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Daily Box Score 8/12: Tooling For the Stretch


Don't look now, but there is only about a month and a half of baseball left before the playoffs. That means teams are setting their rotations, acquiring bit parts and preparing for roster expansion. It's an exciting time that involves many decisions, so today's box score will attempt to help teams sort things out for the last quarter-season.

Table of Contents

Figuring Out Where You Stand
Home Field Advantage and Strength of Schedule
Switch Hitting and Platooning
Keeping the Staff Intact
Discussion Question of the Day


Figuring Out Where You Stand

Teams probably should have decided whether they were contenders or pretenders before the trading deadline. But they may be looking at their won/loss records and not be entirely sure how to interpret them. Maybe the stat-savvy teams are looking at their Pythagenpat records. But Baseball Analyst Sky Andrecheck has some advice for them on how to size up their team. He finds an equation that best predicts a team record going forward:

Remaining WPCT = .173*(Current WPCT) + .194*(Pythag WPCT) + .365*(RC WPCT) + .135.

Where Pythag WPCT is the Pythagorean expectation based on runs scored versus runs allowed and RC WPCT is an expectation based on Bill James' Runs Created metric. I find it very interesting that model that gives almost as much weight to current win percentage as to Pythagorean win percentage has the best fit. It just goes to show you how imperfect even nominal runs scored and runs allowed are, and I think validates the fine work that Justin does.

Home Field Advantage and Strength of Schedule

Of course, an important factor to include is not only a context-neutral estimate of a team's win percentage but also its remaining strength of schedule and home field advantage. In his new article at Baseball Prospectus, Matt Swartz has some enlightening work on the latter topic. He is somewhat baffled as to why home field teams perform so much better than road teams (.542 WPCT over the last ten seasons). His conclusion:

The extra home-field advantage in the first three innings strongly suggests comfort and familiarity are significant factors in home-field advantage. The large effects within the strike zone indicate that the mound and the batter’s eye are things that pitchers and hitters are more comfortable with at home. The extra triples surrendered on the road strongly suggest an impact of stadium familiarity in home-field advantage. The extra stolen bases indicate reaction time may also be playing a role. All of these numbers together indicate a large significance of mental aspects that are not quite emotional, but affect things like eyesight, reaction time, and learning about the home turf.

It's fascinating stuff, and in the absence of other explanations I think it has to be the correct explanation. I especially recommend those of you with subscriptions look at his inning by inning home field advantage table, as it shows home teams do especially well in the early innings. The advantage shrinks to 6.5% by the 8th inning.

Strength of schedule is also an important factor, as many teams have soft schedules remaining that they can chew through with relative ease. I would guess the difference between the hardest schedule and easiest schedule is about a win over the rest of the season. You can check out for some interesting numbers for the NL and the AL. The National League teams with the softest remaining schedules are the Carindals, Cubs, Braves and Phillies. The American League team with the softest schedule by far are the Minnesota Twins. Could they make September interesting in Minneapolis?

Switch Hitting and Platooning

I hope you all recognize the value of switch hitters and platoons, as both negate the platoon advantage, which can be worth as much as .27 wOBA points. A few team-specific blogs have recently begun to ask questions about these techniques. 

USS Mariner's Derek Zumsteg recently wondered if Don Wakamatsu wasn't pinch hitting often enough, even after considering that pinch hitters suffer a penalty in both OBP and wOBA:

I know Don’s not a big pinch-hitting guy, and there’s probably some clubhouse/intangible/whatever justification for why. But I just do not care. The team’s wasting high-leverage opportunities late in games where they have to get hits to avoid taking the loss, and it’s driving me batty. If — as we’re to believe by all accounts — Wakamatsu is a great people manager, those moments are where he can spend that credit to the team’s best advantage. And isn’t Sweeney supposed to be the consummate professional and teammate, willing to sacrifice for the team?

I've always thought how intelligently a manager pinch hit and platooned players was one of the best proxies for manager quality. It sounds as though Wakamatsu's unwillingness to tinker with the lineup is hurting the Mariners' chances at the Wild Card spot.

Now we all know that the smart move against a lefthanded pitcher is to pack the lineup with righties. Isn't it? Maybe not, says River Ave Blues' Mike Axisa:

In most cases, that’s probably a good idea, but not this time. Why, you ask? Well, that’s because [Ricky] Romero’s change-up is his bread and butter, his put away pitch. As you probably already know, pitchers use off-speed pitches such as change-ups and splitters to neutralize batters of the opposite hand because those pitches tend to fade down and away from those batters. Romero has thrown his change 22.8% of the time this year, by far the most of his secondary pitches.

He also notes that Romero displayed a reverse platoon split in the minor leagues. I would add that he probably doesn't have a reverse platoon split (even if he displayed one in the past). If you regress him back to league average for lefties, he probably ends up being platoon-neutral, which would suggest the best play for Joe Girardi would be to play the best hitters regardless of handedness. I hope you were sitting down for that startling realization.

What about switch hitters? They're great! They never face the platoon disadvantage--they're like handedness super robots! (Ambidextron?) But if that were true, why wouldn't every hitter try being a switch hitter? The truth is, some players who are switch hitters are so bad from one side that they would be just as well off if they stayed on one side of the dish. At DRaysBay, RJ argues that Dioner Navarro is one such player:

Only 395 plate appearances against lefties with OPS nearly .100 points higher. He's obviously got a better power stroke from the right side. We've got enough of a left-handed sample to derive his ability is rather poor. Could he become worse against righties if he hits only from the right side? Maybe, but it's not like he's hitting them well as a lefty anyways.

You can see his splits over at the link. I'm not sure we can say for sure, and it may be the case that Navarro began switch hitting precisely because he was especially dreadful against righties as a righty. 

Keeping the Staff Intact

Of course, you want to make sure your pitchers are both healthy and rested. As for healthy, I highly recommend Al Leiter's explanation, based on their mechanics, of why Edinson Volquez and Brandon Webb broke down this year. The video from MLB Network is here.

And what do you do when one of your top pitchers is sidelined for a start or two with injury, as Joe Torre's Dodgers have now lost Chad Billingsley? Why, you call up a knuckleballer, duh! That's right, sportsfans, Charlie Haeger (who had a 3.55 ERA on the year at Triple-A) has been added to the roster. Torre isn't worried about finding a catcher for him:

Torre said he wasn't concerned about who would catch Haeger and the knuckleball, saying he believes backup Brad Ausmus has an oversized catcher's mitt. Torre, a former catcher, said he wasn't volunteering to come out of retirement.

"My catching a knuckleball was so good the Braves went out and got Bob Uecker, which hastened the end of his playing career and he became a broadcaster," said Torre. "I feel responsible for making him a broadcaster."

Does that mean Brad Ausmus might soon be a broadcaster? I'm not sure how that would work out.

Discussion Question of the Day

By the way, I don't have anything to say about last night's Youkilis/Porcello fight that hasn't already been said by Plunk Everyone:

Then later in the next inning, Rick Porcello hit Kevin Youkilis and that was the 5,925th time a batter born in Ohio was hit by a pitch. Youk was so excited by this, he wanted to celebrate and rushed out to the mound yelling "5925 for Ohio! WOoooOO! Give me a hug!" and Rick Porcello yelled "That's ridiculous! I'm uncomfortable with your affection! And that's not even a round number, why are you so excited about an arbitrary milestone like 5,925?" and the fans yelled "Yoouuuuuuuk" (because they do that no matter what he does), and his manager yelled "This is the inappropriate time and place to celebrate!".

The author of that blog does excellent work.

On to today's question. What are the best things a team can do to prepare for the mad dash to the playoffs? Can you think of specific players who should be called up when rosters expand? Platoons that could be utilized?

Let me know what you think.