Tag Archives: baseball

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

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

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

Billy Hamilton: faster than the optimal path

Cincinnati Reds minor leaguer Billy Hamilton is making noise with his speed – he set the minor league steals record on Tuesday, surpassing Vince Coleman’s 145 (though Coleman did it in fewer games). Hamilton was on my radar for the Portland Peskies awhile ago, after he clocked a 13.8 second in the park home run. In case you’ve forgotten, the Peskies are a hypothetical team built on undervalued baseball skills: speed, bunting, defense, and even knuckleball pitching. I’m convinced that you could build a decent baseball team for very little money by focusing on these skills.

Upon seeing Hamilton’s in the park home run time, I immediately started the mental math: 360 feet is about 110 meters, but you need to bow out to turn the corners, so maybe 120-130 meters is a good guess. The world record for the 100 meter dash is about 9.6 seconds, so a world class sprinter could do that distance in about 11.5 to 12.5 seconds — in a straight line.

But those corners complicate things. They slow you down, which makes it difficult to determine the optimal path. At one extreme, you could minimize the distance by running directly to each base and cutting hard. This is surely not the fastest way. At the other extreme, you can draw out the circle that touches each base. Again, surely not the fastest, since you don’t have to make a turn at home plate.

So, what’s the optimal path? A couple of math professors worked with a student at Williams College* to try to figure it out. The path they end up with has the batter bow out at a 25 degree angle, swing even wider than the circle from first to third, and aim for home on a relatively straight line. This path is far wider than most batters run.

Not a bad effort, but I’m not buying it. In order to prove Continue reading

My Imaginary Baseball Team: The Portland Peskies

During the NBA season this year, I wrote up some parameters for an alternative way to build an NBA winner: The Seattle Scientists. The idea behind the Scientists is the same old Moneyball methodology for small market teams — find the undervalued assets and spend your money there. In the NBA, my buddy Tony and I think effort, defense, and intelligence are the assets to focus on. In the the MLB, there are some related options: bunting, speed, and defense again. We settled on the Portland Peskies for this thought experiment (an over-educated city that would appreciate a non-traditional team), though the Indianapolis Institute and the Las Vegas Vig (“You can never beat the house!”) were also in the running.

It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this while my Tigers play their old nemesis the Twins. The Tigers (outside of Quintin Berry this year) never have any hitters that would fit the Pesky mold. But Twins outfielder Ben Revere (currently snagging a tailing line drive off his shoe tops) would be on the Peskies’ radar for sure, as would Alexi Casilla and Denard Span. Revere has 6 bunt singles this year on 13 tries and 16 steals Continue reading

Part 2: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

Yesterday, Adrian reasserted himself on the blog with a clear proposal to reduce diving in soccer.  Today, he shows off his versatility with a response to my recent thoughts on fairness in U.S. and European professional sports leagues (written in relation to my brother Conor’s defense of talent concentration in European soccer). For a taste of the historical, economic, legal, and political, set aside 10 minutes and read on:

How long has it been? Too long, I think.  But Tyler’s recent post has compelled me to withdraw from my self-imposed hibernation and away from the stultifying process of studying for the Ontario bar exam. In short, I disagree with the capitalist/socialist, American Sports/European Sports dichotomy or, rather, I think it abstracts away from the real issue – that cartels make a heck of a lot more money than entities that exist in competition with one another. In short, the NFL and MLB are not staunch defenders of equality values; Dan Snyder and Hank Steinbrenner are not driving the train to the Finland Station.

The standard argument goes something like this: isn’t it ironic that America, land of unbridled capitalism, home of animal spirits on free and open fields, has “socialist” sports leagues that redistribute resources from winners to losers while red, socialist, pinko Europe has a free and open market for sports talent? It’s a cute argument and one that elicits a nice “hmmm…” from readers and there are certainly large elements of truth to it. American sports are, at least nominally, more redistributive, and there is a larger perception that American sports are organized more “fairly” than European sports from a competitive standpoint. Still, it’s far from clear that European sports are more aristocratic than American sports if we look at the highest levels and, more importantly, I think this distracts us from a deeper, more thorough comparison of why European sports and American sports are organized so differently.

Barcelona’s greatness is undeniable, but it’s not a greatness that has translated into a dynasty at the highest levels of competition. While Barca has been the dominant team in La Liga, it’s only won three of the last ten Champions League titles despite making each of the last ten tournaments. This means that the Champions League may not even be as “aristocratic” as the NBA:  eight different teams have won the Champions League while only six have won the NBA championship in the same span. And, unlike La Liga Continue reading

Adrian the Canadian fixes the MLB playoffs

“But he’s Canadian,” you say, “So what does he know about baseball?” Well, he’s from Toronto, the team most screwed by the current system, so let’s give it a shot:

A few days ago, the MLB announced that it was expanding its playoffs to include a second wild-card team. Under the new system, the two wild-cards will play a single game that determines who goes to the divisional series. Response has been, at best, mixed. The strongest criticisms, like this one from ESPN’s Joe Sheenan, have taken a traditionalist perspective. Sheenan worries about what this new system will mean for deep-seated, and still exciting, elements of baseball like the pennant race. He sees the wild-card system as debasing what has historically been one of the most exciting parts of being a baseball fan: following your team through a tense September race to win the division. By Sheenan’s estimation, the old system encouraged top teams to play their best throughout the whole season. If you happen to be one of the two best teams in the league by regular season record but can’t win your own division, tough grapes.

I sympathize with Sheenan and other traditionalists. Baseball’s regular season is long and arduous and does a pretty good job of determining the “best” team (or, at least, a better job than other pro-sports at determining the best team). Meanwhile, baseball playoffs, due to the nature of the game, are pretty close to random. As Billy Beane said, “my shit doesn’t work in the playoffs” – seven and five game series are simply too short to give us a good idea as to which team is best. In the 17 post-seasons since the advent of the wild-card, the wild card team has won five times Continue reading

The Curse of the M’s

Sports (especially baseball) has a number of well known curses. The Red Sox (Curse of the Bambino) and White Sox (Curse of the Black Sox) broke theirs last decade, but the Cubs (Curse of the Billy Goat) struggle on with no championship since 1908. My new favorite is the Curse of the Colonel: apparently Colonel Sanders cursed the Hanshin Tigers of Japan after they threw his KFC statue in a river during a championship celebration.

I don’t believe in curses, of course, but the Curse of Bobby Layne is one that came true. My Lions traded quarterback Bobby Layne to the Steelers in 1958 after he won the NFL championship the previous year because he was getting long in the tooth. Incensed, Layne told anyone who would listen Continue reading