Archive for May, 2007

Opening the Mailbox

Welcome to the first edition of the Sabernomics Mailbox. If you have a question that you would like me to answer, just submit your question here, and I will do my best to answer it in the next round.

How about a post on Willie C. Harris? Is he the future center fielder in Atlanta (and possible leadoff hitter)? Does his recent offensive surge decrease the Braves’ valuation for re-signing Andruw?
— HM

Hey, you’ve got to love how well Willie Harris has been playing. All of us at Kennesaw State are big fans of our former student. However, I’m afraid that he is not a part of the Braves long-term plans to replace Andruw. While his 2007 OPS+ is a magnificent 158, for his career he has posted an OPS+ of 68. Harris is in the class of former Braves like Dewayne Wise, Nick Green, and Charles Thomas. These are guys who had some success with the club in small samples, but ultimately they reverted to their historical weak play. Now, this doesn’t mean Harris hasn’t found a way to improve, but I think it is unlikely. That won’t stop me from rooting for him! I think his best shot is to hang on as a defensive super-sub.

As for the Andruw Jones back-up plan, that’s a tough one. I thought it was Langerhans, but now that he’s gone the Braves may be looking to keep AJ. Although, the Pravda (the Braves PR dept.) seems to be leaking anti-Andruw propaganda rather than supporting him during his current slump. The problem is that the Braves desperately need pitching, and the team may decide it’s resources are better spent fortifying the rotation. Brandon Jones is having a decent season at Mississippi (.820 OPS), so he might be ready to take over next year. However, I think he’s more likely to make his debut mid-season next year than start the year in center.

Since the draft is rapidly approaching, I am wondering about the economics of “signability”. How do teams assess the risk/time value of potential draft picks like Matt Wieters. Some prognosticators have him dropping as far as #18, even though he is considered the 2nd best pick by many, due to the Boras factor.
— Terry

Well, signability is an important consideration, because if you draft a player who doesn’t sign, you’ve lost your pick for that year. The new collective bargaining agreement includes a provision that gives teams a compensation pick of nearly equal draft slot in the following year if they fail to sign a drafted player. This gives clubs a slightly stronger bargaining position.

As to specific risk assessments that teams make, I don’t really know. I don’t think Boras is as big a deal as he is made out to be. The best players, who have the most bargaining strength, are the same players who pick Boras as there agent. The draft creates a bilateral monopoly situation, where the team has sole rights to the player and the player can choose (depending on the situation) to go to college, junior college, or sit out a year. I won’t go into the specific of bilateral monopoly here, but it means that players and teams are likely far apart in terms of what they expect the other party should be offering. It’s a natural result of the process, nothing personal. I do think that Boras has been instrumental at pushing what agents can do, but the disagreements between players and teams would be just as difficult without him. He is unfairly criticized, and he deserves credit for being a good agent.

Is a team’s winning percentage in 1-run games a good indicator of overall performance? How about a team’s winning percentage in blowout victories? Which (if either) is a better indicator of success?
— ND

Ability to win close games doesn’t appear to be a skill, and it is something that is difficult to measure. But just think about it: the closer the game, the more likely it is that a fluke play is going to determine the outcome of the game. As for records in blowouts, I think there is a bit more information. Fluke plays aren’t going to have as big of an impact. I think it’s best to evaluate teams by the sum of everything they do. I look at the difference in runs scored and runs allowed (a Bill James discovery). When I see the a big disparity between this difference and the W-L difference, I expect some mean reversion. Baseball-Reference reports this information on its expanded standings pages (AL|NL).

Do you really like the snapshot stuff that hovers over the links? I find it quite distracting, actually.
— Skip

Funny thing. I get comments on snap previews all the time. Half say they love it, half hate it. I liked it initially, but I do find it annoying at times. A while ago I was getting ready to disable them when I realized that there is a compromise. When you get a preview as you roll over a link, you can click on “disable” at the top, and they should not pop up again. Let me know if this feature doesn’t work for you.

Mr. Bradbury, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?
— Lisa S.

Congratulations Wofford Terriers: Southern Conference Champs

I would like to offer my congratulations to my dear alma mater’s baseball team for winning the Southern Conference baseball tournament. The ninth-seeded Wofford Terriers swept the competition 5-0 to take the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. They begin play on Friday in the Columbia regional, which features USC (that’s the University of South Carolina to people in the south) , NC State, and UNCC (I grew up in Charlotte; UNCC will never be “Charlotte”). Wofford wins with the long ball, leading the country with 106 home runs.

Wofford is a small liberal arts school in Spartanburg, South Carolina with a strong baseball tradition. The nickname “Terriers” comes from an incident in 1909 when a dog raced onto the baseball field and chased an opposing player who was trying to score. In 1913, Ty Cobb came to campus with a barnstorming team, which of course resulted in a fight. Wofford boasts two major league players: Frank Ellerbe and Charles “Spades” Wood. Wood earned his nickname from a 13 spades bridge hand he was dealt on a Sunday, which resulted in his expulsion—playing bridge on Sunday was not allowed…though it is now. :-)

Go Terriers!

Is Andruw Jones Overrated?

I first became aware that Andruw Jones was going to be the lead story in Jayson Stark’s new book The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History during a radio interview several months ago. In the discussion Stark mentioned that Andruw Jones is not as good as people think he is and that he would be explaining why in his upcoming book. I was anticipating what he had to say when, lucky for me, ESPN.com published an excerpt from the book on Jones.

What does Stark mean by overrated? Well, that is a tough one, which he admits. It is certainly subjective, and while some people might think Andruw Jones is the greatest center fielder in history this is not the consensus. Stark clearly doesn’t think the public sees Andruw in this class, just in a class higher than he should be.

What does the baseball public think of Jones? Well, in his 10+ year career he has made five All-Star teams, all during excellent offensive seasons (OPS+ > 120). His career OPS+ is 117, which is good, but not outstanding, offensive production for a center fielder. On defense Jones is considered to be one of the best in the game winning nine straight Gold Gloves. I’d say the baseball watching public considers Jones to be a good hitter and an excellent defender. So, how does Jones stack up to Stark’s case?

Luckily, Stark gives up a reference point for judging excellence in center field.

[Center field is] the position of Mays, Mantle, and DiMaggio. Of Cobb, Puckett, and Griffey. Those aren’t just names on a lineup card. Those are names that conjure up magic. This is the glamour position in baseball. Nothing else is close.

Did you catch that? Read over the list of names again. Kirby Puckett? Are you kidding me? Don’t get me wrong. Kirby Puckett was a very good player, but is nowhere close to the class of the other players on the list. In fact, Andruw Jones’s career OPS of 117 is quite similar to Puckett’s 124—and don’t forget that Puckett was forced to retire near the top of his game. Hey, I’ll grant that Puckett was the better player, but I’m a bit uneasy saying that Jones falls well short of of Stark’s own standard. Puckett is more similar to Jones than he is to the other players on the list. Maybe Puckett would have been a better choice for an overrated center fielder if people really do consider him to be as good as Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Cobb.

Let’s look at offense first. Stark quotes a scout who describes Jones’s offense as “not very good.” Now, I’m not sure how to interpret the quote. Taken literally, Jones is not a very good hitter; but, when I’m at a family reunion and someone says, “this congealed salad isn’t very good” I skip it. It’s not like Jones is known for his bat: he’s garnered only one Silver Slugger award, and three are handed out every year. While his offense wouldn’t be anything special for a corner outfielder, he’s more than adequate for his position. For the previous three seasons he’s finished second in OPS among center fielders (2004, 2005, 2006), and I have little doubt that he will finish this season near the top.

Now let’s move to defense. Here is where Stark makes most of his case. He acknowledges that Jones was once one of the best defenders at his position, and he believes he is living off a reputation that is no longer deserved. As he did for offense, he cites the opinion of a few scouts that Jones’s defense has declined.

“I first noticed it two or three years ago,” he said. “Just from sitting there, scouting, watching balls dropping in that should have been caught. I’m not talking about balls that needed to be dived for. I’m talking about balls that should be caught.”

I surveyed other scouts. They’d begun to see the same things. Not getting the same jumps. Not reacting. Not putting in the defensive effort he used to. His body getting thicker. A sudden obsession with home-run hitting over everything else.

Stark doesn’t just believe these words, he goes to some numbers. There is no denying Andruw’s putouts are down from the mid-400s to the 370s—though Jones is on a pace for around 450 putouts in 2007. Stark says this can’t be because the composition of his pitching staff as changed, because his zone rating has fallen. Here is where Stark’s argument falls apart. There is no denying Jones isn’t a zone rating wonder, but zone rating doesn’t tell us much about defensive prowess.

Zone rating is a seductive statistic because it seems like a batting average for hitters. How many outs did you generate from chances withing an a somewhat objective zone? What a nice idea! The problem is that zone rating is very sensitive to balls that players catch outside of their assigned zone. It’s one of the reasons that the inventor of zone rating, John Dewan, abandoned his creation and developed an entirely new method for evaluating defense—more on that in a moment.

Three years ago I wrote a post, Thoughts on Zone Rating, using Jones as an example of why zone rating is flawed (it comes up number one in the Google search for “zone rating problems“). The basic problem is that defensive shifts allow fielders to catch more balls outside of the zones, but also causes them to give up balls hit in zones. Fielders are asymmetrically punished and rewarded for players made and not made in and outside of the zone. I’m not going to rehash the argument, but the quick summary is that the way outfield defense is played today, zone rating has some problem evaluating players, especially when they are catching balls outside of assigned zones.

The problems with ZR extend beyond my critique, and its flaws became so obvious that its creator John Dewan developed two new defensive measures: Revised Zone Rating and the Plus/Minus System. Both are presented in Dewan’s amazing book The Fielding Bible. (I’m also excited to learn that a new volume is scheduled for 2008…Yes!) While the latter measure is superior, I want to focus on Dewan’s revised ZR, because of some information presented in the book that shed’s light on traditional ZR.

Rather than include balls out of a fielding zone in the traditional ZR metric, the revised system credits balls caught out of the zone separately. On page 234 we see that from 2003–2005 Jones made 218 out-of-zone plays—40 more than Juan Pierre (in 53 more innings played), 49 more than Johnny Damon (in 10 fewer innings played), 63 more than Vernon Wells (in 92 more innings played), and 64 more than Carlos Beltran (in 53 more innings played). Long story short: Andruw Jones is good at getting to balls outside of his zone, and because one of weaknesses of traditional ZR is handling balls out of the zone we ought to be wary when using it to judge Jones.

Next, let’s go to the Plus/Minus System. This is Dewan’s masterpiece: a system based on objective video analysis of how players field balls according to the speed, trajectory, and location of batted balls relative to other fielders playing the same position. It’s frickin’ awesome. To use zone rating to evaluate fielders when this system is available is like using a wooden tennis racket at Wimbledon today. How does Jones do in the Plus/Minus system? Using the original Plus/Minus metric presented in The Fielding Bible, from 2003–2005 Jones made 26 more plays than the average center fielder, putting him behind only Torii Hunter (+44) and Aaron Rowand (+34). Furthermore, Dewan awards Jones Gold Gloves in all three seasons.

Dewan published a few results from an updated system that more precisely measures fielding in The Bill James Handbook 2007. Jones performs even better in this system. From 2004–2006 Jones made more plays than any other center fielder—48 more than the average center fielder and three more than the next closest player (Corey Patterson). In 2006, Jones finished second only to Patterson (+34) by making 30 more plays than average. He’s still got it!

The funny thing about this is that before the Plus/Minus system came into being I thought Andruw was underrated as a defender. Rumors of Jones’s defensive decline have been discussed openly for years, but I never saw it. I believe that the main reason for this is that Jones isn’t as skinny as he used to be. Hey, who isn’t? And though his speed may have declined some that was never what made Andruw Jones so good. I have never seen any player take routes to balls as well as he does. His defensive gift is less about his legs and more about his ability to know where any ball is going faster than anyone else. It is almost as if he folds space as he runs, because he consistently gets to balls that I expect to be hits.

I was happy that Dewan’s system confirmed my thinking, and I would have been prepared to admit that my eyes had been deceiving me if it had shown otherwise. Quantifying defense is difficult and only now are we coming close to understanding how to evaluate fielders. Zone rating has its heart in the right place, but it has little value. I would rather judge a hitter solely by his batting average than judge a fielder by his zone rating.

So, is Jones overrated? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that he is a good-hitting center fielder who is one of the top defenders in the league. That is how I have him pegged, and I suspect the perception of the public is not much different.

Andruw Jones Overrated?

I have received numerous requests to discuss Jayson Stark’s excerpt “The Most Overrated CF of All Time.” Believe me, I have plenty I want to say, but I have had too much other stuff going on. I should have a post on it by Monday, so stay tuned.

Sabernomics Mailbox

I get a lot of questions from readers via e-mail. Unfortunately, I often don’t have to time to get back to the author immediately, and the questions get lost in my inbox while I mull over them. In an effort to become better organized in my correspondence, I have created the Sabernomics Mailbox. Submit questions that you would like me to address on the blog here. As the hopper fills up, I’ll answer the questions. Depending on the response I may do this as often as once a week.

Thanks to Marketing Technology for developing the contact form plugin.

The Landis Hearing

Over the past two weeks, I have found myself glued to the coverage of Floyd Landis’s doping hearing at Trust But Verify. The folks at TBV have been amazing, posting testimony transcripts and offering informed commentary. When do those guys sleep?

I have been reserving judgment until both sides presented their entire cases, and yesterday the arguments concluded. I will admit being skeptical of the initial doping results, because a few things just haven’t added up since the results first became public. Early on, I did find myself a bit persuaded by the USADA’s evidence; but, whatever evidence the prosecution had was destroyed by Landis’s expert witnesses and his lawyers cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses. I can’t say that Landis did or didn’t dope, but neither can the USADA. The French lab LNDD responsible for testing Landis’s samples handled the testing so poorly that there is no way we will ever know what was in those samples. The technicians in charge of testing were poorly trained, knowledgeable of the identity of the subject being tested, conducted the analysis improperly on potentially faulty equipment, while relying on 20-year-old software running on a computer with a 486 processor. Basically, they knew just enough to do a lot of damage. And once the damage was done, the higher ups had a result they wanted: a Tour de France winner and an American. How convenient. I’m not a conspiracy theory guy, but I think a combination of bungling and eagerness to convict played a role in this.

The hearing was basically a farce, and now it is obvious why Landis wanted it public. The USADA is not an independent authority seeking truth. While its mission of catching drug-cheats is laudable, the system is biased against the accused athlete. Arbitrators are not independent parties. Testing of B-samples was done by the same lab that tested the A-samples, with the testers fully aware of the implications of contradicting previous findings. Tests were re-run without documenting past results, enabling testers to run tests until the desired result was achieved. Heck, the technicians were unaware that a “save” feature existed in their software indicating the shoddiness of the standard operating procedure of a testing facility that can destroy an athlete’s career. Landis was also denied much access to the data that “convicted’ him.

In the end, I’m not sure whether Landis will be cleared. Just from reading TBV, I get the feeling that the odds are stacked against him. Even if he is cleared, the decision will be appealed and the trial must happen all over again. By the time this is all over, a two-year de facto expulsion of cycling will have occurred. The fruits of endorsement deals will be gone. And who knows if Landis will still be on top of his game. Furthermore, most of the public is unaware of how badly the case was handled. The anti-doping authorities will have their way, and Landis may be the next person to ask where he can go to get his reputation back.

One thing is clear is that the WADA is broken. I agree with nearly all of the suggestions made by EnvironmentalChemistry.com.

The only solution I see to this problem is for taxpayers to stand up and demand that Congress cut off funding to USADA unless real reforms are put in place. These reforms must include:

* American standards of justice including innocent until proven guilty and due process.
* Testing laboratories must not confirm their own adverse findings. If one testing lab finds sample “A” to be positive then a DIFFERENT testing lab would be required to test sample “B”, with two labs be randomly chosen for the “B” sample test. One lab would get dummy control samples and the real sample while the other lab only got dummy samples. No lab would know who the other testing labs are and no one would know who was testing the real sample until after testing was completed. None of the three labs in question could know who the other testing labs were and none of the labs (or at least “B” sample labs) should know for which sport the samples are from. The athletes could still have representatives present for “B” samples, but they would have to keep the athlete and sport anonymous (transporting athletes representatives to the testing location would be at WADA expense).
* Research and enforcement arms of the anti-doping efforts must be separated. All government grants would have to go to testing labs and scientists through a channel completely independent of WADA and anti-doping enforcement agencies (e.g. USADA) with the existing agencies only paying for the actual testing they have preformed. This must be done to eliminate conflicts of interest.
* All testing procedures and testing methods must be validated via a true scientific peer review processes.
* All substances on the banded substance list must have been proven via true scientific peer review to either be a performance enhancing substances or masking agents.
* Illicit leaking of test results to the press must be criminalized.
* Doping by athletes must be criminalized with all prosecution going through the criminal justice system. [I disagree with this.]
* Athletes and their legal teams must be allowed full and normal rights of discover for criminal cases including deposing lab testing officials prior to their case.
* Athletes must be allowed to employ individuals from testing labs not directly involved with testing their samples as expert witnesses.

Yes this would add greater costs to the prosecution of drug cheats, but the criminalization of drug cheating would create a significant disincentive to cheat and having multiple labs conduct testing using much tighter rules of testing would virtually assure no false positives eliminating the cloud of doubt that currently hangs over the system. These ideas are also intended to reduce the potential of leaks as much as possible, and to limit the sphere of suspects if they do happen as well as eliminate the possibility fingering an innocent athlete.

Falsely accusing and or convicting an athlete is immoral, because destroys an innocent person’s career, reputation and life. Whatever the changes are that get adopted they must ensure that innocent people do not get accused let alone convicted.

I would like to add that convicting innocent athletes reduces the deterrent effect of the system. If your going to be busted for doping, you might as well dope.

Andruw versus Frenchy

We haven’t played a game in a while. I’m really getting sick of Joe “Other Way” Simpson bashing Andruw Jones for his slump. It’s like he hasn’t been watching the team he’s been calling for a decade. Andruw Jones has never hit to the opposite field, even when he was going good. You’d think he’d be an expert on slumps since his career was nothing but one (I acknowledge that Joe’s career was a lot better than mine). Anyway, I don’t like the fact that Other Way never gave Frenchy a hard time last year when he was just as deserving of criticism. Now he won’t stop gushing about the kid (hey, Francoeur does deserve praise).

So, here is the game. Who will finish with a higher OPS, Andruw or Frenchy? I’m on the road so I won’t be monitoring the comments as frequently as I normally do. If your prediction doesn’t appear immediately, have patience.

I’ll start: Andruw, by more than 50 points. My guess is that Joe would take Frenchy if he read this site.

What Does the Present Tell Us about the Past?

Jacob Luft of Sports Illustrated makes an important observation regarding Sammy Sosa’s resurgence in an era of steroid testing.

The bigger question has more to do with how Sosa’s return to form jibes with our lingering disillusionment of the 1998 Home Run Race and The Steroid Era in general. I mean, it was a fraud, right? It was in the papers and everything. We’re supposed to feel guilty for having cheered Sammy and Big Mac all summer long while they pursued Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs, right?

But with every blast Sosa launches, he disturbs the widespread perception of The Steroid Era (capital letters). We’ve painted a lot of players from the same time frame with the same broad brush as cheaters. And maybe they were cheating. But maybe there were other factors, too (i.e. expansion, smaller stadiums, lively baseballs, bad pitching, etc.) that had a lot to do with it. At what point do we stop revising history and start giving Sosa and Barry Bonds credit for what they are doing right now under a different set of conditions?

The truth of the matter is that blaming steroids for the power surge among the media is like wearing an alligator on your shirt in high school: it’s what the in-crowd does. Never mind that other possible explanations exist, and few have pointed out that testing hasn’t lessened power in the two-plus years of testing—home runs are down a bit this year, but this is probably due to low temperatures (also, see here)—or that pitchers are being busted just as frequently has hitters.

I’m glad that somebody noticed.

David Stern Owes a BIG Apology

We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias.

My major concern about it is that it’s wrong. This is a bum rap, and if it is going to be laid on us it should be laid on us by basis of some people who are purported to be scholars in a publication that purports to hold us up to a higher standard — a little bit more should have been done.

Those are the words of David Stern in response to a study by economists Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers that indicates some racial bias in foul-calling in the NBA. The first is from the NY Times article which broke the story, the second is from an AP story.

The problem is that in his haste to refute the story Mr. Stern was a bit over-confident in the study that the NBA claimed to refute the Price-Wolfers study. According to Lester Munson at ESPN.com, an independent analysis of the NBA’s study confirms rather than refutes the findings of Price and Wolfers.

An independent analysis of the two conflicting studies requested by ESPN.com confirms Wolfers’ findings that referees favor their own race when they blow their whistles. Thomas Miles, who has a Ph. D. in economics from the University of Chicago and is a graduate of Harvard Law School, dissected the massive study completed by Wolfers, and compared it with the smaller study by an NBA consultant.

“I believe [Wolfers] has the better points,” said Miles, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “His study focused on the interactions of the race of the referee and the race of the player. The NBA was more concerned with the number of fouls called on black players and comparisons with the number of fouls called on white players.”

Mr. Wolfers explains further.

“Their own study agrees with our conclusion: A referee is more likely to blow the whistle and call a foul against a player of another race,” Justin Wolfers said after he reviewed the information in work done by an NBA contractor.

The league initially had refused to allow Wolfers to examine its study, but finally sent it to him last week after a series of blistering criticisms of Wolfers and his work.

Responding to Wolfers’ conclusions that officials were guilty of “own-race bias” in enough foul calls to affect the outcomes of games, a league spokesman said that Wolfers was “wrong,” that he was “disingenuous” and that his work was “sloppy and ludicrous.” Commissioner David Stern and league president Joel Litvin attacked Wolfers in numerous broadcast appearances.

“After refusing my requests for weeks, the NBA was unexpectedly gracious enough to share its material with me,” Wolfers said. “And I am now able to say that their critical statements are contradicted by the league consultant’s own statistical output.”

It is no surprise the the NBA is refusing to comment. David Stern owes an apology to Price, Wolfers, and Alan Schwarz. Failure to do so would be regrettable. We all make mistakes, but Mr. Stern was too forceful in his condemnation of the study and The New York Times for reporting on it.

TV Appearance: CNBC, Friday, May 18, 2:50pm

Tomorrow I’ll be appearing on CNBC’s Street Signs with Erin Burnett Melissa Lee (guest host) to talk baseball economics. I’m scheduled to be on around 2:50pm.