Friday, April 22, 2005

White Sox/Twins series report, aka DIPS baby DIPS

I managed to attend both games of the 2-game series between the White Sox and Twins on Monday and Tuesday. The White Sox won both games, meaning that I still have not seen them lose a game in person. The streak has to be around 15 games by now. If it ever reaches 20, I will prepare my resume and apply to be General Manager, or failing that, clubhouse good luck charm. The White Sox contradicted their new "small ball" marketing ploy by clubbing 3 homers in the first game. They scored a couple of scrappy runs on Tuesday, but still benefitted from Paul Konerko's major league leading 7th gopher ball. The Chicago papers have already written about the Sox continued reliance on homers, so I won't repeat them. I will say that the Sox had better start changing something, because they have drawn the fewest walks in the majors so far. Needless to say, it's hard to play small ball with no one on base, and solo homers are not the foundation of a high-powered offense.

Chicago's pitching was plain unimpressive, even in victory. Their two Cuban ex-Yankee starters labored through their innings, with Jose Contreras particularly struggling. Both gave up double digit hits and got behind in the count and...well...sucked. They managed to win these games because the Twins left an astounding 44 men on base over the two games--20 on Monday, and 24 on Tuesday. This works out to about 2.5 per inning. The Twins also grounded into 6 double plays--3 in each night. While the Twins certainly miss Justin Morneau in the middle of their lineup (he returns from the DL Friday), I would have to guess that the extraordinary number of LOB is more attributable to chance than anything else. A high LOB in a given game is 10-12...having 20+ in consecutive games like that is reminiscent of that Twilighty show about that Zone thing.

On the flip side, the Twins starters, Kyle Lohse and Brad Radke, were decent enough. Neither pitcher walked a batter--in fact, the Twins didn't issue a walk the entire series. While some of this may have to do with the Sox impatience, credit has to go to the Twins entire staff. So far this year, their K:BB ratio is around 6:1, which is utterly absurd, considering the all-time record for a team is around 3.5:1, set by the Unit/Schill Diamondbacks of 2002. Obviously, the Twins can't keep up the 6:1 pace, but Minny fans (ie, half the people who read this site) should take heart--the Twins are putting themselves on base, and keeping their opponents off base. I don't expect them to leave 20 men on base very often (especially with Morneau back), so look for them to reverse their early deficit to the White Sox in short order.

Now I'd like to share a specific observation from Tuesday night's game that illustrates one of the more obscure statistical concepts in baseball, DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics). DIPS theory, in essence, is that the best way to evaluate pitchers is to look at the statistics that do not depend on defense--strikeout rates, walk rates, HBP rates, home run rates (the number of inside-the-park homers is statistically insignificant), and intentional walks. Voros McCracken's 2001 article posited that pitchers have no control over balls put in play--in other words, hits allowed tells you nothing about a pitcher's performance. It turned out that McCracken's study was flawed--here is Tom Tippett's excellent rebuttal. For those of you who don't feel like reading the two articles (you should, though), the conclusion is that pitchers do have some form of control over hit prevention--in other words, good pitchers prevent hits to a greater rate than bad pitchers--but it is a tenuous control at best. The bottom of the 1st inning of Tuesday night's Twins/Sox game perfectly illustrated this idea. With none out and two men on, Carl Everett lofted a potential sac fly to centerfield. After making a routine catch, R&B superstar/centerfielder Torii Hunter made the best throw I have seen in person--a 310 foot one-hopper that would have been called a strike had he been pitching--to erase Scott Podsednik, one of the fastest and smartest baserunners in the majors. Podsednik might have even been safe if Joe Mauer hadn't done such an excellent job blocking the plate. Pods beat the throw, but never touched home, a fact that the 18,000+ Sox fans conveniently overlooked when they started abusing the umpire. As if that play weren't enough, Jacque Jones plucked a sinking drive from Konerko off the tips of the outfield grass, saving another run (Iguchi was on 2nd and running on contact) and ending the inning.

This sequence of events is crucial to understanding the idea of DIPS. Radke got credit for pitching a scoreless inning even though that he didn't do all that much to prevent runs--in fact, his pitches probably should have cost him runs. I have no doubt that if Radke had almost any other major league outfields behind him (I can't think of any centerfielder with Hunter's arm, and only Ichiro has more range in right than Jones), at least 2 runs would have scored in that inning. The idea of DIPS is that we shouldn't give credit to the pitcher when credit is due to the defense. I didn't quite get this until I saw it in action on Tuesday. My advice to everyone? Don't look at wins and losses, and don't look at hits allowed. Hell, don't even look at ERA. Check the strikeouts and walks and homers, and you'll have a better idea of how well a pitcher has performed.

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