Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Mariners: the next Baltimore, or the next Atlanta?

USS Mariner points us to several P-I articles today of interest, including a couple about Bavasi. These articles confirm my confusion about Bavasi: he clearly isn't ignorant of statistical analysis. He even says he's trying to find a good analyst for the team, and that the guy he tried to get--Craig Wright, who decined for "personal reasons"--is "a billion times smarter than me." So Bavasi wants a guy who really knows stats, and he knows he himself could use some help. What's the delay then? If Bavasi is decisive, as Howard Lincoln commends him, why doesn't he get going and find someone who's going to help him avoid such questionable decisions? But this article is mostly good news: Bavasi knows statistical analysis is a valuable tool, and he's trying to find someone to provide real expertise.

On the other hand, Bavasi says "In general, I'd prefer to have a veteran club that has enough youth to it to stay healthy." I'm really not sure how age, or years of major league experience, has much significant correlation to being a good player. I would do an analysis of it, except 1) I don't have ready access to any data that lists players' stats along side their years of experience or age, and 2) I don't have the statistical expertise to know how to rule out other factors. That is, all things being equal, are more experienced players going to play better? Besides the well-known trend for older players to decline, is there some advantage that playing at a major league level longer gives a player? Can we measure it?

Bavasi makes the comparison with Atlanta, but part of me fears that, with his fixation on veteran-ness, we are more likely to become the next Baltimore. I hope he finds his stat-guy soon.

Monday, March 29, 2004

On hold, musing about movies

Since there isn't much going on... I'm going to post my list of favorite baseball movies. Every sports writer has done this, and the only reason I'm doing it is because I disagree with pretty much all of them. The reason is that I actually like baseball in baseball movies, and a lot of "baseball" movies seem to have very little to do with what happens between the chalk. If you think I'm just being pretentious, and just have wierd tastes in movies, email me and tell me what you think. Really, go ahead.

1. Baseball by Ken Burns. So it's a nine-hour miniseries documentary (correction:It's a 20 hour series) that aired on PBS. No film has ever fanned the flames of fandom, or flamed the fan of ... oh never mind. Go to your local library and check it out Seriously, it's well worth the 20 hours.

2. For the Love of the Game, starring [cringe] Kevin Costner. I'm probably the only one on the planet that thinks Costner's third baseball movie was his best. I was skeptical before I watched it, because everyone had said his first two were better, but I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it because it's based on a novel by Michael Shaara, author of The Killer Angels.

3. 61, directed by Billy Crystal. Rated behind Love of the Game probably because it shows too much fondness for everything Yankee. But Billy did a nice job. And man, does Barry Pepper look like Roger Maris or what?

4. The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid. Hey, I'm a sucker. The Rookie has no qualms about going for the sentimental syrup, but it works for me.

5. The Natural, starring Robert Redford. Lots of good performances in this one, great characters, and a great film score, that many ballparks have ripped off and play when the home team hits a home run.

Okay, top five is all I'm giving. Plenty more out there, and lots I haven't seen. I think the one I'd most like to see that I haven't already is Eight Men Out, simply because it is based on a book that is so well researched, unlike some other movie that has Joe Jackson in it. What movies am I missing? Email me and let me know.

Opening day? After these messages from the NCAA...

Well, there isn't much going on right now on the baseball front. The sports world has turned its attention to the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament. Some thought's about that:

If you've watched any of the tourney, you've probably seen the TV spots the NCAA is running, which end "there are 360,000 NCAA student-athletes, and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports." Every time some recruitment scandal turns up, I hear voices--usually on sports talk radio--calling for the NCAA to start paying its players some of the money it gets. And nothing makes more money for the NCAA than the Div I Men's Basketball tournament. What the TV spots highlight is that, contrary to guys on sports radio, the NCAA is serious about higher education, as well it should be. Collegiate athletes are getting "paid" with an opportunity to get a college education; if those students take a cavalier attitude towards that education, it isn't the fault of the university or the NCAA. As the TV spots indicate, most collegiate athletes ARE serious about their education, because they don't have a real chance of playing sports professionally and because they generally are pretty responsible people. I'd like to think that athletics actually help to teach that kind of dedication and focus, not steal it away. And that's where all the money is going--back to support all the other athletics programs that don't make it on national TV, but are worthwhile and exciting in their own right.

And also, a shout out to my alma mater and their women's basketball team, who made it to the final eight of their tournament--one of those NCAA sports that might not see the TV coverage, but deserves recognition. The Lady Falcons were ranked no. 1 in the country and were undefeated, but got beaten by 2nd-ranked Drury, who, oddly, they faced in the quarterfinals (on what was essentially a home court for Drury), the first round of the final eight. But it was a good run.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Hey, Wha' Happen?

For those of you too sane to get caught up in the minutiae of the baseball off-season, Jared Poppel of gives us Part One of an extensive review and commentary. He wishes the M's front office would have signed Raphael Palmeiro instead of Edgar Martinez because a)he's left handed and b) he hits the tar out of the ball at Safeco Field. But not re-signing Edgar would be like the Orioles not re-signing Cal Ripken; it would be foolish to alienate a fan base so callously, even if it were done out of purely competetive rationale.

The biggest problem, of course, is that Jared says signing Ibanez at an average of $4M/year was "about market-average for a player with his statistics." Huh?

Player2003 Avg2003 OPS2004 Salary
Matt Stairs.292.950$1M
Jose Cruz.250.779$3M
Frank Catalanotto/B>.299.823$2.3M

*Not including $2M signing bonus

There are other hitters who hit better than Ibanez and cost less, but aren't left handed. But some of them (Melvin Mora, Jay Payton, for example) did almost as well or better than Ibanez did against right-handers, which is supposedly what makes Raul's lefthandedness a plus.

I'm sorry to rehash this for those of you who know all of this already, but Ibanez was offered too much for too long. That doesn't mean he's going to be a disaster. But it means the extra money that is going to him wasn't available to sign better bench players, and won't be available at the trading deadline.

I'm expecting Jared to be much more critical of the Colbrunn-for-McCracken trade, which of course is completely indefensible.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

That kid from Spiro, Oklahoma
Today is apparently Ryan Franklin Home-run rate week. USS Mariner posted a flurry of discussions, and directed us to Jeff's post at Fire Bavasi for a more concise comparison of Franklin to the rest of the M's staff. Many stat-friendly analysts, like those at Baseball Prospectus and many around the Blogosphere, are predicting Ryan Franklin is due for a down year.

Because I think this is such a relevant article, I'm posting it now and getting to my other comments later. The question I have for all the Franklin nay-sayers is this: why is Franklin not like the pitchers listed in this article? Are his three effective years all lucky, or is he, like Reuter and Cornejo, finding a different way to be effective?

For those of you uninitiated, here's the basic premise for claiming Franklin will be worse this year: his strikeout rate has declined the last couple years AND he has given up a lot of home runs. Fewer strikeouts mean more balls in play, and most consistently good pitchers don't let a lot of balls in play. That is, there's no significant correlation between being a good pitcher and having a lot of the batted balls you allow be turned into outs. The argument goes that Franklin did as well as he did because of superior defense--in the outfield, particularly--and because of luck, and that both are more likely to decline this year. Conversely, home runs are one way that the pitcher alone is responsible for giving up runs. Giving up HRs prevents your defense from helping you out.

USS Mariner regular (and Baseball Prospectus author) Derek Zumsteg grudgingly acknowledges that Franklin actually did get the least amount of run support last year. That doesn't mean Franklin won't give up more runs this year, but it does mean that if the Mariners are more efficient with their run scoring--that is, they don't "waste" runs on days when their top pitchers are on the mound--a decline by Franklin won't result in more losses. We can expect this simply through regression-to-the-mean: the Mariners are more likely to distribute their run support more evenly than they did last year, so Franklin will get more run support. This might also be one reason why the M's won fewer games last year than their run differential would suggest (Run Differentials, the difference between runs allowed and runs scored, can be translated into predicted wins and losses. Check out "Pythagorean Standings at the bottom of Rob Neyer's home page.)

I, for one, am holding out hope that Franklin will find ways to be effective despite a low strikeout rate, as he has done for the past three years. But it is hope, not empirically based prediction. Would it were that Bill Bavasi might learn the difference.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Anyone who wants to explain this line to me from BP's triple play, please send me an email:

"The park formerly known as Edison International is projected to be a better hitter's park this year than last." Does changing the name make it easier to hit?

I'm sure I don't have that many regular readers, but I apologize for the scarity of postings this week...I've been completing work on my first composition for Orchestra. Perhaps I'll be able to put an audio file of the reading session up at some point, when that happens.

Oh, yeah, that Griffey thing. So much has been said (check out the "Blogosphere" links), and I only have two reminders:
1. Griffey now isn't Griffey 1999. If Junior does come back to Seattle, I hope the fans will let him be what he is now, and not try to make him be what he was then. Unreal expectations were what made him so unhappy in Cincy, so let's hope he doesn't get that back here.

2. Aren't some of his injuries sort of freak-accident type stuff? It's odd that the M's would dismiss Guillen as "injury-prone" but would be interested in Griffey (if indeed the rumors are true). Conversely, it strikes me as a little bit of a double-standard to lament the departure of Guillen but fear the return of Griffey. I'm not sure one is more injury-prone than the other.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The new commercials are out. Dead Reckoning, the Mariner news blog, thinks they highlight the "niceness" of all the Mariners, and aren't as funny as years past. Of course, there have been so many great M's commercials, and consequently the bar has been set pretty high. But I agree that they aren't quite as snappy.

Remember that first great slogan? "You gotta love these guys." There was something quirky about those Mariner teams, and that ad slogan played on it. Sure, Joey Cora was a cute (but lousy) second baseman, but we also had the magnificent jubilence of Ken Griffey, the cantakerous sage in Lou Pinella, the strong silent type in Edgar--he speaks with his bat, the gritty trash-talking Jay Buhner, the 6'10" lefty who you wouldn't want to cross. Even Dan Wilson, the nice guy of nice guys, was noted for his Mechanical engineering degree. That's not to say that we don't have characters now--Boone is cocky, Spiezio is a Gen-X rocker, Jamey, almost smugly, humiliates opposing batters. But the M's don't celebrate that nearly as much. Two commercials feature a puppy and the cuddliest mascot on the planet, the Moose. The Ibanez Latte commercial is exactly why New Yorkers laugh at our baseball experience--not that I want Safeco to feel like the Bronx.

My next observation may be a little technical, but we shouldn't underestimate the role of good editing in making the commercials funny. So much of comedy is timing, and the players reading thier cue cards probably haven't ever had great comedic timing (well, Lou Pinella was pretty good). Take this year's ad titled "Advice:"
Opposing second baseman (from Milwaukee) sheepishly asks Boone if he really means that even Boone misses easy grounders.

[Pause, cut to camera 1]. [Boone turns his head.] [Pause] "Hah![Pause] me? [Pause] No, not me. [Pause] Guys like you, happens all the time."

"Ah, you're welcome."

We got the joke after the first pause, and then we have to suffer through the rest of the exchange. Sure, Boone ain't the greatest actor, but the humor of deadpan is all in the timing, and timing is what editors have to be paying attention to. I suppose I shouldn't spare the director, who also plays a role in the timing and delivery of lines, but he's got limited talent to work with. For a study in contrast, check out the crisp editing and timing at the end of "Clapper," when Edgar delivers his punch line. Much better.

Oh, and can I just say that whoever decided to insert someone yelling "hey now" just before Dave Niehaus says "Get all of it" (the new slogan) has officially annoyed the heck out of me.

Ranting aside, we should be grateful that the M's have had such a long history of great commercials, and these ads generally maintain that proud tradition. Now for that World Series...

Sunday, March 14, 2004

My dad is more old school than yours

Looks like Blaine Newnham is trying to out-old-school the M's front office with his profile of Rich Aurlia. Jeff at San Shin has shown in part why so many of us in the blogosphere think it's all a bunch of hooey. Even if you resonate with the old-school philosophy that Newnham is espousing here, then at least dignify it with something more substantive than "Aurilia is pure baseball, with no additives." Seriously now--does that mean anything? Talk about character, grittiness, give us anecdotes about how pure courage helped Aurilia break out a slump or win a game for his team. Old-school doesn't have to mean vapid and inane platitudes.

In his next article, Newnham echoes the sentiment of a lot of people (including Joe Kaiser of that a lot of the Mariner reserves seem to be having a great spring. I'm happy for them and all, but do you really think Hiram Bocachica going 8-15 so far is more significant than him not being able to make the Tigers last year (he played for their AAA club)? Newnham also tries to defend the trade of Colbrunn for McCracken by saying McCracken "has not hit below .290 when given 300 ABs." But how likely is it that McCracken is going to get that many at-bats as a fouth outfielder? Last year, McLemore was the only Mariner reserve to get over 300 ABs, and he played most of his games in the infield, and that was because of the offensive black hole at third named Cirillo. If McCracken hits .230 in 150 ABs, I sure hope Melvin is smart enough to realize another 150 isn't going to transform him back into a hitter.

Friday, March 12, 2004

An old article, but one you just have to read before you read any more stories coming from spring training. Derek Zumsteg offers us some timeless truths.
Musical Chairs
More Melvinian Madness. So Ibanez is suddenly a better cleanup hitter than Edgar? Buried in the article is Hickey's suggestion that it has something to do with the right-left-right of Boone-Ibanez-Martinez, though we don't know if that's the reasoning behind Melvin's plan. But let's go with that assumption. OBP/SLG over the past three years:

vs. left.294/.399.438/.542
vs. right.364/.523.402/.495
None on.335/.470.401/.529
Runners on.359/.517.422/.484

First, I'm assuming those of you reading this know that batters generally have a harder time hitting against pitchers who throw with the same hand that the batter bats, i.e. a lefty vs. lefty matchup favors the pitcher. The degree to which this is true varies from batter to batter and pitcher to pitcher, but it's one of the more consistent trends in batting splits.

All indicators here suggest that Edgar should be batting ahead of Ibanez, since he gets on base more often, in every situation. Ibanez does have a significant lefty/righty split, but Edgar's still better against right handers in absolute terms. Any opposing manager who realizes this will put the lefty against Ibanez anyway, knowing that it won't make much of a difference with Edgar. If the thought is that Ibanez is a "good RBI man"--which you would only subscribe to if you think there is such a thing as "clutch hitting"--then you'd want the guy who gets on base like nobody's business getting on base before your table clearer, right? Edgar gets on, Ibanez smacks him home.

There are two factors I'm not considering here: the idea of "protecting" someone in the lineup. With Edgar behind him, would Ibanez be more likely to see good pitches? What sort of effect will that have? I don't know, and I'd be interested if someone's done the research on it. Secondly, the simple fact that batters higher in the order will get more at-bats over the long haul. Until he shows he can't hit anymore--yeah, that's likely--don't we want Edgar getting as many ABs as possible?

In looking at whole left-right-left question, I'm finding that Boone and Edgar seem to be the only regulars on the M's who can do anything against lefties. Ideally, you'd put Ibanez behind Edgar, and then somebody who can mash lefties behind Ibanez, forcing any manager who puts in a lefty against Raul to make another change or face the music. But who's going to bat behind Ibanez who can do that? Aurilia, Spiezio, Olerud are all significantly worse against lefties. I guess we all hope that Ben Davis, who does hit lefties significantly better, figures out how to hit for a full year, get's the playing time, and sits right behind someone who doesn't fair too well against lefties. Hope springs eternal.

Two Years, 6 months later

Spain suffers the largest terrorist attack on Europe since the Lockerbie bombing on March 11, 2004. I was in Europe on 9-11-2001, and when the WTC was hit, Europeans responded with dramatic displays of emphathy, to me personally and in large groups corporately. Many countries observed moments of silence, the BBC turned all of it's attention to the U.S., and even the French, who have taken a fair share of abuse from this side of the Atlantic, expressed their condolences in simple eloquence: "We are all Americans," proclaimed Le Monde. Perhaps the most moving experience was in the Iona, Scotland monestary on Sept 11, when they held a memorial service for the American dead. Whatever you think of Europe today with all that has transpired in the last two years, they grieved with us then.

Sadly, the U.S. doesn't seem to be responding in kind. Yes, I know that the death toll in Madrid is in the hundreds, not the thousands. But our shock and horror should be no less real. I don't know that we are all Spaniards, but I am one today. Spain, our prayers are with you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Nothing to Fehr but Fehr itself
This is one of the reasons I like John McCain's candor. With union chief Don Fehr equivocating, the Senator from Arizona points his finger at the cause of so much headache. Seligula, of course, uses this as an opportunity to throw up his hands again, but he's already had his day of humiliation in a Senate hearing.

Notice the complete contrast between football and baseball players' union bosses: "'To allow the use of steroids and banned substances would not only condone cheating, but also compel others to use them to remain competitive,' [NFL players' union head Gene] Upshaw said. 'We have a responsibility to protect our players from the demonstrated adverse health effects of steroids and banned substances.'"

Oh, and sorry about the bad pun.
Leadership, or lack thereof

If I had to pick one article to sum up all that is disheartening about the steroid scandal, it's this one. I'd have a hard time finding two worse examples of leadership than Bud Selig and Gene Orza.

First off, Orza completely misses the point about steroid use--it's not about health, it's that sport is at its essence, a human activity. Even Nascar enthusiasts justify their passion as a sport by citing how much physical toil the drivers go through, and how crucial the mechanics and engineers are to building a winning team. The use of performance-enhancing drugs calls into question not simply the legality of training, or the health of the players, but the legitimacy of baseball as a sport. Dr. Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, gavean excellent interview on NPR that touched on this very issue. If this is not a time to "act in the best interests of the game," there is never a time, Mr. Selig.

But beyond that, Orza's remarks confirm the worst stereotypes about union heads, namely that they most often fail to represent their best, most honest and diligent members in order to enable the abuse of the system by a few. That's not leadership; it's complicity in the worst form. Notice that Orza doesn't say that players are being wrongly accused, because doing so would lead to the obvious response of "let's implement a testing program that will assure that facts, not rumormonguering, will rule the day."

Selig's response is nearly as bad. He's likely trying not to alienate the Union leadership any more than he already has--a reason he should have resigned long ago, but that's another subject. So he doesn't make worse what cost? The expense of the reputation of the players and the integrity of the game. This is just one more example of how ineptly Selig handles public relations, and how little understanding he has of leadership.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Statistics as probabilities, not laws

I'm generally a pretty stats-friendly guy. You won't see me quoting RBIs or W-L records around here, and I'm quite familiar with the predictive value of certain metrics. I nearly majored in engineering, so I've done my fair share of excel spreadsheets. So this is by no means some anti-stathead rant.

However, it's important for anyone who works with those metrics to understand their predictive value in terms of probability, not certainty. We see this all the time in baseball. Mediocre players have break-out years. Dominating teams lose to abysmall teams. NL Pitchers get hits.

Some may look at instances like these and conclude that for all the noise the statheads make, they really don't know anything ("I don't care what the numbers say..."). I think this is asinine. There's no reason not to look at information in order to make a good decision or form a good opinion. Most of of the time, it's just laziness.

But predictive metrics aren't laws of nature; they simply do their best to extrapolate from the record of past events, but they don't govern future events. There are reasons for a player's declining production--his reaction time slows with age, for example--but those aren't the same thing as a downward trend in OBP. It isn't the trend in OPB that makes the player get worse--that trend is simply an indicator of it.

Another problem with predictive metrics is that they are only legitimate when drawn from a large enough sample size. Because the data is drawn (or "are drawn" if you're from the UK) from a large pool of performances, statistically based predictions test their validity against that large pool. Good metrics hold true for most performances. But therein lies a limitation: because the metrics are based upon the data of all players, they tend to assume all players behave similarly. It's impossible to make a customized predictive metric for each individual player because the sample size is too small. We have to be careful when we claim that "Player A will do such-and-such because of metric X," because we don't always have a good grasp on how closely that player conforms to the model that has been drawn from the composite of all performances.

Exceptions to the rule are usually dismissed as "outliers," which is a perfectly valid argument. Averages are, well, averages. But "outlier" performances are always a possibility. Failure to acknowledge this is just as asinine as failing to look at the data.

A really good example of this is in the applications of Park Effects. Most baseball fans will acknowledge that some parks are generally easier to hit in than others. By looking at every performance in every ballpark, we can drawn conclusions about how offense is likely to be helped or hindered due to the park. But it gets very difficult when we start applying those park effects to individual players. If Safeco Field generally reduces offense by 12%, we can draw some general conclusions about what new players are likely to face. But it's hard to say with any certainty, for example, whether Raul Ibanez will have splits like Mike Cameron (extreme) or Randy Winn (very little difference). The park effect isn't a law of nature; it's an identified pattern.

There are other issues with Park Effects that people smarter and more devoted than I are working on, and I'll certainly bow to their more sophisticated analysis of their likely effect on Ibanez. Really, my criticism here is not of statistically based analysis or of the complicated metrics, but of the misuse of them. The best writers understand the limitations of

It's easy to be smug, either as an old-school "baseball ain't played by a calculator" type or a stat-savvy "show me the emprical evidence" analyst. But it's far more productive to be honest about uncertainties, and makes baseball--well, all of life, really--more exciting.
The learning curve?

Bill Bavasi hasn't made many friends among the M's fans who are paying attention and I know that's not news. I do wonder what the long-term picture for the M's is. Living in Kansas City, I'm now a part of a city that is excited about its baseball team, for the first time in a long time. And much of the blame for the long malaise in Kansas City baseball could be laid of the feet of GM Allard Baird. How many Rob Neyer articles did we see lamenting the idiocy of move after move -- trading for Neifi Perez, signing Chuck Knoblauch after the Yankees released him? But somehow, Baird has learned to put together a decent roster with a shoestring budget (no thanks to miser/owner David Glass). And Baird has changed; after giving away Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, Baird is at least hanging on to Carlos Beltran. Baird used to go after players like Knoblauch and Greg Zaun. This year, he went after Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago.

Baird talked an intelligent game for a long time, but didn't execute it very well until recently. And my greatest frustration with Bavasi is that no one is making him answer tough questions (BP's interview notwithstanding), and they won't for a long time because the Mariners are still a pretty successful club. If the seats are filled and the team is winning, there's no problem to Grill Bill (HAH!) about. I'm very doubtful that Bavasi will be able to learn the way Baird did, at least in the short term. I certainly hope that Seattle doesn't go into a decade-long string of losing seasons the way Kansas City did. That may depend on how willing Bavasi is to learn.