Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gammons talks about Vote for Manny, kind of, I think

Peter Gammons' latest is a real doozy. I have respect for Gammons, but I try not to read his stuff anymore, because so much of it is weird rambling speculative stuff like this.

He rambles a bit about Manny and the all-star voting thing, and speculates crazily about the distraction Manny is causing, what he should do, and so forth, including passing a weird half-judgment on the whole vote for Manny thing. Frankly, it's just odd. Luckily, he gets pretty quickly on to the Padres, and Juston Upton, and some other stuff. But before that, he laments that Manny is taking attention away from the Dodgers' real stories, like "James Loney's RBI total or The Juan Pierre .400."

Yes. It's a shame we're spending all this time talking about things just because they're "interesting," when in the meantime there's a first baseman with a 90 OPS+ who happens to have lucked into a bunch of RBIs and a left fielder with an 85 career OPS+ who's had 40 pretty lucky games.

Look, Manny's the story because Manny is interesting. Without him, the Dodgers are still awfully good, but boring as hell. And I see no reason at all for anybody to start talking about James Loney...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

just a story

In early May of last year, we took our then-three month old son to his first ballgame, a night game between the Twins and the Sox. And he slept most of the time, of course, either in my arms or in Mom's little carrier.

But when he wasn't sleeping, he was probably screaming. It was a surreal experience; if I'm at a game and I'm not keeping score, I'm still giving it at least 90% of my attention. With the boy there, though, about that much of my attention was taken up with trying to quiet him down, trying to get him to sleep, trying to keep him asleep, trying to keep his little legs and hands covered and out of the cold night air.

And it wasn't much of a game anyway, for a Twins fan. The Sox jumped on Nick Blackburn early. The Twins were hitting the ball pretty hard off of Gavin Floyd, but everything was right at a defender somewhere. They got a run at some point--on a walk and a (questionable) error and a sacrifice fly--and they kept it close until the Sox opened it up to 6-1 in the 7th, but it just never felt like they were really in it (but maybe that was just, you know, the baby). We, and especially the boy, had had enough, and finally decided that if they didn't score in the top of the 8th, we would head out. I never leave games early, but with a kid, you've just got to use your head once in a while. So when they failed to score again in the 8th, we got up and walked out.

We'd been told by a concession lady earlier in the game to visit the fan relations booth before we left, for special "baby's first White Sox game" gifts for our son. So we did. And while he's printing out the little certificate and whatnot, the fan relations guy looks at me and says:

"You're not leavin' now, are ya?"

Little sheepish grin and nod toward the kid. "Well, yeah...we--"

"You know what's happening out there?" He's kind of cocked his head and is squinting at me now, like maybe I'm a foreigner at my first ballgame or something.

So here I am thinking, yeah, I know, big win for the White Sox. Genius, I'm wearing a Twins hat and my son is decked out in Twins gear. Not really into it. And then he kind of gives me a come on figure it out I don't want to say it look, and it slowly dawns on me.

Everything the Twins have hit (except that questionable error call in the 4th) has been right at somebody. Literally, everything.

There are no hits. This is a no-hitter through eight. I've been sitting here watching eight innings of a no-hitter in person (definitely a first for me), completely oblivious.

I don't remember what I said to the guy. I'm sure I tried to laugh it off, but I was actually kind of mortified. I'm not trying to brag (and not at all convinced that this is something to brag about), but it's a safe bet that I follow more baseball and know more about baseball than 99 or so out of every hundred people in the park that night, and yet suddenly I'm the one doofus who tries to walk out on history. As we hurried back in (behind home plate to stand behind the seats and look on for the last inning, ironically an infinitely better view than our own seats in the upper deck and down the line), it's ridiculous, but I wanted some way to tell everyone I saw that I'm not actually like that, I would never do that, but you see I have this boy here and he's cold and fussy, but I know what I'm doing here really I do.

Anyway, Mauer doubles with one out in the ninth, and Floyd leaves so Jenks can get some work in and sew up a 7-1 win. So I wouldn't have missed history after all. But I certainly would've missed something.

Lar at wezen-ball wrote a nice piece the other day about the feeling of being part of a crowd that starts to sense that something special might happen. And it made me think of this. I have no doubt that the same buzz and excitement was all around me that night (though they had hit him pretty hard, and he'd walked three guys and given up a run, but I mean, all you have to do is look at the big '0' on the stupid scoreboard). But I missed it completely, and I'm sure the 15 year old boy inside me smacked me square in the forehead for that. But, you know, parenthood can do amazing things to a person.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Loose Ends

Just a few comments following up on some recent posts:
  • Remember last week when I wrote the piece about Andy Sonnanstine being forced to hit for himself and I wondered why it was okay for Longoria to be brought in to play 3B later in the game despite having been on the lineup card when the game started? Well, turns out it wasn't. Umpiring fail.

  • This blog may be cursed. I profiled the four surprisingly hot teams after the first couple weeks of the season, and they almost all immediately (if predictably) went into the tank. I wrote about how all of them but the Mariners had been struggling since then, and one of them, the Padres, immediately got crazy hot again, while the M's tanked. I wrote about the upstart Jays in the same post, and then they tanked. And now, since my post about Joe Mauer's incredible first 100 PA on Tuesday morning, he's gone 1-for-10, the 1 being just a single, with two walks and three strikeouts. Not a whole lot to go on, I know, but I'm hoping that my mentioning it again just nips that one in the bud straight away, since it seems to work both ways.

  • Just in case the curse is real: boy, that Steve Phillips seems to be doing well for himself these days, doesn't he?

  • If you don't make a habit of looking at the comments: commenter abywaters explained the Bill James/Jeff Bagwell "Pass." mystery, at least to my satisfaction, in the comments to the Bagwell/Thomas post. Several other interesting comments down there, too.

  • Speaking of, I opened the same BagPipes v. Big Hurt discussion on a message board at Imagine Sports' Diamond Mind Online game (a fantastically addictive and highly recommended game if you're a hopeless baseball history nerd like me), and there were a lot of interesting insights, but the one thing that came out of it that I really wished I had noticed before I posted the other day was this:

    Thomas on the road, career:
    .297/.414/.511, .925 OPS
    Bagwell on the road, career: .291/.398/.521, .919 OPS

    Wow. I mean, Thomas is still the better hitter, since I'd rather have the 16 points of OBP than the 10 (or even 16) points of SLG, and you never know about the difference in competition or whatever, but wow! Incidentally, despite playing most of his home games in the cavernous Astrodome, Bagwell was much better than that at home...just not nearly as much better as Thomas was at his home.
    A couple of the guys at IS made some interesting points in Thomas' favor, but all in all, since the post went up on Wednesday morning, I've become more and more comfortable with my conclusion that Bagwell was the better player.

  • The Common Man had a much more thorough Memorial Day post than the one I could muster, and, I thought, a great one. But I just want to stress again that everybody needs to be familiar with the story of Lou Brissie.

  • More confirmation that (a) David Eckstein has made a deal with the Devil and/or (b) Kevin Towers has lost his freaking mind: "As great a year as Adrian and Heath have had, I think Eckstein might be our MVP." Sigh.

  • Finally, not actually related to a prior post on here, but friend of the blog Jason from IIATMS has started a new blog, Vote for Manny, at which he encourages people to, um, vote for Manny. Sounds crazy, but read his explanation at the site (posted on Wednesday). Intriguing stuff, at the very least. And now just like that, he's all famous and stuff. I honestly don't know how I feel about the idea, and for different reasons than most people would probably expect -- I did vote for Manny once already, though, just for being undecided -- but Jason's initiative is pretty impressive.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Seriously, What's the Deal with Ecks?

Within a really bizarre column about the Padres (Part 1: the Padres are rebuilding and should trade their best player; Part 2: the Padres are awesome!!!!1!), Jon Heyman gives us GM Kevin Towers' take on the team's recent ten-game winning streak:

The two things that Towers pointed to on behalf of the Padres, whose payroll is a puny $46 million...: 1) There is no quit in them; and 2) David Eckstein is on their roster.

"A lot of it has to do with David Eckstein," Towers said.

"There's no quit in this team" is one of those things that baseball people just have to say. I think it's in the standard-form contract. But the second one caught me a little off-guard.

Now, people have been saying this kind of thing about Eckstein since at least 2002. He's a gamer, he's gritty, he's got heart, he plays the game the right way, and all that. It was the brilliant FJM guys' favorite topic to be hilariously mean about.

But, as ridiculous as it was, I think it became one of those situations where Eckstein was so overrated he was underrated. The guy could get on base at a pretty good rate, and could field a little (as long as he didn't have to throw it too far), and there's something that's just fun about watching such a comically undersized player try so hard. So I could almost understand, it, even while I kind of hated it.

Now, though, at 34 years old? He's hitting (through Tuesday) .226/.305/.303. He has no power at all and plays half his games in the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball, and yet he's hitting fly balls a near-career-high 37% of the time (a very high 21% of those don't even leave the infield). Where a few years ago he was playing an average to above-average shortstop, he's now limited to second base, where he's average at best. Over the last two seasons, he's been essentially a replacement-level player.

As I said in my big ramble a few days ago, I do believe that "intangibles" such leadership exist and have an effect or some kind (I just don't see the point of spending much time thinking about them). But I really don't think they have the kind of effect that can make a replacement-level player the reason that your team has won ten games in a row. Especially when, during that winning streak, that player hit .133/.212/.167. Yeah, that's right. They won ten in a row while getting a .379 OPS from their second baseman. And he's the biggest reason they won those games.

So what is it that the Ecks has been contributing to these wins?
he is a guy who will do whatever it takes to win, including in the last few days taking a 97 mph Brian Wilson fastball in the gut (he took another one in the arm last night in the middle of their ninth-inning threat), faking out a baserunner and hanging in on a DP while getting rolled over. Eckstein is the best $850,000 anyone spent this winter.
Ugh. So two HBPs have contributed to that big .305 OBP? Awesome. And that last sentence there? Wow. I mean, really. So he does all those things, and that's great, but don't you think that managing even seven hits rather than four in those ten games (which would've raised his BA from .133 all the way to .233) could have had at an impact too?

Now, to be fair, this is all Heyman talking, not Towers. We can hope that Towers' answer to the initial question was, "well, we're getting pretty lucky, and Adrian Gonzalez is hitting the crap out of the ball, and Scott Hairston is playing out of his mind, and Jake Peavy, and..." (and then Heyman presses him to say something about Eckstein) "oh, yeah, um, sure, I guess, a lot of it has to do with David Eckstein."

It's not looking that good for Towers, though:
"When you have a player like that, it becomes contagious," Towers said. "He sets the standard. He's so fricking intense. And he has the best in-game instincts I've ever seen."
Wouldn't you think that the guy with the best in-game instincts ever would be able to hit a little, or find his way on base in some way, or field particularly well, or steal bases, or something? Shouldn't those instincts turn into something that's, you know, tangible?

Ugh again. So, really, what is it with this guy? It must be that adorable little impish grin.

Yeah, it's the adorable little impish grin. Right?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy Birthday...

Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell!

Having kind of come of age as a baseball fan in the 1990s, it's almost impossible for me to believe that The Big Hurt and Bags both turn 41 years old today.

I would like to suggest, first of all, that, even without regard to simultaneity and such freak coincidences, you'd have a hard time finding two truly great ballplayers who are more similar to each other than Bagwell and Thomas are. Having played parts of 34 combined seasons, they're separated by 202 at-bats, 23 runs, 154 hits, 7 doubles (!), 20 triples, 72 home runs, 175 RBI, 4 strikeouts (!!), 4 points of batting average, 11 points of OBP, and 15 points of SLG. (And a ton of stolen bases and walks, but still.) Bill James' Similarity Scores, for what they're worth (which isn't much), lists them as each other's #1 comp.

But then of course there are those coincidences. Born on the exact same day in 1968, both drafted in 1989. Both had their first full seasons in 1991. Both had enormous offensive years and won their league's MVP award in the strike-shortened season of 1994. Both were 37 year old non-factors in their last years with the teams they had spent their entire careers with in 2005, when those two teams met in the World Series, the first for both players (Thomas didn't play but got himself a ring, while Bagwell went 1-for-8).

Differences, too, of course--Frank was huge and intimidating while Bagwell seemed a little small for the position; Bagwell reputedly played great defense, while Frank was a born DH; Frank was a first-round pick and instant star, while Bagwell was a fourth-round pick who the Red Sox traded for 22 innings of Larry Andersen; and so forth. But the similarities are more interesting, and quite a bit more numerous.

Thomas is apparently holding out for an offer until the All-Star break, but I think we can assume that his significant contributions to the equation here are pretty well over with.

So who do you suppose was better? Here are a bunch of different ways to look at it:

OPS+: 156 to 149, Thomas. Frank was a better hitter, and it's kind of surprising that it ended up as close as that. Thomas was a legendary, Stan Musial-type hitter for the first eight or so years of his career, but then suddenly settled into being a more typical low-average, high-walk slugger like Killebrew. Bagwell was much more steady, though part of that is an illusion caused by a move from an extreme pitcher's park to an extreme hitter's park right around the time he started to decline.

WARP3: 105.3 to 97.2, Thomas. Baseball Prospectus' wins above replacement player stat has Thomas ahead by a deceptively comfortable margin. 8 wins above replacement equals one excellent year; Bagwell's WARP3 was exactly 8.1 in 1999, for instance, when he played all 162 and hit .304/.454/.591. A big part of that boost comes from Thomas' longevity, though; per 700 plate appearances, Thomas was worth 7.32 wins above replacement, Bagwell 7.21.

Fielding: Bagwell did it and Thomas didn't. This is theoretically accounted for in WARP3 -- Bagwell gets 205 career fielding runs above replacement and 66 career fielding runs above average, while Thomas is 26 and 87 below -- but I'm not convinced that it's covered enough. For instance, UZR is available only for Bagwell's decline years (2002 to 2005, years in which BP's system says he was pretty much exactly average in the field), but still says he was worth 5.7 runs above average in 2003 and 5.4 in 2004. It seems safe to assume that he would've shown up as being worth quite a bit more than that during his twenties. Also, in Tom Tippett's Diamond Mind Baseball simulation engine's "all-time greatest players" disk, Bagwell was rated "average" and Thomas "poor" -- a difference of about 20 runs over the course of a season.

Baserunning: Bagwell stole 202 bases at a respectable 72% clip and was known as a very smart, if not very fast, baserunner; Big Frank was a big slug, with 32 steals in 55 attempts and that special ability to go from first to third on a triple. We can assume that Bagwell was worth a handful of runs a season over Frank, and that measures like WARP and WAR only capture a portion of that value (the part that comes from stolen bases).

Bill James: In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2001, James ranked Bagwell the #4 first baseman of all time, and Thomas #10. In the comment to Thomas, he briefly noted the comparison, but simply said that Bagwell was a better all-around player. Of course, Thomas at that time had two more brilliant offensive seasons, two more brilliant partial seasons and one more very good full season to go, while Bagwell had two more good years and kind of skidded to the finish. Also, James' comment about Bagwell at #4 was, in its entirety: "Pass." Anybody ever figure out what the hell that was all about?

Other subjective measures: Thomas went to five All-Star games, starting two; Bagwell went to four and started two. Thomas won 2 MVPs and finished in the top 5 four other times; Bagwell had just the one MVP and two more top-fives. Thomas wins Silver Sluggers, too, four to three, though two of Thomas' were at DH rather than 1B, so that's not a fair fight. Bagwell wins in Black Ink Score (another James toy measuring how many times the player led the league in big-name categories like HR, RBI, etc.), 24 to 21, but Thomas led the league many, many more times in things like OPS, OPS+, Runs Created, and so forth. Bagwell won a Gold Glove, while Thomas appeared to actually use a glove made of gold, or perhaps a harder metal, when he was asked to play in the field.

Peak Value: From 1990-1997, Thomas hit .330/.452/.600, good for a 182 OPS+. Bagwell, meanwhile, had an OPS+ as high as 180 in only one single season, his MVP year of 1994. From 1993-2000, Bagwell did hit .311/.428/.583, 164 OPS+. Awfully impressive, but I'm not entirely convinced you can find me a right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby who has put up an eight-season hitting stretch like Frank's.

So who wins? I went into this sure I was going to pick Frank, but having gone though it, I'm on the fence. I thought of Frank's offensive advantage as being bigger than it really is. I tend to be a peak-value guy--give me Mantle over Mays, for instance--but I'm no longer convinced that Thomas' peak is so much bigger than Bagwell's that it cancels out Bags' huge advantage in the field and on the bases.

So that's it: I'm going Bagwell. But it's ridiculously close, and I'm firmly convinced that they both deserve to be shoo-ins for the Hall.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chairman Mauer: The First 100 PAs

I've crossed a line, or the Twins have, or Joe Mauer has.

Someone or something has crossed a line. And now I don't even care all that much that the Twins lost yesterday, because Joe hit another one:


Quite a one, too. He didn't start the game (which was ridiculous to begin with; if you've got the best left-handed hitter in the game, and the other guys have a straight-fastball-throwing righty on the mound and a lefty throwing tomorrow, don't you want to give him a day off tomorrow?), but pinch hit for Mike Redmond against Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and a runner on. His 11th home run of both the season and the month of May, making this his third consecutive game with a homer and fourth in the last five games, clanked high off the collapsed seating in right-center field, and made it a one-run game.

An even-more-lost-than-usual (understandably, it should be noted, with the recent passing of his mother) Delmon Young was due up next, which made it a foregone conclusion that that was as close as they were going to get. But, I kid you not: at least at the time, the result of the game didn't matter at all, because Joe hit one. It must be just a little like what Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak was like.

Conveniently, Mauer's pinch-hit homer came on his 100th plate appearance of his season, which (also conveniently) began on May 1. His season line now looks like this:

PAABRHHRRBIBAOBPSLG
1008125361131.444.530.914

He's still about 43 plate appearances shy of qualifying for percentage leader boards, but even if you give him 43 hitless at-bats (as BBREF does on its leaderboard). he's still in the top ten in on-base, slugging and OPS. He moved into the top ten in homers, and is only a few out of the top ten in RBI. Essentially, the league needed him to take that month off just so everyone else would have a chance to do something worth noticing before he took things over.

Here's all he's done since May 21 (four games plus the one at-bat): 9-13, .692 BA, .684 OBP (that's right, his two sac flies outbalance his three walks and an HBP), 1.211 SLG, 4 HR, 13 RBI.

Dave Cameron wrote a few days ago that Mauer's power surge probably wouldn't last, because he was hitting everything to center or left and not turning on pitches like power hitters usually do. That seems problematic to me to begin with--you might not think much of one or two wall-scrapers down the left field line, but a guy that can hit them out consistently to the opposite field and two or three in a month to the deepest part of the ballpark probably has some real power--but as though he read of Mr. Cameron's concerns, Mauer's home runs in the last two games have been no-doubters to right. Here, via Hit Tracker Online, is the distribution of his HR so far (minus the one from yesterday; add another one about where that furthest-right one is):

At least one among the cluster in left was actually much more toward center, and the one currently in right was further down the line than that. But you get the idea. He can hit 'em anywhere, apparently.

Obviously, no one is a true .444/.530/.916 hitter, and I doubt Mauer is going to hit 50 or even 40 home runs, this year or any year. But in 100 plate appearances, he's come two short of his career high (13 over 608 PA in 2006). With apologies to Mr. Cameron, it's pretty clear that he's a changed (and, unbelievably, improved) hitter: what remains to be seen is by how much he's improved.

Here's the storm cloud, though: generally, the concern with Mauer has been how long he'll last. He's a catcher, and is huge for a catcher, so he's liable to either switch to a different (and much less valuable) position or to suddenly burn out in, say, his early thirties. Now, though, the concern for me is this: does he even get that far as a Twin? Or does he keep playing like the perfect blend of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina and completely price himself out of their league when his contract is up after next season (2010)? My gut tells me that he's the one guy they can't afford to lose (especially after just one season in their new stadium), and that they'll have to do anything to lock him down before he hits the market, even to the detriment to the rest of the team. But then, if this is the exaggerated version of a real, new and improved Joe Mauer, how much would the Yankees or Red Sox pay for something like that, as their own catching stalwarts just happen to be hitting (or well past) retirement age? I shudder to think...


[Psst. If you haven't been around for a couple days, I hope you had a great weekend, and you should check out Saturday's big sabermetricians vs. RBI guys post, its aftermath posted Sunday, and the associated links to posts from Way Back and Gone and Baseball Over Here. Also, Happy Memorial Day.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

How is it possible that I had never heard of Lou Brissie before just now? Does everyone know about this guy but me?

Since Mel Allen's death and the rise to primacy of the internet, with baseball information becoming available pretty much anywhere you look, This Week in Baseball has gone from an entertaining, insightful-but-kid-friendly look inside the game to what is now generally a vapid, uninformative and completely unnecessary half hour in which MLB attempts to appease its official soft drink, official razor, official lawn fertilizer and so forth, and just incidentally mentions some stuff about baseball. But with this week's episode airing two days before Memorial Day, they opened the show with a tribute to the fighting men of baseball history. And they did the usual bit on Williams, Feller and DiMaggio, of course, but they opened it with a piece on Brissie that I think everyone should see. (Sadly, I don't think you can get it online.)

I'm not going to rehash his story again -- you can read it here or here (with video!) or here. The key bits (signed by Connie Mack in 1941 . . . left tibia and shinbone broken in 30 pieces . . . two years of rehab . . . 1949 All-Star) jump out at you pretty quickly. I'd just suggest that, if you happen to be like me and aren't very familiar with who the guy is and what he went through, today is a good day to spend a little time reading. And that he's still around to talk about it, more than sixty years later, is quite a gift to the rest of us.

It's also a good day to remember Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill, the only two Major League players killed in World War II.

I mean, this is just a baseball blog, so I'm not going to go on about Memorial Day and what it should mean to everybody. But I'm glad I was born in this country, and I'm grateful for so many thousands of men and women like Brissie, and Gedeon, and O'Neill, and my grandfather.

Back tomorrow with plain old baseball stuff.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More About RBI and Such

Just a few follow-up things on yesterday's super monster baseball nerd post:

almost immediately had a response for me back at his own site. It's excellent and thoughtful, again, and there's an interesting discussion that goes on in the comments, under which I put my own reaction to it. Go there and read it yourself, but in a nutshell, Mark wonders whether there are things that we still need to consider that are more difficult or perhaps impossible to quantify -- leadership, intimidation, distracting a pitcher with the threat to steal, and so on. I think those things, or many of them, absolutely do exist and have an effect on the game, but that while sabermetricians don't have any way of measuring those things, it's important to note that batting average, RBI and fielding percentage don't measure these things either. So I don't see how these things bolster the anti-saber crowd's arguments...except that Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips keep telling us that they do.

-----------------------------------------------------

In the comments to yesterday's post, Ron from Baseball Over Here pointed me toward something he wrote about six months ago in defense of the RBI, and again, I think this is excellent and definitely worth a read.

Ron starts by showing that the list of career leaders in RBI is populated almost exclusively by great players. The conclusion seems to be (correct me if I'm wrong, Ron) that RBI must be measuring something useful, if only great players are getting a lot of them.

A potential problem with that is that you need to pretty much be a great player to be among the all-time leaders in any stat. The top 14 in At-Bats, which doesn't measure anything but one's propensity for being penciled into the lineup and not walking or sacrificing, are all in or surely headed to the Hall [edit: or are Pete Rose]; you can draw your own conclusions about Raffy at #15, but then the next ten after him are already in too (though some you could argue about -- Maranville, Aparicio). The top three batters in career strikeouts are Reggie, Slammin' Sammy and Thome; the top six pitchers in career losses are all in the Hall. So by itself, I'm not sure that that line of thinking gets us very far.

I'll definitely accept the general premise, though. You can even just limit it to a single season. There are definitely a few exceptions (Jose Guillen and Emil Brown were mentioned in the comments to Ron's piece), but really, if you've got 100 or even 80 or 90 RBI, the odds are very good that you were an excellent hitter (for power, at least) within that season. The problem is that that extremely high-level thing is pretty much all it does; if dude A has 100 RBI and dude B has 120, we have no better idea who was the better player with that info than we had without it.

Ron is all over that. He recognizes that RBI totals are a poor way to decide the MVP race, for instance. But he concludes that RBI is a good stat anyway, because they tell us something important--how many times the guy did something that brought a run home. He has a lot of interesting analysis about how many different ways a run scores, and basically shows that, you know, RBI are usually pretty necessary to scoring runs most of the time.

But I'm not sure I understand why that makes the RBI stat itself important. We already know what a player can do that tends to lead to a run scoring (in rapidly descending order: (1) get on base; (2) hit with power; (3) run the bases well). We can track how well he does these things and get a pretty good sense of how good he is, all else being equal, at producing runs. If we already know these things, what does it add to consider RBI themselves, knowing as we do that so much of what we're really measuring is the opportunities that that player's teammates created for him?

I'm really asking. From where I'm sitting, it looks like RBI themselves are superfluous when you already have all the other, non-context-dependent stats that make good RBI guys good RBI guys. I'm certainly open to discussion and new ideas on this....I'm just not seeing it right now.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Defense of Compassionate Sabermetricism

If I'm going to have a horribly unhealthy, gut-busting, productivity-killing Friday lunch, I'm a big fan of Panda Express' Orange Chicken. And there's a decent copycat place a couple blocks from the office, but it was a nice day yesterday, and I was up for a walk, so I went for the real thing. To get that, you have to head to the James R. Thompson Center, a big gathering point for a lot of Chicago that, as I understand it, houses some government offices and whatnot. The Panda Express is really all I'm interested in.

So I get there, and there's this big protest going on right outside the building. Up close, people are waving signs about the right to life and how gay marriage is destroying our families, milling about in the general neighborhood of someone who is speaking ineffectively into a megaphone, while across the street is another group of people doing their best to drown out this first group with shouts like "What do we want?" "Abortion rights." "When do we want it?" "Now!" and "Fascists go home!" and I'm thinking to myself, what are these people (any of them) doing here, really? Do they expect to convince anyone by labeling the other side murderers or fascists, or by just being louder? Or do they just like to hear themselves talk? Is there just nothing better to do on a pleasant Friday leading into a holiday weekend?

That's basically how tHeMARKsMiTh sees the world of baseball fans and writers: the internet-savvy sabermetric crowd against the talk-radio-and-newsprint traditional crowd, both sides trying to shout each other down, never getting anywhere. (Of course, that doesn't even remotely do justice to his post. Read it yourself; I'll still be here when you're done. Ready now? Good.) A couple basic things to get out of the way:
  1. I agree with most of his main points. There's a lot of shouting into the abyss that goes on on both sides, a lot of name-calling and making fun, and it's hard to see how any of it does anything at all other than making people on the same side feel smug and superior at the other side's expense. (Okay, I have to make an exception for these guys, who were just too funny. And JoePoz, who's kind of a fence-straddler, anyway. But otherwise, I don't see the point.)

  2. I don't think traditional stats (or most of them, anyway; sorry, Holds and Fielding Percentage) are completely worthless. You've seen me use HR and RBI a bunch of times already. Stats like those give context; even if you believe that VORP or WAR or Win Shares are a perfect measure of player value, think of the traditional stats as the splash of color in the crystal-clear black-and-white picture. They tell the story: what kind of hitter he is, where he likely hit in the lineup, and so on. WAR will tell you that Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran were almost exactly as valuable as each other in 2008, but don't you want to know a little more than that? That's where I think runs, RBI, HR, SB, and so forth come in handy.

  3. Another main point of Mark's is that neither side has it completely right. I agree with that, too: there's not much "right" about picking an MVP based on who has the most HR or RBI or Saves, and sabermetric analysis is certainly far from perfect as well -- all you need to do is look at how much the various metrics (WARP vs. WAR, plus/minus vs. UZR) disagree with each other.
But where I disagree with Mark is: I don't see this as being like the abortion or gay marriage debate at all. In those debates, like in the "dialectic" Mark envisions, there are really only three plausible truths: (a) one side is correct; (b) the other side is correct; or (c) the answer is somewhere in the middle. If you have one side that believes that abortion should be legal in all circumstances and one side that believes it should be banned in all circumstances, that's as far as it goes; it can't be more legal than the first side wants it, and it can't be more illegal than the second side wants it. So the one true "right answer" has to be either one of those extremes or something between them.

Not so here. Our advanced metrics are flawed, but the answer isn't some compromise between them and the traditional stats; the answer is more research, and more metrics. The metrics we have have grown out of the more traditional statistics. Saying you prefer HR and RBI to VORP and WAR isn't at all like saying you prefer "Choice" to "Life" or vice-versa; rather, it's like saying you prefer Betamax to Blue-Ray.

Here's how Mark defends the traditional crowd:
Those who follow counting numbers have a point (among many). Baseball revolves around the run. It determines who wins and who loses. Therefore, should you not pay attention more to runs, RBI’s, and home runs? Home runs automatically score a run (making them slightly important) and bring in whoever is on base (making them more important). If the point of the game is to score runs than the other team, home runs and RBI’s are awfully darn important, which gave Howard the edge [over Pujols for 2008 NL MVP].

But this ignores the critical weakness of run and RBI totals (and this isn't a criticism of Mark, who I know understands this: it's just that I don't think there's any way for anyone to successfully defend this position), which is that, in every instance in which you don't hit a home run, your runs and RBI are totally dependent upon your teammates either getting on base for you or driving you in.


This doesn't work well for the NL race, because Howard actually did do a phenomenal job of knocking runners in in 2008 (Pujols was still the clear MVP for other reasons), but take a look at this list (I hope). In 2008, Justin Morneau finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting, while his teammate Joe Mauer finished a distant 4th, based largely (or rather, entirely) on the fact that Morneau had 129 RBI and Mauer managed just 85. If that link went to the right place, though, you'll see that when they batted with runners on base, Mauer and Morneau drove in those runners at almost exactly the same percentage: 19.0% to 18.6%. Morneau gets that huge edge in RBI because he batted with 151 more runners on base than did Mauer. Morneau actually batted with the most runners on base of anyone in the league. Part of that, of course, is because he's not a catcher, and thus got to play every day. But a huge part of that is that he got to hit behind Joe Mauer, and his 2nd-in-the-AL OBP!

So the RBI stat tells you who was at the plate for the final event resulting in the creation of a run, but it can actually distort your sense of how that run was created. Mauer was, hands down, a better hitter than Morneau in '08, and played a much bigger part in how the Twins' runs were scored. When you add in defense and adjust for position scarcity, it's not even close. They're very nice complementary pieces, but Morneau is the Scottie Pippen to Mauer's MJ.

So, yeah, runs are awfully important. On the team level, you could almost say they're all-important (almost). But to look at the HR, runs or RBI a single player has as a way of judging that player's value is never a good idea. Even with Howard: make him the MVP because he drove a bunch of guys in, and you're ignoring Pujols' 100+ points of OBP and 100+ points of SLG, amounting to 100+ fewer outs and many more runs for Pujols' team, and Pujols' vastly superior defense, all for the sake of (a) Howard's good fortune of having 50 more runners on base during his PAs than Pujols had in his and (b) a 2% edge in his success at driving those runners in. It doesn't add up, or even come close.

More to the point, every one of those traditional stats is totally encapsulated in some more advanced metric or other. Whatever skills you think RBI measures, that's also measured, and better, in SLG; or, if you think hitting with runners on base or "in the clutch" is a skill that's worth measuring, stats like WPA/LI do a better job with that. Batting average is a fun little stat for what it is, but OBP tells you the same thing and more. Fielding Percentage is totally encapsulated by all advanced fielding metrics, like UZR and Plus/Minus.

You might think that these things (well, save OBP) are less-than-perfectly accurate, but that's not an argument in favor of going back to the old things; it's an argument in favor of doing more research and finding better new things. UZR may not be perfectly accurate, but it's always, in every possible instance, going to do a better job of telling you who is the better fielder than fielding percentage will. FIP may not be perfect, but it's better than just comparing two players' ERAs. There may be slightly different ways to measure OPS+, but it's always going to be better than not adjusting for era or ballpark factors at all. And so on. We can argue about how good the new stuff really is, but it's just plain better than the old stuff (the well-grounded stuff that gains some level of acceptance, that is, not just any old thing someone thinks up).

So that's the point: I'm not going to use the term "flat-earthers" around here. I try to avoid mudslinging of all types. I have nothing against people who rely solely on traditional stats, and I think those stats have their place. But their place isn't in player analysis, not anymore. If you're going to argue something like that Howard was the 2008 NL MVP and base it on traditional stats, you're going to be wrong -- simply, objectively, obviously wrong. And I'm sincerely sorry to say that. But I'm not trading in my DVD player for a VCR, and I'm not giving up my numbers for a set that tells me the same stuff, but less of it, and with more static.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Does Bob Geren Know What He's Doing?

For the editorial staff, yesterday was a good day for laying flat on one's back and not looking at a computer screen for any length of time at all. So today's something is coming up a little late and a little short. But we seem to be on the mend, so the epic post may come tomorrow or Sunday.

While I was laying there yesterday, one of the few games that ended before my 8:30 bedtime was Oakland at Tampa Bay, so when my eyes were open, I was watching that.

The A's took a 5-3 lead in the top of the 9th. Rather than send his closer (Brad Ziegler) out for the bottom of the inning, however, manager Bob Geren sticks with rookie Andrew Bailey, who had just pitched the 8th. Bailay walks the first batter, Willy Aybar, and at this point, Ziegler starts warming up. Bailey then gets Akinori Iwamura to send a lazy fly ball to left, but then serves up the game-tying home run to pinch hitter Ben Zobrist.

Now Ziegler's in the game, and he promptly serves up a ground-rule double to catcher Dioner Navarro, then walks BJ Upton to bring up the left handed hitting Carl Crawford. Now a lefty has started to throw in the A's bullpen. It matters not, however, as Crawford lines Ziegler's first pitch into center field, bringing home Navarro with the winning run.

I don't get it. I'm actually on board with not bringing Ziegler in to start the 9th, because really, your setup guy should be able to handle a two-run lead. But you should at least have your closer warming up to start the inning, right, so that if Bailey does get into a little trouble, you can bring your closer in before the game-tying HR? (You could argue that "closer" label aside, Bailey is actually a better pitcher than Ziegler right now, and I wouldn't fight you. But Bailey did throw 44 pitches in two innings two nights earlier, so Ziegler at least had a much fresher arm.)

Here's the real issue for me, though: Ziegler is a side-arming righty who has held right-handed hitters to a .222/.265/.257 mark while lefties have beat him around to the tune of .295/.392/.426. You might argue that he's miscast as a closer, since most managers will leave their closer in there against anybody regardless, but by sending the lefty to get warm in the bullpen when Crawford came up, Geren showed that he was aware of the problem. So why not send him to warm up a batter or two earlier and bring him in to face Crawford? Was he just asleep at the switch?

Geren will be criticized (to the extent that anyone cares about the A's) for not putting his closer in to start the inning. But while that was certainly a strange move, I can understand it. Aybar is a switch hitter, Iwamura a lefty, and Zobrist (who pinch-hit for the RH Gabe Kapler) another switch hitter. I'd rather have the traditional RHP, Bailey, face those three lefties than the sidearmer (unless, again, you think Bailey was tired). The mistake, though, was not getting the left-handed reliever warm quickly enough to face Crawford, three batters later. The fact that he was warming up while Crawford was hitting (presumably to face Pena, two batters after that? Either the inning or game would very likely have been over by that point anyway) makes me think that Geren just didn't think about it fast enough. And that's inexcusable.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Maybe it's a tumor." "IT'S NAHT A TOOOMAH!!!"

So.

Wednesday afternoon, and it's the weirdest thing: the entire T-D-S editorial staff comes down with an illness that is either (a) a really bad, late-season flu or (b) Intermittent Dysmorphic Attachment Dysfunction with Smelly Feet (IDADWSF). It's bad, whatever it is.

So the planned epic response to the very thoughtful post from tHeMARksMiTh that I mentioned yesterday (the draft in my head is tentatively titled "IN DEFENSE OF COMPASSIONATE (ButStaunchAndUnwavering) SABERMETRICISM") will be on hold for at least one more day. Instead, I'll just say this:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Links of the Week or So and Notes

Work dictates a quick one today, a few notes (some of them very old, but interesting...at least to me):
  • Something is seriously wrong with Scott Baker. I mean, his numbers aren't good, but he's not just a little tweak away. He's not even close. You notice these things when you're stuck watching the White Sox feed of the game, but can't stand to listen to The Hawk, so you put the Twins' radio broadcast on, which is just a second or two ahead of your TV. When on just about every other pitch you watch Redmond set up high and away at the exact same time as you're hearing Dazzle Dan say "...and that's down and in," it really drives home how far off Baker is right now.

  • A while back I wrote about the Yankees putting Chien-Ming Wang on the DL with what looked to me like a pretty obviously made-up injury. Craig pointed out about a week ago now that Dontrelle Willis basically admitted his was made up, and Craig has a lot of the same questions I did. Some unintentionally comedic comments below, too.

  • Speaking of Wang, he says he's ready and is expected to rejoin the rotation soon. He's looked pretty good in AAA, too. Of course, given his 34.50 ERA to start the year, he could go on a Zack Greinke-like 38-inning scoreless streak and his ERA would still sit at 4.70, almost exactly league average. I have a feeling he's going to struggle again, but maybe that's just wishful thinking. And he could hardly help but be better than he was.

  • A few more things I left off yesterday's post on the 2005 prospect lists that I found interesting, all about the Baseball America Top 100 this time: Ian Kinsler was #98 on BA's list, 77 places below BP's. Russell Martin was #89. Only four second basemen made the list (Kinsler and Aaron Hill were shortstops back then): the ill-fated Rickie Weeks (8), the even iller-fated Josh Barfield (45), the "meh" Chris Burke (60), and the then 30 year old Tadahito Iguchi (96) all had considerably brighter futures than ROY-MVP Dustin Pedroia.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Just Another Reminder that Strasburg and Wieters Aren't Hall of Famers Yet

So here I was flipping through Baseball Prospectus 2005 in preparation for a quick piece on the quickly-devolving tragedy that is the career of Rickie Weeks, and I noticed something:
  1. Andy Marte.
  2. Delmon Young.
  3. Felix Hernandez.
  4. Dallas McPherson.
  5. Casey Kotchman.
That's right. Those are the first five names that appeared on BP's "Top 50 Prospects" list, about 51 months ago.

Now, let me say up front that I have nothing but respect for the fine people at BP (as you know if you've read, well, anything I've written here) and for this article's author, Rany Jazayerli (as you know if you've checked out the blogroll to the right).

And the point of this isn't that they got it wrong. Baseball America's list had Mauer as the top prospect (who was no longer eligible by BP's standards--he was the "Top Prospect Emeritus," and I'd say that was a pretty decent call), but otherwise had a very similar look to it; minors uber-expert John Sickels was still doing the ESPN thing back then, and frankly, his top 5 hitter list is looking even worse than BP's. In short, I don't think BP did any better or worse than they should have in 2005 (incidentally, I can't find my Baseball Prospecti 2004 or 2006 right now; anybody want to share the Top 5 from those years? Edit: found it! Check the comments.). But the fact remains that even by top-prospect-list standards, this one is looking really, really bad. Let's review:
  1. Andy Marte (BA #9, Sickels #1): Rany's writeup on Marte seems almost defensive -- yeah, we really picked this guy, hear us out! -- and now that's looking a little silly. He's currently back to knocking the cover off the ball in the minors (.343/.380/.614 through 22 games in Triple-A), but he'll have to keep it up for quite a while before the big club in Cleveland forgets his .211/.265/.337, 56 OPS+ showing in a full season's worth of big league PA. He might play again, might even start, but if he's a star, it'll be the biggest turnaround this side of Josh Hamilton.

  2. Delmon Young (BA #3, Sickels #4): Rany says "Marte and Young were the only two players seriously considered for our top spot." They were right in line with everybody else on Delmon; BA went on to rank him #1 in 2006 and #3 in '07. I have no further comment at this time.

  3. Felix Hernandez (BA #2, Sickels #1 among pitchers): Damn good, and it's almost impossible to believe/remember he's still only 23. They got one right, though it remains to be seen whether he's really the top pitcher in the list (see more candidates below).

  4. Dallas McPherson (BA #12, Sickels #9): already nearly 25 when Rany was writing, the "most polished power bat of any player in the minor leagues" has a .298 career OBP and somehow lost the Marlins' starting 3B job to Emilio Benifacio, so now I guess he's in the Giants' system. He did have a lot of power -- 18 HR in 399 MLB PA -- but the "polish" seemed to be lacking.

  5. Casey Kotchman (BA #6, Sickels #7): Here was your professional-hitter-and-gold-glove-first-baseman du jour, your Mark Grace or John Olerud for the 21st century. He did have a pretty solid and Grace-like first full season at age 24 in 2007 -- .296/.372/.467, only 11 HR but 37 doubles -- but then slipped in 2008 and was dealt to the Braves halfway through in the Mark Teixeira deal. Still only 26 and currently hitting .296/.362/.448, he might be a solid regular for several years now...but if so, he'll likely be Overbay or Casey, not Grace or Olerud. Defense looks as good as advertised, however.
Other unnotables include Joel Guzman, #7 (62 big-league PA) and Eric Duncan, #13 (0 big-league PA). But should we get to the good players now? Wait 'til you see who's bringing up the rear...

14. Scott Kazmir: posted a 116 ERA+ right there in 2005, at age 21, and didn't look back. Well, not until '09.

20. Chad Billingsley:
took off in 2006 at age 21. This kid might be the most underrated superstar in the game right now.

21. Ian Kinsler:
then a shortstop, Rany noted that he "projects as a slugging second baseman" without a ton of defense, so +2 for Rany. There was some thought then that his big 2004 in the minors was a fluke, just as there was some thought that his big 2008 in the majors was a fluke. Signs point to "no."

24. Hanley Ramirez:
And in retrospect, there's your true #1. Rany's full of praise for him; his low ranking seems to stem from a very off 2003 and being blocked at shortstop by Edgar Renteria in Boston. BA ranked him #10.

26. Curtis Granderson:
"was not blessed with outstanding tools."

38. Ryan Howard:
"almost guaranteed to find himself in another uniform before he gets an opportunity--maybe even before you read this." Thome was blocking him in Philly at the time. They kept the right big guy.

39. Cole Hamels:
downgraded for injury risk.

44. Brian McCann:
just a good catch by them, really. McCann never once had a single-season minor league OPS as high as his big-league career OPS of .859. Oddly, BA also ranked him at exactly #44.

and, last and apparently least...

49(tie). Dustin Pedroia:
heh. Tied with someone named Mitch Einertson (who has yet to make it past Double-A) for the very last spot, in what was labeled a fierce "competition for our coveted slot of Mr. Irrelevant." Little dudes in baseball: wildly underrated right up until the exact moment that they become wildly overrated.

Rany's writeup seems resigned to the fact that Pedroia will never make the bigs, but notes that "PECOTA (admittedly thrown off by the small sample size) projects Pedroia to have more value over the next five years than any other prospect in baseball."

BA's list was a top 100 (as is BP's, nowadays), and yet Lil' Pedey goes unranked. Score one for PECOTA!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Andy Sonnanstine and Other unDesignated Hitters

Not a lot of traffic here on the weekends, I've noticed. And I get that -- why would you waste your time reading junk on the internet if you can't be pretending to work while you do it? So if you've been away for a couple days, check out Saturday's rant about official scorers and fielding percentage and Sunday's slightly-less-than-thrilling conclusion to the All-Metrodome Team.

So how about this game, huh? Joe Maddon intends to start regular third baseman Evan Longoria at DH and Ben Zobrist at 3B, but on the lineup card he turns in, both were listed at 3B. Once Zobrist has played in the field, then, the Rays have forfeited their designated hitter, and instead of having the best player on the team (and probably in the AL) batting in their #3 spot, that spot is populated by their pitcher, Andy Sonnanstine. You'd think that would be kind of a disadvantage, wouldn't you?

Aber nein! Sonnanstine (4-for-10 in his career with two walks coming into the game) was a better hitter than he was a pitcher yesterday, going 1-for-3 with his first career double and second RBI to help get himself a 7-5 "win" despite giving up five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings. Longoria did get into the game as part of a double-switch when Sonnanstine came out, and walked in his only PA. (As an aside, is he allowed to do that? Since he was listed on the initial lineup card, hasn't he already been "used"? Well, anyway.)

If I'm at a game and keeping score, I'll often do certain things habitually. If Justin Morneau is getting the start at DH that day, I'll have written "Morneau - 1B" before I've even thought about it. So why shouldn't it happen to a manager (or whoever transcribed for him) too?

I happened to be present for the last AL game in which a pitcher batted more than once, between the Twins and White Sox in 2007 at the Cell. In that game, Mike Redmond was catching and Joe Mauer was the DH. Redmond was hurt in the bottom of the first, and the Twins weren't carrying a third catcher, so Mauer had to suit up and catch the rest of the game, requiring Matt Garza (now a teammate of Sonnanstine! Coincidence??) to bat for himself. Garza didn't help himself out the way Sonnanstine did, but he pitched much better (as Garza is wont to do), and Morneau hit three homers, and the Twins won a very fun 12-0 laugher with one hitter tied behind their backs.

But why stop there? Let's look at...

AL Pitchers with 2 or More PA in the Designated Hitter Era!!

It's happened eleven times (a query requiring just one PA comes up with 76 results, but most of them were huge blowouts, and several were actual hitters who came into the game only to pitch in said blowouts, so we'll stick with the guys who got to stay in the lineup for a while). Assorted facts:
  • With the Rays' win yesterday, the 11 teams that have done this have a record of 7-4. It's an odd game.

  • Including Sonnanstine, the group is a combined 3-for-28 (.107) with 8 strikeouts, no walks, and, perhaps most surprisingly, only one sacrifice (by Garza). Sonnanstine's double was the first extra-base hit by anyone in this group.

  • I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that seven of the eleven happened in the first four years of the DH rule (1973-76), when one assumes that managers were still just coming to grips with the intricacies of this crazy new world in which they were living. The first two instances both involved closers (Lindy McDaniel and Tom Murphy) hitting for themselves to finish out extra-inning games. In both, the managers had used a player at DH that they later moved to shortstop, forfeiting the DH. Again, it took them a while for some managers to really get the hang of this DH thing. (Bob Boone has no such excuse, however; the exact same thing happened in 1995, with the Royals' Chris Stynes moving from DH to 2B in a game that ultimately went 16 innings.)

  • Here's my favorite one: October 2, 1974. It's the last day of the season, and Rangers manager Billy Martin forgoes the DH entirely in order to let future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins hit for himself. Jenkins -- a career .163 hitter -- does quite well for himself, going 1-for-2...and his one hit, coming in the sixth, breaks up the no-hitter of the Twins' Jim Hughes! Jenkins comes around to score, helping himself on the way to a 3-2 comeback win, Jenkins' 25th of the year. The game is the last one another future Hall of Famer, Harmon Killebrew, would play with the Twins. (Here's the source for all that info.)

  • George's brother Ken Brett did it twice, and went a combined 0-for-6. It actually wasn't a terrible idea, though; with a 94 OPS+ and 10 HR in 373 PA across a career spent largely pre-DH or in the National League, the other Brett was almost certainly a better hitter than many of the DHes the Twins have used in the last few years, a list that has included Jason Tyner, Jeff Cirillo and Luis Rodriguez.

  • It happened only once in the 1980's, right here. It appears to be the same situation as the one with Garza, Redmond and Mauer; one catcher, Ron Hassey, was DHing when the acting catcher, Ron Karkovice, was injured fielding a bunt, and there were no more Rons catchers on the bench. Pitcher Bill Dawley had to lead off the next inning, contributing the first of his two groundouts.

  • And finally, one that Joe Maddon can feel better about: July 22, 1999. Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove has Alex Ramirez in right field and Manny Ramirez at DH, then changes his mind and flips the two (because ManRam told Hargrove he wanted to play RF, which I think says a lot about both Manny and Hargrove). Only he has a bunch of different lineup cards now, and the umpire is given the wrong one. When Manny takes the field while listed as the DH on the official card, they've forfeited the DH, so pitcher Charles Nagy goes 0-for-2 with a strikeout batting 7th. The team loses 4-3 to the Jays; is this the one time where the manager's mistake really made a difference (negatively, so not counting Fergie)? Alex playing in the field instead of Manny and hitting instead of Nagy certainly could have led to another run or two.
So what have we learned? Well, Mike Hargrove is (and Billy Martin was) kind of ridiculous, but we knew that. Fergie Jenkins was awesome? Knew that, too. I guess the only takeaway point is this: AL teams that forfeit their designated hitters play .636 baseball (11 games across 37 seasons is a meaningful sample, right?). You're welcome!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The All-Dome Team: Relief Pitchers and Manager

Dan Serafini, Scott Klingenbeck, and Billy Gardner. Kidding.

Infielders here, outfielders and DH here, starting pitchers here. Two relievers and a manager will round out the official ballot. It's a little anticlimactic to be ending with these guys, but so it goes.

#1 Reliever: Joe Nathan (364.2 IP, 1.88 ERA, 235 ERA+, 444 K)
Well, duh.
He's overshadowed by Mo Rivera and Jon Papelbon, but if there's been a better reliever than Nathan since 2004, the difference between that better guy and Nathan is too small to be worth talking about. I never want to hear or talk about what happened on Friday night again, but that notwithstanding, Nathan has been everything you could ask a closer to be. He got started too late to be in any sort of Hall of Fame discussion -- and I don't think the Hall needs any more relief pitchers after Mo goes in anyway -- but he's been as valuable as a 70-innings-a-year pitcher can be. Would've been nice to see what he could do as a more sensibly used, Gossage-style, 100-innings-a-year pitcher. But alas.

#2 Reliever: Rick Aguilera (694.2 IP, ~3.39 ERA, ~130 ERA+, 609 K)
Again, not a huge surprise. Aggie is a good illustration of The Daily Something Immutable Principle #347: you can always assume a closer (or any reliever), no matter how great, is no better or more talented than an average starter, and any above-average starter can generally become a dominant reliever. Behold:

YearGGSIPERA+
199560055.1186
19961919111.194
199761068.1121

Further recommended reading is Goose Gossage: 212 ERA+ in 141 relief innings in 1974, and 243 ERA+ in 133 relief innings in 1976; in between, 91 ERA+ in 224 innings as a starter in 1975. This is why I said above that I'm generally against relievers in the Hall (though I'm pro-Goose); is it really enshrinement-worthy that some coach at some point decided to make them into Bruce Sutter rather than Bruce Hurst?

Anyway, Aguilera's numbers with the Twins, aside from being hard to pin down because of his involvement in three mid-season trades, are dragged down by that one year as an awful starter and by the offense-heavy era in which he pitched. Extra credit for happening to turn in his best year as a Twin -- 2.35, 182 ERA+, 42 saves in 69 innings -- in 1991, contributing nicely to the World Championship effort.

Runner-Up: Eddie Guardado (697.2 IP, 4.52 ERA, 105 ERA+, 605 K; 141 ERA+ from 2000-03). Everyday Eddie was solid in lots of different roles, but really blossomed when he took over as closer. Sure seemed to make you nervous every time he took the mound in the ninth, but he generally got it done. His early numbers look a lot worse than they were; in the Metrodome in the mid-to late-90s, an average pitcher was putting up a 5 ERA.

Manager: Tom Kelly, 1140-1244 (.478). If you recognize that Billy Gardner being in the conversation is kind of silly, the only two names left on the ballot are Ron Gardenhire and Tom Kelly. As it should be. I'm thinking this is a tough decision for most Twins fans, and it is for me too, though perhaps for a different reason: they're both deeply flawed in almost the exact same ways. They both distrust(ed), mistreat(ed) and have (had) very little patience for young talent (Todd Walker, David Ortiz, Jason Bartlett, Johan Santana), and both fall (fell) in love with "scrappy" little vets who don't really have much talent (Al Newman, Denny Hocking, Nick Punto). They both have plenty in their favor, too, of course, but they've both made me want to pull my hair out on many, many occasions. Ultimately, I think, you've got to go with the guy who got the two titles. Gardy has a much better winning percentage (.547) and four division titles, but I don't think there's a manager on the planet who could've done any better than TK did with the garbage he was handed from 1993 onward.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Errors in Judgment

As Rob Neyer brought to your attention yesterday, a five-member panel appointed by MLB granted the Royals' appeal, overturning the Angels' official scorer's decision granting Howie Kendrick an inside-the-park home run on what was really a routine popup down the right field line that was completely misplayed by Jose Guillen.

I happened to be watching that game live, and, I mean, this was a terrible decision by the scorer. No two ways about it. You can click on the second link above and watch the video clip for yourself. If that's a home run, we should go back to '86 and give Mookie an RBI single.

So, I'm glad they overturned it. And Rob's post and some of the comments beneath it raise some good questions about the quality and motivations of (team-employed) official scorers.

But I think this touches on an even bigger issue. The only reason this was any kind of controversy is that the ball just barely grazed Guillen's glove on the way by. Consider this same result in a couple alternate universes:
  1. Guillen gets a great jump on the ball and camps under it, but he pulls his eye off it too early and it pops right out of his waiting glove, and then he kind of head-butts it all the way to the fence, resulting in Guillen being featured prominently in blooper reels for the rest of the year.

  2. Guillen takes his eye off of it on his way over, so he takes a slightly wrong angle whereby he comes too far in on the ball, and then watches helplessly as it bounces six feet beyond his reach.
Is there any question in the world that (1) is scored an error, (2) a home run? Yet, isn't Guillen exactly equally culpable in both scenarios? And in the third scenario, the one that happened back in reality? In all three cases, he should've made the play, but didn't. Why (at least for purposes of fielding and pitching analysis) treat the three cases any differently?

If you can watch the play and read the accompanying story and not come to the conclusion that "errors" and "fielding percentage" are utterly useless as tools for measuring defense, I'd really love to hear your argument in their favor. (Well, read the rest of this, then let me have it in the comments.)

Properly evaluating defense, at its core, requires you to ask one question, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the guy got a glove on the ball. Whether the fielder caught the ball, or dropped the ball, or ended up thirty feet away from the ball, the question should be exactly the same: should we have expected a dude in that position to make the play that that dude just made (or didn't make)?

The Twins provide another convenient vehicle for making this point. Most days, as I've discussed here before, they start one of the worst left fielders in baseball (Delmon Young, or occasionally Jason Kubel); on the other days, they start one of the best (Denard Span sliding over from CF when Carlos Gomez plays). Now, Young and Span may end up with essentially the same number of "errors" over the course of the season, but if you watch them every day, you'll routinely see Young come up ten feet or more short on fly balls hit at the exact same angle and speed as balls that Span catches with no difficulty. And when Span does make an "error," odds are it'll be on a ball just like that: one that Delmon could have been expected to play into a double. See, this works both ways. If Span's legs and instincts get him to a ball that only one or two other guys in baseball could've hoped to, it doesn't make a ton of sense to punish him if he bobbles it.

Turns out, most MLB clubs already have, internally, done away with fielding percentage and errors. Most teams (not the Twins, clearly; get Go-Go back in the damn game already!) employ some kind of sophisticated system of defensive analysis using tools -- like my oft-cited favorite, UZR -- that really do nothing but attempt to answer that one simple question (albeit in a slightly more sophisticated way than the way I just posed it).

But how long do you think it'll take before this straight-forward, common-sense, weirdly counterintuitive idea takes hold among the media and public at large?

Or, to pose the same question in a different way: how many times must the author hear Joe Q. Colorcommentator cite errors made or fielding percentage as evidence that a team is first or last or sixth in "team defense" before he experiences some sort of cataclysmic psychic event?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Luckiest and Unluckiest Pitchers So Far

One of the most interesting of many, many interesting things on FanGraphs is the pitching leaderboards' E-F stat, which is simply the pitcher's current ERA minus his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which I've mentioned a few times--an attempt to measure what his ERA "should" be, with defense, park and luck taken out of the equation). A negative number means the pitcher has been lucky -- the ERA is lower than it "should" be -- while of course a positive number means the opposite. So here are your leaders on both ends of the spectrum so far:

AL's Luckiest: Trevor Cahill, A's.
Cahill has put up some awfully strong-looking numbers for a rookie on a terrible offensive team: 2-2 with a 3.69 ERA in seven starts. His FIP, though, is an astronomical 6.18. Why? Well, he's not striking anybody out, at just 3.23 per nine innings, and yet he's walking more than one batter for every two innings, which gives him an awful 0.70 K/BB ratio. He's getting by right now on some combination of luck, defense, and forgiving ballparks (he's made four of his seven starts at home in the pitcher-friendly McAfee Coliseum, and another one at Safeco), having held batters to a very lucky .256 BABIP.
Prognosis: the kid's 21 years old and a solid prospect, with a minor league history of very solid K rates (one of the best in the minors in '08), respectable walk rates and almost no homers allowed, which makes me think the current flyball rate is a little fluky. He's probably not really a 3.69 sort of pitcher right at the moment, but I doubt he's a 6.19 one either. He should be fine.

AL's Unluckiest: Gavin Floyd, White Sox.
Funny enough, Floyd was one of the luckiest in 2008, with a FIP of 4.77, essentially identical to this year's 4.63. But his ERA in 2008 was 3.84; in '09 to date, it's 7.32. What goes around, I guess. Floyd is having more control trouble this year (4.81 walks per 9 to 2008's 3.05), but is balancing it so far by giving up fewer HR (0.92 to 1.31). The big difference, natch, is the BABIP: he got unbelievably lucky last year at .268, and is unbelievably unlucky so far this year at .380.
Prognosis: Problem is, I don't think the Sox or their fans would have been happy with even just a 4.63 ERA this year after what he turned in last year. So if you were expecting that, you'll be awfully disappointed. Also, the HR rate drop doesn't seem real; he's giving up about the same percentage of line drives and fly balls and has an almost identical GB/FB ratio to '08, so the only difference is that fewer of those fly balls have gone over the fence so far. That's likely to regress, so if Floyd can't find the strike zone more often, he could be in for a very rough year indeed. Just not 7.32 rough.

NL's Luckiest: Jair Jurrjens, Braves.
3-2 with a 2.06 ERA in 8 starts (48 innings), Jurrjens' start has led at least one dude (the bald guy from Princess Bride again) to believe he's quietly becoming one of the best pitchers around. But Rob Neyer always points out that it's really, really tough to succeed while striking out less than five per nine, and Jair is at 4.5, with a very unsustainable .244 BABIP. Accordingly, his FIP is 4.09 -- still very respectable, but more than two runs higher than his current ERA.
Prognosis: Well, his opponent BABIP in 2008 was a very typical .311, but his strikeout rate was a much more palatable 6.64, and so he still posted a 3.68 ERA with a FIP that essentially matched it. And he's only 23, so there's reason to believe he'll improve on even those solid numbers. His pitch speed and selection are very similar to what they were in 2008. If he can get that strikeout rate back up and start getting grounders again when it is put into play (his GB/FB ratio is less than half what it was last year) -- and I don't see any immediate reason to believe he can't -- he should be totally fine, even considerably better than the above-average pitcher his current 4.09 FIP suggests he is. He just hasn't suddenly become Pedro Martinez or something.

NL's Unluckiest: Ricky Nolasco, Marlins.
Strkeouts are good (7.5 per 9). Walk rate is up, but still very good (2.6 per 9). But his ERA is 7.78. FIP says it "should" be 4.34. Problem is, when a batter doesn't strike out against him, he's hitting almost .400.
Prognosis: That BABIP obviously can't last, even with the Marlins', um, unspectacular defense behind him. He is getting hit quite a bit harder than he was in '08 -- 26% of balls put in play off of him are line drives, compared to just 19% in both 2007 and 2008 -- which is why that 4.34 FIP is up about six tenths from last year's. He'll be fine. I mean, he won't win a bunch of games with the way the Fish are going right now, and he might not be the potential ace he looked like last year, but he's at least an average pitcher, and is probably considerably better than that.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

There Goes the Only Reason to Pay Attention to the Nationals

A few words [on/tangentially related to/somehow inspired by] Ryan Zimmerman's just-ended 30-game hitting streak:
  • Not naming names (or linking links) here, but I can't stand it when my fellow sabermetrically-inclined folk say that they're bored by, or otherwise downplay, events like hitting streaks and no-hitters. Look, they're really just oddities, not statistically meaningful. I get all that, and I bet most non-statheads would too, on most levels. But if you can't get at least a little excited about or intrigued by this sort of thing, you're giving credence to the tired old refrain that we're all just misplaced accountants who don't really like to "watch the games." To each her own and all that, but if you can't bring yourself to appreciate the human interest angles of little stories like this, totally fine, but please do the rest of us a favor and shut the hell up about it. It's not like there aren't other things to talk about.

  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, David Pinto has been all over the streak these last few days, with pithy little tidbits like this and this (along with a bunch of other, more news-y updates). My favorite part is this, explaining why the league-wide "hit average" going up eight points has led to a hugely increased frequency of long hit streaks:
    So the probability of a player getting a hit in a four at bat game prior to 1996 was 0.646. In the later period, that’s up to 0.66. That doesn’t seem like much, but remember, we’re talking about long streaks here, so we’re multiplying. The chance of a player hitting in the next 29 games goes from .00000314 to .00000584, nearly double. Now, figure that over all possible players playing at least 29 batting games, and you can see how batting streaks would have increased.
  • I'd really like to be good with numbers.

  • There have been 199 hitting streaks of at least 20 games since 1980, by my count, which is probably six or seven times as many as I would've guessed. Zim's is just the fifteenth in that span, however, to last as long as 30 games. Of those fifteen, Zim's is the eighth to have ended at exactly 30 games. Kind of weird, right?

  • I just remembered that I was at one of those streak-snapping 31st games, Sandy Alomar's at the Metrodome in July of 1997. That's one of the least enjoyable notable games to be present for, since of course you're really there hoping he does get a hit (even when he's on the other team...especially when your own team sucks).

  • Of the fifteen thirty-plus-gamers, only three -- Hal Morris, Vladimir Guerrero, and George Brett -- had career batting averages of over .300 through the year of their streak, though four more of them were over .290. Zimmerman's career average sits at .288 (though, interestingly, he's never had a full season end that high). Anyway, they're all over the map. Eric Davis had the lowest career average at the time of his streak, at .269.

  • A more common thread connecting the 30-game-streak club is that they're all free swingers; you don't get a hit a day by walking a whole lot. None of the fifteen had ever walked 80 times in a year as of the season in which he had his streak (Vlad, Brett, and Luis Gonzalez did it in seasons coming after their streaks...but all with the aid of more than 20 intentional passes), and for most of them, even 70 walks was a pipe dream. Benito Santiago, for instance, hit .300 with a .324 on-base percentage (16 walks) in his "streak year" of 1987. Rollins, Guerrero, Morris, Alomar Jr., and Nomar have very little to talk about with the likes of Jack Cust and Adam Dunn at hitters' cocktail parties.

  • The best performance during a 30-game streak, predictably, was by the great George Brett; in the middle of his .390 season of 1980, Brett hit .467/.504/.746 (1.250 OPS) while hitting in 30 straight games from July 18 to August 18. Paul Molitor deserves a mention, too: he's had the longest streak in this time frame, a 39-gamer in 1987, and posted a 1.178 OPS throughout.

  • The "worst" performance during a 30-game streak, also predictably, was turned in by Jerome Walton. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1989, his only decent year with the bat, and hit in 30 straight from July 21 to August 20, putting up an .801 OPS that wasn't all that much better than his year-long .721 line. Dishonorable mention goes to Willy Taveras, he of the 74 career OPS+, who hit in 30 straight games while still managing only an .830 OPS (though that was a good sight better than his putrid year-long .672).

  • In one of his posts on the subject, Pinto wondered whether this year's Nationals were the worst team ever to have a hitter with a streak this long, and the answer, since 1980, is...well, probably. Vlad's 1999 Expos lost 94 games; at 11-21 entering today, the Nationals would have to play .438 ball the rest of the way (57-73) to lose only 94 games. Not a terribly lofty goal, but I don't see it happening, do you? [Edit: Benito's '87 Pads lost 97. So the Nats will have some fairly stiff competition for that title, actually, but I still have faith in them.]

  • The stat report I set up to look at all these streaks, if you're interested, is here.