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Sunday 23rd Apr 2017

Assorted Rants, Rumblings and Ruminations from the Mind of a “So-Called” Expert

NOTE - This is my piece for SI.com for the week of May 10.  I thought it was worthy of being archived here as well.  Comments are welcome.  Thanks.

A little over 10 years ago, Voros McCracken first introduced his research on Defense Independent Pitching Statistics, or DIPS to the baseball community.  Little did he know at the time how much his ground-breaking research would impact this part-time hobby, full-time obsession we call fantasy baseball.  You see, while you may not be familiar with the acronym DIPS, you are surely aware of the centerpiece of the work, BABIP, standing for Batting Average on Balls in Play.

The BABIP computation is hits less homers for the numerator with at bats less homers less strikeouts as the denominator.   The result is the batting average on any balls that stay in the yard.  One can nitpick that this includes balls caught in foul territory and doubles hit off outfield walls too high to catch, but the instances of these occurrences is insignificant when compared to the totality of batted balls.  More details are available via an Internet search, but McCracken’s primary finding was that the BABIP was remarkably similar for all Major League pitchers.

Before we get involved with some interesting math, something needs to be clarified.  Often, you will hear or read something like “what this means if you or I were to pitch, the BABIP against us would be the same as it is against Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum.”  Sorry, but this is not the case as the original studies were done using Major League pitching as the input.  In fact, there is even variation within the data on the Minor League level.  The point is, the studies, hence the conclusions are only viable for the hitters and pitchers in The Show.

As a Scientist, I was admittedly fascinated by McCracken’s discovery.   But as a baseball fan, I would be lying if I said I was not a little bummed out by the revelation.   Granted, I fully understand striking guys out and limiting walks are skills that can be demonstrated by better pitchers, but intuitively, I wanted to believe that better pitchers induced weaker contact, whereby limiting hits.  Thanks for nothing, Voros.

But alas, there is hope.  Note I said, hope, not proof, but there is hope that the Scientist in me can help assuage the little kid in me.   Let us look at some BABIP numbers from the last 5 seasons.  This data was all gathered from www.Baseball-Reference.com.

By means of a brief introduction, let us break down BABIP into components.  Batted balls come in three varieties: grounders, line drives and fly balls.  On balls in play, 72.4% of all line drives, 23.8% of all ground balls and 13.8% of all fly balls on the average result in hits.  If we make the leap of faith that line drive percent against is not a skill, a supposition backed by some Mastersball research, then there will be some BABIP deviation based on a pitcher’s ground ball and fly ball tendencies, a factor our research shows is in control of the pitcher.  And while this is a subject for a different essay, there is a balance between the fewer number of hits on balls in play a fly ball hurler allows and the increased number of home runs.

With that said, it is the extent that line drives are out of control of the pitcher that intrigues me.  For a pitcher to induce a lower than expected BABIP, it stands to reason the associated skill is in large part the ability to allow fewer line drives than the average.

What we will do is look at some data splits and compare BABIP.  Note in each case, the BABIP you would intuitively expect to be better indeed is.  This holds form for each and every case.   The data presented will be the average BABIP in each instance spanning the 2004-2009 campaigns.

The BABIP for right-handed pitchers versus right-handed batters was .294 but rose to .305 versus left-handed batters.  Similarly, with lefty pitchers against lefty batters, the BABIP was .297 but rose to .303 against righty hitters.   Obviously, this does not prove anything about the skills of an individual pitcher, but it does suggest BABIP is not a completely random phenomenon as in both instances, the same handedness pitcher held the batter to a lower BABIP.  To add further credence to this idea, the accepted skills of K/9 and BB/9 also follow this same pattern, with the advantage going to a pitcher with the same handedness of the batter.

THE BABIP for pitchers working at home is .297 as compared to .303 on the road.  Unto itself, this does not mean much, but when taken together with the fact that again K/9 and BB/9 numbers follow the same path, it can be argued that in the aggregate, home pitchers are more skilled with respect to reducing, albeit slightly, BABIP.

In the interest of space, only data in the extreme counts will be presented.   In a 3-0 count, the BABIP is .315 as compared to just .286 when it is 0-2.  The intermediate counts also fall in line.  So again, we are not unveiling anything about a specific pitcher’s skills, but globally, in a count that intuitively favors pitchers, the BABIP is decidedly lower than in a hitters count.  So if nothing else, this suggests BABIP is not totally random.

The last set of splits really piques my interest for reasons that will be elucidated in a bit.  The BABIP with runners on base is .304 as compared to .296 with the bases empty.   Looking at these numbers a bit closer, the BABIP with a runner on first is .313.  With runners at first and third, it is .309.  Curiously, it is only .292 with runners on first and second.   For the record, while a five-year average was presented, the above held true for each individual year.  In addition, the corresponding K/9 and BB/9 numbers display the same pattern, which is a pitcher shows a higher skill level with the bases empty.

Here is the part that has me thinking.  There is a tangible difference between a pitcher working with the bases empty and with runners aboard.  With ducks on the pond, a pitcher generally works from the stretch.  However, with the sacks clear, starters will use the full windup.  I have always been of the mind that each starting pitcher is actually two different guys, the windup guy and the stretch guy.  That is, the skills like K/9 and BB/9 may very well be different depending on how the pitcher delivers the ball.

Admittedly, there are at least two shortcomings within this data.  The first is many relievers work from the stretch regardless of the game situation.  The second is some pitchers will work from the windup with the bases loaded or men on second and third.  Neither of these scenarios is incorporated into the presented data, so the precise BABIP for pitchers using the windup versus the stretch is not discernable.

Even with the above caveat, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that something that may differentiate skills from one pitcher to the next is the loss in skills they incur as they switch from the windup to the stretch.   It is entirely plausible that for whatever reason, certain pitchers retain more of their effectiveness working from the stretch.  This may even help explain how some hurlers are able to leave a higher percentage of their allowed runners on base, leading to a better ERA than expected.  There is one more pertinent point to be made.  Recall the oddity that the BABIP with runners on first and second dropped.  The primary difference between runners on first and second versus only on first or first and third is the likelihood of a stolen base attempt is reduced with runners on first and second.  So even though the pitcher is still going from the stretch, he is less concerned about a steal attempt.

Hmm, to be fair, this does introduce another variable and that is whether or not the first baseman is holding the runner on and whether or not the middle infielders are cheating to cover second for a steal or are at double play depth.  This altered defensive alignment may impact BABIP.  But again, the purpose of this discussion is not to draw conclusions; I am not attempting to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that pitchers can affect BABIP.  I am merely trying to open some eyes as to the possibility and perhaps persuade those that do it for a living to collect the necessary data to further test these hypotheses, but I digress.

This is a fantasy column so let us conclude with some potential fantasy applications of the above.  As most are aware, presently, the primary utility of examining BABIP data in-season is to help gauge if performance is fortunate or unfortunate.   As explained, most pitchers generally cluster around .300, so if a guy is sporting a BABIP lower than that, he is deemed lucky and a spike in WHIP and ERA is expected as the BABIP regresses towards the mean.  And if it is above .300, improvements in his ratios are likely as it regresses downward.  The concept is analogous for hitters, except they establish their individual baselines and are considered lucky if their BABIP is above that level.

To be frank, you did not suffer through the previous 1500 or so words to for this, as that type of analysis has moved into the mainstream.   Instead, what I would like to do is propose that we may in fact be overlooking some skill elements, or the lack thereof, in a small sample when incorporating BABIP into the analysis.  Specifically, there may be a couple of instances where what we assumed to be strictly bad luck may have also been some bad pitching.

At this point, it is borderline Pavlovian to write off all pitchers high BABIP as bad luck.  But what if the high BABIP is fueled by a high line drive percent?   Is allowing a bunch of line drives bad luck or bad pitching?  So at minimum, perhaps also noting a pitcher’s line drive percent is necessary to gauge his effectiveness.  And if he is sporting a high line drive percent, perhaps it cannot automatically be assumed his BABIP will regress, until he figures out why he has lost effectiveness.   Looking at K/9 and BB/9 hand in hand with this can help judge how much of the effect is skill.

Something else to at least consider is the domino effect of having runners on base if indeed pitchers’ skills, including BABIP decline when switching to the stretch.  If a pitcher is uncharacteristically wild, the trouble may snowball as he then works from the stretch.  Or even if a pitcher gives up a couple of unlucky hits, the fact he is forced to work more from the stretch may result in numbers worse than he actually pitched, which may cloud our opinion how he will fare in ensuing contests.  The reverse is also true.  We may overestimate the potential of a guy that was lucky on balls in play and therefore did not have to go from the stretch as much, artificially suppressing his numbers.

Obviously the small sample size caution applies to the above analysis, but in this era of leagues with daily transactions and weekly leagues with liberal movement between active and reserve rosters, it is necessary to at least attempt to get a better grip on performance over small samples.  I say attempt, because ultimately, this could be an exercise in futility, at least with the data currently tracked.

HONESTLY?  I JUST DO NOT CARE

Please let me preface by saying I think it is just fine if you do care.  I am not judging those that do, I am simply pointing out that I don’t.  I am not a better person than you for not caring, and you are not better than me for caring.  You see, when it comes to watching sports, I am a huge fan of “the moment”.  The only time I really care about the game is as I am watching it.  And care may even be to strong a word.  Perhaps it is better to say the only time the game matters is when I am watching it.  If my teams win, I give a little fist pump and move on.  If they lose, I shrug my shoulders and move on.

Do not get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy watching games.  But I do not let the result affect the rest of my day or night.  I love living vicariously through the athletes, thinking about what could have happened if I could have hit a curveball when I was 13, or if I could have learned to dribble with my left hand as well as I could with my right.  I wonder if I would have been any good at football if I was not such a wussy growing up or if I would have been as skilled at ice hockey as I was at floor hockey.  I swear to this day I could have been a professional goalie if my Mom did not get pregnant with my little brother the winter she planned on teaching me how to skate.  There Jeff, I said it – it is your entire fault!!!!!

I really love thinking through the strategy of all sports, but mostly baseball.  What will the manager do?  What will the pitcher throw?  When I see a football, basketball or hockey game live, I really enjoy focusing off the ball or puck, watching what you do not get to see on TV and realizing there is a lot of coaching going on, it is not just a bunch of guys out there running or skating around willy-nilly.

With that said…

Player V signs with Team W for X dollars over Y years and GM Z is an idiot.  Honestly?  I just do not care.  It is not my money.  Most teams just print money.  And for the others, it is damned if they spend it, damned it they do not.  I understand you can go over to Fangraphs and look up a player’s WAR, then find out how much money each win is worth then compare to see if the contract is “good” or not, but again, honestly, I just do not care.  I do care how the signing will affect the player’s production.  I do care about the impact on the rest of the lineup or rotation.  I do care about how it matters to yours and my fantasy squad though.

Why did Team X sign Player Y when they already have Player Z?  Honestly, I do not care.  I might if I was Player Z, but even if I was a fan of the team, I have more important things to worry about.  I assume that when I flip on the TV to watch the game, either Y or Z will be in the lineup and on the field, so we will not be playing a man down.  But again, I do care how this might impact playing time with respect to fantasy stuff.

Can you believe Bert Blyleven didn’t make the Hall of Fame?  How about those morons that voted for no one?  Or the idiots that did not vote for Robbie Alomar even though he was very publicly forgiven by John Hirschbeck?  And the tools that voted for Pat Hentgen and David Segui – they should have their voting rights taken away.  Honestly?  I do not care.  As I mentioned earlier, for me, the game is the thing.  I do enjoy reading about the history of the game and its personalities.  But the fact Jim Rice made the Hall of Fame on his last chance does not enhance the enjoyment I received from watching him play.  And if he did not make it, that enjoyment would not have been diminished.  What I do care about is the wonderful memories I have as a young teenager, arguing with my Grandpa that Fred Lynn is better than Rice.  Whether or not a player is deemed a Hall of Famer means nothing to me.  It does not alter my perception of them.

Since he admitted to using steroids, I think Mark McGwire’s 70 home run season should be stricken from the record book.  Honestly?  I do not care.  Truth be told, all talk about records bores me, regardless of the record or the sport.  There are actually two reasons.  The first is similar to how I feel about Hall of Fame voting.  In my not so humble opinion, unless we are comparing apples to apples, ordering and ranking accomplishments in different years, decades and eras is meaningless to me.  And yes, I am aware of the attempts to normalize such things using ERA+ and OPS+, etc.  And while it may seem like the comparison moves from apples to oranges to apples to apples, it is more like comparing a Granny Smith to a Macintosh.  Sure, they are both apples, but they are not the same thus it is still opinion which is better, even if you find a means to quantify the difference.  The second reason may seem a bit elitist, but it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want to.  I honestly do not care if someone hit more homers than someone else, or scored more goals, or caught more touchdowns or blocked more shots.  None of this makes them a better person and like I mentioned, for me, the in-the-moment game is the thing.  I can even extend this to something real and that is the attempt by the National Fantasy Baseball Championship to generate lifetime standings and to present all-time money leaders.  Really, I honestly do not care where I sit on these lists.  What I care about is the fact that 6 years ago, I was a horrible drafter and have worked at it to a point I now feel I can hold my own with anyone when it comes to a snake draft.  What I care about is six years ago, I could calculate a dollar value to the 4th decimal place, but it did not help me win an auction.  But now, I care about the fact I have learned valuation is a tool and the proof is in back-to-back championships in the NFBC NL-only auctions.  But does winning these leagues make me a better person than I was six years ago?  Hardly.

I am not really sure why I decided to write this.  Perhaps it is therapeutic because I am dealing with a situation in my personal life that requires a great deal of my care, thus rendering the rest of this scantly relevant.  But I would like to think that much of this would be true regardless.

Thanks for “listening”.

And do not get me started on Tiger Woods or Leno/Letterman/Conan or Jennifer Aniston or American Idol or Brett Favre or ….

WHY TWO SITES ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Welcome to the first ever posting of Organized Chaos: Assorted Rants, Rumblings and Ruminations from the Mind of a “So-Called” Expert.  I wanted to go with “Grey Matter” but it seems as though that is already taken by some guy at ESPN.

Part of the reason we merged with CREATiVESPORTS was so that I could devote less of my time to the business side of things and more towards the content.  Something I have longed to do for several years is to go back to my roots and do more free-form writing.  So while I will still be providing my usual stable of subscription content, I now also have a vehicle to just be me.  I honestly have no idea how frequently I will be posting, but it will be more than I did last summer but not as much as Ashton Kutcher does on Twitter.  There will also be times, likely many, I will branch away from strictly fantasy baseball content.  But that’s one of the advantages of being an independent site; we are our own bosses.

Speaking of the merger, I thought I would share some of my thoughts about the past couple of months as we have agreed to take this very exciting step.  But first, I would like to give a hearty hello to those coming over from CREATiVESPORTS and to those finding us for the first time.  And of course, I would like to welcome back the loyal followers of Mastersball.

Merging was not easy for me.  But after we publicly announced our plans at the Arizona First Pitch Forum last November, and the most frequent response was “what took you so long”, I knew we made the right decision.

You may also be wondering “what took you so long?”  Well, the reason is largely because I am a very obstinate, bull-headed individual and never quite felt comfortable that merging would be the most beneficial endeavor for all involved.  But the stars obviously aligned and here we are today, Mastersball and CREATiVESPORTS united as one.

It took some pretty strong convincing and some selfless concessions by many involved to make this all happen.  Perhaps the best manner to proceed is to talk a little about the principles involved, maybe comparing them in a way to some names you may recognize.

None of this would have been possible without the cooperation of my partner from last season, Gary Jennison.  There is no way I could have produced a quality product last season without his partnership.  And there is no way I would have agreed to the merger if I did not sense Gary would be on board with the new team.  You see, in a way, Gary is a bit like Chase Utley, a quiet superstar on a team full of better known superstars.  Back when I first met Gary, Utley was projected to be a platoon third baseman, with neither a bat nor glove strong enough to warrant a full time shot at the position.  But being the ultimate professional, Utley accepted a move to second base and worked his butt off to become one of the best at the position in a quiet, yet professional manner.

Another person without whom none of this would have been possible is old friend and partner-again, Rob Leibowitz.  Rob and I were together for 10 years, before he accepted an opportunity to join the growing Fanball crew for the 2009 campaign.  Before we merged with CREATiVESPORTS, a big part of the reason I felt comfortable reworking the Mastersball business model was the anticipation Rob would be coming back home, so to speak.  When it came to fruition, I was elated.  But not long thereafter, the talks with CREATiVESPORTS picked up and we needed to be fair. Rob agreed to be part of a 4-man operation, not a merged site.  But when I presented him with the situation, he was all for it.  In some ways, Rob reminds me of Andy Pettitte.  Pettitte has the reputation of being one of the most consistent, reliable and steady performers in the game.  And when you need him the most, like Rob, Pettitte is best in crunch time.  Of course the analogy is furthered just a bit by the fact both Rob and Pettitte left the roost for what they thought would be greener pastures, only to return.  Sorry bud, couldn’t resist.

Every team needs a respected leader and we are no different.  A good part of the reason I agreed to merge was the inclusion of Brian Walton, a long-time CREATiVESPORTS contributor, fellow XFL and Tout Wars spirited combatant as well as friend.  Brian has a lot in common with Derek Jeter.  Both are equally respected for their on the field and off the field accomplishments.  Neither are afraid to step up behind the scenes when needed to keep the team in line, but they do it in a respectful and constructive matter.

 I am not exactly sure where to begin when I think about JP Kastner.  Perhaps he had an inkling of what was to come, but his voluntary efforts to physically resurrect Mastersball in the form of a living, working web-site was beyond instrumental.  Sure, his helping out was part of an agreement between Lawr and myself for the 2009 season, but what JP did with sparse resources in the limited time he had was amazing.  As the season wore on and I realized that even with JP’s mastery behind the scenes and Gary’s work on the projection engine and other content, we were not set up to continue to produce a product worthy of the Mastersball brand without some changes.  So I casted a line and faster than the speed of light, JP took the bait and we had ourselves a business manager.  Apparently, this was step one of JP’s master plan and soon the merger talk morphed from a whisper to a scream and ultimately into his vision.  As suggested earlier, I was the limiting reagent with respect to a merger, so what made me change my mind?  After watching JP in action, I saw a lot of Theo Epstein in him.  They both combine a youthful enthusiasm with maturity beyond their years.  Theo is faced with the daunting task of competing against a rival with deep pockets and quality brain trust.  In order to do so, he needs to be creative, maximizing productivity by combining building from within along with coming up with sufficient revenue streams to remain competitive from that perspective as well.  In essence, he is managing two different models, but needs to do so to compete.  JP is faced with a similar challenge as he is entrusted with organically growing a quality pay product while simultaneously developing a niche in today’s technologically advancing landscape dominated by Twitter, Facebook, podcasts and the like.

And finally, none of this would be possible without the selflessness of my good friend Lawr Michaels.  Much like Alex Rodriguez agreeing to shift to third base in deference to the Yankees already having some guy named Jeter at short, Lawr agreed to merging under the Mastersball name after sacrificing over a decade’s worth of blood sweat and tears growing CREATiVESPORTS into a very special entity.  I hope the other guys do not mind, but I am going to offer a second analogy for Lawr as he reminds me a lot of Angels’ Skipper Mike Scioscia.  Both are often considered unconventional, both have their moves and actions heavily scrutinized but you know what?  Both always manage to get the maximum results from their efforts and are incredibly successful at what they do.  I would say they both know a little something about something, no?

This story would not be complete without two more important citations.

Mastersball would not exist without the efforts of founder and friend Jason Grey who was kind enough to let me resurrect the name he built from scratch into a highly respected force in the industry.  Describing Jason is easy, but requires borrowing an analogy outside of baseball and will be readily recognized by pro wrestling fans.  When it comes to those making their living in the industry, Jason is the best there was, the best there is and the best there ever will be.

That leaves just one more person to cover.  Actually, the person is not an individual but a group and that group is you, the loyal reader.  You guys make this labor of love worthwhile.  Why?  You are very much like the St. Louis Cardinals fandom.  There is not a group of fans in sport more rabid, more knowledgeable and more hard core but yet still classy and respectful.  While you demand excellence, you are not shy about showing your appreciation.  It is an extreme pleasure to be associated with such a great group of fantasy enthusiasts.

So who am I in this story?  Let’s just say that today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

 

THEN YOU MIGHT NOT NEED A PAY SERVICE

It is no secret that I am a forum rat.  While I only post on a select few, I frequent many.  Part of the reason is for the entertainment, but it is also a great way to take the pulse of the fantasy community which helps to plan content.

This is the time of the year every forum has the annual query, “Can someone recommend a decent pay service?”   In general, there are three canned responses:

“Everything you need is right here at fill-in-the-name-of-the-forum.com.”

“Why pay for information when you can get anything you need for free?”

And then a few actually give recommendations.

And truth be told, all three are legitimate.  You see, this part-hobby, part-obsession we call fantasy baseball can be played on many levels.  For some, it is quite easy to compete without investing anything other than time.  For others, pay services provide a needed edge.

As a public service, I thought I would take a few minutes to help you decide if a pay service is right for you, so here are the top ten reasons why you might not need a pay service.

10.  If you are already winning all 20 of your Yahoo leagues, then you might not need a pay service.

9.  If you think a standard league has 10 teams with a lineup comprising 1C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, 3OF a UT and 7 pitchers, then you might not need a pay service.

8.  If your favorite announcer is Joe Morgan, then you might not need a pay service.

7.  If your preparation consists of hanging out at your local Barnes and Noble reading (but not buying) the magazines for a few hours, then you might not need a pay service.

6.  If you believe socalledexpert is one word, then you might not need a pay service..

5.  If you go to family reunions to meet chicks, then you…oh wait, wrong list.

4.  If you have never had Willie Bloomquist on any of your teams, then you might not need a pay service.

3.  If your keeper list is Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Chase Utley and Tim Lincecum, then you might not need a pay service.

2.  If you have ever publicly called out or challenged Matthew Berry to be in your league, then you might not need a pay service.

1.  If you think I’m an asshole for writing this because you resemble one of these remarks, then you might not need a pay service.  They’re just jokes.  Well, they’re supposed to be anyway.

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