Friday, September 17, 2010

Back to Reality on Home Field Advantage

There is a lot of talk about Home Field Advantage (with CAPITAL letters), and what the Twins should or should not sacrifice to get it. Let’s put this quickly in perspective.

Last night I tweeted that while Home Field Advantage would be nice, I doubt it’s that important. After all, the Twins lost 2 of 3 vs the Yankees at home earlier this year, and they lost 3 of 4 against Tampa Bay at home, too. And immediately, the stats guys want to talk about small sample size, because after all, that Twins are 48-23 at home.

But that’s the thing about small sample size – it’s in the eye of the beholder. If I’m talking to a Yankee fan, that 48-23 record is also a small sample size. Historically, home teams win about 55% of games vs. 45% that visiting teams win. So by playing at home, a team wins about 10% more.

Not that it matters much. The Twins aren’t too far off of that number right now. They have won 68% of their games at home and 53% of their games on the road. So they’re about 15% better at home. I’ll let you conclude which of those numbers – 10% or 15% – you trust more based on small sample size.

Note that isn’t a 10-15% increase in EVERY game. It’s a 10-15% increase in ONE game. That’s all the more advantage a home team ever gets – they never play more than one extra game at home during a series. Also, it’s not for the entire playoffs. It’s only for the ALCS (the 2nd round). The Twins have basically clinched home field advantage for the 1st round, and the World Series schedule was determined by the All-Star Game (which the NL won).

So the question is, would resting the position players and juggling the rotation increase the Twins chances of advancing in the playoffs more than having a 10%-15% advantage in Game 7 of the ALCS? (If, of course, you get there.)

Frankly, I can’t believe it’s even a debate. Home field advantage (lower case letters) might be fun to beat one’s chest about, but it’s not a particularly significant factor, and might be none at all.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Getting Past Defense

When you’ve studied baseball stats for a while, you become sensitive to the trends.....

(Continued at TwinsCentric blog...)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The At-Bat

If you love to watch baseball, you probably recognize the symptoms of a key at-bat. The pins and needles. The excitement/rage. You find yourself a matter of inches from the TV - or hiding behind a throw pillow. You understand, even as it is happening that this is the point at which a game, series, or even season can turn, for better or worse.

That biggest of at-bats has yet to arrive for the Twins, though last night had a doozy. But for the White Sox it was The At-Bat. And, like all the other big moments between the Sox and Twinst this year, it went the Twins way.

It's the bottom of the 7th inning, the Sox are behind by a single run at 4-3. They also have the bases loaded and one out, and are attempting to drive in a run for the 3rd straight inning. The Sox crowd recognizes it may be The At-Bat, and is on it's feet, urging the Sox to find a way to save their season.

Trying to stop them is Twins right-handed reliever Jesse Crain. Crain has been the Twins best reliever over the second half of the season, and it hasn't been particularly close. Mostly his resurgence has been due to a nastier slider that is complimenting his fairly straight fastball. He is the closest thing the bullpen has to a shutdown guy, and he's the closest thing they have to a strikeout pitcher against right-handed hitters.

He needs that strikeout acumen to clean up a mess that he didn't make. Matt Guerrier started the inning for the Twins, giving up two singles. Crain came in to try and stop a bunt, but White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez succeeded in sacrificing himself so the runners could advance to second and third base.

It looked like Crain had already succeeded in getting the second out against the next batter, #3 hitter Alex Rios. With the count at 2-2, he had throw two consecutive pitches to Rios that tickled the outside edge of the strikezone, but home plate umpire Brian O'Nora refused to raise his hand, and Rios got a free pass to first. Now Crain is looking for a strikeout, pop out, double play....anything that will keep the tying run from scampering home from third base.


In some ways, the White Sox have exactly who they want at the plate. Paul Konerko is undoubtedly the White Sox MVP this year, posting big stats (.324 average w 36 HR) and putting them up at big times. Two days earlier he led a comeback from a 6-2 deficit in what was almost an elimination game by hitting two home runs. That's almost typical for Konerko this year. In this game he had a walk, a single and a triple in his first three at-bats.

About the only things he hasn't done well? First, he hasn't hit with the bases loaded this year. He was 1 for 7 with a walk, three strikeouts and a double play to his credit. Second, he hasn't hit Crain. He entered that at-bat 2 for 16 with two doubles and 8 strikeouts. Of course, he doesn't need a hit here. He just can't strike out.

Pitch 1
Crain slips or oversteps or something, and ends up with a delivery that looks terrible and a pitch that is worth nothing. It is a fastball low and away, not even close. It doesn't tempt Konerko, it doesn't set up another pitch, and it doesn't send a message unless that message is supposed to be "I'm losing it."

It was bad enough that I tweeted that Crain was losing his composure after not getting the strike call on the two previous pitchers. Fortunately, I was wrong, and he would show that to me over four of the next five pitches.

Pitch 2
A little spooked by that first pitch, it's time for something else, and the only other "else" Crain really has is the slider. (Crain would end up throwing 20 pitches this inning - 11 sliders and 9 fastballs.) He pokes the outside lower corner of the strikezone with it, gets the call from O'Nora, and serves notice to Konerko that this at-bat has now really begun.

Pitch 3
Within every Season, every Game, every At-Bat, is there always The Pitch? If so, this was it. Crain throws another fastball, and again it's wild, but this time it's wild in exactly the way you don't want. Aiming low and way, Crain throws it....right down the middle of the plate. That's Konerko's "hot zone." Hell, that's everyone's hot zone. (According to Inside Edge, Konerko hits .417 on pitches right down the middle.)

Konerko connects, but fouls it straight back. That means his timing was dead on; he just swung the bat a little off-center of the ball. Instead of a game-tying smack, he finds himself down in the count 1-2, and needing to swing defensively.

Pitch 4
If you're looking for proof after that last pitch that Crain is regaining his composure, it comes on the next pitch. Mauer and Crain opt for another fastball on the inside edge of the plate. That's the kind of pitch that most hitters, including Konerko, can yank into the right field bleachers. But Crain gets it inside just enough keep Konerko from catching up to it. It's fouled off behind the plate, too.

Pitch 5
Enough living dangerously. Time to go back to that outer half slider, especially when it's slower speed has been set up by throwing consecutive fastballs. Crain makes almost the exact same pitch he did for strike one, only a little further outside, probably too far outside to be called a strike. But Konerko has seen that pitch once, needs to respect it, and swings to foul it off and stay alive.

Pitch 6
The one constant in this at-bat to Konerko has been changing speeds. Pitch 1 was a fastball, pitch 2 was slower, and pitch 3 was a fastball again. Pitch 4 was a fastball, but on the inside edge of the plate so the swing needs to start even earlier. Then pitch 5 was another slower slider.

Pitch 6 continues that trend, going back to a fastball. Crain finally makes the pitch he has twice missed during The At-Bat. His fastball hums over the outside edge of the plate, dangerously up in the zone, but up far enough that Konerko swings under it. The At-Bat is over.

So is the White Sox season, seemingly. Next up is Manny Ramirez in an at-bat that has some drama, but Manny is nowhere near the player that Konerko is this year. He proves it, watching Crain's outsidish slider get called for two strikes before swinging vainly at it (when it is a couple of inches outside) for strike three. He simply has no answer to that pitch.

The next inning the Twins break the game open versus the White Sox bullpen, creating an anti-climactic ending. Those runs come against the same relievers who would've pitched if the White Sox tied the game or took the lead, but that doesn't change the importance of The At-Bat. The Sox had their chance to change the course of the game, the series and the division, and weren't able to do it. It would take another half inning for the stands to start emptying, but the season was over.

A Geek Note
You might be surprised that the stats support how big an at-bat that was.

Before Konerko's at-bat, even though they were down a run, the White Sox had a 56.4% chance of winning that game, based on history. By the end of Konerko's at-bat, it was down to 41.2%. By the end of Manny's at-bat, it was down to 25.8%. According to Win Probability Added, Crain was the most valuable pitcher by a long shot last night. And Konerko, despite his earlier contributions, ended up providing a very slight negative value overall on the night, due to that one at-bat.

But you probably didn't need the stats to tell you that.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vegas Votes: Gardenhire

It's easy to forget how sure we were of things six months ago. But looking back can change our perspective a bit...

Remember how Seattle was going to contend in the AL West? How the Orioles were finally going to surge out the basement of the AL East? And how the Twins were going to be in a dogfight with the White Sox and Tigers - and that maybe none of them would end with a winning record?

Yesterday, the Twins won their 85th game while still having nineteen games left to play. I vaguely remember something about PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus' player projection system, saying that the the Twins would top out around 80 wins. But I'd forgotten that the White Sox and Tigers were also supposed to have about that many wins, too. And wasn't Cleveland also supposed to be in the mix, maybe a couple of games back?

Unfortunately, I can't go back and evaluate that because I can't find those projections anywhere (If anyone still has a link to those projections, I'd love to see it.) However, I did do a story a little over six months ago on Vegas Over/Unders, so let's take a look at those and see how Vegas did, and how many wins each team has won so far.

AL West

Angels - Vegas 84.5, Actual 70
Rangers - Vegas 84.5, Actual 80
Mariners - Vegas 83.5, Actual 55
A's - Vegas 79.5, Actual 71

Vegas was right that the Rangers were legitimate, and even ended up underestimating them a bit. And Vegas just about nailed the A's. Nice job, degenerate gamblers. But there are two teams that really surprised, and not in a good way.

Like everyone else, the Mariners massively disappointed the over/under. As negative as I've been about them (starting back in January), even I said that I thought the Vegas estimate of 83.5 wins seemed about right. It wasn't close, and neither was PECOTA, which means we somehow all missed the boat. Either we're all very stupid, or just about everything went wrong for that team this year and we should give them a little bit of a break.

Or, of course, they are massively incompetent. Like, so incompetent their CEO would send out a letter blasting the local media to all his employees. Nah. That would just be crazy.

The other big miss was the supposed division leader, the Angels, who likely will fall quite a bit short of that number. Last March, I wrote:

By the way, if you're a big Baseball Prospectus PECOTA guy, here's your chance to put your money where your mouth is. PECOTA states that the Angels should win about 76 games this year, or 8.5 games less than Vegas. It's the biggest spread between PECOTA and Vegas in the American League. Bet the "under" and double your money.

And for the record, I wouldn't touch that "under" bet with a 10 ft pole. The Angels won 97 games last year, and now we think they're going to win just 84? And PECOTA thinks they'll lose an extra 21 games this year?

I hope the BP faithful took my advice and ignored my mocking tone, because you would have doubled your money. PECOTA might very well end up closer than Vegas to the Angels final number. Are we really not talking about the fact that the Angels are going to lose almost 20 games more this year than last year? That seems like something worth diving into.

AL East

Red Sox - Vegas 94.5, Actual 79
Yankees - Vegas 94.5, Actual 87
Rays - Vegas 89.5, Actual 86
Orioles - 73.5, Actual 55
Blue Jays - 71.5, Actual 73

Vegas is going to end up being close on the Yankees. Both Vegas and PECOTA picked the Red Sox to win that division, but given the injuries that team went through, it isn't shocking if they end up a half dozen game below their projection. Those half dozen wins are going to the Rays instead, and it's not shocking that they would have been underestimated by Vegas. It's not like they're going to draw the fan money that the Yankees and Red Sox will.

The Orioles look like the Mariners - just everything went wrong. I'd be shocked if anyone thought they would be this bad. They used it as an opportunity to bring in Buck Showalter, who is going to look like a genius next year when they undoubtedly do better.

This year's Blue Jays team is better than last year's Blue Jays team, and I didn't see that coming, but maybe I should have. Last year's Blue Jays team outscored their opponents by 27 runs, but managed only 75 wins and 87 losses. This year's has outscored opponents by 20 runs, and has a 73-70 record. The surprise is that this team didn't slip much after losing Roy Halladay and Alex Rios. This would seem to also be worth studying a bit. After all, they're one of only two American League teams that have already passed their "over."

AL Central

Twins - Vegas 83.5, Actual 85
White Sox - Vegas 82.5, Actual 79
Tigers - Vegas 80.5, Actual 72
Indians - Vegas 74.5, Actual 58
Royals - Vegas 71.5, Actual 58

And the other one is your Minnesota Twins, but let's get back to them in a second.

Give credit to Vegas on Detroit, who is going to be very close to that number. Misfiring on the Indians and Royals suggests a gambling axiom I might want to try out: pick the consensus worst team in the division and bet the under. Odds are, with an unbalanced schedule, they'll be pretty bad.

The White Sox surprised everyone, including themselves, with their surge over the last few months. I wonder if we'll give them enough credit for it, or if we'll decide it was fluky. I'm leaning towards the latter. In fact, I kind of feel even they think it was fluky. Do you really pick up Manny Ramirez's $4M contract otherwise? Isn't that a classic "short window of opportunity" move?

But let's get back to the Twins. PECOTA had them below .500. Vegas had them eking out a division crown, but only by outlasting a bunch of other mediocre teams. It had them finishing below the Red Sox, Angels, and Rangers and tied with (blink. blink.) the Mariners. They will overachieve to the tune of 10 to 15 runs over expectations, both over the money guys and the stat geeks.

Oh, and they did it with their leading MVP candidate missing the entire second half of the season with a concussion. So it's not like they lucked out with injuries.

I don't agree with a lot of the arguments I hear claiming Ron Gardenhire should be this year's AL Manager of the Year. I don't think this is his best year. I also don't think he should get it because he's finiahed second so many times. And I certainly haven't agreed with him on all aspects of his logic or style.

But manager of the year is usually awarded to the team that overachieves the most. And if we look at what we really thought back in March, whether via stats or wise guy intuition, that team is the Twins. They are going to win their division. They are going to do so because of an awesome second half. And they not only are blowing expectations away, but are outdistancing another surprisingly good divisional rival.

If we look at the overall results, and we're honest about what we thought six months ago, it seems pretty clear: Ron Gardenhire deserves this year's AL Manager of the Year.