World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: December 18

Yeah, I know, we’re a day late.  It’s the holidays.  Things get a little busy sometimes…  This week, the hot seat is filled by Graham MacAree, creator of tRA, who writes at Lookout Landing, hangs out at U.S.S. Mariner (notice a pattern?) and has taken tRA global at StatCorner.  He joins us to talk about the Yankees buying up pitching, contracts, the value of defense, and more about the nature of contracts.  Read on…

Question #1: Are teams generally valuing defensive runs saved as highly as pitching and batting?

Graham MacAree: It depends. The lukewarm market for such defensive luminaries as Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn certainly implies that teams are catching onto the fact that saving runs with the glove is just as important as generating them with the bat. By dealing closer JJ Putz for two of the best defensive outfielders in the game, the Seattle Mariners have shown that they may be valuing defence more highly than either offence or pitching (which is the sensible thing to do when trying to inflate Carlos Silva’s trade value). Tampa Bay quite obviously caught on last year, with an improved defence making the pitchers look spectacular on the way to the World Series. On the flip side of all this, Raul Ibanez was just signed by a National League team to play in left field, where he has consistently been one of the worst gloves in the game. I guess the easy answer is that some teams value defence, some don’t, and some that do aren’t measuring it properly.

Brian Cartwright: I believe they are getting a better handle on the extreme high and low, but I don’t think that management has yet wrapped it’s collectivr heads around a system that can show a graded breakdown of fielding, and more importantly, how it translates into runs or wins, and how important it really is compared to hitting. Stuff like Nate McLouth winning the Gold Glove shows that the mainstream doesn’t know how to evaluate defense.

Some don’t like a “one number” system, but this is where it’s helpful. Jinaz is one who has helped popularize expressing everything in terms of runs, and then summing up the player’s total contribution. I do not yet think that teams get that if they have two players who are +30 on offense, and one is +10 on defense while the other is -10, that there’s TWO WINS difference.

Colin Wyers: I think that teams overrate the impact of pitching and underrate the impact of position player defense. Teams are willing to pay for better run prevention, but they’re paying the wrong people.

Eric Seidman: On one hand, the fact that Dunn, Burrell, and Abreu still don’t have homes speaks volumes, but that Raul Ibanez is considered a defensive upgrade is rather troubling.  Certain teams, like the Mariners, seem to be catching on, but for the most part it seems that teams still haven’t ingratiated defensive analysis into their evaluative techniques as much as they should. 

Pizza Cutter: Apparently not, at least in the four corners.  It seems that teams are looking for “offensive players” in those positions, apparently figuring that if you’ve seen one third baseman’s defense, you’ve seen them all.  That’s certainly not the case.  It seems that defensive prowess is the new OBP.  It’s a stat that enlightened teams seem to be looking at and exploiting the fact that the market does not price it properly.  Consider for a moment that a guy with an outstanding glove at third who might save 30 more runs than the guy with the big bat and stone hands (*cough*Ryan Braun*cough*), but will be paid like a utility infielder.  Worse, he’ll probably be relegated to being the utility infielder.  I guess chicks dig the long ball.  They don’t dig 5-3 putouts.

Question #2: In the current economic situation, is there any evidence that owners are scaling back their spending this off-season?

Graham MacAree: There’s a lot of evidence that the market is weaker than usual. Closers are generally one of the most overpaid commodities available, and the man who just set the single-season saves record got a 3 year, $37 million dollar deal from the Mets. Compare it to the $46 million Francisco Cordero got from the Reds last year – it’s hard to imagine that K-Rod wouldn’t have gotten a bigger contract in 2007. The weak market for Furcal also implies that teams are tightening their pockets. In fact everything but the Yankees spending $200M+ on two pitchers seems to suggest that spending is being scaled back, but is that because of the economic situation, because teams are getting smarter, or some combination thereof?

Brian Cartwright: I guess I still have a problem thinking that a guy who throws 70 innings a year getting $12m is cutting back. The Yankees haven’t been shy spending their future revenue, but other teams might not be so sure of their future income. The Pirates just had GM cancel a sponsorship. Smaller teams may have to cut prices to keep seats in the stands. I guess the best evidence of that is how many free agents are still unsigned a week after the Winter Meetings are over, but then again, as I commented a few weeks ago, there’s not a great amount of talent out there. The best guys have their contract and their money, but those less-than-stars must not be getting the offers they anticipated.

Colin Wyers: The market seems to be slower than in years past, so it’s hard to say for sure. Relief pitching seems to be the one are teams are cutting back on. (It’s hard to say whether teams are cutting back on spending on all-hit, no glove corner outfielders, whether there’s just a glut of them, or whether or not teams have gotten religion on fielding.)

Eric Seidman: Yes.  Last year, players like Scott Linebrink and Ron Mahay were given lucrative deals.  This year, similar players are signing for lesser fees.  On top of that, teams were reluctant to give K-Rod a three-year deal yet Francisco Cordero easily received a huge deal last year.  On top of that, Burrell, Dunn, Abreu, and ManRam are still unsigned, suggesting that teams are really analyzing the players and money to pay them.

Pizza Cutter: I haven’t seen any evidence, at least at the high end of the market.  I understand that the Yankees are richer than Croesus, but we’re likely to see multiple contracts this year with AAVs over $20 million dollars given out by a few teams.  This is likely just the natural progression upward that happens each year (remember when your team felt guilty for signing a player to a $10M per year deal?), but if the slowdown were going to affect salaries, I don’t suppose that we would be seeing these numbers decline.

Question #3: The BBWAA just let in four people who come from “sabermetric” backgrounds. A great victory, a small triumph, or cooption?

Graham MacAree: It’s hard for me to see this as anything but a major victory for those who care about unity between the mainstream and more new-style writers. By including internet writers, the BBWAA is showing that it is indeed open to new ideas and ways of doing things. However, the BBWAA is becoming less and less relevant these days, unless you happen to really care about hall of fame votes or the end of season awards. So while it’s nice that they’ve finally opened their doors to Neyer and co., it’s a symbolic thing rather than anything meaningful, and it’s only symbolic for those who are caught up in the opinion of the mainstream regarding new baseball ideas. Being read by millions was a far bigger step for the four inductees than being officially allowed into the club.

Brian Cartwright: The main thing I see here is that the BBWAA has recognized ESPN and Baseball Prospectus, which are not mainstream print media, as being legitimate reporters of baseball. This is along the line of the Detroit newspapers now delivering PDF instead of paper. I don’t think they addressed sabermetrics, as the individuals who were given credentials were among the least stat oriented among their colleagues. Will Carroll writes about injuries, Chris Kahrl about transactions. In these roles, they have to know their players and their teams, and are good writers, but don’t really do any saber stuff.

Colin Wyers: I remember when Fox News started to get big and cut into CNN’s market share. So CNN decided to do that obvious thing – and poach a big name from Fox News to bring viewers back into the fold. So who did they get? Paula Zahn, the one person at Fox News who was closest to what CNN already had.

This feels a lot like that – sure, they got four good writers out of the bargain, and definately people who aren’t exactly in Murray Chass’s ideal BBWAA. But at the same time, these were probably the safe picks – writers from big-ticket online media outlets (and that’s what BP is these days). Someone like Bill James or BP’s own Nate Silver might have been a more interesting choice.

But the biggest problem with the BBWAA isn’t their backwardness when it comes to advanced stats (frankly, that can be solved – in time – by the fact that older people tend to pass on and younger people take their place). The big issue is that they’re no longer the sole gatekeepers of information. They’re losing influence because of changes in the media market that aren’t particular to baseball at all. BP and ESPN still largely fall under the same Source-Message-Channel-Reciever model as the big newspapers. Any media organization with a website this freaking lime green has problems that Rob Neyer is not going to be able to solve.

Eric Seidman: Huge deal.  Hands down, huge deal.  They don’t get HOF votes for ten years, but the sides are uniting!

Pizza Cutter: Great success!  I like!  Last year, the four who were voted in were actually kept out to make a statement.  BBWAA wanted to show that they were so cool, they wanted to leave out the Saber-types.  Now, in an about-face, perhaps because they realized that they were being petty, the four are in.  Maybe the idea is that if they let a few in, the Saber-types will stop whining about how awful BBWAA is in voting for their awards.  Maybe they just realized that Keith, Rob, Christina, and Will are really good, insightful writers about baseball.  If it’s the latter, then this really is a good day.

Question #4: When evaluating contracts and dollar figures, is it more prudent to look at the projected performance over the life of the contract or, what MLB teams tend to do, in paying players something close to their next season fair market value, but for several seasons?

Graham MacAree: I’m going to ignore salary inflation here, so bear with me… It depends on what you mean by prudent. If we’re speaking pure dollars to win, the obvious answer is yes, we should determine how many wins a player is likely to be worth over the course of the contract, price those wins at a certain market rate, and value the contract accordingly. However, this ignores the context of a Major League Baseball team trying to win a World Series (assumedly most teams make major free agent signings in order to make them more likely to win the Series). If a team is in ‘win now’ mode, the added wins for the short term matter more than wins in the future, and the way to secure those wins is to overpay for the long term.

Brian Cartwright: Especially when you might not have as much money to throw around, it’s important to make sure you spend that money wisely. To me, it seems obvious that a 31 year old should not be expected to perform at the same level when he’s 36. Younger players mostly get better, those over 30 mostly get worse. It’s not hard to study the stats and get some guidelines.

Find the best estimate of the player’s true talent right now, preferably by looking at a weighted vaerage of several past seasons (Marcel). Then, looking at age, body type, skill set, etc, estimate how good this player will be in 2, 3, 4 years. Estimate each year, add them up, put a dollar value on the sum, and have that as the total value of the contract. Then you get into how you divide it up among each year of a multiyear contract. If done in this way, even though you might be overpaying for year x in the future, the contract taken as a whole should, on average, be pretty accurate.

Colin Wyers: I’m sure the answer for most GMs is that if you keep your job long enough to see tomorrow you can worry about it then.

Eric Seidman: Depends on the team and mindset.  The Yankees can afford to pay Burnett an average annual value of 16.5 mil even if he isn’t worth it in 2011 because the marginal wins added in 2009 may help them reach the promised land.  Interestingly enough, with salary inflation, even a declining player may still be worth the same money.  As in, a 3 WAR player at 5 mil/win in 2009 has a fair market value of 15 mil.  Next season, 2010, inflation makes it 5.5 mil/win, meaning he could still be worth 15 mil if he is a 2.75 WAR player, etc.

Pizza Cutter: Is this a trick question?  It’s always better to look at what a player projects out to, especially considering that most players sign those big free agent contracts at their peak, right before their inevitable decline.  But then, the market keeps creeping up, so this year’s $10 million player is next year’s $11 million player.  Even if he declines, he might still put up $10 million in value based on the increasing market.  Still, there are some players who will probably tank very quickly (read: pitchers).  Why are contracts priced this way, usually with small salary escaltors, rather than dropping the price over the years to match what will probably be declining performance?  Because people get offended if you tell them that they will not be young and beautiful forever.

Question #5: Have the Yankees solved their pitching problem by signing CC and AJ?

Graham MacAree: I’m not entirely sure that the Yankees really had a pitching problem, unless you’d like to call a decidedly average rotation problematic. The perceived problem, I suspect, is that for much of the year the rotation was filled by a bunch of nobodies. Sabathia changes that, and barring injury is one of the finest arms in the game. According to tRA (NB: I had to at least mention it once), adding Sabathia alone gives you 5 wins over last year’s rotation, and Burnett gives you another 3. Then you’d be taking starts away from NY’s scrubs, who combined for roughly -2 wins while filling in during injuries. Of course, you can’t just look at these numbers and say the Yankees got 10 wins better. Sabathia and Burnett had excellent years and are extremely likely to regress. On top of that, Burnett is a significant injury risk, and Mike Mussina is departing. So while New York undoubtedly got better with the two signings, expecting the world from them is extremely optimistic.

Brian Cartwright: CC has a track record of being there for 30 some starts, and is one of the best pitchers in the game today, a #1 starter on just about any team. AJ might be good, but he’s just as likely to be injured. Overall, it helps, but the Yankess still have problems with age and defense in their lineup. They let Giambi go, but he hasn’t been replaced yet. Other than Teixeira, who they’d also pay a bundle for, there’s not many 1b out rhere who can hit as well as Giambi, despite his age.

Colin Wyers: The Yankees did not so much have a pitching problem as a “mediocre team” problem. I guess buying pitching is one way to handle that, but it’s not the only way. But the Yankees talked themselves into believing that this was the only way to solve their problems. (A defensively useful outfield could perhaps have worked just as well?)

Eric Seidman: They added arguably the best pitcher in baseball and a flamethrower who, if durable, is a significant upgrade over Kennedy/Rasner.  The Yanks won’t win the WS based solely on these moves, but it definitely helps enhance the rotation.  Issues still remain: does Pettitte return?  Is Wang fully healthy?  Can Joba manage 200-IP?

Pizza Cutter: Well, they certainly didn’t get any worse.  C.C. Sabathia is the classic “once every five years, the Yankees buy the best pitcher in baseball” move.  A.J. Burnett is a high strikeout, high grounder pitcher.  Pair them with Chien-Ming Wang and the Yankees suddenly have a rotation that’s a little scary if you’re matched up with them in a five-game series.  With that said, let’s play a game called “Name a Yankees reliver whose first name is not Mariano.”  Of the 8 men who pitched 30 innings or more in relief for the Yankees last year, two of them (Ross Ohlendorf and Kyle Farnsworth) are no longer with the team.  One of them was named “LaTroy Hawkins” and that’s never a good sign.  Joba Chamberlain is theoretically a starter now.  The four who are left (Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Brian Bruney, David Robertson) are young, high strikeout, high walk guys who are not ground ball guys.  That will probably work most nights, but that’s also a recipe for a few late three run home runs, and in New York, that’s the type of thing that gets you demoted to AAA really fast.  So, the Yankees seem to have replaced the Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettite(?) retirements.  But they’re still thin in the ‘pen.


4 Responses to World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: December 18

  1. RollingWave says:

    “With that said, let’s play a game called “Name a Yankees reliver whose first name is not Mariano”
    umm, Damaso Marte? (though he sort of fits the high K highish walks and not exactly ground ball pitcher type)
    on the bright side, with CC and hopefully Wang around the bullpen usage will probably go down, and the Yankees seem to be getting the concept of “rotating all your youngsters between AAA and majors until you find something that work instead of holding on to several oldies who’s getting shelled and have no option but to either release them or watch more horror shows)

  2. “Why are contracts priced this way, usually with small salary escaltors, rather than dropping the price over the years to match what will probably be declining performance? Because people get offended if you tell them that they will not be young and beautiful forever.”
    I’m sure this is because of time value of money, not fear that the player takes offense. Maybe some player out there likes seeing his salary increase over time, but most prefer having more money now instead of having to wait for it.

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    The problem there is that since most teams seem to work on an annual budget, telling someone that he’s going to make $15 million in three years when your model tells you he’s only going to be worth 5 million is silly. Adjust for inflation/depreciation/market corrections all you want. Why is it that we rarely see a contract that goes down in value?
    Plus, as a player, it’s better to front-load a contract. Assuming that they’re investing their money, if you’re going to eventually make $20 million dollars, I’d rather have it sitting in my bank account collecting interest for me for an extra year rather than the owner.

  4. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear in my last post. I think that teams are intentionally structuring the contracts this way because it soothes the player’s ego with a high dollar figure while reducing the total net present value of the contract.

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