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Kevin Millwood, Rob Neyer, Evan Grant, luck, pitching, and defense

This is a blog post about a post by Evan Grant responding to a blog post by Rob Neyer commenting on a blog post by R.J. Anderson.

So this may be a bit meta.

In a nutshell, Grant takes issue with Neyer's endorsement of Anderson's point, which is that Kevin Millwood hasn't really been any better this year than in the past few years. 

Evan makes clear his thoughts on Millwood right off the bat:

By almost any evaluation, Millwood has been one of the top five or six pitchers in the AL this season.

I guess the problem is how one defines "top pitcher."  In terms of runs allowed or ERA, absolutely, he's been one of the top pitchers in the league.

But when we talk about runs allowed or ERA, we mustn't forget the Tenth Noble Truth of Bill James:

10. A great deal of what is perceived as being pitching is in fact defense.

Kevin Millwood's ERA is down significantly.  The Rangers' team ERA is down significantly.  The Rangers are on pace to allow 753 runs this season, after allowing 967 runs last season.  And there's been a lot of talk about improved conditioning, working deeper into games, and all the stuff that Nolan Ryan has implemented. 

There's also been a lot of talk about the defense, as well, but still...a 200+ run improvement in runs allowed can't all be defense, right?

Wrong.  Or mostly wrong, anyway, in my opinion...the improved defense, along with luck, random variation, whatever you want to call it, is the biggest reason why the team as a whole is allowing fewer runs this year. 

Turning back to Millwood...where Evan appears to take greatest issue is with Anderson's emphasis on Millwood's high LOB%:

The Anderson column draws a comparison to Millwood’s subpar 2007 season, indicating that just about every number, except for the percentage of runners left on base, is almost identical. Thus, the deduction. Millwood=Lucky. There is a passing remark about the Rangers defense and the admission that adding Millwood to the All-Star team would be fair,  "as long as shortstop Elvis Andrus, right fielder Nelson Cruz, and the rest of the Rangers defense gets to play tag along to St. Louis."  You had me at Elvis, R.J., but Cruz? Anybody who has watched a smidgeon of Rangers baseball this season knows Cruz has not been a defensive asset in right field. But, hey, we’re getting away from the point that the numbers are based on luck, not performance. And that it would be impossible to sustain his strand rate of nearly 86 percent.

It is very probably true that Millwood’s ability to strand runners will dip in the summer heat. After all, 86 percent is an astronomical number. But why is this viewed as a Millwood shortcoming?

Suggesting that it is viewed as a shortcoming is, I think, missing the point that Anderson and Neyer are making.  Have an extremely high strand rate isn't a is simply non-sustainable. 

No pitcher is going to be able to strand baserunners at such a high rate over a significant period of time.  And drilling down in the numbers a little further illustrates why that isn't possible.

Kevin Millwood has allowed, overall, a .242/.311/.395 line, with a .261 BABIP. 

With RISP, Millwood has allowed a .189/.266/.315 line and a .204 BABIP.

With RISP and 2 outs, Millwood has allowed an .096/.175/.212 line and a .095 BABIP. 

Look at that again -- hitters are hitting .096 against Millwood with runners in scoring position and 2 outs this season.  They are 5 for 52, with 2 singles, a double, a triple, and a home run.

That's why he has such a high strand rate, and that is a major reason why Millwood is among the tops in the league in ERA.

Now, that's not a bad thing.  But it is something that, by all accounts, is completely outside of Millwood's control, and thus is not sustainable. 

Grant goes on to talk about the improvement in Millwood's physical condition this year:

And the Neyer-Anderson argument doesn’t try to take into account the reports of Millwood’s improved physical conditioning, which might lead to being able to sustain quality of pitches late into game. Is that quantifiable? Not really. But from an anecdotal perspective, it sure seems that when he needs a ground ball, hebetter-toned Millwood, more able to make quality pitches later into games.

Here's the problem with that, the extent Millwood's performance, what he is directly responsible for, is quantifiable, he's worse this year than last year.  His K rate has dropped to 5.6 per 9 from 6.7 per 9.  Despite striking out fewer batters, he's walking more guys, 2.9 in 2009 vs. 2.6 last season.  And his homer rate has risen slightly, to 1.1 per 9 from 1.0 per 9.

Millwood has a FIP of 4.48 this year, compared to 4.02 in 2008 and 4.55 in 2007.  And his ratio of ground balls to fly balls is actually lower this year than in the previous two years, currently sitting at 1.11, compared to 1.20 last year and 1.44 in 2007.  He's allowing fly balls on a higher percentage of balls hit in 2009 than at any other point of his career.

Millwood's line drive rate is significantly lower this year than last year, and so it is fair to say he's allowing fewer hard hit balls than in years past...but I think there's a legitimate question as to how much of that is really Millwood's doing, and how much is just random variation.

At the end of the day, for the most part, Millwood's great ERA isn't, I think, due to getting more ground balls, or being in better condition.  It is due primarily to two things -- great defense behind him and great fortune with runners on base. 

Evan takes issue with Neyer and Anderson not talking enough about the team's defense in regards to Millwood, but in fairness to both guys, they've both talked at length this season about the improved Ranger defense and how it has impacted the team's run prevention.  The point of Anderson's article is in the very title of the Fangraphs piece that started this chain reaction -- it was to highlight how a ridiculous LOB% can artificially enhance a pitcher's ERA, and make it appear he's pitching a lot better than he actually is.

Evan also takes issue with the luck argument, though:

But attributing Millwood’s success to luck is assinine, first, and plainly against the crede of the stats analysts, second. Stats analysts don’t believe in luck. They believe in trends.

From where I sit, which has been at the park or in front of the TV for all of Millwood’s starts this season, as well as in 2007, the stats do help explain something about performance. They help explain just how helpful an above-average infield defense can be to a pitch-to-contact pitcher. The Rangers gambled that improving the defense would have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the starting rotation. What could have been an analysis of just how helpful solid fielding can be to a pitcher instead turned into an assault on the pitcher based on, of all things, "luck." As more and more teams try to quantify how much impact fielding can have on their success, it would seem the piece of information Anderson dug up would be helpful in drawing some kind of correlation between improved defense and improved pitching performance.

As I mentioned above, Anderson and Neyer have both been in the forefront in talking about the Ranger team defense having a huge impact on the team's success this year, much like the Rays last season.

And I think a lot of the problem is with the very word "luck," which seems loaded and brings to mind 4 leaf clovers and the like.  Call it random variation or fluctuation or something like that, instead.

But the reality is, Kevin Millwood stranding almost 90% of the runners he's allowed is attributable almost entirely to luck.  Millwood isn't morphing into a better pitcher when runners are in scoring position.  The defense isn't suddenly making plays with runners in scoring position that they wouldn't make with the bases empty.  A 5 for 52 line with RISP is random variation, analogous to a stretch of 10 heads in a row when you flip a coin a million times.  It is unusual and unexpected, but inevitable over a long enough period of time.

Statheads do believe in luck.  Luck is why the better team doesn't always win in a 7 game series.  Luck is why a Damian Moss or a Joe Saunders will put up a fluke season.  And luck is why Kevin Millwood is leaving almost 90% of the runners he allows on base.

Several people in the comments of Evan's story have some variation of "how many games has Neyer/Anderson/whomever seen Millwood pitch?".  And that is largely, I think, irrelevant.  The numbers are what they are, and I don't see how watching the game or not watching the game changes the fact that stranding runners is outside of Millwood's control.

(And similarly, the suggestion in the comments that if Anderson watched the Rangers play he'd know Nelson Cruz isn't a good defender is misguided...the numbers so far this season indicate that Cruz has been one of the best defensive right fielders in the game.  That's the same attitude that had people insisting, in the face of all objective evidence, that Derek Jeter and Michael Young weren't terrible defensive shortstops for so long.)

The point of this isn't to condemn Millwood.  He's been a workhorse this year.  But he has not been a TORP...he's been a LAIE who has benefitted from great defense and great luck.  Neyer and Anderson have it right...he's not been a great pitcher this season.