Three and Out

A few quick links from earlier this week before I head off on my European vacation:

• In Wednesday’s New York Sun, I wrote about the demise of the Mariners. A couple of early paragraphs were apparently cut, one for space reasons, the other because the transition kinda sucked. Warts and all, here’s the director’s cut of the relevant portions, with the excised paragraphs in brackets:

When the sun rose on August 25, the upstart Mariners were sitting pretty. Thanks to a streak in which they won 13 out of 17, they were 73–53, one game behind the Angels in the AL West, and three ahead of the Yankees in the wild card race. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds report — which uses a team’s run-scoring and run-preventing proclivities in a Monte Carlo-simulation that plays out the rest of the season one million times — the M’s held a 29% shot at winning their division, and a 30% shot at the AL Wild Card.

Less than three weeks later, the Mariners’ ship has all but sunk. A 1–13 skid helped knock them 8.5 games back in the division, and 5.5 back in the wild card, plunging their Playoff Odds down below 2%. In terms of raw wins and losses, they’ve set a dubious record — no team so far above .500 so late in the season has ever collapsed so quickly. What went wrong?

[In the grand scheme, the Mariners simply regressed to the mean. Studies have shown that run differentials are better predictors of future performance than past won-loss records. At the point when they were 20 games above .500, the Mariners had outscored opponents by just 28 runs, with rates that projected to a far less impressive and contention-worthy 66-60 record. Call their recent plunge a market correction, a brutal one at that.]

In retrospect, it’s surprising the Mariners contended at all this year. The team that made the playoffs four times between 1995 and 2000, and averaged 98 wins a year between 2000 and 2003, has fallen on hard times, with four straight losing seasons and a slew of questionable free-agent signings by general manager Bill Bavasi. Back in the spring, Baseball Prospectus projected the Mariners to finish 73–89, last in the AL West, with the third-worst mark of any AL team.

[Even in surpassing that projection, the team has ridden an emotional rollercoaster. Amid an eight-game winning streak in late June, manager Mike Hargrove resigned abruptly to spend more time with his family. Three weeks later, replacement John McLaren navigated the club through a seven-game losing streak that foreshadowed their late August troubles. Stability is not among the 2007 Mariners’ limited virtues.]

More after the jump.

• The Mariners were also the focus of Tuesday’s Hit and Run; you’ll see some crosover between that and the Sun piece, but the emphasis was on the bullpen’s second-half decline. After posting a 3.72 Fair Run Average (accounting for their performance of inherited and bequeathed runners via the good old run expectancy tables; here is a good layman’s explanation) in the first half, they’ve ballooned to a 5.30 FRA in the second half, the fourth-highest jump in the majors. Several contenders have had similar troubles; the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Brewers, and Padre join the Mariners in the bottom 10, with the Padres dead last, jumping from 2.51 to 5.45.

Also in that Hit and Run is a quick look at Pedro Martinez’s JAWS case for the Hall of Fame, and a comparison between his case and that of Sandy Koufax:

Coming into the year, Martinez’s JAWS score (113.7 career WARP3/75.3 peak/94.5 JAWS) was well above the Hall standard for starting pitchers (99.0/62.7/80.9). His JAWS score ranks 20th all-time, and his peak score ranks 14th. As I noted in Mind Game, his 2000 season ranks as the best ever in terms of RA+ (293) for any pitcher with at least 150 innings.

Compare that to Koufax; as impressive as the Dodger lefty’s stats were, his best seasons were achieved under some of the most favorable conditions of any pitcher, and his JAWS score (70.7/60.3/65.5) is miles behind Pedro, ranking 80th of all time. He was basically a league-average pitcher from 1955-1960 before taking a big step forward in 1961 (the year before the team moved into Dodger Stadium), but he’s only got three seasons above 9.0 WARP3. In comparison, Pedro has six. Koufax’s best RA+ was “just” 196. But before anybody gets the pitchforks out to either run him out of the Hall (or me out of the field of baseball analysis), as one Schmuck tried to do to BP alum Dayn Perry, let’s not forget that Koufax’s Hall of Fame case also includes three Cy Youngs, an MVP award, gallons of black ink, three World Series rings, an 0.95 postseason ERA, and the enigmatic glow that comes from retiring while at the pinnacle of success.

Glow aside, Martinez isn’t lacking in any of those categories, with three Cys, a ring of his own, and even more black ink in an era where the increased player pool makes it much harder to come by. His JAWS score and other Hall of Fame credentials are so rock solid that he stacks up pretty well with 300-game winning teammate Tom Glavine (129.4/61.4/95.4 coming into the year). He’s my lock of the week, and it’s a pretty big lock.

• Finally, I’m honored to be the author whose It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over chapter has been chosen for excerpting on the BP site. “The Summer of Loving Carl Yastrzemski” is a supporting chapter for my narrative on the 1967 American League race between the Red Sox, Twins, Tigers, and White Sox, which leads off the book. Here’s the intro; you can read the rest at BP, where it’s free:

In the simplified narratives that our sports media produce, the notion of one player’s carrying a team is a popular and appealing one. It puts a human—even superhuman—face on a disparate collection of players, emphasizing the strengths of one hitter’s or one pitcher’s accomplishments while glossing over his own weaknesses and those of his teammates. Who cares about Babe Ruth’s lousy baserunning, or who was riding shotgun to Joe DiMaggio in 1941, or even Barry Bonds’s peevishness unless it actually cost his team a game? Can one player carry a team? Performances like Carl Yastrzemski’s final two weeks of September 1967, when he hit a jaw-dropping .523/.604/.955, certainly suggest it’s possible for a short time. In the longer term, the nature of baseball would suggest not. Aside from the obvious—the simple unlikelihood of one player’s maintaining such a high level of performance over a larger time frame—there’s the inherent structure of the game. The best hitter can only bat once every nine times, the most durable pitcher needs a few days’ rest between starts, and even the best fielder (beyond catchers) handles the ball only a handful of times each game, making it extremely unlikely that a team could keep relying on the same player over and over again for that extra boost.

As superficial as the notion of one player’s carrying a team may be, our ability to quantify the contributions of each player via an all-encompassing value metric like wins above replacement player (WARP) lends itself well to exploring the limitations of this concept as it applies to a full season. WARP measures each player’s hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions against those of a freely available reserve or waiver-wire pickup. The metric calculates these contributions in terms of runs and then converts those runs into the currency of wins. Park and league contexts are built right into WARP, so that, for example, a player in a barren offensive environment such as mid-1960s Dodger Stadium and another player in a bountiful one such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field can be measured on the same scale. With WARP in hand, we can answer questions such as the following:

1. How much impact does the presence of one great player have on a team’s chances?

2. How much impact does the presence of one great player have on a team’s chances if he’s head-and-shoulders above all his other teammates?

While I could quibble with the choice of chapters — this wasn’t my personal favorite even among the ones I contributed, but nobody asked me — I’m honored to be chosen to represent BP for this. The findings here aren’t revolutionary, but they do quantify some answers to questions that are often debated on a more abstract level.

I actually applied a couple of the take-home lessons to this chapter in other BP work, one for the Angels’ entry here, countering the notion that they lacked enough star power in support of Vlad Guerrero, and the other to answer a Keltner Test question — If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant? — on Jeff Kent. Yes, the Keltner is largely qualitative, not quantitative, but I like to ground my Hall of Fame arguments in numbers and facts before tackling the more subjective elements.

Anyway, I’m off to Switzerland and Austria for the next two weeks, leaving Marc Normandin in charge of the Hit List and my bobblehead collection in charge here. Here’s hoping the Yankees can hold onto their playoff spot and that the Dodgers can mount a great comeback while I’m gone.

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