The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

 

Clearing the Bases -- Avalanche Edition

It's free agent season, and as silly dollars get tossed at players, here are a few interesting links I've come across amid the avalanche of my writing projects.

• My man Alex Belth has a fantastic historical recap of some milestones of the free agency era in his Sports Illustrated (SI.com) debut. No, they're not all happy moments, but from Reggie Jackson signing with the Yanks to Nolan Ryan reaching the $1 million per year threshold to Kevin Brown getting the usage of a corporate jet (that unfortunately never went down in flames) to Alex Rodriguez becoming The Quarter Billion Dollar Man, these deals changed the game's landscape and provide an interesting thumbnail history of the last 30 years.

Major congratulations to Alex for getting his foot in the door at SI.

• The silliest-looking, most landscape-altering contract of the offseason thus far is the Blue Jays' five year, $47 million deal to reliever B.J. Ryan, a man who has exactly one year of experience as a closer and two more decent ones as a setup guy. The Jays overpaid, forcing every team in the market for a reliever to do the same. But Rob McMillan, ever the contrarian, points out that the performance of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar -- a 30% gain over the last three years, and one likely to continue thanks to our northern hockey-haired neighbor's relatively large supply of natural fuel resources -- creates a substantial discount on the order of about 9% for the Jays. Now, I'm not savvy enough about currency and economics to fully evaluate this, but it does provide a bit more rationale for the deal, and the Jays' desire to break the bank in pursuit of A.J. Burnett (still a possibility) and Brian Giles (gone back to San Diego).

• Speaking of relievers, Baseball Prospectus' James Click explores the lack of consistency when predicting their future performance:
Putting aside the dollar values on these contracts for a moment, it’s important to consider just how consistent and predictable reliever performances are. There are a multitude of factors that routinely influence reliever performance more than that of starting pitchers or batters; primarily those are small sample size and the prevailing usage patterns of modern bullpens. The sample size issue is obvious--most relievers top out around 60 or 70 innings, roughly 1/3 of a typical starting pitcher’s innings--but the way modern bullpens are managed (bringing in relievers in the middle of innings, for example) often means that a reliever’s performance, as measured by ERA, is as much a reflection of those pitching before and after him than his own contributions. Whereas starters often get to work into and out of their own jams, relievers don’t have that luxury.

The second problem is more easily corrected than the first. We can use Fair Run Average (FRA), a BP stat that removes the problems of appropriately placing responsibility for inherited or bequeathed runners. As a first pass, just to see how bad the small sample size is, let’s see how consistent a variety of pitching statistics are for both starters and relievers. To do so, we’ll only use significant consecutive seasons, in this case defined as a minimum of 150 innings in consecutive seasons for starters and 50 innings for relievers.
Among that group, Click reports year-to-year correlations of FRA -- a stat I really dig, because it translates back into conventional stat terms the impact of a reliever's performance based on how he dealt with inherited runners -- of .146 for starters (not very high) and 0.04 (just about nuthin') for relievers. Even using three years' worth of data to predict a fourth, the correlations are .192 for starters and .064 for relievers, three times the randomness. Summarizes Click:
So what does this mean for teams like the Cubs, Yankees, Blue Jays and Mets? Of the five relievers they signed, it’s likely that two of them will post an FRA a run-and-a-half or more from their established levels. Some of this variance is the natural change in player performance; after all, starting pitchers, while more consistent than relievers, are certainly no models of consistency. But even when comparing three-year groups of relief performance--attempting to remove the small-sample-size issue--relievers never approach the consistency of starting pitchers. Over the next three years, it’s likely that two of them will post a total FRA more than a run off of their established levels over the past three seasons.
Meanwhile, on BP's internal mailing list, Nate Silver has been discussing a key finding of his where a pitcher who moves from starter to reliever can expect a considerably lower ERA and improved peripherals. I'm not at liberty to steal Nate's thunder in describing this, but watch for a piece from him in the near future. Frankly, I'm in awe of the way guys like Silver and Click can chip away at the problems that keep the rest of us lying awake at nights and come up with concrete answers that have practical applications for running a baseball team.

• BP's Joe Sheehan advises any GMs reading his column to put down the checkbook and back away hastily:
One of the key credos in what you might call the “BP philosophy” is that you want to sign free agents from the very top of the market or the very bottom. Superstars in their early prime, guys like Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in 1992, or Alex Rodriguez in 2000, are excellent investments, because it’s difficult to find players who have that kind of impact, and even harder to get their best seasons through the market. At the other end of the spectrum, a smart team can gain a real advantage by signing the right low-end free-agents to one-year deals, often minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training.

This winter, though, the very best free agents don’t come close to approaching the caliber of those available in recent seasons. There is no Carlos Beltran in this market, no Pedro Martinez, no Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada. The top players in this market are flawed, aging or both, and either have no superstar credentials to speak of or little chance of sustaining star performance over the life of a new contract.

Consider the B.J. Ryan signing, which combines about four different flaws in one package. The Blue Jays gave Ryan a five-year deal averaging just over nine million dollars a season. The five years covered by the deal are two more than the number of effective seasons on Ryan’s resume, and that’s giving him credit for 2003, in which he threw 50 1/3 innings in 76 games as a specialist, posting just over two Wins Above Replacement. This is the same mistake, down to the details, that a variety of teams made last year with guys like Eric Milton, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, just to name a few of the more egregious examples. Evaluating a player just on his walk year is a recipe for disaster.
Which brings us to...

• ... a team doing just that. Meet the new Yankee setup man, Kyle Farnsworth. Last year Farnsworth posted an ERA of 2.19 and an FRA (which accounts for the performance of inherited and bequeathed runners by divvying them up according to a Run Expectancy Table) of 2.01. Farnsworth's career ERA, meanwhile, is 4.45, one percent below the park-adjusted league average, though the man at least has about one strikeout per inning over the course of his career. And this guy is the Yankees' new latex salesman... I mean setup guy, because 38-year-old Tom Gordon extracted a three-year deal from the Phillies. The New York Times' Tyler Kepner points out that between Steve Karsay, Chris Hammond, and Jaret Wright, the Yanks haven't had much luck signing the Braves' free agents. Let's hope that new Yankee pitching coach Ron Guidry or bullpen coach Joe Kerrigan can find a little movement for Farnsworth's straight-as-an-arrow fastball.

• Speaking of Yankee dollars, there's been a lot of buzz about how little buzz the Yanks have generated this offseason in terms of signing free agents. Now comes a blockbuster: the New York Daily News has a report claiming that the Yanks lost between $50 million and $85 million in 2005 thanks to their bloated $200 million-plus payroll and almost $110 million in revenue sharing and luxury tax. Further, they may have to shell out more if an MLB consultant decides they're undervaluing their TV rights (a common way for teams to show paper losses while raking in money hand over fist, according to the late, great Doug Pappas). In the short term, that's bad news for Yankee fans, especially on top of a reported $37 million loss in 2004, but great news for Yankee-haters everywhere. In the long term, it should rightfully force the team to focus on developing its own talent rather than buying top free agents off the rack at a point where their careers are on the downhill slope.

• And speaking of those bad Yankee free-agent signings, Mr. Belth has the best and worst of the Steinbrenner era. It's too early to throw Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright onto the latter pile, but Steve Karsay can take a bow. I'll come back to this topic if I get more time down the road.

• Rafael Furcal to the Dodgers for three years and $39 (or $40) million? Wow, the eight-ball didn't see that one coming. I'm much more of the opinion that it's better to overpay a player for a shorter contract, and in this deal, the Dodgers are doing just that for a guy who is entering his Age 28 season. It's tough to complain about that kind of move, even if -- especially if -- it renders the team's commitment to Cesar Izturis, who endured a dismal, injury-riddled campaign, redundant. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal suggests that the Dodgers will shift Little Cesar to second base and Jeff Kent to first upon the former's return, Jon Weisman fears the end is nigh for Hee Seop Choi, but Rob McMillan thinks that Izturis is the more tradeable commodity. I'm going to withhold a close analysis of this here at FI because the two teams involved are the ones I'm covering for BP06 (there, I said it. Let's keep this between us, OK?).

• OK, enough free agency chitchat. The baseball world lost a very interesting, colorful player in Vic Power earlier in the week. Steven Goldman writes about how the Yankees' racism prevented Power, a slick-fielding, line-drive swatting first baseman, from breaking the pinstriped color barrier by trading him to Kansas City in December, 1953. Alex Belth expands upon that theme with some choice quotations from historian Jules Tygiel, who points out that the rumors that Power dated white women were at the root of the Yanks' hesitancy to promote him. Jon Weisman has pointers to more on Power's legacy.

As for me, I know Power mainly through his entry in one of my all-time favorite books, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris:
With the possible exception of Jonas Salk, John Foster Dulles, and Annette Funicello, no one public figure so personified the fifties for me as did Vic Power. He was a line-drive-hitting first baseman for the Athletics and the Indians all through that glorious somnambulant decade who held his bat like a stalk of bananas, caught everything with one-handed disdain, and always managed to hit around .300 no matter how many times they tried to knock him down. I don't know what it was exactly that made Vic stick out above all those other ruggedly ostentatious individualists -- Frank Sullivan, Alex Kellner, et al. Suffice it to say that no one ever hit such frozen ropelike liners, assumed such a novel and menacing stance in the batter's box, was so deft and lightfooted around the first-base bag, swore so mightily at umpires and hecklers, or possessed a more novel approach to the game than did Mr. Victor Pellot Power of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Wherever you may be now Vic -- let it all hang out.
I love those last few lines, which I've italicized. Power wasn't a Hall of Famer, but that's a Hall of Fame epitaph right there.

• Speaking of epitaphs and not baseball, a school chum of mine named Margaret Brown has produced her first feature film, a documentary on the late, great country singer Townes Van Zandt called Be Here to Love Me. I saw its theatrical premiere on Friday night here in NYC and came away incredibly impressed. It's not the most cheerful story (Van Zandt was a very troubled man who was quite obviously destined for a short life in which he was completely devoted to his art) but it's a very well-done film -- arty and impressionistic, with tons of vintage footage from the mid-'70s and onward -- with a lot of great music, and appearances by Willie Nelson & Emmylou Harris (both of whom had #1 hits with his songs, "Pancho and Lefty" for the former, "If I Needed You" for the latter), Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle (who declared, "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that!"), Guy Clark (who puts in perhaps the best documentary interview ever, in which he discusses TVZ's perennial flirtations with his wife, who's sitting right next to him), Lyle Lovett and other country stars testifying to his reputation as a songwriter's songwriter.

I doubt too many of you reading this share my love of vintage country music or its bastard alt.country offspring, but if you do, or if you have an appreciation for a well-done, award-worthy documentary, please go see this when it comes to your town.

Back when I can get my head above the snow again...

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