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2014 Hall of Fame Ballot Obligatory Post

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Its Morris' 15th year; its now or never.  Photo John Iacono via si.com

Its Morris’ 15th year; its now or never. Photo John Iacono via si.com

Before starting, if you hadn’t heard Deadspin has bought a Hall of Fame vote this year and is going to submit it as populated by crowd sourcing.  Click on this link to go to Deadspin.com’s page to vote.  Voting at deadspin ends on 12/28/13 and all hall of fame ballots are due to be mailed back to the BBWAA by 12/31/13.  The class of 2014 will be announced later in January.

Everyone else has a post about how they’d vote if they had a BBWAA ballot.  Here’s mine.  Only its slightly different from how i’ve done these in the past.

Joe Posnanski has put out a survey in October 2013 that anyone can take that simply asks you to rank the 2014 candidates 1-10.  It is an interesting exercise because it very quickly highlights the depth of the ballot, since as everyone knows, there are many very deserving candidates who are outside the top 10 and who may very well fall off the ballot this year because of the glut of candidates.  It also makes you think; if you rank your candidates 1 to 10 … how many names would you be leaving off your ballot that you’d want to vote for?

So, instead of doing a “who’s on/who’s off” post like i’ve done in years past (and like everyone else does) here’s a different take driven by Posnanski’s ranking question.

My first 8 “Yes Votes” were relatively easy: Maddux, Bonds, Clemens, Thomas, McGwire, Bagwell, Glavine, Piazza.  I don’t think there’s one of those 8 candidates who shouldn’t be a slam dunk hall-of-famer based on baseball accomplishments.   (That most all of them likely do not get in because of PED suspicions is another story).  The only one of my top 8 that doesn’t match with Posnanski’s survey results is McGwire (replace him with Raines, everyone’s favorite Bert Blyleven-style charity case for getting more support).

Then I got stuck.  Who were the last 2 I’d put on the ballot?  Lets look at the rest of the 2014 ballot:

  • Voting No altogether: Walker, McGriff, Palmeiro, Smith, Sosa and anyone else new to the ballot this year not otherwise mentioned.  Why are these No votes?  See 2012 and 2013’s links for my reasoning on the 5 names here, all of whom are repeats.
  • Remaining Pitchers in order that I’d likely vote them in: Schilling, Morris, Mussina
  • Remaining Hitters in the order that I’d likely vote them in: Raines, Martinez, Kent, Biggio, Trammell

So I guess my last two would likely be Schilling and Raines, or perhaps Raines and Martinez.

Man, tough ballot this year.

If there wasn’t a 10-person limit, then I’d go crazy and probably vote for 16 candidates, basically the first 8 plus all the other “remaining” players above.   I’m by no means a “small hall” person, and I’m also not obsessed with the stat-driven arguments against Morris.  I think all these guys merit a plaque in Cooperstown.

Coincidentally, to all those people who write 1,000 words on all the things the BBWAA should do to fix the congestion issue (expand beyond 10 names, remove the 5% threshold), just stop wasting your time.  Year after year the BBWAA stays in the news for weeks at a time exactly because they refuse to change the standards.  Why would they relent now?

If you want to read how I’ve weighed in on the Hall votes in year’s past, here’s some links:

And lastly, I have a huge draft post dated from Dec 2011 with pictures from my actual visit to the Hall of Fame that I started but never finished (mostly because adding pictures to WordPress is a huge pain in the *ss).  Maybe I’ll get bored, finish it up and post that in conjunction with the 2014 class announcement.

My 2013 End-of-Season award Predictions

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Clayton Kershaw may be the sole unanimous major award winner in 2013.  Photo via wiki.

Clayton Kershaw may be the sole unanimous major award winner in 2013. Photo via wiki.

This post is months in the making.  In WordPress I looked up the first revision and it was dated May 4th.  Its on at least its 50th revision.  Its crazy.  But its a fun piece to do, to kind of keep track of these awards throughout the season.  But with yesterday’s release of the top-3 candidates for each BBWAA award, I thought it was finally time to publish.  The top-3 announcement didn’t have too many surprises in it, but was eye opening for some of the also-rans in each category.

I like seeing how well I can predict these awards by reading the tea leaves of the various opinions that flow into my RSS feed (here’s 2012’s version of the same post with links to prior years).  The goal is to go 8-for-8 predicting the major awards, with an even loftier goal of going 12-for-12 adding in the unofficial Sporting News awards.  I succeeded in 8-for-8 in 2010 and 2011, but missed out last year by over-thinking the Manager of the Year award in the AL.   This year is going to be tougher; the NL Rookie award and the AL Manager of the Year award are going to be coin-flips.

Here’s links for the MLB Players of the Month, to include Player, Pitcher and Rookies of the month, though frankly these monthly awards don’t amount to much.  But they’re fun to go see who was hot and how they ended up (think Evan Gattis).

Here’s links to some mid-season award prediction columns from Tom Verducci, Matthew Pouliot and Jayson Stark.  Here’s an 8/27/13 post from Keith Law, a 9/5/13 post from Cliff Corcoran, and a 9/25/13 prediction piece from USA Today’s Frank Nightengale that may be very telling about the Cabrera/Trout debate.   Lastly a few end of season pieces from Stark, Passan, Pouliot NL and AL, Gammons, Keri, Olney, Heyman.

Lastly here’s a great Joe Posnanski piece complaining about the faults the typical BBWAA voter has in their methodology.  He touches on some themes I mention below.  Remember this is a prediction piece, not who I necessarily think should actually win.

Without further ado, here’s my predictions and thoughts on the awards (predicted winners in Blue).

  • AL MVP:  Miguel Cabrera (May’s AL player of the month) and was leading the league in nearly every offensive category through a big chunk of the season before injuries cost him a lot of September.  There’s talk of another Cabrera-Mike Trout competition for the MVP in 2013, but I think the same results will hold as in 2012.  It comes down to the simple question; how can you be the “MVP” of a last place team?  That vastly over-simplifies the debate of course, but it is what it is.  I continue to be impatient with holier-than-thou writers who ignore the BBWAA definition of the award and who think this MVP should just be a ranking of the seasonal WAR table.  This award is not (yet) the “Best Player” award, and if it was then Trout would be the easy winner.  Of the also-rans:  Chris Davis tied the AL-record for pre-All Star break homers and finished with 53, but he’s likely #3 in this race.   Rounding out my top 5 would be Josh Donaldson and  Manny Machado.  Names briefly under consideration here earlier in the season (and possible top 10 candidates) include Joe Mauer and Evan Longoria.
  • AL Cy Young: Max Scherzer started the season 13-0 and finished 21-3.  This will propel him to the award despite not being as quite as good overall as his top competition.  Yu Darvish was on pace for nearly 300 strikeouts for a while before finishing with 277 and is likely finishing #2.   Despite a losing record pitching for one of the worst teams in the league, Chris Sale pitched to a 140 ERA+ for the second season in a row and should be rewarded with a top-5 finish.  Hisashi Iwakuma has fantastic numbers in the anonymity and depression of Seattle and will also get top-5 votes.  Rounding out the top 5 could be one of many:  Clay Buchholz was unhittable in April and weathered  accusations of doctoring the baseball from the Toronto broadcast team (Jack Morris and Dirk Hayhurst specifically), but then got hurt and may fall out of the voting.   Felix Hernandez put up his typical good numbers early despite a ton of kvetching about his velocity loss early in the season, but tailed off badly in August to drop him from the race.  Anibal Sanchez‘s 17-strikeout game has him some buzz, and he led the league in both ERA and ERA+.    Matt Moore became the first young lefty to start 8-0 since Babe Ruth and somewhat quietly finished 17-4 for the game-163 winning Rays.  Lots of contenders here.  Predicted finish: Scherzer, Darvish, Iwakuma, Sale, Sanchez.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers may be the winner by default.  Nobody else really stands out, and the biggest off-season narrative involved Myers and the big trade, meaning that nearly every baseball fan and writer knows of Myers’ pre-MLB exploits.  Jose Iglesias put up good numbers in the Boston infield before being flipped to Detroit, and is a great candidate but most of his value resides in his defense, meaning old-school writers won’t vote for him over Myers.   Past that, the candidates are slim.  Justin Grimm‘s fill-in starts for Texas were more than adequate.  Nick Tepesch is also holding his own in Texas’ rotation.  Coner Gillaspie and Yan Gomes are in the mix.  Texas’ Martin Perez put himself in the race with a solid year and got some last-minute exposure pitching in the game-163 tie-breaker.  Leonys Martin is another Texas rookie that has quietly put up good numbers.  Myers’ Tampa Bay teammate Chris Archer could get some votes.  Predicted finish: Myers, Iglesias, Perez, Archer and Martin.
  • AL MgrJohn Ferrell in Boston for going worst to first may be the best managerial job, but Terry Franconia in Cleveland deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done with significantly less resources in Cleveland and should win the award.  Its hard to underestimate what Joe Girardi has done in New York with injuries and the media circus this year, but this award usually goes to a playoff bound team.  I’ll go Franconia, Ferrell, Girardi.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL GM: Initially I was thinking Ben Cherington, Boston.  He traded away all those bad contracts, brought in several guys under the radar, leading to a 30 game swing in its W/L record.  Though, I agree with David Schoenfield; with Oakland’s 2nd straight AL West title it’s hard not to give this to Billy Beane.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Comeback Player of the Year: Nate McLouth has come back from the absolute dead for Baltimore, though technically he was decent last year too.  Josh Donaldson has come out of nowhere for Oakland, but really had nowhere to come “back” from.  John Lackey and Scott Kazmir both rebounded excellently from injury plagued seasons.  I think the winner has to be Kazmir by virtue of his slightly better record over Lackey.  Editor’s update: this award was already given and I got it wrong: Mariano Rivera won for his great 2013 comeback; I completely forgot about him.  We’ll cover the results versus my predictions in a future post.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Fireman of the YearGreg Holland, despite some sympathetic desire to give it to Mariano Rivera on his way out.  Joe Nathan is also in the AL discussion.  Jim Johnson is not; despite leading the league in saves for the 2nd year in a row he blew another 9 opportunities.  I hope the voters see past that.

Now for the National League:

  • NL MVP:  Andrew McCutchen is the shoe-in to win, both as a sentimental favorite for the Pirates first winning/playoff season in a generation and as the best player on a playoff team.  Clayton Kershaw‘s unbelievable season won’t net him a double, but I’m guessing he comes in 2nd in the MVP voting.  Paul Goldschmidt has become a legitimate stud this year and likely finishes 3rd behind McCutchen and Kershaw.  Rounding out the top 5 probably are two from Yadier Molina, Freddie Freeman and possibly Joey Votto as leaders from their respective playoff teams.  Also-rans who looked great for short bursts this season include the following:  Jayson Werth (who is having a career-year and making some people re-think his albatros contract),  Carlos Gomez (who leads the NL in bWAR, won the Gold glove and led the NL in DRS for centerfielders but isn’t being mentioned at all for the NL MVP: isn’t that odd considering the overwhelming Mike Trout debate??  I’ve made this case in this space to little fanfare in the past; if you are pro-Trout and are not pro-Gomez, then you’re falling victim to the same “MVP Narrative” that you are already arguing against), and maybe even Matt Carpenter (St. Louis’ real offensive leader these days).
  • NL Cy Young:  Clayton Kershaw put together his typical dominant season and won’t lose out to any of his darling competitors.  He may be the only unanimous vote of the major awards.  Marlins rookie phenom Jose Fernandez probably finishes #2 behind Kershaw before squeaking out the RoY award.   Matt Harvey was the All-Star game starter and looked like he could have unseated Kershaw, but a later season swoon and a torn UCL in late August ended his season and his chances early.  He still likely finishes #3.   Others who will get votes here and there: Jordan Zimmermann (who nearly got to 20 wins),  Adam Wainwright (who is back to Ace-form after his surgery and is put together a great season), St. Louis teammate Shelby Miller,  Patrick Corbin (Pitcher of the Month in May), Cliff Lee (who has been great for the mediocre Phillies), and perhaps even Zack Greinke (who finished 15-4; did you know he was 15-4?).  Predicted finish: Kershaw, Fernandez, Harvey, Wainwright, Corbin.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Seems like its coming down to one of 5 candidates: Fernandez, Puig, Miller, Ryu and Teheran.  I’d probably vote them in that order.  Shelby Miller has stayed the course filling in St. Louis’ rotation and may also get Cy Young votes and seemed like the leading candidate by mid June.  Evan Gattis, the great feel-good story from the Atlanta Braves, started out white-hot but settled down in to relative mediocracy.  Tony Cingrani continued his amazing K/9 pace from the minors at the MLB level, filling in quite ably for Red’s ace Johnny Cueto but was demoted once Cueto returned and struggled with injuries down the stretch.   Didi Gregorious, more famous for being the “other” guy in the Trevor Bauer trade, has performed well.  Meanwhile don’t forget about Hyun-Jin Ryu, the South Korean sensation that has given Los Angeles a relatively fearsome frontline set of starters.  Yasiel Puig took the league by storm and hit 4 homers his first week on the job.  Jose Fernandez has made the jump from A-Ball to the Marlins rotation and has been excellent.  Julio Teheran has finally figured it out after two call-ups in the last two years and has a full season of excellent work in Atlanta’s rotation.  The question is; will narrative (Puig) win out over real performance (Fernandez)?  Tough call.
  • NL MgrClint Hurdle, Pittsburgh.  No real competition here.  Some may say Don Mattingly for going from near firing in May to a 90 win season … but can you really be manager of the year with a 250M payroll?
  • (Unofficial award) NL GMNeal Huntington, Pittsburgh.  It really has to be Huntington for pulling off the low-profile moves that have paid off with Pittsburgh’s first winning season in 20 years.  Ned Colletti‘s moves may have resulted in the best team in the league, but he has the benefit of a ridiculously large checkbook and I hope he doesn’t win as a result.
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Comeback Player of the Year: I’d love to give this to Evan Gattis for his back story but that’s not the point of this award.  I’m thinking Carlos Gomez with Milwaukee for his massive out-of-nowhere season.  But honestly the award has to go to Francisco Liriano.  Editor’s update: this award was already given and I got it right: Liriano indeed won.
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Fireman of the YearCraig Kimbrel, who looks to finish the year with a sub 1.00 ERA for the second year running.   Edward Mujica and Aroldis Chapman in the discussion but not really close.

 

Chasing Saves: a cautionary tale for GMs

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Mariano Rivera’s success has led to a generation of closer-chasing in MLB. Photo wikipedia

One of the mantras we hear from Fantasy Baseball experts is “Don’t chase Saves.”  Closers are so hit-or-miss in this league, that on draft day trying to chase mediocre closers usually turns into wasted draft picks as these guys frequently get hurt or under-perform and get replaced.  Well, its not that much better in “real” baseball, where teams best laid plans for closers often backfire mightily.

In fact, check out this link on RotoAuthority.com, which charts the Opening day and Closing Day 2012 closers for all 30 teams.  In summary:

  • Only 10 of the 30 MLB teams kept the same closer wire-to-wire.
  • 14 of the 30 teams had a different guy in the closer role by season’s end.  That’s half the league!
  • The other 6 teams had the same guy at season’s start and end, but went through personnel changes in between.  This includes our own Nats, who started with Drew Storen, he got hurt, Tyler Clippard took over and stayed in the role after Storen got back, then Clippard melted in September and Storen took back over the role.

By my observations, as of June 15th 2013 here’s the same stats for this year:

  • 22 of 30 teams have same guy as start of season
  • 8 teams have already made a switch (Boston, Detroit, Arizona, Oakland, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland, St Louis, Los Angeles Dodgers)

So what’s the point here?  Teams need to re-think they way they grow, acquire and pay for “Saves.”  Lets look at how far one particular organization has gone “Chasing Saves” and pursuing a Closer.  I present you the Boston Red Sox, normally considered a very forward-thinking, analytical organization but which seemingly has a very large blind spot for the mytical “shutdown closer” position.  As of the publishing of this article (June 14, 2013):

  • Current Closer: Andrew Bailey, for whom they traded 3 players to the Oakland A’s in 2011 to obtain.  Two minor league prospects and one Josh Reddick, who hit 32 homers last year.
  • Acquired last off-season to be their 2012 closer: Mark Melancon, for whom they traded two good prospects to the Houston Astros in 2011; Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.   Lowrie is now posting a nifty 126 ops+ for the Athletics (to whom he was flipped by Houston for even more prospects).  Melancon had two bad outings at the beginning of 2012, was banished to the minors and eventually flipped for ….
  • Former 2013 closer: Joel Hanrahan, for whom they traded 4 players to the Pittsburgh Pirates last December.  Including Mark Melancon, who is repaying the Pirates for their patience in him by posting a .072 ERA in 25 innings thus far this year.  Hanrahan just had Tommy John surgery and is out for at least a  year.
  • [Post-post update]; By the end of June, Bailey allowed 4 homers in 5 games, hit the D/L and on July 22nd was announced as undergoing season-ending surgery. and is being replaced by … somebody.  By Mid July it seemed clear that it was Kenji Uehara, a free-agent signing last off-season.  So for all their trades, they end up using a minor FA signing as their closer.

So for the record that’s 9 guys traded away (including at least two effective hitters) in the past two off-seasons to chase one (in my opinion) relatively meaningless statistic.  And basically all they have to show for it is Andrew Bailey no longer pitching the 9th for them.

Of course, maybe the joke’s on me, since the Red Sox are in first place at the time of this writing.

But for an organization that used to be known for doing smart things (including the smart move of allowing long-time closer Jonathan Papelbon be overpaid by someone else on the FA market), these moves are just dumb.   Find a hard throwing guy in your system, make him the “closer,” repeat as necessary.  That should be the strategy.


And oh, by the way, I don’t exempt our own team from this.  Rafael Soriano was an unneeded purchase who (as we’ve seen by the unwarranted shot at Bryce Harper) could be more trouble than he’s worth.  But hey, its not my money right?  At least the Nats didn’t trade good prospects to acquire him (like Boston has done over and again).


This argument leads into an oft-repeated discussion in this space about the ridiculousness of the Save statistic and how frequently closers are preserved for “Save Situations” despite their leverage rating.   Lets look at a couple of very specific mathematical arguments against overpaying for closers:

1. Joe Posnanski and others have shown how useless closers are.  Teams are winning games at basically the same percentage now in the closer era that they were 50 years ago, without highly paid specialized closers.  Some quick percentages:  For the latest decade teams won 95.2% of games in which they led going into the 9th.  In the 60s, 70s and 80s that same percentage varied between 95.6-94.8%.   Can someone explain to me how the proliferation of highly paid closers in the last 20 years of the game has basically helped teams …. win the exact same number of games they used to before closers, matchup bullpen roles and Loogys existed??

2. Any old mediocre reliever is going to end up being a relatively effective closer.  Proof?

Lets say an average reliever has a 4.50 era or so (which in today’s game frankly is a stretch, given what we’ve talked about before and the advantages that relievers have over starters; they can go max effort for shorter time periods and they don’t have to face batters more than once).  That means he gives up one run every two innings.  Now lets say that you used this pitcher with his 4.50 era in every closing situation you face in a given year.  A save situation can be a lead held by 1, 2 or 3 runs.

So, out of these three scenarios your 4.50 ERA pitcher can give up his run every other start and still “save” 5 out of 6 games.

  • 1 run lead: gives up 0 runs; save
  • 1 run lead; gives up 1 run: blown-save
  • 2 run lead: gives up 0 runs; save
  • 2 run lead: gives up 1 run: save
  • 3 run lead: gives up 0 runs: save
  • 3 run lead: gives up 1 run: save.

And then even in those blown-save situations, extra inning affairs are basically coin flips anyway historically, which means that teams are going to win half those games anyway.  So you’re basically going to win 5.5 out of every 6 games.   5.5 out of 6 is 91%.  So historically even my normal case scenario undervalues the ability of teams to win these games.

And this scenario really undervalues what kind of reliever you’re actually going to put into the role.  Every team has a handful of relievers in their bullpen with ERAs in the 3-3.50 range; that’s 1-1.5 runs better than my “mediocre pitcher” example over the course of a couple weeks (assuming closers get about 9 innings of work every two weeks).  With even this marginal improvement you’re going from 91% to closer to the historical 94-95% of games won.


Want some more food for thought on closers?   Here’s your current top 5 closers in the league by number of saves, along with their acquisition method, salary and general statement about their careers thus far:

  1. Jason Grilli – 23 Saves.  36yrs old.  $2.25M.  He was flat out released in July 2011 by Philadelphia and signed as a Minor League FA by Pittsburgh.  He’s a 36 year old journeyman on his 7th pro organziation with a 106 career ERA+.
  2. Jim Johnson – 23 saves.  30yrs old.  $6.5M.  He’s a home-grown middle reliever thrust into the closer role last year when the O’s got fed up with FA closer Kevin Gregg.
  3. Mariano Rivera – 23 saves.  43yrs old.  $10m, taking a discount from his $15M/year deals since 2008 b/c of knee issue.  Home-grown player who converted to relief after bombing out as a failed starter at age 25.
  4. Joe Nathan – 20 saves.  38yrs old.  $7M, taking a discount from his last contract value of $11.25M/year after significant arm injury.   Failed starter with San Francisco, traded to Minnesota in the AJ Pierzynski deal and has flourished as a closer.
  5. Addison Reed – 19 saves.  24yrs old, $520k (20k above MLB minimum).  3rd round draft pick by the White Sox out of San Diego State, where he was a career relief pitcher after not having ever pitched until his Junior year of HS.

The next few guys are Kimbrel (655k), Mujica ($3.2M).   But you’ve also got guys out there closing like Wilhemlsen, who didn’t even make the majors until he was 27 and was out of the game working as a bartender for 6 years.

The point?  You shouldn’t pay for a high end closer; you find someone internally who looks like a good option on the cheap and go with them.  You can find someone in your farm system, or on waivers, or working in a bar who can be an effective closer.  Find someone who can throw 1mph for 20 pitches a few nights a week; they’re going to give you as good of a chance to win as throwing the last guy out of the bullpen out there with a 3 run lead in the 9th.


One last bit of observation:  Lets look at Dennis Eckersley‘s career.  As a starter: good, not amazing.  A couple years with a smattering of Cy Young votes.  One 20-game winning season but another season where he 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA.  He converts to a closer and immediately his ERA plummets, his K/9 jumps up, his ERA+ numbers rise to stupid levels.  One year (1990) as a 35-yr old he allowed just 5 earned runs and just 3 unintentional walks on the year through 73+ innings.

So, how is it that a 4th starter during his 20s can suddenly become a lights out Hall-of-Fame closer in his mid-30s while doubling his k/9 rates at a time when he should have been regressing as a player?  The answer is easy; relievers only have to face part of the lineup once a night, don’t need 4 pitches and can basically get by with a gimmick pitch.  And, since they’re only throwing 15-20 pitches a few nights a week instead of 100-110 pitches every 4 days, they don’t need to “save their arm for the whole night” and can go with max effort during their outings with no long term effects.

That’s a lot of loosely tied together points to my main theory: If I were the GM of a team, the absolute last thing I’d pursue on the FA market was a high-priced closer.  I don’t think the “closer” role is going away (players know that Saves translate to Dollars in arbitration and on the FA market), but I’m hoping we’ll see less Dusty Baker-esque management techniques and more Joe Maddon.

Stats Discussion Part I: What’s wrong with Wins and RBI?

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Cabrera's MVP award was thought to be on the backs of "bad stats." Is this a bad thing in general? Photo AP via sportingnews.com

(First Article in a series discussing Baseball Statistics that I mostly wrote months ago and was waiting for downtime to post.  As it happens, the posts that I have in the can for months on end tend to get rather bloated; this one is > 3000 words.  Apologies in advance if you think that’s, well, excessive).

(Note: a good starting point/inspiration for this series was a post from February 2012 on ESPN-W by Amanda Rykoff, discussing some of the stats used in the movie Moneyball.  Some of the stats we’re discussing in the next few posts are covered in her article).

The more you read modern baseball writing, the more frequently you see the inclusion of “modern” baseball statistics interspersed in sentences, without definition or explanation, which are thus used to prove whatever point the writer is making.   Thus, more and more you need a glossary in order to read the more Sabr-tinged articles out there.  At the same time, these same writers are hounding the “conventional” statistics that have defined the sport for its first 100 years and patently ridiculing those writers that dare use statistics like the RBI and (especially as of late) the pitcher Win in order to state an opinion.  This is an important trend change in Baseball, since these modern statistics more and more are used by writers to vote upon year ending (and career defining) awards, and as these writers mature they pour into the BBWAA ranks who vote upon the ultimate “award” in the sport; enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.

This year’s AL MVP race largely came down to the issue of writers using “old-school” stats to value a player (favoring Miguel Cabrera and his triple-crown exploits) versus “new-school” stats to value a player (favoring Mike Trout, who may not have as many counting stats but has put in a historical season in terms of WAR).  And as we saw, the debate was loud, less-than-cordial, and merely is exacerbating a growing divide between older and newer writers.  This same argument is now seen in the Hall of Fame voting, and has gotten so derisive that there are now writers who are refusing to vote for anyone but their old-school stat driven pet candidates as a petulant reaction to new-school writers who can’t see the forest for the trees in some senses.

A good number of the stats that have defined baseball for the past 100 years are still considered “ok,” within context.  Any of the “counting stats” in the sport say what they say; how many X’s did player N hit in a season?  Adam Dunn hit 41 homers in 2012, good for 5th in the league.  That’s great; without context you’d say he’s having a good, powerful season.  However you look deeper and realize he hit .204, he didn’t even slug .500 with all these homers and he struck out at more than a 40% clip of his plate appearances.  And then you understand that perhaps home-runs by themselves aren’t the best indicators of a player’s value or a status of his season.

Lets start this series of posts with this topic:

What’s wrong with the “old school” baseball stats?

Most old school stats are “counting” stats, and they are what they are.  So we won’t talk about things like R, H, 2B, 3B, HR, BB, K, SB/CS.  There’s context when you look at some these numbers combined together, or if you look at these numbers divided by games or at-bats (to get a feel for how often a player hits a home run or steals a base or strikes out a guy).  In fact, K/9, BB/9 and K/BB ratios are some of my favorite quick evaluator statistics to use, especially when looking at minor league arms.  But there are some specific complaints about a few of the very well known stats out there.  Lets discuss.

1. Runs Batted In (RBI).   Or as some Sabr-critics now say it, “Really Bad Stat.”   The criticism of the RBI is well summarized at its Wiki page; it is perceived more as a measure of the quality of the lineup directly preceeding a hitter than it is a measure of the value of the hitter himself.  If you have a bunch of high OBP guys hitting in front of you, you’re going to get more RBIs no matter what you do yourself.  Another criticism of the stat is stated slightly differently; a hitter also benefits directly from his positioning in the lineup.  A #5 hitter hitting behind a powerful #4 hitter will have fewer RBI opportunities (in theory), since the #4 hitter should be cleaning up (no pun intended) the base-runners with power shots.  Likewise, a lead-off hitter absolutely has fewer RBI opportunitites than anyone else on the team; he leads-off games with nobody on base, and hits behind the weakest two hitters in the lineup every other time to bat.

I’m not going to vehemently argue for the RBI (the points above are inarguable).  But I will say this; statistical people may not place value on the RBI, but players absolutely do.  Buster Olney touched on this with an interesting piece in September that basically confirms this;  if you ask major leaguers whether RBIs are important you’ll get an across-the-board affirmative.  Guys get on base all the time; there’s absolutely skill and value involved in driving runners home.  Guy on 3rd with one out?  You hit a fly ball or a purposefully hit grounder to 2nd base and you drive in that run.  Players absolutely modify the way that they swing in these situations in order to drive in that run.  And thus RBI is really the only way you can account for such a situation.  The Runs Created statistics (the original RC plus the wRC stats) don’t account for this type of situation at all; it only measures based on hits and at-bats.

(As a side-effect, the statistic Ground-into Double Plays has a similar limitation to RBI: it really just measures how many batters were ahead of you on base as opposed to a hitter’s ability to avoid hitting into them.  But thankfully GIDP isn’t widely used anywhere).

2. Batting Average (BA): The isolated Batting Average is considered a “limited” stat because it measures a very broad hitting capability without giving much context to what that hitter is contributing to the end goal (that being to score runs).  A single is treated the same as a home run in batting average, despite there being a huge difference between these two “hits” in terms of creating runs.  This is exemplified as follows: would you rather have a .330 hitter who had zero home runs on the season, or a .270 hitter who hit 30 home runs?   Absolutely the latter; he’s scoring more runs himself, he’s driving in more runs for the team, and most likely by virtue of his power-capability he’s drawing more walks than the slap hitting .330 hitter.  More properly stated, the latter hitter in this scenario is likely to be “creating more runs” for his team.

Statistical studiers of the game learned this limitation early on, and thus created two statistics that need to go hand in hand with the Batting Average; the On-Base Percentage (OBP) and the Slugging Percentage (SLG). This is why you almost always see the “slash line” represented for hitters; to provide this context.  But, be careful REPLACING the batting average with these two numbers (or the OPS figure, which represents On-Base percentage + Slugging).  Why?  Because Batting Average usually comprises about 80% of a players On base percentage.  Even the highest walk guys (guys like Adam Dunn or Joey Votto) only have their walk totals comprising 17-18% of their OBP.  If you sort the league by OBP and then sort it by BA, the league leaders are almost always the same (albeit slightly jumbled).  So the lesson is thus; if someone says that “Batting Average is a bad stat” but then says that “OBP is a good stat,” I’d question their logic.

Lots of people like to use the statistic OPS (OBP+SLG) as a quick, shorthand way of combing all of these stats.  The caveat to this is thus; is a “point” of on-base percentage equal to a “point” of slugging?  No, it is not; the slugging On Base Percentage point is worth more because of what it represents.  Per the correction provided in the comments, 1.7 times more.

Coincidentally, all of the limitations of BA are attempted to be fixed in the wOBA, which we’ll discuss in part 2 of this series.

3. ERA: Earned Run Average.  Most baseball fans know how to calculate ERA (earned runs per 9 innings divided by innings pitched), and regularly refer to it when talking about pitchers.  So what’s wrong with ERA?

Specifically, ERA has trouble with situations involving inherited runners.  If a starter leaves a couple guys on base and a reliever allows them to score, two things happen:

  • those runs are charged to the starter, artifically inflating his ERA after he’s left the game.
  • those runs are NOT charged to the reliever, which artificially lowers his ERA despite his giving up hits that lead to runs.

ERA is also very ball park and defense dependent; if you pitch in a hitter’s park (Coors, Fenway, etc) your ERA is inflated versus those who pitch in pitcher parks (Petco, ATT).  Lastly, a poor defense will lead to higher ERAs just by virtue of balls that normally would be turned into outs becoming hits that lead to more runs.  Both these issues are addressed in “fielder independent” pitching stats (namely FIP), which are discussed in part III of this series.

A lesser issue with ERA is the fact that it is so era-dependent.  League Average ERAs started incredibly high in the game’s origin, then plummetted during the dead ball era, rose through the 40s and 50s, bottomed out in the late 60s, rose slightly and then exponentially during the PED era and now are falling again as more emphasis is placed on power arms and small-ball.  So how do you compare pitchers of different eras?  The ERA+ statistic is great for this; it measures a pitcher’s ERA indexed to his peers; a pitcher with an 110 ERA+ means that his ERA was roughly 10% better than the league average that particular year.

4. Pitcher Wins.  The much maligned “Win” statistic’s limitations are pretty obvious to most baseball fans and can be stated relatively simply; the guy who gets the “Win” is not always the guy who most deserves it.  We’ve all seen games where a pitcher goes 7 strong innings but his offense gives him no runs, only to have some reliever throw a 1/3 of an inning and get the Win.  Meanwhile, pitchers get wins all the time when they’ve pitched relatively poorly but their offense explodes and gives the starter a big lead that he can’t squander.

Those two sentences are the essence of the issue with Wins; to win a baseball game requires both pitching AND offense, and a pitcher can only control one of them (and his “control” of the game is lost as soon as the ball enters play; he is dependent on his defense to get a large majority of his outs, usually 60% or more even for a big strike out pitcher).  So what value does a statistic have that only measures less than 50% of a game’s outcome?

The caveat to Wins is that, over the long run of a player’s career, the lucky wins and unlucky loseses usually average out.  One year a guy may have a .500 record but pitch great, the next year he may go 18-3 despite an ERA in the mid 4.00s.  I have to admit; I still think a “20-game winner” is exciting, and I still think 300 wins is a great hall-of-fame benchmark.  Why?  Because by and large wins do end up mirroring a pitcher’s performance over the course of a year or a career.  The downside is; with today’s advances in pitcher metrics (to be discussed in part III of this series), we no longer have to depend on such an inaccurate statistic to determine how “good” a pitcher is.

Luckily the de-emphasis of Wins has entered the mainstream, and writers (especially those who vote for the end-of-year awards) have begun to understand that a 20-game winner may not necessarily be the best pitcher that year.  This was completely evident in 2010, when Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young award despite going just 13-12 for his team.  His 2010 game log is amazing: Six times he pitched 7 or more innings and gave up 1 or fewer runs and got a No Decision, and in nearly half his starts he still had a “quality start” (which we’ll talk about below briefly).  A more recent example is Cliff Lee‘s 2012 performance, where he didn’t get a win until July, getting 8 no-decisions and 5 losses in his first 13 starts.  For the year he finished 6-9 with a 3.16 ERA and a 127 ERA+.  Clearly Lee is a better pitcher than his W/L record indicates.

(Coincidentally, I did a study to try to “fix” pitcher wins by assigning the Win to the pitcher who had the greatest Win Percentage Added (WPA).  But about 10 games into this analysis I found a game in April of 2012 that made so little sense in terms of the WPA figures assigned that I gave up.  We’ll talk about WPA in part 4 of this series when talking about WAR, VORP and other player valuation stats).

5. Quality Starts (QS) Quality Starts aren’t exactly a long standing traditional stat, but I bring them up because of the ubiquitous nature of the statistic.  It is defined simply as a start by a pitcher who pitches 6 or more innings and who gives up 3 or less earned runs.   But immediately we see some issues:

  1. 6 IP and 3 ER is a 4.50 ERA, not entirely a “quality” ERA for a starter.  In fact, a starter with a 4.50 ERA in 2012 would rank  him 74th out of 92 qualified starters.
  2. If a pitcher pitches 8 or 9 complete innings but gives up a 4th earned run, he does not get credit for the quality start by virtue of giving up the extra run, despite (in the case of a 9ip complete game giving up 4 earned runs) the possibility of actually having a BETTER single game ERA than the QS statistic defaults to.

Why bring up QS at all?  Because ironically, despite the limitations of the statistic, a quality start is a pretty decent indicator of a pitcher’s performance in larger sample sizes.  Believe it or not, most of the time a quality start occurs, the pitcher (and the team) gets the win.  Take our own Gio Gonzalez in 2012; he had 32 starts and had 22 quality starts.  His record? 21-8.  Why does it work out this way?  Because most pitchers, when you look at their splits in Wins versus Losses, have lights out stuff in wins and get bombed during losses.  Gonzalez’s ERA in wins, losses and no-decisions (in order): 2.03, 5.00 and 4.32.  And, in the long run, most offenses, if they score 5 or more runs, get wins.  So your starter gives up 3 or fewer runs, hands things over to a bullpen that keeps the game close, your offense averages 4 runs and change … and it adds up to a win.

I used to keep track of what I called “Real Quality Starts (rQS)” which I defined as 6 or more IP with 2 or fewer earned runs, with allowances for a third earned run if the pitcher pitched anything beyond the 6 full innings.  But in the end, for all the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, this wasn’t worth the effort because by and large a QS and a rQS both usually ended up with a Win.

6. Holds: A “hold” has a very similar definition as the Save, and thus has the same limitations as the Save (discussed in a moment).  There was a game earlier this season that most highlights the issues with holds, as discussed in this 9/21/12 post on the blog Hardball Times.  Simply put; a reliever can pitch pretty poorly but still “earn” a hold.

Holds were created as a counting stat in the mid 1980s in order to have some way to measure the effectiveness of middle relievers.  Closers have saves, but middle-relief guys had nothing.  The problem is; the hold is a pretty bad statistic.  It has most of the issues of the Save, which we’ll dive into last.

7. Saves. I have “saved” the most preposterous statistic for last; the Save.  The definition of a Save includes 3 conditions that a reliever must meet; He finishes a game but is not the winning pitcher, gets at least one out, and meets certain criteria in terms of how close the game is or how long he pitches.  The problem is that the typical “save situation” is not really that taxing on the reliever; what pitcher can’t manage to protect a 3 run lead when given the ball at the top of the ninth inning?  You can give up 2 runs, still finish the game, have a projected ERA of 18.00 for the outing and still get the save.  Ridiculous.  And that’s nothing compared to the odd situation where a reliever can pitch the final 3 innings of a game, irrespective of the score, and still earn a save.  In the biggest blow-out win of the last 30 years or so (the Texas 30-3 win over Baltimore in 2007), Texas reliever Wes Littleton got a save.  Check out the box score.

I wrote at length about the issue with Saves in this space in March of 2011, and Joe Posnanski wrote the defining piece criticising Saves and the use of closers in November 2010.  Posnanski’s piece is fascinating; my biggest takeaway from it is that teams are historically winning games at the exact same rate now (with specialized setup men and closers) that they were winning in the 1950s (where you had starters and mop-up guys).

I think perhaps the most ridiculous side effect of the Save is how engrained in baseball management it has become.  Relievers absolutely want Saves because they’re valued as counting numbers they can utilize at arbitration and free agency hearings to command more salary (I touched on in a blog post about playing golf with Tyler Clippard this fall; he absolutely wanted to be the closer because it means more money for him in arbitration).  Meanwhile, there are managers out there who inexplicably leave their closer (often their best reliever, certainly their highest paid) out of tie games in late innings because … wait for it … its not a save situation.  How ridiculous is it that a statistic now alters the way some managers handle their bullpens?

What is the solution?  I think there’s absolutely value in trying to measure a high leverage relief situation, a “true save” or a “hard save.”  Just off the top of my head, i’d define the rules as this:

  • there can only be a one-run lead if the reliever enters at the top of an inning
  • if the reliever enters in the middle of an inning, the tying run has to at least be on base.
  • the reliever cannot give up a run or allow an inherited run to score.

Now THAT would be a save.  Per the wikipedia page on the Save, Rolaids started tracking a “tough save” back in 2000, and uses it to help award its “Fireman of the Year” award, but searching online shows that the stats are out of date (they’re dated 9/29/11, indicating that either they only calculate the Tough Saves annually, or they’ve stopped doing it.  Most likely the former frankly).


Phew.  With so many limitations of the stats that have defined Baseball for more than a century, its no surprise that a stat-wave has occurred in our sport.  Smart people looking for better ways to measure pitchers and batters and players.

Next up is a look at some of the new-fangled hitting stats we see mentioned in a lot of modern baseball writing.

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.


2012 Hall of Fame Ballot thoughts

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Can we please elect one of the best hitters of the last 30 years? Photo via bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com

On November 30th, the BBWAA announced the 2012 official Hall of Fame ballot.  Let the cavalcade of Hall of Fame opinion pieces begin! (just a few early examples here, here, and here).

We all knew who was eligible for this ballot, thanks to the excellent work at baseball-reference.com.  All the anticipated ballots are available for perusal along with statistical summaries of each player’s career and a few Bill James-inspired metrics created to give simple statistical measures of Hall-worthiness.

2012’s ballot is the last year before the Steroid accused superstars start becoming eligible (Bonds, Sosa, Piazza, and Clemens are all on the 2013 ballot for the first time, in addition to Schilling and Biggio) and the narrative about Hall of Fame voting turns to morality voting for the next decade or so.  Gee, I can’t wait.  All these players played in an era where there was no testing against PEDs and no MLB-specified rules against PEDs, but voters continue to penalize these players as if testing WERE being done, as if there WERE rules at the time they played.  Meanwhile nobody talks about the PEDs that were prevalent for the last 30 years or so (amphetamines, or “greenies” in baseball parlance), and many players from the latter part of this decade freely talk of playing on speed.  Frankly, it isn’t fair.  We didn’t penalize Bob Gibson and put an asterick next to his accomplishments for pitching in a pro-pitcher, massive ballpark era did we?  No; that was the game at the time.  We don’t talk about how baseball fields used to be caverns with 480 foot distances and 30 foot walls, making triples far more common than homers.  No; that was the game at the time.  And frankly. the steroid era will eventually be remembered for what it was.  Sometimes I think the anti-PED crowd is just a bunch of middle-aged white guys who are really peeved that an arrogant black ballplayer in Barry Bonds broke the cherished home run records of storied players from their youth (Babe Ruth and the far more likeable Henry Aaron).  But I digress.

That being said, I like doing these Hall of Fame blog posts, if only because I usually disagree with the rest of the baseball blog-o-sphere on what really constitutes a Hall of Famer.  I’ve been watching baseball long enough to form my own independent opinions on players and not depend on revisionist historians turning mediocre players into other-worldy hall-of-fame electees (see Blyleven, Bert and my stated opinions on his Hall-worthiness ahead of the 2011 ballot, and especially read the comment section where people refuse to address any aspect of Blyleven’s playing career and only use statistics to canonize him).

Notwithstanding that comment, I believe we’re being too parsimonious with Hall of Fame elections.  Nate Silver from the NY Times wrote on this same topic in January of 2011, pointing out another interesting fact about the Hall of Fame (namely that roughly 13% of active major leaguers at various points in the 1930s and 1940s are now in the Hall).  I’m not advocating that we need to be looking at 10% of current active major leaguers for the hall, but I am advocating that we be less “parsimonious” with the voting.  This may seem contradictory to my opposing the candidacy of Blyleven; not so.  There are a number of very deserving candidates who are not getting the votes they need.  There seems to be several reasons for this:

  • Players whose accomplishments in the pre-Steroid era are being discounted for the lack of “big numbers” (Larkin, Raines, Trammel, McGriff to certain extents).
  • Players who toiled in the Steroid era are either users/suspected users (McGwire, Palmeiro), or are being caught in the steroid web (Bagwell).
  • Players who are suffering from a conflict of opinion in the voter base for various reasons (Smith, Morris, Martinez).

I’m not sure how to resolve any of these situations frankly.  But I’d hate to have these players languish on the ballot and age off of it and have to wait for some nebulous Veterans committee to enshrine them after they’re dead (see Santo, Ron).  Some people advocate modifying the voting methodology, but in reality there’s no easy fix.

Back to the 2012 ballot: the only candidate eligible for the first time this year worth any discussion is Bernie Williams.   For me, Williams was a nice player who retired early instead of facing the inevitable end of his Yankee career.  He was part of a great core group of home-grown Yankees that formed the core of the late 90s dynasty team and will certainly be remembered as a great franchise player.  That’s not enough; he was never the best player on his own team, he never sniffed an MVP vote and he never accumulated enough production to warrant being a focal point in the opposition.  He had a great 5-year run … but if we were electing people on 5-year runs then Juan Gonzalez would already be in.

For the rest of the remaining candidates, I’ll borrow some from last year’s version of this post.  I’m not going to go into major statistical analysis for each candidate (that analysis is freely available on most every major baseball blog site out there), but will state my opinion with a few choice links.  On my hypothetical ballot I’d vote for:

  • Jeff Bagwell: a career 149 OPS+.   That’s a career averaging nearly 50% better hitting than the average MLBer.  That he’s being lumped in with actual PED users without a shred of proof has become the latest hall of fame “cause” on the internet, starting with this excellent article accusing BBWAA writers of “plagiarism” (when I think he really means laziness, frankly).  At least I support this one.  Here’s an excellent case for Bagwell.  You won’t find anyone penning a “case against” him that doesn’t claim that he’s a PED user without the proof.
  • Jack Morris.  The “anti” sabrematrician selection.  Here’s a link to the most canonical case against Morris, as well as Joe Posnanski‘s anti Morris (and anti-other) rant.  And here’s a case for Morris from former Washington Post writer Richard Justice, now with MLB, which goes a lot towards my way of thinking about the guy.  Lots of people seem to be spending as much time arguing AGAINST him as they did arguing FOR Blyleven.  I wonder why that is?  Maybe there really just is a kind of pitcher who you had to see in context versus looking at his stats after the fact.  Nolan Ryan “only” had a 112 ERA+ for his career and was barely a .500 pitcher, yet was a first ballot overwhelming hall-of-famer.  There’s some disconnect here.  For me, the vote for Morris is about the “feeling” of a dominant pitcher, just as Blyleven was about the “feel” of a mediocre pitcher, no matter what his eventual career stats looked like.  For people who say this is fallacy, I say this: judgement of a player can not ONLY be done by looking at his stats.  Morris had a reputation for “pitching to score,” though sabrematricians have attempted to debunk that pitching-to-score exists for some time (see this link on baseball prospectus, then note at the bottom that despite 3500 words he says “none of this proves it doesn’t exist.”) but he also had a reputation for being the “Best pitcher of the decade.”  Bill James published a list of factors to consider, when evaluating a player’s candidacy, and the one takeaway I got from that list was (paraphrased) whether or not a player was the best on his team, the best in his league, a guy that the other team was afraid of.  Morris was that, for a period of more than 10 years.  His last two seasons took him from a 3.70 era to a 3.90 career era, and may have pushed him over the edge to his current stat-nerd polarizing stance.  For me, he was THE pitcher of the 80s, led one of the most dominant teams ever (the 1984 Tigers) and pitched a 10-inning complete game win in one of the best games ever played.  Those things stand for something, and should add up to more than a clinical analysis of his era+.
  • Barry Larkin: lost in the shadow of Ozzie Smith for so long, that people forget that he was an excellent defender AND a great hitter.  Long overdue for enshrinement.  Here’s a pretty stat-heavy analysis FOR him.
  • Tim RainesCase for.  Its hard to find cases against.  Raines, like guys like Trammell and Larkin, played in the shadow of Rickey Henderson for so long and was always judged to be 2nd best.   But his accomplishments, especially during the earlier part of his career, should be enough to get him into the Hall.
  • Mark McGwire: He was a lock before the PED ensnarement.  I say “ensnared” despite him using a completely legitimate supplement at the time.   He didn’t try to hide it either.
  • Edgar Martinez: I recently watched one of the games from the great series “MLB’s greatest games” of the last 50 years, and one of the games was the great game 5 playoff in 1995 between the Mariners and the Yankees.  David Cone in that broadcast said that Martinez was “the best right handed hitter he ever faced.”  And it struck me; Martinez indeed was one of the most feared hitters of his day.  Look at his career: he didn’t play a full season til he was 27 and he played a ton of DH.  He also retired with a career slash line above the mythical .300/.400/.500 targets.  For those that discount his heavy use at DH I ask one simple question: if you think Martinez didn’t contribute that much by just being a DH, then how can you possibly support the inclusion of a one-inning relief pitcher/closer?  Who do you really think contributes more, a DH with his 650 PAs or a relief pitcher with 60-some innings in a season?   In reality, you can’t.  It just takes an uber-DH like Martinez to press the issue.

Specific Names i’d leave off and why:

  • Alan Trammell: I just don’t think he was a dominant enough player to warrant inclusion.  I’d place him well behind his peers at shortstop for the ERA.  There’s plenty of support for him in various forums though, with good arguments for him.
  • Lee Smith: My tried and true argument; closers are incredibly overvalued, and especially closers with lifetime ERAs in the 3.00 range and with a career whip that’s closer to a league average than it is to dominant.  Sorry; Smith isn’t a HoFamer for me.
  • Larry Walker: the whole “he played in Colorado” angle probably isn’t as true as we think, but he still enjoyed a bump in his stats because of it.  Otherwise he’s in the hall of Good, not the Hall of Fame.
  • Rafael Palmeiro: its less about his idiotic stance in front of congress as it is about his method of “accumulating” his way to historic numbers.  Much like the discussion we’ll eventually have about Johnny Damon (who is only a few hundred hits away from 3000 but clearly isn’t a transcending player), Palmeiro was always a good, solid guy but never that much of a game changer.
  • Don Mattingly: I would love to vote for Donny Baseball, but being the Captain of the Yankees just isn’t enough (well, unless you’re a NY writer).  Retired too early, not enough power for a first baseman, peaked at 25 and struggled into his 30s.

Let the comments calling me an idiot for supporting Jack Morris begin.

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

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All other news items are meaningless until we know if Wilson Ramos is safe. Photo Al Bello/Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

Here’s a weekly wrap up of Nats-related news items, along with other general interest baseball articles, with my thoughts as appropriate.  (Note: these news items are more or less chronological, with me going back and adding in clarifying links as needed.  Hence the Ramos news is towards the bottom, having happened late in the Saturday-to-Friday blog post news cycle i’m using, despite clearly being the most important item to the team right now…)

  • MLB’s Bill Ladson reports that the Nats have interest in Roy Oswalt, late of the Phillies.  I don’t think its a serious interest frankly; yes Oswalt would be nice to have and would be a better member of the rotation than either Detwiler or Milone (your probable #5 starters right now), but I suspect that this is just Mike Rizzo claiming interest in every good FA.  I’m sure if you asked Rizzo if he was interested in Pujols he’d say, “yes!”  But its not worthy of an 800 word article.
  • Nice start in the AFL from Sammy Solis on Friday 11/5/11: 9 K’s in 4 scoreless innings.  He gave up 3 hits and 3 walks though, so not an entirely clean outing, but that many strikeouts against an AFL hitting all-star lineup is good.  Also on the night, Matthew Purke had a 1-2-3 inning, progress considering what he’s done earlier in the AFL.  Solis’ next start wasn’t as clean, 3 runs in 3 innings for the loss.  We’ve all been cautioned not to read too much into any stat line coming out of the AFL; its the end of a long season, the pitchers are tired, the hitters are tired, its a hitters league in hitters ballparks, etc.  So perhaps I’ll stop trying to analyze performances in Arizona.  I’d like to see some progress, some decent scouting reports about Purke specifically, but Solis, who just finished a full season, probably isn’t a concern.  Especially if, by previous accounts, he’s working on a new curve ball.
  • For anyone who cares about our neighbor franchise in Baltimore, their GM search did not go very well.  The lost out on their (presumed) top choice Jerry Dipoto to the Angels, then had their #2 choice Tony LaCava turn down the job.  Why?  According to Danny Knobler, owner Peter Angelos refused to clear out his cronies in the front office, so LaCava declined the job.  Now we hear that the #3 candidate DeJon Watson has pulled out, seemingly because (according to allegations in this post) he was only being interviewed to satisfy minority-consideration requirements out of the front office.  Wait, it gets better; Boston assistant Allen Baird declined to even interview for the job.  Finally on 11/6, former Montreal and Boston GM Dan Duquette signed on for the job.  Still, what a joke; at what point does Angelos look in the mirror, and look at the 15 years of destruction he’s done to what was once the best team and best franchise in the sport, and admit to himself he needs to change his ways?  I don’t have a reference necessarily, but recall an article discussing this decline of the once proud Orioles as a classic case of successful business executive in one field (in Angelos’ case, law) obtaining a sports franchise and then immediately assuming (because of ego) that because he was successful in business, he will be successful in sports ownership.  You see this clearly with Dan Snyder‘s tenure of the similarly once-proud Redskins.  How do the Orioles get out of this mess?  Unfortunately, it may take the untimely death of Angelos to get some movement towards reality in the ownership group.
  • Is it just me, or is the Oakland franchise heading for some dark days?  Per Ken Rosenthal, they’re taking offers on nearly any player on the team, their entire OF and DH are free agents and not likely to be pursued, and they may look to actually pare salary from last year’s 21st ranked salary team.  The A’s have a slew of younger arms that all put up good numbers (albeit in a pitcher’s ballpark), and could be entertaining phone calls on some of their arbitration-eligible starters.  Perhaps the Nats, who have a history of trading with Billy Beane, could flip some prospects for someone like Trevor Cahill or Gio Gonzalez, both entering the first year of arbitration and sure be in the $3M range (Rosenthal’s article says Cahill is signed long-term, but its not in Cots).  Or, they could pursue a non-guaranteed deal with Dallas Braden, who clearly will be non-tendered coming off major shoulder surgery but who could be the next Wang-like reclamation project.  Lastly, Brandon McCarthy is a free agent,  and pitched pretty well in 2011 when he wasn’t hurt.  He could be another injury-reclamation, low-cost acquisition.
  • Frank McCourt, as we all know by now, is selling the Los Angeles Dodgers.  About time.  But did you also know he’s selling the Los Angeles Marathon?  Question: how do you “own” a marathon?
  • Silver Sluggers announced on 11/2/11:  No Nats mentioned, hardly a surprise.  Michael Morse was never going to beat out the NL outfield trio of Kemp, Braun, and Upton, who may finish nearly 1-2-3 in MVP voting.  No room in the NL outfield for Lance Berkman either.
  • Thanks to Nats blogs District on Deck and NationalsProspects for pointing out BA’s published list of all 500-something Minor League Free Agents.  There’s several very familiar names on the list (Garrett Mock, JD Martin, and Shairon Martis to start) and it could be interesting to see if these guys try their luck elsewhere.  I’ll probably put together a re-cap of these FAs along with my commentary culled from my minor league review articles later on.
  • My former teammate and GM/coordinator of the collegiate wood bat franchise Antonio Scott just got enough backing to enter his team into the Cal Ripken league for next season.  His team, which generally tries to recruit from historically black colleges and also spends a great amount of time reaching back into the DC youth baseball community, will partner with Gallaudet University and play at their new facility.  Great news for Antonio and for youth baseball in the District.
  • Per Byron Kerr, Baseball America released top 10 prospects for NL East teams on 11/6.  Here’s the BA link directly for the Nationals.  The rankings show just how good BA thinks our 2011 draft was, and more or less mirrors the Fangraphs.com ranking that came out earlier this off-season.  Here’s 2010’s rankings for comparison.  There is some complaining in the Natmosphere about the over-ranking of our 2011 draft crop, but (as I pointed in in comments on other blogs) there’s little argument in ranking Rendon, Purke, Godwin and Meyer over the guys most likely ranked 11-15th in our system (guys like Hood, Kobernus, Marrero or Smoker).
  • The next great hope from Cuba: Yoenis Cespedes. Wants $30M contract, projects as a center fielder (albeit with a poor arm) and a #5 power hitter. Of course, the Nats have their name listed as “interested.”  One wonders if the Yuniesky Maya experiment will color their opinions of the next great Cuban question mark.
  • I found a random blog related to Cuban baseball; here’s their reaction to Cespedes’ FA announcement.  All I can say is, wow.  Can’t say I’ve ever seen a blog post calling someone the “N-word” for pursuing a free agent contract.
  • Awful news coming out late Wednesday: Wilson Ramos kidnapped in Venezuela.  This is, as noted in Adam Kilgore‘s article, a growing trend in certain South American countries.  Lets hope its done for a quick buck and Ramos is returned unharmed.  The call to return home in the off-season is large for latin american players; I wonder how much incidents like this (along with other well publicized incidents of late involving family members of other prominent baseball players, as well as numerous accounts from pro Soccer players and their families) will force teams to “strongly advise” against their players returning to latin america in the off season.  Ryan Tatusko, Nats farm-hand and fellow Venezuela Winter League participant, blogged about his thoughts of the safety issues in the country.
  • Rob Neyer scanned and published (with Bill James’ consent) the first set of Baseball Analyst articles edited and written by James back in the early 80s.  You can save-as all the PDFs and cover art JPGs.
  • Great, great Nationals Prospect chat by Aaron Fitt at Baseball America, in the wake of their top 10 for the system.  Lots of interesting nuggets of opinion from Fitt.  Unfortunately Baseball America is subscription only but its worth the $30/year for content like this (as is ESPN insider).
  • Why are the Phillies getting ready to give Ryan Madson $40M+??    And why would the Nationals POSSIBLY be involved in the bidding for a $10M/year right-handed reliever when we already have that, in spades, at a fraction of the cost??!  That would be a colossal waste of money.  Closers are a colossal waste of money in general (google Joe Posnanski and the history of the save for his excellent article on how team’s save percentages are virtually identical through the  years despite the rise of highly paid closers.
  • My 2 cents on the entire Sandusky/Paterno/PSU mess: I couldn’t have said it better than Tom Boswell said it on the front page of the WP on 11/10. Paterno may not have done anything “illegal,” but he certainly did not use his best judgement throughout the years, allowing Sandusky to continue to be in the good graces of the program.  And that is why Paterno doesn’t have a job any more (as opposed to being charged with a perjury felony like the administrators who lied to the Grand Jury).  Just a sad event all around, for the victims, for Paterno (who found himself in an impossible situation) and for the Penn State students and alumni who are not exactly distinguishing themselves for not seeing what poor judgement was used by their icon throughout the years.

Why is Tyler Clippard appearing in Trade Rumors?

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Clippard is inarguably the glue of the Nationals much-improved bullpen. Photo Meaghan Gay/DCist.com

(editor’s note: its been quiet on nationalsarmrace.  Its been a Bad bad week for work, with yours truly finishing up a project and starting a new job next monday.  I’ve got some stuff written but its not complete, I’m hoping to get some time this w/e to post.  Apologies for radio silence).

In the baseball calendar, the all-star break represents the mid-way point of the season (despite it annually occurring a few games AFTER the 81st game for teams).  But for transaction mavens, it also marks the beginning of the pre-waiver wire trade season.  The Nationals have enjoyed unexpected success in 2011, playing far above predictions and its unclear to some whether we’re Buyers, Sellers or somewhere in-between.  Frankly, we should be thinking of selling no matter what our record.  We’re 9 games back of the Wild Card (Atlanta) and they’re a far superior team to us.  We need to acknowledge this fact and start cashing in every veteran free agent on a one-year contract that we can.

That means we move every one of this list of players if we can: Jason Marquis (to the pitching starved Yankees or Red Sox perhaps?), Ivan Rodriguez (to the Giants, who need catching depth and love veterans), Jerry Hairston, Rick Ankiel, Todd Coffey (to Texas maybe, who craves bullpen help and has been scouting him), Alex Cora, Livan Hernandez, Laynce Nix and even Matt Stairs.   Of course, most of these guys are playing at or below replacement level and are not going anywhere.  But some definitely have value.  Marquis and Coffey are the two most obvious trade candidates, followed by Pudge.

(Side note: Do I advocate trading Laynce Nix?  Yes I do.  He’s playing at a high level in-arguably, but there’s no spot for him next year.  LaRoche can only play 1st, which pushes Morse back to Left.  Nix can’t play anywhere else.  He’s too good to be a 4th outfielder and his value is high right now.  We should flip him for a prospect now).

Now, in addition to the typical trade candidates mentioned above, we keep reading rumors that list both Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen as being tradeable assets.  And I can’t quite understand why.

On the one hand, relievers are and should be treated as nearly fungible assets to be used and then discarded when they’re done.   I even believe this when it comes to closers, and will cite lots of research done by people like Joe Posnanski about how even with $10M closers MLB teams are winning almost the exact same percentage of games with 3-run leads in the 9th inning now that they did in the 50s before the closer was invented.

However, I completely acknowledge that Clippard is easily our most important reliever, more valuable and better than Storen, and I love the fact that we’re using our best reliever right now in the highest leverage situations instead of letting him sit on his ass waiting for a “save opportunity” while the 5th best guy in your pen tries to get the starter out of bases-loaded, no outs jams in the 6th innings of games (a personal managing pet peeve of mine).  Meanwhile Storen is a poster child for our team’s player development and drafting, having signed quickly and risen through the minors to nearly become the first player of his draft class to debut in the majors.

For me though, both Clippard and Storen have one other overriding factor; their contract status.  They’re both pre-arbitration guys with lots of years of team control still to come.  The absolute best asset in all of baseball is the pre-arbitration pitcher, so i’d have to think this team would need to be completely overblown by a trade offer to consider moving either guy.  We control Tyler Clippard THROUGH 2015, Storen even longer.  Even with four arbitration years coming Clippard is going to be vastly underpaid as compared to what he’s worth on the open market.

We all know there are certain players that are “un-tradeable.”  Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Steven Strasburg are names that come to mind on this team.  So if some offer came in for Clippard and Storen that was just unbelievable we’d have to consider it of course.  But should we be shopping these guys?  Absolutely not.

Starting versus Closing

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Should we try Clippard as a starter? Absolutely! Photo: NationalsDailyNews/Meaghan Gay/DCist.com

Baseball writer extraordinaire Tom Verducci posted a fantastic article today talking about Neftali Feliz‘s proposed move from the Rangers closer to the starting rotation.  The article touches on a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while; Starting versus Closing.  It also is literally the best summation I’ve seen yet describing why the save is over-rated, closers are overpaid and why you’d rather have starters versus relievers.

Lets face it; for the most part relievers are failed starters.  A few get drafted or signed as relievers (Washington’s Drew Storen being one local example), but most starters are drafted as starters and work their way through the minors as starters.  Some starters discover that they can’t develop secondary pitches, but their primary pitches are so fantastic that the club (rightly) turns them into relievers.  This especially allows hard-throwers (think someone like Joel Zumaya) to have a career despite the fact that they only really have one pitch and throw with such effort that they could not possibly last 6+ innings.

Minor league relievers definitely make the majors, but most often as either LOOGYs or rubber-armed replaceable right-handers (think Miguel Batista) out of the bullpen.  In recent  years the desire to have more and faster throwing arms out of the bullpen has led to more pitchers opting to become relievers sooner, but they still are converted out of starting roles for either performance or fragility.

Two items from his story that I’d like to comment on:

1. Managers don’t use Closers in the most high-leverage situations. I could not agree more.  When is the best spot to use your best, most reliable reliever?  In a one-run game in the 6th when your starter runs out of gas and loads the bases with one out?  Or at the beginning of the 9th inning of a 5-3 lead?  Verducci is right; managers in the modern game are slaves to the save statistic and will not bring in their closer unless its a “save situation.”   But he also notes what is common knowledge; that you could be putting out the 12th man in your bullpen and probably have only a slightly worse chance of getting 3 outs without losing the game for your team.  Per the article, 94% of 2-run leads in the 9th inning are won irrespective of who you put out there, and that percentage has not changed significantly over the past 50 years of baseball.  Joe Posnanski also wrote about this same topic in November with similar results, finding that teams in the 50s closed out games with the same regularity as teams now, but without high-priced one-inning closers.

Luckily for the Nats, we look to have 3-4 different guys who are of sufficient quality who we CAN bring in to a game in the 6th and get a high-leverage situation.  Storen, Clippard, Burnett or newly acquired Henry Rodriguez all seem to fit the bill.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a manager in Riggleman who is in the “slave to the save” category.  Matt Capps was brought in to be the closer and he closed games.  That’s it.  It is safe to say that if Riggleman decides on a closer, that’s going to be his role and that’s that.

The save stat is ridiculous and most people know it.  You can get a save in a game where you give up 2 runs and 5 hits in a 1/3 of an inning.  You can get a save when you perform mop up duty but let the score get too close while you rubber-arm your way through a meaningless blowout.  The save takes nothing about the pitcher’s performance into account; only whether or not the game ended while he was on the mound and the win was preserved.

But the save stat, and its monster creation the specialized one-inning closer, are here to stay.  Prospects come up through the ranks specifically to be closers, free agent players will only play for certain teams if given “the chance to close.”  Closers are well paid, and their pay is directly tied to this flawed save statistic.  Statisticians have tried to create a better set of metrics for middle relievers (“Holds” mostly) but the reality is that closers have high leverage in salary situations while middle relievers are lucky to get paid a bit more than the veteran’s minimum.  Verducci touches on this ridiculousness, pointing out that Papelbon‘s higher salary in 2011 than Cole Hamels despite the relative levels of production for their teams.

Ironically, some Major League managers *know* this fact, but continue to trot out their best reliever for a 3-out save at the beginning of the 9th inning in a 3-run game.  They do the same as the other 29 managers because the radical idea that backfires directly leads to termination.  No manager is willing to risk their job to try to do something the right way.  To say nothing of the reaction of a highly-paid FA closer who is suddenly told he’s going to be primarily used in the middle of the 7th to clean up the starter’s mess.

It makes you wonder if there’s a better way.  Here’s two radical suggestions:

1. Comprise a bullpen with no named closer role, and tell the entire 7-man bullpen they’re doing closer-by-committee.  It may infuriate fantasy baseball players and the union (since saves translate to salary for their FAs), but it probably placates an entire roster of wanna-be closers.  Imagine if 5 of the 7 guys in your bullpen (leaving out the LOOGY and long-man) know they may be brought in to rescue a game in the 6th or close it out in the 9th, and their roles change on a daily basis based on use.  That to me is a far better situation than pre-naming a closer (which invariably is the best guy out there) and then never using him until the 9th.

2. Comprise an ENTIRE pitching staff of long-men relievers.  Imagine if you didn’t have starters at all, but an entire bullpen of guys who were geared to pitch 2-3 innings every other night.  You would never have a need for specialized closers or even high-priced starters.  You’d rotate through who got the start, the starter would go 2-3 innings, then the next guy would go, and you’d repeat this until the game was over.  It’s kinda like spring training but all year.  Since these guys are only throwing 2-3 innings, they should be able to repeat this task multiple times in a week.

There’s 54 regular innings to be had per week mid-season (6 games at 9 innings per).  54 innings divided out by 12 guys in the pen means about 4.5 innings per WEEK per pitcher.  If you split those 4.5 innings up across three games you’d be pitching (say) 2 innings on monday, 1 on thursday then 1.5 on saturday.  That’s pretty manageable.  Plus if everyone else is doing the same, you can rotate through the guys and slightly adjust based on how they’re pitching that day.

Plus, think about how CHEAP this pitching staff would be.  12 middle relievers could not possibly cost your team more than about $15-20M annually in salary, even if they were mostly on veteran contracts.  Roy Halladay makes more than that in 2011 just by himself.

Coincidentally, this is exactly what Tony LaRussa tried at one point in the early 90s with the Athletics.  Unfortunately his experiment ended quickly, failing less because of execution and more because of lack of support from his players and management.  Its just a matter of time before someone tries it again.


Here’s the second item i’d like to comment on:

2. Starters are FAR more valuable than Relievers or Closers.  Last year in the midst of Clippard’s fantastic middle-relief run I asked myself, “Why isn’t Clippard in the rotation?”  He pitched 91 innings spread out over 78 appearances and only gave up 69 hits.  He maintained an 11.1 K/9 ratio, which is better than any starter in 2010.  91 innings was good for 4th on the entire staff in 2010.

The leading argument i’ve read for Clippard staying in the bullpen relates to the nature of his stuff.  He’s got a sneaky good fastball, a decent curve but his bread and butter pitch is the change-up.  Apparently the knock on him is that hitters adjust to him more quickly and thus he makes more sense in a relief role.  In a starting role hitters would be getting their third crack at him in the 5th or 6th inning, right when he’s tiring and right when he’s vulnerable.  In relief, he can “show” all his pitches in one at bat and work each batter individually, then leave the game before his “stuff” is exposed.

Clippard was a starter his entire minor league career, and his minor league numbers were pretty good.  He always maintained a small hits-to-IP ratio, a good k/9 ratio.  It wasn’t until he reached the majors that suddenly he couldn’t start.  I think perhaps he’s either gotten pigeonholed or he’s psychologically set in the reliever mind-frame now.

A quality starter gives your team 6+ innings, works through the opposing team’s batting order nearly 3 full times and keeps your team in the game.  6-7 innings at a 3.00 era is invaluable for your team’s psyche as it tries to win game after game.  Leaving just 2-3 innings a night for a bullpen staff of 7 means that there’s fewer days when your staff is over worked and you have to give up games for lack of bullpen arms.

How about using career WAR as a bench mark?  I don’t really like the career WAR analysis (since it is an accumulator stat and a mediocre guy with 22 years of experience appears to be better than the best pitcher of his day who only had a 15 year career).  But it is telling in this situation.  Here’s a link to career WAR for pitchers at baseball-reference.com.  And here’s the rank of the 5 best relief pitchers of all time (the 5 relievers currently in the hall of fame), along with the rankings of some of their active contemporaries who seem likely for the hall.

Lname Fname Career WAR Rank
Smoltz John 38
Eckersley Dennis 46
Rivera Mariano 69
Wilhelm Hoyt 121
Gossage Goose 133
Hoffman Trevor 215
Wagner Billy 238
Sutter Bruce 315
Fingers Rollie 325

Smoltz and Eckersly both started for large portions of their career, hence the high rank.  Mariano Rivera is clearly (in my mind) the greatest reliever who has ever played and his career WAR shows.  But notice how low closer-only guys like Sutter and Fingers are on this list.  Both are currently below modern day starters Ted Lilly and Kevin Millwood, again guys who are hardly listed as being among the game’s elite.

By means of comparison, Trevor Hoffman, who is ranked 215th all time is ranked just ahead of one Freddie Garcia in all time WAR.  Now, is Freddie Garcia a serious hall of fame candidate?  Not likely; he’s currently on a minor league contract offer with the Yankees after nearly washing out of the game two years ago.


Oh, coincidentally, I absolutely think Felix should be in the rotation.  As should Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati.  Because they’ll be able to help your team win on a much more frequent basis.  You always want the chance of 180 innings of quality versus 60.  Its that simple.