Archive for October, 2010

Jonathan Sanchez’s Costly Mistake

The surprising hero of Game 3 was No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland; there can be no doubt. But his three-run home run in the second inning, the biggest play of the game by most statistics, may have been surprising for reasons that don’t immediately come to mind.

Yes, he is a rookie in the World Series. But we might remember an even younger Andruw Jones launching two home runs in his first two World Series at-bats.

Yes, Moreland, a left-handed hitter, was digging in against the left-handed Jonathan Sanchez. And yes, Moreland had a poor track record against left-handers this year. But his .200/.304/.300 line against lefties came in only 23 plate appearances, and per Tom Tango’s research, it usually takes about 1,000 at-bats for a lefty’s platoon split to become even 50 percent reliable. Moreland was well short of that benchmark, and the sample is so small as to make the line almost meaningless.

Really, the surprise comes because of the type of pitch Moreland punished Saturday night. Moreland’s home run came on a fastball on the ninth pitch of an extended at-bat. Check out the pitch selection that Buster Posey and Sanchez went with:

88 MPH fastball (ball)
76 MPH slider (ball)
89 MPH fastball (foul)
89 MPH fastball (called strike)
79 MPH slider (foul)
79 MPH slider (foul)
80 MPH changeup (foul)
80 MPH changeup (foul)
89 MPH fastball (home run)

The surprise here is that the tandem chose a fastball in a full count when the slider is Sanchez’s out-pitch (he used it 43 percent of the time on 0-2 pitches in 2010). In a game that was the battle of the slider — Colby Lewis was 11th and Sanchez 26th in slider usage percentage among qualified starters — the Giants’ starter went with a pitch that only got him whiffs 6.8 percent of the time during the regular season. His slider had a 17.4 percent whiff percent during the year.

The fateful pitch did come in a full count, and perhaps the thinking was that a slider was closer in speed to the last two pitches Sanchez had thrown in the sequence, and that Moreland might be waiting for a changeup or slider and could be late on a fastball. But Moreland loved fastballs in 2010. FanGraphs keeps a statistic that tracks in-game results by pitch type, and Moreland was easily best against the fastball (2.6 runs better than average against the fastball, minus-1.1 runs versus sliders). Once again, it looks like the slider might have been the best move.

On Saturday night, the slider wasn’t moving like it normally does for Sanchez. After averaging over five inches of horizontal break during the year, the slider only broke about two inches horizontally during Game 3. He also didn’t manage a single swinging strike on any of his 13 sliders. It wasn’t working for him, and perhaps Posey knew it even as early as the second inning.

We can only guess why the slider wasn’t breaking. Maybe Sanchez didn’t quite get loose, or maybe he was nervous. Or maybe he’s tiring. After a career high of 163 1/3 innings in 2009, Sanchez is now up to 213 1/3 this year. Increasing your workload by 125 percent might make for a tired arm — that’s a lot of sliders.

Sanchez lived by the slider all year, and probably should have died with it too. Despite the surprising pitch selection in that fated at-bat, Mitch Moreland and Rangers fans are not complaining.


Rangers Feel Right At Home

With Cliff Lee’s struggles in Game 1 and the bullpen meltdown in Game 2, the focus of the World Series has been squarely on the Rangers’ pitching staff, and understandably so. However, overshadowed by their teammates’ more noticeable failure is the fact Texas’ offense hasn’t lived up to its end of the bargain yet, either.

As a team, the Rangers are hitting just .227/.293/.303 through the first two games of the Fall Classic. For comparison, that’s roughly the same offensive performance that Bobby Crosby had this year — you know, the guy who the worst team in baseball got rid of for not performing up to its standards. No matter how you look at it, the Rangers simply haven’t hit, and that will have to change tonight if they want to get back in this series.

There are a couple of reasons for optimism in Texas, however. As the series moves to Texas, the rules change, allowing the Rangers to put Vladimir Guerrero back in the lineup without subjecting him to the embarrassment of playing the field again. The return of the DH will be a welcome addition for Texas, and it comes at the perfect time in the series, as the Giants will be starting left-handed pitchers in both Games 3 and 4.

Like most right-handed hitters, Guerrero fares better against southpaws. In addition to hitting .338 against them this year, his walk rate was double that of his mark against right-handers. For his career, his walk rate against lefties is 60 percent higher than against right-handers. As an outfielder facing a right-handed pitcher in Game 1, Guerrero was a liability; as a designated hitter against left-handed pitchers each of the next two nights, he could be a big asset.

The other reason for hope in Texas is simply the shift in ballparks itself. As Ian Kinsler will tell you, even hitting a ball on the screws is no guarantee that it will get out of AT&T Park. The Giants’ home park is one of the toughest places to hit home runs, which is one of the main ways Texas puts numbers on the scoreboard. The Ballpark in Arlington, on the other hand, is one of the best places in baseball for home run hitters, and the Rangers have a roster built to take advantage of the park’s dimensions.

Below are the home and road splits for the Rangers’ expected Game 3 lineup, by weighted on base average (wOBA):

Player Home wOBA Road wOBA
Elvis Andrus .289 .307
Michael Young .373 .297
Josh Hamilton .506 .384
Vladimir Guerrero .375 .344
Nelson Cruz .467 .348
Ian Kinsler .395 .319
Jeff Francoeur Not enough ABs
Mitch Moreland .361 .355
Bengie Molina .283 .266

The disparity in performance for the middle of the Rangers’ lineup is staggering. Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Kinsler, especially, did most of their heavy lifting in their home park, and were far more mortal outside of Texas. Most teams hit better at home than on the road, unless they play in a severe pitchers’ park, but the Rangers responded to home cooking like no other team in baseball.

In Texas, they hit .288/.352/.449, the fourth-best mark in the American League. On the road, they hit just .265/.324/.391, only the seventh-best mark in the AL and just a hair ahead of offensive behemoths like the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals. Or, to put it another way, the Rangers hit only three more home runs on the road this year than the Seattle Mariners did.

The combination of natural home-field advantage and the hitter-friendly nature of the park allow the Rangers to rack up runs in a hurry. The Giants should not count on throwing any shutouts while on the road, as they’ll have to keep putting up big run totals to offset the offense that is likely to come from their opponents.

So, with the series shifting locales, expect the dynamic of the first two games to change dramatically. However, there is good news for the Giants — the Rangers can’t win this thing in Texas, and they will have to win a game in San Francisco before all is said and done. Given that the Rangers’ bats are likely to come alive in the next three games, there’s a good chance that San Francisco will have the opportunity to win the World Series on its home field.


Behind The Mastery Of Cliff Lee

You can make an argument right now that Cliff Lee — the Texas Rangers’ Game 1 starter in the 2010 World Series — is among the best postseason pitchers ever, or certainly within the last few decades.

How does he do it?

Lee thrives not just because of fastball command, curveball movement and cut fastball usage — he’s very good in all respects — but also because of how he works the count. Lee was ahead in the count (36.3 percent of pitches) twice as often as he was behind in the count (18.4 percent of pitches) in 2010, demonstrating that he gets ahead early and often. He also averages 10.3 strikeouts per walk, which is the second-best ratio in baseball history.

Lee throws, basically, six specific pitches: four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cut fastball, changeup, curveball and slider. The cut fastball is a newer pitch for him, but it might already be among his most important: he used it on 19.8 percent of pitches this season.

If you break down Lee’s pitch selection by count and batter, the first trend that sticks out is the use of his fastballs; versus left-handed batters he throws the four-seamer 42.7 percent of the time — that’s the most for any one pitch — and against right-handed batters he throws the two-seamer 45.3 percent of the time — again, the most of any one pitch.

Aside from those two pitches, Lee distributes very evenly. He doesn’t throw curves (5.9 percent to righties, 3.9 percent to lefties) or sliders (0.2, 7.1) that often, but he mixes in changeups and cut fastballs adeptly.

Lee distributes his cutter pretty evenly no matter the count but uses the curveball on two-strike counts and pitcher’s counts, rarely throwing it otherwise. In fact, 78 percent of the curveballs he throws are on two-strike counts. Lee clearly uses his curveball as an out pitch, which induces a swinging strike the highest percentage compared to his other pitches.

In two-strike counts, Lee uses some variation of the fastball 75 percent of the time. Here’s how they break down placement-wise, starting with the four-seam. For these heat maps, the brighter the color, the more often the pitch ends up in that area. As you can see, Lee’s pitches are rarely in the middle of the plate:

Here’s the two-seam:

And here’s the cut fastball:

Lee is more willing to throw four-seamers inside or up and out of the zone to righties — while being more selective against lefties and throwing it into the strike zone. He is more selective with the two-seamer against righties but is also quite willing to throw the pitch inside on lefties. Lee tends to locate the cut fastball outside to both hitters on two-strike counts, painting the edge of the strike zone while mostly hitting the inside of the zone.

The two pitches that Lee gets the highest swinging strike percentages on are his curveball and changeup, particularly when he throws them against right-handed batters. Here’s a look at where Lee locates his breaking balls and where right-handed batters swing and miss (misses are the red dots):

Lee isn’t afraid to locate either pitch down the middle but tends to throw his changeup low, away and in the zone to righties. He is very successful at getting swinging strikes there. Lee’s changeup gets swinging strikes in the zone, while many of his swinging strikes on curveballs are down and out of the zone.


Bengie Molina Gets What He Wants

The Texas Rangers have put the vise grips on the ALCS, going up 3-1 in the series by beating the New York Yankees 10-3 in Game 4 on Tuesday night. The turning point came on Bengie Molina’s three-run home run in the sixth inning, turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead.

In the year of the pitcher — and the playoffs of the pitcher — the A.J. BurnettTommy Hunter matchup looked seriously out of place. It lived up to that billing, with Hunter getting through just 3.1 innings, and Burnett struggling through six innings. Burnett was in and out of trouble, with the same problems that have plagued him all year: three walks (one intentional) and a hit batter, a wild pitch and a stolen base allowed.

Still, it looked like Burnett might give the Yankees six innings of two-run ball. With Nelson Cruz on first base and one out in the sixth inning, Ian Kinsler flied out to center field. Cruz, with the base-running aggressiveness Texas has shown throughout the playoffs, tagged up and went to second base.

With two outs and first base open, Yankees manager Joe Girardi elected to intentionally walk the lefty David Murphy with Molina on deck. Putting an extra man on with the lead in the sixth is an unorthodox move, and it didn’t work. Molina hit the first pitch, an up-and-in fastball, down the left-field line for a three-run homer. Before that, the Rangers had a 33.7 percent chance of winning. After the Molina homer, it went up to 73.3 percent. The swing of almost 40 percent was easily the biggest in the game.

This graphic shows the locations of the pitches that Bengie Molina has hit for home runs over the past two seasons. The one in bold is the pitch from A.J. Burnett on Tuesday night.

Up-and-in pitches can sometimes handcuff a batter, but over the past two years Molina has had no problems with them. Many of his home runs have come on pitches in this location. In the graph to the right, you can see the locations of the pitches he has hit for a HR, with the one against Burnett marked. The graph is from the catcher’s perspective.

The second-largest win percentage shift happened in the top of the fifth when the Rangers’ Mitch Moreland hit into a double play. Molina had just hit a single, so Texas had one on with no outs while down by just one run. The Molina hit translated into a 42 percent win percentage for Texas, but when Moreland hit into the double play, that fell to just 31.3 percent.

The third-largest win percentage came in the bottom of the second inning on Robinson Cano’s controversial home run. That play took the Yankees’ win percentage from 52.9 percent to 63.1 percent. At the time, Burnett was cruising; he had struck out three of the first six batters with no signs of the command issues he would show later in the night. It was the first time the Yankees had struck first in the series, and with what looked like a solid Burnett on the mound versus a shaky Hunter — two batters later Lance Berkman almost hit another solo HR — the Yankees must have felt like they had a better than 63 percent shot at the game.

But that is not how it played out. Now the Yankees will need three straight wins against the Rangers. It’s not where they wanted to be, but the Yankees are set up with their best three starters all on normal rest.


Pitch Selection Dooms Pettitte

The odds of Josh Hamilton beating Andy Pettitte on Monday night seemed minute. A good left-handed pitcher, Pettitte had to know that allowing a run or two early could be enough for Cliff Lee to secure a 2-1 lead in the series for the Texas Rangers.

There was no way Pettitte could afford to give Hamilton, Texas’ best hitter, a pitch he could drive with a runner on first base. Not in the first inning and not with Lee looming. Sure enough, he held true, but only until the fourth pitch of the at-bat. It was then that Pettitte threw Hamilton a cutter that caught far too much of the plate. Hamilton connected with an upper-body heavy swing and watched as the ball snuck over the right-field wall. Just like that, the Rangers led 2-0 only three batters into the game.

According to win probability added (WPA), Hamilton’s home run increased the Rangers’ chances of victory by 15.7 percent — pushing them near 65 percent. It is important to note that win expectancy does not measure the likelihood of the team winning by that margin or score, but rather the odds of the team winning after leading at that point in the game. That percentage also does not account for the quality of opponent or the pitching matchup. Hamilton’s home run likely would be worth more if Lee’s presence on the mound for Texas had been accounted for in the formula.

The entire sequence is a series of questionable decisions by Pettitte. Hamilton’s previous playoff opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays, held him without an extra-base hit in 20 plate appearances by tempering the amount of fastballs he saw and choosing to instead pound him with off-speed and breaking pitches. The strategy proved successful and sparked speculation that Hamilton’s rib injury, which caused him to miss four weeks late in the season, affected his ability to hit those pitches.

Admittedly, questioning the pitch selection is basing the analysis on results. Most pitch-by-pitch analysis is, much like a curveball over the middle for strike three is a successful pitch only if the batter fails to shoot the ball into orbit and a slider below the zone that Vladimir Guerrero cranks for a double is a bad pitch regardless of intent or probable outcome. Such is the life for pitchers, and such is the second-guessing that will follow Pettitte for relying on his fastball against Hamilton, likely rendering the effectiveness of the strategy in Hamilton’s subsequent at-bats irrelevant.

Sure enough, Lee shut down the mighty Yankees lineup and proved that two runs were more than enough. Hamilton helped cement the lead in the ninth with a leadoff double to catapult the Rangers into the catbird seat in the American League Championship Series.


Free Passes Burn Giants

According to win probability added, the biggest single play of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series was Cody Ross’ third solo home run of the series that came in the fifth inning off Roy Oswalt. However, in the seventh inning the Phillies put together a couple of hits that, although they did not individually have the impact that Ross’ homer did on win probability, together had more, in part thanks to the Giants’ own tactical decisions.

While Jimmy Rollins’ 2010 regular season was marred by injury, his bases-loaded double in the seventh inning with two outs off Santiago Casilla drove in three runs, increasing the Phillies’ chances of winning the game by 9.2 percent. While the Phillies were already winning 3-1 at that point, the game was still within reach for the Giants. In the bottom of the seventh, the Phillies were ahead only 2-1, but with one out and runners on first and second, Placido Polanco hit a single that drove in the sliding Oswalt. That play itself was an 8.5 percent WPA increase for the Phillies. Together, that’s almost an 18 percent increase.

What is particularly interesting about both hits is that each was preceded by an intentional walk. With Oswalt on first and no outs, the Phillies had Shane Victorino sacrifice Oswalt over to second, which actually decreased their win probability by 1.2 percent. Giants manager Bruce Bochy decided to return Charlie Manuel’s generosity by intentionally walking Chase Utley to face Polanco, giving back that same 1.2 percent of WPA.

Viewers must have felt a sense of déjà vu just a bit later. With Polanco on second, Utley on third, and two outs, the Giants intentionally walked Jayson Werth, bringing in Casilla to pitch to Rollins, who then drove in the three final runs of the game to effectively put the game out of reach for the Giants. The irony, of course, is that of the three baserunners Rollins’ double drove in, two were deliberately put on base by the Giants. Utley and Werth are, of course, very good hitters (although it is also worth noting that they are also both good baserunners), but neither Polanco nor Rollins is a slouch. Perhaps the Giants were hoping for a double play. However, in Rollins’ case, he is actually better than average at avoiding the double play. Polanco is slightly worse than average in regard to double plays, not enough to offset the risk of having another baserunner.

Those additional baserunners weren’t the deciding runs in the game, of course. Polanco’s and (especially) Rollins’ hits probably would have driven in runners either way, as the intentional walks did not advance any runners. But giving Philadelphia free baserunners certainly didn’t help the Giants’ chances of going up two games to none in the series.


Raul Ibanez Hurts Phillies Chances

While Cody Ross’ two solo home runs will get the attention, it was a ball that stayed in the park that cost the Phillies their chance to win the first game of the NLCS. With two outs and a runner on first base in the sixth inning, Pat Burrell drove a ball to deep left field, and while Raul Ibanez had enough time to get under it, he couldn’t figure out how to make it land in his glove.

An awkward and unnecessary jump right before crashing into the wall helped the ball bounce off his arm, and by the time he recovered, a run was in and Burrell was on second base. Instead of the inning ending with the Phillies trailing by a run, Roy Halladay was forced to face another hitter with a runner in scoring position, and a single to center made the score 4-1.

Had Ibanez made the not-routine-but-not-that-hard catch, the Phillies’ chances of winning would have stood at 40.2 percent, and Jayson Werth’s two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth would have given them a one-run lead with their ace on the mound. Instead, they ended the top of the sixth with just a 17 percent chance of winning, and Werth’s home run proved to be a nonfactor in the result.

Halladay has had better performances, but Game 1 of the NLCS was decided by the defense of Ibanez. Ibanez’s inability to field his position was one of the main reasons the deal was roundly criticized when Philadelphia gave him a three-year, $30 million contract after the 2008 season. Ultimate Zone Rating estimated that he was 6.9 runs below average for a left fielder this year, among the worst defenders in the league at the position.

Ironically, he was brought in to replace Burrell, whose lead glove antics in left field led the Phillies to go in another direction. Two years later, Burrell got his revenge, driving a ball that his replacement couldn’t catch, and the play directly led to the Giants taking the lead in the fight for a World Series berth. While Ibanez is a decent hitter, his problems in the outfield offset a good chunk of his value, and Charlie Manuel should be more willing to remove him for defensive purposes once his team takes a lead.

The Phillies’ decision to go with offense over defense cost them in the sixth inning and hung Halladay with a loss he didn’t deserve.


Where Was Neftali Feliz?

The Yankees entered the eighth inning Friday night with only a 4.1 percent chance of winning.

The Rangers decided to allow C.J. Wilson to continue pitching in the eighth. The inning started off with a Brett Gardner infield single, and then Derek Jeter doubled, scoring Gardner. Wilson was pulled for Darren Oliver, who walked both Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira to load the bases.

The Rangers then brought in Darren O’Day to face Alex Rodriguez. O’Day threw one pitch, which Rodriguez hit past third baseman Michael Young into left field. Both Jeter and Swisher scored on the play. Next, Clay Rapada was brought in to face Robinson Cano. On Rapada’s first and only pitch, Cano hit a single to center field, allowing Teixeira to tie the game.

The Rangers went to the ‘pen again for Derek Holland, who allowed Marcus Thames to single, scoring Rodriguez. The Yankees finally took the lead for the first time in the game, 6-5. All of the five runs scored in the eighth were with no outs. Holland finally was able to get three outs before any more damage was done. The chances of the Yankees winning the game soared from 4.1 percent to 67.5 percent by the end of the inning.

The Rangers went through four relievers in the eighth, and they opted to leave Neftali Feliz, their best reliever, sitting in the bullpen. The decision to not use Feliz at any time during the eighth inning will come back to haunt the Rangers. Once it was decided that Wilson could not go any farther, the Rangers should have brought in Feliz, for a couple of reasons.

First, the heart of the Yankees’ lineup — Swisher, Teixeira and Rodriguez — was due up. The Rangers should have looked at using their strongest pitcher against the Yankees’ strongest hitters. Also, the situation could not have been any more important: a runner on second, no outs. Instead, Feliz was being saved for the ninth inning to save the game. That save would never come, and four other relievers were brought in who didn’t record a single out until a 5-1 lead turned into a 6-5 deficit.

The Rangers entered the eighth inning with a great chance of winning, but everything fell apart. This a perfect example of why managers should sometimes think outside the box and use their closers when the game is on the line.


Joe Girardi’s Meaningless Move

When Joe Girardi announced his rotation for the ALCS, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes had been flip-flopped, with Hughes now taking the ball in Game 2 and Pettitte going in Game 3. Girardi cited a variety of factors, but no doubt one of the numbers he consulted was Hughes’ home/road splits. Over his career, and continuing this year, Hughes has performed significantly better on the road than he has in New York, especially in terms of home run prevention.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that Hughes is an extreme fly-ball pitcher and New Yankee Stadium is home run-friendly, especially for left-handed hitters. He’s the kind of pitcher who will be hurt most by how the park plays, and that shows up in the results. Getting him a start on the road in Game 2 seems like a good idea. But a closer look at the data suggests that this is a meaningless move.

The Ballpark in Arlington is actually a very similar offensive environment to New Yankee Stadium. Both parks are left-handed-power-friendly, increasing home runs by 24 percent (New York) and 18 percent (Texas). They’re not as nice to right-handed power hitters, though both are still above average in terms of inflating home run totals, with right-handed bats getting a 10 percent boost in New Yankee Stadium versus the five percent boost they get in Texas.

Phil Hughes home/road splits

Park  BB/9	K/9	HR/9	FIP
Home	3.28	7.72	1.43	4.58
Road	3.05	8.05	0.67	3.44

A park doesn’t just influence home runs, however, and this is where the benefit to starting Hughes in Texas begins to break down. New Yankee Stadium promotes home runs at the expense of doubles and triples, both of which occur at a lower-than-average rate in that park. In Texas, home runs are inflated, but so are doubles and triples, so offensive levels overall are higher.

By attempting to take advantage of Hughes’ road numbers, the Yankees are actually asking him to pitch in an even tougher environment than the one he faces in New York. Someone has to pitch the games in Texas, but they didn’t make Hughes’ job any easier, and they shouldn’t expect him to match his career road numbers just because he gets a start outside of the Bronx.

Over in the National League, the San Francisco Giants did the same switcheroo, swapping Game 2 and Game 3 starters from the NLDS so Jonathan Sanchez would start in Philadelphia and Matt Cain would start in San Francisco. This time, the numbers suggest it could make a pretty significant difference, as it would be hard to find two less similar parks than Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Sanchez will now take the hill in a park that is very home run-friendly, creating 16 percent more home runs for left-handed batters and 20 percent more for right-handed hitters. However, Sanchez is the type of pitcher that is least affected by the environment in which he’s pitching, because a large percentage of his at-bats end with a walk or a strikeout. This year, 38 percent of the batters who stepped in against Sanchez failed to put the ball in play. Only 27 percent of the batters that faced Matt Cain did the same.

Sanchez’s high-walk, high-strikeout approach makes him a more suitable choice for parks that inflate run scoring, as Citizens Bank Park does. Meanwhile, AT&T Park works perfectly with Matt Cain’s skill set.

Cain, like Hughes, is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. San Francisco is one of the hardest places to hit a home run, and is most challenging for left-handed batters. The ballpark depresses home runs by lefties by 18 percent, making it the perfect place for a fly-balling right-hander like Cain to go up against Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez. The big alleys do increase doubles and triples, so it plays as a mostly fair offensive environment overall, but it’s certainly a better place to ask Cain to challenge the big left-handed bats in Philadelphia’s lineup.

Both Joe Girardi and Bruce Bochy have changed up their rotations to try to optimize their outcomes in their respective league championship series. The Giants’ switch could pay real dividends, as they are able to take advantage of the unique way each park plays. But the Yankees are just going to have to pitch well, because the two parks the ALCS will happen in are too similar to really exploit any matchup differences.


Rangers Touch All The Bases

Even though managers and color commentators alike expend considerable effort in singing the praises of baserunning, research shows us that, generally speaking, runs (and, thus, wins) gained from effective baserunning pale in comparison to the contributions, respectively, of batting, pitching and fielding.

Or, rather, that’s usually the case.

Were it not for their attentive (and sometimes merely lucky) baserunning Tuesday night, it’s unlikely the Texas Rangers would find themselves en route to the American League Championship Series for the first time in the history of the organization.

Yes, the Rangers beat the Rays 5-1 in Game 5 of their ALDS largely on the strength of their legs. How much did they produce on the basepaths? Well, with the help of win probability added (WPA), we can get a sense of that very thing.

Let’s look at the first three runs — all a product of taking an extra base of some kind. In each instance, we look not only at the WPA of the play itself, but also what the play’s WPA would have been had the baserunner in question not taken the extra base. This way we’re also able to find, thirdly, the contribution of the baserunning in terms of WPA.

Note that each of the following three plays either occurred with two outs or involved the making of the second out. Furthermore, each was directly followed by a third out, meaning each play’s relative importance is, in fact, magnified.

Play No. 1

Inning: First
Situation: Josh Hamilton batting, Elvis Andrus on second base, one out, 0-0 tie
Play: On a 3-2 count, Hamilton hits a ground ball to Carlos Pena, and Andrus is off to third base on contact. David Price runs to cover first, where he takes the flip from Pena, and turns around to find that Andrus is on his way home. Price’s throw home is too late to catch Andrus.
WPA: +4.1 percent
WPA with Andrus stopping at third base: -3.5 percent
Baserunning adds: +7.6 percent

Play No. 2

Inning: Fourth
Situation: Ian Kinsler batting, Nelson Cruz on second base, two out, 1-1 tie
Play: With Kinsler batting — and moments after hitting a double when he very well could have made it to third base — Cruz attempts a steal of third. Tampa catcher Kelly Shoppach misses third baseman Evan Longoria badly on the second-base side of the bag, and the ball goes into left field. Cruz runs home to put Texas up 2-1.
WPA: +9.9 percent
WPA with Cruz safe at third: +0.5 percent
WPA with Cruz thrown out: -4.1 percent
Baserunning adds: +9.9 percent (compared with Cruz on second base), +9.4 percent (compared with Cruz on third base), +14.0 percent (compared with Cruz getting thrown out at third base)

Play No. 3

Inning: Sixth
Situation: Ian Kinsler batting, Nelson Cruz on first base, Vladimir Guerrero on second, one out, 2-1 Texas
Play: Kinsler hits a grounder to Carlos Pena. Pena throws to shortstop Jason Bartlett, thus forcing Cruz. Bartlett attempts, but is unable, to complete the double play. Guerrero, meanwhile, has progressed around third base and is headed home. Pena throws to catcher Kelly Shoppach, but Guerrero slides in safely, putting the Rangers up 3-1, and putting their overall win expectancy at about 75 percent.
WPA: +5.7 percent
WPA with Guerrero stopping at third base: -4.3 percent
Baserunning adds: +10.0 percent
All in all, what we find here is that the Rangers gained approximately +27.5 percent from just these three plays. Because a team starts — generically, at least — with about a 50 percent chance of winning, we can say that their baserunning helped them get halfway to their victory.

Of course, none of this is to ignore the dominance of Cliff Lee. With his nine-inning, 11-strikeout performance, Lee was worth +47.7 percent all by himself. However, Lee’s excellence is almost old news by now. Teams winning games so decidedly with their baserunning — that’s a story.


Cody Ross Makes Giant Contribution

Cody Ross had a bit of a down year offensively, hitting .276 AVG/.333 OBP/.503 SLG between 2007 and 2009 with the Marlins while hitting .269/.322/.413 this season. His drop in power from 24 home runs in 2009 to 14 in 2010 is notable, leading to a career low in slugging percentage.

Yet it was the power and timely hitting of Ross, the eighth hitter in the lineup, which put the San Francisco Giants on the scoreboard en route to a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves to advance to the NLCS. Derek Lowe, a pitcher who has always been known to induce easy ground-ball outs with his sinker, had thrown five no-hit innings up to that point. Lowe unleashed a weapon that has mostly been his secondary pitch: the slider.

In his first at-bat against Lowe in the top of the third, Ross sat and waited for a pitch to hit. But after two called strikes, Lowe quickly struck him out swinging on the third, a breaking slider low and way out of the zone. To capture how deceptive Lowe’s slider was Monday night, Lowe had seven strikeouts and 14 swinging strikes, 10 of them on sliders before Ross’ next at-bat.

But in his second at-bat, Ross adjusted and came out swinging on the first pitch. His aggressive approach on his second chance against Lowe proved successful. He was able to capitalize on the only hanging slider that Lowe threw all day, hitting a first-pitch solo home run in the sixth inning. That was Lowe’s only mistake all night up to that point, and without run support from the Braves’ offense, Lowe could not afford such a mistake.

Taking a look at the game-changing plays of the day, Ross drove in the game-tying run in the sixth and what turned out to be the game-winning run in the seventh, an RBI single that came off an outside 96 mph sinker from Jonny Venters. Ross was able to get just enough wood on it to put it through the shortstop hole, driving in Buster Posey.

His ability to put pop on Lowe’s hanging slider gave the Giants a plus-18.2 percent increase in win probability added, while his single off the left-handed Venters gave them a plus-12.6 percent added chance of advancing to the NLCS. Ross led all players in the game, contributing a total of nearly plus-29 percent WPA to the Giants’ win.

Ross may have lost some power this season compared with last, but he apparently learned to hit sliders. According to FanGraphs’ pitch type values, Ross was below average against the slider every year until this season, when he was above average at hitting the slider in terms of runs.

Monday’s game showed just how tough baseball is: You can dominate for several innings just as Lowe did, but sometimes it’s the bottom of the lineup that gets to you. Ross did just that in Game 4, thrusting the Giants into the NLCS against the Phillies.


Don’t Forget Jonathan Sanchez

In what some have termed the Year of the Pitcher, this postseason has provided some singularly impressive pitching performances to continue the trend. Add Jonathan Sanchez to the list after his 7 1/3-inning, 2-hit, 11-strikeout Sunday afternoon that put his Giants in line to win the game and go up 2-1 in their NL Division Series with the Braves.

By keeping baserunners off the basepaths and pitching late into the game, Sanchez was the driving force behind the Giants’ win. He added 46.6 percent to his team’s win probability, and since 50 percent is the maximum, the statistic tells the story as well as any other. He got the Giants almost all the way there on his left arm alone.

Sanchez joined Game 1 starter Tim Lincecum as the only Giants in postseason history to strike out double-figure batters. Sanchez was, as usual, effectively wild (105 pitches, 69 strikes), but his bread and butter was the offspeed stuff away. The lefty got eight swinging strikes on 40 offspeed pitches, good for a 20 percent whiff percentage that blew his 4.69 percent on fastballs out of the water.

Traditionally, this is the case — offspeed stuff garners more whiffs across baseball — but Sanchez used the weapon almost artistically. He began all but three at-bats with fastballs, but he ended most at-bats with offspeed pitches: Ten of his 11 strikeouts were on sliders.

Fortunately for Sanchez, the Giants’ offense did just enough. Though the offense scored the fewest runs of any National League playoff team during the regular season and seemed as if it might continue to be this team’s Achilles’ heel, the Giants pushed across three runs with the help of some shoddy Atlanta defense. Two of Brooks Conrad’s three errors in the game helped contribute to Giants runs.

Coming through in the clutch was the key at the end of the game, which swung wildly in each direction. In the bottom of the eighth inning, pinch hitter Eric Hinske hit what most Atlantans may have considered the game-winning home run off Giants reliever Sergio Romo. Down the right-field line and barely fair, his home run was worth a whopping 57.8 percent in win probability added, as the game swung from 28.8 percent likely for the Braves to 86.6 percent in one big moment.

As an aside, a bit of gamesmanship from the retiring Bobby Cox may have led to Bruce Bochy taking Sanchez out of the game. After the Giants lefty gave up a single, Cox showed righty Troy Glaus as the pinch hitter. Bochy went with the right-handed Sergio Romo in relief in order to exploit the platoon advantage. Cox pulled Glaus and went with lefty Hinske. The rest is, as they say, history.

But the Giants were not done. Freddy Sanchez, 0-for-3 with a walk before coming to the plate in the ninth inning, faced fireballer Craig Kimbrel, closing for the Braves with Billy Wagner hurt. Sanchez was down to his final strike before lacing a single up the middle. Then Aubrey Huff, in the single most tense and important at-bat of the game, drove in the tying run and swung the pendulum back close to 50 percent by adding 34.9 percent of win probability with his bat. One batter later, Conrad’s error on Buster Posey’s grounder sent the Giants to within one win of taking the series.

Jonathan Sanchez got the team most of the way there, but without Mike Fontenot, Freddy Sanchez, Aubrey Huff, and — yes — Brooks Conrad, the Giants would have been a tough-luck losers.


Rays Win Game 3 Despite Setbacks

The final score might not reflect it, but the Rays’ Game 3 win didn’t come easily. In four of the first five innings the Rays put six runners on base, but could not bring around any of them to score. Then, once they did start showing life in the later innings, they had to overcome a baserunning mistake and then an extra-wide strike zone before they could mount their comebacks. Twice in this game the Rays came from behind to force a Game 4.

John Jaso’s go-ahead RBI single might have rated the most significant play of the game, but the most important series of events came in the sixth. While the Rays had those six baserunners in the first five innings, they failed to get a hit after a man reached. In the sixth they got off to a good start with an Evan Longoria walk. Matt Joyce hit a soft grounder and avoided getting doubled up, but he still created an out with a runner on base.

Dan Johnson, the second lefty to face relief pitcher Derek Holland, took the first five pitches of his at-bat and worked the count full. Holland went with a fastball away on the sixth pitch, but Johnson reached out and pulled it into right field. The situation for the Rays appeared favorable. They had runners on first and second with one out, which would have given them a win expectancy of 40.1 percent, an increase of 5.9 percent on the play. But the play wasn’t over yet.

Joyce overran second and lost his balance trying to return. Nelson Cruz alertly fired back in, and Ian Kinsler applied the tag in time. That caused the Rays’ win expectancy to tumble all the way to 29.4 percent. The loss in win expectancy from having runners at first and second with one out to a runner on first with two outs is 10.5 percent. That was the single costliest WPA swing of the game, and it nearly cost the Rays another opportunity. Thankfully for them, Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton came through.

Pena had a poor year by his standards, but he was particularly poor against lefties. He struck out in 38.5 percent of his at-bats and hit for far less power than he did against righties. Again, the lefty Holland didn’t have to worry much. Holland delivered four straight pitches well out of the zone, which gave the Rays another chance with a runner in scoring position. Upton took advantage, lining an inside fastball down the left-field line for a double that tied the game. The walk and the double were worth plus-20.7 percent win probability added.

The Rays then threatened to take the lead in the seventh inning. Ben Zobrist hit a one-out double, raising the Rays’ chances of winning by 7.2 percent. The win probability stat is context-neutral, meaning it doesn’t take into consideration the hitters coming to bat. It might have been worth a bit more if it knew that Carl Crawford and Longoria each had a shot to bring home the go-ahead run. Unfortunately, a poor strike zone doomed Crawford. He fouled off the first pitch, but then saw two fastballs that appeared to be way outside. But the home plate ump called both a strike, costing the Rays 6.1 percent in win probability added.

A half inning later, Kinsler gave the Rangers the lead, but the Rays fought back with their big eighth inning. Unlike their previous scoring situations, this one went relatively smoothly. The Rays had to overcome some adversity — some of their own doing, some out of their control — to get there, but they forced a Game 4 on Sunday.


Breaking Down Michael Young’s Blast

Chants of “Replay!” rained down on Tropicana Field in the fifth inning of the second American League Division Series game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers on Thursday afternoon.

Although we all know that home crowds can exaggerate at times, the controversy here was real. Michael Young was seemingly out on a half swing with runners on first and second and one out in the fifth. Instead, the umpires ruled that Young checked his swing, and on the next pitch, Young took Chad Qualls deep to center field to increase the Rangers’ lead from 2-0 to 5-0.

Top five plays (all percentages from Rangers’ standpoint):

Top 5th, 1 out, 2 on: Michael Young HR, +15.3 percent win probability (77.2 percent to 92.5 percent)
Top 4th, 2 out, 0 on: Ian Kinsler HR, +11.2 percent win probability (57.7 percent to 68.9 percent )
Top 3rd, 1 out, 1 on: Elvis Andrus single, Matt Treanor to third, +5.2 percent win probability (51.9 percent to 57.1 percent)
Top 2nd, 1 out, 0 on: Nelson Cruz double, +4.2 percent win probability (47.6% to 51.8%)
Top 3rd, 0 out, 0 on: Matt Treanor hit by pitch, +3.9 percent win probability (50% to 53.9%)

(No play in the Rays’ favor had a WPA > 0.038)

It’s hard to call this a turning point in the game, as the Rangers already held the lead and were threatening. Instead, this was more of the breaking point for the Rays. The Rays’ win expectancy entering the play was already low at 22.8 percent. The home run lowered the Rays’ win probability to 7.5 percent, putting the Rangers in cruise control both in the game and in the series, with two of the three remaining games coming at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The play comes out to a total WPA of +15.7 percent. However, part of what makes this play so big and so important in the scope of this game is that, by some accounts, Young should have been out before it even happened. According to the WPA inquirer at The Hardball Times, the situation if Young is called out — two outs, runners on first and second, and a two-run Rangers lead in the top of the fifth — comes out to a 26.6 percent win expectancy for the Rays. That still wouldn’t put optimism into many Tampa denizens, but at least it gives the Rays a fighting shot with players such as Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford yet to receive two or three at-bats. This adds about 4 percent to the win probability difference of the play, as the combination of the check swing called for a ball followed by the home run cost the Rays about a fifth of a win.

It’s easy to say that the call and the play don’t matter at all, as the Rays didn’t even manage to muster a run against C.J. Wilson and then the Rangers’ bullpen. However, that’s a basic case of the fallacy of the predetermined outcome. C.J. Wilson may have been forced to pitch more carefully or under more pressure in the later innings, and perhaps the Rays could have pushed a couple of runs home. By that same token, it’s possible that Josh Hamilton, hitting after Michael Young, would’ve hit a three-run home run instead. We simply don’t know what would have happened, and the home run certainly changed the landscape of the game.

Young’s home run gave the Rangers an insurmountable lead and has pushed the Rays to the brink of elimination. That play certainly wasn’t the only reason the Rays lost — an anemic offense and constant pressure from Rangers hitters deserve blame and credit respectively. When it comes down to one moment in Game 2, though, the Young home run was the biggest moment of the game and of the season to date for these two teams.


Roy Halladay’s Big Hit

Lost in the incredible drama of Roy Halladay pitching a no-hitter in his first postseason start is the fact that Halladay recorded a hit in his first playoff at-bat. In fact, his second-inning RBI single changed the win expectancy of the game more than any of the 104 pitches he threw. Halladay entered Wednesday’s game with 136 career plate appearances. He has never had an extra-base hit; he has drawn just one walk. And just eight times in his career, Halladay has hit a line drive. Before 2010, Halladay hadn’t hit regularly since he was an amateur in 1995. A game-changing hit was almost as unlikely for Halladay as a no-hitter. Almost.

Like a poker player with a tell, Halladay has one distinct approach at the plate: He goes up looking to swing. Five of his 13 hits this season, including four of his past six, have occurred on the first pitch. If he sees a fastball in the zone on the first pitch, there is a good chance he’s going to offer at it. So, if there was anything that Edinson Volquez should not have done with the first pitch he ever threw Halladay, it was throwing a 93 mph fastball on the inner half of the plate. By doing so, he allowed the ninth line drive of Halladay’s offensive career.

That should have been it for Volquez, though, because the ball hung up toward left field. It was a hit that left fielders should catch, that the vast majority of left fielders do catch. Playing left field on Wednesday for the Reds was Jonny Gomes, one of the worst defensive left fielders in baseball. In fact, using ultimate zone rating, the preferred fielding metric at FanGraphs, Gomes ranked as the fourth-worst defender at any position.

Matt Kemp: -24.3 runs.
Carlos Quentin: -22.9 runs.
Carlos Lee: -17.4 runs.
Jonny Gomes: -16.1 runs.
Trevor Crowe: -15.7 runs.

Gomes got a late jump on the Halladay line drive, and by the time he recovered, it was too late. He attempted a feet-first dive to catch the ball, but he couldn’t glove it, and had no chance to make a throw to home plate. The slow-footed Carlos Ruiz was running from second base, but with two outs, had a good jump toward scoring the game’s second run. When Halladay’s 17th career hit plated Ruiz, the Phillies’ win expectancy odds went from 64.7 percent to 74.3 percent. Before the inning ended, a two-run single by Shane Victorino pushed them to 85.2 percent.

Because Jim Edmonds’ Achilles injury rendered him unavailable for the first round of the playoffs, the Reds decided Laynce Nix was healthy enough to earn a spot on their playoff roster. Nix returned from an ankle injury on Sept. 22, and made just one start between then and the playoffs, collecting two hits against the Astros on Sept. 29. The left-handed-hitting outfielder made only 31 starts this season, but in a predominantly reserve role, he had the best offensive season of his eight-year career. Generally, when Nix has been able to catch on to a major league roster, it’s because of the qualities he offers as a defender. In nearly 3,000 defensive innings in the outfield, Nix has a positive ultimate zone rating at each outfield position: +0.3 runs in right field, +11.8 runs in center, +8.1 runs in left. This season, in limited time, he was worth 7 runs above average, and 23.1 runs more than Jonny Gomes.

We don’t know if Nix playing left field instead of Gomes would have changed the outcome of Game 1. We don’t know if Nix, traditionally a worse hitter than Gomes (though left-handed), would have done anything to spoil Halladay’s no-hitter. But, given their histories and drastically different defensive abilities, it’s pretty likely that Nix would have caught Halladay’s line drive, and ended the second inning with the score still 1-0.


Jerry Crawford’s Big ALDS Role

Umpires have been in the spotlight all season, from Joe West’s comments about the pace and style of games between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees to Jim Joyce’s blown call costing Detroit’s Armando Galarraga a perfect game. But on the 25th anniversary of Dom Denkinger’s controversial call in the 1985 World Series, the scrutiny of assignments and performance of umpires goes to another level in the postseason.

Perhaps the most interesting assignment for the League Division Series will see Jerry Crawford serving as crew chief for the Yankees’ series against the Minnesota Twins.

Crawford is considered to have the smallest strike zone in the major leagues; this season, among all umpires, he has the lowest strikeout to walk ratio at 1.55, well below the league average is 2.17 strikeouts per walk. Conversely, Brian O’Nora, who is on Crawford’s crew for the series, has an average of 2.50 strikeouts per walk.

While the stats tell one story, the graphic of an umpire’s strike zone can offer an enhanced look at exactly how umps see the strike zone and what that means for the two teams when specific men in blue are behind the plate.

The following images are the called strike zones of Crawford and O’Nora for right-handed hitters in 2010. The graphs were created from MLB Pitchf/x data using 255 separate buckets to represent his strike zone. The dark red area is where 100 percent of the pitches in that zone are called strikes, the green area is where 50 percent of the pitches are called strikes and the purple area is where none of the pitches are called strikes.

This is Crawford:

This is O’Nora:

O’Nora has a significantly bigger strike zone than Crawford, especially in the vertical direction.

The Yankees led the league with a strikeout/walk ratio of 1.81 and the Twins were second with a ratio of 1.88. Both of these teams know how to work a count in order to get players on base.

When Crawford is behind the plate, then, it’s going to be a marathon, and the season mostly bore that out: the Twins had Crawford behind the plate four times; their normal nine-inning game lasted 2 hours, 46 minutes, and with Crawford it lasted 2 hours, 49 minutes (not a huge gap). The Yankees played 3 hours, 5 minutes on average; in the two games they had Crawford calling balls and strikes, they averaged 3 hours, 31 minutes.

The main impact point for CC Sabathia, Francisco Liriano, Phil Hughes, Carl Pavano and others in this series is this: You don’t want to throw around the middle, obviously, especially with Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Jason Kubel and Joe Mauer in this series — but with Crawford, you either pound the zone or you walk a ton of guys.

Keep an eye on which game Crawford is behind the plate for; it could be the turning point of this series.


Breaking Down The AL Aces

In the American League playoffs, all four teams have a lefty as their ace — CC Sabathia, Francisco Liriano, Cliff Lee and David Price — and using Pitch f/x, we can isolate data on one pitch that makes these southpaws so successful. Let’s start with Sabathia, who is relying on a new weapon this year.

Sabathia’s sinker

This year, Sabathia posted his lowest strikeout rate (7.46) and highest walk rate (2.80) since 2005. Those are still good numbers, but not the great levels he posted from 2006 to 2009. Sabathia has made up for it, though, by posting a 50.7 percent ground ball rate, the best of his career.

Sabathia’s Pitch f/x numbers can actually give us some insight into this change. Between 2007 and 2009 (the years covered by the Pitch f/x data), he threw his sinker just 9 percent of the time, but in 2010 he threw it more than 17 percent of the time. This came mostly at the expense of his four-seam fastball, which gets more strikeouts but fewer ground balls than the two-seam variety.

Here are the locations of all of Sabathia’s sinkers put in play coded for either grounder or non-grounder.

Against right-handed hitters, when the pitch is either low or away, it gets a high number of grounders. When he leaves it up and in or in the heart of the plate, righties can get the pitch in the air. Against lefties it is much tougher, and almost all balls in play off the sinker were grounders.

Liriano’s slider

Liriano has recaptured his pre-Tommy John magic and is pitching like it’s 2006 again. His 3.07 xFIP is the best in the American League, and nearly equal to Roy Halladay’s MLB-best 2.99 mark. Along with Jon Lester, he is the only starting pitcher to strike out more than a batter per inning while also getting more than 50 percent of their balls in play on the ground — the holy grail of strikeouts and grounders.

A huge key has been his amazing slider, which he is throwing more this year (34 percent of the time). Correspondingly, his fastball percentage has dropped; it is now below 50 percent, putting him in the bottom 10 among starting pitchers in fastball frequency. Sliders are typically thrown more often to same-handed batters, but Liriano’s is so good he can still throw it against right-handed hitters 30 percent of the time. When he does throw it, he gets an extraordinary 22 percent swinging strike rate, compared to just 11 percent for the average lefty’s slider to a righty. Here is how Liriano’s slider’s swinging strike rate varies by the pitch’s horizontal location compared to the average; shaded regions are standard errors of the estimate.

He can really handcuff righties with inside sliders. The amazing thing is that Liriano throws the pitch 65 percent of the time with two strikes, so even though it’s a predictable pitch in certain situations, hitters still can’t touch it.

Price’s fastball

Price throws a ton of fastballs. His reliance on the pitch — throwing it 74 percent of the time — is second only to Justin Masterson’s 78 percent among qualified starters. How can Price get away with throwing his fastball so often? Because it averages 94.5 mph; only Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Verlander and Josh Johnson throw harder fastballs. As we all know, there is typically a positive relationship between fastball velocity and fastball success.

Below is a two-paneled graph that shows a comparison of the velocity of Price’s fastballs to league average, and second, the average number of swinging strikes per pitch on fastballs based on their speed for Price and for all fastballs.

Price throws his fastball nearly 5 mph faster than average — and he rarely throws a fastball slower than about 90 mph, roughly the league-average fastball speed. Looking below this, you can see that Price’s success is above and beyond the speed on his fastball. Even though he throws his fastball very often, batters have a hard time making contact with it, even compared with fastballs of the same speed. There may be something deceptive about his delivery or life on the pitch that makes it harder to pick up coming out of his hand.

Lee’s command

Lee has been throwing his fastball less often in recent years — as he throws his cutter more often — but it is still his best pitch. By FanGraphs’ pitch valuation system, it was the second-best fastball in the game, and over the past three years has been far and away the best.

This value comes from Lee’s amazing ability to command his fastball. His pitches are in the zone more often than anyone else’s, and he starts at-bats with a strike 70 percent of the time, again tops in the league. Here is a plot that shows the density of his fastballs in two inch by two inch squares, with darker color indicating more pitches in that area.

Lee is able to get his fastball in the strike zone frequently. There is remarkably little spillover out of the zone. Beyond that, he also does a good job keeping his pitches on the outer half of the plate. The result of that per-pitch command is Lee’s 0.79 walk rate. The last starter to post a BB/9 below one over a whole year was Carlos Silva in 2005; that year Silva had a 3.39 K/9, this year Lee has a 7.76. Lee combines his historically low walk rate with a respectable strikeout rate, and the result is dominance.