January 2013

Pitching—in All the Wrong Places

In the era of multi-purpose stadiums in the 1970s and 1980s, it seems that there were more similarities across the spectrum of ballparks than there is today. In the post-new Comiskey era, which began with Camden Yards, we’ve brought quirkiness back to the ballpark. We may not have returned all the way back to Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds or the Baker Bowl, but today’s ballparks certainly don’t look alike. There are enough extreme characteristics in some of today’s parks to have a profound impact on players’ stats and careers.

The impact of parks on pitchers shows up several ways, but the most vivid is in the HRs a pitcher yields. Let’s look at two pitchers who have changed ballparks over the careers—moves which were beneficial to one and detrimental to the other. Aaron Harang began his big league career with Oakland, but then moved to Cincinnati, before he moved back to the west coast with San Diego and now the Dodgers. For right-handed (RHH) and left-handed hitters (LHH), the HR park factor for Cincinnati is 143 and 121, respectively (from Bill James Handbook—the average of the most recent 3 years). The index for Dodger Stadium is slightly above 100, while the other two ballparks Harang called home are well below 100, indicating they are pitcher-friendly, run (and HR) suppressing ballparks. Harang’s HR-rate as a Cincinnati Reds pitcher is 11.1% per flyball. His rate with the other 3 teams—all based in pitchers’ parks—is 7.5%. He clearly benefited by the move to San Diego and then LA. On the flip side we have Mat Latos, who has played for San Diego and Cincinnati. In San Diego, Latos notched a 7.9% HR/FB rate, while it soared to 11.8% in his first year as a Red. He mitigated the problem somewhat by being slightly less of a flyball pitcher in Cincy, but the leap in HRs is still a drag on his effectiveness.

There are four pitchers who standout to me as being mismatched with their home ballpark. Phil Hughes (NYY), Colby Lewis (TEX), Brian Matusz (BAL), and Rick Porcello (DET). Porcello has the reverse problem—and in a sense, it’s a smaller issue. He is an extreme groundball pitcher (approximately 90th percentile for 2012), but he pitches in a massive pitcher’s park, where flyballs will do far less damage than in a hitters park. So, what’s the problem, since the Tigers still benefit from his high groundball rate? First of all, not with that defense they don’t, but that’s another issue entirely. My point is that Porcello should have greater value pitching elsewhere, with a team that has a ballpark that penalizes flyballs, rather than a ballpark that is forgiving, like Comerica. Flyball pitchers like Colby Lewis and Brian Matusz would be far more effective in Oakland, Seattle, or any of the west coast parks, which tend to be more cavernous and/or where the ball will not carry as far.

Phil Hughes is a fascinating case study. I’ve always believed that Yankee Stadium was one of the worst venues for him to pitch. A right-handed flyball pitcher, pitching in a park that has a LHH HR index of 153—second only to Coors Field. The reason I list the LHH HR factor is because he will face more than 50% LHH. (Incidentally, Yankee Stadium has a RHH HR index of 102.) If you take a close look at peripheral stats such as K-rate, BB-rate, etc., you will see that Phil Hughes and Jered Weaver are very similar. There are two huge differences between the two. Weaver has perfected a change-up, which he uses extensively to LHH, keeping the ball away from them. The second difference is the ballpark. Weaver pitches perfectly to his ballpark, yielding flyball after flyball, many of which would be HRs in Yankee Stadium, which turn into outs in Anaheim. If Jered Weaver were to pitch regularly in Yankee Stadium, he would either need to alter his gameplan, or be relegated to a middle/back-of-the-rotation starter. If Phil Hughes were to pitch in San Diego, Seattle, or another of the west coast pitcher-friendly parks, he would likely be a bona fide number two starter and frequent All Star. Yes, the ballpark can make a big difference.

Hideki Matsui—One-of-a-Kind

Last week, former Yankee star Hideki Matsui announced his retirement from baseball. The 38-year old former Japanese star played in 34 games last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, hitting a weak .147, with an anemic .435 OPS. This followed a season each with the Angels and A’s, where he batted a collective .262, with a .756 OPS. Matsui started his career in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants, but after the 2002 season, at the age of 29, decided to sign with the Yankees—a bold move for Japan’s top HR hitter. He wasted no time making his mark on major league baseball and Yankee fans by hitting a grand slam in his first game in pinstripes, at old Yankee Stadium.

Over his seven year Yankee career, he averaged 20 HRs per season, batted .292 and logged an OPS of .852—23% above the league average OPS for those years. What fans will remember most about Matsui was his penchant for the big hit, capped off by his World Series MVP performance in 2009. He came to bat 36 times in the two World Series in which he appeared (2003 and 2009—his first and last years as a Yankee), but managed to hit 4 HRs. He batted .387 in the World Series and put up a remarkable 1.216 OPS. In fact, in 235 postseason plate appearances his OPS was .933.

For those of you who have been following this blog, you know about the work I’ve done in measuring a hitter’s performance against different quality levels of pitching. I’ve racked up the batter—pitcher matchup data (starting pitchers only) from 2009 through 2011 to see how hitters perform against the best pitching vs. the weakest pitching. This study was of particular interest to me because the quality of pitching is one of the most defining characteristics that differentiates the regular season from the postseason. The pitching is far better in the postseason. Nearly two-thirds of the postseason starting pitcher innings are thrown by the top one-third of regular season starting pitchers (as measured by their OPS against). Not surprisingly, Matsui has an uncanny ability to hit top pitching, which helps explain his postseason prowess.

Against the top two quintiles, the MLB average for a left-handed hitter is a .641 OPS. Matsui had 387 plate appearances against this group of pitchers over the 3-year period of my study and banged out a remarkable .830 OPS. Over that time period here’s his record (OPS) against some of the top pitchers—vs. David Price, 1.333; vs. Greinke, 1.267; vs. Josh Beckett, 1.032; vs. King Felix, .838; vs. Verlander, .778, vs. Halladay, .752. Matsui also had his nemesis, as  Jered Weaver held him to a puny .315 OPS in 27 career plate appearances. I take it that Matsui is not fond of the change-up from righthanders—a pitch Weaver is known to use extensively on left-handed hitters.

Another one of Matsui’s defining traits was his ability to handle left-handed pitching. He had very narrow platoon splits. Over his career he hit .831 against right-handers and .802 against lefties. One more thing I’ll remember about Hideki is the time he held a press conference to announce that he had gotten married. So instead of having his wife present at the event, or having a photo of his wife, he pulled one of the all-time great moves—he unveiled a drawing of his bride. Hideki Matsui, one-of-a-kind.

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