Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Meanderings

* I think I need to give up my Indians fandom, limited as it may be. It's incredibly frustrating to go through the same thing year after year. Every year on July 31, you know exactly what to expect. Unless the team is in the thick of the race, a group of veteran players eligible for free agency or close to it will be traded away for prospects. And all you can do is shake your head and wonder, "Don't these people get it?"

I speak of course not of Mark Shapiro and the Indians front office, but about the mainstream "fan view" that you see on message boards and on talk radio.

Please recognize that I am not saying that I am enamored with the return the Tribe got in their trades, nor am I criticizing those who analyze the moves on a player-by-player basis and find them lacking. The return for Lee seems underwhelming, the return for Martinez seems a little bit underwhelming, but reasonable, the returns for Betancourt and DeRosa seem eminently fair, and the return for Garko seems more than generous. I don't suspect that the Cliff Lee trade will go down in history as a coup, but I'm also not foolish enough to write it off as a failure a week after it was made.

My real frustration with fan-think is that it doesn't matter who the Indians got in the trades. They could have got the Phillies and Red Sox top prospects, and the vox populi would still be howling. There was a similar outcry in Cleveland over the Colon trade, which of course turned out to be a massive coup. But there is nary little recognition that Lee himself was acquired in the very same type of trade he was dispatched in. Again, I'm not saying that this specific trade will work out as well as the Colon trade did. The Colon trade came under special circumstances and cannot be used alone as a precedent, and looked a lot better on paper at the time.

The outcry over the Pirates' moves is even more puzzling. The way some commentators have talked about Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and Nyjer Morgan, you would think they are stars. Again, I have no issue with questions about whether the return will do any good, but the idea that Freddy Sanchez was an integral future piece for the Pirates is absurd.

* More broadly, why is it that the baseball fan public at large has such a hard time grasping some very simply truths about baseball economics? I can't tell you how many people I've encountered with business sense and a solid understanding of economics (I'm not exactly Milton Friedman myself, mind you) that just can't apply it to baseball at all.

Here are just a few simple principles about trades that seem to be missed by a large portion of casual fans. There is some overlap between them, and I'm certainly not claiming that you didn't already think this way:

1. You are not trading for a player; you are trading for his contract too.

This is of course the key tenant of the type of trade analysis that is popular at sabermetic sites. People act as if you are trading Cliff Lee's entire future, but in fact what you are trading is 1 1/2 years of Cliff Lee's services. Of course, in Lee's case he is paid less than his free agent value, but in many other cases players are paid about what they would get on the free agent market, and in others they are paid more.

2. When a player is eligible for free agency, you are probably going to have to pay him is market value. In some cases there might be a hometown discount, or a security discount if you sign an extension in advance, but for the most part you pay market value.

Just because Cliff Lee is an Indian doesn't mean that he's going to stay an Indian. Would you expect the Indians to reach a free agent agreement with a pitcher of similar quality? No? Then you probably shouldn't expect them to reach a contract extension with him either.

Circling back to #1, trading Lee just means you give up 1 1/2 years of his service, not his whole future career. You can't trade what you never owned to begin with.

3. Even if a player's contract is a decent value, that doesn't mean he's the best possible fit for your organization.

Nyjer Morgan is not a bad player, but if he can handle center field well and your top prospect plays that position as well, then maybe you're better off trading him to a team with a gaping whole in center field in exchange for some other pieces. Simple, right? But how many hand-wringing comments about the Morgan trade ignored the presence of McCutchen and the possibility that Morgan's value is not maximized by playing left for the Pittsburgh?

4. Teams have to think about long-term implications

This is self-evident and shouldn't have to be stated at all, but the knee-jerk reaction often overlooks it regardless. The Indians recently traded Carl Pavano to Minnesota, and some fans balked because he was just about the most reliable starter left on the team (sad but true). But he was only going to be an Indian for two more months, and it doesn't make any difference how the Indians perform over the next two months.

Of course, the Indians got essentially nothing in return and just saved whatever was left on his contract, so it's not as if they would have lost out on some great opportunity had they held onto him. But still there were fans who reacted with an eye only on how it would affect the end of the Indians' lost season, and not the fact that it opened up a rotation spot for Justin Masterson (and maybe Carlos Carrasco or Hector Rondon or someone in September) or the dollar savings, etc.

* I am glad to see that strikeouts per PA (as an alternative to K/IP for pitchers) is gaining more widespread use in the sabermetric community. K/PA is something I've agitated for in the past--I don't know that I've ever done it here, but I could dig up some embarrassingly intemperate FanHome threads to prove it.

I don't mean to suggest that K/IP is worthless, but it doesn't measure what the casual fan seems to think it does. Innings Pitched has widely been accepted as our standard for how much someone pitched, but in fact it is the number of outs they recorded divided by three. So K/IP can actually be thought of as the percentage of outs that are recorded by strikeouts.

K/PA is the percentage of batter struck out, so it takes a binary approach--a strikeout is a "success" and any non-strikeout is a "failure". Of course, there are other ways you could break it down as well--some people exclude walks, for instance. It all depends on what you are seeking to measure.

But to me, K/PA answers the most relevant question. A pitcher with truly "unhittable" stuff would be able to strike batters out at will (ridiculous extreme, granted). Excluding walks ignores the tradeoff that often has to take place between attempting to avoid contact and throwing strikes. K/IP is still useful, IMO, as you could look at is measuring how often a pitcher takes care of a batter himself and how often his fielders are involved. And of course there is a strong correlation between K/PA and K/IP--you're not going to go too wrong either way and conclude that Nolan Ryan was a master of pitching to contact and that Nate Cornejo was a flamethrower.

Before you send me any angry emails about referring to PA rather than Batters Faced, one of my pet peeves is the use of different names for the same statistic based on whether it is for a hitter or a pitcher. It just causes unnecessary confusion.

* Out of the four major North American pro team sports, my order of preference is baseball (big gap), football (big gap), basketball, hockey. I was recently thinking about this and it occurred to me that my preferences correspond very well to the continuum of possession fluidity. The more fluid possessions are, the less I like the sport.

I am not saying that is the one and only explanation for my preferences--it is a kind of after the fact analysis. But I do like the increased order of each sport.

In baseball, there really isn't possession in the same sense as other sports, as of course the ball is not advanced towards a goal. But there is a very rigid process of changing sides, which occurs if and only if three outs are made or the game ends. Unlike in other sports, the offense and defense are kept completely separate, and there is never any incentive formed out of a goal of winning the game to do anything other than attempt to score or prevent the opponent from scoring. (Of course, there are times in which it makes sense to try to score one or two runs rather than attempting to maximize your runs. But there is never any win-based reason to eschew scoring at all, or severely curtail it, as there are in the other sports).

Football's possessions are fairly well-defined. Possession changes on a score, on the orderly concept of downs, or when one team voluntarily decides to surrender position, usually by punting. The only disorderly change of possession occurs on turnovers, and on about half of plays (running plays), the ball is physically in the possession of an offensive player at all times.

Basketball has much less rigidity. Possession changes on certain fouls and infractions, on certain scores, and on the shot clock. That list does not include turnovers, which are much more frequent than in football and understandably so, as the ball can only be cradled for a brief period of times. The rules of the game dictate that the ball almost always be accessible to thievery by the defense, and passing is a necessity done in close quarters rather than downfield as in football.

I would argue that hockey has the most possession fluidity of any of the sports, as possessions are not formally defined (there is no shot clock, no downs, and certainly no innings change). The puck must always be on the ice where it is up for grabs, and while hockey players have amazing control over the puck with their sticks (I tried to write this five different ways and none of them sounded good), it's hard to say that it is a safer way to secure the ball/puck than holding it with your hands.

If you thought this was going somewhere, sorry, it's not.

2 comments:

  1. Before you send me any angry emails about referring to PA rather than Batters Faced, one of my pet peeves is the use of different names for the same statistic based on whether it is for a hitter or a pitcher. It just causes unnecessary confusion.

    But if I give you the follwing;

    Team PA PA
    Cle 4,764 4,869

    how would you know which number is the number of offensive plate appearances, and which number is the number of the opponent's offensive plate appearances? You wouldn't know of course, so I do think there is SOME utility in having different names for the same statistic.

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  2. I agree that is confusing. My preferred solution is to just add a qualifier before after the name of the stat--Opponent PA, Hits Allowed, etc. I don't think that having an entirely different name is particularly helpful.

    Plus the official categories handle this issue with no consistency whatsoever. On one hand you have different names--PA/BFP, HB/HBP. On the other you have stats where the full names may be different, but the abbreviations are the same (hits/hits allowed are both H official, runs scored/runs allowed are both R, etc.)

    ReplyDelete

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