Jake Peavy and the Third Time Through the Order

When Game Six of the World Series kicks of tonight, Jake Peavy will be on the mound for the Giants. Perhaps the biggest question of the night, however, will be how long he stays out there. Because if you’ve read FanGraphs for any length of time, you’ve probably heard us harp on the times-through-the-order penalty. By the time a line-up rolls over a few times against a starting pitcher, there are almost always more effective relief options than letting that starting pitcher remain on the mound.

More than any other strategy suggestion, the go-to-your-bullpen-early theory is probably the biggest area where the numbers and the traditional way of managing differ. Teams generally ride their starting pitchers until they get in trouble, removing them for a reliever after a rally has started. The data suggests that managers would do better to remove starting pitchers before the rally ever starts, though this would require managers to replace pitchers who haven’t yet failed. And for the most part, they don’t yet seem willing to do that.

To see this, we only have to look back to Game Two, Jake Peavy’s first start of this series. After a poor start, Peavy settled down at the end of the third inning, and by the end of the fifth inning, he had retired 10 straight batters. Heading into the sixth inning in a 2-2 tie, Bruce Bochy chose to stick with Peavy, despite the fact that he would be facing the Royals 3-4-5 hitters for the third time in the evening. A single and a walk later, and Peavy was removed from the game; both runners would score, as would three more, as the bullpen imploded upon being asked to get out of Peavy’s jam.

Peavy struggling against batters the third time through the order tonight is nothing new. In fact, in 2014, no pitcher in baseball was worse against hitters the third time than the Giants #2 starter. From Baseball-Reference’s split finder, we see that no one was even particularly close to Peavy in terms of struggling against hitters in their plate appearance against him; his .933 OPS allowed in those situations was 63 points higher than the next worst performer.

This data even made it into the Fox broadcast, with Tom Verducci repeatedly referencing the times-through-the-order penalty in the fifth and sixth innings, and noting how this is perhaps the most dangerous part of the game for both managers. While conventional wisdom remains in the camp of sticking with a starter until he gets in trouble, there’s no question that Peavy’s personal struggles with this split will come up in the broadcast tonight, assuming he pitches well enough to face hitters a third time.

And during the live blog of the game that Jeff and I will be hosting, I’m sure I’ll be right there alongside everyone else calling for Bruce Bochy to get his relievers into the game after no more than 18 batters faced by his starting pitcher. But I can’t help but shake the feeling that the push towards this good process is being fueled an improper use of data.

Because while Peavy’s 2014 numbers against hitters the third time through the order are terrible, we’re dealing with a sample of just 255 plate appearances, hardly enough to draw conclusions about a specific pitcher’s abilities in a given situation. And those 255 PAs don’t go along with Peavy’s career track record at all. Here are Peavy’s opponents OPS and the average OPS+ for that split against him in that situation for each of the last five years:

2010: .674, 76 OPS+
2011: .735, 92 OPS+
2012: .672, 74 OPS+
2013: .729, 92 OPS+
2014: .933, 148 OPS+

Prior to this season, Peavy had been better than the average pitcher against third-time batters in every season of his career with the exception of 2004, when he allowed a 103 OPS+ in those situations. This has actually been a long-time strength of Peavy’s, and one of the reasons why he’s been a quality starting pitcher in the big leagues. Using only the 2014 numbers to suggest that Peavy has some special deficiency at pitching in these situations is actually not a good use of the numbers, as his career numbers refute that suggestion to a large degree.

While the times-through-the-order penalty deserves the greater attention it has gotten of late, and while I entirely agree with the idea that Peavy should be removed from tonight’s game before he gets to face a hitter for the third time, we shouldn’t be teaching people that single season split data of this type is why it’s a good idea. It would be a good plan to remove Peavy after 18 batters faced even if his splits this year weren’t absurdly large; the fact that he’s been terrible in this split for 250 plate appearances doesn’t validate the concept.

But, for Giants fans, you probably want Bochy to put too much emphasis on the 2014 numbers, because then he’s more likely to go to the bullpen early than if he looked at his career numbers. It’s a case where the wrong process may very well lead to the right result. Let’s just make sure we’re not promoting the poor process of using single season times-through-the-order splits as the reason for why pulling Peavy early is a good move.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

Nice work.

Here’s a related split, comparing overall OPS to 3rd time through the order OPS. Peavy is even worse in this light: