Winning the Strike Zone, and Winning the Rest of the Game
Robert de Niro "you talkin' to ME?", dept.


Baseball is about the strike zone.  -- Bill James, ca. 1992


... Winning the Strike Zone and Winning the Rest of the Game, that's the title of an article that James put up last week.  It's a piece that forwards our understanding of baseball.  It also happens to be weirdly relevant to the 2014-15 Mariners, and to Lloyd McClendon.

James, as you might have heard, had this interesting little idea that you could ratio a team's Runs and Runs Scored to predict their winning percentage.  You might not have heard that baseball people hated the idea, for a long time, before they finally all signed off on it.  Galileo, indeed.

In fact, you take Pythag and you take Runs Created, and a few other simple ideas, and you revolutionize baseball.  You're not looking for players who "know how to win" -- you're purchasing bases gained and bases lost.

But the pendulum has swung too far, and we've moved from humility and insight into arrogance and dogma.  

Now he whisks away a curtain and reveals that you can also predict a team's winning percentage by ratio'ing 4 things:  their strikeouts and walks, in the top and bottom halves of the inning:

It doesn't work perfectly, of course, but neither does the Pythagorean Theorem.  From what I can tell, the Strike Zone winning percentage works about as well as Pythag.  There's a key difference!  Let's chart it out:

Formula Corr. with winning? If you depart, is it luck? If you depart, will you next year?


The expansion 1962-1967 Houston Colt .45's, James points out, had good expected winning percentages.  Their pitchers and hitters controlled the strike zone, and won the Three True Outcomes (K/BB/HR) battle every year.  By good margins.  

And yet they got thrummed year after year, losing a good steady -96 games.  Like clockwork they got detonated.  They'd win the ball-strike calls every night, and lose the scoreboard tally every night.

For example, in 1962, the "Astros" nearly set a record for TTO margin of victory.  Astros pitchers were #2 in MLB for strikeouts, and their hitters fanned less than any team in the National League.  They lost 96 games.

This is characteristic of all expansion teams -- they do fine with Three True Outcomes, but get destroyed in the W/L column.

As James puts it, 


One thinks of an expansion team as a team of young players who don’t really know how to play the game, but that’s not what these players were.   The Astros were more dominated by players who knew very well how to play the game, players who had been bench players for years and who had pretty much maximized their skills—but who simply did have quite enough ability to be .500+ players.


Moe and Lonnie will remember that this was true of the expansion Mariners, too.  The 1977 Mariners used a ton of journeyman retreads, "stoplosses," like Bob Stinson and Bill Stein and Leroy Stanton, so as not to embarrass themselves.  The 1977 Mariners knew how to play major league baseball.  They knew how, but weren't capable.  :- )



The 2014 Baltimore Orioles exceeded their K/BB norms by a huge margin.  IIRC, they were one of history's 10 most extreme ballclubs for this:  Being better on the scoreboard than they were the strike Zone.  They "should have been" a losing team.  They won +96 games and lost -66, were a whopping thirty games over .500.

James expects the Orioles to do that again in 2015.  He predicts they will have a poor Three True Outcomes result, but place high in the standings.

Nelson Cruz was a big part of that.


You might have guessed who the other team was.  The 2014 Mariners had a losing record per Three True Outcomes:  they "should have gone" 77-85 last year, not 87-75 and a legitimate threat to win the World Series.

It wasn't defense that made the difference:  the M's were middle-of-the-pack, #13 in UZR, only +5 runs over .500 (half of one win).  

It wasn't home runs.  The Mariners hit 136 homers, and gave up 137.

It wasn't even groundball rate:  the Mariners hit for a 1.30 grounder rate, and gave up a 1.33 grounder rate.

The 2014 Mariners -- and the 2015 Mariners -- are simply a breakdown in Three True Outcomes / xFIP dogma, and that is exactly where James is going with the article. TTO is great, but don't go thinking you've completely solved baseball with it.


A Clean White Board for Yer

WHY did the 2014 Mariners play so much better than their TTO?  For me that is a really fun question, one that would drive a different article.

WHAT do they need to do, to improve their TTO?  Another really fun question.

The most fun question of all:  DO the Mariners (and Orioles) need to get about the business of improving their TTO?  Or is this a snug little hobbit-hole in which we can hide from sabermetrics, saying "In Lloyd we trust" and waving off the xFIP dogma?



James pulls another string on this discussion.  Great managers -- Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Tony Larussa, Bobby Cox -- do not outperform Pythag, but they do consistently outperform Strike Zone Winning Percentage!

The readers are on this like bums on a baloney sandwich.  Okay, you can measure a manager with this formula and little else.  (sic - Dr. D)  So who are the great managers?

Well, Earl is the poster child.  His teams beat the formula year after year after year.  So did Bobby Cox.  The 20-year records of those two are simply astounding.  (Somebody go look up Billy Martin?  James once said he was worth 15-20 games a year, all by himself.)


Lloyd McClendon beat the formula by a vast difference:  the M's should have been a bad team, comfortably under .500, but instead were a very good one -- and even go into 2015 as the saber "favorites" to win the league.

The Mariners used to hate batter strikeouts, packing their rosters with "contact guys" like Jose Vidro and Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez and Kenji Johjima and Raul Ibanez.

Now, the Mariners couldn't care less about batter strikeouts and "not embarrassing yourself."  Mike Zunino is the reductio ad absurdum.  McClendon is aware of Zunino's crazy 20:158 EYE ratio, but doesn't care about it.  

Jack Zduriencik admires Smith's "professional at-bats," but "not striking out" is different from "having an idea up there."  Quality at-bats are about getting a good pitch to hit, not putting the ball in play at any cost.

There are a lot of open questions here.  The 2014-15 Mariners are a weird team, very weird.  They're old-school, like the Seahawks are, and they're good because of that, like the Seahawks are.  There's a lot of room for fresh thinking about the local nine.


Dr D





I've been wanting to see if W% was well-predictred by strikezone data for the entire run of the pitch F/X system.
This is interesting stuff. So...why are the Mariners better than TTO Pythag? I think their bullpen is a big part of it. I think the constant low-scoring games are too (even if you give up too many walks or don't whiff enough of their guys, if you can keep their run total low enough by limiting hard have a better chance even if you strike out a ton?)...but I'd love to hear James' ideas. And yours, Doc.
How does a great manager beat TTO pythag? It seems that they do...but HOW?


I liked Bill Stein!  He wasn't good, but I liked him.  I kept thinking he might be good.  I was wrong.  '77 was his career year.  Still not good.
Stanton was really good in '77.  He was majestically awful the next year and then he was out of baseball.
Danny Meyer was kind of a good Smoak, at least in '77.  Never did like him.
Diego Segui was my favorite on that team.  He was 0-7 and then gone from baseball.  But he started the first Mariner game ever (I kept a box score, listening to the game in my dorm room in Eugene, spring of my sophomore year), so he has that going for him.


I remember, as a boy, watching them all pile up lots of RBI -- looked like 4 of them would get to 80 RBI, this in the old 1970's era of lower offense -- and enjoying their stats a lot.  
And kind of wondering why those Mariners didn't win more, with so many good players.  :- )

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