Joba’s New Job / Scoring the Drop

I was pretty excited when over the weekend I learned that I’d have to bypass seeing one of my favorite bands, the Waco Brothers, because I held tickets to Tuesday night’s Yankees game, a matchup between the Blue Jays and Yanks that would pit Joba Chamberlain in his long-awaited first major-league start, against Toronto ace Roy Halladay.

Alas, the game was something of a dud despite a heavy concentration of brand new “Joba Rules” t-shirts and pinstriped number 62 jerseys in the stands. Chamberlain, who came in scheduled for a very limited 65-70 pitch range, jacked it up to 101 MPH on the stadium’s hot radar gun (98 according to YES, I think) but struggled with his control and blew more than half his pitch allotment in the first inning. He walked Shannon Stewart, left fielder on the All-“You’re Still Here?” team, to open the game, and Stewart came around to score without benefit of a hit thanks to a balk, a passed ball, and an infield grounder. That was bad enough, but he then proceeded to load the bases via a Scott Rolen single and two more walks to Lyle Overbay and Matt Stairs. He whiffed Rod Barajas to end the inning but he’d used 38 bullets when it was all said and done.

The Yanks touched up Doc Halladay for two in the bottom of the inning. Johnny Damon smoked a leadoff triple to right-center, and while the failures of Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu to bring him home had Yankee fans tearing their hair out, Alex Rodriguez took one for the team and then Hideki Matsui followed with a sharp single. A-Rod scampered home when Jason Giambi followed with a single to left center, exactly through where shortstop David Eckstin’s neighborhood had the Little Gerbil not shifted to the other side of the bag.

Chamberlain was somewhat more efficient in the second, as he retired the Jays 1-2-3, but he still needed 16 pitches to do so. His night came to an early end after he walked Alex Rios on four pitches with one out in the third. He totaled 62 pitches and struck out three to compensate for the four walks, but the book on him wasn’t closed yet. Dan Giese, who’d been recalled from Scranton to make his Yankees debut, came on in relief and could only watch as Jose Molina made a horrible throw into right-center on Rios’ attempted steal, sending him to third. Giese then gave up a groundball that tied the score, the run charged to Joba’s room.

The Jays added another run in the fourth via a Barajas double, a Brad Wilkerson single, and an Eckstein sac fly, and while Giese kept things close, the remainder of the Yankee bullpen blew the game open in the seventh when Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and LaTroy Hawkins conspired to surrender six runs on four hits, four walks and a sac fly, running the score to 9-2. It was ugly, my friends; the only solution to getting through it was a considerable cash outlay for more beer in celebration of the end of the Democratic primary season. Even so, we departed the moment our cups were empty in the eighth inning. Meh.

• • •

In this week’s Prospectus Hit and Run, I’ve got a rather contrarian take on the early-season scoring drop that has some of my colleagues atwitter. Joe Sheehan went on a big but inconclusive dig through the April numbers a few weeks back, and while AL scoring levels have continued to plummet — they’re down half a run from last year overall, from 4.90 per game to 4.40 — there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason. His look was at least data driven, which is more than I can say for the mainstream pundits who suggest that increased drug testing is the reason for the drop:

Changes in the drug policy are perhaps the most frequently invoked, and in fact, the two-month dip we’ve seen in the AL would make for the most dramatic drop in the drug-testing era if it held out over the full season. But baseball’s drug policy has evolved gradually without exhibiting a consistent effect on scoring. Consider:
Year    NL     AL    Key Policy Changes
2000 5.00 5.30
2001 4.70 4.86
2002 4.45 4.81
2003 4.61 4.86 Survey testing
2004 4.64 5.01 Treatment for first offense
2005 4.45 4.76 10-day suspension for first offense, precursors banned
2006 4.76 4.97 50-game suspension for first offense
2007 4.71 4.90 Amphetamines banned
2008 4.60 4.41 More frequent in-season and offseason testing

Where’s the pattern? Regarding the current year, one can’t even invoke the effects of the new policy, which basically doubled the number of in-season and off-season tests. It wasn’t ratified until less than two weeks ago. Some may say that expectations of enhanced testing in the wake of the Mitchell Report are what’s driving the drop, but that’s pure speculation.

Having studied the matter for the past few years, I’m not a big believer in PED-based explanations; I tend to favor the ball-doctoring theory to explain the scoring and power fluctuations throughout the entire post-1993 era. The magnetic resonance images (MRIs) from Universal Medical Systems show a synthetic rubber ring that’s unaccounted for in MLB’s ball specifications, not to mention other anomalies that suggest wider disparities in the balls used than MLB should be allowing. Furthermore, MLB’s own studies confirm such disparities–the use of out-of-tolerance balls–as well as finding that the flight distances of balls at the extreme ends of official tolerances could differ by as much as 49 feet despite being struck under the same conditions.

While Joe Sheehan used fly ball rates to dismiss the possibility that ball changes might be factoring into what we’ve seen this year, the decrease in total bases per hit–what Eric Walker calls Power Factor–from recent historical levels of about 1.60 to 1.56 last year and 1.53 this year suggests this explanation may still be in play. However convenient it may be, until we have more data under our belts, not to mention new scans of 2008 balls that can be compared to last year’s models, it’s premature to haul the ball-doctoring explanation out to explain this year’s results. (In a brief conversation with UMS president David Zavagno, I was told that such scans are forthcoming; I’m planning a lengthier discussion with him in the near future.)

…Having basically lobbed more spitballs than Gaylord Perry on Old-Timer’s Day in this article, I’m not going to send you away with any firm conclusions, because I don’t think there are any to be drawn. Scoring has fluctuated considerably during Bud Selig’s reign, a time of nearly constant change in the game. The crush of coverage that’s developed during that time via electronic media, 24-hour news cycles and the blogosphere can lead to a rush of attempts to explain the game’s current trends and anomalies, often — particularly when it comes to those high-profile talking heads — twisted to fit a preconceived narrative rather than backed by hard data. By October, the larger sample sizes will likely steer us back to scoring levels more in line with recent history. While it may not be a catchy answer to say, “Let’s see where the data is at the end of the year,” before we firm up our theories about this scoring drop, it’s the right one.

I’m looking forward to interviewing Zavagno sometime in the not-too-distant future. We’d spoken before prior to yesterday, and while I don’t buy everything he says, he has produced some compelling visual evidence while raising very good points about MLB’s testing of baseballs. Ours should make for a fun conversation.

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