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, February 05, 2006

 

Futility Infielder Book Rodeo -- Super Duper Edition

I received a couple of interesting book-related emails yesterday, and with a few other books I've been meaning to mention and the need for something to do while the blue-and-green face paint dries before kickoff of the big game, I bring you the latest Book Rodeo:

• Starting with the obligatory plugs of things I'm involved with, lest this post be accused of not being self-serving enough: both Baseball Prospectus 2006 and Baseball Between the Numbers (also from BP) will be shipping in the next few weeks.

• The Fantasy Baseball Idex 2006, of which I wrote a good chunk, is available directly from Fantasyindex.com and will hit the stores on February 14. Warning: if you think your significant other has that kind of fantasy in mind for Valentine's Day, you ought to spend that sleepless night on the couch rethinking more than your draft strategy.

• If you've spent any time discussing sabermetrics on the Web, you've no doubt come across the rather enigmatically named MGL (Mitchel Lichtman) and Tangotiger (Tom, uh, Tango) somewhere along the way. That duo, along with one Andrew Dolphin, have joined forces to produce The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. The book, which seeks to "continue[s] where the legendary Bill James Abstracts and Palmer and Thorn's The Hidden Game of Baseball left off over twenty years ago," promises in-depth analyses of the sacrifice bunt, the intentional walk, the optimal batting order, streaks and clutch performance, and platooning, according to their website. The site generously offers excerpts of each chapter; just cherrypicking what they've posted about the "Clutch Hitting" one:
The concept of “clutch” is so central to our understanding of sports that it needs little in the way of introduction. Simply put, a clutch player is one who performs better when the game is on the line. The usual criterion for recognizing “clutchness” is something along the lines of, “If your life depended on a jump shot/putt/hit being made, whom would you want to attempt it?” For most people, the answers would be Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods—but what about baseball? If you're a manager, whom do you want at the plate in the ninth inning with two outs and you're down by a run? Or if you're up by a run and the other team is batting in the ninth, whom do you want on the mound? Is there any way to answer these questions objectively? Let's take a look.

The most obvious way is to look at a player's history—compare his wOBA in high-pressure situations to his overall wOBA, and chalk up any difference to the player's ability to come through in the clutch. That much is straightforward, but what exactly constitutes a high-pressure situation? Obviously there is no concrete definition, but as long as we divide plate appearances into two groups, such that one set is mostly low-pressure and the other is mostly high-pressure, we're fine. We'll define a high-pressure situation as one in which runs are needed in the very near future but the game is not yet out of hand: i.e., any plate appearance in the eighth inning or later in which the batting team is trailing by one, two, or three runs. Again, there really is no perfect definition of a “clutch” or high-pressure situation, but this will do just fine for our analysis. All other PA will be classified as “non-clutch.”

Looking at all players with at least 100 high-pressure plate appearances between 2000 and 2004, we find that the best clutch hitter in our sample was Scott Spiezio, with a clutch wOBA of .416 and a non-clutch wOBA of .329. In other words, Spiezio is pretty much an average offensive player overall, but when the game is on the line, he seems to turn into one of the game's top players. That's saying something, right? Of course, one might expect that Spiezio would be getting some more attention (Scott who?) if this transformation could be counted on in the future. Well, maybe Spiezio is a statistical fluke. What about some other elite clutch performers? Aramis Ramirez is second-best with a clutch/non-clutch differential of .079, followed by Bret Boone (.075), and J.T. Snow (.067). And how about Derek Jeter, who is widely regarded as one of the game's great clutch hitters? His improvement is a mere .022. Perhaps something else is going on.

One of the pervasive themes of this book is the danger of inferring too much from too little by underestimating the influence of randomness. In the case of clutch hitting, clutch plate appearances, according to our definition of “clutchness,” typically account for 7% of a player's total, which means that a regular player will see approximately 30 clutch situations over the course of a full season. Perhaps what we're actually seeing is just random variation caused by the small number of clutch plate appearances? Recalling the Toolshed chapter, we expect that the typical random fluctuations (for the mathematicians, one standard deviation) to be around .050 in wOBA after 100 plate appearances, meaning that 16% of players in our sample will have clutch wOBA more than 50 points higher than their true clutch wOBA due to randomness alone.

As you have already seen a few times in this book, the quickest way to examine this is to determine whether or not a player's history of clutch performance is useful in predicting his future clutch performance. For example, in 2005, would a manager have had any reason to expect Spiezio's .416 clutch wOBA to continue, and thus make decisions accordingly? Or put differently, if you're managing a team, how important is it to your decision-making process that a player has done well in the clutch in the past?
I'm not exactly sure what wOBA is, but I'll guarantee that it's spelled out in great detail for readers. Tango and MGL have done some of the best sabermetric work to be found anywhere over the past several years (for example, Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating fielding statistics, and Tango's work on leverage, Win Expectancy, and contributions to the further understanding of DIPS), and this book should more than live up to those standards.

• My Baseball Prospectus colleague, Dayn Perry, has just come out with Winners : How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think). Having studied 124 playoff teams of the recent past, Perry offers some statistical analysis on various trends which unify these winners as well as some straight history about how the teams were built. An excerpt of the first chapter is available from the publisher's website and I'll say this: any book that opens by using Pedro Guerrero's fantastic 1985 season as a point of entry is one that I look forward to reading. And once I do read it, I'm planning to interview Perry in the manner that I did Steve Goldman. Stay tuned.

• Speaking of Guerrero's 1985, in which he hit 15 homers in the month of June, I included that season in my ballot for the All-Time Dodger Single-Season MVP over at Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts. Voters get to choose five player seasons from a list of 35 (including several repeaters) that Weisman has nominated (and no, pitchers weren't included because Jon ran a All-Time Dodger Cy Young Award ballot a few years back, won by Sandy Koufax's 1966 finale.

Here's how my MVP ballot -- for which the team winning a division or pennant in that year was a prerequisite, and WARP3 and EqA were my roadmaps -- shook down: 1. Jackie Robinson 1949, 2. Duke Snider 1955, 3. Pedro Guerrero 1985, 4. Roy Campanella 1953, 5. Adrian Beltre 2004.

Weisman's got a self-published compilation of The Best of Dodger Thoughts available now, and while Book Season has distracted me from picking my own copy up, that's something I intend to remedy soon.

• Alex Belth's bio of the man who challenged baseball's reserve clause, Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights, ships in mid-March. Having followed this book's trajectory via my friendship with Alex, I'm very excited for it to hit the streets.

• Belth's partner in crime, Cliff Corcoran, reports that the paperback version of Howard Bryant's Juicing the Game (which Corcoran edited) is out in March, with an epilogue covering the 2005 season. The book was a must-read the first time around, so if you slept on it, be sure to avail yourself of the opportunity to get right.

• Neil deMause has popped up in a few blog entries lately, and according to his personal website, a new version of Field of Schemes is forthcoming from Common Courage Press next fall. No word on whether Andrew Zimbalist has pre-ordered his copy yet.

• Sometime between the moment the White Sox popped the champagne corks and the point when my own work started to pile very high, I received a copy of Saying It's So: a Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal, by Daniel A. Nathan. Haven't done more than browse a bit, but it looks to be a pretty interesting academically-oriented take on the way the 1919 scandal has been depicted by journalists, historians, novelists, filmmakers, and fans; Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out, Bernard Malamud's The Natural, W.P. Kinsella's Field of Dreams -- and the movies which brought them to life -- all make appearances here, as does Bill Veeck's semi-obsucre The Hustler's Handbook. It might not be everybody's cup of tea, but those with a more scholarly bent should get plenty of mileage.

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