Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday, February 13, 2015

CHICAGO-SAN DIEGO-VIENNA...UNREAL??

Our title presages one of the coming features of our (admittedly idiosyncratic) coverage of the beautiful eyesore that is baseball for 2015--a series of essays in which aberrant references to and arcane interpretations of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land will gurgle up like...well, like lilacs out of the dead land (if you must know).

And that's just what certain franchises in baseball's dizzying merry-go-round (Darren V., feel free to cue up that long-treasured copy of the Wild Man Fischer LP...) have been trying to simulate--their own chthonic canticles of rebirth (even if it all merely amounts to various psychic variations on graverobbing).

The two "unreal cities" of the 2015 offseason (not counting Oakland, of course, since Billy Beane is already well-known for defying the limits of mere unreality) are Chicago and San Diego, where three teams (whose GMs dare to step out from the shadow of this red rock) are looking to walk out of their own graves.

Actually...the thing that scares us the most is just how
much the elderly Eliot resembles Bud Selig. Thank God
we've never seen a photo of him cupping his hand to his right ear...

The relativism, the uncertainty, the moment of repose in the leap of faith (see? you can't really tell when I'm quoting Eliot or simply playing randomly with the gas burners on my stove...) is what finally sinks in after all the media blather and the strong, pungent lather of the off-season, waiting for dull roots to be stirred by spring (t)rain(ing).

It's a healthy shoulder-shrug for those guardians of the word, who don't actually have to play the games, who also serve by scribbling (even in the face of automaton "replacement level" journalists--our thanks to El Jefe for the sobering reminder that everyone's consciousness will, sooner than later, merge with the machine). This is the season of casting stones, to followed in March with the regathering of those stones and the systematic stakeout of glass houses.

Anyone else see it? Jayson: if you just let that
hair grow, don some thrift store duds, and hire
a hag to be your mom for the photo shoot, you'll
be a dead ringer for Wild Man Fischer!!
And so you might be cheered by the cheeky comfort in the ongoing transit of the cloud of unknowing represented in Jayson Stark's ESPN column, with its ersatz quantification of off-season activity, where The Man Who Would Be Us But For The Grace Of God has once again donned his reversible vest and asked the Emperors to cover their heinies. (Of course, some people make a fortune out of turning polls into blunt instruments, but Jayson is smart enough to know that corpses planted in the garden a year ago have a dangerous tendency to sprout.)

What's usually the case with teams such as the Cubs, the Padres, and the White Sox--our troika of flamboyant off-season fisher kings--is that some overlooked element in the makeup of their roster proves to be a stumbling block for the prospects of a phoenix-like rise from the ashes. For the Cubs, it will be the karma of the ruling-class clan with that most unfortunate and negatively evocative name, added to the insular prep-school arrogance of its brain trust, that will stall the "progress of the seasons"--that, and the failure of certain young prospects (Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler) to meet outsized expectations. For the White Sox, it will be that the massive off-season "haul to the stockyards" (and let's remember that it was always the South Side of town that was never safe from the whiff of cattle...) is more burdensome beast than sanctifying stampede.

Madame Sosostris, right after her blind date with A.J. Preller...
And, in San Diego, the spectre of a team that (according to Madame Sosotris' wicked pack of cards, at any rate..) will have the greatest discrepancy in home-road performance in recent times (venturing, in its own inverted way, into the territory occupied by the early incarnations of the Colorado Rockies) is going to put the chill on A.J. Preller's ascent into the Empyrean, leaving him instead with a series of B-tickets for all the really tepid thrill rides at Disneyland. He's a personable kid, though, and he'll resurface ten years after his ritual beheading as the new host on (yet another) remake of Let's Make A Deal. The irony will not be lost on him, but he'll do his best to suppress it...while dimly recalling that in a land strip-mined of its values, there is not even silence in its mountains. (That thought will be hard to keep hold of, however, when he's being overrun by those hordes of housewives.)



So...will these three unreal cities--or, rather, franchises--collectively play over .500 in 2015? Neither Jayson Stark, nor I--nor even that mischievous Man in the Moon--know for sure. What's happened to analysis in the past twenty years is that it has mixed its metaphors and its ideologies into a muddle, no longer sure of which is which, filled with carious teeth that can't even spit in the midst of its off-season spew. So we all await those bats with baby faces in the violet light...

Godammit!!


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

IN PURSUIT OF "BLUE-COLLAR" STARTING ROTATIONS/1

We're getting close to spring training, right? (Even as--especially as--blizzards pound the American landscape east of the Mississippi.) So we can start writing "series" just like the overdetermined media folks do. (OK, we will refrain from the overdetermined "ask a stupid transparent leading question and make it the god-damned-mega-overdetermined-title-of-our-goddamned-stupid-article" ploy. We'll just use a lot more parentheses...)

And what better place to start a "series" than with our long-time, long-term semi-nebulous concept of the "blue collar" starting rotation. Sounds good, n'est-ce pas? It's got that "throwback" feel to it (even if no one can quite remember just what "blue collar" was supposed to mean).

So, goddamn it, we are here to define it at last. (And--goddamn it--we're damned if we do and god-damned damned if we don't.)

A "blue collar" starting rotation is one where a team has no starting pitcher with 20 or more GS in a season with an ERA+ of 120 or higher.

What we're interested in determining is as follows: 1) how many of them are there, and 2) how often do they occur on teams that make the post-season.

So we have (at right) a chart that shows the team data for this over the past ten years (2005-14).

When we break out those numbers, we find that 35% of all teams have what we call "blue collar" starting rotations. (42% of all teams have one pitcher with an ERA+ equal/greater to 120; 17% have two; 6% have three or more.)

Of those, 25 (or 20%) are playoff teams. We've identified most of these in the chart with a red zero. (Alas--goddamn it--we missed a few.) The most recent such team--the 2014 World Champion San Francisco Giants. The team they replaced as world champs--the 2013 Boston Red Sox--also had a "blue collar" starting rotation.

As you might expect, the more pitchers with a 120+ ERA that a team has, the more likely it is that they'll be in the post-season. 24% of all teams with one pitcher in the "white collar" (120+ ERA+) category make the playoffs' 43% of all teams with two pitchers in that same performance region wind up in the post-season. And 71% of teams with three or more 120+ ERA starters don't go home when the regular season ends.

Now, of course, some pitching rotations are more "blue collar" than others. We'll discuss that--and a bit more--in our next installment.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

BILL JAMES RETURNS TO THE FIELDING WARS

Over at his site, Bill James is in the midst of what will be likely be a book devoted to a revamped version of his fielding method for Win Shares. Aside from Bill's valiant attempt to demystify and critique the work of those who've made overly aggressive claims about matters with the glove, it's fascinating to see how the people "on the inside" are jockeying for position. (We'll get to that in a bit.)

A shameless and entirely unrelated plug for our upcoming "International
Film Noir" series in San Francisco this March, where twelve of the fifteen
films in the series haven't been seen in the US for more than 50 years.
(Note to Bill James: resist the temptation to be a film/cultural critic.)
Bill is revising a series of models and value assessments about the various fielding positions, and there are some fascinating data perspectives that he's worked up as he attempts something like his own "big data" approach. (Not play-by-play data, but a more comprehensive agglomeration of traditional fielding data than what's been either envisioned or attempted previously.)

From looking at where he's at right now (up through first basemen), several things seem likely, and they  will be make for improvements in the earlier work. It's likely that the new method will at last rectify the ongoing modeling error that virtually every major fielding system has replicated--an exaggeration of the centerfielder's actual contribution to outs made. That should reduce the overall number of Win Shares assigned to that position. And this will help to eliminate a whole series of distortions that enter into other ranking systems (if those folks will pay attention to what's being said, that is).

It's also likely that Bill will stop short--in fact, not even mention--what is (and has been for some time) our view of what the most important missing factor in refining defensive evaluation. What's that? Simply, it's measuring how far fielders have to go from where they are positioned to get to the ball.

Now, clearly, one reason why Bill will at best only mention this in passing is that he wants to create a system that permits some kind of historical comparison, and the measurement above is simply not something that could be done without post-modern technology. It's clear that Bill is pretty much abdicating this aspect of things to the technocrats, who (unfortunately) are quite unlikely to ask the right questions about how to collect this data.

Coming soon! "Mini Tango Love Pies" with special containers that can
be used to turn any statistical argument into a blunt instrument.
If that data is collected properly, we will know much more about the effective defense-to-pitching ranges that exist but can't currently be measured. We'll know more about such concepts as "pitcher luck" because the distance to ball data will tell us much more than the overrated BABIP stat does.

But likely the biggest battle that will come up in this new discussion, and one that is already underway from the ongoing chatter (including side conversations at the gathering place where the Tango Love Pie™ continues to bake...) has to do with what the effective range between the best and worst fielders at a position is. In his current work, Bill suggests that this range is much lower than virtually everyone else in the field. That has spawned some dubious modeling exercises elsewhere that try to force-fit a link between the gap in best-to-worst and the overall modeling inference about the overall importance of fielding in run prevention.

Those models are ideological holdovers from earlier, flawed representations of data and they persist in the thinking. The flawed result is that the effective range from best to worst is accepted as existing across all teams, when that gap is mitigated by the fact that in real life, team defense is never existing at anything like the individual positional extremes. In short, if you think there's a 25-run difference at a position, you can't just add up the seven positions and claim that the effective impact range for team defense is 175 runs. You have to have temper that "greatest possible gap" to reflect that no team--even using a team-based method that builds in the assumption that bad teams have lousier fielders (an assumption that is a modeler's compromise), there's no way that even the worst team can have all of the worst fielders on the list. It would be tantamount to multiplying your replacement level value seven times and then applying it to the data set--the result would be to make the fielders look far worse than is actually the case.
Somewhere in there...an actual "effective value range" for the
team-aggregated run prevention effects from the Defensive Spectrum.

It's clear that the answer about the "effective quality range" for teams as a whole is at least half of what the "additive approach" claims. It looks like Bill's method overcorrects a bit for this, and the early chatter suggests that this discussion will become one of the key skirmishes in the ongoing "Fielding Wars."

At any rate, it's good to see Bill focusing himself on these issues again--and it's also heartening to see our old pal Charlie Saeger, who was actually ahead of the fielding curve in the late 90s when his Context-Adjusted Defense (CAD) method (one of the proudest moments in the flamboyant history of BBBA) shifted the ground on which these discussions originate, right in the middle of the ongoing responses, providing his usual tongue-in-cheek sanity check.


Friday, January 16, 2015

THE ART OF BASEBALL HISTORY AND ITS PRACTITIONERS

GOOD news and a wonderful discovery are what's prompting us to dig out of our mid-winter baseball lethargy and fire up another exercise in "blogolalia."

The good news is that Terry Cannon and his minions at the Baseball Reliquary are now ensconced in a permanent home. Later today, at Whittier College, the Institute for Baseball Studies will get the proverbial bottle of champagne cracked over its doorknob and there will be a physical location for those  enamored in the art of baseball history to visit in search of whatever form of baseball enlightenment they profess to seek.

You are all encouraged to visit the Institute's Facebook page and join their community. As you'll see, there's no shortage of content to be found there--and when you arrive at the Institute, you'll find a key resource that automatically makes them into a destination: the papers of peerless baseball historian Paul Dickson.

This is truly the beginning of the next phase in the life of the Baseball Reliquary and its associated activities on behalf of "the art of baseball history."

IN the midst of this, that "wonderful discovery"--a singular blog presence that embodies "the art of baseball history" in ways that parallel--and, perhaps, augment--the work of the Baseball Reliquary.

Artist/designer/historian Gary Cieradkowski, in a humble, unassuming way, has staked a claim as one of the great practitioners of the "art of baseball history" with his Infinite Baseball Card Set. The blog is an ongoing creation of a very unusual, highly eclectic collision of baseball lore and Gary's own immense skill as an artist/poster designer.

Thus far, there are 184 entries in
what could indeed be an infinite baseball card set--where hidden lore and the romance of early baseball (when it was a good bit more liberated from the mass-media manipulation that has come into being over the past half-century) can blissfully coexist.

Cieradkowski combines history and art in a uniquely entertaining way: his love for the lore and for the odd details of individual lives and unusual events is exactly what "the art of baseball history" is all about. He is mining territory similar/adjacent to what "reformed sabermetrician" Craig Wright has been doing so well for many years, but the added dimension here is the visual accompaniment. The cards (and Gary's baseball poster art) all straddle a fine line between referencing baseball's primordial "design sense"--the pre-Art Deco conventions of early twentieth-century commercial photography and his own bold-but-subtle updating of that style, as can be seen in two examples of his poster work.

Hours of entertaining forays into unknown stories, or unusual takes on familiar ones, can be found at the blog. (His most recent entry, tracing the story of the mysterious pitcher who made it safe to be mysterious--Fred Mitchell "Mysterious" Walker--is a full meal disguised as a treat.)

Even though it's criminally old-fashioned to say so, it really ought to be a book--a big, bright book of baseball love that can sustain and console the desolate baseball fan during the winter interregnum.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

WE CAN ALL REST EASY FOR ANOTHER YEAR... (4 IN THE HOF)

The lingering talk of a massive BBWAA clusterf*ck is going to have to drift into other topics: today's Hall of Fame voting results plowed through three first-time candidates (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz) and elected Craig Biggio (who missed in '14 due to a couple of hanging chads), while putting Mike Piazza (just under 70% of the vote) in position to appear on the Cooperstown dais in 2016.

This year's election was the first time in sixty years that the BBWAA enshrined four players on a single ballot. The four who made it in 1955: Joe DiMaggio, Dazzy Vance, Ted Lyons, Gabby Hartnett.

We are still astonished at the across-the-board support for Smoltz, who by rights should be drawing support somewhere between Curt Schilling (who wound up with 39% of the vote this year) and Mike Mussina (25%). As noted earlier, we can only conclude that a narrative of success penetrated the collective unconscious of the voter population (cynics may wish to issue an apology to Carl Jung on my behalf).

No movement, vote percentage-wise, for the two greatest
players not in the Hall of Fame.
Smoltz is, of course, deserving, but he really must be seen as one of the more curious anomalies in the often-vilified BBWAA voting process.

For 2016, we anticipate two inductees: Piazza and first-time candidate Ken Griffey, Jr. Enough ballot clearance might also permit Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell (each with about 55%) to make significant strides with BBWAA voters.

There was very little movement in the voting percentages for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and it remains clear that the Hall of Fame's action to slice off ballot time is indeed an odious effort to remove them from view just as soon as possible.

But, hey! Congrats to the new inductees. We suggest that those who wish to honor them in person this summer do so, but refrain from spending any money at the Hall of Fame itself. The organization deserves to be punished as much as the players deserve to be honored.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TALES OF TWO-DIMENSIONALITY part 249d: EXTINCTION OF LOW-POWER WALKMEN

Two quick data items to illustrate the impact of the inexorable, long-term, continuing transition toward a two-dimensional game glutted (and, increasingly, glutted strategically) by an over-emphasis on the long ball.

First, the source data for these. It's a series of extractions from the Play Index at Forman et fils, capturing all of the players with a three-year walk percentage (abbreviated BBP) of 12.5% or higher. (There have been just over 2600 instances of this since the three year period of 1900-1902 through the most recent, which, of course, is 2012-14.)

One of the things that protects the three-dimensional aspect of baseball strategy is that players can have characteristics that are seemingly contradictory in nature. In other words, things that might seem mutually exclusive--speed and power--can co-exist. Often these mutually exclusive characteristics do become truly and irrevocably separate: power and speed are well-known to separate by the age of a player, for example.

But they still tend to co-exist to at least some extent. Which is how the game perpetuates some semblance of three-dimensionality.

Another such area of "semi-mutual exclusivity" is low power and the ability to draw walks. As the game morphed into a version of itself where home runs were much more frequent, changes in how walks and low power co-existed came about. Our patented "telescope chart" (at right), which puts yearly data into a grid organized by decades, shows what happened with respect to "low power" hitters with well-above-average walk totals.

The shocking part of this chart is found at the bottom, where you can see that such hitters have literally disappeared from the game.

These players were always a rather small minority (the overall average for players with 12.5+% BBP and an isolated power average under .100 now resides at about 13% of all such hitters with a 12.5+% BBP), but even into the nineties these players continued to exist.

That is no longer the case--and this trend actually pre-dates the offensive downturn of the most recent years.

So perhaps some of our "pundit pals" who scoop up so many of our ideas (without giving proper credit from where they come from, by the way...) will be ready to mount the barricades with this one, given that it can fit into a meme about baseball is going back to the "second deadball era" (specifically, 1966-71, as captured by the "zeroes" on the above chart).

All that makes for a good headline, but it doesn't get at the fact that all this is a most interesting and baffling backfire for a sport suddenly inundated with "metrics" and "analysis." We have a lot of trouble keeping our food down when confronted with that first term, but we are (despite whispers to the contrary) not against the second term, particularly if it could be used for some long-overdue self-reflection on the part of its most flamboyant purveyors.

Our second data item: a more specialized look at how even more elite "walkmen" (the term we coined back in the nineties for glorious anomalies such as Max Bishop, Roy Cullenbine, Eddie Yost, Ferris Fain, and a few other folks who didn't hit with power but managed to take walks at a rate equivalent to the most feared power hitters) have inexorably been requiring an increasing level of isolated power in order to achieve ultra-high walk totals. (For this chart, players need to have a three-year average BBP of 15% or higher.)

Dave Magadan, attempting to explain to a young fan just what has
happened to all the low-power walkmen. 
As the arrow and the ovals demonstrate (see chart at left above), the power axis for walkmen has continued to climb. One wonders if it can go any higher before the game really starts to lose some of its second dimension along with its third.

Notice, also, down in the lower right corner of the chart--the complete absence of any sub-.100 ISO hitter with 15+% BBP. No one has done that over a three-year period since 1995-97.

Who was that last low-power "walkman"?

Why...Dave Magadan, of course. (Doesn't everyone know that??)

Monday, December 29, 2014

TALES OF TWO-DIMENSIONALITY part 249c: BASERUNNER ADVANCEMENT AVERAGES

A quick one as we work up another, more elaborate "tale of two-dimensionality"...

Ever wonder just how often baserunners go from first to third on a single? Score from first on a double? Score from second on a single? Or are you the type that would rather focus on individual data, a la TOOTBLAN?

Not that TOOTBLAN isn't worth some of your time. However, there's more to baserunning than just how often players get thrown out. (This is another area where Bill James pushed folks down a particular path only because the data was suddenly so easy to compute...he's had more than his alotted share of these moments.)

What we need are some benchmarks. Forman et fils take us part of the way with their presentation of baserunning advancement data; they decided to lump all advancement together, though, despite having enough detail in the three separate advancement categories mentioned above.

So we decided to provide that detail--and, while we were at it, graph the changes that it has undergone over the past thirty years.

By collecting, collating, and averaging these three advancement categories, we can see if things like run-scoring levels, increases in home runs, etc. are having an effect on how often baserunners take extra bases.

And our chart at right suggests that it's a kind of "split decision" (you know, the ones that make boxing fans suspicious). It turns out that there's been a noticeable decline in the percentages for going from first to third and from second to home on a single (red line and purple line respectively).

Going from first to home on a double, however, has gone through some downs and ups but is currently quite close to the frequency that was in place back in 1982 (remember, these are four-year averages, and "1982" refers to the years 1979-1982; "2014" refers to the years 2011-2014).

(Note that these figures are the decimal equivalents of percentages: .700 at the top means 70%, etc.)

So what's causing it? High run scoring? Complacency? More aggressive outfield play? The vagaries of globalization?? Hard to say. But it's clear that baserunning has become more conservative over time. Whether consistently lower run-scoring levels will eventually affect these trends is something about which we'll simply have to "wait and see." The trend lines are pointing slightly up. We can only hope, of course--the fact of the matter is that this is another indicator of the game's creeping rapprochement with two-dimensionality...and it really would be a good idea to reverse the trend.