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.

Friday, May 01, 2009

 

Let's Go Streaking!

I'm riding a hitting streak — four straight days of publishing at Baseball Prospectus, a first for me:

• Tuesday's Hit and Run explored April home run rates and found they were nothing remarkable within the context of the past decade and a half:
Excluding the strike-affected 1994-1995 years, the 2009 season ranks seventh out of 14 seasons no matter which rate you use. Within that context, it's a run-of-the mill post-strike season. What's throwing observers is that 2008 featured the lowest home run rate of that period, and 2007 the second-lowest. The 7.7 percent increase over the previous year, were it to hold, would be the largest climb since 1998-1999 (9.3 percent), just edging out the 2005-2006 increase (7.4 percent).

Of course, we're still dealing with a relatively small sample size here—10.6 percent of the schedule, to be exact—as we haven't even finished the April schedule in a season where Opening Day arrived late because of the World Baseball Classic. The question is whether a change observed in the cruelest month will continue to manifest itself over the course of the year. All signs point to yes:
Year    April   Change   Season   Change
1996 1.150 n/a 1.094 n/a
1997 0.944 -17.9% 1.024 -6.4%
1998 0.976 3.4% 1.041 1.7%
1999 1.143 17.1% 1.138 9.3%
2000 1.281 12.1% 1.172 3.0%
2001 1.168 -8.8% 1.124 -4.1%
2002 0.953 -18.4% 1.043 -7.2%
2003 1.047 9.9% 1.071 2.7%
2004 1.087 3.8% 1.123 4.9%
2005 0.947 -12.9% 1.032 -8.1%
2006 1.154 21.9% 1.109 7.5%
2007 0.920 -20.3% 1.020 -8.0%
2008 0.896 -2.6% 1.005 -1.5%
2009 1.082 20.8% 1.082 7.7%
Since the post-strike 1995 season didn't start until April 25, we're confined to using 1996 as a cutoff, but the effect is clear: the small samples of April (and March) games can produce swings on the order of 20 percent, and while the magnitudes of such year-to-year changes aren't sustained over the course of the season, without fail during this era, an increase or decrease in April home runs portends an annual change in the same direction. It's a nearly bulletproof assertion to say that we'll see more home runs hit in 2009 than 2008.
As to why, what's interesting is that in the absence of any contemporary steroid scandals (A-Rod is sooo 2003), it's ballparks and balls that are being discussed as the mechanism, which shouldn't surprise anyone who read the chapter I wrote for Will Carroll's The Juice or my follow-up.

• Wednesday's work, which was featured in abbreviated form at ESPN as well as at greater length on BP, examined the positional concentration of young talent. While we don't have the equivalent of the shortstop trinity, it's a heady time for young catchers and center fielders.

• Thursday's Hit and Run introduced what I'm planning to make a recurring feature, an analysis of a trio of teams called "Pair Up in Threes." Thanks to Nick Stone for offering the Yogi-ism as a title after my initial suggestion was rebuffed. This time around, I looked at the three teams playing the furthest over their heads relative to our preseason PECOTA projections - the Pirates, Blue Jays and Cardinals. Here's the Bucs:
Record: 11-9
Current Hit List Factor: .549
Projection: .400
Difference: +.149

Why They're Flying High: The Pirates are allowing the league's fewest runs per game (3.70) after finishing dead last in that category last year, and new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is receiving a good deal of the credit. Where Paul Maholm was the only Bucs starter to finish the season with an ERA below 4.80 last year—a figure that essentially matches that unit's projection—four of the Pirates' five starters are below that mark this year, led by Zach Duke (2.43). Kerrigan's use of video led Duke to review the form he exhibited in his stellar 2005 rookie campaign, prompting a tweak in his delivery, and the coach's knack for preparation and use of statistics have helped the young hurlers improve their situational pitching. Where they were among the worst in the league in batting average allowed after getting ahead 0-1 (.251 AVG, T-15th) or 0-2 (.194, T-14th) last year, they're now among the best (.214, 3rd on the former; .138, tied for first on the latter).

Why That May Not Last: The Pirates lead the majors with a .738 Defensive Efficiency after finishing 28th at .675 last year. That 63-point improvement is not only the largest jump of any team, it would top the 2008 Rays' record-setting turnaround of 54 points. But where the Rays notably upgraded the left side of their infield via Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria while shifting B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura to positions for which they were better suited, the 2009 Pirates are returning three-quarters of their regular infield, with Andy LaRoche swapping out for Jose Bautista at the hot corner. The outfield has seen some shuffling, but neither Eric Hinkse nor Craig Monroe, the two new faces in the mix, are known for their work with the leather.

Additionally, the staff's strikeout rate (5.4 per nine) is the worst in the league, with Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf whiffing less than four per nine, and Ian Snell's staff-leading 6.1 still lagging a full K behind the league average. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.29) is also last, and ERA indicators such as their 4.76 FIP and 5.52 QERA suggest that when a correction arrives, it won't be pretty.

Glimmer of Hope: Perhaps because of Kerrigan's help, the pitchers are serving up fewer meatballs than before; the staff's Line Drive rate has fallen from 19.2 percent to 16.7, the fifth-largest drop in the majors. Whether you're using the simple LD% +.12 to estimate batting average on balls in play, or Brian Cartwright's more advanced .15*FB%+.24*GB%+.73*LD%, both formulas herald BABIP drops of more than 20 points, so it's possible that some of the early-season improvement in that department is real enough to stick.
The topic and format will change every week, perhaps being based on a trend, a problem or a bit of history as opposed to a statistical ranking, and it should increase the frequency with which I publish there given that I don't have to grind my gears to come up with a whole new topic every time.

• Today's Hit List, again topped by the Dodgers:
Nine-O? It's only Seven-O: Roughed up on a road trip, the Dodgers return to, uh, Dodgertown 90090 to complete their first undefeated April at home (7-0) since 1947. Chad Billingsley ranks in the league's top 10 in ERA, strikeout rate, fewest hits per nine and SNLVAR after reeling off his fifth straight quality start but the rest of the rotation is looking rather rickety. The team has otherwise gotten just four quality starts out of 18, three of them from Randy Wolf, and Clayton Kershaw's been bombed (two starts, nine innings, 15 runs) since his 13-strikeout performance.
Back in a bit with the latest on you-know-who. With the day-long lag between posting and actually publishing (gee, thanks, Blogger), I've lost my appetite to go into much detail on the Alex Rodriguez situation - most of what I have to say about it (or really, about Selena Roberts' muckracking and spotty credibility) has already been better said by Craig Calcaterra at ShysterBall -- it's a must-read.

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