Thursday, November 15, 2012

The AL MVP Debate: Trout vs. Cabrera

We are in the midst of baseball's award season in which Major League Baseball recognizes the standout players from the preceding season. 

Yesterday, they announced the winners of the Cy Young Award.  This criteria for this award used to seem rather simple: Give it to the best pitcher in the league regardless of his team's position in the standings.  After all, a pitcher could only affect the games that he himself pitched, so why should he be penalized for poor performance by his teammates?

With the rise of sabermetrics, the situation has become more complicated.  A pitcher's win total used to go a long way towards determining the winner, but since the sabermetric devaluation of that statistic, wins have been less influential.  For an example, look at recent winners Felix Hernandez in 2010 (13 wins) and Tim Lincecum in 2009.  Ten years earlier, they probably don't win due to their relatively low win totals.

If the Cy Young Award has become difficult to decide, then the MVP award has become a complete quagmire.

This award has always given people some difficulty based on its name.  There are differing opinions as to what makes a player "valuable."  Some believe that the best player is automatically the most valuable and he should receive the award.  Others feel like the winner should come from a playoff team, or at the very least, a contender.  Because if a player couldn't get his team into contention, just how valuable could he be?

With that kind of inconsistency as the benchmark, it is no wonder that sabermetrics has only muddied the waters of the debate.

The 2012 American League MVP award has become a key battleground in the battle between traditionalists and sabermetrics advocates.  The traditionalists favor Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera while the saber fans favor Angels outfielder Mike Trout.

Miguel Cabrera is the MVP choice of most traditionalists

Both players are having excellent seasons, and chances are, no matter which one wins the award, nobody is going to look back a few years from now and wonder, "How did that guy win MVP?"  But one of them is going to win, and one of the groups is going to claim the decision as a grand victory for their philosophy. 

Here's a breakdown of the typical arguments for both camps:

Traditionalist: Cabrera won the Triple Crown!  That means he's the MVP.

Sabermetrics: The Triple Crown is an arbitrary grouping of three offensive statistics, two of which are vastly overrated.  Trout led the league in WAR which is a much better indication of his value.

Traditionalist: WAR?  WAR is just some trendy statistic that even you people can't agree on.

Sabermetrics: Whichever version you use, it's still the best statistic we have for measuring a player's overall value.  Shouldn't we look at all facets of a player's game rather than just three offensive categories?  Even if you think that Cabrera was the better offensive player, Trout was far superior on defense and on the base paths.

Do Trout's defense and baserunning give him an edge?

Traditionalist: Defense is overrated.  And I don't know how you even measure the effect that a player's baserunning has on a game.

Besides, Cabrera's team made the playoffs.  Trout's team did not.

Sabermetrics: Yes, but the Angels had a better record!  They were just unfortunate to have played in a stronger division.  Why are we giving Cabrera credit for things out of his control?

That's the whole basis for using WAR.  Eliminate all peripheral factors and judge the player's performance on its own merits.

Traditionalist: Except that's not how baseball works.  Baseball is a team game, and a player's value has to take into account how well he helped his team perform.  Just look at how well Cabrera performed down the stretch while his team was fighting for a playoff spot.  That was an MVP performance.  Meanwhile, Trout's numbers slipped a bit in the late going.

Sabermetrics: That is irrelevant.  Games in June count just as much as games in September.

Traditionalist: In theory that is true.  But the MVP is really just a measure of baseball history.  And baseball history goes beyond just statistics.  For example, Bobby Thomson hit 32 home runs in 1951, but only one of them is known by just about every baseball fan.

"The Shot Heard Round the World."

Take a home run that is hit in the 9th inning of a 10-2 game in April. Compare that to a home run hit in the 9th inning of a 4-3 game in September. Do you really feel that the same value should be placed on both?

Sabermetrics: Yes, because in the long run, those types of things tend to even out.  That's exactly why we need to use WAR.  It eliminates personal bias and emotion from the decision. 

Trout had the highest WAR.  That means he supplied the most value to his team.  Hence, he is the MVP.

Traditionalist: If you eliminate emotion from baseball, then you might as well just play the game on a computer.  Cabrera won the Triple Crown and led his team to a playoff spot with a strong stretch run.  That makes him the MVP.

If someone wants to look at Trout's WAR and decide that he is the hands down MVP, I understand.  Personally, (and this should come as no surprise based on the name of this blog) I think that you do need to factor in stretch run performance and even RBIs, since they measure success in a team setting.

Both men are worthy candidates, but I feel that Cabrera deserves the MVP.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

ESPN's SweetSpot: Bonds is Right

In a recent SweetSpot column, David Schoenfield discusses the  Hall of Fame candidacy of Barry Bonds.  Schoenfield agrees with a statement made by Bonds that he deserves to be a Hall of Famer.

Hall of Famer?

Schoenfield says that if people are holding Bonds' PED use against him, then they should only consider his career up to 1998, and judge him based on that.

Isn't that kind of like saying when evaluating O.J. Simpson's life, we should only consider what he did up until the point when his ex-wife was murdered?  Up until that point, he sure seemed like a swell fellow, right?

Even if we ignore his post-1998 career, it may be a bit naive for us to assume that Bonds didn't use PEDs before 1998.  Steroids were reportedly prevalent in baseball throughout most of the 1990s, so why should we assume that Bonds only joined the party in 1998?

Schoenfield goes on to demonstrate just how dominant Bonds was prior to 1998.  Based on the evidence presented, it is clear that the ten years of Bonds' career between 1988 and 1997 is about as strong as any player has ever had.  If we only used that as our criteria, then I think just about everyone would agree that Bonds is indeed Hall-worthy.

Schoenfield should have just ended his argument there.  Unfortunately, he follows up by saying that Bonds' alleged cheating should have no impact on whether or not he gets in.  He says that people shouldn't play the "moral police" in determining who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Really?  Hasn't baseball always done this?  Last time I checked, Pete Rose isn't in the Hall of Fame.  Should we just ignore the fact that he bet on baseball because he had a good career up to that point?

Apparently, Schoenfield doesn't hold cheating against a player because as he points out, several other Hall of Famers may have cheated in their careers.  I guess since everyone cheated, we can't hold it against anyone?  Even someone who may have ruined baseball's most cherished records because he cheated?

This is one instance where Schoenfield should have just stuck to the numbers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Defense of: RBIs

If there is one statistic that saber fans hate, it is the RBI.  To them, the RBI epitomizes the antiquated methods of baseball analysis that they hold in such disdain. 

Any time a writer or announcer touts a player's performance by mentioning his RBI total, you can rest assured that the sabermetric blogosphere will erupt in outrage over the media continuing to spread such ignorance.

The main criticism of RBIs is that they are too dependent on both the situation and the hitter's teammates.

For example, if a player singles with a runner on third base, he will most likely earn an RBI.  If he singles with the bases empty, he will not.  Since the hitter couldn't control whether or not a runner was on base, why should we give him more credit for the first hit?

Saber fans will tell you that instead of tracking RBIs, we should instead emphasize statistics that are more within a hitter's control such as on-base percentage or slugging percentage.  Even better, we can utilize advanced statistics that combine these elements such as wOBA or OPS.

The theory is that a player with a high on-base percentage or slugging percentage will contribute towards the scoring of runs.  The problem is, baseball is not played theoretically.  The hitter with a high OPS might have contributed to runs being scored, but there is no way of knowing if he actually did.

Consider that actions must be performed in a certain order for a run to score.  If a batter walks, and then the next batter hits a triple, a run scores.  While if a batter hits a triple, and the next batter walks, a run does not score.

Is it fair to give more credit to the hitter who tripled while a runner was already on base?  Given a different situation, the hitter who tripled with the bases empty might have caused a run to score. But baseball doesn't measure "might haves." Either a run scored or it did not.

I liken it to a bakery.  There are several important tasks that need to be performed in order to bake a cake: Add the ingerdients, stir the bowl, and put the mix in the oven.  While you may have done all of these steps, if they haven't been done in the proper sequence, you're not going to get a cake.

Sure, if you perform the steps enough times, you'll get some cakes. But isn't it also worthwhile to measure how many times a baker actually got a completed cake into the oven?

All that matters is how many cakes were baked

I understand that by favoring individual statistics over RBIs, sabermetrics is attempting to isolate a hitter's performance  But is that really the only measure we should take of a hitter?

A hitter doesn't perform in a vacuum.  Baseball is a team game, and teammates usually have to work together in order to score runs.  Therefore, there is some worth in measuring how well a player is contributing towards the scoring of runs within the context of a lineup.

You can tell me how many theoretical runs a hitter is creating which is very useful.  But I think it can also be useful to measure how many actual runs a hitter is generating as well.  Which is why the RBI does indeed have value as a statistic.

Friday, June 1, 2012

ESPN's Sweet Spot: Lincecum not unlucky, just pitching poorly

If I'm going to criticize's SweetSpot blog for their bad articles, I suppose it is only fair to give them praise when it is due.

In this article, David Schoenfield discusses Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum and the struggles he has had this year.

He mentions that normally, analysts might point to Lincecum's high BABIP and say his failures are mostly due to bad luck.  But Schoenfield actually takes the time to look a little deeper and see that perhaps there is a reason for Lincecum's poor season beyond just plain luck. 

Schoenfield illustrates that Lincecum's control has been much poorer than in seasons past, and as a result, he has been giving hitters better pitches to hit.  It stands to reason that if a pitcher gives a hitter better pitches to hit, then they're going to have more success.

Well done, Mr. Schoenfield.  It's nice to see you actually look beyond the numbers and put them into a real world context.  I wish all sabermetric analysts would do the same.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Defense is Overrated

One tenet of sabermetrics is that run prevention is as important as run creation.  This essentially means that preventing a run from scoring is as useful as creating a run offensively.

In principle, I agree with this. After all, the point of the game is to outscore your opponent, and it doesn't matter if the final score is 1-0 or 15-14. (And yes, I picked two infamous scores from Phillies history)

But when it comes down to it, I feel that a player's contributions towards creating runs are much more valuable than his contributions towards preventing runs.

Why?  It's a simple matter of opportunity.

By nature, every spot in the lineup is going to get at least three plate appearances a game.  And in most games, each spot in the batting order is going to come to the plate four or five times.  Which means that most regular players are going to get four or five opportunities to contribute on offense.

In contrast, there is no certainty as to how many opportunities a player will get on defense.  Theoretically, a player could go an entire season without having to make a defensive play.

So if a player is going to have much more of an opportunity to contribute on offense, shouldn't we be more concerned with his offensive performance rather than what he'll do with his potentially limited chances on defense?

If he goes 4-4, this error will be easily forgotten

I'd much rather take the good offensive player who is a little shaky on defense than the defensive whiz who can't hit.  I know he's going to get several opportunities to help the team on offense, while his chances to be a detriment on defense will likely be much less frequent.

On the other hand, a good defensive player who can't hit MIGHT make a play that helps save a run on defense, but chances are, he'll do more damage to the team's chances in his four or five times at bat.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Luck or Not, it Still Counts

According to sabermetrics, sometimes when a player performs unexpectedly well, it is mostly the result of good luck.

Sabermetric analysts will point out that a hitter having an unexpectedly good year may be benefitting from an abnormally high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), or that a pitcher's newfound success is mostly due to a high rate of stranding runners on base

They'll argue that these values are largely dependent on luck, and are therefore unsustainable.  As a result, the player's performance will decline going forward.

I'm not going to argue this.  Studies show that on an infinite timeline, these stats are largely going to be near the mean values.

But the important thing to remember is that baseball is not played on an infinite timeline.

Think about a casino.  The odds for all of the games are set up so that given a long enough period of time, the player will always lose.

And yet, there are plenty of instances of people winning at casinos.  If they had continued to play for long enough, chances are that the odds would catch up to them and they would lose.  But over the short term, they came out ahead.

Baseball is much the same way.

Sometimes, a player can get on a "hot" streak that is largely luck dependent.  The stats may indicate that his success isn't sustainable and that he's probably going to suffer a drop off in the future.  But that doesn't change what happened.  All of the hits he got, all of the runs he scored, and all of the wins that the team earned as a result still count.

Therefore, it irks me to hear analysts downplay a player's accomplishments because they were due to luck. 

For an example, look at former Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ.

On the surface, Happ had an oustanding year in 2009.  He went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA which was good enough to finish second in the rookie of the year voting for that season.

But apparently, his success was not due to any overwhelming skill he possessed, and it was more a result of good fortune

Some analysts downplayed his acheivements.'s Keith Law summed up Happ's season:

I said he's probably going to win the rookie of the year award, but not that he deserves to. Happ's 2009 season has been respectable, but his sub-3.00 ERA in no way reflects how well he's pitched
Even if his success was based on luck, does that diminish what he accomplished?  In the end, does it matter if a pitcher was lucky or good?  If he's helping his team win games due to luck, then I'll gladly take luck.  If it wasn't for Happ's "luck" in 2009, the Phillies probably don't make it to the World Series.

In 2011, Happ did indeed have the drop off that many predicted.  Ironically, peripheral stats showed that in contrast to 2009, he was actually unlucky in 2011.  But that drop off can partially be attributed to being traded from the first place Phillies to the last place Astros.  The quality of a the defense behind a pitcher will often affect his performance.

But even if 2009 was just a fluky year propelled by luck, it still happened, and we shouldn't discount it.  Because luck or not, the end results still count.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

ESPN's SweetSpot: Dial it to 11!

I'm back with another look at a post on's SweetSpot blog and comparing it to the work of an enthusiastic 13 year old.

Christina Kahrl talks about the amazing pitching performance by Cliff Lee in which he threw 10 shutout innings, only for his team to lose the game due to the equally brilliant performance by the opposing starter, Matt Cain.

In her second paragraph, Ms. Kahrl goes a little off the rails:
OK, that’s pretty amazing. But what’s even more amazing? He didn’t even have the highest game score in that ballgame. Matt Cain did, outpointing Lee 86-85 by allowing just three baserunners in his nine shutout innings to Lee’s seven hits and seven K's. Admittedly, Game Score might be sort of sabermetrics’ answer to figure skating-style judging, but to put these nights into perspective, neither game would rate among the top 300 starts by game score from 2000-2012. So, really good, but not as good as Cain’s smackdown of the Pirates on Friday the 13th -- his last time out -- when he had a Game Score of 96. That’s awesome, but that’s Cain in a nutshell. Even when the other guy’s getting the immediate attention, whoever that guy may be, Cain might just be the better pitcher.
Maybe this is my ignorance of some of the newer sabermetric terms, but what the heck is a game score?  Is this an actual thing?

Based on this post, I have a feeling that game score isn't going to take off.  If your statistic tells you that a 10 inning shutout wasn't one of the best 300 starts in the past three years, then there's a good chance that your statistic sucks.

It also isn't good when you pretty much admit the shakiness of the statistic you just used by comparing it to the criteria used for judging figure skating.  Of course, if you pretty much admit your statistic sucks, then maybe you shouldn't use it as the basis for a blog post.

Then again, I guess saying that Cliff Lee's start wasn't THAT good garners much more attention than simply saying Cliff Lee was awesome.

How the 13 year old would have blogged about the game:

Cliff Lee was awesome last night!  10 inning shut out!!!  Matt Cain was good too, but Cliff Lee?  Awesome!

Sometimes simpler analysis is better.  Game score my @$$.

Winner: 13 Year Old

ESPN's SweetSpot Blog vs. An Enthusiastic 13 Year Old with a Calculator.

When I was 13 years old, my friend and I created a magazine that reviewed the Phillies 1991 season and looked ahead to the 1992 season.

Using the accepted statistics of the day, I tried to give some predictions about how the 1992 season would turn out for both the Phillies and all of baseball.

If I recall correctly, it was some hard hitting stuff.

I am often reminded of this homemade preview magazine when I visit and read their SweetSpot blog.

The blog's goal is presumably to provide daily baseball coverage with a sabermetric slant.  It used to be run by Rob Neyer, until he decided that was not big enough to contain his douchebaggery, so he left to head up the baseball division at SB Nation.

Replacing him is a committee of writers headed up by David Schoenfield.  Schoenfield seems like a nice enough man.  Unlike some of his colleagues - especially his predecessor - he doesn't come off as snarky or condescending.

And while I can appreciate the difficulty in coming up with new content on a regular basis, some of the blog's posts come unfortunately close to the quality that you might have expected from a preview magazine written by a 13 year old.

SweetSpot's writers use a wide variety of statistics.  But they seem to be used in such haphazard a fashion, that I'm not entirely convinced that they know why they're using them.  It often seems like they just pick whichever statistic will best prove whatever point they are trying to make.  If you ever want a good example of confirmation bias, I recommend you take a look at SweetSpot.

And so, from time to time, I'm going to take a look at a post in the SweetSpot blog, and see how it would compare to the work of an enthusiastic 13 year old armed with the internet and a calculator.

Who can provide better baseball analysis?  The SweetSpot writers or these guys?

For my first example, I'll look at this recent post in which Schoenfield tries to use the Detroit Tigers to disprove the theory of lineup protection.  Or at least that's what I think he's doing.  He doesn't exactly make it clear.

The post points out that Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers' perennial MVP candidate, now has another top hitter (Prince Fielder) behind him in the lineup.  If lineup protection is real, then Cabrera should be seeing better pitches to hit.  As a result, his hitting numbers should be better and his walk rate should be lower.

Except that Cabrera is actually hitting much worse than he did last season, and his walk rate has only decreased by a minimal amount.  Which is evidence that lineup protection is indeed a myth.

But then, Schoenfield then goes on to argue in favor of lineup protection.  He mentions that Fielder -who does not have an MVP candidate hitting behind him - is walking at a much higher rate than he did last season.

So what was the point of the post?  Apparently nothing, since Schoenfield prefaced the post by saying it comes after only ten games, which is a ridiculously short amount of time to draw a conclusion from.

So how does this post compare to the work of an enthusiastic 13 year old?

Most 13 year olds are not known for their patience, so they might make a similarly premature jump to conclusions.  On the other hand, if a 13 year old had a point to make, they probably would not immediately contradict themselves like Schoenfield did.

The 13 year old likely would have just stopped once they found some evidence that supported their case and not bothered to share the contradictory information.  So while I give Schoenfield some points for thoroughness, it still makes me wonder what the point of the post was.

Since all of the evidence didn't support his theory, I'm guessing the 13 year old might have decided that the post wasn't worth writing at all.  Since it's hard for me to argue otherwise, I'm going to have to award this round to the 13 year old.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

In Defense of: The Joey Votto Extension

First baseman Joey Votto recently received an massive contract extension that will pay him $225 million through the 2023 season.

Votto's extension has received considerable criticism from some analysts.

NBC Sports' Matthew Pouliot wrote:
It’s an incredible commitment and a giant risk, given the number of years involved. Votto is one of the game’s best players now, but there’s no telling whether he will be five or eight years down the road...Yet there’s certainly little reason to think he’ll be anything close to a $20 million-$23 million player from age 34 on.'s Keith Law commented:
The Reds already had Votto under contract for 2012 and 2013 at well-below-market salaries, so the extension won't begin in earnest until his age-30 season, by which point Votto will most likely have already peaked, meaning he'll spend virtually the entire extension declining from his peak. Granted, that peak -- about seven wins above replacement a year, per FanGraphs -- is extremely high, meaning Votto likely will still be a valuable player for the next four or five years, but he's also a slow-footed first baseman, one of the worst-aging categories of players. His value likely will drop by half before the extension is halfway through, perhaps sooner given the propensity of position players to miss more time due to injuries in their 30s.
It seems as if the main criticisms of the extension are:

1. They didn't have to offer this deal now since Votto still had two years before becoming a free agent

2. He is unlikely to maintain his current levels of production in the final years of the contract, and will therefore be overpaid.

No matter your opinion of the contracts recently signed by Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, they did effectively set the market value for power hitting first basemen. 

You could argue that since Votto was still under contract for the next two seasons, that he shouldn't have been able to command the same amount of money.  On the other hand, a player's contract demands typically increase the closer they get to free agency.  If Votto did hit the open market in two years, the Pujols and Fielder deals likely would have been treated as starting points by his agent. 

There is another benefit to signing Votto to an early extension.  The Reds expect to be contenders for the next couple of seasons.  They probably felt that having Votto's impending free agency looming over the club was a distraction that they didn't need.  While it worked out well for the Cardinals last year, I'm guessing that given the choice, most teams would prefer to avoid such distractions.

As far as the length of the contract, once again, we have to refer to the Pujols and Fielder deals as guidelines.  Teams are willing to give these players long-term deals which means they will pay them large amounts of money for seasons in which they are theoretically going to be in decline.

If the Reds could have signed Votto to a shorter deal, maybe they would have done so.  But there is no evidence that leads us to believe that was an option.

The only other choices the Reds had were to either let Votto leave as a free agent or to trade him away before free agency.

While these moves might have relieved the Reds of some salary burden towards the end of the decade, it would have done nothing to improve their chances on the field.

You could point to Votto's expected WAR in the final seasons of the deal, and say that you can find replacements at a much lower price.

But is it really that simple?

It is extremely difficult to let your star players leave, replace them with inexpensive players from the minors and continue to contend.  The Tampa Bay Rays are just about the only team who has been able to pull that off, and that is due to having one of the most fertile farm systems in baseball.

If Votto does decline during the latter part of the contract, will his contract be a huge burden on the team's payroll and their ability to contend?  Yes.  But if they got rid of him and the players they brought in to replace him didn't match his numbers, that might be an even greater burden.

Not only would have the team lost the production that Votto provided, but it would have also been a major blow to the team's fans.  It's extremely depressing to be a fan of a team who basically says that they can't afford to keep their top players, and that no matter how good a player is, he's eventually going to leave for a large payroll team.

By ensuring Votto will be with the team for the long haul, it sends an important message to the team and the fan base.  They are declaring that they are willing to make the necessary financial commitment to keep one of the franchise's great players.

The Reds have essentially wagered that their star will continue to play well and be worth the money down the line.  In my opinion, that's a pretty good bet to make.

Mission Statement

The title of this blog is a bit misleading.  I don't really hate sabermetrics.

I think advanced statistical analysis can be very useful when analyzing baseball, and that it can indeed provide a deeper understanding of the game.

But I think that it may have been taken a little too far.

I am a longtime baseball fan, and I try to absorb as much knowledge and information about baseball as I can.  Lately, I have found myself getting a bit frustrated, as more and more, baseball analysis seems too focused on sabermetrics.  And by delving too deeply into the numbers, I think that many people have lost sight of the big picture.
I am also annoyed by some members of the saber community.  For a group that supposedly seeks a more enlightened approach to baseball analysis, I have found that many saber fans are actually quite closed minded. Many have become so convinced that sabermetrics is the end-all, be-all of baseball analysis that they refuse to consider any alternative.
According to many saber fans, if your case doesn't use the latest and greatest set of statistics, then you don't have a case at all.  If you can't back up your point using advanced metrics, then you're going to be regarded as either ignorant or stupid.
"You're using RBIs to measure a player's value? How foolish! Everyone knows that OPS is a much more accurate barometer of a player's worth."
Go ahead and try to claim that despite a lesser WAR value, one player is superior than another.  Many saber fans will act like you just declared the world to be flat.

I've found that some of the worst offenders are the mainstream analysts who should be doing their best to help bring saber awareness to the masses.'s Keith Law and SB Nation's Rob Neyer have done the saber community no favors with their snarky, condescending writing.

I don't want this blog to resort to the standard anti-saber "nerds are ruining baseball!" commentary.  Instead, here are the main points I would like to get across:

  • Being able to look up statistics doesn't make you a baseball expert.  I feel like too many people have decided that they are now an authority on baseball just because they have access to advanced statistics.

  • Scouts, managers, and sportswriters who have followed, or been a part of the game of baseball for decades just might have some knowledge about the game that might go beyond looking at statistics.

  • And finally, while I feel that the numbers can go a long way towards explaining baseball, I also feel that they don't tell the whole story. 

Baseball isn't just about which player has the best numbers.  It's also about the big moments.   It's about Chris Carpenter outdueling Roy Halladay.  It's about Bobby Thompson, Joe Carter, David Freese, and many others hitting home runs that will forever be ingrained in baseball history.

Moments like that can't be captured purely by statistics.

I just hope that everyone reading this keeps an open mind.  If you're willing to look at things from a different angle, you might realize that sabermetrics aren't necessarily the absolute truth that some people have made them out to be.