World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: September 3

Our humble round table welcomes a new guest knight.  Please welcome to this week’s version of the roundtable, Will Carroll of Baseball ProspectusWill has been kind enough to join us here on StatSpeak for a record-setting five-person roundtable.  He joins us in a discussion of the ghosts of trade deadline deals past, injuries and Sabermetrics, C.C.’s sorta no-hitter, instant replay, and who will be looking in from the outside on the AL playoffs in October.
Question #1: When I started doing ”Under the Knife” seven years ago, there were no stats and people didn’t think that injuries and sabermetrics went together. I’m still not sure they do, but to me, it’s about information. You guys are stats guys — how would you go about mixing the two?
Will Carroll: I think it comes down to a bit of luck. Is it someone getting hot and carrying the team? Is it an injury that costs them a premier player for a couple weeks or worse? I know that luck is probably the worst thing to say on a site like this but I think its the best way to say that small things make a huge difference and I’m not sure which ones. I think we get lost in this fog because we’re seeing quantifiable effects but in such small quantities that we don’t notice, things that amount to 0.1 runs or less, but enough of them that they add up.
Brian Cartwright: Well, my day job is in data processing, which include designing methods of data collection. So one of my current projects is designing a comprehensive database that hopefully will include everything we can get our hands on, from season stats and play by play to transactions and injuries, as opposed to narrowly constructed ad hoc databases. I’d like to be able to look at the pre injury data and see if there are any indicators, such as simple to derive stuff like lists of pitchers headed to a Verducci Effect (and then test how true it is). Post injury, be able to see how well players recover from various types of injuries.
I know Will has done much of this on his own, but I’d like to see the injury data married to the stats and projections to enable more of us to do these kind of studies.
Colin Wyers: That’s sort of the unexplored frontier of sabermetrics – introducing traditional sorts of data into our models. What’s lacking right now is a good record of who got injured, where, and how. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to that point, but people like Tom Ruane of Retrosheet are working on that sort of data – and all of us who research baseball owe the folks of Retrosheet a huge debt.
Eric Seidman: A fusion of injuries and sabermetrics is something I have actually discussed with Will on numerous occasions because now, with Pitch F/X data in full bloom, there are certain avenues we can explore.  For instance, one idea of Will’s (that I wholeheartedly support) is that pitchers that are on the verge of injury will have consistent release points with inconsistent results.  Before, this really could not be studied, but now it can.  We can run analyses to see which pitchers fit the bill.  Or, if someone is experiencing a “dead arm” we can look to their movement.  Stats cannot tell us everything about injuries, but just like all other aspects of analysis, the combo of numbers and scouting will ultimately prove to be key in this combination.
Pizza Cutter: I don’t think that the two are opposed at all.  I do agree that injury analysis isn’t really something that fits nicely into any of the Sabermetric models that we have now, but that’s more of an engineering problem.  To really pursue this line of study, one would have to be familiar with bio-mechanics and statistics, plus have a fairly extensive injury database handy.  (So basically, you, Will.)  Even at that point, there’s going to be a lot of statistical noise.  Suppose that Larry has an elbow problem and goes on the 15 day DL.  Even if we assume that we know exactly when he was hurt (and when it started hurting his performance), we’ll never really know how hurt he was.  How can we tell if it’s not just him having a bad string of luck?  Maybe with a big enough sample, we can detect a signal, but it’s going to be hard to find.  Calculating the complete absence of a player is fairly easy.  Calculating what it means to have a player at 80% is a lot harder.
The other side of the Sabermetric-injury nexus is predicting who’s an injury risk.  My guess is that some team (or several) out there hired an actuary to study just that and they’re keeping it close to the vest.  (Can’t blame them.)  Plus, with many teams already insuring contracts, someone out there in the insurance industry must be running some sort of tables.

Question #2: So, now that we’ve got past the big rollout and have (or really haven’t) seen it in action yet, do we still care about instant replay?
Will Carroll: Shouldn’t we wait to see it in action a few times before we make any statements? I think you numbers guys call that a “small sample size.” Really small. Zero.
Brian Cartwright: I think it’s fine as long as they don’t take as long as the NFL to watchnevery possible angle. Then again, when someone doesn’t agree with the call, they can be out there arguing for 5 or 10 minutes until someone gets tossed. In the end, I believe it will give the fans more confidence that the game came out the way it was supposed to.
Colin Wyers: I think now that we’re over the initial sky is falling phase, people are going to realize that the fundamental game of baseball hasn’t changed. You’ll always have some people who reflexively resist change, but for the most part fans really want to see a clean game called, and if they’re getting instant replays they’re going to want the field staff to have them, too.
Eric Seidman: I didn’t really think it was a big deal, and honestly, haven’t even noticed it is in place.  I still think it will ultimately help but, as far as right now, this seems like that girl you tried to get for a while in high school and, upon finally getting her to like you, ending the chase, the lusty feelings vanish.  Instant replay will definitely help correct calls, but perhaps this is a case of writers needing something to talk about non-stop during the dog days of summer.
Pizza Cutter: So that’s why the sky was falling this weekend.  I have a feeling that instant replay will be much like interleague play.  People will whine about it at first, and there will always be some die-hards who think it’s a bad idea, but you don’t hear people complaining much about inter-league play any more.  It’s just part of the game.  (I was going to use the example of the DH rule, but that one will never die.)  For years, people have whined when umpires get a call wrong and it changes some major outcome.  Now, there’s something that will help them get the call right… and people whine.  Conclusion: some people just like to whine.
Question #3: Why hasn’t anyone on the Brewers realized that if the LaRoche hit is called an error, it does not guarantee that every single thing that happened from that point on would have remained the same?
Will Carroll: I don’t really have an answer to that. I don’t think anyone on the Brewers really cares. Ned is a bit perturbed, but I think he’s just doing that to stand up for his players. I don’t think most people in baseball are ready for Everett’s work on quantum mechanics.
Brian Cartwright: First, that’s the way the scoring rules instruct us to think, reconstruct the inning as if the play had not occurred. And, of course, they want glory for their teammate. But, they should know that it’s not nice to whine, and
that anything can happen at anytime. I was only up to Friday listening to the Pirates games on Gameday. Now I guess I don’t have to listen to Sunday’s game, since yinz let me know who won.
Colin Wyers: I don’t think that’s true – an error is not a fundamental fact of baseball. And whether or not that play is scored an error has no effect on the play on the field. It’s amazing how much attention is payed to picayune scoring details that have no effect on the outcome of a game; there’s no way you could go back months later and change a home run to a foul ball, because it matters. The difference between a hit and a reach on error, on a fundamental level, doesn’t mean a thing to the results of the game at hand.
Eric Seidman: I honestly don’t know.  I’m not saying that things, point blank, would have been different, but that doubt exists.  Maybe Sabathia gets nervous, maybe the Pirates gather some pride in an attempt to avoid being no-hit.  On top of that, this no-hitter would exist in the record books but nobody would remember it because there would be no highlight footage to put on Sportscenter or anything like that.  Note to Brewers: shut up and enjoy the win, focus on making the playoffs, and beating the Mets (to help my Phillies).
Pizza Cutter: I think that the Brewers actually have a much better case for negative history (what would have happened if B would have happened instead of A) than the usual situation that brings this sort of thinking up.  For example, what if Bill Buckner had made that play?   Well, we have no way of really knowing.  (Game 6 would have gone to the 11th inning.)  Whether we call the LaRoche plate appearance an error or a hit, Sabbathia still had LaRoche to deal with at first.  All we’re arguing over is what to call the play, not changing of the actual physics of what happened to the ball.  I suppose there could be something said for C.C. not having to think about the pressure of keeping a no-hitter alive, but from a game situation point of view, whether it was a hit or an error, there’s no difference.  That said, I would have called it an error and in my heart, C.C. pitched a no-hitter.
Question #4: John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander; Moises Alou for Zane Smith; Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen; Matt LaPorta for CC Sabathia Is the chance of the postseason now worth the years of future value surrendered? Especially if someone like Sabathia leaves via free agency?
Will Carroll: I think the Tigers like their World Series ring. You’re citing the extreme examples. How many trades DON’T work? Are the A’s crowing about their haul for Harden? Heck, I can’t even remember what trades went down last season that might be equivalent. I think we overrate both the value that a team gets when they make a deadline deal (which makes getting Sabathia early smarter) and that things get passed back for the privilege. Baseball bar talk like this has no control group and our memories love the exceptions.
Brian Cartwright: I guess it is best to be bold and go for it. High risk, high reward. Rings are forever. Fans can be turned off if they think the team isn’t trying to win. However, even though Smith had several good years with the Pirates, they never advanced to the World Series.and after 15 straight losing seasons, Alou is still out there hitting hitting well. I have a hard time forgetting. LaPorta is one of the premier talents in the minors today. A Series championship will be long remembered in Milwaukee, but If the Cubs win the division and Sabathia flees via free agency, it might be hard to see LaPorta putting up big numbers in Cleveland year after year.
Colin Wyers: You have to read your chances of making the postseason correctly. The Brewers made out a lot better than, say, the Phillies trading for Joe Blanton.
Eric Seidman: There is no concrete answer to this because it differs for every team, or owner.  The Brewers figured they weren’t going to resign Ben Sheets and so it might be a few years before they can seriously contend again.  Last year gave fans a sour taste after coming so close and falling short, and if they felt Sabathia could rejuvenate the team and earn them a playoff berth, can you fault them?  The ideal situation would be succeeding now while simultaneously bringing along youngsters to fill voids or replace veterans, but not every team has that luxury.  The Brewers felt they needed to capitalize on this year and more power to them. 
When you see a team like the Astros mortgage some farmhands to make the playoffs, you scratch your head, because even with Tejada and Wolf, they weren’t going anywhere.  I guess the real answer is that the best thing to do is have a realistic, sane view of your team and personnel, knowing the likelihood of the post-season now and over the next couple of years, and making a decision based on that.
Pizza Cutter: As an Indians fan, I sure hope that Matt LaPorta turns out as well as the other three!  A baseball season has a binary outcome.  You either won the World Series or you didn’t.  Trading a young, talented player is always a risk, but it’s pointless to win the “most efficient dollars/win ratio” award, while always finishing just out of the running for the post-season.  Risk is part of the game.  The goal is to be a smart-er risk taker, but in making a deadline trade like that, you’re always making a high-risk, high-reward bet.  It’s easy when it’s not your rear end on the line (like those of us out here in the commentariat) like it is for a MLB GM. 
Let’s assume that Sabbathia really does end up being the difference maker for the Brewers in getting to the post-season (looks like he will be).  Let’s also assume that he leaves in free agency (very likely) and LaPorta in two years is one of the best players in baseball (oh please oh please oh please).  Were the Brewers bad for having done it?  Well, you can’t have cake every day. So, as my father taught me, you plays your games and you takes your chances.
Question #5: Chicago, Minnesota, Boston.  Who will get kicked off the island come the end of September?
Will Carroll: Joe Maddon said he wanted to get nine more wins from the pitchers, nine more wins from the offense, and nine more wins from the defense this season and if so, he thought they’d make the playoffs. I’m curious if that’s how they did it. Looking at those three teams in that light, I’d worry that Boston is the most talented, but has the most things that could go wrong. Minnesota is the least talented, but has been having everything go right. Chicago seems to have one guy carrying the team at any given time. I’d think that it will be Minnesota that’s on the outside looking in.
Brian Cartwright: I don’t have a clear choice here, but I’ll say Minnesota. Although they have a good rotation, all are young and yet to be established, and the lineup doesn’t have the depth of Boston or Chicago.
Colin Wyers: I don’t like saying this – I’d rather not have to worry about the Southsiders come October, and I’d really prefer not to have to deal with the hype machine that will start up the second a crosstown series becomes a real possiblity – but the White Sox are a better team than the Twins. As close as the race is and as few games as there are left in the season it’s certainly not definative, but you have to bet on the team with the better odds.
You can build a case – based on things like run differential and strength of schedule – that the Red Sox are currently the best team in baseball. Again, at this point of the season all bets are off, but you have to bet on the best information you have at hand.
Eric Seidman: Though I’m trained to analyze statistics, it is hard not to go with my gut on this one in saying that the Red Sox will find a way to make the playoffs no matter what.  That leaves us with the White Sox and Twins, both in the AL Central.  The most likely scenario is that the Rays win the East, Red Sox win Wild Card, Angels win the Central, and these two teams will duke it out for the AL Central with the winner getting no consolation prize.  The Twins have played well enough this year and for a long enough stint for me to look past the whole “well, they’re young and they will falter” or anything along those lines.
What I don’t see many people discuss in scenarios like this is the schedule.  The Twins and White Sox have a 3-game series in Minnesota right before the final series of the season, but otherwise, the Twinkies are dealing with the Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Indians, Orioles, and Rays.  Forgive me if those teams minus the Rays don’t strike fear into me.  The White Sox also play the Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, and Indians but have the Yankees and Angels as opposed to the Orioles and Rays.  By that time the Yankees will likely be officially gone and the Angels might be resting up.  Hmm, you know what?  I’ll take the Twins.  I would just be very happy (sarcastic) to see all those articles about how the Twins got better by unloading Johan.
Pizza Cutter: The Red Sox have a couple game lead on the other two and a better run differential, so it looks like they’ll either take the Wild Card, or if something weird happens, the division.  So, we’re down to the Twins and the White Sox, and the Twins have the lesser run differential.  Plus, with the Twins, I worry about any team that falls into the “but he’s fast!” trap with their leadoff hitter (Carlos Gomez… although Denard Span has more recently become the leadoff hitter), and anyone who would want to trade for Jarrod Washburn (even if they didn’t offer Boof Bonser).  The Twins have Mauer and Morneau… and thier third-best VORPer is Jason Kubel.  You can only ride on luck so long.  The White Sox have a better run differential, a higher collective team VORP both pitching-wise and hitting-wise.  I’m guessing that Ozzie and the White Sox are headed back to the post-season.

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6 Responses to World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: September 3

  1. studes says:

    Minor nit: the Tigers didn’t win a World Series ring in 1987. They didn’t even make it to the World Series.
    Excuse the self-promotion, but this article might be useful for judging trades like that:
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/smoltz-for-alexander/

  2. dan says:

    Wait, the guests write the questions?

  3. Brian Cartwright says:

    Excellent article Dave. I asked that question of the group, and that was the kind of responses I was looking for. It is very true that some wins are more valuable than others. Going from 65 to 70 is far different than going from 85 to 90. In the Alexander for Smoltz deal, Detroit got what they wanted in the short term, even though they fell short of a championship. In the case of Zane Smith, he led the Pirates to three division championships before his career ran out of gas, while Moises just keeps going. It’s easier to take a risk on a deal like this when you have a deep farm system that can help cover the traded player. Milwaukee trades LaPorta, but still has Gamel, and Braun from last year.

  4. dan says:

    I left a comment before and it didn’t stick for some reason. This is try #2, without content.

  5. Pizza Cutter says:

    Dan, for some reason your comments went to the spam filter. Not sure why… Anyway, the way we’ve been doing it, All the participants write one question each, and we all answer all the questions. So, back when it was Eric and I and a guest, we’d have three questions. Now that Brian and Colin are on-board (plus a guest), we usually have five.

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