The Society for American Baseball Research (“SABR”) recently announced the finalists for its 2015 Analytics Conference Research Awards, which “recognize baseball researchers who have completed the best work of original analysis or commentary during the preceding calendar year.” In the interest of drawing attention to good baseball research, the following highlights each of the fifteen selected articles, which are organized into three categories, including an emphasized takeaway line for each.
Contemporary Baseball Analysis
- Russell Carleton, “N=1,” Baseball Prospectus 2014: The Essential Guide to the 2014 Season, January 2014. I remember reading this article in the back of the BP annual, and even though I had only recently begun my serious foray into advanced baseball analysis, I detected, however dimly, that Carleton was advocating a fundamental shift in the conduct of complex baseball research, at least in terms of the types of questions people set out to ask and the types of answers they seek to generate. The bulk of advanced baseball research, in Carleton’s view, takes an aggregated approach, even though that isn’t always necessary: “Just about every piece of Sabermetric research contains some variation of the line ‘I looked for all players who . . . ‘ When you want to tell a story about all players, that’s a perfectly reasonable place to start. What’s concerning is that they all seem to start there, particularly when it doesn’t have to. . . . Figuring out the best pitch to throw early in the count and the best pitch to throw to Smith early in the count are two separate questions, and knowing the answer to the first may not help you very much with the second.” Carleton went on to provide an example of useful individual-player research by identifying which players exhibit extreme swing behavior in high-leverage situations (i.e., most or least likely to swing in a high-leverage situation). Toward the end, he observes: “Maybe it’s the fact that a lot of what Sabermetrics has set out to combat has been narrative-driven pseudo-research that relied on ‘just trust me’ or sample sizes that are laughably small to make a point about a player. But we’ve come to ignore, or worse, dismiss the thought that players might react to situations in different ways.” Carleton’s message is a reminder that, for all of the aggregating, averaging, and regressing in the sport and the conversation around it, baseball remains a game played by individuals and comprised of discrete happenings, events, and interactions.
- Jay Jaffe, “The Case of the Disappearing Slugger: Where Did MLB’s Power Go?” SI.com, September 3, 2014. Even pitchers know that chicks dig the long ball, but you didn’t have to be a professional baseball player or a gal to notice that the majors-wide home-run rate underwent a severe regression toward the historical mean last season. Scoring was down too, and, of course, strikeouts were up. Jaffe predicted that batters will counter the uptick in strikeouts and defensive shifts by focusing on contact hitting and “whole-field usage.” He also expressed hope that “the shockingly high number of Tommy John surgeries” will inspire better management of pitchers earlier in their careers. Recognizing that these changes probably will take years to come to fruition, Jaffe concluded that, given the financial soundness of the sport, “the game has time to evolve without drastic intervention.”
- Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks, “Framing and Blocking Pitches: A Regressed, Probabilistic Model,” Baseball Prospectus, March 3, 2014. The statistical measurement of catcher pitch framing seemed to emerge on the broader scene at the end of the 2013 season, and it was the breakout analytic topic of the 2014 season. In this article, Pavlidis and Brooks proposed a method for calculating pitch framing they call “the ‘Regressed Probabilistic Model’ of framing (RPM for short). In brief, RPM works by calculating the combined probability (and associated run value) that each pitch will be called a strike; summing those probabilities (and run values) across opportunities; attributing those values to a player (catcher or pitcher); and regressing ‘career’ values to the mean.” The authors set out their method for calculating RPM in great detail. Some of the notable features include weighting the value of framing a pitch according to the count (e.g., framing is more valuable, in terms of run expectancy, on an 0-2 pitch than an 0-0 pitch), determining pitchers’ contribution to framing, and adjusting the data to account for individual umpire effects. The players whose names rise to the top– Brian McCann and Jose Molina– and sink to the bottom– Ryan Doumit, by a country mile– should not be surprising. One of their most significant conclusions is that the impact of a good or bad framing catcher can be “obscenely large,” to the point that, in terms of wins, the best framing catchers have put together MVP-caliber seasons on the strength of their framing abilities alone.
- Jon Roegele, “The Effects of Pitch Sequencing,” The Hardball Times, November 24, 2014. I am a believer in the importance of sequencing generally in baseball (even if I can’t always detect or articulate it with precision), so I read this article with interest. Roegele’s study examined a subset of sequencing in baseball: the sequencing of consecutive pitches in which the ball is in a similar location along its path from the pitcher’s hand to the batter at the batter’s swing-decision point. Roegele sought to measure the effect on hitting of such a pitch sequence by tracking how often the second pitch is both swung on and missed as a percentage of all such pitches. His findings indicated that the closer the two pitches are to each other at the batter’s decision point, the lesser the separation between them at home plate needs to be in order to induce higher-than-normal swing-and-miss rates.
- Jeff Sullivan, “Alex Gordon Barely Had a Chance,” FanGraphs, October 30, 2014. The last entry in this category is a World Series “what if?” focused on the penultimate play of the 2014 Series. On that play (Statcast video here), the Royals were down to their last out, trailing the Giants 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Alex Gordon knocked an 0-1 Madison Bumgarner pitch to left center, where centerfielder Gregor Blanco misplayed the ball after once bounce, allowing it to roll all the way to the wall. There, leftfielder Juan Perez fumbled it once before flipping it to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who’d come out to serve as cutoff man. During this time, Gordon had nearly made it to third base, where coach Mike Jirschle held him, and where he would stay, on account of the Royals’ next batter, Salvador Perez, flying out to end the game. At that point, some began to ask, “what if Gordon had kept going?” The title, of course, reveals Sullivan’s conclusion. Using still images, video, and historical speed data, Sullivan determined that Jirschle made the correct decision to hold Gordon at third; sending him was very likely to do little more than end the game, and the Series, one plate appearance sooner.
Contemporary Baseball Commentary
- Grant Brisbee, “Rumors, Rumors, Every Where, Nor Any Drop to Drink,” SB Nation, December 15, 2014. Writing about the Winter Meetings, and about being a writer at the winter meetings, Brisbee lent his voice to an examination of the almighty baseball rumor. Trades. Free-agent signings. He wanted a scoop on a rumor. Something he could tweet. Anything. Brisbee, an insider and an outsider as a baseball writer without a defined beat, took his readers inside the Winter Meetings for a fun and, in some ways, humbling look at rumor trading, the way transaction reporting has changed, and the realization “that the rumors that escape are usually the ones that are supposed to escape.”
- Dave Cameron, “If Someone Has A Good Way To Evaluate Managers, Let Us Know,” FoxSports.com, September 5, 2014. In this article, Cameron attempted to work through a conundrum: “I’m being forced to admit that I really have no idea how to evaluate a manager’s performance in a given season. And, unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone else does either.” In his search for an answer, Cameron first looked to the past in an effort to discern the criteria employed by voters for the Manager of the Year award. Winning helps, obviously, but only to a point: “The assumption seems to be that if a team wins too many games, a manager loses value relative to the talent on his own roster, and gets less credit for winning 100 or more games than if he would have only won 90-95.” Performance relative to expectations is important too. In the absence of a good way to evaluate manager contributions to team outcomes, Cameron concluded that Manager of the Year voters “have essentially taken to voting for a manager of a small-to-mid-revenue team . . . who finished in first or second place, with bonus points going to a guy whose team had not historically been a contender, or wasn’t expected to contend in that season. It has essentially become an award for having a winning season with a moderate payroll.” He ended with what sounds like a genuine call for ideas. (The first time I read this, I was reminded of Neil Paine’s attempt at answering this question over at 538. Either Cameron was unaware of Paine’s article or he read it but didn’t place much stock in it. The former seems much more likely. Paine’s approach: “I examined how players played in a given year (and under a given manager) compared to how we expected them to play based on their past and future performance.”)
- Lewie Pollis, “If You Build It: Rethinking the Market for Major League Baseball Front Office Personnel,” Brown University, senior honors thesis, Spring 2014. This paper applied to team general managers and other front-office personnel the basic notion behind metrics like WAR that player accomplishments can be quantified and expressed a number of wins. Evaluating general managers by their free-agent signings and player trades, Pollis concluded that one standard deviation of front office player-investing ability is worth approximately $53 million. Under Pollis’ method, the spread between the best and worst general managers equated to 12.2 wins, or about $86 million. If owners properly valued their general managers’ contributions to team success, they would be paying them much more than present rates (which probably is why they don’t). Pollis is a past winner of this award.
- Eno Sarris, “Learning the Language of the Clubhouse,” The Hardball Times, March 13, 2014. Like Cameron’s entry, above, Sarris used this article to work through his acceptance as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. For Sarris, the writer’s challenge turned out to be learning how to ask players questions that are interesting to the SABR crowd, and he related interviews in the Cubs’ and Royals’ locker rooms that did not go smoothly for him.
- Jason Turbow, “The Essence of Velocity: The Pitching Theory That Could Revolutionize Baseball, If Only The Sport Would Embrace It,” SB Nation, June 18, 2014. Turbow profiled Perry Husband, a former player who reinvented himself as a pitching coach. Really, Husband is a pitching theorist, and he labeled his theory “Effective Velocity.” The basic notion is that what matters in terms of pitch speed variation is not the actual difference between the speed of pitches but the difference in speed as perceived by the batter. This is significant, because Husband determined that actual speed and batter-perceived speed diverge for pitches thrown in certain locations. In short, pitches up and in gain effective velocity, while pitches down and away lose effective velocity. For both situations, the difference between actual and effective velocity can be between one and five miles per hour. Husband also had a revelation about the hitting process: luck is a more prevalent factor in a batter making contact than generally assumed, and hitting success depended more on pitcher mistakes. According to Husband, success in hitting, to the extent it is subject to the batter’s control, is dependent upon the batter’s ability to adjust to pitch-speed variances, and most batters cannot handle an effective velocity spread of more than five miles per hour. The very best hitters, Husband said, might be able to handle an eight mile per hour effective velocity spread. Pitchers know they need to mix speeds, but when they throw pitches to the areas where they disadvantageously gain or lose effective velocity, they neutralize the effect of their speed mixing. The one problem for Husband? He couldn’t find any Major League teams to buy into his theory. Turbow’s article tracked Husband’s search for acceptance in engaging fashion.
- Frank Jackson, “Shots Fired But Not Heard ‘Round the World,” The Hardball Times, October 7, 2014. Jackson’s folksy scroll wound its way through the 1951 baseball season as seen through the lens of New York’s Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. Rather than focus on The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, Jackson took care to highlight the many other, if lesser, noteworthy events, debuts, retirements, records, and happenings of a busy and undeniably New-York-centric season.
- Erik Malinowski, “Swing Away: The Untold Story of the First Home Run Derby,” FoxSports.com, July 10, 2014. As the descriptive title strongly suggests, Malinowski fashioned this piece as a profile of the first-ever Home Run Derby, which took place in Minneapolis the day before the 1985 All-Star Game and was known as “the All-Star Home Run Contest.” It wasn’t televised. Admission was $2, and all admission fees supported local youth baseball leagues. The format: AL versus NL. Notable participants: Jim Rice, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Jr., Carlton Fisk, Ryne Sandberg, and Dale Murphy. Players from a nearby high school team manned the field. One of those players, caught up in the moment, robbed the NL’s final hitter, Sandberg, with an over-the-fence grab in center field. That grab capped the NL’s lead at two and put the Twins’ own Tom Brunansky in the box with a chance to win it all for the AL.
- Sam Miller, “Baseball’s Seven Wonders: Kerry Wood’s 20-K Game,” Baseball Prospectus, March 18, 2014. We like Sam Miller around here, and there are plenty of reasons to like this article, which Miller opened with a typical blend of density and foreshadowing: “The greatest nine-inning game by any starter was thrown by a 20-year-old who entered the outing with a 5.89 ERA in his four career starts, a career minor-league walk rate of 6.8 per nine, a career minor-league ERA of 3.91, and no complete games at any professional level. It came against the league’s best offense. The game was called by a catcher who had never caught the pitcher before, it was nearly interrupted by a rain delay that would have ended the pitcher’s afternoon in the seventh, it is infamous for a third-inning decision by the official scorer, and it’s notorious for the deleterious effect that its cumulative toll might have had on the pitcher who threw it. It also might very nearly have cost an umpire his life, though thankfully it didn’t.” This wasn’t my favorite Miller article from the 2014 season (that would be another one about a special pitching performance, probably followed by a two-part series on a different Chicago player), but this GIF-laden remembrance of Kerry Wood’s special day is an enjoyable contextualization of a special baseball performance.
- Bryan Soderholm-Difatte, “The 1914 Stallings Platoon: Assessing Execution, Impact, and Strategic Philosophy,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Fall 2014. Soderholm-Difatte took the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1914 “Miracle Braves” amazing comeback– they were in last place on the Fourth of July, fifteen games out of first place, but would win the pennant by ten and a half games and sweep the Athletics in the World Series– to examine the method behind the comeback. In particular, he explored the veracity of “the accepted wisdom . . . that [manager George] Stallings had an epiphany about platooning and that his use of platoons to wring the maximum production from his roster was, in the words of Bill James, nothing short of ‘revolutionary.'” Soderholm-Difatte’s research bore out the accepted wisdom. Stallings eventually utilized four batters who hit from the left side and four who hit from the right– all primarily outfielders– in an aggressive platoon strategy that included mid-game substitutions in immediate response to the opposing team’s pitching changes. Uncommon for the time, Boston’s infield also featured two left-handed hitters, which, in light of the predominance of right-handed pitching in that era, meant that they held a significant platoon advantage over most of their competition. Soderholm-Difatte noted that the Braves’ compelling comeback story established 1914 as the baseline season for the platoon strategy. Perhaps as surprising as the comeback itself was the apparent fact that contemporary baseball analysts failed to notice the platoon strategy Stallings employed. Other managers did, though, and “[b]y the 1920s, platooning was widespread in major league baseball, and most teams had a tandem lefty-righty couple playing at least one position,” though the trend would dip by the end of the decade, returning again after World War II.
- Steve Treder, “The Strikeout Ascendant (and What Should Be Done About It),” The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2014. Treder began his response to essentially the same question Jaffe sought to answer, above, with a history of the strikeout, which doubles as a shorthand history of baseball itself. There is no evidence, Treder asserted, that the uptick in strikeouts is in any way cyclical: with noted exceptions, the general trend clearly is one of steady increase. One of the key differences in today’s game that contributes to the high strikeout rate is the increased use of relief pitchers, who are far more likely than starters to generate strikeouts. Because of his belief that “the baseball we’re watching today is distinctly suboptimal, and increasingly so,” Treder proposed “the imposition of thoughtful and careful changes in rules/conditions, to do what can be responsibly done to push against the inescapable and enduring pressure for ever-more strikeouts.” More specifically, he proposed shrinking the strike zone; shrinking fielders’ gloves; thickening bat handles (motivating contact hitting by making power hitting more difficult); and reducing the availability of relief pitching (by limiting the allowable number of, e.g., pitching changes or pitchers on rosters).
Which are your favorites? Any notable snubs? Chime in by adding your comment below, and click here to cast your official vote for each category.
Here’s my ballot:
- Contemporary Baseball Analysis: Pavlidis and Brooks on pitch framing
- Contemporary Baseball Commentary: Turbow on Perry Husband and Effective Velocity
- Historical Analysis/Commentary: Soderholm-Difatte on the 1914 platooning Braves
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