Archive for March 2010

Best Single-Team Blogs

03/31/2010

Baseball blogs abound, and in my blogroll I like to highlight a variety of general purpose baseball blogs that I like.  Notably absent from that list are many blogs that focus on a single team.  So in honor of the impending season, I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite single team blogs.

New York Yankees – River Ave. Blues
Philadelphia Phillies – Crashburn Alley
Minnesota Twins – Nick’s Twins Blog
Detroit Tigers – Detroit Tiger Tales
Seattle Mariners – USS Mariner
St. Louis Cardinals – Play a Hard Nine
Milwaukee Brewers – Brew Crew Ball
Tampa Bay Rays – DRays Bay
Cincinnati Reds – Redleg Nation
Toronto Blue Jays – Batter’s Box

That covers a third of the majors. I am sure there are lots of other great team blogs out there, either for teams I’ve already covered or for the other two-thirds of the major leagues. Please list some of your favorites in the comments. I’d love to know what other folk read.

What Does WAR Have Against Catchers?

03/30/2010

Consider, for a minute, Sean Smith’s ranking of the top 500 position players by career WAR.  The list, for the most part, makes sense to me.  I think it computes fairly well with many fans intuitions about who the best players ever were.  Next, break the list down by position.  It looks a little like this, if you look at the top 5:

  • 1B: Gehrig (13), Foxx, Bagwell, Pujols, F. Thomas (43)
  • 2B: Hornsby (9), Collins, LaJoie, Morgan, Gehringer(34)
  • 3B: Schmidt (16), A. Rodriguez, Mathews, Boggs, Brett (30)
  • SS: Wagner (6), G. Davis, Ripken, Yount, Vaughan (44)
  • C: Bench (52), Fisk, I. Rodriguez, Carter, Berra (97)
  • OF: Ruth (1), Bonds, Cobb, Mays, Aaron, Speaker, Musial, Williams, Mantle, Henderson (14)

Which of these is not like the others? Judging by career WAR, the best catcher ever ranks behind the 5 best at every other position, and the 10 best outfielders. This does not seems to fit the way baseball is really played. Let me explore this for a bit to see what we can learn about the way WAR works and the careers of catchers.

First, let us look briefly at the components of WAR. Look at this chart for Johnny Bench, WAR’s best catcher ever. To get WAR, you add together Batting Runs, Baserunning Runs, Grounded Into Double Plays, Reaching on Error, Fielding Runs (measured by Total Zone), infield Double Plays, Outfield Arm, a generic adjustment for Catchers, a positional adjustment, and the replacement adjustment. That gives you Runs Above Replacement, which converts to WAR by dividing by a number close to 10. None of this seems to disadvantage catchers, until you look a bit deeper. Two components challenge catchers, Batting Runs because of its heavy plate appearances component and Total Zone because of the difficulties of measuring catcher defense. Now these points are fairly obvious. So how does Smith, in particular, try to correct for this bias?

Smith adds an adjustment for catcher defense, first of all. This is necessary when you look at Bench’s numbers. By TZ, Bench is a defensive liability, but the catching adjustment makes him above average. Nonetheless, the adjustment strikes me as questionable. Compare Bench to Gary Carter or Ivan Rodriguez. For their career, Carter is 107 fielding runs above replacement (TZ + Catcher), while Rodriguez is 154 runs above replacement. Bench lags well behind at 72, though a large portion of the deficit comes from late in his career when he played 3rd base poorly. Stripping those years out, Bench still sits at 88, a substantially weaker defensive catcher than Gary Carter. That strikes me as idiosyncratic at best, and nonsense at worst.

Second, Smith adds a positional adjustment. This adjustment attempts to account for the relative scarcity of catchers, shortstops, etc. when compared to left fielders and first basemen. For his career, the positional adjustment adds 98 runs to Bench, 135 to Rodriguez, and 118 to Carter. In contrast, it subtracts 81 runs from Babe Ruth and 129 runs from Barry Bonds. Look back at our top fives, and you can see the logic behind the positional adjustment. Great outfielders are on every street corner, while great shortstops are substantially rarer. Nevertheless, the fact that catchers trail every other position by a substantial margin suggests that the positional adjustment is not large enough for catchers. The catching adjustment needs to correct for the difficulty of the position, but it also needs to account for the plate appearances lost solely because a player catches.

Finally, the replacement level for catchers is probably set too high. It is very hard to find a great catcher. Given that fact, which Smith’s chart clearly supports, it should necessarily be harder to replace the production of a great catcher. Until WAR does a better job recognizing how difficult the production of a great catcher is to replace, the position will be undervalued.

So what should do when you look at WAR, especially for catchers? First, recognize how little we can quantify catching defense. Until that is more accurately measured, the fielding component of WAR is borderline useless when comparing other positions to catchers. Second, adjust for position in your head. Looking at the list, I think Smith does a good job adjusting for most positions. His list recognizes the added value of a great shortstop like Honus Wagner over a more replaceable great left fielder like Rickey Henderson.  The best catcher ever at #52? That seems like a positional adjustment that needs some tweaking. Finally, replacement level needs to be carefully pegged to each position. In the case of scarce positions like catcher and shortstop, replacement level needs to be lower than it is for more common positions like left field and first base. WAR already does this, but the gap needs to be accentuated.  I still like WAR, and I consider it one of the best comprehensive stats around, as you can see from my frequent use of it on this site.  Nonetheless, catchers sit in WAR’s blindspot at the moment, and until that problem can be adequately corrected WAR will not be quite as comprehensive at its aims to be.

The Mickey Mantle Rule

03/29/2010

Consider this a follow-up to my previous post on prospects.  In that post I mention the Tom Seaver Rule, a rule based on the premise that any projection of a pitcher to be better than Tom Seaver is flawed.  Let me add a version for position players:  Any projection of a player to top Mickey Mantle at his peak is necessarily flawed.  Now in reality, this post is an excuse to delve into the greatness of Mantle in his absolute prime, but the point still holds.  In the era of modern baseball, which I am dating from integration in 1947 to the present day, no position player had a two season stretch as good as Mickey Mantle in 1956-57.  (If you want to talk about baseball before 1947, then the exception to the Mantle Rule is Babe Ruth.  That’s it.)

For starters, let me narrowly focus on stats that prove my case. If you are looking for a comprehensive stat that takes account of everything a player does, you will be hard-pressed to find one better than Wins Above Replacement. WAR has the advantage of accounting for both hitting and fielding, a point that helps players like Ozzie Smith who derived much of their value from their defense and hurts players like Ted Williams whose skill with the glove remains infamous. Now let’s look at every year by every position player not named Babe Ruth. Which seasons are the best? In 1956, Mantle stuck up 12.9 WAR, and he followed it up with a more pedestrian 12.5 in 1957. Who are his rivals? Barry Bonds‘ three best seasons are worth 12.5, 12.4, and 12.2 WAR. Lou Gehrig‘s best season was worth 12.0 WAR. Willie Mays‘ best comes in at 11.0. Ted Williams never tops 11.8. All of those numbers are outstanding, but none match up to Mantle at the height of his powers.

What pushes Mantle past all of the other comparable players for those two years? Why is that only Barry Bonds on enough steroids to swell the size of his head to a small blimp could match the weaker of the two seasons? Here, we need to break down Mantle’s greatness. For starters, remember that Mantle was a center fielder. Center fielders are harder to find than left fielders, giving him an automatic advantage over players like Williams and Bonds. The position has more defensive value than first basemen as well, pushing him ahead of Gehrig, Albert Pujols, and others. Second, Mantle ranks as an excellent baserunner both seasons. For 1956, he is credited with 5 base running runs, and he gets 7 in 1957. Compare this to Bonds’ 0 and 1 in 2001 and 2002. For his entire career, Mays only surpasses those numbers once. Mantle’s knees still allowed him the speed to be a dangerous weapon on the basepaths, both in stealing bases (10 and 16, when the league leader had 21 and 28) and in taking extra bases. He was also thrown out only 4 times, giving him an 87.5% success rate. Those same two years, Mays led the majors in steal but was thrown out more than 20% of the time each season.

This is Mickey Mantle we are talking about, so it is time to move past things like fielding and base running and focus on his primarily claim to greatness, his hitting. In 1956, Mantle won the triple crown, and he won it so convincingly he led the entire majors in each category, a feat only accomplished 5 times in the 20th and 21st Centuries. He played 294 of a possible 308 games, and he also played 13 games in the World Series. Staying on the field led to ridiculous numbers. With a league batting average of .260, Mantle hit .353 in 1956. In 1957 when the league dipped to .257, Mantle rose to .365. Batting average understates his dominance. In 1956, league OPS was at .735 and it dipped to .708 the next season. Mantle stuck up OPS of 1.169 and 1.177 in contrast. Those numbers produce OPS+ of 210 and 222. He did all of this at ages 24 and 25. That fact is the basis of considering Mantle baseball’s greatest might-have-been.

For two years, nobody not named Ruth was better. Unlike Ruth, Mantle played in a down era for hitting against integrated competition on an integrated team. While I can’t bring myself to make the claim that Mantle was better, I can easily claim he was better than anyone else who ever stepped on the field for that two-year prime. In judging other players, Ruth exists in a separate stratosphere, much like Hoss Radbourne does when considering single pitching seasons. Mantle, though, sits just beyond the realm of the possible, in a place many have approached but none have achieved.

Book of the Month: Beyond Batting Average

03/28/2010

For the first time, I’d like to talk about a book I know solely because I follow its author online. Lee Panas blogs at Tiger Tales, a blog devoted, as the title implies, to the happenings of the Detroit Tigers. It is definitely one of the best single-team blogs around, as it includes good discussion of the current team with interesting work on the team historically. For our purposes, though, Panas has interests beyond the narrow confines of the Detroit Tigers. He has recently published a sabermetric primer called Beyond Batting Average: Statistics for the 21st Century. I picked up the electronic version recently to review here, so let me give the book its due.

The book does three things: It gives a history of the development of baseball statistics, lays out newer statistics in detail, and gives recommendations for the best statistics to use in player evaluation. Let us consider each in turn. The history of statistics that Panas gives is necessarily brief. It is not a primary focus of the book, and for that reason it is primarily confined to Chapter 1. However, each ensuing chapter gives some information on the history of stats dealing with the chapters topic. Given my own historical bent, I would have liked to see more of this. Given the book’s primary focus as a primer on newer statistics, it is unsurprising this area was not explored in more depth.

Next, Panas lays out newer statistics in detail. It is at this that the book truly excels. Want to know what OPS, WAR, UZR, qERA, FIP, or other statistics are? Panas’ gives some of the most succinct and clear explanations that I have seen. He is not bogged down in the exact mathematical derivations of each statistic, and instead he focuses on the originator, formula, and clarifying examples. Each example does a good job in illustrating the stats strengths and weaknesses. As someone already interested in statistics and particularly in using statistics to compare players, I found this portion of the book invaluable.

Finally, Panas gives recommendations for the best statistics to evaluate players. He emphasizes several things in these stats: repeatability, comprehensiveness, and sources. Repeatability refers to statistics that correlate highly from year to year. Why is on-base average better than batting average? For one reason, it is more predictive of a player’s performance next season. Comprehensiveness describes statistics that evaluate each area of a player’s full performance. Stats like WAR focus on players’ hitting and fielding contributions, instead of focusing narrowly on just one element of play. Sources focuses on where statistics derive their data. Panas considers fielding stats based on play-by-play data better than rivals with less specific sources. He gives more weight to stats that adjust for park, era, etc. than stats that don’t. I think Panas’ three grounds for recommendations make a great deal of sense. They have the advantage of forcing the analyst to look at what biases are built into each statistics and therefore add some humility into our evaluations.

Overall, Panas wrote a short and accessible introduction to sabermetric statistics. If you want to learn more about the most advanced statistics on the market right now, it is tough to find a better source.

These Men Changed Baseball: Tom Alston

03/25/2010

Moving from a small second baseman liked Curt Roberts, it is time to look at a very large first baseman named Tom Alston whose career is gutted by segregation and health issues.  Most of the later integrators, minus Elston Howard, fall in the large category of prospects that did not pan out.  Alston, though, was much too old to be a prospect, and his career is for that reason abbreviated.

Alston was born on January 31, 1926 in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1944, he joined the Navy then went to North Carolina A&T, an historically black college. He graduated in 1951, then he went to play for the Jacksonville Eagles, a black minor league team. From there he was signed by the Saskatchewan Rockets, then the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. In the offseason after the 1953 season, new St. Louis Cardinals owner Gussie Busch pushed for the team to be integrated, leading to an offseason trade for Alston (The trade included Dick Sisler, son of Hall of Famer George Sisler). Alston, then, would come up on April 13, 1954 as the player who integrated the Cardinals. By this time he was already 28. Now, many players have come up late in life, especially players like Alston who had short careers. Why do I think segregation is an important part of this story? Alston’s size.

Tom Alston was 6′ 5″, 210 lbs. Consider those numbers in the context of the 1950’s. He was a massive man for his day and age, and that alone would have qualified any white player as a top prospect. Alston, instead, got lost in the shuffle by white organizations who spent little time scouting black players. Alston slid through college and was picked by Jacksonville because the Negro Leagues had died by 1951. In this sort of world, we lose the first 3-5 years of his career.

Alston never adjusted well to the majors, for reasons we will discuss below. On April 13, 1954, Alston played first base and hit 6th for the Cardinals. He committed an error on his very first play, dropping a foul pop hit by the Cubs leadoff hitter. That sort of mental error is I think emblematic of the problems that beset his entire career. In his rookie year, he hit .246 with 4 home runs, a far cry from his last year with the Padres when he hit just below .300 with 20 home runs. From that point on, Alston bounced between the majors and the minors, always doing better in AAA then failing in his call-ups. He played in 25 more games before bowing out of professional baseball in 1957. He died on December 30, 1993 in Winston-Salem and is buried in Greensboro.

What went wrong for this player who consistently put up such good minor league numbers? Neurasthenia. Neurasthenia is mental disorder triggered by stress or anxiety, and it is not primarily hereditary. The environment of discrimination in which Alston lived, then, is an important part is his eventual mental collapse. Alston was swamped by fatigue, began hearing voices, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized on multiple occasions after his career ended.

What else did Alston do? It is easy to dwell on the negative, so let’s remember the positive in closing. He is another part in the Canadian legacy of MLB integration, playing in Canada before he reached the big leagues. David Halberstam, in October 1964, credits him with an important role in acculturating Curt Flood to professional baseball in Flood’s first season with the Cardinals, 1957. He was also critical in Bob Gibson’s first year in the minors, with Omaha in 1957. Alston, at the end of his career, held his mental problems in check long enough to help the first great African-Americans to play for the Cardinals. Flood and Gibson? Not a bad legacy for Tom Alston.

Prospects: A Feline Perspective

03/24/2010

I have two cats, Apple and Toni.  Being cats, they both believe that daytime is for sleeping and night is for fun.  (I also have a little girl, and she more than a touch of cat in her as well.)  One consequence of the feline lifestyle is that I rarely sleep through the night.  When the cats wake me up, each espouses a fundamentally different view of what my being up at 3 am means.  When Apple sees me, she thinks it is likely that I am up to feed her.  But, she is not sure.  She thinks there is nearly as good a chance that I have decided to change the litter box at 2am.  I might even be under a strong compulsion to give her water.  Toni, on the other hand, has an unshakable faith that I am up in order to pet her. There is no other option. While Apple considers food, litter, and water all viable options, Toni knows that I am to pet her. My daughter, to give a third perspective, considers all things equally possible. Watch a little child, and you will see what I mean. Little kids alternate between a state of pure surprise, i.e. everything is shocking, and a state of complete complacency, i.e. nothing is astonishing. At that age, little children lack the track record against which to measure shock value. Now what does this say about prospects?

First, Toni prospects don’t exist. There are no sure things. Consider this article from Beyond the Box Score on the top college pitching prospects of the last 30 years. The highlights are Neal Heaton, who had a long and mediocre career, and Mark Prior, whose career was briefly brilliant. If anybody was a sure thing, you would think the very best college pitchers would be. They were not. Prospects, by definition, are prospects. Their value is in the future (prospective), and the future is uncertain.

Second, Apple prospects are common. The Apple perspective embodies the statistical notion of a confidence interval. When you make a statistical prediction, you should always report the confidence interval. You predict an ERA of 2.75 for Stephen Strasburg? What are the odds that he actually posts an ERA of 2.40 or 3.05? That is your confidence interval. For an example, look at this piece on Mariano Rivera’s save total. A prediction of 28 saves for Mariano Rivera gives an interval of 22 to 42 as a likely range.

Third, always keep a touch of my daughter when you look at a prospect. You are attempting to project people at ages 18-22. Think back to those ages. Would anything particularly surprise you? Josh Hamilton was an outstanding talent, until addictions crushed his career. That is not especially uncommon with people the age of most prospects. Mental makeup, so far, seems poorly scouted and even more poorly measured. Given that fact, consider this list of #1 overall draft picks. Ken Griffey, Jr. is an all-time great, but he proceeds the immortal Brien Taylor by four years. Taylor never made the majors. For supposed top prospects, notice how weak that list is. After 45 picks, you have no Hall of Famers. Of course, Griffey, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez are likely Hall of Famers, but no one has made it to the Hall of Fame as a #1 overall pick since 1965. Nothing should surprise you.

What can we learn about prospects? There are no sure things. Consider the range of any projection. Do not be surprised at anything done by wealthy males in their lower 20’s. These rules, derived from immortal scouts Toni, Apple, and my daughter, will help keep you from years of frustration at failed prospects.

These Men Changed Baseball: Curt Roberts

03/23/2010

Returning to our long-paused series, it is time to turn to Curt Roberts, integrator of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Roberts fits into a trend that is hidden in the players already discussed.  Certain teams jumped into integration:  first the Dodgers, then the Indians, then the Giants and Braves.  Everyone else trailed this group.  Though the Browns were actually the third team to integrate, they quickly pulled back, and their team suffered accordingly.  These four, though, did more than just integrate for themselves.  The Dodgers, for example, signed Sam Jethroe originally, before trading him to the Braves where he would integrate that team.  Similarly, the Braves jumped on a young amateur second baseman named Curt Roberts, later trading him to the Pirates.  Roberts, then, and the Pirates as an organization, followed in the footsteps of those teams that had already blazed the trail.

Roberts was born on August 16, 1929 in Pineland, Texas. Like most African-American baseball players from that part of the world, his career started with the Kansas City Monarchs. He came up in 1947 and played with the team through the 1950 season. After that year, he was signed by the Braves and assigned to Denver of the Western League. He was traded to the Pirates in 1952 and broke in with the big club in 1954. On April 13, 1954, the Pirates broke in their new second basemen against the still lily-white Phillies. In his first at-bat, Roberts tripled off future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts. For the game he went 1-for-3. It was the highlight of his major league career.

From that game on, Roberts appears to be a fairly standard poor hitting middle infielder. In his rookie year, he hit .232 with 1 home run and a 62 OPS+. In the next two seasons, he played in 37 total games, being replaced in 1956 by a new rookie second baseman named Bill Mazeroski. After the year, the Pirates traded him to the New York Yankees’ farm team, the Kansas City A’s. The A’s sent him to the minors, then traded him to the big league club after the 1957 season. He could not break in with the Yankees either, and he disappeared to the Pacific Coast League for the rest of his career. He died at age 40, getting hit by a car.

Why does Roberts matter? Three reasons: First, he came first. Surely other people could have integrated the Pirates, but they did not. Roberts did, and he deserves to be remembered for that point alone. Second, Roberts, like Bob Trice with the A’s, helped proved that marginal major leaguers come in all shapes and colors. The superstars were important in showing that blacks could play with whites; marginal players were important in showing that blacks were not supermen. In the end integration only works when two groups of humans come together. Roberts inability to hit, when paired with the spectacular talent of fellow second baseman Jackie Robinson, gave African-Americans the full range of humanity. Third, Roberts was a fluent Spanish speaker. This, in and of itself, seems unremarkable. But in 1955, the Pirates were breaking in a rookie right fielder from Puerto Rico named Roberto Clemente. Roberts was considered instrumental in his transition to the major leagues.

Put all of that last paragraph together and you have a player deserving of remembrance. Sadly, Roberts, like the other non-Hall of Famers of the integrators has been forgotten. Hopefully, people can notice this series and remember the important trail-blazing done by Curt Roberts.