Fail: John Farrell Theory

I read an article a few weeks ago about faulty results being recorded because of the pressure put on researchers by journals that only print articles on successful experiments. For example, if I set out to discover if Rockstar energy drinks cure cancer, and they don’t, a scientific journal probably isn’t going to be interested in my results. Because this is in the back of my mind while I’m calculating data, it could, and likely does, affect my findings.

A lot of times, when writing about baseball, I’ll come up with a hair brained theory as to why something is done the way it is, but when I look it up, I’m either completely wrong or it isn’t actually done that way in the first place. As you can imagine, I usually keep these findings to myself.

Well, today’s your lucky day.

In an attempt to understand why Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell is so enamored with an aggressive running game, I wondered if it wasn’t as Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler commonly suggest, because it supposedly distracts the pitchers and fielders. While this has never been proven to in fact be true, and there is an argument to be made that a base runner threatening to steal would also force the batter to take pitches at which he’d normally swing, thereby cancelling out any advantage that might occur from distraction, it reminded me of a Cito Gaston trait.

Update: Farrell, during Wednesday’s pregame scrum:

Any time you have to contend with more, rather than being single-thought and of the single mindset on the mound, it can possible cause some distraction. Does it mean we’re going to run at will? No. But if it forces them to be a little bit more split in the controlling of the running game, does it possibly create a mislocated pitch in the strike zone, that’s the other by-product of it, and there can be an effect in that way. I think we’ve seen some pitchers spend more time concentrating on controlling the running game than we might have seen otherwise.

Remember how the Blue Jays former manager would stubbornly refuse to change the batting order no matter what the results were or the availability of certain players, claiming that the guys in the lineup were most comfortable batting in a set position? Well, as our very own Drew Fairservice pointed out back in 2009, Gaston believed this to be true because it was true for him. At least for a year, anyway.

After digging around a bit more on BR, I’ve come up with a conspiracy theory worthy of the Patrick Ewing Draft Lottery. Cito’s best season as a player came in 1970, when he hit 29 home runs with an OPS+ of 144. That season Cito hit from the number 3 spot 133 times! He never again approached that level of power nor that consistency in the lineup.

Well, I wondered if, similarly, John Farrell might believe that aggressive runners provide a distraction, because he himself had trouble focusing while runners were on base, back when he was a pitcher in the Majors. However, a quick look at his career splits reveals only a little bit of trouble.

Opposing batters had an OPS of .734 against Farrell when there were no runners on base. With runners on, his opposing OPS goes up to .771. A .037 difference likely isn’t large enough to drive a point home, but if I were to stretch the limits of credibility to make my original way of thinking more valid, I would point to the last season in which Farrell pitched at least 90 innings.

In 1993, his worst as a professional, the difference was much more pronounced. With no runners on base, Farrell’s opposing OPS was .884, but with runners on, it skyrocketed to 1.014, a difference of .130.

Are memories of that one awful season burned into his psyche? Does he still have nightmares of giving up fourteen stolen bases in games he pitched that year? It would take some serious assumptions to say either way. So, instead, we’ll be left to wonder why it is that Farrell is such a fan of a running game that continues to bring up more questions than answers.

Thanks to the National Post’s John Lott for the Farrell quote.

Comments (31)

  1. I’ve always wondered about it mentally. I think the most composed pitchers are not going to be bothered by it, but if you pull the same stunt on younger, less experienced pitchers, I can see it being a distraction. It’s worked well for Tampa Bay, anyway.

  2. I recall reading something a while ago (though I can’t remember where) about how pitchers generally perform worse in the stretch, aka with runners on base. Of course, that’s likely because . . . they’re pitching from the stretch. And while this is totally useless: I recall it being a noticeable but not astounding difference, likely in that .037 range.

  3. I think the best strategy is for pitchers not to care. Look at the Yankees and Red Sox. They’re usually terrible at throwing runners out, yet very successful as teams. And I still give some credence to the idea that if a runner is threatening to steal, the batter will be forced to take pitches he’d normally swing at.

  4. I plan on doing a study of Farrell’s tendencies as a manager tonight (gotta do something when there’s no game), but there is a pretty big flaw in your data, and it’s a flaw that I don’t know if there is available data to correct. As Spiggy said, there is always going to be a difference pitching when throwing from the stretch as opposed to the full windup, but not for every base-runner would a pitcher get distracted. Certain baserunners barely elicit a look-see, much less a pickoff attempt (on the Jays, I’m talking about the Jose Molinas, Juan Rivera – if he actually gets on base, even Adam Lind). To see how a pitcher loses effectiveness when worried about the runner, we would need numbers for at-bats in which the pitcher, at some point, threw over to the relevant base. Those should be your control group, as opposed to all plate appearances with a runner already on.
    My own experiential analysis tells me that pitchers are worse when they are distracted by the runner enough to throw to the base. The more throws to the base, the more likely (it seems) that the batter will have a happy ending. Are those types of stats available?

  5. I think it stems more from his experiences as a pitching coach than a pitcher. Back in the spring he said he wanted the Jays to be an aggressive running team because those were the teams he found it most difficult to prepare for during his days in Boston. He used the 2010 Jays as an opposing example – everybody knew exactly what they were trying to do at the plate (swing really hard) and it was easy to come up with plans to attack some hitters as a result (like Hill and Lind last year, I’d guess).

    On the flip side, though he never said it explicitly, the implication seemed to be that if a pitcher is worried about holding runners, then he might get distracted and deviate from his normal plan of attack in order to try to hold those runners on base.

  6. It certainly Seems to have an effect on certain pitchers — pitchers with high leg kicks and slower deliveries to the plate, or pitchers who have control lapses that only seem to get worse when they’re pitching from the stretch. Of course, if you’re the offence and you know a pitcher has control problems at the best of times, then wouldn’t you be thinking more about working a walk in those instances, in which case getting a guy thrown out at second seems like an unnecessary risk? I have no problem with Farrell’s running game as long as the team’s success rate is high, but it’s also reasonable to suggest the batter is just as ‘distracted’ by having to pay attention to his teammate’s attempts to steal. Witness Mark Teixera’s called strike three in the late innings last night. He looked irritated in the end by Swisher’s steal — his first of the year — which was unnecessary given the score and the fact Teixera was all over Francisco’s fastball to that point.

  7. Of course, both in general and in specific situations, pitchers who are performing poorly are more likely to allow runners, and because they’re performing poorly, they’re more likely to give up additional hits. Without looking into Farrell’s case above, it could be the case that he allowed baserunners because he wasn’t pitching well on particular days, in which case he’d continue to not pitch well once he had runners on base.

  8. Yeah, it’s by no means comprehensive, and that’s why I’m presenting it as more of an idea than anything else, and one that doesn’t appear to work out at that.

    I can’t find any place where pickoff attempts are recorded. But even that would be flawed because even Juan Rivera and Jose Molina get pickoffs attempted. What we’d need to look at is how a pitcher performs when someone we can agree to define as speedy is on first base (maybe SB runs of at least +4 or + 5 a season?). That would be rather time intensive.

  9. To back up my previous comment, here’s a quote from Farrell about preparing against aggressive teams:

    But planning against that team [the 2010 Jays] felt like it was more of a one-dimensional approach. Now, I’m not saying that’s a wrong approach, but I just know that, going up against other teams, it was much more difficult to approach or plan for a team when they had the ability to attack you with different methods. To be more opportunistic is probably I’d best describe it.

  10. It’s easier to be sold on Farrell’s multidimensional approach when they’re winning with it, though, isn’t it? Like the first week of the season (when they were also hitting home runs by the way). Last night, aside from wondering why John Macdonald was batting in the ninth with runners on, a Jays fan could do one exactly one thing: pray for a dinger. I’d like to see the stats on the team’s record thus far when they don’t hit a home run. Pretty bleak, I’m guessing.

  11. After some quick fiddling with Fangraphs data, last year, the average team (that is, total of all 30 teams divided by 30) batting average against with runners on was .2503, compared to .2458 with bases empty. The team average FIP with runners on is 3.990, while with bases empty it’s 3.787. That includes both starters and relievers.

    Which really isn’t to say much other than teams pitch a tick worse with runners on. Which is really to say that I think I agree with Kevin that it likely only has a bearing on certain pitchers. I think Farrell at one point singled out Bucholtz as someone who could get distracted with runners on.

  12. Kevin: I think a big problem with people’s perceptions of this team is that the increase in stolen bases and decrease in home runs are somehow correlated. Their problem thus far hasn’t been that they’re running too much (although in a few frustrating situations of over-aggressiveness, that has been the case), but the lack of home runs has been a huge issue, which likely has a lot to do with the players they’ve been missing. When Jayson Nix is an everyday player, you’re going to have trouble scoring runs. That’s a very big part of what’s been happening so far.

  13. I totally lied. The team average FIP with bases empty was 3.958. To which I throw up my hands and leave it for someone smarter than I.

  14. I don’t get why you need to put numbers to an easily observable phenomenon Dustin. Did you watch what happened to Bobby Jenks in that Jays comeback? Do you think he wasn’t affected by the running? Another example (from the past 6 games); did you see how tentative Buchholz was with runners on? Just because it doesn’t have a statistical trend doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    Most important – isn’t it fun to watch them fly around the base-paths? Why does the statistical crowd always have to impose the ‘no fun zone,’ especially when we’re not competing?

  15. Check out the quote from Farrell that I added (5th paragraph). He definitely seems to think it has the potential to confuse a pitcher.

    I don’t like the perception that a more active team is a better team. And I think that the running game is usually accepted by the average fan as an improvement. Kevin brings up a very good point about when it works no one complains. The number of injuries from aggressive running and the lack of wins since the first home stand is certainly contributing to the general dismay toward Farrell’s strategies.

    Still, I’d love to hear justification for guys running when Jose Bautista is at bat.

  16. Ray, we’re not reliable creatures. Our observation and memory is always tainted. That’s why I want numbers instead of you recalling what you saw.

    You know what’s even more fun than stolen bases? Winning baseball games.

  17. @ Spriggy: Wait. I’m confused. Pitcher’s FIP last year was higher with bases empty than with men on? Strange.

  18. You know what’s even more fun than stolen bases? Winning baseball games.

    Parkes: I totally agree. And I agree that the Jays have been running in a lot of situations in which they really shouldn’t have been.

    But can you honestly say that if you took this same team, in the same games it has played so far, and removed the stolen bases/running — do you think they would be winning more baseball games?

    Their problem is that they’re not hitting well enough or pitching well enough. The running game — for better or worse — has really not been a major factor in either winning or losing.

  19. That’s sorta the thing about baseball. We talk in terms of optimal, right? Think about the first game of the year and how the Jays with Davis and Escobar on base went for the double steal with Bautista at the plate. It ended up working out, but could’ve gone disastrous. Why risk the disastrous when you don’t have to?

  20. I was curious to see how the offence this year has compared to last year’s and I’m actually really surprised by the results:

    2010 — scored 81 runs through 18 games
    2011 — scored 79 runs through 18 games

    A difference of two runs through the first 18 games of the season.

  21. Drew brought up a good point. Talking in terms of FIP doesn’t really do much because it’s “fielding independent” and part of what we’re talking about is effect running has on fielding as well as the pitcher.

  22. Here’s how I see it.

    Fact 1: the Blue Jays have struggled to win some games so far this season.
    Fact 2: the most obvious difference between this year’s team vs. last year’s is that they’re a lot more aggressive on the basepaths.

    It’s human nature to observe those two things and assume causality. And like you said, once you have an idea in your head, confirmation bias kicks in and you’re likely to view future events such that they confirm that opinion. But even if the baserunning has cost them runs – and that’s highly debatable – it’s not the main reason they’re losing.

  23. Sorry, Parkes, I totally messed that up – used 2011′s numbers which, given the small sample size, likely explains the discrepancy. Here are the team averages for 2010 (Jays numbers in brackets):

    Bases empty:
    Batting average against – 0.2519 (0.246)
    WHIP – 1.3613 (1.34)
    FIP – 3.986 (3.94)
    xFIP – 3.9526 (3.9)

    Runner on base:
    Batting average against – 0.2539 (0.262)
    WHIP – 1.333 (1.37)
    FIP – 4.194 (4.15)
    xFIP – 4.23 (4.17)

  24. Fair enough re: Drew’s comments, but I would think that running because it messes up the fielders is different than running to mess up the pitcher. If it was just to screw with fielders then why not do more of, for example, Nix’s fake steal to draw the SS out of position. Or more hit-and-runs.

    They’re both to try and do the same thing – score more runs, make the opposition more uncomfortable – but I’d think that toying with pitchers and fielders is two different things.

  25. To be clear I’d never say baserunning has lost them games. With a guy like Corey Patterson, for example, he’s not helping the team like he can if he doesn’t run. I like that Snider seems like he could be a 30-30 guy someday. I just think Farrell’s line that last year’s Jays were easier to beat because they were all about the home run may be wrong-headed. Home runs win ball games. Bad pitching loses ball games, and we’ve had a lot of that lately

  26. great fuckin article Parkes. seriously, really well done

  27. @Kevin – Farrell didn’t actually say the Jays were easier to beat, just that they were easier to plan against which is very different.

  28. To be fair to Farrell, he’s rarely had the roster he envisioned. From Davis and Escobar to Bautista and now Hill, someone’s usually been on the shelf or unavailable.

  29. For fuck’s sake, the Jays are running in that 75-80% sweet spot. It’s optimum efficiency. The Jays aren’t even leading the majors in stolen bases. They are just finally catching up to most of the rest of the league- and it’s about time.

  30. Would this work?

    Pick a couple prolific base stealers such as Reyes and Elsbury; analyze how the batters following them in the order performed when Reyes and Elsbury were on first versus how they performed without Reyes and Elsbury on. You could also compare this to how the same batters performed with other baser unners on who were not threats to steal.

    If the batters perform better with the base stealers on, you can deduce that either the batter elevates his game in that situation or the pitcher performs worse…. right???

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