Archive for February, 2006

Are Pitchers More Expensive than Hitters?

That is, in terms of what it costs teams to train and maintain these players, not salary. It seems to me that pitchers require more coaching, advanced scouting, and medical care than position players. Does this sound right?

Zimbalist on Selig

Here is an interesting interview with economist Andrew Zimbalist about his upcoming book on Bud Selig, In the Best Interests of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig.

Bud loves baseball as much as anyone I’ve ever met. . . . Bud is also tenacious. Without his tenacity, Milwaukee would never have gotten back a major league team. And without his tenacity, the owners may have self-destructed in the early 1990s as they bitterly fought over revenue sharing. At the time, and still today, Bud spends many of his waking hours talking to the owners about how they need to cooperate with each other and behave as partners. He has the uncanny ability to make just about everyone he talks to believe that he is on their side. Baseball’s ownership always has been plagued by fractiousness. Bud has used his superlative social skills, intelligence and energy to hold baseball’s barons together. The owners recognize that Bud has performed this vital function, and even though some may resent occasionally his methods or the outcome, they are afraid of what would happen without him.

I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks to Repoz for the pointer.

Comments Policy

I have had several people writing to comment on the Lineup Analysis tool. I have long had this policy, but I have not stated it publicly, so I guess it is time to do so. I do not publish comments critiquing other people’s work. Say all you want about me, but critiques should be directed to the original author or to a discussion forum like Baseball Primer. Otherwise, I can be put in a very awkward situation. I am left to defend someone else’s work, which I normally feel inclined to do, or pile on the critique. If the critique is valid, it will find its way to me through normal channels, and that is the way I prefer to keep it.

Thoughts on Villarreal

There is an article in today’s AJC discussing the potential of newly-acquired reliever Oscar Villarreal. Everyone seems to be really high on the prospect of a healthy return to his rookie-season form.

Despite his recent arm problems, the Braves saw enough last season, when he allowed eight hits in 11 innings in September after coming back from the shoulder injury. They believed he could help their revamped bullpen, an opinion reinforced by reports from the Mexican winter league.

“We made the trade based on our scouting,” general manager John Schuerholz said. “Not only what our scouts saw last year, but in the past, before his arm woes from the use/abuse that happened to him a couple years ago.

This thing is, who is more likely to have better information about him? A Braves scout or the D-backs, who had direct access to him and all of his medical records. My guess is O.V.—that’s what I’ll call him— will make a few appearances, pitch mediocre, and head to the DL. And that will be the end of that. He might turn out to be something great, but this Villareal for closer talk is nonsense this early. Right now, I think Lance Cormier—the other pitcher in the Estrada deal—intrigues me more. He is the type of guy the Braves turn around.

Braves Lineup Analysis

OK, this is really cool. Cyril Morong analyzes run-maximizing lineups based off player OBP and SLG. Ken Arneson “perls it up” for the A’s and posts the script. Then Dave Pinto writes a program that allows you to enter in player stats to generate an optimum lineup for any team of real or hypothetical players. The results are fully linkable, and with the help of tinyurl.com, you can e-mail and post on the web these lineups with ease.

So, in a matter of moments, I used my 2006 SSPS estimates for the Braves to generate the 2006 Optimal Braves Lineup.

AJ
KJ
McCann
Chipper
Giles
Francoeur
LaRoche
Pitcher (Based on Smoltz’s career OBP and SLG)
Renteria

Pretty cool! I love the internet.

Update: I made a slight change to the above analysis, by giving half of the pitcher’s plate appearances to Langerhans, but it didn’t change the order. I wonder why it puts the worst hitter in the 8-hole? I’m going to have to review Morong’s post.

Crasnick on Mazzone and McDowell

Thanks to Jerry Crasnick for citing my Leo Mazzone study in today’s ESPN.com column.

McDowell walks into an interesting situation as the successor to Mazzone, who carved out an impressive legacy in 15½ seasons with the Braves. J.C. Bradbury, a baseball fan and college professor based in Tennessee, conducted a study that showed having Mazzone as a pitching coach can lower a pitcher’s ERA by more than half a run. But the numbers notwithstanding, the Braves didn’t seem especially upset to see Mazzone leave.

It’s a nice little article that compares the old and new approaches. More so, it’s a nice write-up about McDowell. Once again, we hear the same thing about Leo that has been running through the media since he left: Leo is a foul-mouthed hard ass who didn’t put up with crap, while McDowell is a laid back prankster who will fit with the younger staff. The Braves public relations department is certainly keeping the story straight. Is it a coincidence that the USSR dissolved in the same year Schuerholz came to Atlanta? ;-) But really, what else can they say?

When ESPN.com ran a piece last summer declaring Mazzone the greatest assistant coach in the history of sports, Cox declined to comment. Cox is uncomfortable with the spotlight and values the contributions of all his coaches equally. Mazzone, with his radio show, his books and his perceived flair for self-promotion, appeared to have outgrown the organizational dynamic.

Mazzone’s throwing program clearly helped Atlanta’s starters stay healthy, and his philosophy of pounding hitters down and away worked wonders for pitchers who could execute it. He helped revive the careers of Jaret Wright, John Burkett and numerous others.

But Mazzone can be abrasive, and his style doesn’t resonate with everyone. Kevin Millwood clashed with him, Jason Marquis never warmed to him, and Mazzone failed to turn around Dan Kolb. For all his genius, Mazzone is not a big proponent of ironing out mechanical flaws with the benefit of new-age technology. You’d have a better chance of spotting Bigfoot in the video room.

Maybe this is true, but I have a hard time thinking that Leo could be anything close to the problem with the Braves last year. Maybe he doesn’t deserve all of the credit he’s been getting, but he certainly doesn’t deserve any blame. It’s time to watch the play on the field to put this topic to rest. That is, unless the Braves pitching collapses in 2006 and the O’s blossom.

Happy Birthday to The Baseball Analysts

Congrats to Rich and Bryan on their first full year as The Baseball Analysts. Both of these guys have been around the online baseball analysis community much longer than me, but their first year on their own site has been excellent. For two guys to put together as much good content as they do on a daily basis is quite a feat. Anyone who runs a similar site knows the time it takes to put it all together.

Please, stop by and give them a pat on the back. They deserve it.

Fantasyland: A Review

Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe
Sam Walker
Viking Press

In 2002 Michael Lewis fired the first shot in a culture war taking place within baseball with Moneyball. In his bestseller, Lewis investigates the success of the Oakland A’s, which employ the new ideas of sabermetrics (the scientific study of baseball) to put winning team on the field. The protagonist is Oakland’s General Manager Billy Beane, a failed top-prospect but a successful front office manager. While Beane’s explosive personality and some condescending arrogance documented in the book caused some baseball insiders to grumble upon the book’s publication, it was the methods the A’s employed that created most of the establishment’s backlash. The members of baseball’s establishment—or, “The Club,” as Lewis later labeled his critics—was an old-boys network of GMs, scouts, and media who didn’t take kindly to the implication that the old way of doing things might not be the best way.

Moneyball was an indictment of the old guard. Lewis documented how Ivy League kids with knowledge of computers and mathematics could exploit the mistakes of leather-skinned scouts with one-armed tans. The new methods of measuring player performances that substituted experienced eyes, grizzled wisdom, and a radar gun with sample sizes and confidence intervals was too much. This conflict can be described as jocks versus nerds, experience versus youth, or man versus machine. These are classic human themes, which is why Lewis’s story is so compelling. Few members of The Club would deny the usefulness of stats, but they will always remind you that it’s the human scouts who can pick up things not reflected in numbers. These were the methods acceptable for “fantasy baseball” not the real thing.

The thing is, though Moneyball isn’t the most popular book in MLB front offices, Sam Walker acknowledges in Fantasyland that there has been no rebuttal of the ideas presented. If anything, the Moneyball&#153 philosophy seems to have extended its influence further into the game. This is where the story begins. Walker, who writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal, runs the reverse experiment of Moneyball to weigh in on the “scouts versus stat-heads” debate. Whereas, Lewis documents stat-geeks invading the big leagues, Walker brings the human element to the fantasy sports world, where the sabermetric revolution has strong roots.

Tradition has it that fantasy baseball revolution its origins to a few prominent New York publishers who met in a now defunct New York restaurant, La Rotisserie Française, which would give rise to the original name of fantasy baseball: Rotisserie. However, it turns out that the founding father of the league, Dan Okrent, actually got the idea from a group of professors at the University of Michigan, who played a similar game in the 1960s. So, the game that is played over beer and hot wings to fulfill the unmet dreams of sports fanatics actually has ivory tower origins.

Fantasy sports are now big business in the US, with an estimate of 15 million players of fantasy games. While only those with the most extreme athletic gifts can hope to be a part of real professional sports, fantasy games provide an outlet for the masses to participate. Players select real professional players to play on individual teams, where “owners” reap the benefits of on-field production in several statistical categories. Fantasy players must gather as much information as possible in order to win their leagues. It is the drive of fantasy players to win these contests that has generated new knowledge in projecting player performances based solely of categories in box scores. Many of these ideas fit with the strategy employed by the A’s in Moneyball.

But, Walker wants to challenge the roto-nerds on their turf with information that few fantasy players can get their hands on. Though Walker doesn’t have the knowledge or wisdom of experienced front office personnel, he does have a press pass, which gives him access to information that no fantasy player has. And he’s not just jumping into any fantasy baseball league. He’s hoping to test out his ideas in Tout Wars, an advanced league in which only the top Rotisserie experts can play. Walker’s plan for success is simple, “I’m going to be good at this Rotisserie game, because I know people.”

Walker’s quest begins by building his own “front office” that he uses to compile the vast amounts of information he collects. If big-league teams need a group of people to win, so will Walker. The front office is composed of two diverse personalities with slightly differing skills sets. Nando, the general manager of the Walker team—the Streetwalkers—-is a young fantasy buff. Though he is wise to the statistical bent of the fantasy community, he’s open and intrigued by Walker’s idea. Nando will be the human voice, many times telling the owner what he wants to hear. Sig is a NASA biomathematician working on a PhD. in statistics. Everything is in the numbers for Sig, and he’s less impressed with Walker’s plan, but still intrigued. Sig will clash with the owner and general manager many times over the coming months. But, both will also learn to find comfort in his numbers.

Next, Walker starts his personal scouting trip to spring training. There, he talks to players, scouts, mangers, and GMs to try and get the inside scoop. Although he finds some things, he’s certainly disappointed with his trip. He’s gained a few hunches, but possibly he’s formed some irrational attachments to players for the wrong reasons. Walker will also prowl the clubhouses during the regular season, not just to get dirt on players, but to actually try to influence coaches and managers. From a pitching coach he learns that a pitcher he was thinking about picking up is not suffering from a rumored injury. He also uses data to convince a manager to use a Streetwalker pitcher differently. Certainly, these are things that the normal fantasy player can’t do. But, Walker is frustrated that even with this edge, his advantage doesn’t seem to be helping much.

While Walker’s intent is scientific, testing out the idea that inside information is important in sports, one of the greatest aspects of the book is how the game shaped him personally. He becomes to the fantasy baseball world what George Plimpton became to professional football with Paper Lion. Walker meets all of the fantasy players. The Tout Wars participants form a unique bond of friendship, or maybe “acquaintanceship” is the better term. Tempers erupt, tensions are real, and feelings do get hurt. There is no monetary reward for winning the game, but approbation from the fantasy world means a lot to these men. The players know that whatever they do in life, in the fantasy world these are only other people who understand them.

Just as Bill James was the person bearing the intellectual responsibility for the subject matter of Moneyball, Ron Shandler—author of Baseball Forecaster—plays the part in Fantasyland. Shandler also happens to be as much a participant in the book as any other player, because he is playing in Tout Wars. Shandler is bothered by many things in the real and fantasy baseball. He sees the game changing, and doesn’t necessarily care for the new breed of baseball analyst. He cares about Tout Wars partly because it’s an arena to prove his place in the fantasy baseball world. He doesn’t explicitly say it, but I feel it. And this means more to Shandler than the real game, as he walks away from major league employment—the ultimate dream goal of most serious fantasy players—to concentrate on his fantasy empire. I don’t know enough about Shandler to judge the accuracy of Walker’s portrayal; but, assuming it is correct, I really like the man.

As a player, Walker loses himself in the experiment as he experiences the pangs of the competition, watching his team of players (each of whom received a Streetwalkers t-shirt as a sign of devotion) fail and succeed. He stays up late cheering them, let’s himself go when they slump, and celebrates when they succeed. He learns about the human side of players, and gains an appreciation for what he has. “Man, I love my wife,” Walker says on one occasion. Even if you can reduce a player’s performance down to his numbers, it’s important not to forget about the person. The point ought to be a cliché, but Walker has the writing skill to convey it without getting sappy.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I don’t I think you will be surprised by the fact that the Streetwalkers don’t end up in first place. Season number one ends up as a learning experience. The real joy in reading the book is the documenting of experiences that every fantasy player feels: injuries causing panic-trades, competitors riding fluke performances, and angst over ethically questionable moves. The book really moves, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. In fact, the book caused me to join a baseball fantasy league this year for the first time in a long time.

Though it’s not chronicled in the book, Walker and his front office certainly learned from their mistakes in 2004. I didn’t follow the 2005 Tout Wars season to know how they did it, but both Walker and Nando (on his own team) finished first and second, respectively, in different leagues. Sig moved to the real world of baseball working for the St. Louis Cardinals. These movements seem to mirror Walker’s intuition: it’s not just stats or human observation, it’s both. And the both the real and fantasy worlds of baseball need a little more of what the other has got.

JC on Mazzone in the New York Times

I’d like to thank Jack Curry for mentioning my research in today’s New York Times.

Atlanta’s Pitching Wizard Takes His Magic to Baltimore

Smoltz said Atlanta’s perennial pitching success increased expectations among inexperienced pitchers and sometimes rattled them. Because the Braves had six Cy Young Award winners and nine 20-game winners under Mazzone’s tutelage, Smoltz said some pitchers tried to become the next Maddux or Glavine to impress Mazzone. That pressure, Smoltz said, could be detrimental.

Still, a detailed statistical analysis showed that Mazzone’s coaching makes a major difference. J. C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., determined that Mazzone helped pitchers decrease their E.R.A.’s by slightly more than half a run per season.

“That’s a huge number,” Bradbury said.

In Bradbury’s 2004 study, he researched every pitcher who had pitched at least one season for Mazzone and compared their yearly E.R.A.’s with Mazzone and without him. Bradbury, a Braves fan who was skeptical of Mazzone’s effect on pitchers, was surprised by the results. His research is on the Web site baseballanalysts.com.

I enjoyed the article quite a bit.

Sabernomics Is Back!

Sorry for the delay, folks. I didn’t mean to disappear without notice like that. I had been in the process of switching to a new server when the old one died. Couple this with the fact that I’ve had numerous personal and business emergencies taking place, it took me some time to get everything working.

I want to give a special thanks to Sean Forman for helping me get this to work. I know very little about databases, computer languages, or the web. Fortunately, Sean knows quite a bit about all of those and was kind enough to offer his assistance. If you would like to thank Sean too, go to Baseball-Reference.com and sponsor an available page, any page. There are plenty of pages available for $5. I’ve sponsored several over the years, and plan to continue to do so.

I’ve been doing quite a bit in my absence, and I hope to post some good stuff soon. I have received several advanced copies of good baseball books, and I will be posting my reviews shortly. Fantasyland by Sam Walker, The Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray, and Baseball Hacks by Joseph Adler are few of the books I plan to blog on, so stay tuned.