The Man Had a Good Year

March 6, 2017
 2017-15

The Man Had a Good Year

 

              In 2003 Eric Gagne had a .781 Winning Percentage when pitching against himself.   That statement will never EXACTLY make sense, but if you stick with me for three days of this it will make more sense later than it does now.

              How many players had good years for the Cubs in 2016, and how many had disappointing or subpar seasons?

              17 and 8.   Seventeen Cubs in 2016 had good seasons by their own standards, while eight had disappointing seasons.     For the Royals in 2015, 15 players had good seasons, 9 had disappointing seasons, while for the Giants in 2014, 13 and 9.    Broken down by pitchers and hitters, the Cubs got good seasons from 9 out of 13 hitters (9-4) and 8 out of 12 pitchers (8-4).    The 2015 Royals got good seasons from seven out of 12 hitters (7-5) and eight out of 12 pitchers (8-4), while the Giants (2014) got good seasons from 7 out of 9 hitters, but just 6 out of 13 pitchers. 

              It’s a basic question about a baseball team, right?   How many guys are going to have good seasons for you?    How many guys do you NEED to have good seasons, in order to win your league?  Let’s say 25 players make your team out of spring training.   If 16 out of the 25 players have good seasons, you’re probably going to have a good season.   If 9 of the 25 have good seasons, you may struggle.   But we never look at teams that way.

              This came to my mind as I was thinking about team interactions.    One thing I know about Terry Francona, from working kind of around him, is that he works really hard at managing the temperature of the clubhouse.   I believe, based on what I know, that the best managers at running a clubhouse are probably the two guys who met in the World Series last year, Francona and Madden.   But what are the effects of that?

              More guys have good years. 

              It is impossible to sort out cause and effect here.   The Indians last year were 12 and 9, twelve players having good seasons.   I believe that if we studied it over a period of years, we would find that many players who played for Francona had had good seasons.   I’m not saying that this is necessarily because of Francona; I’m just saying.   It seems like it might be worth studying. 

              Well. . .how do we study that?  

           &nb​sp;  I constructed a byzantine set of formulas by which I designated every hitter and every pitcher in baseball history as having either

              a) A good season,

          ​;    b)  Not a good season, or

              c)  A no-impact season. 

              Note what I said:  Hitters and Pitchers.   Didn’t say anything about Fielders.   We’re kind of lost with fielding.   Doing what I can.  

              Two conditions here that you have to understand.   First, we are asking the question "Did this player have a good season by his own standards?"    Kurt Suzuki in 2016 hit .258 with 8 homers and 49 RBI, and that’s counted as a good season, because that’s a good season for Kurt Suzuki.   Adam Jones hit .265 with 29 homers, 83 RBI, but it’s marked as a subpar season, because for Adam Jones, that’s not a good year.   His .746 OPS was the lowest he has had since 2008.

              Second condition:  We are asking did this player have a good season by his own standards, given his playing time?   Basically, what we’re asking is "Was his OPS higher than we would have expected it to be?   Jorge Soler had a good year in 2016; he only got 227 at bats, whereas he had 366 the previous year, but he hit a career-high 12 homers, and his OPS jumped 46 points.   A good season, given the playing time that he had.   Those are the conditions of the study. 

              I gave 3 categories before—good year, poor year, and neutral.    But "neutral", for hitters, just means that he didn’t play much.   If a player has 200 plate appearances, he either has a good year or a bad year, with no middle ground.    If there was a middle ground, Suzuki and Adam Jones would be on it; Jones’ season wasn’t THAT bad, and Suzuki’s wasn’t that good.    It’s not easy to say whether Jones had a bad year or his usual year—but I forced myself to choose, in all cases, except players with less than 200 plate appearances.  

              Players with less than 200 plate appearances, a few of them are designated as having had bad seasons, a few as having had good seasons.   Mostly they’re just background noise.   Most of them are September callups, guys who came up for a few at bats in mid-season, guys who got hurt in May.   No real impact on the team.   If a player got 150 at bats and hit .170, or if he was the team’s top pinch hitter and had a good year. . .well, that’s an impact, and then he’d be a +1 or a -1.  

          ​    I sorted seasons in such a manner that good seasons and bad seasons almost exactly balance.   I tried to make them exactly balance, but it’s hard to do. I tried to make them balance for each season, to balance for 1930 and for 1968, to balance for catchers and for shortstops, and to balance for 22-year-olds and 27-year-olds and 38-year-olds.   I couldn’t get perfect balance anywhere, but I wound up with a system in which 51% of batters are designated as having good seasons, 49% as having poor seasons, while 49% of pitchers are designated as having good seasons, 51% poor seasons.    

              Anyway, let’s go back to the 2016 Cubs, where we started.    The Cubs had nine hitters who had good seasons, whereas they had four who had poor seasons.   The nine hitters who had good seasons (by their own standards, given the playing time they had) were Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Wilson Contreras, Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, David Ross, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Ben Zobrist.    The four who had poor seasons with the bat were Chris Coghlan, Jason Heyward, Miguel Montero and Matt Szcur. 

          &n​bsp;   Szcur had a bad year?   How do you decide?  

              Good point.   There’s no obvious answer in his case, as to what exactly he could have been expected to do.   80% of the time, it’s easy.   It’s easy to say that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Avenue Russell had good seasons by their own standards, and that Jason Heyward had a poor season by his own standards, or Montero or Coghlan (although Coghlan’s "bad" season was mostly with Oakland.)   Szcur, you just have to make up a set of standards and go with them.   I might be right; I might be wrong.   I don’t know.   I did the best I could.  

          &nbs​p;   Anyway, pitchers.    Jake Arrieta, Trevor Cahill, Aroldis Chapman, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Mike Montgomery and Pedro Strop had good seasons—granted, Montgomery and Chapman were with other teams most of the season, but they still had good seasons.  

          &n​bsp;   Four Cubs pitchers did not have good seasons—Jason Hammel, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith, and Travis Wood.  

              Jason Hammel didn’t have a good year?   Wait a minute; he won a career-high 15 games, five more than he ever won before.  

              Well, yeah, but his strikeouts dropped by 28, his walks were up by 13, and his home runs reached a career high while his innings pitched were at a three-year low.    Travis Wood’s ERA was a career-low 2.95, but his strikeout/walk ratio was down and his home runs per inning were up.   I’m not saying it was a terrible year for either man, but given the premise of the study I’ve got to draw a line somewhere, and those two guys are on the wrong side of it. 

              The Arizona Diamondbacks did not have a pitcher who had a good year.   They had seven pitchers having poor seasons, and they had a large number of pitchers having "neutral" seasons.   For pitchers, I counted it as "neutral" if

            &nb​sp; 1) The pitcher pitched less than 30 innings, or if

              a)  His strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed, wild pitches and balks were essentially consistent with his pre-season expectations, and

              b)  His runs allowed rate were near the league average.  

              The Minnesota Twins had two pitchers who had good seasons, Ervin Santana and Brandon Kintzler, whereas they had nine pitchers who did not have good seasons.   The Twins also had only four hitters having good years, eleven hitters having poor years; adding pitchers and hitters together they were 6 and 20.   The Pirates (2016) had only three pitchers who had good seasons (Ivan Nova, Juan Nicasio and Jameson Irish Whiskey Taillon, whereas they had nine having poor seasons.  

              On the other end of the spectrum, 9 out of 10 Red Sox hitters had good seasons in 2016, the only exception being the Brock Star, Brock Holt.    The Red Sox were 16-7, 9-1 with hitters and 7-6 with pitchers.    There were three major league teams which had 60% of their players having good seasons:  The Cubs, Red Sox, and the Brewers.

              The Brewers?

              The Brewers didn’t have a great year in 2016.   After winning 64 to 69 games each of the previous four seasons, the Brewers ticked up to 73 wins.  The Brewers had ten hitters having good seasons by their own standards (Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, Chris Carter, Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Hernan Perez, Domingo Santana and Jonathan Villar), whereas they had only three having poor seasons (Orlando Arcia, Ramon Flores and Aaron Hill.)    For their pitchers, six had good seasons and four had poor seasons, so combining the two they were 16 and 7, the same as the Red Sox.  

              Anticipating that you might resist the notion that that many Brewers had "good" seasons, let’s look at the problems.    Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit .209, Martin Maldonado .202.   These are good seasons?

              Nieuwenhuis had a .645 OPS in 2015 and had a sub-.700 career OPS prior to 2016.   Because 2016 was a hitter’s year, his adjusted expected OPS for 2016 is .702, but his actual OPS was .709, so he’s over the line.  Maldonado hit .202, but it’s a loaded .202.   He had 42 hits, but 35 walks and 6 hit by pitch, so his hits are just half of his times on base.   His on base percentage, .332, was better than the league average.    He hit 8 homers in just over 200 at bats, decent power.   His actual OPS, .683, was 38 points better than his expected OPS, .645.   That’s a good year, by his standards. 

              Aaron Hill hit .283 for Milwaukee, but .218 for the Red Sox.   Shouldn’t he be counted against the Red Sox, rather than against the Brewers?

              OK; count him against the Red Sox, I don’t care.   That’s not the issue that I’m pursuing here.   What I am interested in is issues like this.   Should we assume, or should we believe, that the Cubs may not be likely to have as good a season again in 2017, because they are not likely to have 17 players having good seasons again?    In the case of Milwaukee, does their having a 73-win season because 16 of 23 players had good years indicate that they are building something in the franchise, or does it indicate that a relapse back into the 68 win group is more likely?

              If you have a team on which almost 70% of the players have had good seasons, is it likely

              a) that the players could tend to have good years again,

              b) that there could be a tendency for them to have poor years, as players often have up-down patterns, or

              c) that the mostly likely scenario for any team is a 50-50 split. 

          &​nbsp;   Based on what I know, any of those three is possible.  If I followed this line of research long enough, I would know.  

            ​;  Do certain managers tend to get more good years from their players?

              If I followed this line of research long enough, I would know.  

           &nb​sp;  If so, who are those managers?   Who were those managers in 1975, or in 1985? 

              Suppose that we established that the expected win total for a certain team was 88 wins.   If we THEN show that 18 out of 28 players on that team have good years, no doubt that team tends to over-achieve, but do they tend to win 93 games, or 98, or 90?    In other words, how does THIS system fit into a larger analytical system?

          &n​bsp;   Well. . .it’s a long way to get to all of those answers from where we are.    That would take months and months of research.   Let’s just look at a few more teams.   I chose one very good team (or team having a good year) and one very poor team for each five-year period beginning in 1950, so thirteen good teams and thirteen bad teams.   In the chart below columns A and B are HITTERS having good year and poor years; columns C and D are PITCHERS having good years and poor years, and columns E and F are the totals of hitters and pitchers on the team having good years and poor years.  

Year

Team

A

B

C

D

E

F

1950

Phillies

6

2

5

4

11

6

1959

White Sox

4

4

4

4

8

8

1962

Giants

11

0

5

4

16

4

1969

Mets

6

7

6

4

12

11

1973

Athletics

4

7

5

4

9

11

1976

Reds

8

1

6

5

14

6

1984

Tigers

8

3

6

2

14

5

1985

Royals

2

9

8

2

10

11

1992

Blue Jays

8

2

7

3

15

5

1997

Marlins

4

5

6

2

10

7

2001

Mariners

11

2

9

3

20

5

2007

Rockies

8

2

8

3

16

5

2013

Red Sox

10

2

9

6

19

8

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

90

46

84

46

174

92

 

              The 1950 Phillies were the Whiz Kids, a collection of young players who came out of nowhere to win the National League after decades of Philadelphia frustration.   The ’59 White Sox were a very famous team in their era, the Go-Go Sox, who won with pitching and defense and the ability to manufacture runs.   The ’62 Giants came from way behind the Dodgers after Koufax had arm problems, caught them at 101 wins each and beat them in a three-game playoff.   The ’69 Mets you know; the ’73 Oakland A’s were in the middle of a run of three straight World Championships.   The ’76 Reds were an all-time great team; the ’84 Tigers were the team that started out 35-5 and cruised to a World Championship, destroying the post-season competition.   The ’85 Royals were a fine team at the end of a long run of championship teams, finally pulled out a World Championship.    The ’92 Blue Jays and ’97 Florida Marlins were World Championship teams; the 2001 Mariners won 116 games but lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship.   The 2007 Rockies got red-hot in mid-September, won a Wild Card, then swept two consecutive post-season series before being swept in the World Series.   The 2013 Red Sox were the team that unified after the Marathon bombing, and won the World Series in the middle of a four-year run of disappointing teams.

              Anyway, as you can see, 66% of the hitters and 65% of the pitchers on these teams had good seasons by their own standards.   The percentage of players having good seasons on these teams ranges as high as 80%, for the 2001 Mariners and 1962 Giants, to as low as 45% for the 1973 Oakland A’s.   That kind of makes sense.   The A’s weren’t a collection of guys having good years; they were a collection of really good players who were good every year, but not especially good that season.  With Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers and Ken Holtzman, the team had won 101 games in 1971 and the World Championship in 1972; 1973 was just another year for them.  

              The 2001 Mariners, on the other hand. . .well, they WERE good, but they weren’t THAT good.  They won 116 games because everybody had a good year.  

              The Go-Go Sox are interesting.   Their double play combination, Aparicio and Fox, finished 1-2 in the MVP voting, while 39-year-old Early Wynn won the Cy Young Award, and was third in the MVP voting.    Those three had good years, obviously, and a few other players did—Sherm Lollar, Bubba Phillips, Bob Shaw, Turk Lown and Gerry Staley.   The two-man bullpen of Lown and Staley was the best bullpen in the majors, back when a two-man bullpen could be the best bullpen in the majors.   (The crosstown rival Cubs actually also had a really good two-man bullpen.   That was about when Jerome Holtzman started figuring Saves.)   

              Other than those eight players, nobody on the team really had a good year.   Center Fielder Jim Landis, who had hit .277 with 15 homers the year before, dropped to .272 with 5 homers.   Right Fielder Al Smith, perhaps the team’s best hitter, had a .706 OPS, the lowest of his career other than his rookie season (1953) and his exit year (1964).   Like the ’69 Mets, they just put together what they needed to win the number of games they needed to win. 

              Other than those two and the 1985 Royals, however, these teams consisted of players having 70, 75% good seasons.    These are the 13 "bad" teams that I chose:

 

Year

Team

A

B

C

D

E

F

1952

Browns

9

1

3

3

12

4

1959

White Sox

5

4

2

7

7

11

1964

A's

6

5

0

7

6

12

1968

Mets

8

6

9

2

17

8

1970

White Sox

5

6

3

8

8

14

1977

Blue Jays

8

8

1

8

9

16

1982

Reds

3

8

6

6

9

14

1988

Orioles

6

8

1

9

7

17

1993

Mets

5

8

6

5

11

13

1996

Tigers

6

7

3

7

9

14

2002

Rays

4

8

0

9

4

17

2008

Nationals

5

6

5

4

10

10

2012

Astros

8

5

4

6

12

11

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

78

80

43

81

121

161

 

 

 

              51% of the hitters but 65% of the pitchers on these 13 bad teams had poor seasons by their own standards.   A couple of real surprises here:

              1)  Nine out of ten hitters on the 1952 St. Louis Browns actually had good seasons.  Kind of astonishing.    The only hitter on the team who missed expectations was Dick Kryhoski.  (Roy Sievers was on that team, but had only 30 at bats because of injuries.)  

              I picked the ’52 Browns sort of at random; I was just thinking, early 50s, bad team. . .the ’52 Browns have to be the bottom of the barrel.   Actually, they’re not; the Browns won 64 game that year, which was their best season since 1946, and 12 wins up from the previous year.   Their offense was not good, but they were sixth in the league in runs scored, just 45 runs below the league average, and they really had no GOOD hitters.   They’re the other end of the 1973 Athletics.   The problem was not that they were having bad years; the problem was that they were legitimately bad players, and it didn’t matter whether they had good years by their own standards or not.

              Kansas University is on a big hill that we call Mt. Oread, although it’s not actually a mountain; it’s just a really steep hill.   The steep hill is caused, I am told, by a break in a gigantic slab of Oread Limestone.   One end of the huge rock slab dropped down into the ground for some reason, so the other end went up in the air, which is what caused the mountain, or else one end got pushed up in the air by geological forces, so the other end went down.

              Baseball teams are like that, over time; there is a high end and a low end.    I have about six or seven of those "other end" teams on my list of bad teams; I didn’t really plan that, it just kind of happened.   The ’59 Phillies are the down end of the Whiz Kids.   The 1982 Reds are the down end of the Big Red Machine.   The ’88 Orioles are the down end of the great team that ended with the ’83 World Championship.   The ’96 Tigers are the down end of the great team that came together in ’84; the ’93 Mets are the down end of the ’86 World Champions.   It happens.

              Anyway, the next surprise on our list (2) is the 1968-1969 Mets.   I wanted to contrast the ’69 Mets, the Miracle Team, with the 73-win Mets of the previous year.   The surprise is that it is actually the ’68 Mets which had players having good years (17-8), whereas the ’69 Mets really didn’t (12-11).  

              Which actually makes more sense when you think about it than it does at first blush.   The ’67 Mets were actually the last of the really bad Mets expansion teams, losing 101 games and being outscored by 174 runs.    The ’68 Mets were dramatically better, being outscored by only 26 runs, so it’s not surprising that the ’68 team would have two-thirds of their players playing better than the expectations established by their previous performance.  

              And the ’69 Mets. . .well, yes, they won the World Series, but they outscored their opponents by only 91 runs.    They won a lot of close games, by methods that are hard to document statistically.  

              Well. . .on these 13 teams it is the pitchers who had bad seasons; the hitters really didn’t.   Obviously 13 teams and 100 to 150 players in each group isn’t enough to document any conclusions.   It is POSSIBLE that if we studied it at more length we would find that it is the pitchers on bad teams who have had the bad seasons, but we can’t reach that conclusion based on just this number of teams.  

              One more thing I should explain before I move on.  

              I tried to "balance" good years and bad years in each category. . .that is, half of pitchers, half of hitters, half of shortstops, half of catchers, half of first basemen, half of 23-year-olds, half of 35-year-olds.   When you "balance" things in that way, it naturally happens that most players have about half good years and about half bad years.  

              However, it is not a rule that players HAVE to have equal numbers of good and bad year, and that doesn’t always happen.   It is entirely possible that a player will hit .240 as a rookie, establishing an expectation that he will hit .240 the next year.   Then the next year he hits .250, so that’s a good year, then the next year he hits .260, so that’s a good year.   As long as he does that, he’s good every year.

              Also, an element of the "expected" OPS for a player is the league norm.   I’ll explain more later, but you kind of HAVE to do that, or you’ll find absurd things like Barry Bonds having a "bad" year in 2003, one of his many MVP seasons, because his OPS is a hundred points lower that year than the previous two years.   100 points of OPS for anybody else is a big thing, but for Bonds, it’s just a scratch.    I’ll explain the expectations for hitters system tomorrow.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
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