9 Baseball Musings from Week 3
Welcome to Week 3 of my various musings and ramblings on fantasy baseball, fandom, and the sport as a whole! This week, I certainly have some thoughts. Let me know what you think, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to me in the comments or on Twitter if you want to continue the conversation on any of these topics!
With that, let’s jump right in!
1. Rethinking How We Evaluate Walks
Pitcher List Editor in Chief Nick Pollack is going to hate me for this, but I want to talk about football for a second. (Sorry, Nick!) Now, football isn’t exactly known for being at the forefront of sports statistics, but last year, I stumbled across something at Pro Football Focus that got me thinking. When PFF evaluates interceptions, it actually gives a numerical grade to the play depending on how it unfolded. What PFF recognized is that there are many factors that go into an interception taking place, and to lay all of those factors at the foot of the quarterback was both unfair and led to faulty analysis. Wide receivers fall down or drop passes, defenders make spectacular plays, and the weather can be crappy. All these things can lead to interceptions that are beyond the control of the quarterback. So what they do is assign a grade to the play based on the factors at work. So if the quarterback makes a good throw and hits the wide receiver but it goes through his hands for an interception, the quarterback still receives a positive grade on the play.
This has led me to wonder if there are stats in baseball we approach too broadly as well. In this space over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to take a look at some stats that I think we can do a better job of giving more context. This week, I’d like to talk about walks.
Walks are an event in baseball that we lay solely at the feet of the pitcher on the mound. Yet we know that actually many factors outside of the pitcher’s control can affect whether a walk takes place. For instance, a catcher’s framing ability plays a huge role in whether a pitcher gets a call. The umpire’s strike zone changing can absolutely create walks. Should a pitcher really get the blame if his catcher can’t do his part? If a pitch that was a strike in the first inning isn’t called a strike in fifth, how is that the pitcher’s fault? What if the weather is causing a pitcher to not be able to grip the ball as well as he normally would? That’s information that has to be taken into context. I wonder if instead of just having a standard walks category maybe there should be a grading system for any given walk much like PFF does for any given interception. The grade could take into consideration all the different factors I mentioned above and make sure that the appropriate context is applied.
It’s also worth noting that a walk is not always a negative event, yet we treat it universally like it is. Walking a batter can often be a strategic decision. I think of a pitcher such as Shane Bieber for instance. He has a reputation both for excellent control yet almost universally the (correct) feedback on his rookie year was that he needed to walk more batters. The idea was that he would often try way too hard to pitch his way back into at-bats when the count was in the hitter’s favor (2-0, 3-0, 3-1), and he would get hit hard for throwing the ball back in the zone. What we wanted to see him do instead was nibble or make a pitch designed to get the batter to chase it. If the batter didn’t swing or you didn’t get the call, you walk the hitter and start over with a new count. That’s the smart, strategic move to make. Obviously, you can’t do that all the time, and there’s something to be said for not getting into those counts in the first place. But still: Why are we punishing a pitcher for making a smart decision? The same thing goes for pitching around an elite hitter or when there is a runner on second with one out and first base is open. It’s incredibly common to pitch around that hitter because you either end up in a favorable count or you walk the hitter and now you have the easy force out at three bases instead of one and the double play is an option. Again, that’s the smart strategy but we punish the pitcher for doing it. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
2. Players Outside the Norm
One thing I love so very much about baseball is how it so very often bucks or rewrites the norm. Every time we think we’ve buttoned down what (or perhaps more importantly who) is supposed to be successful or not in the sport something or someone challenges those previously held notions and forces us to reevaluate what we know. There are so many players in the league right now doing so as we speak. Willians Astudillo is not built like our stereotypical idea of an athlete. He sports perhaps the most unique hitting profile I’ve ever seen with career walk and strikeout rates below 5%. He’s been told his whole career that this style of play would never find success in the majors, and yet here he is playing for the Twins and finding quite a bit of success so far in this young season. Two different Joses (Jose Altuve and Jose Ramirez respectively) were told they would never hit for power because of their short statures, yet Altuve has become a very solid power hitter (and is sitting on a streak of five straight games with a home run) and Ramirez is one of the best power hitters in the game. Shohei Ohtani might be hurt currently, but he could be changing how we look at pitchers who can hit and vice versa. We were taught for decades that a flat level swing was the key to baseball success, but then Josh Donaldson started the #GroundBallsSuck revolution and changed the game. History is littered with these players too. Jim Abbott was born with only one hand, but that didn’t stop him from throwing a no-hitter. David Cone, C.C. Sabathia, and Cecil Fielder all found incredible success despite having atypical body types for athletes. Satchel Paige pitched until he was 58! I could go on and on.
Basketball by its nature is incredibly limited to specific body types and skills (with some exceptions, don’t think I forget about you Muggsy Bogues!) while football has very, very specific parameters for which players will find success. It’s baseball’s constant willingness/desire to find so many different ways to succeed and to give the opportunity for different kinds of players to find success that makes it shine so bright. There is no norm. I cannot even begin to imagine the distinct players and skill sets we will see in the coming years. I love this sport.
3. BABIP/Players with Positive Regression Coming
Let’s talk about BABIP for a moment. We’re at a place in the season where BABIP can be essential, so I wanted to spend the next two sections talking about it real quick and then point out a few players who caught my eye and who I expect to benefit from positive regression or should expect some negative impact. Before I do so, though, I wanted to discuss a bit how you should use BABIP. I like to view BABIP the same way we do body temperature. If you take your temperature and it comes up at 101 degrees Fahrenheit, then you know something is different than normal. The thing is the body temperature doesn’t tell you what is wrong though. You’re likely fighting off an infection, but what infection? Is the infection a part of something bigger or just the flu?
You could also just be wrapped in a heavy blanket or have drunk several cups of coffee. You also have to know what body temperature is normal for you. My entire life, I’ve always run a little hot (my girlfriend refers to me as a walking radiator), and most of the time when I’ve gone to the doctor or had my temperature checked, I tend to run a little closer to like 99 degrees than the standard 98.6. So if I took my temperature right now and it came up 99.2, that doesn’t indicate that my anything is up as that is pretty close to my normal body temp.
BABIP works the exact same way. First thing you have to do is establish a norm for the player, keeping in mind the .300 BABIP is roughly league average. Then, once you’ve established that normal level, check out their 2019 BABIP. If it departs radically in either direction from their norm, then it likely warrants further investigation. That’s the key part here. You have to dig deeper. You can’t just throw out “Well their BABIP is well off their normal BABIP so clearly there is regression coming!” If you stop there, you could easily be missing something. In this section, I’ll talk about what I do when I see a BABIP radically lower than their normal and then walk through an example. Here’s what I look for in that situation:
- First thing I do is look for an injury. I’ll start with a quick Google search and then do the same on Twitter. If I don’t find anything, then I’ll move on to scanning recent game recaps from the team’s beat writers. Usually, if a player playing through an injury or is banged up they are the folks who will know. If they seem pretty responsive on Twitter it might be worth reaching out to them there as well but don’t count on a response as they get a lot of things to reply to in any given day and you likely won’t hear back but I’ve had some success with it. Finally, I’ll go and check out the player’s Statcast data. If I see anything like a rapid dip in exit velocity or sprint speed, it could also be indicative of an injury.
- Next, I’ll look at the player’s batted ball data, specifically line-drive rate, fly-ball rate, ground-ball rate, and pull rate, center rate, and opposite-field rate. If I see any diversion from the player’s career norms in those stats, I begin to wonder if the player is making a change in approach or trying something different that might take some time to figure out. Note this isn’t always positive.
- If I haven’t found anything yet I check a player’s Statcast data over at Baseball Savant, specifically their xBA, xWOB, and xSLG. It’s also worth seeing how high his exit velocity, BBL%, and hard-hit rate are at. This can tell you if the player is hitting the ball hard but it just isn’t falling at the moment for him. If there is a massive difference between those two numbers and his actual average and slugging percentage, it could indicate that the player is getting unlucky. I also check his heat chart over at Fangraphs to see if pitchers are throwing to him differently and also see if he is getting more of a specific pitch type if he struggles with that pitch type historically.
- It’s also worth looking at the quality of his opponents over that time period as well as the weather. If he got caught in a run of elite pitchers/defenses/bullpens, it could help explain the outlier as well.
If I get through these three steps and don’t find any real deviation in any of these numbers from the norm than my usual method is to wait for more data. It’s entirely possible it could just be noisy data, a cold streak or simply bad luck. At that point, you just need more data. Anyway, here an example of my methodology at work:
Jose Ramirez — Normal BABIP — Above .300 in 2016 and 2017 with a .252 BABIP last year. Current BABIP is .159. Let’s look at the steps.
1. He did foul a ball off his knee at the end of spring training so hard he was carted off the field and actually missed a game a week ago when he fouled a ball off his foot. So it’s entirely possible he’s pretty banged up. Exit velocity and hard-hit rate are pretty in line with his career number, so I’m not leaning that way though.
2. Nothing is too out of line with his batted ball data either. His fly-ball rate is a little higher but only by 3%, so in this sample size, that could be random variance. On the other hand, his pull rate is nearly 25% lower than his 50% 2018 pull rate. This could be something to keep an eye on. Ramirez is an extreme pull hitter. It might be worth seeing if he is either making a change in approach to beat a shift or again if it’s just random variance. I expect that to return to normal but believe you me I will be keeping an eye out in case it’s a new approach.
3. Here’s Ramirez’s Statcast xData:
Ah ha! We might be on to something here. While still not great by any means, Jose Ramirez’s batted ball data indicates that he should have nearly 55 points of average, 170 points of slugging percentage and 100 points of wOBA. This seems to indicate that some combination of bad luck and good defense have cost him a couple of hits early on. This is reinforced by Ramirez’s 89.3 mph exit velocity and 34.0 hard-hit rate seem to show he’s still hitting the ball hard. At some point, you have to expect these hard hit balls to fall.
4. The quality of opponents have not been great so far so that likely isn’t a factor but on the other hand, every single city he’s played in are cold-weather cities (Toronto is a dome, but still!) so it could be that the weather is having an adverse effect on him as well.
In this case, I would likely expect to likely see a rebound for Ramirez’s BABIP and obviously for his production as well. He’s still hitting the ball very hard and has been banged up to start the season. I’ve watched a lot of his games and it does look like his timing is a little, off so that would hopefully help explain why he isn’t pulling the ball as much as he normally does and once he gets that back on track, I expect that to return to normal. Lastly, while his xStats still indicate he’s struggling they also definitely make clear that there is some poor batted ball luck that is impacting him as well. Finally, I’m sure given how banged up Ramirez is the cold weather isn’t helping him any. So I have found several potential factors that could explain his suppressed BABIP, and it makes sense that as it warms up and Ramirez gets healthy we should start to see that BABIP rebound back toward its career norms. It’s not fool-proof, and this is a pretty extreme example; it’s important to continue to check the data as the season goes on to see if the concerning signs actually do rebound, but at least know we know what signs to look for. Perhaps in the weeks to come as we get more data we can dive into some more nuanced examples as well but at least we’ve established the process.
4. BABIP/Players with Negative Regression Coming
Let’s take a look at the other side of the coin. This is both a little easier to figure out and a little less evidence-based than trying to figure out a lower than normal BABIP. What do I do when I see a BABIP that is way higher than their career norm? There are a few things that I look for:
- First thing I do is look for any articles that might imply a swing change. You’re looking for things ranging from actual mechanical changes (holding their hands lower, removed/added a leg kick, that sort of thing).
- Then I move on to the batted-ball data to see if there seems to be a change in approach. Mainly you’re looking to see if the player is hitting more or less line drives and fly balls. Line drives will boost BABIP while a high BABIP with a ton of fly balls makes me suspicious. Are they going to the opposite field more often? Pulling the ball? It’s also worth noting the player’s HR/FB% and how often that player is hitting doubles. If a player’s HR/FB% is down but his doubles are up, then that can inflate BABIP as a home run is not considered a ball in play for the purpose of calculating BABIP.
- Finally, I check the player’s xStats at Baseball Savant. Just like the previous section, I want to look at xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA to see if the batted-ball luck tells us anything. Then I also check out if there are any notable changes in exit velocity, launch angle, BBL%, and hard-hit rate as increases in these stats can be indicative of a swing/approach change or a player putting it all together.
OK, now for the example. First off, if you see a player hitting .400 or higher at this point and he has a high BABIP, you can probably safely assume it’s based on a small sample size. Let’s use a player with high BABIP but normal looking numbers in the Texas Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo. He currently has a BABIP of .464 which has helped him put an excellent line of .317/.404/.916. On the surface, if you didn’t know Choo’s BABIP that seems like a pretty normal or at least close to the normal line, but once you factor in the BABIP it becomes suspicious when compared with the past three years where his BABIP has hovered right around .300. (although it was .330 in 2018). Let’s walk through the process:
1. A quick Google search reveals that Choo added a leg kick during the 2018 spring training, and it appears he found a solid level of success with it last season. Perhaps even if we conclude that his BABIP is going to regress it might be closer to 2018’s .330 BABIP as opposed to 2017’s .305 BABIP.
2. Choo is showing a 9% increase in fly-ball rate, which makes me suspicious right off the bat in this BABIP. He is also pulling the ball about 4% more. The sample size is small enough and the increase is small enough that it might just be noise, but it’s definitely worth noting and keeping an eye on to see if it an actual change in approach for Choo.
3. On to the xStats. Let’s take a look at his xStats versus his real stats so far:
Yeah, the xStats give up the ghost pretty quickly. It’s highly likely a lot of Choo’s early success is luck or small sample size related. With that being said, it is worth also noting that his exit velocity, launch angle and hard-hit rate are all career highs in the statcast era so perhaps we shouldn’t expect as harsh regression as the xStats imply (although he hasn’t hit a single barrel this season which is weird). So in the end, we can say that Choo’s BABIP is a mirage and will likely lead to some pretty extreme regression. The interesting question is how far do we expect it to regress to? With this limited level of data, I’m inclined to expect somewhere around .315 or so, which is significant but still sustainable and above average. This is obviously an extreme example, but as with the previous section, maybe we’ll look at some more nuanced examples as we get more data.
5. Can a Player Be Playing too Well?
So Adalberto Mondesi is doing his best to prove that I’m an idiot (I think we all knew the truth on that anyway). So far he is playing incredibly well with a quite impressive .293/.323/.926 with a .310 ISO! Here’s the thing though: He has only two home runs and three stolen bases. This puts him on a pace for 20 home runs and 31 stolen bases. Now, this still truly fantastic production, but it’s not exactly what we expected from Mondesi in terms of being game-changing stolen base source. So what’s going on? Here’s the crazy part: He’s hitting too well. Of Mondesi’s 17 hits so far this season, 10 of them have gone either over the fence or for extra bases. He has literally hit so well this season that he has mashed his way out of those stolen base opportunities. It’s worth noting Mondesi’s xStats so far though.
Now don’t jump to the conclusion that Mondesi is only getting lucky (although luck is certainly at play here based on these xStats and .366 BABIP) as his incredible speed will always generate some of its own luck, but the number I want to point out is the xSLG number. He’s still hitting the crap out of the ball, but I would expect him to end up on first base a bit more often as some of those doubles and triples end up as singles instead. Again, no one is complaining about how Mondesi is performing so far, it’s just interesting to muse on the idea that a speed guy could hit so well that he ends up not producing the speed numbers we expected. Fantasy is a weird game.
6. Ozzie Albies’ Contract
Pretty much everyone in the industry has weighed in on Ozzie Albies’ new seven-year, $35 million dollar contract, and I don’t need to heap on that. It’s a terrible contract, and it’s both bad for baseball and a bad look for baseball. Many players have spoken out against the contract, and there hasn’t been a ton of positive words and Albies name in the news. This is the strange part of all this. Albies, the beloved super duper star, is likely worth more long term in profit to the Braves than having locked him up to this cheap contract, so I don’t understand why the Braves thought it made sense to put him in a situation for all of us to spend the week bad mouthing this poor kid for signing a contract for life-changing money. Albies is one of baseball’s rising stars and one of its most exciting young players, so I just don’t understand why you work so hard to put his name at the forefront of such a negative situation instead of paying him what they should be.
Most of all I don’t understand why MLB lets it happen.
Finally, I don’t understand why we take a young player and from a labor perspective put a 22-year-old who has played for peanuts in the minors and say we expect you to continue to mire in your current unfair financial situation and go through the increasingly toxic and cruel arbitration situation in the name of the greater good for the MLB as whole. We shouldn’t be putting him in that situation in the first place. The NFL and NBA fixed this problem by having set rookie contracts. Do rookies get paid fairly there either? No, not even close, but they aren’t forced to both figure out how to be an adult, how to be a famous person, how to play the hardest game in America AND be the sacrificial lamb for the good of MLBPA. It’s just a crappy thing to do to the kid.
7. Chris Davis
I don’t know if you’ve noticed from my writing, but overall, I’m a pretty positive person. I’d rather write about pumping up a player than talking poorly about them. One thing I’m always acutely aware of is that a person might be a fan of that player, and I might be diminishing that person’s enjoyment of the game by talking negatively about them and it always just kinda sits there in the back of my head.
This brings me to Chris Davis. Davis was always an important player to me because he shares my disorder. Davis suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has spoken several times publicly about the disorder since being popped in in 2014 for taking unauthorized Adderall to treat his ADHD symptoms. I too have severe ADHD that has only been exacerbated by a lifetime of football-related concussions and take Adderall on a daily basis to help migrate daily life. The thing is I haven’t always taken Adderall, mainly because of our treatment of Adderall and how we talk about it. It is often spoken about and treated publicly like it is a drug of abuse first and an essential medicine second, and that made me very self-conscious about taking it when I was growing up. The most common response I got when folks found out I was ADHD was the old, “Back in my day, we just called it being stupid!” joke, so I avoided taking necessary medicine for most of my life. It absolutely had a negative impact on me.
The reason I mention this is because in 2015, I started taking Adderall again. Why? Because seeing someone famous who was successful at the sport that I love so much openly dealing with my disorder and finding success inspired me. I was 29 when that happened. It’s just one of those things where it’s easy to forget the impact that athletes and sports can have on us.
So why share this story? Davis is having a terrible, terrible season, and there has been no shortage of coverage of his struggles. A few days ago, he got his first hits of the season,and I was so very happy. It was a moment that meant nothing to most fans, but it was really important to me for him to have a day where he stood out. It made me think throughout this week of this specific story from my life and served to remind myself that you never know what a player means to a specific fan. It’s something that greatly affects my writing process, and I’m hoping to get better in the future to not be that sort of writer either.
8. Baseball as An Educational Tool
This also brought me around to fantasy baseball. How can we make fantasy baseball more accessible? I do worry at times that all the stats and in-depth analysis could make fantasy a bit intimidating for younger fans who want to get into the game. That’s when I realized that it doesn’t have to be if we guide them. I was very talented at math as a child, but I was not very good at math if you get what I mean. A big reason I was bad at math despite my talent was because math intimidated the heck out of me, so I avoided the subject most of my life. There was one place where math felt easy and at home to me was when it was applied to a real-life game I could understand, mainly the stock market.
Growing up, my grandfather taught me everything there was to know about the stock market, and we’d spend mornings watching the tickers on the news for price changes and he’d explain trends and growth and all the math behind it. So when it came time in high school for the annual stock market game during math class, I always dominated, and for once in my life, I felt like math wasn’t this terrifying, insurmountable thing. I wonder if fantasy baseball can’t serve much the same purpose. Could it be used in classrooms to help teach and guide children to better understand and use math? In most of the ways that matter fantasy baseball is the stock market game, so it’s not like it would change things drastically in terms of what they would learn and would help develop more fans of the game and help your industry grow. Maybe we should have mentorship programs in schools. I would say too that for parents who have children who are intimidated by math, reach out to one of us in the industry and see if maybe fantasy baseball could be something that could help them feel more comfortable about math.
9. Has Starting Pitching Been Worse So Far?
All my fantasy teams certainly seem to think so. It really feels like it is but is that an illusion? Here are the starting pitching numbers for this season compared with the past three years through yesterday 4/14:
So at a glance it certainly does look like while strikeouts are way up at this point of the season, home runs are also way up from previous years, and the leaguewide ERA has climbed with it. The has been a lot of thoughts as to why this is happening range from a newly juiced ball to a ton of injuries and slow starts. It’s only about 14 to 15 games into the season so it’s hard to draw any conclusions, but if your pitching staff so far this season is in shambles don’t worry I think pretty much all of ours so far and the numbers back it up. That’s the excuse I’m going with at least! It’s not my fault!
Thanks so much, everyone, that’s it for Week 3! I’ll see you next week!