2015 In Time of Possession

I have a great deal of interest in the Mariners having hired Jerry Dipoto, so once they made it official, I set about reading as much as I could about what he’d done and what he intended to do. As part of that research, I re-visited an old article at ESPN written by Sam Miller, talking about the Angels’ attempts to improve their whole player-development system. The article was more about Scott Servais than Dipoto, and Servais might not come to work with Dipoto in Seattle, but the article is just good regardless of what it might or might not mean for the Mariners going forward, and some of the way through I found the following pair of lines:

The Angels’ PD staff — half of it hired or in new positions since Servais took over — has become used to seeing its unconventional ideas tested. In the Dominican Republic, the Angels started measuring time of possession.

Time of possession is a familiar statistic to fans of other sports. It’s very much unfamiliar to fans of baseball, because baseball is the sport that doesn’t even keep time, so it’s not something you hear about. But, reading that section was all I needed. It put the idea in my head, and there was no getting it out without writing this post. Because of that excerpt, I’ve calculated time of possession for the regular season just gone. One thing’s for sure: you can’t say I didn’t do this.

I didn’t calculate time of possession, directly. I approximated it, using our leaderboards to find total pitch information and average pace. For the hitters and pitchers of each team, I simply multiplied the pitches by the average pace, and that should work well enough to capture time spent hitting or pitching. One thing this leaves out is mid-inning pitching changes. It also leaves out, say, mound meetings and pick-off attempts. The truest measure would be just measuring inning lengths from start to finish, but that would take a while and my method took about a minute and a half so I’m content with going the easy way.

I should also say that, for these purposes, I’m defining “possession” as “on offense,” as opposed to literally being in possession of the ball. This way, a higher number is a better number, in theory. I calculated, for the hitters, hours spent hitting. For the pitchers, I calculated hours spent pitching. Then I subtracted the latter from the former, for one representation of the result, and I also calculated a rate stat, putting time on offense over all time. Both are presented below, sort of.

I know full well there’s a reason this doesn’t get talked about much, and it’s not because no one’s thought of it before. I also know it’s easy enough to imagine how this could be helpful. A team that’s always hitting might wear the opponent down. A team that’s always on defense might itself wear down. Come up with whatever explanations you want. I don’t want to lead anyone to believe this is hugely important, or even a little important! It’s just, here’s information you haven’t seen before, in graph form.

This season in time on offense – time on defense:

time-of-possession-2015

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Blue Jays leading the pack. By this method, combined, they spent nearly a full day more at the plate than in the field. The next-closest team was behind by about six hours. The Jays’ lineup is brutal and almost relentless. It’s offered few breaks, and it’s generated a lot of long innings. Meanwhile, the Jays’ pitching staff had baseball’s fastest average pace, owing in part to Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. David Price isn’t a fast worker, pitch to pitch, but he negates that by being efficient. And Toronto relievers had the second-fastest pace, so it wasn’t all about the starters.

The Yankees are at the other end, although their difference isn’t as extreme as the Jays’ is. Yankees pitchers had baseball’s slowest average pace, while the lineup came in sixth-fastest. Just right here, that’s indication enough that there’s more than one way to be successful. The Jays led baseball in time of possession, and they’re in the playoffs. The Yankees finished last, and they’re in the playoffs. I warned you this wouldn’t be super important.

But, we’re already here, so we might as well go deeper. The Blue Jays batted for about 21 more hours than they pitched and fielded. Another way of expressing that is that, out of all the Blue Jays baseball this year, they spent just under 54% of it on offense. Very obviously, the average is 50%. We have this information going back to 2008, so now here are the top 10 teams in time of possession as a rate statistic:

Top 10, Time of Possession(%), 2008 – 2015
Team Season Time of Possession% Win%
Blue Jays 2015 53.8% 0.574
Nationals 2014 53.2% 0.593
Athletics 2014 53.1% 0.543
Nationals 2015 52.9% 0.512
Athletics 2013 52.8% 0.593
Phillies 2010 52.7% 0.599
Mariners 2010 52.7% 0.377
Diamondbacks 2012 52.6% 0.500
Phillies 2011 52.6% 0.630
Athletics 2008 52.5% 0.466

Blue Jays win! It might not seem like 54% is extreme, but it’s separated from the average by 2.9 standard deviations. The spread here is very tight, so the Blue Jays win as the team that, relatively speaking, wore its opponent down the most. You can see that most of the teams in here were fairly successful, with a couple exceptions. In one sense, the 2010 Mariners spent a lot of time hitting. In a second, no less accurate sense, the 2010 Mariners spent very little time hitting. The A’s have a big presence here because of their patient lineups. Recent Nationals teams show up because of their fast-working pitchers.

Where there’s a top 10, there’s a bottom 10:

Bottom 10, Time of Possession(%), 2008 – 2015
Team Season Time of Possession% Win%
Astros 2013 46.7% 0.315
Rays 2014 46.9% 0.475
Red Sox 2009 47.3% 0.586
Astros 2010 47.4% 0.469
Astros 2009 47.4% 0.457
Rockies 2012 47.5% 0.395
Blue Jays 2012 47.6% 0.451
Blue Jays 2010 47.6% 0.525
Yankees 2015 47.8% 0.537
Rays 2013 48.0% 0.564

We get a cameo from this year’s Yankees, but the lowest possession rate belongs to the Astros from a few years ago, when they were really really terrible. Four of these 10 teams finished with good records, so again, obviously, there’s not a real strong relationship here. The 2009 Red Sox pitching staff was, shall we say, deliberate, but it clearly wasn’t too detrimental. I wish we didn’t have to live through that era of Red Sox and Yankees baseball, but if that hadn’t happened maybe the newer pace-of-game improvements wouldn’t have happened, so in the end we’re better for the experience. If only we’d known then.

Just to make absolutely sure you don’t make too much of this, here’s the relationship between time of possession(%) and success:

winning-time-of-possession

There’s the hint of a relationship, and it’s not nothing, but the points are scattered and the relationship is weak, so it’s not like this is something you’d want to classify as a true team strength or weakness. It’s a trait, to be sure, more extreme for some teams than others, but you’ve got your quick strikers and your slow strikers, your quick workers and your methodical ones. Consider it somewhat a matter of style. That’s probably the best way to put it.

The Blue Jays’ style: control the pace. For the eight years for which we have data, this year’s Blue Jays have the very greatest rate of possession. In the playoffs, now, maybe that will even do something for them.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

22 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

Jeff, you’re crazy and we love you.

I’m excited to watch these Blue Jays in the playoffs. Hopefully for the maximum possible number of games.

Benjaminmember
7 years ago

So you want them to win in 5, win in 7, and then go 7 games and win or lose, who cares? It seems an odd thing to root for. =)

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

Yeah, it is. My team isn’t in the playoffs, but a clutch of Other Teams I Like are in the playoffs, so I’m rooting for the Jays, Astros, Royals, Cubs, or Pirates to win it all and am not terribly picky which.

Jiggery pokery
7 years ago

This is a pretty great year for playoffs — only STL and LAD would be kind of boring winners. Should be a great few weeks of baseball.

Los
7 years ago

How are the Yankees an interesting winner? At least the Dodgers have Friedman and haven’t won in a while. My interestingness Power Rankings are:

1)Pirates (Cubs objectively but I prefer the Pirates)
2)Cubs
3)Blue Jays
4)Royals
5)Astros
6)Rangers
7)Dodgers
8)Mets
9)Cardinals
10)Yankees