Thursday, August 31, 2006

My favorite baseball joke

Graffiti on a wall in a Baltimore bathroom:

First handwriting: Jesus is the answer.
Second handwriting: What is the question?
Third handwriting: Who is Matty and Felipe's brother?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Evaluating Pitchers, Or Why I Use the Stats I Do

Over at USS Mariner, Dave Cameron just put together a primer on pitching stats. It's a great explanation of why common statistics are misleading, and which newer ones are enlightening. Not coincidentally, the stats he trumpets are the same ones I used in the Clippard/Hughes/Bailey breakdowns.

With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Yankees are faring this season. Courtesy of The Hardball Times, it's Graph Time!


(minimum 20 IP)

  • Disregard Rivera's xFIP. In fact, FIP is apparently better forrelievers than xFIP. Even that underrates Rivera. Regardless, he's the Yankees' best pitcher. Duh.

  • Ron Villone has combined a freakishly low GB% with a freakishly low HR/F%. Something's gotta give. In fact, I think it already has. He's toast.

  • Jaret Wright is going to give up a lot more home runs.

  • Shawn Chacon wasn't unlucky at all; he just plain sucked.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Who's #1?

As the Yankees pile on the suck along the Pacific, we're better served taking some optimism out of the weekend. Namely, the fact that the Yankees have the best pitching prospect in baseball.

Or do they? Homer Bailey has taken a huge step forward in 2006, establishing himself--along with Philip Hughes--at the top of pitching prospect lists. Identified by Bryan Smith in the spring as a breakout candidate, Bailey has gone from "a riddle wrapped in an enigma and covered with chocolate icing" to potential pennant race booster shot.

So who's better? Onto the tale of the tape...

Homer Bailey is a 20-year-old Texan, born May 3, 1986. 6'3", 190 lbs. He was taken in the first round, 7th overall, in the 2004 draft, and was widely regarded as the top high school righthanded pitcher. Though he himself has said he plays baseball because he's good at it, not because he likes it, Bailey is regarded as a hard worker with a successful attitude.

Bailey throws 92-94 and can touch 97. He has an outstanding curve, unhittable when it's working, and a developing changeup. Bailey doesn't like using his offspeed stuff, preferring to blow his fastball by hitters all the time. The Reds are working hard with him to mix his pitches better.

Philip Hughes is a 20-year-old Californian, born June 24, 1986. 6'5", 220 lbs. He was taken in the first round, 23rd overall, in the 2004 draft. Some clubs considered him the top high school pitcher that year due to his maturity and polish. He's considered very advanced for his age with phenomenal makeup.

Hughes throws 91-93 and can touch 96 (though John Sickels has said that his velocity has improved a bit this season). Both his curve and slider are considered plus pitches, and his change is effective. He has tremendous command, reflecting how polished he is for a 20-year-old.

Same age, same draft year, similar promotion patterns...tracking their performances will be interesting.

Bailey: GCL (Rk); 12.1 IP, 4.38 ERA, 14 H, 9 K, 3 BB, 0 HR
Hughes: GCL (Rk); 5 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4 H, 8 K, 0 BB, 0 HR

Not very telling, but Hughes obviously had the more successful introduction to pro ball.

Bailey: Mdw (A-); 103.2 IP, 4.43 ERA, 7.7 H/9, 10.9 K/9, 5.4 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9
Hughes: SAL (A-); 68.2 IP, 1.97 ERA, 6.0 H/9, 9.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9
Hughes: FSL (A+); 17.2 IP, 3.06 ERA, 4.1 H/9, 10.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9

Hughes distanced himself from Bailey statistically by a wide margin. His control was far, far, FAR better, and he improved all of his peripherals upon being promoted to High-A.

At this point, PECOTA fell in love with Hughes, not only tabbing him the third best pitching prospect in baseball, but also marking him with the highest upside (yes, even higher than Francisco Liriano's). Bailey rated a humble 44th, though PECOTA regognized the potential--his top two comparables were Rich Harden and Francisco Rodriguez. (Hughes's top comparable was Jake Peavy).

Still, scouts loved Bailey. Baseball America rated Bailey the 38th best prospect this year, just one slot ahead of Hughes.

Bailey: FSL (A+); 70.2 IP, 3.31 ERA, 6.2 H/9, 10.1 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9
Bailey: SOU (AA); 62 IP, 1.16 ERA, 6.5 H/9, 10.0 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9
Hughes: FSL (A+); 30 IP, 1.80 ERA, 5.7 H/9, 9.0 K/9, 0.6 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9
Hughes: EAS (AA); 111 IP, 2.35 ERA, 5.8 H/9, 10.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9

Hughes trumped Bailey in the Florida State League, making his promotion a no-brainer. Bailey, though, was inconsistent and made many people question the move to the Southern League. 62 innings later and those same doubters are now questioning whether or not he should be in the majors. A 1.16 ERA will do that for ya.

While Bailey has the big advantage in ERA, Hughes's peripherals are quite superior. Let's break it down further with batted ball data.

FSL: 18.8 % K, 9.4% BB, 47.9% GB, 3.77 FIP (3.82 ERA)
Bailey: 27.4% K, 9.0% BB, 44.2% GB, 3.21 FIP, 2.95 xFIP
Hughes: 27.3% K, 2.7% BB, 51.4% GB, 1.52 FIP, 2.34 xFIP

The strikeout rates are interesting, as Bailey's K/9 was comfortably ahead. Hughes simply got through innings faster, so faced fewer batters. They're even in Ks, but Hughes walked significantly fewer betters (note: I'm using a modified walk rate of [BB-IBB+HBP]/PA) and induced many more grounders. On the whole, Hughes's command again wins out.

SL: 19.9% K, 9.3% BB, 47.2% GB, 3.71 FIP (3.45 ERA)
Bailey: 27.7% K, 10.4% BB, 48.3% GB, 2.44 FIP, 2.90 xFIP
EL: 19.2% K, 9.3% BB, 46.8% GB, 3.90 FIP (3.81 ERA)
Hughes: 30.8% K, 7.9% BB, 51.6% GB, 2.31 FIP, 2.49 xFIP

How do you like them apples? Hughes has significant advantages in every major peripheral: strikeouts, walks and groundballs. His Fielding Independent ERAs are better, and he's accomplished this while playing in the tougher league. Bailey's FIP+ is 128. Hughes's is 157.

Color me surprised. From all the talk, Bailey and Hughes appeared to be very even. But statistically, Hughes flat-out outclasses Bailey. From a scouting perspective, Hughes's command, makeup and poise are second to none. At this point, the only plusses I can see for Bailey are the drop dead curve, higher draft position and shiny Double-A ERA. And while the former is for real, the latter two are gilded advantages.

Bailey is obviously a great prospect--a FIP 28% better than average for a 20-year-old in Double-A is mighty impressive--but by any objective measure, Hughes is top of the heap.

All hail the new king. Philip Hughes has earned the crown.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Clippard and Hughes

Tyler Clippard has been getting a lot of hype lately, with some Yankee fans wanting to lump him in with uberprospect Philip Hughes. But does Clippard deserve it? Let's compare the two, by age:

Clippard: (Rk); 43.2 IP, 2.89 ERA, 6.8 H/9, 11.5 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9
Hughes: (Rk); 5.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 7.2 H/9, 14.4 K/9, 0.0 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9

Okay, that was irrelevant.

Clippard: (A-); 149.0 IP, 3.44 ERA, 9.2 H/9, 8.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9
Hughes: (A-); 68.2 IP, 1.97 ERA, 6.0 H/9, 9.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9
Hughes: (A+); 17.2 IP, 3.06 ERA, 4.1 H/9, 10.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9

So a few things. First, the farther from the majors you get, the more strikeouts in the league. If you're in A-ball, you pretty much need to be striking out a batter per inning just to be considered a prospect.

That said, Clippard still put up solid numbers. The control is there, and his 4.5 K:BB ratio is great no matter the context. Certainly a legit prospect.

Hughes, on the other hand was even better. His K:BB ratio was also 4.5, but he combined that command with a tremendous ability to induce weak contact: just 46 hits and one--one!--home run in Low-A. He earned a promotion to Tampa and was even better. The sample size is tiny, but those rate stats are ridiculous. Hughes is clearly more advanced than Clippard at this age.

Clippard: (A+); 147.1 IP, 3.18 ERA, 7.2 H/9, 10.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9
Hughes: (A+); 30.0 IP, 1.80 ERA, 5.7 H/9, 9.0 K/9, 0.6 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9
Hughes: (AA); 111.0 IP, 2.35 ERA, 5.8 H/9, 10.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9

(Note: Clippard also pitched six innings in Low-A and one inning in Triple-A.)

Clippard improved his numbers across the board even while moving up a level. That's the sort of thing that cements you as a good prospect. His overall K:BB for the year was a phenomenal 5.3.

Hughes, again, beats Clippard handily. His raw numbers are superior despite playing in the upper-minors. To do this at 20 (and he only turned 20 in June; Hughes is 16 months younger than Clippard) makes him arguably the top pitching prospect in all of baseball.

Looking at play-by-play data for 2006, we get this:

Eastern League: 19% K, 9% BB, 47% GB, 3.90 FIP, 3.90 xFIP
Clippard: 25% K, 11% BB, 44% GB, 3.62 FIP, 3.42 xFIP
Hughes: 30% K, 8% BB, 51% GB, 2.31 FIP, 2.50 xFIP

(K% & BB% are per batter faced. BB% is also unintentional walks + HBP. GB% is per ball in play. FIP is Fielding Independent ERA. xFIP is the same, but adjusting the HR per flyball to league average.)

Only one of those two is an elite prospect. Hughes is striking out 62% more batters than average while racking up the groundballs. There's nothing about him not to love.

Clippard rates as a solidly above average pitcher, but not special. He's 21, which is young for Double-A, and that helps him. But his walk rate and groundball rates are decidedly unimpressive. He misses plenty of bats, but so do a lot of prospects.

Ah, but Clippard has been red hot the past two months. Since June 19, if I'm adding correctly, he has a 1.77 ERA in 86.1 IP. Checking out his rates in that time:

30% K, 11% BB, 44% GB, 2.77 FIP, 3.04 xFIP

Very nice, but not as different as you'd expect. His GB/LD/FB/P splits were 44/13/33/10, compared to his season line of 44/12/34/10. The walk rate is virtually unchanged, but he's striking out a lot more batters. Can't hit the ball out of the park if you can't make contact.

Still, his xFIP is only 38 points below his seasonal xFIP. It's nice, don't get me wrong, but a lot of the perceived improvement is really just a change in luck with HR/FB.

Just for kicks, Hughes over that same stretch:

38% K, 7% BB, 54% GB, 1.21 FIP, 1.86 xFIP

Wow. Hughes has upped his strikeouts and groundballs while decreasing walks, flyballs and line drives. Why is this guy in Trenton still?

So what does this all mean? Well, two things: first, Philip Hughes is obscenely good. As hyped as he's been, he's earned every bit of it. Be excited, people.

And second, Clippard is a good-but-not-great pitching prospect. He's young and has clearly improved in-season, but it's important to note that he's had a drastic change in luck. I think many Yankee fans are overrating him to an extent because of it.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Since I basically missed all of the first three games of the series in Fenway, last night was my first taste of Pennant-Clinching Weekend. A few quick thoughts, as it's all I have time for.

  • Why, why, why do teams bunt against Mariano Rivera? I've said it before: you can't center the cutter and Mo is the best-fielding pitcher in the game. That David Ortiz was the lead runner makes Francona's decision all the more embarrassing. Tito had to be the only guy in the world who didn't see that one ending as it did.
  • On the other side, when Melky led off the ninth, Torre could have done the easy thing and let Nick Green bunt. Instead, he sent Bernie Williams up to pinch hit (I would've gone with Craig Wilson, but that's irrelevant) even though he knew it would cost him the DH.
  • On the pitching front, Torre again outmanaged Francona. Whereas Papelbon didn't enter the game until the bases were loaded, Torre called upon Rivera in the ninth in a nonsave situation.
Bottom line: Torre pulled out all the stops, went against the book and played to win. Francona, who desperately needed the victory, made every wrong decision. Waiting too long on Papelbon, sacrificing against Rivera with an inexperienced bunter, and not pinch running for Ortiz are wholly inexcusable decisions.

Say what you will about Torre, but he might very well be the best extra innings manager in baseball. He's come a long way since the Jeff Weaver debacle against Florida in 2003.

And lastly, as someone reminded me today, it needs to be said: small ball lost the game while the longball won it.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A-Rod's Theme

Say you stand by your man
Tell me something I don't understand
You said you love me and that's a fact
Then you left me, said you felt trapped

Well some things you can explain away
But my heart aches in me till this day

Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
No way

All the times
When we were close
I'll remember these things the most
I see all my dreams come tumbling down
I won't be happy without you around

So all alone I keep the wolves at bay
There is only one thing that I can say

Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
No way

You must explain why this must be
Did you lie when you spoke to me

Did you stand by me
No, not at all

Now I got a job
But it don't pay
I need new clothes
I need somewhere to stay
But without all these things I can do
But without your love I won't make it through

But you don't understand my point of view
I suppose there's nothing I can do

Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
No way

You must explain why this must be
Did you lie when you spoke to me?

Did you stand by me
Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
No way
Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
No way
(And where the heck did Mick Jones get that suit?)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

So that didn't last long

So much for writing everyday. Eh, I had a good run.

Busy weekend equated to virtually no baseball-viewing, so I have nothing to comment on. Instead, I had two barbecues, a softball championship & the Second Annual August iPod Crisis. So yeah.

I do want to add that video iPods are really cool. The screen is totally bitchin'.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

While I pondered, weak and weary

I'm still recovering from last night's disastrous double feature--The Ice Harvest and the Yankees back-to-back. I'm still trying to figure out which was worse.

Baseball first: handing Mariano Rivera a lead and not getting the win always sucks. Okay, so we know he isn't perfect--the guy got beat by Tony freaking Womack in the biggest game of his career after all--but it's still genuinely surprising to see him give up a run.

Speaking of Mo, why do managers still bunt off of him? Ever? First, Rivera's entire genius is for just missing the sweet spot of the bat. It's impossible for hitters to center the ball off him, which, I imagine, would make bunting quite difficult. Then there's the fact that he's probably the best-fielding pitcher in the league, and loves--LOVES--nailing the lead runner. Pierzynski's failed sacrifice was utterly predictable.

It needs to be said that Chicago almost killed themselves with smallball, but were ultimately saved by the longball. That's their 2005 to a tee, as well.

A-Rod can't catch a break. He has great at bats all night, hits a huge home run, a big single in the eighth, then steals second off Bobby Jenks...and all people can talk about is how he didn't catch that foul ball. Train in Vain, Alex. Train in Vain.

A few words on The Ice Harvest. It always bugs me when a great cast comes together for a bad movie. While The Ice Harvest can't rival The Island for biggest waste of talent ever, it was still hugely disappointing. The plot was an absolute mess, the resolution haphazard, and the whole " falls Wichita Falls" line...what was its significance, other than the writer thinking it sounded clever? Ugh.

And for a movie whose premise was that the criminals had to stay in town for a few hours because the roads were too slippery to drive on, there certainly was an awful lot of driving going on.

I'm tired and looking forward to getting home for another double feature. It can't possibly be as bad as last night's.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Project WANG! Appendix

For those of you interested, here is the list of sinkerballers used in the study, as well as the nonsinking control group:

Doyle Alexander
Pete Alexander
Elden Auker
Steve Barber
Chris Bosio
Nelson Briles
Kevin Brown
Tex Carleton
Dean Chance
Curt Davis
Dick Donovan
Dick Drago
Dock Ellis
Dick Ellsworth
Jeff Fassero
Bob Friend
Mike Garcia
Dave Goltz
Mike Hampton
Bill Hands
Mel Harder
Jim Hearn
Orel Hershiser
Willis Hudlin
Tim Hudson
Ferguson Jenkins
Tommy John
Dennis Lamp
Jon Lieber
Mickey Lolich
Derek Lowe
Lindy McDaniel
John Montefusco
Charles Nagy
Claude Osteen
Claude Passeau
Gary Peters
Andy Pettitte
Rick Reuschel
Kenny Rogers
Steve Rogers
Hal Schumacher
Tom Seaver
Zane Smith
Gerry Staley
Bob Stanley
Dave Stieb
Mel Stottlemyre
Bill Swift
Bob Tewksbury
Bucky Walters
Geoff Zahn

Vic Aldridge
Johnny Antonelli
Jim Barr
Tim Belcher
Bud Black
George Blaeholder
Tommy Bridges
Jim Bunning
Guy Bush
Rip Collins
David Cone
John Denny
Joe Dobson
Al Downing
Bob Feller
Alex Fernandez
Sid Fernandez
Dwight Gooden
Mark Gubicza
Ron Guidry
Pat Hentgen
Randy Johnson
Sad Sam Jones
Jerry Koosman
Mark Langston
Thornton Lee
Ed Lopat
Sal Maglie
Ramon Martinez
Christy Mathewson
Denny Neagle
Don Newcombe
Milt Pappas
Fritz Peterson
Juan Pizarro
Bob Porterfield
Vic Raschi
Preacher Roe
Red Ruffing
Johnny Sain
Rip Sewell
Chris Short
Jeff Suppan
Ralph Terry
Tommy Thomas
Luis Tiant
George Uhle
Johnny Vander Meer
Frank Viola
Bob Welch
David Wells
Woody Williams

Great Sinkers of Our Time

Part One: In which we set the stage
Part Two: In which PECOTA takes the spotlight
Appendix: List of sinkerballers and control group

We have thus far examined the careers of pitchers who possess a statistical similarity to Chien-Ming Wang. Now it's time to get to the crux of the matter: today we're taking a closer look at sinkerballers.

First, we need to identify sinkerball pitchers throughout history. To do this, I used Lee Sinins's Complete Baseball Encyclopedia to make a list of every pitcher with at least 1500 innings and a positive Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA). This gave me 411 pitchers to work with, plus a few active guys who went over 1500 IP this year. I then looked each of them up in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers and narrowed the list to those who had a sinker listed as either their first or second pitch. We're now left with 52 sinkerballers, spanning the ages from Grover Cleveland (Pete) Alexander to Derek Lowe.

Okay, so what do these 52 pitchers tell us? Well...actually, let's just look at the numbers first. Here is the average career line for our sinker group:


Pretty good, obviously. We are looking at only pitchers with long, above average careers after all.

The last two columns require explanation: Delta Hits (DH) is the number of hits a pitcher gave up versus what you'd expect from the defense behind him. Delta Runs (DR) is the number of runs a pitcher gave up versus what you'd expect from his peripheral stats. For both, negative is good and positive is bad.

That our sinkerballers gave up more hits than expected makes intuitive sense. Groundballs become hits at a higher rate than flyballs. That's the tradeoff: a lot more singles, but fewer extra-base hits.

Which brings us to the -20 in the DR column. While I don't know exactly how Clay Davenport calculates these figures, I'm going to guess exact figures for doubles and triples aren't included. Since groundball pitchers will generally give up less of these, it basically takes three singles to score one run. In addition, they should also induce more double plays. There's also the theory that the sinker sinks more from the stretch, even though that blew up in my face in Part One. I'm still not giving up on it. At any rate, there are any number of reasons why sinkerballers might give up fewer runs than the rest of their stat line indicates.

It's kinda tough to read anything into these numbers without context though. With that in mind, I created a control group. Returning to the aforementioned list of 400+ pitchers, I selected 52 of them who roughly matched up to our sinkerballers in ERA, IP & RSAA. I also checked them in the Neyer/James Guide to make sure none threw a sinker, even as a third or fourth option. Back to the chart:

No Sink1591253.5825092410113599920483014795211123-36-16

About what we'd expect. The sinkerballers pitched to contact more, with fewer homers, fewer strikeouts, fewer walks and more hits. The difference in the DH column underscores nicely the added singles from the sinker. Unfortunately, my theories on why sinkerballers were better than average in the DR column are shot down by the similar number from our no sink group.

Another chart:
No Sink3.580.498.640.732.875.30.27623.6%

It's interesting that the unearned runs are the same for both groups. Since most errors come on grounders, one would expect sinkerballers to have a higher UERA. Maybe the higher error rate is offset by the lower walk and home run rates, so opponents don't take advantage of errors as much.

UIBB is unintentional walks per 9 innings. (The sink group averaged 51 IBB v. 30 for the no sink group.) This is the biggest difference between the two, as sinkerballers walk 14% fewer batters than their counterparts.

BABIP, for those unfamiliar, is Batting Average on Balls In Play. This is yet another way of hammering home the point that sinkerballers allow more hits.

And the last column, TTO%, stands for the Three True Outcomes: strikeouts, walks and homers. These are all the times that the pitcher and batter solve things by themselves, without bringing all those pesky fielders into the matter. Sinkerballers have a TTO 10% less often, which equals a lot more balls in play.

I was initially surprised to see sinkerballers allow just 9% fewer home runs than their counterparts. But really, that's a nifty little difference. Remember, we're only looking at successful pitchers here, and it's awfully difficult to have a long, productive career if you're handing out gopherballs left and right. That sinker pitchers keep the ball in the park above and beyond already quite-good pitchers is rather impressive. If we could compare them to league average, the numbers would change quite a bit.

Well, we might as well do that. For each season since 1900, I got the league average for ERA, walks, strikeouts and home runs per inning off Baseball-Reference (note: I'm calculating AL and NL separately). Then for each player season, I compared his actual ERA, walks, home runs and strikeouts to the expected totals.

Quick example: in 2002, there were 0.122 home runs hit per inning. Derek Lowe pitched 219.7 innings, so we would expect him to give up 26.8 home runs. He actually surrendered 12, so he was 14.8 HR better than average.

Graph time!

(Note: these numbers are NOT park-adjusted. )

GroupER diffHR diffBB diffK diffERA+HR+BB+K+
No Sink-129-2-96+144113101111111

(The first four columns are again averages of all 52 players per group, for consistency with previous graphs. The last four columns are rate stats, with 100 as average. So 119 means 19% better than average and 95 means 5% worse than average.)

That's more telling. As you can see from the last four columns, the two groups were exactly as effective, but in very different ways. Our No Sink group is, in fact, pretty much average at preventing the longball. They get their fair share of strikeouts and do a good job of avoiding walks.

The sinkerballers, on the other hand, succeed in spite of not striking batters out. Their walk and home run rates are fantastic, much better than their counterparts'.

So what does this all mean? Well, it means that strikeout rate isn't all that important for sinkerballers. That's not to say they can get away with no K's, but a below average rate isn't all that disconcerting. I mean, these are essentially the 52 best sinkerballers ever. If they had this level of success--right in line with non-sinkerballers--with a below average K-rate, then maybe we shouldn't stress out so much over Wang's inability to miss bats.

Yes, Wang needs to up the strikeouts somewhat. But he doesn't need to get to Kevin Brown or Brandon Webb levels. He doesn't even need to get to average. He can still be a great pitcher without the K's.

Monday, August 07, 2006

PECOTA Does Wang

Part One: In which we set the stage

We're in the middle of discussing what will become of Chien-Ming Wang's career. A cursory examination of his profile reveals nothing definitive--and not much positive, to be honest.

Today we're putting aside our own biases and looking at a more objective examination of Wang's future. Nate Silver's PECOTA system is custom-made for the task. For those not familiar, PECOTA takes into account a player's age, height, weight, handedness, stats, what have you to find similar players in history, then sees how said players developed. Coming into this season, these were Wang's top twenty comparables:

1. Don August: Decent rookie season in 1988; fell off a cliff after that and was finished by 1991.

2. Rick Matula: Career lasted just a couple of seasons, neither of which are worth noting.

3. Zach Day: Former Yankee farmhand. Fringe major leaguer.

4. Kevin Brown: We’ll get back to him.

5. John Butcher: A few useful seasons mixed in with some clunkers.

6. Bob Forsch: I gotta be honest: this is the first I’ve heard of Forsch. Good career, though. Nearly 2800 innings of league average ball. Also won two Silver Slugger awards. Bonus.

7. Mike Krukow: Nearly 2200 innings of nearly league average ball.

8. Brian Lawrence: Never lived up to expectations in San Diego. Traded to Washington but had season-ending surgery in the spring.

9. Brandon Duckworth: Failed prospect. Wasn’t he shot while in the minors?

10. Bob Sadowski: 2.62 ERA as a rookie, out of the majors three years later.

11. Vicente Padilla: Regressed after early promise. Useful innings-eater in Texas right now.

12. John Denny: Won the Cy Young in 1983. Mediocre career otherwise.

13. John Burkett: Long, underwhelming career. Memorably pitched out of his mind for the Braves in 2001 at the age of 36.

14. Al Nipper: Another short, non-noteworthy career.

15. Randy O’Neal: More bleh.

16. John Dopson: Managed a 3-11 record as a rookie despite a 3.04 ERA. I’m going to guess injuries felled him.

17. Bob Anderson: We’re almost home, just a couple more.

18. Joey Hamilton: Rivaled Todd Stottlemyre with the constant injury woes. Peaked in his first two seasons anyway. This is worst-case scenarion right here.

19. Dick Bosman: 2.19 ERA as a 25-year-old, followed by a 3.00 ERA, then nothin’.

20. Derek Lowe: Up-and-down closer, then an up-and-down starter.

Outside of Kevin Brown, there isn’t much to be excited about. A few guys had long, useful careers, but no stars. Twelve of them never pitched 1,000 innings, though four of those twelve are still active.

Overall, the average career for Wang’s top twenty comparables was 71-64, 3.97 ERA, 1247 IP. Their age-26 average was 4.14 ERA in 147 IP, and after 26, they posted a 4.05 ERA in 799 IP. Wang, 26 this year, thus far has 156 IP with a 3.58 ERA.

Draw from that what you will. Certainly it doesn’t bode well for Wang, though his strong 2006 will hopefully draw him better comparables from PECOTA next season.

Aww, but we can’t leave off on that pessimistic note. I still need to get back to Kevin Brown. Here is his career through 26:

610 IP, 3.82 ERA, 614 H, 304 K, 228 BB, 42 HR

That’s right: Kevin Brown barely struck anyone out early in his career. It wasn’t until 1997, when he was 32, that the K’s started coming in spades. Something tells me Brian Cashman would be thrilled if Wang goes down this same path.

Could Yankee fans go from despising Brown to rooting for his clone? Is his career what Wang has ahead of him? Can Wang add the secondary pitches Brown used to dominate the league for so long?

Coming soon: Part Three, Fun with Sinkers

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Curious Case of Chien-Ming Wang

There was a recent discussion over at Baseball Think Factory regarding the nature of Chien-Ming Wang’s success thus far. His statistical line is quite improbable to date. Consider: of 90 pitchers in the majors who have enough innings to qualify, Wang is 90th in strikeout rate, 25th in walk rate, 1st in home run rate, and 3rd in groundball percentage.

The formula is obvious: groundballs and lots of ‘em. But Wang’s strikeout rate is so far below anyone else’s, it’s ridiculous. Is it sustainable?

Let’s go over Wang’s repertoire. He throws basically two pitches: a sinker sitting at 93-94 and touching 96, and a mediocre slider. Al Leiter stated recently that Wang throws 85% sinkers. Now, he may have simply pulled that number out of his ass, but since I get the impression Leiter charts pitches in the booth, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It certainly seems from watching Wang that he throws the sinker almost exclusively. In fact, I’d compare him to Tim Wakefield, in that he pounds opponents with one pitch continuously and only mixes in the occasional breaking ball for shits and giggles.

His pitch selection is why he gets so few strikeouts. Despite his sinker’s great velocity and nasty movement, hitters are able to make contact because they know it’s coming. That they still can’t make solid contact is a testament to how late his fastball breaks. Then again, Brandon Webb uses his sinker just as much as Wang, yet he has no problem missing bats. So who knows.

Steven Goldman also got into the Wang speculation this week, bringing up the “hit lucky” theory. There’s no doubt that his BABIP is better than average, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. The DIPS theory is widely misunderstood, as pitchers do have some control over the matter. Watching Wang pitch, it’s easy to see why he consistently induces weak groundballs. His BABIP, as Goldman showed, isn’t even all that out of whack either. So his current success in this department should be sustainable.

Is he stranding more runners than normal? The AL average strand rate, according to The Hardball Times, is 70%. Wang’s? 70%. Nothing screwy there either.

Which brings us back to the strikeouts. Despite what Jim Kaat may lead you to believe, pitching to contact is not next to godliness. Strikeouts are hugely important for a pitcher. Think back to the 2003 ALCS. In Game Seven, Mike Mussina came in to clean up Roger Clemens’s mess. With runners on first & third and nobody out, Mussina got a strikeout and a double play, and just that quickly the threat was killed. The key to it all was the strikeout. Had Mussina gotten the DP first, a run crosses the plate. Groundball pitchers get out of jams with minimal damage. Strikeout pitchers get out of jams with no damage.

We’re talking about that magical situation of runner on third with less than two outs. In such spots, batters are hitting a cool .356 off Wang with just 4 K in 45 AB, a rate slightly worse than his overall mark. Imagine what missing a few more bats would do for him here.

So will that come back to haunt Wang? Can he be a frontline pitcher as is?

Well, let’s see what history tells us. There have been a dozen pitchers since 1900 besides Wang who have (1) pitched at least 150 innings; (2) had a K/9 less than half the league average; (3) had a BB/9 at least 25% better than the league average; and (4) had an ERA at least 20% better than the league average:

  • Slim Sallee 1919
  • Sherry Smith 1924
  • Huck Betts 1932
  • Watty Clark 1935
  • Freddie Fitzsimmons 1938
  • Sam Zoldak 1948
  • Sandy Consuegra 1954
  • Steve Kline 1972
  • Randy Jones 1978
  • Bill Lee 1979
  • Ricky Bones 1994
  • Kirk Rueter 2002

Not a fantastic list. Most of them were also well into their 30s and almost done as ballplayers in these seasons. The only decent comps for Wang are Steve Kline and Ricky Bones.

Kline started his career with the Yankees promisingly enough. He increased his innings and decreased his ERA each of his first three years, culminating in the season listed above, when he went 16-9 with a 2.40 ERA in 236 innings as a 24-year-old. That was the last good year he had. The Yankees traded him less than two years later. Kline was out of the majors for two years after that before resurfacing unsuccessfully in the Braves’ bullpen in 1977. His career was over less than 200 innings after his great ’72 campaign.

Bones also pitched for the Yankees, albeit only briefly in 1996. He lasted 11 seasons in the majors, managing a better-than average ERA in just three of them: ’94, ’95 & ’98, the last of which as a middle reliever.

So that was uninspiring. What’s more disturbing is that there are no repeat names. That is to say, no one has ever succeeded in the same way Wang has more than once. Gulp.

Okay, well, we could argue that no other pitcher has ever truly been like Wang. How many pitchers throw a mid-90s sinker with precision? Now how many of them don’t get strikeouts? Nobody comes to mind.

Is there a reason for his success, then, other than a fluke? Perhaps there’s something intrinsic to Wang that makes him pitch better with men on base. This is, in fact, perfectly logical. We know pitchers make a mechanical change with men on—they go to the stretch. That some pitchers adjust better to this than others should be obvious.

Why might Wang more easily transition to pitching from the stretch? Well, he’s essentially a one-pitch pitcher. And if he’s unable to generate quite as much power, that could theoretically increase his sinking action. Sounds promising; I like it. Let’s go to the data:

  • Bases empty: .235/.284/.315; 7 HR in 631 AB
  • Runners on: .303/.354/.421; 10 HR in 399 AB

There goes that theory. Wang is considerably worse from the stretch, highlighted by a staggering 126% increase in his home run rate. Come to think of it, we should’ve realized this theory was a dead end from his strand rate.

Perhaps Wang is beating up on inferior hitters? The average AL batter is hitting .275/.340/.438 this year. The average line of the batters Wang faced: .269/.339/.434. That’s hardly worth mentioning.


Coming soon: Part Two, Wang & the Magical Pecota Machine


Melky just hit a solo shot in the fourth inning. I'm convinced he's going to be a better hitter than Robinson Cano.

In an unrelated note, is Sal Fasano the goofiest-looking runner in baseball? What's more, he just hit a groundrule double and looks winded standing on second. Poor guy.

Long post on Wang upcoming...


While enjoying a tasty Newcastle Brown Ale last night, I decided to start my own blog. It's partly to get out my thoughts on the Yankees (and baseball, in general), partly to have an outlet for my writing, and partly to subdue my hatred of the word 'blog.'

I have a folder of Excel spreadsheets sitting in My Documents. Over the coming weeks, I'll delve into it in an effort to write about all those things that at some point must've interested me. Obviously, the pennant race will be a hot topic, and maye I'll even present original research (or, more accurately, moderately stat-heavy ramblings).

Back with thoughts on Giambi and Wang after lunch.