Thursday, April 28, 2016

Something's Up With Brandon Belt

Brandon Belt connects with a pitch against COL. (USATSI)
Brandon Belt is one of the most polarizing players in baseball. Even among his own team’s fans, support for the Giants first baseman ranges from ecstatic enthusiasm to downright disdain.

Belt personifies the chasm between old school and new school baseball analysis. According to more traditional numbers, Belt leaves something to be desired (at least so far in his career).

He’s never knocked in more than 68 runs in a season; he’s never eclipsed 18 home runs. His career batting average is an unspectacular .273. Although his naysayers will admit that he’s sharp defensively, they'll also point out that he's never won a Gold Glove.

However, Belt excels in less traditional metrics. His career on base percentage is a robust .350. He’s slugged .458 despite playing half his games in the cavernous, death-to-lefty-power confines of AT&T Park. Despite not yet winning a Gold Glove, his defensive stats consistently rate at or near the top of the charts. Last year, according to the SABR defensive index (which uses reliable data instead of the “eye test” and oldfangled stats like fielding percentage to evaluate defense), Belt was the best first baseman in baseball.

To look closer at Belt’s offensive abilities, we must understand a particularly useful and telling stat. According to FanGraphs, weighted runs created plus (wRC+) “is a rate statistic that attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome (single, double, etc.) rather than treating all hits or times on base equally, while also controlling for park effects and the current run environment. wRC+ is scaled so that league average is 100 each year and every point above or below 100 is equal to one percentage point better or worse than league average.” That may seem like a mouthful, but it’s critically important to use stats like this in the business of modern baseball talent evaluation.

For his career, Belt’s wRC+ is 128, which, by the definition above, means that he’s been 28% better than the league average Major League hitter. In some of Belt’s better seasons, he’s compiled elite wRC+ totals: 140 in 2013 and 135 in 2015. He sits at 140 so far this season.

As the numbers show, Belt has been a very good player ever since he put on a Giants uniform, despite the harsh criticism he still receives from more traditionalist fans and analysts.

One of the biggest (and perhaps most legitimate) criticisms of Belt’s game is that he strikes out a lot. For his career, Belt has struck out in 24% of his plate appearances. While this is a pretty high total, it’s not like he’s the worst in the league, or even the worst among very good players.

Kris Bryant, last year’s unanimous National Leauge Rookie of the Year, has a 29.3% career strikeout rate. Orioles slugger Chris Davis (whom many Giants fans on social media wanted the Giants to sign this off-season) strikes out 31% of the time. Tigers star outfielder J.D. Martinez racked up five wins above replacement last year, and he struck out 27.1% of the time.

The point is, even the biggest and most legitimate knocks against Belt can be argued against.

And wait a minute. This year, the criticism doesn't even apply. Brandon Belt isn’t really striking out anymore. Through 92 plate appearances, he’s struck out just 14.1% of the time.

You may be thinking:

Sure, Belt’s strikeout rate is down so far this year, but he hasn’t even had 100 plate appearances. Surely this is a mirage caused by a small sample size.

In most cases, this is the correct point. However, according to FanGraphs, a hitter’s strikeout rate is actually the fastest element of his game to stabilize (i.e. not fall victim to small sample size). FanGraphs says that is takes just 60 plate appearances for a hitter’s strikeout rate to stabilize.

Let’s take a closer look at Belt’s 92 plate appearances to see how they differ from his career norm.

For his career, Belt has swung at 30.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone. This year, he’s only swung at 23.6% of such pitches.

For his career, Belt has made contact with 60.8% of pitches he’s swung at that are outside of the strike zone. This year, he’s made contact with 67.4% of such pitches.

For his career, Belt has made contact on 76.3% of his swings. This year, he’s made contact on 81.2% of his swings.

The biggest difference appears to be twofold: he’s chasing less and making more contact when he does chase.

One explanation could be that Belt has simply started the year with one of his patented hot streaks. He’s been known to have excellent months, and he’s been known to have miserable months.

But even in some of Belt’s best months his strikeout rate has remained around his career average.

In May 2015 Belt batted .339/.405/.670 in 121 PA. His strikeout rate for the month was 24.8%.

In August 2015 Belt batted .312/.395/.560 in 124 PA. His strikeout rate for the month was 26.6%.

Belt has had a few months where his strikeout rate was down, however.

He struck out just 11 times in 95 plate appearances (11.6%) in August 2012.

His strikeout rate was 18.8% in June 2013, but then it ballooned up to 34.1% in July 2013. The following month, Belt hit .350/.421/.630 in 114 plate appearances and his strikeout rate was just 15.9%.

So we have seen some variance in Belt’s monthly strikeout rates, but 15.9% is the lowest strikeout rate he’s had in a month (min. 15 games played) since August 2013. This year, with just two more games remaining in the month, Belt is poised to have one of his best ever months in terms of strikeout rate.

This is particularly interesting because April is the first month of the season. Sometimes hitters come into new seasons and introduce new and sustainable levels of production.

Belt may well be onto something, and he could have a year in which we see a sustained dip in strikeout rate. Or he may simply be having a rare month in which he doesn’t strike at least 20% of the time.

Only time will tell, but the early season has been particularly intriguing and promising for Belt and his supporters.

For now, at least, his critics are silent. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Proposing a Major Change to M.L.B. Playoff Structure and Schedule

In the midst of recording a podcast about the problems with the current M.L.B. playoff structure and schedule, I stumbled upon what I think is a great solution to those issues. As I mention in the podcast, a lot of the credit goes to my mother, Susan Termohlen, who helped me think of the idea after we had just watched the Pittsburgh Pirates get eliminated from the playoffs after just one game, despite winning 98 games in the regular season, good for second best in all of baseball. The New York Mets (90 wins) and Los Angeles Dodgers (92 wins), meanwhile, were guaranteed best-of-five series' because they won their respective divisions.

A brief summary of the current playoff structure:

There are 30 Major League Baseball teams: 15 in the National League and 15 in the American League. Within each league, there are three divisions (West, Central, and East), each consisting of five teams. So there are six divisions overall (three in each league). 

Here’s the important part: if a team finishes in first place in its division, that team is automatically guaranteed a spot in a best-of-five division series, no matter their record. Six playoff teams are determined in this way (winning their division). However, there are four additional playoff teams.

These four teams are made up of the two best non-first place teams in each league, regardless of division. They are known as the “Wild Card teams,” and they must play a one-game play-in for the right to play the top team in their league in the division series.

Here's an example from CBS Sports of what the playoff structure looked like in 2015. The Cubs and Pirates (far left) were the two National League Wild Card teams, and the Astros and Yankees (far right) were the two American League Wild Card teams. The Cubs and Pirates played one game, the winner of which (the Cubs) went on to play a best of five series with the Cardinals. The Astros and Yankees also played one game, the winner of which (the Astros) went on to play the Royals in the best of five division series:

The major flaw:

The problem with this format is that a division winner could theoretically have a much worse record than one or both of the wild card teams, who face elimination in the one-game format.

This is exactly what happened last year. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 games, the second most in all of M.L.B. in 2015. Yet they happened to play in the same division as a team that won 100 games (the St. Louis Cardinals), so the Pirates “lost” the division. What’s more, the Chicago Cubs finished the regular season with 97 wins, the third-best record in all of baseball. One division literally had the three best teams (by record) in all of the sport. 

By the current rules, the Cardinals secured a spot in the division series by winning the division, and the Pirates and Cubs were the National League’s two Wild Card teams. They were forced to play a one-game playoff to determine who would move on to face the Cardinals and who would be eliminated and sent home.

As it turned out, Pittsburgh—the team with the second best record in the game—was bounced from the postseason after just one game. Keep in mind that the regular season in baseball is 162 games—by the far the most of any major professional sport. Remember, too, that the Mets (90 wins) and the Dodgers (92 wins) secured a spot in the best-of-five round, despite having a significantly worse records than the Pirates, because they won their respective divisions.

Possible solution?

It might seem like a simple solution would be to have a seeding system in which the two worst playoff teams (by record) play each other in the Wild Card game, and the winner of that game (thus the No. 4 seed) would play the No. 1 seed, and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds would play each other. This is the right solution, but it has its own major flaws because of the unbalanced M.L.B. schedule.

How the schedule is now:

As it is now, teams play the other four teams in their own division 19 times per season (76 games), and they usually play the other teams in their league 6-7 times a season (~65 games). The rest (~20 games) is made up of interleague games (in which National League teams play American League teams).

The schedule is intentionally unbalanced. (It’s become even more unbalanced in recent years with the increased number of interleague games).

Why not just balance the schedule?

You may be correctly thinking that the best solution to the playoff structure problem is a more balanced schedule, but there are major problems with that, too. The biggest issue is travel. The M.L.B. travel schedule is brutal enough as it is. Adding more games against non-division teams (remember, divisions are set up according to geography) would make an already bad travel schedule even worse.

The solution:

The revolutionary idea that addresses all of the above problems:

In the regular season, all 30 teams should play the other 14 teams in their league (A.L. or N.L.) a total of ten times each year—five at home and five on the road. They should play five-game series’, instead of the traditional three- or four-game series’. This would equal 140 games played (14 teams x 10 games per team). Twenty of the remaining 22 games should come from interleague play. Each team should play a total of 20 interleague games per season, playing five teams four times—two at home and two on the road. The five teams that any given team would play per season would be based on the way divisions are currently structured, and they would rotate through all 15 teams every three years. For example, the San Francisco Giants would play all five A.L. East teams in 2016, twice on the road and twice at home. In 2017 the Giants would play all five A.L. Central teams, and in 2018 the Giants would play all five A.L. West teams. 

The interleague games should be scheduled to occur at a time when the road team is in the area for a five-game series against a nearby team in their own league. For example, if the Giants are in Washington, D.C. to play the Nationals for their five-game series, their next series could be two games against the Orioles in Baltimore (since Washington, D.C. and Baltimore are close geographically). Similarly, when the Orioles are in the Bay Area to play their annual five-game series against A’s, they could play their two games against the Giants, either before or after their series with Oakland.


There are two obvious issues with this proposal:

1) Because there are an odd number of teams in each league, there always has to be an interleague series, and the fact that I propose all intraleague series’ should be five games whereas all interleague series’ should be two games creates a problem with timing. I believe it could be worked around by having more off days. A way to create space for more off days would be shortening Spring Training—something virtually everyone in baseball, from players to managers to fans—thinks is a good idea.

2) There are two games left over (140 intraleague games + 20 interleague games = 160 games. There are 162 games in a baseball season). The solution to this would be having either two six-game intraleague series’ per season or two three-game interleague series’ per season. My preference would be two six-game intraleague series’ against your team's biggest rival.

Travel benefits:

One of the best aspects of this proposed change is less travel. If teams were always playing five-game series’, they would be traveling less frequently. Take the following example:

The Giants will have traveled by plane six times after playing their first 23 games of 2016. Now assume that their order of opponents were the same, but the Giants were playing five-game series’. This would be their schedule:

  • Fly to Milwaukee for five games (5 total)
  • Fly home to play the Dodgers for five games (10 total)
  • Fly to Colorado to face the Rockies for five games (15 total)
  • Fly to L.A. to play the Dodgers five games (20 total)
  • Fly to San Francisco to play five against he Diamondbacks and five against the Marlins (30 total).

That’s 30 games played and only five flights, compared to 23 games and six flights on the actual 2016 schedule. After 30 games played on the real 2016 schedule, the Giants will have made seven flights.

The above example is not even the best way to illustrate the point. Under my proposed change, the typical schedule would look something like this:
  • 10 home games
  • Travel
  • Five road games
  • Travel
  • Five road games
  • Travel home (for 10 games)
  • Repeat 

That comes out to three flights per 30 games. The way baseball travel schedules currently look is something like this:

  • Nine home games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  •  Travel
  • Seven home games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • 10 home games
It takes six flights to get to 30 games. It appears that under the proposed change, teams would be cutting their travel frequency in half.

Other benefits:

Of course, another benefit would be fair playoff structure. A balanced schedule would mean the best teams make the playoffs and the worst playoff teams are forced to play in the one-game playoff. 

Five game series’ are perfect for baseball because the typical pitching rotation is made up of five pitchers. Every team would get to see every other team’s complete arsenal in each series, home and away. 

Players would be able to relax and enjoy road cities instead of packing up and leaving every three days. The M.L.B. travel schedule is notoriously one of the worst aspects of the sport.

In conclusion

I hope M.L.B. takes a serious look at addressing these issues. To date, I haven’t heard any solutions that would be as effective as the one proposed in this article. A balanced schedule is clearly the solution, and the only way to achieve a balanced schedule without making travel even worse is to have longer series’. 

Baseball is, in my opinion, the greatest sport on earth. However, it isn't without its flaws. The M.L.B. playoff structure and schedule are among its weakest points.

There are a number of exciting and substantial benefits that would come from implementing the ideas expressed in this proposal. There are few, if any, major issues.

Please read, share, and feel free to improve upon the ideas expressed in this proposal. Thank you.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Worst Moments of the Year!

Well, that was painful. All day long I've been going through the very worst moments of the 2015 Giants baseball season. Now I'm angry, frustrated, and depressed, and soon you can be too! If I could do it again, I probably would have posted this "Worst Moments" list first and my "Top Moments" list second. But oh well, it's too late for that now.

Something really stuck out when making both lists: many of the best moments of the year ended up not mattering, and several of the worst moments took place following good moments. For example, from yesterday's "Top Moments" list, Khris Davis was originally ruled to have failed to touch home plate but after a replay review the call was overturned; Hunter Pence made a heroic return from injury, but quickly went back down with another one; Juan Perez's unbelievable catch took place in a loss; Angel Pagan didn't score after his leadoff "Gum Gate" triple off Craig Kimbrel; and San Francisco couldn't hold the lead after Kelby Tomlinson scored the go-ahead run in the 12th inning in Atlanta after singling in his Major League debut.

This was essentially the story of the 2015 Giants. They were primed for another fairytale season, but in the end they couldn't quite come through when it mattered the most.

Here they are, the 10 worst Giants moments of 2015:

10) Starling Marte Robs Home Run, Hits Walk-Off Home Run

This was during an extremely difficult part of the schedule that will henceforth be known as the "Stretch of Doom." The Giants were forced to play 26 straight games (with just two days off) against teams with a record above .500. The game above was part of a four-game series in Pittsburgh. A win would have pulled the Giants to within a half game of L.A., but the loss kept them 1.5 back and gave the Giants a 66-57 record. San Francisco also lost the following day as Pittsburgh took three out of four in the series.

9) Giants Suffer Back-to-Back Walk-Off Losses to Padres in Critical Games

On consecutive wretched September nights in San Diego, the Giants essentially had to win. Instead, they suffered back-to-back, walk-off, 5-4 losses to the Padres. San Francisco had only slim hopes as the series began, but these two losses coupled with two Dodger victories moved the Giants to eight games back with just 10 games to play.

8) Nori Aoki Breaks Leg

It was the top of the first inning and just the second pitch of the game. It was June 20, and Aoki wouldn't play again until July 27. Aoki was on a roll and was likely headed to the All-Star Game. This Carlos Frias fastball made Aoki roll on the ground in pain. Aoki was hit in the head (keep reading) shortly after returning from this injury, so this was more or less the last time he played regularly in 2015. Aoki had been a great addition and losing him was a major blow to the Giants.

7) Giants Swept on Sunday Night Baseball; Vogelsong, Bochy Ejected
Right after suffering some tough losses to the Marlins (hold on Justin Bour, we'll get to you in a second), the Giants endured a miserable three-game sweep to the Nationals in Washington, D.C. In this final game, Ryan Vogelsong and Andrew Susac were having serious trouble getting on the same page in terms of pitch selection. To make matters worse, the home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi wasn't giving Vogelsong anything close.

Want my personal opinion? I think Vogelsong was just as frustrated with Susac as he was with Cuzzi. Susac is no Buter Posey when it comes to pitch framing, and having to constantly go through multiple signs to arrive at the pitch he wanted to throw was visibly irritating Vogelsong. It all came to a head on this 1-2 pitch to Denard Span with no outs in the 5th inning. Vogelsong gave off some bad body language, Bruce Bochy started barking from the dugout, Vogelsong started walking toward Cuzzi, who told him not to, and Vogelsong was ejected.

In the full highlight, you can see Vogelsong said something to the effect of, "I didn't say anything to you," so again, I think he may have been frustrated with Susac and/or motioning to Susac and not to Cuzzi. Regardless, Vogelsong was tossed, Bochy was soon to follow, and the Giants suffered their sixth straight loss in front of a national television audience. Their record fell to 42-41 and they trailed the Dodgers by four games in the division.

6) Justin Bour's Walk-Off Home Run

A mere four games prior, this happened. The Giants led 5-3 going into the 9th inning with Santiago Casilla on the mound. It seemed like a no-brainer victory. Three batters later, the game was over. Easily one of the worst losses of the year.

5) Aoki Hit in Head by Fastball; Giants Swept in Four-Game Series

This was the series in which the Cubs said to the Giants, "We're better than you." And it was true. There was no denying it after this miserable four-game sweep. Aoki getting drilled in the head mere days after coming back from his broken leg was just the cherry on top of this nightmarish sundae from hell. 

4) Dodgers Clinch N.L. West at AT&T Park

Controversy! I have the Dodgers eliminating the Giants and clinching the division at AT&T Park as just the fourth-worst moment of the season. How can that be? I was at this game, and to be honest it wasn't even that painful. It felt like a foregone conclusion at that point. The Giants had to win and the Dodgers had to lose something like their final eight games in order for the Giants to have a chance. Which, of course, didn't happen. The real pain of losing the season happened in these final three instances...

3) Dodgers Sweep Early September Series

Just in case you weren't sick of looking at Clayton Kershaw, here he is again. The Giants entered this three-game series in L.A. 3.5 games behind the first place Dodgers with 32 games to play. A sweep and we'll be just a half game back, many of us were thinking optimistically. But San Francisco blew a 3-1 lead and lost the first game, 5-4, in 14 innings; they lost a Madison Bumgarner start, 2-1, in game two; and Kershaw pitched a complete game with 15 strikeouts for the sweep in game three. The Giants came into the series hopeful but left L.A. 69-64, on a five-game losing streak, 6.5 games back with 29 to play.

2) Giants Blow 6-0 Lead, Lose in Extras; Pierzynski a Hero

The Giants led this game 6-0 in the sixth inning, 7-5 with two outs in the ninth, and 8-7 in the 12th. A.J. Pierzynski homered to tie it with two outs in the ninth. Kelby Tomlinson debuted and scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th, but Vogelsong surrendered a two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the frame and the Braves won, 9-8. This was immediately after a brutal loss in Texas and it was at the very beginning of the Stretch of Doom. It was Part II of the beginning of the end.

1) Pence Hits Into Double Play in Key Situation

Here we have the actual beginning of the end. This one hurt a lot. More than any other moment in 2015. It was the first series of the Stretch of Doom.  The Giants had been 8-2 in their last 10 games. They were 57-46 overall, just 1.5 games behind L.A. This was the rubber game of the series. The Giants had overcome a 7-4, 8th inning deficit the previous night and won the game in extra innings. Hunter Pence had delivered a clutch go-ahead home run in the 11th. 

The next day, the Giants were stifled all afternoon by Martin Perez, who was scoreless through 8 innings despite entering the game with an ERA over 7.00. The Giants finally rallied and got Perez out of the game in the 9th. 

It was all set up for Pence, who was facing Sam Dyson, the man he took deep the previous game. The count was 2-0, the bases were loaded with one out, and the Giants trailed by only one run. A win would mean a series victory and a happy flight to Atlanta. It would be a positive beginning to a treacherous stretch. It would mean a 58-46 record. But instead, it all came crumbling down in a heartbeat. Pence bounced into a 6-4-3 double play and with it, the season started to unravel. 

The very next night in Atlanta, A.J. Pierzynski and the Braves overcame the 6-0 deficit to win in extra innings. After the Giants won the next two in Atlanta, they were swept in the four-game series with the Cubs in which Aoki was hit in the head and essentially done for the year. Two weeks later, Starling Marte happened. Then the sweep in L.A. The Padres had their back-to-back walk-offs. And suddenly it was all over. 

Looking back, this double play perfectly represented the Giants 2015 season. The bases were loaded with one out, down by just a run. There was a good hitter at the plate in a good hitter's count. The Giants were primed to do something special. But just when we got our hopes up, it all went away abruptly. 

In the end, when the Dodgers clinched the division, it didn't even sting. The real pain of the lost season occurred in Texas, in Atlanta, in Miami, in Chicago. It's never clear ahead of time what moments will define a baseball season. Baseball is so unpredictable in that way. Now, a new year is upon us, and a new baseball season is around the corner. It's 2016time to "get even."