Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Mike on Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Ugueth Urtain Urbina

It's not often that I will have the chance to write about a man whose initials are all the letter U so I have decided to seize the opportunity. In the past I think I've been a little unfair with my criticism of Ugueth Urbina. Today I am going to set that right today by taking a step back and trying to look at him from a reasonably objective perspective. Urbina may never again put together a season that rivals his breakout performance in 1998 but since then he's consistently been a solid reliever in both leagues. These are his numbers since the 2000 season:


Urbina missed almost all of the 2000 season because of injury but since then he has been a fairly effective pitcher. He's accumulated almost 100 saves over his last three full seasons while blowing just 16 and his ERA has been well below league average. His ERA has been consistently getting better and further away from the league average. In terms of results there has not been anything wrong with the way Urbina has pitched the last few years but the problem is that there are a few disturbing trends in his statistics.

While saves and ERA are good ways to compare a pitcher's effectiveness in a certain season they possess no real implications about his the future. The number of saves and blown saves a closer accumulates depends partially on his performance and partially on the situations that he is placed in by his team. A pitcher's strikeouts and walks are statistics for which he alone can be credited. Let's take a look at Urbina's recent strikeout rates:


Bad news here, Urbina has shown a dramatic decline in both his strikeouts per 9IP and strikeouts per walk. A declining strikeout rate is never a good thing for a pitcher and it is made worse when the decline in strikeouts is not accompanied by a reduction in the number walks the pitcher issues. This decline probably means that Urbina's stuff has worsened over the last few years and that batters are putting the bat on the ball more often. To make matters worse, when batters do put the ball in play against Urbina they're hitting it in the air now too. Here's his declining ground-ball to fly-ball ratio:


It would seem that Urbina is ripe for a dramatic drop-off in his performance. So why was he so good this year if he's declining so much? A combination of luck and what is still above average (though quickly diminishing) ability.

I spent so much time today looking into Urbina's numbers because I found it rather odd that he would so adamantly be demanding so much money as a free agent this off-season. Is his service worth the $7+ million a year over 2 or 3 seasons he's currently demanding? Absolutely not. While still an effective reliever his declining numbers do not promote much confidence in his long term stability. At this point a multi-year deal is almost out of the question for him and even if he does back down and sign a one-year deal it will probably be well shy of the $7+ million he desires.

Also working against Urbina are the current market conditions. Keith Foulke, arguably the best reliever in the American League in 2003, signed with the Red Sox in December for $7 million a year over 3 years. Apparently Ugueth Urbina feels he should be making top-tier closer money. For humor's sake, here is a comparison of their 2003 numbers:


One step further, a look at their last 3 years combined:


Assuming Foulke is being paid close to market value by the Red Sox, Ugueth Urbina clearly does not deserve to receive a contract close to Foulke's in value. No doubt teams in need of a reliever have taken a look at Urbina this off-season. Unfortunately for Urbina these front offices have decided that he is not worth the risk after accounting for his declining strikeouts and "stuff." Numbers aside, a straight fastball and a mediocre slider are fairly easy to spot. The Red Sox after the 2002 season were so much against resigning Urbina that instead of overpaying him they decided that they were better off with a "bullpen-by-committee." While an ill-fated decision, it was proof that Urbina overvalues himself. If he keeps up his demand for a multi-year deal worth $7+ million per year he may be waiting for it to come for a very long time.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Jon on Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Class is in Session
Posted by Jonathan Shestakofsky

It’s almost February. Transaction lists are desolate. The comforting flow of baseball news has slowed to a barely-audible trickle. And the beginning of a brand new season is only a couple of weeks away. Now, during this calm before the glorious storm, is the perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with tools that will help us evaluate the upcoming season.

Since we began posting on this blog, all four writers have been using various complex statistics to support their assertions. Sometimes, even to us, the surplus of the statistics can be overwhelming. What’s the difference between a hitter’s Batting Average and Equivalent Average? Is there a difference between ARP and AARP (not for Jesse Orosco)?

It’s not difficult to find numbers to prove almost anything. Consequently, we must understand the stats that we throw out there. So here’s a refresher course for both the readers and the writers of Talking Baseball. If Alan Schwartz’s recent article on ESPN.com can be considered “Statistics 101 – Baseball Stats for the Unindoctrinated”, then what follows is the next class: “Statistics 102 – Beyond OPS and WHIP”. What follows are explanations of important statistics that don’t get a lot of attention in mainstream baseball media, but nevertheless act as useful predictive statistics. There are many more stats out there than what I present today, but we’ll have to wait on those for the next class.

Win Shares
Bill James came up with his Win Shares system to “summarize each player’s value each season into a simple integer” (James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001: pg. 331), thus providing a means for objective evaluation of players’ overall values. The Win Shares system allows for the comparison of players in different eras of baseball (comparisons between modern players to those who played in the 1800s), and allows players of every position to be compared to one another.

I won’t get into the specifics of Win Share calculation, but basically the amount of wins a particular player contributed to his team can be determined based on the entire team’s marginal runs scored (runs scored above the league average) and marginal runs saved (runs saved below 1.5 times the league average). From these numbers, a team’s record can be predicted. Knowing the ratio of marginal runs to wins for the team, we can then determine the number of wins contributed by individual players. This system allows fair comparisons of wins contributed by starting pitchers, position players, fielders, base stealers, relief pitchers, and players on bad teams.

The Win Shares system is the predominant win contribution calculation system today. Essentially, due to the ratios involved in its computation, one win share equals a third of a win. For perspective, a 30-Win Share season (responsible for ten wins) usually puts a player in the running for MVP awards. Win shares are an invaluable tool for evaluating trades and players from different eras. My source for this information was James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, pages 331-339. For more information, I highly recommend consulting this book or James’ Win Shares, also published in 2001.

Last season’s top producers, in terms of Win Shares:
1. Barry Bonds, 42
1. Albert Pujols, 42
3. Todd Helton, 36
4. Gary Sheffield, 35
5. Carlos Delgato, 33
5. Alex Rodriguez, 33

Notice that four players who most contributed to winning games were in the National League last year. But the same is not true for pitchers, who play fewer games and thus impact fewer decisions. The most Win Shares by a pitcher this season? Roy Halladay and Tim Hudson both enjoyed 24-Win Share seasons, leading the league in Win Shares for a pitcher.

Notable fact: Milwaukee Rookie Scott Podsednik ranked 8th among National League outfielders with 24 Win Shares in 2003. That’s more than Sammy Sosa, Jim Edmonds, and Andruw Jones – and a lot more than both NL Rookie of the Year winner Dontrelle Willis (14 Win Shares in 2003) and AL winner Angel Berroa (16 Win Shares).

Updated Win Share computations are available at baseballgraphs.com.

For decades, a pitcher’s Earned Run Average was the basis of the evaluation of his talent. But ERA is a flawed statistic because it depends upon, among a number of things, luck: the luck of whether batted balls are playable by the pitcher’s fielders, something the pitcher cannot always control. A pitcher’s ERA, while providing a measure of a pitcher’s success at limiting runs allowed, cannot be relied upon as a measure of overall effectiveness. For these reasons, it is difficult to compare pitchers’ talent using ERA. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a tool we could use to compare a pitcher’s ERA to the league average? ERA+ does just that, presenting the ratio of the league’s ERA, adjusted to the pitcher’s ballpark, to that of the pitcher. An ERA+ of one hundred is league average, so an ERA+ greater than 100 is above average, and an ERA+ below 100 is sub-par. ERA+ is a statistic for which both hitting- and pitching-friendly eras are compensated. The result is a better, but not perfect, measure of pitching effectiveness.

ERA+ allows us to compare different pitchers over time and the same pitcher to his previous years, all in regards to league averages. We can postulate that Tom Glavine’s career as an effective pitcher is over because his ERA+ dropped from 139 (well above average) in 2002, to 94 in 2003. Bob Gibson experienced a similar drop-off, falling into mediocrity before he called it quits. (Source: baseballprimer.com)

Adjusted Runs Prevented
Using ERA to evaluate relief pitching is even worse than using it to evaluate starting pitching. With a smaller sample size of innings pitched, luck is bound to rear its ugly head to an even greater extent, resulting in decent relievers posting poor ERAs and poor relievers posting decent ERAs. The solution is the Adjusted Runs Prevented statistic, which gives the value of a reliever by examining “the number of runs that the reliever prevented over an average pitcher, given the bases/outs situation when he entered and left each game, adjusted for league and park” (Source: baseballprospectus.com).

Using ERA to measure a reliever’s performance works about as well as basing a batter's season solely on the number of home runs he cranked out of the park. A low ERA indicates nothing about effectiveness with runners on base who are officially credited to the previous pitcher(s). More prominent statistics are not necessarily the most useful.

The top relievers in 2003 according to ARP:
1. Eric Gagne, 32.6
2. Rheal Cormier, 30.2
3. Billy Wagner, 29.8

Earned Run Average substantially skews a reliever’s perceived performance. The following table is perfect example:

Buddy Groom...................5.36...................4.7
Kent Mercker....................1.95...................5.5

By the look of their ERAs in 2003, Kent Mercker appears to be a substantially better reliever than Buddy Groom. But their 2003 ARPs show that Mercker was only slightly more effective than Groom in preventing inherited runners from scoring. A pitcher’s ERA cannot be trusted to adequately express performance, especially if the pitcher is a reliever.

Equivalent Average
I find batting statistics a bit easier to deal with than pitching statistics. There are more numbers available for hitters, from batting average to slugging percentage and on-base percentage. Most of us are familiar with these more conventional hitting stats. I use Equivalent Average (EqA) as merely one example of ‘adjusted’ statistics.

The term ‘adjusted’ merely refers to compensating for unequal factors across the league or across time. Each year, we crown the player with the highest batting average in each league as the batting champion. The batting ‘champion’, though, may not have been the best hitter in the league. After adjusting for home park differences, team pitching, and league offensive levels, an adjusted batting average, referred to as a hitter’s Equivalent Average, results in a better measure of total offensive production per out.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the EqA scale is deliberately set to approximate batting average, with the league-average hitter earning an EqA of .260. By setting a baseline of .260 for average production every season, we can again compare players across different eras of fluctuating offensive production, from the deadball era and the time of the raised mound, to the power-packed 1990s. Adjusted statistics are powerful tools that level the playing field and enable objective comparison.

As an example, let’s look at the AL batting title. Bill Mueller won in 2003, with his teammate Manny Ramirez ending up a close second. But their EqAs, a measure of total offensive production per out, are substantially different:

Bill Mueller...................326.....................315
Manny Ramirez............325.....................340

Ramirez led the league in offensive production per out, which is more important than batting average. Hitting statistics are as variable as any other. A good ‘hitter’ (a player capable of getting hits at a high rate) may not be the best hitter (the player who produces the most per out). By adjusting for park factors and pitching, and valuing more productive offensive categories, a better idea of who may be the best hitter emerges.

There are all sorts of other statistics, from VORP to WARP (I kid you not). What makes baseball so wondrous is its intricacies and peculiarities. My hope is that “Statistics 102 –Beyond OPS and WHIP”, has laid down a new foundation for a further understanding of baseball. At the very least, I hope that I cleared up some of the vague and thorny issues concerning the computation of these complicated, yet valuable, advanced statistics. There is always more to learn about the game, and the ways in which we examine it.

Keep studying. We’re only a few weeks away from the return of baseball, as it roars back to life after its New Year’s lull of restless hibernation.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Dave on Tuesday, January 27, 2004

"That Crossover Was So Dirty, He Didn't Break My Ankles, He Broke My Knee"
Posted by Dave Metz

I'm going to be flagrantly honest: I don't want to write about this. I wish I could judge the salary decisions made for marquee and mediocre players alike, but salary arbitration hasn't occurred yet. I wish I could rant about some contract (good or bad, I'm indiscriminate at times like these), but, really, who cares about Darrell May (by the way, he definitely got overpaid (Transaction Guy reports a 4.93 K/9? Gross.))? I wish I could also write about some false statement Rob Neyer recently wrote, but his statements are dead-on this week (and usually are). I also wish I could trash Jayson Stark a bit more, but he does that for himself enough (who entitles their articles "Useless Information Dept."?). So what am I left with? Aaron Boone playing freaking basketball.

ESPN.com has reported that it is suspected that Aaron Boone tore his ACL playing basketball. I should probably wait until the ACL tear is confirmed by physicians before I write about Aaron Boone - but, too bad. This article will have a giant "What If?" attached to it. That is to say, if Booney is out for the season, this is what will happen. With that disclaimer aside, I'll begin now.

Aaron Boone is a solid third-baseman even despite some rather significant problems getting on-base. Looking at his totals, that much is apparent. It seems that in 2002 he made the decision that making contact (instead of hitting for power) was for the birds (or the Birds, I suppose). His average fell 50 points from previous years along with his on-base percentage. Unfortunately, his slugging did as well and, though it recovered some last year, is still below his SLG in the "peak" (in quotations because it's quite debatable) years of 2000 and 2001. Anyone who has watched him play will comment on his slick fielding. Like Bret, his brother, he is one of the premier defensive players at his positions. There isn't much credence to the claim that Aaron may not be suited to the AL; After initially stinking up the joint, he turned it on as playoff time neared (look at August, then September).

What does all this amount to? I'd bet that Aaron Boone is worth a bit (or more, possibly) less than the 5.75 million he was scheduled to make this season. Still, there's no denying he's their best option at third base. Enrique Wilson, though he hits Pedro, doesn't seem to hit anyone else. Miguel Cairo, though he evokes thoughts of pyramids, is similarly inept. One wonders however, how much worse is the ineptitude of Wairo (That's the platoon of Enrique Wilson and Miguel Cairo, if you're confused (say "Wairo" out loud, it's a hoot))? Your favorite tool and mine, Win Shares, helps to predict how many wins the Yankees will lose as a result of Aaron's awful absence.

It seems Booney was worth approximately 17 win shares last season - that's about 6 wins. That's nothing to sneeze at - If your 8 position players, DH, starting pitchers (all four and a half of them) and your relief ace all produced that many win shares, you'd have yourself a pretty good team. I can still do arithmetic by head, I swear: (8+1+4.5+1)*17/3 = 82 wins. Not a bad team. In the AL Central, you'd threaten to win the division for most of the year if you finished 82-80 (for those that didn't catch the biting sarcasm, I think that's absolutely pitiable). What about Wairo? Cairo had 3 win shares, but if you project that to a full season he garners a whopping 5 win shares (1.66 wins). Wilson? 2 win shares, but with a full year he'd also have approximately 5 win shares. If Wairo was used ideally, maybe they'd combine for 6 win shares, or 2 wins. That's a full 4 wins that's lost if Boone goes down. With the Angels improved, the A's still dangerous, and Boston still competitive (Jon's pointed out on numerous occasions that if luck was eliminated, Boston would have finished with a better record), a loss of 4 wins could mean losing not only the division, but the wild-card as well. Maybe I was too sarcastic. This is a very significant piece of news if, in fact, Aaron will be out for the year.

I'll finish with a bit of irony: Who's the only third-baseman left on the list of free agents? None other than Todd Zeile, who flunked his tryout for the Yankee Yuggernaut.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Ben K. on Monday, January 26, 2004

Trying to save face after a disaster

Tonight, I saw something infuriating happen in the baseball world. Alex Rodriguez, the Traitor of Texas, was named team captain. I cannot believe the Rangers did this, and I refuse to believe what anyone associated with the Rangers is saying about this.

When I first saw this story, my initial reaction was one of shock. Granted, A-Rod is the best player in baseball right now and probably the best of this generation. In these respects, he would be prime captain material. But his off-field machinations have certainly not suggested a man of tact, subtlety, or great leadership abilities. With his bank account growing by $25.2 million a year, his ridiculous contract gives him control over the Rangers almost equal to that of manager Buck Showalter.

Yet, is he happy? Of course not. Would you be happy playing for a team that has finished in last place every year you've been on the team? I wouldn't be. To make matters worse, this off-season was filled with rumors that A-Rod was going to be traded to the Boston Red Sox for Manny Ramirez and a few more players. The deal, in fact (and as we all know), would have gone through had it not been for the Players' Association's rejecting a proposed contract restructuring. (A side note: I can't blame or be angry at the Players' Association for not approving this contract. Their job is to look out for Union members, and they can't start making exceptions for anyone just because they make more money than all of their other members.) In more than a few cases, Rodriguez was quoted as saying that he would be happy to leave Texas and ecstatic to join a team in Boston that is perennially playing long past the time when the Texas Rangers have all started their off-season work regimes.

Now that the trade is finally dead, the Texas Rangers management is trying to mend fences. That's exactly what the point of this latest move was. They're not trying to tap into A-Rod's ability to lead the team; they're trying to save face in front of their fans and other players. This move is their way of saying, "We're sorry we tried to trade away the only thing on this team that makes you come to the Ballpark in Arlington everyday." It's a pathetic move on the management's part, but it only gets worse when you actually look at what A-Rod, Showalter, and other higher-ups in the Rangers organization had to say.

A-Rod imparted these words of wisdom after being named captain: "I definitely think I'm going to be here for a long time. I'm probably pretty sure it will work out for the best." Well, you know what Alex, I'm probably pretty sure that your fans will give you quite a few boos this season when you step up to the plate if that's really the best you can do. Basically, Alex doesn't even know if he himself thinks it's going to work out for the best. That's really not too comforting if you're a fan of the boys in Texas.

Alex also said that he feels "a grand responsibility not only to the Texas Rangers but to our fans." A grand responsibility to play for a winning team in Boston, based on what he had to say this off-season. I have a feeling the fans won't fall for Rodriguez's lame attempts at sucking up to them. Basically, two months ago, A-Rod was campaigning for a trade to the Red Sox; now he's saying that he feels a responsibility to be the captain of the Texas Rangers. How could anyone believe a single word coming out of this man's mouth right now?

Finally, A-Rod added that he thinks the toughest days are behind him and that he's looking forward to negotiating a contract extension with Rangers owner Tom Hicks that would last until the short stop is into his "mid 40s." Of course Alex wants to renegotiate with Hicks. What other owner would even consider giving him anywhere close to 25 mil a year? Maybe if he's lucky, Hicks will give him the ballpark and that cool roller coaster behind the center field wall as part of his next contract.

All in all, this reeks of a public relations attempt to win back to the fans to the side of Alex Rodriguez. Unfortunately, it falls flat, and if A-Rod's word don't prove this point, Showalter's praise of his prima donna short stop certainly will. Showalter was apparently pleased that A-Rod will be the captain; in fact, he's supposedly been contemplating naming Rodriguez the captain for a few months. Here's what he had to say: "It is very important as we go forward that we have someone like Alex lead our young people in the proper direction and set the tone." So Buck, what tone exactly are we setting here? The one that tells the our young people to jump ship if you have a chance to play for a team that actually might make it to the World Series? The one that says hoodwink a gullible owner into paying more than market price for a player? The one that says act like you own the team and completely disrespect any managerial/coaching system already in place? I certainly think A-Rod will set a good tone for the players in that sense.

Now, I have nothing against Alex Rodriguez as a player. There's no denying that he deserved that MVP award this year. There's no denying that he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown after he retires. And it's certainly not impossible to believe that A-Rod will be remembered as the best player ever to play in the Major Leagues. But Alex won't be winning any humanitarian awards for his efforts at bringing a World Championship to Texas. I would like to hypothetically ask Buck Showalter if he really believes the words coming out of his mouth and A-Rod's mouth. Does anyone truly think this is anything more than a public relations ploy to bring out some level of redemption from what the fans would see as a faithless, horrible off season? I don't; I bet the Texas Rangers fans don't; and I believe the Texas Rangers management doesn't either.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Mike on Sunday, January 25, 2004

Colon Cancer Gets Roy-al Treatment?

Let's take a look two current aces, Bartolo Colon and Roy Halladay. Both are highly desirable properties amongst teams, are in their primes, and both were recently signed to pricey multi-year contracts. Colon accepted a 4 year deal worth $51 million from the Angels while Halladay resigned with the Blue Jays for 4 years and $42 million.

Per year, their contracts look like this (in millions):


It seems that the Angels were desperate enough for starting pitching that they were willing to pay $10 million more for Colon than the going rate for a reigning Cy Young award winner. Colon is now a 7 year veteran in the league and as a free agent was able to find the highest possible offer while Halladay is younger and was willing to sacrifice some money now to get a contract that gives him a little insurance on his future. The issue isn't Roy or the Jays, they're both on the level here, the problem is Anaheim’s irrational lust for Bartolo Colon. Let's remember exactly who Bartolo Colon is for a moment, he was the flame throwing wonder youth for an offensively driven Cleveland team in the late 90s. As with a lot of young power pitchers there was a lot of hype around him, most of which has never really gone away despite his lack of improvement over the years. Sometimes the awe of seeing a pitcher throw a ball harder than most everyone else in the league blinds teams to the reality that even with better tools the flame thrower is really nothing more than an above average pitcher with a little flair. Anyways, let’s look at some of Colon’s numbers the last three seasons:


Wait a second; he doesn't strike people out anymore? Nope. Colon finished 7th in the American League in strikeouts in 2003 but he wasn't even in the top 10 in K/9IP. Noteable pitchers with more K/9IP (because you wouldn't expect it) were Tim Wakefield, Kelvim Escobar, and Ted Lilly. His strikeout rate has been in decline since the 2000 season and the last two years have been the two lowest of his career. He's been developing much better control over the last four seasons but he isn't fooling batters at the rate in which he was in his prime so the improvement in command hasn't accomplished anything other than reducing the damageing effect of his decline in strikeouts.

Part of the problem may be his fastball; while it reaches the upper 90mph range it is effectively dead straight. Other pitchers with this same problem? Billy Koch and Ugueth Urbina. All that velocity isn't as effective as it would seem when the ball follows a straight path to the plate. Under the same principle Pedro Martinez is still almost as effective as he was when he could throw in the high 90s regularly. While he only throws in the low 90mph range now he has a fastball with a great deal of movement and as a result is as difficult to hit as a faster moving pitch. But Colon hasn't lost any of his velocity, he still throws as hard as he used to which probably means that batters and teams have figured him out to some degree. If this is the case, staying in the American League where teams are more familiar with him will probably produce seasons similar to 2001 and 2003 and less like 2002 when he had a stellar first half.

Now for the cheaper, younger, more Cy Young award winning Halladay's last three years:


For $10 million less over the next 4 years Toronto will have an ace with excellent command who can throw 230+ innings with as many strikeouts as Colon.

Personally, I think Roy peaked this year, but at age 26 there's no reason for him to decline anytime in the near future. Barring injury he should be able to produce numbers like those of his last two years for the duration of his contract. Bartolo is 4 years older, has never really lived up to expectations, and has been declining in some areas for the last 3 seasons.

Alright, Anaheim overpaid for guy who isn’t as good as what they’re going to be paying him, fine. Let’s look at this from a different angle though. Did Anaheim really have any choice but to sign Colon? No. Their rotation last year was terrible, Jarred Washburn and John Lackey were the only starting pitchers who finished the season with an ERA below 5.00. While undeserving, this team won the World Series in 2002 and still possesses many of the core players from that championship team. They needed to save face and prevent a slide and the additions of Colon and Kelvin Escobar (Kelvin might have been the better aquisition) were moves designed at getting full value for their money but rather to keep the team from sliding too far from its peak form. Good moves aren’t made out of desperation and these were desperate but they're certainly not going to hurt them.

Ugueth Urbina Upset

It looks like Ugueth Urbina hasn't received an offer for the big time closer money that he thinks he's worth. I hope he enjoys sitting at home until the 4th of July because I dont' think any teams are willing to give him the $6-7 million per year that he seems to feel he's worth. He certainly had an excellent second half of 2003 with the Marlins but that won't be enough to justify a multiyear contract. He missed almost all of the 2000 season because of injuries and is not known for being a very durable player. Most teams simply aren't willing to give a good relief pitcher Keith Foulke money for multiple years in this economic climate when that player has injury issues. In the end I'm sure there will be one team desperate enough to sign him, there always is, but until then Ugueth is just going to have to sit and wait.

Tony Womack and the Red Sox
Tony Womack signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox on Saturday. He has no bat and he can't play defense so the only reason I can think why the Sox signed him was for his baserunning speed.

Pitchers and catchers report in 17 days.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Jon on Saturday, January 24, 2004

Capping Off a Bad Season

When the most exciting transaction of the day involves Homer Bush, you know it’s been a slow twenty-four hours. I could comment on Halladay’s new contract or Boston’s recent acquisition of Terry Shumpert (why in the world…?), but I thought it might be nice to have some fun playing a little game of “What If?”.

A friend and I were talking basketball this evening, wondering whether the two worst NBA teams, believed to be the Hawks and the Bulls, combined into one could beat the best team in the League, presumed to be a healthy Lakers squad. I’ll spare you the arguments, but it was mutually decided that the Bawks had no chance. So I began to wonder: If the two worst teams in Major League Baseball were combined into one, would this team be better than the best team in baseball? If the worst teams could not combine to beat the best team in the NBA, which enforces a soft salary cap, but a cap nonetheless, then how many of the worst teams would have to be combined in order to field the best team in baseball? How much worse are the worst teams in baseball? Oh yes, friends, this has many real-world implications!

Tonight, I’ll just be examining the two worst teams in baseball. First, I decided to use last year’s final rosters as a basis for this comparison. Next, I came up with the teams for my little study using the 2003 adjusted standings, which tell us that according to adjusted runs scored and adjusted runs allowed per team (adjusted for league-wide comparison), the Red Sox were the best in baseball and the Tigers were by far the worst (no surprises there). The second worst team of 2003, the Reds, performed far worse than their record reports and, eliminating luck, were only seven games better than Detroit (according to these adjusted statistics). So I’ll be comparing a combined team of the 2003 Tigers and Reds to the 2003 Red Sox.

My analysis is far from perfect, and merely acts as an exercise in baseball imagination. By mixing the two worst teams into one super-bad team, we come up with a new team, hereafter referred to as the Dunce Caps. Now, let’s not have any illusions. The Tigers were a terrible team. Whereas the league average OBP was .351 and the league average SLG was .459, the Tigers’ began their season with what must be considered one of the worst OPS’s for one month ever, enduring a putrid .258 OBP and an awe-inspiring .262 slugging percentage in April. Contrary to what Dmitri Young believes, (regarding Marlin’s manager Jack McKeon’s disparaging remarks about the Tigers: “He's got to realize we're just one or two players away from doing what he did last year. ... He must be thinking of the Detroit Tigers from the mid-90s or something. I don't know."), Detroit is a ways away from competing. The Tigers are B-A-D: bad, bad, bad. Maybe the addition of the best players from Cincinnati would help? … I wouldn’t count on it.

With a little position flipping to maximize the Dunce Caps’ potential, position by position, the amalgamation compares to the Red Sox like so:

Jason LaRue, CIN..............230........321.........422
Jason Varitek, BOS...........273........351.........512

Adam Dunn, CIN...............215........354........465
Kevin Millar, BOS...............276........348........472

Warren Morris, DET............215........354........465
Todd Walker, BOS..............283........333........428

Barry Larkin, CIN................282........345........382
Nomar Garciaparra, BOS.....301........345........524

Eric Munson, DET ..............240........312........441
Bill Mueller, BOS.................326........398........540

Ken Griffey, Jr., CIN............247........370........566
Johnny Damon, BOS...........273........345........405
Austin Kearns, CIN.............264........364........455
Manny Ramirez, BOS..........325........427........587
Bobby Higginson, DET........235........320........369
Trot Nixon, BOS................306........396........578

Dmitri Young, DET..............297........372........537
David Ortiz, BOS................288........369........592

Pardon me if this is looking futile…but is it even worth it to continue onto pitching when the Dunce Caps post a rotation of Aaron Harang, CIN; Danny Graves, CIN; Jose Acevado, CIN; Paul Wilson, CIN; and Todd Van Poppel, Cin? Sadly, no Tigers crack this list. For kicks, the Caps’ three best relievers are Ryan Wagner, CIN; Jamie Walker, DET; and their closer is Chris Reitsma, CIN.

So the final tally has a Dunce Caps team featuring 12 Reds and five Tigers.

Comparing them to the Red Sox, it’s easy to see that the Dunce Caps don’t stand a chance. There are only two players on the Caps who I would consider better starters than what Boston offered in 2003: Ken Griffey, Jr. could certainly win a spot in Boston’s outfield, and Chris Reitsma in the bullpen. There are close calls are at DH and first base, but overall, it really isn’t close. After combining the two worst teams of 2003 (the Reds and Tigers), they are still not nearly as talented as the team Boston fielded in 2003.

Maybe using the Red Sox as a basis for comparison was cruel because they boasted the best offense in baseball last season. But my point should be clear: the best teams in baseball are so much better than the worst that it is difficult to compare them. The Tigers performed so horribly last season that they barely made it on to the Caps when competing with the Reds of 2003, the second worst team in baseball, for roster spots (less than 30 percent of the Dunce Caps was made up of Tigers).

So no, Dmitri, your Tigers will not be the surprise World Champions of 2004. Your Dunce Caps wouldn’t even be able to compete. Even Rush Limbaugh could tell you that.

What can the Dunce Caps tell us about baseball in the year 2004? They tell us that it’s a good thing players and owners agreed to some sort of salary restrictions. But the current system may not be enough to bring baseball’s moribund franchises back to life.

To create a league in which all teams can again compete, baseball needs a more rigid salary cap. Today’s exercise was painfully depressing, confirming the awkwardness of Major League Baseball’s power structure. For the good of the game Major League Baseball needs to allow teams to take off their embarrassing Dunce Caps and replace them with a better fitting salary cap.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Dave on Friday, January 23, 2004

Please, Make It Abundantly Clear That You're An Econ. Major

If you weren't sure about it before, this post will make it pretty damn clear. Ben gave you all a bit of info last time around with his (ahem) shameless plug for The Phoenix - the school paper for Swarthmore (he's the editor, and damn proud (and he should be, that's quality stuff they put out, in large part because of him, I'm sure)); this time around, you get a bit of info about me. I go to Bates College (we like our liberal arts schools 'round this blog) and I'm an Economics major. Unabashedly, my dream job would be the GM of a major sports team (baseball, basketball, football - I love the big three). I've been into sports for just about my whole life. Actually, I've been into competition for longer. Games, sports, grades, whatever. Compete with me in something, I'll probably beat you (call me arrogant, but it's the truth). So, I was easily attracted to sports.

*Long interlude, during which I talk to Jon extensively about my subject material for today*

So, as always, I've been scouring Transaction Guy's website (check it out, it's really great...succinct, and he'll get every major transaction) looking for the latest outrage (Adrian Beltre for 5 million?! Don't get me started.) and the latest blessing (Joe Borowski? I'd pay him nearly 1 million more/year for the job he's been doing). But recently, I've been a bit confounded. I see a lot of signings, which, on the face don't make much sense to me. The names have whirred by in the past week: Jimmy Rollins, Francisco Cordero, Scott Williamson, Tony Armas Jr., Roy Oswalt, Rafael Furcal, and much much more. What do all these players have in common? You may have guessed it: They are all players that were scheduled for salary arbitration that avoided it by signing one-year deals just before they had their turn off the docket. Some of the signings were bad (as in, the GM will not get return on his investment): I'm not convinced Williamson is worth 3 million even after that sterling post-season - nor do I think that Jimmy Rollins is worth 2.4 million given any criteria. But most were good: Oswalt, though injured last year, still posted some stellar numbers that surely would merit more than 3.2 million. Same for Francisco Cordero, he certainly deserves a bit more than 2 million. I've saved the best (and the most (hah, or at least more) recognizable, for our less knowledgable readers) for last, however:

Alfonso Soriano: Man, he cannot hit good pitching (or, at least, good postseason pitching). But, holy crap, he sure does his fair share of bashing. He produces incredible offensive numbers at a remarkably unincredible offensive position and he's done it the past two seasons. We know the knocks on him, though...Can't walk worth a damn and he plays a crappy 2nd base. Still, 11th in Runs Created? That's some clout. And what's he getting paid next season for his status as Guerrero (that's not Wilton, trust me)Jr.? 5.4 million. You'd think there was some Secret Money (3 million, at least) Deferred clause. Ray Durham makes 6 million next season and 6.5 the next. 99% of Baseball Men (the other 1% get polled by Jayson Stark (check out last Monday's entry)) would agree that Soriano is more valuable...so why isn't he getting paid more?

Kip Wells: This guy, more than Aubrey Huff, more than Jaime Moyer, more than Matt Stairs is really Captain Underrated. "Who the hell is Kip Wells?" Well scroll down only 17 names in this chart and you'll find his name. That's right, he had the 17th best ERA in the entire MLB. He's got really solid peripherals too. He's 30th in MLB in K/9 at a very respectable 6.70 and he's something of a horse - nearly 200 IP last year. He's only getting better, too. His ERA has improved in each of the last three seasons (certainly a recipe for future success). What do you pay for one of the top pitchers in the MLB? 2.575 million! The Bucs, though they moronically think Jack Wilson is worth something, at least know what they have in Kip Wells: A pitcher who is vastly undervalued. Why might he be? The statistically unimportant (this is the reality, but certainly not the perception) fact that he has gone 32-34 in the last three years as a starter. "He's not a winner!" They say. "Give him a good freaking team." I say. Oh, just for comparison, check out the past two years from these two pitchers:
Pitcher #1:
198.1.........12...........14........3.59 (2002)
197.1.........10............9.........3.28 (2003)
Pitcher #2:
134.2.........13............5.........3.28 (2002)
208.1.........21............8.........4.02 (2003)
Scratch your head for awhile, tell me who's better. At the very least, you'll tell me: "Man, I really can't tell, they both look pretty good. That second guy can sure win ballgames, but that first guy seems more effective and durable. I can't tell, they're probably about equally effective." Fine, that's fine by me. Truth is, I think pitcher #1 is objectively better, but it doesn't matter. The market doesn't just think that pitcher #2 is better, they think he's about 8 million dollars better. It should come as no surprise that the first pitcher is Kip Wells. Second pitcher? Andy Pettitte. Yet more proof that you can't look anywhere else when anointing Captain Overrated.

Here's my point though: Why would the majority of these guys choose to sign? Why would they willingly take something decidedly below market value? It seems it makes much more sense for them to go to arbitration where a guy like Kip Wells could ask for 4 million (hey, that's only 6 million dollars fewer than a less effective Andy Pettitte) and actually receive it. Same for Soriano. He at least deserves Ray Durham money - if not a bit less than Bret Boone. The weirdest part is, it's not just the players that fear arbitration. The Cardinals (just a team that I've read about recently) is amongst a plethora of teams that prefer the Bubonic Plague to Salary Arbitration.

Just before I continue, I want to make it clear what's going on here (at least, clear enough for my purposes, Baseball Primer wrote a very informative article where I learned quite a bit more than I'll impart to you). A player goes to arbitration, and he has a figure in mind. The team also has a figure in mind. The arbitor decides where amidst that spectrum of numbers (endpoints included) the player's salary should be. That is then the player's salary for the coming year. None of this makes sense to me, however: Why not let an unbiased party decide what's fair? That way, both parties (the team, and the player) can go home happy. At least, it would seem to me, the players got what they deserved. But, both parties are petrified of arbitration. I've gotten a lot of theories: When I talked with Jon, he seemed to think that players may fear the potentially corrupt MLB. There have been rumors of collusion for some time - maybe the corruption has extended to the arbitors, he argues. This is at least somewhat plausible, but I don't buy into conspiracy theory very much - baseball's fabric would be significantly damaged if the supposed collusion had extended that far. Ben thought players might be afraid of having the perception of being money-grubbers. Let's be honest, though, don't they already have that? And doesn't everybody want what they're worth (even if it's way too much? If only we paid teachers 1/1000th as much...)? Well, all these people compromise early for one reason: They're risk averse, just like you and I.

What's risk aversion? The best way to understand risk aversion is to discuss insurance (in general). Let's say you own a house in a very nice neighborhood - one where crime is extremely low. Let's also suppose that you have many valuables in your house. Truthfully, it's not worth it for you to own insurance; they'll make you pay through the nose because they're insuring a lot of stuff - but the fact of the matter is that you're never likely to have a theft occur. You pay a risk premium in order to avoid the possibility of the theft, because, well, it would suck if all your stuff was stolen. Here's another example: Go around asking college students if they'd take a bet. Tossing a fair coin, if it's heads up, they win $1050 - but if it's tails, they lose $1000. No one would take the bet (even if they knew it was a fair game) because even though their expected value for the bet is +50 dollars, they could lose 1000 dollars. In fact, I doubt if I'd take the bet. The point is, everyone (or nearly everyone, people with gambling addictions don't apply) is risk averse. So, most everyone would rather have a sure thing than take a positive risk. This is the principal reason why players like Carlos Beltran (who I believe to be worth about 10 million, but he gladly took 9) and the Royals (they may fear that Carlos would get 11 in arbitration) avoid arbitration. In a negotiation, both parties know the result and, in a sense, each is "paying" for the increased information by not necessarily getting fair value. Generally, the players pay more to get that information because they're youngsters - everyone eligible for arbitration is between 4-6 years of major league service and they really haven't made the big bucks yet. They really would like to know that they're going to be comfortable financially for awhile. But, for the most part, they want to know the value of the contract, rather than risk the contract falling in a range of numbers (8-11 million, in Carlos' case). If you have any theories, I'd be thrilled to read them. E-mail me (us) with your thoughts (that's top-left of the screen, folks (which probably, as a result of this post, seems very, very far away)) and questions.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###

Posted by Ben K. on Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Beauty of a Triple, in a matter of speaking

As my oh-so-witty title suggests, I have three things for you all today. So without further ado, let me get started. Today marks the beginning of a new feature of the Talking Baseball blog. It's the part where I answer your e-mails. You see that link on the left of your screen? The one that says e-mail TalkingBaseball (a) hotmail.com? Well, that's where our readers, all 328 of you up to 1:10 a.m. on Thursday, January 22, 2004, should be e-mailing us. So opening our inbox, I see...hmmm...one message from Dave checking to make sure that the e-mail account was working properly, and nothing else. So I'm going to answer the e-mail.

Dave, yes, indeed, our e-mail address is working. No need to worry, my friend.

Phew, I'm glad I got that one off my chest. Seriously, dear reader, we want to hear from you. E-mail us your thoughts on how we're doing so far. Do you agree with us? Do you disagree? Do you like our four-man rotation? I know J.P. would; the Blue Jays pitchers, as they showed last spring, wouldn't be so keen on it. Furthermore, send us any topics you want us to tackle. We're certainly open to suggestions. We know you're out there, and we want to start hearing from you. Now on to the baseball...

Age before beauty, or baseball's Energizer battery finally stops

Wednesday was the end of an era for modern baseball. Iron man Jesse Orosco retired after 24 years of big league service. As this article shows, Orosco leaves baseball having pitched in a record 1,252 different regular season games (1,248 of them as a reliever) since debuting for the New York Mets in 1979. While he was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks this winter to a minor league contract, the lefty will be turning 47 shortly after opening day, and who can really blame him for moving on?

Hopefully, Orosco will be remembered in baseball for many generations to come. Over the course of his career, Orosco threw 1295 innings for 9 different teams. Based on his career numbers, it's highly doubtful Orosco will make the Hall of Fame. He saved only 144 games in his career, compiled a W-L record of 88-80, had a career ERA of 3.16 and a career WHIP of 1.26. Yet, while his career stats are decidedly human and many starting pitchers throw more innings than Orosco did in his career, his career should not be any less revered. Orosco was able to carve a niche for himself that led to his playing on three teams this past season at the age of 46. His record of most career games pitched will be a tough one to reach with not too many pitchers pitching into their 40s. As the trend these days is to flame-throwing relievers like Billy Wagner, Troy Percival, and Mariano Rivera, these pitchers' bodies break down more easily. Orosco is some kind of marvel for our age.

While us Yankee fans, Red Sox fans, and Mets fans will remember Orosco as the one on the mound as the Red Sox lost game 7 of the 1986 World Series, he should remain with baseball outside of any petty rivalries. He's one the greatest iron horses in the history of the game, and his accomplishments must not be forgotten.

A Hidden Gem Among Aces

In glances over the headlines on ESPN.com in between deadlines for my college newspaper of which I am the editor, I noticed a story about the Cubs sort of sneak on to the Top Stories list. In the story--a fairly mundane one for the deadzone of the offseason--the AP reported that the Cubs signed Ryan Dempster to a one-year contract with a team option for 2005. Dempster, as you may recall, missed the last two months of the season with the Reds because he went in for ligament surgery. In much the same way that the Yankees have gambled with Jon Lieber recovering from major arm surgery, the Cubs are hoping for some luck with Dempster, who will probably pitch again in July or August. Yet, if this gamble turns out for the best, the Cubs could have landed themselves a major prize. If Dempster can regain his touch from the 2000 and 2001 campaigns, the Cubs could have cemented the NL Central for the next few years.

In 2000, Dempster was 14-10 with a 3.66 ERA, a really high 1.37 WHIP, and 209 K in just over 226 innings. If you want to get really technical, his numbers from that season look even better with positive values in the RAA column. (That just means he allowed fewer runs than the league average per inning. It's a stat to show, in essence, that his ERA was below the league average.) Even if Dempster pitches at his 2001 level, when he threw a 4.94 ERA, striking out 171 in 211 innings but with a very high WHIP of 1.56, the Cubs will still have found a more-than-adequate fifth starter.

Currently, the Cubs have Prior, Wood, Zambrano, and Clement as their top four starters, making them my pick as the team to beat in the NL Central. If they manage to add a rapidly aging Maddux, they'll just be that much better. But even so, I think Dempster could provide the Cubs' rotation with a solid back-end starter in 2005, when his Opening Day age will be only 28. It's clearly a gamble on a pitcher who hasn't pitched very well for a number of seasons, but in the end, the Cubs could end up drawing maybe not an ace, but at least a very competent 5th starter.

Let's score that run as a triple and an error

Yes, I know at the beginning of the post I said three topics, but there's one more I want to throw in. In a change from their usual format, ESPN has issued a series of analytical articles for this season's Hot Stove Heaters feature. If you aren't reading them on a regular basis, I urge you, as a loyal reader of Talking Baseball, to read the one ESPN posted yesterday. In it, Senior Writer of Baseball America Alan Schwarz wrote about the 8 most important stats used in baseball analysis today. Since the four of us here write using stats a lot, this article serves as a primer to decoding some of what we're talking about. Just follow this link and all of your questions about WHIP, Run Differential, and a few other key stats will be answered.

### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###