What is the “Panic Button”?

panic button noun

1.

an alarm button for use in an emergency, as to summon help.

Idioms

2.

push / hit / press the panic button, Informal. to give way to panic in a distressing situation.

 

After brief back-and-forths on Twitter with Minor Leaguer (@Minor_Leaguer) and Dirk Hayhurst (@Thegarfoose), I started to think about what people are really saying when they talk about pressing the panic button.

 

The “panic button” has become a popular buzzword for Blue Jays fans so far in this early season.  They’re frustrated with the team’s performance and expressing this through calls to fire the manager and calls to blow up the team, or call up some of the Quad-A players we have stashed in AAA via social media and phone calls to local radio stations. Countless media members have been urging these disheartened fans not to press the panic button but it has left me thinking, “What is the panic button”?

 

Basically, what it means to push the panic button is that the shit has hit the fan, and either the fan base or the front office have become so afraid of what’s going to happen, they are incapacitated by the fear and are pushing a button to summon help.

 

Photo: cstarr.wordpress.com

Photo: cstarr.wordpress.com

This can obviously never happen.  Fans obviously have no control over this team and neither do TV and radio commentators or bloggers, so pressing a “panic button” would actually do nothing.  The team’s front office would never take any actions guided by such fear or the “hysterical behaviour” that would result from it.  I think that the term has become a metaphor for the accepting the fact that the team is fundamentally flawed and will not succeed in its current configuration.

 

From dictionary.com:

pan·ic [pan-ik] noun, adjective, verb, pan·icked, pan·ick·ing.

noun

1.

a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, and that often spreads quickly through a group of persons or animals.

2.

an instance, outbreak, or period of such fear.

 

But Jay! How can you say that your beloved Blue Jays are flawed after only one month of baseball?  Well, back in February, I wrote a blog post that summarized a whole series of questions that I had about the team going into the season.  Without going through my 15 questions point by point, there are a few glaring issues that have plagued the Jays throughout April.  You could never call me a gigantic fan of the TV broadcast crew, but they (and studio analysts Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst) do make good points (despite the TV crews’ complete and utter faith that the players will turn things around, thus negating their fundamental characteristics).

 

1. The Jays don’t get on base enough for the sluggers to drive them in.  This is probably the biggest problem that the Jays have. The Blue Jays rank second last in OBP in the AL and dead last in batting average.  They are 27 points below the league average on-base-percentage.  In my eyes, this is the fundamental problem.

 

Since most sabermetricians believe that “clutch” hitting is a fiction created by baseball lifers, we can point to the problems that the Jays are having stringing together hits/walks and other positive, run-creating devices.  Getting on base more overall increases the likelihood of adding more runners in innings that runs are produced.

 

I’m no mathematician, but here are the numbers.  The Blue Jays have an OBP of .293, which means that out of every 1000 Plate Appearances, they’ll get on base in some way 293 times.  The Jays are averaging 36.84 Plate Appearances per game.  If they’re getting on base 29.3% of the time, then in an average game, they get on base almost 11 times and are scoring 3.72 runs per game.  Now, the math gets too complicated for me here, but there are several basic principles that should be mentioned.

 

First – there’s kind of a feedback loop that increases the team’s ability to score runs when they increase their OBP.  A team has 27 outs in a game (unless they’re winning at home).  When a team gets on base, it adds to the numbers of plate appearances they will have in that game.  If a pitcher throws a perfect game, there are 27 plate appearances and a team’s OBP is .000.  If a team gets on base three times, there are 30 plate appearances and the OBP is .100.  However, three more times on base, and there are 33 plate appearances, but the OBP is .182 (6 divided by 33), and nine times on base is only a .250 OBP.  Basically, the more a team gets on base, the longer it takes to get those 27 outs.  For the Jays to get from a .293 OBP in which they’re getting on base almost 11 times to league average at a .321 would basically mean two more base runners per game.  (The numbers aren’t exact, but maybe you can help me out … Comments please!) While it doesn’t seem like a lot, if they come at the right time with runners on, and if they come in the form of hits where runners can advance more than one base, you can see some real results.

 

Additionally, there has been a very interesting study by Joe Lemire that Sports Illustrated published about how having 39 plate appearances a game is kind of a magic number.  Teams that send 39 batters or more to the plate have won 69% of the time since 1991.  As it currently stands, the Blue Jays are a little more than two plate appearances shy of the magic number (at 36.84 PA/Game), and raising their OBP to the league average would actually get them into that neighbourhood.

 

2. The Blue Jays strike out too much.  Ok, yes they do, but I’m not going to go overboard and say this is the worst thing ever.  Strikeouts are one of the worst ways to get out, but they’re not THE worst.  They Jays are actually the 4th worst striking-outingest team in the AL, and by K%, they’re 10th worst in all of baseball.  Hardly tragic numbers. But strikeouts do limit the ability to move runners.  Combine the use of “productive outs” with an increase in OBP, and the team can really start to churn the offensive machine.

 

3. This team is full of players who a) do not get on base enough, AND b) strike out too much. At least they are this year.  Colby Rasmus is exhibit A. Despite a hefty .350 BABIP this year, Colby has a .289 OBP and a 41.4% K ratio.  The kicker for me is the .350 BABIP.  If Colby was striking out at a 25% rate, he’d have about 21 Ks this year.  If Colby had that same .350 BABIP with 15 fewer strikeouts, he’d another 5 hits or so, and he’d actually be hitting .289 with a very good OBP.

 

On TV, Gregg Zaun is commenting that the players aren’t changing their swings at all with two strikes.  They’re swinging for the fences on every count and this is resulting in the high strikeout totals, particularly for guys like Rasmus.  I’ve also seen this article by Jeff Sullivan (over at Fangraphs) that shows that pitchers are throwing Rasmus fewer and fewer fastballs and that he seems unable to hit the increased number of breaking pitches. So the question becomes: Is this what Rasmus truly is?  Will his strikeout numbers drop, or is he unable to make the necessary adjustments to seeing fewer fastballs.  if he can’t adjust, he will continue to strike out at historically high rates.  And if that happens, then he cannot remain on the team.

 

4. wOBA you talking about? The fact remains that Colby Rasmus, despite being a black hole for making contact, is not the worst offender amongst the every-day players on this baseball team.  When looking at some of the more advanced metrics like wRC+ and wOBA, Colby Rasmus is hovering around league average.  Some of the worst offenders on the team in actually creating runs (which is what wRC+ measures.  For a more in-depth explanation, go here for wRC+ and here for wOBA) are Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio, and, most importantly, Melky Cabrera.  These three are at the bottom of the team rankings in wOBA and wRC+.  Again, due to his expectation as the last guy on the bench, I excuse Mark DeRosa for his crappy performance, but it appears that Melky’s BABIP-gifted 2011 and 2012 seasons are regressing at a huge rate. Melky’s current BABIP is .292, around league average, yet his batting average is only .250, and more importantly, his slugging percentage is only .301.  He just isn’t hitting for power, which is a large component of wOBA and wRC+.  His wOBA is .269, well below the league average of around .320, and his wRC+ is only 66, which means that he’s producing runs at a rate 34 percent below the league average.  To contrast, Colby Rasmus, who, to be fair, only has an OBP 14 points lower than Melky, has a wOBA of .317 and a wRC+ of 98.  So, Melky Cabrera, who has a decent (if not good) batting average, and an OBA slightly below league average is actually a poorer contributor to the team’s offense, despite only striking out 14.2% of the time.

 

Melky Cabrera. Photo: Reuters

Does the tactic of moving Leche to the #5 spot in the order mean that he’ll produce more?  No. wRC+ and wOBA don’t care about things like RBIs or runs scored.  It means that his individual production is very, very low regardless of where he is in the lineup.  However, unlike Colby, I think that there’s a chance for Melky to improve as the season goes on.  With more extra-base-hits, his value will increase.  I think that Colby will cut down on his strikeouts a little, but that he will probably set a career high for the number of Ks he takes this season. Melky’s numbers will probably come back to his career averages a bit as the season wears on, and I fully expect to see a season that is no worse than his .292 wOBA and 77 wRC+ with the Braves in 2010.  With Colby, if the pitchers keep throwing him more and more off-speed stuff and he fails to adjust, we could see an epically bad season from him as his HR/FB numbers regress to the norm and his astronomically high K rates make it impossible for him to contribute when he doesn’t hit a home run.

 

I know I’ve talked a lot about hitting and said nothing about the pitching.  To be honest, the pitching has been poor but I think that it will get better.  I don’t think that the group of Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ will continue to be this bad.  I think the bullpen has been excellent, especially considering all the innings they’ve been asked to throw, and that the starters will start to get their legs under them.

 

Finally, the problem that many people point to is the defense.  The fact is that while the players can improve to some degree, this is not a fantastic defensive team.  I think that Colby Rasmus is a good defensive center fielder and that Brett Lawrie is an outstanding defensive third baseman but outside of that, this isn’t a good defensive team. With Brett Lawrie out there, the left side of the infield is vastly improved: he makes the shortstop better just by virtue of his outstanding range, forcing the shortstop to make fewer plays into the hole.  Second base has been a problem, and Melky hasn’t looked great in left field (my personal opinion is that he plays a little too shallow).  Getting Jose Reyes back isn’t going to help the defense.  The Blue Jays will have to pitch a bit better and hit much better in order to overcome the poor defense.

 

So what is the “Panic Button”?  As fans, if we were to push the panic button, then we are realizing that this team is not going to compete as it is. No one in the Blue Jays organization is going to act reflexively and impulsively to either fire the manager, trade away superstars (the idea trading of Jose Bautista has been floated by Dustin Parkes of Getting Blanked and by Hayhurst on Baseball Central) but even if they do, it’s going to be a carefully considered measure and not a hysterical response.

 

I believe that some of the Blue Jays’ players have shown us what they really are.  If we don’t believe that they will change or improve, then it may be time to search for better options.  I think that Colby Rasmus is one of these players, but I don’t think that there is a better option for this team right now (I think that Gose needs a full year in Buffalo before he’ll be ready for Toronto).  I think that Melky Cabrera will get at least a little better.  The problem is that if I’m wrong about Colby, his upside is way higher than Melky’s.  Personally, I’m not hitting the panic button yet, but if some fundamental flaws to this team don’t change, either by improving player performance or by changing the players, this team is going to have a long season ahead.

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3 Responses to What is the “Panic Button”?

  1. Michael Wray says:

    Great article. I really think your first point could be the Achilles heel. Reyes’ early injury doesn’t help OBP so having him back at full production looks even more imperative. I’m no mathimagician either but your numbers seem to add up. The Jays will never lead the league in OBP but if they set the table with just one or two more guys a game it makes their power that much more efficient. I share your concerns but I also refuse to panic.

  2. Michael says:

    I’m new at being an fan that follows stats (at least for the Jays) and you article is excellent for explaining it in a understandable manner. Now that I am realizing what is really wrong with the team, I can be more of a couch manager and complain :)

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