My once a year post on baseball

Dubner worries a lot about whether people comment on our posts, which is definitely evidence that he doesn’t have enough important things to worry about.

Every time I have made a post about baseball, it has unleashed a torrent of comments. So as an Easter gift to Dubner, here is my annual baseball post.

I’ve been working for the last year with a fantastic young man named Ken Kovash. He is unusual in that he got his MBA from the University of Chicago, but while doing so he also took a bunch of economics classes. After getting his MBA, he asked if he could come work with me, and although I told him he was crazy to pass up salaries four times greater than I could offer him, he decided to stick around and work with me anyway. We’ve spent a good part of the last year working on some baseball related projects, as well as some more traditional applications.

While our joint work on baseball is not yet ready for prime time (although baseball genius Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus makes mention of one piece of it here), Ken has been doing some baseball-related analysis on his own that offers a substantial challenge to the conventional wisdom among sabermetricians. The particular issue Ken has been examining is “protection.” In other words, does it help me as a batter if the person in the on deck circle is really good? The existing research, by excellent folks like J.C. Bradbury who has a nice blog (and has written a book on the economics of baseball which I have not yet read but have heard great things about) argues that protection is a myth. When you look at the outcomes of at bats, you don’t see measurable effects of having a good batter behind you. In Ken’s research, which you can read here, he makes a nice economics-style argument. There is a lot of randomness in how an at bat turns out which makes it hard to detect an impact of protection even if it is really there. There is a lot less noise, however, in some of the inputs to an at bat, like whether the pitcher throws strikes. By focusing on how the pitcher pitches to the batter, rather than how the at bat actually ends, Ken is able to cut through the noise to find strong evidence that it seems to matter who bats behind you.

After a year, Ken is pretty tired of me. So let me make a pitch on his behalf. Here is a guy with great work experience prior to his MBA, an MBA from the U of C, and a set of data skills honed through a year of working side-by-side with some top economists. I think there are very few folks anywhere who have the combination of skills that Ken has. As much as I would like him to stick around, somebody should steal him away from me! Ideally, it would be a major league baseball team that is looking for a guy who lives and breathes baseball, knows the existing sabermetric literature cold, but also brings a business perspective that goes far beyond his ability to manipulate statistics. Failing that, I think just about any firm would want to have Ken on their payroll. If you want more details, you can contact him directly at kkovash[at]gmail[dot]com.

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  1. WillClark says:

    When I played college baseball, my first couple of seasons I batted in the second spot in the lineup in front of a pair of All Americans; I was the protected. I saw lots and lots of fastballs for strikes. My latter two years of playing I was hitting in the middle of the lineup and saw lots of breaking balls and changeups; I was the protector. However, my results numbers didn’t really show a major difference despite the difference in how I was pitched, just like the data referenced above. I suspect that this is because the results for any particular batter are much more dependent on individual talent level than on how they are pitched. Over the course of a season, every hitter will see a large number of fastballs and breaking balls. And, like the BYU pitcher mentioned, individual situations play a tremendous role in the way a pitcher approaches an at-bat.

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  2. WillClark says:

    When I played college baseball, my first couple of seasons I batted in the second spot in the lineup in front of a pair of All Americans; I was the protected. I saw lots and lots of fastballs for strikes. My latter two years of playing I was hitting in the middle of the lineup and saw lots of breaking balls and changeups; I was the protector. However, my results numbers didn’t really show a major difference despite the difference in how I was pitched, just like the data referenced above. I suspect that this is because the results for any particular batter are much more dependent on individual talent level than on how they are pitched. Over the course of a season, every hitter will see a large number of fastballs and breaking balls. And, like the BYU pitcher mentioned, individual situations play a tremendous role in the way a pitcher approaches an at-bat.

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  3. bryan_05 says:

    I haven’t done much statistical analysis on baseball, but as a fan for 17 years, I would argue that the guys batting before a prime-time hitter matter more than the guys batting behind him.

    Put a .350-.400 OBP hitter in front of Albert Pujols and a .250-.300 OBP behind him. I would bet that Albert would see more good pitches with that lineup than vice-versa.

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  4. bryan_05 says:

    I haven’t done much statistical analysis on baseball, but as a fan for 17 years, I would argue that the guys batting before a prime-time hitter matter more than the guys batting behind him.

    Put a .350-.400 OBP hitter in front of Albert Pujols and a .250-.300 OBP behind him. I would bet that Albert would see more good pitches with that lineup than vice-versa.

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  5. msp says:

    It seems to me that the next hitter’s OBP (or other statistic) against that particular pitcher would matter more than his overall OBP. Some pitchers have great success against particular batters, and vice versa.

    Also, if the pitcher is a left-handed specialist brought in to pitch to a left-handed batter, the OBP of the next batter should only matter if he is a left-hander, too.

    Finally, the exact location of the pitch and the resulting ball-strike call by the umpire are outcomes themselves, which are both subject to noise. I don’t know whether these stats are kept anywhere, but I would guess that there are more visits to the mound by the catcher and/or a manager/coach when a pitcher falls behind to batter with a good hitter behind him.

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  6. msp says:

    It seems to me that the next hitter’s OBP (or other statistic) against that particular pitcher would matter more than his overall OBP. Some pitchers have great success against particular batters, and vice versa.

    Also, if the pitcher is a left-handed specialist brought in to pitch to a left-handed batter, the OBP of the next batter should only matter if he is a left-hander, too.

    Finally, the exact location of the pitch and the resulting ball-strike call by the umpire are outcomes themselves, which are both subject to noise. I don’t know whether these stats are kept anywhere, but I would guess that there are more visits to the mound by the catcher and/or a manager/coach when a pitcher falls behind to batter with a good hitter behind him.

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  7. RandyfromCanada says:

    l would think it evens out , yes the pitcher would be bear down , but the hitter also knows the ball will be close or in the strike zone , but l would like to see the speed difference of pitches , also would like to see lead off hitters included and pitchers of opposing teams stats on pitch speed

    as for Ken thought Barbie would always support him , or Malibu Barbie ?

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  8. RandyfromCanada says:

    l would think it evens out , yes the pitcher would be bear down , but the hitter also knows the ball will be close or in the strike zone , but l would like to see the speed difference of pitches , also would like to see lead off hitters included and pitchers of opposing teams stats on pitch speed

    as for Ken thought Barbie would always support him , or Malibu Barbie ?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0