Saturday, September 18, 2010

Giving Cabrera Credit for his Intentional Walks

In a recent FanGraphs article, Dave Cameron discussed how Miguel Cabrera has not been as valuable as some of his numbers might indicate.  His reasoning was that Cabrera has been walked intentionally 30 times and intentional walks are not as valuable as non-intentional walks:
Intentional walks are issued in situations where the opposing team believes it is more valuable to have the batter on first base than at the plate. It is a strategic move, based on the situation at hand, that is aimed at reducing the offense’s chance of scoring a run, or multiple runs, in a given inning. 

From the examination of thousands of games , it has been determined that the average non-intentional walk (NIBB) contributes about 0.33 runs.  In other words, if one NIBB is added to a team’s total in each game for 100 games, that team would be expected to add 33 runs to their season total.   An intentional walk (IBB), on the other hand contributes about 0.18 runs on average (according to The Book by Tom Tango, Michel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin).  Other events have the following approximate values (called linear weights):

HBP 0.33
1B .47
2B .77
3B 1.04
HR 1.40
Out –.27

These linear weights can be inserted into a formula to calculate Batting Runs (BR):

BR = 0.33 x NIBB + 0.18 x IBB + 0.33 x HBP + 0.47 x 1B + 0.77 x 2B + 1.04 x 3B + 1.40 x HR – 0.27 X Outs

Sometimes, other events such as errors, stolen bases and caught stealing are included in the formula, but those are not needed for this particular discussion.   Cabrera had the following numbers as of yesterday:

IBB 30
1B 90
2B 45
3B 1
HR 34
Outs 342

According to the above formula, Cabrera had 57.8 BR heading into today’s action.  This tells us that he has contributed 57.8 runs above what an average batter would have been expected to contribute given the same number of outs.  Suppose, we did not distinguish between NIBB’s and IBBS and credited Cabrera 0.33 runs for all of his walks.  In that case, we would add 30 x .15 = 4.5 runs giving him a total of 62.3 BR. 

Whether or not we distinguish between different types of walks is important in comparing his batting to Josh Hamilton, who is considered his main competition for the MVP award.  If we give batters less credit for intentional walks, then Cabrera leads Hamilton (38 NIBB, 5 IBB) in BR 57.8 to 56.2.  If we consider all walks to be worth 0.33 runs, then Cabrera leads 62.3 to 56.9.   We wouldn’t stop there in determining their value of course.  We would look at baserunning contribution, park effects, position and defensive contribution.  That’s for another post though. 

The question is should we distinguish between type of walk in the calculation of batting runs?  Tigers fans have protested that Miguel Cabrera is being unfairly punished just because he has had less protection in the batting order than Hamilton.  They also reason that he gets walked a lot because pitchers fear him and would rather not face him.  This indicates something positive about Cabrera’s hitting skill, not something negative. 

The purpose of Batting Runs though is not to punish or reward a player.  It’s also not meant to determine the best hitter.  It is supposed to determine how much value in terms of runs a player contributes to his team.  Thus, when a pitcher walks a batter to reduce the potential of scoring a run, it makes sense that the value of that walk might be reduced accordingly.

This practice is not universally accepted though.  Tango and FanGraphs distinguish between walks but Pete Palmer (the creator of the linear weights system) and Gary Gillette do not distinguish between NIBBs and IBBs in The ESPN Baseball Encylopedia.  Baseball-Reference follows the lead of Palmer on that issue as well.

A reason for not cutting the value of an IBB might be that many NIBBs are essentially IBBs.  There are many instances where batters are pitched around and receive a walk without it being an intentional walk.  This is especially true when considering  hitters of the caliber of Hamilton and Cabrera. So, do we cut the value of all their walks in high leverage situations because we know pitchers are usually not giving them anything to hit? 

I don’t think the solution to the intentional walk problem is cut and dried.  I typically look at FanGraphs Batting Runs (wRAA) before I go to Baseball-Reference but in the case of batters like Cabrera or Albert Pujols, who receive a lot of intentional walks,  I think it’s important to look at it both ways.  There is never one number that gives you the final answer in statistical analysis. 



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