Archive for October, 2008

Valuing A.J. Burnett

There have been some recent rumblings about A.J. Burnett opting out of the two years remaining on his current deal in order to pursue free agency.

According to a knowledgeable source, the Jays are prepared to offer Burnett a two-year, $30 million (U.S.) extension. That would reshape his existing deal into a four-year, $54 million contract.

That doesn’t appear to be enough to satisfy one of the most coveted pitchers in baseball. Braunecker was not prepared to say exactly what he expects for his client, but said money would not be the main consideration.

I think he would be wise to accept the Jays’ offer. I have Burnett valued at about $52 million over the next for years, which translates to an average annual value of $13 million.

One apparent sticking point with the deal is that Burnett’s agent wants to get his client an additional year, which the Jays don’t appear to be willing to sacrifice.

“The primary issue would be how many years they would be willing to go,” Braunecker said. “It’s difficult to get five years on a pitcher … but if indeed he says he wants another five-year deal, we may have to go out on the market to get that.”

Indeed, a five-year deal at a lower average annual salary might be preferable to a four-year deal at with a slightly higher average, but I’m not sure if he’ll be able to get that additional year. The fact that he’s pushing so hard for it, combined with his injury history, ought make teams wary.

It’s possible that Burnett may be able to squeeze some more cash out of another franchise, but it’s an awful risk to take. I really can’t see another team offering more than what the Jays have supposedly put on the table. And this is from the guy who typically defends high salaries that most think are outrageous.

Understanding Randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk

Few things annoy me more than when people insist that an outcome must be attributable to some easily-identifiable cause. Life is full of randomness, why can’t people admit this? It may not satisfying answer, but it is frequently the correct answer.

A few weeks ago I was watching a baseball game, when a historically-bad relief pitcher entered the game. Instead of giving up a walk and a few hits, capped off with a homer, he recorded three straight outs. No doubt, this performance was well within the range of expected outcome for this pitcher: outs are common in baseball, and even the worst pitchers frequently record three straight outs. But, this couldn’t have been the answer to the announcer, oh no. “That extra side-work he’s been doing with the pitching coach must have paid off,” we were told.

As I was restraining myself from yanking my hair out in tufts, I glanced over at my copy of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow and thought of sending it to the offending announcer. It was recommended to me by a blog reader, and I have enjoyed reading it. Mlodinow, coauthor of A Brief History in Time with Stephen Hawking, uses his own life experience to explain the mathematical history of randomness while explaining its practical applications.

While it’s the type of book that I like, it may have some additional attraction to baseball fans. Mlodinow is clearly a baseball fan as he uses some baseball historical events to explain randomness. For example, he estimated likelihood of the Braves blowing the 1996 World Series to the Yankees….like I needed reminding. Though the baseball examples are few, they are appreciated.

One of the nice book features is the explanation of difficult concepts through simple examples, without resorting to typical mathematical notation. You may been exposed to these concepts before in a probability and statistics class, but the answer was difficult to grasp among the lines and symbols. In fact, if you know someone taking such a class, the book should clarify and reinforce many of the concepts learned in the course. If you’re a fan of pop-science books, then I think you might like as well.

What Will CC Sabathia Get?

With the Brewers’ elimination from the playoffs, speculation about the future of hired gun CC Sabathia has already started. And though the Brewers only brought in Sabathia in for a 2008 playoff run, the front office is open to the idea of retaining its ace.

The rising small-market Milwaukee Brewers are seriously considering a surprise run at keeping superstar pitcher CC Sabathia, but while Sabathia said he enjoyed his time in Milwaukee very much after the Brewers were eliminated by the Phillies, Brewers people also understand they’d be in over their heads if the bids go well beyond Johan Santana’s pitching record $137.5 million, six-year deal.

“The Brewers will be in, unless the money gets crazy,” said one person familiar with their thinking.

So, what will the Brewers have to spend to keep Sabathia? According to my projected marginal revenue product model, Sabathia will be worth $144 million for a six-year deal, which translates to $24 million a year. (If you’re not familiar with my model, it is based on recent performance and takes into account aging and league salary growth.)

Basically, it’s going to take Santana money to sign him. I don’t know if this is “crazy” money, but I suspect it will be the going market rate for Sabathia’s services.

More Evidence that Protection Doesn’t Exist

From Will Carroll and Eric Seidman.

Andre Ethier recently said that he felt he was seeing better pitches with Manny Ramirez batting behind him….To test this, I looked at the Pitch F/X data for Ethier from 3/31 to 8/27, when he was not hitting ahead of Manny, and compared it to the data from 8/28 until the end of the season, when Manny was protecting him….He saw virtually the same amount of fastballs and same percentage of pitches in a pretty generous strike zone before hitting in front of Manny and after. It might seem like he is seeing better pitches but it could be some type of placebo effect.

This fits with what I’ve found. Thanks to studes for the pointer.

The French God of Walks Revisited

Congratulations to Dave B. for correctly predicting that Jeff Francoeur would walk 39 times this season. The early-season part of The French God of Walks contest was won by the first entrant, and David B. was the second entrant. Also interesting is that the first entrant, Jack, would have won if Francoeur had taken the same number of plate appearances as he had in 2007. Basically, Francouer’s walk total would have been identical to his 2008 total of 42. The lessons here are that Francoeur’s walking eye didn’t change a bit and that winning Sabernomics contests requires entering quickly.

The season was a disaster for Francoeur; not because of his overall poor performance, but because he didn’t improve where he needs improvement. In fact, I think much of Francoeur’s 2008 struggles can be attributed to bad luck, and then adjusting for bad luck in a way that made things worse. At season’s end, Francoeur’s PrOPS was .726, which isn’t too far off from his career OPS of .746. I agree with most people that Francoeur will bounce back to the player he was. The problem is that a mid-.700s OPS from a corner outfielder isn’t good.

Francoeur’s walks, strikeouts, and hitting power were quite similar to his 2007 performances. His strikeout rate was a little lower (17% versus 18.5%) and his isolated power was down a bit (120 versus 151). His base-stealing remains abysmal. He attempted one steal and was caught. How is it possible that a man recruited to play safety for several major college football programs is unable to steal a single base in a season? Brian McCann, who runs like turkey flies, stole five bases without getting caught.

On top of this, his defense—the area where he had been good—declined significantly. After winning in a Gold Glove in 2007, Francoeur was an absolute disaster in the field in 2008. According to John Dewan’s Plus/Minus ($) Francoeur was the sixth-best right fielder in 2007, making 10 plays more than the average right fielder. In 2008, he ranked 28th among right fielders, making 17 fewer plays than the average right fielder.

Many commentators have blamed Francouer’s 2008 on a weight-training program designed to increase his hitting power. This, they say, accounts for his decline in the field and the bat. While I might be willing to buy the explanation for the fielding—though he didn’t appear to get any better after shedding the weight—I think it had no impact on his hitting. If anything, he should have increased his power as he expected. One thing we have learned in recent history is that increasing muscle mass does not hurt bat-speed. That myth went out the window with late-80s Oakland A’s. And furthermore, Francoeur’s fundamental holes are the same ones he has always had. The reason his power didn’t improve is that you can’t hit the pitches he’s hitting (non-strikes), or not hitting, any harder.

I expect Francoeur will improve until his late-twenties before plateauing and declining in his early-thirties like most players. At his peak, I expect he will be an .800 OPS hitter, which is about average for the position. That is, at his best, he will be average for his position. And the peak will occur after he is no longer controlled by the Braves. 2005 was a fluke, and people just need to accept that.

A Smart Move by Lohse and Boras

Kyle Lohse has agreed to a four-year, $41 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. It wasn’t that long ago when Lohse was looking for work. He supposedly turned down a three-year $20 million offer during the previous off-season, before finally settling on a one-year $4.25 million (incentives pushed this number up a bit) deal with the Cardinals. At the time, many pundits loudly criticized (with laughter) Lohse’s agent Scott Boras for expecting a multi-year deal with an annual value of $10 million. The initial signing by the Cardinals was supposedly proof of Boras’s hubris.

Well, it turns out that Boras was right. If Lohse had signed the deal three-year $20 million deal, he would have missed out on this deal. I have Lohse valued at $47 million over the next four seasons, and I’m sure Boras was well aware of his client’s value. The opportunity cost of signing a bad deal now is not signing a better one later; it’s a good lesson to remember.