Sabermetrics

Declaring WAR on Clayton Kershaw’s 2011

One of baseball’s most distinguishing traits is the enormous number of statistics available from eras new and old.  If you are so inclined, you can find information and stats on just about any season, team, and player since professional baseball became a thing in the 1800s.  As a matter of fact, there is an entire organization called the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR for short) dedicated to recording and preserving teh history of the game.  (It is from this group’s acronym that the term “sabermetrics” was formed).  One of the best places to do this kind of research online is Baseball-Reference – you can purchase a subscription for some of the data but there are a lot of free features.

With the abundance of stats, it is inevitable that the urge will arise to compare players from all eras of baseball with each other.  However, this argument typically proves futile as one quickly realizes that many era-specific factors – such as different opponents, league size and composition, advances in equipment – affect a particular player’s stats and performance.  Does hitting 50 home runs in one season in the 1960s mean the same thing as hitting 50 home runs in a season in the 1990s?  How well do ERAs compare over the course of the 20th century?  Both are good questions, and until very recently, we were left to resort to qualitative assessments of players based on assumptions and opinions to answer them.

Fortunately, some very smart baseball minds developed a way to quantify a player’s value in a way that allows for comparisons across eras.  This quantity is known as Wins Above Replacement (or, simply WAR).  While it’s a very complicated formula involving some advanced metrics, the end result is a number that describes the value, in wins, that a play is worth to his team when compared to a replacement level player.  Put another way, it answers the question,”If Player A is unable to perform and is replaced by a minor leaguer or bench player, how many fewer (or mare in some cases) wins will his team have?”

One of the beauties of WAR is that it is context, league, and ballpark neutral.  This means that the effects of game situations, which league a player played in (AL vs. NL), and the run environments of different ballparks are accounted for in the calculations.  Rather than give you all the dirty details, I will point you to the Fangraphs library for further reading on the nuts and bolts of WAR.  As noted at Fangraphs, using one metric for player evaluation is not ideal, but WAR provides a great starting point since it accounts for all aspects of player performance – batting, baserunning, defense for hitters and runs saved (or prevented) for pitchers.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Clayton Kershaw’s 2011 performance from a WAR standpoint and see how this campaign fares historically.  If you look at Kershaw’s player page over at Baseball-Reference, you can see that his rWAR* value for the 2011 season was 7.0.  2011 was Kershaw’s age 23 season (his age at midnight of June 30, 2011 was 23) and since the advent of the CY Young Award in 1956, there have only been twenty seasons that saw a starting pitcher with a rWAR of 7.0 or greater in their age 23 season or below.

Of those twenty, only Kershaw, Dwight Gooden in 1985 (age 20) and Roger Clemens in 1986 (age 23) came away with the Cy Young Award.  This may seem arbitrary at first glance since the Cy Young Award is determined by a vote, but the bigger picture is that Kershaw is one of three pitchers to have performed at such a high level at a young age and be perceived as the most outstanding pitcher in his respective league.

Another point worth noting is that, going back to 1880, there have only been 25 seasons in which a left-handed starter posted a rWAR of 7.0 or greater at age 23 or younger.  (Awesome side note: a guy named Noodles Hahn had two such seasons in 1899 and 1902).  Before Kershaw’s 2011, Jim Abbott’s 1991 season and Frank Tanana’s 1975-77 seasons with the California Angels were the most recent occurrences.

To reiterate, it is typically not safe to pass too much judgment based on any one statistic – Kershaw actually accumulated a lower rWAR than NL Cy Young runner-up Roy Halladay (7.4).  We can certainly begin to form ideas and make comparisons, but the analyst must be thorough before drawing any concrete conclusions.  We will continue to examine Kershaw’s success in 2011 in the next few posts by looking at the effect he had on the Dodgers as a whole and how he used his repertoire of pitches to his advantage.

*There are two accepted forms of WAR out in the baseball universe, fWAR and rWAR.  fWAR uses the Fangraphs methodology while rWAR is the version used by Baseball-Reference.  Values are very similar but use slightly different formulas.

Sabermetrics

Viewing Clayton Kershaw’s 2011 with Sabermetrics and Traditional Stats

Pitching at any level of baseball is a constant test of physical and mental strength.  At the major league level, only the catcher sees a more demanding workload.  If you have pitched at any level, then you know of the continuous focus required to navigate a pitch, a batter, an inning, a lineup, a game, a season.  For big leaguers, off days are far from “off” – conditioning, side bullpen sessions, film study.  Surely the rituals will vary for relievers and starters but you get the idea. Pitching is hard.

Every once in a while, a pitcher will have a breakout year and fool us into thinking – just for a few moments each time he takes the mound – that pitching looks easy.  Enter the 2011 version of Clayton Kershaw.  Every fifth game for the whole season, Kershaw gave the Dodgers a chance to win.  His traditional stat line looked like this:

21-5 with a 2.28 ERA and 248 K

which, by the way, was good enough for the pitching Triple Crown in the National League (he was tied with Ian Kennedy for the NL lead in wins).  This is a nice way to sum up a season, but as I mentioned in the overview post about Kershaw, we are much more capable now of identifying more meaningful metrics when it comes to analyzing and predicting a player’s performance than we were even 20 years ago.  These traditional stats are nice, but do they properly characterize a player and his performance?  You guessed it, the answer is no.

For example, pitcher wins has come under scrutiny in the sabermetrics world as being a somewhat meaningless stat.  Sure, it tells us that the pitcher’s team won the game and he was qualified to tally the win, but can we tell how the pitcher performed just by his number of wins?  Take a look at these two scenarios:

-Pitcher A throws a no-hitter and picks up a win in a 1-0 contest

-Pitcher B gives up 6 runs and walks 5 batters in 5 innings but his team scores 7 runs to qualify him for the win

Both pitchers earn a win, but Pitcher A obviously had the better performance.  The downfall is that the traditional win stat does not differentiate between these two performances.  Now stretch this over an entire season and it will quickly become clear that a traditional stat like the win can be a misleading characterization of a pitcher’s aptitude.  This is just one example of the way that traditional stats are being scrutinized in today’s baseball culture.  Not only is it becoming more practical, but it’s fun (I know, nerd alert!) to explore in more detail the more advanced stats that have been created to better understand the game.  I am still learning many of these new stats from the sabermetric world.

Now that we have established Kershaw’s dominance of the traditional stats, let’s take a look at some of his advanced metrics and compare him to the rest of the league.  Using the Fangraphs Leaderboard we can see that Kershaw is in the top 3 in the National League for:

Strikeouts per 9 innings (K/9) with 9.57 – 2nd
Walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP) with 0.98 – 1st
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with 2.47 – 2nd

The point is this: Clayton Kershaw had a fantastic year on the mound any way you slice it.  You might even reason that his traditional stats are in fact telling an accurate story since his advance metrics were also superb.

Now that we have established (briefly) that Kershaw had a stellar 2011, there are a couple directions to go in defining his success.  One avenue is to explore his season in historical context – this opens up the classic baseball conundrum of comparing players across eras.  The other is to begin exploring the nuts and bolts of how he was able to be so successful in 2011.  We will go one of these directions the next time we meet.  Until then, let me know if there are any sabermetric principles you would like to discuss.

Pitch F/X

Clayton Kershaw’s 2011 – Overview

If you were paying attention the last few seasons, it should have come as no surprise that Clayton Kershaw had the type of year he did in 2011. In each of his first three full big league seasons (2009-2011), the Dodgers’ left-handed starter has increased his season totals of strikeouts, innings pitched, and WAR. In addition to those counting stats, his BB/9 and WHIP have both decreased over the same period. As in most cases, stats (sabermetric in nature or otherwise) tell only part of the story.

You see, Kershaw is the only Cy Young Award Winner with the letters “c” and “y” in his first name (Zackary Grienke’s first name is actually Donald). Useless? Yes. But a very baseball-like piece of information.

Stats write the description of a player’s performance as it happens and with new metrics and concepts born each year, the predictive power of stats is increasing as well. Perhaps one of the most productive advances in baseball statdom is the introduction of Pitch F/X in October of 2006. Using a system of cameras invented by Sportvision, the trajectory, speed, and spin are recorded for each pitch thrown in the majors. MLB Advanced Media makes these data available to the public and they are extremely valuable for analyizing hitters and batters alike.

This is where I will attempt to begin with my amateur baseball analysis. With a background as an engineer, the physics of actual pitches meshed with the amazing number of data points make for an endless supply of explorations. With that in mind, I hope to lead off with my studies with a look at some of Kershaw’s 2011 Pitch F/X data. I am not sure exactly where it will end up, but the first order of business will be to examine his “stuff”. What pitches does he throw? What is his fastball velocity by inning? We’ll look at questions like these and probably some others as we begin to paint a picture of Kershaw’s 2011 Season.

That will serve as my tease for what will be the first in a series of posts. Until then, may spring training games fill the baseball-shaped void in your heart.

baseball culture · Baseball Memories

How a Girly Girl Became a Baseball Fan

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I always like to tell people,

“I married into a love for baseball.”

My parents and brother give me crap because as a child I was your average luke-warm-fan-of-the-home-team {Padres} but when I married, I married into a love of the game, and a love of the Dodgers.

I always liked baseball. My brother and I even once scored tickets from a family friend to a very exciting playoffs game. But I never really knew or understood the game fully.

When David and I got married we lived on a half-a-shoestring budget. We had no cable but our college town happened to have a station on the Dodgers Radio Network, so we listened to just about ever Dodgers game on the radio (so old-school, huh?).

It was then that I “met” Vin Scully and began to learn all the ins and outs of the game, got to “know” the players and some of the Dodgers lore and history, and basically fell in love with America’s pastime.

Here are a few things I love about baseball

-it’s (essentially) a summer sport, so it invokes feelings of long, warm days
-it’s a mellow, relaxing game, most of the time.
-other times it is so exciting that you worry your husband will fall off the top deck at Dodger Stadium because he’s jumping and cheering so enthusiastically.
-it’s a family thing for us (we have quite the extended family of baseball fans).
-it has a rich American history.
-it’s become a global game, especially in countries where they speak my other language.
-the culture, players and fans are generally pretty down-to-earth; the vast majority of pros are not known for their extravagant lifestyles (superstars aside)
-it spans all ages and generations.
-it’s a family-friendly sport.

I’d consider myself a pretty sport person, tolerant of almost every sport, but here are a few factoids on why I would definitely categorize myself, 29-year old crafty, stay-at-home mom of a girly, as a bonafide Baseball Fan…

-I’ve been to 20 out of 30 Major League Baseball parks.
-I’ve been to several Spring Training games, in both FL and AZ.
-I’ve been on a 3-week long road trip to a dozen games across the Midwest and East Coast.
-I allow a collection of bobbleheads in my master bedroom.
-I attempt to run a baseball blog with my hubby (we’re not very consistent with it yet though, but stick with us, we have some great ideas in the works!).
-I play fantasy baseball. With my mom. (we totally tanked last year. my father-in-law whipped us all. we vow to pay a little more attention to our team this year). :)
-my daughter (who went to her first game at 3 weeks old)’s favorite color is Dodger Blue. And she loves Manny.
-I even find myself watching baseball when David’s not home!

Can I get a shout out from any other female fans? How did you get turned on to baseball?

We’re headed out to catch a few Cactus League games this weekend- looking forward to some sun and some foul balls! And you can bet our little one will be stoked to see Manny!

Baseball Games · The Majors

Dodgers vs. Angels

Here are some photos from a game we went to last year on June 20th, 2009. We love going to Angel Stadium (Gigi and I particularly like the Rally Monkey), especially when we get to see the Dodgers play there. The “Freeway Series” is always a fun rivalry. Angel Stadium will always be special to our family since our little Gigi went to her first baseball game there almost three years ago.

We used to live really close to Angel Stadium and would even ride our bikes there to catch a game. Here’s a parking tip… if you get there early enough there are a handful of free parking spots on Orangewood just east of the 57 freeway. Just walk under the freeway, over the bridge and there’s a gate where you can walk in to the stadium.

Here’s the photos from that game… a little reminiscing to get us thinking about the excitement of a new season.
http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649

Baseball Games · Baseball Randomness · Family Fun · The Majors

She’s Learning Her Colors

Yesterday my dad took Chiquita to the grocery store. Apparently, he asked her which “car cart” she wanted to drive/ride in. Her choices were red and blue. Now, let me point out that this is the girl that almost always responds with a confident “yellow!” when asked what color something is, regardless of what it really is. But not this time! without hesitation, she pointed to the blue cart and said, “Dodger Blue!” Atta, girl.

Now if only the Dodgers had a mascot she could love like she loves the Philly Phanatic (he’s one of the only green things she can correctly identify). At least one member of our household was glad to see the World Series played in Philly– she loves the Phanatic almost as much as she loves Manny (good thing for us, he’ll be back next year)!

This is how she looked every time she saw the Phanatic when we were in Philly:
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Speaking of Dodger Blue, we got to go to a playoff game this year to root on the Blue. Unfortunately, we all know how the season ended but the game we went to, NLDS Game 2, was pretty darn exciting! Going to a playoff game was all David wanted for his birthday (well, aside from attending a World Series game, but alas, that was not an option this year). Click over to view the slide show if you are in a reader or your email inbox).
http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649

We’ll be thinking blue all off-season and are already looking forward to Spring Training ’10!

Ballpark Reviews · Baseball Games · Baseball Road Trippin' · The Majors

Baseball Road Trip: Game 2 in Chicago (Cubs)

Yesterday morning we walked around Lincoln Square, the neighborhood where we are staying, had lunch at the tasty Bad Dog Tavern, and even got a little taste of Chicago’s Mayfest as well (thanks random guy for giving us a few free food tickets!).

Chiquita took a good nap and then we headed out to Wrigley Field. We got to take the “L” train, which is Chicago’s mostly-elevated train system. Taking public transportation is something we really enjoy; unfortunately so does the rest of Chicago. We had to wait for a second train to Wrigley because the first was too jammed-full.

After a nice treat at the Starbucks across the street from the ballpark (free, thanks to our friend Melissa who used to work there!), and a quick gander at the Wrigleyville Fire Department (the “fighter-fighters,” according to Chiquita), we entered the hallowed grounds the Cubs call home.

This was the only game where we’ll get to see the Dodgers on our trip, and it was a good one for the L.A. fans! This was our third game at Wrigley Field, but did include some first for us– our first with Chiquita, our first Cubs night game, and our first time seeing the Dodgers play there.

Here’s the photos from our first day in Chicago…
http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649

Unfortunately, Chiquita came down with a bit of a tummy ache last night, so we’re taking it easy today and hoping we can still make it to at least part of the White Sox game if she’s feeling better later today. Travel can be hard on a little one but hopefully she’ll be up on her feet again and ready to go soon.