Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

I haven’t written a “Ten Things” column for a couple of weeks, so I hope you don’t think I’m cheating if I refer to some things I learned more than a week ago. Some things just require a little time to digest. Like my first thing:

The universe shifted on May 24.

On May 24, the Marlins were in first place, the Braves were second, the Nationals were fourth and the Phillies were last in the National League East. A little more than two weeks later, the Nationals were first, the Phillies second and the only thing keeping the Braves and Marlins firmly out of the division bottom was the one divisional certainty left to us: the continued mediocrity of the New York Mets. Take a look at the divisional “X” pattern:

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I spent some time paging through my cherished copy of John Warner Davenport’s Baseball’s Pennant Races: A Graphic View and couldn’t find another race like this year’s NL East in the history of baseball. Unfortunately, the book only runs through 1980, but I feel pretty safe in saying that what we’re witnessing right now in the bizarro NL East is historic. There have been some pretty close division standings in May before (see the AL East), but I don’t think we’ve ever had such a definitive switch of positions over such a short time this far into the season.

How radical is this? Well, imagine how you would feel if Deep Throat decided to reveal his identity (oops, sorry), or Apple decided it was going to use Intel chips. You know, something inconceivable.

People still don’t quite get the White Sox.

The success of the White Sox has caused a lot of people a lot of heartburn, because they didn’t see it coming. That’s really okay—I never expected Gimme Dat Ding to be a big hit. Stuff happens. But people really don’t have to tie themselves up in knots trying to explain it.

Recently Joe Sheehan (a writer I greatly admire) said, “Their defense is by far the biggest reason the Sox are in first place.” I don’t mean to pick on Sheehan—a number of other writers have written some inexplicable things about the Sox—but he’s just way off base here.

Yes, the Sox’s fielding is better than last year’s. But their pitchers have been MUCH better, and they’ve been healthy too. Pitching is by far the biggest reason the Sox are in first place. Let’s run down a few numbers…

  • Last year, the Sox allowed 5.04 runs a game. This year, they’ve allowed 3.88. That’s 1.16 fewer runs per game. That’s a lot.
  • Breaking that into components, their FIP, a number that fielding doesn’t impact at all, has decreased from 5.01 to 4.13. That’s a difference of 0.88 runs a game, or 76% of the total difference.
  • Sheehan feels that the ChiSox’s improved DER, (.694 last year to .715 this year), is proof that the fielders should be given the major credit for the Sox turnaround. But really, the most credit you can give the fielders is 0.30 runs a game (1.16 minus 0.88), or 25% of the total. And even that is a stretch.

The other big reason for the success of the Sox is their 28-12 record in close games. Personally, I’d rank their improved fielding as the third-most important reason for their success to date. I do agree with Sheehan on one thing though; the Twins are more likely to win the AL Central.

You can’t necessarily judge a team’s fielding by its DER.

I said this a few weeks ago but I think it bears repeating. In fact, I might just make this a marketing mantra, like Baseball Prospectus did with “There is no such thing as a pitching prospect” or TINSTAAPP. You can’t necessarily judge a team’s fielding by its DER. How does YCNJATFBID look to you? Think it will roll off the tongue?

A lot of things go into DER, including ground balls and fly balls, zones, fielders and ballparks. If you want to get a true picture of team fielding, team Zone Rating is a better measure, but ESPN has stopped running that particular number. Anybody know where to find it?

Maybe line drives by batters aren’t predictable after all.

One of my operating assumptions received a healthy dose of reality this past week while I was playing around with BIS’s batted ball types (fly ball, ground ball, line drive). I had always assumed that there was some degree of consistency from year to year in a batter’s line drive rate. But in my first look at 2004/2005 data, I found none.

I took all batters who made at least 300 plate appearances in 2004 and have made at least 100 this year and ran a regression analysis between their rates of batting different types of balls. Here is the R squared (a measure of consistency) that I found for each one:

  • Fly balls: .50
  • Ground balls: .44
  • Line Drives: .05

Fly ball hitters and ground ball hitters are fairly consistent, but line drive hitters are more ephemeral, like the weather or that itchy feeling you sometimes get in your scalp.

What’s more, I found that neither ground ball nor fly ball hitters were more or less likely to change their line drive rates from one year to the next. The Line Drive Fairy is an equal opportunity bestower. This study isn’t definitive by any means—the sample size really needs to be bigger—but it’s an indicator that I really shouldn’t put too much stock in the predictability of a batter’s line drive rate yet.

The five players who have increased their line drive rates the most this year are Geoff Blum, Jason Giambi, Kenny Lofton, Juan Castillo and Brian Roberts. The five whose line drive hitting has dropped the most are Gary Matthews Jr., Craig Biggio, Omar Infante, Reggie Sanders and Ryan Klesko.

Pedro Martinez is a complete game pitcher.

A lot of people predicted that Pedro would take to the National League, and it’s come true. His ERA with the Mets is 2.56, more than a run lower than last year’s 3.90. His strikeout rate is higher and his walk rate is lower. Although his DER is around .800 and is sure to come down, I feel pretty certain he’ll maintain an ERA between 2.50 and 3.00, barring injury.

Remember when we used to be concerned that he could only pitch into the sixth inning? Last year, Pedro pitched at least seven full innings only 20 of 33 times. This year, he’s managed to do it 11 of 13 times. He only pitched six complete games from 2002 to 2004, but he has pitched two already this year. I’m not surprised that Pedro has done well in the National League and Shea Stadium, but I didn’t understand that the league switch would also help his longevity this much.

The Yankees pay twice as much for players as other teams.

Everyone knows that the Yankees pay higher salaries than any other team, but the Sports Economist sat down to figure out exactly how much more. The answer is twice as much.

One could certainly argue with any of my particular matches. Nevertheless, the main point is that I could easily put together a team of players whose productivity, more or less, equaled the Yankees’ with half of the payroll. In other words, the $200 million payroll reflects as much a Yankee premium as productivity.

Derek Jeter didn’t really make that wonderful hustle play in the ninth inning that made him “the face of baseball.”

Tim Kurkjian, another fine writer, recently praised Derek Jeter and proclaimed him “the face of baseball,” citing a hustle play in the ninth inning of a recent game with the Red Sox as evidence. Like a lot of people, I’m tired of the praise reflexively thrown Jeter’s way. I thought I was going to gag when Tim McCarver started waxing poetic about his eyes in the playoffs last year. Or was that the year before?

Anyway, the Stick and Ball Guy (with the help of the ubiquitous Repoz) uncovered the truth behind Kurkjian’s description. Kurkjian evidently believes that Jeter can move through the space-time continuum as well! Jeter is a great ballplayer, guys, who happens to play in New York. Let’s just leave it at that. Please?

It’s not the difference, it’s the z-score.

I recently purchased a 1977 Sports Illustrated from Lee Sinins’ great online store. It had a nice article about Rod Carew, who was threatening the .400 mark at the time, with commentary by Ted Williams. But it also had an early sabermetric piece by Herman Weiskopf. Weiskopf used a system that “normalized” batting averages over the course of baseball history in order to properly rank batters and listed the career batting average leaders in this order: Cobb, Jackson, Carew, Williams and Hornsby.

Weiskopf normalized batting averages by calculating the absolute difference between a player’s BA and the average BA in his league each year. Not a bad approach, really. But just to show how far sabermetrics has come, we really don’t pay as much attention to batting average anymore. Oops. But when we do, we’re more likely to use something called a “z-score,” which includes both the difference from the average and the typical spread among all players each year.

That’s the approach Michael J. Schell used in Baseball’s All-Time Best Sluggers and his top five list looks like this: Gwynn (who wasn’t yet a major leaguer when Weiskopf developed his ranking), Cobb, Carew, Hornsby and Musial. Lajoie was sixth. Not a huge difference, but different enough. Remember that the next time you’re trying to find a good use for the letter “z.”

Good pitching is the result of 6 million years of evolution.

At least, that’s my read of this article.

Why did hominin brains triple in size over the past 6 million years? William Calvin, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, argues that it all has to do with throwing a rock.

It’s time to change my name.

I was recently disparaged by a writer who felt my pieces lack credibility because I use my nom de plume, Studes, instead of my real name. I’ve used “Studes” on the Internet for several years, because I take identity theft very seriously and, well, that’s what a lot of people call me. While I am sure this particular writer and I will never get along (bullet points, graphs, quadrants and Win Shares make his blood boil!), my friends at Baseball Primer convinced me that he had a point about my name.

I’ve already listed my full name in our Baseball Annual, so there’s no secret here. And I do kind of like being credible. So I’ve decided that I’m going to start using my full name on the Hardball Times tomorrow. Arloff Boguslovosky.

Let me know if you see the green dots.

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