10 August 2009

Kansas City's Royal Spectacle

Rob Neyer (mercifully back from vacation this week) mentioned today how the Kansas City Royals are seeing a significant increase in attendance this year, this despite fielding perhaps the worst team in the American League, and easily one of the worst three or four in major league baseball.

The reasons for this, as he says, are fairly obvious:

So what's going on? It's not rocket science. The Royals are essentially playing in a new ballpark, and the people want to see it. The Nationals' attendance went up nearly 400,000 in their first season in Nationals Park; this season it's going to drop roughly 500,000. And roughly the same thing will happen to the Royals' attendance next season.
He's right of course. There was some hope in Kansas City in May, when the Royals still had a winning record and their ace was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that's all gone now. The Royals weren't good enough for long enough to really do anything to help the attendance, which usually takes most of a year to increase due to team quality.

So I'm not writing to argue with Rob, but to mention a few things I noticed when I got to attend a game at Kauffman Stadium in May. First of all, even if I hadn't known who was pitching that night, all I had to do was look around the ballpark.

Zach Greinke allowed a run in the first and was all but untouchable for the rest of the game. His complete game beat the Tigers (and their surprising ace, Edwin Jackson) easily, though he hasn't been nearly so untouchable since. He was 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA when that game ended, but he's gone just 3-6 with a 3.84 ERA in the mean time. And he still might be the best pitcher in baseball, overall.

As far as the ballpark, I can see why people would go. It was already a nice park, as I understand it, but it's truly an impressive sight now. The famous fountains in the outfield are now even broader and taller, and the already ridiculously large JumboTron in the outfield has been replaced with an even more ridiculously large High Definition version.

The advancement of technology is a wonderful thing, generally making life better for all who come in contact with it, with the noted exception of those on the receiving end of advances in military equipment.

Speaking of bombardment (see what I did there?) I think the scoreboard in center field is a bit too much.

For one thing, it's about the size of Pangea, but even worse than the size itself is that because the new high definition capabilities allow the team to put more information on the screen, the people who run things feel compelled to use every last pixel of it.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm an engineer. A numbers guy. A details guy. I'm all for giving fans more than the standard AVG/HR/RBI and a picture of the batter. And while I don't exactly see the point in those random statistics they put up there before each at-bat, presumably to encourage the batter*, who almost definitely does not take the time to read them, I don't really mind them either.

* I once attended an Interleague game in Philadelphia against the Yankees and I laughed when Rico Brogna came to the plate and his blurb said, "Rico is 5th in the National League with 223 at-bats." He was supposed to be their cleanup hitter, but entered the game with a .256/.314/.404 line that suggested he hadn't been cleaning up much of anything. I remarked how funny I thought it was when the best thing they could come up with to say about him amounted to, "Well, he sure goes up to the plate a lot!" and the snark had barely escaped my big mouth when Brogna uncorked on an Andy Pettitte pitch and hit a 2-run homer high off the right field foul pole.

Anyway, at Kansas City they put EVERYTHING on the board at once:
  • A picture of the batter, usually trying to look menacing.
  • Some silly stat (see above).
  • His AVG/HR/RBI numbers (of course)
  • Totals for at-bats and Hits (which are now redundant), doubles, triples and steals
  • His OBP, Slugging and OPS (yay!), which in subsequent at-bats are replaced by...
  • His career numbers for whatever particular situation he happens to find himself
  • His height, weight, and handedness both for hitting and throwing, even though these last two are obvious if you're actually watching the game
  • His birth date (OK...?)
  • His birthplace, apparently in case there are people who cheer more loudly for those born in Petosky, Michigan than say, Los Angeles or Puerto Rico. Later in the game, these last three get replaced by...
  • His record for each previous at-bat
  • The hitting team's lineup, including their batting averages, positions and uniform numbers
  • The name and number of the pitcher
  • The pitch speed
  • The defensive alignment
  • The three batters due up for the other team, with their AVG/HR/RBI numbers
  • The line score, including runners left on base
  • The last hitter's accomplishment(s)
  • The ball/strike/outs count
  • and last but not least, the official game time.

This is, obviously, fairly overwhelming. And in the case above, apparently the sixty-nine (I counted) different numbers and stats they already had on the board were not sufficiently overwhelming for the Royals' tastes. In an effort to either impress the masses or perhaps to confuse and scare the opposition, they for some reason decided that Jose Guillen needed MORE numbers on the screen with him, so they stuck a "6540132" in the graphic behind him.

Does anybody have any idea what this is? Is it Guillen's phone number? If, so what's the area code? Should we use his OBP for that? What if he goes into a slump? Wait, never mind. Technically that's impossible for Guillen.

Maybe that's how much they still owed him from his 2009 salary? His height in millimeters? his weight in dynes? Maybe it's supposed to look like a prison number, and they're trying to scare the Tigers' pitchers into letting him hit, lest they should get shivved by inmate #6540132. If so, it worked, as Guillen went 2-for-4 with a homer.

Anyway, other than the inmate numbers, many of these things also appear somewhere in most ballparks, but almost nobody else has a scoreboard big enough to handle all of it at the same time. The one in the New Yankee Stadium might do it, but I haven't been there yet, so I can't attest to how well they use theirs. But subtle is not the Yankees' style, so I'm guessing that theirs is even worse.

Regardless, the profusion of information on the socreboard in KC is clearly too much. For one thing, you can't possibly take in all of that before each at-bat, and you shouldn't want to. Going to a baseball game is supposed to be about watching the athletic competition and smelling the grass and the dirt and the hot dogs and peanuts and cheering on your team, not constantly having your eyes drawn back to the scoreboard, even if you don't care what Jose Guillen's career numbers are against right-handed pitchers on Tuesday nights with runners on 2nd and 3rd.

Another problem with it is that if there's some kind of technical glitch, all you get is a huge, blue Royals logo. And that bright blue light coming off the enormous screen casts a pallor over everyone and everything in the park, so that the fans in the seats all look like they're extras in a Tim Burton movie.

A screen like this would be great if it were just used for some of those things. Some of the relevant numbers, a picture, the score...that's all fine. You could show replays of significant events of the game, and perhaps even replays of controversial ones. Major League Baseball specifically does not do this last thing because it would inevitably lead to rampant umpire lynchings.

But still, it would be nice to see, on a 200-foot HD screen, no less, exactly where that last pitch crossed the plate (if at all), or whether that ball was fair or foul, or if the runner was really tagged out. In theory, doing this should save umpires about as much grief as it would cause, but in reality it's more likely that umpires would just end up calling every close play for the home team to avoid the aformentioned lynchings. Hard to blame them.

So that's not going to happen any time soon. But whatever they do, they've got to find a way to make the screen a little less scary.

On the other hand, as bad as the Royals have been - they're 25-57 since their high-water mark of 18-11 on May 7th - maybe the fans need to be distracted from what's happening on the field as much as possible.

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07 August 2009

Chad Gaudin? Seriously?

Golly, why didn't I think of that?

The Yankees have struggled to find an effective 5th starter all year. The top four pitchers in the rotation have all been reasonably healthy and effective, compiling a solid 38-20 record and a 3.99 ERA. CC, A.J., Pettitte and Joba have done their jobs. None of them is perfect, but they all do a solid job of giving the Yankees a chance to win, most of the time.

But the 5th spot in the rotation has been a disaster. Those pitchers have combined for a 5-8 record and an 8.20 ERA. They've averaged just 79 pitches and just over four innings per start, with only two Quality Starts in 21 outings.

Chien-Ming Wang should have filled that role. Lots of teams would love to have a #5 starter who twice won 19 games in a season, and not a decade ago, but just two seasons ago. But he was hurt and then lousy and then hurt again and then not quite as lousy but then even more hurt and eventually lost for the season.

Phil Hughes was attempted as an interim, and he had his struggles, but also had flashes of brilliance, including six- and an eight-shutout inning outings in April and May. And of course Hughes is supposed to become a starter over the long term, but he made the mistake of becoming a very good relief pitcher. Now Joe Girardi either lacks the creativity or the guts to risk making him a starter and presumably weaken the team at two positions.

On the other hand, how you could do worse than a starting "pitcher" with an 8.20 ERA is beyond me.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

In a pinch they tried Alfredo Aceves, but only for one start. He wasn't very good, and they didn't do that agian. Instead they gave the ball to Sergio Mitre, a one-time starter for the Cubs and Marlins who had not pitched in the majors since 2007, but who was mowing them down in the International League.

He was not very good either, but he wasn't completely awful, and they won the game, so they gave him another start. This time he was worse. Fewer innings, more earned runs, but again the Yankees won. His third start, against the White Sox, was a 3-inning, 5-run affair that the Yankees lost, but this did not get him sent back to Scranton either. They gave him another start, and, true to form, he sucked, but the Yankees won anyway.

To date, Mitre has pitched more than five innings just once, has allowed 38 base runners and 15 earned runs in 18 innings, and by all rights should have used up whatever slack he had in his leash. But the obvious answer, or so I thought, Phil Hughes, has not been groomed to replace him. Hughes hasn't thrown more than 40 pitches in any of his relief outings, and he usually doesn't throw more than 30, so Girardi is clearly still not intending to use Hughes as a starter.

It turns out that the obvious answer, according to the Yankee Brass, was Chad Gaudin.

I can't believe I didn't think of it before. I mean, here I was, thinking that maybe the answer was the 23-year old hotshot with the 95 mph fastball, knee-buckling curve and perfect mechanics. Or that maybe the answer was the AAA pitcher on our own who's being paid millions of dollars to make fools out of International league batters. But never in a million years would I have guessed that the answer was a journeyman pitcher who can't keep his ERA under 5.00 despite pitching in the worst hitter's park in the majors.

Gaudin has been with the Padres this season, and the Yankees will make his sixth different organization in his seven-year major league career. Joel Sherman thinks he'll either replace Mitre in the rotation (yes, please!) or help to limit Joba Chamberlain's innings down the stretch (BOO!). In either case, even if he posts an ERA of 6.27 (as baseball-reference.com's league and park adjustments suggest) he'll be better than the guys they've been throwing out there, if only nominally better.

I'm looking at Gaudin's record and I'm trying to find something good to say about him. The best I've come up with so far is, "He doesn't have that ridiculous goatee anymore," which is admittedly pretty pathetic.

Nothing in his numbers is even remotely as interesting as his facial hair used to be, and nothing is very encouraging either. He's your standard 3-pitch guy - fastball, slider, change - none of which is very remarkable. His fastball averages about 90 mph, his chamge up 85, his slider 80, according to Fangraphs.com.

He's managed to strike out a batter per inning this season, but that's a rate well above his career mark and unlikely to continue, especially since he moving to the much tougher AL East. He's walked nearly five batters per nine innings this year, a little more than his usual rate, but has only allowed seven homers in 105 innings. Petco Park surely has helped with that, as only two of those seven were surrendered at home.

Other than the lack of homers, though, he's been horribly unlucky pitching in San Diego, allowing a .441 BABIP in 40 innings there, so perhaps that bad luck will even out in new York. Even if it does, he's more likely to give up home runs in the New Yankee Stadium, so he's not likely to be much better than anyone else we've seen in that role this year, but perhaps he won't be any worse.

With that said, it may not matter much. If the Yankees use their off days wisely - and they have plenty of them over the last two months of the season - they'll only have seven more starts to give to Mitre/Gaudin/Whatever.

The difference between the kinds of performances they've gotten in this rotation spot and a replacement level starter is probably about negative one win over those remaining seven games. Slotting in Phil Hughes as the #5 starter is probably worth one or two wins above replacement level, so that's a +3 difference, though a little of that may be lost in the bullpen.

This assumes that they use the off days to skip the 5th starter in the rotation, which is what you should do, instead of giving everybody an extra day off, which is what managers actually do most of the time.

The Yankees have enough offense to win some of those games anyway, and with the expanded rosters in September, will have some extra pitching, too, but they don't have a lot of room for error. The Red Sox are 3.5 games back, but that's hardly an insurmountable lead, especially in early August. And two games behind them are the defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays, who are far from dead.

Furthermore, the Red Sox will not continue to make the mistake of running John Smoltz out there every five days. He's made eight outings in a month and a half and, despite his two wins, has yet to pitch a Quality Start in any of them. He had a couple of short outings in which he somehow allowed only one run, but usually it was something like five innings and fove or six runs, and this despite having been given relatively easy assignments.

Before facing the Yankees last night, Smoltz had faced only one decent offensive team, the Texas Rangers, and had given up six runs in 5.2 innings against them. His other six starts had come against the Orioles (3), A's and Royal, who are 11th, 12th and 14th in the AL in runs per game, and the Washington National, who are a decent hitting team by NL standards, but would be ranked 4th from the bottom in the AL.

The best thing you could say about his 37 innings of work before last night's game against New York was that he had only walked five batters. This is like saying that one nice thing about the Ford Pinto is that even though they sold two million of them, they only killed 27 people. Of course, Smoltz walked four batters in 3.1 innings last night, so there goes that.

Anyway, the Red Sox are bound to send Smoltz to the bullpen. He's held opponents to a .228 batting average in the first two innings, but they've hit .397(!) after that. Clearly, he can still pitch, just not more than two innings at a time. The Red Sox are too smart not to realize this.

And when they do, and they give his starts to Michael Bowden or Junichi Tazawa or Tim Wakefield (when he comes off the DL), the Red Sox will be a better team. Not a lot better, but better. Smoltz has been worth about a win below replacement in his eight starts, so assuming that he doesn't get any better for his last seven or eight starts, the difference between him and some replacement-level schmo is about one win.

But if the Red Sox make a move and the Yankees don't, or if the Yankees's move (Gaudin) doesn't work out and the Red Sox move does, then one win might be all it will take to wrest the division from the hands of the Evil Empire.

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03 August 2009

Ichiro's Cooperstown Chances Still Unclear

Sean Smith at the Hardball Times has a lengthy article about Ichiro Suzuki's chances of being voted into Cooperstown and/or the Japanese baseball hall of fame and he does some interesting analysis and makes a few interesting points, though I have a few problems with his conclusions and his paths to them.

He looks at Ichiro's value overall, not just his hitting stats, and compares his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to those of other mid-range current and probable future Hall of Famers as well as (for reasons he does not explain) to Tony Oliva. He finds that for the eight full seasons that Ichiro has played stateside, his WAR value is comparable to (among others) the likes of Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Sosa, Reggie, Vlad, Manny Ramirez, and Clemente, who are all between 40 and 55 WAR. Ichiro has about 45.

That's fine, and instructive even, as it suggests to us that Ichiro's skills as a baserunner and defender help to offset his almost complete lack of power. Smith admits that defense and baserunning are difficult to measure and acknowledges that there is some disagreement in the field about just how good Ichiro is in these areas (especially defense) but concludes aftr a brief survey that he's probably pretty darn good, and I generally concur.

The problems with this are twofold:

The first issue is that the baseball writers who get to vote for Hall of Famers wouldn't know a WAR if is walked right up to them on the street and sang Low Rider. In any given year, Ichiro may have been just as good as any number of Hall of Famers, but the writers don't know that, and most of them aren't going to bother to find out.

They look at batting average and hit totals and awards and what they remember from highlight reels and then they vote based on whatever their gut says they should vote. Here's hoping none of the writers eats some bad sushi the night he decides to fill out his ballot.

Of course this may be more of a help to Ichiro than a detriment. The BBWAA's affinity for shiny objects plays right into Ichiro's hands:

  • He has a gaudy .333 career batting average, which trails only Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn and Albert Pujols for players since World War II.
  • He's been an All-Star and won a Gold Glove every season he's been in the league.
  • He's never hit below .300, had fewer than 200 hits, 100 runs, or 30 steals in a season.
  • He's never missed more than five games in a season, and usually doesn't miss more than one or two.
  • He's led the American League in intentional walks three times, which is ironic when you consider that when he does get a hit, over 80% of the time, it's just a single anyway.
  • He's won two batting titles and may very well take home a third this year.
  • He has led the league in hits six times (including this year) and holds the all-time MLB record for hits in a season.
  • He's one of only two players in history to win the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards in the same season.
These are all big plusses in the eyes of the voters, most of whom also voted for those awards, or who pay little attention to anything beyond the raw numbers.

The other, and more significant problem for Ichiro is that unlike Manny Ramirez and Dave Winfield and Duke and Ashburn and Reggie, those eight years constitute the whole of his major league career. Ichiro may have been just about as valuable from 2001-08 as Tony Gwynn was from 1984-91, but Gwynn had another 12 years in the majors and another 1,591 hits on top of what he did in those eight seasons, whereas Ichiro has only his charming smile.

So career longevity is a problem. Smith rightly mentions that Ichiro is still playing and showing little sign of slowing down, though that's always true right up until it's not. We we can easily see him playing five more years and collecting another 1,000 hits which would make him a shoe-in for Cooperstown, but everyone thought Dwight Gooden and Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were sure-fire hall of famers when they were in their prime, too, and they never got there for one reason or another.

If Ichiro doesn't manage to keep playing, if he gets hurt in a year or two and finishes with something like 2,100 career hits and hardly any homers, suddenly he's a much less compelling Cooperstown candidate. And if he loses some of his speed as he ages and plays three or four more years as a .285 hitter with no power who gets caught stealing too often and can't run anything down in the outfield, well, then we've got a problem.

But Smith avoids that line of thinking almost entirely, and instead goes backwards, not forward, looking at Ichiro's career in Japan and trying to translate it to the U.S. major leagues. He figures that the baseball writers won't "punish" Ichiro for the fact that he was born in Japan, and plays the woulda-coulda-shoulda game to demonstrate that Ichiro would already be a first ballot hall of famer if he'd been born in Florida.

He concludes that Ichiro would have hit .338 over the course of seven seasons here, with similar power (or lack thereof) to what he has shown. This would add another 1,200+ hits to his total, bringing it up to almost 3,200 (and counting!), and all but end the debate about his merits as a hall of famer.

Smith's done the analysis looking at players moving each direction across the Pacific Ocean and presumably has very good reasons for using the numbers he does for those translations, but I think that simply cramming the numbers through a translation algorithm misses something of the human and historical element, and I'll explain why.

In 1994, Ichiro hit .385 for the Orix Blue Wave, with 41 doubles, 13 homers, 29 steals, and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. This, all at the age of 20. Smith has Ichiro hitting .363 for the Seattle mariners with six homers, using his standard translations. He even consoles us that we should not worry about him being so young, as the Mariners had given an everyday job as an outfielder to Ken Griffey Jr. when he was just 19, and to A-Rod a few years later when he was 20. Of course, he ignores the fact that the Mariners jerked Edgar Martinez around until he was 27, but we'll let that go.

Instead, we'll look at the rarity of the suggested accomplishment in itself. Anybody have any idea how rare it is for a 20-year old to hit .360 in the major leagues? Right. it's never happened. In fact, only two players in history age 20 or younger have even hit as much as .330 in a qualified major league season. Those are two very special cases, and neither was officially a rookie, as Ichiro would have been.

Ty Cobb hit .350 in 1907, but he already had a full season's worth of at-bats (over parts of two years) under his belt before that season started. Cobb was maybe the best hitter who ever lived, and the talent level he faced was not what it is now. The other was Alex Rodriguez in 1996, who had 65 games of major league experience before that campaign, also spanning parts of two seasons, and may have had some artificial help, like many in the major leagues did at the time. Anybody else who's come close to a batting average like that had a lot more seasoning in the majors than Ichiro would have in 1994, just two years after graduating high school.

The danger here is assuming that since the Japanese think of their leagues as "major" they must be, and that is clearly not the case. Players who are marginal or worse in the U.S. go to Japan and thrive. Alex Cora, Tuffy Rhodes, Greg Wells, Charlie Manuel - all bench players in the American major leagues who became stars in Japan.

Players who are superstars there, like Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, and Hideki Irabu, come here and find that they are merely good, if that. Some succeed for a while, though never as much as they did in Japan, and then flame out (like Hideo Nomo), or never really find a way to make it work here at all (like Kei Igawa). If Igawa is any kind of example, the Japanese majors must be somewhere around the level of AAA or maybe a bit lower. I'm not saying that Ichiro could not have done well in the US in his early 20's, I'm just saying that he would not have hit .363.

With that said, it's worth noting that the baseball writers have made exceptions in the past for players who, for reasons beyond their control, did not debut in the major leagues until later in life. The most obvious example lies in the Negro Leagues, in which black stars played until the late 1940's. Those players who got a shot at the majors late in life, even if they had only half a career or less at the major league level, were still taken seriously and given some credit for what they did do, and presumably, what they could have done, if given a chance.

Jackie Robinson, for example, did not debut in the majors until he was 27, and played only 10 seasons. He was elected anyway, based on a combination of his major league accomplishments and his Negro League experience, though the records on those are sketchy at best. Satchel Paige was elected almost entirely on his reputation in the Negro League, as were several others.

This example isn't wholly useful, however, because the Negro Leagues (for the most part) also took place in the United States, and so the voters could legitimately include the accomplishments of Robinson and Paige and Monte Irvin in the Negro Leagues as they evaluated the players' records for the National baseball Hall of Fame, per the voting rules.

Ichiro's previous accomplishments took place not just in a different league, but in a different nation, and therefore should not be considered when evaluating the player's merits for the National baseball Hall of Fame.

Sean Smith's article then goes on to address what the Japanese voters might do for their own hall of fame, and concludes that Ichiro has a pretty good shot there, too. I won't get into that because frankly, I don't much care. It's their hall of fame, they can do what they want with it.

You see, it is, in fact the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as in this nation, the United States, not Japan or the world, but the U.S. That's why Sadaharu Oh is not already in the Hall, and that's why the baseball writers will not (and technically cannot) give extra credit for Ichiro's exploits overseas.

But as I mentioned, they may nod need to do that anyway. If he keeps going at anything close to his current pace, he'll collect 3,000 hits sometime in his early 40's and nobody will have to wonder if the BBWAA will ever elect him. The only thing we'll have to wonder about then is whether he might have passed 4,256 if he'd been born here, and of course we'll never know that either.

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