Welcome back to another edition of Five Numbers, where this week's installment discusses the following topics:
- Alex Rodriguez's league-leading ability to drive runners home
- How this year's Angels are different from versions of years past
- How the Rays have excelled at shutting down rallies
- How Stephen Strasburg's DL stints don't indicate that major injuries are an inevitability for a young power pitcher
- How Joey Votto is doing something incredible beyond what is already incredible
If any of those topics sound interesting to you, read on. If none of those topics interest you at all, you are my brother. Hey, Brian. I know, I know, I'll call you soon. I just haven't found the time. How's the girlfriend? Looking forward to seeing you guys for Christmas.
Remember Alex Rodriguez from a few years ago? Alex Rodriguez a few years ago was a guy with all the talent in the world, but a crippling inability to deliver when it mattered. Or so the story went, anyway. He hadn't won a title, he had trouble hitting in the playoffs, and even in run-of-the-mill clutch situations during the regular season, he was a shell of his usual self, the pressure allegedly getting to him and doing something to his swing.
A-Rod, of course, by now has put that reputation to rest. He was one of the most clutch hitters in baseball a year ago. He batted .365 in the playoffs with an .808 slugging percentage. He won his first world championship. Over the course of the 2009 season, Alex Rodriguez punched his media-driven reputation in the face and spit in its eye and called it a little bitch.
But lest you believe that A-Rod's sudden ability to perform under pressure was a one-time deal, he's come back and come through once more in 2010 for the first-place Yankees. Many of us followed along as he chased after and blasted through the 600 home run landmark, an individual accomplishment that put a lot of weight on A-Rod's shoulders. That, though, isn't the only example. See, Alex is currently sitting at 97 RBI - the second-highest mark in baseball - and he's leading the league in another, related category.
People love to talk about RBI, but RBI has a lot of problems, not the least of which is that it's a product of context. Players in the middle of good lineups will get more RBI opportunities than players at the bottom of bad lineups, which skews the numbers. Thankfully, Baseball Prospectus has cooked up an adjustment. Rather than reporting straight RBI, they provide RBI, RBI opportunities, and a percent-success stat that solves at least one of RBI's biggest drawbacks.
Alex Rodriguez has come to the plate 241 times this year with men on base. Over those 241 plate appearances, A-Rod has batted with 357 individual baserunners. And of those 357 individual baserunners, A-Rod has driven 76 of them in, for a rate of 21.3%.
You'll note that this excludes the self-RBI from home runs. Simply in terms of driving other people in, A-Rod's posted a 21.3% efficiency to date, which leads the league. In second place is Delmon Young, at 20.7% (73/353), and in third place is the injured Kendry Morales, at 20.6% (28/136). Miguel Cabrera, who leads all of baseball in straight RBI, ranks 19th here, having driven in 73 of 394 baserunners.
Alex Rodriguez, through nearly five months of the 2010 regular season, has driven in baserunners at a higher clip than anyone else in baseball. He's also driven himself in 21 times for good measure. When presented with the opportunities, Alex Rodriguez has been something of an RBI machine.
Should we expect this to keep up? Should we expect A-Rod to continue as the best RBI bat in the league? No, we shouldn't. At least, not as long as A-Rod's just an .818 OPS hitter. But there's the whole thing. Just as we shouldn't expect A-Rod's exceptional success to continue, nor should anyone have ever believed that his exceptional failures would continue. Alex was always a magnificent hitter. It just took him a while for his numbers across all situations to catch up to his numbers overall.
Alex Rodriguez wasn't unclutch before, and he isn't ultraclutch now. Alex Rodriguez is and has always simply been Alex Rodriguez. And that's plenty good enough.
When you see the Angels sitting at 63-65, ten games back of the first place Rangers, you know something hasn't quite gone according to plan. The Angels won the division in 2004. They won the division in 2005. The won the division in 2007, and 2008, and 2009, and though they didn't win the division in 2006, they finished in second and won 89 games. Believe it or not, the Angels have been something of a modern day dynasty - not in terms of championships won, but in terms of championship opportunities. Over a six-year span, they averaged 95 wins and a first place finish, and in today's baseball it's incredibly difficult for a non-Yankees team to pull off that kind of run.
Which makes 2010 all the more disappointing. The Angels and their fans have probably known for a while that such a level of success was unsustainable, and that the team was overdue for some struggles, but to struggle to the degree we've seen this season is remarkable, as more often than not, the Angels haven't looked like themselves. Said Mike Scioscia a few weeks ago:
"We're not a perfect club, but certainly on the offensive side, we're underachieving, and have been for a while ... We're better than we've shown for a while now, and that's what we have to keep focusing on."
Now, for any team with a sub-.500 record and a -20 run differential, there will be a number of things that haven't gone right. The Angels, most certainly, miss Kendry Morales. Brandon Wood was awful in his extended third base tryout. The bullpen hasn't been good. Scott Kazmir's been a disaster. There's no shortage of players and elements that have in some way contributed to the Angels' third-place standing.
I've got a favorite, though. Not because it's the most meaningful, or the most crippling. It's just because of what it is, and who we're talking about. In addition to the stuff about RBI opportunities, Baseball Prospectus also keeps track of a team's effectiveness on the basepaths. They provide a team baserunning report that measures, in runs, how good or bad a team has been on the bases by looking at stolen bases, advancements on grounders, advancements on fly balls, and the like. The Rays and Mets, for example, are tied for having been the best baserunning teams to date, at +13.0 - meaning their baserunning has been worth 13 runs above average.
In last place? The Angels, at -17.4. They're worse than the Diamondbacks, at -15.0. They're worse than the Royals, at -13.1. They're worse than everybody. The Angels, through August 25th, have been the worst baserunning team in the league.
The biggest factor here has been their problem with stolen bases. They Angels have stolen successfully 79 times, but they've also been caught on 44 occasions, for a below-average rate of 64%. Torii Hunter stands out as being by far the biggest negative, having been caught 11 times in 20 attempts. By percent, the Angels haven't been the worst base-stealing team in baseball, but by runs, they have, as their failures have come in more damaging situations.
Where the Angels have been worst on the bases when trying to steal, it's worth noting that they haven't shined in other situations. They haven't been good at advancing on grounders. They haven't been good at advancing on flies. They haven't been good at advancing on hits. In their best baserunning category, the Angels have been about average. In their worst, they've been a disaster.
It isn't notable that some team is in last. Some team always has to be in last. It's notable that the team in last is the Angels, who for so long made annoying things like fundamentals and baserunning a big part of their identity. Sciosciaball, and all that. The Angels would grind out tough at bats, and they'd scratch their way on, and they'd steal, and they'd go first-to-third, and they would beat you with their aggressiveness. No longer. This team hasn't just been worse on the bases. It's been the worst team in baseball.
The Mariners may not have picked up the mojo they thought they'd be getting when they signed Chone Figgins away from their rival, but given how little has changed in team makeup, one can't help but wonder whether the bulk of the Angels' annoying identity rested on Figgins' tiny shoulders.
Earlier in the year, I spent some time in this column talking about the difference between the Rays' offense with nobody on base and the Rays' offense with runners in scoring position. Though the team's numbers weren't impressive on the surface, they blew through the roof in run-scoring situations, which played a big part in how the team stormed out of the gate with a 32-12 record. Since then, the split has regressed, and the Rays lineup has behaved far more normally.
That, though, is only half of it. See, it wasn't just the Tampa Bay offense that was excelling in run-scoring situations. It was also the Tampa Bay pitching staff. And only the Tampa Bay offense has slowed down.
The pitchers have only continued to post terrific numbers with the pressure on, and it's all made very apparent with the following split:
League average OPS against, bases empty: .716
League average OPS against, RISP: .752
Rays OPS against, bases empty: .718
Rays OPS against, RISP: .645
The average pitching staff has been worse with runners in scoring position than with men on, by about 36 points of OPS. The Rays, on the other hand, have been better by 73. This is far and away the broadest positive split in the league, blowing away the second-place Mets, who've been better by 30.
To put it another way, with the bases empty, the Rays' OPS against currently ranks 20th in the league. With runners in scoring position, the Rays' OPS against ranks first.
It's a funny thing that happens when you don't allow many hits with runners in scoring position - you don't allow many runs. The Rays have allowed just 3.9 runs per game, fifth-best overall and second-best in the American League.
Interestingly enough, we may not even be talking about a pitcher split, here. What we're seeing with the Rays might completely be explained by the defense. With the bases empty, the Rays have allowed a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .284. With runners in scoring position, they've allowed a BABIP of just .252. The Rays have one of the top team defenses in the league, and the evidence suggests that the defense has been at its best in the more critical situations.
Whatever the case, and regardless of who's responsible, this is a big split that has most certainly at least in part fueled the Rays' great success. Now, the temptation is to assume that, since we're already at the end of August, the split is for real, since it's had plenty of time to normalize. The fact that it hasn't normalized suggests that the Rays have some ability to step up in the clutch. However, I'd caution against such an assumption. Even though the Rays have recorded nearly 1200 plate appearances against with runners in scoring position, the numbers they've put up appear to be unsustainable. No matter how late it is in the year, I would still expect them to regress.
Would they get killed by said regression? Don't count on it. The Rays are still a very, very good team. But we could see this make the difference in the race for the AL East title over the final five weeks of the year.
In the wake of Stephen Strasburg's latest injury and trip to the DL, there's been a lot of talk about the danger of pitching, and the fragility of pitchers. The most visible article, most certainly, was Joe Posnanski's, as everybody's favorite sportswriter ran down a history of young pitchers with terrific stuff who couldn't stick around because, as it turns out, the human body isn't really built to withstand the stress of throwing a baseball really fast a hundred times every few days.
And, generally speaking, Posnanski's right. Studies have shown that, when an upper-level pitcher throws a fastball, he puts about 80 Newton-meters of torque on his elbow. And studies have also shown that, for the average ulnar collateral ligament - the elbow's most vital bit of tissue - 80 Newton-meters is about where it snaps. Big league pitchers who throw big league fastballs work right up against their bodies' limits, which explains why we see so many of them end up hurt.
But to focus on the fragility of the average pitcher is to focus on the negative. Yeah, a lot of things snap and tear and break, and a lot of guys miss a lot of time. It sucks. That same brittleness, though, is precisely what makes the exceptions something to celebrate.
Felix Hernandez is a 24 year old righty. He may not have Strasburg's raw stuff, in that he doesn't hang around in the 97-100mph range with his fastball, but he's very very close. And while Strasburg's already made two trips to the disabled list in his brief rookie season, Felix, for years, has been the picture of health despite a burdensome workload.
After shutting down the Red Sox on Wednesday night, Felix's pitch count on the year jumped past Dan Haren to assume the league lead at 3083. Felix has made 28 starts this season, and thrown at least 100 pitches in 24 of them. He's thrown at least 110 pitches in 19 of them. A year ago, he threw at least 100 pitches in 30 of 34 starts, and at least 110 pitches in 14.
In 2010, Felix currently leads the league in pitches thrown. In 2009, he finished second. Between 2005-2008, he averaged 101 pitches per start.
And, other than a brief scare with a forearm strain early in 2007, Felix hasn't shown any signs of wear and tear. He elevated his game in 2009, and he's elevated it once more in 2010, standing as a strong candidate to win the Cy Young despite an unimpressive win/loss record. Felix, at 24 years of age, is an established ace, and he's an established workhorse. On any given night, there are few pitchers capable of working as deep into a game as Felix, and if the stresses are having any effect on Felix's body, it isn't apparent. He seems to just get stronger and stronger.
And Felix isn't the only one of these guys. C.C. Sabathia's been throwing a ton of pitches ever since he was a 20 year old rookie, and he's never hurt his arm or his shoulder. Justin Verlander's thrown a million pitches at 98 miles per hour, and the worst complication he's faced is minor fatigue. Ubaldo Jimenez has shown an ability to work deep with power stuff and hasn't ever complained about his arm.
Any one of these guys, of course, could get hurt tomorrow. A workhorse is only a workhorse until he isn't, and there's no telling where things go from there. My point is simply that major arm injuries aren't an inevitability. Even for a young pitcher who throws a mean fastball, there's no guarantee he's going to come up sore and need to go under the knife. There's a certain probability, yes. Pitching is dangerous, and pitchers get hurt. But the situation isn't as dire as it's sometimes made out to be, and all the proof you need is hanging out near the top of the ERA leaderboard. Some guys can't handle the strain. Some other guys can. All pitching is is a stress test.
There's no shortage of things that are amazing about Joey Votto's 2010 season. He's fourth in the league in average. He's third in the league in home runs. He's second in the league in OBP, and third in the league in OPS. He posted a first half OPS of 1.011, and he's only been better ever since. He's done all this for a team few people respect, and he's done it as a Canadian.
Joey Votto, all year long, has, by any measure, been extraordinary. He's easily the biggest reason the Reds are where they are, in first by 3.5 games and owning CoolStandings playoff odds of 80%. The Reds are set to march into the postseason, and when they look back on what got them there, Votto will stand out as the team MVP.
Votto's list of accomplishments to date is as long as it is impressive. And me, I'm here to add one more thing that I suppose you can slide in somewhere near the bottom. Because while this isn't the most meaningful of statistics, I think it's worth noting that, of the 153 batters who had made at least 400 trips to the plate so far this season, Joey Votto is the only one who has yet to hit a single infield fly.
Votto's infield fly rate on the year is 0.0%. For the average hitter, about one of every 11 fly balls he hits stays in the infield. Votto's hit 115 fly balls, and they've all soared past the dirt.
It's just one of those things that helps you paint a picture. No argument would begin with, "well, Joey Votto hasn't hit an infield pop-up all season long." It's more of a colorful stat than a significant one. It's an addition. "Joey Votto leads the NL in average, OBP, and SLG, and he hasn't even hit a single infield fly!" It's like the adjective of statistics. It isn't there to say something. It's there to embellish something else.
Not hitting infield pop-ups, of course, is a good thing. Infield flies are pretty much automatic outs. Outfield flies have potential. Votto is making a contribution by hitting all of his fly balls pretty far, and what's interesting is that he's established a track record of this. His career infield fly rate is just 2.1%, among the very best marks in the league.
So it is a stat that serves a dual positive purpose. It both helps, and it paints. It's the kind of thing that causes you to raise your eyebrows and think more highly of Votto than you did just before.
If Joey Votto is doing anything wrong for the Reds right now, I'd love to know what it is.