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The 2020 ZiPS Projection Wrap-up, Part III: The Pitchers

The baseball season is over, but the projection season never ends, and this is always the time of the year when I look back and dissect the ZiPS projections. We’ve already checked out the hitters and the teams, leaving us the pitchers as the last bit of unfinished 2020 business. Misses are undoubtedly going to be significant in a 60-game season with little time for things to “even out,” but every mistake in the projections provides a smidgen of new information that hopefully aids in refining the work.

As with the hitters, the pitching projections avoided any systematic bias that would have given us new clues as to how certain types of pitchers fare in a mucked-up season. From age to repertoire to velocity to experience, all groups of pitchers I identified had roughly the same result: the expected reduction in overall accuracy, but no specific bias from a shortened year with a long layoff and two spring trainings.

Let’s dive into the biggest misses in ZiPS. Read the rest of this entry »

The 2020 ZiPS Projection Wrap-up, Part II: The Hitters

While there’s still a bit of baseball left to be played, this is always the time of the year when I dissect the current season’s ZiPS projections. Baseball history is not so long that we suffer from a surfeit of data, and another season wrapped means more for ZiPS to work with. ZiPS is mature enough at this point that (sadly) the major sources of systematic error have been largely ironed out, but that doesn’t mean that the model doesn’t learn new things from the results.

Last week, we looked at the team projections. Now, we turn our eyes to the hitters. Given the length of the 2020 season, the accuracy and bias of hitters’ projections this year likely offer fewer broadly applicable lessons, but they can still help us learn something about how projections ought to treat truncated seasons.

The first thing I can say with confidence is that, at least when it comes to ZiPS, there was no group tendency that could be gleaned from the projection errors. I assessed the errors using a variety of tools to see if certain types of players had more or less accurate projections or a 2020 tendency to over- or underperform the projections as a group. For instance, did fastball hitters fare better or worse? Did young players, or faster players?

The answer for these and other similar comparisons I looked at was no; none of these attributes had significant predictive value when it came to the magnitude of the errors or the bias of the projections. That’s good news in that 2020 didn’t feature any new calibration errors, but bad news in that we didn’t really learn anything new about short seasons. If, for example, my analysis had revealed that older hitters overperformed their projections as a group, it may have given us new insight into how aging players can better maintain their performance in 60 games rather than 162. On the whole, the errors were uncorrelated in this manner. The exception was the usual one: players with shorter resumés had less accurate projections than players with longer ones, but that’s always the case. Read the rest of this entry »

Historically Speaking, Game 4 Was Absolutely Bananas

Watching Game 4 of the World Series, you may not have felt as exhausted as Brett Phillips did when the plane celebration ran out of fuel, but you probably came pretty close. Baseball is at its best when it’s full of unresolved tension, and until that moment of catharsis when the Rays highlight-reel celebration ensued, there were a good six or seven innings of nonstop pressure Saturday night.

Looking at the win probability graph for Game 4 illustrates the rollercoaster everyone rode:

The sheer number of peaks and dips is scary. The outcome was mostly in doubt for the final two-thirds of the game and the arrow of fate couldn’t decide where it was going. For a much less suspenseful game, let’s look at an earlier Dodgers tilt this postseason, the Game 3 NLCS laugher against the Braves that started with an 11-run first inning:

Given how little suspense there was, that might as well have been a graph of fan interest. While the Dodgers were rightly pleased to bank such an easy win, watching eight-and-a-half innings of baseball that’s all but certainly decided isn’t the most compelling viewer experience. I was still watching the game, but at that point, I was paying more attention to the Paladin I was leveling in World of WarCraft!

So how does Game 4 fit into baseball history? To answer this question, I took every win probability change for all 125,000 plays in postseason history in postseason history and tracked them on a game-by-game basis. I then crunched the numbers to determine which games had the most change in expected outcome per event and thus to see how all 1,668 games ranked in terms of volatility. If you thought you were watching a special game, you were right; the uncertainty in Game 4 was definitely meaningful on a historic level:

Most Volatile Games in Postseason History
Game Total Probability Change Plays Probability Delta per Play
2020 World Series Game 4, Dodgers at Rays 6.13 86 7.12%
1995 NLDS Game 1, Braves at Rockies 5.81 82 7.09%
1995 ALDS Game 1, Red Sox at Indians 7.50 107 7.01%
1980 ALCS Game 3, Royals at Yankees 5.96 90 6.62%
2011 World Series Game 6, Rangers at Cardinals 7.17 109 6.58%
1995 ALDS Game 2, Mariners at Yankees 7.77 122 6.37%
1912 World Series Game 2, Giants at Red Sox 5.92 93 6.37%
1986 ALCS Game 5, Red Sox at Angels 5.86 94 6.23%
2000 World Series Game 1, Mets at Yankees 6.25 101 6.19%
1924 World Series Game 7, Giants at Senators 6.11 99 6.17%
2017 World Series Game 5, Dodgers at Astros 6.22 101 6.16%
2004 ALCS Game 5, Yankees at Red Sox 7.75 126 6.15%
1995 ALDS Game 5, Yankees at Mariners 5.94 97 6.12%
2020 ALWC Game 2, Yankees at Indians 5.68 93 6.11%
1910 World Series Game 4, Athletics at Cubs 4.88 80 6.10%
1972 ALCS Game 1, Tigers at Athletics 5.17 85 6.08%
2009 NLDS Game 4, Phillies at Rockies 5.22 86 6.07%
1980 World Series Game 5, Phillies at Royals 4.67 78 5.99%
2001 World Series Game 4, Diamondbacks at Yankees 4.61 77 5.99%
1999 NLCS Game 5, Braves at Mets 7.50 126 5.95%

Read the rest of this entry »

The 2020 ZiPS Projection Wrap-up, Part I: The Teams

While there’s still a bit of baseball left to be played, this is always the time of the year when I dissect the current season’s ZiPS projections. Baseball history is not so long that we suffer from a surfeit of data, and another season wrapped means more for ZiPS to work with. ZiPS is mature enough at this point that (sadly) the major sources of systematic error have been largely ironed out, but that doesn’t mean that the model doesn’t learn new things from the results.

2020 was a highly unusual season (for very unfortunate reasons); its shortness will hopefully provide us some insight into baseball played in a truncated format. In terms of projections, I tend to have a conservative bent, and I like to be very careful about making sure I know which things have predictive value before I integrate them into the myriad models that make up the various ZiPS projections. A lot of my assumptions going into this season required far more guesswork than usual; I had no idea how teams would actually use prospects in a shorter season, what the injury rates would look like once we brought COVID-19 into the mix, or if we would even complete a 60-game slate.

In light of the risks involved, I kept player totals in the playing time model lower than I would have in a normal season, but I had little clarity into what the league’s COVID-19 case rate would be over the course of the season. Even the way-smarter-than-me epidemiologists didn’t know and I, alas, didn’t major in mathemagical science. With more volatility in projected roster construction, the ZiPS standings gave larger error bars than I’d expect over a “normal” 60-game season, but I wasn’t really sure if that was right.

In the end, the strangest thing to me was just how normal everything turned out being. After an inauspicious start to the season — with testing delays the first weekend of summer camp, early outbreaks on the Marlins and Cardinals, and poor team communication as to just what the rules were — I wasn’t optimistic. But in the end, 28 of the 30 teams played all 60 games, and the two teams that didn’t, the Tigers and Cardinals, were ready and able to play their missing games if they were needed to decided the standings. Read the rest of this entry »

ZiPS Time Warp: The Montreal Expos and the Bartolo Colon Trade

One thing that most baseball fans have in common is an uncanny ability to recall a massive quantity of trades, whether in admiration or with derision, and one of my favorite deals to look back on is the Bartolo Colon trade. In many ways, it was the traditional “star now for prospects later” type of transaction, but this trade also broke a lot of the common tropes of these types of swaps.

First, the backdrop of our story.

By this point in the history of the Montreal Expos, trades that involved the team adding rather than subtracting a star had become unusual. In the days before Jeff Loria strip-mined the Miami Marlins, the art dealer cut his teeth doing such as the managing partner of the Expos. For the first quarter-century of the team’s existence, they were owned by Charles Bronfman, whose money came from from the family’s liquor empire, Seagram’s. Loria had been trying to purchase a team for some time and had been bested in previous attempts to buy the Expos and the Baltimore Orioles. A group of investors led by team president Claude Brochu purchased the team instead in order to keep it in Montreal.

One of the unintentional results of baseball’s labor-owner strife in 1994 was that it sabotaged Brochu’s master plan. The team missed out on their best chance for a World Series, and the lost revenue left Brochu in a position to have to seek additional funding from the rest of the investors, resulting in the team’s shift to a strategy of selling off its stars. This was accelerated further when Loria purchased enough of the Expos to become the new managing partner in 1999. Loria stopped pursuing the new ballpark and turned down broadcast fees for 2000. A few years later, the rest of the partners initiated a RICO lawsuit against Loria. Read the rest of this entry »

World Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers completed their three-game NLCS comeback on Sunday night, beating the Atlanta Braves to reach their third World Series in four years. Joining the Dodgers in Texas will be the Tampa Bay Rays, who avoided an embarrassing four-game reverse sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros by the skin of their teeth the day before. In what will hopefully prove to be 2020’s final mischievous prank, the most unorthodox season in baseball history has ended up with the most orthodox result: despite a 16-team playoff format that held little advantage for the top seeds, the World Series matchup features the clubs with the best records in their respective leagues. For both, a championship would end significant droughts, as the Dodgers have not won a Fall Classic since 1988, and the Rays have yet to grab a title since at least the Big Bang, approximately 13.8 billion years ago.

Fittingly in a matchup of the two best teams, ZiPS sees the win probabilities as very close, with the Dodgers squeezing out a slight 53%-47% edge in the projections. But while these squads may be similar in their quality, they approach baseball’s financial world quite differently; the Dodgers are big spenders while the Rays regularly have a payrolls that rank near the bottom of the league. With the outcome squarely in the realm of coin flip, small things will likely decide the series winner. To that end, I’ve outlined seven questions, the answers to which will determine how fate conducts its deliberations. Read the rest of this entry »

The Astros Force the Rays Into a Game 7 Showdown

That final step towards a World Series return again proved elusive for the Tampa Bay Rays Friday night. After carefully nursing a slim 1-0 lead through the early innings, the Rays lost control of the game in the fifth, eventually dropping Game 6 to the Houston Astros by a 7-4 margin. After jumping ahead to a 3-0 series lead, the Rays have now lost three consecutive games, pushing themselves the brink of elimination and the ignominious feat of joining the 2004 New York Yankees as the only teams in baseball history to blow such a series advantage in the playoffs.

Offense has been at a premium in the ALCS, and initially, it looked like this game would be no exception, with four batters in the first inning going down on strikes. Blake Snell’s first inning was a glimpse into how the rest of his afternoon would go: he was effective on paper, but the Astros were downright stingy at swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, forcing him to work hard for his outs.

While the broadcasters talked about shadows more often than Gandalf did in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (yesterday’s were of the non-Sauron variety), Framber Valdez‘s primary weapon in Game 6 was his extraordinarily effective curveball. Despite the Rays being the second-most effective offense against bendy pitches in 2020, Valdez didn’t fear matching strength vs. strength, throwing the pitch more than half the time; when the Rays offered, they missed nearly two-thirds of the time. Hunter Renfroe’s futile attempts to hit the offering were great examples of what has made 2020 Valdez an upgrade from the 2019 edition: behind 3-1 against the former Padre, he dropped two beautiful curves in just about the perfect place to induce unsatisfying swings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Charlie Morton Hit Hard but the Rays Still Take ALCS Game 2

On Monday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays moved to within two wins of advancing to their second World Series in franchise history with a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros. The scoring was relatively sparse, with five of the game’s six runs coming on three home runs.

Sadly, the game itself was at times overshadowed by the passing of legendary second baseman (and former Colt .45 and Astro) Joe Morgan at 77. Morgan was perhaps more famous for his part on the Big Red Machine, but he was also a key contributor during Houston’s early years. Astros manager Dusty Baker, the only manager in baseball to play against Morgan at his peak (Bud Black and Terry Francona, among others, faced him late in his career) and a friend, said a few words about the Hall of Famer before the game.

“He meant a lot to us, a lot to me, a lot to baseball, a lot to African Americans around the country. A lot to players that were considered undersized. He was one of the first examples of speed and power for a guy they said was too small to play.”

But baseball grinds on despite grief, and after Game 2 was done, Charlie Morton had earned his sixth career postseason win, improving his October line to 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 11 starts. While it will go down in the history books as a five-inning shutout, and the ninth consecutive playoff start in which he allowed two runs or fewer, Morton’s start wasn’t anywhere near as neat as you might expect if you only read the box score. The Astros frequently made solid contact but, thanks to the Rays’ defense and a bit of bad luck, failed to cash in on any of their opportunities. Houston left seven runners waiting futilely on the bags through five, only going down 1-2-3 once (in the fifth). Read the rest of this entry »

Ha-seong Kim Has Big MLB Aspirations and Projections

With the 2020 MLB season delayed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) received more attention in the United States than usual. While discerning fans — you! — were already aware of the quality of baseball in South Korea, others got their first extended exposure to the league this spring. And one of the players who might have stood out is the Kiwoom Heroes’ current home run leader, Ha-seong Kim 김하성. Kim, who is hitting .304/.396/.521 while splitting time between shortstop and third base, is in his sixth season as a full-time starter in the KBO, and has never had an OPS lower than his 2018 .832 mark despite debuting as a teenager. With the news that Kiwoom will be posting Kim this offseason, it’s quite likely that he’ll be bringing his talents to MLB.

Star shortstops don’t actually hit free agency in their primes all that often. If you’re strict and only count players who their new teams are signing to play the position — Manny Machado was brought in to man third base for the Padres and Hanley Ramirez never played a game at the position for Boston — the last free agent shortstops to sign for at least $20 million guaranteed were José Reyes and Jimmy Rollins after the 2011 season. This year, there’s a very good possibility that at least three — Andrelton Simmons, Marcus Semien, and Didi Gregorius — pass that threshold. Kim could be the fourth. Read the rest of this entry »

The Marlins Finally Lose a Playoff Series

The Atlanta Braves finished sweeping the Miami Marlins on Thursday afternoon, issuing a 7-0 shellacking to knock the Fish out of the postseason. After holding Cincinnati’s bats firmly in check in two Wild Card games, the Braves’ bats exploded in Games 1 and 3, with a generally ineffective Miami lineup struggling to keep up.
Coming into the 2020 season, one of the big question marks surrounding the Marlins was just how effective they’d actually be at scoring runs. In 2019, the team finished last in the National League in runs scored, nearly half a run per game behind the 14th-place San Diego Padres. The Marlins added some veteran depth to the lineup in the form of Jesús Aguilar, Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson, and Matt Joyce last offseason — which feels like it was about five years ago at this point — and the hope was that with the team’s impressive stable of young pitching improving, they’d score just enough runs to become relevant. With an assist from a 16-team playoff format, that’s exactly what happened; the offense managed to support a generally solid rotation, and the weak bullpen (5.65 FIP) didn’t sink the team enough to drop it below .500.

That blueprint worked against the Cubs and their 10th-ranked offense and thanks to Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sánchez, seven runs in two games still left Miami with significant room to spare. But shutting out the Braves is a trickier proposition and when Atlanta’s run-scoring machine ramped up, the Marlins failed to match it, leading them to be the first team eliminated from the round of eight. Read the rest of this entry »