Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

There’s angst in New York and Los Angeles

With five days to go in the baseball season, the Dodgers are woefully out of the race, and the Mets are losing when it “counts” the most. Here in the Midwest, the howls from both coasts are so loud we can’t hear the waves lapping at Oak Street Beach.

The always-grouchy Jeff Kent has laid the blame for the Dodgers’ late-season demise at the feet of his youthful teammates, saying “I don’t know why they don’t get it.” The Dodgers clubhouse is presently a tense place to hang. And now comes word that the Dodgers might trade Matt Kemp, he of the .331/.364/.509 batting line and questionable baseball instincts.

This is a pathetic situation for a storied baseball franchise, though you might have predicted this state of affairs when the Dodgers signed Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre during the offseason and continued to try to find a place for Nomar Garciaparra, despite having a fine pipeline of young talent. And now they want to trade Kemp? I suggest you read Jon Weisman’s take on the situation. You might also enjoy the 600 comments that are attached, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Meanwhile, Wallace Matthews of Newsday claims that the Mets lack a killer instinct. I would normally scoff at such a claim, but the Mets truly have looked woeful in the field lately. They’ve made more errors, lapses in judgment and just poor plays in September than I saw the rest of the year. It could just be one of those slumps but if it is, it has come at a terrible time. The Mets should expect some bad press.

The good news: Moises Alou has been on fire. In fact, he now has the longest New York batting streak since a guy named DiMaggio hit in 56 straight.

Teams in their prime handle postseason pressure best.

Lately, I’ve been reading that young teams have a tougher time in the postseason because they’re not used to the pressure cooker. Of course, my basic instinct is to research that kind of thing, so I opened up my spreadsheet and did. In particular, I looked at all postseason participants since 1969 (the first year of division play) and calculated the following:

  • The average “Win Shares Age” of each team, which is simply the team’s production weighted by the age of its top Win Shares contributors
  • How many teams there were in each age group
  • How many of those teams made it to the postseason
  • Of those, how many won the World Series

The results were interesting.

Age         Teams    Post   WSWin  WS/Post
24-25          3       0       0     --
25-26         26       2       1     50%
26-27        117       3       1     33%
27-28        233      41       6     15%
28-29        255      44      13     30%
29-30        174      42       8     19%
30-31         89      32       3      9%
31-32         28      14       2     14%
32-33         10       6       1     17%
33-34          1       0       0     --
Total        936     184      35     19%

Two of the five youngest teams to make the postseason since 1969 went all the way, but five teams isn’t really much of a sample size. The really interesting age group is the 28-year-old cohort, which made the postseason 44 times and won the Series 13 of those times. At 30%, that rate stands out from the other age groups.

My first reaction was to say that these were probably better teams, and this was true to an extent. There were relatively more “great” teams (which I defined as 95-plus wins) in the 28-year-old group. But even when I broke the data into two sets (over and under 95 wins), the 28-year-olds still had a higher success rate than the other age groups (of more then three postseason appearances).

Why is this interesting now? Because there are three teams currently contending for the postseason that, if they all make it, will represent three of the six youngest teams to play in the postseason since 1969. Arizona (26.3 Win Shares years old), Colorado (26.5) and Cleveland (26.6) are all younger than just three other postseason teams in the past 39 years. Based on the data, can we say that they’re more likely to fold under postseason pressure? No, we can’t.

There is one contending team whose Win Shares age is in the sweet spot: the Chicago Cubs (28.2 years).

Baseball is young again.

This was fascinating to me: the four youngest teams to have made the postseason prior to this year played in each of the first four years of my dataset:

  • The 1969 Mets (at 25.8 years, the second-youngest postseason team)
  • The 1970 Reds (25.1 years, the youngest of all, featuring Johnny Bench and Gary Nolan)
  • The 1971 Athletics (third-youngest at 26.4 years, with Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi)
  • The 1972 Reds (fourth youngest at 26.9 years)

Evidently, they just don’t make great young teams like they used to. That’s partly because players are now motivated to play for a longer time, with all the money involved and the advanced training techniques.

But 2007 stands out as a reversal of the trend. We haven’t seen young teams make the postseason like this since Samantha last twitched her nose on the air. As we wrote in last year’s Hardball Times Annual, “…let’s just say that 2006 will be viewed in history as the year in which a new breed of stars emerged.” This year, those young stars are impacting the postseason.

The Cubs will surely break a record this year.

As noted on the STATS blog, the Cubs have led the major leagues in strikeouts each of the last six years, tying the major league record (the 1903-08 Athletics and 1958-63 Dodgers accomplished the same feat).

It looks like the Cubbies will set a new record of seven straight years. As of Thursday morning (note: updated from original post), they have 1,181 strikeouts, twenty ahead of the Dodgers’ 1,161.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
The most improved bullpens

Over at Sports Illustrated, John Donovan makes a great case that the big difference between this year’s and last year’s Indians has been a couple of guys in the bullpen named Rafael. Fausto Carmona’s great year has had a lot to do with the Indians’ resurgence, too, but Donovan’s point is well taken. In fact, no team improved their bullpen as much this year as Cleveland did.

Here’s the difference in bullpen WPA for each team, compared to last year:

            2006    2007   Diff
CLE        -6.80    7.89   14.69
KC         -7.60    3.37   10.97
ATL        -5.35    4.55    9.90
WAS        -2.97    4.78    7.75
FLA        -6.00    1.12    7.12
ARI         1.05    7.69    6.64
TEX         0.00    6.01    6.01
MIL        -4.62    1.10    5.72
BOS         2.47    7.47    5.00
STL         1.24    6.15    4.91
CHN        -1.51    3.32    4.83
LAN         2.12    5.73    3.61
SD          6.28    8.23    1.95
SEA         6.25    7.00    0.75
SF         -2.28   -1.85    0.43
COL         0.03   -0.73   -0.76
PIT         2.57    1.41   -1.16
PHI         1.68    0.44   -1.24
NYA         3.15    1.71   -1.44
HOU         2.95    1.09   -1.86
CIN        -2.07   -4.48   -2.41
ANA         8.27    5.80   -2.47
TOR         3.82    1.21   -2.61
DET         4.65    1.98   -2.67
CHA         1.99   -1.40   -3.39
TBA        -3.88   -7.62   -3.74
BAL        -2.43   -6.49   -4.06
MIN        11.00    6.30   -4.70
OAK         8.62    0.76   -7.86
NYN         9.78    1.57   -8.21
           32.41   74.11   41.70

It’s nice to see the Royals’ bullpen, which has been pathetic the last couple of years, take a big step up. And I honestly didn’t know that the Nationals’ pen had performed so well this year.

But the other big trend to note is the huge improvement in bullpen WPA overall. This year, bullpen WPA is a whopping 74 wins above average, which speaks to how well teams have learned to deploy bullpen talent. For a year, at least.

Other pitching stuff

Hopefully, you read John Walsh’s pitch identification tutorial from last week, including a bunch of really cool PDF files for viewing the particular pitch characteristics of specific pitchers. As I looked over the pitchers charts, I was struck by a number of things:

  • Some of the best pitchers seem to have well-defined patterns. Justin Verlander looks like he has two basic pitches (in terms of movement), very distinct from each other.
  • Other pitchers, such as Dan Haren, show more of a continuum of movement from one extreme to the other.
  • You can spot why Jose Contreras has had a tough year: his graph shows no discernable pattern at all. On the other hand, neither does Tim Wakefield’s. So, maybe the pattern doesn’t really mean that much.
  • Chris Young has one heck of a rising fastball.
  • Brandon McCarthy’s curve has a lot of downward movement, not so much horizontal.
  • Tom Glavine has no apparent movement on his pitches at all. I don’t know how he’s done it.

Those are just some of my comments, based on what I could pick out of John’s charts. We are really seeing some phenomenal stats on pitchers this year. Have you seen STATS’ Whiff profiles? They’re basically a log of which types of pitches hitters swing and miss most often. Here’s a whiff profile of the aforementioned Young, and here’s one of Kelvim Escobar. Amazing stuff.

Many myths exploded

Jeff Sullivan writes Lookout Landing, one of those team blogs (the Mariners, in this case) that should be read by all general baseball fans. As evidence, consider the recent series of posts in which Jeff tried to dispel some of baseball’s enduring myths:

  • Part one, including “The Devil Rays can’t pitch”
  • Part two, including “Billy Beane is overrated”
  • Part three, “Young players are unreliable and inconsistent, while veterans are steady and dependable”

I don’t know that Jeff has dispelled every single one of those myths, but they sure make for thought-provoking web browsing.

How well the predictors predicted

Vegas Watch put together an analysis of how well several of the major baseball writers predicted this year’s pennant race. I’m glad he didn’t include anything from me in there. I’d probably make Steve Phillips look good.

The most extreme splits of the year

I’ve been hard at work on the 2008 Hardball Times Annual recently, getting it ready for shipping by the end of November. If you order it now from us, you’ll get it just a couple of days after it arrives from the printer. You can also order it on Amazon, but that won’t arrive until a couple of weeks later. Also, we make virtually nothing from Amazon sales, so please support us by purchasing it from us.

Something new in the Annual this year will be split information for every batter and pitcher. To keep it simple, we’ll calculate each player’s Gross Production Average (GPA) for each split (home/away and lefty/righty) and list the difference in our stats tables.

For example, I pulled every batter with at least 400 plate appearances, as well as every pitcher who has faced at least 400 batters, and calculated their home/away GPA split. Here’s a list of the batters and pitchers who created, or gave up, the most offense at home (relative to how they performed on the road):

Player           H-A
Cust J *        .090
Bannister B     .087
Lee D           .086
Garciaparra     .085
Pena T          .083
Hatteberg S     .080
Figgins C +     .080
Patterson C     .078
Holliday M      .076
Lugo J          .072

The phenomenal Jack Cust’s GPA is .362 at home and .272 on the road (for a difference of .090), completely against type for the pitcher-friendly MacAfee Coliseum. Royals pitcher Brian Bannister has been pulverized at home, while Tony Pena has enjoyed hitting in Kauffman Stadium. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? I have no idea what that means.

How about the players who have created, or allowed, relatively more offense on the road?

Player          H-A
Mauer J *      -.094
Santana E      -.093
Wells D *      -.093
Scott L *      -.091
Padilla V      -.086
Soriano A      -.080
Lo Duca P      -.078
Ortiz R        -.075
Hermida J *    -.074
Pujols A       -.073

Joe Mauer has not enjoyed batting at home, but home has been good to Ervin Santana and David Wells. Alfonso Soriano continues to play against ballpark type. Last year, he blasted 46 home runs despite playing in spacious RFK Stadium. This year, he hasn’t found Wrigley Field to his liking—but did you notice that Derrek Lee is among the leaders in hitting at home? Soriano is an enigma, and so is Wrigley (so is Wrigley Fields, for that matter).

The righty/lefty splits require a little more explanation. For each batter and pitcher, I looked at their handedness (an asterisk (*) is listed next to each lefty batter or pitcher, and a plus sign (+) is listed next to each switch hitter) to determine what should be their “natural” platoon differential, and then I subtracted one from the other. For instance, in the following list, Ryan Braun has the most extreme lefty/right split of any player because, as a righthanded batter, he’s killing lefthanded pitchers.

Player           L^R
Braun R         .167
Granderson C    .138
Zimmerman R     .134
Glaus T         .127
Thome J *       .124
Paulino R       .123
Hawpe B *       .107
Hatteberg S     .085
Roberts D *     .083
Ramirez A       .081

Similarly, Jim Thome, a lefthanded batter, is socking it to righthanded pitchers (but not so much the southpaws). Curtis Granderson and Ryan Zimmerman also have some of the most extreme platoon differentials in baseball. Did you notice that there are no pitchers on this list? Remember, these are positive differentials, and righty pitchers have a natural advantage over righthanded batters (as an example). This means that the most extreme splits among pitchers are going to be negative.

As you can see on this list, led by the lefty-dominating Dontrelle Willis, who just dominates lefthanded batters but righties? Not so much.

Player          L^R
Willis D *     -.184
Sosa J         -.129
Jones C +      -.111
Willingham J   -.108
Carlyle B      -.103
Kendrick K     -.099
de la Rosa J   -.099
Bergmann J     -.097
Kim B          -.090
Chacon S       -.087

Jorge Sosa, who has settled into a bullpen role for the Mets, might best be used as a ROOGY. But the most interesting players on the list are third and fourth: Chipper Jones, a switch hitter, has been much better batting lefty (against righthanded pitchers), despite being nearly even during the bulk of his career. And righthanded hitting Josh Willingham has spanked righthanded pitchers this year and really suffered against lefties. Last year, he performed somewhat better against southpaws.

Go figure.

The best fielders of the year.

I’m not a member of the BBWAA, so I don’t get to vote for MVP or Cy Young or Rookie of the Year candidates. But I get to do something even better: I’m a tie-breaker for John Dewan’s Fielding Bible Awards, which will be listed in this year’s Bill James Handbook. That means that if John, Bill James, Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, Hal Richman and a number of other baseball experts can’t agree on the best fielding whatsit, they’ll turn to me and a couple of other guys to break the tie. I’m nervous already.

I haven’t finished my picks yet, but this is the way I’m leaning right now:

Catcher: Yadier Molina, followed by I-Rod and Joe Mauer.
First base: Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee and Mark Teixeira.
Second base: Aaron Hill, then Robinson Cano. Kaz Matsui has had a surpisingly good year at Colorado and Howie Kendrick has looked good, too.
Third base: Pedro Feliz, then Brandon Inge, Ryan Zimmerman and Adrian Beltre.
Shortstop: Interesting one. Adam Everett missed significant time, and rookie Troy Tulowitzki has looked great in the field. Should I go with the rookie? Also John McDonald and Jose Reyes are in the mix.
Left field: Carl Crawford hasn’t had a great year statistically, but he is probably still the man to beat. Emil Brown has looked good, too, and Shannon Stewart has been reinvigorated in Oakland. Maybe Eric Byrnes? Tough choices.
Center field: Carlos Beltran, followed by Curtis Granderson, Andruw Jones and Nook Logan. Coco Crisp had a fine year in Boston.
Right field: Carlos Quentin had a great rookie year in Arizona, and presents the same dilemma as Tulowitzki. However, I’ll probably pick Alex Rios. Other contenders are Jeff Francoeur and Austin Kearns.

Pitcher? I have no clue. Hope I don’t have to break that tie.

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

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