Monday, August 29, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 29, 2022 -- "Fun With Numbers: Mad Hits"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider.

You can subscribe to the newsletter at a 25% discount this week, just $59.95 for one year, using your PayPal account or major credit card.


Last week, Ken Rosenthal reported a controversy stemming from last month’s Hall of Fame ceremonies. Over the celebration weekend, Rob Manfred participated in a traditional dinner with Hall of Famers, and some of the details were written up by Rod Carew in Carew’s newsletter. Carew, surprisingly for a 76-year-old, doesn’t like the way baseball is being played today and let Manfred know about it.

The larger issue -- the boogeyman “analytics” -- we’ll get to later this week. Today, though, I want to use Carew, whose Hall of Fame career ended almost 40 years ago, to illustrate changes in the game that don’t get enough attention, particularly when old players have the mic.

Rod Carew came up with the Twins in 1967 as a slap-hitting second baseman, and in a season dominated by pitchers, he won the AL’s Rookie of the Year award with a .292/.341/.409 line (113 OPS+). In a ten-team league with no interleague play, Carew faced 103 pitchers, 18 of them at least ten times. Familiarity was good to Carew. He hit .305 against those 18 hurlers, many of whom were among the league’s best pitchers.

As Carew would no doubt tell you, there aren’t many hitters like him today. Let’s pick someone close, say, Jose Ramirez. We’re about 80% through the 2022 season, and Ramirez has about 40 PA fewer than Carew did in 1967, so it’s a fair comparison. With a month left, Ramirez has faced 208 pitchers -- more than twice as many as Carew did as a rookie. Carew faced seven pitchers at least 15 times and 18 pitchers at least ten times. Ramirez has faced one pitcher, Drew Hutchison, more than nine times (11). That number should rise in September, but so will the raw number of pitchers Ramirez will face.

The differences in those numbers are in part due to a greater number of opponents. Ramirez’s Guardians will face 20 this year, again more than twice the number Carew’s Twins did in 1967. They’re also, however, due to changes in pitcher usage. In 1967, pitchers were asked to work deeper into games than they are today because the distribution of talent was such that tired starting pitchers were, for the most part, still better than fresh relievers. As I have written before, there was a third-time-around penalty for starters in the 1960s; teams just didn’t have the statistics to prove it or the depth to act upon it.

'Twas Ever Thus (splits by time facing a pitcher, 1967)

          AVG   OBP   SLG     K%
First    .228  .294  .335  19.9%
Second   .242  .300  .356  15.7%
Third    .256  .316  .391  13.3%
Fourth   .261  .314  .386  13.2%

Man, look at those strikeout rates drop. (As many researchers have noted, the lack of slippage in the fourth-time-around numbers is mostly selection/survivor bias, with the sample dominated by the best pitchers having good days, often against weak opponents.)

Carew, in 1967, had 35 hits when facing a starter for a third time or more. Ramirez has just 90 plate appearances this year with a comparable advantage. Carew also had five hits when facing a reliever for a second or third time in a game. Ramirez has three such plate appearances.

Modern hitters hardly ever face tired pitchers. Over his career, Rod Carew faced what we’ll call Tired Pitchers -- starters past the second time around, relievers past the first -- in more than a third of his career plate appearances. He got a third of his career hits, 1,022, against them. Jose Ramirez, coming along 45 years later, has faced just 18% Tired Pitchers, and has just 213 hits against them. The league-level numbers are instructive.

Third Time’s a Charm...ingly New Pitcher (Tired Pitcher PA and H as % of all)

         PA%      H%
1967   26.9%   28.9%
1982   27.6%   29.4%
1997   22.3%   23.6%
2012   20.0%   20.9%
2022   13.7%   15.1%

As you can see, the percentage of opportunities against Tired Pitchers was pretty much constant during Rod Carew’s career. Those opportunities steadily declined after he retired, and hitters in 2022 now get about half as many chances against that group.

I’m fond of saying, “It’s the pitchers, not the hitters,” and that’s literally true. Unmentioned in that pithy phrase is that it’s the pitcher usage, too. The steady reduction in individual pitcher workloads has allowed pitchers to work at max effort most of the time. That reduction, given the same need to fill 1440 innings in 2022 as in 1967, has led to more pitchers on a gameday roster and more pitchers being moved on and off those rosters. As well, pitchers who knew that their job demanded working deep into games treated the early innings differently than pitchers who expect to face 18 batters and no more.

Let’s do this with home runs. Albert Pujols has been all over the news this August with a hot streak that has unexpectedly put 700 career homers in play. He has 693 career homers, with 191 of them (28%) coming against TPs, and 24% of his career plate appearances against them. Henry Aaron, to pick a name from that same part of the leaderboard, had 32% of his career PAs against TPs, and 36% of his homers, 270, against them. That’s 80 extra homers that can be attributed, in part, to facing pitchers Pujols is far less likely to face.

Trust me when I tell you I am not writing this to denigrate the baseball accomplishments of Carew or Aaron or anyone else. No one picks his day of birth, so we evaluate players as they played in their time. What I am very much looking to denigrate is the failure of former players, be it Carew today or Rich Gossage tomorrow or any color analyst anywhere on Wednesday, to properly acknowledge that hitting a baseball is harder now than it was when they played. In a 19-year career, Carew faced 716 pitchers, most of whom were asked, as part of their job, to pitch to a lot of hitters in each game. Ramirez, in barely nine years, has faced 899 pitchers, with the endurance part of their job no longer required.

So when someone whose career ended before the USSR did, who is now nearly twice as old as he was when he last tried to hit the 84-mph heat he feasted upon, who never faced an Edgertronic-honed slider, complains about modern hitters, I don’t think we should give it much weight. Carew’s complaints, shared by many, show a fundamental lack of understanding of modern pitching, modern pitcher development, modern pitcher usage. They show a fundamental lack of understanding of what hitters in 2022 face, and why they hit the way that they do.