Saturday, March 30, 2013

WARs Move Closer Together

One of the biggest complaints from fans and media about the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) concept is that different sites (such as Baseball Reference and FanGraphs) have different results for the same statistic.  This has never been a problem for fans of sabermetrics who understand that each WAR is just one site's estimate of a player's overall value.  The goal is the same in each case, but calculations differ according to the the creator's perspective.  The lack of agreement has never sat well with the less mathematically-inclined however.

One of the differences between Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR) and FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) had been different replacement levels.  Baseball-Reference had always assumed that a team of replacement level players would win 52 games over the course of a season, while FanGraphs assumed 43 wins.  In other words, a Baseball-Reference replacement player was better than a FanGraphs replacement player.  Thus, the two statistics were on a different scale with rWAR tending to produce lower values than fWAR.

The owners of the two sites - Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference and David Appleman of FanGraphs recently got together and arrived at a unified replacement level.  The decision was that both sites would now assume that a replacement level team would win 48 games.  So, now the two models are on the same scale with rWAR going up a bit and fWAR coming down some.

There are still differences between the WARs - batting and base running runs are calculated differently and defensive runs remains the biggest discrepancy.  However, replacement level which is probably the most confusing and misunderstood part of WAR is now consistent which makes it easier to explain other differences between the rWAR and fWAR.

Table 1 below compares rWAR and fWAR in 2012 for current Tigers starters.  Most of the players are within one win on rWAR and fWAR.  The biggest discrepancy is for shortstop Jhonny Peralta who is 1.2 on rWAR and 2.5 on fWAR.  The 1.3-win or 13-run difference can be completely explained by defensive runs.  Peralta was -1 runs on Defensive Runs Saved or DRS (Baseball-Reference's preferred fielding metric) and +12 on Ultimate Zone Rating or UZR (FanGraphs).

The 0.7 win gap Andy Dirks can also be totally explained by fielding - +2 on DRS and -5 on UZR.  Not all the variation for all players can be explained by defense, but it is the main source of disagreement and can easily be pulled out when making comparisons.

Table 1: Comparison Between WARs for Tigers, 2012

Player
Baseball-Reference WAR
FanGraphs WAR
Difference
Cabrera
7.3
6.9
0.4
Hunter
5.8
5.1
0.7
Jackson
5.5
5.2
0.3
Fielder
4.9
4.9
0.0
Infante
2.8
3.0
-0.2
Peralta
1.2
2.5
-1.3
Avila
2.5
2.4
0.1
Dirks
2.3
1.6
0.7

Data Sources: Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com

So, the WARS are now a little more similar which I think is a good thing in the big picture.  There is still the issue of how complicated the WAR calculations are, but that is a topic for another post.  For now, Forman has a good article on that on Baseball-Reference.       

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ten Predictions for Tigers Pitchers

In a recent post, I gave 10 predictions for Tigers batters.  Now, I'll do the same for the pitchers:
  • Justin Verlander will have another Cy Young-quality season with a 2.60 ERA and  240 strikeouts in 230 innings.  Since I know people will ask about wins, I'll say he'll win 20 backed by a strong offense. This year he'll win one in the World Series too.  
  • Many are hoping that the second half of 2012 was an indication that Max Scherzer is ready to emerge into an elite pitcher.  However, that will not be the case and he will instead continue to alternate between dominant and puzzling. He will also miss a few weeks with an arm problem during the year.  I'll give him a 3.80 ERA with 170 strikeouts in 155 innings.
  • Doug Fister will have another year like 2013 where he pitches well, but misses time with an abdominal injury.  He will finish with a 3.40 ERA and 145/45 K/BB ratio in 170 innings.  He will pitcher better in the second half than the first half
  • At 24 years old, Rick Porcello will finally take the next step up forcing his skeptics to admit that keeping him was a good idea.  He will increase his strikeout rate to 6.7 per nine innings while maintaining very good ground ball and walk rates.  He will also pitch deeper into games and reach 200 innings for the first time. His ERA will drop slightly below 4.00 for the first time since his rookie year.  
  • Anibal Sanchez may not live up to his contract five years from now, but he'll be a strong starter in 2013.  He will post a 3.75 ERA with 170 strikeouts in 190 innings.
  • Left-hander Drew Smyly will start the season in the bullpen, but get 16 starts due to injuries to Fister and Scherzer.  He'll do well in both roles putting up a 3.95 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 140 innings.   
  • Bruce Rondon will not emerge into the dominant closer the Tigers had hoped for in 2013.  He will save only six games as part of a committee before being sent to Toledo in June.
  • Other committee members will include Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel.  Benoit will be the best Tigers reliever statistically 75/25 K/BB ratio and 2.75 ERA, Coke will get the most first half saves with eight while Octavio Dotel with have another solid season (3.30 ERA, 60/15 K/BB ratio)
  • The committee will keep the Tigers in good enough shape, but will begin to make Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland nervous by mid-season.  At that point, they will trade for a "real closer" who won't do any better than the committee, but will make decisions easier for Leyland.    
  • The entire staff will allow 665 runs.  That coupled with 800 runs scored will give the Tigers 95 wins and another Central Division title.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review of "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych"



Every now and then, the MLB channel shows that game in 1976 where Mark "The Bird" Fidrych dominated the Yankees and charmed the audience during a nationally televised game at Tiger Stadium.  Whenever I see the broadcast, I immediately go back four decades to that night and remember how I felt watching the same game live on television.  That was just one game of many memorable nights that summer.  I have been following the Tigers Since 1968 and Mark Fidrych's rookie season was the single most thrilling player season of my lifetime.  It's difficult to explain the Fidrych experience to those who were not there to see it, but author Doug Wilson has now done that with his new book "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych".

Mr. Wilson, an ophthalmologist by day and Society for American Baseball Research historian, introduces Fidrych as a child in Northboro, Massachusetts.  We learn that the enthusiastic hyperactive Fidrych that we saw on the mound was no different as a youth.  He couldn't sit still in the classroom and was always getting into some sort of mischief, but his positive and fun-loving personality made it impossible for teachers or anyone else to dislike him.

The author writes that Fidrych was much more comfortable outdoors than in the classroom and his favorite activity was sports.  An early teammate described Fidrych as a nine-year old pitcher: "He was always moving.  Maybe it was nervous energy, but he was just a fidgety guy.  Smoothing the mound with his hands, talking (whether to himself or to the ball) - it was all there as a kid".  Nobody was bothered by it though, because they all knew it was natural.  Besides that, he was striking out most of the kids on the other teams.

Wilson goes on to describe Fidrych as an all-around athlete in high school, but most of all he was a star pitcher.  Playing in a time before the hyping of the amateur draft though, Fidrych did not think too seriously about his baseball career after school: "Unaware of the interest of any scouts, Mark figured his baseball career was over when the Worcester season concluded.  He continued his job at the gas station and also worked for a construction company, making three bucks an hour.  He happily threw himself into the work that appeared to be his destiny."

After being drafted in the tenth round by the Tigers in 1974, Fidryrch moved quickly through the Tigers system and Wilson details each stop along the way from Bristol in 1974 to Lakeland, Mongomery and Evansville in 1975.   While the Tigers knew Fidrych was good, he an unknown to most fans.  His numbers were not eye popping and this was the 1970s before the internet and its multitude of prospect sites was born.  In the minds of fans, The Bird came out of nowhere to become a rookie sensation in 1976 and that it is a large part of what made his season so appealing.

As you might expect, most of the book centers on Fidrych's fantastic 1976 season.  For those who were fans in 1970s, you will relive Birdmania where he regularly drew 50,000 fans for a team with an average attendance of 15,000 at the time.  Those who are too young to remember will be introduced to one of the remarkable personalities in baseball history. 

You will smile at his antics on the mound and his funny quotes off the mound.  Wilson reminds us however that Fidrych was more more than just a character.  He was a hard-working incredibly competitive pitcher with fantastic talent.  Even without getting into the impact of his personality, his 1976 season ranks among the best Tigers seasons of all-time right up there with Hal Newhouser in 1945-1946, Denny McLain in 1968 and Justin Verlander in 2011. 

The overriding theme of this book is that from childhood to post-baseball career is that Fidrych was always the same person.  Interview after interview with players, coaches, fans and friends confirm that The Bird was completely genuine and down-to-earth and well-liked by everyone with whom he crossed paths. You'll enjoy the later chapters which touch upon his marriage, his farm, his trucking company and charity work as much as the baseball chapters.   

The Fidrych story was one that needed to be told and Wilson does it right in his well-researched, well-written and heart-warming book.  I highly recommend "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych" to all Tigers fans and baseball fans in general.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ten Predictions for Tigers Batters

With opening day approaching, I'm going to make some predictions for the Tigers 2013 season.  These are not mathematical projections, but rather a mix of science and intuition.  I'll start by offering ten predictions for Tigers batters: 

Alex Avila was an easy pick to regress last year after his surprising break out in 2011.  This year, he'll bounce back somewhat but will probably never repeat 2011.  He'll hit .260/.350/.430 with 15 round trippers which is more than solid for a good defensive catcher. 

Prince Fielder hit for more average and hit fewer homers last year than his norm.  He'll get back to a more typical Fielder season in 2013 with a .285/.380/.560 line and 36 homers.  With better conditioning, his defense at first will improve but still be below average. 

Omar Infante will be a big improvement over the collection they had at second most of last season batting .270/.315/.400.  His defense will slip a little in his age 31 season, but he'll still be average to slightly above average. 

Jhonny Peralta will have a second consecutive down season in what will be his final year as a Tiger posting a .300 OBP with a steady glove but no range.  He'll keep his job, but will have the Tigers hunting for a young shortstop at the deadline and into the off-season.

Miguel Cabrera will not win another triple crown, but he'll be just as good even if his numbers are not noticed as much nationally.  It will be another MVP caliber season - .325/.395/.590 with 40 homers.  

Torii Hunter will be a major upgrade over Brennan Boesch but he's 37 with peripherals trending downward.  He'll bat .270 with a .750 OPS to go wuith above average defense in right.  In other words, he'll be pretty good, but not as good as Rod Allen will be claiming.

Austin Jackson won't be quite as good as last year, but will still be one of the better center fielders in the league.  Look for a .280/.345/.435 line with 20 stolen bases and a gold glove.

Andy Dirks will prove to be more of a role player than a first division regular posting a .770 OPS in 325 PA mostly versus right handers.  He'll be injury prone and share time with others such as Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia.  Castellanos will finish strong batting .275/.320/.400 in 175 PA.  

Victor Martinez will miss time with various injuries and regress as a hitter but he'll still be a lot better than last year's designated hitters - .285/.350/.430.

The Tigers will score 800 runs in 2013.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Giving Pitchers Credit for Infield Flies with EO%

Much has been written about fielding independent events - strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen and homeruns - over the last several years.  Those are things which a pitcher controls with minimal contribution from fielders.  No event is totally independent of teammates of course.  For example, an outfielder can reach over the fence to prevent a home run.  Additionally, recent research on framing pitches suggest that catchers can have some influence over strikeouts and walks.  Still, pitchers do control these events for the most part.

Another event which is mostly responsibility of the pitcher, and could be considered fielding independent, is the infield fly.  While there are certainly fielders involved in getting outs on infield flies, there is not a lot of difference among major league infielders in their ability to catch infield flies.  Regardless of the pitcher or the team, when you see a pop up in the infield it almost always leads to an out.  Table 1 below shows that batters hit .023 and slugged .027 on pop ups in 2012.   These rates are much lower than those for any other batted ball type including ground balls.

Table 1: Batting Statistics by Batted Ball Type, 2012

Batted Ball Type
BA
SLG
OPS
Ground ball
.241
.260
.501
Infield fly
.023
.027
.050
Outfield fly
.273
.741
1.014
Line drive
.722
.975
1.697

 Data source: Retrosheet.org

The notion that infield flies are essentially fielding independent events is not not a new one.  Dave Cameron and Tom Tango have both suggested adding infield flies to the Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic similar to how strikeouts are already included.  It's true that infield fly ball rate is less predictive of future performance than strikeout rate, but predicting the future is not the only function of FIP.  It is also used to evaluate past performance.

Since infield flies lead to outs almost as frequently as strikeouts, I have combined the two into a statistic I call Easy Out Percentage - EO%   It is simply strikeouts plus infield flies divided by batters faced.  As mentioned above, this could also be incorporated into FIP, but I'll keep it simple for now.  Table 2 below shows that Tigers right hander Max Scherzer led the majors with a 36.0 EO% in 2012.  Teammate Justin Verlander was third at 35.5%.  The National League leader was Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals (35.8%).   

Table 2: Easy Out Percentage (Strikeouts and Infield Flies), 2012


Pitcher
Team
BFP
K
IFFB
EO%
Max Scherzer
Tigers
787
231
52
36.0
Stephen Strasburg
Nationals
653
197
37
35.8
Justin Verlander
Tigers
956
239
100
35.5
Yu Darvish
Rangers
816
221
61
34.6
Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers
901
229
74
33.6
R.A. Dickey
Mets
927
230
81
33.5
Chris Sale
White Sox
772
192
64
33.2
Cole Hamels
Phillies
867
216
71
33.1
Cliff Lee
Phillies
847
207
72
32.9
Matt Moore
Rays
759
175
71
32.4
Phil Hughes
Yankees
815
165
93
31.7
Felix Hernandez
Mariners
939
223
67
30.9
CC Sabathia
Yankees
833
197
60
30.9
David Price
Rays
836
205
52
30.7
Gio Gonzalez
Nationals
822
207
45
30.7
Bruce Chen
Royals
827
140
111
30.4
Jake Peavy
White Sox
882
194
70
29.9
J.A. Happ
- - -
627
144
43
29.8
Lance Lynn
Cardinals
744
180
41
29.7
Matt Cain
Giants
876
193
67
29.7

Data source: FanGraphs.com 

The majority of pitchers rank similarly on K% and EO%, but there are some exceptions.  One such outlier was Bruce Chen of the Royals who ranked 73 out of 103 pitchers (with 600+ batters faced) in strikeout percentage, but 16th in EO%.  Another was Tigers right hander Rick Porcello - 95th in K% and 52nd in EO%.  The reason for the disparity was that Chen (17.6%) and Porcello (15.8%) ranked one and two in infield flies per batted ball even though they didn't whiff a lot of batters,

It is important to keep in mind that the ability to to induce popups has not been shown to be a highly repeatable skill for most pitchers.  For example, Porcello's rate in 2012 was by far the highest in his career.  In his four years, he gas posted rates of 4.9%, 7.7%, 10.5% and 15.8%. The increasing trend may or may not be a fluke, but the huge jump in 2012 in particular probably was.  Regardless, his infield flies in 2012 added value and he should get credit for it.   

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