Sunday, September 21, 2014

It's Like 1964 Again


Phillies outfielder Johnny Callison hit three-run homer to win 1964 all-star game 
(Photo credit: New York Daily News)

By most measures, 2014 has been a down year for offense in baseball.  Going into the final week of the season, Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau leads the National League with a .318 batting average.  The lowest batting average ever for an NL batting leader was Tony Gwynn's .313 mark in 1988.  If Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz stays at 39 home runs and nobody else has a big week, it would be the first time since 1982 that no major league hitter reached 40 home runs.  White Sox rookie sensation Jose Abreu's .978 OPS would  make him the lowest MLB OPS leader since Wade Boggs (.965) in 1988.  

Teams have scored only 4.08 runs per game this year.  That's down 13% compared to 2009 and 26% to 2000.  It's also the weakest offensive output since 4.12 in 1992 and 4.00 in 1981.  The .251 MLB batting average is the lowest since .244 in 1972, the last year before the designated hitter was added to the American League.  Home runs are being hit at a rate of 0.87 per game, the lowest since .72 in 1992.  

While 2014 is is one of the worst years for offense in recent decades, it is not unusual compared to the entire history of the game.  In fact, there have been 28 years since 1901 where runs were scored at a lower rate, Many of those years were within the Dead-Ball era from 1901-1919, but there have been other seasons of depressed offense including most of the 1960s decade culminating in 1968 when batters hit .237 and produced only 3.42 runs per game.  There were also several years in the 1970s and 1980s and even early 1990s which were comparable to 2014.   

One thing I like to do every year is to identify a past season which is most similar to the current season.  This season is actually not too far away from last year when teams scored 4.17 runs per game, although there were 9% more home runs in 2013.  It's also fairly similar to a few years - specifically 1988, 1989 and 1992 - during the period just before the so-called Steroid Era.  Runs were scored at about the same rate those years as this year, but there were more walks and fewer home runs.    

One year stands out as a remarkably close match to 2014.  In 1964, there were 4.04 runs per Game which is just 1% lower than this year.  Table 1 shows that the two years were within 2.5% in most offensive categories including batting average, home runs and walks.   There have been a lot more strikeouts this year.  In fact, there have been more strikeouts this year than any other season, but that's a topic for another day.

Table 1: Offensive Comparison of 1964 Versus 2014
Statistic
1964
2014
% Difference
Runs Per Game
4.04
4.08
1.0
Home Runs Per Game
0.85
0.87
2.4
Walks Per Game
2.96
2.90
-2.0
Batting Average
.250
.251
1.0
On-Base Percentage
.313
.314
0.3
Slugging Average
.378
.387
2.4
On-Base Plus Slugging
.690
.701
1.6
Weighted On-Base
.304
.310
2.0

I'm too young to remember whether this year "feels like" 1964, but it's interesting to look back.  That year is probably most remembered as the season the Philadelphia Phillies managed by Gene Mauch blew a 6 1/2 game lead with less than two weeks to go.  They lost ten games in a row down the stretch and finished a game behind St. Louis.  The Cardinals went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games.  

Hall-of-Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente led the majors with a .339 batting average and Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hit 49 home runs for the Twins, a pretty high total for that era.  The best hitter in the majors that year though was the legendary Mickey Mantle who batted .303 with 35 homers and a major league leading 1.015 OPS. 

The best all around player? Giants superstar Willie Mays had a WAR of 11.1, yet Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer won the NL MVP with just 6.1 WAR.  You can imagine how that would have been received if it happened today.   

The Tigers finished 85-67 in fourth place 14 games behind the Yankees.  The most typical line-up included:

C. Bill Freehan
1B. Norm Cash
2B. Jerry Lumpe
SS. Dick McAuliffe
3B Don Wert
LF. Gates Brown
CF Bill Bruton
RF. Al Kaline.

Kaline led the team with a .851 OPS and 5.6 WAR.  Freehan batted .300 with a .812 OPS and 5.3 WAR.  McAuliffe also had a good season leading the team with 24 home runs.  The top pitcher was left hander Mickey Lolich who struck out 192 and compiled a 3.26 ERA in 232 innings.  Right hander Dave Wickersham posted a 3.44 ERA in 254 innings.  

So, that was 1964.  Fast foward fifty years and you would think not much has changed in the game.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fan Scouting Report 2014

For the 12th year, Tom Tango is conducting his fan scouting report on fielding skills. The survey is a very valuable resource, so I'm encouraging all knowledgeable fans who watch a lot of Detroit Tigers games to participate.  Many readers of this blog have participated in the past and said it was fun and it only takes a few minutes.

The survey asks fans to rate the fielding skills of players on their favorite teams just based on observation. You will be asked not to use any stats at all and also not to vote based on what somebody else told you. Just use your own eyes as if you were a scout.  Past results were very interesting and informative, but a large sample size is needed in order for them to be useful again this year. Some of the results appear in the Bill James Handbook which comes out every November and also FanGraphs.com  So, I urge all of you to complete the ballot.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Do Big Innings Win Games?

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus recently claimed that most winning teams score more runs in one inning than losing teams do the entire game.  Long-time Detroit News writer Tom Gage wanted to know if this was true and asked his Twitter followers where one could find the answer.  There didn't seem to be an easy way to find it, so I went to the retrosheet.org play-by-play database to figure it out myself.

I took all 9,720 games from 2010-2013 and determined that the winning team scored more runs in one inning than the losing team scored the entire game 4,553 times (or 46%) of the games.  So, Ausmus was not quite correct, but he wasn't wrong in thinking that big innings have a substantial influence on the outcome of games,

Considering only the Tigers games during the same four-year period, a big inning produced enough runs for a victory 45% of the time.  Interestingly, it was 52% in 2013 and 50% so far this year. That is more than likely a small sample fluke, but big innings have had a slightly stronger impact than usual for the Tigers the last two years.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

How Are The Tigers Not Beating The Royals?

At first glance, it looks like the Tigers should be running away from the Royals instead of chasing them. Detroit has a strong hitting team built around first baseman Miguel Cabrera, designated hitter Victor Martinez and the surprising J.D. Martinez.  Kansas City's only above average starter has been outfielder Alex Gordon. Both teams seem to have good starting rotations, but the Tigers starters are more dominant accumulating a lot more strikeouts and allowing fewer home runs.  Still, the Tigers trail the Royals by a half game in the AL Central Division

The Tigers lead the league with a .329 on-base percentage .424 slugging and .753 OPS.  That puts them at 73 batting runs or 7 wins above average.  Meanwhile, the Royals are ninth in the league with a .682 OPS which translates to 18 batting runs or 2 wins below average.  So, there are nine batting wins separating the Tigers and Royals.

The Tigers starting staff is second in the league with a 3.46 FIP while the Royals are ninth at 3.97.  Using the FanGraphs WAR statistic, the Tigers starting staff is five runs better than the Royals.  So, just looking at the two most influential components of the game - hitting and starting pitching - the Tigers are 14 wins better than the Royals.

If you've been following the Tigers all year though, you know their weaknesses.  First, their bullpen has struggled posting a 4.13 ERA which ranks 13th in the league.  In comparison, the Royals relievers have a 3.53 FIP.  Using the WAR statistic, the Royals bullpen is four wins better than the Tigers.

Another area where the Tigers have done poorly is fielding.  According to the Defensive Runs Saved statistic, the Tigers defensive has cost them 59 runs which is second worst in the majors.  The Royals, on the other hand, have saved their pitchers 32 runs.  That's an 89 run or nine-win difference between the two teams.

Finally, the Tigers base running other than speedy outfielder Rajai Davis and second baseman Ian Kinsler has been a problem.  They are 3 runs below average according to the FanGraphs Baserunning Runs statistic while the Royals stand at 9 runs above average.  So, the Royals are one win better than the Tigers in base running.

Combining relief pitching, fielding and base running, the Royals are 15 wins superior to the Tigers.  Thus, the Tigers 14-win advantage based on hitting and starting pitching is completely offset by the "smaller" facets of the game.

So, that's why we've got a pennant race rather than a run away.  


Friday, August 22, 2014

Using RE24 To Account For Situational Hitting

Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez is adding runs with situational hitting
(Photo Credit: Bruce Hemmelgarn, USA Today Sports)

Many fans grumble that statistics such as OPS and Batting Runs do not account for situational hitting.  For example, if Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera singles with a runners on second and third to drive home two runs, he gets the same credit as he would for a single with the bases empty.  Some will argue that this is not fair because he contributes more to his team in the former scenario than the latter.  In this post, I will re-introduce an under-utilized statistic which accounts for a hitter's performance in different circumstances. 

Traditional fans like to address situational hitting with the familiar Runs Batted In statistic, but that is a team dependent measure.  A player has more or less opportunity to drive in runs depending on who is batting in front of him.  Thus, a player gets acknowledged for driving home runs, but does not get penalized for failing to drive home runs.  So, the RBI count is not an adequate measure of situational hitting.

Other fans point to batting average with runners in scoring position, but that is based on a limited number of plate appearances.  It also doesn't consider the number of outs, the specific base runners (e.g. bases loaded versus second base only) or the type of hit (single, double, triple or home run).  Moreover, it ignores a player's performance when no runners are in scoring position.  

What we want is a statistic which gives a player credit for everything he does including situational hitting.  Batting Runs Above Average by the 24 Base/Out States (RE24) - found at FanGraphs - does just that.  The RE24 statistic is also sometimes referred to as "Value Added".  This metric will give a player credit for his singles, doubles, and all other events, and gives him extra credit for hits occurring with runners on base.  It even gives him points for a scenario which most other metrics ignore - moving a runner over with a ground out.  On the other hand, it subtracts extra points for hitting into double plays.

In past posts, I discussed just plain Batting Runs or Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA or RAA) which is an estimate of how many runs a player contributed to his team beyond what an average hitter would have contributed in his place.  The RE24 metric is similar to RAA except that it uses base/out states in the calculation.  An example of a base/out state is "runners at first and third and one out".  There are 24 possible base/out states and RE24 takes all of them into consideration. 

In the calculation of RAA, a double with the bases loaded and two outs counts the same (0.770 runs) as a double with the bases empty and no outs.  Conversely, RE24 counts the bases loaded double more than the bases empty double (2.544 versus 0.632) because it does more to increase the expected runs scored in the inning.

The RE24 metric for one at bat gives us the difference between run expectancy at the beginning and end of a play.  For example, suppose Cabrera bats with a runner on first and one out. In that situation, we would expect 0.556 runs to score by the end of the inning.  Assume that Cabrera then doubles, putting runners on second and third with one out. In that situation, we would expect 1.447 runs to score by the end of the inning. Therefore, Cabrera's double is worth 0.891 runs.

Summing RE24 over all of a batter’s plate appearances yields his season total RE24. For
example, Cabrera has a RE24 of 30.7 this year.  So, by that measure, he contributed about 31 runs above what an average batter would have been expected to contribute given the same opportunities. This is higher than his 27.7 RAA, which means that Cabrera has been especially good in situations with high run expectancy and has added more to his team’s runs total than RAA indicates.  We can estimate that he has contributed an extra 3 runs with his situational hitting.

Since situational hitting is largely (although not completely) random, RE24 is less predictive than RAA and should not generally be used as a measure of ability based on one year of data.  It does become more predictive over multiple years and may be a more representative measure of ability over a career than RAA. Regardless of what it says about talent though, it is a good alternative to RAA for looking at past performance. 

Table 1 below shows that Angels center fielder Mike Trout (46.7) and Blue Jays left fielder Melky Cabrera (37.5) rank first and second in RFE24.  Cabrera's RE24 is 12 runs higher than his RAA which tells us that he has been very good in situations with high run expectancy.  On the flip side, Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista has a differential of -10.8 (24.2 on RE24 versus 35.0 on RAA) suggesting that he does not do as well in spots where he has a greater chance to contribute runs.  

Table 1: AL RE24 Leaders as of August 21, 2014
Name
Team
RE24

RAA
RE24-RAA
Mike Trout
Angels
46.7
37.8
8.9
Melky Cabrera
Blue Jays
37.5
25.5
12.0
Victor Martinez
Tigers
34.5
31.4
3.1
Michael Brantley
Indians
33.6
29.2
4.4
Jose Abreu
White Sox
33.2
34.9
-1.7
Robinson Cano
Mariners
31.7
25.0
6.7
David Ortiz
Red Sox
31.4
22.9
8.5
Miguel Cabrera
Tigers
30.7
27.7
3.0
Adrian Beltre
Rangers
26.8
24.8
2.0
Jose Bautista
Blue Jays
24.2
35.0
-10.8
Josh Donaldson
Athletics
23.1
16.9
6.2
Edwin Encarnacion
Blue Jays
21.6
28.6
-7.0
Kyle Seager
Mariners
21.0
18.4
2.6
Alex Gordon
Royals
20.6
17.6
3.0
Brandon Moss
Athletics
19.5
15.5
4.0
Conor Gillaspie
White Sox
17.9
12.9
5.0
Adam Eaton
White Sox
17.3
10.7
6.6
Lonnie Chisenhall
Indians
16.7
12.9
3.8
David Murphy
Indians
16.2
1.0
15.2
Jacoby Ellsbury
Yankees
14.7
6.2
8.5
Data source: FanGraphs.com

Table 2 shows that designated hitter Victor Martinez (34.5), Miguel Cabrera (30.7) and outfielder J.D. Martinez (15.5) are the only Tigers regulars with above average numbers for RE24.  Using RAA, all of the regulars other than the shortstops are above average.  

Additionaly, Victor Martinez (3.1) and Cabrera (+3.0) are the only hitters with positive RE24-RAA differentials.  So, most of the Tigers are not doing so well in plate appearances where there is high run expectancy.  Most notably, catcher Alex Avila has a differential of -9.5 and right fielder Hunter -9.1.

Table 1: RE24 for Tigers as of August 21, 2014
Name
RE24

RAA
RE24-RAA
Victor Martinez
34.5
31.4
3.1
Miguel Cabrera
30.7
27.7
3.0
J.D. Martinez
15.5
19.1
-3.6
Rajai Davis
-1.4
4.2
-5.6
Ian Kinsler
-1.9
4.4
-6.3
Austin Jackson
-2.3
3.6
-5.9
Eugenio Suarez
-3.1
-0.9
-2.2
Torii Hunter
-3.2
5.9
-9.1
Nick Castellanos
-3.6
0.8
-4.4
Alex Avila
-7.8
1.7
-9.5
Andrew Romine
-17.6
-10.2
-7.4
Data source: FanGraphs.com

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