Who had the Best Eye? (continued)

August 27, 2009

See previous article for background.

The batters who walked most often per AB in MLB history (minimum 800 walks drawn) are, in order:
Hitter Walks At Bats Walk rate
T Williams2021 7706 .208
B Bonds 2558 9847 .206
M Bishop 1153 4494 .204
B Ruth 2062 8398 .197
E Stanky 996 4301 .188
F Fain 904 3930 .187
G Tenace 984 4390 .183
Cullenbine853 3879 .180
E Yost 1614 7346 .180
M Mantle 1733 8102 .176
J McGraw 836 3924 .176
MMcGwire1317 6187 .176

But some batters played when walks were more or less common. Using the Baseball Prospectus translated stats to adjust for this, and for ease of competition, below is a ranking of batters who had the highest translated walk rate.
At bats walks walk rate
BBonds 9876 2495 .202
MBishop 4492 1074 .193
BRuth 8494 1984 .190
RThomas 5627 1305 .188
JMcGraw 4101 941 .186
THartsel 5099 1146 .184
GTenace 4447 981 .181
TWilliams 7703 1691 .180
EStanky 4321 926 .176

Aha – Ted Williams played when the AL was a league where walks were freely given out; his ‘eye’ maybe was not QUITE as precise as legend has it (but fear not, Splinter fans, his bat still was!). Roy Thomas and Topsy Hartsel played 100 years ago; their names are not as well known, but check out their records. Thomas led the NL in bases on balls 7 times in 8 years. Oddly, Hartsel played in the same city (Philadelphia) in the other league at the same time, and had many of the same skills.

Now… how about we adjust for the players’ (isolated) POWER. Using the formula translated walk rate + .015 – translated ISO ^ 2 * .656, below is the table of Best Eye Hitters – those who would have walked the most often, given they had average power (i.e., equally feared [or not!] by opposing pitchers).
ab w iso walk rate
adj walk rate
MBishop 4492 1074 0.111 .239 .246
RThomas 5627 1305 0.102 .232 .240
JMcGraw 4101 941 0.149 .229 .230
EStanky 4321 926 0.117 .214 .220
THartsel 5099 1146 0.181 .225 .218
MHuggins 5826 1126 0.099 .193 .202
GTenace 4447 981 0.272 .221 .187
Henderson11139 2162 0.189 .194 .186

The Babe was walked more due to his incredible bat more than anything else. Ditto Ted and Barry. The real king of the strike zone was the man whose nickname was…. Camera Eye. Max Bishop, the man who scored 1153 runs in his major league career, which only lasted 1338 games. He had the best eye. Ever.

Understanding Player Streakiness #1: The Epic Slump of Big Papi

August 26, 2009

Why do we believe that David Ortiz’s unimaginably bad April and May should nearly be ignored when projecting his performance for the rest of the year?  Why should we believe he has the skills of a .259 / .352 / .566 hitter (his numbers from June 6 to August 24) rather then those of  a .227 / .320 / .439 hitter (his overall season numbers)?   Isn’t this “cherry-picking” of the worst sort?  Why would you toss out a significant chunk of a season like that?

It’s not a trivial question: if Ortiz really is a 759 OPS hitter now, he should be getting no PT for the Red Sox, not when Casey Kotchman is sitting on the bench.  In fact, some on SonsofSamHorn.net (from which much of this post is adapted) have been arguing just that: bench Papi, he’s toast.  But if he’s actually a 918 OPS hitter, that would be crazy.

The first thing to understand is that you could play Stratomatic Baseball or Diamond Mind from now until the day you die and not see a .439 slugger put up a .288 SA in his first 221 PA and a .566 SA in his next 264.  Ortiz’s HR / Contact has gone from .007 to .106; the odds against seeing that in a random simulation are something like 3,823 to 1 (chi-square, p < .0003).  [NB: Yes, I know that chi-square is not exactly accurate with any of the n < 5, but it’s close enough for sabermetrics.]

It’s important to understand that streakiness is real. Player seasons which divide like this and give ridiculous odds of happening randomly according to chi-square are commonplace.  That serial day-to-day correlation is not significant does not disprove the notion of streakiness; it just fails to give positive evidence.  Remember that a correlation does not measure the strength of a relationship; it measures the strength of a relationship minus the noise. Add sufficient noise, and any real relationship can fail to show a significant correlation.

The second thing that’s crucial is that we have a very good explanation for why Ortiz (or any hitter and especially any aging hitter) could have such a miserable stretch of season.  When looking at big splits, “do I understand how this happened?” is one of the two crucial interpretive questions you must ask yourself.  (The other—and sometime it’s the same question—is “did I look for this split to confirm an existing hypothesis or suspicion, or did I stumble on it while examining all of his splits?”)

The explanation (and here we shift from sabermetric mode to scouting mode, and it’s something that every sabermetrician needs to be able to do) begins with the psychological contrast between the “Big Papi” of legend and the Ortiz of April and May. From the ’04 post-season to the end of ’06 Ortiz may have been the most confident athlete you’ll ever have the pleasure to watch.  I’ve done studies which showed that his success in walk-off situations literally had millions-to-one (maybe billions-to-one) improbability. He not only knew he could hit, he knew they couldn’t get him out when it really counted.

This absolute confidence disappeared when he started suffering the health problems that come with ordinary aging. In ’07 and ’08 his clutch differential was actually negative, which was just being average plus bad luck.

Compare the guy who knew that no pitcher in the planet could get him out when the game was on the line to the guy who told the press “Papi sucks.” Ortiz suffered a complete collapse of confidence, complete self-doubt.

Now, the way this affects hitting is that it causes you to think about mechanics while you’re up there. That’s the last thing you want to do; it’s got to be what people call “muscle memory.” I suspect former Sox #1 prospect Lars Anderson has struggled this year in part because he’s so damn smart, and I suspect that the success of guys like Wade Boggs and Manny Ramirez is directly correlated to, shall we say, their unlikelihood of ever joining Mensa. I think it took Dwight Evans half his career to stop thinking too much while he was up there. (NB: I’m not talking about the “what’s he going to throw me next” thoughts between pitches, just whether the hitter can shut out conscious thoughts about swing mechanics.)

It’s important to note that there were a few weeks where we had persistent reports that Ortiz was having great BP but was still struggling in games. BP gives you a chance to work on mechanics and, having made an adjustment, get it out of your conscious mind, let it settle into muscle memory, and take a bunch of repetitions. Bringing that to games can be a big challenge. It’s the reason why slumps last as long as they do despite hitting coaches, video study, and extensive extra BP. It’s absolutely like the “don’t think about elephants” dilemma. It’s not just that you have to get past the stage where you’re actively thinking about mechanics, you have to get past the stage where you’re thinking that you shouldn’t think about your mechanics. That takes repetitions and confidence. You have to literally forget you’re slumping.  You can’t be trying really hard to relax.

To sum up:

Age and declining health – > increased likelihood of mechanics getting out of whack, at the purely physical level. Your knees hurt, you lessen the depth of your crouch, suddenly the swing is just a bit off.

Declining health -> loss of general confidence. You know you’re not physically the player you used to be.

Loss of confidence -> increased likelihood of thinking about swing mechanics while at the plate. Once the thought even crosses your mind that the swing might not be right, thinking about the swing while up there just makes things worse.

That’s how slumps start. And then the bad performance of the slump creates a further loss of self-confidence which leads to more thinking which leads to yet worse performance.

The reason why we can ascribe Ortiz’s epic slump to these psychological processes (writ much larger than usual) rather than to a fundamental loss of skills is obvious and trivial: his performance after the slump is over.  The numbers are arguably even more dramatic than the ones I noted at the beginning, because in the 11 games after the PED story broke, Ortiz hit .114 / .204 / .136 in 49 PA, and according to his own testimony he wasn’t sleeping at night.  Those 49 PA can actually be excluded by the same logic, leaving us with a “true maximum skill level” of something like .293 / .386 / .668, which is basically his season projections with a big power boost.

The reason why you don’t project him to hit like that the rest of the year is equally obvious and trivial: he is not immune to further slumps.  There is even a small probability that the next slump will be extended, like the first one, but that is mitigated by two factors: he is much more likely to fear that he has lost his skills when he’s slumping at the start of the season rather than in the middle, and the April and May slump was exacerbated by the pressure of not having hit his first home run of the year (from the date of his first homer on May 20 to the end of the slump on June 5, he showed real signs of life, with a huge increase in pulled line drive percentage.  This was precisely the period where he was reported to be having great BP.)

In terms of pure, peak, hitting skills, David Ortiz is probably 90% the hitter he used to be a few years ago.  He probably has something like a 500% higher probability of getting himself into a serious sustained slump, especially at the start of the season (April ’08 was also terrible).  The specter of these extended slumps diminishes his overall value, but they do not much affect our sense of what he’s likely to do in the short run.

Texas Rangers – who’d a thunk?

August 17, 2009

The Texas Rangers are LEADING the AL in run prevention! I did NOT see that coming. So, how are they doing it?

Check out the rotation: of the Rangers 6 pitchers who have started the most games, the THIRD best ERA is Holland, at 4.88! Hmmm… doesn’t seem all that special.

New call-up Tommy Hunter is on a roll; but a Fly-ball pitcher with a fairly low KO rate uis not a prescription to for an ERA in the low 2s, as he has so far. Combine that with his 4.2 minor league ERA in 09, and I think he’s over his head.

The Rangers have allowed an incredibly low 28 UNearned runs (league avg is 42). Even though they have committed an average amount of errors. Great ‘clutch’ play there I guess.

Their bullpen has been superb – anyone see Darren O’Day’s ERA of 1.69 coming, after the Mets waived him since his ERA last season was 4.57?

All told, I’m not big on expecting Texas to win the wild card; sure looks like smoke and mirrors. But go ahead guys, surprise me.

Goin’ to Spanish Camp!

August 9, 2009

Hey guys. I’m sorry to say that I will be away at spanish camp for two weeks, and thus unable to blog. I trust that Eric and Tom will more than make up for my absence. By September, I hope to be on a regular posting schedule. Until then, I hope the baseball world has a good time without me!

Some Things to Ponder

August 7, 2009

Which major league hitter had the best “eye”? How do we answer that question?

We could say Bonds drew the most walks; but many of them were intentional. We could look at walk rate (W/PA or W/AB) to normalize by career length; but one issue that will be raised, legitimately, is that Ruth/Bonds/etc were often walked BECAUSE they were feared. Who knows, maybe Dal Maxvill would have drawn 100 walks a year if he actually had been able to HIT.

Other potential things to wrassle with:
1 in some eras of MLB play, walks were more prevelant than others.
2 what about park effects?
3 level of play corrections?
4 does “good eye” change over time; do we need to make a “peak” and “career” assessment of the best eye?

Sometime soon, I’ll outline my methods to deal with these issues, and write an article about who Realyl had the best “eye”. Until then, suggestions welcome.

Walks: do they correleate with batter ability? The answer is, they do correlate with ISO (isolated power, or ‘bases above singles’ per AB: doubles are 1, triples = 2, home runs = 3. Can also be calculated as SLG – AVG.

I used 20 years of MLB play (1953-56, 1965-72, 1981-88) and ran a regression using the 3700+ players who had at least 300 PA in any year.

There was no tendency for players with higher AVG to draw more walks. Which surprised me. But higher ISOs definitely correlated well with walks. The best fit was a 2nd order fit; avg walk/AB = .076 +.656 * ISO^2. So a player with absolutely NO power at all should walk 7.6 times per 100 AB. But a Ruthian man with an ISO of .350 would be expected to walk 15.6 per 100 AB. In an average enivronment. So in this way, the raw walk rate of a player can be adjusted for how much power he had.

Be back next week with a report of who had the best eye ever.

See the followup here.

What makes for a good batter/pitcher matchup?

August 5, 2009

I just saw this over at The Book Blog.

Sky’s very interesting look at the ball-strike count last week made me think about what makes for a good batter/pitcher matchup?  For example, fastpitch softball is really boring to me.  I love baseball, but the huge number of swing and misses is simply no fun for me.  Similarly, if the number of aces in tennis or volleyball was very high, I’d be bored.  I want to see some confrontation.  Man v Man (or Player v Player).

So, I’d like you guys to answer these questions first, before (or in addition to) posting your thoughts:

1. For every pitch thrown, around what percentage of the time would you like to see the batter swing?

2. For every swing, around what percentage of the time would you like to see the at bat end on that swing (either as in-play, or strikeout)?

via What makes for a good batter/pitcher matchup?

Now, to answer Tango’s questions.  I believe that it would be most interesting if the batter swings around 55% of the time.  Any less and you get high pitch pitch counts and too many cr-ptastic relievers. Any more and you find too many hitters flailing away and not enough hard contact.

As for the percentage of swings that end a plate appearance, I say around 60%.  Today, there is just too much fouling pitches off and missed swings.  The excitement in watching the game comes from seeing the ball in play.

Thanks, Tango, for bringing up this interesting idea.

Nyjer Morgan. Is he seriously worth 4 wins? In this world?

August 5, 2009

Nyjer Morgan is not the most talented baseball player in the world. I found him while browsing the Fangraphs Leader board. Yes, he is actually on there. In fact, he leads all of baseball with a UZR of 22.5. 22.5! His defense has been worth over two runs this summer. This is an ungodly number. It’s better than Adam Dunn’s defense is bad. This is something special.

Many people will point to Morgan’s batting average of .307, and wonder why they have never heard of him before.  Well, folks, you might never encounter anyone closer to average.  He has a wRAA of 3.6, and this is why we don’t ever look at batting average.  That’s because batting average has almost no correlation with power.

He has also been the beneficiary of an extraordinary BABIP of .359.  While Morgan is a valuable player, he has had an amazing amount of luck this season, both on hitting and in the field.  While this year he has been worth 3.8 wins, he is more like an average player.  Here is to hoping that Nyjer Morgan reverts to being a non all-star, as he really isn’t one.

See http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=4885&position=OF for Morgan’s full stat line.