Second Thoughts Game #24: Indians 3, Giants 5
A major premise of sabermetrics is not whether questions are answered correctly; correctly answering a question requires at most a bit of critical thinking, at least, a cursory amount of research. Far more important is ensuring that the correct questions are asked.
During the top of the ninth inning of the Indians 5-3 loss to the Giants, the question was asked: Why is Corey Kluber pinch-running for Jason Giambi? This, of course, is not a particularly incisive question. A better question might be, 'Why is Corey Kluber not the default pinch-runner under all circumstances?' The author, note, has a deep respect for all things Kluber.
It is inspired by this question that today's Second Thoughts will be utilize elenchos, questioning, to elucidate the Indians' situation.
Who Doesn't Like Parfaits?
One might liken McAllister's outing on Saturday to an onion: layers upon layers upon myriad layers. Precisely, there are four layers to McAllister's performance that lead to four very different conclusions: as one digs deeper, one can view McAllister's outing first as terrible, but lower layers indicate - in order that.
The outermost layer of this unfortunate metaphorical onion is an equally unfortunate ERA on the game. Going 5 innings and allowing 4 ER, McAllister was extraordinarily poor at run prevention on this day. The first layer of his onion-flavored outing, a game ERA of 7.20, then, appears to be wholly unpalatable.
Peel away this layer, however, and one notices that McAllister's ERA doesn't tell the entirety of the story; his batting average on balls in play, BABIP, was .353, indicating either poor luck or poor defense – the latter, given Kipnis's flail at a ground-ball in that direful fifth inning, is almost certainly the more consequential. Even more impactful than BABIP, however, his LOB% - left-on-base rate, a measure of how much sequenced hits helped him or harmed him – was at 33.3%. League average is 70%, and 60% is considered abysmal. Hence, the 33.3% rate is not just poor, but outright anomalous.
More useful than ERA to measure his actual effectiveness, then, is Fielding-Independent Pitching, the second layer. Whereas his game ERA was 7.20, his game FIP was 1.29 (on an ERA scale); in other words, in those outcomes within his control – home runs, strikeouts, and walks – Zach McAllister was nothing if not lights-out. The second layer of this onion, therefore, is abjectly delicious.
Yet the premise that Home Runs are within a pitcher's control is far from universally accepted – in fact, most serious saber writers believe on the aggregate that Home Runs are more or less a linear function of fly balls – leading to a statistic called xFIP, a number created to compensate for the inherent randomness in HR/FB ratio. While McAllister's FIP on the game was an astonishing 1.29, his xFIP on the game was a much higher 2.88 – stillextremely good, but not as absolutely astonishing as his FIP. Hence, given the fact that McAllister has benefited from good Home Run luck, both today, and on the season, the third layer of the onion was absolutely palatable and still quite tasty, but not as transcendently delicious as the second layer.
The lowest layer of these onion, however, call into question his strikeout rate: certainly, he garnered strikeouts at a very compelling rate, but his strikeout rate on the game was unrepeatable. On the whole, strikeouts are rather clearly a function of swinging strike rate – given that the overwhelming majority of batters expand their zone with two strikes and therefore swing at most potential third strikes, called third strikes are comparatively rare; in order to garner large numbers of strikeouts, therefore, one must miss bats.
In this sense, McAllister's performance was entirely anomalous. His six strikeouts over five innings is an impressive outing from the perspective of FIP and xFIP, but these strikeouts are not particularly repeatable – three of his six strikeouts were on called third strikes. That only three of his strikeouts were swinging strikeouts suggests that much of his strikeout prowess on the day was due to batter incompetence, failing to swing at pitches they should – luck, in other words.
Yet his Swinging Strike rate, which this author notes had been notably below-average both last season and the beginning of this season, was extremely impressive – over 75 pitches, he recorded 11 whiffs – a Swinging Strike rate of 14.6%. That rate is extremely impressive – it was Danny Salazar's 2013 SwStr% average – one of the reasons why, coming into 2014, many had tremendously high hopes for Salazar. A Swinging Strike rate above 10% is firmly above-average; a swinging strike rate of 14.6% is downright frightening.
McAllister's fourth layer, then, was inconclusive. But his control was, for the most part, entirely on-point, and while it would be irresponsible to note that many of his swinging strikes came from the generosity of Messrs Belt and Lincecum, it's still a promising start. The author has been suspicious of McAllister since midway through 2013, and he remains suspicious that his swinging strike rate will even approach 'average' on the aggregate. If McAllister's swinging strike rate does remain average, however, he's shown sufficient command to be an above-average, and hence vital contributor to the Indians' pitching staff.
McAllister, like an onion, may not be the sweetest to watch, but in time, the layers of his performance may become less like that of an onion and more like that of a parfait. And to paraphrase 21st-century avant-garde Art Film, Shrek, “Who doesn't like parfaits?”
Spartans: What is Your Profession?
If one asked the team about their roles, there would be answers ranging from concrete to flexible. Justin Mastersonmight reply, 'a starter.' Swisher, 'a first baseman.' Santana, 'a team player,' Aviles, 'a utility guy,' and Giambi, 'assistant hitting coach.'
Asking this question of Elliot Johnson, however, would yield an entirely mysterious response. It's entirely the case that Johnson's lack of options was a substantial reason why Nyjer Morgan was sent to AAA, rather than Johnson. However, the prevailing narrative surrounding the switch-hitting, ostensible utility player's role has been far less about 'utility' – that is, usefulness – than the fact that he, since the return of Bourn, has not been used. In Friday's game, Johnson batted ninth as a pinch hitter, recording exactly one plate appearance and zero defensive time; prior to that, however, his most recent game was on April 11th against the Chicago White Sox – exactly two weeks, then, had elapsed between his two appearances.
The team's emphasis on flexibility goes unnoticed to none; nevertheless, his presence on the roster remains entirely puzzling. It's far from guaranteed that AAA 1B Jesus Aguilar's success would translate to anything approaching his nonsensical .373/.434/.680 triple-slash at AAA; however, Johnson has been a full run below-average on both defense and offense, and has over 13 plate appearances, recorded -.3 Wins Above Replacement. Flexibility is useful, but even without Elliot Johnson, this team has flexibility in spades – its best hitter is a utility player, its outfielders are nearly interchangeable, its shortstop is a converted second-baseman, and the team doesn't even have a clear-cut DH.
If Elliot Johnson's not going to play, it indicates that Francona intends to leave the last two spots on his bench wholly unused. Perhaps this idea has merit: between Kipnis, Cabrera, Swisher, Gomes, Santana, Murphy, Chisenhall, Brantley, Bourn, and Raburn – that's ten players between whom one is trying to spread a full gamut of plate appearances with only nine roster spots. Add in Mike Aviles, utility player totally pareil, and there's no obvious place where additional plate appearances are required or would fit.
Elliot Johnson remaining on this team indicates a whole-hearted commitment on the part of Francona to run with the ten regulars currently on the team. Jesus Aguilar is unlikely to set the world on fire in the same way the Jose Abreu, regrettably, has done; it's entirely uncontroversial, however, to suggest that Aguilar would be far and away more productive than Johnson's -46 wRC+. However, if Francona intends to run with those ten players plus Aviles, there will be no room for any additional at-bats; hence, it makes sense that the Indians' front office would keep Elliot Johnson – a veteran utility player from whom the Indians expect no further development – and allow him, rather than Aguilar, to languish on the bench, never receiving more than the occasional plate appearance.
Johnson's profession, one might then say, is developmental placeholder. Not the most attractive title in the world, but it's a spot on a major league roster – Elliot Johnson is probably not complaining.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.