Sunday, January 28, 2007

86 wins = Division Champ?

Jeff Sackmann recently produced a good writeup of the Cubs' 2007 outlook, forecasting 86 wins for this year's Northsiders. I liked the piece except for the ending, where Sackmann decides two things: that he has been too optimistic in granting them 86 wins, and that the Cubs aren't headed to the postseason this year.

There are two basic approaches one can utilize when forecasting a team's performance: project the team's runs scored and allowed and generate a Pythagorean estimated record, or start with last year's results and adjust for the various player additions, subtractions, improvements, and declines. Sackmann used the latter approach, and though he simplified the process by using round numbers, his methodology is solid and it produces an accurate result.

Two other blogs went the former route, and got virtually the same estimates: Baseball Musings and Viva El Birdos. My personal numbers portend 86-87 wins, depending on some playing-time adjustments, so I think we're in agreement about the team's talent level.

Now that that's settled, what of the Cubs' chances to make the playoffs or win the World Series with 86-win talent? A title certainly isn't out of the question--the last two Fall Classic winners were forecast for 86 wins or fewer by PECOTA. Many, however, are arguing that 86 wins won't be enough to top a division, especially one with six teams. They're probably right; it's very likely some team in the NL Central will end up with more than 86 wins this time around.

That doesn't mean the Cubs won't make the playoffs.

Although playoff teams average something like 95 regular-season wins, this doesn't mean they are, on average, teams with 95-win talent. This is because the teams that finish with the best records usually get there through a combination of talent and good fortune. Just as the 2001 Mariners would not win 116 games if they had to play that season's schedule over again, the typical playoff team would be expected to win fewer than 95 games if they had a do-over. Like the infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, baseball teams occasionally produce a playoff season out of sheer randomness. The good teams have a head start, but the beauty is that, recent AL and NL East divisions aside, the underdogs still have their chances.

Back to the Cubs. 86 wins is simply a mean forecast; there's roughly a 50% chance they'll win more games than this, and perhaps a 25% chance they'll win 92 or more. Though the division winner may end up with 92 victories, no NL Central team has a mean projection this high, nor are they close. In fact, I don't have a single NL team rated at 89 wins or more. Someone in the NL will win more than 89 games, of course; even if every contest was a pure coin flip, simple variance would usually create at least one 90-win team, along with some 70-win teams.

In fact, even with perfect knowledge of a team's talent, the standard deviation of its win forecast is more than six games over the course of a season. (This figure is approximately .5*rt(162), or 4.5*rt(2).) This means that if we know the Cubs are an 86 win team, no more, no less, they will still finish with more than 92 wins about 16% of the time and fewer than 80 another 16%. Here's an excellent BP piece on randomness in team standings.

In reality, the best projections have a standard deviation of eight games per season, so we can adjust those parameters to 16% over 94 and 16% under 78. If you think this sounds too inaccurate, consider that the Cubs were almost universally projected for 83-87 wins last year, and we all know how that turned out.

I project the Cubs at 86 wins, the Cardinals and Brewers (yes, the Brewers) each at 84, with the rest of the division well behind. Obviously, those will not be the exact final standings. We're more likely to see the top three teams in the division produce something like 96, 89, and 84 wins respectively. But who will those teams be? We don't know yet; that's why they play the games. The numbers suggest the Cubs are, by a hair, the most likely team to take that top spot. 86 wins isn't enough to make the playoffs, but it's enough to give them a head start on the competition.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What's in a name?

Browsing through early projections, I happened upon a pair of players from the same team and close to one another in the alphabet. Here they are, complete with 2007 PECOTA projections but not names:


Age OPS VORP EqA Salary 2007 role
Player 1 38 0.787 8.7 0.284 $13 million Starter
Player 2 27 0.819 14 0.29 $400,000 Bench

Need some more hints? Player 1 was acquired in exchange for three minor leaguers with upside and signed to a $28 million extension through his age 40 season. Player 2 was off to the hottest start of any hitter this side of Albert Pujols in April 2006, but lost his starting job in midseason and won't likely get it back this year without an injury.

They are Gary Sheffield and Chris Shelton, and they represent two ways to build a baseball team: acquiring big names through spending and the sacrifice of young talent, or the development of your own cheap, effective players. The Tigers have chosen the same trail they blazed with Magglio Ordonez.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Transaction Recap: Phillies, Pirates, Braves, Padres, Blue Jays, Cardinals

Phillies:

Signed 2B Chase Utley to a 7-year, $84 million extension (rating: 7/10)

Utley still has three arbitration years left with the Phils, so they're buying out those years and signing him for his first four years of free agency. The rating of 7 reflects the value of this deal rather than simply keeping him for those three years at a discounted arbitration salary.

I imagine this is the second contract (the other being Albert Pujols') of seven years or more in MLB history that I'd have given a thumbs-up at the time. Making a long commitment to a player often results in him spending the final days of the deal old, injured, and/or ineffective. (see: Kevin Brown, Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn, Mike Hampton, etc.)

Utley will degrade some before this deal is up, but he's signed only through age 34, before Father Time can fully take its toll, and he is one of the most valuable commodities in baseball right now, hitting like a star and playing acceptable defense at a key position. This puts him in elite company with Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Miguel Tejada, Grady Sizemore, and Carlos Guillen, and Utley is younger than most of that group. (Brian McCann and Howie Kendrick are young players who are knocking on the door.)

Given how this year's market played out for second basemen--the only position I believe was actually underpaid in free agency--I think the Phillies probably could have signed Utley for three years and $30-35 million to buy out his arbitration years. Is an extra four years for an additional $37-41 million (adjusted for three years of MLB inflation) worth it?

I believe it is. We're talking about a guy who is one of the 20 best players in baseball at age 28. A superstar like Utley has plenty of room to slip and still remain valuable, unlike Carlos Lee or Gil Meche. In the event his defense erodes, he can be moved to an outfield corner. Utley's PECOTA projection, even allowing for some short-term regression, sees his value holding up well for the next five years.

If I had the chance to sign a hypothetical 31-year old Utley for four years and $40 million this offseason, I would jump all over it. Compared to Jeff Suppan and Ted Lilly, who are making that much, it's not even close. Still, the Phillies are banking on seven years of productivity and health, and a lot can happen in that time, which is why I rate it only a 7.

Pirates/Braves:

Pirates traded RP Mike Gonzalez and SS Brent Lillibridge for 1B Adam LaRoche and OF Jamie Romak (Ratings: Pirates 3, Braves 8)

Nate Silver thinks Lillibridge is the most valuable long-term commodity acquired in this deal. Scouting reports don't agree with PECOTA on projecting his future, but any time you can pick up six years of cheap service from a guy who's nearly ready to contribute, it's a coup. I'm not ready to say for certain that Lillibridge is the best player of the four, but with his Major League service clock at zero, he should produce the most bang for the buck going forward. If nothing else, he has more upside than Gonzalez or LaRoche, who represent two types of players who tend to be overrated by the public: closers and first basemen with middling power and walk rates.

LaRoche had a .915 OPS last year, but it still takes just one finger to count how many seasons he's been more than a fringe starter. At a reasonable .850 projected OPS going forward, he's a below-average starter at the position, and a short distance from replacement level. He's a decent candidate to get non-tendered before his arbitration years are up, and the Braves' platoon of Scott Thorman and Craig Wilson should end up within one win of his 2007 value.

Gonzalez is one of the better relievers in baseball, but relief pitchers are inconsistent by nature and their value is limited by their lack of innings. He'll probably be worth around 1.5 to 2 wins per year until he hits free agency.

Romak is not a major factor in the deal. He's a 21 year old who hasn't risen above A ball and has struck out in over 30% of his professional at bats, though he has shown decent power for a youngster.

Padres:

Signed SP David Wells to a 1-year, $3 million contract (6)

The deal includes another $4 million in performance incentives. I'm a fan of deals where there's little or no downside, even if there's virtually no chance the player surprises you with one last All Star season. Wells is a known commodity; he'll provide around a 4.50 ERA in a neutral park, and lower in San Diego. If he gives them 100 innings, which is no given with his physical condition and age, he's a bargain; if he doesn't, they can live with it.

Blue Jays:

Signed 1B Lyle Overbay to a 4-year, $24 million contract extension (4)

Overbay had two more arbitration years left, so the Jays signed him for his first two years of free agency. The 4 rating compares this deal to simply signing him for two years, or taking him to arbitration.

It's not a huge sum of money, but Overbay isn't a special player. He's a 30-year old with poor speed, below average power for a first baseman, and a high rate of hits on balls in play. That's a breed of player who declines very quickly once he hits 30, as evidenced by a sharp drop in his PECOTA projected VORP, from the 36.3 he actually posted in 2006 to 16.9 this year and 7.4 by the end of the contract. I would be happy to take two more reasonably productive years from Overbay and let him walk after 2008; the two extra years are an unnecessary gesture.

Cardinals:

Signed SP Mark Mulder to a 2-year, $13 million contract with a team option for 2009 (5)

Given the current market for starters, the Cardinals' status as a contender in a weak NL Central, and their thin projected 2007 rotation, this represents a tolerable reward for the risk, but it's unlikely we will ever see the Mulder of the Big Three era again. Mulder is likely to continue rehabbing into the 2007 season, and it's no given that he'll pitch 100 innings in a season again, or post a 2:1 K/BB ratio. Remember that groundball pitchers walk a thin line to begin with.
On The Media and NFL Head Coaches

Today's victories by the Colts and Saints have the media swarming over the first two black head coaches to make it to the Super Bowl, the Bears' Lovie Smith and the Colts' Tony Dungy. I'm happy for both coaches, as they've done very good work with their respective teams and deserve to make it to the biggest stage. However, the media seem to have the idea that suddenly little kids will turn on their TVs, see two black head coaches facing off in Miami, and believe that things like race no longer matter in sports.

I just don't see it. The last time I checked, there were no Asian, Hispanic or female head coaches. Nearly two-thirds of the American population--assuming America thinks the way ESPN says it does--is getting the message that they'll never make it there. Meanwhile, every child who's not African-American will think he has no chance of becoming an NFL running back or cornerback. Is this the message the league really wants to send?

I don't believe that it is, but neither do I think NFL teams are really interested in inspiring kids of different races to pursue coaching, nor should they be. They're just hiring the best man for the job, regardless of what color his skin is. Focusing on a coach's race instead of his skills and achievements serves to cheapen his accomplishments.

Jackie Robinson is one of the most underrated baseball players of all time, because the average fan sees him only as a pioneer, and not as one of the best second basemen of all time, a guy who was among the leaders in on-base percentage every year and played top-notch defense at a key position. Obviously baseball should not downplay Robinson's role in integrating the game, but MLB should make more of an effort to celebrate his contributions on the field as well as off. It's only fair to him and his legacy.

In the same vein, I think it's more fair and respectful to give credit to Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy for being great head coaches rather than black head coaches. The color barrier has long been broken in NFL coaching staffs, but it's a rare breed who can string together a run of 12-win seasons like Dungy has.

Side note: I find it humorous that Smith, by virtue of playing earlier in the day, will forever be referred to as the first black head coach to make it. Dungy loses out on the honor by a mere four hours.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

10 yards vs. 15

The current hot-button issue for the results-driven analysis on ESPN is the Eagles' fourth down play calling in last night's game. With two minutes left, two timeouts, and the ball near midfield, trailing by three, Philadelphia elected to go for it on fourth and 10. After they completed a 16-yard pass, the play was called back on a penalty, and they elected to punt rather than attempt to convert fourth-and-15.

As usual, the "experts" focused on two points of view:

1. Philadelphia lost the game, so they must have made the wrong decision
2. Philadelphia gained more than 15 yards on their last attempt, so they made the wrong decision

Of course, neither of these things mattered. The only important factor is whether the Eagles have a better chance of winning the game by attempting to convert on fourth down or by punting. What's my take? I'm not certain. Win expectancy in football is tricky to calculate, and there's not a statistically significant amount of historical data to look at.

What I do know is that there must be a break-even distance, somewhere between one inch and 50 yards, where punting and going for it create an equal win expectancy. At this point, the Eagles should be indifferent between their options; it represents the line dividing the strategies of always going for it and always punting.

As I said, I'm not sure what this exact distance is, or even whether it's somewhere between 10 and 15 yards. I am sure that Andy Reid doesn't know it either. I also know that while Reid can be excused for not being able to calculate the precise figure in his head, the Eagles cannot be excused for not having someone on staff who knows how to make these calculations and apply them.

For $25,000/year, or perhaps even less, the Eagles could have hired an expert in analyzing football situations by win expectancy. I believe it's very conservative to say this expert could increase their chances of winning each game by 1% on average, for an additional .16 wins over the course of a regular season.

In an industry where teams spend over $10 million per win, $25,000 is a pittance. It can buy the Eagles .0025 wins, or .16. The Eagles, and every other NFL team, have made it clear where they stand on the issue. (There may be teams who hire these types of personnel, but they don't listen to them very often, so it doesn't really matter.)

Traditionally, games of skill and chance were dominated by the "old school" of thinkers, who based their conservative strategies on fundamentals passed down to them and honed them with years of experience. All these games are gradually being taken over by quantitative types who challenge every assumption and use math and computers to develop better approaches. Backgammon was permanently taken over by the "quants" in the early 1980s; later that decade, the math types hit Wall Street and made a fortune. More recently, sabermetricians have developed new statistics and analyses that are now used by all 30 MLB teams. Poker is experiencing the same revolution; the new ruling class is comprised not of road gamblers, but of quantitative geniuses like Bill Chen, author of the excellent Mathematics of Poker, who won two events at this year's World Series of Poker.

It's time for an NFL team to take the leap. Statistical analysis in football is nothing new; The Hidden Game of Football has been around for nearly 20 years, and Football Outsiders is doing good work and expanding their knowledge base every day. The first team in the pool usually reaps the most benefits, whether it's the Dodgers for signing Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella; the NBA teams who drafted "raw" high schoolers Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady; or the A's for handing the reins to Billy Beane.

Yes, it's hard for an NFL coach, who has been around the game for 30 years, to hand over the decision-making duties to a 25 year old nerd with a calculator and a spreadsheet. But if the coach cares more about helping the team win than his own ego, he'll do the right thing, and his team will be better off for it. The next time you turn on your TV, maybe your favorite team won't be punting on fourth-and-inches from the enemy's 35-yard line.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Boise State's play calling

The Fiesta Bowl was a game for the ages. I'm not sure I'd call it the greatest game I've ever watched--I'm partial to the 2005 Illinois-Arizona Elite Eight Game due to personal bias--but it's up there, especially the last few minutes and overtime. If all you saw was the highlights, make sure you catch it whenever it hits ESPN Classic.

Though the talking heads in the media are universally praising Boise State's play calling on three crucial plays near the end of the game, those of us who aren't results-oriented should be more skeptical. Let's take a look at two of them.

The Hook and Ladder

The situation: 4th and 18, 50 yard line, 18 seconds left, BSU down by 7.

The play: Jared Zabransky passes to Drisan James to the left for 15 yards. James heads towards the center of the field, then laterals to Jerard Rabb, who takes it down the sideline for a touchdown with 7 seconds remaining.

The verdict: A+. BSU knows Oklahoma is going to be watching for a 20-yard pass or a 50-yard pass, so they throw it where they know they'll have room and hope for a miracle.

Even if Boise got the first down, they would still need another 30 yards to tie, with enough time left for two plays. Going for broke clearly seems like the best gamble here, although they were very fortunate that Oklahoma bit and the play succeeded.

The Game-Winner

The situation: BSU has just scored a touchdown to bring them within 1 point in the first overtime.

The play: They go for two and the win. They run the Statue of Liberty play and Ian Johnson marches into the end zone untouched.

The verdict: A. Boise risked a lot of criticism with this move, as nothing makes you look like a bigger fool than trying an unorthodox strategy and failing; just ask Tom Osborne. But this was clearly the right move. Oklahoma is a better team than Boise, and with the additional disadvantage of going first in the next overtime, BSU was looking at less than a 40% chance of winning by tying the game. Add in that the extra point is not automatic--their kicker missed two this season--and the breakeven conversion rate is probably around 35-38%. It's hard to believe they convert this infrequently, especially when the coach knows they can execute a flawless trick play.

This decision wasn't as clear cut as the hook and ladder, but it was the right one.

----

At least in one man's opinion, they made the right decisions. I'll leave the analysis of their overtime touchdown to those who know more about the success rate of direct snap passes in college.

It's important to remember, though, that making the right decision is only a small part of the battle. If Boise State wasn't fortunate in how these plays turned out, they wouldn't be undefeated and Ian Johnson might still be looking for a clever way to propose.