Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Damien Cox strikes out, but why is José Bautista hitting all those homers?

Saying someone doesn't know rate stats from counting stats is the new "doesn't know his ass from second base." Put another way: it's tough to trust a journalist with semantic data if her/his age exceeds José Bautista's home-run total — 40.

That's a gross generalization intended it makes the point. Greater minds have hit Damien Cox's weak-ass cheese about the Blue Jays' Bautista out of the park -- Cox Bloc even came out of retirement -- but whatthehell.

A couple points: One is that Cox showed what can happen when the perpetuation of PED hysteria is combined with an age of digital democracy. It's possible for anyone to write a So-And-So Must Be On Steroids post any day of the week. (Bleacher Report must exist for some reason, people.)

Every sport is in play (Mike Wilner: "You can either choose to believe those who have passed [drug] tests are clean or you can choose to believe that cheating is still rampant in the game and enjoy the game anyway.").

That makes it awfully curious that since every sport is fair game, a hockey writer such as Cox went out of his way to ding a ballplayer. Just saying.

The second point is that Lloyd Dobler principle from Say Anything, "I know that I don't know." One of daily journalism's old saws is the "good at English, bad at math" stereotype. Speeding up the sports culture hasn't changed that; it's only served to reveal it. And it's not any more prevalent among older journos than younger ones.

The difference, though, is some realize journalism is not the totality of one's personal experience and general knowledge. As a former mediocre math student, I know I am the wrong person to come up with all-encompassing, quintessential answer for why Bautista has been such an outlier, with 40 homers and counting through Monday. (His previous single-season high in the majors was 16.)

(Update: Dave Cameron, who might be that right person, has looked at it over at Fangraphs.)

At the very least, you gotta make an effort, you know?

Cox's first mistake, of course, was focusing only on the raw sum, Bautista's home-run total. It's not about the counting stats. It's about the rate stats.

At a glance, Bautista seems to be on a unique if unsustainable run. Only two everyday players in the majors have had a higher percentage of their batted balls become fly balls than Bautista (53.2%, according to what was posted at Fangraphs as of 12 a.m. Eastern on Aug. 24).

Only three had had a higher percentage of their fly balls go out of their park than Bautista (20.8% home run/fly ball rate). You want to question anything, question why he's able to get more loft on the ball, and hit it so far (although we know steroids don't make you hit the ball farther).

Rogers Centre, according to Hit Tracker, is the homerdome this season, yielding a MLB-high 2.86 gopher balls per game. New Yankee Stadium is next at 2.78, then there's a huge drop-off down to the 2.5 range.

Bautista has hit 25 of his 40 homers at home, in about 50 fewer at-bats than on the road.

That helps make the case Bautista is just an outlier. It doesn't give us all the answers, but it gives us a good framework.

Only one other everyday player hits more of his batted balls in the air and has also seen at least 20% of his fly balls sail over outfield fences — the Arizona Diamondbacks' Mark Reynolds. But you know where this is heading. Reynolds, who had 27 homers through Monday, is famous for striking out in a 40% about of his at-bats, nearly twice Bautista's whiff rate. Reynolds' home park is also a launching pad.

Who else is beating Bautista in home run/fly ball rate? The Cincinnati Reds' Canadian first baseman, Sports Illustrated cover boy Joey Votto (26.1%), leads the majors. Votto doesn't hit the ball in the air with any great frequency, which is part of why he's vying for a batting title in the National League while also being up with the leaders in home runs (and guess what, Votto's home park in Cincy also is notoriously generous for homers, 2.39 per game).

Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena (23.5%), has a ratio of almost three strikeouts for every two base hits he collects, for pity's sake. Next up is another Three True Outcomes slugger, the Washington Nationals' Adam Dunn (21.7%).

Bautista has struck out 95 times in 522 times at-bat this season, which isn't a lot for a cleanup hitter. He's more of 2 1/2 True Outcomes & mdash home run, base on balls, a few strikeouts.

A mathematician, I am not, but there is some plausibility to saying Bautista is on a roll, derived from changing his approach to produce more fly balls in his home run-friendly home stadium. The increase in his home run/fly ball rate from 2009 over the past season (12.3% to 20.8) is almost identical to that enjoyed by Votto (17.5% to that aforementioned 26.1). But no is wondering how that came to be for Votto, even in his hometown of Toronto. Nor should they.

None of this completely explains away why Bautista made it to 40 homers this season before anyone else reached 35. He did show signs when he put up a .339 on-base / .606 slugging with 10 homers in 125 times at-bat in Septemeber. It wasn't meant to, since I ain't that smart. The point is it's not that hard to at least be in the ballpark, so to speak, when an ballplayer's performance improves markedly. It's asinine and reductionist, not to mention played-out, to just automatically mention steroids. You could even say it's pathetically naive to think going for shock value for its own sake works.

The truth is out there if you care to learn how others are looking for it. Perhaps Damien Cox will learn to do that someday.

(The gist of Cameron's post:
"For the most part, he’s been hitting bombs like the two he drilled [Monday] night. If we look at his HR/FB rate, you can see that his frequency of getting balls to clear the wall isn’t that unusual: 21.5 percent of his flyballs have left the park this year, which still ranks him behind Joey Votto (25.7%), Carlos Pena (23.7%), and Adam Dunn (21.7%). Over the past three years, five players have averaged a HR/FB rate of 21.5% or better, which isn't exactly uncharted territory.

"Bautista will likely never have a year like this again, but there’s no reason to think he’s going to revert back to the version we saw before last September."
Good stuff.

(Image credit: The Canadian Press.)

10 comments:

eyebleaf said...

Well done, Neate. I for one am not going to hold my breath in the hopes Cox actually does what he's supposed to be doing.

Sarah said...

Loved this so much! Neate, you hit it out the park (bad pun, I know), and got your point across in the best way! I finished this and one thing went through my mind: "Check. Mate."

You're right, it's lazy journalism to assume its PEDs that are giving Bautista his edge, and even lazier to not even compare numbers in an effort to back up your claims on PEDs!

Well done, sir!

Todd D said...

The problem is, no one wants to factor in the human element. Players aren't robots that do this and do that at certain rates for their whole careers. Why don't we actually get a piece about baseball and hitting. Ask Bautista: why are you on such a roll? Confidence? Seeing the ball well all year? Change in stance? Getting more fastballs? Being more aggressive than in the past? Driving the ball instead of settling for base hits? That type of journalism will lead us to learn a thing or two about baseball. But no, we get nothing of the sort. It's a shame.

Ian H. said...

Neate, this post is bang on. I just don't understand the mindset of Damien Cox: did he think he was being a trail-blazer by being the first to accuse Bautista of juicing?

No one else in the Toronto media did so becasue they know the backstory as to how Bautista turned things around.
He should stick to hockey and keep his nose out of baseball and leave it up to the baseball writers.

Matt said...

A few things:
1) Steroids (or any form of juice taken to increase muscle mass and strength) DOES help you hit home runs, given you are already a pro ball player with a pro ball player's swing.

2)More proof in favour of Bautista not being on juice: the dude weighs 195lbs!!! He's probably going to become the lightest HR king of all time.

3)Cox is a jackass.

sager said...

Matt,

1) Based on what?

There is a body of work that shows steroids have little to no effect on home-run totals. Eric Walker, a former aerospace engineer who did some consulting work for MLB teams in the '80s, published a study a few years ago.

http://steroids-and-baseball.com/

He also found, "from 1962 on, true power has been declining."

Other points: "Batting power is all about lower-body strength. Bulging biceps and triceps and deltoids and the rest of the upper-body muscle set may wow the baseball Annies--and perhaps scandal-sniffing reporters--but they mean essentially nothing to long-ball hitting."

And steroid use disproportionately favours upper-body development ... arms, shoulders. But hands and wrists don't really generate power.

HGH, though, might have helped some players "cheat time" by altering their bodies' chemistry.

2) Good point. Now we've got to go look up who was the last HR champion who weighed less than 200 lbs and baseball-reference's listing of players' weights are sometimes off. Juan González might have been less than 200 pounds in 1992-93. Ryne Sandberg is listed on B-R.com at 175; he probably weighed a little more than that when he led the NL in 1990.

Henry Aaron is also listed at 180 pounds. Willie Mays is listed at 5-10, 170, although other sources put him at 180 too.

Mel Ott was 170.

3) Not necessary to name-call.

Matt said...

3) Ok, I was a bit harsh, but Damien Cox consistently puts out articles that must be to attract readership based on pissing them off, rather than coming up with a real story. Bautista is the biggest story in baseball right now except for maybe the multiple perfect games and no hitters thrown this season. What does Cox do? Insinuate that it must have been due to him taking some kinda of drug. Based on his line of thinking, where's the article about Aaron Hill, who must of then been on the juice last year, and off it this year? Or Adam Lind? In a city full of crappy teams, Cox is tarnishing our one true bright spot. Furthermore, when a sports writer starts making these comments, to the lay public it may sound quite believable and so he's really seeding something that could grow out of control based on the large amount of misinformation out there.

2) Wow. I could never have found that info! Good one.

1) Ok, anytime the discussion comes up about do 'roids or whatever form of PED increase home runs, we all have to agree that there is NO direct smoking gun kind of evidence out there. I'm not trying to sound mighty here, but I'm defending my PhD on skeletal muscle growth and development in a couple months, so what I'm about to go on about is not me just blowing smoke.

During a long baseball season, I'm 99.9% sure that every player in the league will tell you at times that they are banged up and sore. FACT: steroids or other muscle growth factors aids in the regeneration of muscle that is damaged. This also applies to the scenario of maintaining the frequency of weight training during the season. The tired banged up player will not be lifting weights that day. The player who is feeling good because they have recovered from the small bang ups may continue to weight train. Those players who maintain their exercise schedule will be stronger.

Regarding how baseball players train. I agree that big upper body muscles likely do not contribute MUCH to bat speed/power. However, baseball players likely aren't going into the gym and doing to do bench press and curls. They are doing serious training involving all muscles, and steroids or other PED are going to accelerate the growth and adaptation of those muscles just as well. Using Bonds, Sosa, and of course, the Big Mac as examples, they had tremendous leg muscle as well. You don't get to weigh over 250lb by doing only upper body training...they are including big time core and leg workouts as well.

Your point about cheating time is essentially the same point as what I've just made. As people get into their late 20s, mid 30s, muscle regenerative capacity begins to dwindle. A perfect time to supplement with the hormones/steroids that will increase muscle growth/regeneration.

Of course, as I said earlier, there is no direct evidence that steroids etc can make a ball player hit more HR. Nobody has ever done a controlled study of a before and after of someone knowingly taking a substance, and probably never will; however, there is also NO evidence that steroids DON'T lead to more HR. However, here's the line of logic that I think is pretty fair: steroids/PED DO improve muscle mass, contractile strength and power. More strength/power can move a bat a bit faster. The number of times in a year that any given player would fly out at the warning track would be x number of times (5? 10? 20?). Given that extra bit of bat speed or power, those deep flys may turn into balls barely clearing the wall. Finally, a number of players had large weight gains one particular offseason (again, Sosa, McGuire, Bonds) and then entered their years where ALL OF A SUDDEN they begin hitting 50+ jacks. And these are guys, full time players, were getting somewhat late in their careers! Did they all of a sudden learn to hit home runs at the age of 30, just coincidently with the year they put on 20+ lbs of muscle???

Phew. Rant over. Thanks for the discussion!

Cheers.

sager said...

Matt,

This is good stuff.

The points on rest/recovery across an 162-game season are well-taken ... I thought of mentioning it but I don't have your body of knowledge, so I opted for firmer ground.

I guess we could agree by saying, yes, there's no evidence steroids don't help someone hit more homers, but also, as you say, no evidence they DON'T.

The rub if you asked 20 people, 18 or 19 would agree with the latter ... and that's what we're trying to counter. The effects are embellished. People shouldn't be so sure.

I'm coming from the position that the traditional media would have you believe steroids was 95% accountable for the home-run explosion of the '90s and early aughties.

I'm saying, no, it's probably somewhere below 50%.

Walker points out there were studies that proved baseball used a livelier ball in the late '90s and early 2000s.

The part about the "deep fly" turning into a homer, that's a bit overblown. Don't most home runs clear the fence with room to spare?

But as for the squeakers, ballparks have different dimensions. Starting in 1992, with the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore, almost every new park brought more hits into the league (Safeco Field in Seattle and Petco in San Diego being 2 exceptions).

Bonds' team moved from a park with a 328-ft. right-field marking to one where it was just 307. (For what it's worth, it didn't help him, except maybe in 2004 when 26 of his 45 homers were at home. It would have helped some lesser hitters, though.

And it's not like there weren't cases of older players beating their previous standards in homers, due to park factors, plain good fortune, what-not. Check out what Henry Aaron did in 1971 when he was 37: career-high 47 homers (31 were at home, which is extreme).

Or Ted Williams, at age 38 in 1957, hitting .388/.526/.731 with 38 homers in just 420 at-bats.

No American League player has touched that on-base percentage (.526) in the 50-some years since. Only one AL player has ever finished with a higher average (27-year-old George Brett's .390 in 1980).

It's a good discussion. I think we can agree it's wrong to speak in absolutes, the way Mr. Cox did.

Superfun Happy Slide said...

Don't be so hard on Cox (grins). The guy has to spend a couple of hours every week with Simmons, Farber, and old man Hodge; Cox has to amuse himself.

Matt said...

Sager,

All very good points again. I completely agree with your estimate that it's contribution is less than 50%. Smaller parks have got to be the greatest contributor.

My personal guess is that a guy who can hit 40 home runs on his own might hit 50 after PED and appropriate weight training. Maris' record was thought unbreakable until the guy who could 50+ on his own bulked up and broke the record.

I think most players who are on some PED are doing it help them stay in the lineup and keep putting numbers on the board. Next contract comes up and a guy has played 150+ games rather than 130, and hit 30 home runs instead of 25 puts an extra 2 million $ in his pocket...in the grand scheme of things, money talks loudest and any ball player knows he's only got so many years to cash in.

Thanks again for the discussion.

Matt