Archive for December, 2004

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from Sabernomics.

On the Productive Out Percentage

Yeah, I know it’s been done to death, even I’ve already taken one stab at it, but I’d like to look at Buster Olney’s Productive Out Percentage (POP) one more time. Olney first proposed using POP to guage good and bad teams in April of this year. Larry Mahnken has been the chief debuker of the Olney hyothesis. In his analyses (here and here) he has found no support for Olney’s idea, which Tigers hitting coach Bruce Field explains: “That’s how games are won and lost — productive outs, advancing baserunners and getting guys in from third with less than two out.” To measure team’s ability to play “small ball” Olney developed the POP metric, which is defined as to capture this ability. POP is simply the percent of productive outs in productive out situations. According to Olney a productive occurs when:

  • A baserunner advances with the first out of an inning
  • A pitcher sacrifices with one out
  • A baserunner is driven home with the second out of an inning

I admit, that I am a little sympathetic to Olney’s idea. I mean, compared to an out when a runner advances versus one where a runner does not advance, I prefer the former. However, using this one statistic to evaluate the offense of a team all by itself is a bad idea. Olney has tried to sell the statistic as some kind of alternative to the Moneyball strategy of winning baseball games. Since I don’t wish to argue exactly what a Moneyball strategy might be, I’ll just say that Olney takes issue with the belief that OBP and SLG (sometimes united as OPS) are the best way to measure offensive prowess. Well, that is just silly. Anyone with an Excel spreadsheet can run a simple regression of OPS on runs per game by team. Depending which year you choose, OPS will explain between 90-95% of variance in runs scored across teams. Replacing OPS with POP explains a whopping 3%, and it has a negative but insignificant impact on runs.

If there is anything of use in POP it must be in addition to the impact of OBP and SLG, not an alternative measure. Olney’s argument ought to be: all else being equal, teams that have a higher percentage of productive outs will score more runs than those that do not. This means that when two teams have identical OPSs the one with a higher POP will score more runs. So, what happens when I run a regression including both OPS and POP, which allows me to control for the run-scoring abilities of teams due to OBP and SLG, to capture any additional POP effect? Well, not much. Using the 2004 team data provided by I find that POP has no effect on run-scoring. Though the coefficient is negative it is not statistically significant.

OPS	14.168		14.138
	(21.84)**	(20.76)**
POP		-2.734	-0.229
		(0.78)	(0.35)
Cons.	-5.991	5.66	-5.897
Obs.	30	30	30
R-sq.	0.94	0.03	0.94

Robust t-statistics in parentheses; * significant at 5%; ** significant at 1%

So, why doesn’t it have an effect? I mean, clearly logic dictates that productive outs are preferred to non-productive outs. The problems lies in the fact that productive out situations are also productive at-bat situations. While productive outs are preferred to non-productive outs, non-outs are even better. A team that is producing productive outs is still producing outs. While the time to put away POP has passed, now it’s really time. Let’s hope ESPN decides not to waste resources paying Elias to calculate this statistic for 2005.


Wow Schuerholz, you really did it this time. In case you haven’t heard, JS just pulled off his biggest deal since the acquisition of Gary Sheffield. After an agonizing several day wait for this rumor to come true, the Braves finally obtained the 2005 services of Tim Hudson for Dan Meyer, Juan Cruz, and Charles Thomas.

According everything I’ve read, Meyer was the key figure for Billy Beane in this deal. Brad at No Pepper has Meyer as the Braves top pitching prospect now that Jose Capellan is with the Brewers. Last year between Greenville and Richmond the 23-year-old left-hander posted FIP ERAs of 1.30 and 3.74. His 2005 ZIPs projected ERA is 4.27. Word from the A’s is that they expect Meyer to join the rotation in 2005. The big upside to this deal is that the A’s get a ready prospect who will be cheap even as he enters his prime. That’s if he pans out, which leads me to the Juan Cruz.

Cruz is hardly a throw-in. In case you are confused as to whom Juan Cruz is, he more commonly goes by the first name of “Free.” While showing plenty of potential with the Cubs for 3 seasons the 25-year-old righty posted the best ERA of his career with the Braves, 2.75 (What a surprise!). Interestingly, Cruz really did not pitch much better in 2004 than in 2003, when he posted an ERA of 6.05.

2003 61 7 28 65 6.05 3.94
2004 72 7 30 70 2.75 3.77

I’m not sure what Beane has in store for him. I don’t see much improvement, but he is already good. I suspect he’ll have a more prominent role than he had in Atlanta, where he was commonly used for mop-up duty. Between Meyer and Cruz I think one of the two will certainly stick as a solid Major League starter. Sweet liberty for Juan Cruz!

The inclusion Charles Thomas in this deal is a little surprising, but I think provides a good lesson for the jackasses out there who misinterpret the “Moneyball” philosophy. Beane clearly sees something valuable in this guy. I think the Braves could have just as easily parted with Langerhans in the deal, who has higher potential as an offensive player and is no defensive slouch. But instead, Beane took Thomas. Interesting. Moneyball is not about high OBPs and ignoring defense. While this is clear in the book, some people need reminding. Thomas is clearly not valued by his ability to get on base via a walk. It took Thomas over 100 PAs to earn his first Major League walk that was not intentional. In fact, 9 of his 21 BBs in 2004 were IBBs. Although I must add a positive note that though he’s quick, he sure is slow to get out of the way of inside pitches. He was hit 9 times in only 267 PAs. Couple this with the acquisition of Kendall, and maybe Beane’s latest undervalued statistic is HBP. In any event, the real reason the A’s got Thomas is that this cat can play defense. Yes, Moneyball teams value defense — remember the Red Sox. I saw a quote somewhere (of course I can’t find it now) stating that Thomas rated very high in the A’s defensive evaluation system. A note to A’s fans, Charles Thomas should be referred to as “Chucky-T.” Adopting this convention may come in handy if Mr. T starts stinking it up; simply change his nickname to Sucky-T. However, I am going to miss him. He really is a fun ballplayer to watch, and you can’t help but cheer for this guy.

Finally, what about the Braves bringing Hudson on board? He’ll be cheap this year, under $7 million for one of the best pitchers in baseball. Though he’s only tied down for a year, I think it’s still a good move. If you are going to rent a player for one year, make it a good one. While the prospects forgone may turn out to be good, we know Hudson is good. Couple this with some financial flexibility by moving Eli Marrero, the Braves ought to be able to afford an outfielder who can help fill out the corner spots until Francoeur and Marte are ready.

Linda Cropp: Sabernomics Person of the Day

While I don’t think she’ll be adding this award — that I just invented 5 minutes ago — to her resume, I just had to find a way to express my admiration for Linda Cropp. Last night, the DC Councilman stood up to MLB demands for corporate welfare.

Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) shocked her colleagues after 11 hours of debate on a stadium package by offering the private financing amendment about 10 p.m., saying she was disappointed by recent talks with Major League Baseball.

The bill, which was approved on a 7 to 6 vote, gives Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) until June to find the required private financing plan. If that plan is not certified by Natwar M. Gandhi, the city’s chief financial officer, and approved by the council, the stadium bill would lapse.

“My basic belief is that there are too many public dollars going into this,” Cropp said. “This will make the mayor seek private dollars more than anything else. I don’t know how Major League Baseball will react.”

Good work, Ms. Cropp. It is the policy of Sabernomics to oppose all public funding of sporting facilities. Sabernomics joins The Sports Economist in a call for a Constitutional Amendment banning public subsidies for professional sports.

For the best coverage of this story visit Off Wing Opinion.

Cappy for Kolb: I like it

Sorry I’’ve been distant on the blog lately. The recent surge of attention to the blog has kept me busy doing other stuff (I’m not complaining), and now I’’m in the midst of exams and a faculty search. I’’ve spent my nights answering e-mail and reading applications.

Anyway, some exciting news happened this weekend for Braves fans. The Braves sent young fireballer Jose Cappellan to the Brewers for Danny Kolb. I’’d say the mood of Bravesnation is mixed. But, as the excitement of the deal wore off, I would say the mood has soured. I like this deal, and here is why. Of course, the main reason I say this is that I enjoy being a contrarian, and I like the deal.

The main consequence (or is it the cause) of this deal is that Smoltz is heading back to the rotation. I am all for this. Smoltz is too good to be throwing only 80 innings a year. I always found it frustrating to see a well-rested Smoltz sitting on the bench after a starter had let things get out of control early. Will his arm hold up as starter? I don’’t know. I’m not sure it would hold up as closer either. I think that there is some evidence that Smoltz does throw differently as a reliever than as a starter. During his pre-injury strong years as a starter (1995-1999), his K/BB was 3.87. Post-injury, as a reliever (2002-2004), his K/BB has been 6.4. Either Smoltz throws differently as a reliever or he has gotten a lot better. I suspect he will pace himself differently as a starter. If he can keep his K/BB above 6 as a starter, he will win the Cy Young in a runaway. If it’s near 4, I’ll be plenty happy. But whatever happens, I am glad that Schuerholz is willing to take the chance.

The main reason I like this deal is the economics of it all. Schuerholz really understands the market for baseball players. As the free agent market went haywire he realized he’’d be better off not looking to sign a top starter. Russ Ortiz, who specializes in dispensing walks and home runs, got $8 mil/year for four years! Schuerholz just locked up a superior pitcher for $3 mil/year. How does this work? Smoltz gets $12 million next year no matter what, right? Well, that money is gone, so forget about it. As Jack Handey once said, “If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let’em go, because, man, they’re gone.” (If I wanted to be an uber-econ-dork I’’d say it’’s a sunk cost.) Like keys in lava, Smoltz’’s current out-of-whack contract is irrelevant to Schuerholz. The Braves need a new ace starter, and it’’s the GM’’s job to find one as cheap as possible. So, for only $3 million (maybe less, depending on the restructuring of the deal) the Braves add Smoltz to the starting rotation. Chip in another $2-3 million for whatever Kolb gets in arbitration, and JS has just landed a top-of-the-rotation starter for $5-6 million. It’’s true that Kolb may be a step down from Smoltz, but he’’s not bad. And I’’m not convinced Kolb will be the closer. I think JS is taking a pretty good gamble that Reitsma, Cruz, Colon, or Kolb will be capable of being a top closer.

So what does Kolb bring to the table? Well, let’’s check out his stats at Baseball-Reference. (Hey, check out Mr. Kolb’’s new sponsor!) There are two things I see that I like, and one thing I don’’t like. (This is a good time to remind readers of my near dogmatic devotion to DIPS/FIP. I do not think that pitchers have any predictable effect on balls in play.) First, the bad news: he doesn’’t strike a lot of guys out. His K-rate is about half the 2004 NL average. However, his BB-rate and HR-rate are also half the 2004 NL average. So, do his strengths cancel out his weakness? Let’’s use Tangotiger’’s parsimonious FIP calculation: (13HR + 3BB – 2K)/IP. Well, the most obvious difference is in HR. Cutting the HR-rate in half is huge, but that is not surprising. However, though we often view strikeout pitchers as the ideal, walk prevention also valuable. As long as the K/BB ratio 1.5 or greater the strikeouts cancel out the damage done by walks. With 15 walks and 21 strikeouts last year (a ratio of 1.4), his low walks basically cancel out his low strikeouts. (I will add that it would be nice to have a few more strikeouts to limit risking hits on balls-in-play.) Therefore, Kolb ability to prevent HRs is what lowers his ERA below average.

Now don’’t get me wrong. Kolb is not just as good as John Smoltz. Last season Smoltz’’s K-rate was 3 times Kolb’’s, and he had a lower BB-rate. And though he was not as good at preventing the long ball, his K/BB was enough to make him a better pitcher than Kolb. However, I think it’s clear that Smoltz is too good to close. Putting Smoltz in the game with empty bases, a 2-run lead, with 3 outs to go in the ninth is a waste. That’’s why JS is putting him back up front. As long as Kolb is used correctly he will be fine. He is not the person to put in the game with runner on in the ninth with a one-run game. This is why I think Kolb may be doing some middle relief.

But what about what the Braves gave up? Braves fans watched Cappy rise through the minors all year until he finally landed with the big club. In our minds this guy was already in the Hall, so it’’s difficult to watch him go. But the truth is that we have very little idea of how good this guy is going to be. He may be a star, he may be a dud. And while he seems closer to stardom, the variance of success of these guys is very high. One thing that is clear in my mind is that Danny Kolb is a solid Major League relief pitcher. He might stink it up and be cut by the All-Star break. But I think that the risk is much lower with a guy like Kolb than with Cappy, and the Braves have several other young arms waiting in the wings. And if the Braves do need to add a pitcher mid-season, we know that relievers are cheaper to replace than starters.

Congratulations to John Schuerholz on another good move.

Hit Batter Research in NY Times

My research with Doug Drinen on hit batters received a mention in this year’s The Year in Ideas: A to Z feature in The New York Times Magazine.

The Designated Hitter as Moral Hazard

In a paper presented at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in January, Bradbury, the economist, and Drinen, the mathematician, noted that the rate of hit batsmen is 15 percent higher in the American League than in the National. Using a computer program written by Drinen, a former college baseball player, the two young scholars mined eight years of detailed play-by-play data on major-league games. After they controlled for pitcher quality, batter quality, game situation and other factors that also contribute to hit batters, they found that the designated-hitter rule itself ”increases the likelihood that any batter will be hit during a plate appearance between 11 and 17 percent.” And in a study of interleague play that they plan to publish next year, the pattern held: in interleague games in which both sides used a D.H., National League pitchers were more likely than usual to hit batters; in games in which pitchers had to bat, American League throwers were less likely to hit opponents with a pitch. In baseball, it seems, the laws of economics govern the diamond as well as the front office.

Thanks to Daniel Pink for the write-up.

Addendum: The Sports Economist has a very good post describing the research. Skip is right to describe the Clemson presentation as lively. I think I stood silent for almost 15 of the first 20 minutes of the presentation as the Economics Department dissected the paper. There’s nothing quite like standing in front of a group of 25 highly intelligent people discussing something you’ve done. I learned a lot in that seminar, and Doug and I are very grateful for all of the feedback we received.

Thanks Tim!

Thanks to Tim Marchman for plugging Sabernomics in his article in The NY Sun.(It’s a pay site, but you can get trial access.) You can also read comments about Mr. Marchman’s article over at Primer. Thanks to Repoz for the pointer. Marchman comments on my post on Leo Mazzone. If you are interested in this, don’t forget to read the excellent comments and further research by MGL and dks in the Primer thread.

If you’re visiting here for the first time, welcome! Take a look around and feel free to make yourself at home. I always welcome suggestions and comments. And thanks again to Tim Marchman for the plug.

How Good is Leo Mazzone?

UPDATE: There have been a lot of visits to this blog entry because of Leo Mazzone’s recent negotiations with the Yankees and Orioles. If you are interested in this study, I urge you to read the follow-up article at The Baseball Analysts. And thanks for visiting! 🙂

Original Post:

This is a question I’ve been thinking on long and hard for quite some time, but the recent discussion over Jaret Wright’s imminent departure from the Braves caused me to finally tackle the question. Wright seems to be a classic example of Mazzone’s ability to improve a pitching career. Wright was picked up off the waiver wire from San Diego during the 2003 season. As I recall, though I could be mistaken, I think the Braves were the last team with the chance to claim him; 29 other teams thought he wasn’t worth his measly contract. While he pitched admirably for the Braves in 2003, it was only for a few innings, in 2004 Wright became the ace of the staff for $850K.

Jaret’s turnaround is something Braves fans have come to expect. And since Leo has been with the Braves — halfway through the 1990 season — he’s gotten much of the credit for resurrecting pitchers who seemed to be waning. (He was also the Braves pitching coach briefly in the mid-1980s, but I don’t think that counts for what we consider the era of Leo.) John Burkett, Steve Karsay, Darren Holmes, and the list goes on. And Leo fits the stereotype of the quiet genius, rocking like a metronome when his pitchers are in a tight spot. But that’s not enough for me to prove that Leo lives up to his reputation. What about Albie Lopez, Jason Schmidt, and Jason Marquis? My point is not that Leo is not a good coach, but I want to see what impact he has on the pitchers he coaches. I’m sure not everyone will be better, but I want to see what the overall trend is. To answer this question I decided to quantify Mazzone’s impact on every pitcher he has coached for the Braves in the big leagues — I’m going to ignore his preceding time in the Braves farm system.

So, here’s what I did. I gathered yearly stats for every pitcher Leo ever coached in Atlanta when they were on and off the Braves. Thanks to the new Lahman 5.2 Baseball Archive, this was somewhat easy to do. Using multiple regression techniques, I estimated the impact of Leo’s presence on the pitcher ERA by season for seasons when pitchers had thrown at least 30 innings. To make sure I was not picking up some other things I included several other variables for which the regression techniques can isolate separate impacts:

League ERA: How many runs were pitchers giving up in a particular year? This should account for fluctuations in ERA that have to do with the change in run scoring across both leagues.

Career ERA: How good was the pitcher over his entire career? I want to see what Leo had to work with. Maybe, it’s Schuerholz, not Mazzone, who is identifying good talent.

Age: The aging process is quadratic, meaning pitcher ERA is U-shaped with age, so I included the pitchers age and age squared.

Defense: What if the Braves have had great defenses over the years? This is hard to measure, but I think including the Team’s Defense Efficiency Record (DER) should be sufficient to proxy the quality of the men who play behind the pitcher — DER = (1 – batting average on balls in play). If DIPS/FIP theory is right — I am convinced — that pitchers have close to zero control over balls in play, then variances in DER across leagues should reflect only defense and park factors. Since, correct all of the ERAs in the data for park effects, this is going to be picking up defense.

The Mazzone Effect: I use two methods for capturing Leo’s impact on his pitchers. First, I use an indicator variable =1 when the pitcher has Leo as his coach and 0 otherwise. Second, I use two indicator variables, one for seasons prior to being coached by Leo and one for seasons after. This way, I can see if the effect is the result of new knowledge that Mazzone passes along or the result of day-to-day coaching. Day-to-day coaching may involved identifying and correcting new problems or situational knowledge in when to use or stop using a pitcher.

(All of data are corrected for park effects using the 3-year park factors in The Lahman.)

I present the results below.
[If you want to skip ahead now scroll down below the table. This next paragraph contains some technical details.]

There is a really easy way to interpret the results. The numbers not in parentheses, but next to the variable names represent the effect on ERA. The first two columns report the results using a “random effects” estimator, while the latter two report “fixed effects” results. qxzygdsbuyofasbasdbn < -- Did that last sentence mean as much as this collection of letters? Don't fret. Fixed effects is a technique that attempts to isolate impacts unique to each pitcher. When I do this I must exlcude Career ERA, so that is why the numbers are missing for these results. And to add one last bit of complexity, the data suffer from serial correlation; therefore, I took the appropriate steps to correct for it.

Model 1 2 3 4
Leo -0.563 -0.852
(4.41)** (4.90)**
Before Leo 0.546 0.859
(4.00)** (3.93)**
After Leo 0.6 0.886
(3.76)** (4.21)**
Lg. ERA 0.12 0.114 0.393 0.387
-1.34 -1.25 (3.22)** (3.18)**
Career ERA 0.761 0.76
(8.77)** (8.73)**
Age -0.572 -0.572 0.493 0.465
(3.96)** (3.96)** (2.71)** (2.53)*
Age^2 0.009 0.009 -0.007 -0.007
(3.91)** (3.89)** (2.54)* (2.35)*
Team DER -23.042 -23.062 -11.767 -12.266
(5.57)** (5.57)** (3.17)** (3.33)**
Intercept RE RE FE FE
Observations 701 701 598 598
Number of Players 103 103 93 93
R^2 0.32 0.32 0.13 0.13

Absolute value of z statistics in parentheses. * significant at 5%; ** significant at 1%

So, what’s the veridict? Leo Mazzone is a damn good coach! Working with Leo is shaves off between .55 and .85 points of a pitcher’s ERA. And I promise you, the results are not some artifact of some manipulation of the numbers to prove a point. In fact, my bias when I started this project was that Leo was a bit overrated. To put this in perspective, the standard deviation of ERA for pitchers in the sample was 1.36. Leo’s boys gain about half of a standard deviation on their ERA. I think Schuerholz ought to take this number into arbitration hearings with pitchers. Also interesting is the fact that the effect seems to go away when pitchers leave. This may be because Mazzone imparts useful everyday help, not just new knowledge to fix an old problem, or maybe the Braves know when to dump guys. In any event I think it’s clear Rob Neyer was not exaggerating when he suggested Leo Mazzone ought be in the Hall of Fame.

Addendum: Repoz kindly posted a link to this study on Baseball Primer. The discussion is quite interesting and includes not just suggested modifications, but individuals actually doing their own studies to replicate my results and look at other pitching coaches. If my study interests you, I encourage you to read the entire Primer thread. If you were one of those who commented, I offer you a special thank you and congratulations on a job well done.

Thanks Rob!

I want to thank Rob Neyer for posting a link to my site on his ESPN page. Rob was kind enough to mention me in a bit of other good news for the world of sports economists: The Sports Economist is Neyer’s link of the month.

The Sports Economist
When I was a slightly younger man, I spent far too much of my time watching episodic television. That habit is (mostly) gone, but unfortunately I’ve replaced it with another one: blog-reading. And this new blog, written by Clemson professor Raymond “Skip” Sauer. It’s not all baseball, but it’s all worth reading (I particularly enjoyed a December 2 entry, “Who’s the idiot?”). For baseball-only content, I also can heartily recommend Sabernomics.

Does that make Skip Mr. December?

Sports Econ at the SEA

Well, I just returned from the Southern Economic Association (SEA) meeting in New Orleans. I was fortunate enough to spend much of my time going to the sessions on sports. I very much enjoyed hearing other economists applying economics to sports and sports business. Plus, I enjoyed socializing with the group in the big easy. I’m blogging about this because I am just so happy to know that other people see as much economics in sports games as I do. That’s one reason I started this blog. So, I’d like to point readers to some excellent sports econ blogs that I like to read. Most of these talk about things other than sports too, but it’s hard to find an economist who is not persistently applying economic theory to every minute detail in life.

Skip Sauer at Clemson runs The Sports Economist. Skip always has excellent commentary where commentary is needed. Skip presented a paper (co-authored with Jahn Hakes) examining the baseball player market response to Moneyball. You can download a copy of the paper here. Skip and Jahn find that the market that Beane and DePosdesta were exploiting has corrected itself. It’s a neat paper that is bound to land somewhere good.

In the same session that Skip presented his paper, Frank Stephenson (Berry College) of Division of Labour presented his paper on linking home-field advantage in the World Series to player performance in the All-Star game. He finds evidence that players who are more likely to go to the World Series perform at a higher level. I thought this was a pretty neat finding. Frank says his research is still in the early stages, so I look forward to seeing his final results.

Craig Depken (UT-Arlington) of Heavy Lifting presented two interesting papers. One I saw, and the other I missed thanks to the timing of the session. The paper I saw was on the impact of NCAA probation in college football, which is available here. Interestingly, though not surprising, probation does not appear to hurt football revenues. Although, women’s sports and men’s non-revenue sports suffer from diminished resources. The paper I missed, which I really wanted to see, was on pricing interactions of different products at baseball games. Luckily, Craig posted it for download here. I’ll have to take a look shortly.

There were many other interesting papers at the conference, but these guys are the only ones with blogs. Hopefully, some other sports economists will be inspired to join the blogosphere. But, if you are looking for some more sports econ stuff, check out these guys.