Archive for October, 2005

The Politics of Replacing Leo

The hiring of Roger McDowell as the Braves hitting pitching coach seems a bit odd. What a coincidence that the “second spitter” from Seinfeld seems to be the Bizarro-world pitching coach choice for the Braves. Not only did he not come from within the Braves organization, he’s pitched for the Mets, Phillies, and Dodgers—three teams that have not been overly friendly with the Braves—and he doesn’t have much of a track record as a coach. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. But, I think the choice tells us quite a bit about the Braves pitching situation.

It’s no secret that Leo was not the most popular guy in the organization. Some internal source has been feeding “Mazzone sucks” propaganda for the past few months. It even spilled over into the normally even-handed reporting of Mark Bowman last week from “anonymous sources.” Bowman stated that at least one veteran pitcher thought Mazzone should go. It’s funny that for 15 years we hear nothing but praise, Leo leaves and then we start hearing how he was always the problem. Apparently the Braves farm is a lot like Animal Farm. Even John Smoltz had something to say, stating that Leo’s departure did not leave a “huge void.” However, Smoltz’s comments seem to be indicative of a pep-talk to the Braves fans that the team pitching staff will be alright, and not a slam at Leo. After all, Smotlz has gone out of his way to praise Leo in the past.

Here is what I think happened. Leo is a good pitching coach, and the Braves did like and appreciate what he brought to the team. Forget any of the studies that myself and others have done that quantify the importance of Mazzone’s influence. For one, no one can prove it’s just Leo, since he, Cox, and Schuerholz have been together all of this time. But, it’s clear that the front office had high confidence in Mazzone, which is why it kept him on the big league bench for 15 years. Additionally, nearly all of his former pitchers have nothing but nice things to say about him. Leo’s a foul-mouthed hot-head, which he admits, yet the players and management do nothing but praise him. Guys like that don’t last long unless they are good at what they do.

Leo’s autobiography is insightful. I’ve owned it for a while, but only sat down to read it a few weeks ago. His method is much more than down and away and extra throwing. It’s a system that involves treating each pitcher differently, physically and psychologically, and watching for necessary adjustments. It also means getting out of the way when things are going right. The last thing Leo ever wanted to do was to screw up a good thing. He’d yell at guys but let them yell back. He’d take ideas from pitchers, ask them how they feel, and he gives tons of credit to the talent that always existed in his students. Another interesting facet of his program is to “team up” on younger guys. Leo would teach along with the veterans. As long as everyone was on the same page, players could help each other out. If you’re a pitcher new to the Braves and Leo says, “you’re curve balls stinks, don’t throw it,” you’re going to be a little more receptive when Tom Glavine leans over and whispers the same thing in your ear.

It’s a shame that Leo’s departure seems to be so political. In his autobiography, Leo tells a story of a phone confrontation with a farm director somewhere down in the minor leagues. It wasn’t a polite one. I get the feeling that Mazzone did not see eye to eye with the guys below him in the system. And why would they? For all of the accolades the Braves get for their pitching, not much of the quality stuff has come through the Braves minor league system, lately. Sure Glavine and Smoltz (not really home grown, either) are home grown, but Mazzone had a big hand in their minor league and early major league development. The only non-Leo home grown regular starter in the Braves rotation in 2005 was Horacio Ramirez, and he’s not anything to get excited about. To keep with the Seinfeld theme, the Braves get their pitching where Jerry gets his coffee: on the outside. This is where Leo has been so important; turning has-beens into ace free agents.

Now, if I’m down on the farm, I’m a little put off by this. My guys don’t do well when they get up top, and soon after they are shipped out. I complain to the GM, “he’s ruining my guys,” but what can the GM do? The pitching coach says these guys have too many bad habits. They aren’t playing well, they still have some trade value, and the current pitching coach can’t stop leading the league in ERA. But I think this all came to a tipping point this year. The Braves sent up a lot of guys a bit too early out of necessity. Dan Kolb was awful. Injuries forced Jorge Sosa—who seemed to catch some Mazzone magic (and some luck)—into the rotation, and the pen had little to offer. Tom Martin, was on the opening day roster folks, and the Braves had eat a nearly $2 million to pay him not to pitch. Leo’s had scraps in the past, in 2005 he was cracking bones to suck out the marrow. Schuerholz scrambled to add Farnsworth and Devine , but it wasn’t enough. Leo had to have felt like an artist whose patron gave him worse materials because he was so good. Finally, he just said “screw this!” With Cox ans Schuerholz about to retire or move on, this was a great time to move.

And the front office probably saw this as an opportunity. The scouts and farm coaches had to be increasing their complaints. Youngsters would soon be all of that Leo had to work with. If things didn’t go well, someone would have to be blamed. I’m sure no one really wanted that. Why not just let Leo go, and the political head-ache goes away…except, it doesn’t. What if the kids fail anyway and Leo could have helped? I think Cox and Schuerholz felt that whatever they had in place with Leo can be replicated up to a point.

This brings me back to the addition of McDowell. If there was politics involved, hiring a pitching coach from outside the organization keeps the political status quo. There won’t be a disgruntled farm coach trying to “fix the damage” he’s been complaining about. McDowell has no stake in that battle. If he wants to have a career as a coach, he’s got to win. The best way to do that is to immerse himself in a major league system that has been so successful. He’ll have Cox and the veterans there to learn from and to teach. Plus, McDowell can make a great patsy if things don’t go well.

I think hiring McDowell is a good move. He’s got no reputation to establish an ego, so there should be no clashes with the front office, coaches, or players. And going outside the organization keeps all others’ egos in check. So, while the choice may seem odd, I think it’s a good one. His minor league record may not be stellar, but success at that level over such a short period of time is hard to measure. Cox and Schuerholz clearly found someone they think will work with the plan, so that ought to be good enough for now. After all, who the hell was Leo Mazzone in 1990? And let’s not forget, he gives TBS a great Seinfeld tie-in.

Discussing ERA on the FOMC

Finally, Bush appoints a person with the qualifications I find most important.

In nominating Ben S. Bernanke to succeed Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman, President Bush selected an economist with stellar credentials and a good reputation in Congress and on Wall Street who has won widespread plaudits since being named on Monday….

Mr. Bernanke is fond of using clear metaphors – like helicopters dropping cash from the sky – rather than Mr. Greenspan’s often abstruse prose. And as a Fed governor from 2002 until this past summer, he pushed his colleagues to give investors, businesses and households a better feel for where policy was headed.

This transparency could help him if he does halt the rate increases at his first meeting. Already, the markets seem to expect such a move. “It’s still the institution making these decisions,” Mr. Mishkin, the Columbia professor, said.

Perhaps the best way to establish transparency, Mr. Bernanke has written, is to set up an easily understandable process. It is in many ways the opposite of the image that Mr. Greenspan has helped cultivate, that of an oracle.

“He will probably work toward depersonalizing monetary policy,” Mr. Gertler said.

A useful analogy is to Bill James, the baseball writer whose books Mr. Bernanke has discussed with fellow economists. Mr. James’s work, which often argues for statistical analysis over intuition, “was always a topic of conversation,” Mr. Gertler said.

He remembers Mr. Bernanke’s being especially interested in finding statistics that forecast future performance. In the same vein, he has argued that central bankers should rely as much as possible on the enormous amounts of economic data now available and less on hunches.

“The hope eventually is to come up with a statistical formula that processes this information and gets the best forecast,” said Jean Boivin, a Columbia economist who has done research with Mr. Bernanke. “Once you do that, the question is how much is left over for judgment.”

It’s always good to have stat-head in charge. And David Leonhardt (who contributed to the above are article as well) notes, he’s concerned about those important questions.

Bernanke and Dwight M. Jaffee, a Princeton colleague, had a regular squash game, and they spent their walks to the campus gym talking about monetary policy and baseball, Jaffee said. Bernanke was particularly bothered by E.R.A., the main yardstick of pitching. If one pitcher leaves runners on base and another pitcher allows them to score, the runs are charged to the first pitcher.

Pitchers unlucky enough to be followed by ineffective relievers, as the Yankees’ Randy Johnson was in 2005, have unfairly high E.R.A.’s. Pitchers who are bailed out by their bullpen, as Roy Oswalt of the Astros often was this season, end up with artificially low E.R.A.’s.

A better system would divide blame, depending on the base the runners were on when a pitcher departed and the number of outs, Bernanke argued.

“He was always saying, ‘We ought to come up with a solution for this,’ ” Jaffee said.

Seriously, Brenanke is a very good choice, and I’m glad Bush got this one right. And I’m not surprised to hear Bernanke is a Bill James fan. The economic way of thinking and sabermetrics have a lot in common.

Research in Fortune

My sister e-mailed me this weekend to say that my research with Doug Drinen on hit batters , is discussed in the latest issue of Fortune magazine. It’s in an article about recent Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling. Coincidently, Schelling was indirectly a big influence on me because he mentored my former professor Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution fame).

The article mentions Doug and me by description only.

Besides game theory’s world-historical and business significance, it’s worth noting, especially at this time of year, that it actually does apply to games. A scholarly paper by Berkeley economist David Romer showed that NFL coaches punt too often on fourth down. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the league’s most successful coach in recent years, read the paper and later stunned fans by running on fourth and one—successfully—in the AFC championship game two years ago. In baseball, a study by an economist and a mathematician examined why American League batters get beaned more often than National Leaguers (short answer: The designated-hitter rule leaves pitchers less afraid of retaliation). As poker has exploded in popularity, some of the new champs have been computer-savvy game theoreticians.

Leo Articles

There are a few good articles on Leo Mazzone this morning that I would like to link to. If you find others, please forward them to me.

Thomas Stinson of the AJC makes some interesting observations in Salvaging Careers Is Mazzone’s Hallmark.

Leo is modest about his success.

“What makes for a great pitching staff is great pitchers,” he once described his craft. “And what makes for a good pitching coach is not messing up great pitchers.”

“I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of credit over the years with Atlanta,” Mazzone said during a Friday conference call. “I don’t need credit. All we need is pitchers pitching good. That gives you enough credit. You don’t need someone tooting your horn.”

How Leo helped John Burkett.

“I think the best thing about Leo is, he has this sternness and his belief in what he’s doing,” said John Burkett from his home in Dallas “He’s very convincing and he has the track record to back it up.”

“When you look at some of the guys who were washed up when they came over — me being one of them, because I was done — maybe I was even starting to believe it at that time,” Burkett said. “But I remember throwing on the side one time when I first got over there and Leo told me, ‘You have the best control I’ve ever seen on the side, beside Greg Maddux.’

“And then he said, ‘And your slider sucks. When you get behind in the count, quit throwing that thing. Throw your fastball down and away.’ And I did that. I mean, there were times when I was thinking, ‘Man, I can’t throw this guy a fastball down and away. He’s going to kill it.’ And I’d throw one and he’d take it for a strike. … That went a long way for me. I kind of took off after that.”

Even Jason Marquis has nice things to say about Leo.

Before he was traded to St. Louis two years ago, Jason Marquis described his Leo experience: “I know when a young guy comes in Leo tries to be a little harder on him because he wants to instill in him the values that he did with the Madduxes and the Smoltzes and the Glavines, when they were young.

“Some guys take it the wrong way. … I tell you what, he’s helped me a lot.”

Bill Curry of ESPN.com compares Mazzone to another great coach.

During my first week with the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi sat down with me and explained every play of the vaunted Packer offense. I value Mazzone’s insights as much as I do those of coach Lombardi. In each case, Hall of Famers had spent personal moments to impart a kind of wisdom that simply does not exist elsewhere.

I won’t lie. I have some selfish motives for liking these articles—they both cite my work—but, they are excellent and worthy of reading regardless of that. But, I do appreciate it. Thanks to Thomas and Bill.

Good-Bye Leo

Thanks for everything.


Mazzone Signs with O’s

Bye

The Mazzone Effect Revisited

Mazzone…Uh-Oh

I don’t like to read stories like this one in today’s AJC.

The New York Yankees are negotiating with Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone and could be close to getting him to trade in his tomahawk for pinstripes.

Hours after Yankees manager Joe Torre gave Mazzone a ringing endorsement Tuesday, Mazzone’s attorney confirmed talks with the Yankees began several days ago and had progressed….

“Leo has great affection for the Braves organization and Bobby Cox but has reached a state in his career where, for his benefit and his family’s benefit, he has to consider all his options,” Reale said. “That’s what he’s in the process of doing right now. We’re proceeding in a formalized manner.”

That doesn’t sound good.

If you are visiting Sabernomics because of my previous work on Leo Mazzone, please see the article I wrote over at The Baseball Analysts. And if you’re Jack Reale or Todd Thrasher, drop me line.

Breaking Down the Decline of Chris Reitsma

Chris Reitsma finished the year in disappointing fashion. Though he was once the Rolaids Reliever of the Month (July), he just seemed to die down the stretch. He had a first-half ERA of 3.67 and a second half of 4.12. That’s no big deal, he was probably just DIPS lucky/unlucky in one of those halves, right? Now, Reitsma may have had a little bad luck on balls in play, and I certainly saw him allow some dink hits, but Reitsma’s problem seems to be a real one. And the decline can be traced back to a rainy July day just before the All-Star break, when Reitsma took a line drive to the rib cage from J.J. Hardy. I remember it well, because I was there with my father.

Lets look at his peripherals before and after the incident:

 		K/9    BB/9    HR/9
Before: 	6.1     1.5     .22
After:     	4.0     2.0     .57
Season:    	5.2     1.7     .37
2004:    	6.8     2.3     1.02

The main difference is the strikeouts. They really just dried up on him. His peripherals are good, but not what they were, especially compared to last year. I think Reitsma pitched hurt the entire second half. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those arbitrary starting point tricks. Here’s a graph of Reitsma’s strikeout rate as it changed by game. The vertical line marks the game he was hit.
Reitsma's slide

Because he was hurt he lost his strikeouts, which required the Braves to gamble on balls in play. And I have found some evidence that strikeouts are correlated with pitcher ability over balls in play. So, he may have been allowing more balls in play that had higher probabilities of falling in for hits.

There has been some talk that the Braves might not offer him arbitration. I think that would be a bad idea, given the present state of the bullpen. If he does have a rib injury it will heal before next season. Reitsma’s had some tough times, but I’m going to stick by him.

Tony, Tony , Tony

Oh, how I enjoyed watching Tony La Russa [complain] and moan in yesterday’s loss to the Astro’s. Remember this quote from TLR, earlier this season?

The only thing the [Braves] should not be respected for is the way they [complain] and moan and beat the umpires down. That’s beneath the class of their organization.

This gives me reason to redirect readers to my study of manger complainers (here and here). TLR, is right at the top of the list.

Only 3 managers have a statistically significant impact on K/BB. And right at the top of the list is Tony LaRussa….certainly Tony LaRussa has no moral high ground to accuse any other manager for influencing the game through umpires.

Way to go out like an absolute jackass, Tony. As for Jim Edmonds, use your brain knuckle-head. Plate umpire, Phil Cuzzi, clearly asked Edmunds before he tossed him “do you want to go?” Let’s see, your manager has just behaved like a little child by spending five minutes trying to skirt Tim McClelland—who coincidentally towered over TLR like an adult over a child—to get to Cuzzi. Don’t you think he might have a short fuse? So, Edmonds decides to say something back. Whatever brand of ball the Cardinals play, “smartball” shouldn’t be the name of it. That was absolutely pathetic. I suspect that La Russa offered no sympathy to Edmonds as they met in the tunnel. Edmonds can’t swing the bat from a phone in the clubhouse. You’ve got to keep your wits about you in that situation.

Go Astros!

Addendum: And this warms my heart.

The Law of Home Runs

Frank Stephenson of Division of Labour sent me a link to this the other day, but I haven’t had time to read it because I’ve been working on the The Hardball Times Annual (have you reserved your copy yet?). And now that Tyler at Marginal Revolution has posted a link to it this morning, I need to get on the ball and get this out there.

“Has Home Run Hitting Changed in Major League Baseball” is a paper by UC-Irvine economics professor Art De Vany who runs a fantastic blog that I was previously unaware of. Here is a summary of his conclusion:

There is a lot of speculation about steroid use in MLB, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal, misleading and incomplete. It is surely not an adequate basis for public policy to 1. assume that there is an increase in home runs, and 2. to assume that steroids are the explanation. The first statement is incorrect, there has been no increase. That makes point two vacuous. There is no need to invoke an external explanation like steroid use when there is no change to be explained.

The same law of home runs holds now that held 40 years ago. Year to year differences in home runs require no explanation; they are all within the variation of the outcomes under the stable probability distribution of home runs. The burst of new records does not require an external explanation like steroids; they are part of the pattern that comes from the nature of the law of home runs.

The pace of new records in recent years is due to the extraordinary accomplishments of three prodigious hitters. We have lucky enough to see three Babe Ruth’s in this generation. Hitters such as these may never appear again. You cannot take an ordinary player and turn them into home run hitters of the accomplishment of Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa by dosing them with steroids. It may even be harmful. Home run hitting of that magnitude is human accomplishment at its highest, as incomparably rare as the work of Einstein or Wagner.

Even greater performances are possible because the long upper tail of the law of home runs gives them positive and non-vanishing probability. The law of home runs says that the probability that Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs would be broken is 0.0109, about one in a hundred. Given enough time and hitters, it was almost sure to fall. Barry Bonds’ record of 73 will be harder to break. The probability that his record will be broken is 0.007206, about seven in a thousand.

This might be the most important sabermetric paper written this year. Certainly, it has the biggest policy implications. Please, read it. I’ll be doing so shortly. The media needs to be aware of it.

Addendum: I had a few minutes to read through the paper, and I think it’s quite interesting. However, I’m going to have to think about it some more. I think he’s right, and it’s a very good paper. His idea is so simple, that I can’t believe no ones thought of it before. It seems that the best ideas are often like this. Great performances are rare and very unpredictable. We just happened to witness some of them very recently, that’s all. And what up-tick in home runs among all players that we do observe is explained by other factors.

Lefty Catchers?

I’m trying to find out how many current, or recent, left-hand throwing MLB players played catcher in college or in high school. The only one I know of so far is Joe Kennedy of the Oakland A’s. If you know of any others, please list them in the comments. I would greatly appreciate any help with this.