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.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Three and Out

A few quick links from earlier this week before I head off on my European vacation:

• In Wednesday's New York Sun, I wrote about the demise of the Mariners. A couple of early paragraphs were apparently cut, one for space reasons, the other because the transition kinda sucked. Warts and all, here's the director's cut of the relevant portions, with the excised paragraphs in brackets:
When the sun rose on August 25, the upstart Mariners were sitting pretty. Thanks to a streak in which they won 13 out of 17, they were 73–53, one game behind the Angels in the AL West, and three ahead of the Yankees in the wild card race. According to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds report — which uses a team's run-scoring and run-preventing proclivities in a Monte Carlo-simulation that plays out the rest of the season one million times — the M's held a 29% shot at winning their division, and a 30% shot at the AL Wild Card.

Less than three weeks later, the Mariners' ship has all but sunk. A 1–13 skid helped knock them 8.5 games back in the division, and 5.5 back in the wild card, plunging their Playoff Odds down below 2%. In terms of raw wins and losses, they've set a dubious record — no team so far above .500 so late in the season has ever collapsed so quickly. What went wrong?

[In the grand scheme, the Mariners simply regressed to the mean. Studies have shown that run differentials are better predictors of future performance than past won-loss records. At the point when they were 20 games above .500, the Mariners had outscored opponents by just 28 runs, with rates that projected to a far less impressive and contention-worthy 66-60 record. Call their recent plunge a market correction, a brutal one at that.]

In retrospect, it's surprising the Mariners contended at all this year. The team that made the playoffs four times between 1995 and 2000, and averaged 98 wins a year between 2000 and 2003, has fallen on hard times, with four straight losing seasons and a slew of questionable free-agent signings by general manager Bill Bavasi. Back in the spring, Baseball Prospectus projected the Mariners to finish 73–89, last in the AL West, with the third-worst mark of any AL team.

[Even in surpassing that projection, the team has ridden an emotional rollercoaster. Amid an eight-game winning streak in late June, manager Mike Hargrove resigned abruptly to spend more time with his family. Three weeks later, replacement John McLaren navigated the club through a seven-game losing streak that foreshadowed their late August troubles. Stability is not among the 2007 Mariners’ limited virtues.]
More after the jump.

• The Mariners were also the focus of Tuesday's Hit and Run; you'll see some crosover between that and the Sun piece, but the emphasis was on the bullpen's second-half decline. After posting a 3.72 Fair Run Average (accounting for their performance of inherited and bequeathed runners via the good old run expectancy tables; here is a good layman's explanation) in the first half, they've ballooned to a 5.30 FRA in the second half, the fourth-highest jump in the majors. Several contenders have had similar troubles; the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Brewers, and Padre join the Mariners in the bottom 10, with the Padres dead last, jumping from 2.51 to 5.45.

Also in that Hit and Run is a quick look at Pedro Martinez's JAWS case for the Hall of Fame, and a comparison between his case and that of Sandy Koufax:
Coming into the year, Martinez's JAWS score (113.7 career WARP3/75.3 peak/94.5 JAWS) was well above the Hall standard for starting pitchers (99.0/62.7/80.9). His JAWS score ranks 20th all-time, and his peak score ranks 14th. As I noted in Mind Game, his 2000 season ranks as the best ever in terms of RA+ (293) for any pitcher with at least 150 innings.

Compare that to Koufax; as impressive as the Dodger lefty's stats were, his best seasons were achieved under some of the most favorable conditions of any pitcher, and his JAWS score (70.7/60.3/65.5) is miles behind Pedro, ranking 80th of all time. He was basically a league-average pitcher from 1955-1960 before taking a big step forward in 1961 (the year before the team moved into Dodger Stadium), but he's only got three seasons above 9.0 WARP3. In comparison, Pedro has six. Koufax's best RA+ was "just" 196. But before anybody gets the pitchforks out to either run him out of the Hall (or me out of the field of baseball analysis), as one Schmuck tried to do to BP alum Dayn Perry, let's not forget that Koufax's Hall of Fame case also includes three Cy Youngs, an MVP award, gallons of black ink, three World Series rings, an 0.95 postseason ERA, and the enigmatic glow that comes from retiring while at the pinnacle of success.

Glow aside, Martinez isn't lacking in any of those categories, with three Cys, a ring of his own, and even more black ink in an era where the increased player pool makes it much harder to come by. His JAWS score and other Hall of Fame credentials are so rock solid that he stacks up pretty well with 300-game winning teammate Tom Glavine (129.4/61.4/95.4 coming into the year). He's my lock of the week, and it's a pretty big lock.
• Finally, I'm honored to be the author whose It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over chapter has been chosen for excerpting on the BP site. "The Summer of Loving Carl Yastrzemski" is a supporting chapter for my narrative on the 1967 American League race between the Red Sox, Twins, Tigers, and White Sox, which leads off the book. Here's the intro; you can read the rest at BP, where it's free:
In the simplified narratives that our sports media produce, the notion of one player’s carrying a team is a popular and appealing one. It puts a human—even superhuman—face on a disparate collection of players, emphasizing the strengths of one hitter’s or one pitcher’s accomplishments while glossing over his own weaknesses and those of his teammates. Who cares about Babe Ruth’s lousy baserunning, or who was riding shotgun to Joe DiMaggio in 1941, or even Barry Bonds’s peevishness unless it actually cost his team a game? Can one player carry a team? Performances like Carl Yastrzemski’s final two weeks of September 1967, when he hit a jaw-dropping .523/.604/.955, certainly suggest it’s possible for a short time. In the longer term, the nature of baseball would suggest not. Aside from the obvious—the simple unlikelihood of one player’s maintaining such a high level of performance over a larger time frame—there’s the inherent structure of the game. The best hitter can only bat once every nine times, the most durable pitcher needs a few days’ rest between starts, and even the best fielder (beyond catchers) handles the ball only a handful of times each game, making it extremely unlikely that a team could keep relying on the same player over and over again for that extra boost.

As superficial as the notion of one player’s carrying a team may be, our ability to quantify the contributions of each player via an all-encompassing value metric like wins above replacement player (WARP) lends itself well to exploring the limitations of this concept as it applies to a full season. WARP measures each player’s hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions against those of a freely available reserve or waiver-wire pickup. The metric calculates these contributions in terms of runs and then converts those runs into the currency of wins. Park and league contexts are built right into WARP, so that, for example, a player in a barren offensive environment such as mid-1960s Dodger Stadium and another player in a bountiful one such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field can be measured on the same scale. With WARP in hand, we can answer questions such as the following:
1. How much impact does the presence of one great player have on a team’s chances?

2. How much impact does the presence of one great player have on a team’s chances if he’s head-and-shoulders above all his other teammates?
While I could quibble with the choice of chapters -- this wasn't my personal favorite even among the ones I contributed, but nobody asked me -- I'm honored to be chosen to represent BP for this. The findings here aren't revolutionary, but they do quantify some answers to questions that are often debated on a more abstract level.

I actually applied a couple of the take-home lessons to this chapter in other BP work, one for the Angels' entry here, countering the notion that they lacked enough star power in support of Vlad Guerrero, and the other to answer a Keltner Test question -- If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant? -- on Jeff Kent. Yes, the Keltner is largely qualitative, not quantitative, but I like to ground my Hall of Fame arguments in numbers and facts before tackling the more subjective elements.

Anyway, I'm off to Switzerland and Austria for the next two weeks, leaving Marc Normandin in charge of the Hit List and my bobblehead collection in charge here. Here's hoping the Yankees can hold onto their playoff spot and that the Dodgers can mount a great comeback while I'm gone.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007


Oh, What a Week

Exhilarating and exhausting week here at Futility Central, full of travel, deadlines, and media:

• On Monday (Labor Day), I worked from home and watched most of Pedro Martinez's comeback outing, which I then discussed with Joel Blumberg on WGBB SportsBreak, which aired later that afternoon. As I said during the discussion, I was quite impressed to see Pedro grit his way through five innings; even with less stuff than he had before, his mastery of the mental side of pitching will serve him well and will certainly help the Mets down the stretch.

• Tuesday morning, I headed down to Washington, DC, for an evening bookstore appearance to promote It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over. Around 30 people came out to Politics and Prose bookstore to hear what Clay Davenport and I had to say about the book, not a bad showing given how little advance publicity we were able to give it at BP. Several readers old enough to remember the races I wrote about had nice things to say about my chapters, particularly the 1967 one, which meant a lot to me; it's always good to know not only that you've brought something memorable back to life but that you've provided some new insights along the way. I'm not sure I could ask for a higher compliment than that when it comes to my work.

• Tuesday also saw publication of my latest Hit and Run piece at BP. This one took a close look at quality starts and at BP's Support Neutral metrics to evaluate the work of starting pitchers. Both individually and on a team level, there's a great deal of overlap when comparing what the two types of stats are telling us:
As defined by [Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John] Lowe, a quality start is one in which a pitcher goes at least six innings and allows no more than three earned runs. It's a simple and elegant stat that suggests a pitcher did a reasonable job of keeping his team in the ballgame. And while it's possible for a pitcher to earn a quality start with a game ERA of 4.50, such instances are rare. In the aforementioned ESPN column, [Rob] Neyer found that in 2005, the average quality start featured a game ERA of 2.04, a non-quality start 7.70 -- that's not a misprint, it's Boeing's next jet -- and the 6 inning/3 earned run/4.50 case constituted just 9.2 percent of all quality starts.

Based on this year's numbers, a team getting a quality start wins 68.0 percent of the time, on par with the 67.4 percent Neyer reported based on 1985 and 2005 data...

...As a metric, SNLVAR [Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement] certainly has its advantages over quality starts. It adjusts for ballpark and opposition strength, strips out things a pitcher can't control like run support and bullpen support, and expresses the result in wins above replacement level. For my money, it's the best metric in the BP toolbox with which to measure starting pitchers, and as such, I use it every week in the Hit List, along with its bullpen sibling, WXRL. However, you can't eyeball SNLVAR over a cup of coffee and a page full of box scores, nor can you impress mixed company with such an unwieldy acronym, one which brings to mind that old Serak the Preparer line: "To pronounce it correctly, I would have to pull out your tongue." The humble quality start is perfect for just such occasions.

Then again, the quality start metric does lack the zazz we at BP like to apply to things, so it's worth passing along a little tidbit from Keith Woolner: our Support Neutral family can provide a sophisticated approximation of quality start rate if we untether ourselves from replacement level and turn towards league average via the per-game stat SNLVA_R (Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added Rate). Simply put, a pitcher's SNLVA_R + 0.5 is the percentage of the time his team would win a game given average offense and bullpen support. So for Jake Peavy, who's got an SNLVA of 5.3 in 28 starts and thus an SNLVA_R of .189, his team can be expected to win at a .689 clip. That's tops among pitchers with 100 or more innings this season.
The piece was accompanied by an Unfiltered entry which clarified my decision to use a definition of quality starts that excluded unearned runs, which generally isn't how we roll at BP.

• Back from DC on Wednesday, I attended that evening's Yankees-Mariners game with an old college friend named Ben (readers may remember him from my wife's fabulous 2003 Game Seven story). After leaving his law practice, Ben has spent the last two years traveling around the world. "Since I last saw you, I've been through 25 countries," he told me. With the desire to catch up and the stresses of the week -- which included arrangements to close on my apartment at the end of the month -- weighing on me, I didn't even bother taking my scorebook to the game. Ben and I simply kicked back in our seats in Section 601 of the upper deck, right behind home plate, and concentrated on baseball and beer, hootin' and hollerin' and just having a good time.

We watched Philip Hughes, who'd been torched for 15 runs in 16.2 innings over his last three starts, overcome some early trouble to give the Yankees six solid innings with six strikeouts. After yielding two walks and an HBP in the first two innings, he surrendered a two-run homer to Raul Ibañez in the third inning -- it could have been a three-run job had the umps not blown a call at second base, when Ichiro Suzuki was out stealing after a single -- and when he yielded a leadoff double to Ben Broussard to start the fourth, it looked like he might be in for another quick exit.

But from that point on, Hughes faced the minimum number of hitters to get through six. Broussard was moved over to third on an infield grounder, but Hughes struck out Jose Lopez and got Yuniesky Betancourt to pop out to end the threat. The only other baserunner he allowed was Ibañez, who was nailed stretching a single into a double to lead off the sixth, though apparently the umps had also victimized Ichiro in the top of the fifth when they called him out on a bang-bang play at first base. Still, it was a good outing from the kid. In light of the injury concerns regarding Roger Clemens (my nickel, based on his comments, says he's got a bone spur) and the ineffectiveness of Mike Mussina, they'll need more where that came from if they want to play into October.

The Yanks could do almost nothing against Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. In the bottom of the third they got their first hit, a solo homer by #9 hitter Jose Molina. His next turn at bat, he collected the Yanks' second hit, leading off the sixth with a single and boldly -- or foolishly, given how slowly he runs -- taking second as Lopez dropped the relay throw. Seriously, you could time the guy with a sun dial.

That hit went for naught, and following an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning from Joba Chamberlain (first time I'd seen him in person), the M's were still ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, when Alex Rodriguez, who'd been doubtful before the game after banging up his ankle in a collision with Adrian Beltre the previous night, bashed a solo homer to leftfield, his 47th of the year. When Robinson Cano reached on another error by Lopez, Washburn's night was done even though he'd allowed just three hits.

In came George Sherrill to face Shelley Duncan, a hacktastic over-age rookie whose swing is all-or-nothing. We watched in amazement as Duncan squared around to bunt. Ben was sure he was going to get one down; I was in total denial. "Attempting to bunt and getting one down are two different stories, and this guy doesn't have it in him to complete the job." One pitch later he'd done just that, sending Cano to second.

At this point, Sherrill lost the plate, walking Jason Giambi and Wilson Betemit, who was playing third base while A-Rod DHed. With Molina looming on deck as Betemit worked the count in his favor, I saw Jorge Posada don a helmet and move to the edge of the dugout. "Watch," I told Ben, "if Betemit gets on to load the bases, Posada's going to pinch-hit for Molina."

"But he's got two hits!"

"Yeah, and he also just got his bell rung." Molina had taken a foul ball off the mask in the top of the inning. "Posada's going to pinch hit because Torre knows he's good at working the bases-loaded walk."

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. Posada took four balls in a row after fouling off the first pitch, and we exchanged high-fives as Ben laughed, "That's why they pay you the big bucks!"

Mariners manager John McLaren, who'd already endeared himself to the crowd by arguing over both Ichiro calls, came out for the second time of the inning. This time he summoned Eric O'Flaherty, who yielded one run when Johnny Damon legged out an infield grounder to prevent a double play, and another when Melky Cabrera singled to rightfield. Brandon Morrow came on and instantly yielded a two-run double to Derek Jeter, bringing up A-Rod again.

"Come on, A-Rod. Two in one inning!" howled Ben. Boom! Another shot to left centerfield for Rodriguez's second home run of the frame and his 48th of the year, tying his own Yankee record for righthanded batters. It was the first time I'd ever seen a player hit two in one inning, and the first time a Yankee had done so since Cliff Johnson in 1977. Amazing!

By the time the dust settled, McLaren had made four pitching changes as the Yanks scored eight run on four hits, four walks and an error to make the score 9-2. Just like the night before, the Yanks had broken open a close game in the seventh. They would add one more run and win going away. Good stuff.

• Thursday found me back on the Amtrak, headed to Philadelphia to make a TV appearance on Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live" show with host Neil Hartman and panelists Rich Hofmann and Mark Kram from the Philadelphia Daily News. On a 90-minute show that alternated between baseball and football in a 30-30-15-15 format, I had the final segment, but at virtually every commercial break, the host plugged the book and my appearance, showing the cover and mentioning my name.

Finally, after some time in the makeup room to keep me from looking as sweaty and disheveled as the week had made me feel, I was on. I did somewhere between eight and 10 minutes, answering Hartman's questions about the methodology which determined the races that made the book, explaining their relevance to the current races (the Phils, after blowing a six-run lead the night before in gut-wrenching fashion, were down to about a 25 percent shot at the playoffs according to BP's Playoff Odds report), kicking around the Phils' 1964 collapse and discussing my 1959 chapter. It was difficult to provide too much detail in such a short time, but I think I used what I had pretty well, and made the most of my brief moment in the spotlight. I'm hoping to get a clip to put up on the site soon.

• Finally, having gone to Philly and back on the same day, I returned home to finish this week's Hit List, one that featured a no-hitter, a near-perfect game, an imperfect game, Network, Old School, C. Montgomery Burns, a poorly-timed look at Troy Glaus' turnaround, and a whole lot of season-ending injuries. I always like the Hit List to feel like a wrap-up of a full, rich week, but this one only scratched the surface of my adventures. Still, given the chaotic circumstances under which it was produced, I'm proud that it went up more or less on time. Aside from the season-ending list, it's the last one I'll be writing given an upcoming trip to Europe. I'm ready for that vacation.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007


TV for Me

The D.C. appearance was great, last night's Yankees game -- first time I've been on hand for a player homering twice in one inning, as Alex Rodriguez did -- was even better. Tonight I'm headed to Philadelphia for a TV appearance to promote It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over. At 6:15 PM, I'll be on "Daily News Live" on Philly's Comcast Sports Net. Hopefully the segment will be added to the network's multimedia page and I'll be able to pass it along.

We'll catch up soon...

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Saturday, September 01, 2007


Jon Heyman's Chass-Ity Belt

Move over, Murray Chass. Ignorance has a new best friend, and his name is Jon Heyman. In a recent mailbag piece, Heyman decided to ape the senile New York Times sports columnist by parading his reactionary view of sabermetrics:
Regarding your NL MVP candidates, how about those two guys in Florida? Yes, the Marlins are not in playoff contention, but it's hard to ignore Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera, especially considering they're first and second, respectively, in the NL in VORP, and rank in the top three in Runs Created. It looks like you went through all the playoff-contending teams, and chose a "good" player from each. Let me ask you: If Cabrera were on a playoff-contender this season, would there be any doubt who the MVP was?
-- Carolyn, Boca Raton, Fla.

Actually, you're right. That's exactly what I did, and how I came up with Prince Fielder as my NL MVP leader. His "good'' year is actually more than good, and the Brewers are right in the thick of the playoff race. While I understand your sentiments, I am more interested in "wins created'' than runs created. And the day I consider VORP is the day I get out of the business. The idea of the MVP is to honor the player who has had the biggest positive impact on the pennant races. I have been a big champion for Ramirez, but I would not consider him a true candidate to win the MVP award.
Emphasis added. Once again, an old-guard sportswriter decides that a simple sabermetric concept is interfering with his ability to gum his applesauce in peace:
"Damn you kids! You don't know anything about the manly, musky smell of a locker room and its relationship to team chemistery and anonymously sourced shit-stirring quotes! It's got nothing to do with your new-age sissy numbers! You don't need a computer to add up RBIs! Hell, I'll bet you think these stat-generating robots put their pants on two legs at a time as they plug their Internets into their calculators. Well, you whippersnappers can pry my ignorance out of my cold, dead hand!"
Funny, I had Heyman for being about 15-20 years younger than Chass. Clearly, he got old in a hurry.

Fire Joe Morgan was on this one like white on rice, and Lone Star Ball took some pretty good cuts, too. So rather than raising my blood pressure any further, I'll simply get off Mr. Heyman's lawn and allow him to resume the search for his pants.

And hope that the day he gets out of the business comes before the day he hands in another award ballot.

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Mr. Pennant Race Book Goes to Washington [BP Unfiltered]

Just a quick and somewhat overdue note here to publicize a rapidly approaching talk and signing to promote It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book. With our editor Steven Goldman on the 15-day DL with the Dreaded Gamboo (get well soon, Steve), Clay Davenport and I will take the ball for an appearance at a site of many a frequent Washington, DC BP soirée:

Tuesday, September 4, 7:00 PM
Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008

More details after the jump...

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