Using topological data analysis to define the six archetypes of the modern ballplayer.
Giancarlo Stanton is a big-time power hitter. Ben Revere is a fast guy with an empty hit tool. Joey Votto is Nick Johnson on a permanent hot streak. If pressed, we could do this all day with every position player in baseball, arbitrarily deciding which features to focus on for each player and tossing them into buckets.
But we don’t need to, because today we’re presenting some early results from Baseball Prospectus’ collaboration with Ayasdi. This partnership allows BP to use Ayasdi’s proprietary analytics software, called Ayasdi Core, with the goal of advancing baseball research. Ayasdi Core is built on the concept of Topological Data Analysis (TDA), which allows us to visualize the complex connections between data points from a given population. Here’s a brief explanation of TDA from Ayasdi:
What goes through a lefty's mind when he's staring at a baserunner.
Colin Young was a left-handed pitcher who spent six seasons in the minors with the Rockies and the Red Sox, reaching Double-A with both organizations. He also, as of this season, covers the Texas League for Baseball Prospectus. Here's what he sees when he watches Jon Lester struggle with his pickoff throws.
Scrutiny is alive and well. In the days of death by analysis, we get obsessed with the subtle character flaws and moments of weakness in our superstars. We grasp at anything within our reach to knock them down a peg. So it is that we get the recent intrigue over Jon Lester’s bungled pick-off throw. Cries of the “Yips” or “Mental Block” follow, and suddenly we imagine that Lester has the mental strength of a tired 6-year-old at the end of a 10-hour excursion through Disneyland. But Lester, historically, has been as mentally tough as it comes. The dude has straight ice water in his veins. If you’re looking for someone to pitch Game 7 of the World Series, to make a 3-2 pitch with bases loaded and the game on the line, and yes, even attempt a crucial pick-off throw, I’ll take Jon Lester 10 out of 10 times.
But, numbers don’t lie, and the numbers here—the year-plus without an attempt, the 50 percent error rate on two tries this year—are astounding to say the least. Visually, we can see discomfort when he throws over to first, and quantifiably, the attempts are basically nil. These two components reasonably lead me to believe that there is something going on mentally with him.
We’ve seen plenty of guys unable to field their position as a pitcher, making errant throws to a base, overthrowing/underthrowing pickoffs, or tossing lollipops to the catcher on pitch outs or wild pitches on intentional balls. Lester’s has been magnified into a “What’s wrong with him” conversation, but his quote in the Chicago Tribune following his throwing error last week sheds some light on the situation: “When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I got a little overexcited and threw the ball too soon.” Pickoffs are worked on during spring training and maybe a couple times a month in season, and pitchers may only get a few reps a few times a week practicing this move. I have yet to see a pitcher dedicate any great amount of time to perfecting his pickoff move following morning workouts or an intense bullpen session. In baseball talk, quality reps are what make you better; however, pickoff moves are not high on the to-do list. So one explanation is that Lester has simply fallen out of practice, it affected his ability to perform a deceptively complex move, and the lack of rehearsals snowballed. Another is that he’s just saying the right things to cover up a more severe underlying issue.
THE MENTAL GAME
For a left-hander, the pickoff move—and other means of holding the runner on—can be almost part of your repertoire. Lester, like many pitchers, appears to prefer to focus on the hitter and make a quality pitch with runners on base. There’s a case to be made for this.
Pitchers talk about focus, conviction, and execution when it comes to pitch selection and attacking a hitter. It requires a laser-like mindset dedicated to executing the pitch; Kevin Costner’s character in For the Love of the Game captures it when he tells himself to “clear the mechanism.” When runners are on base, a pitcher’s focus becomes divided and his attention is split between the runner and the hitter, detracting from his focus on attacking the hitter. Now we have two variables at play: slowing the running game and getting the hitter out.
What separates the Cardinals and the Cubs? So far this year, it's been catching baseballs.
This piece originally appeared on BP Wrigleyville, Baseball Prospectus' local site for all your Cubs needs. And be sure to visit BP Boston and BP Bronx for Red Sox and Yankees analysis as well.
The St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs are the two most serious contenders for the NL Central title. If that wasn’t apparent coming into the season, the Pirates’ early unsteadiness should throw it into relief. While the Cardinals are the heavy favorites—as of Monday morning, the Playoff Odds report gives them a 59.3-percent chance to win the division, more than double that of the Cubs—the Cubs have a lot going for them, too. Their long-awaited offensive metamorphosis is matriculating from tantalizing possibility to tangible reality: they have the second-best OBP, second-best walk rate, and tied for the most pitches seen per plate appearance in the NL. They also have more pitching depth than any Cubs team in recent memory, though that depth has been tested by an early spate of injuries.
Examining minor leaguers whose hot starts make them worth monitoring.
The full-season minor-league schedule has officially kicked off, and we’ve got a good week and a half’s worth of data to work off of now. And we all know what that means: it’s time to start adjusting our pre-season rankings to account for out-of-the-gate performance! Kidding, kidding. For the 52,472,832nd time, using minor-league stats lines for information on prospect status is a terrible, terrible idea. And using nine or 10 games worth of stats is a really terrible idea. Yet there’s still, somehow, a semblance of relevance here insofar as the early returns do affect our perceptions of players despite what we may tell ourselves. And when perception of a prospect changes, even in a small way and against our will, the trade and acquisition values we assign him in dynasty formats is affected. Over the next month as our assorted prospects for a run this season begin to formalize it’ll be these early season performances that inform our recency bias in evaluating prospects to target or sell.
So with caveats noted and demands for caution aired in full, let’s take a look at some interesting super-early performances, both from prospects already firmly on the radar and others who’ve shown some early signs off life from the depths of the prospect ocean.