Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Thursday, April 29, 2004

Saves: Anybody's Stat

Last year, Danny Graves had a terrible season. He ended the season with four wins and 15 losses, a winning percentage that wasn’t even matched by Mike Maroth, Nate Cornejo, or Jeremy Bonderman, the Tigers’ three most losing pitchers of the year. Danny’s ERA (5.33) was over a run higher than league average. He struck out two more batters in 2003 than he had the year before—but in 70 more innings of work. What a difference a year can make, eh?

It seems that Graves, back as the Reds’ closer this season, has returned to is old self. After all, he’s tied for the league lead in saves and has brought now sports an ERA below four. He’s back and he’ll be solid throughout the season, right?

Wrong! I just watched Danny Graves give up a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Graves came into the game with an 8-6 lead, promptly struck out Lyle Overbay. Then he allowed Wes Helms on base with a single and got Brady Clark to foul out. With the aid of two errors and a wild pitch, Bill Hall (who?!) came to the plate and hit a 2-0 pitch 430 feet to left-center—a walk-off blast.

And they call this guy a closer! Yes, Graves is tied for the league lead in save with 10 when his team has only played 18 games this season. But has anybody noticed how many games Graves has blown this season? Counting tonight’s game, he’s up to a less than robust three blown games. Throw in another loss he suffered and realize that he has now allowed five homers in fewer than twelve innings—stir and season—and it becomes evident that despite leading the league in saves, Danny Graves is nothing better than a replacement pitcher with a glitzy job description in Cincinnati.

I’m astonished that Graves not only mustered a 2004 roster spot on a Major League rotation, but even more so that he has been reinserted into the closing role, in which he will be expected to pitch in tight games. If he weren’t blessed with playing in Cincinnati, whose pitching talent is matched only by the wonderful arms in Detroit, it would be hard to imagine Graves pitching in a difference-making game situation.

Let’s look again at last season’s stats. Graves allowed 30 home runs in—gulp—169 innings, or the equivalent of a homer every 5.2 innings pitched. Not only is this mark terrible for a pitcher who relies on inducing grounders by keeping the ball down in the zone, but it was second only to Rick Helling’s penchant for longball in 2003 for pitchers with over 150 innings pitched (by my count).

Thoughts were that this season, Graves would temper his 2003 pace. You know, regression to the mean and all that jazz. But so far, with five dingers in 11.2 innings, his ratio is a revolting 2.34. His Earned Run Average is back down, but his Unearned Run Average is now a staggering 6.98. Needless to say, the season is early and can hardly be used as a full-season’s gauge of aptitude. He’s managed to save a league leading number of games, but he has been anything but spectacular over this first month of play, which brings me to my closing remarks.

If a pitcher throwing that terribly can accumulate ten saves in 18 games, leading the league in saves while at the same time allowing five home runs at crucial late-game junctures, the category of ‘saves’ loses all credibility and legitimacy as a measurement of ability, guts, or effectiveness.

Last season, Jose Mesa and Mike Willams finished the season with 24 and 28 saves respectively. Neither “closer” could hold his own in comparison to Ron Mahay, let alone Gagne, Smoltz, Wagner, Foulke, or Rivera. Comparing more favorably to replacement-level (or below replacement-level) production than relief ace production, these guys still managed to close over 50 games between them. How is this possible? Jeff Tam, the definition of “replacement level,” with a Value Over Replacement Level (VORP) of 0.1 last season, looks decent when compared to these chumps.

Mahay 45.1 38 20 3.18 3 11.5
Tam 44.2 26 25 5.64 5 0.1
Williams 63.0 39 41 6.14 5 -2.9
Mesa 58.0 45 31 6.52 7 -7.2
I’ll give you a moment to shudder at the thought that Williams, with those numbers, was in fact a 2003 All-Star. Now that that’s out of your system, notice that Danny Graves has already allowed as many home runs as Williams did all of last season—or should I say, throughout last season’s farcical summer.

All this goes to show how useless the statistical category of saves really is. This has nothing to do with the argument of where to place one’s relief ace. Instead, it goes to show that saves can be garnered by just about anybody, from below replacement level pitchers to relief aces. But relying on saves and “save situations” to determine the appropriate juncture for a call for the ace of the ‘pen is more than foolish.

You can’t have it both ways. If having a closer is a key asset to a team, then why are many of today’s closers so terrible?

If you had any misgivings about sabermatricians’ denouncing of the category of saves being used as an indicator of anything other than opportunity, I hope your tune changes before Graves saves his next game. Or I should say, before Graves allows another game-losing home run.

Moeller Magic in Milwaukee

Yesterday, Chad “the Tooth” Moeller—a career .254/.325/.390 hitter—managed to pull out a nifty game. We rooted for him and he bit the bullet, hitting for the cycle in his first four at-bats of the Brewers’ defeat of the Reds at the hands of the aforementioned Danny Graves. But don’t worry, I can guarantee it won’t happen again. From here on out, Moeller’s reputation will decay back to its original status. Hitting for the cycle is determined by little more than luck and whenever it occurs, it’s blown way out of proportion. Like saves, they are not predictive of future production or of past abilities. But at least this Moeller will have something to chew on for the rest of his career.

Moeller wasn’t the only one making history in the win. Rookie Milwaukee pitcher Jeff Bennett recorded the first win of his already odd career. If he continues to succeed in the Majors, you may see more players adopting the flat-hat look. But it’s hard not to root for anybody who attempts to forge new ground in a sport filled with tradition.

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Posted by Dave on Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Why Are We Not Sacrificing the Sacrifice?

I recently got an e-mail from some devoted readers. These weren't just any devoted readers, however. These were the readers of paramount importance, at least socially. These were my girlfriend's parents. Seriously though, they're both wonderful people and are inquisitive minds. Their curiosity and interest in baseball led them to ask me about the practice and frequency of bunting in a recent game between the Red Sox and Yankees:
To Bunt Or Not to Bunt? That is the question...We are watching the redsox yankees game and getting frustrated with the bunts (and sacrifices in general). We believe that they are OUTS!!!! and therfore not good...What is your opinion??
- Cathy and Thom
Debo’s parents seem to have the correct intuition here. By giving the defenders outs, a team is worsening their chances of scoring runs. After Cathy and Thom sent the inquiry, I responded with a rather informal and uninformative e-mail. I basically said there were many studies that have been done that show that sacrificing is generally an ineffective strategy as compared with hitting away. Did I cite these studies? I did say the e-mail was uninformative. Though I was too lazy and too tired to include the studies in my e-mail back to Cathy and Thom, you can read about the dubiousness of sacrificing. Though I couldn't tap the source - the article written by Tom Tippett over at Diamond Mind - you can read about the results of the article. A biased sabermetric opinion would tell you that sacrifice bunts are always worthless, but that's not the case. These bunts are just usually a bad idea. When is it a good idea? A runner is on second with none out and Aaron Rowand - check that, Aaron Heilman - is at the dish facing Eric Gagne. With such a weak hitter and such an over-powering pitcher at the plate, it would make sense to bunt in only these sorts of situations. You can find a temperate view of sacrificing expounded by Tippett (with commentary from Neyer) here.

Even though I had given some explanation, Thom was still dissatisfied and uncomfortable:
If it is obvious [that bunting is generally a bad idea], why do managers keep doing it? During this last Red Sox-Yankees series we squandered a few men on-base to this strategy. I am wondering if it was viable when players knew how to bunt (perhaps 40 years ago) and it remains embedded in the minds of the current managers.
- Thom
Thom poses a fantastic question. If the knowledge is available proving that bunting is generally an ineffective strategy, why on earth would managers continue to command their underlings to behave in a non-optimal manner. Remember, the study says that - in almost all cases - bunting worsens a team's ability to score even one run - let alone many. The possibilities of why managers would forego the optimal strategy (that is, to not sacrifice) are many, let's take a survey of them:

1. Managers could merely be unaware of the empirical proof of the futility of sacrifices. Diamond Mind is not the preeminent baseball website (that honor probably belongs to MLB.com or ESPN.com's baseball section), but baseball men should be reading it. It is the manager's job to manage his team in the most effective manner, and this should imply that they will always be up to snuff on the latest theses about empirical evidence. I suspect, however, that distrusting, traditionalist personalities would avoid the findings (such as Dusty Baker, perhaps (Chalk it up! (on the counter (Sorry, I'm too much of a math-nerd to avoid the temptation to do this (having millions of parentheses))))). This bleeds into another possibility...

2. Managers could actively ignore and/or refuse to accept the evidence. I can almost sympathize with the managers in this case. Surely, not many (any?) managers are econometricians, statisticians, or economists (though, in an ideal world, they should all have such a background). This renders the illuminating evidence as incomprehensible. Worse, the evidence is contrary to the baseball "truths" that have been propounded to them as they matured into a manager. What are they going to trust? A bunch of facts they can't wrap their minds around, or the "truths" that've been preached to them since childhood? I can't blame them for trusting their compatriots. Fear of the unknown, after all, is natural. For a manager, however, it is not forgivable. As a manager, it should be your duty to make yourself of the methods used by economists in order to understand their arguments. It is your job to strategically optimize how your team plays. If this means you have to learn how to do some regression analysis on the side, so be it.

3. There may be a fear of deviating from standard operating procedure on the manager's part. This is still a real fear, sadly. Suppose a manager declines to bunt in a conventional situation (runner on first, no outs, tie-game). Since the members of the media are still, by and large, ignorant of the objective revolution and sabermetrics in general, the media will trash the manager if his non-bunting strategy fails. The media, unfortunately, heavily influences public opinion. With the media trashing the manager, the public will sour on the manager. Since upper management and ownership responds most strongly to public opinion, the possible malcontent with the manager increases his risk of being fired – even if he was doing his job better than Dusty et al (Count it!). What if the manager had used a sub-optimal strategy? Even if it had failed (which it is more likely to do), the custom and convention of baseball would have absolved him of utilizing an incorrect strategy – the team failed to get down the bunt, the writers would say. Worse, even if the player sacrificed successfully, the writers would laud the move. Unfortunately, as Tippett found, even if the sacrifice succeeds a team is still lowering its expectation for even one run. I can’t wait for the day when a progressive writer questions a conventional bunt in a mainstream newspaper.

4. The penultimate reason a manager may continue to bunt in poor situations is because he maintains a degree of control over the proceedings. A manager’s job is very hands-off – especially with respect to in-game management. This is especially true following the sabermetric revolution. Many proactive managerial decisions – to steal, to frequently change relievers, and now, to sacrifice – have been shown to be sub-optimal strategies in most situations. A manager may want to feel like he has a great degree of control over the game’s proceedings, so he may call for a bunt or steal more often than is necessary. A manager would be motivated to signal for sacrifices because his proactivity would signal that his job requires action – that managers need to act to do a good job. Sometimes, however, inaction is better than action.

5. Lastly, sacrificing brings tangible rewards. By sacrificing, a player will nearly always move up an extra base – generally moving into a crucial position. It would seem that this benefits the team by accomplishing something nearly all the time. After all, the majority of the time (60% of the time – or more) if a hitter swings away in the same situation, it’s very likely he’ll record an out that is wholly unproductive. Because managers are generally risk averse (even though they should be risk neutral, of course). For a discussion of risk aversion, scroll to the bottom of this article. Because they’re risk averse, they discount potentially risky situations more. Swinging away induces more risk in the situation - the at-bat could be a total bust, but it could also be much more successful than a sacrifice. If we just look at the expectation (this implies the manager is risk-neutral) of just one runs or multiple runs, however, we should generally choose to swing away. Since we’re reducing our expectation for run-scoring, sacrificing is a sub-optimal strategy. But, since the managers are risk-averse, they’ll value secure benefits - that station advancement for the base-runner.

So, why does superfluous bunting still exist? Well, clearly it’s a product of some combination of these five possibilities. Are there more reasons for the presence of an overabundance of sacrificing? Certainly. Let me know what you think by commenting below.

He’s More Effective Because of His Increased K’s…I Mean…Z’s

The artist formerly known as Ismael Valdes used to be a fairly ordinary pitcher. A lifetime ERA of nearly 4.00 would label anyone mediocre. But Ismael knew something was amiss - he never felt quite right. Finally, prior to this season, he identified the problem. He was mislabeled his entire life - not as a mediocre pitcher, but as a person! It turns out Ismael’s real last name is Valdez, not Valdes. He changed his name prior to the season, and his increased comfort is already reaping tremendous benefits. Through 22.3 IP, Valdez has recorded a 2.42 ERA.

I was always just on the cusp of athletic stardom, and, this just in, my birth certificate reports that my name is David Mets. Figures.

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Posted by Dave on Sunday, April 25, 2004

Free Jeremy Reed!

Recently, I was watching an episode of The Simpsons. This was the episode in which Mr. Burns lost his power plant due to mismanagement and reacquired it through environmentally sound planning. The majority of the Simpsons were rooting for Burns’ downfall, but Lisa helped to resuscitate Monty’s career. Proud of the renaissance she helped foster, Lisa triumphantly walked into the kitchen, smugly saying: “See?! I told you I’d get Mr. Burns back on his feet.” Marge responded by saying, “Now Lisa, no one likes a gloater…Right Homie?” “Sure Marge.” “See Lisa?”

This scene from The Simpsons would have absolutely no relevance if I didn't feel like Lisa when I defend Jeremy Reed. I wrote an article previously expounding on Jeremy Reed's exploits, wondering where the hype and recognition was for this incredible minor leaguer. In response to the article, everyone was telling me how he belonged in AAA to start the season. “He’s not major-league ready,” they said. “He commits too many baserunning errors,” Baseball America said (they ranked him the 25th best prospect). Even Talking Baseball’s Ben Kabak was amongst the naysayers.

Ahhh, sweet validation. Don't look now, but Jeremy Reed is at it again. See? I told you he was awesome. The same guy who took Double-A by storm last year by posting an absurd .409/.474/.591 line is now lighting it up in the International League. His splits? .373/.393/.591 in 59 ABs with the Charlotte Knights (the White Sox AAA-affiliate). Where has the OBP gone, and why has his average fallen? Well, first and foremost, 59 ABs isn't a large sample-size. He could still be as patient a hitter as he was in AA - he may have not had the chance to exhibit it yet, however. Second, it's forgivable considering he's now in AAA, rather than AA. A mortal man can only expect to improve statistically against increasingly difficult competition for so long.

I'm not writing to gloat about or to expound on Jeremy Reed's success, however - anyone could do that with a reasonably intelligent Google search. No, I'm writing because I'm utterly perplexed why the White Sox haven't unleashed Reed in the Bigs. It's not as if Reed hasn't shown he's extremely capable - a perusal of his statistics and recent exploits will attest to that. So there are two possible reasons as to why the White Sox would refuse to promote Jeremy:

1. They believe that Aaron Rowand is a better option.

2. They want to save Reed for the future.

Let's look at the first reason that the White Sox GM, Kenny Williams, may use to explain Reed's inexplicable absence. Rowand's prior offensive statistics are downright atrocious. His only statistically significant year was 2002, so let's start there. A .298 OBP for any outfielder should be unacceptable and intolerable, but the White Sox continue to sport him in their surprisingly potent lineup. It's surprisingly potent only because it contains Rowand and still manages to generate its share of runs. How bad is a .298 OBP? Well, even the notoriously poor-hitting Jack Wilson has managed to best that OBP in his last two years of service. Rowand's career OBP is even bettered by Omar Vizquel. Hint: That's not good.

Going into this year, Baseball Prospectus had some projections for Reed and Rowand using their PECOTA system.
Reed's projection: .267/.340/.407
Rowand's projection: .252/.319/.413
That may not look like much, but in a lineup chock-full of sluggers (Konerko, Thomas, Lee, and Ordonez), having your table set more frequently could add up to many runs. Reed is regarded as a mediocre outfielder while Rowand is considered above-average, certainly. Is Rowand's excellence in center enough to make up for his inferior play with the stick? I doubt it heavily, but it's possible.

What isn't very possible is a trip to the post-season without Jeremy Reed. Chicago's window of opportunity for making the playoffs is rapidly closing with their aging vets not getting any better. Though they should have won the Central last year, they lost Colon, Everett, Gordon, and Alomar. Plus, the White Sox have to expect some decline from Loaiza. On the bright side, Konerko may show some improvement over last year's abysmal campaign, but he can't turn the tide of many departures. The future looks dim for the White Sox, so they don't have much incentive to store their talent (read: Jeremy Reed) away in AAA to save their arbitration years.

The main competition for the White Sox, the Minnesota Twins, lost some key pieces (Guardado, Pierzynski, Hawkins), but figure to be comparable to last year with their promising replacements (Nathan, Mauer) and with the benefit of a full year from Santana.

In other words, the White Sox need to replace those lost wins somewhere. Perhaps they'll acquire some pitching or a SS who may actually be replacement-level at the deadline, but why? They may have the solution within the organization in Jeremy Reed. Reed hasn't seen his batting average dip below .370 since he moved beyond A-ball, so it's quite possible he could hit comprably at the major-league level. If Reed hit .300 and OBP'd around .350, it'd be a huge step in the right direction for the playoff run. One thing's for sure - Aaron Rowand will not be the one carrying the White Sox to the playoffs.

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