Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

Free falling in the Midwest

Doesn’t it seem like no one wants to win the Central divisions? In each of the other four division races, the top teams are striving to reach the top. In the Central, they’re striving to avoid the bottom. Here’s the graph of games over and under .500 (updated daily on the THT Team page) for the American League Central:

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this has been the most unique two-team race in baseball history. There have been great two-team races before—the Cardinals/Dodgers battles of the 1940s come to mind (particularly 1949)—but I don’t think there has ever been a division or league race like this year’s AL Central. Not only have the Indians and Tigers leapt ahead of the competition, they’ve been in virtual up-and-down lockstep ever since.

If you’d like to challenge me, feel free to comb through Alex Reisner’s pennant race graphs.

The Tigers and Indians have different backstage stories, of course. Here’s a 10-day rolling average graph of Detroit’s wins (the yellow area), runs scored and runs allowed.

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As you can see, the fantastic Tigers offense returned to earth in early July, but it’s the pitching that has caused their August slump. In particular, their pitching rotation has collapsed. Here’s the same graph for the Indians:

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The Indians’ August swoon has been caused by a team batting drought. Only Grady Sizemore has been pulling his weight this month.

More Midwest plummeting

Milwaukee got off to that tremendous start, the Cubbies closed the gap and tied it up, and now the two teams are playing hot potato with first place. Guess what: the Cardinals are only four and a half games out of first!

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There’s plenty of blame to be shared, but check out Milwaukee’s pitching line: fantastic in April and early May, average in June and July, horrific in August:

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Here’s the Cubs’ graph. While, you glance at their recent poor pitching, it’s worth noting that the Cubs’ pitching has been “lucky” this year, with a FIP over 30 points higher than the team ERA. That’s because the Cubs have left 74% of baserunners on base this year, the highest rate in the majors.

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The NL Central is the worst division in baseball. They are 183-226 against all the other divisions combined, including a 66-91 record against the National League East.

Parity in the National League

Right now, the Diamondbacks lead the National League with 67 wins with 42 to play. That projects out to 90 wins by the end of the season, which would be the lowest win total of any league leader since the majors started playing 162 games a year (excluding strike years). I talked about Arizona’s remarkable record last week, but I didn’t realize that their projected win total would also be historic.

Here’s another angle: The Padres have scored 515 runs and allowed 454 runs, a difference of 61 runs. We call that run differential, and the Padres’ run differential is noteworthy because it’s the best in the National League. Over a full season, that projects out to a run differential of 84, which would be the fifth-lowest total of any leading full-season team in major league history. Yeah, history. Including the 1800s and all strike years.

The story is very different in the American League, which inspired Baseball Prospectus’ Nate Silver to deem the bottom half of the league baseball’s new underclass (subscription required).

Jenks has tied a record.

Heck, by the time you read this, Bobby Jenks may have set a new record for consecutive batters retired. As I write this, he’s tied with Jim Barr at 41.

It’s a curious record, really. On the one hand, Jenks has an edge over starters like Barr, because batters get used to pitchers during a game and start to line up their pitches. A one-inning closer like Jenks doesn’t have that handicap.

On the other hand, Jenks has retired those 41 batters over 13 different appearances, which is impressive. He’s faced different levels of competition and perhaps had some days with less-than-stellar stuff.

So, give Jenks real credit for what he’s done. According to Vegas Watch, his odds of retiring 41 in a row were one in 14,202.

No more 300-game winner quotes

Last week, I lamented the lack of historical perspective by all the writers predicting that there will be no more 300-game winners. Old friend Brian Gunn agreed with me, and even did a little digging to find some similar quotes from mainstream media’s past. Here’s one:

But the bigger reason is that nobody’s going to win 300 anymore. Not with the money and the travel. Nobody’s going to have that mental edge Nolan has, to make the same sacrifices day after day. He’s amazing. He’s two Nolan Ryans. He’s the nice, polite fellow that always asks me how (hospitalized Angels coach) Jimmie Reese is doing. And then he’s the guy on the mound that pulls that cap down over his eyes.

That’s Sparky Anderson, talking about Nolan Ryan in 1990. How about this one, circa 1997?

I don’t think there’s any question we’ve seen the last of the 300-game winners,” said Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat, who went 283-237 in his 25-year career. Kaat talked about it at length a year ago after Phil Niekro (318-274) was voted into the Hall of Fame and Don Sutton (324-256) was not.

“Do you know what they had to go through to win that many games?” Kaat asked. “Those guys were dominant pitchers for an incredible number of years. It’s no easy task to go out there as many times as they did.

And check out this quote, from just three years ago:

When the Cubs’ Greg Maddux wins his next game — which might be in his next start, Sunday against the Phillies — that’s probably going to be it. When Maddux wins his next game, whenever that is, in all likelihood you’re looking at the last 300-game winner.

That’s from Sports Illustrated’s John Donovan. Admittedly, his comment was slightly tongue in check, but only slightly.

All of these commenters like to point out their favorite trends, though I cited a few offsetting trends last week. But the more important point is that 300-game winners are exceptional athletes and pitchers. They’re the guys who buck the trends. We will see more of them.

Tampa Bay’s defense is just plain awful

Are the Devil Rays playing with gloves in the field? You wouldn’t know it from their basic fielding stats. The most basic fielding stat of all is Defensive Efficiency Ratio (or, DER), which is simply the percentage of batted balls (not counting home runs) that are turned into outs by the fielders. The Devil Rays’ DER is .654, which is 19 points lower than every other team in baseball.

Not everyone understands DER, but if you simply subtract DER from one, you’ll get a number very similar to Batting Average on Balls in Play. So Tampa Bay’s opponents are batting .346 on balls in play (one minus .654); the major league offensive BABIP leaders are Detroit and Atlanta at .320. That’s a .26 point difference.

DER isn’t a perfect fielding metric. Obviously, pitchers play a role in it too, by giving up more or fewer line drives or infield pops. But, as noted on THT’s team page (did I mention it’s updated daily?), Tampa Bay’s pitchers are actually allowing more catchable balls than the average staff. That means that the fault for Tampa’s awful DER lies entirely, and then some, with the team’s fielders.

In fact, if Tampa Bay finished the season with their current DER, it would be the worst performance in major league history. By my count, the lowest DER of all time belongs to the 1930 Phillies (.658). And the Phillies were an outlier. The next-lowest DER is about twenty points higher (the 1997 Athletics, at .676).

Admittedly, these historic comparisons aren’t completely fair. My historic DER formulas are a little different than the current one because of data issues. If I adjust Tampa Bay’s DER accordingly, they do finish higher than the 1930 Phillies. And DER has certainly risen and fallen over the years, as documented in this article.

But given that the Devil Rays’ fielders are solely responsible for their low team DER, I’m going to say it anyway: They’re the worst fielding team in baseball history.

The best bat control artists this season.

We carry a lot of batted ball stats at THT, but one of the most overlooked stats is the infield fly. When you think about it, the infield fly is just as bad as a strikeout; it’s almost always caught for an out and the baserunners have no chance to advance. It’s a pitcher’s secret weapon. I also believe that both pitchers and batters have some innate ability to induce or avoid infield flies.

For instance, the batter with the lowest percent of infield flies per flyball this year is Bobby Abreu, with 0.8%. Abreu’s highest rate over the last four years has been 3.8%; the major league average is 10%.

Here are the five major league leaders in least infield flies:

- Bobby Abreu: 0.8%
- Michael Young: 1.0%
- Joe Mauer: 1.4%
- Chipper Jones: 1.8%
- Ryan Howard: 1.8%

That’s a list of some pretty fine batters. You can find a complete list on our stats page.

How Kevin Youkilis performs by pitch

It’s takes a subscription to be able to look up ESPN’s scouting stats, but they may well be worth it (as is the Rob Neyer blog, of course). I did a little more digging into Kevin Youkilis’ performance this year, and found some fascinating scouting data on their site. Keep in mind that Youkilis is batting .296 against righties and .307 against lefties; a very small platoon differential.

But check out how he’s hitting different pitches from lefties and righties:

                 AVG  VS. RH VS. LH
Fastballs       .329   .357   .266
Curves          .222   .219   .231
Sliders         .311   .290   .400
Change Ups      .197   .069   .313

Youkilis loves fastballs from right-handed pitchers and sliders and change ups from southpaws, and generally doesn’t like curves. Isn’t it interesting how some statistics seethe just below the surface?

Park factors

I spent a lot of this past week working on the 2007 park factors. As a reminder, park factors are calculated by comparing how a team’s pitchers and batters performed at home to how they performed on the road. By using the same set of players, you’re supposedly getting rid of any bias in the sample. A factor over 1.00 means that the ballpark has been the site of more offense this year.

Some of the more interesting park factors this year have been…

  • The Yankee and Red Sox batters have enjoyed their home cooking this year. New York’s home park factor is 1.18, the second-highest factor in the majors. Boston’s is third at 1.17.
  • Despite the humidor, Colorado still has the highest park factor at 1.20. At least it’s not 1.40.
  • U.S. Cellular in Chicago has been the majors’ best home run park in recent years, but it’s been eclipsed this year by Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park (1.43) and Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark (1.31).
  • Oakland’s park factor has plummeted to 0.81 this year, the lowest in the majors. Over the past few years, McAfee Coliseum has been about average. The A’s bats have struggled this year, but they’ve really struggled at home.
  • The wind has apparently been blowing in at Wrigley, where the home run park factor is .98, compared to an average of 1.18 over the last three years.
  • Most interesting to me, Dodger Stadium has a positive park factor for the second year in a row (1.06). Could it be that this historic pitchers’ park has become a very different ballpark?

Don’t forget that one year park factors don’t mean a lot for future factors, and two-thirds of a year’s park factors mean even less. But that Dodger park factor spike has lasted for almost two years. What would Sandy Koufax say?

Roger Angell on Barry Bonds

From the great Roger Angell, in the latest New Yorker:

Bonds has been called a cheater, but the word should hardly come up in a sport whose proprietors, if they were in charge of the classic Olympic hundred-metre dash, would stage it variously at a hundred and six metres, ninety-four, a hundred and three, and so forth, and engrave the resulting times on a tablet.

That’s just a sample. Click on the link to read more. And, like Angell, I’m hoping there won’t be more to say about Bonds anytime soon.

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