Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

Frequently imitated but never duplicated, it’s time for “ten things I was completely unaware of a week ago”—otherwise known as my weekly chronicle of increasing dementia.

The Cubs and Tigers are two of the best fielding teams in the majors.

Have you noticed that the Cubs are way ahead of the rest of the National League in turning batted balls into outs (otherwise known as Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER))? Their DER is .756; the second-best NL DER is St. Louis’s, at .729. And the American League leaders are (surprise!) the Detroit Tigers at .739. That the Cubs and Tigers would be leading their leagues in fielding is indeed surprising; according to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible, they were both fairly average last year.

On the other hand, DER isn’t always the best way to judge fielding. For instance, I compared each team’s 2005 DER to Dewan’s plus/minus fielding results (probably the best publicly-available fielding system) and discovered a correlation of .5 (where 1 is perfect). In other words, DER captured about 50% of the true variance in fielding between teams. DER is a decent measure of true fielding ability, but not a perfect one.

If you also read the THT 2006 Annual (and who didn’t?), you know that I used batted-ball types (such as ground balls, fly balls and line drives) to better estimate a team’s true fielding ability. When I compared my results to the Fielding Bible, I found a correlation of .7. The batted ball methodology reduced the variance between DER and true fielding prowess by about 40%.

Ideally, we’d post our own “true fielding” plus/minus results, but that would require the purchase of specific hit location data from Baseball Info Solutions, which is outside our budget limit (buy more books!).

But we came fairly close to the Bible’s results in last year’s Annual, so let me apply that same approach to this year’s teams. The following table lists the number of outs above/below average for the top five fielding teams, given the type of batted balls allowed. The first figure is plus/minus based only on the average outcome of each type of batted ball allowed by the pitchers, and the second figure is a reflection of how well each team’s fielders handled each type of batted ball.

In other words, we’ve broken DER into two components: that part due to the batted balls allowed by pitchers and that part due to how well the fielders successfully fielded them for outs. And for good measure, we’ll throw in the fielder’s plus/minus results for ground balls and all “air” balls (line drives and fly balls):

Team         Pit     Fld            Grnd     Air
STL         -7.1    24.9            22.2     2.7
CHN          6.5    21.6             7.5    14.1
DET          6.4    16.9            21.9    -5.0
SF          -6.3    13.2             6.6     6.7
MIL          5.0    10.0            11.8    -1.8

According to our little system, the Cardinals are actually the best fielding team in the majors, though the Cubs and Tigers are second and third, respectively. The reason DER is higher for the Cubs and Tigers is that their pitchers have allowed more “fieldable” balls. The Cardinal and Tiger infields have been particularly impressive so far, while the Cubs’ revamped outfield (Murton, Pierre and Jones) is primarily responsible for the their fine fielding.

You can find these fielding stats for every team, updated daily for the rest of the year, in our Team page.

Albert Pujols may be the main man responsible for the Cardinal’s fine infield.

One of the Fielding Bible results that surprised me was that the Cardinals’ infield was very good in both 2004 and 2005, despite a near complete turnover in personnel (such as Renteria/Eckstein at short and Rolen/Nunez at third). It turns out that the guy at first may have been the reason for their consistency.

According to John Dewan’s latest Stat of the Week, Albert Pujols actually saved 42(!) bad throws to first base last year. That’s a stunning total; the next-highest figure was Derrek Lee’s 23. Perhaps the key person in the Cardinal infield isn’t at one of the “skill positions.” And perhaps I’ve never fully appreciated the impact a good-fielding first baseman can have on a team.

Pitching Runs Created

I’m really proud of our new stats listings at THT, even though I had very little to do with them. Bryan Donovan is the man who makes our stats go, and he’s done a great job of updating the interface and making it much easier to use.

We haven’t changed many of the stats, though we did change our GB/FB ratio to GB% (percent of batted balls that are ground balls). This apparently upset at least one person, but GB% is a much better stat because its scale is more intuitive (for instance, a GB/FB ratio of 2.0 doesn’t mean there were twice as many ground balls as 1.0) and it doesn’t change if line drives are counted as flyballs or not. (BTW, thanks to this year’s Baseball Prospectus for showing me the light on that one).

But the big change is that we’ve added David Gassko’s Pitching Runs Created (PRC) to our THT pitching stats. We generally don’t like to introduce new stats at THT, but every once in a while a stat seems important and unique enough to warrant a space on our pages. PRC is that kind of stat.

I’m not aware of any other stat that does what PRC does: it expresses pitching performance on the same scale as batting (Runs Created). You can use PRC and Runs Created to directly compare the contributions of batters and pitchers. Bill James tried to accomplish the same thing in Win Shares by using an arbitrary figure of 152% of league-average runs allowed instead of 150% (which is the equivalent of what he used for batters). PRC also gives more credit to pitchers for “runs saved,” but not arbitrarily.

Having said that, there are a few problems with PRC early in the season. If a pitcher hasn’t allowed any runs (such as Duaner Sanchez or Jonathan Papelbon), his PRC is zero when it should be much higher. We’re working on that. Secondly, pitchers can rack up very high totals early in the season. Unlike Runs Created, a pitcher’s PRC can actually decrease after a poor outing. So you may see some funny up and down swings as the season progresses.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Nevertheless, I’m excited about this additon to our stats. Here is a combined leaderboard (batters and pitchers) of the leading major league run creators so far this season:

Last        First      Tm         RC/PRC
Maroth      Mike       DET           37
Maddux      Greg       CHN           36
Carpenter   Chris      STL           29
Pujols      Albert     STL           29
Contreras   Jose       CHA           27
Schilling   Curt       BOS           26
Mussina     Mike       NYA           26
Thome       Jim        CHA           26
Webb        Brandon    ARI           24
Penny       Brad       LAN           24

As you can see, eight of the top 10 leaders are pitchers. Guys with ERAs below 1.00, like Maroth and Maddux, rank particularly high. That will change as the season moves along.

But these results raise an interesting question: could this be the reason that pitching is apparently more important in a short series?

Wandy Rodriguez!

I love early-season surprises, like Chris Shelton and Xavier Nady, but my favorite early-season surprise is the Astros’ Wandy Rodriguez, who is 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA and one of the keys behind the Astros’ fast start.

There’s one basic difference between this year’s Wandy and last year’s: the long ball. Last year, almost 17% of his fly balls were home runs. This year, that figure is 4%. I boldly predict he will allow relatively more home runs the rest of the year.

Among other young surprising pitchers with quirky stats, the White Sox’s rookie Boone Logan received a save the other night when he entered a game against the Mariners with an 11-0 lead in the seventh and allowed three runs to score during their 13-3 win. Crazy. Plus, he’s got a 2.70 ERA despite striking out three and walking five in 6.2 innings.

Personally, I’m rooting for the kids just because I think “Wandy Rodriguez” and “Boone Logan” are awesome baseball names.

The Mets have the best bullpen in the majors.

Speaking of bullpens, the Metropolitans spent a lot of money on Billy Wagner during the offseason, and traded some good starters for bullpen help. They even moved Aaron Heilman from the rotation to the bullpen. The good news is that the Mets’ bullpen has been best in the majors so far this year (at least, before yesterday). They lead all bullpens in ERA and Win Probability Added (as measured by Baseball Prospectus).

When handing out credit for the Mets’ fast start, you might want to grudgingly give some credit to their front office for bolstering their bullpen. Of course, it helps that their starting rotation is third in the league in ERA, as well.

One of the most-overlooked stories of the early season has been the Rockies’ bullpen, which is third in the league in Baseball Prospectus’s WPA and sixth in bullpen ERA (despite pitching in Colorado).

On the other hand, the Indians clearly didn’t do enough to reinforce their bullpen, which contributed tremendously to their fine 2005. Bobby Howry, David Riske and Arthur Rhodes all moved ont other teams and their replacements haven’t stepped up yet. The Indians’ bullpen ERA is the third-worst among all major league teams this year.

Baseball players are sexist

I was listening to a Reds game the other day when the announcers started talking about a pitcher who had attended a college that didn’t have a baseball program anymore. One of the announcers muttered something like “Probably due to Title IX.” The problem was that the college is in Canada, and isn’t subject to Title IX.

Then I read that Keith Hernandez said some disparaging remarks about women in the San Diego dugout, upsetting some Padres folks and fans. Hernandez’s remarks were rather mild compared to many things I’ve heard over the years, but they were still inappropriate.

Baseball, like most professional sports, does not tolerate women in its inner sanctum very well, which is why this story about the women’s USA baseball team hiring an actual female head coach for the first time is timely and even a bit inspiring. (Thanks to Baseball Think Factory for the link.)

The latest issue of By The Numbers has been released

SABR’s statistical analysis committe has released its latest version of By The Numbers. This edition includes a couple of ruminations on the Pythagorean Formula, and I found the run creation and luck article by Jim Albert to be most interesting.

In other mathematical research, scientists have discovered the formula for the perfect derriere. Hmm, maybe Keith Hernandez would be interested.

Retrosheet has it all!

You cannot say enough about the people behind Retrosheet, the online repository of every major league game ever. They just released most of the “missing gap” of baseball seasons, 1993 – 1998 (1999 is coming) in their event files, thanks to the generosity of Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM). Except for 1999, they now have amazing detail for every game played from 1957 through 2005. Plus, they’ve added the 1921 and 1922 NL seasons.

As Ed McMahon might say, “Everything you could possibly want to know about baseball is in that one simple website!” God Bless Retrosheet.

It’s still early, but maybe we’ve been too harsh on Jim Bowden.

Like a lot of other baseball fans, I thought Nationals’ General Manager Jim Bowden made a bad trade when he dealt Brad Wilkerson to the Rangers for Alfonso Soriano. When Soriano won $10 million in arbitration and then refused to play second, the trade looked like a disaster.

It’s way to early to say we were wrong, but the so far the evidence isn’t in our favor. Soriano is hitting .329/.374/.635 with 19 Runs Created, while Wilkerson’s numbers are .195/.271/.325 and six Runs Created. Reportedly, Wilkerson’s shoulder is getting better and his performance will certainly improve. But maybe we should stop giving Bowden such a hard time. I mean, the poor guy is drinking and driving and even his girlfriend is scratching his face.

Reportedly, owners have finally been selected for the Nationals. Good luck to them. I hope Forbes is correct in their financial evaluation of the team.

David Copperfield used magic to avoid being robbed

True story. Three kids tried to rob magician David Copperfield and two other people in Florida, but he used his magic skills to convince them he was empty-handed.

Copperfield told Page Two he pulled out all of his pockets for Riley to see he had nothing, even though he had a cellphone, passport and wallet stuffed in them.
“Call it reverse pickpocketing,” Copperfield said.

Copperfield’s act may be cheesy, but you’ve got to admire his cool with a gun held to his head.

A few other things

Following up last week’s WPA article, I found that there is a superb Red Sox site that not only tracks the team’s WPA, but displays WPA trends in some excellent graphical formats. You also might be interested in some basketball WPA graphs.

Baseball Prospectus has also created a great set of new stats reports that allow you to choose and sort statistics anyway you’d like. Great job, guys.

Bonus link for reading the entire article: Steroids: The Musical includes this aria from a young Mark McGwire:

I’m skinny.
I’m scrawny.
I’d rather be brawny.
But bulking up takes so much work and time.
If only I could
Cut corners, I would.
There’s dignity in a victimless crime.
There’s dignity in a victimless crime.

References & Resources
For the statisticians among you, I actually used R squared in my analysis of DER vs. the Fielding Bible. I just called it correlation in the hope of not losing my non-statistical audience.

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

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