March 31, 2005
Neither Snow Nor Sleet...
Things are getting pretty crazy what with the season about to start, BP book signings, season previews, and some other behind the scenes projects. But before we get into the season, I'm going to dig into the mailbag and clear up a few outstanding issues from some previous columns.
First one is from reader J.E. regarding the price of strikeouts:
I found it interesting that while you adjusted higher-contact guys downward for GIDPs, you don't seem to have taken into account the fact that a certain percentage of balls put in play also become basehits. Then again, everyone treats the numbers that way, which is why it drives me so crazy that I can't stop focusing on one thing.
This point was raised by quite a few readers. The main problem is that we can't say what Adam Dunn would have done if he hadn't struck out all those times because we have to assume that a change in outcome is a result of change in approach. Because power and strikeouts are positively correlated, we would have to assume that Dunn's change in approach would decrease his power numbers while decreasing his strikeouts, but we cannot say with any accuracy how much his power numbers would decrease. Thus, we can't reliably estimate the cost of reducing strikeouts and then compare it with the expected gains.
Hitters aren't as susceptible to the severe regression to the mean that pitchers experience with regards to balls in play. (If they were, Ichiro Suzuki wouldn't be, well, Ichiro!) Instead, successful players tend to follow either a power + strikeouts approach or a slap + run approach; there are obvious pros and cons with each approach.
Are higher power players costing themselves singles by striking out more often? Sure, but we're forced to focus on the results rather than the process to accurately value the cost of those strikeouts. If Dunn did everything else the same, but struck out 50 fewer times and had 10 more singles he would certainly be more valuable than his current approach. But we don't have that data; we can't say what he would have done. So we're left with evaluating the results of the process.
It's a tough situation because we can mentally say Dunn would be more valuable if he put the ball in play more often, but we don't have that data. Instead, we're left to analyze the numbers we do have and while speculation about what Dunn would have done is nice, it is speculation and not analysis.
Next one, same column, but a different issue:
When Red Sox fans discuss Mark Bellhorn, the term 'productive strikeout' addresses the larger number of pitches he takes when striking out. Those pitches give Manny and Papi better looks at the starting pitcher's 'out pitch,' but they also fatigue the starting pitcher.
Interestingly, several Red Sox fans wrote discussing Mark Bellhorn and his whiff issues (whiffues?). Last year the discussion was between Bellhorn and Pokey Reese for the starting second base job; this year it appears to be between Bellhorn and Edgar Renteria for the second spot in the lineup. We haven't been able to quantify any effect of previous batters taking more pitches to inform subsequent hitters, but look for something along those lines in the future.
With regards to seeing more pitches, the correlation between strikeout rate and pitches per PA is very small; the coefficient of correlation (r-squared) was only .1816 among players with at least 400 PA in 2004, meaning strikeout rate only explains 18.16% of the variance in P/PA. In short, there are better ways to see a lot of pitches than simply by striking out.
Regarding higher strikeout hitters fatiguing the opposing pitcher: getting the starter out of the game isn't necessarily a good thing as relievers are now putting up comparable numbers to starters. Getting the starter tired earlier certainly gives teams a slightly better chance of facing the lower rungs of the bullpen or that the other team will keep the fatigued starter in for more pitches, but because strikeouts aren't necessarily a result of patience at the plate, it's tough to call those extra pitches a benefit of striking out.
Going a little further back, among the several articles on park factors, many readers pointed out that I neglected to include weather information in a discussion about predicting park factors based on park dimensions.
It seems to me that weather conditions would play a role in park factors since it's clearly demonstrated that humidity and temperature affects the action of the ball in play.
When I was in Chicago last summer for a couple Cubs games, it was obvious that the weather plays a significant role in the park factor there. Nate Silver pointed out to me later that he believes Wrigley's park factor is based almost solely on the prevailing winds during a season and after taking in a few games there, I would certainly think it plays a big part.
Weather information is available for games going back quite some time (once again, all hail Retrosheet) and it would certainly be interesting to go back and see if prevailing weather information has an effect on park factors. However, the focus of this article was attempting to predict park factors going forward and - despite the best efforts of Clay Davenport - the forecast for April-October 2005 isn't available yet. Maybe in a few seasons.
Keeping with the Cubs theme, several Cub fans wrote to me about my assertion that the Cubs' Spring Training program was the worst in the business:
Regarding the Cubs spring training program, I do know that they had an insert for NRIs and minor leaguers at the start of Spring Training. I did not get to go this year, but my father did, and he returned with the insert autographed by the new Cubs announcers, Bob Brenly and Len Kaplan. To the annoyance of my wife, the insert remains on the dining room table where it has been for over a week now, awaiting its inevitable journey to the folder in my attic where I keep my Buzz Capra and Jose Cardenal autographs.
I was able to find the aforementioned "Vine Line" that had more information (as well as Sammy Sosa on the cover), but no one has cleared up whether this was the phantom NRI inserts people keep mentioning.
In defense of the Cubbies, I dropped by a Brewers game later that week and found their provided scorecards also lack a pitching section.
Finally, digging way back to the idea of tired teams and how they perform the next day:
Interesting article, but I don't think you addressed another key factor: whether the tired team was playing at home in both games or had to travel between games. A swing in winning percentage by 50 points is significant, but in the ballpark of what you expect the home field advantage to be. I'd like to see you expand this study taking into account expected W/L based on win percentage and home/road. I imagine you'll still see the same drop, but it may offer further enlightenment, since I'd expect a team that played an extra inning game and then had to travel would do a whole lot worse than a team that played at home for both its extra inning game and the following game.
I was going to get into travel in another article, but since you asked, these are the year by year numbers for teams that played at least 11 innings and traveled to play the next day:
YEAR G WIN LOSS TOTW% EXTRAW% 1995 11 5 6 .500 .455 1996 14 6 8 .491 .429 1997 20 10 10 .494 .500 1998 20 11 9 .488 .550 1999 17 8 9 .520 .471 2000 14 6 8 .492 .429 2001 14 6 8 .484 .429 2002 12 5 7 .487 .417 2003 21 6 15 .483 .286 2004 19 8 11 .511 .421
The TOTW% column is their expected winning percentage for the season; EXTRAW% is their winning percentage in the games after the long affairs. As you can see, every year except 1997 and 1998, the winning percentage decreases substantially, more so than if the teams do not have to travel. There's some concern about sample size in each individual year, but with 10 years worth of data, it's pretty convincing that your suspicions are correct.
There are quite a few other emails still sitting in the old Inbox that I haven't gotten to yet, so I apologize to those of you to whom I haven't responded. Several are very good questions that deserve a depth of response that would fill a full column, so look for them in the future. To the rest of you, thanks for writing in. Your questions are always insightful and engaging and they allow us at here BP to do what we love to do: talk about baseball until we can talk no more. Or at least until we hit our column word limit.