Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pulling Jake

Jake Peavy didn't come out for the eighth inning of yesterday's Padres-Diamondbacks game despite racking up 16 strikeouts in the first seven innings, including nine in a row.

If you're feeling a sense of deja vu, it's because this has happened to Jake before. As with last year's 16 K performance, Peavy's pitch count (117) and the Padres' stellar bullpen were more than enough to justify the call to the bullpen. Taking Peavy out of the game had two direct benefits:

- It improved the chances of the Padres winning the game, since their excellent bullpen is more effective than a tired Peavy
- It helped Peavy's long-term health

Alas, the bullpen lost the game 3-2 on a Stephen Drew walk-off homer, which only adds fuel to the critics' fire. Not only will Bud Black be flamed for not letting Peavy chase the record, but also for denying him the chance to close the game out for the Padres.

I don't think any rational person can argue that Peavy had enough left in the tank to outperform the Padres bullpen, which employs one of the top closers of all time, perhaps the best set-up man in the majors, a guy whose ERA the past two years is under 1.00, and someone who may have the best peripherals of them all. Results be damned, the Padres improved their win expectancy by turning the game over to the pen.

As for the record chase, Peavy has the right to be upset that he wasn't given the chance to challenge the all-time mark of 20 Ks in a game, much like a child is upset when his parents discipline him. As with the child, however, the decision is in Peavy's (and the Padres') own best interests in mind. Research has shown that pitching while tired is a common and preventable cause of future injuries and ineffectiveness. Peavy's pitch count was near a dangerous tipping point, and all the strikeouts indicate he wasn't likely to be conserving his energy on the mound. Peavy won't realize it, but he owes the Padres a chunk of his first free agent contract for keeping him healthy this long.

Of course, if Padres fans are really that upset and want a manager who will leave Peavy in the next time they're in this spot, I hear there's one available.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Nathan Protects Two-Run Lead

...that is, the Indians' two-run lead. The Twins left Nathan in their pen for 11 innings, including several with the game remaining tied 3-3. They later determined that after the Indians pushed across two runs and put men on second and third with no one out, now was the time to put him in to stop any further bleeding.

This is just awful. Yes, if you must win this game, it's crucial not to allow any further runs in this situation. To not allow any runs is also a very difficult job for any reliever, even one of the game's very best. More importantly, this is a far less critical situation than one which had come up many times earlier in this game: late innings, tie score.

Unless you're in a true must-win situation, there's little sense in using your best reliever if you are already going to lose the game the vast majority of the time. This is especially true when you have already refused to deploy your relief ace earlier in the game, when he could have made a real difference. This isn't even a save situation, so the Twins can't use that tired excuse. Not only did the Twins use inferior relievers in an important tie game, but now Nathan's availability is a concern for later in the series.

True to the non-results-oriented nature of this site, the Twins relievers left the game tied for several innings, and Nathan was ineffective, so maybe they would have lost this game even earlier had he been in. But had Ron Gardenhire done this, he would have made the right decision, and that's far more important in the long run.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fun With Sample Size

Yes, we all know it's early, but still...
  • Alex Rodriguez's first 14 games have been beaten to death by the media, but I can't pass up including his stats with men on and two outs. In 12 at bats in this situation, he has EIGHT home runs and a 3.619 OPS. Even the 6'3" kid on your little league team--the one whose mom had to bring his birth certificate to every game--couldn't do that.
  • Anyone--without looking--know who's leading the majors in K/9, and by a wide margin? If you said Claudio Vargas, you take home today's grand prize, first dibs on Vargas in your fantasy free agent pool. Vargas is currently the proud owner of 15.2 K/9 and a 22/2 K:BB ratio. I ripped the Brewers for their offseason trade with the D-Backs and don't agree with their decision to keep the five man rotation intact rather than give extra starts to Ben Sheets, but if Vargas maintains even 25% of this breakout as skills growth, this may be MLB's best rotation, Suppan or no Suppan.
  • Rich Hill currently sports a 0.41 ERA. He won't end the year under 2.00, but his chances of finishing on the low side of 3.50 might be better than you think. Check out his second-half numbers last year, or his sick AA and AAA peripherals in 2005-06. As a flyball pitcher, Hill is prone to the long ball, but if he keeps the homer total at or below 20 this year, his numbers are absolutely those of a number 1 starter. Hill has a chance to have the career Wood and Prior didn't, even if he got a much later start.
  • Josh Hamilton has five homers in 30 at-bats. I don't buy that he'll be a star this year after so much time off from facing live pitching, but the Reds definitely deserve credit for taking a chance on him, given that their team is going nowhere this year anyway. Wayne Krivsky has gotten a lot of flak for his moves as GM, but besides the train wreck that was the Kearns/Lopez trade, he has come out well ahead, particularly in his trade for Bronson Arroyo. Perhaps he deserves some credit...or maybe he's just gotten lucky. It's hard to separate the two, which we should keep in mind when evaluating any GM's body of work.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

No-hitters and Probability

Entering Wednesday's game, Mark Buehrle had held opposing batters to a .268 batting average throughout his career. Assuming he performs at his career average level, how often will he pitch a no-hitter?

Ignoring for now the effects of fatigue, walks, hit by pitch, etc., Buehrle will retire 27 consecutive batters without a hit with probability (1-.268)^27. That works out to a no-hitter once in every 4552 starts, or about once every 140 seasons. Rarified air indeed.

By the way, a similar analysis leads to one no-hitter per 2198 starts for Greg Maddux, 1082 for Roger Clemens, and 561 for Pedro Martinez. These three are often cited as proof of how hard it is to record a no-hitter, although this is a crock for Pedro, who was screwed out of a perfect game when his team failed to push a run across in 9 innings of regulation.

Not to take anything away from Buehrle's achievement, but he is no Clemens, Maddux, or Pedro, even if he outshined them for one night.

What's really scary is that Nolan Ryan averaged nearly one no-hitter per 100 career starts. This is one of baseball's few records that is in no real jeopardy of being broken.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Felix Pie

The Cubs' top prospect (pronounced Pee-Eh) was called up Monday, and like clockwork, Hot Doug's unveiled the Felix Pie Celebrity Sausage.

If you live within 500 miles of Wrigleyville, there is no excuse for never having eaten at the Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium. Owner Doug Sohn takes a ton of pride in his work, and the variety of flavors on the menu is stunning, featuring an entire spectrum of meats paired with exotic cheeses and sauces, all on a bun.

If you're in the mood for a standard Chicago-style meal, they offer a great Chicago Style Dog for $1.50, and a Polish that's dynamite with grilled onions. The place received four forks from the Chicago Tribune Dining Guide--four forks for a hot dog stand!--and has legions of satisfied customers at every source of online reviews.

Anyway, I was inspired to make the drive to try the Felix Pie today, and...it was a disappointment, overall. Not a bad sausage, but I didn't care for the green apple cream sauce, and the almonds were a bit overpowering. Doug, if you're reading this, I think (hope) Felix is enough of a ballplayer to be worthy of one of your better creations.

If you've never been, I highly recommend the Atomic Bomb, the Teuben, the Don Rickles, and the Duck Fat Fries.

Reliever Leverage...Again

As I write this, the Diamondbacks are using Jose Valverde to "protect" a three-run lead in the bottom of the 12th inning, after they threw out their second-line relievers for four innings of a tie game.

I, and many others, have written on the subject of reliever leverage in the past, but this is a very egregious example. This is a critical game between two contenders in a division race that could very well go down to the wire. To even compare the relative importance of the two situations--tie game vs. three-run lead--is a slap in the face of the tie, which towers over the three-run lead like Randy Johnson to David Eckstein. But David slew the Big Unit with his trusty sling, and the save rule dictated the Diamondbacks' usage of their relief ace. Again.

I get that relievers want to collect a bunch of saves. It helps them collect big contracts, and makes them feel like the king of the pitching staff. But aren't they just as excited to pick up a personal W, even if they're in the dugout rather than on the mound? As Bill James pointed out, ideal relief pitcher usage might prevent your closer from racking up 35 saves, but it might give him 20 wins. Even in the sabermetric age, teams are willing to pay for gaudy won-loss records. Kenny Williams traded Keith Foulke for Billy Koch, and it's hard to argue he didn't at least consider Koch's 11 wins the year before, many of which he earned by entering a tie game and shutting down the opposition long enough for the A's to plate a run.

The intelligence gap between the A's and the rest of MLB manifested itself again the next year when Foulke won 9 games as the A's "closer." Huston Street won two games in the season's first two weeks, and could end the season in double digits.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I hope Jackie Robinson isn't watching

...because if he is, he probably would not be happy that everyone else on the field for the Indians has a jersey with fancy-looking authentic numbers and trim, while the ones wearing 42 are nameless and look like the uniforms you find at your local outlet mall for $12 plus an extra 40% off.

You know when you go to a ballpark and can instantly spot the people who weren't willing to shell out the extra dough for one of the high-end jerseys? And how the fear of looking like that is what caused you to lay out $200 for the duds of someone who left your team the next year? Right now, those guys are the ones who are honoring Jackie.

It looks like the same thing is happening in Toronto, although their numbers at least have trim. Didn't Robinson's life contribute to a modern world where African-Americans all have unique identities and don't have interchangeable uniforms? MLB is not doing a good job with this one.

Joe Cowley is an Idiot

...and here's why.

This may be the worst piece of sportswriting I have ever read from the Sun-Times, a paper that features a regular column by Jay Mariotti. I was puzzled when I saw A.J. Pierzynski's name on the list of players who received MVP votes in 2006, thanks to a tenth-place gift on Cowley's ballot, but no longer.

Cowley's evaluation of each trade is incorrect and slanted, but the real kicker comes at the end of the article:

"Point is, these deals were to be measured in September, not in February."

If you're keeping track at home, this is the conclusion to an article that focuses on HOW THE FIRST WEEK OF THE SEASON PROVED THAT KENNY WILLIAMS WON ALL OF THESE TRADES. In other words, evaluating the deals in February is folly, but doing so now is sound practice.

Kenny isn't infallible, though; he was offered Aaron Hill straight up for Albert Pujols in his fantasy league, declined, and hasn't heard the end of it from the Sun-Times staff.

Ironically, if you're actually going to use one week's stats to try and prove anything, the best deal for the Sox was the Garcia trade, the one Cowley listed as a tie, where the Sox exchanged an inactive player for two arms who have been productive in the minors. This is certainly more clear-cut than the two deals where the Sox swapped one pitcher for another with a higher ERA.

The boys at Fire Joe Morgan could have a field day with this, and I hope they do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Super-Fantasy Draft, Part I

To borrow an exercise from Nate Silver last year, I'm attempting to rank the top baseball players I would take if everyone entered this year's draft.

The full ground rules are outlined in the article linked above, but the basics are:

- You get the player for his six years prior to free agency, just like in MLB
- Real-life contracts are irrelevant
- If the player is in the minors, you can keep him down there until he's ready, then get six years. So you're drafting Justin Upton for his 2009-2014, not 2007-2012.

For part I, I'll rank the players by position before boiling it down into one super-list. The goal is to get a list of 50; part I will feature more guys than that, but I won't bother ranking anyone who has no chance to make the final cut.

Remember, we're considering only future returns. Since we're looking at six years of production, guys like Barry Bonds and John Smoltz won't make the cut even though they're among the 50 best players right now.

Catcher:

1. Joe Mauer

2. Brian McCann
3. Victor Martinez

Comments: Mauer may require a position change, but should he move to third base, he will bring an elite bat and above-average glove even if he loses some overall value. McCann could have a better career than Mauer, but his minor league stats don't tell the same story his 2006 did. Martinez, like Mauer, may not remain at catcher through six years, but for now his bat gives the Indians a big competitive advantage at a thin position.

First Base:

1. Albert Pujols

2. Ryan Howard
3. Mark Teixeira
4. Lance Berkman
5. Prince Fielder
6. Justin Morneau
7. Derrek Lee

Comments: Pujols is a no-brainer. Spots 2-4 can be debated, as Howard may not age well, especially on defense, while Berkman is pretty old for this exercise. Still, Howard was light years ahead of Teixeira in 2006, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I like Morneau, but there's a good chance 2006 will be the best year of his career and he still was nowhere close to deserving the MVP. Morneau's age is really the only reason he makes the list, but Fielder is younger and has better indicators going forward.

Second Base:

1. Chase Utley

2. Robinson Cano
3. Howie Kendrick

Comments: Orlando Hudson would merit consideration for a list of the 50 best players right now. Rickie Weeks, given a clean bill of health, would crack the list even with his defensive issues. B.J. Upton is a top-50 talent if he can play a decent second base, but that is far from a given at this point.

The gap between Utley and the others is not as great as you may think, as his defense may necessitate an eventual position change and he's not that young. Cano and Kendrick are special talents, and each has a better shot at the Hall of Fame than Utley.

Third Base:

1. Miguel Cabrera
2. David Wright
3. Ryan Zimmerman
4. Alex Rodriguez
5. Alex Gordon
6. Aramis Ramirez
7. Garrett Atkins

Comments: Seeing A-Rod ranked fourth at his own position may surprise some, but he's seven years older than everyone ahead of him, and with his defensive struggles it's hard to argue he's demonstrably better than Cabrera or Wright right now. A-Rod may have to move to first base or an outfield corner; meanwhile, Zimmerman is an elite defender and may convert to shortstop, where his bat would look even better.

Even though Cabrera might end up in an outfield corner, his bat justifies his ranking. Gordon's placement may seem generous for a guy with no big-league track record, but we're getting him for his age 23-28 seasons as opposed to 29-35 for Ramirez, and his AA numbers portend stardom. Atkins lacks the track record to rank higher, but could push ahead a couple of spots with a strong 2007.

Ryan Braun might have a case if someone teaches him how to field. Scott Rolen is too old and injury-prone, though he would certainly appear on the top 50 list for 2007. Eric Chavez is a possibility, but his skill set is really no longer all that special.

Shortstop:

1. Jose Reyes
2. Hanley Ramirez
3. Jimmy Rollins
4. Stephen Drew
5. Miguel Tejada
6. Derek Jeter
7. Rafael Furcal
8. Carlos Guillen
9. Michael Young

Comments: Before I get hate mail from Jeter supporters, remember we're buying his age 33-38 seasons, and that his recovery from defensive hazard to league-average fielder is unprecedented. I could be convinced that he should rank ahead of Tejada, but no higher.

I think Reyes is greatly overrated by the public, who consider his fantasy value before his on-field value. Still, he is very young and already a great hitter for his position, and I think his speed can compensate for his questionable defense. The top of the list can be questioned for its lack of track record, but being seven or eight years younger than your competition has a lot of benefits, especially in the field.

I expect Guillen and Young will not make the top 50. Guillen is getting up there in years and he may be a first baseman by this time next year. Hell of a ballplayer. Young is a terrible defensive shortstop and his value centers around a batting average that may collapse at any time.

Jhonny Peralta missed the cut, but you could make a case for him. That's one ugly 2006, though.

Left Field:

1. Jason Bay
2. Adam Dunn
3. Carl Crawford

This list is short but features a couple of guys who are entering their peak years and pack some serious punch. Left field is often a destination for older players who have defensive issues, so there isn't a big future for them. Manny Ramirez, this means you. Even Dunn is likely to be a first baseman or DH in a few years.

If you play fantasy baseball, chances are you think Crawford is much better than he actually is. Still, his bat is improving and his glove is the league's best in left.

Center Field:

1. Grady Sizemore
2. Carlos Beltran
3. Andruw Jones
4. Alfonso Soriano
5. Chris Young
6. Vernon Wells

Chris Young? Really? He did crack Nate Silver's list last year and had a successful follow-up. Young is 23 and already packs an above-average glove and bat for center, and his power-speed combination hints at a good aging curve. The PECOTA projection system loves him, as do most of the others. He's a stud, plain and simple.

Sizemore merits some consideration for the number 1 overall spot on the list, given his rare combination of youth, glove, bat, and health. Beltran is probably another top-10 guy, though age and health could keep him out.

Rocco Baldelli is kept off the list by his health. Matt Kemp and Lastings Milledge also merited some consideration.

Right Field:

1. Vladimir Guerrero
2. Delmon Young

Like left, this isn't a position that attracts a lot of good young talent. You may quibble at the two-deep list, but who else are you going to make a case for? Jermaine Dye, who's 33 and has one star-level season on his resume? Brian Giles is 36, Jeremy Hermida can't stay healthy, and Carlos Quentin isn't there yet.

Designated Hitter:

1. Travis Hafner
2. David Ortiz

Not a lot to quibble about here, as all the other good DHs--Thome, Giambi, Thomas--are way too old for consideration. Both of these guys will make the top 50, but I'm not crazy about how they're going to age.

Starting Pitcher:

1. Johan Santana
2. Brandon Webb
3. Jake Peavy - Over/Under on the next year he posts an ERA over 4.00 in San Diego: 2011.
4. Ben Sheets - Some quick pitcher math: Santana - health - lefty = Sheets.
5. Felix Hernandez - His combination of strikeouts and ground balls should be made illegal. He's still younger than your favorite team's top pitching prospect, unless you live in the Bronx.
6. Jeremy Bonderman - Extreme bad luck on balls in play should regress in the future. All his peripherals are sparkling. Still only 24.
7. Roy Oswalt
8. Francisco Liriano - Taking 2008-13. Obvious injury risk, but he is that good when healthy. Would rank second if not for the surgery.
9. Roy Halladay
10. Carlos Zambrano - Plenty of negative indicators from 2006, especially his rising walk rate.
11. Cole Hamels - His peripherals are out of this world. If he stays healthy, this ranking is too low.
12. Daisuke Matsuzaka
13. Chris Carpenter - Docked for his injury. These things tend to snowball.
14. John Lackey

15. Dontrelle Willis
16. C.C. Sabathia

Relief Pitcher:

1. Huston Street
2. Joe Nathan
3. Francisco Rodriguez

Comments: I doubt any relievers will make the final 50; I would include K-Rod if not for the widespread belief that his mechanics will inevitably cause an injury. Street was considered but didn't make the cut. Everyone else is too old and too susceptible to attrition. There's a reason no reliever has ever been signed for six years.

That's 61 names. Coming soon: Part II, where we boil the list down to 50 and I rank them all.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Confirmation Bias, Sample Size, and the Nationals

The Nationals are bad.

We didn't need a 1-5 record to tell us this, or the record they set by starting the season with six straight games where they trailed 4-0 or worse. Washington has virtually no hope for the playoffs this year, and should consider 70 wins a success.

But they won't lose 110 games, as some pundits are predicting. Not unless they get extremely unlucky--much like they have been so far this year. More on that later.

Few teams are ever truly bad enough to win or lose 110 games in a season. Most of the time, what we really have are teams with a "true" talent level of 95-100 wins or losses, and who push the boundaries of variance to get to an extremely high or low level. The 2001 Mariners lead the way in the "fortunate" column, while the unlucky souls include teams like the 2003 Tigers, who lost 119 games but probably should have lost "only" 105.

Several studies, most notably those of Baseball Prospectus, contend that a "replacement level" team of rookies and freely available talent should win roughly 49 games in a full season. Ryan Zimmerman alone is worth more than the four wins needed to get the Nationals from those 113 losses down to 109, to say nothing of the virtues of Chad Cordero, Felipe Lopez, Austin Kearns, Ryan Church, John Patterson--all good players stuck in a bad situation. You may never have heard of starting pitchers Jason Bergmann or Shawn Hill, but they have solid minor league track records and are every bit as effective as $42 million man Jeff Suppan.

Does anyone remember a recent team that was completely written off because of their inexperience and lack of familiar names? I do, but it seems like no one else learned their lesson last year.

Furthermore, their early results aside, the Nationals are simply not playing all that badly. Let's play "Name That Team!"

Team A:

Team OPS: .710 (10th in NL)
Team OPS allowed: .859 (16th in NL)

Team B:

Team OPS: .681 (11th in NL)
Pitchers' OPS allowed: .805 (15th in NL)

Which team is the Nationals, and which is the 4-1 Atlanta Braves? Does it really matter? Both these teams have performed poorly; one has simply gotten every break and emerged with an .800 winning percentage, while the other is seeing every runner stranded in scoring position.

So why is everyone forecasting the Nats to emulate the '03 Tigers or 1899 Cleveland Spiders? Sample size and confirmation bias. The first term should be familiar to anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics: when you have a limited sample, expect the numbers to be an inaccurate representation. A-Rod won't hit 120 homers this year, and the Nationals won't lose 135 games.

The second term may be less well-known, but it's self-explanatory. When one makes a prediction and then sees it come to fruition, he labels himself a genius and assumes the trend will continue. Everyone overrates the ability of themselves and others to see the future, be they losing gamblers, stock market analysts, readers of the daily horoscope, or baseball fans and analysts.

You can't predict with any certainty what cards you will receive on the next deal or what team will cover the spread in this weekend's game. The stock pundits you see on TV do not outperform the market as a whole. If you read the horoscope regularly, you will discover that the messages are made intentionally ambiguous to allow you to apply them to your own life, the same technique John Edward uses. The baseball writers who tell you the Nationals will lose 110 games are the same ones who said Nomar Garciaparra would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and that Carlos Pena and Ryan Anderson would be stars in the majors.

You can write off the Nationals all you want, but they're not going down in flames this year.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Playing Biggio

The Houston Astros caused a stir in the sabermetric community this offseason by re-signing Craig Biggio, ostensibly so he can collect his 3000th hit in an Astro uniform before riding off into the sunset.

The big complaint is that sticking Biggio at second base forces heir apparent Chris Burke to the outfield, which in turn causes one of Houston's talented young outfielders to be benched. The $64,000 question is: What is this move costing the Astros, and what is it gaining them?

It's fairly easy to measure what it's costing them, or at least projected to cost them: probably a game in the standings this year, maybe two. Though B-G-O is no longer an offensive threat, he is only the fourth-worst hitter in his own lineup, ahead of the pitcher, Brad Ausmus, and Adam Everett. (Ausmus should definitely be ousted, but that's another article.) In a league where few teams are getting an .800 OPS from their second baseman, Biggio doesn't offer that much of a competitive disadvantage.

It's clear playing Burke at second and Hunter Pence in center would help the Astros' quest for the playoffs, but how strong is that bid, really? Projections peg the Astros as a 79-win team this year, and I can't really disagree; they won 82 games last year, didn't really have strong numbers on either side of the ball, and their offseason was a clear downgrade unless Roger Clemens returns.

If Biggio subtracts one win from the club, he's hurting their chances of making the playoffs by perhaps 2.5 percent, 5.0 percent for two wins. Research from Baseball Between the numbers suggests that a playoff appearance is worth $15 million to a team, along with $700,000 for an additional win. That means Biggio is costing the team between $1 and $2 million with his on-field performance. (I'm not considering the decision to pay him $5.15 million for 2007, a completely ridiculous contract in light of the market for second basemen this offseason. In this discussion, that's a sunk cost.)

How much value Biggio will return on this investment is a far more subjective question. Obviously there is some worth in not letting him get away and achieve milestones in another uniform, a la Nolan Ryan, but can this be quantified? Many Diamondbacks fans reportedly vowed to stop attending games after the club severed ties with Luis Gonzalez, but it's hard to say how many will change their tune if the new-look D-backs make the playoffs on the backs of their young outfielders this year.

Easier to notice, if not quantify, is the impact at the box office. With Clemens not signed and a sub-.500 team on the field, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to show up at Minute Maid Park this summer. The anticipation and arrival of Biggio's 3000th hit will likely be the highlight of the summer for Houston fans, and they'll likely show it with many sold out crowds as he nears the milestone. Selling tens of thousands of extra tickets, hot dogs, and beer should allow the Astros to recoup whatever Biggio is costing them.

As much as I like to focus on teams maximizing their potential, it's nice and increasingly rare in this era to see a star player and fan favorite start and end his career with the same team. Gwynn, Ripken, Larkin, Bagwell, and now Biggio are a dying breed, and it's good to see that there are at least a few players willing to stay at home while other teams are throwing money around like there are cockroaches nearby.

All in all, I think the criticism is overblown. The Astros aren't the Yankees, who can't afford to waste money and roster space on Bernie Williams because he might cost them a playoff spot. They're just a mediocre club going a little out of their way to maintain loyalty to their fans and their all-time greatest player. Give 'em a break.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Typecasting Relievers

In tonight's Brewers-Dodgers game, Milwaukee entered the eighth inning trailing by one. Not viewing this as a critical situation on par with--oh, let's say--a three run lead and the bases empty in the ninth, they went to the bullpen for...Carlos Villanueva. Nothing against Villanueva, but the commentators specifically mentioned how the Brewers would likely have instead turned to someone like Shouse, Cordero, or Turnbow if the Brewers had the lead.

It seems that no matter how much research is done on reliever leverage or win expectancy, teams would rather let a meaningless statistic--the save--dictate how they use their bullpen. Down one run in the late innings is one of the most critical spots for a relief pitcher, behind only a tie game and a one run lead. The cakewalk "saves" closers collect these days, in which they protect three-run leads or get one out with the tying run on deck, tire their arms out for when the club really needs them.

I'm not trying to be results-oriented here, but maybe the Brewers can learn something from how the game turned out. Villanueva couldn't find the plate and gave up three runs. The Brewers scored two in the eighth and one in the ninth, but their effort fell short; the hole was too deep to get out of. Get used to this type of loss, baseball fans, for you'll see a lot of them as long as your manager decides he needs to pigeonhole his closer into one type of appearance.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Whither Lidge?

Brad Lidge's woes continued today, as he blew another save by allowing a game-tying, two-out home run to Xavier Nady. It seems everyone has their own cute explanation for his struggles since the 2005 postseason, the most common of which is that he's suffering from a loss of confidence or other mental issues. Is there statistical evidence for this theory?

Lidge's peripherals say no. In 2005, he pitched 70.2 innings with 103 strikeouts, 23 walks and 5 HR allowed. In 2006, those figures were 75.0 IP, 104 K, 36 BB, 10 HR. Though this was a decline across the board, Lidge was so good in '05 that he figured to slip some. Furthermore, rates of around 4 walks and 12 strikeouts per 9 innings put him squarely in elite closer territory. Baseball Prospectus assigned a 3.68 Peripheral ERA to Lidge last year, while Baseball HQ pegged his expected ERA at 2.72.

There is some debate about how strongly Defense-Independent Pitching Stats apply to relievers--relievers have shown the ability to maintain a low batting average on balls in play from year to year more consistently than starters--but the top closers of the past decade, from Rivera to Hoffman to Wagner, all have very solid DIPS numbers. The difference is that while their BABIPs have consistently been well below the league average of .300, Lidge's have been higher, .335 and .349 the past two years. While we might project this number to regress closer to .300, Lidge is unlikely to produce at the .270 level of Hoffman or Rivera.

Meanwhile, his BB/9 and K/9 should settle in at a level that's somewhat worse than in 2004-06, so he should settle in with a slightly higher ERA than his cumulative 3.07 over that period. This isn't a big deal. Lidge's 2004 was one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, and he wasn't far behind the next year. If your closer can post a consistent ERA in the 3.25-3.50 range, he's a tremendously valuable commodity.

Really, what we're dealing with here is largely a sample size issue. If Lidge were a starting pitcher and posted a 3.07 ERA over 240 innings in his most recent season (with 364 strikeouts!), we would perhaps be concerned at his performance over his last 75 innings, but not overly so. Even in a full season, relievers do not get enough appearances for their ERAs to even approximate their true level of skill. It will be a long time before we see a starter post an ERA like those of Jonathan Papelbon or Dennys Reyes last year.

What does all this mean? In the long run, Lidge should be fine. However, managers are prone to overreact, and if Phil Garner pulls the plug on Lidge's closer tag, his fantasy value could tank. If this does happen, he may be non-tendered after this season and become a nice low-cost closer option.

More Baserunning Mishaps

The situation: Red Sox down by four, top 6, bases empty, no outs.

The play: Kevin Youkilis hits a ground ball to third. With two guys backing up the throw, Royals third baseman Alex Gordon throws wildly to first. Youkilis attempts to take second and is easily gunned down.

Apparently Euclis and the Red Sox coaching staff didn't read yesterday's posts. Regardless, the lesson is fairly simple. When in doubt, DON'T risk outs when your team needs a lot of runs to get back in the game. This goes double with none out in the inning and triple with Ortiz and Manny batting behind you.

The Red Sox offense is deliberately constructed to produce big innings, not to nickel-and-dime the opponents to death. Perhaps they should do a better job of preaching this philosophy to the players.

Stealing for no gain

In the eighth inning of Opening Night, Aaron Miles is sitting on first base with the Cardinals down four runs and none out. David Eckstein fouled a ball that bounced up and hit Paul Lo Duca on his throwing hand. After Lo Duca collected himself, Miles took off for second on the next pitch.

Setting ethics aside because they don't exist in baseball and Lo Duca deserves some karmic justice for his game-winning phantom tag on Opening Day 2006, I don't like this decision at all. Sabermetrics preaches the notion of a break-even stolen base percentage. It's a value representing the lowest percentage of success under which a steal should be attempted, typically fluctuating between 50 and 100 percent during the course of a game. Dave Roberts' steal in the 2004 ALCS represents the low point, while a runner advancing due to defensive indifference in the ninth inning of a 10-run game is typical of the apex.

What about this situation? The Cardinals are down four runs with six outs to go. Put simply, they are in a situation where outs are much more precious than extra bases. Mathematically speaking, here are their chances of winning courtesy of WalkOffBalk.com:

No steal attempt: 8.4%
Steal successful: 8.9%
Caught stealing: 2.7%

A caught stealing costs the Cardinals roughly 11 times as much as a stolen base gains them. Lo Duca is by no means a great thrower, and his hand may have been shaken up, but Miles is no great shakes as a basestealer, and there's no way this steal is successful 92% of the time.

Combining this with the earlier decision to send Eckstein home that I covered in my last post, we see that even an intelligent organization like the Cardinals is ignoring one of the most important rules in baseball: When you need a lot of runs, don't waste outs. To do so is the baseball equivalent of letting the shot clock run down before making an attempt when your team is down 8 in the last minute.

Waving In Eckstein

With one out and down four runs in the sixth inning in Sunday night's opener, Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo sent David Eckstein home from second on a single up the middle. The results were predictable. No, I didn't have the clairvoyance to predict Carlos Beltran's awesome laser to the plate to nail Eckstein, but I did lay 100-1 that ESPN would praise Oquendo's aggressiveness if Eckstein scored while criticizing it if he was thrown out. As with Mike McDermott at the end of "Rounders", you knew who was going to walk away with all the chips, but it was fun to watch anyway.

So, was Oquendo's decision to channel Wavin' Wendell Kim the right move? Probably not. This is the kind of analysis that Win Expectancy was designed for. Courtesy of WalkOffBalk.com:

Cards' W% if:

Eckstein held at third: 16.9%
Eckstein scores, Wilson to second: 17.3%
Eckstein thrown out: 7.7%

Now, these figures have to be taken with a grain of salt, because there is an inadequate sample size, particularly in the first case, to determine the actual probability of winning with great precision. Nevertheless, it is striking how little Eckstein's run actually meant. This is because the Cardinals need a big inning to win the game, and their chances of getting a big inning are virtually the same whether Eckstein scores or not. His out, however, largely killed their chances of a rally.

I'm not a third base coach, but I probably know more about optimal math-based baseball strategies than Jose Oquendo, and I'll bet if he knew Eckstein would have to score more than 90% of the time to make this a good play, he wouldn't have looked like this. Oquendo can't be expected to generate this exact figure in his head, but someone in St. Louis should teach him some basic probabilities to use when he's on the field, and combine them with his best judgment.

On a side note, I agree 100% with Beltran's decision to throw home. The Cardinals' win probability holding Wilson at first is 17.1%, a cost of just .2% compared to a potential gain of nearly 10%. This squares with logic; Wilson's advance to second is no big deal in a 3-run game, but throwing Eckstein takes away both a run and one of St. Louis' precious remaining outs. The only other play Beltran should even consider is to fake like he'll airmail the cutoff man, hoping to catch Wilson in a rundown.