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Closer by Conference Committee: The Stats Behind the Congressional Baseball Game

The 2014–2015 offseason was not kind to Mike Doyle. The 10-year manager lost two of his team’s best hitters, and his ace pitcher is coming off shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, his opposite number, Joe Barton, has problems of his own. He has the impossible task of unearthing a pitcher capable of stopping Doyle’s offense, or else face a seventh straight loss to their archrivals in this year’s championship game. Yes, against all odds, and despite all your preconceptions, there’s a lot on the line at this year’s annual Congressional Baseball Game.

There’s plenty of uncertainty about what will happen this Thursday night, when Doyle’s Democrats meet Barton’s Republicans under the Nationals Park floodlights. But one thing we don’t have to be unsure of is the numbers. One year ago, I posted here at FanGraphs about a groundbreaking new dataset: advanced metrics for the most legit office baseball league of all time. (Thanks to those of you who responded favorably—and who didn’t immediately laugh me out of the virtual room. Your reward is 1,500 more words on the subject!)

The CBG’s own mini FanGraphs Leaderboard—looking suspiciously like a Google spreadsheet—is now updated with the past six years of statistics (as always, many thanks to the game’s dedicated scorekeepers who provided the data). Like the real FanGraphs Leaderboard and individual player pages, it is divided into Standard, Advanced, and Value statistics, all calculated according to this site’s official methodology. Figures earlier than 2009 and more advanced than those three sections are sadly unavailable (my FOIA for Pitch F/X data is taking forever…).

Of course, any statistics are meaningless without context, so I’ll give you some. Here’s how the teams break down for what’s likely to be the closest Congressional Baseball Game in years.

Projected Democratic Lineup

Player Slash Line wRC+
SS Tim Ryan .500/.500/.600 130
2B Raul Ruiz .333/.429/.500 107
P Cedric Richmond .833/.882/1.167 238
CF Patrick Murphy .600/.750/1.000 193
LF Jared Polis .583/.600/.750 153
1B Joe Donnelly .286/.412/.357 92
C Chris Murphy .250/.333/.250 67
3B Hakeem Jeffries .333/.333/.333 74
RF Kurt Schrader .500/.667/.500 144

The once-mighty Democratic offense (averaging 15.2 runs per game the past six years) has major holes to fill this year at third base and in the leadoff slot. Since 2009, 3B Tim Bishop and OF Adam Smith have each generated 8 wRC, a mark exceeded by only one other congressional ballplayer; both are gone this year. Bishop, a patient-but-lumbering Adam Dunn–type, was designated for assignment by the voters of New York last November, while veteran tablesetter Smith (.444/.565/.500) is a casualty of hip surgery.

However, that still leaves the Democrats with four elite hitters—the top four, in fact, going by WAR for position players. Florida’s Patrick Murphy (.687 wOBA) and Colorado’s Jared Polis (.556 wOBA) have demonstrated impressive power, while the more speed-dependent Tim Ryan of Ohio feels like a natural successor to leadoff. But these swing-state swingers don’t even play in the same universe as Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond. The man does everything: walk (29.4% BB%), hit for power (.333 ISO), and, oh yeah, pitch (spoiler alert!; see below). His offensive runs above replacement, at 6.7, is higher than the rest of the Democratic roster combined (6.0). It’s little wonder that GOP manager Barton opted to intentionally walk him three times in last year’s game. When a guy’s slugging percentage (1.167) indicates he averages over a base per plate appearance, he probably deserves a free pass every time he’s up this year.

Beyond the starting nine, the Democrats have a few nice complementary pieces off the bench. Pinch-running artist Eric Swalwell has scored five runs and stolen five bases in just two games, causing him to lead the league in wSB and Base Running value. Jersey number IX (for Title IX) Linda Sánchez, the only woman on either roster, is a feared pinch-hitter with her .857 OPS.

The one weak spot in the order—as in many an MLB lineup—may be catcher, where Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has OPSed just .583 since 2009. However, his job is safe, as Democratic coaches swear by his defense and game-calling ability. Defense has been a team-wide Democratic focus during their current winning streak; the team hasn’t made an error in its last two games. More tellingly for the FanGraphs crowd, Republican batsmen have a .338 BABIP off Dem pitcher Richmond—pretty low for a league of 50-year-old fielders covering a big-league-sized field. (By comparison, Democratic hitters have a .476 BABIP the past six years, reflecting a less polished GOP defense.)

Projected Republican Lineup

Player Slash Line wRC+
3B Jeff Flake .286/.286/.500 85
2B Kevin Brady .313/.421/.375 95
P John Shimkus .429/.429/.429 99
SS Steve Scalise .500/.750/.500 156
RF Bill Shuster .235/.263/.294 58
1B Tom Rooney .167/.167/.250 39
LF Dennis Ross .111/.200/.111 32
C Rodney Davis .250/.400/.250 82
CF Rand Paul .200/.200/.200 144

Democrats may aspire to switch places with the majority GOP in the halls of Congress, but they’d never trade their baseball lineup for this one. Yet Republicans aren’t as bad as they look; our six years of data overlap neatly with their six-year losing streak, and those wRC+ numbers are dragged down by an overall offensive environment grossly inflated by Democratic blowouts.

The GOP’s one hitter who rates above even that lofty baseline is Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. One of the Republicans’ hardest-working players, Scalise has forced his way into the starting lineup after years as a bench player with the league’s fifth-highest wRAA—behind only the Democrats’ four elite sluggers. Texan Kevin Brady and Illinois’s John Shimkus have played in the CBG since the 1990s, when their stellar play (in 1997, Shimkus hit the game’s most recent over-the-fence home run) fueled a 12-year Republican dynasty. The grizzled veterans may have lost a step since then, but they have slumped less than the Republicans’ other players. Finally, Senator Jeff Flake, like former fellow Arizonan Mark Trumbo, has a real gift for power (.214 ISO) but doesn’t get on base well (zero walks in his last 14 plate appearances). It makes him a curious choice for leadoff—one that Barton will hopefully reconsider in 2015.

The bottom of the lineup drops off sharply and features the bottom three CBG players by WAR. Bill Shuster, Tom Rooney, and Dennis Ross each clock in at –0.2 wins above replacement, although bad luck has been a factor. Ross, who represents the Tigers’ spring training home of Lakeland, FL, sports an unfortunate .167 BABIP and has at least displayed the ability to draw a walk (10% walk rate). Yet putting the ball in play at all has proven to be a problem. In 41 combined plate appearances, Shuster, Rooney, and Ross have combined for 10 whiffs. (By contrast, in 40 plate appearances of their own in the Congressional Baseball Game, Democrats Murphy, Polis, and Richmond have never struck out.)

A poor eye is a theme for Republican hitters. Their active roster has a 7.1% walk rate and a 27.6% strikeout rate; that’s bad even if you’re facing Major League pitching, let alone the still-good-but-not-Clayton Kershaw Democratic staff. Barton should be preaching patience to his team, noting that, in last year’s game, Democrats actually had more walks than hits en route to 15 runs.

Projected Democratic Pitchers

Player ERA FIP K/7 BB/7
RHP Cedric Richmond 2.59 5.64 9.85 2.59

For four years running, only one man has taken the hill for the Democrats—and one is all they’ve needed. The team’s best hitter, Richmond, is also their workhorse pitcher, and he is in absolute control of the game when he’s on. An unparalleled two-way threat, Richmond has a total WAR (combining offensive and pitching value) of 1.5—in just four games! In four complete games pitched (caveat: the Congressional Baseball Game is seven innings long, not nine), he has taken a no-hitter into the final inning as well as thrown a shutout (and that was in two separate games). His Game Scores by year have been 77, 55, and 76 before dipping to 33 last year. Ominously, Richmond was pitching through an injury last year, and he is still recovering from November shoulder surgery here in 2015. The GOP will take another game like last year’s, when they were able to hang six runs on him, while Democrats are just holding their breath for the long-term health of their 41-year-old ace—still a spring chicken by CBG standards.

Projected Republican Pitchers

Player ERA FIP K/7 BB/7
RHP John Shimkus 8.08 7.30 4.04 3.23
RHP Pat Meehan 7.74 7.53 11.05 7.74
RHP Marlin Stutzman 14.44 9.71 7.88 9.19

To put it gently, the Republicans are better at twirling government shutdowns than shutdown innings. Though their hitting may not be top-shelf, that’s not their real obstacle in trying to reclaim congressional bragging rights; their (in)ability to get Democrats out is.

It’s unclear whom Barton will tap to start the 2015 game. Pennsylvania righty Pat Meehan has an impressive strikeout rate but a scary walk rate, and he has only ever been used in relief. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana probably won’t get a second chance after giving up six runs and only getting four outs in his 2014 start. I endorsed him for the start last year on the strength of a good K-BB%, but I fell victim to small sample size; he now has thrown more balls than strikes in his (slightly longer) career.

For whatever my recommendation is worth nowadays, the Republicans should start Shimkus. As unsightly as that FIP is, a 100 FIP- tells us that it’s actually league average (remember, this is a really hitter-happy league). He’s also the only GOP hurler with good command—his 7.8% BB% is even lower than Richmond’s. Like many ageing pitchers, he’s reinvented himself as a control artist who doesn’t miss many bats (9.8% K%). As with his offense, Shimkus used to be more dominating on the mound; he pitched the Republicans to multiple wins in the mid-2000s. If Barton does indeed give Shimkus the ball on Thursday, he’ll see a very different approach, but he hopes it can still add up to the same old result.


NotGraphs: Only Congress Can Declare WAR, But What About FIP?

Let’s face it: we’re all nerds here at FanGraphs. But it takes a special kind of nerd to bring FanGraphs’ brand of sabermetric analysis to that other realm of the dull and dweeby: the United States Congress.

Every summer, a handful of the 535 senators and congressmen who represent you in Washington divide into teams to play the Congressional Baseball Game, a charity event at Nationals Park. Despite its informal nature and the, ah, senescent quality of play, the game is a serious affair (something its participants often have experience with). This is no friendly softball game; the teams practice for months before the big day, and the players take the results very seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that players keep track of (even send press releases about) their hits and RBI. A small group of baseball-obsessed politicos scores and generates a box score for the game every year. With their help, I was able to take their record-keeping to the next level. This is where this becomes the dorkiest FanGraphs article ever—for the first time, we now have advanced metrics on the performance and value of U.S. congressmen’s baseball skills.

Using recent Congressional Baseball Game scoresheets, I made a Google spreadsheet that should look familiar to any FanGraphs user—complete with the full Standard, Advanced, and Value sections you see on every player page. (Though this spreadsheet is more akin to the leaderboards—since the game is only played once a year, I treated the entire, decades-long series as one “season,” and each line is a player’s career stats in the CBG.) From Rand Paul’s wOBA to Joe Baca’s FIP-, all stats are defined as they are in the Library and calculated as FanGraphs does for real MLBers—making this the definitive source for the small but vocal SABR-cum-CBG community.

That said, unfortunately the metrics can never be complete—there’s just too much data we don’t have. Most notably, although the CBG has a long history (dating back to 1909), I capped myself at stats from the past four years only—so standard small-sample-size caveats apply. (This is mostly for fun, anyway.) Batted-ball data is also incomplete, so I opted to leave it out entirely—and we don’t have enough information about the context of each at-bat to calculate win probabilities. For obvious reasons, there’s also no PITCHf/x data, and fielding stats are a rabbit hole I’m not even going to try to go down.

It’s still a good deal of info, though, and there’s plenty to pick through that goes beyond what you might have noticed with the naked eye at the past four Congressional Baseball Games. But why should I care to pick through them, you might ask; what good are sabermetrics for a friendly game between middle-aged men? Well, apart from the always-fun Hall of Fame arguments, they serve the same purpose they do in the majors: they help us understand the game, and they can help us predict who will win when the Democrats next meet the Republicans (how else would the teams be divided?) on the battle diamond—this Wednesday, June 25.

You probably don’t need advanced metrics to guess that the Democrats are favored. They’ve won the past five games in a row, including the four in our spreadsheet by a combined score of 61 to 12. That’s going to skew our data, but by the same token, Democratic players have clearly been better in recent years. Going by WAR, a full five Democrats are better than the best Republican player, John Shimkus of Illinois.

But the reason we expect Democrats to win on Wednesday is the player who tops that list: Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana. Richmond’s 1.1 WAR (in only three games!) is 0.9 higher than the next-best player (Colorado’s Jared Polis), putting him in a league of his own. In each of the past three CBGs, the former Morehouse College varsity ballplayer has pitched complete-game gems that have stifled the Republican offense. He carries a 40.0% K% and 28 ERA- into this year’s game. (Note: Congressional Baseball Games last only seven innings, so the appropriate pitching stats use 7 as their innings/game constant in place of MLB’s 9.)

The GOP has a few options to oppose Richmond on the mound—it’s just that none of them are good. The four Republicans on the roster with pitching experience have past ERAs ranging from 8.08 to 15.75. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that Republican pitchers have been somewhat unlucky. Marlin Stutzman has a .500 BABIP, and Shimkus has an improbably low 20.8% LOB percentage. Thanks to a solid 15.0% K-BB%, Stutzman has just a 5.98 FIP—high by major-league standards, but actually exactly average (a FIP- of 100) in the high-scoring environment of the CBG. (Another note: xFIP is useless in the congressional baseball world, as no one has hit an outside-the-park home run since 1997.) A piece of advice to GOP manager Joe Barton of Texas: Stutzman is your best option for limiting the damage on Wednesday.

On offense, it’s again the Cedric Richmond show. His 8 wRC and 4.6 wRAA dwarf all other players. In a league where power is almost nonexistent, he carries a .364 ISO (his full batting line is a fun .818/.833/1.182); only eight other active players even have an ISO higher than .000. Other offensive standouts for the Democrats include Florida’s Patrick Murphy, he of the 214 wRC+ and .708 wOBA (using 2012 coefficients), and Missouri’s Lacy Clay, who excels on the basepaths to the tune of a league-high 0.5 wSB. With a 1.4 RAR (fourth-best in the league) despite only two career plate appearances, Clay has proven to be the best of the CBG’s many designated pinch-runners who proliferate in the later innings. (Caveat: UBR is another of those statistics we just don’t have enough information to calculate.) Democrats might want to consider starting him over Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, however; Murphy is a fixture at catcher for the blue team despite a career .080 wOBA and -2.5 wRAA.

As on the mound, Republicans don’t have a lot of talent at the plate. Their best hitter is probably new Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who has a 168 wRC+, albeit in just four plate appearances. (Scouting reports actually indicate that Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis is actually their best player, but injury problems have kept him from making an in-game impact so far in his career—and he’s missing this game entirely due to a shoulder injury.) Meanwhile, uninspired performers like Jeff Flake (.268 wOBA) and Kevin Brady (.263 wOBA) continue to anchor the GOP lineup, potentially (rightfully?) putting their manager on the hot seat. Some free advice for the Republicans: try to work the walk better. Low OBPs are an issue up and down the lineup, and they have a .279 OBP as a team. Their team walk rate of 8.2% is also too low for what is essentially a glorified beer league. If someone is telling them that the way to succeed against a pitcher of Richmond’s caliber is to be aggressive, they should look at the numbers and rethink.