The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, October 09, 2006

 

The Old Saw

So, which postmortem shall we get to first? You, the angry mob with the pitchforks and the torches and the burning effigies and the bloodlust -- what's your pick? The Yankees? Very well, then.

The 2006 version of the New York Yankees, the $200 million modern-day Murderer's Row, were bounced out of the playoffs by the Detroit Tigers because one of the hoariest clichés in the baseball universe showed itself to be true. Lather, rinse, and repeat after me:

Good pitching will beat good hitting.

Before we take a tour of the series, consider the following work by my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus, much of it featured in the excellent Baseball Between the Numbers:

• For an average or better team, a marginal run saved is slightly more valuable than a marginal run scored. This is a counterintuitive finding, but inasmuch as Bill James' Pythagorean formula and its various offshots are valid -- and nobody's suggested they aren't -- it holds true within a range where a team's net run differential is greater than zero. The kind of team that might find itself in the playoffs. A team which has scored and allowed the same number of runs will increase its expected winning percentage (EWP) more by subtracting runs off of its ledger on the defensive side than by adding the same number on the offensive side. Even a team with a decisive net run differential on the order of the Yanks and Tigers (162 and 147) will benefit.

Take the Yanks' 930 scored and 768 allowed. That's a Pythagenpat expected winning percentage (EWP) of .592; rather than simply squaring the runs scored and allowed, the Pythagenpat formula uses an exponent based on scoring levels equal to (rs+ra)/g)^.285. Add 50 runs to the Yankee offense while keeping the defense constant and you get an EWP of .618. Subtract 50 runs off the defensive side instead and you get an EWP of .623. Do the same exercise for the Tigers (822 scored and 675 allowed); add 50 runs and you get .619, subtract 50 instead and you get .625. Prefer straight up Pythagorean out of the old Baseball Abstracts? You get a seven-point spread for the Yanks' two options (.627 to .620) in favor of the defense, and a nine point spread for the Tigers (.634 to .625).

The take-home message of this exercise is that run prevention, which the Tigers were very good at all year long, is highly underrated relative to run scoring. Those zeroes in the opponent's column may not be as sexy as the threes in yours, but they're ultimately a hair more valuable, at least when we're considering the types fo teams one comes across in the playoffs.

• As discussed in this space recently, Nate Silver and Dayn Perry discovered that in the history of the postseason, three factors have shown a statistically significant correlation with teams that win:

* A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate (EqK9), which accounts for park and league differences
* A good closer, as measured by Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL), which accounts for the degree of difficulty (runners inherited and run margin) of a reliever's appearance
* A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA)

In other words, Silver and Perry couldn't find any offensive measures which were significantly indicative of postseason success:
More remarkably, all three of these characteristics relate to run prevention, rather than run scoring. That does not mean that offense is of no importance in the playoffs. But there is a lot of noise in the postseason record, and offense did not produce enough signal to emerge through it. The reasons are too complicated to get into here, but have to do with what happens when good offenses face good pitching. Pitching does have some tendency to dominate these match-ups, whether they occur in the regular season or in the playoffs. Because "plus pitching" versus "plus hitting" duels occur more frequently in the post-season, we tend to notice the effects more then.

In any event, this "secret sauce" is fairly pungent. The two teams that rated most favorably in these categories in the 2005 playoffs were the White Sox and the Astros, who met in the World Series. The formula also predicts the success of some surprise World Series winners like the 1990 Reds and 1979 Pirates. Conversely, of the ten post-season teams since 1972 that rated worst in the "secret sauce" rankings, none advanced beyond their LCS.
Here are statistical totals and relative rankings of the eight playoff teams in those "secret sauce" categories:
#   TM   FRAA  RK  EQK9   RK   WXRL    RK  TOT RK
2. MIN 4 14 6.9 2 6.154 3 19
4. NYN 14 7 6.3 10 5.624 5 22
7. DET 32 1 5.8 23 4.732 10 34
10. NYA 6 13 5.9 19 5.281 8 40
11. SDN 9 11 5.7 26 5.633 4 41
13. OAK 11 10 5.9 17 3.571 15 42
17. LAN -5 19 5.9 18 4.966 9 46
23. SLN 16 6 5.3 29 2.591 21 56
Yes, the top-ranked Twins ended up being swept by the A's, and the Cardinals bounced the Padres, but there's more historical weight behind the methodology than a single season's results. Note that the disappearance of Mariano Rivera, who was limited to one inning in Game One, took away the Yanks' biggest advantage over the Tigers, and that the Twins' Joe Nathan and the Padres' Trevor Hoffman were similarly neutralized, being held to two-thirds and one inning, respectively.

• Mike Carminati's article about early and late clinches among playoff teams wasn't specifically designed to address the pitching/hitting divide, but it did reveal a rather alarming dropoff in offense, no matter when a team sewed up a playoff berth:
       OBP   SLG   OPS
Reg .338 .407 745
Post .312 .369 681
I'd love to have the data to present a more detailed breakdown by level of scoring (teams in the various quartiles perhaps), but even those two lines ought to hit you like a ton of bricks: teams in the postseason generally don't hit as well as they did in the regular season, and it's not because they suddenly turn into sissies. It's because there's a higher concentration of good pitching in the postseason.

The Tigers, who led all of baseball in run prevention at just 4.17 runs per game, topped the Yankees, who led the majors in scoring at 5.74 per game. They limited the vaunted Bronx Bomber lineup -- one which included a current or former All-Star at every single position -- to 14 runs over a four-game span and just six in the last three games; two of those were merely window dressing in the ninth inning of Game Four. They hung 20 straight zeroes on the Yanks, from the fifth inning of Game Two through the sixth inning of Game Four. Thanks to Jeremy Bonderman's five spotless innings at the start of the finale, the Tigers came within three outs of a "hidden no-hitter," as the Yanks failed to record a base hit between Jorge Posada's double to lead off the seventh inning of Game Three and Robinson Cano's leadoff single to start the sixth in Game Four.

For the series, a team which bashed to the tune of .285/.363/.461 (leading the majors in OPS by 13 points) was held to a pitiful .246/.303/.388 showing. You can point a finger at poor, poor, pitiful Alex Rodriguez (1-for-14), who admitted afterwards that he sucked, but you can't avoid dishing out responsibility to Gary Sheffield (1-for-12), Robinson Cano (2-for-15), Hideki Matsui (4-for-16, with zero walks), and Johnny Damon (4-for-17, with just a .278 OBP for the series), to name a few names. Take away Damon's three-run homer in Game Two and Posada's two-run afterthought in Game Four, and you've got a team that went 3-for-26 with runners in scoring position against the Tigers, with all of those hits in the first game. Pundits from coast to coast will bloviate on how this proves some kind of moral failure on the part of these players, and a certain portion of Yankee fans will support a jihad against those they deem weren't clutch, including manager Joe Torre, around whom the vultures continue to circle.

But that kind of shutdown isn't a coincidence. Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and company stuffed the bats up the Yanks' asses. They did their homework (Bonderman supposedly had a tipster suggest his plan of attack, and I'll wager $20 that the Detroit Deep Throat was Curt Schilling, who's owned the Yankees for the better part of the past decade), they had their mojos working (Rogers' curveball gave him a knockout punch against a team that had dominated him for over a decade, while Zumaya's and Verlander's fastballs proved impossible for most for the Yankee hitters to catch up with), and they didn't just throw strikes, they threw unhittable strikes. Looking over the pitch-by-pitch data (gathered from Sportsline.com's play-by-plays, with the help of Peter Quadrino), a few things stand out:
          NYY    DET
UIB% 36.4 33.5
k% 63.6 66.5

take% 50.9 51.9
k/take% 29.3 35.9
b/take% 70.7 64.1

Swing% 11.2 7.6
Look% 14.5 18.6
Foul% 13.8 19.2
BIP% 21.7 20.9
k/nBIP% 53.4 57.7
The Tiger pitchers not only threw a higher percentage of strikes (k%) than the Yankee pitchers, they threw more strikes on balls that weren't put in play (k/nBIP%) and got significantly more called strikes on pitches taken (k/take%). Think about that last one for a moment; the notoriously hacktastic Tiger hitters, who struck out 2.90 times as often as they walked unintentionally this year, took more called balls than the patient Yankee hitters, who struck out only 1.75 times as often as they walked unintentionally. Why? Basically, because the Tiger pitchers were hitting their spots more often than the Yankee ones. They didn't make the Yankee hitters swing and miss more often (swing%), but they deceived the Yankee hitters on pitches they didn't swing at, and thus far we haven't heard much rumbling about Eric Gregg-type strike zones. The Tiger pitchers earned it.

Bonderman needed just 40 pitches to get through the first five innings on Saturday, and only seven of them were balls. Even when the Yanks tried to wait him out, they found themselves in the hole; of the nine first pitches they took in that five-inning span, six were called strikes. And when the Yanks did manage to make contact, it was weak contact. From Games Two through Four, they went just 17-for-73 on balls in play (.233) and slugged just .288 on those balls. For purposes of comparison, the team's numbers during the regular season on balls in play were .319 and .403.

The Yankees, meanwhile, exhibited the mediocrity of a pitching staff that's become a latter-day hallmark, one that allowed an unremarkable 4.74 runs per game, sixth in the AL (to finish out the comparisons, the Tigers, at 5.07 runs scored per game, were fifth in the AL). Chien-Ming Wang pitched well in Game One, and Mike Mussina didn't embarrass himself in Game Two, though he did very slowly cough up a three-run lead. But Randy Johnson pitched like a 42-year-old with a herniated disc and a shortage of cartilage in his knees, surrendering five runs in 5.2 innings, and Jaret Wright was an unmitigated disaster in an elimination game, failing to survive the third inning intact. The latter threw Ball One to nine of the 15 hitters he faced, including five of the first six in the second inning, when he surrendered three of his four runs. In all, the Yankee starters were charged with 15 earned runs in 22 innings, a 6.14 ERA. The relievers were charged with six runs in 12 innings, a 4.50 ERA. The failures of the rotation beyond Wang meant the neutralization of one of the Yanks' biggest assets; Rivera wound up with his mug on the side of a milk carton.

Hitting, particularly in a lineup as good as the Yankees have, gets all the glory. Chicks dig the long ball, and MVP voters drool over the guys with the big RBI totals. But hanging zeroes on an opponent is just as important, and it's not like the Tigers did that with a bunch of guys they rounded up at the bus station. Bonderman and Verlander were first-round picks, the former the bounty of the three-way deal which sent Jeff Weaver to the Bronx and Ted Lilly to Oakland (insert groan here), the latter only the #2 overall pick in the 2004 draft. Both are 23 (Bonderman turns 24 later this month). Rogers, for all of his baggage and his perceived character flaws, has lasted 18 years in the majors, winning 207 games with an ERA 10 percent better than the league average. Their catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, has already has coaxed a World Championship out of a green pitching staff (the 2003 Marlins, another Yankee killer) and is headed to the Hall of Fame. Ultimately, you have to tip your cap to the work they did. Congratulations to the Tigers on a job well done.

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