Calculating 2012 Offensive Consistency By Team

On Monday, E.J. discussed recent work published by Bill Petti at FanGraphs. For over a decade, we’ve tried to best objectify a part of baseball that Bill James‘ failed to address with his Pythagorean Expectation. Using his method, we use runs scored and run allowed to estimate the amount of games a team should have won and lost. With a big enough sample size, the Pythagorean Expectation has been wildly successful, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

Earlier this year, Petti posted an article on FanGraphs to help inspire quantifying  consistency. How would this affect Pythagorean win-loss records? The idea is that, a team would prefer a player hit one time in three at bats for three games, rather than getting three hits in three at bats one game and then go hitless over the next two games. While the three hits in one game help a team tremendously in that one game, they will fail contribute in the next two games.

At the end of the year, both of these players will have the same statistics, and the amount of runs scored will remain the same. The problem is, the Pythagorean record won’t reflect that these runs were bunched into one out of three games, as opposed to being spread out between the entire year. In theory, consistent offenses should perform better than streaky teams throughout the year.

This is where Monday’s article comes into play. Petti, with the help of Baseball Prospectus’ Matt Swartz, improved upon a statistic he calls volatility (VOL). The point of the statistic is to calculate how consistent a player is, and  the lower, the better. In his piece, he found the volatility of all hitters in 2012 with 300 plate appearances or more. As I mentioned, E.J. pointed out the significance of his findings, of which, Derek Jeter ranks as the least volatile (or the most consistent) hitter since 1974.

It’s pretty amazing stuff, but it had me thinking about the Yankees’ offensive struggles in 2012. Although the team had the highest wOBA in the MLB, and scored the second most runs behind the Rangers, the Yankees certainly lacked something last season. We heard the term “RISP fail” thrown around quite a bit, but by the end of the year, the team ranked ninth in baseball with a .788 OPS in scoring position opportunities. According to the data, the Yankees didn’t struggle with runners in scoring position, however it’s hard to overlook the collapse the team approached in August and September, and the ridiculously cold offense during the playoffs.

If someone forced me to make a subjective observation about this team’s offense, I would call them too streaky. Fortunately, the Yankees have the most consistent player in baseball since 1974 on their team, but what about the rest? How did the Yankees’ volatility rank amongst other teams? And did consistency actually affect James’ Pythagorean Expectation over the course of a full season?

I decided the best way to figure this all out was to throw Petti’s numbers into an SQL database. I matched up his database with one that accounted for teams, and then I did some basic math. In short, I found the average team volatility in 2012, taking into account the number of plate appearances by each player. Please note that the players included still only have 300 plate appearances, and it leaves out players who served partial seasons with teams.

Team Team VOL Players Pythagorean Record Pyth Diff
Braves 0.472 7 92-70 94-68 2
Indians 0.479 7 64-98 68-94 4
White Sox 0.483 8 85-77 88-74 3
Tigers 0.491 9 87-75 88-74 -1
Red Sox 0.496 6 74-88 69-93 -5
Nationals 0.497 8 96-66 98-64 2
Orioles 0.499 7 82-80 93-69 11
Twins 0.504 10 68-94 66-96 -2
Angels 0.505 9 88-74 89-73 1
Blue Jays 0.510 9 74-88 73-89 1
Royals 0.511 8 74-88 72-90 -2
Diamondbacks 0.524 8 86-76 81-81 -5
Reds 0.525 10 91-71 97-65 6
Mariners 0.526 9 77-85 75-87 -2
Giants 0.532 9 88-74 94-68 6
Athletics 0.532 8 92-70 94-68 2
Dodgers 0.535 6 86-76 86-76 0
Rangers 0.537 9 91-71 93-69 2
Cardinals 0.538 10 93-69 88-74 -5
Phillies 0.545 7 81-81 81-81 0
Mets 0.553 9 75-87 74-88 -1
Rockies 0.555 7 69-93 94-98 -5
Yankees 0.561 9 95-67 95-67 0
Rays 0.569 11 95-67 90-72 -5
Cubs 0.579 7 65-97 61-101 -4
Pirates 0.581 9 78-84 79-83 -1
Brewers 0.592 7 85-77 83-79 -2
Astros 0.595 7 59-103 55-107 -4
Marlins 0.597 7 68-94 69-93 1
Padres 0.609 10 75-87 76-86 1

Unsurprisingly, the Yankees ranked with the 8th highest volatility in baseball, and the second highest in the American League. More volatility means less consistency, and this matches up with exactly what we saw on the field. The Yankees were very good at putting runs on the board, but a lot of it happened in streaks.

You might speculate that this means their home run dependent offense somehow created unstable run production, but in this theory, power actually helps a team become more consistent. With more doubles, triples, and home runs, less hits are required to score runs.

Although the sample size is far too small, and I’m far from a statistics intellect, I found the data interesting when matched with a team’s Pythagorean record and actual record. Petti pointed out that the point of volatility was to quantitate an aspect of baseball that was forgotten by the James’ Pythagorean Expectation. When I coupled the cumulative team VOL with the difference in the Pythagorean records and actual records, there seems to be some significance. The top 10 teams with the lowest VOL averaged 1.67 wins above their expected Pythagorean record, the 10 teams in the middle averaged 0.2 wins above their expected record, and the bottom 10 teams averaged 2 wins below their expected record. Of course, it’s important to note that teams like the Orioles were obvious outliers that remained in the data.

Back to the Yankees. While the team ranked exceptionally low with their offensive consistency, their Pythagorean Expectation was identical to their actual record. Perhaps low pitcher volatility made up for the high offensive volatility. It’s something to explore as we try to better predict baseball. From a Yankee fan stand point, if you were one of those that threw around the term “RISP fail”, you’re allowed to feel validated, the offense was inconsistent.

Swisher’s tour continues

After visting Cleveland this morning where he was greeted by his image on the Progressive Field scoreboard and where he was also greeted with a standing offer from the Indians, Nick Swisher, bid adieu and headed off to another mystery city.

Where do you think Swish could be heading? Could he be heading south and west of Cleveland? The Texas Rangers need an outfielder. Or maybe he’s heading way out west and visiting Seattle. The Mariners have been in the mix for other outfielders and Swisher is the best one left in the market.

It certainly will be interesting to see how the other teams choose to court Swisher.

Maybe Seattle will fly a “SWISH” banner from the top of the Space Needle. Or they’ll take him on a tour of the city and out for a nice seafood dinner.

I’m also interested in seeing what the offer from Cleveland is.

(I hope it’s interesting beacuse I’m bored out of my mind by what constitutes as baseball news these days.)

Tigers listening to offers for Porcello, Smyly

With Anibal Sanchez re-signed, the Tigers have a deep starting rotation to say the least. That, predictably, has led to other teams calling them to inquire about taking some of that pitching off of their hands, and Danny Knobler tweets that that interest the Tigers are “taking calls” on both Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly.

Porcello has been around since 2009 and hasn’t really stood out in terms of performance yet, with an ERA/FIP of 4.55/4.26. That said, he’s actually nine days shy of turning 24 years old, so there’s still probably upside here, and he’s made 31 starts in three of the past four seasons, so he’s already pretty durable, especially for his age. As far as the Yankees go, it’s Smyly who really intrigues me. The 23 year old made his big league debut against the Bombers in 2012, and went on to pitch to a 3.99/3.83/3.97 ERA/FIP/xFIP line over 99.1 innings. His peripherals are also quite strong, though he is a bit of a fly ball pitcher.

The top four guys in the Yankees’ rotation forms a very solid core for that unit on paper, but once you get past that, things get pretty dodgy. Ivan Nova is looking for a bounce back performance in 2013 and needs to figure out what kind of pitcher he’s going to be in the future, while David Phelps only has a handful of starts to his name. After that, Adam Warren is the only viable starter (so excluding Dellin Betances) in the system with experience at the Triple-A level right now, so things could get ugly pretty quickly if anyone gets hurt. Given that reality, picking up another viable option for the back end of the rotation could be a good move for the Yankees before this winter ends, and a guy like Smyly, who won’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2014 season, would be a big pick-me-up for Plan 189.

Could the Yankees swing a deal for either of these guys? I wouldn’t count on it. For one thing, there’s no indication what the Tigers want, and I don’t think the Yankees necessarily have a ton of chips to put on the table. For another, working out trades between two contenders in the same league is just a tough thing to do, since both are presumably looking for moves that improve their big league roster in the near term. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s pretty close to it in practice.

Report: Yankees not interested in Bourn

On Sunday, Nick Cafardo reported that the Yankees were “quietly interested” in free agent outfielder Michael Bourn. Today, ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews reports that that most certainly is not the case, and that there is “no chance” the Yankees even pursue the speedy center fielder. As Matthews relays, the Yankees don’t like Bourn’s price tag, the fact that he hits left-handed, and feel that they already have a full starting outfield.

We talked kind of a lot about Bourn last night, and while I’m not sure I’m wild about it, there is a pretty interesting case to be made for signing Bourn (for the right price, naturally) and then trading Curtis Granderson, but that’s the sort of thing we can talk ourselves into when we’re starved for baseball action, and not generally the kind of thing that actually happens in real life. So as interesting as it may be to consider the potential machinations, or what the Yankees would look like with three elite defensive/no-power outfielders, my strong inclination is to think that this report is accurate, and the Yankees will not even really consider such a move.

Matthews does, however, reiterate that the Yankees are still looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder, and that Scott Hairston remains their preference. Hairston is looking for a two year deal, however, and he seems to prefer a return to the Mets as well.

The Rangers are interested in Ibanez

Raul Ibanez delivered a disproportionate amount of the Yankees’ biggest home runs in 2012, and now a team that could have used a few of those shots themselves is apparently showing interest in acquiring the 40 year old “outfielder.” Via The Dallas Morning News, the Rangers are apparently interested in Ibanez’s services for the coming season, presumably as a platoon DH/reserve outfielder. The Rangers have a lineup that’s heavily tilted to the right, and obviously lost their best left-handed hitter in Josh Hamilton, so Ibanez would be a reasonably good fit if they can find a place to play him.

In addition to the clutchitude, Ibanez hit .248/.319/.492 against right-handed pitchers, and even filled in surprisingly well in the outfield as a bridge between Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki. The Yankees still need a DH, particularly one who can handle right handed pitchers, so a reunion with Ibanez certainly makes sense if all parties are amicable, though I would be surprised if Ibanez didn’t have his fair share of suitors after remaining productive this past year.

Trade Musing: Rick Porcello And Drew Smyly

The Yankees may have six starting pitchers for five rotation spots, and potentially seven when Michael Pineda returns, but it hasn’t stopped them from looking for other options. In regards to pitching, the Yankees actually finished seventh in pitching fWAR in 2012, and the rotation will largely be the same come 2013, but when you’re relying on a 41 year old Andy Pettitte and a 38 year old Hiroki Kuroda to man the middle of your rotation, along with the young Ivan Nova and David Phelps, there are enough factors to worry about.

Whether it’s inexperience or old age, the Yankees need as big of an insurance policy as they can find, and there have been rumors on another Freddy Garcia type signing this offseason. The Tigers are one team with excess starters, and are now shopping Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly, two 23 year old pitchers who would be relatively cheap during the 2014/2015 budget years.

Rick Porcello (Gregory Shamus Getty Images)

Despite being in the major leagues for four years now, Porcello is turning just 24 years old at the end of the month. After being drafted in the first round and earning a large signing bonus, the righty has disappointed the fans in Detroit. In Porcello’s rookie season, 2009, he posted a 3.96 ERA, however his FIP and other advanced stats showed that he was due for some regression. Since then he’s posted ERA’s of 4.92, 4.75, and 4.59. Though it would seem that he’s destined to be a back-end starter, many of his numbers have shown that he’s improving.

Not only has the ERA dropped yearly, but so has his FIP. What used to be an awful mid 12.4 K%, has slowly increased to 13.7%. His big 6″5′ frame has also gained velocity, and in 2012, his two-seam fastball jumped from 89.8 mph to 91.8 mph. Despite his 4.59 ERA in 2012, his 3.91 FIP and 93 FIP- can be considered above average. For a 23 year old, those numbers could spark optimism.

One reason the ERA from the past season was so high was due to his .344 BABIP. The Tigers ranked as the second worst defensive team in the AL in 2012, and with a 53.2% ground ball rate, and the infield defense you’ll find in Detroit, there’s no reason his groundballs weren’t working.

He may far better in the Bronx. While the Yankees don’t have the most impressive infield defense, it ranks higher than the Tigers. Porcello, being a right handed pitcher, would also give up more hits to left handed batters, and the Yankees do have an exceptional infield defense on the right side with Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira.

This isn’t to assume that he’ll turn a corner with a simple trade; his 24.2% line drive rate is far from what you’d want in a pitcher. You can still wish on a guy like Porcello though, and his career 28.2% flyball rate shouldn’t be much of a problem for the small Yankee Stadium. If the Yankees are looking for a Freddy Garcia type pickup, Porcello probably guarantees you that type of production with a lot more upside. He’s expected to make $4.7 million through arbitration this season, and the Tigers look like they’re willing to dump him. I couldn’t imagine the price touching a top prospect, but who knows what the going rate is with the recent returns on R.A. Dickey and James Shields.

Drew Smyly (Joe Robbins Getty Images)

Then there’s Drew Smyly, who the Tigers are now putting on the trading block. Smyly is another guy who was rushed through the Tiger’s minor league system. In terms of ERA, the left hander had the same success as Porcello in his rookie year, putting up a 3.99 ERA in 2012. His peripherals are much better though, posting a 22.6 K% and a 3.83 FIP in 99.1 innings pitched.

Unlike Porcello, Smyly relies on a four-seam fastball, which only holds his overall batted ball rate to 39.9% ground balls. If you’re worried about the right field porch and fly balls, the 41.3% flyballs isn’t bad, especially since he’s a left handed pitcher who held same-side hitters to a .388 slugging percentage.

Smyly showed a lot off in 2012, he’s not as hittable as Porcello, and he strikes out many more. He also has 3 more years of team control. His production is all within one year though, only 99.1 innings pitched, so acquiring this type of starter could be buying high, and keep in mind that David Phelps has the same number of major league innings pitched as Smyly. Since you’re buying high, it would take much more to acquire Smyly, but he’s certainly an upgrade over Nova and perhaps even Hughes.

The Yankees don’t necessarily have to acquire a starting pitcher, but it might make sense in 2012. Kuroda, Pettitte, and Hughes are off the books next season, and the team won’t have much money to play with in free agency. Assuming Pineda returns healthy, the team projects to have Phelps and Nova start in the middle of the rotation. Porcello or Smyly are a decent insurance policy, though one is a possible buy low, and the other a possible buy high.

The luxury tax non-issue

If you haven’t listened to last night’s podcast yet, you should totally do that. In the meantime, I’d like to pull out a point that was made by Rob Abruzzese of Bronx Baseball Daily about the luxury tax that I think deserves a special level of recognition. In case you haven’t heard, the Yankees were just hit with an $18.9 million luxury tax bill this season, with a taxable payroll of $222.5 million. That means that the combined expenditure was a pretty daunting $241.4 million. So considering that, it’s no surprise that the Yankees want to avoid paying a punitive 50% luxury tax rate, right? Well there’s just one problem with that: the Yankees tax bill would actually be lower under the system they’re so desperately trying to avoid.

How is that possible? It’s simple: While the rate the Yankees will be taxed at will go up, the luxury tax threshold is also increasing from the $178 million mark it currently sits at. Since the luxury tax is applied marginally (which means that it only applies to spending above the threshold, not the entire payroll), that higher tax rate will be applied to a smaller amount of spending. Assuming the same $222.5 million taxable payroll, the new tax structure would have left the Yankees with a bill of $16.75 million, or $2.15 million less than what they paid under the current, lower, rate. That’s still a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a number they’ve proved to be willing to spend in the past, and it also assumes no gradual reductions in payroll at all.

Of course, that $2.15 million savings is also a much smaller number than the $40-50 million they could stand to make through a combination of payroll cutting, tax savings, and revenue sharing rebates, so it’s still easy to see why ownership is hell bent on cutting spending. But they aren’t selling this as a money making opportunity they can’t pass up, but as an attempt to avoid a supposedly punitive new tax structure, a contention that’s pure bunk even in nominal terms.

Will R.A. Dickey’s Knuckleball Succeed In A Domed Stadium?

The Blue Jays just got better. This is now a common weekly theme for the team. First it was Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes, then it was Melky Cabrera, and now R.A. Dickey is headed to Canada. They’ve lost a number of prospects to get to this point, but the organization is still full of young high-upside talent. I could go on about how the Blue Jays have rebuilt their team, but this post is about their newest knuckleballer.

Goodbye Tim Wakefield, hello R.A. Dickey.

If you’ve ever heard a baseball announcer talk about the knuckleball, you’ve probably heard that it’s random. They say it “dances” and “flutters” in different directions as it approaches the plate. They say the perfect knuckleball has no spin at all. They say that pockets of air and wind create the erratic movement. Not that wind or air pockets don’t exist inside a dome stadium, but the forces are definitely limited, even if the roof is opened. So why would the Blue Jays pay the Mets two top prospects to acquire a pitcher that will start half his games inside a dome?

I’ve read quite a bit of speculation on this topic, mostly from fans, and there are numbers to prove Dickey has both succeeded and failed inside domed ballparks. My real question is whether or not the physics are right. Does the knuckleball really rely on the environment to create it’s erratic movement?

The truth is, the knuckleball does not “flutter”, nor does it depend on wind or air pockets. When we talk about pitching, most of the physics that we discuss is centered around the Magnus Effect. Depending on the angle of spin, a low and high pressure force will surround opposite sides of a baseball, causing a fastball to fight the effects of gravity (“rising” action), and a curveball to have a “tumbling” action. Because there is little to no spin on a knuckleball, the Magnus Effect is nearly absent, and the science behind the knuckleball is fairly new.

Back in the 1970’s, a study by Robert G. Watts and Eric Swayer was done to better understand the effects on a knuckleball inside a wind tunnel. They found that the movement of the pitch was largely dependent on the angle of which the ball was thrown. The seams of the baseball could be oriented in such a way to create what’s called boundary layer separation. If you’re unfamiliar with the term or interested in the physics here, I recommend you read up on Freddy Garcia‘s “Swing” Ball and the accompanying links. Basically, the seams of a knuckleball create asymmetric flow separation. The air surrounding the sides of the baseball, where the seams are present, rapidly cuts the air surrounding it, creating a turbulent boundary layer. The sides of the baseball without the seam flow more smoothly around the air as it’s moving, this creates laminar air. The differences in pressure created by the laminar layer of air and the turbulent layer create the forces necessary to move the knuckleball in a certain direction.

When Watts and Sawyer completed their experiment, they believed that a knuckleball that had little spin would have the erratic “dancing” movement due to the seams changing directions while spinning slowly. Thanks to new PITCHf/x data, earlier this year, Professor Alan M. Nathan of the University of Illinois studied the knuckleball movement from both Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey. The data calculating pitch break showed that the knuckleball did not have the erratic “fluttering” movement that’s commonly associated with the pitches’ success. Instead, he attributed the myth to the randomness to which the pitch moves. In other words, the the idea that a knuckleball moves in different directions during it’s movement is a myth, the pitch has the same smoothness in trajectory of any other pitch. He surmised that the idea of fluttering movement was likely due to the random movement of different knuckleballs, as first found in work done by John Walsh of The Hardball Times.

Random Movement Of Dickey's Knuckleball

This isn’t to say that the environment plays no part in the movement of a pitch, but the movement of a knuckleball is nearly fully dependent on the orientation of the seam, the spin angle, and the rotation rate. In theory, the air inside a domed stadium should have no significant effect on R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball. Unfortunately, the Yankees now have to face a very difficult pitcher to hit.

On the Money 12/17/2012

Rob Abruzzese joined Stacey and I this evening, and we found quite a bit to talk about, covering everything from the R.A. Dickey trade to the unusual offseason the entire A.L. East is having, and finally covering quite a bit of what’s going on with the Yankees before the Hot Stove season takes its traditional lull during the Christmas holiday. Enjoy!

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