MLB To Test Expanded Replay Next Week.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Major League Baseball owners have agreed to test two different advanced replay systems live during games starting next week, and if they prove accurate they could precede an overhaul of the system for the 2013 season, sources told Yahoo! Sports.
MLB will analyze a radar-based system and a camera-based system, both similar to the one used in tennis for down-the-line fair-or-foul calls. Yankee Stadium and Citi Field will be the guinea-pig parks for the systems, which have been installed recently.
The use of the systems will be strictly in the background and for analysis. Because the number of questionable plays during games is likely to be limited, MLB plans to do extra testing on non-game days. Before implementing the technology in its 30 ballparks, the league wants to ensure its accuracy is up to standard.
As Jeff Passan notes in the article, this is essentially an accuracy gauge test, and the system has to show MLB officials that it can provide a definitive improvement on things like fair/foul calls. The fact that they’re testing it does not mean that they’re going to decide to use it, or that it could be implemented quickly, or that Bud Selig is aware that a lot of fans of his sport are in favor of expanded replay.
However, trying it out is better than continuing to proclaim that there aren’t enough people writing letters decrying the lack of technology used to help umpires get as many calls correct as possible. At least this gives us some hope that the test may go well, that MLB officials may see the value in expanded replay, and that we may be headed towards a day when the officials on the field have access to the same (or better!) information that everyone watching on TV has.
It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Eric Chavez Reborn in New York.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
There was a time when Eric Chavez was on a hall-of-fame-level career path. Through 2006 — his age-28 season and his eighth full major league campaign — Chavez had a .271/.350/.489 batting line, 212 home runs and six well-deserved (at least most of them) Gold Gloves. Basically, if you think Scott Rolen should be a hall-of-famer, you can see Chavez traveling the same path — especially considering the pitcher-friendly confines of the Oakland Coliseum:
Source: FanGraphs — Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen
This year, Chavez is putting up a .303/.362/.547 (139 wRC+) season in 224 plate appearances with the Yankees. He’s been a more-than-able replacement for Alex Rodriguez, and he’s been a surprisingly big reason why the Yankees have been able to pull away from the pack in the AL East.
Chavez’s 139 wRC+ is the best season of his career; he ranged from 123 to 133 in his four-year peak from 2001 to 2004. Chavez is hitting for as much power as ever (.244 ISO, second to a .252 mark in 2001) and he’s striking out just 15.6% of the time.
Part of the reason behind his success is way the Yankees have been able to leverage his skills. Chavez has taken 199 of his 224 plate appearances against right-handers, which helps him take advantage of his large career splits: .364 wOBA in 2590 appearances against righties, as opposed to just a .308 wOBA in 1,099 plate appearances against southpaws. Chavez’s line becomes even more impressive without the 22 plate appearance against lefties — they’ve held him to just a .143/.167/.143 mark, leaving a .324/.387/.598 mark against righties.
Although one would expect the new Yankee Stadium to be boost his comeback efforts, that hasn’t been the driving force. Six of Chavez’s 13 home runs have come on the road, and seven of the 13 have gone to either center or left. Indeed, he has a spray chart that leans pull — though it’s certainly not dead pull. As you can see, he’ll attack left field, too:
The laundry list of injuries — strained forearms, herniated disks, something called “spinal fusion surgery” and the list goes on — combined with his revived production at age 34, makes me wonder what could have been. Could he have been another Rolen? Perhaps an Adrian Beltre? He had that combination of glove and power that is so rare at third base.
For one last comparison, consider the following:
Source: FanGraphs — Eric Chavez, Evan Longoria
Of course, we’re comparing very different eras, but in many ways Longoria and Chavez share the same skillset. Perhaps, if Longoria can stay healthy, we can see an answer to the Chavez’s “what if?” scenario even as the 34-year-old revives his career in the Bronx.
Chipper’s Going Out (Nearly) On Top.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Chipper Jones announced in March that he would retire at the season’s end. He cited various reasons for ending his hall-of-fame career and admitted that he was tired of living the baseball lifestyle. Always one to answer questions honestly in an era of generalities, he said that his decision was firm; no matter what, he was done once the Braves’ season ended.
As expected, his steadfastness to that decision has been tested, and reporters frequently ask whether he’s changed his mind. Maybe there’s a point to those questions. After all, Jones has a .379 wOBA and 2.9 WAR right now. And he’s on pace for his best season in four years. He projects to finish the season with a .372 wOBA and 4 WAR, and players don’t generally retire after posting numbers like that.
So where does his final season rank among career-concluding seasons throughout history. Is he truly going out on top?
To that end, I pooled all final seasons from 1920 through last year and sorted by both wOBA and WAR. Both rankings are interesting in Chipper’s case, because he rates positively in the field this season, which also tends to go against the grain of why players retire in the first place. His batting line might not be the greatest among future retirees, but the value he derived elsewhere certainly helps his case.
There’s an obvious selection bias inherent here, in that players who produce this well tend to continue playing. If playing at this level indicates an ability for future success; and future success means keeping a lucrative salary, then you can see why it might be tough to walk away from the game. Generally speaking, players retire because their skills have declined — through aging, injuries, or both. Every now and then a player is essentially forced into retirement. Barry Bonds fits that case. Kenny Lofton comes to mind, as well, since he was a player who could contribute to a team but couldn’t find a contract that he liked. Joe Jackson was banned after the 1920 season, when he was 30 years old, and he was still incredibly productive. But, for the most part, these examples are the exception.
So where does Jones’s 2012 rank? Using a 400 PA cutoff among players whose careers ended between 1920 and 2011, here are the top 10 wOBAs:
Name YR PA wOBA
Joe Jackson 1920 649 0.473
Barry Bonds 2007 477 0.429
Happy Felsch 1920 613 0.421
Buzz Arlett 1931 469 0.417
Will Clark 2000 507 0.414
Hank Greenberg 1947 510 0.412
Dave Nilsson 1999 404 0.403
Roy Cullenbine 1947 607 0.390
Curt Walker 1930 547 0.385
Bobby Doerr 1951 463 0.382
If he finished the season with his current .379 wOBA, Jones would rank 14th — right ahead of Kirby Puckett, whose retirement was caused by a sudden case of glaucoma. Bonds and Jackson were special cases, but other interesting names are Clark, Nilsson and Arlett.
Clark struggled with injuries near the end of his career, but from 1997 to 2000, his age-33-through-age-36 seasons, he posted wOBAs of .385, .385, .381 and .415. He also became one of very few players to hit .300/.400/.500 as a 35-plus-year-old player when he hit .319/.418/.546 in his final season. In fact, Clark’s retirement was viewed similarly as Jones’s: He made his decision to retire after the 2000 season and he was pestered about returning after he produced well. Nilsson retired for personal reasons but managed a .309/.400/.554 line with a career-best 21 home runs as a 29-year-old in his final season. Not only was it one of the best final seasons in history, it was his best season.
Arlett is noteworthy because he played just one major league season. When he retired, he was the all-time minor league leader in homers and runs batted in. He now ranks second in both categories.
Other interesting names that pop up are Darren Daulton (No. 24) and Ray Durham (No. 33). Daulton hit .263/.378/.463 with the Phillies and the Marlins in 1997, won a World Series and hung up his cleats. Durham hit .289/.380/.432 as a 36-year-old for the Giants and the Brewers in 2008, but he wasn’t offered anything other than minor league deals with Spring Training invitations the next season.
When the players are sorted by overall WAR, the list changes quite a bit. Jones would fare much more favorably if he were to finish with 4 WAR, as ZIPS projects. In fact, at 4 WAR, Jones would finish his career with the eighth-highest tally for a final season, behind these players:
Name YR PA ValueW
Joe Jackson 1920 649 8.8
Happy Felsch 1920 613 6.5
Ray Chapman 1920 530 4.9
Roy Cullenbine 1947 607 4.7
Roberto Clemente 1972 413 4.6
Buck Weaver 1920 690 4.6
Jackie Robinson 1956 431 4.5
Barring a terrific surge upon returning to the lineup, it’s unlikely that Jones will finish much higher than 10th on either the wOBA or WAR leaderboards. He won’t finish his career with the best final season in history, but there’s nothing wrong with finishing among the best. Players don’t usually retire of their own accord after producing like this, but Jones has always been an odd duck of sorts. Perhaps it’s poetic that he will end his career with a season that leaves people guessing just how much he still had in the tank.
Is 50 Games Too Weak a PED Punishment?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As you know by now, Melky Cabrera failed a drug test and was suspended for 50 games yesterday for using synthetic testosterone during the best season of his career. Cabrera will miss the rest of the Giants’ regular season, but he’s already been worth 4.5 WAR to the Giants, and some people within the game are grumbling that a mere 50 game suspension isn’t enough of a deterrent to prevent ballplayers from taking performance-enhancing drugs. If it isn’t an effective deterrent, is it an adequate punishment?
Kirk Gibson, the manager of the Diamondbacks, was outspoken yesterday. “Obviously, there’s not a big enough deterrent if it continues,” he told the Arizona Republic. “I think it should be a minimum of a year (for a first positive) and after that it should just be banned.” So what kind of suspension would adequately deter players from using banned drugs?
It’s very likely that almost no number of games could compete with the $60 to $70 million that he may have cost himself in the offseason free agent market, as Dave Cameron writes. Nothing incents like dollars and cents, to coin a phrase. For a walk year player in Cabrera’s position, where cheating could literally earn him the better part of a hundred million bucks, it’s easy to imagine that even a one-year punishment wouldn’t be high enough, especially with disgraced BALCO founder Victor Conte claiming that “To circumvent the test is like taking candy from a baby.”
The effectiveness of the deterrent will depend on the player’s own expected value, how much they have to gain against how much they have to lose. A player like Cabrera, in a walk year, on a team in a dogfight for the division, could hardly have any more to gain. A player like Manny Ramirez, on his last legs, trying to prove that he still deserves one of 25 roster spots, could hardly have less to lose. Players like them would have the greatest incentive to cheat. And I doubt that either a 15-game suspension or a 150-game suspension would much affect their calculus, considering that the first stands to make seven years of guaranteed salary and the second is on the verge of retirement anyway.
The third type of player with an elevated likelihood of cheating would be a minor leaguer who is trying to stick in the majors. The major league minimum is an order of magnitude greater than the minor league minimum, and drug testing is more stringent in the minor leagues, where players are not covered by the MLBPA. A player who arrived in the major leagues and wanted to stick there would similarly have an elevated incentive to use. A player like Alex Sanchez, for example. But they have much more to lose, because a positive test could just about end their career.
(I’ve always thought it strange that the suspension for steroids is not much higher than the 60-day suspension that Otis Nixon received for testing positive for cocaine in 1991. Of course, that occurred in the context of Len Bias legislation and the recent memory of cocaine destroying baseball in Pittsburgh for most of the decade. It was a special circumstance.)
The more difficult question is how to deal with the aftermath. Obviously, the Giants won’t be vacating the victories they won with Melky Cabrera, and Gibson’s grievance is understandable, considering that Cabrera OPS’ed 1.167 in nine games against the D-Backs. If the D-Backs miss the playoffs by fewer than the four games that they lost to the Giants, Melky’s malfeasance may be recalled. Moreover, the winner of the ALCS may grumble that the National League gained home field advantage in the World Series thanks primarily to All-Star MVP Melky Cabrera’s chemically-aided heroics.
Worse, if Cabrera had waited until the end of the year to get caught, he might have won an MVP award. And, as we learned last year amid the saga of Ryan Braun‘s failed test and successful appeal, those are permanent, too, which means that whoever finished in second place to Cabrera would have a legitimate beef as well: people who win MVP awards are worth more money on the open market, and MVP awards add to a player’s historical legacy as well, so they can build momentum for a Hall of Fame case.
Take, for example, Vladimir Guerrero, who’s more or less borderline, with 60 fWAR in his 16 years. He won a single MVP award in 2004, so his case would be greatly strengthened if he had one or two more. He finished fourth in 2002, when Barry Bonds won; third in 2005, when Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz finished first and second; and third again in 2007, when Alex Rodriguez won.
I have no way of asserting beyond a shadow of a doubt that Guerrero is more clean than Rodriguez, Bonds, and Ortiz. But if Guerrero won a retroactive MVP or two — like the New Zealand shot-putter who won gold a couple of days ago after the Olympics ended, when the Belarusian winner tested positive for steroids — that would make him a near-certainty for the Hall, rather than a player who will struggle to stand out against many other talented peers from the Steroid Era.
(As it happens, there’s a very good chance that Melky Cabrera will deprive Andrew McCutchen or Buster Posey of the 2012 batting title. But it also bears mentioning, as Jonah Keri writes, that it’s unclear just how much of Cabrera’s 2011-2012 spike is attributable to PED usage, as opposed to BABIP variance and so forth.)
Gibson is almost certainly right that a yearlong suspension would be an increased deterrent, and it might lessen steroid use on the margins. It would also raise the stakes if there ever were to be a false positive with the test, which Major League Baseball has long denied, but Ryan Braun’s successful appeal was predicated on just that notion. And that is why the players’ union is unlikely to sign off on any increase in suspension time.
The union is also unlikely to sign off on any increased scrutiny of players in contract years or at the beginning or end of their careers, even if they are likely to be at elevated risk for PED use. The court of public opinion will have no such scruples, however, and the suspicion of chemical enhancement that greets every great performance in a walk year, from Adrian Beltre to Gary Matthews Jr., will continue unabated. So Melky will likely need to accept a one-year contract for next year, and hope that he can kill it — like Beltre in 2010 with the Red Sox, for example — to set himself up for a major payday in 2013.
That won’t help the Giants, of course, and the damage has already been done to the Diamondbacks, not to mention home field in the World Series. The 50 game suspension hurts the Giants a lot more than it hurts Cabrera, who already did irreparable damage to his free agent value and historical legacy. If teams can pressure their players not to use, because of the damage that their absence could do to the team, then the 50 game suspension would truly be an effective deterrent. If not, then it will always pale in comparison to the money.
Dan Duquette Doesn’t Like Cutters.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
“Why don’t you take a look at the chart with the average against cutters in the big leagues, batting average against and then come back and tell me that that’s a great pitch,” Duquette said.
In an interview with Steve Melewski that is destined to provide content for weeks, Dan Duquette outlined the Orioles’ philosophy when it comes to the cut fastball. In essence, the pitch won’t be taught in their minor league organization. “We don’t like it as a pitch,” the Baltimore GM said.
The interview was full of controversial statements. For one, Duquette asked incredulously if any good pitcher has dominated in the big leagues using a cutter. He dismissed Mariano Rivera — “that’s a fastball” — so we may have a problem of definition. By the BIS pitch type percentage leaderboards housed here, there are plenty of excellent pitchers that have used the cutter: Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, James Shields, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, David Price, Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright all show up on the first page, meaning they use the pitch often. Some dude named Roy Halladay throws the cutter almost a quarter of the time according to PITCHf/x. Unless he’s going to dismiss all of these as fastballs — in which case we’d have to ask what a cutter actually is — that statement seems demonstrably wrong.
His assertion that the batting average allowed on the cutter means it’s a bad pitch, that one should be easy enough to unpack. First of all, here are the numbers for batting average and slugging percentage on balls after contact for each pitch type so far this year. (Using this year alone helps us avoid any change in pitch-type classification systems.)
4-Seam 0.328 0.542
2-Seam 0.324 0.496
Cutter 0.313 0.493
Slider 0.311 0.499
Changeup 0.303 0.493
Curveball 0.316 0.491
The batting average on balls after contact for the cutter seem in line with the slider and curveball, while the two-seam and four-seam fastball allow more successful outcomes for the batter. There’s little difference in the non-four-seam slugging percentages. Since the cutter and the breaking pitches all get more ground balls than the four-seamer, that’s not surprising. If Duquette’s chart includes swinging strikes, he may have lower batting averages for the breaking pitches than the cutter — according to Harry Pavlidis’ excellent pitch-type benchmarks, the cut fastball has a worse whiff rate than any pitch listed here except the four-seamer.
But that’s not the point of the pitch. Look at the cut fastball, and you realize that it’s a pitch that’s used like a fastball but has a little different movement and gets a few more ground balls. The balls-to-called strikes ratio on the cut fastball is better than the one you’ll find on breaking pitches, and the ground-ball rate is better than the four-seamer. It’s a tweener. If used properly, it’s useful, and batting average has little to say about it.
Another assertion of his might be the ‘real’ reason that the Orioles are declining to teach to the pitch in the minor leagues. Duquette states that developing the cutter takes away from time spent developing better pitches, but also that throwing the cutter leads to lowered arm strength and less fastball velocity. In an excellent article on Baseball America ($), Ben Badler did find many scouts that agreed with this sentiment. Most agreed with a caveat: if it’s thrown correctly (and has about the same velocity as his four-seam fastball), they think it’s a fine pitch that can help a pitcher iron out platoon issues by giving them a pitch with movement to the glove side. Others are more pessimistic and think it’s “hard on the arm” like the last pitch-du-jour, the split-finger fastball. Testing these ideas is as difficult as classifying the cutter.
No matter what, Badler found that most agree that there isn’t a team that teaches the cutter on an organization-wide basis. Sure, you have pitching coaches — like Don Cooper and Dave Duncan, perhaps — that teach the pitch in the big leagues, and help revive careers for veterans that have had trouble learning a better changeup or curveball. But it doesn’t seem like there are many, if any, teams that teach the cutter in the minors. So maybe this is all a brouhaha about nothing.
Except that the Orioles have a prospect named Dylan Bundy who throws his fastball in the upper nineties and thrived with a cut fastball as part of his arsenal in high school. The Orioles’ forbidding him from throwing the pitch may be taking this philosophy too far. After all, each pitcher is different, and if Bundy wasn’t having trouble with arm strength and used a fine-looking cutter, telling him to stop using it seems to be folly.
In the end, Duquette’s is a defensible stance, and one that is in the majority when it comes to minor league development. But maybe the Orioles’ GM said a few strange things and used some interesting evidence to back up his beliefs.
Giants Must Get Creative In Replacing Melky Cabrera.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Major League Baseball suspended Melky Cabrera for 50 games after he tested positive for testosterone, a substance banned under the league’s Joint Drug Policy. The suspension is immediate, meaning Cabrera won’t be seen in the orange and black, patrolling left field and accumulating hits, for the rest of the season. After their loss yesterday to the Nationals, coupled with the Dodgers win over the Pirates, the Giants fell out of first place in the National League West for the first time since late June. Losing Cabrera will hurt the Giants as they battle the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks for the division title, and try to stay in the hunt for a wild card spot.
Cabrera’s has been the Giants’ second-most productive hitter, behind Buster Posey. His season line is .346/.390/.546 for a .387 wOBA and a 146 wRC+. He was a steady and effective presence as the number three hitter in the Giants’ lineup, where he whacked 25 doubles, ten triples and eleven home runs in front of Posey. It will be impossible to replicate that production. The question is how best to replace it.
News reports suggest utility outfielder Gregor Blanco will get the bulk of the playing time in Cabrera’s absence. Blanco played his way into a regular right field job early this season when he batted .315/.427/.457 with a .391 wOBA and 149 wRC+ in May. But those numbers are a distant memory now. In 91 plate appearances in July and August, Blanco has 14 hits and 16 strikeouts. His walk rate remains high, above 14%, after plummeting in June.
The Giants will add two players to the roster before tomorrow’s game against the Padres. My best guess is that they’ll call up Brett Pill and Justin Christian, both right-handed batters, with an eye on a platoon with Blanco, who hits lefty. Christian’s been up and down from Triple-A several times this season, and shown very limited ability to hit major league pitching. In 41 plate appearances, he’s batted .158/.220/.184. His career numbers against lefties show some promise, but he’s had no success at all against southpaws this season. Pill made the Giants’ Opening Day roster and was used in a platoon with Brandon Belt at first base in the first half of the season. But even with Belt’s struggles, Pill did not seize the moment and was eventually sent back to Fresno. In 106 plate appearances, he batted .222/.274/.374 with four home runs. A better option than Christian at the plate, for sure. The only problem is that Pill has played only 47 innings in left field in the majors, all coming this season. An outfield of Pill in left, Angel Pagan in center, and Hunter Pence in right has the capacity to cause serious mayhem for Giants pitchers, particularly those induce a lot of fly balls, like Matt Cain.
The possibility of a Blanco/Pill or Blanco/Christian platoon doesn’t inspire confidence, so let’s think outside the box for a second. The Giants could use Pablo Sandoval at first base and move Brandon Belt to left field. Don’t jump right to the comments to blast me; hear me out.
Marco Scutaro, acquired before the trade deadline, filled in admirably at third base with Sandoval on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. On defense, it’s probably a wash between Sandoval and Scutaro at third, particularly with Joaquin Arias as a late-inning defensive replacement. Scutaro’s batting .320/.361/.427 in 83 plate appearances with the Giants, better than anything Blanco, Pill or Christian has or likely will produce. Even with all his injuries this season, Sandoval is batting .299/.353/.489 with a .356 wOBA and a 125 wRC+. In his career, Sandoval’s played almost 475 innings at first base, mostly in 2008 and 2009, and while he’s nowhere near as good at first as he is at third — or as Brandon Belt is at first — shifting Pablo to first could free up Belt to play left field.
Even with an up-and-down year at the plate, Belt has pulled it together in August and is now up to .267/.362/.405 with a .339 wOBA and 114 wRC+ for the season. He’s credited with 2 defensive runs saved and a 4.7 UZR/150 at first base. We can take those numbers with grain of salt, given the state of defensive metrics, but having watched nearly every inning of every Giants game, I can safely say that Belt is a very solid defensive first baseman.
Belt played a bit more than 240 innings in the outfield last season, and didn’t fare nearly as well by defensive metrics or the eye test. But he’s agile and fairly quick on his feet. With an additional year of major league playing time, it’s not ridiculous to think that Belt could play a reasonably steady left field for the Giants.
When rosters expand on September 1, the Giants could promote outfielders Francisco Peguero from Triple-A and/or Gary Brown from Double-A. Brown is one of the Giants’ most highly-rated prospects and fans have been clamoring for his arrival in San Francisco, even before Cabrera’s suspension. Brown started off slowly this season in Richmond, but has upped his numbers to .280/.346/.395 for the year. He might be a nice fill-in defensively down the stretch, but he’s unlikely to make much of an impact at the plate in a pennant race. Peguero’s had a full year at Triple-A and is batting .273/.297/.403, which reveals an abysmal on-base rate and low power numbers in the otherwise high-octane Pacific Coast League that both Christian and Pill have dominated. So Peguero is an unlikely solution.
And then there are trade options. The name that’s already surfaced is Alfonso Soriano. He cleared waivers but has 10-5 rights and has stated publicly he doesn’t like the weather in San Francisco and wouldn’t approve a trade to the Giants. It’s also unlikely the Giants would agree to pay for much of Soriano’s remaining $40 million in salary.
Other outfielders on teams out of contention, or soon to be out of contention, who could be possible fits in San Francisco include Denard Span of the Twins, Cody Ross of the Red Sox (and, of course, Giants 2010 postseason hero), Scott Hairston of the Mets, and Juan Pierre of the Phillies. It’s unclear (to me) if any of these players passed through waivers, making them available as trade pieces between now and August 31. All would be upgrades over Blanco/Christian/Pill. The question, of course, is whether any are available and if so, at what price?
Losing Cabrera puts the Giants in a tough spot just as their offense was kicking into high gear. In the last 14 days, the Giants lead the majors with 4.7 WAR and are third with a 122 wRC+. Much of that is due to Posey’s second half surge, Belt’s hot streak, and Scutaro’s arrival. But Cabrera played a big part of that, too, as he has in the Giants’ offense all season. The Giants need to think creatively how best to use their available players to fill in the gap. Or they can try acquire a player from a non-contending team. Or both. But the Giants must act quickly because time is ticking on the 2012 season.
Which Recent Perfect Game Was The Hardest?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Yesterday, Felix Hernandez went 27-up, 27-down against Tampa Bay, becoming just the 23rd pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game. Amazingly, this was the sixth perfect game in the last four years, as Felix joins the company of Mark Buehrle, Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay, Philip Humber, and Matt Cain as the newest members of the club.
Back when Cain threw his perfect game in June — striking out 14 games in the process — I looked at where that game ranked in history, and noted that it was in the conversation with Kerry Wood‘s 20 strikeout performance and no-hitters from Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax as one of the best games in history. While Game Score does a pretty good job of scaling relative performances, however, it doesn’t evaluate for context — park, league, opponent, etc… So, that’s what I set out to do today.
It’s simply more work than I have time for to go through every perfect game in history to evaluate the quality of the opponent, the park the game was played in, and the run environment of the day, but with the help of Jeff Zimmerman, I was able to look at the most recent six. Thanks to the fantastic custom leaderboard feature here on FanGraphs, it is not that difficult to compile the statistics of a specific group of players, like for instance the batters who were matched up against a guy who threw a perfect game. From there, we can look at the relative strength of the batters that each pitcher had to face.
For the recent six, here are the opponents they faced on their road to perfection – you can click through the links to see the custom leaderboards with each player’s performance from that year.
7/23/09: Buehrle vs 2009 Rays.
Buehrle got the Rays at home on a Thursday afternoon getaway game, but Tampa Bay still ran out most of their regulars, just subbing in the backup catcher in a day-game-after-night situation. This was a good year for Tampa’s offense too, as the nine guys in the line-up that day combined to hit .270/.356/.465 in 2009, good for a .359 wOBA. Each member of the Crawford/Zobrist/Pena/Longoria/Bartlett group posted a wOBA over .367 that year, and Crawford was the only one who wasn’t particularly good agains left-handed pitchers. Making up Crawford’s weakness against LHBs was the presence of Gabe Kapler, who posted a .394 wOBA against LHPs that year. This was simply a staggeringly good line-up to get completely shut down.
5/9/10: Braden vs 2010 Rays.
Hey, look, it’s mostly the same group of guys that Buehrle faced. Michael Hernandez got swapped out for Dioner Navarro behind the plate and Willy Aybar was DH’ing instead of Pat Burrell, but those guys were just as ineffective as the previous incarnation. This group was a bit worse, though, as Bartlett went from having an insane year back to being a weak-bat shortstop, and Zobrist’s offense regressed a lot in 2010. This group of nine combined for a .333 wOBA in 2010, so while they were still above average offensively, they weren’t hitting like they did the year before, especially against left-handers. Also worth noting – this was a Saturday afternoon game, so again, day-game-after-night situation.
5/29/10: Halladay vs 2010 Marlins.
The Marlins threw 12 different batters at Halladay, pinch-hitting for the entire bottom third of their order in the bottom of the 9th inning. So, here, it’s not quite as simple as averaging out the entire season lines for the starting nine, since there weren’t equal opportunity, but we can still evaluate the strength of that Marlins offense without too much trouble. And, to be frank, it wasn’t great. Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez were having strong seasons, but both were also right-handed batters, which meant that Halladay had the platoon advantage against them. Every other batter Halladay faced that day was a below average hitter vs RHPs, ranging from okay bats like Gaby Sanchez and Chris Coghlan to automatic outs like Josh Johnson and Mike Lamb. As a group, Halladay’s opponents posted a .312 wOBA against right-handers in 2010, and while weighting the line by number of at-bats given to each player shifts that up a bit, this was still a below average offense that Halladay was facing. Unlike the two against Tampa Bay before him, though, this was a night game.
4/21/12: Humber vs 2012 Mariners.
If you were to pick a team that you’d expect to get perfecto’d over the last few years, it’d probably be the Mariners. Their offense is better this year than it was the last two, but it’s still pretty bad, with John Jaso representing the team’s only above average hitter this season, and he didn’t even start against Humber. Another afternoon game, the Mariners were also using backup shortstop — and completely useless hitter — Munenori Kawasaki at shortstop, and this was the part of the season where they were still trying to extract value from Chone Figgins, so he was hitting leadoff and playing left field. The whole group of hitters Humber faced have combined for a .286 wOBA this year, and that doesn’t improve at all against right-handers. Of the guys who started for the Mariners that day, Kyle Seager‘s .321 wOBA vs RHPs was the best in the line-up, and Ichiro Suzuki was the only other batter in the line-up to clear the .300 mark. This line-up deserved what they got.
6/13/12: Cain vs 2012 Astros.
It’s easy to dismiss Cain’s performance since it came against the Astros, who are clearly baseball’s worst team this season, but that’s not totally fair to his accomplishment. They did run out a couple of solid hitters that night, including Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve, and the overall group of batters Cain faced have posted a .310 wOBA this year. That’s not great, but they weren’t all automatic outs either, and they actually did slightly better than that against right-handed pitching this season. It was also a night game, so Cain wasn’t facing too many back-ups — beyond the joke about everyone on Houston being a back-up on a good club, anyway — and J.A. Happ‘s terrible performance meant he only got to hit once. So, while the quality of opponent here wasn’t great, this wasn’t the total cakewalk you might think when you heard someone beat up on the 2012 Astros.
8/15/12: Hernandez vs 2012 Rays.
Hey, it’s the Rays again. They show up here for the third time, but this is a pretty different group than the first two. Upton, Zobrist, and Longoria are still around, as is the ghost of Carlos Pena, but everything else has been turned over. It was another day-game-after-night situation, so Felix got to face the likes of Sam Fuld and Elliot Johnson, but Joyce and Longoria were still in the line-up and Jeff Keppinger and Desmond Jennings both pinch-hit in the ninth inning, so this wasn’t a total scrub best. Still, the group’s .319 wOBA is inflated a bit by the single plate appearances from Keppinger and Jennings, so the first two times through the order, the Rays offense was a bit worse than that number would suggest. As a righty getting to roll through the Lobaton/Johnson/Rodriguez/Fuld quartet, nearly half of the line-up the Rays rolled out there didn’t present much of a challenge.
So, just adjusting for quality of competition, Buehrle seems to stand out as the most impressive perfect game of the bunch. He faced a legitimately good offense at full strength with no platoon issues against left-handed pitchers. In fact, if we adjust for ballpark effects, Buehrle again comes out on top, as he threw his in the hitter’s haven of US Celluar Field, while every other perfect game in the last four years has been thrown in a pretty extreme pitcher’s park.
The hardest opponent and hardest environment awards go to Buehrle, with Braden probably coming in second, and then Halladay/Felix/Cain all facing similar-ish challenges in terms of park and quality of batters faced. Humber clearly had the easiest path to perfection, facing a brutally awful line-up in a park that is just destroying offense this year, primarily by suppressing hits on balls in play.
Of course, Felix, Cain, and Halladay all racked up double digit strikeouts, doing more of the work themselves and relying less on balls getting hit right at their defenders, and going by sheer dominance, they’re the ones throwing unhittable pitches. Buehrle got 21 outs on balls in play using his 85 mph fastball and diving change-up, which just doesn’t look as overpowering as the breaking balls that Felix was busting off yesterday. But, when you consider who he was pitching against, and where he was pitching, Buehrle’s perfect game is probably the most impressive of the whole bunch.