Monday, December 21, 2009

The Link Between K's and HR's

I was recently looking up MLB Park Factors to try and make sense of all this talk about free-agents’ reluctance to playing in San Francisco. It’s frustrating and a little absurd coming from a fans perspective. Locals of the Bay Area among many others who have visited the ballpark by the Bay understand just how special it really is. The fans are only outdone by the beauty of the pristine yard. So when you hear Peter Gammons report that “Jason Bay doesn’t want to play in San Francisco, pure and simple,” it can be maddening. But it can also be seen as a good thing. For one, Jason Bay can’t play outfield a lick. Think Manny Ramirez. He has always been a poor outfielder but when he got a bit older he played most of his games in Boston. Left field in Boston has very minimal ground to cover and can somewhat hide a poor outfielder. You can see now how horrendous he is as he has aged further and is currently patrolling the very spacious outfield in Dodger Stadium. AT&T does the opposite of Boston. In AT&T a poor outfield defender is exposed and sticks out like a sore thumb. Also, Alfonso Soriano and Gary Matthews Jr. passed on the Giants for similar personal beliefs that the park would depress their numbers. Well, that turned out pretty darn good for the Giants. Soriano is a terrible defender and seemingly has little left after his 2009 campaign. Gary Mathews Jr. spends most of his time watching the game from the bench rather than playing it. I am here to tell you Giants fans do have to look forward to and if they stay the course the promise land awaits, even if they don’t make that big free-agent splash and we keep those first round draft picks that netted the Giants Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey.

It’s no secret that baseball fans love homeruns and strikeouts. What’s not to like? Also, they seem to go hand & hand from the days of Bobby Bonds to the present Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds. Unless, of course, your name is Barry Bonds (later in career), Albert Pujols or more recently Joe Mauer because they are the very few and elite who can hit for substantial power while also managing to keep a high contact rate.

The homerun and strikeout are also very uniquely linked in the game of baseball. What, you might be saying. It’s true. Fact: They both result in the player grabbing some pine (meat), though one is clearly preferred and applauded and the other, at times, results in broken equipment. But the comparison certainly doesn’t end there. The thing that truly links them is a very simple fact. Neither of them result in the ball being put into play (the field), and thus they become a very reliable and worthy statistic to analyze baseball players. The walk is a very meaningful statistic for this reason as well. It seems the old timers got at least a couple of them right. Worthwhile statistics I mean. Unlike the RBI and batting average, these statistics are largely independent of the other players on the field. A pitcher can in essence protect him self from the factor of luck by striking a batter out. A batter can protect him self from the factor of luck by hitting the ball over the fence, but unfortunately with the long ball it’s not quite as simple as that because though the HR is largely shielded from luck it is not so completely. The reason for this is that some parks are much more HR friendly (Colorado) while others are enormous and a slugger can hit it a country mile only to see it land harmlessly in a glove (San Diego). I will use the ESPN Park Factors to illustrate how big of a difference it can be. The Park Factors basically show whether the park favors the pitcher or hitter. 1.000 means that the park is even and doesn’t favor either. The difference between Petco (San Diego) and Coors (Colorado) is enormous. They play in the same division and yet they couldn’t be more dissimilar how the parks play.

The Park (Years)          RS/HR*
Petco Park (’04-‘09)       .798/.762
Coors Field (‘02-‘09)    1.257/1.258
*RS = Runs Scored Factor, HR =Homerun Factor

This is a drastic example but you can see why it’s important to look a little closer when you compare players. It isn’t perfect but it’s certainly a much better predictor of future performance than, “He was the best pitcher because he won the most games.” You can also see why it’s important to look a little closer when it comes to voting for awards. Because why should Adam Wainwright have been rewarded because he won 20 games? Luckily he didn’t win 20 games (though he came close until the Cardinal bullpen blew the lead in his final start) and luckily he didn’t win the Cy Young Award. Had he gotten #20 I’m fairly certain the Cy Young vote may have looked drastically different. He did, after all, have more 1st place votes than both Lincecum and Carpentar despite his 3rd place finish. A few of the Baseball Writers are starting to turn but by and large they continue to vote the way they did 30 and 40 years ago because baseball is a game of tradition and it somehow pains them to see it broken down so methodically. Perhaps they feel it takes away the magic and beauty of it. We all know that change is difficult and thus it is hard to blame someone for resisting such an unexpected revolution. This has caused a direct contradiction between the way most teams have begun to evaluate players and the way they are seen in the papers. This isn’t seen as a particularly large problem but it should be. It should be because a player is chosen to the Hall of Fame based on his body of work over a career, which includes the individual recognition he either did or did not receive.

To go into greater detail about Colorado, the park has a huge outfield and thin air. Colorado is a pitchers nightmare, a real house of horrors. The combination of the thin air and expansive outfield has resulted in a situation where a player is likely to not only post a high BABIP (because of the large outfield) but also hit a lot of dingers due to the whacky mile high air. A few years ago it was actually much worse than it is today. In 2002 the Park Factors at Coors Field were 1.440/1.600. They made two changes that greatly lowered the runs scored. They created the humidor which made the balls softer and not go as far and thus lowered the homeruns. Additionally, they made the infield grass longer which slowed down the ground balls. Prior to then it was easy to post an incredible BABIP as well as mash balls over the fence. That scenario had the Rockies going through pitchers at an incredible rate and because they have to play half their games there as opposed to the opposition who play at most a few series’, it was far more detrimental to them. It was the opposite of home field advantage. They are also known to turn the area directly in front of the batters box into a sandbox when Aaron Cook is pitching. Why? Aaron Cook is a ground ball pitcher and the sandbox area deadens ground ball and results in more outs and double plays. That’s truly Brilliant. As for San Diego, simply put the dimensions are huge and the ball doesn’t carry.

Back to strikeouts...On the Uggla post I described how it is reasonable that he could, if not probably should, have a more solid year in 2010 if he is more “lucky,” i.e. he posts a higher BABIP (batting average on balls in play). What’s so great about racking up the K’s and whiffs is that this luck factor is eliminated completely. The more strikeouts a pitcher compiles, the less often the ball is put into play and the less likely his team can screw up by either making an error or simply not having enough range to get to the ball. Thus the expression, he has runs in his glove. People will often say this about an excellent fielder because while a team may not be able to score runs while on defense, they can certainly prevent them. And a run prevented isn’t as flashy or exciting in many cases but I assure you it’s just as valuable. The ratio is 1:1. Case in point, the 2009 Seattle Mariners defense allowed them to contend later into the season than expected despite a horrifically unproductive offense. The Giants used the same formula and it’s quite frankly very irritating for fans. There is nothing quite as frustrating as watching your favorite teams Ace lose a 1-0 game while the opposing 5th starter dominates the home lineup.

Giants fans will be happy to know that while the homeruns certainly have ceased since the departure of the greatest living hitter, Barry Bonds, the strikeouts have emerged. It sure is too bad they didn’t put the two together. The Giants struck more batters out in 2009 than did any other team in MLB (1302).  In fact, that's a greater number than the AL record of 1,266 by the 2001 Yankees while the NL Record is 1,404 by the 2003 Cubs. It’s no wonder they played meaningful baseball deep into the season. There’s no reason to think that they won’t continue that trend so it’s time to be just a little more optimistic about next season. With the rotation of Lincecum, Cain, Zito, Sanchez and Bumgarner the opposing bats should be creating more wind than contact again in 2010. Even an incremental improvement in the offense could be enough to take the division, especially when the Dodgers are frozen in divorce induced payroll purgatory. Giants fans are no doubt getting restless this off-season and so am I. The fans, management and the entire world are acutely aware the Giants need to find a way to score more runs.  Even Brian Sabean does (despite the bashing he gets among the SF faithful), as was proven by this comical and facetious comment about Scott Boras. But with the 3rd ranked Farm System in terms of impact talent according to Baseball America and two of the most energetic, exciting players in the game in Kung-Fu Panda and the Freak, it’s time to quit griping and grumbling and understand the glass truly is half full.  The pieces are there. The Giants are truly on the right track for the first time in a long time, and though they’ve never won it all in San Francisco and the franchise has no rings since ’54, there is good reason to believe brighter days are coming. Plus it’s still better than watching basketball (especially if you are rooting for the Warriors).  And it's a whole hell of a lot better than being a die hard Pirates fan (17 consecutive losing seasons and no end in sight). The long awaited parade down Market is inevitable.

While I doubt I have to say it, you really should appreciate the whiffs while you can. Lincecum deserves special recognition because he really has no peers (or fears) and it’s one of those rare occasions where everyone agrees. He’s phenomenal. And he’s certainly helped himself by eliminating that pesky luck.

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