Thursday, June 18, 2009

Around The World In Eighty Pitches.

With Luke Hochevar set to take the mound tonight, it’s a good time to ask, just how significant was his performance last Friday?

It was significant, obviously, in the sense that it was the best start of his career by far – his first complete game, and his game score of 79 was 12 points higher than his previous career high (last July 11th against Seattle.) This was the Hochevar in the catalog – not an overpowering strikeout guy, but a pitcher who throws strikes, gets groundballs, and gets quick outs.

Only Hochevar wasn’t getting quick outs – he was getting QUICK outs. Four-pitch innings in the first and ninth bookended the 72 pitches he need to get through the seven innings in the middle. Checking the box score on my iPhone that evening, I remarked to my wife (who was holding on to every word, believe me), “I think the Royals set a record tonight.” And to the best of our knowledge, they did. We only have pitch count data back to 1988, when a fledgling STATS Inc. decided to start tracking pitches – so it’s quite possible that Larry Gura or Paul Splittorff twirled a 79-pitch gem at some point. But at least in the last 22 seasons, no Royal had ever thrown a complete game in 80 pitches. No one had come particularly close. Here’s a list of the fewest pitches thrown in a nine-inning performance by a Royal:

Pitches Date Pitcher

80 6/12/09 Luke Hochevar

88 8/19/97 Ricky Bones

89 8/6/95 Mark Gubicza

90 9/2/96 Tim Belcher

91 8/12/90 Tom Gordon

Ricky Bones actually went into the ninth inning having thrown just 75 pitches, one fewer than Hochevar, but struggled in his final inning, facing six batters (but throwing just 13 more pitches.)

Honorable mention goes to Kevin Appier, who on July 23rd, 1992, threw 92 pitches – in ten innings. Appier was notorious for racking up high pitch counts, but on this day he threw just 80 pitches in the first nine innings, then 12 more in the tenth. I remember watching this game on TV, and while I was surprised to see Appier come back out for the tenth inning, there was a perception that he hadn’t been worked all that hard. I say “perception” because pitch counts simply were not available at the time – I had no way of knowing whether Appier had thrown 92 or 192 pitches, and I’m not sure the Royals did either. If they had known that he was still under 100 pitches, I wonder if they would have let him pitch the 11th inning as well. (Which would have been awfully cool; no pitcher has gone more than 10 innings since Dave Stewart threw an 11-inning shutout on August 1st, 1990.)

By any measure, Hochevar’s performance was historic. The question I have is whether it’s meaningful, by which I mean, is his performance a strong indicator that Hochevar is a quality major league pitcher.

Those of you who, like me, were weaned on the Bill James Historical Abstracts may remember a column James wrote in the 1985 edition. The column discussed what James called “signature significance”, which is a performance so dominant and rare that, even though it occurs in a small sample size, it presages a degree of quality in that player. It is the “signature” of a great player, and only a great player, to have such a performance.

If it’s Game 7 of the World Series and you have the choice of throwing a shutout or striking out 15 batters, you would of course take the shutout – while 15 strikeouts is not typically associated with bad performances, you’d want to take the sure thing. But if the question is whether, knowing nothing else about a pitcher except his performance in one game, you’d rather have the guy who threw shutout or the guy who struck out 15 batters – you’d take the guy with 15 Ks every time.

Shutouts have inherent value, but they do not have any particular predictive value. Bad pitchers can throw shutouts. (And, against the Royals, they usually do.) Good pitchers certainly throw more of them – but the fact that a pitcher throws a shutout is not singular evidence that he is a good pitcher.

On the other hand…there have been 27 occasions this century in which a pitcher struck out 15 or more batters in one game. Here’s a list of those pitchers:

Randy Johnson (9 times)

Pedro Martinez (4 times)

Mike Mussina (2 times)

Jake Peavy (2 times)

Mark Prior (2 times)

Erik Bedard

Cole Hamels

Johan Santana

Curt Schilling

Jason Schmidt

Ben Sheets

John Smoltz

Ron Villone

There are 11 outstanding pitchers on that list – and, yes, Ron Villone, who struck out 16 batters on the final Friday of the 2000 season against a Cardinals team that had already clinched a playoff spot. Late September performances always come with a discount.

The point is, if you told me that a young, previously unheralded pitcher is going to strike out 15 batters tonight, I’ll tell you without even knowing his identity that he’s going to be a star. There’s always a possibility things go wrong – he hurts his arm or develops Steve Blass Disease or whatnot – but the odds are exceedingly high that he’s going to become a star. Shutouts can be a fluke; 15-strikeout performances almost never are. A 15-strikeout performance has signature significance.

So getting back to Hochevar, the question I have is this: does an 80-pitch complete game constitute signature significance? Is this one start evidence, all by itself, that Hochevar is going to become a star?

Going back to the list above, given that Ricky Bones once threw an 88-pitch complete game, I’m going to say that an 88-pitch complete game does not have signature significance. But there’s a big difference between 88 pitches and 80. If we extended our study of strikeout pitchers to include pitchers with 14 strikeouts, we’d find guys like John Maine and Wade Miller, good pitchers having the games of their lives rather than great pitchers. It’s possible that 88 pitches is at the inner edge of what an extreme finesse pitcher, even a marginal one like Bones, can do when everything is working – but that 80 pitches is beyond that range.

So what I’ve done is come up with a list of every pitcher since 1993 who has thrown 85 or fewer pitches in a game. But a word of caution: pitch count data is notoriously unreliable, as many times different sources will differ on their pitch counts by two or three pitches. Just by way of example, that Appier game above, Baseball Reference lists his pitch count at 92 – but in the same file, if you count up the pitches to each batter individually, you end up with 95! I think the problem is that in the bottom of the second, Mark Whiten was caught stealing on a 1-2 pitch to Glenallen Hill – and since Hill started over to lead off the third, the three pitches he saw in the second inning were not counted. This sort of stuff happens all the time – some sources don’t count the pitches thrown in intentional walks, for instance – so this data can’t be considered completely reliable. But we’ll do our best.

Since 1993, a pitcher has thrown 85 pitches or less in a complete game 25 times. (I’m defining “complete game” as “9 or more innings”, to eliminate complete games of the 8-innings-in-a-loss variety.) Here’s a list of those 25 in chronological order. An asterisk denotes a start of 80 pitches or less.

1993 – 1998

Jim Abbott

John Smiley

Tom Glavine*

Orel Hershiser

Darryl Kile

Billy Swift

Bobby Munoz*

Greg Maddux

Chad Ogea

Bob Wolcott*

Jim Bullinger

Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux*

Joey Hamilton

Mike Grace

Andy Ashby*


Jon Lieber*

Steve Sparks

Roy Halladay

2005 – 2009

Carlos Silva*

Rich Harden

Carlos Silva

Aaron Cook*

Aaron Cook*

Luke Hochevar*

An interesting mélange of talents here, to say the least. These pitchers share certain general characteristics. They’re not power pitchers, which makes sense, since strikeouts take a lot of pitches. Also, they’re almost all groundball pitchers. This also makes a ton of sense when you think about it. Aside from hits, there are two major impediments to a low pitch count: balls, and foul balls. And while I’ve never seen a study that’s looked at this issue, I’m willing to bet that groundballs are much less likely to go foul than flyballs – and therefore groundball pitchers give up fewer foul balls than flyball pitchers. It’s easier to keep your pitch counts low when the batter isn’t fouling off pitches right and left.

In terms of quality, though, there is no firm consensus. There are 21 different pitchers on this list. Thirteen of them have made at least 180 starts in their careers, and three more – Carlos Silva (159), Aaron Cook (153), and Rich Harden (110) – are likely to get there as well (although the clock is ticking on Silva). Making 180 starts is the equivalent of being a full-time starter for six seasons – that seems to be a pretty good indication of quality. Not a star, maybe, but a valuable starting pitcher.

But then you have the other five guys, who are in italics above – Bob Wolcott, Bobby Munoz, Mike Grace, Jim Bullinger, and Chad Ogea – none of whom reached 100 career starts. And as you can see, even if we tighten the requirements to exclude the guys who threw 85 or 84 pitches, that doesn’t help Hochevar – both Wolcott and Munoz threw 80 pitches on the dot. So based on the percentages, that means that Hochevar has about a 76% chance (16 of 21) to develop into a quality starter.

If you want to spin the numbers a little, you can point out that all five non-quality starters pitched between 1994 and 1997, and the feat has become more rare since. (There were 16 low-pitch starts made between 1993 and 1998, but just nine in the decade since.) It’s possible that the feat has become rarer because it’s become harder – teams have wizened up to the importance of plate discipline over the last ten years. If that’s true, than Hochevar’s performance is more impressive – every other pitcher who has done so in the last decade has been a quality starter.

But for now, I would argue that a single 80-pitch complete game, as impressive as it was, does not constitute signature significance that Hochevar is going to have a long and successful career. It is certainly suggestive, but not an ironclad guarantee.

Keep in mind, only three pitchers have done this twice – Silva, Cook, and (3 times) Greg Maddux. So if Hochevar does this again – then we have a winner.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Are The Royals In The Wrong League?

If you haven’t listened to this week’s show, please do so. Will Leitch stayed out of the range of bicycles only long enough to join us for 20 minutes, but we covered more material than you’d expect to hear in an hour-long show. Leitch is, apparently, one of the few men in American who talks faster than I do.

We also had our first disgruntled caller of the year, as a Cincinnati Reds fan took exception to the manner in which Jason Anderson and I discounted the Royals’ performance over the weekend by pointing out that it came against the inferior competition of the National League. I completely empathize with someone who wants to stand up for his hometown team, but anyone who wants to argue that the Reds are a better team than the Royals just because they have a better win-loss record is going to have to find a way to deal with those pesky facts.

The fact is that with tonight’s convincing win against the Diamondbacks, the Royals are now 47-32 against NL teams since the start of the 2005 season, a .595 winning percentage, while playing just 244-388 (.386) against AL teams in that span. The odds that a team with a “true” winning percentage of .386 would actually win 47 out of 79 games is .00014, or about one in seven thousand. And while the Royals are probably the most dramatic example of AL teams beating up on NL competition, they are far from the only ones.

This of course gets back to the Royals’ decision, over a decade ago, to stay in the American League when they had the opportunity to jump ship. Despite the obvious difference between the leagues today, I think it’s far from clear that the Royals made a mistake in choosing to stay.

For one thing, the AL didn’t emerge with a clear superiority until about 2005. Interleague play began in 1997, and the NL won the season series four times in the first eight seasons. But in 2005 the AL went 136-116, then 154-98 (!) the following year, then 137-115, and 149-103 last season.

Most estimates about the degree of difference between the leagues come in between eight and ten wins, so let’s split the difference and say it’s nine – an AL team moving to the NL would win roughly ten more games against intraleague competition, but they’d lose about one game in interleague play because they would now be playing the AL in those affairs.

So give the Royals a bump of nine wins each year starting in 2005, and put them in the NL Central instead of the Milwaukee Brewers, and you have…a team that still doesn’t so much as sniff a postseason berth. Last year the Royals would have gone 84-78 instead of 75-87…which would have left them in fourth place in the division, 13 games behind the Cubs and five games out of a wild-card spot. The Royals would still have finished under .500 from 2005 to 2007; the only saving grace is that they might have avoided any 100-loss seasons in that span.

Looking to the future, while it’s possible and maybe even likely that the AL will maintain its dominance, from the Royals’ standpoint the question of which league is superior is a lesser concern than which division is superior. While a wild-card entry to the postseason is certainly nice – and a more likely outcome in the Yankee and Red Sox-free National League – the Royals’ best hope for a playoff spot is to win their division. Aside from the fact that the NL Central is the only division in baseball with six teams, there’s an even more compelling reason to think that going forward, the Royals will be better off staying in the AL Central.

There are 11 teams in the two Central divisions, and those 11 teams represent some of the smallest markets in baseball, from Kansas City to Milwaukee to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Minneapolis-St. Paul. The favorable geography that lumps most of the small-market teams in the same division, raising the odds that one of them will make the playoffs, is an underrated contributor to increasing parity in baseball.

Of those 11 teams, only one can boast of a combination of market size, economic strength, and fan passion strong enough to upset the balance in the division. The teams listed in the last paragraph don’t have the market size; neither do the Cardinals, despite a passionate fan base. The Tigers and Indians play in the heart of the Rust Belt. The Astros have a large population to draw on, but play in a state where the #1 sport is football and the #2 sport is spring football. The White Sox play second fiddle in their own city.

The one team that has the market muscle to simply blow the other teams in their division out of the water is the Chicago Cubs. The fact that the Cubs have not taken advantage of their, well, advantages to this point is much to their discredit – but those who think that the Cubs will continue to underplay their hand do so at their own peril. The Cubs’ biggest handicap to success for the last few decades has been their ownership. We have decades of evidence that strongly suggests that corporations and baseball teams are a bad mix, dating to the days when CBS owned the New York Yankees, and the experience of the Tribune Corporation with the Cubs is no different. The bottom line is that corporations tend to place profits over winning – in fact, they have a fiduciary responsibility to do so. It’s no surprise that the Cubs, despite immense financial resources, have never leveraged those resources into building a juggernaut.

That may change, and soon, because the Tribune Corporation is about to hand off the Cubs to a new owner – the Ricketts family. It’s possible the deal may fall through, but realistically the Cubs will be under new – and probably private – ownership soon. You only need to look at the Boston Red Sox to see what can happen when a rudderless organization that has squandered natural resources for ages is purchased by a small entity of savvy owners looking to win.

So going forward, if you were to ask me which division I want the Royals to be in, the simple answer would be, “whichever division the Cubs are not in.” The AL may be the superior league. But I’d rather go up against a division full of above-average teams than try to wrest the division away from one single dominant franchise.