StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: May 12

This week’s roundtable comes with a funny story.  We usually have one guest blogger on the roundtable, but this past week, through a series of mix-ups and missed e-mails, we ended up getting two “yes” responses from our two guests today.  Eric and I had been communicating through e-mail and IM about scheduling someone, and when Eric got the two e-mails, he sent me an instant message… “wanna have a foursome?”  Unfortunately, Mrs. Cutter just happened to be at my computer printing something out when the message came through.  I had a little explaining to do…
Anyway, our happy accident means a little more fun on the roundtable today.  We are pleased to be joined by R.J. Anderson, who writes about the newly exorcized and above .500 Tampa Bay Rays at DRaysBay and about Sabermetrics at Beyond the Box Score.  Also joining us is the newly-engaged (ed note: Mrs. Cutter says “Don’t do it!” – P.C.) Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner (guess which team is his favorite) and the blog on the front page of FanGraphs.  Today, we talk about dumb things that teams did last off-season, Dusty Baker, K/BB, and the future of baseball journalism.
Question #1: At what point do teams start to realize that combining Dusty Baker with young pitching isn’t a good idea?
R.J. Anderson: This is his third job since 2000 and he’s won three manager of the year awards, so I have no doubts we’ll see Dusty in at least one more job along the way. In fact weren’t there some talks about Dusty being a candidate in San Diego? I guess even the smarter organizations have a bit of a soft side for him.
Dave Cameron: We can’t really be talking about performance here, considering how well Edinson Volquez has pitched this year.  Johnny Cueto has had his ups and downs, but I don’t see any reason to think Baker’s responsible for his inconsistency.  So are we talking pitch counts? Volquez has thrown more than 110 pitches just twice this year and Cueto’s only gotten over 100 once.  Yes, the Cubs had problems with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, but Carlos Zambrano hasn’t really fallen apart due to the strenuous workload that Baker put on him, and turning three hot prospects into one healthy major league pitcher and a couple of injured guys sounds pretty close to normal attrition rates to me. 
Eric Seidman: They won’t, and it has nothing to do with Dusty and young arms.  In no way should this be taken as any sort of racist comment, because I do want there to be more diversity in the managerial ranks, but because major league baseball requires teams to interview minority candidates, teams see friendly old Dusty, the recipient of numerous manager of the year awards, who “guided” a team to the World Series, and find him as an attractive candidate.  He has that Charlie Manuel feel for player personalities and so teams may feel he can help teach a young squad… ultimately forgetting one of his biggest managerial flaws involves the handling of young players, especially young arms. 
Pizza Cutter: I actually had a conversation with a friend at work who is involved in a 20 team fantasy keeper league with minor leaguers.  He’s a pretty astute guy and he told me that he has Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto on his team.  He was ready to quietly try to trade them to someone else.  Yes, Dusty is the king of over-using young pitchers (I live near Wrigley Field… it’s kinda a sore subject around here) and it sure seems like they all blow out their arms after working for Dusty.  But, before we all fall into Baker-bashing, it’s only fair to ask the other side of the question.  Baker is credited(?) with blowing out the arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.  But, did he at any point do anything that actually benefitted the two of them?  Now, I can’t honestly say that the answer is yes, and I’m not sure how I’d really go about answering it.  But, science requires that we consider the good with the bad.  The other thing to consider is that Dusty did get the Cubs (the Cubs!) within reach of the World Series (unfortunately, also in the reach of Steve Bartman).  Maybe having Wood and Prior pitch that much for that long and having them throw all those pitches was an exercise in going “all in.”  Yes, it was high risk, but the chance at the reward was worth it!  Maybe Dusty knew what he was doing all along.
Nah.

Question #2: Six weeks into the season, what’s looking like the dumbest move of the 2007-2008 off-season?
R.J. Anderson: Jose Guillen’s contract. I wasn’t a fan of it the day it was signed and I’m woefully unimpressed thus far. I understand the Royals wanting to add a bat to the lineup, but Guillen wasn’t the one to go after. Of course it’s unfair to Guillen to act like he’s the only one in the Royals lineup struggling, but gosh, 3/36 for Jose Guillen? Really? 
Dave Cameron: It has to be the Andruw Jones signing, doesn’t it? He’s not hitting for average or power even when he does make contact, which isn’t very often.  Instead of bouncing back from a down year, he’s making his ’07 performance look like gold in comparison, and with he and Juan Pierre both getting at-bats in the outfield, the Dodgers are routinely benching either Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp.  Right now, it looks like the Dodgers gave Andruw Jones $36 million to make their team worse. 
Eric Seidman: Depends how you look at this.  From a team development standpoint, Aaron Rowand’s signing made absolutely no sense as the Giants are in desperate need of rebuilding and their key signing this off-season was a guy coming off of a career year in a hitter’s park.  He has put up solid numbers thus far, though.  I would have to say Andruw Jones for this one.  He had a terrible 2007, signed a 2/36.2 MM deal, and is posting numbers worse than Rafael Belliard right now.  Of course this could change but if the season ended today, for whatever odd reason, that would be my pick. 
Pizza Cutter: What the heck was Houston thinking?  Brad Lidge got tagged as someone not ready to sit in the big chair on account of his admittedly nightmarish 2005 post-season, despite the fact that he never really showed much drop-off in his core skills.  His was down on his statistical luck in 2006, and was back to his old self in 2007.  But, the ‘Stros traded him for Michael Bourn, who has stolen 17 bases, which appears to represent him stealing both second and third just about every time he manages to get on base (.269 OBP… yummy).  But wait, the Astros also got Geoff Geary, who’s having a good season in their pen, although his peripherals aren’t anywhere near Lidge’s.  Lidge (and Geary) has gotten a little lucky this year out of the pen (Lidge’s BABIP is .211), but there’s something to be said for a stat line that reads 17 IP, 0.00 ERA.  If you’re going to trade someone of the calibre of Lidge, should you not get something more than a fantasy baseball specialist (he’s fast!) and a decent reliever in return?  (For the record, the Astros also got 3B prospect Michael Costanzo… we’ll have to see about that one.)  Someone in the Phillies office was paying attention.  Or got lucky.  Either one.
Question #3: For years, statistical analysts have used walk to strikeout ratio as the main ingredient in every pitching metric they’ve devised.  In general, it works very well, as the elite pitchers dominate hitters with good stuff and control the strike zone at the same time.  Likewise, we expect that pitchers who can’t throw strikes and don’t miss bats will struggle.  However, in looking at the bottom of the BB/K leaderboard currently, there are three pitchers who have walked more batters than they have struck out – Fausto Carmona, Jon Garland, and Jeremy Bonderman.  They have ERAs of 2.95, 4.30, and 4.17 respectively.  There are 14 pitchers with a BB/K of 1.25 or less, and as a group, they have an ERA of 4.05, mainly because they are allowing just a .268 batting average on balls in play. Is it possible to acknowledge the predictive power of a great BB/K rate in the positive sense while simultaneously believing that the inverse may not be true? Or are we just looking at a small sample fluke where the guys that are just happening to get lucky on balls in play are the guys who don’t strike anyone out?
R.J. Anderson: I think we’re seeing a mix of outliers and small sample size. Hits are probably the most random thing around, and unless the pitcher has an abnormal LD% you have to imagine at some point the guys who are walking the most are going to get firebombed. Then again baseball players love proving statistics writers wrong, just read one of those David Eckstein/Juan Pierre articles, so maybe it’s all just a big conspiracy, who knows.  
Dave Cameron: I do think statistical analysis has swung too far towards the pendulum of viewing pitcher success only through the eyes of limiting walks and racking up strikeouts.  Both of these are positive traits and perhaps the easiest to identify for the average fan, but they are not the sole path to quality pitching.  For a pitcher with marginal stuff, attempting to improve his walk and strikeout rates by throwing the ball in the strike zone all the time will likely lead to significant problems with home runs (Kevin Slowey, I’m looking at you).  Every approach has a trade off, and I believe it is possible that we are missing the positive effects that pitchers with mediocre walk to strikeout ratios are gaining by not attempting to rack up the swings and misses.  I haven’t completed a comprehensive study that proves this assertion, so it stands as just a theory for now, but I think we’d all be better off if we acknowledge that there are multiple paths to getting hitters out with regularity. 
Eric Seidman: I really think this is a combination of small sample sizes and outliers.  We are never realistically going to see everything happen that is expected to happen.  Some pitchers with low line drive rates are going to have ridiculously high relative BABIP’s; the inverse can be said for those with high line drive rates.  Looking at the three pitchers mentioned in particular, Garland has an FIP of 5.06, Carmona at 5.07, and Bonderman at 5.91.  Bonderman has never had a K/BB under 1.86 and it is currently a full point under.  As Dave mentioned at Fangraphs, Garland at one point had a K/BB so low it bordered on the absurd.  Since the non-HR hits have essentially been determined to be dependant on luck, via DIPS, and some of those mentioned have historically been much better in these areas, I think this can be chalked up as players either very lucky that will be in a small group of season-long outliers, or just “victims” of small samples.
Pizza Cutter: BB/K ratio actually takes 500 BF until it stablizes enough to be considered a reliable indicator (at least by me), so we might just have some flukey BB/K’s out there (come on Fausto… get it together, man!)  However, can someone have a lousy BB/K ratio and still get by?  Sure!  There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  A pitcher can either be good (strike a lot of guys out, not walk a lot of guys) and get amazing results or just lucky (have a low BABIP) and have amazing results.  The scoreboard doesn’t care.  Some guys work for years and develop skills that help them to work their way to the top.  Some just catch a few lucky bounces.  Mom always told me, “Life’s not fair.” 
Question #4: A journalism student at a prominent college recently told me that he had an interview for a writing internship at MLB.com.  The interview promptly ended, however, when he expressed his goal was for mainstream baseball writing to incorporate more analytical tools than just calling someone clutch, saying David Eckstein is a hard-nosed player, and grilling someone with small sample sizes.  Of course those reading MLB.com or newspapers aren’t necessarily going to grasp all sabermetrics concepts, but analytical writing excluding the aforementioned issues does not entirely lean towards statistics.  What does this tell you about the goals of mainstream writing?
R.J. Anderson: Not to go reverse Buzz Bissinger here, but I think this is one of the reasons we as fans need the internet and blogs. Where as in a newspaper they can’t reprint what VORP means everyday in every article mentioning the stat. On Baseball Prospectus they can just link to the previous article or have the pop-up box show the definition. Of course the MLB.com writer can do the same, but if the general populous doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about will people read him more of him, especially if his articles are usually cynical in nature? People read Joe Posnanksi, but he’s an amazing writer on top of being a very bright guy. Addressing the candy clichés, you have to remember that team’s websites are an extension of their brand and really an advertising tool. Do you think the owner wants people reading on the team’s official site that their new signing – the one with the grit – actually will cost his team more runs on defense than he’s worth?  
Dave Cameron: This tells me that the goal of mainstream writing is still to continue to make money for the people who sign the paychecks, which is done by reaching as large an audience as possible.  And, in this case, the general baseball reading audience isn’t clamoring for more analytical tools in their baseball writing.  To be certain, there are a significant number of fans who want something more than what the mainstream offers, but they are certainly in the minority, and the internet is doing a great job of serving those fans – there are no shortage of analytical tools floating around the web, after all.  Statistical analysis is still not going to appeal to enough people to break into the mainstream and is still something of a niche industry.  I’m not sure it’s fair to expect the mainstream to cater to that niche 
Eric Seidman: Honestly, though I would assume this question should be expected to illicit anti-mainstream sentiments I think it shows a remarkable grasp of its audience.  While many of us in the statistical community would like to see cliches such as hard-nosedness, clutchiness, etc, dropped from the mainstream bank of terms, how many of us really go to MLB.com for analysis?  The only times I really go to any of the mlb.com team sites is to go to the gameday feature.  I mean, occasionally, yes, I will read a topic-player quote-conclusion piece because it is a nice break, but they understand who they are writing for and take advantage of said knowledge by appealing to the desires of their readers.  Now, we could argue, with much merit, that this represents a “dumbing-down” because sometimes great analysis will be avoided in order to get a catchy pun or interesting quote; ultimately, though, they know what they’re aiming for even if it isn’t the eventual target we would like (see I can do the catchy end line, too!).
Pizza Cutter: I made a New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t see this type of thing as a grand conspiracy to keep Sabermetrics away from people.  Surely, someone could write stories/content/posts with plenty of Sabermetric wisdom and have it be aimed at a non-math-major audience.
Consider the stir that was caused when Brian Bannister came out as a Sabermetrician this winter or when Moneyball was published.  The people within any structure, including baseball, have a tendency to defend the structure as it is.  Part of that is keeping out any ideas that might force the structure to change, whether or not that would be for the better.  This sounds like one of those instances.  But, of course, Sabermetrics has managed to infiltrate the establishment a little bit… and this next line has to be read in a dramatic whisper… we will not be ignored!  Sabermetricians of the world, unite!

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10 Responses to StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: May 12

  1. Pizza Cutter says:

    The key part of the question though I think comes earlier. Why do we blindly accept such silly notions as guys being clutch and gritty without questioning them?

  2. Bob R. says:

    Mainstream media cannot incorporate advanced statistics in the kind of detail that the internet sites do, and for the reasons given. But they can do something to popularize them without dumbing them down.
    They can incorporate some of the more easy to understand concepts, something already being done with OBP for example. And they can use concepts such as park factor, pitcher peripherals and so on in stories without detailing the actual statistics or formulas. Some of this has been around for a long time. I recall in the 1950s stories referring to the advantages lefties had in Yankee Stadium or the effect of Ebbets Field on hitting.
    Even ESPN could do it if so inclined without losing its audience. There is always a conflict in entertainment between giving people what (we think) they want and trying to maintain or raise standards. It is often an excuse for lazy productions; quality can be very popular if done well.

  3. I agree, Bob. FIP is not a hard concept to understand and if it’s incorporated into the MLB.com team pages people will start to wonder what it is… the more they wonder the more they learn, and the more likely it is that some will “convert” to the dark side.

  4. jwb says:

    Because Joe and Tim say so.

  5. Erik Hahmann says:

    Because a player like Eckstein is so pale and white and gritty that the paleness and grittyness create a giant page/gritty looking forcefield around him.

  6. Lisa Gray says:

    eric
    mike costanzo (the minor league 3B we got from Philly as one of the 3 players in the Brad Lidge trade) is long gone – off to Baltimore for Miguel Tejada.
    lisa

  7. Lisa, I know. I didn’t mention Mike Costanzo, someone else did.

  8. Pizza Cutter says:

    That was me mentioning Costanzo. Sorry to hear that his tenure was so short. Although the Tejada thing hasn’t turned out so badly so far.

  9. DanC says:

    One of these days, you’ll all realize that, no matter how much you bash him, David Ortiz is the best clutch hitter to ever play the game. He single-handedly ended The Curse. Don’t any of you remember?
    Oh, and Andruw Jones finally put down the needles. Enough said. But, good for him on getting paid.
    No mention of Cliff Lee this week? Surely, you’ve been reading every mainstream sports news outlet! They say there are no more superlatives to describe the guys performance. I say that sounds like a challenge.

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