Friday, May 29, 2009

Today in Yahoo! Box Scores

At least this time it's something other than things not adding up.

This new format is obviously an attempt to appeal more to fantasy players by including HR, SB, and season WHIP in the lines itself. Personally, I think it's a too cluttered.

The best balance between providing the ancillary categories and keeping things clean and readable is (unsurprisingly) Baseball-Reference's format of including the ancillary details in notes next to the player's regular line. If I was designing Yahoo!'s box scores, I'd worry more about their reliability. I guess we'll have to wait and see if the oddities continue, or if these changes addressed those issues as well.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fanthink Follies

NOTE: This post was written about three weeks ago, spurred by a blog post that was written a month ago. Since then Grady Sizemore has gone into a major slump, but I think you'll agree that's really not the point.

Recently, a blogger on the Plain Dealer website named Jon Sladek wrote a post based on the thesis that Cleveland fans have a tendency to overrate their players (he called this the "Bernie factor" after former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar), and that Grady Sizemore was benefiting from this phenomenon.

I call balderdash on that--despite a slow start in 2009, Grady Sizemore is a terrific player who in my opinion may well have been the best position player in the AL last season and has been a top 10 AL player in each of the last three seasons. The column does very little to support its claim that Sizemore is overrated by Cleveland fans, as it never defines how he should be rated. Pointing out that Sizemore has many female admirers (um, Jon, I don't know how exactly to say this without being accused of chauvinism, but I think that might have something to do with non-baseball factors...I have this feeling that there are a number of men who don't have much of an opinion of Maria Sharapova's tennis abilities but are fans nonetheless) doesn't indicate he's overrated. Pointing out that he's not the best player in the history of the franchise doesn't either--who has said that he is? Must only the very greatest players be praised?

Of course, a lot of his Sizemore angst is the result of silly thinking...he strikes out too much, he's not clutch, treating batting average as an important metric, and the like. And his shots at CC Sabathia indicate that he is extremely difficult to please; it seems as if any Indian short of Tris Speaker would fall short of his standards. That's really not the point here, though...I'll leave that stuff to the successors of Fire Joe Morgan, whoever they may be, or better yet let it stand without comment.

So this got me to thinking a little bit about the various ways that fans over/under rate their players, and how one could draw up some loose categories of this phenomenon. In doing so, I am trying to avoid discussing statistical reasons, which are certainly among the most prominent. But I don't want these to be along the lines of "players with strong secondary contributions tend to be underrated, while players with strong batting averages tend to be overrated" or "players who stand out in one specific aspect of the game tend to be overrated while those with a wide range of skills tend to be underrated" or...well, you get the idea.

The groups I am going to offer below are in no way mutually exclusive nor comprehensive. I have attempted to name them after Cleveland or Cincinnati players since those are the two fan bases to which I have the most exposure, but I don't in anyway mean to imply that these feelings are exclusive to fans of those teams.

Also, I am going to use the term "overrate" and "underrate" here, even though I share a general aversion to these terms with many of you. Since there is no single standard by which to rate players (from metric of choice to career/peak value to any number of other criteria), and no single source which rates players, the terms don't have a lot of meaning. They are in the popular sports vernacular, though, and this is an attempt to loosely describe patterns of thought on display among sports fans at large. I am also going to speak about "Cleveland fans" and other fan bases as if they are monolithic and of course I am not claiming that at all. When I use that language, it simply reflects what my perception of the majority viewpoint amongst that group is. My perception of such is certainly fallible.

* Overrating a player because of his geographic origin, or his alma mater, his ethnicity, etc. (the Bernie Kosar factor)

This is the true "Bernie factor"--Cleveland fans don't have any general tendency to overrate players, at least not with respect to other fan bases, certainly not when Sabathia and Sizemore are being belittled. Cleveland fans loved Bernie Kosar primarily because he was from the Northeast Ohio area (there was another major factor, discussed further below)..

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, although the flip side has some not-so-pleasant possible manifestations. "Local boy makes good" is a good story, and it only follows that fans will identify more with an athlete who is "one of them". I tend to think of myself as fairly objective and immune to the various phenomena I will list (and yes, this may well be undue self-congratulation)--with the exception of the Bernie factor. I'm all in for this one--on the basis of alma mater. Braylon Edwards could catch twenty touchdown passes next season and I will still hate his guts, while Brian Robiskie could be a complete flop as a pro and he will always be my favorite Brown.

* Scapegoating a good player for the failures of his team (the Carlos Beltran factor)

I almost slapped the "Adam Dunn" label here, but it could go so many other places--it could be used to describe underrating a player because of his skill set not matching traditional thinking, underrating a player because he is seen as "un-clutch", underrating a player because he is perceived as not getting the most out of his talent, or underrating a player because of relentless pounding from the codger who does the play-by-play. The anti-Dunn sentiment amongst Reds fans is the most widely-held and irrational case of this factor that I have personally encountered.

You can see the Adam Dunn factor on display in New York, as David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran have all taken their turns as Met whipping boy, despite the fact that they are one of the very best position player trios in MLB. Why fans would choose to blame the best player rather than the lesser players is something that I really have never understood at all.

I have seen Reds fans crow about the Nationals' poor record, despite the fact that Dunn had a great April, still blaming him for the failure of the lousy team around him. And celebrating the fact their offense has not shown much of a decline despite Dunn's absence, as if dropping dead weight like Corey Patterson had no effect. It's hopeless.

* Overvaluing a player because of the success of his team (the Derek Jeter factor)

This could also be called the "basketball mentality"--it places too much of the credit on one player, to an extent that might be appropriate on the hardwood but is absurd in baseball. It is true that most great basketball dynasties are really built around one or two great players, and that these guys take their team from good to great single-handedly--the Jordans, the Magics, the Shaqs, the Mikans, etc. I'm not a basketball analyst, so if I'm overstating the case feel free to let me know, but I don't think anyone will disagree with the premise that a single basketball player can make a much greater contribution to team success than a single baseball player.

Nonetheless, some people want to attribute the success of a winning baseball team disproportionately to one man. Certainly Derek Jeter has been a valuable player for a long-time, and will be ushered right into the Hall of Fame, and I don't want to argue that.

But one man did not do it alone, and the fact that the Yankees strung together four titles in five years does not mean that they had to have a superstar of equal value to those on similarly dominant teams of the past.

Of course, what's worse than crediting a Jeter is when the credit gets given to a Scott Brosius or even in extreme cases a Luis Sojo. But I think most people see through that; it is much more tempting when there is a legitimately great player to whom the championships can be credited.

Incidentally, I would have liked to pick a Cleveland or Cincinnati athlete here, but it's been almost two decades since either city won a championship. Bernie Kosar certainly benefited a bit from this though--the quarterback for the best Browns teams of the Super Bowl era is going to receive a significant amount of accolades from the fans.

* Overrating a bench warmer or minor leaguer because he must be better than the bum who is in there now (the Charlie Frye factor, or more generally, the backup QB factor)

The old saw is that the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on a football team, and there's a lot of truth in it. The Charlie Frye case was a little convoluted because he also was a local guy, and Trent Dilfer really did stink and had no chance of being a long-term answer. Unfortunately, Frye was worse.

Indians fans did their own version of this with Ben Francisco last year. Now Francisco is in the crosshairs himself on this score.

* Choosing a player as scrappy/hustler/clutch/plays-the-game-the-right-way and the like and overrating him (the Ryan Freel factor)

This is a universal phenomenon, but I've certainly never personally encountered it more starkly than with Reds fans. They just love the scrappy guy, the Ryan Freel or the Chris Sabo, and when one moves on they look desperately for someone to fill the void (Adam Rosales is the leader in the clubhouse).

My theory for the intensity of this point of view in Cincinnati is two-fold: one is the aforementioned codger on the radio. The other is a residual Pete Rose complex, forever imprinted in many because of a convergence of factors: the Bernie factor, the Derek Jeter factor, and his (perceived, by some sycophants) martyrdom. Rose's banishment never really allowed them to process these feelings in a healthy way, and so it has become a perpetual obsession (and that is as close to psychoanalysis that I will ever get on this blog, I promise).

* Underrating a player because he doesn't live up to expectations (the Adam Dunn factor)

Often a player, particularly a prospect, will get a fair amount of advance hype. Then said player will not live up to the expectations that were heaped on him. Even if this player winds up developing into a valuable asset, some fans still evaluate him against their hopes rather than reality.

This also applies to players who fans feel aren't getting as much out of their talent as possible...players like, oh, Adam Dunn. If a particular player truly is underachieving due to lack of effort or motivation or another correctable "personal flaw", that's legitimate ground for criticism. However, this type of sentiment is very often adopted without any particularly credible evidence that the target is deficient in those areas. And all too often, fans will brand purported underachievers with various shortcomings, all while ignoring the things they do well on the field. In other words, the fans focus solely on a player's weaknesses, ignoring his strengths.

A subset of this factor that applies to veterans rather than youngsters is setting expectations on the basis of salary, and underrating a player's contribution because he is seen to be overpaid. Of course, salary is a very important thing to consider when evaluating GM-level decision making. However, one should be careful not to let it bleed over into an evaluation of on-field value. Paying a player who's "really" worth $5 million a salary of $10 million does indeed make him overpaid and a bad investment. But he's no less of a ballplayer than someone worth $5 million getting paid the league minimum.

Obviously I have only scratched the surface here, but these are the most common non-statistical reasons that I can identify for fans' skewed evaluations of their players. Unfortunately, none explain why Grady Sizemore is overrated...because he's not.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Great Moment in Yahoo! Box Scores

Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here

Yesterday afternoon, the OSU baseball team rallied from a 4-0 deficit to complete a series sweep of Iowa with an 8-6 win. Coupled with Penn State's win over Minnesota, the win gave the Buckeyes their sixteenth Big Ten title and first since 2001.

Under coach Bob Todd, Ohio has been a consistent contender--this is his eighth title in 22 seasons. However, recent teams have been more liable to run in the middle of the regular season pack, then spring up to win the tournament championship than to win the title. I can't say that I expected this season to be any different. On paper, OSU appeared to lack any star pitchers but rather seemed to have a stable of solid arms. The offense seemed to be constructed similarly to those of recent OSU teams--solid at getting on base, woefully inadequate in the power department.

What ended up happening was that OSU could only find five dependable pitchers: starters Alex Wimmers, Dean Wolosiansky, and Eric Best and relievers Jake Hale and Drew Rucinski. The rest of the staff was hampered by injuries and/or ineffective, and thus the team struggled mightily in mid-week games, which are usually an opportunity to fatten the overall win-loss record at the expense of smaller regional schools.

The offense, on the other hand, exceeded all expectations by emerging from the multi-year power outage by leading the conference in home runs and isolated power (as well as batting average and runs scored). The power surge was not centered on any one player but was top-to-bottom in the lineup, with the exception of the middle infielders (second baseman Cory Kovanda more than made up for hitting just one longball with a .430+ OBA).

This OSU team definitely benefited from the Big Ten's switch from four-game weekend series totaling 32 innings to a standard three-game series all comprised of nine inning games. Shaving five innings that would have been soaked up by second-line pitchers certainly was a blessing given the constitution of the team.

Unfortunately, the lack of pitching depth may well mean that this Buckeye team is not as dangerous in tournament play as recent, less-accomplished squads have been. Regardless of what happens from here on out though, this has been one of the most enjoyable seasons of my time as a fan. Particularly exciting has been the standout individual performances, of which I will mention three in particular.

1. I had reservations about Jake Hale being moved back to the bullpen for his senior season (essentially, he has been on a yearly yo-yo; starter as a freshman and junior, reliever as a sophomore and senior) but he certainly has shined in the closer's role. Hale set the OSU single-season record with 15 saves and dominated with an ERA around 1.2 and over a strikeout an inning.

2. Sophomore catcher Dan Burkhart exploded after a modest freshman campaign to the tune of .362/.435/.611, the cleanup slot in the lineup, and a possible Big Ten Player of the Year nod

3. Most impressive has been sophomore righty Alex Wimmers' transformation from a high-strikeout, high-walk reliever to dominant staff ace. Wimmers seems to be the favorite Pitcher of the Year honors with a 9-1, 2.58, 122 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings campaign. His season has featured one spectacular performance after another: a 15 K complete game against Pitt, a 14 K complete game against Indiana, 5 shutout innings on the road at Miami-FL in a win, a no-hit bid taken into the eighth against Michigan State that ended as an 11 K two-hitter, and most significantly, a 14 K no-hitter on May 2 against the servants of evil, just the second nine-inning no-hitter in school history (and to boot, the first no-hitter I've ever seen in its entirety at any level of the game).

Whatever comes next, the Big Ten championship is an end to itself and the program should be very proud of itself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Games Behind

The standings on Baseball-Reference include a column labeled "GBsum". According to the glossary, this idea was proposed by John Dewan and B-R now tracks it. There has always been something about this that bothered me, but I never really sat down and tried to figure out what it was. But it has now dawned on me, and I can actually put my finger on what why I've never taken it seriously.

Suppose you had a division in which three teams were tied for the lead with an identical record, with a fourth team three games behind them (must be early in the season unless it's the 2005 NL West on steroids). Let's say the three teams in the lead are New York, Florida, and Atlanta, and it is Philadelphia that is three back.

Philadelphia's "GBsum" will be 9, as they are three games behind three distinct opponents. But can you explain to me what this number means, in real baseball terms?

You certainly could for standard games behind, probably more elegantly than I am about to: if Philadelphia is three games behind Atlanta, it means that it would require three sets of Philadelphia wins coupled with Atlanta losses in order to even the two teams up. You know that if the Phillies sweep their three-game weekend series and the Braves are swept, the two clubs will be tied.

But what does the GBsum of 9 mean? What would have to happen so that the Phillies would be tied with the triumvirate, and does the figure of 9 reflect this?

In one sense, it does--it will take 9 pairs of Phillie wins coupled with opponent losses to but the Phillies in a first-place tie.

But let's look at a different imaginary division. Chicago leads Houston by nine games, with no clubs in between. Thus the Astros' "GBsum" is 9, same as the Phillies, and it will take 9 pairs of Astro wins + Cub losses to even things up.

So, if the GBsum figure is an improvement over the traditional games behind, one should conclude that the Phillies and Astros are equally far away from first place, right? Before you answer that, ask yourself if it makes common sense to you. If the baseball gods came to you and allowed you to plop your team down in the place of one of those two, which would you pick?

I think that most people would intuitively choose to place their teams in the division in which they are three games behind three teams, rather than nine games behind one team (ignoring for the moment the proximity of the teams below the Phillies and Astros in their divisions, which I have not defined). And I think they're right.

In order for the Phillies to pull into the lead, we need nine pairs of opposite outcomes:
3 PHI wins + 3 ATL losses
3 PHI wins + 3 NYN losses
3 PHI wins + 3 FLA losses

In order for the Astros to pull even, we need nine pairs of opposite outcomes:
9 HOU wins + 9 CHN losses

In the Phillies' case, though, any win that they manage to earn on their own cuts into all three deficits simultaneously. They don't need nine wins to achieve their goal provided their division opponents are losing--they need three. And thus there are really only twelve required game outcomes (in using the term "game outcomes", I am blithely ignoring head-to-head games, in which a PHI win is by definition a FLA loss if the two are playing; if the loose terminology bothers you, just assume that all of these teams are playing interleague series at the moment)
3 PHI wins + 3 ATL losses + 3 NYN losses + 3 FLA losses

In order for the Astros to pull even, they need eighteen:
9 HOU wins + 9 CHN losses

So I would argue that, even if you want to break away from traditional games behind the leader and consider distance behind non-leaders, the pertinent numbers are 12 and 18 in this case, not 9 and 9. The Phillies are in better position than the Astros.

In order to convert those figures to something resembling a traditional games behind format (they are half-games from the traditional GB perspective), simply divide by two. The "true GB" is six for the Phillies and nine for the Astros. Writing the procedure for calculating "true GB" formally:

"true GB" = games behind leader + (1/2)(games behind others)

So for the Phillies, this is 3 + (1/2)(3 + 3) = 6. I believe that this is a much better gauge of a team's position in the standings than is "GBsum".

Admittedly, "true GB" does have the drawback of being oft-expressed in confusing quarter-games. For example, Toronto leads Boston by one game and New York by 5.5, meaning New York is 4.5 behind Boston. New York could tie Toronto with 5 wins + 6 Blue Jay losses or 6 wins + 5 Blue Jay losses. The formula assumes the average of 5.5 wins, and so assuming they are achieved New York needs 4.5 Boston losses to pull even with the Red Sox. 5.5 wins + 5.5 losses + 4.5 losses = 15.5 game outcomes, which when divided by 2 gives an odd 7.75.

Another caveat is that you can't just interpret "true GB" in the same manner you do actual games behind. The Indians' "true GB" of 14.5 does not mean their situation is anywhere near as dire as a team that is 14.5 games behind. Our idea of the plight of a 14.5 GB team naturally includes other teams in front, since rarely is the second place team in a division that far back.

Please note I am not holding it up as anything essential that should be carried in the standings in your local newspaper. I just prefer it to the "GBsum" column. I'm not sure an alternative figure including the other teams is necessary, as each comparison is a pennant race in its own right (you can look at it from the perspective that the Phillies have to beat the Braves in a distinct race, and beat the Mets in a distinct race, and...), and anyone looking at the traditional standings can figure the margin between two teams themselves. And if one does want to get more involved in putting a number on the race, I'd rather go all the way and try to estimate probabilities like BP and other sites are already doing.

Here are the standings as of this moment, with all three flavors of GB on display (if you saw this post in the first few hours it was up, I mis-figured the NL West):

You can see that there is general agreement between GBsum and "true GB", and if you'd like to posit that as a demonstration "true GB"'s limited utility, I won't put up much of a fight. Unfortunately for me, any way you slice it except traditional games behind, the Indians are in the deepest hole in the American League.

As an aside, one often hears "games in the loss column" cited as being important, even more so than standard games behind. A 10-5 team is one game ahead of an opponent with a 9-6 record or an opponent with a 10-7 record, but this viewpoint would hold you'd rather be in the latter position as the leader.

This is correct, of course; if you have two teams equal in the standings, but with different win-loss records, the one with the advantage in the loss column has the better winning percentage...assuming that the teams are above .500.

If the teams were below .500, then the one with the advantage in the loss column would actually have a lower W%. This makes sense if you think about it. If you have a good team that has played one less game, it is likely to be a win. But for a bad team, the extra game is more likely to be a loss.

Now this "advantage" to being ahead in the win column rather than in the loss column never really comes into play in real MLB situations, since sub-.500 teams are generally not fighting each other for playoff spots (1994 AL West notwithstanding). Even if they were, the teams would likely be sufficiently close to .500 to make it a wash anyway (of course, it is "true" quality, not observed W%, that should be the basis for which column it is preferable to have the advantage in).

And in a race to the bottom, like who will get the #1 draft pick, the goal becomes to finish last, not first, and so the advantage flips back to the team "ahead" in the loss column--although in this case, being "ahead" means having more losses. Perhaps this principle could come into play in relegation for international soccer or something--it has to be a case in which true sub-.500 teams are competing for a the best record amongst themselves, something that rarely/never happens in MLB (for anything important, at least--fourth place in the NL Central isn't what I have in mind).

Friday, May 08, 2009

Here We Go Again

So another player gets suspended for violating the drug policy and we get another round of moralizing and hyperbole, and of course that ridiculous fool Jeff Passan at Yahoo gets to roll them both together, then ooze more smarminess than one thought humanly possible.

But outside of the lunatic fringe exemplified by Passan, what is the major topic of discussion? Manny's Hall of Fame fate, naturally. For all of the phony hand-wringing about the "sanctity and integrity of the game" and the like, all anyone really cares about is whether a guy does or doesn't get to join the ranks of Rick Ferrell and Rube Marquard (but not Bert Blyleven or Alan Trammell) in the blessed Hall of Fame. The parody almost writes itself--a visitor from a foreign country might draw the conclusion that Major League Baseball is played for the glory of the Hall of Fame.

Addendum: I am going to edit this post to add links to good, sane takes on this situation (anti-Passans, if you will) as I see them:

Craig Calcaterra at the Hardball Times

Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek

John Stossel in his syndicated column

Monday, May 04, 2009

Comments on Baseball Prospectus 2009

I don’t want to bill this as a "book review", because that implies a level of formality that is lacking here. And many of my opinions have already been voiced by others around the net--a particular problem when one comes in to comment on a book over two months after it has been published.

Quite frankly, this is the worst edition of Baseball Prospectus I've read, and I’ve read each edition since 1998. Don’t take this too far--I'm still glad I purchased the book, as it remains the best source for a quick, intelligent outlook on just about every relevant player in organized baseball. But even that function was diminished in this edition by the lack of an index. In fairness to BP, they quickly released an index online and apologized profusely for the oversight.

From an editing standpoint, though, it's pretty inexcusable to leave the index out. Shoddy editing also showed in the Padres chapter, which read as if it was written as the last minute as the author waited to learn whether Jake Peavy would be retained or traded. While I can certainly sympathize with the plight of attempting to publish a relevant and updated book while dealing with a deadline, I'd like to believe that the result could be a bit more polished.

I think it continues to be a mistake on the part of BP to not reveal who the authors are for each portion of the book (I'm referring to the team and player comments, not the essays which list the author, as always). Speaking with one voice may be good for marketing ("Baseball Prospectus says…" sounds a bit more impressive than "Author X of Baseball Prospectus says") and apparent continuity (BP has a fairly high level of author turnover which would be all the more apparent if each article were bylined), but I don't believe that it does the reader any favors. As a reader, I like to know who I am reading, and I can then use my past impressions of their work to inform my view of the new material. It also would explain the contradictions in statistical measures cited, which otherwise appear to be purely schizophrenic.

Some writers use EqA when they want a catch-all rate measure of offensive performance. Others use MLVr. Still others use OPS+. Player comments blatantly contradict the fielding metric results in the corresponding statistical data, often without an acknowledgment of the disconnect.

The most blatant example of this failure to define terms/establish a standard for statistical measures comes in the use of Pythagenport to estimate team wins. The BP annual refers to Pythagenport, while the glossary on their website claims that they use Pythagenpat (which, in full disclosure, I am sometimes credited for co-inventing with David Smyth). It's not so much that I'm bothered that they may be using Pythagenpat without attribution, but that it makes it incredibly confusing to understand how their estimates are calculated. Another Pythagenport problem is on display in the Phillies chapter, in which the "Phillies in a Box" data lists the team with a 93-69 estimated record. However, the author of the chapter writes "by their Pythagorean projections, they were…an 87-win team in 2008". Huh?

In fact, there is an explanation. If you go to the BP website and look at the adjusted standings for 2008, you will find that the Phillies' "third-order record"--that is, a Pythagenport record fueled by EqR and EqR allowed and adjusted for strength of schedule--is 87-75. The average reader is never going to think to think that up as the explanation for the seeming contradiction of same-page data. And that opens the door for three different sets of records to be considered Pythagenport--the first, second, and third order records. Really, though, only the first-order record should be referred to as "Pythagenport" with no further explanation.

If I had to present a unified theory as to why multiple statistics are used for the same purpose, statistics are called by incorrect or misleading names, etc. it would be the drain of their top statistical talent. Clay Davenport is really the only hard-core sabermetrician still acting as a major part of their team. Nate Silver has largely moved on to political analysis, while Dan Fox and Keith Woolner were hired away by the Pirates and Indians respectively. Outside of Davenport, it is an open question as to how many BP writers could explain the intricacies and nuances of all of the statistics they publish in one form or the other.

This brain drain also explains the disappointing crop of essays in the 2009 edition. Traditionally (although I believe 2003 was an exception, and it's possible that another year or two was as well), at least one essay has been a serious sabermetric study of one sort or the other (exemplified by articles on replacement level, win expectancy, catcher's ERA, and other topics down through the years). The only essay that is even remotely sabermetric in the 2009 book is Davenport's explanation of the changes to BP's fielding and WARP methodology.

Of course, this dearth of sabermetric material shouldn't really come as a surprise, even if one ignored the absence of Fox, Silver, and Woolner. After all, Gary Huckaby (in-)famously informed us that "sabermetrics is dead" a few years ago--an arrogant proclamation at the moment it was made which looks downright asinine in retrospect as new frontiers of analysis like PitchF/x have opened up.

Now, about the Davenport article. I will let the fielding portion of it go without comment and leave that for the experts in that area. Upfront, I applaud Clay for making the changes he made despite his own lingering personal reservations about the methodology. In doing so, he has made BP's WARP figures much more useful to the sabermetric community at large. I also should make it clear that although I have written somewhat negative critiques of Equivalent Runs/Average before, I respect Davenport's work and want to exclude him from my broader criticism of the post-Woolner/Fox/Silver BP.

Commencing with the review of his new methodology, he uses an offensive position adjustment approach to calculate runs above average. Apparently these are variable throughout history, although only the modern era position averages are shown. Davenport explains that these adjustments are not based solely on the average EqA for the various positions--he tweaks them based on the defensive responsibilities of the position.

The following table gives the average EqA used at each position, along with its equivalent in terms of Adjusted RG (*) (in other words, runs/out relative to the league average), and the offense-based position-adjustment that I use. The juxtaposition of my values (which are nothing more than the major league averages for 1992-2001) and Davenport's is not in anyway intended to imply that the ones I use are correct and that Davenport's must be evaluated in relation to them.

I don't really have a problem with any of this; my only criticism is that Davenport does not even mention defense-based position adjustments as an option. It seems as if the presentation is between two choices: an offense-based position adjustment or Davenport's old approach of separate offensive and defensive replacement levels. That's really on the level of a nitpick, though.

Then Davenport uses Jose Reyes and Johan Santana as examples of how to calculate WARP under the new methodology. It seems as if there is an error in his example, as he alternates between saying that Jose Reyes made 507 and 499 outs last year. I'm sure this is nothing more than a typo, but it does make his example a little harder to follow.

The key detail to understand is that he uses a replacement level of -22.11 offensive runs per season, which is equivalent to using a .230 EqA, which is equivalent to using a .350 OW% as myself and many others do.

Another thing to keep in mind about his example is that the calculations are based on translated stats, so all of the various context differences (league, park, etc.) have already been accounted for.

There is one assumption made by Davenport that I think is unjustified, and it appears to cause pitcher's WARP to be overstated. For pitchers, Davenport still assumes that their replacement will be -22 runs over a full season, and prorates this over the number of outs the pitcher actually makes at the plate. But just as replacement-level position players tend to be average (or close to it), replacement-level pitchers should be average hitters relative to their peers.

So Johan Santana, with a pitiful .047 EqA (remember, Clay uses .125 as the positional average, so Johan had a bad showing at the plate even by pitcher standards) gets a little credit for his offense; he was -1.7 runs versus the average pitcher in his 69 outs, while the replacement costs his team 3.1 runs. Santana gets .3 more WARP by figuring it Davenport's way than he would if you assumed that a replacement pitcher would have no effect on the team's runs scored. All pitchers in non-DH will be likewise overvalued.

All in all, though, the changes to WARP are welcome and sensible if a little bit overdue. Reading Davenport's piece, it seems as if he still considers WARP to be a work in progress, and so I anticipate that we will see some further refinements down the line.

(*) The conversion of EqA to R/O is R/O = 5*EqA^2.5. The average EqA is .260, which is .172 R/O, and so the equivalent ARG figure is just 5*EqA^2.5/.172.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Derby Pick--Friesan Fire

Disclaimer: This post displays next to zero intellectual rigor. It is not intended as serious analysis. Predictions are always at least 75% BS, and even more so when the predictor makes no claim of having any special knowledge about the subject at hand. I am by no means a thoroughbred racing analyst.

Disclaimer aside, though, the economic foundation of horse racing is largely based on the desire of people with no particular insight to demonstrate how smart they are by placing wagers on races. This is true in horse racing to an extent unrivaled by any other major American spectator sports, and so to let mere obstacles like ignorance stop one from giving an opinion on the Kentucky Derby would be bad form.

Unfortunately, the horse I and the rest of the world considered the favorite, Quality Road, was forced out with a quarter crack. Quality Road has been my Derby horse since his second-to-last start in the Fountain of Youth, and so I am left scrambling to find a new favorite.

This strikes me as an odd year--there are five colts that really stand out, and the rest of the field doesn't feature much to get me excited. The usual pattern is that there are two or three horses I really like, and then a group of about ten that I can easily see winning if things break their way.

TOSS (7)
Flying Private (50-1)
Nowhere to Hide (50-1)
Summer Bird (50-1)
Atomic Rain (50-1)
Join in the Dance (50-1)
Mine that Bird (50-1)
Advice (30-1)

West Side Bernie (30-1)
Mr. Hot Stuff (30-1)
Chocolate Candy (20-1)
Hold Me Back (15-1)

Regal Ransom (30-1)
Musket Man (20-1)
Papa Clem (20-1)
General Quarters (20-1)

Desert Party (15-1)
Friesan Fire (5-1)
Dunkirk (4-1)
Pioneerof the Nile (4-1)
I Want Revenge (3-1)

As you can see, I'm in general agreement with the morning line odds, and those odds back up what I said a field with several elite horses and everyone else.

Some longer comments on the big five:
Desert Party--had this horse prepped anywhere other than Dubai, he'd be getting a lot more attention. If I was going to place a win bet, he'd be my horse due to the price.

Friesan Fire--my pick to win. He is coming off a long layoff, but Larry Jones has had the second-place runner in each of the last two Derbys (Hard Spun and the late Eight Belles) and knows what he's doing. Looked great in the slop in the Louisiana Derby, and it looks as if it may be rainy in Louisville on Saturday.

Dunkirk--this year's Curlin or Big Brown; brilliant, but without a lot of seasoning. He was impressive in the Florida Derby; as he made his move on the turn, I really thought he was going to pull away for the win, but Quality Road fended him off. Quality Road isn't here, and thus I would pick Dunkirk as the most talented colt in this field
Pioneerof the Nile--I like this horse a lot; he would be my pick except for two things. One is that he has been forced to make the pace against slower horses in his last two preps; he is extremely unlikely to win the Derby in that manner. He also will be making his first start on dirt after running on synthetics in California.

Neither of those things really bothers me; he shouldn’t have any problem coming from off the pace as that seems to be his natural style, and not prepping on dirt could well develop into one of those silly "rules" that people live by (not racing at two, winning the Breeder's Cup Juvenile, etc.). Trivial matters that are transformed into hard and fast rules, until a Barbaro or a Street Sense comes along and blows them all away. That being said, though, it is more comforting to have seen the horse succeed on the dirt, and if it's a close call, I'll certainly use it as a tiebreaker. And that's about what it is for me between Friesan Fire and Pioneerof the Nile.

Also, if one wants to see a Triple Crown winner, those two would appear to be the best bet, as they are both sons of Belmont winners (AP Indy and Empire Maker, respectively). As an aside, I have always wondered why media coverage doesn't emphasize the sire of the horses more. Horses have short careers, and it's hard for a casual fan who may watch only the Triple Crown and the Breeder's Cup to grow attached to any horse as a rooting interest. I think that getting people interested in the offspring of an old favorite would be a good way to build an emotional connection. All things being equal, I certainly prefer to root for a son of Tiznow or Thunder Gulch or another horse that I really enjoyed watching during their careers.

I Want Revenge--the favorite is certainly a very impressive colt, but he had to work hard to win in the Wood. I'm agnostic on the matter of "bouncing", but if any of the top horses are going to bounce, he's the best bet.