Stick Your Head in the Sand

December 21, 2007

So, as I am sure is common knowledge at this point, the Mariners are signing Carlos Silva to a 4yr, 48m deal, and the Phillies signed Geoff Jenkins to a 2yr, 13m deal.

Let’s start with Silva. Silva projects by Bill James, Zips and some DIPS formula I have on my computer to be a guy with an ERA in the upper 4’s. He really is just not that good. His K:BB last year was 3.91:1.6, a lot of balls in play. The M’s defense was second worst in the AL last year (as measured by DER) and hasn’t really upgraded a ton. There is Adam Jones in left but older and presumably worse versions of Ibanez and Sexson to take away some of that improvement. The point of bringing up defense is that as USSM pointed out, he really isn’t a good fit for the Mariners. The park isn’t going to help him, the division isn’t going to help him, and the Seattle defense isn’t going to help him. If you’re going to sign below average pitchers, at least have some reason to believe (as with Washburn) that they might become average.

As I said, projections have Silva at an upper 4 ERA. A guy named Chone who writes a blog for the Angels has released some Minor League Equivalencies. Chone has a projection system that is up there with the rest and is a decently respected guy, so these equivalencies are probably pretty close to what any other MLE report will give you. These are the guys the Mariners have in their system that project to have an ERA under 5 based on last years Minor League stats:
R.A. Dickey 5.06 (I don’t even know what is up with that number being so high)
Jorge Campillo 4.01
Ryan Rowland-Smith 4.05 (as a reliever)
Justin Lehr 4.43
Robert Rohrbaugh 4.80
Ryan Feierabend 5.00

These aren’t to be taken as a declaration that Jorge Campillo is going to have a 4.01 era in the show next year. The goal is to show that between these 6 guys, one of them could have an ERA that is close to or even better than Carlos Silva. These guys are free; Silva is going to be taking in 12m a year. Why must this franchise so ardently resist youth? I don’t know the scouting reports on all these guys and I’m sure there are logical reasons to rule out one or two, but come on, give the kids a shot.

Geoff Jenkins annoys me, but I never got my hopes up to begin with. To start off with, as far as I know the M’s never said they were looking to upgrade their LF. Basically a guy on a blog said “get Geoff Jenkins and move Ibanez to first” and we all agreed it made sense. For whatever reason they were clearly dedicated to Ibanez in left so I really don’t think this was ever going to be a potential solution and we all should have known he wasn’t coming here. He would have been an upgrade. His offense is merely average, but he would have set off a great chain. Getting Ibanez out of left, getting Sexson off of first, and the slight improvement between Jenkins and Sexson/Vidro (whoever we could get rid of) would have probably netted a couple of wins.

Both of these indicate organizational philosophies that sadly are not likely to be corrected as long as the present regime is in charge of the club. Silva obviously doesn’t make sense. He is a below average pitcher who is really not helped at all by Safeco and spectacularly more expensive than any number of options (I listed in house guys, Lookout Landing has a guy, there are probably more out there that are cheap and as good as Silva). Brent astutely said a while back that free agency is paying for what you cannot develop, and the M’s are paying.

Jenkins made so much sense. He was cheap, born in Olympia, clearly an upgrade at multiple positions. The organization though decided that Ibanez wants to play left, so he gets to, regardless of if it hurts the team. The franchise overlooks potential improvements for the massive value it apparently finds in known commodities. It’s been a frustrating off-season.


The Price of Failure

December 20, 2007

With news that Silva is heading to the Mariners and the rumors of Jenkins to the Phillies, it only seems appropriate to discuss the consequences of failure. These signings cannot be viewed without looking at the recent histories of both franchises.

 

Seattle has not made the playoffs since 2001 and they haven’t made a big deadline deal to improve the team since 1997. All of this comes while being one of the most profitable franchises in all of baseball. Seattle won’t become a destination for players hoping to make the playoffs until they start making the playoffs. Seattle is a remote outpost and when the club isn’t winning things like the lack of national attention and

 

Philadelphia has only made the playoffs twice since 1993 but one of those two appearances was last year. Making the playoffs in recent history is very attractive to players at the end of their careers hoping to help a contender. Philly is an east coast market and

 

So what comes first: solid free agent signings or the playoffs? Success leads to more success and failure leads to more failure. For every player who is only concerned with getting every last dollar out of the free agent market, there are more players who are concerned with other things than money. Let’s examine these two contracts.

 

Carlos Silva probably signed with the team that offered him the most money (as Washburn did). Occasionally teams make players offers that are so good financially that they cannot refuse them. The Yankees, for example, use money of overcome most objections that players have to wearing the pinstripes.

 

But money doesn’t grow on trees and can’t buy you everything. $1 of Philly money has more value than $1 of Mariner money. Don’t believe for a second that a 2 year 13 million would have gotten it done with Jenkins. He’s never made the playoffs and two years with Philly gives him a chance at making it to the World Series before he retires. Father time isn’t going to be kind to Geoff so this is his last shot at being a starter on a playoff caliber team. Is Seattle making the playoffs in the next two years?

 

The blog-o-sphere can’t demand that the Mariners build for the future while at the same time insisting they sign players to bargain contracts. The sales pitch for teams trying to acquire players like Geoff Jenkins takes place in the months of September and October. Win and these players will be happy to come to Seattle. Lose and they will go somewhere else.


An Interview with John McLaren

December 18, 2007

Also posted at Prospect Insider 

 

I received a copy of John McLaren’s interview (thanks Jason) with the press at the winter meetings. McLaren takes a lot of guff from the fans here in Seattle and without a doubt this interview will give plenty of ammo to those who aren’t fans of Mac.

 

The first piece of information that can be pounced on was a response to question on Jose Lopez:

 

“I’m a Jose Lopez Fan. A few things got turned sideways for him last year. We just want him to play with passion every night. He’s got good ability. The rap on him was his defense, and I think he was one of the top defenders at 2nd base fielding percentage-wise, and we were very happy these and we just want to maximize his concentration at the plate and it the field to make him the best player he can be, which is going to make us a better team. That’s the only thing I am going to convey to him.”

So McLaren has cited passion and fielding percentage in the same paragraph, awesome. Taken at face value, these comments are horrible. In his defense, McLaren isn’t the kind of guy who is going to call out any of his players out by name. The sin here is not citing fielding percentage, but being too nice to play in a high stakes game.

 

On running more next season:

I think Betancourt has got the capabilities of being a 20-plus stolen base guy, and I know Adam Jones does too. I know with Ichiro and – I’m going to see if we can get more stolen bases. We had a pretty good percent last year, 81 and 30. We need to get up in the 120’s. Anaheim has more speed than us, we need to utilize our speed more. 

McLaren goes on to say that Ichiro could steal 80 bases next year. If the fantasy baseball league you participate in is a 5×5 that uses steals, it might be a good idea to look into someone like Yuni Betancourt for a cheap source of steals. These comments are troubling because unlike many other statements by the skipper this one is lacks qualification. It would have been appropriate to say that he doesn’t want the team being crazy on the base paths but wants them to take the extra base. This also is a clue that McLaren will select a bench with plenty of guys who can steal a base late in the game. Expect the Mariners stolen base totals to spike in 2008 but the percentage to drop. This is not a net gain.

 

On a Richie Sexson bounce back:

We need him because losing some offense with Guillen and with Adam in rightfield, Richie comes back to being Richie, it takes a lot of pressure off Adam, and it helps us out a lot. And Richie has got something you can’t teach. That’s the power and hitting the ball out of the ballpark. It would be a good sign, seeing him do that again.

John McLaren is a positive guy, but this was not a positive statement. If Richie Sexson returns to the 40 HR range that McLaren says he can, this is a huge opportunity for the team to get better. I don’t believe for a second that McLaren believes in his heart of hearts that Richie is due for a huge improvement.

 

On Swinging at Strikes:

You know what? We’re going to stress for the first day for Spring Training just to work the count. You know, I mean, I’m not big into taking pitches and all this, that and the other. I want to get into hitters counts and take advantage of it.  If you look at some of the hitters stats on like a 2-0 count, (a) couple of them are pretty ugly. These should be hitter’s counts and they should be hitting for a higher batting average. 300 plus in a hitters count because it should be the pitch you are looking for. 

Even though the walk is not invoked, it’s hard to find fault in a message of “wait for your pitch and hit it”. These statements were the most encouraging in the entire interview.

 

Mariner fans should forgive Johnny Mac for not being a Hall of Fame manager. This guy isn’t going to win the Mariners a bunch of games by playing hunches correctly for an entire season. His in-game strategy isn’t going to earn him 5 minute segments on Baseball Tonight to breaking down his “genius”. What McLaren will probably favor is speed and versatility on his bench. Also, lots of aggressive base running which will make the Mariners exciting to watch, but won’t translate into many wins (and probably a few more losses).


From Guillen to Jones

December 14, 2007

All current indications seem to point to the Mariner lineup staying nearly static from the past year with a lone exception. This is going to be a rudimentary, quick peek into what we might expect from that one change.

In 2007, Jose Guillen batted .290/.353/.460. He was pretty lucky to have done so, with a higher than expected BABIP, but that’s tangential to our intended discussion here since Jose Guillen’s 2008 performance is not what we are concerned with. According to The Hardball Time, Guillen played 1273 innings and snagged 234 of 273 balls in zone and 34 out of zone. Taking the league rates for rightfielders, the average rightfielder would have gotten to 237.5 balls in zone and 47.5 out of zone. Adding these up and you get that Guillen made 17 fewer plays than our expected average defender over the course of 1273 innings.

With the performance in 2007 established, we move on to the more difficult part; projecting our 2008 performance. This is going to come primarily from Adam Jones. Jones is the subject of a few favorable projections already, notably ZiPS which pegs him as a .276/.335/.477 hitter next year. While I am sure that seems tad optimistic, let us not dismiss it outright, but instead delve a little deeper and see where we feel afterwards. Jones is not the easiest projection since he has such a limited big league sample to draw from. Luckily, I prefaced this entire investigation by saying it would be rudimentary so any statistical qualms I have are easily ignored. Are you not glad that I have such flexible morals?

Here is what we do know about Jones 147 big league plate appearances, spread almost equally between 2006 and 2007. Jones posted a 26.9% and 27.3% line drive rate each year. That is a very very good number, almost certainly too good to sustain itself. If they were done in seasons long enough to qualify, those numbers would rank 7th and 3rd highest respectively among single season line drive percentages over the past four seasons. In other words, unless you think Adam Jones is going to be the best line drive hitter in Major League Baseball next year, that number is going to come down.

How far down? For that, we turn to Jones’ Tacoma numbers where we get the benefit of an additional 886 plate appearances over the same time span. Those figures were lower in Tacoma, hovering a few ticks above 20%. That is still quite good if he can maintain that level. I am unsure if anyone has looked at how line drive rates move between AAA and MLB so for now, let’s just leave it as is and project a 22% LD% in 2008. Applying a (little less than standard) +11% to go from LD% to BABIP (not that robust, but again, good enough for this), we arrive at around a .330 BABIP.

We’re missing homeruns and strikeouts in order to figure out an estimate for batting average. Strikeouts are fairly straight forward; Jones Ks in about 29% of PAs over the course of his career. That’s going to improve with time, but in 2008 I would not count on much, let’s call it 28%. Jones hits groundballs at about a 40% clip, leaving us with 38% flyballs. Of those 38%. Jones smacked about one out of every five flybals over the fence in Tacoma, significantly less in Seattle. For 2008, I expect something in the middle and call it 13.5%. So in a 100 at bat sample, we expect something like 28 strikeouts, a little over five home runs and 67 balls in play yielding a little over 22 hits. Add it all up and you have a projected .272 average. It is worth reiterating that .272 accounts for a regression in line drive rate, virtually no progress in reducing strikeouts and just an average home run per flyball rate. The latter two points, middle especially, Jones could easily surpass.

For walk rate, I am just going to assume he holds at his 2007 level of 5.6% and that he both gets drilled and lays a sac down once every 100 PAs. That means 6.6 free passes per 100 PAs and 92.4 atbats giving us an on-base percentage of .318. For slugging, we’ve already anticipated homeruns, and using an average of 2006 and 2007 at both Tacoma and Seattle yields expected rates of 4.2 doubles and 0.9 triples per 100 at bats next season. Subtracting 5.1 from the 22.1 non-HR hits gives us 17 singles and a grand total of 48.63 bases in 100 at bats. Putting it completely together we have a .272/.318/.486 line for 2008. That is pretty close to ZiPS. The power output seems high to me, but again, you expect high power from somebody striking out nearly 30% of the time so if you think Jones is going to struggle hitting for power in 2008, you have to acknowledge that he might adjust and start going more for contact thereby reducing his strikeout rate and upping his batting average and OBP.

Turning to defense, Jones in 2007 played 176 innings and snagged 31 of 34 balls in zone and 8 out of zone. Taking the league rates for rightfielders (I understand Jones did not play exclusively in RF), the average fielder would have gotten to 29.5 balls in zone and 6 out of zone giving Jones 3.5 plays above average per 176 innings. Prorating that up to 1273 innings leaves us with 25 plays above average. That’s a 42 play improvement over 2007 Jose Guillen. Is that reasonable? Jones is a centerfielder playing rightfield, so we definitely expect him to be above average, but 25 plays? Half of that seems much more likely. That would roughly paint Jones as a league average centerfielder in terms of defense which seems about right for now.

One more time, there are huge sample size issues at stake here. Nonetheless I am just searching for a broad picture of what we might be looking at. Given the assumptions stated above the Mariners will move from a .290/.353/.460 hitter to a .272/.318/.486 hitter. Assuming 600 at bats (reasonable barring injury for a full time player) and using a simplified formula, we arrive at 92.7 runs created with Jones’ bat compared to Guillen’s 96.3 in 2007. So we lose 3.6 runs of offense. On defense however, we gained 29.5 plays, which works out to at least 23.6 runs using Tango’s established 0.8 runs = 1 play conversion. Funny how in the end we end up with nice round number, but there it is. -3.6 + 23.6 = 20 run improvement.


Pitchers and Injuries: The Biomechanics of Baseball

December 13, 2007

Note: The formatting is a bit bollocksed in this post, sorry. Haven’t been able to fix it

If you spend any time at all reading about baseball players, you’ll have seen comments like this regarding certain pitchers:

“[player z] has a very violent delivery, putting too much torque on his elbow, and is therefore a huge injury concern.”

How do the experts in the field come to these conclusions? How much weight should we give to their opinions? These are important questions, and to answer them we’ll have to go right back to the beginning.

The first question we should ask ourselves is this one: What is the goal of a pitcher’s delivery, in the purely physical sense?

The answer’s fairly straightforward – to impart angular (spin) and linear acceleration to a baseball using just the pitcher’s body to do so. The amount of linear force imparted to a ball will manifest itself as the velocity of a pitch, while the angular acceleration more or less controls the spin. We won’t get into the physics of a ball in flight here, rather we’re concerned with a very different problem.

How does a pitcher apply this acceleration?

In essence, what a pitcher does is store up energy in his body, and then release it all at once. The first part is pretty easy to understand, albeit with some gross simplifications along the way…

Muscle systems are more or less paired springs for the purposes of an analysis like this. When you compress a spring, it stores the energy you use in pressing on it as potential energy (the exact amount is determined by what’s called a strain energy function, but as this gets absurdly complicated for biological tissue, we’re going to gloss over that one here), and then releases it as soon as it’s free to do so. If you think of the upper body of a pitcher as a series of springs, you can see that the the windup is accomplishing more or less the same thing. Note that this has very little to do with the leg kick, as that’s exploiting a different type of potential energy: gravity.

So that’s actually pretty straightforward, and really not where pitchers get hurt. Rather, injury occurs in the process of transferring all of that stored up energy to a baseball. Limbs twist, the body gyrates, and the elbow and shoulder are having to hold the whole arm together through what is really a very violent motion. So it is reasonable to say that the more energy which a pitcher has to transmit to get results, the more likely he is to be hurt?

No, it’s not, and doing so is actually quite lazy. Remember, the best pitchers are the ones putting as much acceleration on the ball as possible, so in terms of pitching performance, maximising torque and such around the joints is a good thing. What we have to do is look at some anatomy. I’m going to specifically examine the elbow here, since it’s far less complicated than the shoulder, but the same principles will generalise to other joints as well.

(source: Gray’s Anatomy)

The elbow is theoretically a biological hinge, but it doesn’t really work the same way your door hinges do. The joint allows for two kinds of motion: flexion/extension, or basic hinging, which everybody is familiar with, and pronation/suppination, which is the rotation of the forearm relative to the upper arm. Three major ligaments provide structural integrity to the joint as it performs these movements. The Ulnar Collateral ligament (UCL) is undoubtedly the best known to baseball fans, due to its place as the ligament rebuilt in Tommy John surgery, but the other two are decidedly less familiar – the Radial Collateral and the Annular. The reason these are less familiar to us is because they’re rarely what goes wrong in an elbow (this is unsurprising if you actually look at where the annular is and what it does).

Anyway, the point of this brief digression into anatomy is to show that far from being a simple hinge, the elbow is actually a fairly complicated system, with each movement stressing many different elements of the joint. None of these ligaments works in torsion, either – they’re designed to generally take tensile stresses (i.e. pulling). In addition, elbow failure will occur when any ligament in the elbow begins to fail, as even if a minor one begins failure, it will put incrementally more stress on the major ones, leading to their eventual yield as well. In essence, what a pitcher ideally does is tailor his motion to take advantage of the capacity of every element in his elbow.

Still, no problem, right? We have models of the elbow that will turn the relative movements of the upper and lower arm into stresses  inside the elbow, right? Uh… Not so much. Same goes for the shoulder, but the main problem here is that we don’t even know the general engineering properties of many of these  ligaments, which causes problems when looking at how to distribute forces in a computer model. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t help much if it did, because of the actual failure mechanism involved. Yep, it’s time for another anatomical tangent.

In order to accommodate the tensile stresses they have to take, cartilaginous bodies are reinforced by fibres running in the same direction as the primary loading they received (this is loosely analogous to rebar in reinforced concrete). These collagen fibrils greatly strengthen the material matrix they lie in, but can themselves fail. And they do, one by one, with each failure causing their neighbours to take on additional stress until they fail as well, which is how tears propagate.

Of course, we don’t really care about the material’s true yield strength, because a pitcher isn’t just throwing a single time and then calling at a career. Hell, a starting pitcher might throw 50,000 pitches over 15 years. What we have instead is cyclic loading, which leads to fatigue failure (or the biological analogue, at any rate).

The danger stress for cyclic loading is, without exception, significantly lower than for a time deal, but here we again run into the problem of lack of research. About all we know is that ligaments can indeed suffer fatigue failure (which will be made manifest as a slow, growing tear), and that they suffer it significantly faster if the stresses that said ligament takes are out of plane with its fibril reinforcements (this is fairly intuitive, and is probably why throwing hard breaking balls is bad for most pitchers). Apart from that, it’s all a bit up in the air.

What doesn’t help is that all pitchers aren’t created equal, in both pure ability and their bodies’ capacity to take punishment. Biological parameters are one of the few things that actually turn up as a true bell curve, and so we’ll have fragile guys, average guys, and indestructible guys in the pool of pitching talent (NB: for the most part, the really breakable pitchers will never get as far as the majors before blowing out their arms). Mark Prior was said to have perfect mechanics until his arm exploded repeatedly, but that doesn’t actually mean the people who said so were wrong. Pitching is an exceptionally violent activity, and a ‘perfect delivery’ will not reduce stress to zero or anywhere close to it, it will merely minimise the damage done while throwing a baseball at 90+ mph, or with obscene spin, and Mark Prior could have been doomed from the start.

So. We don’t know how much stress goes into each element which might fail, we don’t know how much it would take them to fail in the first place, and even if we did we wouldn’t know where a specific pitcher might fall on the bell curve of ligament toughness anyway. Oh dear.

How do we tell if a pitcher is going to get hurt then?

Well, we wait for them to start hurting, and if it’s bad enough, they put them through an MRI and look for tears. If they find them, it’s rehab/surgery time. Otherwise, it’s back to the grind until they actually break.

No educated guesses?

Well, yeah, you can make some, and this is really all the experts are doing, unless they’re holding back key information from academia at large. Watching for guys with painful looking deliveries is a start. Fransisco Rodriguez instantly jumps to mind. Liriano is another example, and he’s one of the few guys I’m comfortable with predicting future injury problems before if he keeps throwing the same way he does (after all, he’s already busted his UCL once). Honestly, if you start watching closely enough, your guess is as good as anyone else’s. It will take a lot of research and work before anybody’s really qualified to look at a pitcher throwing, stick the numbers in a computer, and give him [x%] chance of damaging [ligament y] in the next 10,000 pitches. I can’t wait for it to happen, though.

Man, that was a lot of writing, and I didn’t even touch on some of the subjects I’d have liked to, like development and the injury nexus. I think I’ll leave it at that, anyway. Feedback is more than welcome.

Graham MacAree is currently working on a Masters degree in Biostructural Engineering at Cambridge University in the UK, specialising in structural failure of cartilagenous material


The Calm Before the Storm

December 12, 2007

Things have been deathly quiet on the news front but given todays news I think all-you-know-what is about to break loose.

 Hiroki Kuroda may or may not be heading to the Dodgers (depending on who you believe)- This is the big rumor for the Mariners front office. Kuroda signing with the Dodgers throws the offseason into chaos. The M’s need upgrade the rotation and Kuroda would have allowed the Mariners a position of strength in negotiating for Erik Bedard. Even the threat of signing Kuroda gives/gave the Mariners the leverage that it took to avoid being fleeced.

Tad Iguchi signs a one year deal with the Padres- If the Mariners were to package Jose Lopez in a trade, Tad Iguchi would have made an interesting stopgap for the club in 2008.

Fukudome is a Cub- If the Mariners need an outfielder after all the offseason wheeling and dealing, Fukudome would have been nice to have in the outfield.

The Real Story: Three Japanese players in potential positions of need for the 2008 Mariners are going elsewhere- Mariner fans are fond of the notion that Japanese players want to play in Seattle and that the ballclub can choose what Japanese players it wants. We have told ourselves that the exceptions are the players that want to go elsewhere. Maybe I was the only person to have this thought but I am re-evaluating this position: Ichiro and Kenji are the exceptions. The Mariners need to find new advantages because the Japanese pipeline appears to be drying up.

I expect dominos to begin falling (in Seattle anyway) sooner rather than later, because much of the Mariners offseason plan is wrapped up in Kuroda. His decision will force the Mariners to react. Reacting to the actions of others is not something this front office does well. They are good at drawing up a plan A, but they aren’t very good at Plan B’s.

Thank you for reading the site- Bookmark it, keep checking back and join in on the conversation. We (myself and the rest of the guys) love writing about baseball, but we also like discussing it with others. Join in on the conversation.

Welcome Aboard- I’d like to take the opportunity to welcome Matthew Carruth to the site. After several months of emailing back and forth (consisting of 4 total emails), Matthew decided to join the site and is a welcome addition. Great article on Bedard yesterday.


Erik Bedard, Pros and Cons and Strikeouts

December 10, 2007

Here is a quick list of what I find positive and negative about the possibility of Erik Bedard in a Mariner uniform.

PRO

  1. 4:1 K to BB ratio in 2007
  2. Jump in 2007 K rate
  3. Not flyball heavy
  4. Pitches with his left hand
  5. Steadily decreasing walk rates
  6. Perennially low home run rates

CON

  1. Only under team control for 2 more seasons
  2. Turns 29 next season, will be 31 for his first free agent season
  3. Seems determined to hit the free agent market no matter what

Overall, the pros outweigh the cons by a healthy margin. Some of these points deserve further fleshing out though. While often cited for durability concerns, has pitched 190 innings on average the last 2 seasons. While that’s not a workhorse by any means, it is not a problematic total. If we traded for Bedard and got 380 innings and roughly 60 starts out of him before 2010, I would be pleased with that.

The main elephant in the room Bedard’s K rate and it’s heliumitic rise last year. Bedard was always a solid pitcher who ran mid 7 K rates, a sub 1 home run rate and had high but declining with experience walk rates. All in all, it was the profile for a high 3/low 4 FIP pitcher. What would be considered a solid #2 in the American League. But in 2007, while the walks continued to fall, the home runs picked up a skosh and the strikeouts went nutso up from 171 in 196 innings in 2006 to 221 in 182 last season. That’s a rise from 7.8 Ks per 9IP to a staggering 11.7. People are justifiably worried that we’d be acquiring Bedard expecting him to repeat an unrepeatable 2007, much like Beltre after 2004 and Washburn after 2005.

Well, those people are right and wrong. They are right that 11.7 strikeouts per 9IP is not sustainable. It just flat out isn’t in the AL these days. There’s also considerable worry as to how much of an impact pitching guru Leo Mazzone had on that, and what kind of residual you could expect Bedard to keep up leaving Mazzone behind as he would be if he headed to Seattle. Those are both valid points. However, here’s the counterpoint and it’s a biggie: Bedard’s swinging strike percentage jumped three points in 2007; up to a delicious 18% of all pitches thrown. Bedard did pretty much nothing different in 2007 than he did in previous years, but suddenly batters were missing his stuff much more often. He didn’t throw more first pitch strikes, get more strikes called, induce more foul balls, throw less or more balls or even induce more swings in general. No, the only thing that happened was that of the pitches that batters swung at, they missed a lot more of them.

The reason that is the key is that the percentage of swinging strikes is the best indicator out there for predicting future strikeout rates. Swinging strikes is to a pitcher’s strikeout rate as line drive percentage is to a hitter’s batting average. When you see a pitcher gain or lose strikeout rate and don’t see a corresponding change in swinging strike percentage, you’re better off betting for a regression next season back towards a pitcher’s career norm. But when you do see an increase (or drop) in swinging strike rate, the possibility that pitcher has taken a step forward (or back) is much more likely and that the new strikeout rate has a higher chance of holding.

An example of this would lie in J.J. Putz, who in 2006 exploded on to scene, going from a middling relief pitcher into closer extraordinaire and doubling his strikeout rate. Entering 2007, many analysts predicted a fallback for Putz, because they were spotting what they felt was a fluke. However, what most Mariner fans knew was that Putz’s success was driven by the mastering of a new pitch; the splitter. This pitch turned Putz into basically a completely new pitcher, giving him something other than the mid to high 90s fastball to occupy the minds of opposing batters. Writing back in the Spring, I noted that Putz’s 2006 swinging strike rate jumped from hovering around 15% all the way up to 23% in 2006. It was a mind boggling jump and there was almost zero way that it was a fluke. Even if I had not spent all summer watching Putz in 2006 and knew about the new pitch, knowing what I did about the driving factors in his increased strikeout rate I would have, and did, predict continued success in 2007. We all know how that worked out.

It should be noted that this is not a catch all statement, like everything in probability. And there’s nothing to say that Bedard doesn’t take a step backwards in 2008 and lose those extra swings and misses. All I know is that the best evidence I have available says that Bedard was a sustainably better pitcher in 2007 than he was previously.