Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Fine Line Between Awesome & Awful

Monday at The Hardball Times, Nick Steiner attempted to figure out what stats (particularly Pitch f/x) could tell us about the difference between a pitcher at their best and at their worst. We continually lean on clich├ęs like "He didn't have his best stuff today" to explain why a pitcher has a bad outing. It seems apparent fairly early in a game, at least in hindsight, when a starter is dealing or is not.

But how much of that is confirmation bias? In other words, how much does the outcome of the start effect how we remember our perceptions of the beginning of the game? Maybe the difference between a 7 inning shutout and a 7 run disaster isn't "stuff". Perhaps, from the pitcher's perspective, there isn't much difference at all. Is it possible that Joba Chamberlain really did "throw a lot of good pitches" in some of his poor outings?

For a subject, Steiner chose A.J. Burnett, because of the stark difference between his best and worst outings. When sorted by Game Score, Burnett's 10 best starts in 2009 added up to an ERA of 1.06 while his 10 worst came out at 9.13. He went (6-2) in his top 10 and (0-6) in his bottom 10.

There should be some major differences between these two groups of starts. You'd expect to see some patterns emerging in terms of velocity, or movement, or location or pitch selection, right?

In short, no. There was almost no difference at all.

Steiner dug through all of Burnett's Pitch f/x data for this year, painstakingly categorizing it by pitch type (4-seam fastball, 2-seam fastball, change up, curveball, slider), movement (horizontal, vertical), location (outside, border out, border in, middle), batter (lefty, righty) and count (pitcher's, hitter's, neutral).

He sliced the data in lots of intuitive ways but found almost no significant differences between Burnett's good and bad starts. And for every directional variation which might explain his better starts (fewer pitches down the middle in good starts), there is another which runs counter to what is expected (better velocity in bad starts). In my own look at the numbers, I found that Burnett actually walked fewer batters (29) is his bad starts than he did in his good ones (32).

So what separates a great start from a terrible one, if not for pitch selection, movement and location?

For one thing, there is a whole lot more luck involved with pitching than we realize. In a span of three starts this year, Burnett bookended a 4 2/3 inning, 7 run outing against the White Sox with two shutouts against the Rays and Red Sox, each at least 7 innings. Three starts, two absolutely brilliant ones and one that a AAA call-up would be ashamed of. (Relax conspiracy theorists, Jorge Posada caught all three of them.) There are few other professions where such wild variations between success and failure are common at such a high level.

Part of this is the fact that it only takes one pitch to alter the outcome of a game. One three run home run can change the complexion of a start entirely. And the difference between it ending up as a round tripper and a fly ball on the warning track is a matter of a fraction of an inch on the bat. That's just one pitch out of 100 or more.

If you look beyond Pitch f/x, some other things turn up in Burnett's starts. While his percentage of strikes looking was almost exactly the same regardless of the type of outing (18.7% to 18.5%), the occurrence of strikes looking was much higher in his better starts (10.4% to 6.6%). He also allowed almost twice as many fly balls and line drives in his 10 worst starts while ground balls were between 7% and 8% in both.

Are we to believe that he is throwing the same quality of pitches in both groups of outings and getting wildly different results just based on luck? If it was a random chance, the swings and misses, line drives and fly balls would be more evenly distributed. I think it's more likely that there is something that Pitch f/x isn't capable of telling us.

Especially in a broad analysis like the one Steiner conducted, it's difficult (maybe impossible) to zero in on the things that separate a curve ball that induces swings and misses from one that results in an opposite field single. It would have a hard time telling a fastball down the middle in a 3-0 count (unlikely to be swung at) from one when the batter was ahead 2-1. It can't tell which locations are preferable to which hitters, given that some like the ball inside while others favor it out over the plate, for example. Mistakes made with men on base are most costly than ones with the bags empty. What about pitch sequencing, or the amount of pitches hitters saw, how often Burnett was working from behind in the count and so on and so on...

One of the great things about baseball is the amount of data available, but it's a double-edged sword. It makes general questions like this one almost impossible to answer because of the endless number or variables. No two outings are exactly alike and something tells me that even if there was a parallel universe where two of the same games began at the same time, they would probably turn out completely differently anyway.

How Good Is Too Good?

Good morning Fackers. Yesterday, when I first heard about the Javier Vazquez trade, I had an inescapable, reluctant sort of a feeling. I knew the trade was one that would make the Yankees a better team next year without question, but I wasn't excited about it by any stretch.

It was unfortunate to see Arodys Vizcaino get sent to Atlanta just days after he been placed in the top half of the Yankees' top 10 prospects by both FanGraphs and Baseball America, but that wasn't what was bothering me. I had no particular attachment to Mike Dunn, so his loss certainly wasn't it. You don't want to part with a homegrown switch-hitting center fielder like Melky Cabrera who is only 25 years old and has already put in four years for the Yanks, but I don't think I'm going to miss him that much either.

Who we got back wasn't the issue. I don't expect Vazquez to have a year that in any way resembles his dominance in Atlanta, but he'll go a long way towards rounding out the Yankees rotation. What happened during his previous tenure in Pinstripes doesn't bother me at all.

The Braves were looking to unload payroll and the $11.5M Vazquez was making was the next best thing to dumping Derek Lowe. Regardless of what Mark Feinsand's source told him yesterday, this trade was a salary dump to some extent and I think that's what made the deal seem so uncouth. It's not to say that it wasn't a move that made sense for both teams - the Braves had six starting pitchers and the Yankees had four center fielders - but something still feels wrong about it.

The Yankees just won the World Series and they added a pitcher who was among the four or five best in the National League last year to be their third or fourth starter. With CC Sabathia making $23.5M, A.J. Burnett $16.5, Andy Pettitte $11.5, and now Vasquez another $11.5, their top four starters will make $62.5M in 2010, or more than the A's, Pirates, Padres and Marlins spent on their entire teams last year. Sure, the Yanks' total payroll bill for next year will probably come in somewhere near $200M, but staying close to that massive, arbitrary number isn't exactly something to be proud of.

Spending a ridiculous amount of money is nothing new to the Yankees - in 2005, they paid out $85M more than their closest competitor - but it's not as much the dollar amount as it is the players. Now that the Bombers are allocating those resources efficiently, it's hard not to understand how much money $200M actually is. Throughout the middle of this decade, the Yanks were continually paying the likes of Jason Giambi, Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Jose Contreras, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano and Hideki Matsui far more than they were worth. Now survey the current roster. It looks pretty damn lean by comparison.

I know that it's borderline irrational for a Yankees fan to feel any sort of guilt about the amount the team spends. They make a ton of money - some of which comes from me - and if they don't spend it on players, it's just going to be sucked up into a corporate vacuum, never to be seen again. The more they spend on payroll, the more enjoyable it is going to be to watch them on any given day during the season.

And perhaps that's the issue. Maybe this is just an offseason problem. As the summer moves along and the season develops, it's likely that the Yankees won't actually be as good as they are on paper right now and it won't seem as unfair that they have assembled an absolutely ridiculous collection of current and former All-Stars and future Hall of Famers. Even if they win 110 games next year, they are still going to lose at a 32% clip. Given that a 94 win team loses 42% of the time, it doesn't seem all that different over the long run - one game out of every 10.

Everyone wants their team to be awesome. But I think people want to see their team come together and exceed expectations rather than attempt to live up to impossibly high ones. Ideally, you'd like your team to be better than others by virtue of something other than their relative willingness to shell out tens of millions of dollars. Being a bona fide Goliath doesn't take away from the satisfaction of winning a World Series, but it tempers the enjoyment of every step along the way.

As it stands, the 2010 season will end in one of two ways: an expected victory or a major failure. So while the moves the Yankees have made this offseason have ensured they have a better chance to win a World Series coming into the season than they have had in quite some time, they have also guaranteed that they will have more to lose than ever before.