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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Mid-Season Review, Part Deux

Posted by dannmckeegan on July 2, 2010

Part Deux, as one might guess, implies that this entry will focus on the Cubs middle infield.  With the May promotion of Starlin Castro to the majors from Double A Tennessee, everyone else’s role changed.  Ryan Theriot moved from short to second.  Fontenot became a backup at second.  And Jeff Baker found himself on the bench, for the most part, pinch hitting until Aramis Ramirez went to the DL in June.  As a group, the best descriptor is probably “frustrating,” but each man merits that adjective for different reasons.  So without further ado, let’s begin.

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Rethinking “Clutch”

Posted by dannmckeegan on June 6, 2010

Is there any statistic that can prove or disprove the existence of “clutch” hitting or pitching in baseball?  The simple answer is, no, despite what number-crunchers have said on the subject.  The primary issue is that the concept of “clutch” is itself a subjective one and an arbitrary one.  When we are talking about clutch hitting or clutch pitching, we do not have a specified game situation in mind.  That is, a statistical study of batting average (in the seventh inning or later with runners in scoring position with a score separated by three or fewer runs) doesn’t tell us whether or not clutch exists.

Many sabermetricians, including some of the bigger names in the coven, appear to deny that clutch exists at all, since it does not present itself in their data.  This stance essentially requires a metric quantifying clutch into a single column for there to be any consideration of its existence.  There are other, more rational, analysts in the community who are willing to accept that it might exist, and a lack of quantified metric is not necessarily a reason to dismiss the notion.

Clutch hitting and pitching have long been assumed to exist based on a very simple principle: people do not all handle pressure in the same way.  In a 2000 article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell provided an insight into the difference between two kinds of failure: panicking and choking.  Gladwell sums up the two types of failure quite nicely:

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.

Are these of any use to an outsider’s approach to “clutch” hitting and pitching?

On May 25, Bill Baer of Baseball Daily Digest posted an article “Analyzing the Internet’s Impact on Sabermetrics.”  While his overall thesis – that the web’s rapid rise allowed the dissemination of research and the building of a sabermetric community – is both accurate and absurdly obvious, I take issue with a major part of his overall argument:

When someone calls Derek Jeter a “clutch” hitter, I just go to Baseball Reference on the Safari browser on my iPod touch and point out that Jeter’s career .308 batting average with runners in scoring position is actually lower than his overall career .316 batting average. (His batting average with the bases empty is also .316.)…In the example above, the person espousing Jeter’s “clutch” ability was proven wrong…If, for instance, the barroom discussion was more philosophical and focused on “clutch” ability in general — does it exist? — before the primacy of the Internet, there would have been no way the “clutch” enthusiast could be proven wrong.

The problem with this entire line of reasoning is that the so-called clutch enthusiast has not been proven wrong, and the author has shown himself to be hampered by an unfortunate bit of tunnel vision.  If a team is up 10-0 and a hitter comes up with RISP, how much pressure is he under?  Is it really a “clutch” hit?  Conversely, in a one-run game in the 8th inning, a bases-empty, lead-off walk against a tough pitcher can be a very “clutch” plate appearance.  So there is no specific category from which statisticians can mine “clutch” data to find an answer to the question.

Allow me to return to Baer’s example, expanding on it to understand more fully my critique.

Jeter’s average with RISP does nothing to dispute his supposed clutch hitting ability.  Jeter is able to perform at his normal level of ability with runners in scoring position, to the tune of a .308/.403/.432 (compared to .317/.387/.458 overall).  But we also see the 16-point spike in on-base average.  Whereas his overall SO/BB ratio is 1.67:1, his SO/BB with RISP is 1.29:1.  Now, Jeter has spent about 90% of his career batting first or second.  On any given Yankees team, that has meant lots of lineup protection.  So Jeter’s primary statistical change with RISP – raising his walk rate to 12% compared to 7.7% in other situations – is itself a possible piece of evidence contrary to Baer’s position.  In context, Jeter is trying to get on base for the lineup’s run producers.

One primary aspect of “clutch,” or handling pressure generally, is the ability to remain calm and collected.  One could argue that, in pressure situations, a hitter’s ability to increase his patience, even if it ends up costing him a few more strikeouts, as well, is a positive thing.

To elaborate my argument, let’s look at Marcus Thames, a teammate of Jeter’s on the Yankees this season.  A career fourth outfielder or platoon starter, Thames possesses a line of .245/.311/.489 in just under 1,800 plate appearances.  He has hit 103 home runs and strikes out 3 times for every walk he draws.  Just for the sake of argument, let’s accept Baer’s RISP statistic as being meaningful.  Thames’ numbers are .241/.320/.480.  Thames performs at his career average, just like Jeter.

Now let’s use a slightly different definition of a pressure situation to measure Jeter’s and Thames’ performance.  We will add the condition of 2 outs to the RISP situation.  With two outs and runners in scoring position, Derek Jeter has a .315/.418/.453 line, a .385 average on balls in play and a 4:3 SO/BB ratio.  So his on-base, slugging, and BABIP all look really good in that situation.  The picture isn’t quite so rosy for Thames, however: he only has managed a .201/.299/.387 with a .256 BABIP and a slightly better-than-normal SO/BB ratio.

How do we square these numbers with the previous findings?  The first thing we must do is remind ourselves that neither of these game situations is necessarily under heavy pressure.  In a game separated by a wide margin, these aren’t nearly as important in context as they would be in the later innings of a close game.  So they are imperfect frames to begin with.  However, they do provide us with a few initial glimpses into what might be encompassed by the “clutch” concept.  It is far more than just one statistical category.  Players are unaware of the leverage indices of a given game situation, as they should be.  But pressure, being subjective, is omnipresent.  So it is far more important to study failure in certain game situations than success.

Tying this back to the beginning, what we see in Derek Jeter is a player who very clearly shows no signs of panicking or choking.  Thames, however, does see a meaningful statistical drop when there are two outs and runners in scoring position.  He’s just not as good then.  Already a bench player, Thames is under extra pressure to perform in clutch situations.  While he isn’t the high-paid star, he is the player who takes occasional PAs away from that star when he rests.  Under the lights and in front of the fans, he has far less experience handling these situations.  He simply has fewer in-game, real life reps.  Considering the minuscule margin for error in hitting a baseball, it’s easy to see the potential for nerves inducing either a minor panic or minor choke wherein the player thinks too little or thinks too much.

Therein lies the essence of clutch, and why it is so statistically elusive.  Players acquire experience in those tough situations, and the best ones will obviously show no panic and little choke.  It comes with the territory of being a star.  For the other players, the decent to pretty good ones, we may well expect to see some of that panic and choke come through at times.  But we also know that luck comes into play.  Just consider Brooks Conrad’s grand slam to cap off an 8-run comeback some weeks back for Atlanta.  Few would truly consider that clutch, as opposed to luck.

The first step in understanding clutch is recognizing that it is not unique to baseball or sports.  It is simply a term that conveys a third party’s perception that an individual performs well under pressure.  If I take a standardized test and know the answers to 95% of the questions, a score of 95% is a clutch performance.  I didn’t make a careless error or have a brain cramp.  A higher score means I made a few lucky guesses.  A lower score means I either choked or panicked.  Apply the same analogy to any given job, from no-collar to white collar.

Clutch isn’t about going above and beyond the rational limits of accomplishment.  Rather, it is about maintaining a level head despite the increased pressure.  When the pressure increases, the clutch performer is unfazed.  It’s everyone else who can be expected to do less.

To examine this hypothesis further, a few lines of inquiry can be pursued:

1) Is there a year-to-year correlation of potentially clutch statistics (such as 2 outs RISP or late & close) for individual players?

2) Is there a greater disparity, on average, between the overall and possibly clutch stats of bench players than lineup regulars, or poor hitters and good hitters?

3) What impact might sample sizes and luck have on the numbers for players with fewer plate appearances?

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On Comes Cashner

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 31, 2010

Aramis Ramirez

Aramis Ramirez explains his philosophy of making in-season adjustments and working hard to overcome adversity.

I don’t quite think that “easing him in” as a younger player, as Lou more or less put it, includes multiple men on with two out and a 1-run deficit in the bottom of the 8th inning.  Yet big righty Andrew Cashner has the good fortune of facing Ronny Cedeno, who for some reason decides to swing away on the kid’s first pitch as a major leaguer.  Pop-up to short, threat over.

On to a 9th inning with Soriano, Soto Colvin, and Castro scheduled to hit.  A strikeout well-earned by Dotel, a sawed-off pop by pinch hitter Colvin that couldn’t find a hole, a lucky flare by Castro, and another strikeout against Theriot, overmatched by anyone and everyone in the midst of his slump.  Dotel has been especially tough on the Cubs this year.

An interesting and painful game to watch.  Randy Wells came back and threw 5 solid innings after an awful Friday against the Cardinals.  Bob Howry had a pretty decent inning again.  Jeff Stevens and Andrew Cashner each got the one out that was asked of them.  Today, it was the often-solid lefties James Russell and Sean Marshall who couldn’t hold back Pittsburgh.  But it’s hardly fair to give James Russell or Sean Marshall the brunt of the blame for this game.

The blame goes to the offense.  One run on FOUR hits (Soriano’s triple in the 2nd; Fukudome’s infield single in the 3rd; Soto’s single in the 4th; and Castro’s single in the 9th).  Fukudome, Byrd, and Lee each drew a walk.  Randy Wells reached on an error on the hardest hit ball by a Cub in this game.

If Aramis Ramirez wasn’t just standing around holding his cock (see inset above) instead of hitting the baseball, the Cubs probably would be .500 or above instead of 4 games below at the end of May.  I do have numbers to back me up.  Specifically, I’m looking at Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. Now, a Replacement-level player at 3B is essentially a backup/fill-in type, as opposed to a truly marginal major leaguer. In 2009, Greg Dobbs had a +0.1 WAR and Brendan Harris had a -0.1 WAR, so that’s “replacement-level,” essentially.  They suck for the most part, but you understand that they can hang on to an MLB roster spot.

From 2004 through 2008, Aramis’ annual WAR stats were 4.8, 4.1, 4.5, 5.3 and 4.7. In 2009, in only 82 games, his WAR was 2.6. So far in 2010, Aramis Ramirez already has a WAR of -1.1 through 42 games played and 51 team games.

So Ramirez, despite his injuries, has comfortably been worth about 4.5 wins above a replacement-level player, while this year has already cost the Cubs 1 win compared to even Chad Tracy (+0.1 WAR). He’s on pace to be worth a 7- or 8-win swing for a full season.  And I mean that in a negative sense.
I’ve generally been patient so far this year.  I’ve understood the team’s unpopular experiments, even if I thought they were odd.  But time is running out.  Cincinnati has Volquez and Chapman at Triple A to bolster their staffs.  St. Louis may or may not be in the market for some upgrades.  And outside of Houston, Milwaukee, Arizona and Pittsburgh, there isn’t a single “Bad” baseball team in the National League.  This is going to be a rough and tumble season for a good while longer.  It’s time to stop being patient.  If Aramis won’t get his proverbial hand out of his pants, then he needs to make his way to the DL.

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Punctuated Home Run Equilibrium: Part III

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 27, 2010

From Coming Home Through Expansion: Waves #2 and #3

This is the third in a multi-part series examining the history of home run rates in Major League Baseball. Inspired by my disagreement with J.C. Bradbury’s opinion on the importance of steroids in the rise in home runs over the last 15 years, this research attempts to look beyond statistical expectations.  Rather than providing explanations for changes in home run rate, this series hopes to provide the reader with causal relationships not drawn from correlation, but rather from actual events.  Part One introduced Mr. Bradbury‘s argument, as well as my initial concerns with the position.  Part Two explores the Roaring Twenties and the decade’s end, where we see that a small piece of large puzzle can explain what appears to be widespread instability.

Following a plummeting rate of home runs per game (HR/G) during World War II, the return of the stars and the subsequent evolution of the American way of life led to what appears as a dramatic spike in power at the big league level.  Today’s entry examines what history has to say not from a purely numerical level, but also from a historical examination.

To be perfectly clear, I am not attempting to weave a narrative in retrospect.  Rather, my argument is that the peaks and troughs throughout history are largely evolutionary and incidental, byproducts of other socio-historical factors endemic to the game or experienced by the players.  The ups and downs that appear as data points are functionally independent of one another.  Extremes either high or low have historically tended to correct, if not overcorrect, themselves from year to year.  We will see this a number of times in today’s article. Read the rest of this entry »

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Realignment? How far can we go?

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 24, 2010

After one full weekend of play, the interleague record is tied at 21 wins each for the National and American Leagues. Meanwhile, the Pirates and the Braves went quietly about their business, oblivious to the specialness of Bud Selig’s grand project. The Braves took 2 of 3 from their National League counterpart, outscoring host Pittsburgh 13 to 5. Everyone gets in on the fun of juggling either a pitching staff or a ninth hitter…except for the fans of those two teams. With the CBA expiring in the upcoming years, MLB and the MLBPA need to negotiate ways in which they might alter the composition of the league.

Barring expansion, they need to talk real realignment. Read the rest of this entry »

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The NL Central Quarterly, pt. 2

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 21, 2010

With the 2010 season now past the 40-game mark, a quarterly report is due. This is the second part of a two-part analysis. The first half of was published here yesterday. It covered the relationships between the records of the six teams in the NL Central and runs both scored and allowed. Today’s entry will deal with the two questions left unanswered yesterday:

1) What relationship exists between the 4-run barrier and the individual teams’ runs scored and runs allowed?
2) Does the cumulative view change much when we separate runs for and against each team into categories above and below the 4-run barrier?

If you missed the article yesterday, this 4-run barrier is simply a binary split of games in which a given team’s offense was or was not able to score 4 or more runs. My interest in this split began with the Chicago media’s harping on the Cubs’ 1-17 record when they score three or fewer runs. The next angle that interested me was that a team receiving a quality start would probably be in a position to win those games with a minimum of 4 runs of support. Read the rest of this entry »

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