Welcome to the third installment of Sporting Solutions’ Analysis. With both of our first two pieces having been focused on football, this time we are heading across the pond to have a look at “the great American pastime”. That’s baseball by the way, for those that are wondering.
Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about baseball other than “it is a bit like rounders, but for boys” – that is all the more reason to keep on reading. This piece is hopefully going to be pretty high level and we will try our best to explain things and give you a few handy pointers in case you decide to check out a game.
Baseball is a fantastic sport for those that enjoy:
- kicking back with a few beers whilst watching a few hours of sport;
- the analytical side of sport; or
- following sport every single day
With a staggering 2,430 regular season games followed by a month of playoff action, the Major League Baseball (“MLB”) season involves more games than any other major sport.
When & where
The 2013 season starts late on Easter Sunday night, followed by a full schedule of games on Easter Monday from 1pm ET / 6pm GMT.
Major League Baseball offers the most developed web-based streaming service of any sport. MLB.tv was first offered back in 2002 and has grown from strength to strength – these days it can be streamed in HD through pretty much any internet enabled device. The games can be all be watched live or archived after the game has finished and for those short on time, 15 minute highlights packages are put together the morning after the game.
On a per fixture basis it’s a great value package – but for those wanting to give the game a look without splashing the cash MLB offers one free game each day – and they do show some of the premiere match ups from time to time.
For UK based readers, the 2013 season MLB will also be shown on ESPN America – and those that flicked ESPN America on this month might have already seen some baseball going on. That was the “World Baseball Classic” – an international baseball tournament similar to the football World Cup that has been held every three years since 2006.
An increasingly global sport
OK, so the USA should canter through a World Baseball Championship, right? Wrong.
Team USA failed to get out of the group stages in the inaugural tournament back in 2006 and were equally disappointing in losing to Venezuela in the semi-finals in 2009.
Earlier this month, after scraping through the first group stage by beating Canada in a must win game, Team USA were dumped out after losing a winner takes all game 4-3 against Puerto Rico.
In fact, the all time medal table makes for quite comedy reading (unless you are American of course):
World Baseball Classic – All time medal table
Many don’t realise that baseball is actually Japan’s main sport – and they won the inaugural WBC in 2006 and successfully defended their title, Uruguay style, in 2009.
“Samurai Japan” was finally dethroned in the Semi Final in San Francisco earlier this month, also losing a tight affair to Puerto Rico, 3-1, with the powerhouse Dominican Republic taking the title in imperious style, winning all eight games they played.
Interest in the sport of baseball continues to grow across Europe, on and off the field. Both Italy and Netherlands put together respectable campaigns this time around, albeit it with a lot of young US based players making up the bulk of their rosters.
Away from “the diamond” the sport continues to get more and more European coverage, driven by the successful film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestseller “Moneyball”, the purchase of Liverpool FC by Fenway Sport Group (The owners of the Boston Red Sox Franchise) and the ever increasing presence of advanced statistical analysis in other major sports, who all look to baseball for inspiration and guidance in what remains an embryonic industry.
As a result, the sport continues to pick up followers and gain credibility such that it is no longer immediately dismissed as “rounders for boys”.
To help you get started, here is an introduction to what you should be looking out for when you are watching a game, a few tips for analysing fixtures and a few interesting sub plots to follow during the season ahead.
5 things to look out for when watching a game
The most similar sport to baseball is probably cricket. They are both “bat and ball” sports and share the unusual quirk that the defensive team (from a points scoring perspective) have possession of the ball. They also both contain elements of both individual and team sports, unlike invasion games such as football and rugby.
A baseball game consists of nine innings per team, which individually continue indefinitely until the batting team make three outs. There isn’t a game clock and it isn’t possible for a baseball game to be drawn. Play continuing indefinitely until one team is winning at the end of a full inning. After all, if you are going to take more than three hours over a game, everyone wants to see a winner!
Runs in baseball are more similar to outs in cricket – they are reasonably rare, with the average game totaling about nine runs (8.6 in 2012).
Each team has an active squad of 25 players, normally with 12/13 hitters and 12/13 pitchers and any bench players can be introduced into the game at any time – like football, once you are removed from a game, you cannot re-enter the field of play.
The art of pitching
Understanding and appreciating pitching is the key to enjoying baseball as a spectator sport. Very few MLB pitchers can get away with just rearing back and throwing the ball as hard as they can past the batter – and those that can often see their success through this strategy is short-lived due to injury or as their velocity drops with age.
Most good pitchers will throw at least three different pitches, at different speeds and with various types of spin to cause movement. Here is the distribution of pitches from the 2012 season:
MLB pitch types & average speed 2012
|Pitch Type||Frequency||Ave Speed|
Being able to spot the difference between a fastball and a curveball is crucial if you are going to enjoy watching baseball.
Here is a video below of one of the games best young pitchers, Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, mowing down batter after batter in his record breaking debut back in 2010. See if you can spot the curveballs from the fastballs
You can probably leave worrying about what a knuckleball is for another day – however, if you enjoy a good sports documentary/movie then we would highly recommend Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg’s recent “Knuckleball!”
The art of hitting
Another key thing to appreciate when watching baseball is that the aim of the vast majority of players that come to the plate is not to try and hit a home run. You may be surprised to learn that less than 4% of all plate appearances end in a home run.
Scoring a run is the ultimate aim and although hitting a home run is the fastest and easiest way to accomplish that, the primary aim of most batters is simply “getting on base” – usually by a “base hit” or a “walk”. Getting around the bases to score a run will normally require a subsequent hit from a teammate – one player can only do so much.
I expect most people are aware that it’s “three strikes and you’re out” in baseball.
What you may not be as familiar with are that four “balls” (pitches deemed unhittable by the home plate umpire that the batter does not swing at) from the opposing pitcher and the hitter is awarded first base by what is termed a “walk”
One quirk to look out for relates to foul balls – which often confuse people who are new to the game. Generally a foul ball (a ball hit by the batter which does not bounce in the field of play or get caught by the opposition) is a strike against the batter. However, a batter cannot be called out on a foul ball – therefore, once a hitter has two strikes he can foul off pitches at no further detriment to himself.
The pitcher is very much the dominant force in a baseball game and even the very best hitters in the league deem a 30% success rate to be excellent (a batting average of .300).
A batting average of around .255 – .260 is league average, but an average at or around .200 is seen as an abject failure.
Across 100 At Bats (“ABs”), the difference between the elite and the below replacement level is less than 10 base hits. It’s a game of particularly fine margins and it is important to try to appreciate these subtleties to really enjoy watching the games.
However, a bit like this article, good things come to those who wait – and when they do it makes them all the more enthralling:
For reference, here is what your average major leaguer did in 2012 in terms of plate appearance outcomes:
MLB plate appearance outcomes 2012
|Hit by Pitch||1%|
The game within the game
There is a lot of game theory going on underneath the surface in any game of baseball. Here are a few quick examples to keep your eye out for:
1) What is termed “count leverage” is absolutely crucial within each individual plate appearance. If the pitcher can throw a strike on the first pitch, their chances of success increase considerably, with all batters only managing to hit 0.226 from a 0-1 count in 2012.
Throwing a ball to start a Plate appearance and not only have you significantly increased the risk of “walking” the batter, but from that position batters hit an above average 0.270.
Why is this? When a pitcher “falls behind” a batter, they inherently face more pressure to throw strikes on the following pitches to avoid walking the batter. Obviously all the batters know this and therefore they can often look for certain pitches in certain locations that they are able to hit hard.
This little game of poker within the game is at times fascinating to watch.
Generally, the pitcher does not decide what pitches to throw. To ensure the pitcher is fully focused on executing their throwing motion, that job is bestowed on the team’s catcher.
This also avoids issues with the many pitchers that have “a million dollar arm and a 10 cent head”.
The catcher will use his hands to indicate a pitch type and location to the pitcher who, more often than not, will just throw what he is told.
The catcher will have reviewed all of the hitters’ strengths and weaknesses and is the brains behind the operation, looking for ways to upset the hitters timing and exploit any weaknesses in their technique.
3) Another level of game theory bubbling away under the surface is the role of the team’s manager.
One of the primary tasks for a baseball team’s manager is determining when to ”go to the bullpen” – the baseball term for a team’s substitute pitchers who are called upon by the manager in the late innings when the starting pitcher begins to struggle or tire.
Although on a good day the better starting pitchers can get through all nine innings, this is reasonably rare. The starting pitcher will most likely throw between five and seven innings before being replaced by one of the team’s other pitchers.
This decision is in the hands of the manager, and managing their pitching staff through a 162 game season is their key contribution.
Relief pitchers cannot pitch every day, so although the manager may have seven or eight reserves listed, he cannot go to the well every day and sometimes the teams weaker pitchers will have to be used.
Another interesting strategic decision made by the manager to look out for is when a team tries to steal bases (advancing from one base to another as the pitch throws to home plate). Late on in close games, a stolen base (or a caught stealing) can be absolutely crucial.
The art of fielding
Cricket fans in particular may dislike the fact that baseball players get to wear a glove. Baseball wouldn’t work if players didn’t have them. Fielding a ground ball, catching a line drive or even making outs at first base would be borderline impossible without the aid of a player’s glove – and as a result the game would go on for hours and be rather dull.
Baseball defence is a huge part of the game, and something to be enjoyed.
Many players who are well below average hitters can contribute meaningfully at the MLB level through strong defence.
Below are a couple of video’s of Gregor Blanco, who is the reigning World Series Champions starting left fielder in 2013. Blanco is a lifetime .253 hitter (below average) with very little power, who ranked 25th out of 29 left fielders in “Runs Created” through hitting in 2012.
That catch was in the 7th inning of what turned out to be only the 22nd “perfect game” in the history of major league baseball last summer. Safe to say, baseball is a team game.
Below is Gregor again “flashing the leather” later that year, this time in the 1st game of the World Series no less. Three runs saved are just as valuable as a three run homer!
And, for the cricket naysayers, you won’t see too many cricketers with throwing arms like this:
5 things to consider when analysing a game
The level playing field
Baseball is possibly the most competitively balanced of all the major sports.
Any given team can beat any other team, on any given day. As an indication of this, even in the most lopsided of match ups, you will rarely see the betting markets make a favourite shorter than 1.25 (80%) and the vast majority matchups are seen as 60/40 affairs or closer.
Many years ago, legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda observed,“No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.”
And while Mr Lasorda was likely generalising, he was absolutely spot on.
Here is a list of the MLB teams that have won more than one third or less than two thirds of their games since 1970:
Teams that have won more than 2/3rd or less than 1/3rd of games since 1970
|1998||New York Yankees||114||48||70.4%|
|1979||Toronto Blue Jays||53||109||32.7%|
As a further indication of the level playing field, 27 of the 30 baseball franchises have made the playoffs (the equivalent of a Premier League football team getting into Europe) since 2000. And after retooling over the winter, one of the remaining three teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, are favourites to win their division in 2013.Only three out of 1,174 teams have managed to win 67% of their games in a season – and even more surprisingly only four teams managed to lose more than 67% of their games.
If we look back a little further, 20 of the franchises have won the World Series winners, and seven more have been to “The Fall Classic”.
Of the three teams that haven’t made it, the Chicago Cubs only have (one of) themselves to blame, the Nationals are the favourites to win it all in 2013 and, as touched on above, the Seattle Mariners won more games than any other team through the 2000 – 2003 seasons but sadly for Mariners fans ran into dominant Yankees teams in the ALCS (Semi Finals) in both 2000 and 2001.
For those that are wondering, over the same period since 1979 only ten different teams have won the English Football League – with three teams winning 24 of the 33 titles.
The run environment
MLB average total runs per game (1998 – 2012)
Major League Baseball successfully introduced a drug testing and treatment programmein 2006 in response to supposed increase in the use of performance enhancing drugs within the sport. Since then the average number of runs scored per game has fallen by almost 10% – from circa 9.5 to circa 8.6.
If you are analysing team or game total run markets it’s important to keep this in mind when doing any trend analysis.
It is also important to recognise that in addition to the changing environment, the last three seasons have seen a run of historic pitching performance – which history tells us probably won’t last forever. Total runs ticked back up a notch in 2012 and the smart money is on that becoming a new trend in 2013.
Starters & relievers
As previously discussed, baseball is a well-balanced and unpredictable sport. The name of the team playing is less important than in most other sports. This is due to the material contribution to a teams chance of success by the starting pitcher.
As such, team form and win streaks are particularly unimportant as you might have a team’s #5 starter one day and their #1 starter the next. As a consequence, a team can be 2/1 outsiders one day, lose the game, and then suddenly be a 1/2 hot favourite the next day.
“Momentum? Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.”
Earl Weaver, former Baltimore Orioles manager.
Given all of this the starting pitchers are the key focus when analysing a game, and rightly so.
But don’t get caught out by underestimating the impact of a particularly strong or weak bullpen.
More than 30% of all runs scored in baseball are scored off of relief pitchers in the later stages of the game. If you don’t believe me, check out the graph below:
MLB Runs Allowed – Starters vs. Relievers (1995 – 2012)
As we all know, you are much better off with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on your bench than you are with Bébé. Just last season there was a great example of just how important the quality of a team’s relief pitching is. Take a look at each team’s splits from the 2012 season:
Team Runs Allowed – Starters vs. Relievers (2012)
However, the Brewers’ relief pitchers allowed a staggering 265 runs versus the Reds league-leading 144. Pythagorean expectation suggests that every increase of 10 runs in run differential is worth an additional win.In 2012 the Milwaukee Brewers starters gave up 442 runs and the Cincinnati Reds starters 444. We can call that a wash and note that both team’s rank comfortably in the top half of the league.
So right there is your difference between the 97-win, playoff-bound Cincinnati Reds and the 83-win , also-ran Milwaukee Brewers last year.
Regression to the mean
Some players will get off to hot starts. Pitchers will start 5-0. Some hitters will hit 4 home runs in the first 7 games.
This happens every season and is completely expected given the distribution of outcomes in baseball.
The term “regression” is often misunderstood. It is important to remember it doesn’t mean that those players who start out “hot” are more likely to have “a cold streak” and end up performing to their original projections.
It simply means that they are likely to perform at their expected level going forward and over time their average performance levels will gradually tend back to that level.
For example, if a player was forecast to hit 30 home runs in 600 Plate Appearances (5%) coming into the season then they would be expected to hit at something like that rate going forward – and would simply now be projected to hit around 33 home runs given their performance to date.
Don’t get fooled by those people that start off performing well above or below expectations – in fact, on the whole the value is likely to be found by not overreacting (which the market tends to do) and to side with the player’s historical performance levels rather than their short term form.
Advanced Performance Metrics
If you have seen or read “Moneyball” then you will be aware of the ever increasing level of advanced statistics and performance data that is available to allow both fans and team’s alike to analyse historical performance in an attempt to better predict the future.
This piece probably isn’t the time for us to get into the advantages of using Fielding Independent Pitching (“FIP”) rather than the traditional Earned Run Average (“ERA”) when assessing a pitchers performance or why Josh Hamilton’s increasingly poor O-Swing% should be of serious concern to Los Angeles Angels’ fans.
However, if you are keen to learn more about the world of serious baseball analysis there is absolutely no better place to start than by starting to follow the work of the team of writers over at FanGraphs – where readers are treated to the highest quality of baseball analysis on a daily basis completely free of charge.
5 things to look out for during the 2013
The end of an era in the AL East
Year-in and year-out, baseball’s wealthiest division, the American League East sets the pace for the rest of the games.
The New York Yankees are the perennial World Series favourites and have made the playoffs in 16 of the 17 years (since MLB expanded to its current six-division structure in the mid 1990’s), making the World Series seven times and winning five of those.
However, with management looking to cut salary to avoid paying MLB luxury tax going forward (think Financial Fair Play) and serious injuries to a number of key players, the Yankees aren’t even the favourites to win the division in 2013 – let alone the World Series.
Four of the team’s starting nine hitters will be injured on opening day and to say four of their key pitchers are the wrong side of 30, would be a huge understatement. In fact, two of them – Starter Andy Pettitte and sure fire Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera – are both the wrong side of 40 and coming off season-ending injuries in 2012.
As a result, this division is wide open. MLB’s second “Moneyball” team, the Tampa Bay Rays, have made a habit of upsetting the big boys in recent years and the Boston Red Sox are looking to restore some pride with a competitive season after a disastrous couple of years.
As a result, Toronto Blue Jays highly respected GM, Alex Anthopoulos, made the brave decision this Winter to push his stack of chips into the middle and announced himself “All In”.
Having subtly rebuilt the Blue Jays farm system in recent years, whilst also maintaining respectability in the toughest of the six divisions Anthopulous’ tenure was already seen as a success.
If the monster trades he pulled off in the offseason (acquiring Cy Young award winning pitcher R.A Dickey from the New York Mets and all but one of the Florida Marlins talented players) work out, the Blue Jays might win the East for the first time in almost 20 years.
Oh, and the Baltimore Orioles? Well, they only won 93 games in 2012 to make the playoffs!
Houston… we’ve solved a problem
Since 1994, MLB’s two leagues, the American League and the National League, have had a different number of teams (14 and 16 respectively).
Whilst this may seem ridiculous at first glance, the every day nature of baseball is such that having 15 teams in each league would have seen one team having to rest for three to four days at a time – which wouldn’t be in keeping with baseball history.
However, with “interleague” play now increasingly common, the Houston Astro’s will shift over to the American League this season, giving both leagues 15 teams, with all six divisions having five teams.
Rather than at designated times of the season like in recent years, two teams will now be playing an interleague series throughout the year – meaning the leagues can be balanced without impacting on the playing schedule.
Not that this is going to help the hapless Astro’s much. They were looking like being a 100-loss team in the National League. Now they have to face some of the powerhouse teams in the American League more often… who knows where they might end up. Battered and bruised, we expect.
Beware! Snakes in the grass…
Over on the West Coast, under excitable new ownership the Los Angeles Dodgers spent an awful lot of money at the 2012 trade deadline and acquired an awful lot of talent from the salary-dumping Boston Red Sox. Then in the offseason they raided the coffers one more time to sign the games marquee free agent, All Star pitcher Zack Greinke.
Alongside their incumbent ace and perennial Cy Young candidate, Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers now have a 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation that can compete with any in baseball.
However, things won’t be plain sailing for the Dodgers in the National League West, which looks set to be one of the most competitive divisions in the league again in 2013.
The San Francisco Giants enter the season fresh off their second world series triumph in three years and look set to be at least an 85 win team once again – assuming their starting pitchers stay healthy.
Unsurprisingly therefore, these two storied franchises are receiving the majority of preseason press – however, our traders feel that the market might be underestimating the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Although they don’t have the same star power as their rivals, the D’backs have possibly the deepest rotation in the division. If Brandon McCarthy is back to his old self – which everyone wants to see after he missed a chunk of time following this scary incident that resulted in emergency brain surgery – then the Dodgers and Giants might need to watch their (D)backs.
Rounding out that division, the Colorado Rockies look set to bounce back to respectability after an injury plagued season in which their pitching staff was historically bad and the young and scrappy San Diego Padres will also be looking to build on a strong second half in 2012 to stay in the mix.
This one will no doubt be a roller-coaster ride right through to September.
Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper – Round II
Just because we should never need an excuse to watch goals like these, here are a couple of young lads announcing their presence to the Premier League and the World respectively.
Great times. In hindsight, Clive Tyldesley didn’t need to worry about us “remembering the name”. (Although props for a classic piece of commentary CT)
What has this got to do with baseball you ask?
Well, MLB currently has two talents, possibly of equal or greater potential to that of Messieurs Owen and Rooney – at the same time. Sadly, we can only imagine what that pairing would have been able to do if paired together at their absolutely peak.
Trout and Harper were both crowned “Rookie of the Year” in their respective leagues in 2012 – at a landslide.
Mike Trout highlights 2012
Bryce Harper highlights 2012
Playing in the major leagues – to any standard – at Bryce Harper’s age (19) is pretty much unheard of. Doing what Bryce Harper did last year is completely unheard of. Literally.
By Wins Above Replacement (“WAR”), Harper posted the best season in the history of baseball (age records go back almost 125 years to 1890), besting Mel Ott’s debut season with the 1928 with the New York Giants. Historic stuff.
As ridiculous as it sounds, this wasn’t even all that surprising. Bryce Harper has long been touted as one of the most “can’t miss” prospects in the history of baseball. And as such he has been doing unusual things for many years – such as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old.
And this is where things get really ridiculous. At just one year older, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels posted the 19th best season of any hitter in baseball since 1950. Of the ten players to have posted better seasons, eight are in the Hall of Fame. One is not yet eligible. And the other is Barry Bonds – who had four of the 18 seasons better than Trout’s. In a row…
What these two are capable of achieving in 2013, nobody really knows. But history says that Trout will really struggle to top his performance level from last year, and with rumblings of unhappiness with respect to his $10,000 pay rise and at being asked to change positions, the smart money might actually be on Harper to kick on and have the bigger season as the Washington Nationals look to retain the National League East crown.
One thing for sure is that, barring injury, these two are going to be very fun to watch for a long time yet.
Stadium changes in Seattle and San Diego
One interesting quirk to note that the Sporting Solutions modelling team have been trying to get a hold of over the off season is the changes being made to two of the games most pitcher friendly stadiums – Petco Park in San Diego and Safeco Field in Seattle.
Both of these stadiums are perennial pitchers parks where hitters find it particularly difficult to hit home runs.
However, in looking to give their teams the best chance to win, and the fans a balanced game to watch, both franchises decided to bring in the fences this winter – as shown through the hyperlinks above.
The impact of such changes should not be under estimated, and out traders are expecting to see a material jump in the average number of runs scored in games in these stadiums in 2013.
So, if some of those “Unders” lines look a bit too good to be true in the season’s opening weeks… you have been warned!
Let’s play ball!
Ok, that’s all from us for now. Hopefully you found some of that interesting or enlightening.
All that is left is to make some hotdogs, line up a few of your favourite beverages and holler the baseball equivalent of the referees whistle… “Let’s play ball!”
And if we have still failed to convince you to check out a game, then maybe appreciate Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s non-baseballing CV will make you see the light.
Or maybe even, you’d rather take Gary Neville’s word for it, as we all know he talks a lot of sense.
We will leave you with the wise words of the late legendary manager, Casey Stengel (pictured), who was in charge of the New York Yankees for the entirety of the 1950’s. When quizzed about the possible negative impact of some of his players’ late night antics, Stengel replied:
“Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”