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A lot of people, I think, have some grasp of quality of competition. Talk to someone about Toronto or Baltimore and they'll tell you "sure, they aren't winning, but then they have to go up against Tampa, Boston, and New York all the time." It's also an argument in favor of David Price for the AL Cy Young. Price doesn't have the best numbers in the league, but he has had to face the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays lineups 11 times. It's something people are willing to take into account.
When you hear about quality of competition, though, it's generally only raised when the competition has been tough. You don't hear about it so much when the competition's been easy. And as it turns out, the Rangers' competition - at least on the mound - has been pretty easy, relative to the average.
With one of its statistical reports, Baseball Prospectus allows us to sort pitchers by their quality of competition, calculated as average OPS. The mean in the AL is right around .734. That is, the average American League pitcher this year has faced opposing hitters with an average OPS of .734.
187 pitchers in the AL have thrown at least 30 innings on the season. If you sort them by easiest quality of competition, you get Dan Wheeler at the top - Wheeler has faced opponents with an average OPS of just .704.
But what you notice after Wheeler is the abundance of Texas Rangers. C.J. Wilson shows up. Chris Ray (who has since departed) shows up. Darren O'Day shows up. Derek Holland. Scott Feldman. Alexi Ogando. Dustin Nippert. Colby Lewis. Tommy Hunter. Nine different Texas Rangers - or eight different Texas Rangers, and one former Texas Ranger - appear in the top 20 for easiest overall competition.
When you think about it, this shouldn't come as a surprise. The Mariners have the worst team OPS in the American League by a significant margin. The A's are second-lowest. The Angels have been better, but they're still tenth of 14. The regular season schedule is unbalanced, as teams get to play a lot of games against their divisional rivals, and the Rangers' divisional rivals, by and large, haven't been able to hit.
And it shows up in the results. Texas has a 3.95 team ERA. Within the AL West, it's 3.27. Outside the AL West, it's 4.30. The Mariners in particular stand out as the easiest opponent, having scored just 51 runs in 19 games against the Rangers.
I don't think this is a super huge deal, mind you. I don't think the Rangers' pitching staff is a paper tiger, set to get exposed under the bright lights of the postseason. They have a bunch of quality arms, and quality arms that will remain as such against quality competition. It's just something to think about. The fact of the matter is that the Rangers have spent the year in a light-hitting division, and that division has allowed their pitching staff to appear a bit better than it really is.
Look around the National League playoff picture, and what stands out is the quality of the pitching. They say pitching wins in October, and while that old adage may or may not be reliably true, most of these teams are built in the familiar postseason mold. The Giants and Padres, we just talked about. The Phillies will come at their opponent with a three-headed monster equaled by few through baseball's history. The Braves get innings from their starters and follow up with one of the most dominant bullpens in the league.
In short, there's excellent pitching in a lot of places. And the team that doesn't quite fit in is the team that surprised the world (read: me) by winning the NL Central.
It's not that the Reds' pitching staff is bad. It's just unexceptional, when you consider the time of year. Their innings leader, Bronson Arroyo, seldom strikes anyone out. Johnny Cueto doesn't pitch up to the quality of his stuff. There's uncertainly at #3. And their bullpen is backed by a closer with a whole bunch of walks and an ERA over 4.
The Reds were an underdog throughout the regular season, and when you get involved in discussions about the playoffs, that's where they remain. Whether right or wrong, people look at the other pitching staffs headed for October and conclude that the Reds just don't quite match up.
The Reds have got a sleeper, though. They've got a few, actually, considering the playoff rotation isn't yet set and rookie Travis Wood has been quite good. But one guy who might come up huge is Edinson Volquez, who's shaken off a rough return to have a phenomenal September.
Volquez, you'll remember, was dominant in 2008 in much the same way that Jonathan Sanchez is dominant today. He piled up his walks, but he also piled up his strikeouts, and he wound up with a small ERA through 32 starts. He had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2009, however, and when he came back this past July, he didn't seem himself. In Volquez's first eight games back, he averaged just 4.1 innings per start, with 36 strikeouts and 27 walks.
In late August, he reported to the minors. In the middle of September, he came back to Cincinnati. Needless to say, he's had quite the turnaround.
In Volquez's four starts since returning to the bigs, he's thrown 27.2 innings, fanning 31 while walking just eight. Granted, two of those starts came against Pittsburgh and Houston and another came against strikeout-happy Arizona, but there's been clear progress. A comparison:
Volquez before demotion: 56% strikes, 36.4% Zone
Volquez following recall: 65% strikes, 45.6% Zone
Zone% is a statistic available at Fangraphs, and it tells you the percentage of pitches that end up in the strike zone (as opposed to the percentage of pitches that go for strikes). Before, barely a third of Volquez's pitches were true. More recently, he's shot north.
And that's a good sign. In 2008, Volquez's Zone% was just below the league average. In September 2010, Volquez's Zone% has been just below the league average. And the swinging strikes are certainly there. What he's showing is that he's getting back to what he was when he was a true top-of-the-rotation starter, and he's getting back to form at the best possible time.
We don't know yet whether Edinson Volquez will be a part of the Reds' playoff rotation. The coaching staff still has much to discuss. If he makes it, he could well prove to be the team's ace. And if he's left out, I suppose there are worse things than relying on an arm like this to pick up critical innings in relief. Volquez's usage has yet to be determined, but his ability looks to be just about back.
I don't think it's any secret how the Giants and Padres have gotten to where they are. The Padres have gotten a lot of help from Adrian Gonzalez. The Giants have gotten a lot of help from guys like Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff. But first and foremost, the Padres and Giants owe thanks to their run prevention units for keeping the teams in the playoff hunt entering the season's final weekend.
This isn't new news. Everyone knows the Padres haven't allowed many runs. Everyone knows the Giants haven't, either. Especially over the past month. When I was going over the numbers, though, what I was struck by were the strikeouts. The Giants, as a team, have averaged 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings, tops in baseball. The Padres are in second, at 8.0.
It makes some sense. Strikeouts are great for run prevention. Great run prevention units, then, we can expect to rack up the strikeouts. What stood out to me is how many weapons these teams have. The Giants have Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, and Santiago Casilla. The Padres, meanwhile, have Mat Latos, Luke Gregerson, Heath Bell, Edward Mujica, and Mike Adams. All ten of these guys have thrown at least 50 innings on the season, and all ten of these guys have K/9 ratios of 9.0 or higher.
Five each. There are five regular big-strikeout guys on each team. How many teams like these have there been in baseball history?
Three. Since 1901, only three teams have had five pitchers with 50+ innings and a strikeout rate of 9.0+. The 2010 San Diego Padres, the 2010 San Francisco Giants, and the 2003 Chicago Cubs. You'll remember that Cubs team as being the one that came within a win of going to the World Series.
Strikeouts are a more recent focus. There were fewer strikeouts in the olden days, making the ‘since 1901' parameter less meaningful. This is nevertheless an impressive feat, for both teams. Strikeouts are good things for run prevention - perhaps the greatest of things - and they get them, from a lot of guys, by the handful.
What's crazy is that the 50+ innings condition excludes Joe Thatcher, who's made 63 appearances out of the Padre bullpen and struck out 45 batters over 35 frames. He's another regular guy with a sky-high strikeout rate. The Giants, however, can counter with the fact that two of their high strikeout rates belong to starters, in Lincecum and Sanchez. So they get a broader whiff distribution.
Both San Diego and San Francisco have had phenomenal years on the mound. The overwhelming probability is that only one of them will get to make the playoffs, but both of them certainly deserve it. Teams this good at punching batters out don't come around very often.
This being the final stretch of the regular season, some of us end up spending an awful lot of time at CoolStandings.com. Playoff odds are an imperfect science, but they're accurate enough to be gripping. Math can be popular, given the proper application.
So I wanted to take this chance to make one final visit, in the last Five Numbers column of the year. And I want to visit the page not of a team that's making the playoffs, but of a team that missed. That team being the Colorado Rockies.
The Rockies slumped their way out of the race, but once upon a time - barely more than a week ago - they were the hottest team in the league. The Rockies were 62-60 on August 21st. Then they won seven of their next eight. And after a brief three-game losing streak, they went on to win ten in a row and 13 of their next 15 to pull up to 82-66. We'd all seen this before. We'd seen the Rockies go on a late-season run. This was an unusual blend of otherworldly and unsurprising.
So hot were the Rockies that a lot of people started to pencil them in as the favorites. Favorites for the NL West. Favorites for the Wild Card. Favorites to make the playoffs, anyway. So many people were pushing the Rockies as the team that wouldn't quit, and the team that wouldn't lose. People saw their success and figured this was a team playing the right kind of baseball at the right time of year.
So popular did the Rockies become as a playoff pick that it's easy to forget they never actually occupied a playoff position. At their peak, on September 18th, they were one game back in the NL West and 2.5 games back in the Wild Card. At their peak, they were stuck behind two other teams, and at their peak, their playoff odds stood at just 25.4%.
25.4%, of course, is pretty good when compared to the 1.7% the odds stood at not three weeks before. But the 25.4% odds at the time were half as good as those of the Padres, half as good as those of the Giants, and a third as good as those of the Braves. Even then - even as the hottest team in baseball - the Rockies remained a statistical underdog.
People said one thing. The numbers said another. And in a case like this, one should always trust the numbers. It doesn't matter that the Rockies came apart soon thereafter. What matters is that people got too caught up in the momentum of it all when, as we've talked about in this space before, there's no compelling reason to believe that momentum and hot streaks have predictive value. None, in the history of baseball. There have been teams that sustained hot streaks, sure. There have also been teams that caught fire and then suddenly collapsed. Teams like Colorado.
It's all just how numbers work. Streaks will happen. Some will be short. Some will be long. None of them mean all that much when it comes to trying to figure out how the next game will go. Even though the Rockies were riding high, they were still behind in two races. People got ahead of themselves. The focus shouldn't have been on how the Rockies became sudden favorites. The focus should've been on how the Rockies became suddenly relevant.
That was the focus for some. It wasn't the focus for enough. Momentum just strikes an emotional chord. Let's say Team A has a 4-0 lead over Team B in the bottom of the ninth. Team B's first two runners reach base. Fans of Team A will really start to sweat, even though Team A still has a 91% chance of winning the game. They'll sweat, even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Maybe that isn't the best example. Within a game, it's easy to see how momentum shifts could be caused by underperformance, which might be indicative. But the point remains valid. People, I think, are generally aware of the odds of success or failure, but momentum causes them to mentally over-shift the odds in one direction.
It's tricky, and understanding all this certainly won't make you stop sweating if your team gets in a slump, or your rival catches fire. When in doubt, though, believe in the numbers. Momentum doesn't mean as much as we want it to.
I intended for this to be a section about Billy Wagner. I don't look at Billy Wagner's numbers very often. I seldom have reason to. Today, I had reason to. I was looking at the various playoff teams, so I looked at the Braves. I was looking at the Braves, so I looked at Billy Wagner. My jaw dropped. I don't know why. Wagner's always been terrific, and I've always known that full well. I shouldn't have been surprised.
But there I was anyway, seeing that Billy Wagner is the proud current owner of a 1.32 ERA and a 13.2 K/9. What's more, he's doing this with a ‘baseball age' of 38. Wagner's 39 years old - he turned 39 at the end of July - but I think Baseball-Reference.com uses June 30th as a cutoff. So, as far as Baseball-Reference is concerned, Billy Wagner is 38, and he's having a season for the ages.
What I wanted to do, then, was compare Wagner's performance to that of other old men throughout baseball history. In particular, the strikeout rate. A strikeout rate of 13.2 per nine innings is absurd. A strikeout rate of 13.2 per nine innings for a pitcher Wagner's age is extraordinary. How does this match up against all other pitchers who've ever thrown at least 50 innings at 38 or older? I was curious, so I ran a search.
And this is what I came up with:
First Place: Billy Wagner, 2010, 13.2 K/9
Second Place: Takashi Saito, 2010, 11.6 K/9
Sure enough, Wagner leads the pack, and he leads it by a significant margin. Since 1901, there have only been six seasons in which a pitcher threw at least 50 innings at 38 or older and struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings. Wagner's the only one to exceed 12. He's the only one to exceed 13. Wagner's in a spot all his own.
But the guy in second came as an unexpected surprise. Granted, he's not in second by much. Saito's 2010 K/9 of 11.57 leads Randy Johnson's 11.56 in 2002 by the slimmest of margins. It's just incredible to me that the two highest senior citizen strikeout rates currently operate out of the same bullpen. I don't know what the odds of that are, but I could hazard a guess.
Strikeouts, of course, aren't the be all, end all of pitching, but they help, in that they make things an awful lot easier. And what the Braves are working with are two of the premier veteran strikeout kings in the league. They also have Jonny Venters, who's excellent in his own right, but Jonny Venters is 25. Billy Wagner is 39. Takashi Saito is 40. And those two are going to look to shoulder some critical innings should the Braves indeed go on to the playoffs (note: assuming Saito recovers from his recent shoulder inflammation).
It's amazing to me that Billy Wagner is going to retire after the year. Not because his reasons aren't valid, but because he's coming off one of the better seasons of his career. You don't see many players walk away at the top of their games. Wagner will hang them up, having spent a decade and a half as one of the most underrated pitchers in the league.
Saito, too, belongs somewhere in the conversation. Though he hasn't been around as long as Wagner, his 2.14 career ERA and his 11.0 career K/9 have gone largely unrecognized. Few pitchers are as physically unreliable as Saito, but few pitchers are as good when they're on.
It's weird to think of the Braves as a team you can root for. These are two Braves you can root for. With a combined age of 79, they're outpitching guys nearly half their age, and neither has ever been to the Series. I've heard worse feel-good stories.
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