Sunday, December 14, 2008

AFC Playoff Scenarios

The AFC East has its most competitive season since the first season of realignment in 2002. That year, the New England Patriots' two wins over the New York Jets gave them the AFC East title, while the Jets grabbed a wild card over the Dolphins on the strength of a superior within-division record. This year, there is the potential for the AFC East to go down into even further tiebreaker no-mans land. Three teams sit at 9-5 with two weeks to play; what's more, the Baltimore Ravens have the inside track towards the final wild-card spot, so it's win or go home for the AFC East foes. Here's how the schedules line up:

NY Jets
Week 16: at Seattle
Week 17: vs Miami

Miami Dolphins
Week 16: at Kansas City
Week 17: at NY Jets

New England Patriots
Week 16: vs Arizona
Week 17: at Buffalo

Each team has one sub-.500 team and one plus .500 team to play in the final weeks. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head play. The Patriots have split with both the Dolphins and the Jets, while the Jets bested the Dolphins in week 1. What matters, however, is the state of the tiebreakers at the end of the season. I feel it's best to break it down in terms of the various scenarios:

Cliff's Notes version:
1) The Patriots need some help to get into the playoffs-- Even if they beat both the Cardinals and Bills, they need the Jets or the Dolphins to drop one of their week 16 games to make the playoffs. 2) The Monday night matchup between the Ravens and Cowboys is pivotal to the rest of the playoff picture. Should the Ravens prevail, it is unlikely that a 10-6 AFC East team will make the playoffs as a wild-card. 3) With few exceptions, the Dolphins-Jets game on December 28 will decide either the AFC East champion or the wild card should the Ravens lose both of their remaining games.

Scenario 1: All three teams win in Week 16
Sub-scenario 1a: Patriots lose to the Bills in week 17.
In this case the winner of the Jets-Dolphins game would win the AFC East at 11-5, that game's loser and the Patriots would both be 10-6. Which team would win a wild-card berth? If there's a tie with the Ravens, the NFL wild-card tiebreaker rules stipulate that only one team per division can be in a tiebreaker, so the within-division rules would apply. If the Jets lost to the Dolphins, they would win a tiebreaker with the Patriots on Tiebreaker 2 (within-division play). If the Ravens beat the Jaguars, they would also win that tiebreaker. Should the Ravens lose to Jacksonville, they would match the Jets' 7-5 within-conference record, triggering "common opponents," of which the Jets and Ravens have four: Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland, and Miami. The Jets are 3-2 against these opponents while the Ravens are 4-1. In the less-likely tiebreaker matchup with the Colts, the Jets would lose on conference record.

If the Dolphins instead lost, both they and the Patriots would be 3-3 in the AFC East. The next tiebreaker is record in common games. In this scenario, the 10-6 Dolphins lost to the Ravens and Texans, while the 10-6 Patriots lost to the Colts and Steelers... both teams are 10-4 in common games. The next tiebreaker is vs AFC record, and the Dolphins would be 6-6, beating the Pats' 5-7. They, of course, would not get very far in a tiebreaker against the Ravens, having lost to them in Week 7.

Sub-Scenario 1b: Patriots defeat the Bills in Week 17.
If the Jets win, they would grab the AFC East crown with a superior in-division record (5-1) to the Patriots (would be 4-2), and barring a complete collapse by the Colts AND Ravens, the Dolphins would be out of the playoffs. The Patriots, meanwhile, would lose a conference-record tiebreaker to the Ravens (8-4 to 7-5). If the Dolphins win, they too would be 4-2 within the division, but 8-4 in the conference, besting the Patriots' 7-5 to win the AFC East. In either scenario, the Patriots could face the Ravens in that conference record tiebreaker, and would miss the playoffs.

Scenario 2: Everyone loses in Week 16.
Sub-scenario 2a: Patriots lose to the Bills in Week 17, ending their season at 9-7. The Dolphins-Jets winner captures the AFC East at 10-5.
If the Jets win, despite having the within-division tiebreaker edge over the Patriots, the Dolphins would miss the playoffs, perhaps because of their loss to Baltimore. This is also true for the Jets if they lose to the Dolphins, because of their common games record compared to Baltimore's, seen in 1a.

Sub-scenario 2b: Patriots beat the Bills, ending their season at 10-6.
If the Jets win, they win the tiebreaker and the AFC East as in 1b. The Patriots cannot beat either the Ravens or the Colts in a tiebreaker, as discussed above. If the Dolphins win, both they and the Patriots would be 4-2 in the AFC East and 7-5 in the AFC. This moves towards the "strength of victory" tiebreaker. I calculate a .400 percentage for the Dolphins (58-87) and a .376 for the Patriots (55-91). Naturally this can change, but given the common victories the only outcomes that matter are the Chargers' last two games (TB and DEN) and the Chiefs' Week 17 game against the Bengals. Even if the Chargers lose both and the Chiefs win, it would not put the Patriots over the top.

If there were a three-way tie for the wildcard between the Pats, Colts, and Ravens, the Colts would get the first spot by virtue of their sweep of the other two teams. The Pats and Ravens would depend on whether their loss came against the Cowboys-- meaning they beat the Jaguars and improve their conference record to 8-4, better than the Pats' 7-5; or, if the Jaguars are the Ravens' sixth loss. In this case the Patriots and Ravens have identical conference records at 7-5, and we move to
common opponents. Both have played the Steelers, Colts, Dolphins, and Raiders, with the Ravens going 2-3 same as the Patriots. We then move to strength of victory, the winning percentage of teams beaten. Under this scenario (considering both factual and hypothetical games), the Ravens currently have a .399 to .383 edge over the Patriots. With too many variables to consider, this one is a toss-up.

Scenario 3: Pats and Jets win in Week 17
Sub-scenario 3a: Pats and Jets win in Week 16 (both finish 11-5), Dolphins Lose (9-7). The Jets win the AFC East on the division-games tiebreak. The Patriots' wild-card chances depend on the Ravens- if they also win twice, they beat the Pats on conference record.

Sub-scenario 3b:
Pats (11-5) and Dolphins (10-6) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (10-6). Obviously the Pats win the AFC East, but here the Jets win a wild-card tiebreaker with the Dolphins due to the head-to-head sweep. This would also put them at 8-4 within the AFC, which bodes well in a potential wild-card tiebreaker with the Ravens, should Baltimore lose to Jacksonville. If the Ravens instead lose to Dallas, (beating the Jags), they too would have an 8-4 conference record. Two wins over the Dolphins brings them equal with the Ravens at 4-1 in common games, and we would move to everybody's favorite: strength of victory. In the event the Colts lose to both Jacksonville and Tennessee, finishing at 10-6, they would have an equal conference record to the Jets in this case. Strength of victory would be invoked here, because in common games the Colts and Jets are both 3-2 against the Titans, Patriots, Chargers, and Bengals. (Thanks to reader Shomu for correcting me on that bit!)

Sub-scenario 3c: Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (11-5) win in week 16, Patriots lose (10-6). With the Jets grabbing the AFC East, the Pats and Dolphins once again would have equivalent division records, but the Dolphins have the superior AFC record at 7-5. This would do them no good against the Colts or Ravens in a wild-card tiebreak however. Only the Jets would make the playoffs in this scenario.

Sub-scenario 3d
: Pats (11-5) win in week 16; Dolphins (9-7) and Jets (10-6) lose. With the Patriots grabbing the AFC East, the Jets would need help beating the Ravens in a wildcard tiebreaker, as in 3b.

Sub-scenario 3e: Dolphins (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Jets (10-6) lose. Happy three-way party! The Jets win the AFC east with a superior record against the other two teams, while the potential Pats-Dolphins tiebreaker would need to go to "strength of victory," where the Patriots currently have the advantage. The Dolphins would need some help from the Chargers and Seahawks to have a chance to win this tiebreak. Then, of course, the winner would require the Ravens losing twice to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 3f: Jets (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (9-7) lose. With the Jets winning the AFC East, the Patriots need the Ravens to lose both in order to make the playoffs.

Scenario 4: Pats and Dolphins win in Week 17.
Sub-scenario 4a:
Pats (11-5) and Jets (10-6) win in Week 16, Dolphins Lose (10-6). As the Pats win the AFC East, the Jets and Dolphins finish with identical division (4-2) and conference (7-5) records. Common opponents is the next tiebreaker, and the Dolphins would be 9-3 (subtract the games against the Jets, Ravens, and Texans), which beats the Jets' 7-5 (subtract the games against the Dolphins, Titans, and Bengals). However, unless the Ravens lose both games, the Dolphins will be staying home in January.

Sub-scenario 4b:
Pats (11-5) and Dolphins (11-5) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (9-7). This is not a good scenario for this Jets fan. The Dolphins win the AFC East due to the within-conference tiebreaker. The Patriots would need the Ravens to lose one game, or the Colts to lose two, to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 4c:
Dolphins (11-5) and Jets (10-6) win in week 16, Patriots lose (10-6). While the Jets would win the tiebreaker over the Patriots, they once again would need the Ravens to lose both their games in order to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 4d: Pats (11-5) win in week 16; Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (9-7) lose. With the Patriots grabbing the AFC East, the Dolphins would need help the Ravens to lose twice.

Sub-scenario 4e: Dolphins (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Jets (9-7) lose. The Patriots would need the Ravens to lose twice to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 4f: Jets (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (10-6) lose.
Another three way tie, this time a true nightmare! With each team 2-2 against the others, the next tiebreaker is division record. The Patriots would get knocked out of the three-way for their inferior 3-3 record, the Jets and Dolphins, who would have identical conference records (7-5). The Dolphins would win the AFC East on the strength of their record against common opponents. The Jets would then win the wildcard tiebreaker against the Patriots due to conference record, but would need help, since they cannot beat the Ravens in a tiebreaker.

Scenario 5: Bills and Jets win in Week 17
Sub-scenario 5a:
Pats (10-6) and Jets (11-5) win in Week 16, Dolphins Lose (9-7). This is a clear scenario. The Patriots would still need the Ravens to lose twice to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 5b: Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (10-6) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (10-6). It's the three-way tie nightmare!!! Actually this isn't so bad, as the Jets win the AFC East because they would be 3-1 against the other two teams. The Dolphins would win the wild-card tiebreaker because of a superior conference record, and would need two Ravens losses to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 5c: Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (11-5) win in week 16, Patriots lose (9-7). Another easily stratified result, with the Dolphins hoping for help from the Jaguars and Cowboys against the Ravens.

Sub-scenario 5d: Pats (10-6) win in week 16; Dolphins (9-7) and Jets (10-6) lose. The Jets would win the AFC East due to the superior Division record, while the Patriots need two Baltimore losses to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 5e: Dolphins (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Jets (10-6) lose. The Jets win the head-to-head tiebreak on common opponents, while the Dolphins need help from the Cowboys and Jaguars in the wild card.

Sub-scenario 5f: Jets (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Dolphins (9-7) lose.
It takes quite the scenario for someone to win the AFC East by two games. The Dolphins would still hold any wild-card tiebreak over the Patriots on conference record. Two other teams can finish at 9-7: the Ravens (who beat the Dolphins) and the Texans (who lost to the Ravens). Only the Jets make the playoffs here.

Scenario 6: Bills and Dolphins win in Week 17
Sub-scenario 6a:
Pats (10-6) and Jets (10-6) win in Week 16, Dolphins Lose (10-6). Happy threeway party, with a resolution identical to 4f-- Dolphins win the AFC East and the Jets have the wild-card tiebreaker over the Patriots, assuming the Ravens lose twice.

Sub-scenario 6b: Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (11-5) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (9-7). This easy result leaves the Dolphins as the AFC champs, and the Patriots needing help from Dallas and Jacksonville to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 6c: Dolphins (11-5) and Jets (10-6) win in week 16, Patriots lose (10-6). With the Dolphins safely winning the AFC East, the Jets would be the ones winning the rights to hope for two Baltimore losses in order to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 6d: Pats (10-6) win in week 16; Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (9-7) lose. The Dolphins win the AFC East based on conference record while the Patriots wait for the Ravens' results.

Sub-scenario 6e: Dolphins (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Jets (9-7) lose. With the Dolphins winning the AFC East, the Patriots can't match the Jets' conference record in this scenario. A Jets-Ravens tiebreaker matchup would go to common opponents, with the Ravens winning.

Sub-scenario 6f: Jets (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Dolphins (10-6) lose.
This final scenario gives the Dolphins the AFC East on common oppnents, while the Jets hope for two Ravens losses.

I believe those are all the iterations, if there are others please let me know. We are aided by the lack of parity in the AFC, since only two other teams (the Colts and Ravens) have a shot at the wild-card. How important is the week 17 showdown at the Meadowlands? Well, it depends on the fates of all three AFC East teams in week 16, as well as the result of the Monday Night Football game between the Ravens and Cowboys on December 22. Should the Ravens prevail, all else being equal the Dolphins-Jets game will likely decide the AFC East, and the loser will miss the playoffs. The only exceptions are 3b and 4a (Pats win twice, and the winner of the Dolphins-Jets game loses in week 16). The Patriots, meanwhile, need some help next week to have hope of winning the AFC East- every title scenario for them involves either the Jets or Dolphins losing in week 16.

Useless Sports: The Extra Point

It's been a while since I've been motivated to post anything here at Immaculate Inning... the way baseball season ended for this Yankees fan, plus my first real semester of graduate school that included actual work to do are my excuses. For the both of you who still check this site, I've got a treat for you today. We're going to talk about one of the most useless features of modern sport: the extra-point.

Sports historians tell us that the Point After Try (or PAT) has its roots in the precursor to American football- rugby. A "try"-- placing the ball in the end zone--  did not score any points for the team, but triggered a kicking attempt parallel to the spot in the end zone where the ball was placed. When touchdowns became more important in American football the point totals were adjusted, but the basic principle is that a TD is worth twice a FG... unless of course you make the PAT.

Up until the 1980s, the last part of the equation was not a sure thing, as the graph found here shows. However, the percentage of missed extra-points after 1984 (when defenders were banned from taking running leaps at the line of scrimmage) has never exceeded 5%; the last time it exceeded even 2% was the 1993 season. In 2008, the percentage is staggering: up to and including Thursday's Bears-Saints game, there have been 957 extra-point attempts, and only four missed attempts. The 99.6% success rate is the best in the history of football, surpassing the 99.2% rate in 2004. It's possible that we may be confusing increased ability with statistical noise, but that has not stopped other bloggers from calling for a modification of the Point After Try.

Because we at the Immaculate Inning like to champion the rare event, let us look at the four ignoble kickers who have missed this year.

Taylor Mehlhaff, New Orleans Saints When Martin Grammatica went down to injury on October 8, the Saints re-signed Mehlhaff the man Gramatica defeated in training camp. The left-footed rookie sixth-round pick out of Wisconsin played just three weeks for the Saints, making two out of three field goal attempts, and missing the first extra point of the 2008 season. The failure made Mehlhaff famous on two continents, as the miss came in an October 27 game against the Chargers played in London. As you can (kind of) see in this video, Drew Brees had just completed a 12 yard TD pass when Mehlhaff lined up for the point-after, and you can hear in the video the result- clank! Even the American-football naive fans at Wembley had mind enough to boo his performance. So, too, did the Saints, who cut Mehlhaff two days later.

It was suggested in the ESPN-comments of that article that the Saints had no confidence in Mehlhaff to begin with, and would "frequently" go for it on fourth down. The Saints did go for it twice on fourth down at Wembley, from the 1 yard line (not suspicious) and another time on 4th and 2 on the Chargers' 14 (quite suspicious). The previous week, the Saints were held to only 7 points and Mehlhaff did not attempt an field goal; they went for it on a 4th-and-one from the Carolina 37, which is no-man's land for FGs for anyone. The fourth-quarter failed conversion on a 4th and 2 from the Carolina 3 yard also makes sense as the Saints were down by twenty points at the time. In his first game against the Raiders, Mehlhaff missed his first attempt (31 yards), made his second (44 yards), and the Saints never went for it on fourth down. As always, don't trust ESPN commenters, but it may be that the extra point did spell doom for Mehlhaff; making PATs is important for a Saints team that leads the NFL in touchdowns scored.

Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions By far the most experienced kicker of the four, Hanson has 16 years kicking in the NFL, and has made 98.5% of his extra points. This season, he was unlucky November 2 in Chicago, under some pretty terrible conditions. The muddy field was causing players to slip around all day, and the Lions struck for the first time in the second quarter on a Kevin Smith 1 yard TD run. Hanson slipped and fell in the mud during his PAT attempt, rose to his feet and attempted to complete the try, but it was blocked by Alex Brown. The play became immensely important later in the game, as the Lions got the ball back with 1:04 to go and 87 yards to make up a 27-23 Bears lead. Had Hanson completed his extra point, the Lions could have tied with a field goal.

Jeff Reed, Pittsburgh Steelers We didn't have to wait long for the next missed PAT. The seven year NFL veteran missed an extra-point in Washington on November 3. The Steelers had scored right before halftime on a 1-yd QB sneak by Ben Roethlisberger, who injured his arm on the play. Led by backup Byron Leftwich, the Steelers rallied again for a big drive to open up the third quarter, capped by a 1-yard TD run by Willie Parker. According to the play-by-play, Reed's PAT was wide left. This was a significant event for Reed, who had not missed a PAT since 2003, his sophormore season. Weather did not seem to be a factor; the NFL's gamebook reported 51˚F and no wind that day. Teams typically have their backup QB receving the snap on field goal attempts- was there a switch made when Leftwich entered the game? No, because Reed's holder all day was punter Mitch Berger. However, this ESPN fantasy football page notes that Berger's hold was bad. It is unknown whether Berger's botched hold has anything to do with the fact he was released following the game. He's back with the Steelers now though after four weeks as a free agent, so I guess there's not that many hard feelings.

Matt Bryant, Tampa Bay Bucs Also a seven-year NFL veteran, Bryant missed a point after last week at Carolina. Jeff Garcia had just completed a 15 yard pass to Antiono Bryant (no relation) to bring the Bucs within a touchdown at 31-23 with under two and a half minutes to go. The kicker who two years ago knocked through the third-longest field goal in NFL history (62 yards) lined up for the point-after. Julius Peppers busted through the line and blocked the kick (his seventh since entering the league in 2002, second most over this span). Bryant's subsequent onsides-kick attempt was also not successful, and Carolina went on to win the game.

So, that's it on missed PATs in the 2008 NFL season. Just nine were missed all of last year, and since 2003 (the season I grew tired of copy-pasting PAT stats) there have been 6,520 PATs, of which 6456 were made, for a grand average of 99.018% over the last five-plus seasons. So I ask, any NFL fans out there, what is the purpose of retaining the extra point? Other than tradition, what good does it do the game to have an event which is successful over 99% of the time? I can't think of a single scoreboard-impacting event in American sports that has anywhere near a 99% success rate; the closest may be the penalty kick in soccer, but that's another topic. Meanwhile, while typically you don't see defenses going all-out on the PAT unless there is something at stake, there is still the significant risk for injury to the very large men in that line of scrimmage.

On the other blogs that have discussed this, one of the objections to eliminating point-afters was that it would renew the importance of the field goal. While I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that it could just be that a touchdown is worth 7 points unless a team wants to make it 8 with a conversion attempt. Making the team play the same from-scrimmage football that got them to the end zone seems a much fairer way of handing out extra-points. And at a current rate of just 50%, the two-point conversion is much less of a sure thing.

As it stands, at the professional level, the point after try is the most worthless waste of time in modern sports.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Quarter Million Home Runs: Today?

I've been fairly busy the last few days, feverishly preparing for a big presentation on Monday. I just wanted to give an update on The Quest for Quarter-Million. A staggering forty-two home runs were slugged in yesterday's action, which brings the total home runs in major league history to 249,969. With just thirty-one home runs to go, it's possible the mark will fall today, with fifteen games on tap. I'll brush my own shoulders with pride if it does come today, as predicted in my earlier post. I will make periodic updates during the day, and will launch into a live-blog when we get within a handful of home runs. It may even happen on national TV, in tonight's ESPN game, with Cole Hamels' Phillies taking on the Mets and Johan Santana.

So stay tuned to the Immaculate Inning for all your Quarter Million Homer updates.

UPDATE: 2:25 PM. Just one home run so far, by Lastings Milledge off Jo-Jo Reyes. Thirty more to go.

UPDATE: 3:25 PM: One hour later, and bevy of homers: Paul Konerko, Mike Jacobs, Albert Pujols, Dusty Ryan, Chase Headley, Toby Hall, and Greg Dobbs, and Alberto Gonzalez bring the total homers in MLB history to 249,979. Still plenty of baseball left to be played tonight.

UPDATE: 4:15 PM. Miguel Cabrera and Kevin Kouzmanoff hit homers since my last update. I flipped on the Brewers-Padres game just in time to see the 249,981st home run in major league history. Gabe Kapler broke up Chris Young's perfect game in the eighth inning on a hanging slider. Young has been amazing today, just 80 pitches through eight innings, but no perfecto. And as I'm writing this, Derek Jeter makes it 249,982 with his homer in the first inning against Ryan Feierabend.

UPDATE: 4:25 PM. Another pair of homers recently, Magglio Ordonez followed by David Ortiz. That brings today's total to fifteen homers, sixteen shy of the milestone. There were 15 game scheduled, or 135 innings; so far 83 of those innings are complete (although the Nats-Braves game is headed for extra innings). So the hitters will have to pick up the pace a bit to make the milestone tonight. While the Phillies are second in the majors in team home runs, they face stingy Johan Santana tonight. Most of the other teams still to play are in the middle of the pack with regards to homers. It may be that tomorrow's early innings will be a frenzy for the milestone.

As I type, Xavier Nady hits home run number 249,985 in the second inning against the Mariners. With the mediocre pitching of Seattle, the Yankees may close the gap a few more times in this game. I predict there will be four or five home runs to go as we enter the Mets-Phillies game tonight.

UPDATE, 5:25 PM. Jason Bay, Adrian Beltre, Brad Hawpe, Chris Snyder, Adam Dunn, and Jose Lopez add their home runs to the mix. With twenty-two homers hit today, just nine more are needed. The Nats and Braves battle on into the 12th inning, and Red Sox-Rangers (8th inning), Yankees-Mariners (5th inning), Astros-Rockies (7th inning), Pirates-Giants (4th inning), and D-Backs-Dodgers (4th inning) are the current games. There's still a chance that the Quarter Million will come today!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sabathia Victim of Obsolete Scoring System

This afternoon, Milwaukee Brewers' ace CC "Don't Put No Periods" Sabathia threw an absolute gem. A complete game shutout, giving up just one hit, with eleven strikeouts and just three walks-- a great game in this day of relief pitchers. His Game Score of 96 is the best of the season, beating even John Lester's no-hitter. And yet, the Brewers will be appealing the judgment of the game, because they feel Sabathia should have gotten the no-no. The lone hit came in the sixth inning, when Andy LaRoche hit a dribbler back to the mound. Sabathia picked up the ball, was about to fire to first, and dropped it. Bob Webb, veteran official scorer, immediately scored it a hit, explaining that LaRoche was 2/3 up the baseline before Sabathia even bent over. The Brewers think Sabathia was robbed.

Before we get to my take on it, let's run through a truly awful paragraph in the AP story:

"Despite the Brewers' protests, the play in question is routinely called
a hit and fielders often get angry when they are called for errors on
easier plays."

This is my first, and most important point: Errors are stupid. I recently went to a baseball game and had to explain my favorite sport to a number of Chinese students who were watching the game for the first time. Despite the language barrier they were able to pick up the vague idea of the game. But when they heard my explanation in response to "What does the E mean on the scoreboard," they looked at me funny. Now, in the progress of an individual game, it may make sense to assign blame for a particular play, in the process of deciding why an out was not made.

What bothers me is that errors are used in two ways that hide the true value of players. Most directly, they affect the defender, whose number of errors has almost no bearing on the number of outs he actually does make. While advanced fielding metrics are far from perfect, they at least make an effort at quantifying the level of skill in out-making a defender has. Errors, on the other hand, are arbitrarily decided by some dude in a booth. Second of all, the "earned-run" is a bastard child of the error, and has led talent evaluaters astray in believing that some runs are more important than others, when judging a pitcher. Ok, rant over, let's move on to the next sentence:

"The Associated Press polled eight writers who have
reported on the majors for 10 years or more, and six would have called
it a hit."

Great job, Associated Press! Way to immediately poll a bunch of sportswriters about what an official scorer should have done. I don't care if they polled eight construction workers who have watched baseball for 10 years or more, they would have been equally qualified to speculate about a completely different profession whose primary function is to make judgment calls on baseball games. Two of these judgments are errors and wins, which are both stupid, primarily because they are subjective. Still, Bob Webb's job is to judge baseball games, and the baseball writer's job is to write about baseball games. Why are these somehow overlapping, to the AP?

"Also, Sabathia pitched with almost no pressure with a multiple-run lead
in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, which wouldn't have been the
case if he had a no-hitter going and every late-innings pitch would
have been critical."

Ah, clutchitudiness. Or something similar, I suppose. Sabathia shouldn't be credited with a no-hitter because if he knew he were pitching a no-hitter, the whole rest of the game would have changed, somehow! Sabathia would be pressing, or some other silly notion. Well, what if, after the sixth inning, Ryan Braun assured Sabathia that he was going to make a big stink about that error the rest of the game? Then, Sabathia would be under pressure to continue to hold the Pirates to just one hit, so they could get on with the protesting! Isn't that the same amount of pressure?

That was just about the dumbest three consecutive sentences I've ever read from the Associated Press. I guess they all must have gone to UNC journalism school.... Last month, the Immaculate Inning recognized those pitchers who had been "robbed by their defense," losing a perfect game because of an error. It's too bad that doesn't have a search feature for "plays that should have been errors but weren't." But, there have been 48 one-hitters since 2000. If just a fraction of them featured a hit that should have been called an error, how many more no-hitters would that add to the annals of baseball?

In the earlier post, I dismissed a few near-perfect games because the pitcher himself was responsible for the lone baserunner, and this case may. Even if the hit were changed to an error, the onus would be on Sabathia. It brings up an interesting point; if you, the pitcher, are in a no-hitter, and you think that someone may get an infield hit, do you drop the ball on purpose? Do you fling it into the stands? One does not have to go far to find precedent for a no-hitter featuring an error by the pitcher-- John Lester had an error in his no-hitter earlier this year. But, the error was on a pickoff throw and did not allow a baserunner.

The last time a no-hitter featured a runner reaching on an error was for Anibal Sanchez of the Marlins on September 6, 2006. In the fifth inning, Carlos Quentin reached on a throwing error by Miguel Cabrera. Before that, it was Cal Ripken, Jr reaching on a throwing error by Shea Hillenbrand in the second inning of Hideo Nomo's no-hitter for the Red Sox in 2001. Kirk Gibson dropped a fly ball in the fifth inning of Bret Saberhagen's no-hitter in 1991. That last one is included in this article by Baseball Digest recording questionable no-hitters in baseball history. Apparently the ball just tipped the top of Gibson's glove as he leaped for the liner off the bat Dan Pasqua. Initially called a hit, it was later changed to an error by the official scorer. Phil Rizzuto remembered a similar occurance in a no-hitter by Virgil Trucks in 1958.

In all, I think what this demonstrates is the power of the official scorer, regarding baseball immortality. A no-hitter is a big deal, and it's a shame that remembering such an event is dependent not upon the pitcher responsible, but upon a man in a booth high above the field. Sabathia is a great pitcher and with his ability to get deep into games, he'll certainly have another chance at an official no-hitter. Unless, of course, the Brewers make his arm fall off trying to get their money's worth on their half-season rental....

Matt's Yankee Stadium Memories: Part III

In a way, it is perhaps better for the memory of Yankee Stadium that the final season go out with a whimper, rather than a bang. Fans can then focus not on the daily grind of the present team, but on the past glory the stadium symbolizes. For me, this includes my series that remembers the games I've attended in the House that Ruth built. My dad, an avid reader of Immaculate Inning, pointed out that there were two games I've already passed over, from those dark days on the boundary of memory and vague impression. We then also discovered that I completely blew it in my last entry.

It was probably because of how mediocre the early-90s Yankees were, but my father doesn't remember much about those early games either. He insists we attended two other games, in addition to the Bat Day game in 1991. At one of them, the only thing my dad remembered was that Tim Leary faced Ron Darling, because he remembered saying to me "This is what the Yankees have come to- former Mets facing off!" Indeed, the former Mets pitchers faced off on May 16, 1992. The Yankees lost 6-3, thanks to a 5-run fifth inning that included RBIs from Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

At the other game, we sat behind the first base dugout, about twenty rows back. Neither of us can remember any details about the game, so we can't pinpoint it. The only tangible memory is a ball I took home from the game-- no, not a heroically caught foul ball, but instead dropped by another kid as he ran up the stairs during batting practice. I watched the ball bounce towards me and the kid kept going. "Pick it up!" my dad whispered at me. I would have given the ball back, but the kid never returned.

As I went through my apartment, and my dad went through my room at home, looking to see if I had any memorabilia from that mysterious game. We never found anything, but instead I found this:

And I immediately thought of all the honest readers I've misled here at the Immaculate Inning. You see, I knew that my FBLA club had gotten rain check tickets to a Yankees game that occured late in my senior year of high school. I thought for sure the opposing team had been the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. I was mistaken; the game occured a month later and was against the Baltimore Orioles. I admit that somehow, the details of that Rays game never matched up, but I did remember multiple home runs to right field, where I was sitting, including one from Jason Giambi. What mislead me was that the Rays game also featured a Giambi home run.

In the game I really attended, the no-name pitcher was not the Rays' Travis Harper, but the Yankees' starting pitcher, Mike Thurman. In his first season in the Yankees' orginization, after several years with Montreal, Thurman made two spot starts for the 2002 Yankees, in some of the final major league action of his career. In this game they didn't get too much from Thurman, who coughed up a three run lead in the fifth inning, and was quickly replaced by Ramiro Mendoza. The Yankees then put the game away in the sixth against Scott Erickson, including that Jason Giambi home run that landed one section to my right. The Yankees then homered twice more in the inning; Robin Ventura was the one that put one directly over my head into the mezzanine.

I suppose that the lesson is that even the best stories can be derailed by inaccurate memories. Rob Neyer wrote a whole book based on that, although I wasn't playing in the games, I just saw them. Or I think I saw them, anyway... at any rate I sincerely apologize for misleading you, the noble reader. In the next few weeks, as Yankee Stadium comes to a close, I will be offering my memories of my final two games in the House that Ruth Built. These came within the last five years and my memory is considerably less fallible. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 29, 2008

What's Wrong: AJ Burnett

After getting a good response from the first installment of the What's Wrong Series, I've decided to continue on to a pitcher who may become very popular this off-season: AJ Burnett. The current Blue Jays pitcher has an opt-out clause in his contract which rumors suggest he will exercise following the 2008 season. The 31 year old right-hander is not having the best of possible contract seasons; unless you are judging by that antiquated, context-dependent stat known as "wins."

The difference between Burnett and my last subject, Justin Verlander, is age. A.J. Burnett is past his prime years, but is likely to get paid this off-season by a team looking for a cheaper alternative to Ben Sheets and C.C. Sabathia. But the buyer may beware that this season, although Burnett has put up some pretty win and strikeout numbers, there are a number of reasons for caution. Despite playing in a neutral park with one of the league's best defenses, Burnett sports a high ERA due in part to his tendency to give up line drives.

Forgetting about wins, Burnett has pitched poorly, compared to previous seasons. First, the traditional stats:

2006: 135.7 IP, 3.98 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.83 K/9, 2.59 BB/9-- 115 ERA+
2007: 165.2 IP, 3.75 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 9.56 K/9, 3.58 BB/9-- 119 ERA+
2008: 146.0 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 9.32 K/9, 3.68 BB/9-- 93 ERA+

Indeed, Burnett's ERA, walk rate, and hit rate are at their highest levels since Burnett's 2000 season in Florida. While his strikeout rate in 2008 will be the second highest of his career (behind last season), it doesn't seem to have helped Burnett keep runs off of the board. To see why, we need to look at some of the batted ball data, courtesy of First of all, Batting Average on Balls in Play, a number which should be around .280 for the average pitcher. It's high this season for Burnett, at .318; pitchers with a high BABIP should see a correction in the following season. Following this, fewer hits should result in fewer runs for Burnett.

But, we can see by looking at Burnett's last six seasons that he his allowing fly balls (26.7% and line drives (18.7%) at a higher rate than any time in his career. Unlike Justin Verlander, Burnett is allowing a lot of batted balls on those trajectories which typically result in a higher slugging percentage. This season, hitters have a slugging percentage of 1.041 on line drives; that is, they average more than a single when they make line drive contact. In addition, a line drive off of Burnett becomes a base hit an incredible 79.4% of the time. Both of these figures are the highest since he's joined the Blue Jays.

Another useful way of looking at Burnett's results is to break it down by pitch outcomes. The folks at do this as well, and we can see what percentage of Burnett's pitches have been balls, called strikes, swinging strikes, fouls, or hit in play. Interestingly, Burnett gets the same rate of called and swinging strikes as last season, he also throws balls at a similar rate. The foul ball percentage is down a bit this season; he's about average for his career on the rate at which balls are hit in play.

It may be tempting to look at a pitcher with a high BABIP and high Line Drive percentages and simply say that he is less effective than last year. But there is another important component, obvious to folks who realize how context-dependent ERA is: the defense. While the trajectory of a batted ball may be influcenced by what kinds of pitches and locations thrown by the pitcher, ultimately the responsibility for making an out lies with the defense. The simplest measure of defense is to take the total number outs recorded by the defense and to divide by the number of balls hit in play. Baseball Prospectus tracks this, and the Toronto Blue Jays actually do quite well, recording outs on 71.1% of balls in play. This puts them fifth in the majors, trailing the most efficent Tampa Bay (71.7%) and lapping league-worst Cincinnati (67.9%). Last season, the Blue Jays had the best defensive efficiency in the league.

Despite the team numbers, something is going on with the defense behind Burnett. A standard way to neutralize the effect of defense on a pitcher's results is to only consider the Three True Outcomes- the homer, the strikeout, and the walk. By these defenseless measures we can see if a pitcher has a bunch of Derek Jeters playing behind him. The Hardball Times has a good tracker of this, called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Burnett's numbers the last five years:

2004: 3.09
2005: 3.05
2006: 3.84
2007: 4.44
2008: 3.78

When a player's FIP is lower than his ERA, it suggests that the team is playing less efficient defense behind him. And the Blue Jays somehow have a Defensive Efficiency of just .679 when Burnett is pitching, versus that .711 overall. For comparison, Roy Halladay's got the Blue Jays defense working overtime, as they gobble up 71.8% of batted balls with the Doc on the mound. Once again, the culprit points back towards the hit trajectory-- a good defense doesn't suddenly get poor for Burnett, the problem is the type of batted ball the defense is facing.

In addition to his line drive problem, Burnett may be facing a new problem: left-handed batters. Throughout his career, Burnett has been able to get out both handed batters at an even rate: a .670 OPS against righties, a slightly higher .699 OPS against lefties. This season, though, lefties have raked him hard, to the tune of a .788 OPS that is his highest since his rookie season. Those left-handers make up a lot of Burnett's high BABIP as well, hitting at a .340 clip on balls in play. In addition to giving up more home runs to lefties than righties, he also walks them more often. One thing he's changed, according to the pitch f/x data, is throwing changeups to lefties:

Change-Up Rate
2007: Total: 9.86%, RH: 4.56%, LH: 14.78%
2008: Total: 6.16%, RH: 4.23%, LH: 7.83%

One difference between the seasons is that this year, splitters and sinkers are distinguished by Josh Kalk's system Last year, some of those pitches may have counted as change ups, but the majority of them were counted as fastballs. Still, the rate at which he throws off-speed pitches to lefties has dropped, and he's throwing curves slightly less often to left handers as well. This may not be to his benefit, as a great majority of Burnett's extra base hits come on his fastball, relative to his other pitches.

So what can we expect from a pitcher like A.J. Burnett?, with their similar pitcher tool, doesn't know what to think of Burnett. His career hasn't matched any pitcher for more than one season at a time, and currently is best matched with Chuck Dobson, who was completely out of baseball after his age 31 season, in 1975. Last year's top comparison is more interesting- Erik Hanson, who also followed a good age-30 campaign (ERA+ 115 in 1995) with a sub-par age-31 year (ERA+ of 92 in 1996). He then tore his labrum and was out of baseball two years later. The career-ending injury is always a possibility for the fragile Burnett, whose multiple arm surgeries are likely to catch up with him.

If he stays healthy, Burnett's new pitching coach may be looking for a better selection of pitches, especially to left-handed hitters. If he can curb his line-drive problem and go back to getting a higher percentage of ground balls, he could become a good pitcher for a few years. Personally, I hope the Yankees stay far away...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Quest for Quarter-Million

I was making my daily visit to when I noticed a new feature on the main page: an all-time major league home run tracker. Would you believe that through the games of August 25, 2008, there have been 249,650 home runs hit since 1876? Personally I found that number to be a bit low, but I suppose when you're dealing with numbers that large, they can be deceiving. Let's take a look at the history of the home run, and see if we can't project where and when the historic homer might come.

According to the SABR Encyclopedia, the first major league home run was hit on May 2, 1876 by second baseman Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings. Barnes hit just two home runs while playing in the National League; he had played for Boston in the amateur National Association (the precursor to the NL) prior to 1876. The inaugral home run came off of Cherokee Fischer of Cincinnati in the fifth inning. This was the only full season in which Fischer appeared in the NL, he threw 229.3 innings as the Reds' backup pitcher. The home-run came in the fourth game of the season for Chicago; by my count this was the eleventh league game of the season. Just forty homers came from the National League's first season, led by George Hall with five.

Most fans are familiar with the home run environment until Babe Ruth's uppercut swing changed baseball in the 1920s. Indeed, it was not until after the beginning of the American League that the 10,000th home run was hit, in 1903. (Baseball-Reference estimated which home run was hit based on the start of game times and the inning in which they were hit.) It was Joe Tinker, of Tinker-Evers-Chance fame, that knocked a homer off the Cardinals' Mordecai Brown in he 8th inning of a game on September 5. Interestingly, the early seasons of the 20th century saw a sharp decline in home runs. To illustrate this, I've plotted the first fifty years of the NL with respect to At Bats per Home Run:

As we've covered here before, there was a major rules change in the National League at the turn of the century; for the first time, a foul ball counted as a strike. The result was a large jump in strikeouts and a huge drop in total offense, home runs included. For comparison, the 1902 American League saw 147 at bats between home runs, while the National League averaged more than double-- 389 AB/HR. The following year, while the American League tried out the new foul rule experimentally, the numbers were much closer: 203 AB/HR for the AL and 251 AB/HR in the NL. The American League continued to show a slightly higher home run rate throughout the Dead Ball Era. One thing that's interesting is that the precipitous drop in HR rate occured in both leagues around the time Babe Ruth started playing first time. This suggests that although Ruth was certainly transcendent, his approach was not unique in baseball at the time.

It was around this time that Wally Pipp hit the 20,000th ML home run, off of the Senators' Joe Martina in the eighth inning on May 3, 1924. With the Live Ball Era in effect, each of the next ten thousand home runs took eight years, bringing us to the 50,000th home run, hit on June 30, 1948. It was the Giants' Johnny Mize, knocking one off of the Braves' Bill Voiselle in the sixth inning. The Pitchers' Heaven mini-period interviened and slowed homer rates a bit in the 1960s, but with the lowering of the mound in 1969, combined with expansion, baseball was primed for its 100,000th home run.

Entering play on April 30, 1970, the number was very close to 100K, and with 22 homers hit that day, the best estimate is that Atlanta Braves catcher Hal King hit the historic round-tripper in the second inning of a game against the Cubs. The Braves started their game at 8 PM and actually had a home run in the first, by Rico Carty. Fifteen batters came to the plate before King, and the entire game took just 2:33, so perhaps his homer was hit somewhere between 8:30 and 8:45. Five homers were in this game, two by Carty, and one by someone you may have heard of-- Hank Aaron. Unfortunately, the start time of the other games that day are unavailable, so it is unclear how close we came to the milestone being held by one of the best ever.

The second hundred-thousand home runs took considerably less than 90 years, it would come in 1999, in an interleague game. According to baseball-reference, it was in this game, when the Yankees' Paul O'Neill hit one deep to right centerfield, clearing the wall at Dolphins Stadium to lead off the top of the fourth inning. Livan Hernandez was the victim, and also gave up two other homers in the game. Incredibly, forty-eight home runs were hit on June 12, 1999, eleven of which came in day games (the Marlins-Yankees game started at 7:06 EDT). There were a number of early home runs in the night-games, but feels that O'Neill's home run is the milestone.

This year, home runs have fallen from their incredible pace in the late-1990s. In 2007, the AL hit homers at a rate of 33.1 AB/HR, and the NL at 34.8 AB/HR. The rates are similar this season, and work out to almost exactly one per game for each team. So with 350 home runs to go for a quarter-million, will the milestone be passed this season? Through August 25, teams have played 3,928 games of the scheduled 4,860 (remember, I'm counting each contest twice, once for each team playing). With about 932 games left to play, it's almost certain that the milestone will fall sometime in September. Can we pinpoint this?

Based on the number of scheduled games according to, there will be 342 games played between August 26 and September 7. If the number of homers continues at an average rate, it's likely that the milestone will occur sometime that Sunday afternoon. If that's the case, count on Immaculate Inning to do a liveblog of the events of the day, remote in hand. (Of course, with my luck it will happen on Fox Blackout Day...)

In the meantime, follow along with the Quarter Million Homer Widget, now featured in the sidebar.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shannon Rowbury Update

Because of her Duke connections, we've tracked closely the Olympic performance of 1500 m runner Shannon Rowbury. She won the US Olympic Trials and looked like a contender for a medal in Beijing. A number of factors, including of course faster runners, conspired instead, and Rowbury finished seventh.

Her qualifying heat was by far the fastest of the three; he top five runners each were faster than any other qualifier. This was due in part to the speed set by Chinese runner Qing Liu, who set out in a blistering 62 second first lap. As the home-crowd favorite fell back at about 700 meters, Rowbury took control and led the race for the next 500 meters. With about 200 meters to go, a clear front group emerged, led by Kenyan Nancy Jebet Langat. All five in that group qualified for the final, but one may wonder what the extra fast pace took out of each of those runners. To see the round 1 races, click here (Rowbury's race starts about 26 minutes into the lengthy clip).

Two of the runners in that front pack were not adversely affected by the fast qualifier. Lagat won the gold medal in 4.00.23, a personal best; Ukranian runner Natalia Tobias captured a bronze with a personal best of her own. Rowbury finished at 4.03.58, just half a second faster than her qualifying time. [View the 1500 m final here]. Russian Ana Alminova set a fairly average pace with 66 seconds in the first lap and 68 in the second lap. Rowbury had spent most of the race in fourth or fifth, drafting behind Alminova and Bahranian runner Maryam Yusuf Jamal. Running without her country's distinctive hijab, Jamal was the favorite going into the race and was leading with 300 meters to go when Lagat zoomed by. Rowbury tried to go with the front group with a lap to go, and was in fourth place at the 1300 m mark, but was passed by a group that contained Tobias and others. It's possible that the slow first half of the race hurt Rowbury's chances, as the American hopeful sat back behind the leaders for much of the race.

It was a tough assignment for Rowbury; NBC notes that no American woman has ever medaled in the event. "I didn't quite have that extra gear in the last 200," said Rowbury. She was disappointed in the result; it wasn't even a season best for Rowbury, who nearly eclipsed four minutes in June. "But it's the Olympics, so I can't complain," she concluded. Barring the event of an injury, it's quite likely Rowbury will be returning to the Olympic stage in London, 2012. Notably, every runner that finished ahead of her in the 1500 m final is older than Rowbury. Yes, that includes Jamal, who is just three days older, but each medal winner will be past her thirtieth birthday in 2012, and may not be competitive.

It is quite the accomplishment to even attempt to go where no American has gone, and we at the Immacualte Inning will continue to live vicariously through your efforts! Congratulations, Shannon!

PS: Usain Bolt's three world records is more impressive than Michael Phelps' eight golds. There. I said it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

David Price, The Sequel

Ten days ago, Rays superprospect David Price made his Triple-A debut, and the Immaculate Inning was all over it. Sure, one may expect the first outing at any level for such a young pitcher to be jittery, but Price did strike out five in four innings. Five days later, Price made his second appearance against the Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates' AAA squad, a team that sits in the middle of the pack in offense in the International League. However, they do have a few blue chip prospects in Andrew McCutchen, Steven Pearce, and Brian Bixler. Price lasted longer in his second outing (he finished five) but was wild, walking four hitters in the no-decision. This weekend, the same teams faced off again, but this time the Durham Bulls were hosting the Indians. The Immaculate Inning returned, and this time I didn't forget my camera...

The weather was absolutely perfect for baseball-- low 80s, party cloudy, and when I arrived I walked down the third baseline towards Durham's bullpen, where I snapped a few pics of Price warming up. Unlike the previous game, which was on a cold Wednesday night, this game was going to be packed, and fans were already filling the lawn in right-center field (a sure sign of a near sell-out). As I walked towards the home plate area, I heard someone ask an usher where Standing Room Only folks were allowed to stand, and it was certain that Price was going to pitch in front of a packed crowd.

Following a lovely National Anthem (performed by a Durham church choir), Price took the mound and popped the mitt of catcher Mike DiFelice with a 94 mph fastball, called a strike on the outside corner. Price would hit 95 mph later in the at bat but ultimately surrendered a single up the middle against the only lefty in the Indy lineup, Chris Duffy. One thing that was striking about Price in this outing was how quickly he was working; I could barely record my notes about the previous pitch before he was in his windup again. With Duffy leading off first, Price threw a cutter that got too much of a plate and McCutchen crushed it to centerfield, but Fernando Perez tracked it down. Price really mixed up the pitches against Pearce, throwing fastballs away and changes down and in; however none of them really fooled Pearce, earning a walk. Price got a bit lucky after his first pitch to Ronny Paulino skipped away from DiFelice, but the crafty catcher pounced on it and threw out Duffy trying to take third. Paulino then saw three straight fastball strikes and the inning was over.

In the second inning, Price took the mound with a 1-0 lead, on the strength of a Nathan Haynes homer in the bottom of the first. However, it didn't take long for the lead to evaporate. Luis Cruz, a 24-year old shortstop with a lifetime minor league slugging percentage of .362 showed a lot of power in this game, starting with a hanging slider that he nailed down the left field line for a double to lead off the second. Price ran the count full against the next hitter, Ryan Mulhern, including three of 96 mph fastballs. The first two of these were balls, but Mulhern took the third 96-mph heater right back up the middle for an RBI single. Price continued to blaze the ball against Matt Kata, who hit a sinking liner on another 96 mph pitch, and Perez made a spectacular diving catch to help his pitcher. Jason Delaney was next, and Price was very careful about the 25-year old first baseman, recently called up after hitting .292/.403/.422 in AA:

0-0 Slider (86), fouled back
0-1 Fastball (92), outside
1-1 Fastball (91), outside
2-1 Change (84), inside corner at the knees, called strike
2-2 Fastball (92), outside
3-2 Fastball (92), fouled back, with the runner going
3-2 Fastball (94), way high for the walk

After Bixler pulled a fastball to short for a quick forceout, Duffy returned to the plate and knocked a 95 mph fastball to right field, scoring another run. McCutchen fouled off a couple of sliders before missing a third on a 2-2 pitch, of which I managed to take a pitcure (right). The Bulls, meanwhile, were not fairing too well against Indy lefthander Corey Hamman (3-3, 5.20 ERA, 24 K/ 21 BB in 53 AAA innings). Recent call-up Chris Nowak managed to reach on an error, advanced on a fielders' choice, and scored on a DiFelice dying quail to tie the game at two.

Price returned to the mound for a much improved third inning. He opened up against Pearce with three straight balls, grooved a strike, and then got Pearce to pop up to second on a 95 mph fastball up in the zone. Paulino ran the count full, but was fooled on a pitch down and in, and his check swing was overruled for the strikeout. Cruz swung at both fastballs Price gave him (95 and 96 mph) and knocked the second one to Nowak for an easy grounder to end the inning. The Bulls went down without a blink in the third, including a feeble strikeout on a splitter for Johnny Gomes, who was sporting a double-flapped helmet.

In a symbol of Price's wild pitching, one of his warmup pitches before the fourth flew past DiFelice and straight at my seat; if not for the net I would be one hurt blogger right now. Price fell behind Mulhern for the second straight time and the righty crushed a 3-1 pitch to the warning track; I certainly hope Perez got some kind of prize from Price for his effort tonight. With some action in the bullpen, Price let up a single to right and got a routine double play ball from DeLaney, but Elliot Johnson's throw was in the dirt and the runner was safe. With Price at 77 pitches, it was unclear how much further he'd be allowed to go, especially after this battle with Bixler:

0-0 Slider (86) inside
1-0 Fastball (89) swinging strike
1-1 Fastball (92) swinging strike
1-2 Fastball (92) high
2-2 Fastball (95) fouled back
2-2 Slider (86) inside
3-2 Slider (88) blooped into left-center field, DeLaney to third

I expected Price's night to be done when manager Charlie Montoyo jogged out the mound, but after about 30 seconds Montoyo jogged right back to the dugout, though lefty Heath Phillips was clearly ready. Price's night would last just three more pitches, ending with a Duffy groundout to first to finish the fourth inning. In all he'd thrown 88 pitches, just 53 of them for strikes. His final line: 4 IP, 2 R, 6 H, 2 BB, 3 K.

The most striking thing I noticed, besides the inability to throw in the strike zone, was the dearth of swinging strikes. By my count, Indy hitters swung at 39 of Price's 88 pitches; of these, they missed just six. We learned recently that major league starters get an average of 7.8% swinging strikes, so Price's 6.8% tonight is clearly below average. In addition, I am wondering whether Price has picked up some kind of two-seam or cut fastball; there are definitely two clusters of fastball speeds, one at 90-92 and another at 94-96. Most of the pitches in the first category are thrown outside to right handers, and in this game most of them were unsuccessful. The hit trajectories are also troubling: two of the six hits and four of the eight outs were on the ground. The rest of the batted balls were line drives or fly balls.

Rays fans hoping for a boost from Price in the last month of the season may be asking for too much. Some combination of his first long professional season, and an adjustment to triple-A, has reduced his effectiveness. Batters at this level are not going to be as blown away by a 96 mph heater as they might be at lower levels, and I didn't see any particularly filthy breaking stuff from Price tonight. With just one week left in the AAA season (plus the playoffs), there isn't much time to convert him to a reliever either. It's probably best for Price and for the Rays if he remains in the minors (and off the arbitration clock) in 2008.

Rest of the Game:

I did stay for the rest of the game, although it wasn't too exciting for the Bulls. Heath Phillips relieved Price and surrendered a mammoth 2-run homer to Luis Cruz, not normally known for his power. The ball richoched off the bull that towers over the Blue Monster. Unfortunately, the players don't win a steak anymore... In the sixth inning, Hamman finally wore down and was knocked out by a Chris Richard double. Marino Salas came in and immediately walked the next two batters. Mike DiFelice was next, and took a 2-2 pitch that appeared (and sounded) like it whacked DiFelice in the wrist. The umpire, however, called it a foul ball. Despite Charlie Montoyo stamping his feet and DiFelice grabbing his wrist in front of the trainer (see picture, left), play continued and DiFelice hit the next ball for an inning ending double play... The Indians tacked on some insurance runs off of Nick DeBarr in the ninth; the 24-year old has been pretty awful every time I've seen him pitch... The Bulls faced Evan Meek in the ninth, but the hitters looked to be the ones who would inherit the earth; Nowak, E. Johnson, and John Jaso hit the ball a grand total of ten feet and the game was over.... To sour the mood even further, the post-game fireworks were delayed as rain begain to fall, so I left... Below is a slideshow of all my pictures: please don't take them without crediting me!

All photos taken by Matthew G. Johnson, August 23, 2008.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Immaculate Inning: Pat Ragan

"Ragan, by the way, had made something of a record in the previous inning, by striking out three men in succession on nine pitched balls. Ragan called the crowd's attention to his performance as he went along by taking off his hat and bowing after he pitched each strike. He didn't have much to bow for though, when the ninth inning was finished." -- New York Times, October 6, 1914

Of all the Immaculate Innings that have occurred since 1889, few of them could match the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the performance of Brooklyn's Don Carlos Patrick Ragan. It was the ninth inning of the final game of the season, and the team then alternatively known as the Superbas and Robins capped a mediocre season with a pair of lopsided losses. The first place Boston Braves were in town and dominated Brooklyn in the first game, 15-2 (in a sign of the speed of baseball at the time, the game took just one hour and four minutes). In the second game, Brooklyn pitchers kept the Braves' offense mostly check through the first seven innings, but the home team was still losing 4-1 when Ragan took the mound for the eighth. The antics are certainly legendary, and because I've read Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends, normally I would not expect one isolated account to stand as fact. However, the Boston Globe's account of the game goes into hilarious detail (see a scan of the excerpt here):

Pat Ragan, who went into pitch the eighth inning of the second game, performed an unusual feat by striking out Whitted, Schmidt, and "Red" Smith, on nine pitched balls. The first two men never offered at the ball, but Smith took three healthy swings.

Pat was full of "pep" and knew that he had something that he was going to get action on. For after the first ball he shot over he tossed his cap as if response to applause to the spectators seated behind the visting players' bench. On the second called strike he repeated the performance, this time facing in the direction of the fans in the other wing of the stand.

When Whitted was called out on strikes on the third pitched ball, he acknowledged what he pretended was applause from the center of the stand-- and he was getting applause all right by this time.

He went through the same cerempny as one strike after another was called on Schmidt, and had the spectators and players convulsed with laughter and cheering to split their throats. Pat continued to bow his acknowledgements until Smith took his position at bat. No strikes were called on Red, for he offered at the three balls pitched-- but never touched one of them.
Read the full article here (for $4.95).

Ragan's victims were: Possum Whitted (I bet there's a great story behind that nickname...), Butch Schmidt, and Red Smith. Possibly inspired by Ragan's strikeouts and accompaning theatrics, Brooklyn rallied four runs across in the bottom of the eighth, anchored by a double down the line, called fair despite appearing to be more than a foot foul. However, the Times was right about Ragan not having much to bow for in the ninth; the Braves enacted sweet revenge on the showboating Ragan. The man named Possum delivered the death blow, grand slam that broke a tie game and eventually gave the Braves a 9-5 win.

Surely, if Around the Horn and PTI and Deadspin and other rabble rousers were around in 1914, there would be hell to pay for Ragan. Given the rending of garments about Joba Chamberlain's fist pumps and Manny Ramirez's crowd high-fives, a pitcher who gestures to the crowd after every pitch in a meaningless late-season game would probably make Skip Bayless' head explode (especially since he then blew the game!). Still, I find it a bit sad that Rich Harden and Felix Hernandez didn't do the same during their Immaculate Innings this season.

Ragan's Immaculate Inning came exactly two years after he pitched the final game in Washington Park for Brooklyn, who crossed the street to Ebbet's Field the following year. According to the Times, "Ragon [sp]... wasn't half bad in pinches, for out of a dozen raps the Giants were only able to harvest a single run." Strangely, the Times consistently spelled our hero's name as "Ragon" prior to 1914. They had it right following the 1913 season, when Ragan apparently considered a jump to the newborn Federal League, which was offering major contracts for the first time, in an attempt to challenge the NL-AL relationship. Unlike Ban Johnson a dozen years earlier, John T. Powers wasn't able to establish his league, and no serious challenge to the major leagues has happened since.

Ragan did eventually return to the Superbas, but only for the one season. Perhaps his antics on the mound in Boston on that immaculate day in 1914 was his way of saying a sarcastic goodbye to Brooklyn. Ragan pitched five games (only one start) for the Superbas in 1915 before being sent to the Boston team he'd dominated seven months earlier. I had some trouble tracking down the details of the transaction: on April 20, Ragan faced the Braves, while on May 7 the Times has Ragan pitching for the Braves, against the Giants. Baseball Almanac records that Ragan was sold to the Braves on April 28, 1915. It turns out the New York Times coverage of the transaction is buried in an article about a college baseball game: "Manager George Stallings of the Boston Braves has refused to waive claim on pitcher Pat Ragan of Brooklyn, and the player has been ordered to report to the Boston Club." It was a waiver claim, and the Superbas had tried to send Ragan to Newark because the National League required a roster reduction to 21 players by April 29.

The New York Times, for its part, considered the move a big mistake for the Brooklyn team. Ragan would have his two best full seasons of his career in 1915 and 1916. The following year, a Times article had an amusing headline: "Ragan Jinx Fails to Daunt Giants: McGraw's Men Chase Don Carlos and His Hoodoo to Shower in Fourth." In 1918, shortly before a trade to the Giants, Ragan shut down the Brooklyn team now nicknamed "Robins," and the Time waxed poetic: "It has ever been the history of baseball in Brooklyn that those players who in due course of time have been graduated to another major league club have taken a keen delight in pummeling the team mates of their earlier days on the diamond. The rule was in no wise violated yesterday when there came forth to dominate the Dodger batsmen none other than Pat Ragan of the Braves."

Two weeks after that article, Ragan was sent back to New York, this time to the Giants, in exchange for a man you may have heard of: Jim Thorpe. The man who was later voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century was winding down his baseball career, and had played only sporadically for the Giants in 1918. He was quite successful for the Braves following the trade, hitting .327/.360/.429 (OPS+ of 141) in 156 at bats. Ragan, meanwhile, saw his career slipping away as well; he played just seven games for the Giants before being sold to the White Sox, for whom he pitched just one inning. After several years in the minors, Ragan surfaced for three innings on the Phillies in 1923. He stayed on as a coach during the 1924 season and was quoted in the 2004 book The Fix is In regarding a betting scandal on the Giants in 1923. Ragan said that Jimmy O'Connell, the player who was accusing others of fixing games, was simply the butt of some jokes from the veterans. (National League comissioner Kenesaw Landis eventually found O'Connell guilty of throwing games and banned him from baseball for life.)

Unlike the previous two historic names associated with the Immaculate Inning, Ragan is a relative unknown; no books have been written about him, and his grave in Los Angeles bears simply "Professional Baseball Player." But in the Immaculate Inning hall of honor, he will be remembered for much more.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Usain Bolt Fan Club

UPDATE 1: See video of Bolt's semifinals here.

UPDATE 2: Click here to see the official results from the 200 meter final. I won't ruin the result, in case you want to wait twelve hours to see it on NBC.

His 100 meter gold medal, and world record, generated a lot of talk. ESPN's Jim Caple sarcastically (I hope) suggested he should have done even more while showing up the rest of the field. CNBC's Darren Rovell thinks that Bolt wanted to put more money in his bank by saving his sub 9.60 time for the next Olympics, or something. Bolt himself just said he was happy to win the gold medal and dismissed talk about the world record. Tyson Gay, unable to qualify for the final, said "I was in awe," following Bolt's win. It's quickly the talk of the Olympics, preventing a post-Phelps letdown.

Earlier I suggested what would be a shocking development as these Olympics near its final days: can the 200 m record, which has stood solid since 1996, fall on Wednesday? Judging by the first few rounds of qualifying, I think it's a serious possibility. Once again, Michael Johnson's 19.32 broke a 17 year old record in Atlanta, and since then only five runners have eclipsed the earlier world record. Bolt will be competing against two of them: Walter Dix (Personal Best: 19.69 and Wallace Spearmon (PB: 19.65), both from the US. Bolt, meanwhile, is the only one who's gone below 19.70 this year, running a 19.67 on July 13.

The preliminary rounds aren't much of a contest for the top runners, and Bolt cruised into the finish line in second place, at 20.64. He just had to be in the top three to ensure he would move on to the next round, the Quarterfinals. The video of his second round race can be found here, starting at the 6:00 mark. Just like in the 100 meter final, Bolt eases up with about 10% of the race still to go-- with about 20 meters to go the unofficial clock reads 18.6 seconds. Even with the ease-up, he crushes Crawford, the runner up, 20.29 to 20.42. Interestingly, sixth-place finisher Amur Seoud from Egypt set a national record at 20.55, and didn't qualify for the semifinals.

Twenty-four hours later, Bolt, Crawford, and Spearmon all competed in the second semifinal. In the first, American Walter Dix settled for third place, behind a season-best from Zimbabwe's Brian Dzingai, and a 20.11 from Churandy Martina, which was a national record for the Netherlands Antilles and the fastest 200 meter run so far. The time wouldn't last long, when Bolt's heat took the track. Spearmon and Bolt were goofing around before the race (and continued it afterwards, when Spearmon put "bunny ears" behind Bolt's head during an interview). With a much higher level of competition, Bolt didn't look phased at all.

Running out of lane six, Bolt had made up the staggered-start on Spearmon (Lane 7) and Kim Collins (Lane 8) within the first fifty meters, and never looked back. Crawford was leading the pack as they crossed the halfway point, but Bolt's freakishly long strides ended that rather quickly. At the 50 meter mark, they were tied, and the unofficial clock read 16.4 seconds. Both men appear to ease up, and looking at the replay, "ease" is too weak an adjective to explain what Bolt is doing along the last few meters. He's jogging, with no more apparent effort than someone just doing their warmup jog before a baseball game. Still, Crawford slows down a bit more than Bolt, who crosses the line at 20.09. Spearmon overcame his terrible start--his reaction time (elapsed between gun and first movement) was 0.196, worst out of all the semifinaliss-- and crossed the line third, wagging his suspiciously blue-tinted tongue at Bolt.

At this point I think the three Americans, who all would normally have an excellent shot at Gold in the final, will be racing for a silver medal. The real question is whether Bolt can chase down Michael Johnson. Despite Johnson's initial reaction following the 100 meter final, the world record holder expressed doubt, and predicted a 19.5x for Bolt in the final (which would still be the fastest time in twelve years). Donovan Bailey, former 100 m record holder predicts "if he gets someone to push him through the corner, we could see something unbelievable. I'm thinking between 19.22 and 19.26."

There are certainly some strong turn runners in the final- Crawford and Dix are among them. By getting the fastest time, Bolt will have the best lane, #5, right in the middle of the track. In front of him will be Spearmon, Dix, Martina, and Dzingai. If he can make up the stagger on the first three before the home straightaway, that's the first sign it will be a magical event. Similarly, it was not until the final 100 meters that Michael Johnson pulled away and set the extraordinary mark. But if Bolt is well ahead, as all indications suggest, will he strive for that mythical air below 19.40? Following his semifinal, Bolt promised he would go all out in the final.

For a sport that has been devestated by one doping scandal after another, it would be a huge boost to the popularity of track and field if Bolt can break the 200 meter record, and do it "clean." Bolt himself has been tested seven times since he arrived at the games, so there can be no doubt of his dope-free running. To those who consider such training regimens to be cheating, a clean Bolt holding the first 100-200 double since Carl Lewis, and breaking two world records, would return a lot of legitimacy to the sport.

Other T&F News and Notes: The Men's Long Jump was won by Panama's Irving Jahir Aranda Saladino with a jump of 8.34 meters. I mention this because the standard for "omg that was amazing" events in Olympic track history was Bob Beamon's 8.90 meters in 1968. No one had ever cleared 28 feet in the long jump, and Beamon was the first to clear not only 28 feet, but also 29 feet (8.90 m = 29 ft, 2.5 in). Event officials were not even equipped to automatically measure a jump of such distance. Despite controversy that Mexico City's altitude aided the jump, no one equaled Beamon's level for 23 years, and still remains the second longest jump of all time and an Olympic record. Imagine the aura surrounding Michael Johnson's 200m record times 1000. If you haven't seen the jump, here's a youtube video.

Also, congratulations to Rashid Ramzi, who became the first ever gold medal winner from tiny Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, winning the 1500 in 3:32.94. Even though the NBC retards said he was from Qatar in their graphic, he ran a great race and outpaced two Kenyans who had been leading the first three laps of the race. He may soon be joined by Roqaya Al-Gassra, who won her quarterfinal heat of the 200m earlier today and will compete in the semifinals on Wednesday. You'll recognize her; she's the one in the aerodynamic hijab.

Finally, some video of Bolt with some speedy fingers, racing himself on, getting the "video game times" that the NBC announcer talked about after the 100 meter final:

He got 9.69 on the video game, which was posted a week before the 100 m final. Cue creepy music...

What's Wrong: Justin Verlander

For most young baseball players, the expectation is that there will be improvement until the age of 27-29, then either a steady or sharp decline in their 30s. But a number of young players this season saw significant failure-- is this a harbinger of doom for these players, or just a fluke season? To answer these questions, we will have to rely on past down-years for similar players, as well as some peripheral statistics for 2008. We're going to start with a pitcher whose mediocre 2008 seasons affected me personally, because I spent a fantasy baseball draft pick on him in the ninth round.

Justin Verlander

2007: 201.7 IP, 3.66 ERA, 183 K, 67 BB, 181 H (ERA+ 125, 8.17 K/9, 8.19 H/9, 3.00 BB/9, 1.23 WHIP)
2008: 164.3 IP, 4.60 ERA, 129 K, 66 BB, 146 H (ERA+ 94, 7.07 K/9, 8.01 H/9, 3.61 BB/9, 1.29 WHIP)

UPDATE: A commenter pointed out that I made an error in Verlander's strikeout rate. In fact, he has reduced his strikeouts by more than one per nine innings, which is a significant difference. As noted in the comments, fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, but the BABIP (See below) suggests that those extra batted balls are not dropping for hits.

How did the Tigers' ace lose a full run/game on his ERA? While his strikeout and hit rates have largely stayed the same, his walk rate is elevated, but not some sharp increase that screams "suddenly bad pitcher!" (See: Willis, Dontrelle). This might suggest that Verlander has simply gotten "unlucky," which in baseball projection terms is talking about BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Research suggests that a hitter with a high BABIP in one individual season will see a correction in the following season; when the number of hits goes down, so does the ERA. Most interestingly is that pitchers, from season to season, do not seem to have an ability to control where a batted ball is hit (except home runs). So is Verlander allowing a bunch of bloop doubles this year?

2007: 42.0% GB, 30.7% FB, 18.1% LD, .279 BABIP
2008: 42.0% GB, 31.9% FB, 16.3% LD, .271 BABIP

Those are the percentage of all batted balls per trajectory. In addition to having a relatively stable BABIP, his line-drive percentage has actually dropped. Normally one could argue that a pitcher with a higher BABIP will not see a correction because they are allowing a lot of line drives (the trajectory with traditionally the highest associated slugging percentage). That's not true in Verlander's case. Using the new stat site, I looked at all of their breakdowns for Verlander. Only one difference between 2007 and 2008 really stands out: Verlander is getting fewer swinging strikes in 2008 (7.8%) than 2007 (8.8%). According to the site, the league average is also 7.8%, so Verlander has regressed in this area.

Swinging strikes immediately suggests that there's something wrong with either Verlander's fastball or curveball. So let's take a look at the pitch f/x data, using Josh Kalk's fascinating database. There's 2007 and 2008. Some things I notice, comparing the two player cards, in no particular order:

1) Release point. In 2007, the variation in Verlander's release point was absurdly tiny; almost exclusively between 5.8' and 7' from the ground, and between 2.25' and 3.5' horizontally. Compare that to the pitches recorded from 2008, which have a similar variance vertically, but are spread from 1.8 to 3.8' horizontally. Could it be that a wider variety of release points explains his higher ERA?

2) Pitch Movement. In 2007, pitch f/x calls three different pitches in three distinct clusters- fastball, moving between 4 and 15 inches vertically; changeup, moving between 1" and 12" vertically; and curveball, moving between 0" and -9" vertically (this means the pitch is falling less than a pitch without spin). In 2008, the system adds the recognition of the cutter, but the fastballs seem to be in the same area as in 2007. The changeup and curve clusters, however, have migrated towards each other and overlap slightly. Using the measures I invented in the A-Rod posts, it appears that curveballs with vertical break greater than 0 cause more missed swings (28.3%) than do curveballs with break below zero (20.2%), like all of the curves in 2007. But, using TB/Swing, the positive curves generate bigger hits (.191 TB/Swing) than negative ones (.151).

3) Fastball velocity: In 2007, his average fastball was recorded at 95.17 mph. This year, it's actually up to 96.07, while the cutter sits at 94.41. So it may be that pitches that last year counted as cutters were lumped in to the 2007 total, but Verlander's velocity has not changed at all.

So, if his peripherals are staying the same, he's not overly lucky this year, and his pitch f/x data is essentially the same, what's going on? The Detroit blog Triple Deke thinks that part of the issue is performance against left-handed batters. But lefties are hitting nearly the same this year (.694 OPS against) than last year (.689), with fewer home runs per plate appearance. Triple Deke also points to Verlander's performance with runners in scoring position, and it's true that he's allowed a .726 OPS against in those situations, compared to .651 last year. But it's unclear whether performance with RISP is really a repeatable ability, or perhaps we looking at one of those datapoints that suggests Verlander is simply unlucky.

Regarding a projection for the future, Verlander doesn't have much of a major league resume to go on just yet. Baseball-Reference listed Clark Griffith the most similar pitcher at age 23, and Elden Auker at age 24, which doesn't help much. Many of the more recent pitchers on the list did not experience a drop-off until later in their career (Mussina, Pettitte, Hudson) or can't stay off the DL (Wood, Harden). Eight of the ten pitchers listed improved their career ERAs in their year-25 season; Verlander dropped his from 121 to 112 this season.

For what it's worth, the Marcel Projection system forecast a step back for Verlander this season: it thought he would go just 179 innings with a 3.85 ERA, a 7.44 K/9, and a 3.02 BB/9. Marcel is the simplest projection system possible, and is based off of the last three years. Since this is Verlander's third full season, the projections for 2009 are not likely to be positive. But for a pitcher who has kept almost everything identical from a good season (2007) to a mediocre season (2008), who can say for sure what happened, much less what's going to happen. Meanwhile, I'm still trying not to giggle from writing (Wood, Harden) last paragraph...