Defending the Elderly

This is more the sort of thing that appears in the comments section of an article, but here comes the part where I lose all the respect of those who enjoy advanced statistics.

Let me preface by saying that I, myself, enjoy sabermetric stats.  I get them.  I’ve read books on them.  I subscribe to analytic web sites.  I have gone to conferences.  And I get the negativity that surrounds some stats.  RBI and W-L record, for starters.

But I also sometimes wonder if the people who shun those statistics have ever actually played baseball or if they just watch a lot of it.

That sounds condescending, I know.  I’m not saying that played anything resembling professional baseball.  I played a little college ball at a school that doesn’t have a real college team.  (Full disclosure there.  We don’t want another Skip Bayless incident.)  I played in a league for a few years in my late 20s/early 30s that was described as a “semi-pro” level of play.  Teams were allowed to have a couple guys on their roster who had professional experience.  Again, not MLB.

I was a (bad) pitcher.  But I just have to say that those experiences really shaped me and, rational or not, I cannot completely ignore stats like W-L record and RBI.

Look, obviously those statistics are shaped by the team around you.  I understand the problems.  A guy who’s a middling pitcher could go 8-12 for a bad team but 14-6 for a great team.  A guy who’s a middling hitter could have 50 RBI but if you put some great OBP guys in front of him he might be more like a 75 RBI guy.  Those stats can lie to you.

But all stats lie.

There is something to being able to rack up wins even if you don’t have your best stuff.  I don’t know how to define it, but when you hear old ballplayers talk about it, I think you have to give them some credit.  Some days you know runs are going to be hard to come by and you’re going to have to try and pick up that 2-1 win.  Other days you know it’s going to be a slugfest and you feel blessed to give up 5 ER in 6 IP of work.  You keep your team in the game.

There’s that adage about “pitching to the score” and I think there’s something to it.  Everyday you hear a manager go apeshit because his team is up by 4 runs and yet a guy is trying to put batters away with breaking stuff on a full count instead of just going after them.

I just read this article, for example.  I think the author got it wrong, however.  He says that there’s no evidence that Verlander “pitches to the score” by looking at his pitch selection in full count situations.  He notes that his choice of fastball is 83% in full count situations but only goes up to 94% when his team is up by 4 runs or more.

A couple problems there.  First off, it might be better to point out the difference is 94% FB selection when up by 4 or more runs versus 81% when NOT up by 4 or more.

But the author might note, hey, that’s only a 16% increase.

Okay, let’s flip it.  He’s using something other than a fastball in only 6% of his pitches as opposed to 19%.

So, in other words, in a full count situation, Verlander is 317% more likely to use a non-fastball when involved in a close game than when he’s pitching with a lead of 4 or more runs.

All of a sudden, it starts to look to me like he’s pitching to the score.

Am I abusing the numbers?  Maybe.

Baseball Prospectus took on the topic a few years back.  But I’m not sure I agree with their premise.

If a pitcher really “pitches to the score” – thus allowing fewer runs in close games than in games in which he is granted a large lead – his won-loss record should be better than the record projected for the average pitcher with that pitcher’s runs allowed and run support totals. That pitcher’s career should show a pattern of him winning more games than we would expect. And, of course, the opposite should be true for a pitcher who allows more runs in close games than in blowouts.

I’d think a better way to study whether or not pitchers really pitch to the score is to look at their W-L % based on runs of support they are receiving.  You’d have to first look at the league average winning % based on runs scored.  (Example: a team that scores 0 runs wins 0% of their games, a team that scores 1 or 2 runs wins 10% of their games, etc…)  Compare those rates to the overall league winning percentage, which is of course 50%.  So we might be able to break that down and say something like scoring 1 or 2 runs adjusts your chance of winning by 20%.  (These numbers aren’t real, just hypothetical…)

Now move over to pitchers.  Take a pitcher who is 18-8, for example, posting a 69.2 winning percentage.  Look at games in which his team scored 1 or 2 runs and see what his winning percentage was in those games.  Given our hypothetical numbers above, we’d expect his winning percentage in those games to be 14%.  If his actual winning percentage is significantly higher than 14%, I think we can say that that pitcher does “pitch to the score”.

My larger point, if I have one, is that some of these statistics have stuck around for a while because there is something to them.  I don’t know that I can just say “look, we’ve been tracking win-loss records for pitchers for 142 years, but they’re totally meaningless and should be completely discarded.”

I just think there’s far too many in the sabermetric crowd who don’t appreciate what goes into a pitcher picking up the win.

Conversely, of course, there are some who don’t appreciate (or even get) the sabermetric stats.  I went to the 1st annual SABR Analytics Conference this past March and somebody in the crowd was bad-mouthing OPS.  “Why should I believe that OPS is a better statistic for measuring a better’s performance than batting average?  OPS is just Batting Average multiplied by 2, so what’s the difference?!!”  He was very angry at the panelist, whose name I have forgotten.

First off, I can’t believe people get so damned worked up over statistic.

But secondly, the fact that he thought OPS = BAVG * 2 was pretty telling.

Whether it’s OPS or a pitcher’s W-L record, if you don’t understand what goes into a statistic, how can you understand it’s value?


Braves (19-13) @ CARDINALS (20-11)
7:15 PM CT

 W-L  ERA  WAR  SIERA
ATL Minor 2-2 5.97  0.4 3.65
STL Garcia 2-2 3.76  0.8 4.22

Why You Might Watch This: Possible playoff preview.  The Braves just lost 2 of 3 to the Cubs, though, so maybe it’s too soon to say so.


Nationals (19-12) @ REDS (16-14)
6:10 PM CT

 W-L  ERA  WAR  SIERA
WAS Gonzalez 3-1 1.72  1.5 2.96
CIN Leake 0-4 5.97 0.0 4.83

Why You Might Watch This: The Nats are playing well and the Reds appear to waking up.  But this pitching match-up doesn’t look promising.


ASTROS (14-17) @ PIRATES (14-17)
6:05 PM CT

 W-L  ERA  WAR  SIERA
HOU Norris 2-1 4.58 0.2 3.80
PIT McDonald 2-1 2.70 0.7 3.81

Why You Might Watch This: James McDonald has been throwing the ball well of late.

  • Jed Lowrie is 5th in WAR (Fangraphs’ version) among all qualifying SS.  The Chronicle gives him some love.  BTW, the NL Central has the #1, 5, 6, and 7 SS on that list of 24.

CUBS (13-18) @ BREWERS (13-18)
7:10 PM CT

 W-L  ERA  WAR  SIERA
CHI Garza 2-1 2.67  0.8 2.90
MIL Wolf 2-3 6.68  0.0 4.68

Why You Might Watch This: Because it’s a big battle for last place!

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