Archive for April, 2006

Pondering Jeff Francoeur

I’ve been wanting to post some these thoughts for some time, even before the season started. But, I kept putting it off, thinking that The Natural would prove me wrong. And I was hopeful that the kid had something to teach me. I’ve hinted at my thoughts on Francoeur publicly, and discussed them more in private, but I guess I should go ahead an put my thoughts in a single post. Jeff Francoeur’s 2005 was a fluke. And it was flukey for more than one reason. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a very good baseball player one day, but his current performance in 2006 should have been expected. I don’t care how much “make-up” you have, if you can’t lay off bad pitches you’re not going to excel as a hitter.

First off, his PrOPS for 2005 ( .270 /.311 /.506 /.816) are much lower than his actual line (.300/.336/.549/.884). That is an over-performance of 68 OPS points, about 8%. He was a bit hit lucky.

Second, I believe the evidence indicates that part of Francoeur’s fast start was the result of poor scouting. In Mississippi, Francoeur posted a line of .275/.322/.487/.809 against double-A pitching. The funny thing is that his performance in the minors was slightly worse than is PrOPS numbers in the majors. Less capable minor league pitchers knew something that major league pitchers didn’t, or the Braves had Jeff on some bizarre hitting program. The way Jeff tailed way off over the rest of the 2005 season is consistent with major leaguers getting good scouting reports on the guy.

This leads to another interesting question: why did it take so long for major league teams to figure him out? There were certainly scouts watching him in double-A, why didn’t they pass along what the minor league pitchers were doing? My guess is that Francoeur’s jump surprised everyone, and that scouts were not scouting him like advance scouts typically do. Instead, they focused on his raw ability and promise. Scouts saw his poor plate discipline and just reported, “he’s not ready yet, fire it in there.” And well, that was very bad advice. And because Francoeur is blessed with amazing power, when he got pitches he could hit he hit them along way. He didn’t fluke his way to 14 home runs, you have to be gifted to hit home runs. But I think with good advance scouting reports he would not have been nearly as successful—maybe half of those homers go away. In fact, one thing teams may have learned from this experience is that unexpectedly pulling up kids from the minors can yield benefits, because other teams lack the information to get these guys out. Instead of contenders looking to get Joe Randa through a waiver-wire deal for the playoff push, maybe teams should pick up a talented prospect whom no one expected to see.

And why is it that minor league pitchers figured him out? Well, look at the incentives for the pitchers in double-A versus those in the majors. If a double-A pitcher wants to move up, he has to get outs. The best way to do that is to prepare for the guys you’re going to face, especially the best players on the team. These pitchers saw he liked to swing at everything—a friend of mine who watched him in high school said this was no secret then—and they stayed away from the zone without fearing the free pass. But for major league pitchers, Francoeur was just another rookie. Why worry about him when you’ve got to face the Jones boys? And that’s when Frenchy’s window for success opened.

The problem is that now that the window has closed, what are the Braves to do? He’s nearing the 100 PA mark, without having walked even once. And he’s leading the league in swinging at first pitches, so his pledge to work on plate discipline is not going so well. Also, he’s only had five extra-base hits, so he’s not hitting for power when he does hit the ball. This isn’t a bad-luck, small-sample-size slump. There is a real problem.

So, what should the Braves do? Some people think he should be sent down. I don’t think you can do that now. He’s been in the big leagues too long. If he goes to Richmond, all he’ll be thinking about is how to get back. I think the mental fatigue would be too much. The Braves are just going to have to gut this one out, and let him learn on the job. But, it is time to stop pretending he’s already an All-Star. Moving him down in the batting order might reduce some of the pressure, and he could split some time with Diaz and (gulp) Jordan. He’s still an excellent defender and baserunner, too. There are plenty of players in the league who are no worse. Most of them don’t get to play as much, though.

Non-Credible Relocation Threats

Two weeks ago I pointed out that Jeffrey Loria’s threat to move the Marlins to San Antonio isn’t credible. Today, Maury Brown summarizes all of the prospective baseball markets and why none of them are viable alternatives at The Hardball Times.

When looking over this research, it becomes clear that relocation for franchises, at this time, is not favorable. The economics of franchises in existing markets is much better than the last time a serious discussion on relocation occurred, which places less stress and strain on clubs to force themselves into changing markets.

Also relevant to the discussion is my post The Extortion Game from two years ago.

This leads me to believe that MLB is more likely to use available market for expansion rather than extortion….If the probability of departure is perceived to be greater than the actual probability, then extortion may be preferable to expansion. But, if cities overestimate the probability of team relocation, then leaving a city open for extortion is not necessary. Owners can extract subsidies by threatening to move the team to unqualified markets AND obtain revenues from expanding into a qualified market.

Sorry for the clip show.

Berri Joins The Sports Economist

Dave Berri has joined The Sports Economist blog. Dave is one of my favorite sports economists out there, largely because he’s willing to put the conventional wisdom aside. I’ve been reading Wages of Wins and loving it. I’ll try and post a review of it when I get a chance. This book is going to get a lot of attention, so get in on the ground floor by reading it and recommending it to your friends. The authors demonstrate that sports economist talk about more than just monopolies and the reserve clause.

Skip Sauer seems to be cornering the market on sports economists these days. Must be the influence of working at a school in the ACC.

Leo the Hardass

Excerpts from Rick Maese in today’s Baltimore Sun.

The Orioles love the easy innings, but to properly gauge just where Cabrera is mentally, the coaching staff needed to see how he’d respond to adversity. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone didn’t spend the past week tweaking with the young pitcher’s release. It was encouragement, all aimed at refining Cabrera’s confidence.

“You know what I’ve been thinking about? What do you think would’ve happened in ’91 if we took John Smoltz out of the rotation?” asks Mazzone, the former longtime Braves coach who joined his friend Perlozzo in Baltimore in the offseason.

In 1991, Smoltz was the same age Cabrera is right now – 24. He had huge expectations but showed little consistency. He was just 2-11 at the All-Star break that year.

That’s about the time Smoltz visited a sports psychologist. His mind caught up with his arm. He went 12-2 in the second half of the year and continued to develop the next season, leading the National League in strikeouts in 1992.

“You’re going to see the same thing here [with Cabrera],” Mazzone said. “You see the mechanics, you see the strikeouts. It’s there. We just want to see it consistently.”

A guy like Cabrera, though, is the reason Mazzone is here. Mazzone will work with the entire staff, but the pitching coach has made his name tapping locked potential and making it an everyday reality. For Cabrera to be successful this year, Mazzone needs to be successful.

It’s certainly too early to say that Cabrera is getting better and that Mazzone is helping him, or any other O’s pitcher. But, I think this story paints a different picture of how Mazzone operates with pitchers, especially with young pitchers—you know, the ones he couldn’t work with in Atlanta.

Don’t forget to check out the Mazzone Meter at the top of the page. It now has stats for five pitching categories for the O’s and Braves.

Thanks to Baseball Musings.

The Amazing John Thomson

A few weeks ago I wrote the following:

Thomson has a good strikeout-to-walk ratio and he doesn’t give up a lot of home runs. Plus, he can step in and pitch a lot of innings if anyone in the rotation gets injured to sucks. Smoltz and Hudson are injury risks. Ramirez and Sosa fall into the latter category, and Davies may not be ready yet. Mr. Schuerholz, if you think you need bullpen help, look no further than your own bench. I think you’re trying to trade away exactly what you’re looking for.

Thankfully, Thomson’s elbow developed an aversion to going to Pittsburgh, and the deal we’d been hearing about was called off. John Thomson has been awesome in his work so far. He’s the only Braves pitcher who has pitched well every time out. Check out the Braves stats without John Thomson in the lineup (compare with the Mazzone Meter on the right sidebar) and Thomson’s stats.

Stat	Other	Thomson
ERA 	6.38	1.23
K/9	5.02	8.59
BB/9	4.01	1.84
HR/9	1.00	0.00
FIP	4.87	1.90

Thomson’s the kind of pitcher that every fan should appreciate, but doesn’t. He always pitches well, but has been overshadowed by other pitchers or the fact that he was pitching in a hitters’ park. It’s kind of like his name. John Thomson sounds like a boring common name. There are a million of guys out there named John Thompson. But then you see there’s no “p” in there, and that’s just kind of cool. It’s not uncommon, but it is different.

Monitoring Mazzone

I have been following the Braves and Orioles pitching this year with great interest, for obvious reasons. Neither pitching staff is doing all that well, but it’s still very early in the season. If you are interested in monitoring the progress of the staffs over the season, I present The Mazzone Meter.

Mazzone Meter
Staff ERA

Orioles: 5.06
Braves: 6.67

With the help of Doug Drinen and Sean Forman—by help, I mean they pretty much did all of the work—this little script will automatically update the pitching statistics of the Braves and O’s every day. Right now, it just presents ERA, but I may add some other stats soon. It will stay on the right sidebar.

I should also mention a few things to help with the interpretation of the “Mazzone Effect.” I think there is very little chance that the O’s will finish the season with an ERA lower than the Braves, because the O’s play in the AL and their pitching staff is less talented than the Braves. Keep in mind, this is just for fun. I’m rooting for both staffs to do well. And it’s possible that the results from an entire season of play won’t tell us that much, even if the stats for both teams differ considerably. One season of play is still a small sample.

Payroll and Wins

Dave Berri, coauthor of The Wages of Wins, is today’s DH at The Baseball Analysts. Berri, an economist at Cal. St.-Bakersfield, answers the question: Can Money Buy Love in Baseball?

Contrary to popular perception, payroll in professional sports is not strongly linked to wins. A $100 million team does not win twice as many games as a $50 million team – not even close. Our own work has shown that only about 18% of a team’s regular season wins can be attributed to its payroll. In other words, more than 80% of a team’s regular season record cannot be tied to team spending. We would add that this is what we see when we look at teams in Major League Baseball from 1988 to 2005. In other words, the lack of a link between spending and wins is not a recent phenomenon. Across time more spending is not an elixir that leads automatically to success on the field. As the saying goes, games are not won on paper. Moreover, they are not won just because you spent a pile of paper.

Also, check out the site for the book. I received a copy of the book recently, and I have been loving it. Berri, Schmidt, and Brook do some of the most interesting work in the field of sports economics. I think the book is going to be a big hit, so pick up a copy of the book when it comes out in May. And look out for the authors’ blog, which is just getting started.

Marlins to San Antonio? Please

This is ridiculous.

Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said before the home opener Tuesday that he believes San Antonio is a viable market for a team and he must determine the club’s future “very, very, very soon.”

“San Antonio is a very viable market, and they’re very serious,” Loria said. “Read my lips: They’re very serious.”

2000 MSA Population and % change from 1990

Miami: 5,007,564 (23.5% increase from 1990)
San Antonio: 1,711,703 (21.6% increase from 1990)

When you see statements as non-credible as this one, it’s hard to take anything the speaker says seriously. Shut-up and market your damn team. This reminds me of that Simpson’s episode where the men of Springfield attempt to sabotage Apu’s Valentine’s Day surprises for his wife. Ned Flanders correctly points out that all the effort they are using could have gone to their wives—it’s rent seeking loss— before he’s told to pipe down. South Florida should be a great place for baseball. You have two of the best players in baseball on your team—Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera—playing for peanuts. Yeah, Jeff, you’d make more money if the city bought you a new stadium, but it’s not like you’ve got a bad situation. But no one believes you’re going to move the team from a top-10 market to a city three times smaller. The owners certainly won’t allow it either.

I hope the citizens of Miami do the right thing and dare him to leave. The citizens of Charlotte did the same thing to George Shinn with the Hornets, and look what it got them. The jerk owner left town, and the city got a new team and a downtown arena. Threatening to leave a city is a dangerous strategy. If you don’t get what you want, it can cost you in the long run.

Peak Age: Another Estimate

UPDATE: This post is old, and uses a fairly weak method for measuring peak age. I have conducted a thorough analysis published in Journal of Sports Sciences that finds peak age occurs around 29–30.

— — —

Judging the peak age of baseball players is an interesting problem. Over the course of a player’s career, many factors may affect his numbers that have little to do with age: injuries, differing park factors, changes to the run environment of the league, long-run contract incentives, etc. I have looked at the peak ages of pitchers and hitters before (see the right sidebar for links), and I’m happy with the results of found, despite the potential problems. But, I’ve thought about another way to find peak age. Instead of looking at the changing performance of players with long careers, I wanted to look at those with short careers.

Players with short careers typically play only during their peak years. Only when they are at their best are these players providing “major league” level of talent. Both before and after, their skills are not good enough to keep them in the league. Therefore, I’m going to put all of the stats aside and only look at the average age of players with three years or less of major league experience. The average of these short-timers should tell us something about when players peak. I used a recent sample of players from 1980-2002. By excluding 2003-2005 I exclude young players with three year careers who may have much longer careers.

Peak Age of Hitters

Peak Age of Pitchers

For both hitters and pitchers, the median age of players with careers of three years or less is 26. The mean age for hitters is 26.02 with a standard deviation of 2.37 years. The mean age for pitchers is 26.33 with a standard deviation of 2.82 years. Interesting. I haven’t though much about this other than I thought it would be a neat study to do. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Studes Interviews John Dewan

Dave Studeman interviews John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible, at The Hardball Times. They talk about the book, Baseball Info Solutions, and ACTA Publishing. I’ve seen several interviews with John, and he seems like a really interesting fellow who is quite gracious. One thing I know is that John is very good at what he does, and I suspect there are more good projects on the way.

I have been quite impressed with The Fielding Bible, and I find myself looking at it every time I watch a game. I think the method is sound, and I am quite comfortable with the results. I don’t think it will be long before the Plus/Minus rating is a regular fielding category on baseball stats websites.