Statistics accurate through Monday, April 9 games.
Setting: Nationals Park, April 5. It’s the bottom of the sixth inning, and the visiting New York Mets are leading 4-2 over the Washington Nationals. The Mets, owners of a 4-1 record, have earned cautious optimism, but the specter of things going just wrong enough still looms.
Cast: Jacob deGrom (New York Mets), Brian Goodwin (Washington Nationals), Anthony Rendon (Washington Nationals), Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals), Ryan Zimmerman (Washington Nationals), Howie Kendrick (Washington Nationals), Trea Turner (Washington Nationals).
Scene: Goodwin waits for a pitch in the very middle of the strike zone and knocks it into right field. Rendon and Harper, inspired by Goodwin’s patience, prefer to show off their skill at being idle as they see four pitches each, all close to the zone, but none called strikes. [Audience: Thinking that this is an inflection point, a possible microcosm for the macro interpretation of the season.] By this point, deGrom has thrown 75 pitches, and a quick turnaround is necessary to stay in the game. Zimmerman, eager to shift the game’s tides, takes a low curveball in the same direction as Goodwin’s single but is met by a glove. Kendrick waits like his successful teammates before him, but an upper-middle fastball is lined out to shortstop. Turner, possibly paying for the pitches in the zone called as balls, takes an outside third strike looking. [Audience: Breathes a sigh of relief.]
This half-inning was full of the type of drama that, even as recently as last year, proved troublesome for the Mets. Consulting Baseball Prospectus’ Expected Runs Matrix, in the young 2018 season this scenario should have netted the Nationals 2.2 runs, but they came away empty-handed. deGrom is certainly an ace more capable than most to handle a bases-loaded situation, but his run-stifling is not an outlier for the Mets’ 2018 campaign – one in which the promise of a world-conquering pitching staff can be realized not just by wins, but in the subtle ways staffs can lead their team to victory.
That sparked my interest in exploring the Mets’ ability to strand runners relative to the rest of the league, and if their early perception as being a premier staff holds up even with more niche metrics. To do this, I calculated the percentage of runners left on base relative to the number of baserunners allowed (LOB%), for the simple accumulating of left-on-base numbers belies the fact that if you’re that good, you won’t have that many runners to strand in the first place (more on that later).
The numbers concluded that this anecdote was, in fact, not out of the ordinary. At stranding 69.39% of runners, they’re good for first in the National League and second in baseball overall, behind only the similarly celebrated Astros pitchers, who have kept 72.57% of baserunners from scoring. With the league average at 58.3%, the 10 point advantage the Mets have over a league-average team will be a crucial difference if their playoff hopes rest upon a few close games in September. With their mark in 2017 at just 55.4%, the mind is free to wander in the fields of what-if?s.
The reason behind calculating this as a percentage rather than just by using left-on-base numbers is because, intuitively, good pitching (i.e., not letting men on base) should beget good pitching (i.e., stopping those at the plate from scoring whomever has been let on). I ran a correlation between team OBP numbers with the left-on-base percentage in Excel and found the correlation coefficient to be -0.47 – this means that as OBP increases, LOB% should decrease (and vice-versa).
The numbers seem to support the theory. Whether they can be kept up over the course of a full season is another story, but early on the Mets have left many an opposing fan disappointed at seeing their team standing on the bases, waiting for a reason to move. So far, these have been few and far between.
Photo credit: Tommy Gilligan – USA Today Sports