Hey everybody, and welcome to this week's edition of Five Numbers. If you're still with me, terrific, that's a great start. This time around, I'm going to spend some time discussing the following five topics:
- How many wins good baseball players are really worth to their teams
- Jim Thome's big season in a homer-killing ballpark
- Albert Pujols' alleged 'down year'
- How pitchers approach Ryan Howard, compared to how they approach the average hitter
- And finally, how the Red Sox have consistently been able to battle back from deficits
Read on for some details and exploration as we completely ignore the pitching aspect of the game and focus on offense! Offense! Offense!
Popular baseball site Fangraphs.com hosts a number of statistics, among other things. Of those statistics, many are of the advanced variety, and of the statistics of the advanced variety, perhaps none is as well-known as Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.
WAR wasn't invented by the minds behind Fangraphs, but that's where you'll find it, and what it attempts to do - in as plain simple English as I can muster - is calculate a player's value in terms of wins over what you'd get out of a decent minor league free agent in AAA. It does this by combining a player's offensive performance, defensive performance, position, and playing time into one single number.
WAR doesn't capture every single thing a player can do, and it is best used as an approximation more than anything else. It is very useful, and the math behind it is well-researched and well-thought out. Still, it continues to be met by some resistance. How can you possibly combine everything into one number? How can you actually know how many wins a player is worth? Isn't this all just theoretical? Isn't it possible that WAR significantly underestimates the impact a player can have?
These are fairly unanswerable questions. You either believe in the math behind WAR, or you don't, and that's pretty much the end of it. However, there is one alternative. There is one other way to, at the very least, support WAR's scale, which says that many of the best players in baseball are worth about four, five, or six wins to their teams.
What do Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Morneau, Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Kinsler, Kendry Morales, Magglio Ordonez, Luke Scott, Scott Rolen, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Heyward, Nelson Cruz, David DeJesus, and Manny Ramirez have in common? All 14 of these guys are high-level position players who have performed well in 2010, but who have missed a lot of time due to injury.
What we can do, then, is perform a simple sort of what's known as with-or-without-you analysis whereby we compare a team's performance with a certain player to the team's performance without him. With each of those 14 players, we have a fairly decent sample of games where they were and were not in the lineup.
The results? When those 14 guys have started this year, their teams have gone 571-498, with an average winning percentage of 0.537. When those 14 guys have not been in the starting lineup, their teams have gone 312-298, with an average winning percentage of 0.509.
A winning percentage of 0.537 corresponds to a win total of 87 over a full season. A winning percentage of 0.509 corresponds to a win total right between 82 and 83 over a full season. The difference comes out to roughly four and a half wins. In other words, this analysis tells us that the teams have, on average, performed about four and a half wins better with these stars than with their replacements.
We could do the same sort of thing with pitchers, too, although the nature of five-man rotations makes defining endpoints somewhat complicated. For purposes of this article, I'm going to stick with the position players, because it's simpler, and it gets the point across.
Is it perfect? No, it isn't perfect at all. There are sample size issues to be concerned about, for one thing. For another, we haven't said anything about the replacements, and how good or bad they are. And further, this with-or-without-you analysis assumes that teams have looked about the same outside of the one star player, which averages out over a large enough sample but may not average out here. In short, there are issues which prevent this from being conclusive.
Still, if there's one thing we can take from all this, it's that the WAR scale is probably pretty correct. The best players in baseball aren't worth just a couple wins to their teams. They also aren't worth one or two dozen. They're worth about four, or five, or six, or even seven or eight. Enough to matter, but not enough for absence to cripple a team's chances on its own. Quibble with individual WAR figures all you want. Just understand that, even though it has its flaws, in general it still does a damn fine job.
There are a lot of neat things about having a new ballpark. It's exciting. It's fresh. It's unfamiliar and open to be explored. There are new seats. New sections. New concessions. There's a reason why new ballparks always bring in high attendance figures - they're attractions. A new ballpark becomes a destination.
New stadiums, however, aren't only of interest to the area fan. They're also interesting to the average baseball stathead, who wants to see how the stadium will affect the play on the field. We know about park factors. We know that it's easier to score runs in Texas and Colorado than it is in San Diego and Seattle. We know that, for whatever reason, there are more strikeouts in Florida. How will a given new stadium play? Will it be neutral? Will it be extreme? Will it be somewhere in the middle?
Minnesota's Target Field is baseball's newest venue, and already, it's made a name for itself. It's made a name for itself as a place that home runs go to die. Twins hitters this year have hit just 35 dingers at home, against 77 on the road. Twins pitchers, meanwhile, have allowed 40 dingers at home, against 68 on the road. Joe Mauer's split is 1 and 7. Justin Morneau's is 4 and 14. Delmon Young's is 5 and 10. Jason Kubel's is 6 and 11.
11 different Twins hitters have blasted at least two home runs so far this season. And, among them, only one has managed to hit more home runs in Target Field than anywhere else. That man?
Over 128 trips to the plate at home, Jim Thome has slugged nine home runs. Over 129 trips to the plate on the road, Jim Thome has slugged eight home runs. Thome, then, appears to be perhaps the only hitter on the Twins to have figured out a way to make his fly balls conquer the wall.
It's just another testament to the strength of a man who, at nearly 40 years old, is still producing like he did in his prime. Among 289 hitters with at least 200 plate appearances on the year, Thome's .974 OPS ranks him seventh in baseball, between Kevin Youkilis and Nelson Cruz. Were the season to end now, it would be his highest OPS since 2006, and an OPS that's above his career average. You know why the Twins continue to play good baseball, even without Justin Morneau in the middle of the lineup? There are a number of reasons, but few larger than Thome, who just two nights ago came through with a walk-off home run to beat the Twins' closest rival.
In January, Thome signed a one-year contract with Minnesota for a paltry $1.5 million base salary and some playing time incentives. All he's done since then is be one of the very best hitters in baseball, punishing the White Sox for letting him go. He's been one of the top overall acquisitions of the season, and one of the most likable players in sports will - in large part because of himself - get a crack at a title as a result.
Punch ‘"albert pujols" 2010 "down year"' into Google and you come out with 4,040 results. Enter ‘"albert pujols" 2010 "down season"' and you get another 1,450. The Cardinals have had a lot of trouble shaking the Reds all season long and currently sit a full three games out of first place, and when trying to figure out what's gone wrong and why the Cards have underachieved, a lot of focus has fallen onto Pujols, who, for months, has been something less than himself.
Which makes his present-day .999 OPS all the more amazing. Pujols' current OPS ranks fifth-highest in baseball, between Joey Votto and Kevin Youkilis. His average is north of .300, his OBP is north of .400, and his slugging percentage is nearly .600. Any way you chop it up, Albert Pujols has managed just another phenomenal season, a season that again sees him stand as one of the most valuable players in the league.
And this is, by his standards, a down year. Why does it count as a down year? Because his career OPS is 1.050, and because his OPS between 2008-2009 was 1.108. What we've seen is a 51-point drop from his career mark, and a 109-point drop from recent seasons. That is most definitely a performance decline.
To me, the fact that Pujols can slip that far and still remain one of the most valuable players in baseball is among the highest praise he can be given. It sounds silly, but there's an argument to be made that Pujols has long been the world's most underrated baseball player, because I'm not sure people have quite grasped just how spectacular he's really been for a full decade. Some Pujols facts:
-Pujols has 259 more career walks than strikeouts
-The lowest single-season batting average of Pujols' career is .314
-Pujols has hit at least 31 home runs in all ten of his years
-Pujols ranks 12th all-time in OBP
-Pujols ranks 4th all-time in SLG
-Pujols ranks 5th all-time in OPS
-Pujols ranks 7th all-time in OPS+, which adjusts for playing context
-Pujols has been one of the league's best defensive first basemen, too
Albert Pujols is one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. He's the rare slugger who hits for average and seldom strikes out, and on top of that he takes pride in his work in the field. And because he's been so consistently magnificent, he's been to some degree overlooked. People have come to just accept that Albert Pujols is really good, and they haven't talked about it very much. It's just there in the background as common knowledge.
Which means that people only really notice when he's struggling, and that Pujols is thought to be struggling as he posts a .999 season OPS blows my mind out my ears. He has had something of a down year. He is below where you'd expect him to be. And he's still having about as good an offensive year as any that Harmon Killebrew ever posted.
I don't know if there's an internal switch you can flip to make yourself truly appreciate a player, but Albert Pujols should be appreciated. More than he already is.
We've used this space to talk about Zone% before. Zone% refers to the percentage of pitches that a batter sees or a pitcher throws that are located in the strike zone. Zone%, on its own, doesn't have a ton of uses, but we can infer a few things from either extreme. A really high Zone% for a hitter suggests that pitchers aren't very afraid of him, and don't consider him a threat to make them pay. A really low Zone% for a hitter suggests that either pitchers are afraid of him, or they're taking advantage of a tendency on the hitter's part to chase pitches off the plate.
But Zone% is only one means of examining which hitters strike fear, which hitters are seen as overaggressive, and which hitters are treated like cute little puppy dogs. Another thing we can look at - again, for hitters - is the breakdown of pitches they've seen by type. Courtesy of Fangraphs.com, we can sort through the numbers to see which hitters have seen the most and fewest fastballs, sliders, curveballs, changeups, and the like. It's handy information if you have a reason to use it.
And here, I'm going to use it to tell you that, so far in 2010, Ryan Howard has been thrown the lowest percentage of fastballs in the league (combining fastballs + cutters), at 49.7%. The league average is somewhere around 60-62%, and Howard's at the bottom, comfortably edging Miguel Olivo's 52.8%.
This is nothing new for Howard. A year ago, he came in at 47.3%. The year before that, it was 53.7%. The year before that, it was also 53.7%. For his career, it's 53.1%. Since establishing himself as one of the game's most potent raw power hitters, pitchers have given Howard a steady dose of offspeed stuff, in fear that he'd be sitting on heat and blast it somewhere over the fence.
A low fastball percentage can indicate that a hitter is seen as either very strong or very aggressive, and given that Howard isn't much of a hacker, we have to believe it's the former. Pitchers are afraid of what he can do to a fastball, so they opt for more pitches that move in an attempt to mess with his timing. Howard does swing and miss a lot, and like anyone, he'll swing through more offspeed pitches than he will through heat.
It's worth noting that Fangraphs also keeps track of how hitters have performed against individual pitch types, and, for his career, Howard has done the most damage against fastballs and cutters. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Ryan Howard is a powerful beast of a man, and one of the premier fastball hitters in the league. Pitchers, in turn, have responded by giving him fewer fastballs to hit - the fewest fastballs of any regular in baseball. And Howard continues to produce. Is he producing less than he would given a more standard pitch mix? Is producing more than he would given a more standard pitch mix? We can't answer these questions for sure, but it's fun to study the interaction and see how different players are treated differently from others.
The 2010 Boston Red Sox, I think, have developed a bit of a reputation for resilience. This is a team that's seen Kevin Youkilis get hurt. It's seen Dustin Pedroia get hurt. It's seen Mike Cameron get hurt. It's seen Jacoby Ellsbury get hurt. It's seen Josh Beckett get hurt. It's seen other players get hurt as well. And still, they refuse to die. Though the team is 5.5 back of both the Rays and the Yankees and is therefore a longshot for the playoffs, they've held up rather admirably given everything that's happened, and its' worth noting that they have a better record than the Texas Rangers. Despite all the adversity, the Red Sox have bounced back and played like a playoff-caliber team.
Playing through all the assorted DL stints isn't the only way in which this team has shown its backbone, though. There's another way. Perhaps an even more impressive way.
Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, the curious baseball fan can get his hands on all kinds of statistics and splits. Like this one, for example. So far this season, the average team has posted a .754 OPS when leading, a .732 OPS when tied, and a .714 OPS when trailing.
All right, that makes sense, but it isn't exactly the most interesting split in the world. So let's dig a little further. Let's look closer at that last one. OPS when trailing. The third-highest OPS when trailing belongs to the Cincinnati Reds, at .759. Well, sure. The Reds have a good offense, so we'd expect them to be good regardless of situation. The second-highest OPS when trailing belongs to the New York Yankees, at .769. Again, yeah, of course. The Yankees have a lot of really good hitters. They should be near the top of this list.
And the number one highest OPS when trailing?
That belongs to the Boston Red Sox. At .863.
It's an unbelievable number. Yes, the Red Sox have the highest team OPS in baseball at .806. We would expect them to be at or near the top of any offensive list we pull up. But to be this far ahead? Boston has racked up 1472 plate appearances when trailing. New York has racked up 1552. We aren't dealing with tiny sample sizes, here. And still, the Red Sox have an astonishing 94-point lead on second place. The Red Sox, overall, have an OPS that's 19 points higher than that of the Yankees, but when they're behind in a game, that gap has stretched close to 100.
I don't know where to track down a team's number of comeback wins, but it would stand to reason that the Red Sox probably have a lot of them, because, when they've found themselves behind on the scoreboard, they've kicked things up to another level at the plate. They've hit the snot out of the ball, preventing many opponents from ever getting to feel real comfortable with a lead. When behind, Kevin Youkilis has posted an OPS of 1.012. David Ortiz has posted an OPS of .998. Adrian Beltre has posted an OPS of .969. Of the nine hitters on the team with at least 80 plate appearances when the Red Sox are losing, only Marco Scutaro has posted an OPS under .800 - coming in at a respectable .714.
I'm not sure if this is sustainable and the result of some sort of team attitude, or if it's a statistical fluke, or if it's a little bit of both, but the split, right now, is nothing short of extraordinary. These Red Sox - these Red Sox don't quit. All year long, they've grinded it out until there's been nothing left to grind.