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Cliff Lee vs. league-average

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Cliff Lee of the Phillies

Cliff Lee of the Phillies

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.

Cliff Lee of the Rangers

Cliff Lee of the Rangers

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?

Cliff Lee of the Indians

Cliff Lee of the Indians

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.

Cliff Lee of the Mariners

Cliff Lee of the Mariners

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.

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<p><i><b>Photo credits</b>
Phillies: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/artolog/3776568591/”>Art Siegel</a>
Mariners: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/macberns/4715005608/>John Berner</a>
Rangers: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/sidehike/5152160871/”>Bo Nash</a>
Indians: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/marksobba/1472917568/”>Mark Sobba</a>
All via Flickr/Creative Commons</i>

* * *

Photo credits
Phillies: Art Siegel
Rangers: Bo Nash
Indians: Mark Sobba
Mariners: Bo Nash
All via Flickr/Creative Commons

Written by King Kaufman

December 15th, 2010 at 4:00 am

Posted in Baseball

Tagged with , , ,

In defense of replacement-level players?

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Ryan Rowland-Smith of the Mariners was 3.6 wins below replacement in 2010, the most of anyone in the majors.

Ryan Rowland-Smith of the Mariners was 3.6 wins below replacement in 2010, the most of anyone in the majors.

[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.

You know he's not going to hit it: Pedro Feliz's -2.3 WAR was the worst in the big leagues in 2010.

You know he's not going to hit it: Pedro Feliz's negative 2.3 WAR was the worst in the big leagues in 2010.

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.

He showed up: Denard Span provided 705 plate appearances' worth of replacement level play for the Twins.

He showed up: Denard Span provided 705 plate appearances' worth of replacement level play for the Twins.

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.

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Rowland-Smith photo: Jane Gershovich/Flickr Creative Commons
Feliz photo: SBoyd/Flickr Creative Commons
Span photo: Bethany Khan/Flickr Creative Commons

Written by King Kaufman

December 11th, 2010 at 1:28 am

For the want of league average, greatness was missed

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Jamie Moyer

Jamie Moyer

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:

Bumgarner: 3.00
Sanchez: 3.07
Cain: 3.14
Lincecum: 3.43
Zito: 4.13
Wellemeyer: 5.82

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:

Oswalt: 1.65
Happ: 1.76
Worley: 1.80
Halladay: 2.44
Hamels: 3.06
Figueroa: 3.60
Blanton: 4.74
Kendrick: 4.81
Moyer: 4.84

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

Written by King Kaufman

December 7th, 2010 at 4:30 am

Posted in Baseball

Tagged with , ,

In defense of league average

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Derek Lowe's 4.00 ERA, just a tick better than league average, was a big part of the Atlanta Braves' run to the playoffs.

Derek Lowe's 4.00 ERA, just a tick better than league average, was a big part of the Atlanta Braves' run to the playoffs.

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?”

Aramis Ramirez's had an off year, but his .745 OPS was close to league average, overall and for his position -- still pretty good.

Aramis Ramirez had an off year, but his .745 OPS was close to league average, overall and for his position -- still pretty good.

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.

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Lowe photo by The Suss-Man (Mike) / Creative Commons

Ramirez photo by guano / Creative Commons

Written by King Kaufman

December 6th, 2010 at 6:50 am

Posted in Baseball

Tagged with , ,

Wall Street Journal feeds the “small ball” myth

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Noted smallball enthusiast Vladimir Guerrero stretches out before a regular-season game. He's 0-for-1 stealing in the World Series.

Noted smallball enthusiast Vladimir Guerrero stretches out before a regular-season game. He's 0-for-1 stealing in the World Series.

Another example of why putting our faith in the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media because they are the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media is not the brightest idea.

Here is a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “Hitting Baseballs, Just Not as Far: Giants and Rangers Win With Contact Hitting, Bunts and Baserunning; the ‘Lost Arts.’” The piece, by Matthew Futterman and Brian Costa, explains that the Giants and Rangers have gotten to the World Series via “the kind of aggressive baserunning and timely, intelligent situational hitting and bunting that younger fans, the ones who came of age during baseball’s era of jet propulsion, have rarely seen.”

“Jet propulsion” refers to the home-run-happy steroids era, “a time when the chief ingredient of a winning team was a pack of happy oafs whose job was to hit the baseball into the next Congressional district.”

To prove their point, the Journal writers — well, they wave their arms around a lot.

The numbers tell the story rather starkly. Last year, the teams in the World Series — the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, ranked first and third in the majors in home runs. The Rangers and Giants rank No. 10 and No. 11.

San Francisco was 17th in runs scored and 13th in slugging percentage this season. But they ranked fifth in strikeouts and third in sacrifice bunts in the National League and fourth in all of baseball in sacrifice hits. [Snip: A couple of quotes from Cody Ross and Brian Sabean, respectively, about how the Giants take good swings and "know how to compete." ]

Texas was only ninth in slugging percentage, but the team had the most sacrifice bunts in the American League, the second-most sacrifice flies and the fourth fewest strikeouts. The Rangers were also seventh in the majors in stolen bases.

So how well does a certain ranking in runs scored or slugging percentage or sacrifice flies or stolen bases correlate with winning? We don’t get much of a clue, except that the Yankees and Phillies were first and third, which is actually wrong. They were first and tied for second. The Phillies tied for second with the Rangers, who didn’t make the playoffs. In 2008 the Phillies were second in homers and went to the Series, where they played the Tampa Bay Rays, who were tied for ninth.

In 2007 the Boston Red Sox, 18th in home runs, beat the Colorado Rockies, 15th, despite both teams playing their home schedule in homer-friendly parks. In 2000, the height of the supercharged steroid era, when major leaguers hit more home runs than in any other year in history, the World Series pitted the Yankees, 10th in homers, and the New York Mets, 12th.

We’re really in a new era here, where you don’t have to lead the league in homers to make the World Series! Like you did in 2009!

But don’t listen to me. Here’s Cybermetrics, “the sabermetric blog of Cyril ‘Cy’ Morong, professor of economics at San Antonio College,” responding to the Journal piece by pointing out that all that sacrificing and stealing and not hitting home runs and so on is not resulting in any extra runs or wins for either the Giants or the Rangers.

Using these crazy things called history and math, Morong shows that teams that get on base and slug at the rates the Giants and Rangers do tend to score about as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year. And he points out that, given their pitching — a concept the Journal barely nods toward, though it’s basically the whole story for the Giants — teams that score as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year can be expected to win just about as many games as they did.

In other words: “There are no extra wins due to using ‘lost arts.’ In fact, they have done well by some combination of hitting for power and getting on base and generally preventing their opponents from doing so. This is a time honored way of winning.”

The Journal piece concludes with a quote from Giants president Larry Baer, who is a business man, not a baseball man: Baer “said there is more passion for this team than any in his 18 years with the organization. ‘It validates that this game is an art and not a science,’ he said.”

Except it doesn’t validate that. The team’s popularity might validate that marketing is an art, or that a city’s passion for a team involves some strange, hard-to-fathom alchemy. But there’s plenty of science involved in the baseball.

The Giants would do well to understand that science a little better. If they did, they wouldn’t owe Barry Zito — not good enough to make the postseason roster — $64.5 million over the next four years. They wouldn’t owe Aaron Rowand — worthy of eight plate appearances in 15 postseason games — $24 million over the next two years. The people who do understand the science and root for the Giants screamed their heads off over both of those signings.

The Journal could do a better job of it too. You know, like some blogger in his mother’s basement an economics department in San Antonio.

Photo: Benson!!/Flickr Creative Commons

Written by King Kaufman

November 1st, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Revisionist history: San Francisco never loved Barry Bonds

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Barry Bonds acknowledges cheers before NLCS Game 3 in San Francisco.

Barry Bonds acknowledges cheers before NLCS Game 3 in San Francisco.

It’s true, as many in the national media have written, that this year’s National League champion San Francisco Giants have captured the imagination of the city in a way that the Barry Bonds-led teams straddling the turn of the century did not. It’s easy to love a champion, but San Francisco had already fallen hard for this Giants club before the regular season ended. It’s one of those love-affair years.

But it’s revisionist history to say that the teams of the late ’90s and early ’00s were not beloved by the fans because the fans didn’t like Barry Bonds. I can’t put it any more simply that this: San Francisco fans absolutely loved Barry Bonds. There was no ambivalence at all.

It was the writers who didn’t like him. For all the negative talk about him, he was a garden variety beloved superstar before the steroid revelations. And by that I mean the smoking gun of the BALCO case, which broke in the 2003-04 offseason, not the rumors and accusations that had flown around Bonds for a couple of years before that.

And even after BALCO, it was a very small percentage of San Francisco fans who gave a flying damn about Bonds and steroids. A vast majority of the outrage and worry came from the media — and of course fans in other cities. Everyone is always very, very concerned about steroid use by the visiting team.

Even when Bonds was chasing Henry Aaron’s career home run record, by which time there was no doubt that Bonds, in addition to all the other aspects of his toxic personality, was a user of illegal drugs intended to enhance performance, relatively few Giants fans were troubled in the least by him. I should know because I was one of those who were troubled, and the meetings were not crowded.

Here’s my pal Gary Kamiya writing in Salon the year before the record-breaking homer:

If Barry hits it at home and I’m lucky enough to be there, I’ll be screaming like God had just opened the seventh seal. And I’ll be doing that even though I’m 99 percent sure Barry cheated — and I don’t approve of cheating.

I won’t be alone. There will be 40,000 screaming Giants’ fans around me experiencing the same non-asterisked rapture, and several hundred thousand more fans throughout Northern California.

No, Barry Bonds did not keep San Francisco from loving the Giants team that went to the World Series in 2002 or the playoff teams in 1997, 2000 and 2003. Those teams were loved just fine. But not as much as this year’s team.

I think it’s the natural course of things that some versions of a team are more beloved than other versions. Some years, it clicks. This Giants team is led by enormously likable players — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Buster Posey and, to a lesser extent because he didn’t play well, 2009 revelation Pablo Sandoval. On top of that, it has an Island of Misfit Toys makeup — led by Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Pat Burrell — that fans in any city are going to love when it works. Plus, the team was involved in an exciting three-way playoff race.

The only other time I can remember this kind of feeling around the Giants — non-fans talking about them and excited about them while the season was going on — was in 1993, when Barry Bonds was a newly signed free agent, a local kid, the superstar son of a former Giants star. The pennant race with the Atlanta Braves that year was out of this world, and the Giants had probably the best team they’ve ever had in San Francisco.

If Barry Bonds had started doing steroids that year and word had got out about it, that team would not have been any less loved in San Francisco. I’m sure of it.

Every playoff year can’t be a love-affair year. Most of the time when the home team is good it’s just regular old fan excitement going on. But once in a while, everything clicks and a team stands a city on its ear. That happened with the Giants this year. It happened in 1993. It didn’t happen in the playoff years in between, but not because San Franciscans couldn’t root for Barry Bonds.

All that ambivalence San Francisco felt about Barry Bonds that you’ve been reading about: I don’t know whether it’s projection or faulty memories. But I do know this: It’s fiction.

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Photo: Artolog/Flickr Creative Commons

Baseball instant replay: Tech isn’t magic

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Marie Wegman of the Fort Wayne Daisies "argues" with ump Norris Ward in 1948

Marie Wegman of the Fort Wayne Daisies "argues" with ump Norris Ward in 1948

For the third straight baseball postseason, umpires have been making critical, high-profile mistakes in game after game, and there’s a growing drumbeat among media and fans that Major League Baseball has to do something about it. And not just any something, but one specific something: instant replay.

The entire conversation about umpiring has been predicated on the assumption that the only solution to the problem is a technological one, which is fascinating — and maybe just a little troubling — because everyone in the conversation knows two things: There are acres of room for improvement that has nothing to do with technology, and the technology itself is far from perfect.

We know from other sports, especially NFL football, that video replay is hardly perfect. Putting aside the unnecessarily long delays that accompany video replay in the NFL, it’s a simple fact about video that it does not always provide conclusive evidence of what happened. Camera angles can be as deceptive as the naked eye.

And more important, the NFL’s replay system is a laboratory of unintended consequences. Introduced for the same reason many people want to introduce replay to baseball — to put an end to egregious officiating mistakes — it has become the lord of officials. It has changed the way officials call games. Refs now err on the side of the reviewable call, or make no call at all so replay can be possible. They have changed the way they call fumbles and completions. Watch an old NFL game from before replay and you’ll be struck at the difference in officiating and rules interpretation.

People will argue over the specifics of those last two paragraphs, but there’s no one familiar with replay who doesn’t know that replay is far from perfect, that despite — I would say because of — replay being entrenched in the NFL for years, officiating is still such a problem that a huge number of fans can convince themselves that a recent Super Bowl was fixed by the refs.

Yet the only anti-replay argument that ever sees the light of day is the Luddite one: Instant replay would rob baseball, that most human of games, of an essential human element.

That’s a valid argument, but it’s a religious one. No one is ever going to be argued off of it, and if you don’t buy it, you’re not going to be talked into it.

But it’s interesting that the argument against it goes like this: Instant replay might not be perfect, but it’s better than what we have now, so we should use it. That argument ignores a vital question. Is instant replay better than some other solution?

If you’ve been around as long as most of the people who are in the most public part of this argument — media figures and baseball officials — technology has been a series of miracles in your life. You can carry a supercomputer in your pocket that connects you to anywhere in the world all the time? Are you kidding? I’m not even 50 and I remember when it was a big deal that someone could leave you a taped message when they called your house — the only place you could have a phone — and you weren’t there.

Got a problem? Technology can probably fix it, and if not, just wait a little. It’s coming. Marvelous times.

But I think we sometimes forget that technology isn’t the only fix, and it isn’t always the best one, and not just for squishy reasons having to do with idealizing human error. Human error is a bad thing, and technology is often fantastic at doing away with it. But it can also do away with some good human things, like judgment and holistic problem solving.

Think about law enforcement for a moment — and sports officiating is essentially law enforcement. Which is more effective at fighting crime, an elaborate system of video surveillance or a program of job training, substance abuse education and treatment, community investment and so on? Or if that’s too liberal-sounding for you, focus in tighter. If you’re a parent, which is more effective at getting your kids to behave like solid citizens, spy cams around the house or engaged, loving parenting?

If you wanted to design a system that would result in poor umpiring, you would design Major League Baseball’s system. It’s positively medieval. Umpires essentially have lifetime tenure. They are sequestered from the media and answer only to a review system that is as secretive as it is pointless, since it hardly ever results in umpires losing their jobs. Instant replay won’t change that lack of accountability.

“We never know why or when they are fined, or reprimanded or held accountable,” Oakland A’s pitcher Brad Ziegler told ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson last week. “Any time a player is punished, suspended or sent down to the minors, the public knows about it. It would be a lot easier to communicate with umpires if everyone was held to similar standards. Our statistics as players are a lot more quantifiable than the umpires’.”

I am something of a Luddite when it comes to instant replay, not because I’m anti-technology — I have a long-distance line to New York in my pocket, and the call is free? Score! — but because I think baseball has been smart about being slow to change over the last century-plus. Replay would suddenly, irreversibly alter a game that has a pretty good history of solving its problems without radical, game-altering solutions.

I don’t believe baseball should absolutely avoid instant replay because instant replay is evil. I believe it should try to tackle the organizational problems that are leading to the poor umpiring rather than slap an electronic band-aid on them.

Nelson’s ESPN story is about a planned winter meeting between the grumbling players association, baseball officials and the umpires. Nelson describes such a meeting as “rare,” which is a problem right there. Shouldn’t the three parties involved in this major issue for Major League Baseball talk to each other more than rarely?

It’s a good step. I’m not too hopeful it’s going to lead to a new era of transparency and reform. No one from the umpires or Major League Baseball would comment for the story.

Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida

Written by King Kaufman

October 11th, 2010 at 8:59 am