Saturday, April 2, 2011

Another opening of another show

Another opening, another show
In Philly, Boston, and any number of minor league cities
A chance for teammates to say hello!
Another opening of another show.

There are so many things I could write about Friday's game.  I'm going to try to limit myself to 3 -- the batter, the pitcher and the play.

Jacoby Ellsbury -- 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration

I must confess that I'm not overly impressed with Ellbsury.  Whenever I see him the following quote goes through my head:
"Rickey Henderson would have been the best lead-off hitter ever without the stolen bases.  Vince Coleman wasn't worth a damn with them."
I wish I could attribute the quote -- I don't remember who said it.  It wasn't me.  What made Henderson so good?  It probably wasn't lead-off homers, although Henderson's power was amazing.  It may have been  that career .401 OBP.  Just unbelievable.  To be sure, there are about 50 guys with better career OBPs, but they mostly had last names like "Ruth," "Williams," "Mantle" and "Ramirez..." guys you would rather walk than let hit.  Henderson?  Well, let's just note that nobody scored more runs than Rickey.  It didn't matter how he got on base...

So how does Jacoby do?  .340 career OBP.  Better than Coleman's pathetic .324, but hardly the stuff dreams are made of.  But given that the lead-off hitters job is to get on base, let's see how Ellsbury did last night...
  • 1st at-bat -- safe on error, scored
  • 2nd at-bat -- double, scored
  • 3rd at-bat -- single
  • 4th at-bat -- walk
  • 5th at-bat -- nobody's perfect
Not too shabby.  But that wasn't the best part for me.  The best part was his patience at the plate.  Ellsbury took 7 pitches in his first at bat and 6 in his next.  In addition to eating up 4 at bats worth of pitches in his first 2 trips to the plate, he gave himself the chance to see a pitch that he could hit.  He gave himself a chance to walk (which he eventually did) and he did some damage.  If he can keep that up all season, he's going to start looking less like Coleman and more like.. well, I'll settle for "Ellsbury."

Jonathan Lester -- [Don't forget to think of a good quote]

After 3 innings, I noticed a funny thing about Lester's performance.  It consisted of 9 weak grounders on the infield plus 2 home runs.  What's more, his pitch count was low.  I noticed something else, which bothered me, but at that moment, I boldly predicted that Lester would go 7 innings, letting up 3 runs.  Things didn't quite work out that way.

The third thing that I noticed was that Lester didn't strike anyone out in the first 3 innings.  He didn't really come close.  He was pretty wild on a number of batters, including the two that took him deep early on.  So, I'm left scratching my head.  Did using pitch count lead me astray?  Or was it just bad luck?

It seemed like bad luck, but opening day is hardly the day to fine tune one's models...

A-Gone -- The play's the thing

In the top of the first, I saw a play so remarkable, that I knew I would be writing about it.  The Sox started off great.  Ellsbury fought his way on base, Youk doubled him in and Adrian Gonzales -- who has been living up to the hype so far -- knocked Youk in.  The stage was set for a big inning whose repercussions last deep into the game, if not into the next (via eating up relief time).  But then a funny thing happened.  Gonzales tried to stretch his single and was thrown out at second.

I don't fault the logic of Gonzales or the first base coach.  I may have made the same call and -- hey -- it's just the first inning of the first game.  But instead of making the starter throw another 4-12 pitches, maybe even letting up another run, the Sox called it an inning and took the field.

How might things have played out differently?  Would Lester have pitched better with a bigger lead?  Would Wilson have been able to steam roll the bottom of the line-up at the end of the first inning?  Who knows.  But it was a momentous play and was worth noting.

I'm not a big fan of risking an out for the extra base.  I don't like sacrifices.  I don't like stolen bases.  I don't like stretches.  I recognize the value, but the cost is big.

Another pain where the ulcers grow...


Saturday, January 15, 2011


There you are, on your own 35 yard line.  As a courtesy, they bring out the chains, but you already know the answer -- you didn't make it.  4th and 1.  What do you call?  If you're and NFL coach, you probably punt.  Why?  Not because of the expectations.  On 1st and 10, 80% of running plays garner 1 yard or more.  I can believe that number drops on 4th and 1, but you are probably still more likely than not to get your first down.  It's true that turning the ball over on your own 35 can be costly, but I still think you give up too much.

So why do coaches do it?  Because they can read tomorrow's headlines already -- "Idiot turns over ball on own 35 yard line.  What a buffoon."

The shame of being second guessed outweighs statistical expectations.

Back to baseball

It's 0-2.  You look into the catcher, but you already know what he's looking for -- low and outside.  I don't understand this.  I haven't crunched the numbers, but I'm pretty sure I know what I would find for the Sox.  The majority of 0-2 pitches are low and outside.  Why?  Maybe this is the theory:
  • He probably won't hit it
  • He might strike out
  • You can afford to give up a ball
Well, the 1st and 3rd bullets are probably right, but I can't say that I've seen a lot of strike-outs via low and outside on 0-2 pitches.  Why not?  Here's why not.  That's what the batter is looking for.  If that's where the balls goes, you'll get a weak foul (if it's close to a strike) or a ball (if it's not).

I think that pitchers give up too much here.  By avoiding 90% of the strike zone, they raise the batter's ability to stay alive.  They charge themselves an extra pitch -- a pitch they might wish they had back later in the game.  And for what?  Usually for the chance to do it again.  I can understand "low and outside" being the most likely location for an 0-2 pitch.  But if there was even a 50% chance that the 0-2 was going somewhere else, I think you'd see more strikeouts on 0-2, even low and away.

So how do I rate it?

Enough complaining.  How do I rate the outcomes on 0-2?  Here's how, in descending order from pitcher's best to batter's best:

1) Called strike

There will be some debate here, but my basic theory is this: The batter knows that he has to protect the plate on 0-2.  If he thought he could hold off and gets called out, you got him, but good.

2) Swinging strike

You really earned this on the first two pitches.  Now that the batter has to protect the plate, he's a little more at risk from surprise location, speed, etc.  Still, good on you, mate.

3) Weak hit in play

This is also part of what the pitcher earned.  The injured at-bat leads to an easy out.  I'll bet that good strikeout pitchers get more of these than average.  It's part of why K/9 is a useful metric -- good strikeout pitches get better results on non-strike out at bats.  But see the caveat at the end of this post...

4) Ball

This is really more about penalizing the pitcher than rewarding the batter.  I know, I know -- if it was a close pitch and the batter held off, you probably want to praise the batter's eye.  My guess is that, often, the batter was fooled and got lucky.

5) Foul, not straight back

River City's breaking and everybody's shaking.  I love those sequences where a batter takes 3+ pitches, after an 0-2 count, even when the pitcher ultimately wins.  It's a Pyrrhic victory.  For every 2 batters who manage this feat, the pitcher loses one at-bat at the end of the game.

6) Well hit -- in play or straight back

I regard those fouls (straight back) as almost as good as balls hit well into play (see this post for why).  And as a reminder, once the ball is hit into play, the pitcher has precious little to do with the result.  0-2 should create a low probability of this kind of a hit, so the batter really won this one.


I have a few misgivings about #3 (weak hit) vs #5 (weak foul).  Why is a foul so good for the batter and a weak hit not?  Well, my thinking as follows: the foul was really the batter avoiding the strikeout in order to get another chance.  The ball-in-play ends the at bat (even if the lucky batter gets aboard).  The batter shouldn't be trying to earn that hit on 0-2, he should be trying to work towards a safer pitch count.  Allowing the ball to go in play is a poor outcome in my book.  But maybe I'm wrong.  Stay tuned...


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Revisions and Precision which a moment will reverse

In responding to my 0-0 post, Precision Blogger implies an interesting question that deserves its own post:
"Your ordering might penalize a certain kind of pitcher that does well. I think that baseball commentators want to see more of this kind of pitcher: the guy who believes in his stuff. He doesn't throw a lot of balls because he knows that usually, when a batter makes contact, he'll get the out. These pitchers risk some good, solid hits, but it's not that important when the batter makes good contact, because, overall, the pitcher expects to do well. Some aggressive pitchers of this type throw a lot of fastballs and give up more than an average share of home runs. They do well if their team can score, because they battle hard and don't give up big innings."
 As a reminder, my ranking of outcomes on the first pitch is:

  1. Swinging strike
  2. Weakly hit (in play, or foul ball -- regardless of outcome)
  3. Well hit foul (not straight back, perimeter, or outside of the strike zone)
  4. Called strike (perimeter)
  5. Called strike (center of strike zone)
  6. Well hit foul (not straight back, in the strike zone)
  7. Ball (close)
  8. Ball (not so close)
  9. Well hit foul (straight back)
  10. Well hit, in play (regardless of outcome)
With 1 being the the best a pitcher can do and 10 being the worst.  The implied question is "isn't there another class of pitcher that your rankings will under-rate?"

The short answer is yes.  The longer answer is no.  But the deeper answer is maybe. Allow me to explain.


I have admitted this before, but I really can't admit it enough:  I'm not really a student of baseball.  I don't have the time.  Since I became a serious pitch counter, I have only had time to watch Red Sox games (plus playoff games).  It is quite possible that there are classes of pitchers that I just don't know that well because Theo Epstein doesn't like them.  So, I definitely allow for the possibility that I am unfairly decrementing those guys.

I will also add that PB's assessment probably describes a significant percentage of closers who get by on "looks" (velocity) alone.  Both Papelbon and Jenks might well fit that category.  I'll have to think about that more.


The idea that a pitcher can be effective while giving up on strike outs has appeal, but -- on average -- the numbers don't back that up.  In 2010 there were:
  • 165,353 at bats
  • 42,554 of which resulted in hits
  • 34,306 of which resulted in strike outs
So, the average batter batted .257.  But when the average batter didn't strike out, he batted .325.  How good is that?  There are only a handful of guys who batted .325 and didn't make it into the Hall of Fame.  Allowing batters to hit the ball turns the average batter into a Hall of Famer.


PB asks a question with which I have long been fascinated.  Are there any great starting pitchers who live by much quicker at bats but fewer strike outs?  There are two optics I like to use for starting pitchers that are in opposition:
  • Strikeouts per nine innings
  • innings per start.  

Take two pitchers with identical batting average against.  It would seem that the one who relied more on strikeouts would throw more pitches and fewer innings.  I feel like there ought to be some great pitchers who have fewer strike outs per nine innings. 

If you look at the 50 pitchers who put up the highest inning counts in 2010, 29 of them struck out 7 or more per inning. Only 10 struck out 6 or fewer.  The guy at the basement of this list was Mark Buerhle, best known for his perfect game in 2009 (he also came pretty close, with another no-hitter in 2007).  A quick look at his lifetime stats show that Buehrle has never been a huge strikeout guy.  In his abbreviated rookie season he approached 6.5 but only topped 6.0 once in the 10 years subsequent.  Maybe he's that guy.

I'll be watching this more closely.  Strikeouts per 9 is clearly a good indicator of pitcher longevity, but that doesn't mean it's the correct way to evaluate every kind of pitcher.


Saturday, January 1, 2011


Count me among those pleased to see Okajima back in the fold.  Please note -- this is not because I have unrealistic expectations about how he will do next year -- quite the opposite.  Rather, the reasons are twofold.

First of all, if you ever chanced to ask Red Sox management about their plans for left-handed relief pitching in 2011, they would have simply said: "We're really looking forward to seeing what Felix Doubront can do."  Now, while his 2010 debut wasn't terrible (5 earned runs, 11 base runners and 13 strikeouts in 9.2 innings of relief) it wasn't exactly Joba-like (1, 18, 34 in 24).  While I hope to see Doubront continue to blossom, he's hardly the sure thing they need in the bullpen.

Second, just as you shouldn't get too bent out of shape about non-credible awesomeness, you shouldn't get bent out of shape about non-credible stinkage.  It's true that it's hard to find any stretch last year during which Okie looked good -- except maybe September (2, 13, 8, in 13) -- one whole season just isn't credible.  Just as you can't count on a reliever looking good next year when he looked good last year, the opposite is also true.

That said, I do have a major concern.  Okajima doesn't throw very hard -- his fastball rarely hits 90mph.  He does have decent control and movement, but I always kind of believed that his success hinged largely on his crazy delivery, which has to be seen to be believed.  [The video commentary points out that his head is in a funny position.  I always thought the bigger oddity is that looks like his had is curved around the ball to hide it...]

But  my point is this -- if his 2007 success was really just a parlor trick, then you'd expect the league to catch on.  Did they?  Let's look at WHIP, one of my favorite stats for a reliever:

2007: 0.971
2008: 1.161
2009: 1.262
2010: 1.717

Ruh ro.  How about K/9 innings?

2007: 8.2
2008: 8.7
2009: 7.8
2010: 6.5

They might be on to us.

Regardless, I'm glad to see that not-proven-useless lefty is back on the payroll.  I'm not asking Okajima for any guarantees, but I think that he deserves the chance.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Joe Bautista - won't you take me by the hand? **

I still can't believe that Jose Bautista hit 54 home runs in 2010.  Could it be that he was doing something differently?  His OPS sure says so:

2006 - .755
2007 - .753
2008 - .718
2009 - .757
2010 - .995

Let's check out his first 20 plate appearances in 2009 and 2010:

2010                                                        2009

1) 3 - pop out                                           1) 2 - line out
2) 6 - line out                                            2) 3 - 1b
3) 4 - fly out                                              3) 9 - 1b (infield)
4) 4 - walk                                                4) 7 - swinging
5) 4 - called out                                         5) 3 - fouled out
6) 5 - walk                                                6) 8 - swinging
7) 4 - swinging strike                                 7) 4 - fly out
8) 4 - walk                                                8) 2 - sacrifice
9) 2 - pop out                                           9) 4 - walk
10) 7 - pop out                                         10) 4 - swinging
11) 4 - GIDP                                            11) 1 - 1b
12) 2 - flies out                                          12) 3 - foul out
13) 4 - 2b                                                 13) 4 - 1b
14) 4 - swinging strike                               14) 1 - infield choice
15) 6 - walk                                              15) 4 - swinging
16) 3 - 1b                                                 16) 1 - ground out
17) 1 - pop out                                          17) 3 - looking
18) 1 - 2b                                                  18) 1 - 2b
19) 3 - line out                                            19) 3 - 1b
20) 4 - sac fly                                             20) 6 - 2b 

75 pitches                                                  73 pitches

Huh.  Not much of a difference in total pitches.  Maybe he didn't do anything different.  But not so fast -- he hit 73 in 2009 thanks to 3 long at bats (#3, 4 and 6) offsetting 4 times when we drove the first pitch into play (#11, 14, 16 and 18).  By contrast, in 2010 he was more consistent, with only 2 1-pitch at bats and only 1 at bat of 7 pitches or longer.

What do I make of this?  Well, first and foremost, I make that 20 at bats isn't a credible sample.  But given that this is what I have in front of me, I'll make the following posit.

In 2009, Bautista shows a ton of ability to make contact.  He goes 3-4 when he chases after the first pitch and #18 went deep.  Further, he fought hard in those early at bats, earning 27 pitches over 4 plate appearances.  In 2009 he had all of the tools to be a dynamic hitter except one -- patience.

In 2010, he saw pitch #4 in 13 out of his first 20 appearances (compared to just 9 in 2009).  He slowed it down and waited for his pitch.  And did it pay off...

Bautista also benefitted from not having a reputation as a power hitter.  I'm guessing that 2010 isn't easily repeatable, and I wouldn't want to put down money on another 50 home run year.  But I'd be surprised if he doesn't manage one home per 18 plate appearances -- maybe even one per 15 (that's 35-45 home runs if he stays healthy).

I guess you can call me a believer.


** -- Yeah, his name is Jose.  But it didn't scan, you see...


I'd like to tell you how I evaluate the performance of the pitcher and the hitter on the first pitch of an at bat, but first I'd better set the table.

Absolute Perfection

What would a perfect game look like? I'm not talking about Don Larsen, I'm talking about Absolute Perfection. I think that you'd agree it would look like this: 81 swinging strikes. It can't get any better than that.

Think about those swinging strikes: Doc Gooden's split finger fastball, falling off the table. Keith Foulke's change-up, with the batter out in front. Tim Wakefield's 50 mph work of art or Mitch Williams' pitch, knocking both batter and pitcher off their feet. Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.

Caught looking is nice, and fouls get the job done. But the essence of a swinging strike is pitching perfection. He thought he had you, but he never even touched you...

According to the baseball almanac, there have been some pretty perfect innings. 44 times, a pitcher has retired the side on 9 strikes, but only 44 times. And I'm guessing that this was never done on 9 swinging strikes, but I'll get into that in a minute.

The Batter Battle Book

So what does perfection look like from the opposite side? Harder to say. Is it a home run? After 10 pitches? 20? It's a little more open ended. To a certain extent, any non-out is a victory, but not all victories are created equal. Heck, I've watched Youk go down on 12 pitches and smiled watching him do so. What constitutes a victory is ambiguous, so it shouldn't be surprising that there are quite a few ambiguous first-pitch results which feel like wins -- or at least light losses -- for the batter. That will complicate the picture.

Clash of the Titans

Imagine Greg Maddux, one of the craftiest pitchers of all time, going against Rickey Henderson, the best lead-off hitter ever. Before a pitch is thrown, what are they thinking?

Well, Maddux knows what Henderson hits well and how the location of the pitch affects him. Maddux also knows his own limitations. His catcher can probably add some feedback on which pitches are working well today. Based on this information, they select a first pitch. But this doesn't tell us too much about what that first pitch will be. Maybe it will be based on what Henderson can't hit. Maybe it will be based on Maddux throws best. Maybe it will be neither, because that's what we least suspect.

How about Henderson? He knows almost everything that Maddux knows. He knows what he can hit. He knows what Maddux can throw. He probably even figured out what is working well by watching Maddux warm up. What doesn't he know? What Maddux decided to throw.

So what's Henderson's best strategy? Well, I would posit that Henderson has enough confidence to risk going down 0-1. And if he preps to swing at anything, he's going to risk making poor contact, followed by a weak out. So I think that his best strategy is guess a pitch and location. If he sees that pitch, he cranks it. If not, he let's it pass, even if that means taking the called strike.

This jibes with my experience, which is that a disproportionate amount of first pitches either called strikes or balls. You see other outcomes, but these two account for many of the first pitches. Just for grins, I looked at the last game of last season, truly one for the ages. The results weren't quite as clear cut as expected, but only because the 7th, 8th and 9th innings went nuts.

In the first 6 innings, Lincecum and Lee were beautiful, allowing 5 hits and no runs on a combined 12 innings. In those innings, here is the distribution of first pitches:
  • 14 balls
  • 13 strikes (looking)
  • 14 others (including fouls, swinging strikes and hit into play)
Clearly not a uniform distribution. I think that the World Series would conform more to my expectations, because the average quality of both hitters and pitchers will be higher. It would be informative to look rigorously at all of the rest of the games and see which of the other categories increase.

Just for the heck of it, here are the next 3 innings results, including 5 hits and 4 runs in just 6 combined innings.
  • 5 balls
  • 4 strikes (looking)
  • 15 everything else.
Yup. It was that ugly.

Measuring the outcome

So, enough table setting. Let's get on with it. Here's how I judge the outcome of various kinds of first pitch results:

Swinging strike. No matter how you look at it, the batter got owned. If we're talking about a run-of-the-mill Jacoby Ellsbury quality hitter, you can see why I credit the pitcher with a major win. But how much more-so for a Kevin Youkillis quality hitter? He thought it was his pitch and he still couldn't make contact...

Called strike. You have to give the nod to the pitcher -- he got what he needed to get done. But it's a weak victory. The batter may have let it go as a calculated risk -- better to risk a strikeout tomorrow than a ground-out today. And location matters. If it's on the perimeter, I credit the pitcher extra with achieving great location. Otherwise, it just wasn't where the batter wanted it.

Ball. Similarly, the ball has to be a victory for the batter, but it need not be a major one. If it was close to the strike zone, I give the pitcher an A for effort, but the batter still got the job done by not swinging.

In play. In play is tough, albeit not as tough as a foul. If the batter makes a weak connection, and the ball dribbles into play, well that's just one step above a swinging strike. If the batter went chasing a ball on the perimeter, again, you have to be impressed with the pitcher. Of course, if ball rings of the bat, you have to think that the batter won, plain and simple. Even on line-out to an infielder. This could be a slap hitter, able to dig out anything the pitcher throws (so, kudos). This could also be the situation I described above -- Henderson has out-thought Maddux and predicted the pitch. He may fly out to the warning track, but you can't ask him to do better.

So to sum up -- weakly hit -- victory to the pitcher. Well hit, victory to the batter.

Foul. Okay. Here we go. There are at least 3 things that I have to know before I can assign victory points:
  • Quality of connection
  • Pitch location
  • Where the foul ball went
Quality of connection is the same point I made above -- if the batter just barely gets wood on the bat, that's one step above a swinging strike.

Pitch location is also important. If the ball was on the perimeter, or outside the strike zone, the batter was probably looking for it somewhere else. He got owned, even if he made good connection.

Finally, via Keith Hernandez again, there's a big difference between a foul straight back and one off to the sides. According to Hernandez, if the ball goes straight back, the only mistake the batter made was one of timing. He got the location right, but not the speed. The pitcher did alright, but it wasn't a big victory.

If the batter shoots the ball into the (non-fair) stands, well, there wasn't much else the batter could do with the ball. Think about those inside pitches which are ruled self-defense. The batter could have let it go for a ball, but swung and got a strike. Call that a victory for the pitcher. Maybe two steps above a swinging strike.

One more time.

So to sum up, here it goes, from best pitcher to best batter outcome:
  1. Swinging strike
  2. Weakly hit (in play, or foul ball -- regardless of outcome)
  3. Well hit foul (not straight back, perimeter, or outside of the strike zone)
  4. Called strike (perimeter)
  5. Called strike (center of strike zone)
  6. Well hit foul (not straight back, in the strike zone)
  7. Ball (close)
  8. Ball (not so close)
  9. Well hit foul (straight back)
  10. Well hit, in play (regardless of outcome)
That's my story, whether I stick to it or not.


Give 'em Ell 'sbury!

In case you're curious, I count pitches on both sides of the plate.

The signing of Crawford made Ellsbury one of the tradable guys in the majors:

  • He could start on most teams
  • He's cheap
  • The Sox don't really need him

  • Sure, both Cameron and Drew are injury prone. But Kalish is close and both Nava and Reddick can fill in nicely. And don't you think that the Sox could have gotten Grienke for Ellsbury, Doubront + someone?

    But I came to praise Ells, not to, um, bury him.

    Most Boston press has forecast the top of the order to be Ellsbury, Pedoroia, Crawford. That seems wrong to me. According to Keith Hernandez' excellent book, the lead-off position will come to the plate 50 more times than the number 2 position, in a given season. The leadoff will come to the plate 100 more times than the number 3 position.

    So your lead-off hitter really ought to earn those extra appearances. Does Ellsbury deserve 100 more than Crawford? Not a chance. You'd essentially be rewarding Ellsbury for being just as fast, but having less power. Frankly, I'd rather see Crawford lead-off and Ellsbury drop down to 9th.

    Right, right. Not to bury him.

    So if Ellsbury hasn't earned the lead-off spot in the past, why should I praise him? Here's why. From 2008 into 2009, he became more patient at the plate. Far more often, he ran the count full. Far more often, he took the first pitch for a strike. It didn't show up in his OBP, which remained 55 points above his batting average. But it showed up in his pitch count. If he becomes more choosy he will see the benefits for years to come.

    I'm looking forward to seeing Ellsbury's next full season. I don't think that we've seen his best yet.

    Incidentally, if the differential between batting average and on base is any judge of utility as a lead-off hitter, Crawford ain't so hot. He only gets 30 points. So who should lead off? How about anybody:

    Ortiz: 100-120
    Drew: 100-120
    Gonzales: 80-130
    Youk: 80-120
    Pedroia: ~80
    Cameron: 70-90
    Scutaro: 60-90
    Varitek: 60-80

    Truth be told, you probably care more about OBP than differential, but I think that most of these guys still look better than Ellsbury...