Archive for November 2009

The Hall of Fame Ballot, Part 2

11/30/2009

Moving on to the part of the Hall of Fame ballot most people care about, it is time to look at the 26 players on this year’s ballot. Voters can choose 10 different players, and they are not ranked. Following that convention, I will break down players into 3 categories, listed alphabetically: No, Kind of Interesting, and Top 10. The post on the Top 10 will appear tomorrow. Tell me what you think in the comments.

No:

Pat Hentgen – A good pitcher, winner of one Cy Young (1996). Never really recovered from Tommy John surgery.
Mike Jackson – Long-time relief pitcher. Tied for the most games pitched in the 1990’s.
Eric Karros – Won the Rookie of the Year. Downhill from there.
Shane Reynolds – He played 10 years? Who knew?
David Segui – Played 14 mediocre years. The key to any arguments that using steroids did not really help players.
Todd Zeile – Played 16 seasons for 11 teams. His numbers would look better if he had remained a catcher. Was an awful third baseman.

Kind of Interesting (The Second Ten):

Kevin Appier – A bit better than Hentgen. A good ERA for his era (3.74). Could have won the Cy Young in 1993. He gets lost behind the great pitchers of his era (Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, etc.)
Harold Baines – The king of longevity. Played 22 seasons, stuck up 384 home runs, and 2866 hits. Never seemed to peak. He was the same solid but unspectacular hitter his entire career.
Ellis Burks – Numbers got a boost from Coors Field, but they remained very good upon going to San Francisco. Reaches no significant career milestones.
Andres Galarraga – Numbers got a boost from Coors, including his batting title in 1993. Had constant injury problems with his knees, back, and finally cancer. Those probably kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
Ray Lankford –  Probably no better than Hentgen or Zeile, but I liked him better.  Thus, he makes the second 10.
Don Mattingly – Injury problems like Galarraga.  An excellent peak, but career numbers are nothing great.  Played in a tougher era on hitters than most of the rest of the players on this list.
Jack Morris – He has a special place in the heart of all Twins fans. He has an exceptionally high ERA for his era (3.90), higher than Appier’s, even though he pitched during a better era for pitchers. Winner of 254 games. Would he be the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame? Probably not. He is probably better than Jesse Haines and Rube Marquard. Would I vote for him? Probably not.
Dave Parker – Great peak, killed by cocaine and injuries. Better career than Mattingly, but still not quite Hall-worthy.
Lee Smith – One time career save leader. The Harold Baines of relievers. Never seemed to peak, and never really fell off.
Robin Ventura – The best third basemen in baseball from roughly 1990 to 1996. Suffered a gruesome leg injury in 1997. Still good from then on. Career hitting numbers are nothing spectacular, though he was an exceptional fielder. Depending on the year, he would make my Hall of Fame top 10. Would not be the worst third basemen in the Hall if elected. (Thank you, Fred Lindstrom!)

Tomorrow, we will see the Top 10.

The Hall of Fame Ballot

11/29/2009

With the MLB Hall of Fame ballot released, I want to take a couple of days to pick out who should and should not be inducted.  Let’s start with contributors.  Contributors are voted on by a version of the Veterans’ Committee dedicated solely to electing candidates for something other than their play on the field.  They are split into two categories:  a 10-person ballot for managers and umpires and a 10-person ballot for executives and pioneers. Who should get in?

Start with executives and pioneers. The ballot includes 5 owners: Gene Autry (Angels), Ewing Kauffman (Royals), John Fetzer (Tigers), Jacob Ruppert (Yankees), and Sam Breadon (Cardinals); 3 general managers: Bob Howsam (builder of the Big Red Machine), John McHale (executive with the Tigers, Braves, and Expos), and Gabe Paul (builder of the Bronx Zoo Yankees); 1 NL president: Bill White; and Marvin Miller. As Verdun2 pointed out last week, Miller should be an easy pick. Few people in baseball history have changed the game like Miller. As head of the union, Miller introduced the world to free agency, killing the reserve clause that locked players into teams in perpetuity. Was Miller a nice man? Reports say the answer is no. Could the strike he backed in 1994 have killed baseball? Yes, it could have. The apt comparison, I think, is Judge Landis. The first baseball commissioner was essential in saving baseball from the problems surrounding the Black Sox scandal. At the same time, he single-handedly did everything possible to keep the game segregated. Jackie Robinson is possible, in part, because Landis was dead. Landis was a vile racist, and he was a deserved Hall of Famer for his contributions to the game. Miller is not nearly as nasty a human being, and regardless he deserves election.

The other executives are tricky. How do you decide which owners should be in and which not? I don’t know. I would probably vote for Ruppert as the man who transformed the Yankees into the franchise of Ruth and Gehrig. I would consider Howsam, as builder of the Big Red Machine and GM of the Cardinals for 1 World Series win and another appearance in the late 1960’s. The rest I would leave out.

The managers on the ballot are Danny Murtaugh, Billy Martin, Tom Kelly, Gene Mauch, Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Steve O’Neill, and Charlie Grimm. Murtaugh (1960, 1971) and Kelly (1987, 1991) both won multiple World Series. Herzog (1982), Martin (1977), Johnson (1986) and O’Neill (1945) each won once. Grimm made 4 series (1932, 1935, 1938, 1945) as manager of the Cubs. Mauch never coached a pennant winner. Murtaugh and Kelly would be at the top of my list.

Hank O’Day and Doug Harvey are the ballots 2 umpires. Should they go in? I don’t know. Why not?

What do you think should happen to the contributors when the Veterans’ Committee votes on December 6th?

Introducing Statistics: Passer Rating

11/28/2009

Passer rating is probably the most common stat to toss around when evaluating quarterbacks.  When announcers are covering an NFL game, they regularly update viewers on what a QBs in-game rating is.  But the number itself has no intrinsic meaning.  Touchdowns tell you how many passes a quarterback has thrown that have resulted in a touchdown.  Interceptions tell you how many of a quarterbacks passes have been completed to the opposition.  But what about passer rating what does it do?  First, we need some background to explain why anyone should care.  Next let’s focus on the equation itself.  Finally, we will wrap by highlighting passer rating potential failures.

Quarterback touchdowns are a little like RBI’s in baseball. They highlight the most important part of a sequence while ignoring the rest. In the end, the most important base to advance in baseball is from third to home. Similarly the most important pass is the one that goes across the goal line. But it matters how you get there. If Adrian Peterson takes the ball at his own 3 and breaks a 90-yard run, he does not get credit for a touchdown. If on the next play, Brett Favre completes a 7-yard touchdown pass, he receives as much credit as Ryan Fitzpatrick received for his 98-yard touchdown pass last week. Passer rating is an attempt to correct for the assymetry of Favre receiving disproportionate credit in the example above. To correct for problems like this, Don Smith in 1971 created passer rating.

In college football the formula for passer rating is:

{(8.4 \times YDS) + (330 \times TD) + (100 \times COMP) - (200 \times INT) \over ATT}

In college this number is nearly infinite. A great game goes up and up, while a horrible game continues to drop. The NFL modifies the formula to give an upper bound of 158.3, lower than the number Colt Brennan had for the entire 2006 season at Hawaii of 186.0. This makes the substantially more complicated:

[25 + 10 * (Completion Percentage) + 40 * (Touchdown Percentage)
– 50 * (Interception Percentage) + 50 * (Yards/Attempt)] /12

The extra terms are attempts to cap a quarterback’s performance. Thus NFL quarterbacks can have perfect games, though no one has ever approached that over multiple games.

So what? First, passer rating tells you little when comparing across time. This is a problem in the NFL generally, when the sport regularly expands the schedule and makes the massive change from one-platoon football to unlimited substitutions. Nevertheless rules about defensive pass coverage have also changed dramatically, leading to massive changes in completion percentage that are at the heart of passer rating. Second, passer rating is dependent, to an extent, on factors outside a quarterback’s control. The formula hopes that drops by receivers (a QB’s bad luck) will even out with freakish runs after catches (QB’s good luck). That may or may not be true. Passer rating is a stat that has its uses. A high rating, over 100, tells you someone had a good season. A low rating, under 80, tells you someone had a poor season. But the exact number is meaningless, and you cannot put too much stock in single-game variations or slight gaps between one QB and another.

Evaluating Mike Shanahan

11/27/2009

Mike Shanahan is widely rumored to be at the top of the Bills’ coaching wishlist. If he does not end up with the Bills, it is almost certain that he fill the coaching vacancy soon to open at some other team. So what does a team get if it gets Shanahan?

Shanahan has a career record of 146-98 in 16 seasons, 2 with the Raiders and 14 with the Broncos. He has lead his team to the playoffs 7 times, winning 8 games and dropping 5. He has won 4 division titles, though the last, in 2008, resulted in the Broncos losing a tiebreaker to the Chargers and not making the playoffs. He won consecutive Super Bowls after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. These stats give you the basic shape of Shanahan’s career. But what in particular has he done? Where do these numbers come from?

In Shanahan’s 14 seasons in Denver, the Broncos were in the top 10 in points scored 8 times, though not since 2006. They were in the top 10 in offensive yards 10 times, including his last season in 2008. They were in the top 8 in fewest points and yards allowed 7 times each. How much credit does Shanahan deserve for these rankings? Hard to say. If I was evaluating coaches, I would ask Shanahan why his offenses tended to underachieve, that is their yardage did not match up with their points. Given that his offenses tended to outperform his defenses, it will be important to know who will help him on the defensive side of the ball.

Now let’s broach the question of John Elway. Many have pointed out that Shanahan never won a Super Bowl without Elway as his quarterback. What does this mean? Nothing. Elway never won a Super Bowl without Shanahan as his coach, and he had a reputation for playest his worst games in the 3 Super Bowls he had made. Similarly, Elway never won a Super Bowl without Terrell Davis as his runner. It is easy to make too much of these correlations. But the Elway question does highlight two issues to consider about Shanahan. Shanahan first four seasons with the Broncos included 4 of his top 10 performances in points scored and yards gained, along with 3 of his top 10’s in points allowed and 2 in yards. The Broncos have not been nearly as good over the last 10 seasons of Shanahan’s tenure.

Secondly, how has Shanahan done at developing quarterbacks. Upon coming to Denver, Shanahan inherited a future Hall of Famer. Since Elway’s retirement, the Broncos fielded Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler. Griese took over the team in his second season in the NFL. He quarterbacked the Broncos for 4 seasons. He led the league in passer rating in his second season as a starter, but he did not show a general trend of improvement. His rating go from 75.6 to 102.9 to 78.5 to 85.6. Griese was always dogged by injuries, but he showed no signs of developing into a significantly better player. His years since leaving the Broncos have been more of the same. Plummer was an esablished NFL quarterback in his 7th season when the Broncos acquired him from Arizona. He QB’ed for 4 years and stuck up passer ratings higher than he had ever posted for the Cardinals. He also led the league in interceptions once. Given Plummer’s extensive track record, it is tough to say what impact Shanahan himself may have had on Plummer.

That leaves Jay Cutler. Cutler QB’ed the Broncos for two full seasons, and he split time with Plummer his rookie season. His passer rating has dropped every season in the NFL. His interceptions have increased every season, while the percentage of his passes going for touchdowns has dropped each season. Cutler, at least right now, looks like an unmitigated failure in quarterback development. Unless Cutler salvages his career in Chicago, he looks to be a mediocre quarterback.

Is Mike Shanahan a good coach? I think so, though the record is mixed. As any coach could tell you, it is easy to look like a genius if you have superior talent. Shanahan has done very well developing running backs from unspectacular backgrounds, but his work with quarterbacks is more questionable. Potential employers should ask serious questions about future quarterback coaches and defensive coordinators. Will Shanahan succeed wherever he turns up? I don’t know.

What do you think of Mike Shanahan’s future? Can he be an important part of turning around a franchise? If so, which one?

These Men Changed Baseball: Jackie Robinson

11/26/2009

On Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate for baseball fans to give a bit of thanks for baseball.  In particular, Thanksgiving can remind us of the times in which baseball has caused us, to borrow from Lincoln, to reach for “the better angels of our nature.”  In light of my post from Sunday, I am starting a series on the players who brought integration to baseball.  You will already know some of these players, but some of them will be new to you. Nevertheless, they all changed baseball. For starters, we should start at the beginning. Jackie Robinson is the most famous of the integrators and deservedly so. He broke the trail upon which all others later followed.

Robinson’s story is already well known. He was born in 1919 in Georgia, moved to California in 1920. He was a tremendous all-around athlete, starring on the UCLA baseball, basketball, football, and track teams. He also won tennis tournaments as a teenager. In 1942 he entered the army, becoming an officer in an armored battalion. He never saw combat and was discharged in 1944. In 1945 he joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the premier Negro League team of the time. He was signed by Brooklyn Dodger GM Branch Rickey in late 1945, as Rickey prepared to breach MLB’s color line. Robinson spent a single year in the minor leagues then started the season with the big league club in 1947. That is the basic background story. Now let’s focus on Robinson, the ballplayer.

On April 15, 1947, the world of baseball changed forever. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had lost the pennant the previous year in a 3-game playoff with St. Louis, played a home game against the Boston Braves, which they won 5-3. During that game, the Dodgers broke in a 28-year-old, rookie first basemen named Jackie Robinson, who went hitless. That April, Jackie Robinson got off to a slow start, hitting only .225. But the promise was there. In May, he hit .282, and in June he jumped to .381. He would conclude the season hitting .297 and leading the National League in stolen bases. After his rookie year, he would win the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, given to the best rookie in all of baseball. As a rookie playing first base for the first time, Robinson was already the third-best first basemen in the NL, behind only Stan Musial and Johnny Mize. He led the Dodgers to the World Series, which they lost to the Yankees in 7. Robinson had the third highest average on the team, in both the regular season and the World Series. Upon shifting to a more natural second base, in 1948, Robinson instantly became the best in the league. He would win the 1949 MVP. In 10 full seasons, beginning at age 28, Robinson would lead the league in batting average once, OBP once, and stolen bases twice. He won a single MVP but finished in the top 10 three other times. He reached six World Series. His fielding percentages at second base ranged from 5 to 15 points better than the league average, and his range factors were also consistently above league average.

Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball. His skill shaped the “boys of summer” Brooklyn Dodger teams of the late 40’s and early 50’s. His personal greatness allowed integration to continue. Despite unimaginable amounts of vitriol and hate, Robinson played with grace and skill. His grace is remembered even more than his skill, I think, and that is a little sad. If MLB players peak at age 27, as Tom Tango and others have argued at length, Robinson’s MLB career begins after he should have peaked. His astounding 10 years, then, are the downside of his career. Ability-wise, Robinson was one of the very best second basemen ever to play the game. Character-wise, he was one of the best people ever to step on the diamond. Today, let’s briefly give thanks for Jackie Robinson.

Hope from the Draft?

11/25/2009

Imagine that your favorite football team that happens to be in Chicago is 4-6 and that your hometown team is 3-7?  Should you start hoping that your team will cruise into the draft in great position for turning its fortunes around?  Earlier this week I highlighted the weakness of recent Bills first round picks, so it seems the draft isn’t a cure-all.  But sometimes the problems are just talent evaluation problems.  Sometimes the problem is a lack of talent.  Let me quickly contrast two drafts, 1957 and 1959, to show this point.

1957 was one of the strongest drafts in NFL history. Hall of Famer Jim Parker went with the 8th overall pick, and he was the fourth future Hall of Famer to be selected. Paul Hornung went #1, Len Dawson went at #5, and Jim Brown slipped to #6. Meanwhile, 3 future Pro Bowlers, Jon Arnett, John Brodie, and Ron Kramer, went 2-4. Only two first round picks, #7 and 13, did not make a Pro Bowl. 5 other future Hall of Famers were picked in later rounds. It took work not to get an excellent player in this draft. The same was not true a mere 2 years later.

The 1959 draft was one of only two in NFL history not to produce a Hall of Famer. 7 of the 360 picks would make a Pro Bowl. If you picked in 1959, you could not get a great player. That year, those players did not exist.

Organizations matter, but they are not the cure for a lack of talent. Sometimes, great players are not available. The benefit of a good organization, then, cannot be seen in a single draft. A good organization should maximize the skill from that draft, but the level of maximization will vary from year to year. The best organizations will over a period of time excel in the draft. Does that offer hope to Bills and Bears fans? We will see.

An Awards Retrospective

11/24/2009

As we leave baseball’s awards season, how did the writers do, as judged by my picks? Pretty well.

AL ROY: Andrew Bailey. I picked Bailey second and Elvis Andrus first. The writers flipped them. Tough to complain too strongly.
NL ROY: Chris Coghlan. Here was my biggest gap with the writers. I picked Andrew McCutchen, who only came in 4th. I didn’t put Coghlan in the top 3. Batting average appeared to rule all in this pick.
AL Cy Young: Zack Greinke. He won with ease, which was the only thing that surprised me.
AL MOY: Mike Scioscia. I wanted Ron Gardenhire to win, but Scioscia was not a bad pick. In particular, holding his team together after Nick Adenhart’s death deserved recognition. I’d have placed him third, behind Gardenhire and Joe Girardi.
NL MOY: Jim Tracy. The obvious pick won easily.
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum. I picked Lincecum and have since wondered if I was wrong. Given the closeness of the vote, the writers agree that this was a tough pick. Given the controversy over votes for Dan Haren and Javier Vazquez, both of whom had great years, I think the Cy Young ballot should be extended to 5 names. This makes easier to honor very good years that have been overlooked, and it would have done nothing to change the outcome of the voting.
AL MVP: Joe Mauer. My only complaint is that he was not unanimous. I am very pleased at how easily he outdistanced Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. I thought it would be closer.
NL MVP: Albert Pujols. I realize this has not happened yet, but I suspect the world might stop spinning on its axis if Pujols lost. The only question: Will he be the first person this awards season to win unanimously?

The writers and I were basically on the same wavelength. I don’t know if that is a compiment to either side, but it happens to be true this year.