Do guys turn it up a notch in a contract year?

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That’s the conventional wisdom: players try harder when free agency looms, resulting in big walk years and big contracts handed out by teams who get hung up on the whole recency thing.

But it’s not true say the boys who run Bloomberg’s new baseball stats outfit:

Over the past nine years, 177 players performing in the last year of a
contract hit for a collective .282 batting average, with an .824 OPS
(on-base plus slugging percentage, an increasingly used measurement of
the moneyball era). They also averaged 19 home runs, 51 extra base hits
and 73 runs batted in per 500 at-bats.

That’s not much different
from their collective numbers from the previous year: .283 batting
average, .821 OPS, 19 homers, 51 extra base hits and 74 RBI. Two years
before? A .279 batting average and .809 OPS, with 18 home runs, 50 extra
base hits and 73 RBI per 500 at-bats.

The thing about players turning it up a notch in contract years is a species of confirmation bias based on the belief by many that ballplayers are money-motivated above all else. People believe that, then they tend to look for evidence that confirms it as opposed to evidence that disproves it, despite the fact that there’s abundant evidence doing so. A lot of bad baseball analysis follows this pattern. So-and-so is a clutch hitter. Whatshisface is a big game pitcher. We see it or believe it and it’s always so in our minds. It’s understandable. I fall prey to it myself all the time. Indeed, there’s science behind it, with some researchers believing that our brains have to take an extra, actual neurological step in order to process data which doesn’t fit with an idea we’ve already had compared to processing data which does conform to such an idea.

We talk a lot about biases around here. Mine, yours, columnists’ etc. But it’s probably worth remembering that people don’t work to maintain their biases. Our brains, trying to economize on the effort they expend, want to rest with the preconceived notion. When they do so and are mistaken about something, it’s an example of relatively understandable mental laziness, not active self-deception.

The trick to beating that? Just workin’ a bit harder, ya know?

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.