Archive for May, 2006

Sabernomics in LA Times

Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times (r.r.) interviewed me for his story on steroids in baseball in today’s edition. The article features comments by several people, including Sean Forman, Nate Silver, and Neal Traven. Here’s what I had to say that was included in the article.

“The subject is as hotly debated in the statistical community as it is in the general community,” said J.C. Bradbury, an economist who runs the statistics website Sabernomics.com. Players “are getting bigger, and they’re hitting more home runs. Why? The very obvious answer before us is steroids, but it’s very difficult to test their impact simply by looking at data within the game.”

And later in the article.

Major league expansion in 1993 and 1998, which added four teams, may have diluted pitching. Bradbury has compiled figures showing that the range of earned-run averages from worst to best among pitchers has reached a historical high. “If you have hitters taking advantage of lesser pitchers, you’ll have an uptick in offense,” he said.

You can read my recent posts on steroids and home runs, where I discuss some of the issues discussed in the article, here and here. Thanks to Mike Hiltzik for asking my opinion.

The Incredible Shrinking Marcus Giles

With all of the talk of Braves fans focused on the struggles of Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, and the bullpen, one very bad season is flying under the radar. Marcus Giles has gone from being one of the best offensive second basemen baseball to Keith Lockhart, putting up a .235/.326/.324/.650 line for the year. While Giles has been a little unlucky, his PrOPS for the year is .687, which isn’t so hot. What happened?

Well, what talk I have seen about Giles often mentions steroids, and the suggestion is understandable given the burden of proof for these things these days. Giles is playing about 180 OPS-points below his career. And since his breakout season in 2003, his isolated-power has dropped from .216 to .132 and .170 in 2004 and 2005. This year, it’s under .100. Given the stiffer testing policies people are wondering if that’s the cause.

But the thing is, although Marcus is playing below some of his past numbers, there is a very good explanation for his drop-off: it’s a mirage, his early power was a fluke. It turns out that Giles has been one of the luckiest hitters in baseball over the past four seasons. In my article on PrOPS in the The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006, I list the 25-luckiest PrOPS seasons—meaning OPS exceeded PrOPS—over the pas four years. Giles appears twice: his 2003 is number 11 (overperformance of 0.086) and his 2005 is number 19 (overperformance of 0.081). Additionally, based on Giles past PrOPS performance, I projected he’d have an OPS of 0.776 this year. He’s still hitting below that, but I don’t expect his OPS to stay where it is for the rest of the season.

Giles is not a bad player, in fact, he’s a good player with excellent defense and on-base skills. However, those flashes of a potential MVP that everyone saw—including me—were largely a product of luck, not steroids. The only juice Giles might have been on is Felix Felicis.

I Confess

AJC columnist Mark Bradley has a message for the golden-boy doubters out there.

Let’s try an audience-participation exercise. All of you who were saying Jeff Francoeur was (a.) way overrated and (b.) needed to be sent to the minors, raise your hand.

Understand: I’m not trying to be a scold or to say, “I told you so.” I’m just wondering how many of you are willing to admit you jumped the gun, if only to yourselves. Confession, I’ve always found, is good for the soul.

I never said he should go to the minors, and I would not call myself a “Frenchy-hater”—you’ve got to love a guy who works as a substitute teacher at his old high school during the offseason. However, I did, and still do, think he’s a bit overrated. Certainly, he doesn’t need to be making Delta commercials about hitting fly balls to adoring fans on other continents, yet—I can’t believe his agent allowed him to do that. But anyway, let’s check in on how Jeff is doing in terms of producing runs, along with his teammates.

Player       		AVG	 OBP      SLG      OPS      LWTS
Brian McCann    	0.350    0.401    0.558    0.960    12.58
Edgar Renteria    	0.326    0.412    0.431    0.843    10.32
Chipper Jones    	0.306    0.403    0.463    0.866    10.11
Andruw Jones    	0.263    0.340    0.479    0.819    8.92
Matt Diaz    		0.390    0.387    0.644    1.031    7.09
Adam LaRoche    	0.242    0.346    0.470    0.816    5.67
Wilson Betemit    	0.278    0.329    0.494    0.823    3.04
Ryan Langerhans    	0.256    0.350    0.384    0.734    2.09
Brian Jordan    	0.263    0.313    0.456    0.769    1.61
John Thomson    	0.389    0.389    0.500    0.889    1.16
Horacio Ramirez    	1.000    1.000    1.000    2.000    0.94
Martin Prado    	0.200    0.429    0.600    1.029    0.75
Jorge Sosa    		0.111    0.273    0.444    0.717    0.06
Chad Paronto    	0.000    0.000    0.000    0.000    -0.25
Travis Smith    	0.000    0.000    0.000    0.000    -0.25
Marcus Giles    	0.235    0.328    0.325    0.653    -1.18
Tony Pena    		0.111    0.200    0.111    0.311    -1.20
Todd Pratt    		0.175    0.267    0.275    0.542    -1.77
Jeff Francoeur    	0.258    0.272    0.463    0.735    -1.81
John Smoltz    		0.105    0.190    0.158    0.348    -2.34
Tim Hudson    		0.111    0.158    0.111    0.269    -2.73
Pete Orr    		0.196    0.212    0.275    0.486    -3.38
Kyle Davies    		0.000    0.000    0.000    0.000    -3.75

Jeff Francoeur may grow into the greatest hitter in Atlanta Braves history, but it’s way to early to start heaping this praise on the kid. Right now, he has much more in common with Ryan Langerhans—check out those OPS—than his buddy Brian McCann, whose entire season has been better than Francoeur’s recent “hot streak.” To me, a big sign that Francoeur could have used some more time in the oven—other than his lack of walks—is that he’s 0-5 in stolen bases. This is a guy who might have played DB in the NFL and he can’t take a base! While, Chipper and his bunions are 3-0. Stealing bases takes more than speed; it’s an art, and I think it’s something he could have worked on in the minors.

Also, Gondee at Talking Chop posted this interesting comparison between Francoeur and McCann the other day.

McCann’s approach at the plate is a patient one, but not an overly patient one that lets good pitches go by. His strikeout to walk ratio throughout his minor league career has gotten better each year. And it’s going to continue to improve in the majors.

In the Minors:
Year – BB – SO
2002 – 10 – 22
2003 – 24 – 73
2004 – 31 – 54
2005 – 25 – 26

In the Majors:
Year – BB – SO
2005 – 18 – 26
2006 – 11 – 12 (after the first two at-bats tonight)

But Francoeur, he is the all swing, at all pitches, all the time. And it seems like the times he has had the most success, have been the times when he has been the most patient at the plate – patient, for him. Here are his strikeout to walk ratios, for comparison:

In the Minors:
Year – BB – SO
2002 – 15 – 34
2003 – 30 – 68
2004 – 22 – 83
2005 – 21 – 76

In the Majors:
Year – BB – SO
2005 – 11 – 58
2006 – 1 – 31 (after the first two at-bats tonight)

Draw your own conclusions.

Though Brian hasn’t gotten the hype, his patience seems to be paying off. Again, I don’t think Francoeur should be sent down. However, he was rushed to the show, and I think it was a bad decision.

Don’t forget to play The Francoeur Game!

Gladwell on The Wages of Wins

Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Wages of Wins in this week’s New Yorker.

It’s hard not to wonder, after reading “The Wages of Wins,” about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluations of experts. Boards of directors vote to pay C.E.O.s tens of millions of dollars, ostensibly because they believe—on the basis of what they have learned over the years by watching other C.E.O.s—that they are worth it. But so what? We see Allen Iverson, over and over again, charge toward the basket, twisting and turning and writhing through a thicket of arms and legs of much taller and heavier men—and all we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing. We become dance critics, blind to Iverson’s dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him. “One can play basketball,” the authors conclude. “One can watch basketball. One can both play and watch basketball for a thousand years. If you do not systematically track what the players do, and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, you will never know why teams win and why they lose.”

The WoW is by three economists—Dave Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook— who have been doing some of the best research in sports economics over the past few years. I happened to end up at a dinner with Dave Berri at the Western Economic Association meeting last July, where I learned about the book. I thought the book had a lot of potential, given the work these economists had done. It reminded me of what William Easterly did in The Elusive Quest for Growth with his amazing academic work on economic growth.

Because of our similar research interests Dave sent me a few finished chapters, and it was even better than I thought. I’ve mentioned it a few times over the past few months, because of my excitement over what I have read. I think the readers of Sabernomics will enjoy its discussion of not only baseball, but other sports as well. The chapters on basketball are exceptional. Now that I have the entire book in front of me, I find that it has exceeded my already high expectations. Sometimes I wonder if my opinion is the exception or the consensus, but it turns out to be the latter. In addition to Mr. Gladwell, the book has also received praise from Alan Schwarz (cover blurb) and Tyler Cowen.

I’ll try and post a more thorough review of the book soon, but I’m a bit tied up with some other projects, so I can’t make promises. If you read the book, or find other reviews, and want to post comments in this thread, go right ahead. Also, check out the authors’ blog.

Sabernomics in the SF Chronicle

Thanks to Jon Carroll for discussing my posts on steroids and home runs (Part 1 and Part 2). He writes about the alternate hypotheses proposed by Art De Vany and me.

Recently, two such researchers, Arthur De Vaney and John Charles Bradbury, both of them trained economists, separately developed a remarkably counterintuitive proposition: Steroid use in baseball over the past 10 years had nothing to do with the home run records set during that time.

They offer no opinions about steroids, and no opinions about who used them and how often and who’s lying and who isn’t. They’re just looking at the numbers. …

A lot of people aren’t going to like this idea. They are convinced that Barry Bonds achieved his records by cheating. Here’s the weird part: It is perfectly possible that Barry Bonds cheated but that the cheating had nothing to do with the records. So if you are worried about the taint on the game brought about by illicit drug use, fine. Boo away. But of you think the records are tainted — well, check your math. Everything you know could once again be wrong.

Interview with Skip Sauer

The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank’s Region Focus has an excellent interview with The Sports Economist’s Skip Sauer.

At its core, I find the Moneyball hypothesis offensive. I tend to think that, as a general matter, labor markets work quite well, and returns to skill are valued appropriately. But the Oakland example was in opposition to my belief in labor market efficiency. So my colleague Jahn Hakes and I decided to investigate it more in a paper that will be coming out in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. We found that Lewis’ offensive idea was correct. On-base percentage was undervalued, and buying on-base percentage went a long way toward explaining Oakland’s success.

How do we explain this? I think what Lewis found was a very clear-cut example of institutional inertia. A lot of old baseball scouts had a certain idea of which skills made for a good baseball player — and those weren’t necessarily right. Yet once those ideas took hold, they tended to stick. Someone eventually questioned and tested them, and decided there was another way to evaluate talent. Beane was a real innovator, and he was able to exploit the opportunities that he saw. But it’s very hard to do this over an extended period of time. This information will be exploited by others — indeed, we have seen it recently with several other teams. Just about every front office in Major League Baseball has guys poring through data looking for statistical patterns that can give them an advantage. As a result, there will be new innovations in assessing talent that might prove even more effective.

Lots of good stuff.

The Francoeur Game: 2006

It’s simple. Predict the end-of-year stats for Jeff Francoeur. Three categories: AVG, OBP, SLG. Leave your entries in the comments.

I’ll start: .260/.275/.465 ==> .740 OPS

PrOPS for 2006 Are Up

Thanks to Bryan Donovan and the guys at The Hardball Times, you can now get player PrOPS which are updated daily. And, just like the other stats at THT, you and filter the data in many different ways. Bryan has really done an amazing job with all of the stats.

I had hoped to write a PrOPS article this week, but I’ve had a bit more to do than I anticipated. So, I’ll quickly mention one minor change. This version of PrOPS is based on data from the 2002-2005 seasons. Unlike previous versions, this PrOPS is park-neutral, instead of showing what a player ought to do because of his home park. This makes comparisons across teams a little easier.

And if you’re wondering, “how accurate is PrOPS?” you need to purchase a copy of The Hardball Times Annual 2006.

PrOPS on THT

Checking in on Mazzone

Or as Repoz calls it: The Mazzone Reflect.

Since we’re about a quarter of the way through the season, I thought I’d check in to see how Leo Mazzone and Roger McDowell are doing with their respective staffs. Before the season began, I predicted that the Orioles would improve over last year and the Braves would get a little worse; however, I was more certain about the former than the latter.

As it turns out, both clubs have struggled with poor pitching, and the Orioles are suffering worse. Here is a comparison of both teams in 2005 and 2006.

O's	2005	2006	Change	%Change
ERA	4.57	5.64	1.07	23.41%
FIP	4.54	5.46	0.92	20.26%
K9	6.63	5.96	-0.67	-10.17%
BB9	3.66	4.74	1.08	29.58%
HR9	1.14	1.39	0.25	22.44%
				
Braves	2005	2006	Change	%Change
ERA	3.99	4.35	0.36	9.02%
FIP	4.15	4.60	0.45	10.84%
K9	5.79	6.46	0.67	11.49%
BB9	3.24	3.58	0.34	10.38%
HR9	0.90	1.14	0.24	26.06%

The staffs on both teams have changed some, but the cores remain basically the same. Interestingly, both clubs are having trouble with home runs. Mazzone’s strength over his career has been in keeping homers down and increasing strikeouts, and both of those measures are moving in the opposite direction. Braves strikeouts have increased, too.

The O’s biggest struggles have come from two pitchers: Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez. These two gentlemen have combined to allow 25 homers in 87 2/3 innings—2.6 per 9 IP, and 45% of the team’s total HRs allowed. For Chen’s part, he seems to be trying. After being chased from Tuesday’s game after surrendering two homers Chen said,

“I know I threw a lot of pitches but I just didn’t want to give in,” said Chen, who needed 95 pitches to get through four. “I think overall, my pitches were better probably. I think it was positive and now, I need to show results.”

That’s Leo’s motto: “don’t give in,” so he’s listening. Although, I’m not sure he’s acting. Chen had a nice year last year, too; so, I’m sure he’s frustrated. Chen has always had a homer problem, though. Leo’s disappointed too, but he’s apparently sticking by his guys.

“He’s not going to get frustrated,” Perlozzo said of Mazzone. “He gets disappointed [if] he’s not helping somebody. He got quiet on the bench the other night in Rodrigo’s [Lopez’s] game after he came out. I asked him, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I’m OK, but I need to find a way to help that guy.’ You can believe one thing: He’s not going to give up.”

If any one can rally these pitchers, I think it’s Leo. When he first arrived in Atlanta, the pitching had been awful the first part of the season, so he set goals for improvement for the team, and they improved. When John Smoltz struggled early in his career, Mazzone stood by him when everyone wanted him out of the rotation. The same has been true this season with Daniel Cabrera. Though his walks are up, so are his strikeouts, and he’s only allowed one home run. Bedard and Benson have pitched similar to their career numbers.

It’s still early in the season, and too many factors to explain the rise in both team’s ERA through pitching coach changes. Although, it’s still fun to watch, isn’t it?! I’ll keep the Mazzone Meter running.

Braves Linear Weights

I thought I’d check in on some offensive stats for the Braves. Here are some stats for players ranked by linear weights.

Player			AVG	OBP	SLG	OPS	LWTS
Andruw Jones		0.294	0.373	0.538	0.912	12.75
Brian McCann		0.349	0.393	0.569	0.962	11.09
Edgar Renteria		0.336	0.397	0.445	0.842	8.32
Chipper Jones		0.276	0.393	0.398	0.791	5.46
Adam LaRoche		0.226	0.341	0.461	0.802	4.49
Matt Diaz		0.365	0.364	0.538	0.902	3.86
Wilson Betemit		0.268	0.325	0.493	0.818	2.54
Brian Jordan		0.288	0.333	0.500	0.833	2.47
Ryan Langerhans		0.269	0.352	0.389	0.741	1.75
Horacio Ramirez		1.000	1.000	1.000	2.000	0.92
Jorge Sosa		0.167	0.375	0.667	1.042	0.81
Martin Prado		0.200	0.429	0.600	1.029	0.68
John Thomson		0.313	0.313	0.438	0.750	0.23
Chad Paronto		0.000	0.000	0.000	0.000	-0.25
Todd Pratt		0.194	0.306	0.323	0.628	-0.26
Tony Pena		0.111	0.200	0.111	0.311	-1.21
John Smoltz		0.133	0.235	0.200	0.435	-1.33
Marcus Giles		0.229	0.327	0.326	0.654	-1.38
Jeff Francoeur		0.259	0.271	0.452	0.722	-2.38
Tim Hudson		0.125	0.125	0.125	0.250	-2.58
Pete Orr		0.213	0.229	0.298	0.527	-2.90
Kyle Davies		0.000	0.000	0.000	0.000	-3.75