Think you know baseball? No, you don’t
In all 30 major league stadiums, a set of unobtrusive cameras captures every bit of minutiae in all 2,430 regular-season games. They measure the exact speed, spin, and break of every pitch thrown. If a pitcher happened to load a ball with a fresh chestnut of phlegm, somebody surely would crunch the data and unveil the ultimate statistic: Loogies Above Replacement.
Baseball has fast become a world of objectivity and facts, and they’re mother’s milk for the inner nerd in each of us. (Don’t deny it. You can loathe the statistical revolution until your head hurts, and the protractor people are still going to win.)
Because, damn, the information can be cool. This is the second year I’m writing the 25 Things You Didn’t Know About Baseball column, and it could easily be 50 things, or 100, or 1,000. Even if the stuff the übergeeks at FanGraphs unveil on a daily basis doesn’t blow your mind, it makes you think. And for those open-minded enough to embrace this new way of viewing a sport so rooted in tradition, it can be a liberating accompaniment to the joy already derived from dissecting the game.
So come on in. Guarantee you’ll learn a thing or two. Or 25.
Nothing like taking a scythe to a sacred cow right off the bat. The same numbers that two years ago allowed us to show just how unclutch Alex Rodriguez had been prove the very same thing about Jeter.
A metric called Win Probability Added (WPA) goes plate appearance by plate appearance to see just how much a player helped or hurt his team’s chance of winning. Value is added for big plays at crucial moments. The numbers, good and bad, are added to make a composite. FanGraphs also calculates WPA/LI, which makes each plate appearance leverage neutral – meaning it puts every situation on an equal plane – and pops out a number. WPA minus WPA/LI gives you a good idea how much better a player produced in situations that added to his team’s chances of winning. The higher the number, the better.
Well, the last time Jeter’s total was in the positive was 2006. This year, he’s barely negative: minus-.09, according to FanGraphs’ Clutch score. In 2009, he was minus-.85, the year before that minus-.28 and minus-.17 prior to that.
Until this year, Jeter at least had produced in spite of his not-so-clutch hitting. This season has been a mess. And it’s easy to see why: Jeter can’t drive the ball anymore. He is hitting ground balls on 65.8 percent of his at-bats, far and away the most in the major leagues, with Elvis Andrus(notes) second at 60.4 percent. It’s the highest total in the majors since Luis Castillo(notes) slapped his way to 66.7 percent in 2007.
2. The best cut fastball in baseball last year is the second worst this year.
Amazingly, Scott Feldman’s(notes) cutter was better than even Mariano Rivera’s(notes) last season. FanGraphs uses the data captured by PitchF/X cameras to pinpoint every pitch thrown, then assigns a value to each pitch, depending on what it does with the count or when put in play. And Feldman’s cutter was worth 23.7 runs above average, nearly four more than Rivera’s and the most in the major leagues.
But Feldman has been an utter wreck – and cutter wreck – this year. Of the 110 pitchers who have thrown at least one cutter, his 11.9 runs below average ranks 109th. Rivera is back on top with 16.9 runs above average, though that is slightly misleading since he throws so many cutters. The most efficient cutter is San Diego reliever Mike Adams’.(notes) His is 3.36 runs above average per 100, compared to Rivera’s 2.5 runs.
Not since 1924 has a hitter posted a higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP) than the Detroit Tigers rookie center fielder’s .413. The league-average BABIP this year is .298, and not even Jackson’s tremendous 24.8 percent line-drive rate – second in the big leagues behind James Loney’s(notes) 26 percent – can explain the otherworldly number. A quick-and-dirty expected BABIP is calculated by adding 12 percent to the line-drive rate, putting Jackson’s around .368. Where he found the extra 45 points is anyone’s guess, and the easiest one is: pure, blind luck.
BABIP is a controversial statistic because it implies that all balls put in play which aren’t home runs have about a 30 percent chance of landing, regardless of the pitcher, the hitter or anything else. There are anomalies, of course, and perhaps Jackson turns out to be one of those. BABIP tends to fluctuate, though, and a regression – and comparative sophomore slump – is almost certain.
In 1923, Babe Ruth hit .423 on balls in play, the best single-season BABIP in history, according to the indispensable Baseball-Reference.com. Two years later, his was .297. A year after that, it was .368. Fast forward two more years and it was .301. While Ty Cobb almost certainly had skills that translated to BABIP excellence – he has five of the 23 seasons of .400-plus BABIPs – he’s a rarity.
If Jackson finishes the season at .413, he will rank seventh all-time, behind seasons from five Hall of Famers: Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Cobb (twice) and Harry Heilmann. Cobb, Nap Lajoie, Hornsby and Rod Carew occupy the four spots behind him. And just when it seems there’s a common greatness comes the man in 12th place: the mediocre Jose Hernandez, with a .404 BABIP in 2002.
Positive Yankees notes come later – promise – but in the meantime, can we please put an end to the myths that Teixeira and Jeter are great fielders?
FanGraphs uses two measures for defense: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). They purport to do the same thing, and they agree that Teixeira and Jeter are rather awful in the field. Among qualifying first basemen, Teixeira’s UZR is better than that of Troy Glaus(notes), Paul Konerko(notes), Ryan Howard(notes) and Prince Fielder(notes), which is to say he’s a couple bad plays shy of cadaver. And for those who get so jazzed over Teixeira’s ability to pick throws to first out of the dirt, his 18 scoops are the second fewest in the major leagues – and 30 fewer than Albert Pujols(notes).
Jeter’s is simpler: His minus-11 DRS is better than only that of Yuniesky Betancourt(notes) and Hanley Ramirez(notes). His minus-6.8 UZR is better than only that of the same two players. Betancourt and Ramirez should not be playing shortstop. Use the transitive property how you will.
For the past two seasons, San Diego used Headley in left field because Kevin Kouzmanoff(notes) was manning third. With his trade to Oakland, Headley abandoned the outfield – where he was something of a mess – and is now plus-14.1 UZR and plus-20 DRS. Both are ahead of Beltre’s ratings. While Headley’s 56 plays made out of his defensive zone aren’t up in lockstep with Beltre’s 67, they do rank second in the major leagues – one more than Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman(notes), the only NL third baseman standing between Headley and a Gold Glove.
6. A shortstop with a horrendous mustache, a guy labeled a clubhouse cancer, a left fielder and Zimmerman own the four best gloves in baseball.
The trash ‘stache: St. Louis’ Brendan Ryan(notes), who is plus-25 DRS. The cancer: Toronto’s Yunel Escobar(notes), whom Atlanta traded midseason, at plus-24. Crawford has the best UZR in baseball at 22. And Zimmerman is tremendous in DRS (plus-23) and UZR (15.9).
Minus-18 DRS. Minus-17.6 UZR. Butcher by any acronym.
8. Take the last four things with at least a pinch and perhaps a tablespoon of salt. Just when defensive metrics seem awesome, they totally, completely contradict one another.
Here is the problem with plenty of advanced metrics: It’s not that they don’t agree – two people don’t look at the same play and notice the same thing, right? – but the degree to which they’re capable of disagreement. It’s the case with the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) argument between FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com: Each has its proprietary system, and they often end up with wildly different computations of statistics with the same name. It’s also true of UZR and DRS.
Look at the Cleveland Indians. By DRS, the Indians are the fourth-best defensive team in baseball, a plus-50, and only one run behind the teams tied for second. UZR has the Indians as the single worst defensive team in the game at minus-47.7. How two systems measure the exact same plays with supposed objectivity and end up nearly 100 runs apart in their assessment is more than puzzling. It’s a damning sign that defensive metrics have a long way to go before they receive a public embrace.
9. A great fastball isn’t always a pretext to success.
A pitcher needs a good fastball to set up his other pitches? Yeah, and it takes seven years to digest a piece of gum. Here are the runs-above-average values for the fastballs of five excellent pitchers:
- Chris Carpenter(notes): 3.7
- Roy Halladay(notes): 3.1
- Jon Lester(notes): 3.0
- Francisco Liriano(notes): 1.5
- Brett Myers(notes): minus-11.8
10. The worst pitch in the major leagues this year is a fastball.
Poor Brad Bergesen(notes). It’s difficult to throw a pitch so poorly that hitters destroy it for 25.7 runs below average. Bergesen’s sinker simply doesn’t dart enough – less than an inch of vertical movement and 2 inches less horizontal movement than the best sinkers – and his fastball is a milquetoast offering. Perhaps Bergesen is getting a hint. In his last start, 34.7 percent of his pitches were sliders. His average over 27 games this season: 24.3 percent.
This could be the third straight year Ubaldo one-ups himself. Last year’s average fastball velocity of 96.1 mph was the highest since such numbers were kept. In 2010, he’s at 96.2. Had Stephen Strasburg(notes) not blown out his elbow, his 97.3-mph velocity would’ve dethroned Jimenez. And Joel Zumaya’s(notes) gruesome injury might next year end his reign as the no-innings-limit champion, which he captured for the fifth consecutive season by averaging a 99.3-mph fastball.
It’s his curveball. Of his 1,995 pitches this season, Wakefield has thrown the curve only 84 times, and it arches over the plate at 60.7 mph. Between that and his 65.9-mph knuckleball, Wakefield owns two of baseball’s three slowest pitches. The other is Vicente Padilla’s(notes) curveball, a 64.4-mph special. Also in the running: Danny Ray Herrera’s 66.3-mph screwball.
It’s 90.8 mph, to be exact, and that’s harder than the average fastballs of 219 of the 514 pitchers who have gone at least 10 innings this year.
14. Public Enemy No. 1 is dead.
In his first MLB spring training, 19-year-old Clayton Kershaw(notes) tore off a curveball to freeze Sean Casey(notes), and Vin Scully didn’t hesitate to give the fierce bender a nickname: Public Enemy No. 1. Two years later, it is almost extinct, with Kershaw throwing it once every 14 pitches – one-third as often as he did his rookie season.
Kershaw replaced it with a tight slider that he almost never threw when he arrived in Los Angeles – and now is the third-best slider in the major leagues, at 16.2 runs above average. The curveball is 2.1 runs below.
While only 19 starting pitchers get more groundballs than the Dodgers’ 35-year-old starter, just two pitchers draw more pop-ups than his 16 percent. There aren’t often Venn diagrams which include pop-inducing sinkerballers.
16. Two pitchers have allowed more unearned runs than the entire Minnesota Twins starting rotation.
This is not as much about Ryan Dempster(notes) and David Bush’s 17 unearned runs as it is the 16 allowed by Twins starters all season. Liriano has yielded 65 runs this year, and not one is unearned. The Twins have committed just two errors during the 178 1/3 innings he has pitched. Amazing, though it pales to Joel Pineiro’s(notes) ability in 2005 to pitch miserably and do so in spite of his teammates’ relative strength behind him: All 118 of his runs were earned.
Back to the Twins. Scott Baker(notes): 82 of 83 earned. Carl Pavano(notes): 79 of 81. Kevin Slowey(notes): 69 of 72, including two unearned in his last start. Nick Blackburn(notes): 79 of 83. The only other unearned runs came while Brian Duensing(notes) (15 of 19) and one-start Glen Perkins(notes) (four of six) were pitching. No surprise, then, that the Twins lead the American League with fewest unearned runs at 30. San Diego has yielded 27, with a Dempster- and Bush-tying 17 over its 146 starts.
17. Blackburn throws beach balls.
At least, that’s what his pitches look like to hitters. Blackburn’s inability to get swinging strikes evokes the ghosts of such junkballers as Woody Williams, Kirk Rueter and Steve Trachsel(notes). Batters have a 92 percent contact rate against Blackburn, and his swinging strike percentage is at 3.6 percent – tied for the lowest in the past decade with Livan Hernandez(notes) in 2008.
The patience the Yankees outfielder exhibits at the plate is unparalleled over the past decade – and, almost certainly, farther back, were anyone to compile such numbers. Gardner hacks at only 30.8 percent of pitches thrown. Even more impressive: He swings at just 44.3 percent of pitches he sees in the strike zone. For some perspective: Vladimir Guerrero(notes) swings at 47.1 percent of the pitches he sees outside the zone, and the MLB average for swings inside the zone is 64.4 percent. Gardner can afford to be picky since when he does swing, he almost never misses. His 97.6 percent in-zone contact rate is the best in the major leagues.
19. The best pitch in baseball is a fastball from a guy who weighs 170 pounds.
Most of Tim Hudson’s(notes) career, he has possessed a dynamic sinker. Its ability to generate ground balls and stifle line drives this season, however, far surpasses any past acumen and gives him a fastball 32.1 runs above average. Others in the best-of category:
- Changeup: Shaun Marcum(notes), plus-23.3
- Slider: Liriano, plus-21.4
- Curveball: Gio Gonzalez(notes), plus-20.8
- Cutter: Rivera, plus-16.9
- Knuckleball: R.A. Dickey(notes), plus-13.4
- Splitter: Manny Parra(notes), plus-6.5
The Marlins second baseman doubles as the best and worst. He leads hitters against the cutter with 7.9 runs above average and is the single worst knuckleball hitter, losing 2.8 runs. Aside from Mariners third baseman Jose Lopez(notes), we’ll spare the rest of the losers their ignominy. His race with Bergesen for the single worst ability in baseball, however, is fierce: Bergesen’s minus-25.7 throwing a fastball to Lopez’s minus-25.4 hitting one. And had Lopez not homered off a belt-high, plate-halving Bergesen fastball Aug. 16, those numbers might be reversed.
Anyway, on to the best of the hitters:
- Fastball: Konerko, 45.3
- Slider: Drew Stubbs(notes), 14.7
- Changeup: Josh Hamilton(notes), 9.2
- Curveball: Guerrero, 8.9
- Splitter: Carl Crawford(notes), 5.4
- Knuckleball: Kurt Suzuki(notes), 2.9
21. Do not throw the Yankees anything but knuckleballs.
This and Gardner make up for the Jeter and Teixeira slights, right? The Yankees hit everything well. They’re the third-best fastball-hitting team, the best on sliders (and one of only two in the positive), fifth against changeups, sixth vs. curveballs and 10th with cutters and splitters. If the Red Sox can re-sign Tim Wakefield, trade for R.A. Dickey and pick up Charlie Haeger(notes), they might have a chance against the Yankees, who are 5.7 runs below average against knuckleballs.
22. Throw the Mariners everything but knuckleballs.
Want to know why Seattle sports one of the worst offenses ever? Last against the fastball (by nearly 30 runs) and changeup, 26th vs. the curveball and slider, 22nd with the splitter and 18th on cutters. Take solace, Mariners. At least you’re sixth against the knuckleball!
23. Two batters don’t miss any pitches.
MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez(notes) and San Francisco first baseman Aubrey Huff(notes) are the only hitters eligible for the batting title with positive runs-above-average values against fastballs, curveballs, sliders, changeups, cutters, splitters and knuckleballs.
It takes unique talent to hit below average on all seven pitches, but Lee somehow finds a way. You’d think for the $19 million the Astros are paying him this year – and the year after that, and the year after that – he could figure out how to at least go 1-for-7. What fun would it be, though, to have the game’s eighth-highest-paid player successful in just one category when he could be failing them all?
Though none of Lee’s values are below five runs, FanGraphs still tags him with a minus-0.8 WAR – which is to say the Astros actually would’ve won one more game this season were a Triple-A scrub on the roster instead of Lee. Baseball-Reference dings him even worse, for minus-2 WAR.
25. And he is still not the worst Major League Baseball player in 2010.
Take a bow, Pedro Feliz(notes). You are the 2010 Prince of Awful. FanGraphs says your teams – yes, St. Louis actually wanted you after Houston gave up – have lost $8 million in value simply by writing your name on the lineup card 122 times. Baseball-Reference says you are minus-2.5 WAR, which makes you among the five worst players this decade. Ramon Santiago(notes) in 2003 and Wes Helms(notes) in 2004 are well within reach, and to get to the minus-3 of ’08 Jeff Francouer will take some work. Never shall you touch the historic 2009 of Brian Giles(notes), during which he managed to accumulate minus-3.9 WAR in 61 games.
While ’09 Giles is like a reverse Ruth, you, Pedro, are still in esteemed company. Baseball-Reference calculates its WAR back to 1901, and of the tens of thousands of player seasons available, the 2010 version of Pedro Feliz ranks as the 49th worst hitter of all time.
And yet even he is saved by a pitcher so brutal he turned in one of the 10 ugliest pitching seasons ever. If Ryan Rowland-Smith(notes) were as proficient on the pitchers’ mound as he is on Twitter, this paragraph would not exist. Unfortunately, he isn’t, and his minus-3.8 WAR makes Pedro Feliz look positively productive … and places Rowland-Smith’s 2010 as the ninth worst in history.
Rowland-Smith has pitched in 25 games this season. He is 1-10. His ERA is 7.01. His opponents’ OPS is .967. He is one of five pitchers to have below-average runs values on all of his pitches. FanGraphs has him at minus-1.6 WAR. Forget the disparity with Baseball-Reference. It’s still the worst among pitchers, and after a month-long sabbatical at Triple-A, Rowland-Smith has returned to the major leagues and gotten tagged just like before.
Bow down, oh, loyal nerds. The King of Awful is back.