Who Does Bill James Think Will Win the College World Series?
Two of my favorite parts of the game of baseball are the College World Series, which is heading into Game 2 tonight, and sabermetric principles based in math that help teams win baseball games. This piece combines both.
If you missed it, Virginia ace and First Team All-American Nathan Kirby struggled to find his mechanics in the third inning of Game 1, leading to five walks and a nine run frame. Virginia outplayed Vanderbilt in the other eight innings, thanks to tremendous efforts from relievers Whit Mayberry and Austin Young and an offense that outhit the Commodores 15-6, but fell just short of a miraculous comeback in the 9-8 defeat.
If not for beating themselves through all of the free passes and a critical error in the third inning, Virginia likely would have won the first game of the series. Instead, they'll have to beat Vanderbilt twice, including two-time first-round pick Tyler Beede tonight.
There is hope for the Cavaliers, however, and that hope is in the numbers. Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, created the 10 Commandments of Baseball, which are listed below. These serve as a guide for teams on how to best play the odds and are not an exhaustive list of proper strategy nor are these principles true all of the time, but as general rules of thumb, following these rules can help a team win a lot of baseball games.
The Cavaliers may have lost the first battle, but according to James’ 10 Commandments, they may still be able to win the war.
1. Thou Shalt Not Bunt
The Reason: The value of an out is worth more than the value of advancing one base in almost every situation. This assumes a successful sacrifice, which is obviously not always the case. The probability of force outs, pop ups, errors, and hits affect this data and must be considered in real game situations, but as for isolated successful sacrifices, the initial claim almost always holds true.
The Measure: Fewest sacrifice bunts.
The Winner: Vanderbilt, 82 to 66. Virginia, especially shortstop Daniel Pinero and catcher Nate Irving, pride themselves on being a good small ball team. While being good at small ball is certainly preferable to being bad at small ball, Virginia’s successful small ball ways contradict James’ principle.
This commandment, more specifically the breaking of this commandment, was in full effect last night, as Virginia asked their best hitter, Mike Papi, to lay down a bunt with men on first and second and none out in the eighth inning of a two-run game. Virginia ended up getting one run that frame, largely due to some terrific defensive play from Vanderbilt, and one can only dream of what would have happened if Papi had been instructed to swing away.
2. Thou Shalt Have No Low On-Base Percentages before the Cleanup Hitter
The Reason: The Billy Beane principle is especially true at the top of the order, where a hit and a walk have almost identical value. In its simplest form, this principle that is generally agreed upon by both traditionalists and sabermetricians reasons that it is in a team’s best interest to give the most plate appearances to the players that make outs at the lowest rate.
The Measure: Combined OBP of the top three hitters in their projected lineups.
The Winner: Virginia, a combined 1.226 to 1.216 (averages of .409 and .405 respectively). This is extremely close and it is not a coincidence that the two teams in the finals boast extremely high numbers in this category. Virginia is led by Mike Papi’s .454 mark while leadoff man Dansby Swanson leads Vanderbilt with a .413 OBP. Look for the tops of the lineups to continue to be patient and take good at bats during the entire series.
3. Honor the Three-Run Homer and the Leadoff Walk
The Reason: Walks and home runs lead to runs, and are not subject to the random variance of balls in play. With the rare exception of the robbed home run, balls over the fence and bases on balls cannot be taken away neither by shifting nor elite defensive play. Leadoff walks are also the most desirable time for a walk as it gives the offensive team the most plate appearances with runners on base.
The Measure: Most total walks and most total home runs. This isn't ideal, as it fails to account for the differences in solo shot and three-run homers and leadoff walks and two out walks but it is the best we can do with the data we have available.
The Winner: Virginia, in both categories. Despite calling cavernous Davenport Field home, Virginia holds a significant 33 to 21 edge in longballs. Papi leads the Cavaliers with 11 bombs, while Zander Wiel leads Vanderbilt with five dingers. Virginia holds a narrower edge in bases on balls, 286-254, which shows that both teams have found and have reaped the benefit of the free base.
4. Thou Shalt Not Steal at Anything Less than a 70% Success Rate
The Reason: This is the “break even” stolen base success rate. A team that steals at a 70% clip will neither increase nor decrease run expectancy, meaning that if a player or team steals at less than that rate, it is best to not steal at all. This 70% figure is not true in all situations, but it is the overall break-even rate weighing all situations equally.
The Measure: Higher stolen base success rate.
The Winner: Virginia, 76% to 72%. One of the largest differences in strategy between the two teams is in stolen base frequency, as Vanderbilt has attempted 160 steals, almost twice as many as Virginia’s 84 attempts. Considering the prominent role of the stolen base in Vanderbilt’s offense, they have gained relatively little as their success rate is a mere two percent above the break even rate.
Virginia is slightly better at 76%, but considering their substantially fewer attempts, it is probable that these teams have gained almost the same amount of value from stolen bases this season.
5. Thou Shalt Make No Idol of the Light-Hitting Middle Infielder
The Reason: Defense from middle infielders is great, but each middle infielder’s true value comes from a combination of offense and defense. Teams should not necessarily start the best defensive shortstop if he is a poor hitter, and if another player whose superior offensive skills outweigh his inferior defense is readily available.
The Measure: Total OPS of starting shortstop and second baseman.
The Winner: Vanderbilt, a combined 1.700 to 1.408. Although Virginia’s middle infielders helped them edge Vanderbilt in on base percentage at the top of the lineup, Vanderbilt gains an edge here through the gap power of second baseman Dansby Swanson and shortstop Vince Conde. Swanson holds a .485 slugging percentage, a terrific number for any player, but especially for a middle infielder and leadoff hitter. For Virginia, shortstop Daniel Pinero’s .374 on base percentage is great, but he shows little semblance of power, slugging only .286.
6. Thou Shalt Not Count to the Credit of the Pitcher That Which Is Done by His Fielders or by His Hitters, nor Charge Him with Their Failings
The Reason: It's easier said than done, but in order to properly judge both pitchers and fielders, it's best to isolate their performances. Studies have shown that pitchers exhibit very little control over the rates at which balls in play are converted into outs, thus it makes more sense to judge pitchers over results that they alone control, namely strikeouts, walks (and hit by pitches), and home runs allowed.
The Measure: Difference in FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching, commonly known as FIP, incorporates these three true results into a formula and then adds a league-dependent constant to put the number on the ERA scale. The constant is irrelevant in looking at the difference between two teams as it is added to both sides, so it will be omitted.
The Winner: Virginia, by 0.56. This is a huge number for a difference in FIP between two elite staffs. Vanderbilt has the edge in strikeouts, 1,228 to 1,076, and fewer home runs, 16 to 22, but their outlandish number of free passes surrendered, 295 to UVA’s 107, really brings them down and places them well behind Virginia in this metric. Look for UVA to stay patient and look to take free bases, especially against Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede tonight.
7. Thou Shalt Not Pass Freely Thy Opponent's Number Eight Hitter, nor His Cleanup Hitter, nor His Left-Handed Pinch Hitter, nor Any Hitter That Is Thy Opponent's
The Reason: Free bases for the other team are bad and almost always raise the opponent’s run expectancy. With the exception of very specific situations in the bottom of the ninth inning or bottom of extra innings, it generally makes little sense to offer any free passes to opposing hitters.
The Measure: Fewest intentional walks issued.
The Winner: Vanderbilt, 4 to 9. These are good numbers from both sides but Vanderbilt takes this category by five free passes. These numbers are low enough that I would be very surprised to see any intentional walks issued by either side, except for in a necessary late game situation.
It's also worth mentioning that the depth of these lineups makes it difficult to even choose who to intentionally walk. Swanson is arguably Vanderbilt’s best hitter but he leads off and is followed by Brian Reynolds, arguably their second best hitter. Contrarily, Mike Papi bats third for UVA and is followed by elite hitters Joe McCarthy and Derek Fisher. Against a lineup such as Kentucky, with one elite hitter and a bunch of average-to-good hitters, it would be less detrimental to walk the elite hitter (A.J. Reed for Kentucky in this example) than it would be to walk anyone from either of these lineups in front of the very good hitters behind them.
8. Thou Shalt Not Abuse Thy Starting Pitchers
James’ idea with this is to ensure that pitchers are able to stay healthy over the course of a season and career. Since both staffs are healthy, it makes little sense to award the team with the fewest number of innings pitched by starting pitchers since that is mostly a result of starting pitchers pitching poorly. Thus, this will be omitted or called a draw, as neither staff has overworked any important pitcher this year to the point of injury. Kudos to Brian O’Conner and Tim Corbin for keeping their pitchers healthy.
9. Thou Shalt Make No Effort to Ride the Hot Hand, for the Hot Hand Is but a Shape in the Wind
The ever-controversial notion of hot streaks and hitters being “locked in” surfaces here, and as a sabermetrician, James clearly comes down on the side of ignoring such streaks. Neither coach has shown any inclination to make major changes to his lineup or staff based upon single game or very recent performances.
The only possible exception to this was Vanderbilt’s decision to start Walker Buehler in Game 1 and Tyler Beede in Game 2. But since Carson Fulmer threw the finals-clinching game a few days ago, he was presumably unavailable and Buehler, and Beede were going to start Games 1 and 2 anyway in either order.
10. Place Thy Faith Not in Veterans, When Youth Be Available to Ye
This principle is directed towards major league teams looking for sustained success over long periods of time and applies to the college game to a much lesser extent. Over the long haul, playing young players with more eligibility may be the wise move, but in a short and important series such as this, reliable veterans are valuable assets. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that neither team has been to the championship series before, so inexperience on college baseball’s biggest stage is something that both teams must overcome.