Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Nationals' Postmortem #3 - 'Batting Third, Ryan Zimmerman'

So, armed with the Ashley Hexagon, let's take a look at the Nationals' lineup in more detail. In this series of posts, I propose to look at each lineup slot, and the players who batted there, to see if they are more or less like the average National League batter at that position. Then, we'll see what that might tell us about who the Nationals might like to target this offseason, in the 'drive to 75'.

As a benchmark, I'm going to focus in each position on the player who got at least 80 per cent of the Plate Appearances. If nobody reached 80 per cent, then I'll add in players, in order of total Plate Appearances (PA), starting with the largest, until I hit 80 per cent. To make my life easy, I'll start with the third spot, filled by Ryan Zimmerman for about 86 per cent of the total PA. First, let's see how his hitting profile matched the National League generally:

The right-hand axis is an indication of power. The closer one is to that side, the more likely one has power. The bottom axis shows batting average, the further to the left, the more runs are created through batting average. The left-hand axis is how much walks contribute to runs created. The chart shows the proportions of the average National-League batter at the various positions in the lineup. It doesn't actually tell us anything about the quantity of runs created (using Bill James' most basic formula), only how the different elements are weighted in the total.

The data is based not on Zimmerman's performance batting third, but on his totals for the year batting in all positions, and as a pinch hitter. The key thing to note here is that Ryan Zimmerman's 2009 profile is more like that of a cleanup hitter than that of a batter in the third spot. The question becomes whether the fact that he was hitting out the 'wrong' spot hurt the Nationals' ability to score runs. That's something I intend to cover in a later post, but there's food for thought here.

I see two alternatives. Either Zimmerman should be moved to the cleanup position, or one could consider the possibility that he should bat second, since he has the walk rate, but a lot more power. Sabermetric theory tells us the best hitter should bat second, to optimize his contribution in terms of getting to the plate with men on base.

It's an interesting question. Keep him where he is or move him? What would you do?

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Nationals' Postmortem #'2 - Lineup Overview

This post is an introduction to an in-depth analysis of the 2009 Washington Nationals' batting lineup using some old-fashioned sabermetric methods. Throughout it all, I'm interested in how Nationals' players compared to the league average. Before we get to the actual measure of quality, I'm going to offer a profile of how the Nationals put together hits, power and walks in the different lineup slots in order to generate runs. As a first step, I'm going to excavate the Ashley Hexagon, which first appeared in the 1997 Big Bad Baseball Abstract.

The Ashley Hexagon was described by Gerry Myerson on pages 100-106 It doesn't tell you a whole lot about quality. What it analyses, using a basic form of Bill James' Runs Created, is where a given batter sources his offensive contribution. 'X' percent came from his hits, 'y' from walks and 'z' from power. Usefully, we can compare that to the league average.

Here's a graph (click on it to see it bigger) showing you the National League average. There are three components. The left-hand graph measures the walk component. The bottom is a contact component, but the right-had graph is power, so a negative number at the bottom means not much power.

Here's another graph, showing the Nationals' average by batting order position. As you can see, the Nationals' get more of their runs created by power than the league average in the heart of the lineup.

That 'z-axis' marks the right-hand boundary of the NL average, but the Nationals' push w-a-a-a-y over to make space for their cleanup hitter. Basically, the heart of the Nationals' order was more likely than the league to create runs through extra-base hits. They also tended to walk a bit more. However, at either end of the lineup there's a distinct shortage of both power and, in the leadoff spot especially, walks. It's a peculiar sort of bifurcation. Sock and eye is all in one place.

Finally, let's take a snapshot of actual quality by utilizing the Big Bad Baseball Annual's Offensive Index. Here, we have one line showing the league average of Runs Created per batting order position matched against another showing that of the Washington Nationals.

Well, there's a couple of surprises there. All that power didn't actually generate a lot of Runs Created by those 3, 4, 5 and 6 hitters. Who'd have thought the number three slot for the Nationals offered below-league-average production? And the leadoff slot was about average? What, you did? [Exeunt, red-faced.]

Saturday, 10 October 2009

2009 Nationals' Postmortem #1 - Fielding Overview

Sorry about not keeping up with the Fielding Weekly for the last seven weeks of the season. The trip to England messed up my routine too much, and then returning my roots to the groves of academe didn't help either. I didn't pay much attention to baseball until the last week of the season.

With the mea culpa out the way, let's talk leather. No, not Jim Bowden's supposed trouser preferences, but the gloves of our ballplayers. Actually, maybe you wouldn't want me to draw attention to this. I've seen the figures already.

To recapitulate, the columns below show the Nationals' fielding as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a fielding metric devised by Mitchell Lichtman of The Book fame. It's widely accepted as the 'gold standard' of fielding. The first column is 'raw UZR', which measures the total effect of a player's fielding at a given position, in terms of runs above or below a notional 'average fielder' over the innings he played this past season. The second column is the gain or loss since the last time I did this exercise. The third column is UZR/150, or the total UZR score normalized to what it would be over 150 games. It has a comparative value—you immediately can see how one player at a position compares to another. The fourth column is the gain or loss in UZR/150 since last time. Next we have Revised Zone Rating RZR, which measures how many times a player caught the ball, given the chances to catch the ball. Then the gain or loss, etc. Finally, the average RZR at that player's position in MLB. The order is total innings played at that position. The guys in bold are the biggest gainers in each of the three columns. The cut-off point is 120 innings.

Player              UZR   Change  UZR/150  Change  RZR   Change   MLBaverage
Zimmerman (3B) 17.9 + 5.2 14.1 - 2.8 .748 -.021 .712
Guzmán (SS) - 2.5 + 1.9 - 1.8 + 1.2 .785 +.016 .801
Johnson (1B) - 5.8 + 0.2 - 5.9 + 0.9 .776 +.006 .782
Willingham (LF) - 4.7 - 2.3 - 7.1 - 1.1 .925 +.006 .894
Dukes (RF) 3.6 - 3.6 - 5.8 - 4.3 .893 -.005 .908
Dunn (1b) -13.9 - 6.6 -18.7 +16.7 .651 +.115 .782
Dunn (LF) -14.4 - 2.0 -28.4 - 4.1 .832 n.c. .894
Hernandez (2B) 2.0 + 0.8 3.7 + 1.4 .859 +.005 .813
Harris (CF) - 6.1 - 1.0 -13.6 + 2.4 .935 -.003 .931
Morgan (CF) 13.0 - 0.2 31.7 - 4.2 .960 -.004 .931
Kearns (RF) 2.1 + 0.4 11.1 + 5.8 .893 n.c. .908
Gonzalez (2b) - 3.0 + 0.8 - 5.8 +10.5 .775 +.018 .813
Belliard (2B) 2.2 - 1.1 5.0 - 6.3 .871 -.022 .813
Gonzalez (SS) - 3.6 + 2.2 -26.2 +13.8 .691 +.043 .801
Dukes (CF) - 4.8 + 0.3 -15.1 + 3.5 .898 n.c. .931
Willingham (RF) - 1.0 - 0.3 -5.3 - 3.0 .966 +.004 .905
Maxwell (CF) 5.0 n/a 26.2 n/a .932 n/a .931
Dunn (RF) - 8.1 + 0.2 -33.0 + 5.8 .761 n.c. .908
Harris (LF) 1.9 n/a 12.6 n/a .846 n/a .894
Desmond (ss) 0.3 n/a 0.9 n/a .738 n/a .801
Orr (2B) 3.9 n/a 27.4 n/a .891 n/a .813

Trying to estimate the impact of fielding, of course, is an inexact business. UZR doesn't think Willingham is as good a fielder as RZR does, for example. Nonetheless, we can make some assessments.

1) Going by RZR, which for various reasons I prefer, the Nationals' fielding wasn't as bad as one might think, but it's really not at all good.
2) Adam Dunn dramatically improved as a firstbaseman; but he still was the worst in the league.
3) Alberto Gonzalez was not an improvement over Anderson Hernandez.
4) Desmond probably isn't a significant improvement over Guzmán at shortstop. It may be that Guzmán still ought to be the starting shortstop next season. Unless he's traded.
5) Zimmerman might be a Gold Glove thirdbaseman, but his statistics are not conclusive evidence. Nonetheless, he is a singular bright spot on the infield.
6) Dukes was an average fielder for a while, but by season's end he wasn't. Combine that with his batting problems, and one has to wonder if his off-field baggage really renders him a marginal major-leaguer.
7) Maxwell and Morgan are pretty good centrefielders.
8) Willingham is an enigma. Is he average or not?
9) Rizzo basically traded away his best infield options, where he had a choice, suggesting he doesn't rate fielding particularly highly.

I'll return to the fielding again, but my thoughts are currently moving toward the lineup.

Friday, 9 October 2009

How Clutch Is Ronnie Belliard?

In tonight's game between the St Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers, I found myself rooting for Casey Blake to get on base in the bottom of the ninth just so we could see Ronnie Belliard come up. Washington Nationals' radio listeners will remember the commercial - 'Belliard bats over .300 with runners in scoring position'. (It's currently at .281.) So how clutch is he?

It's well known in the sabermetric world that clutch hitting doesn't exist. Actually, that's not true. Sabermetrics actually argues that by the time we work out whether a hitter is clutch or not, his career is almost over. It takes that many plate appearances to remove the uncertainty. From season-to-season it's not supposed to be a repeatable skill. How does Belliard look on that basis? Is he feasting one year, only to suffer famine the next?

Season-by-season, excluding a 1998 cup of coffee, here's how he did. (Slash line = batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage)

Season totals RISP Close&Late
1999 294/379/429 339/435/527 368/444/500
2000 268/354/389 307/423/474 247/348/289
2001 264/335/443 317/397/475 200/286/260
2002 211/257/287 167/232/200 208/295/264
2003 277/351/409 316/398/439 184/298/265
2004 282/348/425 284/394/454 316/400/453
2005 284/328/450 259/299/468 247/281/461
2006 CLE 291/387/420 269/352/355 320/393/480
2006 StL 237/295/371 192/288/269 125/152/156
2007 290/332/427 267/321/422 311/337/378
2008 287/372/473 305/380/524 200/375/380

When you break it out this way, you see that his record Close & Late is very wayward. Some season's he's hot, others he's not. There's almost no consistent sign of improvement with RISP, either. You could almost argue that he had a talent for rising to the occasion through about 2003, but after that he seems to get worse, until 2008.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

How about New Yankee Stadium?

Back in my misspent youth, a buddy of mine worked out that hitting 20 home runs usually got you a single column on an APBA card with a '1' on 66. So for the rest of my life, whenever a player hits 20 home runs, I always think 'That's a "1" on his card.' (I don't play APBA any more. I went through a Strat-O-Matic phase, and then have been a Diamond Mind-er ever since.)

About a month ago, on Baseball Think Factory, there was a thread about the 1961 Yankees. Don Malcolm, blessings and peace be upon him, made the point (in post 15) that the 1961 Yankees were the first team to have SIX players in the lineup who hit 20 or more home runs.

Then, earlier this week, the New York Daily News published an article saying that the early-season 'home-run glut' had abated, and New Yankee Stadium was in no danger of getting anywhere near the all-time single-season record, set in 1999 by the Colorado Rockies.

Be that as it may, the Yankees currently have SEVEN players in the lineup who hit 20 or more home runs, and actually have a good shot at making it EIGHT. The Captain, Derek Jeter, is currently on 18. So, if you're looking for something to make this final weekend of the regular season interesting, you can keep an eye on this unusual development. Personally, I think it reflects an unhealthy obsession with the home run. Is there anything more boring? Isn't it more exciting to have a single, a walk, a double? Well, I think so.

Since the offensive explosion of the mid-1990s, the most 20-plus homer hitters the Yankees had in their lineup was SIX, in 2004. The most common total of 20-plus homer hitters is only THREE, in 1997 (ALDS), 1999 (Champs), 2000 (Champs), 2003 (AL), 2007 (ALDS). Which is my way of saying, an amazingly powerful lineup doesn't make it easier to win a World Championship. Eight would, however, be a new record.

Trying to Get Back in the Groove

Well, I went home to Blighty for a month and wrote a bit about cricket. I caught a couple of Nationals games via GameDay Audio, but baseball fell off my radar more or less. Then I returned to Canada, and got immersed in the first weeks of the first year of a Ph.D. And then last weekend I went to see the Blue Jays' last home game. At some point that weekend I checked the standings and saw my old home town team, the Detroit Tigers, had an Elimination Number of 7, with the Twins coming to Detroit for four games. So I caught three of them.

So, let's see if I can use these past few days to get me back in the groove of blogging.