Wheelers and Dealers, Part 2

Posted: October 21, 2014 in Bullpen Management, In-game strategy, Managers, Pitching

Note: “Guy,” a frequent participant on The Book Blog, pointed out an error I have been making in calculating the expected RA9 for starters. I have been using their season RA9 as the baseline, and then adjusting for context. That is wrong. I must consider the RA9 of the first 6 innings and then subtract that from the seasonal RA9. For example if a group of pitchers has a RA9 for the season of 4.40 and they have a RA9 of 1.50 for the first 6 innings, if they average 150 IP for the season, our baseline adjusted expectation for the 7th inning, not considering any effects from pitch count, TTOP, manager’s decision to let them continue, etc., is 73.3 (number of runs allowed over 150 IP for the season) minus 1 run for 6 innings, or 72.3 runs over 144 innings, which is an expected RA9 of 4.52, .12 runs higher than the seasonal RA9 of 4.40.

The same goes for the starters who have gotten shelled through 6. Their adjusted expected RA9 for any other time frame, e.g., the 7th inning, is a little lower than 4.40 if 4.40 is their full-season RA9. How much lower depends on the average number of runs allowed in those 6 innings. If it is 4, then we have 73.3 – 4, or 69.3, divided by 144, times 9, or 4.33.

So I will adjust all my numbers to the tune of .14 runs up for dealing pitchers and .07 down for non-dealing pitchers. The exact adjustments might vary a little from these, depending on the average number of runs allowed over the first 6 innings in the various groups of pitchers I looked at.

The other day I wrote that pitcher performance though 6 innings, as measured solely by runs allowed, is not a good predictor of performance in the 7th inning. Whether a pitcher is pitching a shutout or has allowed 4 runs thus far, his performance in the 7th is best projected mostly by his full-season true talent level plus a times through the order penalty of around .33 runs per 9 innings (the average batter faced in the 7th inning appears for the 3rd time). Pitch count has a small effect on those late inning projections as well.

Obviously if you have allowed no or even 1 run through 6 your component results will tend to be much better than if you have allowed 3 or 4 runs, however there is going to be some overlap. Some small proportion of 0 or 1 run starters will have allowed a HR, 6 or 7 walks and hits, and few if any strikeouts. Similarly, some small percentage of pitchers who allow 3 or 4 runs through 6 will have struck out 7 or 8 batters and only allowed a few hits and walks.

If we want to know whether pitching ”well” or not through 6 innings has some predictive value for the 7th (and later) inning, it is better to focus on things that reflect the pitcher’s raw performance than simply runs allowed. It is an established fact that pitchers have little control over whether their non-HR batted balls fall for hits or outs or whether their hits and walks get “clustered” to produce lots of runs or are spread out such that few if any runs are scored.

It is also established that the components most under control by a pitcher are HR, walks, and strikeouts, and that pitchers who excel at the K, and limit walks and HR tend to be the most talented, and vice versa. It also follows that when a pitcher strikes out a lot of batters in a game and limits his HR and walks total that he is pitching “well,” regardless of how many runs he has allowed – and vice versa.

Accordingly, I have extended my inquiry into whether pitching “well” or not has some predictive value intra-game to focus on in-game FIP rather than runs allowed.  My intra-game FIP is merely HR, walks, and strikeouts per inning, using the same weights as are used in the standard FIP formula – 13 for HR, 3 for walks and 2 for strikeouts.

So, rather than defining dealing as allowing 1 or fewer runs through 6 and not dealing as 3 or more runs, I will define the former as an FIP through 6 innings below some maximum threshold and the latter as above some minimum threshold. Although I am not nearly convinced that managers and pitching coaches, and certainly not the casual fan, look much further than runs allowed, I think we can all agree that they should be looking at these FIP components instead.

Here is the same data that I presented in my last article, this time using FIP rather than runs allowed to differentiate pitchers who have been pitching very well through 6 innings or not.

Pitchers who have been dealing or not through 6 innings – how they fared in the 7th

Starters through 6 innings Avg runs allowed through 6 # of Games RA9 in the 7th inning
Dealing (FIP less than 3 through 6) 1.02 5,338 4.39
Not-dealing (FIP greater than 4) 2.72 3,058 5.03

The first thing that should jump out at you is while our pitchers who are not pitching well do indeed continue to pitch poorly, our dealing pitchers, based upon K, BB, and HR rate over the first 6 innings, are not exactly breaking the bank either in the 7th inning.

Let’s put some context into those numbers.

Pitchers who have been dealing or not through 6 innings – how they fared in the 7th

Starters through 6 innings True talent level based on season RA9 Expected RA9 in 7th RA9 in the 7th inning
Dealing (FIP less than 3 through 6) 4.25 4.50 4.39
Not-dealing (FIP greater than 4) 4.57 4.62 5.03

As you can see, our new dealing pitchers are much better pitchers. They normally allow 4.25 runs per game during the season. Yet they allow 4.39 runs in the 7th despite pitching very well through 6, irrespective of runs allowed (and of course they allow few runs too). In other words, we have eliminated those pitchers who allowed few runs but may have actually pitched badly or at least not as well as their meager runs allowed would suggest. All of these dealing pitchers had some combination of high K rates, and low BB and HR rates through 6 innings. But still, we see only around .1 runs per 9 in predictive value – not significantly different from zero or none.

On the other hand, pitchers who have genuinely been pitching badly, at least in terms of some combination of a low K rate and high BB and HR rates, do continue to pitch around .4 runs per 9 innings worse than we would expect given their true talent level and the TTOP.

There is one other thing that is driving some of the difference. Remember that in our last inquiry we found that pitch count was a factor in future performance. We found that while pitchers who only had 78 pitches through 6 innings pitched about as well as expected in the 7th, pitchers with an average of 97 pitches through 6 performed more than .2 runs worse than expected.

In our above 2 groups, the dealing pitchers averaged 84 pitches through 6 and the non-dealing 88, so we expect some bump in the 7th inning performance of the latter group because of a touch of fatigue, at least as compared to the dealing group.

So when we use a more granular approach to determining whether pitchers have been dealing through 6, there is not any evidence that it has much predictive value – the same thing we concluded when we looked at runs allowed only. These pitchers only pitches .11 runs per 9 better than expected.

On the other hand, if pitchers have been pitching poorly for 6 innings, as reflected in the components in which they exert the most control, K, BB, and HR rates, they do in fact pitch worse than expected, even after accounting for a slight elevation in pitch count as compared to the dealing pitchers. That decrease in performance is about .4 runs per 9.

I also want to take this time to state that based on this data and the data from my previous article, there is little evidence that managers are able to identify when pitchers should stay in the game or should be removed. We are only looking at pitchers who were chosen to continue pitching in the 7th inning by their managers and coaches. Yet, the performance of those pitchers is worse than their seasonal numbers, even for the dealing pitchers. If managers could identify those pitchers who were likely to pitch well, whether they had pitched well in prior innings or not, clearly we would see better numbers from them in the 7th inning. At best a dealing pitcher is able to mitigate his TTOP, and a non-dealing pitcher who is allowed to pitch the 7th pitches terribly, which does not bode well for the notion that managers know whom to pull and and whom to keep in the game.

For example, in the above charts, we see that dealing pitchers threw .14 runs per 9 worse than their seasonal average – which also happens to be exactly at league average levels. The non-dealing pitchers, who were also deemed fit to continue by their managers, pitched almost ½ run worse than their seasonal performance and more than .6 runs worse than the league average pitcher. Almost any reliever in the 7th inning would have been a better alternative than either the dealing or non-dealing pitchers. Once again, I have yet to see some concrete evidence that the ubiquitous cry from some of the sabermetric naysayers, “Managers know more about their players’ performance prospects than we do,” has any merit whatsoever.

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