Thursday, 6 June 2013

Weird Numbers

I will start with a question: based on the two seasons of pitching below, who would you rather have?
If you know or care what these stats mean, you might have one of three reactions:
1. I will take the first pitcher - he gives up fewer home runs and has a better FIP
2. I will take the second pitcher - he strikes out more batters and walks fewer batters!
3. I will take both and probably make the playoffs - these guys are both aces.

By these so-called "advanced" stats, these two seasons are not that different. Now let's play that game again:
Pitcher 1: 22-3 over 223 IP in 31 starts.
Pitcher 2: 6-9 over 211 IP in 30 starts.

Now, it's a no-brainer, right? You take pitcher 1. It's not even close.

I think I'm too obvious to actually "blow your mind" here, but... pitcher 1 in the two sets of data is the same! Pitcher 2 in both sets of data is the same! Woah!

Pitcher 1 is Cliff Lee in 2008.
Pitcher 2 is Cliff Lee in 2012.

Cliff Lee was a mediocre pitcher until 2008. In 2008 or slightly before, something clicked. Cliff Lee became a possibly superhuman low-walk control freak of a pitcher, went 22-3 and led the league with a 2.54 ERA.

Since then, he has had a pretty interesting career. Interesting in the way that he has had unique and strange things happen to him, and unique and strange statistics to show for himself.

Cliff Lee is 34 this year and has 2 more years remaining on the 5 year / $120 million deal he signed with the Phillies, back when Roy Halladay still had a shoulder, Chase Utley still had a hip, and Ryan Howard wasn't Old (more on him later). Cliff Lee won 6 games last year. He wasn't injured. His contract is considered to be fairly team friendly - that is, he is still regarded as a top-shelf pitcher.

So... wha happened?

Well, I would first like to mention other things that are strange about Lee's career, and career numbers. This might turn into a rant about the Win as a statistic, but I'm going to try to be careful.

Lee was traded three times in one year, the first time as the reigning (and deserving) AL Cy Young winner:
July 29, 2009: Traded by Cleveland with nobody* to Philly for nobody*.
December 16, 2009: Traded by Philly** to Seattle for nobody*
July 9, 2010: Traded by Seattle to Texas for nobody*

*nobody who has ever done anything good enough to matter in MLB
** Who decided that they wanted Roy Halladay instead. But then re-found and signed Lee to a 5-year deal after the 2010 season to create the Best Rotation Of All Time***
***Which didn't quite work out for them.

Each time he was traded, it was as one of the best pitchers in baseball... but still, he was traded. Each team decided it was better off without him. And each team that traded for him thought he was the missing piece in the puzzle. Let's see how that turned out:

Philly 2009: Lost 4-2 in the World Series to that incredible A-Rod-led Yankees team (?)
Lee went 4-0 in the postseason, giving up 7 ER in 40.1 innings over 5 postseason starts.

Seattle 2010: Put together a roster based almost entirely on pitching and defence. Their team OPS+ was 76. Their team OBP was .298. They averaged less than 3.2 runs per game, over the course of the season. And their pitching and defence was not enough to win games - by the time Lee was traded on July 9, they were 34-51 and 16 games back. Lee managed to get 4.8 runs of support per game for this dreadful team and generally pitched well, going 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA.

Texas 2010: Lee, the 2009 postseason assassin, was acquired for the stacked Rangers' postseason run. Somehow the Rangers team that scored 4.8 runs per game only scored 3.8 for Lee, who went 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA. Some assassin. He went 3-0 over the first two rounds of postseason, giving up 2 runs in 24 innings, but the Giants hit him hard in the World Series that year, and he lost both times.

Despite playing for 4 teams in 2 years and pitching in back to back World Series, Lee was not enough to put a team over the top - that's okay. Nobody is.

In 2011, Lee had a nice little year. 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA and ---weird statistic--- 6 shutouts* in 6 complete games**. He finished 3rd in Cy Young voting, deservedly so.

*This is the most shutouts in a single year since Randy Johnson had 6 in 1998, and before that since Tim Belcher had 8 in 1989.
** Cliff Lee in 2011 had the most shutouts ever where all of his complete games were shutouts. He went 6 for 6. Nobody had ever done that before. Tied for second is Felix Hernandez in 2012 and Bob Ojeda in 1988 with 5 out of 5.

In 2012, Lee had a very strange year. He went 6-9 with a 3.16 ERA in 211 innings. He pitched bad sometimes, but mostly he pitched pretty well. He just... lost. Or got no-decisions. Based on the Win statistic, he had a bad year. But really, he probably just had one of the unluckiest years ever. He also pitched 0 complete games and 0 shutouts, despite going 10 shutout innings in his third start of the year.

His team scored only 3.5 runs for him per game. That's low, but its not crazy. This year he is getting 3.7 RPG and he is 7-2. Already.

Let's go deeper than anyone should ever go into this.

Lee made 30 Starts in 2012. The Phillies went 12-18 in these starts.

0 Earned Runs
3-0 with 1 No Decision (10 innings on only 102 pitches)

1 ER
2-1 with 4 No Decisions
The Phillies went 3-4 in these games:
W 4-1*, 3-1*, 4-3
L 3-5, 1-2*, 1-2, 1-2
(* = Decision)
How depressing.

2 ER
1-2 with 3 ND (that's harsh)
The Phillies went 2-4 in these games:
W 9-2*, 3-2
L 6-10, 1-2*, 2-6*, 4-5

3 ER
0-1 with 3 ND
Phillies went 2-2

4 ER
0-2 with 2 ND
Phillies went 1-3

5 ER
0-2 with 1 ND
Phillies went 0-3

6 ER
0-1 with 1 ND
Phillies went 1-1

When Cliff Lee gave up more than 1 earned run in a start, he won 1 game. All year.
When he gave up more than 2 earned runs in a start, he won 0 games.
When he gave up 2 earned runs or less, he went 6-3 with 8 no decisions.
Now that's pressure. Give up 2ER or less, or have no chance at a W.

Anyways, this is amazing because it's crazy. And even more amazing because Lee started September at 3-7 and had to make a strong push to get to 6 wins. He went 3-2 over 7 starts in September, in which he gave up a total of 8 ER. Has anyone ever had an unluckier year? Ever?

Well I think that's a good question, and I'll try to figure out an answer. I'm looking for seasons in which a starting pitcher pitched above average, pitched a lot, and still ended up with very few wins.

In baseball history, there have been only 4 seasons where a pitcher had at least 30 starts, pitched over 200 innings, and had an ERA+ over 100 (where 100 is league average). It's hard to pitch all the time, pitch better than average, and not get wins.

Maybe Joey Hamilton was the unluckiest pitcher ever?

Maybe not.

In 1995, Joey Hamilton had a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.96, compared to his ERA of 3.08. This is a measure, on an ERA scale, of about how much luck has to do with pitching success. If luck is not a factor, FIP and ERA should be the same. His batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) was .267. Again, if this is an unusually low number, it generally means that some luck was involved.

In 2012, Cliff Lee had an FIP of 3.13, compared to his ERA of 3.16. His BABIP was .309, about league average.

So... Joey Hamilton had to get a bit lucky in order to pitch well enough to get unlucky enough to be the unluckiest pitcher ever. This is getting confusing.

My point is, that although Joey Hamilton in 1995 got screwed out of wins as well as any pitcher ever. However, Cliff Lee in 2012 might have pitched better than any pitcher, ever, who ended up a terrible win total. Strange.

Now let's revisit that comparison between pitcher 1 (2008 Cliff Lee) and pitcher 2 (2012 Cliff Lee):
Except for W-L, these numbers are not that different. The biggest difference here is that 2012 Cliff Lee gives up home runs at more than twice the rate of 2008 Cliff Lee. However, 2012 Cliff Lee also strikes out more batters and walks fewer batters. BABIP is basically the same. FIP is not that different. But the Win-Loss records are polar opposites. Yeah, Lee probably got lucky in 2008 to get to 22-3, but not historically so.

Anyways, Cliff Lee is really good. But his career, and 2012 in particular, has been kinda weird. That is all.

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