Archive for Managing

How Not to Run a Baseball Franchise

The Baltimore Orioles have just fired their manager, Sam Perlozzo, after holding the position for a little more than one full season. Perlozzo took over the team on an interim basis in August 2005, and was awarded the permanent position after the season.

Perlozzo took over a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 1997 and didn’t appear to be close to getting its act back together. In 2006 the team won only 70 games, four fewer than the previous season. This season the Orioles are on pace to win 68 games. However, the team’s run differential indicates the Orioles are playing better than their record: their Pythagorean record has them on pace for 77 wins. 77 wins isn’t a good team, but I’m not sure much of this is Perlozzo’s fault. (I want to acknowledge that some people have argued that deviations in wins from Pythagorean projections measure some level of managerial skill. I am not convinced of this.)

Perlozzo took over a pretty poor club and has not had much time to right the ship. Furthermore, Perlozzo’s good buddy Leo Mazzone seems to have improved the pitching staff after a tough first season. I suspect Mazzone will not stick around, because the main reason he came to Baltimore was to work with his good friend Perlozzo. I don’t understand the need for such a hasty decision. Unless the manager is actively doing damage, managerial stability has some value.

Perlozzo might be a rotten manager, I really don’t know, but considering Joe Girardi as a replacement shows that the O’s lack decision-makers who understand the game. Speaking of actively doing damage, Girardi was fired by the Marlins, despite the fact that he won the manager of the year award, because he couldn’t get along with the owner and GM. Girardi won the award is that the Marlins were not expected to win many games, yet the team was competitive most of the season. The voters surmised Girardi must be the reason, but the voters missed that the Marlins success had much more to do with the front office than its manager. Without Girardi, the Marlins are on a pace to win about the same number of games they won last year. In my book, I find Florida to be the best managed organization in baseball before Girardi even showed up. The Marlins were happy to let Girardi go because they knew he had little to do with the team’s success. Looks like the O’s are going after the next hot thing without really thinking about it.

I actually have some personal experience with this which I will share. Soon after the Orioles hired Mazzone, I received many media inquiries. A few of the journalists who contacted me said that the Orioles had mentioned my study to them as evidence of what a great pitching coach Mazzone is. Now, I’m happy that the O’s felt this way, but I thought it was odd that they were basing their decisions off of a study I posted on the internet without even contacting me. Wouldn’t you want to talk to me first if you were thinking of making this move because of brief study I posted? I didn’t even get an e-mail. My consulting fees are far less than what it costs to buy out a coach. I don’t mean to suggest that my study was the main reason they made their decision—I have no doubt that Perlozzo’s influence was much stronger than mine, and it’s not like it was a secret that Mazzone was good at his job—but I found the mention a bit odd.

So, when the O’s decided to can a manager in the midst of a losing streak, I was not surprised. Another short-sighted decision by an franchise that continues to blunder it’s way to the bottom of the division. I wonder if they would be willing to take Willie Harris for Daniel Cabrera.

What A Waste!

One of the parts of baseball that I really do not enjoy is arguing with umpires. I understand that in the heat of the moment disagreements take place and that players and managers will naturally express their displeasure with incorrect (or perceived-to-be incorrect) calls on the field. This happens in all sports. But no other sport tolerates the level of disagreement that baseball does. This past weekend, two ugly incidents occurred. And sadly you can easily view both of them via YouTube.

The first is Cubs manager Lou Pinella making a total ass of himself by berating an umpire who probably got the call right. And even if he didn’t, it’s not like he was clearly wrong. Pinella kicks dirt, his hat, and the umpire (inadvertently). For the last of these he was suspended by the the league. Later Pinella would admit that the call didn’t matter. He was just blowing off steam.

Here is Mississippi Braves manager Phil Wellman demonstrating to his players that “make up” includes acting like child and attempting to publicly humiliate the umpires by mocking them.

That Wellman is still employed by the Braves is an embarrassment to the organization. He should be fired immediately. Now, you may wonder if firing a minor league manager for a tirade is consistent when their major league skipper Bobby Cox is on the verge of breaking the league ejection record. Well, I’m not going to defend Cox—however, I do believe his ejections are product of the system that encourages arguing—but, what he does is very different. Cox does not kick dirt or dismantle bases. He makes his point, defends his players, and gets off the field. Wellman, like Pinella, is putting on a show for the crowd: “look at me, and let’s all laugh at the umps together!” Can we get back to the baseball game, please!

I will admit this is somewhat amusing, but there are many substitutes for this type of behavior that don’t interrupt a baseball game: America’s Funniest Home Videos, Cops, and home movies of my three-year-old when she doesn’t get her way. I would prefer not to witness this, and especially not have to explain it to my children. Most kids get “don’t do crack”, tantrums they can identify with.

But isn’t there a strategic element to all of this? Maybe the umpires will know that if they call the game against you they will get an earful; therefore, they are partial to a particular team. That managers think this is a possibility is part of the problem. Managers know that they have to complain or risk being out-complained by the other manager. The end result is that we get a lot of arguing but it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game. In The Baseball Economist I look at how managers may influence ball-strike calls on the field in Questec and non-Questec monitored ballparks and find that managers have very little effect on swaying umpires. In order to gain an advantage, or prevent the opposing manager from gaining an advantage, managers expend energy that will gain them nothing in the end. This is what economists call rent-seeking behavior.

The solution to all of this bad behavior is a low-tolerance policy and increased punishments. Umpires should give immediate warnings and quickly toss an offending party. Once a manager or player is tossed, he is escorted from the field by security immediately. Tantrums or refusing to leave the field will result in multiple-game suspensions and hefty fines. This type of behavior is not tolerated in basketball or football, why should it be any different in baseball.

Complaints about bad umpiring should be handled off the field. Umpires should be heavily-monitored and graded by Questec systems in every ballpark. If mangers and players feel that an umpire is acting wrongly—and many umpires are in need of some discipline—the league should take action off the field. All of this on-field posturing is wasted effort. The league wants to shorten games, so let’s get rid of this aspect of the game.

It Doesn’t Matter Who Hits Behind Ryan Howard

There has been a lot of discussion this year in Philadelphia about where Ryan Howard ought to hit in the batting order. Last season, the NL MVP batted fourth behind Chase Utley and in front of Pat Burrell. Many fans, sports writers, and even manager Charlie Manuel (whom I remember fondly leading the Triple-A Charlotte Knights) have pondered changing the line-up in order to produce more offense. The most popular idea was to flip-flop Utley and Howard in the order—having Howard bat third and Utley fourth—to allow Utley to “protect” Howard. I also wonder why Philly fans hate Pat Burrell so much. The Braves would be happy to take him off of your hands.

The popular concept of protection is that a good on-deck hitter affects the way the pitcher throws to the batter. The traditional argument says that pitchers cannot “pitch around” batters, because if he walks the batter he’ll have to face a good batter with a man on. But, the argument isn’t done yet. This allows a protected batter to see better pitches to hit—the pitcher can’t nibble around the edge of the strike zone for fear of inducing a walk—and thus increase his ability to hit for power.

However, I believe one crucial element has been left out of the analysis. Pitchers can alter more than just pitching inside and outside of the zone. Pitchers also regulate their effort from one batter to the next, conserving energy to put on a fastball or hiding a wicked out-pitch for just the right occasion. In a situation where a good on-deck hitter follows the batter, the pitcher has likely saved up his best just for this moment. Even if the pitcher is less likely to walk the batter, the batter isn’t necessarily going to be more productive at the plate.

This is something that Doug Drinen and I addressed in a study on protection (here is an old post on the subject), and I use this study to examine the issue in Chapter 2 of The Baseball Economist (“The Legendary Power of the On-Deck Hitter”). Using play-by-play data and a host of empirical techniques to control for many factors we found that a better on-deck does lower probability that the batter walks, which is the first step in demonstrating protection. However, this does not translate into more productive at-bats. As the on-deck batter improves, the probability that the batter gets hit, extra-base, and hits a home run declines—the exact opposite of the protection hypothesis. But, the magnitude of the effect is so small that it’s best to say that there is no such thing as protection.

Now, when Doug and I wrote this study, we were very proud of the granulated data we used. After all, how can you get more specific than play-by-play? Well, how about pitch-by-pitch data? Steven Levitt at Freakonomics points to a new study by Ken Kovash that breaks the game down even more than we did. He finds that good on-deck hitters induce pitchers to throw more strikes and more fastballs—fastballs are easier to throw for strikes than breaking balls and change-ups. This fits with our finding that the quality if the on-deck hitter impacts walks. However, I’m curious as to how this effect translates into overall success of the batter. One thing that Ken does not report—I’m hoping that he will report it when his schedule clears up—is how the on-deck batter affects the speed of the pitch. Doug and I could only hypothesize as to why the on-deck hitter does not lower the output of the current batter. If the answer is more pitcher effort, we ought to see pitchers putting a little more mustard on their pitches with a good batter on deck.

The moral of the story is this: a good on-deck hitter lowers the likelihood of a batter walking, but it does not translate into more offensive production.

Can Tony La Russa Get Out of This One?

Tony La Russa was arrested for a DUI in Florida this morning.

La Russa’s SUV was stopped at a light that, according to police, went through two cycles of green. A driver behind La Russa had to go around his vehicle, police said.

Police found La Russa slumped over in the driver’s seat of the running SUV. The manager of the world champion Cardinals had his foot on the brake and did not respond to knocks on the window, police said. He finally woke up and parked the car.

Police said they noticed the smell of alcohol on his breath, and a field sobriety test was conducted.

The 62-year-old LaRussa was sent to the Palm Beach County Jail around 4 a.m., according to the jail’s Web site. La Russa provided breath samples, which measured at a .093 blood alcohol level, police said. The legal limit for drivers in Florida is 0.08.

While 0.93 is low for a DUI—I am NOT excusing is, just pointing it out—his behavior seems to be consistent with someone who should have known not to get behind the wheel.

I wonder if TLR will have the same influence with the court as he does with umpires. In Chapter 4 of The Baseball Economist, I examine the influence of different managers on ball and strike calls, inside and outside of Questec-monitored parks. The idea is that without Questec ball and strike monitoring, managers can exhibit more influence over umpires. I find that while most managers don’t have much persuasive power over umps, La Russa raises the strikeout-to-walk ratio of his pitchers outside of Questec parks. Maybe it’s his lawyering skills; he needs them now.

Say What?

MLB.com Braves beat reporter Mark Bowman:

Still, while battling the storm, McDowell showed the patience and intellect necessary to make progress. The evolution of Macay McBride and Tyler Yates were a result of McDowell’s dedication and patience — two necessary qualities his predecessor didn’t always show.

Had Leo Mazzone been handed this pitching staff and faced the same obstacles, I’m apt to believe last year might have been a disaster on the pitching front in Atlanta. Young pitchers like McBride and Yates need somebody to provide both direction and confidence. With McDowell, they had somebody capable of providing both.

(emphasis added)

Look, I don’t believe that last year is evidence that McDowell is a bad pitching coach, nor do I think it shows he’s any good. But to say that Mazzone would have done worse is a bit much. I don’t know how you can defend that statement since the Braves pitched even worse after he left with a similar staff. I’m not sure what qualities make someone a good pitching coach—patience and dedication probably aren’t negatives—but Mazzone definitely has them.

In my upcoming book, I update my previous study on Leo Mazzone’s effectiveness as a pitching coach. This study takes into account aging, park effects, defense, pitcher quality, and the run environment of the league. What I find is that during his years in Atlanta, pitchers who pitched for Mazzone and with another pitching coach had ERAs 0.64 lower with Mazzone than without. How does this happen? Pitchers under Mazzone increase their strikeouts by 10% and lower their home run rates by 20%. I could not find any effect on walks. This is interesting, because it fits exactly with Leo’s advice to his pitchers.

Don’t give into the strike zone. This is about making pitches and trying to execute a good pitch. So forget about walks. And don’t throw one down the middle just because you walked a guy. I’d rather you be off the plate a little than give up a three-run bomb.

Furthermore, when pitchers leave Mazzone, they tend to revert to their old form.

Some Leo detractors have pointed to his first year with the Orioles, who had a pretty bad pitching season in 2006. I think his experience was quite similar to McDowell’s: he had a year of adjustment to a new environment and players, coupled with a little bad luck. But let’s not forget that Mazzone had 14 years of success in Atlanta with many different kinds of pitchers: young and old, lefties and righties, starters and relievers, jocks and nerds, future Hall of Famers and Quad-A cast-offs. If you’re looking to call some period of Mazzone’s career a fluke, last year would probably be a good pick.

Maybe Leo Mazzone is overrated, but the evidence indicates that he is good at what he does. Sure a few his former pitchers have complained about him, but many more have offered praise and given him plenty of credit. I was once one of those who thought his reputation was overblown, but I have changed my mind. Leo Mazzone is a damn good pitching coach, and I expect the Orioles to reap the benefits of his expertise for many years to come.

Baseball Awards

Again, I find myself having to apologize for not posting. I actually had planned to be writing a lot this week, but a few things just fell in my lap. I’ve got a book review or two on the way, and I’m going to do some more season-in-review stuff soon. I promise.

So, for those of you who are checking in, I’m going to dole out my 2006 awards (see the Internet Baseball Awards at Baseball Prospectus).

NL
MVP: Albert Pujols – just ahead of Brandon Webb and Ryan Howard.
Cy Young: Brandon Webb – the second most valuable player in the majors.
ROY: Josh Johnson – edges out teammate Hanley Ramirez.
MOY: Tie, Everyone not named Joe Girardi – if you’re going to butt heads with your GM, make sure he’s not Larry Beinfest.
GMOY: Larry Beinfest – one of the best, who hasn’t gotten much credit for his work with a tiny budget.

AL
MVP: Travis Hafner – How good was Travis Hafner? So good that he beat out David Ortiz with 123 fewer plate appearances. And he didn’t even make the All-Star team.
Cy Young: Johan Santana – just edges out John Lackey.
ROY: Justin Verlander – the popular choice, Francisco Liriano, come in second.
MOY: Jim Leyland
GMOY: Tie, Terry Ryan and Mark Shapiro – Both put together good teams on small budgets. The Twins keep doing what they do. Cleveland played much better than their record. I’m looking out for a monster 2007 Indians squad.

Stealing Second

Brian Goff points to an interesting play-by-play study (using Retrosheet data) of player/manager decisions to steal second. The paper, A FIELD TEST OF PROSPECT THEORY: STRATEGIC BEHAVIOR IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, 1985-1992, is an example of how social scientists can use the excellent data sets in baseball to test theories of human behavior. I don’t have time to comment on it—I barely had time to glance at it—but, I wanted to pass it along.

Here is the abstract.

Much of the insights and advances in the decision making literature have been
based on lab studies. The scant literature that applies the findings of this literature to
field settings does so at the aggregate or organizational level. Since decisions are made
by individuals but not by organizations per se, research is needed to shed light on the
intricacies of individual decision making in the real world. This study examines decision
making under risk in a field setting. We compare the predictions of prospect theory for
making a risky choice with the predictions of expected utility theory. Using a sample of
Major League Baseball (MLB) teams and a decision situation involving whether or not to
attempt to steal second base, we conclude that prospect theory provides a better
explanation of the decisions that are observed. We argue that, since decisions in the
game of baseball are made under uncertainty, are complex (i.e., rely on a number
interrelated parameters), and require quick actions, our results have important
implications for decision-making in organizations, as within a wide range of
circumstances most business decisions share similar characteristics.

Girardi for MOY?

Manager of the Year should actually be named “the award for the team that was supposed to suck but didn’t.” The reason behind this is that if a team performed beyond it’s expectations, then it must have been the manager who played a large part. How much of a part he actually played is hard to determine, but certainly he deserves some credit. This year’s leading candidate in the NL is Joe Girardi of the Florida Marlins, and it’s shaping up to be a good story because Girardi is going to be fired after the season. The general reaction I’ve seen across the web, from both writers and fans, is that the Marlins must be idiots. “How can they fire the man who managed a $15 million team to a near-playoff berth!” If he wins MOY, then this will confirm the consensus. Already, reports have Girardi lined up to take Dusty Baker’s place in Chicago.

Some say it’s a personal thing with the owner, because Jeff Loria almost fired him earlier in the year after he yelled at the owner for arguing balls and strikes with the umpire. But, it’s not just one shouting match with the owner—although yelling at the owner in public is never a smart idea. Girardi and the front office don’t get along, and the front office deserves most of the credit for the Marlins this year. If you have to choose one or the other, Loria is making the wise choice. While many in the media referred to these moves as a “fire sale”, the Marlins were making good baseball decisions. They dumped the big contracts of Carlos Delgado and Mike Lowell, and picked up several cheap and young replacements. Miguel Cabrera is hitting the ball no worse than Carlos Beltran, yet he’s making $11.5 million less. Dontrelle Willis continues to be a bargain. As a Braves fan, no team scares me more in the near future than the Marlins.

But couldn’t these players have played better because of Girardi’s guidance? Maybe, but it’s not like Florida just started putting a winning club on the field on the cheap. This is a team that won the World Series three years ago on a $50 million payroll. From 2000-2005, the Marlins had a payroll nearly 40% below the league average, while averaging 82 wins a season. That is very impressive.

The Marlins won’t miss Girardi and the Cubs—or whoever hires him—shouldn’t expect any miracles from him. This doesn’t mean that Girardi is a bad manager, but I think too little credit is going to Larry Beinfest and his staff for the Marlins excellent season.

Is Oswalt Worth It?

Yesterday, Roy Oswalt signed a 5-year, $73 million deal with the Houston Astros, which averages out to $14.6 million per year. That’s quite a contract, and the obvious question is: “how much is Roy Oswalt worth?” Last year, I developed a method for valuing players based on player contributions to winning and what those wins translate into in terms of team revenue. It’s a method that I detail in my book, which will be out in March. Whenever I see a contract like this signed, I pull up the numbers to see what I’ve predicted he’s worth. In 2005, my model predicts that Oswalt was worth $14.9 million dollars, which is pretty darn close to his new annual salary. That made him eighth most valuable player in baseball that year, and only $50,000 less than Roger Clemens, who threw 30 fewer innings.

Oswalt has been consistent over the past three seasons, so I think it’s reasonable to expect him to continue at his current level of performance over the next few years. The bad news for the Astros is that they didn’t get a bargain. The good news is you get what you pay for, and Oswalt is pretty darn good.

Fisking DOB on Betemit

Well, the Braves interest in trading Wilson Betemit for Scott Proctor seems to be somewhat legitimate. Braves beat writer David O’Brien likes the idea, I don’t. I like reading Dave’s stuff, and this isn’t a true Fisking, but I just happen to disagree with DOB on this.

DOB:

Someone very familiar with the discussions confirmed to me today that the Braves and Yankees are discussing a deal that would bring reliever Scott Proctor to Atlanta for Betemit, first reported this morning by the New York Post.

Oh crap, the Braves are actually considering this horrible deal.

DOB:

While my first reaction was — who will play third base if Chipper is hurt? — the more I looked at this potential deal, the more I liked it.

Please, don’t encourage them.

DOB:

First off, let me tell you that Martin Prado would probably be brought up to back Chipper unless and until the Braves acquire another who can fill the role, which they’re also pursuing right now.

Yikes! The same Martin Prado who’s posting .296/.324/.352/.676 in Richmond?

DOB:

Proctor is 3-2 with a 3.94 ERA in 50 appearances this season, with 60 strikeouts, 23 walks and a .226 opponents’ average.

He’s also given up 9 ding-dongs in 64 innings, that’s 1.27 per 9. And giving up long balls is not something he just started doing. He gave up 15 homers in 69 2/3 innings in the two prior seasons. His career HR9 (1.6) is higher than Jorge Sosa’s (1.3). I’ll admit, he’s got a decent K/BB, but so did Travis Smith.

DOB:

He’s 0-for-5 in saves, but that’s not really pertinent because he’s a setup guy and hasn’t been used in traditional save opportunities.

Blown five leads, oh boy.

DOB:

What’s most attractive is the shut-down stuff he’s had lately. He’s been devastating on hitters since the All-Star break, allowing just three hits and no walks with 12 strikeouts in nine scoreless innings over seven games. Opponents have hit .103 against him since the break.

I’ll chalk it up to a Festivous miracle. That sample is too small to generate much excitement.

DOB:

Betemit, who turns 26 on Friday, is having a strong season, but is blocked behind Jones at third base and Giles at second, at least for this season.

This is when it’s time for the sports writers to step in and RIP the management a new one if they don’t find a place for Betemit to play. Blocked by Marcus “.249 /.344 /.370/.714″ Giles? I like a lot of things about Marcus, but he’s been Wally Pipped. Betemit has put up .284/.341/.503/.844 in 214 PAs. He’s won the job. Furthermore, a true blocked player shouldn’t be given away.

DOB:

The Braves don’t see Betemit as a natural fit at second base — he’s a bit oversized for the position — especially when they have Prado at the ready.

Oversized, what does that mean? I think I’m starting to smell the Pravda (aka, Braves PR Dept.) talking points.

DOB:

In Proctor, the Braves would get a reliever who appears to be a late bloomer just now coming into his own, at 29. The former Florida State standout is only in his second full season in the majors and wouldn’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2007 season, which makes him that much more attractive to a Braves organization….

Darn it, stepped right in it…”coming into his own”? Translation from Russian: Only at the peak of his career is he able to bump into the majors for a brief moment. I do like cheap relievers, but in this case you get what you pay for. It’s not like they’re getting the good stuff before his contract balloons at age 34. And when you give up the really cheap Betemit, you’re overpaying.

DOB:

Proctor’s recent surge followed a rough stretch in the month before the break, when he allowed 23 hits, 14 runs, five homers and seven walks in 18-2/3 innings over 17 appearances.

A few days’ rest at the break apparently rejuvenated the right-hander, who has been a key part of the Yankeees’ bullpen, rated fifth in the AL.

I’m not sure the past two weeks are a better indicator of his usefulness than the entire rest of his career. I don’t think the rest had much to do with it.

DOB:

Proctor has good numbers in areas the Braves need them, including a .194 opponents’ average by first batters (18-for-93), a .224 average with runners in scoring position, and a .210 mark (22-for-105) in late-and-close situations.

Ok, you win this round; though I normally ignore such splits because they involve mostly luck.

Anyway, don’t hate me DOB :-) (yeah, like he actually reads Sabernomics). Just trying to have a little fun. If you want to make fun of me, I publicly supported Adam Bernero last year. I do like your stuff, but I think this deal is a bad one. The Braves will lose more runs on offense than they gain on defense from this deal. Chipper needs to go to first next year, and LaRoche’s value in the offseason is going to be good. Let’s hold off and get relief help then.