Archive for June, 2008

Trade Misconceptions

It’s that time of year when fans get antsy for trades. The good teams are beginning to distance themselves from the bad and players are going down with injuries. Fans start demanding moves to better position their favorite teams for the short and long run. In their haste, fans often make a few observations that bother me. I would like to address them here.

– Trade showcasing. Sometimes when a minor-leaguer is called to the big-league club to replace another marginal player, fans will suggest that he is being showcased for other teams to acquire in a trade. This makes absolutely no sense. What year is this? Between airplanes, video iPods, and up-to-the minute stats on your cell phone it can’t be difficult to see a player in Triple-A. How does bringing a player to the majors, where he will sit on the bench for most of the game before pinch-running, give a potential trade partner better information than going to see the guy play several full games where the outcome doesn’t matter? You can have him bunt and steal in odd situations to show off speed, play him at different positions to show versatility, or dial up his best fastball for the radar gun. These are things you absolutely cannot do in the majors. And if he could handle the majors, wouldn’t he already be there? If you want to showcase a player, it is probably better to send him down, not up.

– Trading bad players. The most popular fan solution to poor performance is to ship the guy out in a trade, especially if the player was once much better. If he’s not good, then you can’t get much for him unless other teams are dumber than the fans suggesting the trade. If you’ve noticed a player has declined, chances are that scouting departments of all teams are also aware. Trades occur when teams agree that they would prefer what the other team has. A common example occurs when one team is good now and is willing to sacrifice future play (via prospects) while the other team is willing to sacrifice good play now for good play in the future.


— Many bad players = one good player.
I get tired of seeing three 27-year-old guys holding down the final slots on the roster–possibly playing a bit over their heads–netting a potential Cy Young candidate. My only response to this is that teams don’t make this type of trade.

– Although his contract is excessive, Player X is cheaper now because the season is half over. While it may be true that any acquiring team would only have to pay a pro-rated share of the contract, the team also gets pro-rated production. The season progressing does not make the player any cheaper.

Chipper’s Pursuit of .400

Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus posts an interesting article on Chipper Jones’s probability of hitting .400 this year. Silver correctly notes that the proper question isn’t whether or not it’s likely that he will hit .400–of course, it’s unlikely, it was unlikely for even Ted Williams to do it. If some of Chipper’s excellent hitting this year is a product of improved talent–hitting over .400 is more than good luck for a career .310 hitter–there is a realistic chance that he may do it.

At this point, however, we have significantly more information about Chipper than we did at the start of the season. Information like the fact that Chipper really, really knows how to hit a baseball. So the idea is to come up with a new estimate of Jones’s talent that incorporates what we’ve learned about him this year.

The process for doing this is a little involved, and requires the use of something called Bayes’ Theorem, but the basic intuition is as follows: sure, it seemed unlikely at the start of the season that Jones was a .360 hitter. But we also know that it’s much, much likelier for a .360 hitter to sustain a .420 batting average over the first ten weeks of the season than it is for a .310 or a .290 hitter. What Bayes’ Theorem gives us is a way to balance these two pieces of information. (I’ve used this process before to evaluate hot and cold starts, and it’s proven to have pretty good predictive power.)

Sparing everyone some math, our solution from Bayes’ Theorem is that Jones is really and truly about a .350 hitter—specifically, our estimate is that he should hit about .348 the rest of the way out. There is some uncertainty around this estimate, because it’s plausible that Jones has become a .360 or a .370 hitter who has gotten a little lucky, and it’s also very plausible that he’s still more like a .320 or .330 hitter who has gotten a lot lucky. What we can say almost for certain is that Jones isn’t really a .400 hitter, but that he’s also almost certainly better than the .310-.320 range we pegged him at before the season began.

I think it is interesting that Silver’s estimate of Chipper’s 2008 hitting is nearly identical to his predicted estimate according to PrOPS;, which estimates his , based on the way he is hitting the ball this season.

So, if Chipper is a .350 hitter this year, what is the probability that he will break .400?

Overall, out of our 1000 simulations, Jones hit .400 or better and had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title 125 times. So this is your answer: I estimate that Jones has about a 12-13 percent chance of finishing with a .400 average.

Good luck, Chipper!

Addendum: Here are a few things that Chipper is doing differently this season. These don’t necessarily mean anything, I am just pointing them out.

	P/PA	%Strikes put in play
Career	3.68	35%
2008	3.48	41%

Bleg: Pre tags don’t seem to be working since I have upgraded to WP 2.5.1. Any suggestions?

Towel Time?

John Smoltz is done for the season, and probably for his career.
Tom Glavine has a strained shoulder, immediately goes on the DL, and will have an MRI. I think there is a 90% change he’s thrown his last pitch in the majors.
Rafael Soriano, who really isn’t all that good, can’t pitch and no one knows why.
Chipper Jones is having an amazing season, but is having trouble staying healthy.
Mark Teixeira isn’t playing up to his ability.
Jeff Francoeur is playing below his ability, but his ability wasn’t all that high to begin with.
Left and center field are playing just as poorly.

Yeah, it seems like this is not the Braves season, but I am an optimist when it comes to my sports teams. The Braves are third in the league in runs allowed and eighth in runs scored. The run differentials says the Braves should be 37-28, which would give them the second-best record in the NL. Isn’t there some hope?

Sadly, I don’t think there is. Though the record may understate the baseball the team has played, I think there is little reason to believe that the team can play up to the level it had been playing. The offense is somewhat sustainable, but I think the pitching is about ready to come crashing down.

I don’t think Jo-Jo Reyes and Jorge Campillo can keep pitching the way that they have. Jair Jurrjens looks to be a good pitcher, but he’s bound to stumble some this early in his career. Blaine Boyer has been overused. Manny Acosta is a lot older than everyone seems to realize (with an unspectacular track record). Jeff Bennett, Buddy Carlyle, Royce Ring, and Will Ohman are retreads. Tim Hudson is the only Braves pitcher whom I expect to continue pitching as he has so far this year.

Is it time to throw in the towel on the season? I think so. But, I’d love to be proved wrong.

Does Viagra Improve Performance?…Athletic Performance

The NY Daily News alleges more drug use by Roger Clemens. This time, the culprit is Viagra.

Roger Clemens, whose claims he never took steroids are under federal investigation, has apparently discovered the benefits of another performance-enhancing drug sweeping the sports world – Viagra.

Clemens stashed the clearly marked, diamond-shaped pills in a GNC vitamin bottle in his locker at Yankee Stadium, according to a source familiar with the clubhouse, perhaps keeping the drug undercover to avoid the inevitable wisecracks about all the girlfriends he needed to please.

According to the Daily News, Viagra (sildenafil nitrate) is widely used by athletes to improve performance.

The drug is so widely used for off-label purposes that it has drawn the attention of anti-doping officials and law-enforcement agencies in the United States and beyond.

“All my athletes took it,” BALCO founder Victor Conte, whose acolytes included Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, said of an over-the-counter supplement he claimed mimicked the effects of Viagra.

“It’s bigger than creatine. It’s the biggest product in nutritional supplements.”

Among the off-label uses for Viagra, which first went on the market in 1998, it:

* Helps build endurance, especially for athletes who compete at high altitudes
* Delivers oxygen, nutrients and performance-enhancing drugs to muscles more efficiently
* Counteracts the impotence that can be a side-effect of testosterone injections

I asked two of my exercise physiologist colleagues about the potential performance-enhancing effects of Viagra. Both felt that it is unlikely that the drug would help. The reason being that the problem isn’t getting blood flow to the muscle but the muscles using the blood flow. One was a little more believing of the theoretical improvement, but felt it would have no practical effect. The other felt there was almost no way it could work. In sum, it’s probably a placebo effect that leads athletes to use Viagra. This effect could be exacerbated by positive sexual experiences.

Boy, it’s going to be fun managing the spam in these comments.

More Frenchy Love

It seems that people just can’t say anything bad about Jeff Francoeur. After my rant yesterday, I heard this nugget from Buck Belue on 680 The Fan yesterday evening.

Here is how the Braves stack up: left field, below average; center field, below average; …um…uh…um…well…second base, average; first base, average. Chipper, McCann, and Escobar are the only ones who have anything going.

So, he can’t bring himself to knock Francoeur, even though callers have been complaining about his hitting all afternoon. Is he afraid that Frank Wren will pull his press pass? A dramatic pause, followed by the insulting of Kelly Johnson? What is it about this player? Is he some sort of Svengali?

Rep. Waxman, Please Do Something Productive

Representative Henry Waxman is upset about Bud Selig’s Congressional testimony that positive steroid tests declined from five percent in 2003 to one percent in 2004.

But the accuracy of the picture provided by Commissioner Bud Selig, his deputy Rob Manfred and the players union’s executive director, Donald Fehr, about how the testing was conducted has come into question. The committee’s chairman, Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, has said he is troubled, and the committee’s staff is planning to send letters to Selig and Fehr seeking answers to what Waxman has called “misinformation.”

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the committee was not told that the 2004 testing, with its significantly lower positive test results, had been partly shut down for much of that season, what Selig’s office later called an emergency response to an unforeseen situation. Specifically, the shutdown arose from the federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative steroid ring.

As a result, players who apparently tested positive in 2003 were not retested in 2004 until the final weeks of the season, and might have been notified beforehand, perhaps skewing the overall test numbers for that year.

“It’s clear that some of the information Major League Baseball and the players union gave the committee in 2005 was inaccurate,” Waxman said in a written statement. “It isn’t clear whether this was intentional or just reflects confusion over the testing program for 2003 and 2004. In any case, the misinformation is unacceptable.”

First, there is nothing “inaccurate” about this claim. It could have been misleading, in that the lower positive-test rate had a cause other than decreased steroid use, but baseball appears to have presented correct numbers.

Second, is this news to Waxman? The shutting down of testing in 2004 is such common knowledge that I cannot even recall where I learned of it many months ago. I believe it was included in the Mitchell Report.

UPDATE: Here is the relevant text from the Mitchell Report (pp. 281–282).

In April 2004 federal agents executed search warrants on two private firms involved in the 2003 survey testing, Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc. and Quest Diagnostics, Inc.; the warrants sought drug testing records and samples for ten major league players connected with the BALCO investigation. In the course of those searches, the agents seized data from which they believed they could determine the identities of the major league players who had tested positive during the anonymous survey testing.

Shortly after these events, the Players Association initiated discussions with the Commissioner’s Office regarding a possible suspension of drug testing while the federal investigation proceeded. Manfred said the parties were concerned at the time that test results that they believed until then raised only employment issues had now become an issue in a pending criminal investigation. Ultimately, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association agreed to a moratorium on 2004 drug testing. While the exact date and length of this moratorium is uncertain, and the relevant 2004 testing records have been destroyed, Manfred stated that the moratorium commenced very early in the season, prior to the testing of any significant number of players. Manfred stated that the Players Association was not authorized to advise its members of the existence of the moratorium.

According to Manfred, the moratorium lasted for a short period. For most players, drug tests then resumed. With respect to the players who the federal agents believed had tested positive during 2003 survey testing, however, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association agreed that: (1) the Players Association would be permitted to advise those players of this fact, since that information was now in the hands of the government; (2) the testing moratorium would continue with respect to those players until the Players Association had an opportunity to notify them; and (3) the Players Association would not advise any of the players of the limited moratorium.

Sometime between mid-August and early September 2004, Manfred contacted Orza because the Players Association had not yet notified the players involved. The 2004 season was drawing to a close without those players having been tested because they remained under the moratorium. Manfred said that he pressed Orza to notify the players as soon as possible so that they could be tested. All of the players were notified by early September 2004.

The problem is that the owners and players agreed to suspend testing for a portion of the 2004 season after the I.R.S. seized previous test results that were supposed to be anonymous. It was the seizure by a government organization that impeded the testing, not MLB or MPBPA.

But, what really annoys me, is that if Waxman really cared about getting steroids out of baseball, he would have used his powers to suppress the seized evidence. Baseball entered into its drug testing program with good intentions, despite the fact there are incentives for individual players and owners to skirt the system. It took major concessions for both sides to begin testing, and anonymity of the early tests was important. Th raid threw all of that good will out the window, and players were once again suspicious of what would happen to the personal health information contained in the blood samples.

Instead, of blaming baseball, Rep. Waxman should have helped baseball negate these seizures, so that all the parties involved could have used their resources to protect player confidentiality while trying to rid the sport of doping. That is to goal of all of this, isn’t it?

The Big…Four?

This weekend I was driving while listening to the Braves pre-game show. Twice I heard two references that almost made me crash the car. I will paraphrase the comments.

Friday:

Coming into this season, I saw this team having four big hitters and four complementary hitters. The big hitters are Chipper, Teixeira, McCann, and Jeff Francoeur.

Sunday:

The Phillies and their big-three of Howard, Utley, and Rollins have played well compared to the Braves big-four of Chipper, Teixeira, McCann, and Jeff Francoeur.

What on earth is Jeff Francoeur doing in this grouping? This year Francoeur has posted a line of .253/.303 /.415/.718, which is an OPS+ of 89. And it’s not like this performance is a surprise. If you take out the first month of his career, in which he was “the natural”, he has a career OPS of .756. That is a major-league player, not an All-Star. Why does one month–during which I am convinced that poor scouting, good luck, and exceptional play created a phenomenal start–still dominate the public perception of this player?

And it’s not that Francoeur is a bad baseball player: looking around the Braves outfield, it’s obvious that Francoeur isn’t a bad option. But why is he put in the category with players who are in a completely different class? I mean, Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar have better seasons and better careers than Francouer, yet they are not included in the conversation.

It’s fine for teenage girls who come to games in costumes to declare their undying love to the Frenchy, but comments such as these have no place on radio shows for Braves baseball fans.

Sticker Shock

Gwinnett Braves tickets are not going to be cheap.

It’ll cost a lot more to watch the Atlanta Braves’ top minor-league team play in Gwinnett County next season than in Richmond this year.

In fact, the Gwinnett Braves will have some of the priciest tickets in minor-league baseball, based on information sent this week to prospective season-ticket buyers.

While fans in Richmond paid $432 for season tickets in the infield box seats this year, comparable season tickets will cost $950 when the team moves to Gwinnett next year — and even more in the first few rows behind home plate ($2,000 to $2,500) or behind the Braves’ dugout ($1,100).

The cheapest season tickets in Gwinnett will cost more than the priciest in Richmond. In Richmond, the price range is $216 to $432. In Gwinnett, the range will be $500 to $2,500.

The Braves said single-game ticket prices for Gwinnett’s inaugural season will be finalized and announced later. The team said those tickets, on a per-game basis, will be in the range of 12 percent to 16 percent higher than season-ticket prices.

In one sense, I am not surprised. Ballpark prices have been rising for year because fans value ballpark amenities and are willing to pay for them. This is consistent trend in sports.

Toby Wyman, the Gwinnett Braves’ assistant general manager for business operations, said the higher prices are justified because of the lack of fan amenities at the Richmond stadium.

“Obviously, Gwinnett is a very different market from Richmond,” Wyman said, “and this is going to be the newest and state-of-the-art ballpark in Class AAA [baseball].” He said the stadium will have better sightlines, more comfortable seats and more entertainment and dining options than in Richmond and many minor-league parks.

Still, I wonder if this is the right move politically. Gwinnett County taxpayers just coughed up a hefty subsidy for Liberty Media shareholders, and fan discontent early on could sour fan interest. Ticket prices in Gwinnett appear to be higher than in other Triple-A cities.

A survey of the 14 current International League teams found none with a season ticket as expensive as Gwinnett’s “Home Plate Club” seats, which — for $2,500 per season in the front row and $2,000 in the next three rows — will include parking, a private stadium entrance, access to a private lounge area and other amenities. Wyman said the section of about 260 seats will be “very unique” for the minor leagues.

If you exclude those premium seats, one of the 14 International League teams has season-ticket prices roughly in the same ballpark as Gwinnett’s: the Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs, the Philadelphia Phillies’ top affiliate. IronPigs season tickets range from $648 to $1,008. The other teams, though, are considerably lower.

In the other Class AAA league, the 16-team Pacific Coast League, no team lists season-ticket prices as high as for Gwinnett’s Home Plate Club seats. Aside from those seats, four PCL teams have prices that top Gwinnett’s. (Prices were not available for two teams.)

Ultimately, we have to remember that this is a private operation. The Braves have every incentive to set the price to maximize revenue. The Braves obviously feel the higher prices are justified. Management states that they were influenced by the pricing of other sporting events in Gwinnett.

One sad note for the county is that the deal with the Braves transfers a flat $1 per ticket to the county. By charging high prices, the team may earn higher revenue by restricting the number of tickets sold. Thus, the county may receive less revenue than anticipated as a result of lower attendance. At least, the county is guaranteed a minimum of $400,000 a season from tickets. Furthermore, because the county doesn’t get a cut of the ticket revenue, the county loses out on a cut of what might be a smart business move.

Rehab Assignments and Minor League Attendance

My buddy Frank Stephenson sends me the following about John Smoltz’s recent outing in Rome.

In my paper on beer sales and Rome attendance, I found that Chipper’s rehab appearances increased Rome’s attendance by about one-third (all else constant). After attending Smoltz’s Thursday rehab game in Rome and seeing the sold out park I was curious about the increase attributable to Smoltz. I had my research assistant Tyler pull together Rome’s attendance data for this year and we found that in three previous Thursday night home games the team averaged about 3,300 fans. The 5,105 on hand for Smoltz’s game therefore represents a 54% increase over other Thursday night games this season. While this quickly calculation should be treated with some caution because I may not have accounted for all other factors (e.g., promotions), it looks like Smoltz had a bigger fan effect than did Chipper.

BTW, comparing Smoltz’s Saturday game to previous Saturdays yields an increase of only 5% or so, but this effect is attenuated by the stadium’s capacity. On previous Saturdays the team virtually sold out the stadium (average of 4,843 with capacity of 5,105) so the Smoltz effect bumps up against the stadium capacity.

Braves Replace Strength and Conditioning Coach

AJC

Longtime Braves strength-and-conditioning coach Frank Fultz is being replaced effective immediately, a highly unusual midseason move for the organization.

A team official confirmed the Braves would announce Wednesday that Fultz has been replaced by Phil Falco, a minor-league roving strength-and-conditioning instructor in the Braves organization.

The official would not say if Fultz was stepping down voluntarily. Fultz, 56, has been the Braves’ strength-and-conditioning coach since 1992.

Uh, that’s weird. A guy who has been with the team for 17 years is relieved of his duties in midseason? Something is going on here. I don’t think injuries have been more common this year than in the past. It’s probably something personal, but I wonder if this has anything to do with Jordan Shafer.