Archive for October 2009

Why Bad Teams Stay Bad

10/31/2009

From 1949-1964, the Yankees had completed the most dominant stretch in MLB history, making the World Series every year but two (1954 and 1959) and winning 10 of them.  In June 1965, major league baseball instituted the amateur draft in order to level the playing field between good and bad teams.  As an interesting correlation, the Yankees would not make another World Series until 1976.  Of course, the draft is not a perfect leveller.  At the moment, the Pirates are embarked on the longest extended stretch of futility in professional sports, just completing their 17th consecutive losing season.  Why do they not improve?  There are a lot of answers to that question, but for one insight, I want to review their 1st round draft picks over this span.

1993 – Charles Peterson – never made the majors
1994 – Mark Farris – never made the majors
1995 – Chad Hermansen – Played 189 games, hitting .195/.255/.329
1996 – Kris Benson – 1st overall pick, started 197 games, ERA 4.41. A solid #4 or #5 pitcher
1997 – JJ Davis – Played 67 games in the majors, hitting .179/.248/.217
1998 – Clinton Johnson – Never made the majors
1999 – Bobby Bradley – Never made the majors
2000 – Sean Burnett – Started 13 games for the Pirates in 2004, with an ERA over 5. Pitched 129 games in relief the last two season, with an ERA of 3.94
2001 – John Van Benschoten – Pitched 26 games, with an ERA of 9.20
2002 – Bryan Bullington – 1st Overall, pitched 13 games with an ERA of 5.08
2003 – Paul Maholm – Has started 127 games with an ERA of 4.33. Still with the Pirates. A good #4-5 starter
2004 – Neil Walker – September callup this season. Played 17 games, hitting .194/.275/.222
2005 – Andrew McCutchen My pick for NL rookie of the year
2006 – Brad Lincoln – Still in the minors, with mediocre numbers
2007 – Daniel Moskos – Still in the minors, with poor numbers
2008 – Pedro Alvarez – Still in the minors, with very good numbers
2009 – Tony Sanchez – Still in the minors, with good numbers

With 17 picks, 8 have never made the majors, though 4 of those still have chances. One rookie is too new to evaluate, and another rookie had a very good first season. The two #1 picks were busts, one being a decent back-of-the-rotation starter and the other lucky to make the majors. Maholm and Benson are the best of the lot, and they are both #4 or #5 starters. McCutchen is still too new to be sure his success will continue. 9 of the picks were college players; 3 made the majors, 2 did not, and the last 4 are still in the minors. Of the 8 high schoolers, 4 never made the majors, 2 are rookies, and Davis and Burnett squeaked into the majors. Of the three decent players, Benson and Maholm came from college and McCutchen from high school.

Sometime, teams with favorable draft picks waste them completely. Those teams continue to lose. The Pirates have a talent for taking any help given them and turning it into bigger problems.

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Book of the Month: Moneyball

10/30/2009

As we wrap up October, I would like to return to our monthly book. This month, we are talking about Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball has attracted more comment, positive and negative, than any other baseball book in recent years. Recently, Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, gave it a very negative review in The New Republic, despite the fact that the book came out in 2003. That gives you some sense of the impact of the book. Let’s start with a brief overview, mention important missing data, and wrap up with an evaluation of one of the book’s central events.

Lewis sets out to tell the story of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. He focuses on the question of how low payroll teams can compete against high payroll juggernauts like the New York Yankees. The book hones in on the 2002 season, with the rest of the information functioning as background to illumine this single campaign. Beane, according to Lewis, found ways to exploit market inefficiencies. Given that necessity is the mother of invention, Beane found ways to win despite a lack of money. In particular, he found players that were overlooked by the rest of baseball for reasons not relevant to their ability to contribute to winning teams. He focused in on players that did not look right, and he put the greatest emphasis on hitters with a good ability to get on base. He evaluated players by looking at their past statistical performance and de-emphasized the eyewitness accounts of his scouts. By doing this, Beane was able to craft a consistent winner in the early 2000’s.

What’s missing from this account? Two big stories remain essentially untold. The A’s success in this period is dependent upon their dominant pitching staff of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. While Lewis talks briefly about the draft of Zito, the other two are essentially undiscussed. When the big three pitchers are broken up, the A’s have quickly regressed to the mean. As important as high OBP hitters are, they tell at best half the story of the Oakland A’s. Second, there is no discussion of steroids. On p. 32, Lewis notes that “Giambi was a natural hitter who developed power only after the Oakland A’s drafted him.” Where is the acknowledgement that Giambi was lucky to be drafted by a team with easy access to BALCO? Steroids, given the links to Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Miguel Tejada, and others, was a key factor in the A’s success.

Finally, let us look at the first round of the A’s 2002 draft. This draft is given prominence by Lewis in discussing the genius of Beane’s methods. So how did he do?
16 – Nick Swisher – In the World Series with the Yankees. Hitting .245/.357/.460 in 761 games.
24 – Joe Blanton – In the World Series with the Phillies. Career ERA of 4.21 in 162 starts. A solid #4 starter.
26 – John McCurdy – Never made AAA, let along the pros. Out of baseball after the 2006 season.
30 – Ben Fritz – Never made the pros. Out of baseball after the 2008 season.
35 – Jeremy Brown – Played five games in the pros in 2006. Out of baseball after the 2007 season.
37 – Steve Obenchain – Never even made AAA. Out of baseball after the 2007 season.
39 – Mark Teahen – Sent to Kansas City in 2004, as part of a 3-team trade that sent Octavio Dotel to the A’s. Hitting .269/.331/.419 in 676 career games, none with Oakland.

This great draft produced three MLB regulars with 7 first round picks.

Recovering from a Game One Loss

10/29/2009

Talking about the Phillies this morning is fairly easy.  The winners of Game One have won 11 of the last 12 World Series.  The Phillies are in great shape, and, as stated in my preview, they have the best starting pitcher in the Series.  The Yankees, in contrast, have questions to answer.  How do they respond to dropping the first game?  Let me give two brief examples from Yankees history to illustrate how they could respond to a Game One loss.

In 1963, the Yankees were the two-time defending champions and facing the underdog Dodgers. In Game One, Sandy Koufax struck out the first 5 batters he faced, did not allow a base runner until the bottom of the 5th, and finished the game with 15 strikeouts. The Dodgers cruised to a 5-2 victory, scoring their two runs on a Tommy Tresh home run in the 8th. The Yankees never recovered. They dropped Game Two, 4-1, Game Three, 1-0, and Game Four, 2-1. For the Series, the Yankees hit .171 with a .448 OPS. This was a Yankees team that was second in the AL in batting average, runs, and OPS during the regular season. Nevertheless, they were destroyed by superior pitching.

In 1996, the Yankees were the underdogs against the defending champion Atlanta Braves. In Game One, the Braves crushed the Yankees 12-1, behind a solid performance from John Smoltz and a two home runs from Andruw Jones. The Yankees followed this up by dropping Game Two 4-0 to Greg Maddux. However, the Yankees roared back with 4 straight close wins, 5-2, 8-6, 1-0, 3-2, the first three coming in Atlanta. For the Series, the Yankees were outhit by 40 points of batting average and 100 points of OPS. They also had an ERA 1.6 higher than the Braves, yet they took the Series. The 1996 Yankees were fortunate; for the season they were only 9th in Runs and 3rd in Runs Allowed. The Braves were 4th in Runs and 1st in Runs Allowed, coming off a World Series win, but they could not put the Yankees away.

Do the Yankees still have hope? Of course they do. During the regular season, they were the better team. They just faced the best pitcher they will face this postseason. Now they need to come back against a 37-year-old Pedro Martinez, a much more favorable matchup. If they don’t win tonight, 1996 demonstrates the Series is still not over.

How worried should Yankees fans be?

The Postseason’s Worst Hitters: A Recap

10/28/2009

Throughout the postseason, I have picked individuals as the worst hitters remaining in the postseason.  Given that I have already discussed the Yankees and Phillies twice, I will only briefly recap them.  The Phillies worst hitter is Pedro Feliz, by far, and the Yankees worst is either Jose Molina, if he is starting that day, or Melky Cabrera, when Posada is catching.  In my first post on this topic, I cautioned that in a short series, anything can  happen.  So how have our worst hitters from the LCS fared this postseason?

Jeff Mathis, Catcher, Angels – Mathis went 8 for 15, with 5 doubles and a walk. He scored 2 runs and had 1 game winning RBI. He had an OPS of 1.313, truly astonishing.
Russell Martin, Catcher, Dodgers – Martin went 5 for 25, a batting average of .200. He scored 2 runs and drove in 3. He had an OPS of .595, even lower than his regular season.
Jose Molina, Catcher, Yankees – Molina went 1 for 4, his one hit a single, in 3 games played.
Melky Cabrera, Center Fielder, Yankees – Cabrera went 11 for 35, hitting .314 with 4 runs and 4 RBIs. He had an OPS of .870, considerably above his seasonal mark.
Pedro Feliz, Third Basemen, Phillies – Feliz went 5 for 31, hitting .161 with 3 runs and 2 RBIs. He had an OPS of .567.

So what do our final five worst hitters teach us? Anything can happen in a short enough stretch. Probability wins out, as 3 of the 5 (Martin, Molina, and Feliz) had putrid postseasons at the plate. However, Mathis and Cabrera have looked much better than their regular season numbers would suggest. For Yankees fans, don’t expect this kind of production in the World Series. On the other hand, Nick Swisher should not be as bad as he has been up to this point, as well.

Who do you think will be our upcoming fluke players? Conversely what legitimately good hitter is liable to look like he took hitting lessons from Jose Molina?

World Series Preview, Part 2

10/27/2009

Let us go position by position through the World Series rosters:

(I am placing Ibanez at DH and Francisco in LF per this. All stats via Fangraphs.)
1B – Mark Teixeira vs. Ryan Howard – wOBA .402 vs. .393, OPS .948 vs. .931, UZR -2.7 vs. 2.3 (This is one of the odder findings of UZR, given that Teixeira at least looks like a very good first basemen, and Howard does not.) Advantage: Yankees, by a very little.
2B – Robinson Cano vs. Chase Utley – wOBA .370 vs. .402, OPS .871 vs. .905, UZR -6.1 vs. 12.0 Advantage: Phillies
SS – Derek Jeter vs. Jimmy Rollins – wOBA .390 vs. .316, OPS .871 vs. .719, UZR 6.4 vs. 3.1 Advantage: Yankees
3B – Alex Rodriguez vs. Pedro Feliz – wOBA .405 vs. .302, OPS .933 vs. .694, UZR -7.4 vs. 4.5 Advantage: Yankees
RF – Nick Swisher vs. Jayson Werth – wOBA .375 vs. 382, OPS .869 vs. .879, UZR 0.5 vs. 6.3 Advantage: Phillies, almost completely in fielding
CF – Melky Cabrera vs. Shane Victorino – wOBA .331 vs. .354, OPS .752 vs. .803, UZR 2.6 vs. -4.2 Advantage: Even. Victorino is distinctly the better hitter and Cabrera the better fielder. Victorino is given credited for more Wins above Replacement, but that is dependent on his extra 150 plate appearances.
LF – Johnny Damon vs. Ben Francisco – wOBA .376 vs. .340, OPS .854 vs. .779, UZR -11.2 vs. Unknown (Francisco only played CF and RF this year. He was a bad CF and a good RF) Advantage: Yankees
C- Jorge Posada vs. Carlos Ruiz – wOBA .378 vs. .337, OPS .885 vs. .780. (Fangraphs has no measures of catcher fielding. The chart introduced in the post on catching statistics ranks them as -5.9 vs. 5.4) Advantage: Yankees, though the defense makes it closer than it looks on the surface.
DH – Hideki Matsui vs. Raul Ibanez – wOba .378 vs .379, OPS .876 vs .899. Advantage: Even.
Among hitters, the Yankees have the advantage at 5 positions, the Phillies at 2, and 2 are even.
SP – CC Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee – ERA 3.37 vs. 3.22, FIP 3.39 vs. 3.11, K/9 7.71 vs. 7.03 Advantage: Phillies. This is probably the toughest call of all. Lee lower ERA is helped by pitching in the NL, but the FIP indicates that both got just about the ERA they deserved. Lee has also given up a much worse batting average on balls in play (BABIP), indicating that part of his issues are just bad luck. Sabathia’s BABIP is better than average, meaning that he has gotten a bit lucky. Of course, if the Yankees throw Sabathia 3 times and Lee only pitches twice, that evens out the advantage a lot.
SP – A.J. Burnett vs. Pedro Martinez – ERA 4.04 vs. 3.63, FIP 4.33 vs. 4.28, K/9 8.48 vs. 7.46 Advantage: Yankees. Despite Burnett’s inconsistencies, he is still a better overall pitcher than Martinez at this age. Starting Martinez in Game 2, as rumored, is foolish.
SP – Andy Pettitte vs. Cole Hamels – 4.16 vs. 4.32, FIP 4.15 vs. 3.72, K/9 6.84 vs. 7.81 Advantage: Phillies. Pettitte’s only advantage is a marginally lower ERA. It is tough to claim a postseason advantage either when you are facing off against the defending World Series MVP.
CL – Mariano Rivera vs. Brad Lidge – ERA 1.76 vs. 7.21, FIP 2.89 vs. 5.45, K/9 9.77 vs. 9.36 Advantage: Yankees. Using only this year’s stats overstates the advantage, but Rivera still has a huge advantage by any measure you can choose
The pitchers are split, with 2 advantages for the Yankees and 2 for the Phillies. If Joe Blanton pitches Game 4, as is likely, that extends the Yankee advantage even more.

Pick: The Yankees should win. They were the better team all season long, and they dominate the on-paper matchups 7-4-2. This is of course not dispositive. The Yankees can still lose easily because we are only dealing with a sample of 7 games. A short sample made Jeff Mathis look like a good hitter in the ALCS, and he is not. For one game, Don Larsen was the greatest pitcher ever to take the mound. But if I had to lay a bet, I am going with the team that looks better on paper going in. Yankees in 6.

 

There is my pick and reasoning.  Who do you have?

World Series Preview, Part 1

10/26/2009

The Series is finally set: Yankees vs. Phillies. Throughout the regular season, the Yankees were the best team in baseball, by far. The Yankees only rival, in the regular season, was the Angels, whom they have now dispatched. On top of that, the American League has been the stronger league, as measured by interleague play and the All Star game, for the last six seasons, dating back to 2004. Given these basic points, I think we can safely declare the Yankees world champions and start the victory parade tomorrow. Except that nothing I have just written predicts who will really win the World Series.

The American League has been dominant for the previous five seasons, yet they only lead in the World Series, 3-2. In the end, one team plays another team to determine the World Series, not one league against another. In that respect, the Phillies suddenly look like a much better bet. Though they were only the 2 seed in the weaker league, that is no bar to victory. Since the institution of the Wild Card in 1995, the number 1 overall seed (team with the most wins in the major leagues) has won 2 pennants (1998 Yankees and 1999 Braves) and one World Series (1998 Yankees.) This year’s Yankees make it 3 pennants.

The Phillies are the first team to make consecutive World Series since the 1998-2001 Yankees, the first National League team since the 1995-96 Braves. As should be noted with both predecessors, the 1996 Braves and 2001 Yankees lost the Series. Experience, it seems, is overrated when determining postseason winners.

This is enough to clear the ground before predictions. Tomorrow I will do position-by-position breakdowns of each team and pick my winner. A little over a week later, my prediction will be proved wrong by actual events. What thoughts do you have on our upcoming World Series? What angles need to be covered before the Series starts?

Postseason Greatness and the IBB

10/25/2009

Tom Tango recently questioned the wisdom of the Angels intentional walk of Alex Rodriguez in the 9th inning of Game 5. He pointed out that the statistical break even point to justify that managerial move is if A-Rod averaged 1 home run in every 8 plate appearances. Underlying this argument, of course, is a question about sample size. Only with a sufficiently large sample can we conclude that a hitter will consistently hit a home run on 12.5% of his plate appearances. Nevertheless this got me thinking about justified intentional walks in the postseason. Using the breakeven point Tango identified (a point he carefully limited to the situation at hand), when should a batter be intentionally walked?

For starters, let us look at Alex Rodriguez. The question is how big a sample is big enough. Since Tango identified 1 in 8 as the important cut off, what does A-Rod done in the postseason? He has hit 5 home runs in 37 plate appearances, or 1 every 7.4 plate appearances. Scioscia, it is safe to assume, considered that the relevant sample. While he may be wrong about the appropriate reference group to use as a basis for his decision, we should at least be clear about what he used and why he did what he did.

Second, let us look at the real comparison. In World Series play from 1923 to 1932, 5 different series, Babe Ruth hit 14 home runs in 113 plate appearances, or a home run in 12% of his plate appearances. Ruth, then, neared the cutoff for automatic intentional walk in late and close situations in more than 100 plate appearances. I suspect that in the modern world, the Cubs would have walked Ruth to face Gehrig regularly in the 1932 World Series. Happily, we got the Called Shot instead.