Archive for May, 2009

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

May 31, 2009

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…

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just a story

May 30, 2009

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.

Loose Ends

May 29, 2009

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.

Seriously, What’s the Deal with Ecks?

May 28, 2009

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?

Happy Birthday…

May 27, 2009

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?

Chairman Mauer: The First 100 PAs

May 26, 2009

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:

PA AB R H HR RBI BA OBP SLG
100 81 25 36 11 31 .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.]

Memorial Day

May 25, 2009

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.

More About RBI and Such

May 24, 2009

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.

In Defense of Compassionate Sabermetricism

May 23, 2009

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.

Does Bob Geren Know What He’s Doing?

May 22, 2009

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.