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How has hitting changed this year? Evidence from the first half of 2017 August 22, 2017

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball.
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It’s no secret that MLB hitters are hitting more home runs this year. In June, USA Today’s Ted Berg called the uptick “so outrageous and so unprecedented” as to require additional examination, and he offered a “juiced” ball as a possibility (along with “juiced” players and statistical changes to players’ approaches). DJ Gallo noted a “strange ambivalence” toward the huge increase in home runs, and June set a record for the most home runs in a month. Neil Greenberg makes a convincing case that the number of homers is due to better understanding of the physics of hitting.

How big a shift are we talking about here? Well, take a look at the numbers from 2016’s first half. (That’s defined as games before the All-Star Game.) That comprises 32670 games and 101450 plate appearances. In that time period, hitters got on base at a .323 clip. About 65% of hits were singles, with 19.6% doubles, 2.09% triples, and 13.2% home runs. Home runs came in about 3.04% of plate appearances (3082 home runs in 101450 plate appearances).

Using 2016’s rate, 2017’s home run count is basically impossible.

Taking that rate as our prior, how different are this year’s numbers? For one, batters are getting on base only a little more – the league’s OBP is .324 – but hitting more extra-base hits every time. Only 63.7% of hits in the first year were singles, with 19.97% of hits landing as doubles, 1.78% triples, and 14.5% home runs. There were incidentally, more homers (3343) in fewer plate appeances (101269). Let’s assume for the moment that those numbers are significantly different from last year – that the statistical fluctuation isn’t due to weather, “dumb luck,” or anything else, but has to be due to some internal factor. There weren’t that many extra hits – again, OBP only increased by .001 – but the distribution of hits changed noticeably. Almost all of the “extra” hits went to the home run column, rather than more hits landing as singles or doubles.

In fact, there were more fly balls this year – the leaguewide grounder-to-flyer ratio fell from .83 in 2016 to .80 this year. That still doesn’t explain everything, though, since the percentage of fly balls that went out of the park rose from 9.2% to 10%. (Note that those are yearlong numbers, not first-half specific.) Not only are there more fly balls, but more of them are leaving the stadium as home runs. The number of fly balls on the infield has stayed steady at 12%, and although there are slightly more walks (8.6% this year versus 8.2% last year), the strikeout rate rose by about the same number (21.5% this year, 21.1% last year).

Using last year’s rate of 3082 homers per 101450 plate appearances, I simulated 100,000 seasons each consisting of 101269 plate appearances – the number of appearances made in the first half of 2017. To keep the code simple, I recorded only the number of home runs in each season. If the rates were the same, the numbers would be clustered around 3077. In fact, in those 100,000 seasons, the median and mean were both 3076, and the distribution shown above has a clear peak in that region. Note in the bottom right corner, the distribution’s tail basically disappears above 3300; in those 100,000 seasons, the most home runs recorded was 3340 – 3 fewer than this year’s numbers. In fact, the probability of having LESS than 3343 home runs is 0.9999992. If everything is the same as last year, the probability of this year’s home runs occurring simply by chance is .0000008, or roughly 8 in 10 million.

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Bartolo Colon Needs a Three-Hour Warmup July 11, 2014

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Bartolo_Colón_on_July_5,_2014Mets veteran starting pitcher Bartolo Colon had a very familiar outcome last night: He allowed three earned runs in the first inning, followed by seven innings of scoreless ball. He took the loss to Aaron Harang, 3-1. Harang pitched an excellent game and Craig Kimbrel was lights-out, as he often is. It was a quality start by any definition, making it Colon’s third tough loss. Though Bart hasn’t picked up any cheap wins this year, 11 of his 18 starts have had game scores of 50+, and 12 of them have been “headline” quality starts of 6+ innings with 3 or fewer runs. 8 of them have been “super quality starts,” per Gary Cohen, of 7+ innings with two or fewer runs; he’s won all of those.

There’s an endogeneity problem in stating that Colon gets better when he’s allowed to pitch longer, since obviously his better pitching is the cause, not the effect, of going ColonOverallStatslonger into the game. Nonetheless, Colon demonstrates a strong pattern of underperformance in the first inning. His ERA is a striking 8.47 in the first inning and literally half that – 4.24 – in the second (stats NOT INCLUDING last night’s game). Colon’s best inning is the third, but he’s serviceable through the remaining innings as well. His first inning involves facing the most batters, as indicated by the huge spike in total bases; he just has trouble getting opposing batters out during the first. He’s structurally different, too: he gives up nearly 3/4 of a base per plate appearance in the first, and every first-inning plate appearance is worth one-fifth of a run. Part of this tracks with Colon’s shifting BAbip, which spikes along with his per-plate-appearance stats – it looks almost exactly like the graph of total bases per plate appearance – but you can’t blame defense for numbers like this.

ColonPAStatsThere’s not much explanation for this. It’s the sort of pattern you’d expect from an inexperienced pitcher who doesn’t warm up properly. He didn’t have the same problem last year or the prior year, when his first-inning ERA was reliably 3.00. This is difficult to pinpoint, but maybe Colon should take some advice from Daisuke Matsuzaka and do a three-hour warmup.

Everybody’s Stupid Except Me April 21, 2014

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Or, why is there a guy being paid to manage the team when I already do it?

There have been quite a few extra-innings games this year for the Mets. The pitching situation has been stressed a couple of times; thankfully, yesterday’s 14-inning monstrosity against the Braves worked out okay. This is due almost entirely to Dan Uggla‘s status as one big walking, talking error. His Jeter-esque defense ticked me off in the All-Star Game a few years ago, but it’s been hilarious since.

Poor Gus Schlosser took a bullet for the Braves, pitching nearly four innings before giving up the game-winning sac fly to Curtis Granderson (who can’t even get a hit when he’s playing hero) after a previous career-high 1.2 innings earlier this year. Schlosser was the Braves’ sixth pitcher of the night. Jose Valverde got the win for the Mets, their seventh pitcher of the night. Valverde was an odd choice to go to in a high-leverage situation, since Jeurys Familia hadn’t pitched the previous day. Gary Cohen speculated that Familia was simply unavailable, meaning that we’ll find out today that he’s healthy as a horse but was getting a drink of water when the phone call came. Gonzalez Germen had a rough third of an inning, but Scott Rice cleared it up for him.

Terry Collins did a few very strange things. First, he pinch-hit Andrew Brown for Omar Quintanilla and immediately used Ruben Tejada to pinch-hit for the pitcher, apparently counting on Brown to get on base and planning to use Tejada to bunt him over. Of course, using a pinch-hitter for your shortstop counting on the pinch-hitter to get on base is risky, and Brown didn’t, leaving Tejada to pinch-hit when Travis d’Arnaud and Kirk Niewenhuis were still sitting on the bench. Granted, it worked out okay, since Tejada hit a nice single to get on base, but Quintanilla has had a .375 OBP this year; unless he was injured or something, using Brown to hit for him is weird. Forcing Tejada into the game was weirder, since letting Quintanilla hit and then allowing the game’s situation to dictate the double switch would have allowed Terry a bit more control over the situation. As it is, Terry used Quintanilla in the top of the ninth, Brown to hit in the bottom of the inning, and then Daisuke Matsuzaka in the same slot to start the tenth. Considering that the Mets were at the end of their bench by the end of the game, keeping Brown around to hit for someone later in the game would have been a more conservative move with no smaller an upside.

Second, and much less sinfully, he benched Anthony Recker as part of a double switch in the 13th to 14th to make room for Papa Grande. Recker was exhausted, certainly, and was in the ideal spot to allow for the double switch. However, suppose Granderson hadn’t hit his sac fly but had grounded out to leave Eric Young and Kirk Niewenhuis at second and third, respectively, with two outs. That requires David Wright to get on base, and then (if Schlosser made the reasonable decision to walk Wright and pitch to Daniel Murphy) you’re counting on Murphy to make a clean hit. At that point, you have a choice – either you ask Valverde for a second inning, you ask Familia to pitch even though he seemed to be unavailable, or you ask a starter to pitch. Leaving Recker in at first base and removing Lucas Duda would have put Valverde in the #4 slot instead of the #5 slot, but would have maintained Recker’s eligibility to pitch. Granted, that still involves moving an outfielder to first and having a starter play the corner a la Kyle Lohse and Roy Oswalt a few seasons ago; on the other hand, if Quintanilla had been allowed to bat for himself, you then also have either Ruben Tejada or Andrew Brown on the bench, in which case Brown has experience at first and Tejada has experience at second, allowing Daniel Murphy to take over at first.

I did, however, love using DiceK in the long-reliever role in extra innings. I’m glad Terry had him on hand, and I’m thoroughly impressed with Matsuzaka’s ability to adjust to the relief role.

Side note: the Mets have actually been outscored game for game in extra innings, 23-22, leading to a weird .480 Pythagorean expectation. Small sample sizes and walkoffs make that a bit difficult to draw real conclusions from.

Not the bullpen again… April 1, 2014

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In the “Stuff Gary Cohen Says” pile, let’s add “When you score six runs, you expect to win the game.” Why he said that, specifically, I’m not sure, since at the time he said it, the score was 5-5.

Offensively, the Mets had a great game yesterday. In any just universe, two homers in regulation giving a five-run score should have won the game; last year, only 308 teams lost in 9 innings or less with 5 or more runs scored, compared to 1697 teams that won in regulation with at least five. This, of course, isn’t a just universe; it’s Queens.

Dillon Gee had a quality start by game score (53), if not under the official definition, allowing 4 earned runs in 6.2 innings pitched. That was a little long, and the Mets’ commentary team pointed out that Warthen and Collins seem to plan to let their starters work a little longer this year. Given the bullpen’s performance, I’m not shocked by that – although Jose Valverde pitched a perfect inning and a third (striking out three), two of the Mets’ relievers walked their only batter faced. Bobby Parnell blew a save, giving up a crucial double to Denard Span in the 9th and showing velocities that were surprisingly low. Aside from Valverde, the bullpen looked as unreliable as it did last year.

Parnell had an injury-marred season last year. It’s important not to take too much out of a single appearance. That said, I’ve never been a big fan of Parnell. Valverde isn’t the answer – he may not even be as consistent as Latroy Hawkins was last year, judging by his spring performance – but the Mets have an inexperienced bullpen and they desperately need some consistency from the pen. Parnell’s neck still raises concerns, as does his seeming inability to handle pressure. There’s no reason the Mets should be relying on Jeurys Familia in the tenth inning on opening day.

It’ll take a few weeks before the system shakes out, of course, and we’ll see whether the Mets’ pen steps up and develops over the early season. That said, the closer position will definitely need some attention.