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January 13, 2008
Doctoring The Numbers
Diving into Data
Between now and Opening Day, I hope to mine the data of baseball statistics from last year to bring you at least one interesting nugget from each team. Some of this information will be genuinely useful to know, and some of it will be pure meaningless fun, so don't take it too seriously. I'm not trying to recreate the Elias Baseball Analyst here; I don't worship at the altar of the small sample size. But I hope these findings whet your appetite for the statistical smörgåsbord that starts once again on March 25th. (Yes, March 25th. We must have been very good this year.)
So let's start our tour around the league in random fashion, starting with the…
Ever looked at a stat line and said to yourself, "that boy ain't right?" That's the feeling I get looking at Khalil Greene's numbers from last year. His power numbers-44 doubles, three triples, 27 homers-suggest a great pure hitter, a line-drive machine with power. His other numbers-32 walks, 128 strikeouts, a .291 OBP-speak of a brain-dead hacker. It's the statistical equivalent of the guy wearing a power suit and a nose ring. Combining home run power with low OBPs is not that unusual, particularly if your name is "Dave Kingman." Kong managed to hit 35+ homers with a sub-.300 OBP four times. But to spray balls all over the park without reaching base 30% of the time? That's much more unusual. Here's a list of the most extra-base hits in a season by a player with a sub-.300 OBP:
Year Player XBH OBP 1984 Tony Armas 77 .300 2007 Khalil Greene 74 .291 1997 Sammy Sosa 71 .300 1989 Joe Carter 71 .292 1970 Lee May 70 .297
No one would confuse the original Armas with a line-drive hitter; he was a big-fly guy who hit more of them than usual that year. Armas was coming off a 1983 season when he hit 36 homers with a .254 OBP, which seems impossible today. He and Kingman are the only players ever to hit more than 21 homers while posting an OBP under .260.
Greene's feat is even more unusual because of the position he plays, as everyone else on that list is either a first baseman or an outfielder. Shortstops aren't supposed to hit for power with low OBPs; they're supposed to hit for singles with low OBPs. On a list restricted to middle infielders, Greene dominates the scene:
Year Player XBH OBP 2007 Khalil Greene 74 .291 2003 Alex Gonzalez 57 .295 1986 Shawon Dunston 57 .278 2004 Alex Gonzalez 56 .270 A Bunch of Guys 53
What makes Greene's record even more impressive is that Petco Park is openly hostile to power hitters: the Padres and their opponents combined to hit 117 homers in San Diego, 173 on the road. Even if you take out the four homers hit in Game 163 in Coors Field from the balance, Petco Park reduced homers by 31 percent. The effect on doubles may be even more pronounced: 244 doubles were hit in Padres' home games, 348 in their road games.
The park effect definitely shows up in Greene's numbers. He hit a robust .288/.322/.519 on the road, just .216/.258/.412 at home. If you just double his road numbers, you get a shortstop with 58 doubles and 30 home runs. All told, there might not be a player in baseball today more hurt by his home park than Greene.
This is a tale of two pitchers. The first is former closer Troy Percival, whose career appeared to be over a year ago. We know this because he had, um, retired. Maybe he wanted to go out on top, after earning an AL Championship ring and a World Series playoff share for his contributions to the Tigers in 2006-he didn't pitch for them at all, which is to say he was more valuable than he had been the year before, when he gave them 25 innings and a 5.76 ERA.
But over the winter Percival's arm came back to life, and he decided to give the game another twirl. The Cardinals were happy he did. He joined the big club on June 29th, and in 40 innings he finished with the best ERA (1.80) of his career. To put it another way, Percival was the best reliever any team acquired prior to the trade deadline, and unlike the Red Sox's acquisition of Eric Gagné, St. Louis didn't have to surrender Kason Gabbard, David Murphy, and Engel Beltre to get him.
Percival surrendered only 24 hits in those 40 innings, a sterling 5.4 hits per nine innings rate that called to mind his first two seasons in the majors, when he pitched 74 innings both years and gave up just 37 hits (4.5 per nine) as a rookie and 38 hits (4.6 per nine) as a sophomore. This gives Percival three seasons in which he threw 30 or more innings while allowing fewer than 5.5 hits per nine. Only two other pitchers in history have met those two qualifications three times: Armando Benitez, who did so in 1999, 2000, and 2004, and Billy Wagner, the leader in the clubhouse with four different seasons: 1996, 1999, 2003, and 2005.
And then there's Mike Maroth. A pitcher living on the edge even in the best of times, in the worst of times he became the first pitcher in a generation to lose 20 games (21, with the 2003 Tigers). Nonetheless, coming into 2007 he had given Detroit over 800 innings of just slightly below-average starting pitching.
In 13 starts for Detroit last year, he went 5-2 with a 5.06 ERA, but his peripherals were even worse than usual-97 hits, 33 walks, and 15 homers in 78 innings-and the Tigers packed him off to St. Louis at the end of June for a minor leaguer. For one start, it looked like the NL was the perfect tonic for Maroth, as he held the Mets to two hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings.
It was not a sign of things to come. The next time out, he gave up six hits in three innings, then five hits in five innings, then nine in five. He was just getting warmed up: starting on July 19th, Maroth made six consecutive appearances in which he gave up more than two hits per inning. Over that span he gave up 46 hits in 14 frames, which is to say you were more likely to see a hit than an out over that span.
By the time his season mercifully ended, Maroth had thrown 38 innings in a Cardinals uniform, and allowed 71 hits. How do I put this kindly… that's bad. Really bad. Historically bad. The highest rates of hits allowed per nine innings in modern National League history (min: 30 IP):
Year Player H IP H/9 2007 Mike Maroth 71 38 16.82 1923 Bill Hubbell 102 55 16.69 1977 Frank LaCorte 67 37 16.30 1934 Ray Joiner 61 34 16.15 1934 Reggie Grabowski 114 65.1 15.70
That Mike Maroth, he really enjoys making history.
While I managed to escape the clutches of the Rob Deer Fan Club, I must confess that, Patty Hearst-style, I still feel sympathy towards their cause. And as much as Prophet Branyan has done for our movement, his inability to hit well enough to stay in the lineup has dampened his impact. Only twice has he batted 300 times in a season, and his best Three True Outcomes percentage (counting HBPs as part of the Three True Outcomes, as decided by the Council of Oakland) was only 53.5 percent.
Thank God for Billy Beane. And Thank Beane for Jack Cust, who finally got a chance to show what he could do as a full-time hitter in the major leagues. Homers? Check. Walks? Only six other players have drawn more walks than Cust did last year (105) in under 400 at-bats. Strikeouts? No one has ever whiffed as many times as Cust did last year (164) in under 400 at-bats; Bo Jackson set the previous record in 1987, with 158.
Even with just one HBP, Cust accomplished the unthinkable last season: he toppled Mark McGwire's single-season record for the highest TTO% in baseball history. With a minimum of 400 PA, here's the top five:
Year Player PA HR BB HP K TTO% 2007 Jack Cust 507 26 105 1 164 58.4% 1998 Mark McGwire 681 70 162 6 155 57.7% 1987 Jack Clark 558 35 136 0 139 55.6% 2007 Ryan Howard 648 47 107 5 199 55.2% 1997 Mel Nieves 405 20 39 5 157 54.6%
The Jack Cust Fan Club goes live in five…four…three…