Ivy League to MLB: Advanced Metrics and Minor League Baseball
Hello loyal readers of Baseball Analysts. My name is Shawn Haviland and I am a right-handed pitcher in the Oakland A’s organization, currently pitching for the Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League.
Prior to being drafted by Oakland I attended Harvard University, graduating in the spring of 2008. After playing in the Northwest League for the Vancouver Canadians I began blogging about my experiences, starting with my off-season workout regimen and continuing on through the season recapping each start and discussing other parts of the minor league experience. I’ve been reading The Baseball Analysts for a while and really enjoy the work that they do so hopefully I can keep up the high standard that has been set.
I became interested in advanced metrics a few months before this season when I first heard about Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) through my search for answers as to why I was striking out more than a batter per inning but still had a batting average against of over .260. It seemed like every time they put the ball in play it was going to be a hit. From there I was hooked on the “numbers behind the game.” Despite my interest, the “saber metric revolution” hasn’t really made a huge impact on minor league baseball from the standpoint of how pitchers approach the game.
Minor league pitchers focus on only a few statistics: ERA, WHIP and K/BB ratio. Our pitching instructor preaches that if you want to advance to the next level (the only thing that minor league players really care about) you need to have a below league-average ERA, a WHIP below 1.3 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 3 to 1. Seems easy enough but as I know now I have less control over these statistics than I would like to think.
For example, my season this year has been a tale of two different halves. The first half of the year I was very successful hitting each mark, I was in the top 10 in the league in ERA, had a WHIP below 1.3 and was averaging approximately 8 strikeouts and 2 walks per game. The second half of the year my strikeout-to-walk ratio has stayed around 3 to 1 (7.5 to 2.8) but my ERA and WHIP have shot up, despite the fact that I feel like I have executed my pitches better in the second half of the season than the first half. What happened, you might ask? The answer here seems to be that my BABIP has gone up almost every month all the way up to over .360 in August.
(You can check out my full month-by-month splits and other assorted numbers of interest on minor league splits.com.)
I know that BABIP is not the only factor that is affecting my ERA but it certainly is not helping me achieve the organizational goal of having a below league-average ERA. The fact of the matter and the unfortunate thing for anyone victim of high BABIP, is that these stats are not prevalent in minor league clubhouses. Coaches see a rising ERA and think that the pitcher is pitching worse, which may be the opposite of the case.
Now if I handed that last paragraph to the majority of minor league baseball players I probably would be met with a blank stare. However, if I asked minor league pitchers about their ground ball ratio, most would be able to tell you exactly what their ratio is (mine is .89) and how they are trying to improve their ratio by throwing different pitches to force ground balls.
Batted ball type is the area where advanced metrics has broken into minor league baseball. Our roving pitching instructor Gil Patterson constantly says that it is “impossible to hit a ball out of the park if it is on the ground.” During instructional league we talked a lot about if you are able to make the hitter hit the ball on the ground the worst-case scenario, unless they hit the ball directly down the line, it is going to be a single. If you can make a team hit three singles to score a run you are going to be very successful. While BABIP is slightly higher on ground balls than fly balls it is worth the sacrifice because doubles, triples and home runs are what really hurt pitchers and allow for multiple runs to be scored very quickly.
Pitching for ground balls also eliminates the effect of the ballpark you play in. Our High-A team is in Stockton, California, in the hitters’ paradise that is the California League. Every pitcher that I have talked to says, “Pick up a sinker or a cutter in Kane County because you are going to need it in Stockton.” If you turn on the television and watch any major league baseball game the number of pitchers who are throwing predominantly four-seam fastballs is dwindling. Brian Bannister is a perfect example of this, in that he as all but scrapped his four-seam fastball and instead throws a sinker and a cutter.
The majority of teams in the major leagues rely heavily on home runs as a source of run production; and after the high-powered offense era pitchers are finally catching up and realizing that velocity is not the most important factor in success (although it is nice to throw gas) but rather the ability to make the hitter hit the top of the ball truly breeds success. Armed with this information, pitchers, like Bannister, are making adjustments to force the hitters to keep the ball in the yard.
This brings up the argument as to what is more important: pitch type or pitch location. When we have our pitchers' meetings to formulate the game plans against opposing hitters, axioms like, “he can’t hit a curve ball,” or “he has a long swing, so he won’t be able to catch up to a fastball,” are consistently thrown around. I have never liked speaking in absolutes because I don’t think that there is a hitter in pro ball, or college baseball for that matter, who can’t hit a certain pitch. The players who have a hole that blatant were weeded out long ago. However, there are players who cannot hit a well-located fastball or curveball. My point being that every hitter can hit a fastball belt high right down the middle or a hanging curveball so to simply throw a pitch that the hitter “can’t hit” is not enough. As with real estate, pitching is all about location, location, and location. Although I have no statistical proof, I would argue that throwing the “wrong” pitch in a good location is going to lead to a lot more success than throwing the “right” pitch that is poorly located.
Vladimir Guerrero is one of the best fastball hitters in the game today but you will see him weakly hit a well-placed fastball. Hitters have the hard job, they need to recognize what pitch is coming and then hit a round ball with a round bat to a place that is not occupied by a defensive player. As a pitcher, all you have to do is locate your pitch and let the batter hit it at someone. Statistics tell you that more times than not the hitter is going to get himself out.