Grand Slams by the #3 Hitter (with a catch)

On April 26 of last year, Matt Kemp accomplished one of the rarest feats you'll see on a ball field. He batted third, and he still managed to hit a grand the first inning.

Traditionally, the best hitters in baseball inhabit the #3 spot in the order. From Cobb to Ruth to Williams to Pujols, it's one thing that hasn't changed much in baseball history. In fact, even notorious anti-traditionalist Tony LaRussa responded to questions about batting Pujols 4th with, "“Where did Stan hit? I’ll leave it that,” (per Derrick Goold). So this is a time-honored tradition, even among the baseball heathens. The downside, and the source of questions about where Pujols should hit, is that you aren't maximizing the potential baserunners for your stud hitter out of the gate. You don't get to see that first inning, bases loaded, best hitter at the plate scenario that gets fans on their feet early. Or at least not very often. As such, there has always been a counter-movement to hit the best hitter 4th, especially when he specializes in power.

It is, however, possible for the #3 hitter to come up with the bases loaded in the first inning by his team batting around, and it does happen occasionally. Very occasionally, but it does happen. Since 1954, it's happened 42 times. Who are the hitters, besides Kemp, who've managed to settle, for 1 at bat at least, the debate of 3rd or 4th by providing the best of both? Who else has hit a first inning grand slam from the 3-spot?

There are only 3 others post-1954 to do it. The most recent before Kemp was Travis Hafner, on August 13, 2006. Before him, it was Chipper Jones, on October 5, 2001. Then, it's way back to 1964, when Billy Williams did the trick in a May 1 game against the Colts. And that's it. So there's your obscure exclusive list of the day: 1 Hall of Famer, 1 future Hall of Famer, 1 promising young outfielder, and some guy named Pronk.

By the way, Pujols did have one such opportunity, on May 8, 2005. What was he able to do when the pitcher absolutely had to throw strikes? He walked, of course.
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Greek God of What?

Kevin Youkilis had a huge year in 2008, shedding the mantle of "Greek God of Walks" for something a little more, well, powerful. He had always been a very good hitter, especially in the realm of plate discipline, but last year, he became arguably the best hitter in a loaded Boston line-up, leading a team that included David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, and Dustin Pedroia in such favourites as wOBP, wRAA, REW, Fangraphs' Batting Runs, SLG, and OPS, many by wide margins. While Youk's .390 OPB was again outstanding, it was right on line with his career averages (.390, .381, and .400 in the previous three years). The .312 BA was a good step up, but not really outside what you can expect to see from a .290 hitter every once in a while. It was the .569 SLG, a full .116 points higher than his career best set the year before, that vaulted him to a slightly less dismissible position on Olympus. And behind that spike in SLG, of course, was a .092 point spike in isolated power (ISO).

The good news for Youk is that ISO is generally accepted as the more stable component of SLG. There's certainly some truth to that. ISO regresses much less heavily than BA, and the correlation is much stronger for ISO from one year to the next (the correlation coefficient-closer to 1 means stronger correlation-for ISO from one year to the next over the past 6 paired seasons is .74, compared to .42 for BA). However, ISO, on average, also changes more each year than BA. The average player's BA only changed 8.2% (.023 points) from one year to the next, while his ISO changed 20.0% (.034 points)on average. I know that sounds like it doesn't make sense, and I won't go into all the details of why, but basically, it is because ISO is spread out much more between players even though it is on a smaller scale. So while a great hitter in ISO might only be at about .250, he can be over .100 points ahead of other players just as easily as a good hitter in BA can be .050 points ahead of hitters the same distance behind him. A good hitter in ISO can drop .050 points and still be good in ISO much more easily than a hitter can drop .050 points in BA and still be good. Compared to the spread between talent in each stat, ISO is more stable. But players will also see larger swings in their ISO.

That's a lot to take in, and I don't blame you if you just skipped it. Instead of poring through it again, take a look at the following graphs. The x-axis is a player's BA/ISO in one year, and the y-axis is his BA/ISO in the next. The line shown is the line of best fit, and the slope gives you an idea of how much each stat tends to regress toward the mean (greater slope means less regression):

While BA is clearly more scattered and more prone to regression, it has much less area to move around in. Batting averages are packed into a tighter range than ISO. This added range for ISO to jump around in means that Youk, or any hitter, is actually more likely to take points off his SLG from ISO than from BA. That doesn't mean ISO is not a good indicator of power. It's an excellent indicator of power, and it separates good hitters from poor much more significantly than BA. We do, however, have to take its stability with a grain of salt, especially after large jumps like we see in Youkilis' 2008.

In the past 5 paired seasons for which we can examine both the jump in ISO in 1 year and how any large spikes in ISO regressed the following year, there have been 13 hitters who saw 1-year jumps of at least .090 points. All but three of them dropped significantly from that peak the following year. The following graph lists all 13 players along with how big a spike they saw in ISO and how far their ISO dropped the following year (note the significant "busts" among the list).

Spikes in ISO greater than .090
Yr. of Spike
Se. Casey
Ar. Ramirez
C. Tracy
Br. Roberts
A. Rodriguez

So one-year spikes, at least in recent history, do not seem to be very sustainable. A more gradual build-up may be, but chances are very high that Youkilis sees his ISO fall back below .200 in 2009. He could still maintain a solid improvement over his previous high of .165, but a lot of the big numbers he saw in 2008 that derived from that huge ISO are likely not going to be there again.

Likewise, you should always be careful at projecting the continuation of power surges simply because they are propped up by the more stable ISO rather than a high BA. If the ISO is well out of line with a player's career, then it is likely to see some significant regression just like you would expect from, say, a BABIP that is well out of line with career norms. Steady progression in ISO, like Youk has had in the past few years, is a good sign, but when you are dealing with a one-year spike this big, scale it back to the career path you were seeing before. For Youk, that means continued improvement from his 2007 levels, but nothing like the 2008 production. So Youk, don't be too quick to drop that title as "Greek God of Walks". After all, it might not be there forever.
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Closer of the Year: Part 3

I set this whole series up as a search for the Closer of the Year, so I guess that now that I've taken the time to explain who I don't think that is, I might as well go ahead and devote some time to covering a few pitchers who deserve recognition for their top notch work. In particular, there are three relievers I want to examine, although one of them is not a closer. There are a few more relievers who had great years which I won't cover here, like the always good and under-appreciated Joe Nathan, the no-longer-under-the-radar Joakim Soria, and the breakout Brad Zeigler (ok, he's just listed here because he's from my hometown, but he did have an unexpectedly good rookie campaign), but these three set themselves apart with their remarkable production in 2008.

The first 2 will surprise no one. They are, as you can probably deduce by process of elimination, Mo Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon. If you read my last article (who am I kidding?), you knew one of those names for certain. The third, however, will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. As I said, he's not a closer, and he was buried in a very deep bullpen. He went continuously under the radar this year and inexplicably missed making the All Star team. His name is Hong-Chih Kuo.

Kuo ranked in the top 5 among relievers in WHIP, WPA/LI, REW, and K:BB ratio and led all relievers in FIP. He's not here as a dark horse or shock value candidate. He's here because he belongs (well, if you take the term "Closer" out of the title anyway). A while back, I wrote a brief article on the artificial inflation of LH specialists' stats due to two primary advantages (the platoon advantage and the advantage of being used later in innings), but that's not what we're looking at with Kuo. Strangely enough, he actually faced right-handed hitters more frequently than the average pitcher in 2008, probably a product of staying in the game to face all the RH pinch hitters opposing managers sent in to face him, and while he did pitch slightly less with 0 out and more with 1 out than average, he pitched less than average with 2 out. Kuo is no left-handed specialist by any sense of the term. In fact, Kuo only failed to complete a full inning 4 times (10% of his relief appearances) all year, compared to 26 times (67%) he went 4 or more outs and 6 times (15%) he went 3+ innings in relief. He was also used as an emergency starter 3 times last year. So he's got the stuff for regular use, and his usage is actually less optimal for his stats than that of most closers who go only an inning at a time in most cases.

So when we see Kuo's K/9 mark of 11.16, it's not just some specialist dominating lefties with a frisbee slider that he can't throw to righties without hitting them in the knees. It's legit. It's also pretty much right on target with what he's done in his career as a reliever (11.07). His BB/9 (1.95) saw a lot of improvement this year (3.94 career as a reliever), which propelled him from a high power strikeout artist to an elite overall level. A graph of his GB:FB ratios over his career looks like a game of Pong, but it was back up to 1.38 in 2008, which helped keep his HR rate, which has always been very good regardless of his GB:FB ratio, down.

Next is Papelbon. Boston's version of Joba Chamberlain put the kibosh on his own return to the rotation and has emerged as the top candidate to take over the torch being passed on by Trevor Hoffman and Mo Rivera. In his third year as Boston's closer, he put forth arguably his finest effort yet. His dominance of the strike zone hit a new high this year as he struck out 77 and walked only 8 (K:BB ratio of 9.63). His walk rate of 1.04 was third best in baseball behind Matt Capps, who strikes out far fewer batters, and Mo Rivera, and the next lowest after Papelbon is over a half a walk per 9 higher. Papelbon has always been a great K:BB pitcher (5.77 and 5.60 in his first 2 seasons), and this year he took it to a new level. He was second to Mo in K:BB ratio and second to Kuo in FIP in baseball.

Even with by the highest BABIP of his career (.313) and by far the worst strand rate of his career (69.5%, after being above 88% in each of his first two seasons), Papelbon still posted a 2.32 ERA. He led baseball with 11 multi-inning saves, more than twice as many as everyone but Mo Rivera and Brian Wilson. His 4 "tough" saves (saves where the tying or winning run is on base when the pitcher enters the game) were second in baseball. The Sox didn't hesitate to bring in their bullpen ace when things got tough in the 8th inning and let him play his own set-up role once in a while. It's hardly the old days where the bullpen ace came in for the biggest outs no matter when they came, but Papelbon is the closest thing to that we have in the game today. While a large part of that is certainly just the philosophy of the Red Sox, it takes the right pitcher to make it work, and it's a more difficult usage pattern Papelbon is following than most closers.

Already one of the games best closers, Papelbon took another step forward in 2008. But he didn't take over the mantle of best in the game just yet. That still belongs to the old master, Mo Rivera. With a WHIP of 0.67 and a K:BB ratio of 12.83, Mo gave us a once in a generation type season. The only other pitcher to post either a WHIP or a K:BB ratio that good was Dennis Eckersley, way back in 1990, when he struck out 73 and walked only 4. Mo's 77 K, 6 BB 2008 season is unrivaled by pretty much anyone since.

Mo's 39 saves (in 40 opps) came with 5 tough saves, the most in baseball. Only 3 times all year did he fail to complete an inning, but in none of those 3 did he record a loss or a blown save, nor did he allow a run, a walk, or an extra base hit. In those 3 games, he faced 3 batters, struck out 2, and gave up a ground ball single to the other. Not once the entire season did he allow more than 1 run in a game. Only twice in Major League history has a pitcher thrown that many games without allowing multiple runs in any of them (Rafael Betancourt last year and Mike Myers in 2000, though Myers was a lefty specialist who mostly went 1 or 2 outs at a time and never went more than an inning), and never has a closer performed such a feat in as many games or innings. Never has anyone done it with so few appearances under an inning.

Mo led baseball in getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone (36.3% O-Swing%). He also led baseball in BB/9, WPA/LI, and REW by pretty healthy margins. He was third in FIP and second in WPA. Fangraphs places him at the top of their Value Wins (a stat based on FIP and IP) list for relievers (Papelbon is second and Kuo fourth, by the way). His OPS against of .423 was a full .080 points better than the next best reliever (Joakim Soria at .503). He was also excellent, as always, at preventing home runs. His GB:FB ratio of 1.77 was a bit lower than his career mark (1.86), but he was still a decidedly ground-ball pitcher. He is one of the few pitchers who has shown a legitimate skill at preventing HR on fly balls at a significantly better rate than average, with a career HR/FB mark of 5.6% since 2002 (when batted ball currently data goes back to) and no single season over 7.5% (a high he actually posted in 2008). His career HR/9 rate of .47 is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 250 IP since 1993 (Tom Tango's documented beginning of the HR explosion), and 2008 was no exception to his inside-the-park ways. His famed cutter has also allowed him to consistently post better than average BABIP rates despite pitching with consistently horrible defenses behind him, so while his .232 BABIP in 2008 was undoubtedly a bit lucky, it's not as out of line as it would be for other pitchers, and keep in mind that his skill at preventing solid contact is even greater than his career BABIP rates show because he pitches in front of such a bad defense, so we are legitimately seeing some skill here. Even if we ignore that skill and assuming it was all luck, however, and look at metrics that eliminate BABIP from consideration (i.e. K:BB, FIP, Win Values, GB:FB, and HR rates), Rivera still rates as the best in the game despite being underrated by stats that ignore his skill at preventing solid contact.

It was truly a special year from Mo Rivera. It's a shame that he never really got the accolades he deserved for it with most of the mainstream attention going to K-Rod and Lidge, but his dominance didn't escape our attention here at 3-DBaseball, nor did it escape the attention of analysts across the country. I'm far from the first to point out the supremacy of Mo's season, and I'll not be the last. When people look back on his HOF career, they'll see his 2008 season shining on an already brilliant resume. He'll be the Eckersley to K-Rod's Bobby Thigpen. It could even be this kind of performance at an advanced age that vaults him ahead of Hoffman even more than his postseason performances. For all that, Mo Rivera is 2008's closer of the year.
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Should We Have a Moral Obligation to Avoid A-Rod in Fantasy Leagues?

The entire baseball community was dealt a devastating blow this past weekend when it was revealed that Alex Rodriguez, long built up to be the man who would clean up the records tarnished by the villains of the steroid era, was in fact one of those villains himself. The reaction I had to learning this news was a feeling I haven’t experienced since the announcement of the findings in the Mitchell Report, and they are feelings that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to accurately convey in words. There are so many things that will (and should) be talked about with this announcement, but I’d like to initiate a dialogue (or at least a monologue) on the impact that this announcement should have on our fantasy leagues. Should we feel a moral obligation to not draft A-Rod based on this tragic news, or is he still fair game?

Obviously, this was a crippling revelation for Major League Baseball, and I believe that it should be dealt with and assessed very seriously by Selig and the powers that be. However, the issue in regard to fantasy baseball is whether or not having a moral opposition to steroids in baseball is the same as having a moral opposition to drafting a player who is a known user of steroids. I don’t think there’s a fan among us who thinks that using steroids is morally acceptable, but does this moral belief directly translate to the realm of fantasy baseball? While this is certainly a tricky issue with a lot of grey area, I think it’s safe to say that these two circumstances are separate entities that do not necessarily have to mirror one another.

The goal of any fantasy owner is simple: win your league. You do this by fielding the best team, which, presumably, is done by drafting the best players available. These vague and general terms hardly capture the intricacies of everyone’s drafting strategies, but most of our strategies are basically extensions of these general principles. That being said, if you perceive A-Rod to be the best player available when you’re on the clock, do you not owe it to yourself to draft him? Or, more importantly, if you’re in a keeper league, wouldn’t you be putting yourself at a huge disadvantage for not keeping the best player on your roster because you need to satisfy your conscience? Think of it this way: do you think the Yankees are going to let him go because of this news? Do you think they’re going to simply dismiss his contributions and his numbers because he’s tied to steroids? Did they do that with Pettitte? Of course not. They’re a competitive team competing in a highly-competitive division, so they’re going to do everything they can to be the best team. I see no reason why you shouldn’t employ the same logic. Why should you punish yourself for this athlete’s personal decisions?

Furthermore, what message do you think you’re going to send by not drafting A-Rod in your fantasy league? Do you really think it’s going to alert the world of what a grave tragedy this is for the game? The only impact it will have is within the small circle of those in your league. And even if you’re in a league like ours here at 3-D Baseball where everyone is family, it’s not going to have that big of an impact. You could take the moral high ground, but I don’t think anyone will really care. They certainly won’t remember that you made that choice in three months unless you remind them constantly. And they probably won’t judge you too much if you did draft him, anyway. Besides, are you not going to draft anyone who used steroids? Especially after we find out the other 103 names on that list of positive users, that may not even be possible.

And even if you don’t draft A-Rod based on your moral code, I guarantee you that someone else in your league will be willing to compromise his moral standards. And it’s not that this person would be all that nuts about drafting someone with the taint of steroids, but why would you pass up such a fantasy talent if he did fall to you that late simply because others weren’t willing to draft him? Is it worth it to put yourself at this kind of disadvantage?

I think it’s also important to ask ourselves whether this is entirely relevant in the topic of fantasy sports. In a way it reminds me of the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal of the 90’s. His affair was morally wrong – no one was questioning that. The debate about the impeachment, however, centered around whether that moral wrongdoing would effect his ability to lead the country as he had before. While there was a lot of partisan bickering, in the end it was deemed that the two circumstances – his immoral decision and his national leadership – did not affect one another.

In this same way I’m not sure that A-Rod’s steroid use is entirely relevant to the fantasy community. In our fantasy leagues we’re only concerned with the stats that players provide, not the context in which they are achieved. This is vastly different from baseball in real life for this one reason: while stats are equally crucial in MLB, the historical context of those stats is what is most important about them. The fact that A-Rod used steroids to help him get over 500 career homeruns wouldn’t matter if that number wasn’t historically significant. No one would care that much when A-Rod hits his 756th homerun if it wasn’t the shot that pushed him past Aaron’s eternally historic mark. And while I’m not saying that any benefits that a steroid user gets to give him better stats in a season over a non-user are not significant, I am saying that the edge in this situation is relatively meaningless when you compare this player’s numbers to those that have defined the sport for generations.

In conclusion, I’m not saying that I’m OK with the news that transpired over the weekend. Hell, I’m pretty damn far from OK. I can’t tell you how hard it is for me to swallow this pill that has drugged the game I’ve always loved and professed to love for the rest of my life. I am saying, though, that these are two different conversations. Don’t feel like you’re compromising your moral integrity just because you choose to draft A-Rod this spring. If nothing else, just tell yourself that fantasy baseball is a business of winning, and you’re just making a business decision.
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Closer of the Year: Part 2

Last week, we profiled Francisco Rodriguez' 2008 season in the first installment of our search for the closer of the year. This week, we'll turn to the obvious NL choice, Brad Lidge. Lidge was K-Rod's NL counterpart on TSN's All Star team and won MLB's award for relief pitcher of the year. He was only the second modern closer to go perfect for an entire season (Eric Gagne was the first, in 2003), going 41 for 41 in the regular season. With one Albert Pujols safely at home in St. Louis, he continued his perfection through the postseason and saved the final game of the World Series against the Rays. We can probably safely say it was the best season anyone has ever had after being traded for the worst hitter in baseball, but again we ask, was it the best of 2008?

This pattern, if you haven't noticed, is an example of foreshadowing. No, Lidge wasn't the best closer in 2008. But I'll be honest with you, this whole Closer of the Year thing was really just an excuse to look at K-Rod's and Lidge's seasons. I don't care who the best closer in 2008 was (it was Mo Rivera, by the way), I care about looking more closely at these seasons and seeing how to better assess them than just accepting the general perception of their supremacy among relievers, and finding out where the save totals go wrong in player evaluation.

I'll admit here, Lidge's season is in a much more grey area than K-Rod's. Lidge didn't pitch as well as some of his peers, but his shortcomings didn't really cost his team any games. He didn't blow a save or lose a game all year, and he only contributed a negative WPA in 4 games all year. It helped that his worst games came when his team was already trailing or tied, such as July 25, against the Braves, when he entered down 1-0 in the top of the 9th and gave up 5 runs on 18 pitches (only 8 of them strikes) without recording an out, or August 27, against the Mets, when he came in with a runner on first (his only inherited baserunner all year) with 2 outs in the 8th inning of a tie game and let that runner, plus 2 more, score before getting the third out and leaving the game. But really, while he didn't always do it spectacularly, he pretty much just came in and advanced his team's chances of winning every time he went out there.

Lidge led all relievers in WPA. He was at least in the top 10 in FIP, WPA/LI, and REW (I'm looking at you, K-Rod). He was legitimately really, really good. It is, after all, a lot harder to get by on smoke and mirrors without blowing a single save than when those devices afford you the leeway to blow 7. Still, while Lidge isn't going to be gracing the cover of Poof Magazine anytime soon, he wasn't without his more modest illusionary aids. Think resin dust and shine-balls.

Lidge surrendered a career high BB/9 and his worst K:BB ratio since his rookie year. When he settled into the Majors as a closer, he not only had absolutely filthy stuff (14.93 K/9 in his second season), he had good control (2.85 BB/9 that year). He regressed a bit in 2005, but it was another great year. With his ability to miss bats (52% contact rate in '04 and 60% in '05), get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone (led baseball in O-Swing% in '05), and throw tough pitches in the zone when he had to, he was pretty much everything you'd ever want in a closer. Then, all of a sudden, in 2006, something changed. His walk rate that had been in the high 2s jumped to 4.32. His K-rate was down as well, though still spectacular at 12.48, but the walks jumped from very good to bad. As we did with K-Rod, let's look at Lidge's career path in exR/G (1 is career average for Lidge, above that is worse, below is better):

As you no doubt already know, it is significant that this happened in 2006 because something happened at the end of 2005 (circa Game 5, NLCS) that seemed to shatter Lidge. From that point, he seemed afraid to give up home runs and trust in his stuff in the zone. He had never allowed enough balls in play to worry much about his G/F ratio (it bounced from .88 in '03 and .69 in '05 to 1.52 in '05), but in general, he had been a slight fly ball pitcher to that point, with a career ratio of .95. Since then, Lidge has consistently given up ground balls over fly balls at a ratio of 1.23. It seems this shift probably came in 2005 rather than 2006 (in which case the shift is even more extreme), but the new approach seemed to come with a more cautious tinge in 2006, if we are to take the accompanying drop in strikes he threw as any indication. In a cruel twist of fate, Lidge's HR/FB rate jumped to a ridiculously high 16.1% (he had been at around 10% even pitching in Houston) in 2006, which no doubt compounded the mental issue as well as directly hurt his numbers.

The walks have never recovered. It is probably safe to say that Lidge will never return to his days as an elite K:BB pitcher. As he showed this year, though, that doesn't mean Lidge is done. He still is, and always has been, an elite strikeout pitcher. Even as fans in Houston and the team itself gave up on Lidge, many analysts projected a return from Lidge. His numbers had been distorted by unsustainably high HR rates, and whether his confidence was shattered or not, he could still dominate hitters. Still, nobody foresaw this kind of season from Lidge, and if the walks actually got worse, where did the improvement come from? We can see in the graph above that Lidge was not severely improved in 2008, and he was nowhere near his pre-Pujols dominance.

One minor improvement was in hit batsmen. He only hit 1 in 2008, and when you factor those into the walk rate, it was actually worse in 2006. That's not particularly significant, though. Rather, the most glaring improvement came in his HR/FB ratio, which was all the way down to 3.9%. As the graph above normalizes Lidge's HR/FB rate to his career norm, this created quite a discrepancy in his actual ERA and and his exR/G. In fact, let's take a look at the same type of graph, but using Lidge's actual ERAs as our data instead of his exR/G.

Notice how the points are similar to the first graph, with the exceptions of 2006 and 2008 where his HR/FB ratios were unreasonable extremes. On the surface, it would appear that Lidge has been on a steep rate of improvement since 2006 and is all the way back to his old form. That's really not the case, though, when we look at the first graph. Did Brad Lidge pitch better in 2008? Yes. Did he pitch leaps and bounds better? No. He didn't pitch nearly as poorly as his results showed in 2006, and he didn't pitch nearly as well as his results showed in 2008.

There's more to Lidge's success than just the home run rate, though. One of Lidge's major perceived flaws over the years has been that he is prone to blow up once in a while. He'll have some bad games. In his 5 years in houston, Lidge had 8 games where he failed to get more than 1 out and allowed at least 2 runs. Seven times did he fail to record an out and still allowed a run. Compare that to Mo, who has 5 of the first type of game in his 14 year career and only 1 of the second type, which came his rookie year when he was still a set-up guy and came in to pitch to one batter, gave up a single, was pulled, and then the guy scored later. The following table compares how often Lidge has these games (expressed as a percentage of his appearances that fit in one of these categories) to how often a few other notable closers have them:

.1 IP, 2+ R
0 IP, 1+ R
(in MN)

*Nathan has two lines because he wasn't a closer or an established pitcher until he got to Minnesota, and was a starter most of his time in San Fran, so one is his career, and the other is when he was in a comparable role to the rest of the pitchers on this list

Part of Lidge's success this year wasn't so much that he completely avoided these bad games (note the two games detailed above fit into these categories), but that they came at the right times. One of them may have cost his team the game (had he shut down the opposition and closed out the game, Philly would have won because they scored what would have been the tying and winning runs in the 9th), and the other cost them extra innings, but it wasn't reflected in the box score, so Lidge remained perfect.

Lidge also narrowly avoided a couple other blow-ups that glossed over some of his weaker peripherals. A prime example was on September 16 in Atlanta, when he notched his 37th save and actually contributed his highest WPA of the year thanks to the high leverage index of the appearance despite pitching poorly. He entered with an 8-7 lead to start the 9th and walked 3 batters (including Jeff Francoeur, which is almost like striking out Joe Sewell), but stranded them all when the Braves mercifully sent Gregor Blanco to the plate with the bases loaded and 2 out. Overall, Lidge's strand rate of 82.9% was the second highest of his career and well above his career rate of 77.4%, but in high leverage situations, it reached extreme levels over 90%. Baserunners he allowed scored 2.6 times less frequently in his 19 appearances with a leverage index above 2.5 than they did in the rest of his games. The result was a gaudy stat line inflated over the overall quality of Lidge's pitching.

Part of this may just be Lidge's ability to turn it up in tight spots. Contrary to what a lot of people thought about him over the previous few years, he's always been a bit better in tougher situations. His career WPA is well above his career WPA/LI * LI. His Clutch ratings (a measure of how he has performed in high leverage situations compared to how he normally performs) have pretty much always been positive by a noticeable amount. He's shown that he's better in those situations for long enough that chances are, its legit. But the discrepancy was significantly greater this year than its ever been, to the point that most of it is almost certainly just the luck of distribution.

Lidge had an undeniably great year in 2008, judging from his results. He didn't pitch as well as Rivera, or a few other relievers in the game, but with his good and his bad coming at all the right times, it's hard to imagine anyone else repeating his success if placed in the back of the Phillies' bullpen, and that at least separates his 2008 from K-Rod's. In that way, there really is a legitimate case for Lidge as the best closer in baseball last year, or at least for his being the best year by a closer. I prefer to try to separate a pitcher's abilities and the quality of his pitching from the factors outside of his skill (like unusual distribution patterns of his performance or rates well out of line with career norms that are historically unsustainable), so when I said earlier that Lidge was not the closer of the year, it was in line with my philosophy of pitcher analysis. I can see the other side on Lidge, though. Maybe for you, Brad Lidge was the best of 2008.

The one thing that I think we can all agree on, though, is that nobody in Philly misses Michael Bourn.
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Childhood memories

When I was a year old, my uncle gave me an old-style wool jersey of my beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

It came with pants and jersey.

I have a spot on my wall where I keep that jersey, next to a photograph of me wearing it on my second birthday. I'm holding a bat, though at two the weight of the bat is such that all I can manage to do is keep the handle under my arm while the front end of the bat rests on the ground in front of me.

I also wear a Cardinal hat and clutch a baseball to my chest. I couldn't be happier.

Surrounding the jersey and that picture on the wall are three others (pictures, not jerseys): one of each of my children wearing that jersey on their first birthday. (The third child, my only daughter, got me in a spot of trouble. When I asked to have her picture taken in the jersey, my wife objected. She taped a damn bow on her head and took her picture in a dress she made just for the occasion. I had to sneak my daughter out of the house a week later without my wife's knowledge and get another set of photos taken, this time with her in the jersey. Guess which one hangs on the wall?)

My living memory doesn't take me back quite as far as the day I wore that jersey and had that picture taken, and while I am sure I am projecting my lost dreams back into it, I look at it now and know - I mean I know - that even at two I was fantasizing about my time years into the future when I would be playing for the Cards, wearing the real thing.

My memory does go back to my first trips out of the house on Halloween nights. I don't know how old I was when I stopped wearing that jersey as my annual Halloween costume, but I remember wearing it until I couldn't shove the extra body parts into it without threatening the integrity of its threads and seams. I remember the sadness, yeah even anger, when my Mom told me on that last Halloween that I couldn't wear it any more. That's not the saddest part about that night. The Cub scouts were having a party, and my Mom - when the jersey didn't fit and I didn't have an alternate costume because I knew I would make it one more year with this precious outfit - put one of my sister's dresses on me, one of her wigs, and some makeup. Yup, I went as a girl. And as if to add credibility to the charade, I spent most of the night crying - I was so upset.

We all have these items - these sacred pieces of cloth or leather or cardboard that the world looks at and wonders what madness has overtaken us that we would choose to keep them over our jobs. We hang them on the walls. We keep them in our wallets. We pull them out on winter nights to keep ourselves from going insane, and to remind ourselves that like spring - with spring - warmth, green grass, leaves, and - yes - baseball all return. And when they do, life returns with it.

But the picture tells another story - and one that damn near every one of us has learned to tell with some regret.

Ok, I'm walking through Grand Central Station - my first trip to New York. My sons and one of my brothers are with me. We are trying to navigate our way through a maze of tracks and trains and tunnels, one of which we know - if we do this correctly - will take us to Yankee Stadium. We walk up to a glass booth, behind which stands a single man. It would be he we would choose to ask which train would take us to the temple that is Yankee Stadium.

His reply would be his version of the story: "Yankee Stadium," he says in a thick Bronx drawl while rubbing his shoulder. "I coulda been a stah. Blew out my damn shouldah in '83."

And there it is - the lingering regret that this picture and that our sacred objects haunt us with every damn and miserable day of our lives which, as precious as they may be, didn't produce what the child wanted, what the child hoped for, what the child needed: a major league career.

The hope is there - in the eyes, in the smile, in the tight clutch of the ball against the chest, in the belief that one day he WILL be able to lift that bat and swing it with a purpose.

But the picture and the jersey hang side by side to remind us all that the hope is gone, the dream not so much deferred as destroyed.

Baseball does this to us. It builds up hope and destroys it - and not just as children. A season that finds us sitting on the couch watching someone else's team celebrate when the last pitch of the season is thrown is always one that tears at our hearts because every spring we delude ourselves into thinking this is the year. Even the miserable Cub fans end every season with the same mantra: "Wait till next year."

And so we do. We wait - till next year. And as the pitchers and catchers report we let the dream come alive once more. It is a strange and blessed thing baseball does to us - building us up and breaking us down. And always, and evermore, we come back and let it happen again.

How can we not?

This will be my first spring in Phoenix. When the pitchers and catchers report, they will do so damn near in my own back yard. My pulse is already quickening, the promise is already blooming. And come October, I will more than likely hang another object on the wall that will serve to remind me that, precious as this time - this season - was, it did not fulfill all my hopes, dreams, and expectations.

And like a moth to the light, I will return to it again and again - each time torn somewhere between the tease and the tear.

There it will hang, a testimony to hope and a reminder of banished dreams.

Where hangs yours?

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Closer of the Year: Part 1

Francisco Rodriguez had a hell of a season, blowing by Bobby Thigpen's single season saves record and being chosen by The Sporting News as the top reliever in the American League. Ever since he came up as a 20 year old September call-up in 2002 and struck out 13 and walked only 2 in 5.7 spectacular innings, then became a post-season hero, he's been considered among the elite relievers in baseball. Six full seasons later, his success culminated with that big number 62 (no, not that #62) just in time for free agency. But was he the best in baseball?

Not even close. Sorry for killing the suspense so quickly, but chances are, if you track reliever stats beyond saves, there never was any suspense, unless maybe you were wondering is he really asking that? Well, I was, but only to set up the article. The saves record is certainly nice, but aside from that, K-Rod probably pitched the worst of his career this season.

Among some, that opinion is unpopular. Having more saves in a season than anyone ever has can't be a fluke, some have argued (I think it was John Kruk who used pretty much these exact words, apparently unaware that his former teammate, Bobby Thigpen, of the 57 saves at age 26 and 53 career saves after age 26 variety, held that distincion for 18 years). It's hard to see anything but pure chance in K-Rod's 69 save opportunities last year, though, which was more than all but 4 other entire teams had. Jose Valverde, with 51 SvO, was the only pitcher in baseball within 20 of that total. No one since 2004 had even had 55 in a season. K-Rod himself had never had more than 51. The only other pitcher in ML history with a season in the 60s is Thigpen. In fact, the last 4 pitchers to hold the season saves record (Dan Quisenberry, Dave Righetti, Thigpen, and K-Rod) also set the record for most save opportunities in a season in the year they broke the saves record. The last pitcher to break the record without getting more save opportunities than anyone before him ever had was John Hiller, who saved 38 games in 42 opportunities in 1973. Sounds like a pretty fluky thing, truth be told. Just like it wouldn't make much sense to conclude that K-Rod sucked because J.J. Putz was the only closer in the A.L. who blew more saves in 2008, judging his season by his save totals gets you nowhere.

Instead, we see that K-Rod had his worst K/9 and FIP since his rookie season and his worst WHIP, K:BB ratio, xFIP (FIP with the HR/FB normalized to league average), BA against, OBP against, OPS against, strikeout total, and hits allowed of his career. His K/9 peaked in his second season at 13.18 and then settled between 12.03 and 12.16 over the next three seasons. Then, in 2008, it dropped nearly 2 full strikeouts to 10.14. Meanwhile, his control has never gotten any better. His BB/9 of 4.48 in 2008 and 4.54 in 2007 are the two worst figures he's posted in his career. His velocity has also been following an alarming trend the past few years.

K-Rod Velocity by Pitch, 2006-08


Not only was his velocity way down last year, his fastball-to-change-up differential dropped from about 10 mph to 7.5. Velocity coming off the fastball and not the change is a bad thing. K-Rod's agent has suggested that the loss of velocity was intentional, and that K-Rod could still throw as hard but chose not to to improve his control. The problem with that story is that K-Rod's control still sucks. He wasn't throwing any more strikes this year than ever before, and he was walking more batters than he has over his career. He wasn't fooling as many hitters as he had been in previous years, as indicated by a drop in swings outside the zone from about 30% to 25%. So if his agent is right and K-Rod is taking velocity off on purpose, he should probably tell his client to knock it off, because he's not throwing more strikes, he's just making his balls easier to identify and lay off of.

There's another significant warning sign in K-Rod's season. For the first time in his career, he averaged less than an inning per appearance. In fact, he didn't pitch more than 1 inning all season until he went 1.1 innings against the Sox in the ALDS. Compare that to Papelbon, who had 11 saves in which he went more than 1 inning last year, or Mo Rivera, who had 9 such saves. Before this year, more than 1 out of every 8 saves K-Rod converted were multi-inning saves. More than 1 in 4 of his appearances had lasted longer than an inning. Even in 2007, he went past 1 inning 8 times in 64 games. This may have been a conscious effort on Scioscia's part to simply save K-Rod for as many short save opps as possible, or to keep him as fresh as possible for the playoffs, but considering:

a)it was the same manager who's always been managing K-Rod, and;
b)K-Rod didn't pitch more than 1 inning even early in the season (which he had doen every year until 2008) when his arm was fresh and Oakland was still threatening for the division,

paired with his dropping velocity, that's not really a good sign for K-Rod, and the effects were definitely showing in his 2008 numbers.

The following graph shows how K-Rod's career has progressed. The figure I am using for runs per game is similar to xFIP, but it normalizes both K-Rod's BABIP and HR/FB to his career averages and uses Voros McCracken's 4 hitting rates from his work on defense-independent pitching stats and Jim Albert's formula for converting them to runs per game. This is to minimize the effects of random variation and luck from his career norms in each single season. The points on the graph are expressed as the ratio of each season's R/G to his career mark, so the horizontal line labeled "1" is his career average. Points above that line are worse than his career average, points below are better.

As you can see, he had his big breakout in his sophomore year. Predictably, he regressed from his big 2004 the following year, and he showed steady declines over the next few seasons. Then, in 2008, he plummeted to his career worst. So it seems pretty unlikely that with K-Rod getting worse across the board, he would have all of a sudden become the best reliever in baseball. But who knows. Let's check it out.

K-Rod was in the bottom half of Major League closers in K:BB ratio in 2008. Eighteen teams had closers with better WHIPs (and one of those teams, the Dodgers, had 2 closers with better WHIPs thanks to Saito's injury). He wasn't even elite in strikeouts in 2008: he ranked 8th among regular closers in K/9. He was really only among the best in the league in saves. Looking deeper at his saves, we can see his total is more deceptive even than his ridiculously high save opportunity total.

Bill James classifies saves into 3 categories: easy, regular, and tough. Easy saves ask the pitcher to get 3 outs or fewer without the tying or winning run at the plate when he enters the game. Tough saves occur when the pitcher enters with the tying or winning run on base. Regular saves are all other saves. Of K-Rod's 62 saves, 39 fell into the Easy Save classification. That was by far the most in baseball. It works out to 63% of his saves. Compare that to the percentage of saves that were classified as easy for other top closers: Lidge 61% (25/41), Soria 60% (25/42), Nathan 54% (21/39), Papelbon 54% (22/41), Rivera 49% (19/39). Lidge and Soria were both in the 60s, but each took advantage of the high percentage of easy saves and converted a higher save percentage than did K-Rod. Only one of K-Rod's saves was a "tough" save. Rivera and Papelbon paced the Majors in tough saves with 5 and 4 respectively. K-Rod's lone tough save, in case you were wondering, came on June 29 against the Dodgers. He came in with 2 outs in the 9th and runners on 1st and second with a 1-run lead, threw a wild pitch, walked his first batter, and then got a groundout to second to end the game and record the save.

K-Rod only recorded 8 saves when he entered with men on base. In those 8 games, he allowed 5 of the 16 runners to score, including one save where he entered with the bases loaded and 1 out in a 5-run game, walked in the first run, allowed the second to score on an RBI groundout, allowed the third to score on a base hit, and then got another groundout for the save. He had a 9th save opportunity in which he entered with men on base; he allowed both runners to score in that outing, bringing is total IS/IR in save opps to 7/18 (39%). That's well below average and puts him in the bottom third of relievers in IS/IR. Three more of K-Rod's blown saves were classified as easy save opportunities, bringing his total easy save opps to 42, more than the total save opps for all but 5 other pitchers in the Majors.

There really was nothing special about K-Rod's season. Even with all the saves (and the accompanying bias in LI, which he led baseball in by a wide margin), he still finished outside the top 5 relievers in WPA. His WPA/LI was less than 1.00 (4 relievers posted WPA/LIs over 2.00). He was simply a benefactor of a perfect storm of circumstances. Lots of save chances, with a disproportionately high number of them being relatively easy, masked the major declines K-Rod showed last year and the alarming trends in his numbers. He really was nowhere close to the best closer in baseball last year, especially with other candidates standing out so strongly. But we'll leave those for future installments. For now, just know that when K-Rod joined the exclusive company of Thigpen, Righetti, Quisenberry, and Hiller, he fit right in.
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