Thursday, August 23, 2012

Young, Talented, and Left-handed

Last night Chris Sale put on an impressive performance.  Facing the American League’s third best team in terms of on-base percentage, Sale allowed only 4 base runners, good for a 0.52 WHIP.  The Yankees not only have the 3rd best OBP in the AL, but they have also scored the 2nd most runs in the American League this season.  Sale allowed one run. 

It’s safe to say that Chris Sale, left-handed starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, stopped the freight train that is the Yankees offense for 7 and 2/3 innings.  So, how did he do it? compiles PitchFX data for every pitch thrown.  According to data they have compiled, when facing left-handed hitters, Sale predominantly uses his four-seam fastball.  In all counts, Sale uses his four-seam fastball 52% of the time.  This factoid proves fascinating because most left-handed pitchers, when facing left-handed hitters, utilize breaking pitches like curveballs and sliders far more often than straight fastballs.  They do so because the curvature of breaking pitches can deceive the hitter, when hitting in this case from the left side of the plate, to thinking the pitch might hit them.  So, it’s fascinating that a lefty with such a nasty slider would throw his fastball so often, in all counts, to left-handed hitters. 
The answer show’s its face when we look at different situations.  When Sale is ahead in the count, he uses his slider more than 50% of the time to lefties, but when he is behind in the count, he uses his two-seam and four-seam fastballs.  This demonstrates a common trend amongst talented young pitchers.  Young talents like Sale trust no pitch more than their four-seam fastball and thus utilize it in the most compromising situations, even when facing left-handed hitters who have issues hitting against breaking balls from left-handed pitchers.  Lastly, when facing right-handed batters, Sale uses his changeup, which breaks towards the outside part of the plate making it difficult to hit. 

The Yankees had 4 lefties and 5 righties in their lineup last night.  No matter which side of the batters boxe Yankee hitters positioned themselves; Sale was up to the task, a feat uncommon amongst young pitchers.

 (vs. LHH)

 (vs. RHH)
Another aspect of Sale’s pitching that makes him so dominant is his deception.  Sale derives this deception from his windup. Click HERE to see Sale's dynamic delivery.
As you can see in the above images, Sale’s pitches all come from the far side of the 1st base rubber.  His tall, lean frame becomes compact during his delivery and then explodes towards home plate when he uncoils his legs, all while keeping the ball well hidden from the batter's view.  All of this makes it just a bit more difficult for every hitter, left-handed or right-handed, to win the battle against Sale.  As you can also see from the above pictures, most of Sales pitches to left-handed batters cross the plate either at the middle of the plate or the outside corner.  Righties get a healthy dose of pitches on the outside corner as well, with some sliders crossing on the inner half of the plate. 

Before the 2012 season Sale pitched out of the bullpen.  He did so well, but since joining the rotation, his performance has been steller.  He has posted a 5.4 rWAR, 4.2 fWAR, and a 3.1 WARP so far this season, which is good for top 10 in the AL amongst pitchers.*  He has an 8.8 K/9 rate and a 1.03 WHIP, 2 solid indications that he keeps runners off base.  The White Sox have won 16 of his 23 starts and have only lost 4 starts in which Sale has walked fewer than 3 batters.  10 of his 23 starts have come against opponents with current playoff hopes, and of those 10 starts the White Sox have won 6 games.  The lone knock on Sale has been his inability to guide the White Sox to victories over division rival Detroit, but with only two starts against them this season, we do not have a large enough sample size to make predictions for future performance agains the Tigers. 

While Kenny Williams, the White Sox General Manager, applauds all of Sale’s accomplishments, the most gratifying part to the Chris Sale story is that the southpaw doesn’t become a free agent until the 2017 season.  In 2012 Sale is set to make $500,000, a minute amount of money for his performance.  In fact, according to Fangraphs, Sale has been worth about $18.8 million this season.  At 23 years old, Chris Sale looks to be one of the bright young lefties in baseball, and will most likely compete for the American League Cy Young award in only his first season as a Major League starting pitcher. 

*fWAR comes from; rWAR from; WARP from

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How to Spend Your Allowance

A house is on fire.  The fire department is afraid it will spread to other houses. A local politician is called to observe the fire in order to assess the damage in hopes he can do something to prevent future fires. Here is the problem: rarely is it smart to throw money at the problem because money burns as well as most other forms of kindling.

Due to the lack of a salary cap, Major League Baseball teams are allowed to pay their players as much money as they want. It allows for great diversity amongst the teams' total payrolls. For example, the New York Yankees spent $197,962,289 on their players this season. The Yankees generally spend the most money of any MLB team on their players, and with numerous playoff appearances and World Series titles they reap the benefits on the field. In comparison, teams like the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Oakland Athletics find themselves consistently at the bottom of payroll lists.

I began looking through the payroll lists* in order to find a trend- some pattern that would prove interesting. First, I used which uses simulations and models to estimate the number wins and losses for each team at the end of the season. Next I plotted each team's 2012 payroll against the number of wins that the guys at Baseball Prospectus estimate each team will have by October 1st. I plotted the best-fit line and even calculated the R squared value. Here are the results:

If you would like to see the data used in this graph click on this: LINK

My sole conclusion from the graph and the results collected is that there is very little connection between a team's wins and the amount of money they spend to put together a team. The R-squared value indicates only 7% of the variation of wins is explained by the results The lowest point represents the Houston Astros. That team has spent the third fewest dollars, and due to their abysmal results, find themselves in the cellar. Here are some other interesting facts that came from these data:

  •  The Yankees have the highest payroll in the Majors, and pay about $2,062,107 per win 
  • The Phillies have the 2nd highest payroll in the Majors, and pay about $2,266,739 per win
  • The Padres have the lowest payroll in the Majors, and pay about $781,396 per win 
  • The Athletics have the 2nd lowest payroll in the Majors, and pay about $661,559 per win  
  • Finally, the Nationals have the best record in the Majors, and the 19th lowest payroll. They pay about $823,240 per win
Without a doubt, the Nationals have got the best return on their investment this season. That conclusion makes some sense in that the Nationals have numerous young players without large contracts who have a lot of talent and have performed at a high level this season. In comparison, the Philadelphia Phillies have an extremely high payroll and have severely underachieved in the National League East. 

So, does money win championships? The answer is sometimes. Does a low payroll filled with young players win championships? Same answer, sometimes. Overall the only question to ask that doesn't incur a similar answer is, "What is the best formula to use?" The only answer to that question is build a smart team. If management makes intelligent decisions that balance spending with results and predictions, it gives an organization the best chance to succeed. Oh, and don't forget about luck. 

*All team payroll data was taken from USA Today's tabulation of sports team's payrolls (Link)

Monday, August 13, 2012

From Cy Young to Mariano Rivera

The Nobel Prize

Awards are, in their simplest forms, acknowledgments of an achievement.  Meritocratic societies judge members of the collective on certain skills that are deemed important to the group.  As a global society, we have decided that the areas of Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Economics, and Medicine to be of highest importance.  Thus, those who demonstrate incredible skill, talent, dedication, and proven results in these categories receive illustrious awards known as Nobel Prizes, distinguishing them from all others who participate in the marketplace of ideas and more specifically, in the fields mentioned above. 

Sports, like Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and the rest, cannot be described as anything other than meritocratic. In every game a winner emerges and a loser lives to play another day, but no matter what the results, one team or player always rises above the rest, claiming the title, “the best.”  Because sports often involve both team and individual activities, we recognize the feats of both groups.  Team awards are commonly seen as more glorious, thus these awards are the pinnacles of team sports.  In Baseball the team that wins the World Series remains champions for a full season, an honor in itself.  The team wins the most prestigious trophy, and of course, the recognition from everyone associated with the sport.

The Cy Young Award
Although team awards constitute the greatest of all accomplishments, individual awards also matter a great deal.  These awards consist of the Most Valuable Player Award, the Cy Young Award, Golden Gloves, Silver Sluggers, and All-Star game appearances.  Each accolade comes with it’s own set of idiosyncrasies, but I want to focus on the Cy Young Award.

First given out in in 1956, one year after the death of the award’s namesake, Cy Young.  Originally the award was given to the best pitcher in the Major Leagues, but after 1967, Major League Baseball decided to choose a winner in each league, one for the National League and one in the American League.  The Baseball Writers Association of America votes on the winner of the award.  The winner is dubbed the “Baseball’s best regular season pitcher.”  Obviously, this implies that any pitching performed in the playoffs is not considered when choosing the Cy Young Award winners. 

 Recently, I have heard and read speculation that this years National League recipient of this illustrious award should be one of two relief pitchers.  Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds and Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves.  Both pitchers are relief pitchers, specifically known as closers.  Their job is to come in the game in the 9th inning when their team has a lead, but no more than a 4-run lead, and get the final three outs to ensure a win.  Although my opinion of the whole structure of the modern bullpen is biased towards getting rid of the entire construct, I still believe that considering bullpen pitchers for the Cy Young Award to be ludicrous.

Closers compile a statistic that no other player does, due to the situation in the game in which they play, known as the save.  The full definition of what constitutes a save can be found here: “The Save” Saves do not mean very much when appraising a pitcher, due to the variability with which a pitcher can attain a save.  Oftentimes closers will pitch in the most high-pressure situations.  Imagine this.  Your team clings to a modest 2-run lead against your arch nemesis.  The game has been grueling, with both teams putting forth great amounts of effort.  The 9th and final inning comes about and with your team in the lead you bring in your best relief pitcher to get the final three outs.  He comes into the game and must face the opposing team’s three most ferocious hitters, batters who strike fear in the average pitcher, and players who have already displayed their hitting prowess by belting numerous hits throughout the game.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pressured-filled situation to me.  I would want a pitcher in the game who could get three outs without allowing a batter to reach first base safely, let alone put the ball in play.  Pitchers who can rack up the strikeouts are often closers, and thus pitch in these situations. 

Now, here is a different situation.  Your team is playing the last place team in the league.  You have a 3-run lead going into the 9th inning, and scheduled to hit are the 7-8-9 hitters for the opposing team.  These three batters barely produce any positive results no matter who stands opposite them on the pitching mound.  This situation lacks the depth and tension that coursed throughout the 1st scenario.  A pitcher who ends the game in this situation receives a save equivalent to the one received if he finishes the first game. 

Saves are not good evaluators of value or even effectiveness.  They show that a pitcher is able to thrive given very specific conditions, but does not distinguish between the numerous other variables that can have a great effect on the impressiveness of the situation. 

So, Saves aren’t as amazing as pundits and coaches often think.  Surely other statistics exist that can prove that relief pitchers are worthy of the Cy Young Award.  The issue with every other statistic is that the Baseball Writer’s Association evaluates starting pitchers on the same statistics.  The major difference between starters and relievers is innings pitched.  I think that we, as fans and observers, can agree that given a larger sample size we can draw more definitive conclusions.  Innings pitched constitute the sample size for a pitcher.  If starters have more innings pitched, than we have a clearer picture into their true value and thus can better determine who is the “best pitcher in baseball.” 

Here are some statistics of crucial statistical categories used to analyze a pitcher’s performance: 
Innings Pitched

Innings Pitched

In the second of the two charts I utilized the statistics of the three top starting pitchers in the National League, Johnny Cueto of the Reds, R.A. Dickey of the Mets, and Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals.  I highlighted some particularly important statistics in red.  As you can see, all three starting pitchers’ innings pitched (our sample size) dwarf those of their relief counterparts.  Chapman and Kimbrel obviously thrive at their jobs.  With K/9 rates both higher than 15.00, these two relievers barely allow the ball to be put in play. Even more so, they do not allow many base runners, as their WHIPS perfectly indicate. 

When calculating the statistic Wins Above Replacement, innings pitched plays a vital role.  The stat is a value statistic, thus it encompasses many of the crucial aspects of, in this case, pitching.  On, the site from which I took this data, Chapman and Kimbrel do not even qualify for the category of WAR unless you remove the restriction of a specific number of innings pitched.  Even so, all three starting pitchers mentioned, have higher WARs than Chapman and Kimbrel.

The idea of considering these two closers for the Cy Young award should be discarded as soon as possible.  The two major reasons given when considering these two pitchers for the award are that no other starting pitcher is having an outstanding enough year to distance themselves from other pitchers, and that both Chapman and Kimbrel are having historic seasons.  I can’t deny these are not true, but I can tell you that they do not and should not matter when discussing who should win the award for best pitcher. 

Just because the decision on who wins this award will be difficult, does not imply that we need to start looking outside of the box for an answer.  Trust me, this is way outside of the box.  Oh, relievers have won the Cy Young in the past, but very few of them actually deserved it.  If you read the article I linked concerning the rules governing a save, you might have noticed that a pitcher can attain a save by pitching the last three innings of a game in which their team is winning.  The number of runs separating the teams plays almost no significance other than that the pitcher’s team in question must be winning the whole time.  Find me a relief pitcher who has accrued as many saves as Kimbrel and Chapman, but did so by throwing three innings at least most of the time, and I would consider them for the Cy Young Award., calculates a pitcher’s performance in difference situations in a game.  They dub a specific type of situation a high leverage situation.  In my opinion, even a closer who pitches only in these high leverage situations but still throws a third of the number of innings that a starting pitcher does remains undeserving of the Cy Young Award.  This has yet to happen, and might make me think twice about just giving the award to a starter, but in the end, it would not sway my opinion.  Innings pitched, a true sample size, constitutes too much importance. 

The Great Mariano Rivera
My attitude in this situation seems quite closed minded.  Under no circumstance, even a clearly hypothetical one, will I consider a relief pitcher for the Cy Young.  That seems a bit unfair.  Given that the modern bullpen schematic seems fairly permanent, I think we should create a separate award for the best relief pitcher in baseball.  We can call it the Mariano Rivera Award, named after the hands-down best relief pitcher ever to take the mound.  Rivera has never won a Cy Young Award.   

This season I would give the Mariano Rivera Award to either Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel.  They demonstrate incredible relief statistics and both deserve to be considered for this hypothetical accolade.  I don’t know exactly who should win the Cy Young Award, but it should be a starting pitcher, not a relief pitcher.  Should we change the award to mean the best starting pitcher in baseball? Yes, we should, and simultaneously we should respect the specialization of the game and create the Mariano Rivera Award. 

In a true meritocracy, we shine a light on the best.  In this case, we do not need to reconsider who qualifies for a specific award as much as we should consider expanding the entire awards process to include another prize.   

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Synchronized Baseball: The Double Play

Chinese Olympic Synchronized Divers

Within the last week fans around the world have been dazzled by the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.  Unlike professional sports, Olympians work hard and train relentlessly for the euphoric, yet hypothetical moment when they might be named the top athlete of their sport in the world.  Professional sports and Olympic athletic events often clash in that many professional leagues do not allow all of their athletes to compete in the Olympic games. Overall, most fans watch the Olympics for those sports that are rarely spoken of in common sports vernacular.  One of those sports with which I have become enamored is synchronized diving.  Synchronized diving?!! Yes, yes, I'm speaking of the sport in which a pair of men or women, propel themselves, sometimes from extreme heights, contort themselves, and perform flips in mid-air before they comfortably land in the water.  Oh, and by the way, the two athletes are supposed to perform the same dive at exactly the same time.  A perfect dive is not only executed well, but should appear as though one diver is performing the feat in a mirror.

Judges base their scores on execution and synchronization.  This caused me to wonder if there were any similarities between synchronized diving and baseball.  Not long after posing this question to myself I found the answer.  The double play.  Double plays, like many defensive plays in baseball, involve two key attributes, physical ability and baseball intelligence.

The 6-4-3 Variety

Double plays constitute some of the most beautiful and elegant plays in the game of baseball.  Double plays occur quite often, in fact, pitchers will change their strategies when a runner is on-base in order to induce a ground ball to result in a twin killing.  Double plays, like jeans, come in all shapes and sizes.  Common double plays include the 6-4-3, the 4-6-3, the 5-4-3, and the 3-6-3.  The most commonly involved players are the shortstop, second baseman, and first baseman.  Double plays, unlike most other defensive plays in baseball, involve a tandem of players who must prepare mentally and strategically, and then work together to physically carry out their intended task.

Just like the judges in an Olympic synchronized diving competition, we often grade the participants of a double play in two categories, mental preparation and execution.  In addition, the execution of an Olympic dive is partially graded based upon the difficulty of the dive.  This concept also applies to the double play.  Not all double plays are created equal.  Most baseball aficionados would consider a conventional double play one where a ground ball is hit directly at the shortstop.  He fields it cleanly, throwing the ball to the second baseman who has already occupied second base.  The second baseman catches the ball before the runner slides into the base, and throws a strike to the first baseman, thus achieving two outs in one play.

There is no way around it—double plays are a defensive goal and devastating to the offense.  This season, the team that has collectively grounded into the most double plays is the Minnesota Twins.  Not surprisingly the Twins also lead the major leagues in ground balls hit.  The Twins play in a pitcher/defense-oriented park, don't have a great offense, and have a number of fast players who would consistently hit the ball on the ground.

How about the other side?  I could not find a website that tracked the team that caused the most double play situations, but in lieu of that the baseball world uses a pitcher's ground ball percentage.  The pitcher with the highest GB% this season with a minimum of 70 innings pitched is Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Trevor Cahill with a 61% ground ball percentage.  The team with the highest ground ball percentage thus far in 2012 is the St. Louis Cardinals at 48.9%.  More double plays have occurred this season in the 6th inning than any other, while the fewest double plays have occurred in the 9th inning.  In addition, more double plays occurred in high leverage situations than any other.  Finally, pitchers created the most double plays this season in a no-ball one-strike count.

Sometimes double plays are quite odd.  This 4-2-1 double play occurred in a game between the Red Sox and the Rays in 2010 (Video).  Not all double plays involve only infielders.  For example, an outfielder may catch a fly ball, and consequently throw out a runner attempting to tag up.  Check out Rick Ankiel catching a fly ball in center field and throwing out a runner at third base, completing the 8-5 double play (Video).  Like many of the Olympic events, including synchronized diving, double plays often require athletic prowess.  In order to avoid a base runner sliding into them, and thus breaking up the double play, shortstops will often jump over the incoming runner and throw simultaneously to first base.

Gold Glove
Turning a double play is a crafty business.  Coaches position players in specific spots, including the positioning of the shortstop and second baseman at "double play depth," in order to help the players turn a double play.  Once a player is positioned correctly, the athleticism and split-second decision-making must kick in.  Oftentimes players need to know the circumstances when a double play would not be strategic.  Sometimes players will err when trying to complete a twin killing due to a level of extreme difficulty.  Note that errors are not awarded to fielders because in baseball, you can never assume a double play.  Even when a double play seems imminent and it looks like the fielder erred, he does not receive an error.  Instead, the play is scored as a fielder's choice.

Gold Medal

Double plays are a huge part of a baseball game.  Sometimes they go around-the-horn (5-4-3), while other times they move all over the infield, as in my favorite double play, the 1-2-3 variety.  The ability to complete a double play will often change the strategy of one or both of the managers.  Certain pitchers with abilities to produce ground balls are called upon in situations when a double play is likely to occur.  Overall, one thing is certain: the ability to get two outs in one play is invaluable.  It is comparable to going to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent and seeing that there is a buy-one-get-one free sale.  In sum, double plays are elegant, difficult to execute, and require team coordination, attributes that make the double play oddly similar to a synchronized dive.  Although the fielders do not win gold medals, double plays do help them win gold gloves.