July 2007

OK. A week ago, I predicted the outcome of every game on the Cubs’ road trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati, using as my guide one thing only: the career records of the opposing teams’ hitters versus the scheduled starting pitchers. I went 6 for 6. Also, I went 3 for 4 in my predictions of the Milwaukee/St. Louis series this weekend. That makes me 9 for 10 in predictions, and it also makes me a cocky asshole. Now I will tempt fate, and predict the outcome of all seven games on the upcoming Cubs homestand.

Tonight’s game pits Cole Hamels, the Phillies’ All-Star pitcher, versus Ted Lilly. Hamels is a good young pitcher, but not against the Cubs. Lilly, on the other hand, has pretty much had his way with the Phillies; I expect a Cubs win. Tuesday night’s matchup is Adam Eaton versus Jason Marquis. Eaton has only faced a few of the Cubs, and he’s done OK against them (although Lee has two homers in 13 at-bats). Marquis has been surprisingly decent versus most of the Phillies. It’s sort of a toss-up, but I’ll go with the Phillies. Wednesday’s game pits soft-tossing lefty ex-Cub Jamie Moyer against current soft-tossing lefty Cub Rich Hill. Hill has sorta sucked–a lot–versus the current Phillies (the addition of Tadahito Iguchi, who’s 3 for 5 with two homers off of Hill, doesn’t help), while Moyer has mostly held the Cubs in check. Advantage Phils. Finally, the last game of the series is J.D. Durbin versus Sean Marshall. Durbin has never faced the Cubs, while Marshall has been OK against the Phils. Another toss-up; I’m going with Marshall and the Cubs. So I’m predicting a split of the series.

EDIT: The Phils traded for Kyle Lohse, who will get the start Thursday against Marshall.  Lohse shut the Cubs down earlier this season, but his career numbers versus Cubs hitter suggest that that was a fluke, and that the Cubs should beat him.  I’m picking the Cubs with greater confidence now.

The Mets series will kick off with Z versus El Duque. El Duque is having a good year, but he’s been not so great against the current crop of Cubs. Zambrano has been all right against the Mets, so I think the Cubs can win this one. Saturday’s game will be Lilly versus Pelfrey. Pelfrey has no history versus the Cubs, while Lilly has been a little bad versus the Mets he’s seen. I hate to do it, but I’m going to have to go with the Mets on this one. The Sunday game is Marquis versus Maine. Marquis has been just OK versus the Mets, and Maine has been pretty good versus the Cubs. Again, I hate to say it, but I think the Mets will take this one.

These matchups are, for the most part, not as cut-and-dried as the matchups on the just-completed road trip. I’m pretty confident in tonight’s game (Lilly vs. Hamels), Wednesday’s game (Hill vs. Moyer), and Friday’s game (Zambrano vs. El Duque). The two other Phillies game are toss-ups, as are the last two games versus the Mets. I don’t expect to go 7-0 on these predictions, but 5-2 is highly probable.

As for the Cubs, I think 3-4 and 4-3 are pretty much equally likely. Winning five of seven would be huge, and would lend the team some legitimacy, but it’s sort of a long shot. And the Brewers? They’re so pathetic right now that I wouldn’t be surprised if they went 2-4 on their homestand. That’d be nice.

A few days ago, I posted my predictions for the Cubs’ series against the Cards and Reds. The Cards series is now in the books, and my prediction–that the Cubs would win the first two games and lose the third–was right on. If the Reds series also conforms to my picks, I’m going to make these predictions a regular feature. I think that completely ignoring momentum and just focusing on the past performance of both teams versus the starting pitchers is about as good a way to predict the outcome of baseball games as there is. With that in mind, let me also make some predictions about the Cards/Brewers series coming up:

Friday–Claudio Vargas vs. Mike Maroth: this is sort of a toss-up, as both pitchers have been ineffective against the hitters they’ll be opposing. I’m going to go with the Brewers, though, in a high scoring game.

Saturday 1–Manny Parra vs. Brad Thompson: Parra has never faced the Cards, while Thompson has done OK against the Brew Crew. I’m going with the Cards here.

Saturday 2–Chris Capuano vs. Anthony Reyes: Another case of both pitchers struggling against opposing hitters. I’m going Cards again.

Sunday–Yovani Gallardo vs. Kip Wells: Brewers.

So I’m predicting a split in the four game series–always a safe bet. If the Cubs do what I expect them to do and win two of three, they’ll return home on Monday 1.5 games back of Milwaukee.

Some people like to endlessly point out when the Cubs get lucky, and there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s good to know when you might be about to fall off a cliff. But looking at team-wide luck-indicator stats like BAbip (batting average on balls in play) sometimes obscures individual performances. I want to look at the three Cubs starters with significant track records (Z, Lilly, and Marquis), compare their important 2007 stats (Ks, BBs, HRs, and BAbip) to their career numbers, and then assess whether they’ve been lucky or good (or both). I’ll start with Z:

2007: K/9=7.68, BB/9=3.90, HR/9=1.07, BAbip=.262

Career: K/9=7.93, BB/9=4.09, HR/9=.74, BAbip=.272

The strikeouts are down a little, though not too much, and the walks are down a little as well, compared to career numbers. Compared to last year, when Carlos struck out 8.83 and walked 4.84 per 9 IP, both numbers are pretty low. The HR/9 number is strikingly higher than his career norm, though last year’s .84 HR/9 was also a little high. The BAbip indicates that Carlos has been a little lucky, but not that much; were he having a “normal” Carlos year, he would have given up about 4 more hits to this point. (Incidentally, I think for pitchers with a significant track record, it’s more useful to compare BAbip to career norms rather than current league numbers. I realize that offensive contexts change and that there is some evidence that pitchers have little control over BAbip, but I also believe that very good pitchers–Carlos, Maddux, some others–do have some control. Carlos has posted BAbips well below league average for the last four years, and I don’t think that’s just luck. When coupled with his K numbers, it points to a pitcher whose movement on the ball makes it hard for hitters to make solid contact, leading to a lot of misses and weakly hit balls in play.)

What to make of this? Well, I think it should be pretty clear that Carlos is (mostly) being Carlos. Since the Barrett punching incident, Carlos has posted the following rates in 10 starts and 69.1 IP:

K/9=9.22, BB/9=3.63, HR/9=.52, BAbip=.193

He should have given up a few more hits in this time (about 12), but the home run, strikeout, and walk rates are great, and sort of indicate that last year’s walk-fest may have been an aberration. So while there will probably be a bit of a regression in BAbip, I expect Carlos to finish the year with great numbers–maybe Cy Young great. Conclusion: mostly good, a little lucky.

Onto Ted Lilly:

2007: K/9=7.33, BB/9=2.17, HR/9=.95, BAbip=.263

Career: K/9=7.64, BB/9=3.49, HR/9=1.33, BAbip=.280

The obvious differences here are the walk and homer numbers. The BAbip indicates a certain degree of luck, though not much,–Lilly “should” have given up something like 6 or 7 more hits all year so far–and the strikeout numbers are right in line with career norms. So what to make of this? Has Lilly, at 31, really learned better control, and thus cut down on his walk and home run numbers? My (perhaps naive) hypothesis is this: in moving from a tough league and a somewhat tough division to a bad league and really bad division, Lilly has been facing lesser competition, and has had to be less “fine” with his pitches, challenging hitters more often. As a result, he hasn’t walked as many people. The drop in home runs is attributable to the weaker competition. Now, is this true? I don’t have the time to definitively answer this question, but I can tell you this: last year, Lilly gave up 28 homers in 181.2 IP–a rate of 1.39 HR/9. He gave up 21 of those to the Angels, Red Sox, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, Yankees, A’s, and Blue Jays–in other words, to the good AL teams. His HR/9 rate against all other opponents was .62. I think Ted Lilly is the answer to the question “what happens when a slightly-better-than-average AL pitcher moves to the NL?” Conclusion: good, and smart for changing leagues.

Now for Marquis:

2007: K/9=5.15, BB/9=3.46, HR/9=1.08, BAbip=.249

Career: K/9=5.42, BB/9=3.48, HR/9=1.26, BAbip=.282

Uh oh. Same strikeout and walk numbers, pretty much, as he has shown in the past. The homer numbers are down–could it be the persistent incoming wind at Wrigley?

HR/9 at home in 2007: .67

HR/9 on road in 2007: 1.64

So, yes. Actually, Marquis has been pretty terrible on the road, walking more than he’s struck out in 49.1 IP. His BAbip also indicates that he’s been very lucky; he should have given up about 12 more hits over the course of the season. I have to think that Jason should be thanking his lucky stars for that Wrigley wind blowing in. Still, I’ll take him as a fifth starter. Conclusion: lucky, lucky, lucky.

So there you have it: our 1-2 veteran punch is “for real,” while our #5 starter is a little flukey. Hill and Marshall don’t have enough innings pitched in the majors to say too much, although Hill’s .251 BAbip seems to be a little lucky. Still, we have a rotation with three pitchers of solidly above-average ability, one with average ability, and one whose ability is not yet clear. I’ll take that.

Anytime you go 7-3 on a homestand, I think you’ve done a good job. Still, it’s impossible not to be a little frustrated, given that the Cubs started out 7-1 on this homestand and then forgot to score runs in the two weekend games, dropping both. Ramirez almost singlehandedly lost the game on Saturday, going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts with men on base during each of his at bats. He’s won quite a few games almost singlehandedly for the Cubs this year, so I’ll forgive him.

The Cubs will now go on the road for six games against the Cardinals and Reds, and the most likely outcome is probably a 4-2 record. I think forecasting over the short term in baseball is extremely stupid, but, if you’re going to do it, the best way is just to look at starting pitching matchups, and that’s what I’ll do now.

The Cards are a bad team, and the Cubs with Derrek Lee back in the lineup should feast on their weak starting pitching. The matchups for the series will be Zambrano vs. Wells, which seems almost unfair, Lilly vs. Wainwright (check out the Cubs’ collective 1.007 career OPS vs. Wainwright), and Marquis vs. Looper. This last matchup is the only unfavorable one for the Cubs, as Jason Marquis is not very good to begin with and should be worse against a team that knows his tendencies quite well, and Braden Looper has dominated the current crop of Cubs hitters. My prediction: 2-1 series victory for the Cubs.

In Cincinnati, the matcups will most likely be Rich Hill vs. Bronson Arroyo, Sean Marshall vs. Aaron Harang, and Zambrano vs. Matt Belisle. The last of these matchups heavily favors the Cubs (although the Reds have been good against Z), but the first two are less certain. Arroyo basically dominated the Cubs last year, posting a 4-0 record in five starts and a 1.01 ERA. This year, however, he’s 0-2 with a 3.95, so maybe there’s some hope. Floyd, Lee, and Ramirez have all hit him well; the rest of the Cubs have not (to say the least). As for Hill, he’s been good against the Reds, but he may be too homer-prone to succeed against Arroyo. The Cubs have faced Harang twice this year already; he beat them on Opening Day in Cincinnati and got beat around by them in Chicago in that terrible 6-5 loss in which Zambrano blew a 5-0 lead. Last year, he was 1-1 against the Cubbies with a 5.14 ERA. Marshall has no experience against the Reds. My prediction: Cubs win the Zambrano/Belisle matchup easily and beat up on Harang; Arroyo gets the best of the Cubbies again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs swept the Cards, and I would be surprised if they lost 2 of 3. I’m less confident about the Reds series, but I still think the odds are in the Cubs’ favor. All in all, I think 4-2 is the most likely outcome, 3-3 is a distinct possibility, 5-1 is a slightly less distinct possibility, and anything else would really surprise me.

The Cubs are a mere 3.5 games back of the Brew Crew, and Brewers fans seem to be getting a little testy. Now, I understand that it must be frustrating to be the fan of a first place team with the best record in the league and have to listen to the media devote twice as much attention to the team behind you, but, in this case, it’s completely understandable. The Cubs have been better as of late,–the best team in baseball since June 1–play in a bigger market, have more fans in more places around the country, and have a more storied history. They’re a better story. The Brewers, with their gobs of homegrown talent, smart money management, and…sausage races are a good story. The Cubs, with their $300 million spent, their turnaround after a bad first two months, and their recent good play, are a very good story. This is how the sports media works, and I suspect that most Milwaukee fans know that; they just can’t keep their inferiority complex about their city from inciting them to lash out at the sports media.

I don’t feel like wading through the oodles of misspelled crap to find it again, but there was one thread on that same site–www.brewcrewball.com, where all 6 Brewers fans congregate to congratulate themselves on their small-market moral superiority–in which someone bemoaned that the media has called the Cubs’ 18-5 since June 22 a “hot streak” given that those wins have come at the expense of bad teams. I found this interesting for the following reason:

Brewers W-L vs. teams >=.500: 20-23

Cubs W-L vs. teams >=.500: 21-21

Brewers W-L vs. teams<.500: 34-18

Cubs W-L vs. teams<.500: 29-23

The conclusion: the Brewers’ success is based almost entirely on beating up bad teams! So is the Cubs’ success, of course, but people in glass houses…

I used to like the Brew Crew when they were harmless, but now they’re good, and their fans have gotten a little cocky. But if you can look past the city envy, you’ll see some genuine sweat pouring down their cheeks and onto their beer bellies.

There are a lot of Cubs blogs. There’s one that mostly focuses on why the Cubs are terrible even when they’re good, there’s one that focuses on why the Cubs are good even when they’re terrible, there’s some good ones in between, and there’s some really funny ones. Why start a new one? Because I think I spend too much time reading other people’s thoughts on the Cubs, and I’d like to cut down. I’m starting a blog to decrease the amount of time I spend reading blogs. This may seem counterintuitive, and it probably will be.

I plan on devoting a lot of space in this blog to my thoughts/reactions to “stathead” arguments. I’m a physics graduate student, and have a lot experience with practical applications of math ideas to a variety of problems, and I feel that the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, etc., while often very insightful, tend to draw the wrong conclusions sometimes. To use a phrase from physics, they too often take a “mean field” approach to stats, ignoring context on the (somewhat shaky) grounds that context is sufficiently averaged over the course of a season. I don’t think it is, and I think a more nuanced approach that respects contextual differences is necessary (WPA does this, though imperfectly). I’ll write a lot more about this later.

Of course, I’ll also give my reactions to game results, trades, etc.  Last night’s 4-2 loss was somewhat tough to swallow, especially given that Bonds was out of the lineup for the Giants.  I don’t understand the Cubs’ struggles against lefties–their three best hitters are all righties!–and I suspect that the team doesn’t, either.  Kendall–who will probably neither aid nor hurt the Cubs over the course of the next few months–made two key defensive mistakes in the game that led to three of the four Giants runs, and also went 0-3 at the plate; not a good night.  Marshall was OK, though I’m a little concerned that he’s not striking people out more often in his last few starts–only 18 in his last seven starts, covering 37.2 innings pitched–after striking out 22 in his first 20 innings this year.  I have to believe that starting after Hill can’t be helping him, as they’re the same type of pitcher, and a team that faces Hill one night should have no problem adjusting to Marshall the next night.  Maybe Lou can rework the rotation so that Marquis pitches between them, but if the Cubs keep winning, I doubt that will happen.  At any rate, I’m happy with him as a fifth starter.  In 2003, the fifth starter was this guy.  Ouch.  (I should note that Marshall could very well end up having a similar career to Shawn Estes; I hope not, though).