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, January 19, 2007

Book Review: The Hardball Times Annual 2007 

I discovered The Hardball Times back in 2004, when I began my work blogging the Phillies, and have found it to be a vital source of information about the Phillies and about many, many other topics in the game. It is one of my first stops when I blog in the morning, right after I check on the Phillies ESPN and Yahoo! Pages to see if there were any major developments that evening.

Why do I like The Hardball Times? Interesting information presented in a well-written format on a lot of different subjects, as well as a reservoir of stats and information I cannot get anywhere else. So you can imagine my absolute joy when I opened my gifts on Christmas morning and discovered that Santa (a.k.a., my wife) had decided to buy me The Hardball Times 2007 Annual. Jam-packed with graphs and information, it took me days to devour and compress. I have a few thoughts:

The book is written by The Hardball Times staff, with contributing material from people like ESPN’s Rob Neyer and Baseball Information Solutions (BIS) John Dewan, amongst others. The book itself is divided into several sections, starting with overviews of the 2006 season, analysis of the season, some interesting historical data, followed by non-season specific analysis, and then stats.

The stats are generally what you are used to getting on The Hardball Times website, with much more depth. Interestingly, they list month-to-month FIP and DER, stats I would love to have access to during the heart of the season.

The real heart of the book however is the analysis in the preceding pages. Particular pieces I found of interest: Dave Gassko’s piece starting on page 94 about the most valuable pitchers of all-time (note, four Phillies appear in the Top 25: Grover Cleveland Alexander, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Curt Schilling); Bryan Tsao’s "Anatomy of a Champion", a fascinating look at how the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were created; and John Walsh’s piece on the best outfield arms of all-time. All informative, all interesting, all added to my understanding of the game of baseball. But there is something missing here.

What do I mean? I think Michael Lewis in Moneyball correctly identified what set Bill James apart from everyone else when he wrote about James’ outrage at the fielding percentage stat in the original Baseball Abstract in 1977. James’ outrage and eloquent assault on fielding percentage was what made him different from everyone else, he saw through the surface of the problem and grasped the corruption at the core of the idea and, in eloquence and with great clarity of thought, he proposed a radical idea that both shook the foundation of our understanding of the game and proposed a bold new direction.

I’d like to see more of that outrage from The Hardball Times. I’d like to see that kind of bold thinking. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of the work that The Hardball Times crew did with their Annual this season, but I think they are capable of that sort of work, that sort of thinking. I want to see a piece of such clarity and passion that I am blown away by what I read, rather than nodding my head and being pleasantly informed.

Recently Robert Kaplan, a journalist and military affairs expert I read often, wrote an article praising the famous Greek historian Herodotus, an emotional historian with a definite, biased point of view over fellow Greek historian Thucydides, the more traditional, scientific student of history. (see, "A Historian For Our Time") Kaplan argued that Herodotus captured the passion that helps history tells us what the past was really like, and that Herodotus’ world of bigotry and religious hatred is more relevant to us today than Thucydides world of reason and restraint. Kaplan wrote: “Thucydides gives us a distilled rendition of the facts, Herodotus a sparkling impression of what lies just beyond them.” I’d love to see that sparkling voice here in the pages of The Hardball Times Annual in 2008. Some sort of passionate, angry voice would engage readers and set The Hardball Times Annual apart from nearly everything else on the internet or sitting on the bookshelves. Bill James wrote his Baseball Abstracts with a biased point of view that grasped the essential facts that lay at the core of the game. The Hardball Times Annual is well-written, reasoned and insightful, but I wish it had that voice that James brought to baseball in the 1970s and 1980s, and that Herodotus brought to history 2,500 years ago.

More Herodotus, less Thucydides. Have a good weekend and see you on Monday with a look at the Phillies minor leagues in 2006.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Mind of Charlie Manuel 

The upcoming season will be something of a make-or-break season for Charlie Manuel. I feel a great swell of pity for the man: he’s a mild, laid-back manager on a team whose fans lust for an angry, fiery leader who will kick dirt on the umps and spit and curse. Personally, I am suspicious of those who wear their emotions on their sleeves the way men like Larry Bowa did. The calculating manager will triumph over the emotional leader any day. Alas, the Phillies consecutive second-place finishes are not what the fans want to see after watching the hated Mets retool and turn themselves into a contender with their 2004 buying spree. So Charlie Manuel is on the hot-seat.

What kind of a man is Charlie Manuel? A micro-manager? A tactician? A roll-out-the-ball-and-play guy? Curious, I began to pour through the stats in the new Bill James Handbook (see my review from yesterday) and piece together an idea about Charlie Manuel’s managing style. I have a few thoughts:

1. How did managing in the A.L. shape Manuel? It affected Tony LaRussa when he took over the Cardinals after managing the White Sox and A’s for years and years. LaRussa wasn’t used to the tactical decisions he never had to consider with pitchers needing to be pinch-hit for, etc., and found the tactical-decisions to be difficult to make initially. Charlie Manuel was a manager for the Cleveland Indians from 2000 to 2002 when he was fired 87 games into the ’02 season. Manuel was 220-197 (.528) as the Indians skipper.

Generally speaking, it doesn’t appear that Manuel was too special or different from other A.L. managers. Now here in the N.L., Manuel and the Phillies don’t sacrifice bunt much, so I wonder if this is a product of Manuel’s days in the American League, where teams don’t sacrifice bunt much.

2. Are there any differences in Manuel’s style between 2005 and 2006? I noticed a few significant variances. First off, Manuel more than doubled the number of defensive substitutions in 2006, from 19 in 2005 to 49 in 2006. This is a big jump. In fact, Manuel was the manager who made the fewest defensive substitutions in 2005. Does this indicate a new emphasis on defense? I suspect so, and I think Manuel was reacting to the decline in the quality of the Phillies defensive alignment by trying to interject himself into the mix and devise a strategy for improving the Phillies defense (namely by removing Pat Burrell for Shane Victorino late in games). I think this is the mark of a good manager: recognizing his team’s weakness and devising a counter.

Manuel also shifted from being predisposed to pulling starters quickly to allowing them to go:

Quick Hooks / Slow Hooks
2005: 42 / 28
2006: 28 / 43

Is this a product of the Phillies pitching getting better in 2006 or is Manuel just more patient with his pitchers now? I suspect a combination of both. This bodes well for the Phillies 2007 pitching, since it seems that Manuel has more confidence in their abilities and the team pitching has been upgraded with the additions of Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton.

The Phillies also ran a little less in 2006, attempting 117 steals, 26 fewer than in 2005.

I suspect that Manuel shifted in 2006, giving greater confidence to his starting pitching, emphasizing defense a little more than in the past, and being more comfortable with his team playing “big ball” as opposed to “small ball”.

3. How did Manuel stack up with his contemporaries? I noticed a few things that set the Phillies apart from the rest of the N.L. First, they utilized the fewest number of different lineups in the N.L. with 81. (Manuel used 80 in 2005, also the fewest in the N.L.) I personally think that is a good thing: players hate being shifted in the batting order, so stability encourages team harmony. Second, the Phillies utilized the fourth-most pinch runners in the N.L., and the second-most pinch-hitters. The Phillies didn’t try many sacrifice bunts and didn’t have many runners moving at the pitch. In terms of using pitchers, Manuel was pretty average, aside from the fact that he ranked second in the number of fewest Quick Hooks in 2006.

I think all of these factors suggest Charlie Manuel is a manager with an active mind, constantly analyzing his team, identifying weaknesses and devising countermeasures. Manuel’s use of pinch-runners and pinch-hitters are products of his trying to seek the edge in situational matchups. If he were more of an impatient manager he’d used more lineups than he did, or he would have bunted or hit-and-ran more. Instead, Manuel was trying to create opportunities for his team to get something done, but knew when to take a step back.

Generally, as I looked at all of the data I came to the conclusion that Charlie Manuel is a very, very good manager. Far from the image of him being a quiet, meek manager, I found Charlie Manuel to be a savvy strategist, keyed into where his team was weak and someone who made smart decisions about matchups without feeling the need to over manage. I think he’ll do a nice job managing the team in 2007, and I hope that Phillies fans have the patience to realize what a good manager Manuel is.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Book Review: The Bill James Handbook 2007 

I am not entirely sure how to go about reviewing the new Bill James Handbook. There is precious little writing on James part and the book itself doesn’t change that much from year-to-year. It would be tempting to simply reprint my review from last year and see if anyone would notice, but I won’t. The 2007 Bill James Handbook does contain a number of critical differences from the 2006 edition. The Handbook is a product that James refines year-after-year to make it more informative, more interesting and a better tool for bloggers.

I’ll focus in on a few things of note to me. First, the Phillies own Ryan Howard is on the cover. So you ought to buy it.

Second, the data sets are familiar to anyone who has read the Handbook in the past. Little changed, they give us the core information about each player very well.

Third, every year James refines what he’s written and expands on ideas he’s developed. This year James has expanded on something he first added in the 2006 book, an analysis of base-running. Gone are the confusing percentage information, replaced by bases gained in a plus / minus format and a fuller analysis of base-running outs. I enjoyed the amendments and found them easier to understand. My only beef is that James lists what everyone did as individuals. I’m dying to know how teams did at particular phases of base-running. Are the Phillies a good base-running team? I have no clue, because I don’t have the energy to sit down and tabulate up all of the pluses and minuses each team has.

Another section James fleshed out is Manager’s tactics, which I actually found to be almost as interesting and informative as base-running. James kept the same stats he’s kept track of like defensive substitutions, relief pitchers used, etc., but also added a section breaking down thoughts on what each stat can suggest about a manager’s thinking (e.g., making a number of defensive substitutions can suggest an interest in defense), and he also added “runners moving” at the pitch, which is a good clue as to whether a manager is a small-ball hit-and-run guy or not.
Fourth, James added a new section which I trust he’ll expand upon into the future: manufacturing runs. This is sort of the new, cutting-edge piece of information James is exploring and I am very eager to see where he goes with in the future. I’ll let everyone else read James definitions of “manufactured runs” and decide for themselves if they like the definition or not. I generally do and I found it to be enormously informative. In the future I’d like to see James expand his definitions and tell us what teams have done historically.

Along with those additions are James usual pearls of information, including Park Factors, Lefty/Righty stats, 2007 projections, etc. Where else can you learn that Ryan Howard has a 2% chance of breaking Hank Aaron’s record of 756 home runs?

Are there things I’d like to see in the Handbook? Absolutely. James reworked his Range Factor stat to be more accurate and deal with many of the problems associated with RF, like pitching tendencies. Relative Range Factor (RRF) was included in the Fielding Bible, which was published last February, but is absent here. As I noted before, I’d like to see base-running and manufactured runs expanded a little more. Blink at the start and you’ll miss John Dewan’s brief talk about fielding stats which goes by far too briefly.

But that said, I find more reasons than ever to recommend the Bill James Handbook to those who read this blog. Nowhere else can you get this kind of information, this kind of knowledge that the casual fan simply doesn’t care about or understand. So read the Handbook and revel in the knowledge that you are one of the select few that see a different game than what everyone else sees.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Big Ball Theory & the Phillies Offense 

No post yesterday because of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ... Today there is a passionate, angry debate out there between two competing visions, one that holds fast to the beliefs of a bygone age and the other that embraces a new, more open-minded, a more enlightened way of thinking. The divide between “Red America” and “Blue America”? The divide between Christians and Muslims? No, I am talking about the split between the proponents of Moneyball and their small ball “do the little things” critics.

Baseball will likely be torn in the holy war between the game’s “small ball” Catholics and its “big ball” Protestants for some time to come. The split, which has been a long time in coming since Bill James began his path-finding work in the 1970s, has worsen of late with the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which hit the baseball world like Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis hit the medieval Catholic Church. Since then baseball’s Catholics have struck back with the incoherent, poorly formed musings of Joe “I Didn’t Have to Read Moneyball to Hate It” Morgan, and with the smug, self-congratulatory thoughts of the Braves GM John Schurholtz (See, Built To Win). The split is argued and debated with the ferocity of the Catholic-Protestant split which led to the Reformation. On one side are the critics who argue with reason and information and on the other are the passionate conservatives who hold true to the beliefs of their fathers and their fathers.

At the moment the Protestants have the upper hand in this fight. With the DH, which removes many incentives for teams to bunt, and with the A’s in the American League, the American League has emerged as the stronger of the two leagues. Don’t trust the St. Louis Cardinals win in the World Series, the A.L. has been crushing the N.L. in inter-league play because the DH and the A’s have encouraged fellow A.L. teams to adopt Moneyball tactics, in whole or in part, to survive. The Blue Jays and Red Sox are currently managed by G.M.’s with ties to Moneyball movement, which has helped the A.L.’s embrace. The stodgy old N.L. has stuck with bunting and base-stealing.

All of this got me thinking: if the Phillies had to choose sides in this holy war, would they be backing the holy church of small ball, or would they be a part of the big ballers rebellion against the old ways of doing things? Well, lets look at a couple of factors:

-The Phillies were eighth in stolen bases attempted with 117.

This team has a lot of speed on it, with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Bobby Abreu having played three of the eight position spots on the team, yet the Phillies showed a real reluctance to run compared with their N.L. brethren. In the NL East alone Frank Robinson’s nats ran 185 times, Willie Randolph’s Mets ran 181 and Joe Girardi’s Marlins ran 168.

-The Phillies were fifteenth in sacrifice bunts attempted, with 79, just two more than San Diego.

Teams sacrifice more in the N.L. because the pitcher batting ninth is a powerful incentive to attempt to surrender an out for a chance to move a runner. The Kansas City Royals led the A.L. in sacrifice bunts in 2006 with 70. That would have put them last in the N.L. where the Padres sac’d 77 times. Teams that aggressively played small ball, like the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers had more. In the case of the Rockies, they had many more: 155. While the Rockies were obsessive about sacrifice bunts (they tried 32 more than any other team, and they were just one of four to have 100+), generally speaking the N.L. teams were more disposed towards the sac bunt. The Mets sacrificed 100 times.
-The Phillies were fourteenth in having runners moving with 69, just 13 more than Atlanta.

Again, small ball teams led the way: the Dodgers had 137 runners moving, the Cubs had 134, the Rockies had 109 … The team that led the N.L. were the Nats with 144. This was less of a league-specific tactic though: the Anaheim Angels, the kings of small ball, led the majors with 163.

-The Phillies were eleventh in Manufactured Runs with 148, just 13 more than the sixteenth-place Reds.

Now this gets us into an interesting area. One of the bigger parts of the new Bill James Handbook is James section on “manufactured runs”. When I review The Handbook tomorrow I’ll talk a little more about this because it is the big new item James includes, but in the here and now this is a quick primer: to figure out how a team “manufactures” a run, James divides them into two categories, runs produced by base-stealing and bunting (MR-1), and runs produced by infield hits, advancing extra bases on singles, scoring on sacrifice flies, etc. (MR-2) Add MR-1 and MR-2 together and you get MR. In theory a team that gets a lot of MR’s, and especially MR-1’s, is a small ball team.

How did the Phillies do? Overall they finished eleventh in the N.L. in MR with 148. The Phillies were third in the N.L. in the MR-2 category with 115:

1. St. Louis: 121
2. Colorado: 117
3. Philadelphia: 115
4. Arizona: 113
5. Pittsburgh: 109

The MR-2 is sort of the aggressiveness run. The true small ball run is the MR-1, of which the Phillies finished dead-last:

12. San Francisco: 53
13. Atlanta: 50
14. Milwaukee: 44
15. St. Louis: 43
16. Philadelphia: 33

The Chicago Cubs led the N.L. in MR-1 with 99, followed by the Nats (85), and the Rockies (81). As I noted before, tactics that produce the MR-1 – like bunting and base-stealing – are less common in the A.L. The Phillies actually weren’t just last in the N.L. in MR-1 runs, they were dead-last in the major leagues. The only A.L. teams to come close to the Phillies 33 MR-1’s were the Texas Rangers (36), the Oakland A’s (37), and the Boston Red Sox (39). If those stats don’t shock you, then they should. The A’s and Red Sox are teams that have definite Moneyball / Sabremetric influences on their management and composition, so in a way the Phillies out big balled the big ball teams.

So I think where the Phillies stand is pretty obvious: I wouldn’t identify Charlie Manuel or Pat Gillick as being true believers in Moneyball / Sabremetrics, but, intentionally or not, they’ve constructed a team around some of the central tenets of Moneyball / Sabremetrics, the idea that the three-run home run is king and that bunting and base-stealing don’t get you too far.

I think you also have to call the Phillies philosophy a success as well. I know that this isn’t the most scientific reasoning, but look at the teams that didn’t play small ball, the Braves, the Phillies, the Cardinals, the Giants and the Brewers. The Phillies led the N.L. in runs scored. The Braves were second. The Cardinals were sixth. Okay, the Brewers and Giants were fourteenth and eleventh respectively, but the best teams were the ones that shied away from small ball. The Cubs led the N.L. and the majors in MR-1 but ranked fifteenth in the N.L. in runs scored. Big Ball works better than Small Ball. I think that much is clear, though I will allow that there is an argument to be made in the other direction (the Dodgers and Rockies were fourth and fifth respectively). My thoughts are that small ball teams need a lot of pieces to snap together. It is a little like launching a missile from a submarine: everyone has to turn their keys together. The Big Ballers can score a run or two at will.

For the Dodgers to score a run they need this sort of a sequence of events: Rafael Furcal leads off with a single, then steals second base. Kenny Lofton bunts, advancing Furcal to third. Nomar Garciaparra strikes out. Jeff Kent walks. J.D. Drew singles to center, scoring Furcal. Kent advances to third on the play. Russ Martin singles to left, scoring Kent. Marlon Anderson flies out to center. Seven batters to score two runs. Many links in a chain need to be forged.

How do the Phillies score a run? Jimmy Rollins singles to center, Chase Utley hits a two-run home run. Two batters, two runs.

That ability to hurt you every time a guy is at the plate is what makes the Big Ballers so dangerous and why the Small Ballers are so streaky. Any coincidence that the Dodgers dropped thirteen of their first fourteen post-All Star games and then proceeded to win seventeen of their next eighteen games? During their losing streak the Dodgers scored just 32 runs in those fourteen games, scored four or more runs just twice and were shut out three times. The Phillies were shut out three times all season. The Dodgers were shut out nine times in the 2006 campaign. The Rockies were blanked twelve times. Mind you, we are not talking about bad offensive teams. The Dodgers and Rockies were #4 and #5 in runs scored in 2006. Big Ball teams score runs more easily and more consistently than their Small Ball counterparts. And avoiding a shut-out is vital in baseball. After all, when you score nothing, you have no chance to win, whereas a team that scores a run could win 1-0.

But nevertheless, you’ll hear a lot of shouting and complaints from the Holy Church of Small Ball. “Moneyball never won a playoff series!” (That one actually has to be amended now, but …) “You need to manufacture runs to win championships!” No doubt Joe Morgan will continue to hold court on this matter, but in my mind there are two central truths that I think the data supports:

-Intentionally or not, the Phillies are a Big Ball / Moneyball / Sabremetrics team.

-Big Ball / Moneyball / Sabremetrics works.

I’ll talk on the Handbook tomorrow …

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