How pitchers can throw more pitches inside the strike zone and walk more batters (and vice versa).
I remember once that there was an article (not written by me, but it might as well have been; I’ve certainly written a version of this article before) that looked at a batter’s increased walk rate and concluded that it was due to... not swinging at as many pitches outside the strike zone. Colin Wyers tweeted something in response that went something like, but not exactly like, this: “uh no doy.” I try to keep that tweet (or at least something like that tweet) in mind, because it’s easy to find explanations that are already embedded in that which you seek to explain. Baseball generally obeys its own physics. Player is struggling because his heat map looks awful. Fielder’s numbers are down because fielder isn’t making plays in front/in back/whatever of him. Pitcher is walking more batters because pitcher is throwing fewer pitches in the zone.
But what about when that last one isn’t true? There are 179 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 pitches last year, and have thrown at least 500 pitches this year. The correlation between year-to-year changes in zone rate and changes in unintentional-BB rate is fairly modest: about .4. That means there must be a lot to not walking batters other than throwing pitches in the strike zone.
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One of baseball's most dominant pitchers versus baseball's worst batters.
PECOTA ran a bit more than 1,000 hitter projections for 2013. The worst line it forecast was a .177/.205/.245 line from Elier Hernandez, an 18-year-old who had just hit .208/.256/.280 in short-season ball. The next worst was for Gabriel Rosa, who had just hit .245/.314/.406 in the Arizona instructional league, and who was forecast to hit .171/.200/.251. The average pitcher this year has hit .133/.162/.180, well below either player’s forecast.
So let’s take PECOTA’s word for it, and accept that major-league pitchers are, generally, worse hitters than every hitter in the majors, and every hitter in the high minors, and if not every hitter in the low minors then most. Let’s say they’re worse than every hitter in Nippon Professional Baseball, and every hitter in the Mexican League. Let’s further assume that they’re worse than a large number of hitters who have washed out of the minors because, through positional inflexibility and unsexy ages and generally limited upside and utility, are no longer allowed to take up organizational space—all the Eddy Martinez Esteves out there. How many is that? Around 500 big leaguers, around 3,000 minor leaguers, no fewer than 1,000 players scattered around foreign professional leagues, certainly dozens if not more college kids, a handful of extremely advanced high schoolers, and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Eddy Martinez-Esteve desaparicidos. Let’s say that your average pitcher is the 10,000th-best hitter in the world.
Craig Kimbrel's small margin between best reliever ever and best reliever of right now.
My current favorite fun fact, a fun fact that I’ve repeated in chats, on Twitter, on Ben Lindbergh’s award-winning podcast, and now in an article, is this: In 2012, Craig Kimbrel struck out more batters on three pitches than Justin Verlander did. It’s got everything I like in a fun fact: It favorably compares a player to a more famous player; it compares his accomplishment in one context (in this case, an opportunities-based context) to an accomplishment in a much more favorable context; it uses a statistic that isn’t really a statistic so much as a description and thus has more descriptive impact than a traditional statistic; it’s not an easily dismissed small sample size; its cheats aren’t obvious, if they exist at all; and it captures not just a player but an era, the era of the ridiculous strikeout reliever. It got to the heart of the thing, which was that Craig Kimbrel was so good that you wondered whether he actually posed an existential threat to baseball itself.
Kimbrel has been awesome this year. You could take his pitching line and a time machine back to 1976 and it would look so scary to that generation that the Russians might bomb Huntsville, AL to prevent the Kimbrel from ever being developed. It’s a spectacular line! But it doesn’t take much for a Fun Fact Machine to become just a great player.
Jose Iglesias has a .507 BABIP this year. This article is not about that BABIP, exactly, but we are starting there. Iglesias entered the season with a .164 career BABIP in the majors, and a .300 BABIP in the minors, and a reputation as the best defensive shortstop in baseball, with a bat that might be just weak enough to support that glove. Finding out Jose Iglesias has a .507 BABIP is like finding out that Chin-lung Hu quietly signed with the Pirates and hit 14 home runs in May. Anyway, like I said, this article isn't about that BABIP.
A year ago, we did a blind BABIP test for a Jake Peavy start; 20 balls put in play, 10 were hits, and you tried to guess which were which based on all the information you could collect up to the point of contact. Gosh, did you ever do terribly. Given a 50 percent chance of guessing the correct answers blindly, you collectively got 52 percent of the answers correct. But maybe that wasn't fair; maybe focusing on the pitcher (who, as we know, controls his BABIP only a little bit) is a doomed exercise. Hitters control their BABIP some bit more than that. So maybe we should be focusing on the batter, looking to see if he's balanced and putting a good swing on the ball or flailing, jammed, late, or on top of the ball. So what happens if we do this from the batter's perspective? Will we be any better? I suspect... well, honestly, I don't know.
In which last year's Rookie of the Year runner-up adjusts to his opponents' adjustment in his sophomore season.
Was going to watch Yoenis Cespedes for a week because he was hitting so poorly. Was going to start watching on Tuesday, June 4. He entered the day hitting .229/.302/.447. Yes, you can spot the hole where a better BABIP would provide a convenient fill, but there were plenty of signs that Cespedes was stalled: two steals in seven tries, for instance, after swiping 16 in 20 attempts last year; a .203/.241/.414 line against right-handers, whom he had handled well in 2012.
So that’s where Cespedes was when I sat down to watch a week of him. That was in the past. Now we’re in the future! Isn’t it marvelous? Look at my cellular phone, it has a camera! Also, Yoenis Cespedes is having a good year. Just like that, Cespedes went from having a bad sophomore season for me to write about to having a pretty good season (118 OPS+) for me to write about. What happened in those seven days, you might wonder. Mostly:
And why a few suspensions won't stop an ugly scene from occurring again.
I’m a scaredy-cat, and a pacifist, so I come to these sorts of discussions from a place that won’t appeal to everybody. When I see a pitch going toward Zack Greinke’s face, for instance, I think of it as the culmination of a violent series of events that could have easily killed a man; that it didn’t kill a man makes me only marginally less queasy about the whole thing. At the risk of going into unnecessarily macabre territory, I want to imagine that it did kill a man; the difference between that universe and ours is perhaps mere inches. Had it killed a man, there would be reckoning, soul-searching, panels to study the issue. There would be vigorous discussion about whether the criminal justice system should be brought in. There would be, mostly, an attempt to figure out how this happened, and what went wrong, and where we could have prevented it.
So how did the beanball that touched off a brawl between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks on Tuesday night happen? What went wrong? Where could somebody have prevented it?
The time a team had nothing to show for its selections.
If you were trying to find the worst draft ever, where would you start? “Bad” we could probably agree on, but “worst” would certainly lead to an argument. You might, for instance, argue that the 1968 Washington Senators (later Texas Rangers) had the worst draft ever. This is a sterling position to have. The Senators that year managed to draft -6.9 WARP, which is not only the worst draft class ever by cumulative career WARP, but it’s a) two wins worse than the second-worst class, a giant margin in an otherwise tightly packed trailerboard; and b) it came in 1968, the same year that the Los Angeles Dodgers managed a draft class that put together an incredible 192 career WARP, the most ever by any team in any single year (though it took both June and January drafts for the Dodgers to reach such peaks, just as it took Washington both June and January drafts to dig such deficits).
But those Senators were only two or six wins worse than a whole slew of other teams that were below replacement level. Why not make the case that the Giants had the worst draft ever in 1982, because their failure cost them dozens of WARP? That year, their first-round pick (11th overall) was a college first baseman who would manage to bat just .188 in 16 career at-bats. And their second-round pick (39th overall) was a high school outfielder, a local kid, who would go on to hit 762 home runs in the majors—but who, because of a failed post-draft negotiation, hit 176 of them with the Pirates, who drafted and signed him three years later. Plenty of great players get drafted, don’t sign, and end up on in another team’s history—but the Giants were sooooo close. According to columnist Glenn Dickey,
Reggie Willits, J.B. Shuck, and how lightning might be striking again in Anaheim.
Jack Burdett Shuck III was named for his father, Jack Burdett Shuck II, but has always gone by the initials J.B.. Similarly, Reggie Gene Willits was named for his father, Gene Willits, but has always gone by the initials R.G. That’s how I pronounce it, at least. I assume that’s how everybody pronounces it: R.G. Willits, written out (for aesthetic reasons, but strictly by coincidence) as “Reggie.” Pretty sure I’m right about this.
R.G. (Reggie) and J.B. have a lot in common. Both were born in smallish, Midwestern cities—Chickasha, OK (pop: 16,000) for Willits, and Westerville, OH (pop: 36,000) for Shuck. Willits’ favorite player was Kenny Lofton—he wore no. 77 in the majors in honor of Lofton, who wore no. 7. Shuck’s favorite player was Kenny Lofton, and he says the dozens of Lofton cards he owns are his most prized. Both would grow up to be large by human standards but small by baseball standards, each standing 5’ 11”. Their birthdays are separated by just two and a half weeks on the calendar, so when they were going through Little League and high school sports, they would have both been about the same age at each level. Shuck hit .576 in his senior year of high school, playing outfield and pitching; Willits hit .598 his senior year of high school, playing outfield and catching. Each went to college, and each stayed in his home state to do so. Willits was drafted in the seventh round. Shuck was drafted in the sixth.
Are we starting to see the optimization of lineups?
When you write for a team-specific blog, eventually you get to the point where you realize all those amazing and radical lineup ideas you have are wasting everybody’s time. It’s not that lineup changes have only small impacts—they do, but so what? Small margins are what team-specific blogging is all about—but that they’re usually non-starters. No manager is going to use that lineup-optimization tool; no manager is interested in hearing your The Book-inspired prescriptions. We’re not there yet. Baseball changes plenty from year to year, and has changed plenty over the past 100, but the basics of lineup constructions haven’t changed at all: