Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Random Thought

If Kosuke Fukudome joins the Major Leagues next year, does he instantly top the list of best A-Rod style nicknames in baseball history?

Competitors include, but are not limited to:

- Floyd Youmans
- Sterling Hitchcock
- Shawn Holman
- Felix Hernandez
- Jose Offerman

Vegas Disrespects D-Backs

Not to beat a dead horse, but there's one measure of team quality I haven't blogged about yet, and it gives additional insight to the true quality of a certain team in Arizona.

I speak of betting odds. The lines set by Vegas and offshore bookies aren't perfect, but in general they accurately reflect the true difference in quality between two teams. If this wasn't the case, pros would crush sportsbooks until they went out of business.

By looking at enough lines over time, we can get a good handle on what the oddsmakers think of a team. The verdict on the Diamondbacks is clear: they're considered a sub-.500 squad.

Combining the money lines from the last 20, 30, 40, or 50 Arizona games gives the same result each time: the average line makes the D-Backs a 52-48 underdog. Now, you would have made a ton of money betting on the Snakes in this span, because they're overcoming the odds and keeping it up. But even after their great July, bookies view them as a .480 team going forward, and teams like that very rarely make the playoffs.

Remember, not every effect is the result of design. Sometimes, the World Series goes to an 83-win team or someone who's never played a live poker tournament before. That doesn't mean they were the best prepared, or that they had the will to win in the clutch. It just happened.

If the D-Backs make the playoffs, we can expect them to have the longest odds of the eight entrants to win the World Series, and with good reason.

Monday, August 20, 2007

D-Backs: Random Walk or Success By Design?

One of man's great faults is that he must attach an explanation to everything, even that which can be explained by randomness. Market pundits make a job out of this, as do talking heads on baseball broadcasts. Sometimes, a team defies expectations by so much that even smart analysts can be fooled. This year, it's the Diamondbacks.

If a coin comes up heads nine times out of ten, it's easy to ascribe this to luck, because we "know" the coin is a .500 proposition. On the other hand, a baseball team has an unknown and variable intrinsic winning percentage. We can estimate a team's quality by using their current record, but W-L records are subject to heavy variance, which is why runs scored and runs allowed are more accurate predictors of future performance. Some even take this a step further, breaking a team's performance down into individual elements.

As regular readers have certainly guessed by now, I bring this up because the Diamondbacks currently lead the NL West by four games despite being outscored by 20 runs on the season (and 35 in the BP Adjusted Standings linked above). Naturally, everyone has proffered his own theory on why this is so. Like the many explanations of the crime drop in U.S. cities in the 90's, most of these contain some element of truth but explain only a small part of the deviation.

Here's a simple way to show that Chris Jaffe's analysis cannot explain the full 11 games separating the Baby Backs from their Pythagorean W-L: Let's wipe 30 runs off the slate for the Zona mop-up men, giving them roughly a 4.50 ERA for the season. This gives their bullpen a more typical split between the back and front ends--and our Pythagorean record is still 7 games short of the D-Backs' pace. Remember, that's AFTER we make 30 runs vanish into thin air.

Can the bullpen explain the rest of the difference merely by being an above average collection of pitching talent? No, and it's not particularly close. If you think a good bullpen automatically makes you invincible in close games, I refer you to the 2005 Indians, who had the best bullpen ERA and best team in baseball, yet missed the playoffs.

Even if we assign credit everywhere we possibly can, there will be at least five wins unaccounted for. Basically, the best-case scenario is that Arizona is a 66-59 squad, and I personally think the truth is even bleaker than that.

I'm not trying to sell the D-Backs short; Bob Melvin deserves credit for his bullpen usage, and the team has hit well when it counts. But anyone who thinks this is the best team in the NL--or even close to it--is going to be sorely disappointed when October rolls around.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bobby Jenks

If you haven't been paying great attention to Baseball Tonight, you may have missed that Bobby Jenks tied a major-league record today by retiring his 41st consecutive batter.

Folks, that's a hell of a streak. Analysts sometimes bring up "hidden perfect games" thrown by starting pitchers: a streak of 27 or more consecutive batters retired across two starts. Obviously hidden perfect games aren't as sexy as the real thing, but they're generally just as difficult a feat.

What about Jenks' streak? It's even more special than a real 27-up, 27-down performance. Let's say that a good starting pitcher can safely retire 71% of the batters he faces, and a good reliever 74% (because it's easier to pitch in relief). How often will the starter throw a perfect game?

(1 - .71)^27 = .0096%, or roughly once in 10376 starts

How about the reliever retiring 41 straight?

(1 - .74)^41 = .00044%, or roughly once in 229879 such streaks

Basically, we're seeing something 20 times as rare as a perfecto. Considering fewer than 20 perfect games have been thrown in history, that's really something.

Edit: This is technically not true, because the consecutive batters retired streak can start anytime, while a perfect game must include 27 specific batters. But it does give you an idea of how uncommon Jenks' streak really is.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Arizona's Luckbox Is Stuck In The "On" Position

Some fun with run differentials:

Diamondbacks in August: 4-1, -2 run differential

Past 11 days: 8-2, -7

Since July 19: 13-4, -2

Post-ASB: 16-7, +1

Season total: 63-50, -29

------

Whenever something unexpected happens, it's a basic human impulse to find the cause. Sure enough, whenever a team outperforms its run differential like this (the Mariners have been a chief offender all season long), you see explanations pop up everywhere: they play good "small ball", the bullpen is winning the close games, etc. These things do have a small effect on a team's winning percentage in close games, so why do these overachieving teams tend to regress to the mean?

The problem is that these factors explain maybe 10% of the variance in W-L records, much like the reasoning behind David Ortiz's "ability" to hit in the clutch. Players cannot suddenly become .700 hitters in the ninth inning--if so, why are they being so lazy for the rest of the game?--and teams cannot employ strategies that allow them to win two-thirds of their close games despite a negative run differential. A team can be built to win maybe 55% of its close games, but the rest must be attributed to variance.

Check out BP's adjusted standings. The Diamondbacks are in last place in the NL West (yes, behind the Giants) and languishing with the league's bottom-feeders. What happened to the team I picked to win the NL West?

Well, they're winning, but not the way they were supposed to. Randy Johnson, who may have been the best pitcher in the NL this year when healthy, gave Arizona 100 less innings than expected. Chris Young and Stephen Drew can't get on base, Carlos Quentin has been worthless, and the bench that looked excellent at the start of the year has churned out a .511 OPS from Alberto Callaspo to go with Scott Hairston's .659. The Diamondbacks rank 29th in team OBP in a hitter's park, ahead of only the PETCO-hamstrung Padres.

Eric Byrnes is the only hitter who has delivered more than expected, but the pitching staff has plenty of success stories. Brandon Webb's ERA sits at 2.92, Doug Davis' at 3.88, and the bullpen features four regulars at 2.80 or below, plus Juan Cruz at 3.38. They've pitched especially well in close games, and the hitters have performed in the clutch. I'm not positive that the D-Backs lead the league in walkoff wins, but I would be suprised if they didn't.

So, will Arizona continue this ridiculous run? Probably not. On the plus side, they've now built a decent-sized lead and could limp their way to 88 wins and a playoff berth by playing .500 ball from here on out. Plus, the roster is loaded with young players who are likely to show some growth in the second half.

We're at a point in the season where a head start is usually more important than having the better team, Yankees be damned. The Padres are probably still a slight favorite (plurality) to take down the West, but it's a fun time to be an Diamondbacks fan, even if this squad turns out to be far inferior to the 2008 version.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The NL Central is Awful

As I write this, here's what you'll find in the NL Central:

- The worst record of any MLB division leader (Brewers)
- The worst record (tied) of any second-place team (Cubs)
- The second-worst, third-worst and fourth-worst overall records in the majors (Pirates, Reds, Astros). Thank you, D-Rays.*
- Four of the eight MLB teams with 50 or fewer wins

* I was going to type something like "Thank heaven for the Devil Rays," but something about that sounds off.

The Central as a whole is playing at a .443 pace against non-Central teams, roughly a 72-win pace. Think about that: the average team in the Central is a 72-win club, giving Central squads a huge head start on winning the division despite the six-team format.

I really have nothing to add to this.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Deadline Recap

I've received a couple of requests for a roundup of the deals made at the trade deadline. I'd write one up, but it would basically be the same analysis you've seen at BP.com. Here's one, for example.

I'm less bullish than Sheehan about the Gagne deal, though I think his analysis of every other deal is spot-on. (Incidentally, I also think it's a tad optimistic to call the Brewers the potential best team in baseball in 2008. Joe is a very good writer, but a man of strong convictions; his 2007 Rangers forecast is probably legendary in results-oriented circles.)

The Braves very clearly overpaid for Teixeira, but it will be worth it if he brings them a playoff berth. Their deals for role players look like very good ones.

The Rangers probably get my highest grade for their deadline deals, although the Padres are still in the lead for the season-long award. If you told me a year ago that Kevin Towers would add Ensberg, Barrett, and Bradley to the Friars essentially for free, I'd have asked to tag along with you for the next Pink Floyd laser concert.

If you're wondering, no, there really was no reason for the Pirates to add Matt Morris. It seems like every July we see one inexplicably bad trade: Zambrano-for-Kazmir, Kearns/Lopez-for-free, and now Morris-for-anyone. Every analyst worth his salt has blasted this trade, but the most important impact was described thusly by Baseball Analysts' Patrick Sullivan:

"The worst part of this is the opportunity cost that their financial outlay to Morris will represent. Just think of some of the ways this money could have been better spent. No, the Bucs will never be playing at the high end of the free agent market and the middle of the market is usually bogged down with the, well, Matt Morris's of the world. But do you think Pirates fans would have preferred Matt Wieters or Rick Porcello to Daniel Moskos? What about Andrew Miller or Tim Lincecum in Brad Lincoln's stead?"

Two more points from me. First, there should be a rule that if you get ripped off in a trade by someone who is universally regarded as one of the game's worst GMs, you take his place at the bottom of the list. Dave Littlefield has now officially joined that club, just as Jim Duquette did in the Kazmir trade. Feel free to nominate your own selections.

And second, how about those players the Reds acquired from the Nats last year?

- Gary Majewski has alternately been a terrible pitcher when healthy and the center of a controversy the rest of the time.
- Bill Bray can't pitch his way out of the paper bag known as the minor leagues.
- Royce Clayton, despite the best efforts of modern medicine, still plays like Royce Clayton, though he did help the Reds out by signing with Toronto.
- Brendan Harris is having a downright decent season...for the Devil Rays, after the Reds gave him away for nothing in return.
- Daryl Thompson's name on B-R links to this.

Man, that's some bad mojo. Lopsided trades are generally classified in two categories: Deals that were obviously bad from the start and turned out as expected (Kazmir) and fair deals where one side's players developed into far more than expected (John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander). Once in a blue moon, you hit the parlay where a terrible trade becomes even more one-sided, like the infamous A.J. Pierzynski trade that netted the Twins seventeen years of Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser in exchange for one cancer-infested season of Pierzynski. (Were you wondering why Brian Sabean was at the bottom of the list before fleecing Littlefield?)

Not that Lopez and Kearns are playing at a star level for the Nats, but this whole episode has to feel like a 32-hit combo to the stomach of Wayne Rivsy. (Thanks to Keith Law for this excellent nickname. I want to be the first to coin the pseudonym Yle Endric.) I honestly wonder if MLB is denying Rivsy's grievance simply because there is no way he could argue that this deal would have been fair with a healthy Majewski. If someone in your fantasy league traded Pujols straight up for Scott Proctor, and Proctor had a shoulder injury, would he demand a refund?

The only other big loser I can think of is the Nats, since the Young and Belliard extensions can be classified as deadline activity. But you already knew I hated those deals.

It's hard to blast teams for inactivity, because we don't know what offers were really out there. I would have been a huge fan of any trade that moved the White Sox closer to rebuilding, but apparently Kenny Williams wants to half-ass this project. It's getting harder and harder to see where the 2010 Sox's young core players are going to come from.

Target Marketing At Its Finest

Am I the only one who smirks when they hear this line in the Underdog commercials on ESPN?

"You don't see dogs hurting each other for money."

Well, you don't as long as you stay away from the Ookie household.

Tangible Intangibles

ESPN.com's fluff piece of the day is a prediction on which 50 active NFL players will eventually go on to the Hall of Fame.

As you can see by the rankings, Tom Brady beats out Peyton Manning despite Manning's complete dominance in every stat except Super Bowl rings. I've been out of school for a couple years, but I'm pretty sure three and one are still just numbers. If we ignore every statistic that says Manning is better--in other words, every statistic ever--why can't we ignore that one?

The most common excuse is that Manning has a better supporting cast, so his numbers should be better. Pop quiz: Which of the following tasks is more dependent on having a good team around you?

- Winning two additional Super Bowls
- Averaging more yards per pass attempt

By my count, the former requires 52 good players to back up the QB, and the latter maybe 10-12.

Brady vs. Manning isn't really the focus of this entry, but it does illustrate my real beef with the article. The players are ranked by several criteria, one of which is:

"Intangibles -- Anything not covered by the other four categories, for instance: leadership, reputation, team success potential, superstar potential and positional representation in the Hall of Fame."

Apparently the player's positional representation in the Hall of Fame is now an intangible, even though it took me literally fifteen seconds to find this list via Google.

Anyway, if you're really new here, you may not know that I hate the word Intangibles with a passion matched only by the guys at FJM. Here's what intangibles actually are, courtesy of Dictionary.com:

in·tan·gi·ble [in-tan-juh-buhl] –adjective
1.not tangible; incapable of being perceived by the sense of touch, as incorporeal or immaterial things; impalpable.
2.not definite or clear to the mind: intangible arguments.
3.(of an asset) existing only in connection with something else, as the goodwill of a business.
–noun
4.something intangible, esp. an intangible asset: Intangibles are hard to value.

Read number 4 again. "Intangibles are hard to value." Why are they hard to value? Because, per number 2, they are not definite or clear to the mind.

So, let's recap. Why do we label things as intangibles? Because we can't measure them, which means we can't tell if one player has better intangibles than another. Great, we're all caught up. Now, think back to the last ten times you've heard the term "intangibles" used on a sports broadcast. Which of these sounds like a more accurate representation?

A) "David Eckstein may not have size, but he has great intangibles, which caused Curtis Granderson to slip and fall while chasing the World Series MVP's fly ball."
B) "Well, character is an intangible, so we don't really know if Tom Brady has 'it'. But his numbers do point to him as one of the top 5 or 6 active QBs in the NFL."

Take your time, this one was tough even for me.

This butchering is an insult to the English language. I wonder just how long an English major can put up with ESPN before the misuse of 'intangibles' and 'momentum' causes his brain to explode.

By the way, check out that scoring system. If these guys worked for a college, their admissions criteria would look like this:

20%: Mortality -- Estimated years left to live
20%: Statistics -- Grades, SAT/ACT scores, awards
20%: Upside -- IQ, bench press, height, good looks
20%: Team performance -- Colleges your friends are attending, test scores of your classmates, and whether your football team (with you as waterboy) won any playoff games
20%: Intangibles -- Anything not covered by the other four categories, for instance: leadership, reputation, earnings potential, and gender/racial representation in your field of study

(By the way, how great is it that ESPN thinks Upside is a tangible thing but positional representation in the HoF is not? I guess it's easier to clock a 40 time than actually look something up.)

How can we put an end to this? Here's my idea: ESPN should force Lon McEachern and Norman Chad to work intangibles into their poker broadcasts. Example:

Lon: "Well, Phil Ivey may have had only a 5% chance to win that pot, but his intangibles willed that Ace of Spades to hit on the river."
Norman: "The prettiest card in the deck saves Phil Ivey from getting WHAMBOOZLED!"

I think at this point, even the average viewer might begin to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Sports Analysis:

All variance can be explained by intangibles.

Damn, that's good. I need to get a copyright.

Whoever Okayed This Is Not Very Bright

At the bottom of this recap of Wednesday's Dodgers-Giants game, we see this ad:

Barry Bonds uses ZMA nightly. ZMA enhances muscle strength, endurance and recovery.

This has to be the worst possible player you can associate with your "muscle enhancement" product. They might as well put this sponsorship in the 2010 Baseball Encyclopedia:

Career Home Run Leaders

1. Barry Bonds 782*

* The Asterisk, brought to you by ZMA, indicates that Bonds was considered a cheater in his time. When you want people to boo you everywhere you go, think ZMA!