Is that a shiny new free agent in your stocking, or an old lump of coal?

NFL playoffs are right around the corner, but ’tis the season for a jolt of baseball excitement too, as teams sign new players. The contracts are getting bigger and bigger, supported by growing MLB revenues. Some of the major signings under the tree this year (more here):

  • Zack Greinke, 6 yrs, $147 million (Dodgers)
  • Josh Hamilton, 5 yrs, $125 million (Angels)
  • B.J. Upton, 5 yrs, $75 million (Rays)
  • Anibal Sanchez, 5 yrs, $80 million (Tigers)

But before you start thinking playoffs, remember that many big deals don’t work out. Who will be nice and who will be naughty this year?

The Old Lumps of Coal

From the list above, Greinke is 29 years old, Hamilton is 31, Upton is 28, and Sanchez is 28. Not many young players are available through free agency, but are these 4 to 6 year deals for 28 to 31 year olds a good idea? I tackled this question with my friend Jeff Phillips for ESPN the Magazine in early October.

Specifically, we wondered if long deals for 30 year olds made more sense during the steroid era, when players could recover, train, and maintain more easily. There are two sides of the coin: (1) how has older player performance changed, and (2) has older player compensation evolved appropriately. We focused on players in the top quarter of the salary distribution, since that’s where the big money is spent. To measure performance, we examined average Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP)* by age during and after the steroid era:

WARP bars

Uh oh. Although performance for all highly paid players has gone down, older “stars” have turned out to be coal indeed. Looking year by year highlights the post-PED age decline. Average WARP for older and younger stars was remarkably similar through the steroid era, but older player WARP Continue reading

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New York is Lefty Land

I’m a Tigers fan, so I’m pretty excited about how things worked out the last week. Basically, everything went right for the Tigers and nothing went right for the Yankees.

The only glimmer of hope for the Yankees came in game one. Down 4-0, Ichiro Suzuki hit a line drive homer to right in the bottom of the ninth and Raul Ibanez followed with a pop fly two-run “shot” that might have been an out (or perhaps a double) in most parks. Hope turned to despair when Derek Jeter went down with an ankle injury in the 12th, ending his season, while the Tigers stormed back into the lead. Even worse for the Yankees, their near victory finally knocked Jose Valverde off his closer pedestal. The Tigers should have made that move months ago.

I want to go back to the homers though. It’s no coincidence that both homers went to right field off of left-handed bats. Here are the home/road home run splits for the Yankees lefties in 2012:

Continue reading

Sabermetrics: Cabrera vs. Trout, Round 2

Last week, I entered the fray on the Mike Trout versus Miguel Cabrera AL MVP debate. It’s similar to the 2010 AL Cy Young discussion — Felix Hernandez led the AL in strikeouts and ERA but managed just a 13-12 record because Seattle couldn’t score. The new era of baseball stats won out. Voters ignored wins, which have little to do with pitching quality, and Hernandez won the award.

Likewise, Trout lags Cabrera in highly publicized but somewhat meaningless  stats (RBI, Triple Crown). Some saber-men would have you believe that Trout laps Cabrera in the only stats that matter (WAR over 10 compared to 7 for Cabrera), but that requires a level of trust that I don’t have. WAR — Wins Above Replacement — is complicated to the point of complete confusion. Cabrera contributed more in some categories (doubles, homers, total bases, batting average) but less in others (triples, baserunning, defense). Is WAR capturing these contributions accurately?

True Runs Revised (A WAR Replacement)

Rather than critique WAR (which would take days), I developed a new, simpler stat: True Runs. True Runs (named in honor of my True Wins football statistic) estimates a player’s contribution to his team based only on simple statistics. I got some good comments on the methodology, and what better time to revise it than now, while listening to MVP chants ring out at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Per DRDR’s comment, I included outs/reached on error in the revised methodology:

  1. Using data since 1990, regress total runs scored by each team each season on total singles, doubles, triples, homers, walks, hit by pitches, usual outs/reached on error, strikeouts, double plays, stolen bases, and caught stealing in that season
  2. Take the coefficients from this regression, multiply them by each individual’s stats, and add up the result

Intuitively, the regression finds the best way to add up all these stats to most closely approximate total runs scored across all teams in all years. The result: True Runs now captures the four basic things a hitter can do at the plate — walk, get a hit, make an out/reach on an error, strikeout — as well as steals. The regression coefficients approximate how many runs each of these actions is worth, on average.*

Here’s the top 10 for 2012 across both leagues Continue reading

Is Joe Flacco Elite? Barnwell strikes again!

Bill Barnwell is up to his usual tricks at Grantland. This time, he’s tired of hearing that Flacco is an elite quarterback and wants a new measure of quarterback value. Flacco gets credit for piling up wins, which Barnwell thinks is unfair:

For whatever good or bad Flacco provides, he has spent his entire career as the starting quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, who perennially possess one of the league’s best defenses. He also has Ray Rice and a solid running game to go alongside him on offense. It’s safe to say that a win by, say, Cam Newton usually requires more work from the quarterback than one by Flacco.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. In response, Barnwell tries to capture quarterback value by creating an “expected wins” measure based on points allowed by the defense and comparing this to actual wins. He argues that a quarterback with more actual wins than expected wins is doing well because he is scoring more points than average.

An example helps explain the concept. First, Barnwell notes that teams have won 86.5% of games recently when allowing between 8 and 12 points. Imagine a team that allows between 8 and 12 points in all 16 games. They are expected to win 86.5% of those games, or 13.8 games. If the team won 14-16 games, Barnwell would argue that the quarterback is doing better than average, while if the team won fewer, Barnwell would argue that the quarterback is doing worse.

As hoped, Flacco is unimpressive by this measure (while the usual suspects — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — are top dogs). He has 44 wins in 64 regular season games, but because the Ravens D is so good, an average QB would have managed about 42.

Before going farther, I’ll warn you: these numbers are pretty meaningless. I’ll start by explaining Continue reading

Adrian the Canadian explains what happened on the infamous Hail Mary

I’ll let my legal expert, Adrian the Canadian take it away (and believe it or not, this has little to do with the incompetence of the replacement referees and everything to do with the NFL’s replay review procedures):

Every football fan, even the replacement refs, was relieved when the NFL and the real officials resolved their labor dispute. The fast resolution was driven, in large part, by the result of the Monday Night game between the Seahawks and the Packers. By now, even non-fans know what happened. If you’ve been living in a shoe box, here’s the video of the call that encompasses the replacements’ legacy. But simply blaming the replacement refs doesn’t quite get us to the clearly incorrect result. Yes, the refs blew it on the field, but they also had a chance to review the play using instant replay and still allowed the call on the field to stand. How could instant replay fail to correct such an obvious mistake?

The Play:

Down by five, the Seahawks had one chance to beat the Packers: a Russell Wilson Hail Mary pass. While the pass was in the air, Seahawks receiver Golden Tate first pushed off and over a Green Bay defender Continue reading

Cabrera Might Get the Triple Crown, but Does He Deserve the MVP?

Edit: Please see my later post as well, which corrects an omission here.

Miguel Cabrera has a shot at the Triple Crown this year. No one has done it since Carl Yastrzemski. Is it really possible that he could win the Triple Crown and not win the MVP? Well, yes. Every advanced stats guy out there is trumpeting Mike Trout for MVP, with his “wins above replacement” (WAR) above 10 (next best in the majors is 6.8) and his 13 “total zone total fielding runs above average” (basically, this is the number of runs he has saved with his fielding, compared to an average fielder).

The discussion is eerily similar to the AL Cy Young conversation in 2010. Felix Hernandez won because he led the AL in innings pitched, ERA, and, most importantly, WAR,  even though his win-loss record was a mediocre 13-12.

The 2010 Cy Young was a victory for sabermetricians. Pitchers can’t control how many runs their offense scores. All they can do is put up a low ERA and stick around for as many innings as possible. Strikeouts help too, since they reduce the risk of errors, and walks hurt, since fielders can’t do anything about a walk. There might be some cases where pitchers rise to the occasion in a close game to get a win, but for the most part, getting a “win” has little to do with pitcher skill after accounting for pitchers’ direct performance statistics.

2012 MVP: the Saber-Men After Party?

This time around, sabermetric thinking is stacked heavily against Cabrera (and the media is paying attention):

  • RBIs are meaningless. After accounting for total bases and on base percentage in some way, RBIs have little to do with individual skill
  • Cabrera LEADS THE AL IN DOUBLE PLAYS with 28, which is not captured by any traditional stat (granted, he has Austin Jackson’s high OBP in front of him, so he has lots of chances)
  • Trout steals lots of bases and never gets caught (46 for 50 this year), which also isn’t captured by traditional metrics
  • Cabrera is a poor fielder (10 runs worse than average at third base), Trout is a good fielder (mentioned above)

All these factors lead to Trout’s 10.4 to 6.7 WAR advantage over Cabrera. If voters take these numbers seriously, it seems that we’ll be looking at another win for the number crunchers.

But What is WAR Anyway?

Four extra wins is a lot and WAR is widely accepted as meaningful, but before I leap on the Trout-wagon, is WAR actually a good statistic? Here’s a snippet from Baseball Reference’s WAR explanation:

There is no one way to determine WAR. There are hundreds of steps to make this calculation, and dozens of places where reasonable people can disagree on the best way to implement a particular part of the framework.

Uh oh . . . hundreds of steps is never a good sign, Continue reading

Raiders – Chargers Notes: Just go for it!

It’s an old mantra for football analysts, but if there was ever a time to go for it on fourth down, it was in the MNF nightcap for Oakland. Their long snapper was out with a concussion early, making punts a risky proposition. However, at the end of the first half, the Raiders signaled their intentions by settling for a field goal on fourth and one from the one yard line, despite trailing 10-3 at the time.

That decision was probably the wrong one — Oakland didn’t get inside the 20 again until the game was out of reach — but failing to score the touchdown would have been a tough on morale, so it’s semi-understandable early in the game (TMQ was frantically scribbling “game over” in his notebook, of course). However, the second half became comical. Oakland had two fourth and ones between the 20s in the third quarter. On the first, the second string long snapper bounced it up to Shane Lechler, who wisely tucked the ball and fell forward to avoid a block (“GAME OVER” in all caps). On the second, the snap was okay, but someone missed an assignment and the punt was easily blocked (“GAME OVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”).

The Raiders defense didn’t get the memo, though, and played their tails off, holding the Chargers to successive field goals (it helped that Phil Rivers seems legitimately afraid of the blitz). When the Raiders faced a third and 21 later on, Continue reading