Someone recently wrote that I should stop writing about baseball and just watch games more often. Actually, that’s pretty good advice, but it was meant to be a slam, as in “guys who make graphs and analyze numbers don’t watch ballgames.”
I’ve never understood people who feel this way. Of course I’ve probably watched maybe a thousand baseball games, and other analytic writers like Nate Silver and Rob Neyer have probably seen many more (not that I compare myself to Silver or Neyer, but they were mentioned in the same article). We analytic guys really do watch ballgames.
I imagine, however, that the game Silver or Neyer sees is a different ballgame than the one most baseball writers see. In fact, imagine how most writers would react if they read one of my “Game in Review” columns, full of the sabermetric slings and arrows of calculated analyses and graphs. Well, at least they’re proof positive that I actually DO watch baseball games.
Anyway, following is a column of what goes through my warped mind when I watch a baseball game. Today we’ll review last Saturday’s interleague game between the red-hot Washington Nationals and the struggling Seattle Mariners. And I will be referring to Win Probability throughout the article, as explained in this article. As a reminder, WPA stands for Win Probability Added, and it’s a reference to how much each play or player contributed to the team’s chance of winning. “P” is a stat that is directly related to WPA, and it gauges the criticality of a situation by measuring the situation’s potential impact on WPA.
Speaking of probably winning, the Nationals had won eight in a row and 10 of 11 as of Saturday, climbing from fourth to first in the topsy turvy National League East. To illustrate, here’s a graph of their 10-game rolling averages in wins, runs scored and runs allowed:
As you can see, the Nationals have had some good batting, but they’ve had some particularly good pitching and fielding. They’ve led with their defense. Seattle had recently shown signs of climbing out of their funk by going 9-3 over two weeks, but the Nationals would have none of that. Washington continued their hot streak by beating the Mariners on Saturday and sweeping the weekend series. But all three games were close; the only time one team had a significant lead over the other was when the Nationals scored six runs in the eighth inning of Friday’s game.
Saturday’s game provided a microcosm of what’s been going right and wrong for both teams. The Nationals started John Patterson, the one-time top prospect who seems to have found himself this year, against Jamie Moyer of the Mariners, who first pitched in the majors when Patterson was eight years old.
It’s no accident that the Nationals have been playing at home during their hot streak. The Nationals are 24-9 with a 2.87 ERA when playing at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, and 13-17 with a 4.90 ERA on the road.
It turns out that Washington has the right kind of pitching staff for their ballpark. The Nationals have the second-most flyball-happy staff in the league, with a 1.06 Groundball/Flyball ratio. And RFK eats flyballs for breakfast. Its center field fence is 410 feet away from home plate; only Coors, Minute Maid, Fenway and Comerica have deeper center fields. You probably know that those first three ballparks have other hitter-friendly attributes.
Patterson’s 0.79 GB/FB ratio is 14th in the majors, and he’s given up only one home run—on the road, of course. Patterson likes pitching at RFK, where he’s started eight of his 10 games; he has a 1.97 ERA at home and a 5.40 ERA away. In short, the hapless Mariner offense, which is next to last in runs scored, was not in for a good game.
This became clear in the top of the second when Raul Ibañez and Michael Morse smashed two fly balls off of Patterson. In particular, Morse’s drive was caught on the warning track in straightaway center field. Hard hit, but outs nonetheless.
Moyer had been tested in the bottom of the first when the Nationals got runners on first and second with the dangerous Nick Johnson at bat. But Moyer got Johnson to loft an easy fly to Ibañez and Brad Wilkerson was inexcusably doubled off second. Baserunning mistakes can have significant impacts on a team’s chances of winning, though this particular mistake came early in the game.
Ichiro popped out in his first at bat and struck out on a pitch around his eyes in his second appearance. Obviously, Ichiro is not hitting like he did last year, though he started off on a torrid pace. I’m no Ichiro expert, but it seems to me that he’s not hitting enough balls on the ground. This year, his GB/FB ratio is 2.2, lower than it was in any single month all of last year.
The bottom of the third finished with no score and a 50% win probability for both teams.
In the top of the fourth, Ibañez hit another fly ball to the center field warning track.
Funny thing about the Nationals is that the odds seemed to favor them as the game goes on. They have batted .257/.320/.389 in the first six innings of their games, and .279/.363/.432 from the seventh inning on. The National League averages are .265/.331/.421 in the first six innings and .260/.336/.404 afterward. I don’t know why this is but, when you couple it with their effective bullpen, the Nats are late-inning winners.
In the bottom of the fourth, Johnson was thrown out attempting to steal second base. This cost the team 0.05 WPA. Johnson has three stolen bases and has been caught stealing six times, so I was wondering: what’s he thinking? Between this mistake and Wilkerson’s earlier baserunning blunder, the Nationals had cost themselves a tenth of a win.
The Mariners finally broke through in the top of the fifth inning by scoring on a walk, flyout, Moyer’s sacrifice bunt and a groundball single by Ichiro. The big hit was Ichiro’s single, which took a bad hop over the shoulder of first baseman Johnson for a Win Probability Added of 0.135. Remember, Ichiro, fly balls don’t have bad hops. You heard it here first. The Mariners finished the top of the fifth with a .592 Win Probability.
The Nationals came right back in the bottom of the fifth. Guzman led off the inning with a ground-rule double to deep left center. A leadoff double or triple is a big hit in a close game; with Guzman on second and no outs, the Mariners’ Win Probability dropped from .592 to .498. Patterson followed up with a very nice bunt that sent Guzman to third. Of course, this bunt had a negative WPA (-0.019), but it was still the right play with Patterson at bat. A bigger issue came when the next batter, Wilkerson, struck out and lowered the Nationals’ WPA by .091.
Marlon Byrd came through and tied the game, however, smacking a flyball just past Ichiro for a triple, plating Guzman and giving the Nationals a Win Probability of .554 (the play had a WPA of 0.162, the biggest play of the game at that point). After a scoreless sixth inning, the Win Probability remained 50% for both teams, and neither team had broken appreciably above the 60% mark. Ichiro led the Mariners with .066 WPA and Guzman led the Nationals at .133. Patterson was second on the Nationals at .124 while Moyer was third on the Mariners at .032.
The Mariners’ young shortstop, Mike Morse, led off the seventh with a single through the leftfield hole, and subsequently stole second base. The two plays increased Seattle’s WP from .50 to .61, which is a nice contribution from Morse. Pat Borders then inside outed a pitch and grounded out to first, sending Morse to third base. This is one of those “productive outs” that many baseball people praise, but it actually lowered the Mariners’ Win Probability slightly, by .012.
The Mariners then did a curious thing. With a runner on third, one out and a pitching duel underway, they sent Greg Dobbs (.176/.194/.265), instead of Dave Hansen, their leading pinch hitter, to pinch hit for Jamie Moyer. To be fair, Hansen is not exactly lighting up Broadway (batting .154/.133/.154 this year—yes, his OBP is lower than his BA) but Hansen is the Mariners’ designated “best pinch hitter.”
After the game, manager Mike Hargrove said that he was saving Hansen for later innings, but the seventh inning really should be considered crunch time. The P of this situation was .206, which turned out to be the second most critical plate appearance of the game. If he really was saving Hansen for a more critical situation, he blew it. Dobbs popped out, Ichiro flew out to Marlon Byrd and the game remained tied.
J.J. Putz came in to pitch the bottom of the seventh for the Mariners. On the surface, Putz appears to be a decent reliver, with a 3.38 ERA. However, he’s blown all three save opportunities he’s had, and Baseball Prospectus’s own WPA stat ranks Putz as one of the worst relief contributors in the majors with a Win Expectancy of -1.14. Putz was true to form Saturday, giving up a single and walking two to load the bases with only one out. This is a bad situation in a 1-1 game, and the Nationals’ WP had risen to .736. (0.041 for the single, 0.056 for the first walk and 0.090 for the second walk). Manager Frank Robinson, the last man to hit a grand slam in RFK (35 years ago) watched as Jose Guillen walked up to hit for what would be the most critical at bat of the game (P of 0.243).
Guillen hit a sharp line drive single to put the Nationals up 2-1 with the bases still loaded and only one out (WPA for Guillen of 0.13 and an overall National Win Probability of 0.866). However, the Nats only scored one run on the play and Nick Johnson subsequently hit into a double play to end the notion of any further scoring. His WPA on that play was -0.115 and he turned out to be the Nationals’ Goat of the Game, with a total WPA of -0.197.
It really didn’t matter. The lifeless Mariners were retired 1-2-3 in both the eighth and ninth innings (Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero, respectively), and the Nationals brought the game home. Which is where they appear to be quite comfortable.
Here’s the WPA scoreboard for the game:
Nationals Player Off Pitch Field Total Patterson -0.035 0.262 0.000 0.227 CCordero 0.000 0.140 0.000 0.140 Ayala 0.000 0.111 0.000 0.111 Byrd 0.087 0.000 0.012 0.099 Church 0.090 0.000 0.000 0.090 Guzman 0.054 0.000 -0.004 0.050 Baerga 0.041 0.000 0.000 0.041 Guillen 0.041 0.000 0.000 0.041 Schneider 0.040 0.000 0.000 0.040 No one 0.000 0.000 0.023 0.023 Wilkerson -0.006 0.000 0.019 0.013 Spivey -0.032 0.000 0.011 -0.021 Cordero -0.030 0.000 0.000 -0.030 Castilla -0.039 0.000 0.002 -0.037 Bennett -0.072 0.000 -0.018 -0.090 Johnson -0.198 0.000 0.001 -0.197 Total -0.059 0.514 0.045 0.500 Mariners Player Off Pitch Field Total Morse 0.114 0.000 -0.011 0.103 No one 0.000 0.000 0.035 0.035 Moyer -0.060 0.093 0.000 0.032 Nelson 0.000 0.028 0.000 0.028 Borders -0.003 0.000 0.023 0.020 Winn -0.013 0.000 0.012 0.000 Ichiro 0.007 0.000 -0.014 -0.007 Spivey -0.034 0.000 0.000 -0.034 Boone -0.083 0.000 0.034 -0.049 Beltre -0.081 0.000 0.005 -0.076 Ibanez -0.159 0.000 0.057 -0.102 Sexson -0.123 0.000 0.000 -0.123 Dobbs -0.124 0.000 0.000 -0.124 Putz 0.000 -0.202 0.000 -0.202 Total -0.559 -0.081 0.140 -0.500
And here are the WP ups and downs of the game:
References & Resources
WPA game logs are catching on. The following blogs are now featuring WPA game accounts on a semi-regular basis:
I know of one guy preparing WPA graphs for his softball league. And be sure to catch the detailed WPA analysis of the Braves’ bullpen from this great site.