27 November 2002

Stark Reality*

*Aaron, IOU $1,000,000. Put it on my tab.

In his most recent ESPN column, Jayson Stark discussed the possible merits of sending Mike Hampton from the Rockies to the Braves, and boldly predicted, "He can't be any worse in Atlanta than he was this year," which is like predicting that James Coburn will make fewer movies in 2003 than he did last year.

Stark mentions several factors that may help Hampton, including the effect of his home park: The Ted, instead of The Rock.

Just this past year alone, 54 percent more runs were scored at Coors (991) than at Turner (642). So if Hampton's ERA merely makes that mathematical drop, according to scale, he'd go from 6.15 to 3.98.

Stark's problem is not that he fails to recognize the significance of things like park factors, it's that he fails to appropriately comprehend and use them. What he says is true, but misleading. Yes, there were 54% fewer runs scored at Turner Field than at Coors Field, but this does not account for the facts that the Braves offense, outside of the Brothers Jones, was abysmal, and the Rockies was actually somewhat decent. Or that the Braves pitching staff was excellent and that the Rockies pitchers sucked rocks. And the assumption that Hampton's ERA will drop by the same amount doesn't account for the fact that he'll still have to make something like 15-17 starts in parks other than Atlanta's.

To compensate for these sorts of issues, people like Baseball Prospectus develop things called Park Factors that account for all of the variations and attempt to isolate the average effect that a particular park has on offense in a particular year, or in a 3- or 5-year span. As best as I can tell, The Ted had a park factor of 986 last year, and Coors Field had a factor of 1125 (1000 = no effect). So then, if you assume that Hampton's Home ERA (5.68) will exactly follow this trajectory, you only get a difference of


Well Jayson, that's not too bad. You were only off by A WHOLE RUN!

And this doesn't even address what he did on the road last year (6.44 ERA). Even if his road ERA comes back to around league average after he works out some bad mechanical habits, that still leaves him with a net ERA ~4.75. Doesn't sound like $6,000,000 worth of pitcher to me, but I guess it's better than $12,000,000.

A few weeks ago, after the NL Cy Young Award was announced, Stark wrote this column about Curt Schilling, and his supposed slights in the CYA voting in recent years. The original headline (for which, I realize, Stark is not responsible) said something about Schilling's chances for the Hall of Fame being hurt by his lack of Cy Young support in the last few years. My immediate reaction was, "No, Schilling's HoF chances are being hurt by his lack of being consistently great over the course of his career." To Stark's credit, I discovered when I read the article that he had no intention of implying that Schilling should be considered for Cooperstown, not without at least three more years like the ones he's had for the Diamondbacks in 2001 and 2002, which is unlikely. What he did say was,

"Before Schilling came along, how many pitchers do you think had ever had seasons in which they won 20 games, finished at least 16 games over .500 and piled up more than 290 strikeouts -- without getting a Cy Young out of the deal? Uh, how about zero -- at least not since 1956, when the Cy Young came into existence."

This simply isn't true. A search for pitchers who won more than 19 games, with a winning% over .800 (I had to pick a number, as Aaron Haspel doesn't have a "Games over .500" criterion yet.) and more than 290 strikeouts reveals that in fact Randy Johnson did exactly that, going 20-4, with 292 K's in 1997, and lost the Cy to Roger Clemens, who led the league in everything that year.

Schilling is only the fourth National League right-hander in the last 60 years to win 22 games or more in two straight seasons. You've heard of the others -- Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal and Robin Roberts.

Well, yes, this statement is true, but it has some inherent flaws. First of all, wins have a lot more to do with run support, bullpen help and opportunity than they do with great pitching. A quick search for 22+ game winners since 1942 at Godofthemachine.com reveals that such immortals as Clyde Wright and Bob Porterfield have won 22 games in a season at one time. Not such a stringent criterion, is it? Secondly, Stark's decision to narrow it down to only the Senior Circuit makes the feat seem something more than it is. If he had included the AL in his survey, you could add Mike Cuellar, Catfish Hunter, Bob Lemon, Mickey Lolich, Denny McClain, Jim Palmer, Wilbur Wood('71-'73) and Hal Newhouser ('44-'46). Still sounds like a pretty exclusive list, just not as snooty as it once may have been, given that the club membership has just tripled.

Despite his reputation as a workhorse, Schilling has had trouble staying helathy over the course of his career, and of course he has had some tough luck, like his 1998 season in which he led the NL with 300 strikeouts, 268.7 innings, and didn't even rank in the top 7 in Cy Young voting, due to his 15-14 record on an abysmal Phillies team. But mostly Schilling's career has been hurt (if you can call making $10 million/year "hurt") by his lack of health. Despite pitching in the majors since 1988, Schilling only has about 2400 IP, and 155 wins, about 10 or 11 full years' worth. And that lack of pitching time has hurt his Cooperstown chances mors than any bad luck has. On the other hand though, if he hadn't had some of those injuries, he might not have learned some of the physical and mental disciplines that have made him the great pitcher he has been for these last few years. And we'll never know anyway.

Finally, one last nit-pick on poor Jayson: In his article about the Giants hiring of Felipe Alou, he makes this statement:

Not with Barry Bonds on the premises. Not when you're talking about a team so loaded with veteran players that all the Giants' rookie position players combined got fewer at-bats this season than Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Not when your talking about a team whose key players come from hometowns as diverse as Villa Clara, Cuba and Los Altos Hills, Calif. [bold added]

Now, I know that this is "just" grammar, but to make the mistake of writing "your" when he should be writing "you're", especially when he just got it right in the previous sentence, is really annoying, at least for me. Nobody who's being well-paid to write for an organization as huge as ESPN should be making such a mistake, and if he does, his editor ought to catch it.

OK, that's enough Stark Reality for now. Happy Thanksgiving!

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