Wednesday, April 06, 2011

SABRMetrics 101: Predicting Wins

First, let’s show the magic trick. People love magic tricks.

The Twins scored 781 runs last year and gave up 671 runs. How many wins did they have?

OK, you probably know that they had 94 wins. Bad example. Let’s use Cleveland, instead. (Everyone else does.) The Indians scored 646 runs and gave up 752 runs. What was their record?

What Bill James showed in the 80s is that if you have a calculator, I’ve given you enough information for you to predict how many games a team won. He called his little trick the Pythagorean Formula, which is an incredibly unfortunate name, because Pythagoras has already coined that, but it stuck. We’ll walk through it using Cleveland’s numbers above.

1. Square the runs scored. (646 * 646 = 417,316)
2. Square the runs against (752 * 752 = 565,504)
3. Add those two numbers together. (417,316 + 565,504 = 982,820)
4. Divide the 1st number by the 3rd number (417,316/982,820 = .4246)
5. That is the team’s winning percentage. So just multiply that number by 162, or however many game the team played (.4246 * 162 = 68.7)

So the formula says the Tribe won 69 games, which is exactly as many as they won. If you do the same thing with the Twins number, you’ll see it predicts they won 93 games, one less than they won. And if you do it for all major league teams, you’ll see that it predicted sixteen teams records within two games. All but three teams are within 5 games of its prediction. It also accurately predicted all eight of the teams that made the playoffs.

Ta-DA! (Deep bow)

The basis of this formula is simple enough for anyone to understand: the more runs you score, and the less runs you give up, the more games you’re going to win. Nobody argues with that idea. But what was revolutionary was how precise it seemed. And how FUN is was. With a calculator (remember, this was the 80s) and an imagination, you could come up with all kinds of insights.

For instance, Nick Blackburn gave up 101 runs last year in 161 innings. What if we had a more average pitcher, who gave up just 75 runs? Just subtract those 25 runs from the Twins runs against, rerun the numbers and see how many more games the Twins might have won.

(I’ll let you go ahead and crunch that one yourself. It’s good practice. Have fun.)

It became a favorite plaything of anyone doing analysis on their favorite team. It became a powerful tool for insight. It became widely misunderstood. But most importantly…(hold it, this requires caps.)


Runs, it turns out, are a lot easier to study with baseball stats than wins. And that was especially true when James dropped his next bombshell. We’ll get to that next time.

If you’re going to any of the games this weekend, I’d highly recommend plunking down $1 for the Twins Official Scorecard. TwinsCentric writers and other independent bloggers will be providing the content for the Dugout Splinters, which is a preview of both teams within the Scorecard. For the A’s series, I’m writing the Twins side while Kyle Eliason (who has been a key contributor for years) looks at what the A’s are up to.

It’s easily the best bargain at Target Field, and you can buy it at any souvenir or program stand. You’ll love it.

Over at Seth Speaks, Seth reviews the prospect hounds’ choices for the minor league pitchers most likely to break out this upcoming season.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Tennis with Gardy

A tennis match broke out in the eighth inning of the Twins 4-3 win yesterday. Or at least I expect it did. It wasn’t one I could see, because it was in Ron Gardenhire’s head. Let’s see if we can get an instant replay….

The Twins were in a game that they wanted badly, leading by just one run in the eighth inning. It’s apparent how important this game was when the Twins brought in one of their closers in the seventh inning to protect the one-run lead.

The Twins half of the eighth inning started out well with a sawed-off infield single by Justin Morneau. Morneau, the designated hitter, was replaced with pinch runner Alexi Casilla. It was a logical move for a manager who wanted to get his big fella some rest and was working to coax a run around the bags, but it didn’t work out in two different ways.

The first way was that Michael Cuddyer immediately grounded into a double-play, so it didn’t matter who was on first base. The right-handed Cuddyer, by the way, was facing left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski, which was exactly the matchup the Twins wanted. But this is baseball, so Rzpeczynski gave up a hit (albeit incredibly weak) to the left-handed hitter he was supposed to get out (Morneau) and then got a double-play against the hitter who was supposed to have the advantage.

And just so the baseball gods got their trifecta, Rzepczynski then defied conventional logic for a third time by plunking left-handed Jason Kubel, putting him on base. (Kubel was then replaced for another pinch runner: Jason Repko.) The next two batters for the Twins were right-handed, so Rzepcynski was pulled for right-handed reliever Shawn Camp.

Once again, the matchup didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Danny Valenica lined a hit off of third baseman Edwin Encarnacion’s glove, and by the time it was chased down, Valencia was on second and Repko was on third.

Now the tennis match begins. Let’s watch the volleys.

Serve - If you were keeping score at home, Ron Gardenhire has an obvious move. On the mound is a right-handed pitcher. Coming up to bat is a right-handed hitter (Drew Butera) who is one of the weakest hitters in the American League. On the bench is a left-handed hitter (Joe Mauer) who is one of the best. Simple – make the move, right?

Volley - Ah, except that first base is open. So if Gardenhire brings in Mauer, Toronto will just walk him. And then the right-handed reliever will face the switch-hitting Matt Tolbert. So Gardenhire will have to play Mauer on his rest day and burn Mauer for a later pinch-hitting opportunity just to have a nearly equally anemic batter up. Obviously, you don’t make that move.

Return volley – But, hold it. Gardenhire has another card to play. Jim Thome, who happens to hit left-handed, is still on the bench, too. Why not have him hit for Tolbert? This is what he’s on the team for, right? And you can’t get a much more critical situation than a one-run lead with the bases loaded and two outs. It makes perfect sense to pinch-hit Mauer for Butera after all, while telling Jim Thome to get warmed up.

– Ooh, except that now there is nobody on the bench to replace Thome after he pinch-hits. Remember I said that using Casilla for a pinch-runner didn’t work in two ways? This is the second. If Casilla was still on the bench, he could take the field at shortstop. Obviously, Thome can’t play shortstop. Never mind, maybe we don’t make that move.

Return volley – Hmmm, but Casilla IS available. It’s just that he’s now the designated hitter. The Twins could move him from DH to shortstop, and all it would mean is that the pitcher would need to then be in the lineup. The pitcher would replace Thome, which means he would be a full nine spots from hitting. Odds are, the game is going to be long over before we get to that spot. So Gardy actually can make the move, empty his bench, and get Mauer and Thome into exactly the spots he wants.

Volley Winner – Well, maybe not EXACTLY the spot. The Blue Jays still had a left-handed reliever, David Purcey, available. (I don’t know if he was warming up in the bullpen or not.) If he was available, then when Gardenhire played his last cards, Mauer would be walked and Thome would end up facing Purcey. Thome hit just .241 against lefties last year. In his career, Tolbert has hit .237 against right-handed pitchers. I doubt Gardy would quote you those numbers, but he knows the gyst of it – all those moves haven’t necessarily done his team much good.

How far into that logic did Gardy go? We don’t know. It might have stopped at Step 1, just because he really wanted to rest Mauer before the Yankees series. What we do know is that he didn’t make a move, Butera struck out, and the inning ended. It didn’t end up mattering. While the battle might have been lost, the war was won.

I just wish I knew how the tennis match ended.