Power and Strikeouts

Adam Dunn Photo.png

Adam Dunn is an all-time leader in both home runs and strikeouts, a connection that could be universal. (Photo by Danny Moloshok for the Associated Press.)

 

I’ve been a Washington Nationals fan since the team moved to D.C. in 2005. One of my favorite players to watch — though he was with the team for just two seasons — was Adam Dunn. The 6’6, 250-pound lefty masher was an incredible physical specimen who could hit home runs like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, the only thing he did better than hit homers was strike out. He’s 36th on the MLB all-time home run list with 462, and third on the all-time strikeout list with 2,379. Because of his high strikeout numbers and sub-par batting average on balls in play, he sported a lifetime batting average of just .237.

I bring up Adam Dunn because he’s a prime example of the baseball truism that I’ll be investigating today: Do power hitters tend to strike out more often?

This claim is deceptively tough to evaluate because there’s no one clear way to tell if, and to what degree, a player is a power hitter. I came up with as many rational ways to measure power as I could and compared each with strikeout rates. I’ll let you decide for yourself exactly how well each metric relates to power.

Traditional Stats

Let’s start with the most obvious measure of a power hitter: Home-run hitting.

Here’s the correlation between a player’s home-run rate (HR/AB) and strikeout rate (K/AB).

HR per AB v. K rate.png

r = 0.527

A correlation coefficient of 0.527 isn’t bad, and you can see a clear upward trend in the data, but let’s keep going.

Home runs obviously aren’t the only way to measure power. Let’s see what happens when we expand our study from home runs to all extra-base hits.

EBH per AB v. K rate.png

r = 0.427

So it turns out there’s actually even less of a correlation with extra-base-hit rate than with home-run rate.

There is a flaw to evaluating power using per at-bat rates. If a player has a high strikeout rate his rate of any type of hit will be lower. Here’s what happens when we redo the previous two graphs using home runs and extra-base hits per hit instead of per at-bat.

HRsperH vs. K rate

r = 0.609

EBHperH vs. K rate

r = 0.627

Much higher correlation. Correlation in the .600 range isn’t the goal — but it’s definitely an indication that something’s there. Since non-per-at-bat rates seem promising, let’s try per ball in play as opposed to per hit.

HRperBIP vs. K rate

r = 0.634

EBHperBIP vs. K rate

r = 0.669

Even stronger correlation. Let’s move on now to a classic measure of power: Isolated power (ISO).

ISO vs. K rate

r = 0.508

Good correlation, but not as strong as we just saw with HR and XBH per hit and per BIP. But when you look at what ISO actually is, it’s a per-at-bat rate statistic.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 7.19.48 PM.png

Why don’t we redo ISO as per hit or and per ball in play instead of per at-bat?

ISOperH vs. K rate

r = 0.642

ISO per BIP v. K rate

r = 0.673

So it turns out reworking ISO as per ball in play actually gave us our strongest correlation yet at 0.673.

Side note: I tried adjusting the ISO coefficients a couple of different ways since valuing a triple twice as much as a double and a home run three times as much as a double but just 1.5 times as much a triple seemed odd to me. As it turned out, the correlation didn’t get any better. Touché sabermetrics community, touché.

Statcast Stats

One of the great things about doing this study in 2016 is that we aren’t limited to traditional outcome-based stats. That being said, one of the less great things about doing this study in 2016 is there’s only one full season of publicly available Statcast data. As a result, I’m lowering my minimum observations per player from 1000 plate appearances to 100 at-bats. For context Manny Machado led the league in plate appearances in 2015 with 713. So we’re clearly going to see decreased correlation because of poor sample size. To give you an idea of what that looks like, here’s a few of the correlations from the previous section compared with what they would have been had I used 2015 Statcast data instead:

Stat 1000 Plate Appearance Correlation 100 At-Bat Correlation
HR per BIP 0.634 0.457
EBH per AB 0.427 0.133
ISO per BIP 0.673 0.495
HR per AB 0.527 0.302

What you should take from this is that the strength of pretty much all of the correlations we’re going to look at will be diluted. Many stats that appear to have rather weak correlation could have a real relationship given more data, we just can’t know. It’s unlikely we’ll see some really indicting evidence that a specific measure of power implies a higher strikeout rate, but it could give us a good clue of where to look in the future. So with that out of the way, let’s crunch some numbers.

One obvious way to use Statcast to measure power is to look at exit velocity. If you tend to hit the ball hard, chances are you’re a power hitter. Here’s how average exit velocity correlates with strikeout rate.

Avg. EV vs. K rate

r = 0.338

There’s some correlation, albeit pretty weak. Perhaps power isn’t best represented by whose hits on average are the hardest but rather who has the highest rate of very hard-hit balls. Home runs tend to be hit at least 95 mph, so let’s check the correlation between rate of 95+ mph balls in play and strikeout rate.

HR.EV vs. K Rate

r = 0.393

There’s better correlation, but it’s still rather weak. Let’s move on.

Next up is launch angle. Power hitters hit more fly balls because that’s the only way to get a ball out of the park and a common way to hit a double.

Avg. LA vs. K rate

r = 0.260

There’s even less correlation than with exit velocity, and when I looked at the rate of “home-run launch angles” (25˚ – 30˚) the correlation went down even further to 0.093. While we’re on the subject, I checked the correlation for the rate of balls in play that both had an exit velocity of at least 95 mph and a launch angle between 25˚ and 30˚ and got 0.323 — lower than both exit velocity-only correlations.

Perhaps distance will yield better results. Below is the correlation between average ball in play distance and strikeout rate.

Avg. Dist. vs. K rate

r = 0.353

Still not much correlation, but as with exit velocity it would make sense for the true sign of power to be high rates of balls in the 300 feet range rather than the exact distribution of balls hit 100/200 feet.

300perBIP vs. K rate

r = 0.398

So we see improved correlation, but 300 feet was a rather arbitrary number. Let’s try 350 feet.

350perBIP vs. K rate

r = 0.481

There’s some decent correlation here, but maybe we’ve made a mistake in lumping together distances to all parts of the field. Here’s what happens when we redo the previous two graphs but only count balls hit to center field that went an extra 50 feet.

300:350perBIP v. K rate

r = 0.416

350:400perBIP vs. K rate

r = 0.463

The correlation went up from 300 to 300/350 and down from 350 to 350/400 (interestingly both by .018). This brings up an interesting question: Does power manifest itself more or less on balls in play in different parts of the field? In looking at this I organized players by their handedness — dividing balls in play by pull/center/opposite field not LF/CF/RF. (I omitted switch-hitters from this part and looked only at balls hit to the outfield.) Rather than show 21 graphs, I made a table below with the correlation coefficients.

Location Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle Avg. Distance HR Range Exit Velocities 300+ ft. 350+ ft. 400+ ft.
Pull .306 .433 .399 .327 .386 .442 .293
Center .410 .148 .270 .379 .267 .353 .388
Oppo .336 -.147 0.021 .293 .028 .054 .215

The last stat I’m going to look at is arc angle. Arc angle is a stat I created to evaluate a batted ball’s trajectory. You can find out more about it in my Hardball Times article. Just note that it’s only for balls hit in the air and lower angles are fly balls while higher angles are line drives.

Avg. AA vs. K Rate

r = -0.474

So none of the Statcast stats yielded a correlation coefficient of 0.5 or more. As I said at the top this is likely — at least in part — a sample-size issue. I’ll update these numbers after the season to see what difference that makes.

Recap

That was a lot, so here’s a table of all the correlation coefficients and increase in strikeout rate per unit of the stat for the comparisons we made.

Stat Correlation  Coefficient Increase in K Rate per 1 Unit of Stat
Home Runs per AB .527 2.16
Extra Base Hits per AB .427 1.40
Home Runs per Hit .609 0.63
Extra Base Hits per Hit .627 0.53
Home Runs per Ball in Play .634 1.85
Extra Base Hits per Ball in Play .669 1.44
Isolated Power .508 0.67
Isolated Power per Hit .642 0.21
Isolated Power per Ball in Play .673 0.61
Average Exit Velocity .338 0.01
Home Run Exit Velocity Rate .393 0.32
Average Launch Angle .260 0.01
Average Ball in Play Distance .353 0.002
300 + ft. Balls in Play Rate .398 0.49
350 + ft. Balls in Play Rate .481 0.77
300 + ft. LF/RF 350 + ft. CF Rate .416 0.72
350 + ft. LF/RF 400 + ft. CF Rate .463 1.12
Average Arc Angle -.474 -0.01
Location Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle Avg. Distance HR Range Exit Velocities 300+ ft. 350+ ft. 400+ ft.
Pull .306 .433 .399 .327 .386 .442 .293
Center .410 .148 .270 .379 .267 .353 .388
Oppo .336 -.147 0.021 .293 .028 .054 .215

As to our initial question: Does power correlate with strikeouts? I think it’s pretty clear that yes, power correlates with strikeouts in some capacity. As for how much it correlates and what exactly power is? That’s not clear. Hopefully additional seasons of Statcast data will help.


The Heyward Fault

It’s no secret that Jason Heyward is having an epic, epic bad season. Heyward is not just last in wRC+ for right fielders, but last by a wide margin. He has the seventh-worst ISO in all the land, worse than Billy Hamilton. Worse than Cesar Hernandez. Worse than Alexei Ramirez. Alexei Ramirez, for God’s sake. Finally acknowledging the soul-crushing reality, Cubs manager Joe Maddon benched Heyward last Friday.

This is historically bad power from a right fielder. In the wild-card era, Heyward’s ISO constitutes the 11th-worst power season for a right fielder. Of the ten other seasons, Ichiro! owns five of them, and Nick Markakis two more. So only four actual guys have managed a worse ISO in right than Heyward since 1994.

Heyward’s power has declined against all pitches, but not evenly. (I’m actually using ISO x 1000 to eliminate those pesky decimal points):

 

Pitch               2016 ISO                Career ISO                  Diff

4-seamer             143                           154                           -11

2-seamer             087                           177                          -90

changeup            029                          160                         -131

slider                   083                           157                           -74

curve                    000                          122                         -122

In battling the 4-seamer, 2016 Heyward looks pretty much like the factory model. Against the other pitches, 2016 Heyward looks like Enzo Hernandez. Back in May, Jeff Sullivan wondered why Heyward was swinging disproportionately often at high pitches when historically he had been a better low-ball hitter. The above chart may provide an answer. Four-seamers tend to live upstairs, while the other pitches like to drink Milwaukee’s Best down in the basement den. Heyward may have made a rational adjustment, swinging more often at the pitch he can hit (or rather, pitches that look like the pitch he can hit) and less often at the others.

Even if accurate, this simply answers one riddle with another. What could have made a historically good low-ball hitter suddenly lose the lower half of the strike zone? And the power disappearance was indeed sudden. In 2015, Heyward actually hit with more power in the second half, though his ISO did drop off in September.

Heyward may have begun hearing the spine-tingling incidental music back in 2014. That year his power against lefties, seldom menacing, completely winked out.

Year                   ISO vs. L

Career                   .119

2013                      .191

2014                      .056

2015                      .093

2016                      .096

This may have been foreshadowing, or not. There is no clear pitch-type pattern evident in Heyward’s disappearing power against lefties. He collapsed against all offerings, doing somewhat less badly only against the slider. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of his eight-year contract was that Heyward had become a platoon player.

In 2016 the platoon split has disappeared, but not in a good way. Heyward has actually hit lefties with more power than righties this year (.096 vs. .083). But let’s face it, for hitters, almost any number that begins with “.0” is a wrong number.

The most likely explanation is some form of injury. Heyward had wrist problems earlier this year, and wrist injuries notoriously sap power. But .088 is whole lotta sappage. When Derrek Lee hurt his wrist in 2006 his ISO plummeted to … .189. Certainly one can imagine any number of nagging injuries that slow bat speed or reduce plate coverage. But it seems peculiar that Heyward would struggle least against the pitch that is usually the most overpowering. Perhaps Heyward is selling out to get to the 4-seamer because the injury has slowed his bat enough that he simply has to get started early.

Another possibility, perhaps, is a vision problem, as very briefly suggested in the comments to Sullivan’s post in May. Perhaps Heyward is able to pick out the 4-seamer, but unable to differentiate reliably among the other pitches, thus approaching them all with punchless caution. A vision problem could also be causing Heyward to sell out as discussed above. In either case, selling out would seem to cut against Heyward’s grain as a (sometimes maddeningly) patient hitter.

There is nevertheless some evidence Heyward is trying to start the bat earlier, not because of ocular or muscular problems, but because of a complex, misaligned swing. There have been a number of stories concerning Heyward’s poor mechanics, but most of them were written this season, when the poor results became manifest. Outright criticism of his swing, at least in public, was relatively uncommon before this year.

But there were signs, perhaps (as signs are wont to be) obvious only in retrospect. In 2014, David Lee wrote an excellent piece scouting Heyward’s rapidly evolving stances — the pictures alone are worth a look. Two years earlier, Terence Moore wrote about Heyward’s swing coach praising Heyward for having Plans A, B, and C at the plate. Both of these pieces are hopeful, treating Heyward’s willingness to tinker as a sign of dedication — a player relentlessly seeking continuous improvement.

But relentlessness doesn’t solve every problem, and improvement is very rarely continuous. Hitters can be comically addicted to routine, fearing that the slightest change will plunge their careers into Oylerian Darkness. But there is some virtue to having a baseline from which to work. In music, it’s literally a bass line. In oral presentations, it’s a theme. In cooking, it’s a recipe. In none of these cases does the baseline translate directly into real results, but it provides critical direction so that the (or at least an) end result actually results.

It’s possible that Heyward has lost his anchor. He wouldn’t be the first player to do so. Roy Halladay famously had to reconstruct his pitching motion in the purgatory of Dunedin. But Halladay had become an arsonist, spraying the field with a 10.64 ERA. Until this year, Heyward hadn’t ever truly pancaked. It’s possible that Heyward is tinkering his career into oblivion. I’m not sure I buy this, but at this point there is even less evidence for the competing theories. A serious bone, muscle, or vision problem probably would have landed him on the DL.

Heyward may be treating his swing like jazz, but baseball is the blues. At least he plays in the right city to learn that lesson.


DJ Lema-Who?

The Rockies tend to have hitters with eye-popping stats as a byproduct of playing in Coors Field. This year alone, they have four players with an ISO of .219 or higher (five if you include recent call-up David Dahl). But, on the other side of the offensive equation, there’s only one Rockies player this year who has an OBP over .400. That man is their starting second baseman, DJ LeMahieu.

I noticed that LeMahieu had an above-average .358 OBP last year, but I was ready to dismiss him because he ran an insane .362 BABIP and his walk rate was merely average at 8.1%. Was he really hitting the ball well enough to sustain such a figure? To find out, I looked over a data set of the 253 hitters with at least 200 batted ball events in 2015. LeMahieu had an average exit velocity of 90.6 MPH that year. The average of the group was about 88.9. To put that number in context, LeMahieu had the 60th-hardest exit velocity of the 253. Yes, that number is well above average, but the second-hardest hitter on the list (David Ortiz) only ran a BABIP of .280. To control for the Coors effect, consider this: LeMahieu’s teammate, Nolan Arenado, had an average exit velocity of 91.7, but only ran a .287 BABIP last year. So, LeMahieu’s numbers didn’t appear to be so special, and if his BABIP fell off, there wouldn’t be much left: as I mentioned, his plate discipline was ordinary. In addition, he certainly did not hit for power. He only had a .087 ISO last year, well below the league average of .150. Things didn’t look good for his power behind the scenes either, as his average launch angle was a mere 4.1 degrees; the average for my sample was 10.8. That figure was bad enough for the 244th-highest launch angle out of the 253 hitters in the sample.

So, I wrote off LeMahieu. Boy, was I wrong to do so. This year, his ISO is hovering around league average at .154. His BABIP is an even more insane .383. He’s improved his walk rate to 10.8%, well above league average. He’s also lowered his strikeout rate from 17.3% to 12.9%. This is a huge step for a non-prospect in his age-28 season. What the heck happened?!

For starters, his exit velocity and his launch angle have both improved tremendously. I took a new data set for this year, expanded to include all hitters with at least 150 batted ball events (since the year isn’t quite over yet). There were 255 hitters in the sample. This year, LeMahieu has an improved average exit velocity, at 93.1, which is good enough for 16th out of the 255 hitters in the sample. The average is around 89.4. The average for this group is up 0.5 MPH from my other group, but LeMahieu went up 2.5!

In regards to launch angles, LeMahieu is now at a much improved 5.7 degrees. The new average for this group is around 11.7. So, the group average is 0.9 higher than the other group, but LeMahieu is 1.6 higher! It’s also worth mentioning that in his excellent article published earlier, Andrew Perpetua listed LeMahieu as having the second-lowest percentage (for hitters with at least 300 PAs) of poorly-hit balls. He also had LeMahieu’s xOBA at .388, which is right near his actual wOBA of .391. Lastly, his soft/medium/hard-contact percentages last year (if you prefer this data to exit velocity) were 12.1/61.3/26.6. This year, the soft rate has remained relatively the same, but the medium rate has lost some to the hard. Here’s his contact-quality triple slash: 12.5/51.9/35.6. So, this year LeMahieu’s performance is really not looking fluky. However, one question remains unanswered: what changes did he undergo in order to make this transformation happen?

I think the answer lies in his improving plate discipline. Take a look at the changes across the board from last year to this year:

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2015 24.8% 63.5% 43.4% 72.5% 90.6% 85.2% 48.0% 58.7% 6.4%
2016 23.9% 61.3% 42.0% 78.2% 95.6% 90.5% 48.4% 59.8% 4.0%
Career 28.9% 65.7% 46.6% 73.7% 92.3% 86.3% 48.2% 62.0% 6.3%

His O-Swing percentage has improved tremendously the last two years, and is down another 0.9% this year. His Z-Swing% has dropped as well, and though that isn’t a good thing per se, it does illustrate that LeMahieu is implementing a more selective approach at the plate, maybe not swinging at borderline strikes as much. He’s also making a lot more contact – probably because he’s swinging at better pitches, swinging at fewer borderline strikes and fewer balls. The improved contact rate and improved eye has led to a career-best 12.9% strikeout rate and 10.8% walk rate.

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate our friend DJ on proving me wrong. He has earned a lofty BABIP (though his true talent is probably not quite .383, because almost no one’s is). He has made tremendous strides with his batting eye, and that has helped lead to much-improved contact quality and in turn, more power and base hits.

Data is from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs.

Thanks for reading!


The Twins Gave Up on Pitching to Contact Before We Did

For many Minnesota Twins fans, the recently vintage dominance of the AL Central that spanned seemingly the entirety of the first decade of the 2000s had been taken for granted. I, for one, am guilty of this, and like many fans, am starting realize that winning is not easy, although the Twins made it seem as easy as Torii Hunter made robbing home runs look effortless. Nostalgia aside, the Twins, and their fall toward mediocrity, are an interesting topic to look into. To some, they seemed a similar team to the Oakland Athletics (perhaps aiding in the creation of a post-season rivalry). The Twins, who were not quite as much of a small-market team as Oakland, seemed to develop from within. They had a deep minor system, so deep that when Johan Santana or Torii Hunter deemed it time to cash in, the Twins were able to find a quick replacement and continue their success. Santana, and Hunter, as well as Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau (who have both had their careers altered due to more recent concussions) and many other corner pieces, all made their debut in a Twins uniform and became cornerstones, yet they could never win the big playoff series.

They did not have the ability to flex the financial muscle that the Red Sox, Yankees, and even division rivals Detroit Tigers were capable of; however, they still managed to win the AL Central six out of the 10 years in the previous decade, including a loss in a playoff game to decide the division winner in 2008. The success carried into the Target Field era, represented by a beautiful ballpark that fans spent what seems like an eternity waiting for. After another disappointing playoff loss to the hated Yankees, the Twins entered 2011 looking to improve, with a similar roster and the intrigue of Japanese second baseman, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. That year was filled with injuries, and despite a post-All-Star Game push, the Twins ended the year with the worst record in the American League. Since then, the Twins have failed to reach the playoffs, and are currently battling with the Atlanta Braves for the worst record in baseball. Not to mention, long-time general manager Terry Ryan, the one credited with building the farm system leading to the team’s prior success, was fired on July 18th. Time to find out where the Twins went wrong.

Those successful Twins teams were always credited for their small-ball and defensive skills. With Joe Mauer behind the plate, Torii Hunter (replaced by Carlos Gomez, who could also flash some leather) and many other solid defenders manning the diamond, a lot of the Twins’ success was credited to this defense.

Yet the Twins were far from a one-dimensional team. The Twins had a solid pitching staff, including, most famously, Johan Santana, who was a two-time Cy Young winner with the club, before being sent off to New York. The Twins also produced one of the most exciting pitching prospects at the time in Francisco Liriano. Liriano’s career was marred by injuries, which led to his inconsistency. Despite Johan’s departure and Liriano’s ineffectiveness, the Twins’ pitching was still an effective unit. The Twins raised their pitchers not on the attractive strikeouts, but on “pitching to contact.” The premise behind this was that pitchers would attack the lower half of the strike zone, induce weak contact, and show excellent control to give up few walks. It seemed to work, as pitchers with low to average strikeout rates were able to be effective pitchers, such as Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Brian Duensing.

Before I delve into my research, I should point to Voros McCracken’s ideas about Defense Independent Pitching for those less sabermetrically inclined (if you are sabermetrically inclined, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs). If I were to give a brief summary of his work, I would say McCracken’s main point is that if a pitcher does not give up a home run or strike out or walk a batter, then he has little control of what happens to the batted ball in play. A lot of what happens can be credited to luck, sequencing, and how good his defense is. For those unaware of sequencing, it is the idea that if a pitcher gave up three singles and a home run in an inning, there are many different possibilities of what could happen. The three singles could come in a row, followed by the dinger, for a total of four runs, or, two singles could come early, the pitcher gets a double play or some other way to get out of the jam, then gives up a home run with the bases empty, followed by another single and an out. In that scenario, only one run was surrendered, despite an equal amount of hits. McCracken suggests there is randomness in this effect, which combined with the quality of defense behind the pitcher and a good deal of luck, can make ERA a poor indicator of a pitchers true skill.

McCracken looked at defense-independent pitching stats (HR, BB, K) and defense-dependent stats (ERA), and noticed that the defense-independent stats correlate much better from year to year, and are a better indicator of how a pitcher will perform, since a pitcher does not have control of what happens to balls in play.

While McCracken did not actually create FIP, his work was a building block for modern pitching analysis. FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) tracks what a pitcher’s stats would look like if he played behind a league-average defense and experienced league-average luck. It is a much better indicator of future performance than ERA. All the data I used was from 2007-2014. Over that span, for pitchers who pitched more than 100 innings in at least a two-year span, a pitcher’s ERA from one year to the next (tracking how consistent the stat is in tracking performance) had a correlation coefficient of 0.338. FIP, conversely, had a correlation coefficient of 0.476. Clearly, FIP performs better when predicting future performance, as McCracken suggested.

To end my digression on McCracken’s importance, if I had to sum up its importance to this article, it is that pitchers have little or no control over what happens to a ball in play.

When I was talking Twins recently with some recent, justifiably uneasy Twins fans, they attributed the Twins’ recent troubles to injuries and inconsistent pitching. This was when I was reminded of the “pitch to contact” philosophy heralded by the Twins. Since the days of recently past successes, the Twins have changed management, and hopefully have let go of this ideology. Anyways, I thought to myself that McCracken’s work and subsequent furthering of the topic do not go along with the pitch-to-contact philosophy. Sure, if a pitcher can prevent walks and home runs, then it does go along with part of McCracken’s ideas. But, if the goal is to induce weak contact, yet the pitcher does not have control of what happens to a ball when it is contacted, then there is a bit of a discrepancy.

So, like any other statistically-oriented college mind looking for how to spend the rainy days of my summer break, I decided to run some regressions to test if “pitch to contact” actually succeeded and the Twins were able to induce weak contact, or if the relative success of the pitching staff is related to luck and a good defense.

To reiterate, the data I looked at came from the seasons of 2007-2014. To sum up the Twins’ pitching through the period, the period starts with solid pitching from guys who lack the ability to post high strikeout rates, excluding the one season Santana pitched in the study. Guys like Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn had solid seasons early on, but Blackburn and many others faded once things went downhill for the team. From the outside looking in, it may seem like a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, whether it was pitching that caused the downfall or some other factor that caused the pitching to fail.

I gathered data for Twins pitching over this span, and compared it to the rest of the league. The pitch-to-contact philosophy was easily visible, as over this eight-year span, only five Twins pitchers had higher strikeouts per nine innings than league average (Johan Santana, Phil Hughes, Scott Baker, Francsico Liriano, Kevin Slowey). At the same time, only four pitchers had a walks per nine innings above league average (Nick Blackburn, Boof Bonser, Sam Deduno, and Liriano), and most of those seasons came in that pitcher’s last season with the team. The data shows that despite few strikeouts, Twins pitchers found some success in limiting numbers of walks. However, for those pitchers who struggled with control, their combined ERA in those seasons was 4.82, with a FIP of 4.60. Clearly, if a pitcher struggled with control, their success was hindered by the high walk rate.

Much of the Twins’ pitching was inconsistent over this time as well, as pitchers such like Blackburn or Brian Duensing seemingly went from quality starters to below-average pitchers. For the most part, I found this to be a team-wide theme. For pitchers with multiple years with the club, I correlated year-by-year ERA and FIP, to see if any consistent trends arose. Amazingly, there was no correlation from ERA from one year to the next, as the R-squared value was 0.002, stressing no relationship at all (graph). FIP, on the other hand, showed an R-squared value of 0.15; so while not a concrete relationship, a weak relationship exists (graph).

Why this lack of consistent ERA and FIP? This is where I think BABIP comes into play. Since FIP does not take into account BABIP, it did produce more reliable data. A few outliers threw off the data, and since it is not a large sample size, those outliers did affect correlation. By the nature of the relationship, this probably did more to affect the FIP correlation than the ERA, but nonetheless, the small sample size of pitchers from this period did affect the relationship. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I performed a regression graphing FIP to ERA, and a solid relationship exists, with an R-squared of 0.36 (graph). This would be even better of a correlation if I took out seasons by Phil Hughes and Liriano, as in those two seasons their FIP was almost a full point lower than their ERA, respectively. This shows the validity of FIP as a metric, as it accurately predicts how a pitcher likely will perform based on independent factors.

Nonetheless, there is a clear difference here in the two pitching metrics. FIP implies a relationship, while ERA does not. How can this be? My theory is that it has to do with the pitch-to-contact philosophy. If pitchers are constantly relying on luck and defense to produce outs, rather than getting batters out themselves, then random variation will play much greater of a role in a pitcher’s effectiveness. Additionally, a team’s defense will play much greater of a role in pitching.

How much can a defense affect pitching? Well, I graphed the total WAR produced by the various Twins defenses against the team ERA from the 2007-2014 seasons. I additionally graphed BABIP against team defense. Amazingly, an ERA to defense regression produces an R-squared of 0.47 (graph), while a Defense to BABIP regression produces a 0.37 R-squared value (graph). Team defense clearly has a relationship with team ERA and team BABIP, as when the Twins defense was in its prime (2007, 2010), pitching performed well. Similarly, in the defense’s worst two seasons, the team also had its highest BABIP (2013, 2014). For those wondering, FIP to team defense produces no correlation (as we expect, since it does not account for a team’s defense) with an R-squared of 0.003.

What does this all mean?

Putting it all together, we notice a few trends. After 2010, the defense took significant steps back, along with pitching (ERA). As we expect, the team’s BABIP was affected by the defense’s regression. FIP, on the other hand, remained fairly constant through the span, showing how the defense must play a role in team ERA. For example, we will look at 2014. This was the defense’s worst year in the span, with a defensive WAR of -46.5. Team ERA was second-worst in this year, at 4.58. FIP, conversely, showed the team had its second-best year in pitching, with a value of 3.97. This shows that if the Twins would have had an average defense, their ERA would have been much lower.

As team ERA ballooned, the quality of the Twins’ defense fell. Since Twins pitchers were taught to rely on their defense through the pitch-to-contact ideology, this relationship was amplified. Pitching to contact, although relying on luck and defense, may have had some merit when the Twins’ defense was in its prime. If the team could get to more balls, produce a few more outs, then as long as the pitchers kept batters from getting on for free via the walk, the team would succeed. The pitcher would not need to strike out as many batters since the defense would make more outs than the normal team. This sounds nice on paper, but as the team defense decayed, the pitching regressed. This is most evident in 2014, as a solid pitching staff was marred by the defense behind them.

If the Twins were to truly focus on pitching to contact, then they should have looked at the defense, not the pitcher. At the same time, pitching to contact is flawed in a way. Why should a pitcher rely on a defense if he can just get the batter out himself? Teaching a pitcher not to use his natural talent to strike out a batter is counter-productive. I am not saying the Twins’ coaching staff directly did this, but when only four pitchers in an eight-year span have above-average strikeout rates, it raises the question. Perhaps the Twins looked for pitchers who were undervalued because of their low strikeout rates, and used these undervalued pitchers in their pitch-to-contact system. Yet, this does not seem to be the case, as the Twins pitchers with the lowest ERAs and FIPs were the pitchers with the highest strikeout rate, excluding Brian Duensing, whose downfall could have been predicted by his 3.82 FIP (to a degree), as it showed is 2.62 ERA would be much closer to 4.00 with an average defense. Even in a pitch-to-contact system, the pitchers with the best ability to get the batter out without putting the ball in play were the best pitchers.

If pitching to contact were to have a textbook year, it would be 2007, where a team with a 4.37 FIP had an ERA of 4.18. Yet, soon after, the defense plummeted, bringing the team pitching down with it. Clearly, through the team’s porous defense, the Twins gave up on pitching to contact, too. They just hadn’t realized it yet.

Hopefully, with the new management in place, pitching to contact is forgotten. While it is also important to keep a viable defense behind the pitcher, I still can’t trust the pitch-to-contact ideology. It had a good run, but seriously, when was the last time the Twins were able to produce a consistent pitcher out of a highly-praised prospect? Liriano wasn’t consistent, Kyle Gibson has yet to dominate, and Jose Berrios has looked shaky is his brief appearances. I think Scott Baker might be the answer to my question, but if not him, then maybe Johan Santana?

Clearly, the Twins need a new philosophy for grooming pitching. It’s a team riddled with questions, and this is not the lone answer, but it can be one step in the right direction for the team currently pegged at the bottom of the AL barrel.


Hardball Retrospective – What Might Have Been – The “Original” 1904 Superbas

In “Hardball Retrospective: Evaluating Scouting and Development Outcomes for the Modern-Era Franchises”, I placed every ballplayer in the modern era (from 1901-present) on their original team. I calculated revised standings for every season based entirely on the performance of each team’s “original” players. I discuss every team’s “original” players and seasons at length along with organizational performance with respect to the Amateur Draft (or First-Year Player Draft), amateur free agent signings and other methods of player acquisition.  Season standings, WAR and Win Shares totals for the “original” teams are compared against the “actual” team results to assess each franchise’s scouting, development and general management skills.

Expanding on my research for the book, the following series of articles will reveal the teams with the biggest single-season difference in the WAR and Win Shares for the “Original” vs. “Actual” rosters for every Major League organization. “Hardball Retrospective” is available in digital format on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, GooglePlay, iTunes and KoboBooks. The paperback edition is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and CreateSpace. Supplemental Statistics, Charts and Graphs along with a discussion forum are offered at TuataraSoftware.com.

Don Daglow (Intellivision World Series Major League Baseball, Earl Weaver Baseball, Tony LaRussa Baseball) contributed the foreword for Hardball Retrospective. The foreword and preview of my book are accessible here.

Terminology

OWAR – Wins Above Replacement for players on “original” teams

OWS – Win Shares for players on “original” teams

OPW% – Pythagorean Won-Loss record for the “original” teams

AWAR – Wins Above Replacement for players on “actual” teams

AWS – Win Shares for players on “actual” teams

APW% – Pythagorean Won-Loss record for the “actual” teams

Assessment

The 1904 Brooklyn Superbas 

OWAR: 36.2     OWS: 250     OPW%: .500     (77-77)

AWAR: 21.5      AWS: 167     APW%: .366     (56-97)

WARdiff: 14.7                        WSdiff: 83  

Brooklyn placed fifth in ’04 as the Giants battered the opposition en route to the National League pennant. The “Original” Superbas bettered the “Actuals” by 19 games. Fielder Jones registered 25 stolen bases and Jimmy Sheckard added 21 for Brooklyn. “Honest” John Anderson and Claude “Little All Right” Ritchey laced 12 three-base hits apiece. Rookie outfielder Harry “Judge” Lumley paced the League with 18 triples and 9 home runs.

Jimmy Sheckard placed twenty-fourth among left fielders in the “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” top 100 player rankings. “Original” Superbas teammates listed in the “NBJHBA” top 100 rankings include Jimmy Sheckard (24th-LF), Fielder Jones (41st-RF), Claude Ritchey (59th-2B) and John J. Anderson (86th-LF).

  Original 1904 Superbas                                Actual 1904 Superbas

LINEUP POS OWAR OWS LINEUP POS OWAR OWS
Jimmy Sheckard LF 2.52 11.24 Jimmy Sheckard LF 2.52 11.24
Fielder Jones CF 4.16 22.7 Doc Gessler CF 0.93 11.12
Harry Lumley RF 2.37 19.43 Harry Lumley RF 2.37 19.43
John J. Anderson 1B/CF 0.64 18.84 Pop Dillon 1B 1.2 10.64
Claude Ritchey 2B 3.28 21.25 Sammy Strang 2B -0.27 3.56
Charlie Babb SS 1.61 18.36
Jack Dunn 3B 0.98 9.05 Mike McCormick 3B -0.9 5.68
Lew Ritter C 0.62 6.48 Lew Ritter C 0.62 6.48
BENCH POS OWAR OWS BENCH POS OWAR OWS
Candy LaChance 1B -2.98 8.02 John Dobbs CF -0.06 6.46
Mike McCormick 3B -0.9 5.68 Bill Bergen C -1.42 5.04
Emil Batch 3B -0.25 2.43 Emil Batch 3B -0.25 2.43
Dutch Jordan 2B -3.03 0.83 Fred Jacklitsch 1B 0.11 1.77
Deacon Van Buren LF -0.09 0.8 Jack Doyle 1B 0.09 0.89
Aleck Smith CF -0.21 0.37 Dutch Jordan 2B -3.03 0.83
Charlie Loudenslager 2B -0.03 0 Deacon Van Buren LF 0.05 0.18
Charlie Loudenslager 2B -0.03 0

Harry Howell accrued 21 losses in spite of a 2.19 ERA and a WHIP of 1.048. Oscar “Flip Flap” Jones completed 38 of 41 starts and recorded a 17-25 mark with a 2.75 ERA. Jack Cronin contributed 12 wins in his final campaign along with an ERA of 2.70.

  Original 1904 Superbas                             Actual 1904 Superbas

ROTATION POS OWAR OWS ROTATION POS OWAR OWS
Harry Howell SP 4.69 21.24 Oscar Jones SP 0.11 17.31
Oscar Jones SP 0.11 17.31 Jack Cronin SP 1.14 14.99
Jack Cronin SP 1.14 14.99 Ned Garvin SP 0.28 10.19
Doc Reisling SP 0.94 3.67 Doc Scanlan SP 1.02 6.89
BULLPEN POS OWAR OWS BULLPEN POS OWAR OWS
Bull Durham SP 0.03 0.83 Ed Poole SP -0.48 6.52
Joe Koukalik SP 0.07 0.49 Doc Reisling SP 0.94 3.67
Grant Thatcher RP -0.19 0.26 Fred Mitchell SP -0.32 1.96
Gene Wright SP -0.38 0 Bull Durham SP 0.03 0.83
Jack Doscher RP 0.24 0.79
Joe Koukalik SP 0.07 0.49
Grant Thatcher RP -0.19 0.26
Bill Reidy SP -1.42 0

Notable Transactions

Fielder Jones 

Before 1901 Season: Jumped from the Brooklyn Superbas to the Chicago White Sox. 

Claude Ritchey 

Before 1897 Season: Purchased by the Cincinnati Reds from the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for $500.

February 3, 1898: Traded by the Cincinnati Reds with Red Ehret and Dummy Hoy to the Louisville Colonels for Bill Hill.

December 8, 1899: Traded by the Louisville Colonels with Fred Clarke, Bert Cunningham, Mike Kelley, Tacks Latimer, Tommy Leach, Tom Messitt, Deacon Phillippe, Rube Waddell, Jack Wadsworth, Honus Wagner and Chief Zimmer to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jack Chesbro, George Fox, Art Madison, John O’Brien and $25,000. 

John J. Anderson 

May 19, 1898: Sent to the Washington Senators by the Brooklyn Bridegrooms as part of a conditional deal.

September 21, 1898: Returned by the Washington Senators to the Brooklyn Bridegrooms as part of a conditional deal.

March 24, 1900: Purchased by Milwaukee (American) from the Brooklyn Superbas.

September 26, 1900: Drafted by the Brooklyn Superbas from Milwaukee (American) in the 1900 rule 5 draft.

February, 1901: Jumped from the Brooklyn Superbas to the Milwaukee Brewers. (Date given is approximate. Exact date is uncertain.)

October 6, 1903: Traded by the St. Louis Browns to the New York Highlanders for Jack O’Connor. 

Harry Howell

September, 1898: Purchased by the Brooklyn Bridegrooms from Meridan (Connecticut State).

March 11, 1899: Assigned to the Baltimore Orioles by the Brooklyn Superbas.

March, 1900: Assigned to the Brooklyn Superbas by the Baltimore Orioles.

Before 1901 Season: Jumped from the Brooklyn Superbas to the Baltimore Orioles.

Honorable Mention

The 1967 Los Angeles Dodgers 

OWAR: 45.4     OWS: 274     OPW%: .515     (83-79)

AWAR: 32.5       AWS: 218      APW%: .451    (73-89)

WARdiff: 12.9                        WSdiff: 56

The “Original” 1967 Dodgers placed fifth in the National League, 13 games behind the front-running Giants. Nevertheless the “Originals” outpaced the “Actuals” by a 10 game margin. Roberto Clemente (.357/23/110) collected his fourth batting crown, led the circuit with 209 base hits and secured the seventh of twelve consecutive Gold Glove Awards. Frank “Hondo” Howard dialed long distance 36 times. Maury Wills nabbed 29 bags and Tommy H. Davis scorched 32 doubles while producing matching batting averages at .302. Jim Merritt tallied 13 victories and delivered a 2.53 ERA along with a WHIP of 0.993. Don Drysdale equaled Merritt’s win total while fashioning an ERA of 2.74 with 196 strikeouts.

On Deck

What Might Have Been – The “Original” 1978 Pirates

References and Resources

Baseball America – Executive Database

Baseball-Reference

James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York, NY.: The Free Press, 2001. Print.

James, Bill, with Jim Henzler. Win Shares. Morton Grove, Ill.: STATS, 2002. Print.

Retrosheet – Transactions Database

The information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at “www.retrosheet.org”.

Seamheads – Baseball Gauge

Sean Lahman Baseball Archive


Of Glass Hammers and Paper Tigers

I grew up watching baseball in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It was the antecedent micro-era of hyper-inflated monsters roaming the field, destroying baseballs with mere flicks of their pharmaceutically-enhanced forearms.  What I mean to say is that I have a skewed perception of the home run.  It runs deep: Even after years of conditioning myself to not see the home-run number as a major thing, but rather a minor piece of a much larger whole, I still get impressed by big numbers.

In talking to a friend of mine, I was wondering who had the most home runs, but the smallest net benefit to a baseball team.  After all, my whole life I’ve been hearing about guys “doing damage,” and disregarding whatever other detriments they may have as long as they can sniff out them ribeyes.  I started pretty basically, searching for players who had hit 35 or more home runs and amassed 3 or less WAR, and how many seasons they had accomplished this Herculean feat.  This achievement has been completed 68 times in baseball history, so to do it multiple times is a thing in its own right.  The leaders are as follows:

Seasons Player

5

Adam Dunn

5

Dave Kingman

3

Sammy Sosa

2

Carlos Delgado

2

Cecil Fielder

2

David Ortiz

2

Manny Ramirez

Interesting!  A little unsurprising that Dunn is up there, given that he was one of the harbingers of the “Three True Outcome” player, and was never known as a defensive maven.  But he had some good seasons!  I remember them being good; surely he couldn’t be as bad defensively so as to totally wipe out his offensive contributions.  It turns out, that no, no he was not.  Of those five seasons, he had a collective WAR of 8.1, from .6 WAR to 2.9 WAR.  Not a world burner, by any means, but not terrible.  One season he barely qualified for this haphazard study!  Certainly a one-dimensional player, but the kind of guy you’d like to have if the price were right.

Let’s take a look at the other five-season player on the list.  Dave Kingman was known for one thing: hitting home runs.  His nickname was “Kong,” presumably because he…consumed baseballs like they were giant bananas?  Kidnapped and absconded with them to the tops of large buildings?  Or it was alliterative and evocative of power.  One of those, take your pick.  Of his five seasons on the list, two were completely decent: above-average wRC+, WAR above 2, traditional numbers of a kind that the writers would like.  His worst two seasons, however…man.  It’s some bad news on all fronts in 1986 and 1982: below-average wRC+ (86 and 97), negative WAR (-.8 and -.5), but still the writers would have been pleased with his performance.

The point of all this, I suppose, is not to say how bad Adam Dunn and Dave Kingman were at baseball.  Quite the opposite!  They were great, at a very specific thing, which was to beat the bejesus out of a baseball until nothing was left but its constituent atoms.  By traditional counting stats, Dunn is T35 and Kingman is solo 40 on the all-time HR leader board.  This is very good!  Collectively, they have hit as many as 904 home runs more than anyone reading or writing this article.

The point, as always, is to make observations about edge-case phenomena and give them a snarky name for future use.  To this end, I am proposing that a player hitting 35+ homers while accumulating 3 or less WAR be referred to as the “Dave Kingman Glass Hammer” award.  As an extension of the Glass Hammer, I am also proposing the “Ryan Howard Paper Tiger” award, for when a player completes a Glass Hammer, but finishes in the top five of the MVP voting (see Ryan Howard, 2008 for further data).


Steve Pearce Is More Than Just a Platoon Player

After a recent 5-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox, the Baltimore Orioles see themselves in a tie for second place with Boston, one game behind the Toronto Blue Jays.

Since the All-Star break, the Orioles are 16-17, and since the trade deadline, the Birds are .500.

The trade for Wade Miley is eerily similar to those for Bud Norris and Scott Feldman in past seasons, and Miley has pitched like Wade Miley so far with the Orioles, which is an upgrade from the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright.

The trade for Steve Pearce has not worked out as planned so far. With the Orioles this season, Pearce has battled an elbow injury and has only played in five games, logging 16 plate appearances and two hits.

The Orioles let Pearce go to the Tampa Bay Rays on a one-year, $4.75 million contract last offseason after the then-32-year-old was virtually a replacement player in 92 games. In 2015, Pearce posted a .218/.288/.422 slash line, with a 91 wRC+ and a 0.3 WAR.

But that Steve Pearce isn’t the real Steve Pearce. The real Steve Pearce is the guy Dan Duquette just traded for, and closer the same player Pearce was in 2014.

Let’s take a look at truly how good Pearce was in 2014.

Albeit a small sample size—102 games and 383 plate appearances—Pearce was one of the best players in all of baseball. Pearce posted a 4.9 WAR, which is great even without considering he only played in about two-thirds of the games and that he was DFA’d in April by the Orioles before shortly resigning with the team.

Only two position players in baseball were more valuable in the time they played than Pearce: Troy Tulowitzki (aided by Coors Field) and Mike Trout (aided by being a stud). With all hitters with more than 300 plate appearances, Pearce was sixth in wRC+, fifth in wOBA and seventh in ISO, while posting a not-that-lucky .322 BABIP.

Defensively, Pearce posted career marks in nearly every metric, and it seems to be an anomaly.

He was tied for second in all of baseball in defensive runs saved at first base with nine in only 415 innings, whereas Yonder Alonso had the same total in about 200 more innings, and Adrian Gonzalez had 11 in three times the innings. In the outfield, Pearce saved nine runs in only 271 innings, which is a rate better than any other outfielder that season.

The 2016 Pearce looks much more like the 2014 Pearce than the 2015 Pearce.

With Tampa Bay this season, Pearce owned a .309/.388/.520 slash line, a 148 wRC+, a .386 wOBA and a 1.9 WAR in only 60 games and 232 plate appearances. The offensive numbers are similar to those in 2014, and he still kills left-handed pitching, something the Orioles need, prompting the trade for the versatile player.

Pearce has not played outfield for Tampa Bay, spending most of his time at second base and first base, posting a zero and negative two runs saved at those positions, respectively. He will rarely play second or first base, if at all, for the Orioles this season.

While his defense is not at the level it was in 2014 — and likely will never be again — it should be more influential to this team as it was to the Orioles in 2014.

In 2014, Pearce posted a very impressive nine DRS in only 271 innings in the outfield. Those runs saved, though, were not as important to that Orioles team.

The majority of the innings in left field were logged that season by David Lough and Nelson Cruz, and they totaled for nine runs saved. While Pearce’s glove certainly helped the Orioles, he was only a slight upgrade from the other left field options defensively.

It was Pearce’s bat in 2014 that the Orioles needed, mostly replacing the offense lost from slugger Chris Davis, who struggled for most of the season and was then suspended for the last 24 games of 2014 for PED use.

This Orioles team needs to improve its outfield defense, badly.

Mark Trumbo, Nolan Reimold, Hyun Soo Kim and Joey Rickard have played almost all of the innings in left and right field this season for the Orioles. Combined, they have lost Orioles pitchers 24 runs.

Pearce is unlikely to be the defensive outfielder he was in 2014, but if he can just be an average defender in left and right field, that is just as important to this Orioles team as being an elite defender on almost any other team.

It is unknown how much Steve Pearce will play moving forward. His offensive numbers are impressive against all pitchers, but even more so against left-handed pitchers. In a small sample size of 63 plate appearances against southpaws in 2016, Pearce is slashing .377/.476/.736. In his career against lefties, he owns a .273/.356/.504 slash line in 657 plate appearances.

Pigeonholing Pearce to only playing against lefties should not be in the Orioles’ plan, considering its dire need for competent defensive outfielders. Trumbo isn’t coming out of the lineup despite his bad defense, and neither is Kim. Pedro Alvarez’s hot streak will come to an end, and when it does, Pearce should be in the outfield almost every day, leaving the other corner outfield spot and DH duties to Kim and Trumbo, with the occasional Alvarez DH nod.


xHR: A Speedy and Mandatory Revision

The Community Research section of FanGraphs serves as an excellent sounding board for aspiring amateurs (yes, those aspiring to rise to the level of amateur). After posting about a new statistical model or a detailed analysis of player performance, fellow Community Researchers are given a chance to chime in with helpful comments, sometimes leading to revision of previously drawn conclusions. More rarely, however, do the names that grace the upper sections of the website comment, but when they do, it always leads to revision.

Last week I published a new iteration of xHR, one that was drawn from xHR/BBE. It used four variables: FBLDEV, wFB/C, SLAVG, and FB%. In my naiveté, I neglected to properly analyze the variables I included in the regression model. As Mike Podhorzer helpfully pointed out, both wFB/C and SLAVG do not quite work as variables in the proper sense. Because they are heavily results-based and are both dependent on home runs for their results, they skew the math quite a bit for calculating how many home runs a player ought to have hit. It’s helpful to think of it in terms of calculating an xSLG. As Mr. Podhorzer put it, “It’s like coming up with an xSLG that utilizes doubles, triples, and home-run rates! Obviously they are all correlated, because they are part of the equation of SLG.”  They make for a sort of statistical circular logic.

For that reason, I came up with a different model, with the same basic objectives and two of the same variables, but getting rid of the improper variables. In this one, I used:

  • AVG FBLDEV – Average fly ball/line-drive exit velocity. The idea is that the higher this value is, the harder the player is hitting the ball, and so he will hit more home runs.
  • AVG FBDST – Average fly-ball distance. It’s rather intuitive because the farther a player hits fly balls, the more likely he is to hit home runs. If anything, like FBLDEV, it’s a clear demonstration of power. Obviously it has a decent correlation with FB%, but it isn’t necessarily tangled up with home-run results.
  • K% – The classic profile of a home-run hitter is one who walks a lot, strikes out quite a bit, and hits balls that leave the yard. I suppose that a common conception is that the harder a player swings, the less control he has.
  • FB% – Fly-ball percentage obviously figures pretty heavily into a power hitter’s profile. It’s awfully difficult to hit a lot of home runs without hitting a plethora of fly balls.

Without further ado, here’s the new xHR:

Note: To be clear, the end goal is not necessarily xHR/BBE, but rather xHR. xHR/BBE is just the best path to xHR because HR/BBE is a rate stat, meaning that it will have a better year-to-year correlation than home runs because that’s a counting stat. So if a player gets injured and only plays half a season, his HR/BBE would probably be similar to his career values, but his home-run numbers would not be. With that in mind, remember that the model was made for HR/BBE, not HR, so you will necessarily have “better” results if you’re looking for xHR/BBE.

Pretty good results, to be sure, even if it’s a bit worse than the prior version. A .7989 R-squared value is nothing to scoff at, especially if you think of it as the model explaining 80% of the variance. Clearly it still underestimates the better hitters, and that’s an issue, but there are really so few data points at the top that it’s hard to take it completely seriously up there. If there was a lot more data and it still did that, then I’d be inclined to either add a handicap or to think it ought to be a quadratic regression.

As always, the formula:

xHR= (.170102188*FB% -.014640853*K% + .0000269758*AVGDST + .005672306*FBLDEV -.541845681)*BBE

 

Even more than the previous version, this model is easily accessible to all fans because the variables are comprehensible. Moreover, it isn’t terribly difficult to head over to Statcast or Baseball Savant to obtain the relevant information and make the calculation. Anyway, I hope you enjoy and use this information to the fullest extent.


The Critical Importance of Dylan Bundy

The Orioles are a playoff contender. They also have a rotation than can best be described as “aspirational.” Their starters rank 19th by fWAR as I write this, and too many of them put more fear into Buck Showalter than they do the opposition. You may be asking yourself “Self, has a team with a rotation this bad ever won the World Series?”

Well, ever is a really long time, but I did check in on the World Series winners over the last 10 years, and the answer is: why yes. It’s happened twice in fact: The last two Worlds Series winners (Royals and Giants) also had mediocre starting-pitching production, ranked 22nd and 23rd by fWAR (respectively). The Giants, at least, had Madison Bumgarner, who amassed nearly 4 WAR, won all seven games of the Series, and hit two homers in each game. Ok, not all of that sentence is true, but the Giants clearly had an ace, a horse they could ride to victory.

The Orioles rotation is a lot less ace-y. Chris Tillman sits at 2.4 WAR right now, good for 31st in the majors. Kevin Gausman may reach 2.0. No other O’s starter will.

This resembles the Royals 2015 rotation more than that of the 2014 Giants. The Fighting Yosts had two 2+ WAR starters: Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez. Like those Royals, the O’s have a relentless offense (though relentless in a much different way), and a quality bullpen (both 5th in reliever WAR).

Both rotations also received a key midseason reinforcement. In the 2015 Royals’ case it was Johnny Cueto, who put up an unimpressive 4.76 ERA in his time in KC, but did contribute 1 WAR. With the Royals, Cueto went over 6 innings per start with a 4.06 FIP, giving the bullpen some rest and pushing the radioactive Jeremy Guthrie to the margins of the rotation. The Royals had three 1+ WAR hurlers in the second half: Ventura, Volquez, and Cueto.

The Orioles similarly received a rotation boost after the All-Star break, but via roster re-deployment rather than trade. On July 17 Bundy made his first major-league start. Against the punchless Tampa Bay Rays, Bundy surrendered four runs in just 3 1/3 innings. He struck out four, walked three, and coughed up three dingers. In the space of about an hour, Bundy’s ERA jumped more than half a run.

And it’s been heading down ever since. In his last five starts, Bundy has posted a 1.84 ERA, a .472 OPS against, 32 Ks in 29 innings, and just four walks. Those three homers the Rays hit are still the only ones he’s yielded. These aren’t joke teams Bundy’s been beating: of his last five opponents, only the White Sox’ offense serves comfort food.

In the second half, Bundy trails only Tillman in starter WAR for the O’s. He and Tillman will both reach 1. It seems unlikely any other O’s starter will. Using the 2015 Royals as a model, the Orioles can have success down the stretch and into the postseason with three decent starters. The only candidates are Tillman, Gausman, and Bundy. This puts a lot of heat on a guy with just six major-league starts.

Are there alarm bells? In moving to the starting rotation, Bundy’s velocity has actually increased. His home run rate (1.65/9) is worrisome, but in sample sizes this small it’s dangerous to draw any conclusions from that. He’s doing something new with his curve, probably a key part of his recent success. He’s a achieved a whiff rate in August with the curve that’s almost twice that of any other month in his career. He’s also using his sinker more. These are good things, but any time an injury-prone pitcher makes this many changes at once, it’s possible that he’s rolling the dice with his soft tissue.

The biggest warning sign is probably the innings. His 70+ IP this year amount to just under a third of all his innings in organized ball. In one sense this was expected: Bundy was supposed to get to the majors with relatively minimal minor-league time. However, it’s taken him nearly five years since being drafted to get to 241 career innings (across all levels). No one expected that.

There isn’t a lot of history to go on here; Bundy doesn’t have many comps. There are good reasons for that. Forty years ago the medical advances that have made Bundy’s continued baseball existence possible did not yet exist. Moreover, prior to free agency, it would not have made economic sense for a team to incur those costs even if it could have. Back then, baseball was like Verdun: throw people at the enemy’s trenches and maybe enough of them will survive to take the objective. If not, order up another division and try again. In the baseball context, that meant if a young pitcher’s arm failed, you sent the kid home with a positive reference for his future employer, and gave the next kid the roster slot.

No team can afford to be so cavalier with its pitchers today, at least the ones with significant ceilings. Bundy is, in theory, the unobtanium of baseball: a young, cost-controlled, electric arm. The Orioles’ patience with him to this point is thus admirable, but hardly visionary. It’s more a reflection of how baseball has changed than of the merits the organization.

But the interests of the young pitcher and his employer do not always coincide. Bundy finds himself in a situation similar to that of Steven Matz, a situation in which Bundy’s long-term future and the Orioles’ immediate future may be incompatible. He is critical to whatever hopes the O’s may have of reaching, much less going deep into, the playoffs. Bundy’s heart wants him to continue starting well into October; whether his elbow agrees remains to be seen.

But no matter what fate awaits the O’s and Bundy, 29 other franchises are watching the Bundy story unfold. He will be the comp for the brilliant yet jeopardized young arms of the future. For the front office there is the remote but tantalizing prospect of competitive advantage: The franchise that finds a reliable way to fix those wings will undoubtedly take flight.


The Domination of the Other Phelps

Coming off a season in which he pitched to a 4.50 ERA mostly out of the starting rotation with only 6.19 strikeouts per nine innings, the Marlins decided it was time for a change for David Phelps. They moved Phelps to the bullpen full-time to begin this year, and he was on his way to becoming a relief ace before the Marlins sent him back to the rotation. In 50 relief appearances before joining the rotation, Phelps averaged a whopping 11.43 whiffs per nine (69 strikeouts in 54.1 innings!). Since joining the rotation, Phelps has nine whiffs in 9.1 innings. It will be interesting to see if he can keep this up in the rotation (a la Danny Duffy), because the main culprit for this increase in strikeouts is a surge in fastball velocity:

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It’s a classic case of a pitcher’s stuff playing up in a move to the bullpen. Before this year, Phelps never even averaged 92 on the heater. Now, he’s close to 95. I’m hopeful that he’ll maintain this velocity surge because of what Danny Duffy has done this year. Last year, Duffy averaged around 94.5 on his heater and a mere 6.72 K/9. This year, he’s up to around 96 and 10 in those two categories, respectively, despite being shuttled to and from the bullpen his entire career (just like Phelps). There were plenty of concerns that Duffy’s stuff wouldn’t last in a move from the bullpen this year, but I think his 16-strikeout performance on August 1st quelled the last of those concerns.

Alas, a hard fastball isn’t enough to make a great pitcher, as the Yankees realized when they included David Phelps as a throw-in for Nathan Eovaldi. Now, they’re actually of a similar level of skill. Phelps’ four-seamer has decent arm-side movement, but Eovaldi’s has more. Both of their four-seamers generate close to a 20% pop-up rate, which is really good (average for a pitcher’s full arsenal is around 9.6%). Phelps’ four-seamer’s whiff rate has gone up: it was never higher than 9% (a mere 5.6% last year), but this year it’s nearly 13% (Eovaldi’s is at around 7.8% this year).

Here’s what Phelps has that Eovaldi doesn’t have: decent secondary stuff. Phelps’ second-most-frequent offering is his sinker, which has the eighth-best horizontal movement for sinkers of pitchers with at least 60 innings this year (according to FanGraphs). The whiff rate is up to its highest point ever (although only near 6%). He throws it hard, as it’s averaging over 94 this season. The GB% has never actually been good, but it’s up over 50% this year for the first time. The kicker is this: his sinker has allowed an incredibly low ISO this year (0.036). Who knows if the newfound power-suppressing/added groundball-getting ability will continue for the pitch, but even if it doesn’t, sinkers and four-seamers usually work really well together. This is part of how Phelps distances himself from Eovaldi — Eovaldi has no sinker!

Phelps also has a solid curve, which is generating its best whiff rate since his rookie year, at 11.3% this year. This year, it also has the most vertical drop and cutting action away from righties of his career. Of the 191 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 curveballs this year (sample from Baseball Savant), Phelps’ deuce has the 28th-highest spin rate (2616 revolutions per minute), well above that group’s average of about 2243. And boy, does that thing get grounders. Its average launch angle this year is -7.0! That’s good enough for the third-lowest among my curveballer sample. Brooks Baseball has its GB% at nearly 77% this year, and it has only dipped below 60% one season in his career.

His other pitch of note is a cutter/slider thing (he also has a change, but he’s only thrown it 14 times this year). It has good rise. It doesn’t get too many whiffs, but it’s at its highest whiff rate since his rookie year (close to 9%). The ISO against it has only gone above .100 one year, and is solid this year at .090. It gives him a bit of a new velocity band, as it has usually come in around 91 this year. It also gives him a different kind of movement from his other fastballs (FF=four-seamer, FT=sinker, FC/SL=cutter/slider thing, KC=curve, CH=changeup):

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The bottom line is this: Phelps has always had decent secondary stuff, but before this year, his fastball kind of sucked. Everything plays off of the fastball well, so as his fastball has improved, his secondary stuff has improved too. If Phelps can maintain this added velocity, I see a bright future for him.

Data from FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Texas Leaguers. If you have a moment, read the awesome article that I linked from The Hardball Times: http://www.hardballtimes.com/pitch-sequencing/

Thanks for reading!