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Skewed Perceptions: Texas @ Tampa Bay

Warm-Up Tosses

At 2:00 EST this afternoon, the last possible quadruple header of baseball games this season kicks off.  (Sadly for me, I will be on a cross-country flight and unable to see all but the very beginning of the first game and the very end of the last game.  I'm begging Delta to make sure the in-flight wifi works.)  Further there are three potential elimination games, so let’s take a look at the one where I think the largest gap exists between perception and expected results.

Texas at Tampa Bay

The Texas Rangers have only scored in four of the 26 innings they’ve batted in this series and been outscored by Tampa 17 to 12, but lead the series 2 games to 1.  Matt Harrison goes for Texas while Jeremy Hellickson takes the mound for Tampa Bay.

On the surface, this looks like a huge advantage for Tampa, based largely on the fact that Hellickson has the better 2011 ERA, and one that starts with a 2 handle to boot (2.95 vs. 3.43).  He also has the better reputation having been to Tampa Bay in 2010 what Matt Moore is this year – the top pitching prospect coming out of a loaded farm system, on hand to assist the team late in the year.  The hype only intensified last year when, as a late season call up, Hellickson started four games and went 4-0 helping the Rays hold on to win the 2010 American League East crown. 

The odds reflect this reputation as Tampa enters this game listed as the exact same favorite as they were last night (-115, or an implied win expectancy of 53.5%) suggesting they have precisely the same edge in starting pitching tonight as they did when the sent David Price to the mound last night vs. Colby Lewis.

Like Lt. Cdr Joanne Galloway in A Few Good Men, my model strenuously objects to that analysis.

The 24 year-old Jeremy Hellickson might be the young prospect that gets all the attention but it was the 26 year-old Matt Harrison who not only showed the most improvement in 2011 but actually had the better year, by a fairly wide margin. There are only a few things that pitchers have absolute control over and Matt Harrison does them all better than Hellickson.  He strikes out a higher percentage of batters he faces (6.2 per 9 innings vs. 5.6) walks a lower percentage (2.8 per 9 innings vs. 3.4) and induces far more ground balls (47.3% vs. 35%).  All three of Hellickson’s figures are actually below league average, somewhat alarming for such a highly regarded prospect.  Hellickson’s sparkling sub-3.00 ERA is purely a function of things out of his control, or if you really want to be objective, luck.

Tampa Bay has the best fielding team in baseball, converting a spectacular 73.5% of all balls hit on the field of play into outs.  Stated another way, opponents hit just .265 (1 minus 73.5%) against Tampa on balls hit into play.  The league average was .291 and the next best defense (Texas, interestingly enough) was at .278.  The spread (13 basis points) between Tampa and the second best defense was larger than the spread between the second and the 16th best defense!  Tampa’s defensive prowess is skill-based of course, and part of their front office’s strategy when they construct their roster.  (If you read The Extra 2% after Moneyball, you could conclude defense replaced on-base percentage as the new market inefficiency.) However, when Hellickson pitched it got silly.  Teams only hit .223 on balls hit into the field when he took the mound, a huge outlier.  Think of it like this:  All season, Tampa’s defense managed to convert 73.5% of batted balls into outs – the best display of any team in a decade – and yet when Hellickson pitched that percentage rose to 77.7%.

Hellickson also benefited from extreme “cluster luck” as 82% of the runners that reached base against him didn’t score.  That was the 2nd most fortunate sequencing of base runners and outs among starting pitchers in baseball, with the league average strand rate finishing at 73%.  Some (most likely baseball announcers) may suggest that Hellickson “bears down” or “gets angry” or “has that look in his eye” when runners are on base and “ups his game.”  I’d counter with, then why doesn’t Zach Greinke (70% strand rate), or Matt Cain (71%), or Felix Hernandez (73%), et al, all pitchers far better than Jeremy Hellickson, do the same?  They can’t because to some degree sequencing of batted balls and outs are random.  Hence the term “cluster luck” which I define in great detail in the book.

It’s entirely possible Jeremy Hellickson can scatter hits, keep balls out of the outfield seats despite being an extreme fly ball pitcher, and receive outstanding defensive support from his fielders for another game.  However, it’s also true that a pitcher with Hellickson’s potent mix of low strike outs, wildness, and fly balls is a 6 run, 4 innings pitched cocktail waiting to happen, especially against a line-up as explosive as Texas’. 

In a high scoring affair, Texas should end the series tonight and the +105 odds they are listed at represent the biggest value of the playoffs so far.


Extra Innings

Taking a quick look at the one other game where expectations seem to be skewed, Philadelphia is listed as a solid 57% (-135) favorite in Game 3 at St. Louis.  The Phillies have been mildly overvalued in the first two games, but in this game it’s much more pronounced, almost certainly due to the lack of appreciation for St. Louis starting pitcher, Jamie Garcia. 

As described above, based on the factors that are in the sole control of the pitcher, in 2011 Garcia has been almost exactly as effective as Chris Carpenter.  Despite that, Tony LaRussa elected to start Chris Carpenter on three days rest (for the first time in his career, I believe) in Game 2 instead of a fully rested Garcia.  Carpenter promptly got shelled and the Cardinals have tied this series in spite of, not because of LaRussa’s decision making.  In any event, Hamels vs. Garcia, in St. Louis, essentially grades out to a toss-up in my model, making the Cardinals an attractive investment late this afternoon.


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