Getting in His Head, Tangibly

On Monday night, in what I’ve determined looking back must have been the Pirates-Marlins broadcast, the local (almost certainly Marlins’) broadcasters were chatting about the importance of the leadoff man getting on base, and the commentator said something very much like this: “Also, of course, you can never know how much impact that is going to have on the pitcher, because he’s going to be distracted by the fast runner on first base, um, so you don’t know what kind of effect that’s going to have on his pitching.” The play by play guy agreed, calling it “one of those intangibles that is just so important on the baseball diamond.” That’s totally paraphrased just to give you an idea, but I do know he used the word “intangibles.”

Of course, if someone is talking to you about baseball and uses a form of the word “intangible,” the odds are very, very good that you’re in the process of being told a lie. Baseball people have this way of equating things that they do not know with things that cannot be known. And that’s silly.

The impact that a good baserunner being on base might have on a pitcher’s effectiveness at pitching to the next batter may be difficult to measure (and it is — very, very difficult, or at least very, very time consuming), but it’s as “intangible” as the chair I’m sitting in. Do pitchers pitch worse with Jose Reyes on first base than they would with Jose Molina on first base? Better with Carlos Delgado taking his lead than with Carlos Gomez? It’s a pretty simple question. The fact that nobody has spent hundreds of hours digging through game logs to find the answer yet (as far as I know) doesn’t mean that answer is “intangible”; it means the answer isn’t important or interesting enough to spend all that time on.

So here’s a little exercise; it’s not at all meant to definitively answer the question, but just to show that the issue can in fact be, um, tanged (real word! …but not at all the root of “intangible”). There’s no way I’m going to go out and figure out how individual pitchers performed with various individual runners on base. But how about this: if speed on the bases makes pitchers less effective, shouldn’t we expect guys who hit behind speedsters to do better with runners on first than batters who hit behind slow or average runners do with those base-cloggers on first?

Chase Utley is a good example. The Phillies’ most common 2008 lineup had him batting in front of Rollins and Victorino, both top ten in stolen bases. When one of them wasn’t in front of Utley, they were replaced by Jayson Werth (who stole 20 out of 21) or fleet-footed backups Taguchi and Bruntlett. We can assume that very nearly every time Utley came up with men on base, those men were very good baserunners. If Utley did better with guys on base than without, and the difference is more than the typical difference between hitting with the bases empty and occupied (and there is usually some difference regardless; pitchers just do better throwing out of a windup), that might start to suggest that a “speed guy” getting on base really does impact the pitcher’s effectiveness.

Of course, a pitcher has enough to worry about with Utley at the plate, and that’s too small of a sample size anyway. So I’m going to take a bunch of guys in the National League who are likely to have hit with a lot of speed guys on first base in 2008 (a pitcher might be just as scared of a good runner on second base, but counting that performance would be more likely to catch other runners than the ones I have in mind), and see if any patterns emerge, though of course the sample size will still be way too small to tell. Batting orders change more than you might realize — Victorino, for instance, usually hit behind Rollins, but also spent time hitting behind anti-Rollinses Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard; Castillo hit mostly behind Reyes but also behind Brian Schneider. So this isn’t perfect, or even especially meaningful. But I’m confident that, when each of these players came up with a guy on first in 2008, there was a better than 50% chance that that runner was a threat to steal 20 or more bases.

Baseline: The 2008 National League put up a .731 OPS with the bases empty, and jumped up to .761 with a runner on first, so your average hitter will increase his OPS by about 30 points with a runner on first. If the fast-runner-distraction effect is real and significant, these guys should do considerably better than that as a group.

Utley: Batted second or third in every game he started, behind at least one stolen base threat approximately 100% of the time.
– Bases empty: .886
– Runner on first: 1.014
– Difference: +128 points

Victorino: Batted second behind Jimmy Rollins 81 times; led off (so rarely came up with a runner on) 14 times; batted 5th or 6th 37 times.
– Bases empty: .819
– Runner on first: .797
– Difference:
-22 points

Jeremy Hermida: Batted second in 87 games, almost all behind Hanley Ramirez. Also batted third, sixth, seventh and eighth a handful of times each.
– Bases empty: .718
– Runner on first: .773
– Difference: +65 points

Luis Castillo: batted second behind Reyes in 58 starts; batted seventh or eighth about 20 times.
– Bases empty: .629
– Runner on first: .643
– Difference:
+14 points

Andre Ethier: batted second 80 times and fifth a bunch of times; hit behind Furcal, Pierre, Kemp or Martin about 80% of the time, but also occasionally behind Kent or Manny.
– Bases empty: .935
– Runner on first: .623
– Difference: -312 points

Ryan Church: hit directly behind Beltran or Reyes about 80% of the time; Delgado occasionally came between him and Beltran.
– Bases empty: .703
– Runner on first: .971
– Difference:
+268 points

Ryan Theriot: hit second 104 times, usually behind Soriano.
– Bases empty: .752
– Runner on first: .786
– Difference:
+34 points

J.J. Hardy: seems to have batted behind either Weeks or Hart in about 3/4 of his starts.
– Bases empty: .832
– Runner on first: 1.052
– Difference:
+220 points

Average [fake, unweighted average, just a basic add-and-divide of the above]: +49 points

So these eight guys, overall, did get a bigger bump from having a guy on first than the 30 points the league as a whole got. What does that tell us? Well, absolutely nothing. Take away Ethier, and it’s a huge difference; take away Hardy or Church, and it’s a smaller-than-average bump. But these guys as a whole could be benefitting from pesky baserunners getting on base in front of them. To figure out whether or not they are would take a much, much longer and more sophisticated study, one which neither you nor I have the time or inclination (or, in my case at least, skill) to get into.

But here’s the point: it could be figured out. And someday it probably will be, if it hasn’t been already in some study I’m not aware of. The day when people who are paid to write or talk about baseball generally stop referring to certain very tangible things as though they’re mystical and unknowable just because those people can’t be bothered to take the time to know (or even honestly think about) them will be a very happy day.

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2 Responses to “Getting in His Head, Tangibly”

  1. lar Says:

    Good stuff, Bill. That kind of thing can absolutely be measured, and in a pretty straight-forward fashion. I’m actually surprised that there isn’t an easy to find study on it. I thought for a minute that the esoteric stats available on Bill James Online would have them, but it doesn’t look like it.

    It’s hard to say if the limited study proves anything one way or the other. It does give good evidence, though, that individual batters perform differently depending on the baserunning situation. Some perform better, some perform worse, but the definitely perform differently.

    You could also look at the data from the pitcher’s point-of-view… do they have a worse ERA/OppBA/WHIP/etc with a fast runner on than with a slow one?

  2. Bill Says:

    I’m very sure that my “study” doesn’t prove anything, Lar, but I appreciate your tact. 🙂 I just thought it would be interesting to take a quick look.

    Ideally, I definitely would have looked at it from the pitcher’s point of view, but that’s even harder; as far as I can figure, you’d have to go through game logs, pitcher by pitcher, and reconstruct who was on base when and what happened. Anyway, still definitely very tangible…

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