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Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Night Links

(I've gotten out of the habit of doing these, but they were fun to do last season and I'm going to try to get back into doing them this season. Otherwise, links just pile up in bloglines and never get shared...)

Will 2009 show an offensive spike?

Early word from hittracker that we might be seeing something interesting this year. My feeling is that this is probably just noise (no matter what the 2-sample t-test says), but you never know.

Update: more on this at Tango's site.

Is baseball's franchise value bubble about to burst?

I didn't see much discussion of this, but I thought Craig's post (and especially his excerpt from Ethan Stock's post) on this was pretty interesting...and something that could be a real problem for a small market franchise like the Reds.

If a team isn't worth as much as it was before, it might not be willing to take on the kinds of liabilities (i.e. player contracts) that it had before for fear of reducing the potential sale value of their franchise. At least, I think that's right (everything I know about economics I learned from Planet Money).

Q&A With Jeff Luhnow at BtB

Really excellent interview with the Cardinals' VP of Amateur Scouting and Player Development at BtB. Here's a good excerpt:
How would you compare advanced insider sabermetrics to public sabermetrics?

Great question. First of all, I am constantly impressed with the quality of the publicly available research on the game of baseball. It is clear that there are numerous very talented and smart people who study the game and develop amazing and true insights. MGL and Tango’s book is a great example of this, as is the work shared and discussed on their website. I’ve had a chance to talk to and work with both of them and they are first rate baseball thinkers. To me, these two and many more like them are an important part of our industry… both in terms of helping shape the game in some ways as well as generating public interest in the analytical part of the game.

As a baseball club, we read much, if not most, of the thoughtful research done on the topics that matter to us. When we know the people and the quality of the work, we consider the findings useful and may even act on them. However, since we don’t control the work and can’t do the quality checks to make sure the data was clean, the methods were up to our standards, etc, it becomes more difficult to act on the conclusions. That drives us to develop our own capabilities, which we have done for the past six years, since fall of 2003 when I arrived at the Cardinals.

Beyond the Boxscore has really improved over the past six months and has become a place I visit daily (at least on days I have time to visit baseball sites). Hopefully it's talent won't get poached as quickly as it did over at StatSpeak, though that is already starting to happen...

How important is fielding?

Two links on this one.

First, Tom Tango came up with a neat way of looking at the value of outstanding fielders that gets away from all these fuzzy math that tries to figure out whether a player should have gotten to a ball:
I selected the best twenty or so infielders (2B, SS, 3B) since 1993. It’s mostly the names you know: Everett, Sanchez, Bartlett, Rolen, Reese, Hudson, Inge, etc.
.....When the star fielders were on the field, their team allowed 4.60 runs per game, and when they weren’t on the field, they allowed 4.83 runs per game. Per 162 games, this difference comes out to 37 runs.....I repeated this exercise with the outfielders: Erstad, Beltran, Cameron, Endy Chavez, etc. Their teams allowed 4.89 runs with them, and 5.00 without them, for a difference of 19 runs per 162 game season......And I did the same for firstbasemen: Minky, Derrick Lee, Tex, etc. They allowed 4.89 runs with these great fielding 1B, and 4.99 without, for a difference of 15 runs......Roughly speaking, that gives us 26 runs (3 parts 37, 3 parts 19, 1 part 15) of fewer runs scored when you have one great fielder on the field, than when you don’t.
So, that's saying that your top-notch defenders give you 25 extra runs a season saved vs. bench. Now, a star offensive player may provide you with 50 or more runs over a bench player with his bat, or more (Pujols was ~75-80 runs over bench last year on offense alone). So fielding isn't as important as offense. But it's important. 20 runs is the difference between a replacement player and an average player in the National League, so fielding can change your evaluation of a player from being a 25th man to being a decent starter (remember Adam Everett?). Or, it can cut your star offensive player's value in half (remember Adam Dunn?).

To that end, John Dewan posted this shortly afterwards, claiming it was "the most significant discovery" of his career:

The worst defensive team in baseball in 2008? The Kansas City Royals. Their defense cost them about 48 runs relative to the average team. Comparing the Phillies and the Royals, the difference between the best and worst defensive teams in baseball was about 130 runs.

Now, remember that number. 130.

The best run-scoring team in baseball was the Texas Rangers with 901 runs in 2008. The San Diego Padres were the worst with 637 runs. That's a difference of about 260 runs.

Here's the discovery, and I found it because the numbers just jumped out. The 130 difference in runs saved on defense is exactly half of the 260 difference in runs scored. That's exactly half. The implication is that defense is worth about half as much as offense.

(John should have said fielding instead of defense, because defense includes pitching.)

Anyway, I think we can reasonably disagree (and we have) that this was a new discovery. It was new to John because he just got around to finally converting his plus/minus stat into a runs-based statistic for his new book. But I don't think it's really new, as we've been talking about how important fielding is to teams and players in a quantitative way for years now. MGL has been posting UZR since at least 2003, for example, and I still consider UZR to be superior to Dewan's plus/minus stat.

That said, Dewan's post was a nice way of presenting the importance of fielding, and it's something that has seemed to resonate with people.

What should we use to estimate player or team offense?

Colin has the first of a two(?)-part series comparing run estimators. It's similar to what I did here, but with two improvements. First, he does more tuning (somehow) to give each estimator a slightly better chance at performing well within each season.

Second, and most importantly, rather than looking at team season totals, he instead uses the statistics to compare offense on a half-inning basis. In other words, for each 3-out sequence of play, which estimator is the best at predicting how well teams perform? This lets him compare run estimators across a huge range of run scoring environments, everywhere from 0 runs (which would be the most common in his dataset) to 10 or more runs in a half inning. In my study, I effectively compared across 3.5-5.5 runs per game, which works out to a range of just 0.4 to 0.6 runs per half-inning. Colin's way is much better because it considers a much larger range of situations.

The results? Base runs wins, though whether you think by a lot or by only a little might be open for interpretation.

It's worth noting that one of the basic reasons that Bill James's RC doesn't do as well here as BsR does (and wouldn't no matter what form of RC is used) is that it won't correctly predict a 1-run inning with a solo homer because home runs aren't given special consideration in RC. Base Runs will predict such an inning perfectly.

The best part is that Colin isn't done yet. As others point out, there are still problems trying to generalize his results to rating individual performances, which is what most of us like to do with these stats. Colin's next effort looks even more promising--looking at matched sets of games that are identical in all counting stats but one. I'm not sure how he's going to pull it all together, but it should be at least an interesting contrast to today's article.

Nick Adenhart

I don't know what to say about this except that it's just awful. It'd be like losing Johnny Cueto the night of his first start last season. A guy who worked his whole life to get where he was, and was just starting to show his promise, and now he's gone. My deepest sympathies to his friends and family. The link at the beginning of this paragraph is everyone's favorite Angels fan, Rally's, take on this. And here is a bit more of a personal story about Nick.

John Brattain

Same as above, except that instead of a young player we have a fellow fan and writer who has left us. I don't earn much in the way of money from running this site, but I had a little bit of cash left over in a Paypal account from a sponsorship I received a few years ago and sent a small donation to THT's collection pot to help John's family. If you can, I encourage you to do the same.

Teaching Baseball

While this will only directly interest you if you happen attend my university (and no, I'm not out of the closet about my baseball life yet, so I'm not ready to share where this is), I have preliminary approval to teach a 2-credit freshman general education seminar on baseball next spring. The goal of these courses is to emphasize interdisciplinary subjects, reading, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and also serve as a student retention device. Here's the proposed course description:
Perhaps no other sport relies as much on tradition, hearsay, and loud opinion as baseball. But what is gained (or lost) when these claims are examined using a scientific approach? Can a player really watch the ball hit the bat? Do clutch hitters exist? Do steroids really help performance, and if not (or even if so) should they be banned? Why does a scrub MLB player earn 10x more money than a teacher? We will discuss these and other questions while considering studies from literature from exercise physiology, psychology, economics, and “sabermetrics.”

I hope it goes through all remaining channels, because it's going to be awesome. Reading list currently includes the Psychology of Baseball for sure, and may include JC Bradbury's new book if it's out by then or possibly Vince Gennaro's book. I will probably also supplement with readings from THT Annuals, or web-published studies. And I might even assign The Book.

Hopefully I can convince enough students to geek it out with me to make this class really work. :)

Mulling the future of this site.

The end of the semester is approaching! And while that will be coincident with the arrival of a new baby in our house (i.e. a time & energy suck), it also means that my first year of 12-credit/semester teaching will be over. I will always be busy with this job, but given that I won't likely have semesters with three+ new classes again, the days of spending 3+ hours every night preparing lectures will at least largely be over.

What this means is that I may have a bit more time going forward to toy around on the blog. And one of the things I'm considering doing (among many), since I live only a few miles from the Altoona Curve's home ballpark, is to start doing a little bit of work on the minor leagues. Player valuation, fielding, league comparisons, stuff like that. Some of this would probably include work on the Reds' minors, but it would also include work involving the Curve team as a way of following my local team.

So, I'm thinking about making some changes around here. One possibility that I'm strongly considering would be to make this more of a two-team blog, with content about both Reds and Pirates. Or even just moving away from an explicit focus on Reds altogether (though I'll always have a lot on them, as they'll always be my team). I am concerned that this change in focus might hurt readership, though, so another possibility would be to just start up a new blog to focus on issues related to the Curve and, by extension, the Pirates organization. Feedback is welcome...though part of the decision making process might depend on whether I can get a bitchin' domain name that I want. :)