The offseason is a sad time. Baseball games make being a baseball fan truly joyous. Even as a borderline addict of the game, I find the Hot Stove a bit stuffy at times.

The nice thing, though, is that the winter affords plenty of opportunities for long and fascinating debates over broad ideas, about how the game is played, and by whom, and when. This article, a freebie at Baseball Prospectus today, is a shining example of what offseason baseball musing can be.

It’s an expansion of a study done a decade ago, and updated in the meantime, on the progressive advantage the offense gets as a pitcher faces the batting order multiple times. Its author, Mitchel Lichtman, is delightfully eager to point out every trend and tendency within a thick ream of data, and even better, is perfectly willing to admit that the explanation for certain phenomena escape us even now.

Did you know:

  • That seeing more than four pitches in your first at bat more than doubles the gain you realize, as a batter, when facing a pitcher a second time, relative to swinging early in the count?
  • That pitchers thrive even more than we would expect in the first inning, and that htis is particularly true when pitching at home?
  • That good pitchers and bad pitchers both experience the slow drop-off as they turn the lineup card over?

These aren’t terribly revolutionary findings. A great piece from Baseball Prospectus’s archives, by Ken Funck, advocated a system he called SOMA—shorter outings, more appearances—years ago, on the premise that starters would thrive better if they pitched more often, but departed sooner, and threw fewer innings while tired.

For that matter, two of the major trends in pitcher usage over the last 30 years—the one-inning relief model, with specialized and expanded bullpens, and the monitoring of pitch counts for starters—are manifestations or acknowledgments of this systematic truth by teams across the league.

The principle underpinning BP’s first great contribution to the national sabermetric movement, Pitcher Abuse Points, is that pitching while tired is disproportionately difficult and dangerous. That makes it clear that a point will always come, at which the starting pitcher can no longer (safely, or otherwise) outperform a reliever. Once you grip that, it gets easy to see how the price a start pays fro turning over the lineup card can accumulate.

Teams started short relief as a way to shelter fragile arms, and to hide the weaknesses of hurlers too flawed to make it as starters. After a while, though, the frame around that thought changed its shape, and the idea became that a pitcher with just a bit of upside—great valocity, or a wicked slider, but nothing else—could shred opponents if used only in short bursts. The natural extension of this understanding is the fact that pitchers who can’t restrict themselves to just a single burst, but have to pace themselves for multiple innings and warm up multiple times and show hitters multiple looks, will experience some degradation of performance.

Lichtman, though, might say these interwoven truths about pitching, while true, are incidental. He postulates that the driving force behind the rising offensive production during successive trips through the order is not the pitcher, but the batter, with hitters getting used to the man on the mound, seeing and timing his delivery and adding, one pitch at a time, data that helps them better predict the next offering.

It’s a really fun subject, the times through the order penalty. It’s one of those games of cat-and-mouse that teams must play with one another during each contest, and Lichtman helps shed a lot of light on it. Check it out.

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