Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Alternatives to the Designated Hitter Rule

With inter-league play now scheduled all year long, the difference between the American and National Leagues in regards to the designated hitter rule has become more pronounced.  Some view the disparity as unique and charming feature which helps to separate baseball from other sports.  Others see it as illogical and unfair for teams to play under different rules when visiting ballparks of teams in the opposite league.  While there does not seem to be an immediate push to bring the two leagues together on this issue, I sense that unification is inevitable with the new schedule.

Proponents of the designated hitter like the increased offense that it brings to the game.  They see little entertainment in watching hapless pitchers bat and would much rather see a skilled hitter at the plate.  Pitchers play such an overwhelmingly important role defensively that it makes sense that they should not also be expected to provide offense.  Not having pitchers bat also prevents them from getting injured at bat or on the bases.

Opponents of the designated hitter rule feel as if requiring pitchers to bat forces more strategic decisions for managers.  Some will argue that most of the decisions regarding sacrifice bunting and pinch hitters and such are somewhat automatics, but there are still in-game choices to be made.  If nothing else, there is fuel for debate among fans.  The lack of designated hitter also means that managers need to make line-up decisions regarding offense versus defense.  It can be argued that one needs to be a more complete player to play every day in the National League.

Although I am a fan of an American League team, I have always had great admiration for all around players and favor the National League rules.  Unless a designated hitter is a special talent such as Edgard Martinez, then I'm not drawn to watching older players who can no longer run or field playing regularly.  I am not extreme about this issue though and will not get upset if (when?) the National League adopts the designated hitter rule.

The current designated hitter rule is not the only way to unify the two leagues.  I'm going to present two options which have been proposed by others in the past, although not discussed on a broad scale (at least not recently).  Why not just remove the pitcher from the batting order and let the other eight players bat?  The first time I heard this idea was back in the the 1970s from Leonard Koppett, a man before his time and one of the first analytical sportswriters in the mainstream.  If offense is what fans want, this idea might provide even more of it than replacing the pitcher with a designated hitter.  After all, the best hitters would be coming up more often.  Think about Miguel Cabrera coming up the plate another 80 to 90 times per year. 

One problem with this solution is that it would increase the number of poor-fielding hitting specialists playing in the field.  Without the designated hitter or pinch hitter for the pitcher roles, there would be no choice but to play them in the field.  The other objection some might have to this rule is that the additional plate appearances given to your eight hitters would put statistics out of whack when comparing to past seasons and careers.  There are ways to adjust for this with advanced statistics, of course, but the traditional standards for counting statistics such as hits and home runs would surely be affected.

Another idea which came from Patriot of Walk Like a Sabermetrician would be to have a roving designated hitter.  This means that a team would have a hitter who only bats but he does not always bat in the same spot in the line-up.  You would require him to bat once and only once each time through the batting order, but it can be at any position the manager chooses.  He could have him bat cleanup every time or he could bring him to the plate when he has the most opportunity to help the team.  If nobody gets on base the first two innings, then he could be saved for the third inning.  If the lead off man gets on base in the third, that might be the time to let your designated hitter bat.

This would be similar to how a team's best pinch hitters are leveraged except that this one could be used multiple times throughout the game. This idea would promote both extra offense and strategy, so it would be the best of both worlds.  The main argument might be that it would mess up your score book which I seriously do not think is a trivial complaint in such a tradition-based game.  Still, this is probably my favorite option if there needs to be a designated hitter.   

The unification of the two leagues on pitchers batting may be inevitable, but the choices for solution need not be so limited. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cabrera Increasing his Value Even More with Situational Hitting

Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera is off to an incredible start by any measure leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, total bases, times on base and wOBA. However, those numbers don't show just how productive he has been in the first couple of months. 

Many fans grumble that statistics like OPS don't account for situational hitting.  For example, if Cabrera singles with 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.

Traditional fans like to address situational hitting with the familiar Runs Batted In statistic (another number by which Cabrera leads the league), 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 a complete measure of situational hitting.

Other fans point to batting average with runners in scoring position (Cabrera is first there too!), 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).  Additionally, 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.  Conversely, it subtracts points for hitting into double plays.

In a recent post, I discussed just plain Batting Runs or Weighted Runs Above Average (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 instance, 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 34.4 so far this year.  So, by that measure, he contributed 34.4 runs above what an average batter would have been expected to contribute given the same opportunities. This is higher than his 28.7 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 6 runs with his situational hitting.

Since situational hitting is largely (although not completely) random, RE24 is less predictive than wRAA and should not be used as a measure of ability.  It is, however, a good alternative to RAA for looking at the value of past performance.

Table 1 below shows that Cabrera leads the league in both RAA and RE24.  Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is second on both numbers with 24.7 and 28.7 respectively.  Cabrera's teammate - Prince Fielder is the fifth in RE24 at 19.2.  Like Cabrera, the Tigers hefty first baseman is also doing particularly well in high leverage situations as evidenced by the 7.3 differential between RAA and RE24.

Table 1: American League RE24 Leaders, May 25, 2013

Player
Team
RAA
RE24
Diff.
Cabrera
Det
28.7
34.4
5.7
Davis
Bal
24.7
28.7
4.0
Trout
LA
16.4
22.4
6.0
Santana
Cle
13.4
19.2
5.8
Fielder
Det
11.9
19.2
7.3
Donaldson
Oak
14.7
17.9
3.2
Longoria
TB
16.0
17.4
1.4
Cano
NY
10.3
15.9
5.6
Gordon
KC
10.8
15.4
4.6
Loney
TB
12.3
12.3
0.0

Data source: FanGraphs.com

Table 2 below looks at RAA and RE24 for the Tigers.  After Cabrera and Fielder, the third highest RE24 belongs to spring training invitee Matt Tuiasosopo (8.6).  Not surprisingly for those following the team closely, the bottom two are Alex Avila (-13.2) and Victor Martinez (-10.6).  Avila's large negative differential (-5.4) indicates that he has performed even worse in higher leverage at bats.

Table 2: Tigers RE24, May 25, 2013

Player
RAA
RE24
Diff.
Cabrera
28.7
34.4
5.7
Fielder
11.9
19.2
7.3
Tuiasosopo
5.3
8.6
3.3
Hunter
4.0
7.5
3.5
Peralta
8.5
6.6
-1.9
Jackson
-0.2
2.9
3.1
Infante
3.7
2.2
-1.5
Dirks
1.0
-0.6
-1.6
Pena
1.9
-2.9
-4.8
Kelly
-2.2
-3.0
-0.8
Martinez
-9.6
-10.6
-1.0
Avila
-7.8
-13.2
-5.4
Data source: FanGraphs.com

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