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May 10, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

WBC, Again

by Nate Silver

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Monday's column on the fate of World Baseball Classic pitchers triggered a surprisingly skeptical reaction from the readers. I say "surprisingly" because the type of material that I deal with in this space is usually too technical to get anybody really riled up. It might have been a selective sampling issue--it's a lot more fun to write a columnist if you have a beef with what he's saying. But the reaction on the internal BP mailing list was pretty skeptical too.

I think there is a little bit of denial going on here. The starting pitchers involved in the World Baseball Classic posted a 5.49 ERA over more than 735 collective innings in April. This is a very strong fact. That is a lot of performance, equivalent to three or four full seasons worth of performance for a durable starting pitcher. If you took a pitcher with a 4.24 ERA (the weighted average PECOTA projection of the WBC starters) and had him throw 735 innings in a Diamond Mind Baseball simulation, the odds of his finishing with an ERA of 5.49 or higher over that stretch would be many thousands to one against. Even a simple binomial distribution tends to support this. The odds of 19 of a group of 26 pitchers coming out on the high side of their weighted mean PECOTA projection on the basis of randomness alone are about 200-to-1 against.

Now, none of this logic holds if PECOTA is the source of the error, rather than the pitchers themselves. But if we take this same group of starting pitchers and simply take the weighted average of their major league ERA in 2005 (this excludes Lenny DiNardo, who hardly pitched in the majors last year), we come up with a 4.05 ERA, about twenty points lower than their collective PECOTA projection. These pitchers are performing about a run and a half worse than they did one year ago. Something rather dramatic has happened with this group of pitchers, and the only common thread that I can deduce between them is that they pitched in the World Baseball Classic.

The other, less skeptical line of questioning concerned what effect the WBC has had on the position players who participated. I'm going to run through the roster of 77 hitters in one fell swoop, comparing actual results against PECOTA. The statistic of choice is MLVr since, with a little bit of algebra, we can easily transform it to a plus-minus rating that represents the number of runs that a player has performed above or below his projection thus far on the season. (Another convenience is that MLVr is calibrated around league average, so the higher offensive levels that we've seen so far this year will automatically be accounted for). All statistics are through Monday night's games.

Player        Team    PA   MLVr- Actual   MLVr- Pred.   +/-
-----------------------------------------------------------
Suzuki        JPN    155      -.068         .025        -4

Koskie        CAN     92       .110         .012        +2
Morneau       CAN    111      -.201         .095        -8
Orr           CAN     40      -.477        -.112        -4
Bay           CAN    143       .189         .227        -1
Guiel         CAN     15      -.870        -.135        -3
Stairs        CAN     40      -.264         .043        -3
Stern         CAN     21      -.660        -.064        -3

Amezaga       MEX     31      -.271        -.208        -0
Cantu         MEX     64       .092         .013        +1
Castilla      MEX    110      -.230        -.073        -4
Castro        MEX     86      -.343        -.145        -4

Barrett       USA     96       .134         .020        +3
Schneider     USA    107      -.279        -.121        -4
Varitek       USA    103      -.077         .117        -5
Jeter         USA    138       .398         .087       +11
Jones, C      USA     80       .183         .198        -0
Lee, D        USA     58       .487         .282        +3
Rodriguez, A  USA    133       .145         .310        -5
Teixeira      USA    153       .080         .252        -7
Utley         USA    129       .329         .123        +7
Young         USA    157       .200         .129        +3
Damon         USA    141       .179         .049        +5
Francoeur     USA    133      -.190         .043        -8
Griffey       USA     36       .120         .204        -1
Holliday      USA    140       .241         .154        +3
Wells         USA    139       .451         .127       +11
Winn          USA    138       .015         .049        -1

Jones, A      NED    130       .266         .156        +4

Saenz         PAN     55       .471         .017        +6
Lee, C        PAN    140       .464         .128       +12

Lopez         PUR     74      -.204         .061        -5
Molina, Y     PUR    106      -.553        -.130       -11
Rodriguez, I  PUR    119       .113         .017        +3
Valentin, Ja  PUR     58      -.131        -.018        -2
Cintron       PUR     51      -.239        -.052        -2
Cora          PUR     32      -.324        -.123        -2
Delgado       PUR    139       .394         .198        +7
Perez, E      PUR     51       .438         .127        +4
Valentin, Jo  PUR     29      -.661        -.101        -4
Beltran       PUR     93       .530         .122        +9
Cruz          PUR    108      -.030         .043        -2
Ledee         PUR     33       .001        -.037        +0
Matos         PUR     39      -.610        -.032        -6
Rios          PUR    109       .628         .003       +17
Williams      PUR     89      -.210        -.049        -4

Paulino       DOM     50      -.206        -.047        -2
Belliard      DOM    128      -.107        -.047        -2
Beltre        DOM    136      -.273         .057       -11
Feliz         DOM    132      -.164        -.030        -4
Ortiz         DOM    143       .226         .296        -2
Polanco       DOM    116      -.224         .056        -8
Pujols        DOM    140       .741         .467       +10
Reyes         DOM    150       .032        -.068        +4
Soriano       DOM    143       .193        -.001        +7
Tejada        DOM    142       .443         .133       +11
Alou          DOM     94       .610         .147       +11
Encarnacion   DOM    129      -.232         .003        -8
Guerrero      DOM    135       .211         .267        -2
Pena          DOM     78       .207         .194        +0
Taveras       DOM    141      -.102        -.133        +1

Piazza        ITA     89      -.059        -.068        +0
Catalanotto   ITA     91       .513         .032       +11
Delucchi      ITA     31      -.461         .134        -5

Blanco        VEN     28      -.662        -.180        -3
Hernandez     VEN    118       .145         .032        +3
Martinez      VEN    138       .451         .053       +14
Alfonzo       VEN     45      -.863        -.102        -9
Cabrera       VEN    127       .485         .260        +7
Guillen, C    VEN    126       .232         .067        +5
Perez, T      VEN     89      -.387        -.205        -4
Scutaro       VEN     45      -.266        -.086        -2
Vizquel       VEN    129       .211        -.104       +10
Abreu         VEN    136       .137         .184        -2
Chavez, En    VEN     62       .001        -.141        +2
Ordonez       VEN    127       .287         .064        +7
Rivera, J     VEN     42      -.223         .010        -2
As I'm sure you've detected, the overall trend is neutral. A small majority of position players--42 of 77--have underperformed PECOTA. On the other hand, a few of those who have outperformed PECOTA (Alexis Rios, Carlos Lee) have done so by a large margin, and the overall plus/minus rating is in the black at +44. The hitters are fine, as were the relief pitchers--this problem seems to be confined to the rotation guys.

I think it's worth remembering what happened in 1995, once the players finally got back on the field after the lockout ended. Through games of May 26th of that season--roughly the first month of that late-starting baseball year--the league scored an average of 10.1 runs per game. After May 26th--in spite of warmer weather--the league average dropped to 9.6 runs per game. There is some precedent to the notion that any kind of awkward start to the season tends to help the bats.

What to expect going forward? My hunch is that the pitchers will regress back to their PECOTA projections--or at least back toward the mean--over the course of the next month or so. Carlos Zambrano looked much more like himself in his last outing; Johan Santana looked like he was going to no-hit the Tigers. April may have served as a sort of trial-by-fire, extended spring training, but these pitchers have now gotten in four or five weeks of work. Still, the poor performances of WBC starting pitchers has already taken several wins from the records of teams like the Orioles and Twins, and that is probably too much damage to be undone, particularly when each of those squads has a whole host of other issues. Let me put it like this: I'm looking forward to the 2009 Classic, but if Justin Verlander stubs his toe and has to pull out of the event, I wouldn't mind it one bit.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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