Ten things I didn’t know last week

The Cubs and Brewers are engaged in an arms race

The stakes get higher and higher as the year rolls along, don’t they? I have no idea if the Cubs were planning to trade for Rich Harden, but the Sabathia trade certainly forced their hand. I won’t comment about the trades—there’s already plenty of good material on the Internets—but I do want to throw a little stat into the mix.

A favorite “toy stat” of mine is something I call DOM (for dominance). It is the percentage of plate appearances in which a pitcher forces either a strikeout or an infield fly. Strikeouts are obviously good, but so are infield flies. They’re caught for outs 99 percent of the time (which means they’re just about as good as a strikeout), and pitchers definitely have different levels of “infield fly talent.”

Here’s a list of the top 10 pitchers in DOM this year, minimum of 70 innings pitched (asterisks for lefty pitchers). Take a gander at the leader:

Player        Team       IP     ERA    FIP   IF/F    K/9   DOM
Harden R      OAK       77.0   2.34   2.71   18%    11.3   34%
Kazmir S *    TB        77.0   2.69   2.94   11%    10.3   29%
Peavy J       SD        87.7   2.67   3.26   25%     9.4   28%
Vazquez J     CHA      115.3   4.37   3.78   19%     8.8   27%
Billingsley   LAN      109.3   3.38   3.38   15%     9.4   27%
Volquez E     CIN      110.7   2.36   3.08   13%     9.7   27%
Beckett J     BOS      107.0   3.70   3.25   11%     9.2   27%
Sanchez J *   SF       107.0   3.87   3.59   12%     9.2   26%
Sabathia C *  CLE      122.3   3.83   3.31   10%     9.3   26%
Cain M        SF       119.3   4.30   3.71   17%     8.6   26%

Harden not only leads the list, he almost laps it. He’s been that good. Sabathia is there too, at No. 9. Not too shabby either.

RC/PRC leaders

As long as I’m talking about favorite statistics, let me bring up Pitching Runs Created. Pitcher Runs Created was invented by David Gassko as a way of directly comparing pitchers and batters. Here’s the list of top 10 “run creators” in the majors this year, including both pitchers and position players:

Year   Last        First      Tm      POS      RC/PRC
 2008  Berkman     Lance      HOU     1B          84
 2008  Kinsler     Ian M      TEX     2B          82
 2008  Jones       Chipper    ATL     3B          73
 2008  Hamels      Cole       PHI     P           71
 2008  Lincecum    Tim        SF      P           71
 2008  Lee         Cliff      CLE     P           70
 2008  Ramirez     Hanley     FLA     SS          70
 2008  Sizemore    Grady      CLE     CF          70
 2008  Halladay    Roy        TOR     P           69
 2008  Utley       Chase      PHI     2B          69

Four pitchers and six position players, a pretty decent mix. I knew Ian Kinsler was having a great year, but I didn’t realize how great. He’s not only second on this list, he’s right up there (and far ahead of others) with Lance Berkman.

And Ian Kinsler

So I decided to break out Kinsler’s batted ball profile for the year (another one of my favorite little stats tools). Here’s what it says about the kid:

Kinsler, Ian

Net Runs per Ball % of Batted Balls %/OF %/PA Total Net Runs
BFP OF LD GB OF% LD% GB% HR K BB OF LD GB IF NIP Tot R/G
2006 474 0.16 0.37 0.06 38% 21% 35% 10% 14% 9% 22.0 27.4 7.5 -2.2 7.6 63.4 5.1
2007 566 0.16 0.43 0.02 40% 20% 35% 12% 15% 13% 24.7 33.3 2.3 -2.3 15.2 74.9 5.0
2008 424 0.21 0.41 0.09 41% 22% 32% 10% 12% 9% 27.6 29.5 9.6 -1.3 8.0 74.5 6.7
Avg. 488 0.17 0.40 0.05 40% 21% 34% 11% 13% 10% 24.4 29.8 6.4 -1.9 10.5 70.4 5.5

Kinsler is getting a lot more out of his fly balls this year (0.05 runs more per outfield fly). Not more home runs, but more doubles (he already has 31 doubles this year—he had 22 all of last year) and some triples. He’s also hitting a few more line drives and fewer ground balls, striking out and walking less (actually a negative factor overall), and hitting a few less infield flies. In other words, most of the profile doesn’t show a big difference, except for those outfield flies.

Fliner leaders

BIS actually tracks a different kind of batted ball that I didn’t mention. It’s called a “fliner.” A fliner is that batted ball that isn’t quite a line drive but isn’t really a fly ball, either. It’s the tough-to-call zinger that still has a big run impact. For our regular stats, we divide them into line drives and fly balls, but I thought a list of the players who have hit the most fliners this year might tell us a little more about Kinsler:

Player       Fliners
Hart C           62
Reyes J +        61
Kinsler I        58
Sanchez F        57
Guzman C +       56
Atkins G         56
Young M          55
Pedroia D        54
Johnson K *      52
Damon J *        51

A very similar mix of players, though I’m not quite sure how to describe them. These batters aren’t mashers, they’re sort of on the next level. Line drive batters with an extra oomph. Man, Cristian Guzman has been having a good year. Crazy.

What a fliner is worth

Well, doesn’t that make you curious? What’s a fliner worth, eh? How does it compare to an outfield fly and ground ball? Well, here’s a little chart of the number of runs each type of batted ball has generated this year, compared to average (RAA is Runs Above Average):

Ball        RAA
LD         .329
Fliner     .233
OFFly      .020
GB        -.099
Bunt      -.101
IFFly     -.244

This table is based on the specific outcomes of each type of batted ball and weighted by the run value of each outcome. And look at that: Fliners are pretty powerful flights, closely trailing line drives and far ahead of outfield flies. Most home runs are still outfield flies, but most doubles and triples are fliners and line drives. And most outfield flies that aren’t home runs are outs; line drives and fliners are much less likely to be outs.

Maybe we’ve discovered something new here. The fliner batter. Sounds like another good column idea.

Back to Kinsler

Add in his .403 batting average with runners in scoring position, and you’ve got the best AL hitter of the first 90 games.

Speaking of clutch hitting, the fans are leading Tango’s “best hitters” at this stage of the contest. Kinsler isn’t in either group.

The Rays are the Yankees

I expected the Red Sox and Yankees to once again battle for the AL East lead this year. Oh, I knew the Rays would be good, but I still expected the major markets to provide the high drama. And they still might.

But it hasn’t happened yet. Instead, the Rays have given the Red Sox a run for their money (and then some!). Yet by my reckoning, the Rays and Yankees are the two most similar teams in the majors this year. Really. As of yesterday, here are some of their key stats:
{exp:list_maker}Batting: the Rays have a .340 team OBP. The Yankees are at .341. The Rays have a .418 slugging percentage. The Yanks are at .420.
Pitching: the Rays are striking out 7.1 batters a game. The Yankees? 6.8 strikeouts per game. The Rays are walking 3.2 batters a game. So are the Yankees. And both teams are yielding .9 home runs a game.
Fielding: The Rays’ infield has a Revised Zone Rating of .784, while the Yankees’ infield is at .789. In the outfield, it’s .908 Rays, .905 Yankees. In our total fielding plus/minus/batted ball rankings, the Rays are +12 and the Yankees are +3. {/exp:list_maker} No two teams are nearly as similar as the Rays and Yankees. So why do the Rays lead the division?

Well, the key difference between the two appears to be their Defense Efficiency Ratio, which is a fancy way of saying that the Rays are fielding more batted balls successfully. Why doesn’t that show up in their fielding stats? Because it’s the pitchers’ fault.

Yankee pitchers have allowed line drives at a 20 percent clip (i.e., 20 percent of batted balls are line drives) vs. 18 percent for the Rays. Our batted ball numbers give Yankee pitchers a -12 ranking (12 plays below average because of all the line drives they’ve allowed) whereas the Rays rate a very strong +32. That, and a little pythagorean variance, are the only major differences in these two teams.

This is just frustrating

Last Wednesday, the Mets’ Jerry Manuel pulled off one of my pet peeves. With the score tied 7-7 and the Cardinals coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth, he brought in Carlos Muniz to pitch. Closer Billy Wagner had pitched the day before (throwing just 13 pitches), but he has pitched consecutive days 11 times this year. In other words, Wagner was available. But Manuel brought in Muniz, who gave up a game-winning home run to Troy Glaus.

Now, it’s easy to second-guess managerial decisions, but this is an irritating one. When will managers recognize that a tie game in the ninth inning is one of the most critical points in a game? You want your best pitcher on the mound in those situations. But do managers bring their closers into those situations? No!!!

It’s the stupid save’s fault. Managers allocate save situations to their closers and ignore the true criticality of the situation. Here’s a look at how Wagner was used last year (the situation when he entered the game), thanks to the always fabulous Baseball Reference.

Inn   <-4   -4   -3   -2   -1  tie   1    2    3    4    >4  Tot
+-----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
  4-                                                            0     
  5                                                             0     
  6                                                             0     
  7                                                             0     
  8      1                             1    1                   3     
  9           1    1         1    7   14    8   13    5    9   59     
 10+                              1    1    1         1         4     
+-----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
 Total   1    1    1    0    1    8   16   10   13    6    9   66     
+-----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
 Inn   <-4   -4   -3   -2   -1  tie   1    2    3    4    >4  Tot

To recap, when Wagner entered the beginning of the ninth in a save situation, the Mets had a one-run lead 14 times, a two-run lead eight times and a three-run lead 13 times. Wagner entered the game more often when the Mets had a three-run lead than when the game was tied! Makes no sense.

Here is the Leverage Index (measures the criticality of a situation) in the beginning of the top of the ninth, according to Tangotiger:
{exp:list_maker}Three Runs Ahead: 0.82
Two Runs Ahead: 1.60
One Run Ahead: 2.94
Score Tied: 2.38 {/exp:list_maker}Yes, only a one-run lead is more critical than a tie score. Yet you often see managers go to their third- or fourth-best options in ninth-inning ties (because their setup men were used before the ninth). I repeat: Makes No Sense!

This isn’t a new development. I’ve talked about it before. But it is mystifying how entrenched a bad idea can become.

Baseball Reliquary Induction Day

The Baseball Reliquary will be inducting Buck O’Neil, Emmett Ashford, and Bill Buckner into its Shrine of the Eternals on July 20 in Pasadena. The Shrine honors individuals who have impacted the baseball landscape in ways that do not necessarily have anything to do with numbers. And I’d love to visit the place someday.

If you’re near Pasadena on the 20th, drop by.

Foul ball catching

A little while ago, I wrote a few notes about the probability of one person catching two foul balls in a row. Using straight probability, it seemed nearly impossible, though I did note that specific batter/pitcher matchups changed the math dramatically.

To drive home the point, reader Mike Johnson sent me this story:

I was at a game in 1996 where a single guy caught two foul balls within the same at-bat, though I think there was one or two pitches in between his catches. I remember it vividly because it was so odd.

The batter? Fred McGriff.
The game? http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN199608310.shtml (easy to remember for this Cubs fan)

Upper Deck, right behind home plate, 5th row or so (exactly one section over from where I was sitting). McGriff kept fouling off a bunch in a row in protect-the-plate mode. Must have been the 4th inning, judging by the box score. (7 pitch AB)

Other than me and the people I went to the game with, I never saw or heard any mention of it so it’s not likely that there’s evidence of this anywhere. No baseball blogs back then!

So 1-in-500 million is definitely a little high. 1-in-a-million might even be high, as there certainly hasn’t been a million games since then. (Not that my story counts as “proof” nor does the fact that it happened some 25,000 games ago mean that 1-in-25,000 is the correct number.) I just thought it was interesting because I’ve never heard of any similar story. I bet when you have a professional hitter at the plate facing a pitcher that doesn’t change speeds very well, he can foul off pitches all day. Similar pitch, similar foul. Not an extremely rare occurrence.

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