Game 19, Astros at Mariners
King Felix vs. Dallas Keuchel, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day – may it end happier than last Felix Day.
About a decade ago now, Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” came out and changed the way many fans looked at the game, and, importantly, got businesses and organizations around the country to think about market inefficiencies and how they balanced things like tradition and organizational memory with data-driven analysis. For a while there, Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane and Lewis were popular on the lecture circuit, talking about opportunities and threats and how corporations like baseball teams or car companies or government departments evaluate claims and make decisions.
Whatever you think of the book, whether you think it gave short shrift to Tim Hudson and Miggy Tejada, or whether you thought it was a landmark in the appreciation of and realization of the power of data, it was a pretty big deal. The fact that firms paid to discuss these concepts showed just how transferable certain skills and approaches could be. With the right message, an executive in a ball club could conceivably help an executive in manufacturing or marketing. Admittedly, I’m somewhat biased; I’m sympathetic to the specific message that Beane/DePo like to talk about, but they’re just one example, and I feel like baseball’s richness has interesting concepts hidden within it.
This is actually not a complaining-about-the-M’s-FO post, this is about Felix. Look, the whole “use data” thing is really important, and if it bent the curve in industry even slightly towards rationality, cool. But I’ve been just stunned watching Felix this year, and I keep thinking there is an incredible story that Felix himself probably isn’t equipped to tell. The A’s had to contend with competitors with far more resources. Felix has to contend with aging, regression to the mean, and the fact that everyone on every team gets to prepare for *him*. He’s a known entity, and it’s not like he’s become a knuckleballer or shifted to a sidearm delivery. Felix has a target on him every time he pitches, and he’s lost several ticks on his fastball since debuting in 2005.
And to this point in 2014, he’s gotten better. Every small sample size caveat applies; we’re still in March. But at least in the early innings, Felix has thrown four games of Pedro-in-2000 ball at his divisional rivals. As you know, many advanced pitching stats like FIP and xFIP have smaller spreads than ERA/RA. That’s because by ignoring aspects of performance that are more influenced by luck – strand rate, BABIP – they tend to pull pitchers back to the middle. Any truly amazing performance, like any completely abysmal one, is a combination of true talent and luck; winning 116 games means you had an amazing team AND you got a bit lucky. So, Felix right now has an xFIP – a measure doubly-insulated against “lucky” stats – is 1.84.
To say that that number will rise is trite and missing the point entirely. Of course it will. But a 28 year old Felix, after over 1,800 major league innings, started off this season with the same 92-93 MPH velocity and ripped off 39Ks to 3 walks. By xFIP, he’s been UNlucky. The point is that Felix has adapted and is now lethal to batters, and *I can’t figure out how.* The movement on the pitches is the same, the velocity’s essentially the same. He seems to throw the same number of strikes*. He doesn’t have a new pitch. He’s throwing the same pitches to hitters who’ve seen him dozens and dozens of times – Coco Crisp has faced him 66 times! Howie Kendrick has 73 PAs! – and they’re reacting like they’ve never seen a pitch before, let alone a Felix change-up. How’s this possible? To be fair, it’s not just Felix. Clayton Kershaw debuted as a young fireballer with an unreal curveball and command issues, and over time turned himself into clearly, unquestionably the best hurler in the NL. He did it despite losing some velocity and despite throwing his curveball far less (sound familiar?). Command is a crucial part of the equation to be sure, but so is limiting contact. Do they make trade-offs consciously? Do coaching staffs help them plan their attack, and do they tailor it to specific line-ups? Or do they get to a point where they stop thinking about the other team entirely? If so, what do they think about instead? There are cliches to fill the space here, like take it one pitch at a time, or trust your stuff, or focus on the gameplan, but to be pithy about it, that won’t sell on the lecture circuit. What IS Felix’s gameplan? The fact that his change-up and sinker are now 2 MPH apart in velo and with similar arm-side run…that runs counter to decades of accumulated pitching wisdom. It’s also clearly “the gameplan.” Does Felix think about this? Does he sequence them differently now than he did three years ago when the velo gap was nearly as small? Does he target different parts of the zone? Felix is extraordinary and Felix is way more extraordinary than we thought.
This weekend for reasons I can’t even remember, I was reading about the evolutionary dance between rough-skinned newts and garter snakes, two animals that are pretty common around here. The newt secretes a very, very powerful toxin (TTX, the same stuff in blowfish livers that scare sushi-lovers off of fugu) from its skin. Garter snakes developed a way to process that poison that allows them to eat slow, docile newts (you don’t have to run fast from predators when you are literally built of tetradotoxin). Many newt populations have responded by growing ever more toxic. The snake apparently required fewer genetic steps to develop immunity (since the process only happens in its stomach, as opposed to its skin), and so has pulled ahead even in areas in which the newts are many times more toxic than poison dart frogs. I keep thinking of that story when I look over Felix’s early 2014 stats – all of the work hitters can do to make themselves more toxic. Stacking line-ups with lefties, or watching tons of video. The A’s add a bunch of fly-ball hitters who hit *better* than average against sinker-baller/ground ball pitchers. But the snake makes a tweak and swallows the newt, and slithers off unaffected.
Oh, uh, Dallas Keuchel is a ground-balling lefty who is nothing like Felix at all. Fastball/slider/change-to-righties.
1: Almonte, CF
2: Ackley, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Hart, DH
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Romero, RF
7: Seager, 3B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
* Here BIS and pitch fx differ. To pitch fx, Felix has thrown FEWER pitches inside the zone, and gotten batters to chase many more of them. To BIS, he’s thrown MORE pitches in the zone. This is essentially the opposite of the discrepancy with Paxton, where BIS thought he had an extremely low zone%, but got swings anyway, while pitch fx saw him as pounding the zone while hitters were powerless to punish him for it. Early in the season, these discrepancies are larger and perhaps more numerous; it’ll be interesting to see if they converge over time.