In recent years, sabermetrics have revolutionized the study of baseball and other sports. Many other fields have also been influenced by statistical analysis, including politics and elections, to name a couple. But somehow, one very important area has been overlooked by the emerging field of analytics: politicians racing at sporting events.
Until today, that is. With most of the 2011 season in the books, we have enough data to properly analyze the Old Brick Furniture Tri-City Mayors Race, which takes place during the sixth inning of every ValleyCats home game. These new analytical methods will provide critical new insights on the three mayors’ strengths and weaknesses and may help us more accurately predict the final few races.
First, let’s review the current standings:
- Brian Stratton, Schenectady, 13
- Harry Tutunjian, Troy, 10
- Jerry Jennings, Albany, 8
Former Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton has led the standings for most of the season, and with only five races to go, he seems likely to keep it that way – one more win would clinch at least a share of the title at the season’s end.
But wins and losses tell only a fraction of the whole story. So much more happens during each race before the first mayor reaches the finish line, and all of it is valuable information that we can use to further our understanding of each runner. Let’s explore!
If you’ve been to “The Joe” a couple times, you’ve likely seen at least one memorable comeback. After all, the 250-foot track can be grueling for these mayors, and anyone who gets off the blocks too quickly may fade down the home stretch. As the contestants jockey for position before the right-field gate opens, you may wonder, does the opening of the race even matter?
Indeed it does. The mayor who leads out of the gate has held on to win the race nine out of 20 times this season.* This certainly is not a prohibitive advantage – so don’t despair if your favorite politician is straggling down the right-field line early on – but it is clearly better than the one-in-three rate we would expect from random chance.
*In the other 11 races, data was not recorded or the leader was too close to call.
Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian is best at getting out in front – he has taken the early lead in half of these 20 races – but he is also the worst at capitalizing it, winning just 30% of the time that he starts in first. (Tutunjian has actually won a slightly higher percentage of the races that he has not led initially, suggesting that fighting for pole position may not be worthwhile for him.)
Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings has won three of six races with the lead, bringing us to…
Sabermetrics of Stratton
The secret to Stratton’s success is not his performance off the blocks – he has taken the initial lead in only four races, the fewest of any mayor. Instead, like a shorter and slightly slower Usain Bolt, his strength is his ability to pull away from the pack. When Stratton does get an early lead, he is nearly unbeatable – he has lost only once after starting in first place. (Even that race would have been another Stratton victory had he not made the ill-fated decision to turn around and showboat near the end, allowing Tutunjian to pull off a stunning – if karmic – comeback.)
Stratton has the fastest top speed – he ran a blazing 13.92 in mid-July, the best time of any mayor this year by nearly a full second – but a deeper look reveals some very mixed results. He has gone a nearly unthinkable 6-0 in races decided by less than .3 seconds, and while defenders will argue that the pride of Schenectady “just knows how to win,” his performance in close contests is an indicator of good luck. Those wins are in hand – and the biggest reason why he will almost certainly take the end-of-season crown – but he has most likely been racing above his true talent level so far.
Stratton’s average race time this year is 22.05 – nearly a full second slower than Tutunjian’s.
That will probably come as little solace to the mayor of Troy, who has often played the role of Samuel Tilden to Stratton’s Rutherford Hayes – tantalizingly close but ultimately a loser. Tutunjian has lost four races by less than .1 seconds – and four others within half a second – naturally leading to the most second-place finishes.
And when Tutunjian has won, it has often been by Reagan-like margins. His average margin of victory is 1.1 seconds, nearly twice as high as any other candidate’s. Not even included are five other races in which Tutunjian led by so much that the other two candidates did not even cross the finish line – Jennings and Stratton have only three such victories combined.
With an average race time of 21.10 seconds, easily the fastest of the three contestants, Tutunjian has proven his consistency. Unfortunately, a series of disappointing photo finishes has relegated him to second place – and in the words of the immortal Ricky Bobby, if you ain’t first, you’re last.
Bringing up the rear of the standings is Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. Unlike Tutunjian, Jennings can’t blame bad luck for his position. Rather, he appears to be suffering a lack of concentration.
It’s natural for runners to break off a race sometimes – if you don’t feel you have a chance of winning, you might as well slow up and save your energy. But Jennings has been too willing to give up on competitions. While Tutunjian and Stratton have failed to finish 13 times between them, Jennings has accumulated 12 DNF’s on his own.
Though this might be excusable if it were part of a well-planned strategy, Jennings instead simply seems prone to all sorts of distractions. He has been sidetracked by a fight, a shoving match and even a lightsaber battle (on Star Wars Night, of course). Though it makes a great spectacle to entertain the fans, these incidents cost Albany’s mayor valuable time and are a big factor in his poor record.
If you’re looking for positive things to say about Jennings as a runner, start here: he’s a ‘mudder.’ Jennings has won three of the four slowest races this year, and will doubtlessly try to slow things down again this week in an effort to catch Tutunjian for second place.
After anonymous reports that an unnamed mayor had been taking illegal substances to gain an edge on his competitors late in the inaugural 2010 season, the ValleyCats instituted a tougher testing program to crack down on the mayors’ excessive use of caffeine and other stimulants. If the numbers are any indication, the testing has worked.
Check out this chart of the times throughout the season:
As you can see, the contestants are slowing down significantly as the calendar turns. As the best-fit line shows, the average time has increased by .22 seconds with every race, a substantial decrease in speed over the course of a season.
This fatigue manifests itself in other ways as well. In the first four homestands, the mayors were much more likely to finish races than in the last four. This difference is not quite statistically significant (p=.12), but it tells the same story:
These data suggest that players aren’t the only ones who get worn down by a long summer – and, unlike players, the mayors can’t be spelled by a reserve for a day’s rest.
But they’ve been off for eight days now, and the trio should be fresh for the home stretch. Will Tutunjian’s luck change enough for him to overcome Stratton? Will Jennings turn around a rough season? Will Stratton keep winning nailbiters? Watch the final five races at “The Joe,” starting tomorrow, to find out.
According to simple math, an average team should sweep about one of every four doubleheaders. Entering last night, the ValleyCats – admittedly not quite an average team for most of their history – had played 19 doubleheaders in the last six years and swept exactly none of them. But that all changed on Friday, as the ‘Cats dominated Hudson Valley in the opener and eked out a 2-1 win in game two for their first sweep of a doubleheader since the Pence/Zobrist days of 2004.
At the center of it, of course, was Rafael Valenzuela. The infielder singled in the first inning of game one and added three more hits – all doubles – throughout the night. Valenzuela – who will start in right field tonight, his first professional appearance in the outfield – drove two balls to the center-field wall and took an 0-1 pitch the opposite way into the left-field corner, scoring three runs and breaking open the first game, which the ‘Cats ultimately won 9-2.
Since August 2, when he joined the team after making a short rehab appearance in the GCL, Valenzuela leads the NY-Penn League with ten extra-base hits. He ranks second in slugging (.762), tied for second in RBIs (10) and tied for third in batting average (.429).
“Having someone like him in the lineup not only makes everybody else better, but it makes the clubhouse better,” manager Stubby Clapp said. “When he got hurt in extended [spring training], we knew it was going to be a bit of a blow to us, and having him back has been important.”
Valenzuela, who said he has no idea what his numbers are (do they ever say they keep track of that?), does not have the pedigree of a player expected to have such success – he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona last summer. In a way, that makes him right at home on this team.
The ‘Cats had three undrafted free agents in the lineup in the first game (and will do so again tonight), and all three made a rather large impact. Four innings before Valenzuela’s bases-clearing double, catcher Ryan McCurdy pulled a low grounder to the same spot for a three-RBI hit of his own, capping a five-run first inning that gave the ‘Cats the lead for good.
Valenzuela and McCurdy are joined by Neiko Johnson, who has cemented a spot in the everyday lineup with a .424 on-base percentage, fourth-best among NYPL qualifiers. Listed at a generous 5’9”, Johnson has a small strike zone, and he knows how to use it. Despite seeing limited playing time in the first third of the season, the utility player has drawn 33 walks, third-best in the league. And this is no fluke – going back to his college days, Johnson routinely walked in 20 percent or more of his plate appearances.
Add in Johnson’s versatility – he has started games at five different positions this year – and the fact that he has been one of the only ValleyCats to add real value with his basestealing ability (16 of 19 on steal attempts for a team that has been caught more often than any other), and he’s clearly been one of the key parts of the Cats’ late-season charge.
In fact, this marks one of the biggest distinctions between the 2011 ValleyCats and last year’s NYPL champions: the 2010 team’s everyday lineup was comprised almost entirely of first- and second-day draft selections. In addition to Johnson, Valenzuela and McCurdy, Chris Epps – a recently-promoted outfielder and the walk-off hero from earlier this week – was a 45th-round selection, while Chase Davidson (who tore up Greeneville and was just added to the roster) was also taken late on day three.
A fourth undrafted free agent, Andrew Walter, made his second start with the ValleyCats and had an interesting evening. The righty pegged three batters, walked two others and threw a few pitches to the backstop, but he allowed only one hit and would have held the Renegades scoreless if not for a two-out passed ball in the second.
Walter struck out five batters, all swinging, going up the ladder with fastballs to get the first three and then fanning lefties Juniel Querecuto and Jeff Malm in order with inside curveballs.
“Walter was a little bit shaky, but he was good enough to keep us close and keep them off-balance,” Clapp said. The ‘Cats have won both games started by the young righty.
Travis Blankenship – a former third-day draft pick himself – replaced Walter after the righty hit Kyle Holloway for the second time and pitched much more conventionally. Blankenship needed only 33 pitches, 25 of them strikes, to record nine outs and preserve a one-run lead. Ryan Cole – dubbed “Cardiac Cole” after the game by Clapp – allowed two hits in the ninth but held on for his eighth save of the season.
Lost in the offensive outburst of the first game was a terrific pitching performance from Adam Champion. The southpaw, making just his third pro start, threw 80 pitches over six innings, striking out five and allowing only one hit over his final five frames.
“It was an easy game for McCurdy to call,” he said. “It was basically, sinker away and let them hit it, and they just kept beating it into the ground. It’s easy baseball when you just throw to a spot and keep pitching.”
Champion worked as a reliever for last year’s championship team and started 2011 in the ‘pen, even returning there after making a spot start against Staten Island. But with two great outings in August, he may force his way into a suddenly crowded rotation even as the hectic schedule settles down after the All-Star break.
“I’ve been a starter my whole life,” Champion said. “It’s pretty easy to go from relief to starter. I just go back to my roots, and basically do what I have done in the past, and keep the routine.”
The ‘Cats, winners of seven of their last ten games, look to keep it rolling against the Renegades tonight. The broadcast will probably have started by the time you read this; as always, if you can’t make the game, listen live online.
Friday night’s doubleheader was Farm & Agriculture Night at “The Joe,” with the NYS Farm Bureau and Cabot Creamery educating fans about local producers. The Dairy Princess, Marilyn Lamb, threw out a strike with one of our ceremonial first pitches and was escorted to the pitchers mound by Dean Casey, the president of the Rensselaer County Farm Bureau.
A select number of fans also received a 10th Anniversary canvas print as they entered the ballpark. This commemorative giveaway was made from a picture of pre-game ceremonies at “The Joe.”
Saturday night’s game has been postponed due to rain, and will be made up in a doubleheader at Vermont, as the Lake Monsters do not return to “The Joe” this year. Tickets for tonight’s game can be exchanged for any remaining regular-season home game.
All season long, the ValleyCats have struggled to get clutch hits. The ‘Cats have watched opponents execute better in the late innings, suffering an unlucky 4-10 record in close games despite playing nearly even in blowouts. On Friday night, that all changed, led by one of the newest members of the team.
Rafael Valenzuela joined the ValleyCats in Jamestown on Tuesday, the first of three position players assigned to Tri-City this week. Friday marked his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium, and it was a good day to debut – a pleasant evening in front of a sellout crowd of 5,267 fans.
After several fruitless opportunities in the earlier innings, Valenzuela strode to the plate with two on in the eighth inning to face NYPL saves leader Tanner Peters. He swing at a 3-1 fastball and flicked a high line drive the opposite way, slicing into left-center for a clean double. Justin Gominsky scored and Valenzuela replaced him on second, listening to his first ovation from the hometown crowd.
“I was nervous,” Valenzuela said of playing at Joe Bruno Stadium for the first time. “All the guys were talking about how great the atmosphere is and how great the fans are, and I was just happy I was able to give them a big hit tonight.”
Valenzuela was tentatively expected to open the season in Troy after playing at Rookie League Greeneville last season, but he broke his hamate bone in June and missed the first month. The infielder played four games in the Gulf Coast league on a rehab assignment and was happy to get the call-up to Tri-City this week.
“I spent most of my time with these guys during Spring Training, so being back with my friends here was really nice,” he said.
Drew Muren was intentionally walked to load the bases and Chris Epps struck out, preserving the tie game for Ryan McCurdy. With two outs, McCurdy took a strike and then turned on a fastball, driving a hard grounder two feet to the fair side of the third-base bag for a two-run, game-winning hit.
Manager Stubby Clapp was happy to see his team come through in the clutch. “That’s huge,” he said. “It’s good timing, if it’s going to start now.”
Don’t overlook the work of center fielder Justin Gominsky, who led off the inning with a hard single that bounced off pitcher Drew Bailey. Gominsky also singled to open the sixth inning, staying with a tough curveball on an 0-2 count and driving it up the middle, but was stranded at third.
A scout was in the press box before the game during last week’s homestand when the Michael Bourn trade went down. The scout, who covered the Midwest and saw some of Gominsky in college, said he thought Bourn could be a close comparison for Gominsky’s ceiling – great arm, good speed, little power but a good hit tool.
Also, make sure not to overlook another ValleyCat with an even stronger arm: reliever Dayan Diaz. He came on for Juri Perez with a man on and no outs in the seventh inning, and completed it with this sequence: 94 mph fastball past Jordan Tripp; 94-mph fastball up the ladder chased by Xavier Mackliln; fastball on the inside corner to freeze Jacob Tanis.
He got another strikeout to open the eighth inning, allowed a single, induced a ground ball but got the wrong end of a bang-bang call on the back end of the double play and allowed a soft roller with eyes through the 3-4 hole, giving the Lake Monsters some life. But Diaz got two strikes and reached back for a 95-mph fastball, and Chad Lewis had no chance.
Diaz, despite working out of the bullpen, has now earned five victories, tied for the NYPL lead.
The ValleyCats pulled to within five games of the division-leading Lake Monsters, exactly where they were through 47 games last season. Though they have three teams to catch, the ‘Cats can still dream of a comeback.
Adding to the excitement is the fact that all four teams have played at about the same level this season. Although five games separate the top and bottom of the division, every team has a run differential within 12 runs of the others:
Though they have struggled to win close games this season, the ‘Cats hope that last night may have been a turning point.
“It’s important to get the ball rolling at home,” McCurdy said. “We’ve got a couple games here, then we go on the road for a couple and a big homestand. It’s always fun to play at home, and over the last month or so, we really have to get going.”
Meanwhile, Valenzuela says he wouldn’t mind a playoff push – after missing the first half of the season, he wants to be a part of as many games as possible.
“I would like to play a lot of baseball still,” he said. “I really want us to get hot and keep playing a lot of games.”
Many professional baseball players have been immersed in the game since they were born. Maybe their father played pro ball, or they grew up in a baseball-crazy town in a warm-weather climate, where neighbors and older friends and community idols were drafted, paving a clear path to follow.
Stubby Clapp was not one of those players. A native of Windsor, Ontario, he grew up surrounded by hockey rinks and played on ice as well as diamonds until he was a teenager. The ValleyCats manager, telling his story to the Frank and Peggy Steele Interns from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum when they came to visit “The Joe” on Saturday, had to choose between baseball and hockey and, he said, “Baseball chose me. It paid for my education at the time, it gave me a better scholarship than hockey could offer at the time – I’m not very big, even on skates – and baseball gave me a life I could never replace.”
Stubby, who took his first trip to the Hall on an off day in early July, said he initially had no idea that he might be able to play professionally. “My whole goal in life was to be a doctor. When I went south, I figured if someone was going to pay for my education [with a scholarship], then I was going to be a doctor.”
The idea of pro ball was so foreign to Stubby that he had no idea that there was an MLB Draft until shortly before he was selected in 1996.
“My junior year at Texas Tech, I got called into the office with my coaches,” he said. He figured he must have been in trouble for something, but he couldn’t think of a reason – he was “pretty square then,” he says – so he couldn’t figure out a reason for the meeting.
“Larry Hays, who was our coach at the time, says, ‘If you get drafted, will you go?’ And he had me stumped, and I just looked him square in the eyes, and said, ‘Sir, I’m Canadian. I can’t fight in your army.’ True story, I had no idea what the major league draft was.”
Stubby, still stunned by the news, took some time to think about it and chose baseball – and he’s very glad that he did.
“I’ve seen the world for free through baseball,” he said, referencing his professional travels through America as well as his international stints with the Canadian national team. “I’m thinking about Beijing right now, and the amount of help that went into putting on that Olympics [in 2008] was unbelievable. I didn’t touch a door in Beijing – there was somebody at every single door of every venue that you went through, to open it and greet you.”
Watch Stubby’s full speech:
Check out another edition of Get to know the ‘Cats as I speak with Justin Gominsky. If you didn’t already know, and as you’ll find out, Justin’s a Minnesota native. We have some fun with that, plus he tells us what colleges were in hot pursuit of his football talents.
For the first time in franchise history, the ValleyCats have eclipsed the 100,000 mark in attendance before the end of July, with 103,072 spectators so far. Thank you fans for all your support this season and we look forward to even more fun in August!
MVP Health Care’s Sunday Funday included the usual festivities with a pre-game catch, balloons courtesy of Noble Gas and kids running the bases after the final out.
Tonight’s theme also payed tribute to the EMTs, fire fighters, police officers and first responders who help to keep the Capital Region safe. As part of Community Heroes Night, Mike Klugo from Valatie Rescue Squad threw out the ceremonial first pitch and an ambulance escorted SouthPaw in the Armory Fiat for his entrance.
Sticking with the Community Heroes theme, the Drug Free Capital District program continued tonight at “The Joe.” This initiative has the ValleyCats partnering with Rensselaer County District Attorney Richard McNally, Albany County District Attorney David Soares and local law enforcement to help start the conversation between children and parents about the dangers of drug use. Our young fans and their parents teamed up to take educational quizzes with prizes awarded in the Cat-tle Ranch.
For those who didn’t know, pulled pork is available at the Left Field Louie’s kiosk near the Cat-tle Ranch. Thanks for the heads up, Ribbie!
Old Navy from Crossgates Mall had a popular display on the concourse, including their famous mannequins.
On the field, the ‘Cats failed to solve Doubleday pitching and dropped their second game in a row by the score of 6-1. They will have one more chance to beat Auburn this morning, with the first pitch at 11:00 AM. This matinee start is the final game of the homestand before the team travels to Jamestown.
The ‘Cats will return home for Friday night fireworks on August 5th as they take on the division-leading Vermont Lake Monsters. Friday marks our 3rd Annual Home Improvement Night and is presented by Trustco Bank.
Photos taken by Garrett Craig. For more pictures from every ValleyCats event, visit our Seton Health ‘Cats Camera page.