Thursday, April 13, 2006
In short, I don’t think there is a more controversial player on the Phillies roster and I feel bad for him because he’s had to suffer through exceptional travails to get to this point of his career. It really does feel like the world is rooting for him to fail. Last May, in a post I entitled "Phillies Phans vs. Pat Burrell", I argued that Burrell had silenced his critics with his fast start to a season that would see him hit an astonishing 117 RBIs, tied for second in the NL. Still, it feels like Burrell plays under a cloud.
In the (reopened) case of the Phans vs. Pat Burrell, who has the stronger argument?
Briefly, Pat's career has gone like this:
2000-2001: Joined team after being top pick in 1998 draft out of Miami, developed skills after early struggles;
2002: Breakout season allowing Phils to hasten Scott Rolen's departure to Cardinals;
2003: Disasterous season;
2004: Struggled to return to '02 form, improved in certain areas and struggled in others;
2005: returned to 2002 form;
Here's a quick survey of Burrell's career stats:
Runs Created per 27 outs gives you a more accurate picture:
Hold on: confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
GPA (Gross Productive Average): (1.8 * .OBP + .SLG) / 4 = .GPA. Invented by The Hardball Times Aaron Gleeman, GPA measures a players production by weighing his ability to get on base and hit with power. This is my preferred all-around stat.
Runs Created: A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula ESPN (where I get it from) uses: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times (Total bases + .26[BB - IBB + HBP] + .52[SH + SF + SB])] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF)
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.
ISO (Isolated Power): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
OBP (On-Base Percentage): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
BB / PA (Walks per plate appearance): (BB / PA = .BB/PA Avg)
SLG (Slugging Percentage): Power at the plate. (Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage)
Here is a quick summation of Pat's career with Win Shares:
That gives you a pretty good idea of the overall flow of Pat's career. So what are the major issues with Pat?
Does Burrell strikeout too much? Pat struck out 160 times in 2005, 130 in 2004, 142 in 2003, 153 in 2002, and 162 times in 2001. That's a lot. Basically, once a game. This is an argument that Burrell critics usually refer to, and I'm fairly unimpressed by it. First, how is a strikeout worse than a 6-3 groundout? A groundout could come from one pitch, a K requires 3 or 4 or more. Sure, he strikes out a lot, but he's got a good eye: his career walks-per-plate appearance (BB/PA) is .132. Anyone getting a walk every eighth or so time he comes up to bat is no free-swinging strikeout artist. He's a patient hitter. Burrell's BB/PA the last two seasons is doubly impressive: .148 in 2005, and .146 in 2004.
Will Burrell ever get his 2002 promise back? Actually he already did. Scope out how similar his 2002 and 2005 campaigns are:
2002 / 2005
HR: 37 / 32
RBI: 116 / 117
OBP: .376 / .389
SLG: .544 / .504
RC27: 7.10 / 7.08
ISO: .263 / .222
Maybe his 2002 campaign showed a little more power, but he's a better pure hitter these days: a tougher out and more reliable hitter.
Does Burrell benefit from Citizens? Ah ... things get a little tricky here. As I noted in my Season Preview, Chase Utley is alone amongst the Big Four of Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Ryan Howard and himself that plays better on the road than at Citizens. The shift from the Vet to Citizens was a big deal for the team because they went from a pitchers paradise to a hitter paradise. (I'll revisit this whole Coors Field East thing soon.) Check out the difference between Burrell in 2002 and 2005:
2002: (GPA / ISO)
Home: .281 / .237
Road: .327 / .288
Home: .326 / .264
Road: .273 / .178
Yeah, those are some pretty big swings, and it suggests that there is a bit of a park factor there. Not that Burrell is alone: Bobby Abreu has park-factors at work in his stats, but that's a big swing. Here, I'm willing to concede that Burrell critics have a point.
Isn't Burrell a lousy defender? Pat won't win a Gold Glove for his defense, but he's no liability either. According to The Fielding Bible: "Burrell doesn't have great speed or range, but his ranking ... suggests that he holds his own in left field ... [Burrell] has a good arm and a quick release." (page 178) Overall, Burrell ranked fourth of 31 leftfielders in John Dewan's Plus / Minus system from '03-'05. Okay, he's competing against the likes of Manny Ramirez and Matt Lawton, but thanks pretty good. Burrell also ranks fifth in holding runners: baserunners advanced just .338 of the time against him.
In terms of Zone Rating, my other preferred fielding stat, overall, Burrell was 16th of 31 leftfielders in Zone Rating (ZR) from 2003-2005, at .630. Here is the breakdown of his ZR numbers:
ZR / MLB Rank / Plays Made Out of Zone
'03: .649 / 10th of 28 / 18
'04: .633 / 16th of 30 / 14
'05: .610 / 24th of 30 / 14
Okay, there is some varience between Plus / Minus and ZR: let's split the difference. I think we can say that Burrell is in the top third of defensive outfielders in left field. Not a liability.
Is Burrell worth the $7.5 mil we are paying him? I say yes. According to Baseball Prospectus 2006: "[Burrell] should be able to post offensive totals similar to 2005 for years to come..." (page 349) Prospectus projects him to hit .282 GPA (.364 OBP, .476 SLG), .220 ISO, with 27 home runs, 26 doubles and 87 RBIs in 2006. (I think their RBI assessment is a little low.) Good numbers. He's definately a 30+ home run, 90+ RBI guy. And he's still young at 29. I'd say he's worth it.
Naturally, this is a debate that won't end. Burrell is the team's star. It is a role that he was expected to inherit from Rolen and he's seen guys like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard step into the breach. I think he'll be a consistent performer and it would be a mistake for the team to deal him. That said, I will concede that the case is his defense has problems: he does seem to benefit from playing at Citizens.
In the end, I expect the case to continue...
About Last Night ... A nice 7-5 win from the Phils, running their record to 2-6. Remember when I said that this year was the year of the glove? What were the two key plays in last night's game? Edgar Renteria booting Rowand's grounder, and Rowand's throw to gun down Brian McCann as he tried to score.
Rowand's throw was terrific and a perfect example of why the Phillies dealt for him: he tough, hard-nosed defense. Renteria's error sums up something I said in my season-preview: the Braves defense is much, much worse than it was last year when Furcal played short. Rowand's aggressive play in the outfield and Renteria's sub-par play could be the factors that tip the balance to the Phillies favor this year. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
It’s a good move because Gillick has had a lot of success. The Blue Jays went to the ALCS in 1989 and won the World Series in 1992 & 1993 under Gillick. The Orioles and Mariners also had success with Gillick at the helm: the Orioles went to the ALCS in ’96 & ’97, while the M’s went in ‘00 & ’01. It is an impressive track record.
It’s a bad move because Gillick seems so resistant to change and a member of the Old Guard of Baseball. The Mariners won 93 games in 2002 and 2003 and failed to make the playoffs because Gillick stood pat at the trading deadline and saw his team get worn-down during the stretch run to the playoffs. Ominously, Gillick said very negative things about Moneyball, which suggested to me that Gillick was too hidebound and stubborn to adapt to the changing landscape of baseball. (See, page 291 of Moneyball.)
Just a few months on the job, we can say a few things about his tenure to date as the Phillies GM. Let’s examine his transactions …
Transaction #1: dealt Jim Thome to Chicago White Sox for Aaron Rowand and two prospects. Gillick’s mega-deal to date and a pretty good one too. Jim Thome may have a monster year for the White Sox. He might hit 40+ home runs. But Gillick made the right decision to shipping Thome westward for Rowand. Thome is 36 this August and was plagued by injuries in 2005. There is a lot of wear-and-tear on Thome’s knees and the likelihood of Thome continuing to post 40 home runs seasons for 2006, 2007 and 2008 (as he did in 2003 and 2004) is unlikely.
Rowand is seven years younger. While Thome was a defensive disaster at first base, Rowand was a stand-out centerfielder. The difference between Rowand’s bat and Thome’s isn’t as big as you think when you factor in Rowand’s glove, which probably saved the White Sox 13-15 runs in 2005, while Thome cost the Phillies a few runs with his. This was a great deal because the Phillies got younger and better defensively while not surrendering too much at the plate. Plus we got to restock the farm system.
Conclusion: aggressive and definitely improved the Phils while minimizing a big problem: Thome’s advancing years. Grade: A-
Transaction #2: dealt Vicente Padilla to Texas Rangers for a player-to-be-named-later (a.k.a., Ricardo Rodriguez). Not Gillick’s finest hour.
What did the Phillies get? Rodriguez, who hurled a total of 206 innings in the MLB. Rodriguez didn’t join the team with a good track record: 1.73 home runs per 9 innings in 2005. A 5.53 ERA. A 5.68 FIP ERA. Aside from his sterling groundball-flyball ratio (1.75), there was little to recommend Rodriguez, who ended up getting cut from the regular season roster, giving the team nothing aside from subtracting a talented player from the roster.
The Rangers got Padilla, a pitcher who struggled to make the transition to quality starter. Padilla’s 2005 stats weren’t great: 5.22 FIP, 1.35 home runs per 9 innings … but a close look at Padilla’s numbers suggest he was turning the corner:
Pre-All Star Break Vicente was having an awful season …
Pre-All Star Break:
After, not so much …
Post-All Star Break:
Pat Gillick complained when he took the team over that their pitching wasn’t good enough, and then he deals a front-line starter with a great groundball-flyball ratio (1.41) whose stats suggest his earlier performance was a fluke and that he’d make a great starter on an allegedly pitching-poor team. I simply don’t understand it.
Conclusion: the deal weakened the weakest aspect of the Phils and didn’t net any sort of positive return. Grade: F.
Transaction #3: signed Ryan Franklin to a one-year deal. So after complaining about the quality of the Phillies pitching he proceeds to bring in Franklin, a failed Mariners prospect. On the surface, Franklin’s numbers are terrible: 8-15, 5.10 ERA.
Inside they are worse! … Pitching with the Mariners in Safeco Field, a pitcher’s ballpark, Franklin surrendered 1.32 home runs per 9 innings, 4.38 strikeouts per 9, 2.92 walks per 9 innings and had a 1.01 groundball-flyball ratio. Bottom-line: the strikeouts are too low, the groundball ratio is too low, and the home runs are too high. True, walk ratio is good, but that’s it. Franklin’s FIP was nearly right in line with his ERA: 5.08 … He’s a mediocre pitcher coming to a park that is unforgiving to mediocre pitchers.
Conclusion: I guess a mitigating factor is that Charlie Manuel and Gillick have shipped Franklin to the bullpen. Maybe he’ll turn out to be a great middle reliever for the Phils. I somehow doubt it. Grade: D.
Transaction #4: dealt Jason Michaels to Cleveland Indians for Arthur Rhodes. This is a deal that I was prepared to hate. I am a Jason Michaels partisan. Michaels was the Phillies strongest bench player and a terrific fourth outfielder. Jason had a .399 OBP in 2005, with a tremendous .128 walks-per-plate appearance. (i.e., every 12.8% of the time Jason comes to the plate he gets a walk. Wow.) Jason gets on base better than any Phillie except Bobby Abreu. Okay, he isn’t a power hitter (.111 ISO), but he’s an OBP machine and a tough, tough out for an opposing pitcher.
Defensively Jason is pretty good too. He played significant innings at all three outfield positions over the years and The Fielding Bible stated he was the Phillies best defensive outfielder in 2005. Bottom-line, Jason was very valuable to the Phillies.
The Phillies got Arthur Rhodes, essentially an insurance plan for when Tom Gordon flames out as the Phillies closer. I was prepared to be critical, but in all fairness to Rhodes, he pitched well in 2005 with the Tribe:
His groundball-flyball ratio ain’t great (1.14), but those- particularly the home runs -are some solid stats. If the Phillies use Rhodes extensively and he develops into the Phillies closer, then I’m willing to call this a good deal. They do need help in the ‘pen. And the decision to bring Aaron Rowand on as the regular centerfielder means Jason will only get playing time if there is an injury or as a pinch-hitter.
Conclusion: Provided that Rhodes gets some innings, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this was a good deal. Otherwise, the Phils again downgraded. Grade: C-.
Transaction#5: signed Alex Gonzalez, Abraham Nunez and Tom Gordon to contracts. Gonzalez and Nunez both fall into the description of “weak-hitting utility infielder”. Both are solid, if unspectacular, players. Both will do a fine job of filling in: Gonzalez at short or second and Nunez at third right now with David Bell in and out of the lineup. While neither is a good hitter, the Phillies can take solace from the fact that Bell is no better, in fact probably worse, of a hitter than Nunez.
As for Gordon, I’m not going to pretend that he’s anything but a disaster as a closer. He’s 38 and his FIP ERA was over a run higher than his actual ERA. He doesn’t get outs well and while he only surrendered 8 home runs in 90 & 2/3 innings in 2005, you must remember he did so playing in a pitcher’s park: Yankee Stadium.
Conclusion: maybe Gordon will be a great closer and Nunez will win the job from David Bell with terrific defense and clutch hitting. I doubt it. The Phillies bench lacks power or dependability. Gordon won't cut it as the Phillies closer. I don't think it was Pat Gillick's fault that Billy Wagner left (that was a done-deal from the end of the 2004 season anyway), but there was a real failure to address a crying need in the off-season. Grade: D.
Final thoughts ... I am down on Gillick's decision-making thus far, but I give him credit for pulling the trigger on a big deal (Thome-Rowand). I figure that Bobby Abreu will be dealt this season, so if Gillick can get a suitable replacement and restock the farm system, as he did in the Thome-Rowand deal, I'd be satisfied. The grade for now is a C-, but I'll adjust according to what happens later in the year.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Very cynical! See below for our new poll question: "Will the Phillies be above .500 at the end of April?"
James blistering tirade was the first of James bold statements on the game. James voice built the sabremetrics movement during the 1980s and gave it direction from then on. Today there are many voices in the mix, but James is the man who began it all. As many of you can tell, I am struck by the idea that the divide between the old guard and the sabremetrics crowd is a quasi-religious split akin to the Protestant-Catholic split that developed in the Sixteenth Century in Europe. Protestants split with the Church in reaction to their belief that the Church had become corrupt and that the laws of the Church were fundamentally at odds with their faith. The Church reacted by clinging even more vigorously to their traditions. We've been doing it this way for 1,500 years, Church elders thought, who are these nuts to say we are wrong? Similarly, I see the split in baseball as a holy war" the old guard clings to their beliefs because they've accepted dogma like "creating runs" by stealing and bunting for years. It is tradition. Don't quote me a bunch of numbers, the old guard will growl, I know in my heart what I believe is true. The sabremetrics people roll their eyes and continue to write their own gospel, fully confident that the old guard doesn't know what it is talking about and that it is too stubborn to change or listen to reason. Jack McKeon's column in the '04 SI Baseball Preview derriding stats with annecdotal evidence of "gut" instinct being superior to numbers is a terrific example of the old guard's gospel. The column's accompanying photo of McKeon smoking a stogie further reinforces the image the sabremetricians have of the old guard as the intellecually close-minded, unwilling to challenge their beliefs and justify them.
It was with all of that in mind that I began to read The Fielding Bible (what an appropriate name!) and I was struck by the thought that this was a revolutionary book. It is not surprising that hitting and pitching were first subject to rigorous analysis, because both have finite outcomes to their actions: a hitter gets on base or doesn't, a pitcher gets and out or doesn't (pitching took more time to analyze, but thanks to Voros McCracken's DIPS system it has been analyzed extensively). A fielder doesn't necessary get an out. He could make a good play and still allow a hit: his play could be to prevent a single from becoming a double or a triple.
What The Fielding Bible does is look at problems in a new way (Relative Range Factor), shatter conventional wisdom (e.g., Derek Jeter-as-Gold-Glover), and give new metrics to consider (John Dewan's Plus / Minus system).
The opening chapter, worth the cost of the book alone, is a convincing article from Bill James analyzing Derek Jeter vis-à-vis Adam Everett, the Astros shortstop. With a conclusion that will enrage Yankees fans everywhere, James makes a convincing arguement that, based on the evidence presented, Jeter is a terrible defensive shortstop. This confirms a result suspected by nearly every baseball writer I have read on the 'net, from Dave Pinto (inventor of Probablistic Model of Range, PMR) to Mike Humphries (inventor of Defense Regression Analysis, DRA). The article is classic James: even-handed, fair and aimed to shatter carefully held beliefs.
The Fielding Bible goes on to present detailed data for each player at each position for 2005 and for 2003-2005. I like how Dewan has tried to expand the data to give specific information and a more general picture of a fielder. If you are suspicious of a player's performance from '05, you can look at a regression analysis to get a more complete picture. Dewan also gives data on team defense that is invaluable, complete with graphic charts showing where the ball landed at a team's home park on defense.
Dewan's Plus / Minus system is the backbone of the book. Simply put, it is an analysis of how many plays a player made above (+) or below (-) that of an average player at his position, based on detailed analysis of videotape from every MLB game conducted by Baseball Info Solutions. It is tough to decide if the information is 100% accurate because is it done by computers and (somewhat) opinion. However, I find it persuasive and it solves problems like park factors fairly well.
The next chapter is James reworking his classic Range Factor stat. Range Factor, which measures how often a player is involved in a play, was James partial solution to the problem of what stat should replace fielding percentage as the prime fielding stat. As critics pointed out afterwards, RF isn't perfect either: how often an infielder is involved in a play greatly depends on if his team is staffed with flyball pitchers or goundball pitchers. James solves the problem with "Relative Range Factor", which attempts to make RF pitching neutral. Generally, I'm impressed, though I would have liked it if James had ranked RRF in his book instead of simply including it with each player in the player registry.
Criticisms: a glaring problem with The Fielding Bible is the exclusion of catchers and catching defense. As I noted with Part II of my Season Preview, the catcher is a weird position to evaluate. Unlike the fielders, the catcher is closely tied to the pitcher. How the catcher manages the pitcher is a big part of his game and it is nearly impossible to evaluate. Catchers ERA (CERA) is a stat the Bill James Handbook keeps track of, but I'd love to know how Mike Lieberthal feels about his '04 performance being evaluated in terms of how often Eric Milton surrendered the three-run bomb. How often a catcher is run against and how often a catcher throws out baserunners is tough to evaluate because catchers with good arms discourage baserunners and thus, teams won't run unless it is a favorable scenario (e.g., a good catcher will surrender 80% success but teams only ran 10 times, whereas a weaker catcher will surrender a 76% rate, but teams ran on him 136 times in a season. Is there any question who is better?) Then we have to get into how often a team runs ... things get messy.
I'll admit that I see catching as being a tough nut to crack. Catcher evaluation is the holy grail of sabremetrics. I wish James and Dewan had taken a stab at catcher evaluation. Maybe next book.
Another small quibble I have is with their double play numbers. Since the shortstop and second-basemen turn most double plays, they include lots of data on that in this book, however I noticed that they didn’t include any double play data when discussing third-basemen. Sure, the 5-4-3 double play is rarer than the 6-4-3 or the 4-6-3, but it is still a valuable metric in evaluating a third baseman.
Bottom-line, I am impressed. I think The Fielding Bible puts together a through, cogent analysis of nearly every aspect of fielding in the game. This book is as revolutionary as the original baseball abstract and I wonder if MLB executives are making use of it this season. I certainly hope so.
Buy this book!
About Last Night ... panicked over the Phillies 1-6 record? Disturbed that the Phillies are four games out of first seven games into the season? My advice is to repeat after me:
Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm now? Okay, just remember that the Phillies are slow starters. Their April record for the last two years is 20-25, and they started 1-6 back in 2004 and went on to win 86 games. I'm not too jazzed by what I'm seeing, but this is a long season. 7 down, 155 to go.
Monday, April 10, 2006
I’ve said that I’ve always felt that the Braves were bland adversaries. Think of the difference between Hugo Drax in Moonraker and Goldfinger in … well, Goldfinger. Can’t remember Drax or Moonraker? Don’t worry, I’m one of the biggest 007 fans around and I can’t either because it was a fairly forgettable movie. Goldfinger on the other hand … there was a great villain. A great foil for Sean Connery’s 007, with great lines and a great scheme for world domination. Who can ever forget Goldfinger’s response to 007’s question about whether Goldfinger expected him to talk: “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
The Mets are Goldfinger. Great villains. They come from a city Philly loves to hate, and they’ve had irritating success (e.g., winning the 1969 World Series just after seven years of existence, winning the ’86 World Series on Buckner’s bobble, having zillions of dollars to spend every year). The Braves? Comparing Atlanta to Philly doesn’t make any sense: Philly is a northeastern city, while ATL is a sunbelt city. Sure, the Braves have dominated the NL East since the introduction of the three division format in 1995, but they’ve won just one World Series in that time and have seen the Marlins win two. Every year they win 90-ish games, win the division and flame out in the playoffs. It is a dull script, which is why the Braves are boring bad guys. Oh, and their fans are nice too.
Jeez, what’s to hate? (Okay, their GM is a jerk, but I'll get to that another day.)
The 2006 Atlanta Braves are a different version than the one we’ve grown accustomed to shrugging our shoulders at. Despite the addition of Tim Hudson and the decision to move John Smoltz back to the rotation, the Braves pitching looked pretty ordinary in 2005. Their FIP ERA* was just a little better than the Phillies (4.15 to 4.25). The much maligned Mets pitching staff posted a much better FIP ERA: 3.94. In fact, the Braves had the fourth-best FIP in the division. I ask this: if the Braves pitching is so much better than why are their numbers so poor?
* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
Defensively, I don’t see how the Braves improved or even stayed the same: they’ve replaced Rafael Furcal, one of the best shortstops in the NL with Edgar Renteria, who the Red Sox cut loose after one awful season. Furcal had a +26 Plus / Minus rating in 2005, while Renteria posted a -11 with the Red Sox. That is a swing of 37 plays and approximately 17-18 runs. Assuming that is accurate (the 17 runs), then the Braves 2005 ERA would have been 4.09 instead of 3.98 with Renteria at short (closer to their "real" FIP). Furcal also ranked ninth in turning double plays in 2005, while Renteria ranked 30th of 32 SS’s. How this change is anything except a disaster for the Braves is beyond me.
Overall, the Braves were a good defensive team in 2005, finishing sixth in plus / minus, but a lot of that was Furcal. Without Furcal, the Braves infield goes from -3 to -29, and their team defense from +47 to +23 (which would have ranked them thirteenth). Meanwhile, the Phillies have arguably upgraded the #1 defense in the MLB with the addition of Aaron Rowand and have suffered no major losses.
Offensively the Braves were a one-man show in 2005. Andruw Jones had 27% of their home runs (51 of 184) and 17% of their RBIs (128 of 733). When most of your offense is tied up in one player, you have a problem, which probably explains why they flamed out of the playoffs against the Astros. The Braves had better hope that Chipper Jones plays more than just 109 games in 2006, because they will not be able to score many runs unless they protect Andruw Jones a little more. We'll see if Chipper can even play in this series after his injury at the Giants yesterday.
The Phils, meanwhile, have four potential 100 RBI men in the lineup. Advantage, Phillies.
Bottom-line, the Phillies are deeper and stronger. Defensively and on offense there is little question that the Phils are better. I think the Braves vaunted pitching superiority is a myth too: Jon Lieber is an effective pitcher (please ignore opening day). He might not be as flashy or as well-respected as Tim Hudson, but look which player's 2005 FIP was better:
The Phils might have problems in the bullpen, but the gap between the Braves and the Phillies on the mound is smaller than people think.
Despite the Braves dominance, the Phillies have played them very well over the last three years: 29-28 (.509) … I see things moving in the Phillies way this season. Don’t believe the hype or the records going into this series. The Phillies are the better team. And we'll soon forget the Braves, just as we've forgotten about Hugo Drax.