The Internet Can Make Baseball Experts of Us All

For Baseball Fans, A Plethora of Engaging and Informative Tools

During Hurricane Sandy, we Villanova students had to sit inside for a while, afraid of a blackout, which would put us at the whim of a laptop battery. My Giants had won the World Series before the storm hit, so I had a well of memories to keep me company if robbed of electricity. But until then, I could use the internet to reflect on this glorious season and look to the next.

A click here. Wow, Brandon Crawford. I can see yet how excellent you are on plays in the hole; and what an arm. If only the person who made this tribute video set it to something besides that awful cross-promotional song by that Bay Area rapper. I hate to be reminded of the ugly commercialism brought about by the ubiquity of media while I use a ubiquitous medium to look at the pure expression of gloved genius.

A click there. Let’s see how the voters of the Fielding Bible awards rated Crawford against the other shortstops of the league. Seattle’s Brendan Ryan is a cinch to win, but these are the only awards that show the ballots of all the voters. Named after a book that continued as a blog—authored by saber-king Bill James, among others—the Fielding Bible awards are the sensible fan’s alternative to Gold Gloves. James, eight experts and the fans (given one vote collectively) rate only the player’s defense from the most recent season; sorry, Jimmy Rollins, reputations mean nothing in this neighborhood of cyberspace.

Humbug. Crawford doesn’t get much love from the experts, but at least the fans vote him third (shush with the, “Giants fans are some of the most active on that survey,” you rabble-rouser). Whatever, he’s still only 25. Ryan and J.J. Hardy are in their thirties, and the Rangers will probably move Elvis Andrus to the outfield to make room for wunderkind Jurickson Profar. The point is, Crawford’s time is coming.

Things are not so rosy for Tim Lincecum. After four truly transcendent seasons, Timmy stopped eating junk food last winter and lost about 20 pounds. That isn’t a stoner joke; I saw the interview “Tim Lincecum Talks Tacos” on YouTube this spring training. Boy is he thoughtful and well-spoken—a real likeable gent, from what I’ve seen (i.e. a lot). Oops, getting off-track. I think, and have said as much on my blog ad infinitum, that such a drastic change in body type put him in a mechanical funk, which in turn robbed him of command and velocity. In other words, he threw without two of the four pillars of pitching (the others being movement and deception). A full offseason to adjust his body type, or to adjust his motion to his body type, might be enough to bring back old Timmy.

Or so I thought in September. His excellent postseason as a reliever complicates my tidy theory, and I need more investigating.
You don’t need to look that far in the past to see that pitchers almost always improve when moving from the starting rotation to the bullpen. This season, Baltimore’s Tommy Hunter went from a fifth starter who threw in the low 90s to a stud reliever who hit 97 mph often and triple digits once. It’s like steroids without the public panic. Judging by his results, Lincecum was no different this postseason. Taking out his one start, he threw 13 innings, struck out 18, walked two and gave up just one run—on a sac fly, which is like getting a ticket for going 70 on the freeway: it shouldn’t count as much.

So now podcasts and blogs are abuzz with the idea that he should be some sort of super reliever next season, like teams had before Tony La Russa started the trend of hyper-specialization in the late ‘80s. Putting aside his ace’s salary ($22.5 million according to Cot’s Contracts), I looked at Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, which allows users to input statistical criteria and create custom leaderboards going back to 1871. Prorating Timmy’s numbers over 100+ innings, I found 19 similar player-seasons. Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter both did it twice; Guillermo Mota did it last, in 2003. No one did it better than John Hiller of the Tigers in 1973: 125.1 IP, 124 K, 39 BB, 1.44 ERA, 38 saves, 7.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

Hiller had one of the best seasons ever—a classic multi-inning closer. Today, experts and bloggers almost unanimously agree that relievers are not as valuable as starters, but that’s only because relievers don’t get many innings to accumulate value. Hiller’s 7.9 WAR is higher than Lincecum’s best WAR, 7.6 over 227.0 IP in 2008. He will probably never reach that level again as a starter, but he might be able to emulate Hiller if he embraces the bullpen.

But the role itself is not some cure-all, and Lincecum did not enjoy the velocity spike of Hunter and other starters-turned-relievers, at least according to Brooks Baseball, a one-stop shop for data on pitch velocity, spin, location and frequency, all thanks to PITCHf/x cameras tracking every pitch in every ballpark with the acuity of a hawk tracking a rodent on the forest floor. The real change for Timmy was an increase in changeups thrown (17 percent of all pitches thrown in the regular season to 28 percent in the playoffs), at the expense of his curveball (down from 10 percent to three). In other words, he shed his worst pitch in favor of his best. Seems like a foolproof tactic, but starting pitchers don’t have the luxury of small repertoires, as they must face the same batters at least twice, and it should come as no surprise that major-league batters are quite good at adjusting to pitches they have seen before, or know are coming.

I can go on and on, arguing each side, believing in my soul that Timmy is done as a starter one minute, convincing myself that he will return to form the next—and go on and on I shall, not just with Timmy but with Crawford and the other Giants, with free agents and rookies, Mariners and Mets, wherever the links take me, for this is the way to engage with baseball during the offseason, and I have the whole internet at my disposal.

Nine Great Websites for the Curious Fan

1. Baseball-Reference, the ultimate encyclopedia, with entries on teams, seasons and players going back as far as the 1870s, perhaps even farther. You may pay for Play Index, which allows you to make custom leaderboards of all that data.

2. FanGraphs, another encyclopedia, with a stable of authors providing analysis and whimsy daily. Better for looking up active or recent players, since data on pitches and batted balls are readily available.

3. Brooks Baseball, where PITCHf/x data is converted into tables, graphs, charts, etc. Learn about pitch velocity, movement, spin and usage. Learn about release points.

4. Texas Leaguers, another place for PITCHf/x data, but more helpful for looking at hitters. Spray charts showing where each batted ball traveled, for every major-league batter, may be filtered for pitch type and count.

5. ESPN Home Run Tracker, a home run database. Find out how fast the ball came off the bat, how many parks it would have escaped, how much it was affected by wind. Cool pictures showing the flight path, landing spot, and where it would have landed if not for those damn stands.

6. Cot’s Contracts, the place for everything about payroll. Spreadsheets showing the salary commitments for each team, going all the way to 2017. Lists all potential free agents. Only downside is that updates are often delayed to the end of the season.

7. Minor League Central, your minor league central. Because minor-league ballparks are not as well-equipped with technology as MLB parks, there are some stats we just can’t get; nevertheless, the player pages and leaderboards have a glut of cool and obscure stats, like contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone.

8. Baseball Heat Maps, a sometimes difficult-to-navigate website for creating visualizations of a given player’s “hot” and “cold” areas in and around the strike zone. For example, you may use this site to confirm your suspicion that Derek Jeter can’t hit inside changeups.

9. Dressed to the Nines, where you go to look at all the uniforms in the history of the American, National and Federal (!) leagues.

By Marciano Lopez ’13


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