Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Genuflect at the Altar of Small Sample Size

Today, the Twins and White Sox will gather to play a 163rd game - a one-game playoff for the entirety of the AL Central, the baseball equivalent of the Golden Goal but minus the open racism and flopping and Brazilian dudes with one name and Hope Solo is a lesbian too. Sorry, got a little out of control on the soccer analogy. Won't happen again.

The White Sox won the coin flip (even though Minnesota won the season series), so the game is at US Cellular - undoubtedly, this is an advantage for the White Sox, as both teams show larger-than-average home/road splits (likely because the White Sox can't do anything except hit homers, and the Twins play in a fucking putt-putt course with a baggy on top). Indeed, AccuScore lists the White Sox at a 62% predicted winning percentage, white BP lists the Sox as a 57/43 favorite. Either way you slice it, it's likely that a coin flip made the White Sox a 3:2 favorite in this game. Seems pretty fair, in a Shawshank sort of way.

The most interesting part, at least for me (NOTE: I'm stupid), is how this is explained by the media. The ESPN article above completely ignores everything we know about small-sample historical stats between a specific batter and pitcher - namely, that they aren't predictive over the entirety of MLB. So when ESPN tells us that Mauer and Morneau have shitrocked John Danks (hitting .667 in 12 ABs and .438 in 16 ABs, respectively), that seems pretty impressive . . . except for the fact that it is completely and wholly irrelevant beyond the player himself 'feeling good' entering today.

Additionally, Danks has had a great year . . . except for against the Twins at Chicago. His ERA on the year sits at 3.47, an ERA+ of 132 - but in four starts in Chicago against the Twins, his ERA is 7.45. Sounds pretty rough, right? Well, it's not - in three starts against Tampa (a markedly better team than the Twins), Danks has an ERA of 1.86 and a K/BB ratio of 5.25:1. We're playing the small-sample size game here, and it's eerily similar to falling down the bar skank ladder at closing time - at some point, you're just grasping for something to entertain. There's not much to learn here.

So why the (relatively) big advantage for the White Sox? Well, let's start with the easy one - Nick Blackburn kind of sucks. Now, his ERA+ of 101 is essentially league-average, but it's really not all that indicative of how well he's pitched. His ERA of 4.14 is bolstered by what professionals refer to as a "butt load" of unearned runs, as his RA is 4.86. His peripherals state that's much closer to what his ERA should look like - while his 3:1 k/bb ratio is serviceable, he's striking out less than 5 guys per 9IP. That's flaccid, Jamie Moyer (or Raphael Palmeiro, if you'd prefer a Viagra joke) territory - and without the 'guile' or move the NL that kept Moyer upright. As a result, his xFIP is more like 4.80.

So how is Blackburn doing it? According to Guillen after his win last week, the simple answer is "luck" (I believe Ozzie actually noted that Blackburn was "fucking terrible" and "didn't have shit" as well). As much as it sucks to say it, Ozzie's probably right. It appears Blackburn has gotten a little lucky on balls in play, with a BABIP of .314 but an unusual GB/FB/LD split, with 21% of all balls in play as line drives and a whooping 45% as groundballs. This means that his expected BABIP should be closer to .340. He's also benefitted from a good number of infield pop-ups, rare for a guy with a 1.3 GB/FB ratio. He's an enigma - and he's likely getting lucky, as his past numbers and "stuff" don't seem to reflect such an extreme split. As a result, his HR/G is way low, even though an average number of fly balls are going for homers.

So what to look for tonight? Well, in short, home runs. If Blackburn can get a few strikeouts from the free-swinging Sox (Alexei Ramirez last took a walk when Fidel was still alive, and the team as a whole has more hackers than gov.sarah@yahoo.com) and continue to get ground balls, the Twins will be well on their way, even though their defensive efficiency is way down from the recent past. Most likely, Blackburn will give up a couple of longballs into the shallow corners at the Cell, leading to the soft underbelly of the Twins bullpen - a unit with the potential to get Ike and Tina'ed at any given point until Nathan comes in. I wouldn't be particularly surprised to see Nathan throw 2+ innings tonight. Hell, Gardenhire has to play to win - Nathan could actually come in at any point and I wouldn't be too surprised.

The Twins will need Denard Span and Alexi Cassilla to keep up their Prestige-like morphing into Pedroia and Drew, and get on base in front of the lefty twins - Danks shows no real platoon split nor any real special ability to be hard on lefties, so removing Kubel for Cuddyer may actually be a mistake in a ballpark where mistakes land in the gentrified rubble of Cabrini-Green.

It should be a great game, with plenty of small ball and longball to keep both me and Tony LaRussa interested until we both pass out behind the wheel driving home. God bless playoff baseball.

No comments: