Archive for the ‘Morneau’ Category

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.

The All-Dome Team: Outfielders (and DH)

May 4, 2009

Last Thursday, I talked about the official Twins’ All-Metrodome Team ballot and picked my infielders. Today, we continue with the outfielders and DH. The official ballot, like an All-Star ballot, lists a group of outfielders and instructs you to pick three without differentiating between left/right and center…so that’s what we’ll do, too.

Outfield #1: Kirby Puckett (.318/.360/.477, 66.5 WARP3).
The day he died, I wrote this:

If you saw Kirby Puckett play baseball, whether or not you like the sport itself, you’d have loved him. Most of Minnesota did. A funny little round man, an amazing athlete in an almost completely average-looking body, Kirby did all those little cliches that add up to one big cliche called Playing the Game the Right Way. He was always playing at full speed, no matter what the score was, how he felt, or whether it was Spring Training or the World Series. And you could just tell he really loved to play, more than anyone you’ve ever seen. See that huge smile? It seemed (in retrospect, at least) like it was just always there.

Turns out that Kirby was also a legitimately great player. A flawed player, just as he was quite obviously a flawed man. But he’s a no-brainer for this team and a cornerstone of any all-time Twins team, and the Hall of Fame is a better place for having him in it.

Outfield #2: Torii Hunter (.271/.324/.469, 41.0)
Torii was overrated both offensively and defensively and was (and is) disproportionately beloved by Twins fans. He continued to be considered “the Face of the Franchise” while going out of his way to undermine teammates, most notably calling out a very young Joe Mauer for not playing through an injury while Torii himself would miss time with much more apparently questionable injuries. Frankly, I don’t have a lot of good things to say about Torii, except this: he was better for longer than any outfielder in Dome-era Twins history save one.

Outfield #3: Shane Mack (.309/.375/.479, 30.6)
Probably the biggest surprise among any of my picks, but I have no hesitation at all about putting Mack on this team. He had a weird, weird career; he spent 1987 and 1988 as a poor fourth outfielder for the Padres and then spent all of 1989 in Triple-A or injured; he played in Japan in 1995 and 1996 before finishing his career as a more than adequate fourth outfielder for the Red Sox, A’s and Royals in 1997 and 1998. In the five seasons in between the two MLB absences, though — 1990 to 1994 — he was a Twin, and was very quietly one of the very best players in the league. I remember him as an expert hitter who hit a line drive just about every time he swung the bat. He ran well and played excellent defense. The only knock on him was that he was rather frequently hurt, but when he was on the field, for those five seasons, he was one of the best players in the game.
A good, exhaustive write-up on Mack’s career was done quite a while ago by Aaron Gleeman, here.
Runners-up: Tom Brunansky, Matt Lawton and Jacque Jones (probably in that order) were all very solid players for the Twins, but none are really all-time anything material.

Designated Hitter: Justin Morneau (.282/.348/.501, 22.3)
I can’t do it!

The official ballot consists of Roy Smalley (discussed in the infielders post) and the names of four very-good-to-all-time-great hitters, none of whom came all that close to distinguishing themselves as Twins: Chili Davis, David Ortiz, Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield. Ortiz played the equivalent of four nondescript years with the Twins, Molitor three (and he hit .341 in one of them, but it was an incredibly good year to be a hitter), Winfield and Chili two apiece.

Pass. I refuse to put a guy on this team who isn’t one of the 75 or so best or most important players in Twins history, simply because he “played” a “position” whose only distinction is that it asks nothing at all of you.

So I see no reason Morneau can’t DH for this team. He’s clearly the best hitter of the Metrodome era who isn’t already on the team, so we’re going that way.
Runner-up: Davis (.282/.385/.476, 9.2). It was only two years, but the first was a legitimately awesome offensive year given the era, and helped lead the Twins to the 1991 World Championship.

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So we’ve got our lineup, and we’re two thirds of the way through the All-Metrodome Team. I’ll be back sometime soon with pitchers and the manager (only because “manager” is on the ballot), and then we’ll do a wrap-up post to take stock of what we’ve got.

The All-Dome Team: Infielders

April 30, 2009

As they count down to the frigid opening of Target Field next April, the Twins are making some effort to acknowledge/celebrate the 28 seasons that have been spent at the Metrodumpome. Which I guess they should, what with the two World Championships and all. So one thing they’re doing now is, through their official website, running a balloting process to select the all-time All-Metrodome Team. It’s more interesting than an all-franchise team, I think, because you have to make some tougher choices; Killebrew, Oliva, and Carew never played in the Dome (at least not, in Carew’s case, while with the Twins).

So I thought that, in the absence of some really compelling and timely topic for today, I’d go ahead and post my (slightly modified) ballot here, with comments (and stats from their time with the Dome-era Twins only). This is much longer than I was anticipating and I’m suddenly swamped with work, so we’ll stick with the infielders today and pick up with the outfielders and pitchers in separate posts sometime in the next few days.

Catcher: Joe Mauer (.317/.399/.457, 31.6 Wins Above Replacement Player [WARP3]).
He’s played only four mostly-full seasons in the Majors, and yet this is the easiest pick until we get to the man pictured in my avatar. Not since Carew, at least, have the Twins ever had a position player that you could really argue was the single best player in the American League…but Mauer is that. Catchers just don’t hit and get on base the way Mauer does, at least not the ones who can really catch. I don’t know how much longer he can keep it up as a catcher, but enjoy it while he does.
Runner-up: Brian Harper (.305/.339/.428, 16.8 WARP3). No patience or defense, and not much power, but if you’re in the just-pre-Juiced Ball era and can find a durable catcher who can hit .300 with 10+ homers every year, hang on to that guy.

First Base: Kent Hrbek (.282/.367/.481, 53.9)
I assume that Justin Morneau is going to win the fan vote, and quite easily, but it should be a blowout in the other direction. Hrbek, a local Minneapolis boy, had more than twice the number of PA Morneau has had so far with the Twins, was a better hitter when you adjust for the difference in eras (128 OPS+ to 122), and was a better defender (both have/had very good defensive reputations among Twins fans, but Hrbek actually earned his). And then of course there were the two World Series. Hrbek never had a year in which his raw numbers looked as huge and pretty as Morneau’s ’06, but he had several years that, viewed in the proper context, were just as good or better. Morneau has a long way to go. If you’re unfamiliar with the story that goes along with the picture to the right, that’s Hrbek tackling Ron Gant to make him fall off of first base in the 1991 World Series. And Gant was called out. That performance alone might have been enough to put Hrbek on the top of my list.
Runner-up: Morneau (.282/.348/.499, 21.7), of course. Though I’m more interested in the fact that Ron Coomer (now one of the Twins’ broadcast analysts, seen here in Fort Myers in March, photo by the author) made the list. We used to call him Fred Flintstone, for obvious reasons. Seems like a good guy; 87 OPS+. On the occasion he was even the best 1B on his own team, that was a sad team.

Second Base: Chuck Knoblauch (.304/.391/.416, 46.3).
He’s become kind of a joke because of his throwing troubles once he hit New York and connection to the Mitchell Report, but when he left Minnesota, Knoblauch looked like a tiny, troll-like, obnoxious, future Hall of Famer. He was an excellent hitter and baserunner, and only the presence of real future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar kept him from winning, and deserving, a whole bunch of Gold Gloves (he did get one, in 1997). Second basemen as a whole burn out bizarrely early, and that’s something I’ll explore here someday; it was more in Knobby’s head than his body, but he was done as a useful player by age 31.
Runner-Up: Todd Walker (.288/.344/.419, 3) was a fine hitter who was mistreated by manager Tom Kelly, but I was a little hasty in guaranteeing upon his 1996 callup that he’d be a Hall of Famer someday (hey, those were desperate times). John Castino was probably a better player, but only played parts of two years in the Dome.

Third Base: Corey Koskie (.280/.373/.463, 33.7)
Toughest choice of them all. Gaetti had a longer career, even just considering his time with the Twins, and was a better defender. But Koskie was a fine glovesman himself, and was often the one truly excellent hitter on contending teams that really needed help to score runs.
Runner-Up: Gary Gaetti (.256/.307/.437, 28.8). My first favorite player. His hitting was overrated because of his aversion to taking a walk, and he was a little injury-prone, but the power + Gold Glove defense combination was awfully valuable. He’s probably become underrated now, as memories have faded and people have started to better grasp the importance of OBP. The Rat also has easily the best and weirdest unofficial fan club on the ‘Net.

Shortstop: Greg Gagne (.249/.292/385, 21.2)
Slim pickins here. Gagne was never on base, but was a very solid defensive shortstop with some pop. Extremely fast, but probably the worst base-stealer ever to swipe more than 100 bases (career 109SB/96CS). Looked a little like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock.
Runner-Up: Roy Smalley (.258/.350/.419, 4.5). Almost all of his games at shortstop with the Twins happened in the pre-Dome era; by the time he came back in 1985, he was playing first and third almost exclusively (and he’s actually listed on the ballot as a DH). Still easily the next-best option in this era.

So that’s your infield. My planned Thursday night gameblog for Friday is looking less feasible with this sudden crush at work, but there will be, well, something…