In 2011, the best inning for offense was the 6th inning. Hitters walked more, struck out less, hit for better average and power in the 6th inning than any other inning of the ballgame. Why is this? I think it has been shown that “protection” (the idea that X player will be better because Y is behind him, an idea still accepted by many baseball “minds”) is bunk, but can the team around a player have any affect on how a hitter performs? What (if any) real life baseball and fantasy significance do these questions have? Here, I will argue that team patience (especially pitches per plate appearance) can be a driving force for individual players’ success.
Does pitches per plate appearance have any correlation to runs scored? Only 2 of the bottom 6 teams in pitches per plate appearance were above average in runs scored. The top 3 teams in pitches per plate appearance were above average in runs scored. The top two, the Red Sox and Yankees, were also the top 2 offenses (it should be noted that the Rangers and Tigers were 3 and 4, but they were below average in pitches per plate appearances).We also see some pretty good correlation on the individual level.
Most teams still manage the bullpen with a “closer”, an eighth inning man, and now even a 7th inning man. Since those are almost always quality relievers (especially for good teams), the goal would be to be able to see the “middle relievers”. Just how big of a difference is there between the “middle relievers” and quality relievers? In the AL East, here are the FIPs (Fielding Independent ERA, more predictive than ERA) of pitchers that threw at least 20 innings in 2011.
Yankees Non 7-9 inning guys:3.73 7-9 inning guys: 2.67
Red Sox: Non 7-9 inning guys: 3.86 7-9 inning guys: 2.82
Rays: Non 7-9 inning guys: 4.83 7-9 inning guys: 3.42
Blue Jays: Non 7-9 inning guys: 4.20 7-9 inning guys: 3.32
Orioles: Non 7-9 inning guys: 3.90 7-9 inning guys: 3.56
In the AL East in 2011, you could be expected to get a full run more per 9 innings by facing non 7-9 inning guys than 7-9 inning guys. The average inning in the MLB lasts 16 pitches. This means that the average starting pitcher facing an average lineup would throw 96 pitches in 6 innings. This would easily bridge the gap to the 7-9th inning guys, meaning that the team would have to face 3 pitchers with an average of 3.10 FIP instead of getting to face at least 1 guy with a 4.10 FIP average (before having to face those pitchers anyway). For starting pitchers, there is a clear regression between the first 75 pitches to 75-100. For the first 75 pitches, the average starter gives up an OPS of .718, but through 75-100, starters yield an OPS of .746. To give you an idea of how big of a difference that is, the difference between Albert Pujols and Alex Gordon’s OPS in 2011 was .027. With this said, the patient teams are not necessarily the best 6th inning scoring teams. The Yankees best two innings were the first two, the Red Sox the 7th, and the Rays the 3rd. Even though this is true, do individual players see statistical improvement when they play for patient teams? Lets look at some examples:
For Marco Scutaro in 2008 he had an OPS + of 88 with a below average pitches seen per plate appearance, and his team had just 1 player over 3.91 pitches per plate appearance (Overbay was at 3.90). In 2009, his OPS + jumped to 108, with 4.06 pitches per plate appearance and he had 3 other teammates had over 4 pitches per plate appearance. In 2011, his OPS + was 110 and the Red Sox had 3 players above 4 pitches per plate appearance (and 4 at 3.95 and above).
Russell Martin had an OPS + of over 100 in 2008 despite having just 1 teammate of over 4 pitches a plate appearance, and when he had 3 teammates do it in 2009, he posted an OPS + of under 100. It is worth noting that his own pitches per plate appearance fell in 2009. However, he improved slightly in 2011 (from 88 OPS + to 92 OPS +) despite having another big drop in personal pitches per plate appearance. 4 Yankee teammates had over 4 pitches per plate appearance.
While Mike Napoli had less teammates (0 exactly) have over 4 pitches per plate appearance in 2011 than he did with the Angels in 2010, he had a better personal pitches per plate appearance. This could be one reason that he improved, while we also have to factor in a more hitter friendly ballpark and BABIP. The Rangers were also better at something I call PPS, or Pitches Per Starter. If the goal is to get the pitcher out by 6 innings, we should measure how many pitches a lineup or player would force a pitcher to pitch in 6 innings. This means that we will also have to take in account OBP. Since you have 18 outs to work with, you multiply the OBP (the average of the lineup or just the hitter) by 18. League average would be about 5.814. Since this is the amount of times the player/lineup would reach base, you add 18 to the number, in this case making it 23.814. You then multiply this number by the pitches per plate appearance. Since league average is about 3.81, we determine league average PPS is 90.73. Back to Napoli, the Angels had a 90.14 PPS in 2010, while the Rangers had a 91.17 PPS in 2011 because the Rangers had a better OBP.
In 2011 (and many of the last several years), the Red Sox had the best PPS, with a 95.91. So if my thesis is correct, one would expect to see players have bigger years with Boston than with other teams. This is obviously demonstrably untrue with Carl Crawford, who was a disaster in 2011 after a solid Rays career. However, it seems to have helped Jarrod Saltalamacchia who had a 95 OPS + in 2011 after having a 80 OPS + in his Ranger career. Darnell McDonald has a 97 OPS + with the Red Sox despite having a negative offensive WAR with the other 3 MLB teams he has played with. Victor Martinez’s best Runs Created per Game came with the Red Sox (but he did have a better OPS +, driven partly by BABIP, with the Tigers in 2011). Bill Hall had his first OPS + season of over 100 in 2010 (his year with the Red Sox) since 2005 and 2006 (two pretty patient Brewer teams) and since then hasn’t even been a replacement player. Adrian Beltre’s 2nd best year (his first was that mind blowing, BABIP driven 2004 season) came in 2010, his only year with the Red Sox. He was not very good at all in 2009 with an Mariners team that had an average PPS (90.5). Before Mike Lowell was over the hill, he had his best OBP in 2007, part of an extremely patient Red Sox team (his best OPS + year was in 2003, on the Marlins who didn’t see a lot of pitches but had really nice OBPs). Coco Crisp’s best years weren’t in Boston, but the 2004 and 2005 Cleveland Indians were pretty patient teams, and Oakland’s reliance on taking pitches has been pretty well documented (Billy Beane wrote a book about it, evidently)
Daniel Nava also out performed his projection from AAA in 2010. Other factors definitely play into these things, but it does seem there is some kind of correlation between the patience of the team around the player, and the player’s performance. I would like to emphasize that this isn’t “protection”, this is something completely different.
J.D. Drew saw regression in his Red Sox career, but I think it is safe to say that a lot of it had to do with injuries. Julio Lugo had below career average years with Boston, but his BABIP was also below his career average so it’s of some significance, but not a deathblow to the theory (especially since I fully admit that there are exceptions). It will be interesting to see whether Jed Lowrie performs worse or better in Houston, and it may in fact give us a better read on this.
Curtis Granderson is a great example of what I propose is true. He had big years in 2007 and 2008 on patient Tigers teams. In 2009, the team was very impatient and his OPS and pitches per plate appearance dropped. In 2011 with the Yankees, an extremely patient team, Granderson had his best year. Nick Swisher is another great example (as is Hunter Pence, who moved from the no patience Astros to the slightly more patient Phillies), very good with the “Moneyball” A’s, not good with the below average PPS White Sox, and then good again with the patient Yankees.
If my argument is correct, here are some very undervalued players (note that these are not valuable fantasy players, but instead are players that are valuable for lineups):
Mitch Maier: 109.43 PPS in 2011
Kosuke Fukudome: 103.14 PPS in his MLB career
Bobby Abreu: 107.62 PPS in his career, 105.7 in 2011
Brett Gardner: 104.31 PPS in his career
Cliff Pennington: 95.66 PPS in his career
Johnny Damon: 95.47 PPS in 2011, 94.98 PPS in his career
Seth Smith: 95.98 PPS in his career.
Jamey Carroll: 101.78 PPS in his career
In conclusion, it would seem that hitters that play on more patient teams tend to have better years than if they are not on patient teams. The reason, or at least the one that makes the most sense, is that patient teams would face more “middle” or “non-quality” relievers, thus helping their personal statistics (another reason could be that the more pitches a pitcher throws in an inning, the less effective he becomes). This has significant value for teams, as hitters with an above average combination of pitches seen and OBP increase in value. This has significant fantasy value as one would be wise to opt for the player on a more patient team in a choice between two similar players (obviously if Albert Pujols is on an impatient team and Brett Wallace is on a patient team, you still want Pujols).