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The Bill James Hall of Fame–Pitchers

The Hall of Fame (HOF) voting will be announced in a month or so, and with a very competitive ballot full of worthy new players, deserving holdovers and numerous players with suspicions hovering over their candidacy, it will be one of the most compelling ballots in years. There will be no shortage of analysis in the coming month, and I’ll add to it, but hopefully in a manner that helps clarify instead of confuse.

In his wonderful book “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” Bill James laid out criteria for two measures he invented to evaluate HOF resumes. He devotes Chapter 14 to describing one of them, the HOF Standards and an additional measure, the HOF Monitor on p359-61. At the risk of being 100% incorrect, the two systems complement each other very well–the Monitor essentially measure the successful seasons (number of hits, home runs, runs scored, etc.) while the Standards measures these numbers over a career (did a pitcher win 200 games? 250? 300? Did a hitter hit 350 home runs? 400? and so on). In a perfect world, a player does well on both scales–he has a long career filled with career milestones AND has years in which he is clearly the best in the game. Putting these two factors together goes very far in helping evaluate HOF worthiness.

The tests work on two different scales–James states that anything over 100 on the Monitor and 50 on the Standards places the player in the company of those already enshrined. Therefore, that creates a fun thing to measure–just how well do HOF inductees match up with James’ measures? This graph shows pitchers of recent vintage only (from around 1960 or so) and plots them on a scatter graph on both of these measures:

Yellow dots are HOF members. Take a moment and peruse the players in the upper right quadrant, those that meet both tests for Standards and Monitor. These are truly worthy of enshrinement and the names are understood as among the best pitchers in baseball history. Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson are far right because they were power pitchers who racked up huge numbers of strikeouts per season and over a career, whereas Greg Maddux was simply a dominant pitcher who got batters out however he could. It doesn’t matter either way–any serious discussion of the best pitchers of the past 25 years includes these three pitchers, no matter how different their styles were.

The others in the upper right quadrant are Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina. Glavine and Mussina are on the 2014 ballot and will generate no shortage of discussion, some of which might even concern their career achievements. I won’t discuss the quirks and shortcomings of HOF balloting in this post but will do so over the next week or so at my blog Beyond The Scorecard. Mussina in particular will generate tremendous discussion since he “only” won 270 games, whereas somehow Glavine’s 35 more wins is a wide chasm. Leaving aside the uselessness of the win as a stat in modern baseball (I have more thoughts on that here, for starters), it sets up a magical threshold that is exceedingly difficult to attain, and yet rewards no shortage of pitchers who missed that mark.

Nobody suggests that James’ measures should be hard and fast rules, and he himself argues on p182 that it would be a “terrible idea,” but that doesn’t mean that some element of rigor can’t be applied to the review of these pitchers to see if they’re truly amongst the best in their generation. Jamie Moyer had more career wins than Pedro Martinez–is there anyone who seriously suggests that Moyer was a better pitcher than Martinez? We don’t use metrics to create artificial (and often capricious) cutoffs as much as give nuance and context to the numbers we see. Particularly as the role of the starting pitcher has changed over the years, these types of values are even more important. So what do we do with the pitchers in the lower right quadrant? There’s plenty of precedent for enshrinement but it appears that at least in recent years, egregious errors made in the past are becoming far fewer. Even the “worst” HOF inductee on this chart, Jim Bunning was inducted by a Veterans Committee in 1996 and is far from the worst selection the HOF has made.

My real point is that James’ measures hold up remarkably well when tested against actual inductees. Like just about everything else he’s done in baseball metrics (and for the Boston Red Sox), it’s a measure that adds true value and allows us to make informed decisions as we evaluate HOF candidates. It’s been almost 20 years since he conceived these measures and perhaps time will require tinkering with the numerical values (for example, is 300 wins still a reasonable upper limit for pitching wins? If not, what should it be dropped down to?) to reflect changes in the game. But the overall structure remains very robust and does an excellent  job of matching up our remembrances with actual events. As Bill savors his third World Series title while being associated with the Red Sox, he should also be remembered as the man who attempted (and very much accomplished) something very important–helping us accurately evaluate player careers and place them in the proper context.

There are several unlabeled dots due to space:

In the lower right quadrant there are four dots between Andy Pettitte and Justin Verlander–they are (from top to bottom) CC Sabathia (just to the left of Pettitte), David Cone (left of Morris), Ron Guidry (right below Cone) and Vida Blue (above Verlander)

In the lower left quadrant there are six dots right around Jim Bunning–they are Luis Tiant (right below), Kevin Brown (just to the left of Tiant), Dwight Gooden (left of Brown), Mickey Lolich (below Bunning), Mike Cuellar (just below Lolich), Orel Hershiser (to the left of Cuellar) and Johan Santana (left of Hershiser). Other notable pitchers in that quadrant are (going down the Monitor number) David Wells, Dave Stewart, Cliff Lee, Bret Saberhagen, Frank Viola, Bob Welch, Fernando Valenzuela, Kenny Rogers and Jamie Moyer.

Be sure to visit my blog for more thoughts on the Hall of Fame and other baseball stuff

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#KillTheWin, Postseason Style

Adam Wainwright pitched a decent game Monday night in Game 3 of the NLCS, throwing 7 innings and giving up 6 hits, no walks and striking out 5. He had a game score of 62, usually a sign of a well-pitched game, and he ended up with the loss because the Cardinals offense chose to take the night off. Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) of the MLB Network started a movement called KillTheWin, his quixotic effort to have the win eliminated as a baseball statistic. I wrote a couple posts at my blog Beyond The Scorecard because I thought it was an interesting idea and seemed like a fun issue to research and will include the links at the end of this post, but Wainwright’s game got me thinking–how often in the postseason is a pitcher not justly rewarded for a good effort?

As the use of starting pitchers has changed over time, the win has become a far less effective metric in judging pitcher effectiveness. I don’t remember how I stumbled across using a game score of 60 as my marker of effectiveness (probably at Kenny’s suggestion) and like any other single number it’s not the entire story of a pitching performance, but it grants the opportunity to separate pitching effectiveness from a lack of offensive production or bad defense. Including Monday’s game there have been 1,393 postseason games played since 1903, meaning there have been 2,786 starts in postseason history–this chart shows the breakdown of wins, losses and no-decisions for those starters in that time frame:

In the postseason, starting pitchers won almost 36% of their starts. This covers the entire spectrum of postseason play, from the games in the early 1900s when a pitcher typically finished what he started all the way to examples like Saturday where Anibal Sanchez was removed after 6 innings (and 116 pitches)…and throwing a no-hitter. Different times, to be sure. With this context, this chart shows how often a pitcher who had a game score of 60 or greater was credited with the win:

Definitely an improvement over the general trend, but still, a pitcher who pitches well enough to attain a game score of 60 or greater has done all he can–he’s given up few hits and walks and struck out a decent number of hitters. In short, he’s kept base runners off base, the primary job of a pitcher and almost 35% of the time has nothing to show for it, or even worse, is tagged with a loss. This chart shows these numbers since the playoffs were expanded in 1969:

The introduction of relievers definitely hurt the cause of these starting pitchers, with almost 40% of pitchers who threw very good games not receiving a win. On the flip side, it is gratifying to see that only around 9% of wins go to pitchers who were the beneficiaries of being on the right side of 13-12 scores or games along those lines–justice exists somewhere. This last chart shows the record by game score stratification:

Who was that unlucky pitcher with a game score greater than 90 who received the loss? Nolan Ryan in Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS.

The 10-15 regular readers of my blog hopefully are aware that I typically write with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek, and the win is so entrenched in baseball lore that removing it as a point of discussion simply won’t happen, but it doesn’t mean that it has to receive the emphasis it does. When we have the wealth of data that sites like FanGraphs places at our fingertips, we don’t have to rely on a metric that was formed at the inception of organized baseball that is a relic today, particularly one that doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of pitching performance around 35% of the time. Kill The Win–maybe not, but we can certainly de-emphasize it.

#KillTheWin blog posts:

The first one, which lays out definitions and rationale

The second one, which expands it

A final one, an exercise in absurdity

What If Baseball Playoffs Were Determined By Division Record?

All major league sports division winners gain entry into the playoffs–the difference is HOW those division victors are determined. For example, the NFL places a greater weight on division record, so much so that a 8-8 division winner (like the 2010 Seahawks) is seeded higher than a wild card with a better record (like the 2010 New Orleans Saints). The NBA gives the top three seeds in each conference to the division winners, with winning the division based on overall instead of division record.

I was curious how baseball playoffs would be affected if a team’s division record determined the division winner, and I expected to see a handful of changes. I was VERY surprised with what I saw. Read the rest of this entry »

The Elusive Clutch Hitter–Part II

I made some mistakes, some careless, some unknown, with the charts included in my post titled “The Elusive Clutch Hitter,” and I wanted to clear them up.

The first correction shows the batters in my sample who had an increase of at least 10% in batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP) vs. no runners in scoring position (nRISP). It was my intention to do this all along–indeed, I had posted earlier and woke up the next day and realized I had compared RISP batting average with career batting average, which would cause an overlap in the data. I trashed that post prior to it being published, but it appears I made the same mistake, at least with this particular chart. Here’s the corrected chart:
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The Elusive Clutch Hitter

It’s (almost) spring (training), and a young man’s thoughts turns to baseball metrics. I’ll start with two charts:

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