Sunday, September 30, 2007

R-D is Famous

BP chat mention

Full disclosure: I submitted this, so it may not count as a mention. Also, it's very easy to miss without a high-powered metal detector. Use your browser's "Find" function to search for the URL.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Red Sox Don't Read R-D

I usually expect incompetence from MLB front offices, but the news that the Red Sox chose the extra day of rest in their division series came as quite a shock to me. Was Bill James on vacation this week?

As I wrote before, this move inarguably hurts the Red Sox's chances of advancing to the World Series.

I Don't Understand Tiebreakers (III)

I seem to have forgotten that in the nightmare Padres scenario (where they lose tomorrow and the Rockies, Mets, and Phillies all win) they will have to play and win two games, not one, to get in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Mets and Phillies need only win one game (or two out of three) and the Rockies need to win just one.

How does this change San Diego's fortunes from an odds perspective, and does this mean they should start Jake Peavy tomorrow?

If the Padres start Peavy Sunday:

They should win the game 57.2% of the time, clinching automatically. The 42.8% of the time they lose, they still get in automatically any time the Rockies lose and at least one of the Mets and Phillies lose. This happens (27.3% * 42.8%) = 11.7%, for a total of 68.9% uncontested playoff berths.

The remaining 31.1%, they end up in at least one tiebreaker game. I won't bore you with the math here, but without the benefit of starting Peavy or Chris Young, they will emerge with a total percentage of:

80.7% Wild Card

If the Padres start Tomko Sunday:

Their chances of winning the game Sunday go down to 45.1%, and they win uncontested a total of 60.1% of the time. They get a huge boost in their first tiebreaker game, getting to start Peavy instead of Tomko. Again, lots of boring math gets skipped here, but the result:

80.0% Wild Card

However, this is not the end of the discussion. By adjusting Peavy's schedule, the Padres also adjust his availability for the NLDS. If they start him Sunday, they are assured of getting two starts out of him in their division series, provided they're willing to start him on three days' rest again in NLDS Game 2. However, if they let him rest on the Sabbath, 60% of the time they'll get him on full rest for two starts since they avoid any tiebreaker games. The remaining 20% of their playoff appearances, Peavy will get only one NLDS start.

Research tends to indicate that starting on three days' rest doesn't negatively impact performance that much, so I'd probably start Peavy (or Heath Bell) on Sunday. However, just because I would start Peavy on three days' rest twice in a row does not mean Bud Black will. Without that assumption, I think sacrificing .7% in Wild Card equity is worth getting Peavy rested for two games in the division series, so it looks like Black is making the right call given his own limitations.

Mets-Phillies

If the Mets and Phillies end tomorrow's games tied (~52% chance), they will play a one-game tiebreaker on Monday in Philadelphia to decide who wins the NL East. If the Padres lose Sunday's game, the loser of the Mets-Phils matchup will still have a shot at the Wild Card.

Who will the starting pitchers be in Monday's potential tilt? If both teams stay on schedule, it will be Kyle Lohse vs. Phil Humber (or maybe Mike Pelfrey). I would say that's about as bad as you can get in a do-or-die situation, but Lohse will probably get $50 million in free agency this offseason, so who knows.

Will either team throw someone else out there? I doubt it, unless Philly thinks Cole Hamels can go on two days' rest. Next in the Phils' rotation is Kyle Kendrick, and there's no point in moving him up. As for the Mets, their short-rest starter would be Pedro Martinez, and ich don't think so.

So, if the two teams fail to separate themselves tomorrow, expect a Monday slugfest.

America Doesn't Understand Tiebreakers (II)

Arizona has clinched the NL West, but I haven't seen confirmation of this fact from any of the major media outlets. ESPN, Yahoo and MLB.com all list their playoff status under the "clinched playoff spot" designation.

As far as I know, only three people in the world might be aware of the current state of the NL West: Myself, Clay Davenport, and the lines manager at The Greek, the only sportsbook so far to actually pay Diamondbacks futures bets.

The Padres suffer a big blow, as they have to use Jake Peavy on short rest tomorrow, leaving his status for the NLDS in doubt. They may be able to start him in games 2 and 5, or pull him from tomorrow's start early if their playoff spot appears certain.

If I managed the Friars, I might even give tomorrow's start to a capable reliever--Heath Bell?--keeping Peavy locked away behind some "Break in case of fire" glass. If the future is still uncertain after a couple of innings, bring Jake in for seven innings of no-hit relief, Pedro-in-the-ALDS-style.

This will never happen, of course, but it never hurts to think outside the box.

Tiebreakers

"If you're wondering why the Padres have such a lower division percentage than the Mets despite trailing by the same one game, it's because they lose a tiebreaker with the Diamondbacks which gives Arizona the division title and San Diego the Wild Card if they finish tied."

Someone over at WSEX/Matchbook failed to get the memo on this. I woke up half an hour ago to a trade price of 18/22 on the Padres for the NL West when they need a four game parlay to win the division. I moved the line myself, but since you're here to learn how to fish rather than be given one, you should be okay with that.

Should San Diego clinch their playoff spot tonight, there's no way in hell they still let Jake Peavy start tomorrow; some scrub will go instead, and the regulars will probably rest for the playoffs. That doesn't sound like a good combination.

Updated Postseason Odds

NL East:

Phillies 82.3%
Mets 17.7%

NL West:

D-Backs 90.9%
Padres 9.1%

Wild Card:

Padres 84.0%
D-Backs 9.1%
Rockies 3.4%
Mets 2.6%
Phillies .9%

Other notes:

- If you're wondering why the Padres have such a lower division percentage than the Mets despite trailing by the same one game, it's because they lose a tiebreaker with the Diamondbacks which gives Arizona the division title and San Diego the Wild Card if they finish tied. If the same scenario happens in the East, the teams will likely play a one-game playoff, since the loser is unlikely to win the Wild Card.

- In theory, the Padres aren't in a big rush to clinch a playoff spot, but if they can do so on Saturday, they won't need to start Jake Peavy on Sunday, freeing Peavy to pitch two games in the NLDS. That's a huge upgrade for San Diego. You may remember that last year the Cardinals held back Chris Carpenter at the end of the regular season, hoping to clinch without him so they could get two NLDS starts out of him. The plan worked, and they went on to win the World Series.

The Padres are in with either a win Saturday or losses by Colorado and the Mets.

- The Red Sox have re-established themselves as the favorites (by plurality) to win the AL. It's not because they won the AL East, rather that they draw the Angels in round 1. Right now, the Yankees and Red Sox are far and away the best teams in the playoffs. Cleveland is well behind both, but L.A. of A. trails the pack by some margin. Boston's edge over New York is mainly a function of this favorable matchup.

- You may have heard that the number 1 seed in the AL this year will have their choice of playoff scheduling. Essentially, they can decide whether they want to be able to start their top two SP on full rest in games 4 and 5. Obviously, their opponent will have this option as well. If they decline, the other division series will be played on the extra rest schedule.

Naturally, if Cleveland has the best record in the league, they will probably elect to take this offer. They can exchange a Byrd-Hughes matchup for a Sabathia-Pettitte, which is certainly to their advantage. Starting Carmona and Sabathia in four of the five games of the series gives them their best chance to upset the Yankees.

What about Boston? They should swiftly decline the extra day of rest. Firstly, giving the Angels an extra day of rest gives them the chance to exchange a Joe Saunders start for one by John Lackey, so there's no real advantage for Boston.

More importantly, however: By declining the extra day of rest, Boston gives it to Cleveland. Cleveland then gets a significant boost to their chances of advancing to the ALCS, just as if they had taken the extra day off for themselves. Since the Red Sox would certainly rather face Cleveland in the ALCS than the Yankees, this move improves Boston's chances of winning the AL Pennant by roughly 1 percent, far from a trivial sum in a game that's won and lost at the margins.

This may sound devious, but I believe it's fair game, and I also think Theo Epstein and Co. are smart enough to have worked this out on their own. Interestingly, the extra day off also benefits the Indians; the Yankees are the ones who lose out on the deal.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

My Playoff Odds Estimates

Since I've harped on why BP and Coolstandings are unreliable at this time of year, here are my estimated playoff odds as of the morning of September 27. These numbers reflect all tiebreakers.

AL East:

Red Sox 97.3%
Yankees 2.7%

NL East:

Mets 71.6%
Phillies 28.4%

NL Central:

Cubs 89.6%
Brewers 10.4%

NL West:

D-Backs 72.3%
Rockies 14.9%
Padres 12.7%

NL Wild Card:

Padres 46.4%
Rockies 20.2%
Phillies 15.3%
D-Backs 9.3%
Mets 8.8%

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why SportsCenter is Worthless For Analysis

"Dontrelle Willis breaks the Marlins career record for strikeouts. He hasn't been around that long!"

Per Baseball-Reference:

Marlins Career Leaders, Games Started and Innings Pitched:

1.Dontrelle Willis
160
1012.0
2.A.J. Burnett
131
853.7
3.Brad Penny
130
781.7
4.Ryan Dempster
121
759.7
5.Pat Rapp
115
665.7

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Intangibles, etc.

During yesterday's Titans-Colts game, Tony Kornheiser made a big stink about how Vince Young isn't a QB who produces good stats, but it doesn't matter because he wins games. Kornheiser apparently believes that VY's splits from 2006--where he went from first-quarter dud to fourth-quarter stud--were not a fluke, but rather evidence that he can push a magic button and will his team to win.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it's because you hear the same propaganda about David Ortiz, David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio, or any number of "clutch" players. In mid-summer last year, John Kruk firmly believed that Ortiz transformed into a .700 hitter with power as soon as the game was on the line. Apparently Big Papi just doesn't believe any other situation is worth expending full effort. Similarly, if you think Vince Young's first- and fourth-quarter stats are meaningful, you must acknowledge that he is too selfish to give full effort at the start of the game.

Let's just get this out of the way:

I believe that actual intangibles--things we do not pretend we can measure--exist and are meaningful.

I believe that some players have the ability to improve their level of play in the clutch, relative to their opponents.

I believe that some quarterbacks can contribute many things towards a team victory that do not show up in the stat sheet.

That said, I would be stunned if any of these effects were 5% as relevant as ESPN thinks.

The Titans' turnaround under Young last year was impressive, but at the same time, was he really the reason they won all those games? Tennessee won a game last year on a last-second 60-yard field goal. If Rob Bironas had missed, as one would expect him to do, does that reflect poorly on Young in any way? Yet he is the one getting credit for the team's victory.

The Titans also won a game last year when Young was wrapped up for a sack on fourth down with the clock running out, but the Giants defender let him go to avoid a potential penalty, extending the drive. Is that really evidence of VY's clutch abilities?

The truth is that the public will never accept that a result like this is 5% clutch skill and 95% variance. It doesn't make for good copy. Wherever there's an effect, people want an iron-clad cause for it, and "intangibles" or "clutch play" sell. Readers of this blog will hopefully know better by now.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Early '08 Sleeper Pitchers

Yes, it's way too early to be talking about 2008 fantasy baseball drafts. So what? This blog has never stayed on topic for a full 24 hours.

What are we looking for in a pitcher who'll be underrated in drafts next year? They fall into a few general categories. Naming them after examples from 2007, here we go:

The Jake Peavy category: Consistent stud who last year maintained his elite peripherals (K/9, BB/9, GB%) but had bad luck on balls in play, pushing up his ERA and WHIP.

2008 possibilities: Felix Hernandez and Jeremy Bonderman are both going to be great values next year. Trust me.

The Kelvim Escobar category: Good pitcher with a fluke bad W-L record the year before.

2008 possibilities: A.J. Burnett, Matt Cain, Ian Snell, Rich Hill, Tim Lincecum.

This isn't as helpful as the Peavy category, because most smart fantasy managers know win totals are going to fluctuate from year to year. Still, Escobar fell to around pick 200 this year, so you never know...

The Fausto Carmona category: Young power/control groundballer who's ready to shine.

2008 possibilities: Dustin McGowan is the only ideal fit here--unless you want to count King Felix--but he's worth a special mention. McGowan is what the Orioles hoped Daniel Cabrera could become. His peripherals are already in elite territory, and scouts rave over his stuff, calling him a potential number 1 starter. I wouldn't be at all surprised if McGowan has better fantasy numbers than Roy Halladay in 2008.

The Erik Bedard category: Breakout candidate with good peripherals and stuff.

This is the toughest one to predict, because you never know who's going to pull a Bedard and suddenly see a big spike in his established performance level. The ideal candidate is young with a very high strikeout rate and glowing scouting reports.

The Giants duo of Cain and Lincecum are two examples. Scouts have been drooling over their arms for years, they're both under 24, and either could instantly become a fantasy ace by shaving a few walks and sprinkling in some more strikeouts.

Scott Kazmir has already taken some big steps forward in the past couple years, but he fits the bill. Kaz and his teammate Jamie Shields should both benefit from an improved Rays defense next year. Andy Sonnanstine isn't at their level, but he could be a deep sleeper next year; check out that K/BB ratio.

I'm not the biggest Justin Verlander fan; his hype machine is set three levels too high, and he's benefited from good luck on balls in play the past two years. But he has ace-level stuff and good peripherals, and his defense should improve greatly next year if the Tigers follow through with plans to move Carlos Guillen to first base and sign a good glove at shortstop. Your league-mates might draft him a few rounds too early, but he's as good a bet as anyone to go Erik Bedard on the league, with run support to boot.

The Ted Lilly category: Good pitcher who moves to a much more pitcher-friendly environment.

No known candidates yet, and the thin free agent starter market makes it unlikely we'll see any unless a big trade goes down.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dunn and Howard

Via Rob Neyer, I came across a good piece comparing Adam Dunn to Ryan Howard. Despite their similar production this year, Dunn has the reputation of a low batting average strikeout machine while Howard is the reigning MVP and toast of Philadelphia.

The article says Howard may break Dunn's single-season strikeout record of 195. I'll go one step further: Howard will shatter the mark, and may be the first slugger to top 200 Ks in a season, unless the Phillies collapse--something they're quite used to by now--and bench him at the end of the year to prevent that from happening. Considering Howard spent time on the DL this season, that's just absurd.

Furthermore, one would expect that Howard, an African-American playing in a city that booed Santa Claus, would have a more difficult time winning the fans' approval. Why is he viewed in such a more positive light?

The MVP award he stole from Albert Pujols last year is one possibility. Perhaps the fans view him as the non-tainted slugger who can take the home run records back from Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa. But the most likely reason is that we all remember his .318 batting average last year. Howard struck out 181 times in 2006, but collected a ton of hits on balls in play. Dunn, by contrast, has topped .250 only once in a full season, and is currently hitting a career-high .269.

Additionally, Howard has the virtue of hitting behind Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, which gives him plenty more RBI opportunities than Dunn. Howard drove in 149 runs last year, while Dunn's career high is his 104 this year.

Like it or not, the general population is going to keep viewing batting average and RBI as barometers of hitting production. Dunn's going to get the short end of that stick.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

MLB Futures Bets Considerations: The Playoffs

One criticism of the MLB playoff structure is that the best team usually does not win the World Series. Even though baseball's regular season is nearly over and the football season is barely underway, WSEX currently gives New England's football team a better chance to win the title than its baseball team.

Some cynics even view the playoffs as an 8-team coin flipping contest, but this is clearly incorrect. The 2006 Cardinals had no business winning the World Series, but there is no way they were a mere 7-1 dog to do so; 20-1 might be a fair estimate.

The best way to handicap playoff futures is simply to handicap each individual game, but this is too hard or time-consuming for most bettors. What else can give you an edge? The previous two posts in this series include some tips. Here are some more:

- Handicap all the teams, not just one. If your estimated chances for each team to win the World Series add up to 120%, you're in trouble. Make sure your probabilities for each title sum up to exactly 1.00.

- Always anticipate upcoming opponents. If you're betting teams to win a pennant or the World Series, you need to know the probabilities that they will face certain teams and pitchers in their next playoff series before you can determine their chances of winning that series. This is similar to the process of estimating your equity against your opponent's hand range in poker.

- If you can accurately project the lines of upcoming games, compare the EVs between betting a futures line vs. betting each game individually. Often you will find a big disparity, especially if a bookie simply copies lines from someone else and doesn't update some numbers. If you're new to this essential process of estimating futures EV, I recommend King Yao's new book.

- As always, you want to bet against the public. If everyone is hyping a team that "can't lose," you may have a good bet. For example, last year all 19 of ESPN.com's pundits picked the Yankees to defeat the Tigers in the first round. This was symptomatic of a betting frenzy that moved the ALDS line at some books all the way to Yankees -400, a ludicrous number for any five-game baseball series.

- If one team is severely underrated by the oddsmakers, your best option is probably to bet them to win the World Series. This way you lock in an edge for all three rounds, before the oddsmakers can adjust their lines to new information.

For example, last year the Detroit Tigers, who had gone 19-31 in their final 50 regular season games, opened the playoffs at roughly these odds:

To win ALDS: 3-1
To win AL Pennant: 9-1
To win World Series: 20-1

I estimated that they would win the ALDS roughly 33% of the time, the ALCS (if they advanced) about 45%, and the WS 57%. Furthermore, I believed (correctly, as it turned out) that the oddsmakers would start taking Detroit seriously if they knocked off the Yankees. My estimated ROI on each line was:

ALDS: .33 * 4.00 = 1.32
AL: .33 * .45 * 10.00 = 1.485
WS: .33 * .45 * .57 * 21.00 = 1.778

As it turned out, I got lucky and the Tigers faced the best possible opponent in both the ALCS (A's) and WS (Cardinals). They opened at even money to win the ALCS and over 2-1 favorites to win the WS. A hedge at the start of the WS offered the equivalent of 13-1 on the Tigers to win the AL.

A less relevant but still instructive example comes from the 2006 World Baseball Classic. This tournament featured many games where one team was a very heavy favorite, along with several rematches. After seeing upsets by Korea and Canada against the heavily favored Japanese and Americans, the bettors and bookies combined to adjust the lines for future games, greatly reducing the payoffs on the underdogs. Bettors could see this impact by the moneylines; while Mexico was a 9-1 dog to the USA in the first round, they had moved to 6-1 in round 2.

Obviously, the bookies and public came into the WBC unprepared. Savvy handicappers had already taken advantage of this weakness by doing their homework in advance and fading the overrated Japan and USA teams early. By the time the championship game rolled around, the market had overcorrected, making Japan an underdog in the final match despite a superior lineup and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Last example, I promise. Entering the season, everyone except a computer expected the White Sox to contend for a playoff spot. Now, they're a laughingstock, and their odds reflect it. You could have made a killing blindly betting against the Sox in May and June, but not anymore.

The message is clear: market inefficiencies usually move towards correction, not further from it. If you see an edge in the future, grab it now before the opportunity disappears.

MLB Futures Bets Considerations: Starting Pitchers

This late in the season, the methodology used by CoolStandings and the BP Playoff Odds starts to break down because they use aggregate stats to generate the probability that a team will win a given game, while ignoring the starting pitching matchups.

Here are some examples of how this affects futures odds from here on out:

1) Game matchups

The playoff odds reports assume each team's staff ace will start about 20% of his team's games, and that the team will face the opponents' staff ace 20% of the time. Over a long season, this usually evens out, but not so in two weeks.

You should handicap each upcoming game individually for best results, but here are some quick hits:

- Unless the Padres start Jake Peavy on three days' rest at some point, he will start 14% of the Padres' remaining games, while Brandon Webb starts 25% of Arizona's. Advantage: D-Backs.

- Boston is expected not to face any of Johan Santana, Dan Haren, James Shields, or A.J. Burnett in their last 12 games.

- The Yankees play six of their final 13 games against the Bedard-less Orioles, but are scheduled to face Halladay, Burnett, Shields, and Kazmir in that span.

2) Four-man rotations

All teams go with four-man rotations in the playoffs, and some teams will regularly throw a dominant ace on three days' rest.

Many "analysts" say that the biggest beneficiary of this strategy is a team with a great starting rotation, but they are wrong. The real winners are teams with bad #4 and #5 starters, but a good 1-2-3. While an awful #5 starter might handle 10% of his team's innings in the regular season, he pitches nearly 0% of the postseason frames. An inept #4 starter will similarly see his innings cut. Meanwhile, the top three starters and ace relievers pitch a significantly higher percentage of playoff innings.

What we're really looking for, then, is a team with a big differential between the front and back ends of their rotations, and between their top relievers and mopup men.

Who benefits most from this?

San Diego: Jake Peavy and Chris Young take away innings from Brett Tomko and Jack Cassel.
Arizona: Brandon Webb should start 1/3 of their playoff games if they are to have any chance at all to win it.
N.Y. Yankees: Their #5 starters have been terrible this year, but a playoff rotation of Wang-Pettitte-Clemens-Hughes isn't half bad. Joba-Rivera might be the best bullpen combo in the field.
L.A. Dodgers: David Wells and Esteban Loaiza are simply not acceptable playoff pitchers at this point in their careers. Broxton and Saito can turn any game into a six-inning contest.

Meanwhile, the losers include:

New York Mets
Chicago
Milwaukee

These teams have relied on balanced rotations and bullpens this year. Milwaukee might cut David Bush out of their playoff rotation, which would be downright stupid.

3) Rotation setup

If a team cruises into a playoff round, they will usually have the liberty to set up their rotation in advance, with their best starters lined up and rested. This is not the case if they have to use their ace in a must-win situation just prior to the series. Some examples:

- If the Padres start Peavy on the last day of the season to clinch their playoff spot, he will only start one game in the NLDS, rather than two. This has a big impact on the Padres' chances of winning that series.

- If the Diamondbacks sweep the NLDS--not bloody likely--they'll have the ability to start Webb in games 1, 4, and 7 of the NLCS. If they start Webb twice in the NLDS, this option goes out the window, and Arizona's championship hopes take a Towelie-sized hit.

Often, the bookie won't adjust his futures line for this reason...until you move it with your bet.

MLB Futures Bets Considerations: Ties

Most divisional and Wild Card ties are broken by playing a 163rd game. The exception is when two teams in the same division are tied for the division flag and Wild Card, like the AL East in 2005. In this case, the tie is broken by:

1) Head-to-head record
2) Record within the division

Many sportsbooks (and the BP Playoff Odds) do not adjust their odds for this consideration. Based on these criteria, when both teams make the playoffs, the division title goes to:

AL East: Yankees over Red Sox
AL Central: Indians over Tigers
NL East: Phillies over Mets
NL West: Diamondbacks over Padres, Padres over Dodgers, Dodgers over Diamondbacks

How does this affect your bets?

1) Divisional winners. Even though two teams may have the same record, only the one that wins the tiebreak pays out as the champion.

The most important tiebreaker is Diamondbacks/Padres. The two teams should tie roughly 13% of the time (based on their records entering 9/17) with the loser taking the Wild Card the majority of those times. This adds roughly 4% to Arizona's NL West chances, while subtracting 4% from the Padres. If you find a book with Wild Card odds, remember to adjust those by 4% each as well.

2) Playoff seeding

In all of these races except the AL Central, the winner is likely to be the number 1 or 2 seed in the playoffs, while the Wild Card automatically takes the fourth seed.

Obviously this affects home-field advantage, though that isn't a huge deal in the playoffs. However, it also alters first-round matchups. For example, if the Padres end the season tied with Arizona, they must open the playoffs in New York while the Diamondbacks host the much weaker NL Central champ.

These considerations can have a significant impact on pennant and World Series odds, and not just for the teams involved in the tie. Should the Phillies win the Wild Card, the NL Central winner must face New York in the first round, hurting their own pennant hopes while enhancing those of the Mets. If you're a Cubs fan, you should be rooting pretty hard against Philly the rest of the way.

In the AL East, this isn't as important because the Indians and Angels are similarly talented teams. If the Tigers tie the Indians and sneak into the playoffs, whoever gets to face the Angels instead of the Red Sox will be in good shape. Furthermore, if the Tigers do make the playoffs, their first-round opponent is in a great spot, since Detroit's starting pitching is a mess.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Kruk's Idiocy Reaches New Levels

I just watched Baseball Tonight's breakdown of tonight's Phillies-Rockies game, which Colorado lost 8-2. John Kruk said that the reason the Phillies can't win right now is that they have bad pitching and bad fundamentals. Fair enough. Then, to make his point, he showed a clip from tonight's game.

In the clip, Pat Burrell is on second base. A routine ground ball is hit to shortstop, and The Bat foolishly tries to take third, where he is thrown out easily. The next batter bloops a single to center, prompting Kruk to say (paraphrased):

If Burrell is on second there, the game is 2-1 instead of 2-0. That changes the whole rest of the game.

You heard it here first, folks. Pat Burrell, in one moment of selfishness, cost his team 7 runs and a win. No wonder an .890 OPS isn't good enough for the phans of Philadelphia to cheer for him.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Dave Littlefield and Jim Hendry

As you may have heard, Dave Littlefield is out as Pirates general manager, a move that was long overdue. The link gives a summary of some of the lowlights of his tenure, but the general theme is that the team spent those years mired in a consistent state of mediocrity, never making an effort to get out.

But what happens when a mediocre team makes that effort? You get the 2007 Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have been roundly bashed in the media for handing out $300 million of contracts in the offseason. Meanwhile, analysts bash them for throwing another $91.5 million at Carlos Zambrano and $5 million at Jeff Samardzija, and for trading two living, breathing players for Steve Trachsel.

What's damning here isn't that these were all mistakes, but that they were predictable mistakes. If you draft Len Bias number 2 overall and he dies tragically of a cocaine overdose, that's not your fault. But if you take Sam Bowie because you decide your team needs to be built around a big man, you deserve every ESPN Classic replay of Michael Jordan doing this to your team in the Finals.

Is there anyone out there who saw the headlines of the Alfonso Soriano contract and thought "$136 million? Wow, what a bargain!" or "World Series, here we come!" All the Cubs fans I know reacted to the Jason Marquis signing a lot like this. The Samardzija pick was bashed almost instantly. Indeed, he has been a tremendous disappointment as a pro; perhaps there was a reason that 29 other teams decided he wasn't worth the money.

As for Zambrano, he's one of my all-time favorite Cubs, but he is definitely not the kind of pitcher I want to throw $90M+ at. Big Z's declining peripherals and constant attempts to get himself injured don't endear him to me, but apparently they did to Cubs GM Jim Hendry, whose job appears safe for now.

Hmm. Hendry's job appears safe. Why? I'm not trying to defend Littlefield, but if he had the authorization to spend $400 million, I don't think he could have done a worse job with it than Hendry did. As it is, the bargain-basement Pirates enter today's action less than 10 games behind the Cubs, who would be out of contention in any other division in organized sports.

Perhaps Hendry is still feeding off the reputation of well-timed 2003 trades for Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Maybe so, but in the same year Littlefield gave away Aramis he also acquired six years of cost control on Jason Bay and five on Oliver Perez in exchange for a declining Brian Giles. That's one hell of a coup, and it makes up for a lot of his failings.

Sure, the trade for Matt Morris was inexplicably stupid, but I could (and will) say the same thing about Steve Trachsel. Yes, Littlefield drafted Brad Lincoln over Tim Lincecum, but can anyone defend the Cubs' track record of player drafting and development? The best position player they've produced since 1990 is probably Corey Patterson, and you can't mention his name on the North Side without bringing up visions of him hacking away at a pitch over his head.

Frankly, the big difference I see between these two is that one of their teams has a large built-in fan base, giving their GM the resources to overpay for a .500 ballclub. It's too bad that ownership doesn't see it that way, because if they did the Cubs would have a better front office and a brighter team outlook.

Looking Ahead to 2008: Devil Rays

It's never too early to start talking about next year. Maybe I developed this attitude growing up a Cubs fan in the 90s, when next year couldn't get there soon enough. Since I was too young to drown my sorrows in a pint of Old Style, there was little else to do.

Anyway, I'm planning to take a look at how some teams stack up for 2008. As I look into the crystal ball, there is one team whose forecast is absolutely fascinating (to me, anyway): the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (Will they be known simply as the Rays by this time next year?)

Though everyone wrote them off this year, I thought the Rays had a legitimate shot at 80 wins. Entering the year, they looked like a collection of tremendously skilled young players: Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes, Scott Kazmir, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford. Throw in some development from Jamie Shields and J.P. Howell and decent seasons from the rest of the roster, and that's one hell of a collection of talent.

As 2007 played out, several things have gone right for Tampa. Kazmir has stayed healthy and effective, and Shields emerged as a legitimate front-rotation starter, currently sporting a K/BB ratio of over 5:1. Upton broke out in a big way and has finally found a long-term position. Carlos Pena turned into a monster in the middle of the lineup. Crawford has maintained his level of play at one notch below stardom. The rest of the lineup has generally been effective, though Young has failed to develop as expected and Dukes and Baldelli seem to have hit severe snags in their careers.

With a good young offensive core, two very good SP, and a staff that leads the AL in K/9 by a wide margin, what has gone wrong this year? In a word: Defense.

If you believe The Hardball Times--and given the evidence, I'm inclined to--the D-Rays team defense is the only thing standing between them and a winning record. All their offensive stats and peripherals indicate that this is a slightly above average team at the plate. Their pitchers, besides leading the league in strikeout rate, are right around the AL average in BB/9, line drive rate, and groundball rate. In other words, they're doing their part.

Tampa's defense, however, is not. The D-Rays rank last in the AL in team defensive efficiency--the percentage of balls in play they convert into outs--by an incredible margin: the difference between their .662 and 13th place Seattle's .680 is roughly the same between Seattle and fourth place Minnesota at .699.

More evidence? The Hardball Times uses a tool called Plus/Minus to split the blame for allowing excess runs between a team's pitching staff and its defense. A figure of 0 means the team is exactly league-average; positive scores indicate above-average performance and negative scores below-average.

Look at THT's team page, and scroll to the AL Fielding Stats and the Plus/Minus column. That's not a typo: the Devil Rays pitching staff has actually been 16 runs better than the league average this year, while their defense has been 139 runs worse. I don't have access to historical Plus/Minus data, but this must be one of the worst defensive teams in recent history. With the exceptions of Crawford and Akinori Iwamura, most of the Devil Rays have reputations as terrible fielders, so the data match the scouting reports.

Basically, we're dealing with a 2007 team that gets slightly above average production from their hitters and pitchers, but with a Maginot Line-esque defense. What's going to change in 2008?

The good news is that team defense is susceptible to large year-to-year fluctuations. Additionally, all teams that record a historically good or bad performance in any category will usually see significant regression to the mean in the future. Even if they changed nothing, the 2008 Rays likely would have the worst defense in the AL, but it would cost them less than half as many runs as in 2007.

Plus, they've gotten Upton and his butcher-like defense out of the infield for good, and may install Evan Longoria, who has a great defensive reputation, as their everyday third baseman. Put all that together, and this looks like a -40 run defense next year. If that doesn't sound like a compliment, consider that we're talking about an improvement of 100 runs, or 10 wins, over 2007.

Aside from the defense, what else can they improve upon? If Howell can ever stick in the rotation, his combination of strikeouts and ground balls could make him another Fausto Carmona--that is, if the Tampa defense can ever turn those grounders into outs. (In case you forgot, Carmona posted a 5.42 ERA last year, largely in relief. So this is not a totally farfetched comparison.)

Andy Sonnanstine currently owns a strikeout rate above the league average, a K/BB ratio of over 4:1, and a reasonable 1.2 HR/9. So why is his ERA 5.73? It's that defense again. If they ever start fielding the ball, Sonnanstine becomes an asset as a league-average starter.

Though Al Reyes has his faults (does the man ever induce a ground ball?) he is still a better pitcher than his current ERA indicates, and he'll be a bargain at $1 million next year. Grant Balfour (who may have the worst aptonym of any baseballer) is a live relief arm with a high ceiling--if he can stay healthy.

And then there's the farm system. In addition to Longoria, who's crushing the ball in AAA at age 21, the Rays have a stable of young arms, including Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jake McGee, and number 1 pick David Price. All could be ready to contribute at some point next year.

In a perfect world, Pena and Upton maintain their current level, Young and Longoria break out, the young arms continue to blossom, and the team plays enough defense to keep themselves in most games. It probably won't happen, but don't be surprised to see this team in the 80-win range next year, positioning themselves for a possible playoff push in 2009. If I had to hazard a guess now, I'd say they'll go 77-85 and showcase themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the AL East.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why Jake Peavy is Starting Tonight

With the Padres closing out their season series against the Diamondbacks tonight, it seems obvious for Bud Black to pull out all the stops. With that in mind, Jake Peavy is taking the mound on three days' rest, a move that increases the Padres' chances of winning the game by around 15 percent, far more than a trivial sum against their closest rivals for the NL West crown. Given the value of a win against the D-Backs, this was clearly the right move, and I salute Black for it.

There's another important issue at work here: tiebreakers. As some of you may know, when two teams in the same division are tied for the division lead and wild card lead, the division title is decided by these tiebreakers, in order:

1. Head-to-head record (Diamondbacks lead 9-8)
2. Record against NL West opponents (Padres lead 33-23 to 27-29)

There are more, but these are the only two we'll need--If the Diamondbacks catch up that much in intradivisional games, they should run away with the division title. Basically, the winner of tonight's game captures the tiebreak and gets to host the NL Central champ for the division series rather than facing the Mets without home-field advantage. That's a big deal, especially if the Cardinals sneak into the playoffs.

For those of you who bet futures, make sure you factor this in when assessing each team's odds to capture the NL West and Wild Card.

If you have a dog in this fight, make sure you tune in. This is one of the biggest regular-season games you'll see this year.