Thursday, January 24, 2013

Against All Odds

By Tom Fee

Defensive Specialist's note: Due to technical issues with the Deep in the Hole super computer, this article comes a day late - apologies

Not sure about you, but I’m always glued to pretty much from day one of any MLB season.

It might be because I’m a probability nerd, but it’s always amazing to see how teams consistently defy the odds and reach the playoffs out of no-where.

Who can forget Boston’s 2011 epic collapse? On the 3rd of September 2011 Cool Standings gave the Red Sox a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs thanks to their nine game lead over Tampa Bay with only a month to play. Even after an unlikely comeback to tie with the Sox, the Rays looked done in a must win game 162, facing a 7-0 deficit in the 7th inning to the Yankees while the Red Sox held a late 3-2 over the Orioles.

Against all odds, the Rays pulled back the most unlikely comeback, within the most unlikely comeback.

  • The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3
  • The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.
  • The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.
  • The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.

With that, the ABL’s number-crunchers face a tough task of putting five teams into three places for the coming weekend. No percentage odds exist on the ABL website, and the reason behind this is that it’s actually quite time consuming to calculate, especially when considering tiebreaker scenarios! But with little much of a life (ie. A boring job) I’ve managed to perform a feat almost as impressive as the Ray’s 2011 comeback and present two scenarios for you to consider.

Not being an employee of Fan Graphs or Cool Standings, I am not actually aware of how these odds are calculated. A decent approximation would be to assume each game is equivalent to a coin flip, or a 50% chance to go either way. Since the league’s best sides sit on a 57% winning percentage, I thought this wouldn’t be too bad.

In each series there is a possibility of 5 results ie:
Home Sweep
Away Sweep
3-1 Win to Home Side
3-1 win to the away side

For out three series this weekend we are given five different possibilities, leaving us with 35 = 125 possible different scenarios to consider at the end of the season.

Running these possibilities though my computer program and giving each team a 50% chance of winning spits out the following playoff chances:


Being a Heat fan, I wasn’t too pleased with the 16% chance of having the ability to defend the Claxton Shield in the playoffs, so I thought I would use each team’s current win/loss records to skew the results. After all, Brisbane faces a much tougher task in facing Sydney away from home than the Heat have facing the cellar dwellers Melbourne Aces on their home patch.


While I find a 24% chance a bit more palatable, it doesn’t tell the full story. Since I can’t tell my computer “by the way, Travis Blackley is pitching this weekend, and the Heat’s win loss record is skewed by the fact they were in form at the start of the season but currently resemble the Red Sox circa September 2011.”

Either way, even if I take a middle ground and give the Heat a 20% chance of winning, it’s still quite a few million times more likely than the Rays 2011 comeback, so I might as well book my flight over east for the Championship Series now!

Other interesting tid-bits:
  • There is a 0.39% chance of a 4 way tie for first, with Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney on 25 games each. In this scenario the ABL will utilise tiebreakers and declare Brisbane to take first place and Perth to be eliminated.


  • Canberra holds the all-important tiebreaker over Sydney thanks to their controversial bang-bang play at the plate in the 12th inning on Sunday. To the eye the play looked out, but slo-mo replays suggest the foot *might* have been off the bag. Sydney certainly didn’t think so, and losing the tiebreaker gives Canberra a much better chance of taking first and hosting the ABLCS.

The moment the ball was caught. With the bases loaded, all Sox catcher Geoffrey Klein needs to do is put his foot on the plate!

Instead Klein mistakenly goes for the tag! Ryan Stovall beats the tag (which is irrelevant), but perhaps was enough to confuse the umpire on his call of whether Klein got his foot on the plate in time.

  • The ABL’s tiebreaker rules favour teams who do well against the top teams and punish teams who fail. Thanks to Canberra being the most likely top-ranked team, the Heat lose almost any tiebreak scenario thanks to their 2-6 record against the Cavalry, while the Bandits win almost every tiebreaker thanks to their 7-4 record against the Cavs.
  • The ABL’s tiebreaker rules are kind of ridiculous but necessary with a tight schedule preventing one-game playoffs. The in some cases the tiebreaker ruling will punish or reward teams based on results of games that had absolutely no bearing on that specific team. There is a 0.39% chance of the below results occurring and will result in a deadlock for the first five places.


Brisbane 25 Wins
Sydney 25 Wins
Canberra 24 Wins
Perth 24 Wins
Adelaide 24 Wins

Brisbane and Sydney cannot be separated at the top thanks to a tied season record of four wins each. Instead top place will be determined by who has the best record against the 3rd place team – which cannot be determined due to a 3-way tie for 3rd!

Taking the season records between Canberra, Perth and Adelaide we get

Canberra 9-7
Perth 9-10
Adelaide 9-10

With Canberra taking the tiebreaker for 3rd with their superior record against Perth and Adelaide, Brisbane is deemed to be the host of the ABL Championship Series over Sydney thanks to their superior record against Canberra who had the better records against Perth and Adelaide!

Confused? We are - but we shouldn’t be. We thought the last season’s 4-way tie debacle was bad enough, but this season’s could be just as confusing. Fortunately the punished teams from last year (Brisbane & Canberra) look to gain the most in the tiebreakers this year. With the top three teams going through in a six team division, it seems that the past two years are not an aberration, and calculating hundreds of different scenarios during the final week will become some kind of late-January tradition.

Flawed system or not, expect some agonisingly close baseball over this weekend, and don’t blame the commentators when they get confused!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Dope

As you can probably imagine, the Defensive Specialist was shrouded in performance enhancing drug speculation throughout his stellar career – it’s difficult for mere mortals to see spectacular physical tools and sustained excellence on the field and not suspect the use of performance enhancing drugs.  The Defensive Specialist could only ever answer – “it’s all natural” (and then promptly raise his shirt and flex the 8 pack abdominal set up). 

On the 9th of January, the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) decided that despite a ballot stuffed with at least 8 legitimate Hall of Fame worthy candidates, no one was deserving of enshrinement in 2013. This shutout was even more flabbergasting because only 2 men on the ballot had either been caught using or admitted to using performance enhancing drugs (Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire). In fact, McGwire’s use of PED’s came at a time when they weren’t outlawed in the sport.  In effect, the rest of the ballot was shut out because they were suspected of drug use: guilty until proven innocent. 

Numerous writers have made great points about the Hall of Fame process (The DS particularly liked this piece) but Old Hoss Rayburn (who operates a wildly amusing twitter feed) put it best with this nugget:

“It was nice to hear from journalists who earned Pulitzers for their hard-hitting Steroid Era reporting opine on the HoF vote”.

In other words, the BBWAA are punishing ball players by not letting them into the Hall of Fame when the same writers said and did nothing to expose drug use when it was rampant.

Seven days later, we’re getting ready to learn the true (or as much of the truth that his legal and public relations teams are prepared for you to hear) story behind Lance Armstrong’s performance enhancing drug usage.

Where’s your old pal going with this? Quite simply, why are we surprised?

Top-flight athletes have been seeking a competitive edge ever since, well ever since competition was invented. The strong survive and in this day and age the strong get paid! What continually stuns the Defensive Specialist is journalists and old timers coming out and saying that the cheats shouldn’t be recognised for the achievements. Delve into the Hall of Fame a little deeper and you’ll find players who doctored baseballs and admitted to amphetamine use. Aren’t both of those performance enhancers? Cheating has taken place since Jesus was a lad!

As long as the media and the fans worship at the altar of athletes, these competitors will look for any edge to get to the top and stay there.

The Defensive Specialist would love for baseball and sport in general to be drug free, but how can we expect athletes to not push the limits when so much money is at stake? Advances in equipment and rehabilitation (Kobe Bryant having blood work completed in Germany to aid his knees!) has seen performance levels increase across most sports.

We’re also dealing with a sub section of humanity geared differently than your average Joe from a mental perspective. Everyone has heard the stories of what a maniacal competitor Michel Jordan was. He would use any advantage to beat his opponent (the DS is not suggesting MJ used PED’s) Top flight athletes are more often than not mentally predisposed to winning or beating their opponent. It comes as no shock to the Defensive Specialist that people wired this way would look to PED’s as a means to win or compete.

The Defensive Specialist is in no way condoning drug use. What the Defensive Specialist is condoning is understanding. Top flight athletes will look for advantages - not all will cheat – but all will look for ways to win and stay on top. Lets try and understand that and act less surprised and outraged when those that cheat are caught.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Corey Adamson gettin’ lucky down under: BABIP, Part 1

Despite a sizeable support function, Deep in the Hole has always been a one-man band led by the indomitable Defensive Specialist…until now.  Big data is all the rage at the moment so the Defensive Specialist decided it’s about time that some of the behind the scenes number crunchers at Deep in the Hole got air time – after all, we’ll be reporting to these stat geeks at some point in time. Without further ado, the Defensive Specialist would like to welcome Tom Fee to the Deep in the Hole writing team.  Tom begins his Deep in the Hole sabermetric journey by taking an interesting look at BABIP, over to you Tom.

I suck at gambling.

There’s been a trend at the Heat lately where winning games results in trips to the Casino for much fun and frivolity. What I have found is that not only do I lose my money, I lose it immediately.

Later, when sober, I realise the great connection gambling has to baseball. Sometimes that line drive you hit just happens to dart straight into an open glove. That certain triple down the right field line lands just foul, or Mike Trout is the centerfielder.
Mike Trout - where flyballs go to die
Thanks to nerds, there is a statistic that exists to judge exactly how lucky a player is on the baseball field, and it’s called BABIP – or Batting Average on Balls In Play. The rules of BABIP state that on average, if a ball is hit in play then the batter has a 30% chance of being safe and a 70% chance of being out.

In other words, to calculate the stat you calculate a batting average that ignores at bats outside the field of play such as strikeouts, walks and home runs, but include “non at-bats” that are in-play such as sacrifice flies.

 BABIP =              H-HR          
                        AB - K - HR +SF

So, if a hitter puts 10 balls in play and nine of them are outs, he’s been unlucky. Similarly, a batter is lucky if five of these balls land safe.

Looking for aberrations like these might be able to explain some statistical anomalies that exist in the ABL, such as how a guy who hit .111 through 100 plate appearances this season in A ball is leading the league for average.

I am talking of one of my favourite Heat players in San Diego prospect Corey Adamson. Last week, Adamson was knocking on the door of a .400 season after struggling last year for the Fort Wayne Tin Caps. While only having two hits against the Bite this week has lowered this average somewhat, the 20 year old still leads the ABL with an average sitting at an impressive .352.
Corey Adamson
So while a decent hitter picks up a hit for 3 out of 10 balls in play, how many times out of ten does Adamson get a hit?

3.96 times out of ten.

With a BABIP of .396 this season, Adamson is getting an extra hit in every ten balls he puts in play than the average. Out of Adamson’s 160 plate appearances, 124 of these have been in play equating to an extra 12 “lucky” hits, which adds approximately 70 points to his batting average!

So now I have single handedly pish poshed all over one of my favourite player’s outstanding seasons, I’m going to explain why these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

Plenty of great players have high BABIPs and never have the come down effect. Mike Trout managed a BABIP of .383, which is massive over a 162 game season. Does this mean we should expect Trout to be a one hit wonder and fall back to grace next season? Don’t count on it. Over his four seasons in Professional Baseball, Trout’s averaged a BABIP of .358.

What it means is that some players are good enough to rig the system. Let’s run Corey Adamson through some of the ways a player might be inherently lucky, and why BABIP isn’t the best indicator for all situations:

Corey Adamson might be really fast

If you’re a faster than average runner, you’re going to get to first base safely and beat out quite a few more throws than Prince Fielder. Adamson is known for being zippy around the bases; so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that Adamson’s elevated BABIP may be partially contributed by some extra speed to gain a few extra hits, but probably not all 12.

SPEED – 3 extra hits this season than average

The ABL isn’t the Major Leagues

Having to endure the 12 errors put up by the Heat’s defence over the four game series this weekend, I can categorically say that the defence of the ABL is not near the standards on display in the Majors.

The Major Leagues BABIP in 2012 = .297
ABL BABIP This Season = .305

Clearly the ABL leaks quite a few more hits on balls in play thanks to a significantly lower standard. This eight-point difference gives Adamson an extra hit this season against the ABL defence than if teams were putting out big leaguers.


Line Drives

It’s doesn’t take a genius to see that hitting a ball really hard is going to get through a gap more often than a roller up the middle. Therefore one of the problems with BABIP is that it doesn’t take into account that a player might be a good contact hitter and be significantly better at hitting line drives over fly balls.

In 2012 a line drive landed safe almost 70% of the time in the Majors, whereas groundballs will only get you to first safely 22% of the time. Unfortunately for batters, line drives are much less common.

In the ABL, only 7.5% of balls in play are line drives, whereas almost 50% are grounders. Adamson’s line drive percentage is much lower than the league average – so you know those four hits I conceded to Adamson above? I’ll have to take a few of them back.



So to summarise, Adamson’s great league average is not ONLY due to a great amount of skill from a talented youngster, he’s also been riding his luck along the way.But it’s not that bad for Adamson.

The “jibe” I made about him being a .111 hitter in A ball this season should also be brought into context. With a BABIP of only .126 at the Tin Caps, Adamson suffered dearly at the hands of the baseball gods. Not only is labelling Adamson a “.111 hitter” unfair, he’s clearly showing in the ABL why he’s going to be a great player for the Padres this season.

Applying the leveller that BABIP provides, my very rough calculations for Adamson for his polarising luck in America and Australia show a bit more consistency and that at only 20 years old we still have a great prospect on our hands.

Estimate of Avg if he had a .300 BABIP (Dosage: 1 grain of salt after meals)
A Ball

And before anyone starts to think the Heat’s been getting lucky with their best hitter, take a look at these BABIPS of some of this season’s luckiest guys:

Adam Jacobs
Antonio Callaway
Hirotoshi Onaka
Ryan Stovall
Josh Davies
Elliot Biddle
Corey Adamson
Allan de San Miguel
James Robbins
Adam Kam
Chris Adamson
Jeremy Barnes
Jack Murphy
Kody Hightower

To come: Who’s been unlucky? Who’s the luckiest team in baseball? Who’s on first?