Third Time Lucky

Lucky if you’re a batter, that is, and you’re facing the starting pitcher for the third time in a game. That scenario has always been advantageous for the batsman, but never so much as in the past two decades. After the jump, more on batting the third time through the order.

Focusing on the expansion era where game data are essentially complete, here is how batters have fared when facing the starting pitcher for the third time in a game.

By way of explanation, tOPS+ measures OPS+ in a “split” (in this case, for PAs facing a starter for the third time) compared to overall OPS+. In the chart, I’ve subtracted 100 from the actual tOPS+ to show the percentage improvement in OPS+ in this split. Thus, the result of 116 (or 16% better than overall OPS+) in 2018 matches the record high also achieved in 2000 and 2014, and marks the eighth straight year with a result of 113 or higher (compared to the previous record long streak of only three years).

The line in the chart shows the percentages of PAs represented by this split, which was consistently in the 16%-18% range every year from 1968 to 2013. Since then, that percentage has dropped sharply to only 13% in 2018, representing the ever diminishing workload by starters, which has dropped below 6 IP in the past few seasons. Curiously, though, the reduction in these PAs has not yielded better results for the pitcher, which might have been expected if for no other reason than selection bias (that is, the starters going the third time through the order would presumably be those pitchers who were pitching better on that day). The reason for the diminishing number of PAs facing a starter for the third time can perhaps be gleaned by the next chart.

This chart shows the same tOPS+ data for the split represented by PAs facing a reliever for the first time (note that this is all instances of facing a reliever for the first time in a game, not just for the pitcher relieving the starting pitcher). Thus, batters have fared worse than average in this split every year since 1974, including a 7 year run (2011-17) with pitchers enjoying a at least a 5% OPS+ advantage (2018 saw only a 2% edge for pitchers, the lowest result since 1997). So, if a manager is debating whether to have his starter make that third trip through the order, evidence would certainly support going to the bullpen rather than rolling the dice on a tiring starter.

The lines on the chart also tell a story of the expansion and refinement of relief pitching. The red line shows percentage of total PAs represented by this split, which was below 25% before 1980 but now has risen to almost 40% of PA. The green line shows the percentage of relief PA represented by the split, which was in the 80%-90% range until about 1990, but is approaching 100% in recent seasons, with relievers now seldom asked to pitch more than two innings.

If OPS+ percentages above and below average are leaving you a bit nonplussed, here are those same results using more familiar measures.

A lot of lines here, so let me explain. The red lines are for batting average, green for OBP, blue for slugging and purple for BABip. And, all the solid lines are representing relievers facing a batter for the first time, while the broken lines are for starters facing a batter for the third time. Thus, when you look at the two lines for each color, you can see how much of an advantage or disadvantage the starter had compared to the reliever.

In batting average, relievers enjoyed a 10-20 point advantage in the early part of this period, and a 20-30 point advantage in more recent years. However, there was no OBP advantage to speak of for relievers until about 20 years ago, and it is still much smaller than the BA advantage. But, the biggest advantage, by far, is in slugging, going from a 20-30 point edge for relievers in the 1960s and 1970s, to a 50-70 point advantage in the past two decades. I added in the BABip lines because I was curious whether it would reflect the presumably harder contact indicated by those large slugging spreads. The harder contact is undoubtedly real, but it doesn’t show up in BABip (you’ll see why in the next chart).

Same type of chart, except now showing the percent of PAs resulting in each of the three “true” outcomes of a home run, strikeout or walk. The one advantage enjoyed by starters facing an opponent for a third time compared to a reliever just entering the game is in control: the starter allows fewer walks, though that edge has narrowed in recent years to just a percentage point or two. Relievers, though, have the edge over starters in the other two metrics, a big one in strikeouts and a smaller but growing edge in home run rate. The one surprising thing (to me) about the strikeout edge is that it has been substantial throughout this entire period, not just in the recent past when almost every reliever seems to be a flame-throwing strikeout machine. And, don’t be fooled by the scale of the chart making the home run edge seem so small; relievers have had a 20% or better edge in home run rate vs starters in 11 of the past 13 seasons, including a 25% or better edge in five of those campaigns.

The big strikeout edge for relievers is the main reason that BABip results in the previous chart were about the same for starters and relievers. If you’ll permit me to exaggerate to make a point, let me suggest that when a reliever makes a mistake with a pitch, the batter will hit it hard, but when that reliever hits his spots, the batter doesn’t put the ball in play at all. If that batter were to cut down his swing to try to make more contact, or if that reliever were to occasionally ratchet down the fastball velocity a bit, just enough to put the batter off balance, then there would probably be considerably more weak contact against relievers, and a noticeable BABip edge for relievers compared to starters.

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Bob Eno (epm)
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As usual, Doug, this is great fine-grained research addressing a basic issue of the game’s structure (and the charts help determine whether a new eyeglasses Rx is called for)! The results are not surprising, except perhaps in their scale, which is probably larger than I’d have predicted. But one of your phrases raised a question: “. . . the recent past, when almost every reliever seems to be a flame-throwing strikeout machine.” This is certainly true of closers, and, at least among leading starters, we’ve also seen a sharp rise in K/9 (presumably because they now expend their tanks of… Read more »
Doug
Guest
I agree with the distinction you’re drawing between closers and other relievers, particularly those who might relieve a starter in the middle innings. Unfortunately, though, the available data are for all relievers who face a batter for the first time which, for recent seasons, is pretty close to all relief innings, period. That said, all relievers might be a reasonable proxy for those relieving a starter (less so for relieving a starter in the middle frames), bearing in mind that closers account for only one inning, for only one team, and not for every game. I too am struck by… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Doug, I happened across a couple of recent articles on this issue, one very substantive (by Ben Clemens, on FanGraphs), the other a spin-off note with comments on Tangotiger.com. Neither does in-depth statistical work, and both come at the question from a different angle, focused on an early 2019 season’s trend that shows starters with lower ERAs than relievers (!) and similar K/9 rates. Clemens, in particular, is focused on third-time through issues, and discusses the possibility that shorter starter stints may be erasing some of the difference in styles of pitching, starters increasingly going all out on velocity like… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

After posting that last comment I discovered that Chris Sale struck out 17 in a 7-inning start tonight. The Play Index says that has never been done before. Sale made 108 pitches, so that’s obviously not a case of a starter pitching like a reliever, expecting a short stint to allow him to exhaust velocity from that game’s start. (As I was typing this the game ended — Sale, who gave up only three hits, got a No Decision in a BoSox loss.)

Doug
Guest

Not coincidentally, that was also the longest start for any pitcher recording 80% of his outs via strikeout. Max Scherzer did it in 5.2 IP, the longest of 12 such starts (before Sale) of 4 or more innings, all of them since 2010.

Doug
Guest

The idea of starters pitching more like relievers would tend to square with the higher tOPS+ over the past 20 years for the 3rd time through the order. The lower OPS+ for the first two times would drive that down overall, raising the tOPS+ for the 3rd time as those “all out” starters begin to tire.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

This is the line I was thinking along, but I wonder whether OPS+ is the right metric to use for the first and second time through, since the subset of those PAs we’re interested in just relate to starters, rather than starters vs. relievers. Because OPS+ is normalized to 100=ave., it seems to me less likely to reveal any absolute changes that are happening than OPS would be (after all, league-wide, the park factor would cancel out anyway).

Doug
Guest

You’re quite right, Bob. OPS is what I should have said, not OPS+. And, it is the max effort starters in the first two times up that drives OPS down, not up, that can lead to high tOPS+ scores in the 3rd time through the order.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
Geroge Springer had a beastly first quarter of the season, leading the league in almost everything, and being on pace for 146 R 207 H 33 2B 60 HR 146 RBI 421 TB What stands out are the RBI and Total Bases, considering he is the Astros’ leadoff hitter. Most RBI from the one-hole: 103 … Charlie Blackmon 100 … Darrin Erstad 99 …. Alfonso Soriano 98 …. Nomar 97 …. Jacoby Ellsbury 93 …. Brian Dozier 91 …. Johnny Damon 90 …. Francisco Lindor 90 …. Grady Sizemore 88 …. Johnny Damon (4 bloody sox in 15 years) 88… Read more »
Doug
Guest
Springer’s last 3 games (.692/.733/1.385) have been something. Through games of May 14th (his first 43 games), he leads the majors in R and HR, and leads his league in H, RBI and TB (and SLG, OPS and OPS+). But, through 40 games (to mark the quarter season), his majors ranks were R (10th), H (19th), HR (3rd), RBI (8th) and TB (6th). Springer’s 5-5-5-4 line score on Sunday was the first in almost 100 years, joining 5 games of 5-5-5-5 (last by Steve Garvey) and 2 games of 5-5-5-7 (last by Joe Adcock, his 4 homer game). I recall… Read more »
Paul E
Guest

I believe there was a time when Brady Anderson knocked in ~80 runs leading off and everyone thought it unbelievable. It may have been in his breakout season after floundering for several years as a part-time player.
At the risk of upsetting some people, George Springer has already accomplished more in the post-season than a lot of all-time greats – Morgan, Mays, etc….

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

In 1992 Anderson smacked in 80 and stole 53 bases from the one-hole.

Only two other players have done that:

88/50 … Biggio
81/64 … Reyes
80/53 … Anderson

76/52 … Brock
74/87 … Rickey
72/80 … Rickey
68/50 … Lance Johnson
68/56 … Reyes
_______________

In Anderson’s 50 HR / 110 RBI season in 1996, he batted both
35/69 … leadoff and
15/40 … 2nd
_______________

And on the subject of Rickey, here is:
Since 1901, most RBI with as many SB as RBI:

81/81 … Eddie Collins
79/88 … Clyde Milan
74/87 … Rickey
72/80 … Rickey
71/90 … Tim Raines
71/80 … Eric Davis
69/77 … Omar Moreno
69/72 … Juan Samuel
68/68 … Cobb
67/75 … Lofton

Paul E
Guest

Voomo,
I recall when the Phillies traded Lonnie Smith he almost won an MVP award in 1982. There was talk he would have been the 1st player since Cobb (1915) to go 70/70. He ended up 68/69 and 2nd to Murphy in MVP voting. He was a .316 hitter through his first 482 career games

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Ryan Feierabend

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/f/feierry01.shtml

Third round draft pick at age 17.
A few unsuccessful stints in the bigs ate ages 20-22.
7 years as a AAA pitcher.
A cup o coffee in Arlington at age 28.
4 years in Korea.
Developes a knuckleball.
As a lefty.
Gets signed by Toronto.

And last night, starting his first game in MLB since 2008, pitches his first complete game at age 33.
A 4-inning complete game.

First player to throw a CG with only 4.0 IP since Steve Trachsel on May 11, 2006.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Tough career, Voomo. He has his name in the record books now, which is something. I’d like to see him record a win before this stint is over, or even a save (which would be his first since Rookie League in 2003). Looking at Feierabend’s career made me reflect on the economics of baseball from the marginal player’s perspective, although B-R provides no salary figures for Feierabend. The MLB minimum wage is $555K, so I assume Feierabend is making roughly $3500 per day since his call up yesterday. He’s on the roster because of injuries, so that status is unlikely… Read more »
no statistition but
Guest

Bob:

At the opposite extreme in almost every respect from Feierabend is Craig Kimbrel, who puled down 13 mil last year closing for the world champs. Not his best season, but a 160 ERA+ all the same and 42 saves. Opted for free agency, wouldn’t take the 17.9 mil to stay on a year, and now he’s unsigned and apparently as undesired as he seems undesirable, preferring to sit than to play. Feierabend obviously loves baseball. Kimbrel? 17.9 million ain’t enough to suit up.

Paul E
Guest

nsb,
God only knows what advice he was getting from his agent. “Last chance for multi-year, big payday”? He must have had SOME multi-year offers that they insisted on turning down….maybe 4 years / $ 60 M ? Here’s some old news from MLB Trade Rumors:

https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2019/04/latest-on-craig-kimbrel-3.html

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
The guy has never been injured, and is one of the best of all-time. So he’s taking an extended vacation and enjoying his spring. There’s more to life than baseball. Lowest H/9 through age 30, minimum 500 IP: 4.82 … Kimbrel 5.64 … Jansen 5.89 … Marmol 6.04 … Benitez 6.12 … Clippard 6.19 … Nolan Ryan (who had as many IP as the next 4 guys combined) 6.39 … Herb Score 6.60 … Charlie Hough 6.64 … Sid Fernandez 6.66 … Frank Rodriguez 6.69 … Pedro _____________ Lowest WHIP through age 30, minimum 500 IP: .888 … Jansen .920… Read more »
Paul E
Guest

Voom
“So he’s taking an extended vacation and enjoying his spring.”
I have long believed that “Youth is wasted on the young but wealth is wasted on the old”. Good to see that he’s enjoying the $ 58M he’s already made

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Interesting contrast, nsb. I don’t know whether Feierabend loves baseball or simply has no better options. Kimbrel has earned well over $50m over his short career; if he hasn’t squandered it, maybe the next $50m isn’t a driving incentive for him. Perhaps he’s arrogant or has miscalculated, but Voomo may be on the right track too. He’s super rich and really has nothing more to prove in baseball. Loving baseball and loving the job of playing for a big-league team are not necessarily the same thing. Does the late model Pujols mean that Albert really, really loves baseball? In any… Read more »
Paul E
Guest

Bob, Voomo, nsb,
I believe JD Drew retired with a little left in the tank as well. But, based on his typical 120 game season, some might say he was already long retired

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

There’s something about being 30. It’s a transitional moment and not just because of the number. I think a lot of athletes who decline in their early 30s do so not because of physical reasons but because they haven’t taken the time to adjust to the internal transition that happens at that age.
In the most common esoteric language it is referred to as the Saturn Returns, and takes place between 28-31.

Paul E
Guest
Voom, Strangely enough, as a Capricorn (ruled by Saturn) myself, the 6 months prior to my 30th birthday were like watching paint dry. There was a sense of pending doom or some significant event that never took place….but, definitely, a sense of things moving much too slooowwwwly. Pretty weird. Supposedly, it takes Saturn 2 1/2 years to pass through each house, the completion of which is, obviously, 30 years (12 houses x 2.5 years). Turning 30, or Saturn returning to Capricorn, literally, is supposed to be a rebirth of sorts. By the same token, there have been an awful lot… Read more »
CursedClevelander
Guest
I’m also a fan of stories like that. One of my favorites is Rich Sauveur, who has his own inglorious distinction – most teams pitched for without a win. 6 of them, which doesn’t include all his stints in the minors. With a name like Sauveur (savior in French), it’s a shame he wasn’t a lock-down closer. He was drafted in 1983, in the 11th round. Made his debut in 1986 – 6.2 innings, 2 runs. Pitched well enough to win but got a no decision. His next two starts were pretty crummy, and he broke his foot late in… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Great example, CC. I’d never heard of Saveur, but then, that’s the nature of these stories: I’d never heard of Feierabend either. Very different pitchers — Saveur was certainly more successful — although they share the feature of having words from a European language for their last names. Saveur seems to have landed on his feet, staying in baseball, and — echoing nsb — what I found online (as I’m sure you did) was his statement that he stuck with the game out of love for it. That would be a good storyline for Feierabend too. There must be collections… Read more »
Doug
Guest

Billy Williams is another one. 15 years in the minors (all with 85+ games) before finally reaching the majors at age 37 with the Pilots. Failed to get a hit in his brief stint with the big club. But, he achieved his goal and retired with that satisfaction after that season.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

I don’t recall ever hearing about Williams, Doug, although I see he was mentioned in “Ball Four,” which I read with gusto long ago. I see that, like Saveur, he went on to a post-player career in baseball, mostly coaching in the Minors.

Doug
Guest

Feierabend recorded 11 years between major league starts. Trying to think of a way to check whether there’s ever been as long a gap (my guess is yes, but I would be interested to know).

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

Roy Hobbs?

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

G.H. Ruth went 9 years between starts.
Returned at age 35, threw a complete game victory, while batting third, getting two hits and his 153rd RBI.
Also started two double plays.

Doug
Guest

Here are some I’ve found with 10+ years between starts.
15 – Fred Johnson
12 – Jim Johnson
11 – Ryan Feierabend, Mike Timlin, Johnny Lindell
10 – Wally Hebert, Harry Kelley, Socks Seibold, Chick Davies

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

Fred Johnson (or Tex Johnson, or Cactus Johnson) is a real find, Doug. Clearly there’s a good story there.

no statistition but
Guest
Johnson’s first season in organized ball appears to have been at age 27, and his late season call-up to the world champion Giants a year later showed fair promise ( a 10-inning complete game loss and an 8-inning 3-run outing), and he made the 1923 squad but was dropped in May, perhaps because of his age, which seems ironic now, considering how he resurfaced at age 44 with the Browns and picked up three wins and three saves for a seventh place team. Two things caught my eye: 1) In his best year, pitching for New Orleans in the Southern… Read more »
Doug
Guest

Johnson’s late start may perhaps be related to possible wartime service in World War I. I say that only because Johnson’s 1973 death notice in the NY Times mentions that he died at a VA hospital.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Johnson also recorded his first Save at age 44.
As bad as the Browns were in 1938, I’d love to know the story of how and why they acquired a 44 -year-old minor leaguer who was with Detroit’s double-A team.

Doug
Guest

It appears that the Tigers and Browns may have been “sharing” the Toldeo Mud Hens in those years, which wouldn’t be that surprising considering how tight the Browns finances were. Johnson played for the Mud Hens each season from 1937 to 1940, with B-R noting a Detroit affiliation for the first three seasons, and a Browns affiliation in the last year.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today about the way that increasing pitch speeds are affecting the game. (I hadn’t known that, MLB, which recently contracted with the independent Atlantic League to have that league serve as a sort of laboratory, is going to have them test out moving the mound back two feet during the 2020 season.)

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

Whoops! That was the Washington Post, not the Times. Sorry. (But the link’s ok.)

And, coincidentally, FiveThirtyEight.com has just posted an article addressing the same issue, but focusing on breaking pitches.

Doug
Guest
An interesting article in indeed, touching on a number of factors, from physiology (increasing size of pitchers, upper limit of pitch speeds) to game strategy (at what point does hitting for contact rather than homers become a strategy to counter dominance of faster pitches). The article notes that the difference for a batter between 92 mph and 100 mph is 4½ feet, so moving the mound back two feet would make 100 mph look like 97, but 95 would now be 92 or 93, and 92 only 89 or 90. So, that change may be about right. Surprising thing for… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
While I think moving or lowering the mound is a good experiment to try, I’m troubled by the many references I see to the 1893 change, all of which report the surge in hitting that followed, and none of which notes that within five years the pendulum had swung back and its momentum carried the game right into the Dead Ball Era. When you make a change, repercussions don’t always stop with the one you were anticipating. The Dead Ball Era was characterized by a profusion of “trick pitches,” legal and illegal, through which pitchers fought to regain their leverage,… Read more »
mosc
Guest
Count me in the camp that thinks moving the pitcher’s mound backwards wouldn’t help things. Sliders and splitters dominate the fastball era but we’ve been able to move away from the dreaded “big curve”. I think moving the mound back would restore the old fashioned curveball to it’s previous dominance. The angle of the ball’s trajectory through the zone is an underrated factor in hitting. A curveball that crosses the knees at the front of the plate for a strike isn’t really near the barrel path of a traditional baseball swing. It would probably lead to swings we consider more… Read more »
Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Purely to illustrate how the Opener will change how some stats are viewed:
Ryan Stanek is on pace for 43-44 Starts and 91 IP.

Since 1901, fewest IP with at least 40 Starts:

252 … Stan Bahnsen
255 … John Podres
260 … Tom Bradley
262 … Catfish
264 … Jim Bibby
264 … Kaat
267 … Jim Clancy
267 … Chuck Dobsen
269 … Dave McNally

Jim Clancy’s 1982 was the 2nd to last time anyone started 40.
Hough did it in ’87.

no statistition but
Guest

Question: Is anyone else being used as Stanek is? I’m too busy to track the answer.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Clearly your attention is occupied… You spelled your name wrong.

no statistician but
Guest

Thanks for noticing. Getting older and more feebleminded by the minute.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
Curious to see who had the fewest PA while playing at least 150 games in a season: 394 … Jim Eisenreich 437 … Tommy McCraw 438 … Ichiro 455 … Mike Tyson (whose nickname was ‘Rocky’) 462 … Shane Victorino 466 … Dal Maxvill 466 … Jeff Conine 467 … F.P. Santangelo 467 … Andruw Jones It was Jones’ rookie-ish season, and he did NOT bat low in the order. He hit 5 or 6 all season. But he had 57 non-starts, 47 of which with one or zero PA. Eisenreich, the leader, had 72 non-starts, including 67 with fewer… Read more »
Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Today, Austin hedges hit a grand salami and struck out 4 times.
He was also hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.

So. Third time in history a player had 5 RBI and 4 strikeouts.
First time it was done in a 9-inning game

Devon White in 1998, hitting the game winning 3-run shot in the 11th:

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHI/PHI199808202.shtml
_____

Hank Blalock in 2003, had 6 RBI, and did it without a HR, also hitting the game winner, a double in the 12th.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA200305160.shtml

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