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NWLA Pitching, Part 2: Let’s Do Some #SportsMath!

Written by - Posted 2016-07-29 09:47 in News

Guest Post by Jack Shannon

This is a follow up to my previous article on the NWLA Tournament’s pitching “controversy.” If you read my first article, I attempted to put NWLA Tournament stats into perspective by comparing it to the medium-pitch style of the PWL. Since the PWL, however, does not allow walks, it was not necessarily comparing apples to apples. So I went ahead and gathered data from 9 other leagues – all past or present NWLA Tournament participants – to see if the NWLA Tournament really is beset with abnormally volatile pitching. First, I’ll just look at the basic comparisons between the NWLA and its participating leagues. Then I’ll do some #SportsMath to see if I can narrow in on a solution.

NWLA versus Participating Leagues

First, some technical details. For purposes of #SportsMath, I had to quantify the “speed limit” for the leagues without a speed limit. I set it to 80 mph. Now, I know some of you claim to be able to throw upwards of 90 mph (lol), but you’re going to have to divorce yourself from that delusion for the time being. Likewise, I had to capture whether or not a league employs the “1st pitch strikeout” rule, so 1=yes and 0=no. Also, MNWA does not list their mound distance, so I pegged it at 45 feet, which is about the average for a fast pitch league. Finally, all league data is from the most current stats posted on the websites. So it’s only a season-worth of data for each league (which is why the PWL numbers are different from 1st article).

So what do we have here? Well, apparently all the walks are not uncommon when it comes to fast-pitch. The unlimited fast pitch leagues averaged a walk rate of 21.9%. Overall, the average walk rate among the 8 leagues not including the PWL is 17.8%. So it seems that if people wish to continue a fast-pitch style, they’re going to have to live with some (and by some, I mean a lot) walks. But is 21.9% decidedly better than 26.9%? Over the course of the average NWLA game (49 batters), that difference amounts to about 2.5 more walks a game. Which I’m not sure is significant since that’s 1.25 more walks per team. But it’s also no surprise that the slower the pitching, the fewer the walks. OCWA (who I never knew actually played slow-pitch) only walks 5.6% of batters. HRL, which has a speed limit of 60 mph, only walks 14.3% of batters. So from that perspective, there seems to be an obvious solution that no one (myself included) will want to embrace.

The strikeout rate in the NWLA is also extremely similar to the strikeout rates in other unlimited fast pitch leagues. The K rate in the 4 unlimited speed leagues averaged 40.8% compared to the 44% in the NWLA. Over the course of a game, that amounts to 1.4 more strikeouts in NWLA games than other fast pitch league games. This seems to be the nature of the beast when you opt for a fast pitch style. You’re going to get a lot of walks and you’re going to get a lot of #nightnights. Also – can that WSEM figure really be correct? Do 73.5% of official at bats end in strikeouts? GOO! Regardless, even in the medium pitch league (PWL), 31% of at-bats end in strikeouts (or only about 4.7 fewer than an average NWLA game). And 15% of at-bats in a slow pitch league end in K’s. This is wiffleball, folks. The ball is going to curve in the air. That makes it hard to hit. But that doesn’t mean we should all go up there with tennis rackets.

But what about the ding-dongs? Ahh yes, the almighty ding-dong. What we all play for. Well, it turns out that the hardest league to hit a home run in is the PWL. OHHH BABY! GRANDMA PITCH IS THE HARDEST TO HIT (or maybe we’re just a league full of terrible hitters?). But on the whole, it does seem harder to hit ding-dongs in the NWLA than home leagues. The fast-pitch leagues averaged a home run every 14.5 at-bats compared to the 17.6 in the NWLA’s. Meanwhile, batting averages in the fast pitch leagues averaged 0.332 compared to the 0.244 in the NWLA’s. So yes, hitting is harder at the NWLA Tournament. But it’s important to note that you’re essentially facing all-star teams in the NWLA Tournament. Your average and home runs are supposed to drop. You’re facing Ryan Bush and Stephen Farkas, not the guy from your league who talks about all the hot chicks at his 16 year old daughter’s volleyball match.

Proposed Solutions and Some #SportsMath

The perceived “excessive” number of walks seem to drive the debate surrounding whether the NWLA needs to adapt its rules. A number of solutions have been proposed to help minimize the walks. They include, among others:
• Instituting a “1st Pitch Strikeout” rule to incentivize pitchers to throw strikes immediately and hitters to get the bat off their shoulder
• Tinkering with the playing dimensions – specifically the distance from the pitching rubber to the strikeboard
• Instituting a speed limit on pitching
• Tinkering with the numbers of balls & strikes per at bat. (Note: NWLA site claims that OCWA does not have balls because they do not have walks. Well, they do have walks, so this data may get a little weeeiiirrrd)
Since these rules are all implemented in some shape or form in the leagues above, I’m going to attempt to see if I can draw any meaningful conclusions from the data. I’m not including the bigger bat solution because out of these leagues, I believe WSEM is the only one that allows it. If other league(s) do it, someone let me know and I’ll throw it into my mixing bowl.

Alright, this is where the #SportsMath comes in and I run a few silly little regression analyses to get a clearer picture on what is driving the Walk Rates, Strike Out Rates, and Batting Averages. I won’t actually include the actual regression results in this article – that would be much too boring and would just distract from the point (“Bro, can I check those p-values?”). I’ll provide the highlights:

In terms of improving the walk rate:

None of the variables (ie, the proposed changes) showed any statistical significance. If you remove the balls and strikes variables, however, the speed limit becomes highly statistically significant. Nothing wrong with back-fitting the data to find a solution you like, right? But it seems to make the most logical sense. And if you look at the leagues with speed limits, their walks rates are generally lower. Do we want that, though?

In terms of the strikeout rate:

The only variable that showed statistical significance was the “strikes per at-bat.” Not surprising. The lower the amount of strikes a pitcher needs to throw, the more strikeouts you’ll get. This was clearly driven by WSEM’s strikeout totals. That means that the NWLA would need to raise the strikes per at-bat to lower strikeouts. I don’t even need to say why that would be a horrible idea, do I? Tinkering with balls per at bat doesn’t seem to affect much of anything.

In terms of batting average:

Two variables here showed significance: “strikes per at-bat” and “1st pitch strikeout” – but again, this is being weighed down heavily by WSEM’s data. My issue with the 1 pitch strikeout– it doesn’t have a significant effect on the walk rate, only on the strikeout rate (by raising it) and the batting average (by lowering it). So it’s doing the exact opposite of what we’d want it to do. And it would consolidate power in the hands of a few elite pitchers.

Conclusion

The ugly truth is that there is no magic fix. To me, I think instituting a speed limit is the best hope the NWLA has in lowering the walk rate and creating a more balanced game. However, I am also vehemently against that idea because I think the NWLA should remain a battle of alphas vs alphas. And I don’t want to see any alphas getting fettered down by the chains of a speed limit. Guys have homered off the best pitchers in this tournament. You should go out and try it, too. Frankly, I think any argument saying that hitting is too hard should be thrown out on pure cowardice alone. The walk issue, I admit, isn’t going away. But you know what the best way to limit them is? Bring pitchers who throw strikes.

Disclaimer: This was a very limited analysis done by a person of limited intelligence with access to limited data. Take with a dump truck of salt.

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