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.


Anonymous said...

your analysis is great!

iblemetrician said...