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Scherzer's Time

June 18, 2017
 Scherzer’s Time

 

          Max Scherzer moved ahead of Clayton Kershaw in the Starting Pitcher Rankings last week, and I tweeted this out. . ..OK, in unnecessarily dramatic language.

IT'S HAPPENED! Max Scherzer has passed Kershaw to become the #1 starting pitcher in baseball.

 

        ​  This proved a rather controversial comment, and a number of people asked me to explain or defend my analysis.   What, in Twitter?  

          A surprising number of people responded that in order to say who was the best starting pitcher in baseball, we needed to define what we meant by "best" starting pitcher—surprising, since I had not used the word "best".   I was being asked to define a word that I had not used.  

          Let’s assume that I had used the word "best". . ..is it then true that I need to define the word?

          I wouldn’t say so.   If I said that one of the trees in my back yard is now the tallest tree in the yard, would I need to define "tall"?    If I said that Justin Turner had the reddest hair on the Dodgers, would I need to define "red" or "red hair"?  

          One does not need to define terms which have a common understanding.   I would be inclined to believe that the terms "best starting pitcher" or "good starting pitcher" have a common understanding.   I would argue that neither you nor I could write a definition of what we mean by the best starting pitcher in baseball which is preferable to the common understanding of the term.  Therefore, what one needs in order to say who is the best starting pitcher in baseball is not to write a definition of "best" starting pitcher, but rather, to write a set of formulas which matches the common understanding of the term. 

          That is what I tried to do, in the Starting Pitcher rankings:   I tried to write a set of formulas which matched the common understanding of the term.   To the best of my knowledge, I did pretty well.  

      &n​bsp;   One gentleman who is well known and well respected in our field has insisted that Scherzer (a) is a half a run a game behind Kershaw, and (b) is not one of the ten top pitchers in baseball, or is barely one of the top ten pitchers in baseball, or something along that line, and offers a list of the top ten pitchers in baseball, at least four of whom are currently on the Disabled List.    Well, of course he is entitled to his opinion, but it would not seem to me that that statement has enough credibility to warrant a response.  

          In the common understanding of "best starting pitcher", what is meant is the pitcher who has the most value to his team.    A pitcher who makes 35 starts in a season has 40% more value than a pitcher who makes 25 starts in a season.  A pitcher who pitches 7 innings a start, or 6.2 innings a start, has more value than a pitcher with the same level of effectiveness who pitches 6.1 innings a start. 

          Part of the problem is that our friend, I believe, is looking at the problem through the lens of a gambler.    The gambler’s interest is that given that two pitchers are pitching, which one is more likely to win?    To the gambler, the distinction between 35 starts in a season and 25 starts in a season doesn’t mean anything, because the gambler doesn’t bet on the pitcher when he doesn’t start.   The only thing that matters is how he pitches when he pitches.  

          In this way, the gambler’s definition of "best starting pitcher" is not the common definition of the term.   But it is letting our friend off the hook too easily to suggest that this issue is the ONLY problem with a ranking of starting pitchers that has difficulty identifying Scherzer as one of the top ten.  

          One of the key questions is what weight one places on recent performance, as opposed to what weight one places on performance that happened years ago.   I have heard from people who think that Chris Sale should be #1 based on how he has pitched this year—and a year ago, I heard from a lot of people who thought that Noah Syndergaard should be ranked higher based on how he pitched in 2016.   Two years ago, I heard from people who thought that Arrieta should be number one because of what had done in 2015.  But in my view, you have to prove what you can do over a period of time longer than one season to be considered the #1 starting pitcher in baseball.

          On the other hand, I have heard from people who site career ERAs and career won-lost records and career WAR, as if what Scherzer or Kershaw did in 2009 was as relevant to where they are now as their last start. That makes NO sense.

          My system rates the pitcher’s last start more heavily than his next-to-last start, and his next-to-last start more heavily than the one before that.   It does that, because that’s the right way to do it.   The last start IS more relevant than the previous start.

          I weight each start at 3%, so that the last 23 starts are 50% of where the pitcher ranks, and what he did more than 23 starts ago is 50% of where he ranks.   I could easily change that, right?   I could easily make it 4% for the last start or 2% or 2 ½%.   I chose 3% because it seems to me that that makes more sense.    3% for each start, then after a full season (33 starts) 63% of the ranking is what you have done this season, 37% is what you have done in previous seasons.   That seems more right to me than saying either:

   &nbs​p;      a)  What happened in 2009 counts the same as what happened this year, or

          b)  What happened before this year is totally irrelevant.  

          If you go to 2% for the last start, then even after a full season, where you were a year ago still accounts for more than half of your rating.   That doesn’t seem to make sense, to me.   If you go to 4% for the last start, then it seems to me that the past is wiped out too rapidly, and you wind up with guys at the top of the list who have not proven that they can handle a 33-start, 200-inning workload year after year.   But more research on this issue might be in order.

      &nbs​p;   We make park adjustments for every start, and also, we adjust for the quality of the opposition offense on every start.   We do it the way we do it because we think it’s the right way to do it.   If you can persuade me there is a better way to do it, I’ll do it the other way.  

 
 

COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

those
" He gets a slew of reaction that he's cuckoo and other people sniffing that he merely pointed out the obvious. "

It's Twitter. You can get that reaction by tweeting that the sky is blue.

In general, fans love lists and debates. He could have gotten much more of a reaction by claiming he's developed a formula by which LeBron has passed Jordan as the best all-time NBA player. There's nothing mystical or amazing about pointing out a reigning Cy Young winner is the best pitcher in baseball.

7:48 AM Jun 20th
 
JackKeefe
As a postscript, Clayton Kershaw gave up 4 home runs in a game for the first time in his career tonite.​
12:52 AM Jun 20th
 
jemanji
Well, consider it from James' point of view for a moment. He gets a slew of reaction that he's cuckoo and other people sniffing that he merely pointed out the obvious.

And the bottom line is that we've got a fertile discussion going over how good Max Scherzer is.


7:09 PM Jun 19th
 
those
I could link 3 or 4 preseason articles that listed Scherzer was the No. 2 starting pitcher in the league, behind Kershaw.

It's not something "THE GREAT BILL JAMES" is pointing out. There's a consensus that he's easily one of the best pitchers in baseball, and like another poster pointed out, his overall numbers are better than Kershaw's this season.

I'm not saying he's wrong, just that it's not exactly mind-blowing to point out Scherzer is a great pitcher.

4:55 PM Jun 19th
 
jemanji
They obviously need him to tell them that Scherzer has separated himself, and some of them need him to point out that Scherzer is in the top 10.

There was all kinds of pushback. As there will be to the most interesting James analyses.


3:50 PM Jun 19th
 
MarisFan61
Marc: IMO whatever "rationale" there may be about such a thing, why be interested if it comes from the mindset that resulted in such a bizarre conclusion?

Likewise if, say, someone ("respected" or not) expressed a conclusion that Mike Trout was just a somewhat above average baseball player.
Would you spend a moment wondering how he got to that?

Don't waste your brain cells. :-)
11:55 AM Jun 19th
 
those
"But as usual, a dramatic James statement calls attention to a basic idea that others had underestimated: Jeff Bagwell is a tremendous prospect, or pay attention to Randy Johnson because you'll never see another like him, or Max Scherzer is a planet-busting weapon.

:: golf clap ::"

Okay, the thing about Scherzer is over the top. He won the Cy Young in 2013 and again last season. He's easily been one of the best pitchers in baseball for about five years now. The great majority of people don't need Bill James to tell them he's great.
11:32 AM Jun 19th
 
Marc Schneider
MarisFan 61,

I guess because I'm always curious about what seems to be complete illogic. The guy can't be that stupid. He must have some rationale, no matter how ridiculous. I guess it just bugs me.

Hey, the other day, I read an article about the Nationals on ESPN and one of the commenters (presumably a Nats fan) argued that they should trade both Harper and Scherzer. It seems inexplicable that someone would make such an absurd comment in public. I just would like some insight into thinking like that.

Maybe I should, as you say, just accept it as stupid and get on with my life.
11:00 AM Jun 19th
 
MarisFan61
Marc: Why be even curious about such a thing?

Bill said the guy is "well respected," which counts for something, but.....

With such a bizarre thing, it ain't worth a second's curiosity. Without our seeing a thing about his reasoning, we can surmise: It's something dumb. :-)
He must be neglecting a lot.
10:52 AM Jun 19th
 
Marc Schneider
I'm curious as to how someone could say Scherzer is not one of the top ten (or barely) pitchers in baseball. I understand not thinking he is number one over Kershaw but not in the top ten?

I think wovenstrap's analogy to tennis is well-taken (ie, that players are ranked based on their performance over a period of time) except for the fact that it takes quite a while for the number 1 player to fall out. For example, Andy Murray has been number 1 since last fall, but it's pretty clear that, AT THIS MOMENT, he is not the number 1 player in tennis (if by that you mean the best player). But the rankings go back a full year as I understand so he is keeping his ranking by virtue of what he did last year. And his statement about number 1 players almost always having won a Grand Slam might be true for men, but it's not necessarily true for women. Carolyn Wozniaki was number 1 for quite some time without having won a Grand Slam and, in fact, no one really expected her to win one. She was number 1 because she won a lot of matches and a fair number of tournaments (and I assume because Serena Williams wasn't playing as much). I don't know if that has ever happened with the men; probably not because the male Grand Slams have been so concentrated amount the very top players.​
9:37 AM Jun 19th
 
Zeke**
And it's not as though the rankings have been insensitive to Sale's performance this year...he's shot up from 8th to 3rd since opening day!
6:57 AM Jun 19th
 
jemanji
++ I have heard from people who think that Chris Sale should be #1 based on how he has pitched this year—and a year ago, I heard from a lot of people who thought that Noah Syndergaard should be ranked higher based on how he pitched in 2016. Two years ago, I heard from people who thought that Arrieta should be number one because of what had done in 2015. ++

This is an argument that you've used about SP's for decades, and it is especially convincing right here. Bravo.

From the standpoint of chess ratings, which are similar to tennis ratings and the BJOL starter rankings ... what is most interesting is the clear gap that Kershaw and Scherzer have over the other great pitchers.

A chess player wouldn't quibble about 5 rating points' difference between Karpov and Kasparov in 1983 - for us, that was a duel to be settled in competition or not at all. The "co-champions" situation is always fascinating and a tribute to the twin greats.

But as usual, a dramatic James statement calls attention to a basic idea that others had underestimated: Jeff Bagwell is a tremendous prospect, or pay attention to Randy Johnson because you'll never see another like him, or Max Scherzer is a planet-busting weapon.

:: golf clap ::


1:09 AM Jun 19th
 
JackKeefe
So far this season, Scherzer has been the better pitcher than Kershaw. Max leads the league in virtually every meaningful stat but ERA, and Kershaw's hairsbreadth lead in ERA can be attributed to park effects, so Scherzer leads in ERA+. Scherzer has been flat out filthy.

Kershaw has been excellent as well, but he's been human this year. He's been bitten by the home run bug 13 times already, easily the highest rate of his career. He's coming off back problems and doesn't always follow through on his pitches like before, and sometimes they get hammered. It will be interesting to see how his back holds up as the season progresses.
11:56 PM Jun 18th
 
joedimino
I read (not Red), that's autocorrect, not SEC fan.
9:41 PM Jun 18th
 
joedimino
"So, what IS the test when we see a guy as #1 in the SP rankings and we see another guy at #10? How can we tell *without using the data that fed into the system* that the #1 guy should be ahead of the #10 guy? "

See how they do in their next start or 5 starts, whatever, but a short timeframe, so ability is basically unchanged. The #1s (whoever they are) over many years and trials should outperform the #2s who outperform the #3s etc.

Also, I Red your first paragraph of your comment three times and I still can't wrap my head around it. Can you put it in terms an SEC fan could understand?
9:40 PM Jun 18th
 
tangotiger
Bill, for what it's worth, when I forecast, I use either 30% or 40% decay rate year over year. So, if year T is worth 1, then year T-1 is worth 70%, and year T-2 is worth 50%, and so on, using the 30% decay. Using your scaling, this would imply a 1% drop in weighting, rather than 3% for the 30% decay and 1.5% for the 40% decay.

If we use your old 3-2-1 system in forecasting, it would imply close to a 1.5% drop in weighting, with a hard line at 3 years.

If we were talking about "forecasting", then I think we'd come to a quick agreement as to what to use.

***

That said, we are left with the question of validation or testing. In other words, we can choose ANY number we want, be it half a percent or 10%. And without a way of checking against something, anyone can say anything they want.

So, what IS the test when we see a guy as #1 in the SP rankings and we see another guy at #10? How can we tell *without using the data that fed into the system* that the #1 guy should be ahead of the #10 guy?


9:02 PM Jun 18th
 
wovenstrap
Oh my god, Bill, I just read the Twitter reactions to your post. I had no idea that the feedback was that dumb. Wow.
8:59 PM Jun 18th
 
MarisFan61
"If you can persuade me there is a better way to do it, I’ll do it the other way": None, except maybe be more ready and less unhappy to call it a tie, "too close to call"; any actual difference is beyond the meaningful sensitivity of our methods.

Which, for all I can tell, is maybe how you are really seeing it, and the triumphant hair-splitting is half tongue-in-cheek.

BTW that's also what they should have done with the 2000 election.
500 votes either way, out of a gajillion, is a tie.
8:52 PM Jun 18th
 
wovenstrap
I also like the dramatic language. If we want people to be yammering about this or that guy is #1 in ten years, we have to play it up.
8:51 PM Jun 18th
 
wovenstrap
Poor Brian Kenny tried to raise this subject on the MLB Network and his panelists ...... well, exhibited most of the fallacies you raised. (Not all the segments were equally bad.)

For what it's worth, I think you pegged it very well. I followed tennis a lot in the 1980s and 1990s, and they use the idea of a constantly changing ranking, and it works well there and your ranking also works very well. It passes the test of, "does the guy on top have a decent claim to the top ranking?" Almost always it does make sense, in both places. In tennis the top player virtually always has at least 1 Grand Slam title in the previous year, and you can't get to the top slot without winning a whole lot of matches. You don't have to win 'em all, but .... generally it's weighted pretty well. I think the Starting Pitcher rankings are calibrated very well, for the reasons you mentioned.
8:49 PM Jun 18th
 
 
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