Today's Lunchtime Link (yeah, it's a bit late) comes via a free Baseball Prospectus article from the other day which I only just got to read (still buried under an avalanche of work). Back in February when Alex Rodriguez was traded, one of the interesting side notes was that Alfonso Soriano's age was adjusted from 26 to 28, a piece of information of which the Rangers were apparently aware. Hurriedly, I dashed off an email to BP's Nate Silver to ask whether he'd rerun Sori's PECOTA projection, but at that point he hadn't. Apparently it was a popular demand, and after rearranging his sock drawer and cleaning out the rain gutters, he's finally gotten around to it. Here are Sori's weighted mean projections for 2004 compared:
AB BA OBP SLG EqA VORP
Age 26 631 .305 .354 .550 .297 56.8
Age 28 625 .299 .345 .537 .292 52.1
The 4.7 run difference comes out to about half a win -- not an earth-shaking amount by any means. Silver also points out that Sori's breakout rate -- the chance that he would improve significantly -- dropped from 14% to 8%. "It's a little bit less likely now that Soriano is going to emerge as the true, Sosaesque slugger that some people have confused him with," he writes. Keep in mind that the above projection is park-neutral; moving from Yankee Stadium to The Hitter's Paradise at Arlington will inflate his stats a fair amount [oops, it turns out I was wrong. According to Nate, both projections were based on him as a Ranger.]
Silver goes on to point out that the age range which Soriano finds himself is not only the peak of the typical player's career but also the flattest part of the curve, when his value is changing the least from year to year. It's down the road where the difference in Soriano's forecast is felt -- 1.2 Wins Above Replacement four years from now; again, not a huge difference. Cumulatively, his next five years (2004-2008) project at about three wins lower than before, 19.5 Wins Above, down from 22.4.
The real difference can be seen in looking at his PECOTA comparables -- his "old" Top Five (which is to say his younger one) had Ernie Banks, Sammy Sosa, and Andre Dawson along with Juan Samuel and George Bell; the new one has... Kelly Gruber? Samuel and Raul Mondesi both make that chart as well. Notes Nate, "It is fair to say that the age change radically reduces the chances that Soriano will put together a Hall of Fame-type career." Not that Cooperstown had started engraving his plaque.
Does this matter for the Rangers? Silver doesn't think so. Sori will be a free agent after 2006, when the really big money hits the table. He'll be only thirty then, but it's likely other factors -- the market situation, the teams interested, his recent performance -- will have more bearing than the fact that he's aged so rapidly. What remains to be seen is how rapidly Rangers fans age from watching him swing at pitches in the dirt. Thus far, Sori's off to a slow start despite the Rangers' fast one. Here's a quick comp between him and his trade counterpart:
Thus far Soriano's been downright useless on the road: 12-for-47 with 3 doubles, no homers, and a .319 SLG. Reverse Coors Effect or small sample size? I'm guessing the latter, but that will really cause the Rangers some problems if their new slugger has developed bad hitting habits in his short time at Arlington.
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All-Baseball.com has a couple of links pertaining to me, including a photo of my abbreviated night out at Shea Stadium on Wednesday. In the company of Alex B., Alex C., and Mets ticket office employee Josh O., I caught the first 4 1/2 innings of the Mets and the Giants, missing Barry Bonds due to his illness but seeing Mike Piazza wallop his 352nd homer as a catcher, breaking Carlton Fisk's all-time record and drawing a huge ovation from a sparse crowd. We left when the Mets grounds crew broke out the tarp, which was just as well; it's been a frazzling week for me and I certainly didn't mind getting home in time to catch that night's handy Yankee comeback. A's closer Arthur Rhodes must have a tattoo on his butt that says, "Property of the New York Yankees"; his career ERA against the Bombers is 6.75 in 77.1 innings, including some biiiiig hits (14 homers), most notably David Justice's pennant-winning dinger in the 2000 ALCS.
Here's a chart of the players in question. TOB is Times on Base, which is H + BB + HBP - HR. R - HR is the number of times a guy scored besides his own homers, and %R is the frequency with which he did so. HR and R are added for some sorely needed perspective.
The "score some runs guys" scored a bit over one in three times they got on base, while the "clog the basepaths guys" only did so about one in five -- a decent point worth making, to cut Reynolds some slack. The BUT in that statement is bigger than Jennifer Lopez's derriere, however. First off, Reynolds completely dismisses the value of a home run -- that's a run in the bank, while a runner on base is merely a potential run. The cloggers outhomered the scorers by a margin of 108 to 31, about 26 homers per player, to say nothing of the benefits of driving in other runs. Second, even with Jeter missing a month of the season and Patterson missing about half, the "score some runs" guys used up many more outs than the cloggers, 1259 to 1183 -- about one game's worth of outs per player -- and they scored 26 fewer runs overall. The scorers are helped immensely by Jeter, who really is an OBP machine compared to the other two. Compare Jeter and Rollins, who scored the exact same number of runs without homers. Rollins used up 146 more outs and only got on base nine more times than Jeter. Harold, HOW IN THE HELL DOES THAT HELP AN OFFENSE?
The answer is that it doesn't. Yet still some persist in similar lines of reasoning.
Last week ESPN's Buster Olney reintroduced a "stat" called the Productive Out Percentage which he introduced last fall. According to the article, a productive out is defined as either:
1) a baserunner advancing with the first out of an inning
2) a pitcher sacrificing with one out;
3) a baserunner driven home with the second out of an inning
Productive Out Percentage is the percentage of productive outs divided by the total number of outs. Writes Olney:
... Boston plays the "Moneyball" style -- never bunt, don't take chances on the bases, sit back and let your hitters hack away and do the work regardless of the game situation, regardless of the identity of the opposing pitcher. Other teams -- the Anaheim Angels and the Florida Marlins, most notably -- prefer to use their outs productively, by bunting, employing the hit-and-run; they put runners in motion and emphasize aggressive base-running as part of a larger strategy to put pressure on the opposing pitcher and the defense behind him.
...it will be interesting to see if, eventually, this passive-aggressive approach hurts Boston, especially with the shift in the team's makeup. The Red Sox nearly bashed their way to the World Series last year, but they improved their pitching for 2004, shed Todd Walker, added light-hitting glove whiz Pokey Reese, and have been playing without injured Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, whose rehabilitations are being closely monitored.
... The Marlins and Angels have fully diverse offenses: some excellent power hitters, an essential element; some patient hitters who draw walks, also crucial; they have hitters who make contact, advance runners efficiently; and they run the bases.
The offenses of the Red Sox and Athletics, on the other hand, are effectively two-dimensional, eschewing the productive out within their philosophy. Boston has one sacrifice bunt, Oakland zero, and through games of April 26, the Red Sox rank next-to-last in productive out percentage -- a statistic developed by the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN -- at .200; Oakland is last, at .137.
Productive out percentage is the ratio of productive outs -- generally, advancing runners with the first out in an inning, or driving home a run with the second out. Last season, Anaheim ranked fourth overall in this statistic, at .347, the Marlins fifth, at .334. Juan Pierre ranked third among individual players, with a POP of .545.
Accompanying this is an Elias-generated list of the top six and bottom six teams in POP through April 26:
1. Detroit Tigers .430
2. Arizona Diamondbacks .417
3. Pittsburgh Pirates .417
4. San Diego Padres .400
5. Texas Rangers .365
6. Houston Astros .349
25. Seattle Mariners .229
26. San Francisco Giants .226
27. Cincinnati Reds .225
28. New York Yankees .210
29. Boston Red Sox .200
30. Oakland Athletics .137
Are the alarm bells sounding yet? They should be. Trumpeting a stat in which the Tigers lead the majors after four weeks is just silly, potential 25-game improvement or not. In all likelihood the three lowest-ranked teams in this stat are going to the playoffs, while the three highest-ranked will be making tee times by August. Furthermore, what of the other 18 teams? It would be helpful to know, for example, how well the division-contending teams are doing, even at this early juncture. It would be even more helpfpul to have a full season's data, or several full seasons of data to look at so that we can better evalulate the veracity of the stat. Why we don't have that, here or anywhere else, is a topic to which I'll return later.
One big problem with the productive out concept is that trading a base for an out is not, on the whole, a good payoff. Looking at a run expectancy matrix such as this one, which was compiled by TangoTiger based on 1999-2002 data, we have (reading across is the number of outs, down is the baserunner situation):
The expected yield of a runner on first with no outs is 0.953 runs. Use up an out to move him to second and the expectancy drops to 0.725 runs, a loss of 0.228 runs. The expected yield of a runner on second with no outs is 1.189, use up an out to move him to third and that drops to 0.983, another 0.206 runs lost. And so on.
But that's only one part of the matter at hand. Proponents of the productive out tend to decree the walk-wait-wallop model of offense in part because strikeouts don't advance baserunners, which is certainly true. But strikeouts also prevent even more detrimental events such as double-play grounders,. It's been shown -- most recently by Ryan Wilkins at Baseball Prospectus -- that far from the conventional wisdom that batter strikeouts are worse than other outs, they have a slight positive correlation with measures of offensive performance such as OPS and Marginal Lineup Value Rate which correlate well with scoring runs.
Olney's introduction of the POP stat came during his postmortem of the World Series, when he pointed to Aaron Boone's at bat in the 11th inning of Game Four, with the bases loaded and one out, when Boone struck out. Olney pointed out the so-called significance of productive outs:
There have been 142 post-season series since 1969. In 130, one team or another has had an advantage in Productive Outs -- and in 62.3 percent of those 130 series, the team with the advantage in Productive Outs has prevailed. Factor in the 12 series in which opposing teams have tied in Productive Outs, and it can be said that teams with a deficit in POs have won 34.5 percent of post-season series.
The problem is that even in considering the results of a short series, Productive Outs is an unproductive indicator relative to other statistics. A man named Mitchell Below writing a now-defunct blog called Tribescribe did a handy little study of those 142 series, the results of which are here:
Productive Out advantage predicted the winner in 57% of postseason series (62.3% if you exclude the no-decisions as Olney did above), a rate exceeded by advantages in plate appearances (for these purposes simply at bats + walks), homers, and runs. In other words, thanks for nothing. Yes, there are certainly times where a productive out comes in handy, and the Yanks might have had themselves World Championship number 27 if Boone had been able to provide one. But such anecdotal evidence isn't what holds water in this battle. The real question is do productive outs correlate with scoring runs, or don't they?
I don't have an answer for that, as I lack the facility to process play-by-play data -- it will take a Keith Woolner, a Tangotiger, an MGL to answer that question. But all of this brings me back to what I was talking about above with regards to the incomplete reporting of the team POPs in Olney's article. If this stat is so damned important, then why isn't it being calculated on a daily basis? The answer may lie with the players involved.
The Elias Bureau has a very colorful history in its proprietary dealing with statistics; if you've ever read any Bill James, you know that Elias' obstinance is what led to the founding of STATS Inc. and James' alliance with it. Back when the first Olney article was published, Baseball Musings' David Pinto, who used to work for STATS, had this to say about POP:
This is Elias playing politics. The Elias Sports Bureau cannot survive without the support of the leagues. What they see is themselves being made irrelevant by the likes of Billy Beane and Theo Epstein, who look to non-Elias people for information. If I'm an owner, I have to start asking why MLB is paying the Hirdts big money to keep stats, when others can do it as well and cheaper. So Elias has decided to appeal to all those GMs who think Beane is wrong.
Pinto, who now works for a company called Baseball Info Solutions along with other STATS vets, has been critical in the past of Elias for being more interested in peddling trivia than in educating fans or media clients about the game. And I'm afraid that short of a usable, testable statistic to add to our arsenal, that's just what we have here: trivia. I'm not saying that productive outs here and there aren't important or that they won't win you a game, but creating a stat which one columnist occasionally pulls out of his ass to selectively support his arguments is irresponsible at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.
That's the battle sabermetrics faces these days. Grinding persuasion won't work on some people, while others see the use of statisics as a license to selectively pull numbers out of the air without regard to their foundation. For every convert that Moneyball made, there's a guy with a career .397 OBP who's joined the Flat Earth Society and declared that chemistry is what matters, and another who declares that really, it's what guys hit on alternate Tuesdays when they've got the platoon advantage in a road game.
Back to Jim Kaat, Larry Mahnken had some good lines the other day, which I'll close with because they really sum this whole mess up quite well:
Listening once again to Jim Kaat spout more half-assed comments about how the game is supposed to be played, I'm starting to come to that realization I suppose all people come to as they get older, that you can't change the minds of the previous generation, you have to win over the minds of the next one. I should let Kaat and Kay's foolishness roll off my back a little, and focus more on presenting information to the casual observer of sabermetrics in a way that might be more appealing. Let the media and fanboys fawn over Derek Jeter's defense; we can't change their minds, it's the unbiased who we have to educate.
Amen to that.
Postscript: BP's Derek Zumsteg has been beating POP like a rented bat-boy over at his USS Mariner blog. Rather than making this article even longer by attempting to incorporate his take, I highly recommend you read what he has to say as well.
Post-Postcript: One more thing. After the commercial break following Reynolds' rant, BBTN went to a quick segment on Rickey Henderson, who signed with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League again. The irony is killing me; somehow, I think it went right over Reynolds' head.
The latest news on the steroid front is dismaying unless you have little need for civil liberties, but leaving that can of worms aside for the moment (let's see, the first inflammatory email should be arriving... now), the superficial evidence that Major League Baseball's testing policy has changed the on-field product significantly is tough to find. I offer you a couple of thumbnail comparisons for today's Lunchtime Link. Sample-size caveats apply, of course.
ESPN.com's Baseball page has been running a little panel (righthand side, just below the columnists) called the Juicebox which is tracking year-to-year scoring and power comparisons. As they explain, "MLB has instituted a steroid policy for the first time this season. ESPN.com looks at 2004 power numbers compared to the last two seasons." Here are the numbers through last night:
Through May 4 2004 2003 2002
Homers Per Game 1.065 1.071 1.043
Runs per game 4.899 4.728 4.618
Doubles per game 1.901 1.816 1.793
Aggregate SLG .426 .422 .417
Scoring is up 3.6% off of last year and 6.1% over two years, doubles, and slugging percentage are slightly up, and homers, while not surpassing last year's rate, are still up 2.1% percent over 2002. If the sudden lack of steroid-taking is having an impact -- and I'm not so naive to believe that some players haven't switched to whatever's beyond THG in the cat-and-mouse game of detection -- then it must be the pitchers who've been hurt more by giving up the juice. Unless it's warmer weather, higher winds blowing out, or our old friends, random chance and small sample size, that is.
Onto Exhibit B... given the media outrage which surrounded the issue back in March, one would have expected fans to be staying away in droves as they found out their heroes were tainted by the possible use of THG and other performance-enhancing drugs. Just the opposite appears to be true. Major League Baseball announced yesterday that attendance for the season's first four weeks had set a new record. The average attendance through May 2 was was 29,363 per game, the highest since detailed breakdowns were first recorded in 1980. That's a 15.1% increase over last year, more than 3800 fans per game.
A few reasons for the attendance spike come to mind, of course. Home-and-home matchups for key interdivision rivalries such as the Yankees-Red Sox may have a disporportionate impact at this point. The Yanks and Sox, to continue with that example, have played 7 times in 25 games, comprising 28% of both teams' schedules thus far; in a 162-game season, the 19 games between the two make up only 11.7% of the total slate. The two games in Japan between the Yankees and the Devil Rays both drew 55,000, essentially the same as a Yankee home game, and new ballparks in San Diego and Philadelphia are packing people in. According to Slam! Sports, the Phils are up 94% at home over last year through 11 dates, from 20,782 per game to 40,244. The Padres are up as well, but only 35% over last year, from 26,841 to 36,325. Cherrypicking a few more teams, the World Champion Florida Marlins are up 86% to 31,411, the Chicago Cubs are up 30% to 39,490, and the Detroit Tigers are up 34% to a whopping 19,035 per game.
Looking at the two teams most implicated by the BALCO revelations, the San Francisco Giants have only risen 1% to 38,573 (a lousy on-field product -- "Bonds and Schmidt and the rest is shit," said somebody the other night -- may have something to do with that), but the Yanks are up 36%, from 34,196 to 46,415, and that's without including those Tokyo games, for which they were the road team. The Devil Rays are up 63%, but if you leave out those two games, they're only up 12%. It's still very early yet -- sound the sample-size siren one more time -- so all of these extreme numbers may level off, but anybody positing a theory that the fallout from BALCO is having a negative impact on attendance is in for some rough sledding.
It seems like such a distant time when the Yanks were stinking up the House That Ruth Built, swept in humliating fashion by the Red Sox while scoring four runs over a lost weekend. But a 6-0 week that included a sweep of Hudson-Mulder-Zito (and that less-heralded trio Anderson-Villacis-Affeldt) has banished many of those bad memories to the dustbin. Five or more wins in a row always impresses me, as it usually means that a team went through the rotation once without any starter blowing them out of a game -- each Yankee starter pitched six innings or more this time around. That's a pretty good definition of "firing on all cylinders" in this sport.
This time through the Yanks got solid turnarounds from previously awful Jose Contreras and Mike Mussina, plus a nice lift from fresh-off-the-DL Jon Lieber, who finally debuted as a Yanks some fifteen months after signing with them. Combine the Yankee six-pack with what is now a four-game Sox skid (swept by Texas!), and the Yanks are a mere one game out of first in the AL East, holding a 14-11 record. The panic of seven days ago seems so last week!
Fortunately the great Roger Angell set down a few of his thoughts in the most recent New Yorker. It's not a full-length article, just one of those "Talk of the Town" pieces, but it's a tasty little morsel even if the author can barely disguse his glee at watching the Yanks falter:
Red Sox fans and local Yankee haters (there are a lot of these) exulted but also shook their heads: geez, what’s wrong with those guys? You could blame injuries (Bernie had missed most of spring training) or age (the Yanks are the oldest team in the majors) or jet lag from the season-opening series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that was played in Tokyo, but it was the beautiful and eloquent unpredictability of baseball itself that was making this happen: the sport once again showing us that statistical unlikelihood can come in bursts and bunches, a virus from nowhere, and for a time sever the game and its players from all expectation. Think of Mel Gibson taking up the harp, President Bush being late for a Cabinet meeting while he finishes “The Ambassadors”: this was better.
Thanks to Twins Fan Dan for calling my attention to the piece, and for fellow WCW (will you guys get a friggin' name already) blogger Ken Arneson for hitting the nail on the head when it comes to Angell's genius as a classic prose stylist.
Noted elsewhere in the above-linked Newsday piece is that reliever Steve Karsay is once again cooked: "Torre said he doesn't expect Steve Karsay to pitch this year. Karsay suffered a setback a few weeks ago while rehabbing his surgically repaired right shoulder." Delicate flower, that Karsay, who may be adding the second two-year gap to his resume (assuming he ever pitches again, which, come to think of it, I'll take the under...).
2. The New York Times has a must-read four-part article on George Steinbrenner. As somebody who grew up rooting for the Dodgers and hating the Yanks, I always viewed Steinbrenner from afar as an embarrassing boor, as obnoxiously nutso as Charlie Finley, Ted Turner, or Ray Kroc were at the time (late '70s into early '80s), but with a better ballclub. Growing into a New York City resident who roots for the Yanks while Steinbrenner still owns the team has been one of the more interesting facets of this whole sick and twisted tale. Seeing things from the inside -- a ballclub representing our fair city -- I admire Steinbrenner's desire to provide a team that can kick your city team's ass, and to some extent his ability to spare no expense in doing so.
The difference at this point is that compared to the horror stories of my youth, George mostly manages to stay out of harm's way while trying to manipulate the team via his idiosyncratic view. Think about it: apart from the obvious concerns about running a ballclub, what is the Yankee braintrust for besides a collective insulation from The Boss's worst impulses? The last time Steinbrenner fired a GM was 1990, the last manager to go went in 1995. You'd think he might have outgrown his trigger-happy reputation somewhere along the line, but this is New York, right?
Eh, my views on the topic are much more nuanced than this late-night ramble can convey, so hopefully sometime this week I'll put something together on King George and his madness...