Is there meaning in checked swings, and can teams take advantage of it?
When I got home from the SABR Analytics Conference in mid-March, I spent a week or so writingandtalking about some of the most interesting things I’d heard there. But there was one particularly intriguing topic that I wasn’t yet ready to write about.
That topic was brought up by Bill James, who's given us more than his fair share of interesting insights. Here’s all the backstory you need to know: James was on an “Analytics Super Panel” with Brian Kenny and Joe Posnanski, and he was asked by an audience member whether there’s any utility for teams in gathering information on home plate umpires. If I’ve embedded it right, this video should play only a short clip from the relevant portion of the panel (59:40-1:00:29). If I’ve embedded it wrong, you can either skip to that section yourself or read the transcript below.
One year, four months, and five days ago, the Yankees traded Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. It was an unusually exciting trade, in that we hadn’t heard much about it before it went down, and it involved two of baseball’s most promising young players. As the internet scrambled to write up responses, a consensus emerged: both teams had done well to address an area of need. The Mariners, who hadn’t hit much since Edgar Martinez retired, had more trouble attracting hitters than pitchers to their big ballpark, and had just batted Miguel Olivo cleanup 43 times, and thus needed someone who wouldn’t look out of place in the middle of a major league lineup. The Yankees, who had a surplus of 1B/DH types signed to long-term contracts, needed a young starter to slot into their rotation behind CC Sabathia. If either team was believed to have “won” the trade, it may have been the Mariners, who wound up with the position player, generally the less risky part of any pitcher-for-position-player swap. But neither team was widely believed to have lost.
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The best and worst of the week and season, plus more on Matt Wieters and the Brewers.
As promised last time, I put up several BP excerpts from interviews I conducted while working on my feature on framing for Grantland. If you missed any of them, the links are here:
Two epic plate appearances with a dramatic disparity in styles.
Normally this series is on the blog side of the site, but since this is an extra-long edition, I’ve made it an article. If you’re new to “Longest Plate Appearance of the Week” because you don’t read the blog section regularly, A) read the blog section regularly! and B) catch up on the first edition here and the second edition here. I’ve added a few new elements this week: the length of the plate appearance, the number of mound visits involved, and a GIF of an exhausted player who’s wishing the plate appearance would end.
Bonus long plate appearance trivia: I don’t know why I didn’t think to look it up before, but if we’re going to talk about long plate appearances every week, we should know what the gold standard in long plate appearances is. The pitch-by-pitch data in our database goes back to 1988, and in that time, the longest plate appearance was a 20-pitch battle between Bartolo Colon and Ricky Gutierrez on June 26, 1998. Gutierrez struck out swinging. So, 20 pitches: that’s the goal. The average plate appearance in 1998 was 0.15 pitches shorter than today’s, so we have a head start.
A Rangers reliever returns to the majors in the midst of a career-redefining resurgence.
I appreciate the leap of faith it took to click this link, knowing full well that the article it took you to would be about Neal Cotts. You could have spent this time, during which you’re probably supposed to be working, reading about much more famous players, whose names are more likely to come up in conversation and make you sound smart. You probably won't ever sound smart because of Neal Cotts. But Cotts' story is exciting. It’s not just that he's back in the majors after wandering in the baseball wilderness for years. That part is pretty cool, of course, considering how long he’s been away. But if that were all it was, the excitement would wear off quickly. What makes the story special is that Cotts, at age 33, has come back a completely different guy, a completely dominant guy, and, until proven otherwise, possibly the best pitcher who has ever thrown outside the realm of the immortals. And now that I’ve hopefully hooked you, let’s recap how Cotts sank into the obscurity from which he recently returned.
You might remember Cotts from his days with the White Sox and Cubs. Then again, you might not, since he was a mostly unremarkable reliever. His most memorable season was 2005, when he won a World Series with the Sox after posting a 1.94 ERA in 60 1/3 innings. Even that season wasn’t nearly as good as it seemed on the surface: Cotts had the lowest HR/FB rate (1.8 percent) and one of the lowest BABIPs (.237) of any pitcher to top 60 innings. In all other seasons combined, Cotts recorded a 5.14 ERA in relief. He struck out about eight batters per nine, walked about four, and gave up too many home runs. He was a lefty, but not a specialist, since he had a career reverse split (southpaws slugged .456 against him).
The Orioles don't have the record they had this time last year, but they're a stronger team.
On Tuesday night, the Orioles flashed some of their 2012 magic against the Yankees at Camden Yards, winning on a 10th-inning walk-off homer hit by Nate McLouth that brought an end to a battle of the bullpens. For last season’s Orioles, who went 16-2 in extra-inning games and 29-9 in games decided by a single run, winning one-run games with walk-offs was a way of life. For the 2013 Orioles, who entered last night 3-3 and 6-6 in such situations, respectively, those victories have been as difficult to come by as they are for the typical team.
“Run differential” was the frequent refrain in any conversation about the Orioles’ success in 2012 and outlook for 2013. Good teams tend to outscore their opponents by a comfortable margin. The Orioles, who went 93-69, outscored their opponents, but barely—their run differential was that of 82-80 team. Some said it was luck and assumed it wasn’t sustainable, while others credited a good bullpen and Buck Showalter, both of whom the O’s brought back.
The pitches pitchers don't throw for strikes, to try to get strikes.
There’s a story about Gene Bearden in Veeck as in Wreckthat I’ve written about before. As a 27-year-old rookie in 1948, the knuckleballing Bearden posted a 2.43 ERA in 37 games and 29 starts for the Indians, winning 20 games and finishing second to Alvin Dark in Rookie of the Year voting. But he couldn’t sustain his success. In Bearden’s sophomore season, Casey Stengel, who had managed Bearden during his successful 1947 PCL campaign with the Oakland Oaks, was hired to manage the Yankees. Stengel, the story goes, knew that Bearden’s knuckleball “usually dipped below the strike zone after it broke, which meant that [he] was totally dependent upon getting the batter to swing.” So he instructed his hitters not to swing at the knuckler until there were two strikes, forcing Bearden to elevate it or throw his unremarkable fastball or curve. The scouting report spread around the rest of the league, Bearden became more hittable, and his walk rate rose. Working primarily out of the bullpen, he posted a 90 ERA+ from 1949 on and was out of the majors after 1953.
It’s an interesting story, and the stats mostly support it. Bearden was probably due for some regression, Stengel’s advance scouting aside—his BABIP in 1948 was some 40 points below the AL average (low even for a knuckleballer), he walked more batters than he struck out, and he allowed only nine home runs in 229 1/3 innings. But in 1949, his walk rate rose by more than two batters per nine, and he allowed 11 runs in nine IP against the Yankees, posting a lower strikeout-to-walk ratio (0.17) against them than he did against any other team. (Admittedly, Bearden struggled against the Yankees in 1948, too. The Yankees were good.)
The best and worst framers of the week and the season, plus framing-related links.
Framing-related links of the week
It’s been an eventful week for framing on the internet. If you're here because you’re interested in catcher receiving skills, you might also want to take a look at these three articles:
Estimated historical framing: More great work by Max Marchi, who used Retrosheet pitch-by-pitch data to estimate framing performance going back to 1988. He also took a look at how receiving skills age. Next on his to-do list: estimated framing for minor leaguers, and the quantification of game-calling.
There’s a strange thing that happens to normally rational baseball writers when discussing the Yankees. People who would normally question every assumption and demand to see some empirical proof blindly believe that the Yankees have mastered the dark art of picking up past-their-prime players and restoring some of their former success. The only evidence is anecdotal, so we know we’re being naughty and going off the reservation, sabermetrically speaking. But like Luke Skywalker, we’ve searched our feelings, and we know it to be true. And we’re only kind of kidding.
When the Yankees traded for a struggling Ichiro Suzuki last July, The Great Grant Brisbee—after acknowledging the absurdity of what he was about to say—wrote this:
The best and worst receivers of the week and the 2013 season so far.
No intro section this time; I should have a couple framing-related features on the way early next week, which I don't want to tease too much. Let's get right to the leaderboards and frames of the week.
Robots aren't a realistic solution for all of umpires' ills.
The building I grew up in had manually operated elevators. They were quaint prewar contraptions that required an attendant to slide a metal screen across the entrance and a pull a hand crank to start the ascent and stop at the desired destination. (They looked a little like this.) When you got to your floor, you felt like you’d earned it. Or you would have, if not for the person paid to take you up and down.
Those elevators had been there as long as the building, so they had tradition and inertia on their side. And most of the time, they did the job as well as a more modern elevator. But they had a tendency to get stuck between floors, they broke down fairly frequently, and they were expensive to service. Eventually, it became clear that to complete another repair would only postpone the inevitable at additional cost, and the manually operated elevators were replaced by the boring kind with buttons. I don’t remember any outcry about preserving the historic human element of the elevators, probably because by that point the would-be preservationists were sick of climbing stairs.