Tiny Margins And The Math And Science Of Baseball

Football may be a game of inches.  But, baseball is a game of millimeters.  A baseball bat may not exceed 2.61 inches in diameter (66 millimeters).   The ball itself is bigger at 2.86-2.94 inches in diameter (nominally 74 mm).  So, we have a ball that we’re trying to MLB baseball“Square up” that’s bigger than the bat.  How big is the sweet spot to do that?  It’s in the 10% of available diameter range.  To hit a ball squarely the center 7 mm of the ball needs to be hit in about a 7 mm stripe that runs down the bat.  How big is 7mm?  It’s about a quarter of an inch or about the same diameter as a round pencil.  And, only about two inches of that 7 mm stripe has sufficient mass behind it to drive a ball deep. It’s actually more complicated than that.  The difference between the rocket ground ball and an Upper Deck shot is where on the ball it was hit relative to its equator.  To carry the ball needs backspin.  To get that it needs to be hit south of the Latitude Zero.  That 7 mm just turned into 3.5 mm.  Factor in the bat plane vectors and the amount off of center you can go may be reduced.  The big uppercut loses to the flatter-planed swing.   Anytime you see a home run you’re witnessing an act of hand/eye coordination that defies daunting probabilities against it.  The difference between a warning track out and a homer is about a millimeter on the bat face.  That’s 1.5% of the available surface.  The margins are incredibly small.  It’s also a good reason why those that live by the long ball often die of an untimely shortage of them.

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The game is saturated with tiny margins.

Baseball is also saturated with statistics to show these margins in stark relief.  One of the more useful ones is the “WHIP”; Walks and Hits per inning pitched.  Washington is second in all of baseball in this category with a 1.180 tally.  Adding one-tenth of a walk/hit to the total would move them to tenth.  The worst in all of the game is Houston at 1.501.  Last year Washington was sixth in the category.  It was also only one of two teams in the top eleven to not make the post-season.

Another interesting pitching stat is “Homeruns allowed per 9 innings.”  Washington is third overall at 0.94.  You would think this is going to be a stat driven by the home ball park.  In part that’s true.  Miami leads, but the margin is tiny at 0.91.  Adding a tenth of a homer allowed per game (12 total) would move Washington to 15th place.

On the offense a microcosm of one stat was on display last night.  Baltimore leads baseball in a key statistic; Runners Left in Scoring Position.  Baltimore sits at 2.95 per game while Washington is all the way down to 20th at 3.52.  As much as we all like to wring our hands over unfulfilled scoring chances, the fact is that it appears to have little correlation to overall success.  The worst team in baseball is the Giants at 3.97.  Eight of the bottom 11 teams have playoff aspirations including the Cubs at next to worst with 3.89.

What really matters in offense is runs scored.  There the margins really open up and the cream rises to the top.  Washington is sixth overall at 4.86.  Baltimore actually scores less at 4.7.  The spread between first and worst is nearly two runs a game.  Of the top 13 teams on this list, 12 are playoff-eligible were the season to end today.  The next to worst team is…your New York Metropolitans.  Coincidence or not?

When we think of National League ball we think of stolen bases and sacrifice bunts.  Washington is seventh in stolen bases, eighth in stolen base attempts, and sixth in successful sacrifice bunts.  The spreads are large in these categories.  Washington has stolen 82 bases while Baltimore (last or next to last in all three categories) has stolen 14.  The improvement from last year jumps out.  Last year Washington was 26th in stolen bases but was next to worst in attempts.  Steals and attempts are basically double what was done last year with nearly 40 games to go.

Win Percentage in Close Games (1 run differential) is also telling.  Washington has jumped from 18th last year to 9th this year.  The improvement is nearly 70 percentage points.  With lime fieldonly a few exceptions teams do better in this category at home than they do on the road.  There are only five teams over .500 on the road.  Texas rules this category with a nearly .800 record at home and a .500 record on the road.

Finally, and of concern is a statistic called “Defensive Runs Saved.”  This is a statistic that blends together myriad defensive numbers.  Much like golf metrics such as “Strokes Gained Putting” this amalgamation supposedly tells the tale.  In the classic statistics bin the Nationals are much improved on defense.  They are third for fewest errors and are tenth in turning double plays.  Both of these are big improvements from last year.  But in Defensive-Runs-Saved the Nats are 20th in all of baseball with the identical -12 rating as last year.  By comparison the Cubs are first with a staggering Plus 65.  Washington’s position here is noteworthy as it is the lowest-ranked of all the Division leaders.  Of the ten teams behind it only four have playoff aspirations including the Orioles and Mets.  Bench players contribute heavily to the negative runs in this statistic.  The notable exception is Wilson Ramos.  Despite a great year throwing out runners his DRS has gone from a team-high plus 9 last year to a minus 5 this year.  Of all of the statistics out there this is the one that ranks quite poorly for Washington.

What’s it all mean?  The eye test you’ve been giving the team all year translates into statistical reality.  The team is better on many fronts.  In a game of tiny margins winning and losing comes down to miniscule differences.  How often can your team put 7 mm on a moving 7 mm in that two-inch sweet spot over the course of a game?    If you fret over that hard enough your stomach will rebel and for a brief moment you’ll know the feeling of being a Big League Manager.

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