Baseball Notes: Offensive Discrimination

baseball notes

Although they may continue to cite them because of their familiarity as reference points, baseball analysts largely have moved on from the historically conventional hallmarks of pitcher and batter performance– ERA and batting average (“BA”), respectively– in favor of more comprehensive metrics that provide a more accurate picture of player performance by addressing some of those traditional statistics’ blind spots.

Focusing here on hitters, some of BA’s most notable blind spots include walks; the fact that each park has different dimensions; and the significant variance in the values of different types of hits (e.g., a single versus a home run). As they have with WAR, the three main baseball-analytics websites each offer their own improved versions of BA: Baseball Prospectus’ True Average (“TAv”); Baseball-Reference’s adjusted on-base-plus-slugging (“OPS+”); and FanGraphs’ Weighed Runs Created Plus (“wRC+”). Visually, TAv looks like a batting average but is scaled every year such that an average hitter has a TAv of .260, while OPS+ and wRC+ are scaled to an average of 100.

If you’ve read baseball articles here or at those websites, then you’ve seen those metrics cited, sometimes seemingly interchangeably, in the course of an examination of hitting performance. As BP’s Rob Mains notes in the first part of a recent two-part series at that site, there’s good reason to treat these three metrics similarly: they all correlate very strongly with each other. (In other words, most batters who are, for example, average according to TAv (i.e., .260) also are average according to OPS+ and wRC+ (i.e., 100).)

There are differences between the three, however, and those differences arise because each regards the elements of batting performance slightly differently. As Rob explained:

How the three derive the numbers themselves, including their respective park factors, is pretty small ball. Bigger ball, though, it what goes into them.

  • OPS+ incorporates the same basic statistics as OPS: At-bats, hits, total bases, walks, hit by pitches, and sacrifice flies.
  • wRC+ weights singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, and HBPs, with the weighting changing from year to year. For example, a home run had a weight of 2.337 in 1968 but only 1.975 in 1996, reflecting the scarcity of runs in the former year. Additionally, wRC+ considers only unintentional walks.
  • TAv also weights outcomes, including strikeouts (slightly worse than other outs) and sacrifices (slightly better than other outs). TAv also includes batters reaching base on error and incorporates situational hitting[, which refers to hitting that occurs only when runners are on base: Sacrifice hits, sacrifice flies, and hitting into double and triple plays].

So while all three measures look at the same thing—hitting—they’re not doing it quite the same. For OPS+, a walk is as good as a hit, from an OBP perspective, and a home run is four times as good as a single, per SLG. FanGraphs’ wRC+ weights them, but it doesn’t weight outs, as TAv does. Only TAv considers situational hitting.

When applied to players who are especially good or bad in those areas where the three metrics diverge, the result is a lack of correlation between the three with respect to that player. (Cf. the divergent views of the three WAR metrics with respect to Robbie Ray.) Mains’ second article examines some of those players of whom TAv, OPS+, and wRC+ take different views (e.g., Barry Bonds, Kris Bryant, Ian Kinsler, and David Ortiz) before explaining a few general conclusions:

[TAv, OPS+, and wRC+ are] very similar. You can use any of them and feel confident that you’re usually capturing the key characteristics of a batter.

If you want to drill down, though, here are the differences I found:

  • The lack of weighting in OPS+ means that it gives slightly less weight to singles and slightly more weight to home runs and walks than TAv and wRC+.

  • TAv’s inclusion of situational hitting means that batters who are extremely good or bad at avoiding double plays are going to get rewarded or penalized. (Situational hitting also includes bunting, but nobody does that anymore anyway.)

  • The black box factor in these calculations is park factors. Each of the three sites calculates them their own way. They can account for some changes, though not in a predictable or transparent way like high walk totals or low GIDP rates can.

I expect I’ll continue to use these three metrics somewhat interchangeably in articles at this site, although my preexisting (mostly uneducated) preferences for TAv and wRC+ likely will continue. Articles like Rob’s serve as both an important reminder that, at the edges, these updated metrics aren’t exactly the same and an entry point into thinking more precisely about what we ourselves value in the process of evaluating hitter performance.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized

Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray
Baseball Notes: Save Tonight
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

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Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup

baseball notes

Rather than my own attempt at fashioning a nugget of faux-wisdom, the purpose of this Baseball Notes post is to highlight a number of articles posted elsewhere addressing current offseason issues in the sport.

On the hot stove‘s slow burn:

An underappreciated element of the utter sameness that permeates baseball today is the number of executives who came through the commissioner’s office at Major League Baseball either as an intern or early in their careers. Jobs there aren’t just pipelines to teams. They are breeding grounds for the proliferation of commissioner Rob Manfred’s doctrine, honed during two decades as the sport’s chief labor negotiator.

How does it work? Consider the case of Tommy Hunter, the relief pitcher, who late last winter was holding out for a major league contract. On the same day, according to two sources, at least two teams called Hunter offering the exact same deal – an occurrence that in the past might have screamed of collusion. In this case, the sources said, it was likelier a reflection of how teams value players so similarly.

It’s not just the algorithms with minuscule differences that spit out the same numbers. It’s a recognition of how to manipulate the new collective-bargaining agreement. “Clubs are maneuvering to take advantage of the significant salary depressors in the CBA,” one agent said. An example: One large-revenue team telling agents that his team is wary of getting anywhere close to the luxury-tax threshold, lest it be penalized for exceeding it.

“Of course that’s what we’re saying,” the GM said. “We’d be stupid not to.”

On Julio Teheran and what happens when player-value metrics tell different stories:

At Baseball-Reference, Julio Teheran was much worse in 2017. He allowed heaps more runs than he had in 2016. It’s more complicated than that — a ton of work has gone into the calibration — but at a basic level this is what we’re talking about. By bWAR, based on runs allowed adjusted for things like ballpark and the quality of his defense, Teheran was worth 1.6 wins in 2017, close to league average.
. . .
At FanGraphs, Julio Teheran was much worse in 2017, worse even than he was at Baseball-Reference. His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up, and he allowed way more home runs. It’s more complicated than that, but at a basic level it’s not much more complicated than that. By fWAR, which is based on a stat (FIP) calculated with those three factors alone, Teheran was worth 1.1 wins. He pitched considerably worse than a league-average starter.
. . .
But now it gets complicated, because at Baseball Prospectus Teheran’s WARP was 3.8, identical to his 3.8 WARP in 2016. He ranked 24th in baseball, ahead of Alex Wood, James Paxton and Robbie Ray. We’ve found a story that says Teheran was actually good.
. . .
Which takes us to a third level of storytelling, observing not just what happened or what should have happened but what should have should have happened.

In WARP’s telling, Teheran walked more batters than he did in 2016, but he pitched like somebody who should have walked fewer than he did. He allowed far more home runs than he did in 2016, but he pitched like somebody who should have allowed fewer. Specifically, given his pitch types and pitch locations, he should have beat batters who actually beat him.
. . .
There are those who complain there are multiple WAR models telling us different things about players. Stats are supposed to resolve uncertainty, we figure, not exacerbate it. But these are complicated questions. The worst thing a stat could do it mislead us about how simple baseball is, or about how much we know. It’s not simple. We don’t know all that much.

On the weekend’s big throwback trade between the Dodgers and Braves:

With five players involved, [Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Charlie Culberson,] this is a big trade for two teams to make. But then, if we’re going to be realistic, this isn’t about the players at all. This is a swap of money, or, more accurately, this is a swap of debt. There is short-term debt, and there is shorter-term debt.
. . .
Gonzalez is already a free agent. The Braves designated him for assignment so fast that it was part of the initial press release. Kemp is unlikely to play a game for the Dodgers, since they’re already looking to flip him, if not drop him outright. Kazmir didn’t pitch in the majors this past season. McCarthy did, but he threw just 92.2 innings. Culberson batted all of 15 times before making the playoff roster because Corey Seager was hurt. All of these players combined for a 2017 WAR of +0.7. It was all thanks to McCarthy, and his 16 adequate starts.
. . .
[H]ere’s how this works. Gonzalez’s 2018 salary belongs to the Braves now. Then his contract is up. The same is true for McCarthy, and the same is true for Kazmir. Culberson does come with some years of team control. The Dodgers are also sending the Braves $4.5 million. And Kemp’s 2018 salary now belongs to the Dodgers. So does Kemp’s 2019 salary. In each year, he’s due $21.5 million.
. . .
[T]his exchange is more or less cash-neutral. That is, neither the Braves nor the Dodgers are taking on the greater obligation. But the Dodgers are spreading it over the next two years, reducing their 2018 payroll figure. The Braves will face the greater short-term burden, and then, come 2019, there will be sweet, sweet freedom. The Braves ditch a future obligation, giving them more financial flexibility a year from now. The Dodgers assume a future obligation, but they, too, will get more financial flexibility a year from now, and beyond, because they likely won’t have to pay the most severe competitive-balance taxes. All they’re worried about is getting the overage penalties to reset. . . . Next offseason, Bryce Harper, for example, is expected to be a free agent. Manny Machado is expected to be a free agent. All sorts of good players are expected to be free agents, and, significantly, Clayton Kershaw could opt out. The Dodgers are presumably planning to spend big, so resetting the overage penalties now could and should eventually save them eight figures. All it requires is one year of dipping down.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized
Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray
Baseball Notes: Save Tonight
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized

baseball notes

Baseball is a sport that is susceptible to, and, indeed, has subjected itself to what most regard as extremely fine-grain analysis. For example, in just a few clicks, you can pull up the spin rate of the ball on any pitch thrown in any MLB game last night. Whether we’re examining something, like baseball, for which we have relatively precise analytical tools, or something our ability to probe is more limited, we necessarily operate with certain assumptions practically taken for granted. Gravity. Air. Taxes. The general inflation of the value of U.S. currency over time. The general improvement in human health over time. While we need to monitor these somewhat ambient, environmental facts and trends, it usually doesn’t make sense to address them with great frequency and detail. We all generally know that Al Kaline’s $35,000 rookie signing bonus probably was a lot of money in the 1950s even if it doesn’t sound like a lot by today’s standards, just like we generally know 6’2″, 215 lb. Babe Ruth probably was a lot bigger than his peers, even if he wouldn’t appear out of the physical ordinary today.

On this last point, of course, we’re aware that medical and nutritional advances have resulted in general improvements in human health. Humans today live longer and grow larger than they did in the past, and baseball players are no exception.

That growth hasn’t occurred at a steady rate, however, at least as far as the population of baseball-playing humans is concerned. Here’s a graph from Russell Carleton’s article yesterday at Baseball Prospectus showing the median (50th percentile), 70th percentile, and 90th percentile Body-Mass Index (BMI) of all players who appeared in the majors between 1900-2016:

back20in20time201

As Carleton remarks:

We see that in the mid-90s, something (*cough*something*cough*) happened that caused an inflection point in MLB. After most of a century of the same body types, players started getting bigger. Mostly, they got heavier, although players today are also taller than they had been. The median player in MLB right now would be larger (in terms of BMI) than 90 percent of players who played in any year before the 1990s.

120405_firstpitch_bush41glasses_ap_328_605

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Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray

baseball notes

There are a few things we know with reasonable certainty about Robbie Ray. He was born on October 1, 1991 just south of Nashville in Brentwood, Tennessee. In 2010, the Washington Nationals drafted him in the twelfth round of the amateur draft. The Nationals traded him, along with two other players, to the Detroit Tigers in 2013 in exchange for Doug Fister. A year later, the Tigers traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade that netted the Tigers Shane Green and the New York Yankees Didi Gregorius. So far, Ray has seen major-league action as a starting pitcher with the Tigers and Diamondbacks. He showed promise in his first three appearances (two starts and an inning of relief), for Detroit. He showed less promise in his remaining six appearances– four starts and two relief innings– for that team. Things have ticked back up for Ray since his arrival in the desert, however.

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Most baseball fans likely have some familiarity with the player-valuation concept of wins above replacement player, usually labeled WAR. What many fans may not realize, however, is that there actually are three different versions of the WAR statistic. The goal of each version is the same: to determine a comprehensive valuation of an individual baseball player. Each takes slightly different paths to reach that comprehensive valuation, but they typically reach similar conclusions about a given player, such that it’s common to see or hear a player’s WAR cited without specific reference to the particular version utilized.

For example, the three versions– Baseball-Reference’s WAR (“rWAR”), FanGraphs’ WAR (“fWAR”), and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (“WARP”)– all agree that Mike Trout had a great 2016. He finished the season with 10.6 rWAR, 9.4 fWAR, and 8.7 WARP, good for first, first, and second by each metric, respectively. For another example, they also agree about Trout’s former MVP nemesis, Miguel Cabrera: 4.9 rWAR, 4.9 fWAR, 3.9 WARP. (In my anecdotal experience, WARP tends to run a little lower than rWAR and fWAR for all players.)

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While the WAR varietals typically and generally concur, that isn’t always the case. Pitchers can be particularly susceptible to this variance, because the measurement of pitching performance is one of the areas in which the three metrics are most different. Continue reading

Baseball Notes: Save Tonight

baseball notes

It is an accepted reality that, in general, baseball players don’t have much time for their sport’s new and advanced statistics and metrics. In many ways, this resistance makes sense. In the moment, when standing on the mound or in the batter’s box, there’s only so much thought and information a player can hold in his mind while trying to accomplish the task– make or avoid contact between bat and ball, for example– at hand. Players, like experts in other fields, also understandably tend to be skeptical of outsiders’ ability to provide baseball analysis or insight superior to their own. This skepticism is fairly well documented, most obviously when it involves changes that might impair or decrease a player’s value or role in the game, and, more surprisingly, even when new statistical revelations work in a player’s favor. (There certainly are some players, like Jake Lamb and Trevor “Drone Finger” Bauer, who have embraced sabermetric thinking, but it’s reasonable to assume they remain in the minority among their colleagues.)

A primary impetus of baseball’s sabermetric movement has been to encourage the abandonment of certain traditional statistics that, while still largely entrenched in the sport, are understood to be incomplete in important ways or much less meaningful than their use might suggest. Batting average, for example, doesn’t include walks. (Cf. On-base percentage.) RBIs require a player’s teammates to reach base ahead of him. ERA depends, to a significant extent, on a pitcher’s defensive teammates and other factors outside a pitcher’s control. (Cf. defensive-independent pitching statistics like FIP and DRA.) Pitcher wins and saves are artificial, highly circumstantial metrics that, at best, indirectly measure pitching talent.

For years, analysts have pushed baseball to rid itself of these traditional performance measures. There’s a comfort in hanging onto the statistical language with which we grew up as we learned and discussed the game, but that comfort should turn cold upon learning the degree to which these familiar stats obscure what’s really happening on the field.

So long as baseball’s current player-compensation structure remains in place, though, players aren’t likely to stop caring about things like saves; after all, that’s how they’re paid:

screenshot-2016-10-19-at-5-46-24-pm

In the course of discussing whether departures from conventional reliever usage as particularly exhibited in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs are likely to bleed over into upcoming regular season play, FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards explains one reason players are likely to prefer conventional, save-oriented bullpen strategy:

Saves get paid in a big way during arbitration. Only one player without a save, Jared Hughes, received a free-agent-equivalent salary above $6.5 million in arbitration, while all 16 players who’d recorded more than 10 saves received more than Hughes in equivalent salary. Players are more than happy to make more money, so giving more relievers higher salaries and more multi-year deals is openly welcomed. Taking saves away, however, also takes money away from players with less than six years of service time.

Although there are a number of not-uncompelling reasons why players prefer to steer clear of baseball’s newer metrics, Edwards has fingered one of the most forceful. If fans and analysts want to hear players discuss OBP, DRA, and leverage, they ought to channel their persuasive efforts less toward appeals to players’ logical sensibilities (they get it, no doubt) and more toward the education of the MLB salary arbitrators, to whom the players already listen with great attention.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup

baseball notes

Rather than my own attempt at fashioning a nugget of faux-wisdom, the purpose of this Baseball Notes post is to highlight a number of articles posted elsewhere addressing current issues in the sport.   Continue reading

Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers

baseball notes

Early in Victor Martinez’s career-renaissance season, that being the 2014 Major League Baseball season, I expounded– in a manner so brief it likely took less time to read than the length of an average Martinez plate appearance– upon one component of the (i.e., Rod Allen’s, colloquially) notion of Martinez as a “professional hitter”: Martinez’s ability to extend his plate appearances. I contended that one of the team benefits of Martinez’s approach is that it pushes pitchers to reveal more of their arsenal earlier in the game.

In looking for general evidence of this beneficiary concept by inverting the point of focus from hitters to pitchers, I found Ben Lindbergh’s recent analysis of pitcher performance. The broad, basic point: within a game, pitchers perform worse each subsequent time they face a batter.

pitchingthroughtheorderThus, if batters benefit from increased exposure to a pitcher, it would seem to make sense that, assuming they’re paying attention in the dugout, Martinez’s teammates would benefit further from the disproportionately lengthy plate appearances Martinez induces. Lindbergh’s conclusion confirms this:

The times-facing-hitter penalty isn’t as much a fatigue effect as it is a familiarity effect that compounds as hitters have time to study their prey.

(His article goes on to discuss pitchers’ attempts to strike back against this trend.)

While many will be watching Martinez for the wrong reasons this season, keep an eye on him and his ilk to see whether they can continue to help their teammates in secondary ways, regardless of what happens to their own primary production.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?

baseball notesInstant replay has been a leading topic of discussion across the baseball world during this young season. In an apparent attempt to reduce the use of replay challenges on infield double play attempts, MLB issued the following official rule interpretation statement:

Umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.

A baserunner running from first to second thus is safe if the second baseman drops the ball when attempting to throw it to first to complete the double play even though the second baseman cleanly caught the flip from the shortstop. (This video clip provides a clear and simple example of this scenario.)

As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron realized, this seemingly innocuous rule interpretation actually carries sweeping implications for the defense’s control of the running game because it applies to outfielders as well as infielders. Cameron explains:

The drop at second base has no real impact on the runner’s decision making. The batter is sprinting down the first base line to try and beat out the double play, and probably will rarely even know the ball is dropped on the double play attempt. . . . 

That is absolutely not true with runners and outfielders, however; the decision of whether to advance or return to base is entirely dependent on whether the outfielder is ruled to have safely caught the ball. Runners are taught to get enough of a lead off the base to maximize their potential advancement in case the ball is not caught while still retaining their ability to return to their previous base if it is. When the ball enters the glove, the runner returns to their prior base in order to avoid a potential double play. Only now, the ball entering the glove is no longer the determining factor of whether or not the catch was made; that is now the ball moving from the glove to the hand.

A catch thus is not a catch until the receiving player secures the ball and then securely transfers it to his throwing hand. Cameron astutely realizes that there is room for exploitation here, and it comes in that second phase of the now more expansively defined catch process, the transfer to the throwing hand.     Continue reading

Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection

baseball notesPart of the perceived strength of last year’s Detroit Tigers offense came from the arrangement of the middle of the batting order: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez; two huge bats following the biggest one in the game. The idea was that Fielder, batting fourth, “protected” Cabrera in the three hole because he was there to make pitchers pay if they wanted to simply intentionally walk Cabrera to mitigate his potent power, the same way pitchers treated Barry Bonds a decade a go. With Fielder there to “protect” Cabrera, the theory went, Cabrera’s offensive numbers should improve because pitchers would have to be more aggressive with him.

The lineup protection concept makes intuitive sense, but it has been a popular target for the sabermetric folks, who insist that “protected” hitters show no measurable improvement as a result of lineup protection. In light of Prince’s departure from Detroit, ESPN’s Jayson Stark, who surely knows much more about baseball than me, is the latest to take up the advanced statistical ax against the lineup protection effect:

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Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit

baseball notes

The purpose of the interrupted Baseball Notes series is to highlight just-below-the-surface baseball topics for the purpose of deepening the enjoyment of the game for casual fans like you and me.

In the interest of achieving that casual purpose, this series generally will avoid advanced statistical concepts. One need not grasp the depths of wRC+ or xFIP to enjoy baseball, of course, or even to think about the give-and-take between baseball traditionalists, who eschew advanced statistics, and the sabermetricians, who live by them.

Moneyball famously highlighted this debate, such as it is, and it arose in the 2012 season around the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera (the eventual winner, and the traditional favorite) and Mike Trout, and again last season in the context of commentator Brian Kenny’s “Kill the Win” campaign against ascribing significant meaning to pitchers’ win-loss records.

The reason this “debate”– the “eye test,” wins, and batting average versus WAR et al.– isn’t really a debate is because the two sides have different descriptive goals. In short, the traditional group is concerned with what has happened, while the sabermetric group is concerned with what will happen. The former statically tallies the game’s basic value points, while the latter is out to better understand the past in order to predict the future. The basic stats on the back of a player’s baseball card aim to tell you what he did in prior seasons; the advanced statistics on Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or in Baseball Prospectus aim to tell you something about what he’ll do next year based on a deeper understanding of what he did in prior seasons.

The previous paragraph represents an oversimplification, and probably a gross one, but I think it accurately highlights the basic, if slight, misalignment of initial points of view from the two main groups of people talking about how we talk about baseball today.

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