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Who Obtains the Most Assistance in Pitcher Welfare?

Nobody’s perfect, especially umpires. This is the case at any level of the game. Be it softball, tee ball, or baseball, from Little League to the Big Leagues, you will have undeniably disagreed with a call that an ump has made.

Given the movement, velocity, and the newly anointed skill of pitch framing, it’s becoming more difficult for umpires to get the calls right. The robo ump has been discussed quite a bit but I’m not sure how I feel about a machine making decisions in lieu of accepting the concept of human error. We did it for decades before instant replay was instituted.

Umpires get balls and strikes wrong a lot. It’s the way it goes. Given that understanding, I wanted to know which pitcher has in recent years been the beneficiary of favorable calls.

And, like the umpires, not all (strike zone) charts are 100% accurate; leave a little room for error here.

I’ve parsed data on which pitchers have had the most declared strikes that were actually out of the zone. I decided to stop at 2014 because I felt that four years of information was sufficient for the study.

First, the accumulated data.

From 2014 to 2017, the amount of pitchers with phantom strikes has been increasing at fairly high rate; the biggest leap was from 2014 to 2015 (36 pitchers).

chart (4)

Interestingly, the pitchers with at least 100 ‘phantom strike’ calls has actually decreased.

chart (6)

And, despite the jump in total pitchers involved from ’14 to ’15, the pitchers with <=100 strikes called decreased at the highest rate.

Should we go tin foil hat and infer that umps are no longer favoring certain pitchers as much as they used to? Doubtful, but I’m not investigating integrity here.

So who is getting the most benefit from the perceptively visually impaired? First, I took the last four years of pitching data for our parameters. Then, I cut final the list down to a minimum of 10,000 pitches thrown. Lastly, I included only the top 20 pitchers in the group.

20PhantomStrikes

As we can see, Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs has been the most aided overall; 562 non-strikes in four years.

For the optically minded, here is the pitch chart of Lester’s data.

Jon Lester

That’s A LOT of Trix!

Now, lets see if the percent of pitches has any impact on our leader(s).

20PhantomStrikesPercent

Not a whole lot of variance, at least near the top. Lester clearly wins The MLB Umpires’ “Benefit of the Doubt Award”.

OK, so now we’ve got our man. Case closed, right?

Oh…that little caveat of ‘pitch framing’. Perhaps its that Lester has had great framing from his catchers. Let’s look into that.

For the moment, we are going to focus on Lester and his primary catcher from 2014-2016, David Ross.

dRossLester

Clearly 2014 was Lester’s most favorable year with Ross. That year, Lester ranked third in total pitches called favorably out of the zone (156) and 11th in ratio of calls (4.47).

The subsequent years with Ross are as follows:

2015- 6th (141), 10th (4.43)
2016- 5th (125), 7th (3.95)

Here’s where things get a bit intriguing. Recapping 2017, things appear to fall apart completely for the Cubs in the context of pitch framing.

2017CubsFraming

The only catcher who was able to garner a positive framing rating was Kyle Schwarber, who caught just seven innings that year. But even his stats are far from impressive.

And how did Lester fair in terms of ‘phantom strikes’ that year? He ranked first in overall strikes called out of the zone (150) and fourth in total call ratio to pitches thrown (4.46).

He wasn’t all that far from the top under Ross, but was basically the frontman of the metrics in 2017.

Some things are hopelessly lost in the sphere of the unexplained. But, the research didn’t set out to find reasoning. In this case its more fun to be left with subjective theories. However, it’s a bit silly to think that there is actually an umpire conspiracy allowing Lester to succeed when he apparently shouldn’t.

My best guess is maybe they feel sorry for him since he can’t accurately throw the ball in the infield anywhere other than to the catcher (which did changed a bit in 2017)?

Regardless, Lester is our guy, here; receiving a sizable edge in terms of missed calls. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues this season.


Is ‘Tanking’ in Baseball Worth It?

With all the blabbing about the fire sale of the Miami Marlins, and less so with the Pittsburgh Pirates, does the philosophy of ‘tanking‘ in Major League Baseball work? Can it come to fruition the same way it does in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association?

The biggest and most obvious difference in those sports is the vast majority of players you’ll draft in the NFL or NBA are ready to play (even start) the following season. Not only that, players are more of a ‘sure thing’ in those leagues; you’re more likely to hit on a player since the pool is much more shallow than it is in baseball.

While in MLB, there are several levels to break through before you’re actually ready to play in the top-level.

Now, I understand the angle of ‘tanking’ to accumulate funds and eventually splurge on some free agents or wanting to make your team younger. I can follow that train of thought (sort of) but we are going to go on the premise that teams are doing it to grab top-level draft picks through each round.

Yes, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, after many seasons of horrid baseball, are now World Champions thanks to patience and a great analytics department. Let’s just break even and apply this to your average front office.

According to research done by Cork Gains of Business Insider back in 2013:

“After three years, we will probably only see about 15% of this year’s draftees in the big leagues. And for most players, it will take 4-6 years to make it to the highest level”.

Let’s take a more recent peek at draft success within the first five rounds of the MLB draft. We only go that deep because, honestly, after that point (and even five rounds is a reach) it’s mostly a crap shoot and I’d venture to guess no team has any sort of advantage over the other.

I’m using five years as its reasonable to expect, even with a high schooler, to reach the big leagues within that amount of time.  Of players drafted in 2017, none have reached the majors; no surprise there. In 2016 just one player drafted, third-round pick Austin Hays of the Baltimore Orioles, has made it to the majors. We ought not to reference that year, either.

The 2015 draft is when we start seeing results.

2015Draft

Of first rounders in the 2015 draft, first overall pick Dansby Swanson debuted in 2017. Alex BregmanAndrew Benintendi, and Carson Fulmer all came up in 2016.

In the 2015 draft, out of 165 players picked in the first five rounds, 7% have made it to the big leagues.

It goes without saying the list grew considerably in 2014 and it follows that it would in subsequent drafts. Out of rounds one through five in 2014, we have 19% currently in the majors.

2104Draft

Let’s investigate the success rate by round, referencing research done by Mike Rosenbaumof Bleacher Report.

draftSuccess

 

So the first round, you’re likely to get two out of every three players in the majors, then 50/50 in the second round. However, this chart is no reference for success or failure for the player once they do reach MLB.

The standard deviation of success rate drop-off is 4.96%, with a variance of 24.6%

Here, we’ll observe the first overall picks since 2006 and their yearly average WAR from all MLB seasons.

no1WAR

The first-overall pick in this era yielded about 50% averaging WAR over 3.2 (we’ll get to the context in a bit).

Lastly, let’s look at the cumulative WAR of rounds one through five, starting at 2011 to 2015. As mentioned before, there was just one player who reached MLB that was selected in the first five rounds during the last two years.

avgWARDraftRd

*Mookie Betts 24.1 WAR

So the chart lends itself to logic; the older the year, the higher the cumulative WAR. But, there is still a lot we don’t know yet as there are still players in the 2011 draft toiling in the minors, yet could break into the big leagues in the next year or so.

Yet, something funny happens. There is a spike in WAR once we get to round 5. As noted, the majority of WAR from that round in 2011 comes from Mookie Betts. Could we infer that later rounds will increase as well? Probably not, as the random variation would likely be all over the place player to player. But it’s not a stretch to assume that you can find just as much value in later rounds as you can in the first couple.

Obviously, the bigger success stories come from the first round. But, keep in mind that’s just one player. On a team of 25 guys, it’s less likely that this player can turn an entire franchise around by themselves. In the NBA its possible, or the NFL where a quarterback can pull a team out of mediocrity within a year or so.

I’ll average the first round pick WAR to get an idea of what a team who continually ‘tanks’, could expect to get out of first rounders for the next several years.

2011- 2.8
2012- 1.7
2013- 1.2

Again, this isn’t concrete information but it’s enough data to get a rough inference. If you ‘tank’ for several years, and get a high first round pick, you can expect to get a players who will average a WAR of about 3 (after about five years); the average WAR of a number one pick (using the data in the ’06-’16 chart) is a little better than 2.

So you’ve got a good shot to get a player considered decent or, at best, above average.

The following chart give some context on WAR for those unfamiliar.

WARvalues

Is it really worth ‘tanking’ in baseball? In, say, five years of mediocrity, how often can you expect to hit on a player in the early rounds (average 2.5+ WAR)? Again, in the first round (’06-’16) chart above, you’ve got a 50/50 shot. Is it worth driving your franchise into the ground with those kinds of odds?

Like I’ve said before, we are using a small amount of data that is on a sliding scale (the older the draft, the higher the WAR). Since it would take roughly 3-5 years for an organization to acquire draft picks that could break into the league and help push the team into championship contention, it’s not too far of a reach. Meaning you can expect your first couple of picks per year to start normalizing WAR after a couple of seasons…if they reach the majors at all at all.

So is ‘tanking’ worth it? Allegedly to the Marlins and Pirates, it seems to be. They have highly paid analysts and I’m a lowly blogger, so they know better than I do. But, with the information I’ve been able to acquire, it doesn’t seem as though stockpiling high picks will benefit an organization enough to risk losing fans, revenue, and respect in MLB in the short term.


Where is Matt Carpenter and What Have You Done With Him?

A few days ago, I tweeted out some data that I had parsed from Baseball Savant after I decided to see who had seen the most pitches outside of the strike zone get called strikes.  I found the leader of that unfortunate group to be none other than St. Louis Cardinals’ 2B/3B Matt Carpenter. After a sizable amount of interest in that tweet, I decided to look into Carpenter’s numbers a bit further to see if it had anything to do with Carpenter’s decline this year.

As of May 20th, Carpenter has been the victim of 81 pitches out of the zone that have been called strikes — a ratio of about 9.6% of pitches thrown. Next on that list is former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, hoodwinked 67 times (9.3%). However, two other hitters are seeing a slightly higher ratio of strikes out of the zone — Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. (9.9%) and Washington Nationals infielder Adam LaRoche (9.8%). Both of the aforementioned hitters have about 150 less plate appearances than Carpenter.

Could this honestly be the explanation as to why Cardinal Nation’s breakout star of 2013 isn’t anywhere near as good as he has been in the previous two seasons? To take it a step further, should we assume that there is a major umpiring conspiracy against Carpenter?

Not exactly.

I looked into this data further and I found that since 2008 (minimum 5000 pitches), there are thirty-eight other hitters within two percentage points of Carpenter’s current rate of 9.6%. The leader of that group is Oakland Athletics catcher John Jaso, who has faced 5731 pitches of which 546 were out of the zone and called strikes (9.5%). The miserable hitter who has fallen prey to the fallible umpire eye 1,324 times — the most in that time span — is Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis (8.2%).

So let’s look a little closer at what’s going on with Carpenter in 2014. His BABIP sits at .331, well above the league average but nothing to get excited about because his career average is .348 — which can be considered stabilized after 1,100-plus at-bats. His batting average is currently .265; again, above the league average but well below his career mark of .300. Carpenter still manages to get on base consistently (.371 OBP) and his walk rate is actually three percent higher than his norm of 10.8%. Most importantly, he has yet to hit an infield fly; an indication that he’s making good contact and swinging the bat well.

Are pitchers attacking him differently? The answer again is no because there seems to be no variance in the types of pitches he’s seeing in 2014 compared to previous seasons.

Plate discipline would be the next logical place to go. Here, I’ve spotted something interesting — a Z-Swing rate of just over 50%. Only swinging at half the pitches he sees in the strike zone? Is this indicative of a lack of confidence? That kind of swing rate is bound to get a few extra ‘phantom’ strikes called on you. The league average swings in the zone for 2014 is a much higher 64.9%; Carpenter’s career ratio is 57.3%.

Has he lost his eye? His O-Swing rate is actually lower this year (along with his overall swing rate). He apparently wants to take more pitches and it hasn’t effected his ability to get on base regularly; still sporting a well above-average OBP of .371.

So here’s the biggie — his contact rates. An astounding 95.1% of swings in the zone result in contact and his general contact rate hasn’t varied at all from the past three seasons. You can cancel those requests for an eye doctor visit now. Need more proof? His whiff rate is a minuscule 3.9%.

Obviously when Carpenter sees a pitch he likes, he hits it. The problem seems to be what happens when he does.

I mentioned before that his BABIP is fairly high (currently 39th overall in baseball) and that typically correlates with an elevated batting average. Not the case with Carpenter and here is an example of why. Line drives fall for hits much more than any other type of contact. So far, Carpenter has 23 line-outs this year, highest in the majors. For a guy who is known for his extra-base hits (55 doubles in 2013), he relies on those to fall for hits and they aren’t. His wOBA has taken a major hit for that, down to a pedestrian .319 so far.

I wish I could tell you that this research would involve some sort of diagnosis of Carpenter’s struggle; there is none. His walk rate is up a bit, but he is striking out more (18.8%) than his average ratio of 15.9%. It could simply be that he might not be as good as he’s advertised. It could simply be a down year. But let me leave you with a one last piece of data.

Carpenter is a career .264 hitter in March/April. His average elevates to .321 during the month of May. So far, his average this May has risen slightly but not significantly. Its possible he has a major hot streak simmering on the back burner.

For the sake of Cardinal Nation, I hope that one of the most dynamic players in the game starts to have a shift in hitting abilities sooner rather than later. He’s a fun hitter to watch.