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.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Thank You Sean Forman

The other day I wrote about Daniel Cabrera and investigated whether really good pitchers become really good by 25, or if we should still be patient with a talent like that. For those who didn’t read it then, or click the link just now, I came up with a composite number two starter on a playoff team based on the 88 number two starters on playoff teams from 1996-2006. That pitcher, I discovered, throws 206 innings with an adjusted ERA+ of 119. Then, using, I looked for active pitchers who’ve had at least one season at that level. I did this research the old-new-fashioned way, by clicking around baseball-reference.

Today, after reading Patrick Sullivan’s engaging article on the year of the shortstop over at Baseball Analysts, and noticing the ease with which he put together his research, I took the plunge and signed up for the Baseball-Reference Play Index. Naturally, the first thing I did was check my list of pitchers who fit the 206-inning and 119 ERA+ line. Lo and behold, I missed a few. Joining my original lists are Esteban Loaiza and Chan Ho Park on the right side (each one-hit wonders) and Mike Hampton on the left side (three times, beginning at age 25). And if they reemerge, Joe Mays joins the left side as a righty complement to Odalis Perez, and Ryan Drese joins the right side as a potential buddy for Ryan Franklin. The conclusion of the original piece is unchanged, if not bolstered, by these additions.

Coincidentally, I was planning to go to the Mets game on Monday, after I finished the Cabrera piece. I decided against it because I didn’t want to waste my time or money watching Park get bombed. Never would it have occurred to me that he was once on this list, especially adjusting for Dodger Stadium.

Well, today I used that saved ticket money to subscribe to Play Index, and I couldn’t be happier.

Thank you Sean Forman.

P.S. Thanks to Will Carroll for the mention in Under The Knife .

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Ghost of Roberto Alomar

This season marks five years since the Mets acquired Roberto Alomar as part of an ill-fated attempt to revamp what had been the lowest-scoring lineup in the major leagues in 2001. Alomar was part of an offseason that saw the Mets try to build around Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeno. While the other three carried spotty track records and injury concerns, Alomar was the safe bet out of the bunch. Alomar came to New York with 12 consecutive All-Star appearances, a three-year run in Cleveland where he finished in the top five in the MVP voting twice, and sporting a career line of .306/.378/.455, not unlike another New York middle infielder.

Then poof.

Alomar’s first year with the Mets, at the age of 34, saw him put up a line of .266/.331/.376, boosted by a glimmer of false hope in July. The All-Star Roberto Alomar was gone forever.

This year, a few October hopefuls have been dealing with atrocious starts from players they’re counting on as much as the 2002 Mets were counting on Alomar. If you had suggested after Alomar’s April 2002 line of .267/.325/.390 that he was done, it would have seemed insane. At this point sample size warnings are in full effect, but that doesn’t mean we have to swallow our local color commentator’s rosy “you know at the end of the year he’ll have his numbers” prognostications. With that in mind, let’s remember the Alomar and look at three key players, all over the age of 30, for teams that entered the season with better chances at October than the 2002 Mets.

Below the players’ names are their career AVG/OBP/SLG and 2007 numbers, including their PECOTA collapse rate, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus 2007.

Carlos Delgado, 35
Career: .281/.389/.553
2007: .196/.284/.265 Collapse: 45%

Delgado threw a scare into Mets fans last season when he essentially went 0 for May. He rebounded to have a strong second half and left fans with a .351/.442/.757 postseason to savor over the winter. This season, the ball has not jumped off his bat at all as he’s struggled to slug his weight. Worse, he’s looked downright old—on a team that has Julio Franco, no less. As the Mets wait for David Wright’s power to return, they’re going to need Delgado to bounce back once Shawn Green comes back to Earth and Moises Alou takes a month off for a Hamptons summer.

Paul Konerko, 31
Career: .282/.352/.494
2007: .202/.294/.383 Collapse: 35%

The good news for White Sox fans is that they’ve been here before. In 2003, at the age of 27, Konerko put up a putrid .234/.305/.399 line. It was suggested in some sabermetric circles that he was a hitter with “old player skills,” whose peak may have come and gone. Konerko responded by belting 116 home runs over the next three seasons. The White Sox are Jim Thome’s rate stats and Mark Buehrle’s contract push away from battling the Royals rather than being contenders in a stacked AL Central. They need Konerko to start hitting enough for us to take a good look at Jermaine Dye’s similar but lesser struggles.

Manny Ramirez, 35
Career: .313/.410/.596
2007: .227/.330/.330 Collapse: 41%

Ramirez’ slow start has been overshadowed by the fact that they’re in first place. Helped by All-Star level starting pitching from two guys who didn’t require a posting fee, and the Yankees only being up to plague seven, they’ve been able to open up a comfortable lead on their hated rivals. Eventually the Yankees will start playing up to their underlying metrics, and the Red Sox won’t be able to carry a shell of Manny, especially while J.D. Drew is enjoying rush festivities at the Abreu Sigma Giles fraternity of stathead darlings who lose their power. A winning streak from the Bronx Bombers will have the Boston media clamoring for “Manny being Manny” to come back and replace “Manny being Robby.”

I’m not suggesting that any, let alone all three, of these guys are done. But one of my favorite things about PECOTA is the distribution for the results of its forecasts (75% of players reaching their 25th percentile, 10% reaching their 90th percentile, etc.). All three of these guys came into the season sporting collapse rates over 35%. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one out of these three will collapse. But given the awful starts and the collapse rates, it’s fun to guess who might pull a Robby.

Of the three, I’ll go with Konerko, based on 2003 and his inferior track record.

Anyone else care to hazard a guess?

(ed. note: Stats are as of the beginning of play on Thursday. Nice game, Manny.)

Baseball Tonight: Artificial Debate Central?

Have the producers of Baseball Tonight told their analysts to disagree with each other no matter what the issue?

The other night, John Kruk and Steve Phillips were asked to name their player of the month for April. Phillips chose A-Rod, but Kruk chose Vladimir Guerrero because he didn’t want to pick the obvious choice.

(That argument got overshadowed by the surreal debate over the Indians sending Fausto Carmona down to the minors. When Phillips (pro) asked Kruk (con) how he would feel if returning from injury he lost his job to someone with a couple of good games, all Kruk could do was huff. The hard feelings were palpable the rest of the night.)

Wednesday night, apparently it was Kruk’s turn to be reasonable. Kruk and Fernando Vina—who sometimes looks at the camera as if it’s Albert Belle’s forearm coming at him all over again—were asked to rank their top three aces in baseball, setting aside salary. Kruk chose Santana, Halladay and Oswalt. Vina chose Colon, Willis and Beckett. He was being serious. Apparently, it’s not a fireable offense for a retired second baseman to think Johan Santana isn’t one of the three best pitchers in baseball, but it would be if he consoled Santana with a hug.

I know it would be boring if they just sat around agreeing with each other, but rather than disagreeing over something that should be obvious, wouldn’t the producers be better served to scrap the segment in favor of something truly divisive?

I can’t wait to see what happens when the Indians recall Carmona.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Cabrera Conundrum: When do you give up on talent and potential?

Every five days or so, my cognitive dissonance flares up. I’ve been dealing with this condition since Thanksgiving 2004, when my cousin and I began discussing the Orioles’ upcoming 2005 season. Little did I know it was a conversation that would last nearly two-and-a-half years.

My cousin the Orioles fan, and eternal optimist, tried to convince me that if some of the Orioles young pitchers were good, they might contend. The one pitcher who became the center of the debate was Daniel Cabrera. I saw a pitcher who had just walked more batters than he struck out. He saw a raw pitcher with electric stuff who had just one season in the majors. We were both right.

From that point we traded taunts based on Cabrera’s performances. A typical exchange would go something like this:

Cousin Optimist: Cabrera looked good last night.
Me: It’s one start, his numbers are still iffy.
CO: Yeah, but he’s still young.
Me: He was born the same week as Jake Peavy and Carlos Zambrano.
CO: Yeah, but those guys are really good.
Me: Yes, they are.

And around it would go, even as Cabrera raised his strikeout rate in ’05, but then improbably raised his walk rate even higher in ’06. I’m as tantalized as my cousin by Cabrera’s physical ability, but I feel like he should’ve taken the next step by now, his age 26 season. Given my hunch that good pitchers become good before they’re 26, and bolstered by the thoughts of those smarter than I am, I took a quick and dirty look into it.

The first step was defining good. Rather than setting the bar at guys who became mega-millionaires this past winter, I defined a good starting pitching season as a season good enough to be a number two starter on a generic playoff team. With the help of, I looked at the eleven 162-game seasons that have been played in the wildcard era. I took the number two starters from the 88 playoff teams over that period and created a composite number two starter on a playoff team based on the average number of innings and the weighted mean adjusted ERA+ of the 88 pitchers. The 88 pitchers were selected by simply taking the pitcher with the second highest adjusted ERA+ among pitchers who made at least 25 starts for the team that year. That number was picked to restrict the list to pitchers that were more likely to have been in the team’s original plans for contention at the beginning of the year (the one exception was the 2002 Cardinals who only had one pitcher make that many starts due to injuries, trades and the passing of Darryl Kile. Jason Simontacchi defaulted into the spot). The 25 start requirement excluded trade deadline acquisitions like Randy Johnson (1998 Astros) and some household names who became instant stars mid-season (Oswalt and Santana to name a couple). On the other hand it also dethroned Shawn Chacon as the ace of the 2005 Yankees.

(At this point, I’d like to remind anyone reading this that this started out as a quick look at a debate, but, without giving away the end, I’m sufficiently intrigued by the results that I’d be thrilled if someone with more experience in this area chose to take this and run with it to give us something even more precise.)

The 88 pitchers gave me a composite number two starter on a playoff team who pitches 206 innings with an adjusted ERA+ of 119. The list of 88 provided some interesting observations.

The 88 pitchers ranged in adjusted ERA+ from 80 (Brian Lawrence, 2005 Padres) to 174 (Andy Pettitte, 2005 Astros). Steve Trachsel made the list of 88 twice with an adjusted ERA+ under 100 both times. Trachsel made the list once in 1998 with the Cubs, when Kerry Wood didn’t have enough starts to qualify, and once with the 2006 Mets’ patchwork starting rotation. The list also nicely illustrates how many different ways there are to get to October. The 2005 Astros had an extremely top heavy pitching staff. The 2006 Mets and 1996 Orioles relied more on their offenses and bullpens. The 2006 Tigers didn’t have a single starting pitcher reach 206 innings and an adjusted ERA+ of 119, but they had four who came respectably close. And, of course, the 2005 Padres won by playing in Quadruple-A.

Next, I took my composite number two starter from a playoff team and made a list of active pitchers who’ve had at least one season of at least 206 innings and an adjusted ERA+ 119 or higher (top, right). There are 54 active pitchers who meet that standard. With Daniel Cabrera in mind, I divided the list into two groups. On the left side are the pitchers who had their first such season at age 25 or younger and on the right are the ones who did it at age 26 or later. For all pitchers I included the number of times they’ve reached the No. 2 bar and their age when they first did it (as always age is as of July 1).

Some notes and observations:
· If Roger Clemens comes out of retirement, he tops the list on the left with 13.
· Peavy won the NL ERA title in 2004, but was well short of 206 innings. In 2005 he again cleared an ERA+ of 119, but missed the list by 3 innings.
· Colon, who resides on the right-hand list, missed the mark by 2 innings in 1998 and 1 inning in 1999, his age 25 and 26 seasons (though we thought they were his age 23 and 24 at the time).
· Garcia missed making the left side by 4.7 innings when he was 24. He missed time the next year and then hit the mark at 26 before settling into his role as an inning eating number 3.
· Carlos Zambrano’s four number two seasons entering his age 26 season is amazing. When Greg Maddux became a free agent after 1992, at the age of 26, he had done it three times. It’s no wonder everyone in baseball wants the Cubs to wrap him up now—except possibly Yankees fans.
· Jamie Moyer, Jamie Moyer, Jamie Moyer. To hit the mark for the first time at 35 and then hit it four more times is incredible. But the only thing he has in common with Daniel Cabrera is they’ve both pitched for the Orioles.
· Generally speaking, the left side is made up of power pitchers and groundball pitchers, most of whom also have above average control. Garland and Perez would probably fit in better with the right side group.
· On the right side, the one-hit wonders breakdown into guys who didn’t get their real shot until they were a little older (Arroyo, Harang and Wang), and non-strikeout guys who had career years with control (Towers, Pavano, Byrd, Washburn, Hernandez, and Moehler) or HR rate (Davis and Ortiz). Westbrook was a blend of the last two groups. Jennings pitched at altitude and then pitched with humid balls.
· I can’t explain Franklin.
· Wood, the only real power pitcher of these one-hit wonders, never stayed on the field and productive other than 2003.
· Lackey lowered his HR rate and raised his strikeout rate at age 26 to become a star.
· Lowe, Rogers and Wells didn’t become full-time starters until their late 20s.
· Schmidt and Carpenter teased people with their ability before putting together their full, healthy and productive seasons.

These lists seem to indicate that pitchers who achieve sustainable success as frontline starters usually do it by their age 25 seasons. Where does that leave Daniel Cabrera? He’s not a soft-tosser, he already has a good HR rate, and with 82 career starts through age 25, he’s had plenty of opportunity already. But there’s still the matter of the outlier at the top of the list.

Of the pitchers on the list, Cabrera has the most in common with Johnson. They’re tall, power pitchers, with nasty stuff that they couldn’t harness in their youth. Cabrera doesn’t have nearly the strikeout rate that Johnson had even before he broke out, but he also, amazingly enough, isn’t nearly as wild. Johnson walked 416 batters in 631.3 innings, 5.93 BB/9, in the three years before his breakout. Cabrera has walked 280 batters in 457 innings, 5.51 BB/9, over the last three years.

Does that mean Daniel Cabrera will be the next Randy Johnson? That would be surprising. The clock on him is ticking louder and louder and having more in common with Johnson than the others doesn’t change that.

But I also won’t be surprised if my cognitive dissonance returns this weekend.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Talk Radio Genius

Mike and the Mad Dog are at it again. A caller wanted to discuss last night's playoff game between the Mavericks and the Warriors. Mad Dog had to admit that he hadn't watched the game. Nonetheless, within ten minutes Mad Dog was arguing that Baron Davis is a better player than Allen Iverson. Mike tried to get him off the ledge, pointing out Iverson's MVP award and status as a lock Hall of Famer. Unconvinced, Mad Dog went to the old "If I was starting a team" and "he makes the guys around him better, Iverson doesn't" arguments. This all on the heels of Baron Davis' career week that Mad Dog hasn't watched. He even went so far as to bring up the NCAA title that UCLA (Davis' school) won--when Davis was still in High School.

This is the entertainment value and genius of the Mad Dog. He presents the sort of awkward disaster your parents always told you not to stare at and then invites you, even begs you to stare at him.

My brother once suggested to me that John Madden is a really smart guy who's made millions by pretending to be dumb.

If that's true then Mad Dog is a regular Stephen Hawking.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bring Back the Box Office Mojo Forecast

Summer movie season is upon us, which means big movies, big busts and big box office predictions. Yes, I'll admit I'm as curious about whether Spider-man 3 will out gross Pirates 3 as I am about which will be better. I can't explain why I care how much money movies make, or when I started caring how much money movies make, but I do.

For years, one of my first stops online every Friday morning has been the Box Office Mojo forecast. This is where Brandon Gray gives his forecast which is touted as "The most accurate box office predictions since 1998." Unfortunately, the page currently has a note saying "the forecast is on hiatus, and its future is under consideration." I still get to see the consensus forecast of the site's readers, but somehow it's not the same.

I hope it's only a coincidence that this note was posted on the heels of a wildly off target forecast for Grindhouse. There's no shame in being wildly off from time to time. If everyone who missed badly on a forecast gave up, a lot of my favorite baseball writers would be out of the prediction business after some stathead darlings went bust (the Padres of a few years ago and last year's Indians to name a couple).

I hope this Friday when I click over to Box Office Mojo I'm greeted with a fresh forecast featuring a huge number. For those who care, I'll take Spider-man 3 over Pirates 3, if only because it will be facing a weaker field. The fourth weekend of Spider-man 3 will be stronger competition for Pirates 3 than anything Spider-man 3 faces this weekend.

I wonder what Brandon Gray thinks.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Moneyball and Iraq: Two issues with one debate

On Wednesday night, I tuned in to a broadcast of the Red Sox-Orioles game that everyone seems to be talking about. After the game, I wasn’t thinking about Curt Schilling’s sock and his need for attention or Gary Thorne’s comments and his history of making controversial statements.

I was thinking about an innocuous comment by Jim Palmer during a J.D. Drew plate appearance.

Palmer made one of those comments about J.D. Drew’s On-Base Percentage fitting the Red Sox’s “Moneyball Philosophy.” It was the same sort of comment you hear whenever someone on the Red Sox or A’s who can draw a walk comes to the plate. Of course, with Palmer it was a straight observation, not a backhanded slap at the book or its ideas.

The way the book is still part of the baseball public’s consciousness, but the sentiment around it has shifted, reminded me of another long running debate. I realized that the trajectories of the discussions of Moneyball and the war in Iraq are interchangeable. With pro-Moneyball representing anti-war and anti-Moneyball representing pro-war, let’s plug the names of the Moneyball principals into their corresponding characters in the Iraq situation and see what we have.

Cast list:

Michael Lewis as Osama Bin Laden: Lewis, the man whose work started this all, the actual author of Moneyball, has been relatively unscathed by the anti-Moneyball crowd. So much so, that occasionally he had to pop up to remind the book’s detractors that it’s his book. Consider that his grainy video threat from a cave.

Joe Morgan as George W. Bush: Fazed by the onslaught of stat-oriented people who could be baseball experts without ever having played in the majors, and having the “smallball” bunting and hit and run strategies of his day devalued by the masses, he went on the warpath. But Morgan didn’t go after Lewis.

Billy Beane as Saddam Hussein: The A’s general manager and the star of Moneyball became the face for the anti-Moneyball crowd to attack. By allowing himself to be the subject of such a book, Beane was considered arrogant and rubbed some colleagues the wrong way. But it was Morgan in particular, speaking as though Beane had written the book himself, that went after Beane and the “Moneyball Philosophy,” Morgan’s “Axis of Evil.”

(For those of you who read Moneyball, enjoy the visual of Saddam Hussein calling up Ari Fleischer and saying, “Who’s the best looking evil dictator in the Middle East?”)

Bill James as Kim Jong-il: Before Moneyball was even released the Boston Red Sox hired the stathead forefather as a consultant. When the Red Sox entered the 2003 season without a defined closer, another untraditional move, the press derided the organization for letting a stat geek steer them off course. Then when Moneyball was released the focus went squarely to Beane and the A’s. Focused on the Red Sox’ lack of a closer, and their new target Beane, the press failed to notice that Red Sox had also cheaply acquired a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder as Uday and Qusay Hussein: As the A’s kept winning and no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq, President Morgan and his constituents needed a new explanation for their attacks. Just as Saddam’s two torturous sons provided a rational sounding reason to be in Iraq, Beane’s three young star pitchers provided a rationale for why the A’s were actually winning. He’d never, it was thought by the Morganites, win without all three of his young pitchers.

Rob Neyer, Peter Gammons and Bill Plaschke as The Nation, New York Times and Fox News:’s Neyer was on board with Moneyball so early that he actually helped Lewis during the writing process. Gammons, ESPN’s venerable institution and the most influential baseball writer in America, helped the “Moneyball Philosophy” gain traction in the mainstream by embracing the concepts and incorporating them into his columns. Plaschke, the esteemed and influential writer for the L.A. Times, assaulted the credibility of Moneyballers by calling them computer geek traitors, with no real love or feel for the game. He would continue these assaults on the philosophy even as the A’s stayed successful, though no WMDs were found and Uday and Qusay were gone.

Jim Palmer as the American Public: Moneyball seemed bad and war acceptable at first, but now Moneyball seems acceptable and the war in Iraq less so. The A’s keep restocking and contending for their division title and in 2004 the Red Sox used their Weapon of Mass Destruction at roughly one-third of his actual market value. Palmer, and many other commentators, followed the tide and no longer understand the purpose of the war and accept the value of Moneyball even without fully understanding what the issue was to begin with. These commentators think the book was about On-Base Percentage, rather than undervalued assets, which at the time of Moneyball just happened to be On-Base Percentage. But at least they're trying to embrace new ideas.

That leaves us with Joe Morgan, a man without an exit strategy, defending his war to the end.