14 September 2011

Wakefield, Rivera Milestones Very Different; Notes on AJ Burnett's "Improvement"

Some interesting milestones were reached last night in games across the AL East, at least.

  • Though it came in a crushing loss to the woeful Orioles, Tampa Bay's Johnny Damon became just the 9th player in MLB history with 200+ homers and 400 or more steals.  Four of the nine (Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan) are already in the Hall of Fame and by rights, Craig Biggio will be someday soon.  Barry Bonds and his dad, Bobby Bonds, are both on that list, as is Marquis Grissom.  
  • The Ageless Wonder (as in "I Wonder why he's still pitching in the majors"), Tim Wakefield finally won his 200th career game.  A somewhat less exclusive club than Damon's, Wake is the one hundred and eleventieth pitcher since 1871 to reach that milestone, and he has the highest career ERA in that club, though with adjustments for ballparks and time frame, he's only 16th worst.  
  • And Mariano Rivera, a truly ageless wonder, notched his 600th career Save, being only the second man to do that.  Trevor Hoffman was the first, and he's no longer adding to his 601 career Saves, so Rivera will likely lead the pack before the year is out.  
I'll be the first to grant you that Saves are mostly a junk stat, a self fulfilling prophecy, overrated at best and at worst truly misleading.  But holy cow, 600 of anything in baseball is kind of a lot, don't you think?

Even so, we don't need that stat to say how good Mariano Rivera has been in his career.  There are 126 pitchers who have amassed at least 100 career Saves, and Rivera has the lowest ERA (2.22) of any of them. 

His 2.22 career ERA is the best among active pitchers, and has been for four years running.  (This isn't terribly unusual for a relief pitcher, as they tend to have lower ERAs in general, and if they stick around long enough, eventually amass 1000 or more innings.  Lee Smith, John Franco, Kent Tekulve and Hoyt Wilhelm have all held this honor for multiple years.)
He also has the best winning percentage among pitchers with at least 300 career Saves, which is certainly a testament to the fact that he;s always pitched for good teams, but is also a sign that he manages to hold on more often than he chokes.  You know, in case the 600 Saves weren't enough for you in that vein.

His 205 adjusted ERA is the best of all time for pitchers with at least 1000 innings under their belts, and that's one category in which he's not likely to be caught any time soon.  No starting pitcher will ever do it, as they simply throw too many innings to ever be that good at relative run prevention for a whole career.  For reference, Pedro Martinez is the next man on the all-time career list, and he had a career mark of 154.

Zach Grienke had a 205 in 2009, when he won the Cy Young award.  Roger Clemens won seven of those - two more than anyone else in the history of MLB - and his mark is 143.  Among active pitchers, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana each have two Cy Young Awards, but are all around the 140 mark, and are unlikely to somehow significantly improve as they age.

The only remote possibility of anyone passing him is Jonathan Papelbon, who has a 201 ERA+ in 422 career innings.  But he'll need to actually improve, to be as good as he was from 2006-09, and that for another whole decade, to knock Mo off that hill.

If you'd like to compare him to  other elite relief pitchers, we can do that.  Dennis Eckersley won a Cy Young Award and an MVP in 1992, pitching 80 innings and striking out 93, with a 1.91 ERA and 51 Saves.  That performance was worth 3.0 WAR, according to baseball-reference.com.  Mariano Rivera has had 12 years that were about that good or better.  That's basically his whole career since 1996, excepting 2002, when he was hurt for part of the year, and 2007, when we was merely very good. 

Or, to put it another way, if you add up the Cy Young year performances of every reliever to ever win the award, (Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Gagne, Eck, Mark Davis, Willie Hernandez, Sparky Lyle, Steve Bedrosian and Mike Marshall) you get a 67-39 record, 334 Saves and a 2.03 ERA (201 ERA+) in 1009 innings.  Rivera, for his career, has a better adjusted ERA than that conglomerate, a better WHIP, better walk rate, better K rate, and therefore a better K/W.  He also has an additional 198 innings with 14 walks, 216 strikeouts and a 3.18 ERA, or essentially two and a half more seasons worth of Cy-worthy relief efforts.   

If you prefer modern metrics, Rivera's WPA of 56 is the best of anyone with at least 100 career Saves, far ahead of John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, both around 40.   His WAR of 55.9 is behind only those two, though they both had a lot of starts to help in that department.  Roy Halladay is only slightly ahead at 59 WAR, which should give you an idea of how valuable Rivera has been to the Yankees.

No active relief pitcher is even close to him, as Frankie Rodriguez has only about 22 WAR in his career.  Among pitchers with fewer than 100 career starts, Rivera's 55.9 WAR are far and away the most, almost 50% more than Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage, both at about 40.

Anyway, congratulations to Mo the Yankees, one of the greatest of all time.


On a separate note, and of more immediate importance, AJ Burnett seemingly pitched quite well last night, allowing two runs in six innings, with mercifully only two walks and 11 strikeouts.  But before we go crazy saying that he's "turned a corner" or "found himself" or "doesn't suck", let's look at the facts:

  • The mariners are the worst hitting team in the American League.  They have averaged a paltry 3.41 runs per game this year.  So, in Burnett's six innings, they would have been expected to score 2.27 runs.  
  • They actually scored two runs, so Burnett saved about one quarter of one run better than an average AL pitcher. 
  • Actually, it's worse than that.  Because SafeCo Field is so tough on hitters, they've averaged only 3.23 runs/game at home.  So Burnett saved 0.16 runs.  Whoopee.  
How bad are the Mariners' hitters?  Well, not as bad as last year, when they averaged just 3.17 runs per game, the lowest mark by any MLB club since before the institution of the Designated Hitter rule.  In fact, they're the first American League team since 1971-72 to average fewer than 3.5 runs per game for two consecutive years as well.  At that time, however, about a third of the league averaged 3.5 runs per game or less, so clearly these Mariners are much worse, relative to their context.

There have been teams this bad for a year, on occasion, during the last three decades, but they always find a way to improve the next year.  The Mariners are the first team not to make a significant improvement after such a terrible year, improving just three tenths of a run since 2011.  Maybe 2012 will be their year to go from "atrocious" to just "bad". 

But, in any case, let's not get too excited about Burnett's apparent improvement until he faces real major league hitters, OK?

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26 July 2011

Yankees Don't Need King Felix

The New York Yankees have the second best record in the American League, currently 60-40, a season high 20 games above the .500 level. They have the best run differential in MLB, +135, and they have the best ERA+ (adjusted for ballpark factors and such) in the Junior Circuit as well, 19% better than the league average, trailing only the Phillies, who have a 123 mark in the slightly less challenging National League.

So why does ESPN's Yankees feature writer Andrew Marchand think they need pitching help? I'll let him tell you in his own words:

"[Felix] Hernandez, just 25, is the type of guy the Yankees dream about. They need a starter to team with CC Sabathia to get them through October.

Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have pitched well enough to get the Yankees to October, but can they keep it up for three more months?

Colon might be able to miss bats in the late fall, but Garcia's mid-to-high 80s stuff usually doesn't translate then."
Really?  He states that last part as though it's a foregone conclusion, a well-known fact, like that water is wet, snow is cold and that The Pentaverate meets tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado known as, "The Meadows."

But even shadier than the assertion that The Colonel puts an addictive chemical in his chicken is the notion that soft-tossers can't win in October.  A brief scan of the career postseason Wins leaders reveals several names known more for their control and smarts than for their blazing speed: Andy Pettitte (19 Wins), Tom Glavine (14), Greg Maddux (11), David Wells (10) and Orlando Hernandez (9) comprise about half of the top ten or 11 postseason winners, and none of them had a fastball that averaged more than 90 mph for most of their careers.

Granted, Wells, Pettitte and El Duque could all get into the low 90's sometimes, but they all lived around 88 mph or so most of the time and got batters out with offspeed stuff, wits and experience.  You could argue - and you'd be right, of course, smart-guy - that these "Wins" were largely attributable to the fact that these guys all pitched mostly for the Yankees and Braves of the last decade and a half, very good teams that would be expected to produce pitchers who win, even if they didn't pitch all that well.

But that's not the case here.  Pettitte's ERA in the postseason was 3.83.  Wells had a career postseason ERA of 3.17, and El Duque's was 2.55, all three better than their overall career ERA's.  Glavine and Maddux were 3.30 and 3.27, respectively, though they both had losing postseason records because Braves hitters are contractually not obligated to hit in October. True story.

And besides those guys, the annals of baseball are practically filled with the names of starting pitchers who got outs in the postseason without necessarily lighting up the radar gun.  Derek LoweBarry Zito.  Clem Labine.  Jimmy Key.     

And while Garcia doesn't have as much experience in the October limelight as Pettitte or Glavine, he's not exactly some starry-eyed kid just up from the farm, either.  He just turned 35 years old last month, and has more than 2,000 career innings in the major leagues.  More to the point, Garcia has done just fine in the postseason, with a 6-2 record and a 3.11 ERA that's nearly a full run below his career mark in the regular season.  Granted, his three postseasons occurred in 2000, 2001 and 2005, when (according to FanGraphs.com) Garcia was still throwing fastballs in the low 90's, but even that was not an overpowering arsenal by any stretch of the imagination.

Besides, Garcia's prowess as a pitcher has always been linked directly to the movement on his pitches, not necessarily their speed.  In his younger days, he tended to walk more batters than he does now, a supposed result of trying too hard to steer pitches into the catcher's mitt rather than allow their natural movement to make them tough to hit.  His walk rates dropped considerably when he went to the White Sox, and whether that was due to a superior pitching coach, change of scenery, or simple maturity, the change has mostly stuck.  
Regardless of past experiences, this Freddy Garcia certainly seems to know how to retire hitters.  Granted, he's had a rough time with the Red Sox this year, but then, who hasn't?  His record of 0-2 with an ERA of s10.13 against them is terrible, bet then the 0-1, 5.40 record Hernandez has posted is not exactly something you'd want engraved on your Hall of Fame plaque either.  Against other possible playoff contenders, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Detroit and Texas, he's 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 33 innings of work this season.  Hard to complain about that, and certainly hard to justify saying that he can't somehow get the same batters out in October that he owned in May, June and July.  

Overall, his 3.23 ERA is 14th among the 49 qualified AL pitchers, comfortably within the top 30%, and his 128 adjusted ERA is 12th in the American League.  For the record, King Felix, whom Andrew Marchand is convinced would be a huge upgrade over Garcia, is currently 22nd on that list. Garcia has given the Yankees a Quality Start in 72% of his outings compared to just 64% for Hernandez, despite all the help he theoretically gets from Safeco Field. 

Perhaps Marchand somehow perceives that Garcia is something less than he is because of his lackluster Win-Loss record.  Though he's generally gotten excellent run support, Garcia has taken two "Tough Losses" this season, i.e. losses in Quality Starts, which is why his record is 9-7 instead of 11-5, as perhaps it rightly should be.  A record of 11-5 might reassure everyone that Garcia is part of the solution, not part of the problem in the Yankees' starting rotation - which has allowed the 4th fewest runs per game in the AL this year, by the way.  At the very least, it might stop people from writing articles like the one Marchand penned for ESPN.

On the other hand, Marchand specifically mentions the issue of run support when he brings another darling of the trade fodder discussions into the fray:

"If the Yankees were to deal for the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda, he might be a postseason upgrade. Kuroda has a National League-worst 12 losses, but that is due to 2.85 runs of support per game, the lowest average in the league. His ERA is barely over 3.00."

So, clearly, he understands that Wins and Losses are not entirely indicative of a pitcher's quality.  (It's perhaps worth noting that Kuroda, despite his solid career ERA of 3.53, is singularly ineffective in games against the Junior Circuit, going just 3-8 with a 4.33 ERA in InterLeague games.  Maybe he wouldn't be such an upgrade.  Unless they could hide him in the bullpen through the first two rounds of the playoffs, anyway.)

Marchand seems to know that Hernandez isn't going anywhere anyway, as he repeatedly refers to how young (25) and how good (really, really) Hernandez is, and that this is exactly the type of pitcher that a franchise would want to use as the foundation of a half decade or so of playoff runs.  Also, that the Yankees would have to give up the farm to get him, that he's signed at reasonable salaries through 2014 and...what was it?...something else...

Oh yeah: The Yankees don't need him. 

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30 June 2011

Posada's Resurgence, Royals' Rotation, and the Tribe's Return to Earth

We're about halfway through the 2011 baseball season, which seems like a good time to recap some of the more interesting developments in the major leagues this year.  There is, of course, no shortage of such stories to consider, but a few of them that caught my eye are...

Jorge Posada:

Yankees' DH Jorge Posada, after infamously taking himself out of the lineup (he was hitting .165/.272/.349 at the time), has gone on an absolute tear, as I suggested he might.  Since that day off and the media circus that followed it, Posada has hit .330/.398/.516.  More important, perhaps, is that his BABiP skyrocketed from .164 to .375.

He had hit half a dozen homers in the first three weeks of the season, and perhaps fell in love a bit with his longball stroke, to the detriment of the rest of his approach.  He had no doubles to that point in the season and managed only two of them - and no homers - in the next three weeks before Bench-gate.  In any case, he's got eight doubles in the 103 plate appearances since then, plus three homers, so clearly he seems to be hitting with authority again.

Of course, Posada has only hit like this for a full season once in his life, and that was in 2007, at which time he was a spry young hatchling (catchling?) of 35, not a creaky, 39-year old DH.  That required him to hit about 60 points above his career BABiP for the whole year, which just isn't likely to happen again, but Posada should be able to finish this streaky season with somewhat respectable numbers.

The Royals' ...umm..."Pitching" Rotation

The Kansas City Royals announced recently that they would be going to a 6-man starting pitching rotation, at least until the All-Star Break.  Royals Authority makes a decent point in that such an arrangement should theoretically reduce the number of innings on the fragile, young arm of Danny Duffy, the one starting pitching on this team who has the potential a few years from now to be something more than "older".

At first glance, this seemed to me rather like making up for the fact that your only cars are a rusty old Ford Pinto and an AMC Pacer by also buying a Trabant.  Sure, that car's a piece of crap, too, but at least dispersing the load between three cars (or, you know, six) reduces the chances of your bursting into flames when someone rear-ends your Pinto, right?  The distinction, of course, is that someday Duffy might develop into a Camaro, or at least a Camry, while Kyle Davies is likely to always be a Chevette.

Still, this seems like a problem with a more conventional solution to me: Put Davies in the bullpen.  He's been terrible in just about any situation this season - you don't amass a 7.46 ERA by being good once in a while - but for his career he's slightly better in the first couple of innings than he is during the later ones.  Make him a long reliever.  Let him focus on his low 90's fastball and curve and use his change up and slider/cutter only sparingly, and maybe he'll surprise you by being useful.

Lots of sub-mediocre starters have proven to be effective relievers, a list too long to bother naming.  Kyle Davies is 27 years old and has a career adjusted ERA 23% worse than the leagues in which he's pitched.  He's only pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title once and only once finished a season with an ERA that wasn't awful, i.e. with 10% below average.  What exactly do they have to lose?

Pushing this guy out there every six days may save a couple of starts on Duffy's arm, but it also means that the bullpen and/or the bench are that much more shorthanded.  Given that most of the rest of the rotation is pretty terrible too, they're going to need bullpen arms more than they need a 6th starter.  Lets' not forget that the birth of the 5-man rotation was mostly because the Dodgers of the early 1970's actually had five good starters (Claude Osteen, Bill Singer, Don Sutton, Al Downing and Tommy John), not because they couldn't decide which of the five lousy ones was lousy enough to earn a demotion.  The 2011 Royals have no such conundrum: Davies ought to go grab some pine.

Whither the Tribe?

Hey!  Remember those heady days of Early May when the Cleveland Indians looked like they were young, hungry upstarts with surprising talent, running away with the AL Central Division title?  They were 20-8, had a 4.5 game lead on their closest competition - the Royals, heady days indeed - and everyone was talking about how this might be their year to surprise everyone.

Granted, they're still in 1st place two months later, but now tied with the Tigers, they've gone just 22-29 since that hot start, with their offense as the main culprit.  Having scored about 5.4 runs per game in the first month or so of the season, they've averaged just 3.7 runs per contest since then.  They've got some decent pitching talent (Masterson, Carrasco, maybe Tomlin), but until they get Shin Soo Choo back or they get the kinds of performances they anticipated from the likes of Grady Sizemore or Carlos Santana, the Tribe can expect little more than to be overtaken by the Tigers.

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19 May 2011

Yankees' Jorge Posada Poised for Improvement

The benching heard round the world on Saturday - Jorge Posada's choice to remove himself from the lineup rather than bat 9th - may have been just what he needs to get his terrible season turned around.  The Yankees decided in the offseason that Posada's 39 year old knees and popgun arm were not going to serve them well as a catcher for a team making a run at a 28th world championship.

So they moved him to DH, except that he hasn't been doing much H'ing this year at all.  He was hitting only .165/.272/.349 before Yankees manager Joe Girardi tried dropping him to the bottom of the order against Boston on Saturday night.  Posada apologized for his part in the spat and everybody made nice and what-not, but the real question is whether it's reasonable to expect Posada to markedly improve over the rest of the season.

Part of the answer to that question relates to the $11.1 million Posada will earn this year and what his legacy will be as a player and a Yankee.  But really, money is not a huge problem for the Yankees and we all know that the guy who caught two perfect games and served as the primary backstop for four of the five championship teams since the 1990's is going to have his number 20 retired when he hangs up his spikes, even if he hits a buck fifty this year.  Nobody really gets on Carlton Fisk's case for hitting only .220 in a smattering of action over his last two seasons, right? 

No, the real problem is the one they had last winter.  The Yankees want to win, and just as they knew they couldn't do that with a catcher who was not a threat to ever catch a base stealer, neither can they do so with a DH who gets a hit only about once every three games.  Posada pinch hit a drew a walk the next night in a loss, then went 2-for-3 in a big win against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, and is currently 1-for-3 with a double and two walks against Baltimore as I write this, but that's not the reason I think he might be poised for a turnaround.

Curiously, for a guy who's been such a good hitter for such a long time, Posada's awful start in 2011 is not wholly unprecedented.  Twice before - oddly enough, six years ago, and six years before that - Posada found himself mired in a terrible slump after the first month or so of the season, got benched for a game but came through as a pinch hitter, and then reverted to his usual form for the rest of the year.  Take a look:

Timespan       PA    BA   OBP   SLG  HR  RBI  BB 
thru 5/14/99   87  .176  .299  .311   3   10  12
rest of 1999  349  .260  .350  .421   9   47  41
thru 4/29/05   87  .244  .322  .333   1   10   9
rest of 2005  458  .265  .356  .449  18   61  56
thru 5/13/11  125  .165  .272  .349   6   15  15
rest of 2011   ?     ?     ?     ?    ?    ?   ?

I am not so naive as to think that this constitutes clear evidence that happy days are here again for Posada and the Yankees, but I am inclined to wonder whether maybe Posada just needed a chance to clear his head, get outside of himself a little or something, and be reminded that he can still play this game.  A man who thinks of himself as a champion and finds his batting average starting with a "1" in the middle of May has got to have a lot of stress, you know?

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05 May 2011

How Are the Yankees Doing It??

As I write this, the Yankees are beating the Tigers in Detroit, 2-1 in the 5th inning.  A.J. Burnett has continued to pitch well this year, and this game is something of a microcosm of his season.  He's somehow managed to surrender a run without giving up a hit, or - and this is the real surprise in Burnett's case - a walk.  (EDIT: There goes the no-no: Single to right by Ramon Santiago to start the 6th.) If they manage to win this game they'll rise to 18-11, tops in the AL East and 2nd only to the upstart Cleveland Indians in the American League overall.

But how are they doing it?  How is this team, without Andy Pettitte, with three terrible outings from Phil Hughes and now possibly two months without their #3 starter at all, with four of its starting nine hitters flirting with the Mendoza line for most of the season, still managing to win?

Well, the short and obvious answer is that everyone else is overcompensating.  Pettitte and Hughes may be non-factors, but Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, picked up on the cheap in the off-season as insurance policies, have delivered handsomely, combining for a modest 3-3 record but for a 2.95 ERA in 58 total innings, which means that they've essentially provided the team with an opportunity to win almost every time they've taken the ball.  Nobody expected that either of these guys could be this good, much less both of them.

Additionally, Burnett has been quite good, posting a 4-1 record and a 3.93 ERA.  That's largely due to lowering both his walk and hit rates by about one from what they were last year, without losing any strikeouts or increasing his homers allowed.  This may not be wholly sustainable, since FanGraphs says that Burnett's getting a lot more swings at pitches outside the strike zone than he ever has in the past, but the real Burnett isn't necessarily far below this one.  (EDIT: On the other hand, Burnett gave up a run in the 6th and currently has the bases loaded with nobody out in the 7th, so maybe I wrote too soon...)

The hitters have been the really bizarre part of the Yankees' success this far in 2011.  Though Derek Jeter is hitting only .250 with no power and no steals, Nick Swisher is hitting .223 with only one homer, and the speedy, plucky Brett Gardner is hitting just .213 with four times caught stealing in eight attempts, somehow the Yankees are still near the league leaders in runs scored.  This is because they lead the league in homers by a healthy margin over the Texas Rangers, 46-38.  Jorge Posada's bat has been feast or famine all year, with an average of just .161, but also six home runs.

Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson are all hitting about .250 to .260, but all have slugging percentages above .500, and Robinson Cano leads the team in the Triple Crown stats, despite having only three walks in 27 games.  New catcher Russell Martin, after hitting a combined .249/.350/.330 and smacking only 12 homers in his last two years (240 games) with the Dodgers, has already hit six of them in just 25 games with the Yankees.  Even the bench (Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Eduardo Nunez, mostly) has combined to hit a respectable .276/.343/.395, getting a few key hits here and there to spark a rally or win a game. 

The bullpen has been another key to the success, amassing an MLB-leading 12 Saves to go with a 3.26 ERA, which is only about the middle of the AL pack.  Fortunately the starters have lasted long enough that they're also only about the middle of the pack in innings pitched, which hopefully means the relievers won't get burnt out by the end of the year.

But the real question is whether or not the Yankees can sustain this, and I'm not sure they can.  I know Burnett is capable of pitching this well (EDIT: Maybe not: he allowed three more runs in the 7th - one earned - before finally escaping the inning.) and that CC Sabathia is every bit capable of finishing the season with something like his current 2.68 ERA.  I can see Garcia and Colon being useful, if not quite this good for most of the year, and I can see rookie starter Ivan Nova racking up 10-12 wins and an ERA of about 4.50, but I'm not sure I can see all of them happening at the same time.

Similarly, while I don't think the Yankees will finish the year with four starters hitting .250 or worse, neither do I think they will finish the season with five starters slugging .500 or better.  While the Yankees are first in homers, they're 4th from the bottom in doubles, which means perhaps that some of those homers are due to stay in the park and that therefore some of those runs will have to wait for another hit if they expect to score.

With Derek Jeter ineffective (and now perhaps injured) and without any real help from Gardner or Swisher, the Yankees are going to have a hard time remaining competitive, much less keeping its hold on the AL East.  And if Jorge Posada doesn't start going from a designated misser to a real DH (he now hitting .154 after an 0-for-4 day)  there's no way that the rest of the lineup can compensate.

We see these bizarre splits early in the year all the time, and it's really not that unusual for someone like Colon to bounce back or for Posada to just fall apart, but for all of the odd happenings on the Yankees to keep pace all year would be unprecedented.  The Yankees may continue to win, but their MLB playoff odds will drop significantly without some help from the other half of the lineup.

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14 March 2011

Book Review: ScoreCasting

ScoreCasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won
by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. John Wertheim

This is one of those books.

It's the kind of book you needed to read.  You just didn't know it. It's not just a baseball book, but there's no shortage of baseball in it.  It's not just a numbers book, but it's got plenty of numbers.  It's not just a psychology book, though it addresses several ways in which human psychology plays into sports (and life) decisions.  In short, it's a fascinating summary of how money, psychology and statistics - and the misinterpretation of them - can drive the sports you enjoy far more than you might have suspected.

Granted, some of this stuff is not exactly groundbreaking.  The chapter on why the Steelers are so good while the Pirates are so bad is an appropriately brief four pages.  Anyone with even a rudimentary comprehension of how television plays into the business ends of the NFL and Major League Baseball, and how differently these two sports benefit from that medium, could have written this chapter nearly as well, and almost as succinctly.

For that matter, even the more interesting stuff isn't groundbreaking in the strictest sense of the word, but that's a good thing.  The authors frequently refer to studies and papers and books that have been out for years, sometimes decades, to help bolster their contentions.  Their reliance on the work of others - not exactly standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said in an uncharacteristically humble moment, but at least using peer-reviewed research - helps to lend credence to their claims in a way that doing their own work never could.  You can still wonder whether they draw the appropriate conclusions from their study of the facts, but you really can't criticize the facts themselves when the study the use has been out since 1982, or whatever.

Among the more interesting topics addressed in the book are:

  • That the desire to avert a loss - rather than to gain a victory - has a much greater effect on the decisions that athletes and their coaches make than you would imagine.  It seems to characterize almost every sporting feat you've ever seen, and you never even knew it!
  • That the decision of one NFL team, 20 years ago, to think outside the box changed the face of the NFL draft, forcing the other 29 teams eventually to follow.  And that the smart teams now are taking advantage of that change in the present day, to the dismay of those teams who had only just figured out the last change, it seems.  
  • That the MLB drug testing system is inherently racist.  (OK, not really, but it sure looks that way!)
  • That selfishness in team sports can be a virtue.
  • That the best thing you can do when one of your teammates on the basketball court "gets hot" and makes four or five shots in a row...is to give the ball to someone else for a while. 
  • And most shockingly: Umpires are human.  No seriously, it turns out that the "home field advantage" in baseball and almost every other high-level sport is due almost entirely to the fact that the umps (or refs, or judges or whatever) don't want to get lynched. And they probably don't even know it!
The book, in short, is eye-opening, sometimes jaw-dropping but extremely informative, well written, fast paced and fun to read.  The two guys who wrote it are friends who grew up together - one an economist, one a sportswriter - and got back together just to write this book, and you can almost hear how much fun they had writing it.

It's got the kind of information in it that would be a lot of fun to bring up in a discussion at a bar or while watching the game in your living room, though it might also be the kind of stuff that gets you beat up, so make sure you have a large friend with you if you bring these issues up in public.

But regardless of how you use the info, make sure you read it.  If you're in intelligent sports fan, you need to read it.  Now you know.

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07 March 2011

Sifting Through Some of the Yankee Prospect Hype

I saw an interview of the Yankees player development director, Mark Newman, by noted baseball prospect expert John Sickels, and was more than a little surprised at some of the spin Newman puts on various players in the organization. Maybe surprised isn't the right word.  This is Spring, after all, when everyone is in the best shape of his life and Jeff Francoeur looks like he's turned a corner and the goat-footed balloon man goes whistling far and wee and all of that, so I guess a little unbridled optimism isn't so inappropriate.  It's not like I expect the head of the Yankees whole minor league operation to bad mouth his charges either, but I guess I expected a little more realism. 

While I agree with Rob Neyer that this is an "absolute-must-read-for-Yankee-fans", I also think that Newman lays it on a little thick at times, and that someone has to sift through some of what he says with the use of a healthy dose of cynicism and maybe - just maybe - a few facts.

I won't cover the whole interview transcript, which is comfortably over 2,000 words long, but I'll hit some of the high points and clue you in on a few things newman didn't tell you. None of this means that I think Sickels did a poor job with the interview. On the contrary, he got a lot of good information out of a very highly-placed source, all on the record, but he couldn't possibly have parried with Newman every time he thrust Melky Mesa or Eduardo Nunez out there, so I will. 

SICKELS: [...] What do you see as the strengths of the system. And what are your weaknesses, areas you want to improve?

NEWMAN: [...] I also like our group of center fielders. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Melky Mesa all have the tools to play center and we think they all have a good chance to hit. Angelo Gums may end up there too. So, I would say pitching, catching, and center field are our strengths.

BoS: Newman starts by talking about all the potential high end rotation arms in the system, which Rob Neyer has already debunked, so I won't rehash that.  He then mentions the catching, and there's little argument there, and what arguments there are (about Jesus Montero's defense, for example) get addressed later on.  But he throws three names out there for this so-called bumper crop of CF candidates, and I'm not buying it.  

Slade Heathcott: A 2009 first round pick, he was supposed to be a power hitter but slugged only two homers in 350+ plate appearances last year at Charleston in the Single-A South Atlantic League. He also struck out in about a third of his at bats, got caught stealing in 40% of his attempts, made 7 errors in 75 games in CF and hit only .258.  He was, to be fair, one of the half dozen or so youngest regular position players in the Sally League, and maybe just not crashing and burning at that age is an accomplishment in itself, but really, if that performance doesn't constitute a crash and burn, what does?  Newman addresses the strikeouts and the lack of power later in the interview, blaming the jump from high school to A-ball.  Maybe this year was more about honing tools than putting up gaudy stats, but in either case, Heathcott has yet to prove himself as a pro, in my mind. 

Mason Williams: Also drafted out of high school, also very young, also unimpressive, albeit in only a handful of opportunities (4-for-18 with no extra base hits, steals, runs or RBIs).  The jury is clearly still out on him, and I can't see how an 18 year old with 5 career games on his resume allows you to call his position a "strength" for your organization.  

Newman says later in the interview that Williams is fast and has a strong arm,that he threw hard as a pitcher in high school, and so he projects as a CF.  That's probably as much because he's not going to hit like a corner outfielder as it is because of his speed and his arm.  Also, after Googling him for research for this article, I've got "Classical Gas" stuck in my head.  Thanks. 

Melky Mesa: This is the worst offense in the list.  Mesa was signed out of the Dominican Republic, debuted with the Yankees' GCL team in 2006 at the age of 19...but is now 23 and hasn't yet gotten past A-ball.  He was among the Florida State League leaders in homers, steals, runs scored and triples, but he hit only .260 with modest patience and whiffed 129 times in 122 games. For his 4-year minor league career, he's hit .236/.307/.431 - think "last year's Jose Guillen, but with speed...and only in Single A". Maybe his improvement to .260/.338/.475 in 2010 means he's making strides, but even so, it seems to me that the strides he's making are more in the direction of "Speedy 5th outfielder" than "Future Star".  

SICKELS: What about your weaknesses?

NEWMAN: Corner players with power. We have (Brandon) Laird who is a solid prospect, but we are thin for corner bats otherwise in the system. [...]

BoS: Well, at least he admits that much.  But even Laird has more than a few chinks in his armor.  He won the Eastern league MVP award last year, hitting .291/23/90 for AA Trenton, but his presence in that semi-illustrious club doesn't guarantee much.  For every Jeff Bagwell, Ryan Howard or Vladimir Guerrero, it seems there are two or three Adam Hyzdus  or Calvin Pickerings.  Heck, the last Yankee farmhand to win Eastern League MVP was Russ Davis in 1992, also a defense-challenged thirdbaseman, whose ceiling turned out to be "useful for a couple of years."   

More common on the list are good, but not great players who have a decent career in the majors but never achieve stardom - Kevin Millar, Matt Stairs, Cliff Floyd, Marlon Byrd, etc.  Laird was horribly overmatched during his month in AAA last year, with a .246 average, 27 strikeouts and only four walks in 31 games, and I think the organization is going to make him a left fielder, because he seems unable to handle third base.  He's sometimes hit better when not playing third base, so maybe that will be what he needs. But if not, we may be looking at a ceiling of Wes Helms or Russ Davis.  Ick. 


BoS: After that, there's a back-and-forth about Jesus Montero, whether he can really catch, etc.  Everyone agrees that he can hit, but he's big, with clunky mechanics behind the plate and little success in preventing steals.  His 23% rate catching base thieves, on the face of it, doesn't seem much worse than the 2010 International League average of 27%, but only one catcher with at least 60 games had a lower CS% and nobody came close to his league leading 15 passed balls.  It's possible that he'll figure something out, but guys who are already 6'4", 225 at the age of 20 tend only to get bigger, and there's hardly ever been a regular catcher that big who's remained a regular catcher for long.  

Anyway, back to the dialogue:

SICKELS: Austin Romine, your other strong catching prospect behind Montero. Good arm, good defensive reports, but he threw out just 23% of runners last year.

NEWMAN: I don't worry about his glove, Romine can really catch. He turns bullets into marshmallows. His arm is strong and accurate. By the internal defensive metrics we use, Romine rates as a very strong defender, and Montero isn't far behind him.

BoS: We're obviously not privy to those internal metrics, and CS% isn't everything, despite what I wrote about Montero, so I'll buy this one, for now.  Romine's OPS has dropped each of the last two years as he's jumped levels, but not precipitously so.  Mostly I included this part because I loved that line about turning bullets into marshmallows.  

SICKELS: The other top catching prospect is Gary Sanchez. Where does he start the year? How does his glove compare to Montero's at the same stage?

NEWMAN: He should go to Charleston and will probably be there all year. The hardest thing for him will be adjusting to the workload and length of the season. He is way ahead of Montero at the same stage defensively. He's very bright, works hard, needs experience but already calls the game well. He's a very sharp kid. The bat is terrific and he is much more mature and professional about hitting than most players his age. He is way ahead of the curve mentally, outthinking the pitchers.

BoS: Sanchez is another young Dominican free agent, having only turned 18 in December last year, who somehow managed to hit .353 in half a season in the Gulf Coast League.  Not wanting to get too excited about half a season's worth of at-bats, ('member when we did that with Jeremy Reed?) you have to admit at least that the bat looks promising.  When promoted to Low-A Staten Island, he wasn't nearly as good but at least he didn't flop.  

But his defense?  Well, if you thought Montero's 15 passed balls in 105 games were bad, wait til you see Sanchez: 16 Passed Balls.  In 30 games.  Thirty.  And he threw out only 19% of base stealers in the GCL.  Yeesh.  Maybe's he's out-thinking the pitchers a little too much, eh?  Maybe he should just try catching what they call for a while?  

For the record, we don't have SB/CS data for Montero's 2007 season in the GCL, when he was 17, but he allowed only four passed balls in 23 games.  Not great, but better than every other game by a long stretch.  We'll see if Sanchez can figure things out well enough to stick there.  

SICKELS: David Adams, where does he stand? Is he healthy?

NEWMAN: He's dealing with a bout of plantar faciitis right now but should be fine. He's a solid hitter when he's healthy. I think his glove is underrated. His range is OK, but he is just amazing at turning the double play. If I had to give him a 20/80 number on turning the double play, I'd give him an 80.

BoS: Adams hits for decent average (admittedly bolstered by a .367 BABiP at Trenton last year) and is patient, but shows only doubles power at best and has no speed.  That makes him project as a slap-hitting second baseman with soft hands but limited range, the upside of which is Placido Polanco or Miguel Cairo but the more likely result of which is Jody Reed or Mark Lemke, i.e. decent, but not enough of an offensive threat in the majors to keep pitchers honest, especially given that his ball in play aren't going to find holes so easily in the majors. That thing about "If they had a metric for this, I bet he'd be awesome" is exactly the kind of things that team executives say when a prospect doesn't have a lot of obvious, measurable skills, like "moxy" or "mound presence".  Baseball Prospectus rates him as just an average defensive second baseman. 

NEWMAN: One infielder that people need to watch closely is Eduardo Nunez.

SICKELS: What do you think about him?

NEWMAN: He's always had the tools. He can run and throw, very legit defender at shortstop, has some surprising pop in his bat, efficient at stealing bases. He is still working on his plate discipline, work in progress. He could start at shortstop for a lot of clubs. He was really great back in rookie ball five years ago, then kind of stalled out when he lost confidence. But he's had his confidence back the last two seasons and has played much better. We really like him.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus' metrics call Nunez' defense below average but their commentary on him indicates that he's actually pretty good.  He has hit for decent averages the last two years, but as Newman admits, he doesn't like to walk.  And I have no idea what Newman means by "surprising pop in his bat".  The dude hit four homers in over 500 trips to the plate in 2010, has never had more than nine in a season, and has a career slugging percentage of .369.  

Therefore, any offensive value he provides is going to have to come from the batting average, which is a fickle mistress.  He does have good speed and base stealing instincts, with 113 steals and only 39 times caught in his minor league career, including 42 out of 54 the last two seasons, so that will help him eek out a few infield hits that someone like, say, David Adams will never get.  And he doesn't strike out too much, so I guess that helps a little, but he seems like he'd be maxed out as a major league regular.  BP projects him for .268 with 7 homers and 15 steals in 2011, if he played every day, which he won't.  For reference, that's about what Orlando Cabrera did last year.  

SICKELS: Is Cito Culver sticking at shortstop?

NEWMAN: Absolutely. Range, hands, arm strength, all above average for shortstop. His feet work well. He has a great sense of timing.

SICKELS: The bat?

NEWMAN: I think he'll be fine. He might not hit for a ton of power, but he should hit for average, hit a few homers. He'll be a legitimate hitter.

BoS: Culver was the Yankees' first round draft pick this past year.  He played about half a season for GCL Yankees, but also got a handful of games at Low-A Staten Island.  He was only 17 last year, and not impressive statistically (.251/.325/.330), but the jury's still out.  He's young enough to develop into something but so far away at this point that it's not really worth debating what that might be.  But let's do it anyway, shall we?  

For the record, the Yankees have taken five different shortstops with their first round picks - all from high school - since the amateur draft began in 1969.  Culver was actually drafted as a pitcher, but we'll include him for comparison.  The others were:   

  • Carl "C.J." Henry in 2005, who was turned into an outfielder, went to the Phillies in the Bobby Abreu trade in 2006, hit .222 in parts of four seasons and washed out of pro ball by 2008.  
  • Bronson Sardinha in 2001, who's played short, third and outfield in the minors and is still playing at age 27, albeit not with the Yankees.  He got only a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2007 but hasn't been back because he's hit only .270 with occasional power and not much else in the bushes.  
  • Dennis Sherrill in 1974, who remained a shortstop but turned out not to be a very good one.  He hit .292 with 14 homers at AA as a 22 year old, but never hit better than .237 in a season at any level otherwise, got only five total at-bats in the majors, and was out of baseball by age 25.  
  • Rex Hudler in 1978, a career backup infielder who found a niche as a useful bench guy for about a decade and a half in the majors. 
  • Oh...and a someday-first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer named "Derek".  You might have seen him around.   
The difference between Jeter and those other guys is mostly how high they were drafted.  Sherrill was 12th, Henry 17th, Hudler was 18th, Sardinha was 34th and our man Culver was 32nd.  Jeter was 6th, and if any of the five teams in front of the Yankees in 1992 thought even for a second that Jeter would eschew the quarterback's job at the University of Michigan to come and play for them, they would have picked him instead.  

So the Yankees pretty much lucked out that year in that they had a high draft pick and there was a player who wanted nothing more in life that to be a Yankee from practically the day he was born, and was talented enough to pull it off.  Obviously the exception and not the rule.  I'll be very surprised if, 20 years form now, we look back on Cito Culver's career and find that it compares favorably to Rex Hudler's.  

Now on to the pitchers...

NEWMAN: [Dellin Betances is] Definitely a starter. Three-pitch guy, plus curveball, plus changeup, hit 96-97 in first game. There are some concerns about his durability until he proves otherwise, but we think he'll be fine. He has a great work ethic, I love the physique, his mechanics are consistent. His walk rates have gotten better. With the injury behind him we think he'll be durable now. He will start off in Double-A.

BoS: Betances is listed as 6'8", 245 lbs, which explains why he has struggled with mechanics.  That's a lot of body to get coordinated all at once.  He's 22 years old and has only three games above Single A ball in his career, so it's a little too early to get excited about him, but the fact that he managed to shave about three walks per nine innings off his previous rates without losing his strikeouts or giving up considerably more hits speaks volumes about his potential.  If he continues to pitch like he did last year, he won't be in Trenton for long. 


SICKELS: Manny Banuelos opened lots of eyes in the Arizona Fall League. I saw him down there and he's just incredibly smooth.

NEWMAN: Yeah, he is a smaller guy but wow, great stuff. It is hard to fathom how a guy his size, throwing that easy with the ball coming out of his hand the way it does, can throw so hard. He was at 93-95 yesterday. I have no worries about his arm. His delivery and athleticism scream durability. He's going to Double-A with Betances.

BoS: Banuelos has averaged a shade over nine strikeouts and a shade under three walks per nine innings in his three-year minor league career, which, like Betances, includes exactly three games above single-A.  But Banuelos won't even turn 20 for about another week, so while it's not like he's expected to help the big league club this year, he could be there as soon as 2012. 

SICKELS: Hector Noesi. His key seems to be control. Possible fourth starter?

NEWMAN: Yeah, some of our people see him as a number three, some think he is more of a four/five guy. His key is the fastball/changeup combination, and he has amazing control. He's shown he can spin a breaking ball but needs to tighten it. Nardi Contreras is our pitching coordinator, and he's terrific at helping guys with their breaking balls. He's working with Hector.

BoS: Amazing control is right.  He's walked only 1.6 per nine and allowed 0.7 homers per nine in 353 minor league innings, spanning four seasons. His strikeout rates aren't quite as high as those other two, but they're plenty high.  He had his first exposure to AAA ball last season - three games, just like the other two, must be a Yankee developmental thing - so clearly he still needs to prove himself, but Baseball prospectus' PECOTA system thinks he could be a league average starter right now - projecting him for a 4.75 ERA in 68 innings.  He's 24 already, so his time is now, but with just an average velocity fastball, he can't slip much without kissing his chances at a major league career goodbye. 

SICKELS: Andrew Brackman, starter or reliever?

NEWMAN: Starter. His changeup has come miles and miles in the last year. He emphasized working on the changeup this winter and it looks so much better this spring. I know some people were frustrated with him until last year, but he is a unique guy. He was a college basketball player. He is 6-11. And he had the elbow injury. We told people to be patient because any one of those factors by themselves were enough to slow his progress, but he had all three. He had the trifecta of extenuating circumstances.

But once he got healthy, look at the progress. He went from 6.5 walks-per-nine to 1.9 walks-per-nine in A-ball last year. I've never seen a starting pitcher make that kind of leap in such a short amount of time. The stuff has always been there. He's an extraordinary athlete, fields his position, runs springs [sic...I think he meant sprints] in the outfield like he's 6-2. He's going to start the year in Triple-A.

BoS: Brackman is a weird case, as Newman details, but his ability to cut his walk rate by more than half without losing but a sliver off his K-rate is really impressive.  He had half a season at AA Trenton - and was actually pretty good there - so it makes sense to send him to Scranton, but expect some (wait for it...) growing pains at AAA.  Most of his competition in the International League will have seen it all, having spent at least some time in the majors, so he'll need to develop as a pitcher to succeed there.  Look for some ugly numbers for a while as he works out the kinks again. 

SICKELS: Ivan Nova: favorite for rotation?

NEWMAN: I don't know if he's the favorite. We would like him to be. He's young and has the stuff, pitched at 94-96 the other day. He's another guy working on his secondary stuff to go with the heater. The other issue is command. He has control, he throws strikes, but his command within the zone still needs work.

SICKELS: Like the difference between throwing strikes and throwing quality strikes?

NEWMAN: Yeah. That's what he's working on.

BoS: If this were a courtroom, Sickels would have gotten in trouble for leading the witness. In any case, Nova is only a favorite because the Yankees don't have anyone else with as much upside who also has so much experience at AAA and in the majors.  He's basically a straight power pitcher with just a show-me change up, but if your stuff is good enough, that can work.  He struggled in his first exposure to AAA in 2009 but then thrived there last year.  Expect some difficulties early on in the majors if he breaks camp with the big club, and if he doesn't work them out, expect him to get sent back to work on them while the Yankees try Brackman or Phelps or (God help us...) Sergio Mitre in the #5 spot in the rotation for a couple of weeks. 

SICKELS: There are other interesting arms beyond the main group. Adam Warren for example. In other systems he would get more attention.

NEWMAN: True. Adam, compact arm stroke, throws his fastball and changeup at any spot in the zone. He's still refining his spin pitches, which will determine if he's a number three starter or a number five starter. He's heading to Triple-A.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus thinks his ceiling is as a #4 starter, a LAIM, which of course is nothing to sneeze at, but if that's the best he'll ever be, then it's a lot more likely that he'll have a career as a swingman or mop-up reliever.  His stuff isn't that great, but h is fastball improved last year and he has enough different offerings to keep batters guessing, which is why he's been able to do pretty well in the minors.  In the majors, that's not likely to get him too far.  

SICKELS: We talked about David Phelps as a sleeper last year, and he really panned out.

NEWMAN: Yeah, David's secondary pitches have really improved. He's always had a decent changeup and slider, I would rate the slider as almost-plus. But his curveball is much better than it used to be, and he has a solid 90-93 MPH heater. Gives him four pitches. Just a solid blue-collar strike thrower. He'll begin in Triple-A.

BoS: That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration about his fastball.  BP calls his stuff just average but says that his command and control are both good, and they give him an outside shot at one of the back end rotation jobs.  Guys like this take a while to get going in the majors, and most of them never really do. 

SICKELS: Another one who looks really interesting is Graham Stoneburner.

NEWMAN: He's really come around. He threw hard in college at Clemson, and he still works at 94-96 with sink. But his secondary pitches have taken a step forward, he keeps the ball down, throws strikes. He was raw in college but much better now. Heading to Double-A.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus says he's got a good sinker slider combo, but they project him as a reliever unless he can come up with a third pitch.  If he really threw "94-96 with sink" and had a plus slider, he wouldn't need a third pitch.  Sounds like another tall tale to me.  

SICKELS: Some observers really like Brett Marshall as a sleeper.

NEWMAN: He has the arm, and we gave him $800,000, so we've liked him too (laugh). He threw 97-98 before he got hurt. He still throws 93-95 with big-time sink. His fastball looks like a left-hander's slider. He has a good changeup, but is still working on the slider and curve. Great athlete, aggressive personality. Have to watch him this year, yeah.

BoS: Another case of the Newman Boost: An independent scouting website says his fastball is more like 88-91 most of the time - on the low end of that for the 2-seamer, on the high end for the 4-seam - though it can get up to 93 mph at times.  Seems like it's generally best to subtract 3-5 mph from whatever Newman says.  With that said, Marshall still looks like he could be a useful major leaguer someday. He's got just so-so control (a little over three walks per nine, but low homer rates) and good strikeout rates, but he's still not yet in AA, so it will be a while before we see him on the mound at New Yankee Stadium.  

SICKELS: One guy I liked as a sleeper from the 2010 draft is Chase Whitley, 15th round guy out of Troy University. He was a shortstop/pitcher and the two-way guys catch my eye.

NEWMAN: He fits in that category. Low-90s fastball, really good changeup. Breaking stuff needs work but his changeup is just terrific, unusually good for a reliever. Good athlete, too.

SICKELS: Potential middle relief type?


BoS: Whitley blew everyone away in the NY-Penn League, striking out 44 in 34.1 innings without allowing a homer.  That's maybe not so surprising since he had pitched for a Division I NCAA college, albeit a small one.  His polish from that experience must have helped a lot when facing a bunch of 19 and 20-year olds who were in their first extended look since being signed out of high school or from some academy in the Dominican Republic. It will be interesting to see if his fastball will be good enough at the higher levels, given that even Mark "Ninety Six" Newman describes it as "low 90's".

SICKELS: Finally, any other guys you want to mention as sleepers?

NEWMAN: We mentioned Melky Mesa and Brandon Laird earlier. Laird is just a solid hitter all-around. Melky has the tools, we just need to see what he does in Double-A.

BoS: Someone needs to help Newman out with the definition of "sleeper".  Laird's generally listed among the Yankees' top 15 prospects or so and he won the Eastern League MVP last year, so everyone's heard of him by now.  That's not a sleeper.  Neither is Mesa really, especially since he's 24 now and has yet to get out of A-Ball. 

NEWMAN: A sleeper for you is Anderson Feliz. He's an infielder out of the Dominican, played in the Gulf Coast League last year. He'll probably end up at second base, but he can really hit. Strong guy with power, broad back, plus runner, great swing. He needs to walk more but that's normal at this point. I rate him as similar to Robinson Cano at the same stage of his career.

BoS: There we go.  An 18 year old who held his own in the GCL, plays a premium position and projects for power as his body matures and his frame fills out?  That sounds like a sleeper.  Also for the record, since Newman keeps bringing others up for comparison, Cano wasn't this good at this age, but then most of Cano's minor league lines (.278/.331/.425 over 2100+ plate appearances at six different levels) gave little hint of how good he'd be in the majors, which is to say, probably one of the three best second basemen in the world right now. 

So there you have it: A few agreements, a lot of disagreements, but hopefully just a lot of details you might have missed if you only read the interview and took it at face value.  Hopefully it was helpful.  

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02 March 2011

Book Review: Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend, by James S. Hirsch

"Mays would have made a splash no matter when he entered the major leagues, but 1951 served him unusually well. His skills shined brightly on a sluggish team in a plodding league in a big-stage city that was about to lead a communications revolution. He was a game-changing catalyst in a storied rivalry about to embark on a historic pennant race, a radiant contributor to an era forever consecrated as the golden age of baseball."
- James S. Hirsch, from Willie Mays - The Life, the Legend, p. 100
The eponymous subject of James Hirsch's new book is quite possibly the greatest player in baseball history. You can argue for Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner or even Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, if you can look past the steroid thing, but there's no question that The Say Hey Kid is right in the thick of that conversation.

It stands to reason, then, that a book about such a player as Mays, especially a landmark work given the unprecedented access the author had to Mays the person, should be pretty darn interesting at the least. And the potential is there for this to be a truly great work, wouldn't you say?

Well, don't hold your breath.

I don't mean to disparage either Mays the man or Hirsch the writer, as this book makes it clear that both men are excellent at their respective professions. But somehow the combination of the two leaves me wanting.

It's not the writing, per se. As you can see from the above quote, Hirsch is a wonderfully eloquent writer when the situation falls for eloquence, and he's no slouch at simply getting his facts across when brevity is the order of the day. He tells the story beautifully, thoroughly and very well.

From Mays' humble beginnings in Alabama, through his school days, his travails in the waning Negro Leagues, to the minor leagues and eventually the majors, then to the Army, then back to the majors and an incredible career and a life of superstardom, Hirsch doesn't miss a beat. Because of the "authorized" nature of the book, we also get an unprecedented look into Mays' personal life, his relationships with family, mentors, teammates, friends and of course women, including both of his wives.

But Mays himself is hardly the only source of material for the book, as is clear by the 25 pages of end notes and five pages of bibliographical references. There were two previous biographies of Mays, as I understand it, but neither could boast the opportunity to have compared notes with the man himself, who has always been reticent to talk to anyone he doesn't know, especially reporters and writers.

But there's the rub, perhaps.  Because it's an authorized biography, Hirsch had to get the approval of Mays for whatever he wrote.  He boasts, in the epilogue, that Mays asked him to change only one thing in the entire tome, all 628 pages of it.  (He wanted Hirsch to include the fact that, after a fight with a teammate - Orlando Cepeda, i think - that they made up.  Well isn't that special?)  But then after reading those 628 pages, I can kind of see why Mays didn't feel the need to squelch anything: According to Hirsch, the man almost never did anything wrong.

Not that Hirsch says he's perfect, exactly, just that even his "faults" were sort of strengths in disguise, like saying that you "work too hard" or "care too much" at a job interview.

His bouts of exhaustion that sometimes required hospitalization, for example, were because he tried too hard, not because he didn't have the discipline and self-awareness needed to pace himself when the situation called for moderation.  His inability to hold down a regular job as a teenager to help support his poor family gets spun as his father's sacrificing to help him concentrate on baseball, rather than his own selfishness.

His dismissal of the advice of friends who warned him not to marry the older, twice-divorced, more worldly woman who would surely take him for all he was worth - which she did, by the way - well, he doesn't even bother to explain that one.  His refusal to support - or even try to understand - Curt Flood's case against the MLB owners and the Reserve Clause is billed as "not wanting to get involved" rather than an acknowledgment that Willie Mays clearly didn't care about anyone who wasn't, well, Willie Mays. 

To his credit, Hirsch does explain that Mays' famous "Say hey" catch phrase had more to do with his inability to remember his teammates' names than with some kind of giddy schoolboy enthusiasm.  But really, when you compose 600+ pages on a man who's been in the public eye for more than six decades, who was famously curt and often sulky with the news media, got himself into an ill-advised marriage, couldn't manage his own finances, rarely gave any real credit to his contemporaries like Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle, well, somehow you shouldn't close the back cover of the book feeling like this guy was just a victim of his circumstances, you know?

I wish I could explain it better than that, but I can't.  Somehow the book just left me feeling used, or like there was more to the story, but I couldn't scratch below the surface of the facade that Mays allowed Hirsch to create. 

None of this is to disparage Mays' incredible talents, which were many, nor his accomplishments, which were great and are given their due in this work.  But Mays the man comes off as something less than admirable, if you can sift through Hirsch's prose a little.

In any case, it is an interesting book, and I recommend reading it, but I also recommend trying to read between the lines a little, because I think you can learn almost as much from what Hirsch doesn't tell you as from what he does.

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01 March 2011

Jeter Not So Young, Young Not So Old

Let me introduce you to two players:

Name       AB   R  2B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG
Player A  627  74  41  14   63  41 104   7   3  .272  .316  .413
Player B  633  90  26  11   64  60  95  19   3  .291  .355  .391

Fairly similar, wouldn't you say?  Player A has a little more power, but less speed and patience, and therefore scores fewer runs, though they both drive in about the same number. Players A and B both play for pretty good offensive teams, and hit near the tops of their respective lineups.  Both players have hit over .300 for their careers though both just had a fairly down offensive year for them.

Both play the left side of the infield, and both have won Gold Gloves as shortstops, though by most modern analysis, neither is very good on defense.  Both players hold their franchise's all-time career records for at-bats and hits, and are on the top-10 lists for a bunch of other counting stats.

The Gold Glove remark probably gave me away, though the stats never would, in themselves.  Player A is Mike Young and Player B is Derek Jeter, but the stats shown are compilations of their road splits for the last three seasons, prorated to look like one year.  Though there are some differences, you could hardly find two more seemingly similarly players overall, especially given their defensive positions, abilities, and their iconic statuses to their respective franchises. 

I recently read an article in which Mike Young's road stats were used as evidence that he can't really hit anymore, and that his home ballpark is really the only reason he finishes each season with respectable looking traditional stats. This seemed like a curious way of going about things - i.e. completely ignoring half of a man's games for three whole seasons - and it made me wonder whether Jeter might show a similar effect, especially given the reputation that New Yankee Stadium received for boosting offense early last year. 

As you can see from the first line of stats above, those numbers are really nothing special, about what Howie Kendrick or Cody Ross hit last season overall, an eminently forgettable performance.  Add to this the fact that he's already in his mid-30's, he's a terrible fielder (whether you prefer fielding percentage and Range Factor or more modern stats like FanGraphs UZR/150, Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs, and Bill James and John Dewan's +/-), and you can see why the Rangers felt the need to sign a free agent third baseman.

And Young's trade request, for all the team's official posturing about wanting to move forward with their plan of having Young DH most of the time, was probably welcome news to Nolan Ryan and the Texas front office.  Why wouldn't they want to unload an aging, sub-par defender whose offence had slipped to the point of being barely passable, but who still looks respectable only because of his home park?  Why would they want to pay another $48 million over the next three seasons for him?

Jeter's line, as I mentioned, is better, but not a lot better.  He gets a few more hits, takes a few more walks, steals more bases, but that's about it.  He has less power, is two and a half years older than Young, and plays an even tougher defensive position.  He's not much good on defense either, according to most modern metrics, though he does well in fielding percentage presumably because his poor range limits his opportunities to Knoblauch a ball into the stands. 

So why, given their similarities, would the Rangers be looking to limit the exposure of Michael Young as much as possible while the Yankees were willing to give a guaranteed $51 million new contract to Jeter?  What are we missing?

Well, for one thing, it's generally not good practice to simply ignore half of a man's stats for three years.  While his road stats might not look like much, Young has also hit .318/.376/.490 over the last three years in Arlington.  Those numbers happened, and are worth considering.  (For the record, Jeter's .311/.384/.436 line at home is nothing to sneeze at either, though less disparate from his road splits than Young's.)

For another, home/road splits can be misleading.  Colorado hitters tend to show huge home/road splits while playing for the Rockies, and yet, generally do not completely wilt in the sea level air of other ballparks when they go off to play for someone else.  Some do, certainly, but the good players don't generally perform as poorly as their road splits would suggest when they depart Denver.*

*Though not always.  While crunching numbers for this, I discovered that Larry Walker had hit .280/.383/.514 in his time in Colorado, spanning nine and a half years, and that after leaving, he proceeded to hit .286/.387/.520 as a Cardinal over the next year and a half.  Not that this constitutes a "poor" performance by any stretch, only one that was amazingly consistent with his road splits.  Usually it's not this easy.  

Most players end up somewhere between their road and home numbers, though generally closer to the road ones.  Rob Neyer once referred to this as a "polar bear effect", wherein Rockies hitters essentially wind up adapting to Coors Field so well - like a polar bear, uniquely adept at thriving in one particular environment - that they're no longer all that good at hitting at lower altitudes.  The difference is that hitters seem to re-adapt to sea level when they get back there, eventually.  Arlington is not so severe a hitter's environment as Coors Field, but maybe there's a similar effect.  Maybe opposing pitchers wilt in the Texas Summer heat but find their groove when they get back home? 

Additionally, if the discussion in the new book Scorecasting is to be believed, everyone hits better at home.  The umpires, whether they know it or not, are on Mike Young's side when he's in Texas, giving him fewer called strikes, more called balls, more benefits of the doubt on safe/out calls, and etc.  Virtually every year, the major leagues as a whole hit about 30-40 OPS points better at home than on the road, almost entirely for this reason, so why should Michael Young be any different?

None of this is to say that the Jeter contract was a good idea, or that performance statistics should be the only deciding factor in whether or not a player gets re-signed (and for how much), only that it can sometimes be interesting and/or instructive to compare players who have similar - if slightly hidden - resumes.

Generally speaking I think the Yankees will end up regretting this contract by the time it's half over.  Shortstops simply don't tend to remain shortstops when they get to be nearly 40 years old, even great ones like Cal Ripken, and certainly not mediocre (at best) defensive shortstops like Jeter.  Except that the Yankees don't have any place else to put him.

They're not going to make Jeter a third baseman, as Texas did with young when Elvis Andrus was promoted.  Alex Rodriguez is over there and is signed through 2017.  They're not going to move Jeter to first, where Mark Teixeira is signed through 2016.  And unlike Texas, New York has a serviceable DH, their former catcher, Jorge Posada, who's signed through 2011 and making a shade over $13 million.

They may be thinking that they'll have to cut Jorge loose after 2011, especially if his offense dips any further.  His OPS has already fallen in each of his last two full seasons from a high of 970 in 2007 down to 811 last year.  He'll be 39 this season and won't be adding much to the team if he hits any worse than he did in 2010.  American League designated hitters averaged .252/.332/.425 last year, while Jorge hit .248/.357/.454, only marginally above average.

Jorge's retirement or departure as a free agent would enable them to slot Jeter in as a DH for the remaining two years (three if he exercises the 2014 player option) of his contract. Of course, that too would require some improvement.  As a shortstop, Jeter's 710 OPS in 2010 was still a tick or two above the AL average (669) but it would be well below the 758 OPS that Junior Circuit Designated Hitters average.

If he can perform at something closer to his career level of 837, it could work, and that's not necessarily impossible.  He hit only .307 when he put the ball in play last year, well below his  career average of about .356, so if that was just a fluke and not an  indication of declining skill, we should see a significant bounce in his  batting average and therefore in all his other numbers. 

Baseball Prospectus has him pegged to hit .282/.348/.386 while Bill James is a little more optimistic, projecting .295/.365/.410.  Tom Tango's Marcel system splits the difference: .283/.350/.397, shading to the cautious side.  Those are all somehow based on the averages of players' performances who were similar to Jeter at a similar stage in their careers, but then Jeter is nothing if not unique, or at least, atypical.

Two years ago he nailed his PECOTA projection almost exactly, hitting .300/.363/.408 when his projection said .297/.365/.407, but then in 2009 he blew his projection (.288/.353/.383, six homers) out of the water with a sterling season, hitting .334 with 18 homers and 30 steals.  Would any of us really be all that surprised if Jeter hit .315 this year with 15 homers? Not really.  His Clutchness has spent the better part of the last two decades surprising us.  

Of course if the Yankees to slot Jeter into the DH spot, they'll then need a shortstop, but that's a problem for next winter. 


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