Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

There’s always something to think about in the world of baseball. Here are 10 examples from this past week…

Derrek Lee is having one heck of a year.

I’m pretty proud of the new batting stats format we rolled out this week. You can now sort the stats in any order you like and learn lots of new things in the process, such as Lee’s major league standing in these offensive categories:

- Runs Created:          First
- Runs Created/Game:     First
- GPA:                   First
- Batting Average:       First
- Slugging Average:      First
- On-Base Percentage:    First
- BABIP:                 First
- BA with RISP:          Second
- Line Drive Percent:    Sixth
- HRs as % of OF Flies:  Sixth

And second in All-Star voting. To top it off, Bryan Donovan (the guy who developed the tremendous stats interface) found that Lee’s BABIP is almost literally off the graph.

Home runs come in bunches.

The Yankees hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in that historic comeback against Tampa Bay Tuesday night. In general, home runs follow other home runs more than any other event on a baseball field, a fact uncovered by Dan Agonistes.

This makes sense. If a pitcher allows a home run, he’s not exactly on a roll. He’s more likely to be a flyball pitcher in a home run park. The kind of situation that just screams home run. On the other hand, Dan found that home runs are more likely to follow a strikeout than other kinds of outs. Draw your own conclusions.

The point of small ball is to make your offense more predictable.

People keep talking about small ball in Chicago, much to the distraction of many of us. I really don’t know what small ball (or smart ball, as Joe Morgan/Ozzie Guillen like to call it) is. But a couple of recent articles made me think of it differently.

Some writers have noted that the main benefit of playing “small ball” is that it makes the offense more consistent. Sean Ehrlich took a detailed analytic look at this supposition in a Baseball Prospectus article (subscription required) and concluded that it’s not true. He found that teams that play small ball have about the same relative variance of runs scored per game as those that play for the long ball.

But John Dewan, in his most recent Stat of the Week, noted that the White Sox have scored more than 10 runs only twice this year, vs. 14 times at the same point last year, while they’ve been held to fewer than two runs only twice so far this year, vs. 10 times at the same point last year.

It seems to me that this is the really important point. Teams have a natural run scoring pattern, and the White Sox are not following that pattern. Here’s a distribution of the number of runs per game that the average major league team has scored this year, along with the White Sox’s distribution:


As you can see, the White Sox have scored two, four, five and six runs a game more often than the average team. To show you why this is important, take a look at these average winning percentages for teams that scored the following number of runs:

RS      Win %
 0      0.000
 1      0.078
 2      0.243
 3      0.322
 4      0.494
 5      0.606
 6      0.700
 7      0.858
 8      0.847
 9      0.880
10      0.936

Runs two through seven are a team’s “sweet spot.” If you had your druthers, you’d score between two and seven runs in every game. Which is just about what the White Sox have done.

In fact, if you multiply the White Sox’s run distribution times the average winning percent for each number of runs scored, you’ll find that the Sox have an “expected” winning percentage of .540! Despite the fact that they are scoring nearly half a run less than average! And when you add in the fine performance of their pitching staff, you have this year’s White Sox.

See, I threw in those exclamation points to make sure you didn’t miss what I was trying to say. I still don’t know what small ball is, but if it results in a run distribution pattern like the Sox’s, then I’m all for it.

Even if you’re not caught, it’s still cheating.

The Frank Robinson/Mike Scioscia brouhaha made its way to Chicago, where the ever-quotable Ozzie basically said, “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” Now, I’m a father, and my basic point of view can be summed up in this article.

I’ve been reading The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the crooks who ran Enron into the ground, leading to thousands of jobs cut, billions of dollars lost and contributing to an energy crisis in California. These guys clearly believed that it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught. The real shame is that the people who were supposed to be watching them did a lousy job until it was too late.

So here’s what I think: don’t confuse baseball ethics with business ethics. Life is not a baseball field. There are umpires and rule-enforcers on a baseball field; there are very few in real life. Remember that if you’re not caught cheating, it’s still cheating. My kids had to sit through that lecture, so I figured you might as well too.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

And while we’re dishing out some bromides, try these: “Trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” “Don’t settle.” “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” That would be Steven Jobs talking to this year’s Stanford graduates. Unless the link is a hoax.

Major league ballplayers are fined much less than other pro athletes for their transgressions.

Even when they do cheat, major league ballplayers’ wallets are relatively well protected. This Wall Street Journal article reviewed how often professional athletes have their fines reduced or—get this—refunded with interest. And I found the table at the end of the article most interesting; here’s a recap:

NBA 	  $13,900,000
NFL 	  $ 3,300,000
NASCAR       $384,495
MLB 	     $170,725

Major league ballplayers are fined MUCH less than other pro athletes. Which begs the question: do fines really matter? Skip Sauer has some good comments about the subject.

Pretty much exactly how much major league pitchers pitched in 1967.

We all know that starting pitchers don’t pitch as much as they used to, and Larry Dierker has outlined some very good reasons for this. Whether or not this change has been good for baseball is one of the frequent debates at Baseball Primer.

Chris J.’s Run Support Index blog has done a wonderful job of taking Tangotiger’s pitch count estimator and applying it to previous seasons (1967, 1969 and 1974). As an added service, Chris has categorized each pitcher’s start into one of five categories, based on the Baseball Prospectus framework.

Here’s one example. In 1967, Chris estimates there were about 280 games in which the starter pitched more than 133 pitches. In 2004, there were ten.

Along the same lines, did you know that Gary Gentry once pitched every inning of a 15-inning game for Arizona State, for a total of 208 pitches? This was three days after pitching a complete game shutout against Arizona. Imagine if a college pitcher did that today.

Or that on July 29, 1959, minor leaguer Juan Marichal lost a complete game 1-0 to Julius “Little Mudcat” Grant (the younger brother of Jim “Mudcat” Grant), who also pitched a complete game? The kicker? It was a 17-inning game.

Cap Anson once starred in a Broadway play.

Just received my copy of The National Pastime, SABR’s annual historical magazine. I haven’t had a chance to read much of it, but I did digest a great article about the time Cap Anson starred in his own play, which ran on Broadway and other theater venues in late 1895 and early 1896. Reviews were mixed, naturally, though Anson’s fame seemed to carry the play for a while.

The entertainment industry has not had a lot of success turning baseball stars into actors. Babe Ruth was cast in several movies during his playing career, most notably a 1926 full-length feature called “The Babe Comes Home.” Which inspired this cricital appraisal from teammate Mark Koenig: “He couldn’t act worth crap.”

Felipe Lopez has hit the second-most outfield flies for home runs.

Did I mention that we have a new format for our batting stats? As another example of what you can do on that page, try sorting all major league players by HR/F, which stands for the percent of outfield flies that are hit for home runs.

Preston Wilson is first at 31%, and Reds’ shortstop Felipe Lopez is second at 27%, ahead of such luminaries as Adam Dunn, Alex Rodriguez, Derrek Lee and Bobby Abreu. I’m sure the Great American Ballpark has something to do with this, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you selected Felipe Lopez to your National League All-Star team.

Titanium necklaces are the new “edge.”

According to The New York Times (registration required), those colored necklaces that a lot of baseball players wear are actually made of nylon coated in a titanium solution. Supposedly they help circulation and relieve stress.

Hey, they’re better than steroids. I think.

This may be the next wave of cheating.

Speaking of steroids, everyone is wondering what the next phase of cheating with controlled substances will be. I say that opposing teams will start sending remote-controlled headless zombie flies to harass the pitcher on the mound. Remember, you heard it here first.

References & Resources
My stories about pitching lots of innings came from the SABR-L mailing list. You really should join SABR. And a special mention goes to Jules Tygiel for his terrific book Past Time: Baseball as History, which is filled with many great stories, such as Babe Ruth’s acting career.

Here is an official link to Steve Jobs’ commencement speech. Thanks to reader Jon Schwindt.

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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