Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Jack Morris, Statistics and the meaning of the Hall of Fame

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Its Hall of Fame ballot time. Let the Jack Morris arguments start-up again. Photo John Iacono via si.com

(coincidentally, this is the exact same picture and exact same caption as I used last year.  Nothing w/r/t Morris has changed).

Every year about this time comes the inevitable Jack Morris battles when it comes to deciding whether or not he’s a Hall-of-Famer.  Those who argue against him (and argue they do, rather loudly, as exemplified by writers such as David Schoenfield, Rob Neyer, and Joe Posnanski and easily found at nearly any baseball blog, almost all of which are extremely anti-Morris) typically point at Morris’ career ERA, his ERA+, his career WAR and then argue that he was actually a mediocre pitcher.  They have all sorts of arguments against “pitching to score” and even make arguments that middling starters from the 90s are actually “better” than Morris.

My one overriding opinion on the whole “Hall of Fame” worthiness argument is that the stat-inclined seem to be missing the whole point of the “Hall of Fame.”  It isn’t defined as the “Hall of the Best  Statistically Significant players above some arbitrary benchmark.”  If it were, then arguments comparing Morris to Rick Reushel or Brad Radke (both of whom have higher career WARs than Morris) would be important.  (side note: Ironically, this is the same distinction that these people generally also miss when talking about the “Most Valuable Player” award; it isn’t the “Best Player” its the “Most Valuable,” and therefore you can’t just give me a gazillion stats that tell me why Mike Trout had a better season than Miguel Cabrera and call me an idiot for saying that Cabrera was the MVP this year.  How can you be the MVP of a 3rd place team that would have still been a 3rd place team with or without you?  How can you be the “most valuable” player in the league but have zero impact on your team’s standings or the playoffs?  But I digress).

No; its the Hall of FAME (emphasis mine).  It should be the Hall of the most FAMOUS people in the game’s history.  And inarguably Jack Morris is more famous than either Reushel or Radke (since these two pitchers are often used in comparison).  And since its baseball writers themselves that a) remember Morris as being better and more famous than he was according to specific career-measuring stats like WAR, and b) do the voting themselves, its likely that Morris may very well get into Cooperstown despite other people feeling that he’s a lesser pitcher.  Its why a pitcher like Catfish Hunter has been elected already, despite his having even worse career numbers (in the sabre-slanted statistical categories that the new-wave know-it-all bloggers constantly refer to) than Morris.  I can’t recall ever reading one single article talking about how bad it is that Hunter is in the hall of fame, but it seems that EVERY single baseball blogger and columnist out there under the age of 30 has written multiple times about how its the death of the legitimacy of the Hall of Fame if Morris makes it in.  I just don’t get it.

A lot of these arguments seem to be driven by one stat: Career WAR.  People look at that one overriding stat and make their arguments.  My biggest problem with career WAR is its “accumulator nature.”  It rewards a healthy, mediocre pitcher who makes a ton of starts and accumulates a ton of strikeouts and wins and innings pitched. Meanwhile a better pitcher with a higher peak who ends his career earlier won’t “score” as high in career WAR.

The two pitchers in particular i’m looking at in the above paragraph are Bert Blyleven (career bWAR of 89.3) and Pedro Martinez (career bWAR of 80.5).  There is not one person in their right mind that would say with a straight face that Blyleven was a “better” pitcher than Martinez.  But, if you look at the WAR without context you’d argue that was the case.

Blyleven during his career, for those of us actually old enough to have seen him play, was a mediocre pitcher.  Plain and simple.  In 22 seasons he made 3 All Star teams and received Cy Young votes only 4 times, never coming close to sniffing the award.  Morris on the other hand, received Cy Young votes in 7 of his 18 seasons and started the All Star game 3 times.  Morris STARTED more all-star games than Blyleven ever made.  Blyleven was traded for relative nobodies a number of times in his career, and the prevailing press of the day referred to him as a middling pitcher.  Only after he’s retired, when we “discovered” statistics like ERA+ and FIP and realized he was better than his numbers at the time indicated did we make the push for him into the HoF.

Why do I point out All Star appearances and Cy Young voting?  Because in the context of the Hall of Fame discussion, they’re important.  You can quibble about the meaning of all star appearances (certainly they’ve been diluted in the last 20 years) and cy young votes all you want, but the fact is this: if you REALLY want to know who the writers felt were the best players of their day, then all star appearances and Cy Young/MVP voting is vitally important.

But here’s my main point: why can’t the Hall recognize BOTH the likes of Blyleven (better than people realized at the time) AND also recognize Morris (overrated statistically but still historically significant and thus “famous” enough for enshrinement)?  Why do people devote so much time towards disparaging the case for Morris?  Yes, Morris gets undue credit for his fantastic 1991 World Series Start, for leading the 1984 Tigers, for leading the 1980s in Wins.   If you ask any player or manager in the game at the time, they’d likely tell you Morris was one of the best.   But these are all the same aspects that make him “Famous” and thus a likely candidate for the Hall of FAME.  These are the same reasons why a fine pitcher like Curt Schilling, who also was part of some iconic moments in the game’s history, also should be in Cooperstown (in my opinion).

I just feel like the nature of sports writing has come to the point where people use statistical measures as the be-all, end-all proof of everything in baseball.  And then they forget that the game is played by humans, that there are ALWAYS some things that cannot be measured, and just because some statistic has been cheapened in today’s game (I’m thinking of the pitcher Win) does not mean it was always cheapened.  I know there’s people out there who wrote doctoral thesises about how Morris never “pitched to score.”  But how do you measure a pitcher who knows he’s gotta go 9 innings, who knows he’s not getting pulled in the 6th inning for a lefty-on-lefty matchup, who knows he’s more likely to throw 160 pitches than 95?  I absolutely think there’s something in the “pitching to score” arguments, if only because I have played with pitchers who absolutely would coast through games when they got a lead, or who would “take innings off” against in order to preserve their arm to go 9 full innings.  Unless you had a biometric measure on every single pitch Jack Morris ever threw, correlated to the weather, the score, his team’s bullpen status and his manager’s whims, you can NOT tell me that Morris did or did not pitch to score, let up with a big lead, or cruise through innings knowing he may have to go 9 on a 100 degree day.  Just because you can’t prove something mathematically doesn’t mean it still doesn’t exist.  Tom Verducci did an excellent piece recently on Morris and his innings pitched and complete games in context, somewhat related to this topic.

Morris comes from a transitionary time in baseball, before specialized relief pitchers, before the power of the 90s and before PEDs.  He comes from a time severely under-represented in the Hall (think of players like Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell, Denny MartinezOrel Hershiser and Bret Saberhagen: these were the stars of the 80s and some of them barely got 2% of the HoF vote), a side-effect of the ridiculously talented players we saw in the 90s and thus victims of the inevitable comparisons, falling wanting.  He holds an important place in the history of the game, in the narrative of the 1980s, and of the fantastic 1991 World Series.  Cooperstown is a museum, not a spreadsheet.

Call me ignorant, call me old school.  Whatever.  Maybe I’m just tired of the negative rhetoric.  I say “Elect Jack Morris.”

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 12/31/11 edition

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Its Hall of Fame ballot time. Let the Jack Morris arguments start-up again. Photo John Iacono via si.com

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.  With the approaching Hall of Fame nonsense, er I mean news cycle approaching, I’ll throw in a HoFame section.

Nationals In General

  • Transcribed from a radio interview by Tim Dierkes, here’s Mike Rizzo on CF and 1B.  This is the first time I’ve seen Rizzo mention NEXT year’s FA class in terms of looking for talent and it makes you wonder if we don’t already have our entire primary starting 15 set (8 out-field players, 5 starters and setup/closer) for 2012.   I can live with Jayson Werth in CF, since it opens up lots of FA possibilities in RF.  In fact, I smell a separate post coming…
  • Former Nat Lastings Milledge is going to Japan to try to resurrect his baseball career.
  • Scouting-specific SeedlingsToStars.com site looks at Anthony Rendon.
  • The USA Today does an in-depth, position-by-position overview of the team and where it stands.
  • Another Tom Boswell article that I disagree with; he thinks Prince Fielder isn’t “right” for the Nats.   I’m sorry; but Fielder is a run creating machine (he created 35 more runs last year than Michael Morse, by way of comparison, which roughly equates with his 5.2 Wins Above replacement value).  Yes we have LaRoche who is plus defense, but is he going to come back to 2010′s form or is he going to be a lost cause again?  Meanwhile, Fielder looks set to take a shorter term deal and re-try his hand at the FA market when he hits 30.  Wouldn’t you sign him for 3yrs $70M?  You put Fielder at 1B, keep Morse in Left, groom Bryce Harper to play center and keep Werth in right.   For the next 3 years.  How difficult is that?  Boswell talks about where to put Rendon; well; you put him wherever you have a need.  Put him at 2nd and move Espinosa to short.  Or you trade someone to free up room.  This team’s problem isn’t the need for a lead-off slap hitter; we need a big run producer in the middle of the order.  Someone to replace what Adam Dunn gave us for two years.
  • Ryan Tatusko posts his 2011 recap of his minor league season plus his time in the Venezuelan Winter League.  I wish more players were as blogger-friendly as Tatusko.

Hall of Fame Specific

  • A pro Edgar Martinez take with the important quote, “There is a position called DH…”  I have changed my own stance on this issue in recent years, especially when considering relief pitchers as hall of fame worthy.  If you argue that a closer and his 60-70 innings is somehow more valuable to a team than a designated hitter’s 650 at bats, then I’d have to disagree.  On my hypothetical ballot, Martinez is in.
  • Excellent review of active MLB players under HoFame consideration by Fangraph’s Dave Cameron.   Also, the comments discussion brings up a number of other players.  He uses primarily career WAR to determine the player’s value, which I’m somewhat hesitant about (in most cases WAR is an accumulator stat, as a mediocre player who stayed very healthy will have a higher WAR than an excellent but shorter-lived career).
  • This article really got to me, to the point where I commented on both the original post by Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus and the discussion at TangoTiger‘s InsideTheBook.com blog.  Jaffe’s hall of fame measuring system (called JAWS) somehow has determined that Brad Radke, the middling pitcher for the Twins who had basically one standout season in his career, was a BETTER player career-wise than Jack Morris.  How would any sane baseball observer possibly come to this conclusion?  This is where the modern blogger’s over-reliance on statistics really gets to me.  I have not read into why this system ranks Radke so high while ranking Morris so low but suspect it is due to a reliance on the same calculations that go into the ERA+ statistic (of which Radke’s career ERA+ of113  is better than Nolan Ryan‘s career era of 112).

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • Oakland continues to dismantle itself: Boston trades OF prospect Josh Reddick and two other players to Oakland for closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney.  This is after Boston acquired Mark Melancon earlier in the off-season; they now have completely remade the back side of their rotation.  Clearly the team is moving Daniel Bard to the rotation, having just traded for his replacement.   Reddick was clearly seen as surplus to requirements, despite putting together a decent 2011 season, but you have to wonder if the team is going to be satisfied with Sweeney starting in RF.
  • Keith Law makes a good point during his analysis of the Bailey move, saying that adding Bailey is a far better move than paying Jonathan Papelbon $50M.  I agree completely and think that anyone who pays $10M+ per year for a guy who throws 70 innings and who only really has about 50% “high leverage” plate appearances (see last year’s splits for Mariano Rivera and Papelbon to see that 57% of Rivera’s plate appearances were in “high” leverage situations as a high, while Papelbon was at 47%) is just wasting money.  Find a hard thrower in your organization (say, like Drew Storen for the Nats), install him as the closer as a rookie, then ride him til free agency and then cut him loose and start over.  Relievers are fungible talents, they come and go, mostly are failed starters since they don’t need the full repertoire of pitches to be successful, and are cheaper to come by.
  • (hat tip to ck of the Nats Enquirer): The Baltimore Sun reports that Scott Boras and Prince Fielder were in the Baltimore/DC area to meet with an owner not named Peter Angelos.  More links on the topic from Federal Baseball.  Gee, I wonder who it could be?  Why would those two fly HERE and not directly to the city of the owner in question, unless the owner of the team in question was either a) the Nationals, or b) an owner of a MLB team who lives in this area but owns a team based elsewhere, or c) an owner of another team just happened to be in DC for some odd reason (odd because Congress is out of session, which would seem to eliminate most any possibly lobbying reason).  Don’t get me wrong; I think Adam LaRoche can contribute in 2012 and it seems ludicrous to think he can’t at least get close to his 2010 numbers, but Fielder is a 5+ WAR player who probably makes us the favorite for the NL wild card if we sign him, right now.

General Baseball News

  • Wow, two LOOGY articles in the same day.  Bill James answered a question about the evolution of the LOOGY and posted this link describing its birth (apparently by Tony LaRussa in the 1991 season).  I also never knew that the term “LOOGY” was coined by none other than Rob Neyer.  And TangoTiger points to some of the same research.  Mid 30s lefties everywhere have LaRussa to thank for their extended careers.
  • Could you imagine this happening in today’s game?  The first intentional pitch would have resulted in ejections.  Certainly modern umpires would not let a pitcher throw pitch after pitch at an opposing batter.  Clearly these umpires let this game get out of hand.
  • Will MLB step in?  USAToday’s Seth Livingston thinks that the Oakland payroll dumping trades this off-season may get the attention of the front office.  Hard to see why; according to Cot’s the Athletics are only signed up for around $17M of guaranteed contracts in 2012 right now, before a slew of arbitration cases.  They non-tendered 3 of their 10 arbitration cases but kept a couple of their more expensive guys (Cot’s thinks they had 14 arbitration-eligible players; I havn’t cross-referenced outrights and DFAs but know they had 10 arb tender decisions).  Of those they did tender, they have since traded away Sweeney, Gonzalez, Bailey, Breslow and Cahill.  Geeze.  Baseball-Reference thinks they’ll get to $50M in payroll; I wonder if they’ll get to $35m frankly.  And, its looking more and more like this could be something like a 50-win team.  Things could get ugly in the Bay area in 2012.
  • This would be a loss for us prospect hounds: Keith Law is reportedly interviewing for a front-office position with the Houston Astros.  Law takes a very specific, opinionated viewpoint towards player development, drawing from his experiences in the Toronto organization (which itself during his time took a rather college-heavy approach to the draft which ultimately wasn’t as successful as the team wanted, ultimately contributing to the end of JP Ricciardi‘s reign.
  • An interesting exercise; USA Today builds an unbeatable MLB team for the median MLB payroll.  Honestly though, I’m not sure just how challenging this exercise is.  If you gave me $86M (the median payroll they used) you should be able to put together TWO such teams.  There’s enough pre-arbitration and arbitration-controlled talent in the league to be able to do the same task for something approaching a $20M payroll.  A future blog post?  :-)
  • Follow-up on Alex Rodriguez‘s experimental Germany treatment; this op-ed piece from Jeff Passan on the blurry line between PEDs and legitimate surgical procedures.  The article has a very in-depth description of the A-Rod procedure and raises the question as to what defines a Performance Enhancing Drug?  I have had similar discussions; why are Steroids “bad” but Cortisone “good” in terms of usage?  What do Cortisone shots do?  They enable a player to play through pain that otherwise may keep him out.  Uh … isn’t that the definition of a “performance enhancing” substance??  Steroid’s aren’t illegal; they’re just controlled.  But so is cortisone; you can’t just inject yourself with the stuff without a doctor’s order.  Passan takes things one step further, comparing the healing effects of HGH with these new treatments that A-Rod and Bartolo Colon got and makes a very good point; the WADA uses 3 categories to define a doping drug and everything we’ve described here can be argued to fit those criteria (except that only HGH and Steroids have been determined to be “bad” by the powers that be).  There’s something inconsistent here.

Collegiate/Prospect News

  • Seedling to the Star’s scouting report on Braves phenom prospect Julio Teheran.  Teheran’s stock has slipped somewhat in the past two years, especially given the inevitable comparisons to fellow pitching prospect phenom Matt Moore.  While Moore’s 2011 MLB debut was nothing short of amazing (including his 7 innings of shutout ball in the playoffs), Teheran posted a 5.03 ERA in about 20 MLB innings throughout 2011.  It was bad enough to probably rule Teheran out of the 2012 rotation plans and send him back to repeat AAA.  But if he can put things together, he’ll join an arsenal of young arms in Atlanta that seems set to be their next wave of starters in the ilk of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.


General News; other

  • Baseball meets modern America: Joe Maddon and the rising Latino population in his home town of Hazelton, PA, as written by Joe Posnanski.
  • 67-56?  I’ve never seen a football game with such a ridiculous scoring line.