Friday, June 21, 2013

The Mistake Index

For the past couple of years or so I've played around with my Mistake Index with the belief that mistakes in baseball are just as costly as in any other sport but not watched as closely. I've had ideas come and go--for example, I used to track strikeouts looking but decided it didn't illuminate anything. In many ways, what I tabulate are (within reason) completely in control of a team and not subject to outside influence or randomness. Some of this is by definition--an error is judged to be a play in which a fielder should have made a play and not given when a shortstop goes 25 feet to his right and can't enough on a throw to beat out Michael Bourn. A blown save is when a team had the game in hand and gave it up and so on.

By this point it's become apparent to me that better teams make fewer mistakes and  not-so-good ones make more. I've played around with the balance between data and ease of understanding and will continue to do so. This is the primary point of the Mistake Index, to put in one place disparate numbers that are rarely seen or evaluated together. I think it works--here's the Index as of Thursday, June 20th, 2013:
Explanations of the column headings are in the Index itself, but since this is a stand-alone post I'll briefly what the columns are:
BS, BK, WP, PB--blown saves, balks, wild pitches and passed balls
E, unER--errors and unearned runs
2oR--two-out runs, something I added after a particularly egregious Cubs game and further explained in this post
eBR, eBU--errors in base running (as judged by me) and bad bunts, usually any bunt with a runner on base that doesn't result in a sacrifice or a hit

The total column is these numbers added together EXCEPT two-out runs, which are shown for illustrative purposes only. I had the epiphany earlier this year that every mistake is something an opponent can take advantage of, and that's when the Mistake Index really came together for me by allowing me to see if a team makes more mistakes than its opponents, and more importantly, to see if it translates into winning.

By this point in the season I think the correlation between mistakes (or lack thereof) and success is obvious, which should not come as some great revelation or pronouncement--anyone who follows baseball would state "Duh!!," but again, if there's a place that puts this all together in one place, I'm not aware of it (which isn't saying much). Every team makes mistakes, but the thin line between success and failure is two-fold:
1. Keeping a team's mistakes to a minimum
2. Taking advantage of opponent's mistakes

Who are the leaders in the Mistake Index? That would be those with positive values in the highlighted column and are the Cardinals (by a mile), Yankees, Padres and Twins--two very successful teams and two very "eh" ones. Avoiding mistakes by itself cannot overcome inadequate pitching or hitting, but for teams that are on the cusp of success, it can certainly propel them forward. The teams on the bottom, well, that's a different story: the Dodgers, Mariners, Marlins, White Sox, Astros and Cubs. Not a single decent team among them. The Cubs are special in that they manage to be bad across the board by being tied for the league lead in blown saves and near the top in errors and are well-known for their lack of offense this year, making it the trifecta of awful--and yet they still outdraw the White Sox, who are playing their own brand of Triple-A ball. 

One side benefit of the Mistake Index is that it clearly shows the link between errors and unearned runs. I wrote a post some time back that linked errors with unearned runs and for some reason baseball stats don't list these together, which I don't understand--an unearned run cannot score without an error, and I think it's illuminating to see how often an error leads to a run. As the Mistake Index makes clear, it's about half the time. For reasons not worth describing, my list of errors will not match up exactly with MLB fielding statistics, but it's really close and in any case, I'm much more interested in the story that the precise number. If it's apparent that about half of errors result in runs, then it behooves teams to do what they can to cut down on the errors. Generally speaking, the better teams field, the more success they have. I am NOT suggesting that a team can field its way to the playoffs--if sabermetrics have taught us anything it's that fielding is important, but not anywhere near the equal of pitching or hitting. Fielding may not get a team in the playoffs, but it can sure keep them out.

One last thought on errors that is underappreciated--if Paul Konerko hits a ball to third that is bobbled, the third baseman has the chance to recover, grab a beer and a hot dog in the stands and still throw him out, but if it's Jean Segura it's a different story. Errors can be an indirect measure of the OTHER TEAM'S team speed when they're not dropped balls or throws into the stands. The Cardinals are near the lead in fewest errors and cause the other team to make errors, a testament to their ability to make teams pay for mistakes. It's  one thing if a team makes a mistake, but if the opponent doesn't capitalize on it, it's just another entry in the Mistake Index. Baseball is tough enough, and it's apparent to me that the more mistakes teams make, the closer they come to failure.

I used to include stolen bases and opponent stolen bases as a part of the Index but changed my mind about a month ago. Part of it was simply how it looked--too much data caused the table to be almost unreadable and there's a point where too much data is simply overwhelming and not informative. Also, I've never seen any clear correlation between base stealing, opponent base stealing and success. Here are the numbers through Thursday, June 20th, 2013:

The Diamondbacks aren't having much success stealing this year, and while opponents don't attempt to steal often, when they do they're successful. This COULD be a recipe for disaster--in this case, not so much as they lead the NL West by two games. The Cubs are stealing bases, letting their opponents steal bases and where has it gotten them this season? The stolen base leaders are San Diego, Boston(!), Cleveland and Milwaukee--how's that worked out for everyone but Boston? The best catchers  play for Baltimore, Minnesota and St. Louis, teams all over the map in terms of success.

The stolen base is making a comeback as hitting continues its return to historical norms but any impact on winning is coincidental at best. San Francisco opponents appear to have no problems stealing bases almost at will but I doubt they'll make Buster Posey available any time soon. That's ultimately why I separated it from the  Mistake Index and just show it by itself--it has value and is worth seeing. 

The Mistake Index is my attempt to put in one place any number of varied stats that are not often seen together. Some day I might put together a Hustle Index, something that would include items like reaching on an error, extra bases advanced on the basepaths (which I'm not sure how I would measure), pickoff and caught-stealing in which runners end up being safe (usually due to an error so I'm not sure I could call that hustle), advancing to first on a strikeout and other things like that--even as I write this, it makes me curious to see if it would correlate with success. I update the Index daily, so be sure to check it frequently--it's only a click away at the upper right of this page.

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