Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tigers Break Strikeout Mark, MLB Does Too

When starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez disposed of Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan in the first inning yesterday, the Tigers pitching staff broke the single-season Major League Baseball strikeout record.  The previous record of 1,404 strikeouts was held by the 2003 Chicago Cubs led by right handers Kerry Wood (266 strikeouts) and Mark Prior (245).  This year's Tigers finished with 1,428 punch outs paced by Max Scherzer (240), Justin Verlander (217) and Sanchez (210),

The Tigers strikeout feat is impressive, but it's important to consider that Major League Baseball also set a record for most strikeouts this year with 36,697.  The previous high was 36,426 set just last year.  So, it's not too surprising that this year's league leader would break the all-time mark. Last year's Brewers staff just missed the record recording 1,402 strikeouts.  

Figure 1 below shows the increase in strikeouts over the decades.  This year's strikeout rate of 7.6 per team per game nearly triples the all-time low of 2.7 strikeouts per game in 1925.  Some credit has to go to modern pitchers, who have more pitches and more information about opposing batters than ever before.  However, much of the change is likely due to the way batters approach the game.  In earlier decades, batters were more interested in making contact, whereas today there is more focus on swinging for the fences.

One does not have to go back that far to see a dramatic increase in strikeouts though.  They have increased 31% in the last twenty years (there were just 5.8 per game in 1993) and 21% in the last ten years (6.3 per game in 2003 when the Cubs set the record). The more recent increase is somewhat perplexing as it has occurred during a period when home runs have been on the decline.  Some of that may be the umpires calling bigger strike zones in an effort to suppress offense as MLB tries to separate itself from the so called steroid era.


 
 Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

In order to make fairer comparisons across history, I wanted to look at strikeout rates relative to league average.  The average American League team had 1,235 strikeouts in 2013, so the Tigers were 16% better than average.  In comparison, the Cubs staff struck out 32% more than the average National League staff in 2003. 

The all-time best relative strikeout rate was by the 1932 Yankees who struck out 56% more than league average (780 versus the AL  average of 502).  That staff was powered by future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing (190) and Lefty Gomez (176).

The top Tigers strikeout rate belongs to the 1946 staff which was 37% better than league average.  The great Hal Newhouser (275), Virgil Trucks (161), Dizzy Trout (151) and Fred Hutchinson (138) all finished in the top seven in the American League.

So, while the Tigers strikeout record this year is noteworthy, it does not quite rank among the most dominant strikeout seasons of all time. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Remembering Tigers Twenty-Game Winners

When Tigers right hander Max Scherzer won his 20th game of the year on Friday night, it did not create the same buzz it would have in earlier decades.  While winning twenty games is rarer now than it's ever been (just one this year compared to 14 in in 1970 for example), there are plenty of modern statistics that describe the success of pitchers better than wins.  Still, Scherzer's feat does evoke memories of past Tigers 20-game winners.

In my first year as a Tigers fan in 1968, the now infamous Denny McLain became baseball's only 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals in 1934.  I was only five years old at the time, so I didn't really know what was going on. Living in Red Sox-crazed Massachusetts, most fans around me were more interested in Boston superstar Carl Yatrzemski than McLain.  I just knew that McLain was really good.

The bespectacled right-hander went 31-6 with a league leading 28 complete games and 336 innings pitched in route the American League Cy Young award.  Despite his remarkable win total, McLain was not the best pitcher in baseball that year, let alone the best since 1934. While McLain posted an impressive 1.96 ERA and 154 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for league and ballpark where 100 is average and above 100 is better than average), Cardinals fire baller Bob Gibson compiled unimaginable marks of 1.12 ERA and 258 ERA+.  McLain won nine more games than Gibson thanks mostly to superior run support (5.2 runs per game versus 3.0).

McLain followed up his storied 1968 season with a 24-9 record in 1969.  He led the league with nine shutouts and compiled a 134 ERA+ to earn his second consecutive Cy Young. Unfortunately, I don't remember too much about McLain's glory days of the sixties.  Instead, my most vivid memory of McLain is his three-month suspension for gambling and bookmaking in 1970.  He would never have any success on the field after 1969 and his record off the field was much worse.

McLain's Tiger career ended when he was traded to the Washington Senators in a seven-player deal which netted the Tigers their next 20-game winner in Joe Coleman in what turned out to be one of the biggest heists in franchise history.  The Tigers also received shortstop Eddie Brinkman and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, two outstanding defenders who would man the left side of the Tigers infield for the next few years. 

Both Coleman and hefty left-hander Mickey Lolich won twenty games in 1971.  Lolich led the American League with 25 wins and 308 strikeouts and had a 124 ERA+, but finished second in the Cy Young voting to Athletics southpaw Vida Blue (24 wins and a 183 ERA+).  Coleman finished with a 20-9 record and 115 ERA+ giving the Tigers their last duo of 20-game winners.

Lolich's workload that year was more stunning than his win total as he led the AL with 45 starts, 376 innings pitched and 29 complete games.  It was no doubt a different game back then, but that was a lot of pitching even for that era (White Sox knuckle baller Wilbur Wood finished second in the AL with 336 innings).  Tigers fiery manager Billy Martin liked to work his starters hard as he aimed for short-term success and showed little concern for the future.

Lolich followed up with a 22-14 record in 327 innings in the strike-shortened 1972 season.  Coleman fell just short of the mark with 19 wins, but was the team's sole 20-game winner in 1973 when he went 23-15.  Coleman went into rapid decline after that season and pitching three straight seasons of 280+ innings (not too unusual at the time) might have had something to do with it.

It would be ten more seasons before another Tiger won twenty games.  Right-hander Jack Morris compiled a 20-13 record with a league-leading 294 innings and 232 strikeouts in 1983.  Morris was certainly a workhorse, but was only 10th in the league with a 3.34 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting.  Dan "Peaches" Petry (19 wins) just missed being the second Tiger with 20 wins that year.

Morris became the Tigers last repeat 20-game winner when he went 21-8 with a 127 ERA+ and a league-leading six shutouts in 1986.    

The Tigers next 20-game winner was Bill Gullickson who went 20-9 with an unremarkable 3.90 ERA in 1991.  His 108 ERA+ was only slightly above league average, but he led the league in wins thanks to 5.7 runs per game from a power-packed Tigers offense.  I think that was when I finally decided that pitcher win-loss record was not a good measure of pitcher success.

The next Tigers 20-game winner would not come until twenty years later in 2011. Justin Verlander went 25-5 with a league-leading 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts that year. While he had good offensive support, Verlander's fantastic 172 ERA+ showed that his lofty win total was no fluke.  It was the highest ERA+ for any Tigers full-time starter other than Hall-of-Fame lefty Hal Newhouser in 1945, 1946.

So, Scherzer (20-3, 139 ERA+) has joined some good company.  Here's hoping that he or Verlander can have the right combination of success/support to become the Tigers next repeat 20-game winner in the future. 

Note: Statistics for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Another Stat to Make Scherzer and Sanchez Look Good

In earlier posts, I introduced statistics estimating the numbers of runs saved by pitchers from three different angles:
  • Pitching Runs -  Runs Saved Above Average based on innings and runs allowed.
  • Base Runs -  Runs Saved Above Average based on batters faced and hits, walks, total bases and home runs allowed.
In this post, I'm adding a fourth perspective based on the increasingly popular Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic.  I'm going to calculate FIP Runs which is similar to Pitching Runs except it uses FIP instead of ERA (or RA).  The FIP Runs metric is also like Fan Graphs WAR except it is in runs instead of  wins and uses average instead of replacement as the baseline.  

Using Tigers right hander Max Scherzer as an example, FIP Runs is calculated as follows:
  • Scherzer has a FIP ERA of 2.68 in 201 1/3 innings.  I want to use the runs scale instead of earned runs, so I divide by .92 (about 92% of runs are earned):  2.68/.92 = 2.91 FIP RA .
  • The Park Factor for Comerica is 1.02 (pitching in Detroit inflates runs allowed by an average 2% for a pitcher pitching half his games there).  So, 2.91/1.02 = 2.85.
  • Convert FIP RA to Runs allowed = (2.85/9) x 201.33 IP = 63.8.
  • The average pitcher has a FIP ERA of 4.01 which translates to a FIP RA of 4.36.
  • Convert FIP RA to runs allowed in 201 1/3 IP for the average pitcher = (4.36/9) x 201.33 = 97.5
  • Calculate FIP Runs as the difference between steps 3 and 5 above: 97.5 - 63.8 = 33.7.  So, based on his innings, walks, hit batsmen, strikeouts and home runs, Scherzer has saved an estimated 33.7 runs compared to the average pitcher.
Table 1 below shows that Scherzer leads the American League in FIP Runs by a small margin over Felix Hernandez of the Mariners (33.3). The Tigers do amazingly well on this metric with four pitchers in the top ten including Anibal Sanchez (31.7), Doug Fister (18.1) and Justin Verlander (16.0).

So, according to this statistic, not only do the Tigers have two strong Cy Young candidates in Scherzer and Sanchez, but they have one of the best rotations in baseball in recent history.  I will be updating FIP Runs and the other three statistics mentioned above between the end of the season and the AL Cy Young Award voting.

Table 1: American League FIP Runs Leaders

Pitcher
Team
IP
FIP
FIP Runs
Max Scherzer
Tigers
201.1
2.68
33.7
Felix Hernandez
Mariners
194.1
2.59
33.3
Anibal Sanchez
Tigers
165.2
2.47
31.7
Yu Darvish
Rangers
193.2
3.18
23.6
Chris Sale
White Sox
201.1
3.24
21.7
Doug Fister
Tigers
193.2
3.30
18.1
Justin Verlander
Tigers
199.1
3.41
16.0
Derek Holland
Rangers
193.1
3.53
15.9
David Price
Rays
165.2
3.10
14.9
Bartolo Colon
Athletics
178.1
3.24
14.4
Hiroki Kuroda
Yankees
189.2
3.49
14.2
Jon Lester
Red Sox
201.1
3.61
13.9
James Shields
Royals
207.2
3.54
13.5
Justin Masterson
Indians
189.1
3.40
10.7
Hisashi Iwakuma
Mariners
203.2
3.58
10.6

Data Source: FanGraphs.com

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