Sunday, May 17, 2015

Defense Winning Games For Tigers

When the Tigers lost starters Max Scherzer to free agency and Rick Porcello to trade, there was a lot of concern about the Tigers staff in 2015.  Concern turned to angst when another starter Justin Verlander went down with a triceps strain in spring training.  They would now have to rely on Shane Greene, Kyle Lobstein and Alfredo Simon to keep opposing offenses in check.  That combined with a very questionable bullpen made the Tigers ability to prevent runs appear to be daunting task.  But here we are almost a quarter of the way through the season and the the Tigers have allowed only 4.1 runs per game which is actually down from 4.3 last year.  How is this happening?

As it turns out, Geene, Lobstein and Simon have held their own and the bullpen, led by new closer Yoakim Soria, has not been bad.  However, right-handed starter Anibal Sanchez has struggled and Price has not quite replaced Scherzer's performance of the last two years.  Various measures of pitcher contribution to run prevention show that the Tigers staff has not been as good this year.  The standard FIP statistic has increased from 3.60 in 2014 to 3.76 in 2015.  Other measures make the staff look even worse with xFIP ring from 3.76 to 4.11 and SIERA from 3.71 to 4.15.

So, while the staff has not been awful, it is not the reason for the improved run prevention.  That leaves the defense and the gains there have been remarkable.  The upgrades have been clear to anyone who follows the team closely.  A now healthy Jose Iglesias has been a magician at shortstop and the outfield defense has improved markedly with the additions of left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and center fielder Anthony Gose and the subtraction of right fielder Torii Hunter.  Even third baseman Nick Castellanos has gotten better at third base

Last year, defense cost the the Tigers 65 runs according to the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and I pointed out before the season that the Tigers could gain roughly six wins with only any average defense.  Thus far, the Tigers have been even better than average with fielders saving them 15 runs by DRS.  If they continue to save runs at the same place, they would be up to +60 by season's end which would be a 12 game improvement over last year! More conservatively, if they stay at +15, that would be an eight win improvement over last year.  Either way that is a lot of wins for a defensive unit.

After years of watching fielders stumble and fumble around Comerica Park, the Tigers finally have a defensive team that is fun to watch.  The improvement is obvious both to the eyes and to the calculator.

Data from the post were abstracted from FanGraphs.com.  


Saturday, May 02, 2015

Introducing DRA: The Latest Sabermetric Rage

Most readers of this blog are aware of the limitations of ERA or Run Average (RA) in evaluating pitcher performance.  Two of the biggest issues are:
  • RA gives pitchers full credit/blame for results of batted balls in play despite the fact that they share that responsibility with fielders.  For example, a pitcher with a strong defense behind him will tend to give up fewer hits (and thus fewer runs) than if he has a poor defense behind him.
  • RA gives pitchers full responsibility for sequencing or timing of events, that is, it assumes that they can control when they give up hits and walks. For example, if a pitcher pitches extraordinarily well with runners in scoring position in a given year, he will have a lower ERA than if he had a typical year in those situations. Additionally, a pitcher who tends to bunch base runners together in single innings will have a higher ERA than if he had a typical year distributing base runners more evenly.
In reality, pitchers have limited control over both the number of batted balls that drop for hits and sequencing of events.  Thus, Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS) such as FIP, xFIP, tERA and SIERA have been developed to remove some of the noise of RA.  DIPS are based on things that pitchers do control for the most part - walks, hit batsmen, strikeouts, home runs and types of batted balls (ground balls , fly balls, line drives, pop flies).

Because they are based on things that pitchers essentially control, the DIPS metrics are said to be better measures of true talent than RA.  As a result, they are also better than RA at predicting future performance. However, they only measure a portion of a pitcher's talent and should be used as complements to RA rather than as replacements.  

It is not known exactly how much control pitchers have on the results of balls in play, but recent research tells us that some pitchers are better than others at preventing hits on balls in play.  For example, Mike Fast, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and now a MLB sabermetrician, used Sportsvision's hit f/x data to show how pitchers varied on the speed of balls off the bat. 

So, rather than making the big leap from RA to FIP, it seems to be a good idea to first meet half way.   Instead of removing hit prevention and sequencing in one step, it might be better to remove one factor at a time.  Bill James did that with his Component ERA (ERC).  Applying the runs created methodology to pitchers, he determined what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on walks, hit batsmen,  strikeouts, homers AND hits allowed.

Additionally, The Base Runs measure was created by David Smythe in the early 1990s.  It is based on the idea that we can estimate team runs scored if we know the number of base runners, total bases, home runs and the typical score rate (the score rate is the percentage of base runners that score on average).  Base Runs also works well for individual pitchers.  The complete formula can be found here.

There is now a new pitching metric that goes beyond any of the above measures.  This new measure Deserved Run Average or DRA was developed by Baseball Prospectus Researcher Jonathan Judge with help from Harry Pavlidis and Dan Turkenkopf.  The statistic is introduced in an overview article and in a more complex article explaining all the math.

The first article explains that the calculation of DRA starts by assigning weights to each batting event (similar to the wOBA statistic for batters) according to how much, on average, they contribute to runs scored.  For example, a home run adds 1.4 runs on average and a double play costs 0.75 runs.  That is similar to what ERC and Base Runs do.

The next steps are what separate DRA from its predecessors.  It adjusts for all kinds of context such as:
  • ballpark
  • whether pitcher is pitching on home or road  
  • identity of opposing batter and handedness of batter
  • identity of catcher and how proficient he is at framing pitches
  • identity of umpire and how often he calls strikes versus balls
  • runners on base and number of outs before each plate appearance
  • run differential before each plate appearance
  • quality of defense behind pitcher
  • whether pitcher is starting or relieving
  • game time temperature
  • quality of base runners
  • ability of pitcher to control running game.
  • responsibility of pitcher for wild pitches and passed balls.  

That's a lot of variables!

The result is a number that looks like an ERA but it attempts to isolate the runs for which a pitcher is truly responsible.  For example, Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez has an ERA of 5.46, but other statistics indicate that he has not been so bad and is being charged runs for which he is not responsible.  FIP has him at 4.11 and DRA makes him look even better at 3.93.  So, while over five runs per nine innings have scored while Sanchez has been in the game, DRA is saying that he has been responsible for only slightly less than four per nine innings.

One question you might have is whether the the calculation of DRA is mathematically sound. As a statistical programmer with experience in mixed models, the foundation of DRA, the method looks fine to me as far as I can tell.  Researchers such and Tom Tango and Brian Mills have reviewed it more thoroughly and seem to approve.  If you are mathematically inclined and want to see for yourself, you can read the in depth article.  

Do we need another pitching statistic?  I think we do.  ERA is not adequate in the short term for reasons discussed above. FIP and other DIPS variations get closer to measuring pitcher talent but leave questions unanswered such as what to do about batted balls in play. Components ERA and Base Runs address batted balls but give all the responsibility to the pitcher which is not correct.  

Does DRA need to be so complicated?  That is what I am not sure about.  I like that they control for quality of batters faced and defense behind the pitcher, but do they need to control for game-time temperature?  There is not much written so far about how much each component contributes to a pitchers value.  There are an awful lot of variables and I get a little uncomfortable when we jump from simple to complex so quickly.  These are questions rather than critiques as I don't know the answers and look forward to further research and discussion.  

The question most of you are probably interested in is how does DRA evaluate Tigers pitchers?   The answers are shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1: DRA for Tigers Starters 
Pitcher
ERA
FIP
DRA
Simon
3.13
3.36
3.25
Lobstein
3.91
3.32
3.36
Price
3.48
2.82
3.40
Greene
4.60
3.52
3.53
Sanchez
5.46
4.11
3.93
Data Source: Baseball Prospectus

Right-hander Alfredo Simon leads Tigers starters and is tenth in the American League with a 3.25 DRA.  This is only a little higher than his ERA (3.13) and slightly lower than his FIP (3.36).  So, he looks good by any measure so far.  As seen in the above example with Sanchez, the other Tigers newcomer Shane Greene also fares much better on DRA (3.53) than on ERA (4.60).

So, we've got a brand new pitching statistic with a lot of potential.  It's probably somewhat better than other available numbers   As with any new measure though, we should not view it as the end all of pitching statistics, but rather as another number to view while evaluating pitchers.  Pitching evaluation has traditionally been quite muddy though, so a fresh new approach is very welcome.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tigers Staff Lacks Swing and Miss Pitchers of Past Years

Just two years ago, the Tigers had one of the most dominant pitching staffs in recent history. They racked up an astonishing 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) resulting in a major league record 1,428 strikeouts.  After finishing with a league average 7.7 strikeout rate last year, they have dropped to 6.5 K/9 this year which ranks 14th in the American League ahead of only the Twins.

In 2013, the Tigers had three starters - Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander - with over 200 strikeouts and at least 8.9 per nine innings.  It didn't stop there as they had five relievers with at least 9 K/9 including the amazing Al Alburquerque (12.9), Joaquin Benoit (9.8) and Drew Smyly (9.6).

The only healthy holdovers from that record breaking staff are Sanchez and Alburquerque.  Despite some rocky early-season outings, Sanchez is still getting his strikeouts (9.9 K/9).  Alburquerque, on the other hand, has lost between three and four MPH on his fastball compared to last April and has only 7.1 K/9.  Verlander is still with the team but is currently on the disabled list with a strained triceps muscle.

The new pitchers are not getting batters to swing and miss very often.  Right hander David Price has a respectable 8.0 K/9, but that is down from 9.5 last year.  The other starters are all near the bottom of the league - Shane Greene (4.0), Kyle Lobstein (4.9) and Alfredo Simon (5.2).  Moreover, the only reliever as high as 7.0 is Alburquerque.  Greene's low strikeout rate is particularly surprising as he was up to 9.1 in 2014.

Can they win without strikeouts?  In the 70s and 80s, staff aces often excelled with 6 K/9 as long as they had good control and kept the ball in the park.  In the current environment with depressed offenses and a stronger emphasis on defense more similar to the 80s than the so called steroid era., you would think that punch outs would become less important again.  So far, it hasn't happened as K's are still at an all-time high around baseball and most of baseball's top pitchers have rates north of 7.

There is some hope though.  The Orioles and Royals both finished in the bottom half of the league in strikeouts in 2014, yet finished third and fourth respectively in runs allowed.  One of the keys to those teams was strong defense.  The Orioles led the AL with +49  Defensive Runs Saved and the Royals were second with +40.

The Tigers defense might not be quite that good, but it has improved over in leaps and bounds over last year when they cost themselves 65 runs defensively.  With upgrades at shortstop, center field and left field and some improvement from Nick Castellanos at third, the Tigers may not be the best in the league, but the should be at least average (currently +4).  Thus, they are better equipped to survive without strikeouts than they were last year.

Data for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com, BrooksBaseball.net and FanGraphs.com.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shane Greene Intriguing Fantasy Owners

Article contributed by guest poster Jan Stevens

With the departure of Max Scherzer and the uncertainty of Justin Verlander, many people around baseball thought that the pitching rotation for the Detroit Tigers would take a big hit in 2015. Sure, they still had David Price as the ace, but after him, there were some question marks with holdover Anibal Sanchez coming off an injury and newcomers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon in the back of the rotation. So far, Greene has impressed fantasy owners with a strong start for the Tigers.  It is still extremely early in the year, but he could help keep the Tigers in the driver’s seat in the American League Central.

By baseball standards, the 26-year-old Greene is a bit of a late bloomer. He was not highly regarded coming out of high school, and he even lost his college scholarship when he had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery. It took him five years in the minor leagues before he was finally given a chance to make his debut last year for the New York Yankees. He had decent numbers for New York last year, but he was still a very trade-able piece over the winter. Detroit was able to land the right-handed pitcher, and he started 2015 in the rotation.

Greene has only made two starts so far this year in the regular season, but he certainly made a pretty impressive impression on his new teammates. He threw 8 innings in each start for Detroit allowing only 8 baserunners in 16 innings. The only run he gave up was unearned, and most of all he was very confident on the mound the entire time. This is a bit of a shocker to some, as he was a mediocre minor league pitcher and still relatively raw at the highest level.

Despite numbers that didn’t exactly jump out to people in daily fantasy baseball last year, he showed potential with a 92-94 fastball, a plus slider and improving control.  He had a solid spring training, and it has carried over so far. There is a long season ahead, but the Detroit Tigers are feeling pretty happy about their low risk investment over the winter. If he can be a solid middle of the rotation guy, Detroit will be more than satisfied.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Perfect Season Ends, Undefeated Season Continues

The first four games were easy for the Tigers. They led from start to finish and there was never a feeling they were going to lose the game.  It was like watching the 1984 team that started out the season 35-5.  They were near perfect in every phase of the game - hitting, running, fielding, starting pitching and even the bullpen behaved itself.  Today was a different story.

It started out as pitcher's duel between two former Cy Young winners - David Price for the Tigers and Cory Kluber for the Indians.  The Tigers jumped out to an early lead with two runs in the first and were still up 2-0 after 5 1/2 innings.  Then the roller coaster began.

David Price walked two batters in the bottom of the sixth, then made a throwing error on a ground ball which should have been an inning-ending double play.  Then he allowed a two run double to light-hitting reserve outfielder Jerry Sands.  The Indians were up 3-2.

The hottest hitting team in baseball would have none of that.  They came back with three runs in the top of the seventh on two-out singles by Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.  The Tigers were up 5-3.

But this is not your 1984 Tigers with Senor Smoke and Willie Hernandez shutting down any late-inning lead no matter how precarious. Two walks - one by right hander Al Alburquerque and the other by southpaw reliever Ian Krol set it up another Indian rally in the eighth.  The immortal Jerry Sands came through again with a two-run double off Krol.  The score was tied at 5-5 after eight.

While they are not the 1984 Tigers, the 2015 Tigers can really hit.  They torched Indians closer Cody Allen for four runs in the top of the ninth.  The big hits were a tie-breaking single by Kinsler and a two-run double by left fielder Yoenis Cespedes.  The final score was Tigers 9 and Indians 6.

Anthony Gose

Not to be forgotten in the late-game craziness was another impressive performance by speedy center fielder Anthony Gose.  He led off the game with a home run to right off Kluber and later made two outstanding catches - one on a dive and another on a ball which he ran down in the left field gap.  In four games, he has nine hits, including four for extra bases, in 20 at bats.  He is looking like he could be an excellent acquisition defensively and perhaps offensively.

The Streak

The win was the fifth in a row for the Tigers.  According to Baseball-Reference.com, this is only the ninth time the Tigers have started the season 5-0, the last time coming in 2006.  They have started out 6-0 only three times and went as far as 9-0 in 1984. Three of those eight previous fast starts resulted in American League Pennants - 1909, 1984 and 2006.  Seven of the teams ended with winning seasons with only the 1960 team finishing below .500 at 71-83.    

    

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