Which MLB Hitters Have Gotten Off the Ground?

Following up on excellent recent pieces by Travis Sawchik and Jeff Sullivan, I had a hypothesis: If there is truly a swing-path revolution underway in MLB, perhaps the best hitters by wOBA and wRC+ showed more marked FB+LD%’s (Air%) tendencies in 2015-2016 than in years past? If not them, then perhaps there is a trend among the middle and/or lower classes of hitters?

The hypothesis was wrong, but the investigation still gave some interesting context to the 2016 power spike and the profiles of recent successful/unsuccessful MLB hitters in general.

Here’s a plot of the average FB%+LD% (Air%) for each year, 2009-2016, for all qualifying MLB hitters per FanGraphs leaderboards, divided into three roughly even buckets of 40-50 players by wRC+ (<100wRC+ left, 100-120wRC+ center, >120 wRC+ right):

Here’s a plot of the average FB%+LD% (Air%) for each year, 2009-2016, for all qualifying MLB hitters per FanGraphs leaderboards, divided into three roughly even buckets of 40-50 players by wOBA ( <.320 left, .320-.350 center, >.350 right):

The consistency of these numbers is remarkable. The writing has been on the wall for some time with regards to the benefits of hitting it in the air.

Perhaps plenty of hitters are (and always have been) trying to hit it in the air more often and are either failing to make the change stick, or not finding success quickly enough to stick with the change / stay in the league?

We aren’t seeing across-the-board nor player-class-specific changes that stand out beyond random variation by this method (yet).

There could be an equilibrium point here where given the best pools of pitching and hitting talent available (regardless of how they arrived at said status), the outcomes will be pretty similar at a macro level, save for major fundamental changes to how the game is played.

This does not mean that individual players cannot aspire to find more optimal approaches. Surely there have always been hitters finding success via these means, and only recently have we been focusing on batted-ball data and focusing on these traits of the transformations.

Preach on, Josh Donaldson: Ground balls? They call those outs up here.


Hardball Retrospective – What Might Have Been – The “Original” 1993 Angels

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 1993 California Angels 

OWAR: 39.3     OWS: 277     OPW%: .533     (86-76)

AWAR: 27.8      AWS: 212     APW%: .438     (71-91)

WARdiff: 11.5                        WSdiff: 65  

The “Original” 1993 Angels placed runner-up to the Rangers for the division title, yet the ball club held a fifteen-game advantage over the “Actual” Halos. Tim Salmon garnered 1993 AL Rookie of the Year honors with a .283 BA, 31 dingers, 95 ribbies and 93 runs. Devon White collected his fifth Gold Glove Award and posted career-bests with 42 doubles and 116 runs scored. “Devo” successfully swiped 34 bags in 38 attempts. Dante Bichette provided a .310 BA while clubbing 43 two-base hits and launching 21 moon-shots. Wally Joyner aka “Wally World” contributed 36 doubles along with a .292 BA. Chad Curtis tallied 94 runs and pilfered 48 bases in his sophomore season. Brian Harper (.304/12/73), Mark T. McLemore (.284/4/72) and Paul Sorrento (.257/18/65) augmented the Angels’ attack.

Wally Joyner ranked thirty-seventh among first basemen according to “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” top 100 player rankings. “Original” Angels registered in the “NBJHBA” top 100 ratings include Dickie Thon (57th-SS), Tim Salmon (72nd-RF), Devon White (81st-CF), Tom Brunansky (85th-RF), Dante Bichette (90th-RF) and Brian Harper (99th-C). Furthermore, the list includes Gary Gaetti (34th-3B) and Chili Davis (64th-RF) from the “Actual” Angels ’93 roster.

Original 1993 Angels                                      Actual 1993 Angels

STARTING LINEUP POS OWAR OWS STARTING LINEUP POS AWAR AWS
Chad Curtis LF/CF 2.16 16.51 Luis Polonia LF -0.17 10
Devon White CF 4.47 21.28 Chad Curtis CF 2.16 16.51
Tim Salmon RF 4.36 24.61 Tim Salmon RF 4.36 24.61
Dante Bichette DH/RF 1.71 19.35 Chili Davis DH 0.33 11.91
Wally Joyner 1B 3.14 18.09 J. T. Snow 1B 0.66 10.09
Mark McLemore 2B/RF 2.19 13.37 Damion Easley 2B 1.15 8.38
Gary Disarcina SS -1.15 5.73 Rene Gonzales 3B 0.29 7.04
Damion Easley 3B/2B 1.15 8.38 Gary Disarcina SS -1.15 5.73
Brian Harper C 1.27 15.66 Greg Myers C 0.59 4.26
BENCH POS AWAR AWS BENCH POS AWAR AWS
Paul Sorrento 1B 1.03 13.23 Torey Lovullo 2B 0.39 7.35
Erik Pappas C 1 8.23 Stan Javier LF 1.17 7.1
Dickie Thon SS 0.02 4.88 Eduardo Perez 3B -0.21 3.25
Eduardo Perez 3B -0.21 3.25 Rod Correia SS -0.15 2.84
Dick Schofield SS -0.15 2.43 Chris Turner C 0.6 2.25
Ruben Amaro CF 0.44 2.29 Kelly Gruber 3B 0.2 2.19
Chris Turner C 0.6 2.25 Kurt Stillwell 2B -0.19 1.33
Tom Brunansky RF -0.6 1.56 Ron Tingley C -0.47 1.24
Doug Jennings 1B 0.17 1.46 John Orton C 0.05 1.03
John Orton C 0.05 1.03 Jim Edmonds RF -0.13 0.78
J. R. Phillips 1B 0.17 0.87 Ty Van Burkleo 1B -0.03 0.5
Jim Edmonds RF -0.13 0.78 Jim Walewander SS 0.04 0.41
Larry Gonzales C 0.06 0.24 Larry Gonzales C 0.06 0.24
Jeff Manto 3B -0.23 0.09 Gary Gaetti 3B -0.39 0.12
Gus Polidor 3B -0.04 0.02 Jerome Walton DH -0.03 0.06

Chuck Finley (16-14, 3.15) whiffed 187 batsmen and paced the Junior Circuit in complete games with 13. The Halos compensated for a pedestrian rotation with a stellar bullpen consisting of Bryan Harvey (1.70, 45 SV), Roberto Hernandez (2.29, 38 SV) and Alan Mills (5-4, 3.23). Mark Langston (16-11, 3.20) topped the “Actuals” in strikeouts (196) and innings pitched (256.1) while earning his fourth All-Star invitation.

  Original 1993 Angels                              Actual 1993 Angels 

ROTATION POS OWAR OWS ROTATION POS AWAR AWS
Chuck Finley SP 4.9 18.94 Mark Langston SP 6.16 20.37
Jim Abbott SP 1.34 9.75 Chuck Finley SP 4.9 18.94
Frank Tanana SP 1.03 7.07 Scott Sanderson SP 0.65 5.75
Phil Leftwich SP 1.5 5.13 Phil Leftwich SP 1.5 5.13
Kirk McCaskill SP -0.43 2.35 Joe Magrane SP 0.26 2.58
BULLPEN POS OWAR OWS BULLPEN POS OWAR OWS
Bryan Harvey RP 3.46 17.47 Joe Grahe RP 0.86 7.28
Roberto Hernandez RP 2.49 15.5 Steve Frey RP 0.67 6.92
Alan Mills RP 1.45 9.45 Mike Butcher RP 0.33 4.35
Joe Grahe RP 0.86 7.28 Gene Nelson RP 0.32 4.31
Mike Fetters RP 0.25 4.25 Ken Patterson RP 0.19 2.92
Hilly Hathaway SP 0.04 2.15 Hilly Hathaway SP 0.04 2.15
Scott Lewis SP 0.3 1.61 Scott Lewis SP 0.3 1.61
Mike Witt SP -0.13 1.23 Brian Anderson SP 0.17 0.63
Brian Anderson SP 0.17 0.63 Darryl Scott RP -0.22 0.42
Mike Cook RP 0.08 0.47 Chuck Crim RP -0.27 0.4
Darryl Scott RP -0.22 0.42 John Farrell SP -1.65 0
Marcus Moore RP -0.56 0.36 Mark Holzemer SP -0.83 0
Mark Holzemer SP -0.83 0 Doug Linton RP -0.81 0
Dennis Rasmussen SP -0.62 0 Jerry Nielsen RP -0.61 0
Paul Swingle RP -0.37 0 Russ Springer SP -1.03 0
Paul Swingle RP -0.37 0
Julio Valera SP -1.13 0

Notable Transactions

Devon White 

December 2, 1990: Traded by the California Angels with Willie Fraser and Marcus Moore to the Toronto Blue Jays for a player to be named later, Junior Felix and Luis Sojo. The Toronto Blue Jays sent Ken Rivers (minors) (December 4, 1990) to the California Angels to complete the trade. 

Dante Bichette

March 14, 1991: Traded by the California Angels to the Milwaukee Brewers for Dave Parker.

November 17, 1992: Traded by the Milwaukee Brewers to the Colorado Rockies for Kevin Reimer.

Wally Joyner

October 28, 1991: Granted Free Agency.

December 9, 1991: Signed as a Free Agent with the Kansas City Royals. 

Bryan Harvey

November 17, 1992: Drafted by the Florida Marlins from the California Angels as the 20th pick in the 1992 expansion draft.

Brian Harper 

December 11, 1981: Traded by the California Angels to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Tim Foli.

December 12, 1984: Traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates with John Tudor to the St. Louis Cardinals for Steve Barnard (minors) and George Hendrick.

April 1, 1986: Released by the St. Louis Cardinals.

April 25, 1986: Signed as a Free Agent with the Detroit Tigers.

March 23, 1987: Released by the Detroit Tigers.

May 12, 1987: Purchased by the Oakland Athletics from San Jose (California).

October 12, 1987: Released by the Oakland Athletics.

January 4, 1988: Signed as a Free Agent with the Minnesota Twins.

November 4, 1991: Granted Free Agency.

December 19, 1991: Signed as a Free Agent with the Minnesota Twins. 

Mark T. McLemore 

August 17, 1990: the California Angels sent Mark McLemore to the Cleveland Indians to complete an earlier deal made on September 6, 1989. September 6, 1989: The California Angels sent a player to be named later to the Cleveland Indians for Ron Tingley.

December 13, 1990: Released by the Cleveland Indians.

March 6, 1991: Signed as a Free Agent with the Houston Astros.

June 25, 1991: Released by the Houston Astros.

July 5, 1991: Signed as a Free Agent with the Baltimore Orioles.

October 15, 1991: Granted Free Agency.

February 5, 1992: Signed as a Free Agent with the Baltimore Orioles.

December 19, 1992: Released by the Baltimore Orioles.

January 6, 1993: Signed as a Free Agent with the Baltimore Orioles.

Honorable Mention

The 2001 Anaheim Angels 

OWAR: 37.4     OWS: 267     OPW%: .467     (76-86)

AWAR: 31.1      AWS: 225     APW%: .463     (75-87)

WARdiff: 6.3                        WSdiff: 42  

The “Original” and “Actual” 2001 Angels finished in the American League West basement. Perennial Gold Glove center fielder Jim Edmonds socked 38 doubles and 30 long balls. “Jimmy Baseball” supplied a .304 BA with 95 runs scored and 110 ribbies. Mark T. McLemore batted .286 and nabbed 39 bags in 46 attempts. Troy Glaus crushed 41 circuit clouts and 38 two-baggers as he topped the century mark in runs and RBI. Garret Anderson rapped 194 base knocks including 39 doubles and 28 round-trippers while establishing a personal-best with 123 RBI.  Jarrod Washburn delivered 11 victories with an ERA of 3.77. Troy Percival (1.65, 39 SV) made his fourth appearance in the Mid-Summer Classic and furnished a 0.988 WHIP with more than 11 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. Glaus, Anderson, Washburn and Percival appear on the “Original” and “Actual” Angels rosters in 2001.

On Deck

What Might Have Been – The “Original” 1999 White Sox

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


Quantifying Bullpen Roles: The 2016 Season

Author’s Note: This is the second of a two-part article, both of which are intended to stand on their own. The first introduces terminology and a mathematical framework used to derive statistics; the second uses these new ideas to draw conclusions which are hopefully intriguing to the reader. If you need it as a reference, you can refer back to the first article (here).

Below, I’ll use some metrics – average and weighted-average Euclidian distance between relievers – to look at the 2016 season. Ideally, we’d like to be able to associate a covariate with these metrics. That is, we’d like to be able to say “bullpens with lower weighted-average distances are (blank),” where we fill in the blank with some common-sense concept or truism about the way we know the game to work. Short of that though, maybe we can just get an understanding of why the bullpens at either extreme have found themselves there.

So, without further ado, here are the bullpens of all 30 teams as sorted by weighted average Euclidian distance in 2016.

2016 WAED Leaders

How can we interpret this? There’s no real obvious trend here: there are “good” and “bad” bullpens on both ends of the table, along with “good” and “bad” teams. At the extremes are good case studies, though: A subpar Phillies bullpen on a subpar Phillies team, a solid Orioles bullpen on a solid Orioles team, and of course, the Cubs. What can we learn from looking at them in more detail?

The 2016 Phillies Bullpen: An Ode to Brett Oberholtzer

Most people reading this know how the Phillies season went last year. They were supposed to be bad. Then, briefly, they appeared to be good. People did what they could to explain why the Phillies appeared to be good, including looking at their overachieving bullpen. As it turns out, the Phillies were bad after all. Baseball is fun.

PHI_2016_matrix
PHI_2016_bullpen
PHI_2016_distance

The Phillies being bad explains part of what you see above. They tended to employ a lot of guys in the middle innings when they were already behind in the game. That’s a product of circumstance, and not an indictment of those guys. Elvis Araujo, Severino Gonzalez and Colton Murray weren’t great pitchers, and it’s sort of odd to have three of those guys rotating into your bullpen at various points in the season. Then again, the Phillies were bad, and those three guys were young, and they could afford to give young guys longer runs than a competing team could have.

There are those three guys, and then there’s Brett Oberholtzer, a slightly older, more experienced pitcher, whose MLB time before 2016 was mostly as a starter. He can be considered the quintessential mop-up guy in 2016. He’s way over there to the left – in fact, he had the lowest average score differential when entering the game out of any relief pitcher in 2016. Here’s what his inning-score matrix looked like:

oberhbr01_matrix_2016

This doesn’t even do Brett Oberholtzer justice, though. Here’s a histogram of score differential by appearance that puts it into context.

oberhbr01_2016_scorehist

Oberholtzer made 26 appearances for the Phillies in 2016, and most of them were in garbage time. Then, there was the one appearance where the Phillies actually led when he came into the game. It was the 10th inning, and most of the Phillies bullpen had already been spent. Pete Mackanin had little choice but to bring Oberholtzer in to protect a one-run lead in the 10th. Which he did, earning a save. Brett Oberholtzer has no “regular” mode, no “normal” days. Baseball is wonderful. Baseball is weird.

Getting back to the Phillies bullpen as a whole: It’s not so atypical outside of Oberholtzer and an abundance of negative-score pitchers. Jeanmar Gomez was used in a fairly typical “closer” role, with Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos in higher-leverage setup roles. This all seems to comport with how we think of modern bullpens.

The 2016 Orioles: A Well-Oiled Machine

The Orioles had a very effective bullpen by most measures in 2016. Certainly, it helps to have Zach Britton churning out ground ball after ground ball, but overall the group was very effective, registering a league-leading 10.22 WPA for the season (with second place not being particularly close). Their 53 “meltdowns” were also fewest in the league. This was a playoff team, largely because of their bullpen. That is to say, this is a very different team than the 2016 Phillies.

That said, there are some similarities here.

BAL_2016_matrix
BAL_2016_bullpen
BAL_2016_distance

The general shape is the same, although the Orioles were giving their bullpen a lead more often than the Phillies. One striking similarity is the presence of a “mop-up” guy, in this case, Vance Worley. Worley logged an impressive 64.2 innings in just 31 relief appearances. He was also never given the ball with a lead of less than six (!).

worleva01_matrix_2016

Worley soaked up a lot of innings for the O’s, and he did so in a rather effective way, ending with an ERA of 3.53 – a number which, while partially luck-driven, probably doesn’t suffer from quite as much inherited-runner variance as the average reliever. He created his own messes, and was allowed to clean them up, because Buck Showalter mostly thought the game was over anyway. The overall structure of a bullpen may be related, by necessity, to the depth that the starting rotation can get on a regular basis.

One item of interest here: The unweighted average distance is actually higher in the O’s bullpen than in the Phillies bullpen. When weighting by inverse variance, the Phillies show an even larger average distance, while the average distance narrows for the Orioles. This speaks to more rigid roles, particularly for the setup guys. Darren O’Day was very seldom called upon when the team was behind (four out of 34 appearances, none when trailing by more than three runs), whereas Hector Neris was used a bit more fluidly (18 out of 79 appearances, five appearances when trailing by five or more runs). There may again be a team effect at work here: Maybe the Phillies found themselves needing to get Neris work more often during long losing streaks, and were set on throwing him on a certain day regardless of score.

The 2016 Cubs: An Embarrassment of Riches

If you’ve been under a rock or are currently time traveling, this may shock you: The Cubs were really good last year. They even won the World Series! The Cubs!

OK, with that out of the way, this graph is going to look quite different than the previous two.

CHC_2016_matrix
CHC_2016_bullpen
CHC_2016_distance

Did the Cubs ever not have a lead going into the seventh inning? Well, yes, I assure you that they did. Multiple times, in fact! However, they didn’t do it often enough to give anyone in their bullpen a “mop-up” role, or anything that resembles one. Look at that graph! The Cubs had Aroldis Chapman and Hector Rondon, and then they had seven other guys hanging out in the O’Day / Neris / Brad Brach neighborhood of the graph. What’s going on here?

There’s another thing that’s different about the Cubs which can help explain this. A lot of members of their bullpen have very high variances by score. Whereas O’Day, Neris and Brach have score variances in the single digits, many of the Cubs relievers have score variances north of 10. Take another look at the score variances in the Phillies and Orioles bullpen. Double-digit numbers are typically reserved for long men, mop-up guys, and lower-leverage relievers. Here’s Justin Grimm, who represents this pretty well:

grimmju01_matrix_2016

Maybe this was a conscious decision by Joe Maddon, matching up in high-leverage situations with different arms. Maybe this was simply a necessary decision to keep everyone fresh in the face of repeated high-leverage situations: If you have late-game leads for five or six consecutive games, the same three arms can’t be used in all of them. It’s not as if Justin Grimm was used a lot in these situations, and no one would refer to him as a “high-leverage reliever.” He did have a dozen or so appearances in the high-leverage areas of the graph, though, and that’s not nothing.

You can chalk this up to the Cubs being really, really good in 2016, and likely, there’s some merit to that. But it also probably doesn’t tell the whole story. Out of 279 relievers with 20 or more appearances in 2016, only 18 of them had an average inning of 7 or later, an average score differential of 1 or more, and a score variance of 10 or more. Five of those 18 were on the Cubs. The Nationals, Rangers, Red Sox and Dodgers – all good teams in their own right, if not quite as dominant as the Cubs – had one such player each. The Indians had none.

It’s safe to say that Joe Maddon managed his bullpen differently than any of these teams in 2016. It’s also hard to argue with the results.


Quantifying Bullpen Roles: The Math

Author’s Note: This is the first of a two-part article, both parts of which are intended to stand on their own. The first introduces terminology and a mathematical framework used to derive statistics; the second uses these new ideas to draw conclusions which are hopefully intriguing to the reader. If you’re not into math, you can skip to the second article (here) and refer back to this one as needed.

Recently, I wrote about the inning-score matrix, and how we could refine the concept to put a finer point on when and how certain relief pitchers are used. Statistical oddities and outliers are always fun topics of conversation, and certainly, appearance data can give us that.

But can it give us more than that? I don’t care so much that Will Smith was used differently after he was traded or that Brett Oberholtzer was the closest thing to a true mop-up man in the game last year – OK, actually, those things are really interesting too – so much as I care to define how managers are employing bullpens. This may not even give rise to why managers are doing what they’re doing; it’s difficult to attribute intent when looking at numbers abstracted away from the human elements of the game. However, the decision to bring a specific relief pitcher into the game is a conscious one by the manager, largely influenced by game situation. To that end, appearance data can also be aggregated by team — and, if what we care about is the managerial decisions that give rise to bullpen roles, we should really be focused at the team level.

To gain insight into, and ultimately quantify, how bullpens are constructed, we need to define a few concepts. As we go through, I’ll do my best to explain the concept that we’re trying to quantify in baseball terms, before diving into the nuts and bolts of how I’m quantifying them.

Concept 1: Center of gravity

Your personal center of gravity is probably around your belly button – it’s the point at which half of your mass is above, half is below, half is left, half is right.

In addition to their physical centers of gravity (which they work so hard on, Bartolo Colon notwithstanding), relief pitchers have another “center of gravity”: the one at the center of their inning-score matrix. The inning-score matrix has two dimensions (score differential on the X-axis, inning on the Y-axis), and each appearance can be plotted in these two dimensions.

If we treat all appearances equally, a reliever’s center of gravity can be defined as the average inning and score when entering the game. This tells us a great deal about how the pitcher is being used on its own. For example, without looking at the names, you can probably guess which of these guys was a high-leverage reliever in 2016 and which was a mop-up guy.

worley_britton_2016
Player A: Vance Worley; Player B: Zach Britton

The center of gravity is a snapshot of a player’s role. It doesn’t tell you everything – you can’t pick out a lefty specialist, for example, or a guy whose game situations changed drastically over the course of a season. In fact, in the latter case, a player’s center of gravity for an entire season may actually be misleading. Still, it’s the most information you can get about the player’s usage in a couple numbers. We’ll think of it as where the player “lives” in the inning-score matrix.

Concept 2: Euclidian distance

If you’re not a math person, ignore the word “Euclidian.” This is just “distance” in the way you think about it in everyday life. If I have two points in space, a straight line between them has a distance, and in layman’s terms, we’d say that the size of that distance constitutes “how close” or “how far apart” the two points are. Mathematically, for two points with coordinates (xi, yi) and (xj, yj), the Euclidian distance between them can be calculated as:

ED formula

A bullpen lives in the two-dimensional space that we used to define center of gravity: For every appearance a member of the bullpen makes, there is an inning (y), and there is a score (x). In this space, each member of the bullpen has a center of gravity. As such, we can say the two pitchers in our earlier example were far apart, but that these two are close together:

greene_wilson_2016
Player A: Shane Greene; Player B: Justin Wilson

In fact, you can start to look at entire bullpens graphically, in order to form an image of how the bullpen is constructed. Our “twins” from above are easy to pick out when we do this:

DET_2016_matrix

Nice to look at, and the trend makes intuitive sense: guys who pitch later in games are generally also trusted with leads. But how can we use it to compare bullpens? We need metrics to quantify what we’re seeing above, to describe how similar or dissimilar the roles are in a bullpen. Then we can compare that to other bullpens and give context to how a team is managing their pen relative to the rest of the league.

Concept 3: Average Euclidian distance

The simplest thing one could do would be to sum the distances of the lines connecting each player’s center of gravity. This has the disadvantage of being biased: Bullpens which have more qualifying players will have more dots to connect and, therefore, more total distance.

DET_2016_matrix_ctd

Naturally, we can calculate an average of these distances instead. This requires us to know how many unique distances there are between distinct pairs of relievers. We can deduce this logically: From the first of n relievers, there are (n – 1) lines, connecting that reliever to all the others. From the second reliever, we’ve already drawn the line to the first reliever, so we can draw (n – 2) more lines, connecting him to the remaining relievers … and so forth. Thus, for n relievers in a bullpen, there are (n – 1) + (n – 2) + … + 2 + 1 distances between them, and we can calculate the average Euclidian distance as:

AED Formula

This looks intimidating, but the numerator is really just the sum of all the distances of all the lines that we drew. The denominator is the number of lines that we drew. Voila: an average!

Concept 4: Weighted-average Euclidian distance

You may be tiring of all this talk about Euclidian distance. It’s important, though, to take this one step further. To use the average distance between all members of the bullpen as a basis of comparison is to make the assumption that all relievers are created equal – that, if you’re a fan of the Indians, you care about the distance between Kyle Crockett and Dan Otero as much as you do about the distance between Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen. You probably don’t, and that makes sense – the former duo isn’t nearly as important to the makeup of the Indians’ bullpen as the latter. We should, therefore, be emphasizing certain relievers and the distances associated with them.

How do we characterize certain members of a bullpen as important, numerically? We could weight them by, say, the average Leverage Index at the time they entered the game; players who are trusted in critical situations are surely more important, right? The issue with this idea is that leverage is highly correlated with the inning and score – in fact, it’s derived from them. Weighting by Leverage Index would tell us that players in a certain area of the graph are more important to team success. This is intuitive and not very interesting.

What do we want to measure? It might be interesting to know how rigid or fluid a team’s bullpen is; that is, do they have a “seventh-inning guy” or a “mop-up guy” who is consistently called on in certain situations? In this case, we want to give more weight to relievers who have lower variance by game situation when entering the game. If the manager gives someone a highly-specific role by inning and score, that reliever is important insofar as the structure of the bullpen is concerned. That may not translate to how important they are with respect to the outcome of games, but presumably, that reliever has a fixed role because they have a skillset that in some way lends itself to his residence in a certain part of the graph.

Fortunately, the concept of inverse-variance weighting is an established mathematical concept. The idea is that players with lower variance by inning and score should be weighted more heavily. In short, this works in three steps:

  1. For each pair of players, divide the Euclidian distance between them by the sum of score and inning variances associated with their centers of gravity;
  2. For each pair of players, divide 1 by that very same sum of score and inning variances;
  3. Divide the sum of results of (1) by the sum of results of (2).

Mathematically, this looks like this:

WAED Formula

Portrait of a Modern Bullpen

If you’re still with me, you may be wondering what the use of all this is. Let’s summarize what we’ve done so far:

  • The average Euclidian distance between members of the bullpen tells us how clustered or spread out that bullpen is as a whole.
  • Using a weighted average refines that metric in order to emphasize members of the bullpen that have well-defined, rigid roles – usually a closer and a setup man or two, but sometimes a surprise as well.

We can summarize a bullpen with these metrics and a plot of all members of a bullpen (as represented by their centers of gravity). Here’s how the 2016 Marlins bullpen looks in a snapshot. The 2016 Marlins have been chosen because they were a very average bullpen in terms of performance as well as structure, on a very average team overall. I couldn’t find anything at all that stood out about them.

MIA_2016_matrix
MIA_2016_bullpen
MIA_2016_distance

We can use this framework to compare bullpens going forward: Which teams have very large distances between relievers? Which are more clustered? Which are oriented differently? We can not only compare bullpens within a single season, but also how bullpen structures have changed over time across the league. We can explore whether the structure of a bullpen is consistent from year to year on a single team, or if certain managers have ways of managing their bullpens which consistently show up in the data associated with their teams. There are a lot of exciting possible applications.

And of course, we can point out statistical oddities along the way. Why wouldn’t we?


Basic Machine Learning With R (Part 2)

(For part 1 of this series, click here)

Last time, we learned how to run a machine-learning algorithm in just a few lines of R code. But how can we apply that to actual baseball data? Well, first we have to get some baseball data. There are lots of great places to get some — Bill Petti’s post I linked to last time has some great resources — but heck, we’re on FanGraphs, so let’s get the data from here.

You probably know this, but it took forever for me to learn it — you can make custom leaderboards here at FanGraphs and export them to CSV. This is an amazing resource for machine learning, because the data is nice and clean, and in a very user-friendly format. So we’ll do that to run our model, which today will be to try to predict pitcher WAR from the other counting stats. I’m going to use this custom leaderboard (if you’ve never made a custom leaderboard before, play around there a bit to see how you can customize things). If you click on “Export Data” on that page you can download the CSV that we’ll be using for the rest of this post.

View post on imgur.com


Let’s load this data into R. Just like last time, all the code presented here is on my GitHub. Reading CSVs is super easy — assuming you named your file “leaderboard.csv”, it’s just this:

pitcherData <- read.csv('leaderboard.csv',fileEncoding = "UTF-8-BOM")

Normally you wouldn’t need the “fileEncoding” bit, but for whatever reason FanGraphs CSVs use a particularly annoying character encoding. You may also need to use the full path to the file if your working directory is not where the file is.

Let’s take a look at our data. Remember the “head” function we used last time? Let’s change it up and use the “str” function this time.

> str(pitcherData)
'data.frame':	594 obs. of  16 variables:
 $ Season  : int  2015 2015 2014 2013 2015 2016 2014 2014 2013 2014 ...
 $ Name    : Factor w/ 231 levels "A.J. Burnett",..: 230 94 47 ...
 $ Team    : Factor w/ 31 levels "- - -","Angels",..: 11 9 11  ...
 $ W       : int  19 22 21 16 16 16 15 12 12 20 ...
 $ L       : int  3 6 3 9 7 8 6 4 6 9 ...
 $ G       : int  32 33 27 33 33 31 34 26 28 34 ...
 $ GS      : int  32 33 27 33 33 30 34 26 28 34 ...
 $ IP      : num  222 229 198 236 232 ...
 $ H       : int  148 150 139 164 163 142 170 129 111 169 ...
 $ R       : int  43 52 42 55 62 53 68 48 47 69 ...
 $ ER      : int  41 45 39 48 55 45 56 42 42 61 ...
 $ HR      : int  14 10 9 11 15 15 16 13 10 22 ...
 $ BB      : int  40 48 31 52 42 44 46 39 58 65 ...
 $ SO      : int  200 236 239 232 301 170 248 208 187 242 ...
 $ WAR     : num  5.8 7.3 7.6 7.1 8.6 4.5 6.1 5.2 4.1 4.6 ...
 $ playerid: int  1943 4153 2036 2036 2036 12049 4772 10603 ...

Sometimes the CSV needs cleaning up, but this one is not so bad. Other than “Name” and “Team”, everything shows as a numeric data type, which isn’t always the case. For completeness, I want to mention that if a column that was actually numeric showed up as a factor variable (this happens A LOT), you would convert it in the following way:

pitcherData$WAR <- as.numeric(as.character(pitcherData$WAR))

Now, which of these potential features should we use to build our model? One quick way to explore good possibilities is by running a correlation analysis:

cor(subset(pitcherData, select=-c(Season,Name,Team,playerid)))

Note that in this line, we’ve removed the columns that are either non-numeric or are totally uninteresting to us. The “WAR” column in the result is the one we’re after — it looks like this:

            WAR
W    0.50990268
L   -0.36354081
G    0.09764845
GS   0.20699173
IP   0.59004342
H   -0.06260448
R   -0.48937468
ER  -0.50046647
HR  -0.47068461
BB  -0.24500566
SO   0.74995296
WAR  1.00000000

Let’s take a first crack at this prediction with the columns that show the most correlation (both positive and negative): Wins, Losses, Innings Pitched, Earned Runs, Home Runs, Walks, and Strikeouts.

goodColumns <- c('W','L','IP','ER','HR','BB','SO','WAR')
library(caret)
inTrain <- createDataPartition(pitcherData$WAR,p=0.7,list=FALSE)
training <- data[inTrain,goodColumns]
testing <- data[-inTrain,goodColumns]

You should recognize this setup from what we did last time. The only difference here is that we’re choosing which columns to keep; with the iris data set we didn’t need to do that. Now we are ready to run our model, but which algorithm do we choose? Lots of ink has been spilled about which is the best model to use in any given scenario, but most of that discussion is wasted. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two things you need to weigh:

  1. how *interpretable* you want the model to be
  2. how *accurate* you want the model to be

If you want interpretability, you probably want linear regression (for regression problems) and decision trees or logistic regression (for classification problems). If you don’t care about other people being able to make heads or tails out of your results, but you want something that is likely to work well, my two favorite algorithms are boosting and random forests (these two can do both regression and classification). Rule of thumb: start with the interpretable ones. If they work okay, then there may be no need to go to something fancy. In our case, there already is a black-box algorithm for computing pitcher WAR, so we don’t really need another one. Let’s try for interpretability.

We’re also going to add one other wrinkle: cross-validation. I won’t say too much about it here except that in general you’ll get better results if you add the “trainControl” stuff. If you’re interested, please do read about it on Wikipedia.

method = 'lm' # linear regression
ctrl <- trainControl(method = 'repeatedcv',number = 10, repeats = 10)
modelFit <- train(WAR ~ ., method=method, data=training, trControl=ctrl)

Did it work? Was it any good? One nice quick way to tell is to look at the summary.

> summary(modelFit)

Call:
lm(formula = .outcome ~ ., data = dat)

Residuals:
     Min       1Q   Median       3Q      Max 
-1.38711 -0.30398  0.01603  0.31073  1.34957 

Coefficients:
              Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept) -0.6927921  0.2735966  -2.532  0.01171 *  
W            0.0166766  0.0101921   1.636  0.10256    
L           -0.0336223  0.0113979  -2.950  0.00336 ** 
IP           0.0211533  0.0017859  11.845  < 2e-16 ***
ER           0.0047654  0.0026371   1.807  0.07149 .  
HR          -0.1260508  0.0048609 -25.931  < 2e-16 ***
BB          -0.0363923  0.0017416 -20.896  < 2e-16 ***
SO           0.0239269  0.0008243  29.027  < 2e-16 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 0.4728 on 410 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.9113,	Adjusted R-squared:  0.9097 
F-statistic: 601.5 on 7 and 410 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

Whoa, that’s actually really good. The adjusted R-squared is over 0.9, which is fantastic. We also get something else nice out of this, which is the significance of each variable, helpfully indicated by a 0-3 star system. We have four variables that were three-stars; what would happen if we built our model with just those features? It would certainly be simpler; let’s see if it’s anywhere near as good.

> model2 <- train(WAR ~ IP + HR + BB + SO, method=method, data=training, trControl=ctrl)
> summary(model2)

Call:
lm(formula = .outcome ~ ., data = dat)

Residuals:
     Min       1Q   Median       3Q      Max 
-1.32227 -0.27779 -0.00839  0.30686  1.35129 

Coefficients:
              Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept) -0.8074825  0.2696911  -2.994  0.00292 ** 
IP           0.0228243  0.0015400  14.821  < 2e-16 ***
HR          -0.1253022  0.0039635 -31.614  < 2e-16 ***
BB          -0.0366801  0.0015888 -23.086  < 2e-16 ***
SO           0.0241239  0.0007626  31.633  < 2e-16 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 0.4829 on 413 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.9067,	Adjusted R-squared:  0.9058 
F-statistic:  1004 on 4 and 413 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

Awesome! The results still look really good. But of course, we need to be concerned about overfitting, so we can’t be 100% sure this is a decent model until we evaluate it on our test set. Let’s do that now:

# Apply to test set
predicted2 <- predict(model2,newdata=testing)
# R-squared
cor(testing$WAR,predicted2)^2 # 0.9108492
# Plot the predicted values vs. actuals
plot(testing$WAR,predicted2)

View post on imgur.com


Fantastic! This is as good as we could have expected from this, and now we have an interpretable version of pitcher WAR, specifically,

WAR = -0.8 + 0.02 * IP + -0.13 * HR + -0.04 * BB + 0.02 * K

Most of the time, machine learning does not come out as nice as it has in this post and the last one, so don’t expect miracles every time out. But you can occasionally get some really cool results if you know what you’re doing, and at this point, you kind of do! I have a few ideas about what to write about for part 3 (likely the final part), but if there’s something you really would like to know how to do, hit me up in the comments.


dSCORE: Pitcher Evaluation by Stuff

Confession: fantasy baseball is life.

Second confession: the chance that I actually turn out to be a sabermetrician is <1%.

That being said, driven purely by competition and a need to have a leg up on the established vets in a 20-team, hyper-deep fantasy league, I had an idea to see if I could build a set of formulas that attempted to quantify a pitcher’s “true-talent level” by the performance of each pitch in his arsenal. Along with one of my buddies in the league who happens to be (much) better at numbers than yours truly, dSCORE was born.

dSCORE (“Dominance Score”) is designed as a luck-independent analysis (similar to FIP) — showing a pitcher might be overperforming/underperforming based on the quality of the pitches he throws. It analyzes each pitch at a pitcher’s disposal using outcome metrics (K-BB%, Hard/Soft%, contact metrics, swinging strikes, weighted pitch values), with each metric weighted by importance to success. For relievers, missing bats, limiting hard contact, and one to two premium pitches are better indicators of success; starting pitchers with a better overall arsenal plus contact and baserunner management tend to have more success. We designed dSCORE as a way to make early identification of possible high-leverage relievers or closers, as well as stripping out as much luck as possible to view a pitcher from as pure a talent point of view as possible.

We’ve finalized our evaluations of MLB relievers, so I’ll be going over those below. I’ll post our findings on starting pitchers as soon as we finish up that part — but you’ll be able to see the work in process in this Google Sheets link that also shows the finalized rankings for relievers.

Top Performing RP by Arsenal, 2016
Rank Name Team dSCORE
1 Aroldis Chapman Yankees 87
2 Andrew Miller Indians 86
3 Edwin Diaz Mariners 82
4 Carl Edwards Jr. Cubs 78
5 Dellin Betances Yankees 63
6 Ken Giles Astros 63
7 Zach Britton Orioles 61
8 Danny Duffy Royals 61
9 Kenley Jansen Dodgers 61
10 Seung Hwan Oh Cardinals 58
11 Luis Avilan Dodgers 57
12 Kelvin Herrera Royals 57
13 Pedro Strop Cubs 57
14 Grant Dayton Dodgers 52
15 Kyle Barraclough Marlins 50
16 Hector Neris Phillies 49
17 Christopher Devenski Astros 48
18 Boone Logan White Sox 46
19 Matt Bush Rangers 46
20 Luke Gregerson Astros 45
21 Roberto Osuna Blue Jays 44
22 Shawn Kelley Mariners 44
22 Alex Colome Rays 44
24 Bruce Rondon Tigers 43
25 Nate Jones White Sox 43

Any reliever list that’s headed up by Chapman and Miller should be on the right track. Danny Duffy shows up, even though he spent most of the summer in the starting rotation. I guess that shows just how good he was even in a starting role!

We had built the alpha version of this algorithm right as guys like Edwin Diaz and Carl Edwards Jr. were starting to get national helium as breakout talents. Even in our alpha version, they made the top 10, which was about as much of a proof-of-concept as could be asked for. Other possible impact guys identified include Grant Dayton (#14), Matt Bush (#19), Josh Smoker (#26), Dario Alvarez (#28), Michael Feliz (#29) and Pedro Baez (#30).

Since I led with the results, here’s how we got them. For relievers, we took these stats:

Set 1: K-BB%

Set 2: Hard%, Soft%

Set 3: Contact%, O-Contact%, Z-Contact%, SwStk%

Set 4: vPitch,

Set 5: wPitch Set 6: Pitch-X and Pitch-Z (where “Pitch” includes FA, FT, SL, CU, CH, FS for all of the above)

…and threw them in a weighting blender. I’ve already touched on the fact that relievers operate on a different set of ideal success indicators than starters, so for relievers we resolved on weights of 25% for Set 1, 10% for Set 2, 25% for Set 3, 10% for Set 4, 20% for set 5 and 10% for Set 6. Sum up the final weighted values, and you get each pitcher’s dSCORE. Before we weighted each arsenal, though, we compared each metric to the league mean, and gave it a numerical value based on how it stacked up to that mean. The higher the value, the better that pitch performed.

What the algorithm rolls out is an interesting, somewhat top-heavy curve that would be nice to paste in here if I could get media to upload, but I seem to be rather poor at life, so that didn’t happen — BUT it’s on the Sum tab in the link above. Adjusting the weightings obviously skews the results and therefore introduces a touch of bias, but it also has some interesting side effects when searching for players that are heavily affected by certain outcomes (e.g. someone that misses bats but the rest of the package is iffy). One last oddity/weakness we noticed was that pitchers with multiple plus-to-elite pitches got a boost in our rating system. The reason that could be an issue is guys like Kenley Jansen, who rely on a single dominant pitch, can get buried more than they deserve.


Basic Machine Learning With R (Part 1)

You’ve heard of machine learning. How could you not have? It’s absolutely everywhere, and baseball is no exception. It’s how Gameday knows how to tell a fastball from a cutter and how the advanced pitch-framing metrics are computed. The math behind these algorithms can go from the fairly mundane (linear regression) to seriously complicated (neural networks), but good news! Someone else has wrapped up all the complex stuff for you. All you need is a basic understanding of how to approach these problems and some rudimentary programming knowledge. That’s where this article comes in. So if you like the idea of predicting whether a batted ball will become a home run or predicting time spent on the DL, this post is for you.

We’re going to use R and RStudio to do the heavy lifting for us, so you’ll have to download them (they’re free!). The download process is fairly painless and well-documented all over the internet. If I were you, I’d start with this article. I highly recommend reading at least the beginning of that article; it not only has an intro to getting started with R, but information on getting baseball-related data, as well as some other indispensable links. Once you’ve finished downloading RStudio and reading that article head back here and we’ll get started! (If you don’t want to download anything for now you can run the code from this first part on R-Fiddle — though you’ll want to download R in the long run if you get serious.)

Let’s start with some basic machine-learning concepts. We’ll stick to supervised learning, of which there are two main varieties: regression and classification. To know what type of learning you want, you need to know what problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re trying to predict a number — say, how many home runs a batter will hit or how many games a team will win — you’ll want to run a regression. If you’re trying to predict an outcome — maybe if a player will make the Hall of Fame or if a team will make the playoffs — you’d run a classification. These classification algorithms can also give you probabilities for each outcome, instead of just a binary yes/no answer (so you can give a probability that a player will make the Hall of Fame, say).

Okay, so the first thing to do is figure out what problem you want to solve. The second part is figuring out what goes into the prediction. The variables that go into the prediction are called “features,” and feature selection is one of the most important parts of creating a machine-learning algorithm. To predict how many home runs a batter will hit, do you want to look at how many triples he’s hit? Maybe you look at plate appearances, or K%, or handedness … you can go on and on, so choose wisely.

Enough theory for now — let’s look at a specific example using some real-life R code and the famous “iris” data set. This code and all subsequent code will be available on my GitHub.

data(iris)
library('caret')
inTrain <- createDataPartition(iris$Species,p=0.7,list=FALSE)
training <- iris[inTrain,]
model <- train(Species~.,data=training,method='rf')

Believe it or not, in those five lines of code we have run a very sophisticated machine-learning model on a subset of the iris data set! Let’s take a more in-depth look at what happened here.

data(iris)

This first line loads the iris data set into a data frame — a variable type in R that looks a lot like an Excel spreadsheet or CSV file. The data is organized into columns and each column has a name. That first command loaded our data into a variable called “iris.” Let’s actually take a look at it; the “head” function in R shows the first five rows of the dataset — type

head(iris)

into the console.

> head(iris)
  Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
1          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
2          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
3          4.7         3.2          1.3         0.2  setosa
4          4.6         3.1          1.5         0.2  setosa
5          5.0         3.6          1.4         0.2  setosa
6          5.4         3.9          1.7         0.4  setosa

As you hopefully read in the Wikipedia page, this data set consists of various measurements of three related species of flowers. The problem we’re trying to solve here is to figure out, given the measurements of a flower, which species it belongs to. Loading the data is a good first step.

library(caret)

If you’ve been running this code while reading this post, you may have gotten the following error when you got here:

Error in library(caret) : there is no package called 'caret'

This is because, unlike the iris data set, the “caret” library doesn’t ship with R. That’s too bad, because the caret library is the reason we’re using R in the first place, but fear not! Installing missing packages is dead easy, with just the following command

install.packages('caret')

or, if you have a little time and want to ensure that you don’t run into any issues down the road:

install.packages("caret", dependencies = c("Depends", "Suggests"))

The latter command installs a bunch more stuff than just the bare minimum, and it takes a while, but it might be worth it if you’re planning on doing a lot with this package. Note: you should be planning to do a lot with it — this library is a catch-all for a bunch of machine-learning tools and makes complicated processes look really easy (again, see above: five lines of code!).

inTrain <- createDataPartition(iris$Species,p=0.7,list=FALSE)

We never want to train our model on the whole data set, a concept I’ll get into more a little later. For now, just know that this line of code randomly selects 70% of our data set to use to train the model. Note also R’s “<-” notation for assigning a value to a variable.

training <- iris[inTrain,]

Whereas the previous line chose which rows we’d use to train our model, this line actually creates the training data set. The “training” variable now has 105 randomly selected rows from the original iris data set (you can again use the “head” function to look at the top 5).

model <- train(Species~.,data=training,method='rf')

This line of code runs the actual model! The “train” function is the model-building one. “Species~.” means we want to predict the “Species” column from all the others. “data=training” means the data set we want to use is the one we assigned to the “training” variable earlier. And “method=’rf'” means we will use the very powerful and very popular random-forest method to do our classification. If, while running this command, R tells you it needs to install something, go ahead and do it. R will run its magic and create a model for you!

Now, of course, a model is no good unless we can apply it to data that the model hasn’t seen before, so let’s do that now. Remember earlier when we only took 70% of the data set to train our model? We’ll now run our model on the other 30% to see how good it was.

# Create the test set to evaluate the model
# Note that "-inTrain" with the minus sign pulls everything NOT in the training set
testing <- iris[-inTrain,]
# Run the model on the test set
predicted <- predict(model,newdata=testing)
# Determine the model accuracy
accuracy <- sum(predicted == testing$Species)/length(predicted)
# Print the model accuracy
print(accuracy)

Pretty good, right? You should get a very high accuracy doing this, likely over 95%*. And it was pretty easy to do! If you want some homework, type the following command and familiarize yourself with all its output by Googling any words you don’t know:

confusionMatrix(predicted, testing$Species)

*I can’t be sure because of the randomness that goes into both choosing the training set and building the model.

Congratulations! You now know how to do some machine learning, but there’s so much more to do. Next time we’ll actually play around with some baseball data and explore some deeper concepts. In the meantime, play around with the code above to get familiar with R and RStudio. Also, if there’s anything you’d specifically like to see, leave me a comment and I’ll try to get to it.


Exploring Relief Pitcher Usage Via the Inning-Score Matrix

Relief pitching has gotten a lot of attention across baseball in the past few seasons, both in traditional and analytical circles. This has come into particular focus in the past two World Series, which saw the Royals’ three-headed monster effectively reducing games to six innings in 2015, and a near over-reliance on relief aces by each manager this past October. It came to a head this offseason, when Aroldis Chapman signed the largest contract in history for a relief pitcher. Teams are more willing than ever to invest in their bullpens.

At the same time, analytical fans have long argued for a change in the way top-tier relievers are used – why not use your best pitcher in the most critical moments of the game, regardless of inning? For the most part, however, managers have appeared largely reluctant to stray from traditional bullpen roles: The closer gets the 9th inning with the lead, the setup man gets the 8th, and so forth. This might be in part due to managerial philosophy, or in part due to the fact that relievers are, in fact, human beings who value continuity and routine in their roles.

That’s the general narrative, but we can also quantify relief-pitching roles by looking at the circumstances when a pitcher comes into the game. One basic tool for this is the inning/score matrix found at the bottom of a player’s “Game Log” page at Baseball-Reference. The vertical axis denotes the inning in which the pitcher entered the game, while the horizontal axis measures the score differential (+1 indicating a 1-run lead, -1 indicating a 1-run deficit).

millean01_bbref_matrix

From this, we can tell that Andrew Miller was largely used in the 7th through 9th innings to protect a lead. This leaves a lot to be desired, however, both visually and in terms of the data itself. Namely:

  • Starts are included in this data. This doesn’t matter for Miller, but skews things quite a bit if we only care about bullpen usage for a player who switched from bullpen to rotation, such as Dylan Bundy.
  • Data is aggregated for innings 1-4 and 10+, and for score differentials of 4+. In Miller’s case, those two games in the far left column of the above chart actually represent games where his team was down seven runs. This is important if we want to calculate summary statistics (more on this in a bit).
  • Appearances are aggregated for an entire year, regardless of team. This is a big issue for Miller, who split his time between the Yankees and Indians last year, as there is no easy way to discern how his usage changed upon being traded from one to the other.

To address these issues, I’ve collected appearance data for all pitchers making at least 20 relief appearances for a single team in 2016. We can then construct an inning/score matrix which is specific by team and includes only relief appearances. Additionally, we can calculate summary statistics (mean and variance) for the statistics associated with their relief appearances, including: score and inning when they entered the game, days rest prior to the appearance, batters faced, and average Leverage Index during the appearance. This gives insight into the way the manager decided to use that pitcher: Was there a typical inning or score situation where he was called upon? Was he usually asked to face one batter, or go multiple innings? Was his role highly specific or more fluid?

So let’s start there – and in particular, let’s see if we can identify some relievers who had very rigid roles, or roles that simply stood out from the crowd. To start, here are the relievers who had the lowest variance by inning in 2016.

varinn_2016_min

No surprise here: Most teams reserve their closers for the 9th inning, and rarely deviate from that formula. What you have is a list of guys who were closers for the vast majority of their time with the listed team in 2016, with one very notable exception. Prior to being traded over to Toronto, Joaquin Benoit made 26 appearances for Seattle – 25 of which were in the 8th inning! The next-most rigid role by inning, excluding the 9th inning “closer” role, was Addison Reed, who racked up 63 appearances in the 8th inning for the Mets, but was also given 17 appearances in either the 7th or 9th. In short, Benoit’s role with the Mariners was shockingly inning-specific. I’ve also included the variance of the score differential, which shows that score seemed to have no bearing on whether Benoit was coming into the game. The 8th inning was his, whether the team really needed him there or not.

benoijo01_2016_matrix

Speaking of variance in score differential, there’s a name at the top of that list which is quite interesting, too.

varscore_2016_min

Here we mostly see a collection of accomplished setup men and closers who are coming in to protect 1-2 run leads in highly-defined roles (low variance by inning). We also see Matt Strahm, a young lefty who quietly made a fantastic two-month debut for a Royals team that was mostly out of the playoff picture, and a guy who Paul Sporer mentioned as someone who might be in line for a closer’s role soon. Strahm’s great numbers – 13 hits and 0 home runs surrendered in 22.0 innings, to go with 30 strikeouts – went under the radar, but Ned Yost certainly trusted Strahm with a fairly high-leverage role in the 6th and 7th innings rather quickly. With Wade Davis and Greg Holland both out of the picture, it’s not unreasonable to think Strahm will move into a later-game role, if the Royals opt not to try him in the rotation instead.

strahma01_2016_matrix

This next leaderboard, sorted by average batters faced per appearance, either exemplifies Bruce Bochy’s quick hook, or the fact that the Giants bullpen was a dumpster fire, or perhaps both.

varscore_2016_min

This is a list mostly reserved for lefty specialists: The top 13 names on the list are left-handed. Occupying the 14th spot is Sergio Romo, which is notable because he’s right-handed, and also because he’s the fourth Giants pitcher on the list. The Giants take up four of the top 14 spots!

While they never did quite figure out the right configuration (or simply never had enough high-quality arms at their disposal), certainly one could question why Will Smith appears here; the Giants traded for Smith who was, by all accounts, an effective and important part of the Brewers’ pen. The Giants not only used him (on average) in lower-leverage situations, but they also used him in shorter outings, and with less regard for the score of the game.

smithwi012016_teamsplits

Dave Cameron used different data to come to the same conclusion several months ago. Very strange, considering that they had not just one, but two guys who already fit the lefty-specialist role in Javier Lopez and Josh Osich. Smith is back in San Francisco for the 2017 season, and it will be interesting to track whether his usage returns to the high-leverage setup role that he occupied in Milwaukee.

This is a taste of how this data can be used to pick out unique bullpens and bullpen roles. My hope is that a deeper, more mathematical review of the data can produce insights on how bullpens are structured: Perhaps certain teams are ahead of the curve (or just different) in this regard, or perhaps the data will show that there is a trend toward greater flexibility over the past few seasons. Certainly, if teams are spending more than ever on their bullpens, it stands to reason that they should be thinking more than ever about how to manage them, too.


Maximizing the Minor Leagues

Throughout each level of the minor leagues, a lot of time and effort is devoted to travel. A more productive model would be for an entire level playing in one location. Spring training’s Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues are a great example. Like spring training, the goal of the minor leagues is to develop, not to win. In this system, players would have more time to work on strength, durability, and skill development. This system could be in effect until the prospect reaches Double-A. At that level, players could start assimilating themselves to playing ball all over the map. However, this is merely a pipe dream. The more realistic option to improving the minor leagues would be to raise each player’s salary.

In 2014, three ex-minor-league baseball players filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball, commissioner Bud Selig and their former teams in U.S. District Court in California. Sports Illustrated attorney and sports law expert, Michael McCann, explained their case.

“The lawsuit portrays minor league players as members of the working poor, and that’s backed up by data. Most earn between $3,000 and $7,500 for a five-month season. As a point of comparison, fast food workers typically earn between $15,000 and $18,000 a year, or about two or three times what minor league players make. Some minor leaguers, particularly those with families, hold other jobs during the offseason and occasionally during the season. While the minimum salary in Major League Baseball is $500,000, many minor league players earn less than the federal poverty level, which is $11,490 for a single person and $23,550 for a family of four….

The three players suing baseball also stress that minor league salaries have effectively declined in recent decades. According to the complaint, while big league salaries have risen by more than 2,000 percent since 1976, minor league salaries have increased by just 75 percent during that time. When taking into account inflation, minor leaguers actually earn less than they did in 1976.”

Like many big corporations, MLB teams would never increase minor-league salary just because it is the right thing to do. What’s in it for them? Think about it like this.

economics-milb

At point A, when the average MiLB player has a wage set at W2, the player will take Q2 hours out of the day to work toward baseball. As you can see, there is room to improve, as point B is optimal. Accomplishing point B would mean increasing a player’s salary to W1. In turn, players could afford to take Q1 hours out of the day toward baseball. With most minor-league players needing to find work in the offseason or even during the baseball season, a raise in salary would give them the opportunity to be full-time baseball players. These prospects would spend more time mastering their craft, speeding up the developmental process.

With a season as long as 162 games, there is no telling how much depth could be needed in a given year. Just ask the Mets. That’s why it is important to maximize the development in a team’s farm system. At the end of the day, this is merely a marginal benefit. It will not take an organization’s farm system from worst to first. However, it only takes one player that unexpectedly steps up in September to alter a playoff race, proving worth to the investment.


Hardball Retrospective – What Might Have Been – The “Original” 2008 Mariners

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 2008 Seattle Mariners 

OWAR: 41.0     OWS: 251     OPW%: .519     (84-78)

AWAR: 21.3      AWS: 183     APW%: .377     (61-101)

WARdiff: 19.7                        WSdiff: 68  

The “Original” 2008 Mariners finished a few percentage points behind the Athletics for the AL West crown but out-gunned the “Actual” M’s by a 23-game margin. Alex Rodriguez (.302/35/103) paced the Junior Circuit with a .573 SLG. Raul Ibanez (.293/23/110) established career-highs with 186 base hits and 43 two-base knocks.  Ichiro Suzuki nabbed 43 bags in 47 attempts and batted .310, topping the League with 213 safeties. Jose Lopez socked 41 doubles and 17 long balls while posting personal-bests with 191 hits and a .297 BA. Adrian Beltre clubbed 25 four-baggers and earned his second Gold Glove Award for the “Actuals”.

Ken Griffey Jr. ranked seventh in the center field charts according to “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” top 100 player rankings. “Original” Mariners chronicled in the “NBJHBA” top 100 ratings include Alex Rodriguez (17th-SS) and Omar Vizquel (61st-SS).

 

  Original 2008 Mariners                           Actual 2008 Mariners

 

STARTING LINEUP POS OWAR OWS STARTING LINEUP POS AWAR AWS
Raul Ibanez LF 1.77 19.64 Raul Ibanez LF 1.77 19.64
Ichiro Suzuki CF/RF 3.36 19.48 Jeremy Reed CF -0.18 4.19
Shin-Soo Choo RF 2.86 14.97 Ichiro Suzuki RF 3.36 19.48
Ken Griffey, Jr. DH/RF 0 13.1 Jose Vidro DH -1.34 1.53
Bryan LaHair 1B -0.42 1.66 Richie Sexson 1B 0.06 4.43
Jose Lopez 2B 2.73 18.55 Jose Lopez 2B 2.73 18.55
Asdrubal Cabrera SS/2B 1.85 11.92 Yuniesky Betancourt SS 0.2 8.69
Alex Rodriguez 3B 4.99 27.21 Adrian Beltre 3B 2.45 16.09
Jason Varitek C 0.7 8.74 Kenji Johjima C -0.01 6.1
BENCH POS AWAR AWS BENCH POS AWAR AWS
David Ortiz DH 1.37 12.01 Willie Bloomquist CF 0.15 3.92
Ramon Vazquez 3B 1.05 9.63 Miguel Cairo 1B -0.64 3.17
Adam Jones CF 1 9.12 Jeff Clement C -0.36 2.88
Yuniesky Betancourt SS 0.2 8.69 Jamie Burke C -0.16 1.89
Greg Dobbs 3B 0.7 7.22 Bryan LaHair 1B -0.42 1.66
Kenji Johjima C -0.01 6.1 Luis Valbuena 2B 0.15 1.19
Omar Vizquel SS -0.22 3.94 Wladimir Balentien RF -1.18 1.09
Willie Bloomquist CF 0.15 3.92 Greg Norton DH 0.21 0.99
Jeff Clement C -0.36 2.88 Brad Wilkerson RF -0.13 0.6
Luis Valbuena 2B 0.15 1.19 Rob Johnson C -0.3 0.35
Wladimir Balentien RF -1.18 1.09 Matt Tuiasosopo 3B -0.28 0.32
Chris Snelling 0.16 0.58 Mike Morse RF 0.03 0.28
Rob Johnson C -0.3 0.35 Tug Hulett DH -0.2 0.16
T. J. Bohn LF 0.05 0.34 Charlton Jimerson LF -0.03 0
Matt Tuiasosopo 3B -0.28 0.32
Jose L. Cruz LF -0.34 0.17

Derek Lowe and Gil Meche compiled identical records (14-11) while starting 34 games apiece. “King” Felix Hernandez contributed nine victories with an ERA of 3.45 in his third full season in the Major Leagues. Brian Fuentes accrued 30 saves while fashioning an ERA of 2.73 along with a 1.101 WHIP. “T-Rex” whiffed 82 batsmen in 62.2 innings pitched.

  Original 2008 Mariners                        Actual 2008 Mariners 

ROTATION POS OWAR OWS ROTATION POS AWAR AWS
Derek Lowe SP 4.16 15.69 Felix Hernandez SP 3.99 13.45
Gil Meche SP 3.7 13.81 Ryan Rowland-Smith SP 2.1 8.39
Felix Hernandez SP 3.99 13.45 Erik Bedard SP 1.24 5.4
Ryan Rowland-Smith SP 2.1 8.39 Jarrod Washburn SP 0.7 5.11
Joel Pineiro SP -0.39 3.75 R. A. Dickey SP 0.2 3.28
BULLPEN POS OWAR OWS BULLPEN POS OWAR OWS
Brian Fuentes RP 1.88 11.8 Brandon Morrow SW 1.09 7.19
Matt Thornton RP 1.95 9.41 Roy Corcoran RP 0.71 6.7
Ryan Franklin RP 0.52 7.47 J. J. Putz RP 0.4 5.24
Brandon Morrow SW 1.09 7.19 Sean Green RP -0.56 3.59
George Sherrill RP 0.03 6.43 Arthur Rhodes RP 0.48 3.03
Aquilino Lopez RP 0.93 6.13 Cesar Jimenez RP 0.66 2.28
Damaso Marte RP 0.52 6.02 Randy Messenger RP 0.19 0.84
J. J. Putz RP 0.4 5.24 Mark Lowe RP -1.11 0.68
Cha-Seung Baek SP 0.56 3.67 Cha-Seung Baek SW -0.11 0.56
Mike Hampton SP 0.34 2.32 Jake Woods RP -0.3 0.05
Cesar Jimenez RP 0.66 2.28 Miguel Batista SP -1.89 0
Ron Villone RP -0.13 1.94 Ryan Feierabend SP -0.88 0
Rafael Soriano RP 0.28 1.78 Eric O’Flaherty RP -1.07 0
Shawn Estes SP 0.03 0.88 Carlos Silva SP -1.91 0
Mark Lowe RP -1.11 0.68 Justin Thomas RP -0.07 0
Scott Patterson RP 0.22 0.43 Jared Wells RP -0.31 0
Kameron Mickolio RP -0.09 0.08
Ryan Feierabend SP -0.88 0
Eric O’Flaherty RP -1.07 0
Justin Thomas RP -0.07 0

 

Notable Transactions

Alex Rodriguez 

October 30, 2000: Granted Free Agency.

January 26, 2001: Signed as a Free Agent with the Texas Rangers.

February 16, 2004: Traded by the Texas Rangers with cash to the New York Yankees for a player to be named later and Alfonso Soriano. The New York Yankees sent Joaquin Arias (April 23, 2004) to the Texas Rangers to complete the trade.

October 29, 2007: Granted Free Agency.

December 13, 2007: Signed as a Free Agent with the New York Yankees. 

Derek Lowe

July 31, 1997: Traded by the Seattle Mariners with Jason Varitek to the Boston Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb.

November 1, 2004: Granted Free Agency.

January 11, 2005: Signed as a Free Agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Shin-Soo Choo

July 26, 2006: Traded by the Seattle Mariners with a player to be named later to the Cleveland Indians for Ben Broussard and cash. The Seattle Mariners sent Shawn Nottingham (minors) (August 24, 2006) to the Cleveland Indians to complete the trade. 

Gil Meche

October 31, 2006: Granted Free Agency.

December 13, 2006: Signed as a Free Agent with the Kansas City Royals.

Ken Griffey Jr. 

February 10, 2000: Traded by the Seattle Mariners to the Cincinnati Reds for Jake Meyer (minors), Mike Cameron, Antonio Perez and Brett Tomko. 

David Ortiz 

September 13, 1996: the Seattle Mariners sent David Ortiz to the Minnesota Twins to complete an earlier deal made on August 29, 1996. August 29, 1996: The Seattle Mariners sent a player to be named later to the Minnesota Twins for Dave Hollins.

December 16, 2002: Released by the Minnesota Twins.

January 22, 2003: Signed as a Free Agent with the Boston Red Sox.

Honorable Mention

The 1999 Seattle Mariners 

OWAR: 46.4     OWS: 296     OPW%: .549     (89-73)

AWAR: 33.8      AWS: 237     APW%: .488     (79-83)

WARdiff: 12.6                        WSdiff: 59  

The “Original” 1999 Mariners secured the American League Western Division title by six games over the Rangers. The “Actuals” placed third, sixteen games behind Texas. Ken Griffey Jr. (.285/48/134) paced the circuit in home runs, tallied 123 runs and collected his tenth Gold Glove Award. Edgar Martinez (.337/24/86) topped the League with a .447 OBP. Alex Rodriguez (.285/42/111) swiped 21 bags and scored 110 runs. Slick-fielding shortstop Omar Vizquel posted career-highs in batting average (.333), runs scored (112) and base hits (191) while stealing successfully on 42 of 51 attempts. Tino Martinez clubbed 28 four-baggers and plated 105 baserunners. Bret Boone tagged 38 doubles and surpassed the century mark in runs. Jason Varitek drilled 39 two-base knocks and swatted 20 big-flies during his first full campaign.

Mike Hampton (22-4, 2.90) placed runner-up in the Cy Young Award balloting. Derek Lowe notched 15 saves in 74 relief appearances. Dave Burba contributed a 15-9 record and set personal-bests with 34 starts and 220 innings pitched.

On Deck

What Might Have Been – The “Original” 1993 Angels

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