Archive for April, 2005

Efficient Free Agent Shopping

Well, I whipped up some quick numbers that I thought I would share. It’s still a work in progress, but I decided to find out which GMs did the best on the free agent market in terms of picking up talent based on what the market was paying for talent. So, I ran a little quick and dirty regression on the salary received by players as a function of their career hitting characteristics (I’ll do pitching later). I considered the age and position of the players, as well. There are no reserve clause issues (OK, well less than usual) because I’m looking only at free agents. So, here is a list of the average dollar price paid above/below the market for the skills of the players they acquired from the free agent market. The teams (and one country) are ranked in order of average percent difference of each signing from the regression-predicted signing price.

Team        	Absolute    	Percent
Philadelphia    -$1,367,526    	-64.58%
Texas        	-$746,452    	-51.37%
Colorado    	-$806,993    	-44.51%
NY Mets*    	-$473,430    	-34.47%
Atlanta        	-$463,586    	-32.20%
Toronto        	-$757,956    	-28.84%
Cleveland   	-$576,174    	-26.76%
Arizona        	-$1,085,352    	-19.29%
Washington    	-$362,625    	-17.95%
St. Louis    	-$114,854    	-17.79%
Cincinnati    	-$268,027    	-11.08%
San Diego    	-$115,356    	-10.31%
Florida        	$1,439,245    	-6.47%
Minnesota    	-$74,287    	-6.19%
LA Dodgers    	$816,644    	7.52%
Chicago Cubs    $127,679    	15.24%
Baltimore    	$282,606    	34.57%
Detroit        	$3,319,571    	34.77%
Chicago Sox    	$530,053    	37.24%
Milwaukee    	$847,552    	42.68%
NY Yankees    	$550,862    	43.70%
Tampa Bay    	$422,716    	49.55%
Seattle        	$2,746,083    	50.97%
Houston        	$410,955    	65.54%
Boston        	$3,388,058    	73.23%
LA Angels    	$1,541,126    	105.64%
Japanese Teams  $4,344,933    	137.71%
San Francisco   $2,702,526    	252.36%

* Excludes Beltran (I don't know why he was missed, but somehow he didn't make it in my
sample. Sorry)

Wow, it looks like there’s a greater premium to play in San Francisco than Japan.

McKeon Plays Moneyball, Too

From today’s Designated Hitter, Kevin Kernan, at The Baseball Analysts:

“When he was trying to teach a guy to throw a curveball down low and just off the plate,” McKeon says, “he would lay a $20 bill right there on the ground. He’d say, ‘If you hit the $20 bill, you got it.’

“Now that’s Moneyball. That got the pitchers focused. They were focused on what their job was to do — hit that $20 bill,” McKeon says. “They had to follow through and come down through their motion. It was a great incentive. It was not only a fun thing, it was a teaching tool. I’ve never forgotten that.”

McKeon knows the same drill would work today with one minor change. “You’d have to use a $100 bill,” he says.

Kernan is the coauthor of I’m Just Getting Started along with Marlins manager Jack McKeon. Kernan’s article is great. I may have to get the book.

Levitt on The Daily Show

If you are enjoying Steven Levitt’s recent writings you should tune in to Comedy Central tonight to see him on The Daily Show with John Stewart. It should be interesting. I’d love to see what Samantha Bee and Steven Colbert would do in an interview with him, though that probably won’t happen. Levitt will also appear on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN earlier in the evening.

Good Signs, Bad Signs

The Braves are in a hitting slump to start the season. Though some bats have started to come alive I wanted to point out some good and bad performances in some areas that may show how the future will go for some a few players. I will forgo mentioning that Chipper is 100% kicking ass (good), that he is hurt (bad), and that Andruw Jones is really struggling right now (bad).

Good signs

  • Adam LaRoche: 2004 walk-rate = 7%, 2005 walk-rate = 14%
  • Marcus Giles : 2004 Isolated Power = .130, 2005= Isolated Power= .170
  • Johnny Estrada: 2004 BB/K = .59, 2005 BB/K = 1

Bad signs

  • Rafael Furcal: 2004 walk-rate = 9.3%, 2005 walk-rate = 5.3%
  • Rafael Furcal: 2004 Pitches/PA= 3.97 , 2005 Pitches/PA= 3.55
  • Brian Jordan: 2004 Isolated Power = .142, 2005= Isolated Power= .070
  • Raul Mondesi: 2003 walk-rate = 9.6%, 2005 walk-rate = 2.7%
  • Raul Mondesi: 2003 BB/K = .58, 2005 BB/K = .11

I am particularly excited about Adam LaRoche. That .329 OBP to go with his .200 AVG makes me smile. He won’t be near the Mendoza line much longer. I am particularly bummed with Furcal. Bunts can be effective in spots, but he’s trying to do it way too much. I think his overall hitting is suffering, because he is not getting his at-bats. To me, speedster bunting should be like a basketball offense. You pound it inside to free up the jump shooters. Furcal needs to get his swing going to force the fielders back so he can get a bunt down when he needs to be on base. Plus, maybe he’d have the opportunity to get a walk here and there.

More on Levitt

Steve Levitt is right, when he writes about baseball he agitates a lot of people. I am a little bit disturbed at how Levitt’s comments have been received. Now, Steve is a big boy (and a lot smarter than I am) so he can defend himself. I don’t 100% agree with his take on Moneyball, but I think the things he is saying are largely correct and backed up by data. If people would, if just only for a moment, actually sit down and read his posts for what they say, they might see some interesting things.

Here is exactly what Levitt claims to have demonstrated with his most recent post.

The fact is that all of these teams are generating runs in almost exactly the same way. Oakland has been successful because they have great pitchers and because they have had good hitters (who look a whole lot like the good hitters on other good teams). Billy Beane may have done it with a smaller budget, but that is not the point that is in contention. Lot’s of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them. The story in Moneyball was how Billy Beane did it, and that story just isn’t an important part of the true explanation when it comes to generating runs.

I add the emphasis. How many people have just ripped into Levitt saying that Moneyball is about more than OBP, SLG, OPS, etc.? It is about more, but that’s not the point he is trying to make. As best I can tell, there have been very few people who have addressed exactly what he is saying. Don’t bring up Chad Bradford, don’t bring up drafting the big-3, don’t even think of talking about the philosophical creed of the A’s organization. Those things do have something to do with the A’s success, but they have nothing to do with the argument made by Levitt in his most recent post.

One thing that I have learned from following Levitt’s posts is that the A’s are like a few other teams that have similar budgets. I think Levitt has undersold Beane’s ability to win on the cheap, but he acknowledges this is not a contention he’s interested in. But, it caused me to look at the data in a different way. Below is a list of teams ranked on total budgets as a percent above/below the league average payroll and the number of playoff appearances by team.

Team	Payroll	Rank	Playoff		Team	Payroll	Rank	Playoff
FLO	-44.91%	1	1		BAL	-1.21%	16	0
KCA	-41.92%	2	0		COL	-0.59%	17	0
MON	-40.74%	3	0		ANA	1.08%	18	2
MIN	-40.27%	4	3		HOU	2.78%	19	2
MIL	-40.27%	5	0		CHN	11.11%	20	1
PIT	-34.91%	6	0		SFN	11.36%	21	3
TBA	-34.53%	7	0		SLN	16.04%	22	5
OAK	-32.61%	8	4		SEA	21.19%	23	2
SDN	-28.81%	9	0		TEX	25.57%	24	0
CIN	-24.57%	10	0		ARI	26.08%	25	2
DET	-17.10%	11	0		ATL	38.22%	26	5
CHA	-15.36%	12	1		BOS	49.39%	27	2
PHI	-5.05%	13	0		NYN	50.39%	28	1
TOR	-4.93%	14	0		LAN	57.84%	29	1
CLE	-1.66%	15	1		NYA	94.13%	30	5

The A’s are just out of the bottom quartile of teams in terms of payroll average as a percent of the yearly league average. They have done quite well in that position, going to the playoffs 4 of the past 5 years. Billy Beane ought to be praised, and praised highly, for his success as the A’s GM. But take a look at the Marlins and Twins. They may have gone to the playoffs fewer times than the A’s, but they have also spent less than the A’s. The Twins have been quite good over this same span, and Florida has won a World Series. The one area where the A’s outdo the other small payroll teams is average wins. Does this mean Billy Beane is a bad GM? No. But, as Levitt says, “Lot’s of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them.”

I think Steve has made his point clearly and the data support his contention. Do I think the A’s do something better than other teams at exploiting inefficiencies in the market? Yes, I do. And I think Skip Sauer and Jahn Hakes have shown conclusively that the A’s did do it by correctly valuing OBP when it was mis-priced by the market. The success of the Twins, and to a lesser extent the Marlins, shows that Beane is not the only guy to win without money. The success in producing runs through sabermetric-approved stats is also something the A’s share with many other teams.

I am at a loss as to why people have become so agitated with Steve. I like sabermetrics and sabermetricians, but I don’t understand the defensive reflex that Levitt invokes. My goodness, he probably got less flack from his abortion and crime study. This is not just some idiot journalist who’s spouting off why he hates Billy Beane because of things he heard while dipping some cherry Skoal with old scouts during batting practice. This is a pretty well thought out argument that should be addressed, if for no other reason but to possibly gain new insights.

Levitt Is Back for More

Steven Levitt is back to stir up the pot again amongst statheads. He clarifies his point, which I think he has made quite clearly already.

My contention is that the secret to Oakland’s success has little to do with the things described in Moneyball, such as the emphasis on finding the skills in baseball that are good at producing runs, but not properly valued by the market.

Notice, he doesn’t say Billy Beane is a bad GM or that the things Oakland is supposed to be using to win games are irrelevant. He just says the book says this is what the A’s are doing, but it’s not really what they really did. This is one of the first things I noticed after reading Moneyball. For example, Scott Hatteberg was not an OBP monster as a catcher in Boston, in fact he was just slightly above average. Now, this doesn’t mean the A’s aren’t doing something different to win games, it’s just not necessarily the things described in Moneyball. Hatteberg has been much better since coming to Oakland, and I wonder why. I suspect it has something to do with his ability to teach guys to walk who take a lot of pitches (something touched on in the book), but I just don’t know. Maybe they had a scout who said, “this guy can rake, he’s just been held back by injuries.”

Anyway, Levitt posts a list of teams and asks readers to identify the five teams based on there stats. One of them is Oakland, and it’s easy to see that the A’s are not all that unique in their stats. Despite all of the childish backlashing in the comments no one has thought to answer Steve’s question. Here is the answer key.

Team A: Red Sox
Team B: Yankees
Team C: Oakland
Team D: Cleveland
Team E : Seattle

Levitt concludes with some strong words.

The story in Moneyball was how Billy Beane did it, and that story just isn’t an important part of the true explanation when it comes to generating runs.

While I think Levitt is correct to assert that some of the supposed factors Beane is supposed to exploit in the book are overhyped — I particularly don’t buy the mass inefficiency based on league-wide myopia of GMs — I think the book makes a point stronger than OBP matters. It’s about a frame of mind the team has in the quest for truth. Whether that frame of mind is unique to the A’s I don’t know. I have a feeling that is more of the exception than the rule, but that there are a lot of sabermetric-savvy GMs out there that we don’t even know about. I can’t prove this, it’s just a feeling. There is no doubt in my mind that Beane is a very good GM, and that the factors identified in Moneyball as most important for winning are true. But nothing Levitt is saying is false either.

My Take on Clutch Hitting

In Sunday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt reports on an article my Bill James that has caused a mild stir in the sabermetric community. For years, the stathead chorus has espoused the view that clutch hitting does not exist. In the article for Baseball Research Journal, Underestimating the Fog (which I have not read), James argues that just because we have been unable to identify “clutchness” using statistical methods does not mean it’s not there. Leonhardt spells out James’s argument

In baseball, luck and randomness – weather, ballpark dimensions, the pitcher – play the role of the winter coat. And the search for clutch hitters involves not just one comparison that compounds the statistical noise. It has two: the differential between a player’s normal and clutch batting averages and the difference between this differential across seasons.

I’m not sure what to make of this assertion, because, well, it’s obvious. In a theory of science you can’t prove a null hypothesis (e.g., clutch hitting doesn’t exist). But the fact that people have searched for so long and generally found little — there are a few exceptions — certainly gives me more reason to be pessimistic than optimistic about the existence of clutch hitting. I understand that there is much noise in statistics, but I still think the burden of proof is on those who believe in clutch skill, and here’s why.

I think that clutch hitting does not exist for a reason that has nothing to do with numbers or any type of statistical test. Let me pretend to be a baseball player for a moment. Consider two situations:

  • It’s the third inning of a game that my team is winning by three runs with no runners on base.
  • It’s the bottom of the ninth with my team down by a run with runners on second and third, two outs.

The first situation is certainly not a clutch situation, while the second one is. (Please, let’s put aside the debate of what “clutch” means for a second; clearly, this situation qualifies.) Why should I expect any player to exhibit any type of different behavior in these two situations? I don’t think any player would approach these situations differently at all. Hitting, is not an endurance sport. Players stand up and do it 5 times a game. I think they put forth the exact same amount of effort no matter what the situation, and it seems silly to me that players would exhibit some level below the maximum at any time (which is what clutch hitting theory requires) . Every at-bat appears in the box score equally and is used to calculate stats that will determine the salary a player will receive. So, unless there is some reason for players to preserve some hitting effort until crucial times, and it does not seem that there is such a reason, I think batters put forth 100% effort 100% of the time. There is no incentive for a player to ever hold back, therefore there is no room for clutch ability to exist.

But what about the nerves factor. The first situation has lower stakes than the second and maybe this can cause some players to be unclutch or chokers. In this sense, clutch ability is really un-unclutchness. I’ll grant that maybe there is some nerves factor, even aided by some physical characteristics such as adrenaline production, but I just can’t see major league ballplayers differing in this area. By the time even the worst major league hitter reaches the big show, he has endured so many nerve-racking situations that the lining of his stomach must be nearly gone. It’s a requirement to get into the show. I suspect young players may be slightly more bothered by it than veterans, but I don’t think among veterans there exist classes of clutch and unclutch players due to nerves. They’ve all been there. It’s their job.

Now pitching, on the other hand, has some room for clutch ability. Pitchers clearly do vary effort from batter to batter based on the players involved and the game situation. I do think some pitchers throw 90% most of the time to save gas for the times when some extra gas is needed. While we have yet to identify clutch pitching yet, I have tried and been unable to observe it, I certainly think it is plausible for it to exist, unlike hitting.

So while I hope the quest for clutch hitting skill continues, I don’t expect there to be anything there. And as sabermetricians continue their non-findings I hope that the burden of proof remains solely on proving clutch hitting exists.

The Slump

To put Andruw’s current slump into perspective, today is the one-week mark. That’s it, one-week. Doesn’t it seem like it’s all any Braves fans are talking about? Give it a rest. Call me in another week and then maybe I’ll begin to worry.

This is interesting.

Braves Notes

The season has started off in disappointing fashion for the Braves. After winning the first two opening series against the Marlins and Mets, the team blew a ninth inning lead against the Nationals and lost the following day. It’s been downhill from there. The team has yet to win a series since the Mets. After 14 games the Braves are a .500 team. As a team the Braves are batting .246/.303/.391 (AVG/OBP/SLG) while allowing .259/.331/.403. The second set of numbers are pretty good, but not when combined with the first set.

The problems with the Braves are obvious. Beyond a little bad luck, the Braves are getting some bad play from some areas where problems should have been expected. Let’s take a look:

The Bullpen
The bullpen has put up an ERA of 4.83, which is not good but not horrible. But unfortunately, the bullpen has actually pitched worse than it’s ERA with a FIP ERA of 5.15. The relievers have given up 5 HRs and are walking batters at a rate of 5.5 per 9. That is very bad. The Braves took the first step in to remedy the problem by releasing Tom Martin. It was a horrible move to take on such an expensive LOOGY who has never been anything better than mediocre. The money is huge, because the Braves are now out about $1.5 million that could have been used to secure a good bullpen replacement (lefty or not). But, I’ll give the front office credit for realizing their mistake and figuring out it’s better to pay Martin not to pitch than to keep him on the roster.

But Martin only threw 2 of the 41 relief innings this year. The problems still remain. Colon has struggled, giving up 2 homers and allowing a lot of hard hit balls. I once described Kevin Gryboski as a poor man’s Dan Kolb. It turns out that Kolb has been a very expensive Gryboski to start the year. For a guy with such a low K-rate, he has prevent the free pass. Bobby must pull Kolb when he walks batters. He’s walked 7 so far this year, nearly halfway to his 2004 total of 15. John Smoltz, please give Danny the number of your shrink. Danny’s been good for two years, and the Braves need him to return to form. I think a move to middle relief is part of the answer. Sosa has been about what I thought, lots of walks, Ks, and a homer. Reitsma and Bernerro have both pitched well. Kyle Davies needs some more time in the minors, but he may not get that luxury if the bullpen keeps this up.

The Outfield
Andruw Jones has been Andruw Jones. No signs of a break-out or drop-off just yet…but he’s already having his first slump of the year. But, who isn’t on the Braves?…Ok, Chipper and Giles. Unfortunately, Bobby decided for some reason that Andruw’s performance ought to be singled out among all the crappy hitting on the team and demoted him in the batting order. This is amazing, because while he won’t stick by Andruw he would never do anything to upset the situation with the corners. Jordan and Mondesi have not played well at all. Cox’s unwillingness to use Langerhans at all is infuriating. I wonder if Bobby makes him catch a cab instead of riding the team bus. What has Ryan done to deserve this? After a monster year in Richmond, he can’t even catch on with a platoon with golden boy Jordan sporting a sub-.600 OPS. And what has Ryan done in his 13 plate appearances? Well, he’s drawn two walks, gotten 3 hits, and hit a game-winning homer. Could this be fluky? Yes, but it’s not like the guy sucked in AAA. He deserves to split time with Jordan and Mondesi, and get a majority of it. In my mind, it’s the veterans who have to win their jobs back.

I really thought John Schuerholz made a good move by piecing together an outfield on the cheap by getting guys who can still be effective as platoon players. Well, I should of listened to all of you guys who said Langerhans would never get time with Jordan on the team. Bobby, it’s time to suck it up and give Ryan some more at-bats. What do you have to lose?

Putting it Together
The starters have been great, which makes all of the Braves play so far very frustrating. When the offense can’t score, the bullpen really matters. And unfortunately, the bullpen stinks. There have been a lot of people asking so which is the bigger problem, the outfield or the pen. It’s both. By not having a more diversified group of hitters, when the top of the order slumps the team loses because the pen can’t hold onto the game. But, the hardest problem to fix is the pen. There is no quick fix in the minors or in trades this early in the season. This still is not easy, but at least the Braves must get more offense from somewhere (Did I mention Ryan Langerhans?). And the way Kelly Johnson is tearing up Richmond, I’d prefer to see him in Atlanta than Pete Orr. Johnson can play both infield and outfield, and he can hit with power. He’s batting .348/.444/.630 in Richmond with a delicious walk-rate of 15%. I want him in Atlanta, and I want him now. He might need to be sent back down again, but he won’t do worse than Pete Orr (who is not embarrassing himself).

Overall, I’m not too worried, but I think the Braves should have a better record with the team they have assembled. I just hope those few blown games don’t come back to haunt the team in the fall.


Thanks to Aaron Gleeman for discussing some of my work on Leo Mazzone. Aaron correctly notes that Leo has some tough cases on his hands with Bernero and Sosa. And let’s not even think about what he’s going to have to do to fix the once steady Danny Kolb.