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.

Monday, September 29, 2008



Cutting through the metaphorical hangover of a thrilling day of baseball to go straight to the bullets, because I've got about 5,000 more words to deliver over the next three days:

• I've got a Brewer-centric article on Sunday's action:
I don't know how many times I've seen the clip. Big Pete Ladd delivers to Rod Carew, who grounds to Robin Yount, who throws over to Cecil Cooper, who clutches the ball in his glove and raises his outstretched arm as he heads towards the dogpile on the mound where the Milwaukee Brewers celebrate their 1982 pennant. That final out has stood as the pinnacle of the Brewers' success for over a quarter of a century, a moment to savor for a franchise that has enjoyed more bad times than good in 40 seasons of existence across two cities and two leagues. It defined not only the success of a pennant captured, but the failure to top that with a World Championship, and the epic, playoff-free drought that the franchise endured during 25 years of frustration and occasional humiliation.

All of that changed on Sunday. The Brewers didn't capture a pennant on the final day of the 2008 season, didn't even capture a division crown, but the pairing of their come-from-behind victory over the Cubs with a loss by the Mets earned them the NL wild-card berth. Furthermore, it guaranteed that if nothing else, the next generation of Brewers fans will have a new highlight reel to etch into their collective unconscious, one featuring Ryan Braun's towering two-run eighth-inning homer and CC Sabathia's bear hug of Jason Kendall after sealing the victory by inducing Derrek Lee to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play. A new chapter has been written in Milwaukee baseball, and it's about damn time.

I know that 1982 clip by heart, not only because I was one of many baseball fans across the country who climbed onto the bandwagon of Harvey's Wallbangers, but because I married into a family of Brewers fans, a long-suffering bunch for whom that now-ancient pennant remains a touchstone.
I can't tell you how elated I am that the Brewers made it. I was as absorbed in their quest for the playoffs as I've ever been for any Dodger or Yankee run, and I had just as much fun. As to whether I get to worry how things might shake down if the Dodgers and Brewers were to meet, the long odds suggest that won't be a problem.

• Further down in that piece, I take on something Rob Neyer wrote the other day:
Over the weekend, ESPN's Rob Neyer noted the supportive comments of former Orioles great Jim Palmer, who thinks Mussina is Hall-worthy. "I always said I thought he was every bit as good as I was," Palmer told the Baltimore Sun's MASN Online's Roch Kubatko. Neyer begged to differ: "He wasn't. Jim Palmer won three Cy Young Awards and finished with 268 wins and a 126 career ERA+. Mussina's got 269 wins, zero Cy Young Awards, and a 122 career ERA+."

With all due respect to Neyer, he's off base here. Mussina may lack Palmer's hardware, but over the course of his career he's been more valuable than Palmer was, and not by a little. Over the course of 19 seasons, Palmer pitched 3,948 innings and was 151 Pitching Runs Above Average and 1,064 Pitching Runs Above Replacement, worth 99.6 WARP3 according to Clay Davenport's system. Mussina, in 18 seasons totaling about 400 fewer innings, was 312 runs above average -- more than double Palmer, in other words -- and 1,302 Pitching Runs Above Replacement, good for 132.4 WARP3. Palmer's best seven seasons (his peak, in JAWS terms) were worth 64.3 WARP3; Mussina trumps that with 66.5 WARP3. Mussina's also got a considerable edge in career VORP (860.7 to 752.9) and a slight one in SNLVAR (99.7 to 96.2). Properly adjusted for the context of a more difficult work environment, he gains the advantage.

Jim Palmer was a great pitcher on some ballclubs that are regarded among the best of the '60s and '70s. The matinee-idol good looks, the underwear ads, and the public feuds with manager Earl Weaver make for a colorful public persona that rounds out out his Hall-worthy credentials to the point of legend. Mussina bore the burden of spending the first half of his career pitching in the shadow of that legend on ballclubs that weren't the equal of those Weaver squads, and he developed a public persona that, while thoughtful, was far more reserved than that of the outgoing Palmer. Accompanied by the evolution of the starting pitcher's role over the last three decades, those differences dramatically distort the perceptions of the two pitchers, but props to Palmer for recognizing that and for speaking up on Mussina's behalf. Even if he never throws another pitch, Mike Mussina is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown.
Neyer responds. The traditional stats are on his side in that Palmer had more wins, a higher winning percentage, and the second-best ERA+ of the decade among pitchers with at least 2000 innings. But the stat I called upon, Pitching Runs Above Average, is designed to separate pitching from defense. Moose's strikeout rates relative to the league (a translated rate of 6.9 EqSO/9) made him much less reliant on his defense than Palmer (5.2 EqSO/9), so he's rewarded by getting a larger share of the credit for each run saved on his watch, and thus generated more value. Put another way, Palmer owes more of his standing to perennial Gold Glovers like Brooks Robinson, Bobby Grich, Mark Belanger and Paul Blair (36 Gold Gloves between them, not all concurrent with Palmer's tenure) than Mussina does to his fielders.

In the grand scheme, it matters more that Neyer and I and anyone else who reads either of us agree that Moose is Hallworthy than it does as to how he rates relative to Palmer. Still, it's always fun to go mano a mano with Rob.

• I was also part of an epic roundtable for the White Sox-Tigers play-in game (including the rain delay):
Jay Jaffe (11:46:43 AM PT): Ford Frick (D.C.) asks: "Has there ever been a study that suggests whether one team's regular season record against another's is a predictor of playoff success/failure. For example, if the Rays had been 3-8 vs. Boston and 8-2 vs. the Angels during the regular season, is there any empirical data to indicate they would have a better chance of defeating the Angels (as opposed to the Red Sox) in a 5- or 7-game playoff series? Thanks."

I don't know of any published studies towards that end but I strongly suspect Nate Silver and Dayn Perry took a look at that among untold other stats and metrics for the playoff-related chapter in our Baseball Between the Numbers book. While we're at it, it's worth mentioning that Nate and Dayn found no statistically significant relationship between records after September 1 and playoff success, or between previous postseason experience and playoff success.

One more thing, and this is something I looked at over the weekend and may publish in an article format if it actually turns into something interesting upon further investigation: at least with regards to first-round matchups, actual Won-Los records are less predictive than Pythagorean records. Of the 100 first round contests (League Championship Series from 1969-1993 excluding 1981, and Division Series from 1995-2007), only 42 of them were won by the team with the better raw record. 49 of them were won by the team with the better Pythagorean (first-order) record, 47 by the team with the better third-order record. Limiting it to just the five-game series of the Wild Card era, the numbers are 24/52 for actual, 29/52 for first-order, and 26/52 for third-order. The take-home message is that short series are mostly tossups in which anything can happen, and that looking solely at teams' raw records (and probably head-to-head records) isn't a great way to judge these matchups.
I'm hoping to revisit that data before the playoffs get underway.

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