Thursday, August 21, 2008

I Hate to Pick on the Post Twice in a Week, But...

Chico Harlan in today's gamer and on the Nationals Journal blog is making much of Collin Balester's "times facing opponent in game" splits. Here are his BA / OBP / SLG splits (all these numbers are easily available on
1st: .178 / .250 / .247
2nd: .306 / .350 / .542
3rd: .341 / .434 / .591
Now there certainly seems to be something going on here. Those "first time through" numbers are Cy Young caliber. But after that the average guy turns MVP-caliber.

But Harlan leaves out some important considerations. First, there's the fact that basically all pitchers do less well the 2nd and 3rd time through the lineup. It's just a basic gravitational pull resulting from fatigue and batters just getting used to the pitcher's stuff. Here are the league average
"times facing opponent in game" splits:
1st: .252 / .326 / .396
2nd: .266 / .331 / .428
3rd: .290 / .355 / .469
The jump isn't as big as Balester's, but a 100 point OPS increase is big. It's the difference between Nick Markakis and ARod. Or between Shane Victorino and David Wright.

The other statistical factor that must be noted here is sample size--just 9 starts and 48 2/3 innings total. There are a couple bad innings in the mix really skewing the results--the 4th and 5th innings against the Reds and the Astros in his 2nd and 3rd starts, for instance. I think it's reasonable to assume that his "first time through" numbers won't stay this good and his numbers the 2nd and 3rd times through will come down.

That said, it may not be 100% sample-size noise and typical pitcher patterns. Harlan shouldn't be presenting these stats without this context, but even with the caveats there may be something there.

As I've noted before, Balester in his first couple starts has tended to be over-reliant on the fastball. It's a good pitch, but one would expect that the 2nd time around hitters will see it better and catch up. He needs the change and curve to consistently get big league hitters out. And tall guys have a tendency to suddenly lose their release points.

But I wonder why is Harlan picking on Balester now? The article reads as if Balester is somehow one of our big problems, opening with a long riff on his supposedly "chronic problem" with command, leaving the ball "up in the zone." Then we get this quote from Balester: "I've got to get it down in the zone every pitch instead of five out of 10 or whatever it is," he said. "That's what is killing me."

And when Harlan describes the fifth inning as a "single, homer, single, single, double stampede," I start to wonder if he even watched the game. Two of those singles didn't leave the infield, and the other was of the seeing-eye grounder variety. Victorino's 'double' was total freak blooper on a good pitch that couldn't have been more perfectly placed if he had thrown it out there. Dobb's homer snuck into the second row in right field. A homer's a homer, but guess what? Sometimes fly balls sneak out.

I'm not making excuses. Coste's infield single to Zimmerman was sharply hit. Balester made a mistake to Dobbs. But I think it's unfair to Balester to make it seem like he suddenly completely fell apart when the reality is that he had a run of bad luck and maybe a couple mistake pitches, which unless you are playing a video game, will happen with all pitchers, even Jake Peavy, who got handled pretty good for a couple innings last night by the D'Backs.

Let's be clear: Balester does NOT have a chronic command problem. He's walked just 7.9% of batters faced, which is basically right on league-average. Yes, when he leaves the ball over the plate he gets hurt. That's like saying points get scored when the other team hits the ball over the fence. Sure, he will do better if he can get more strikes down in the zone. Easier said than done.

And Balester is NOT getting killed, period. He is a 22-year-old rookie holding his own, perfecting a change-up at the big league level. And he's getting better. Over his last 5 starts, he has a 4.45 ERA, and that came against some of the league's better offenses--Milwaukee, Philly twice, the Mets, and the Reds. He just went 6 innings and gave up 3 ER against the 4th best offense in the NL. Why isn't the headline, "22-year-old pitches well again!! Hooray!!"

In a season where we have precious little to feel great about, Balester is a positive. We have enough legitimately grotesque stats. We don't need our beat writer conjuring up more things to feel bad about.


Anonymous said...

Well said.
I'm working hard to be hopeful here and your help is appreciated.

Let's play two!


Dave Nichols said...

i read it and was concerned too, but didn't have the energy to fight this one. at least this was actually baseball-related.

good work on the further analyzing. it's something the mainstream media either won't or doesn't do.

Steven said...

I think I'm going to send Harlan a copy of Baseball between the Numbers. He seems like a pretty hard-working, well meaning guy. I bet he just doesn't have anyone to explain the game to him.