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.