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Guest Column: Derek Smart
by alex ciepley
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. Derek Smart, a man who lives up to his surname, has kindly taken time from his musings on The Big Red C to provide TCR readers with some thoughts. Ed: This column was written before yesterday's drubbing at the hands of Les Expos, but its thesis holds true.
Standards and Practices
That was pretty much my standard outing right there. I get myself in trouble and get out of it. Early in the season, I wasn't getting out of it. -Mark Prior after his 8-3 victory August 26th against the Astros
Ah, how easily I'm transported to fits of picking nits. See, the quote above was one of those things I read and instantly thought of as a statement made by someone too close to the action, basing their conclusion on purely anecdotal evidence, or the bits and pieces of memory that float to the top. We all do this to some extent—from fairly innocuously deciding we don't like someone based on our first five seconds of interaction, to more dangerously voting for a political candidate due to the appeal of their television sound bites. The same sort of things happen in baseball.
While not a big deal in the grand scheme, these sort of blanket statements nearly always rile the contrarian in me, and Prior's quote is no exception. In this case, there are three assertions I'm inclined to examine: 1) That Prior's "standard" outings are marked by an outsized and consistent ability to keep baserunners from scoring, 2) that he had particular issues with keeping runners from scoring early in the season, and 3) that he has recently begun to turn that trend around.
Point one would eventually require me to deal with proving or disproving the existence of a skill called clutch pitching, and I have neither the mathematical nor analytical skills to tackle that monster. If you want an image of what such an attempt would look like, think of Harry Caray circa 1996 having to call a double play that went from Garciaparra to Grudzielanek to Hollandsworth......backward. ("Arrapaicrag ot Kenaleizdurg, Kenaleizdurg ot Htrowsdnalloh! Elbuo...Elb...ahhh, screw it, Steve! Double Play!") Besides, my choices of made-up baseball quotes should tell you where I fall on that issue.
It just doesn't seem right to beg off the issue all together for so paltry a reason as gross incompetence. So despite my better judgment, let's play a little amateur detective and take a quick and dirty look at what Prior's done in his career. Just pretend like you're in the booth with Harry, and put on your poncho:
(Note: To calculate runners reaching base, I simply added hits, walks, and hit batsmen. Those who reached base due to fielding errors are omitted, mostly due to an inability to locate appropriate numbers. All 2004 statistics are through the games of August 26th.):
NL Scoring %
Well, for starters, Prior seems to be able to keep runners from scoring at a rate that's at least marginally better than the league, but there's not a lot of consistency to be found between seasons, and that's about all we can tell. Truth be told, he doesn't have a long enough career to properly get after this. I mean, there's small sample size, and then there's small sample size. I think we need a proxy.
Who to pick, though? He should be good. In fact, he should display a level of excellence that would make us assume he would show this ability, and he should come with a reputation to match. I don't know... how does Pedro Martinez sound?
League Scoring %
I'll tell you what I see, then you can decide if I'm nuts.
Pedro's Scoring % is all over the place, but the league numbers hold fairly steady (keep in mind, 1994-97 is NL, and the rest is AL). There appears to be an ability to keep runners from scoring at a lower rate than the league, but beyond that there's a lot of variance within his career, going as high as 38.17% and as low as 25.29%, and hitting just about everything in between. Even if you remove the two highest scores (it's like scoring Olympic Diving!), the range is from 33.92 to 25.62 - a more than eight percentage point spread.
There appears to be a fairly strong correlation between the percentage of runners that score and the rate of runs allowed (RA). This makes all sorts of intuitive sense, enough to dope slap myself and say 'duh!'. In fact, it appears to be a much better predictor of RA than Runners/9.
I'd also expect to see a bit of a parallel trend between the Scoring % and the Runners/9 (the more runners, the higher the chance that those runners come in the same inning, hence a higher chance that they score), and while you can see it sometimes ('94-'95 and '97-'99), there are some instances where it just doesn't happen - a comparison of 2000-2003 being a good example, where nearly identical Runners/9 in 2001 and 2002 yield Scoring %'s about two and a half points apart, and nearly identical Scoring %'s occurred in 2000 and 2003 despite a difference of over two and a half Runners/9.
Based on this extremely limited peek (perhaps all super-amateur, ultra-small sample size studies should be called "peeks" from now on), it appears that there is some evidence that pitchers can make it less likely that runners they let take a base will score by limiting the total number of runners they let reach (a self-evident idea, in the same way that hitting for a high average in general makes you more likely to hit for a high average with RISP), but that low Runners/9 doesn't guarantee you a low Scoring % (quickie example: in 2003, Greg Maddux only allowed 10.96 Runners/9, but saw them score 42.11% of the time!).
In other words, while he may be The Franchise, Prior doesn't appear to have a magical skill that keeps baserunners from scoring, beyond his ability to keep men off base in general - and even that's no assurance of a low Scoring %. This is far from conclusive, and not even worthy of the label "study," but what I've seen here implies that clutch pitching doesn't exist (which doesn't necessarily mean that its opposite doesn't, and yes, I'm looking at you, Kyle Farnsworth!).
But we still have two more questions to answer, and I think this breakdown of Prior's first fifteen games will go a long way toward getting us there:
Wow! Prior's first five games look pretty normal for him, but look at those middle five. Sure, allowing nearly thirteen Runners/9 isn't exactly the work of The Franchise, but having nearly 50% of your baserunners score is an ungodly kind of bad luck. For some perspective, no pitcher with at least 100 IP in 2003 had a Scoring % that high, and that includes guys like Colby Lewis who allowed nearly seventeen Runners/9 (Lewis gave up 16.87 Runners/9 and 43.70% scored)! The answer to the question of whether Prior went through a period where he had issues with excessive numbers of runners scoring looks to be an emphatic, "Yes."
So does the answer to the question of whether he's turned that around. In games 11-15, Prior allowed a whopping 16.20 Runners/9, but managed to keep the wolf from the door by allowing a paltry 27.45% of them to bring it on home. That's a truly remarkable performance, and he deserves a lot of credit for being able to prevent all those men who reached from hurting him, but even at that Scoring %, that many runners allowed means nearly four and a half runs per game, and that's not what we've come to expect from our young phenom.
It appears that Prior has been both a victim and beneficiary of luck this year. He had some stretches where an abnormally large number of runners scored, and some where the rate of homecoming was lower than you'd expect. But if there's one thing that's clear to me after this little stroll through the stats, it's that we've yet to see The Franchise that this franchise needs to get to the promised land.