World Class Talent: Where Does It Come From?
With the 2009 World Series well underway (split one game apiece between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies), let's take this opportunity to break down each club to see how, where, and when each club obtained its talent.
The Yankees organization has a long-standing reputation for "buying" its talent on the free agent market... but that really started about 15 years ago. Is that belief still true today? And how does the Philadelphia Phillies squad compare with the Bronx Bombers in terms of talent acquisition?
C.C. Sabathia, LHP
A.J. Burnett, RHP
Andy Pettitte, LHP
Alfredo Aceves, RHP
Brian Bruney, RHP
Joba Chamberlain, RHP
Phil Coke, LHP
Chad Gaudin, RHP
Phil Hughes, RHP
Damaso Marte, LHP
Mariano Rivera, RHP
David Robertson, RHP
Jorge Posada, C
Jerry Hairston Jr., IF/OF
Derek Jeter, SS
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Johnny Damon, OF
Brett Gardner, OF
Eric Hinske, OF/IF
Nick Swisher, OF/1B
Hideki Matsui, DH
Chan Ho Park
So let's do some comparisons between the two organizations and see how they both acquired the players on their World Series rosters:
Now let's see how well these clubs did signing their own amateur talent (amateur draft, international free agent) at each position:
Overall Original Talent
Interestingly, while New York is often attacked for buying its success, both clubs drafted the exact same amount of talent on their World Series teams. Each club also signed the exact same number of free agents and traded for the same number of players. The only difference was that New York signed an extra two international free agents, while Philadelphia worked the waiver wire and the Rule 5 draft.
I have to admit that I was surprised to see that the New York Yankees actually did a (slightly) better job of acquiring its own original talent than the Philadelphia Phillies.
When looking at roster construction, New York and Philadelphia are matched up extremely well in this World Series. Averaged out, the teams acquired 60% of their talent from other organizations. It just goes to show that clubs cannot focus solely on one area of talent acquisitions and that it is very difficult to build winning clubs through drafting alone. Both World Series clubs obtained their world-class talent through a variety of means, although (not surprisingly) the amateur draft, free agency, and trade market appear to have been the most success routes.
A Quick Take on Velocity
A few weeks ago, Max Marchi wrote an article for The Hardball Times analyzing pitchers' fastball velocity trends throughout the year. Last year on THT, Josh Kalk developed a preliminary aging curve for fastball velocity. Both Marchi and Kalk used pitchf/x data, which began being recorded reliably back in 2007. I decided to try to more or less replicate their studies, except using Baseball Info Solutions data from FanGraphs.
FanGraphs has monthly splits for all of its offensive and pitching statistics going back to 2002. My sample consisted of just a shade over 2,000 single seasons in which a pitcher recorded fastball velocities in each month. Borrowing the idea from Marchi, I divided a pitcher's monthly velocity by his yearly velocity to come up with a speed index for that month. The average velocity trend looks a lot like a temperature graph.
However, I'm not too concerned about adjusting for the weather. We understand that velocity increases from April to May, but I'm interested in the rate of increase among certain groups of players. I don't know how real these trends are, but for example, Zack Greinke over the last three years has averaged 92 in April and 94 in September. That's a dramatic increase in velocity, so is there something special about him that allows him to pick up steam? On the other hand, Pedro Martinez from 2002-2006 averaged 89.6 MPH on his fastball in April, but actually decreased his velocity as the year went on, averaging 88 MPH in September. Why would he wear down?
I've heard that it takes longer for taller players to find their mechanics, and they therefore throw harder later in the season than they do in April. So I grouped players by height, labeling those at least 6'6" as tall, and those who stand less than six feet as short.
The data seem to weakly support the notion that taller players take a bit more time to reach their velocity than shorter players. I repeated this process with a bunch of different groups of players. Graphs follow.
For girth, I used body mass index, which adjusts for weight by height. Weight recordings are never reliable, so take this for what it's worth.
It looks like heavier players might suffer a bit in the dog days of summer, which makes sense intuitively. Similarly, older pitchers (33 and older) might wear down in the summer months more so than younger pitchers (25 and younger).
And how about a velocity trend based on how hard the pitcher throws? Hard throwers averaged at least 93 miles per hour on their heater for the year while soft tossers were clocked at 88 MPH and below.
There appears to be a large difference in how hard they throw coming out of the gates in April. Or perhaps it's just that faster pitches are more affected by the temperature changes than slower pitches. Many of these groups will correlate with each other, so it could be that the reason tall pitchers start off slow is that they throw hard. Or vice versa.
Finally, I checked to see if velocity trends might be influenced by early workload. I grouped pitchers by those who threw greater than approximately 500 pitches in April, those who threw between approximately 100 and 500, and those who threw fewer than approximately 100.
Might a light pitch count in April pay dividends in August and September?
On to year-to-year trends, also known as aging curves. I tried to copy Kalk's method of using matched pairs and finding the difference in year1's velocity to year2's. My sample consisted of 3,275 matched pairs, with between 100 to 400 pairs in each group. However, unlike Kalk, I do not use a weighted average based on pitch count. I'm not entirely sure that an increased sample of pitches yields a more reliable average fastball velocity. I'm also not sure how to address the selective sampling issues, so for now, I don't.
My conclusions differ from Kalk's. He found that pitchers increase their velocity until they reach age 28 or 29. I find that velocity remains around constant until that age, at which point there is a rather sharp decline in fastball speed. Pitchers who survive in MLB into their thirties tend to lose around two MPH on their fastball.
Again, I'll separate players into groups and come up with aging curves. First by height, with 6'2" as the cutoff.
Strong evidence here that taller pitchers maintain their velocity better than shorter pitchers. How does this bode for Tim Lincecum, who already lost a couple miles per hour of hop on his pitches this year? Before making any assumptions, let's take a look at aging curves by weight class.
Perhaps Lincecum can take solace in the possibility that bulk might be a detriment in aging gracefully.
That's it. Let me know if there are any other types of players who you think might exhibit unusual velocity trends.
A World-Class World Series
The World Series begins tonight and it should be a real treat for baseball fans everywhere (except maybe those in LA). The Fall Classic doesn't always produce great match-ups, but this year the playoffs have produced a doozy. The 2009 Series features an outstanding a Yankees team and a good defending champion Philadelphia club - both historic franchises laden with stars. The teams are so compelling that the 2009 World Series might just be one of the greatest World Series matchups in recent memory.
Before we declare that, let's explore what makes a great World Series matchup. Of course, the subject is a matter of opinion, but I think we can identify the six key factors that matter to fans when evaluating a great World Series matchup (defining the matchup as a seperate entity from the outcome and excitement of the actual games themselves).
1. The Quality of the Teams One of the most important factors is the quality of the teams. Fans have to feel that the World Series participants really are the best in their league and that they've earned their trip to the Fall Classic. Nothing takes away from a World Series more than when fans feel that one or both of the teams don't deserve to be there. Case in point, nothing was really wrong with the 1973 Mets or the 2006 Cardinals, but enthusiasm for these series were tempered by the fact the they had won so few games while better teams were sitting at home. Likewise, a series between two truly great teams makes for great theatre.
2. Franchise History The history and mystique of the two franchises, both old and recent, also really affects the fan enjoyment. Teams with deep history such as the Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox can make for great viewing and high fan interest. In contrast, the enthusiasm wasn't high for Tampa Bay's World Series appearance in 2008 or Colorado's appearance in 2007. Compelling recent franchise storylines can also add to the appeal.
3. Fan Fanaticism Many people watch sports for the emotion of it, and it makes for great atmosphere to see stadiums full of rabid fans cheering their teams on at the World Series. While the games are going to be sold out no matter what, some cities' fans are just more enthusiastic about their teams, which makes for great viewing. Getting the sense that the fans and cities are desperate for victory really adds to the experience and atmosphere of the games. Meanwhile, if a team's own fans aren't into it, nobody else will be either.
4. Star Quality of the Players Aside from the question of talent, fans want to see baseball's biggest stars performing on baseball's biggest stage. All else being equal, it's more entertaining to see a team with big stars in the World Series rather than a team of relative nobodies - even if the talent levels of the two clubs are comparable.
5. Fan Fatigue Even when a series has everything else going for it, one thing that can detract is if baseball fans are just plain sick of seeing a team in the playoffs and World Series. Watching the Braves in 1991 was fine, but by the end of the decade, fans were jonesing for some variety.
6. Interaction While the previous five categories can be evaluated separately for each team, the interaction between the teams can be important as well. Sometimes, a World Series is more than the sum of its parts (ex. a Joe Torre return to NY would have been great theatre) and sometimes it is less (while the 1989 Giants and A's were fine as individual World Series teams, nobody really wanted to see an all-San Francisco World Series). It's usually not a huge factor one way or another, but sometimes it can make a difference.
Now that we've identified the criteria, let's put it to work. Going back to the strike of 1981, which series produced the greatest World Series matchup? I've identified six contenders that could be considered the greatest: this year's matchup between the Phillies and Yankees, the 2004 Series between the Red Sox and Cardinals, the 1999 and 1996 Series' between the Yankees and Braves, the 1995 Series between the Indians and Braves, and the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and Mets.
Below, we'll evaluate and rank each series according to the above six criteria. Keep in mind, we're only evaluating the matchup, not the games played in the series itself (so if you're wondering why I didn't mention the '91 Series, that's why).
Talent of the teams:
#1 1999 NYY (.618) vs. ATL (.640)
Both the 1999 and 1995 World Series featured teams that were easily the class of their leagues. In the 1999 Series, the Braves and Yankees were both supremely talented teams and their outstanding records were no fluke - in fact both teams' records were even better in the year before, posting 114 and 106 regular season wins in '98 respectively. For this reason, I'm putting the '99 Series talent over the impressive '95 Series featuring the Braves and Indians. At #3, the 2004 Series featured a dominating 105-win St. Louis team and an outstanding 98-win Boston club. At #4, this season's matchup features one of the best Yankee teams in recent memory vs. a good but not truly great defending champion Phillies team. In 1986, there was no disputing the Mets greatness, but Boston was a surprise success as they did not contend either before or after '86. The 1996 Series, last on a very impressive list, featured two very good clubs, which both got better later in the decade.
History of the Franchises:
#1 2004 BOS-STL
In terms of franchise history, it's hard to beat the '04 Series' long-suffering historic Boston team and the history-laden Cardinals club. This year's series is #2. Few clubs can match the Yankees cachet and the Phillies, while historically losers, have had a great recent run that makes for a compelling storyline. The '86 Series was also strong in the history department with the long suffering Sox and the more recent, but still high-profile, Mets franchise. After that, there is a drop-off in history. The '96 and '99 Series featured the historic Yankees and a city which had little baseball cred until the early 90's. Meanwhile, the 1995 Series ranks last, featuring the modern Atlanta franchise and the long-suffering, but low-profile Cleveland Indians.
#1 2004 BOS-STL
In terms of fan fanaticism, you can't get any hungrier than Boston fans in 2004. They were pretty hungry in 1986 as well. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Mets both had great fans to match their enthusiasm. While the 2009 Series may not match that intensity, New York and Philly fans have quite a reputation of their own, ranking this series third. The list drops off after that. While the Indians fans were rabid in '95, the Braves fans had begun to get progressively more bored with winning. By 1999, the novelty had worn off nearly completely for Atlanta, while Yankees fans had gotten used to winning as well, detracting from an otherwise great matchup.
Star Quality of Players:
#1 2004 BOS-STL: Manny, Ortiz, Schilling, Pedro, Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds
In terms of star-quality, all six World Series had them in spades, and I could be persuaded to rank the top 3 in any order. Feel free to disagree, but I ranked the '04 Series as #1, with juicy Pujols/Schilling and Pujols/Pedro matchups irresistible. This year is a close second however, with both clubs having loads of marquee players. And, if you like pitching, the Atlanta's trio of starters was a joy to watch, particularly against the 1999 Yankee team. Last in a tough category, the 1986 Series featured some great players, but fewer first-ballot HOF players than the other series.
#1 1986 BOS-NYM
The 2004 and 1986 Series both featured teams which had not been on the national stage in quite some time, and I ranked them #1-2 in least amount of fan fatigue. While this year features the defending champs vs. the Yankees, the Phillies haven't yet worn out their welcome and the Yankees haven't been in the World Series for a while. Casual baseball fans were starting to get bored of the Braves by 1995, ranking that series #4 on the list. 1996 saw fans get further annoyed by the Braves' World Series presence, and by 1999, fans all over the country were saying "Yankees and Braves again?!"
Interaction Between Franchises:
#1 1986 BOS-NYM
A Boston/NY rivalry is awfully tough to beat, but as this year proves, a Philly/NY rivalry comes pretty close. The 2004 Series ranks third with a little history going back to 1946 as well as an appealing East Coast/Midwest matchup. Ranking fourth, the 1996 Series featured a decent matchup between the legendary old-school Yankees vs. a smaller-market, newer, Atlanta franchise. Dropping off considerably, the 1995 Series saw two small-market, underdog-type franchises with the Braves and Indians - not an ideal combo. Last by a wide margin, the 1999 World Series was marred by the fact that the same two teams had just played in 1996, adding to the already palpable fan fatigue.
The following chart shows a summary of the rankings for all-six World Series.
How to summarize this chart into choosing the greatest World Series matchup of the last 27 years? It really depends on your personal preferences. Taking everything into account, it seems clear to me that the 2004 Boston/St. Louis World Series was the greatest World Series matchup, given the high talent levels of the two clubs, plus a wealth of history and great fans. After that, it's a very tough call.
This year's series is similar to the 1986 Series, featuring one great team and one very good team with two very dedicated fanbases and historic franchises. Likewise, the 1999 and 1995 Series were similar in the respect that the quality of the teams was superb, but the fan interest and franchise history wasn't as high. If you prefer great baseball and care less for the history or atmosphere, then the 1999 or 1995 Series would probably be preferred. Otherwise, the upcoming 2009 Series or the 1986 classic would probably round out the top of your list. For me personally, I tend to prefer the latter.
Overall, there is a very good case for saying that the 2009 World Series may be the second most exciting matchup since the 1981 strike. It almost certainly is in the top 5. However, not all great matchups make for great series. Of the World Series mentioned, the 1986 Series turned out to be a classic, the '95 and '96 Series were enjoyable, while the '99 and '04 Series were busts. In 2009, one can only hope that the Yankees and Phillies deliver some great games to match the hype.
Baseball Analysts - The HR Files
Two days before Game 1 of the World Series, three managerial moves dominated the Major League Baseball headlines. The San Diego Padres officially announced Jed Hoyer as their General Manager, the Cleveland Indians named their new Manager, Manny Acta, and the St. Louis Cardinals made Mark McGwire Hitting Coach.
Hoyer is 35 and as some may recall, a friend of Baseball Analysts. In 2007 he was kind enough to discuss with Rich and me his background and how he thinks about personnel evaluation, among other topics. I'm not sure there's a more comprehensive look at Hoyer's mindset anywhere else so if you're interested, check it out. Here's an excerpt:
Pat: Do you have any regrets about trading Hanley Ramirez?
Jed's just a total pro, and we wish him all the best as he endeavors to rebuild a San Diego Padres organization that is currently in tough shape.
In hiring Manny Acta, the Indians have given the reins over to a Manager with a career .385 win percentage. So, how and why is he qualified? What does General Manager Mark Shapiro see in Acta? Terry Pluto's report from the Cleveland Plain Dealer may offer a glimpse:
I asked Acta what were his favorite stats, and he gave an answer right from the Tribe's playbook: The on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Ah, yes. "The on-base percentage."
This interview with Squawking Baseball also confirms Acta's philosophy:
SB: You’re obviously a very statistically-inclined manager. How do you think that gives you an advantage over managers that aren’t as progressive?
Acta seems to say all the right things and it's not hard to see why Shapiro might like him. Now that Acta takes over a club that was just a game away from the World Series in 2007 (albeit without the two Game 1 World Series starters, but still...), Acta should have a chance to prove his open-mindedness can generate results.
I'm inclined to give McGwire a chance. He saw a ton of pitches every season and his career 114 walks per 162 games played screams of precisely the sort of approach that I would want my offensive attack to adopt. Whether he will be able to teach inferior sluggers to focus on pitch recognition and patience, or if he even realizes that such a philosophy was much of what made him a great hitter, remains to be seen. But if the way he took to the plate is directionally where the Cards want to head as an organization, that would be good news to me if I were a St. Louis fan.
The common thread in these three personnel choices is that there is a progressive approach that Hoyer, Acta and McGwire take in their respective roles. Hoyer is a Wesleyan grad who has worked alongside Theo Epstein his whole career in baseball, Acta speaks openly about sabermetric principles and McGwire's patient approach over the course of his career reflected many of these same principles. Baseball continues to evolve.
Los Angeles Angels: A Look Back and a Look Forward
The Yankees beat the Angels, 5-2, in Game 6 last night to win the AL pennant and advance to the World Series.
Darn. That lead-in was what I was hoping to write for today's Baseball Beat. However, it wasn't meant to be. Aside from the differences in payrolls, the Yankees won fair and square. The Bronx Bombers were the better team during the season and in the ALCS. They earned the home-field advantage and won all three games in New York. The Angels won two of three in Anaheim but it's impossible for a team in their position to win a best-of-seven series without taking at least one game on the road.
The Angels made a lot of mistakes in the field and on the basepaths during the series, but the idea that the team and its manager should be embarrassed is preposterous. Look, I'm as frustrated as the next fan, yet there's no shame in winning your division, beating the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, and losing to the Yankees in the ALCS. The last time I looked, only two teams go to the World Series and just one wins it all.
The bottom line is that the Angels played extremely well this year, although not quite up to the level of the Yankees. It's truly amazing what an extra 85 to 90 million dollars in payroll can do for your roster. Beating an All-Star team like that when it counts is no easy task.
Going forward, the Angels have a lot of decisions to make. Bobby Abreu, Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero, and John Lackey are all free agents. Furthermore, the farm system has little to offer for the immediate future.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Angels had an Opening Day payroll (salaries plus pro-rated signing bonuses) of $113,709,000. The team acquired Scott Kazmir in August and will be responsible for his $8 million contract in 2010 (as well as $12M in 2011 and a $13.5M club option or a $2.5M buyout in 2012). Kazmir's salary next year will be more than offset by the loss of Kelvim Escobar, who made $9.5M with little or nothing to show for it in 2009.
Abreu ($5M), Figgins ($5.775), Guerrero ($15M), and Lackey ($9M) totalled about $35 million in salary last season. Add in Darren Oliver ($3.665M) and Robb Quinlan ($1.1M) and the Angels could free up $40M next year.
Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, Howie Kendrick, Jeff Mathis, Mike Napoli, Joe Saunders, and Jered Weaver are all eligible for arbitration and will pull down more money in 2010 than 2009. By my estimations, these seven players could cost the team an additional $12 million next year. Juan Rivera and Ervin Santana have contracts that will jump their salaries by $1M and $2.2M, respectively, in 2010. These increases amount to approximately $13M (net of the Kazmir/Escobar commitments) and the run-offs $40M, meaning the Angels have roughly $27M to re-sign current players and/or pursue free agents without boosting payroll beyond the 2009 level.
If owner Arte Moreno is willing to get back to the 2008 total of nearly $120 million, then general manager Tony Reagins would have more than $32M to work with this off-season. Half of this available money will need to go to Lackey should the Angels wish to keep their ace starter. The other half could be split between Abreu and Figgins although both players are likely to seek more than $8M each.
Put me in charge and I would stick to the 2/$16M offer the Angels reportedly made Abreu earlier this month. Yes, he was a bargain this year but that was a function of the market and is neither here nor there as it relates to 2010. If that offer works, great. If not, I'm OK with letting him go. The Angels can redirect that money elsewhere.
Despite Figgy's value this past year, I'm not paying a soon-to-be 32-year old for peak offensive and defensive performance that is unlikely to hold up over a three- or four-year contract. I'd like to have him back but only at 3/$27M. If Figgins can get a better contract from, say, Kenny Williams and the Chicago White Sox (who may be re-thinking an aggressive offer after watching Chone implode during the postseason), then he should go for the riches. Anyway, I think it's high time that the Angels finally give Brandon Wood the opportunity to play everyday. Should Wood flop, then the Halos can turn to Maicer Izturis at the hot corner.
As for Guerrero, I would only be interested on a short-term deal and on the cheap. Call it a Bobby Abreu 1/$5M "take it or leave it" agreement. The fact that Vladdy can no longer run or play defense limits his options and it's my belief that the number of suitors will be few and far between.
If everybody agrees to these terms, that means the Angels would need to shell out about $38 million for their services in 2010. In the meantime, I would want to be in the hunt for Jason Bay or Matt Holliday, but I would not be willing to give the latter anywhere close to the Mark Teixeira-type contract that agent Scott Boras envisions. As was the case with Tex, Moreno is unlikely to get into a bidding war for Holliday and allow negotiations to drag on throughout the winter. I don't foresee the Angels offering Holliday more than a Torii Hunter 5/$90M type deal. Depending on the appetite of the St. Louis Cardinals, Yankees, Red Sox, New York Mets, and perhaps the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants, that may or may not work.
Lastly, I would go after Nick Johnson if Guerrero leaves. He could serve as the club's designated hitter and backup first baseman. Johnson would give the Angels a younger version of Abreu. He is basically the same guy without the speed. Sure, the 31-year old has a history of being injury prone, but he was relatively healthy this past year. However, I wouldn't be as aggressive as Dave Cameron so it's quite possible that the Seattle Mariners or some other team would top my offer.
With respect to the lineup, if Figgins returns, he leads off. If not, I believe Aybar can step into that role and give the Angels the same pre-2009 production as Figgy. With Kendrick stepping up, he would be my full-time second baseman and No. 2 hitter should Abreu leave for greener pastures.
Assuming the Angels lose Figgins, Abreu, and Guerrero, the lineup could look like the following if the team was fortunate enough to land Holliday and Johnson.
Manager Mike Scioscia could flip flop Johnson and Rivera vs. LHP in deference to the latter even though Johnson hits lefties just fine.
The bench would include Izturis as the super sub and possible third baseman if Wood doesn't live up to his promise. A combination of Gary Matthews Jr. (when does his contract run out?), Reggie Willits, and Chris Pettit would serve as the fourth and fifth outfielders. Freddy Sandoval could become the utility infielder. Pop in a cheap veteran who can pinch hit and cover for Johnson as a DH, if necessary.
With Lackey, the starting rotation would be about as formidable as any fivesome in the majors.
I believe the aforementioned roster would win the AL West once again and have an even better shot at the World Series in 2010, all at a cost of approximately $125 million.
* * *
Update (10/27/09): Gary Matthews Jr. has no desire to return to the Angels in 2010.
"I don't expect to be back; it's time to move on," outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. said as he packed his belongings in the team's Angel Stadium clubhouse today. "I'm ready to play for an organization that wants me to play every day. This organization has other plans, and that's OK."
Matthews has two years and $23 million remaining on the five-year, $50-million contract he signed in November 2006. However, the reality is that the 35-year old outfielder is worth no more than about $1.5M-$2.5M on the open market right now, which means the Angels would have to eat roughly $10M in each of the next two seasons if Matthews were to be paid in full.
More realistically, I would expect GMJ and the Angels will wind up restructuring his contract in a manner similar to what the Dodgers and Andruw Jones agreed to last January. As part of the agreement, look for the Angels to trade or release him before the start of spring training. He'll wind up getting the $23M owed to him but it will be spread out over 5-10 years without interest. The new team will be responsible for paying him the MLB minimum of about $400,000 only. Meanwhile, the Angels will "save" approximately $7M-$9M over each of the next two years and this money could be applied toward Abreu, Figgins, Guerrero, Lackey, and possibly someone like Holliday. A win-win-win for everybody concerned.
Angels Send the Series Back to New York
Unfortunately Rich's Dodgers are out of it, but they had a solid season and reached the NLCS for a second year in a row. His Angels, on the other hand, won two of three in Anaheim and the series heads back to New York. The series resumes this weekend on Saturday and potentially Sunday, with the Angles needing to win both. Rich was treated to quite the game on Monday from the first row, as he watched the Angels beat the Yankees in extra innings in a bullpen extravaganza. The two teams used fourteen pitchers, the kind of game you get when there are so many extra rest days between games and so much rides on every out. I am sure Rich enjoyed the game thoroughly.
The Yankees dominated Tuesday's Game 4, but the Angels won last night. The seventh inning was key. In the top half, the Yankee bats came alive after being shut down by John Lackey all night. They scored six to take the lead. A.J. Burnett started the bottom of the seventh giving up a hit and walk, and was relieved by Damaso Marte who gave up a sacrifice bunt and then a ground out that scored a run. That left one out, the Yankees up by one and Erick Aybar on third. So the Yankees turned to Phil Hughes, who has been a dominating reliever for them, posting a FIP of 1.83 on the strength of amazing strikeout (11.4 per 9) and walk (2.28 per 9) rates. Unfortunately he was not at his best last night
He walked Torii Hunter, throwing all fastballs and cutters. Since he got behind early he could not go to his very good curve. He then gave up a single to Vladimir Guerrero on a fastball in a four pitch at-bat. Then another single to Kendry Morales also on a fastball in a five pitch at-bat. Finally he struck out Maicer Izturis, throwing three curves in a four pitch at-bat.
Hughes usually has great command on his fastball, but last night because of nerves or just randomly he did not. Here are the fastballs:
The Angels capitalized on a rare off-night for Hughes and send the series back to New York.
Hierarchical Pitch Classification
There has been a lot of good discussion of pitch classification in the past, but recently few algorithms have broken into the saber-blogosphere. So I'd like to take the opportunity to propose a classification framework for identifying pitch types that is probably novel to most of the pitch F/X community. It isn't perfect, but I feel that it makes a good step forward, and hopefully it will turn the community on to some new methods.
Machine Learning & Classification
Pitch identification is a classification problem. There has been a ton of academic work in physics, applied math and computer science on classification algorithms. There are your regressions (vanilla, logistic, multivariate logistic, sparse logistic, least angle, ridge , kernel ridge, etc), k-nearest neighbor, k-means, support vector machines, neural networks, principle components, independent components, latent Dirichlet allocation, hierarchical Dirichlet processes, Bayes nets, etc (see MVPA or PyMVPA for good toolboxes designed to make large multivariate pattern classification analyses easier). Many of these methods haven't made it out of the fields they were first introduced to (e.g., genomics, topic modeling), but they have some interesting applications to MLB pitch identification. I'll describe a type of probabilistic model, a Bayes Net, and show how it can be applied here.
Hierarchical Probabilistic Models
A Bayes Net is a generative graphical model which makes explicit a hypothesis about how the data were generated. For instance, pitch F/X data may have been generated hierarchically like this:
1. A pitcher, p, is chosen
This might not seem like much, but it's a very useful formalism because it specifies the variables we think are relevant and the relationships between them. Here, the relevant dimensions are: pitcher, pitch type, pitch properties. The pitch properties depend on pitch type, and pitch type depends on pitcher.
In the end, the probabilistic model works much like a regression. A regression tries to find the single best linear model (the maximum likelihood estimate for the model parameters). Similarly, the probabilistic model work tries to maximize the likelihood of the observed data, given our model. It simultaneously tries to fit pitch-types to pitchers and pitches to pitch-types.
To illustrate how this works, consider a simple example: two pitchers throw an 85 mph pitch that could be a fastball. For pitcher A, it actually is a fastball and for B it is a change-up. For each pitcher, the model will consider the cluster of pitches that looks most like a fastball (for that pitcher). For the pitcher A, there will be nothing faster than the 85 mph pitch. This will cause the algorithm to shift the FB category down, so that it treats 85 mph pitches as fastballs. It will then push the CH category even further down in search of another cluster. For pitcher B, the 85 mph pitches don't look as fastball-y as his 95 mph pitches, which have to be fastballs. This causes the algorithm to shift the FB category up to 95 mph. The CH category will then sweep in to 85 mph fill the gap. Only by using information about the pitchers other pitches can we successfully discriminate between these two pitch types.
I built in some heuristics to reflect our knowledge of the game. Analysts are very good at pitch classification, so why not just copy them? A brainstorming session over at The Book Blog proposed the idea of classifying the fastest pitch as a FB, and the slowest as a CB, and then classifying other pitches relative to these bounds. That works well with this algorithm because estimating the parameters is an iterative process. So we can first guess which pitches are fastballs, and then use the speed of those fastballs to help us figure out the identity of other pitches. As we iterate, our guesses for which pitches are fastballs will change gradually, as will our estimated fastball speed. If the algorithm works, it will converge on the "true" fastball speed, and allow us to use this information to inform our decision about other pitches.
The goal was to achieve 98% accuracy. We're not there yet, but I'll you decide how far away we are. I've randomly selected some pitchers (I skipped the boring cases where classification was easy) to illustrate it's success. I think this selection represents the strengths and the remaining weaknesses of the model.
Some Remaining Problems
The biggest problem with this model is that the underlying generative model is wrong. We have to assume that all pitchers throw the same number of pitches. That leads to some problems for some pitchers. The "nibbling" of the corners of a cluster by another pitch-type is caused by extra pitch types that the pitcher doesn't throw sitting between groups.
That leads to a second problem with the model: it tries to maximize the likelihood of the observed data, but it doesn't care if it predicted a lot of pitches in a region where there are none. Essentially we are giving it credit for hits without penalizing for false alarms. This is what causes extra pitch-types to float into the spaces between groups, like in Bronson Arroyo's case.
Third, there is Bronson Arroyo. I think the solution is for him to retire.
We Came Out West Together With a Common Desire
After spending two days in Austin, Texas to start my work week, I was happy to be coming home to Boston. Since I was on a Jet Blue flight from Austin to Boston last night, replete with leather seats and television screens, I was even happier since I would be able to watch Game 4 of the ALCS. The FOX telecast started as we took to the skies.
I had the option of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver or my iPod, and having spent 48 hours or so in Austin, maybe the best music city in the country, you can understand why I might not have been eager to ditch the tunes for the telecast. Emmylou Harris was playing and as the game was about to start, the cameras cut to Derek Jeter and the Yankee bench. Emmylou belted out "We came out west together with a common desire." Two More Bottles of Wine was playing, and two more wins was all the Yankees needed to advance to their first Fall Classic since 2003.
The Yankees are ridiculously talented, without a doubt the best team in baseball based on their performance in 2009. That guarantees you nothing in the post-season, but it should be said. The Angels are also excellent, probably the second best team in baseball. I note these things because when you boil a game down, you can never set aside pure talent. Alex Rodriguez can hit. C.C. Sabathia can pitch. That's a lot of your Game 4 story right there.
But for me, looking a bit further, this game came down to Scott Kazmir's inability to command his off-speed stuff, and an excellent Yankee approach that seemed to be predicated on an understanding that Kazmir might struggle to command his off-speed stuff. For the latter, credit the Yankees advance scouting effort. What makes Kazmir so tough, however, is that he commands his fastball exceptionally well. The Yankees game plan seemed to be to bear down with their pitch recognition, pick up the fastball and attack it, and whenever possible let the braking ball pass. Chances are it will be a ball anyway.
To start the game, Jeter saw a fastball at the knees on the outside corner - a terrific pitch. On the next offering, another fastball, Jeter was ready and he muscled a base hit to right field. Jeter would be picked off, Johnny Damon would ground out and Mark Teixeira would come to the plate with two outs and nobody on. If you're a baseball fan, like you really really love the game within the game, you loved last night's Kaz/Tex match-ups.
In his first at-bat against Kazmir, Tex worked the count to 2 and 2. Kazmir then rolled a loose change-up to about 56 feet for ball 3. It was 3-2 and Tex knew what he was looking for. He crushed two inside fastballs foul. He was just a tick off. With nobody on base, Kazmir thought he would try his hand at a breaking ball. Sure enough, Tex was taking but Kaz managed to find the plate for strike 3. Tex walked confidently back to the dugout, like he knew that given his approach for the evening, what had just transpired was precisely the downside he had already calculated. Kazmir was out of the first inning.
The Yankees patience was on display once again in the second. A-Rod worked an easy walk after watching a few breaking pitches pass for balls. Jorge Posada owned Kazmir his first time up, almost laughing to himself as Kazmir's breaking pitches landed nowhere near the strike zone. After A-Rod stole easily - another advance scouting triumph given the jump he had - Posada worked a walk. Kazmir would settle down and induce three consecutive lazy fly balls to get out of the inning but still, the formula was clear for the Yanks. Wait out the soft stuff, pounce on Kazmir's fastballs that catch too much of the zone.
Teixeira would come to bat once again in the third with Damon on first. He got up 2-0 after watching two Kazmir fastballs go by for balls. Kaz then was the beneficiary of a gift called strike on a hanging breaking ball that looked both high and outside. Now it's on between these two again. Kaz lets a fastball go a little high and away and Tex, sitting on it, swings through it. He usually won't chase, but that's a pitch he wanted. Now, at 2-2, Kazmir could use some of his opponent Sabathia's command. Instead he bounces another slider to 57 feet or so. The count goes to 3-2 and as a result of the wild pitch, in a scoreless game with two outs, Damon advances and is now in scoring position. On the 3-2, Teixeira sits dead-red on a fastball and to his credit, Kaz breaks off his best pitch of the night; a hard cutter/slider that dives right into Tex's kitchen. He swings over it. Strike 3. Again, Tex had the exact right approach but Kazmir made a pitch. No sign of frustration or disappointment this time around either for Teixeira. He knew what he was up against tonight.
Kazmir's command struggles came to a head in the 4th. A-Rod worked Kazmir over a bit and then roped a single. After watching off-speed pitch after off-speed pitch bounce to the plate in his first plate appearance, Jorge Posada came to the plate a step ahead of Kazmir. The lefty thought he would change up his approach with Posada and started him with a fastball. Posada was all over it and ripped a double down the left field line.
Again, a moment that makes baseball so great. Hideki Matsui comes up with two ducks on the pond and with Kazmir on the ropes, Matsui promptly takes two sharp sliders for strikes. Had Kazmir commanded his off-speed like this all night, who knows what this series looks like this morning? Even better, on the 0-2, Kazmir busts Matsui in with a fastball he feebly offers at. A quick punch out. After a Robinson Cano fielder's choice that plated A-Rod, now it's Nick Swisher. And again, he works a tough at-bat and gets to a full count. Kazmir tries the inside slider that he got Tex with in the 3rd but misses badly. Ball 4, bases loaded. Again, the off-speed command evades Kazmir.
Now it's Melky, the one mediocre hitter in baseball's best lineup. Seemingly sick of letting hitters get away from him by offering poor breaking pitches, Kaz starts with two fastballs for strikes. Then, like the football team that runs twice on the goal line and then predictably goes play action on 3rd down, Kazmir rolls a crappy breaking ball to the plate. No way Cabrera was going to swing at that, yet another bouncer. After fighting two pitches off, Melky then delivers a base hit that scores two more Yankee runs.
The 4th was Kazmir's undoing. The rest of the game was all about Sabathia pitching lights out and the Yankees tatooing the dregs of the Halos bullpen. Sabathia commands all of his pitches and notably, in stark contrast to Kazmir, after bouncing a breaking ball to the plate on a 1-1 pitch to Torii Hunter in the 6th, Sabathia kicked the dirt on the mound. That pitch, the hard breaking ball bouncer that Kazmir must have featured a dozen times, is entirely unacceptable to C.C. I am not sure there's much difference between Sabatia and Kazmir's stuff. There's a world of difference between their command and control.
The Yanks would cruise to a win, thanks to their approach at the plate. They knew Kazmir's strengths and weaknesses and with an approach content to let his rare well-placed breaking balls beat them, wore down the talented Angels lefty. Now they're two games up, and one game from fulfilling that common desire they came out west to fulfill.
Izturis Error Has 95-Year Old Cousin, Modern Sportswriter Does Not
The walk-off error. A fielder's nightmare. One minute the game is tense as can be and in the next the ball is thrown away or through the legs of the fielder to end the game. On Saturday, Maicer Izturis had the misfortune of making a walk-off error in a crucial playoff game, putting his Angels in an 0-2 hole. If the Angels lose the series, and despite their victory on Monday it's a likely scenario, that play will likely be looked back upon as one of the turning points of the series.
But Izturis is not the first player to literally throw away a playoff game. Saturday's error was the fifth walk-off error in playoff history, and so far the offending team has lost the series each time (in yesterday's contest there was very nearly a sixth walk-off error, saved only by good back-up defense by Johnny Damon).
Of course, the most famous of these plays came in the 1986 World Series as the ball got past Bill Buckner and the Mets' winning run crossed the plate in the infamous Game 6. But while that play has been written about ad nauseam for the last 23 years, perhaps more interesting is the very first walk-off error in postseason history, which came in the 1914 World Series. For those too young to remember, the '14 Series was a classic matchup between the defending champion and perennial powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics and the Cinderella underdog Boston Braves, who had spent the first half of the summer in the cellar before storming back to win the pennant.
After two games, the underdogs were in prime position for an upset, besting both of Philadelphia's aces by taking game one in a 7-1 rout, and winning game two with a 1-0, two-hit performance by one-season wonder Bill James.
The third game was a tight affair which went into extra innings. Philadelphia took the lead by scoring two in the top of the tenth, but the Braves came back to tie it in the bottom of the inning. From there, the teams battled into the twelfth, where the fatal walk-off error would occur. Setting the scene was the New York Times:
The purple haze of eventide was gathering over Fenway Park, and the 35,520 persons who had sat for more than three hours were restless and fatigued as they looked down, from all sides of the solid banks of humanity, at the figures which moved about phantomlike in the twilight. The score was 4 to 4, and Boston was at the bat in the last half of the twelfth inning.
After pitcher Joe Bush allowed Hank Gowdy to lead off with a double and intentionally walked Larry Gilbert, light hitting right-fielder Herbie Moran laid down a sacrifice bunt almost identical to the one fielded by Mariano Rivera last night.
He dropped a bunt down along the third-base line. It was Bush's play to get the ball to Baker at third and force Mann. Poor Bush! Cool under fire all afternoon, the strain had been too much for him. He got the ball, whirled about and made a ghastly throw to third which was out of Baker's reach and Mann rushed home with the victory. The crowd went wild. All the feeling and enthusiasm which had been bottled up as the game seesawed one way and then the other, burst forth with unrestrained fury. The mob jammed down to the field and smothered the Boston players in a demonstration of fanatical joy which has rarely been seen at a baseball game.
While the play itself had a lot in common with both Izturis' and Rivera's errors 95 years later, it's interesting to note how things have changed. First of all, sportswriters and beat reporters don't write articles like that anymore. The description is astounding and brings the reader right into the ballpark. While the invention of TV and radio perhaps made descriptive writing like this obsolete, perhaps people would buy a few more papers if the articles were this vivid.
The entire account is a rip-roaring read, from the description of the crowd ("the howling, yelling, hostile populace making [Bush's] eardrums ache with clamor") to the tension in the ballpark in the 10th inning ("For once in the game the multitude was still. It was so quiet that one could hear the big fat man sitting next to him breathing hard.") Somewhere along the line, word count restrictions and newsprint space cut out things like descriptions of the guy breathing next to you. In the age of internet, somebody should start writing like that again.
Second of all, how great is it that the fans were allowed to rush onto the field after the Braves victory? I'd like to have seen the Yankee Stadium crowd rush onto the field last Sunday night after the Yankees took a 2-0 lead. Of course, on second thought, 50,000 Yankees fans mobbing the field might not be the safest of all ideas. Still, you can't beat the fun.
Third, I was struck by the description of a tearful and inconsolable pitcher leaving the mound. While of course, such a description makes you feel bad for the guy, such is an innocence rarely seen on the diamond today. The last I remember crying in baseball was Joey Cora sitting in the dugout after Seattle lost the 1995 ALCS.
In contrast to the whole scene, consider the New York Times' description of the similar play this past Saturday night:
Cabrera bounced a ball to the left of Izturis, the second baseman. Trying for the inning-ending double play, he whirled and whipped an off-balance throw to second, nowhere near shortstop Erick Aybar. It skipped on the dirt toward third base, where Chone Figgins dropped it. Hairston, who had stopped running, raced home and slid for the winning run.
While nearly everything surrounding the game is different - the sportswriting, the fans, the interpreters, the excuses, the post-game press conferences, the lack of bloggers incredulous over how Mack allowed Bush to hit for himself in the 10th and 11th innings - the actual game itself remains nearly the same as it was during the 1914 World Series. I can only imagine what the writers of 2104 will think of our antiquated customs of today, but we can all hope that the game on the field will remain constant as it has for the previous 95 years.
Personal Thoughts on the League Championship Series
Going into the League Championship Series, I was hopeful that one of the three (out of four) possible outcomes would come to pass. As an Angels and Dodgers fan, I wanted to see a Freeway Series more than anything else but would have settled for an Angels-Phillies or Dodgers-Yankees World Series as well.
Three games into the NLCS and two into the ALCS and things aren't looking so good for this Southern California native. Perhaps today will be the beginning of a much-needed turnaround for the locals.
Sensing that my heart leaned more toward the Angels than the Dodgers, my friend Alex Belth asked me last week why that was the case. I responded via email with the following answer.
My Dad covered the Dodgers so I grew up a Dodgers fan. When he went to work for the Angels the year I turned 14, it was hard for me to change my allegiance. I never really did, although I started following the Angels much more closely over the years. I was fortunate to be a Dodgers fan during the Koufax years and an Angels fan during the Ryan years. The Dodgers were obviously much better but Ryan and Tanana (and great seats in the press box or behind home plate) were an offsetting inducement that was hard to pass up.
I'll be in those front row seats this afternoon, rooting for Jered Weaver and the Angels to win Game 3 of the ALCS. I'll be the guy wearing the red Angels shirt and hat. LOL.
Weaver could be the ace of this staff in that he has the best stuff overall. Good fastball which is pretty straight. Nice, big, sweeping ’slurve’-type breaking ball and a really good change. What makes him tough is that he really hides the ball so well. He throws across his body so much that he is real deceptive, especially for the righties. His numbers at home are fantastic and the only downside is that he gives up a lot of fly balls – which might be dangerous against the Yankee line up. I like him in that he is confident, almost cocky, out on the mound.
That is a very fair description (although a bit generous in suggesting that Weaver "has the best stuff overall"). Flaherty knows Weaver better than most and about as well as I know him.
Weaver has a much better record at home (9-3, 2.90) than on the road (7-5, 4.78) and has pitched better in day games (5-1, 3.23) than at night (11-7, 3.90), but the extreme flyball pitcher will need to keep the ball in the yard for the Angels to win this game. Unfortunately, the ball travels much better at Angel Stadium during the day than the evening. This fact alone could negate Weaver's favorable home and away splits against a powerful hitting team like the Yankees.
For Weaver to be successful, he will need to command both sides of the plate and change the eye level on occasion (as Jered did when he struck out Big Papi on a 93-mph heater up and in while taming the Red Sox last week). Look for Weaver to change speeds and use his "go to" changeup often against Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Melky Cabrera, and perhaps even Alex Rodriguez. As Flaherty and the stats say, it's a "really good" one with excellent arm action and a 9-10 mph difference in speed from his fastball.
It's less than two hours to game time. Time to head to the ballpark.
Jim Gilliam and My Dad
Thanks to Lee Sinins' ATM Reports, I learned that last Saturday was Jim Gilliam's birthday. If the former Dodgers infielder were alive, he would be 81.
I did a double take when I saw his years of birth and death. Gilliam and my Dad were born in the same year (1928) and died in the same year (1978). Their careers overlapped in Los Angeles as Dad covered the Dodgers from 1958-1968 with Gilliam a prominent member of the team for nine of those years. The Dodgers won the World Series three times during that span (1959, 1963, and 1965). Gilliam was an unsung hero in Game 7 of the 1965 Word Series, making a spectacular backhanded catch on a sharp grounder down the third base line and forcing a runner at third and saving at least one run. As I opined in Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series nearly six years ago, Gilliam's fielding gem was one of the best defensive plays in the history of the fall classic.
Toward the end of his career, Gilliam gave Dad his game-used glove, a Rawlings Trapeze six-finger model. While I have no reason to suspect that it was the same Heart of the Hide as the one he used to make that play, it doesn't much matter today as it is long gone. You see, very few people thought in terms of collector's items in those days.
John Roseboro gave Dad his catcher's mitt at about that same time. Dad would use the Gilliam glove when he played catch with us or the Roseboro mitt when he got behind the plate and caught my older brother Tom and me. Gilliam's glove was passed on to me when I needed one (as I was the logical heir, seeing that Tom was a lefty and my younger brother Gary had yet to play Little League). That's me on the left in my Lakewood Colt League All-Star uniform with the Gilliam glove posing for the family camera in our front yard in the summer of 1970.
After reviewing that photo (check out those sanitary socks and stirrups), I now realize that I was more pigeon-toed than I thought. Heck, I may have pitched beyond high school had I not thrown across my front foot like that. As with so many things, if I only knew back then what I know today . . .
Take a look at the front toe of some of the best pitchers in baseball, past and present, be it Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, or Zack Greinke. The front toe is pointed toward home plate in every case.
Oh well, that's why they made — or are making — the big bucks while leaving me in the dust reminiscing about Junior Gilliam and my Dad.
Gary turned the above photo of me into a 1970 Topps Sporting News All-Star baseball card, did the same thing with a Lakewood Village Little League All-Star photo, and gave me those two cards along with a vintage Pete Rose card in a screw-down holder with plexiglas as a Christmas present several years ago. This item, which beats the heck out of another tie, sits on my bookshelf at home.
My brother is not only creative but he is a funny guy. Prompted by an email I sent to my Mom, two brothers, and sister on Saturday morning re the Gilliam-Dad connection, Gary shared the following story: "Twenty years ago today, I was driving to Dallas from Phoenix and I was in the middle of nowhere-ville, Texas, and was listening to the A's/Giants World Series game when the earthquake struck."
Gary immediately responded: "Regarding nitpick...remember, I was in Texas...so it was two hours later (which meant in Texas, the game was in the fourth inning)!" Ha.
On a more serious note, Saturday was also my Uncle Bill's birthday. He died of cancer earlier this year. He would have been 78. An Irish Catholic, he loved Notre Dame and any team that was playing USC (even though his nephew was a USC graduate). He would have been disappointed that the Trojans beat the Fighting Irish, 34-27, for the eighth consecutive year. As it turns out, the last time Notre Dame defeated USC was when we were all together celebrating his 70th birthday at his home in Glendale in 2001.
Tagged Big Bill Donovan in a newspaper photo showing him swinging the lumber 60 years ago, he was an All-City first baseman at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa in 1949. My three cousins gave me their Dad's first baseman's mitt as a keepsake upon his death. He may have been using it in this photo dated April 1948, although it's more likely that the MacGregor G154 three-fingered "Trapper" model endorsed by Earl Torgeson is from the 1950s.
Unlike the Gilliam glove, this mitt will never be used again or misplaced. Instead, it will stay in the Lederer or Donovan household forever and a day.
May Jim Gilliam, Dad, Uncle Bill, and their gloves rest in peace.
Before I hop into the links - we want to highlight the writers around the internet getting us through the post-season - let me just say that yesterday's performance by Pedro was nothing short of astounding. He kept the Dodgers off balance all day long, and carried himself with the same bravado that always characterized his pitching style. He backs down from nobody. It might not be 1999 anymore, but Pedro seemed not to care one bit. We'll never know what kind of baseball history Charlie Manuel robbed non-Dodger fans everywhere of witnessing, but back where it all began for Pedro, at Dodger Stadium, he regained his vintage form in his biggest start in 5 years.
Rob Iracane of Walkoff Walk was kind enough to allow me to contribute to his "This Guy Is Playing Golf Right Now" series, a look at some of the better players around baseball who did not qualify for post-season play. I chose to profile Dan Haren. Check it out!
...Pitchers emerge and fade, the better ones vacillating season-to-season in quality anywhere from above average to Cy Young Award candidate; and that's if they're fortunate enough to stay healthy. The best? I mean the very, very best? They get it done every season. Roy Halladay leads this list given Johan Santana's recent injury troubles, although Santana isn't far behind. Roy Oswalt's on it. So is C.C. John Lackey and Felix Hernandez may have a claim.
We were thrilled to see Angel fan Sean Smith of Chone projection system fame stop by yesterday to comment on Rich and Jeremy's entertaining back and forth on the ALCS. We're not there yet, there's still plenty of baseball to be played this season, but you're going to want to keep tabs on his Baseball Projection site this off-season to see how your favorite team is shaping up.
As for specific team sites, you know Rev Halofan and the crew at Halos Heaven will be guiding you through every twist and turn during the playoffs. Understandably, the gang wasn't exactly enamored with last night's performance.
On the Yankees side, our buddies Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran are still getting it done at Bronx Banter. Cliff approves of Mr. Sabathia's work last evening. I'm just impressed that he figured out the upside down exclamation mark in the title. Nice work, guys!
Also offering comprehensive playoff coverage is Jay Jaffe at his Futility Infielder blog. A Yankee fan with a soft spot for the Dodgers, he's a must read these days. He also just joined the Twittersphere, so if that's your thing, you can follow Jay here.
I have to say that in the few months since I have joined Twitter, it's been a blast. The ability to comment quickly and real-time makes it seem like the medium was made for sports. Keith Law, Rob Neyer, Jonah Keri, Iracane, Larry Granillo of Wezen Ball, Tommy Bennett of Beyond the Boxscore, Jon Weisman and Crashburn Alley and many more are tweeting with regular baseball updates. It's great fun.
Speaking of Weisman and Crashburn Alley, with their two teams squaring off in the NLCS, you'll want to keep tabs on both sites. Like Bronx Banter and Futility Infielder, Dodger Thoughts is a true classic, offering the best Dodgers content you'll find anywhere. As for Crashburn Alley, Bill Baer leads with the headline "Chase Knoblauch" this morning. OUCH!
Enjoy the weekend, everybody. Hoepfully we get Game 2 of the ALCS in tonight and boy oh boy, if the first two games are any indication, it appears like we may be in for a classic NLCS. Cliff Lee and Hiroki Kuroda tomorrow night at CBP.
ALCS Smackdown: Angels vs. Yankees
The Los Angeles Angels, champions of the AL West, and the New York Yankees, champions of the AL East, are about ready to step into the ring to battle for the American League Championship, or what some refer to as the heavyweight championship of Major League Baseball.
We'll let Michael Buffer introduce the combatants in the ALCS Smackdown, a preview designed to be informative, entertaining, and edgy.
"In the home field corner . . . wearing the navy blue pinstriped trunks . . . with a record of 103-59 . . . from Pelham, New York . . . Jeremy 'Touching Bases' Greeeeeeeen-house." (Jeremy dances around the ring with his arms held high.)
"In the visitors corner . . . wearing the red and white trunks with dark blue trim . . . with a record of 97-65 . . . from Long Beach, California . . . Rich 'Baseball Beat' Lederer-er-er-er." (Rich stares down his opponent while shadow boxing, showing a quick left jab and a powerful right hook, which is not to be confused with A.J. Burnett's curveball.)
"Let's get ready to rumble®!"
The bell rings several times and Jeremy and Rich walk to the center of the ring to listen to the referee's instructions. They touch gloves and return to their respective corners for last-second words of advice from their handlers.
The bell rings and Jeremy and Rich come out fighting with the latter getting in the first jab of the bout.
Rich: Let's be honest, Jeremy, your Yankees can't be too happy that the Angels beat the Red Sox in the American League Division Series last week. I mean, I gotta think everyone was secretly rooting for ... gasp ... Boston to beat the team that absolutely owns the Yankees, no?
Jeremy: I don't think my body could have physically handled the stress of another Yankees vs. Red Sox ALCS. But my question is this: how long does a team's "ownership" of another team last? Under Mike Scioscia, the Angels have seemingly established the ability to outperform their Pythag and to dominate the Yankees. But I like to think this Yankees team is different from years past, and even if Scioscia is still employing his same old philosophy, his players have changed and his team relies on different strengths and weaknesses.
Rich: A club's ownership of another team lasts until they no longer own 'em. Under Scioscia, the Angels are 53-38 (including postseason) vs. the Yankees. The Yankees don't have a losing record against any other AL team during that same span. While many players have come and gone on both sides, there's no denying that Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera & Co. are tired of losing to the Angels.
Jeremy: And the Angels have a total of zero holdovers from their first year under Scioscia. I'm not here to talk about the past, or random samples of ten games a year, for that matter. Let's take a look at some recent history. Since June 24th, incidentally the date when Brian Cashman flew down to Atlanta to rally his team, the Bombers are 67-27. That's historic. Let me repeat that. 67-27, having scored 135 more runs than the opposition over that span. Looks like Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Mo & Co. are tired of losing, period.
Rich: I wouldn't want to talk about the past if I were in your shoes either. As for recent history, I didn't know the season started on June 24th. In honor of your GM, maybe we can date everything in that subsequent period with a BC next to it. This guy sounds more like General Sherman to me. It makes for a good story to say that the Yankees marched through Georgia and the opposition after that although it excludes the fact that the Angels still won four of seven games in head-to-head competition during this "historic" streak. Let me repeat that. Four and three, having scored 44 runs to the Yankees 34.
Jeremy: But you're not denying that the Yankees are the overall superior team. And the Angels aren't getting a pitching advantage until Jered Weaver starts Game 3. Might Scioscia be over managing in an effort to avoid throwing Weaver, a righty flyball pitcher, at the New Stadium? The Yankees actually hit lefties slightly better than righties this year. I think Scioscia might be out-thinking himself this time.
Rich: Well, if Scioscia is over managing or out-thinking himself as it relates to the starting pitchers, I believe it has more to do with not going with a three-man rotation like Joe Girardi. I'd like to see John Lackey pitch on short rest in Game 4 so he can start Game 7 on normal rest. Instead, it appears as if Big John will be pitching in Games 1 and 5 only. However, if there's a lesson to be learned from the Red Sox series (or the Dodgers-Cardinals NLDS), it's that we tend to overestimate the value of starting pitching on a game-by-game basis in the postseason. These match-ups are close enough that I'm not particularly worried about any of them.
Jeremy: You're not worried about Joe Saunders, the fifth best starter on the team, possibly pitching twice in a seven-game series?
Rich: Not really. Saunders was a much more effective pitcher when he returned from the disabled list in late August. In his final eight starts, Saunders was 7-0 with a 2.55 ERA while greatly improving his strikeout (5.3 K/9), walk (2.4 BB/9), and home run (0.9 HR/9) rates. The fact that you've labeled him as the Angels' fifth-best starter says more about the team's pitching depth than anything else.
Jeremy: Well if we're overestimating the importance of starting pitching, then what are we not valuing properly? I hope it's offense, because I know the Yankees have the Angels beat there, too.
Rich: The Angels. The sabermetric community has been undervaluing the Angels for years. As you noted, Scioscia's clubs have consistently outperformed their Pythag, yet this fact tends to be scoffed at or virtually ignored.
Jeremy: So how should we value the Angels? What, specifically, are we missing?
Rich: The Angels have a style, a brand of baseball that differentiates them from the masses. Dare I say they manufacture runs as well as anybody else? They apply pressure on the opposition by putting the ball in play and running the bases aggressively, including stealing bases at opportune times and going from first to third and second to home on a single more often and at a higher rate than any other team. I find it interesting that the Angels ranked 3rd in OBP and 21st in striking out but only 18th in GIDP. Moreover, they placed 17th in BB and 11th in HR, yet scored the second-most runs in MLB. How can that be? If you want to lay it all on luck or an unsustainably high BABIP, so be it.
Jeremy: I won't peg that all on their high BABIP. But I think the Yankees can do a good job of shutting down their manufacturing of runs. Chone Figgins, who represents a very significant share of those Angel advantages you're referring to, will have to face lefties in two-thirds of his plate appearances, and he's hit .246/.325/.305 against southpaws this year. As lefties, CC Sabathia and Pettitte also do good jobs shutting down the running game, and when A.J. Burnett is on the hill, hopefully Jose Molina will be back there to cut off Angel baserunners. And by the way, the Angels did lead the league in those extra base taken stats you cited, but they were also first in outs on bases. Baseball Prospectus' baserunning metric puts it all together and has them at only a run above average this year.
Rich: Sabathia and Pettitte are 0-4 in five starts with a combined ERA of 7.06 against the Angels this year. As for shutting down the running game, the Angels stole five bases in seven attempts against these two lefties. Figgins is 10-for-34 with six walks in his career vs. CC and AP. As for Molina, you'll be giving up a lot more on offense than you'll be gaining on defense whenever he starts. You do realize that he was the Angels' third-string catcher for 6 1/2 years, right?
Jeremy: Did you see CC and Pettitte pitch last week? 15 strikeouts to one walk combined. I'd love it if the Halos tested the historic batter-pitcher matchups and batted Chone leadoff.
Rich: Oh, Figgy will lead off against CC and Pettitte, for sure, as well as vs. AJ. You can take that to the bank. He batted first in all 158 games he played. The splits haven't been quite as pronounced in years past, but you're correct in noticing that he's much more effective hitting from the left side than the right. That said, he's performed well against the two southpaws that matter most in this series and is 5-for-12 with two extra-base hits vs. your other starting pitcher. For those of you who are scoring at home, that's 15-for-46 with 6 BB vs. the Big Three. But, hey, everything but the Yankees' $200+ million payroll is just a small sample size. Out of curiosity, do you know if the Yankees are close to signing Jason Bay or Matt Holliday in time for the League Championship Series?
Jeremy: Don't need them. But I've heard John Lackey's wife has her heart set on New York.
Rich: No, that was Mark Teixeira's wife. The Teixeiras are from the east coast. Lackey, on the other hand, is from Texas. Moreover, he and his wife live in Newport Beach. I don't see them giving up that lifestyle for the Big Apple unless, of course, the difference in money is gargantuous. You know, like the Yankees' and Angels' payrolls. The Yanks pay Tex $20 million per season and the Halos pay Kendry Morales $600,000 for almost the same production. Go figure.
Jeremy: I wouldn't expect the same production from them this series. Like Figgins, Morales struggles hitting right-handed. Teixeira, on the other hand, if you found a hole in his game last year, I'd love to hear it. Only a .455 wOBA and 6.3 UZR in 54 games while with the Angels.
Rich: Teixeira can flat out rake. I would have loved it had he stayed with the Angels. But he didn't and we move on. Turning first base over to Morales hasn't been such a bad thing though and freeing up money to sign Bobby Abreu (1 x $5M) and Juan Rivera (3/$12.75M) on the cheap has worked out just fine. As for turning Morales and Figgins around, that brings Howie Kendrick (.351/.387/.532 since his recall on the Fourth of July) off the bench and leaves Torii Hunter (.336/.400/.578 vs. LHP) and Rivera (.333/.385/.645) licking their chops. Bring those lefties on.
Jeremy: I find Abreu and Rivera are a very interesting contrast of players. Rivera hits for power but can't get on base, while Abreu has lost his power but still finds his way to first. Rivera posts great defensive numbers. Abreu, not so much. But oddly, Rivera dogs plays non-stop and Abreu does nothing but hustle.
Rich: That fits. The Angels are a well-balanced ballclub. "What makes them tough is they hit, they pitch, they run, they steal, they play defense, good bullpen, good closer, good manager. I think that pretty much wraps it up." Hey, those aren't my words. Your captain said that. Not me.
Jeremy: I'm shocked, shocked to hear Derek Sanderson Jeter say something generic and diplomatic.
Rich: Yeah, he's a really swell guy. I can't wait to hear Tim McCarver slobber all over himself. Thank goodness, FOX only shows Timmy in the booth from the waist up.
Jeremy: But how about all those gritty Angels who play the Angels' brand of baseball? Thank goodness I mute my TV every time the Angels execute a sacrifice bunt. And the Rally Monkey. The horror.
Rich: Ahh, you're just jealous. However, I feel for you as I know it's tough to root for a slo-pitch softball team. Maybe the next New Yankee Stadium can be a real ballpark.
Jeremy: In slo-pitch softball, there's a limit on the amount of homers that can be hit. For this Yankees team, I don't know. And didn't Sky Andrecheck show that teams tend to benefit from playing their home games in quirky parks? I don't see why anybody should apologize for the Yankees taking advantage of their new digs.
Rich: Well, Jeremy, the smackdown is about to end and the showdown is about to begin. There's not much more I can say at this point other than the Angels and Yankees are not only playing for the right to represent the AL in the World Series but perhaps for the Team of the Decade. May the best team win.
NLCS Preview: Phillies vs. Dodgers
Today some of the Baseball Analysts team will be previewing the National League Championship Series between the Phillies and the Dodgers. Dave Allen will be talking about the hitting matchups, I'll be tackling the pitching staffs, and Sully will be taking on the fielding of the two clubs.
Martin is having a down year offensively as his BABIP has fallen to a career low of .285, taking his batting average and power with it. Still he has been able to take enough walks to keep a good OBP. Ruiz, similarly, has a low batting average, but takes walk and has a good OBP. With Ruiz, though, that is expected as he has a history of poor BABIP.
The difference between the two is power, with Ruiz besting Martin. I am going to call this position a wash with Ruiz's edge in performance this year equalizing Martin's edge in past performance.
Howard is clearly the better hitter, as the two have nearly identical on base skills by Howard has the huge edge in power. The only issue here is Howard's extreme platoon split, against lefties his numbers this year collapse down to .207/.298/.356. He is a horrible hitter against lefties, he really should be platooned. The Dodgers have two lefties in their rotation (Clayton Kershaw and Randy Wolf), so at least half of the games will be started by a lefty. With this taken into consideration the position is a lot closer than at first appearance.
Looks like Belliard is the better hitter. Edge to the Dodgers. Oops, no. It turns out that funny things can happen over a sample of just 80 PAs.
Pretty close here. Two guys who have had down years: Furcal because his power evaporated and Rollins because his BABIP fell to uncharted depths (.253, ouch). Furcal still takes some walks to keep his OBP up, while Rollins still hits for some power to keep his SLG up. OPS doesn't properly weight OBP versus SLG, giving too much credit to slugging, so I guess I will give Furcal the slight edge here.
No surprises at third. Big offensive edge to the Dodgers here.
Two very good young outfielders with similar numbers. Looks like a push to me.
Again two solid outfielders. The edge goes to the Dodgers and Kemp because of the advantage in power.
Manny nearly had another .300/.400/.500 season, it is clear he can still hit. The edge goes to the Dodgers, but Ibanez is no slouch.
The matchup is an interesting study in offensive contrasts. I really like how the Hardball Times displays team offense as OBP by ISO. Generally a team scores runs but not making outs (OBP) and hitting for power (ISO). The Dodgers have a middling ISO, but the best OBP. They have a number of guys who take walks and get on base in spite of having not much power, like Martin, Loney and Furcal. The Phillies, on the other hand, have far and away the best ISO and an ok, but not great, OBP. Two different ways to score lots of runs. Overall I think the offenses are pretty close.
Like team's offenses, the pitching staffs of the two clubs are built completely differently. The Phillies have a top-heavy starting rotation with Lee and Hamels as their aces, and then have a significant drop off with Happ, Blanton, and Martinez as the options at the back half. Meanwhile the Dodgers have an extremely balanced pitching staff with no true aces, but six above average starters: Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw, Vicente Padilla, Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley, and Jon Garland. Meanwhile the bullpen has been a major strength for LA, but a major weakness of Philadelphia.
Let's look at the stats of the Dodgers potential starters:
One of these starters is going to be left off the roster and one will be relegated to bullpen duty in an already strong pen. From the stats, it appears there is one candidate who clearly stands out as the worst of the bunch: Padilla. His ERA and FIP are significantly higher than most of his peers and 3-year ERA is pretty poor. Even if you subscribe to the hot-hand theory he's only the 5th best out of 6. As for bullpen duty, Garland has a fairly strong case with his ERA, FIP, and 3-year ERA near the bottom of his peers. While it seems like Kershaw has a strong case for ace of the staff, the other three starters all are fairly comparable.
So what does Torre make of the situation? Not only is Padilla on the roster, but he'll be starting two games. According to Torre and Colletti, the Dodgers figure to use Kershaw in games 1 and 5, Padilla in games 2 and 6, Kuroda in games 3 and 7, and Wolf in game 4. Torre seems to be relying not only on the hot hand theory, but in the case of Kuroda, amazingly he thinks the hot hand theory carries over from last postseason! Not to say that Kuroda doesn't deserve a spot, but I'd say that pitching well in two playoff games a year ago isn't the best reason. While the Dodgers' have a superior staff to Philadelphia, I think Torre's management of the staff causes LA to lose some of that edge. Throwing Padilla out there for two starts, Wolf for just one, and Billingsley for none doesn't seem like a good move to me.
How about the Phillies? They have similar choices to make. With Hamels and Lee obviously starting twice for them, they need to choose among the other three - who starts twice, who starts once, and who goes to the pen? The stats are below:
As you can see there's not a lot to choose between the three. Of the three I'd rank them the following way: 1) Happ, 2) Martinez, 3) Blanton. Manuel hasn't disclosed anything more than starting Hamels as his game 1 starter, he's hinted that he'll start Martinez in game 2, and Happ in game 4, with Blanton out of the pen. Of course that assumes that each can come out of the bullpen equally effectively. Happ has the most bullpen experience of the three, although Blanton did so in the LDS and Martinez did it back in his glory days.
While the Phillies can compete with the Dodgers in the starting rotation, the Dodgers have a major edge in the bullpen. With Broxton (FIP 1.97), Sherrill (FIP 3.17), Belisario (FIP 3.51), and Kuo (FIP 3.33) they're well equipped to dominate the game in the late innings. Kuo and Sherrill are especially important as they'll need lefties to shut down the left-handed thunder in the Philadelphia lineup.
The Phillies on the other hand, feature a bullpen in flux. Manuel seems to have decided on Lidge as his closer. Despite getting two saves, he didn't exactly blow away the Rockies in his two outings. His robust 5.45 FIP gives confirms that his stuff hasn't been good this year. The rest of the bullpen isn't hugely better with Madson (FIP 3.23), Eyre (FIP 4.63), and Durbin (FIP 5.14) rounding out their top four. Manuel will also have whoever he decides not to start out there in the pen, but overall it's a pretty sorry staff for a playoff team.
Defensively, these two teams are close. Let's start from a high level. Philadelphia strikes out fewer batters on the mound than Los Angeles does, and the Phillies also make less contact at the plate. So before diving into specific advantages and disadvantages that either team may have at a given position, I should note that Philadelphia's defense figures to be working harder. I don't think this point will have too much of a bearing on the series, however, because it looks to me like the Phillies field the slightly better defensive unit anyway. They're equipped to handle a few more balls in play.
While the Phils may lack the defensive standouts that Los Angeles boasts, they're solid all the way through. While it's difficult to quantify defensive catching, based on observation and reputation, Carlos Ruiz does a splendid job behind the dish. On the right side of the field, Chase Utley once again shows as one of the very best defensive second basemen in the game, while Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard both more than hold their own with the glove. On the left side, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz still constitute a rock-solid shortstop-third base combination. In left field, while he had been one of the very worst fielders in baseball coming into this season, Raul Ibanez has actually shown up favorably according to UZR in 2009. I'll let you decide if you think that's for real. In center field, Shane Victorino's range leaves a bit to be desired but his strong arm can cover some of that up. He still nets out a bit below average, however, and with the Dodgers running the great Matt Kemp out there in center field, it's a position where the Phillies are giving a bit back defensively to Los Angeles.
But while the Dodgers may field Kemp - and Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake for that matter - they also field Manny Ramirez and Andre Ethier. In other words, Kemp had better cover a lot of ground. For the Dodgers, Furcal, Blake and Kemp are all excellent - top of their class for their respective positions. Moreover, James Loney and Ronnie Belliard are just fine with the glove, too. Russell Martin is not considered to be particularly strong with the glove, and their corner outfield is atrocious. Net it all out and the Dodgers are a fine defensive team, just not the unit Philadelphia can claim. But then again, as I noted earlier, given their pitchers' ability to notch K's and the Phillies' propensity to strike out, the Dodgers shouldn't have to be quite as good as the Phillies anyway.
For anyone really interested in digging into the teams' fielding ability, you have to check out the data available at Fangraphs.
Now that we've given you the rundown, Dave, Sully, I will make our bold predictions:
Sky: Despite Torre's rotation choices, I think the Dodgers bullpen advantage will be too great to overcome for Philadelphia. The series will be won or lost in the late innings, and I predict the at least one blown outing by the Phillies bullpen will swing the series. Dodgers in 6.
Dave: I like the Dodgers in 6 because of home field advantage and their much stronger pen.
Sully: I was on the record in the LDS with a Red Sox and Cardinals win on this site, so take this for what it's worth. But this will be Clayton Kershaw's coming out party. He's absolutely hell on lefties, and has a chance to negate Howard, Utley and Ibanez. I think he wins twice and takes the NLCS MVP. Dodgers in 6.
Ramblings on LCS Eve
Since the dance cards were set for the two League Championship Series, there's been no shortage of interesting baseball content being generated around the web. With three of the four LDS series having ended abruptly - of the LCS participants, only the Phillies failed to sweep their opponent - there was time to step back, reflect on what took place in the LDS and even shift gears a bit.
To start, there's been no shortage of controversy surrounding the umpiring thus far in the post-season. C.B Bucknor was atrocious in the Boston-Los Angeles series, while a horrible foul ball call compromised the Twins' chances of taking Game 2 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. With K-Zone type features viewable on nearly every pitch now for post-season telecasts, the practice of placing a human being behind home plate to determine if a 95-mph pitched passed the plate while in a tightly defined area known as the strike zone seems, well, antiquated. It's not hard to envision baseball turning to sensors and cameras like the ones tennis uses to help determine if balls are in or out or foul balls. And for calls on the basepaths, how much longer would a quick overrule take when video evidence clearly refutes the call on the field?
Jonah Keri took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and wondered if umpires are even necessary. The whole piece, including a history of why umpires were deemed necessary to begin with, is well worth a read. But the following excerpt hammers home a critical point:
At the end of the day, Mr. Port [VP of Umpiring for MLB] says, the whole argument about umpires comes down to this: "Do we want the tradition of 18 people on the field doing their best to help their teams win, officiated by four trained gentlemen also doing their best? Or do we want to translate over to some sort of technologically advanced video endeavor that removes human elements from the game?"
To the extent that a wholesale technological officiating solution would be cost-effective or otherwise feasible, contrary to Port's contention, it would do nothing to "remove the human elements from the game" that any fan cares about. Humans compete hard all season long in baseball, only to have their fate determined by other humans. Only the latter are humans the paying customers do not come to see, and they also turn out to be ill-equipped and incapable of administering the rules appropriately. Keri's point here is that the human we care most about as it relates to the 11th inning play at Yankee Stadium is Mauer and not Phil Cuzzi. Let's get it right so Mauer and every other competitor in post-season play gets an honest shot at pursuing a World Series championship.
I will admit that the thought crossed my mind. With A-List Closers Huston Street, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan faltering badly in their respective Division Series appearances, it occurred to me that it must be nice to have a relief pitcher operating on an altogether different plane when the time comes to nail down a win. Mariano Rivera once again looked dominant in the Yankees 3-0 sweep of Minnesota.
So yes, that thought crossed my mind - that it sure must be nice to have Rivera. What did not cross my mind, however, was to draw overarching conclusions about the nature of post-season pitching based on a handful of innings of work from some very good relief pitchers in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. But that's why we have Tom Verducci. Tom, take it away!
Why is the ninth inning so much harder for pitchers in October than in the other six months? There is the element of pressure, of course. But there are also so much more detailed scouting reports and so much studying of that information. (Players couldn't possibly absorb and apply that much information over 162 games without frying their brains, but it works for a five- or seven-game series with off days.) Finally, there is also more intense focus by the batters in the postseason. No one gives away an at-bat in the ninth inning of a postseason game. No one. Yes, it does happen during the regular season.
So there's "pressure", there's "scouting", and there's "more intense focus" by the hitters. Got it. What about the prospect that the hitters are also just better in the post-season? Or better yet, maybe it was just random. Maybe with another 18 innings to look at, since these guys are excellent pitchers, we would see entirely different outcomes? Why don't we look historically at how relievers have fared in the 9th inning of post-season play versus the regular season to see if we're working with anything meaningful? That way there, we aren't devoting a full paragraph of conclusions drawn from 18 innings of work. Someone missed sample size class at baseball school.
Let's play a quick game. I will re-write that paragraph:
Why is the ninth inning so much harder for hitters in October than in the other six months? There is the element of pressure, of course. But there are also so much more detailed scouting reports and so much studying of that information. (Players couldn't possibly absorb and apply that much information over 162 games without frying their brains, but it works for a five- or seven-game series with off days.) Finally, there is also more intense focus by the pitchers in the postseason. No pitcher lets up for a hitter in the ninth inning of a postseason game. No one. Yes, it does happen during the regular season.
See what I did there? Doesn't make any less sense, does it? And in Verducci's world, it may have even been applicable had Street, Nathan and Papelbon pitched as they usually do. Assertions are fun!
The Arizona Fall League is under way. This is a very good thing, as most anyone who ever has attended will tell you. Promising players, beautiful weather, relaxed atmosphere. It's supposed to be just great fun. Your best source for real time information, at least as far as I can tell, is going to be Keith Law's Twitter feed. I am sure his column over at the World Wide Leader will be excellent as well. Law's on the ground in the Grand Canyon State, and updating frequently. MLB.com's AFL page is terrific, too, with the neatest feature of all being that there is Pitch f/x installed in Surprise and Peoria, home to 3 of the 6 teams. Here's Harry Pavlidis at Beyond the Boxscore recapping the first day's data.
Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley are there. Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton and Buster Posey are there. Pitch f/x is there. You're going to want to keep tabs.
We're back with a full NLCS preview tomorrow and a special ALCS look on Friday featuring our resident Southern California and New York natives going back and forth. There are four terrific teams still standing, and we can't wait to share our thoughts as the action unfolds.
Did Charlie Manuel Effectively Manage the Phillies' Staff?
Going into the Colorado series, much of the Phillies pitching staff was in flux. While everybody knew Lee and Hamels were going to pitch games one and two, that was pretty much the only known quantity. With everything up in the air, did Manuel pull the right strings in effectively using his staff? Let's look at it decision by decision.
Game 1, 9th inning: With Lee pitching a gem with a 5-1 lead at just under 100 pitches, Manuel chose to keep going with Lee rather than use his bullpen. At this point the probability of winning the game is 99.3%. While Lee could easily finish the game, you're going to need him to be a horse later in the postseason, and there's no reason to tax him with game in hand. If I'm Manuel, I bring in the bullpen, perhaps going with Lidge to build confidence in a non-pressure situation. Manuel's choice was defensible, but not ideal.
Games 3 and 4 Starting Pitchers By his words and actions, Manuel seems to have decided that his strongest starting pitchers were 1) Happ, 2) Martinez, and 3) Blanton. His plan appeared to have Martinez pitching Game 3 and Happ pitching in Game 4, with Blanton coming out of the pen. His ordering is fine enough, but if that's the case, he should have tuned up Blanton with a few relief outings as the Phillies wrapped up the NL East. By not doing so, he threw Blanton into an unfamiliar situation and off of his usual pitching schedule.
Game 2 Relief: If that was his plan, it's curious why he would risk throwing Happ out there for one batter in the 6th inning of Game 2, rather than just going straight to Scott Eyre. Later, with the bases loaded in the 8th, it was very surprising to see Antonio Bastardo (ERA 6.46) come into the game in a high leverage situation (1.61) when both Lidge and Madson were rested and available in the bullpen with an off-day the following day. Bastardo got the job done, but the move was still puzzling.
Game 3 Relief: With the snow day, Happ started Game 3, meaning that Martinez would be available for relief. After Happ was knocked out early, I found it curious that he would go with Blanton and not Martinez in long relief in a close game - after all, he had considered Martinez superior to Blanton just hours earlier. Later in the game, with a 5-5 tie in the 8th (LI 1.83) Manuel strangely went with Chad Durbin, a passable but not great reliever (6.1 BB/9 IP), while he had the superior Martinez and Lidge in the bullpen. Considering the state of the Phillies pen, I probably would have inserted Lidge in the 8th and gone with Martinez for the 9th and beyond. In a huge Game 3, you have to use your best, and Manuel didn't do that here. Of course, it worked out as both Durbin and Lidge got the job done.
Game 4 Relief: Game four was managed rather well, with Lee going deep into the game and Madson, the Phillies #2 reliever, coming in to relieve him. His use of Eyre, the only reliable lefty, was also commendable, using him to face a string of tough left-handed bats in the 9th. Manuel then brought on Lidge to get the final out against the righty.
Overall, Manuel's moves obviously worked and it's hard to argue with success. Still, I think he made some mistakes, especially in not defining his roles for his starters and relievers. Will Manuel come out and say who will be starting in the NLCS, so he can define a clear strategy? Only time will tell.
Should Francona Have Intentionally Walked Hunter to Get to Guerrero?
The easy answer to this is no. With two outs and runners on second and third in the top of the ninth inning, the Red Sox led by one run. Torii Hunter stepped to the plate against Papelbon and Terry Francona promptly chose to give Hunter a free pass to load the bases. As you know, Guerrero came through with a single to centerfield to drive home the tying and go-ahead run, sealing the Red Sox fate.
While obviously the walk didn’t pay off for Francona and the Red Sox, was it a good move strategically? With runners on second and third, a single most likely scores the go-ahead run. A walk, however, does not immediately hurt you.
However, with the bases loaded, a hit OR a walk blows the lead. While a walk didn't hurt before, it makes a huge difference now.
Taking their 2009 stats as "true" probabilities, let’s look at the probabilities of the Red Sox getting out of the jam with both Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero at the plate (in fact Hunter somewhat overperformed his usual year, while Guerrero somewhat underperformed, but let's ignore this for now).
Francona chose to load the bases for Guerrero, so let's examine that first. With the bases loaded and two outs, the probability of the Sox getting out of the jam was simply 1 minus Guerrero's OBP, meaning the Sox had a 66.6% chance of getting him out and escaping with the lead.
How about if they don't walk him? In that case, there is a 63.4% chance of retiring Hunter (1 minus Hunter's OBP). There is also an additional 9.3% chance of walking Hunter and getting to Guerrero anyway. If that happens, there will still be a 66.6% chance of retiring the side without a run. Therefore, the probability of escaping by pitching normally to Hunter is 63.4% + 9.3%*.666 = 69.6%. As we can see, the intentional walk decreased the Red Sox chances of getting out of the jam by about 3%.
The end result is that Francona' walk was an ill-advised move. While Hunter may be a better hitter than Guerrero (though that is debatable), Francona failed, as many managers do, to take into account the fact that a walk hurts much more with the bases loaded than with runners on second and third. While Papelbon blew the game, Francona deserves some of the blame as well.
Can't Sweep This Lesson Under the Rug
Five days into the postseason and only the Colorado Rockies-Philadelphia Phillies Division Championship Series remains in doubt. The other three series concluded on Saturday and Sunday with the Dodgers, Angels, and Yankees sweeping their opponents.
Major League Baseball and FOX must be thrilled, knowing that three of the four finalists are from the Los Angeles and New York markets. I guess it could be better if the Mets were still playing but this is about as good as it gets otherwise (with apologies to Red Sox and Cubs fans). If the Dodgers win the NLCS, it will mean either the first Freeway Series ever or the 12th World Series matchup between the team formerly from Brooklyn and the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have won eight of the previous 11 World Series clashes between these two titans.
While a Dodgers-Angels World Series may not optimize interest on the east coast, it would likely outdraw the Bay Bridge Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's in 1989. Twenty years ago, an earthquake before Game 3 caused a ten-day disruption in play. Despite the delay, the World Series ended on October 28 as the A's swept the Giants with San Francisco becoming the first team never to hold a lead at one point during the Series.
If everything goes swimmingly this year, the World Series won't end until November 1, at the earliest. It could last as late as November 5 should the Series go seven games. For weather's sake (and for other reasons), I'm rooting against a Yankees-Rockies duel that won't be decided until after Halloween.
In the meantime, there is at least one lesson to be learned from the Division Championship Series. The teams with the best starting pitchers don't necessarily win these things — even if they sport two Cy Young Award candidates (as St. Louis did with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright) or two No. 1s (like Boston's Jon Lester and Josh Beckett). Not only did the Cardinals and Red Sox lose their respective series, they didn't win a single game. Zero. Zilch. Nada. None. Instead, it was three and done for both of these clubs.
Look, I'm as guilty as the next guy in perhaps paying more attention to the top two starters than other factors, including home field advantage. I mean, I picked the Redbirds and Sox to beat the Dodgers and Angels, respectively, in five games. In our NLDS roundtable, I wrote, "My heart and even my mind says Dodgers, but I'm a sucker for the top-heavy Pujols/Holliday/Carpenter/Wainwright fearsome foursome." You might say I was overly enamored with the big names here. Shame on me.
I'll also plead guilty to choosing St. Louis and Boston partly as a hedge against my hometown teams losing. While I'm usually not the type to worry about sticking my neck out, I figured that I would be happier about the Dodgers and Angels winning than losing my predictions. That said, I still feel as if there is an important takeaway from these series. Do not overestimate (or underestimate) the strength of the starting pitchers in a Division or League Championship Series or, for that matter, a World Series. Especially based on names or reputations.
Over in the AL, Lester and Beckett finished with the fifth- and seventh-best FIPs but John Lackey and Jered Weaver placed ninth and 13th among the 30 qualified pitchers. The differences just weren't all that great. Lester's FIP for 2009 (3.15) was just over a half run better than Lackey's (3.73) while Beckett's (3.63) was slightly less than a half run lower than Weaver's (4.04).
Although beneficial, a half run per nine innings isn't insurmountable. Remember, FIP doesn't account for team defense, much less hitting and running the bases. If run prevention is 50% of the equation, pitching might be approximately 33% of the overall total. Put another way, a team can overcome a half run from pitching inferiority via hitting, baserunning, and team defense, not to mention the home field advantage that the Dodgers and Angels both held in the Division Championship Series.
I love pitching prowess. However, we shouldn't lose perspective on how tight the disparities may be as well as the other factors that impact run prevention and creation. Lastly, we should also be aware that a certain level of randomness always plays a part in such a short series.
Misplays and Curses
All Matt Holliday had to do was catch the ball. If he does, the Cardinals go back to St. Louis with a split and have a good chance to win the series. But he doesn't. He muffs it. Dodgers come back, win the game, and cripple the Cardinals chances to advance.
Yes, the error was costly, and put the hearts in the throat of many a Cardinal fan last night. But, I can't help thinking what might have been, had that same occurrence happened to another city last night - namely their rivals to the north, the Chicago Cubs.
To the Cardinals it was just one bad play made by made a normally solid outfielder. The game was blown, but it was just one game. And the series, now likely lost, is just one series. But had the identical play happened in Chicago, it would have been the latest in a long string of signs of the apocalypse. LaRussa and his teammates stood by their man, and the fans in St. Louis will likely give Holliday an ovation of support when he takes the field on Saturday. He will not run out of town, and a prominent St. Louis restaurant will not blow the Matt Holliday ball to smithereens as a publicity stunt. I'm not so sure if that wouldn't be the case in Chicago.
This type of thing happens, and in fact one could make the case that the Cardinals have had more of these freak occurrences and "cursed events" than the Cubs have. The Cubs have never had a playoff game literally in hand that was then dropped. Sure, part of the Cubs curse involves Don Young muffing two balls in the 9th inning in 1969 against the Mets, but that was in July! The Cubs had an out snatched away in 2003, but as you'll recall, they were pounded for eight runs later that game.
The Cardinals meanwhile, did have an entire World Series championship taken away by a blown umpire's call in the 1985 World Series. But for St. Louis, that wasn't a curse, it was a bad call. The Cardinals knew they would be back, and they were, reaching the World Series four more times in the next 21 years, and winning in 2006. And they know they'll be back now.
Winning organizations don't believe in curses because they know they can overcome misfortune by playing good baseball. But in Chicago, where chances are few and far between, every missed opportunity, every failing, and every blown play only increase the howling of demons in every Cubs fan's head. And if the Red Sox are any indication, the only way to exorcise them is by winning it all.
ALDS Roundtable: Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels
Zombie Season here in the northeast! I put my wool Red Sox game-cap on this morning with my business casual attire as I left for work. Is it a silly look? Sure. Do the Red Sox start another playoff series tonight against a balanced Angels team that scares the living daylights out of me? You bet.
These are the 2nd and 3rd best teams in baseball (I'll never tell which team I think is which), and it ought to be one heck of a series. The gang's all here to discuss it. Enjoy!
Sully: The Red Sox and Angels are meeting in the ALDS for the fourth time in six seasons. I look at the two teams and the first thing that stands out is that, unlike in past seasons, the Angels appear to have the superior offensive attack while the Red Sox boast better pitching. But when you peel back the onion, I am not so sure that's the story. The Angels pitching staff came on in the 2nd half while the Red Sox, thanks to the addition of Victor Martinez, really solidified their offense after the trade deadline. What are fans to make of these two teams?
Jeremy: I agree that the additions of Scott Kazmir for the Angels and Martinez for the Red Sox bolstered both teams. The Sox still probably have an edge in pitching, especially if they can use a shortened rotation. Meanwhile, the Angels have a definite edge fielding the ball, and they have home field advantage. I think the Angels' offense matches up well with the Sox' run prevention unit, and the Yankees' for that matter, since the Angels are renowned for putting the ball in play, while the Sox and Yankees both build their defenses around power pitching and subpar fielding. However, the Sox offense can take advantage of possibly facing two lefties in Kazmir and Joe Saunders.
Sky: I think the Martinez pickup is one of the biggest additions any playoff team made this summer and with him, I put the Sox hitting on even par with LA. Martinez was key because he not only is he a good player, but Boston badly needed someone who could hit behind the plate. Varitek - nice of a guy as he is - has had awful plate production for some time now and the upgrade is significant. Even with the addition of Kazmir, I like the Boston's pitching staff over LA's as well.
This is the third time in a row we'll be seeing the Boston-LA matchup and so far the Red Sox have dominated. Is it possible it starts to get in the heads of LA if they lose a Game 1? Or is that kind of momentum thinking mostly baseball myth?
Rich: I don't know, Sky. I think winning Game 1 is important because it gives you a huge advantage the rest of the way in a short series. The losing team has to win three of four. Other than that, I wouldn't overemphasize the importance of Game 1. To the extent that it's a bigger deal for the Angels to win the opener than the Red Sox, I think it would be due to the loss of home field advantage.
Sky: I tend to agree with you, Rich. I think the feeling of "here we go again" is something that perhaps would get to the fans, but not the players. Plus, with the history of a World Series championship just a few years ago, it's not as if the Angels are fighting 86 or 100 year psychological demons. Even in that situation I think that kind of effect would be somewhere between small or non-existent. The fact that I even brought it up shows I've been hanging out with Cub fans for too long...Anyhow, I'm really excited for this series, as it's a great matchup given the history of the clubs, the opposing styles of play, and the overall quality of the teams - either of which has a good shot at the title.
Rich: Speaking of 2002, the Angels lost the first game of the ALDS to the Yankees and then swept the next three games. The Halos then lost the first game of the ALCS to the Twins and swept the next four games. Finally, the club lost the opening game of the World Series to the Giants and won four of the next six to capture its first world championship ever.
Not that it has much relevance this year, but I'm quite certain that Mike Scioscia will remind his troops of those comebacks should the Angels lose the opening game to Boston. And, besides, he's got Jered Weaver starting in Game 2.
Sully: Weaver's your boy, Rich! By nature, a short baseball series is difficult to handicap but this one is even tougher than your average series. There are two reasons for this. First, there has been enough personnel turnover that a season's worth of statistics bear little meaning to the two teams taking the field now. Second, it's hard to figure out if some of the shorter-term player performances bear any predictive value. Are Kendry Morales and Howie Kendrick the best right side in baseball, the way they have played for two months now? Is JD Drew a .415/.550 guy like he has been in the 2nd half?
Rich: No and no. As for Morales and Kendrick, that's an easy one. They're both good but not nearly the best right side in baseball. For one, Boston's right side is better. But there are others as well. Mark Teixeira is better than Morales and Robinson Cano is better than Kendrick. Ryan Howard is better than Kendry as well and Chase Utley is way, way better than Howie. I might go as far as to say Albert Pujols at first base and anyone of us at second base would outperform those Angels. And I haven't turned two in a long, long time.
Jeremy: Pujols by himself is the best right side of the infield, left side of the infield, and the best team in baseball. And Sully, I'm surprised you're underselling your Sox infield with the reigning MVP at the keystone and the AL's second best hitter this year at first. Come to think of it, the only positions where I'd give the Angels a definite advantage this season are on the left side of the infield and in center.
Sully: I agree, guys. My only point is that if they've been this good for this long - Morales and Kendrick, what's 5, 10, 15 more games?
Rich: As a fan, I hope it's more than five games.
Sky: I'm not a big fan of the hot hand theory. For a two month period, the standard error of OBP, is 35 points - larger for SLG or OPS. The variability out there due to chance is just huge, so it's hard to read into what's going on. Kendrick in particular has had a big second half, but over the course of the year and over the course of his career, he's been about a league average hitter. Is it possible he's made adjustments and is a far better hitter than he was in May? Yes, but I'd bet that most of the uptick is due to random variation.
Sully: Ok let's start digging into some of the personnel. Can we agree the Red Sox have the two best starting pitchers in the series? Even the most charitable interpretation of the Angels pitching resurgence in the second half does not render John Lackey or Kazmir or Weaver better than Jon Lester or Josh Beckett, right?
Sky: I'll agree with that. I also like the Boston bullpen. Papelbon has a significant edge over Fuentes in my opinion, and in the postseason, the closer really takes on added importance - especially now that they've added more off days to the schedule. Fuentes also hasn't pitched more than 1 inning in a game all season long - it will be interesting to see if that changes come playoffs. We know the Sox won't be shy about putting Papelbon out there for extended outings.
Rich: The Angels bullpen has been up and down all year long. Like all Scioscia's closers, Fuentes has a lot of saves, but he doesn't inspire much confidence in highly leveraged situations. A lefthander, he's slinging 89-91 mph fastballs up there. The combination of his arm angle and breaking ball has been successful against left-handed batters (.239/.308/.282 with no HR in 78 TBF), but it's been rather pedestrian vs. right-handed hittters (.261/.358/.428 with 6 HR in 164 TBF). Kevin Jepsen has much better stuff. He developed a cutter during the season and was lights out for a long stretch during the second half. He also throws a 96+ mph fastball and a nasty breaking ball. I suspect he's not very well known right now but believe he may get his due on the national stage this week. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ervin Santana's potential impact on the bullpen. It's easy to forget that he was the Angels best starter last season. His fastball/slider combo figures to be a welcomed addition throughout the playoffs.
Dave: Yeah Jepsen has really flown under the radar as a very good reliever. This year he has struck out more batters per inning and walked fewer batters per inning than Fuentes. Plus he is an extreme ground ball pitcher (16% LD, 57% GB, 27% FB) while Fuentes is an extreme fly ball pitcher (17% LD, 36 % GB, 47% FB). It would be interesting to see what Scioscia would do if, say, he had both pitchers available going into the ninth up by one with Bay, Lowell and Vartiek due up. All three hit lefties much better. I think Scoscia would be giving up a lot sticking with his traditional closer there.
Sully: While the Red Sox may have more and better options, the specific deployment will be a more difficult task than meets the eye. Terry Francona will face some of the challenges that Scioscia figures to. Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard have all struggled of late. In fact, Delcarmen will not even be on the roster for the ALDS. Will Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner be Francona's go-to setup men?
Rich: Kudos to Boston's front office for picking up Wagner. The lefty is still throwing gas and striking out batters like always. Incredible. Saito's strikeout rate is down and his walk and home run rates are up since his years with the Dodgers, but he's still been a pretty effective pitcher the past couple months. Neither reliever, however, has been used on back-to-back days very often. Both are approaching 40 and coming off injuries so they seem like high-beta risks and rewards from afar.
Dave: Jumping topics a little bit. One thing to consider is that if the Yankees want to force the Twins/Tigers winner to play games two days in a row they will take the long series that starts Wednesday. That means the Angels/Red Sox series will be the short one and both team will be forced to use four-man rotations. Do you guys think that is a clear advantage to either team?
Rich: Not really. I think both teams have a strong four. Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, and Dice-K vs. Lackey, Weaver, Kazmir, and Saunders. Saunders may be the weakest link here, mainly due to his poor strikeout rate. But he has been a much more effective pitcher since returning from the DL in August. He's throwing harder and with better command than in the first half of the season. Most writers and analysts have conceded the starting and relief pitching edge to the Red Sox. While I understand why, I don't think the advantage is as large as the consensus believes.
Sully: I think this series actually sets up nicely for the Red Sox. You have to think they can muster a split with the big pitching advantage in Games 1 and 2. Then, they're so good in Fenway that they might be able to win a high scoring affair or two should Buchholz or Matsuzaka falter. What do you guys forsee happening?
Sky: I like both the Red Sox pitching as well as hitting over the Angels, but it's close. I'm going with the Red Sox in 5, with the bullpen making the difference.
Jeremy: I think the Red Sox win in 4. I don't see them losing a game where Beckett or Lester pitches.
Sully: I think the Red Sox win in 4 as well, but I think that is a certifiable fanboy prediction. This series has me really uneasy; this might be the best Angels team of their whole recent run of success.
Dave: I think the Red Sox are the slightly better team, but with the home field advantage I am going to go Angels in 5.
Rich: This series is between two of the best three teams in baseball. It's a shame that one of them will get knocked out this early. But that's the nature of the post-season. I believe it could go either way. I'll give the smallest of edges to Boston until proven otherwise. Red Sox in five.
We considered giving an in-depth series preview the ol' college try for the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees ALDS match-up but by the time the Twins secured the AL Central, so many good previews were already popping up at some great sights around the web, there wasn't much to add. Here's a sampling:
This is David versus Goliath, if Goliath wore pinstripes and David was tired from dousing himself with champagne the night before, but fortunately for the Twins their slingshot is still warm.
Papa Bear Rich Lederer chimed in with the following:
The ALDS between Minnesota and New York can be summed up by tonight's pitching matchup: Twins (Brian Duensing) at Yankees (C.C. Sabathia)
I'm afraid I am with Rich here.
We'll have an in-depth roundtable previewing the Sox-Halos series tomorrow. Come on back!
NLDS Roundtable: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The National League Division Series between the St. Louis Cardinals (91-71) and Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67) matches two of the most storied franchises in the history of baseball. The NL Central titleist vs. the NL West champ.
The Redbirds, who lead the all-time series 1063-1030, won five out of seven this season and four of six last year. The Dodgers, in fact, have lost 14 of their last 17 games in St. Louis.
I grew up a Dodgers fan and was surprised to learn that the team's back-to-back division titles in 2008-09 were the first since 1977-78. The Bums lost the World Series both years to the Yankees but won it all in 1981 and 1988. The Cardinals, meanwhile, captured the World Series in 2006 and could tie the Red Sox for the most world championships this decade if they can prevail in 2009.
To preview the St. Louis-Los Angeles series, let's turn to Dave Allen, Sky Andrecheck, Jeremy Greenhouse, Chris Moore, Patrick Sullivan, and yours truly of the Baseball Analysts staff.
Rich: Similar to the other NLDS roundtable, let's analyze each team's hitting, pitching, and defense to determine which side should have the edge in this series. When it comes to hitting, the stats favor the Dodgers slightly. But, then again, LA doesn't have Albert Pujols on its side.
Dave: The two most important things to producing runs are not making outs and hitting for power. The Dodgers do the first really well (best OBP in the NL) and the second surprisingly poorly (in the bottom third of the NL). James Loney, Orlando Hudson, Rafael Furcal, and Russell Martin all experienced fairly signifcant drops in their power this year (as measured by ISO).
Jeremy: Loney and Martin have been humongous disappointments this year. But what Manny Ramirez and Andre Ethier lack with their gloves, they more than make up for with their bats, leading the Dodgers to the top of the NL in OBP as Dave pointed out.
Sully: It's a good unit but also one that slugged .332 over the last two weeks of the season. They need to re-heat.
Rich: I think the key to the Dodgers offense is whether we see the Manny of old or an old Manny. There is a peretty big difference between the two. He may have matched up well with Albert last year but not so much this time around.
Jeremy: Yeah, that Pujols guy. He's good.
Sky: There's a lot to like about this offense and, of course, the big reason is Pujols. I think commentators have made too much of the addition of Matt Holliday. Yeah, he's been awesome, but how long can you expect that to continue? Meanwhile, Pujols is going to hit no matter who's behind him. Great pickup, but not the single reason that the Cardinals have excelled in the second half.
Sully: There is no more fearsome duo heading into the playoffs than Pujols and Holliday and beyond that pair, the Cards don't have a hole in their lineup. Don't let the pedestrian season-long totals fool you. The personnel has turned over, and the St. Louis offense is formidable.
Rich: Let's turn the discussion over to the prevention of outs with a focus on the starting pitchers, relievers, and the fielders.
Skyy: I think the postseason format favors the Cardinals, with two dominant starting pitchers. That said, I do think that Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter have pitched over their heads a bit as their numbers are quite a bit better than their career stats.
Chris: Wainwright and Carpenter will pitch three of the five games; that will be a lot of innings in the hands of Cy Young candidates. I think two of the three games will be dominated by Wainwright and Carpenter, but that it won’t be enough because St. Louis doesn’t have the offense to back it up.
Dave: Things went about as well as anyone could have hoped for St Louis' starting pitching. Carpenter returned to ace form after effectively two lost years. Wainwright continues to improve (adding more strikeouts and groundballs) as one of the game's top pitchers. And Joel Pineiro somehow found a way to stop issuing both walks and fly balls. As a whole, the Cardinals get the second most grounders of any starting rotation. Wainwright, Carpenter and Pinero lead the way, all north of 50% GB/BIP.
Sully: How about Pineiro in 2009? I know much of the talk will center on Carpenter and Wainwright, but Pineiro's 3.89 K/BB ratio leads the St. Louis starters this season.
Jeremy: I'm concerned with Pineiro's lack of ability to miss Dodger bats. However, the Dodgers do struggle against groundball pitchers.
Rich: The Dodgers didn't have any trouble missing bats this year.
Jeremy: That's right, Rich. For the first time since 2000, the Cubs did not lead the majors in strikeouts. That honor belonged to the Giants, but the Cubs and Dodgers tied for second. I think I'm in the minority, but I'd take Clayton Kershaw/Chad Billingsley over Chris Carpenter/Adam Wainwright. I love me the strikeouts.
Rich: Yes, Jeremy, that's a contrary position for sure. But who knows if Billingsley will even get a start this series? Joe Torre has decided to go with Vicente Padilla in Game 3. Boy, that would be awfully embarrassing if the ace of the staff heading into the season didn't get a call in the postseason.
Dave: Run prevention is the name of the game for the Dodgers. Their starters are second to only the Braves in ERA (3.58). They are strong one to four with Randy Wolf, Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda, and Billingsley all owning a FIP below 4.
Sky: I'd say LA's rotation goes six deep. Too bad for them it's only a five-game series. And Wolf is going twice. The Dodgers had a great regular season staff, but it's not necessarily going to translate in the playoffs.
Sully: It's as fascinating a mix as there is in the playoffs. Kershaw is a promising youngster who may be outpiching his peripherals. Padilla has been solid since joining the club. Game 1 starter Wolf has been way better than many realize, while Billingsley has struggled down the stretch. Stay tuned.
Rich: I think all of us would agree that the Dodgers have a fairly significant advantage as far as the bullpens are concerned, no?
Dave: The Dodgers lead the league in reliever ERA by a healthy margin (3.14 with the Giants the closest at 3.49). Jonathan Broxton leads the league in K/9 with 13.5 and is the first pitcher since Brad Lidge in 2005 to have greater than 13 K/9.
Jeremy: While the Dodgers paced the league by a fair margin in bullpen ERA, not one of their relievers has a decent walk rate. As such, that could get them in hot water when Broxton's not striking everybody out.
Chris: The one aspect I’m looking forward to most is watching LA's bullpen go to work. Ronald Belisario should line ‘em up and mow ‘em down.
Sully: Torre has no shortage of reliable options in his bullpen. How he deploys them will be something to watch.
Sky: I agree, Sully. Torre could put some of those leftover starters in the bullpen, too. I love Broxton closing and George Sherrill, Belisario & Co. setting up, the late innings advantage is going to LA big time.
Jeremy: The Cardinals have a lot of options, and Tony La Russa isn't afraid to seemingly use all of them at once. Ryan Franklin's a solid closer, Trever Miller's a great lefty, Jason Motte can get strikeouts, and Blake Hawksworth and Dennys Reyes can get grounders.
Sky: Franklin has been lights out this year. Unfortunately for the Cards, he too is in over his head. His FIP is 3.31, betraying his sub-2.00 ERA. I still do like the Cardinals pen though, as Kyle McClellan, Miller, and Reyes are serviceable relievers.
Dave: Franklin has succeded as a closer on the strength of low BABIP and HR/FB and in spite of a K/BB ratio below 2. It seems relief pitchers might have a little more control over these numbers than starters, and Franklin has had a low BABIP throughtout his career. But his 3.2% HR/FB is way out of line with his career total.
Sully: The Cards bullpen has to be a question mark heading into the post-season, especially given the way Franklin has faltered down the stretch. Will La Russa introduce America to Motte? He may have to in a big way for St. Louis to make a run.
Rich: Which team catches and throws the ball better?
Jeremy: What a disaster that would be if Torre plays Ronnie Belliard at second over Orlando Hudson. They have a terrific infield defense and ugly outfield defense but, fortunately for the Dodgers, the Cardinals as a team have a slight propensity to hit the ball on ground.
Sky: If the infield defense is a plus, outfield defense is a minus in my opinion.
Sully: Did you know that Rafael Furcal had another strong season? Yes, defense matters.
Dave: With so many ground ball pitchers, infield defense is espically important to the Cards. That makes it all the more rash that they moved Skip Schumaker from OF to 2B before the season. UZR says he has played below average, but not horribly so, -6 runs per 150 innings.
Jeremy: Schumacher's a liability at second base, but he's surrounded by plus fielders in Pujols and Brendan Ryan. Pineiro's a really solid fielder, and Yadier Molina's a good receiver too, and we too often neglect pitcher and catcher defense.
Sky: Not only can Pujols hit, but he's also a GG-caliber first baseman. Simply an amazing player.
Sully: It's a mixed bag for the Cards but as a unit they're pretty good. However, they fall short of the Dodgers defenders. Holliday and Schumaker may not win Gold Gloves anytime soon, but with standout youngsters like Ryan and Colby Rasmus, they more than hold their own.
Rich: OK, it's time to make our
Sky: The teams seem evenly matched on paper, but I think there are too many Cardinals playing over their heads this year....they've gotta come back to earth at some point. I predict it will happen this series. Dodgers in 5.
Jeremy: I agree with Sky. Dodgers in 5.
Dave: I'm going to go you one better. Dodgers in 4.
Rich: Wow, Dave's not afraid to make these bold calls. He picked the Rockies in 4 in the other NLDS.
Chris: I like the Dodgers in 4 as well.
Sully: I'll take the Dodgers over the Cardinals over the long haul but it's hard to bet against the Cardinals, who feature the two best starting pitchers in the National League post-season. St. Louis in 4.
Rich: This is a tough one for me. My heart and even my mind says Dodgers, but I'm a sucker for the top-heavy Pujols/Holliday/Carpenter/Wainwright fearsome foursome. I'll be different and say Cardinals in 5.
NLDS Roundtable: Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies
The National League Division Series between the Colorado Rockies (92-70) and Philadelphia Phillies (93-69) matches the wild card team against the club with the second-best record in the league. But this series is much more than that. It also pits the hottest team in the NL vs. the defending World Series champions.
The last time these two teams met in the postseason was in 2007 when the red-hot Rockies swept the NL East champs. Colorado tanked the following year while Philadelphia bounced back to win its first world title since 1980.
Who will prevail this year? The World Series representative from the NL in 2007 or 2008?
To preview the Colorado-Philadelphia series, let's turn to Dave Allen, Sky Andrecheck, Jeremy Greenhouse, Chris Moore, and yours truly of the Baseball Analysts staff.
Rich: All of us know that almost anything can happen in a short series, especially one between two quality teams like the Rockies and Phillies. With that caveat in mind, I'd like to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each team's hitting, pitching, and defense to determine which side should have the edge in this series. For starters, how do the offenses match up?
Dave: The Rockies are a three-true-outcomes offense, leading the majors in K/9 and BB/9 and ranking second to only the Phillies in number of HRs in the NL.
Jeremy: Yes, the Rockies lead the league in both walk percentage and strikeout percentage. They also have a decent amount of pop, ranking fifth in the Majors in ISO and HR/FB. It should be interesting because Philadelphia's pitchers have the league-worst groundball rate.
Dave: Good point, Jeremy. The GB per ball in play for the Phillies starters is under 40%. This could play a big role in a series played in two of the most HR friendly parks.
Sky: Well, Dave, with the humidor at Coors, we don't see the crackerjack numbers there anymore. They've got a decent offense with a great hitting outfield but it's largely lefty dominated, which may prove to be unfortunate given the matchup.
Dave: The Phillies haven't had any trouble scoring runs. They had four guys with more than 30 HRs, but what happened to Jimmy Rollins? He never took many walks and now that his BABIP fell out from under him he had a sub-.300 OBP this year.
Sky: Philadelphia's offense is star-laden, for sure. Like Dave, I wonder if Rollins can regain some of his form or will he continue to slump as he has all year? His offensive production has always been overrated, but he's probably better than he's shown this year.
Rich: Rollins has earned his offensive reputation more for his counting numbers than anything else. While the 2007 NL MVP has made over 500 outs in each of the past three seasons, his supporters point to the 100 runs he scored this year as well as the 43 doubles, 21 home runs, 31 stolen bases, and even the 77 runs batted in from the lead-off spot as measures of his so-called greatness. A player can put up a lot of big numbers when he gets 725 opportunities in a single season as Rollins did this year.
Jeremy: Speaking of steals, the Phillies, renowned for their power, have actually excelled on the bases with 119 SB to 28 CS and a MLB low 90 double plays.
Chris: I focus on pitching, and this series doesn’t do much for me. I don’t believe that the pitches J.A. Happ throws deserve a sub 3.0 ERA. If Charlie decides to start Pedro Martinez instead (not a bad idea in my mind), Phillies fans should start chanting “Pull him! Pull him!” well before pitch #100.
Sky: Will Manuel reveal his plan already? Happ's probably better than Martinez at this point. But he can also go out of the bullpen more easily and gives the club a much needed lefty reliever. If I'm managing the Phillies, Martinez starts Game 4.
Rich: With Brad Lidge struggling all year long, how would you describe Philadelphia's bullpen?
Sky: Shoddy. That's why they need Happ out there. How much confidence will they have in Lidge? It will take some stones to run him out there for saves in the playoffs. Reminds me of a certain 1993 closer....
Jeremy: I can't wait to see Lidge's projections for next year. This is the first year that he's had poor peripherals, which is scary, but he still is a useful part of the bullpen. I do think Ryan Madson is the better pitcher.
Dave: Over at FanGraphs, I wrote a little bit about Lidge's struggles. The whiff rate on both his fastball and slider has dropped each of the past three years, helping to explain the drop in strikeouts. The Phillies 'pen seems pretty shaky, particularly the back end.
Rich: The uniforms remain the same but the names on the backs have changed since these teams squared off in the NLDS in 2007. Just two years ago, Colorado went with Jeff Francis, Franklin Morales, and Ubaldo Jimenez, while Philadelphia countered with Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, and Jamie Moyer. Only two of these six pitchers are scheduled to start this year.
Jeremy: Jimenez is the most underrated elite pitcher going. Rockie starters led the league in groundball percentage, as the Rockies believe that's the solution to the Coors effect. That's possible, but having a starter in Jimenez who averages a league-leading 96 MPH on his fastball in that thin air doesn't hurt either.
Sky: Jorge de la Rosa is injured, but I don't think it hurts too much. After Jimenez, the Rockies starters are all pretty much interchangable. It's a solid staff.
Rich: I actually like de la Rosa quite a bit. He showed up well in my K/GB rankings last year. He struck out more than a batter per inning this season and was 10-2 with a 3.46 ERA in the second half. I think he will be missed.
Dave: Denver has very good starting pitching, with GBs playing a big role. They give up 51% ground balls per BIP, highest among starting rotations. This will be especially important in a series played in two home run friendly parks.
Jeremy: In case you haven't noticed, Rafael Betancourt has 29 strikeouts to five walks in 25.1 innings since joining the Rockies. He's back. Huston Street? 5.38 K/BB ratio. He's back. Alan Embree's not going to cut it as their lefty coming out of the pen, so they'd be better off sticking with exclusively righties.
Sky: Street and Betancourt are huge for Colorado.
Rich: My take is that the Rockies and Phillies may have the two worst bullpens of all the teams in the playoffs. But I would give Colorado the nod as, in addition to Street, relievers Betancourt, Joe Beimel, Matt Belisle, and even Jose Contreras were throwing much better down the stretch than their Philadelphia counterparts.
Dave: In contrast to the starters, Colorado's relievers give up the second fewest GBs of any relief staff. They offset that by minimizing walks and maximizing strikeouts and have a top three K/BB ratio as a group.
Rich: OK, we've covered hitting and pitching pretty thoroughly. Let's talk about team defense for a minute.
Dave: Over the past three years, Chase Utley has saved an average of 15 runs per 150 games on defense above the average second basemen, according to UZR. That is five runs per 150 games better than second place. He anchors a good Phillies defense.
Jeremy: Troy Tulowitzki is a pleasure to watch in the field, too.
Sky: I believe Colorado's defense is pretty average with the exception of Hawpe in RF, which UZR says is terrible. However, I'm not 100% confident in UZR assessment of defenders at Coors.
Jeremy: Hawpe has silently turned into a slightly lesser three-true-outcome version of Adam Dunn.
Sky: All that "Raul Ibanez' defense stinks" talk and he's got a UZR of 7.3. Go figure.
Jeremy: Have you taken a look at Jayson Werth's season recently? I mean UZR and +/- still rate him as a plus right fielder. He has 20 steals to 3 caught. A .382 wOBA for the second straight year. I wonder if Phillie fans know he's better than Ryan Howard.
Rich: How do you see this series playing out?
Sky: The Phillies are particularly suited to shut down Colorado's lefty lineup. Otherwise, the teams seem evenly matched. Phillies are home as well and you can't discount that - especially when the opponent is Colorado. Phillies in five.
Dave: Thanks to lots of power hitters and two of the most home run friendly parks, these two teams are far and away the two leaders in NL ISO (both above .180). Looks like it could be HR-fest. Rockies in four.
Rich: Dave is going for the upset. And in four games no less.
Jeremy: I think the series will go four games as well, but I have the Phillies winning this one.
Chris: Me, too. Philadelphia in five.
Rich: I guess I had better take a stand here. I think it could go either way but look for Jimenez to carry the Rockies to victories in Games 1 and 5. It will be quite an accomplishment if he and Colorado can pull it off as both contests will be played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
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Be sure to check back later in the day to read our roundtable discussion on the NLDS between the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Blowing a Lead in the Last Week of the Season
According to a post by David Smith, the founder of Retrosheet, on the SABR-L message board yesterday, "If the Tigers lose to the Twins in their playoff game (today), they would become the first team to lead by 3 games with 4 to play and not win the division (or league). There have been five previous instances of a team having a lead greater than 2 games with 7 or fewer games to play and not being able to finish it off. They are:
Team Lead Date Games Left Winner Dodgers 2.5 9-24-1951 7 Giants Dodgers 3 9-24-1962 6 Giants Blue Jays 2.5 9-28-1987 5 Tigers Dodgers 2.5 9-25-1996 4 Padres Mets 2.5 9-23-2007 7 Phillies
A lifelong Dodgers fan, Smith notes that "you will hopefully excuse me for seeing a depressing pattern here."
While the Dodgers have been prone to blowing leads in the past, it's all on the Tigers this year. For the sake of avoiding infamy, I hope Detroit wins.
On the other hand, my fantasy baseball team is in first place by the slimmest of margins (0.25 points over second and 0.75 points over third), the closest finish in our league's 30+ year history. Our league uses CBS Sportsline and our commissioner was informed in an email exchange by an apparently ill-informed staffer last weekend that the site's fantasy season ended on Sunday, irrespective of makeup games and tiebreakers. I was proclaimed the winner after the final out was recorded in the last game of the "regular" season and received congratulatory emails from several competitors.
However, it all changed yesterday afternoon when CBS Sportsline posted the following missive on its message center.
As a result, I'm going to have to sweat it our for another day. There's good news and bad news for me. I have Scott Baker in my lineup. As such, I will pass the team directly ahead of me in innings and pick up a full point if he can complete three innings and jump ahead of the team two above me and record two points for 6 2/3 IP. However, my team's WHIP currently stands at 1.273, .001 ahead of the third-place club. As such, I could easily lose a point if Baker allows too many hits and walks in too few innings.
Stay with me here. Although the team in second place doesn't really have any skin in today's game (unless Justin Verlander or Nick Blackburn pitch in relief), the club in third place has Michael Cuddyer and is close enough in doubles/triples, home runs, runs scored, and RBI that he could gain enough points to leapfrog me if Cuddyer goes off.
Did I mention that even the fourth-place team in our standings is within striking distance and has Jason Kubel and Brandon Inge? He could pick up a point if they combine for two runs scored and perhaps catch me should Baker falter.
If you're not a Tigers or Twins fan, please root for me. I mean, I don't want to pull a Detroit and blow the lead.
Porcello Versus the Twins' Lineup
Yesterday I wrote about the Porcello/Baker pitching matchup, another interesting facet of tonight's game is the match up between Rick Porcello and the Twins' lineup. Porcello succeeds by getting lots of ground balls, over 54% per ball in play fifth best in the league. The Twins on the other hand have a high ground ball (3rd highest), high BABIP (7th best) offense. It seems this match up would play into the Twins favor, as their hitters hit lots of grounders and beat them out for singles or on ones through the gaps for extra base hits.
I wanted to see how much this is the case for individual Twins. So here are the career BABIP on grounders and SLG on grounders for some probable Twins starters. I also included the 2009 AL average for these values for comparison. I left out Jose Morales and Matt Tolbert as they had too few grounders. I sorted by SLG on grounders. All these numbers are from Baseball Reference.
BABIPgb SLGgb Carlos Gomez 0.268 0.317 Denard Span 0.275 0.302 Delmon Young 0.260 0.281 Michael Cuddyer 0.252 0.277 Orlando Cabrera 0.240 0.263 Joe Mauer 0.253 0.261 Nick Punto 0.245 0.260 AL AVERAGE 0.240 0.260 Jason Kubel 0.197 0.211
With the exception of Kubel all these hitters have average or better slugging on ground balls. It looks like this may partially neutralize Porcello's main strength.
A couple days ago, Dave Allen deconstructed Mariano Rivera. He commented that he had never seen any other pitcher who could locate his pitches with the same kind of bimodal distribution of pitches along the lateral dimension. I noticed the same thing when I ranked Rivera as having one of the best fastballs in baseball. But I was curious: how unusual is Mariano's X location distribution? Is he among the best in hitting the corners?
No. He is the best.
A quick SQL query produced the lateral distance from the edge of the strike zone (10 inches from 0 in the pitch F/X data) for all pitches measured by GameDay since 2007. Amongst all pitchers with 100+ pitches recorded, Mariano Rivera has the lowest average distance from an edge. On average, he places his pitches 4.4 inches away from the very edge of the plate.
Here are the top 10:
Many of these guys have 85 mph fastballs. It's tempting to think that the only reason they can survive in the majors is because they paint the corners. Rivera is really the only one of the bunch that has fantastic stuff to go along with such pinpoint control. Hence his dominance.
Here is a graph of Mariano Rivera's locations with #3 Jorge Campillo's locations for comparison (click on the graph to enlarge).
Update: Shawn pointed out that this isn't an impressive group of pitchers. I think one could argue that most of the guys with exceptional command lack the velocity to survive in the majors without that command. But lets remove the chumps by only looking at pitchers that have thrown more than 200 pitches that exceed 90 mph. Here's the new list:
#1 Mariano Rivera, 4.41
If you only look at pitches that are in the zone (within a foot of the center of the plate), Mariano takes an even bigger lead, but is joined by Jon Garland, Carlos Silva, Roy Halladay, Francisco Cordero, John Smoltz, Matt Garza and Jeremy Bonderman in the top 25.
The Playoffs Will Wait Another Day For Some (Literally)
The regular regular season is over. It's now time for the third straight year of a one-game tiebreaker to determine the eighth and final participant in the postseason.
After 162 games, the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins are tied for first place in the American League Central with 86 wins and 76 losses. The teams head to the Metrodome for a title tilt on Tuesday. If the contest is like the tiebreakers in 2007 (Colorado Rockies edged the San Diego Padres, 9-8) and 2008 (Chicago White Sox shut out the Twins, 1-0), it means the game will be decided by one run. Heck, even the previous tiebreaker in 1999 (New York Mets beat the Cincinnati Reds, 5-4) was decided by one run.
Hard to believe but the Tigers are looking to win their first division title since 1987. When Detroit lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006, the Jim Leyland-led club finished second to the Twins in the AL Central and advanced into the postseason as the wild card team. Minnesota, on the other hand, has won four division titles this decade but lost the tiebreaker last year and has gone 3-13 in its last four playoff series. Of course, Joe Mauer, who led the AL in AVG (.364), OBP (.442), and SLG (.586) this season, didn't perform in those postseason series in 2002, 2003, and 2004.
We're only talking about one game but Mauer could be the difference maker for the Twins this year. However, he struggled against Detroit's scheduled starter Rick Porcello during the season, going 1-for-9 with no extra base hits and only one walk. Tomorrow's start will undoubtedly be the biggest game of the 20-year-old Porcello's life. Look for the first round draft pick in 2007 to try and pound the lower half of the strike zone with his two-seam fastball in the hopes of keeping the ball on the ground as he has done so well throughout his rookie season, leading the AL in GB% at 54.4%.
Scott Baker will head to the mound for the Twins. He is an extreme flyball pitcher, ranking second (behind only Jered Weaver) in the AL in FB% at 46.6%. The righthander succeeds by throwing strikes (7th lowest BB/9 in the AL) and getting more than his fair share of punch outs (12th at 7.42 K/9). Porcello, on the other hand, had the second-lowest K/9 rate (4.42) in the league. The matchup should be an interesting contrast in styles, as colleague Dave Allen describes in the article below.
Meanwhile, not only are the Yankees in the dark about which team they will be facing in the ALDS, but the dates of the two series are yet to be determined. New York, by virtue of having the best record in the league, has the option of picking between a seven-day and eight-day schedule (Wed-Fri-Sun-Mon-Wed or Thu-Fri-Sun-Mon-Wed). The decision is due one hour after NY's playoff opponent has been determined. The Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox will default to the schedule that the Yankees don't pick.
It says here that the Yankees will opt for the longer format, which will force the winner of the Tigers and Twins tiebreaker to play back-to-back games in different cities while the home team rests up. That means the Angels and Red Sox will likely play Thursday and Friday in Anaheim, Sunday and Monday (if needed) in Boston, and Wednesday (if needed) back in Anaheim.
If the truth be known, the suspense seems a little bit silly.
Baker-Porcello: A Study in Batted Ball Contrasts
Tomorrow's one game playoff between the Tigers and Twins features an interesting pitching match up. Rick Porcello and Scott Baker exist on opposite ends of the fly ball- ground ball spectrum. Porcello who throws a 'sinking' two-seam fastball over 60% of the time and gets grounders on 54% of his balls in play compared to just 29% fly balls. Baker throws a 'rising' four-seam fastball and gets grounders on just 34% of his balls in play to 47% fly balls. That puts Porcello in the top five GB% for starting pitchers and Baker in the bottom five. You can see an explanation for this difference by looking at the frequency distribution of the heights of their fastballs.
So tomorrow's game is not only an exciting one-game playoff of utmost importance to both teams, but a nice demonstration of the strikeout/ground ball trade off based on fastball height.
Cubs Close the Tribune Era
Sunday's home loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks capped a 29-year ownership by the Chicago Tribune. The Cubs, which were bought by the Tribune for just $20 million in 1981, made for a handy investment - they sold this year to the Ricketts family for $900 million. While the Tribune was clearly a winner when it came to the bottom line, a 4400% return isn't bad, how did the Trib fare for the Cubs and their fans?
Much as the Tribune ownership is maligned in Chicago, the Cubs were a success under their ownership. While they didn't win the big one, the Cubs under the Tribune made the postseason six times in a 29-year period and came within a hair's breadth of going to the World Series. They boosted the team's attendance and popularity from a low-point when they took over the club. As tough as it is to imagine, the Cubs were 11th out of 12 teams in attendance in 1981, the year the Tribune took over. Nearly 30 years later, the Cubs are obviously one of the country's most popular teams, towering over their cross-town rivals, and have one of the toughest tickets to get in baseball.
Yes, the Cubs are blessed with Wrigley Field, one of baseball's crown jewel ballparks, but this didn't always attract fans to the park. One can quibble with the Tribune's handling of the park; the lights they installed in 1988, the 1989 skyboxes which make the game nearly unwatchable for the last half of the Terrace Reserve section of the park, the expanded bleachers disrupt the elegant arc of the bleachers which had been in place for decades, the eye-sore signage on the outfield wall; but overall, the park has the same charm and elegance as it always had.
For all the Tribune's foibles, it could have been much worse. They didn't rip out the grandstands or put up a jumbotron, the lights are tastefully done, and the change in the bleachers, while not the same as they once were, is relatively unnoticeable to the untrained eye. Most of all the park still stands. When retro-parks weren't the craze they are today, the Tribune stuck with Wrigley, choosing not to build a saucer-like stadium in the suburbs and have Wrigley meet the same fate as Tiger or Yankee Stadium. Not that they wouldn't have had they thought it profitable, but all things considered the Tribune was a good caretaker of the Cubs and its fans.
Perhaps the Tribune's greatest contribution to the Cubs has been the Cubs airing on WGN, the superstation that brought the Cubs to households across the country. It allowed the country to experience the majesty of Wrigley and the fun of Harry Caray from miles away, simultaneously taking the Cubs brand to new heights. It proved, perhaps more than anything, that putting games on television isn't giving away your product, it's an advertisement for your product. Under the Tribune's ownership, it's undeniable that the Cubs have been transformed from lovable losers to one of baseball's premier franchises.
While I'm pleased that the Cubs are being sold to a family - the Tribune is and always has been a corporation out for dollars, not the best interest of the fans - I think credit should be given where credit is due. The Tribune hasn't been a perfect owner, but they've left the Cubs in a far better state than when they bought them, and for that I'm thankful for their ownership.
Over the weekend I happened across this Joe Posnanski blog entry on Theo Epstein after Posnanski heard the Boston Red Sox GM on a local radio station with Boston sports media personalities Tony Massarotti and Michael Felger. You can listen to that interview here. The money excerpt takes place beginning at the 15:55 mark or so, when Theo asks Mazz and Felgy, who typify the mindset of the average Red Sox fan in so many ways, why they haven't asked him about J.D. Drew.
As Red Sox fans will probably remember, Drew has been treated unfairly in Boston since before his signing was even announced in the off-season prior to the 2007 season. Bob Ryan famously remarked on a media conference call, “On behalf of an eager constituency, let’s hope the rumor is not true" in reference to the possibility that the Red Sox would sign Drew. It wasn't limited to the mainstream, either. Our friend Chad Finn was very much against the deal, and you can see here in this Baseball Think Factory thread, Sox fan Jim Furtado says "this will not end well for Drew or the Red Sox".
Now, we are three years in. And let's just list out his record:
Not that any of this will silence Drew's critics but seriously, by what measure was the Drew signing anything but a great one?
Mariano Rivera: Another Appreciation
For my last post of the regular season I wanted to examine one of the most singular and interesting players in major league baseball, Mariano Rivera. I know I have written about him before but the amazing Sports Illustrated cover of him inspired me to look deeper into his pitchf/x numbers.
In two months Rivera will turn forty and the average speed on his cutter is down a couple MPH in the last couple years, but his performance is still amazing. Unless something ridiculous happens in the next couple days he will finish up his ninth consecutive year with a FIP under 3, sixth out of the last seven years with an ERA under 2 and 12th of the last 13 years with at least 30 saves.
Rivera, famously, throws a cutter almost exclusively. He mixes in a four-seam fastball about 15% of the time to RHBs, but only 1% to lefties. So against RHBs it is about 85% cutters and against LHBs almost all cutters. As I have mentioned before his cutter has an incredible bimodal horizontal location distribution, which I have seen in no other pitch. Here it is to lefties, about 58% of the pitches inside to LHBs (Rivera's glove-side):
Here are his cutters to RHBs, 64% outside (Rivera's glove-side):
His fastball is thrown extremely inside to RHBs.
Effectively he has two pitches to LHBs (inside and outside cutter) and three to RHBs (inside and outside cutter and an inside four-seam fastball). Throughout this article I classify each pitch as either inside (x<0 to RHBs, x>0 to LHBs) or outside (x>0 to RHBs, x<0 to LHBs). Here is how the five pitches do by run value and some other per-pitch-metrics. FA denotes fastball, FCi inside cutter, rv100 is the run value per 100 pitches with negative good, whiff is the percentage of swings that miss the ball, oswing is the percentage of pitches out of the zone swung at, called is called strikes per pitch, gb% is ground balls per ball in play, iff% infield flies per ball in play and slgcon is slugging on contacted pitches.
rhb-FA rhb-FCi rhb-FCo lhb-FCi lhb-FCo rv100 -1.3 -0.2 -1.8 -3.6 -2.5 whiff 0.10 0.25 0.26 0.17 0.21 oswing 0.43 0.29 0.36 0.50 0.18 called 0.11 0.21 0.16 0.11 0.36 gb% 0.63 0.42 0.44 0.55 0.69 iff% 0.04 0.15 0.06 0.20 0.0 slgcont 0.333 0.597 0.408 0.273 0.408
Generally he gets more whiffs against RHBs, but much poorer contact against LHBs. His slugging on contact against lefties with his inside pitch is 0.273, much lower than the average BABIP. Amazing. The result is his remarkable reverse platoon split, evident in the run value numbers. The glove-side version of his cutter is better than the arm-side version, that is inside to lefties (Rivera's glove-side) is better than outside to lefties (Rivera's arm-side) and outside to righties (Rivera's glove-side) is better than inside (Rivera's arm-side) to righties.
Rivera also provides a really interesting place to start to look at pitch sequencing. I think that pitch sequencing is the next big area for pitchf/x analysts to examine. It is something that Joe Sheehan, Josh Kalk, Max Marchi and Jonathan Hale have looked at, but for the most part is understudied.
Rivera offers a relatively simple jumping off point since he has so few pitch types. In this case I am going to look at how the location of last pitch influences the success of the next one. To keep things even simpler I am going to lump together his inside four-seam fastball and inside cutter to RHBs.
Proportion of pitches thrown inside vLHB vRHB all 0.58 0.45 following inside pitch 0.63 0.55 following outside pitch 0.40 0.37
Against both RHBs and LHBs he is more likely to throw inside after an inside pitch and more likely to throw outside after an outside pitch. I am not sure if this is because Rivera knows there are certain batters who have trouble with inside or outside pitching and throws them one or the other more frequently. Or, alternatively, he might be playing a reverse expectation game, after coming inside he thinks the batter expects it outside, so he goes back inside again. I am not sure.
Here is how the location of the last pitch affects the current.
rv100 vLHBs inside outside following inside pitch -3.9 -3.4 following outside pitch -2.8 -2.3 rv100 vRHBs inside outside following inside pitch -1.7 -0.4 following outside pitch 1.4 -2.7
Against LHBs the difference is not statistically significant, but against RHBs it is. In that case an inside pitch does better after an inside pitch and an outside pitch does better after an outside pitch. So Rivera is correct in his sequencing. I am not sure why the pattern shows up only for RHBs. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how pitch sequencing affects success, but is an interesting first step.
Another great season for Rivera, more data for folks like me to see just how he does it.
It's the manager's job to get the most out of his players. With regards to the bullpen, this means optimally inserting relievers depending on such factors as the current baserunners, batter, and score. Hence, relief contributions tend to be measured by Win Probability Added. Having a bullpen ace makes the managers job easier in that he doesn't even have to think about whom to give his highest-leveraged innings. LOOGYs are always nice too. FanGraphs has a statistic that compares a player's WPA in high-leverage situations vs. his WPA in low-leverage situations, to see how relatively Clutch that player is. Looking at the bullpen as a collective unit, we can more or less make the assumption that a Clutch bullpen has been managed well, which is to say that better relievers are pitching in well-deserved, higher-leveraged innings.
I collected all data from FanGraphs since 1979 on team bullpens. Here it is in the form of a Google Motion Chart. What you will see is this year's team bullpen's Clutch score plotted against their WPA/LI, which is a measure of how well the bullpen performed, treating high-leverage and low-leverage situations as equal.
While this data could be used to rank managers historically, I've chosen to focus only on this year for now. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Twins have been best at deploying their top relievers at opportune times thanks to three of the top closers in the game in Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Joe Nathan. Meanwhile, the Pirates blow everybody else out of the water in bullpen mismanagement. Let’s see how they’ve gone about this. Sorted by the average leverage index for each reliever, here are the WPA figures for all Pirate relievers with at least 20 innings pitched.
Providing Matt Capps with the highly leveraged innings was a decent idea to start the season, but he’s been struggling this year. His walk rate has skyrocketed and his .370 BABIP isn’t helping matters. Meanwhile, Joel Hanrahan has been phenomenal with the Pirates so far, boasting a double-digit K/9 mark without having allowed a homer, yet he has been riding the pine when it’s mattered most.
A look at the Yankees, who have had the "Clutchiest" bullpen in baseball this year.
As a Yankee fan, it kills me that Phil Coke pitches more important innings than David Robertson. Other than that quibble, it’s hard to argue with what Joe Girardi’s done with the bullpen pieces he’s been given. Ramirez, Veras, and Albaladejo are clearly the three worst relievers to have seen time in the Yanks’ pen, and Girardi did a good job hiding them. Mo and Hughes make it easy at the top.
Equal time to the Red Sox, who have a highly-touted bullpen which has performed at a merely average level when factoring out leverage.
I’m sure Sox fans would rather see Bard in higher-leverage situations, but besides that minor note, I would think the Nation would also be satisfied with Francona’s usage of the pen.
Having an elite closer the likes of Mo and Papelbon doesn't make the decisions that go into bullpen management that cut and dry, though. Two teams at the bottom of the rankings who have terrific closers are the Dodgers and Royals. How did they go about possibly mismanaging their bullpens?
First, it’s clear the Dodgers had a tremendous bullpen, while the Royals, well, not so much. The main problem for the Dodgers appears to be Joe Torre’s reliance on Cory Wade to start the year. With so many other terrific options, Torre waited too long to pull the plug on Wade, who's been in the minors for the last couple of months.
As for the Royals, at least Hillman was able to get Soria right. I’d love to know what the Royals saw in John Bale to make them think he was one of their top relievers. And how do they go out and sign Kyle Farnsworth to an $9-million deal, have him pitch better than they would have expected—better than he’s pitched in years—but put him in the least meaningful innings that he’s ever pitched? To be fair, his high-leverage stint against the Yankees Tuesday night didn’t work out too well. The Royals are also burying Robinson Tejeda at the bottom of their bullpen chain, which hasn’t worked out too well for them. And free Carlos Rosa!
In addition to using the best relievers in the most critical situations, managers also have to find a way to get the most out of their relievers by playing to their strengths. Which brings me to platoon splits. Failed starters can always get jobs as relievers if they have the ability to shut down same-handed batters.
The Braves have had a superb bullpen this year, and their Clutch score might be penalizing them for being equally awesome in both high- and low-leverage situations. Part of the reason for their success was their closer-by-committee tandem of righty Rafael Soriano and lefty Mike Gonzalez. For the following table, I went to Baseball Reference's splits pages and found how often each reliever the platoon advantage as well has how much better he fared when facing same-handed batters. Baseball Reference calls the split that compares a pitchers production to himself tOPS+, and for pitchers, lower is better, so Peter Moylan's ptnOPS+ of 65 would mean that Moylan allows an opposing OPS 35% worse against right-handed batters. Therefore, Bobby Cox should try to have Moylan face mainly righties.
I was surprised to see that Soriano and Gonzalez, who do exhibit traditional platoon splits, have not been given the advantage of facing same-handed batters that often. Instead, it appears that O’Flaherty and Moylan have been used as the righty and lefty specialists while Bobby Cox has opted to allot Soriano and Gonzalez the eighth and ninth innings.
Running the numbers for the Nationals, nothing of note really came up.
The fact that Mike MacDougal, he of the 32/38 K/BB ratio, is closing this year in Washington should say all you need to know about the state of the Nats' bullpen. But hey, they won the Harper lottery.
This type of analysis is essentially made for Tony La Russa, so I’ll put both parts together to try to grade his management.
Franklin has emerged as a reliable bullpen ace, and La Russa thankful for that fact. Coming into the year, the likes of Jesse Todd, Jason Motte, and Chris Perez were names you heard vying for that closer job. After Franklin, though, La Russa has had struggles. He’s given high-leverage appearances to Motte, who has not been one of his better relievers. Hawksworth also may be a guy who's emerging that La Russa can start to trust more.
La Russa does a fantastic job of platooning. Both lefties he’s utilized out of the pen have had the benefit of facing a majority of same-handed batters. Trever Miller has put up great numbers this year, and La Russa would be well-served to use him as the southpaw in a righty-lefty combination with Kyle McClellan who has been holding his own as La Russa's go-to guy after Franklin. There is a dilemma in the case of Miller, who is truly exceptional against lefties to the tune of 37 strikeouts to six walks this year. So in a relatively close game, should La Russa bring him in once the starter is out and a lefty is up to ensure quality innings from Miller, or should La Russa at times wait and hope that Miller might have the chance to face a couple lefties in the 8th or 9th when the leverage is highest, but risk not pitching Miller at all?