Major league baseball players are the top one percent within their chosen craft. On a daily basis, they make difficult plays appear routine. It is the elite nature of their talent, and the precision with which they play the game, that not only makes the margin of error between success and failure so narrow, but also makes the fundamental mistakes they occasionally commit so exasperating for fans.
It is well known that baseball is a game of failure. Excellent hitters make outs 70 percent of the time, and pitchers allow about a hit an inning. Failure is woven into the fabric of the game, and fans anticipate seeing players fail over the course of the season. However, some forms of failure stick out more than others because of their nature and timing. They are so seemingly inexcusable for players with elite skills to make that they belong to a special category, which I call "Most Frustrating Plays" (MFP hereafter).
Back in July, I posted a article that examined which teams committed the highest rate of MFPs. The inspiration came from watching a truly dreadful game between the Pirates and Rockies. With some revisions to which plays qualify as MFPs, this post provides the final season totals.
Most Frustrating Plays Defined
Plays that I define as most frustrating have three characteristics:
- Players with elite skill should rarely make them.
- There is very little luck involved in the play, and blame can't easily be shared between players. In other words, we can confidently say one player made the mistake.
- The timing of the mistake is particularly bad.
Using those parameters, here are the five MFPs I came up with:
- Allowing a leadoff walk in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning when the pitcher's team is up by only one or two runs.
- Walking a hitter with the bases loaded.
- Committing a fielding error in a high leverage situation.
- Striking out with one out, in a high leverage situation, with a baserunner occupying third base. (So, this includes bases loaded, first and third, etc.)
- TOOTBLAN. (This statistic obviously has its issues, but it is as close as we can come to putting a number on consequential and avoidable baserunning mistakes.)
Certainly, many plays that fans find frustrating are not on the list. For example, allowing a game-winning home run and not scoring with the bases loaded are conspicuously left off. Let's look at each in turn:
Allowing a game-winning home runs is definitely frustrating, but they are often hit off good pitches and they are dramatically influenced by the skill of the hitter and the park in which the game is played. Giving up a home run to Joey Votto in Great American Ballpark is more heartbreaking than it is inexcusably frustrating.
Similarly, not scoring with the bases loaded may be the result of some very fine defensive plays or unlucky bounces. Besides striking out, there are many variables involved in a bases-loaded situation that make individual blame less direct, and there is plenty of room for luck.
However, a third baseman throwing a ball into the fifth row behind the first baseman on a routine grounder in a high-pressure situation doesn't involve much luck or influence from the hitter; it is simply a bad play by an individual at a terrible time. Likewise, walking a batter with the bases loaded is something that a pitcher should be able to avoid very easily, as it just involves not throwing four balls. Lastly, not making contact with a man on third and one out is tough to forgive and doesn't involve much bad luck.
Now, individual blame is never absolute and luck is never completely absent. Walks sometimes involve bad decisions from the home plate umpire and good discretion by the hitter. And a lot of credit goes to pitchers for strikeouts, rather than just blame to the hitter. In the end, we have to think of plays as existing on a continuum where the most frustrating mistakes are those that are most easily preventable, the blame is most confidently assigned and the timing of the mistake most harmful.
Most Frustrating Plays Index
Late-inning leadoff walks in close games
In 2014, 7.6 percent of plate appearances ended in a walk. In the late innings of close games, that percentage dropped to 6.4 percent for pitchers that hold the lead. This dip might have been due to awareness of the situation, or simply that better pitchers are on the mound late in close games. Whatever the case, Cleveland Indians pitchers were terribly frustrating in these situations. They more than doubled the league average by allowing walks 13.2 percent of the time. On the other hand, the Padres posted the best rate at 2.1 percent. (The Pirates were better than league average at 4.7 percent.)
Here are the teams ranked from most frustrating to least:
Pitchers gave up walks at a 6.6 percent clip with the bases loaded. Again, that is a one-percent drop from the average walk rate. The team that frustrated their fans the most in these situations is the Marlins, who walked hitters at a 10 percent. The Padres were again the least frustrating, allowing walks only 1.6 percent of the time. (The Pirates were less frustrating than average at 6 percent.)
Here are the teams ranked from most frustrating to least:
Errors are committed in 1.8 percent of balls hit in play in high-leverage situations. That is slightly higher than the overall error rate of 1.6 percent. The Giants ranked as the most frustrating by committing an error 2.4 percent of the time. Minnesota ranked the best with a 0.9 percent error rate. (The Pirates ranked 15th, committing a league-average rate of errors, 1.8 percent.)
Striking out, runner on third, one out, high leverage
In 2014, 20.4 percent of plate appearances ended in a strikeout. With a runner occupying third base and one out in high leverage situations, where a hitter simply must make contact, the strikeout rate drops to 17.2 percent.
The Astros were the most frustrating team to watch in these situations, striking out 26.2 percent of the time. The Royals were the least frustrating, only striking out 8.6 percent of the time. (The Pirates were slightly more frustrating than average, 17.9 percent.)
TOOTBLAN (from TOOTBLAN Tracker)
TOOTBLANs are bone-headed baserunning plays. I calculated the rate of TOOTBLANs by dividing the total number of baserunning mistakes by a team's total number of times on base. (Hits-Home runs+Walks+HBP+Reach on Error).
The league average rate of TOOTBLANs is 3.5 percent. The Reds were the most frustrating, committing TOOTBLANs at a 4.7 percent clip. The Braves were the least frustrating, 2.6 percent. (The Pirates were slightly more frustrating than average, 3.7 percent.)
The most frustrating team
By adding together all the opportunities and mistakes across the five events, we discover the Most Frustrating Team:
The Dodgers committed the highest rate of MFPs. They were above league average in four of the five categories, and in the top five in three. Obviously, committing the highest rate of frustrating plays did not affect their season much, as the Dodgers won the NL West. However, their grand total of 153 frustrating plays means that if you tuned into watch of their games last year, odds were pretty good you saw them commit one.
There were 183,929 total plate appearances last season. On 3.498 (1.9 percent) of them an MFP occured. On average, 1.44 MFPs were committed per game.
I didn't have a sense of what the frustration rates would look like before I started this study, so I can't say that I'm particularly surprised by the numbers one way or the other. However, I guess I am somewhat surprised that there is a very good probability that at least one MFP will occur in every game.
As someone who watched just about every Pirates game last season, I am a little surprised that they fared as well as they did. As it turns out, they were just about league average across board. Indeed, if it hadn't been for Starling Marte's TOOTBLANs they may have been among the five least frustrating teams. Obviously, focusing on one team all season causes us to inflate the mistakes we see and forget that other teams are usually committing them just as often.
This is just a fun exercise and doesn't tell us too much about winning and losing. As always I'm open to refining the study and coming up with a more definitive and exhaustive list of MFPs.
To wrap up, here is the Pirates player that made the most MFPs for each play:
- Allowing a leadoff walk in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning when the pitcher's team is up by only one or two runs: Jason Grilli, 3.
- Walking a hitter with the bases loaded: Francisco Liriano, 4.
- Committing a fielding error in a high-leverage situation: Pedro Alvarez, 8.
- Striking out with 1 out, in a high-leverage situation, with a runner occupying third base: Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, and Andrew McCutchen tied with 4.
- TOOTBLAN: Starling Marte, 18.