Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Know Thy Enemy: The Fish 

There are certain things that should never be done, tried or attempted. Never order a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese ... I voted for you, John Kerry, but that was just wrong. Never drink red wine with fish. (That's how 007 discovered who the bad guy was in From Russia With Love.) And never go to a waterpark with sunblock. (My father and I did that eleven years ago. The results were very painful.)

Oh, and pro baseball should never be played in Florida.

Keep that in mind when you watch the Marlins play. The MLB's move into the sunbelt has been a less-than-shining success: the Marlins and Rockies move into the Florida and the West, the two fastest growing areas in the U.S., in '93 and then the D-Rays and D-backs follow in '98. Today the D-Rays are a pitiful team routinely pummeled by the Red Sox and Yankees, the D-backs are in disarray, the Rockies are hampered by the fact that no sane pitcher would ever want to go there, and the Marlins are hampered by two problems:

1. Your average South Florida baseball fan is a former snowbelter whose loyalty lies with his old team (Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox, Cubs, etc).

2. Your average male between the ages of 18-64 is busy lying on the beach, and those 18-30 are trying to pick up one of those girls on 8th and Ocean.

Quite frankly, if I lived in South Florida that's where I'd be too. (Lying on the beach I mean. I'm married, so I'll leave chasing the pretty-but-dim 18-year old models to every one else.) Gaze at pictures of South Beach and whatever they call Joe Robbie Stadium these days and ask yourself: "Were would I want to be?"

Baseball is a game of tradition and loyalty, and the Marlins have neither, which is why baseball in Florida is doomed. Don't believe me? Check out Baseballblogs.org and see how many are devoted to the Cubs (128), the Phillies (40), the Mets (91), the Red Sox (121) and the Yankees (82) and compare them with those devoted to the D-Rays (15) and the Marlins (13). But that's it. There is no loyalty there because life in the sunbelt is one big transition: moving from the north to get a job, escape the weather, enjoy your retirement. You are moving from one phase of your life to the next. At a certain point in their lives I suspect those people will move again: to return to live with their families, to seek professional advancement, to live in the next "cool" place. Baseball thrives on tradition. I've lived my entire life in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas, and I don't intend on leaving anytime soon. I have loyalty.

With all that in mind we look at the Marlins, or Fishstripes as some would prefer to call them. This team has been playing Lex Luthor to the Phillies Superman for some time now. Last season the Phils went 10-9 against the Fishstripes, a big improvement over the previous two seasons: 7-12 in '04, and 6-13 in '03. Yes, 13-25 (.342). The Phillies went 159-127 otherwise in '03 & '04, a .556 percentage. (If they had gone .556 for the whole 162 game season the Phils would have been 90-72 both seasons.) Forget the Braves, this team has been the Phillies most consistent spoiler and enemy.

Which makes the Fishstipes current plight mildly entertaining. I expected them to compete in 2005, especially when they signed the Blue Jays Carlos Delgado, giving them a powerful bat in the middle of a softer lineup. To my stunned amazement, the Marlins turned into a horror show. Defensively the Fishstripes had ranked ninth in the MLB in Plus / Minus in 2004 (+14). To my shock, they fell to twenty-eighth in 2005 (-97). The team simply didn't jell and collapsed.

The effect of the defensive and offensive meltdown reverberated to the pitching staff. On paper, the Marlins didn't pitch well. Their 4.16 ERA ranked them eighth of sixteen NL teams. Their DIPS number (Defense Independent Pitching Statistic - if you are new to this page, DIPS is a stat that keeps track of how pitchers do with things they can control, like strikeouts, walks and home runs, as opposed to things they rely on their fielders to do, like stop balls put into play) was a robust 3.88, the best in the NL. In other words, the Marlins pitchers played well and were continuously undone by their fielders.

Offensively the Marlins did some things right: they ranked second in the NL in OBP after the Phillies, but they were fifteenth in home runs, and tenth in slugging percentage. Their inability to advance runners meant that they finished eighth in runs scored, despite having many, many baserunners.

The salary dump in the off-season saw many defections: gone is Delgado, who had 33 home runs and 115 RBIs last year. Gone is Mike Lowell. Gone is Juan Pierre and Paul Lo Duca (though those might be upgrades). Gone are Josh Beckett (15-8, 3.38 ERA) and A.J. Burnett (12-12, 3.44 ERA).

In the long run this might not be a bad thing for the Fishstripes: getting the young blood in the lineup, planning for the future, but it has to be dispiriting to the fans to see a decent team get gutted again, just like after the '97 World Series. After Dontrelle Willis (22-10, 2.63 ERA), this team has scant talent left. I'd give this as a big edge to the Phillies. I'd say the Phils will take 2 of 3 and might sweep it.

See you Monday!

(2) comments

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Book Review: Built To Win (or Built To Satisfy My Ego) 

As I began to write my review of Built To Win I referred to my notes I jotted down when I began to read. “Arrogant”, “Self-important”, “Self-aggrandizing”, “Ego-centric” were the words I had written. Then I remembered Joe Morgan’s words about Billy Beane:

“It’s typical if you write a book you want to be the hero.”

(Moneyball, page 293.) It is ironic that Joe Morgan hated Beane so much for a book that he (falsely) thought Beane by himself wrote to feed his own ego when John Schuerholz comes along and writes the Anti-Moneyball, a 288-page self-congratulatory celebration of one man’s genius for evaluating talent and building a winning franchise. I wonder if Morgan will bother to read Schuerholz's book before he praises it.

Essentially Built To Win is Schuerholz’s tour of his last decade-and-a-half as the Atlanta Braves General Manager, a tour of duty that (as Schuerholz never fails to remind us) saw the Braves win the World Series once, lose four others and win a bunch of division titles. Schuerholz touches on a few topics here-and-there, including his iron-clad (and not entirely convincing) insistence that the Braves did nothing (or could do nothing) to shield Rafael Furcal from liability for his DUI arrest prior to the playoffs, his mournful efforts to enlighten that loveable redneck bigot John Rocker, and his abject hatred of Moneyball and sabremetrics. I’ll note that I think any baseball book that cites to Rush Limbaugh and not Bill James in its Index is fundamentally flawed. (Why does Rush come up? Schuerholz and the pill-popping right-wing windbag are friends, a fact that makes me surprised that Schuerholz didn’t steal Limbaugh’s “talent on loan from God” moniker for the subtitle rather than the more pedestrian and humbler “Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies from Baseball’s Winningest GM”.)

As I said, this is an ode to Schuerholz's strategy of victory through pitching, defense, scouting and paying lots 'o cash to get the first three. Odiously, Schuerholz describes the Braves approach as “winning-ball”, and reminds you of the Braves success by citing (ad naseum) to the Braves multitude of division titles, playoff appearances, World Series appearances, their World Series championship … And you don’t don’t want to take Schuerholz’s word for it, take the words of the all of the players who pop in with quotes like: “Wow, I can’t believe the winner you’ve built here. I wish my teams General Manager was as brilliant and wonderful as your General Manager.” Okay, nobody ever said that last part, but they probably have in Schuerholz’s head.

True, the Braves have had a remarkable run since Schuerholz took over in 1990, though I think their success, especially in the beginning, had more to do with Ted Turner’s endless pockets than Schuerholz’s genius. In fact, I remember that the opening blurb in SI’s 1990 Baseball Preview issue noted that the Braves intended to dramatically increase their operating budget to reverse a long-period of mediocrity and cheapness. So having a sugar-daddy funnel money into the organization helped Schuerholz immediately build up a team that feasted on mediocre foes in the 1990s. The move to the three-division format was a godsend to the Braves. No longer would they tangle with the Cardinals and Cubs, historically savvy franchises willing to spend cash. The cheap Phillies, the hapless Expos, the comically inept Mets and the cheaper (and unloved) Florida Marlins played great Wile E. Coyotes to Schuerholz’s Roadrunners in the ‘90s. With the poor quality of the opposition aiding them to coast through the regular season unscathed, Schuerholz’s vaunted teams collapsed in the playoffs again and again when confronted with superior talent. Tellingly, the Florida Marlins have more World Series trophies than Schuerholz Braves.

“Winning-Ball” indeed.

Along the way, Schuerholz anointed himself as the defender of the faith for baseball's old guard, launching an angry, incoherent attack on Moneyball early on, patronizingly stating that “Moneyball made for a good read, even though I fell the basic premise is terribly flawed.” (Page 37.) Tellingly, Schuerholz “proves” Moneyball arguments are incorrect by misrepresenting them:

E.g.: Schuerholz states on page 27 as proof (yes, iron-clad, CSI-style proof) Moneyball doesn’t work the Red Sox victory in the 2004 World Series. Why is the Red Sox victory in the series, widely held as a triumph of sabremetrics, proof of its fallibility? (In fact, gosh, didn't the staff at Baseball Prospectus write an entire book on the subject?) Well, Schuerholz states that the Red Sox won by bolstering their defense and getting a “true” closer, which Schuerholz says “is not a big part of the Moneyball blueprint.” (Huh?) That blueprint, Schuerholz represents, is “substantially, On-Base Percentage for position players and groundball outs for pitchers – a pure statistical way to put a team together.” Ta-da, Schuerholz wins the argument by mis-stating it. I’ll note that Moneyball is really about finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. OBP was under-valued by the market, thus the A’s exploited that by emphasizing OBP. Defense has long been under-valued by the market and the Moneyball teams have moved to exploit that as well. (Last week's SI talked about the fact that there are so many Moneyball teams in the AL and that the NL's unwillingness to adopt Moneyball tactics are the big reason for the talent gulf between the AL and NL. Click here for Tom Verducci's "Out Of Their League".) As Peter Gammons noted in 2004, defense is the Next Frontier of sabremetrics. The A’s have moved in their direction, moving Bobby Crosby up to be their shortstop and acquiring Mark Kotsay as their centerfielder. Schuerholz should have the intellectual honesty to know that by tampering with the argument you are refuting, you are proving nothing.

This is an overall theme to Schuerholz’s work: rigging the facts to support his beliefs. There is no self-examination, no even-handed analysis to Schuerholz’s work. I say give Billy Beane credit for being flexible and willing to change with the times. Billy has let Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and countless other “key” players walk away and kept right on winning. Schuerholz keeps plugging away with the same supporting cast (don't take Schuerholz's whining about economics dictating his decision to deal Kevin Millwood seriously) because he can afford them. Billy Beane can’t.

I joked a little while ago that someone (I think I suggested Morgan) needed to write the Anti-Moneyball and ta-da! Here it is. It is ironic that the reaction from baseball's old guard was so angry and amounted to making a mountain out of a molehill. Here is an intellectually dishonest book written by a self-important egomaniac. Sabremetricians have a right to make a mountain out of the molehill that this book is. It every thing the old guard insisted Moneyball was: an ode to a man's ego, and a singular triumph of wrong-headed thinking.

Terrible. Don't waste your money.

Nats 10, Phils 3 ... terrible game. Cory Lidle might have been the losing pitcher but the Phillies bullpen shattered any chance of a comeback with their terrible performance. Lidle went seven innings and gave up four runs on nine hits and no walks. Rhodes and Geary went two innings and gave up six runs on six hits and three walks. Absolutely terrible. The strain on the rotation is going to be exceptional if they begin each night thinking: "Uh-oh, I need to go eight innings tonight or I'm going to take a loss or no-decision on this one."

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Know Thy Enemy: The Nats 

Tonight at 7 the Phils kick off a three game set with the Nats at Citizens. Most pundits expect the Nats to finish fourth or fifth this season, so these are games the Phillies want to win to get into the playoff picture later on this season. At the moment the Phillies are in a good spot: 5-7 isn't bad, and it seems like the five-way logjam from last season is giving way to a three-team chase, with the Phillies and Braves nipping at the Mets heels. The Marlins and Nats seem out of it already. The Phillies are in the running.

The Phillies did okay against the Nats in 2005: 11-8 (.579), roughly the same as what they did against the Nats in their last two years in Montreal: (12-7 in ’04, 11-8 in ’03). They’ve taken advantage of the Nats, but haven’t dominated them.

The consensus from most pundits was that we learned two big things about the Nats from last season:

1. They did surprisingly well in 2005.
2. RFK is a major pitchers park.

The Nats Pythagorean win-loss record suggests they were mildly lucky in 2005: while they finished 81-81 (good for dead last, a testament to how competitive the NL East was last year), their record should have been 77-85. Four games isn’t a major variance, and their record wasn’t a product of eking out some tough wins with luck: the Nats were 30-31 in one-run games, not a great record.

They were surprisingly good, a result I chalk up to point #2:

The Nats were coming from a park that favored pitchers, but RFK really gave the pitchers an edge. Using ESPN’s Park Factors (note: I usually prefer to use Bill James numbers because he subtracts inter-league games which skew the numbers a little because of the DH), RFK is a pitcher’s heaven:

Home Run Factor: 78 (under 100 favors pitcher), ranked 28th. i.e., it was 22% tougher to hit a home run at RFK than a neutral stadium.

Run Factor: 86, ranked 29th, 14% tougher to score a run in RFK.

Only Petco Park was a better park for pitchers in both categories, plus Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City was rated slightly tougher to hit a home run in. The extreme difficulty batters had in generating runs helped the Nats finish fourth in NL in ERA at 3.87. The Nats road ERA was a more pedestrian 4.19 (3.52 at home).

But the Nats seems to be decently good in terms of pitching: their FIP ERA was a respectable 4.12 (0.10 below the league average), and their slugging percentage allowed was .396, under the league average again (.418) … so they are doing something right, and I don’t think that RFK is to thank for that entirely: they did play nine games at Citizens in ’05.

Defensively, the Nats weren’t much in 2005: they ranked 19th in the MLB in Plus / Minus and17th in the NL in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER), they are also 24th in turning double plays, and 20th in throwing out advancing base-runners. Their sole bright spot was their fifth place rank in defending bunts. This is not a strong defensive team.

Offensively the Nats were the worst team in the NL in ’05, scoring just 3.94 runs a game (slightly better than fifteenth place San Francisco at 4.01). The Nats did nothing well: they ranked dead-last in slugging percentage, in Isolated Power, and next-to-last in terms of OBP.

In short, there is nothing to suggest that the Nats were a good team in 2005 and they have much to hope for in 2006. They looked terrible on offense, terrible on defense and o.k. on the mound. I suspect that their 81-81 record was probably based on difficulty teams had in adjusting to RFK and a little bit of luck: as of July 1, 2005, the Nats had a record of 47-31 and had actually been out-scored 322 to 324 (they were out-performing their Pythagorean win-loss by nine games). They went 34-50 the rest of the way when their fortune ran out. I don’t think they upgraded much in the off-season, so I’d give the Phils a big edge in their match-ups this season. Even in terms of pitching, I’d say that the Phils have an edge, and there is little question that the Phils are better at the position player slots.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Season So Far ... 

It is way too early to start jumping to conclusions about the direction the Phillies 2006 campaign is taking, but there are some inferences we can draw. Here are my thoughts on the season thus far...

Games done / to go: 12 / 150
Record: 5-7
Place: Third

Where the Phillies were after 12 games in 2005: defeating the Braves 2-1 in ten innings, to run their record to 6-6, which put the Phillies in a four-way tie for second with the Mets, Marlins, and Braves, two games behind the Washington Nationals (8-4).

Where the Phillies were after 12 games in 2004: losing to the Marlins 3-1, which dropped them to 5-7 and firmly in fourth place, 3 & 1/2 games behind the Fishstripes (the Phils would lose the other two games in the series as well).

Where the Phillies were after 12 games in 2003: defeating the Reds 13-1, to run their record to 7-5, good for second place in the NL East, one game behind the Expos and 2 & 1/2 ahead of the 5-8 Braves.

In other words, nothing much has changed. Here are some of the stories emerging:

J.Roll's hitting streak came to a rest at 38-games. And he hasn't really stopped since then: in the nine games since the streak came to an end, J.Roll has hit in eight games and is hitting .375 during that time-frame. I'm going to level my usual criticism at J.Roll (three walks? you don't walk enough...), but he's been producing.

Aaron Rowand is every bit the blue-collar gamer that the Phillies thought they were getting when they dealt Thome to the White Sox. Rowand's throw to gun down Brian McCann in the Phillies 7-5 win over the Braves on Wednesday was a great play (yeah, it was helped by McCann's elephant-like plodding to home, but still). I will concede however that Rowand probably isn't living up to his reputation as a great glove thus far: as I write this he is last (yes, dead-last) in the NL in ZR amongst Centerfielders.

1-0: I almost did a double-take when I saw the score on Sportscenter last night. I didn't know 1-0 games were possible at Coors Field. Give Brett Myers enormus credit. That was a gem of a game he pitched (7 & 2/3 innings with seven hits and a walk allowed). First time a visiting team won 1-0 at Coors.

Pitching struggles. Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd, welcome to the rotation. Madson has pitched well as a full-fledged starter: anyone surrendering just three earned runs at Coors in seven innings isn't doing badly at all. Floyd has struggled, but looks good. The relief corps, and particularly Ryan Franklin, looks pitiful. Franklin nearly let Floyd's victory over the Braves slip away.

Usual slow start. The Phillies posted a 36-37 record in March/April games from 2003-2005 (.493 winning percentage). Their May winning percentage is .548 (45-37) and their June percentage is .557 (44-35). So their 5-7 start is no biggie. This team just needs to wake up on May Day and kick things into second gear.

Tomorrow: Know Thy Enemy, the Nats.

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