Results tagged ‘ NYPL ’
The season is 30 percent complete, and the team is coming off its first official off day. So let’s step back a bit and take a look at what we’ve learned about this year’s ValleyCats so far:
The starting rotation is good. Euris Quezada has not had the best start to the season, going 0-3 with an 8.83 ERA, but the other four-fifths of the rotation has been anywhere from good to excellent. Juri Perez has the highest ERA of the four at 3.55, and this doesn’t feel unsustainable – all four of these pitchers have the stuff and command to be very good at this level. If the ‘Cats can get the fifth spot figured out, it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see this rotation go on a run like the 2010 team did last August, when all five starters had an ERA below three for the entire month. Now that players have had a few starts under their belt, Tri-City and other teams will be more willing to let their starters go into the sixth and seventh innings, which will magnify the Cats’ starting pitching advantage.
The star of the rotation so far has been Kyle Hallock, who has completed at least five innings in every start and has yet to allow more than two earned runs. Anytime you’re among the league leaders in K/9 and BB/9, as Hallock is entering tonight’s start at Batavia, you’re doing something right. The southpaw has 25 strikeouts against two walks, the best such ratio in the league so far, and ranks fourth with a 0.78 WHIP.
If there’s one candidate for regression among the Cats’ top four starters, it may be Jonas Dufek. Check out these splits: with nobody on base, opponents are hitting .410/.500/.645 off Dufek. But with men on, he becomes “Jonasty,” holding hitters to a .158/.200/.211 line. And with men in scoring position? .114/.184/.200. In a nutshell, Dufek has allowed lots of runners to reach base but has pitched extremely well under pressure. That’s great to see from a mental standpoint, but it’s not likely to be sustainable over a full season – if runners keep reaching base, hitters will eventually get lucky and have bloopers or line drives fall in critical situations, and runs will score. (Of course, leadoff batters aren’t likely to keep getting on base 64 percent of the time either, so it all may even out.)
DIPS likes the pitching staff even more. The ‘Cats have done well in all of the “three true outcome” categories – the team ranks fifth in strikeout rate (K/9), fourth in walk rate and fourth in home run rate allowed. Though they rank sixth in ERA, I have them third in the league in FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching). The difference can be explained by a .323 batting average on balls in play, the third-highest in the NYPL.
Now, a major caveat here: when discussing major-league pitchers, BABIP has been shown to have very little predictive value for pitchers – that is, what happens to a ball in play is mostly due to factors that are outside the pitcher’s control. This is not necessarily true for minor-league pitchers. Minor-league players – especially at a low level such as the NY-Penn League – are very different than major-league pitchers, and it would be reasonable to think that some minor-league pitchers consistently throw pitches that are more likely to go for base hits. (These pitchers would usually be weeded out before reaching the majors.)
In short: while the strong fielding-independent statistics and the high BABIP do suggest that the pitchers have been unlucky (and/or that the defense behind them has been poor), the evidence for that is not as strong as similar major-league numbers would be.
The offense needs improvement. This isn’t as clear-cut as you might expect: the ‘Cats actually rank eighth in the league with 4.43 runs per game, though they’re closer to eleventh (Brooklyn) than seventh (Hudson Valley). What’s not obvious is how exactly they’re doing it. Tri-City ranks 12th in batting average (.236), 12th in slugging percentage (.326) and tied for 10th in on-base percentage (.319), a profile that doesn’t usually lead to a league-average offense.
Only one team has left fewer runners on base than the ‘Cats. You could make a convincing argument that the ValleyCats are one of the better baserunning teams in the league, and generally good lineup construction has helped, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of this simply comes down to the team getting timely hits at a rate that may not be sustainable.
Plate discipline is not the problem. It feels like batters have watched a lot of third strikes go by at Joe Bruno Stadium this year, and fans of every team feel like their hitters strike out too much, but the ValleyCats’ problem is not their pitch recognition. The ‘Cats are striking out in a tick under 18 percent of their plate appearances, one of the best marks in the NYPL and well below the league average of 20 percent. They have drawn 83 walks against 155 strikeouts, the third-best ratio in the league.
But the ‘Cats just aren’t doing enough when they make contact. Despite playing in Joe Bruno Stadium, recently the league’s best home run park, Tri-City ranks dead last in the league with six dingers, even after hitting three in its last two games. I’d expect a better showing than that in the final 53 games – powerful hitters like Brandon Meredith and Kellen Kiilsgaard will hopefully return to the lineup, and guys like Zach Johnson and Miles Hamblin have shown the potential to hit for more power than they have so far – but this isn’t an offense that will be having too many one-swing rallies.
These outfielders can throw. Okay, we knew that from the start. Drew Muren leads the league with five outfield assists, and Justin Gominsky is tied for second with four. As a team, the ‘Cats have a league-best 11 outfield assists in 23 games, which the pitching staff must love.
Guess what? The ValleyCats have been unlucky. At this time last year, the ValleyCats were 9-14, but they had scored roughly as many runs as they had allowed. I argued that they would play better for the rest of the season, and sure enough they did, greatly surpassing even my expectations.
Well, it’s a year later, and the ValleyCats are 9-14. And guess what? They’ve only been outscored by two runs (104-102). Run differential is a better predictor of future performance than wins and losses. It certainly doesn’t mean another miraculous playoff run is coming – and a slew of difficult opponents in the next two weeks won’t make it easy for the ‘Cats to make a charge soon – but it means we should expect them to play more like a .500 team for the rest of the season than a .400 team. (14-8 Vermont, incidentally, has outscored its opponents by only one run, meaning the Lake Monsters could come back to the pack in the Stedler Division.)
So although 2011 hasn’t started the way the ValleyCats and their fans would have liked, we could still see some good baseball at “The Joe” over the final seven weeks of the season.
Me, on 7/5:
Given how strong Vermont has looked – the Lake Monsters are off to an unbelievable 14-3 start, with eight consecutive wins – the ValleyCats’ slim playoff hopes probably rest on the wild card.
Me, on 7/15:
Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division. […] The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite [the good run differential] – their recent bad fortune has left them 4.5 games back and behind seven other teams in the wild-card race, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome under any circumstances.
Me, on 7/28:
[The ValleyCats’] playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Even if the ValleyCats played like the league’s best team in the second half, they would finish at 41-35 or so. Five teams are currently on pace to have a better record than that, and another two aren’t far behind, so they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.
Evan, on 8/13:
If you had told me back in the beginning of July that, come August, the ValleyCats would have a shot to win the division, I would have had you declared officially insane. […] It was July 10 and most fans were already hoping for the wild card.
One month into the season, it was not exactly likely that the ValleyCats would be playing meaningful games in September. They stood at 11-18 on the morning of July 19, 9.5 games behind Vermont. The Lake Monsters had cooled off slightly – it would have been impossible to do otherwise after a 14-3 start – but still had a firm hold on the Stedler Division. Tri-City was also well behind Connecticut in the division and trailed several teams in the wild card, and looked headed for a third-place finish.
There were some signs that things might turn around. The ‘Cats were unlucky in close games, and their strong run differential portended better things for the future. Meanwhile, their offense was bound to improve, while their pitching staff was one of the league’s best.
You can trace the ValleyCats’ turnaround to a late-July game at Vermont. Nearing the end of a seven-day road trip that had proven less than fruitful to that point, they found themselves in a 7-3 hole to the Lake Monsters, after ace Carlos Quevedo suffered his worst start of the season. But the ‘Cats battled back, striking for three runs in the seventh and two on a Mike Kvasnicka single in the eighth to win a 10-8 slugfest. Bobby Doran picked up his first win the next night to complete an unlikely sweep.
After the great weekend, fellow VCN member Chris Chenes proclaimed that the ValleyCats would make the playoffs. Evan and I thought he was crazy. We were both optimistic about their future, but the math seemed too daunting – they still trailed the Lake Monsters by 7.5 games (with only two head-to-head matches left), and the wild card was looking less and less attainable as the Pinckney Division teams pulled away from the pack.
Tri-City was in danger of losing its next series, a three-game home set against Lowell, when they trailed the rubber match 5-1 in the seventh inning. Such a loss, particularly on their home field, would have been very disappointing for the ‘Cats, as the Spinners had not yet won a series all season. But Adam Bailey belted the team’s first (and only) grand slam to tie the game, and Dan Adamson sent the fans home happy, leading off the 11th inning with a walk-off homer.
The ‘Cats swept another two-game set with Vermont early in August, then embarked on a six-game road trip to Mahoning Valley and State College. They lost slugger Ben Heath to promotion midway through the trip, yet ended it on a high note by winning the last two to split the six games. Tri-City allowed just eight runs over the final five games of that trip, which manager Jim Pankovits credits as the point where his team really started its comeback:
About that time, we had made some adjustments to the rotation and started to go to a more regular lineup, and I think we just got on a roll. We played very well that series, and it continued to a couple more series when we came home. The game of baseball is a really streaky game, and we got on a really good hot streak about then.
The ValleyCats then returned to Joe Bruno Stadium, where they won 11 of their final 15 games, and won series against Williamsport – then leading the Pinckney Division – and Staten Island. The All-Star break did little to cool their momentum, as they swept Connecticut on the road, pulling back to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season. More importantly, they passed Connecticut to take second place in the division, and stood only 1.5 games back of the Lake Monsters.
That paved the way for a thrilling, topsy-turvy stretch run:
Shown above are my playoff odds on each day for the final two weeks. The ValleyCats swept a home-and-home with Connecticut – taking the latter on a heartbreaking two-error eleventh inning by shortstop Brett Anderson – pushing the Tigers three games back and seemingly knocking them out of the race. But Connecticut would not quit, proceeding to take three at Vermont while the ValleyCats dropped three of their own at Hudson Valley, an extremely unlikely turn of events that left the Tigers right back int he thick of things. The division was still completely up for grabs heading into the last week of the season.
The ValleyCats more or less saved their season in their home finale, pulling out a 14-inning thriller on the heels of a 12-inning defeat to Hudson Valley. Two extra-inning losses would have left the ‘Cats deep in third place and in an unenviable position to embark on a season-ending, six-game road trip.
Instead, Chris Wallace doubled to the left-field wall in the 14th, his third huge hit of the series. Bailey followed with his third hit of the game, a single to right field, and Wallace slid home just inches in front of the tag. Bailey was far from the ValleyCats’ most consistent hitter this season – his batting average was just a point above the Mendoza Line entering that game – but he would be critical down the stretch, racking up a league-high 14 hits in the final week of the season.
The ValleyCats then swept Lowell, while Connecticut improbably did the same to Aberdeen to remain a half-game back. Vermont, meanwhile, dropped four of five at Brooklyn to be all but eliminated from the race. The two teams switched places on Friday, setting the stage for a remarkable Saturday. The ValleyCats took an 8-7 slugfest at Brooklyn – with the key hit, naturally, provided by Bailey – wihle the Tigers finally lost at Aberdeen.
That left the ValleyCats needing only a win or a Connecticut loss entering the final day of the season. Connecticut and Aberdeen began 2.5 hours before Tri-City took on the Cyclones, but the ‘Cats still didn’t know if they needed a win as their game started, because Connecticut forced extra innings. The Tigers twice threatened to make the Tri-City game decisive, scoring in the 11th and twice in the 13th. They entered Sunday with a league-best 19-10 record in one-run games, and a 6-2 record in extras, and it seemed like they would pull another victory out of nowhere (Connecticut finished above .500 despite being outscored by 44 runs).
But this time, they came out on the short end of an improbable defeat. The Ironbirds put two runners on with two outs, and #3 overall draft pick Manny Machado tripled off the right-field wall. Kipp Schutz, who hit a walk-off grand slam against the ValleyCats back in July, ended Connecticut’s season with a game-winning single, and the ValleyCats were free to celebrate.
In the end, the ValleyCats won with incredible pitching. Their 17-11 August was fueled by a 2.56 ERA and 81 runs allowed, both best in the league. Vermont, meanwhile, posted a 5.45 ERA while allowing 159 runs in August, going just 9-17 to blow a seven-game lead. Connecticut fared slightly better on that end, allowing 119 runs with a 3.57 ERA, but hit a league-low .212 for the month.
All five regular starters had a terrific month, posting ERAs below 3.00. David Martinez, a mid-season conversion from the bullpen, fared the best, allowing just four earned runs in 30.1 innings and fanning a team-high 31 batters. Bobby Doran (3-1, 2.41) and Jake Buchanan (2-3, 2.97) rebounded from slow starts with strong months, while Carlos Quevedo (3-1, 2.97) and Andrew Robinson (2-2, 2.74) continued excellent seasons in August. On the other side, the mid-month additions of Marcus Nidiffer (.317/.386/.540 in August) and Austin Wates (.368/.500/.474 in 19 at-bats) boosted an offense that saw some of its regulars drop off a bit, while the arm of Chris Wallace (14/25 CS with Tri-City) proved a valuable asset behind the plate.
The ValleyCats make the playoffs, and will be a tough match for a strong Batavia squad in the first round. All four playoff teams are very good, which should make for a very fun week.
So, Chris: You were right, and I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.
Playoff Odds update, through 8/31 games: ‘Cats 57%, Vermont 16%, Connecticut 27%
Well, this week didn’t go quite as expected.
After the ValleyCats defeated Connecticut for the fourth time in seven days on Tuesday, it looked like a two-horse race in the Stedler Division: the ‘Cats were hot, Vermont was treading water and Connecticut was fading quickly, three games out.
But everything went right for the Tigers after that. They swept a three-game set at Vermont, and the ‘Cats were swept at Hudson Valley. The Tigers, who had the league’s worst offense entering the series, dropped 21 runs on the Lake Monsters and won the last two games handily. Now they are right back at the top of the division, with momentum and six home games coming up, tied with Vermont and a half-game ahead of Tri-City. It is officially a three-team race.
Momentum would seem to make Connecticut the current favorite, but we just saw how quickly momentum can change. The Tigers now host the juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Cyclones – who, coincidentally enough, will then finish the season with five games against Vermont and three with Tri-City – before finishing with Aberdeen. Vermont still has to play eleven games in the final nine days (two makeups with Brooklyn, although one is the completion of the contest that was suspended in the 12th inning last week) – and, worse, all eleven will be on the road.
The ValleyCats have the easiest remaining opponent of the group when they travel to Lowell next week, but they’ll have to get through three more games with the Renegades, not exactly the team they wanted to see right now. Hudson Valley has won four straight and recently passed the ‘Cats for the fourth-best run differential. The Renegades match up well with the Tri-City offense: the ‘Cats are a very patient bunch, but Hudson Valley has allowed the fewest walks and hit the fewest batters this season.
Ultimately, the ValleyCats still look like the slight favorite, based on the schedule and (more importantly) their play to date. Although they are in third place, they have easily the best run differential of the group (TC +24, VER -12, CT -33), which means they should be expected to play the best from here on out. But time is running out, and they’ll probably need to beat Hudson Valley a couple times this weekend to remain the favorite.
Updated playoff odds:
I’ll update this post with the current odds daily.
Through games of 9/3:
Warning: If you don’t like numbers, you won’t find much in this post (or the next) worth reading.
This is an update to my playoff odds post from earlier this week. I’ve corrected a few misconceptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games and made my model a bit more robust.
The biggest error I had was regarding makeup games for early-season rainouts. For some reason, I was under the impression that rained-out games would be replayed at the end of the season if they affected the pennant race. That is not the case. The ValleyCats’ rained-out games with Jamestown from July and with Aberdeen today will not be played, nor will Connecticut’s game with Staten Island today. Vermont has missed three-plus games so far, but can make up the Brooklyn and Hudson Valley games, plus yesterday’s suspended extra-inning Brooklyn game, because they play those teams again this year. Its rained-out game against Batavia, however, will not be replayed.
The other place I errored was with tie-breakers. I assumed that ties would be broken with a head-to-head game, but that is not the case. Instead, the tiebreakers go as follow: winning percentage, then divisional record, then run differential. It is rare that a tie will go even that far – I predict only a 0.5% chance that run differential comes into play.
The last update is an improvement to my model: an adjustment for home-field advantage. Home teams this year are 226-191 (.542), making home-field advantage a fairly significant factor. Thus, I gave teams playing in their home park a 4% boost in each game*. Note that I said “playing in their home park” – some of the makeup games (i.e., Vermont vs Brooklyn) will not be played at the same place they were initially scheduled; therefore, Vermont will be playing as the “home” team in Brooklyn. In such a case, Brooklyn would get the home-field advantage bump – research has shown that it is playing in a familiar park, not having the last at-bat, that provides the home team with an advantage.
*VERY technical note: In an ideal world, this home-field boost would not be linear – it has a smaller effect with a more lopsided matchup. To illustrate with an extreme example, if a team had a 4% chance of winning on a neutral field, we would not expect it to have a 0% chance of winning on the road. But I couldn’t figure out an easy way to make this effect non-linear, and I expect that all realistic matchups – certainly the ones that I am predicting here – are evenly-matched enough that it doesn’t make much of a difference.
(If anybody is following my work closely, I gave Vermont a 35% chance of winning its suspended game against Brooklyn, down 8-7 with two on and one out in extras. I got that number from this win probability table.)
The ValleyCats continue to improve their playoff hopes. Keep in mind that these numbers still don’t take into account momentum – June games count as much as August games do. If you think recent results should carry more weight, you should give the ValleyCats a somewhat better chance than listed here. (For what it’s worth, I do think recent results should count more, given how much rosters and players change in this league, but I haven’t come up with a good way to separate recent performance from schedule effects.)
Update as of Sunday afternoon: Each team split its last two games, and the playoff results predictably changed little. I have the ValleyCats at 36.13%, Vermont at 51.40% and Connecticut at 12.46%.
I put together a quick-and-dirty simulation for the rest of the season in an attempt to answer that question. I’ll try not to go into too many details about how I made the simulation, because I don’t expect that many of you care; leave a comment or email me if you want to know more. But a quick and fairly technical summary: I first figured each team’s pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s performance going forward from its current run differential. Then I plugged those records into Bill James’s log5 formula to figure the odds that each team wins each game. I then used these odds to simulate the Tri-City, Vermont and Connecticut games for the rest of the season*, and played out the season 1,000,000 times. (This task is made a lot easier by the fact that the wild card will almost certainly not come out of the Stedler Division, so I only had to worry about three teams.)
*I included makeups for games that have been lost to rain this year – Tri-City vs Jamestown, Vermont vs Batavia and Staten Island – because they will be played if they affect the pennant race at the season’s end. (My mistake – these games will not be made up.)
Here were the results:
|TRI + VER tie:||9.5976|
|TRI + CT tie:||2.2061|
|CT + VER tie:||2.9302|
That comes out to a 16% chance that we’ll end up in some sort of tie. The same log5 process I used above can create odds that each team wins
a head-to-head play-in game (there is no play-in game; the tiebreaker is divisional record), allowing us to estimate the full odds that each team makes the playoffs (for simplicity’s sake, I assumed that each team would win the three-way tie one-third of the time):
I was surprised that Connecticut’s odds are so low. But if you look at run differential, the Tigers just haven’t been very good this season. They rank dead last in runs scored and have a worse run differential than all but two teams; their Pythagorean record pegs Connecticut as a .426 team, rather than a .500 one. The Tigers are 10-5 in one-run games, and will probably not be as lucky going forward.
The ValleyCats have a better run differential and expected record than Vermont, but the 1.5-game edge in the standings is enough for Vermont to remain the favorite. Still, I can assure you that their playoff odds are as high as they’ve been all season.
Two major caveats come with these results. The first is that my simulation does not currently discriminate between home and road games, treating them all equally. I will probably build in an adjustment for this in the next edition of my playoff odds. The second is less clear-cut. Right now, all of my predictions are based on full-season data, so games in June count just as much as games in August. I am not sure if this is optimal or not, particularly in a league where players get promoted relatively frequently; when I do this again, I’ll consider weighting recent results more heavily. It clearly makes a difference in this race – Vermont is playing terribly of late, while the ValleyCats are hot. If you think recent results are more predictive than early-season games, you should consider Tri-City somewhat more likely to make the playoffs than these numbers, and the opposite for Vermont.
The ValleyCats shut out Connecticut last night, 6-0, as Vermont fell 4-3 to Lowell. The ValleyCats are now just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.
I’ll say that again: The ValleyCats are just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.
Back in July, Vermont’s lead over Tri-City was flirting with double digits, and it seemed impossible that the ‘Cats would have an interesting home stretch – most (especially I) thought they would settle for avoiding the basement for the first time since 2006, thanks to Lowell. Well, it now looks like this year’s ‘Cats might fully copy that 2006 team, which won the Stedler Division and made the playoffs.
Vermont’s nosedive in the standings certainly helped. The Lake Monsters have won just eight of their last 27 games, despite playing nine games against last-place teams and only five against teams currently above .500. Vermont, which hasn’t won consecutive games in four weeks, will need to right the ship as soon as possible if it wants to maintain its season-long hold on the division lead.
But it’s not as if the ValleyCats have just stood around while other teams fell. Instead, they’ve been playing extremely well over the past three weeks. Since losing a 13-inning thriller at Connecticut in Cooperstown, the ‘Cats have gone 15-8, including sweeps of Vermont and four of six in their most recent homestand. Only Jamestown has a better record than the ‘Cats this month.
And it’s not as if this is a fluky streak. The ValleyCats are near the middle of the pack in the NYPL record-wise, but after their recent hot stretch, they have the fourth-best run differential in the NYPL. Run differential is a better indicator of true talent, and a better predictor of future performance, than record. So, though it may be hard to believe, the ValleyCats have played like a playoff team in 2010. They have had an average offense but have allowed only 239 runs, fourth-best in the league despite playing in a hitters’ park.
Based on their runs scored and allowed, we would expect the ValleyCats to have a .553 record this season. But they’re still a game below .500 and 1.5 out in the division race, thanks to some poor luck in one-run games: Tri-City is 5-10 in such contests, worst in the league. (The ‘Cats also are further below .500 in extra innings than anyone else at 2-6.)
So the ‘Cats still have some ground to make up in the division. Fortunately, neither of the teams they are chasing is playing very well. Vermont has been outscored by 16 runs this month, bringing its season run differential down near zero despite an amazing start, and certainly looks headed in the wrong direction. And Connecticut is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Tri-City: it has a run differential of -34, better than only two other teams in the league, with a record bolstered by a 14-8 performance in one-run games. The main culprit for the Tigers has been a futile offense, which ranks last in runs scored.
A total of six head-to-head games remain within these teams: the ‘Cats have three left with Connecticut (two away), while the Tigers play three at Vermont. The Lake Monsters and Tri-City each have three remaining with Lowell, while Connecticut is done with the Spinners.
But for the most part, it looks like the McNamara Division will help settle this race. Vermont is least fortunate schedule-wise, with six games remaining against Brooklyn, but the others also have three games against the league’s top team. Tri-City has to play in Brooklyn, where the Cyclones have been much better this season (22-6 home, 16-14 road), but they also are the last three games of the season, so Brooklyn could rest some players and have less motivation, as it all but wrapped up a playoff spot a long time ago.
Of their other nine games against McNamara teams, the ValleyCats play six against Hudson Valley, which looks like the next-best in the division. But six of the nine (including three with Aberdeen) are at home. Connecticut is a little bit more fortunate, with six against Aberdeen and three home with Staten Island, while Vermont also plays three-game sets with Aberdeen and Staten Island but travels for both.
All things considered, the ValleyCats and Connecticut face a remarkably similar strength of schedule, while Vermont’s is noticeably more difficult (including nine straight on the road to finish the season). Given that the ValleyCats now look like the most talented team in the division, this should be a very interesting race. (See my playoff odds for more.)
Tri-City may also be picking up some help down the stretch: third-round draft pick Austin Wates signed on Monday and will join the ValleyCats tomorrow. College players can often struggle with the transition to pro ball – as those of us who saw Mike Kvasnicka’s first month in Troy know – but Wates has the potential to help this team. He was a terrific hitter in college and had one of the best bats in the entire draft, drawing raves from scouts and evaluators. His long-term position is an open question – second base seems most likely – but for the rest of this season he’ll probably be an outfielder, and he slots into left field nicely for the ValleyCats. (Update: see Evan’s profile of Wates.)
Fielding is hard to evaluate.
It is nearly impossible to judge defense without some level of subjectivity. Even the simplest defensive statistic, fielding percentage, relies on a scorer’s decision regarding whether a play would have been made with reasonable effort. More advanced statistics such as UZR attempt to take subjectivity out of the equation by comparing each hit with similar balls, and seeing how many fielders made those plays – but (to my knowledge) it makes other assumptions that are not always true, such as assuming that fielders begin from the same position and assuming that the batted-ball classification data is necessarily accurate.
While analysts have made tremendous improvement over the past five years or so, measuring individual defense remains an inexact science. It is even more so at the lower levels, where we don’t have nearly the data that MLB teams and fans have access to. Fans looking for information on a player’s fielding are limited to their own observation and fielding percentage, which at best paints a very crude picture and basically ignores a player’s range and ability to make difficult plays.
Fortunately, measuring team fielding is easier. In its simplest form, what is fielding about? It is about making plays: turning batted balls into outs.
That’s overly simplistic, and doesn’t account for many variables – double plays, stolen bases, preventing extra-base hits, passed balls and runners taking extra bases, to name a handful. But I think most would agree that the most important job of the fielders as a unit is to turn a batted ball into an out. And that characteristic is pretty easy to measure.
Strikeouts and walks are exclusively pitching stats – the fielders have essentially no say in whether or not those occur. (You could argue that a catcher’s ability to frame pitches could occasionally make the difference in those stats, but that’s a very, very weak effect at best.) Same with home runs – plays like this one aside, the fielders can usually only turn and watch as the ball goes over the fence.
But the balls hit in play? The defense has plenty of control over those. In theory, a perfect defense with lightning-fast players could turn every ball in play into an out. The worst possible defense could also never record an out on fair balls, never moving and dropping balls right at them. Actual teams, obviously, lie far from these extremes. Good-fielding teams will turn more balls into outs than poor ones, and we can measure this.
The statistic I just described is Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER), and if you’re already familiar with it, you skimmed through the last few paragraphs because you knew all that already. The formula is:
DER = 1 – ((H + Reach on Error – HR) / (PA – BB – SO – HBP – HR))
One caveat: MiLB does not keep data for “reach on error”. The only statistic available is total errors, which includes botched pickoff throws, throwing errors from the outfield, throwing errors on the back end of double plays and other plays that solely advance runners and don’t put runners on base. I estimated the number of errors that put an opposing batter on base as two-thirds of total errors (ROE = 2/3 * E).
So, which teams are best at converting balls in play into outs?
Despite the league’s fourth-best fielding percentage, the ValleyCats best only two other teams in defensive efficiency. This is what I expected when I started this – opposing hitters post good batting averages off Tri-City pitchers despite striking out often. Oscar Figueroa has great range when he plays short but neither Healey nor Orloff are anything to write home about in that respect – both are good defensively, but more for their hands than their range. Kiké has good range at second, especially to his left, but the ValleyCats have been breaking in a bunch of new players at third (Kvasnicka, Orloff, Figueroa), who don’t read balls as well off the bat yet. Adamson and Infante have great speed in the outfield, but the latter didn’t make good reads in center (a problem I’ve seen much less of since he moved back to left).
It’s important to keep these ratings in mind when evaluating pitchers – a ValleyCats hurler will see one fewer ball of 20 in play turned into an out than one on Williamsport.* The CrossCutters are 31-19 atop the Pinckney Division, in no small part because of arguably the league’s best defense. Williamsport comes to Troy tomorrow for a three-game series.
*Implied in that sentence was that getting outs in play is the full responsibility of the fielders. This is not a discussion I really want to fully get into here, but for those who might be unfamiliar with it: in the past decade of so, it has been generally accepted that major-league pitchers have little control over what happens to a ball in play. (An exception is that knuckleballers, submarine pitchers and other unconventional throwers usually allow fewer hits than standard pitchers.) Note that this has not been shown to be true or untrue at the minor-league level.
Note: all stats and records are as of before Sunday’s games.
Congrats to Tyler Burnett and Ben Orloff on being named New-York Penn League All-Stars! They will represent the ValleyCats at the All-Star Game in Staten Island next week. Burnett has been an offensive force, leading the ValleyCats with a .399 on-base percentage and reaching safely in each of his last 33 games. Orloff tops the ‘Cats with a .312 batting average and has spent significant time at three positions, making the team as a second baseman.
Evan and I were trying to predict who would be All-Stars last week, and we had a tough time paring down the field – there are a lot of ValleyCats with a good case to make the team. Some of the players that didn’t make the cut:
Carlos Quevedo should have made the All-Star team. The righty has walked only three batters in 56.2 innings – roughly half the rate of the next-best starter – and has 35 strikeouts to go along with it, for an insane 12.7 K/BB ratio. Quevedo has the fifth-best WHIP in the league at 0.99 and has thrown more innings than all but two other pitchers. He tossed six consecutive quality starts early in the year and has allowed more than two earned runs exactly once. He has a solid 3.34 ERA despite being a flyball pitcher in an extreme home run park. If that’s not an All-Star, I don’t know what is. (I think the All-Stars were selected before Quevedo’s most recent masterpiece – a two-run, 7.2-IP outing against Mahoning Valley – but he had a strong case regardless.)
So, why didn’t Quevedo get the call? The NYPL fell into the same trap that the big leagues do every year – it selected too many relievers. Of the 10 pitchers on the National League squad, only four are starters. In a league where almost all of the most talented pitchers are starters – even those who will end up in the bullpen at higher levels – this is absolutely ridiculous, and becomes even more so when you factor in the short nature of the season. Over six weeks and just 15-20 innings, you’re almost guaranteed to have several relievers end up with great statistics based on randomness alone. I know that all but one pitcher comes out of the bullpen in the actual All-Star game, but this game doesn’t count for anything – it is supposed to reward the best players and showcase the best talent. Having only four starting pitchers does neither. With only ten pitchers, there’s absolutely no reason to have more than three relievers on a team, four tops.
Since the All-Star selectors were so infatuated with relievers, one has to think that a couple members of Tri-City’s potent bullpen got strong consideration. In particular, Travis Blankenship and Jorge De Leon have been among the best relievers in the league this year; each has an ERA hovering around 0.50 with only one earned run. Now, ERA is not the best way to measure relievers – part of one’s job is to stop inherited runners from scoring, which does not show up in ERA – and each is partially responsible for a couple of unearned runs. Blankenship has a slightly better ERA but has struggled with command (13 K, 12 BB in 18.1 IP); De Leon has the “closer” label and four saves, plus the more impressive and entertaining stuff. All things considered, I’m not sure either rates as one of the top five relievers in the league, but they’re certainly worth a look.
Dan Adamson leads the team with a .839 OPS and also could have been an All-Star selection. He has blazing speed and great range in center, making him a defensive asset. He’s a four-tool player, and the one he lacks is the least important one – a throwing arm – who has hit four homers and 13 other extra-base hits this season. Adamson strikes out a lot but he squares balls up very well when he does make contact, and his .382 on-base percentage is very good. Adamson was unfortunate to be squeezed out by a plethora of great NL-affiliated center fielders, including (unofficial) midseason MVP Darrell Ceciliani and talented slugger Nick Longmire; sluggers Marcell Ozuna and Cory Vaughn, who are tied for the league lead with 12 homers, clearly earned spots. You could make a case that Adamson deserved the nod over Miguel Alvarez or possibly even Adalberto Santos, but it’s a close call either way and neither of their teams has many representatives either.
David Coleman had a nice profile of Adamson over at The Crawfish Boxes.
You could also make a case for Ben Heath as an All-Star – not too many catchers also lead their team in home runs, but Heath is two clear of Tri-City with six. His .248 average is not pretty but he’s patient, with 20 walks in 150 PA, which combined with his power makes him very valuable. Heath also fell victim to a strong class of peers. David Freitas is Ceciliani’s closest MVP candidate – and you could make an argument for him as more valuable, given his positional value – while Audry Perez is getting a hit every three at-bats as a backstop. Had three catchers been named, Heath of Williamsport’s Jeff Lanning would have been the final choice. (As it turned out, Heath would not have attended anyways – he was promoted to Lexington on Saturday. We wish him luck in the Sally League and wherever else he may go.)
The youngest ValleyCat, 18-year-old Kiké Hernandez, also had an All-Star case; Houston named him Tri-City’s Offensive Player of the Month for July (not sure how that didn’t go to Burnett, who hit for the same average with more power and walks, but still). Hernandez is a good second baseman and certainly has more pop than Orloff, who was selected as a second baseman; Hernandez has yet to go deep, but has 12 doubles and a triple to his credit. The All-Star selectors apparently preferred Orloff’s better average and on-base skills and defensive versatility over Hernandez’s power advantage.
All things considered, the National League affiliates are much more talented than the American League teams this year – NL affiliates are 194-145 in 2010 – which also hurt the case of some ValleyCats. The NL should be a fairly strong favorite in next week’s game.
Around the league: Vermont is in a major tailspin right now, one that contined with an 8-1 loss at Batavia on Saturday night. The Lake Monsters have won just three of their last 14 games and don’t seem on their way to turning things around. They’re still in first place in the Stedler Division, a half-game ahead of Connecticut, primarily on the strength of a 14-3 start and a soft midseason schedule. Since July 16, Vermont is 6-15 despite playing half its games against last-place teams (4x Lowell, 3x Auburn, 3x Staten Island) and another five against teams below .500 (Tri-City and Aberdeen).
Vermont won’t be as fortunate from here on out. Including last night’s game, the Lake Monsters head into the All-Star break with nine games against teams above .500 – Batavia, Jamestown and Hudson valley – six of which are on the road. After the All-Star Game, they have to play six games against the league’s best team, Brooklyn, and all six agaisnt Staten Island and Aberdeen are away. Four games with Lowell are the only solace; they also play three at home against Connecticut, which will be critical if they have any hope of turning things around to reach the playoffs.
That’s very good news for the Tigers, who have pretty consistently playing .500ish ball this season. Connecticut also has five more left with Brooklyn after last night’s extra-inning loss and travels to Jamestown later this week, but otherwise has an easier slate. It’s done with Hudson Valley; nine remain with Staten Island and Aberdeen, but six are at home. No more games remain against Lowell, whom the Tigers have swept twice; but they still have a home series with Pinckney bottom-feeder Auburn and four with the 21-27 ‘Cats. Connecicut is a half-game back right now and boasts a run differential 23 runs worse than Vermont’s, but given the remaining schedules and Vermont’s recent slide the Tigers have to be the Stedler Division favorites at this point.
Vermont’s collapse is also good news for the ValleyCats, but with a caveat. The ‘Cats certainly weren’t going to catch a Vermont team that was well above .500, so the Lake Monsters’ slide keeps their hopes alive. Tri-City has a better shot at catching Connecticut at the top of the division – the ValleyCats still have four games remaining with the Tigers and actually have a significantly better run differential this season despite being 4.5 games back. Their schedule is no picnic, but not terrible either; six against Hudson Valley and three with Williamsport will be tough, but they have three games remaining at Lowell and home against Staten Island and Aberdeen. Tri-City closes with three at Brooklyn, which appears brutal – the Cyclones are 21-4 at home this season – but Brooklyn may be looking ahead to the playoffs by that point, which might allow the ‘Cats to sneak out a game or two.
However, Vermont’s slide also affects the ‘Cats in some less-positive ways. Tri-City has no games remaining with the suddenly vulnerable Lake Monsters, and now seems unfortunate for drawing five games with the then-juggernaut in June. More importantly, once we realize that Vermont has been one of the worst teams in the league over the past three weeks, the ValleyCats’ recent performance just does not look all that impressive. Take away the Vermont sweeps and Tri-City is just 5-9 in its most recent games despite an easy schedule. The ‘Cats went 1-3 at Connecticut, 1-2 at Aberdeen, 2-1 home against Lowell (needing extra innings to avoid handing the Spinners their first series win of the year) and 1-3 on the current trip at Mahoning Valley and State College. Every single one of those teams has been outscored this season.
The ValleyCats have an opportunity here to make a run at the Stedler Division title, but they’ll have to play better than they have recently to make things interesting.
Believe it or not, the ‘Cats are now in the top half of the league in run differential, ahead of seven other teams. Only three have a worse record than the ValleyCats, suggesting some poor luck in Troy. (Through games of 8/7)
Today marks the midway point in the NY-Penn League season. 38 of the 76 scheduled games are remaining, although some teams have a couple more due to weather postponments. Tri-City has played 36 games and stands at 15-21. The ValleyCats seem certain to finish out of the cellar for the first time since 2006 – they’re already eight games up on 8-30 Lowell – but the record is still a bit of a disappointment to a team that has seemed inconsistent.
The pitching was scary good early in the year, while the offense was scary in a completely different sense, threatening the Mendoza line with a June batting average of .192. But both sides have gone closer to league-average levels. At the midway point, the ‘Cats are batting .243 and rank eighth in the league with 170 runs scored. Their ERA is up to 4.08, and only four of the league’s 14 teams have allowed more than their 179 runs.
Quite a few ValleyCats have heated up in the past week or two. Mike Kvasnicka was batting just .152 and slugging .207 ten days ago, but has been on fire for the past week. In his last eight games, Kvasnicka is batting 15-for-36 (.417) with two homers, six extra-base hits and 11 RBI.
A couple of reserves have earned more playing time with recent hot streaks. Tonight’s DH Buck Afenir has gone 5-for-11 in the team’s last ten games to raise his season batting average to .314. Afenir’s biggest hit came at Cooperstown on Saturday, when his pinch-hit double in the ninth inning brought home Dan Adamson with the game-tying run. Shortstop Jacke Healey had only four hits on the season at the start of last week, but homered in back-to-back games against Brooklyn and Aberdeen, then had consecutive two-hit games at Vermont over the weekend.
Kiké Hernandez has been unstoppable for the entire month of July. The second baseman hit just .152 in the first month of the season but has hit safely in 20 of 21 games this month, upping his season average to .295.
Here’s a look at where everybody in the NYPL stands thus far, sorted by run differential:
The last column represents the number of games Tri-City has remaining against each team. As you can see, the schedule was pretty front-loaded, and the ValleyCats will generally face easier opponents from here on out. That starts with a three-game home series against Lowell tonight – the Spinners come in having lost 13 of their last 14 contests. Only 14 of the ‘Cats’ 39 remaining games come against teams that currently have a positive run differential. (Note: this assumes they will not make up the rained-out game against Jamestown, which will only be played if it has playoff implications at the end of the season.)
The ValleyCats have unlucky this year – we would have expected them to win 17 games based on their run differential, when they are actually 15-21. And they’ve faced a tough schedule to this point, playing a lot of games against the league’s better teams. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the ValleyCats to play .500 or even a bit better in the second half.
Their playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Brooklyn currently has the league’s best record, at 25-13. If the ValleyCats played like the league’s best team in the second half, they would finish at 41-35 or so. Five teams are currently on pace to have a better record than that, and another two aren’t far behind. So even if the ‘Cats play .650 ball from here on out – which only one team did in the first half – they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.
But that doesn’t mean the season is lost. The ValleyCats seem very likely to post their best record since 2006, and may be able to reach .500 by the end of the season. For a team that seemed incapable of scoring a run one month ago, that wouldn’t be a bad ending.
The ‘Cats got a big win tonight, thrashing Auburn 11-2 to snap a three-game skid. Tyler Burnett had a monster night, going 3-for-3 with a homer, a double and two walks; his 19 bases on balls rank second in the New York-Penn League. Ben Heath added a homer and a double, while Mike Kvasnicka notched his first extra-base hit since Opening Day. Tri-City pounded out 15 hits and didn’t commit an error while turning three double plays. Carlos Quevedo posted his fifth consecutive quality start, allowing two runs in six innings for his second victory of the season.
The 11 runs marked a season high for the ValleyCats this season. They also set another milestone you may not have noticed: with the blowout victory, the ‘Cats have now scored more runs on the season (112) than they have allowed (111).
That’s right, Tri-City has outscored its opponents this year. You would not expect that from the standings, however: the ‘Cats stand at 10-15 (.400), ahead of only two other teams in the NYPL.
It has generally been accepted in baseball (and in most other sports) that run (or point) differential is a better indicator of a team’s true ability than winning percentage. This is because the binary of “win” vs “loss” tells us relatively little about how well a team played in a given game. Run differential helps us get a better picture – a team that wins by 9 runs generally had a better performance than a team that won by one run. Over a larger sample, wins and losses cumulatively give us a pretty good picture of a team’s talent, but run differential will usually tell a more complete story.
Run differential and winning percentage often agree, but there are times when they don’t, such as for the ValleyCats this season. Based on run differential, we would expect Tri-City to be about .500; instead, they’re .400. Generally, difference between expected and actual winning percentage is chalked up to the vague term “luck”.
There is one factor, unique to baseball, that often explains the difference between expected and actual winning percentage: bullpen performance. If a team’s bullpen is lousy, it might lose more than its share of close games, which would hurt its winning percentage more than its run differential. However, it is easy to see that this theory does not fit the ValleyCats this year. The Tri-City bullpen has been far from weak; it has been outstanding, with a 2.68 ERA. I can’t find any sortable stats for bullpens around the NYPL, but the league-average ERA is 3.92, and the best pitching staff (Vermont) is at 2.75. Even after allowing for the fact that relievers generally have a lower ERA than starters, the ‘Cats have still had an excellent bullpen.
So, if anything, we would expect the ValleyCats to be overperforming their run differential, instead of playing well below it. Without any other likely explanation, I have to conclude that the ‘Cats have simply suffered some bad luck, and they’re more likely to play like a .500 team than a .400 team going forward.
Looking at run differential, there are a few clear-cut tiers in the NYPL:
Jamestown, Brooklyn and Vermont sure seem to have separated themselves from the pack. Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division, while the other two currently lead by small margins and should be expected to pull away. But the race for the fourth-best team is a real mess; according to run differential, 15-11 Williamsport is no better than 10-15 Tri-City. There are eight teams who are a good or bad game away from a zero run differential, which is awfully rare. Then the two Valley teams are a clear cut below, with Lowell unsurprisingly bringing up the rear.
Sabermetric pioneer Bill James devised a method of predicting winning percentage from run differential called the Pythagorean Expectation. The equation, which has held up well over the two or three decades since its inception, is fairly simple:
Expected WP% = RS-squared / (RS-squared + RA-squared)
A team who has allowed as many runs as it has scored would be expected to have a winning percentage of .500, and the results are similarly intuitive for other inputs (basically, the marginal value of each extra run has less and less effect on winning percentage).
So, compared to their Pythagorean expectation, which teams have been the luckiest and unluckiest? You won’t be surprised by the bottom team (positive = lucky; negative = unlucky).
According to run differential, Tri-City is basically as talented as any other team in the league, save the top three. The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite this good news – their recent bad fortune has left them 4.5 games back and behind seven other teams in the wild-card race, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome under any circumstances. But if their run-scoring and run-allowing rates stay roughly the same, the ValleyCats seem likely to win a bit more frequently than they have thus far.
The New York-Penn League is celebrating its 72nd year of operation in style. You, the fans, can help the league select the All-Time team of the oldest continually-operated Class-A league in baseball.
“This league has such a great history and it’s something we wanted to celebrate,” said league president Ben J. Hayes. “Over 2,400 players who have played in the NYPL have gone on to appear in Major League Baseball, from Hall-of-Famers like Jim Rice and Tony Perez to present day stars such as Ryan Howard, Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia. Back in 1960 the Geneva (NY) Redlegs had both Tony Perez and Pete Rose on the same team.”
Some of the other players on the list include: AJ Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Phil Niekro, Al Leiter, Randy Johnson, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Isringhausen, Jorge Posada, Carlos Delgado, Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez, Wade Boggs, Kenny Lofton, and Bernie Williams.
The New York-Penn League All-Time Team is presented by the 300,000 members of CSEA – New York’s leading union. “CSEA is proud to be associated with the New York-Penn League and its rich history in our region,” said CSEA President Danny Donohue. “CSEA is marking our centennial anniversary in 2010, which makes it natural to be involved in a project that provides historical perspective. CSEA’s centennial provides a chance to reflect on where we’ve come from and how we can become better in the future – it’s a lot like what the New York Penn-League is all about.”
The New York-Penn League All-Time Team will be chosen by fan voting online at http://www.VoteNYPL.com through August 1, 2010. In addition to choosing players at each position, fans will also have a voice in picking a manager of the team.
More information can be found at the New York-Penn League website. The NYPL All-Time Team will be unveiled at the league’s All-Star game in Staten Island on August 17.
Evan Valenti’s All-Time Selections:
Pitcher (Right Handed):
Phil Niekro – He’s a HOF’er. Enough said.
Curt Schilling – This was a tough one. I went back and forth between Schill and Doc Gooden. It was a toss up until I got to the post-season numbers. Gooden went 0-4 in October with a 3.97 ERA, while Schilling, who’s considered one of the best post-season pitchers of all time, was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA. Schilling also has two rings. Gooden has one.
Pitching (Left Handed):
Randy Johnson – This was another easy one. Johnson is one of the most dominant pitchers of all time, and did most of his damage during the “Steroid Era.” He won the Cy Young five times, went over 300 strikeouts five times, and is second all time in punch outs.
Johan Santana – Again, another toss up (probably won’t be the last time I say this). This time it was a head-to-head showdown between Johan and C.C. Sabathia. Both of them have very similar numbers. Santana has a better ERA and more strikeouts in just one more season than C.C.
Billy Wagner – One of the best closers in baseball history. Ranks fifth in saves all-time, won the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year in 1999, and has rekindled some of his old magic so far this season with the Braves. And it’s always nice to have a lefty come out of the pen.
Kent Telkuve – Deciding who gets the final slot with these pitchers has been tough. I had narrowed it down to Telkuve, Jason Isringhausen, and Jonathan Papelbon, but I eliminated Paps right off the bat because he hasn’t been playing for that long. After having a brief discussion with Assistant GM Vic Christopher, I picked Telkuve because of his durability. He made 70 or more appearances ten times and logged over 100 innings seven times. Posting a 2.85 ERA over a 16-year career doesn’t hurt either.
Jorge Posada – This was the first no-brainer. Posada is still an offensive threat, even though his durability behind the plate is now in question. He has the best offensive numbers out of all the catchers, besides Victor Martinez, and has played many more seasons than V-Mart. He was the guy behind the plate for the last four Yankee championships.
Andres Galarraga – Beats out Tony Perez, a HOF’er, and Ryan Howard. Won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger twice. One year he hit .370. Let me say that again. .370. Also, in 1997 he hit 47 homers and had 150 RBI.
Pete Rose – I don’t care if he bet on baseball, he is one of the best pure hitters of all-time. Charlie Hustle is first all time in the following categories: hits, at-bats, games played, plate appearances, and singles.
Robin Yount – Another HOF’er. Two-time MVP, three-time Silver Slugger winner, and won one Gold Glove. After it is all said and done, Hanley Ramirez could dethrone the Milwaukee legend.
Wade Boggs – Multiple Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner. He appeared in 12 straight All-Star games and won a World Series with the Yankees in 1996. Considered one of the best hitting third basemen ever, Boggs hit above .320 11 times. Oh and did I mention he’s in the Hall of Fame?
Jim Rice – Played his entire 16-year career with the Boston Red Sox. He led the American League in home runs three times and was top-five in a lot of other categories during his tenure. His numbers won’t blow you away, like Moises Alou and Larry Walker, but Rice was one of the most consistent players in his era. He was finally selected to the Hall of Fame in 2009.
Bernie Williams – Bern baby Bern. In the grand scheme of Yankee legends, Bernie is not at the top of anyone’s list, but was a huge reason why the Bombers were so successful in the 90’s. Always hit around .300, 15-20 homers, and was a great defensive center fielder. He also plays a mean blues guitar.
Miguel Cabrera – Last, but not least, we have Miggy. He plays first base for the Tigers now, but he came up as an outfielder for the Florida Marlins. I’m going to speculate that by the time Cabrera retires that he will have the best offensive numbers out of anyone on the outfielder list. The guy is a dynamo. He hits around .320 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Not too many people in the majors today can do that.
Earl Weaver – Won 100 or more games five times. He had a winning record 16 times of his 17-year career with the Orioles.