Today, the roundtable shares some turkey with the usual StatSpeakers and Victor Wang, of The Hardball TImes. Victor is the recipient of SABR’s Jack Kavanaugh Memorial Award given each year for the best baseball research by someone who isn’t old enough to vote. Victor chimes in on his thoughts about Chase Utley, the Seattle Mariners embracing the dark side, the World Baseball Classic, the world in general, and women!
And since it’s Thanksgiving (in the U.S.), on behalf of Colin, Brian, and Eric, we are thankful to all of you out there who read StatSpeak. The two most powerful words in the English language are “Thank you.” We hope that your Thanksgiving Day is filled with those two words in abundance.
Question #1: The Seattle Mariners recently announced that they would be implementing an entire department for statistical analysis. Given that Jack Zduriencik is considered as more of an “old school scout” type guy, how much influence do you think the statistical department will actually have with the Mariners? Is this a sign we can finally end the silly stats vs scouts debate?
Victor Wang: Honestly, I am not sure how much Jack Zduriencik is going to use his new statistical department. I do think that this will be one of the more interesting storylines of the off season and definitely something to keep an eye on in the future. I think this is a great sign for Mariners fans that their new GM is willing to keep an open mind and integrate statistical analysis and a sign that people are understanding that the best front office combination involves both scouting and stats. It might take a while but it definitely looks like the Mariners rebuilding process is off to a good start. The AL West looks like it’s going to be very competitive in the future, with Oakland and Texas having arguably the top two farm systems in all of baseball and now Seattle getting its act together.
Brian Cartwright: If I was running they’re department, first I’d set up the relational database that has the names, vitals, and baseball stats for every professional and notable amateur player on the planet, along with all the queries I could think of. I’d want the boss to be able to sit down and ask of it “Show me all the good fielding secondbasemen with power”. Step two, attach all the traditional scouting reports to that player as well. Scouts use numbers for different categories, put those into tables and weight them like Marcels. Do the system so that the boss can access all the scouting data that he’s familiar with, plus all the stat data in a friendly and convenient form. Stats and scouts each have their place, find a good way to blend them.
Colin Wyers: There doesn’t need to be a tension between “stats” and scouts, and I don’t think there’s much of one anymore in the professional baseball community.
It’s important to note what modern baseball analysis does, at least when it’s done properly – it takes and systematically analyzes populations of players in order to find essential truths about baseball. For a variety of reasons (most having to do with accessibility) that’s been done with the official statistics and box scores of the game. But it doesn’t have to be. A “sabermetric” analyst working for a team could do an awful lot with raw scouting reports, and I like to think that real teams do this.
I think the real tension is between analysts and narrativists. Somebody like Murray Chass or (sadly) Tom Boswell isn’t arguing from a tools perspective. The argument isn’t even over statistics, per se – VORP and RBI are both, last I checked, numbers. Baseball teams use advanced metrics and scouting, to varying degrees; that war is over, at least in the broader strokes. (At least I think so – I don’t get invited to a lot of MLB front offices, so I don’t really know first-hand.)
Eric Seidman: If Jack made it a point as much as he did to discuss this part of his evaluative team, they aren’t going to just sit there. I have no idea to what extent the Mariners fused scouting and stats during the Bavasi era or even the Gillick era, but probably not as much as they will now. The stats vs. scouts will never die, because old-time writers need something to complain about.
Pizza Cutter: Are they hiring? It would seem foolish that Zduriencik would establish a whole department and then not use it, so they’ll have to have some influence. Given that the team has shelled out a lot of money on some really awful contracts (Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Silva), they’d do well to listen. And the stats vs. scouts thing will never die. Statisticians who give the human mind credit for how much information it can process are rare. Scouts who understand how easily fooled the human mind is by all that information are rare as well.
Question #2: Japan’s pro league recently drafted a female pitcher in their amateur draft. How long until MLB does the same?
Victor Wang: I think it’ll be a long time before a female pitcher is going to get drafted because she throws a mid 90s fastball. I think if it is to occur in the near future it will need to be someone, like the Japanese pitcher, who does something like throw a knuckleball or throws submarine. If someone decides they want to do something like that then maybe there’s a shot that it occurs in 5-10 years. However, with softball being an option for girls, I just don’t see something like this happening anytime soon. I would love to be proven wrong though.
Brian Cartwright: 15 or 20 years ago there were a handful of women who got to play winter ball, the old Hawaiian league I believe. If he Pirates can sign two pitchers who have never played baseball, there should be some women out there who qualify. It only takes one daring GM to do it here. But, after looking at 2000 some batters projections for this year you realize how very few players in the minors are good enough to play in the majors. I’m sure there are probably many women who could do OK in the low minors, but it might take a long time to find one who could succeed at the higher levels.
Colin Wyers: I suspect if you had asked the Japanese equivalent of StatSpeak this question a few weeks ago (do they exist?), they would have shrugged and gone, “Someday? Maybe?” It’s the sort of thing that sneaks up on you. The thing to keep an eye on is the adoption of amateur women’s baseball (not softball) players.
Eric Seidman: Never. I hate how short and terse that sounds, but this will not happen in my lifetime.
Pizza Cutter: Let’s see. If I have a daughter, 18 years. There have been girls who have played in the Little League World Series, and eventually, one of them will get a college scholarship, and maybe just maybe get drafted. It’s hard to put a time frame on it, and I’m not one to say that it’s very likely given that girls are pushed to softball, but as a function of pure probability, it’s bound to happen at some point.
Question #3: This week the Pirates signed two pitchers from India and a shortstop from South Africa to minor league contracts. Is it worthwhile yet to scout the “developing” baseball world?
Victor Wang: While you never want to close yourself off from a pool of talent, I’m not sure if it’s yet worthwhile to scout the developing baseball world. It seems like it might take some time for legitimate talent to be produced. Using the NBA as an example, it took a while for Europe to start consistently developing basketball once basketball became popular over there. And I doubt that baseball will ever become as popular as basketball overseas.
I think the biggest benefit right now in scouting developing worlds is the relationships that could be built. If a team could sign say a baseball version of Yao Ming for cheap, the payoff would be tremendous, especially with prices for prospects in the Dominican and Venezuela skyrocketing.
Brian Cartwright: Like my previous answer, sure we can find guys who can play in the minors, but I think it takes an established baseball tradition, playing the game everyday since you were 10, to refine the baseball instincts. Taiwan and Korea have a lot of people, and they have played baseball for a long time. In 1983 I did statistics for the World Friendship Games, in which both competed and did well. There are a surprising amount of Taiwanese in the minors today. But, as seen in the WBC, teams like Holland, Italy and South Africa struggle to be competitive, let alone India. It probably is worth the risk to sign a guy who looks good, our minors are already filled with guys not going anywhere. In doing so now you can establish contacts that 10 or 20 years from now might be vital when a true prospect comes along.
Colin Wyers: There is a risk involved. It’s very possible that somewhere like India simply isn’t able to sustain the development of baseball players at a high enough rate to be worth the risk.
But at the same time, if it does pan out, you have a foothold in a talent market before everyone else, getting exclusivity at first and a lot of benefits thereafter. We see right now an unequal amout of access to the talent markets in Latin America and Asia – if there is baseball talent to be had in India, the Pirates could be really helping themselves out here.
Eric Seidman: It is bad to be closed-minded, especially when it comes to scouting. The two Indian pitchers were on a reality show, and we don’t know if they will pan out, but this world is vast and there is bound to be talent all over the place. Pat Gillick helped create the Blue Jays teams of the 1970s-80s by launching scouting probes into Latin America, which, back then, probably seemed as odd as scouting into India and South Africa does today. These players might not pan out, but it never hurts to try.
Pizza Cutter: It would be silly to avoid an untapped pool of talent. The trick is that these guys will be the rawest of the raw. They may be physically talented, but likely don’t have “tools” yet, which come from actually playing the game and honing those skills. Places liek India and South Africa don’t have a huge baseball program. (The two pitchers from India had never held a baseball until earlier this year.) But then, India and South Africa are both British colonies with a cricket-playing history and that’s sorta the same thing. My guess is that slowly, kinda like it was with Venezuela and now it is with Japan, we will start to see more and more of these gentlemen get the call to MLB from those countries.
Question #4: The Phillies took a big blow this week when they heard that Chase Utley could miss the first 2 months of the 2009 season. They recently optioned Tad Iguchi to AAA, who filled in admirably when Utley went down in 2007. They also have Eric Bruntlett and could promote prospect Jason Donald. Would this three-headed monster be sufficient for the 30-40 games Utley could miss, or should the Phillies pursue a better stopgap?
Victor Wang: The length of Utley’s injury will obviously be a crucial factor in the Phillies’ decision. If he only misses 30-40 games I think the Phillies will be fine with Donald or Iguchi. The Phillies could also use this time to “showcase” Donald to other teams as he is blocked off at 2B and SS for the long term and probably won’t have enough bat to stick at 3B. Unless Utley is out for a much longer period, I don’t think the difference between Donald and say a guy like Jeff Kent would be that great to worry about. I would say they should focus more on getting a LF and another starter before investing resources in a stopgap 2B.
Brian Cartwright: Sorry Eric, but this could be ugly without Utley. Iguchi offensively is league average at 2b, but Bruntlett is brutal. Then again, the Phils won the Series even with Utley having little power after the beginning of June. Iguchi would be an acceptable place holder unil Utley is healthy.
Colin Wyers: They can go ahead and kick the tires on the handful of utility players on the free agent market – Craig Counsell would be a decent fit and would be a guy that understands that he’ll eventually be returning to the bench. David Eckstein could be another guy in that mold, depending on how he sees himself at this point. Ray Durham might work. They’re going to have to wait until a lot closer to spring training, though – at this point nobody wants to sign on to caddy for Utley when there’s still a posibility of going to a team where they have the chance to start.
Eric Seidman: Iguchi and Jason Donald should be fine in terms of being slightly above replacement level while Utley is out. For all we know, he may only miss 10 games, so it is tough to determine the next course of action until more is known about his expected recovery time. If complications arise and 2 months turns into 5 months, then a guy like Ray Durham would be solid to have, but I cannot see him missing more than one month, and they have been fine when he has missed time like that before.
Pizza Cutter: Maybe absence will make the heart grow fonder and people will actually realize what a valuable player Chase Utley is. Iguchi and Bruntlett are, at best, replacement level players. But then again, that’s the whole point behind the concept of “replacement level.” They’re spare parts, and the stuff that’s available for free out there is going to be just as rank. Basically you’re talking about signing a utility infielder to replace the Utley infielder for a few games, and then have him morph back into a utility role when Utley comes back. They’re not going to trade for an actual 2B as a stopgap, because he’d then have to ride the bench and you’ve traded something away for something else. This is a bad situation. I say play Iguchi and hope. It’s probably about the best you can get at this point.
Question #5: The World Baseball Classic is coming up. Which nine players should take the field for the USA in the first game of the tournament?
Joe Mauer, C
Grady Sizemore, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Josh Hamilton, RF
Matt Holliday, LF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
Jimmy Rollins, SS
C.C. Sabathia, P
Mauer may not be a prototypical lead off hitter, but he would have some of the best on base skills on the team. The toughest choices for me were between Lance Berkman and Mark Teixeira and Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia. I gave the edge to Teixeira because of superior defense and Pedroia wins the tiebreaker with his scrappiness.
c Matt Wieters
1b Mark Teixeira
Chase Utley Dustin Pedroia
ss Derek Jeter
3b David Wright
lf Matt Holiday
cf Grady Sizemore
rf Josh Hamilton
dh Milton Bradley
sp Tim Lincecum
Colin Wyers: Off the top of my head (or as close to as possible – I had to look up a few things, mostly do to with citizenship):
C Joe Mauer
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Dustin Pedroia
SS Jimmy Rollins
3B Alex Rodriguez
LF Matt Holliday
CF Grady Sizemore
RF J.D. Drew
I think you can win a few baseball games with that team.
Eric Seidman: Mauer, Tex, Kinsler, Rollins, A-Rod, Giles, Holliday, Sizemore, Adam Eaton on the mound.
c – J. Mauer
1b – M. Teixeira
2b – B. Roberts
3b – A. Rodriguez
ss – J. Rollins
lf – M. Holliday
cf – G. Sizemore
rf – J. Hamilton
sp – C. Sabathia
Catching, the US has Joe Mauer to call on, even over my personal favorite Brian McCann. At first, it’s a little bit more crowded with Berkman, Teixeira, Howard, Fielder, and even a guy like Kevin Youkilis. Tex is probably the most complete player of the bunch, although I’d take a guy like Youk along for the ride. Now that Chase Utley is hurt, I guess second will fall to Dustin Pedroia, but I’d personally give the call to the ever-underappreciated Brian Roberts. Short should go to Jimmy Rollins (although I suspect that Jeter will get it), and third will go to A-Rod (if he wants to play… if not, David Wright will do nicely). I’d personally like to see an outfield of Sizemore, Holliday, and… wow, there really aren’t a lot of outstanding American outfielders. Josh Hamilton (one year?) Adam Dunn (StatSpeak drinking game players, take a shot!) Brad Hawpe? On the mound, if you look at the leaders from last year in FIP among starters, the top eight are Americans. My Game One starter would be C.C. Sabathia.