Sunday, May 27, 2007

This is a nice sight

The Buckeyes, who needed a win over PSU on the last day of the season to even qualify for the B10 tournament, won four consecutive games against PSU, Michigan, and Minnesota twice to win the B10 tournament title as the lowest seed, the #6.

The Bucks have now won the regular season or tournament title in 12 of the 20 seasons that Bob Todd has been coach; three of those seasons included both titles. That said, a couple of his pitching moves today were a little weird. Cory Luebke, the B10 pitcher of the year, started on three days rest, which I don't object to, but then left him in as he got in trouble in the eighth inning. After he allowed the tying run, he replaced him with Jake Hale, who had made 140 pitches and was on just two days rest. But Hale got the last four outs, and Michael Arp untied the game with a two-run pinch hit double in the bottom of the eighth, and the Buckeyes are the champs.

My Top 60 Starters, Warmup

In the next installment I will get around to unveiling (a nice word to build suspense and anticipation where none should exist) spots 51-60 on my list; for now, I am going to discuss some of the pitchers who did not make the list and how the average and median Hall of Famer does.

Here are the figures for the average and median Hall of Famers:
CAT….NW%...WAT.…….WCR…...ARA……..WAA………....WAR………......Top 5

To me, anyone who is better then the median Hall of Famer should probably be there himself, no questions asked (all other things being equal). It is those below the median for whom there is a real debate. There are 31 pitchers with more career WAR then the median Hall of Famer, and all who are eligible are in the Hall with the exception of Bert Blyleven.

Now, let me tell you that pitchers 61-73 on my list, in rough chronological order are: Sam Leever, Ed Reulbach, Chief Bender, Carl Mays, Bob Shawkey, Dolf Luque, Burleigh Grimes, Herb Pennock, Bucky Walters, Jerry Koosman, Jim Kaat, Bret Saberhagen, and David Cone. To be honest, by the time I got to around 45 it was very difficult to make judgments on specific pitcher-to-pitcher comparisons; there are too many guys with similar WAR, similar WAA, similar ARA, etc.

Among pitchers who didn’t make it at all, there are few that I will discuss. The first is Eddie Cicotte. The numbers alone would have ranked Cicotte in the mid-40s, but I docked him the entire 1919 season, which was his second-best season, +11.8 WAR. That drops him from the mid-40s into the range of borderline top sixty, and I chose other pitchers ahead of him. If you throw the World Series, then you have in my eyes destroyed your body of work in the regular season. Add in the fact that his fourth-best season, 1920 (+7.6 WAR), has to be viewed with some suspicion given the fact that he had already knowingly thrown games at the time, and it’s easy to drop him past the very similar numbers of others in that group. On talent alone, Cicotte would belong.

Jack Morris is a pitcher whose reputation is just not matched by his performance. The reason he has been overrated is that he does well in W-L record; his +74 WCR ranks thirty-eighth all-time. But his career ARA was just 105; he was only +63 WAR for his career. He COULD be ranked in the top sixty, particularly if you want to give more weight to the W-L, but I can’t justify it myself.

Mel Harder is a guy who still gets Hall of Fame push, but maybe that is only my impression because I am from Cleveland and read old newspaper columnists wax poetic about the olden days of good old Mel. After all, the famous Bill James Keltner List was the result of old Keltner fans pushing him, and was discussed in the Indians essay of one of a Abstract. Mel Harder was a fine pitcher, no doubt; .534 NW%, 108 ARA, +58 WCR, +61 WAR. But what sets him apart from Milt Pappas (.550, 111, +60, +61)? Or Freddie Fitzsimmons (.572, 109, +66, +59)? Or Orel Hershiser (.567, 109, +63, +59)? You get the idea. There are too many pitchers with near identical characteristics. These are the guys who would make up the bottom portion of the Top 100. Excellent pitchers, not Hall of Famers.

Well, that is, except for the Hall of Famers who don’t make my top sixty. Leaving out Bender and Grimes, who were in my 61-70 range, they are: Lefty Gomez, Catfish Hunter, Bob Lemon, Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, Dizzy Dean, and Rube Marquard.

Gomez pitched for great Yankees teams, and ranks much better versus average then he does against replacement. Jimmy Key has very similar numbers, though, with the exception of Gomez’ higher peak. Nobody thinks of Key as an all-time great.

The late Catfish was by all accounts a great guy, and he pitched for six pennant winners. But his career was short, and if you compare him carefully to his teammate Vida Blue, it’s tough to pick one. Blue is viewed as a disappointment because of his brilliant early work, followed by fairly average pitching, but:
Hunter did that in 3449 IP, Blue in 3343.

Bob Lemon had a short career (2850 IP). His teams had excellent records (.589, about the same as the .587 for Whitey Ford). He was a converted third baseman, so he wasn’t a bad hitter, but +61 WAR needs a lot of help to get into HOF territory. He could get some war credit, but he missed his age 22-24 seasons and was not a pitcher before he left, so that’s extremely iffy to me.

Jesse Haines was one of the Frankie Frisch crony choices, and has absolutely nothing to set him apart from the pitchers in the Mel Harder pack, as he was .549, 108, +59, +58 himself.

Jack Chesbro is probably in the HOF because of his tremendous 41-12 season in 1904. That was a legitamitely great season (+14.8 WAR), but he never again cracked double digits, so his peak is not THAT spectacular (+45 WAR in top 5 years ranks thirtieth). But if you focus on peak value, he has a case to be one of the greats.

Dizzy Dean was brilliant as well, but only for a brief time. His top 5 seasons are +42, good enough to rank 39th, so he’s a peak special. His rate stats are great (.625 NW%, 131 ARA), but he was 33 innings short of 2000. Just not enough career value for me.

Finally, Rube Marquard’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame is a joke. Marquard was slightly above average on a rate basis (.517 NW%, 104 ARA), and didn’t have a super-long career in order to provide that much value (+53 WAR). Compare him to Claude Passeau, who I doubt many have even heard of (.512 NW%, 110 ARA, +52 WAR). Marquard is, without any doubt in my mind, the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame. He wouldn’t make my top 120.

Then there are the pitchers who are included in the Hall of Merit but not in my top sixty. These I will treat in more detail then the HOF snubs, because I think the HOM voters are much more qualified to do this task, and since there are not the personal politics of the Frisch-type that got us Jesse Haines.

Alright, I lied, there’s no “pitchers”. There’s a pitcher, singular, and that is Wes Ferrell. Let me start by giving you my evaluation of Ferrell, and then let’s look into arguments put forward in his favor. Luckily, Dick Thompson does not read my blog or know me from Adam, so we can do this rationally.

Ferrell has a great W-L record, there’s no doubt about it: .607 NW%, +35 WAT, +70 WCR (45th in WCR). However, his ARA is only 112, for +15 WAA and +52 WAR. He pitched only 2630 innings, and won just 18 games after the age of 30.

One pro-Ferrell point is that he had a fine peak, which is true, but given the ground rules here, is irrelevant. Another is that he was an excellent hitter. This we can quantify, so let’s get at it. Ferrell 1305 career PA, hitting 280/351/446. This is excellent, but not quite as good as it looks, as he played in a high-scoring context (N=5.22, PF=1.02). His RG of 5.60 is +13 runs versus an average hitter.

Of course, the standard should not be an average hitter, but an average hitting pitcher. The average pitcher hit at 40% of the league RG in the 1930s (a .138 OW%). Ferrell is +118 runs against this standard.

But in fact this is too much, because Ferrell should only be compared to a pitcher when he is actually pitching. Ferrell played in a total of 547 major league games, but only 373 of these were as a pitcher. That means that in 174 of those games, he needs to be compared to a replacement level hitter, not an average pitcher.

Unfortunately, we don’t know how many PA he had in those games, but let’s be conservative and assume it was just one per game. Sure, there may have been games in which he pinch ran or something and never hit, but there were also likely games in which he had multiple PAs. Ferrell played in 13 games in the outfield for the Indians in 1933, his only games in the field, and recorded 2.46 Total Chances/Game, versus a league average of 2.28, so it’s safe to say he was playing the majority of those games.

So we assume that Ferrell had 1131 PAs that need to be evaluated v. an average pitcher, and 174 that need to be evaluated v. a replacement hitter (73% of the league average, .350 OW%). Under this new standard, he is +110 runs, which translates to +10.5 wins.

These are extra wins that we can add in to his pitching performance, and so instead of being +52 WAR and +15 WAA, he can be +64 WAR and +26 WAA. This would definitely bring him closer to the top 60, however there are twelve pitchers with the higher or same WAR not in, and many others right behind them. The WAA fares better; there are only six in the neighborhood. So perhaps I should have put Ferrell in the 61-70 range, but he still doesn’t crack the top sixty.

Some of the other arguments for Ferrell centered around peak value by comparing him to Grove, which is not something I’m going to explore here because peak is not on the table at all. Another was that Ferrell had to pitch more against the better teams in the league because he was his team’s ace, and a poor team needed to throw their big gun to have a shot against the Yankees and the other contenders.

“Jonesy” provided in-depth data that he researched for 1932, which I rate as Ferrell’s fourth-best season (+6.8 WAR). Here are Ferrell’s IP v. each team, along with their RG:
NY: 42.1 IP, 6.42 RG
PHA: 41 IP, 6.37 RG
WAS: 44 IP, 5.45 RG
DET: 47.1 IP, 5.22 RG
SLA: 33 IP, 4.77 RG
CHA: 52.1 IP, 4.39 RG
BOS: 27.1 IP, 3.68 RG
Weighting each team’s RG by the percentage of his IP thrown against them, the true context Ferrell pitched against was 5.25 runs/game. The assumed context was 5.33 r/g, so this in fact hurts Ferrell, ever so slightly. The point of this data was supposed to be a comparison with Grove, but that is irrelevant here; the conclusion is that in 1932, at least, Ferrell’s assumed and actual contexts were essentially equal, and no adjustment is needed.

I don’t know if other data was compiled broken down by season, but if so I have not found it. The bottom line is that Ferrell is a borderline top 70 pitcher by my standards. He is not a HOFer by these standards.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I wasn't planning on posting my picks, but I must admit surprise at the seeming consensus among prognosticators that Hard Spun is the one to beat. Sure, Street Sense got his "favorable rail-skimming trip"; but Hard Spun also had a nice time on the lead with no real challengers. I think Flying First Class and King of the Roxy will have something to say about that at Pimlico, and with only 9 horses in the field, the odds of Street Sense getting the kind of trip he likes are much better then they were in Kentucky.

But I have to go with Circular Quay as my pick. First, I think Todd Pletcher entering him late after there was very little talk of it indicates that he has probably looked good to him. Secondly, he has now had a >8.5 furlong test, and did pretty nicely for himself in Louisville. He could be the beneficiary of a hotly contested lead between Hard Spun and whoever goes with him.

Street Sense would be my second choice, as he was for the Derby. Curlin, Xchanger, and Hard Spun would round out my top five, although I must put in a good word for King of the Roxy. Despite being a sprinter or miler in reality, I will be pulling for him, as he and I share an important attribute, one not commonly seen in top-class thoroughbreds; he and I are both Ohio-breds.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Freak Show Stat: Discounted Team Wins

I am in this post going to present what Bill James used to call a “freak show stat”. They are offered in the spirit of fun, not serious research--not that they are incapable of containing any kernels of truth, but they should not be taken too seriously. Freak show stats are a dime a dozen; every kid who has played around with baseball stats has invented one. I used to use BA*1000 + RBI + HR.
Intriguingly, there are some folks out there who take their own freak show stats very seriously, and defend them vigorously, and complain when people point out that they are, well, freak show stats. See the Baseball-Fever board for a few recent examples of this phenomenon.

Anyway, I am offering up my own freak show stat here, and it is offered in that spirit. Quite frankly, I would be surprised if someone out there hasn’t done something nearly identical to what I have done here, and it has just slipped my mind. If so, my apologies.

What sparked this in my head was this post on a non-baseball message board I frequent. A Cubs fan poked fun at a Reds fan, and then a different Reds fan responded with a similarly light-hearted jab, and then some Cubs fan took it a little too seriously:

Subject: I know you make fun of the Cubs, but from a Red's fan? Com'on
Message: Since 1980
Reds have been to the playoffs twice, with only two division titles.
Cubs have been to the playoffs five times, with four division titles.
I'll give you that at least the Red's have a championship in there, but, numbers dont lie. recent history in the last 30 years or so, have the reds just as bad if not worse than the cubs.

First, I should point out that these facts are wrong, before anyone catches it--the Cubs have been to the playoffs four times and won three divisions since 1980, not 5 and 4 as the poster claims.

What drew my attention to this was the arbitrary nature: “since 1980”. What special significance is 1980? 27 years ago, so it’s not a nice round number. Things like “since the turn of the century” may still be arbitrary, but they are commonly used in making criteria for rankings, but 1980 has no particular significance in that regard either. The most likely explanation is that the period is chosen to make the poster’s point. If he had included 1979, after all, the Reds would have another divisional crown to their credit. And God forbid that the 1970, 1972, 1975, and 1976 pennant winners somehow slip in there (not to mention the 1973 division winners).

So the comparison to since 1980 has no particular value in defining a franchise’s fans ability to crow; well, one potentially, but I’ll get to that later. However, it is almost certainly true that fans get more enjoyment from their team’s recent exploits then those of past days. I’m sure that many Tigers fans would have cashed in their 1984 title for last years'.

So how to model this in a way that doesn’t involve drawing arbitrary lines? The obvious answer is a “discount rate” of some sort. Anyone familiar with any kind of interest theory at all can see where this is going, although in this case, past wins are less valuable then current wins, and future wins are irrelevant since they don’t exist yet (imagine the derision the Cubs fan would have received had he said, “Yeah, the Reds won the World Series in 1990, but the Cubs are going to win in 2009.”)

What we can do is take all years into account, but discount the wins by an increasing amount as you go back in time. At this point I should stress that I am not trying to assess the economic value of wins to teams’ bottom lines, which would be a worthwhile question. I am trying to estimate the “fan satisfaction value” of wins.

How to set a rate for fan satisfaction? You could probably draw some clues from people’s actual purchasing behavior on luxury items, like flat screen TVs and the like, or interest rates in general, but remember, this is a freak show stat, and everyone’s personal discount rate will be different. So we’ll just pick a number out of the air to illustrate the concept.

My favorite MLB team, the Indians, conveniently won the pennant exactly ten years ago. So I asked myself how much the satisfaction of the memory of that event, which I still have, would be worth to me in terms of a pennant for the Indians this year. I decided that 75% of a pennant this year would be worth the 1997 pennant. Then you can find the “interest rate” by solving:
.75 = 1/(1+i)^10

i works out, conveniently, to be 2.9%, which I’ll call 3%. So that is our conversion factor between past and present wins. Under this assumption, I would be willing to trade 100 wins last year for 97 wins this year (100/1.03). 100 wins ten years ago are worth 74 wins this year (100/1.03^10), and so on.

Just using wins doesn’t factor in championships at all. One could (again, pulling numbers out of the air) make a playoff appearance worth an additional 10 wins, a pennant worth 20, a World Series worth 40. Or you could just discount the championships themselves. The Cubs’ win in 1908, 99 years ago, would be worth 1/(1.03^99) = .054 2007 world titles. You can think up any number of ways to apply the basic concept.

Before I do a comparison of the Reds and Cubs, I want to go back to something I mentioned further up the page, which is that I can think of one reason why 1980 might be a legitimate starting point for a comparison on these grounds. That is if, in your specific case, wins in 1980 are irrelevant. I was not alive in 1980, so the Indians could have won the World Series and it would mean nothing to me (well, in terms of real experience at least; I could still draw pride as a fan of the team from our great history, but it wouldn’t be a memory that I would have, or a t-shirt that I bought the next day, etc.). I was alive in 1992, but not yet a baseball fan; that would mean nothing to me either. So it would make sense to start my personal comparison from 1994.

Anyway, back to the Cubs and Reds. I will ignore strike-shortened seasons (although you could just discount W%; as I’ve said, there’s any number of ways you can do it, and since it’s just a freak show stat, you can do whatever you want), and just discount all of their wins since 1980.

The Cubs won 2016 games over that period (excluding the current season); the Reds 2117. That’s a ratio of 1.05 to the Reds. The discounted team wins are 1378 for the Cubs and 1435 for the Reds; the ratio is 1.04 to the Reds. So the Cubs come out a little better by discounting wins, but not significantly so, and the Reds have the upper hand either way.

The figure “1378” is garbage; it’s just a number with no inherent meaning on its own. One could play around with the math and express everything in terms of a number that at least had a scale you understand (ala EQA) fairly easily, but it defeats the point of having a freak show stat to some extent.

Let’s do a quick Reds/Cubs championship comparison. First, we’ll look at that period, but count all playoff appearances as a value of 1. The Cubs win this 2.7 to 1.3. But let’s weight the various levels of success differently. 1 for a World Title, .4 for a pennant, .25 for a playoff appearance, and you only get the maximum of the three potential points (i.e. the Cardinals get 1 point for winning it all last year, not 1+.4+.25). Again, you can make up whatever weighting scheme you want.

With this one, the Cubs have 1 point non-discounted, while the Reds have 1.25. The discounted points are .78 to .69 for the Reds, which cuts the ratio from 1.25 to 1.13, but still leaves the Reds on top.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

My Top 60 Starters, Intro

I don’t have any good serious sabermetric stuff to write about currently, so I am pulling out a series I wrote ranking starting pitchers. I want to be clear that this is an activity for fun only and I don’t want to get this kind of frivolity confused with the more serious stuff I write.

When I started writing the title, I originally had “the greatest”. Then I decided against this because “greatness” means different things to different people. Then I put “most valuable”, and while I have proposed an objective, sabermetric definition of value, I realized I wasn’t following my own definition, and so that couldn’t be it. What I’ve defined as “performance” is the closest to what I’m doing here, but “The Top 60 Performing Starters” sounds stupid. So in the end, as it ultimately must be unless I was to chain myself to using a set formula and change nothing, it has to be my list. Claiming it as something else will only draw quibbles with how I defined terms. I’m sure that you will have quibbles with my approach, but no one can deny that it is my approach.

So why have I chosen to rank sixty starters. Well, I’ve limited myself to career major leaguers in who pitched primarily post-1900, and there happen to be 49 pitchers of this category currently in the Hall of Fame. There are a number of historically great pitchers currently in the game, and by the time they retire and move in to the Hall, there could well be 60. 50 would be too restrictive, as it wouldn’t cover all of the pitchers worthy of HOF induction (with the big unstated assumption being that the Hall has chosen the numbers of pitchers to honor in a sane way), but if you go to 100 you start debating whether Eddie Rommel was better then Jim Perry, and that’s not exactly stimulating. Besides, I have not run the numbers on every pitcher who ever lived, just those that are in the Hall of Fame, won a lot of games, ranked highly in TPI or WAT, or I was curious about. It is very possible that by the time you get down to the hundredth spot, there are guys who deserve to be in the discussion that I didn’t give a look. And I don’t want to exclude them, but I also don’t want to waste my time figuring the NW% for every pitcher who could possibly have a claim.

I will try to explain the principles behind my rankings, because half the battle is how you define things. Many of the arguments in sabermetrics stem from a failure to clearly explain what the point is. My favorite example is park factors. People will criticize run PFs on the basis that they treat lefties and righties the same. But if one is after value, it doesn’t matter whether you were left-handed or not. The impact on the value of a run in that environment is the same. Now you may have other objections to park factors, or the way some people use them, but to criticize someone for using them in a value system for the reason that they don’t consider handedness is invalid.

So, this is where I’m coming from:
1. I am only considering major league performance. That means no credit for Lefty Grove in Baltimore, no credit for Bob Feller in World War II, no credit for Satchel Paige in the Negro Leagues, and no credit to Herb Score for not ducking.

2. Point 1 is not my attempt to dismiss the importance of those things. Lefty Grove was a great pitcher in Baltimore. Bob Feller probably would rank much higher had he not fought for his country. Satchel Paige and his contemporaries were victims of racism and were legitimately great players, completely worthy of their places in the Hall of Fame and in baseball lore. The exception is Herb Score; it’s impossible to extrapolate what he would have done had he ducked. Bill James distinguished between the first three types by arguing to the effect that “Grove actually was a great pitcher in 1923, and Paige in 1934, and Feller in 1944, but Herb Score actually was not in 1963.” I don’t disagree with this, but I choose not to do any assuming at all about how things would have been if not for .

The Grove/Paige examples are even tougher because they were actually playing baseball in fairly high level environments, but I am just not comfortable enough interpreting their statistics (or lack thereof). I’m not qualified to do so. That does not mean that I am denying that Satchel Paige or Hilton Smith or Joe Rogan or whoever was a great pitcher, or that they should not be in the HOF, or that people who are qualified to do so shouldn’t include them in a ranking with the white pitchers of their day. I’m just not going to.

3. The guiding principle of the list is to measure based on value, or at least what I in the past have called “performance”. In other words, I care how much he actually helped the team he pitched for win games. I don’t care if he was hurt more by the park he pitched in because he was left-handed or because he gave up a lot of flyballs or anything like that. I hesitate to call my approach “value”, though, because value implies things like WPA and value-added runs, and that’s not really what I’m doing either. Basically, what I am doing is value, assuming that his events (singles, outs, walks, etc.) were distributed in a league-average way in terms of base/out situation, score differential, etc.

4. Value is measured against the nebulous replacement level, which I have defined as 125% of league average (.390 W%), for all-time. This is very debatable, as I have long been an advocate of a higher baseline then “replacement”, and assuming that it was the same in 1900 as it was in 2000 is quite an assumption.

5. Corollary to #4, I don’t put a lot of weight on “peak” value. I have never understood the fascination with peak value, as I have expressed before. First of all, nobody agrees on how to define it. To some it is the best three seasons. To some it is the best five consecutive seasons. To some it is the best seven series. To Don Malcolm when advocating on behalf of Dick Allen, it is the top nine consecutive seasons.

Now I suppose that there is nothing wrong with defining your criteria as “the best four consecutive seasons”, and then figuring out how players ranked based on that standard. But I just personally don’t see how that ties in to the greater HOF-type questions. To me, it seems that if one player was worth 100 wins to his teams over the course of his career, and another was worth 80, that the first guy is “greater” unless there’s a darn good reason to think otherwise.

From a value perspective, I believe that it is possible to give credit to “peak”, by looking at it terms of pennants. However, in this context I reject the term “peak” and prefer to refer to “clustered” performance, as opposed to “scattered” performance. The pennant approach stems originally from Bill James in The Politics of Glory, and later from the research of other sabermetricians, among them Michael Wolverton and Dan Levitt. After all, pennants are forever. If you have one great season, and your team wins the World Series because of it, that can be seen as being more valuable then helping a .500 team win 83 games each year for some period of time. If one +10 season helps a team win more pennants then two +5 seasons (and as far as we can tell, it does), then it makes sense to rate the one season guy ahead. The problem with this is that the attempts to quantify this show that the different rankings you get from using Pennants Added versus WAR aren’t really all that different.

I have not attempted to run a Pennants Added framework here, but I have kept track of Wins Above Average, which I do give some weight because of the pennant factor as well as the fact that I believe the WAR baseline is probably too low. So if I had a guy who was 300-280, and another who was 250-201, they would both be +74 WAR, but the 250 win pitcher would be +24.5 WAA while the 300 win pitcher would be +10 WAA, and I’d probably rank the 250 guy ahead. Generally, though, WAR is the primary factor.

6. Since the primary comparison is WAR-based, active pitchers are fair game. I’m not concerned about “ranking them too early”, because it’s unlikely that subsequent poor performances will do too much harm to their career WAR. If you compare to a higher baseline, this can be a problem. Now I have only considered older pitchers, so even if a Johan Santana would end up on the list (he wouldn’t), I didn’t figure him, so he wouldn’t be here. Active pitchers I considered are Moyer, Rogers, Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson, Pettitte, Pedro, Mussina, and Schilling.

7. I have not made any “timeline” adjustment. I have little doubt that the quality of play in the majors today is much better then it was a hundred or even fifty years ago, but I have treated a win in 1900 as equally valuable to a win in 2000. On the other hand, I have not given old-time pitchers any extra credit for pitching in shorter seasons in which each win was more valuable relative to the pennant.

8. The rankings are based on regular season pitching only; I have not considered hitting or post-season performance. Playoff performance certainly is valuable, but in many cases it is a negligible factor in terms of an entire career, even if you weight these games more heavily. In other cases, like Whitey Ford, it is not, and I have in some cases given some extra credit for it.

Hitting is also negligible for many pitchers. In a case like Wes Ferrell, though, you can’t ignore it, and so I have looked into his offensive value. However, there is nothing wrong in theory with having a list based solely on pitching performance, and then having another almost identical list based on pitcher’s total overall contribution. I have tried to make a hybrid, but you can legitimately split them up.

Now, what are the methods that I have used? Well, a very minor consideration were the NW%, WAT, and WCR figures that I did a series on earlier this year. The main considerations were similar stats based on runs allowed.

I use all runs, not just earned runs, which I’m not going to justify here. The Run Average is park-adjusted, using the park factors discussed here. Adjusted Run Average (ARA) is in the same vein as ERA+; it is N/RA*100, where N is league runs/game and RA is the park-adjusted RA. To figure WAA and WAR, I have assumed that the runs per win factor is equal to 2*N. This is not a terrible assumption, but it probably is not the best. There is a deeper issue here about the nature of the run to win converters and what they should do, which I honestly have not given full thought to and don’t want to deal with this in exercise. RPW = RPG is a graceful if incorrect way around it. It is also, incidentally a consequence of using a Pythagorean exponent of 2. Anyway, that gives these formulas:
WAA = (N - RA)*IP/9/(2*N)
WAR = (1.25*N - RA)*IP/9/(2*N)

I have also included the pitchers aggregate WAR in their best five seasons as “Top 5”; this is a “peak” measure, although I am wary about such things, and in this case early pitchers are definitely favored as they pitched many more innings in each season, so it is best to use it to compare contemporary pitchers if you use it at all. Also, AeRA is Adjusted Estimated Run Average, where eRA is a component ERA-type method. I have only included it for pitchers in the second half of the century as I did not want to have to come up with a run estimator covering the entire century and the changing available data. And since we are dealing with careers here, it is more likely then for a single season that any variation of RA from eRA will be a result of a poor eRA estimate, not “luck” in the small sample size making RA different from eRA. So it is a minor factor, along the lines of the W-L based tools.

I may at some times refer to arguments that other people have made in analyzing these pitchers. One of the best sources is of course the Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James, as both editions spend a good number of pages on rating players. Another is the Hall of Merit, the alternative history Hall of Fame hosted by Baseball Think Factory. They have spent the last few years voting on who should be included in their Hall of Merit, and many arguments have been advanced on behalf of candidates, and some good research done on them as well.

In the end, there will be people who don’t care how I rank theses guys, and to them, I say “good for you”. There are people who don’t like the practice of making these types of lists, or who think my criteria are stupid, or think I screwed over Sandy Koufax. That’s fine. But just remember that if you want to criticize my list, you should do it on the basis of my criteria. That is not to say that my criteria are unimpeachable, but if that’s your beef, feel free to criticize those. Don’t criticize what flows from them.

If I said I was going to rank the Presidents of the United States, on the basis of how pretty their daughters were, and then ranked George W. Bush ahead of Bill Clinton, would it make any sense to say “Well, P, Clinton was great because he signed welfare reform and NAFTA, and Bush is terrible because of McCain-Feingold and steel tariffs”. No, because that wasn’t the criteria. That is analogous to criticizing me for not ranking Koufax highly on a list that is explicitly stated as being based primarily on career WAR.

Would it make sense to say, “P, that’s a dumb way to rank presidents, and who really cares what their daughters look like?” Of course it would. That would be like saying, “Well, it’s true that Koufax doesn’t rank highly in career WAR, but that’s not a good way to rank pitchers.”

Would it make sense to say, “P, I completely disagree. Chelsea is much hotter then Barbara and Jenna combined”? Sure. I’d think you were nuts, but it would be a valid argument. That would be like saying “Given your criteria, P, I don’t see how you can possibly rank Tom Glavine ahead of John Smoltz.” You can accept my criteria and disagree with my conclusions. Or vice versa.

Friday, May 04, 2007

“Handicapping” the Derby

I put handicapping in quotes because I’m not anywhere close to being a handicapper, or even a good horse player at that. I’ve been trying to pick the Derby winner for several years now; ask Harlan’s Holiday, Ten Most Wanted, High Limit, and Lawyer Ron how that turned out (although I did get the favorite, Smarty Jones, in 2004).

Usual disclaimers aside, I see this shaping up to be a pretty exciting race. You’ll see stuff out there about how people think this field is weak in comparison with others; I don’t see that at all. There are about seven colts who I really, really like, and wouldn’t be surprised at all to seen in the winner’s circle.

I will go over my top ten in reverse order; obviously I’m not really picking these ten to run in this order, but I am ranking them by my guess at their probability of winning the race. Number Ten is, reluctantly, Hard Spun. I’m not encouraged by his very fast work this week, nor am I impressed with the fields he’s run against. However, I can’t overlook the potential that he’s really as good as his record. Next is Zanjero, who has become one of the trendy longshot picks, and for good reason. He has been third in three straight races, but big races against good fields (beaten by would-be Derby starter Notional in the Risen Star, after attacking from the outside; by Circular Quay in the Louisiana, and by Dominican and Street Sense in the Blue Grass).

At #8 I have a horse I don’t really like, but whose wins have to be given their due in Scat Daddy. Personally, I see him as this year’s Lawyer Ron, and I learned my lesson the first time. At #7 I have Cowtown Cat, the first of three consecutive Todd Pletcher trainees on my list (Scat Daddy is his as well). He looked good in winning the Illinois Derby. Any Given Saturday is a tough horse to fault for his two recent losses, as they were to Street Sense in quite a battle (although it was Street Sense’s first start since the Breeder’s Cup) and Nobiz Like Shobiz. Distorted Humor has already won the Derby with Funny Cide and AGS could make it two; my only regret is that his juvenile rival Tiz Wonderful is sidelined.

At #5 is Circular Quay, who has never run more then 8.5 furlongs, and would therefore is trying to buck one of the trends (as an aside, the devotion that some horse players show to trends mystifies me. I’ll talk about this more with Street Sense). I have to admit to being a fan of his as his sire Thunder Gulch won one of the first Derbys of my memory and went on to add the Belmont and the Travers, which to me is a truly legendary performance. He also sired the even greater Point Given.

At #4 is the likely favorite, Curlin. I do think that Curlin has great talent and potential; I’d be a fool to deny that. For me, it’s not just that he only has three lifetime starts or didn’t race at all at two, it’s that he has never faced a field anywhere comparable to this one before. One pick I saw said that he could be impossible to beat if he gets a perfect trip. Obviously, “impossible” is hyperbole, but I agree with the general sentiment. The problem is, I don’t see him having much of a shot at winning if he doesn’t get a great trip. With a twenty horse field, you can get stuck in a hard place, and then have to beat a bunch of horses vastly superior to any you’ve faced before. However, if he wins, then he just may be a superhorse, and the Triple Crown buzz machine will be out in full force.

Great Hunter at #3 is another horse whose bloodlines I’m a sucker for, as he is out of Aptitude out of AP Indy. He has only started twice this year, winning the Robert Lewis and finishing fifth in the bizarre race that was the Blue Grass.

At #2 I have the juvenile champion Street Sense, who is looking to become the first Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner to take the Kentucky Derby. This is the kind of trend that really annoys me when it gets mentioned. There is no reason to believe that there is some grand design of the universe that prevents the BC Juvy winner from wearing the roses. There are some good reasons why winning the BC Juvy may not be that great of a thing when assessing Derby prospects; a horse that wins that race may already be near their peak, they may be overrun as a two-year old which hurts their development, etc. There are any number of reasons why you shouldn’t place your Derby future bet the minute the BC is over. But once a horse has overcome these obstacles, it’s silly to look back on a race last October or November as a reason they won’t win in May.

Consider how close, within the last five years, fine horses like Point Given and Afleet Alex came to winning the Juvenile. Granted, they didn’t win the Derby either, but they went on to take the three year old title. Also keep in mind that many Juvenile winners never make it to Lousiville, or do so after lackluster campaigns that provide a reason to think they won’t win. 2002 champ Vindication and 2005 Stevie Wonderboy were injured. 2004 champ Wilko was an underdog BC winner to begin with, and demonstrated why that was the case.

Anyway, if Street Sense doesn’t cross the wire first, it won’t be because he crossed the wire first on this track in November. Street Sense is the horse, along with Curlin, who would get some legitimate TC buzz going with a win.

But my pick, and I will admit that I have grown to love this horse, one of the favorites of my time as a fan, is Nobiz Like Shobiz. I couldn’t pick the next Secretariat from the next Zippy Chippy if they bit my fingers off, but those in the know say that Nobiz is a beautiful specimen of a colt. I am amused by his apparent aversion to big crowds (they stuff cotton in his ears) and big fields (he now wears blinkers). My affection aside, he’s a darn good horse. He had to hold off Any Given Saturday and the surprising Sightseeing in the Wood, his first start with the blinkers. He was a closely beaten third to his nemesis Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth in a race in which he was out wide almost the entire trip. In his first start of the year, he beat Scat Daddy and Drums of Thunder fairly soundly in the Holy Bull, although he didn’t show the kind of explosion you’d like to see; then again, he didn’t need to.

I just feel that he is sitting on a huge race, and the second start with blinkers would be a great time to find it. And he is my pick.

I will comment on why a few horses who many hold in high regard did not make my list. Tiago’s coming out party in the Santa Anita Derby was against a weak field. Much is made of the fact that he is Giacomo’s maternal half-brother, but Giacomo needed the suicidal pace of Spanish Chestnut and co. to win in 2005; it’s tough to forecast that happening again, even if they are the same horse. Liquidity is one of my favorites, as he is a son of Tiznow, and may help set the pace on Saturday; I would be thrilled to see him run well, but I don’t see it. Dominican was not really on a lot of people’s radars before the Blue Grass, and that race is real easy to throw out.

In review:
1. Nobiz Like Shobiz
2. Street Sense
3. Great Hunter
4. Curlin
5. Circular Quay
6. Any Given Saturday
7. Cowtown Cat
8. Scat Daddy
9. Zanjero
10. Hard Spun

NOTE: I wrote this before the post positions were assigned; the only big change is that Great Hunter starting in post 20 has to slide down the list a little bit. Also, given the odds you can get, my trifecta would be to take Nobiz to win and box Cowtown Cat and Circular Quay. I don’t think that’s the most likely outcome, but it would certainly have a bigger potential payoff then taking the top three, yet it is still within the realm of possibility.