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Same Old Story, Well Wishes and Batted Balls

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One of the difficult parts of having multiple writers for the site is that you have to try and be original with 3-4 other people. The easy and apparent narratives have probably already been written about in prose more eloquent than what I can muster. So I have few words for yet another disturbing loss in a heretofore unseen fashion.

Kyle Lohse gets saddled with 11 hits and 8 runs in 5 innings. I've reached my limit of Kyle Lohse quotes about how he's "finally found his rhythm" or he "just needs to get the feel of the game back". His calling card was being a durable pitcher who would put up a 4.50 FIP year in and year out. He's become a pitcher prone to short starts due to injury or blow out.  It's important not to overreact and say that he's "finished" but something has to change. Soon.

Meanwhile, Mike MacDougal allows 6 runs in 1.2 innings of work to take the game from 8-5 Nationals and put it firmly out of reach. In Joe Strauss's recap of the game, he wrote:

The Cardinals remained in touch with the lead until reliever Mike MacDougal collapsed during a six-run eighth inning extended by his looping high throw to first base on an ordinary-looking ground ball.  Unnerved or just vulnerable, MacDougal failed to finish the inning, as a walk and five hits compounded his fielding gaffe.

My alternate theory of this situation is that Mike MacDougal is a reliever who was banished to the minors by multiple teams for having terrible command and control. He projects like a reliever who is only marginally better than replacement level and has played like a player who is far worse than this. Basically, he's just not very good on his best days and he's quite awful on his worst.  But he's a veteran with saves, therefore he is a valuable asset to the pen even while Fernando Salas has made a good start on earning a set of wings like Ryan Bingham in Up In The Air.

I think MacDougal, among others, perfectly encapsulates the utter frustration that I have with the Cardinals both this year and in seasons past. It's not the initial act of picking up Aaron Miles that's so disheartening. It's not that Nick Stavinoha starts the season on the team and Allen Craig is sent down. It's that when those players show their true colors, the team is categorically unwilling to cut them loose. They cling to the false hope that Mike MacDougal will acquire some kind of fastball command. The conviction that Aaron Miles can continue to loop dribblers through the infield.

I know there are smart people in the front office. I have a hard time coming up with any name that I think is unaware of modern analysis or player projection. Instead, it's the black side of being "loyal" to players. I think the Cardinals, as an organization, conduct themselves with the utmost respect toward their players (with a few exceptions) and this is eminently commendable. They take it to an illogical extreme, however, by retaining players who are bad or hurt and continuing to provide them opportunities to the detriment of the rest of the team.

This year we've seen it with guys like Aaron Miles over Tyler Greene and Mike MacDougal over Fernando Salas. In the past, we've seen an obviously injured Isringhausen remain on the active roster. We've seen Chris Duncan remain on the major league roster after making it painfully apparent that he could no longer drive the ball. The inability to cut bait from bad situations or poor performers has cost the Cardinals.  They've certainly had a good helping of bad luck and crappy run distribution this year but that doesn't justify the bad decision making we've seen with the roster management this season.

8 runs from a continually ineffective Kyle Lohse. 6 runs from Mike MacDougal, closer of yore. It's not surprising and that's unfortunate.

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This team needs Colby Rasmus badly both for outfield defense and for run production. The lineup is just a different beast with him in it. Get well soon, Colby.

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I want to have a brief conversation about batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and batted ball profiles for a moment. I get the impression that there's some misunderstanding regarding BABIP, how predictive it is and how to identify a "lucky" player.

First of all, current season BABIP is not a good predictor of future BABIP. Two seasons isn't very good either. With BABIP you need a large data set (thousands of batted balls) to indicate that a player has an ability that is outside of the major league average BABIP. The default assumption, not knowing anything about the batted ball profile, is that the future BABIP performance of any player will be near the league average (~.300).

Now, a BABIP above or below .300 is not necessarily lucky or unlucky even in a small sample size sense. You have to evaluate BABIP in the context of the number of groundballs, line drives and flyballs that a player hits.  Each type of hit falls at a certain rate on average. It's VERY difficult to prove statistically that a player has the ability to out hit the BABIP for a certain type of hit.  What they can do is hit more line drives than say groundballs.  Different batted ball profiles or percentages will have different expected BABIPs.

Let's discuss this in the context of line drives. LDs are hits approximately 73% of the time -- that type of batted ball has the highest frequency of being a hit. If a player is hitting line drives that fall for hits more or less often than 73%, it is likely some form of luck.  This is luck in relation to a specific kind of batted ball. In the aggregate, you can look at BABIP and LD% for a quick and dirty look at whether a player has been lucky. Take the LD%, add 12% to it, and that is roughly how the player should have performed on batted balls to date.

So if a player hits 18% line drives he should have a BABIP around .300. If he has a .360 BABIP, this does not necessarily indicate he was lucky. Read that again: a BABIP substantially different from league average is not an automatic indicator of luck. If that .360 BABIP player has hit 24% line drives, than he's performing in line with our expectations for his batted ball profile.

Is a 24% line drive sustainable in the long term? That's a different question and not one I'm looking to answer. The point is that you have to look at the BABIP in relation to the batted ball profile to determine whether performance to date on balls in play has been lucky or unlucky. For future BABIP, you should expect major league players to perform at or near league average. You need a large amount of batted ball data to (statistically) prove that a player has a special ability to out- or under-perform league average BABIP.

That's as un-mathy as I can make that topic. If you want to get into variance and the percent we should regress BABIP toward league average.

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Game time is 12:35pm.  Let's hope we can get a win.  I'd like a particularly undramatic one please.