Monday, October 13, 2008

Javier Vazquez: Big Game Pitcher?

It's rare that a manager calls out one of his own pitchers as not being able to "win the big game." But that's what Ozzie Guillen did to Javier Vazquez. From the article:

''What you see is what you get,'' Guillen said of Vazquez. ''Javy is going to be Javy. I just want him to be aggressive, throw the ball over the plate and knock somebody on their [butt]. That's a big three games for us.
''You have to be mean. Go out there and show them we show up to play, show up to kick your guys' [butts]. And believe me, that will take care of itself."

Yes, Ozzie. Kick a little ass, and those fastballs and curveballs will work out just fine. I hope to GOD he doesn't actually believe that. :sigh:

Anyhow, I wanted to test the notion that Javier Vazquez "can't win the big game." What I wanted to do -- what Ozzie and most of the people reporting the story failed to do -- is to actually check and see what Vazquez has done in "big games." We'll get into defining big game later. But the question I want to ask is: does Vazquez tend to pitch worse in "big games" than otherwise? Let's find out.

First let's point out what a terribly underrated pitcher Javier Vazquez is. Vazquez has a career 4.30 ERA (105 ERA+), averages over 200 innings per season and strikes out 180-190 guys a year. (the article -- which is largely critical -- mentions his poor W-L record of 127-128, but says nothing about his ERA or strikeouts). So why does this guy have to fight to get any respect?

Well, he began his career in Montreal and had most of his best seasons with the Expos. That's strike one for anyone seeking attention. In spite of his anonymity, Vazquez's 2003 season was truly excellent (3.24 ERA, 230.2 IP, 57:241 BB:K ratio), but his W-L Record of 13-12 and his status as the one team in the league with invisible PR meant that he barely got a sniff in the Cy Young voting.
But he was a highly coveted free agent among those teams that pay attention (especially since he was still just 27) and he got a big free-agent deal: $45 million over four years with the Yankees. It wasn't an unreasonable price at all for a healthy, promising 27-year-old pitcher who was very good, if not great.
But of course, things change in New York. Vazquez struggled, posting a 4.91 ERA in 198 IP. Worse, he posted a 9.53 ERA in three postseason starts, including the Yanks' terrible ALCS loss to Boston. So the Yankees gave up on him and traded him to Arizona along with Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro, and cash. And who did the Yankees get in return? A hobbled Randy Johnson.

Maybe Vazquez just wasn't a New York pitcher. Or maybe the Yankees, especially at that time, had all the patience of a mayfly (I prefer the latter). Either way, the more expensive Johnson had a rough introduction to New York while Vazquez did pretty well in Arizona. His ERA was about average (4.42, ERA + of 100), but he struck out 192 batters in 215.2 innings. The D-Backs probably wanted to keep him, but Vazquez requested a trade. He wanted to be somewhere closer to the East Coast and his family, in Puerto Rico. The D-Backs honored that request. GM Kenny Williams of the White Sox had just won the World Series, but was still looking to improve his team's pitching. Vazquez fit his desire for a durable starter and, well, Chicago is a lot closer to the east coast than Arizona. The D-Backs sent Vazquez to the Sox for Orlando Hernandez, Luis Vizcaino, and center field prospect Chris Young.
Vazquez stayed about the same in the move; solid but not great. He pitched another 202.2 innings, managed a 56:184 BB:K ratio, but came up with a 4.84 ERA (98 ERA+). One important thing to point out is that Vazquez is a fly-ball pitcher, so he a) hates small ballparks and b) needs a good outfield defense. Montreal is a roomier stadium, whereas both Arizona and Chicago are near the top of their respective leagues in offensive ballpark rate (BPR). This could explain why he had better years in Montreal than he did in New York or Arizona. And he wasn't getting such good defense in the desert, either. In Arizona he spent most of his time pitching to an outfield of Luis Gonzalez/Luis Terrero/Shawn Green. Terrero isn't bad, but there's a lot of range to make up if you've got Gonzalez and Green in the corners. His outfield was more helpful in Chicago in 2006, with Scott Podsednik (fair)/Brian Anderson (good)/Jermaine Dye (decent) covering the ground.

Vazquez was still young (30) and valuable, so before the 2007 season the Sox signed him to a contract extension: 3 years, $34.5 million. It was a year shorter than his previous deal although the AAV (average annual value) was similar. To be fair though, $10 MM a year by 2007 just meant you were league-average and reliable.
Vazquez rewarded the Sox with a great season, greater than any year other than 2003 in his career. He went 15-8 with a 3.74 ERA (127 ERA+) in 216.2 innings with a 50:213 BB:K ratio. He was easily among the ten best pitchers in the AL that year, but again he didn't receive a single Cy Young vote.

In 2008, Vazquez has pitched more toward his 2005-6 level: durably average, with a 102 ERA+ in 204 IP (as of today). He's got one more year on his deal with Chicago, and even if they don't like him, they'll need him on a starting rotation that's taken its lumps since the 2004 postseason.

So if all of that is true, why focus on the negative? Well, it is possible, according to Ozzie, that Vazquez isn't winning the big games (Ozzie also says that he can't win them because he doesn't kick ass, but I'll stick to what I can prove). Is Vazquez pitching worse in "big games?"
I'm going to start by looking at his career mark, because 33 starts is still too easily corrupted by luck. And besides, if what Ozzie says is true and Vazquez has this character flaw, he's probably had it for a while. We can check later to see if his numbers from this year match his career rates.

I'm going to do this study with just one definition of what a "big game" is. It would be great to work with several definitions, but part of the problem is the subjective nature of just what a "big game" is. I'll work with my one definition since I'm dealing with limited computer power here. But I'd love to see the results of similar studies with different parameters, especially if they return a different conclusion than mine (respond or e-mail if you've the notion).

But anyhow, my study will define a "big game" as any game against a team with better than a .525 winning percentage on the year. That should roughly show us how Vazquez did against the teams that proved to be the best (I chose a benchmark above .500, because just being better than average doesn't make you a "big" team). This is a good study to establish a single standard that covers everyone, but at the same time it doesn't allow for individual deviation. According to my study, a game against the Yankees is a "big game" even if you're facing Aaron Small in April. So we are making some compromises here.

Those are the particulars. How does it come out? Here are the results:
(Please forgive the use of periods to separate numbers. Blogger does not allow for tabs or even spacing, and neither will it let me insert a table without first taking a class in HTML coding. Still, the number should be beneath the statistical category it represents).

Here are Vazquez's career "big game" stats:


35-63, 4.49 , 802.1, 235, 699, 117

And here's how he's done in "small games," i.e. all non-big games:

92-66, 4.22, 1468.1, 369, 1316, 183

Seem like a big difference? Not so much. We would expect Vazquez to pitch worse in "big games," because big games are usually against a good team with a good offense. Any pitcher would be expected to do worse in "big games" against good teams rather than in "small games" against poorer teams. So when you take that into account, the difference in ERA really isn't much at all; it's what you'd expect when facing stiffer competition.
It's hard to analyze walks, strikeouts, and home runs with such a difference in innings pitched. So let's turn it into a rate stat: strikeouts per 9 innings, walks per 9 innings, etc. so that his innings pitched don't skew the results:


2.64, 7.84, 1.31

2.26, 8.07, 1.12

Again, we see a difference. Vazquez allows fewer walks and homers in "small games," and strikes out more.

So do we have enough information to conclude that Javier Vazquez is a big or small game pitcher? I don't think so. His numbers are better in big games, but then we would expect that of any pitcher. And the difference is so small that, without repeating the process for every pitcher in baseball (which is beyond my computing power), we don't know if the difference in performance is better, worse, or the same as an average pitcher.
In short, we can't really come to any firm conclusions on whether or not Javier Vazquez is a "big-game" pitcher. The only thing I think we can say with confidence is that he doesn't fall to either extreme: he doesn't perform far better or worse in either big or small games. He falls somewhere in the foggy middle.

BUT . . .

That's not really the statement Guillen was making, was it? In order to really get at Guillen's claim, we have to ask ourselves if Javier Vazquez has performed worse in big games this year, in 2008. His career numbers may be inconclusive, but maybe we can get more information from what he's done just this year, which we can presume is what Ozzie was talking about.




On pretty much every mark, Vazquez is worse in big games, and this time it's by a fair amount. So is Ozzie right to say that Vazquez hasn't "stepped up" in big games this year? Statistically speaking, yes. Especially when you consider other key games that don't fit the "big game" criteria, such as a late-season shellacking against Cleveland and a loss to Tampa Bay in the ALDS.


What if all we're observing is a sample size error? Maybe Vazquez just had a bad and/or unlucky year this year. It's a lot easier to be unlucky in one year than it is in a whole career. So was Ozzie premature in making his remarks? Was Vazquez better than his numbers indicate? Possibly. To look further, let's examine Vazquez's stats as a member of the White Sox, which Guillen should by all means be aware of. If he's done poorly in big games every season in Chicago, then we might be able to come out in full agreement with Ozzie, who has the advantage of first-hand knowledge.



Here again he's much better in small games.



Whoops! So much for that theory. Vazquez was better in small games again here, but the margin is so small as to be impossible to call one way or the other.
Okay, so let me get this straight -- Vazquez wasn't clutch in 2006, suddenly became clutch in 2007, then lost his clutchness again in 2008. How could that happen, unless . . . unless . .

"Clutch" isn't really an ability?


I'm not the first person to claim this, nor will I be the last. There are a lot more studies focusing on more than one player that clearly illustrate that clutch is, at most, a very small percentage of a player's actual performance. Don't believe me? If clutch is an ability, we'd expect it to stay pretty constant, right? Hitting home runs is an ability, whic is why you don't see guys with season home run totals of 45, 22, 57, 6, 72 and 30, assuming their playing time is equal.
So let's look at Vazquez's ERA under the different situations and see if shows the constancy of an ability or the randomness of clutch. If "big-game pitching" is an ability, then we would expect it to show up as such. So let's look at each season of his career and subtract his small-game ERA from his big-game ERA. If the two numbers are basically constant (that is, innate abilities), then we shouldn't see large variations from year to year.

-0.36, 0.97, -0.66, -0.13, -0.04, 0.19, 0.40, 1.43, 1.32, -0.11, 1.18

Remember that we're talking about ERAs here. A difference of 1.00 is a full run per 9 innings, the difference between a 4.00 ERA and a 5.00 ERA. Vazquez was bouncing wildly from having a much higher ERA in big games (-1.43 in 2005) to a much lower ERA in big games (-0.66 in 2000). But are we just talking about minor variations? Hardly. Some years the difference between his performance in the two situations is minimal (-0.04 in 2000) and in others he's a completely different pitcher in both situations (1.43 difference in 2005).
When Ozzie Guillen stated that Javier Vazquez hadn't come through in big games in 2008, he was technically and statistically correct. But if he was suggesting that this is a) a character flaw, or b) an innate ability, of Vazquez's, there's little evidence to prove as much. In fact, the Baseball Prospectus book Baseball Between the Numbers has a very good chapter examining "clutch" and offering a much better debunking than I did here with just one player.

In short, the concept clutch is largely an illusion, even if it can look pretty convincing in one particular season.

(For informational purposes, here are the teams designated "big game" opponents in Vazquez's career):
1998: Braves, Astros, Padres, Cubs, Mets, Giants, Blue Jays

1999: Braves, Diamondbacks, Astros, Mets, Reds, Giants, Yankees

2000: Giants, Braves, Cardinals, Mets, Dodgers, Yankees

2001: Astros, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Braves, Cubs, Dodgers, Phillies

2002: Braves, Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers

2003: Braves, Giants, Marlins, Cubs, Astros, Phillies, Mariners, A's, Blue Jays

2004: Red Sox, Angels, Twins, A's, Rangers, Padres, Dodgers

2005: Cardinals, Braves, Astros, Phillies, White Sox

2006: Yankees, Twins, Tigers, A's, Angels, Blue Jays, Red Sox

2007: Red Sox, Indians, Yankees, Angels, Tigers, Mariners, Phillies

2008: Angels, Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox, Twins, Blue Jays, Cubs

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