Why Haven’t Sabermetrics Gone Mainstream?

In response to a previous Pizza Cutter post, Tom Tango wrote the following, which was directed at the people on the fringes of baseball analysis: “The world is big enough for all of us. Join us if you want. Just don’t stand in our way.”

While those posts are unrelated to this one, that statement got me thinking. My dad and I are both big Yankee fans, and as such we constantly talk about roster decisions, free agents, trades, etc. I’m obviously a numbers guy, and while my dad will hear my arguments, that’s still not his forte. When I say that player X will help the team a given amount, that number has virtually no meaning to him.

While the kind of people who read this blog probably constantly think about player value in real terms, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to come up in the minds of most people. A manager will tell you that player X will help the team win and fans collectively think, “He’s probably right.” And the manager, more often than not, is correct. But when he says that the player will help the team win, how many people think to themselves, “How much?”

We are the kind of people who think “How much?” This is no great strength of ours and no great weakness of the general population. I think it is simply an attribute–whether it is positive or negative is not for me to decide.

In thinking about this issue, I decided for myself that one of the main reasons the general population thinks differently than the “sabermetric community” is fantasy baseball. Everyone has a team, some people have 3 or 4. And most of these leagues are the standard 5×5 variety where the stats of importance are RBI, runs, batting average, wins,  etc. As Patriot (LINK) will tell you, these stats have no meaningful units that can be converted to runs (don’t tell me that runs = runs, you know what I mean).

My dad plays fantasy baseball. To him, value is measured in those ten categories, because when he is “playing GM” then those are the only things that matter.  Here is my main point: Outside of increased awareness of projection systems, fantasy baseball is holding back the proliferation of sabermetrics. Why should anyone think about OBP when it has literally zero fantasy value in most leagues?

Maybe Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver are the culprits, I don’t know (Lord knows it sure ain’t this guy). Or it could be the negative sentiment towards Moneyball held by so many close to the game that’s holding us back. What do you guys think?

Edit: Further discussion can be found on FanGraphs and Baseball Think Factory

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Why Haven't Sabermetrics Gone Mainstream?

In response to a previous Pizza Cutter post, Tom Tango wrote the following, which was directed at the people on the fringes of baseball analysis: “The world is big enough for all of us. Join us if you want. Just don’t stand in our way.”

While those posts are unrelated to this one, that statement got me thinking. My dad and I are both big Yankee fans, and as such we constantly talk about roster decisions, free agents, trades, etc. I’m obviously a numbers guy, and while my dad will hear my arguments, that’s still not his forte. When I say that player X will help the team a given amount, that number has virtually no meaning to him.

While the kind of people who read this blog probably constantly think about player value in real terms, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to come up in the minds of most people. A manager will tell you that player X will help the team win and fans collectively think, “He’s probably right.” And the manager, more often than not, is correct. But when he says that the player will help the team win, how many people think to themselves, “How much?”

We are the kind of people who think “How much?” This is no great strength of ours and no great weakness of the general population. I think it is simply an attribute–whether it is positive or negative is not for me to decide.

In thinking about this issue, I decided for myself that one of the main reasons the general population thinks differently than the “sabermetric community” is fantasy baseball. Everyone has a team, some people have 3 or 4. And most of these leagues are the standard 5×5 variety where the stats of importance are RBI, runs, batting average, wins,  etc. As Patriot (LINK) will tell you, these stats have no meaningful units that can be converted to runs (don’t tell me that runs = runs, you know what I mean).

My dad plays fantasy baseball. To him, value is measured in those ten categories, because when he is “playing GM” then those are the only things that matter.  Here is my main point: Outside of increased awareness of projection systems, fantasy baseball is holding back the proliferation of sabermetrics. Why should anyone think about OBP when it has literally zero fantasy value in most leagues?

Maybe Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver are the culprits, I don’t know (Lord knows it sure ain’t this guy). Or it could be the negative sentiment towards Moneyball held by so many close to the game that’s holding us back. What do you guys think?

Edit: Further discussion can be found on FanGraphs and Baseball Think Factory

Fantasy vs. reality: Know the difference

I have a very ambivalent relationship in my head with fantasy baseball.  On the one hand, reading about it when I was 10 probably had a direct influence on the fact that now I spend a lot of time playing with numbers in baseball.  I’ve played fantasy baseball (although not this year, oddly enough) and I’ve even written about it here and there (and there and there).  Plus, it’s a fun way to keep in touch with some friends and to have an excuse to talk about baseball all summer.  It’s just that fantasy baseball drives me nuts as a Sabermetrician because it seems to me that, when watching actual baseball, we’ve gotten to a point where players are evaluated (at least by broadcasters and the general public) more by how good they are as fantasy players, rather than, well, real life players.  After all, I bet most of the knowledge that people have about players on teams in other cities comes from fantasy-related publications, and if he’s good in fantasy, that must translate over into real life, right?
Maybe this effect is even carrying over into real life.  Over the past off-season, J.C. Bradbury, who wrote The Baseball Economist, and operates the must-read Sabernomics blog, pointed out that over the past off-season, Brewers’ free agents Scott Linebrink and Francisco Cordero both signed four year contracts at roughly about the same time.  If you cover up their “saves” columns for their careers, they both had roughly the same track record coming into the 2008 season.  Why did Cordero ($46 million) get twenty-seven million dollars more than Linebrink ($19 million) over those four years?  Saves, after all, are a fantasy category.
The problem, of course, is that fantasy baseball usually relies on a bunch of stats that make Sabermetricians cringe.  The usual AVG, HR, RBI, SB, and R for batters and W, SV, ERA, WHIP, and K for pitchers in a 5×5 league are a mixed bag of stats when you evaluate them.  So, I present to you 8 players who are much better in your fantasies than they are in real life and 8 players who you will overlook if you just use a fantasy lens.  A lot of the explanations mirror one another, but they’re ways that the fantasy stats can fool you into believing that a player is better or worse than he really is.
(All stats were current as of Saturday afternoon when I wrote this.  It doesn’t matter if the stats change a little bit.  These are archetypes that will appear again and again in baseball so long as fantasy players are out there.)
Players who are much better in your fantasies:
1) Gavin Floyd (owned in 70% of ESPN fantasy leagues).  Floyd has all the markers of a massive disappointment heading into the rest of the season.  A lot of owners noticed him when he almost threw that no-hitter, and I have to say, the numbers so far are tempting.  He’s 4-3, but with a 2.93 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP.  A fantasy owner’s… um, fantasy, right?  Maybe not.  The number one rule of looking at WHIPs is to know whether it’s the W or the H that’s driving that WHIP.  If a pitcher is giving up a lot of walks, that’s probably not going to change.  If he’s giving up a lot of hits, that very well could change, especially if he’s gotten lucky in the BABIP department.  Floyd is walking 4+ batters per nine innings (more than he’s striking out).  His BABIP is .177, well under the usual .300.  Prognosis: that WHIP will not last, because Floyd will probably give up more hits.  Sell high now while he still looks shiny.  See also: Ryan Dempster (100% ownership), Tim Redding (24%).
2) Andy Sonnanstine (9%), is getting some nibbles because he’s picked up six wins (against only two losses) and three of those wins have been gems (a shut out, and two performances of 8-innings, 1-run).  The 5.09 ERA and 1.32 WHIP are nothing great, but maybe out of a fifth starter spot, it’s nice to pick up a few wins.  Plus, he leads the Devil Rays in wins, and they’re in a surprising second place, and “wins are what it’s all about!”  Right?  Not exactly.  My colleague, Eric Seidman, has written about how a starting pitcher can get a little lucky with his win-loss record, not because he’s a good pitcher, but because his offense picks him up.  Check out Sonnanstine’s game log for this year.  He’s getting an average of 5.79 runs of run support, so that when he goes out and throws 6 innings of 3 or 4 run ball (a perfectly respectable… average… statline for a starter), which he often does, he’s still picking up some wins.  With that said, it’s not like his peripherals are awful (or terrific), but right now, he’s one of the leaders in the category of “wins” in baseball, which means that there will be some over-valuing of him by fantasy owners.  See also: Braden Looper (9%)
3) George Sherrill (100%).  17 saves so far.  He might just make the All-Star team.  And your fantasy bullpen loves it when he comes out to save the game.  There’s a little tiny problem.  Sherrill is like Floyd in that he’s living off of a .200 BABIP, and he walks more than 4 per nine innings.  Uh oh.  What’s more telling is that 62.7% of his balls in play are going for fly balls, although he’s only been burned by a home run twice.  Sherrill will keep collecting saves, because Baltimore will keep throwing him out there, but that WHIP will go up, and if your league counts blown saves, do you really want a guy who plays in Camden Yards and gives up a lot of flyballs (and has dodged fate so far) as your stopper?  See also: K-Rod (100%) at least this year .
4) Fausto Carmona (100%).  The 4-2 record with the 3.10 ERA was deceptive.  The 1.59 WHIP is not.  But, is Carmona really a 3.10 ERA guy?  Carmona’s FIP (which is an ERA projection that looks at the fielding independent stats of K’s, BB’s, and HR’s) is 4.56, and FIP has been shown to be a better predictor of future performance than actual ERA.  Carmona has one of the largest spreads in that direction in baseball.  So, Carmona, who is walking more batters than he strikes out and has managed to avoid the home run (principally because he’s one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball) is getting a little lucky.  That ERA looks pretty, but it’s not real.  See also: Gavin Floyd (again), Scott Olsen (77%)
5) Just about anyone who steals a bunch of bases and hits for a .310 OBP.  That’s great that you’re so fast, but please, in order to use it, you need to get on base.  And then there’s fantasy ball, where these guys find a home, because… well, at least they steal bases.  See: Willy Taveras (95.2%), Carlos Gomez (100%), Joey Gathright (9%).
6) Carlos Lee (100%).  And now a small rant against RBI’s.  Just about every game that Carlos Lee has started, he’s hit behind Lance Berkman and Miguel Tejada, who are having amazing OBP seasons.  Carlos Lee is among the league leaders in RBI.  Is this because he is amazing?  No.  In fact, he’s got an OBP of .311.   See also: Adrian Gonzalez (100%).
7) Cristian Guzman (100%).  I bet you love that .300 AVG.  But dig that .322 OBP.  See also: Bengie Molina (98.7%), Jose Lopez (91%).
8) Ryan Theriot (100%).  Theriot is, I suppose a nice little backup plan at SS for those who didn’t get Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, or Jimmy Rollins.  After all, he’s put up a nice .320 average and has even stolen 9 bases.  There’s one problem with that.  Theriot is 9 for 16 in SB’s.  Fantasy baseball usually counts raw SB totals (they should count net), so you don’t see the ugly side.  Theriot also has the problem in real life that he’s not really a shortstop.  But, why worry about defense in fantasy baseball.  See also: Corey Patterson (14.4%).
Players who are much better in reality:
1) Brian Wilson (100%) gets his own category and a cheap reference to Barenaked Ladies.  He’s put up 14 saves (on a bad team!) so he’s getting some ownership love, but he’s killing your ERA (5.49) and WHIP (1.63), right?  Ah… not so.  Wilson’s WHIP has a lot to do with his .374 BABIP (although his walk rate is above 4 per 9 IP).  Still, his FIP is also 3.79, because he strikes guys out like crazy.  Here’s a little tip.  The guy who owns Brian Wilson in your league likes the saves, but is a little freaked out by the peripherals.  First off, closers pitch about 60-70 innings per year, while starters go 180-210, so you shouldn’t be as worried about a closer with a high WHIP and ERA… but he’s a moron and he’s worried.  If you have a closer who pitches for a losing team (remember that saves are team dependent) who has a better WHIP and ERA right now, maybe you’d flip him to that guy for Wilson and some other piece that you want from him.  After all, you’re trading down.
2) Ted Lilly (99.8%).  He strikes guys out (9 K’s per 9 IP), but is 5-4, with a 5.14 ERA, and you fantasy owners (and the North Side of Chicago with you) get ulcers on a regular basis over him.  His FIP is 3.75.  Does that make your tummy feel better?  See also: C.C. Sabathia (ERA 5.14, FIP 3.80), although no one’s going to give up on him.
3) Darren Oliver (0%).  A good relievers who get no saves.  Ugh.  See also: Damaso Marte (0%), Heath Bell (21.8%), and a bunch of others.
4) Joe Blanton (42.2%).  2-6 with a 3.87 ERA won’t get anyone in fantasyland excited.  Blanton has a skill set that while it doesn’t translate into fantasy points, translates into good pitching performance on the field.  He’s not a strikeout machine.  But, he rarely walks anyone, keeps the ball on the ground, and has shown some pretty reliable numbers in keeping fly balls from going over the wall.  It’s all very boring I suppose, but it does get the job done.  See also: Paul Byrd (1%).
5) Garrett Atkins (100%).  Atkins hits line drives.  In real baseball, line drives are very likely to go for hits, sometimes of the extra-base variety.  The problem for fantasy owners is that they don’t as often go for home runs.  Who needs a corner infielder who doesn’t hit home runs?  The nice part about real baseball is that the point of the game isn’t to hit the ball over the fence (although that’s nice.)  It’s to hit it where they ain’t.  (Yeah, I know, there’s no one over the fence.)  But for this particular “problem”, Atkins doesn’t really get any love, being relegated to being drafted behind A-Rod, David Wright, Miggie Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez(!), and Chone Figgins.  See also: Sean Casey (1%), and um, Chone Figgins (100%).
6) Brian McCann (100%).  It’s hard to make the case that a guy like McCann doesn’t get some love.  He was the third quickest drafted catcher on ESPN, but he has one of those fantasy profiles that’s just… a little… off for fantasy ball.  But, in real life, he’s rather amazing.  McCann’s greatest sin is that he prefers to hit doubles to home runs.  And he walks more than he strikes out.  Doubles help the batting average and perhaps the RBI, but walks do nothing.  McCann also gets credit for having the time to run for President in the off-season.  See also: Kevin Youklis (100%)
7) Adam Dunn (100%).  I got into an argument with my brother about Adam Dunn last weekend.  I told him I’d love to have him on my team, strikeouts and all.  Dunn is the prototypical guy that fantasy players and casual real life fans hate: the three true outcomes guy.  When Dunn comes to the plate, it usually ends in a walk, strikeout, or a home run.  The walks are boring, the strikeouts are hard to bear in the moment, but the homeruns give just enough of that slot machine jackpot feeling to keep the guy around.  In fantasy ball, the home runs are always welcomed, but the low batting average that comes from striking out a lot and having most of your other times on base be from walks make for a guy who always has a little waning label on him.  You want to own him, but never as a first choice.  Still, a guy like Adam Dunn, in real life, has a runs created per 27 outs (think: what would a lineup of 9 Adam Dunn’s do over a full game) of 8.06 runs, which puts him #10 among MLB outfielders.  See also: Pat Burrell (100%), Dan Uggla (100%), Geovany Soto (100%).
8) Adam Everett (0%… yes, I know he’s injured).  Defensive wizard.  But he hits .230, and no one plays defense in fantasy ball.  Still, in 2006, when Everett was healthy, he put up a number of 21 fielding runs above the average shortstop.  What he lacks at the plate, he makes up for in the field on a real team.  But if all you’re looking at are his offensive fantasy stats (you can read that with either emphasis), you won’t see that.  See also: Omar Vizquel (2%).

Fantasy tips: Looking for RBI in all the wrong places

There’s always a rather uneasy tension in the building when practicing Sabermetricians meet up with fantasy players.  One group is a baseball-obsessed bunch that spends entirely too much time looking at and agonizing over the numbers.  The other is… umm… a baseball-obsessed bunch that spends entirely too much time looking at and agonizing over the numbers… and creates team names based on silly puns using parts of their name (my team, for a while, was the Russell Mania).  Oddly enough, there’s not a lot of crossover between the two sides in terms of writers, although a lot of the time, Sabermetric work is marketed to fantasy players and I bet most Sabermetricians got into the field because of their initial exposure to roto-ball.  (I’m guessing that they’re all closeted fantasy players too!)
Part of the animosity is that fantasy ball is still a game denominated in stats that Sabermetricians scoff at.  Pitching wins, RBI, and even batting average really are awful stats in terms of evaluating a player’s individual talent level, but most roto-leagues still swear by them.  What to do then?  Well, Sabermetricians usually take a scientific viewpoint on how to actually win a baseball game.  Why not do the same thing with fantasy baseball?
Just about anyone who’s done even some cursory reading on the topic of Sabermetrics knows the arguments on why RBI are an awful stat, at least as a way to evaluate an individual player.  “Awful” oversells the case.  It’s not a horrible thing to drive in a run (that is, ahem, the point of the game), but RBI themselves are a team-dependent stat.  Imagine a star player who plays on a team with eight other guys who are just horrible players.  (If this were a basketball blog, we’d call this gentleman “Lebron James.”)  This guy always comes up with the bases empty.  Always.  The only way that he’ll drive in a run is if he hits a home run.  His RBI totals will more reflect the team he’s on, rather than anything about him.  On the flip side, put two or three guys ahead of me who are always on base and I might be able to knock in 15 runs of so… over a whole season.
But, if collecting players who collect RBIs is important to folks out there (and it’s a multi-million industry), let’s see if we can come up with a scientific way to look for these gentlemen.  My method isn’t anything tremendously new.  Most fantasy analysts (as a psychologist, that phrase always makes me chuckle…) will discuss a recent trade or free agent signing by commenting on whether a hitter is likely to increase his RBI output based on the lineup in which he is now hitting.  But, who are the guys who are particularly good at taking advantage of the situations presented to them.  Does such an ability exist?  Answer: yes. 
I started by taking my 2003-2006 data base and calculated the average number of RBIs for each base-out state available (that is, runners at 1st and 2nd with 1 out).  It’s much easier to knock in a runner already on third, and it’s easier to knock in a runner when there are less than two outs.  A fly ball to the outfield with a runner on third and less than two outs… yeah, you know what happens next.  So,  if you had 200 PA with nobody on and no one out, 50 with a runner at 1st and 1 out, etc., it’s easy enough to figure out how many RBI you should have had if you were an average hitter.  (Note: Nate Silver from Baseball Prospectus proposed a similar approach a while ago, without factoring in outs.  It’s also entirely possible that someone has already used my exact approach.  If you have… sorry.)  So, now I can tell you how many RBI’s above or below an average player’s expected output, given what you had the chance to do.  If the average player would have had 50 and you had 60 RBI, you my friend are an RBI machine to the tune of ten RBI above average.  To make things fair, I divided each player’s RBI above expectation number by his number of PA.  And those numbers were pretty reliable over the course of four years.  Restrict the sample size to those with more than 100 PA, and the intraclass correlation comes in at .50.  At 250 and above, it’s .60.  Pretty reliable stat.  Last year’s stats are a pretty good predictor of the next year’s stats.
I ran the 2007 numbers, and the leaders in the per PA stat (min 250 PA) were A-Rod, Ryan Braun, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Pena, and Ryan Howard.  Do those names have something in common?  In general, they hit a lot of home runs — although Ordonez hit “only” 28 HR last year.  In fact, I’ve shown previously that the correlation between HR totals (usually pretty consistent year-to-year) and RBI totals is .88.  But, they’re also pretty good hitters overall.
(The worst of the worst, for the morbidly curious: Abraham Nunez, Adam Kennedy, Cesar Izturis, Nick Punto, and Brad Ausmus.)
Take a look at this document, which gives last year’s numbers on the stat.  The guys at the top are the ones who are going to be most able to leverage a favorable change in their circumstances (being traded to a new team, having his team trade for a high OBP guy to hit in front of him).   They also won’t be as badly affected if he ends up on a worse team or if several key teammates are traded away.  There will still be an effect, but it won’t be the end of the world.  This isn’t a method to discover oodles and oodles of extra RBI, but it is a method to eke out a few more.
A few notables:

  • Mike Lowell’s 120 RBI that everyone kept harping on during the off-season as proof of how wonderful a human being he was (and in some weird logic, how he was better than A-Rod) were indeed more than would be expected of the average player.  But Lowell is not an RBI machine.  He’s hitting behind David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.  He actually had the greatest number of expected RBIs in baseball.
  • Garrett Atkins was 3rd in expected RBIs, so the fact that he knocked in 111 had more to do with the fact that he hit behind some high OBP guys (and in Colorado) than he cares to mention.  He was only worth an extra .02 RBI per PA, which puts him nearly average.  Atkins is still one of the best fantasy sleeper picks in baseball for this reason, but be careful if one of those gentlemen hitting in front of him goes down for the season.
  • Aaron Rowand had the highest RBI total for someone who didn’t fully take advantage of the opportunities.  He had a chance to drive in 89.19 and drove in 89.
  • Juan Pierre would have been expected to drive in 71.39 runs late year.  He drove in 41, for a net 30.39 RBI below expectation.  (But he’s fast!)  To give you an idea how bad a performance that is, he beat (or depending how you look at it, lost to) Nick Punto.
  • Scott Rolen was only just slightly below average in knocking runners in last year.  His RBI total (58) was lousy, but he took what was given him.
  • Corey Hart looks like a pretty good sleeper to pick up some extra RBI.  At the end of last year, the Brewers moved him to 5th in the lineup (after hitting at the bottom of the order at the beginning, then leadoff for a while).  His 81 RBI were much more efficient than his expectation (60.67).  In fact, he was more efficient with his RBI chances than a bunch of 100 RBI guys including Lance Berkman, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols, and Justin Morneau.

The Name Game

Growing up in Philadelphia, and raised in an extreme sports environment, Jayson Stark has always been an idol of mine. In fact it was reading his Philadelphia Inquirer column every week that eventually propelled me into sabermetrics. His columns always combined humor and statistics in order to show all of the hilarious or newsworthy baseball happenings that could not be seen on an ESPN show. Not shocking in the least, ESPN eventually brought him onboard. That being said, I thought I would do my sports-writing idol proud by writing an article in a style similar to his.
The idea for this came to me when the Phillies signed Chad Durbin to be their: (circle the correct answer)

  • A) 5th Starter
  • B) 6th Starter
  • C) Mop-Up Reliever
  • D) Waste of Space
  • E) Who cares, we have Adam Eaton!?

Regardless of the answer you selected, this now gave the Phillies Chad Durbin and J.D. Durbin – two completely unrelated Durbins. Now, it isn’t as if we’re talking about two guys with the last name of Smith. I never knew “Durbin” was a last name until a couple of years ago and now there are not only two in major league baseball but two on the same team?
More interestingly enough, there have only been four Durbin’s in the history of major league baseball and the other two ended their careers during, or before, 1909. The only two Durbin’s in the last 98 seasons of major league baseball are now on the same team – and have no relation to one another.
SPEAKING OF J.D. DURBIN
The Phillies acquired J.D. Durbin after the Diamondbacks placed him on waivers in April. Durbin had appeared in one game for Arizona and surrendered 7 hits and 7 runs in 2/3 of an inning. For the Phillies, Durbin was somewhat serviceable, even throwing a complete game shutout against the Padres.
J.D. Durbin made his Phillies debut on June 29th during the first game of a double-header against the Mets.
At the time of acquiring J.D. Durbin, the Phillies had a minor league prospect with the name J.A. Happ. Due to rotation injuries, Happ made his first major league start on June 30th, against the Mets.
Now that would be odd enough, on its own, however the Phillies also acquired J.C. Romero from the Red Sox. Romero also made his Phillies debut on June 29th, during the second game of Durbin’s double-header.
So, to recap, not only did the Phillies have three pitchers with the first names of J.A., J.C., and J.D., but all three of them made their Phillies debuts within the span of 48 hours from June 29th-June 30th!
STRIKINGLY SIMILAR DEPARTMENT
And, speaking of the Phillies, they acquired Tad Iguchi from the White Sox towards the end of the season. Since he would not have been able to play for the Phillies until May 15th, if he re-signed with them, he went elsewhere (Padres). The Phillies, in need of another bench player, decided to sign So Taguchi. I guess this way the transition will be easier for the players.
Or how about the Twins deciding to replace Luis Castillo with Alexi Casilla.

  • Believe it or not, the American League had an Ellis, an Ellison, and an Ellsbury.  And no, they were not Dale, Pervis, or Doughboy.
  • The Athletics had Dan Haren and Rich Harden.
  • The American League also had a Joakim, a Joaquin, and a Johan.  That’s never happened before with different players.
  • Lastly, there was the Rays’ Delmon Young and the Dodgers’ Delwyn Young, who sadly never got to face each other.

COINCIDENCE MATCHUPS
Speaking of “Young’s,” the NL West not only had two of them, but two Chris Young’s.  They could not be more different, either, as one is a 9-ft tall, white, former ivy-league pitcher and the other is a 6-ft, black, college-less outfielder.  Pitcher Chris Young (PCY for those keeping track) won the 2007 battle as his younger counterpart went 0-10, with a walk and 4 K’s against him.

  •  Orlando Hudson went 2-11, with an RBI and 4 BB, against his “River” counterpart Tim Hudson.
  • Unfortunately, Reggie Abercrombie never got to face Jesse Litsch.  I wonder what Sportscenter would call that matchup.  Reggie and Jesse?  Reggie and Litsch?  Abercrombie and Jesse?  Ugh, who knows…
  • Aaron Rowand and Robinson Cano didn’t face each other this past year either.
  • Somehow, the Blue Jays and Rockies have played nine times and we are still waiting on a Halladay/Holliday matchup.
  • Scott Baker didn’t pitch against, or to, Paul Bako in 2007, though my fingers are crossed for 2008.

DELICIOUS MATCHUPS
Mike Lamb is 3-9 in his career against Adam Eaton (who isn’t?) as well as 1-7 off of Todd Coffey.
Coffey and Lamb usually don’t go well together, though, but Felix Pie is also 0-1 off of the caffeinated one.
Eaton has never gotten to face Pie yet.  I’d like to put a pie in Eaton’s face.  3 yrs and 24 mil worth of pies!
ULTIMATE MATCHUPS
In what would probably cause the universe to crumble, I am patiently awaiting a Rick VandenHurk vs. Todd Van Benschoten matchup.  I’m feeling 2008 or 2009.
In the long-name department, Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 1-2 against Andy Sonnanstine.  Salty also went 0-2 against Mark Hendrickson.  He went 1-1 against Ryan Rowland-Smit, but Ryan had two last names to reach eleven letters and therefore had an unfair advantage.
BIBLICAL DEPARTMENT
Easily the most hypocritical name award goes to Angel Pagan.  You can figure that one out.  Did you know, though, that the National League had “Two Wise Men”?  That’s right – Matt and Dewayne.
Though Matt Wise surrendered a hit to Angel Pagan, he struck out Dewayne Wise, proving what we already knew – Matt Wise is the smartest pitcher ever.
GENERIC BE GONE?
On a sad note,  2007 proved to be a disappointment in the generic name field (not Nate Field or Josh Fields).  Combined, there were only four Smith’s.  Jason, Joe, Matt, and Seth.
Even sadder, we only had three Williams’ – Dave, Jerome, and Woody.  Scott Williamson tried his hardest but that does not count.  Could be a cool sitcom title – Three Williams and a Williamson.
BIRTH AND DEATH
Major League Baseball spanned the endpoints of the life cycle this year.  On one side we had Alan Embree (embryo) and Omar Infante (infant) and on the other there were Jermaine Dye (die) and Manny Corpas (corpse).
Dye has never faced Corpas but is 2-7 in his career off of Embree.  Infante has also never faced Corpas but has doubled in 4 at-bats against Embree.
“OF-THE” NAMES
Jorge de la Rosa and Eulogio de la Cruz did not face each other this year despite being the only two “of-the” names.  And, just to clarify the none of you who asked, Valerio de los Santos would not qualify for this category since de los would technically be “of-them” or “of-those.”
CITY NAMES
Miguel Cairo has long been the MVP of this group but he welcomed two additions this year in the forms of Ben Francisco and Frank Francisco.  I had always thought of Francisco as a Spanish first name but was very surprised to find it as an American last name.  In fact, if you say Ben Francisco really quickly and in front of a drunk, it could even sound like San Francisco.
ZELDA NAMES
I recently got an original NES and could not help but notice that two major leaguers sound like items from a Zelda game.  Don’t both of these sentences make sense?

  1. Link, to defeat Ganon, you must hit him in the lower Velandia.
  2. Use your Verlander to blow up the stones blocking the entrance.

HOUSEGUEST AWARD
One of my favorite movies is Sinbad’s Houseguest, and whenever I hear the name of Giants’ 2B Kevin Frandsen I am reminded of Sinbad’s character Kevin Franklin.  Something tells me Frandsen never impersonated a dentist.
JOB NAMES
In addition to everyone else we had six players with job names.  Chris Carpenter and Lee Gardner maintained the stadiums and fields, Scott Proctor made sure they didn’t cheat, Skip Schumaker supplied them all with cleats, while Matt Treanor helped rehab Torii Hunter.
Schumaker did not face Carpenter, Gardner, or Proctor.  Treanor is 1-3 off of Carpenter in his career.  Hunter was 3-6 with a HR and 2 RBI off of Carpenter (career), as well as 2-6 with an RBI off of Proctor.
Clearly, a Hunter is more valuable than a Proctor and a Carpenter.
FAKE NAMES, INC.
Point blank – the following names sound incredibly made up and fake:

  • Frank Francisco
  • Dave Davidson
  • Emilio Bonifacio
  • Rocky Cherry

CAVEMEN AND ANATOMY
When primitive men first began to speak it was easiest to combine two words together without any intermediates.  Thousands of years later we still have names like Grady Sizemore, Jarrod Washburn, Mark Bellhorn, and Chris Bootcheck.
Speaking of Chris Bootcheck, I wonder what he and Jon Knotts would talk about.
In the anatomy field, Rick Ankiel and Brandon Backe were in the same division, with Ankiel going 0-3 with an RBI off Backe.
MISCELLANEOUS NAME AWARDS

  • DIRTY NAME AWARD – Rich (Dick) Harden
  • ACADEMY AWARD – Sean Henn
  • LED ZEPPELIN AWARD – Scott Kazmir
  • ACTION HERO NAME AWARD – Boone Logan
  • FUTURE PIZZA SHOP NAME AWARD – Doug Mirabelli (hon. mention – Mike Piazza)
  • FICTIONAL SERIAL KILLER AWARD – Mike Myers (as usual)
  • NAME TYPO AWARD – Jhonny Peralta
  • MOST FUN TO SAY AWARD – Jonathan Albaladejo
  • IMPERVIOUS AWARD – (tie) James Shields and Scot Shields
  • FIRST AND LAST NAME SHOULD BE SPELLED DIFFERENTLY AWARD – Kameron Loe

And there you have it.  We covered the life cycle, the entertainment (regular and adult) industry, jobs, cities, the bible, and more.
We can only hope that 2008 will finally bring us a VandenHurk/Van Benschoten or a Holliday/Halladay.
Keep your fingers crossed.

What if baseball took a lesson from soccer?

Shhhh… don’t tell anyone this, but occasionally, I cheat on baseball by watching Fox Soccer Channel.  I picked up the soccer habit a few years ago, and now my wife always knows when I’ve been watching TV, because the channel will be set to 35 when she turns it back on.  A few years ago, baseball decided to do something very much borrowed from soccer when it put on the World Baseball Classic.  It was meant as something of a World Cup for baseball, to be held every four years.  Even though the players were in Spring Training mode, some of the matchups had that “An All-Star game that counts!” feel to them.  It was beautiful.  Soccer does this every four years and has since 1930, and it looks like baseball is about to follow suit, even if the ratings weren’t so good for the first time around.  (You win a cookie if you can tell me… without using Google or Wikipedia… who won the championship game and who the winning pitcher was.)
For the benefit of those who don’t follow soccer (I can hear all you snobs out there wanting to yell at me for not referring to it as “football”), there’s a rather unique structure to most soccer leagues in Europe.  There are several “levels” of competition, in that there is a highest-ranking league in the country (the Majors?) and several lower leagues in descending order of importance (AAA, AA, A, etc.)  The names of the leagues are different in different countries, but the idea is the same.  In England, the top level is the Premiereship, followed by the Championship League, and then League 1 and League 2.  In Italy, they go with the much more alphabetical Serie A, Serie B, etc.  In soccer, all of the teams are independent of one another, and there are no minor league affiliates as we understand them, although there are “reserve teams.”  Teams also often have player development academies, in which young players are groomed for the senior squad, sometimes from the age of 9!  These serve as something of a minor league system, although baseball caught on to this idea too, and many teams have academies in places like the Dominican Republic to feed them talent (but they can’t do that in the U.S.)
Here’s the thing: at the end of the season, the teams at the bottom of the standings in the highest ranking league (usually 3-4 teams depending on the country), are kicked into the lower league, a process called relegation.  The top 3-4 teams in the league below come up to take their place.  So, imagine if the worst four teams in MLB last year were politely excused from further participation in MLB, while the top four teams from AAA were “called up” to the majors!  The incentive?  Generally, people want to see top flight sporting action and the television revenues for the highest ranking league are a lot higher.
I present to you a thought experiment.  I realize that this will never ever ever ever ever happen, but I’m curious to see where it goes.  Suppose that baseball operated like European soccer.  In addition to awarding a championship, there was something to play for in not being at the bottom of the standings.  Suppose that baseball used soccer’s system of player allocation, the “transfer” system, as well.  In soccer, it’s rare to have a straight-up trade of player for player.  It happens sometimes, but it’s much more common for a team to buy their players from other teams.  So, say that the Twins decided that it was in their best interest to get rid of Johan Santana for the money that he would bring in.  Instead of the Yankees and Red Sox bidding on him with players (Hughes, Cabrera, and Tabata vs. Ellsbury, Lester, and Bucholz), they would simply be bidding against each other for his services in dollars.  The Yankees/Red Sox would then write a check to the Twins.  The Twins could then do whatever they would with the money.  They could buy other players or simply spend it on salaries.  Or doughnuts.  It is a good system in that it does reward teams who develop players.
Problems that this would solve:

  1. The Florida Marlins couldn’t use their dive bombing methodology for attempting to win a World Series.  If they attempted to have a fire sale after winning the World Series, they would soon be banished to AAA.  In other words, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis would still be wearing teal and black.
  2. The Tampa Bay Devil  Rays and all 35 of their fans would have been banished to AA by now.  In fact, that whole nasty “contraction” debate could have been avoided a few years back.  The teams that are awful and whom no one wants to support are simply removed from the league.
  3. The trading deadline would get a little more interesting.  In soccer, there is a window mid-season (the month of January) in which teams can buy players.  Not only are the contenders looking to improve their squad, the ones battling against relegation are as well.  They have a reason to not throw up the white flag.

Problems that this wouldn’t solve:

  1. All you salary cappers who like to complain about a lack of competitive balance… well… in England, it’s generally a matter of which of the top four (richest) teams will win the league that year (Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United) and has been for about 15 years.  Lyon has won the French League 6 years in a row now.  In Holland, things are worse: Either Feyenoord, Ajax, or PSV Eindhoven have won the Dutch League title for all but one season since 1964!  This is a system that rewards the rich owners.  The Yankees and Red Sox would be in contention every year by default.So, really, nothing would change.
  2. Related to the above, teams with promising youngsters would probably end up losing them to the rich teams.  A few years ago, a young striker appeared in England who, at 16, was starting in for his club and everyone recognized was “The Next Big Thing.”  His name was Wayne Rooney, and he played for a team called Everton (based in Liverpool), who were a respectable middle-of-the-pack organization.  A few million dollars later (well, British pounds later), he was wearing the Red Shirt of Manchester United.  Man Utd won another title last year, although Everton has become a slightly-better-than-middle-of-the-pack team of late.

Some intriguing things that could happen:

  1. All the folks who harken back to the days when New York City had the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants, you could get your wish for a three-team NYC again.  A town in England can have more than one team playing in a league.  (London has something like 5!)  Think the Cubs-White Sox thing is rough?  Imagine if there were four teams competing for the hearts of a city!
  2. One other feature of European soccer is that in addition to the league games, there is a simultaneous cup competition, which is a single-elimination tournament and anyone can enter.  Minor league clubs play against the biggest teams in the country.  The big boys usually send out their scrubs in this sort of a situation.

Again, I present this as just a neat little though experiment to start a discussion on a cold day in the off-season.  If you have a little bit of familiarity with both sports, I’d be curious to what you might think would happen if by some random chance, baseball were to actually adopt a European soccer-style structure.

Fleecing your friends for fun OR How I won my fantasy league with a little knowledge of statistics

If you’re like me, you probably just finished off your fantasy draft for the year this weekend.  If you’re like me, you’re also sitting there wondering how on earth you managed to end up with an outfield of Dave Roberts (hey, he steals bases!), Nick Swisher, and Pat Burrell.  You’re angry at your friend who drafted Chase Utley two spots in front of you in the first round, and then Garrett Atkins in the fifth.  Secretly, you are plotting his demise.  (But enough about my weekend.)  I’m never an advocate of harming anyone… but there are some people who I hope decide to join an international humitarian relief organization… and move to another continent… where they don’t have internet access.
Fear not, my wayward friend.  You do not need to go collecting brochures for your friend.  You can exact your revenge in a much more sneaky way.   All you need is a little understanding of the basic principles of statistics and another owner in your league who’s a little bit gullible.  Part of the fun (and the skill) of fantasy baseball is in making skilled trades, even if it means that you have to double-talk your cherished friend from fifth grade and know that you are raking him over the coals.  You feel a little guilty afterwards, but then again, you know about the embarassing thing he did on Spring Break during your senior year of high school and have laughed at him constantly for it over the past ten years.  And he’s still your friend.
What follows might be considered Sabermetric tricks for fantasy leaguers.  Oddly, many fantasy owners swear that they wouldn’t dare employ such methods, yet shell out big bucks every year on and plan their strategies at draft time around the wisdom in the big pre-season annuals.  (Who do they think writes those books?)  Some of them draft a player based on a book tip that the player will have a breakout year, but swear that they would never dip so low as to stop making decisions based on “what they know.”  In other words, you’ve got them right where you want them.   They’re literate enough to know what you’re talking about and stubborn enough to try to prove you wrong.
What’s correlated with what?: Are you in a Roto-style league (e.g., 5×5 league) that counts such silly things as how many HR, RBI, and SB a batter has?  (We’ll save the “RBI is a silly stat” discussion for another day.)  How can you (quickly) identify a player who has the ability to help you in multiple categories?  To do this, we turn to the wonders of correlation.  Correlation is a measurement of how closely two things are related.  If two things are highly (and positively) correlated, it means that if a player is high on one of the stats, he will likely be high on the other.  For example, in 2005, the correlation between HR and RBI among hitters with more than 400 PA was .88.  The closer you get to 1.0 (which is the maximum), the more closely related the two are.  So, generally, if a player hits a lot of home runs, he will drive in a lot of runs.  On the other hand, the correlation between home runs and batting average was .22, which is relatively small.  Does this mean that players with high HR totals will have low averages?  No, it means that knowing a player’s average doesn’t tell you all that much about his HR total.  He might hit a lot, he might not. 
So, what one stat correlates nicely with many of the usual stats used in roto leagues?  A hint: it’s one that few people bother to look up.  Runs scored.  The correlations for runs scored to HR, RBI, AVG, OBP, and SB are all pretty good, if not spectacular (all between .41 and .65)  So, a player who scores a lot of runs is likely to be good at a lot of things fantasy-wise.  (Exhibit A: Your 2006 MLB leader in runs scored, Grady Sizemore.  Let me guess, he went in the 15th round to the guy who grew up in Cleveland?)  Your best bet at leveraging this one is to find the owner who drafts a lot of power hitters, because to him “power hitter” means “good hitter.”  Offer him a high power/low-average/no stolen bases guy for one of his high run-scoring guys who’s not a proto-typical power hitter.  You probably lose a little bit in HR and RBI, but you are more likely to gain in runs scored, OBP, AVG, and SB.  If your league measures three of those categories, then you’ve just traded two categories for three.  Remember, your job is to fleece your friends, and if they are in love with the long-ball, you can use that to your advantage.
Regression to the mean: In 1996, Brady Anderson famously hit 50 homeruns.  The previous four years, his totals had been 21, 13, 12 (in a strike-shortened 1994), and 16.  It suggested that he was a pretty good bet to hit somewhere between 15-20 in 1996.  After he hit 50, I’m sure that in folloing Spring of 1997, he was over-priced in plenty of drafts, by people who thought that he would hit at least 35 again.  His totals from 1997 to 2000?  18, 18, 24, 19.  What happened?  (I know someone’s going to say something involving the word “steroid” and will have just as much evidence as I do of whether or not that’s the case: zero.)  He wasn’t hurt to my knowledge.  He just… didn’t… do it again.  In fact, he went back to hitting roughly what we might have expected him to hit before that freak season.  In statistical terms, he regressed to the mean.  It doesn’t always happen like this.  Some players actually develop new skills or find a new batting stance or a new diet(ary supplement?) that makes them better hitters.  However, in the large majority of cases, players who have freakishly outstanding years regress back to where they started.  In layman’s terms, we call this a “career year.”  It also works the other way for players who have horribly bad years when their track record and lack of an injury suggest otherwise.  They usually come back to where they were.
If you find yourself with a player who had a career year last year, don’t be expecting more of the same.  It could happen, but it’s not likely.  (When you’re trying to trade him to your friend, talk up the fact that it could happen… really… it could…)  Look for the guy who your friend is despondent at having been “stuck with” because he’s “so clearly on the decline.”  Chances are, your career year guy will fetch more than he ends up being worth, and the bad year guy will be obtainable for less than he ends up being worth. 
Reading too much into small samples: Chris Shelton.  Those who understand statistics and followed baseball last year will know exactly what I mean.  For those of you who don’t meet one of those criteria, Chris Shelton was the Opening Day 1B for the Tigers last year and smacked two HR on Opening Day.  By the end of April, he had smacked 10 and people were wondering if he might hit 60.  This was after 92 AB.  He hit 6 HR the rest of the way, and spent a month in AAA.  In other words, Shelton had a hot April and a not-so-hot… well, rest of the year.  In statistics, the more observations you have on something, more certain you are of its true value.  It’s called the error of measurement.  The more observations you have, the lower that error goes.  For example, we can be pretty sure that Neifi Perez is not a very good hitter.  After eleven seasons, 5000+ AB,  and a .268 career BA with minimal power and speed, I even wonder how he still wears a major league uniform.  After 92 AB, you can’t tell much of anything firm about a hitter.  It’s now easy to see that Shelton probably got lucky over those 92 AB, and had the good sense to do it from Opening Day onward, where he would be the story of the young season.  I suppose that deep down Neifi could be a .350 hitter who’s just been really un-lucky for all these years, but I highly doubt it.
In your fantasy league, target the sentimental guy who loves great stories.  The thing about small streaks like Shelton’s is that they are very much in the here-and-now and make for great copy for beat writers who have to write about the here and now.  In fairy-tale land, this scrappy underdog who no one suspected will keep it going all year.  In the real world, which happens to be where most baseball games are played (except, apparently this one), a small sample is a bad way to measure anyone, and like above, most players will revert back to their mean.  But, your sentimental fellow owner might be fleeced by virtue of his love of a good story.
The gambler’s fallacy: Speaking of streaks, suppose that you flipped a coin, and five times in a row, it came up heads.  If you had to guess what the probability of tails coming up on the next flip, what would you say?  The correct answer is 50%, no more, no less.  The gambler’s fallacy is the belief that after a streak of bad luck (and lost money), that the probability of a run of good luck is “due.”  If the gambler is playing the coin-flipping game, he will bet his money in such a way that shows he believes that the probability of coming up tails is actually greater than 50%.  This error happens in many different situations, including your fantasy league.  Let’s say that a player who has a track record of consistently hitting .300 goes on a month-long tear where he hits .500.  What is the most likely estimate for his batting average in the following month?  If you said .100, I’d like to talk trade with you.  The correct answer is .300.  He could very well hit .100, but there is nothing about his previous performance that compels him to do so.  Yes, over the long run, if the season continued into eternity, he would be likely to have a month in which he hit .100 to balance out the .500 he hit last month, but there’s nothing that says that the month of .100 has to immediately follow.
Sportscasters love saying, “Well, he’s a career .290 hitter, but he’s only hitting .260 at the All-Star break.  So you know he’s going to go crazy after the break.”  One of the owners in your league believes everything that the sportscasters tell him.  That owner will do a little bit of math and think he’s going to be getting a .320 hitter from you for the second half.  He’ll pay like he’s getting a .320 hitter too, if you play your cards right.  He’s really getting a .290 hitter (not bad!), but a trade is all about maximizing the value that you have.
Trading away a “clutch” hitter in August: Do you own David Ortiz?  Do you want Alex Rodriguez?  Here’s all you have to say to your fellow owner in late August.  “Well, you know how clutch David Ortiz is.  I’m worried about dealing him, because we all know that he’s going to turn it on a couple notches in September because of the pennant race.  But, if you’re offering me <insert name here>… wow, that’s a hard one to pass up.”  You’ve now played hard to get and implanted a false idea in your fellow owner’s head.  (Some might call that a lie.  I prefer “negotiation tactic.”)  In fact, there has been quite a bit of study of the issue, and there is very little to no evidence to suggest that players have a specific ability to “turn it on when it counts.”  In fact, players seem to perform about the same in the clutch as they do at any other time in the game.  “Clutch hitters” generally do what they’ve already been doing all along, just in situations where more people are watching.  However, in feeding this common (and erroneous) belief of “clutchness” to your fellow owner, you have inflated Ortiz’s value.  So ask for that top-line starter in return, rather than a second-tier guy.  And chat up the guy who owns A-Rod.  Implant the idea that he should be worried about A-Rod faltering in the heat of the pennant race.  Then offer to take him off his hands.
A warning: One more thing that you must understand about statistics before running off and using these techniques.  Statistics is a game of probability.  Just because it is likely that a player will regress to his mean, it does not mean that he will.  It’s just more likely.  Just because clutch ability seems to be an illusion when held up to the statistical light, David Ortiz may indeed hit .400 for the month of September in the middle of a classic Sox-Yankees dogfight.  The career .290 hitter who’s hitting .260 at the break might just hit .320.  Statistics, as a science, looks for overall trends and patterns, but it can not predict what the actual outcome of individual cases is.  It can only tell us what the most likely outcome is.  The problem is that even if I say that 55% of the time, event X will happen rather than event Y, I am still going to be wrong 45% of the time.  Over the long run, I will be right more often than not, but in the short run, the strategies may look like an absolute failure.  (See the entry on drawing conclusions from too small a sample.)  If you want to use these strategies, you’ll need to be disciplined to ride out when they don’t work.  But, a little knowledge of statistics and probability will go a long way in helping you to fleece your fellow owners in the fantasy trade market.
At least, in the long run it will.  Happy trading.