NotGraphs: Only Congress Can Declare WAR, But What About FIP?

Let’s face it: we’re all nerds here at FanGraphs. But it takes a special kind of nerd to bring FanGraphs’ brand of sabermetric analysis to that other realm of the dull and dweeby: the United States Congress.

Every summer, a handful of the 535 senators and congressmen who represent you in Washington divide into teams to play the Congressional Baseball Game, a charity event at Nationals Park. Despite its informal nature and the, ah, senescent quality of play, the game is a serious affair (something its participants often have experience with). This is no friendly softball game; the teams practice for months before the big day, and the players take the results very seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that players keep track of (even send press releases about) their hits and RBI. A small group of baseball-obsessed politicos scores and generates a box score for the game every year. With their help, I was able to take their record-keeping to the next level. This is where this becomes the dorkiest FanGraphs article ever—for the first time, we now have advanced metrics on the performance and value of U.S. congressmen’s baseball skills.

Using recent Congressional Baseball Game scoresheets, I made a Google spreadsheet that should look familiar to any FanGraphs user—complete with the full Standard, Advanced, and Value sections you see on every player page. (Though this spreadsheet is more akin to the leaderboards—since the game is only played once a year, I treated the entire, decades-long series as one “season,” and each line is a player’s career stats in the CBG.) From Rand Paul’s wOBA to Joe Baca’s FIP-, all stats are defined as they are in the Library and calculated as FanGraphs does for real MLBers—making this the definitive source for the small but vocal SABR-cum-CBG community.

That said, unfortunately the metrics can never be complete—there’s just too much data we don’t have. Most notably, although the CBG has a long history (dating back to 1909), I capped myself at stats from the past four years only—so standard small-sample-size caveats apply. (This is mostly for fun, anyway.) Batted-ball data is also incomplete, so I opted to leave it out entirely—and we don’t have enough information about the context of each at-bat to calculate win probabilities. For obvious reasons, there’s also no PITCHf/x data, and fielding stats are a rabbit hole I’m not even going to try to go down.

It’s still a good deal of info, though, and there’s plenty to pick through that goes beyond what you might have noticed with the naked eye at the past four Congressional Baseball Games. But why should I care to pick through them, you might ask; what good are sabermetrics for a friendly game between middle-aged men? Well, apart from the always-fun Hall of Fame arguments, they serve the same purpose they do in the majors: they help us understand the game, and they can help us predict who will win when the Democrats next meet the Republicans (how else would the teams be divided?) on the battle diamond—this Wednesday, June 25.

You probably don’t need advanced metrics to guess that the Democrats are favored. They’ve won the past five games in a row, including the four in our spreadsheet by a combined score of 61 to 12. That’s going to skew our data, but by the same token, Democratic players have clearly been better in recent years. Going by WAR, a full five Democrats are better than the best Republican player, John Shimkus of Illinois.

But the reason we expect Democrats to win on Wednesday is the player who tops that list: Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana. Richmond’s 1.1 WAR (in only three games!) is 0.9 higher than the next-best player (Colorado’s Jared Polis), putting him in a league of his own. In each of the past three CBGs, the former Morehouse College varsity ballplayer has pitched complete-game gems that have stifled the Republican offense. He carries a 40.0% K% and 28 ERA- into this year’s game. (Note: Congressional Baseball Games last only seven innings, so the appropriate pitching stats use 7 as their innings/game constant in place of MLB’s 9.)

The GOP has a few options to oppose Richmond on the mound—it’s just that none of them are good. The four Republicans on the roster with pitching experience have past ERAs ranging from 8.08 to 15.75. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that Republican pitchers have been somewhat unlucky. Marlin Stutzman has a .500 BABIP, and Shimkus has an improbably low 20.8% LOB percentage. Thanks to a solid 15.0% K-BB%, Stutzman has just a 5.98 FIP—high by major-league standards, but actually exactly average (a FIP- of 100) in the high-scoring environment of the CBG. (Another note: xFIP is useless in the congressional baseball world, as no one has hit an outside-the-park home run since 1997.) A piece of advice to GOP manager Joe Barton of Texas: Stutzman is your best option for limiting the damage on Wednesday.

On offense, it’s again the Cedric Richmond show. His 8 wRC and 4.6 wRAA dwarf all other players. In a league where power is almost nonexistent, he carries a .364 ISO (his full batting line is a fun .818/.833/1.182); only eight other active players even have an ISO higher than .000. Other offensive standouts for the Democrats include Florida’s Patrick Murphy, he of the 214 wRC+ and .708 wOBA (using 2012 coefficients), and Missouri’s Lacy Clay, who excels on the basepaths to the tune of a league-high 0.5 wSB. With a 1.4 RAR (fourth-best in the league) despite only two career plate appearances, Clay has proven to be the best of the CBG’s many designated pinch-runners who proliferate in the later innings. (Caveat: UBR is another of those statistics we just don’t have enough information to calculate.) Democrats might want to consider starting him over Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, however; Murphy is a fixture at catcher for the blue team despite a career .080 wOBA and -2.5 wRAA.

As on the mound, Republicans don’t have a lot of talent at the plate. Their best hitter is probably new Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who has a 168 wRC+, albeit in just four plate appearances. (Scouting reports actually indicate that Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis is actually their best player, but injury problems have kept him from making an in-game impact so far in his career—and he’s missing this game entirely due to a shoulder injury.) Meanwhile, uninspired performers like Jeff Flake (.268 wOBA) and Kevin Brady (.263 wOBA) continue to anchor the GOP lineup, potentially (rightfully?) putting their manager on the hot seat. Some free advice for the Republicans: try to work the walk better. Low OBPs are an issue up and down the lineup, and they have a .279 OBP as a team. Their team walk rate of 8.2% is also too low for what is essentially a glorified beer league. If someone is telling them that the way to succeed against a pitcher of Richmond’s caliber is to be aggressive, they should look at the numbers and rethink.

Nathaniel Rakich writes about politics and baseball at Baseballot. He has also written for The New Yorker, Grantland, The New Republic, and Let's Go Travel Guides. Follow him on Twitter @baseballot.

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9 years ago

Is this fast-pitch?

9 years ago

Cistulli, hire this man.

williams .482member
9 years ago

This is fantastic.

9 years ago

Won’t you expect BABIP to be generally high in this league, given the dubious defense?