A new framework for offensive evaluation: Total Production

If you’ll apologize with me being brief with you, I have some (you guessed it) linear weights for your edification and entertainment.

This is an update to the “RE from zero” method I introduced a while back. There are two key differences:

  1. Instead of doing the entire Retroera, I simply used what I am calling the modern offensive era, 1994-2007. (I don’t have 2008 Retrosheet data yet, because nobody does.)
  2. I have made some corrections to the way I was figuring out the negative run value of the out.

Here is the run expectancy table, 1994-2007:

OUTS
RUN1
RUN2
RUN3
0
0.395
0.613
0.842
1
0.265
0.412
0.658
2
0.131
0.229
0.287
3
0.000
0.000
0.000

And now, the linear weights, broken down by component:

SHORTNAME
LONGNAME
NUM
RUN
RBI
OUT
LWTS
Out
Generic Out
1223130
0.005
0.028
-0.132
-0.099
K
Strikeout
419719
0.001
0.003
-0.117
-0.114
SB
Stolen Base
35402
0.170
0.000
0.000
0.170
CS
Caught Stealing
19585
0.036
0.000
-0.271
-0.236
NIBB
Walk
203512
0.256
0.065
0.000
0.320
IBB
Intentional Walk
17489
0.196
0.005
0.000
0.201
HBP
Hit By Pitch
22391
0.265
0.082
0.000
0.347
1B
Single
395520
0.272
0.206
-0.004
0.474
2B
Double
117508
0.426
0.337
-0.002
0.761
3B
Triple
12505
0.606
0.429
0.000
1.036
HR
Home Run
69809
1.000
1.401
0.000
1.401

And now I have some ‘splaining to do. These are “absolute” linear weights, as compared to linear weights above average (the usual presentation). These are not derived from a standard run expectancy table, and so no additional effort was made to reconcile them with absolute runs scored and as such I have no method employed. (Since converting LWTS from above-average to absolute runs is a topic of some confusion and no little controversy – or at least that’s how it feels to me – I really need to do a longer write-up of the issue at some point.)

I’ve arranged the values so that they match up with the three basic elements of scoring runs: providing a baserunner, advancing a baserunner and making outs. You’ll note that I am double-counting the home run; this is because doing so provides us with linear weights values that match up well with a player’s runs scored and runs batted in, at least for the population as a whole.

The benefit of this approach – at least to my thinking – is that you can present linear weights as context-neutral runs scored and runs batted in, with a third component – a player’s negative contribution by making outs.

I’m calling it Total Production, because to be quite frank I can’t come up with anything better and I should be in bed already. I am throwing myself on the mercy of you, the reader, to give me a better name. Please give me a better name.

And… here is your Total Production leaderboard from 1994-2007, minimum 300 PAs. (For no other reason than the size limit of a table I can publish via EditGrid.)

From here, you could do a lot of things with the numbers – add in park adjustments, provide versions for different baselines like above average or replacement level, combine them with some defensive metrics so that the “total” part of the name isn’t an absolute lie.

I should note that I’m not claiming any benefit from using these weights over any similarly capable set of linear weights appropriate to the time period involved. The only potential benefit I’m claiming here is in the presentation of the data – it occurred to me that some people might have an easier time approaching linear weights if they were presented in the guise of the traditional counting stats. Let me know if you think so, too.

World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: October 29

Unlike the World Series, the roundtable doesn’t care what the weather is like.  This week, the special chair has in it Chris Dial of Baseball Think Factory’s Dialed In.  Chris joins the StatSpeak crew mostly to talk about the World Series, which the Phillies are currently leading 3.5 games to 1.5 games (only in Philadelphia!).  Plus we talk about the new Mariners’ GM and that rascally Manny Ramirez.

Question #1: With his apparent attitude change in LA, and getting away from the Green Monster (most data indicates he was “just” somewhat below average), and averaging an OPS+ in the 150s the last four seasons, is Manny worth the money (4yr $80 mil)?

Chris Dial: Manny, to me, looks like he’s going to post a 160 OPS+.  Yes, if he posts a 130 OPS+ and plays his worst defense, he’ll only be an average LF, and not worth $20 mil, but I think he’s going to be worth it.  He also wasn’t a terrible fielder in Cleveland, and really saw his defensive numbers nosedive after his first few years in Boston.  There may well have been a larger psychological component to that than was originally thought.  His play in LA wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t many innings, but he wasn’t terrible.  If he stays in the NL, and Bonds doesn’t sign, I think he’ll be the best LF, and that’s worth $20 mil a year.  I also think he’ll age well enough to warrant that contract.

Brian Cartwright: I’ll give him two years with an option. Desppite the production, at his age I will not commit past age 38, although would probably have to give him just about $20m each for those seasons.

Colin Wyers: Due to the yeoman/apprenticeship setup of MLB, it’s impossible for teams to adequately compensate players during what is arguably their overall prime, once defense and baserunning are taken into account. Because of that – and the related fact that there’s a lot of money seeking a mate – teams will overpay players based upon future production in free agency; they’re paying for past production, essentially paying a player money he should have made years ago.

The problem for whoever signs Manny next is that Manny already got that compensatory money, and then some. They’re not even going to overpay for the elite Manny that the Red Sox got to overpay for; they’re going to get to overpay for the Manny who probably won’t even be very good in 2-3 years. (Yes, defense matters.)

Eric Seidman: Well, it depends how we phrase the question.  Is he worth 20 mil a year?  Probably, based on the merchandise and tickets that he adds to whatever teams he goes to as well as his ridiculous offense.  If he goes to an AL team and can be a DH then he is definitely worth the 20 mil in my eyes.  The four years is where I would draw the line, though.  Boras was on Jim Rome’s show today and spoke of how Barry Bonds got a 5-yr deal at age 37, and I kept thinking to myself that, well, they are not the same person.  Manny is one of the best offensive players of all time… Barry Bonds IS the best offensive player of all time.

Pizza Cutter: Someone will give it to him, because for some reason, contract value is determined by what Scott Boras says rather than some sort of logical calculation of what a player’s actual value will be.  This reminds me a lot of the Pedro Martinez situation a few years ago.  Pedro was coming off a fantastic run of years, but the contract he signed was excessive, especially going four years for an old pitcher, and sure enough, the Mets looked like fools in the last two years of the deal.  Manny is a really good player, but betting on a 36 year old is a really bad idea.

Read more of this post

Pitch F/X Audit: Seattle Mariners

Last week marked the introduction of my year in review series using the tremendous Pitch F/X data to examine the splits and frequencies of pitchers in different situations.  Since Pizza Cutter and I decided to base our order on reverse Pythagorean wins, we began with the Nationals.  Just like last week, you will see Pizza’s year in review on Monday, with my Pitch F/X audit of that same team today.  While we began with the Washington Nationals, who play in Washington, DC, we now move to the state of Washington, to take a look at the Seattle Mariners, one of the most disappointing teams of 2008. 

They spent the off-season trading the farm for Erik Bedard and inking Carlos Silva to an absolutely ridiculous contract in an attempt to build upon their success in 2007.  Unfortunately, Bedard missed half of the season while Silva produced one of the worst pitched seasons in all of baseball.  Add in a poor season from the washed up Jarrod Washburn and extremely poor performances from Miguel Batista and there was not too much production out of the rotation after Felix Hernandez. 

A big problem with the Mariners rotation can be found in some pitiful strikeout to walk ratios.  King Felix posted a solid 175/80, but Washburn (87/50), Bedard (72/37) and Batista (73/79) walked too many in relation to their punchouts.  On top of that, even though Silva’s K/BB rose above 2.0, he fanned just 69 in 153.1 innings, a K/9 of 4.05.  I discussed at Fangraphs last week how, of the five worst bullpens via controllable skills, the Mariners relievers were actually somewhat solid at fanning hitters, with a K/9 above 7.0, and they finished tied for fourth with a 0.78 HR/9, but they, just like the starters, struggled with walking hitters.  Ryan Rowland-Smith, Sean Green, and Mark Lowe all produced K/BB ratios below 2.0, and JJ Putz chimed in at exactly 2.0.  The only standout in this regard amongst their relievers was Brandon Morrow, who was groomed into a starter at the end of the season.  Let’s get into the Pitch F/X data and frequency splits.

Overall Velocity
First up, let us take a look at the overall velocities for the ten most prominent pitchers on the Mariners staff this season.  I decided not to include the overall frequencies of pitches because it is much more interesting to see how they are broken down in specific situations, which we will see later on.  To view the velocities, click here.

King Felix still has a very lively fastball, in the 94-95 mph range, and throws his offspeed pitches at least seven miles per hour less, which helps with regards to differences in relative velocity, or how another pitch looks due to the velocity of the preceding or subsequent delivery.  Washburn has never thrown particularly hard, but has been able to stick around this long due to movement and a somewhat nice mixture of offspeed pitches.

We see a nice mix of velocities amongst the relief corps, as Morrow, Putz, and Lowe all through fastballs at 94+ mph, while Rowland-Smith and Green average below 90 mph.  They exhibit a bigger dropoff in velocity from fastballs to offspeed pitches, though, which could make their heaters look much faster.

Frequency Splits by Hitters
Next up, we will take a look at how the frequency and percentage of certain pitchers differs to left-handed and right-handed hitters.  To view the spreadsheet, click here.

Felix Hernandez was consistent with fastball usage, but threw more curves and changeups to lefties, significantly more sliders to righties.  Washburn jumped from 57% to lefties to 68% fastballs against righties, simultaneously decreasing his usage of curves and sliders to those same right-handed hitters.  Against righties, he basically became a fastball-changeup pitcher, whereas he was much more balanced against those on the left side of the batters box.  Against lefties, Silva was a fastball-changeup pitcher, but when the batters went to the opposite side, he replaced half of his changeups with sliders.

Bedard was primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher regardless of who he faced, though he did throw a higher percentage of heaters to lefties.  Batista threw just 47.8% fastball to lefties and remained below 50% against righties, relying much more on offspeed pitches than anyone else on the staff.  In fact, against righties, he threw his slider 42.3% of the time.  Rowland-Smith, who we previously established does not have a very lively fastball, also hovers around the 50% mark to both lefties and righties, but Sean Green is actually the opposite: he threw fastballs 79% to lefties and 72% to righties, despite failing to break 90 mph in average.

Morrow was a fastball-changeup pitcher to lefties and a fastball-slider guy to righties.  The same can be said for Mark Lowe and JJ Putz: they primarily threw fastballs, but their offspeed frequencies shifted from the secondary changeup to righties to the slider against lefties.

Bases Empty vs. Runners On
One aspect of the pitch frequency splits that always piqued my interest was how someone’s repertoire changed with runners on base.  To view the spreadsheet of frequencies with runners on vs. bases empty, click here.

In case you do not view the spreadsheet, Felix Hernandez was virtually identical in frequency with or without runners on base.  He didn’t increase offspeed usage or rely more on the fastball.  The same can be said for Jarrod Washburn.  Carlos Silva threw a higher percentage of changeups, but nothing earth-shatteringly drastic.  Bedard tended to rely more on the curveball with runners on than the bases empty, increasing his usage from 30% to 37%.  Miguel Batista, however, showed some very drastic splits.  With nobody on, he threw 53% fastballs, 3% curveballs, 32% sliders, 10% changeups, and 2% cutters.  With ducks on the pond, he threw 41% fastballs, no curveballs, 49% sliders, 5% changeups, and 5% cutters.  Essentially, he became a different pitcher when runners reached base.

Morrow, Green, and Lowe were all fairly consistent in their approach with runners on vs. bases empty, but Putz and Rowland-Smith had interesting shifts.  With nobody on, Putz threw 14% sliders and 12% changeups, however this shifted to 6% sliders and 15% changeups when runners reached base.  Likewise, Rowland-Smith dropped from 59% fastballs with nobody on to 48% fastballs when runners reached base, replacing the lost fastballs with an increased dosage of curveballs and changeups.

Progression Splits
Lastly, how did the repertoires of the Mariners starting staff differ as the game progressed?  As in, did the percentage of offspeed pitches for, say, Jarrod Washburn, increase from innings 4-6 compared to the first three innings?  To view the progression splits for Felix, Washburn, Silva, Bedard, and Batista, click here.

King Felix, as Dave Cameron pointed out last season, relied heavily on the fastball in the early stages of the game, throwing it upwards of 80% in the first three innings.  This frequency dropped to 71% through innings 4-6, and 63% from that point on, as his usage of curveballs and sliders gradually increased.  The same results can be found in the frequencies of Erik Bedard: he gradually reduced his fastball usage throughout the game from 66% to 57%, replacing them with curveballs, which rose from 31% to 40%. 

Washburn, Silva, and Batista all fell into a similar boat, one which involved a pretty big dropoff in fastballs from innings 1-3 to 4-6, but a regression after that point.  Unfortun
ately, the data is not really significant at this level due to the rarity of their starts lasting longer than six innings.

Moving Forward
Morrow will be in the rotation next season, giving King Felix some adequate help.  Though his results during the five starts at the end of the season were less than stellar, his “stuff” is too good not to succeed on some level.  He might not be an ace pitcher, but there is really no reason why he could not be the Matt Cain to Felix’s Tim Lincecum, an ironic analogy given the fact that Morrow was drafted before Lincecum… sorry, Mariners faithful.

Bedard is going to miss half of the season, and it will be interesting to see if their new general manager Jack Zduriencik opts to move him or keep him around.  Unfortunately, Silva, Washburn, and Batista are all signed through 2009, and while Silva and Batista could not possibly be worse than they were this past season, this triumvirate is not what a team trying to rebuild itself wants in their rotation.  It will be interesting to see what Trader Jack does with the rotation, but if the bullpen can reduce their walk rates and sustain the solid strikeout and home run rates from 2008, the M’s might have at least one bright spot moving forward.

As always, if there is anything specific with regards to pitch frequency splits that piques your interest, write me and let me know so I can add to this review, or incorporate into future audits.

  

2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Seattle Mariners

The tour bus moves along to another city that probably wants to forget that 2008 happened.  I have to wonder what it takes to be a fan of the Mariners.  Consider the following.  The Baseball Reference page for the 2008 Mariners is sponsored by an Angels blog.  Am I the only one who finds that funny?  Anyway, stop #2: Seattle.

Record: 61-101 (4th place, AL West)
Pythagorean Projection: 66.67 wins

Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs

MVN Blog:
Caffeinated Confines

Other Mariners Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors

Overview: To think that before last season, there was serious talk of the Mariners, who had just picked up Erik Bedard from the Orioles, as a possible playoff team.  How quickly things change!  The Mariners became the first ever 100 (million dollars in payroll)/ 100 (loss, OK actually 101) team in baseball history.

What went right:  Raul Ibanez has officially reached that guy status.  Ask a casual fan of the game about Ibanez and he’ll search his memory banks for a moment.  Then you’ll point out that he’s the guy who consistently puts up a .350 OBP and 20-some home runs and plays a decent left field for the Mariners.  He’s never been an All-Star, but your friend will think for a minute and go “Oh yeah!  That guy!”  Raul Ibanez is the best player that no one cares about.  Sadly for the Mariners, he’s a free agent.

Ichiro had 200 hits again.  And stole 43 bases.  And played a really good outfield.  And played in 162 games.  I actually saw him at a Mariners-Indians game this year.  Now I understand why the folks over at U.S.S. Mariner have a hard time being objective about him.  He’s fun to watch.  That might not be the same thing as “good”, but he sure is fun.  

What went wrong: Carlos Silva.  Somehow, signing a guy who puts up a .500 record with an ERA of 4-somethng to a four year contract worth eight digits per year didn’t turn out so well.  How weird that no one at all anywhere saw that one coming a mile away.  Someone call Kyle Lohse’s agent and congratulate him on having the foresight to cash in for his client before that particular lesson sunk in.

Yeah, that about sums it up: On June 23, 2008, in an interleague game in Shea Stadium against the Mets, Felix Hernandez came to the plate twice.  In the second inning, he took the first pitch that he saw (from Johan Santana!) over the wall in right-center for a grand slam.  In the fifth, he bunted Willie Bloomquist over from first to second.  In these, his only two plate appearances of the year, Felix Hernandez accumulated 0.30 WPA on offense.  This put him in fourth place on the team overall behind Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez, and Ichiro.   

Wlad the impaled: Is there something about this guy that I don’t get?  I understand that it’s fun to say Wladimir, but honestly, what’s the big deal with this guy?  We got to see him for 260 PAs in 2008 and he had a .250 on base percentage.  In AAA, of course, he hit like gangbusters.  What’s the difference between his AAA and MLB numbers?  He struck out in 32.5% of his plate appearances in the majors (and “only” 21% in his halcyon AAA days.)  OK, so he wasn’t ever going to be a singles hitter, but could he make it as a big bopper in the bigs?  Take a look at these swing numbers.  He swung at about 31% of the pitches thrown to him that were outside the strike zone, putting him well above the league median, and 65% of pitches in the zone, putting him well below the league median (min 250 PA).  My guess is that he’s got a lot of physical strength, but can’t read the strike zone.  That sort of approach might work well against inferior pitching (like the kind you’d find at AAA), but not at the big league level. 

What part of DH don’t you understand?: Will someone please explain the following list to me.  Jose Vidro 69, Jeff Clement 21, (list continues, and oddly, includes Miguel Cairo for a game.)  Those are the top two entries on the list of “who started the most games at DH for the Mariners in 2008″ list.  DH, for those of you who don’t know stands for designated hitter.  Maybe there’s a word in there that stands out.  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s not “designated.”  Yet, Vidro had a .274 OBP and Clement didn’t make it to .300 either.  Vidro did appear to have a weird outlier with a .254 BABIP, and most of his other peripheral stats were unchanged, so that might just be a freaky happenstance, but still…

Last year, I wrote: Sexson actually dropped his K rate from 2006 to 2007, increased his BB rate, and his batted ball profile was pretty much unchanged (he hit a few less line drives, and instead beat them into the ground.)  His BABIP was the culprit.  A gentleman who has normally put up a .280-.320 BABIP over a number of years suddenly saw it drop to .217.  In statistics, that’s called an outlier.  Sexson gets paid to hit 35 HR.  He also usually checks in with an equal number of doubles.  This year, he not only dropped to 21 HR, but he also only hit 21 two-baggers.  The other thing that changed was that he saw about a quarter of a pitch less (3.97 to 3.74) per plate appearance from 2006 to 2007.  Sexson needs to relax.  Assuming that there wasn’t a huge major injury that wasn’t made public, Sexson should revert to form.

Can I get a mulligan on that one?  (Oh, the Mariners already tried to use one on the Bedard trade…) Indeed, Sexson’s BABIP did rebound to a more characteristic .275 for the year (including his time with the Yankees).  But what no one really saw coming was that he would stop swinging (his swing rate dropped from 47 to 43%).  Worse, when he swung, his contact rate went down.  Not surprisingly, his strikeout rate shot up above 30%.  The real danger though is that Sexson has become a ground ball hitter.  While he used to hit about an equal number of FB and GB, his ground ball numbers are trending toward 50% now, and Sexson is a guy who needs to be hitting home runs to be valuable.  Sexson was either doing something different this year (and it didn’t work) or he’s toast.  My guess is that he’s toast. 

Here’s an idea:  I was going to write about the Mariners’ search for a GM.  It’s hard to argue against the guy who built the Milwaukee farm system, even if I can’t pronounce or spell his name, but I was hoping for something more.  I had hoped that a more Saber-savvy GM might get his call to the big time, but alas, alack, anon, it was not to be.  It’s a sensible strategy to build the farm first, but let’s hope that the new guy learns from the past and doesn’t commit a lot of money in a foolish way.

Outlook: I suppose that the Mariners are in the same position now as they had been last year.  A lot of really bad contracts, even if Sexson is gone.  Bedard is out for half of next year anyway.  It would be nice to suggest a total root canal, but it’s never quite that easy.  To do that, the Mariners would have to off-load some of those awful contacts, and it’s not like people are in line to take them.  This looks like it’s going to be a slow re-build.

Quiz show

Let’s play a game – you like games, don’t you? That’s fantastic.

Here’s the game I want to play today. I’m going to ask you a series of simple questions, multiple choice. You can answer them any way you like, doesn’t really matter. Just know that I’m basing everything off what’s available from the Baseball Prospectus statistics page, based upon performance in the 2008 season. Then, after the jump we’ll meet up and see what we’ve got. Ready? Great!

  1. Who was the most productive hitter in the American League, adjusting for position?
    1. Alex Rodriguez
    2. Joe Mauer
  2. Which qualified starter on the Tampa Bay Rays was the best hitter per plate appearance, ignoring position?
    1. Carlos Pena
    2. Evan Longoria
  3. Who of the following was the best hitter per plate appearance, ignoring position?
    1. Jack Cust
    2. Jorge Cantu
  4. Who of the following was the more productive hitter, adjusting for position?
    1. Jack Cust
    2. Jorge Cantu
  5. Who was the most productive relief pitcher, in both leagues?
    1. Mariano Rivera
    2. Brad Lidge
  6. Who was the most productive starting pitcher, in both leagues?
    1. Cliff Lee
    2. Johann Santana

Read more of this post

Error: Scorekeeper?

Ground ball up the middle, second baseman backhands it, the throw to first beats the runner by a step, but hits in the dirt and skips by the firstbaseman. The call goes up on the scoreboard: HIT.

If you think you’ve seen this play more frequently the last few years, your probably right. Play by play data, courtesy of RetroSheet, shows that the rate of runners reaching base on errors has been steadily decling from 1975 right up to 2007. From 1954 to 1970, the percent of balls in play that resulted in the batter reaching on an error was very steady at either 1.8 or 1.9%. In 1972 and 1974, it dropped slightly to 1.7%, but again reached 1.9% in 1975. From 2005 to 2007 the rate has been 1.3%.

Is it possible that the decrease in errors is due to an increase in quality of the infielders? I am inclined to say no, as during the same time that errors have been decreasing, the number of hits allowed has been increasing. In 1975, the last season before the decline in errors, the percent of batters who reached on hits was .282, errors .019, for a total of .301. In 2007, batters reached on hits at a rate of .302, errors .013, for a total of .315.

Instead of the percent of balls in play, let’s look at errors as a percent of batters who reached base by hit or error. From 1954 to 1958, this was steady between 6.0 and 6.1%. It then increased to a peak of 6.6% in 1963, and then started a decline. There was another bubble, from 5.1% in 1981, up to 5.8% in 1984 and 1985, then back to 5.2% in 1988. From there it has been a fairly steady decline, down to the low of 4.0% in 2007.

Nearly 40% of the balls that were ruled errors in 1963 were ruled hits in 2007. This accounts for 6 of the 29 point increase in BABIP over that time period. As for the other 23 points, that’s another study.

Year BHE% ROE% OBE%
1954 0.293 0.018 0.061
1956 0.292 0.018 0.061
1957 0.293 0.018 0.060
1958 0.295 0.018 0.061
1959 0.296 0.019 0.064
1960 0.294 0.018 0.061
1961 0.298 0.019 0.065
1962 0.299 0.019 0.062
1963 0.292 0.019 0.066
1964 0.298 0.019 0.063
1965 0.292 0.019 0.064
1966 0.294 0.019 0.063
1967 0.291 0.018 0.061
1968 0.287 0.018 0.064
1969 0.295 0.018 0.062
1970 0.299 0.018 0.061
1971 0.292 0.016 0.056
1972 0.290 0.017 0.059
1973 0.299 0.018 0.060
1974 0.299 0.017 0.058
1975 0.301 0.019 0.062
1976 0.298 0.017 0.057
1977 0.304 0.017 0.056
1978 0.296 0.016 0.055
1979 0.302 0.016 0.053
1980 0.303 0.016 0.054
1981 0.295 0.016 0.055
1982 0.297 0.015 0.051
1983 0.302 0.017 0.057
1984 0.304 0.018 0.058
1985 0.298 0.017 0.058
1986 0.303 0.017 0.056
1987 0.305 0.016 0.054
1988 0.297 0.015 0.052
1989 0.299 0.016 0.053
1990 0.302 0.016 0.051
1991 0.297 0.016 0.053
1992 0.298 0.013 0.045
1993 0.309 0.016 0.050
1994 0.315 0.015 0.048
1995 0.313 0.014 0.046
1996 0.317 0.015 0.048
1997 0.316 0.014 0.046
1998 0.314 0.014 0.045
2000 0.316 0.016 0.049
2001 0.311 0.015 0.048
2002 0.307 0.014 0.046
2003 0.308 0.013 0.044
2004 0.311 0.014 0.044
2005 0.308 0.013 0.042
2006 0.314 0.013 0.041
2007 0.315 0.013 0.040

World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: October 22

Those of you who read StatSpeak on a regular basis (Thank you!) have probably noticed a few changes in the design of the blog, and perhaps some chaos in getting things to work.  Us too.  MVN has recently upgraded to Movable Type and like all great things, it will take a little bit of time to all shake out.  Please be patient.

Today, the roundtable is covered with sawdust, but welcomes Brandon Isleib of The Hardball Times for some rolicking discussion of that Peavy guy, contracts in general, contracts for Mark Ellis and Manny Ramirez, and whether or not Brad Lidge will lose his head in the World Series.

Question #1: If the Padres trade Jake Peavy, pulling a Beane-on-Haren but with more chutzpah, does that raise the bar for this genre of trade, and will the genre catch on and/or reach absurd levels in the same way that megacontracts did around 2000?

Brandon Isleib: I think these deals will be in a one-per-year mold until it’s seen whether they actually work out. The return Oakland’s had at the major league level for Haren is looking good so far, but it takes a few years to assess things in full, and the Peavy trade would be Exhibit B in whatever teams decide to do. I don’t think the bar will be raised as much as possibilities will be explored that were unthinkable previously. I think other teams will see how the A’s and Padres fan bases react before making the same sort of decision themselves. Normally, a lot of PR has to follow up trading one of your best players, and some teams might be scared to do it.

Bottom line, I think this type of trade typically will work for astute GMs with educated fan bases. The danger is that the Haren and Peavy trades if they work long-term will spawn imitators who don’t understand the value of their best players and will trade a good contract on a great player for a sorry lot of prospects. Beane and Towers understand that pitching is fragile by definition, and they know they can get a lot of secure position players and some pitching upside by trading a high-risk commodity. If other GMs understand that when they make these deals, then fine. If not, then it’s going to wreck somebody’s franchise down the road.

Brian Cartwright: I think Haren was a little unique in that he was a well above average pitcher with three more years under contract at below market rates. That drove up his selling price. The Mets only get to keep Johan Santana for one year under his current contract. I think that’s a major factor, how long is the current contract and at what price.

Colin Wyers: I think this is less akin to the Harden deal – simply given the number of years involved – and more akin to the Santana deal. The Padres have a lot of holes to fill right now, and Peavy can only fill one of them. What they’re looking for is a team that has a lot of surplus value – as in, more than 25 useful ballplayers – who are willing to chip in 2-4 ballplayers that as a whole contribute more to the Padres than Peavy can.

Eric Seidman: This is tricky, because it is a solid type of move for teams who won’t realistically compete for quite some time; the Padres could go 72-90 without Peavy, and even though he is a great pitcher, if the Padres can get the return the A’s got for Haren, they will likely be in a better position a few years from now than if they kept Peavy. At some point, however, you have to figure other teams will catch on and realize that their prospects may be worth more than the star player they could acquire, but there are many more factors to consider, such as attendance. I would say if the Peavy trade emulates the Haren deal, we may see a flurry of similar moves over the next couple years but it will not become a norm.

Pizza Cutter: The easiest sell in baseball, and indeed in humanity, is the quick fix, and there’s no quicker fix than the “ace starting pitcher.”  Consider though that trading “aces” or even just good starting pitchers for a boatload of talent isn’t exactly a new genre.  Baseball culture works in cycles, just like the rest of culture (whatever happened to Paris Hilton?), and in five years, we may chuckle about “that era” in baseball.  But the problem, like with the mega-contracts, is that there aren’t a lot of aces that are being shopped around on a yearly basis.  So, it will probably die a natural death.

Question #2: So did Mark Ellis get taken to the cleaners or what?  

Brandon Isleib:  No cleaner trip here; maybe he stays unclean or just goes under “what,” but I think his contract was reasonable. Ellis is one of those guys who’s always frustrated my efforts to evaluate him. Is he the .276/.336/.441 (including 19 HR) guy of 2007 or the .233/.321/.373 guy of 2008? You get good defense either way, but he’s got a Saberhagen-type pattern to his offensive output, and that’s hard to gauge. I think the A’s are in a much better position to figure out that type of player (in large part because they’ve seen him for 6 years) and throw a moderate contract out there than other teams are. He’s hurt a fair bit, he’s not remarkably productive when he’s not 100%, and you just don’t know what you’re getting in any given year. If I’m running a team with a hole at 2B, it’s a slippery case to make that Ellis is a solid upgrade to the tune of more than the 2 year, $11 million contract he got from Oakland. I think that’s about his reasonable value, and I think few teams are able to build with him the way Oakland can. It works well for both sides. More power to ‘em.

Brian Cartwright: Ellis has a very good glove, but I don’t think he’s much as a hitter. He projects at 254/335/418, and will be a little lower than that as he ages for 2009. I think Oakland built in that he would be diminishing. Maybe Ellis wasn’t confident going on the free agent market, but I think it’s usually worth it to establish your market value.

Colin Wyers: I really don’t think people understand how valuable Ellis is, and that includes Ellis. Is it because defense is underrated? Is it because second base is the least glamorous position in the majors? Is it because he isn’t flashy in the way that a, say, Derek Jeter is? The baffling part is that he chose right now to sign that deal. It’s hard to complain about how someone else handles their money, but it is very puzzling.

Eric Seidman: I’m curious if Ellis just does not realize how much he is worth, or if the shoulder injury is a bit more serious than we thought; serious in the sense that it could be a recurring injury. If not, then his offensive numbers are bound to regress, making him the league average hitter he is, while playing arguably the best defense at the position. At Tom Tango’s blog, a discussion arose about how the player’s union should be having fits over this deal, and I agree. It will be interesting to see what Orlando Hudson gets on the market, given they are very comparable players.

Pizza Cutter: Ellis has become a fly-ball happy guy over the past few years, and his dip in his slash stats seems to be an outlier, but he’s also one of the best fielding 2B’s in the game.  In 2007, according to OPA!, he was worth about 21 runs above the average 2B… but that’s “hidden” talent (or at least still undervalued talent).  All that people, and apparently Ellis and his agent are two of them, see is the batting line, which is respectable, and maybe there is some vague idea of his defensive worth.  Ellis is worth more, but it’s not yet polite for a good defensive player to ask for a big contract. 

Question #3: Multi-year contracts normally escalate – more money in later years. But we know that once a player hits 30 it’s likely that he’s going to be producing less in those years. It doesn’t seem like a good idea business wise, but are there any practical alternatives that would be accepted by the player?

Brandon Isleib: Not until arbitration and free agency rules change. Take a player like Ryan Howard, who didn’t start accruing service time seriously until he was 25. The Phillies have him under contract until he’s 30 just from when he came up, so his first megapayday will be at 30, assuming no injuries, etc. Thus, it’s around 30 that players have the most leverage of their careers. None of the players will want less money as inflation rises and they get older, and they probably won’t want an even pay rate either, for mostly the same reason. The rush of free-agent talent is primarily on 28-to-30-year-olds, and as such, all but the gutsiest of owners would set things up the way they want to do, so as not to scare away their coveted prizes. So no, I know of no alternative players would accept on this multi-year system unless the ages at which players typically become free agents changes, owners collude, or something to that effect

Brian Cartwright: Giving a multiyear escalating contract to a player over 30 almost guarantees that the payments will be going up as the production goes down. I really don’t see a player willing to sign a contract that offers him less each year, even if it’s in line with his expected production. Even with a player like Manny Ramirez, I would not offer more than a two year contract. Not that he won’t still be good in the third year, but he won’t be worth that much money. Pay for two, then negotiate another contract. Only problem is, the new one may be with your competitor.

Colin Wyers: There’s a hidden little wrinkle to consider – over time, the average free agent salary you can command in free agency increases at a dramatic pace, I want to say about 10% each offseason. By backloading a contract, you are essentially compensating them at the rate at which (supposedly) they could get a free agent contract at that point. The incentive for teams in backloading deals is that (due to inflation and investment opportunities, among other things) it’s beneficial to spend tomorrow’s money in preference to today’s, because tomorrow’s money is worth less than today’s money and you should be planning on having more money tomorrow than today. Really, the problem isn’t backloaded contracts, it’s just bad contracts. Andruw Jones was only signed for two years, and that has to be a bigger albatross right now than any backloaded deal for 5-7 years. Well, except for Barry Zito. Zito forgot to backload his decline phase and ended up paying all of it out in the first year of the contract.

Eric Seidman: Well, if a player signs a 5-yr deal but won’t be productive towards the end, a player might be interested in having his contract frontloaded so that he makes a good portion of the contract during those productive years and then is easier to trade or be sent elsewhere in the latter years when he may otherwise be sitting on the bench, unable to prove his worth. I feel like as long as the player is making the money, making more in the early stages and less later on would not be a big deal and may arguably be better for the player than, say, a Griffey Jr situation where he is making 15 mm to play league average or below average baseball.

Pizza Cutter: There probably aren’t any alternatives that would be accepted by the players, other than maybe front-loading the contract, but there are a lot of GMs who have to think short-term rather than long-term.  I could see a system of incentive-based contracts.  Maybe a team could run a business model of having a standard “contract” based with set stipends for different events (say $200 for a double, $300 for a triple, although they’d be better served going a little more sophisticated than that…)  Every player on the team has the same contract (or at least all the hitters have the same contract and the pitchers have the same… although what to do about the whole starter vs. reliever thing).  But then I could imagine knife fights breaking out over managers who decide to bench a player or something like that.   

Question #4: Will Brad Lidge blow a save in the World Series or will he go a whole season without? 

Brandon Isleib: I don’t think he’ll blow a save this series, in large part because there are so many variables. Obviously, if the Rays sweep, he doesn’t blow a save, and there are only 7 opportunities to blow one at maximum. That being said, the Rays have as good a chance as anyone to get to Lidge because they don’t stack right-handed batters in their lineup at any meaningful point. Lidge v. RH: .105/.227/.175. Lidge v. LH: .273/.354/.345. Game 7 of the ALCS had a Rays lineup that did not repeat right-handed batters at any spot except for Baldelli and Bartlett at the bottom (and Baldelli can be substituted easily with LH Gabe Gross if necessary). Plus, their main RH batters – Upton, Longoria, Baldelli, and Bartlett – were all reasonably good at avoiding double plays, which would be the main danger of an isolated RH batter. I think the Rays lineup is well-suited to getting to Lidge if any team is. Does this mean he blows a save? Not likely, but it’s more likely here than elsewhere.

Brian Cartwright: I’d like to think so, but one fastball at the letters may be enough to do him in, and possibly the Phillies. He got in the doghouse in Houston for being all or nothing.

Colin Wyers: There’s no guarantee that he’ll see any official “save opportunities” at all in the series. I don’t see why he couldn’t – at most four saves for him?

Eric Seidman: No. He will go perfect, and my Phillies will win the World Series. That is all.

Pizza Cutter: I’m wondering what the over/under is in Vegas for the number of times that they show the Scott Podsednik homerun in 2005.  Lidge got really lucky on the HR/FB this year, and his FIP is a little above his ERA, but his FIP is 2.41 this year.  I’ve actually wanted to do a study for a while on whether Brad Lidge Disease really happens.  After blowing a crucial save, do closers have a tough time closing?  Lidge’s record over the last few years shows that he’s certainly still an effective pitcher, and frankly, my guess is that Lidge’s “problems” in critical games are actually the frayed nerves of the fans who followed the Astros.  There’s no way to know exactly what will happen, but the odds of Lidge imploding in the Series probably have very little to do with what happened in 2005.

Question #5: Does Manny Ramirez really deserve an “iconic” contract, as Scott Boras has suggested?

Brandon Isleib: No, no, a thousand times no. Boras’s work with Alex Rodriguez in 2000 will forever be the iconic mark until he has a player better than Rodriguez to flaunt. Manny’s not better than A-Rod except for “clutchiness,” perhaps. Adjusting for inflation, A-Rod’s contract in 2000 would be worth $32 million a year; Ramirez’s contract from the same offseason would give him $25 million a year. Has he gone up in value 20% from age 28 to 36? At least when the big one was signed in 2000, he was coming off consecutive years of at least .663 SLG. At age 28, it’s not unreasonable if you’re a big spender to say he keeps that up. He hasn’t quite reached that since then, and while his numbers have still been great, I can’t think of any reason to say he’s 20% better now than he was coming off those two massive years. That doesn’t even touch the other Manny issues, but I don’t need to; I’m just not going to pay more for less.

Brian Cartwright: No. As good as Manny is at the bat, (projecting 314/395/584 he’s still better than he was in 1998) he is going to be 37, and there can’t be that many more seasons at that level left. I cannot see a team rationally offering him $25 or $30m for Manny’s age 41 season. If he’s still playing, he may be good, but not that good.

Colin Wyers: The problem is figuring out how long his bat will play at this level, because it’s pretty certain that his defense is a massive problem that won’t get any better. Here’s a question for you – I want you to try and picture Manny playing first base. How often do you think he would forget that he’s supposed to be receiving a throw from the other side of the infield? I exaggerate, sure, but the biggest mistake you can make in free agency (of course everybody does it) is to pay for the past, not the future. Boras wants teams to pay for the past.

Eric Seidman: Manny is an incredible hitter, one of the best hitters in the history of baseball, but his defense is abysmal and teams undervalue the importance of defense. Manny costs teams plenty of runs defensively which is often just touched upon instead of fleshed out in the full light it deserves. Manny does not deserve a 5/150, especially given that he would be making a ridiculous amount of money as a 42-yr old. A 4/100 is what they were originally seeking, and while I still believe it is too much, that would be much more realistic.

Pizza Cutter: Boras made those comments comparing Manny to A-Rod, with the assumption that Manny would get slightly less than A-Rod and fewer years.  On the surface it sounds about right, with both being elite hitters right now.  For the fan who doesn’t think beyond next year (and let’s be honest, how many of us really do?) it makes sense that Manny would get about as much as A-Rod.  The problem is that Manny is older than A-Rod by four years and a 32 year old is a much better bet to sustain things over a few years (although I shook my head at ten years for A-Rod…), than Manny.  Before the season started, PECTOA actually had him out of baseball in a couple of years, and nothing more than a 2-3 WARP guy, although that’s sure to be revised upward.  GMs have to think about multiple years, although some of them have to do stupid things because if they don’t “play for this year,” they’ll be fired.  My guess is that Manny gets his iconic contract, or something close, and that he puts up just enough to make it kinda/sorta/but-not-really worth it.

Pitch F/X Audit: Washington Nationals

With only the World Series left to play, the 2008 major league baseball season is very quickly going to come to its official close.  Last year, Pizza Cutter ran a series titled “Sabermetric Year in Review,” during which he wrote detailed pieces examining each team from various statistical perspectives.  With the advancements made in Pitch F/X data I thought it would be interesting to add to the year in review gameplan by “auditing” each team from a few different angles.  As I mentioned last week, this is a work in progress and I am more than willing to solicit feedback regarding changes, additions, or subtractions, but the ultimate goal here is to examine the repertoires of different pitchers and how they potentially change either with men on base, against different handed batters, or as the game progresses. 

I will be following the same reverse pythagorean order as Pizza Cutter, so whichever team he profiles, expect to see a Pitch F/X year in review for that team the subsequent day.  That means, to kick off this series, we will be looking at the Washington Nationals.  I am not going to be compiling data for every pitcher that logged an inning this past season, but rather the pitchers who had significant playing time and/or are going to be big parts of the staff moving forward.  There are going to be some pitchers not profiled due to lack of significant data, which, for the Nationals, means no Shawn Hill numbers this time around.

The Nationals pitchers that will be discussed here are: John Lannan, Tim Redding, Odalis Perez, Jason Bergmann, Collin Balester, Charlie Manning, Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome, and Joel Hanrahan.  There will be four sections of data, each with a summary and a few links to tables of data.  I cannot stress enough that if any of you readers have ideas for new segments, or suggestions of different ways to look at the pitchers from here on out, please do not hesitate to contact me, as my goal here is to offer you information that may otherwise be very difficult or time-consuming to compile yourselves.

Overall Velocity and Frequency

Before we get into any crazy splits, let’s take a look at the overall usage patterns of different pitches for the staff, as well as the average velocities for those pitches.  To view the frequency and velocity data, click here.

Amongst the starting pitchers, Lannan, Redding, and Balester all threw predominantly fastballs, coming just short of accounting for 2/3 of their deliveries with the heater.  Jason Bergmann threw 55% fastballs, mixing it up with 21% curveballs, 17% sliders and 6% changeups.  He occasionally mixed in a splitter as well.  Odalis Perez, however, was very interesting, as he threw a fastball, slider, and changeup, but mixed these deliveries much moreso than his rotation counterparts.  The fastball accounted for just under 42% of his total pitches thrown, with the slider being delivered 30% to go along with 28% changeups.

His 30% sliders were not the most on the rotation, though, as Tim Redding barely edged Perez out with 31% sliders.  Redding utilized two pitches throughout the season, with the fastball and slider accounting for 94% of his total pitches thrown.  Perhaps he would be better suited for the bullpen with only two pitches, as starters tend to need that third pitch to succeed.  Speaking of the bullpen, you should notice that three of the five pitchers covered were just like Redding, with the fastball and slider encompassing just about all of their pitches.  Shell, who made 39 appearances with a 2.16 ERA, mixed his pitches a bit more, incoporating a slider and changeup every so often to complement his fastball-curveball tandem.  Saul Rivera virtually split his pitches evenly, with 34% fastballs, 32% sliders, and 33% changeups.

LHH/RHH Splits

When looking at how the pitching staff split pitch frequencies and results between different handed hitters, I opted to go with the four primary starters: Lannan, Redding, Perez, and Bergmann, as their splits would all feature significant sample sizes of pitches thrown.  To view the data for these four starters, click here.

Lannan threw his fastball much more often against righties, while the other three were more balanced in their usage of the heater against lefties and righties.  In fact, Jason Bergmann had the second biggest fastball usage discrepancy, and his was under five percent of a dropoff against righties.  Lannan was able to get more swings and misses against like-handed lefties than righties, as well as more foul balls.  Redding had the same results, but against like-handed righties.

Odalis Perez recorded the highest percentage of swings and misses against left-handed hitters, but did not fare as well against opposite-handed righties.  Other than his called strike and swinging strike rates, though, all other results stayed virtually the same, meaning that swings and misses were replaced with no swings, but strikes still resulting.  Bergmann received just 5.9% swinging strikes from lefties but doubled that to 11.8% against righties, the highest of any Nationals starter against either LHH or RHH.  Lefties also put 22.5% of his offerings in play.

Splits Throughout the Game

Something I have always been curious about, but never had the means to research before is how, or if, the repertoire of pitchers changes as the game progresses.  For instance, will a pitcher abandon his curveball after the first few innings and throw a majority of fastballs?  Or will he split his deliveries more evenly as his “stuff” dies out from fatigue?  Or, perhaps, nothing changes.  To see how some of the repertoires shifted, click here.

Overall, Nationals starting pitchers did not get deep into games too often, as the sample sizes from the 7th inning onwards are extremely small.  Lannan utilized the slider and changeup virtually the same percentage of the time from innings 1-3 to 4-6, but replaced 5-6% of fastballs with curveballs.  In the few outings that ventured deeper, he threw more sliders than before.  Redding did not differentiate his deliveries too often, sticking with the fastball-slider tandem.  Balester’s only real shift came in innings 4-6, when he replaced 4% of his fastballs with a slight uptick in curveballs and ~3.5% of changeups.

Odalis Perez’s splits were fairly consistent as the game progressed, slightly decreasing his already reduced fastball usage in the later innings.  Bergmann threw close to 58% fastballs in the first three innings, but in innings 4-6, spread the wealth amongst offspeed pitches by increasing his usage of curveballs and changeups.  Later on in the games, however, he barely threw any changeups. 

Bases Empty/Men On

Another interesting aspect of pitch frequency or the percentage of certain pitches being thrown deals with what occurs with runners on base as opposed to the bases empty.  Perhaps the hard-throwing reliever is more reluctant to throw his slider with runners on out of fear that it might bounce away as a wild pitch.  For this split, I used all ten pitchers, and to view the results, click here.

With the bags empty, Lannan threw his fastball much more, while he increased usage of breaking and offspeed pitches with some ducks on the pong.  The same can be said of Redding, who dropped from 68% fastballs with nobody on to 61% fastballs with bags occupied, simultaneously increasing his slider usage from 25% to 31%.  Balester’s split was even more dramatic, as he threw 70% fastballs with nobody on but just 59% out of the stretch.  This theme was again repeated with both Odalis Perez and Jason Bergmann, meaning the entire starting rotation relied less on the fastball with runners on base.

The bullpen experienced slightly different results.  Hanrahan, Shell, and Saul Rivera each threw less fastballs with runners on than not, but Jesus Colome and Charlie Manning went in reverse, relying moreso on the heater with ducks on the pond.  Then again, Manning and Colome were two pitchers who threw 64%+ fastballs, and Colome does throw 95 mph, so his usage is not too surprising.  Manning does not throw that hard, however, averaging around 87 mph, so his reliance on the fastball seems to be successful due to the effectiveness of his slider.

Moving Forward

A starting rotation of Lannan, Redding, Perez, Bergmann, and Balester is probably not intimidating to several AAA teams, let alone teams in the major leagues, so they are going to need to bring in or develop some pitching prospects.  Lannan is at best a #3 starter, so being relied upon as an ace is a big no-no.  Redding will need a solid third pitch to stick around for a few more years, and Odalis is nothing more than a stopgap veteran to provide “leadership.”  Joel Hanrahan looks like the real deal as a reliever, and Steven Shell and Saul Rivera did not look half bad either.  Manning had very poor peripherals this past season, but he is young and could develop.  Colome is only sticking around for the same reason Jorge Julio is consistently given work: he throws hard.  The Nationals’ bullpen isn’t as big of a problem as their rotation, especially considering that Chad Cordero should be back in action next season.  Their rotation, like their offense and defense, though, needs significant work.

Another aspect of the Pitch F/X data I am compiling but did not report just yet is the standard deviation of release points.  My hope is that, when a few more of the teams are audited, I can post league leaders in several different categories, such as release point consistency, swinging strike percentage against left-handed and right-handed hitters and such.  If anybody has ideas for more categories to include, let me know. 

2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Washington Nationals

Here we go again.  The tour bus is back up and running and the 2008 Sabermetric year in review is underway.  Last year, back when it was just me at StatSpeak typing to myself, I went in reverse alphabetical order on the year in review pieces.  This year, in discussing it with my StatSpeak colleagues, we decided to go in reverse Pythagorean order.  It doesn’t matter.  The Nats would still be first.  Washington.  First in war, first in peace, last in the National League.

Record: 59-102 (5th place, NL East)
Pythagorean Projection: 62.12 wins

Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs

MVN Blog:
Oleanders and Morning Glories

Other Nationals Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors

Overview: The Nationals were last in overall hitter VORP and next to last in overall pitcher VORP in the National League.  For a league named after them, they didn’t do so well.  (Although, you have to admire the consistency.)  Ummm, I did hear that the new ballpark is nice.

What went right: Cristian Guzman surprised me.  In addition to playing some pretty good third base defense (despite never having played 3B in the majors before!) during that epic All-Star game, he had a pretty good season… for a National.  In 2007, his season ended after 192 plate appearances and a .328 batting average.  Guzman has always been a ground ball reliant hitter and his .364 BABIP suggested a lot of seeing eye singles… and a lot of potential for regression to the mean.  But in 2008, he put up a pretty good line of .316/.345/.440.  His BABIP was still a little elevated given his batted ball profile, but credit at its due.  He had a decent year.

I don’t know who John Lannan is, but anyone who manages to squeeze out 9 wins on this team at age 23 is worth mentioning.  He’s a majority groundball pitcher, which probably helped him overcome his pedestrian 5.79 K/9 and his rather ugly 3.56 BB/9.  But, the man’s FIP was 4.79, which suggests that his 3.91 ERA (and he was the only Nats’ starter to post an ERA+ over 100… meaning that he was the only Nats’ starter who had an above-average year) won’t last. 

What went wrong: Oddly enough, the one position of strength for the Nationals, at least on paper, going into 2008 was first base.  The Nats had Dmitri Young, whom they signed to an extension after his Renaissance campaign in 2007 and Nick Johnson.  (Oddly, in a league with no DH, the Nats committed to both contractually.)  Both sustained injuries in 2008 which limited them to about 40 games each at first base, so perhaps having a backup plan for both was wise.  But the lion’s share of playing time at first base went to Aaron Bleeping Boone.  So much for a position of strength.

Yeah, that about sums it up: Eternal Presidential candidate Ralph Nader petitioned the Washington Post to cover his campaign for the Presidency, but was rebuffed by saying that the Post would only cover candidates who had a legitimate shot at winning.  Nader fired back asking why the Post bothered to cover the Nationals.  (Thanks Politico!)  Ouch.  When Ralph Nader tells you that you’re a loser, it’s time to go home. 

The Washington DC home for troubled youth: The Nationals did do something right in picking up a pair of guys from the scrap heap who were tossed away by their old teams due to having “character issues.”  Former Met Lastings Milledge and former Devil Ray Elijah Dukes came aboard and by mid-season were fitting into the middle of the Nats’ lineup.  Milledge, as a 23 year old, put up a line of .268/.330/.402 while Dukes, 24, added in a contribution of .264/.386/.478.  I don’t know what these guys are like in the clubhouse, but considering that the Nats bought at fire-sale prices on both, it was a very wise baseball move.  In theory, both will continue to improve with age, both in terms of baseball performance and judgment  I suppose this brings up the question of “winning at what price?”  As a Sabermetrician, I’m interested in studying the most efficient and effective way to win at the game of baseball and getting two young, talented players is a really good strategy.  But it tells me that some teams are not completely, totally, laser focused on winning.  That’s an ethical dilemma as to whether that’s a good idea, but the Nats apparently decided that they were in such dire straits that they could afford to overlook a few youthful peccadilos.  

Austin, we have a problem: Austin Kearns went from decent player always hyped to be “on the edge of breaking out” to .217/.311/.316.  What happened to him?  Part of it was that while his batted ball profile was largely unchanged, his BABIP dropped 50 points from 2007 to 2008.  That should right itself.  However, a closer look at Kearns’s swing diagnostics reveals a rather interesting pattern. Kearns was traded during the 2006 season from Cincinnati to Washington (for Gary Majewski… a trade which I believe is now officially a lose-lose move).  After leaving Cincy, his swing percentage went from 45-46% down to 44% and then in 2008 to 40%.  His contact percentage jumped into the low 80′s from the mid 70′s upon arriving in the capital.  He was swinging less (and pitchers adjusted by throwing him more pitches in the zone), but connecting more when he swung.  That suggests a specific change in mentality, most likely that he was attempting to lay off bad pitches by changing his response bias toward not swinging.  While it’s one thing to make an adjustment, it seems like this one just doesn’t fit him.  Maybe he should go back to being the hitter he was in Cincy.

Last year, I wrote: The Nationals are currently something of a collection of spare parts.  You can build a car out of those parts and it’ll run, but… well, it’ll still be the Washington Nationals.

This is still a team that gave significant playing time to guys like Paul LoDuca, Jesus Colome, and Ronnie Belliard.  The spare parts analogy still seems to fit, and it seems like more spare parts are on the way.  A peak through the Nationals’ farm system shows no big time talents rising through the ranks.  Guys like Milledge, Zimmerman, and Dukes are kids, but really this is a team with a serious talent deficit throughout the system. 

Here’s an idea: Find the guy who was able to get anything for Felipe Lopez and promote him.  Somehow, the Nationals managed to find someone (the Cardinals, specifically) to take a guy who couldn’t hit, was a mediocre defender (at both second and short), and who was two and a half years removed from doing anything productive.  Lopez is currently a free agent and he’s exactly the kind of cast-off that the Nationals need to stop investing in.  It’s not that they have a steady stream of second base prospects just waiting to break through, but the thought process of “we’ve got to look like we’re doing something” could ruin this team.  It may be an awful thing to have to live through, but maybe the best thing to do is to get guys who are dirt cheap and invest the organization’s money in the Rays plan of scouting and building through the draft.

Outlook: Well, it’s not doom and gloom forever.  There are some pieces in place that would, given better circumstances, allow the Nats to build, but there’s not a lot of pitching, and the farm cupboard is bare.  I’m seeing a drought along the lines of Kansas City or Pittsburgh in the near and intermediate future for the Nationals.  So, if I see you out there wearing a Nationals hat (and you’re not wearing it just because it is pretty), I will salute you.  I appreciate people who stick by losing teams.

Is a Red Sox victory a fait accompli?

I write this on the morning before Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS.  Already, it seems that people are gearing up for a Red Sox-Phillies World Series where just a few days ago, during the telecast of Game 5 (the part where the Rays were up 7-0 in the seventh inning), the announcers not only were talking about how the Rays matched up with the Phillies, but were writing the Red Sox obituary of guys like Jason Varitek.  How quickly things change.

The story line going into tonight’s Game 7 will be that the Rays are playing in a state of shock.  They had the series in hand and somehow bumbled and fumbled it away.  We’re sure to hear about a “lack of confidence” going in, and how that will doom the Rays to “play tight.”  And should they lose, there’s your explanation right there.  The Rays were simply destiny’s darlings too long.  Unless of course they win.  In that case, the Rays probably got an inspirational speech from Joe Maddon (or perhaps John Madden) who advised them to “take it one pitch/inning/game at a time,” set them at ease, and sent them out there “all trusting in each other.”  Carl Crawford plays better when he knows that Akinori Iwamura has positive vibes toward him.

But then, Rays fans(?) and even those of us who are neutral but love the Devil Rays as a storyline are probably right now feeling a bit despairing and snakebit.  It seems that the Red Sox are doing it yet again.  Game 7 itself is just a formality.  The Red Sox always do this.  Surely, the players must be feeling the same thing, and that this will affect their performance.  The Red Sox on the other side must feel unstoppable and surely, it’s because they just have that ability to crank it up a notch in the clutch.  (There’s a required David Ortiz reference here.)

It doesn’t matter what happens tonight.  It will all be chalked up to some grand design of the universe.  Here’s the thing though.  All of the statements concerning the emotionality of it are a little overblown.  I have no doubt that some of those thoughts are running through the heads of the players who will take the field tonight.  Before going off and assuming that these will be the deciding factors, consider for a moment a few lessons from the psychology of crisis.  Game Seven is always a crisis point.  Not so much in the sense of a natural disaster being a crisis, but in the sense of a momentous and uncertain occasion.  What you do in the next three hours determines whether you will be going to the World Series of Baseball or the World Series of Poker next month.

In a crisis situation, most people are amazed to find that they are able to do whatever needs to be done and with what clarity they are able to do it with.  They usually don’t get the paralyzing emotional effects that everyone assumes happens until after the crisis has passed and they are looking back on things.  After the umpire screams the last two words in the National Anthem (“Play ball!”), it’s likely that the players will do what they always do, and that’s focus on the game.  Whatever speeches are given or whatever clutch hits are gotten, they make for great highlights on Baseball Tonight, but before practicing psychology without a license and blaming tonight’s goat for not having the mental capacity to come through in the clutch, and praising the hero for having some sort of magical powers that endow him with powers beyond those of mortal men, remember that a crisis isn’t really all that hard to handle in the moment.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.