StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: April 28

What better cure for the Mondays can there be than a StatSpeak roundtable.  Today, StatSpeak is proud to welcome Geoff Young of Ducksnorts (where Geoff writes about the San Diego Padres) as well as Baseball Digest Daily, and The Hardball TimesGeoff joins Eric and Pizza in a discussion of what you should be seeing on the bottom of your screen, Trevor Hoffman, and which player who’s had a crazy good start to the season has the best chance of keeping things up.
Question #1: Trevor Hoffman — small sample size victim or toast.
Geoff Young: I’m going to cheat and say a little of each. On the one hand, I don’t feel comfortable making a firm judgment based on eight games to start the season. On the other, Hoffman is 40 years old and he hasn’t been dominant since the ’90s. Skills erode.  From a visual standpoint, what concerns me most is his decreased ability to locate the fastball. He used to be deadly accurate with that pitch, but not so much thus far in ’08. Whenever Hoffman has had this sort of problem in the past, he’s been able to correct it quickly. We’re still waiting for that to happen this time, and at his age, there’s no guarantee that it will.
From a statistical standpoint, the declining strikeouts are a huge yellow flag. His K/9 over the past five years in which he was healthy paints a troubling picture:
2002: 10.47
2004: 8.73
2005: 8.43
2006: 7.14
2007: 6.91
There isn’t a way to cast those numbers in a positive light. At the same time, largely because of smarts and great control, Hoffman has managed to remain effective despite decreased dominance. Here’s his ERA+ over that same period:
2002: 137
2004: 168
2005: 130
2006: 189
2007: 135
There’s no identifiable pattern, but from looking at the K/9, it’s clear that he’s more mirrors than smoke at this point. The agonizing part of the equation, from the standpoint of the Padres and their fans, is that by the time enough of a sample is gathered, it’s probably too late to make the right decision. This, of course, is why hindsight is 20-20. I’d say give him another month or so to right the ship. If Hoffman still hasn’t figured it out by the end of May, then slap together a new plan.
Eric Seidman: I would personally be inclined to think it’s a sample size issue right now but there seems to be luck-based factors at work, as well.  Hoffman’s K/BB has plummeted since 2004, dropping from 6.63 to 2.93 last year–currently at 2.00–however his current K/9 is actually higher than in 2006 and 2007.  As of this moment his percentage of line drives has decreased from 17% to 7% while his grounder frequency has jumped from 30% to 39%.  His BABIP is currently the second-highest it has ever been in his career, likely as a result of the grounder increase.  Labeling is a big factor in situations like this, as I’m sure Pizza can attest to, because once we say something about a person, every subsequent action is viewed in this light.  When Brad Lidge gave up the home run to Pujols in the playoffs, he was labeled a mentally bruised and battered pitcher.  Playing directly into a convenience factor, Lidge posted a 5.28 ERA the following year and lost his spot.  Most in the media wrote him off as having a fragile psyche because he followed a devastating home run surrendered with a seemingly subpar season.  His FIP in 2006 was 3.84.  His FIP last year, when he had a solid on-the-surface statistical season?  3.84.  He was unlucky in 2006 and a tad lucky last year but because he was given the label of being toast we viewed every blown save as more evidence of his demise.  With regards to Hoffman, it seems that he is currently a bit unlucky, as his FIP is 1.5 points lower than his ERA as well as the aforementioned factors.  I’d love to revisit this question in June or July to see where he stands.  He won’t be good forever but I think this is a bit overblown.  (Ed. note: When did Eric get a degree in psychology? – P.C.)
Pizza Cutter: Mmmmm, I like toast… Well, it takes about 150 PA’s to get even some basic pitching stats to stabilize enough that they can really be counted reliable.  As I write this, Trevor has faced 40.  His BABIP is high, as is his HR/FB, so luck has not been his friend.  On that evidence, I’d say he’s just the victim of a small sample size.  But, there are a few concerning signs.  Trevor hasn’t lost much velocity off his pitches (assuming that FanGraphs has good data on Hoffman’s pitch selection), but he’s been throwing more sliders than normal, at the expense of his changeup.  Why would a pitcher who’s had success in the past mess around that drastically with his pitch selection?  (An injury?  A lack of confidence in the changeup?  Maybe he has new confidence in the slider now.)  Plus, both last year and this year, he’s seen a decent sized jump in his fly ball rate.  Last year, he gave up a ridiculously low HR/FB so he got away with it.  This year, he might not be so fortunate.  Closers are usually brought into high leverage situations where a home run is catastrophic for his team.  Sure, Hoffman pitches at Petco, so it might not be as big a concern half the time, but still, it’s not like it’s a good idea to be giving up so many fly balls.  Then, there’s the issue of his strikeout rate creeping downward (although his current rate is creeping back up to 8 per 9 innings), and his walk rate creeping upward.  Since his velocity isn’t down, perhaps it’s his control that is fading?  He is 40 years old.  I have a hard time reading too much into stats this early in the season, but I do see some signs for concern, even dating back to last season.
Question #2: It’s no secret that many in the analytical community despise batting average as the tell-all stat most commonly found.  One of the biggest reasons it will seemingly forever be entrenched in our minds as a great evaluative method is that it is the central statistic on all TV broadcasts.  In a perfect world, where everyone was open-minded to better performance indicators, what would your ideal TV lower third look like?  Currently it is BA/HR/RBI and keep in mind that, at most, an effective lower third will have four statistics, though it is generally only three.
Geoff Young: I would go with BA/OBP/SLG. Home runs are marginally useful, but only as a freak stat — might as well be doubles. I don’t have any interest in RBI, except in fantasy terms. Batting average is useless as an evaluative stat, but I kind of like having it there as a link to the past. I mean, we can’t just throw stuff like RC/27, VORP, and wOBA up on the
screen. Those who are compelled to do so can get a decent idea of a guy’s production from OBP and SLG. If you’re lazy like me, you can just add ‘em together to come up with a garbage number that mostly works. If you’re clever, you can multiply them for a better number. And if you have no use for all that stuff, just look at the batting average and be content with the “knowledge” that Juan Pierre is a great hitter. If we added a fourth statistic, I’d choose OPS+. I could make an argument to include it over batting average, but again, my traditionalist foundation won’t let some things go, no matter how irrational they might be.
Eric Seidman: When determining how to attack this answer I decided to think of certain stats out there easily enough described to someone outside of the saber-world, that would offer solid evaluative measures without coming off too convoluted to those unfamiliar.  The first that crept into my mind was OPS+.  Though, like with most stats, it has its flaws, the “+” stats are better for comparing production to the rest of the league.  I found, through surveys, that most baseball fans outside of the statistical spectrum, are weary of OBP, SLG, and OPS, because they are not as familiar with the baselines as batting average.  With BA, they know .300 is good, .250 is eh, and under .250 is bad.  With the others they have cursory knowledge of the baselines but not enough to really see an OBP or SLG and intuitively understand its value.  Having OPS+ in the line would be invaluable to a viewer because he could then understand the production level without knowing anything other than above 100 means better than average.  There are a number of other statistics I would love to know about a given player in a given PA of a given game, but I really believe that the best way to attack the stat-line would be similar to how CN8 does it in minor league telecasts.  They still use BA/HR/RBI, but have a fourth stat designed to offer up information specific to the player.  If Jose Reyes comes up, I don’t care about his HR/RBI, I would be curious about his SB or SB%.  If Pat Burrell comes up, I don’t care about his BA, because I know his ISO will be very high.  Perhaps something along the lines of OPS+, HR, RBI, and then a Personalized Statistic would be better. 
Pizza Cutter: First off, for the most brilliant recap of the follies of batting average, read Joe Posnanski’s take on the subject (h/t Mets Geek).  In an ideal world, where people really were open to new ideas, I’d nominate Tom Tango’s Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) to replace AVG.  It kinda looks like on-base percentage, with the events more properly weighted (OBP weights a home run the same as a walk).  If not, can we at least get AVG changed to OBP?  Home runs are actually fine by me.  They do tell us something interesting about a batter himself.  People like seeing HR, and HR are something that a batter seems to actually have a skill in producing, so we might as well keep it around for old-time’s sake.  RBI can be placed into the ocean and replaced with a runs created-based or some sort of linear weights-based measure.  RC/27 or /G or /25.5 is fine (argue amongst yourselves as to which is exactly the best.)  It sorta duplicates the wOBA framework (they’re both based on linear weights of some type), but batters also get an RBI for a HR.  For the fourth stat, some sort of contextualization of the batter in terms of the position he plays would work well.  VORP seems well-suited.  Perhaps if he’s a utility guy who’s getting a start to give someone a day off or a guy who moves around a lot depending on platoons or matchups or the mood of the manager, they might post his VORP comparable to the position that he is actually playing that day.  Also, I saw ESPN experiment with this a little bit (on a college WS broadcast), but maybe in addition to the scoreboard, they might put win probability numbers next to the team’s scores?
Question #3: Speaking of small sample sizes, which early season wonder has at least a chance to keep up his insane pace or something like it?
Geoff Young: Justin Upton. He won’t keep the OPS+ over 150 all year, but if he stays in the 130s — which I think he can — then the Ken Griffey Jr. comps start looking real smart. Pitchers will figure Upton out eventually, but he’s good enough to make the necessary adjustments.
In the American League, Casey Kotchman and Nick Markakis are young enough that their improvements could be real. Kotchman showed signs of life last year after battling numerous injuries to start his career. He may not be able to keep up his current home-run pace, but the 37 doubles in ’07 and excellent strike-zone judgment suggest a legit middle-of-the-order threat. Maybe John Olerud with fewer walks?
Markakis is more established, and it’s unreasonable to expect a guy to improve on what he did last year. Then again, he’s only 24 years old. At this point, I feel silly placing limits on his upside.
Eric Seidman:  There are many players that will fail to keep this up, but instead of looking at rookies I want to look at some of the more-known commodities currently playing out of their element (Donny).  Pat Burrell is an interesting case as he has been a model of consistency the past three seasons:
2005: .389 OBP, .504 SLG, .892 OPS
2006: .388 OBP, .502 SLG, .890 OPS
2007: .400 OBP, .502 SLG, .902 OPS
This year he currently rests at a .462 OBP, .714 SLG, and 1.176 OPS.  Based on his past three seasons and propensity for streaks I would chalk him up as someone likely to have a very good season but not necessarily close to the MVP-caliber numbers he is currently putting up.
Hanley Ramirez is another interesting case.  He won’t finish the season with the same ridiculous numbers he currently has but he is a speedster so his increase in groundball percentage will not hurt him as much as it would for someone with significantly less speed.  His BABIP is also very similar to what it was last year. 
Pizza Cutter: The Indians fan in me wants desperately for the answer to be “Cliff Lee.”  However, the man has a BABIP of .154, and while he’s given up about a 45% fly ball rate, he has yet to allow a home run.  Plus, he’s faced KC, Oakland, and Minnesota.  It looks like he’s back to being a good pitcher (i.e., not the 2007 version that got sent to AAA), but he is not Sandy Koufax.
Chase Utley, who for some reason doesn’t get any love (he’s the third most talked about member of his own infield… though the best member), will not finish the year with a .374 AVG (2nd in baseball to Larry Wayne Jones), nor will he hit 60-some HR (he’s hit 10 in 116 PA’s, which leads baseball).  Now, with that said, he’s currently 29, and he’s walking more and striking out less than last year and he’s hitting more line drives than last year.  The home run surge comes from a surge in HR/FB (almost a quarter of his fly balls have left the yard this year), and I doubt that he will sustain that rate, but he’s showing steady incremental improvements over the past few years in some of his peripheral stats, and last year, he hit .332/.410/.566.  A 1.000 OPS looks almost like a given, and so does serious MVP consideration.  The baseball fan who’s been paying attention probably knows how good Chase Utley is, but I’m wondering whether the rest of America is in on the secret yet.

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4 Responses to StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: April 28

  1. The Psych degree? Well, you’re wearing off on me! I think the only problem with having something like VORP in the lower third would be that people are going to be even less familiar with its baselines, especially because it grows throughout the season. Somebody watching is more likely to have trouble understanding what a 3.6 VORP means through 6 games than what, say, a wOBA or OPS+ tells them.

  2. [...] good folks at Statistically Speaking have invited me to participate in their latest roundtable discussion. In it, we talk about Trevor Hoffman, stats on TV broadcasts, and small-sample [...]

  3. LynchMob says:

    Great Q&A … thanks!
    I was reading a “blog” at the SDUT and noticed that BAs were used in a way to further the point of the writer … whereas going to more/better stats would have been counter-productive to the tone and/or point of his post … hmmm … so I left a comment pointing back to Question #2 here … fyi …
    http://www3.signonsandiego.com/weblogs/minor-league/2008/apr/25/beavers-prospects-slow/#sosd_comments

  4. Pizza Cutter says:

    Well that’s right nice of you to hype us up like that. Maybe some day, there will be “mainstream” journalists who listen to us baseball nerds.

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