Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mariano Rivera-Pretty Good!

The written word does a poor job of relaying sarcasm, so I hope the title of this post effectively conveys that I use that title facetiously, since Mariano Rivera isn't just pretty good--he's the best closer of all time, and my point with this post is to show just how totally dominating he was, and how it will be nearly impossible to duplicate, or in my opinion, even come close.

I won't speak for others, but I audibly gasped when I heard the news about Rivera, because at his age, one doesn't just rehab and come back from a torn ACL. It would be difficult enough for someone significantly younger than he is, but he'll be the ultimate determinant of whether he can come back. I'll demonstrate using three tables, with the first the top 25 in saves all-time. Of these top 25, I'll rank them by career Wins Above Replacement Player (be sure to click the link above for a fuller description)--all numbers are through the 2011 season and only include the regular season:

It would appear that my thesis is blown right at the start, since Dennis Eckersley is shown as having the highest career WAR for a reliever. Of course, this is deceptive, and by my count, Eckersley's WAR as a reliever is 16.6 (I start at 1987). As such, 42.1 points of Eckersley's career WAR was accumulated as a starting pitcher. We can show that with the next table, which shows the WAR by game pitched (the exact equation is WAR/G*1000, since I don't like numbers with small decimals--the best way to describe this would be WAR/1,000 games pitched):

I've added the column WAR/G to the far right, but it doesn't shake things up much--Eckersley is still in the lead, but again, only about 28% of his career WAR can be attributed to his skills as a closer. We can correct for this by viewing a third chart, my favorite way to look at any player, which is WAR/Inning Pitched or, for hitters, WAR/Plate Appearance. This allows us to see how well they performed as opposed to career stats that typically only tell us how LONG they performed. In addition, it becomes a useful tool to see how current players stack up with the all-time greats, as will be apparent:

The greatness of Mariano Rivera becomes obvious when we look at it this way. This is calculated as WAR/IP*1000 and shows how dominant he was. It also gives us an idea of how outstanding F-Rod has been as well in his career and moves Eckersley down the list. I'm not stating this is the best or only way to effectively measure Rivera, but when the gap between #1 and #2 on any list is around 30%, a solid argument can be made that the person at the top was not only good, but good by a comfortable stretch, and unlikely to be equaled in the foreseeable future. It should also be noted that numbers 1 and 2 in saves (Rivera and Hoffman) are also numbers 1 and 2 in save percentage, which I think is remarkable. Like every other baseball fan, I hope he can return, but if he doesn't, he has nothing to worry about regarding his status as the best closer in baseball history. I don't think this was in doubt--what I'm not sure is how many people realized the magnitude of his dominance.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Making The Playoffs With A Losing Record At Home

While listening to Steve Stone on WSCR, 670 AM in Chicago on Monday morning, he made the following statement (which can be found here beginning at the 3:16 mark on the podcast):
"You very rarely, if ever, win a division under .500 at home. I can't remember a team that did that."
Easily enough checked, and guess what--as he is on most baseball-related matters, Steve Stone is correct. This first chart shows the winning percent of all teams from 1901-2011 during the regular season:

The average winning percent is .542, or the equivalent of a 88-74, which will put teams in the running for the wild card in almost every year. It would be fun to measure, and I have the data for the NFL (but not the NBA), but I suspect that baseball has the smallest home-team advantage of the three, but that's a post for another day. This next chart shows the home winning percent for the playoff teams during the regular season:

If it isn't obvious, the playoff teams have spectacular winning records at home during the regular season--the average is diminishing over time (as parity between the teams increases), but it's still .655, or the equivalent of a 106-56 record, a record that has a pretty good chance of getting a team in the playoffs.

To take it to the next step and test Stone's statement, he is essentially correct. There is ONE team that made the playoffs with a losing record at home--the 1981 Royals. However, the 1981 year was a strike year that introduced divisional playoffs between the winners of the two halves of the season, and as such it wasn't a traditional playoff format. Other than that, NO TEAM has ever made the playoffs with a losing record at home during the regular season.

Let me state this another way. Since 1903, of the 370 teams that have made the playoffs since 1903, ONE didn't have a winning record at home--and 369 did. As is typically the case, Steve Stone was correct and adds another marker to look at to see how good a team's chances of making the playoffs are. For all you young broadcasters out there, the career of Steve Stone would be an excellent one to emulate.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

wOBA As A Measure of Success

Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a metric that attempts to measure all the offensive things that can lead to success and boil them down to a number that we recognize, something like a batting average or on-base percentage. You can read more about how it is calculated either here or here, but it boils down to the same basic thing as every other baseball stat--how much did a given activity lead to run production, and ultimately to wins?

I'll take a step back and describe Bill James' Pythagorean Wins formula, which is simply (runs^2)/(runs^2+runs allowed^2), which reduces to a number similar to a winning percentage. All statistical number crunching is working at determining what leads to runs being scored, since no matter what era, if a team scores more runs than its opponents, it will have greater success. If a team averages 4 runs a game and gives up 3.5, the PW formula suggests a winning percentage of (based on a 162-game season) of .533, or a 86-76 record--respectable, perhaps even good enough for a wild card (or, like the 2006 Cardinals, a World Series championship). If a team averages 4 runs a game and gives up 4.5, or a .471 winning percentage, or the exact opposite record--76-86. The following chart shows how well the PW formula matches up with winning percentage for the years 1980-2010--winning percentage was used to smooth out the oddities of the 1981, 1994 and 1995 seasons, all strike-shortened to one degree or another:

Assuming that my chart is in correct proportion along both axes (and I did try), that sure looks like a pretty linear relationship. Another way to explain it would be to state that the greater the run differential (either plus OR minus), the greater the winning (or losing) percentage. It's a pretty easy number to visualize, calculate, and it appears to hold up well with the numbers as they come in.

wOBA uses the following formula (based on the 2010 season, the last for which weights were available:
Using the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks as an example:
589 BB-45 IBB=518 uBB*.7=380.8
39 HBP*.73=                             28.5
851 1B*.89=                           757.4
301 2B*1.27=                         382.3
34 3B*1.61=                             54.7
180 HR*2.07=                        372.6
86 SB*.25=                               21.5
41 CS*.5=                                 20.5
TOTAL                                   1977.3/6183 PA=.320

You can find this number on FanGraphs (it's not on, and there's probably a pretty simple explanation for that), but what you CAN'T find on FanGraphs is the mirror image of this number, the wOBA of the opponents. It's not that hard to derive when the primary data is obtained, and so, in abbreviated form, accept that for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the opponent's wOBA was .340--Diamondback pitchers gave up 510 unintentional walks, 58 HBP, 977 1B, 284 2B, 32 3B and 210 HR, 115 SB and 36 CS in 6260 PA, or a -.020 differential between wOBA and opponent's wOBA. How would THIS stack up in a graph?

Pretty spooky, but also completely logical when you consider it--if a team is giving up more walks and hits than it is creates, it's going to be difficult to win. When you think about it, both these metrics are telling the same story, with wOBA adding some of the context to the PW formula. In the end, it's to the extent that a team can score more runs that it gives up that will determine their ultimate success. Of course, it's totally useless when looking at an individual game or even one postseason series, but it helps us understand how the various parts of the game tie into winning.