What can Starting Lineup figurines and Abraham Lincoln teach us about baseball research?
Somewhere at my parents’ house, there’s a Starting Lineup figurine of Jose Canseco, depicting him during his Bash Brothers days with the Oakland A’s. I got it for Christmas one year back in the days when Jose Canseco was my favorite player. I would have been nine or ten at the time and he was ... let’s just say the words “Jose Canseco” evoked a different image back in the late 80s/early 90s than they do now. Canseco had won the 1986 Rookie of the Year award at 21 and the 1988 MVP at 23, hitting 40 home runs and stealing 40 bases in the same year. At the time, Canseco seemed like the guy we would all look back on some day and tell our kids that we saw him play.
Moving the strike zone up seems a simple, elegant solution to what ails offense. But won't anybody think of the unintended consequences!?
Last week, Major League Baseball announced a proposed change to the strike zone. In response to a zone that continued to sag downward, MLB’s competition committee has recommended that the definition of the bottom boundary of the strike zone be changed from the hollow under the kneecap to the top of the knee. It doesn’t seem like much. That’s maybe two inches of space, although the actual called strike zone has always differed somewhat from the rulebook strike zone, but if the changes are put into effect for 2017, then pitchers might be feeling a little more squeezed next year.
Is Tony Wolters the answer to 24 years of mile-high pitching woes?
Good-framing catchers, as best as we can define them, seem to have magical powers. They can “steal” extra strikes for their pitchers, and while it might not seem like much in the moment to get an extra borderline call, it adds up. The generally accepted consensus has been that the top framers can save their team 20 runs compared to a merely average framer. Compared to the bottom of the barrel, that swing is 40 runs. When the general public figured out how big that effect was, they rightly made a big deal about it. (When teams found out, they quietly made a big deal out of it. In fact, in Francisco Cervelli’s case, they just made more than 30 million big deals about it.)
The super-cool, super-modern, super-fun strategy that might not be doing anything.
Last week, we looked into The Shift and whether it was actually doing what we said it was supposed to do, which is to be a better way of getting hitters, especially pull-happy hitters (and double especially groundball-heavy, pull-happy, left-handed hitters) to make more outs. The traditional story of The Shift is that because those hitters are going to be sending most of their ground balls to one side of the field, why not put more fielders over that way?
Here’s a cheeky question that I ask in complete sincerity: How many home runs were hit against The Shift last year? I’m sure someone out there knows the answer to the question, but there are probably more people wondering why I even bothered to ask it. If the ball was hit over the wall, what does it matter whether The Shift was on or not? Either way, the fielders weren’t going to be able to get to it.
Testing the belief that ninth-inning losses hurt more.
There’s nothing more thrilling in baseball than a ninth-inning comeback. Unless, of course, it’s your team being victimized by the comeback. Then, there’s nothing worse. To have fought for eight innings and held the lead, only to have the game snatched away in the ninth. It might leave the other team breathless, but it will leave you with a nasty scar.
It’s 2016 and Statcast is everyone’sfavoritenew toy. It’s not exactly a new toy, of course. Bits and pieces of the system were rolled out in 2014 and last year, there were plenty of chances for the data to make themselves known on game broadcasts. Baseball fans have begun to absorb a new set of numbers as they watch the game. Unlike some of the “advanced” stats that have come before Statcast, these are numbers that a lot of people had actively wondered about, but had very little ability to measure. How fast was he running on that play? That looked like a long way to run to make that catch, but how long was it?
Why your team's hopes aren't dead by the eighth inning, and why baseball isn't either.
Is the dramatic comeback dead? Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated thinks that it is, and that it’s because teams have loaded up their bullpen with power-armed specialists who are just so good that if a team gets to the late innings with a lead, they are more likely to keep it, and thus scuttle the chances for someone to make a dramatic comeback in the late innings. A lot of the great games in baseball history involve late-inning heroics and comebacks from the brink. Everyone loves a comeback, but Verducci suggests that if the comeback becomes a lost art, it will suck all the life out of baseball.
There’s an endless game of cat and mouse to be played among pitchers and batters. Ted Williams famously said that hitting a baseball was the hardest thing to do in all of sports, but what makes it so hard? Sure, hitting something that small traveling that fast with a blunt instrument takes Olympian levels of reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and raw strength, but put even a decent minor-league hitter up against a pitching machine that is “throwing” 95 mph and eventually, he’ll start squaring it up every single time.
The question of cultural competence is one of the struggles that will define the next generation of Sabermetrics.
"The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it. I'll tell you what has happened, these guys played Rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the f--- they went and they thought they figured the f---ing game out. They don't know s---.” –Goose Gossage, March 11, 2016.