Thursday, May 10, 2007
Mark Twain famously said that there were three kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics. Twain was referring to the fact that people could twist and manipulate numbers to their own agenda and for their own cause. I thought of Twain’s aphorism as I read The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz. Published in 2004, the book’s forward begins with a searing event that transformed how baseball teams approached statistics: Grady Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch Game 7 of the ALCS. Numbers analysis showed that the decision was a disaster waiting to happen – once Pedro hit the seventh inning he fell apart – and yet Grady Little did what managers had traditionally done and “went with his gut” by leaving Pedro in. Pedro got shelled, the Yankees won and the cursed was prolonged for a year while the Red Sox retooled and got a manager who wasn’t afraid to use numbers when making decisions.
Then the curse was broken.
Schwarz has written a very confident and interesting look at the history of stats in baseball. I want to compare and contrast The Numbers Game to Moneyball, which covers a lot of the same ground – Bill James, Henry Chadwick, etc. – but Schwarz does it without Michael Lewis’ revolutionary tone. Lewis knew he was writing a biased book when he wrote Moneyball, a revolutionary document that recast history to suit its own ends, while Schwarz has a much more value-neutral approach to the topic. Schwarz’s work is more balanced and a little deeper. Dealing with the Oakland A’s adoption of numbers-based stats in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I think Lewis missed the boat on the evolution of the A’s thinking about stats when he jumped straight from Sandy Alderson to Billy Beane. The process was much more gradual and subtle. Alderson was a lawyer, not a traditional baseball man, looking for new ideas and came across them when he read Eric Walker’s The Sinister First Baseman, which preached the gospel of On-Base Percentage. Alderson taught Beane, and the march of numbers went on from there. In many ways, Lewis misses the boat in Moneyball. The key figure in stats is not Beane but Alderson, the man who brought the thinking into the mainstream and indoctrinated the A’s. (Lewis makes fleeting references to Alderson in the book.) Once Alderson made numbers a part of the A’s thinking, the genie was out of the bottle.
Naturally there are many more figures of note in Schwarz’s book. Branch Rickey utilized stats as the Brooklyn Dodgers GM in the 1940’s before he was forced out and the Dodgers sent his designated stat man packing. George Lindsay and Earnshaw Cook, are figures lost to the pages of history and whose memories are resurrected. Lindsay, an officer in the Canadian Military and Cook, author of Percentage Baseball, were people who had suspicions about the game and wrote daring reinterpretations about numbers and how they were used well ahead of their time (1950’s and 1960’s).
In particular I loved Schwarz’s opening chapters on Chadwick and the development of the box score. The high value that was placed on defense in the early days of baseball is really a fascinating topic to behold. That opening chapter is well worth the cost of the book right there.
So is The Numbers Game a superior book to Moneyball? I found them to be different, one a book about advocacy which interpreted history in a manner that supported its conclusions, the other a dispassionate take on people and ideas that people feel passionately about. I rather enjoyed Schwarz’s writing style and how he covers all of the bases when it comes to numbers in the history of baseball. It is hard not to be impressed. A very good read, in fact it is a must for my baseball fan to have in their library.
Labels: Book Review
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
First, Bourn took off for second base, beating the throw by a good margin. It was Bourn’s second steal of the season. Taschner dug in again to pitch to Helms. Then, suddenly, Bourn broke to third base and beat the throw again by a hefty margin. The Giants fans looked on with stunned amazement as Bourn stood up and brushed himself off. The cameras panned to the grins on the faces of Manager Charlie Manuel and Davey Lopes. Their gamble seemed to be paying off. Still, the weak-hitting Helms would have to get Bourn the last ninety feet home.
Could Helms hit a fly deep enough to score Bourn or even get a hit? The answer was no. Helms put the ball into play by tapping a weak grounder to the Giants Omar Vizquel at shortstop. Playing in to try and prevent Bourn from scoring, Vizquel saw Bourn breaking for home and fired the ball to Giants catcher Bengie Molina. The throw from Vizquel was right on the money and Molina did a nice job trying to shield the plate, but Bourn was one step ahead, beating the tag from Molina by a half second.
The Phillies lead was now 8-5. The ESPN crew broadcasting the game excitedly raved about Bourn's speed. The margin gave the Phillies beleaguered bullpen some room to work with as they closed out the victory. Impressively it was an explicit example of how speed produced a run. Without speed the Phillies weak-hitting 6-7-8 hitters would have squandered Burrell’s walk. Without speed the Phillies wouldn’t have scored that run.
* Specifically, when Bourn was on first with no outs, he stood a 42% chance of scoring. When Rowand flied out, that dropped to 27%. The steal of second improved that to 41%. When Bourn stole third, the odds swung in his favor, with a 66% chance of scoring. (See, Chapter 4.2, "When Is One Run Worth More Than Two?", Baseball Between the Numbers, page 129.)
The issue of the stolen base lies at the heart of both the sabremetric and small-ball ideologies. To the small-ballers, the stolen base is a vital weapon, a tool that turns a meaningless single into a double, that puts a runner in scoring position. Stolen bases are one way that you “manufacture” runs in small ball and goes hand-in-hand with bunting and the rest of it. To the sabremetricians, the stolen base is an irritating piece of conventional wisdom that the small-ballers cling to against precious little evidence it is useful. Writes James Click in Chapter 4.1 of Baseball Between the Numbers:
“The stolen base may be exciting, but even the best base-stealers in the game are producing only marginal gains for their teams in the recent offensively-dominated era … Stolen-base totals still garner a lot of attention, as teams like to point out how they play ‘Smallball’ or emphasize the running game. But very little attention is paid to the number of times those same runners are thrown out and the damage those outs can do … The stolen base is a useful weapon but also an overrated one.”
(See, “What if Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia’s Legs?”, page 115.) In sum, the argument against the stolen base is that teams tend to risk having runners gunned down and surrender outs when they are caught stealing. Teams have to be successful about 75% of the time in order to make the stolen base worth it.
Scenario #1: the team sends the runner from first to second base. What is the benefit? Teams with a runner on first with no outs can expect to score 0.9259 runs an inning. If the runner gets to second base, that increases to 1.1596 runs, or an increase of 0.2337 runs. Roughly +25%.
Scenario #2: the team sends the runner from first to second and he is caught. So the team goes from .9259 runs per inning to 0.2866. That is a 70% drop! When teams are playing for one run to win a game the stolen base is a big risk: a runner on first with no outs stands a 42% chance of scoring. Second base and no outs? 63%. Getting caught going from first to second? The scoring expectations drops to a mere 17%. It is not a winning strategy if you are playing for a run, and it is not a winning strategy to try and put runs up on the board.
However, it is a strategy that I predict we will see a lot more of in the coming days. Slugging percentages and home runs have declined somewhat precipitously this season and the lousy April weather is only partly to blame for it. The renewed focus on steroids by the media and the baseball establishment has had some effect, I believe. The silver age of the power offense, of the home run, is coming to an end. The last time that baseball saw an era dominated as this one has been by teams built around the long ball was the 1950s, the golden ages of the game. However the dominance of the home run faded as teams in the '50s began to emphasize the bunt and stolen base and moved away from home runs. Historian Bill James writes about baseball in the 1960’s: “The use of speed as an offensive weapon, which had atrophied for forty years, began to re-emerge late in the fifties, and by 1962 was a headline story.” (The Bill James Historical Abstract, page 249.) There are a number of reasons for this, like shifts in thinking by leading teams, the success the Go-Go Sox (the 1959 Chicago White Sox) had in reaching the World Series, the shift by some teams from hitters parks like Ebbets Field to the L.A. Coloseum, changes in personel and so on. By the 1960's, when the rules changed to favor pitchers, baseball was already moving towards a speed, defense and pitching style. I think, with the decline of the home run this season, you are going to see teams emphasize speed, defense and pitching more in the future. We are not entering a new dark age for offense, but we are seeing shifts in the game. As one Army officer remarked to author Robert Kaplan: "Attrition of the same adds up to big change." The template for the future team won't be the Oakland A's, but the Anaheim Angels.
So in all of this futurism we ought to talk about presentism. What do we know about the Phillies attitude towards stolen base this season? Well, they rank second in the N.L. in stolen bases attempted with 38, one behind the Mets. This is an increase over seasons past. And Davey Lopes, an enthusiastic proponent of the stolen base, is now an assistant coach.
In 2006 the Phillies ranked eighth in steals attempted with 117. The Nationals led the N.L. with 185 steals attempted, with the Mets right behind at 181. With the Phillies finding success hitting lots and lots of home runs, the team de-emphasized the running game last season. Here is how often the Phillies have been running:
Stolen Bases Attempted:
Phillies / N.L. Average
2007: 38 / 24*
2006: 117 / 133
2005: 143 / 119
2004: 127 / 117
* Thru Monday.
Last year was a bit of an abnormality for the team, how little it ran. I suspect that was largely due to the departure of Bobby Abreu, who had stolen twenty bases in twenty-four attempts in 2006, and left for the Yankees in late July. This year the Phillies seem more interested to trying to run. They have a terrific new weapon to do it: Shane Victorino. The talented Hawaiian attempted seven steals in 2006 and was caught three times. This season Victorino is running a lot more: thirteen steals in sixteen tries, impressive given that he's been on first base just 41 times and second 7.
Right behind him is Jimmy Rollins with eight steals in nine tries. J.Roll, with his powerful bat, is the best lead-off hitter in the N.L. right now. Who else would have eight stolen bases, five triples and nine home runs? Rollins has traditionally been a quick player on the base-paths:
Steals / Caught Stealing / Success %
2001: 46* / 8 / 85%
2002: 31 / 13 / 70%
2003: 20 / 12 / 63%
2004: 30 / 9 / 77%
2005: 41 / 6 / 87%
2006: 36 / 4 / 90%
* Led N.L.
This season is no exception. If he keeps up his current pace, J.Roll will steal 41-42 bases this season.
After J.Roll comes Bourn, who is three-for-three, and Chase Utley, who is three-for-four, and Aaron Rowand, at two-for-two. J.Roll, Victorino and Bourn are the Phillies speedsters. These guys are going to test the opposing defenses with their legs a lot this season. Oh, and in the minors they have two guys named Chris Roberson and Greg Golson who have some wheels.
So those are my thoughts on the importance the Phillies, and the rest of baseball, will be placing on the stolen base this season and in the future. With Ryan Howard in and out of the lineup, look for the Phillies to attempt to manufacture runs with the running game much, much more.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
So it is somewhat ironic then that the Phillies real Achilles Heel right now – beyond their pitching woes – is the terrible play that the team is getting this year from their third baseman. Since Rolen left via trade during the middle of the 2002 campaign, the Phillies have been searching in vain for a solution for their woes at third base. First the Phillies played Placido Polanco, one of the players acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Rolen deal at third. In the off-season the Phillies signed David Bell and brought him on-board. A strong fielder but a poor hitter, Bell struggled for much of his time in Philadelphia – ranking second in terms of grounding into double plays in 2005 – before getting dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2006 midseason and leaving baseball thereafter. In Bell’s place the Phillies played Abraham Nunez, a light-hitting utility infielder who didn’t ground into as many double plays, but also proved to be utterly incompetent at the plate in nearly every other aspect.
Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
Isolated Power (ISO): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
Slugging Percentage (SLG): Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage. Power at the plate.
Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times ((S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K))] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF). If you use ESPN’s version be advised that it is pitifully is out-of-date, however. James adjusted RC after the 2004 season ended.
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.
Fielding Percentage (FPct): (Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors). How often the player successfully handled the ball.
In the off-season the Phillies signed former Marlins and Brewers infielder Wes Helms to be their new third baseman. Nunez, a switch-hitter, was kept on to back Helms up. With the month of April done it is becoming clear that the Phillies have major issues with their two third basemen.
First, Helms. Theoretically Helms appeared to be a safe bet to improve over what Bell and Nunez did in 2006. Playing first base, third base and pinch-hitting for the Marlins in 2006, Helms hit ten home runs with 47 RBIs. Helms sabremetric stats looked similarly impressive. Despite the relative lack of playing time (just 278 plate appearances in 2006), Helms had 48 Runs Created, or 8.1 per 27 Outs. His .246 Isolated Power at the plate was very good and suggested that he’d led a powerful bat to the Phillies lineup to go with Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Helms posted much, much better stats in 2006 than Bell and Nunez:
* Bell’s stats all as Phillie.
Oh, and Wes Helms hit .281 with Runners In Scoring Position (BA/RISP) in 2006, something that the Phillies struggled somewhat at, including Bell (.247) and Nunez (.211).
So Wes Helms must be doing a great job so far this season, right? Not even close. Take a quick gander at the numbers and prepare to be shocked:
Home Runs: 0
Runs Created: 4
Oh, and his BA/RISP: .147 … That is a .231 decline in his slugging percentage from .575 to .344, and a .180 point decline in his isolated power, from .246 to .066. Helms OBP declined .074 from .390 to .316. There are simply no words to describe what kind of a collapse this is on Helms part.
In retrospect, Helms numbers hid the fact that he was a little lucky in 2006 (26.3% of the balls he put into play were line-drives in 2006, and his batting average with balls put into play was .394, both abnormally high numbers) and difficult to predict. Remember, many of his at-bats were pinch-hitting opportunities.
But still, this is a major, major downgrade for the Phillies, going from the mostly light-hitting Bell to the entirely light-hitting Helms.
So what’s the solution? Play Abraham Nunez? Yeah, that’s not really an option …
Nunez has played a little so far this season and it hasn’t been good. In 37 plate appearances this season he’s 6-for-33 (.182) with just one double. His OBP is just .229, which is very low. Sadly, it is higher than his slugging percentage, which stands at a paltry .212. His Isolated Power stands at a laughable .030. Nunez, mind you, has never had any power to his swing:
Now little has Nunez contributed to the Phillies offense? His Runs Created stand at zero. He’s creating 0.2 per 27 Outs. It would take a team of nine Abraham Nunez’s five games to score a run.
Oh, and he has a .111 BA/RISP.
The reason why I don’t like Abraham Nunez is his propensity for hitting ground balls. About 74% of the balls he put into play this season were grounders, 62% last season. Helms is hitting a lot of grounders this season too – 49% – and as a consequence Helms and Nunez have ground into five and two double plays respectively. At this rate the Phillies third baseman will almost certainly ground into 24 or more double plays this season, just as many as David Bell did in 2005.
Defensively, I cannot say how well Helms is doing, although it does strike me that he’s made a lot of errors – four – already this season. Helms .930 fielding percentage is much worse than Bell’s .945 in 2006.
I think this is a major area of concern for the team. How can they continue to tolerate such lousy production from the third base position? This is something the Phillies will have to address, and soon.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Alright, I am going to start talking numbers. Before you get utterly confused about what I’m talking about, here are the stats I refer to defined:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
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).
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP
So, how is Adam Eaton doing? Don’t ask. Thus far both Eaton and Garcia have been huge busts for the Phillies, although in Garcia’s defense he is coming off of injuries. Ironically the Phillies holdovers, including Jon Lieber – whom Eaton and Garcia were to supplant in the rotation – have been much better than the new arrivals:
Jon Lieber: 2.57
Jamie Moyer: 2.65
Cole Hamels: 3.54
Freddy Garcia: 6.05
Adam Eaton: 8.18
Okay, make that much, MUCH better than the new arrivals. Naturally these ERA numbers ought to be adjusted a little because Eaton and Garcia aren’t pitching that badly:
Jamie Moyer: 3.34
Cole Hamels: 3.41
Jon Lieber: 4.28
Freddy Garcia: 4.49
Adam Eaton: 5.04
Lieber and Moyer seems to be benefiting from some good defense (.758 and .748 DER respectively), which is helping their numbers a little, but they deserve some credit for that: both are finesse pitchers who induce a lot of groundballs. Eaton is an interesting case to evaluate:
First off, it is difficult to evaluate Eaton's recent past because he’s pitched so few innings. Just 65 innings with the Rangers in 2006 and 128 innings with the Padres in 2005. Another problem is the Petco Park factor. Eaton pitched in what is arguably the most pitcher-friendly park in the majors in 2004 and 2005. According to the 2005 Bill James Handbook, Petco Park had a Home Run Factor of 66 and a Run Factor of 82 in 2004, ranking as the second-worst park in the N.L. for offense, behind Hiram Bithron Stadium in Puerto Rico, the Montreal Expos temporary home for part of the 2004 season. (100 is neutral, 99 and below is unfriendly to hitters.) Given that so few games were played in Puerto Rico, I am unsure if we ought not simply rank Petco #1 anyway. The 2006 Bill James Handbook rated Petco as the friendliest park to pitchers, with a Home Run Factor of 66 and a Run Factor of 77 in 2004. Eaton's stats as a Padre were very much influenced by Petco. Conversely, The Ballpark at Arlington, the Texas Rangers homefield, rates second in the AL in Run Factor in 2006 at 108 according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook. So what kind of a pitcher are the Phillies getting?
According to STATS, Inc., Eaton is primarily a fastball pitcher who supplements his repertoire of pitches with a curveball, a changeup and slider. You’d figure that he’d favor his slider a bit more pitching at Citizens. I’m assuming that he’s been using his fastball too much or his slider hasn’t been working of late.
Here’s how Eaton’s numbers stack up against the Phillies and the rest of the N.L.:
Eaton / Phillies / N.L.
ERA: 8.18 / 4.59 / 4.00
WHIP: 1.73 / 1.44 / 1.38
HR/9: 1.36 / 1.10 / 0.85
BB/9: 4.63 / 3.84 / 3.57
K/9: 7.63 / 7.86 / 6.61
DER: .647 / .679/ .696
The thing that immediately pops out at you are the strikeouts (above the league average and about what the rest of the Phillies are doing), but especially the home runs and walks allowed. When you allow a free base-runner every other inning, you are really killing yourself. Walks take a lot of pitches and are far worse for a pitcher than a single, which is what 66% of the hits this season have been, because they wear on the pitchers arm and are a mental mistake as opposed to something he cannot control. Allowing walks is really developing into a problem for Phillies pitchers this season.
The Home Run factor is also an issue with Eaton, and this is where we get into Park Factors a little. Theoretically walks and strikeouts are park-neutral stats, but home runs depend partly on where players pitch. Eaton has bounced from a pitcher-friendly park (Petco) to extremely hitter-friendly parks (The Ballpark at Arlington, Citizens Bank Ballpark). The effect on his stats has been interesting to look at:
2004: 1.27 (Petco)
2005: 0.98 (Petco)
2006: 1.52 (Arlington)
2007: 1.36 (Citizens)
The 2004 number is a stark one to me: he threw 199 innings for a team that played in a park that was absurdly friendly to pitchers and he allowed 28 home runs that season. At Arlington last season he got hit in the brief amount of time that he was a Ranger, surrendering eleven home runs in those sixty-five innings. Ouch. These should be disturbing numbers for Phillies fans to consider. So far this season he's given up five home runs in his thirty-three innings of work.
I used to think that being an extreme ground-ball pitcher was a prerequisite to pitching in Citizens, but a more sophisticated understanding of the game’s dynamics has convinced me that being a fly-ball pitcher isn’t the kiss of death in Philadelphia. Here is what the rotation’s ground-ball / fly-ball ratio is:
At the moment the Phillies two strongest pitchers are, arguably, Moyer and Hamels, the most fly-ball oriented pitchers the Phillies have. I don’t really talk about the importance of keeping the ball down because I think that it isn’t important. Keeping guys from getting walks, getting them to strikeout and keeping the ball in the park are the sole factors we will focus on here. I think fly-ball pitchers and ground-ball pitchers can make it in Philadelphia. This is not Adam Eaton’s problem. The rest of it is.
I am rather surprised and disturbed to see Eaton’s walks allowed. He’s actually been pretty good, historically speaking, about giving up walks:
I think his 4.63 BB/9 in 2007 is a little high and will come down eventually. Still, it isn’t a good sign that his walks have been trending up for the last four years …
In the final analysis, you have to worry that the Phillies may have made a bad investment in Adam Eaton. Maybe he doesn't have the stuff to be the front-line starter that the Phillies are hoping and praying he is. Maybe he's just very unlucky, but it strikes me that Eaton is too suseptable to allowing walks and home runs to be an effective pitcher at Citizens Bank Ballpark. Add to the poor fielding support that the Phillies are giving Eaton and you have a recipe for disaster. Oh sure, Eaton is throwing better than his 8.18 ERA looks, but even a 5.04 ERA is too high for the Phillies to tolerate from a starting pitcher. Let's hope Eaton improves, but otherwise it strikes me that Adam Eaton is the Phillies rotation's weakest link.