How Blake Treinen Dropped 3.15 from His ERA

Blake Treinen had an outstanding year. You know that, I know that, he knows that, and his 9-2 record, 0.78 ERA, 38 saves, and 100 strikeouts says that. But how exactly did a run-of-the-mill reliever drop more than three runs from his ERA to have one of the best reliever seasons in history? I don’t know about you, but I think that’s what this article is all about.

Let’s start with some comparable seasons. First up, we go to Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. He only had one season in his 24-year career that compares to the brilliance of this Treinen’s 2018 campaign. That was 1990, when Eckersley was 35 years old and compiled a 0.61 ERA in 73.1 innings pitched with, coincidentally, 73 strikeouts, as well as 48 saves in 50 opportunities.

Secondly, Zack Britton’s 2016. I’m sure you remember Britton’s amazing season: 0.54 ERA, 47 saves, 67 IP, 74 strikeouts, and zero blown saves. That season was exceptional, and I must say, better than Treinen’s.

Finally, Jonathan Papelbon’s 2006: 0.92 ERA, 35 saves, 86.1 IP, and 75 strikeouts.

And that’s it. After searching both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, these three seasons are the ones I can find similar to Treinen’s. None of Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, or Aroldis Chapman had a season like this.

Enough with those numbers, let’s move on to other numbers. Read the rest of this entry »

Don Newcombe and His Likeness: You Be the Judge

Don Newcombe began his professional baseball career as a teenager with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League in 1944. As a rookie hurler with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, he quickly established himself as an ace — he was named an All-Star, started two games for the Dodgers in the World Series, and was eventually crowned Rookie of the Year. This photo taken of him during that 1949 World Series would be used as evidence in a lawsuit nearly 50 years later:

Photo by Ralph Morse / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Newk last pitched in the majors in 1960 with the Cleveland Indians and spent 1961 with the Spokane Indians in the Pacific Coast League trying to resurrect his major league career. After making a single start for Japan’s Chunichi Dragons in 1962, Newcombe retired from baseball as the only player in major league history to have won the Most Valuable Player Award, the Cy Young Award, and the Rookie of the Year Award (Justin Verlander has since matched this feat). Newcombe’s playing career, however, was cut short due to military service (1952-53) and a personal battle with alcohol.

After his playing career ended, Newcombe, who drank his first beer as an eight-year-old, began to imbibe heavily. He eventually lost his New Jersey cocktail lounge to tax agents and a liquor business to bankruptcy, his wife left with their three kids, and he had to pawn a World Series ring to pay his rent. Having hit rock bottom, Newcombe embarked on the road to recovery, ultimately dedicating his life to helping others who struggled with addiction. He joined the Los Angeles Dodgers’ front office in 1970 and served as the team’s community relations director, specializing in drug and alcohol awareness programs. He additionally served as spokesman for the National Institute on Drug and Alcohol Abuse pursuant to presidential appointments by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

Accordingly, Newcombe was sickened to discover that a beer advertisement in the February 1994 Sports Illustrated “swimsuit edition” appeared to feature his likeness. The full-page illustrated ad for Killian’s Irish Red (owned by Coors Brewing Company) showed a seemingly generic pitcher in his windup, a nondescript infielder, and a fictional ballpark. The players’ uniforms did not show a team name or logo and did not utilize the same color scheme as the 1949 Dodgers. However, “Newcombe, along with family, friends and teammates immediately recognized the pitcher featured in the advertisement as Newcombe in his playing days.” Willie Mays and Duke Snider, in particular, recognized Newcombe immediately.

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Pitch Selection and the 3 Pitch Paths Tool

Pitch selection is like Cold War game theory.

The pitcher/catcher (battery) and the hitter are trying to balance a guessing game of what their counterpart is thinking with their own capabilities to develop a decision or expectation about the next pitch thrown.

The battery is trying to strike the delicate balance of a pitch that will result in a strike or an out (usually by being put into play) and give the hitter the least opportunity to get on base. The hitter is trying to anticipate that decision to maximize their ability to react successfully. This becomes circular, since the hitter’s ability to anticipate correctly improves their ability to get on-base, which changes the calculus and pitch decision for the battery, which changes the hitter’s ability to anticipate correctly. Just like the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War, a low-and-inside slider hit into the gap or a Soviet Sarmak from Siberia shot down by Star Wars lasers. Same thing, right?

Pitcher: I should throw this.

Hitter: I will anticipate this.

Pitcher: Then I should throw that.

But it’s not – because baseball is fun and the Cold War was humans (not) trying to murder each other by the millions. Instead let’s say pitch selection is just like keeping secrets from your Friends:

Given this stand-off of anticipation, the battery can take one of two approaches:

1.) Complete randomness, or…

2.) Sequencing pitches that build on each other to keep the hitter off balance.

This is the old pitching-coach speak of “changing the hitter’s eye level, keeping him on his heels, and mixing speeds.” Read the rest of this entry »

A Closer Look at Luke Voit

When PECOTA projections were released at Baseball Prospectus in February, I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who was surprised to see Luke Voit projected to be a top-25 hitter in the entire sport this season. We all know what Voit did in the final month or so of the 2018 campaign, and when you look back on it, there were always going to be questions of whether it was repeatable or whether he was going to go down the same path as famed Yankee flash-in-the-pan Shane Spencer.

I think there can be a comfortable medium between one-hit wonder and top-25 hitter in baseball, so I decided to do a deep dive into Voit’s batted ball profile. I then compared him to his peers based on both his profile as well as his walk and strikeout rates to find some comparable hitters and try to answer whether a top-25 projection for Voit is realistic, too high, or too low.

To do this, I took the batted ball leaderboards from FanGraphs and imported them into R. I then looked at Voit’s batted ball profile from the minor leagues, considered by Yankees officials to be part of the reason why they wanted to acquire him. I calculated his minor league averages in Ground Ball%, Line Drive%, Fly Ball%, Pull%, Center%, and Opposite%, which can be found in the table below:


Note: I only looked at minor league seasons in which he had more than 100 plate appearances. Read the rest of this entry »

Greg Allen: More Than Meets the Eye

Spring training is here, the trade rumors have quieted a bit, and it seems as if Cleveland’s 40-man roster will be comprised of players already in Goodyear, Arizona.

Many fans have voiced their displeasure with the Indians’ lack of willingness to spend money on upgrades. The front office believes that with the way the division is set up, and with the current mix of young players and recent acquisitions, the Indians are in a position to continue winning into September and beyond, depending on if and when some of the young players breakout. President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti also suggested that they would be willing to make midseason adjustments depending on roster needs and the market at that time.

Nevertheless, that has not sat well with the Indians fan base. It is easy to be upset when the free agent market has been as glacially slow as it has been. Let’s not forget though, prior to the team’s World Series run in 2016, the Indians opened the season with Marlon Byrd, Rajai Davis, and Collin Cowgill starting in the outfield. It is a long season and one that is full of surprises.

One of the young Indians outfielders who may be poised for a breakout season is Greg Allen. Allen was a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft from San Diego State University. Although his 2018 slash line of .257/.310/.343 may not raise too many eyebrows, there is much more than meets the eye.

Allen played in 91 games for the Tribe last year as well as 47 for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. He had a difficult transition to the majors partly due to the fact that from the end of spring training, he was optioned and recalled five times.

That type of uncertainty would be difficult for any player to have in the back of their head, let alone a rookie trying to find a spot on a playoff contender. Last season, Allen was twice called up for as few as two games until being optioned back to Columbus. Read the rest of this entry »

A Peek into the Astros’ Secret Sauce for Pitching

The Franklin Institute is a science and research museum located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Among its many draws are a giant heart you can walk through, the SportsZone where you can sprint the 40-yard dash and compare your time to professional athletes, and a Changing Earth exhibit made entirely of sustainable materials that focuses on the ways the planet has transformed over time. Through all of that, plus rotating feature exhibits, it’s easy to lose sight of a tried and true experiment: The Ruler Drop Test.

If you never performed the experiment in middle school, the Ruler Drop Test is exactly as it sounds. Take a ruler — or, in the case of the Franklin Institute, a yardstick — and hold it vertically between your index finger and thumb on your dominant hand, about one-fourth from the bottom. Then release it and see where you can catch it. The shorter the distance between where you let go and where you catch it, the faster your reactions are. Science!

It’s a simple experiment, but it is illustrative. And with how it’s centered on vertical drop and expectations, it could help us understand how the Houston Astros have used advanced technology and data to tweak pitchers’ repertories to reach new levels of success. Read the rest of this entry »

Twin Dynasties Part II – How One Trade Could Have Altered Baseball in the 1980s

In the winter between the 1980 and 1981 baseball seasons, one of the best catchers of all time informed his club, the Cincinnati Reds, that he would no longer catch more than two days each week.

What follows is a speculative rewrite of history. What did happen is that the 1981 Reds played Johnny Bench at first base 38 times, where his fielding percentage was .983 — not bad, but not quite the .995 clip of regular first baseman Dan Driessen. Bench contributed eight home runs, one more than Driessen, and batted over .300, the only time in his career he achieved that mark.

But what if Reds general manager Dick Wagner, the man who dismantled the Big Red Machine, took exception to the demand, and dealt with Bench like he did Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Sparky Anderson?

Part I can be read here.

Who would he be if he didn’t catch?

That thought didn’t really surface for Johnny Bench when he told the Reds he wanted to limit his time behind the plate. But once he demanded a trade -– to the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, no less -– it started to swirl to the surface.

Fortunately, Reds GM Dick Wagner had kept quiet about the discussion the two had about Bench’s future. Bench himself stayed mum, so much so that the media who covered the Reds began to notice. While he could be moody, especially as nagging injuries continued to wear down his body prematurely, Bench was no shrinking violet.

But in the spring of 1981, he was becoming one.

In the meantime, Wagner had longtime Reds farm director Sheldon “Chief” Bender start quietly looking at Philadelphia’s younger talent. Bender, who had spent decades managing in the minor leagues before overseeing the feeder systems for both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Reds, had a way of spotting talent as well as finding scouts who could do the same. Bender had as much to do with the Reds’ success on the field in the 70s as anyone.

Bender got his scouts out, but not en masse. He wasn’t clued in to what was going on, but being a baseball lifer, he knew when and how to trust his instincts. Right now, his instincts told him the club had an aging star in need of a new position without a position to give him, and that meant a trade. He was determined to find a player worthy of Bench as a return.

In the meantime, Grapefruit League contests were played, and a players’ strike loomed over the game. In a way, it wouldn’t matter who played where, since it didn’t look like the 1981 season would be completed anyway. That was a thought had by each man involved, but only privately. No one wanted to voice that fear.

Wagner decided a week after his conversation with Bench, just prior to breaking camp to go north and start the season, that if a move was going to be made, it needed to be before Opening Day. He wanted a complete team from the start, since no one was sure how long the season would go on.

In that, his logic was sound, as it would turn out the 1981 season would indeed be interrupted by a players’ strike starting on June 12. Read the rest of this entry »

A Look into Robert Gsellman’s Curveball

Robert Gsellman of the New York Mets had a fairly average 2018. After struggles in the rotation during 2017 due to injury and ineffectiveness in facing batters a third time, as well as losing two miles per hour on his sinker compared to the previous year, Gsellman was moved into the bullpen full time. The plan initially worked, with an uptick in velocity and an improved strikeout percentage during April. Unfortunately, the rest of his season was filled with highs and lows, resulting in an 86 ERA+. However, his curveball did improve drastically in 2018.

Changes to Movement

One of the main ways Gsellman’s curve improved was his added spin rate. In 2017, his curveball had 2606 revolutions per minute, and in 2018 it was 2699 rpm. An increase in spin rate leads to an increase in the movement of the pitch. These two graphs demonstrate how this increase in spin rate translated into movement from 2017 to 2018. The first graph shows changes in vertical movement and the second one shows changes in horizontal movement.


These graphs express how Gsellman has added more bite to his curve (vertical movement from -4.3 to -6 inches) and a bit more depth to his curve. Visually, we can see this using the power of GIFs. The first GIF is his curve from 2017 and the second one is from 2018.


The 2018 curve breaks more sharply and also breaks from right to left more, as opposed to its 2017 counterpart, which is more of a tight vertical break. This added spin was most likely due to an increase in the pitch velocity increasing (80.2 mph to 81.8 mph). Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing WPA-Win: A Better Pitcher Decision Statistic

Baseball fans have seen it time and again: a starting pitcher will twirl a masterpiece, but because his team doesn’t score, he’ll be tagged with a loss. Or a reliever will come into a game, pitch to one or two batters, and end up with the win.

The vagaries of assigning wins and losses to pitchers are a well-known irritant to serious baseball fans (though perhaps not to old-timers like Bob Costas or John Smoltz). Here is the pitching decision statistic explained:

The winning pitcher is defined as the pitcher who last pitched prior to the half-inning when the winning team took the lead for the last time.

The losing pitcher is the pitcher who allows the go-ahead run to reach base for a lead that the winning team never relinquishes.

Often timing — particularly the timing of a team’s offense — affects the statistic more than a pitcher’s actual contribution to his team’s win or loss. In other words, the decision frequently fails to reflect which pitcher made the biggest difference for the winning team (or was most detrimental for the losing team). In these cases, it simply tags the pitcher lucky or unlucky enough to pitch at a certain time in the game.

In an effort to create a more accurate stat to reflect a pitcher’s contribution to his team’s win or loss, I’d like to propose new stats, which I’ll call the “WPA-Win” and “WPA-Loss.” Let’s start with the WPA-Win:

The “WPA-Win” is given to the pitcher on the winning team with the highest WPA for that game.

I’ll address how to calculate the “WPA-Loss” (which is more complicated) later in the article. For now, we’ll just assume it goes to the pitcher on the losing team with the lowest WPA. Read the rest of this entry »

Fast, for a Catcher: Analyzing a Quickly Moving Backstop Market

Have you ever had a baseball game on in the background in the dead of summer as you quietly go about your day, and then you catch an absolute gem from a broadcaster that stops and makes you laugh? “He got down the line in a hurry… He’s pretty fast, for a catcher.”

It’s possibly the game’s greatest backhanded compliment; an ode of sorts to the frequently lumbering yeoman who not only endure the dog days of August but who do so willingly, wearing additional gear and sitting in an awkward squat for hours. A single sentence about their baserunning abilities — or lack thereof — conveys perhaps a modestly complete understanding of what baseball is, when you stop to think about it. And it’s a delight.

This offseason has seen a different kind of speed from catchers: the one at which they’re changing teams. Maybe it’s coincidence that some of the more offensive-minded ones have reached the market together, and they’re some of the names moving between teams. While backstops make it difficult to capture their entire value in a single stat because of all they do, we can and do quantify offense. That makes it easier, if you’re a front office, to jump on a guy you know can beat the .232/.304/.372 average triple-slash line catchers produced in 2018 and see it as a win.

But the offense-oriented catchers aren’t the only ones moving between teams, and it becomes harder to separate them from each other when considering defense or the total package. It is much harder than separating, say, Mike Trout and Charlie Blackmon. And that’s what makes the catcher carousel this offseason a unique ride. Read the rest of this entry »