Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How deep was the bench?

In the comments, the subject has come up of the depth of the bench in the IBL - or, rather, the lack of depth. With just 20 players per team and the rosters fixed at the start of the season, teams had no way to make up for players whose performance fell short. They couldn't just bring someone up from "the minors" midseason, since there were no minors to draw from.

Add to that the great variation in skill levels among players, whose backgrounds ranged from high levels of play such as Japan and AAA, all the way down to rookie ball, college ball, college ball a decade ago, and the Israeli amateur leagues. As Coach Scott Perlman of Bet Shemesh put it, "I feel our starting team for the Blue Sox could play a AA team and be competetive, but over the course of a series, we would not be able to match that level, because our bench was nowhere near strong enough, and doesn't compare."

Can we measure depth of bench? I don't know if there's an accepted way to define the bench, but I picked a common sense, though far from perfect, approach: Take the nine players with the most plate appearances for each team, and call them the starters. Everyone else is the bench.

For the IBL, that yielded 54 starters for the nine teams. They had 85% of the plate appearances over the season. Everyone else was the bench. Their summary stats:

                 AVG   OBP   SLG 
IBL .270 .383 .411
Starters .289 .401 .445
Bench .170 .274 .223
Bench/Starters 58.9% 68.4% 50.1%

Not surprising, the same calculation yields very different results for the majo leagues. Again, the "starters" are the nine players from each team with the most plate appearances, totalling 75% of the season's plate appearances.

                 AVG   OBP   SLG 
MLB 2007 .268 .332 .422
Starters .279 .345 .446
Bench .237 .292 .353
Bench/Starters 84.9% 84.5% 79.1%

With poorly performing or injured players easily replaced from the pool of minor leaguers, major league teams have a much greater margin of error than our under-resourced IBL teams.

Notice that the stat lines for IBL starters were a bit higher than their major league equivalents (actually, substantially higher if you include reaching base on error, but that's besides the point). But the bench players had much lower stats than the bench in the MLB.

I haven't tried the equivalent for pitchers (yet), but I assume the results would be similar.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Taking attendance

While I keep working on developing my play-by-play database, which I hope will support new types of analyses, let me offer you something completely different.

Ever wonder what the average attendance was at IBL games? How it varied by team and location? And so on?

I've been playing with the official attendance figures, and I think they have some interesting stories to tell.

For starters, I'll show you the graph of daily total attendance: Total reported attendance at all games played for each day of the season.

Now, I don't know how accurate these figures are. Kids in youth baseball t-shirts were admitted free - were they counted in the attendance figures? Sometimes the ticket booth was empty and people walked in freely, perhaps to be reminded later to buy a ticket, perhaps not. At the championship game, we walked from the car to the gate without being asked to show our tickets. So actual attendance may be higher than reported. But these are all the figures we have, so they'll have to do.

Without further commentary, the total attendance graph (click to enlarge). The all-star game and postseason are shown in green. The column bars for opening day and the championship game have been cut short to make the rest of the chart easier to read.

See if you can identify any interesting patterns. I've got some up my sleeve for a subsequent post.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Juan Feliciano in Japan, again

Another followup to this and this.

Coach Scott Perlman has explained why one might have expected Japan's dirt infields to be especially rough on Juan Feliciano. In short, the superfast infields make ground balls more likely to be base hits, so a groundball pitcher would be less successful in Japan than he might be in, say, Gezer, where the concern is giving up fly balls which can become easy home runs.

Unfortunately, the stats don't support the claim that Feliciano's problems in Japan were caused by giving up too many ground balls. While I don't have groundball/flyball stats for Japan, I think I can safely refute that claim.

First, as I pointed out in my latest post, he was one of the worst in the league in Japan in strikeout rate.

Second, it turns out he was also one of the worst in home run rate. He gave up a home run in 5.7% of at bats, ranking 53 out of the 54 qualifying relievers. League average was 2.7%. (Average in the MLB in 2007 was 2.95%, contrary to the claim that power hitting is far less important in Japan.)

In fact the FIP stat I cited in my last post incorporates only homers, strikeouts and walks - nothing that would be affected by hits on balls in play. And Juan ranked lowest among the Japanese relievers.

So whatever it was that failed him in Japan, it wasn't the fault of dirt infields. At least not primarily.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Juan more time

A commenter has questioned my rough assessment that Juan Feliciano was one of the weakest pitchers in his league in Japan:

Please compare his statistics as a starter vs. his stats as a reliever in Japan before you call him one of the worst pitchers in Japan. Feliciano takes a long time to warm up, and has difficulty in his first inning of work, often giving up more hard hit balls in inning one than the following innings, especially when he is rushed into games as a reliever. The all dirt infields in Japan also lead to more base hits and swelled batting statistics, another reason why contact in Japan is emphasised more than homeruns. What made Juan so effective in Israel was his use as a starter.

I hadn't intended to delve that deeply into Japanese baseball, about which I know next to nothing. But let's take this a bit further.

I've downloaded all the player statistics for the 2006 Central League in Japan (for example, Feliciano's team stats are here). Dividing pitchers into starters and relievers by the percentage of games started (50% or more is a starter, less is a reliever), we come up with 90 relievers among the six teams. Limiting ourselves to those who pitched at least 20 innings, we find 54 who qualify.

I don't have the splits for Japan, so I can't separate Feliciano's starts from his relief appearances. He played in 12 games in 2006, starting 5 of them. He faced 168 batters (140 at-bats) over 35 1/3 innings.

Ranking the Central Leauge relievers by ERA, he placed 54 out of 54 players with a 7.39 ERA (league average: 3.68, average among qualifying relievers: 3.56). Ranking by opponents' batting average (OBA), he also placed 54 with an OBA of .357 (league average: .263; average of qualifying relievers: .256). Ranking by strikeouts per nine innings, he placed 53 with a K/9 of 2.8 (league: 7.11; relievers: 7.82). Ranking by runs allowed per nine innings, he also placed 53 with an RA of 7.64 (league: 4.11; relievers: 3.99). Ranking by strikeout/walk ratio, he placed 52 out of 54 with a K/BB of 0.92 (league: 2.72; relievers: 2.59).

Ranking by walks per nine innings, he placed higher: 23 out of 54, with a BB/9 of 2.55 (league: 2.44; relievers: 2.73). About average.

Finally, using Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), a measure by Tom Tango which tries to isolate a pitcher's skill from his team's defensive support by using only those events most directly controlled by the pitcher, Feliciano again ranks 54 out of 54. I've added 3.0 to the basic FIP formula of (13*HR+3*BB-2*K)/IP, to place it on a similar scale to league ERA. This gives Feliciano a FIP of 6.59, compared with the league average of 3.66 (3.60 for qualifying relievers).

So by every measure of pitching success I can think of, Feliciano was one of the worst relievers in the 2006 Central League. If you want to argue that he was poorly utilized, or otherwise done injustice by the raw numbers, you've got the burden of proof in making that case.

Starting over

What about the claim that he was better as a starter than as a reliever? Well, he actually started 5 of his 12 games, or 42%. Assuming that he pitched on average more innings per appearance as a starter than as a reliever, it's likely that he pitched at least half of his innnings as a starter, if not much more. (The average 100% starter in the league pitched 6.2 innings per appearance; the average 100% reliever pitched just 1.0 innings per relief appearance.) Let's call it half to make things easy. Is it possible that he was even a league average pitcher as a starter?

If so, he would have had a league average 3.68 ERA as a starter, but his actual 7.39 overall (averaging starts and relief appearances). To make that possible, he would have had to rack up an utterly awful 11.10 ERA during his relief appearances - three times the league average. That's implausible, if you ask me, and I hope it's not correct.

What did you expect?

Not that this should be a surprise. Consider how players came to the IBL. We can roughly split them into two groups: those looking for a fun summer playing baseball in Israel, and serious professional players looking for a new way to further their careers. The former group includes people like Leon Feingold and Ari Alexenberg, older men with other careers who could take two months off for the summer and do something different. And it includes recent college graduates, mostly Jewish, with a summer break on their hands.

The latter group includes the Dominican players with visa issues, and other players who for whatever reason had found their career stalling in the minor leagues, or couldn't break into the minors. For most of them, if they had been succeeding where they were they would have advanced to higher levels of play. If they were struggling, whether due to injury or a bad season, they may have looked to the IBL as a way to keep playing professionally until their fortunes turned around. That means, on the whole, we can expect the IBL players to have been less than successful in their previous baseball careers.

Honestly: If Juan had been a top pitcher in Japan, he would have been working on finding a way into the majors, not taking a summer off to play in a fledgling league in Israel.

It was great to have him here, and I wish him well in his future baseball career. Maybe he'll get his stuff together and get his big break. But let's not pretend he's any better than he really is.

Incidentally, I don't understand the commenter's claim that Japanese baseball has "more base hits and swelled batting statistics". League batting averages of .260 and 4 runs per game are not exceptionally high compared with other leagues; they're pretty midrange.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Juan Feliciano, from Japan to Israel to the Dominican Republic

It's nice to see Bet Shemesh's Juan Feliciano pitching well in the Dominican winter league.

So how good is he really?

He won the IBL's pitching award with a 1.97 ERA (league average: 5.64) and 2.68 RA - like ERA but includes unearned runs (league average: 7.04) over 50 1/3 innings pitched. I'm not ready yet to go into more detailed measures of pitcher skill, but by any measure Feliciano was clearly one of the IBL's best five starters.

Before the IBL, Feliciano pitched in Japan for the Hiroshima Carp. In the 2006 season, he played in 12 games, starting 5 of them, and gave up 30 runs (29 earned runs) over 35 1/3 innings for an ERA of 7.39. Over three seasons with the Carp (2004-6), his ERA was 8.95 in 58 1/3 innings.

But is that good or bad?

I don't know much about the Japanese pro leagues, but it turns out that the level of play in Japan is quite high, stronger even than the AAA minors but weaker than the major leagues. You'll find different estimates of the relative difficulty of the Japanese leagues to the majors, but they seem to indicate that playing in Japan is some 10% easier than in the MLB, and that Japanese ERA's are quite close in range to their major league equivalents.

Without going into too much detail, we might expect a 7.00 ERA pitcher in Japan to pitch not far from 7.00 in the major leagues, maybe a drop worse.

His team in 2006 averaged a 3.96 ERA (RA: 4.54), making him one of the team's weakest pitchers. I don't have the league stats for 2006, but in 2005, Japan's Central League posted a 4.11 ERA (4.45 RA). Had he played enough innings to qualify, his 6.94 ERA that year would have ranked 85th out of the 91 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched (he only pitched 11 2/3 that year).

So one of the weakest pitchers in the Japanese leagues, with an ERA over 50% worse than the league average becomes one of the best in the IBL, with an ERA less than half the league average.

That should help give us a sense of the level of play in the IBL.

Friday, December 14, 2007

IBL stars in the Dominican Winter League

The latest IBL press release reports glowingly: "IBL stars playing well in the Dominican Republic"

It continues:

Juan Feliciano, winner of the IBL's most valuable pitcher award and Eladio Rodriguez co-winner of the IBL's Most Valuable Player Award are teammates on the Santiago Aguilera's of the Dominican Winter Baseball League.

Juan Feliciano, who played for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's major leagues before signing with the IBL has appeared in six games for the Santiago Aguilera's. In nine and two thirds innings of work Feliciano has yielded only five hits while striking out eight and has a 3.78 ERA.

Eladio Rodriguez, who has been signed by the NY Yankees after his superb performance in the IBL this past summer, has been to bat five times and has two hits including a double giving him a batting average of .400.

Now, it's nice to see that Juan and Eladio are keeping their skills up in the offseason. And it's nice to see that the IBL is following the careers of its leading alumni.

But c'mon! Two for five over three games? Nine and two-thirds innings pitched over six games? Those are good performances, yes, but over such small samples that to draw any conclusions from them would be absurd. Let's see how their playing holds up after dozens of at bats or innings, and then we'll have some idea how good they are.

The full stats lines can be found here, in Spanish, at the team's website. (It actually gives Feliciano's ERA as 3.72, not 3.78.) Hey! Eladio's leading the team in batting average! Just like in the IBL!

Not. At least not yet.