StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: April 14

Another Monday means another Roundtable.  This week’s roundtable finds us chatting with Lisa Gray from The Astros Dugout and The Hardball TimesRead on as Lisa, Eric, and Pizza talk about Bill James’ recent senitiments on Sabermetrics, pitchers hitting 8th, and the trouble with the Tigers.
Question 1: Both Tony LaRussa and Ned Yost are batting the pitcher in the 8th spot this year. Do you think this is good strategy? Do you think it would be good strategy for any NL team?
Lisa Gray:  Yes, I think it is a great idea and I don’t know why it hasn’t been done regularly. I’ve seen managers put a pitcher who is a very strong hitter in the 8-hole in front of a very weak hitter, but I think that a weak hitting pitcher, who is usually going to bunt anyway, would be better off using up the second out and leaving the PA to a better hitter.
Eric Seidman: All of the analyses I have read have shown that, at its maximum, a pitcher batting eighth will produce slightly positive results.  Since positive results are better than, say, any other type of results, it seems like it would be a sound strategy, but it is not anything so revolutionary that managers are idiots for not following suit.  It also depends on the pitcher.  The strategy applied by LaRussa, as he says himself, is done to allow him an extra leadoff batter.  The problem here is that teams do not bat-around or bring all nine to the plate in every single inning.  For the innings where teams can IBB the 8th batter to get to the pitcher this strategy may or may not pay off in preventing the IBB.  Generally speaking, the 8th batter is the worst non-pitcher hitter, so flipping him to ninth in the order in favor of the pitcher batting eighth does not even sound as if it would produce incredible results unless the team found themselves in the midst of a rally that a pitcher coming to the plate could kill.  If the pitcher was a great hitter I would definitely move him up in the batting order over, say, Adam Kennedy, but I would go in not necessarily expecting an explosion of runs due to the move. 
Pizza Cutter: Let’s see, the Brewers are generally batting Jason Kendall ninth and the Cardinals have put Aaron Miles and Cesar Izturis there.  So, it’s not like we’re dealing with Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun here.  In general, the lineup optimization research says that it doesn’t really matter all that much how you place the specific batters in the lineup and that at most, it’s worth a few runs over a season, but I suppose every little bit helps.  Mark Pankin actually took a look specifically at Tony LaRussa’s penchant for batting the pitcher in the 8-hole.  Then, in his presentation at SABR 37 last year, Pankin put together a more complete model and suggested that all things considered, there wasn’t much of a benefit either way.  Others like StatSpeak friend Tango Tiger have found a small benefit to the pitcher hitting 8th.  Seems like the pitcher hitting 8th isn’t the key to oodles of runs, but it does look like it’s a bit better than the pitcher hitting ninth.
Or we could just give in and tell the NL about the DH.

Question 2: In an article over at Baseball Think Factory, there was a discussion of Bill James’s potentially odd foreword in Rob Neyer’s new book.  The foreword apparently consisted of James expressing a level of sadness that the statistics and resources capable of quashing some of the biggest legends and rumors now exist.  Do you feel there are certain areas of baseball worth leaving alone or is everything fair game and worthy of being explored?
Lisa Gray:  We human beings like to tell stories. We human beings like to listen to stories, both factual and embellished. We tell how Things Were Back Then When There Weren’t Any Problems. Yessiree, pitchers threw 150, no 180 pitches every 4 days. Yessiree, for years. And they never got hurt, never complained. And really good hitters, why they hit 400 Back Then. Because they were good Back Then, not like the overpaid babies nowadays. Yessiree, those ballplayers, THEY never cared about money. Why until that uppity Curt Flood spoiled everything, they practically played for free. AND they liked it that way!!!!
Of course, there’s more’n one side to a story, as my daddy always told me. And the problem comes when people start confusing stories with actual facts and refusing to see the facts in proper context for the reason that completely relating all the facts while telling the story usually ruins the story.
Now me, I love the stories. I love the exaggerations (Cool Papa Bell was sooooo fast that if he flipped the light switch off, he was in bed before it was dark),  the tales that can’t be checked (Josh Gibson hit over 800 homers), the supposed facts that can’t be true (Mickey Mantle hit a baseball 650′). Like everyone else, I like hearing (usually) old ballplayers tell the stories of their games, in spite of the fact that I can be pretty darn sure they’ll mix up dates, teams, opposing players. I don’t care. I do that and I don’t have the excuse that I’m too old to remember properly.
But the problem isn’t with a story, really. The problem comes when people insist on comparing present with past or trying to predict the future performance of a player or trying to figure out what is most cost efficient. And actually, those are theories, not facts. But facts actually don’t destroy a story, they simply illuminate the circumstances of it. And, as the Good Book says, let there be light.
Eric Seidman: My initial reaction to something like this was “hell no!” which was then soon accompanied by a “well, maybe” but eventually I reverted back to a more conservative form of the “hell no!”  My feeling on the subject is that certain legends and areas of baseball will always remain the same in the minds of the majority of fans to the point that no research can change them.  For instance, if somebody had empirical proof showing that Babe Ruth never called his own shot, I contend it would make little difference.  A large majority of fans would still swear he did and chalk it up as the legend of The Great Bambino.  While I do not believe that there are certain areas of baseball that are off-limits I do feel there are certain areas where it would serve no point to attempt to shine new light.  Then again, contradicting myself, it really depends on what we conduct research and analyses for.  Some sabermetricians or statistical analysts work to find new ways to evaluate talent or search for the truth in order to better the mindsets of fans; others simply work to know more than everyone else.  Ultimately, I feel there are no areas of baseball that should be off-limits but I definitely agree with James that the more storybook feel of certain areas of the game may dissipate with these new methods; whether that is good or bad for the game is very hard to say.  If it helps get rid of batting average as a tell-all stat I’m all for it though! 
Pizza Cutter: This is like Thomas Edison being sad that there is now night baseball at Wrigley Field or perhaps more appropriately, Alfred Nobel concerned that his work on dynamite was being used to manufacture weapons (hence his endowment for a prize for peace).  A few months ago, I was interviewed by Bob Ngo, a doctoral student in Sociology at UC-Santa Barbara, who’s actually doing his dissertation on Sabermetrics as a social phenomenon.  In my interview with him, I talked about how throughout history, there’s always been a tension about views of modernity.  (I went to a liberal arts college… can you tell?)  The Romantic Period followed the Classical Period.  There’s always a time of counter-reaction to a period like the Enlightenment where science gets its due.  I think baseball is going through such a period now.  Bill James, like Isaac Newton, heralded the founding of a great new science (well, OK maybe Physics is more important than Sabermetrics).  James, like Newton, had his detractors, and both even appear to have had their own doubts about what manner of creature they had created.  Newton did OK in the end…
Are there any topics off-limits in baseball research?  Well, first off, just try to stop me.  What gets me is that even when I (and other Saber-folks) lay the evidence out for people on something (clutch hitting, for example, has been studied to death with the same conclusion everytime)… people choose not to believe me.  People have their defense mechanisms ready and I can’t do anything about that (and some of them work for MLB teams!), so I don’t feel too bad about shattering myths.  And frankly, even if they didn’t have those defenses ready, I think people need to deal with reality.  I can accept that there are some things that I either can’t measure yet or will never be able to measure (whether in baseball or the universe more generally).  But, is there any topic in baseball that I am morally obligated to leave alone, even though the data are there for the taking?  No.  If anything, I would think it ungentlemanly if I were to refrain.
Question 3: Should Tigers fans be worried?
Lisa Gray:  Only if they want to win.
Seriously, of the regular position players, only Carlos Guillen (now day to day with a sore leg) and Brandon Inge have a respectable OPS, let alone one over .630. The starters are barely managing to last 5 innings/start and only Jeremy Bonderman has managed to keep ERAs under 4. Dontrelle Willis is on the DL and except for Todd Jones, Bobby Seay and Denny Bautista, the relievers have merely served to throw gas on the fire. And, surprise, surprise, Miguel Cabrera has 3 errors and isn’t making plays, but except for Brandon Inge, the other fielders aren’t doing well making plays.
But youneverknow, even though they are 2-10, they may suddenly remember how to hit, field and pitch tomorrow. And they are receiving heavy scrutiny because it is the beginning of the season and because they were close to the favorites to win the AL pennant. If the Tigers had a 2-10 streak in, say, June, no one would really notice as much.
Eric Seidman:  It’s interesting that the Tigers have gotten off to this slow start because I am reminded of the Mets “collapse” at the end of last year.  There were many in David Wright’s MVP camp that claimed the timing of the Mets slump should not have effected his chances at winning the award; every team goes through a slump like that.  The Phillies went through it in April, the Mets went through it in September; and the Phillies only won the division by one game.  If I were a Tigers fan obsessed with success in April I would definitely be worried but it’s hard for me to answer this question as I am a fan of a team (Phillies) that goes 9-14, or worse, in April every year and still manages to win 85+ games.  If Tigers fans expected their team to score 1000 runs (6.17/gm for anyone wondering) en route to winning 116 games then yes, please worry, because this will not happen.  Otherwise, do not fret, because it is very likely your team will win between 84 and 92 games.  If I were a Tigers fan I would likely be worried that the Royals and White Sox look to have improved as opposed to worrying about my own team.
Pizza Cutter: Nah, he’s a really good golfer and just because he didn’t win the Masters’ this time around… oh… right…
Figure that the Tigers will need to win 90 games to get into the playoffs, which is, after all the point of the regular season.  That’s a winning percentage of .555.  The Tigers are 2-10 to start off the year.  What are the chances that a .555 team would lose 10 out of 12 games?  About .7% or about 1 in 139.  Now, there are 151 different 12 game swings in a season (games 1-12, 2-13, 3-14… etc.), so if we picked a random 12 game streak during the year, odds are that one of them will be a 2-10 run.  Also, a look at the Tigers broken down by offense-starters-bullpen shows that the much-maligned Tigers’ bullpen is basically holding serve as far as WPA goes.  The big culprits are those in the Tiger lineup.  Pudge Rodriguez, Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera, and Jacque Jones are all below the Mendoza line.  Think that’ll last?  So, Tigers fans, don’t worry too much.  Worrying about things just makes you worried.

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13 Responses to StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: April 14

  1. Josh says:

    “Or we could just give in and tell the NL about the DH.”
    You can keep your game destroying devices in the AL, thanks.

  2. dan says:

    Josh, you should be aware that the national league and a Japanese minor league (I believe) are the only professional leagues in the world that make their pitchers hit. I’d rather watch a hitter hit than a stiff stand there and take 3 pitches or fall on his face trying to bunt.

  3. dan says:

    Oh and by the way Pizza, according to Jinaz’s lineup constructions for the Reds, using Markov chains, the best and worst Reds lineups were 38 runs apart. I doubt managers will pick the worst possible lineup, but the average manager’s lineup and the best possible lineup could be more than a win apart.
    http://jinaz-reds.blogspot.com/2008/04/markov-dusty-bakers-lineups-arent-half.html

  4. There’s just something about a pitcher batting that seems “right” to me. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m sure it has more to do with me being conditioned that way, growing up in an NL household but I just cannot get into AL games as much unless Bobby Abreu is involved.

  5. Pizza Cutter says:

    Yeah, I’ve seen the best/worst splits, although the customary lineup as it’s usually done is generally rated as only 2 or 3 runs better, IIRC. (Pulling those numbers from memory.) Still, every little bit…

  6. Lisa Gray says:

    i’m with eric.
    the DH is an abomination against the Church of Baseball and i truly regret that the commissioner ever allowed such a travesty to se the light of day
    i’d rather see a pitcher stare at 3 strikes or sac-bunt than see some glorified pinch hitter get in more ABs than he deserves, him not being able to play the actual game, which requires fielding!!!!!!!!!
    like i always say – baseball is like men – you gotta take the good with the bad….

  7. Without DH’s we could effectively quash any MVP arguments against players because they do not play the field. Ah, that would be so sweet.

  8. Pizza Cutter says:

    *sigh* I threw that in as a simple throwaway line…

  9. John Beamer says:

    DH out … DH out … DH out … DH out ….
    Seriously — NL pitchers aren’t generally speaking that much worse the DH (Frank Thomas excepted)

  10. G-Man says:

    You AL fans can have your softball, but let us NL fans enjoy real baseball. There is already plenty of offense in today’s game, and the DH is no longer needed (if it ever was in the first place.)

  11. dan says:

    I enjoy watching David Ortiz hit more than Braden Looper bunt. I never really found the sac bunt/double switch very exciting.

  12. Whoa whoa whoa… you don’t like watching Braden Looper bunt?

  13. SirKodiak says:

    The DH is not used in MiLB when both parent teams are NL clubs.
    In Japan, the Central League (which is one of the two major leagues) does not use the DH.
    …and I am with Eric, Lisa, and “Crash” Davis for what it is worth. (AL games, as a whole, bore me, and I think that the DH is the reason.)
    “I screwed up the game of baseball. Baseball needed a jolt of offense for attendance, so they decided on the DH. I never thought it would last this long.” – Ron Blomberg [the first DH ever]

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