ERA	tRA	tRA*	FIP	xFIP	BABIP
2007	Padres	93.2	1.41	2.02	2.57	3.01	2.50	2.84	0.260
2008	Padres	78.0	1.57	3.58	3.62	4.18	3.34	3.87	0.291
2009	Padres	64.0	1.83	2.81	2.58	3.42	2.53	3.17	0.294

As you can see, he proceeded to be awesome. Awesomer than before, in fact. Whether that’s luck or actual improvement or because he had an established role, we don’t know. The point is, the talent was there. And even if said talent resided/resides in a sort of overweight-looking manbody, if said manbody strikes batters out and gets groundballs, who the eff cares?

*Setting off a nightmarish chain reaction of “Ring that Bell” puns across all America’s sports pages.
**Seriously. No dice from any of Baseball Reference, Baseball Cube, or Wikipedia. Is he okay?

David Hernandez, RHSP, Baltimore
Let’s play a game. The game is called One of These Things Is not Like the Other. The first thing you do is look at some numbers. Second, you say which one doesn’t belong. It starts right now.

Season	Team		IP	SO	K/9
2006	Orioles (A)	145.1	154	9.54
2007	Orioles (A+)	145.1	168	10.40
2008	Orioles (AA)	141	166	10.60
2009	Orioles (AAA)	57.1	79	12.40
2009	Orioles		91	59	5.84

Okay, so it’s not a super fun game, but at least it’s easy. What you see there are David Hernandez’s raw stats from 2006 – 2009. What you’ll notice is how is K/9 rates are super-good… in the minors. The Show hasn’t been very kind to Hernandez, right up to his most recent start versus Boston when he struck out only one in six innings.

Of course, the Average Reader is smart enough to say, “Well, sure, but those are just his raw minor league stats. Obviously his major league K-rates will be lower. The question is, How much lower?” Luckily for all of us, Jeff Sackmann’s on top of that junk. According to Minor League Splits, those same seasons (minus the 2009 MLB one) look alot like this:

Season	Team		MLE IP	MLE K	MLE K/9
2006	Orioles (A)	108.2	69	5.74
2007	Orioles (A+)	149.2	119	7.18
2008	Orioles (AA)	135.1	128	8.53
2009	Orioles (AAA)	57.2	66	10.38

It’s interesting to note how dramatically Hernandez improves across these four seasons. Speaking anecdotally, I’m not sure I’ve seen many pitchers exhibit such stark linear improvement. Usually you get some regression here, some break-out there. But those K-rates increase almost exactly 1.5 K/9 every year. It’s strange.

But I digress. Back to the point: What’s the story here?

Well, there are two, kinda. The first concerns Hernandez himself. It’s a story we’ve heard before, as Dave Cameron pointed out a couple months ago: a pitcher dominates the minors with deception and a good breaking pitch, gets promoted to the majors, and gets shelled. Yusmeiro Petit‘s story is similar. So is Brandon McCarthy‘s and Garrett Olson‘s.

The other story is of the mystery genre. It’s not quite Poirot-level excellent, but pretty good. It concerns a whole team of scientists (read: sabermetricians) who are unable to find a key missing ingredient to solve a case. The “case” requires that they project a pitcher’s potential major league success based on his minor league numbers. What they (i.e. the scientists) have noticed is that some pitchers simply don’t pitch at the major leagues like you’d expect them to.

Meanwhile, a group of gritty, skin-of-their-teeth detectives (read: scouts) say it’s because those certain pitchers don’t have major league stuff. The scientists say…

Okay, I’m gonna stop that, for all of our sakes. Here’s the point: Hernandez is young and his performance could improve, but the fact remains that he’s fairing at the major league level almost exactly how his scouting reports and pedigree suggested he would. Fin.

Albert Pujols, Crusher, St. Louis
El Hombre’s numbers tell the story of a young Dominican who immigrated with his family to the US, attended Maple Woods Community College in 1999, and either during his stay there or at least some time before 2001, BECAME A BASEBALLING CYBORG.

There’s no other possible explanation for Pujols’s twin traits of durability and production:

YR	PA	wOBA	Rank (Among players with > 400 PA)
2001	676	0.421	12
2002	675	0.402	18
2003	685	0.462	2
2004	692	0.439	3
2005	700	0.436	3
2006	634	0.448	2
2007	679	0.414	13
2008	641	0.458	1
2009	637	0.458	1

It’s hard to divine exactly what sort of transformation Pujols might’ve undergone — more like a RoboCop/Megacorp dystopian law enforcement sort of scenario, or more like a Wolverine/Weapon X clandestine government op-type of situation.

The fact that ESPN has attempted to make light of Pujols’s “secret” via one of their light-hearted This Is SportsCenter commercials should only serve to (a) strengthen our conviction that Pujols is indeed half-man, half-machine, and (b) suggest that ESPN — and, by extension, Disney Corp. — is somehow behind this operation.

My guess? That Pujols’s body was originally constructed to replace the current Teddy Roosevelt in the Hall of Presidents, except then the Disney execs realized that Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t shaped like the Incredible Hulk.




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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


25 Responses to “Numbers as Narrative: Bell, Hernandez, Pujols”

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  1. B says:

    “all that typing would hella exacerbate my ulnar claw.”

    Sounds to me like someone’s spent some time in the Bay…?

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  2. lookatthosetwins says:

    “Disney Corp. — is somehow behind this operation”

    But then wouldn’t he be playing for the Angels?

    “That Pujols’s body was originally constructed to replace the current Teddy Roosevelt in the Hall of Presidents, except then the Disney execs realized that Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t shaped like the Incredible Hulk.”

    Oh, that clears that up. Idiots.

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    • neuter_your_dogma says:

      Actually, Teddy wasn’t a bad athlete and in his prime could likely kick the butt of any other elected president (Ford wasn’t elected). As for William Howard Taft…

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  3. Matt B. says:

    Solid effort, good read. Keep it coming!

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  4. Caleb says:

    Bingo: http://www.oursportscentral.com/services/releases/?id=3883322

    Ben Johnson is on the Golden Baseball League’s Orange County Flyers.

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    • Carson Cistulli says:

      Thanks. I actually got semi-worried that he’d gotten sick or something. Usually, Baseball Cube is pretty good at tracking a guy, regardless of where he goes. Plus, “Ben Johnson” (even “+ baseball”) isn’t exactly the narrowest of Google searches.

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  5. MFG says:

    As Dave’s earlier article pointed out, Petit’s K numbers progressively worsened as he ascended leagues in MiLB. If Hernandez’s issues are “stuff and pedigree”, why do his K numbers progressively improve throughout MiLB levels?

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  6. MFG says:

    I might also point out that in the 5 starts prior to the Boston one, Hernandez recorded 23 Ks in 20.2 IP.

    I’m not saying he’s a great pitcher, but the K stats might not be the best way to point out his troubles.

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    • Carson Cistulli says:

      Point taken. I was dwelling on the high K-rates, I guess, on account of they’re what’s distinguished Hernandez as a minor leaguer. He led the Eastern League in Ks last year and the Carolina League the year before that. And it’s in spite of those distinctions that scouts have remained cool on Hernandez’s potential as a front-line starter.

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      • Tommy Landry says:

        The K rates are important, but even more important to Hernandez’s potential success are his HR rate and BB/9.

        At AAA he had the following stats
        HR/9 = 0.78
        BB/9 = 2.83

        Major league stats from 2009
        HR/9 = 2.40
        BB/9 = 4.09

        Also look at his HR/FB in the majors (14.8%) and you can see that HR/9 will come down. The BB/9 is still a wild card, as he had good and bad seasons in the minors. Based on the spring, he appears to be showing good control and command.

        I think he’s a great sleeper for deep leagues. This is supported by his FIP of 3.52 or less at all minor league levels from A+ to AAA.

        That said, he’s not a frontline type until he gets his BB/9 consistently under 3.

        The biggest concern should be his potential IP. He has never pitched 150 innings in a season, so I could see them running him hard early and then moving him to the pen when Tillman comes up. No need to send back to AAA since he’s been around a few years already.

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  7. Nick says:

    I think we all know what a slow-clap is.

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  8. KJOK says:

    One other amazing thing about Pujols is that the Cardinals started him out and played him almost the entire 2000 season at LOW A ball, and the next year he’s one of the best batters in the league.

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  9. Mike says:

    I am trying to understand what makes Hernandez unattractive to scouts. Before he came up, I assumed it was a mediocre fastball, but, at least thus far in the majors, his 92.9 average velocity is better than that of Tillman, Matusz, or Bergesen. Is it poor secondary stuff? Anyone know?

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    • Carson Cistulli says:

      If I’m remembering correctly, according to BA’s Prospect Handbook, it’s not so much about Hernandez’s fastball velocity as it is his lack of command with the slider and the absence of a real third pitch. (They mention that his change-up is sub-par.)

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      • wobatus says:

        Give him some time. He is pitching in the toughest environment imaginable, Yanks, Rays, Sox, and it is his first year in the majors. I bet his K rate goes up over the next few years.

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  10. Wrighteous says:

    “El Hombre’s numbers tell the story of a young Dominican who immigrated with his family to the US, attended Maple Woods Community College in 1999, and either during his stay there or at least some time before 2001, DISCOVERED THE MIRACLE OF SYNTHETIC TESTOSTERONE.”

    fixed

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    • Matt says:

      “El Hombre’s numbers tell the story of a young Dominican who immigrated with his family to the US, attended Maple Woods Community College in 1999, and either during his stay there or at least some time before 2001, DISCOVERED THE MIRACLE OF SYNTHETIC TESTOSTERONE.”

      Which somehow allowed him to maintain his size, hit for high average, and crank out a decent (although not outrageous) amount of home runs every year.

      Yeah, roid-induced freak, sure.

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    • NBarnes says:

      I totally agree. After all, it’s been so well established that using PEDs turns you into Stan Musial. Look at all the guys that used in the minors and the next day were leading MLB in OPS+. It’s happened so many times. That’s why Pujols’ numbers don’t really stand out, in context. Anybody could do what he did, if they were willing to be a big dirty cheating cheater McCheatpants like Pujols.

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      • Joe R says:

        I’m pretty sure Wrighteous is just trolling at this point.

        Which is ironic because we all love to argue and don’t really care if we’re trollbaited into it.

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    • Reuben says:

      At best steroids could turn a good player into a really good player or a really good one into a great one. Not a nobody into the God of baseball. He’s one of the best hitters OAT even if he has been using and the evidence points to him not having used.

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  11. NBarnes says:

    “Albert Pujols, Crusher, St. Louis”

    Rated +1 Made of Win

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  12. CH says:

    Pujols’ head deserves to be on ice right next to Ted Williams when he dies.

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  13. Nate says:

    Great post!

    I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant to read this after reading your first couple posts (I haven’t read your two most recent) but I really, really enjoyed this post. I think you may have found your stride.

    Keep up the good work.

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  14. Alex JN says:

    I agreed, I found this a pleasant/enjoyable article.

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  15. Luke C. says:

    Told u I read it. Didn’t seem like u believed me

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