Even if you know little about baseball, you know the important things. You know that you have to move the runner over, stay with the hot bat, pitch your closer in the ninth. And you know that whatever you do, you should not pitch a lefty down and in.
Because, you know, it’s their power wheelhouse. Continue reading
Google search for “A’s offense sucks” returns 912 results, well spread over last 4 years. In contrast, the search for “A’s offense is great” returns one single result, dating all the way back to 2007 and in a sentence that continues with “but”. And we all know – everything before a “but” is a lie.
For some, the reason for glaring offensive failures of our beloved Athletics is not their general ineptitude in proper usage of wooden objects, but rather their faulty approach. Lawyerball did beat C.J. Wilson, but that’s an exception, they’ll say. You can’t take a close pitch with a full count, they’ll argue. You have to protect the plate, expand the zone, swing at the pitches on the black, foul off, make contact with anything borderline, force a pitcher to make a mistake, put the ball in play, make good things happen, be gritty, get another pitch to see, be aggressive, put the pressure on and generally, you know, swing the damn bat.
The others argue that a 50/50 coin flip of just letting the man in blue decide is actually a good thing. Especially when the alternative is having an Athletic, of all people, put the ball in play. That an OBP of .500 is a dandy thing and for sure better than whatever would have happened otherwise. It might be boring to watch, even frustrating at times, they say, but it’s still a smart thing to do.
But so far neither group has really shown convincing numbers to back their theory up. So, let’s go.
1. What’s a borderline pitch?
This is a somewhat crucial question for the following exercise.
Normally, it is a pitch that can go either way, a ball placed close to the edge of the strike zone that is called a ball as often as it is called a strike. This isn’t necessarily equal to the edges of the rulebook strike zone, as careful PxP readers already know. But it doesn’t have to be. Players and umpires are animals of habit and the strike zone that they act upon is the one based on years and years of experience, and not on reading the book.
And experience says the following – if we were to draw a roughly four-inch wide line along the edges of the strike zone in such a manner that one inch of it is inside the strike zone and just over three inches are on the outside, we would create an almost perfect borderline area.
It would look something like this:
In 2010 about the quarter of all pitches thrown landed in this gray area. Those are pitchers’ pitches as this is where they want to locate – close enough to have a chance to get a strike call, yet not much one can do with them. The ones that were not swung at were called strikes just as often as they were called balls.
Gray area pitches called strikes: 42,381
Gray area pitches called balls: 42,228
That’s the borderline pitch that we will analyze.
2. Expand the zone and protect!
Everybody who has ever picked up the bat has been taught this – two strikes is the time where you want to be swinging at the close pitches. You want to expand the zone and protect, because if you don’t that might be the last strike that you’ll see.
Major League hitters are no different.
That’s a huge, huge jump. A Major League hitter is almost twice as likely to swing at the borderline pitch once he already has the two strikes against him. All that teaching paid off.
Funny enough, the umpires do exactly the opposite.
Once the count reaches two strikes, the umpires will deviate from their 50/50 baseline and be significantly less likely to call a strike on the borderline pitch. While this can partly be explained by a different mix of pitches left to call on two strike count, playing Lawyerball on borderline pitches with full count is not really like a coin flip, it’s more like betting on a rainy day in London.
3. Are the A’s so much different in handling the borderline pitch?
Not really. They are among more disciplined teams, but not league leading, neither prior to two strikes, nor after:
4. So… should I swing or should I hope?
What to do with the count full and a borderline pitch coming? Does it pay off to be patient? Or is it being aggressive that gives best results?
The tool to test it is wOBA. Now, if you were attracted to this FanPost by shiny graphs, but do not know much about acronyms, don’t worry. wOBA measures how much on average the most common events have helped a batting team. A single is worth more than a BB, for example, because there are situations where it does bring more. All numbers are real life averages, thousands and thousands of MLB situations and effects the hitting events had on them.
If you really care about how wOBA is made, ask Dan. If you don’t, just remember two things. One – it works. And two – the bigger, the better.
A baseline wOBA for batting with a full count in 2010 is .398, largely fueled by much increased on-base percentage. Tango has made a nice table for different averages on different counts, have a look – it’s pretty informative.
And here is what happened in 2010 when pitchers threw a full-count borderline pitch:
The first column is simple – it’s either strike outs or bases on balls.
The second one shows what happens once the ball is put in play. In short – not much. Definitely not “good things”, as wOBA of .268 is worse than what Cesar Izturis does with a bat. The best that players can hope for when they swing the bat under these circumstances is that they hit the foul ball. But not to “prolong the at bat and punish a pitcher’s mistake” – both their slugging and their ISO are lower than Jason Kendall’s career mark. Rather, they can hope to go all Lawyerball and get that walk later. That’s what third column shows – how did the plate appearances where the borderline 3-2 pitch was fouled off end.
So, you should try to foul that pitch – right? Unfortunately, fouling pitches off is not a skill. Looking at our borderline pitch, here are the percentages of foul balls among swings:
With less than 2 strikes: 37%
With 2 strikes: 38%
With full count: 35%
You see a pattern there? Exactly, neither do I. If fouling off tough pitches were a pronounced, repeatable skill, you’d think you would see much more of it when batters actually want to do it, as opposed to when they have zero incentive for it.
The final column/number (.321) is the combined wOBA for swinging the bat. It replaces the pitches that were fouled off with the final result of that at-bat, and combines it with the balls that were put in play. The results are very, very convincing. Bigger is better, remember.
Or if you are more of a pictures person, look at this:
On the left is an offensive threat equivalent to taking a borderline pitch with a full count. On the right is an offensive threat equal to swinging at it. There is a reason Rajai Davis is pictured without a bat.
Aus aktuellem Anlass is a German phrase meaning “due to current events”. It is very widely used around here, replacing the description of an event everybody knows everything about anyway. So, when your company starts a workforce management round you might be called to an informational meeting aus aktuellem Anlass. They will not say An Informational Meeting In Which We Describe How We Will Fire Your Sorry Asses, no, aus aktuellem Anlass sounds so much more elegant. And it’s not like anybody will think that current events worth discussing revolve around beer and pretzels, anyway.
You also might get invited to coffee and cake aus aktuellem Anlass. Coffee and cake is a very strange, very German concept, one they like to organize at any time of the day, but preferably just before eating real food. But being invited to such a ritual at your workplace makes it very clear that the inviting colleague is yet another year older and does not really feel like speaking about his or her newly increased age.
So, to resemble what it would look like in the country that has given us both Porsche and Sauerkraut, I invite you to:
ZOMG! NO DOUBLES DEFENSE SUCKS!!1! Aus aktuellem Anlass
How would you describe “being in the zone”?
And answers like anything but being named Rory on any given Sunday don’t count.
There are these moments in life where everything just seems to go right, where one has the complete and utter control over everything around him, where your knotted dirty socks leave the hand so effortlessly that you just know they will bounce softly off your wife’s make up table and swoosh their way into the very middle of the laundry basket. Or whatever athletic endeavor it is that you might be pursuing.
But as easy as it feels being in the zone, it is even harder to try to describe how and why one finds his way into such a state of mind and body, where yin and yang find the perfect balance, where one is but a hovering soul over the slow-motioned events leading inevitably towards a happy end. Luckily for you, I realize that it’s not only hard to describe but also utterly boring, so not a single word more will be wasted about such esoteric poop.
Instead we turn to that other zone, the one that existed way before Jim Boeheim perfected the 3-2 one, even way before Charles Lindbergh started the chain of events that led to the no-fly one. We’ll talk about the one and only true one – the strike zone.
Dickey Pearce was, by all accounts, a man of short stature and strong will. He was also possibly baseball’s first professional player.
He played his first game with Brooklyn Atlantics on September 18th, 1856 and he died exactly 52 years later in Wareham, Massachusetts, spending the most of the time in between these dates playing baseball or being around it. Baseball-Reference holds the stats for only his last few years and judging by those, he was not a very good baseball player. So why would a career of a replacement level player who played a century and a half ago be of any interest today?
Judging from the articles from that era, he was a much better player in his early days. St. Louis Times wrote following about Mr. Pearce on June 30th, 1868:
Pearce has been noted as a superior shortstop for ten years and to-day has no equal in the base ball field. He bats with great judgment and safety…
Indeed, everybody seems to agree that Dickey Pearce was not only an excellent fielder and the best shortstop of his time, but that he was actually the first shortstop to play the game like shortstops have been playing ever since. A game report from May 19th, 1873 shows that he used anything he could to find an edge:
At the Union Grounds in Brooklyn‚ 2‚000 fans are on hand as the Atlantics beat the Quakers‚ 13-11. In the first inning‚ there are two Quakers on base when Malone hits a pop up to Dickey Pearce. Pearce lets the ball hit the ground‚ then throw to 3B for a force and the rely to 2B Jack Burdock completes a DP.
Yes, he forced us to introduce the infield-fly rule, albeit only 22 years later. Dickey Pearce was truly ahead of his time, a baseball pioneer, a man whose defensive prowess and intelligence were groundbreaking. Yet, it was not with the glove, but with the bat that he left the strongest mark, triggering heated discussions centuries later. Dickey Pearce gave baseball the tricky hit. He gave us the bunt.
It was June, and things weren’t looking good for the Diamondbacks. Already 15 games behind the surprise Padres, they just dropped an inter-divisional series at home. Against their natural geographical nemesis – the Yankees. And they had only one day to regroup as they took their 28-45 record on the road to face yet another regional foe – the Tampa Bay Rays. “I’ll take ‘The states that host spring training games’ for $200, Alex”.
Their hitters weren’t hitting and their pitchers were getting hit. Haren, the staff ace, had an ERA of 4.67, which was on the right side of five compared to the one sported by Edwin Jackson, who would get the ball on that Friday to take on the suddenly mighty Rays and their more than 2,000 very rabid fans.
So, of course, Edwin Jackson went out and hurled a complete game shutout, in what was possibly the most non-dominant dominating performance in baseball. He faced 36 batters and ran the count to three balls on more than the third of them. He walked eight. Yet, both Jackson and his manager kept stubbornly moving along until the last one of the Rays found his way to the bench and the scoreboard was still showing 0 hits for the home team. In a meaningless game for his team, Edwin Jackson wrote history and became only a second Diamondback to throw a no-hitter. He also threw 149 pitches that night.
Being a baseball manager is rather exciting compared to what most other 70-year olds get to spend their afternoons doing, but it’s still rather boring. There just isn’t that much to do.
In basketball you can call a timeout and scream at the bunch of seven-footers. You have your own little Etch-A-Sketch pad. You can substitute all you want. All you want. Imagine LaRussa under such circumstances.
In football you get to pick one of 200 plays that you drew up, minute after minute, all while simultaneously communicating with NASA satellites and avoiding streams of 350 lb bodies rushing to and away from the field. People really shouldn’t weigh 350 pounds.
And I am certain that there are various forms of entertainment that hockey coaches can engage in, and I would gladly mention them if I cared about the sport enough to know anything about it.
But as a baseball manager, you are left out of all the fun. First, you are called a manager and not a coach for a reason. You can not outsmart the other guy by secretly preparing a new play. You can’t teach a killer 3-2 zone. You don’t really teach or coach anything at all. And worst of all, even when the games start, well, there still isn’t much to do. And if you look at the following data, you’ll see that they have to wait for hours for what limited fun they might have.
And yet some people expect the Oakland Athletics to score runs. I mean, they really do – and they have the numbers for it.
Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of run expectancy. It is a fancy expression telling us how many runs scored on average between a certain baserunners/outs situation and the end of that particular inning. That number tells us what we should expect, or better said, it tells us what other teams did when facing a similar situation in the past.
It is helpful, as there are only 24 different situations in baseball and roughly 200,000 plate appearances every year. Structuring the data and being able to analyze so many events helps us try to answer some of the very basic questions about strategy in baseball. Is it helpful to bunt that runner over from second base? Walk that slugger with the first base open? It also gives some indications why we lately saw the shift from evaluating on-base and slugging as being equally worthy (OPS) to accepting on-base to be more important (wOBA).
Let’s look at them graphs.
PxP stands for both play-by-play and pitch-by-pitch, although if judged by how procrastinatingly* slow I go about it, the best description is probably peu à peu.
* I think I just made up a word.
Nowadays, baseball data is easily available, freely and abundantly. You want FIP, wOBA or WAR? You can get it, often in more than one flavor. Useful additives included, like adjustments for leagues and parks, baselines and weighted factors. While the precision and the functionality of said stats continue to rise, their complexity often only allows for acceptance, not for in-depth understanding of how they function.