As an addendum to my article on platoon splits from a few days ago, I want to give you a simple trick for answering a question about a player, such as, “Given that a player performs X in time period T, what is the average performance we can expect in the future (or present, which is essentially the same thing, or at least a subset of it)?” and want to illustrate the folly of using unusual single-season splits for projecting the future.
The trick is to identify as many players as you can in some period of time in the past (the more, the better, but sometimes the era matters so you often want to restrict your data to more recent years) that conform to the player in question in relevant ways, and then see how they do in the future. That always answers your question as best as it can. The certainty of your answer depends upon the sample size of the historical performance of similar players. That is why it is important to use as many players and as many years as possible, without causing problems by going too far back in time.
For example, say you have a player whom you know nothing about other than that he hit .230 in one season of 300 AB. What do you expect that he will hit next year? Easy to answer. There are thousands of players who have done that in the past. You can look at all of them and see what their collective BA was in their next season. That gives you your answer. There are other more mathematically rigorous ways to arrive at the same answer, but much of the time the “historical similar player method” will yield a more accurate answer, especially when you have a large sample to work with, because it captures all the things that your mathematical model may not. It is real life! You can’t do much better than that!
You can of course refine your “similar players” comparative database if you have more information about the player in question. He is left-handed? Use only left-handers in your comparison. He is 25? Use only 25-year olds. What if you have so much information about the player in question that your “comp pool” starts to be too small to have a meaningful sample size (which only means that the certainty of your answer decreases, but not necessarily the accuracy)? Let’s say that he is 25, left-handed, 5’10” and 170 pounds, he hit .273 in 300 AB, and you want to include all of these things in your comparison. That obviously will not apply to too many players in the past. Your sample size of “comps” will be small. In that case, you can use players between the ages of 24 and 26, between 5’9” and 5’11”, weigh between 160 and 180, and hit .265-283 in 200 to 400 AB. It doesn’t have to be those exact numbers, but as long as you are not biasing your sample compared to the player in question, you should arrive at an accurate answer to your question.
What if we do that with a .230 player in 300 AB? I’ll use .220 to .240 and between 200 and 400 AB. We know intuitively that we have to regress the .230 towards the league average around 60 or 65%, which will yield around .245 as our answer. But we can do better using actual players and actual data. Of course our answer depends on the league average BA for our player in question and the league average BA for the historical data. Realistically, we would probably use something like BA+ (BA as compared to league-average batting average) to arrive at our answer. Let’s try it without that. I looked at all players who batted in that range from 2010-2014 in 200-400 AB and recorded their collective BA the next year. If I wanted to be a little more accurate (for this question it is probably not necessary), I might weight the results in year 2 by the AB in year 1, or use the delta method, or something like that.
If I do that for just 5 years, 2010-2015, I get 49 players who hit a collective .230 in year 1 in an average of 302 AB. The next year, they hit a collective .245, around what we would expect. That answers our question, “What would a .230 hitter in 300 AB hit next year, assuming he were allowed to play again (we don’t know from the historical data what players who were not allowed to play would hit)?”
What about .300 in 400 AB? I looked at all players from .280 to .350 in year 1 and between 300 and 450 AB. They hit a collective .299 in year 1 and .270 in year 2. Again, that answers the question, “What do we expect Player A to hit next year if he hit .300 this year in around 400 AB?”
For Siegrest with the -47 reverse split, we can use the same method to answer the question, “What do we expect his platoon split to be in the future given 230 TBF versus lefties in the past?” That is such an unusual split that we might have to tweak the criteria a little and then extrapolate. Remember that asking the question, “What do we expect Player A to do in the future?” is almost exactly the same thing as asking, “What is his true talent with respect to this metric?”
I am going to look at only one season for pitchers with around 200 BF versus lefties even though Siegrest’s 230 TBF versus lefties was over several seasons. It should not make much difference as the key is the number of lefty batters faced. I included all left-handed pitchers with at least 150 TBF versus LHB who had a reverse wOBA platoon difference of more than 10 points and pitched again the next year. Let’s see how they do, collectively, in the next year.
There were 76 of such pitchers from 2003-1014. They had a collective platoon differential of -39 points, less than Siegrest’s -47 points, in an average of 194 TBF versus LHB, also less than Siegrest’s 231. But, we should be in the ballpark with respect to estimating Siegrest’s true splits using this “in vivo” method. How did they do in the next year, which is a good proxy (an unbiased estimate) for their true splits?
In year 2, they had an average TBF versus lefties of 161, a little less than the previous year, which is to be expected, and their collective platoon splits were plus plus 8.1 points. So they went from -39 to plus 8.1 in one season to the next because one season of reverse splits is mostly a fluke as I explained in my previous article on platoon splits. 21 points is around the average for LHB with > 150 TBF v. lefties in this time period, so these pitchers moved 47 points from year 1 to year 2, out of a total of 60 points from year 1 to league average. That is a 78% regression toward the mean, around what we estimated Siegrest’s regression should be (I think it was 82%). That suggests that our mathematical model is good since it creates around the same result as when we used our “real live players” method.
How much would it take to estimate a true reverse split for a lefty? Let’s look at some more numbers. I’ll raise the bar to lefty pitchers with at least a 20 point reverse split. There were only 57 in those 12 years of data. They had a collective split in year 1 of -47, just like Siegrest, in an average of 191 TBF v. LHB. How did they do in year 2, which is the answer to our question of their true split? Plus 6.4 points. That is a 78% regression, the same as before.
What about pitchers with at least a 25 point reverse split? They averaged -51 points in year 1. Can we get them to a true reverse split? Nope. Not even close.
What if we raise the sample size bar? I’ll do at least 175 TBF and -15 reverse split in year 1. Only 45 lefty pitchers fit this bill and they had a -43 point split in year 1 in 209 TBF v. lefties. Next year? Plus 2.8 points! Close but no cigar. There is of course an error bar around only 45 pitchers with 170 TBF v. lefties in year 2, but we’ll take those numbers on faith since that’s what we got. That is a 72% regression with 208 TBF v. lefties, which is about what we would expect given that we have a slightly larger sample size than before.
So please, please, please, when you see or hear of a pitcher with severe reverse splits in 200 or so BF versus lefties, which is around a full year for a starting pitcher or 2 or 3 years for a reliever, remember that our best estimate of their true platoon splits, or what his manager should expect when he sends him out there, is very, very different from what those actual one or three year splits suggest when those actual splits are very far away from the norm. Most of that unusual split, in either direction – almost all of it in fact – is likely a fluke. When we say “likely” we also mean that we must assume that it is a fluke and that we must also assume that the true number is the weighted mean of all the possibilities, which are those year 2 numbers, or year 1 (or multiple years) heavily regressed toward the league average.