Sunday, November 22, 2009

Playoff Opportunities(?)

Mr. Zimbalist at the WSJ is one of a sizeable number of mainstream writers who, in the wake of the Yankees 2009 championship, have recently argued against payroll as the source of New York's advantage. By extension they also argue against the need for a salary cap-like system in MLB, something the other major American sports all possess. Instead, these writers argue alternatively that low market teams pocket revenue money, that other teams outspend too, or in the case of Zimbalist, that parity exists already. In the case of the WSJ piece, in addition to a couple bailout/Geithner jokes we get this gem of Yankee justification -- since 2004 twenty of the thirty MLB teams have made the playoffs! Hurray for parity!

He's right, technically speaking. Nine of the fourteen AL teams (64%) and 11 of the 16 NL teams (69%) made the playoffs in the past six years. Here's the list if you're curious:

AL: Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Twins, Oakland, Indians, Tigers, Rays, White Sox
NL: Dodgers, Mets, Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Cubs, Brewers, Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks

That actually seems pretty good ... in isolation. Here's the NL parse:

Dodgers - 4/6
Cardinals - 4/6
Phillies - 3/6
Astros - 2/6
Braves - 2/6
Cubs - 2/6
Padres - 2/6
Rockies - 2/6
Brewers - 1/6
Diamondbacks - 1/6
Mets - 1/6
Wild Card spread: West (3), Central (3)

The picture here is pretty rosy. Eleven teams have made the playoffs the last 6 years, and the spread is fairly even. I'm actually a little surprised that no NL East team has won the Wild Card the last six seasons since it's considered the most competitive division in the NL; the teams must cancel each other out via divisional play. All this aside, none of these teams have to contend with the Yankee leviathan until the World Series (besides the yearly interleague drubbing); so it's a little disingenuous to use the NL as evidence of parity if the argument is about the Yankees.

Let's turn our attention to the American League.

Yankees - 5/6
Red Sox - 5/6
Angels - 5/6
Twins - 3/6
White Sox - 2/6
Tigers - 1/6
Indians - 1/6
Athletics - 1/6
Rays - 1/6
Wild Card split: East 5/6, Central 1/6

So, three teams in the American League (the Red Sox, Angels and Yankees) have won 15 of the 18 postseason slots available to them (83% -- they can't win the Central). The only AL parity that actually exists is in the AL Central, where four teams have made the playoffs from that division the last six years. Oh, and guess which are the top three AL teams by average payroll during that period too?

Let's expand our sample size a little further and see if Zimbalist's contention works better on a larger timeline (I doubt it). Here's the AL picture in the wild card era, the past fifteen years.

Yankees - 14/15

Red Sox - 9/15
Angels - 6/15
Indians - 6/15
Athletics - 6/15
Twins - 5/15
Mariners - 4/15
White Sox - 3/15
Rangers - 3/15
Baltimore - 2/15
Tigers - 1/15
Rays - 1/15
Wild Cards: East 11/15, Central 1/15, West 3/15

Now I know that playoff appearances is kind of a silly metric for examining parity (something like winning percentage or run differential is superior without even wading very deep into the sabermetric pool) , but come on. Look at the top spot (and to a lesser extent the Wild Card breakdown). Seems fair to me! How any self-respecting journalist can use playoff appearances to argue that baseball has parity with a straight face is beyond me.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Double Edged Plate

Watching the world series I developed the impression that Yankee pitchers were more effective at keeping the ball on the outer and inner edges of the plate than the Phillies pitchers were. I investigated with pitch f/x data. First, I defined my 2 "edges" of the plate. The pitch f/x strikezone stretches from about -0.8 ft to 0.8 ft in their coordinate system, so I defined the right edge (inside for righthanded batters) as -1.5 ft to -0.5 ft and the left edge as 0.5 ft to 1.5 ft (inside for lefthanded batters). During the entire series Yankee pitchers hit these edges with 55% of pitches to the Phillies 48%, suggesting that yes, the Yankees were more adept at keeping the ball near but not over the plate. To see if these percents are important, I then graphed opponent on base percent against percent of balls thrown to the edges for each game of the series.

As shown above, there was literally no correlation between hitting these edges and the offensive production of the opposing team in this series. This somewhat surprised me but then again I'm not taking into anything like count, type of pitch, stuff, so maybe it shouldn't have. Looking at the edge data however did reveal at least one pretty clear signal. In the series the Yankees pitchers hit the right edge 242 times and the left edge 245 times (out of 889 total), whereas the Phillies hit the right edge 272 times but left edge only 157 times (out of 886 total). The Phillies were much less balanced, as it seems they were trying to keep the ball away from the lefty power on the Yankees. The only game where the Phillies were balanced was game 1 where Cliff Lee hit the right edge 27 times and the left 31 times, which of course was an excellently pitched game.

So was balance actually important in the series? First, I defined balance as the difference between right and left edges hit divided by total edges hit (the smaller the number the better the balance). Then I plotted this against opponent on base percentage in the series. The results are below.

Now there is a correlation, albeit a weak one. The point which appears to be somewhat of an outlier in the top left is the Yankee pitchers in game 1, which was probably due to Sabathia having great balance and then a small sample size of Yankee relievers giving up a ton of baserunners. If we just look at the Phillies pitchers for the series, balance appears to be very important indeed.

In any case, this correlation doesn't prove causation, but it is interesting to see how Phillies pitchers mostly pounded one side of the plate after game 1. Theoretically this just doesn't seem like a recipe for success to me, as it allows the Yankee lefties to sit on the outside corner (Damon's 2 out single off Lidge in game 4 and Matsui's 2 run single off Pedro in game 6 both come to mind).

If anyone wants to investigate the data further, I uploaded it here (note: my if statements are in open office format, not microsoft)


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Game Full of Vacuum and Air Look the Same?

The argument goes like this:

Delving deeper, from The Book we see the leadoff hitter receives roughly 4.80 PAs per game and the 5th hitter only receives 4.34. Over 150 games, that means that the leadoff hitter receives roughly 70 more plate appearances. Over these 70 plate appearances, the amount of runs gained by switching a player from the #5 spot to the #1 spot who is 20 points of wOBA better is roughly one run. This may be erased by properly leveraging an on-base threat at the top of the lineup, but it certainly will not end up being significant to the point of a win or likely not even half a win.

I have a difficult time fully believing it. I haven't read the details of the simulations but it seems to me like we're looking at the situation in at least somewhat of a vacuum. I can think of several effects that make it important for a good hitter to be batting at the top of a lineup (in addition to having the most atbats).

  1. Puts starter in stretch: It's tougher physically to pitch from the stretch, the more time a pitcher spends doing this during a game, the better for the opposing team.

  2. Starter has to deal with baserunners: It's tougher mentally to pitch with a runner at first since there's simply more to think about, any amount of focus that is taken away from the hitter at the plate has to be positive for the opposing team. In the case of a big stolen base threat at first they're also going to draw more pickoff throws and possibly more fastballs/pitchouts to the batter at the plate.

  3. More pitches (short term): A pitcher who just threw 15 pitches to get out the 1 and 2 hitters is going to more tired while facing the middle of the order than one who got them out with 8 pitches.

  4. More pitches (long term): Having the guys who see the most pitches bat the most often is going to get the opposing starter's pitch count up faster and get them out of the game. Also, the more pitches the opposing team sees, the better to time them.

I don't think any of these effects is huge (since the difference between a good/bad obp and pitches/plate appearance are both only about 15%), but they must make the lineup order somewhat more important than just considering total number of atbats it will produce, so some quantifiable effect is being missed in the fangraphs analysis. Anecdotally, Ricky Henderson having a 10 pitch atbat to lead off the game and then robbing the pitcher's attention has got to put that team in a much better position to win the game than someone making a quick out. I would like to find out how much of a difference this really all makes.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Monetary Realignment

As the only major American sport to fully embrace the free market (the largely ineffective luxury tax aside), a frequent discussion topic regarding MLB is payroll disparity. Both between the high and the low (think Red Sox/Mets vs. Pirates/Marlins) and the high and the absurdly high (Yankees vs. Everyone Else). While a salary cap is the ultimate solution, there is no sign that Selig would embrace such a measure; nor that there are even many owners behind it. The Yankees give enough in revenue sharing to cover the bills of the low-market teams; the high markets get the salary flexibility to generally compete against New York; and there is far too much interest in short-term TV/revenue gains to make MLB worry about the systemic damage near-zero competitiveness will do to 1/3+ of its franchises over time.

So here's another avenue I pursued as a weekday diversion. What if we realigned MLB based partly on money? First, a look at the numbers:

Avg Team Payroll, last twelve years (2009-1998, date of last MLB expansion)
  1. NYC Yankees $151,877,338.67
  2. BOS Red Sox $107,635,951.92
  3. NYC Mets $100,632,173.50
  4. LA Dodgers $93,413,092.08
  5. ATL Braves $88,513,588.33
  6. CHI Cubs $84,316,535.75
  7. SEA Mariners $81,486,898.17
  8. LA Angels $81,007,832.50
  9. STL Cardinals $77,536,459.17
  10. TEX Rangers $73,998,363.33
  11. SF Giants $73,004,887.67
  12. HOU Astros $72,274,090.17
  13. PHI Phillies $71,805,386.50
  14. BLT Orioles $71,582,849.17
  15. CHI White Sox $69,609,277.67
  16. AZ Diamondbacks $69,236,991.33
  17. DET Tigers $68,282,048.00
  18. CLE Indians $65,302,489.83
  19. TOR Blue Jays $64,658,291.42
  20. CO Rockies $59,318,811.50
  21. CIN Reds $53,961,987.08
  22. SD Padres $52,990,266.83
  23. MIL Brewers $50,342,928.67
  24. OAK Athletics $47,262,457.58
  25. MN Twins $45,407,544.83
  26. KC Royals $43,619,569.42
  27. WSH Nationals $40,843,305.50
  28. PIT Pirates $39,368,957.42
  29. TB Rays $38,703,228.50
  30. FL Marlins $33,454,107.75
Avg Payroll, last 6 years (2009-2004)
  1. NYC Yankees $197,888,942.83
  2. BOS Red Sox $128,177,616.17
  3. NYC Mets $116,908,463.33
  4. LA Angels $107,318,109.17
  5. CHI Cubs $104,140,432.83
  6. LA Dodgers $100,307,640.00
  7. SEA Mariners $96,710,247.00
  8. PHI Phillies $96,286,106.50
  9. CHI White Sox $94,845,138.67
  10. ATL Braves $92,196,560.00
  11. DET Tigers $91,081,262.67
  12. STL Cardinals $88,623,819.67
  13. HOU Astros $87,402,221.83
  14. SF Giants $85,284,181.83
  15. TOR Blue Jays $71,321,083.33
  16. BLT Orioles $70,995,994.67
  17. CIN Reds $64,333,087.83
  18. AZ Diamondbacks $63,930,177.67
  19. TEX Rangers $63,889,646.33
  20. MN Twins $61,139,756.33
  21. OAK Athletics $61,123,095.67
  22. SD Padres $60,682,365.00
  23. MIL Brewers $59,523,027.83
  24. CLE Indians $59,012,633.17
  25. CO Rockies $58,852,277.83
  26. KC Royals $54,610,888.83
  27. WSH Nationals $50,926,416.67
  28. PIT Pirates $42,166,549.17
  29. TB Rays $37,651,805.33
  30. FL Marlins $34,450,479.33
*Keep in mind the Nationals moved in 2005 from Montreal to DC.
* Payroll Source: USA Today

I examined both the 12- and 6-year period to check if any team(s) jumped up or down the list more recently. So, we can pretty clearly see where most of our 30 teams stand. There's still 4 in the middle that I'll get to momentarily. For now we have...

Pulled Up By Their Bootstraps: Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Mariners, Phillies, White Sox, Braves, Cardinals, Astros, Giants

Too Lazy To "Better" Themselves: Marlins, Rays, Pirates, Nats, Royals, Rockies, Indians, Brewers, Padres, Athletics, Twins, Diamondbacks, Reds

This leaves 4 teams that could sort of go either way: the Blue Jays, Orioles, Rangers and Tigers. The Tigers have started spending a lot more money recently, so I'm inclined to promote them to the big show. While the Rangers have recently lowered their payroll some, this is mostly due to their owner's recent financial struggles; and considering their history and his habit of spending, I'm putting them up too. So that means the Blue Jays and Orioles join the unwashed masses.

This leaves 15 teams in each conference, already an improvement on the currently lopsided AL/NL. I personally think the "3 division winners + 1 wild card" system is a bit sloppy on MLB's part, so let's try to refine that too. I'll put forward two alignment proposals: a 2-division per league method and a 4-division per league method. Please note that both suggestions involve expansion, but since it's been over 10 years and MLB's had big financial gains in recent years, baseball is ready for some more franchises!

Two Divisions per League Realignment:

When it comes to this alignment, I tried to preserve two notions. First, I didn't want to lump direct regional rivals together, mostly for scheduling reasons as a 2-division league unevenly tilts towards the eastern part of the country somewhat if based on region. Second, since we aren't lumping teams together based on distance, I was able to preserve most of the "classic" local rivalries; and with only one or two exceptions NL and AL teams stayed together. Last, to balance it out let's add two new teams; please welcome the New Jersey Trumps and the Portland Proles (locations based on geography/revenue estimate).

The Haves League

The Adam Smith Division
NYC Yankees
BOS Red Sox
LA Angels
DET Tigers
CHI White Sox
TEX Rangers
SEA Mariners
**NJ Trumps

The Herbert Hoover Division
NYC Mets
PHI Phillies
LA Dodgers
SF Giants
CHI Cubs
HOU Astros
ATL Braves
STL Cardinals

The Have-Nots League

The Karl Marx Division
CLE Indians
BLT Orioles
MN Twins
TOR Blue Jays
KC Royals
TB Rays
WSH Nationals
PIT Pirates

The FDR Division
CIN Reds
AZ Diamondbacks
SD Padres
MIL Brewers
CO Rockies
FL Marlins
OAK Athletics
**Portland Proles

Thus baseball can finally have a balanced schedule. It would be 14 games against every division rival (98 games) and 8 games against every non-division league opponent (64), and we'll do away with the interleague nonsense (which is even more useless if we realign based on payroll since all the major cities now share the same league). Interleague Exhibitions are for spring training in my opinion.

For the playoffs, we can either have the top 2 teams from each division go to the playoffs, or the division winners + 2 wild cards (even if the WCs come from the same division). With a 32-team league, I'd even explore sending 6 teams to the playoffs and give the division winners first round byes.

Four Divisions per League Realignment:

With this alignment, I much more tightly grouped it by region; I preserved most of the classical rivalries but the old AL/NL distinction fades away. This alignment emphasizes divisional play the most, and is definitely inspired by the NFL's setup. Under this alignment scheme we add 2 teams, but in different cities to balance the divisional geography/revenue potential. Here we bring in the Mexico City Aztecs and the Indianapolis Mannings to our baseball family.

The Haves League

The Citibank Division (HL East)
NYC Yankees
NYC Mets
BOS Red Sox
PHI Phillies

The Ford Division (HL Central)
CHI White Sox
CHI Cubs
DET Tigers
STL Cardinals

The Haliburton Division (HL South)
TEX Rangers
HOU Astros
ATL Braves
**Mexico City Aztecs

The Microsoft Division (HL West)
LA Dodgers
LA Angels
SF Giants
SEA Mariners

The Have-Nots League

The Joe the Plumber Division (HN East)
TOR Blue Jays
CLE Indians
CIN Reds
PIT Pirates

The Union Division (HN Central)
MN Twins
MIL Brewers
KC Royals
**Indianapolis Mannings

The Wire Division (HN South)
BLT Orioles
WSH Nationals
TB Rays
FL Marlins

The Cesar Chavez Division (HN West)
SD Padres
OAK Athletics
AZ Diamondbacks
CO Rockies

Using this setup we can still use a balanced schedule that is superior to the current one. Let's say 22 games against every division rival (66 games), and 8 games against the other 12 league opponents (96 games). That isn't too many more division games than MLB already has, and once again the interleague monkey wrench isn't necessary. This definitely balkanizes the league somewhat with so many inter-city divisional rivalries, but I feel that strong local rivalries are one of baseball's greatest strengths; especially since MLB's season is so long.

For the playoffs, you can just simply have the 4 division winners go to FOXtober. If you wanted to expand the playoffs with the new 32-team league, again, just add 2 WCs and the top two division winners get byes.


Both setups have their charms, I think I might slightly skew towards endorsing the 4-division format method, because I could see lots of those divisions being really tight and exciting year-long races; while a 2-division format is just a little more impersonal (although probably more balanced schedule-wise).

Now, whichever alignment we "use," there are two other points to examine. We'd need a provision where if a team starts spending or not-spending money over a few years (say there's an ownership change), then the league is allowed promote the biggest spender and demote the new cheapskate. Secondly, as far as the World Series is concerned, we'll inevitably end up with a big market team facing a small market team. Is this fair?

Well for one, this is somewhat already the case, half of the World Series matchups the past decade pitted a big-market team against a low-budget one (2008, 2007, 2006, 2003, 2001). Furthermore, with its current insistence on avoiding the DH, the NL has already essentially become the "inferior" league over the past 15-20 years, as first the better hitters and then the balance of the better pitchers have been transported to the American League. Plus with either realignment since there's no interleague, which teams are truly superior is more hidden as there are no matchups during the season to judge by. So will anyone really notice much of a functional difference?

There are some other benefits as well. It ingrains the common storyline of "underdog vs. favorite," that runs rampant through the American sports landscape. Plus, since a 7-game series is inherently more random than a 162-game season, the low-money team is going to win a disproportionate share of championships. This not only helps boost the perception/illusion of baseball parity in the minds of the fans/media (as the MLB's current playoff system already does), but by giving this "50-50" chance of winning a title to the low-market teams, the Have-Not league will become more competitive relative to itself, much more so than in today's game. With teams like the Pirates only being outspent by $20-40 million instead of $100-150 million, suddenly every team has a greater chance of divisional competitiveness and championship dreams. Perception of opportunity leads to hope, hope leads to ticket sales.

As for whichever unfortunate SOBs get stuck in the same division as the Yankees, those teams are already used to trying to keep up with their lavish rival, and will still be playing on a more equal footing than teams with a fraction of the payroll. Then again ... we could always just create a salary cap/floor that floats as a percentage of league revenues, but that'd be toooooooo easy...