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, August 24, 2009

 

The Secret's in the Sauce

I'm pleased to announce my debut in this week's issue of New York Magazine, with an article about the Baseball Prospectus "Secret Sauce" metric, first introduced by Nate Silver and Dayn Perry in Baseball Between the Numbers in 2006 and discussed at length here. With Nate having moved onto politics, the NY Mag editors were looking for one of his BP colleagues to discuss how the Sauce rankings pertain to this year's Yankees. Here's a taste of the piece, which is part of their August 31 Fall Preview issue and also available on their website:
Silver and co-researcher Dayn Perry tested dozens of variables using over 30 years of data to see which best corresponded with winning playoff games. They found that age and postseason experience had no effect on a team’s chances; surprisingly, they also found no significant correlation between any measure of team offense (including bunting and stealing) and postseason success. What they did find important were three measures of pitching and defense, which they called the "Secret Sauce":

A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate, which adjusts a team’s strikeouts per nine innings to account for differing playing environments. (For example, National League teams have higher strikeout rates than American League teams because weak-hitting pitchers bat in the NL.)

A good closer, measured by Reliever Win Expectancy Added, which tracks the increments by which a pitcher changes his team’s chances of winning. Performances in close games or scoring situations count more than those in blowouts or with the bases empty.

A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average, a stat that reflects the number of balls in play that a team’s fielders turn into outs. Traditionally, defenses are judged by the number of errors they make, but the spread between the best and worst teams in that regard amounts to only around 40 errors per year. The spread between the best and worst teams at making plays that turn potential hits into outs is more like 275 a year, which has a greater impact on the number of runs a team allows.

These findings make some sense given the postseason’s structure. More frequent off-days and the threat of elimination compel managers to "shorten" their pitching staffs, using their best starters and relievers almost exclusively. You can’t "shorten" a lineup, though, and the maxim "good pitching beats good hitting" is supported by the numbers; in Silver and Perry’s studies, great pitching teams beat great hitting teams a disproportionate number of times. Meanwhile, the improved pitching thanks to shorter staffs lowers postseason scoring rates by about 10 percent, magnifying the importance of every defensive play.
As it turns out, the Yankees rank first at the moment thanks to their staff's high strikeout rate, an above-average defense, and the continued excellence of Mariano Rivera. Updating the rankings, because the ones published are a few days old:
Rk  TEAM     FRAA  Rk  EqSO9 Rk  WXRL  Rk   SCORE
1 Yankees 33 (3) 6.9 (6) 5.1 (1) 10
2 Dodgers 55 (1) 6.3 (12) 3.9 (6) 19
3 Giants 46 (2) 7.2 (1) 2.0 (20) 23
4 Tigers 20 (6) 6.4 (10) 3.6 (8) 24
5 Red Sox -14 (21) 7.0 (3) 4.7 (2) 26
As you'd expect from anything on a word count, a fair bit of what I had to say in the piece wound up on the cutting room floor, and some of the edges got more rounded off than I might have preferred in a more expansive context. Perhaps the most interesting leftover was this one, showing how the Yankees have ranked over the years:
Year   MLB AL   Result
2009 1 1
2008 10 7
2007 10 5 Lost Division Series
2006 6 3 Lost Division Series
2005 14 7 Lost Division Series
2004 20 9 Lost League Championship Series
2003 12 5 Lost World Series
2002 14 5 Lost Division Series
2001 5 1 Lost World Series
2000 5 3 Won World Series
1999 4 3 Won World Series
1998 3 2 Won World Series
1997 2 1 Lost Division Series
1996 2 1 Won World Series
In the six years where the Yankees ranked among the majors' top five teams, they won the pennant five times and the World Series four times, claiming a total of 14 playoff series. In the seven years they finished outside the majors' top five, they won the pennant once, and only won a total of three playoff series. Rather telling, if you ask me.

Anyway, it was exciting to be asked to write the piece, and I hope it's not the last time I wind up in the glossy pages of the magazine.

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