29 April 2009

Phil Hughes Vying for Joba's Job-a?

The Good News: Phil Hughes pitched well last night against the Tigers. He used 99 pitches to shut them out for six innings, allowing only two hits and two walks while fanning six.

The Bad News: People are starting to talk about putting Joba Chamberlain back in the bullpen.

The New York Daily News' John Harper makes some good points, but may be reaching a bit here:

For now, at least, they seem firmly committed to keeping Chamberlain in the rotation. But part of the equation here is that he shows no signs of being a dominating starter.
Well, he was pretty dominant against the Royals two weeks ago, but admittedly he had a tough time with Cleveland and Boston, two of the better offensive teams in baseball. It seems to me that three starts are not much of a barometer for whether he's going to be dominant.

For example, Mike Pelfrey and Scott Baker are both young pitchers, struggling more than Joba in their three 2009 starts. But they both pitched well in 2008, and nobody is talking about replacing Pelfrey's starts in the Twins' or the New York Mets schedule. Admittedly, neither of their teams has the potential glut of capable starting pitching the Yankees seem to have, but still, the analogy is worth considering.

One of the reasons Harper suggests changing Joba's role is that he would be able to throw harder and emote more freely in short stints out of the bullpen, rather than having to pace himself as a starter does, and therefore be more effective.

Since spring training the fastball velocity has been an issue, as he throws mostly around 92-93 mph now as opposed to 96-97 when he was relieving.

And while his celebrations as a reliever may have been a bit over the top, he seemed fueled by the emotion and let-it-go fire he could pour into a one-inning stint, as opposed to pacing himself as a starter.

The combination of lower velocity and a mostly placid demeanor have baseball people wondering what's wrong with Joba.

"There shouldn't be that kind of difference in velocity between starting and relieving," one AL scout said Monday. "When (Josh) Beckett is right, he's topping out at 96-97 from start to finish.

Well, not quite that high, and not all the time, but sure, let's say he's right about Beckett. So what?

Beckett has made exactly three regular season relief appearances in his major league career, and those were six and seven years ago. We have no way to compare whether the 4-5 mph drop from starting to relieving is appropriate or normal, at least not from Beckett. Maybe Beckett would be able to throw 102 mph if he only had to pitch one inning a night. Maybe 96 mph IS "pacing himself" in Beckett's case, a scary thought indeed.

One of the few examples we can use of a starting pitcher being used for short stints is at the All Star game. Though they usually work at more modest velocities, pitchers who know they'll only be throwing one inning tend to dial it up a bit more when they get called in to pitch. Brad Penny, who typically works in the 90-91 mph range, threw 95-96 mph when he started the 2006 All Star game, knowing that he wouldn't go more than two innings.

The fact of the matter is that anybody with any sense who discussed this issue last year knew that Joba would likely not throw as hard as a starter, would not dominate the way he did out of the pen in 2007-08. Nobody compiles a 1.53 ERA and strikes out almost 12 batters per game as a starter, at least not for very long, not in this era. If you were expecting that, you were mistaken.

But Joba can still be a good or even great starter, given the chance, without registering a "99" on the stadium gun every time he releases the pill. And perhaps if Pettitte and Sabathia and Burnett and Hughes and Wang are all pitching well, and taking up every start in the New York Yankees schedule, Joba would be the logical choice to relieve. But at this point Wang is a question mark at best, and Hughes has made exactly one good start.


Why would it be so bad to put Joba back in the bullpen?

Rob Neyer answers that question:
I've always come down squarely on the side of Chamberlain starting, for the simple reason that a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a great relief pitcher. Or rather, that a great starting pitcher is more valuable than a great reliever, and there were (and still are, presumably) some observers who believe that Chamberlain can become a great starter.
Chamberlain doesn't even need to become a great starter, though obviously that is still the hope. Neyer said it right the first time: A good starter is more valuable than a great reliever.

Last year, Jamie Moyer and Gil Meche and Kyle Lohse and Paul Maholm were all good, but not great starters. Each pitched around 200 innings with an ERA just under 4.00. Each had a VORP of about 40 (i.e. they were worth about 40 runs more than a replacement level starting pitcher over the same number of innings.)

By comparison, the best relievers (Scott Downs, the Mexicutioner, Brad Ziegler, Joe Nathan) were all around 30. Mariano Rivera was almost 35, but he's the exception to several rules, the one about the value of relief pitchers notwithstanding. So if Joba is healthy enough to pitch close to 200 innings, and good enough to compile an ERA under 4.00, he'll be worth about ten runs more than he would if he were to pitch only 70 innings with an ERA around 2.00. Got it?

Ten runs isn't an enormous amount, but it's probably about one win, and in what is shaping up to be a tightly contested AL East, one win might make all the difference. But, as Billy Mays says, wait, there's more.

You see, 70 innings with a 2.00-ish ERA is about the maximum that we can hope for from Joba as a reliever. Sure, he could post a 1.50 ERA. He could pitch 80 or 90 innings. But the Yankees would either have to use him more often or for longer stints, and given their history of handling the kid with, well, kid gloves, that's not likely.

As a starter, however, Joba could still thrive. It will be enough if he gives us 180 innings with a 3.75 ERA, but he could still find a groove and rack up 210 innings with a 2.99 ERA (his career mark as a starter) which would make him,

A) Worth about 60 VORP, i.e. twice as valuable as a very good reliever, and

2) One of the best starters in MLB.

Putting him back in the bullpen effectively eliminates this possibility.

Are we really ready to throw Joba's career under the bus after three starts in April? Give the man a chance to build up some stamina. Give him a chance to prove himself against some other teams. Give him a chance to throw more than 93 pitches.

He doesn't have to be great to be worthwhile as a starter. He just has to be good.

But he still might be great. Don't take that away from us.

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24 April 2009

Giants Free Passes Just Around the Corner

MLB.com's Chris Haft writes that the San Francisco Giants are issuing fewer walks this year, and their pitchers are therefore having more success at preventing runs.

Besides yielding five runs while finishing 4-1 with three shutout victories
on their recently completed homestand, the Giants issued just 10 walks. This
went a long way toward limiting their season total through 14 games to 53.

That ranked only 10th in the National League entering Thursday, but it's a considerable improvement over last year, when San Francisco's 652 walks were third-most in the league. If pitching and defense were the chapter headings to the Giants' outline of success as the season began, reducing walks was a critical subcategory. Too many free passes would devalue the talent of their pitching staff.

"The more it's talked about, it actually makes it all worse," pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "But you know what? You have to face it. It's not going away."

The subject of walks may linger, but the walks themselves have been dwindling. In the past four games, Giants pitchers have walked one batter in three games and two batters in the other. Opponents worked for the few runs they mustered.

Is this really such a big deal?

The Giants did walk 652 batters last year, which was second most in the NL, not third, and their rate per nine innings of 4.067 just slightly edged out the Pirates at 4.06 per nine innings for worst in the NL. In the majors, only Baltimore walked more batters per game than the Giants in 2008.

This year, as Haft says, the walks are down.

To three-point-nine.

Right now they're 7th instead of 16th in the NL in walk rate, but the rate itself is not much better than it was last year, and frankly, it's still pretty early in the season. Matt Cain (career walk rate of 3.8/9IP) and Jonathan Sanchez (4.6) and Barry Zito (4.4 walks/9IP since joining the Giants) and Tim Lincecum (3.6) are still on the team, and are not likely to suddenly stop walking batters.

The one bright spot is that this year Randy Johnson takes the starts that last year were given to Kevin Correia and Brad Hennesey and Matt Palmer, who all walked quite a few batters last season. Johnson, though not the dominant ace he once was, only walked 44 in 184 innings last year, and can probably teach yougsters like Lincecum, Sanchez and Cain a thing or two about throwing strikes.

More likely, though, everyone will continue to pitch largely as they have always done, with perhaps a few slight improvements due to age and experience. Other personnel changes that may help, according to Haft:
The Giants don't want an excess of walks from their relievers, either. That's largely why they signed free agents Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry, who maintained excellent control in 2008, and gave chances to non-roster right-handers Brandon
Medders and Justin Miller. Medders issued five unintentional walks in 15 exhibition innings; Miller was even more precise, walking one in 12 1/3 spring innings.

Those four relievers have combined to walk 3.9 batters per nine innings, same as the team average, and as I mentioned, only marginally better than last year's staff.

And as for saving runs? Well, certainly they did OK in the last few games, though it should be noted that these were against the Diamondbacks, who finished 10th in the NL in Runs Scored last season, and the Padres, who finished dead last. Most likely the Giants' pitchers experienced a brief respite from their usual complacency about free passes when faced with a couple of teams that both struggle to score runs anyway.

Just like all the hype about the homer binge at Yankee Stadium last week, it's still pretty early in the season, and any assessment about the nature of either a team or a building is generally pretty premature.

Articles like this get written all the time, especially early in the season. Six years go I wrote something calling Peter Gammons out when he wrote about how the 2003 Baltimore Orioles hitters were suddenly walking a lot more often than their 2002 selves had, describing a change in philosophy that supposedly the whole team had bought into. The 2002 O's had walked only 452 times, second worst in the AL that year, and their team OBP of .309 was also second worst.
Well, in the end the 2003 Orioles actually walked less, only 431 times, and while they did improve two spote in the OBP ranking, it was because they got more hits, raising the team batting average from a dismal .246 up to a semi-respectable .268. But in the meantime, it looked like a good story to Gammons.

Baseball writers are always looking for a reason for a change or improvement, and are quick to lend credence to changes in approach and philosophy for any perceived improvement, especially if they happen to be the beat writer for a particular team. But more often than not, these things are just flukes, and they are frequently magnified by the fact that so few games have been played, so the numbers can be more easily skewed.

And just like that, they can be skewed back. Over the next month, the Giants will be playing the DOdgers six times, the Mets three, the Rockies five times, and the Cubs twice, in addition to the Nationals and the Diamondbacks. Let's see if the walk rate improves any fiurther.

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20 April 2009

Analyzing the New Homer Happy Ballpark

There is a new ballpark from which balls are flying out at a record pace. Home runs are jumping off the bats of both the home team and its opponents, much more so than in the team's road games, begging the question of whether this new park is going to play like Coors Field. Or at least, like Coors Field used to play.

I'm talking, of course, about Chase Field in Arizona.

Granted, it's not that new. But the Diamondbacks and their opponents have hit 23 homers in their nine home games, but only one homer in their three road games, to date. This gives Chase Field a Home Run Park Factor of 7.667 right now, meaning that it is more than six and a half times easier to hit a home run in Phoenix than it is in a neutral MLB park.

That number is asinine, and is obviously a result of the fact that the Diamondbacks have played only a handful of games. Chase Field has always been a hitter's park, as we know, but nothing has appreciably changed about it from the last several years. Since 2001, the home run park factor in Arizona has averaged about 1.07, meaning that it's about seven percent easier to homer there than at a neutral park. Seven percent, not seven hundred percent, mind you.

This year, the D-Backs have hosted the Rockies, the Dodgers and the Cardinals, three teams that can hit pretty well. The Dodgers were a little below average last year in run scoring, but they've largely revamped their lineup. At bats that last year were mostly handled by an aging Jeff Kent and the three punchless musketeers of Angel Berroa, Blake Dewitt and Juan Pierre are now largely taken by Orlando Hudson, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake and Manny Ramirez.

The Rockies and Cards were both in the top half of the NL in run scoring last year, and in similar, though somewhat muted fashion, some of their offseason moves represent "addition by subtraction" as well. Willy Taveras, Cesar Izturis, and Adam Kennedy, are gone, and their replacements have helped to shore up the offenses of each team. Admittedly, there are some holes in this theory, as some of their hitters haven't really hit their stride and others are overperforming at the moment, but generally I think this makes sense.

Nevertheless, we can see why the Diamondbacks' pitchers have had a hard time at home. And similarly, we can see why the Arizonas have themselves hit so many homers at Chase Field, facing the likes of Aaron Cook, Glendon Rusch, Joel Piniero and some inexperienced relievers. their three road games, against a rebuilding Giants team in the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, have helped to skew the sample.

No doubt, as the season plays out and the D-backs both face and provide better pitching, the homers will slow their torrid pace and we'll return to our regularly scheduled season of only moderately crazy home run rates, instead of the ridiculous ones we have now.

In a related story: The New Yankee Stadium.

There are probably a few sillier notions going around than the one that says the Yankees' new digs are a homer haven, but offhand, I can't think of any right now.

After this weekend's opening series against the Cleveland Indians, as you've no doubt heard by now, the New Yankee Stadium is being hailed as "Coors Field East". The Yankees have hit nine homers in their four home games, to go with the 11 hit by the tribe. That's 20 bombs in just four games, and if you want to be thorough about it, you can add in the seven homers hit in the two exhibition games against the Cubs earlier this month.

At the pace suggested by these first four regular season games, you'd expect 405(!) homers to be hit over the course of the year, a ridiculous number. For comparison's sake, the most homers ever hit in a ballpark in one season is (I believe) 303, set by the Colorado Rockies in 1999, who hit 144 homers in their 81 home games, but also allowed 159.

At this rate, then, the Yankees' sea-level ballpark, with dimensions almost exactly the same as their previous home, located literally right across the street from this one and facing in generally the same direction, would have to allow about 1/3 more homers than the homer-happiest ballpark in history at the peak of the steroid era. Which, as I said, is ridiculous.

There have been suggestions that while the official dimensions are the same, the walls themselves are a little bit closer in some areas, especially the right field short porch, though these differences make up less than 10 feet in any one location, and usually more like four or five feet. Similarly, the outfield walls are shorter in a few places, though not very much shorter, and anyway, if you watched Chien-Ming Wang and rookie Anthony Clagett (ahem...) pitch on Saturday, you'd know that few of these homers are just barely clearing the fences. Most are no-doubters, and so we're left to wonder what other forces are at play here.

The elevation and direction are the same. The dimensions are the same, mostly. One suggestion deals with the new, big scoreboards in centerfield, perhaps blocking the wind that used to keep some fly balls in the park, but this too is an insufficient explanation. The old park had a big scoreboard and billboards all the way across the outfield, more than 100 feet high probably, and so while the big, new video board might be bigger than the old one was, it should not make this much of a difference.

The problem in both cases (that is, Chase Field and new Yankee Stadium) is that so little of the season has been played. The Yankees have played just 5% of their 2009 home schedule. Drawing any conclusions from these four games, with no apparent reason for the high incidence of homers to be blamed on the ballpark, is foolishness at best, yellow journalism at worst.

Isn't it just possible that, say, the baseballs themselves are juicier or that the Yankees' pitching staff still has some kinks to work out? or that, you know, it's a statistical fluke? It would be like assuming that all of the 2,900 miles of Interstate 80 are straight and flat and largely devoid of traffic after having driven only the portion that goes through the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

I think I'll drive a bit further before making my decision, thanks.

UPDATE: In light of the fact that Accu-Weather has weighed in on this issue, and thinks it may be new wind patterns due to the slightly different profiles of the former and current stadia's grandstands, I decided to posit my own theory on how the wind and weather may be affecting the baseballs hit at the new Yankee Stadium.

Possible Old Yankee Stadium Wind:

Possible New Yankees Stadium Wind:

Hey, my approach is about as scientific as theirs is.

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09 April 2009

Carl Pavano Makes History Again, Sort of

Carl Pavano made his (not) much anticipated return to a major league mound this afternoon, toeing the rubber for the Clevelands against the Texas Rangers in Arlington.

Pavano gave up nine runs, all earned, in only one inning of official work, striking out one and walking three. He allowed two homers, a double and three singles, and faced three batters in the second inning before being sent to the showers. He left two runners on base, both of whom scored eventually, one on a sacrifice fly, the other on a fielder's choice.

This should be no real surprise, as Pavano has been neither healthy nor effective for half a decade, and his spring training stats (5.70 ERA in 23 IP) did not exactly inspire confidence. But still, an ERA of 81.00?

It's not often you see a pitcher give up at least nine runs without getting more than three outs. Since 1993, this has only happened 15 times, which is more than I would have guessed. The last occurred in August 2008, when Brian Bannister let the Yankees have a 10-spot en route to a 15-6 drubbing. An interesting point of note: Kansas City has doled out four of those 15 games, while nobody else has more than two (Arizona).

Bronson Arroyo also did it last year, in June, giving up 10 of the Blue Jays' 14 runs in an embarrassing loss. Such a game occurred only once in 2007, but it was perhaps the worst start in history: 11 earned runs, two outs by Houston's Jason Jennings against the Padres. Someone should have told him he wasn't pitching in Colorado anymore.

The most this has happened in a single year was the four times it occurred in 2006, twice due to the Royals' horrendous pitching. One of those, Mark Redman's 9-earned run, one out start against the Tigers in late September, might be even worse than Jennings', if we use ERA as the barometer. Redman's ERA for that game was (I kid you not...) 243.00!

Then it only happened about once per year, going back to 1993. Interestingly, some of the pitchers who did this weren't really all that bad. Arroyo last year was already mentioned, but Orlando Hernandez did it in Y2K, Tom Gordon in 1995, and Ben Rivera in 1993, each of whom won 12 games in the year this happened, though Rivera had an ERA over 5.00 for the year, and only won the games he did because he was pitching for the eventual NL champion Phillies.

Rookie Jason Simontacchi did it in 2002, when he won 11 games for the Cardinals. Ryan Madson did it in 2006, when he won 11 for the Phillies, though admittedly, he was much better in relief than starting that year, and hasn't started since that year. Redman also had 11 wins in the year he did it, albeit with an ERA of almost 6.00.

But before that? Wow, this almost never happened. Going back to 1954, which is as far as Baseball-reference.com's searchable gme database goes, there are only three more games ivolving at least nine earned runs and three outs or fewer, less than one per decade.

Before 1993, you have to go back to 1987, when Houston's Bob Knepper surrendered nine earned runs to the Cubs in just one official inning, during a season in which he led the NL with 17 losses. Houston stuck with him, though, and he went 14-5 the next year, but then he went 7-12 for two teams the following year and was done. (Interestingly, Rick Sutcliffe gave up seven runs and six walks in five innings in that game, but got the Win!)

The last one before that was in 1976, when journeyman Joe Decker of the Minnesota Twins gave up 10 runs to the Royals (remember when the Royals used to be able to score 10 runs?) in one of the last starts of his career. He lasted about another month, and then disappeared from the majors for three years, before attempting a brief comeback with the recently formed Mariners in 1979.

And finally, lest you think that such things only happen to lousy pitchers, the first such start belonged to none other than Bob Gibson. Excuse me: Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, in 1967. This was a down year for him, only 13-7, 2.98 ERA in 175 IP, but still, nine runs in one inning? Actually, two thirds of an inning? The Cardinals would eventually win the World Series that year, with Gibson finishing 22nd in the MVP voting, but that day the Giants had their way with him. I guess the wind was blowing out at Candlestick Park.

This really doesn't mean much, except that Pavano is likely on his way out, which we all knew anyway. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they're counting on him as their #3 starter.

In case you had any doubts about how the game has changed in the last decade and a half, think about how these out of control pitching performance used to happen about once every 10 or 12 years, and now they happen about once a year.

Good thing we got this year's out of the way quickly!

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08 April 2009

Using Draft Signing Bonuses to Predict MLB Performance?

From an interview with Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver in the Baltimore Sun's blogging branch:

TD: I did want to ask you about [Orioles catching prospect Matt] Wieters, because PECOTA seems to have an almost unprecedented crush on him. I was wondering what you made of that?
Nate Silver: [...] The Double-A team Wieters was playing for, when you look at park effects and league difficulty, it was a really tough year for hitters in Double-A. And so that gets ratcheted up quite a bit. The Eastern League was very competitive. He did about as well as any player can do down at that level. He's a big guy. That translates pretty well. And we look at the size of a guy's signing bonus because that has some predictive value. The fact that he has a very big pedigree in college and that more often than not, guys who are drafted that high tend to pan out. That combination of things led to a really aggressive forecast where, if he played for a whole year at that level, he could be an MVP contender.
The bold emphasis is mine.

For the record, Wieters is projected to hit .311/.395/.546 with 31 homers and 100 RBI this year, despite the facts that he has only one year of pro experience and it's all been at Single and Double-A. For reference, that's about as well as Kevin Youkilis or Mark Teixeira did last year, and is easily the most optimistic projection for a rookie player that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system has ever made.

I saw this over at Rob Neyer's newly-formatted blog on ESPN.com, and I thought that rather than waste all my thoughts commenting over there, where someone might actually see them, I would lay something out here. This way nobody will ever read it, and it can't fall into the wrong hands, er... eyes. Whatever.

Anyway, I understood some of why PECOTA would suggest that a young player with so little pro experience would play at such a high level in his rookie year. After all, such a feat is not unprecedented. Mike Piazza hit the cover off the ball at AA and AAA in 1992, and then easily won the NL Rookie of the Year in 1993 at age 24, hitting .318/35/112 for the Dodgers.

He was, it should be noted, a year older, and put up his gaudy minor league minor league numbers at a higher level than Wieters did last year, but the analogy is there. Also, as Neyer pointed out, Johnny Bench won an MVP award at age 22, though he did so after having already played a few seasons in the majors, not as a rookie. Joe Torre, Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Gary Carter and other catchers have hit very well at age 23 or so, but most of those had some seasoning in MLB before that.

And of course those were all before PECOTA. Back in the day, we used to have to rely on scouts and guesswork to figure out how well someone would perform, but today there is an array of different methods, all scientific in some form or another, to do this job. Bill James, ZiPS, PECOTA, and a half dozen others all have some proprietary methods for guessing at how well players will do in the future, with varying degrees of success.

Once in a while you get to peek inside a little, as when Baseball Prospectus introduced and explained PECOTA a decade ago. For the most part, though, these systems remain hidden, and the specific formulae are always closely guarded secrets. But Silver let the cat out of the bag in this interview, and I can't believe nobody has yet picked up on it:

Signing bonuses??!?

I can understand using players with comparable stats, comparable positions, comparable body types, ages, and etc. to try to figure out what someone might do, but signing bonuses? That essentially means that PECOTA is putting some semblance of trust in what the drafting teams think of their draftees' worth, right?

I'm not saying the teams don't know what they're doing, but there is an inherent danger in this approach. Talent and potential aren't the only thing to go into this process. Teams who have more money to spend can afford to give bigger signing bonuses, though I doubt a structured settlement company would figure their payouts like this.

The Yankees, for example, routinely give their picks more than "slot money" because, well, they're the Yankees. Or because they're trying to convince a player to sign with them instead of going to college, or playing another sport. Similarly, Scott Boras clients get more than anybody else because he's the best agent in the business.

Theoretically then, a Yankees' draftee, who wanted to go to college, affiliated with Scott Boras could easily get a bigger bonus than someone drafted 10-15 spots ahead of him. This, despite the fact that he's presumably not as talented, and yet, somehow, PECOTA would increase his projection because of it.

How far down the draft order does this consideration go? Just the first round? the first two, or five? The whole draft? Probably not. And for how long is this a factor? Just with rookies, or after a year or two of minor league experience?

In any case, most of the time, this is probably irrelevant, as I doubt that PECOTA makes a distinction between a bonus of $220,000 and $250,000, or between $19,000 and $30,000, or whatever. But when you start getting into the millions, well, I have to wonder.

Wieters got $6 million from the Orioles, almost as much as 2005 #1 pick Justin Upton got from the Diamondbacks. These are Upton's PECOTA projections for 2007 and 2008 as well as the performances on which those were based and the actual performances in the following years, for comparison:

2006 Performance: .263/.343/.413 in 501 PA in Class A, at age 18
2007 PECOTA: .255/.318/.413 (12HR, 10 SB, 62 Runs and 53 RBI in 529 PA in MLB)
2007 Actual: .221/.283/.364 in 152 PA in MLB, after hitting .319/.410/.551 in 100+ games at High A and AA

Looks like PECOTA missed high and wide with this one. Upton was only 19 in 2007, but BP thought he would be just a hair below the average NL hitter that year (which was .266/.334/.423, according to Baseball-reference.com). Instead, he hit more like the average NL pinch hitter (.228/.311/.358) which is to say, like a guy who does not deserve to play regularly.

2007 Performance: .319/.410/.551 in 456 PA in A and AA, at age 19
2008 PECOTA: .271/.349/.471 (20 HR, 92 Runs, 78 RBIs, 18 SB in 642 PA in MLB)
2008 Actual: .250/.353/.463 (15 HR, 42 RBIs, 52 Runs, 1 SB in 417 PA in MLB, after 15 decent games in AAA)

PECOTA got pretty close to the mark here, though. Despite the 21-point gap in batting average and the lack of steals, Upton's actual OPS was within 0.004 of his projection, albeit in a lot less playing time, which is difficult to project. So perhaps the signing bonus thing doesn't factor in once they've got a couple of years' experience to use for evaluation purposes.

Other 2007 draftees who got several million in signing bonuses either don't have a PECOTA projection for this year (Andrew Brackman) or have projections that seem pretty reasonable (Mike Moustakas, David Price, Josh Vitters) given what we have seen of them in the minors.

I also checked Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs' pick in 2005 who got a record $7.25 million so that he would pitch instead of playing football. His projection for last year indicated that he would stink very much bad in the majors, which he surprisingly did not, though their projection for him in 2008 says much the same (6.60 ERA).

I can't check everyone, of course, but my suspicion is that the signing bonus thing doesn't play a very big role. I'm just not sure I get why it should play any role at all. Silver's explanation for using the signing bonus is that "it has some predictive value" but of course, generally, the guys who get more money in the draft are the ones the teams think will be good major leaguers anyway, so there ought to be some correlation there.

This winds up as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the the players who are expected to be good are given a lot of money, and then the players given a lot of money are expected to be good. Seems to me there must be a better way.

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31 March 2009

Fisking Fitzpatrick: Comparing the Phillies OF to the 1930 Athletics

Well, I tried to go "old school" with my Canterbury Tales style Phillies Preview, but Philadelphia Inquirer writer Frank Fitzpatrick went old school in a different way in his Sunday column. Fitzpatrick compares the current Phillies outfield of Jason Werth, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino to the outfield of the 1930 Athletics, consisting of Mule Haas, Bing Miller and Al Simmons.

He concluded that the Phillies can't match the A's for nicknames, though he admits that neither "Mule" nor "Bing" is as interesting as "The Flyin' Hawiian".

No, seriously, in terms of their abilities, he gives the "...1930 trio a big edge over the Phillies' outfield".

But before we reduce his arguments to rubble, let's ask the obvious question:


Why are we comparing a team that played 79 years ago, a different franchise, in a different league, in a different park in a different era, with the defending World Champs? Why not compare them to the 1967 Kansas City Athletics, or the 1955 Pirates or the 1884 St. Paul Apostles, for that matter?

Sure, that Ibanez can drive in 90 runs, but he's no Scrappy Carroll!

It's because those A's were the last repeat World Series champions from Philadelphia, and of course the entire stock of Philly beat writers hopes that these Phillies can repeat as well.

Granted, it's a silly exercise. For one thing, why just compare the outfield? Why not the infield? Why not the starting pitchers or the bullpen or the benches? Besides differences in the leagues and the style of ball, the types of these clubs are completely different as well.

The 2009 Phillies are stocked with several good, but not great players, some of whom had career years in 2008. At best, 20 years from now, we might be able to look back and call, say, Chase Utley or Cole Hamels a Hall of Famer, but that's a long stretch at this point. In reality, there probably isn't a single eventual Cooperstowner on either the 2008 or 2009 Phillies rosters.

By contrast, those 1930 A's had four of them: Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx, not to mention a brief appearance by Eddie Collins. The first three were in their prime, in their mid to late 20's.

Jimmie Foxx was only 21 in 1929, but had been in the majors since age 17, and had an MVP-caliber campaign in his first full season of work. (The AL curiously did not dole out an MVP award in 1929, and neither league awarded any in 1930, though Simmons and Foxx would have certainly been in the running.)

Fitzpatrick starts out reasonably well:

As a result, anyone interested in comparing Simmons, Haas and Miller with their counterparts on the 2009 Phillies can do so only through the harsh prism of statistics.

But numbers don't reveal everything. They don't consider 1930's lively ball or 2009's menacing bullpens. They don't account for the rigors of train travel, the daunting glare of the 24/7 spotlight or the spitball and slider.
He then proceeds to base most of the rest of the article on anecdotal evidence and hearsay, all but ignoring any intelligent statistical analysis.

Quoting Dave Jordan, the head of the Philadelphia Historical Society:

"...the old A's outfield looks far, far better. Simmons does that all by himself, and Miller and Haas were very solid performers. Victorino may, in coming years, approach Miller. I don't think Werth can even be placed in a fair comparison with any of them."
Fitzpatrick and his sources are correct in saying that Raul Ibanez, the most accomplished of the three Phillies' outfielders, is no match for the best of the A's outfield, Hall of Famer Al Simmons. The Inquirer article cites Simmons' career batting average of .334, his hits and homer totals, but forgets to mention how significantly these were inflated by the era and the ballpark in which he played.

If you "neutralize" his stats, his career batting average drops to .312, still very good, but not quite so impressive on the face of it. Similarly, he loses about 15 homers and almost 200 RBI over the course of his career. If you neutralize both of their career stats lines, they actually come out quite a bit closer than you would think:

Simmons: .312/.356/.498, with 22 HR, 113 RBI & 93 Runs per 162 Games
Ibanez: .280/.340/.463, with 21 HR, 90 RBI & 78 Runs per 162 Games

That's still a big disparity, but not as big as you might think.

For comparing the other two, he then quotes someone named Bill Kashatus, who wrote a book about the 1929 Athletics:

"What I see in those numbers is that while the power stats are comparable for center and rightfielders, Haas and Miller had higher batting averages and were much more disciplined at the plate than Victorino and Werth, as evidenced by the difference in strikeouts."
Wait, so he's saying that these players from Shibe Park in the 1930's hit for higher batting averages and struck out less often? Well, then they must be better players, right?

Except that they're not.

For one thing, comparing strikeouts is just ridiculous. In 1929, the American League averaged 2.92 strikeouts per game, and then in 1930, it jumped up to an average of 3.32/game.

Last year, the National League averaged almost seven strikeouts per game. Baseball is played differently now. Everybody swings harder, pitchers throw harder, and the strike zone is half the size of what it was three quarters of a century ago.

For example, Jimmie Foxx led the American League in whiffs every year from 1929-31, and his total for three years (220) was only 10 percent more than Ryan Howard did all by himself last year (199), which didn't even lead the league. There is no good way to say that Werth or Victorino has less impressive bat control than two players from 1930.

Another big difference, of course, is the relative number of runs scored. In 1929, in a league that averaged 5.01 Runs/Game, Bing Miller created 103 runs, or as many as would normally be scored in 20.6 games. Mule Haas created 99 Runs, enough for 19.8 games.

In 1930, the American League averaged 5.41 Runs/Game. Miller, despite hitting .303 with 100 RBI, created only 88 Runs, enough for 16.2 games. Haas created only 74 runs, good for 13.7 games' worth. Simmons created 148 and 166 runs in those two seasons, good for 29.5 and 30.6 games in 1929 and 1930, respectively.

For comparison's sake, last year's outfield played in a league that averaged just 4.54 runs/game, and Ibanez played in the American League, which averaged 4.78 Runs per game. The 2008 Phillies outfield was not better than the 1930 Athletics' outfield but it's closer than you'd think:

       Simmons   Miller  Haas          Total 
1929 29.5 20.6 19.8 69.9
1930 30.6 16.2 13.7 60.5

Burrell Shane Werth (Ibanez) Total (Tot w/ Ibanez)
2008 23.3 20.3 18.5 (22.6) 62.1 (61.4)

So, even though Simmons has a big edge on Burrell (or Ibanez), the edges for the other two outfielders are very slim, comparing 1929 to 2008, the first Championship year for each team.

Bing Miller, not quite as fast as he would have liked to be...

And then both Miller (age 35 in 1930) and Haas (age 26) drop off notably the next year. Werth and Victorino are both in their late 20's, and should not see any significant drop off due to age, though Werth may have peaked last year, and in any case, his track record suggests that he's never more than a checked swing away from his next DL stint.

Ibanez, on the other hand, will be 37 this year, and will probably start to decline at any moment, but if the other two pick up his slack, there's no reason that these three can't provide about 60 games worth of runs for the 2009 Phillies, just as Haas, Simmons and Miller did for the 1930 Athletics.

Another comparison made in the article pertained to speed, with Kashatus saying,
"What always amazed me was that Haas in 12 full seasons in the majors totaled 12 stolen bases. With his speed, he could have stolen much more. Then again, the . . . A's weren't built to run. They were a power-hitting team."
This last part is true, though I find it amusing that a guy whose nickname was "Mule" was actually considered fast.

Technically, it's not clear whether he actually was very fast or whether he just had incredible instincts when it came to chasing fly balls in the outfield. Most of the literature talks about him being a great fly chaser, but little of it actually talks specifically about his speed. Similarly, Joe DiMaggio was widely regarded as one of the best in centerfield, but never stole more than six bases in a season.

The 1930 A's were second in the American League in homers, slugging and runs scored (all to the Yankees, of course), but only 7th in steals among eight teams. If you can score 951 runs without risking skinned knees and broken fingers, why bother, right?

These Phillies are different, though. In addition to all the homers (they led the Senior circuit with 214 of them last year) they also had the 3rd most steals (136) in the NL, and were 4th from last in getting caught.

Victorino stole 36 bases himself last year, 6th in the NL, and should probably be compared to Miller, not Haas, as Bing stole 24 bags in 1929, 3rd in the AL, and is the only one of the three with any propensity for swiping bases. He dropped off significantly in 1930, stealing only 13, but also getting caught 13 times.

Another quote from Kashatus:
"Both Werth and Miller are disciplined hitters, though. They both work counts well and can hit in the clutch. But Miller was more of a contact hitter who considered it a disgrace to take a called third strike."
Werth is, indeed, a very patient hitter, seeing 4.51 pitches per plate appearance last season, which would have ranked second in the majors (behind Nick Swisher) if he'd had 19 more plate appearances. Even though he struck out twice as often as he walked, and about 40% more than the average NL player, he waited for his pitch to strike out. Dammit.

Miller was, though not abnormally averse to the strikeout, at least relatively adept at avoiding them. The average American Leaguer in 1930 struck out 56 times in 585 at-bats, while Bing would swing and miss only 25 times that year.

So Kashatus was right about this one, though I would have liked to see some evidence, rather than just taking his word for it. I guess newspapers aren't the place for tables of numbers and complex statistics, unless they refer to the stock market.

Now if we can just get Charlie Manuel to wear a high, false collar and a bowler.

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30 March 2009

Brett Gardner: Put me in Coach! I'm Ready to Make Outs!

The Yankees are reportedly planning on letting Brett Gardner be the regular center fielder this year, at least until he demonstrates that he can't handle the load. In my mind, his four seasons of fairly lackluster performances in the minor leagues have already demonstrated that.

Nevertheless, Yankees manager Joe Girardi has tabbed Gardner, not Johnny Damon or Nick Swisher, to be the everyday centerfielder. And if Girardi decides to stick with Gardy despite all evidence that he knows how to do little other than run fast and make outs, I am hereby patenting the term for this tendency as a "Gard-On", as in:

"I just don't get why Girardi has such a Gard-on for this guy. You'd think they were having an affair or something."

Gardner has evidently won the job on the strength of his strong performance this spring, in which he's hit .367 with three homers, six RBI, nine Runs and five steals in six attempts in 21 games. In case you were wondering about the level of competition, these homers were hit against:

  • Brett Cecil, a 21-year old who had a 4.11 ERA in 30 IP in AAA last year,
  • Aaron Harang, who went 6-17, 4.78 for the Reds in 2008, and whose 4.56 spring ERA suggests that he hasn't appreciably improved over the winter, and
  • Brad Mills, a 23-year old Blue Jays prospect who has not yet pitched above AA
In addition to the unimpressive competition and the fact that he has not hit one out since March 9th, those three homers equal the total he hit in 341 at-bats in AAA last season, or one third of his entire professional career home run total, in 381 games. So, while it's possible that Brett suddenly somehow acquired the power he has always lacked, it's more likely that this is a fluke, and Gardner won't hit more than one or two homers all year, if he plays daily.

In somewhat related news, the Yankees announced last week that Derek Jeter will be moving back into the leadoff spot, a role in which he has performed admirably at various times in his career. Indeed, Jeter's career line in the #1 hole (.315/.389/.471) is almost exactly the same as his overall career line (316/.387/.458). Despite his weaknesses, one of Jeter's greatest strengths as a player is his ability to adapt, and to do what needs to be done, regardless of changes in circumstance. If there's anyone who can be shuffled around the lineup to help the team function better as a whole, it's Jeter.

So, they don't need their centerfielder to also serve as the leadoff man, as Damon did for the last few years. That should help Gardner a bit, dropping him back down to the bottom of the order, where the lower pressure may allow him to thrive. Or, more likely, where the lack of protection in the order will enable opposing pitchers to challenge him, and his weak bat will be exposed all the more.

Jason Rosenberg from IIATMS commented over at ShysterBall:

... Here’s what Gardner isn’t: a power hitter. Here’s what the Yanks don’t need: A power hitter. What DO the Yanks need: A CF with speed and a hitter who can get on and help manufacture a run.


Tell me I am crazy, but if Gardner’s on first, they are going to hit and run like mad as Jeter is so adept at slapping the ball towards rightfield. As the 2B goes to cover the base (Jeter being righty and all), that creates a massive hole for Jeter to try to shoot the ball thru. Gardy’s going first to third alot this year.

Melky ain’t.

With all due respect, Jason, power hitter, schmower hitter. And that "if" Gardner's on first should by no means be taken lightly.

Gardner's just barely a "hitter" at all. His career minor league line is .291/.389/.385, with nine homers in almost 1700 plate appearances. Baseball Prospectus' 75th percentile projection for him is only .266/.353/.375, which last year would have given him an OPS that ranked 125th out of 147 major league batters.

In other words: He'll have to defy three-to-one odds just to be awful.

Gardner's 90th percentile projection from Baseball Prospectus (meaning that roughly 1 out of ten players with a similar profile do this well) is .288/.376/.412. That's statistical speak for "moderately useful" or about as well as BJ Upton did last year.

But Upton is younger, more experienced, and still has potential, as everyone expects him to hit with more power, in addition to the speed and the newly found patience he exhibited in 2008. Gardner would be maxed out at that level, with nowhere to go but down. Unless Gardner is saving dozens of runs with his glove and those speedy legs, there's no way he should be a viable option for a team trying to win a championship, not for more than a couple of weeks as a stopgap.
More likely he'll compile numbers closer to BP's weighted average, which is .252/.339/.350 (689 OPS), and which would make Gardner one of the dozen or so worst regular hitters in the major leagues this year.

For comparison, Chone Figgins of the LAnahfornia Angeles had a 685 OPS, which ranked 11th from the bottom. That's IF Gardner meets his weighted projection. In all probability though, given his statistical profile, he'll end up performing more like Michael Bourn of the Astros, who was dead last out of 147 qualified MLB hitters last year in OPS. (He only played as much as he did, both in Philly and Houston, because GM Ed Wade has a gard-on for the guy. See how that works?)

Take a look:

Bourn .285 .379 .393 772 1552 280 48 36 16 142 163 28 227 339
Gardy .290 .389 .385 774 1448 297 55 28 9 124 151 31 233 287

Those are the minor league stats for the two players (complements of the Baseball Cube) and they are eerily similar.

Other similarities include that they're both an inch or two under six feet tall, with listed weights of 180 lbs. Both bat lefty and play center, and Gardner, like Bourn before him, will get his first shot at extended playing time in the majors at age 25.

If there is any difference to speak of, it's that Gardner struck out 10% less often in the minors than Bourn did, which may suggest slightly better bat control, but not much else. It should also be noted that more than half of Bourn's numbers were compiled at AA, while Gardner's were spaced pretty evenly between Single A (both high and low), Double-A and AAA.

If you look at their college numbers, at first glance it appears than Gardner (.382/.456/.508) was a vastly better player than Bourn (.320/.431/.371) but this is largely a result of context. Gardner went to the College of Charleston, in the Southern Conference, with such luminous institutions as Wofford, the Citadel, Appalacian State, and Elon College (long live the Fighting Christians!!!).

During the three years that Gardner attended college, there were 33 different players drafted from that conference, and four of these have made it to the majors, at least briefly. Among these, the best (so far) is probably Tom Mastny, a nondescript relief pitcher in the Cleveland organization.

By contrast, Bourn attended the University of Houston, in Conference USA, with much larger schools like Tulane, UNC-Charlotte, and Texas Christian. In his three years, there were 66 different players drafted, and 12 of these have been in the majors for some span of time. The best of these are Chad Tracy, Jesse Crain, Dan Uggla and Kevin Youkilis. Clearly, Bourn was up against much stiffer competition. So it looks like the differences in those college numbers are a wash, too.

This, of course, is largely irrelevant now, since we have close to 400 minor league games to examine for each player, a much better indicator of future major league performance than college numbers are. And those numbers suggest that Gardner will be one of the fastest and most prolific outmakers in the major leagues this year.

On another team, he'd be a great bet to rack up 50 steals and 500 outs, but I think the Yankees will grow tired of his act by the end of May, and either Damon or Swisher will be out patrolling center field. The Yankees can afford to take a hit on defense if it means they'll get reasonable production from their hitters.

Either that, or they'll end up trading for someone they think can play regularly, eating a lot of salary in the process. Someone like Aaron Rowand or (God help us...) Juan Pierre.


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26 March 2009

2009 Phillies Preview...in Iambic Pentameter (sort of)

The Phillies won themselves a World Series,
Beat the Tampa Bay Rays with rel'tive ease!
A championship! And long-awaited!
City of Brotherly Love, elated!
But now they face a new season: Oh-Nine,
Their foes take aim, they'll have no easy time
Repeating as Darlings of October...
Will their season end before it's over?

Starting Pitching:

The team's hopes start with Hamels, their big ace
The Series MVP, the Phranchise Phace,
Two hundred innings plus, this year he'll give
And each time out, he'll keep the hope alive.
A nasty change-up from his arm, sinister
Will make opponents hear, "Sit down, Mister!"
At only twenty-five and not abused,
His arm for 20 wins could well be used.

Brett Myers gets the nod as starter, second,
For thirty starts again, he should be beckoned.
He's better than his middling ERAs
But needs to prove it, get back to the days
In '05, '06, under four he stayed
And he still can, he's only twenty eight.
A breakout season they need, not a LAIM
Fifteen-plus wins, he's no one left to blame.
If he can't do it now, he never will
A few more years, and he's over the hill.

Blanton's number three, an innings-eater
His slider, curve and low 90's heater
Provide six innings, quite reliable.
Mechanics make him inviolable.
Perhaps not much to watch, not exciting
Won't miss bats, without a slider, biting,
But more than earns his modest salary
(Though he should maybe watch the calories!)

Fourth is Jamie Moyer, ancient of days
Who helped the Phils to beat the Tampa Rays.
Sixteen games he won through the long season
Though some thought him done, and with good reason.
For two years more the Phillies, they signed him
And though his best seasons are behind him
He might give just enough to be useful
Though I doubt it, if I must be truthful.

The Number five spot, quite likely revolving:
(Kendrick's not much good, and not evolving.)
Chan Ho Park could start sometimes, but it seems
His ERA, helped by Chavez Ravine
Will likely blow up this year in The Vault.
The minors seem bare, though not Ruben's fault,
Won't help much, unless someone surprises.
The same poor pitching, in many guises.


Closers can't remain perfect, as Brad Lidge
Was in '08. He'll drop off, just a smidge,
But should remain a thoroughbred stopper
Helping the Phillies remain on top, or
Barring that, at least he'll fan his share of
Batters, for Phillies Phans to cheer thereof.
But if Philly's season hopes, they Phalter
It won't be his fault, he's like Gibraltar.

After Brad Lidge, rounding out the bullpen:
Madson, Condrey, Chan Ho, Eyre and Durbin,
Some quality arms, some who are re-treads.
"Condrey and Durbin," say some cooler heads,
"Should regress some from last year's performance.
Low ERAs, with little conformance
To anything they had done before this!"
By not pointing this out, I'd be remiss.

But Madson is a solid reliever,
With two good seasons, he's made believers
In Philly and beyond. Hitters hate him
And his slow change-up, "Bland ultimatum!"
They'd rather be challenged with smoking heat
But it's off-speed stuff he uses to beat
Them, and more of the same you'll see this year
He's both young and quite good, so have no fear!

Scott Eyre is the Phillies' only southpaw
Due to Romero's run-in with the law
From tainted powder, 6-Oxo Extreme
(Of pitching 'fore June, he can only dream),
But once he returns the Phils are stronger,
Though in contention, perhaps no longer
They'll be if the starters cannot maintain
Their '08 levels and be more than LAIM.

And those who don't start should pitch some innings,
Out of the bullpen, vulture some winnings,
Though Park and Kendrick and Happ aren't much,
To coax outs from them will take a soft touch.

If there's more relief help, it's hard to see.
Majewski, Zagurski, Dave Borowski?
All washed-up and lousy they were last year
Such dreck in the majors? No! Please not here!

Offensive Starters:

As for the offense, begins the order:
Number 11, a man much shorter
Than many of his peers, though they can't boast
Of an MVP, to him, they must toast.

But from that height, he seems to have fallen,
Though still a great shortstop, Jimmy Rollins.
His glove is no slouch, he's earned two Gold ones,
And backs up his words (he utters bold ones!)

His bat, more than adequate, it should yield
A hundred-plus runs, if he stays on-field,
Hit a few homers, could walk more often
But don't expect vintage Kenny Lofton.

The two-hole, also manned by a shorty,
With O-B-P's well over .340:
Shane Victorino, "Flyin' Hawaiian"
His small stature, his talent belyin'.

Decent BA, a handful of homers,
Good defense (among center field roamers),
Excellent speed (he'll steal 30 bases),
Still in his prime, just 28, he is.

Second baseman, Utley, the third batter,
Should this year 40-plus doubles, scatter,
And hit 30 taters. Runs he'll drive in,
And score some himself, plus make some divin'

Stops up the middle. Perhaps a Gold Glove?
Alas, last year's voters showed him no love
Though vastly better he was than Brandon,
(The voting gets increasingly random.)

Regardless, Chase is the best keystoner
In MLB. At that, he's a loner,
An MVP threat, without any peer,
But Philly will need more than him this year.

Cleanup man? First baseman, Ryan Howard
Last year with much undue praise was showered
For driving in runs and hitting some jacks.
Such people ignored the cost of those hacks:

Almost 200 whiffs, low O-B-P...
His VORP, on his own team, ranked #3!
Still he had value, not a bad player,
But much like Casey, per Ernest Thayer.

Likely to improve on .251,
But not the best fielder under the sun,
Defense atrocious and legs immobile,
But more power than erstwhile Chernobyl!

Raul Ibanez bats fifth, plays left field,
(Philly to Burrell's demands would not yield.)
Out goes The Bat they thought not a keeper,
And in comes Raul: Older, not cheaper.

Still can't play defense, walks much less often,
Hits more singles, (the blow, this should soften)
But little difference in their net effects
Should there be this year, unless one gets wrecked

With injuries, or else early, ages.
Smart cash is on Raul, say the sages,
To start his decline phase, slow attrition.
By June, for Pat, Phils' Phans could be wishin'!

Next we have Werth, him, finally healthy,
Had a career year, made himself wealthy,
But can he build on last year's good numbers?
Or will his bat instead choose to slumber?

The more common problem for him has been
That his wrist ailment, to heal wasn't keen,
But with a full year in '08, he proved
That he's OK now, beyond this he's moved.

A great hitter, like Manny, 'gainst lefties
But batting left, his numbers aren't hefty,
Now he must try to hit righty pitching
Or maybe just when he hits, not switching.

The next, um... "hitter" is Pedro Feliz
Who seems to make outs with relative ease.
Suppos'd to stabilize the Corner, Hot,
But hitting .250 is all he's got.

Despite his weak bat, swings for the fences,
No need to walk, he makes no pretenses,
Still plays good defense, but won't steal a base,
OPS so low, how's he show his face?

Better thirdbasemen? Twenty, easily,
Or more, but Philly's minors got measly
Production from theirs, so help's not coming.
City of Brotherly Love? Soon bumming.

Last in the lineup is the day's catcher,
Often Ruiz, whose bat is no match for
Chris Coste, not that his lumber's so awesome,
But at least his bat isn't still playing possum.
Ruiz, now 30, has slim potential
To help the Phillies' run differential.
Nor does Lou Marson, or Ron Paulino.
Eight's a black hole for the Phils, as we know.

The Bench:

The Phillies back-ups, they should do just fine,
Long as they're usually riding the pine.
Not a bad bunch here, some players, decent
But none whose star was bright very recent.

Jenkins, fifth outfielder and pinch hitter,
May be tempted to feel rather bitter,
Signed with the Phillies to be a starter
But found hitting righties last year harder
His one skill gone and injuries nagging
Geoff found his at-bat count sort of lagging.
A different approach he seems to have found,
And hopes for a 2009 rebound.

Stairs has experience, hitting, eating
Now 41, his career's depleting.
A timely bomb made him Philly's hero,
But this year he'll post too many zeroes.
Still hits a homer or walks on occasion
But where can he fit in their equation?
Just a DH in the League, National
They'd cut him loose if they were rational.

The mid-infield back-ups, Bruntlett and Giles
Like pre-owned cars, with no shortage of miles.
Both about 30, with little upside,
Bruntlett, all over, can field the horsehide,
And run just a bit, in case they have need.
Giles once had some pop, and a bit of speed,
And could bounce back, getting out of this rut...
(Monkeys could also fly out of my butt!)

More likely someone like Cairo, Miguel
Or Pablo Ozuna will get to tell
His wife he won the job in Spring Training.
Giles seems to have no more miles remaining.

Main corner back-up, Greg Dobbs they will ring
To spell Feliz from all his out-making.
Not much for defense, Dobbs won't be used long,
But his bat makes up for all his glove's wrongs.

Finally, putting these things together
You will all likely want to know whether
The Phillies will win. What are their chances
Of returning to October Dances?

The Phillies will have trouble reprising.
New York Mets, no slouch, and the Fish, rising,
Make stiff competition, as do the Braves
Though none of these teams will draw critics' raves.

Injuries could, the Phillies, sabotage.
Last year they had few, they're due a barrage,
And with some key players, like Cole and Chase
High injury risks, the Phils could, the race
Concede by August, dig too great a hole
To climb out from, as these hurts take their toll.

Too many key players with sudden peaks
Last year aren't likely to keep up those streaks,
Or stave off aging, they're due to endure
Declines in their 40's, they will, for sure,
Show signs of slipping, and with that, the team
Will need much luck to stay up in the stream.
The odds will catch up with the Phils this year
Eighty five wins is the safe bet, I fear.

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25 March 2009

Curt Schilling Not Cooperstown-Bound

Curt Schilling announced his retirement yesterday, which immediately begs the question of whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.


There, now that the suspense is gone, let me explain.

There are really only two arguments for Curt Schilling going to the Hall of Fame. These are, in the order of their importance:

  • He helped end an 86-year World Series drought in Boston, and helped win two other championships as well, amassing an overall postseason record of 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 133 innings. Without this, we wouldn't even need to address this question.
  • When he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers in the game, winning 20+ games three times and fanning 290+ batters four times.

Taking the second part first, Schilling has been quite good in the postseason. His 133 innings, 11 wins, 120 strikeouts, and .846 winning percentage are all among the top 10 all time for career postseason performance. Ten of the 12 postseason series in which he was involved were won by his team, including three of four World Series.

In my mind, however, this should only be a tie breaker, not an argument unto itself. Dave Stewart and Orlando Hernandez were also great in the playoffs, but the rest of their careers don't measure up. Greg Maddux was so great in the regular season that nobody will care about his 11-14 record in the playoffs when it comes time to vote for him. Schilling will get a few extra votes for helping his teams to win three World Series, but I'm not sure that will do it for him.

And that's it, really, because nothing else holds up for very long. The more closely you look at his career accomplishments, the less impressive they seem.

His 216 career wins rank just 80th all-time, far fewer than most of the pitchers in the Hall already. In terms of his competition, that total is also way lower than not just future locks for Cooperstown like Randy Johnson (295), Greg Maddux (355), and Tom Glavine (305), but also borderline cases like Mike Mussina (270) and definitive 'no's like Jamie Moyer (246) and David Wells (239). And these are his contemporaries. Older guys like Jim Kaat (283), Tommy John (288) and Bert Blyleven (287) have been shut-out with much more significant career totals, and in some ways, better cases for the Hall.

Or, if you'd prefer to compare him to current Hall of Famers, it's no great chore to find some to whom Schilling compares favorably. Herb Pennock, for example, went 240-162 with only a 106 adjusted ERA and two 20-win seasons. Hal Newhouser won only 207 games and averaged 100+ walks a year for a decade, whereas Schilling, eventually, had impeccable control. Rube Marquard won only 201 games and rarely led his league in anything. Jesse Haines has a very similar record (210-158) but only a 108 adjusted ERA. There are others, but you see where this argument could go: "Because Player X is in the Hall of Fame, Schilling should be, too."

The trouble with this is twofold:

1) Some of those pitchers are so-called special cases, who lost time due to WWII, or pitched in an extreme era, or otherwise were somehow worth more than the apparent sum of their ERA and Win totals.

B) This approach waters down the talent level, turning the Hall of Fame into the Hall of Pretty Darn Good.

Just because Haines and Pennock (and Jim Bunning, and Ted Lyons and Eppa Rixey and...) are in Cooperstown doesn't mean that they belong there. Writers make mistakes, and it doesn't help things to compound those mistakes by adding more players of this caliber to what was supposed to be a shrine to the best of the best.

So if we can't justify his enshrinement based on him being better than several existing Cooperstown residents, we're left looking at Schilling's own accomplishments, and how they compare to his competition in his own career. Was he one of the best pitchers in his own era?

Yes, sometimes.

For example, his career winning percentage of .597 is quite good, but not even as good as contemporaries like Andy Pettitte, Mark Mulder and Roy Oswalt. Or even Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, for that matter. Granted, Schilling pitched for a lot of bad teams early in his career, which skews that number a bit, but he hasn't pitched for a losing team since the Phillies in Y2K, so that certainly helps.

Not a fan of Wins and Losses? Think they're archaic and a poor measure of a pitcher's worth? Well, generally I agree with you, so let's see what else we can come up with...

Earned run average is much better, as it doesn't rely on the hitters, like Wins. Schilling's career ERA is 3.46, which is pretty good, especially in this day and age. That ranks 11th among current major leaguers, behind Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Johnson and Maddux, but also behind (believe it or not...) Roberto Hernandez and nearly tied with Tim Hudson and Carlos Zambrano.

His adjusted ERA of 127 (i.e. 27% better than the leagues in which he pitched) also ranks 11th among current major leaguers, though just 46th all-time. If you remove the players who were predominantly relievers (Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Doug Jones?!?) and the pitchers who thrived in the Dead Ball Era (Smoky Joe Wood, Addie Joss, Rube Waddell, etc.) Schilling ranks around 20th to 22nd all-time, depending on whether you want to include the likes of Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander, players whose careers straddled the lines of the Dead Ball Era.

That's still pretty good, but only about as good as Kevin Brown and Sal Maglie (both 127), and not nearly as good as Harry Brecheen (133) or Spud Chandler (132), who admittedly had shorter careers. Contemporaries like Randy Johnson (137), Pedro Martinez (154) and Greg Maddux (132) blow Schilling away in this regard. Younger pitchers like Oswalt, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Roy Halladay are all better than Schilling at relative run prevention, though these have a while to pitch yet and will inevitably drop off over time.

Schilling's career strikeout total, 3,116, is also a point in his favor, as only 16 men in history have struck out more than 3,000 batters, and he is 15th among them. John Smoltz is likely to pass him in 2009 if he can pitch even half the season, but then nobody is likely to bump him down for several years, at best.

Of the 14 men ahead of him, 12 are either in Cooperstown already or are likely to be. The other two are Bert Blyleven, who could still pick up another 12% of the voters in the next three years, and Roger Clemens, who was considered a lock for the Hall before his name got rightfully tied to the steroid scandal. Personally, I'd vote for him anyway, but the BBWAA probably won't.

Though that's just one thing, it's a big one. Even if you believe that strikeouts are boring and fascist, you have to admit that they're effective. When the baseball writers see him on their ballots, they'll certainly see that Schilling took care of his own business more often than all but about 15 guys in history. That is pretty impressive.

But is it enough? Sure, Schilling eventually developed impeccable control as well, leading his league in WHIP and in Walks per nine innings twice each. He also led in K/W ratio five times, and his career rate is the best of anyone since the 1800's (Tommy Bond), at which time it took between six and nine balls to walk a batter, depending on the year. That is, Schilling has the best ratio of strikeouts to walks of any pitcher who's tossed at least 1000 innings since they invented the 6-pitches-or-fewer walk.

On the other hand, Schilling never led his league in ERA (real or adjusted) or shutouts, or strikeout rate, some of the signs of dominance you see frequently from Hall of Fame pitchers. He was often a workhorse, during the infrequent healthy stretches, leading the league in starts three times, in Wins and Innings pitched twice each, and in complete games four times. But herein lies the trouble. Schilling amassed 3,261 innings in his major league career, good for 95th place all time, but fewer than Kenny Rogers, or John Smoltz.

It's also way fewer than Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Glavine or Clemens, his primary competition for enshrinement in Cooperstown. As it happens, it's also far fewer innings than those pitched by Dennis Martinez, Charlie Hough, Jack Morris, and Frank Tanana, none of whom is likely to ever be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown unless they buy a family pass.

Despite pitching for 21 years, he averaged just 155 innings per season, if you include 2008, when he had an $8 million contract from the Boston Red Sox but did not throw a pitch. For comparison's sake, Smoltz averaged 162 innings per year, and that includes the missed Y2K season and four years where he intentionally pitched only in relief (and was excellent at it). David Wells averaged 164 innings per year. Jamie Moyer? 170 IP/year. The Big Unit? 192. Mike Mussina averaged almost 198 innings. Maddux and Glavine and Clemens are all over 200.

You get the point, I think: Schilling was great on certain occasions when he was healthy enough to pitch every 5th day, but such times were infrequent. He had five or six seasons (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004, probably 1992) when he was among the five to ten best pitchers in baseball, though you'd be hard pressed to say he was ever the best, even in those years. He had five other years in which he pitched fairly regularly, and with decent success.

And then he had ten years lost all or partly to his either lack of focus (as was the case early in his career) or, more often, to injuries. Edgar Martinez will suffer from the same problem: great peak value, but not enough time when he was fully healthy.

Not that the injuries are necessarily his fault, but neither should we simply ignore them and give him credit for what he might have done if healthy. Don Mattingly and Orel Hershiser and Albert Belle don't get credit for lost time, and neither should Schilling. If I had to give odds, I'd say 8-5 he probably will eventually get in. I just don't think he should.

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24 March 2009

Curt Schilling Retirement Retrospective

Curt Schilling has unofficially announced his retirement from Major League Baseball, following a 20-year career in which he went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA that was about 27% better than the average of the leagues in which he pitched. He was named to six All-Star teams, and pitched in three of them, starting the 1999 and 2002 contests. He was the MVP of the 1993 NLCS and the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series.

He won several of the minor awards that MLB started handing out recently, like the Babe Ruth Award and the Hutch Award, but never won a Cy Young award or a regular season MVP. He finished 2nd in the CYA voting three times and 4th once, which gives him the highest award shares total of anyone who's never actually won it, for whatever that's worth.

Schilling was probably at least as famous for his outspoken nature as he was for his pitching prowess, making himself a regular fixture of talk radio call-in shows wherever he pitched and eventually blogging as well. Whether you liked him, whether you agreed with him or not, you had to give him credit for having a personality in a game that seems largely devoid of interesting characters these days.

He started out as a 2nd round draft pick of the Red Sox in 1986, when he was 19, but Boston would give up on him before he was 21. They saw his strikeouts dropping and his walks rising, took a look at the personality associated with those disturbing trends, and figured they could spare him. During the stretch drive in 1988 they traded him to Baltimore with Brady Anderson for Mike Boddicker, who helped the Sawx win two division titles in three years.

Though Schilling did well, winning 13 games for Baltimore's then-affiliate AAA Rochester as a 22 year old, Schilling was not yet ready for prime time, having pitched only a handful of mostly forgettable games in the majors when Baltimore sent him to Houston with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis. He was 24, and already with his third different franchise.

It was allegedly in Houston that Schilling's career got the kick in the pants it needed, from none other than Roger Clemens. While Schilling was goofing off in the weight room at the Astrodome, the Rocket lectured the arrogant kid with the earrings and blue hair about how to approach the game better, and to his credit, Schilling took it to heart.

Though there was no obvious or immediate improvement while bouncing back and forth from AAA to the majors in 1991, Schilling re-focused himself. When the Phillies traded Jason Grimsley for him the following April, he finally put it all together, winning 14 games and pitching 226 innings with a 2.35 ERA that trailed only three others in the Senior Circuit.

The following year he won 16 more games and pitched 235 innings for the worst-to-first Phillies, who lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. Not that you can blame him for that, as he threw 147 pitches in a complete game shutout in Game 5, which may be why...

...he developed a bone spur in his elbow and a knee injury that limited him to just 82 MLB innings (plus 14 in the minors, during rehab) in 1994. The following year he had his season truncated in August when he needed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, which also cost him the first several weeks of the 1996 season.

Like many pitchers who undergo such procedures, Schilling returned throwing harder than he had when he was young, as he had to be more disciplined to perform the rigorous work of rehabilitation. Though he went only 9-10, he struck out 183 batters, 10th in the NL, with a strikeout rate that was 5th among qualified pitchers.

In 1997 he led the NL with 319 strikeouts and was among the league leaders in several other categories, including ERA (8th), Wins (5th), WHIP (4th), Complete Games and Innings Pitched (3rd), K/W, shutouts and strikeout rate (2nd). On a personal note, I saw him fan 16 Yankees at Veterans Stadium on Labor Day that year, including the second, and so-far, last, Golden Sombrero of young Derek Jeter's career. When they asked him after the game what he thought of Schilling's fastball, he responded, "You're asking the wrong guy. I didn't even see it."

Schilling was just as good, if not better in 1998, but the Phillies stunk even more than usual, so he went 15-14 in a season that might have won more acclaim for him if it had been with a team that didn't lose 87 games. He went 15-6 for the 1999 Phillies, but again had a season (ahem...) cut short when he needed arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder in August, and was not his usual dominant self upon his return in September.

Frustrated and unconvinced of the Phillies' long-term plans, Schilling sought a trade and got one to Arizona in the middle of Y2K. The following year the Diamondbacks became the fastest franchise in history to win a World Series, in just the 4th year of their existence, as they beat the Yankees in an emotional, exciting seven-game series.

The next year the Diamondbacks again won their division but were swept out of the playoffs by the Cardinals, despite Schilling's seven strong innings in his lone postseason start. He pitched fairly well again in 2003, but not often enough as an assortment of injuries limited him to just 168 innings, this after racking up over 250 in each of the previous two seasons.

That winter, Arizona, wanting to rebuild, actively shopped Schilling. Though he had expressed a desire to pitch either for the Yankees or the Phillies, it was Boston who eventually nabbed him, playing to his ego and talking him into joining the team, to take a run at history. They even somehow managed to work a million dollar bonus into the contract if he helped to deliver a World Series championship and end the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, despite the fact that such bonuses are not allowed per the MLB collective bargaining agreement.

Theo Epstein flew to Arizona and stayed the Thanksgiving holiday with the Schillings, playing to Schilling's well-known penchant for using the tools of the Information Age to inform his pitching approach, his desire to be a aprt of history, and even going so far as to describe what his and his wife's charity work might look like in Boston.

Meanwhile, Epstein had already worked out a deal with Arizona's owners, who , after asking the moon and stars of the Yankees, inexplicably let Schilling go for the frankly ridiculous sum total of pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa, and minor league outfielder Michael Goss.

  • Fossum has been with three different teams since, and is 26-41 with a 5.90 ERA in 552 innings in the intervening years.
  • Lyon missed all of 2004 and half of 2005 with injuries, and is 11-15 with 42 Saves in 58 chances and a 4.04 ERA, since returning. He's expected to be the Tigers' closer this year, despite the 4.70 ERA he posted in 2008, which lost him the closer's job in Arizona.
  • De La Rosa never pitched for the Diamondbacks, and didn't do much for Milwaukee, Kansas City or Colorado either, amassing a 25-31 record and a 5.55 ERA in 404 innings over five seasons.
  • Michael Goss never got but a handful of at-bats above Single-A, and has been trying to stay afloat in the independent leagues since 2005.
It was, in short, a horrendous trade for the Diamondbacks, though a great one for Schilling and Boston. Schilling won 21 games and finished 2nd in the Cy Young Voting to Johan Santana, and helped lead Boston to their first World Series title in 86 years. Perhaps best of all, they came back from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS to win the series, with Schilling famously pitching through an ankle injury that required him to change his bloody sock every few innings.

The following year, injuries again limited his contribution to the team, as he pitched only 93 innings and won eight games. His lack of availability in the playoffs helped lead to the Red Sox first round exit at the hands of the eventual World Champion White Sox, who had not won it all since 1917. So, in a way, Schilling helped to end two such streaks. Maybe the Pale Hose owe him a million bucks, too?

Healthy again in 2006, Schilling won 15 games and led the team with a 3.97 ERA, but Josh Beckett had trouble adjusting to the American League, and their teammates faltered, dropping to 6th in the AL in Runs and 11th in ERA. The Red Sox did not even finish 2nd in their division for the first time since 1997.

But the 2007 team came back with a vengeance, leading the AL in wins and ERA, finishing 3rd in runs scored, winning their first division title since 1995, and winning a second World Series in four years. Schilling missed more time due to injuries, pitching only 151 innings in the regular season and winning nine games, but he was healthy enough to go 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four postseason starts en route to his third World Series ring.

He re-signed with Boston for 2008, but his shoulder flared up again in spring training that year, and he would not throw another major league pitch. Now 42, he has decided to hang up his spikes, though probably not his laptop or cell phone.

Schilling likes the limelight too much to simply fade into obscurity.

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