Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

The Yankees have seized the AL East lead.

It’s being called another “Boston Massacre,” that five-game debacle in Fenway. The Yankees beat the Red Sox by a combined score of 49 to 26, and the cheers in The Big Apple, as well as the self-loathing in Beantown, are audible here in Chicago. You may know that I like to graph things, and perhaps nothing can communicate what happened in the AL East last week than this graph:

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See where the two teams hit a fork in the road? That’s your Boston Massacre right there.

The Sporting Brews blog has listed individual stats for Yankee players from the Massacre, and those offensive numbers are scary. A 1.167 Slugging Percentage for Jason Giambi? Sox Watch has the WPA totals for both the Yankee and Red Sox players, and it was Bobby Abreu who led the team, adding almost two games above average all by himself.

In fact, Abreu has racked up 1.6 WPA points in 22 games with the Yankees, versus 2.7 in 98 previous games with the Phillies. The Abreu deal may go down as the single most important in-season event of 2006.

This year’s best fielders.

Chris Dial has been providing a wonderful service at Baseball Think Factory, posting his defensive rankings based on Zone Rating. These are probably the best fielding rankings available during the season, and I hope Chris updates them soon. The rankings (through early July) are available for the American League here and here for the National League.

Chris has also applied his methodology to some historical Zone Rating stats, so be sure to check his blog on a regular basis to see who the best fielders of the best 20 or 30 years have been.

On another fielding note, Tangotiger has opened his annual Fielding Scouting Report (for the fans, by the fans). Combining the input of everyone who watches baseball is a great, groundbreaking idea, similar to the way Wikipedia has redefined the concept of an “encyclopedia.” The more fans who participate, the more valid the results. So please go on over and fill out a form for your favorite team.

Oakland’s in another second-half run.

They use the word “patented” to describe what Oakland has done in August each of the past three years. Here is a graph of their records in 2004, 2005 and 2006, where you can see how these second-half surges have become a habit:

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The A’s have had pretty much the same record every year in mid-to-late August, which you might call “crossroads time.” Which way will they turn this time? Will the rest of their year look like 2004 or 2005? And can they avoid that September slump? Watch and see.

Chien-Ming Wang is doing something pretty unique.

While doing some research about Chien-Ming Wang, I found out that he’s on track to do something that hasn’t been accomplished for 17 years: finish the season with fewer than three strikeouts a game and an ERA under 4.00.

The last pitchers to pull off that feat were two lefties: Baltimore’s Jeff Ballard and Toronto’s Mike Flanagan in 1989. Ballard had a classic “fluke” year in 1989, when he finished with a record of 18-8 and an ERA of 3.43, despite striking out only 62 batters in 215 innings. He never approached that level of success again. Flanagan was a 37-year-old crafty lefthander at the end of a fine career, relying on guile, control and placement. Freakishly, he had as many walks as strikeouts in 1989 but he still managed to post a 3.93 ERA.

Of course, it was harder to score runs in the 1980s than it is today, so I doubt that there are many valid comparisons in recent baseball history to what Wang is doing this year.

The Houston Astros aren’t in a second-half run.

It looks like Houston doesn’t have a copy of that Oakland second-half surge patent after all.

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Houston has actually had two “crossroad opportunities” this year, if you match their record to their successes in 2004 and 2005. That second opportunity was truly a long-shot, however, and it looks as though that $22 million contract with Roger Clemens was a bad investment.

The best fielders, or the best pitchers?

I hope you check out our team page on a regular basis, because we’ve posted some pretty good team fielding stats there. The best infields have been Detroit (67 plays above average) and Houston (56 plays above average) and the best outfields have been Atlanta (45 plays above average) and the Cubs (27 plays above average).

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s outfield has stunk (48 plays below average) and so has Tampa Bay’s infield (64 plays below average). You can find your favorite team yourself.

Anyway, I was looking at those stats and wondering which pitchers have gotten even more from their fielders? That is, can we compare individual pitchers to their team to see if certain ones give up more “fieldable” hits? So I looked at the difference between each team’s performance for specific pitchers, and came up with a list of the pitchers who have apparently allowed the most fieldable balls this year (minimum of 300 batters faced). On groundballs, these pitchers have the best outcomes, compared to their team average:

Last        First     Team            GB% vs. Tm
Lidle       Cory      Phillies            8.5%
Thompson    Michael   Padres              6.9%
Arroyo      Bronson   Reds                6.3%
Santana     Johan     Twins               5.7%
Affeldt     Jeremy    Royals              5.3%
Cruz        Juan      Diamondbacks        5.1%
Redman      Mark      Royals              5.0%
Marmol      Carlos    Cubs                4.9%
Maddux      Greg      Cubs                4.8%
O'Connor    Michael   Nationals           4.6%

For example, the Phillies have converted 74% of all groundballs into outs, but they had converted 82.5% of Cory Lidle’s groundballs for outs, before he was traded to the Yankees. Which means that Lidle’s grounders are easier to field (softer, more on line), the Philly infielders eat their Cheerios on the days Lidle pitches, or Lady Luck had a hand in the play.

How about balls in the air (including flyballs and line drives)? Here’s the same list, for airballs only:

Last        First     Team            Air% vs. Tm
Loewen      Adam      Orioles             7.5%
Miner       Zach      Tigers              7.4%
Nieve       Fernando  Astros              7.2%
Billingsley Chad      Dodgers             7.0%
Ponson      Sidney    Cardinals           6.7%
Ramirez     Horacio   Braves              6.2%
Elarton     Scott     Royals              6.1%
Proctor     Scott     Yankees             5.9%
Arroyo      Bronson   Reds                5.9%
Carrasco    Hector    Angels              5.4%

Did you notice that there’s one player on both lists? Yes, Cincinnati’s Bronson Arroyo wins the prize for allowing the overall most fieldable balls by ground or air.

It’s hard to figure out those Dodgers.

Just because I can, I decided to graph the Dodgers’ day-by-day performance each of the last years. You might pity the poor Dodger fans for feeling confused the last few years, and particularly in 2006:

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Left-handed people are taking over the world!

There’s a new toy at Baseball Reference called the Handedness Report. You can use it to see how many right-handed or left-handed batters/pitchers there were in any year. So I researched the percentage of lefties among all pitchers who debuted each decade and found that the percent had grown from 16% in the 1910′s to 23% in the 2000′s. The climb has been pretty steady.

In last week’s Stat of the Week, John Dewan found that lefties don’t throw as hard as righties. He tallied up all the fastballs among pitchers who threw at least 100 of them in 2005 and 2006 and found that almost two-thirds of righties throw at least 90 mph, on average, but fewer than a third of lefties do.

                      90 MPH+   Total    Pct.
Right-Handed Pitcher     270     430     63%
Left-Handed Pitcher       47     161     29%
Total                    317     591     54%

Lefties are valuable even when they don’t throw terribly hard. And just to add insult to injury, it turns out that left-handed college grads make 15% more than their right-handed counterparts.

I couldn’t find a mention of college-educated switch hitters.

John Jarvis has updated his season stats.

For you analytic types, there has been no better source of interesting seasonal data than John Jarvis’s website. A couple of years ago, his site said that he had retired, and I feared his data would never be updated.

The news of Jarvis’s retirement was evidently premature, however, and John has posted his unique take on every season going back to 1957 (temporarily known as the “Retrosheet years”). Where else could you discover that 78% of the Giants’ runners on second scored on doubles in 1957, when the overall league average was 68%? In 2006, the NL average was 10 points lower, only 58%. Why is that?

In other Internet news, Player Acquisition Trees have now been posted for all teams in the AL and NL East divisions. El Duque’s roots, for example, go back to Kansas City’s Justin Huber.

Finally, Hit Tracker, the site that tracks the length of every home run, now has a daily blog as well. Definitely worth an RSS subscription.

There’s a new way of using the bullpen in Toronto.

In the Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James suggested that relief aces should be used more often in tie games, and in the eighth inning. Though he was ripped by the Boston media for suggesting such a thing, his suggestion wasn’t really controversial. In fact, I suggested something similar a while ago.

Now it turns out that someone in Toronto reads my column. Or maybe they read Bill James. Or maybe they just figured things out themselves. Tuesday, B.J. Ryan recorded a save of at least four outs for the 12th time this season, according to Elias. That’s five more than any other pitcher this season, and it’s the most for a left-handed pitcher since 1992, when former “Nasty Boys” Norm Charlton had 12 for the Reds and Randy Myers had 13 for the Padres.

By the way, how are things going in Chicago? This picture says it all.

References & Resources
Bill Ferris also created a Player Acquisition Tree for the Detroit Tigers.

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