We should’ve got the live chickenby Max Marchi
September 04, 2009
Watching the World Series last year, I had the impression that Evan Longoria looked really bad on breaking pitches. Since I hadn't many chances to watch him play before the postseason, I went to pitch-run values data to check whether my feelings were substantiated by objective numbers over the course of a greater number of plate appearences.
Here's what I found out, courtesy of FanGraphs (2008 data).
Pitch Runs above average Type Per 100 pitches Fastball 2.07 Slider -0.59 Curveball -0.87 Change-up -1.56
By the end of the season, maybe the advance scouts' reports started warning ballclubs about Longoria's tendencies, because the fastballs he saw dropped from 61 percent (of all the pitches seen) in the April-July period, to 57 percent in August, to 52 percent in September.
Carl Crawford has exceeded the 50 stolen bases mark nearly every season until 2007 (he got 46 in 2005). In 2008 he swiped only 25 bags, while playing 109 games. The main cause of the drop in his running game was an injury to his right middle finger that kept him idle for 47 days and probably left him unwilling to risk, with unnecessary running and sliding, another trip to the DL.
This year he is back on track, already over 50 with a month to go. He swiped an MLB-record-tying six bags in one game this season against the Red Sox, and people for some time have been dreaming of him stealing more than 100. He won't eclipse the century mark (not even close,) but at the end of the year he is going to have a great season of robbery under his belt, especially by third millennium standards.
You don't need to be a physicist to acknowledge the above equation. Since the distance between the mound and the plate doesn't vary, if the pitcher throws a slower ball its time to the plate becomes a little longer. The bags are also permanently 90 feet apart. Thus, on the slower pitch, the runner has a better chance of making it safely.
Last year, the average pitch speed on caught-stealings was 87.1 mph; on successful stealing attempts it was 86.6. The success percentage was 75 on fastballs, 80 on sliders, 82 on change ups and 84 on curveballs.
Tanaka/Akinori gets hurt (and Parkman/Burrell arrives in town)
The most-used lineup for the 2008 Rays started with Akinori Iwamura, followed by Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Longoria. Japanese import Iwamura started this season again as the leadoff hitter, then got hurt; that, combined with the addition of Pat Burrell, brought some shuffling at the top of the batting order.
This year Tampa Bay has been opening its offensive first innings with Upton, then Crawford, Longoria and possibly Pena and Burrell. Thus, the steal threat and the fastball crusher have been penciled back-to-back on the scorecard many times.
The opposing batteries have been facing the following dilemma the whole year every time Crawford got on first with second base vacant:
- feed Longoria more fastballs in order to control Crawford's running or
- go with a steady diet of breaking balls, hard to digest for the batter, facing an increased risk of the runner going—and making it safely.
Longoria has seen 59 fastballs every 100 pitches, closer to what he was accustomed to in the first month of 2008 than during the last third of the season.
Thus, either opponents fear Crawford's wheels more than Longo's bat, or there's some seasonal trend in the pitches they throw to the third baseman.
(Okay, let's not rule out the random variation possibility, maybe the strongest candidate here!).
Let's dig deeper into the matter. When Crawford is on first and nobody is stationing on the next base, pitchers deal number one 64 percent of the time, whether Longoria is at the plate or not. On the contrary, when Longoria is batting and there's no threatening Crawford on first, the proportion of fastballs drops down seven points to 57 percent.
It looks like teams are more willing to adjust their pitch selection to keep the runner honest than go to the hitter's weakness when a choice is unavoidable. One possibility we can not rule out is that Crawford gets on base more often against fastball pitchers, so the difference is due to a selection bias (but his highest run value has always been on curveballs, thus it doesn't seem to be the case).
On the other hand...
Last year three percent of Longoria's plate appearances came with Crawford ready to run 90 feet; this year it's been 14 percent. The change in the Rays' batting order has given Longoria roughly 19 more fastballs than if our two heroes had been three slots apart as they were last year. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, such a change would have increased Longo's offensive production about 0.57 runs... had he mantained last year's splits.
Only, it turns out his hitting profile has changed a lot this year, as you can see looking at the following run values.
Pitch Runs above average Type Per 100 pitches Fastball 0.64 Slider 1.42 Curveball -1.22 Change-up 0.19
Longoria still has trouble with the curveball, but has improved on the slider and the change-up, while he's less of a fastball killer. Did he work on his stance/swing/whatever? I can hear voices over me whispering "regression toward the mean," and that's what likely has happened to his hitting profile.
Much ado about nothing?
Many analyses have been done on lineup optimization. While we have many tools for building an optimal batting order given nine hitters, this is an attempt at assessing how much a good runner on first can affect the production of a batter. The bottom line is... very little.
Yeah, while half a run might seem a big deal, we should remember that we cherry-picked a very good baserunner and one particularly extreme hitting split (which turned out to be likely a fluke). Using this year's moderate split, the gain is around 0.04 runs. And we didn't take into account a few other elements of the picture. For example, all the running (or threatening to run) can be a distraction for the hitter, and sometimes the man at the plate is forced to lay off a grooved pitch to let his teammate take the extra base.
That's exactly what happened on Crawford's record-tying sixth stolen base against Boston.
References and Resources
FanGraphs pitch type run value.
PITCHf/x data from Sportvision / MLBAM.
For the headlines, a bow to "Major League" (1989)
After creating a baseball rendition of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover, Max began his baseball writing because he needed an excuse to show the picture. He wrote for an Italian audience for six years before making the jump to The Hardball Times. You can contact him by e-mail.