Debunking a few first-half myths

At the (roughly) halfway point to the baseball season, it’s time to take care of a few first-half myths, StatSpeak style.  The following oft-repeated things aren’t actually true.  Except for the ones that are.
Johan Santana is having an off-year.  (Alternately: Johan Santana is “losing it.”)
You have my permission to smack (lightly) anyone who says this.  As of the All-Star break, guess which pitcher led the majors in Pitching Runs Above Replacement with 60?  I’ll give you a few hints: It’s not Jake Peavy (54), Dan Haren (53), or Brad Penny (51).  Santana’s reported ”slide” was mostly based on the fact that he was, at one point, 6-6 in the win-loss column(s).  This is why fantasy baseball should be outlawed.  People have actually overlooked a WHIP of 1.03, an ERA of 2.75, and a strikeout rate over one per inning, but because Santana lost a few games due to bad breaks and bad run support, it was declared that he was bad for baseball.  (All you guys who picked Santana in your first round figuring he’d be a monster in four pitching categories were sorely disappointed, eh?  You only got three.)  There’s a difference between a good fantasy player and a good real-life player.  Santana has always been the latter and usually the former.
But for what it’s worth, he is showing a few signs of cracking:  Take a look at some of his advanced stats.  Santana’s BB rate is a up a bit, his K rate is down a bit, and his HR rate is up a bit.  His BABIP is at .265, which is about 20 points below his career average.  His LOB% is way up at 83.4%.  So, he’s been getting a bit lucky and his rate stats are trending a bit in the wrong direction, but he’s still one of the best, if not the best pitcher in the game, and he’s proving it again this year.  No matter what your idiot friend says.
The Yankees could chip away a little bit at a time at Boston’s lead (10 games) and overtake them to win the AL East.
Politicians could stop taking bribes.  The Spice Girls could re-unite (Uh oh…)  But, please spare me the lecture — and mini-series – about what happened in 1977… or what happened to the Angels in 1995.  Look at the standings.  So far, the Yankees have played .500 ball, and the Red Sox have played .600 ball.  Let’s assume that the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Devil Rays will fade away in the second half (not a huge assumption).  In order for the Yankees to overtake the Red Sox, the two teams will basically have to switch, with the Red Sox playing .500 ball in the second half and the Yankees playing .600.
Let’s be very generous to the poor Yankees fans who are holding out hope.  The Red Sox have played .600 ball, but let’s suppose that they are really a much worse team playing well over their heads and getting lucky.  What’s the lowest “true” winning percentage that this Red Sox team could have where they would still be in the realm of statistical possibility that they would win 53 of their first 87 games.  Usually we set this around a chance of 5%, or at 2.5% if, like in this case, we only care about one direction.  (I could pretend that they were a much better team that was un-lucky.)  After I ran the calculations, .500 about does it.  If the Red Sox really are a .500 team, then there’s about a 2.65% that they would be where they are.  Think of it this way: if you flip a coin ten times, it’s possible that 9 of them will be heads, but it’s not very likely.  Turning it around for the Yankees, what are the chances that they are actually a much better team than their record indicates, but they’ve had horrible luck?  Well, the highest “true” win percentage that would still allow them to have posted the 42-43 record that they have so far within the usual limits of statistical probability?  About .605 (p = 2.48%)
So, the things that needs to happen for the Yankees to overtake the Red Sox is, given the data so far, are at the very edge of statistical probability.  The chances of both things happening (the Yankees becoming a .600 team and the Red Sox becoming a .500 team), given the data?  Around .06%.  Sure, it could happen, but that’s not the way to bet.
The White Sox got a great deal in signing Mark Buerhle to a 4-year/$56 million contract.
David Gassko, who preceded me here at StatSpeak, sums things up more beautifully than I could ever do.  But why are so many people hailing this as a great coup for the White Sox?  Most folks point out that Buehrle probably would have gotten more money elsewhere (Zito money, i.e. about 17 million a year, has been bandied about).  So, folks hail the Sox for getting Buehrle on sale.  But, let me illustrate the fault in this logic with an example.  Imagine that your wife comes to you and says that she wants to buy a pair of shoes that are on sale for $20.  She points out that they used to be $50 and so they’re such a great deal!  But you think to yourself, she already has 50 other pairs of shoes and only two feet.  This extra pair of shoes isn’t worth $20.  The point of any purchase, whether shoes or Major League pitchers, is that you should get more value out of them than the item costs.  David makes the case nicely that Buehrle just isn’t worth $14M per annum.
So, why did the Sox make this move?  Well, it’s for the same reason that you tell your wife that it’s OK if she buys the shoes.  You want to keep the peace.  (Sweetie, if you’re reading this, I love you.  And yes you can get those shoes.)  Suppose White Sox GM Kenny Williams lets Buehrle go.  He’s immediately villified, especially if Buehrle puts up a 20-4 season with a 1.93 ERA somewhere else.  Even if he doesn’t do that, Buehrle’s record suggests that he’ll continue to be among the ranks of the very good (if not elite) starting pitchers.  By overpaying, Williams placates the fans who are nervous that if Buehrle leaves, no good starting pitcher will ever wear a Chicago uniform again.  I mean, look at Oakland.  They didn’t sign Zito, Mulder, or Hudson to long-term deals and their starting pitching is in shambles.
In signing Buehrle to an over-priced deal, Kenny Williams does leave less money in the budget for free agents in the coming years and ties up money in a player who’s not likely to be as productive as his salary dictates.  But, when the White Sox miss out on a free agent because their budget is hamstrung, Williams can blame “the market.”  If he lets Buehrle walk, Williams is immediately blamed by his wife, the White Sox the fans, even though he made the better business decision.  In the long run, he can sign players who will be a better value than Buehrle.  If Williams signs Buehrle, he’s hailed as a hero in the short run, even though it’s a bad business decision, and he can pass off the blame for any repercussions that happen (and they probably won’t for a year or two) on someone/something else.  From Kenny Williams’s position, the decision to make seems obvious.
The four most powerful words in the world that explain 98% of all the strange things that humans do are: “It’s not my fault.”

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4 Responses to Debunking a few first-half myths

  1. I don’t think the wife/shoe analogy is apt. Your wife, in theory, has unlimited space in the closet for her shoes. The White Sox, however, have a limited number of roster spots, and those roster spots are limited by the needs for players at different positions, like having 5 starting pitchers. The opportunity costs are different. If your wife spends $50 on shoes, that means she can’t spend that $50 on something else. Certainly, $14 million the White Sox spend each year to Buehrle limits their future spending ability as well. But if your wife doesn’t buy the shoes, she doesn’t have to find a replacement for them — she already has other shoes, and can have as many pairs as she wants. The Sox need a certain number of pitchers, and the supply of pitchers, especially pitchers at Buehrle’s level, is incredibly limited, whereas the number of available shoes is quite high. The Sox don’t necessarily have the time to shop around for a pitcher.
    And the point of a purchase is not necessarily to get more value out of the item than it costs. Obviously, that’s why people shop for things like shoes when they are on sale — to maximize the value of the product while minimizing the value of the money spent. But we’re willing to make a purchase when the value of the item is equal to the value of the money. It’s just that the item gives us a different value than the money does — if one necessarily had more value than the other no matter what, the transaction would not take place because the seller wouldn’t be willing to part with it. In other words, if the buyer were smart enough to know what a deal they were getting, the seller would be justified — and smart — to increase the cost. The White Sox don’t expect Buehrle to be better than a $14 million per year pitcher. They expect him to be a $14 million per year pitcher because that is what they were willing to give him.
    Of course, that still might be pretty foolish. Buehrle (or probably more accurately, his agent) knew how to market himself to the team.

  2. Er, I thought I had changed my homepage in my MVN profile so it wouldn’t go to my regular blog anymore. So I’m just testing it out now — should go to Out in the Desert here on MVN (yeah, I want traffic…big whoop, you wanna fight about it?)

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    I don’t doubt that the White Sox figured that they could actually pull $14M worth of value out of MB. I just happen to think that they’re wrong. You’re right, if the Sox let MB go, they do have to find a replacement.
    I’m saying that odds are that they will probably get better value on that money by trying to bargain hunt. There’s no guarantee that they find a good bargain, so they decided to take the safe way out, overpaying for the certainty of having a good player rather than taking the risk of finding a good deal. This is how free agent markets inflate.
    And we are running out of closet space for the shoes…

  4. John Beamer says:

    Your wife will just throw some of your shoes away to free up more closet space.
    So Santana was a touch lucky and was 6-6 at one point … there would have been a full scale mutiny had he not gotten that smidgin of luck!

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