Archive for December, 2010
I’m live blogging the recent rebroadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series on the MLB Network. Except it’s not live. I recorded the game and I’m watching it at my leisure several weeks after the broadcast. It might take me a few weeks to watch it.
And I’m pausing it a lot to write. And rewinding. And at least at the beginning, I’m ignoring the part with Bob Costas and some of the players from the ‘60 Series — and Franco Harris and Michael Keaton, natch — at a theater in Pittsburgh, watching a tape of the game.
But this is definitely a blog. Oh look, it’s starting.
What a weird pregame show. It’s just Mel Allen giving the batting orders Where’s Jeanne Zelasko waxing poetic? Where are the movie tie-ins?
The starting pitchers appear to be warming up in front of the dugouts, not in the bullpens.
Bob Prince, the Pirates’ announcer, is doing the play by play at the start. I remember him from my childhood. I didn’t hear him a lot, of course, in those prehistoric non-Internet days, but the Pirates were a powerhouse then, and it was still a tradition for postseason teams’ announcers to appear on the national TV broadcasts during the playoffs, so I got to hear him once in a while on NBC. I’d be lying if I said his voice was familiar, but I was always conscious of him because my best friend was named Robbie Prince, and Robbie’s dad was Bob Prince.
Mr. Prince was an exterminator, and since we lived on the Westside of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air were in his orbit, so he was, at least part of the time, an exterminator to the stars.
The Princes were from rural Texas, and whenever the relatives came to visit, which they did a lot, we’d all pile into the Princes’ gigantic maroon — I want to say it was a Chrysler New Yorker but it was some kind of land shark with black seats and the permanent smell of cigarettes, and there’d be the four Princes, me and however many relatives, up to about four adults, all piled in — we’d all get in there and Mr. Prince would drive us over to Beverly Hills and Bel-Air and point out the houses he worked at or the ones he just knew. Lucille Ball’s house, Bob Hope’s. Buddy Ebsen.
It was fun except that Mr. Prince had a strange way of driving. He wouldn’t keep his foot steady on the gas. He’d gun it and coast, gun it and coast. People like to joke about how those old ’60s family sedans were like big boats, but we’d actually start to get seasick driving around on flat, straight streets. Robbie and I, all tangled up in Texas Prince knees and elbows in the backseat, couldn’t look at each other or we’d burst out laughing, which might make us throw up.
This driving issue was about the only negative thing about Mr. Prince. He would call you “boy,” only it sounded like this: “bwah.” And when he’d get really worked up during a game and start talking about Jethro Pugh, fearsome defensive lineman for his beloved Dallas Cowboys, he was an orator of the first rank. You might not know that the Cowboys signed Jethro Pugh when they saw him catching polecats with his fists and eating them alive on the spot, but I learned it.
Anyway, I always had a soft spot for Bob Prince of the Pirates because of that.
In the top of the first inning, we see Bill Stafford and Bobby Shantz of the Yankees warming up in the bullpen as the Yankees bat, though Bob Turley is the starting pitcher. “This alerts you to the possibility of a lot of thinking on the part of Mr. Stengel. They go for broke today,” Prince says. “Turley will start, but Shantz and Stafford will be ready.”
I have long wondered why teams don’t do this routinely in elimination games. It’s one game for all the marbles, and if your starter doesn’t have it, that might be evident right from the start. But without anybody warm, you might have to suffer through three or four more batters before a reliever’s ready. It could be the difference between being down 1-0 and 5-0. I suppose it might offend the sensibilities of the starter to have someone warming up before he’s even thrown his first pitch. What, you don’t have faith in me, Skip?
I have faith in you, I’d say. I also have two guys warming up in the bullpen, you feel me?
As Roger Maris bats with two outs and nobody on, Mickey Mantle sits on one knee in the on-deck circle. It’s a classic pose, but nobody does that anymore. Everybody stands up and swings a bat or a weighted bat. Players used to sit on one knee all the time. Wonder where that went.
Yogi Berra’s in left field, of course. He’s a part of this game’s famous climax, watching Bill Mazeroski’s home run go over his head. Elston Howard had taken over the catcher’s job from Berra that year, starting 80 games behind the plate to Berra’s 53, with Berra starting another 33 games in the outfield. Howard was out of this game, having broken his finger the day before, but instead of putting Berra behind the plate, Stengel went with Johnny Blanchard.
Can you imagine a team carrying three catchers on its World Series roster today, even if one of them habitually played the outfield? With teams carrying 12 or 13 pitchers, there’s barely room for two catchers. The Yankees, like the Pirates, had a 10-man pitching staff in this World Series.
Stengel evidently wanted Blanchard’s left-handed bat in the lineup against the righty Vern Law. His outfield options if Berra caught were right-handed: Hector Lopez and Bob Cerv, two men who had come off the Yankee shuttle from the Kansas City A’s and, together with Berra, manned left field that year. Lopez and Cerv had hit pretty well, better than Blanchard. But Stengel went with the platoon advantage.
Prince says that “the Yankees have another catcher available to them if they’d like to use him, Dale Long. I don’t know if he has his left-handed catchers’ mitt with him, though.” It sounds like a joke, but Long, a power-hitting, left-handed first baseman, did catch in two games, a total of an inning and two-thirds, for the Chicago Cubs in 1958. He was the first left-handed thrower to catch in the major leagues since Jiggs Donahue in 1902, which I mention only so I could type the name Jiggs Donahue. It wouldn’t happen again until 1980, and now it hasn’t happened since 1989, according to the Hardball Times.
A two-out walk to Bob Skinner and the game has its first base runner. Skinner is very tall, listed at 6-4. We see him held at first by Moose Skowron, who looks like an ordinary-sized man. He’s listed at 5-11, 195.
Now, at this point, I thought I had a story about Moose Skowron but I don’t. It’s a story, and it’s a story about a guy named Moose, but it’s not about Moose Skowron.
I was on the field doing interviews during batting practice before an A’s-Angels game in Oakland in the late ’80s. I worked for KALX, the radio station at Cal, and it was a thing there to get famous people, any famous people we came across in all walks of life, to do station ID’s for us. You know, to say, “This is Joe Celebrity, and whenever I’m in Berkeley I listen to 90.7 FM, KALX Berkeley.” If I recall, if we could get them to say “KALX” and “Berkeley” in a row, we could use it as a legal ID at the top of each hour.
One guy had gotten a jailhouse interview with Charles Manson and he got Manson to do an ID. “Hey, it’s your weird old Uncle Charlie,” Manson had begun. I think it ran once, but people were offended so it got yanked. Spalding Gray did one in which he said that he was sitting in the studio in Berkeley, “a loving city, the only city in the world where people put up flyers that say, ‘Kitten found.’”
So I’m there with my tape recorder and I see a rumpled guy come out of the Angels dugout wearing brown slacks and kind of a loud shirt, chomping on a cigar and carrying a briefcase. He looked like a hustling insurance salesman. No, he looked like a guy playing a hustling insurance salesman in an episode of “The Rockford Files.” It was Joe Torre, then a broadcaster for the Angels.
I stopped him and asked him if he’d do a station ID for us and he said sure. He couldn’t have been nicer. Just a friendly guy. I explained what I needed and he grabbed the microphone and said, “Hi, this is Joe Torre, National League MVP, 1971, and when I’m in Berkeley …” I thought, nice guy, but what a cheeseball. I felt a little bad for him. Failed manager, still talking about his MVP from almost 20 years earlier. Like winning an MVP would get old. I was young and stupid. He ended up doing OK for himself, I hear.
Right after that a big moose of a guy comes lumbering out of the Angeles dugout. This is the moose part of the story. He’s older, a coach. I say to myself, “Who’s that moose?” He walks by me and I see the name on his back: Stubing. It was Moose Stubing, a big moose of a guy who used to be a coach for the Angels. Sometimes, a nickname just fits.
I was thinking it was Moose Skowron, who I had mixed up with Moose Stubing. Their nickname is where the resemblance ends. Stubing had a cup of coffee while Skowron was a fine player for many years. Also, Skowron was no moose. He got the nickname as a kid because his pals thought his haircut made him look like Mussolini. I think I’d have insisted, at some point, that people just call me Bill, wouldn’t you?
Rocky Nelson, the Pirates cleanup hitter, who had a career year at the age of 35 that year, hitting .300 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs, but somehow ending up as the cleanup hitter in a World Series Game 7, has an odd batting stance, which Prince talks about. Nelson, a left-handed swinger, stands almost like a fencer, with his front foot pointed toward the pitcher. Prince says he adopted the stance to learn how to pull the ball.
Maybe that was the mystery transformation in 1953 that this article about Nelson in, again, the Hardball Times refers to, when he suddenly became a power hitter. In any event, what a story this guy was. He’d played in parts of eight seasons between 1949 and 1960, for the Cardinals, Pirates, White Sox, Dodgers, Indians, Dodgers again, Cardinals again and Pirates again. He’d never appeared in 100 games and had only twice put up a league-average OPS. And here he was hitting cleanup in the seventh game of the World Series.
Not to give anything away but he’s going to be involved in one of this incredibly famous game’s most famous plays much later, but for now, it’s 2-and-0. Turley drops a nasty curveball on the inside corner. Nelson has a long look and then another at home plate umpire Bill Jackowski — “from North Walpole, New Hampshire,” Prince says. He tosses his bat up and catches it, shakes his head and climbs back in.
“There’s a drive, deep right field, way back she goes aaaaand you can kiss that one goodbye!” Nelson sprints around the bases and gets handshakes and pats on the back in the dugout. Slapping five was almost a decade away, high fiving almost 20 years in the future. The home run brings Casey Stengel to the top step of the Yankees dugout. “Right there,” Prince says as Stengel’s Number 37 is centered on the screen.
Roberto Clemente, looking impossibly young and skinny, though at 26 he’s hardly a child, steps directly toward the third base dugout and checks his swing as Turley’s first pitch, a rainbow curve, drops over the middle of the plate. Clemente was an awful lot of fun to watch. Turley, the 1958 Cy Young winner, looks like he’s aiming slop balls up there.
Whenever I watch games from the old days, I’m struck by how the pitchers look like they’re working in a 50-and-older league, flipping up all manner of here-hit-this pitches without appearing to break a sweat. Anybody who wonders why pitchers used to routinely throw complete games and almost never do anymore need only watch one game from the black-and-white-TV era to find the answer. The contrast to today’s max-effort pitchers, with their electric stuff zipping toward the plate, is startling.
Why teams didn’t score 30 runs a game off these guys is a mystery to me, though. Well, it could have had something to do with the hitters swinging 42-ounce tree trunks, I suppose.
Clemente pops out to Bobby Richardson to end the first inning. Pirates 2, Yankees 0. I think that should hold up behind Vern Law, don’t you?
* * *
The wife just asked what I was doing. I laughed and said, “You’re going to say I’m crazy.” I explained the story of the 1960 World Series Game 7 and how MLB had rebroadcast it, and I told her I was watching it and writing about it. “Oh, that’s good,” she said.
“So I’ve written 2,400 words,” I said.
“And I’ve just watched the first inning.”
“Are you on speed? Are you doing meth?”
“I told you you’d say I was crazy.”
“I didn’t say you’re crazy. I said you’re on drugs.”
* * *
A Facebook friend asked, in light of last week’s post headlined “For the want of league average, greatness was missed,” what the signing of Cliff Lee means to the Phillies. That is, “I would be interested to see if the numbers project them as a rotation for the ages,” he wrote.
Well, I think yeah. The numbers clearly project them as a rotation for the ages. Whether they’ll be one, who knows. Joe Posnanski talked to Bill James about that question. Jayson Stark huddled with Leo Mazzone and Davey Johnson and compared expectations of the 2011 Phillies staff to the greatest rotations since World War II.
Go read them if you want to read something smart about the 2011 Phillies starting rotation.
But what I wondered — and what I thought my Facebook friend asked on first reading his question — is whether adding Lee to the 2010 Phillies rotation would have made it one for the ages.
You’ll recall that, with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and half a season of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies’ rotation was quite good, a close third in the National League by ERA. The problem was the rest of the starting staff: Kyle Kendrick, Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer, all of whom pitched poorly, plus a few decent spot starts from J.A. Happ, Vance Worley and Nelson Figueroa.
Replacing Kendrick, Blanton and Moyer’s 78 starts with league-average pitching would have dropped the Phillies starters’ combined ERA from 3.55 to 3.22, which would have been the lowest in the N.L. since the already legendary 1998 Atlanta Braves starters put up a 3.06. But what if we just replaced one of those guys with Cliff Lee? Would that be enough? How does adding one great pitcher to a staff that’s half elite and half poor compare to replacing the poor half with average pitchers?
Kyle Kendrick would have been the odd man out if Lee had signed with the Phillies before 2010, so what happens if we replace his 177 and two-thirds innings and 4.81 ERA in his 31 starts with Cliff Lee?
But what numbers do we use for Cliff Lee? We can use his actual 2010 numbers with Seattle and Texas. He made three fewer starts than Kendrick but tossed 34 and two thirds more innings, thanks to his astonishing average of 7.58 innings per start. We can add three starts of similar pitching to Lee’s total to match Kendrick’s 31 starts. That would bring him up from 212.1 to 235 innings. Either way, because the difference is so small, substituting Lee’s numbers for Kendrick’s we’re left with an ERA of 3.26 for the Phillies starters.
That’s for the ages, all right, also the best since the ‘98 Braves, but not as good as the 3.22 we came up with by using all league-average starters in place of the three Phillies’ non-aces.
Adjusting for the American League’s higher run-scoring environment wouldn’t change much because the A.L. didn’t score that much more than the N.L. this year. The N.L. ERA of 4.02 was 97 percent of the A.L.’s 4.14. For starting pitchers the N.L. ERA of 4.07 was 95 percent of the A.L.’s 4.27. Using either multiplier to take a few earned runs away from Lee, we get the Phillies starters’ ERA down to 3.23.
What about adjusting for ballpark? Lee made six home starts in Seattle, where Safeco Field is a pretty extreme pitcher’s park, and seven home starts in Texas, where the Ballpark is favorable to hitters, though not to the same extreme. Despite its reputation and early history as a hitter’s haven, Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia has played as roughly neutral the last few years, according to both Baseball-Reference.com and “The Bill James Handbook.”
Happily for me, because I wouldn’t be able to figure it out anyway, it doesn’t look like there’s any way transferring Lee’s 2010 numbers from Seattle and Texas to Philadelphia would lower his ERA by much because of park factors.
Maybe we should look at the ever-so-brief time when Lee actually pitched in Philadelphia, in the second half of 2009. He started 12 games and had an ERA of 3.18 in 79 and two-thirds innings. If we take those same numbers and extrapolate them out to Kendrick’s 31 starts, we’d have a Phillies starting ERA of 3.30.
Well, listen, it looks like any way I know how to slice it — which, let’s be clear, probably leaves out a lot of really smart ways of slicing it — replacing Kyle Kendrick with Cliff Lee would have had pretty much the same effect on the starting rotation’s ERA as replacing Kendrick, Blanton and Moyer’s starts with league-average performance.
That’s interesting, isn’t it?
But what about cost? Lee is awfully expensive. Which costs more, picking up an elite player to go with two poor ones or replacing three poor ones with average players? That’s an easy one to answer. I don’t know.
But we can compare the actual guys we’re talking about. Lee’s new contract will reportedly pay him an average of $24 million a year, so let’s use that figure. With Lee as a starter for the 2010 Phillies — making his 2011 salary — the other full-season starter would have been Blanton, with Moyer probably filling a spot for half the year till the Oswalt trade.
Cot’s Contracts says Blanton signed a three-year, $24 million deal before the 2010 season, with annual salaries of $1 million in 2010, then two years of $8.5 million, plus a $6 million signing bonus. I’d call that $7 million for 2010. Moyer made $8 million, various online resources tell us.
So Lee, Blanton and Moyer would cost $39 million in our imaginary world, $35 million if we could jettison Moyer and his contract upon getting Oswalt.
The four starting pitchers who straddled league average ERA in the N.L. this year were Bronson Arroyo and Derek Lowe below it — that is, better than average — and Barry Zito and Randy Wolf above, all veteran guys, meaning they’re expensive. Zito’s got a ridiculous contract, so let’s use the other three as our league average guys to replace Blanton, Moyer and Kendrick. Arroyo made $11 million in 2010, Wolf $9.25 million and Lowe $15 million. The three of them cost $34.25 million together.
We only need two and a half of them, so if we could get away with only paying half to one of them our total would be somewhere between $27.8 million and $30.6 million. Less, but not a lot less, than the $35-$39 million we’d have paid for Lee, Blanton and half a year of Moyer.
Close enough that I’d rather have Lee, even if the overall ERA is going to be similar. Having four elite starters would come in pretty damn handy in the postseason.
I realize this is some whack cipherin’ I’m doing here. I have no idea, really, how adding Cliff Lee to the 2010 Phillies would have affected that staff. And there are all sorts of ways to get both poor pitching and league average pitching a lot cheaper than by paying Blanton, Moyer, Arroyo, Wolf and Lowe to do it — the next two ERAs above Wolf’s, for example, belonged to Jonathan Niese and Randy Wells, neither of whom made $430,000
But it’s fun to think about, and I do think that while I certainly haven’t proved anything, it’s a reasonable assertion that replacing one poor pitcher with an elite pitcher like Cliff Lee has about the same effect on a staff’s overall performance as replacing three poor pitchers with league-average performers. I’d love to see someone who can really make a spreadsheet sing study that.
What I think that person would find: Those league-average guys, they’re pretty good.
* * *
[Update: There's an interesting discussion of this piece at the Baseball Primer Newsblog.]
The really fun thing about poking around in baseball numbers is the same as the really fun thing about watching baseball. If you do it enough, then no matter how long you’ve been doing it you still see things all the time that you’ve never seen before. You still get surprised.
Or, as Bill Cosby used to say at the beginning of “Fat Albert”: If you’re not careful, you might learn something.
When I was poking around recently looking for illuminating factoids to hold up my side of a learned confab about the value of league average players, which I wrote about here and here, the most surprising thing I found wasn’t about league-average players, it was about replacement-level players.
I’m not going to tell you that they’re “pretty good” too, but they’re better than I thought. I bet they’re better than you thought.
First, what is a replacement level player? It’s a tough concept to get your mind around if you’re not familiar with it. You can read some good definitions on Tom Tango’s website, at the Hardball Times and on the Mariners blog Lookout Landing. That last piece is part of Lookout Landing’s excellent Sabermetrics 101 from a few years ago.
Replacement level is a mathematical construct that represents a baseline against which all players can be compared. It’s the level of play expected from the least valuable players who are still good enough to play in the majors.
So, to put it another way, if you had a team full of replacement-level players, you would have a contender for the worst team of all time. Baseball history tells us that the very worst teams of major leaguers are going to win just under 50 games. Occasionally teams actually win even fewer. In the last half century the 1962 Mets won 40 and the 2003 Tigers won 43, but those totals probably included some bad luck. Their Pythagorean winning percentages — what they figured to have won and lost based on how many runs they scored and allowed — had the Mets winning 50 games and the Tigers 49.
A good way to think about it is that replacement level is what’s expected from a player who can be acquired at little or no cost: called up from Triple-A, plucked off the waiver wire, picked up in a trade for a player to be named later, that sort of thing. It describes the bottom layer of players who are good enough to play in the big leagues. But there isn’t some clear demarcation line between big leaguers and minor leaguers. At any time there are plenty of guys at Triple-A who are just as good as many big leaguers. The circumstances just haven’t broken right for them to be in the majors at the moment.
But just because replacement level is the lowest level of play teams can expect from a big league player, that doesn’t mean they’ll get it. There are always some guys who perform below replacement level. Their Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is a negative number.
That can happen for a number of reasons. A guy who’s shown himself to be capable of perfectly good play has an extended slump or a down year. A rookie who was thought to be ready isn’t. A veteran who was thought to have something left in the tank doesn’t. A marginal player, a replacement-level guy, who has a string of bad luck — an unusual number of hard-hit balls right at people, let’s say — will end up below replacement level, even if his actual talent level is still the same.
Consider the Giants starting rotation, which we’ve been talking about around here lately. The Giants’ signed Todd Wellemeyer in the offseason for $1 million. Fangraphs does the math every year and figured out that this year teams paid, on average, about $4 million to free agents for each marginal win, or win above replacement. The minimum salary is $400,000. So the Giants were expecting Wellemeyer to be a little bit, a very little bit, better than replacement level.
He’d been 2.3 wins below replacement in 2009 with the Cardinals, using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, but he’d been a 2.3-win player in 2008 and the Giants were hoping for a rebound.
They didn’t get it. Through June 10 Wellemeyer made 11 starts and a relief appearance and had an ERA of 5.52. He struck out 6.3 batters per nine innings, but he also walked 5.4 and gave up 1.8 home runs, both staggering figures. He was a half a win below replacement, which is kind of an accomplishment in only a little over a third of the season. WAR is a counting stat, and by the end of the season only seven National League pitchers had accumulated -1.5 WAR or worse.
Wellemeyer went on the disabled list for two months with a quad injury, made one relief appearance in August and was released.
In 2008 the Giants had a guy whose first 11 starts were almost identical to Wellemeyer’s in 2010. He had an ERA of 5.53. He was barely striking out five batters per nine innings, and walking as many as he struck out. But he didn’t go on the disabled list or get released. He made 21 more starts. At the end of the year his ERA was 5.15, and he’d been 0.6 wins below replacement. That’s because his name was Barry Zito, he’d been a good pitcher for half a decade in Oakland and he was a year and a half into a seven-year, $126 million contract.
The Giants also got negative WAR numbers this year from Bengie Molina, who was washed up but keeping the chair warm for Buster Posey; from Ryan Rohlinger, a journeyman minor leaguer who was forced into 18 plate appearances worth of duty by injuries; from Mark DeRosa, who tried unsuccessfully to play through a wrist injury. There are a lot of ways a guy can get to a sub-replacement performance.
But here’s the thing I found that really surprised me, as I finally roll around to the point of this sub-replacement-level blog post. I’ve always thought of replacement level as basically the bottom of the major leagues, the worst you can play and still be a big leaguer. I think if you’d asked me I’d have acknowledged that it’s actually the worst you can be expected to play and still be in the big leagues, and that there’s a difference between that and the worst level at which some players actually play.
What I didn’t realize was how big a difference. Because there is a lot of sub-replacement play in the big leagues.
In the major leagues in 2010, 24.5 percent of all innings were thrown by pitchers who ended the season with a negative WAR. Almost one out of every four innings. More than two innings of every game, on average, were tossed by sub-replacement-level pitchers. Every team had at least 100 innings thrown by sub-replacement guys, and if you throw out the Twins’ 103, every team had at least 140 innings. Only the Giants, Twins and Rockies averaged fewer than one of every nine innings thrown by sub-replacement pitchers.
The Diamondbacks got 816 and a third innings from pitchers who were below replacement level for the year. That’s more than half.
Meanwhile, sub-replacement hitters accounted for 18.4 percent of all plate appearances not made by pitchers. Almost one in five times a guy walked to the plate in the majors this year, he was a guy who would end the season with a negative WAR. That’s about seven plate appearances per team per game, and remember we’re not talking about pitchers hitting.
In 2009 the numbers were almost exactly the same: 18.5 percent of all plate appearances and 25.2 percent of all innings were by sub-replacement players, guys who ended the year with a negative WAR.
So it’s misleading to think of a replacement-level player as the bottom of the league, because a whole big pile of players isn’t even that good. Almost a quarter of the league does not play as well as the guy who is supposedly “freely available.”
I didn’t know that. I wasn’t careful. I learned something.
* * *
I tend to follow up a reasoned debate like the one that inspired me to write about the value of league average performance by diving into stats to find facts to back up my view. And if I find them, I obnoxiously pepper my interlocutor with them via e-mail.
This time, searching for ways to get across the idea that league-average performance is pretty damn good, I stumbled across something that I think illustrates the point beautifully.
Before I get to that, I want to make clear that this league-average is pretty good business is nothing like an original thought of mine. It’s sabermetric gospel. As Jay Jaffe pointed out on Twitter, it’s fundamental Bill James observation #2. In the 1988 “Baseball Abstract,” James wrote: “Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid. For every player who is 10 percent above the average player, there are probably twenty players who are 10 percent below average.” I don’t think you can really understand roster construction without understanding this point, and a whole lot of people understand roster construction just fine.
But a lot don’t, even among some pretty hardcore baseball fans — and writers.
So I decided to look at the pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants, the National League’s best regular-season team and its champion, both of which had very good starting pitching. One of the things that got me thinking about these two teams was a line in a national story about the Giants late in the season that mentioned them having “the best rotation this side of Philadelphia.”
As a Giants fan, this struck me as odd because there’s no way I would have traded the Giants’ five-deep rotation for the Phillies’ three stars and pray for rain. At the time, the Giants’ worst pitcher was Barry Zito, who had been struggling since early August after pitching well for the first four months of the season.
And this is where I’ll tell you that the league-average guy my friends and I were arguing about was Barry Zito. Except for his terrible 2008, when his ERA ballooned to 5.15, and he really was legitimately that bad, Zito has been a roughly league-average pitcher for his four years in San Francisco.
In 2007, the National League ERA was 4.44, but for starting pitchers it was 4.64. Zito’s was 4.53. In 2009, N.L. starters had a 4.30 ERA, the league ERA was 4.20 and Zito’s was 4.03. This year, Zito’s 4.15 ERA was a bit higher than the league ERA of 4.03. Starting pitchers’ ERA was unusually close to the overall figure, 4.05.
The problem is, Zito is a terrible guy to use to illustrate the idea that league average is pretty good because Zito makes a ridiculous $18 million a year on a seven-year contract. Of course he’s a terrible disappointment. He hasn’t lived up to that deal, but then, almost no one could have. It would have been an insane deal even if Zito were a better pitcher than he’s ever been.
Also, Zito got to a little worse than league average in 2010 by pitching beautifully for four months, then pitching horribly for two. He had a 3.35 ERA through his first 23 starts, and then for the rest of the year, starting Aug. 11, he had a 6.66 in 11 starts and a relief appearance. He was dreadful. Not the best poster boy for “pretty good.”
But you have to count the good four months. Overall, Zito was an important part of a terrific staff. The Giants’ starters combined for an ERA of 3.54, second best in the league behind the Cardinals’ 3.50. The Phillies were right behind the Giants at 3.55. But look how they got there.
The Giants got 34 starts from Jonathan Sanchez, 33 each from Zito, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, 18 from Madison Bumgarner and 11 from Todd Wellemeyer, the only one of the bunch who didn’t pitch well. Here were their ERAs as starters — Zito had the one relief appearance and Wellemeyer had two:
The Phillies got 33 starts each from aces Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and 12 from Roy Oswalt, another elite guy who came over in a midseason trade from Houston. The rest of the starts were Kyle Kendrick 31, Joe Blanton 28, Jamie Moyer 19, J.A. Happ 3, Vance Worley 2 and Nelson Figueroa 1. Their ERAs as Phillies starters:
OK, you want to see the value of league average?
The Giants got 44 starts from pitchers whose ERA was below the league average of 4.02, although 33 of those were by Zito, who had the lowest below-average ERA in the league. In other words, Zito was the best below-average pitcher in the N.L.
The Phillies, though, got a whopping 78 starts — almost half their season — from Kendrick, Blanton and Moyer, none of whom were as bad as the Giants’ Wellemeyer, but all of whom were well below league average. And the Phillies still almost matched the Giants and were third in the league in starting pitcher ERA.
But look what would happen if you replace that trio’s 464 innings with league average pitching: The Phillies starting ERA would drop to 3.22. There hasn’t been a team anywhere near that figure this century.
And what was standing between the Phillies, with their trio of elite starters, and that historically great rotation? It was the lack of two and a half league-average starters, three for half the season before they got Oswalt, and then two for the second half.
If the Phillies had managed to have, say, Bronson Arroyo, Derek Lowe and Zito, the three pitchers who straddled the league-average ERA, instead of Blanton, Kendrick and Moyer, they’d have had a starting rotation for the ages.
And all the stories about that great rotation — and there would have been a lot of them — would have focused on Halladay, Hamels and the midseason pickup, Oswalt. Arroyo and Co. would have gotten a mention, but they’d be lesser characters, just keeping the mound warm for those two days between Oswalt and Halladay.
But we know better, don’t we? It would have been Arroyo, Lowe and Zito, three league-average guys, who made the group historically great. After all, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt were actually there in 2010, and the Phillies rotation wasn’t great. It was only very good — third best in the league.
With league-average starters the rest of the time, instead of poor but not Wellemeyer-ishly terrible starters, they would have been the best rotation since the mid-’90s Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves.
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Moyer photo by Hounddiggity/Creative Commons license
Some friends and I were having a nice discussion the other day about how good a certain baseball player has been over the last few years, and it gave me occasion to dust off one of my favorite concepts: A league-average player is a pretty good player.
No way, one friend said. League average is average. That’s not good.
The word average is one reason this is such a tough concept to get across, I think. We say something — a restaurant, say, or a TV show — is “average” when we mean it’s not that good, not worth going back to or going out of our way for.
And if I gave you a list of average players in any given league, by whatever measure, sure enough, you wouldn’t be thrilled. Using the blunt instrument measures of ERA for pitchers and OPS for hitters, the closest thing to league-average starting pitchers in 2010 were Derek Lowe and Doug Fister, while your league-average hitters were Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Note that I’m throwing out pitchers hitting, because they’re just a different species.
Lowe, Fister, Rodriguez and Pena are not the kinds of players who sell tickets on their own, at least not the 2010 versions of them.
But just because someone isn’t thrilling doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable. Players who can put up average performance in significant playing time are valuable because they’re pretty rare. As much as league-average guys fail to inspire awe, there aren’t that many of them. An average player is better than most other players in the league.
You need a few elite players to contend for the championship, but if you can plug a league-average guy into a position, you’re not just treading water. You’re ahead of the game at that spot.
Here’s what I mean. Not counting pitchers hitting, there were 645 players who made at least one plate appearance in the majors in 2010. Only 95 of them qualified for the batting title with an OPS at or above the league average for non-pitchers. That’s 16 percent of all position players, but they accounted for 35.4 percent of the non-pitcher plate apearances, 37.2 percent of the hits and 48.8 percent of the home runs.
Those numbers don’t change much if you consider players at their position. Ninety-nine players qualified for the batting title while putting up at least a league average OPS for their position. That is, an American League first baseman putting up a .788 OPS or an N.L. shortstop putting up a .713
The same thing happens with pitchers. Of the 635 men who threw a pitch in the majors in 2010 — including the odd position players who tossed an inning or two — 60 of them qualified for their league’s ERA title with a league-average or better ERA. That’s 9.4 percent of all pitchers, and they accounted for 28.3 percent of all innings pitched.
These guys — able to sustain average or better performance over significant playing time — are hugely valuable. They account for a disproportionate amount of the league’s production. But I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Am I really still reading this?”
Wait, that’s not what you’re saying. You’re saying, “But you’re talking about average and above, Mr. Man. You’re giving average players credit for the production of elite players.”
OK, so let’s remove elite players. Of course, elite is a slippery concept, but I think I’ve got a decent working definition: League average OPS, plus 10 percent. If you do that for each position, you get 50 elite players, about three per league per position.
If you just look at everybody vs. the overall league average, you get 23 American Leaguers who beat the league OPS of 736 by 10 percent and 27 National Leaguers who beat the league OPS of .746 by 10 percent. Remember, we’re throwing out pitchers’ hitting totals in both leagues, though that moves the needle only a bit in the A.L. So that’s 50 elite players. I’m comfortable with a definition of elite that yields 50 position players. You? OK, let’s use that group.
There were 95 hitters at or above league average in 2010. Taking out those 50 elite players, we’re left with 45 who had an average or better OPS, but were not elite.
Those 45 average or better but not elite players made up 5.4 percent of all non-pitchers. But they accounted for 15.4 percent of all non-pitcher plate appearances, and 16.1 percent of the hits and 16.8 percent of the home runs by non-pitchers.
When we’re talking about players who were league average or better but not elite, we’re still talking about the narrow top of the pyramid.
Know why? Because league average is pretty good.
There aren’t many guys who can be league average over sustained playing time. Having a bunch of them on your team is going a long way toward being a good team, because the alternative to that league-average guy is rarely an elite guy. It’s almost always a below-average player. After all, a majority of the players in the majors are below average.
I didn’t want to mention the name of the player my friends and I were calmly debating because he’s a problematic example of the value of a league-average player. I think you’ll see why when I tell you who he is in the next post, when I’ll put a couple of names to this concept that I think will illustrate the point beautifully.