Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Uncounted HoF Vote

I'll never have a Hall of Fame vote.

That's not really an admission of defeat, considering the BBWAA's standards for voters. I know I'd rather be on Keith Law's side of the fence than Jon Heyman's.

It may not count for anything, but I'll still cast my ballot for Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven. If you read baseball stats websites, you're probably bored to death with everyone pushing these two. Still, their supporters are correct.

A common argument used to support a player's Hall candidacy is "He is better than HoFers A and B, so he should get in too." This is terrible logic--why should past voting errors lead to future ones?--but to list all the Hall of Famers worse than Raines and Blyleven, I'd need multiple alphabets.

By Offensive Win%, Raines was one of the NL's five best hitters in six different years between 1981 and 1987. Jim Rice is getting a lot of support for the Hall this year; Raines has significantly better career hitting stats than Rice (.307 career EqA to Rice's .294), played 400 more games than Rice, and is the best basestealer in baseball history, while Rice set a record by grounding into 36 double plays in one season. Raines isn't just better than Rice, he smokes him across the board.

Blyleven, as I'm sure you know, was a dominant starter in his prime and accumulated some impressive career numbers, but he didn't get to 300 wins, didn't throw in a pitcher's park, and didn't get great run support. GG.

"Be Home" Blyleven had a better career ERA+ (118, which means an ERA 18% below the league average) than almost all his contemporaries in the Hall: Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton(!), and Dennis Eckersley(!!). In a just world, Catfish would have to pay admission to check out Blyleven's bust in Cooperstown.

Those are the only two I'd definitely vote for, but Mark McGwire and Alan Trammell are also legitimate candidates. McGwire had a nice little career, and he was one of the 25 best hitters in history by rate stats. Unfortunately, he averaged less than 124 games per season, and it's hard to be a Hall of Famer when you miss almost one in every four games. Even with the injuries, he's a definite candidate if you ignore the PED issue, as I did.

Trammell has suffered in the voting because he's not the fielder that Ozzie was or the hitter that Ripken was. Additionally, the offensive expectations from shortstops have changed in the past ten years, thanks to A-Rod, Jeter, and Nomar. Tram was still a gold glove shortstop in his prime, and his .282 EqA compares favorably with Ripken's .283.

One last point. I'm seeing a lot of support for Don Mattingly, and the argument is always the same: his career numbers are the same as Kirby Puckett's (they really are), and both had their careers cut short by maladies. If Puckett is in, why not Donnie Baseball?

These are all fair points, but they ignore an important consideration: Puckett played center field and Mattingly first base. The offensive expectations for those positions are light years apart. Chris Shelton has a higher career OPS than both Torii Hunter and Aaron Rowand, but he was basically given away for free this offseason, while Hunter and Rowand will collect a combined $150 million between now and 2012. The difference in offense between center field and first base is larger now than it was in the eighties, but the gap is still very relevant.

Happy 2008, everyone.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If You Think I'm Drinking Too Much 2008 Rays Kool-Aid...

...you might not want to order the 2008 Baseball Forecaster, because Ron Shandler and co. seem fully on board with the notion that the Rays will top .500 next year.

I won't publish all the BF projections for Tampa's pitching staff, mainly because I'm not allowed to. But I will say this: BF has a stat called Base Performance Value (BPV) that captures all the things a pitcher is supposed to do: strike out lots of batters, minimize walks, keep the ball down, and give up few hits. Browsing the starting pitcher BPV projections for 2008:

- James Shields ranks fourth in the majors.
- Scott Kazmir ranks seventh.
- Matt Garza is 26th.
- J.P. Howell and Andy Sonnanstine aren't projected for enough innings (180) to qualify, but if they did, they'd rank 16th and 22nd, respectively.

By at least one measure, the Rays will feature five of MLB's top 30 starting pitchers next year. That's just plain sick.

Do I actually think Sonnanstine and Howell are front-of-the-rotation pitchers? No, but they're way better than the fourth and fifth starters everyone else will be throwing out there.

Just in case Mr. Shandler's attorneys are reading this, I'd like to close by saying that I heartily recommend the Forecaster to any serious baseball fans or fantasy players. Not only are the projections good, but the book specifically points out buy-low opportunities, and does a damn good job of it.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Why I Don't Make Stupid Predictions

There are few things I enjoy more in sports than when an underrated team beats an overrated team, proving ignorant fans wrong. But there is a huge difference between:

- Saying Cleveland has a 45.6% shot at beating the Yankees based on mathematical analysis of each team's players, and

- Declaring that you're sure the Jaguars will beat the Patriots, simply because they're underrated and the Pats are overrated.

"There are a couple of things I am pretty sure about as the 2007 playoffs approach: the New England Patriots are going to finish the regular season at 16-0 and the Jacksonville Jaguars will beat them if they play in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

Now I am going to tell you why the Jaguars would beat the Patriots in the postseason. The Jaguars are motivated, this team is built for the cold weather, the Patriots defense is overrated and Jaguars QB David Garrard is underrated."

ESPN writers can make as many silly predictions as they want, because no one scrutinizes their work. Besides, who wants an article that simply says the Jags can stay in the game? We demand a definitive statement, dammit!

What exactly makes this team built for cold weather, the fact that they won against Pittsburgh? If one ball had bounced the other way in that game and Jacksonville lost, would that mean they can't deliver in winter temperatures? Are the Jaguars poorly built to win in domes because they're 0-2 indoors this year?

"The third reason is the Patriots' run defense. Can anyone find it lately? Sure, the Patriots are ranked No. 10 against the run in the NFL, but that stat can get thrown out the window because it will be useless against the Jags. The Patriots have such a high ranking because they blow teams out and negate their running game."

At least Jeremy Green seems to understand that teams run because they win, rather than vice versa. But why include this stat at all when it is clearly meaningless? Green could cite the Patriots' DVOA against the run, which shows that on a per-play basis, they're slightly better than the league average.

On the same page, he'd find that the Jaguars are below average against the pass this year, which just might be slightly relevant if they face the best passing offense in history.

If the Jags face New England in the playoffs, they'll probably be at least 4-1 underdogs, and I'll bet their chances of winning will be far closer to the actual moneyline than to what Jeremy Green thinks it should be.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Should the Patriots Try in Week 17?

As everyone knows, the biggest story of this football season has been the New England Patriots' quest to go undefeated. Assuming the Pats win this week, should they go all-out in the final game or rest their star players for the playoffs?

Ordinarily I don't like jeopardizing team results for personal glory, but you have to ask yourself: Which is more important to the team, going 16-0 or winning the Super Bowl? After all, a Super Bowl win doesn't mean that much in the abstract; it is only because football fans lionize the Bradshaws and Montanas of the world that we think it's such a huge deal. After all, 41 teams have won a Super Bowl. None have gone 16-0 in the regular season.

If the Pats absolutely had to lose one game, they'd probably rather do so in Week 17 than in the playoffs. But that's not the case here; playing their hardest in Week 17 only has a small chance of costing them anything.

Let's say that Tom Brady getting hurt reduces the Pats' chances of winning each game by 25%. So if he sits in Week 17, the Patriots will go undefeated 60% of the time rather than 85%.

Meanwhile, there's perhaps a 2% chance that Brady will be seriously hurt in Week 17 and miss the playoffs. The market currently puts the Pats at about 56% to win the Super Bowl; if Brady goes down, that number dips to 18% using these assumptions.

With the 2% probability of a serious injury costing them 38% of their chance at a championship, the Pats are costing themselves less than 1% of a Super Bowl title in expected value by letting Brady play the whole game, while giving up 25% of their chance to go undefeated.

You can use slightly different numbers if you like, but you will reach the same conclusion: Unless winning the Super Bowl is much, much more important than going 16-0, the right move for is to go for the undefeated season.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Brian Westbrook

Everyone here probably saw Brian Westbrook do this yesterday. For his unselfish play, Westbrook has received universal praise from everyone, with the notable exception of his fantasy owners.

Personally, I think this play should be automatic. At the end of the game, when the offense can run out the clock by taking a knee, they do it. Every time. It doesn't matter if the team has an seemingly insurmountable lead. Why give the opponents any chance to win when they could have none?

It's a little more difficult to make this decision on your own without the coach's orders, but I'm sure every NFL player is capable of it. It's not hard to recognize a situation where a first down will put the game on ice: under two minutes remaining, no timeouts for the defense.

The media doesn't rip on players who take the touchdown in this spot, because everyone does it and it very rarely cost their team the win. By now, you should know the motto of this blog: the results of any one trial don't matter. If Westbrook had scored, the Eagles still would have won the game over 99% of the time. But scoring is the wrong decision EVERY TIME, not just the one in a thousand that the Cowboys make a miracle comeback.

When I was in high school, our football team made it to the state semifinals. With a one point lead and one minute remaining, they faced a third-and-1 at midfield. Our running back broke free, giving the team the first down they needed to run out the clock. He wanted more, and he got it, scoring a touchdown to put us up by 8. The opponents ran back the ensuing kickoff all the way, made the two-point conversion, and went on to win in overtime to advance to the championship game.

In a way, our running back was unlucky; the vast majority of the time, his poor decision would not have factored into the final outcome. But he knew that a first down would win the game, yet he still jeopardized a sure victory for personal glory. I believe he fully deserved all the criticism he received after the game.

Even though I think Westbrook's decision should be the standard for all NFL players, I'm glad everyone is talking about it. Maybe if players think they can get attention by being unselfish, they'll do it more often, and teams everywhere will benefit*.

*- Yes, I know no team will really benefit overall, since it's a zero-sum game.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Awful Sportswriting

Via a great piece at Home Run Derby, I came upon this atrocious article at USA Today. (Wait a minute, aren't bloggers supposed to be the ones that can't write?)

In a column that's ostensibly about how tough life is in the American League in general and the AL Central in particular, Bob Nightengale hammers home his point by mentioning that the AL Central has produced four--count 'em, four--playoff teams in the last three years. I have no clue why the author didn't go with the more impressive "three playoff teams in two years," not that this would have been a meaningful stat either, since the division is expected to produce 1.36 playoff teams per year. I guess as factual statements go, "fourteen playoff teams in the fourteen years the AL Central has existed" wasn't as sexy.

Nightengale also argues that the AL is more competitive because it has had far more 91-win teams than the NL in the past three years. First off, it's easy to make your point when you draw arbitrary cutoffs like this. The NL has had more 100-win teams (one) over that span. Does it matter?

Furthermore, this stat is NOT automatically an indicator of tougher competition. Remember, the AL plays almost all its games against other AL teams. If a bunch of teams are winning a lot of games, it necessarily follows that other teams are losing lots of games.

If you forced Little Leaguers to play 162-game seasons, the best Little League teams would win well over 100 games, because talent is not distributed as evenly in Little League. Does this mean that it would be harder for the White Sox to win the Little League World Series than the real World Series?

Nightengale also talks about how easy it is to win in the NL--"like a preschool battle on the jungle gym at recess"--then immediately bludgeons his own point by mentioning that the big-market NL teams haven't won a World Series in 20 years. Apparently the rich kids keep getting their lunch money stolen by bullies before they can buy any championships.

The best part of the column, though, is when Nightengale lists all the high-profile players AL teams have signed this offseason: Alex Rodriguez, Torii Hunter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Jose Guillen. Then he derides the signing of Francisco Cordero because "he was in the [NL], pitching last season for the Milwaukee Brewers." Um, what? Actually, even this might be more logical than his assertion that Jacque Jones makes the AL a tougher place to win.

The article concludes with a chart of the "stars" who have gone from the NL to the AL in the past five years. The list includes Joe Borowski and J.D. Drew, neither of whom has been mistaken for a star since arriving in the Junior Circuit. It includes Jim Thome, who has arguably been less valuable since 2005 than just one of the players he was traded for, Aaron Rowand.

As you might expect, there's no mention of Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Mark Teixeira, Orlando Hudson, Chris Young, Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Lee, Barry Zito, Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon Phillips, or any of the other big names to cross over in the opposite direction. Hanley Ramirez is briefly mentioned as the cost for acquiring Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, as if he was the $24 the British had to surrender for the rights to Manhattan.

I also find it ironic that the article centers around the tough road faced by Kenny Williams, who put together one of the weakest World Series-winning teams of all time in 2005. That squad had exactly zero future Hall of Famers, unless you want to count 105 at-bats from Frank Thomas. They won 83 games with essentially the same cast the year before, and 72 games two years later after making some big-money moves to "improve" the team. If you want to write an article about how tough it is to win the World Series out of the AL, focus on the 2001-07 Yankees.

Let me finish by saying that I firmly believe that right now, the quality of competition is significantly higher in the AL than the NL. There are plenty of good ways to make that point without calling Joe Borowski a star or Jacque Jones an impact acquisition.

Sports and The Weakest Link

I'm a game show junkie, and one of my favorites is The Weakest Link. For those of you who've never watched the show, it combines trivia questions with a Survivor-style vote to eliminate the weaker contestants. This eventually whittles the team down to one member who collects the entire prize pool for himself.

What does any of this have to do with pro sports, you ask?

- The Voting

Players are encouraged to vote off the opponent who answered the fewest questions correctly. However, this is very rarely the case in practice. In fact, the show's host will regularly point out when the contestants have voted "incorrectly".

Usually, they will vote for someone who missed one prominent question, often one the voter considers to be "obvious". Frequently a voter will explain that, as a history teacher, he can't excuse his opponent not knowing the answer to a World War II question.

I can think of two obvious parallels to the world of sports analysis. First, scouts and fans often argue that statheads don't really understand baseball, because they don't watch enough games. In fact, this is reportedly why Rob Neyer and Keith Law were not given Hall of Fame votes. But the players on the show--who observe their opponents firsthand the whole time--constantly get the vote wrong. When you ignore the numbers and simply follow your observations, your opinion is bound to be biased.

Also, if American sportswriters and Alex Rodriguez played The Weakest Link together, A-Rod would be voted off the first time he got a question wrong about the playoffs, even though he had aced all the others. It's not like he needs the money anyway, right?

- "Banking"

As with most game shows, The Weakest Link allows the players to "bank" the money they have earned rather than risk it to try and make more. However, there is a strong added incentive to bank on this show: If you don't bank, then get your question wrong, you are very likely to be voted off the team. Often, gambling is +EV for the team but -EV for the individual, so he will choose to bank rather than go for it.

Similarly, most NFL coaches would do far better if they pursued a more aggressive approach, particularly on fourth downs and late in games when the other team has the lead. However, the coach's first priority is to make sure that he will not be fired. If a coach plays by the book and his team loses, the players get the blame; if he makes an unusual decision and the team loses, the coach becomes the scapegoat.

So while every pro and college team would win more games by cutting down on punts, it wouldn't be the best strategy for the coaches, who have to explain their strategies to team officials that will never begin to grasp them.

- The Final Round

The final round of the show is a best-of-5-questions format. This, much like the playoffs in any major sport, is designed for entertainment and not to determine which player is actually the best. As in a baseball playoff series, the underdog in any reasonable scenario will never have less than about a 25% shot to win.

This isn't a problem, so long as we understand that the best team is not always the one that wears the crown. I find it funny that the 2001 Patriots, who at the time were considered a Cinderella story, are now viewed as the beginning of a dynasty. The Pats have been the best franchise in football since 2001, but that year's team got lucky. If they were better than the Rams, they wouldn't have been 14 point underdogs.

Brief Transaction Recaps

Cubs: Signed OF Kosuke Fukudome for 4 years, $48 million (Rating: 6/10)

This was probably a little more than he's worth, but the Cubs can afford it and they're right in the thick of playoff contention, where an extra couple of wins make a huge difference.

I don't get the argument that the Cubs "need" a jolt of OBP in their lineup. All teams prefer more OBP to less, and Fukudome should be no more valuable to Chicago than an outfielder who gets on base less but compensates with better power, fielding, or baserunning.

Giants: Signed CF Aaron Rowand for 5 years, $60 million (3)

Another deal, much like Jose Guillen's, where a team that should be in full-scale rebuilding mode wastes lots of money (and in the Giants' case, a draft pick) on a player who still leaves them far out of contention. The money isn't that bad--I might rather have Rowand than Torii Hunter over five years--but the Giants have no reason to be interested. At least this prevented them from doing something truly stupid.

Blue Jays: Signed SS David Eckstein for 1 year, $4.5 million (5)

Wow, that's a lot less than he was reportedly looking for. I can't believe I'm giving a respectable rating to an Eckstein signing, but this deal doesn't pay him to be anything more than he is, a below-average shortstop with the bat and glove. This isn't the greatest fit, because Toronto's pitching staff is very groundball-heavy, so John McDonald should still see a lot of time at short.

Presumably, the Cardinals wanted the compensation pick, since they're paying Izturis almost as much as Eckstein to be considerably less effective.

Twins: Signed SS Adam Everett for 1 year (7)

I can't find a contract value, but it can't be more than a couple million. I like this signing a lot; Everett will save the team a cool 30 runs over Brendan Harris at short, and an AL team should have more flexibility to pinch-hit for him late in the game.

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No comments on the Mitchell Report from me. I don't go for that Schadenfreude.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ed Wade is Deluded

Astros Receive: SS Miguel Tejada (Rating: 2/10)

Orioles Receive: OF Luke Scott, 3B Mike Costanzo, SP Troy Patton, SP Matt Albers, RP Dennis Sarfate (7)

Oh, Ed Wade. I feel like he's channeling Art Alexakis, telling Lance Berkman that he'll buy him a shiny new team and soon it will all be better.

It's not like the Astros gave up a future Hall of Famer in this deal, but they began the offseason as non-contenders and all they've done is get maybe one win closer to .500. I've praised the Reds for striking while the division is winnable, but the Astros are a lot further from contention than the Reds in the next few years. Houston has no Jay Bruce or Joey Votto about to graduate from its farm system, nor a Homer Bailey or Johnny Cueto to dangle in a deal for Erik Bedard. This team is spinning its tires, only now they're doing so with a highly-paid middle infield.

Consider that the Astros effectively exchanged Luke Scott and Adam Everett in their everyday lineup for Tejada and Michael Bourn. Scott and Tejada are projected (by both CHONE and ZIPS) to put up similar hitting numbers this year; Bourn's projections are slightly better than Everett's. So that's all Houston is really getting at the plate, a slight upgrade. In the field, they're now playing two center fielders, but exchanged the best shortstop in the majors for a below-average defender. To make this "upgrade," they also gave up a capable closer and three young arms. Not the best way to build a championship team.

This deal effectively ends Everett's tenure in Houston. Everett is a tremendous glove at short, maybe the best since Ozzie Smith, but he can't hit a lick and is entering his thirties. Still, any team interested in Jack Wilson should consider Everett; his career OPS is only 34 points lower than Wilson's, and he's a better fielder.

Scott will easily outhit Jay Payton for 1/10 of the price. This is a good buy-low move, as Scott was pushed out of the outfield mix by Bourn. I'm lukewarm on Costanzo's prospect status, but he'll at least be a cheap starter when Melvin Mora's time is done, and might develop into a 25-30 HR hitter in the majors.

Troy Patton is the best of the arms Houston sent packing. Baseball America called him a potential number 2 starter in last year's Prospect Handbook, but his strikeout rate took a big hit in 2007. He's still just 22 and has big tools, so he has plenty of time. Matt Albers won't be more than a back-of-the-rotation guy, but the going rate for those is $7-10 million/year, so he could still have plenty of value in that role.

Pay no mind to Sarfate's dominant MLB numbers, as they're completely out of line with anything he's done in the minors. In a perfect world, he becomes an effectively wild bullpen arm a la Santiago Casilla, but the more likely scenario is Franklyn German, who simply walks too many batters to pitch in the majors.

I'd rather have one Top 10 Prospect than this assortment, which takes up a full eighth of the 40-man roster by itself, but it looks like that option wasn't available to the Orioles, so they did a pretty good job getting value from Tejada, even though he was traded two years too late.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Baseball's Biggest Inefficiency

Despite my constant rants about the things MLB teams get wrong, they generally do a good job. League-wide, profits have never been higher, and we're in a very competitive era. Teams have found new revenue streams, ticket pricing has gotten much more efficient, and generally teams are awash in money.

However, there's one major facet of the game that teams still get wrong: They're not willing to spend an appropriate amount of that money to acquire elite amateur talent through the draft.

I was prompted to write this by Tom Tango and the Detroit Tigers. Casual fans don't often think about just how much a young player is worth, because his salary is restricted for six years by MLB. As Tango points out, if Troy Tulowitzki was a free agent this offseason, he could probably sign a five-year contract for roughly $136 million. (If this number sounds high to you, compare Tulowitzki from ages 23-27 to Torii Hunter from 32-36, and ask if the difference really isn't worth $46MM.)

Though he's worth $136MM on the open market, the Rockies could probably lock him up through 2012 for $35MM or so, given the going rate for pre-arbitration players. (Last year, Jose Reyes signed an extension through 2010 for $23 million, and that even bought out a year of his free agency.) If you're counting at home, that's a $100 million surplus the Rockies created by drafting and developing well.

Young players as good as Tulo are rare, but it's not all that uncommon for a young stud to be worth a killing. The Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis for a package centered around Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, two players that fell in the draft to Detroit because of their "high" bonus demands: a combined $8 million.

What would it cost to sign two talents like Cabrera and Willis for two years each on the open market? I doubt you could ever convince Cabrera to take a two-year deal at this stage of his career, but I think $100 million over two years is a reasonable estimate for the pair. The Tigers will actually pay them a combined $45 million, give or take. Net profit: a cool $55MM.

I'm simplifying the math, but essentially the Marlins put a $50 million price tag on Miller and Maybin. The duo were signed for a combined $8 million, and both have basically followed their expected progression since they were drafted. That's one hell of a good investment by Dave Dombrowski and the rest of the Tigers organization.

Obviously, not every guy who demands a big signing bonus becomes a success. Joe Borchard and Drew Henson are notable failures, and Jeff Samardzija looks like he'll join them. But the overwhelming trend favors the big-bonus player becoming a valuable MLB commodity. The list includes names like J.D. Drew, Josh Beckett, Mark Teixeira, and Jered Weaver. They're not only great players now, but were widely regarded as the top talents in their respective draft classes.

But the Phillies decided they'd rather get nothing out of their number 2 pick than give in to Scott Boras' demands. The Devil Rays figured Josh Hamilton was a safer bet than giving Beckett a Major League contract. The Rays and Phillies went with cheaper options Dewon Brazelton and Gavin Floyd rather than Teixeira. And the Padres...oh, the Padres. They passed on Weaver--and #2 pick Justin Verlander--to go with high schooler Matt Bush, who wasn't demanding a major league contract. If you've never heard of Bush, don't bother remembering his name, because his baseball career is DOA.

It's not a coincidence that the Rays and Phillies showed up on the list twice apiece. The Rays had an organizational philosophy not to spend big money on draft picks, and the Phils weren't about to relive the Drew nightmare with Teixeira, a classic example of letting the past cloud their judgment.

Philadelphia, who wouldn't give an extra $4 million to take Teixeira over Floyd, did deem it necessary to spend $85MM so Jim Thome could block Ryan Howard. And that's the problem: teams are willing to break the bank for free agents, when they could be putting that money to much better use developing from within.

Prospects are never a sure thing, but in a world where teams will spend $45 million to "upgrade" their center fielder from Matt Kemp to Juan Pierre, why is it such a big deal to throw a few bucks at an elite young talent? I think it's Proven Veteran Syndrome on a grand scale: teams will happily overpay a scrappy vet by $30MM, but are so afraid of signing a Borchard that they ignore the relatively small magnitude of the mistake.

In the baseball world, a $5 million signing bonus is practically nothing, but drafting an inferior talent like Bush or Floyd is the kind of mistake that, like signing Mike Hampton, can doom your franchise for years. Yet teams are still guilty of this error every year. I think it's a safe bet that in 2012, the Pirates would gladly pay a lot more than $3.6 million--the difference in their signing bonuses--to exchange Daniel Moskos for Matt Wieters.

But hey, at least these teams are sticking it to Scott Boras, right? In the end, that's all that really matters.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Kenny Williams is Deluded

This is awesome.

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Reacting Wednesday to the blockbuster deal that sent power-hitting third baseman Miguel Cabrera and former All-Star left-hander Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins to the Detroit Tigers — wrecking the Sox’ latest offseason plans — Williams said: ‘‘All this has done is put the Tigers in a better position to contend with us.''

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I've said before that it's okay for Williams to continue to publicly state that the White Sox are contenders, as long as he doesn't let that attitude guide his personnel decisions. However, no sane fan still believes the Pale Hose are the favorites in the AL Central, so I think Williams is trying to convince himself, rather than the fan base, with this comment.

A statement like this--combined with his decisions to re-sign the same veteran team that went 72-90 last year--tells me that Williams really does believe the Sox are much better than they are. World Series or no World Series, he has to go. Short of making terrible trades--something Kenny knows about--the worst thing a GM can do is completely misjudge the direction of his team. Under good management, Mark Buehrle and Jermaine Dye would have been traded for top prospects, Chris Young would be patrolling center, and the outlook for the 2010 Sox would be much brighter, at no real cost to their 2008 chances.

But hey, maybe I'm wrong, the Sox will win 95 games, and Kenny will laugh his ass off at all the doubters. Only time will tell.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Best Lineup in Baseball? Hardly.

I enjoy the Baseball Analysts blog, but pieces like this one make me wonder if these guys really run numbers before they proclaim a team "the best lineup in baseball."

Detroit, Cabrera or no Cabrera, does not have the best lineup in baseball, and it's not really that close. To wit, here are some 2008 CHONE projections:


Detroit wOBA New York wOBA
C Pudge .304 Posada .381
1B Guillen .366 Giambi .383
2B Polanco .345 Cano .358
3B Cabrera .420 A-Rod .431
SS Renteria .330 Jeter .358
LF Jones .333 Damon .340
CF Granderson .355 Melky .329
RF Ordonez .380 Abreu .357
DH Sheffield .364 Matsui .366






Average .355
.367

(I edited Boston out of this chart for formatting reasons, but their team wOBA clocks in at .363.)

If you're not familiar with wOBA, go here. Basically, it takes everything a batter does and scales it like an On-Base Percentage. So .330 is about league-average, and .380 is a star hitter--Ryan Braun and Carlos Pena are projected at .380 next year.

The .012 team wOBA difference between the Tigers and Yankees may not seem like much, but it's the equivalent of replacing two league-average bats--say, Renteria and Jones--with Braun and Pena. That's closer to a chasm than a gap. The Tigers could trade for another Miguel Cabrera, play him at shortstop, and still not have the best lineup in the league.

PECOTA and ZiPS haven't been fully published yet, so I can't use those for this comparison, but all projection systems will agree that the Red Sox and Yankees are comfortably ahead of the field when it comes to hitting.

I'm not trying to pick on Baseball Analysts here; my beef is with the process rather than the authors. When you look at a team's perception, rather than the numbers, it's easy to get mixed up. This is the same mistake everyone made in expecting the 2007 White Sox to contend, even when every mathematical projection system had them in fourth place.

The Tigers are loaded with players whose perceived value outstrips their actual 2008 projections. Ivan Rodriguez took nine walks--NINE--last year, but he still has that "Future Hall of Famer" rep, so he doesn't seem like an offensive sinkhole.

Magglio Ordonez has no chance whatsoever of repeating 2007, but he was second in the MVP vote, so he seems like a huge asset. He's this year's Jermaine Dye, the right fielder coming off a breakout year who's doomed to return to his established level of production.

Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson, and Edgar Renteria are going to combine to lose about 100 points of batting average next year (to go along with Maggs' 50); that's a lot of lost run production, but not everyone will see it coming. Carlos Guillen seems like an offensive asset, and he is--as a shortstop. As a first baseman, he's below the AL average.

I'm not sure what people are expecting out of Sheffield this year. Certainly the Tigers expect a lot, because they extended his contract for $28 million through 2009. The reality is that he's not going to play a full season, and he's below average for a DH at this point.

The message here is: when you're crowning 2008's best batting order, use the numbers. That way, you won't be stunned when Detroit misses the playoffs.

Transaction Recap: Dodgers

Dodgers: Signed CF Andruw Jones for 2 years, $36 million (Rating: Contract 6/10, Long-term plan 2/10)

I've seen far worse contracts--Torii Hunter's comes to mind--but that's not the problem here. Rather, the Dodgers think that adding Jones and shifting Juan Pierre to a corner will somehow improve their lineup, and that doesn't add up.

Remember when Darin Erstad got hurt playing center field, so the Angels moved him to first base even though he was the worst-hitting first baseman in the majors? Starting Pierre in a corner is just as senseless. But hey, the White Sox did the same thing with Scott Podsednik and lucked their way into a World Series title, so why not give it a shot?

Bill James projects Andruw to have a worse OPS than Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp, one of whom will probably be traded to clear a spot for Pierre in the lineup. If the Dodgers trade Ethier, they'll be no better on offense than they were before, maybe a win better on defense, and $18 million poorer.

Apparently Ethier will be dangled for starting pitching. You'd think that the Dodgers filled this hole already by picking up Esteban Loaiza and his $7 million contract. You'd think they could look at Hong-Chih Kuo's career 10 K/9--that's in the majors, not AAA--and figure that maybe he can pitch a little. Nahhhh...that's crazy talk.

To the Dodgers: You don't need another starting pitcher. What you need to do is get Juan Pierre out of your everyday lineup. If that means throwing in $20 million to trade him for a six-pack of Milwaukee's Best, fine. The solution is not to spin your tires by signing a redundant player, or to block your most valuable assets--talented young players--by blocking them with Pierre, Jones, Luis Gonzalez, or Nomar Garciaparra. Make sure you open 2008 with Andy LaRoche and Matt Kemp playing every day, and you might actually get back to your former glory.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Trading Within the Division

Trading in baseball is essentially a zero-sum game. Yes, a franchise will often swing a deal for the future or to balance its budget, but the bottom line is that if a trade benefits Team A, it will usually do so at the expense of Team B.

With that in mind, why do so many teams have a problem with trading within the division? After all, if a trade makes your team better, it should make the other team worse, giving you an even easier road to the playoffs.

In fact, it can be even better than that. Let's say you have a stud pitcher--let's call him John St. Ana--who's projected to be worth six wins in 2008 but is only under contract for that one year. Afterward, he will probably leave as a free agent*.

In return for St. Ana, you get a package of prospects worth two wins in 2008, three in 2009, and four from 2010-2013. You can take these prospects either from a divisional rival or a team in the other league. Why wouldn't you choose the package that will not only make your team four wins stronger for the future, but also make your rival four wins weaker?

Maybe it's just me, but if I know I'm making a move that helps my team, I want to hurt the competition at the same time. I think what's really going on is that teams are afraid the trade will "come back to haunt" them, just like dealing a top prospect away. Fortune favors the bold; teams should get over their fears and take risks that maximize their chances of winning.

Here's one relevant example: The Orioles have virtually no chance of contending before 2010, and Erik Bedard's contract is up after '09. The Blue Jays are interested, but the O's don't want to trade within the division. Why? Sure, there's some miniscule chance that Baltimore makes an improbable run at glory in 2008, only to have Bedard thwart them as a Blue Jay. There's a much better chance that in 2011, the Orioles have a legitimately good team, but Dustin McGowan puts up a big season for Toronto because Baltimore didn't want to "help out" its rival.

This is an even more senseless bias, because the Blue Jays aren't going to be the best team in the AL East anyway in 2008 or 2009. The Orioles should not be worried one bit about the team Toronto fields for the next two years; if they're really playing for 2008, they should focus on Boston and New York.

Major League GMs: If you're really worried that your trades will help your rivals more than they hurt them, either make a different offer or find a new job.

* Yes, I know the real Johan will likely sign an extension with his new team. That changes the math a little for the Twins in this specific case, but not for most teams, like the Orioles with Bedard or the Cardinals with Scott Rolen.

Transaction Recap: Tigers, Marlins

Tigers receive: 3B Miguel Cabrera, SP Dontrelle Willis

Marlins receive: OF Cameron Maybin, SP Andrew Miller, C Mike Rabelo, three minor leaguers

(No ratings until the identities of the minor leaguers are revealed)

Well, perhaps I wrote the Tigers off as a 2008 contender just a wee bit too early.

That said, this deal probably doesn't improve the team as much as you think it does. Despite what NL Rookie of the Year voters think, they still play defense in baseball, and Detroit just replaced perhaps the best defensive 3B in the majors with one of the worst.

I'm not suggesting Brandon Inge is a more valuable player than Cabrera, but if Miggy is perhaps 55 runs better with the bat, he gives 20 of those back with his terrible glovework. This deal doesn't instantly make them World Series favorites; it simply brings them up to contender status.

In fact, the best plan for the Tigers is probably to start Cabrera in left field. Jacque Jones is a slightly better hitter than Inge, but it's not worth the defensive hit. Of course, the team won't do this, because they'll want to keep their new superstar happy.

As for Willis, the bloom is off his rose already, but it's important to understand that he's no better than a league-average starter going forward; the Marlins waited far too long to deal him. (Reportedly, two years ago they turned down a package of Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson. Oops.)

The package the Marlins receive is loaded with upside, even though the three minor leaguers haven't been ID'd in a major news source. (One is reportedly Eulogio de la Cruz, a hard-thrower who has no clue what to do with it.) Maybin is one of the top five prospects in baseball, and fills an immediate need in center field for Florida. You may remember Miller as the most talented pitcher in the 2006 draft. He needs to bring his walk rate way down to realize his potential, but his K/9 and GB/FB numbers are already star-level. Rabelo is a generic backup catcher.

Overall, this was probably about as well as the Marlins could have done, considering that the Dodgers and Angels were balking at their asking price. Maybin and Miller are not only top talents, but both are basically Major League-ready, much like Hanley Ramirez two years ago. The next step for the Fish should be to trade all their players who won't be part of the next championship-caliber squad, guys like Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham. If they can get good value in those deals, the 2010 Marlins could be a very dangerous team.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

2008 Anti-Sleepers: Detroit Tigers

I've blogged before about the similarities between the 2005-06 White Sox and the 2006-07 Tigers. Both teams won the AL pennant with a fluky good pitching staff, low team OBP, and decent power. The next year, both teams got fluky good seasons from a few hitters to balance the pitching regression, although they still missed the playoffs.

In 2007, the White Sox offense crashed, going from a 103 OPS+ to 87. People who don't believe in computer projections think that Chicago's 72-90 record wasn't representative of the team's real talent, and they're right: their Pythagorean record was 67-95.

Will the 2008 Tigers suffer a similar fate? I don't think they'll lose 90 games, but they should feel some serious decline. The Tigers figure to get substantially worse at three offensive positions just by regression to the mean: Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez all gained 140 or more points of OPS from 2006 to 2007. That sort of sudden growth doesn't stick, especially when it's heavily driven by batting average spikes.

Much was made of the Tigers' trade to pick up Edgar Renteria, but his 2007 was another batting average-driven mirage, and he's not really a much better hitter than Sean Casey, the man he's replacing in the lineup. Detroit will get more offense out of the first baseman next year, but the loss at shortstop should balance it out.

The Tigers, much like the White Sox, have an old everyday lineup--only Granderson is under 31--and it's easy to underestimate how much total decline a team will suffer when its entire batting order is past their prime.

Detroit does have one player who figures to improve substantially, assuming he is healthy: Jeremy Bonderman is much better than last 2007's 5.01 ERA would indicate. But he can't single-handedly rescue a pitching staff that has one of MLB's worst bullpens and only one other above-average starter (Justin Verlander).

If you want your co-workers to think you're a genius, tell them that in 2008 the (Devil) Rays will win more games than the Tigers. There's probably about a 50% chance it'll happen, and everyone will think you're the second coming of Nostradamus.