Sunday, June 29, 2008

Midseason Scorecard

How am I doing?

1. The Angels will NOT run away with the AL West
Grade: Incomplete

Four and a half games is a pretty solid lead--the biggest in any division right now--and pretty much every oddsmaker has the Angels as a 2-1 or higher favorite to win the division.

That said, I don't think you can find an intelligent analyst who will argue that the Angels have outplayed the A's this year. Their run differential is +12 to Oakland's +59, and the A's are seven games ahead in BP's third-order standings. The Angels are still the better team in my opinion, but in a luck-free world, the AL West standings would look a lot different.

2. The Mariners will finish last in the division
Grade: A+

As I said when I made the predictions, I actually had Seattle running about even with Texas this year, but I didn't reckon on injuries to most of Seattle's good players, or on Milton Bradley and Ian Kinsler to be this healthy and effective.

Hindsight being 20-20, everyone is going to claim they knew the Mariners wouldn't be good. Everyone is a liar. Even Keith Law picked them to finish above .500. For shame, Keith.

3. Tampa Bay will crack .500
Grade: B+

Yes, I correctly predicted Tampa would do well, but I clearly undershot this one. Had I trusted the numbers and expected them to win 89 games instead of 84, I would have bet a lot more on their season wins (closed at 76) and futures (closed at 150-1 to win the World Series). Not that I didn't load up on those anyway, but free money is free money.

4. Reds fans will boo Dusty Baker
Grade: Incomplete

Does it count as booing if no one shows up to the games?

5. San Francisco will finish last in the league in runs scored
Grade: C-

I can't see the future, so I didn't know that every National hitter worth anything would get hurt. Still, I should have known that the Padres would be a strong contender for this title. There's still time for the Giants to come back and take this title before season's end.

6. The Tigers will not come close to scoring 1000 runs.
Grade: Such an easy choice that it doesn't deserve one

Of course this was never going to happen, but remember when everyone bought into the hype? That sure was funny. Next thing you know, people will tell you that the White Sox have the best pitching staff in MLB, because they happened to get hot for half a season. Oh wait...

This Game Had Everything

- History: a team losing on a no-hitter
- No-hittus Interruptus: Correct managerial strategy by pinch-hitting for Jered Weaver
- Commentary: Vin Scully calling the action on MLB.tv
- Profit: Angels losing to increase the EV of Oakland futures, which I may own lots of

A+, would watch again.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Quiz Answers

Well, I didn't quite get the reader response I was hoping for, but here are my opinions on Thursday's quiz:

1. Who's more likely to "win" the Edinson Volquez-Josh Hamilton trade?

a. Texas
b. Cincinnati
c. Too close to call

Given the choice between two young budding stars, the hitter is usually the safer bet, and I think that's definitely the case here. Volquez has probably been more valuable this year, but he's walking almost half a batter per inning. For every Randy Johnson who corrects that problem and goes on to dominate the league, there are five Oliver Perezes that never put it together consistently.

I also don't buy that Volquez has suddenly become a strong groundball pitcher; this seems more likely to regress than not. Furthermore, he's has been aided by lucky BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB. Strip that luck away, and he has a 3.63 xFIP. That's still very good, but I'll take the young center fielder who can OPS over .900 and is one of MLB's most marketable players.

One point in Cincinnati's favor: they get Volquez for six years. Texas only has Hamilton for five.

2. What's the best non-Boston team in the AL from here on out?

a. Rays
b. Yankees
c. White Sox
d. Angels
e. Other

Aside from the Yankees, I can see an argument only for the Rays. The Angels, who would be a .500 team in a luck-neutral league, are out of the question. The White Sox have outplayed the Yankees this year, but that's very unlikely to continue. Their team ERA is .68 runs lower than New York's, but the gap in xFIP is less than one-third that. They're outscoring the Yankees offensively, but do you know anyone who would bet you that they repeat that feat in the second half?

Most importantly, though, the Yankees came into the year looking like a 95-win team, and the Sox a .500 team. To make that gap up requires more than the Sox have done so far.

Tampa is sure looking good, but their bullpen and defense are each due for a correction. I've pointed out before that this isn't the same Tampa team as last year's, but it's still worth remembering that they're only a year removed from being historically bad in both those departments.

3. Which of these teams has the best starting rotation?

a. White Sox
b. Athletics
c. Red Sox
d. Rays

I'm glad no R-D readers picked the White Sox or A's, even though only two people responded. Top-to-bottom, the Rays staff is simply the strongest, especially if Andy Sonnanstine ever learns to get luckier.

4. Who's the best player in baseball?

a. Alex Rodriguez
b. Albert Pujols
c. Chase Utley
d. Chipper Jones
e. Hanley Ramirez
f. Lance Berkman
g. Other

I'll accept an argument for Utley--who got 100% of the vote--but in my mind Pujols is still the best hitter in baseball. Combined with his excellent defense, that puts him on top, with Utley second. Hanley's defense is simply too bad to consider him here despite his skills with the bat.

5. What's the worst team in MLB?

a. Mariners
b. Nationals
c. Padres
d. Royals
e. Other

Again, I can see why someone would pick the Mariners, but I think the Nats are in a league of their own right now. They looked like a 70-win team with Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson healthy--relatively speaking for Johnson--and now they've lost both for an extended period, plus their best starting pitcher, Shawn Hill. Apparently not learning anything from signing Dmitri Young, they now want to extend Cristian Guzman for another two years.

If you're a Nats fan, it's about time to consider a new team if you want to see any playoff baseball before 2012.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bob Brenly on Chacon

During today's Cubs game: "Seems like Ed Wade would want to put his hands around Chacon's neck the way he's been pitching this year"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Midseason Quiz

We're about halfway through the season; what have we learned? Feel free to submit your answers in the comments, elaborating if necessary. First prize for the most correct answers is pride.

1. Who's more likely to "win" the Edinson Volquez-Josh Hamilton trade?

a. Texas
b. Cincinnati
c. Too close to call

2. What's the best non-Boston team in the AL from here on out?

a. Rays
b. Yankees
c. White Sox
d. Angels
e. Other

3. Which of these teams has the best starting rotation?

a. White Sox
b. Athletics
c. Red Sox
d. Rays

4. Who's the best player in baseball?

a. Alex Rodriguez
b. Albert Pujols
c. Chase Utley
d. Chipper Jones
e. Hanley Ramirez
f. Lance Berkman
g. Other

5. What's the worst team in MLB?

a. Mariners
b. Nationals
c. Padres
d. Royals
e. Other

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shawn Chacon

How is this man still on the Astros' roster?

As deplorable as Chacon's alleged actions are, I could see an argument for keeping Chacon around--if he was actually an effective Major League player. If Barry Bonds v.2004 chokes me, I might suspend him for 20 games, fine him a million bucks, and call it a night. But Chacon was barely good enough to make the Houston roster in the first place, and he was just kicked out of the rotation for ineffectiveness. If this incident doesn't drop him below replacement level, what will?

If any situation ever calls for a knee-jerk reaction, it's this one. Enjoy free agency, Shawn.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bone To Pick

Honestly, ESPN, how hard is it to type a player's name in so that it shows up when he makes a Web Gem? If I'm Angel Berroa, sure, I'm happy that I had the Web-Gemmiest play of the day, but I also feel slapped in the face by the "Los Angeles Dodgers" that ESPN displayed in place of my name because I'm not important enough to be in their database.

Is their setup really so primitive that if you're not one of the top 200 players in the majors, it's impossible to just manually input the name? This is really pathetic for the so-called Worldwide Leader.

Monday, June 16, 2008

R-D Interleague Play

Joe Sheehan is a great author, but his article today about how interleague play affects the standings misses the point.

Yes, interleague play affects the playoff races. Yes, it's unfair. However, interleague scheduling does not make nearly as much difference as Sheehan implies.

Sure, a 16-2 interleague record gives a team a huge leg up in the playoff race, enabling them to edge out another team with better intraleague numbers. But does a team go 16-2 in interleague play solely because of their easy schedule? Hardly.

In 2006, the Tigers had a worse record than the Angels against AL opponents, as Sheehan points out. And Detroit played a much easier interleague schedule; their foes had a .472 winning percentage (in games against non-Tigers teams) as compared to .508 for the Angels. Over 18 interleague games, that advantage is worth...wait for it...

.65 wins. As in, less than two-thirds of one win.

The Angels finished six games back in the wild card race. Can anyone seriously argue that uneven interleague scheduling is to blame for the full deficit?

Sheehan also argues that the Red Sox have an unfair advantage, getting to play the Brewers, Phillies, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks, while the Yankees play the Mets, Mets, Padres, and Pirates. Before the start of the season, when the schedule was made, which of these groups of teams would you rather have signed up to play against? I would have chosen the former in a heartbeat, and I'm not sure I still wouldn't, what with the Pujols injury.

Now, I'm not arguing that the current setup is the most fair way to run things. The Royals vs. White Sox scheduling quirk is one Cubs fans have been complaining about for years--but the scalpers will still tell you that those are the most expensive tickets of the year. As long as the demand for rivalry matchups is higher than that for a balanced schedule, the status quo isn't budging.

My point is simply this: If you cherry-pick statistics like Sheehan does here, you can make any point you want to. Every year's standings would provide some comment like "If we didn't have to play the Blue Jays ten times as opposed to their seven, we would have won the division." Instead of blaming the schedule-makers, try playing better in interleague games. It's not that hard.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Regression and Zito

Joe Sheehan's article today is a good one, discussing regression to the mean in the context of C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. However, when Sheehan throws out the names of teams and players that have gravitated back to the center since April, he includes one that doesn't belong--Barry Zito.

It's true that Zito's ERA is 4.78 since May 1. It's also true that his K/BB ratio in that span is 27/29 in 44.1 innings. Zito has had mediocre rate stats for years, but nothing like this. If you can't strike out more batters than you walk, you simply don't belong in a Major League rotation.

There's another lesson in Lee's hot start to the season, though. While a 0.67 ERA over seven starts doesn't mean Lee is suddenly a better pitcher than Sabathia, Lee's 44 K/4 BB and increased groundball tendencies over that span indicated a real change in his abilities. While his ERA is 6.04 in the five starts since, his peripherals have remained much better than the '06-'07 version of Lee.

Take early numbers with a grain of salt, but remember they're not meaningless.

Maybe It's Just Me...

Right now, two of the biggest sports headlines are the Tim Donaghy scandal and the possible impending use of instant replay in baseball.

One of the main arguments against replay is that "human error is part of the game." Chris Singleton just went on ESPN and argued that if players can make errors that affect the outcome of the game, officials should have that power as well.

Meanwhile, on the same SportsCenter broadcasts, the talking heads are discussing Donaghy's confession that he fixed the results of an NBA playoff game, likely affecting which team won that year's championship. The discussion centers around Donaghy's abuse of power, and how an NBA referee has the ability to change the outcome of a game to match his bets. The big message here is just how much power an official wields in a pro sports game.

Am I the only one that sees a connection here? Donaghy is (rightfully) vilified for his actions, but some people out there still want to give the officials more chances to get things wrong, whether on purpose or accidentally?

Baseball isn't like art, where some idiot can decide Jackson Pollock is a genius for flinging paint in the general direction of canvas. A fly ball is either a home run or it isn't; each pitch is a ball or a strike as defined in the rulebook. Let's move in the direction of getting more of those calls right. If anything, it will be entertaining to see Bobby Cox argue with a video camera before getting ejected.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

I Give Up

...after reading the intro to this game recap.

There are really only two possibilities here:

- ESPN is so arrogant that they assume Marlins fans are more interested in seeing an enemy player homer than watching their own team cap off an exciting and improbably ninth-inning comeback with a walkoff shot, or

- Marlins fans are so pathetic that this assumption is actually true. Hooray for round numbers!

Either way, I give this a giant thumbs-down. The obsession with round numbers forced America to sit through two terrible years from The Player Formerly Known As Craig Biggio, and now the cameras are fixed nightly on Griffey, whose career as a better-than-replacement-level player may be over.

Wow, I sound like Joe Sheehan. Rant over!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Delmon Young

While hanging out with some friends tonight, I casually suggested that Delmon Young might be the worst everyday player in the majors. I was overstating the case a little--Tony Pena is the clear choice, had I remembered him--but man, Delmon is bad.

Once projected as a perennial 30-HR threat, Young currently has zero homers in 60 games. He only has ten doubles, so it's unlikely this is a fluke--he seems to have simply stopped hitting for power.

Young ranks only 17th in lowest VORP this year, but almost all those behind him bring great defense to the table (Jason Bartlett, Willy Taveras) or are good hitters that are going through a rough patch (Paul Konerko, Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano). One is both (Khalil Greene). One--Bill Hall--is no longer an everyday player, in spite of his whining.

Additionally, Young carries baggage that goes beyond his poor hitting. He plays the easiest defensive position on the diamond and plays it very poorly; perhaps only Manny Ramirez and Jack Cust are worse with the leather. His personality issues are well-known: there's the bat-throwing incident, obviously, plus every now and then he pops up in the news to complain when his coaches bench him or encourage him to change his style.

Delmon Young still has a chance to be a star, but the odds have turned violently against him.

Math Is Hard

David Pinto is now updating Chipper Jones's chances at hitting .400 this season.

To the layman, this might seem useful, but the results suffer from the ol' garbage-in-garbage-out problem. Pinto assumes that Chipper's "true" batting average is fixed at his career level of .310, which is absolutely ridiculous. Chipper has batted .348 since the start of 2006, and it's not like this number is some kind total fluke; his xBA from 2005-07 was .327. A more reasonable estimate of his true batting average for this season might be .335.

Furthermore, Pinto also assumes Chipper is a cardinal point and will never deviate from this level of ability. In reality, we know he could have an extremely healthy and productive year, or battle nagging injuries all the time. In other words, he is not going to be a true .335 hitter every single day of the year.

This is basically the same error made by pseudo-playoff odds projections like this one. Talent levels aren't fixed! Alert the media!

I personally think Chipper will finish the year above .400 about 5% of the time. But hey, if you believe David Pinto, Bookmaker.com will give you -2200 on the under, which is a steal for a 99.9% win rate.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Follow-up

John Beamer was good enough to reply to my commentary. He makes some good points, but repeats the mistake of the original article when he says:

"If you take a look at the price of the NL east since Saturday the probabilities have changed more or less as you'd expect."

Yes, they have. However, the prices did not change because people were trading futures; they moved because TradeSports deliberately altered the prices at which they would accept a purchase or sale.

To wit, here's a chart tracking Atlanta's share price to win the NL East, over the past week:

Braves chart

Notice that no one traded any Braves contracts from May 31-June 2. Even though the Braves lost three straight games in this span, their share price on the graph remained constant, because no one was buying or selling. (In keeping with the focus of my last post, notice also that their share price moved in response to very little activity early in the week--no 'wisdom of crowds' here, just the wisdom of one individual trader.)

Now, during this losing streak, the price at which you could buy or sell stock in the Braves did change each day in response to the losses--but this is only because TradeSports changed those prices themselves without any input from bettors.

Let's compare two ways of measuring how much people will pay for an ear of corn in a small town. At one end of the spectrum, we have a farmer's market where competition is fierce and customers are willing to haggle to get the best deal. At the polar opposite, we have a local supermarket, where there's no competition and prices are fixed but subject to change. If the supermarket puts corn on sale for half price, does this mean that the value of the corn itself has changed? My guess is that the prices at the farmer's market will provide a much better estimate of how much the locals really value their corn.

TradeSports isn't as one-dimensional as the supermarket in this example--the prices do change in response to trading activity as well as TradeSports's own manipulation--but if we're going to use this data scientifically, we must differentiate between those price changes that result from traders actively buying and selling, and those that simply reflect the opinion of a TradeSports employee. If not, we're giving that employee too much credit.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Where Prediction Markets Fail

A lot has been written about the usefulness of prediction markets like TradeSports and InTrade. The idea is that the 'wisdom of crowds' provides a fairly accurate estimate of the probability of a given event, whether it's Barack Obama being elected or the Red Sox winning the World Series.

However, some people give prediction markets way too much respect. Specifically, in this Hardball Times article, John Beamer uses current TradeSports prices to calculate teams' chances of winning their divisions. This is a good idea in theory, but badly flawed in practice.

All markets are not created equal. The share price of a major stock will generally be in line with its value, because millions of shares are being traded each day by thousands of people who each think they're getting the better end of the deal. The trade price is set directly by the traders, rather than a third party.

TradeSports, on the other hand, often sets the prices in the futures markets by themselves, and many a day goes by when no one buys or sells any futures for a given team. If TradeSports says the Red Sox will win their division 55% of the time, but no one is trading Red Sox futures, does this price reflect the public's opinion of Boston's chances, or TradeSports's? The 'wisdom of crowds' is often nothing more than the wisdom of the TradeSports employee who sets the prices.

But wait a minute, you're saying. The fact that no one is buying or selling futures means that the TradeSports price must be accurate, right? Otherwise someone would be getting rich off their mistake.

Don't you believe it. TradeSports limits their risk in these markets by only making a few shares available for trading--typically the most you can potentially win by exploiting their errors is under $300. Furthermore, they build in hefty trading fees, and usually there is a large gap between the 'buy' and 'sell' prices, so the market price needs to be well off target before there's any opportunity for a reasonable profit. A professional gambler isn't going to waste his time looking for a tiny edge when the potential reward is so small.

Many millions of dollars are wagered on a typical Yankees game, but this season TradeSports has averaged about $130 per day in trades on the Yankees to win the AL East. This isn't some obscure Division I-AAA college basketball team--it's the NEW YORK YANKEES. $130/day is a drop in the ocean of the sports betting world, and it tells you nothing useful about the Yankees' chances.

So, TradeSports is setting the prices themselves, and the real wise guys aren't interested in betting them because there's not enough money to be made. That's damning enough, but there's another big problem: because the market is so small, each individual trader has a huge impact on the market price.

In a large market like a major stock exchange, it takes millions of trades to move a stock price significantly. Not so on TradeSports. Suppose someone out there is interested in buying lots of Orioles futures. Maybe he's their biggest fan, or perhaps he just wants to blow $500 and mess with some data. Either way, he starts buying up all the Baltimore futures he can find. $500 is a huge amount of money in this market, so the price of Orioles stock is going to skyrocket.

Meanwhile, what has happened to Baltimore's chances of making the playoffs? Have they improved? Of course not. We know this, but the market price still reflects a real change in Baltimore's outlook.

Think twice before assuming that TradeSports can nail the probabilities better than anyone else. Their market prices provide one opinion of the future and nothing more.