Thursday, June 7, 2007

The MLB Draft on TV

I have to admit that the television coverage of the MLB draft has been more interesting than I expected. I'm enjoying the little highlight packages pumped in around the comments of Steve Phillips, Peter Gammons and Keith Law. But it's not good enough to hold me.

The expected flaws of televising the MLB draft are present. Most people have never really heard of any of these guys. Then, of the people who have heard of these guys, most of them haven't really heard of these guys. There are the five or six well read minor league prospect mavens who may actually have something to add about these guys and then the mainstream writers, blogsphere and people who fancy themselves as mavens regurgitating what they've read from the real mavens.

During the NBA and NFL drafts there's room for a real difference of opinion and fan opinion. Someone might come up with a decent argument for Kevin Durant as the number one pick in the NBA draft. Better yet, there will be real discussion of picks three, four and five based on fans actually knowing about the players involved (except for the Chinese player). Likewise, there was real fan involvement in the discussion of Brady Quinn's fall in the NFL draft. There's none of that with the baseball draft.

If you hear someone refer to David Price as can't miss or worry about Matt Wieters' "signability," they're just regurgitating what they've read or seen from Keith Law or Kevin Goldstein-types. Worse yet, some of these would be knowledgeable fans will be regurgitating blogs, maybe like this one, that are simply regurgitating the Law-Goldstein-types. These fans may not even realize they're playing a virtual game of "telephone," regurgitating a regurgitation of the couple of people who actually know a bit about this.

But worst of all for the MLB draft coverage is that unlike the other two major televised drafts, it has to compete with its own sport. Half of the brilliance of the NFL draft is that it gives a bunch of football-starved, lunatic, NFL fans a day to ease the wait for the NFL network's coverage of Bengals spring minicamp (sans pads). Likewise the NBA draft gives fans a night--a week after the finals--to wind down before we worry about the annual Team USA, non-Olympic Summer Games Crisis.

While Phillips and Gammons keep talking, I'm flipping over to watch Roy Oswalt pitch while I wait for the Red Sox game to start. Curt Schilling is trying to help the Sox avoid being swept in Oakland. When that game ends, John Maine looks to help the Mets avoid being swept by Cole Hamels and the Phillies.

I can read about what Goldstein and Law thought of the draft tomorrow.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Buzzing Bissinger

In Buzz Bissinger’s piece in the New York Times’ new Play Magazine, he puts forth the idea that increasing a minor league pitcher’s innings is more important in preventing injury than monitoring pitch counts at the major league level. Of course, as the article goes on, he details the high pitch counts of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (the article’s focus), but implies that they were harmful because of the relatively light inning loads of the two pitchers in the minors.

Bissinger, who in print and interviews shows a sporadic interest in facts, cites the large number of innings pitched by some household names. His numbers cited:

Pitcher, Minor League Innings

Curt Schilling, 701.7
Tom Glavine, 536.7
Greg Maddux, 491.3
Randy Johnson, 418.3

Mark Prior, 51 (Bissinger, for some reason, acknowledges just one of Prior’s USC seasons)
Kerry Wood, 281.3

Bissinger qualifies Wood’s innings by saying they were on a strict pitch count. We’ll never know what might have happened had he not been on a strict pitch count in the minors. Bissinger would like us to believe that he would have survived the high pitch counts in the majors. Bissinger clearly did not consider that Wood might have broken down before reaching the majors (just as he did not consider, when noting the recent uptick in the percentage of disabled players who are pitchers, that these trips to the DL may be a precautionary complement to pitch counts rather than a result of players being weakened by pitch counts).

Using the Minor League inning totals of the four future Hall of Famers above is the classic baseball debate technique of using the few guys that everyone’s heard of, who have done something you think should be common place, as proof of a model. Bissinger writes, “The rule of thumb is that a pitcher should get some 400 innings of work in the minors before being called up.” Here’s how Bissinger would respond to his own nonsense:

Pitcher, Minor League Innings (numbers courtesy of The Baseball Cube)

Steve Carlton, 306
Nolan Ryan, 287 (and quoted by Bissinger in the piece)
Don Sutton, 249
Tom Seaver, 210
Jim Palmer, 129
Bert Blyleven, 123

And a few current players with no durability issues:

Johan Santana, 334
C.C. Sabathia, 232.7
Mike Mussina, 178

Bissinger left these guys out, most likely, because they interfere with his ability to make sweeping generalizations based on the four guys at the top. The fact that he would quote Ryan in the piece, but not mention his minor league innings numbers, is deceptive to say the least.

Finally, in yet another act of deception, in the paragraph that begins with the 400-inning rule of thumb, Bissinger writes:

“Francisco Liriano, in his first full season with the Minnesota Twins in 2006, went 12 and 3 and seemed destined for greatness, but he will miss the entire 2007 season after undergoing ligament replacement surgery — the so-called Tommy John procedure — on his elbow last November.”

Liriano, 484.3 minor league innings pitched. I wonder why that wasn’t mentioned.

Nobody has all the answers on pitching and few people claim to, but if there has to be a voice shouting down from the mountain about baseball, it shouldn’t be Buzz Bissinger.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Yankee Breakdown: Find the Big Game Pitcher

The Yankees have two veteran starting pitchers in their rotation with many similarities. Here they are with their career ERA, career ERA+ and number of top-five Cy Young Award finishes:

Pitcher A: 3.66, 124, 6
Pitcher B: 3.79, 120, 4

I’m not interested in breaking down their careers, but rather the perception that surrounds them in New York. The media, and many Yankee fans by extension, consider one of these pitchers a “Big Game Pitcher” and the other “soft.” Generally, such labels are based on the small sample sizes of postseason play and then attached to regular season games as writers see fit.

So, let’s throw sample size to the wind and see if we can at least spot where one of these guys might be considered “Big Game” and the other “soft.” In deference to the New York media’s conjured image, we will only look at the postseason numbers these two pitchers have put up with the Yankees (I’m sure by now, most of you have figured out which two pitchers these are, so you know they’ve both been to the postseason with two teams).

Career postseason with the Yankees:

ERA, BB/9, K/9

Pitcher A: 3.80, 1.75, 8.68
Pitcher B: 4.05, 2.51, 5.69

Pitcher A has an edge in all metrics, but both have acquitted themselves just fine.

We can’t stop there. If I show this to my Yankee fan friends, they’ll tell me that the “Big Game Pitcher” has a knack for always stepping up after a loss. Here are their numbers in starts following a Yankees postseason loss:

ERA, BB/9, K/9

Pitcher A: 3.18 , 1.59 , 6.88
Pitcher B: 3.42, 2.73, 6.72

Pitcher B closes the gap in strikeouts while both shave their ERAs by nearly two thirds of a run. Even though this is intentionally disregarding sample size, I should mention that Pitcher A only has three starts after a Yankees postseason loss. This is due, in part, to the fact that he has started the first game of so many series. Pitcher B has been inconsistent in these starts. He’s put up seven quality starts out of 12—including four starts of at least seven innings and allowing one earned run or less, and two starts where he’s failed to get out of the fifth inning. Upon inspection, neither of these guys has a demonstrated knack for always stepping up or any apparent softness.

Many Yankee fans might still say that with the season on the line, they prefer “Big Game Pitcher.” Let’s check the numbers in starts where the Yankees faced elimination—and make the mockery of sample sizes complete—in pursuit of the origin of these images.

ERA, BB/9, K/9

Pitcher A: 4.66, 1.86, 6.52
Pitcher B: 5.19, 2.60, 6.75

Those numbers represent two starts for Pitcher A and three starts for pitcher B, one quality start each. As a team the Yankees went 1-1 in Pitcher A’s two starts in this group and 1-2 in Pitcher B’s three. Pitcher A also added three scoreless relief innings in a game seven (not included in the numbers above).

I’m sure you know where this is going, so here it is:

Won -Lost

Pitcher A: 5 -7
Pitcher B: 13-8

For those of you who still can’t figure it out (how did you find this blog?), Pitcher A is Mike Mussina and Pitcher B is Andy Pettitte. These two have both pitched similarly for the Yankees in the postseason, but Pettitte has a huge edge in Win-Loss record. One last stat:

Yankees Runs Scored/Game

When Mussina starts: 3.27
When Pettitte starts: 4.37

As another Yankees-Red Sox series goes in the books, keep this in mind when you read about Mussina coming up small again and hear the pundits add another feather in the cap of “Big Game Andy.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The McGriff Line

While reading my favorite blog, I got to thinking about one of my favorite players from childhood, Fred McGriff. There are two things that stand out when I think of McGriff.

First, I think of the countless tennis instructors I used to irritate with my McGriff impression. If a ball came in high toward my normally two-handed backhand, during a routine drill, I would yell, “CRIME DOG!” Then I would release my top hand and belt the tennis ball on to the roof of the gymnasium behind the fence. As far as I know, my parents were never billed for those balls.

Second, Fred McGriff is not going to get into the baseball Hall of Fame. Sure, he hasn’t even made it to the ballot yet, and I haven’t polled any Hall voters, but some things you just know. I know McGriff isn’t getting into the Hall of Fame. If you know it too, please continue.

At peace with McGriff’s inevitable quick slide off the ballot, I’ve decided to try to immortalize a personal favorite in an unconventional way. So, as I lay out a case for McGriff’s candidacy, rest assured, I am not turning this into a Bert Blyleven campaign or a Davey Concepcion campaign. Blyleven belongs in the Hall and Rich Lederer’s campaign for him has become quite influential. Davey Concepcion is a more borederline candidate, with a campaign whose influence will only be seen when Omar Vizquel—a lesser candidate than Concepcion—gets in.

McGriff has credentials that can make him the poster boy for reversing an ugly trend. Voters are very fond of voting for a player because he’s better than a player already in the Hall of Fame. As a fan of stricter Hall of Fame standards, I’d love to convince voters to use the negative side of that logic. Don’t vote for Player A, because he was not better than Player B and Player B is not in the Hall of Fame. Fred McGriff makes for a perfect Negative Player B.

Here are a few things that fairly hurt McGriff:

*He played during the same era as better first basemen (Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Will Clark and later Thome, Helton, Giambi).
*His defense was horrible, no matter what Tom Emanski would have you believe.
*He held on too long to reach 500 home runs in a transparent attempt to cinch up a spot in the Hall—and came up short. He isn’t the only Hall of Fame level player who hung on too long to compile counting stats. I’m convinced that Craig Biggio was a lock for the Hall of Fame five years ago, but he too decided to go “all in” on his Hall chances by hanging on way too long to reach a milestone that will guarantee him a spot.

The unfair part of McGriff’s case is due to a career that spanned two eras. Like his most direct peer at first base—Rafael Palmeiro—McGriff came up in the relatively punchless 1980s and played through the offensive explosion of the ‘90s. Unlike Palmeiro, McGriff put up his best seasons before the offensive explosion (1988-1992). Therefore, while McGriff’s numbers were very strong relative to the league he played in, they are not nearly as gaudy as the home run and RBI totals of Palmeiro. If you compare the two using Baseball Prospectus’ Equivalent Average, you have Palmeiro with a career EQA of .308 to McGriff’s .307.

A few years ago there was sentiment that a voter couldn’t vote for Palmeiro without also voting for McGriff—the traditional “If Player A then Player B” logic. Then two things happened: Palmeiro badly outplayed McGriff during the last few years of their careers and Palmeiro was disgraced by a positive steroid test. Considering Mark McGwire didn’t get elected with stronger credentials and never failed a drug test, Palmeiro shouldn’t hold his breath.

The collateral damage here is McGriff, who will come up for election in an era when some players might not get into the Hall of Fame because writers can’t decipher who did or didn’t use steroids. McGriff will be the first guy that nobody suspects of steroid use to have his candidacy trashed because of someone else’s use. Being almost as good as a contemporary, who now won’t get in because of confirmed steroid use, is a tough spot to be in.

So, Fred McGriff becomes Negative Player B. If you look closely, he’s perfect for the job. Three of my favorite standards for judging Hall of Fame candidates are Jay Jaffe’s JAWS and Bill James’ HOF Standards and HOF Monitor. Here’s how McGriff stacks up:

McGriff: 82.1
Average Hall of Fame first baseman: 84.5

HOF Standards
McGriff: 47.9
Average HOFer: 50

HOF Monitor
McGriff: 100
Likely HOFer: 100

Like I wrote before, I know Fred McGriff isn’t getting into the Hall of Fame. But let’s immortalize him as a bridge between the insular stathead community and the insolent BBWAA (I flipped a coin over which group got which adjective. They should really share both). Sure, some writers are coming around to things like HOF Standards, HOF Monitor and maybe even JAWS. But for those who don’t come around, Fred McGriff provides a familiar, human face.

Which do you think you’re more likely to read from your local member of the BBWAA?

I’m not sure I can vote for Player A because his JAWS score is only 81 and the Average HOF first basemen is 84.5.
I’m not voting for Player A because he was not better than Fred McGriff and Fred McGriff is not in the Hall of Fame.

And just like that, the Crime Dog becomes the Guard Dog for the Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Juicing to Success

To all those who insist that every great player who may have used performance enhancing drugs is merely a product of PEDs, may I present...Lino Urdaneta.

That's right, Lino Urdaneta.

Today Major League Baseball announced that Urdaneta has been suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a performance enhancing substance.

Urdaneta entered 2007 with a career ERA of infinity. In his one cup of coffee with the Tigers he allowed six earned runs without recording an out. Had he retired one batter, he could have given himself a more calcluable ERA of 162.00.

No doubt feeling pressure to improve, Urdaneta--either intentionally or not--took something that contained a banned substance. We have to say that the results are evident. Not only did Urdaneta record one out in his very brief time with the Mets this year, but he got a full inning's worth of outs while allowing only one more earned run. His career ERA+ is now six.

Shame on you, Lino.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On Clemens

One of the more debated stathead arguments is the stance against the existence of clutch hitting. The argument goes that there is no evidence that getting hits in clutch situations is a repeatable skill. Nonetheless, all statheads get a little uncomfortable when David Ortiz is brought up.

In the same vein, statheads doubt that there is a connection between team chemistry and winning. There is much more negative evidence here. One only has to look at the 1970s, when Reggie Jackson divided clubhouses on both coasts, in the early part of the decade in Oakland and the end of the decade in the “Bronx Zoo,” on the way to multiple world championships at each stop. But like the clutch hitting argument has Ortiz, the team chemistry argument now has Roger Clemens.

Roger Clemens’ ability to leverage his value in a way that allows him to come and go from the team has drawn criticism from a wide array of current and ex-players. Now, I don’t think for a second that Clemens’ special arrangement will cost the Yankees a single win this season. However, his arrangement looks even worse when it’s juxtaposed with the cross-town Mets’ new team haircut. I don’t think the Mets getting their heads shaved together will win them any more games than Clemens’ arrangement will cost the Yankees. But there’s something to be said for appearances. While the Mets have Tom Glavine—no Clemens, but a first-ballot Hall of Famer in his own right—willing to shave his head, at the suggestion of a teammate who was eight-years old when Glavine won his first Cy Young Award, just to be part of the team, the Yankees can’t get Clemens to go on a team plane.

In all likelihood none of this has anything to do with winning. But if the Yankees find themselves in a losing streak in August, forgive Yankee fans if they find that they have the same lump in their throats that is normally reserved for the bottom of the ninth—when David Ortiz is walking to the plate.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Double Standard

I was just reading about the Tampa Bay Bucs inviting Justin Gatlin to minicamp. Gatlin needs a job now that he's facing an eight-year suspension from track and field for a controlled substance violation.

Certainly this is not the first time that the NFL has handled things its own way. I'm not the first, or the last, to bring up this double standard. But it's up to people--writers, media, bloggers, anyone--to keep pointing out this double standard. So, here it is:

What would happen if an MLB team invited Justin Gatlin to spring training? You don't have to answer that. But please keep asking.