Monthly Archives: July 2010

Being Carlos Beltran

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They’re all older now. 585 Mets games is a long time. But the characters were the same, reunited again years later. Carlos Beltran was back the lefthanded batter’s box, again watching an Adam Wainwright curveball break into Yadier Molina’s glove. Low and inside this time. Ball one.

Probably much like everyone else, I wondered what was going through Carlos Beltran’s mind in the second inning of last night’s game. Was he thinking about everything we fans have been thinking about for the last 1,377 days? Was his mind off in the parking lot, back in that moment, still lingering in the soft neon ghost of Shea? How could it not?

Or was Beltran treating that at-bat like any other at-bat, facing the pitcher — that pitcher — like he would any other? Was his mind just wrapped in the thoughtless focus of intensity? Was it Wainwright, Molina, and Beltran, or just a pitcher, a catcher, and Beltran? Someone asked if he was thinking about that last time at the plate against that pitcher, and he replied, “No.”

And did he hear the tepid applause that marked his return home for the first time this season, and did he wonder why it wasn’t louder? Does he already understand why it wasn’t louder? Does he know why?

He must know. The Mets great center fielder must know by now that many people made a judgment about him — about what was in his heart — 1,377 days ago when he didn’t swing. In a single moment, in a half-second, they decided that deep down Carlos Beltran was a coward, selfish, soft. They decided the player with a higher postseason OPS than Ruth, than Gehrig, than Aaron, than ANYONE, was just a choker. Carlos Beltran struck out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of game seven, and that was all anyone needed to know. Nevermind that Beltran took them to the gates with arguably the best season by a Mets position player ever. Nevermind the eight runs and four RBI in the seven game series. Nevermind that he scored the Mets only run that final game. It became instantly forgotten; all that remained was the final image of Beltran sinking away from the plate as the Cardinals celebrated.

At the same time, it’s not just that. There are other reasons that Beltran is not overwhelmed with adoration. Many of the things he does so well — his intelligent baserunning, his graceful fielding, drawing 90 walks a season, scoring 115 runs every year — are the sort of skills that require some deeper thought to appreciate. Another part may be that he is a player from one culture playing in front of media and fans primarily of another. Four of his six seasons on the Mets have been marked with lost time due to injuries. He’s generally quiet, he doesn’t smile a ton on the field or in the dugout. All of these things contribute to the sometimes icy receptions from fans. That being said, I think most of the uneasiness comes from that one at-bat; I suspect he knows that.

We, as fans, all have it burned in our minds, but sometimes I wonder if Beltran is haunted by that moment most. I wonder if that inning eats at him more because it was the biggest moment of his career and he didn’t swing. That was his time and he struck out. We all know that fans question Carlos Beltran; I wonder if Carlos Beltran ever questions Carlos Beltran.

I remember him talking about it in the papers a while ago, that he wanted to be up in those big spots for the Mets again. He talked about wanting that moment of redemption — maybe that’s what drives him now. Maybe that’s why he played meaningless games last September on a bad leg. Maybe that’s why he’s playing with a bulky brace now, running with knee damage that cannot be really healed but only “tolerated.”  Instead of having microfracture surgery in January — a Frankenstein knee rebuilding that allows basketball players to bounce around again after a lengthy recovery, a procedure that I’ve read about so often through this that I would feel fairly confident performing one with some chloroform, a scalpel, and a bit drill — Beltran had surgery to just clean out his knee so he could play part of this season. These don’t seem like the actions of someone who is “soft” or scared of pain. These seem more like the actions of someone who is borderline reckless, desperate to play and prove that he can come through despite the pain. Someone who needs to be on the field just in case that moment comes again.

The second pitch from Wainwright was a fastball, belt high and away. Beltran drove it to the opposite field, down the third base line, the ball bouncing up and off a fan’s hand for a ground rule double. Now there was applause, louder, welcoming Beltran home. David Wright moved from first to third on the play; he scored the Mets’ first run since Saturday on an Ike Davis groundout a moment later. The Mets scored six times off Wainwright, driving him from the game after five innings. Beltran was 2-2 with a walk in his three appearances in those innings.

But that wasn’t the moment Beltran was looking for. In some minds, it was an echo of a missed opportunity and some measure of revenge; in reality, it was nothing of great importance. Just a rusty veteran at the plate, batting for a skidding team against a hot pitcher on a warm night near the end of July.

But games must be won in July to get back to October. He is limping about now so that he might limp about then. And I think that’s where Carlos Beltran wants to be, maybe more than anyone.

Photo via Keith Allison’s Flickr, CC 2.0

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Sunday Links

>$^%&#$!!! A few Sunday Links:

- From Baseball-Reference Blog: Do batters rush in the All-Star game?

- Joe Posnanski says 400, 500, and 600 home runs means less than it used to.

- I’m linking to this Book Blog post because I asked the original question. If you pay the $3 a month to Bill James’ website, you can bother him with questions that he usually answers; if you’re lucky, sometimes he’ll even answer without snark. That alone is worth the cost of admission, even if he occasionally declares your statements to be nonsense. When I’m too lazy to figure something out on my own, I’ll see if he knows the answer already. Anyway, James’ site is pay-walled so I won’t bother linking to it, but the Book Blog has the question and answer copied, plus some commentary in the . . . comments, I guess.

- Goodbye John Maine. It was fun while it lasted.

- Gary Matthews Jr. thinks he’s going to get a major league job somewhere. GMJ is probably mistaken.

* * *

The children of the sun begin to awake; their bats, not so much.

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Josh Thole Can Save the Mets, Possibly Baseball

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13.86 — that’s the average number of strikeouts in a Major League baseball game this year, 6.93 strikeouts per side. It’s the highest strikeout rate in the history of baseball. The previous high, 13.82 strikeouts per game, was set in 2009, the high before that was set in 2008, and all seventeen of the highest strikeout seasons have come in the past seventeen years, 1994-2010. It’s not a sudden occurrence solely attributable to Jason Bay; strikeouts generally move upwards throughout all of baseball history. Recent years are only continuing the trend. Bill James looked at this in his 2010 Gold Mine, and Tom Verducci did the same for Sports Illustrated back in April. Strikeouts are on the rise and are unlikely to stop rising anytime soon.

But while strikeouts are rising, scoring is also down across baseball and has been dropping for five consecutive seasons. More strikeouts, less scoring over the past five seasons; that’s the pattern.

But despite runs per game going down, the average time it takes to play a baseball game is remaining steady (2 hours and 52 minutes last season), and may still be slightly increasing. So we have long games, but with less scoring and less balls being put in play. In other words, three hour long games where everyone mostly just stands around.

There are thousands of reasons why this is happening, and I’m not going to pretend to know them all, or even most of them. But think about this:

- Ryan Howard is listed at 6‘4“, weighs 255 pounds, and generally hits cleanup. He swings the bat with his bottom hand all the way down over the knob.

- Corey Patterson is 5’10”, weighs 180 pounds, and sometimes hit leadoff for the Orioles this season. Patterson also swings the bat with his bottom hand down by the knob.

Just about everyone, leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters, eighth-place hitters, swings with their bottom hand on or just above the knob of the bat. You could probably count the exceptions on two hands: Jason Kendall, Placido Polanco, David Eckstein, Luis Castillo . . . there are more that regularly choke up, I’m sure. But outside of that select group, every player in baseball holds the bat like a home run hitter, whips the bat through the zone like a home run hitter, and strikes out more or less like a home run hitter. 2010 is not the year of the pitcher; it’s the year of “every player just strikes out a lot.”

But for obvious reasons, players today are smaller than they were even seven years ago. They still swing the same way — because this generation of players grew up watching baseball in the 90s, I would guess that even more of them swing like this — but they’re all a bit smaller and don’t hit the ball as far. So you have baseball in 2010, where smaller players put the ball in play less, don’t hit it as far when they do, score less runs, but the games still take the same amount of time. If you believe that runs, home runs, and balls in play are exciting, and that it’s better when the games take less time, then you might think that baseball could use some tweaks.

Which brings us to the Mets young catcher, Josh Thole. Back in 2007, Thole was a first baseman slugging .311 for single-A Savannah. He caught a little bit too, but he wasn’t a real catcher. It was going to take a lot for him to get the major leagues. A lot happened. Thole is now a catcher, chokes up on the bat, pretends that there are perpetually two strikes against him, and just slaps the ball around. I guess that makes him the guy who is unrecognizable at minor league team reunions, if those even exist . . . I don’t think that they do. Thole is the willing antithesis to the trends in modern baseball. He’s an oddity, and there are thousands of reasons why he never should have gotten to where he is now. But he exists.

Anyway, if you look at the guys in the major leagues who choke up like Thole, you’ll see that most of them:

- are annoying.
- have little power.
- are tough to strikeout.
- hit around .300 for their career.

Basically if you can make decent contact and just put the ball in play, you can hit .300, .290, something like that, even if you’re fat or slow or both. You won’t slug much above .400 and it will just be doubles power, but if you walk more than you strikeout, you can make up for it in on-base abilities.

And Thole walks enough to be useful. He has 109 walks against 97 strikeouts over his past three minor league seasons, and a .381 OBP. Stick Thole in the lineup in front of Wright and Beltran, and he’ll score 80 runs every season. He’s Jason Kendall 2.0 . . . that’s a good thing, by the way. Kendall ran a .805 OPS during his Pittsburgh years, didn’t play great defense, but hit enough to make up for it.

On a local level, the Mets need Thole. The Mets have scored fifteen runs in their past eight games. Their team on-base percentage is .318, behind every team but the Pirates and the Astros in the National League. Repeated: The Mets are behind every team in the league except for the Pirates and Astros in a meaningful offensive category. Main culprit Rod Barajas has a .265 OBP out of the catcher’s spot, which would be the lowest OBP in the majors if Barajas had enough plate appearances to qualify (thankfully, he’s about 30 PA short). You can’t score runs if no one is getting on base, and the Mets aren’t scoring any runs because no one is getting on base. The Mets need Thole’s skill set in the lineup right now, if only to get Barajas’ out of it.

But on a baseball-as-a-whole level, a few more players like Thole could be good for the game. Thole is a baseball science experiment gone right; he was basically molded in a minor league lab out of spare parts. So maybe the Mets play him, he gets on a decent amount and scores some runs. Maybe some other teams see that and say to themselves, “Hey, let’s see if we can create our own Thole out of some guy playing A ball.” Soon, there’s a few more Josh Tholes in the Major Leagues, a few more balls in play, the fielders run around a bit more, maybe the game is a bit more exciting. Kids today grow up watching the legion of Josh Tholes, imitate their batting styles, and start to appear in the majors in 2025.

It probably won’t happen, and even if it did, the games would still be three hours long. But in the age of strikeouts, it might be nice to see some more variance in batting styles and a few more balls in play. At the very least, seeing one Josh Thole in the Mets lineup might be enough for right now.

Image via slgckgc’s Flickr.

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The Most Disappointing Met

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Let’s play a game using two players. We’re going to call one “Player A” and the other “Anthony Michael Hall,” really for no reason in particular . . . we‘ll go with “AMH” for short. See if you can decide who is having a better season. Here are their basic numbers:

PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
Player A* 329 295 45 76 18 0 13 45 32 76 .258 .331 .451
AMH 378 326 47 86 19 6 6 44 43 81 .264 .354 .414
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/20/2010.

Player A has a substantial lead in home runs, while Anthony Michael Hall holds a sizable lead in walks and triples. Player A has the advantage in slugging, Player AMH in on-base percentage. AMH has come to the plate about 50 more times, but everything else is just about even between the two.

But there are a few other things worth comparing.

- Player A has stolen one base this season; AMH is a perfect ten for ten in stolen base attempts.

- Neither player fields at a position that stresses defense, but Player A has saved +3 runs defensively by UZR and +8 runs by Plus/Minus at first base. AHM has cost his team -2 runs by UZR and -3 runs by Plus/Minus in left field.

- Player A has driven in runs more efficiently than AMH. Player A has come to the plate with 225 runners on base and has 45 RBI; Player AMH has come to the plate with 251 runners on base and has 44 RBI.

Player A has an advantage in power and defense, but AMH has the advantage in speed and getting on-base — these differences just about balance each other out. You would be hard pressed to prove that one player has been significantly better than the other.

OK. It should be possible by now to guess that “Player A” is Ike Davis, and “Player Anthony Michael Hall” is Jason Bay. All things considered, Davis and Bay have performed about equally this season.

But that’s outside of any context. Within the context of expectations, Ike Davis has been a pleasant surprise at first base, while Jason Bay has been an unpleasant pile of disappointment in left field. Considering that the two players have posted fairly similar numbers, that one is having a down year while the other is not may seem weird. But expectations color everything.

It’s not that Jason Bay has been awful — he’s been anything but awful. Bay is second on the Mets in walks, third in runs scored, second in doubles, and is tied for the team lead in triples. His ten steals without being caught tie him with Adam Kennedy for the most steals without a CS in the National League. Bay’s OPS+ sits at 107, and he’s held his own defensively in left field. It’s hard to describe that as an awful performance. Not great for a left fielder maybe, but not awful.

On a team that is ahead of only the Pirates and Astros in their league for team on-base percentage — a Mets team that has semi-regularly featured a lineup with three or four players posting sub-.300 on-base percentages, not including the pitcher — it’s hard to point to Jason Bay and his .354 OBP mark and say that he’s the problem with the offense.

But Jason Bay is certainly not having a typical Jason Bay season. He has scored over 100 runs, driven in over 100 runs, and hit over 30 home runs in every full season of his career, the exception being his injury plagued 2007; Bay has just 47 runs scored, 44 runs driven in, and has hit 6 home runs in a season which is now more than half over. His on-base percentage sits about 20 points lower than his career mark, and his slugging percentage sits about 100 points lower. So, yeah, Bay hasn’t been awful when compared to the average major league hitter — when rookie Ike Davis is compared to that sort of performance, Davis looks pretty good. However, when Jason Bay’s 2010 is compared to what has been the norm for Jason Bay, the comparison quickly becomes less favorable.

Bay’s season is like a bad Rolling Stones album. On one hand, something like “It’s Only Rock and Roll” would be a good effort for just about anyone else . . . but because they’re capable of so much more, it’s a disappointment. It’s expecting a four-and-a-half or five star album and getting a three star album. There’s nothing truly awful about it — six triples! ten steals! — but relative to expectations, it’s a massive let down. That’s Jason Bay’s season. He has hit like a decent two-hitter, but the Mets expected a cleanup guy. Plus, Bay can’t even blame this three star performance on Keith Richards’ drug problems . . . I think.

But until recently, Bay and his struggles have remained mostly hidden, or at least obscured by the greater failings of those around him. Much like Jeff Francoeur, Bay supposedly has the sort of friendly and accessible demeanor that keeps the traditional media off him; unlike Frenchy, Bay has played well enough to keep the blogosphere off him as well. It’s also helped that Bay has been surrounded by out machines Francoeur, Ruben Tejada, Alex Cora, and Rod Barajas; he only began to hear boos during the last homestand. When a bunch of kids are eating paste in the back of the classroom, it’s the quietly struggling one in the front who tends to be overlooked for better or worse. There have been bigger things to complain about all season.

Unfortunately for Bay, the paste-eaters are mostly gone. Carlos Beltran has displaced Francoeur, while Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo have mostly displaced the Cora/Tejada out-party. Those are massive offensive upgrades. Rod Barajas is still around, but I assume that he HAS to improve or Josh Thole will displace him. But for the most part, the Mets have the band back together again. If they want to compete down the stretch, they need to start scoring runs. Beltran will help massively. Castillo will help less massively. But if Bay doesn’t figure it out soon, he’s suddenly going to be front and center. The Mets offense has been bad, Bay hasn’t helped much, and there’s nowhere left for him to hide.

Jason Bay hasn’t been one of the awful Mets this season. Not even close. However, for fans with realistic expectations, Bay may be the most disappointing. Hitting like Ike Davis is cool when you’re Ike Davis; when you’re Jason Bay, it’s much less so.

Image via Slgckgc’s Flickr.

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WAR problems: Part Two

>This is the second half of a two part series dealing with Wins Above Replacement (WAR), specifically the differences between Fangraphs’ version of WAR and Baseball-Reference’s version. Part one can be found here, which explains the idea of replacement level and the difference between the version of WAR for position players. If you don’t know anything about WAR, you should read that first. This post deals with pitchers. I’m still talking to myself, partially because it’s the easiest way to do this, and partially to combat crippling loneliness.


So. Pitchers and WAR. Go on.

Yeah. We want to know how many runs a pitcher saved over a replacement level pitcher, and how many wins that was worth. This is where it gets weird.

When we looked at position players, the biggest difference in WAR came from the way defense was handled. Baseball-Reference’s WAR for position players generally agrees with Fangraphs’ version of WAR for position players. Albert Pujols was the WAR leader for 2009 on both Fangraphs and B-R, and the same players appear on the top of both lists — the order is different, but the same guys are on top. It’s almost impossible to find a position player whose value differs much more than 1.5 WAR between the two sites, and a gap that wide only happens when the fielding statistics don’t agree. A good player is seen as a good player by both versions of WAR.

But the pitchers . . . oh dear, the pitchers. Here’s where you get the funny stuff. We’ll use Ricky Nolasco of the Florida Marlins as our guinea pig.

Wait, why Ricky Nolasco? Isn’t this a Mets blog? Why did you mislead me with a picture of Johan Santana?

Sorry. Yes, this is nominally a Mets blog, but I couldn’t find a useful enough Mets example. You’ll see why we’re going with Ricky Nolasco in a second. Here’s what Nolasco’s 2009 looks like in traditional statistics:

Year Age Tm Lg W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO
2009 26 FLA NL 13 9 5.06 31 185.0 188 111 104 23 44 195
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/16/2010.

And here are the two WAR totals that generated:

Fangraphs: 4.2 WAR
Baseball-Ref: -0.3 WAR

Oh, well look at that. I’m all set to embrace Sabermetrics now. Where do I sign up?

Yeah, it’s a 4.5 win gap. He was either a top twenty pitcher or a AAA-level starter last season, depending on who you ask. That’s a problem if you want people to buy into WAR for pitchers.

How is that large of a gap between the two WAR even possible?

The problem is still the same thing: defense. We understand the offensive side of the game far better, because we can isolate the batter from his teammates. We know that Albert Pujols is responsible for hitting Albert Pujols’ home runs, and we credit Albert Pujols for them. That’s easy enough.

The problem is on the other side of the ball. It’s really, really difficult to separate a pitcher’s performance from the eight other players fielding the ball in support of him, and then separate the performances of the fielders from one another. We know which teams are good at preventing runs, because they’re the teams allowing the fewest runs . . .

Duh.

Quiet you.

Anyway, we have troubling figuring out how to assign individual credit for that run prevention.

Fangraphs and B-R both try to separate pitchers from their defense when determining their WAR — they just do it in vastly different ways. This difference can sometimes become comically large. As it is in the case of Nolasco.

So trying to figure out defense/pitching is like trying to figure out which Backstreet Boy really makes a vocal harmony work? You know when it’s working, but it’s hard to pinpoint who’s really carrying the load?

Uh. I guess, if you want to look at it like that . . .

I certainly do. Anyway, how does Fangraphs separate a pitcher from his fielders? More importantly, how did they decide that the guy with the 5.06 ERA was worth 4.2 WAR?

Fangraphs basically says that they’re not even going to try to separate a pitcher from his defense fully, because it’s something we can’t do yet. Instead, they only choose to look at the things that we know the fielders don’t directly influence, namely:

Strikeouts
Walks + Hit Batters
Home Runs

Those are three events that involve ONLY the pitcher and batter. Ricky Nolasco walks a batter; that’s on Nolasco. Nolasco strikes someone out; that’s also on Nolasco. Nolasco surrenders a home run; it’s on Nolasco. The fielders don’t get involved in any of those plays.

That seems like a weird way to look at pitching . . .

It can seem like it, yeah. The reasoning behind looking at it this way is that a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks, and home runs remain relatively steady from year to year. This suggests that pitchers have an amount of control over those things. It suggests that it’s a repeatable skill.

However, the number of hits a pitcher surrenders varies wildly from season to season. This implies that the number of hits a pitcher surrenders appears to have far more to do with his defense, the ballpark he plays in, and plain old chance than it does the pitcher himself. (Greg Maddux in the late 90s is a good example of someone whose hits jump up and down year to year.)  A pitcher with a good defense behind him is going to allow fewer hits. Someone pitching in the Oakland Coliseum is going to have more foul outs — and therefore less hits allowed — than someone pitching in Citi Field, because Oakland has roughly 197 million more square miles of foul territory. Fangraphs doesn’t want to unfairly credit a pitcher for something he doesn’t have much control over, so they JUST look at strikeouts, walks, and home runs.

How do you turn strikeouts, walks, and home runs into WAR?

There’s a simple formula using those three events that gives you an ERA-like number. It’s called FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). You use FIP to get the number of runs a pitcher is credited with allowing based on those three things (only walks here are actually “walks – intentional walks + HBP”).

In 2009, in 185 innings pitched, our test dummy Ricky Nolasco

struck out 195 batters
walked 39 (44 walks minus 7 intentional, plus 2 HBP)
and allowed 23 home runs.

Those are good numbers, and it comes out to a FIP of 3.35. That’s a good FIP (keeping in mind that FIP is supposed to look like ERA). In the 185 innings Nolasco worked, Fangraphs charges him about 75 runs allowed, based on that FIP.

Because Fangraphs’ version of WAR is based on FIP runs — and just FIP runs — and FIP runs are based on just strikeouts, walks, and home runs, Nolasco wound up with a high WAR despite an ERA above 5.00.

Um . . .

Yeah. I got nothing.

Alrighty. So Fangraphs uses FIP runs for the number of runs a pitcher allowed in their version of WAR. Or something. What complicated formula does Baseball-Reference use?

The pitcher’s actual runs allowed.

Oh, great . . . wait, really? Just that?

Yup. Our test subject Nolasco actually allowed 111 runs in 2009, and that’s all that B-R uses.

Why all runs? Why not just earned runs?

Earned runs are an attempt to correct a pitcher’s record for defense — he isn’t charged for runs caused by the errors of his fielders. While ERA is not the best way to correct for defense, its heart is in the right place. Baseball-Reference doesn’t use earned runs because it corrects for defense in a better way.

Which is?

It splits up the total defensive contribution among the pitchers. Baseball-Reference takes the Total Zone rating of the entire team, then divides the runs saved based on the cut of balls in play allowed by each pitcher. Strikeout pitchers rely on their defense less than sinkerballers. This accounts for that.

If a good defensive team is +50 runs above average by Total Zone, and one starter allowed 18% of his team’s balls in play, Baseball-Reference credits nine (nine being 18% of 50) of the runs saved while that pitcher was on the mound to the defense. So it basically adds those runs back on. If another pitcher allowed 10% of the team’s balls in play, five (five being 10% of 50) of his runs saved are attributed to the defense. And so on.

There are some problems doing defense like this. If a team has a good infield and a slow outfield, they might appear to be an AVERAGE defensive team overall, but a flyball pitcher is going to be hurt more and a groundball pitcher helped more. B-R is going to credit them with the same defensive assistance regardless. It’s not perfect.

The Marlins, in 2009, were rated as an exactly average defensive team by Total Zone. According to that, Nolasco received no help or harm from his defense. He still gets charged with all 111 runs.

So Fangraphs says 75 runs belong to Nolasco, and Baseball-Reference says 111 runs. I think I see a problem here. Let’s pretend I don’t and move on. What are these numbers of runs being compared to?

It’s still Wins Above Replacement, so the pitcher’s runs allowed are compared to the runs a replacement level pitcher would allow in his innings by both sites.

And right here is where we need to separate relief pitchers from starting pitchers.

Because . . .

More because it’s easier to relieve than it is to start.

A “replacement level”
pitcher — such as, say, Luis Ayala — is likely to pitch better out of the bullpen than as a starting pitcher because of the shorter outings. He can pump up his velocity and doesn’t have to face the same lineup multiple times. Most pitchers are more effective out of the pen. Bobby Parnell was good out of the pen last season and this one; he was miserable as a starter. Basically, a reliever with an ERA of 4.25 is going to be less valuable than a starter with an ERA of 4.25.

The runs a pitcher is being compared to for WAR depends on the role he was used in.

So how many runs is Ricky Nolasco being compared to for WAR?

Well, Nolasco is compared by both sites to the number of runs a barely-serviceable pitcher in his league, in his ballpark, in his role (as a starter), would be expected to allow in the same number of innings. It’s adjusted for certain factors. American League pitchers are expected to surrender more runs because they face the DH. A pitcher in Colorado would be expected to surrender more runs because of the thin air. A pitcher in San Diego would be expected to surrender less runs due to the pitcher’s park.

Baseball-Reference also adjusts for the pitcher’s opponents — it takes into account if someone playing for Toronto was unlucky enough start against the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox every time out. I don’t know if Fangraphs does the same thing for the quality of opponents; if they do, I missed where they say so.

Despite similar methods, each site comes up with a slightly different number for replacement. Fangraphs says that a replacement level pitcher throwing Nolasco’s 185 innings would allow around 114 runs; Baseball-Reference sets it at 108 runs. They’re close, but there are some little differences.

And then?

All you do it subtract the number of runs the pitcher actually allowed from the number of runs our imaginary replacement pitcher would allow. That gives you how many runs he saved over a replacement pitcher.

So for Nolasco:

Fangraphs: 114 replacement runs – 75 FIP runs = 39 runs above replacement.

Baseball-Reference: 108 replacement runs – 111 real runs + 0 defensive runs = 3 runs BELOW replacement.

And then to get from runs above replacement to wins above replacement, we do what?

Well, we need to take two more things into account. The first is the importance of the innings pitched.

For example: A closer is only going to pitch 60 or 70 innings in a season. That’s not many. However, a majority of those innings are going to be in critical situations. The importance of these situations is measured by something called “leverage index,” sometimes shortened to LI. The average situation gets a leverage index of around 1.0. Mop up time is going to get a leverage index below 1.0, something like 0.5 or lower. Clutch spots get high leverage indexes, usually 2.0 or higher. Here’s what the Mets pitching staff’s leverage index looks like this season:

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sp;

Age IP GS R Rrep Rdef aLI RAR WAR
Francisco Rodriguez 28 44.0 0 12 22 1 1.8 10 1.4
Pedro Feliciano* 33 34.2 0 10 18 1 1.4 8 1.0
Elmer Dessens 39 18.1 0 4 9 0 1.2 5 0.6
Mike Pelfrey 26 113.0 18 45 64 2 1.2 19 2.2
Fernando Nieve 27 37.2 1 22 20 1 1.1 -2 -0.2
R.A. Dickey 35 65.0 10 24 36 1 1.1 12 1.3
Johan Santana* 31 127.0 19 43 72 2 1.1 29 3.2
Oliver Perez* 28 38.2 7 29 21 1 1.0 -8 -0.8
John Maine 29 39.2 9 29 23 1 1.0 -6 -0.6
Hisanori Takahashi* 35 78.0 9 36 43 1 1.0 7 0.7
Jonathon Niese* 23 89.2 15 40 51 2 .9 11 1.1
Ryota Igarashi 31 19.1 0 17 9 0 .8 -8 -0.7
Bobby Parnell 25 11.0 0 2 6 0 .8 4 0.3
Jenrry Mejia 20 27.2 0 10 14 1 .7 4 0.4
Raul Valdes* 32 30.1 0 18 15 1 .6 -3 -0.2
Manny Acosta# 29 12.0 0 4 6 0 .5 2 0.2
Sean Green 31 1.0 0 1 1 0 .1 -0 0.0
Team Total 789.4 88 347 430 15 1.1 83 9.9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/16/2010.

You really like these Baseball-Reference tables, don’t you?

I love everything Baseball-Reference related.

Weird. Continue . . .

You can see that Frankie Rodriguez and Pedro Feliciano have the highest leverage index, because they work primarily in big spots; Raul Valdes gets garbage time and has a low leverage index. Most of the starters are around 1.0 — Mike Pelfrey’s LI is raised slightly because of his save in the 20-inning game against the Cardinals.

Anyway, Baseball-Reference takes every pitcher’s runs above replacement and adjusts it based on the leverage index. The runs saved by pitchers working in big spots are more valuable than the runs saved by Raul Valdes when the Mets are down 10 runs in the seventh inning.

Francisco Rodriguez has saved 10 runs this season, but is credited with saving 14 runs; Bobby Parnell has saved 4 runs, but is only credited with saving 3 runs because of some mop up work.

Fangraphs makes the same adjustment, but I believe they only use leverage index for relievers. Most starters see leverage indexes around 1.0 anyway, so it’s not a big deal if it’s taken into account for them or if it’s not.

So that’s the first thing for runs to wins. What’s the second thing?

Because a good starting pitcher will allow fewer runs, the runs in his game become even more valuable. Runs also suffer from inflation. Runs scored in a Johan Santana-Josh Johnson matchup are worth more than runs in a John Maine-Livan Hernandez. This is taken into account when turning runs into wins.

So, now can we do runs to wins?

Yup. Like the batters, it’s still close to “10 runs equals a win,” but it’s actually slightly different for every pitcher for the above reasons.

For our subject Ricky Nolasco:

Fangraphs: 39 runs above replacement = 4.2 WAR

Baseball-Reference: 3 runs BELOW replacement = – 0.3 WAR

That’s still a weird gap.

Yeah, it is. It’s two different approaches to the same problem, but you get two totally different answers. Basically, we still don’t know which things are the pitcher and which are the defense. We’re better at it now then we were just using errors and unearned runs, but we’re still not there yet.

To solve this problem, Fangraphs says, “We know that a pitcher is responsible for his walks, strikeouts, and home runs, but we’re not sure about anything else. Let’s build a system based on that, one which ignores everything else. We don’t want to give a pitcher more credit than we should.”

For their part, Baseball-Reference says, “We’re going correct for defense a bit, but that’s about it. We’re not sure what is the pitcher’s responsiblity and what isn’t. We don’t want to take any more credit away from the pitcher than we should.”

Because B-R’s WAR is a bit more based in reality, so it tends to avoid uncomfortable things like Ricky Nolasco having a 5.06 ERA and a high WAR. It might be giving pitchers too much credit for their successes and failures, but Fangraphs might not be giving enough. Fangraphs’ WAR, being based on FIP, is better for predicting how a pitcher will perform in the future, but it’s not great for saying who pitched well in the past, at least according to how we normally define pitching well.

Any other problems with WAR for pitchers?

Duh.

Cute. Seriously though.

It doesn’t include batting and fielding. Baseball-Reference does thankfully include both on the career WAR leaderboards, but that’s mostly so Babe Ruth sits comfortably in first place. If you take his pitching out, he’s barely ahead of Barry Bonds — less than a full win — but who, other than Barry Bonds, wants to see Barry Bonds even close to first place?

You can look up a pitcher’s WAR as a hitter on the player pages, but you generally have to add to his pitching value on your own.

Is that a big deal? Most pitchers are miserable hitters.

And most center fielders are good defensive outfielders. That does that mean we shouldn’t bother quantifying how good they are defensively when we compare them? Every run counts, right?

That being said, for most pitchers, batting doesn’t make much of a difference. For some, however, it’s a huge deal. Don Newcombe hit .271 with a .338 on-base percentage and 15 home runs in his career; one-fourth of Newcombe’s career WAR value came from his batting. The same goes for Mike Hampton. Sandy Koufax’s .097 career average loses him about 5 wins over his career, undoing about a full season of pitching value. It’s something worth looking at for many pitchers, even if the American League is using that silly rule about pitchers not hitting.

Also, WAR for pitchers isn’t as great for comparing pitchers across history as it is for comparing position players. Batters throughout history have received a similar number of plate appearances — it changes with offensive levels and the number of games in a season, but it’s close enough to be comparable. Babe Ruth came to the plate 691 times in 1927; Albert Pujols came to the plate 700 times in 2009.

It doesn’t work like that for pitchers. WAR doesn’t adjust for the number of innings thrown, and pitchers in the deadball era and in the early 1970s worked far more innings than pitchers do today. Johan Santana’s run prevention abilities are similar to Cy Young’s, but Young worked about twice as many innings a season as Santana. Young’s WAR per year is much higher for that reason. So it’s not great for that.

Is that sort of it?

Because it’s based on FIP or runs allowed, WAR runs into some of the same problems as those stats — punishing pitchers for meltdowns more than it should. There’s not a huge difference between allowing eight runs in an appearance and allowing twelve, and that’s not accounted for. And it doesn’t take into account clutch pitching and the like.

And is that it?

Yeah, I’m done.

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WAR problems and the Mets Crazy Horse.

If you go onto (the oddly green) Fangraphs.com and wander (with your mouse) into the value section, you can see that among the Mets everyday players, David Wright has been most valuable in the first half of 2010. Wright has accumulated 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) — that’s the second most in the National League, with Joey Votto leading Wright by just 0.1 WAR. Angel Pagan is second on the Mets with 3.1 WAR. Makes sense, Wright then Pagan.

If you then wander over onto Baseball-Reference.com, you’ll see something interesting. According to Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, Angel Pagan has been the most valuable Mets player, worth 4.0 WAR. David Wright is now second, with 3.9 WAR. Pagan’s 4.0 WAR makes him the second most valuable position player in the NL. He trails Adrian Gonzalez by 0.2 WAR on the leaderboard.

So, on one website, David Wright is tops on the Mets team, and the second best in the NL. On the next website, Angel Pagan is the best on the Mets, and second in the league. On one, Pagan is 3.1 WAR; on the other, 4.0 WAR. Joe Posnanski recently complained about this WAR discrepancy. Seeing that there are now two easily and freely available versions of WAR on the Internet, I think it might be worth it to look into the differences between the two versions of WAR, and WAR itself — by talking to myself, of course.

Okay, so what’s WAR?

WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. It’s a statistic that’s supposed to measure how valuable a player has been to his team, and then puts that value into a number of wins.

What is “Above Replacement”?

Replacement means “replacement level player.” Replacement level players are the sort of dudes every team has stocked away in AAA. All those guys on the 2009 Mets that were pulled out of nowhere after everyone good was injured? Like Emil Brown? Ramon Martinez? That’s basically replacement level. WAR is supposed to measure how much better a player is than someone barely serviceable.

But it has decimal points. “3.9 WAR.” I don’t like that.

I really don’t like it either. WAR would probably catch on more if it was expressed in whole numbers. Like, what the heck is 0.5 of a win? Baseball fans seem to be okay with whole numbers (RBI, saves) or percentages (batting average, slugging), but mixed numbers . . . not so much. Sabermetricians are generally pretty bad at coming up with accessible acronyms and numbers. Bill James is usually the exception, and he had the right idea by making his Win Shares whole numbers and multiplying them by three so the differences were larger.

Yeah.

Totally.

So, why does Angel Pagan have two different WAR numbers?

Well, because there’s no single agreed upon way to calculate WAR. It’s not like batting average, “hits divided by at bats.” Each site uses a different method for WAR — this doesn’t help it catch on more widely, either, because now there’s a steep learning curve.

Sigh. Okay. What are the differences between Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR?

Well, first we’ll need to break down the pieces that add up to make WAR. We’re going to ignore WAR for pitchers, which is totally different, in this post; I’ll deal with them later in the week.

Think of it this way — every position player is responsible for two things:

A. Creating runs on offense

B. Preventing runs on defense

And that right there is really the heart of WAR. It measures a player’s offensive contributions and their defensive contributions in terms of runs, and then converts those runs into wins.

The problem is that Fangraphs and B-R evaluate both offense and defense differently, and each comes up with different number of runs for the same player.

So I’m supposed to buy into a stat no one can agree how to calculate?

. . . .yes?

I’ll play along for now. Well, to start, how is a player’s offense measured differently on each site?

Well, it’s not that different. Each version of WAR bases a player’s offensive contributions on basically the same few things: his number of singles, doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases, caught stealing, reached on errors, walks, and hit by pitches. Each batting event is assigned a value, and then those values are adjusted for the park, year, and league the player is in, so that batters in 1968 Dodgers Stadium can be compared to batters in 1997 Coors Field. The adjustments are slightly different on each site, but the ideas behind doing so are the same.

Baseball-Reference also adds in some baserunning events Fangraphs does not, such as advancing on passed balls and going first to third on a single. B-R also gives credit to hitters for avoiding hitting into double plays. Neither of these are enormous differences, but they are differences.

Fangraphs combines all theirs offense into one number, called “weighted runs above average.” (wRAA) . . .

Wait, why is the “w” in “wRAA” lowercase? Why do they always do that?

Um . . . I’m really not sure. I don’t see a problem with WRAA, other than it sounds like a crow’s noise if you read it aloud like a real word. The lowercase certainly doesn’t make it more appealing, and it’s going to look awkward when I don’t capitalize that “w” at the beginning of this next sentence . . .

wRAA is supposed to measure how many runs a player created on offense, above or below what an “average” player would create.

Baseball-Reference, for their part, breaks offense down into four numbers:

- Double play runs. (Not hitting in double plays.)

- Reached on error runs. (What it sounds like.)

- Baserunning runs. (Stolen bases, caught stealing, advancing on hits, wild pitches, or passed balls.)

- Batting runs. (Everything else — singles, home runs, ect.)

Each one is also compared to the average. B-R likes whole numbers, so sometimes you’ll see “12+1+1 + 0 = 15,“ for the four categories, but that’s only because of the decimal places they don’t show you in the rounding.

Here is what Angel Pagan’s actual 2010 looks like so far, only the table is cut off because I can’t figure out how to make it not do that:

Year Age Tm Lg G PA H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB BA OBP SLG GDP HBP
2010 28 NYM NL 80 330 94 17 6 6 19 5 28 .315 .372 .473 5 0
5 Seasons 347 1159 305 62 22 21 45 15 89 .290 .343 .451 11 0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/13/2010.

And here’s what it looks like in B-R’s four offensive columns:

Year Age Tm Lg PA Rbat Rbaser Rroe Rdp
2010 28 NYM NL 320 11 1 0 0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/13/2010.

B-R says Pagan created about 12 runs above average in those four categories. Fangraphs credits Pagan with creating 13.8 runs above average.

That’s close. So the only difference in offense between the sites is in GIDP and baserunning?

Well, not exactly. They both use a slightly different formula and adjust it differently, but it’s generally going to spit up a similar number.

Also, at the end of the season, B-R’s offensive number is adjusted so that the number of runs a team is credited with creating matches up with the ACTUAL number of runs the team scored; Fangraphs doesn’t do the same thing. B-R’s version of WAR is rooted a bit more in what actually happened on the field.

Baseball-Reference also doesn’t bother to figure out reached on error runs and double play runs until after the season ends. I’m not sure why. You’ll see that right now, everyone, Pagan included, is 0 in both in 2010.

Fair enough. So . . . defense?

Ah, defense. The big problems show up in defense. Fangraphs uses a system called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) for their WAR. Baseball-Reference uses something called Total Zone. Fielding is where you’re going to find the really big differences between players. Fangraphs’ UZR gives Angel Pagan’s defense 6.4 fielding runs above an average player; Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone gives him 16 runs above average. Jose Reyes has either been -8 (Total Zone) or -0.4 (UZR). These numbers don’t always line up, and this causes most of the discrepancies between WAR numbers.

Okay. Why the enormous gap in fielding?

Mostly because it’s really, really difficult to figure out defense on an individual level. If Jose Reyes is at the plate and strikes out, we know it’s not David Wright’s fault; the strikeout is all on Reyes. Offense is easy to assign. On the other hand, if a ground ball scoots through between Wright and Reyes in the field, it’s a bit trickier to say whose fault that is — or if it’s the pitcher’s fault, or if it’s anyone’s fault. Assigning individual defensive credit is tough, and we’re not particularly good at it. This is why different systems can spit out vastly different numbers.

As for the differences between Fangraph’s UZR and B-R’s Total Zone — basically, if you kept really, really good scorecards, you could figure out Total Zone on your own with just that; if you recorded every game on your DVR, you could figure out UZR with that. Not really, but almost. Both take into account a player’s range, and his arm if he is an outfielder, and his ability to turn double plays if he is an infielder. They just do it in different ways.

Catcher defense is also evaluated differently by both sites. B-R uses passed balls, wild pitches, caught stealing and the
number of stolen bases allowed to evaluate a catcher; Fangraphs just uses CS and SB numbers.


Which one is better? UZR or Total Zone?

Definitely UZR, but it’s sort of like the difference between playing William Tell with someone who has 800/20 vision and playing with someone who has 200/20 vision. Neither system is perfect, or even close to that, but it’s better than letting the blind guy try to shoot the apple off your head, right? They’re better than the nothing we used to use.

On the other hand, Fangraphs goes with decimal points again for UZR. It’s not a huge deal, but I think it’s easier for everyone to understand Pagan saving 16 runs as opposed to 6.8 runs. No one ever wins a baseball game 6.8 to 4.2.

The big advantage of Total Zone is that it allows us to evaluate the defense of players throughout all of baseball history through Retrosheet, something UZR can’t do.

At the very least, both systems rate Pagan as a great defensive center fielder. The disagreement is about how great.

And that’s everything in WAR?

Almost. There are two other adjustments that need to be made.

The first adjustment is for the position of the player. In other words, defense first positions like shortstops and catchers get bonus runs, and slugging positions like first basemen and designated hitter lose runs. Positions that stress defense are generally played by lighter hitters; this adjusts for that, so we can compare players across positions. Someone who can hit 25 home runs as a first baseman is easier to find than someone who can hit 25 home runs as a shortstop; WAR tries to adjust for that fact.

Pagan gets one run from Baseball-Reference for being a center fielder. Fangraphs, still going strong with the decimals, gives him 1.1 runs.

And the second adjustment?

The second adjustment is for “replacement runs.” Because it’s Wins Above Replacement, and the offense and defense are just compared to AVERAGE and not REPLACEMENT, we need to adjust for that — replacement players are worse than average players.

Basically, what replacement runs means, is that if someone plays 150 games, he starts with about 20 or so runs to his credit just for running himself out on the field; more games gets you more runs, less games gets you less runs. Those are “replacement runs,” an estimate of the difference between replacement and average level.  It’s a weird concept, and probably where most people tune out.

Both sites figure these out differently as well — Baseball-Reference uses a certain number of replacement runs depending on which league. I don’t believe Fangraphs does the same thing, and just uses a blanket replacement level for both leagues.

Anyway, as for El Caballo Loco, Pagan gets 11 replacement runs from Fangraphs, and 9 from Baseball-Reference — about 10 runs for a half season.

But now that’s everything in WAR, correct?

Just about.

*Awkward high five*

No, wait. How do we get from runs to wins?

Oh, right. As a general rule, 10 runs equals one win, but that changes from season to season. In years when less runs are scored, it takes less runs for win, and vice versa — if every game finishes 5-3, one run is 12.5% of the total scoring. If every game is 13-7, one run is 5% of the scoring. A run is a run is a run, but all runs aren’t equally valuable — a run in a lower scoring league is more valuable because it’s more of the total scoring.

Anyway, Baseball-Reference says Pagan is 39 runs above replacement this season, and turns that into 4.0 Wins. Fangraphs says 32.3 runs, and turns that into 3.3 wins. So ten runs roughly equals a win this season.

And that’s it?

That’s it.

*Even more awkward high five*

So . . . what’s all this good for?

It’s probably the best way we have to eyeball who’s having a good season, because it accounts for most things. It also lets us compare players across different eras more easily than something like batting average and home runs would. The league average batting average and the amount of home runs hit change year to year, sometimes going through huge dips and rises. The goal of the game on the other hand — to win — remains unchanged.

Okay. Are there problems with WAR?

Oh yes. Many.

It’s a counting stat, so it has some of the same problems as runs scored and RBI. That means if there are two equal players, the one who plays more will have a higher WAR.

For example, good players who play for bad teams — bad teams that don’t score many runs — will get less plate appearances over the course of a season and less WAR because of that. Last season, Albert Pujols played 160 games for the NL Central Champion Cardinals; he had 700 plate appearances. Adrian Gonzalez played 160 games for the fourth place San Diego Padres; he had 681 plate appearances. Similarly, American League players will generally get more plate appearances than National League players, solely due to the pitchers using up outs in the NL. Most of the WAR leaders this season are in the AL.

It also doesn’t take into account the timeliness of hitting, so a home run in the first inning is worth just as much as a home run in the ninth inning. How big of an issue this is depends on your thoughts on clutch hitting, which is another story.

For some reason, no one ever brings up clutch fielding, but it doesn’t measure that either. Also, as we saw above, defense in general is a mess. Defense is easily the biggest problem. If you see someone at -30 runs or +30 runs, it might be a fluke throwing off their value. Things smooth out over a career, but season to season is a minefield.

It’s also not going to measure immeasurable things, such as leadership.

So it’s got problems — why should anyone use it? Marvin Gaye says WAR is not the answer.

It’s the best system we have. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have, at least so far. It might be a Model T, but it sure beats walking everywhere. Jeff Francoeur would certainly agree that walking is overrated . . .

Booooooooo!

Sorry, lame joke.

Oh, no, I wasn’t booing that awful joke. It was just a reflex from hearing Francoeur’s name.


*Awesome, non-awkward high five*

So, show me Pagan’s WAR again, only this time broken down.

Fangraphs:
Offense: 13.8; Defense: 6.4; Replacement: 11; Position: 1.1 = 3.3 WAR

B-R:
Offense: 12  ; Defense: 16  ; Replacement: 9  ; Postion: 1  = 4.0 WAR

Pagan’s been good?

Pagan has been awesome.


Where can I read more about this?

Here is Baseball-Reference’s explanation for WAR. Here is Fangraphs.

And pitchers?

I’ll do that one later in the week. It’s even more complicated, believe it or not, but there’s no baseball on, so what else am I going to do?

Image via slgckgc’s Flickr.

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Sunday Links

>Mets suddenly don’t look so hot. Who are all these new Braves, anyway? Eric Hinkse? Him? Gregor Blanco’s name sounds like a question . . .

Sports:

- First, plenty of LeBron reactions from all over the interweb, which was interesting mostly as a pop culture moment. In case you missed it, Will Leitch, Joe Posnanski here and here. All the statheads are predicting a 55-63 win team based on those three players and scrubs.

- Joe Janish doesn’t believe Mike Pelfrey is going through a dead arm period, but rather is victim of a subtle mechanical flaw. Pitching seems really, really hard. (Mets Today)

- Tommy Hanson is related to the Hanson brothers. This is true. (TedQuarters)

- How do the Mets starters fit in as #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 starters? (Amazin’ Avenue)

- I am the Great Cornholio! Hat tip to everywhere. (The Fightins)

- OH MY GOD, ICHIRO! (The Book Blog)

- Capitol Avenue Club wishes everyone a happy V-F day.

Sharks or dinosaurs, and something else:

- Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the Mojoceratops. (New York Times)

- Maybe you just should have made your own lost kitten posters. H/t to Jezebel.

And that’s it for now.

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