October 28, 2009
Smoltz, SOMA, and the Series
For the first time since 1926, the most powerful offenses in each league will be facing off in this year's Fall Classic, and fans and media have been busy pondering the ability of either pitching staff to hold up. Both the Yankees and Phillies boast deep and powerful lineups that can easily convert a few mistakes into crooked numbers on the scoreboard, and Joe Girardi and Charlie Manuel have surely spent anxious hours trying to determine the optimal way to ensure their best available arms pitch the most and, most important, innings. The countdown to Game One has included speculation on whether the Yankees will stick with a three-man rotation, how much gas Pedro Martinez has in his tank, whether CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee can be effective through three starts in a seven-game series, and whether Manual will continue his careful use of volatile "closer" Brad Lidge.
But according to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, one veteran player believes a radically different approach could be used to combat such deep and powerful lineups. John Smoltz, proud owner of a 15-4 postseason record, surprised Verducci with this description of how a team could best face the Yankees. "I would treat it like a spring training game with my pitchers," Smoltz said. "I would keep bringing in a fresh arm to pitch to them, rather than asking my starting pitcher to go deep into the game trying to get them out two, three, four times. They just wear out a pitcher. I know nobody would ever do it, because what message would people think you were giving your starting pitcher? But their lineup is so deep I would change pitchers every two or three innings, just like you do in spring training."
Verducci's fans at SI may be tempted to call this idea the Smoltz 'One Matchup' Axiom, or SOMA for short. But frequent readers of BP might recognize this as being very much like another SOMA: the "Shorter Outings, More Appearances" usage pattern I wrote about this summer. The idea behind SOMA is to have starting pitchers work in tandem, each pitching three or four innings in a given game every third day-resulting in a similar innings workload for the season, but spread over a greater number of games. The main benefit of SOMA, granting the large assumption that such a usage pattern wouldn't increase arm fatigue and cause injuries or loss of effectiveness, is that it allows pitchers to avoid facing the same batter more than once or at most twice. Most pitchers show a significant drop in effectiveness with each spin through the batting order, so applying SOMA might allow pitchers currently used as starters to continue to work 200-plus innings, with every one of those innings, unlike now, featuring the pitcher at his most effective.
Verducci himself noticed the increased production of Yankees hitters with each successive turn they took against Angels starters in this year's ALCS-for example, their aggregate OBP jumped from .333 to .396 to .421 the third time through. But Verducci describes this as a feature of the Yankees lineup itself and its propensity to wear down pitchers by driving up pitch counts, and mentions that the Phillies have a similar approach. When I wrote about SOMA last July, I looked at pitchers individually and in aggregate and saw similar (but less pronounced) results, but I didn't look at specific hitters or lineups.
So, is Verducci onto something here? Do the Yankees and Phillies produce a more rapid and pronounced erosion of starter effectiveness than other teams, and if so, is this due to their approach? To test this idea, let's take a look at the 2009 numbers for our World Series protagonists in relation to their respective league averages:
2009 Batting Totals By Times Facing Starting Pitcher AL Totals | Yankees Totals Changes | Changes Times Faced AVG/ OBP/ SLG OBP SLG | AVG/ OBP/ SLG OBP SLG Starter 1st .263/.329/.420 | .274/.342/.444 Starter 2nd .274/.336/.444 +7 +24 | .280/.350/.464 +8 +20 Starter 3rd .281/.345/.462 +16 +42 | .283/.362/.497 +20 +53 Reliever .255/.335/.404 | .286/.377/.487 NL Totals | Phillies Totals CHG CHG | Changes Times Faced AVG/ OBP/ SLG OBP SLG | AVG/ OBP/ SLG OBP SLG Starter 1st .250/.315/.392 | .246/.319/.431 Starter 2nd .265/.331/.422 +16 +30 | .265/.326/.456 +7 +25 Starter 3rd .283/.348/.458 +33 +66 | .286/.353/.506 +34 +75 Reliever .249/.333/.387 | .246/.339/.418
Here we see aggregate totals for the first, second, and third times batters face a starting pitcher, as well as when they face relievers. The "Changes" columns show the amount that OBP and SLG rates have increased from the first time through the order. As expected, in both the AL and NL totals, there is a clear decrease in starter effectiveness with each pass through the lineup. The same is true for the Yankees' and Phillies' totals-but the change for those teams aren't much different than their respective league totals. Both teams really lay the wood to an opposing starter when they get a third crack at him, but the second time through, the Bronx Bombers are virtually average, while the Phightin' Phils actually get less of a boost than the average NL squad.
This seems to show that there isn't anything extraordinary about our two protagonists' abilities to erode starter effectiveness-in fact, both teams are about in the middle of the pack. Here's how the Yankees stack up in the AL:
2009 AL Increased Hitter Productivity Per Time Facing Starter 3rd Time 1st Time OBP SLG Team OBP SLG CHG CHG P/PA P/IP Angels .316 .391 +58 +130 3.88 17.12 Indians .297 .367 +58 +95 3.93 17.13 Rays .334 .414 +28 +95 3.96 17.30 Royals .309 .378 +24 +71 3.79 16.04 Twins .347 .426 +20 +65 3.86 16.94 Rangers .318 .436 +28 +56 3.82 16.41 Yankees .342 .444 +20 +53 3.88 17.49 White Sox .327 .405 +14 +26 3.79 16.15 Blue Jays .334 .446 -7 +30 3.75 16.40 Tigers .335 .424 -4 +12 3.76 16.22 Orioles .341 .428 -2 +9 3.80 16.41 Athletics .339 .407 -9 +1 3.82 16.43 Mariners .312 .420 +4 -16 3.78 15.94 Red Sox .359 .498 -13 -38 3.94 17.59
As you can see, the Yankees are seventh in a 14-team league in their ability to increase both OBP and SLG between the first and third time they see an opposing starter. The Angels are the surprise runaway winners, graduating from a .259/.316/.391 line the first time through to .329/.374/.521 when seeing the same pitcher thrice-clearly their high-octane offense follows LA norms by arriving fashionably late. I've listed the entire league so you can get some sense of the relationship between increased productivity and the number of pitches seen. It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions from one year of data, but there appears to be some non-trivial level of correlation between seeing lots of pitches and eventually solving the starting pitcher (e.g., a 0.46 correlation between P/PA and OBP change). Obviously the Red Sox are a huge outlier, though their unique drop in both SLG and OBP is undoubtedly linked to their complete and utter dominance (.278/.359/.498) during their first pass through the lineup.
As for the Phillies, they also place seventh in their league in both how much their OBP and SLG increase between their first and third spin against a given opposing starter. The Astros, Rockies, and Dodgers see the greatest increases, while the Pirates, Braves, and Cubs rank at the bottom. As with the AL, greater patience tends to get you higher on the NL list, but the Phillies themselves are not great evidence of this-they're the third most patient team in the NL, but rank only seventh on this list.
All in all, it appears as if Verducci is correct that patient offenses are more likely to wear out a starting pitcher though, ironically, the Yankees and Phillies are not prime examples. The important point is not that having pitchers avoid facing batters multiple times is valid against the Yankees-the important point is that following that approach would be valid against virtually any team. Not only is John Smoltz right, he's probably more right than he realizes. As the Cy Young winner himself notes, "nobody would ever do this," mostly because of what "people think." An idea like SOMA is far too different for a major league manager or front office to take seriously-or at least it will be until enough people like John Smoltz are running the show.