JP Howell will begin the season on the DL and will miss at least the first month of the season (we blame Peggy Fleming). And whenever he returns there is no guarantee that he will be 100%. As a result, Joe Maddon will lean even more on Grant Balfour in high-leverage situations.

As we all know The Mad Australian regressed greatly in 2009 from his amazing 2008 campaign. But how bad was he? Is it possible that he was just unlucky?

FreeZorilla over at DRaysBay thinks Balfour was, at least in part, unlucky last season (We recommend that you read the full argument in 3 parts HERE, HERE and HERE). FreeZorilla bases his argument on one key stat, home runs. Specifically, home runs with runners on base.

Here is a table copied from DRaysBay

Balfour gave up 6 home runs in 67.1 innings. That’s not good. But worse than that is that 5 of the home runs were of the 3-run variety. That is 83.3% of his home runs despite only 18.7% of his plate appearances having 2 runners on base.

Is that unlucky? Or is something else going on?

Disclaimer: I am a scientist. I am trained to doubt everything. If you remember back to your freshman biology class, hypotheses are never proven only falsified. So when faced with a hypothesis, we attempt to disprove it, and if we can’t, then the original hypothesis has been supported. My point is, this is not a knock on FreeZorilla. He makes a compelling argument with solid data. I just want to see if we can dig deeper.

Our first thought is: Maybe Balfour pitches differently with multiple runners on base. In fact FreeZorilla concedes this as a possibility

Assuming each batter has an equal chance to hit a home run regardless of the base state (this is a bold assumption)

In other words, what if Balfour tightens up with 2 or 3 runners on base? What if he uses his pitches differently? Maybe he is afraid to throw one of his pitches. Or maybe he puts less movement on his pitches. Let’s take a look.

First let’s see if he uses any of his pitches more or less with 2+ runners on base….

As we can see, with 2+ runners on base, he throws his fastball a little less and his slider almost 50% more often. Are hitters sitting on his slider with runners on? 14.4% doesn’t seem like it is often enough to be looking for it. In fact, of the 5 home runs with 2 runners on base, only 1 (20%) came on a slider. The other 4 (80%) were fastballs. Those percentages mimic the frequency of each pitch despite the small sample size.

So his pitch selection looks normal. Now let’s see if he throws the individual pitches any differently. Does he tighten up at all? Does he tire later in innings when runners are more likely to be on base? Or maybe he worries about overthrowing a pitch with runners in scoring position…

Well, nothing going on here. Balfour is still gripping and ripping with runners in scoring position.

Now let’s look at the break of each pitch. Maybe Balfour is worried about throwing wild pitches in these situations…

The only pitch that looks different is the curveball with almost an inch less break. But again, none of the home runs came off a curve ball.

So we haven’t falsified anything to this point. In fact, it looks like Balfour was indeed unlucky in 2009.

But how much of a difference did those 5 home runs make? Let’s go back to the original distribution of home runs and generate an expected distribution. For example, if 50% of the plate appearances came with the bases empty, we would expect 50% of the home runs to be solo shots…

So those 6 home runs should have only accounted for 10 runs, 6 less than he allowed. If we subtract those 6 runs from Balfour’s season total, his ERA goes from 4.81 to 4.02, almost a full run less. Still not great, but much closer to his FIP of 3.77.

So maybe Balfour was not as bad as we thought. Certainly he wasn’t as good as 2008. But that combined with a little bad luck and all of the sudden our perception was that he was absolutely awful. But if some of his bad numbers were just “bad luck,” then there is hope that he will be better in 2010.

Don’t know about you guys, but we feel a little better about the loss of Howell. Not a lot. Let’s not crazy here.

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20 Comments

  1. Beth says:

    Pitchers are "unlucky" if their great pitches become check-swing bloop doubles. To me, giving up home runs when runners "happen" to be on base isn't "unlucky," it's "failing to do your job." The numbers you show demonstrate that Balfour is throwing more or less the same pitches at the same speed with runners on base -- but the key thing for pitchers is placement, and if there's something about the pressure of runners on base that make Grant less able to paint the corners then that's a problem.

    Also, don't most pitchers change their delivery when runners on one base? (e.g. "pitching from the stretch"?) I always wonder how much that affects a pitcher's delivery, and whether some pitchers might not be better off pitching from a full wind-up under some circumstances, even if it concedes a stolen base. Don't know if that's true about Balfour, but that would be one thing that I'd consider if I see a pitcher giving up more than the "expected" number of home runs when runners are on base.

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    • FreeZo says:

      Read my post regarding ex R/HR for pitchers of similar makeup to Balfour and you'll see the distribution is fairly normalized with Balfour as the outlier. Read Hellicksonstine's post I linked to below and you'll see most were just cases of hitters beating a pitcher as opposed to a freebie mistake.

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    • Location definitely could be a problem. And while I can track pitch locations their story is more difficult to interpret because we don't know what the intent was on each pitch. It is much easier to notice if he was losing speed on his fastball.

      But certainly...maybe he was afraid to throw a pitch in the dirt, so he kept them up in the zone a little more. I don't know that. But the rest of the data is so consistent (amazingly so) that I would tend to guess that his location IN GENERAL didn't change. Of course maybe it did on those 4 or 5 pitches. But certainly, with all the pitches he threw without runners on base we would expect him to hang a few of those also.

      As for delivery. Most relievers these days throw all their pitches from the stretch even if nobody is on base. It makes sense since they come in with runners on base so much and those are the most important pitches.

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  2. FreeZo says:

    I enjoyed what you did here. It's also important to note that Balfour was very lucky in a positive fashion in 2008. His BABIP rose from .233 to a more normal .303 year-over-year. Three run home runs leave a foul taste in observer's mouths as well as on pitcher's ERA but can lead to a bad case of selection bias. A 3.75 FIP/ERA in the ALE is nothing to sneeze at.

    For a hr-by-hr recap check out Andy Hellickstone's http://www.draysbay.com/2010/3/23/1387151/balfours-homers-in-2009

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  3. Kevin says:

    I'll feel better about the loss of Howell after Game 1 when Shields gives up 3 runs over 7 innings...and the combo of Balfor, Wheeler and Soriano hold the lead.

    Nice analysis.

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  4. Tone says:

    Grant looks really bad to me. He looked bad most of last season but Maddon had a hand in that since he kept putting him out in the same situations and got the same results(a couple of Jeff's wins taken away). He just looks like he is throwing without any real command. Not good when your fastball is straight and high most of the time. I hope Joe has Grant and Pat chill out more during crucial games since both sucked last year and both show no real improvement this spring. But Joe has shown me he is stubborn and will sink the ship if he feels like his "plans" are more important.

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  5. Gus says:

    Doesn't Balfour pitch out of the wind-up with nobody on? Many pitchers struggle in the stretch, especially power guys. (Neiman was a prime example of this early in 2009, when he came undone in the stretch but was unhittable most of the time in the wind-up). If he is a wind-up/stretch guy, you should look at that data and you might have your answer.

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    • Well, he used to be a starter so it is certainly possible, but I honestly don't remember. Still most (two-thirds?) of that data with less than 2-runners is bases empty data. So even if there is a difference it won't be much.

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  6. Rome says:

    Whatever Grant was doing in 08, he clearly is not doing the same thing anymore. He lost what? 3-4 miles on his fastball and he is not as "hight-strung" as he was in '08. maybe the results cold be because Grant is older or maybe the league has just adjusted to him properly. Whatever it is, he NOT the same pitcher as he was in '08 but he does look like the pitcher that the Twins and Brewers gave up on. Sorry, i love the Aussie, but I am just calling them like I see them.

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    • I don't think anybody is saying everything in 2009 was bad luck. I think the point is just that maybe he wasn't as horrible as many thought. And there is hope that he will be better this season. 2008 better? No. But something in between would be good.

      And to be fair, it might be too much to ever expect 2008 again. That season was off-the-charts. If he had 35 saves he would have received Cy Young votes and people would have talked about it as one of best seasons ever.

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    • FreeZo says:

      This is a different argument and a valid one. Balfour was not the same pitcher as he was in 2008. He did struggle more with command and experienced a decrease in velocity though not as great as the perception (his velocity increases each season as it moves along). According to his fielding independent pitching numbers he was about 1.5 runs worse per 9 innings. Its the noise that is largely attributable to to difference of 1.77 between his ERA increase by 3.27 and his FIP increase.

      The good news is that if he pitches at a 3.75 level with a better distribution of luck, people will be pleased with the results. To expect 2008 is not realistic. Mo Rivera only pitched at that level for 3 season in his career.

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    • KillaTapes says:

      You touched on something that I was going to say as well, and that is that after hitters get to see what you've got through an entire season, they'll in turn have more success off of you the next season. And yes, his fastball lost velocity (maybe over usage in the extended '08 season?), and didn't move a whole heck of a lot. I'm buying that it was in part an unlucky season, but I think that's a very small contributor to his '09 campaign.

      Hopefully he does indeed at least get to somewhere in between the two seasons this year.

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      • i think the long '08 season definitely had something to do with it. Back in November '08 I wrote about the extended work each of the pitchers had that season and worried about moving forward in '09. While I was most concerned with Matt Garza and James Shields, I also was a little worried about Balfour as well. his innings total in '08 was over 35% more than his total from the year before. That is a huge jump for any pitcher, especially for somebody that throws with as much effort as Balfour.

        Here is the original post

        Look At Toll Of 2008 On Rays Pitching Staff; Garza Could Take Step Back In ‘09

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      • Gus says:

        I'm hoping it is a weakness from the stretch. But given his career, you have to consider that 2008 (where he went from almost being out of the league at the begining to being Walter Johnson for the last 4 months of the season) may have been a year where he used PEDs to reach career highs. I hate to say it. But if I'm running the Rays, I'm not sure you can count on him ever approaching 2008 effectiveness (and velocity) again. Players do cheat. Especially relief pitchers trying to stay in the league. See Romero, JC.

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      • Rytor says:

        "You touched on something that I was going to say as well, and that is that after hitters get to see what you’ve got through an entire season, they’ll in turn have more success off of you the next season."

        Yes, and I call that the "Hideki Okajima effect."

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  7. Don says:

    Tone...damn ...the best post you have ever had!....got them both right...
    Ballfour and Maddon....damn!

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  8. Jessica says:

    How many of those five homeruns with two on, did Balfour walk one of the runners on before giving up the homerun? I seem to remember that being my frustration with the bullpen last year.

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