Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I Am Not a Troll

Since I've had a lot of new readers come by the site in recent days, I thought it was appropriate to re-state and clarify the intention behind this site.

I realize that by naming the site Sabermetrics Suck, it makes it appear that this blog is either an attempt to instigate, or a parody of an anti-sabermetrics traditionalist.

I assure you that it is neither.

Unfortunately, the title "Sabermetrics Are Good When Used in Moderation But Some People Take It Too Far" seemed a bit clunky.  Also, "Sabermetrics Suck" is definitely catchier.

The goal of the site is not to whine about "geeks with calculators sitting in their mother's basement."  I am not complaining that "these newfangled stats have ruined baseball."   

I accept that the battle between traditionalists and saberfans is pretty much over, and the saberfans have won. 

It's pretty tough to deny that fact when I look at ESPN.com and see several baseball writers who focus on advanced statistics.  They even include WAR on their statistics page!

So then what is the point of the site?

In my eyes, the empowered sabermetric crowd has become the new arrogant elite.  It feels like many saberfans were held down and mocked by the traditionalists for so long, that now that they've gained acceptance, they carry themselves with a know-it-all attitude.

Prominent saber-minded writers like Rob Neyer and Keith Law certainly aren't helping that reputation.  Instead of educating and enlightening people to the ways of sabermetrics, they seem to drive people away with their snarky arrogance.

Saberfans portray traditionalists as stubborn, unyielding old fools who refuse to give up antiquated ways of thinking.  Yet from my experience, saberfans can be even more stubborn and refusing to yield.

The best I can tell, this stubbornness comes from the saberfans having "numbers on their side."

Ah yes, numbers and statistics.  I believe Homer Simpson said it best:

“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.”

The typical sabermetric thought process seems to be along these lines:
  1. Come up with a hypothesis.
  2. Find a statistic that backs up that hypothesis.
  3. Convince yourself that the statistic offers irrefutable proof.
  4. Refuse to yield.
It's kind of fun to do, actually!  Here's an example:
  1. Hypothesize that RBIs are an important measure of a player's offensive production.
  2. Check the rosters of every team in baseball, and add up the number of RBIs for each player.
  3. Find that the teams with the highest player RBI totals were the highest scoring offenses.
  4. Conclude that RBIs are a good measure of offensive production.
  5. Refuse to yield.
I'm not advocating abandoning statistical research in baseball.  I think it has indeed provided people with more insight about the game.  I regularly read sabermetrics-focused sites to try and gain more knowledge, and have learned some things that I find fascinating.

What I'm trying to do is to remind people that while baseball is about numbers, it is also more than just numbers.  It's about team chemistry, luck, clutch plays, and moments both amazing and bizarre that make it fun to be a baseball fan.

It's about a team having a "1 in 100" chance of winning, and still finding a way to pull out a victory.

I think that some people have just gotten a little too deep into the numbers to see what's really going on.  I'm trying to help people see the big picture.

The "pendulum has swung" to the side of the saberfans.  The blog represents the start of the back swing.

I just hope some of you stick around to enjoy the ride.

Friday, January 25, 2013

In Defense of: Ruben Amaro

One of the sites I frequently visit is Crashburn Alley.  It is a Phillies site that looks at the team from a sabermetric perspective. 

Most of the site's writers and readers are not fans of the Phillies' General Manager Ruben Amaro, and the way he has handled the team.  The dislike seems to come because the Phillies have taken a mostly non-sabermetric approach towards the construction of the team. 

They seem to hold Amaro responsible for the Phillies falling from a championship contender to a team that some people think will be lucky to finish in 4th place in the National League East in 2012.

Ruben Amaro
The devil?

First off, it seems a bit premature to write off the Phillies.  They finished at .500 in a 2012 season that saw them suffer quite a few injuries.  It isn't a huge stretch to think of them as at least contenders for a playoff spot in 2013.

And considering the success that the team has had under Amaro, to declare him "a complete failure" is absurd.  While some of the success can be attributed to his predecessors Pat Gillick and Ed Wade, Amaro has done more than his fair share as well.

I am not going to claim that Amaro has been flawless.  He's made some moves which I have disagreed with, and that in hindsight, look like mistakes. 

But I will defend Amaro by saying this:

He took over the team immediately following the championship season of 2008.  He identified that the core of the team was capable of winning a championship.  (A sound assumption since they had just won the World Series)  He recognized that the core would only have a limited window, so he would have to do his best to maximize the team's chances of winning within that window.

Obviously, his efforts have fallen short, but it is hard to argue that in any given season from 2009-2011 he didn't make moves which would presumably increase the team's chances of winning the World Series that season.

The pessimism heading into 2013 is because the Phillies have an expensive roster of players who mostly appear to be on the downsides of their careers.  Worse, the minor league system doesn't appear to be flush with talent ready to replace them.

According to many readers and contributors at Crashburn Alley, this was all due to Amaro's missteps.

Some claim that the Phillies' underwhelming moves this offseason were due to the team not having enough money to spend on more expensive free agents.

I am amazed at how many people in the blogosphere seem to have inside knowledge regarding the Phillies moves.  For example, they seem to know for a fact that the reason the team didn't sign BJ Upton or any of the other expensive free agents was because their payroll was already too high.

For instance, most saberfans think that closer Jonathan Papelbon was overpaid in the 2012 offseason since according to sabermetric principles, a relief pitcher can't affect a team's fortunes all that much.

Jonathan Papelbon

I will counter with my best guess as to how Amaro approached the signing:

Amaro assumed that the Phillies rotation would match their sterling performance of 2011.  This would mean that the starters would regularly be providing seven or eight quality innings.

Perhaps it was foolish to assume that the starters would be as good as they were in 2011, but when you have as much money invested in starting pitching, that's the assumption you have to make.

Based on this assumption, it became extremely important for the team to have a solid option in the ninth inning, (to finish off all those strong starts) but not as important to have many other reliable relievers (because there wouldn't be too many relief innings to go around).

Therefore, Amaro paid top dollar to get the best, most reliable ninth inning option he could get, and tried to use cheaper options for the rest of the bullpen.

Did Amaro overpay for Papelbon?  It looks that way, since Papelbon did receive a much larger contract than any other free agent reliever, but perhaps that was because he was the best option available.

Some people have a naive belief that all a team has to do is offer a player a contract and that player will sign with them.  That's not how the free market works.  If another team was also pursuing Papelbon, maybe Amaro felt the only way to sign him was to "overpay."

Aside from the payroll, the other main criticism of Amaro is that he has ruined the Phillies future by trading many of the team's minor league prospects for veterans over the past few seasons.

Here's a comment from Crashburn Alley which implies that Amaro's trades were shortsighted:
There was absolutely no need to "win now" because a smart team with lots of assets, both financial and talent-wise, can sustain their success nearly indefinitely.

Trading players to put you over the top for some near-term goal is the act that actually creates the window you're talking about! Read this: http://www.thegoodphight.com/2011/7/27/2299271/the-window-isnt-closing-unless-you-want-it-to-close

This comment and the linked article make one very foolish assumption: That you can depend on prospects to develop into major league contributors.

Some people seem to think that success in baseball is a simple three step process:
  1.  Call up minor league prospects
  2. Have them play well in the majors
  3. Win!
Unfortunately, it isn't quite that easy.

For a good example, look at the Oakland A's under Billy Beane.  The famed General Manager's teams experienced success in the early 2000s thanks to a core of star players like Jason Giambi, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson.  All of these players were eventually deemed too expensive, so they were either traded away or allowed to leave as free agents.

In return, the A's received several highly touted prospects and were the beneficiaries of many high draft picks.  Yet, the team went five years without a winning record.

The main reason why?  Because the players they developed or called up turned out to be inferior to the players who left.

Prospects might be the biggest uncertainty in sports.  Even the most heralded prospects might not pan out in the big leagues. 

Just look at Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg.  He might be the most "sure thing" prospect ever, and yet he's already missed a season due to injury, with the team scared to death of him suffering another.
Stephen Strasburg
Even Stephen Strasburg wasn't guaranteed to be successful

If you're going to take risks, I'd rather take risks on established players.

In 2009, the Phillies had two top prospects in their system named Kyle Drabek and Travis d'Arnaud.  They were both traded away for Roy Halladay.  While Drabek and d'Arnaud may some day develop into major league stars, it wasn't too much of a stretch to say that Halladay gave the team a better shot to win the World Series over the next few seasons.

Considering the Phillies went 28 years between developing championship caliber cores, why are people so sure that they can easily develop another one?  Maybe some of the prospects he traded away might become stars one day.  But at the time, Amaro felt like the Phillies needed an extra piece to win the World Series.

I'll say that it takes a lot less time to rebuild a pool of minor league prospects than it does to build a core of major league talent capable of winning.

In 2008, the Phillies were rumored to want to make a trade for pitcher CC Sabathia.  But they simply didn't have enough valued prospects in their system to make it happen.  Yet over the next couple of seasons, they had some minor leaguers develop to the point where they could trade for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt.

Some may counter that the postseason is a "crap shoot" and the Phillies shouldn't have made those moves since they only minimally improved the team's chances of winning a World Series.

As a fan, I much prefer the "All in" approach rather than the "Let's just give ourselves a chance and hope things break our way" mindset  Did the moves pay off?  Obviously not, since the Phillies have fallen short, but I can't say that management didn't make an effort to win.

Maybe the Phillies are truly finished as contenders.  If that is true, was there any way to avoid that fate? 

The Phillies conceivably could have let some of their now expensive players leave as free agents or traded some veterans for prospects. But considering the Phillies were championship contenders and were being supported by a rabid fan base who was selling out the stadium every night, was this truly an option?

There's a reason that teams don't regularly experience the kind of sustained success the Phillies have recently enjoyed.  Inevitably, the star players who fuel such success either become too old or too expensive.  Unless you have a truly great farm system that keeps providing the team with new top talent, the run will have to end at some point.

If the Phillies' championship window is truly closed, then instead of lambasting Amaro for his failure to magically sustain it, we should applaud him for doing his best to maximize the team's chances while the window was open.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

WAR is not the Answer

It would be great if we had a universal statistic that took all of the players in baseball and gave us a fair way to compare them.

Arguments about baseball would practically cease.  There would be no reason for them, as this one magical statistic would settle everything.  It might usher in a new era of understanding that could eventually lead to world peace.

Unfortunately, I don't think such a statistic is possible.  But even if it was, WAR is certainly not it.

This is not the stat you are looking for.

A quick primer for the uneducated:

WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement.  It is supposed to measure how many wins a given player has contributed to a team compared to a theoretical replacement player.  For a more detailed explanation, please check the WAR section on Baseball-Reference.com.

I understand why people want WAR to work, and I will concede that the statistic does have some worth.  For instance, it rewards players who are versatile and help their team in many ways, as opposed to statistics like home runs, which only measure one particular skill.

But does it accurately determine a player's value to his team?  I don't think so.

Admittedly, most saberfans do not claim that WAR is the ultimate statistic, or that it is the best measure of a player's value.  They claim that it should only be used as a "conversation starter."

And yet, it seems like every time a saberfan debates a player's value, WAR is the first thing they point to.

Don't believe me?  Check out some of the things that were written during the 2012 AL MVP debate:

WAR backs up Trout's MVP candidacy

Stats Revolution doesn't have enough clout

Mike Trout is your AL MVP

It seems like every saber-minded writer was required to do two things when weighing in on the MVP debate:
  1. Make it clear that WAR is not perfect and they are not basing their judgement solely on it.
  2. Use Trout's WAR value as evidence that he deserved the MVP.
Some of these guys would make great politicians the way they endorse WAR while also refusing to fully commit to it.

On the other hand, I will take a firm stance: I don't like WAR.

I don't like it because I don't like the fundamental concept of a replacement player that the statistic is based on.

I tried to determine just what makes someone a "replacement player."  I've searched the web, and I've never been able to find an answer that isn't vague at best.  From what I can gather, a replacement player is a borderline major league player who can be easily obtained from the minor leagues.

But should a judgement be made based on a theoretical player?  If you're going to try to determine how many "wins" a player is providing over his replacement, then shouldn't you consider the actual player who would replace him?

For example, let's say that the Dodgers have Joe Shortstop playing the shortstop position. (Crazy coincidence, huh?)

Pictured: Joe Shortstop, or as some people call him, "Hanley Ramirez."

Joe puts up solid numbers both offensively and defensively.  According to the formula behind WAR, shortstops are more valuable than most of the other positions, because it is typically more difficult to find a good shortstop than a left fielder or first baseman.  Since he performs well at an important position, Joe has a high WAR.

Unfortunately, Joe suffers and injury and has to miss a few months of the season.  At first glance, it seems like the Dodgers are screwed because based on Joe's WAR, it will be very tough to replace him.

Thankfully for the Dodgers, they have their top prospect Billy Shortstop playing at AAA.  The Dodgers call up Billy, and he ends up playing about as well as Joe did.

According to WAR, Joe is more valuable simply because he plays shortstop.  But if you're going to reward him based on his position, don't you also have to deduct him some points because he doesn't actually provide much more value than his replacement?

Of course, there's no way to accurately determine just how well a given player's replacement would perform.  The best that could be done would be to project the production of all of a team's potential replacements, and make a calculation based on that.  But even that would be mostly guesswork, and nearly impossible to measure.

That impossibility is the main reason why WAR doesn't really work as a measure of true value.

As I said, I understand the motivation for coming up with a universal statistic.  But in this case, much like Marvin Gaye once said: WAR is not the answer.