Should Baseball’s segregation negatively impact our evaluation of Babe Ruth’s statistics?

In a recent article, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote of ranking Babe Ruth among the all-time greatest baseball players that, “it’s difficult to put him at the top of this list when he played in an era of segregation”. The assumption is that it was easier for Ruth since many great players were not allowed to play in major league baseball. It is true that we will never know how players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, stars of the Negro League, would have lined up against the likes of Ruth and Cobb because they did not play against each other outside of exhibition games. While the assumption underlying Olney’s statement is undeniable, this article seeks to make a counter argument that may offer as much weight for Ruth’s excellence. There are a few issues that can be explored:

1) In Ruth’s favor: The best athletes in the country commonly played professional baseball during Ruth’s time. Although there were other professional sports, baseball players made more money and garnered more fame than football players or olympic athletes. Currently, Major League Baseball is second (as of 2014) in average career earnings behind Basketball. Hockey, Football, and likely global soccer leagues are not far behind. This means that baseball has real competition from other sports for the best athletes. This would suggest that Ruth’s statistics might be even greater if he played in the modern era since some of the pitchers he could have faced today have opted for a career as an NFL quarterback instead.

2) Against Ruth’s dominance: The growth of baseball around the world (especially in Japan, Korea, and the Caribbean) means that the talent pool now is much richer than in Ruth’s time. Athletes from many of these areas would have either not played competitive professional sports, or would have played something other than baseball in Ruth’s time.

3) In Ruth’s favor: Ruth’s barnstorming tours of Japan were key in the growth of baseball in that country. This doesn’t help his stats, but shows that he was always willing (especially when the money was better than playing domestically) to take on all comers around the world. It seems clear that Ruth would have likely have preferred the greater money and fairness that would have come from playing with players disallowed in the major leagues.

4) In Ruth’s favor: The outstanding statistics of the stars of the historical Negro Leagues must also be examined with some caution. Would Josh Gibson have hit as many home runs if he had faced major league pitching on a daily basis? The argument goes both ways. If Ruth’s numbers take a hit then so should the numbers of players like Satchel Paige.

This is not to say that Ruth’s statistics would have been the same or even greater if he started his career in 2016, but it is to say that segregation alone should not diminish the evaluation of his numbers.

What did we learn about Julio Teheran in game 1?

On Monday, we saw the Braves go down in extra innings on opening day.  After celebrating the 1997 team that opened Turner Field before the game, the Braves had a very 1990s era performance with solid starting pitching, a reasonable but not dominating performance by the bullpen, and a fairly anemic offense outside of their best hitters.  The key plays were errors by Erick Aybar and Gordon Beckham that pulled Freeman off the bag at first base.

A few weeks ago, we laid out some metrics for Julio Teheran.  Some keys we mentioned were keeping his BB/9 under 2.5, and a change-up with a lower batting average against (maybe closer to his ever-improving fastball).  What did we see?  His newly revamped change-up was used more than in year’s past, and it did not give up a hit.  His fastball was at 91.5 mph, which continues his decline from previous years.  His fastest pitch was just over 93 mph.  He gave up 2 home runs, which continues a bad trend from last year, but both were solo home runs thanks to Julio continuing his amazing ability to pick off runners.  He might be the best in the majors (he lead the majors with 5 pickoffs last year), which is amazing considering he is a right-hander.  He gave up 3 walks in 6 innings, but as we mentioned that damage was limited.

A solid start for Freeman and Adonis Garcia, who both hit home runs.  Overall, better than could probably be expected against the Nationals and defending Cy Young winner, but the 2-5 spots in the rotation will likely be more of a wild ride this season.

Season Preview – Mallex Smith

We’ve spent some time analyzing the veterans coming back to the Braves this season, but our focus today turns to the 22 year old Mallex Smith, who was a single short of the cycle (with two triples!) on Wednesday against the Orioles in the 2nd Grapefruit League game for the Atlanta club.  Here we see Smith’s offensive numbers by minor league level.

MallexSmithActualNumbers

He has been truly great, but to put these into context, let’s see the next chart which converts each number into a 600 at bat season.  Each fraction is rounded down to the nearest integer and batting average is recalculated.

MallexSmithEstimatedNumbers2

The last row is a linear regression of the various seasons into the next level (a mythical AAAA league).  This isn’t really a good estimate of how Smith will produce in the majors for lots of reasons.  Research has shown that lower minor league stats are less predictive of major league success than higher minor league stats, and the difference in pitching between AAA and the majors is much greater than the difference between AA and AAA, etc., etc.

In any case, it is interesting that Michael Bourn is mentoring Smith in spring training, because they seem like very similar players.  Let’s look at Bourn’s defense by looking at Range Factor per 9 innings over his career in center field.

MichaelBournCareerFielding

He started out at or above the league range factor, and as of 2013 has been below it and falling.  If we isolate Bourn and Smith’s minors-only fielding numbers we can see the following comparison.

MallexAndBournMinorsFielding

It would appear that Smith’s ceiling might be a roughly equal offensive player to Bourn, but a slightly slower defensive center fielder with a few more errors.  That will be well worth it to the Braves if the Braves’ coaching staff can get the potential out of Smith.

How Tall is a Baseball Hall of Famer?

We take a quick break from our season preview articles to explore something completely unrelated: the height of the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and how that height has changed over time.  According to this article in Scientific American, the average human has grown 4 inches taller than they did 150 years ago.  Since 150 years ago is roughly the same time we have information on height in Major League Baseball (though that information is far from complete until well into the 20th century), we can compare the two numbers.

First, just taking the members of the Hall of Fame were inducted as players (excluding those who were inducted as managers, pioneers, umpires, etc. even if they also played), we get the following graph:

HeightAndWeightOfHallofFamersWithOutliers

As you can see, there are relative few outliers in the group.  Of the four labeled outliers, Johnny Evers and Willie Keeler are older players, and Frank Thomas and Randy Johnson are very recent players.  Louis Santop was a turn of the 20th century Negro League catcher who was large before his time.  If you’re wondering, Babe Ruth is in the big blog near the upper right.  Since he was more commonly filmed for popularity and technology issues very late in his career, a common belief was that he was the Pablo Sandoval of his time (Yes, Pablo would be far to the right of this line at 5’11” and 255 lbs.).  However, for most of his career Babe was a muscular and fit right fielder who could run.  You can also see a kind of baseline using the trendline to judge your own height and weight, or a favorite player.  Below and to the right of the line, you or that player could stand to lose a few pounds.  Above and to the left of the line, and you or they could pack on some muscle.

How have the heights changed over time?

HeightofHoFoverTime

As it is labeled, this chart doesn’t measure Hall of Famers by their year of induction, but by the date 20 years after their birth.  As mentioned earlier, the average human is 4 inches taller than 150 years ago.  According to this data, we might expect the average Hall of Famers in 1860 (if a great enough number existed) to have been about 68 inches tall, or 5’8″.  The average current 20 year-old future Hall of Famer now is around 74 inches, or 6’2″.  The Scientific American article lists the most significant cause of this growth to be from increased childhood vitamin consumption.  We might guess that the extra two inches the Baseball Hall of Famer is from not only improved nutrition, but by drawing from a larger international pool than 150 years ago.

With the exception of sports like auto and horse racing, in which size is a disadvantage by making the car or horse/rider combo heavier, all sports see size as a significant advantage.  All sports are getting taller, and the days of exceptional play from people like Jose Altuve (5’6″, 165 lbs.) may become more rare in the future.

Season Preview – Julio Teheran

Julio Teheran seems to be at a crossroads.  Is he going to take his game to the next level as he enters his prime (he turned 25 just a few weeks ago), or is he going to level off as a solid 2nd or 3rd starter for the rest of his career?  Let’s look at some key data from baseball-reference.com and the pitch data from BrooksBaseball.net.  We’ll start with his traditional numbers.

TeheranAnnualPitchingStats

Since be became a starter in 2013, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) rating has been higher than his ERA, but that’s to be expected for a pitcher with a good defense (we miss you Andrelton!).  His WHIP and ERA saw slight upticks, and so it will be interesting to see if he can shrug off the weak start to 2015 we experienced to put together a complete season of excellence.  If that upticks causes concern, let’s dig deeper into the reasons why that ERA went up.

TeheranPerNineStats

As you can see, in 2015 he gave up more home runs per 9 innings, walked significantly more, gave up more hits, and struck out about the same.  7.5 strikeouts per nine innings isn’t going to dominate the league, but giving up nearly 8 hits and 3 walks every 9 innings is not going to get it done.  It will be interesting to see what his walk rates are in spring training, to see if he can get back below the 2.5 BB/9 level that he had in 2014.

Teheran seems to have settles into a career as a fastball/slider/sinker pitcher, without the overpowering fastball velocity he had a few years ago, but with a more effective slider.  Here’s the usage % for each pitch:

TeheranUsageRates

He rarely throws his curve and change anymore, but that’s okay because they’re fairly terrible.  His slider has become his 2nd most used pitch.  How has his velocity changed?

TeheranAnnualVelocity

Everything is down from year to year, with his fastball settling in at a modest 92 mph average.  As you can see, the slider has replaced the changeup as his 10mph slower distraction from the fastball.  Normally a velocity chart like this would be troubling on a 25 year-old until you consider two things.  1) He only started from 2013 on, so the numbers on the left are very limited time as a reliever.  2) Look to the results as we go forward in his career:

TeheranAvaerageAgainst

His change-up and curveball have the highest batting average against, but he doesn’t use them much.  Meanwhile, his fastball has been better every year as a starter, and his slider is just creeping up to meet the fastball at about a .200 batting average.

What can we look for?  I look for a slight bounce-back season for Teheran, with a sub-4 ERA and a better WHIP.  If his BB/9 and H/9 continue to go in the wrong direction, the Braves may regret the contract extension they gave him through his age-29 season, but he should continue to be a serviceable starter in any case.

Season Preview – Nick Markakis

Today we dive back into the statistics waters of BaseballReference.com to see what we might expect from Nick Markakis this season. There’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with his various WAR values:

MarkakisWARbyYear

As Markakis enters his age-32 season, we see that the overall trends are not positive.  He has been a worse than average overall defender since 2009, and there seems no reason to believe he will improve.  His offensive and overall WAR have bounced back from his injury-shortened 2013 season with the Orioles, but there is little reason to believe his overall WAR will go much above the expected 2.5 WAR or so.  Not terrible for a $11 million/year salary, but there isn’t much hope for long-term improvement.  Let’s turn to his Right Field-specific defensive numbers.

MarkakisRangeFactor

As would be expected of a 32 year-old, his range factor is declining, but is still quite comparable to the league’s range factor.

MarkakisFielding%

As Braves fans have come to appreciate, Markakis simply doesn’t make errors in Right Field.  He is in the right place, he doesn’t drop the ball, and he throws the ball to the right place.  Let’s look at the traditional offensive numbers.

MarkakisPerAtBat

Not surprisingly, his batting average and walk rate have stayed fairly consistent with a slight upswing in both last year.  His home runs were way down, with many commentators blaming that on his recovery from neck surgery during the offseason before the 2015 season.  What we came to expect from many good hitters is a trade-off between batting average and home runs. We might expect that either the home runs will improve and the batting average falls slightly, or the home run numbers continue to be weak, but the batting average continues to be high.  In other words, the blue and red lines should either converge or diverge.  Either should keep Markakis with a high-level overall offensive performance.

The 2016 Season Preview has begun!

We’ll jump around to a few different topics, but let’s start with some analysis of some key Braves players.  The key to our offense this year is obviously Freddie Freeman.  Here are his annual WAR values up to today.

FreddieFreemanWARbyYear

In February of 2014, the Braves signed the then 24 year-old first baseman to an 8-year, $135 million dollar extension.  The $16.875 million annual average could end up being a bargain if Freddie keeps up the performance he showed a couple of years ago, but he has suffered some injuries.  He had some eye issues in 2014 (which appear to have been solved by a new prescription for contacts/glasses), a wrist injury which seemed to slow him through much of last year and a right oblique injury.  What were their effect?  In addition to the falloff visible above, the below chart describes the changes to his defense over his career.

FreddieFreemanFielding%

We see that his injuries have not caused him to make more errors, and his fielding percentage has been above league average since 2014.  What about his range?

FreddieFreemanRangeFactor

His, range seems to have been the factor most seriously affected by his injuries.  He went from hovering around league average in his first three years, to below league average in the last couple of years.  How about his offensive numbers?

FreddieFreemanPerAtBat

We can see that his offensive numbers (per at bat) have remained large unaffected.  His power numbers have remained the same (at about 20 HRs expected per year) for his career, his average has hovered around .300, and his walk numbers per at bat appear to be on an upswing as he matures as a hitter.

Conclusion: Absent any major injuries, Freeman should produce somewhere around a .300 average, about 20 homers and should improve his ability to get on base.  A key metric to see throughout the season will be his range factor.  If his range factor bounces back to where it was a couple of years ago, it will be evidence that his injury woes are truly behind him as he heads into his prime years.

What are Juan Jaime’s chances of staying in the majors long-term?

Juan Jaime is your classic Rick Vaughn-style pitcher.  He has career numbers, averaged out to 162 games, that include 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings (great!) and 8.6 walks per nine innings (eek!).  For fun, I looked up on Baseball-Reference.com the list of all pitchers in major league history who had a season with at least these numbers.  The most innings ever pitched in such a season is John Parrish’s 2005 Oriole campaign, when he pitched 17 1/3 innings.  There are basically three kinds of players on this list, 1) Players who are not good at baseball and didn’t have long careers, 2) Players who normally do not pitch (Cardinal utility fielder Skip Schumaker made the list in 2011), and 3) Players who were going to be amazing with a bit more seasoning.

In the third category, the list includes Nolan Ryan’s 1966 season with the Mets (age 19), Sid Fernandez’s 1983 season with the Dodgers (age 20) and Chan Ho Park’s 1994 season with the Dodgers (age 21).

The list also includes a name well-known to long time Braves fans, Joey Devine’s 2006 season.

While yesterday’s game against the Mets wasn’t quite as bad as the numbers would indicate since the third walk was intentional, he was missing the strike zone.  I’m not a major league catcher, so I don’t know all of the subtleties of calling a game and framing pitches, but I would have preferred A.J. Pierzynski to put the glove down in the middle of the zone rather than asking the rookie to go for the corners.

The problem is familiar to those of us who play golf.  If you swing as hard as you can, you often drastically increase the chance of missing the fairway off the tee.  The magic zone seems to be swinging about 80-90% of your maximum effort.  If Jaime throws at 80-90% effort, he may be much more hittable.  He doesn’t have any secondary pitches.  His model may be the pitcher who started for the Mets, Bartolo Colon.  If Jaime falls behind, he needs to slow down the speed and try to hit a corner with his fastball.  He may not be able to do that in the middle of an at bat, and that may be the reason his career is shorter than it could be.

What kind of pitcher is Alex Wood?

It is certainly too early to make any definitive conclusions about Alex Wood, but his early career has been intriguing.  After being drafted in the 2nd round out of the University of Georgia, Wood crushed the minors.

AlexWoodCareerResultsByLevel

 

He started out for the Braves as a long reliever and spot starter in 2013.  By 2014 he was in the starting rotation, returning to the bullpen only to keep his annual innings pitched number low, to minimize long-term damage.  That doesn’t appear to be a concern any longer, as he threw 139 2/3 innings between all levels in 2013, and 180 in 2014.

How well has he done?  Well, here are all the pitchers in the majors since 2010 who have had a WAR of at least 3.7 for a season in which they were 23 or younger:

  • Alex Wood (2014)
  • Chris Sale (2012)
  • Clayton Kershaw (2010)
  • Clayton Kershaw (2011)
  • Jarrod Parker (2012)
  • Jhoulys Chacin (2011)
  • Jose Fernandez (2013)
  • Julio Teheran (2014)
  • Madison Bumgarner (2013)
  • Trevor Cahill (2010)

How did they do the following year?  They averaged a 3.8875 WAR, with the lowest being Jose Fernandez’s injury shortened 2013 season, which still resulted in 1.1 WAR.

If you browse around the pitch f/x data on BrooksBaseball.net, you may seem some evidence for my conclusions:

  • Alex can crank his sinking fastball up to 95-96 mph when he needs to, but averages around 91 mph when starting.
  • He only has three pitches, and his change-up has gone from average to slightly above average.
  • His curveball has changed, in the last few years, from a “I rarely throw it”, “I need a third pitch”, “It will shock them into not swinging pitch” into a devastating strikeout pitch that he throws more often than his change-up.

There’s a lot of great charts we could examine, but here are two illustrative examples from the site:

AlexWoodPitchPercentage

 

AlexWoodWhiffsPerSwingByPitchType

 

As you can see, the curveball went from the number three pitch to the number two pitch, and has been his best pitch for getting swings and misses from the batter.  The change-up remains a “fool them into not swinging” pitch when they expect the fastball.

Who knows where he’ll end up, but with a 4th-pitch and more experience, the sky is the limit.  Considering his effectiveness isn’t based on overwhelming velocity, his career could be long and productive.

What can be expected from Eric Stults?

As he starts for the first time for the Atlanta Braves this evening, let’s take a look at the stats for Eric Stults to see what we might expect from him as a pitcher.

  • He doesn’t have a huge number of innings pitched for a 34 year-old, so he might have more left in the tank than we might expect.  He only threw 804 2/3 innings in the 11 seasons between 2002 (when he was rafted out of Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana) and 2012.  He pitched 215 games in the minors, but only started 123 games.  He has only pitched 635 2/3 innings in the majors.  That being said, 34 is a bad place to be on the Pitching Aging Curves.

His minor league numbers are clear.  Here are some of his numbers broken down my minor league level:

EricStultsMinorLeagueByLevel

 

  • What we see from this chart is that his walks per 9 innings stay fairly consistent around the 3 level, which is just fine.  His WHIP went up slightly for each level, but his ERA shot up close to 5 for the AAA level.  We’ll see this trend in his major league stats as well.

Here are Eric’s major league numbers, compared to the major league averages for those numbers:

EricStultsAverageToMLBAverages

 

  • He strikes out less batters than the league average (SO%)
  • He gives up more slightly more extra-base hits for opponent plate appearance and opponent hit (XBH% and X/H%)
  • He is a flyball pitcher (Ground Ball/Fly Ball and Ground Out/Air Out)
  • He pitches to contact (In-play%)
  • He gives up a lot of line drives, but less than average of his Fly Balls become Home Runs (LD% and HR/FO).  This is probably due to playing in Dodger Stadium and Petco for much of his career.

Summary: Eric Stults is in the majors due to his control, and his ability to eat up innings (His Quality Start percentage the last three years has been 64%, 61%, and 44%).  He generally gives his team a fighting chance, but he rarely shuts the other team down.  (He was 8th in the majors in fewest walks per 9 inn. in 2013, but also gave up the 8th most runs that year.)  He will give up plenty of hits, but avoids the big inning by walking very few batters.  Best case scenario is a competent #4 or 5 starter.