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Quick hits: Jon Lester and those pesky hitting pitchers

Are the Braves especially victimized by opposing pitchers at the plate?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s 6-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs had something for everyone. Good defense, occasionally-nasty pitching, questionable managerial decisions, bullpen meltdowns, and most importantly, dingers. But, it also had another thing that’s been a particular thing to gnash teeth about: Jon Lester, representing the class of “opposing pitchers batting,” having a maddeningly-good day at the plate.

To put Jon Lester’s day at the plate in context, it helps to get a measure of Jon Lester, batter. Lester’s been around a long time — his first time holding a bat in a major league game was during the 2006 season. Since then, he’s amassed 322 PAs, which is kind of a lot for a pitcher, if you think about it. Since the start 2006, there have been 71 pitchers to amass 300 or more PAs. Of those, Lester hasn’t been the worst, but he’s been on the bad side anyway: his .093/.136/.137 line (.126 wOBA, -30 wRC+) is 15th-worst out of 71. The worst? Charlie Morton, by a sizable margin. The best? Carlos Zambrano and his 20 home runs, also by a sizable margin (take that, Madison Bumgarner). Overall, Lester has definitely been more futile than the average hitting pitcher (since 2006, the average wRC+ is around -15), but the league might be catching up to him: 2017 and 2018 featured two of the lowest pitcher wRC+s in recent history, at -20 and -25.

Jon Lester went 1-for-1 with an RBI single and two walks yesterday. That’s pretty ignominious for the Braves’ pitching staff. It was the first time in his career that Lester received three plate appearances and reached base in all of them. It was the first time in his career that he walked twice in the same game. It was the first time in his career that he both got a hit and walked in the same game since September 2, 2017 — which also came against the Braves. While it was not the best offensive game of his career (he went 2-for-2 with a homer against the Diamondbacks in August 2017), two of his best three and three of his best eight offensive games have come against Atlanta pitching, including last night. Lester also recorded +0.12 WPA last night, good for third offensively on his own team. Interestingly, while it was only the eighth time in his career he managed an offensive WPA of 0.1 or higher, it was nowhere near the highest, as he had a three-run homer off Lance Lynn while down 0-1 last year that sits tops on that particular list.

Anyway, that’s been 400 words about Jon Lester, and we’re supposed to be talking about the Braves. So, here’s the question: are the Braves particularly bad at facing opposing pitchers with a bat in their hands? And here’s the answer: eh, not really. My first examination was just to look at wOBA allowed by pitchers, by team, across some different time horizons: 2018 only, 2016-2019, 2010-2019, and 2002-2019 (which is as far back as the Fangraphs Splits Leaderboards go). A reminder that wOBA is not park- or league-adjusted, so some of the patterns below might be somewhat obvious, i.e., the Rockies allow an elevated wOBA because they have to face opposing pitchers at Coors Field half the time.

(Why not wRC+? Three reasons. First, wOBA helps with the second examination, below. Second, the way wRC+ adjusts for park uses the home team’s factor and not the away team’s factor, so it interacts weirdly with pulling splits by opponent. Third, and this is the real/most troubling reason why — there appears to be some issue in the Fangraphs Splits Leaderboards for aggregating these types of splits, which spits out non-useful and what I think are incorrect totals/averages. This doesn’t occur for wOBA, hence the use of wOBA. For example, for the 2010-2019 period, no team allowed a worse than -14 wRC+ to opposing pitchers, yet the “vs. NL” split reads a -15 wRC+, which is not possible if I’m understanding correctly.)

According to the above, there’s nothing too special about the Braves in terms of facing opposing pitchers. They were not that great at it last year, nor the last three years, but they weren’t the worst, nor the Pirates, who for some reason have been awful at it again and again and again.

Very recently, yeah, the Braves have had some struggles retiring pitchers relative to other teams. Pull it back out to the start of the decade, and not so much. Go back further, and it’s been the opposite of a problem.

But, perhaps all of the above is the wrong question. After all, when the Mets dominated opposing pitchers last year, was that surprising? After all, Mets starters (who are the pitchers most likely to face opposing starters) held the league to the third-lowest wOBA last year. In order to really think about managing opposing pitchers, perhaps we should adjust to wOBA allowed by starters overall.

The numbers in the table above are the result of a few manipulations — first, NL-average wOBA is converted to 100, and then each team’s wOBA-against (for all players, and then separately just for pitchers) is expressed as a number relative to that average/100 figure. The pitcher-specific one is then subtracted from the total, to derive a “gap.” The higher the gap, the worse hitting pitchers fared against the team; the lower, the closer they were to how position players fared against the team.

You can see that the average gap is above 50, i.e., the average pitcher wOBA is less than half of the total average wOBA, and this appears to be increasing over time. The Pirates no longer look that weird; the Dodgers, by contrast, look like laggards for some reason. The Braves, meanwhile, have generally been average... except for 2018, where they were indeed the worst at managing opposing pitchers. So, if you feel like this little bit of baseball stupidity is a very recent trend for the Braves... you’re right! Now let’s hope it stops. Or at least that they stop walking Jon Lester.

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