Tuesday, August 18, 2015

California Legalized Beanballs

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

While on one of my usual rants about how I think pitchers who intentionally throw at batters are criminal, I found the following decision, Avila v. Citrus Community College Dist. (2006) 38 C4th 148, from the Supreme Court of California in 2006, with the opinion delivered by Justice Werdegar and the dissent delivered by Justice Kennard. It turns out that my rants been wrong all these years. By a 6-1 decision, the court ruled that a pitcher intentionally hitting a batter is an accepted part of the game of baseball.

I think it's worth looking into this precedent-setting decision though as it makes a number of dubious claims which I take issue with. I should note right away that I'm not a lawyer, and I've never even played one on TV. Any interpretation I make in the reading of this decision should be made under that context, but I'll do my best to highlight what I deem are the important and relevant parts.

First, the circumstances of the case as stated in the decision:
Jose Luis Avila, a Rio Hondo Community College (Rio Hondo) student, played baseball for the Rio Hondo Roadrunners. On January 5, 2001, Rio Hondo was playing a preseason road game against the Citrus Community College Owls (Citrus College). During the game, a Roadrunners pitcher hit a Citrus College batter with a pitch; when Avila came to bat in the top of the next inning, the Citrus College pitcher hit him in the head with a pitch, cracking his batting helmet. Avila alleges the pitch was an intentional "beanball" thrown in retaliation for the previous hit batter or, at a minimum, was thrown negligently.  
Avila staggered, felt dizzy, and was in pain. The Rio Hondo manager told him to go to first base. Avila did so, and when he complained to the Rio Hondo first base coach, he was told to stay in the game. At second base, he still felt pain, numbness, and dizziness. A Citrus College player yelled to the Rio Hondo dugout that the Roadrunners needed a pinch runner. Avila walked off the field and went to the Rio Hondo bench. No one tended to his injuries. As a result, Avila suffered unspecified serious personal injuries.
It must be noted that this case is not one regarding criminal charges to the pitcher. That is the case I would be most interested in seeing as it would apply directly to the intent of the pitcher. This case also does not involve players at the professional level where the expected skill level would be greater. However, this is what is available. In addition to this lawsuit,
Avila sued both schools, his manager, the helmet manufacturer, and various other entities and organizations. Only the claims against the Citrus Community College District (the District) are before [the court].
This suit is to decide whether or not the District was negligent. Avila makes the following four consolidated claims of the District's negligence:
  1. The District was negligent in failing to summon or provide medical care for him when he was obviously in need of it.
  2. The District failed to supervise and control the Citrus College pitcher.
  3. The District failed to provide umpires or other supervisory personnel to control the game and prevent retaliatory or reckless pitching, and failed to provide adequate equipment to safeguard him from serious head injury
  4. The District acted negligently by failing to take reasonable steps to train and supervise its managers, trainers, employees, and agents in providing medical care to injured players and by conducting an illegal preseason game in violation of community college baseball rules designed to protect participants.
There is significant discussion in the decision as to whether or not a college exhibition game is considered a "recreational activity" and if therefore the District is immune under a specified government code. I'm going to skip over all that as well as any above listed element that does not relate directly to the alleged intentional hit-by-pitch. Whether or not the exhibition game should have been allowed to be played may be important for determining if the District was negligent, but I want to focus on whether or not intentionally hitting a batter is considered part of the normal play of baseball.

First the decision recaps the definition of assumption of risk:
[T]here are in fact two species of assumption of risk: primary and secondary. Primary assumption of the risk arises when, as a matter of law and policy, a defendant owes no duty to protect a plaintiff from particular harms. [...] Applied in the sporting context, it precludes liability for injuries arising from those risks deemed inherent in a sport; as a matter of law, others have no legal duty to eliminate those risks or otherwise protect a sports participant from them. [...] Under this duty approach, a court need not ask what risks a particular plaintiff subjectively knew of and chose to encounter, but instead must evaluate the fundamental nature of the sport and the defendant's role in or relationship to that sport in order to determine whether the defendant owes a duty to protect a plaintiff from the particular risk of harm.
The decision further establishes that
[C]oparticipants have a duty not to act recklessly, outside the bounds of the sport [...], and coaches and instructors have a duty not to increase the risks inherent in sports participation.
This primary assumption of risk would seem to apply to inherent risks of the sport. In my view these would be accidental, but unavoidable, injuries that could arise due to the nature of the sport, for example breaking a finger sliding into a base, tearing an ACL running, and injuries resulting from a pitcher accidentally hitting a batter on a pitch. I do not believe that batters being hit is completely avoidable. Any time a human element is involved there is the potential for things to go wrong. When a batter stands within a foot of the strike zone target the pitcher is throwing at, the slightest mistake could lead to the batter being hit. The primary assumption of risk in my view (and there are citations to this within the decision) would therefore be that the pitcher may hit the batter when aiming for the strike zone (or even slightly inside). It would not seem to apply in my view when the pitcher is directly aiming at the batter, in a situation which would seem by definition to be where the pitcher is acting recklessly. However this is where the majority of the court disagrees with me:
Being intentionally hit is likewise an inherent risk of the sport, so accepted by custom that a pitch intentionally thrown at a batter has its own terminology: "brushback," "beanball," "chin music." In turn, those pitchers notorious for throwing at hitters are "headhunters."
Having terminology for something does not make it an accepted custom. Some people notorious for murder sprees are known as "serial killers." The terminology does not make their activities legal. The decision continues,
Pitchers intentionally throw at batters to disrupt a batter's timing or back him away from home plate, to retaliate after a teammate has been hit, or to punish a batter for having hit a home run. [...] Some of the most respected baseball managers and pitchers have openly discussed the fundamental place throwing at batters has in their sport. In George Will's study of the game, Men at Work, one-time Oakland Athletics and current St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa details the strategic importance of ordering selective intentional throwing at opposing batters, principally to retaliate for one's own players being hit.
I'm still not sure how that makes beanballs an inherent part of the game. This still sounds like arbitrary criminal behavior from petulant men who feel the need to violently lash out instead of controlling their emotions. The decision then quotes ex-players,
As Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale and New York Giants All Star pitcher Sal "The Barber" Maglie have explained, intentionally throwing at batters can also be an integral part of pitching tactics, a tool to help get batters out by upsetting their frame of mind.
Holding the batter's children hostage before the game would probably also upset their frame of mind. That doesn't make it an acceptable tactic. How do I know that throwing at a batter is an unacceptable tactic (besides common sense)? The same way Justice Werdegar knows,
It is true that intentionally throwing at a batter is forbidden by the rules of baseball. (See, e.g., Off. Rules of Major League Baseball, rule 8.02(d); National Collegiate Athletic Assn., 2006 NCAA Baseball Rules (Dec. 2005) rule 5, § 16(d), p. 62.)
Somehow that doesn't end the conversation though.
But "even when a participant's conduct violates a rule of the game and may subject the violator to internal sanctions prescribed by the sport itself, imposition of legal liability for such conduct might well alter fundamentally the nature of the sport by deterring participants from vigorously engaging in activity that falls close to, but on the permissible side of, a prescribed rule."
Now I'll agree with part of that. Baseball rules state that the players may not bat out of turn. I don't think breaking that rule should result in tort or criminal proceedings. The entity of Major League Baseball is well setup to handle such violations. However beanballs are a different matter. They are an activity which falls outside the nature of baseball. It's a premeditated attempt to injure another human being. That is a matter for the courts to decide, not just MLB. Again though, the decision disagrees with me.
It is one thing for an umpire to punish a pitcher who hits a batter by ejecting him from the game, or for a league to suspend the pitcher; it is quite another for tort law to chill any pitcher from throwing inside, i.e., close to the batter's body--a permissible and essential part of the sport--for fear of a suit over an errant pitch. For better or worse, being intentionally thrown at is a fundamental part and inherent risk of the sport of baseball. It is not the function of tort law to police such conduct.
It seems even in this critical passage though that they are confusing two different behaviors. Throwing a pitch inside is a permissible and essential part of the sport. That isn't what this lawsuit is about though. As Avila alleges, this wasn't an inside pitch that the pitcher lost control of. It was aimed intentionally at the batter. The above passage doesn't seem to distinguish between the two behaviors. Since intentionally hitting a batter is therefore an inherent risk of the sport, it falls under primary assumption of risk, or in the Justice Werdegar's words:
[W]e acknowledged that an athlete does not assume the risk of a coparticipant's intentional or reckless conduct "totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport." Here, even if the Citrus College pitcher intentionally threw at Avila, his conduct did not fall outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport. The District owed no duty to Avila to prevent the Citrus College pitcher from hitting batters, even intentionally. Consequently, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk bars any claim predicated on the allegation that the Citrus College pitcher negligently or intentionally threw at Avila. 
The dissent states that the suit should have been allowed to be amended to add a proper battery claim. However the decision states that would not be applicable.
Absence of consent is an element of battery. [...] "One who enters into a sport, game or contest may be taken to consent to physical contacts consistent with the understood rules of the game." [...] the baseball player who steps to the plate consents to the possibility the opposing pitcher may throw near or at him. The complaint establishes Avila voluntarily participated in the baseball game; as such, his consent would bar any battery claim as a matter of law.
They state that the physical contact should be consistent with the understood rules of the game. However the rules of the game that the decision itself quotes state that intentionally hitting a batter is not allowed. They cite other examples such as "a football player who steps onto the gridiron consents to his opponent's hard tackle," however that is clearly a completely different issue. Tackling is not just an inherent risk of the football, it is a mandatory component of the game. Intentionally hitting a batter is not. I side much more with the dissent which opens by stating,
[T]he majority holds that a baseball pitcher owes no duty to refrain from intentionally throwing a baseball at an opposing player's head. This is a startling conclusion. It is contrary to the official view in the sport that such conduct "should be -- and is -- condemned by everybody." (Off. Rules of Major League Baseball, rule 8.02(d), off. coms.).
The dissent further states that it holds many of the "facts" stated in the decision to be "universally known" and is upset over the fact that expert witnesses could not be called to attest as to whether intentionally hitting a batter is an inherent risk. Those experts could attest that beanballs are often not tolerated and there are particularly harsher penalties at the collegiate level.

The dissent's final concern however may be the most important:
[T]he majority's application of the no-duty-for-sports rule to include pitches intentionally thrown at a batter's head is an ill-conceived expansion of that rule into intentional torts. In Knight, the plaintiff alleged only that the defendant acted negligently [...], and the plurality there justified the no-duty-for-sports rule with the comment that a baseball player should not be held liable "for an injury resulting from a carelessly thrown ball or bat during a baseball game". Here, however, the majority applies that rule to hold that the trial court properly sustained the District's demurrer to Avila's cause of action alleging an intentional tort, in which he alleged that the pitch that hit him "was thrown in a deliberate retaliatory fashion, with reckless disregard for the safety of plaintiff." Even if I were to accept the majority's misguided no-duty-for-sports rule, I would apply it only to causes of action for negligence, not for intentional torts.
This sets the dangerous precedent where negligent and intentional actions are combined into one. I'm not entirely sure how we got to the point where intentionally hitting a batter became an accepted practice in both baseball and a court of law. It's childish, dangerous, completely unnecessary, and needs to be done away with immediately. Batters are already getting seriously injured. It's been fatal before and it will be fatal again. I think I've just about exhausted myself in repetition on this subject by now, so I'll leave the final words to Justice Kennard's dissent which reflect my views well:
Under traditional assumption-of-risk analysis, "sports participants owe each other a duty to refrain from unreasonably risky conduct that may cause harm." [...] Intentionally hitting another person in the head with a hard object thrown at a high speed is highly dangerous and is potentially tortious, no matter whether the object is a ball thrown on a baseball field or is a rock thrown on a city street.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

An Exciting World Series

I hate this World Series. I hate the Giants who are trying to win their third championship in five years even though almost the exact same team was unable to make the playoffs in those other two years. I hate any sentence that involves the phrase “even number year.” I hate that the Giants’ best hitter is their catcher. Not that Buster Posey isn’t amazing, but any team that can’t get at least a better AVG or SLG from any other position should be ashamed of itself. I hate how even with Matt Cain injured and Tim Lincecum far past the point of being a viable starter that the Giants were able to still find enough quality starts to make it to the postseason.

As much as I hate the Giants though, it’s nothing compared to how much I despise the Royals. Sure, this all started because I didn’t want the Blue Jays to have the longest postseason drought in the league, but with every unlikely walkoff win I find myself hating this team a little more. Simply put, this team has no business being here, and they’re stealing an opportunity from a much more deserving team.

David Schoenfield has explained how this is basically the worst World Series matchup of all time. The Royals were 9th in runs scored, 4th in runs against, and had only the 7th best win-expectancy in the American League. I wish I could attribute their overachievement to effective managing, but 8 playoff games have been more than enough to disprove that. For as pathetic they’ve been as a team though, individually they’ve been even worse.

No player on the Royals hit 20 home runs. Only 3 players even managed to hit 10 balls out of the park. No American League pennant winner has done even one of those since the 1959 White Sox (excluding shortened seasons). In fact only the 1982 Cardinals have won the pennant without players hitting for such power since the mound was lowered in 1969.

Highest individual RBI total on the Royals: Alex Gordon’s 74. Last AL pennant winner to not have a player reach 75 RBIs in a non-shortened season: The 1916 Boston Red Sox. That includes a lot of teams playing 154-game seasons.

The Royals don’t even walk. Alex Gordon led the team with 65 walks. Only two teams (2010 Rangers, 1990 Reds) were able to win a pennant without hitting that threshold since the mound was lowered. Alex Gordon also led the team with a .432 slugging percentage. Another feat unaccomplished by an AL pennant winner since the mound was lowered, and occurred only once in the NL (1973 Mets).

If there are no batting stars, maybe at least there are some pitchers to attract people to watch! Wins may be an outdated stat but the Royals are only the second AL pennant winner (2008 Rays) to not have a 15-game winner since the mound was lowered. They do have that amazing bullpen though, and if the game reaches the 7th inning before I fall asleep I’ll be excited to watch them.

I really wanted to turn this into a referendum on the current playoff format, unfortunately that’s tough to do. The Giants wouldn’t have made the playoffs under the previous system, but the Royals would have been the traditional Wild Card team. Expanding the first round to seven games wouldn’t have even done much as the Royals would have been up 3-0 going into the fourth game of the ALDS at home against the Angels.

Instead I’ll write about what it means to have an exciting playoffs. The games this year have been close, competitive, with frequent extra-inning affairs and walkoff hits. Many of them from unlikely sources such as Kolten Wong or Travis Ishikawa. The underdog mentality, focused on both the players and the teams, seems to bring fans to their feet and cheer. But is this really what we should be celebrating during the playoffs?

MLB plays a 162-game season, precisely because the game-to-game variability in baseball requires such a large sample size before the good and bad teams can be differentiated. Unfortunately the playoffs present the exact opposite scenario. A one game series, followed by a best-of-five series, followed by two best-of-seven series, with a ton of offdays squeezed in don’t truly capture the seasonal flow of baseball. That can make them exciting because it creates a situation where anyone can win. The problem is that when anyone can win, anyone can win. This year is a prime example.

Baseball is exciting already. There’s no need to manufacture situations to create more excitement. When that happens we end up with undeserving winners. The underdog story is fun, but it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. In the future when we look back at the narrative and storylines of the 2014 season, at no point until the final pages will we ever think read either the Royals or Giants are the best team. That isn’t a fun twist ending, it’s a bait-and-switch.

I don’t think that we need to go back to having only 1 or 2 teams make the playoffs in each league. Different schedules and injuries aren’t necessarily well reflected in the standings. The playoff structure could use revisions though to ensure that the best teams are given their earned advantages. I’m not against the excitement of an underdog, but I do find it more exciting watching the best teams face off against each other.

Then again, if the Royals are going to win 8 straight games none of this matters anyway. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Examining Playoff Probabilities

On June 6, 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays record stood at 38-24. They had a 6 game lead in the division, had just won 15 of 17 games, and were the only team in the AL East with a positive run differential (+53). According to the playoff odds on the mlb.com standings page, powered by Baseball Prospectus, the Blue Jays had an 86% chance of making the playoffs.

Maybe it was the cynical Jays fan in me who had been sitting witness to a 20-year playoff drought, but I couldn’t help look at those playoff odds with a high degree of skepticism. The Jays had just finished an epic winning streak, everything Encarnacion swung at was going out of the park, the team was still relatively healthy, and the rotation consisted of Stroman who had two career starts, Hutchinson coming off a bad injury with no real track record, and JA Happ who is JA Happ. Everything to that point in the season that could have gone right had gone right. Buehrle was even 10-1 and if there’s one thing that Buehrle has shown over his career is that his final numbers rarely change.

The factor that scared me the most though was that there were still 100 games left in the season. We’ve seen enough division winners lose 6 game leads in September in recent years, so I’m to believe that there’s only a 14% chance that the Jays get passed with almost 4 months left? Forget the Jays, it seemed crazy to me that any team could have such high playoff odds with so many games left to play.

So with the season now over, it seems prudent to review the playoff probabilities and how they compared to the actual resulting playoff teams. First let’s quickly review how Baseball Prospectus determines the playoff odds.

Firstly, a type of adjusted Pythagorean winning percentage is determined for each team. This is based on three factors: 1) Pythagorean record based on runs scored and allowed, 2) Expected record based on normalized runs scored and allowed, and 3) Expected record based on normalized runs scored and allowed adjusted to strength of opposition. This record is then regressed toward the mean.

Each game is then “simulated” one million times based on the calculated winning percentages for each team. For each game the winning percentage of each team is given a random adjustment to account for day-to-day variations, as well as a slight adjustment depending on whether it is the home or away team. The expected winning percentage for a game is determined using the log5 method. For each simulated game, a uniform random number between 0 and 1 is chosen. If the number is less than the winning probability for Team A, then Team A wins the game, if it is greater, than Team B wins the game. After each of the one million simulations, the number of times that a team makes the playoffs is divided by one million to determine the playoff probability. The simulations are repeated each day for all future games. Further details are available here and here.

I gathered all the probabilities for every team for every day for the past three seasons. Although this isn’t a completely valid assumption, I considered the probabilities calculated for each day as an independent event. This resulted in 16935 samples. I then grouped the samples into 5% bins and determined how many of the samples corresponded to teams that made the playoffs. If the calculated probabilities are correct we would expect the percentage of teams in each bin that made the playoffs to equal the percentage value corresponding to that bin. The results are shown in the following graph, with the expected height of each bar equal to the black line.

The results actually fared better than I expected, with a 6.5% root mean squared error (RMSE). My suspicions were correct that the model tended to be overconfident, in that not as many teams in the 80% range make the playoffs as predicted and similarly more teams in the 20% range do make the playoffs than predicted, however not to the extreme degree that I would have thought.

It’s helpful to also examine different parts of the season. The results for the first half of the season are shown in the following figure. This again shows that the model is overconfident and would benefit from pushing more teams toward the 50% mark. However it is still quite accurate given how many games are left to play and the vast changes that occur with so many games remaining. The RMSE is only slightly higher than for the full season results, at 7.2%.

The results for the second half of the season are actually worse, 8.6% RMSE. This is surprising since fewer games need to be simulated so there is less left up to chance. However that also leaves less room for error and less time for teams to regress to the mean. There were seemingly a few teams that the model should have been more confident in making the playoffs in the 70% range.

It should be noted that this is still a fairly limited sample. The 16935 samples are really only 90 teams, of which only 30 made the playoffs. However I’m still fairly impressed by the performance of the model, especially given that it does not make any predictions about team activity. The same winning percentage is used as the base for calculations (before the random variation is applied) for every remaining game in the season. This means the effects of the pitching rotation are ignored. The Mariners would effectively have the same odds of winning any game that Felix Hernandez starts as they would in any game that Roenis Elias starts. This assumption is difficult to avoid since rotations can be extremely difficult to predict more than five days in advance. However the random variation applied to each game could become more structured to possibly account for this.

Similarly injury concerns or future trades aren’t factored into the model. Neither is the chance that a team out of the running will use most of its 40 man roster in September and drop its expected winning percentage further. The expected run values can also be difficult to calculate after all the offseason activity, and for that reason the playoff odds are kept constant for the first month of the season.

After analyzing the odds though, I’ll probably take them a little more seriously next season, at least before I can perform another analysis with an added year of samples. After all large division leads early in the season still mean something. On that same June 6th, the Giants had a 9 game division lead and a 98% playoff probability. They may have lost the division lead, but they still clinched a wild card berth with 3 games left to play.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Serving Your Time

AP Photo/Newly

According to the MLB CBA, players with at least 10 years of major league service time who have been with their current club for at least 5 consecutive years cannot be traded without their consent. This clause is rarely relevant due to either its difficulty to obtain or the fact that the player has already negotiated a no-trade clause into his contract. Most players never accumulate 10 years of service time and reaching that point while staying with a team for at least five straight years usually requires a significant skill level. This is why these rights are so rarely mentioned. The caliber of player who would have them would usually be able to negotiate a no-trade clause into their deal regardless. Derek Jeter can't be traded because of his 10-and-5 rights, but if those didn't exist I hardly think he'd have a difficult time obtaining a no-trade clause.

Many players also are able to get a no-trade clause before they even have 10-and-5 rights. This is usually the result of being drafted by a team and signing an extension before hitting free agency. Adam Wainwright has only slightly over 8 years of service time, but when he signed his extension in 2013 he also got a full no-trade clause. This effectively only matters until the end of the 2015 when his 10-and-5 rights would kick in about a month into the season, however it does mean that if he chooses to waive his rights and be traded he would keep the no-trade clause on his new team.

There are less obvious cases though where a player, not necessarily a superstar, is able to stick around with a team for long enough to get his 10-and-5 rights. These are particularly important when there was no no-trade clause previously negotiated into his contract. The following are some of the more interesting cases where a player could gain 10-and-5 rights over the next year and what effects it may have. Players are listed with their service time entering the 2014 season in the form years.days. Note that a year of service time is equal to 172 days.

Jose Bautista (8.165 ST, with Blue Jays since middle of 2008 season)
Jose Bautista will gain his 10-and-5 rights a week into the 2015 season. He's signed through the 2015 season with a team option for 2016 which will be his age 35 season. At the moment that 2016 option seems like a no-brainer to pick up, but with the Jays aging and expensive core, that 2016 option may become difficult to exercise if Bautista cannot be traded without his consent. If the team and Bautista do not age well over the next season, only warm memories may keep him in Toronto in 2016.

John Lackey (11.095 ST, with Red Sox since 2010)
John Lackey has an extremely unusual contract. Due to injury concerns when he signed with the Red Sox, there was a clause inserted into his contract that if Lackey missed significant time due to injury, the Red Sox get a team option for 2015 at $500K. With Lackey having missed the 2012 season, but now back to pitching adequately, that option for next season looks like a steal. However since it comes after his initial 5 year deal with the club finishes, Lackey will also get his 10-and-5 rights if the Red Sox pick up the option. It's ironic that one of the most tradeable contracts in baseball becomes untradeable due to the length of Lackey's previous deal. I don't think that this would prevent the Red Sox from picking up the option, however if they try to negotiate an extension instead, a no-trade clause is not something that Lackey would need to negotiate.

Coco Crisp (10.158 ST, with Athletics since 2010)
Now in his fifth season with Oakland, Crisp has already signed three different contracts with the Athletics. This is one of the more unusual scenarios for 10-and-5 rights to pop up. A player bounces around with a number of teams (the A's are Crisp's fourth), however a number of short deals allows a player to stay in one city long enough to gain his no-trade rights. With Crisp signing an extension through 2016 (plus a 2017 vesting option), if he stays with the Athletics for the rest of the season, he can no longer be traded without his consent. This doesn't exactly fit in with the Athletics M.O. as he'd be the only player on the team with a no-trade clause and the Athletics are one of the more active teams on the trade market. It therefore wouldn't shock me if Crisp was dealt before the trade deadline this year just so the Athletics can avoid this situation. They may be a first place team right now that relies on Crisp's skills, but it's small moves like this that allow small market teams like Oakland to be competitive every year without being hamstrung by difficult contracts.

Brandon Phillips (9.022 ST, with Reds since 2006)
There have been trade rumours surrounding Phillips for a couple years now and to protect himself he had a limited no-trade clause (can't be dealt to 10 teams) negotiated into his most recent deal. However once we pass the August trade deadline this year, that limited no-trade clause will turn into a full no-trade clause under his 10-and-5 rights. That's a scary proposition for the Reds who have Phillips signed through 2017, his age 36 season. Middle infielders aren't exactly known for aging gracefully: his OBP and SLG are both down for the third straight year. This will be a tough decision for the Reds who are still trying to make the playoffs this season, but if they keep Phillips past the trade deadline, he's their second baseman for the next three years.

Rickie Weeks (8.131 ST, all with the Brewers)
Rickie Weeks has spent his entire career playing second base for the Brewers where he was once an all-star in 2011, however has since been a poor hitter and fielder, and only part time player. He has a vesting option for 2015 based on his PAs this season that he will almost assuredly not reach. This likely means that this season will be Weeks' last in Milwaukee. He's now a below average player who would get his 10-and-5 rights a little over a month into next season. The Brewers can find comparable talent elsewhere (Scooter Gennett is working well) without being held hostage by a no-trade clause.

Jorge De La Rosa (9.015 ST, with the Rockies since 2008)
De La Rosa will gain his 10-and-5 rights before the end of the season, but as a free agent going into 2015, the Rockies shouldn't feel any more pressure to deal De La Rosa than they would if he wasn't gaining those rights. De La Rosa will probably be looking to get a multi-year deal in free agency and will explore his options around the league. It doesn't make a lot of sense for the Rockies to sign De La Rosa given their current situation especially since he would get a no-trade clause, something De La Rosa would probably have difficulty obtaining from most other teams.

Matt Belisle (8.019 ST, with the Rockies since 2009)
Belisle is a free agent after this season so he would only get his 10-and-5 rights near the end of next season provided he re-signed with the Rockies, so this is likely irrelevant, but Belisle is a particularly interesting case since he is a reliever. Staying with a team for five seasons is generally the exception for relievers, even for the best of them. No current closer for example is even close to obtaining 10-and-5 rights. Belisle hasn't exactly been exceptional for the last few seasons and I doubt that the Rockies are interested in making him one of the few relievers in the league with trade veto rights. It's seems likely that Belisle is pitching in a different jersey next season.

It should be noted that for all these cases when I say a team is "stuck" with a player due to their 10-and-5 rights that isn't entirely true. Players can waive their 10-and-5 no-trade rights just as any player would with a no-trade clause negotiated into their contract. However these are all situations where the team likely never intended for a player to get a no-trade clause and may soon have to deal with the consequences of the players' increased leverage.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why I Don't Use FIP

Note: This was originally posted on Fangraphs Community Research.

Over the last decade, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) has become one of the main tools to evaluate pitchers. The theory behind FIP and similar Defensive Independent Pitching metrics is that ERA is subject to luck and fielder performance on balls in play and is therefore a poor tool to evaluate pitching performance. Since pitchers have little to no control over where batted balls are hit, we should instead look only to the batting outcomes that a pitcher can directly control and which no other fielder affects. In the case of FIP, those outcomes are home runs, strikeouts, walks, and hit batters.

However there are many serious issues with FIP that collectively make me question its usage and value. These issues include the theory behind the need for such a statistic, the actual parameters of the formula’s construction, and the mathematical derivation of the coefficients. Let’s address these issues individually.

Control over balls in play

A common statement when discussing FIP or BABIP is that pitchers have little to no control over the result of a ball once it is hit into play. A pitcher’s main skill is found in directly controllable outcomes where no fielder can affect the play, such as home runs, strikeouts, and walks (and HBP). In trying to estimate a pitcher’s baseline ERA, which is the objective of FIP, the approximately 70% of balls that are put into play can be ignored and we can focus only on the previously mentioned outcomes where no fielder touches the ball. 

The concept of control is a little fuzzy though and something I believe has been misappropriated. It is definitely true that the pitcher does not have 100% absolute control over where a batted ball is hit. There is no pitch that anyone can throw that can guarantee a ball is hit exactly to a particular spot. However in the same vein, the batter doesn’t have 100% absolute control either. If you were to place a dot somewhere on the field, no batter is good enough to hit that spot every time, even if hitting off a tee. 

However this lack of complete control should not in any way imply that the batter or pitcher doesn’t have any control at all over where the ball is hit. Batters hit the ball to places on the field with a certain probability distribution depending on what they are aiming for. Better batters have a tighter distribution with a more narrow range of possibilities and can more accurately hit their target. For example consider a right-handed batter attempting to hit a line drive into left field on an 80 mph fastball down the heart of the plate. A good hitter might hit that line drive hard enough for a double 30% of the time, for a single 30% of the time, directly at the left fielder 10% of the time, and accidentally hit a ground ball 20% of the time. Conversely, a worse batter who has less control over his swing may hit a double 10% of the time, a single 10% of the time, directly at the left fielder 15% of the time, an accidental ground ball 25% of the time, and in this case not even get his swing around the ball fast enough and instead hits the ball weakly towards the second baseman 40% of the time. 

Where the pitcher fits into the entire scheme is in his ability to command the ball to specific locations, with appropriate velocity and spin, as to try to sway the batter’s hit distribution to outcomes where an out is most likely. Consider the good hitter previously mentioned. He accomplished his goal fairly successfully on the meatball-type pitch. What if the same good batter was still trying to hit that line drive to left field, but the pitch instead was a 90 mph slider on the lower outside corner? On such a pitch the good batter’s hit distribution may start to resemble the bad hitter’s hit distribution more closely. This is a slightly contrived and extreme example, but it also encompasses the entire theory of pitching. Pitchers are not trying to just strike out every batter, but instead pitch into situations and to locations where the most likely outcome for a batter is an out.

By this reasoning the pitcher has a lot of control over where and how a batted ball is hit. This does not mean that even on the tougher pitch that the batter can’t still pull a hard double, or even that the weak ground ball to the second baseman won’t find a hole into right field, these are all still possibilities. However by throwing good pitches the pitcher is able to control a shift in the batter’s hit probability distribution. Similarly, better batters are able to make adjustments so that their objective changes according to the pitch. On the slider, the batter may adjust to try to go opposite field. However a good pitch would still make the opposite field attempt difficult. 

This is all to say that better pitchers have more control over how balls are hit into play. They are able to command more pitches to locations where the batter is more likely to hit into outs than if the pitch was thrown to a different location. Worse pitchers don’t have such command or control to hit those locations and balls put into play are decided more by the whims of the batter. FIP takes this control argument too far too the extreme. There is a spectrum of possibilities between absolute control over where a ball is hit and no control over where a ball is hit that involves inducing changes in the probability distribution of where a ball is hit, which is how the game of baseball is actually played. As a simple example, we see that some pitchers are consistently able to induce ground balls more frequently than others. Since about 70% of all plate appearances result in balls being put into play, it is important to actually consider this spectrum of control instead of just assuming that the game is played only at one extreme.

Formula Construction

Let’s pause though and ignore my previous argument that a pitcher can control how balls are hit and we’ll instead assume that all the fielding independence theories are true and we can predict a pitcher’s performance using only the statistics in the FIP formula. This introduces an immediate contradiction since none of the statistics used in the FIP formula (except HBP, which has the smallest contribution and is a prime example of lack of control) are in fact fielder independent. The FIP formula is not actually accounting for its intended purpose. 

The issue of innings pitched in the denominator has been addressed before. Fielders are responsible for collecting outs on balls in play which therefore determines how many innings a pitcher has pitched. However all three of the statistics in the numerator are also affected by the fielding abilities of position players, especially in relation to ballpark dimensions. Catchers’ pitch framing abilities have been shown recently to heavily affect strike and ball calls and could be worth multiple wins per season. Albeit rare events, better outfielders are able to scale the outfield fences and turn potential home runs into highlight reel catches.

More commonly though, better catchers and corner infielders and outfielders can turn potential foul balls into outs. When foul balls are turned into caught pop-ups or flyballs, the at bat ends, thus ending any opportunity for a walk or a strikeout which may have been available to a pitcher with worse fielders behind him. This is particularly harmful to a pitcher’s strikeout total. Whereas a ball landing foul only gives an additional opportunity for a batter to draw a walk, it also moves the batter one strike closer (when there are less than two strikes) to striking out. 

Similarly, instead of analyzing the effects of the fielders, we can look at the size of foul territory. Larger foul territory gives more chances for fielders to make an out since the ball remains over the field of play longer instead of going into the stands. Statistics like xFIP normalize for the size of the park by regressing the amount of flyballs given up to the league average HR/FB rate, however there is no park factor normalization for the strikeout and walk components of FIP. 

We can see the impact immediately by examining the Athletics and Padres, two teams whose home parks have an extremely large foul territory. By considering only the home statistics for pitchers who threw over 50 IP in each of the last five seasons, the Athletics pitchers collectively had a 3.25 ERA, 3.74 FIP, and 4.05 xFIP, while the Padres pitchers collectively had a 3.38 ERA, 3.84 FIP, and 3.86 xFIP. In both cases FIP and xFIP both drastically exceeded ERA. Also, of the 46 pitchers who met these conditions, only 9 pitchers had an ERA greater than their FIP and only 7 had an ERA greater than their xFIP, with 6 of those pitchers overlapping. This isn’t a coincidence. Although caught foul balls steal opportunities away from every type of batting outcome, it is more heavily biased to strikeouts since foul balls increase the strike count.


The mathematics of the FIP formula may be my biggest problem with FIP, mostly because it’s the easiest to fix and hasn’t been. I’ve seen various reasons for using the (13, 3, -2) coefficients in derivations of the FIP formula. Ratios of linear weights, baserun values, or linear regression coefficients are the most common explanations. However none of these address why the final coefficient values are integers, or why they should remain constant from year to year. 

There is absolutely no reason why the coefficients should be integers. Simplicity is a convenient excuse, but it’s highly unnecessary. No one is sitting around calculating FIP values by hand, it’s all done by computers which don’t require such simplicity. By changing the coefficients from their actual values to these integers, error and bias is unnecessarily introduced into the final results. Adjusting the additive coefficient to make league ERA equal league FIP does not solve this problem. 

The baseball climate also changes yearly. New parks are built and the talent pool changes. This changes the value of baseball outcomes with respect to one another. It’s why wOBA coefficients are recalculated annually. However for some reason FIP coefficients remain constant. The additive constant helps in equating the means of ERA and FIP but there is still error since the ratios of HR, BB, and K should also change each year (or at least over multi-year periods). 

I’ve calculated a similar version of FIP, denoted wFIP, for the 2003-2013 seasons using weighted regression on HR, (HBP+BB), K, all divided by IP as they relate to ERA. If we treat each inning pitched as an additional sample, then the variance of the FIP calculation for a pitcher is proportional to the reciprocal of the amount of innings pitched. Weighted regression typically uses the reciprocal of the variance as weights. Therefore in determining FIP coefficients we can use each pitcher’s IP as his respective weight in the regression analysis. The coefficients for the weighted regression compared to their FIP counterparts are shown in the following graph.

FIP and wFIP coefficient values

Ignoring the additive constant, since 2003 each of the three stat coefficients have varied by at least 22% from the FIP coefficient values and are all biased above the FIP integer value almost every year. In 2013 this leads to a weighted absolute average difference of 0.09 per pitcher between the wFIP and FIP values, which is about a 2.3% difference on average. However there are more extreme cases.

Consider Aroldis Chapman, who had a 2.54 ERA and 2.47 FIP in 2013. On first glance this seems to indicate a pitcher whose ERA was in line with his peripheral statistics and if anything was very slightly unlucky. However his wFIP came to 2.96. If we saw this as his FIP value we might be more inclined to believe that he was lucky and his ERA is bound to increase. This difference in opinion would come purely from use of a better regression model, without at all changing the theory behind its formulation. That is a poor reason to swing the future outlook on a player. 

However even with current FIP values, no one would draw the conclusions I did in the previous paragraph that quickly. Upon seeing the difference in FIP (or wFIP) and ERA values, one would look to additional stats such as BABIP, HR/FB rate, or strand rate to determine the cause of the difference and what may transpire in the future. This in fact may be the ultimate problem with FIP. On its own it doesn’t give us any information. Even with the most extreme differentials we always have to look to other statistics to draw any conclusions. So why don’t we make things easier and just look at those other statistics to begin with instead of trying to draw conclusions from a flawed stat with incorrect parameters?