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.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are reportedly interested in dealing an outfielder to overcome a logjam. They’ve signed Cody Ross who will be added to a stacked outfield of Gerardo Parra, Justin Upton and Jason Kubel. They also have a couple of young, talented outfield prospects in the high minors. By shipping out an outfielder, they may be able to land a shortstop, or at least acquire a player that could be of greater value to them in the near term. For potential buyers, one question to be addressed is which is the preferred outfielder—Upton or Kubel? There are many considerations, including whether the team has a bias or need for a left-handed hitter versus a right-handed bat, based on their current lineup and ballpark. Let’s hold that issue off to the side and assume that the club considering a trade for an outfielder is neutral on that righty—lefty issue.
Another important consideration is the market value of the player relative to his salary obligation. Upton is due $38.5 million over the next three seasons, for an average annual value (AAV) of $12.8 million. Kubel is signed for $7.5 million in 2013, along with a team option for the same amount for 2014, with a buyout price of $1 million, should his team decline the option. Pricing in the free agent market is baseball’s version of the stock exchange—perhaps akin to a lightly traded NASDAQ stock. The lack of transactions, at least when compared to the stock market, make the market tougher to read, but the lack of liquidity is an important dynamic that needs to be factored into an assessment of the market for players.
To assess the market value of players, I’ve statistically modeled free agent market transactions—about 1,100 of them over the last decade. I analyze position players separately from pitchers, since the market values different attributes in each. For position players, the most important valuation criteria is the player’s historical win contribution—I use wins above replacement (WAR) from Fangraphs.com. My analysis suggests that players are paid based on a combination of their most recent WAR (in their “walk” year, immediately preceding their free agency) and their best WAR over the last four years. In case you’re asking why does their “best recent WAR” make sense as a driver of a player’s financial value? I didn’t say it “makes sense”, just that it does the best job of explaining historical salaries that players receive in the free agent market. Other factors include the player’s position, as each position on the diamond has a different “value”, with designated hitter being at the low end of the spectrum and shortstop at the high-value end. The player’s reliability, as measured by the variation in his games played over the last several years is another factor that figures into what teams pay. Age also impacts the player’s value, both in terms of his AAV and the length of his contract. Older players tend to get shorter deals, even if their recent performance is the same as a younger player. One additional factor to consider is a player’s defensive ability, as measured by his defensive runs saved.
My assessment of the market value of Justin Upton is approximately $15 million per year for 5 years. Coincidentally, this valuation is similar to the actual contract that brother, BJ Upton was given by the Atlanta Braves in late November. Justin is a better hitter with more consistent power and is three years younger than his brother. However, BJ has greater positional value as a capable (although by no means a standout) center fielder, while Justin is a corner outfielder. On the other hand, as Jason Kubel enters his age-32 season, he prices out at approximately $9 million per year for 3 years.
It’s interesting to see that by my estimates, Justin Upton has a slightly greater differential than Kubel between his salary and his market value, when you look at it on an annual basis. Justin’s annual value of $15 million and relative to his $12.8 million in salary, leaves a $2.2. million spread, while Kubel’s value of $9 million compared to his salary of $7.5 million has a $1.5 million spread. The differences in their performance starts with their defensive abilities, as Upton is clearly the better defender. Offensively, one of the biggest differences between the two players is their strikeout rate. Kubel went down on strikes over 26% of his at bats in 2012, while Upton’s rate was 19%. This 7% differential means that over 600 at-bats, Upton will put the ball in play about 40 additional times, while Kubel goes down on strikes. Upton may also have greater upside due to his age, as he is just entering his prime.
In the end, the player demanded by a Diamondbacks’ trade partner may be determined by the amount of salary space the team has remaining in their budget. Kubel becomes the “value play”, while Upton is the higher risk (based on higher salary and longer term commitment) with a potentially higher reward. If often makes sense to look at the obligated costs of any signing. A team that acquires Kubel could spend as little as $8.5 million for a one-year commitment (which includes a 2013 salary of $7.5 million and a $1 million buyout for 2014), while Upton will cost a full $38.5 million over the next three years. If managing risk is the acquiring team’s goal, then Kubel may be their preferred choice.
Josh Hamilton is headed to Anaheim with his power left-handed bat. Let’s take a look at the motivation behind the Angels move and assess how he might fare in Orange County—or LA, as the Angels prefer to call it. On the positive side, the Angels get a double-hit by not only signing a top player, but stealing one from a division rival. It’s reminiscent of when the Yankees signed Johnny Damon away from the Red Sox and the Mets signed Billy Wagner, the former Phillie, both after the 2005 seasons. The Hamilton signing is a bigger, higher impact version of this effect. In terms of star power, this signing also helps the Angels battle the Dodgers for baseball supremacy in Southern California. Putting a contending team on the field and winning championships will likely ultimately determine which team is embraced by the most fans, but the star talent on each roster will also matter. The Angels add Hamilton to Trout, Pujols, Jered Weaver and company, enabling them to go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers’ marquee talent—Kemp, Kershaw, Greinke and Adrian Gonzalez.
A couple of things to recognize about Hamilton. First, he played in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks for lefty hitters. The Ballpark at Arlington ranked 3rd in terms of the park factor for left-handed hitter home runs, while Angels Stadium in Anaheim ranks 23rd. Considering the 2013 schedules for both the Rangers and the Angels and the parks in which they play, Hamilton will play to a park factor that suggests about 20% less homeruns, than if he remained a Ranger. Another issue, which is perhaps more concerning, is Josh Hamilton’s track record against top-flight pitching. In a recent study, I segmented all starting pitchers into different levels of “quality”, based on the OPS they yielded over a season. I defined “top” pitching as the top 1/3 and “bottom” pitching as the bottom 1/3 of starting pitchers. (I controlled for the lefty-righty factor and I rated pitchers for each season in the study—2009, 2010, and 2011.) The average left-handed hitter has a spread of 182 OPS points in his stats against “top” vs. “bottom” pitching. In other words, a .732 OPS guy (MLB-wide average against starting pitchers) is expected to hit .641 against top pitching and .823 against the bottom third of starters. Josh Hamilton’s spread is far more dramatic. Instead of a spread of 182 points, his is 433 points (see chart below, from MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential).
Hamilton hit .721 against top pitchers, while banging out an OPS of 1.154 against the weakest pitchers. He performed only 12% above the MLB average against top pitchers, but a bone-crushing 40% above league average against the weakest third of the rotation. This suggests that Hamilton, who was a .909 OPS guy over these three seasons, feasts on weak pitching, but is neutralized by top pitching. Incidentally, this is a consistent pattern over the three years in our sample. Even in Hamilton’s MVP season of 2010, when he batted .359 with a 1.014 OPS, he exhibited the same pattern of hitting. In his MVP year he hit under .800 vs. top pitchers and over 1.200 against weak pitchers for another 400+ point spread. This has serious implications for the postseason, since the mix of pitching in the postseason closely resembles what we call the “top” pitchers. These pitchers represent one-third of regular season innings, but over 60% of postseason innings. Hitters who do not fare well against top pitchers are not as likely to get it done in October. Given the quality of the Angels’ roster, we may have a chance to see how this movie ends over the next several Octobers.
In April, the Astros make their big move from the NL Central to the AL West. Except for Astros fans, most view the change as a footnote to the 2013 MLB schedule. I see this as a change that can have a profound effect on the competitive landscape in the AL. Houston is not just a “typical” team. In 2012 they were baseball’s worst team at 55 wins. Given the mindset of their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, entering his second year in the job, I would expect the Astros to get worse before they get better. Jeff has been keenly aware of need to deal his bonafide major league contributors to acquire young talent. The goal is not to always have the best players you can assemble, but rather to have enough good players in a window of time to contend for the postseason or a championship. When a 55-win team has a player (or two) that has value to another team, the only sensible move is to deal the player for future prospects—like the Wandy Rodriguez trade in the middle of last season. This translates into a weaker major league roster and less wins today, in exchange for the promise of more wins tomorrow. The talent gap between the Astros and the rest of baseball is already huge and expected to grow in the short term. For perspective on Houston’s deficiencies last season, they logged a .654 OPS against left-handed pitching, while the Cardinals and the Yankees pounded an .835 OPS and an .802 OPS, respectively. This season their offense should be buoyed somewhat by the addition of a designated hitter, but they will also play more of their games in pitcher friendly parks in the AL West.
The net result—the 2013 Astros will be playing against tougher competition in the AL West (and against the AL in general), and they should be a somewhat inferior team to the one that won 55 games in 2012. Combine that likelihood with the unbalanced schedule against two playoff teams—Texas and Oakland—and a playoff contender, the Angels, and the prospects for the 2013 Astros is bearish. If they 110 to 115 games, they will sprinkle their losses around the AL Central and AL East, but they will deliver them in bulk to the AL West. They will play 72 games against the A’s, Rangers, Angels and Mariners—18 against each. The net result could be 4 or 6 additional wins each for the four AL West teams, based on the difference between playing the Astros versus a broad mix of AL teams. These additional wins could deliver three teams from the AL West into the playoffs.
Houston’s transition to the AL has serious implications for the AL East. With the win totals for the top three AL West teams likely to rise, the AL East may be sending only the division winner to the postseason. Historically, two AL East teams would be among the four AL clubs in the playoffs. With last year’s expanded wild card, AL East teams had visions of three clubs making the postseason. That seems far less likely today because Houston will give more gifts to the AL West. The offseason has a long way to go, but by April, we may be picking the A’s, Angels and Rangers as playoff favorites, while cautioning the AL East that winning the division may be the only path to October.
I’m not advocating trading Alex Rodriguez because his skills may have diminished. I’m not convinced his poor showing late in the regular season and the playoffs is indicative of his new baseline level of performance, resulting from an irreversible decline in his skills. Didn’t we learn our lesson with Derek Jeter? At points during the second-half of 2010 and the first-half of 2011, there was convincing talk that we were witnessing the sunset of Jeter’s glorious career. Those perceptions proved to be wrong. Since the day Jeter registered his 3000th hit in 2011, through the end of the 2012 season—his last 224 games—he tallied an .806 OPS. This strong performance immediately followed a 145-game stretch when Jeter logged a puny .657 OPS. In the 2012 season, A-Rod posted an .806 OPS in 94 games before his hand injury. After he missed six weeks of action he returned for 28 regular season games and performed at a .710 OPS level. While his post-injury (including postseason) performance was clearly disappointing, it is far from a referendum on his future.
I’m advocating trading Alex Rodriguez because it makes financial sense for the Yankees and gives them the flexibility they need to maintain a championship caliber team over the next several years. Aside from the debate around the expectations of A-Rod’s future performance, he has five years and $114 million in salary remaining on his contract. In addition, he is entitled to a potential $30 million in milestone bonuses for achieving various historic home run totals, beginning with his 660th HR (he currently sits at 647). While this is what A-Rod is owed, it does not fully reflect the true cost to the Yankees. Let’s acknowledge that the Yankees will likely be in a 40% or even 50% luxury tax bracket for the life of Rodriguez’s contract. This means they may end up paying out over $200 million for the remaining 5 years of his deal, including the marketing incentives for achieving his milestone HRs. The Yankees seem to have an aspiration to duck under the luxury tax threshold for at least one year—and for good reason. Doing so would put significant dollars in their pockets. Not only would they save money by not paying the maximum luxury tax rate, they would also reset their future tax rate to a modest 17½% , should they exceed the luxury tax threshold in a subsequent year. In addition, if a team is below the luxury tax threshold, they are entitled to additional shared revenues from MLB. Shedding A-Rod’s salary and marketing incentive obligations could be the key to allowing the Yankees to get below the luxury tax threshold in 2014, when it escalates to $189 million.
There are two ways the Yankees could attempt to deal A-Rod. One approach is to eat a modest amount of his future compensation. Perhaps if the Yankees pay $50 million—the equivalent of $10 million per year—of his remaining $114 million in salary, they might generate interest from a few MLB teams. This would allow them to ship A-Rod to another club with a $13 million per year salary obligation, plus the possibility of another $30 million in incentives for historic HRs. Under this scenario, New York would likely not command much in return, in the form of players or prospects, but they would reduce their $27.5 million (plus any incentives they payout) annual charge against their luxury tax threshold to $10 million per year. This gives them a fighting chance to get underneath the $189 million annual payroll, or at least redeploy the payroll dollars more efficiently towards more productive assets.
The second approach is more aggressive—a scenario where the Yankees eat more of A-Rod’s compensation, say $15 million per year, but position themselves to acquire a highly ranked prospect in return. If they leave their trade partner with a more manageable $8 million per year salary obligation, plus the potential incentives, they should also be able to acquire a top prospect or a young, high ceiling player with less than a year or two of service time. This could further aid their attempt to get under the luxury tax threshold—adding an inexpensive, but productive player. Regardless of the Yankees trade strategy, A-Rod would need to approve any deal, which will not be easy to accomplish. Rodriguez would perceive any exit from New York as a personal embarrassment, which is an important consideration for someone who seems highly concerned about other people’s perceptions. The Yankees would need to convince A-Rod that life will be even more miserable if he stayed, than if he left. The Yankees’ treatment of A-Rod during the playoffs helps their cause in this regard. They certainly showed they are capable of embarrassing him. The right trade partner may help sway A-Rod. Perhaps a small, home run-oriented ballpark that increases the likelihood that Alex reaches his HR milestones and hence, baseball immortality, will raise the appeal a trade scenario.
Bottom line—this is more about an arbitrage opportunity on the luxury tax threshold, than it is about Alex’s talent level. A-Rod is an asset that might cost the Yankees $200 million over the next 5 years—a staggering $40 million per year—plus the opportunity cost of sharing in additional revenues and lowering their luxury tax rate in future years. The same A-Rod would cost another team between $40 million and $70 million less—the equivalent of the Yankee luxury tax payments. This equation means the Yankees should be willing to pay a chunk of dollars to subsidize A-Rod’s cost to another team. There seems to be plenty of room to create a win-win scenario for the Yankees and a trade partner. It’s making the equation work for Alex that’s the tough part, but the Yankees have done a nice job of laying the groundwork.
In a recent post I discussed my analysis of the why some hitters bring their “A” game into the postseason, while others seem to take it down a notch or two. My analysis does not deal with a player’s makeup or psyche, or how they handle pressure, nor does it have anything whatsoever to do with the topic of clutch performances. I’m coming at this from a different angle, with a data-based look at how hitters perform against different strata of pitching quality. The reason this analysis may have implications for a hitters’ postseason performance is the quality of pitchers in the postseason differs (by a lot) from regular season pitching. My hypothesis is simple—hitters who have a track record against top pitchers will survive or even thrive in the postseason, while those who are systematically beaten down by top pitchers will have a tough time shining in October.
On average, hitters follow a pattern—they perform at their average level versus “average” pitching, better against “weak” pitching, and worse against “top” pitching. Using OPS as a calibration point, hitters hit about 80 to 100 points lower against the top one-third of starting pitchers and about 80 to 100 points higher against the bottom 33%, on average. Not everyone follows the same pattern. Some are particularly effective against top pitchers and hit only marginally better against weak pitching. Others have the opposite profile—they exploit weak pitching, while being stifled by top pitching. Alex Rodriguez profiles in the latter group. Because postseason pitching tends to be comprised of more top tier pitchers, (see my previous post) we can expect players like A-Rod to produce at a lower level during the postseason.
Let’s start by looking at Alex Rodriguez’s regular season hitting versus different quality levels of pitching. I created an index of a player’s OPS relative to the MLB average, against top pitching and weak pitching. If a player indexes above 100 he performs relatively better against top pitching; if he indexes below 100, he performs relatively worse against top pitching. A-Rod indexes at 92, while Derek Jeter indexes at 114. Mark Teixeira, who has also had his postseason struggles indexes at 94, while Robinson Cano comes in at 109. For perspective, one of the highest indexes for any player currently in the postseason is Carlos Beltran, who scores a 121 on this measure. Is it a coincidence that Carlos Beltran crushes high quality pitching—in 115 postseason plate appearances he has a 1.297 OPS? Several other marquee players currently in the postseason are listed below:
Let’s compare Jeter and A-Rod’s actual postseason performance over their career. We can’t simply look at all regular season stats vs. postseason stats, since a player may have reached the postseason in his best or worst hitting seasons. Instead, I weighted the player’s regular season OPS based on the number of plate appearances in each year they reached the playoffs. This gives us more of an apples-to-apples comparison. For his career (prior to this postseason), A-Rod have a blended average .945 OPS for the regular season and an .884 OPS in the postseason—a downgrade of 61 points. Conversely, Jeter’s regular season numbers are .830, with a postseason OPS of .839. Here’s an instance where the actual performance, over a 15-year career, supports the analysis of who succeeds in the playoffs.
Over the course of a postseason a player may have a hot or cold streak, so the small sample size means this framework may not translate in the short run. A-Rod proved that with his 2009 postseason as he carried the Yankees to a World Championship. Nonetheless, the approach of determining whether or not a hitter crushes (or flounders) against top pitching may provide a window into their postseason performances.
A week or so ago, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote a piece about SABR Geeks Sabatoging Cy Young and MVP Races. (Incidentally, Bill is a long-time SABR member.) His main concern is that new age stats may interfere with granting the awards to his choice of deserving candidates, namely R.A. Dickey for the NL Cy Young award and Miguel Cabrera for the AL MVP. The “R” in SABR stands for research and implies a level of objectivity and analysis. While it is true the some in the SABR community tend toward the numbers, there is at least an equally strong group at SABR who worship the history of the game and past precedent. Not all SABR people would agree on who the Cy Young and MVP winners should be, but we love to debate the merits of case for the various candidates.
Personally, I prefer to view a player’s accomplishments in context. In my mind, there are five historic season-performances for 2012. In order of achievement, I would rank them as follows:
- Mike Trout—he had one of the great seasons in modern times. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR (wins above replacement) stat, only 3 players produced a better season in the last 40 years–Barry Bonds (2001, 2002), Cal Ripken (1991), and Joe Morgan (1975). What makes Trout even more extraordinary is he accomplished this in his age-20 season–an age when most would be major leaguers, including future Hall of Famers, are toiling in the low minor leagues.
- Bryce Harper—while Harper’s season was overshadowed by Trout’s accomplishments, no 19 year old in history, not even Mel Ott, accomplished what Harper did this year. According to the same WAR stat, Harper generated 35% more all-around production (offense, defense, baserunning) than Ott’s 1928 season. Offensively, one would need to give the edge to Ott, and perhaps Tony Conigliaro’s 1964 season, but still not bad—the 3rd greatest offensive season by a teenager in the last 90 years.
- Craig Kimbrel—last season’s NL Rookie of the Year has outdone himself in his sophomore season, by striking out more than 50% of the batters he’s faced—an all-time record. In 62.2 innings pitched, he K’d 116 of the 231 batters he faced, while allowing only 27 hits. His dominance over hitters resembled Eric Gagne’s Cy Young year with the 2003 Dodgers, when Gagne K’d 45% of the hitters he faced.
- Miguel Cabrera—winning the Triple Crown, which no one has done since 1967 is a tremendous feat. The stars were aligned for Cabrera this year as he registered a lower OPS than either of the last two years, but managed to lead the AL in the three triple crown categories. Notwithstanding, there’s no knocking a .999 OPS, 44 HR’s and 139 RBI.
- Derek Jeter—his accomplishments in 2012, much like Bryce Harper’s are noteworthy in the context of his age. Jeter recorded the most hits in any age-38 season in baseball history, with 216, topping Pete Rose’s 208. Only Paul Molitor’s 225 hits in his age-39 season top Jeter’s in the over-37 crowd. Making it more historic is that Jeter accomplished this offensive feat while playing the demanding shortstop position and leading the major leagues in plate appearances, all very impressive for a 38-year old.
Bill Madden is not alone in thinking that an historic accomplishment such as a triple crown should automatically translate into an MVP award, making Cabrera’s season the most misunderstood of the five great 2012 season-performances. As we learn more about baseball through the analysis of data, we recognize that batting average and RBI’s—two of the 3 triple crown categories—are not particularly informative in describing a hitter’s contribution to his team’s performance. The single most important thing a hitter can do is to avoid making one of the 27 precious outs in a game, which suggests a revised triple crown to include on-base-percentage, rather than batting average would make for a more informative measure. Runs-batted-in are even more suspect (than batting average) in judging a player’s offensive contribution and are largely dependent on the teammates around the player in question. A high RBI total are often the result of an abundance of RBI opportunities. Perhaps slugging percentage, instead of RBI, would focus the triple crown on measures that a hitter can control.
Another matter working against Miguel Cabrera’s candidacy for the MVP award is that the triple crown ignores defense and baserunning, focusing only on hitting. Given the length of time the triple crown has been around and the state of defensive measures back then (i.e., fielding percentage), it’s no surprise that fielding is not included. In recent years, new statistics have illuminated the value of fielding and helped rate and rank fielder defensive performance. Trout (along with Michael Bourn) is among the top center fielders in all of baseball, while Cabrera is kindly referred to as a below average fielder. If we were talking about a “player of the year” award, I would expect Trout to run away with the designation. Since we are talking about a most “valuable” award, many will consider that Cabrera’s Tigers reached the postseason, while Trout’s Angel’s fell short—perhaps because they called him up to the big leagues too late. I believe there is a case for MVP for both players, but I would easily favor Trout, while appreciating the case for Cabrera.
In expressing his concern over the NL Cy Young award, Bill Madden does not declare the reason for his fear that Dickey may not win the favor of the SABR crowd. I would expect the statistically-minded to rank Dickey high on their candidate list. If we evaluate a starting pitcher based on the things we ask him to accomplish—efficiently prevent runs—then R. A. Dickey ranks atop the list of candidates, along with Clayton Kershaw. I expect Dickey’s W-L record advantage will serve as the tiebreaker versus Kershaw. The one legitimate fear Dickey (or Madden) should have is the historic season by Craig Kimbrel. He will certainly (and deservedly) secure his share of votes. In fact, in the absence of Dickey’s outstanding season, I would expect Kimbrel to win it, but the voter’s bias toward a starting pitcher should be enough to give Dickey this year’s NL Cy Young. As we contemplate and celebrate the postseason awards for the next 6 weeks, let’s not forget to cherish this year’s performances of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel, Miguel Cabrera, and Derek Jeter. They made this summer a lot more fun.
There are a several reasons why a hitter’s postseason performance can differ from their season long track record. Of course the small sample size of any 10 to 20 game stretch can generate random results around a player’s “talent level”. Perhaps the pressure of the postseason effects each player in a different way, inhibiting the performance of some, more than others. But there’s an additional factor that might contribute to a hitter’s postseason batting performance—one which can be quantified and may even have some predictive value. It starts with the question, “what’s different about the postseason” and “how does each hitter perform in the postseason environment?” One of the biggest differences about the postseason is the quality of pitching. Better pitchers take the mound in the postseason for two reasons. Playoffs teams simply have better than league average pitching, which is one of the reasons they reach the postseason. In addition, the layout of the postseason schedule allows managers to deploy their pitching very differently than the 162-game regular season. Fifth starters are dropped from the rotation. Fourth starters are used sparingly. Closers are often brought into the game in the 8th inning and top relievers are asked to pitch back-to-back-to-back days. A good example is the way in which the Yankees deployed their pitching in the 2009 postseason, on their way to a World Championship. The Yankees top 3 starting pitchers that year—Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte—logged 61% of the team’s regular season starts, but 100% of their postseason starts. Adding in their top two relief pitchers (Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes) in 2009, their top 5 pitchers combined to register 54% of the team’s regular season innings, but 81% of the postseason innings. (The same is not true of hitters. The manager has virtually no flexibility to deploy batters more strategically. A top hitter will log 11% (give or take) of a team’s regular season plate appearances and do the same in the postseason.)
I analyzed the distribution of pitching over a 3-year period, with the ultimate goal of quantifying who pitches—or more accurately, what quality level pitches—in the postseason. I limited my study to starting pitchers, classifying them into 5 tiers (quintiles) of quality. Those which had the lowest opponent OPS (we’ll call it OPSa for OPS against), were in the top quintile, representing the top 20% of starting pitchers. The next 20% in OPSa were consider the 2nd quintile and so on, with the worst 20% representing the 5th quintile. The top pitchers (Q1 on the graph below) averaged a .612 OPSa, the second best quintile averaged .676 OPSa and the 5th (worst) quintile averaged .854 OPSa—that’s right, the worst 20% of starting pitchers logged an opponent OPS over .850. I controlled for the lefty-righty factor by defining a pitcher’s quintile against LHH and RHH, separately. For example, it’s not enough to say that David Price is a top quintile pitcher. We need to distinguish between his performance vs. LHH (top quintile in 2011) and vs. RHH (2nd quintile in 2011). Below is a graph that depicts the way in which a pitcher’s OPSa differs for each quintile.
I then turned my attention to postseason starting pitchers to determine how many innings came from each of the five quintiles. Over the three-year period examined, about 37% of the postseason games started came from the top quintile and another 28% came from the 2nd quintile, with only 7% coming from the worst quintile. In other words, nearly 2/3 of all postseason starts came from the top 40% of starting pitchers. News flash—the pitching is better in the postseason. We knew that, but now I’ve quantified it. If we added relievers to our analysis, I would expect we would see an even greater quality skew in the postseason as managers opportunistically find a way to put their best relievers on the mound in the many high leverage situations they face.
Now that we’ve established who pitches in the postseason, let’s turn our attention back to the question I posed—which hitters are likely to be successful in the postseason. To answer this question, I measured how each hitter fared against the 5 quality quintiles of pitchers, then translated that performance into the postseason, based on the different mix of pitchers. Some hitters do proportionately well against each quality level of pitching, others feast on poor pitching, while being stifled by top pitching—we’ll call them the “Exploiters”, because they exploit weak pitching. Finally, there are hitters who hit disproportionately well against top pitching, but only a little better against weak pitching—we’ll call them the “Money Players.” The graph below overlays the Money Players and Exploiters on the graph with the MLB average. The line for the Exploiters is steeper, while the line for the Money Players is flatter than the league average.
The data for two current Yankees makes them prime examples of the two types of hitters. Derek Jeter’s hitting pattern tends to follow the profile of the Money Player. He has a lot of success against the best pitchers and hits only marginally better against the weakest pitchers. On the other hand, Alex Rodriguez performance against various types of pitching resembles the Exploiter. A-rod tends to suffer against top pitching, while seriously outperforming the MLB average against weak pitching. Of course this is all relative, because he is a better than league-average hitter, so let me put this in perspective. A-Rod out hits the league average against top pitching by about 15%, but he beats the league average for the worst pitching by about 35%. Think of it this way: If all of MLB’s pitching was the top 2 quintiles—in other words, the bottom 60% of starting pitching evaporated—Alex might not be a star. Conversely, if that scenario played out, I would expect Jeter to be even more of a hitting star than he is today.
In fact, the scenario I just described—a league dominated by the top 2 tiers of pitching—sounds a lot like the league we call the playoffs. By profiling each hitter against different quality levels of pitching, we can create an expectation about how they might perform in the postseason. Of course in the short run, with a small sample size of any one playoff year, the results can vary widely, nor does this approach directly consider a player’s “makeup” or inform us as to how he deals with high pressure situations. Nonetheless, since pitching is better in October, we should expect every hitter to have some degradation over their regular season hitting performance. (Remember, 65% of postseason starting pitching comes from the best two quintiles of pitchers and only 7% of from the worst (5th) quintile.) But simply put, a player who hits well against really good pitching—the Money Players, like Derek Jeter—should perform relatively better than other players in the postseason. Conversely, players who struggle against top pitching—the Exploiters, like Alex Rodriguez—should perform relatively worse in the postseason.
Using this analysis, let’s project both Jeter’s and A-Rod’s postseason performance. They currently have nearly an identical OPS for this season—.800. Based on our analysis I expect Jeter would bat .775 in the postseason, while A-Rod would hit .740. In other words, Jeter would degrade only 25 percentage points from his regular season performance, but A-Rod would decline 60 points. This is certainly not a fool proof projection framework, but it is another way to evaluate a player’s likelihood of performing in the postseason, by basing it on how he fares against different quality levels of pitching, acknowledging that he will see mostly the best pitchers in October. As we get into the playoffs, we’ll take a look at some of the key players and create a projection based on this methodology.
I’ve always been fascinated with pitching. I’m not sure why, but I love to analyze pitching, including talking to scouts about it and making it one focus of my research and analysis. In past posts I’ve referred to my Starting Pitcher Rating System and Rankings. I developed this metric over the past two years in response to my dissatisfaction with the way in which existing stats measured a starting pitcher’s contribution to his team. Many traditional baseball stats tend to measure things in a vacuum, often missing the important interactions, such as the impact of the quality of the opponent on a player’s performance. Our traditional stats may be adequate (in some cases) to record and measure a player’s performance, but in their raw form are a poor indicator of his talent or skill. One reason is that traditional baseball stats typically measure the outcome of the batter—pitcher matchup, giving little consideration to the skills or attributes of the two parties. I’m not only interested in the outcomes, but also how the batter or pitcher got to that outcome—the process measures.
In developing my Starting Pitcher Rating System (SPR), I started with the definition of what baseball people value from a starting pitcher, with the ultimate goal of efficiently preventing runs. I looked at the things we ask a starting pitcher to do to accomplish that goal and categorized them as to whether they are focused on minimizing runs allowed, or getting outs efficiently.
It begins with outcome measures—the end result of the batter-pitcher matchup—that the pitcher controls: K-rate, BB-rate and HR-rate—the components of Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). It also includes process measures–things over which the pitcher has some control that happen during the plate appearance: his swing and miss rate, the frequency with which he throws strikes, and his fastball velocity. Beyond these measures, there are four key metrics to capture the following aspects of a pitcher’s performance:
- It explicitly values groundballs over flyballs
- It values pitching deep into games, based on its affect on a team’s bullpen usage
- It gives starting pitchers credit for narrow platoon splits
- It adjusts for the quality of the opposition
Valuing Groundballs vs. Flyballs—While batting average on groundballs is slightly higher (.234) than average on flyballs (.219), slugging percentage on flyballs is significantly higher (.580 vs. .253 for groundballs). As a result, flyballs generate runs at a rate 2.5 times greater than groundballs. If an extreme groundball pitcher (e.g., Trevor Cahill of the Diamondbacks) and an extreme flyball pitcher (e.g., Colby Lewis of the Rangers), pitched equally effectively with the only difference being their batted ball tendencies, Lewis would yield 12% more runs and have a .030 higher OPS against, over the course of a season.
Pitching Deep into Games—In a recent study, I quantified the value of pitching deep into games, by analyzing the quality of relievers that typically pitch each relief inning–from innings 5 thru 9. The average OPS against relievers who pitch the 5th and 6th innings are .790 and .760, respectively. Relievers who cover the 8th and 9th innings have an OPS against of .690 and .670, respectively. The difference between starters who are “horses” and go deep into games vs. those who don’t is the the number of games they force their team’s bullpen to cover portions of the 5th, 6th, and 7th innings. Starting pitchers who fail to go deep into games, force the team to employ their weakest arms. Also, by adding bullpen innings, they reduce their manager’s flexibility in deploying the optimal reliever at key high leverage points during the game.
Narrow Platoon Splits—One of the key differentiators of a starting pitcher (versus a reliever) is the ability to pitch effectively to both righty and lefty hitters. Lefty relief specialist Clay Rapada of the Yankees is a good example of a pitcher who does not effectively pitch to both lefty and righty batters. He has a stellar career OPS against lefties of .502, but yields a 1.043 OPS vs. right-handed batters. Effective starting pitchers don’t have 500+ point differentials in their splits. The average difference in OPS splits for the top 140 starting pitchers (which includes teams’ 4th and 5th starters) is 109 points.
Quality of Opposition Adjustment—The array of teams a starting pitcher faces often gets overlooked when judging his performance. For example in 2011, CJ Wilson started 34 games. Fourteen of his starts were against teams in MLB’s lowest offensive quartile (as measured by OPS). Conversely, Toronto’s Ricky Romero had one of the toughest schedules of any starting pitcher, facing 1st and 2nd quartile opponents in nearly 70% of his starts. The SPR includes an adjustment to each starting pitcher’s stats to reflect the quality of the opponents he faced.
The top 20 starting pitchers for this season (through 9/2) are listed below:
According to the SPR, if the season ended on 9/2, King Felix would be the choice for the AL Cy Young award. The NL is much closer with RA Dickey having a slight lead over Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels. Undoubtedly some will be surprised at the ranking of both CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in the top 5 starting pitchers this season. Regarding Sabathia, his last two starts (which are not included in this ranking) will clearly lower his rank and likely drop him out of the top 10. Cliff Lee is another story entirely. Despite his 4-7 record, it’s difficult to not give him accolades for another tremendous year on the mound. He excels at nearly everything we want a starting pitcher to do. He strikes out 6.5 times as many batters as he walks. He pounds the strike zone, throwing the highest percentage of strikes of any starting pitcher. In fact, he throws first pitch strikes to 71% of the batters he faces. His efficiency allows him to go deep into his starts. Only King Felix and Verlander have more innings pitched per start. I hold no illusions that Cliff Lee will win this year’s NL Cy Young, but it’s easy to make the case that he is not pitching poorly this season.
Another pitcher that scores consistently high in the SPR is James Shields. It’s probably a main reason I have come to regard Shields as one of the very best pitchers in baseball. On MLB Network I’ve raved about Shields as the leader of the best pitching staff in MLB. Last year he was ranked behind only Justin Verlander as the #2 pitcher in the AL. Despite having an “off year” this season, he ranks #13. There will be more on the SPR in future posts.