Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Expanded Playoffs Looking Likely for 2012

According to Ken Rosenthal of fox Sports, MLB is going to announce that the MLB playoffs will expand from eight to ten teams starting with the 2012 season: 
Ken Rosenthal: Sources: Additional wild cards a "go" for this season. Playoffs to expand from eight to 10 teams. Announcement tomorrow.
Others are saying that the arrangement is not official yet, but that they would be shocked if it didn't happen.  If by some chance, it doesn't happen for 2012, it will definitely start in 2013.  The plan is to have three division winners and two wild cards in each league.  The two wild cards will then meet in a one-game playoff to determine which of them continues on to the seven-game divisional series.

Commissioner Bud Selig says that the new playoff set-up is more "fair".  However, I believe the primary reason behind the move is that single elimination games are exciting and will attract a lot of fan interest.  Consequently, this plan will generate a lot of television revenue for MLB.  I personally don't care whether MLB increases their profits.  I am more concerned whether this move is good for the game and my feelings are mixed.

My first thought upon hearing about expanded playoffs last year was that it is silly and gimmicky.  I am not a fan of a one-game playoff in baseball because it can give an unfair advantage to a team with a more favorable one-game pitching match-up.  Baseball is a marathon rather than a sprint and one game isn't enough to decide anything.

Consider the following scenario: The Tigers battle the Indians to the wire and are tied going into game 162.  They use Justin Verlander on three days rest hoping to clinch the division.  Verlander loses 1-0 and the Indians win their game.  The Tigers win 97 games and finish in second place.  Meanwhile, the Yankees win just 89 games, finish five games behind the Rays and have ace C.C. Sabathia well rested for the playoff game versus the Tigers.  The Tigers probably had the better season, but are at a distinct disadvantage in the one-game playoff.

while I am not a fan of a one-game playoff, there is some upside to the plan.  Winning the division becomes more meaningful because no team is going to want to play in a one-game playoff if they have a chance to win the division.  There will be no more backing into the wild card spot the way the Tigers seemed to do in 2006.  Division titles should count for something and now they should count for a lot. 

Another option would be to have the wild card teams meet in a series of games just like a regular playoff.  That would remove the potential unfairness of a one-game match-up.  The problem there is that the three division winners in each league would then have to sit around and perhaps get rusty before their playoffs began.   Again, think of 2006 when the Tigers had a week off before the World Series.  This would take away the advantage of winning the division title which I see as the main benefit of the new plan.

So, it's going to be two wild cards meeting in a one-game showdown.  I'm always leery of seeing MLB tinkering with a good thing and this seems really gimmicky on the surface.  However. I can see enough good in this to not complain too much.  I believe that regular season titles should be at least as significant as the post-season and this is a positive move in that direction.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Year Ron Leflore went Streaking

The Tigers 1976 season is remembered as the year rookie sensation Mark "The Bird" Fidrych took the city of Detroit and the whole baseball world by storm.  What few fans remember however is that center fielder Ron Leflore made Tigers history that year before Fidrych became famous.  Leflore would become the first Tiger to hit in 30 straight games since Hall of Famer Goose Goslin in 1934.  Moreover, no Tigers hitter has maintained a streak of that length since Leflore.

Leflore was not in the Tigers line-up the first three games of the season as manager Ralph decided to insert Ben Oglivie as the center fielder and lead-off hitter to start the season.  Leflore first appeared in the third game of the season on April 16 as a pinch runner in the eighth inning, but did not bat.  The speedy Tigers outfielder would finally get the start in center and bat lead off in game four versus the Angels.  He led off the game with a double to center and went one for four for the day.

By the end of April, Leflore had a seven-game hitting streak and a .323 batting average.  He started to play more regularly and the hits kept coming.  After a three-hit game versus the White Sox on May 9, the right-handed hitting Leflore had a 13-game hitting streak and was batting .386.  The streak reached 20 games on May 17 when he singled off Red Sox hurler Luis Tiant in the eighth inning.

A four-hit game on May 23 versus the Orioles brought the streak to 25 games and raised his batting average to .409.  It started to get a little tougher after that, but he extended his streak to 29 with four consecutive one-hit games.  He then went two for five versus the Red Sox on May 27 to make it a 30-game hitting streak.  During that stretch, Leflore batted .392 with 15 extra base hits, 13 stolen bases and 22 runs scored.

The amazing streak was finally stopped by Ed Figueroa and Tippy Martinez of the Yankees on May 28.  Leflore went zero for four including a fly to right, a ground out to third and a force out at short.  Finally, Leflore was called out on strikes in the eighth batting versus Martinez.

Leflore went on to start the all-star game along with Fidrych and right fielder Rusty Staub.  For the season, he batted .316/.376/.410 with 58 stolen bases.  

The 30-game hitting streak tied for the third longest in franchise history behind Ty Cobb with 40 games in 1911 and 35 games in 1917.  In the 35 years since 1976, no Tiger has even approached a run of that length.  The most was 20 by shortstop Alan Trammell in 1984. 
 
Leflore's feat was lost among the "The Bird" mania that swept the city in 1976, but it should not be forgotten.  it was a remarkable string of excellence unmatched by any Tiger in the last 77 years.


Sources: The data for this article were extracted from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org


 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Quick Review of Baseball Prospectus Annual

I received my copy of Baseball Prospectus 2012 this week and have already spent several hours reading it.  There are a lot of new writers this year, but it's the same quality product.  The format is the same as past years.  It's starts out with a short chapter explaining the statistics which are used in the book.  Then it jumps into team by team analysis including profiles on virtually every player who might possibly play in the majors this year or in the near future. 

As always, the annual is the best of its kind.  I plan to read every profile before the season gets under way and will read many of them again throughout the season.  It's a very handy reference if you're in a deep fantasy league requiring you to know something about relatively obscure players.  It's not just for fantasy baseball leagues though.  It's a handy book to have nearby as you follow the season as an informed fan.

There is a statistical summary for each player which is less cluttered and easier to read than some past years.  It's actually in the same format as the 2011 book if you got that one.  The so called "deadly accurate" statistical projections are still there, but the best parts of the annual are the written profiles for each player.  They go beyond the PECOTA forecasts and try to tell you things about the players which you may not see in the numbers.  They also seem more willing than ever before to tell you which players they think might exceed or fall short of the projections.

There was a time when I felt some of the writing of Baseball Prospectus would get a little too cute with snarky remarks and pop culture references, but that is no longer the case.  I believe the 2012 book is more professional and positively toned than it ever has been, yet still clever.  It is the number one baseball preview book you need to get ready for the season.

Now a few teasers from the book regarding the Tigers:
  • Nick Castellanos: "No one doubted he would hit, but Castellanos showed improved patience as the season went along and enough power potential in his swing to profile as a future middle-of the-order force."
  • Austin Jackson: "He is unlikely to develop the on-base skills he'll need to remain in the lead-off spot, but might well develop more home run pop."
  • Rick Porcello: "Few still see him as a future ace, but Porcello suddenly seems undervalued.  He may yet brew up the swing and miss elixir that vaults him to the upper ranks of AL hurlers."
  • Delmon Young: "While some hold out hope that his power will grow and enough safeties will fall in to keep his OBP above water, you can color us skeptical."
Of course, we like to think we know as much about the Tigers as Baseball Prospectus writers and we probably do, but I still respect their opinions a lot.  What I really find useful though is their profiles of players on other teams which I don't follow so closely.  I always learn a lot about players in reading this annual book. 

Ron Leflore: The Best Tigers Baserunner of the Modern Era

Outfielder Ron Leflore ran the bases for the Tigers between 1974-1979 (photo credit: CardboardGods.net)

The Tigers did not have a great deal of success in the 1970s, but they had some interesting characters such as Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, John Hiller and manager Billy Martin.  One of the most intriguing players of the period was center fielder Ron Leflore.  He was originally scouted by the Tigers at a maximum-security prison where he was serving time for armed robbery.  He eventually went on to have a successful nine-year career with the Tigers, Expos and White Sox between 1974-1982.

Leflore had never played baseball until he joined a prison team in 1971, but he had a natural talent for the game.  A fellow prisoner with connections to Martin was able to get the Tigers to give Leflore a try out.  Leflore showcased his skills at Tiger Stadium while on furlough in June, 1973 and the Tigers were quite impressed.  After being released on parole in July, he joined the Clinton Pilots, the Tigers Single-A affiliate in the Midwest League.

It took just one year for the speedy outfielder to reach the majors as he joined the Tigers in August, 1974 at age 26.  He immediately held his own as the Tigers lead-off hitter and center fielder and developed into one of the team's best hitters by 1976.  Between 1976-1979, he batted .310 with a 117 OPS+ and 243 stolen bases.    

Leflore was adept at pilfering bases, but there is more to baserunning than stolen base totals.  For example, a good baserunner will go from first to third on a single or advance from second to third on a fly ball more often than a poor baserunner. Thanks to databases such as that at Retrosheet.org, those types of events are now tracked regularly.

 One of the most advanced baserunning metrics is BaseRunning Runs (BRR) found at at Baseball Prospectus.  Developed by former Baseball Prospectus writer and current MLB team statistician Dan Fox, the BRR metric takes into account several types of base-running advancement. A complex algorithm estimates the number of runs which a player contributed to his team above what you would expect from an average baserunner.  An introduction to the statistic can be found here.

The Tigers BRR leaders between 1950-2011are shown in Table 1 below.  The statistic is not available prior to that time as play-by-play data are incomplete.  If data were tracked for earlier years, you would guess that the legendary Cobb would have appeared near the top of the list at least once.  Ron Leflore was clearly the leader of the modern era Tigers though taking the top three spots on the table: 13.7 in 1978, 11.7 in 1979 and 10.5 in 1977.  He also led the majors in BRR those seasons and his 1978 total was the seventh highest since 1950.

Table 1: Tigers Single-season Base Running Runs Leaders, 1950-2011

Player
Year
BRR
Ron Leflore
1978
13.7*
Ron Leflore
1979
11.7*
Ron Leflore
1976
10.5*
Milt Cuyler
1991
8.6
Brian Hunter
1997
7.8
Lou Whitaker
1979
7.4
Mickey Stanley
1968
6.1
Gary Pettis
1989
5.8
Billy Bruton
1961
5.8
Al kaline
1967
5.7
Jake Wood
1961
5.6
Ron Leflore
1974
5.4
Curtis Granderson
2008
5.4
Roger Cedeno
2001
5.3
Damion Easley
1997
5.3
*Denotes MLB leader 
 Data source: BaseballProspectus.com


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cabrera and Fielder: Love at First Sight

I couldn't help but notice the humorous string of internet events surrounding the first meeting as teammates between Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.  First there was the Free Press article by Jeff Seidel talking of the chemistry between the two sluggers:
Or maybe it was the way Fielder and Cabrera seemed to build an instant connection. They were inseparable on their first day together. They played catch together and batted together and stretched together and did sprints together and at one point, after most of the clubhouse had cleared out, they stood arm in arm and took several pictures of each other with their cell phones. Can you imagine that Facebook update?
Isn't that romantic?

Then there was this picture of the two running together:


Next, a poster on MotownSports (Lindsay28 or @NotLindsay on Twitter), put the two of them in a field of daisies:


Finally, a picture of Fielder in USA Today sums it up:

  Photo credit: Andrew Weber, US Presswire
 
The good feelings of Spring Training optimism have reached a new level.


 




Monday, February 20, 2012

John Hiller: The Greatest Comeback in Baseball History

John Hiller recovered from a heart attack to pitch one of the best seasons ever for a reliever in in 1973 (Photo credit: Baseball Almanac)

I've been writing a lot lately about the greatest starters in Tigers history in terms of both careers and single-seasons, but I have not said as much about relievers.  So, I'm going to spend a little time today discussing John Hiller, who had arguably the best season for a reliever in the history of baseball.  

 In a recent article at High Heat Stats,  John Autin noted that John Hiller accumulated more bWAR (Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com) in the 1970s than any other reliever.  He adds that Hiller is seventh on the all-time list of relievers with 28 bWAR.  Autin's article inspired to me look more closely at Hiller's best season in 1973. 

One first has to understand that the Hiller story is remarkable even without the numbers.  After spending parts of six seasons as a swing-man for the Tigers, he suffered a massive heart attack on January 11, 1971 at the age of 27.  After such a life-threatening event, coming back to pitch in the majors again at all was an incredible feat on its own.  As far as I know, he is the only player to have returned to the majors after suffering a heart attack.   

Like many players in those days, Hiller did not take good care of himself and his unhealthy lifestyle contributed to the early heart attack. His recovery started with experimental intestinal bypass surgery designed to help him lose weight.  He also underwent several lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, cutting down his drinking and eating healthier.  Finally, he worked out harder than he ever had in his life.

He was on a mission to get back to the majors, but even after the doctors gave him the OK to try it, the Tigers were reluctant to give him that chance.  After Hiller missed the entire 1971 season, the Tigers offered him a job as a minor league pitching instructor and later as a batting practice pitcher in 1972.  Hiller took those positions because he needed the money, but he had other ideas.  He continued to work on his strength and his pitches on the side in hopes of returning to the mound. 

Billy Martin, perhaps the only manager who would have been bold enough to give Hiller an opportunity, let him pitch in July, 1972 less than two years after his attack.  The determined southpaw went on to post a 2.03 ERA in 44 innings as a starter and reliever.  He also came out of the bullpen to win game four of the playoffs versus the Athletics. 

What came next was one of the most amazing seasons any reliever has ever had.  Mr. Hiller saved 38 games in 1973, a major league record which would stand for ten years.  He also posted an ERA+ of 286 in 125 innings over 65 games and accumulated 35 pitching Runs, the fourth highest total ever for reliever.

Going beyond ERA-based statistics, Hiller's 6.9 bWAR was the second highest in history for a reliever, trailing only White Sox reliever Goose Gossage's 7.0 in 1975.  Because he was generally used in high-stress situations and was so successful, Hiller's Win Probability Added (WPA) of 8.4 was also the second highest ever.  The only one better was attained by another Tigers reliever - Guillermo Hernandez with 8.7 in 1984.

Hiller's 1973 save total does not sound like a lot by today's standards, but closers were used much differently in those days.  They were generally brought into the highest leverage situations regardless of the inning or whether their team was ahead, behind or tied.  A comparison between Hiller's 1973 season and Jose Valverde's 2011 campaign highlights the differences:  
  • Hiller came into games with the Tigers in front in about two-thirds (68%) of his appearances.  In contrast, current closer Jose Valverde came in with the Tigers in the lead 84% of the time.
  • Hiller inherited base runners in 52 of his appearances while Papa Grande inherited base runners in just three of his games.
  • Hiller pitched more than one inning 39 times and two or more innings 27 times.  Valverde, on the other hand, never pitched more than one inning.
Indeed, closers were not even called "closers" in 1973.  They were called "Firemen" and the man, who was on his death bed just two years earlier, put out the fire time after time to complete perhaps the best comeback in baseball history.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Newhouser Saved the Tigers Lots of Runs in 1945-1946

In an earlier post, the ERA+ statistic was used to rank the top seasons for starters in the history of the Tigers.  We saw that right-hander Ed Siever's 197 ERA+ in 1902 was the highest ever for a Tigers starter.  However, he only pitched 188 innings that year and many other pitchers with high ERA+ marks had much heavier workloads.  In another recent post, it was shown that the Pitching Runs (PitchR) metric can be used to give a pitcher credit for quality and quantity of innings.  Using that metric gives us a different perspective of the best pitching seasons ever.

Table 1 below lists the top 15 single seasons for Tigers pitchers by Pitching Runs.  The first thing you might notice is that Sieiver falls out of the top 15.  In fact, his 1902 season drops all the way to 26th according to Pitching Runs.  The new leader is the great Hal Newhouser with 58 Pitching Runs in 1945.  Prince Hal's 53 Pitching Runs in 1946 ranks number two.  Given that major league rosters were depleted by World War II, his 1946 season is probably more impressive.

Table 1 - Tigers All-Time Single-Season Pitching Runs Leaders

Player
Year
IP
ERA
ERA+
PtchR
Hal Newhouser
1945
313
1.81
195
58
Hal Newhouser
1946
292
1.94
190
53
Dizzy Trout
1944
352
2.12
167
52
Justin Verlander
2011
251
2.40
170
47
Bobo Newsom
1940
264
2.83
168
46
Hal Newhouser
1944
312
2.22
159
43
Virgil Trucks
1949
275
2.81
148
43
Tommy Bridges
1936
294
3.60
137
42
Bobo Newsom
1939
246
3.37
146
42
Dizzy Trout
1946
276
2.34
157
39
Justin Thompson
1997
223
3.02
152
38
Denny McLain
1968
336
1.96
154
38
Art Houtteman
1950
274
3.54
132
38
Denny McLain
1969
325
2.80
135
38
Hal Newhouser
1948
272
3.01
145
37
Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

Newhouser's 1944 and 1948 seasons also make the cut giving him four of the top 15 seasons. Others appearing more than once on the list are Dizzy Trout in 1944 and 1946, Bobo Newsom in 1939 and 1940 and Denny McLain in 1968 and 1969.

Justin Verlander's 47 Pitching Runs in 2011 ranks fourth all-time.  If you want to exclude the World War II seasons, then it would rank as the second best season ever.

Pitchers and Catchers Report

Tigers ace Justin Verlander is at the center of attention as pitchers and catchers officially reported for spring training in Lakeland, FL this morning (Photo credit: Roger Dewitt)

The Tigers pitchers and catchers officially reported for spring training in Lakeland, FL this morning  That's really just a formality though as many of them have already been down there for a while.  The full squad officially reports on February 23

 Unless you are down in Lakeland watching the activities at Joker Marchant Stadium, a trip which I highly recommend, this announcement probably doesn't affect you too much.  It is, however, an annual harbinger of Spring telling us that baseball and warm weather are not too far away.  It's been a remarkably mild and snow-less winter here in Massachusetts and many other parts of the northeast and midwest, but that doesn't make us look forward to the season any less.

For the next two weeks, all players will be in the best shapes of their lives, young pitchers will be learning new pitches and Brandon Inge will have a new swing which will turn his career around.  There will be a new attitude this spring, a feeling of confidence that has not been seen in years.  Manager Jim Leyland will tell us that this is the best group of players he's ever been around.

The actual games do not happen until March with the the opener on the second of the month versus Florida Southern College.  The Tigers then face the Braves on March 3.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Verlander is Fourth Among Tigers All-Time Pitching Runs Leaders

In an earlier post, it was noted that ERA+ is a reasonable metric for measuring the quality of a pitcher's innings, but it does not address quantity.  For example, former Detroit hurlers Mickey Lolich and Dan Petry each had a Tigers career ERA+ of 105.  However, Lolich pitched almost twice as innings (3,361 versus 1,843) and ERA+ does not give him credit for his heavier workload.

The Pitching Runs statistic, introduced by Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball in 1984, was designed to account for both the quality and quantity of a pitcher's work.  It tells us the number of runs saved or lost by a pitcher compared to league average.  It is based on a pitcher's innings pitched (IP), earned runs (ER) and the league average ERA (Lg ERA):

Pitching Runs = IP x Lg ERA/9 - ER

For example, Tigers current ace Justin Verlander had a 2.40 ERA in 251 IP in 2011.  Based on the league average ERA of 4.08, we can estimate that an average pitcher would have allowed 4.08 x 251/9 = 114 ER in 251 IP.  Verlander allowed 67 ER, so he had 114 - 67= 47 Pitching Runs.  Therefore, he saved the Tigers an estimated 47 runs compared to the average pitcher in the same number of innings. 

The calculation above is the basis of the Adjusted Pitching Runs (PtchR) measure found on Baseball-Reference.  Baseball-Reference makes adjustments for a pitcher's home park and pitcher/team earned run to run ratio.  Thus, a pitcher pitching in an offense-oriented park would have his Pitching Runs adjusted slightly upwards, whereas a pitcher pitching in a pitcher-friendly park would have his Pitching Runs lowered a little.  A pitcher, who allows more/fewer earned runs than his team ratio of earned runs to runs would suggest, also gets his Pitching Runs tweaked up/down.

The career Pitching Runs leader board for Tigers starters is shown in Table 1 below.  The top of the list looks similar to the ERA+ chart, but there is more spread due to innings pitched.  Prince Hal Newhouser edges out Tommy Bridges 277 to 275 and Dizzy Trout is a distant third at 204.  Verlander is still fourth as he was on ERA+, but it will take him a few seasons to catch the leaders.

Table 1: Tigers All-Time Pitching Runs Leaders, 1901-2011

Player
From
To
IP
ERA
ERA+
PtchR
Hal Newhouser
1939
1953
2,944
3.07
130
277
Tommy Bridges
1930
1946
2,826
3.57
126
275
Dizzy Trout
1939
1952
2,591
3.20
125
204
Justin Verlander
2005
2011
1,315
3.54
124
127
Frank Lary
1954
1964
2,008
3.46
116
114
Jack Morris
1977
1990
3,042
3.73
108
113
Jim Bunning
1955
1963
1,867
3.45
116
113
Schoolboy Rowe
1933
1942
1,445
4.01
114
99
Virgil Trucks
1941
1956
1,800
3.50
114
98
Bobo Newsom
1939
1941
760
3.59
132
90
Fred Hutchinson
1939
1953
1,464
3.73
113
83
Mickey Lolich
1963
1975
3,361
3.45
105
80
Dave Rozema
1977
1984
1,007
3.38
120
69
Bill Donovan
1903
1918
2,137
2.49
109
67
Denny McLain
1963
1970
1,593
3.13
110
66
 Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

Jack Morris was only 13th on the ERA+ list, but his 3,042 innings propels him to 6th in Pitching Runs.  Similarly, Lolich rises from 15th to 12th.  Other pitchers such as Ed Killian and Dan Petry made the ERA+ top 15 but do not appear on this list due to lighter workloads.

There was one pitcher with only 760 innings who did make the Pitching Runs cut.  That was the eccentric Bobo Newsom who pitched for the Tigers from 1939-1941 and was one of the stars of the 1940 pennant winner.  His 132 ERA+ would have topped the ERA+ list if he had enough innings to qualify.  The well-traveled right hander pitched for nine major league teams, but had his best years for the Tigers.

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