Clearing the Bases: While I Was Out

Amid all of this recent book promo hubbub, I’ve actually gotten to do some writing:

• Last week, I noted the introduction of the ESPN Insider TMI blog. Today I’ve got another piece there, this one on Ozzie Guillen’s stated desire for the 2010 White Sox to be more aggressive on the basepaths. There’s a longer version over at Baseball Prospectus. Here’s a taste:

Despite the coupling of his predilection for smallball tactics (bunting, base stealing, and manufacturing runs) with a desire to call attention to them that’s so outsized you’d think these were the 1959 Go-Go Sox, [Guillen’s] teams have been overly reliant on the longball in recent years. So reliant that colleague Joe Sheehan christened the Guillen Number, which measures the percentage of a team’s runs derived from homers. Last year, the White Sox ranked third in the majors at 41.0 percent, trailing only the Yankees (45.1 percent) and the Phillies (42.1 percent). They’ve been among MLB’s top four during every year of Guillen’s tenure…

Over the winter, Guillen pressed Williams to provide him with a more flexible roster, one which offered more speed than he had in the past. In reacting to the team’s shedding of sluggers Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye and the addition of Juan Pierre, he declared that aggressive baserunning would be a major point of emphasis this spring. While the Sox have stolen 10 bases through their first five exhibition games, the skipper’s statement highlights the fact that they’ve been hemorrhaging runs on the basepaths, according to our Equivalent Stolen Base Runs (EqSBR) and Equivalent Base Running Runs (EqBRR) metrics, the latter of which incorporates not only steals and caught stealing but also advancement on hits and outs:

Year EqSBR  Rk   EqBRR  Rk
2004 -14.2 29 -2.1 12
2005 -7.4 19 -2.0 11
2006 -7.1 22 -22.3 30
2007 -6.5 24 -7.0 22
2008 -4.6 21 -3.2 14
2009 -4.1 16 -9.2 25
Tot. -43.8 27 -45.8 24

Under Guillen, the Sox have failed to break out of the bottom half [of the 30 teams’ rankings] in EqSBR, and they’ve done so only twice in EqBRR. In all, team has cost itself between four and five wins via baserunning over the past six years, which at least explains why Guillen thinks it’s an area where the team needs improvement.

Still, that won’t mean a whole lot more runs scored, particularly if the Sox can’t rise above last year’s measly rankings of 20th in OBP (.328) and 27th in True Average (.249).

The piece concludes with a link to former Orioles manager Earl Weaver’s famously blue comment (NSFW; see here for those with more sensitive ears) on the relative merits of team speed and team power, which should tickle Guillen’s funny bone even if it doesn’t change his philosophy. If I am confident of one thing about Ozzie, it’s that he’s got a legendary tirade just waiting to be recorded.

• Baseball Prospectus has launched a handful of new blogs over the last several days, with some of the posts available for all readers and others behind the subscription wall. Yours truly is heading up a new one called “One-Hoppers.” A version of the Clayton Kershaw piece is here, and I’ve also got a more recent freebie on last week’s Barry Zito versus Jeff Suppan “showdown,” a matchup initially notable for Zito’s plunking of Prince Fielder in retaliation for what the Giants felt was an overly excessive home run celebration from last September. Had Suppan, whose fastball is almost as slow as Zito’s, attempted to further the hostilities, “A beanball war between those two hurlers would be like watching a pair of elderly men spar with sporks,” I wrote.

What piqued my interest beyond zingers like that was the fact that the game in question paired two of the more dubious contracts given out to pitchers in recent years:

Zito is in the fourth year of a seven-year, $126 million deal, one which represented the largest contract ever signed by a pitcher at the time (it’s since been surpassed by Johan Santana and CC Sabathia). Suppan is in the fourth and final year of a $42 million deal. Check the tale of the tape across the first three years of their deals (all dollar amounts in millions):
Pitcher   IP     K/9    ERA   WARP     Sal    MORP     Net
Zito 568.2 6.4 4.56 3.1 $43.0 $14.0 -$29.0
Suppan 546.0 5.0 4.93 0.5 $26.5 $1.5 -$25.0

MORP is Marginal value Over Replacement Player, a measure which was originally introduced by Nate Silver back in 2005, and is currently under revision by our own Matt Swartz. What MORP does is place a dollar value on a marginal win (i.e., a Win Above Replacement-level Player) which is based upon the actual behavior of recent free agent markets. That dollar value changes from year to year as baseball’s economy expands and contracts, but for this back-of-the-envelope calculation, I’ve substituted a 2007 value of $4.5 million per win, and increased it by five percent in each of the past years.

…Zito has provided the Giants with about $1 worth of value for every $3 spent, while Suppan has given the Brewers $1 worth of value for every $18 spent.


• Speaking of the Brewers, I pinch-hit for BP colleague Will Carroll to do their Team Health Report, which classifies every lineup regular, rotation member and closer according to a red light/yellow light/green light system which based upon a player’s history and some actuarial tables tells you roughly how likely they are to serve a stint on the disabled list; a red means at least a 50 percent chance, a green is less than 33 percent (Rickie Weeks is red, Prince Fielder is green). For the THRs we also focus on a couple of the big issues a given team faces.

The Cost: The “Brew Crew” put up another successful season in regards to injuries last year. Milwaukee lost $10.3 million to injuries in 2009 and had a total loss of just $29.8 million over the last three seasons. The biggest hits to their day and dollar counts came from David Riske, who lost the entire year due to elbow woes culminating in Tommy John surgery in June, and Rickie Weeks, who played just 37 games due to a wrist injury; those two combined to miss over 300 days and cost Milwaukee $5.7 million. Even with that, Milwaukee found itself in the black when compared to the rest of the league, losing almost $4 million less than the league average. The front office was busy in the offseason, spending nearly $30 million on Wolf, and bringing in Doug Davis, LaTroy Hawkins, and Gregg Zaun to fill holes. In total, the $47.65 million Milwaukee spent on the free-agent market was no doubt helped by their low injury costs over the last few years.

The Big Risk: Wolf enjoyed something of a career year with the Dodgers in 2009, posting a 3.23 ERA in a career-high 214 1/3 innings. That’s roughly 100 more than he’d averaged per year from 2004-08 due to a variety of elbow and shoulder problems, including 2005 Tommy John surgery and 2007 labrum surgery. After finishing last in the NL in rotation ERA (5.37) and SNLVAR (8.0), the Brewers had little choice but to invest in starting pitching, even during a winter where the market was thin. Wolf was the second-best starter available after John Lackey. The Brewers’ signing suggests a confidence that they can keep Wolf in working order.

The Comeback: Weeks’ season ended prematurely due to a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, the latest in a litany of injuries to both wrists. From right wrist surgery in 2006 to tendonitis in the same wrist the following year — not to mention a torn ligament in his thumb which required surgery, and couple of other sprains along the way — his injuries have prevented him from playing more than 129 games in a single year, and he’s topped 100 just twice in five years. While Craig Counsell, Felipe Lopez, and Casey McGehee actually hit quite well in Weeks’ absence last year, the team lacks a fleet top-of-the-order threat when he’s not in the lineup, and they can’t always count on such similar good fortune in filling in for him.

• Still in Brewer country, I covered the National League Central in the latest installment of my number-crunching series on competitive ecology. Here’s the Brew Crew:

Among the litany of unhappy stories in this series, the Brewers rate among the happier ones. Throttled by a combination of ineptitude and political point-scoring, the team posted losing records during the last 12 years of the Selig family’s regime, inducing the good fans of Milwaukee to stay away in droves despite a new ballpark. Since purchasing the team in September 2004, new owner Mark Attanasio has helped turn over a new leaf. The 82 wins the Brewers have averaged during his five years of ownership is their highest since the 1988-1992 era.

Reaping the benefits of groundwork laid by since-departed scouting director Jack Zduriencik (who drafted Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, and Ryan Braun in consecutive years), the Brewers broke their skid of sub-.500 seasons in 2005, crossed the .500 threshold in 2007, and then went for broke in 2008, with general manger Doug Melvin making a well-timed move by trading prospects for CC Sabathia, who practically carried the team on his back to the postseason. Over that four-year span, Attanasio let Melvin double the team’s payroll, and luckily, the long-starved fans rewarded such aggressiveness at the gate. Attendance increased 49 percent from 2004 to 2008 as the team crossed the three million mark despite playing in the game’s smallest market — a remarkable achievement. That they ranked ninth in attendance over the 2007-2009 period only underscores the fact that the Brewers are punching well above their weight.

The bounty of homegrown talent — particularly Fielder (16.7 WARP over the last three years) and Braun (15.3 WARP) — helped the Brewers rank 11th in Non-Market WARP, ninth in MP/MW [Marginal Payroll per Marginal Win, a measure of economic efficiency; the Brewers spent $2.06 million per win above replacement level from 2007-2009], and eighth in PER’ [Payroll Efficiency Rating, a measure of the money the team spends to gain extra wins with what we’d expect them to generate given their market size; the Brewers were 16 percent better than average] over the past three years, though the times they are a-changin’. Fielder is in the second year of a two-year, $18 million deal, and as his final pre-free agency year looms, the question of whether the Brewers can afford to keep him looms as large as the slugger himself. It’s not entirely out of the question, particularly with the horrendous Jeff Suppan contract coming off the books, Braun locked into an eight-year, $45 million deal through 2015, and just $22 million committed for 2011. But like any small-market team, the Brewers will need to catch a few breaks.

That ought to give my people in the dairy state enough to ruminate on for a little while.

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