Monday, March 30, 2009

In Lieu of Clever Title, Indians Preview

After winning the AL Central in 2007 and falling just one game short of the pennant, the 2008 Indians were expected to once again contend for the division crown. After a couple of high-profile off-season additions, once again the Tigers were expected to be their top rivals.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Tigers/Indians pennant race. Detroit faltered out of the gate, dropping their first seven games. Meanwhile, the Indians puttered around the .500 mark, going into the game of Saturday May 17 in Cincinnati at 22-20 with a 1/2 game division lead.

I am hesitant to bestow great significance upon single games, but if you insist on finding a turning point in the season, the May 17 loss to the Reds is my nomination. The Indians had entered the series with their downstate rivals off a three-game sweep of the A’s in which they scored just ten runs, but allowed just two. In fact, over the Indians’ last seven games they were 5-2 with a runs tally of 29-4. It was obvious that the pitching could not continue to dominate so thoroughly, but the hope was that the offense would come around soon.

On Friday night, the Reds beat the Tribe 4-3. On Saturday, Cleveland nursed a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning with temporary nominal closer Masa Kobayashi on the hill. He had gotten the third out in the eighth, but would not retire a batter in the ninth. When Adam Dunn’s three-run blast landed in the right-field seats, the Indians had fallen into a tie for first and a .500 record; it would be the last time all year they would go into a game with either.

The two games in Cincy were the start of a seven-game slide, and things didn’t get much better from that point forward. In early July, in the midst of what would be a ten-game losing streak, the Indians dealt free agent to be CC Sabathia to Milwaukee with Casey Blake being shipped out to the Dodgers a short time later. Meanwhile, on the field the nadir came on July 9 with the Indians’ tenth straight loss, which put them at 37-53 and 15.5 games behind the White Sox.

The Indians managed to catch fire for the rest of the campaign, ending with a 44-28 spurt that left them at breakeven in the final standings, and just seven games behind Chicago.

The season was a disaster for several high-profile players:

* Victor Martinez hit .278/.338/.365 in just 73 games
* Travis Hafner was awful, hitting .197/.293/.323 in 57 games
* Fausto Carmona’s control collapsed and he regressed from a Cy Young candidate to a replacement-level performer
* Jake Westbrook went down with an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery
* Rafael Betancourt went from one of the AL’s top relievers to a replacement-level performance
* Joe Borowski’s high-wire act unsurprisingly failed to play as well the second time around.

On the flip side, there were at least a few pleasant surprises:

* Cliff Lee went from AAA demotion in 2007 to Cy Young winner with one of the best winning percentages in light of team W-L record in baseball history
* Shin-Soo Choo shone when handed the right field job after his return from Tommy John surgery, hitting .309/.393/.549 in 361 PA
* Kelly Shoppach, pressed into starting duty behind the dish when Martinez went down, belted 21 homers and helped the Cleveland catching unit rank second among its AL peers in RG

In the offseason, the Indians’ key moves were signing Kerry Wood to attempt to plug the closer role, which has been a perpetual weak link; trading for Mark DeRosa to fill the black hole at third base; signing Carl Pavano as a bullpen flyer; and trading Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners as part of a three-way deal with Mets’ sidearmer Joe Smith as the key return for 2009.

Behind the plate, Victor Martinez will look to bounce back from his poor 2008 campaign. I am pretty optimistic about his chances. Martinez was lacking any sort of power in the early portion of the campaign, but in his 76 PA after returning from the DL he managed an ISO of .176, just above his career average of .164. While the potential for further injury, his heavy workload, and his advancing age (30) raise concerns, I think that assuming he’ll be one of the more productive catchers in the league when on the field is warranted.

He may get to play a little more at first base this season, as Kelly Shoppach emerged last year as more than just an adequate backup. I hope the Indians recognize that last year may well have been a career year, however; many of the fans seem to be oblivious to the possibility. Shoppach is not young (29), managed an excellent BABIP last year (.359, albeit with a career average of .355), and saw a high percentage of his outfield flies wind up as home runs (23% compared to an average of 11%). I suspect that the average Tribe fan will consider Shoppach a big disappointment in 2009.

At first base, Ryan Garko is a pretty average performer. He has been working at playing LF and even RF a little bit in spring training games, but I find it difficult to imagine him actually being thrown into the outfield in a regular season game. I do however like the fact that the Indians are looking to creatively deploy their players.

Second base will apparently belong to Asdrubal Cabrera, with newly acquired Mark DeRosa at third and Jhonny Peralta at short. Many people (myself included) assumed that the acquisition of DeRosa would pave the way for Peralta to move to third and Cabrera to slide to short, his natural position and one which by all indications he could handle. That does not seem to be the case, however, as it appears DeRosa will be a one year stopgap at third as Cleveland hopes Luis Valbuena (acquired in the three-way trade from the Mariners) will claim second in 2010.

Cabrera struggled mightily in the first half (529 OPS) and was demoted to Buffalo, but had an 892 OPS in the second half. As long as Cabrera can match his overall 2008 offensive output, his defense should make him an average performer at second for the Tribe, with his age and strong second half offering hope for a little more. Peralta’s fielding may be poor, but he’s a fine offensive performer and at worst an average all-around package. While DeRosa cannot be expected to hit 21 homers again, he should be an upgrade over what the Indians got out of Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, and Andy Marte in 2008.

The one sure thing in the outfield is the brilliant yet still underappreciated Grady Sizemore in center field. One of these years, Sizemore is going to luck his way into batting .290 or .300, and the rest of the world will recognize what serious observers already know--he is one of the best players in the game. He will be flanked at least off the bat by Ben Francisco in left and Shin-Soo Choo in right.

Francisco has been built up by many casual Tribe fans to be something he’s not, and it didn’t help matters when he was hitting third for much of May and June. Francisco is 28, and in what now is around the equivalent of a full season has hit .267/.329/.446 in his major league career. He would be an asset as a fourth outfielder who can play a passable center, but as a starter in a corner he leaves much to be desired. The team is likely hoping that top prospect Matt LaPorta can overtake him by mid-season.

Choo on the other hand may not be a bad bet to exceed his 946 OPS of a year ago, but he should be an adequate performer and is in his age 27 season in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

DH Travis Hafner, one of the best hitters in the game just two years ago, is now a major question mark. In 2007 he signed a multi-year extension and slipped to a .266/.385/.451 line. In 2008, plagued by lingering shoulder weakness, he plummeted to 225 PA of .197/.305/.323 output. Without a clear diagnosis as to what went wrong, it is impossible to project with confidence any sort of rebound, unlike the case of fellow heart-of-the-order stalwart Martinez. Right now, his contract looks as if it may reach albatross level; he is untradeable and has nowhere to play but DH.

Shoppach will be the backup catcher, with Jamey Carroll returning as utility infielder and David Dellucci playing out his contract as reserve outfielder. Erstwhile second baseman Josh Barfield will fill out the bench as a utility man.

The starting rotation has two sure things (membership, not performance wise) in Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. Lee will not go 23-2 again, but 2007 now stands as the aberration in a career that marks him as a solid mid-rotation lefty. If he can retain some of the progress displayed last year, he should be one of the top fifteen pitchers in the AL.

Carmona is an enigma; he lost all semblance of control last year and was shelved with a hip injury. He has always garnered less strikeouts than his stuff might suggest, relying on his heavy sinker to generate groundballs. I’m inclined to think that last year was an aberration and that he will proceed with an adequate Chien-Ming Wang impersonation in 2009.

Behind them are two pitchers who will be in the rotation if healthy: Carl Pavano and Anthony Reyes. Pavano was signed as a low-risk free agent flyer, and Reyes pitched well after coming over from the Cardinals but was shut down in September.

The fifth starter will be Scott Lewis, who has impressive minor league numbers and pitched solidly in three September starts last year. The downside is that his stuff is middling, but he is left-handed and best of all he is an OSU alum. He beat out fellow lefties Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers for the spot, and they would be the first call-ups in case of the inevitable Carl Pavano injury.

Overall, the rotation appears to be Cleveland’s biggest question mark and weakness. Even with healthy performances from Pavano and Reyes and an adequate fifth starter, it is difficult to predict that it will be a positive for the team.

The bullpen, which struggled in 2008, should be much better this season. Kerry Wood, when healthy, will be the closer, and at least will give the Indians a true power arm out of that spot instead of the soft-tossers (namely Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski) they’ve run out in the ninth over the past several years. I would not have signed him for $10 million annually over two seasons with a vesting option for a third, but it’s not my money.

His top setup men will be Rafael Betancourt from the right side and Rafael Perez from the left, although Perez is capable of pitching multiple innings and is far from a LOOGY. Betancourt scuffled in 2008 after a brilliant 2007, but retained some solid peripherals (64 K/25 W in 71 IP). His biggest problem was a large number of homers given up (1.4 per 9 innings), unfortunately without an abnormal HR/OF rate. However, I’m willing to be bet on an adequate performance from Betancourt, although one a far cry from his dominance of 2007.

Jensen Lewis and Joe Smith will be the key middle relievers; Lewis recorded 13 saves as the end-of-year closer in ’08, but his 5.04 eRA gives cause for concern. Smith, with his sidearm delivery, has been a righty-killer for the Mets in his two-year career (643 OPS), but must be handled with extreme caution against lefties (881 OPS).

Masa Kobayashi will be in the pen due to his contract more than any merit; he was pounded last season (5.04 eRA, 5.03 dRA) and has not pitched well to this point in the spring. He will be mopping up in low leverage spots until he can demonstrate his effectiveness.

The final bullpen spot is down to lefty Zach Jackson, veteran righty Vinny Chulk, and righty Edward Mujica, if for no reason other than that he is out of options. Chulk has pitched better this spring, but Jackson is appealing because of his southpaw status (only one of the other six relievers shares it) and with a background as a starter could serve as the long man.

The Indians have the good fortune of playing in a weak division, and my expectation is that they will have an above average offense, an average defense, and thus a slightly above .500 record that may well be good enough to beat out their division foes. I legitimately believe that they are the best team in the division on paper, but by too thin a margin to predict a playoff berth. Cleveland may be the most likely winner of the AL Central, but I don’t think this team has much better than a 40% chance of playing in October.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Uncle Sam's Funeral

The US was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic last night, beaten by a worthy team from Japan. Unfortunately, the metaphorical death of Uncle Sam was not marked with simply the appropriate (if one supports the US team, of course; if one roots for Japan, the appropriate response would be something else entirely) mixture of disappointment and kudos for Japan. Instead, a parade of wannabe Fred Phelpses from the mainstream media have descended to grind their axes and attempt to outsnark each other (and now I've given you my own ridiculous metaphor).

I usually try to avoid just taking someone else’s column and ripping it a new one:

1) It’s lazy
2) It grants credibility to opinions that should just be ignored and allowed to gently fade from memory
3) Other people can do it a lot better than I can--much better in fact

Nonetheless, sometimes it just feels good to get it all off your chest. So please excuse the rant I’m about to go on, and if you don’t want to read that sort of thing, by all means, stop now.

First up we have Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports, in the dumbest column of them all:

The USA clearly has ideas about narrowing the gap. Just a little more pitching, an ounce more defense, maybe a tad more intuition from its field manager -- hey, these things take generations to build -- and the Americans might catch up. Perhaps by the next WBC. Or the one after that. Presumably, the U.S. team comported itself well enough to merit a return invitation.

And here you have exhibit A of snark. It’s not even clever; it’s heavy-handed and way over the top.

Alas, while the Americans have mastered the concepts of swinging hard, throwing hard and cashing large paychecks, they remain somewhat behind the world’s leading baseball federations in the game’s finer areas and for good reason, as USA designated hitter Jimmy Rollins pointed out. Japan’s players hit intelligently and situationally, and defend their positions with pride, and generally do not give an inch in any part of the game.

The accompanying quote from Jimmy Rollins certainly praises the Japanese team and their attention to detail. He also allows that the Japanese approach to the game is different than the American approach. But Brown has twisted it into a statement that American players don’t hit intelligently, don’t defend their positions with pride, and do “give an inch” (whatever the heck that even means) in some part of the game.

The Americans did not win, and for that they were unhappy. Yet, they might have understood deep down there was a greater good here. They perhaps set a path for another generation of American players, for the team that might very well stand with the great Japanese, the decorated Koreans. There is value in that. Someone had to be here first, for the next to follow, to hold open the door.

Perhaps on Monday night, were they to squint and tilt their heads just so, they could picture a team wearing red, white and blue uniforms, playing on that very field. Someday, maybe. Someday.

This level of snark should make the average poster at BTF blush.

Next up we have Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated:

Look at pregame practices. The Japanese run the baseball equivalent of a precise three-ring circus, with players taking groundballs and flyballs all over the yard at game speed. The Americans take a half-speed approach, and you'll almost never catch them taking pregame infield and outfield practice as a team.

There’s no doubt that the Japanese approach to practice is very much different than the American approach. This should not come as news to anyone. I’m sure there are things that Americans can take from Japanese baseball, and vice versa. But so much is being based on the result of two tournaments (more on this later).

Yes, baseball is the American pastime, but the United States once invented and popularized the automobile, too. Look at Detroit today and tell me it's still doing the car business better than Asia. Reputation alone is not a winning business model.

Verducci obviously went to the Obama School of History, where the car was invented by an American and not Europeans. And when pray tell is the last time Detroit had a better reputation than Japan for car manufacturing? Not in my lifetime. It’s just a ridiculous analogy on so many levels.

Then we have Mark Kriegle of Fox Sports:

The WBC -- an acronym shamelessly stolen from the equally shameless World Boxing Council

What a strange comment. As if three letter acronyms in which one of the words must be “baseball” and “world” is a strong contender for a second word must be individual, precious snowflakes.

If you're the country that claims baseball as its national pastime, it's [finishing third] an embarrassment.

This is reflective of the American arrogance about baseball. Baseball may be touted as our national pastime, but it would also have a strong claim to being the national pastime of Japan, let alone the Dominican Republic and Cuba and...If six countries claim baseball as their national pastime, are five of them automatically embarrassed anytime there is an international baseball competition?

The underachieving Dominicans, justly vanquished by the Netherlands, are shortchanging the fans, too. Where was Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez?

I seem to recall Albert Pujols having an elbow injury of sorts, that might make him or his team cautious. But I’m just a blogger, not a columnist for a major national website, so my memory is probably off.

Judging from Sunday, however, you'd get a lot of argument [about whether MLB represents the world’s best baseball]. I know it's not football. I know one game is just one game, and that the best of baseball teams win but sixty percent of the time. Still, the Americans were embarrassed last night.

He blatantly contradicts his reasonable statement in the third sentence in his fourth, without any attempt to explain why this one game was so embarrassing. But the very next paragraph makes it even funnier:

Davey Johnson leaves Roy Oswalt in to get batted around as if it were spring training. Team USA committed three errors and allowed four unearned runs.

One contention made by many columnists that I do not dispute at all is that Davey Johnson and staff did not approach the games with the urgency that many other countries did. Depending on your view of how important the WBC is vis-à-vis the regular season, you may applaud or condemn this (I am somewhat ambivalent, myself). But Kreigle uses bad managerial decisions in the WBC as evidence that MLB is not the pinnacle of the sport. Huh?

For the record, the crowd of 43,630 was very respectable for Dodger Stadium on an unseasonably cold night in March. But don't expect an encore -- not until America's pastime means as much to Americans as it does to the rest of the world.

Game results don’t perfectly reflect passion (in fact, that would be an even more appropriate reminder had the United States won). And this silly provincialism about baseball as “America’s game” is simultaneously arrogant and ignorant. Yes, baseball as we know it was founded and largely developed in America. But it has now been adopted by many other people around the world. If the media of the United States is going to demand a victory in every tournament simply because the game as we know it originated here, then they will never be content.

The fact of the matter is that Japan has advanced to the WBC Final twice, and it is well-deserved. But taking that fact and using it to extrapolate wildly about the quality of and passion for baseball in the two countries, and the effectiveness of training techniques, is unjustified. It simply is too small of a sample size in too limited of an event to draw any sweeping conclusions.

If Japanese baseball was superior, then we would rightfully expect players from Japan to perform better in the US than they did in Japan, and American refugees to perform worse. But of course the opposite is true; the evidence suggests that the NPB is a strong league, yet clearly inferior to MLB. Yet so many want to chuck the many thousands of PAs and innings available for comparison in favor of a few games played over a three-year span.

If small sample size tournaments are your thing, though, how about the Olympics? The Japanese Olympic team was not as strong as the Japanese WBC team--it obviously featured no major league players, but every player was with an NPB organization and it included multiple players on the WBC team--including Yu Darvish, Toshiya Sugiuchi, Atsunori Inaba, Norichika Aoki, and Hiroyuki Nakajima. This team lost twice to the United States’ collection of minor leaguers and one college phenom, including once in the bronze medal game.

Does this prove that the Japanese big leaguers should be signing up for the Dexter Fowler School of Yakyu? No, of course not.

It might be uncouth to continue, lest it seem I am bitter about Japan’s victory over the US. Not in the slightest: Japan is a country with a deep and rich baseball history, with passionate fans and excellent players (as every American fan has seen for himself through the performance of Japanese major leaguers). They are clearly one of the top baseball nations in the world, and it is no surprise to me that their WBC team is consistently a top contender.

But the claim that Japan has run roughshod over teams of Western major leaguers is just not true. There are really only four WBC teams which feature major leaguers at just about every important position: the US, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. There are also two teams with a high percentage of big leaguers at key positions: Canada and Mexico. The other Western teams have a limited number of major leaguers as in the case of Panama or none whatsoever (although in the case of Cuba, they certainly have players who could be major leaguers were it not for political conditions).

Given the way the WBC is structured, Japan has faced precious few teams comprised largely of major leaguers. In each WBC, Japan has opened up against Asian opponents. In the second round in 2006, they faced Korea again, plus Mexico and the United States. They beat Mexico but lost to the US. In the semifinals, they had a repeat engagement with Korea, then beat Cuba for the world title. So they faced just two Western teams with major leaguers and went 1-1.

Again in 2009, they advanced through the Asian pool. In the second round, they faced Cuba and Korea twice each. So in this WBC, Japan will play only one game against a Western team with any major leaguers whatsoever--last night’s game with the United States.

Whichever team wins the title tonight will deserve it, and it will be a great achievement for that baseball program and its players. Pointing out that they have not done it by steamrolling MLB all-star teams is not an attempt to rain on that parade; it is just an attempt to inject a little perspective into a media meltdown.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Quotations From F.C. Lane’s "Batting"

A few years ago, one of the publications included with SABR membership was a reprint of a 1925 book entitled Batting by F.C. Lane, an editor for Baseball Magazine. The book is essentially a compilation of comments on various facets of batting from the many interviews Lane and the magazine did with baseball figures of the time.

I finally got around to reading the book a few months ago it was a fairly interesting read. The comments of Cobb, Hornsby, Wagner, etc. are interesting enough, as they discuss place hitting, bunting, patience, thought processes, and other components of batting. As the modern introductory material observes, Lane reveals himself as an admirer of Ty Cobb, and as an agnostic at best on the new Ruthian style through his selection of quotes about and from those two men. In fairness, Cobb was nearing the end of his career in 1925 and had firmly established his career value, while Ruth still had a decade of value in front of him. So treating Cobb as the greatest hitter that ever lived was hardly egregious (which is not to say that it would necessarily be egregious today).

My biggest complaint about the book is that Lane goes off onto tangents near the end, discussing the impact of managers, fan support, and a number of other factors. I don’t mean to suggest that those things are completely irrelevant to questions of batting, but they are not as focused on the main topic as the rest of the material.

As an aside, Lane was something of a proto-sabermetrician, challenging the value of batting average and proposing a system that weighted hits based on their run producing value. Here is a link (PDF) to some discussion of Lane’s work in that area.

Anywhere, there were several quotes that I felt were interesting for one reason or another, and I wanted to share them here, perhaps with a brief comment. All quotations and page marks are from Batting by F.C. Lane, reprinted by SABR and the University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

On how a pitcher can be effective for several innings, then surrender a string of hits without warning:

But not infrequently it is merely an example of the mathematics of baseball. According to the laws of probability, the average batter will hit safely about once in four times. This will give him an average of .250, which isn’t from the mean, including pitchers and other weak hitters. Now it stands to reason that some times hits will appear about once in four times at bats, sometimes there will be a much longer stretch of no hits, and sometimes several hits will follow one another. On such occasions a pitcher is said to have a poor inning, whereas he may have been at his very best in that unlucky frame. But the accumulated chances were precipitated on him all at once.--Christy Mathewson

Bill James related that when Mathewson was injured in World War I, he used some of the ensuing recovery time to devise an APBA-like game. Given the recognition of random variation and chance displayed here, that is no surprise.

To me the particular thing which baseball suggests is the base on balls. It is the corner stone of the game. The very name baseball is almost the same as base on balls.--Burt Shotton

Given the title of this blog, there was no way I could pass that one up.

It’s getting pretty tough these days in baseball. I was fired out of so many games on my ear last summer by these human walruses in umpire’s suits that I think my ears must have callouses on them.--Johnny Evers

Just because the description is hilarious.

[Branch] Rickey knows too much to be a good manager. He is smart, but he isn’t a good manager.--Bill Doak

Interesting in light of the fact that this quote is from no later than 1925. Obviously Rickey was always a bright guy, but he was not yet the Mahatma, the semi-inventor of the farm system, the signer of Jackie Robinson, and the pioneer sabermetric executive.

Players are often accused of being selfish. I suppose they are. This is a selfish world. Players are just as selfish as fish peddlers and undertakers. Everybody, so far as I can observe, seems to have one eye open for his own interests.--Edd Roush

One purpose of reprinting Roush’s quote is that it illustrates how the book deviates a bit from discussing batting and batting alone. The other is that it is a good one to file under the “nothing ever changes in baseball” file. Of course players were selfish in the 1910s and in the 1990s and in the 1860s (and, as Ayn Rand might say if she watched Seinfeld, NTTAWT). The only difference is that each previous generation attempts to enshrine itself as the paragon of virtue and moral superiority.

One reason for my successful hitting is the fact that I always keep in good condition. I live in one of the greatest game countries in the world, Western Oregon. But I seldom go hunting or fishing. I’d rather drive a car. I went all the way home in my car last fall...Driving a car trains your eyes and hands and keeps you in the open air. That’s the main thing, to keep in batting trim.--Ken Williams

What a wonderful anachronism, driving being a better way to stay in the open air and in batting shape than hunting or fishing. If we can be sure that Williams wasn’t having a bit of fun when he said this.

The American League is superior to the National in just one important respect. They are the best press agents in the United States. Every time you pick up a paper in the summer months to find out who is trying to overthrow the government of Mexico, you see instead, in two inch type that stares at you, how Babe Ruth made another home run...The Old National League can play the American on the field, but not in the newspapers.--Fred Mitchell

Another one for the "nothing ever changes" file--the Neanderthal League, insecure and jealous. They started it in 1876 and have yet to display any signs of ceasing.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Power Factor v. Isolated Power

This is just a quick hit post, but it’s something that pops up from time to time and I wanted to record my thoughts here for posterity’s sake.

Sometimes you will see total bases per hit proposed as a measure of power. Eric Walker of High Boskage calls it Power Factor. Another common measure of power used is isolated power, in use since the days of Branch Rickey and Allan Roth and possibly longer, figured as (TB - H)/AB, or extra bases per at bat, or slugging average less batting average.

Which is better? Well, better is a nebulous term--as with so many issues in sabermetrics, the answer depends on what you are trying to measure. So let’s take a step back and think about what each of these formulas actually does measure.

Power Factor, TB/H, or SLG/BA, is quite obviously the average number of total bases per hit. As such, it can be thought of as a measure of bang for your buck--given that the batter gets a base hit, how many bases does he get?

Isolated Power is a measure of extra bases per at bat. Each base gained on a hit, beyond first base, goes in the numerator. Rather than dividing by hits, this sum is divided by at bats. It can be thought of as a measure of propensity to collect extra bases given that the ball is put in play.

If you have two players with an identical number of at bats, and identical numbers of each type of extra base hits, then they will have the same ISO. If one has less singles than the other, he will have a higher PF.

Consider the career statistics of Rob Deer and Mike Schmidt, presented below. Schmidt has a higher ISO, but Deer has a higher PF. Schmidt collected more extra bases, even per at bat, and by a substantial margin (.260 to .223 in ISO). But Deer collected substantially fewer singles (.119 per AB versus .146), and so when it comes to PF, his extra base contributions are less “diluted”. Thus, he has a slightly higher PF than Schmidt, despite the fact that Schmidt hit for extra bases at a higher rate:

So what are you trying to measure? Are you trying to measure some concept of “raw power” in which a player like Deer, who when he does hit safely often hits the ball a long way, is celebrated? Or do you want to recognize the frequency and number of extra bases a batter achieves, regardless of whether he also is proficient at getting humdrum singles?

Of course, there are other things that can be taken into account as well. Perhaps you want to draw a distinction between home run power and “doubles power”. Perhaps you only want to know what happens when the batter actually puts the ball in play, and want to ignore both at bats in which the ball is not put in play (which are included in ISO’s denominator). This school of thought would hold that strikeout rates not relevant to the question of power. So you could look at extra bases or total bases per balls in play, as Jim Furtado did some time ago. You could also try to draw a distinction between power (doubles and triples) and speed (triples) as Robert Dudek did. Perhaps you want a measure of hitting style or a measure of the value of power relative to a player’s other skills (in other words, the shape of his performance). In that case, Power Factor might be a better tool than Isolated Power.

There is any number of possible definitions, and none is inherently superior to any other. For me, though, the most interesting of these questions is “How much did the player contribute to his team through power hitting”, and for that, ISO is clearly superior to PF. That Schmidt hit more singles doesn’t make his power contributions less valuable. That Deer struck out a lot should not be ignored if you want to measure the impact of his extra base hits on his team.

One could also point out that both PF and ISO are somewhat crude. Each adheres to the standard total base weights (or the total base weights less one, which gives you extra bases). You could use the average base values (including all bases gained by the team--batter plus baserunners) or, similarly, the linear weight run values of the hit types (either total or beyond that of a single), to give a more precise measure of value contributed. This is the approach that Rob Shandler took with his “Linear Weighted Power” metric.

Since either of these power measures is not itself a statement of total value, but rather gives insight into how that total value was created, I don’t mean to suggest that there is necessarily anything wrong with using TB or EB weights. I just want to point out that you could go even further in refining the question than does ISO, and that ISO is not necessarily a fundamental baseball measure.

In conclusion, I’m not trying to suggest that Power Factor is useless, just that it doesn’t measure or approximate the value of extra bases. It is a measure of shape, and it does approximate at least one definition of what we mean when we talk about power. But I get the suspicion that most people are more interested in the type of question that Isolated Power speaks to.

In case you were curious about how to convert between ISO and PF, all you need is BA and you can derive these relationships:

PF = ISO/BA + 1
ISO = BA*(PF - 1)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

WBC Addendum: The 2006 US “Embarrassment”

This should have been part of the World Baseball Classic preview post, but it was running too long as it was. I am sure you will see a lot of stories that talk about how the USA team is seeking redemption, or was embarrassed in 2006, and the like. I would like to offer a little bit of a rebuttal to the underlying premise behind articles of the latter type, assuming they materialize in large numbers. If they don’t, consider this a pre-emptive strike if you are generous and abuse of a straw man if you are not.

It was certainly a disappointment that the United States failed to reach the final four in the 2006 WBC; they were the favorite or at the very least one of the favorites, and it is always disappointing when a team has the potential of winning it all and comes up short. So I am not disputing the redemption angle; it’s a natural rallying cry for any team which feels they didn’t achieve their goals.

However, I don’t think the 2006 version of Team USA has anything to feel particularly embarrassed about. The expectations for the USA team (and for any other particular team that was favored, like the Dominican Republic) were set too high. I think there were a few factors at play:

1. Ignorance by many media members and by most fans of the quality of international baseball

I am pretty confident that the average American has a very limited idea that baseball is one of the major national sports in Korea or Taiwan. The success of the Hideo Nomos and the Ichiros has gotten the point across about Japan, but fifteen years ago there would have been a similar level of ignorance. And even so, when people looked at the Japanese team there was probably still a strain of thought along the lines of “Who are these guys? If they were any good they would be playing in MLB, not for the Hiroshima Carp and the Orix Buffaloes.”

Thus, a lot of people see Korea defeating the United States in baseball and they look at it as if a Division III school had beaten Alabama in football. It seems somewhat unfathomable. But in reality, it’s much more like a minor Division I school upsetting Alabama (let’s say Troy)--relatively rare, surprising, but far from unfathomable.

2. A lack of recognition of the small sample size of the tournament

The US played six WBC games. That’s 1/27th of a major league season, and hardly enough to make any sort of judgment. Of course, the better a team supposedly is relative to its competition, the less games it should need to demonstrate its superiority. Still, I think anyone who expects the six games to definitively answer questions about the strength of each team is making a miscalculation somewhere along the line.

Since there are sixteen teams in the NL, same as the WBC, it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say you arranged the NL teams like this:

Pool A: Cubs, Brewers, Marlins, Pirates
Pool B: Mets, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Nationals
Pool C: Phillies, Braves, Astros, Giants
Pool D: Dodgers, Cardinals, Padres, Reds

Would you feel any degree of confidence predicting the outcome of this National League Baseball Classic? Would you be able to tell me that the Pirates had absolutely no chance to advance out of Pool A, or that the Mets were a lock? If you would, then I would love to make wagers with you on the outcome of the tournament.

Of course, it goes without saying that there is much more parity between the teams of the NL than the international teams. South Africa and China are far more outclassed by the United States and Japan than the Pirates and Nationals are by the Cubs and Phillies. Nonetheless, the point about small sample size remains, and the teams that the US lost to were not the no-chancers: they were solid fairly solid teams (Canada, Korea, Mexico).

3. Magnifying the difference between winning and losing

This is related to sample size, but not exactly the same, as this factor is still present in some people’s analysis of the results of a 162 game major league season. If the Phillies edge out the Mets for a playoff spot, some people want to believe that there was some great inevitable force at work, and that the victory, no matter how narrow, proves that the Phillies were a “better team”--whatever that nebulous term even means.

One has to tread carefully when addressing this viewpoint, because if you just start throwing the word “luck” around without any sort of technical definition of what you mean by it, it can seem as if you are disputing the fairness of the outcome.

That’s not my intent here at all. The fact of the matter is that in the second round, Japan, the United States, and Mexico all went 1-2, and Japan advanced on the basis of the tiebreaker. This was absolutely fair; the rules of the tournament defined the tiebreaker before hand, Japan had the best performance under the umbrella of those rules, and thus they advanced and they deserved to advance.

My objection comes when the narrow margin is magnified into a massive difference between the contestants. Believing that because the Phillies edged out the Mets by a narrow margin and Japan won a tiebreaker from the US, those teams are markedly superior. In fact, the margin is razor thin, and not particularly significant in terms of future prediction. Again, it is not to say that the result is unimportant; games and pennants are decided on narrow margins all the time, and the winners are worthy. But the narrow margins prevent their triumphs from demonstrating any sort of fundamental difference in the quality of the two teams, or even arguably in the quality of their performance during the season.

I know that there are some of you out there reading this who believe that the argument I am making is born out of a loser’s sour grapes. You can believe that, but it’s not--I am not particularly emotionally invested in Team USA’s performance (I’d like to see them win, but I’m not going to lose any sleep about it), and had the tiebreaker tipped the other way I would not hold it up as any sort of indication of US superiority in second round play.

The tiebreaker itself was almost too close to call; in the case of a three-way tie as was present in the US/Japan/Mexico pileup, the determining factor was runs allowed per inning in common games. Mexico allowed 6 runs to Japan and 1 to the US in 18 innings (3.5 RA); the US allowed 3 runs to Japan and 2 to Mexico in 17 innings (2.65 RA); and Japan allowed 4 runs to the US and 1 to Mexico in 18 innings (2.50 RA). You can see that had the US allowed one fewer run (2.12 RA) or Japan one more (3 RA), the outcome would have been reversed.

But consider the fact that had the US been the home team against Mexico, and managed to prevent Mexico from scoring in the ninth inning, then the US would have allowed 5 runs in 18 innings, and it would have been a tie. I’m not sure what the next level tiebreaker would have been, but I’m going to guess that it would have been the head-to-head result between the US and Japan, which would have favored the US. So in the end, the tiebreaker came down to which team was designated as the home team one of the games.

Other tiebreakers, which make more sense to me, would have favored Japan. For instance, if the tiebreaker would have been run differential in common games, Japan’s five-run win over Mexico and one-run loss to the US would have given them a +4, while the US had a one-run loss and a one-run win for a 0 RD. I point this out to once again emphasize that I am not arguing that the tiebreaker was unfair to the United States, which could just as easily have benefited from a silly tiebreaker (However, the tiebreakers in place were silly, and that is one of the main reasons why the second WBC will feature a straightforward double-elimination format.) The point is that the margin between a “humiliating second round elimination” and a trip to the semifinals was next to nothing, and doesn’t really tell us much about the performance of the United States relative to Japan in the tournament. Had the US won the tiebreaker and gone on to defeat Korea and Cuba as Japan did, the losses to Mexico and Canada wouldn’t have been any less perplexing, but the US would be the champions nonetheless. Granted they may have lost to Korea again rather than follow the Japanese path.

4. Less-than-tangible factors

I listed these last because they are next to impossible to quantify, yet are still worth mentioning, even if one is skeptical about how much of an effect they actually had. If we accept that the WBC is played at a time in the baseball season prior to players becoming fully ready for high-level competition, then it stands to reason that this factor would reduce the value of any talent disparities, and thus make the underdogs a little less so.

If we are going to put any stock in national pride and motivation, then it’s possible that this favors the underdog as well. Mexico has a lot more to prove as a baseball country than does the United States or the Dominican Republic. I personally don’t put much stock in this, though; I’m not a sociologist and motivation can only do so much.

I should also mention a factor that would seem to favor the United States: home field advantage. Obviously the WBC venues were not truly home sites, as Team USA is not a team that plays 81 games a year in one park; however, it would be pretty hard to spin the United States playing games in Arizona and California as an explanation for poorer than expected performance.

In summation:

Should the United States have expected to have a better than .500 record in the 2006 WBC? Yes.

Should the best-guess expectation for the United States in the 2009 be a better than .500 showing? Yes.

Was the showing by the United States in 2006 shocking, embarrassing, or particularly compelling evidence that the US team was not the “best” (which I define as the most likely to perform the best over an infinite number of runs) team in the tournament? No.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Baseball "Analyzed" Here

With the second World Baseball Classic upon us, I figured I should weigh in on the tournament. I wrote a fair amount (especially by my standards) about the inaugural WBC in 2006, as I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to watch meaningful baseball games in March. This post will read much more like mainstream media drivel than my usual style of drivel, so be forewarned.

How is the tournament constructed?

The sixteen countries are divided into four pools for the first round. Pool A will be played in Tokyo and features Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. Pool B will play in Mexico City and includes Cuba, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa. The United States, Venezuela, Italy, and Canada will be Pool C in Toronto. Pool D is the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Netherlands and will play in San Juan.

The first two rounds now have a double elimination format which is familiar to baseball fans from its use in the NCAA Tournament. The only difference is that a second championship game is not played; the team that wins the first is the pool winner. This final game will have no bearing on which countries advance (both will have secured berths in the next round), but it will determine how they are seeded.

The initial matchups in the first round will be the first team listed in each pool above against the fourth, and the second against the third. The winners will play each other for a berth in the second round, while the losers will play to stay alive. The loser of the winner’s game and the winner of the loser’s game will play for the right to advance to the aforementioned pool championship game (and also to the next round of the WBC).

The second round is constructed in the same manner, with the survivors from Pools A and B forming Pool 1, and the survivors from Pools C and D forming Pool 2. The initial matchups will be the winner of one pool versus the second-place team of the other. Pool 1 will be played in San Diego and Pool 2 in Miami.

The four teams still alive will then play single elimination semifinals (with the Pool 1 winner playing the Pool 2 second-place nation) and a championship game at Dodger Stadium on March 21-23.

What are the oddball rules in place for the WBC?

The rules that will have the most impact are those that define pitch count restrictions. No pitcher can make more than 70 pitches in a game in a first round, which increases to 85 in the second round and 100 for the final four (the limits have been bumped up by five pitches per round since the 2006 tournament). Additionally, a pitcher cannot pitch on three consecutive days; cannot pitch the day after making thirty or more pitches (a slight alteration for the final is that he cannot pitch in the final if he made 30+ pitches in the semifinal; since the semifinals are played on different days, this evens the playing field); and must have at least four days rest after making 50+ pitches.

The mercy rule ends a game after five or more innings at bat by the trailing team if their deficit is greater than fifteen, or after seven or more innings if the deficit is greater than ten.

The most controversial rule is the extra inning rule, which states that starting in the thirteenth, each inning will begin with runners at first and second. It has not yet been determined if this rule will be used in the final or not. The IBAF, co-sponsors of the WBC, have implemented an even more radical rule in their competitions. Starting in the tenth, the runners are placed at first and second and the team gets to choose the point in the batting order at which they’d like to begin (in the tenth only; after that, runners are on first and second, but the batting order is followed).

I would detest the idea of altering the current extra inning format in MLB, but given the pitch restrictions on WBC pitchers, I don’t consider it a terrible idea in this case. And the odds of a thirteen plus inning game aren’t that high anyway.

What happened in 2006?

The pools were constructed a little differently, and the format was round robin rather than double elimination. The tiebreakers were ludicrous, but in the end, the teams that advanced out of the first round were essentially the favorites. Japan, Korea, the United States, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela advanced to the second round.

Then it got interesting. The US won its first game against Japan, but losses to Korea and Mexico knocked the Yankees out of the tournament. Korea handed Japan a second defeat, but both still managed to advance. On the other side, the spot most had penciled Venezuela in for went to Cuba instead.

There was no cross-seeding, and so on their third shot, Japan finally got the better of Korea, while Cuba upset the Dominican Republic. Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 behind some pitcher named Daisuke Matsuzaka to win the world title.

Who are the best or most notable players on each team

This is not intended to be a through or precise exercise, and obviously it is much easier to do this for the teams with a lot of major leaguers than for others. Nonetheless, here are two or three key players for each country, organized by opening round pool:

China: OF Lingfeng Sun, C Yang Yang
Japan: P Yu Darvish, P Daisuke Matsuzaka, OF Ichiro Suzuki
Korea: OF Shin-Soo Choo, OF Hyun-Soo Kim, P Kwang-Hyun Kim
Taiwan: IF Chih-Hsien Chang, OF Che-Hsuan Lin (both Red Sox prospects), P Fu-Te Ni
Australia: P Travis Blackely, IF Justin Huber, OF Chris Snelling
Cuba: OF Leslie Anderson, 2B Yulieski Gourriel, P Yunieski Maya, C Ariel Pestano (not necessarily one of their best players, but playing his final season in international competition)
Mexico: 1B Adrian Gonzalez, P Oliver Perez, P Joakim Soria
South Africa: P Barry Armitage, IF Gift Ngoepe, IF Anthony Phillips
Canada: OF Jason Bay, C Russell Martin, 1B Justin Morneau
Italy: IF Frank Catalanotto, P Jason Grilli, IF Nick Punto (all “ringers” of course; among natives, P Alex Maestri, a Cub farmhand, is probably the biggest name)
United States: 3B Chipper Jones, P Jake Peavy, 3B David Wright
Venezuela: 1B Miguel Cabrera, P Felix Hernandez, OF Magglio Ordonez
Dominican Republic: SS Hanley Ramirez, SS Jose Reyes, 3B Alex Rodriguez
Netherlands: OF Greg Halman, P Sidney Ponson, P Rick VandenHurk
Panama: P Manny Corpas, OF Carlos Lee, C Carlos Ruiz
Puerto Rico: OF Carlos Beltran, 1B Carlos Delgado, C Geovany Soto

Who do you think is going to win?

I don’t like making predictions, and particularly not for a handful of games. If sixteen MLB teams were pitted in a tournament like this, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. The saving grace for a prognosticator looking at the WBC is that the teams aren’t anywhere near uniform in strength. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that China and South Africa are hopelessly outclassed by the likes of Japan and Venezuela.

The first round pools are divided in such a way that there are two clear favorites in each. That’s not to say they are locks, but one has to like the chances of Japan, Korea, Cuba, Mexico, America, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico--the same eight teams that advanced to the second round in 2006.

After that, I’m not going to hazard a guess, except below when I try to pitch the idea of a WBC office pool.

Who exactly is on the US team?

Obviously the US team will get the most attention from American fans. I think this is regrettable, just because I think that the best feature of the WBC is the spotlight it shines on baseball around the world. Nonetheless, I’ll certainly be rooting for the USA, and if I were in charge, the players would primarily be used as follows (understanding that they will want to get some playing time for everyone on the roster):

C--Brian McCann, 1B--Kevin Youkilis, 2B--Dustin Pedroia, 3B--David Wright, SS--Jimmy Rollins, LF--Ryan Braun, CF--Curtis Granderson, RF--Shane Victorino, DH--Chipper Jones

Bench--C Chris Iannetta, IF Mark DeRosa, IF Derek Jeter, OF Adam Dunn

Starters--Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly, Jeremy Guthrie

Relievers--Brian Fuentes (unavailable until second round), Jonathon Broxton, Scot Shields, JP Howell, Matt Thornton, Brad Ziegler, Matt Lindstrom, Joel Hanrahan, LaTroy Hawkins, JJ Putz

I’m sure Jeter will play a much more prominent role than I would advise.

I saw a couple of comments on BTF speculating about how many games Team USA would win were they a regular major league team. 90 was a number that was tossed around by a couple posters. I’ll have some of what they’re having--this team would be the best team in baseball on paper by leaps and bounds. I don’t care if you have to run out a replacement level starter every fifth day, this would be an amazing team. The starting pitching is strong, the bullpen and bench are otherworldy, and the lineup is great. Anyone who thinks that, on paper, this team would not be pennant favorites over a 162 game campaign is out of their mind.

Why should I care about the WBC?

I can’t answer that. It’s up to you, and of course you are free to think it’s a big waste of time and watch NASCAR races instead.

Among baseball fans, there seem to be four main strands of objection to the WBC. I’ll respond to these, not in attempt to dissuade anyone who holds these views, but to explain why I don’t:

1. It’s just an exhibition

From the perspective that MLB is the center of the baseball universe, sure. And I don’t claim to know the mindset of Japanese fans; they may well consider the NPB pennant race much more important than the WBC as well. But I’m sure the Cuban players are pretty excited about the opportunity to play against a sampling of the best players from the other baseball powers instead of the usual array of minor leaguers and collegians.

I’ll accept the premise, though. I still don’t care. It’s March. I haven’t seen a meaningful baseball game since October (with the brief exception of the Caribbean Series, at which most of the same criticisms could be leveled). I’ll take what I can get, and at least there is a claim that something is on the line here; the MLB exhibitions we’ll see over the next month are as meaningless as it gets from a team perspective. But I’ll watch some of those too, and enjoy by myself.

2. Players are going to get injured

They might. But they might get hurt playing spring training games too. Is in the injury risk increased as a result of the games meaning something instead of absolutely nothing? Probably so. But is the difference in probability of injury significant? I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that it is, certainly not for position players.

Imagine how much less colorful the history of the game would have been had everyone wrung their hands similarly in the 1920s or 30s. Barnstorming trips to the hinterlands of the country without baseball? Exhibitions against Negro League teams? Trips to Japan after the season? No way, somebody might get hurt. We should probably do away with winter ball too--sorry, Dominicans, it’s too big of a risk to our MLB teams to allow any player to participate in your silly little league.

Granted, barnstorming, winter ball, and non-spring training exhibitions have seen cutbacks in scope and participation as time has marched on. But I’m sorry, I just don’t see a maximum of ten games played by any particular player once every four years as a cause for hand-wringing.

If you start from the perspective that MLB is the only baseball competition that matters, then you are going to wring your hands for sure. If you start from the perspective, as I do, that the MLB season is the most important baseball competition, but not to such an extent that any outside competition with even the slightest possibility of altering the pennant race should be forbidden, then I think you’ll consider it no big deal. And if you take the seemingly radical view that maybe someday this tournament could be viewed as of the utmost importance, like soccer’s World Cup (relative to it’s own sport--I'm not suggestion that baseball will ever dominate the world sporting scene as that insipid game does), then you will embrace the WBC regardless of any potential effect on MLB races.

Proponents of the injury argument are fond of personalizing it: “What if Shin-Soo Choo or Mark DeRosa got hurt playing in this thing and damage the Indians’ chance to make the playoffs?” While I can’t be positive what I would think, since it hasn’t happened and probably won’t, I’m pretty confident my reaction would be a shrug of the shoulders and a recognition that stuff happens--like Grady Sizemore injuring his groin in spring training workouts. Perhaps that’s an indictment on my status as a “true fan” of the Indians, but so be it.

3. It’s silly to group players by nationality

I don’t think it’s any more silly then ordering MLB teams in order of losing percentage, 1-30, then assigning the rights to players on that basis, and having that process play a large role in the composition of the teams. I don’t know that it’s any more or less silly than any other way of distributing players outside of a completely open player and franchise market.

Some of the more extreme proponents of this point of view are American leftists horrified at the prospect that any American could have any sort of pride in their country outside of Barack Obama’s presidency, and thus wring their hands about international tournaments promoting nationalism and jingoism.

If this was international soccer, and scores of people were compelled to riot because of the outcome, then I might be sympathetic to the possible dangers of national pride twisted into something else. But I didn’t see any of that at the World Baseball Classic. I didn’t see any of that at the Caribbean Series. I saw people from all over the world rooting passionately for their countries and celebrating the world’s greatest game. I am willing to bet that more pointless animosity was caused by the 2006 games between the Red Sox and Yankees than by the WBC.

The biggest danger I see, if you want to call it that, is that people will use the results of a tournament to draw unwarranted conclusions about the overall quality of baseball in the participating countries. After the US flamed out in the second round in 2006, there were a lot of snarksters scoffing that “we couldn’t even win at our own national pastime”. Regardless of the outcome of the WBC, the United States is still the world’s number one producer of baseball talent (from a gross perspective), and I believe that a team of the best American players would win the pennant in a 162 game “world league” campaign more frequently than any other nation. Whether they fail to win the WBC because of the small sample size of the tournament, lack of motivation, rebuffs by players who would improve the team, or any other factor is not going to do anything to convince me otherwise. Of course, if you want to switch from “total or top talent” to a per capita measure, then the US is not the shoe-in world #1. The point is: the WBC will determine who wins the WBC, and the result shouldn’t be extrapolated too far outside the scope of the tournament itself.

Now some of you may read that and ask, “Isn’t the belief that it proves little if anything an argument against having a tournament at all?” Fair enough, but I’d say the same thing about the World Series. Striking a balance between the desire for drama and marketing potential against the desire to have a sufficient test of strength is an ever-present challenge in all sports. And since international competition is subordinate to the MLB season itself, the difference between the two is even starker in the case of the WBC. I choose to accept the compromise and enjoy it.

4. The WBC is intended to promote baseball on a global level, but so what?

For my money, I’d like to see as many people as possible around the world exposed to baseball, and I hope they take up the game in some capacity, whether as a player or a fan. Baseball could be enjoyed and was when it was limited only to a small area of the United States, but I’d rather see the higher quality and more diverse style of play that will come with a larger talent pool.

Will the WBC be an effective way of spreading baseball? There I have my doubts. In many of the nations involved, baseball is already a major sport and I’m skeptical as to whether the WBC will increase its profile. It might help more in a country like Australia or South Africa, but how much exposure will it get there? Of course, you have to start somewhere, and nothing will be gained by not trying.

Hopefully this tournament will be as enjoyable to watch as the 2006 edition. If it is, then the seemingly presumptuous title of “Classic” will have been well-earned.

Why don’t people have WBC office pools?

Asked tongue-in-cheek, of course, but why not? As a certain other March sporting event has demonstrated, there’s nothing better to stimulate interest in a sporting event than a little friendly wagering. Your co-workers may not know anything about the Taiwanese baseball team, but how much do they know about Southwestern Arkansas A&M at Pine Bluff? The same amount--nothing. And sure, the WBC bracket is not as straightforward to fill in--you have to have the wherewithal to drop teams into loser’s brackets and reseed in the next round and the like. But come on, it would be fun, right?

So in the spirit of fun: