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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Da Doo Run Run

The latest Hit List is up at Baseball Prospectus, and for the first time in its brief life, the Yankees top the List despite their rather unremarkable record of 9-8. How can that be? I discovered something very interesting in my attempt to figure out why.

As you (hopefully) know by now, the Hit List rankings are based on four components that make up BP's Adjusted Standings, namely the actual, first-, second-, and third-order winning percentages. First-order winning percentage is based on a team's Pythagorean record, that is, their expected winning percentage based on the number of runs they score and allow. Second-order winning percentage is their Pythagorean record based on the number of runs they should have scored or allowed given the run elements (hits, walks, total bases, etc.) their offense or pitching has racked up, and normalized to adjust for park and league scoring levels. Third-order is their Pythagorean record based on those same normalized run elements, but also adjusting for the level of competition based on Equivalent Average allowed.

The Yanks' overall Hit List Factor, the average of those four percentages, is .662. That's based on the following component winning percentages:
         W    L    PCT
Actual 9.0 8.0 .526
1st 11.6 5.4 .682
2nd 12.9 4.1 .759
3rd 11.5 5.5 .676
What these four figures are telling us is that first, the Yanks should have a much better record based on the number of runs they've scored and allowed; that's because they've piled up tons of runs in their wins, which have tended to be lopsided, while not scoring much in their losses, which have generally been close. Second, based on their hits, walks, total bases and such, the Yanks should have scored even more runs and allowed even fewer; it's that .759 percentage that elevates their overall Hit List Factor above those of the White Sox, Tigers and Mets, teams with better actual records at this point.

The implication, backed up by plenty of research from my BP colleagues and others, is that a team's record will come to more closely approximate these indicators given larger sample sizes. In other words, the Yankees are better than the .526 team showing up in the AL East standings, and in time they should find their winning percentage closer to .600, if not .676; they're not likely to maintain the breakneck pace of scoring 6.24 runs per game, or over 1,000 for the season, but 900 runs is a very real possibility.

Now, so far I'm simply rehashing old news as far as the way the Hit List works. What's interesting is that when I looked more closely, I found that in addition to having the largest difference between actual runs scored and allowed (35 runs, one more than the White Sox), they have the largest differential between OPS (On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage) and OPS allowed by a much wider margin. Through Sunday the Yanks had put up an OPS of .888 and allowed one of .679, a 209 point differential. That's 59 points more than the Tigers' differential, 85 points more than the White Sox, and 89 points better than the Mets, the three teams who the Yanks narrowly edge for the top spot.

That OPS differential has a huge predictive power when it comes to the Hit List. Based on this year, the correlation between OPS differential and Hit List Factor (as I mention in the Brewers comment) is .942. Based on last year's numbers, it's even better, .958. Correlations don't come much higher than that, though it's not a mystery why it works so well; OPS uses the same ingredients -- run components like hits, walks, and total bases -- in a more simple brew than the Hit List Factor components. As it turns out, raw run differential has an even higher correlation, .962 based on this year's list, .972 based on last year's numbers. Again, not a huge surprise except for the magnitude, which is near perfection within the realm of baseball's statistical correlations. Either differential makes an excellent proxy for the Hit List rankings.

The take-home message is that both run components and simply raw run differentials explain upwards of 90 percent (the square of the correlation, depending upon which figure you choose) of a team's ranking on the Hit List; the rest, a considerably narrower slice of the pie, is a combination of park effects, situational performance, luck, randomness, mojo, moxie, gumption, intestinal fortitude, voodoo, santeria, and those all-important intangibles which Derek Jeter grows the way a hipster grows sideburns. It's the runs, people. Da doo run run, da doo run run.

• • •

Last week was a banner week for Hall of Fame discussions, at least where the Jaffe WARP Score (JAWS) system is concerned. Marc Normandin checked in on Luis Gonzalez's case on the occasion of Gonzo's becoming the 21st player to reach 500 doubles and 300 homers over at Beyond the Box Score, while Joe Sheehan evaluated the struggling Jim Edmonds both at BP and at, where BP content is occasionally running in syndication.

Alas, Sheehan -- as he informed me after a reader pointed it out, long before I even saw the article -- botched the methodology, using the old five consecutive year WARP total as his peak score instead of his best seven years at large which I instituted this year. By those measures, Edmonds came up short. But Sheehan also made another, more subtle error by using the numbers that are currently on Edmonds' player card at BP but comparing them to the positional averages from my Hall of Fame ballot article in December. Clay Davenport, creator of the WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) universe of player valuation, is a notorious tinkerer, and from time to time without announcing it, he'll dump a whole new set of data -- generally based on a more refined calibration of the replacement level with regards to fielding responsibilities -- on an unsuspecting public. Usually, the changes are undetectable to the casual observer, but this time they're rather drastic as far as some players are concerned. Looking at Edmonds and the Hall CFs:
OLD        BRAR BRAA FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Edmonds 565 381 96 95.8 68.0 81.9
Avg HOF CF 715 466 -8 108.6 63.8 86.2

Edmonds 555 371 106 98.3 78.2 88.3
Avg HOF CF 731 478 0 108.8 63.4 86.1
The averages (which are actually computed by throwing out the lowest player at each position to correct for the Veterans Committee's mistakes) for CFs haven't changed more than a hair, but Edmonds' totals have risen, particularly with regards to his peak score; his best seasons are more valuable than previously calculated, which puts him above the JAWS standards already and in fact are better than all but Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio among HOF CFs. Among active players, only Ken Griffey Jr. ranks above Edmonds. That's pretty staggering, and I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to accept that without checking with Clay to get a better understanding of the update. The one relevant figure not shown here, Fielding Runs Above Replacement, has changed more significantly for Edmonds, rising to 328 from 301, but I don't have a track on how the Hall averages have changed in that regard. Nonetheless, it's clear that Edmonds derives a good chunk of his value from defense; alas, not every player with eight Gold Gloves to his name has the advanced metrics to back it up. By the time things are all said and done, he should have a very good case for the Hall of Fame even if he never reaches 400 homers or some other round-numbered milestone.

Looking at Gonzalez and the JAWS standards for leftfielders as gathered by Normandin (I'm still waiting for my data dump):
OLD        BRAR BRAA FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Gonzalez 582 322 74 93.8 55.8 74.8
Avg HOF LF 745 470 -15 105.2 59.7 82.4

Gonzalez 584 321 88 100.7 58.3 79.5
Avg HOF LF 784 506 -3 110.0 61.1 85.6
The JAWS score for Hall LFs has risen by a few points, as has that of Gonzalez. In terms of FRAR, Gonzo's total shot up even more than Edmonds', from 258 to 317, helping to give him more wins. He's still short of the JAWS standards; a bit closer, though he probably won't make it.

The take-home message here is that the HOF averages have moved, which means I need to recalibrate JAWS unless industrious souls like Normandin step forward. I'm tickled pink that people are actually using a system I devised, but it's important not to mix apples and oranges in making the comparisons, so do check with me or crunch the numbers yourself rather than simply citing what may now be obsolete.

As an aside, I'd love it if the numbers were updated automatically; that's something I'm working towards in conjunction with BP's tech crew, but it's a low-level priority for them compared to switching servers, introducing the customized sortable stat reports, and all of that other good stuff, and I just spent my energy and tech-time chits getting the Hit List gears in working order.

As for JAWS, I've got a New York Sun piece on Bernie Williams' Hall of Fame case in the pipeline for Thursday publication, so we'll be beating this horse again later in the week.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


In Love With the Sound of My Own Voice

I've apparently stumbled into a sweet little radio gig that will be a recurring feature throughout the season; Joel Blumberg of WGBB Sports Break has invited me to talk baseball on his show on a monthly basis. The first installment, recorded this past Thursday, will air on Monday at 6 PM on 1240 AM in the New York area. Over the course of about 20 minutes, Blumberg and I discussed the Yanks, the Mets, the Red Sox (he's a Sox fan), and my predictions for all of the division races in the coming season. It was a lot of fun, particularly because Blumberg is very receptive to the sabermetric angle which colors my take on things, and I look forward to continuing our discussions in the coming weeks.

In addition to touching that dial, you can also tune in to the show over the Internet at the station's website, and even better, you can hear it right here even before the spot airs. It's about 22 minutes long with commercials (sorry, couldn't cut those out).

Blumberg, according to his bio, is "a former sportscaster, whose credits include play by play of football, baseball and NCAA basketball and hockey, and the producing of many of the top sports events that have taken place in the last 3 decades." He is also a vintage movie buff, and has a website and radio show devoted to that angle; my pal, former roommate and current Criterion producer Issa Clubb was his most recent guest, discussing a heralded three-disc release of Orson Welles' The Complete Mr. Arkadin which he produced and which has recently been reviewed by The New York Times , among others. Cheers to Issa for passing my name along to Mr. Blumberg. The least I can do is give his product a plug.

Back to baseball and the radio, I finally got around to listening to Baseball Prospectus Radio's April 1 doubleheader, which could have been called "Shake a BP Writer Out of Bed and Ask Him About the Season." With just half a cup of coffee to my credit at 10:30 AM on a Saturday morning, I was part of the second hour of coverage (roughly 20:30 in), along with Steve Goldman, Christina Kahrl and Nate Silver; the first hour featured Kevin Goldstein and Clay Davenport as well as Game of Shadows author Mark Fainaru-Wada. Despite the dearth of caffeine, I think I held my own on that show.

I was far more caffeinated for the first of three installments of the audio from the recent BP roundtable at the Yogi Berra Museum. There's a video version -- thank you iMovie and iDVD -- which will hopefully be made available via BP's servers; if you feel like getting the Futility Infielder Director's Cut, you can send a blank DVD and a few bucks to cover postage and handling; email me and we'll discuss.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Billion Dollar Babies

Forbes Magazine's independent survey of the game's financial landscape, "The Business of Baseball" report, was published on Thursday both at the mag's website and at ESPN. The report literally contains a wealth of information for any fan interested in the dollar signs which drive the game, and is required reading for any informed discussion on such matters. This is as good as it gets to counting the game's money.

Central to the report are the annual Team Valuation rankings. It's no surprise that the Yankees top the list as the game's most valuable franchise, but this is the year they've broken through the billion-dollar barrier. With an eight percent increase on last year's valuation of $950 million, the Yanks are now worth an estimated $1.026 billion. The Red Sox ($617 million), Mets ($604 million), and Dodgers ($482) are next in line, not particularly surprisingly. At the bottom of the list are the A's ($235 mil), Marlins ($226 mil), Twins ($216 mil) and Devil Rays ($209 mil).

Most surprising to the casual observer is probably the valuation of the Washington Nationals at $440 million, which ranks sixth. The Nats were valued at $310 million last year, which ranked 16th, and as the Expos, they were a lowly 30th at $145 million in 2004. So essentially, the move and subsequent (and agonizingly protracted) stadium deal have nearly tripled their value in just two years, which is pretty astounding and which explains, at least in part, why MLB was so driven to execute the first franchise move in over 30 years.

There's a ton of other info to glean from the report. As a whole, team values increased by 15 percent for the second year in a row, to an average value of $376 million. The Toronto Blue Jays value rose 34 percent last year (to $286 million), second to the Nats' 42 percent, and every team increased at least three percent. The report attributes revenue sharing as the main reason behind the increased values:
But the biggest story is the effect revenue sharing is having on the league's economic landscape. Most of the money comes courtesy of the New York Yankees, which paid a record $77 million toward baseball's revenue sharing system. The Boston Red Sox, baseball's No. 2 revenue sharer, paid only $51 million. Such generosity by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, required by the league's rule that teams pay 34% of their net local revenue to help make poorer teams more competitive, is the reason why the Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals increased in value by more than 20%.
That revenue sharing put the Yanks $50 million in the red in operating income last year; the Red Sox ($-18.5 mil), Mets ($-16.1 mil), Marlins (-11.9 mil) and Angels (-$2.6 mil) were the only other teams to post losses in that department. Overall operating income of the 30 teams shot up from $132 million to $360 million in just a year, so the next time an owner tells you salaries are increasing too fast as compared to revenues, they'll be talking to the hand.

The article notes how the Yankees drive the game's economics beyond revenue sharing:
For example, a visit by the Yankees can increase a home team's ticket sales by as much as 25%. And the Yankees account for 27% of all league merchandise sales, the profits of which get shared equally throughout the league to the tune of more than $3 million per franchise. In effect, much of the league operates as subsidiaries of the Bronx Bombers.

But don't feel bad for the Yankees or the Red Sox. They sit atop our rankings, worth $1 billion and $671 million, respectively, thanks to the revenue generated by their ownership stakes in regional sports networks. Steinbrenner's $62 million in cable money from the YES channel was by far the most in the league. Moreover, the Yankees will have a new cash-rich ballpark by 2009--perhaps adding another 20% to the team's valuation.
Anyway, the stuff may seem dry, but it's also fascinating at a certain level. Since Forbes is much more credible than any of the team owners, this report is an essential tool to combat the propaganda spread by Bud Selig and many of the game's other owners on teams' financial states; remember that as private entities, teams aren't required to report their finances, and many of them will dispute the numbers published here.

At the same time, the report can also be seen as a feather in Bad Rug Bud's bonnet. The game is in a remarkably healthy financial state, and the revenue sharing that Bud and other small-market owners have fought for tooth and nail over the past decade and a half has solidified the game's financial grounding.

Anyway, with the Collective Bargaining Agreeement set to expire this year, you can bet we'll be hearing a lot about such numbers in the coming months. Kudos to Forbes for putting them out on the table once again.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


A Little Chin Music, Please

Delayed by a day due to technical difficulties -- a real drag due to the time-sensitive nature of the material -- the Prospectus Hit List went up today at BP with a new team in the top spot: the New York Mets, on the strength of their best 11-game start ever (at 13 games, they were still tied with the '86 Mets, but with tonight's loss, they've fallen behind the pace).

The Yanks came in at #3 despite their ho-hum 6-6 record because they've been scoring runs in bunches, winning big but losing small:
Feast or famine: in the Yanks' six wins, they've outscored opponents 64-21, with a minimum of nine runs scored in each and all but one win by at least six runs. In their six losses, they've been outscored 31-16, yielding more than six runs only once and losing three one-run games.
As I apparently have to keep reminding certain readers too thick to parse either the intro explaining the methodology or the footnote which reads, "The Prospectus Hit List rankings are derived from Won-Loss records and several measurements pertaining to run differentials, both actual and adjusted, from Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings through the close of play on every Sunday. For more on the Hit List, see this article..." IT'S ABOUT THE RUNS, PEOPLE, not about my bowing in front of the awesome power of any team's reputation, prior accomplishment or preseason hype level.

I swear to HoJu, the next White Sox fan who emails me to complain about their team's ranking without RTFM-ing will be ritually humiliated in this space, then publicly disembowled on a live webcast, with his entrails fed to the pigeons in Tompkins Square Park and his family forced to enter the Federal Witness Relocation Program due to excessive taunting. I sang this song last week, and now I'm done holding every respondent's hand through the methodology; hereafter, "How can you rank ______ all the way down at #___?" and other variants thereof will be considered a Stupid Question, and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance simply to amuse those of us who Get It (and those who dig my cold-ass Jules Winnfield impressions).

Sorry, got a little carried away there.

In all seriousness, it's April, folks. Taking any stat or set of stats too seriously -- including a ranking -- is a recipe for trouble. The Tigers may rank #2 in the rankings this week, not because I think they're better than the Yanks, Red Sox, White Sox, and the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs, but because Chris Shelton's putting up a 1.600 OPS and the pitching staff is doing a good job of preventing runs. Now, I don't expect young Mr. Shelton to maintain said level of production any more than I expect the Tigers to finish the year at #2, but damned if I'm going to worry two minutes about it. I'm happy to see his name on the leaderboard (especially as he hails from my godforsaken hometown of Salt Lake City), and willing to let him enjoy his moment in the sun.

The Hit List is a Power Ranking, but it differs from its competitors in that I'm resolute about following the numbers in the rankings and confining what I have to say about the actual merits and context of those numbers to the comments rather than fudging the rankings based on where a team "should" be. As I wrote about the Rockies (#5):
Artificial High: the Rox are still riding the run differential of their three-game drubbing of the Padres; in all other contests they've been outscored 48-42. Still, it's rare to see this team with a winning record or a sub-5.00 ERA (4.46 through Sunday), so you'll have to forgive our gawking at anomalies like Jose Mesa's 0.00 ERA or Brad Hawpe's .739 SLG. Like the Two-Headed Goat, such oddities are not long for this world.
At this time of year, the Hit List, like any set of stats, is a conversation-starter, not the final word on quality. Soon enough, teams will rise or fall to approach their true levels of ability, and lying awake at night worrying that it hasn't happened yet is a waste of time. Embrace the Museum of April Oddities rather than fight it.

• • •

Spent this past weekend in Milwaukee with my wife's family. No Sausage Race this time, no ballgame at all as the Brewers were in New York (a trade Omar Minaya worked out, me for Ned Yost's team and a retro '82 jersey, just for the weekend), but the town is definitely abuzz with the fact that it's a new, Selig-free era where their team has a fighting chance.

Even with my rag arm still in a recuperative state, I had a great game of catch with my two brothers-in-law (Aaron and Adam, both of whom I've traveled with in the name of baseball), tossing the ball around for 30 minutes, reliving old glories on the diamond. No matter how many times I've heard it, the one that always wins is Adam's Bob Wickman story.

Adam was the better of the two brothers as a ballplayer, and even spent a couple of years on his college team at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division III school (last year they won the D-III title). He didn't get to hit often (lifetime stats: 1-for-4), but he occupied a rather odd niche that this futilityman -- whose career ended when I was cut from my freshman high school squad -- can admire. In UW-Whitewater's conference, there's a rule that allowed (not sure if it still exists) for the catcher to have a designated runner once he's on the bases as a means of expediting play; no waiting around for somebody to buckle their shinguards for those cheeseheads. Adam was the designated runner for a D-III All-America catcher who got on base fairly often, and thus saw enough playing time to steal several bases despite his few trips to the plate. Not quite Herb Washington, but still close. And much further than I ever got.

Anyway, during the winter, Bob Wickman, one of two UW-Whitewater alums to play in the majors (the other is Gene Brabender of Ball Four fame), would work out with the team. Wickman, who must have been coming off of his rookie '92 season with the Yankees (6-1, 4.11 ERA in 50.1 innings over eight starts), was throwing batting practice to the varsity one day when Adam stepped into the cage. He was supposed to lay down bunts on the first two pitches before swinging away, as was the style at the time. Alas, he didn't get the memo and swung away on the second pitch. He connected and lined a shot which rattled off the screen protecting Wickman.

The hurler was not happy. On his next pitch, he buzzed the tower. "The pitch came right underneath my chin," recounted Adam with a laugh and a demonstration of the ball's trajectory. "I was shaking after that."

Chin music from Bob Wickman. You have to love that story.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


A Royal Beating

Fun time at the ballpark yesterday, a lovely spring afternoon for baseball where the Yanks destroyed the Royals 12-5. This one wasn't even that close, as the Royals -- a team that's lost 100 or more games in three of the last four seasons -- gave the impression of bringing a spork to a gunfight with a lineup that included Doug Mientkiewicz in the #3 spot because Eggshell Mike Sweeney had been hit on the hand the day before. The franchise has fallen on some hard times, given that former Wal-Mart president/CEO and current Royals owner David Glass has applied the aesthetic of his old venture to his latest one, producing a cut-rate crapfest of a team in the hands of Allard Baird, an easily-swindled mark among the game's GMs.

Kansas City rolled up three runs off of a shaky Shawn Chacon in the top of the first, hitting the ball hard three times including a two-run homer by Reggie Sanders and an Emil Brown RBI double off the centerfield wall that Johnny Damon probably should have gotten to. But K.C. starter Jeremy Affeldt, once a highly-touted prospect but now about eighth on the team's rotation depth chart (with Mark Redman rehabbing from arthroscopic knee surgery, Zack Greinke sidelined by psychological issues and Runelvys Hernandez sent down to Omaha for being an overweight tub of mediocre goo), gave it right back. Affeldt began the first by walking Damon and Derek Jeter. Gary Sheffield nearly killed third base coach Larry Bowa with a screaming foul ball (a persistent fantasy of mine that shall last the entirety of Bowa's tenure), then one pitch later launched a three-run homer into the leftfield net to tie the game before the Yanks had even made an out.

Chacon settled down and retired eight batters in a row while the Yanks opened up a 6-3 lead thanks to some ugly pitching from his opposite number. Affeldt finally left the game with two outs in the fourth, having used 88 pitches to yield seven hits, four walks and ultimately six runs, the last of which scored on a wild pitch from reliever Jimmy Gobble. Ugly. "That's not very good," KC manager Buddy Bell, who is probably tempted to hang himself twice a week, later said. "It's hard to elaborate on that, other than to say it's hard to win doing that for a lot of different reasons."

Chacon was no prize pig either. He let the Royals back into the game in the fifth on the strength of a Mark Grudzielanek double and a hit from stinky Minky. The outfield defense looked particularly brutal on the former. With Sheffield DHing, Joe Torre stuck Bernie Williams out in rightfield for his first start there since August 6, 1992. The Grudz shot, a gapper between Damon and Williams, showed that while neither has much range, the throwing arm of the new boss is no better than that of the old one. The two of them could have kicked the ball back to the infield with more efficiency.

Still, the Yanks kept digging into the creamy nougat of KC's middle relief. Jason Giambi drove in a run with a double and took third on the throw, the closest he's come to a triple since 2002, his first year in pinstripes. "Wheels" Giambi was then nailed at the plate tagging up on a short fly ball. Let's hope Sheffield's aim at Bowa improves.

The Royals pretty much gave up the ghost in the seventh. With Steve Stemle on in relief of an ineffective Luke Hudson (the Chris Gwynn to Tim Hudson's Tony) and runners on first and third with one out, K.C. shortstop Angel Berroa bobbled a potential double play grounder. Then Giambi looped one to right centerfield gap, where Shane Costa short-hopped a ball and in trying to sell the call, dropped it completely. This was generously scored an RBI double.

At that point, the game was already three hours old and the sky overcast. My friend Nick and I, fearing onset of the gout after eating three hot dogs apiece and sharing three bags of sunflower seeds, and cowering at the specter of Jaret Wright or Scott "The Proctologist" Proctor closing out the ballgame (Kyle Farnsworth and Ron Villone actually did the deed, but the point stands), fled Yankee Stadium for a day when a legitimate baseball team might return to challenge the Yanks. Still, a fun first game of the year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


You Can Piss Off Some of the People Some of the Time

The first Prospectus Hit List of the regular season went up on Tuesday at BP, and it's new and improved as it begins its second year. I'll save my breath and simply crib the intro (itself a new feature), which explains the upgrades:
With one week of play in the books and the tempers of last week's angry mob of White Sox fans in need of more stoking (2-4 record be damned), it's time to break out the first in-season edition of the Hit List. This week marks the debut of the Hit List Factor (HLF), the underlying figure which determines the rankings of the 30 teams (it was there last year, we just didn't publish it). Normally, the HLF is calculated from the actual, first-, second-, and third-order winning percentages as presented in our Adjusted Standings, but since those magical numbers aren't online yet, we're working with the bathtub gin equivalent: one part actual winning percentage, one part Pythagenpat and one part PECOTA (the same rotgut that gave some of you the dry heaves last week). Ready to fire off another angry e-mail? Hold your fire and instead get giddy over small sample sizes. They don't mean much unless you're expecting Chris Shelton to knock 116 homers, but they remind us to enjoy the hothouse flowers before they're wilted by the heat of the pennant races. To everything there is a season, and now's the time for guys hitting .536.
As you can see, the slings and arrows of a small cadre of indignant White Sox fans last week left me a little punchy, so I also set a little boobytrap of sorts for them in the Pale Hosers' entry. Most of the folks who've seen it got a good chuckle -- our system administrator even forwarded me a couple of actual emails, though one reader took extreme offense, as did one Blue Jays fan about my frank admission that the Toronto franchise's current state leave me yawning.

Memo to Mr., who didn't leave me a valid reply address in his very rude email about my Blue Jays comment: I'm not a Red Sox fan, I have no intention of eating shit, I've got nothing against Canada or Canadians in general, and most importantly, I don't answer to "bucko." Oh well, you can't please all the people all the time. A Bronx cheer to anyone who takes offense or who gets too worked up about rankings at this time of year. The Hit List is a conversation starter, a summary of the week, and an entry into the rest of BP's content, not a reason to fly off the handle.

Speaking of da Bronx (I'll show you da Bronx...), I'm off to this afternoon's Yankees-Royals game. It's not Opening Day at the Stadium (which again lived up to its special billing yesterday), but it's a great day for a ballgame here.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


The Big Five

Sunday, April 9 marks a special day in the history of Namely, it's been five years since the inception of this site, five years since I penned this memorial tribute to Willie Stargell, registered a domain name that had been rolling around in my head for a few weeks, started learning the basics of HTML and web site construction, and began inflicting my version of baseball fandom and Luis Sojo worship on an unsuspecting public.

In the back of my mind, when I started to to think about this milestone, I envisioned doing something special to mark the occasion. Before I could get too serious about implementing any of my splashy ideas, I landed a sweet six-week gig writing for Fantasy Baseball Index, one that turned the rest of my life upside-down in the service of keeping attuned to the depth charts and injury situations of all thirty teams during a time of maximum roster volatility. It left me very little time to write in this space, something I dearly missed, but at the same time, it was exhilarating, it was maddening, it was educational, it was stoopid, it was work, it was fun. In conjunction with a few promotional appearances for Baseball Prospectus amid the mayhem, I felt proud that the five years I've put into this site and into writing about baseball had literally paid off.

Doing Futility Infielder has changed my life. It's made time fly; just the other day I was a 31-year-old art director with a new girlfriend on the cutting edge of a nascent phenomenon. Now I'm a 36-year-old freelance writer/designer/layabout who's closing in on my one-year wedding anniversary to the gal who encouraged me to follow my muse, often finding myself too busy to add to the massive chorus of a blogosphere gone wild. Running this site has provided an excuse to travel in pursuit of spring training, the All-Star Game, and the World Baseball Classic. It's put me on TV, on the radio, in bookstores, into a seven-foot tall sausage costume and on the shitlist of at least one bestselling author and a few mainstream columnists. It's filled my shelves with a plethora of free books from other authors, and crammed my scorebooks full of observations both trenchant and inane. It's brought me a wide network of new friends with whom I can spend hours swapping emails, talking on the phone, bending elbows or reveling in the highs and lows of the local nine.

Most importantly, it's allowed me to find a new voice for myself -- a voice I'd been seeking my entire life, I now realize -- and even made me a viable candidate for paid work in writing about baseball. I don't think I could ask for much more than that out of the past five years. And I thank each and every one of you out there who has helped to make that possible; I know who you are even if you don't.

So I'll wave this particular milestone through as though it were a runner on second base scoring on a gapper, a cool moment, but still part of the bigger picture of what I'm working towards -- a book or three with my own name on the cover, a site stocked with stories of all the characters which have made my quarter-century of fandom so rewarding, a wealth of tales for my kids and grandkids that can live up to the ones my father and grandfather told me about this grand pastime. I'm light years closer to that goal than I could have envisioned half a decade ago. So if today's celebration is a bit muted by the aftermath of my crazy month and the dawn of the regular-season Prospectus Hit List, know that I'll find some way to revel in The Big Five in due time.

• • •

On Opening Day, a few of my Baseball Prospectus buds and I indulged in a roundtable as the Yankees destroyed the A's 15-2. At some point the chatter turned to scouring the rosters to see the unlikely names who turned up. Nate Silver placed the over/under the players of whom roster maven Christina Kahrl had never heard at four. Christina took the time to count and came up with two or three. Yowzah.

While I couldn't approach that number, I could relate. Roster battles had become the essential dietary staple of my fantasy month, whether following the players I'd covered for BP06 as they chased spots on the 25-man Opening Day dockets (here's poor James Jurries, beaten out by a nearly invalid Brian Jordan for a spot on the Braves, there's Matt Diaz winning the platoon battle in left) or stumbling down memory lane with a blast from the past (how the hell did Luis Ordaz, a staple of the original "Confessions of a Futility Infielder" piece, and one of the most inept hitters ever -- .218/.274/.248 -- turn up on the Rays roster, only to tear up his knee five innings into his first big-league game in four years?).

Savoring Ordaz's all-too-brief cameo in the box scores, I dug in when our chatter randomly turned to a member of Infielderus futilis whom I knew nothing about: Jim Walewander, a Tigers backup whose sole big-league home run (witnessed by Nate Silver) became inextricably intertwined with his appreciation of the band the Dead Milkmen (who also witnessed said blast), somehow scarring his meager career (see this Chin Music interview for the full story).

I love the places that talking about baseball can take us. That's why I do what I do.

• • •

As I recall the fond memories of my own baseball-watching youth, I'm heartened to find that the anniversary of this site's inception shares its date with another noteworthy anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, on April 9, 1981, a rotund 20-year-old rookie, Fernando Valenzuela, took the hill of Dodger Stadium in place of an injured Jerry Reuss and spun a shutout against the Houston Astros to open the season. That was the first of an eight-start streak in which Valenzuela would toss seven complete games and five shutouts. By May 18, he was 8-0 with a microscopic 0.50 ERA, a transcendant superstar who could pack stadiums yet still couldn't speak a lick of English. Fernandomania was all the rage.

I was an 11-year-old baseball geek when this all went down. I'd cut out Valenzuela's box scores and tape them into a notebook, compute his microscopic ERA on my mom's calculator, trace pictures of him out of Sports Illustrated. No player ever let me revel in the experience of being a fan the way he did.

Though a seven-week strike would mar the 1981 season, the Dodgers, due to some split-season chicanery, made the playoffs on the strength of their early burst from the gate on Valenzuela's broad shoulders. They fell behind the Astros 2-0 in the ad hoc Division Series between the two champs of the NL West before taking three in a row, fell behind the Expos 2-1 in the NLCS before forcing the game -- delayed a day by rain -- that would decide the pennant. Fernando matched Ray Burris for eight innings of a tense 1-1 duel before Rick Monday bopped a two-out solo home run off of Steve Rogers, the Montreal ace summoned in relief on two days' rest, in the top of the ninth. The Expos had two out and two on before Tommy Lasorda summoned Bob Welch out of the bullpen to close the deal and nail down the pennant for the Dodgers (ask an Expos fan about Blue Monday and you'd better have a handkerchief and a shoulder to offer).

Thus the Dodgers made it back to the World Series to face the Yankees for the third time in five years. They fell behind two games to none but Valenzuela proved the stopper in Game Three, recording one of the ugliest complete games on record: 9 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 7 BB, 6 SO. The Dodgers won that game 5-4, and reeled off three more to vanquish the Yanks for their first World Championship since 1965. That winter, Valenzuela was voted to both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors.

Of all people, my sparring partner at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Gene Collier, penned the warmest tribute to Fernandomania today:
In the quarter century since, baseball rarely has delivered the kind of uplifting story line that would explode across this continent over the next 5 1/2 weeks. On this silver anniversary of Fernandomania, that sounds vaguely like an indictment, even if it isn't meant that way.

...But he was so much more than the staggering proportions of his statistical profile. His cherubic innocence channeled everything that was good about the game, and his windup, an earnest 100-degree twist punctuated with a last-second glance to the heavens just before his delivery, suggested the intercession of a higher power.
I'm not sure I could have found a better example of the way baseball brings all of us together than to find an old nemesis evoking such fond memories on this special day.

That, dear readers, is why I do what I do.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Hit It!

It's Opening Day, and the Preseason Prospectus Hit List is up at BP. Due to some design and timing issues, some of the data used to determine the rankings wasn't listed, so I will run it here while explaining the rankings in a bit more detail. For team comments, please see the original article. Please note that I'm already aware that I botched the chronology of the hiring of Reds GM Wayne Krivsky and the trade of Sean Casey. Score that E-6. Sorry, Reds fans, that doesn't change my opinion that your team is totally screwed.

Anyway, as you may recall, the regular-season Hit List rankings are derived from Won-Loss records and several measurements pertaining to run differentials, both actual and adjusted, from the Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings through the close of play on every Sunday. The preseason rankings as shown in the article under discussion (and listed below), are a different beast. They're derived from the Playoff Odds Report, a million-run simulation which uses the PECOTA-driven projected winning percentages for each team as the team's third-order winning percentage.

The consequence of this is that a team like the Dodgers ranks higher than they would if I was just using projected winning percentage. The Dodgers only project to a .537 winning percentage (Pro W% in the chart below), which isn't so impressive, but they're the only team in the NL West even projected to break .500, greatly increasing their chances of reaching the postseason. There's no built-in bias in choosing to rank the teams this way, or in the fact that the A's wind up with the top spot; I'd decided the methodology before these percentages were finalized; earlier iterations had the Yankees on top and the Dodgers a bit lower down. If this gets your panties in a twist,well, you'll have to wait for the regular season for the team you're bitching about to rise or lower itself to a truer level of ability.

So, without further ado, here's the list:
Rk  Team       Pro W%  pW-pL   Div    WC   Total
1 Athletics .574 93-69 56.3 6.6 62.9
2 Yankees .580 94-68 43.3 15.7 59.0
3 Red Sox .574 93-69 39.8 16.2 56.0
4 Dodgers .537 87-75 40.5 6.0 46.4
5 Mets .543 88-74 34.9 9.4 44.3
6 Indians .543 88-74 35.2 8.8 44.0
7 Phillies .531 86-76 29.2 9.0 38.2
8 Cardinals .531 86-76 25.6 10.2 35.8
9 Braves .525 85-77 26.9 8.9 35.8
10 Twins .519 84-78 23.5 7.8 31.3
11 Cubs .525 85-77 20.9 9.3 30.2
12 Brewers .519 84-78 19.7 9.1 28.9
13 Tigers .512 83-79 21.1 7.3 28.4
14 White Sox .506 82-80 19.4 6.9 26.3
15 Giants .494 80-82 19.5 4.7 24.2
16 Angels .500 81-81 17.8 6.2 24.0
17 Astros .500 81-81 14.2 7.5 21.7
18 Rangers .494 80-82 14.9 5.4 20.3
19 Padres .481 78-84 15.8 4.1 19.9
20 D'backs .475 77-85 14.4 3.8 18.2
21 Pirates .488 79-83 10.4 6.0 16.4
22 Blue Jays .488 79-83 8.3 6.9 15.2
23 Mariners .475 77-85 11.0 4.2 15.2
24 Reds .481 78-84 9.2 5.3 14.5
25 Rockies .457 74-88 9.9 2.6 12.5
26 Orioles .475 77-85 6.6 5.7 12.4
27 Marlins .438 71-91 4.9 2.1 7.0
28 Nationals .432 70-92 4.2 1.9 6.1
29 Devil Rays .426 69-93 2.0 1.9 3.9
30 Royals .377 61-101 0.8 0.3 1.2
Other abbreviations: pW-pL is the team's projected Win-Loss record based on PECOTAs and playing time projections, Div their chances of winning the division according to the simulation, WC their chances of winning the Wild Card, and Total the sum of those two probabilities.

OK, enjoy the games today, and if you're watching tonight's A's-Yanks game (between the top two teams on the Hit List, what wonderful synergy), please drop by a special roundtable I'll be participating in along with other BP authors including (I think) Steve Goldman.


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