Archive for the ‘Stats’ Category

Joe Mauer’s Contract with the Twins is never going to look foolish

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

The Minnesota Twins made a single mistake when they extended C Joe Mauer before the 2010 season.  They negotiated with a superstar following a career year, when his value was at its highest.  Heading into a contract year, the Twins didn’t have the luxury of time on their side, but they also didn’t have to hit an arbitrary deadline set by the Mauer camp anyway, seeing as they were going to have to pay retail price for Mauer.

Sure, there is a legitimate fear to be had that the Yankees or someone might have outbid the whole market when Mauer reached free agency, but if the Twins were willing to go to $23 million annually, Mauer was going to stay in Minnesota.  They probably didn’t have to go to $23 million if they had waited.

Beyond the timing of the deal being on the player’s terms, the Twins and their fans have plenty to worry about regarding Mauer’s future with the team.  With the first two years of the contract in the books, the Twins have six years and $138 million remaining on the Mauer deal.

And the best part for the Twins is: every one of baseball’s 30 teams would take that contract.

Of course, that’s only partially true.  Young players under team control will always be the most valuable assets in baseball, so the Royals wouldn’t trade Salvador Perez straight up for Mauer’s contract.  The Giants won’t be dealing Buster Posey for him.  I doubt the Orioles would trade Matt Wieters for him.  I’m not sure the Cardinals would trade Yadi Molina either.  I’m certain the Nats wouldn’t trade Wilson Ramos (ironically) Mauer’s former backup  And then there are the teams who can’t get out of contracts with their current catchers like Atlanta and Brian McCann.

But in the abstract, no team would be unhappy with Mauer at 6/138.  It’s sure a lot less scary than Mauer at 8/184.

Mauer is going to turn 30 in April.  The contract will take the Twins through Mauer’s age 35 season.  These are Mauer’s decline years.

But will it matter?  Mauer was worth 5 wins above replacement in 2012, and has settled in as a .370 wOBA catcher, averaging just a tick under .400 in on-base percentage since signing the deal.  He rebounded from an off year with the bat in 2011.  Mauer isn’t going to be an elite player for the duration of the contract, but elite players are more or less locks to outperform what they are being paid anyway: there is literally no replacement for elite performance in the sports world.

But the fear about Mauer is that he’s a catcher that has already spent time on the disabled list.  What is going to happen to the value of his contract when he has to move off catcher and over to first base because he simply cannot stay healthy over a long season while catching games anymore?

The response to such an argument is two fold:

1) the assumption that this event is in the near term future is an exaggeration; and,
2) the argument that first base is the only place that Mauer can go post-catching days is a faulty one.

The reason Mauer is seeing time at first base now is because he’s a full time catcher with a great bat, and first base is sort of a natural position for a catcher to learn with limited practice time.  But if and when Mauer has to move off catcher prior to the conclusion of his monster contract, he won’t immediately go to first base: Mauer could theoretically learn to play any of the four corners given a full offseason, including third base.

The other thing is that Mauer should be able to stay a mostly full time catcher (and part time DH) through his age 33 or 34 season.  To make a point, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada are both turning 39 this year, and neither has been asked to move officially off of shortstop yet.  Tejada’s offense has been in full and utter decline for a decade, but he can still handle the rigors of his position defensively.  Omar Vizquel was playing shortstop through his age 44 season.  Tall catchers are probably a little bit different, but Mauer is going to decline offensively prior to being asked to switch positions to preserve the end of his career.

The fact remains that the Twins are going to remain open to evaluating his best position on a year to year basis to get the most out of the contract, something Wins above Replacement does a poor job of capturing.  Mauer is also still a very strong defensive catcher, and this suggests he’s not in immediate danger of suddenly not being the top defensive catcher on the Twins.

But lets be very respectful to typical age-related decline and say that Mauer has to spend the last 3 years of the contract at another position to avoid frequent DL trips.  According to this exercise, the final $69 million of Mauer’s contract will depend on his ability to produce at another position.  If we build in roughly .375 WAR/year decline to his performance — an estimate that builds in the Twins ability to switch Mauer’s position in order to avoid injuries — the Twins have to get roughly 3.6 WAR, 3.25 WAR, and 2.9 WAR from Mauer in the final three years of the deal in order to break even on the contract value.

Here are some 3 1/4 win players from the 2012 season who played corner positions (1B, 3B, LF, RF) on the diamond: DH Billy Butler (Royals), OF Yoenis Cespedes (Athletics), Allen Craig (Cardinals), Hanley Ramirez (Dodgers), and Andre Ethier (Dodgers).  Those players are all younger than 30, sure, but is there any doubt that a mid-thirties Mauer in full decline could be someone like Adam LaRoche, or at least Mark Teixiera?  Because unlike those two players, Mauer can perform at positions that aren’t first base, which will save his value as far as WAR is concerned.

And that’s a worst case scenario, beyond one where chronic knee or back injuries hamper his thirties.

Obviously with any long term contract, there’s built in risk that the player may get hurt and not produce.  This applies to Mauer as well as any other veteran on a long term contract.  That doesn’t mean that guaranteed multi-year contracts are a bad idea, it means that contracts are speculative and based on risk tolerance.

It doesn’t mean that every long term superstar contract looks good in hindsight (see: Rodriguez, Alex).  It just means that every team in the league with even a modicrum of risk tolerance — small-market and big market alike — would absorb the Joe Mauer contract for the next six years, all else equal.


An Observation: the Count seems to be More Important in Baseball than Ever Before

I have no hard evidence to back the theory that I am about to present, but I noticed earlier this month that the teams who were “sellers” at the MLB trade deadline (which just passed this last Sunday) have one common link: their inability to prevent runs.  Now, obviously, this is not a new deal to people in the know: bad teams are bad teams because either they score too few runs, or they give up too many runs.  With the exception of the punchless offenses in Oakland and Seattle this year, it’s pretty much exclusive to just the bad run prevention units that they are out of it.

There are bad offenses all over the place in baseball this year, and many of those teams are still in the hunt.  The LA Angels’ offense isn’t useful at all, but they’re 1.5 games out of first place.  Atlanta leads the wild card race, but they’ve done it without the benefit of an above average offense.  Pittsburgh is fading, but they weren’t scoring much even when they were winning.  The Giants have scored the fewest runs in the AL, and in fact have only outscored the hapless Mariners by 20 runs.  They’re leading their division.  Bad defense/pitching units though?  Pretty much just the Tigers are still in the hunt among teams that have given up 500+ runs this year.

My other observation here is that I’ve found the umpiring (balls/strikes, tag/no tag) to be more erratic this year than in other years.  But empirically, this is not the case.  The difference is that the strong offenses are doing a good job getting themselves into favorable batter’s counts, and likewise, the pitchers on bad teams are doing a bad job of staying ahead of hitters.  The effect of this, I believe, is that struggling teams are more sensitive to the variance in umpire calls.  And that bad defensive units are unable to get out of the cycle of balls and hittable pitches.

In the past, I think baseball had been more balanced between scoring and preventing runs.  The count mattered in the past, but it mattered for all hitters.  I’ve noticed that weaker hitters — more abundant in this current hitting environment — don’t capitalize on the extreme hitters counts (2-0), (3-1) like good hitters do.  That trend isn’t exclusive to this year: good hitters have always dominated in hitters’ counts.  But if you’re a team that has the pitching staff of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, or Chicago Cubs, one of the biggest single reasons for all the losing is that it’s become nearly impossible to expect called third strikes to be called in pitcher favorable counts.  Though the umpires aren’t doing anything fundamentally different from any other year, the depressed run environment means that every run counts, and sometimes on the margins, a good pitch that gets called a ball, or a check swing that gets appealed and ruled no swing — those events are having a greater effect on the outcome of the game in this run environment than they were just three years ago.

And it would be great if someone could run the numbers on this, but I believe that this is related to the disparate way that we’re seeing teams struggling with run prevention struggle in the win column, relative to their run differential.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are Pretty Perfectly Positioned for First Place Push

If you’re the front office of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, or San Diego Padres, you may want to pull out your notebook, and start taking notes.  It’s the Pittsburgh Pirates who have become the example for winning baseball games on a budget.

Since its inception in 1994, the NL Central division has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This is remarkable, really.  We’re talking about the NL Central.  The Pirates were run into the ground for the first twelve years of the NL Central division, and it’s still incredible they didn’t make the postseason.  The freakin’ 1998 Cubs made the playoffs.  That wasn’t a good team at all.  The Pirates have been more than just a bad team, but they’ve failed to reach levels of hilarity that would have made watching their losses entertaining.  They’ve been an attraction best defined by their ballpark.

The fact that the NL Central has lined up in such a way that two of the six teams are among the worst in baseball is hardly surprising.  In fact, if you lent any credence to the preseason previews, it’s actually not that surprising that the Pirates aren’t at the bottom of the division this all star break.  However, any spectacular achievement in the first half driven by a quality, young offensive group was certain to be drowned out by a pitching staff which entered the season hoping to be just good enough to sell off a part or two at the trade deadline.  But at the all-star break, the Pirates pitchers have been worth so much more to them than that this season.

When you look at the teams that are truly struggling this year, listed in order above, but also including the Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, and Chicago Cubs, bad teams have struggled on the run prevention side of the baseball equation.  This is where the Pirates were projected to struggle, but their 345 runs allowed is in the upper half of all of baseball and perfectly matches their much sustainable 345 runs scored this year.

If .500 is the true talent of the 2011 Pirates, then there’s reason to believe that they aren’t overachieving much.  The Pirates pitching rotation has been unable to find a true strikeout threat between Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens, and Kevin Correia, but only Correia is truly struggling to strike out batters.  This is reflected in his results: a pedestrian 4.01 ERA at the all-star break.  Perhaps, though, the current depressed run environment actually favors the sustainability of the Pirates’ staff.  Their one below average starter is also the team’s strikeout leader, James McDonald.  McDonald struggles with putting too many guys on and had a flyball tendency.  Even in the current environment, his 4.42 ERA plays as a fifth starter.

If this was an article about how suprising the Pittsburgh Pirates are, I’d write about Charlie Morton here.  But this is an article about the chances that the Pirates push for first place deep into September, and I think that Morton best represents the amount of depth the Pirates have created themselves.  If this team actually does make the playoffs, Morton doesn’t figure to be part of the playoff rotation.  He lacks the raw power (and lack of command) of McDonald, and isn’t as well regarded as Correia, Maholm, or Karstens.  But his 5.3 K/9 rate could help him pass for other pitchers in the Pirates rotation.

The competitive advantage of this team is that it is deep for a low-budget operation.  The bullpen has six different guys having strong years — led by fireballing closer Joel Hanrahan — and can hope for a seventh when they get last year’s all-star Evan Meek back from the DL.  They can also go to that bullpen early in games because the arms are as young as they are talented, and they’ve been there for the Pirates as they’ve been needed.

The offense has not progressed according to plan, exactly.  The Pirates entered the season ahead of the game at catcher, but both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit have been hurt this year and neither has been much defensively when they’ve been behind the plate anyway.  Nobody in baseball likes homegrown Neil Walker’s defense at second base, but his 84 hits would lead a couple of teams at the break.  They don’t lead the Pirates, however, because the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, a five tool prospect and budding superstar who is my pick for NL MVP at the midway point over Jose Reyes.  Opponents appear to be lost on this “McCutchen is the most dangerous player in the NL” thing because he’s been intentionally walked just once this season.  I suppose that’s understandable, because as much as teams should be fearing his bat, they are fearing what his speed on the basepaths can do to change a game.  McCutchen, who has reached base 149 times this year, has stolen 15 bases while being caught only five times.

The Pirates have issues they need to upgrade on the left side of the infield, where they’ve received sub-par performances from Ronny Cedeno as SS (which was expected) and the recently demoted Pedro Alvarez at 3B (they had hoped for better).  They have some options here on the trade market as buyers.  The Royals are looking to deal Wilson Betemit and have Mike Aviles sitting in AAA right now, and it wouldn’t be that hard for the Pirates to put together a package that lands both of them.  Even though the Indians are in the midst of a playoff run, they’d probably be willing to deal Jack Hannahan for a C+ pitching prospect.  Greg Dobbs of the Marlins could also be a target.

Unless they make a package deal with a team like the Royals, the Pirates are likely to simply sit on Ronny Cedeno at shortstop.  Cedeno isn’t a good player, but he has a strong defensive reputation, and UZR bears out his good glovework this season.  If the Bucs would consider moving Walker to third base for the rest of this season, Alexi Casilla of the Twins could be a smart pickup.  Problem there is you’re moving one of your lineup staples into a spot where he is blocking a top prospect (Alvarez).  Mark Teahen of the White Sox could be another solution.

The Pirates’ solutions to their problems could define their road to the playoffs because the main competition, the Milwaukee Brewers, have the same left side of infield needs.  The truth is though the wisest moves the Pirates could make is simply to focus on increasing the value of their roster taking advantage of a buyers market and trying to find good players at any position.  Really, in terms of building a team for the future, the only untouchable in terms of losing a job is McCutchen.  And that shouldn’t limit the Pirates options at all.

They shouldn’t be considered the favorites to win the NL Central because they simply won’t be able to match the Brewers pitching, but the Pirates could, very easily, enter 2012 as the favorite if the Brewers do not return Prince Fielder.  To do so, they will need to be smart and add value to their organization throughout July and August and into the offseason, but this shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, it’s how the Pirates got to this position in the first place.

Zack Greinke is the Best Pitcher in Baseball

June 12, 2011 1 comment

Milwaukee’s own Zack Greinke (6-1; 4.69 ERA) is 6-1 for only the second time in his seven year baseball career.  The other time he was 6-1, the BBWAA gave him the award pictured above.  Equipment producer Mizuno gave him this.

However, no one is throwing a parade in a plaza for Greinke this time around.  Back in 2009, Greinke was sitting on a 0.50 ERA at this point, and could be considered a hard luck 6-1.  This time, NL opponents have scored 26 times off Greinke already.  But the differences are remarkable.  Greinke is stranding the lowest rate of baserunners in his career: 63.0%.  He is suffering from a flyball tendency in a way he has not struggled with since his formative days in Kansas City.  Greinke’s BABIP has soared over his last two starts (both wins) to .344 on the season.  And the reasoning for all those problems resulting in a 4.69 ERA instead of something more resembling the numbers he put up in Kansas City is exclusively related to the homerun ball.

Greinke has allowed six homers this year, including yesterday.  And those homers haven’t been of the common, solo variety either.  They’ve been potential back-breakers to the Brewers chances.  It’s a combination of the opponents being able to get the ball in the air, having runners on base against Greinke when it happens (Greinke is allowing a fraction over a baserunner per inning, so this has to regress at some point), and the Brewers defense simply not getting to balls in play.

But Greinke could care less about that ERA stat.  For the first time in his career, he plays for a team that bails him out by way of run support.  And Greinke himself, who has already scored twice this year, including the game tying run yesterday on a Rickie Weeks go-ahead 6th inning homer, is now part of that run support equation.  It’s really made all the difference for him to go for hoping to get 2 or 3 runs to work with from the Royals offense, and not even getting that at times, to being able to give up 3, 4, or even 5 runs in a start, and still find a way to be pitching from ahead deep in the game.

It is not probable, but it is possible, that Zack Greinke could do the whole career high in games won this season despite missing roughly five starts due to a DL stint for a fractured rib in March/April.  Greinke lost his first start coming off the DL in Atlanta, but having pitched at home in Miller Park in all but one of his next seven starts, the Brewers have managed to win each one of those seven games, now the longest single-season winning streak in games started by Zack Greinke (he had a longer one lasting from September 2008-May 2009).

Two years ago, there was a situation revolving around the all-star game starting pitcher, which Greinke had clearly identified as either himself or Toronto’s Roy Halladay.  Two years later, we can wonder if anything has really changed.  Greinke is in the National League, as is Halladay.  Cliff Lee is a pitching leaderboard mainstay.  Felix Hernandez also has a Cy Young award to show for his efforts.  One of those four pitchers has to be the best pitcher in baseball.

The majority would probably sat that Halladay is still the best.  It’s hard to disagree.  Greinke probably wouldn’t disagree.  Look at the year to year production.  Roy Halladay is still the toughest pitcher to beat in a major league game.

The only group of people I might think of that could disagree is National League hitters.  Collectively, I don’t know if there’s a group out there who has less success than NL hitters against Greinke.  60 players have struck out against Greinke this year.  56 players have reached base against Greinke this year.  If dominance for a pitcher is represented by those two numbers even being close (like they were in 2009 for Greinke, or they have been for Halladay throughout his career), the pace Greinke is on in 2011 is nothing short of historic.

There’s just no reason to think he can keep that pace up.  Unless, of course, you believe that Greinke is better than he was in 2009.  I’m not saying he is.  I’m also not saying he isn’t.  What I am saying is, from the perspective of hitters alone, putting aside his value to an organization or all-star credentials or other distractions, Zack Greinke is the most dangerous pitcher in baseball to face, and also possibly the very best.

Extra Inning Affairs: Occurring at a Greater Rate than Ever Before?

On Saturday, June 4th, 2011, Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit a grand slam in the 8th inning off of Cincinnati Reds Pitcher Logan Ondrusek to send the Reds and Dodgers to extra innings at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.  This was of great significance to a struggling and maligned Dodgers offense.  But was also more significant is that Kemp sent the Dodgers and Reds to Major League Baseball’s 100th extra inning game this season.

The 100th time that two teams and four umpires were sent to extra innings this year came on the day where MLB played its 870th game of the season, which is 36% of the way through the full season schedule.  So it’s still early, and a lot can change very quickly.  But I felt like, for sure, this season was featuring a higher rate of extra inning affairs than any other recent MLB season.  So I ran the numbers, and this is what I found:

Year	% X-Inn MLB R/G
2011	11.49%	4.21
2010	9.05%	4.38
2009	8.02%	4.61
2008	8.57%	4.65
2007	9.05%	4.8
2006	7.62%	4.86
2005	7.49%	4.59
2004	8.98%	4.81
2003	8.11%	4.73
2002	8.25%	4.62
2001	8.03%	4.78
2000	8.32%	5.14
1999	7.87%	5.08
1998	8.52%	4.79
1997	8.65%	4.77
1996	9.62%	5.04
1995	8.93%	4.85
1994	8.94%	4.92
1993	8.64%	4.6
1992	9.97%	4.12
1991	10.46%	4.31


This shows the run environment alongside the percentage of games that took longer than 9 innings to decide.  X-tra inning games are happening more in 2011 than at any point in the prior 20 seasons, and by a substantial margin.  The last time that more than 10% of games went to the 10th inning happened in 1991  Furthermore the correlation between the current MLB run environment and the percentage of games that go longer than anticipated is fairly clear from this exercise.  When more teams score more runs, a higher percentage of games get decided in nine innings.  That is fairly straightforward.  The Kemp game is an anomally: grand slams in regulation typically do not take us to extra innings, they usually decide the game.

Of course, beyond the trend between run environment and extra innings, its far more difficult to establish a clear trend that we’re seeing more extra inning games now than ever before.  Let’s take that table above, and throw out the 2011 and 1991 lines.

Year	% X-Inn	MLB R/G
2010	9.05%	4.38
2009	8.02%	4.61
2008	8.57%	4.65
2007	9.05%	4.8
2006	7.62%	4.86
2005	7.49%	4.59
2004	8.98%	4.81
2003	8.11%	4.73
2002	8.25%	4.62
2001	8.03%	4.78
2000	8.32%	5.14
1999	7.87%	5.08
1998	8.52%	4.79
1997	8.65%	4.77
1996	9.62%	5.04
1995	8.93%	4.85
1994	8.94%	4.92
1993	8.64%	4.6
1992	9.97%	4.12

Here we see that the trend is actually way more clear when we throw out the numbers from 2011 and from 1991: the percentage of extra inning games in baseball is actually going down, substantially, over the last 20 years.  The outliers in the data include any time that more than 10% of baseball games go to extras in a season.  It is unlikely, given the recent sample, that more than 10% of games will go to extra innings over the rest of the season.

There is one qualification I need to make on that: it’s not unlikely that we can see all time highs for extra inning games this year IF offensive levels continue to drop over the next four months.  That in itself is unlikely for two reasons: natural offensive regression, and the warmer weather in the summer typically offering a bump to offensive totals.  But it’s been an odd MLB year to date to say the least, so it’s at least possible that offensive totals could fall between now and September.

This run environment is NOT a historical outlier with regard to producing a higher rate of 10th innings.  The outliers in this data set actually occurred when runs per game in baseball were over 5, most recently around the turn of the century (1999-2000), and also immediately post-strike (1996).  Based on the last 20 years, there should have actually been fewer extra inning games in those seasons, but, relatively speaking, there were many.

I can conclude from this research that in the last twenty years, extreme valleys in offensive numbers have created more extra inning games, which is a primary reason that we have seen a spike in long games when the run environment dips below 4.3.  But the overall trend in MLB has been away from extra innings, at least in the last 20 years.  Clearly, there are other factors at play here besides run environment on extra inning occurrences; factors that have been causing more and more games to be decided in 9 innings.  I will revisit this at the end of the season, and try to address what else is causing the downward trend in extra inning games, and whether or not circumstances have changed now in the 2011 MLB season.

A Run Scored is the Same as a Run Prevented – or is it?

February 21, 2011 3 comments
Cincinnati Reds Brandon Phillips tosses his bat after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals in the third inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on June 1, 2009. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt) Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

One of my earliest criticisms of baseball sabermetrics had to do with the way that player defensive value was shrugged off as merely being a matter of position and scarcity.  Defensive stats have come a long way, possibly to the point where this criticism is no longer relevant.  A run prevented is pretty much treated the same as a run scored.

Is this the case though?  In the most literal sense, of course it’s true — either way, you’re one run closer to winning a game.  It also makes for a nice way of promoting defense: a player who saves a run with the glove is just as valuable as a player who creates a run with the bat.

Defense is of paramount importance to baseball teams because much of what is perceived as pitching success or failure is probably defensive success or failure.  There is a reason that many “stats” guys feel like MLB teams overvalue the negative effect of a pitcher who gives up too many home runs, but I’m siding with the baseball execs here: keeping the ball in the park needs to be the number one concern for pitchers: it’s far more devastating to give up the long ball at an above average rate than whatever the linear weights equivalents of reduced strikeouts or increased walks may be.  For pitchers, a high HR rate represents a lack of command similar to that of an increase walk rate, only with a more devastating result.  “Wild” pitchers can see an uptick in both walks and strikeouts, without having their HR rates change whatsoever.

When we talk about defensive runs prevented we talk about a denominator of the expected value of runs on total balls in play.  But offensively, the denominator is different.  It’s not all balls in play, it’s the outcome of every at bat in a sample.  The difference between the two is known as defensive independent pitching.  But DIPS come with a caveat that batted balls aren’t totally independent of pitching, only mostly independent.  The quality and type of pitcher can affect the difficulty of turning batted balls into outs.  This would certainly imply that a defensive run saved would somehow be different than an offensive run created, and that pitchers are the primary variable.  Though this is widely accepted, it’s also counter-intuitive to how modern statistical writers perceive baseball.

The other thing is that the score and game situation matters.  Teams attempt to maximize win probability, not always run probability.  The hottest area of debate over this principle is the strategic value of sacrifice bunting (usually both run- and win-probability deflating), but I want to focus on outs.  An offensive out is, in theory, always of the same value: one out closer to ending an inning/the game.  They are baseball’s independent variable.  The third out is usually more costly to an offense than the second or first out, but all progress the game in exactly the same fashion.  Defensively, however, this isn’t always the case.  If the outs/runs matrix was identical in all game situations, there would be a universal optimal choice on this game situation:

Runners on 1st and 3rd, 0 outs.  Ground ball to third base, with all runners trying to advance.  The ball is cleanly fielded.

In perfectly normal game situations, it makes more statistical sense to go to second to attempt a double play, so long as the team plays at a level where the double play would be executed routinely.  As soon as the third baseman goes to second for the first out, the run is going to score.  It is, by definition, not run preventing because a run is scoring on this play by fielder’s choice (literally, the official scorer rules the play a fielders choice, no matter where the ball is thrown or what the outcome is).  If I give you more information about the play, telling you that the game is tied in the bottom of the ninth inning, then throwing to second is the right choice 0% of the time.  Two outs are meaningless, because the game ends when the run is scored.

This is a much more telling “strategic” dilemma than the sacrifice bunt matrices because both strategies are made with the abstract idea of preventing runs, but once again, that brings me back to the original point: not all runs are created equal, and because there are two strategic players in baseball (the teams, and specifically the managers), game theory indicates that even in normal game situations, no run can be perceived precisely the same way by both teams.  This means that a run scored and a run prevented are, in the most strategic sense, not identical, nor are they of identical value.

This revelation is probably meaningless, because even though I have argued that scored runs and prevented runs are not of identical value, it’s not clear if or why one should be considered inherently more valuable than the other.  I suspect — with no numbers to back this up — that scored runs are slightly more valuable than prevented runs.  Obviously, this whole post is a case of abstract nitpicking.  When building a baseball team, it makes perfect sense to try to improve the team by both adding runs and preventing runs, and not simply deciding to become proficient at one or the other and let the chips fall where they may.  I do think there is an inherent strategic advantage to having a high total of runs scored with regard to winning games, because it would seem easier for a manager to pull a couple strings with his bullpen and defense to stop the bleeding than for the same manager to try to create “just enough” runs to beat a pitcher that could easily dominate his offense.

What does all of this mean?  Probably not very much.  It just means that runs scored and runs prevented are not of inherently identical value.  It doesn’t mean that MLB defense or pitching or offense are overvalued or undervalued.  I did not discover any market inefficiencies in this post.  If anything, I went well out of my way to loosely agree with the baseball establishment, and the way they do things.  But just like football analysis gets raked for not properly considering weather, opponent, and injury context, baseball analysis probably has a bit of work to do before properly assessing the value of defensive runs in, well, player value, but much more significantly, team and division projections.

Categories: MLB, Stats Tags: , , ,

The LiveBall Sports 2010 World Series Preview

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

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Up to this Point, the Texas Rangers have had anything but an easy ride in the playoffs. After winning two games in Tampa Bay to open up the ALDS, they dropped two at home and needed Cliff Lee’s Game 5 masterpiece to close out the series on the road. The series saw the Rangers being aggressive on the basepaths, but some of their big bats went silent. The bullpen remained a concern as rookie phenom Neftali Feliz looked shaky, but was not forced into pressure situations. In the end, the combined efforts of Lee, Andrus, Cruz and Kinsler were able to outlast the MLB’s best regular season team.

The Rangers went on to face the Yankees in the ALCS and surprisingly dominated them aside from a Game 5 lapse with the Yankees on the brink of elimination. Cliff Lee was only needed for his Game 3 domination as many of the Rangers’ bats came alive, most notably Josh Hamilton. Hamilton posted a 1.536 OPS in the series, cranking four home runs and drawing eight walks in 28 plate appearances. The Rangers continued their great work on the bases, and veteran Bengie Molina continued a resurgent postseason with a three-run home run against A.J. Burnett in Game 4. While C.J. Wilson struggled in his second start of the series, Colby Lewis was consistent, getting the win in the clinching Game 6. His 1.98 ERA for the series and 13 strikeouts over 13 2/3 innings were critical to the Rangers advancing.

Aside from the Game 2 bullpen breakdown and C.J. Wilson’s Game 5 start, the Rangers were firing on all cylinders all series long. This type of performance was what allowed them to run away with the AL West and will make them tough to defeat in the World Series. Most figure Hamilton and Cruz to get their hits and home runs, but when the Rangers are able to get strong production from Bengie Molina and Mitch Moreland like they did in the ALCS, they are unbeatable.

From the San Francisco Giants’ perspective, it’s clear that the road to the World Series was far more difficult in October for the Rangers, who had to dispel the best two teams in baseball over the 2010 season to reach the Fall Classic.  Of course, the Rangers had to wait until the 5th game of the ALDS for the gut-check that comes with being put on the ropes by a potentially better opponent, and asking your offense to give Cliff Lee the support he needs to propel them to the next round.  They had to wait until the first game of the ALCS to taste defeat in such a crushing manner and make sure they could bounce back from it and still remain the dominant team in the series.

For the Giants, this kind of adversity was a season-long proposition.  It wasn’t until September that winning the division became any more of a reality than it was in Spring Training, when it was an expressed goal of the team.  The San Diego Padres led in this division from April through the middle of September, before the Giants overtook them in the division with two weeks to go.  Even appearing in the post-season wasn’t anything more than a likelihood on the final day of the regular season.  Furthermore, the Giants offense that exists now started the season on many different teams, brought together in July and August to bolster the offense of a team that clearly had the pitching to make it.

Season-long statistics are unappreciative the power of this rotation, because there was a point in the season where Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum was in a batter-to-batter struggle to survive in a rotation.  The Giants went through the whole regular season trying to survive Barry Zito, who started out fortunate, and ended up diasterous.  In any case, the Giants bring an elite pitching rotation to the Texas lineup, one that was not thought to be elite as recent at three weeks ago when the playoffs began.  Texas certainly must feel it’s advantages are held against a low-scoring Giants offense, but with rookie Catcher Buster Posey leading the charge, it’s uncertain if the Rangers hold many advantages at all in this World Series.

The Giants have a fairly straight-forward plan in this World Series: if the Rangers really need two victories from Lee to stay in it, they can really stick it hard to the Rangers as early as tonight.  A win for Lincecum over Lee, and every analyst who picked the Rangers to win is going to be strongly re-thinking such a front running pick.

The Lineups

Texas Rangers
SS Elvis Andrus (.265/.342/.301)
3B Michael Young (.284/.330/.444)
CF Josh Hamilton (.359/.411/.633)
RF Vlad Guerrero (.300/.345/.496)
LF Nelson Cruz (.318/.374/.576)
2B Ian Kinsler (.286/.382/.412)
C Bengie Molina (.249/.297/.326)
1B Mitch Moreland (.255/.364/.469)

Bench: Dave Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, Julio Borbon, Esteban German, Andres Blanco, Matt Treanor

The Rangers come into the World Series with two incredibly hot MVP caliber players: Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Both were dinged up at times during the season while posting a wOBA over .400. This success continued into the ALCS and both look unstoppable. Ian Kinsler was one of a few elite second basemen in the playoffs, but is the only one left. Kinsler, Michael Young and Vlad Guerrero round out the meat of the order, but the leadoff, 7 and 8 hitters are still not black holes. Mitch Moreland followed up his solid rookie campaign with a consistent postseason effort and will force Giants’ hurlers to make quality pitches. Catcher Bengie Molina had a terrible season at the plate, but has come alive in the playoffs. The Rangers won’t depend on him hitting against his former team, but he is more than capable of driving in runs. Andrus will never hit for much power, but his ability to make contact and wreak havoc on the bases make him a valuable hitter.

The real loss to the Rangers will come in the games in San Francisco; Vladimir Guerrero will either not be in the lineup or taking the place of David Murphy. This takes out one quality hitter from the lineup, but leaves the Rangers will a better bench bat than anything the Giants have to offer. Manager Ron Washington has said that he will start Guerrero in right field in Game 1 to keep his bat active, but we may see a switch to Murphy in Game 2.

The Rangers are going to score runs in the series, one way or another. The Giants will not only have to focus on slowing down Josh Hamilton, but also Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and the running game of the Rangers.

San Francisco Giants
CF Andres Torres (.268/.343/.479)
2B Freddy Sanchez (.292/.342/.397)
1B Aubrey Huff (.290/.385/.506)
C Buster Posey (.305/.357/.505)
LF Pat Burrell (.266/.364/.509)
RF Cody Ross (.288/.354/.466)
3B Pablo Sandoval (.268/.323/.409)
SS Juan Uribe (.248/.310/.440)

Bench: SS Edgar Renteria, IF Travis Ishikawa, IF Mike Fontenot, OF Aaron Rowand, OF Nate Schierholtz, C Eli Whiteside

The Giants use their bench interchangeably with their starting lineup in many places.  Every player on their team has started a playoff game except Schierholtz, Ishikawa, and Whiteside.  Fontenot is a platoon player, but Rowand and Renteria might as well be listed with the starters, giving them 11 interchangible players.  Schierholtz is a defensive replacement for the late innings.  Whiteside pinch hits deep in games and otherwise sits there and waits for something terrible to happen to Buster Posey.

The one consistent thing among this bench is that there are really no bats on it.  Edgar Renteria has seen his playing time and plate appearances increase in the playoffs, as he usually leads off for the Giants when he plays shortstop.  When Renteria plays, the Giants usually bump Uribe over to third, or sit Uribe and play Sandoval.  The playing time there is pretty even.  Rowand and Torres play fairly evenly in Center.  Torres is better.  Rowand gets paid more.

Renteria is believed by the team to be a clutch option in the postseason.  He is 3-for-18 with a walk this postseason.  Juan Uribe is 4-for-28  with a walk and a homer.  Sandoval is 3-for-14 with two walks and a double, good for a sparkling .313 on-base-percentage this postseason, leading all 3rd basemen and shortstops on this team.

You probably know by now that Posey and Ross have been tearing the cover off the ball this postseason.  Huff has been a masher for this team all season, and Sanchez gives the team exactly what they are paying for in that two hole.  Cost-free pickups Burrell and Cody Ross are the reasons the Giants have made it this far.  The Giants’ biggest problem is they lack a leadoff man.  Torres is the best man for the job, sporting a .409 on base percentage in the NLCS, but Torres hasn’t convinced manager Bruce Bochy to play him every day in the postseason, and Bochy uses his bench as much as any manager in the game.  Edgar Renteria is an inadequate leadoff man, but as long as Cody Ross is hitting for power, he’s the best the Giants can do in games that Torres doesn’t play.  Mike Fontenot is a decent option to leadoff against RHP.  That’s not a group that includes Cliff Lee.

The other problem here is that the Giants have no bats after the 6 hole.  That’s really going to hurt them on the road in Texas when they have to bat nine position players.  That’s a problem you’ll run into if you only have 5 hitters on your roster.  The good news is, for spots 2-6 in this lineup, the Giants are nearly as strong as the Rangers are.

The Rotations

Texas Rangers
Game 1: Cliff Lee (3.18 ERA, 212 1/3 IP 185K 18BB)
Game 2: C.J. Wilson (3.35 ERA, 204 IP 170K 93BB)
Game 3: Colby Lewis (3.72 ERA, 201 IP 196K 65BB)
Game 4: Tommy Hunter (3.73 ERA, 128 IP 68K 33BB)

Cliff Lee is without a doubt the best pitcher on the Rangers and in the World Series. He also has little competition for “Best Pitcher in the League” honors. The Rangers are 3-0 in his starts this postseason and have a high likelihood of going 2-0 in his two games. Lee last faced the Giants on July 31 of 2009 as a member of the Phillies, pitching a complete game and giving up one run on four hits with a 6/2 K/BB ratio. The Giants team he will face this time is a bit different: Randy Winn, Eugenio Velez and Ryan Garko won’t play a role in this series and Pablo Sandoval and Aaron Rowand are now part-time players. Needless to say, we can’t learn too much from that performance. After shutton down the Yankees, the Giants should be a cakewalk. However, when Cody Ross can homer twice off Roy Halladay, anything is possible.

The rest of the rotation is solid, but will have trouble winning games singlehandedly. Ron Washington made the decision to go with Tommy Hunter again in Game 4, keeping the other pitchers from going on three days rest. Colby Lewis has looked the best in the playoffs, but had some issues giving up the longball during the season. C.J. Wilson has been shaky and led the AL in walks issued, second in the majors to Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants. Tommy Hunter won’t miss many bats, but has some pretty good control. If the Giants come out overaggressive against him, he could eat up some innings in Game 4.

Overall, this rotation is good enough to win the series, but not good enough to sweep. The ultimate fate of the Rangers will depend on how many quality starts they get out of Wilson, Lewis and Hunter.

San Francisco Giants
Game 1: Tim Lincecum (3.43 ERA, 212.1 IP 231K 76BB)
Game 2: Matt Cain (3.14 ERA, 223.1 IP 177K 61BB)
Game 3: Jonathan Sanchez (3.07 ERA, 193.1 IP 205K 96BB
Game 4: Madison Bumgarner (3.00 ERA, 111 IP 86K 26BB)

It’s because of the strength of this group that Tim Lincecum doesn’t qualify as the unit’s clear ace the way that Cliff Lee does for the Rangers.  If we took off the names, you’d struggle to pick the two-time Cy Young award winner’s line out of that group (you’d probably confuse him and Cain), but it’s Lincecum who is expected to draw Cliff Lee twice in this series.

Matt Cain was very underutilized in the NLCS, starting Game 2 and pitching masterfully for a win before not appearing again in the rest of the series.  Because of the strength of the Texas Rangers as a ballclub compared to the Phillies, it’s Cain and not Lincecum who is really going to decide the course of this series.  Even if the Giants are able to steal one from Lee, it’s hard to see the Giants winning the series if they cannot win both of Matt Cain’s starts.

Jonathon Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner will be asked to keep the Giants competitive, which is a tough task since two runs in the first six innings is considered an above expectation performance from the Giants offense.  Colby Lewis is a very tough draw for Sanchez in particular, as the main difference between the two pitchers is that Sanchez has a tendency to put guys on base via the walk.  Bumgarner will be an odds on favorite to win Game 4, which could be a swing game in this series.  I don’t have to tell you how jittery big league managers get about playoff pressure on rookies pitching in the World Series, but if the Giants take home the title, you’ll have to look at Bochy’s decision to pitch Bumgarner in the playoff rotation over the overpaid Barry Zito as one of the biggest decisions of the postseason.

The Bullpens

Texas Rangers
LHP Derek Holland, LHP Darren Oliver, RHP Neftali Feliz, RHP Darren O’Day, RHP Alexi Ogando, LHP Michael Kirkman, RHP Dustin Nippert, LHP Clay Rapada

The Rangers stocked their bullpen with left handers in the ALCS, selecting Kirkman and Rapada over Nippert and infielder Esteban German. Ron Washington may prefer the infielder to an extra pitcher given the four possible games in San Francisco The need for left handers is also less against the Giants as only Andres Torres is a bigger threat against right handers.

Holland will continue his role in providing long relief in case Wilson, Lewis or Hunter leave early. Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver and Alexi Ogando will mix and match for the late innings if needed. Clay Rapada got a lot of appearances against the Yankees, but without the need for a lefty specialist, he could have a minimized role.

After Neftali Feliz’s shaky start to the postseason where he walked five batters in 2 1/3 innings, he has struck out four over his last 2 innings pitched. This was after only walking two batters in the entire month of September. Also, Feliz gave up only one home run after July 18th, but then surrendered one in Game 2 against the Rays. He still hasn’t been presented with a save situation in the playoffs and is a real wild card if he is called upon late in a game.

The Rangers’ bullpen is underrated, but has been the weak link thus far in the playoffs. O’Day, Oliver and Ogando all had great regular seasons and missed bats frequently. However, we’ve already seen nearly every pitcher struggle thus far and the bullpen as a whole is weaker than it looks on paper.

San Francisco Giants
RHP Brian Wilson, RHP Sergio Romo, RHP Guillermo Mota, RHP Ramon Ramirez, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, RHP Santigo Casilla, LHP Javier Lopez

The bullpen is the biggest strength of the Giants over the Rangers, but a lot of that is based on my assumption that the Rangers’ pen won’t revert to regular season performance expectations.  The Giants’ pen had a miniature meltdown in Game 2 of the NLDS, as Sergio Romo didn’t record an out in the 8th inning, and Ramon Ramirez got too much of the plate to Rick Ankiel.  Since then, this group has been tremendous.

If they have a weakness, it’s to left handed batters, but more in quantity than in quality.  Javier Lopez has been a tremendous pickup from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Jeremy Affeldt, who struggled out of the pen this year, has been an effective reliever in the playoffs.  He faced nine batters in the NLCS and gave up one run on no hits.  There are no other available lefties, though late in this series (as well as in the first game), they can use Bumgarner out of the pen.

They are strong and powerful on the right side.  Few superlatives can adequately describe the season that closer Brian Wilson is having.  Wilson technically blew a save in Game 2 of the NLDS, but he hasn’t given up a run in the post season.  Sergio Romo and Ramon Ramirez have been strong contributors to the pen this season.  Guillermo Mota was an effective big league fireman just a season ago, but has had a wildly inconsistent career, and his results have never backed up the stuff he has.  Mota has not appeared in the playoffs this season.

Other Factors

The case for Texas: For being an American League team, the Rangers are structured quite well to play National League style baseball. They have demonstrated extraordinary capabilities on the bases and have a bench full of power, speed and defense. The National League winning the All-Star Game could end up being an advantage for the Rangers.

Nevertheless, the Rangers were much better at home this year, going 50-31 while being under .500 on the road. Cliff Lee winning Game 1 is critical as it swings the homefield advantage in favor of the Rangers. The real question is if the Rangers can hit nearly as well at AT&T Park as they can at home.

Staying with Cliff Lee for a moment, he is also more rested than Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum, thanks to the Rangers win in Game 6 against the Yankees. He will have eight days off between starts while Lincecum will have only 5. This may be good or bad, but Lee has racked up a lot of pitches in the postseason and probably needed some time off for his arm.

Last, the defense is a mixed bag for the Rangers. They have some of the best of the arms in the game, but Guerrero (a once great arm) moving to the outfield makes the defense a tad shaky. Kinsler and Andrus are improving defensively, but Michael Young is moving in the wrong direction. Molina’s veteran presence should solidify their infield defense, but there are places to be concerned.
After their performance in the ALCS, the Rangers seem to be the team to beat. They have a mix of young an old, a few good stories, and a franchise that has done anything but win over its history. It certainly feels like it is the Rangers’ time, but we will have to wait until the finish to know for sure. Until then I am predicting they win the World Series in five games.

The case for San Francisco: The Giants have been a run prevention team all season long, and actually, have done a strong job preventing runs for many consecutive years, which caused them to be a trendy pick to come out of the NL this season.  Those who picked them to reach the World Series ended up being correct.  There is no flaw in run prevention for the Giants.  They finished the season 2nd in all of baseball in team UZR.  They have strikeout pitchers throughout their rotation, and one of the most efficient rotations in baseball.  After they take the starters out, their bullpen holds the lead.  Their poorest rated defenders, Cody Ross and Mike Fontenot, make it up with the bat, and Fontenot has been a plus defender in the past.

Their manager, Bruce Bochy, gets criticized for poor tactical decisions (read: bunting), but he does the big things well.  He gets his bench involved in the world series run, and he makes the tough decisions when it’s obvious that he needs to in order to improve win percentage.  Bochy is a big reason the Giants have come this far.  There’s a reason that Jose Guillen and Barry Zito are not on the playoff roster.

The Giants have overcome a lot to get this far.  They weren’t a great pick to make the World Series, I didn’t think.  This was a weak NL playoff field.  Not many thought the Giants had a chance to beat the Phillies, but they proved to be the tougher of the two teams.  They pitched better than the Phillies and because they had the better pitching performances, the hitters performed better.

The key for the Giants is to ensure that they don’t get down two games in the series to the Rangers as the Rays and the Yankees did.  With Cliff Lee sitting on the other side, that’s easier said that done.  The Giants are ahead if they can go through the rotations once and be tied 2-2 or ahead of the Rangers 3-1.  The Rangers have to be up early, and they have to clinch with Lee when they have the chance.  At the very least, the Rangers need to return to SF up 3-2 if they can’t clinch in 5.

Because of that, I like the Rangers in a short series, but the longer it goes, the more I think it’s viable that the Giants are a World Series Champion.  Right now, I think if they can get by Cliff Lee once, the Giants will win in six games.  Their margin of error isn’t much though, so a sweep or five game series at the hands of the Rangers could be a reality if their offense struggles even just a bit.

Brian Cesarotti wrote the Rangers-centric parts of this post.  Greg Trippiedi covered the Giants.