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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The Impact of Elvis, and Other Defensive Improvements

In today's Prospectus Hit and Run piece, I revisit an early-season look at the Rangers' improvement in Defensive Efficiency (the rate at which a team's defense turns batted balls into outs), itself a follow-up of sorts to the record-setting improvement pulled off by last year's Rays. They're no threat to break that record, but they've done pretty well for themselves:
Team        2009   2008     +/- 
Reds        .705   .673    .032
Rangers     .701   .670    .031
Mariners    .712   .682    .030
Dodgers     .714   .691    .023
Giants      .705   .685    .020
Yankees     .699   .682    .017
Pirates     .691   .675    .016
Rockies     .690   .678    .012
Tigers      .696   .685    .011
Twins       .692   .687    .005
While that 31-point improvement doesn't top the record-setting 54-point improvement achieved by last year's Rays, it would tie for the eighth-largest year-to-year increase in the Retrosheet era (since 1954), a tidy accomplishment. The improvement isn't solely due to [Elvis] Andrus, who ranks fourth among major league shortstops in Fielding Runs Above Average (+13) and Plus-Minus (+11 runs), and second in UZR (+10.1). Ian Kinsler (+16 FRAA/+7.5 UZR/+16 Plus-Minus) outdoes Andrus by some metrics, and right fielder Nelson Cruz's numbers are particularly off the charts in both FRAA (+21) and UZR (+13), though they weigh in more conservatively at +7 in Plus-Minus. While the magnitude of his contribution may be in doubt, there's no question that Cruz deserves at least some of the credit for the fact that the team ranks sixth in slugging percentage in balls in play after ranking last in 2008, as Matt Swartz noted last week.

...Also particularly notable among the improved defenses are the playoff-bound Dodgers and Yankees. Rafael Furcal's return to regular duty, the upgrade from Jeff Kent to Orlando Hudson, and a surprisingly strong season with the leather from Casey Blake have made the difference for the former, particularly in helping Randy Wolf place 11th in the league in SNLVAR via a league-low .254 BABIP. As for the Yanks, they owe their improvement to the arrivals of Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher, the departures of Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, the increased presence of both Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera, and a surprisingly strong season from Derek Jeter. Their Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (-0.14) shows that they're basically an average unit at best.

Which puts them ahead of their AL East rivals; indeed the division seems to be leaking defense, given that the Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays all rank among the six teams with the largest declines from last year. In Toronto, center fielder Vernon Wells is as much of a drag in the field (-6 FRAA/-18.3 UZR/-17 Plus-Minus) as he is on the payroll. In Tampa Bay, the Rays have dropped back to the middle of the pack after last year's turnaround; the various fielding systems differ as to where the responsibility for that lies, with Jason Bartlett, Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton each showing up as solidly below average in two of the three major ones.

Because they'll have to live with their defense beyond this weekend, it's the Red Sox who are of the most interest from among this group. Shortstop has been the team's Achilles heel; in the absence of Jed Lowrie, they've gotten below-average work from Nick Green, Julio Lugo, and Alex Gonzalez. The team's BABIP since acquiring the supposedly slick-fielding Gonzalez in mid-August has risen from .314 to .325, and that's with the departures of John Smoltz and Brad Penny, who were doing little more than tossing BP while in a Boston uniform. Mike Lowell hasn't been the same since hip surgery, declining by 27 runs according to FRAA, 21.6 according to UZR, and 22 according to Plus-Minus. The outfield's been a problem as well, with Jacoby Ellsbury falling off a whopping 38 runs according to FRAA, 18.6 runs according to UZR, and 14 according to Plus-Minus. Don't even ask about the catching situation, which doesn't figure into Defensive Efficiency but which rates as a major concern given their upcoming first-round matchup with the fleet-footed Angels.
At the end of the piece I examine the expected regression to the mean of the 23 teams who improved by at least 26 points from Year 0 to Year 1 and played full schedules in Year 2 (i.e., no strikes, or at least none longer than the 1972 one). Eighteen of the 23 teams declined, and two more were within a point of doing so; the average decline from Year 1 to Year 2 was 10 points. Even so, only one of those teams actually lost ground from Year 0 to Year 2, and the average gain across that two-year stretch was 19 points — a mark we can expect the Rangers to better in 2010 given the return of Elvis.



The Tyner Totem Resurfaces

Remember the saga of the Jason Tyner bobblehead? Blogger Clark Brooks, an avid collector of what the old-schoolers call "nodders," reports that he too is in possession of one of those rare dolls. he left a link to a post discussing the resemblance of various players (and non-players) to their bobbleheads. "I wish I could tell you how I got mine but I can't," he writes of the Tyner totem. "Somebody almost got in trouble for it then and could get in trouble all over again now. So, sorry."

Docked a notch for a lack of candor, but still impressive. Or at least moreso than the real Tyner hitting a combined .153/.223/.176 in limited duty with the Tigers' and Brewers' Triple-A clubs. Oh, mama, can this really be the end?


Friday, September 25, 2009


Friday's Child (Penultimate Edition)

As noted last week, I spend a lot of my time at BP exploring the margin between teams' expected performance (as based upon variants of Bill James' Pythagorean formula) and their actual performance, looking for reasons why it happens and cues as to what it portends. Having taken on the Pythagorean overachievers in last week's Prospectus Hit and Run, this week I delved into the underachievers. We've got a bumper crop of them at the moment:
Meanwhile, there's also potential history being made at the other, less happy end of the Pythagorean spectrum. Since 1901, twenty-five teams have finished at least 10 games below their third-order Pythagenpat projection. Only twice have two teams done so within the same year, first time in 1912 (when both the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves achieved ignominy), and then again in 1993 (when the Mets and Padres did it). This year, no less than four teams are threatening to join those ranks, including two from the same division:
Rnk  Year Team         W-L    Pct    R    RA   AEQR  AEQRA   D3
 1   1993 Mets       59-103  .364   672   744   672   736   -15.1
 2   1935 Braves     38-115  .248   575   852   593   835   -14.6
 3   1986 Pirates    64-98   .395   663   700   666   697   -13.6
 4   2009 Nationals  51-99   .340   661   825   664   773   -13.2
 5   1946 A's        49-105  .318   529   680   529   662   -12.8
 6   1905 Browns     54-99   .353   512   608   521   601   -12.7
 7   1937 Reds       56-98   .364   612   706   620   700   -12.4
 8   1939 Browns     43-111  .279   733  1035   752  1003   -12.2
 9   1962 Mets       40-120  .250   617   948   631   924   -12.1
10   1917 Pirates    51-103  .331   464   595   468   579   -11.9
11t  1975 Astros     64-97   .398   664   711   668   711   -11.8
11t  1984 Pirates    75-87   .463   615   567   612   564   -11.8
13   2001 Rockies    73-89   .451   923   906   910   870   -11.5
14   1993 Padres     61-101  .377   679   772   681   764   -11.4
15   2009 Blue Jays  68-83   .450   727   719   745   714   -11.3
16t  1924 Cardinals  65-89   .422   740   750   745   752   -11.1
16t  1961 Phillies   47-107  .305   584   796   599   782   -11.1
18   1907 Reds       66-87   .431   526   519   527   522   -11.0
19   1967 Orioles    76-85   .472   654   592   657   602   -11.0
20   1936 Phillies   54-100  .351   726   874   739   869   -10.9
21   2006 Indians    78-84   .481   870   782   882   800   -10.7
22t  1912 Dodgers    58-95   .379   651   744   665   742   -10.4
22t  1952 Tigers     50-104  .325   557   738   563   716   -10.4
23   2009 D'backs    66-86   .434   678   735   693   690   -10.3
24   1919 Senators   56-84   .400   533   570   533   565   -10.2
25t  1912 Braves     52-101  .340   693   871   705   857   -10.1
25t  1928 Phillies   43-109  .283   660   957   682   936   -10.1
25t  1972 Giants     69-86   .445   662   649   662   648   -10.1
30t  2009 Rays       77-74   .510   748   691   774   662    -9.6
Recall that the overachievers list skews towards recent history, with the Wild Card era producing eight of the 21 teams who have finished at least 10 games above their expected records. This one, on the other hand, tilts heavily towards the pre-World War II era, producing 12 of the 25 who've finished at least 10 games below their expected records. Not counting this year's bountiful class, just two of the top underachievers are from the Wild Card era.

The main reason for that, I suspect, has to do with bullpen usage. As noted last year and again in last week's piece, a strong bullpen is a consistent means of such overachievement; the historical correlation between a team's cumulative WXRL and its D3 is .42, whereas it's just .20 for SNLVAR. It makes some amount of sense that the current era might produce more overachievers and fewer underachievers because of the fact that WXRL rates and Leverage scores have been on the rise historically, as bullpens have assumed a higher percentage of innings and increased specialization has tailored more specific roles than 20 or 30 years ago...

Note that Bruce Sutter's advent as the modern closer marks something of a turning point [in the graph]. WXRL rates rose above 0.1 per nine innings only four times from 1954 through 1979. By that point, Cubs manager Herman Franks had begun his attempt to limit Sutter's deployment to close games in which the Cubs had a lead—save situations, in other words. The strategy began to take hold, and the only time WXRL rates have been below 0.1 per nine innings since was in the 1981 strike year. They're now about 40 percent higher than they were 30 years ago.
If the Rays join the club, they'll be the first team with a record above .500 to do so. At this writing, they're now 9.5 games below expectation. The Angels, alas, have fallen back to 8.6 wins above expectation, though they can still make history as the first team to finish above 8.0 three years in a row even if they don't finish above 10.0 for the second straight year.

Anyway, I'll be spending a lot more time doing so in the coming weeks, both for the BP site and our forthcoming annual, where I'll be writing about some of the teams involved in these over/underachievments.

• • •

Meanwhile, this week's Hit List is the penultimate one of the 2009 season. It finds the Dodgers retaking the lead from the Yankees, and a bit of food for thought regarding the handling of young pitchers:
[#1 Dodgers] R&R: The Dodgers haven't quite clinched a playoff berth, but they're an eyelash away. Ronnie Belliard helps push them closer with his grand slam off Brad Penny, his second homer in as many starts. Belliard's .333/.382/.619 showing since his August 30 acquisition is hot enough that Joe Torre is surprisingly noncommittal about whether slumping Orlando Hudson (.233/.313/.302 in September, and now earning an additional $10,000 for every plate appearance) is still the starting second baseman. Meanwhile, Rafael Furcal may finally be shaking his season-long funk, hitting .471/.538/.824 over the last eight games, compared to .256/.321/.352 prior.

[#2 Yankees] The Yankees clinch a postseason berth while taking a series in Anaheim, their first since 2004. As their focus shifts to October, there's plenty of concern about their rotation, particularly Joba Chamberlain, whose latest bombing pushes his ERA to 8.25 since the beginning of August and threatens his roster spot. It also leaves Chad Gaudin as the potential number four starter behind CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. Gaudin's .496 SNWP and 3.33 ERA in five starts with the Yanks are respectable, but if he's so great, why waste so much time on Sergio Mitre?

[#3 Red Sox] Young Buchh: Tim Wakefield continues to struggle with his pitching and his health but Clay Buchholz is stepping up just in time. His 6.2 scoreless innings against the Royals marks his ninth quality start out of 10, a span during which he's posted a 2.37 ERA and allowed just four homers in 64.2 innings. If there's concern to be had, it's that Buccholz has now pitched 183 innings between the minors and majors this year, up from 134.2 last year—well beyond the so-called "Rule of 30" increase, but aesthetically speaking, miles beyond the Joba Rules.
Time will tell, of course, whether Buchholz's handling and heavy 2009 workload was detrimental to his career, or Chamberlain's handling was beneficial to his, and it's fair to note that the Laptop Thief is a year older — and further removed from what we at BP refer to as the injury nexus — than Joba, but right now, the Red Sox look to have a clear leg up on the manner in which they've handled things.

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Totally Horseshit: The Jim Rice Story

Having spent his summer besmirching the character of Derek Jeter, Jim Rice continues to demonstrate why he's as horseshit with a mic in his hand as he was as a Hall of Fame candidate. After watching leading AL Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke shut out the Red Sox while allowing two hits, Rice declares that Greinke isn't as dominant as Pedro Martinez circa 2000 (possibly the greatest season ever for a pitcher, at least in the modern day), isn't impressed with Greinke's command, and furthermore, that he reminds ol' GIDP of Roger Moret, who went all of 47-27 with a 108 ERA+ in the Seventies with the Red Sox, Braves and Rangers but is sadly more notable for a slide into mental illness.

Never mind the fact that Greinke leads the league in ERA (2.08) and hit rate 07.6 per nine), is second in strikeouts (229) and K/BB ratio (4.9) and first in shutouts (3) — stats that suggest TOTAL FUCKING DOMINANCE. But I guess all those crazy pitchers look alike to Rice, who is replacing Joe Morgan as Captain Obtuse among the ex-jocks in the booth.

Anyway, Joe Posnanski takes Rice to the woodshed in his inimitable style.
Now … there just isn’t a lot good to say about a post that would compare Zack Greinke to Roger Moret. I mean, to me this is like watching the young Dwight Gooden and saying he reminds you a bit of Bruce Kison. It is true, yes, that both Moret and Greinke are carbon-based life forms who at one time made money by pitching baseballs.

...I do think we’ll have to start a series called "Jim Rice scouting reports." Our first installment:
Albert Pujols didn’t really impress me last night. Yes he went 2-for-4 and maybe I caught him on a bad night, but he didn’t hit a single home run. He may have the most home runs in the league but he doesn’t strike me as a home run hitter. Don’t get me wrong, he hit two doubles, and those were fine, but he’s not the home run hitter that Willie Mays was or Babe Ruth or Josh Gibson, if you believe what people say.

He reminds me of a right-handed Lloyd Moseby. He has that solid stance and doubles-power swing.
Go read.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Kiss 'Em Goodbye

Forgot to mention this in my last entry, but the Baseball Prospectus and ESPN Insider teams are collaborating on a series called "Kiss 'Em Goodbye," in which we provide postmortems for the teams that have been eliminated from contention. ESPN's Buster Olney provides one take, a BP author summarizes our preseason expectations for the club and provides a more statistically-driven take, our Kevin Goldstein weighs in with some prospect information, some draft and trade rumor stuff is thrown into the mix along with a preliminary outlook for 2010... you get the idea.

I've contributed to two of these thus far, last week covering the Brewers, and this week the Indians. Interestingly enough, both teams had something in common: rotations that outside of one guy, largely stunk on ice. Here's my take on the Brewers:
Despite reaching the postseason last year for the first time since 1982, PECOTA pegged them for an 83-79 season, with an 18.5 percent chance at winning the division and a 10 percent shot at the NL Wild Card. Interestingly enough, even given the free-agency departures of [CC] Sabathia and [Ben] Sheets, the team projected to be stronger on the run prevention side (sixth in the league) than on the scoring side (ninth), a counterintuitive forecast given the fact that six of the lineup's eight projected regulars are between the ages of 25 and 29 — or in their statistical prime as far as their expected production. Fielder and Ryan Braun have certainly lived up to expectations, ranking third and eighth in the league in EqA, respectively. Although Rickie Weeks suffered a season-ending injury in May, and J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, and Bill Hall all disappointed, the team got solid enough work from the likes of Mike Cameron, Craig Counsell, Casey McGehee, and Felipe Lopez that they actually rank third in the league in team EqA. On the other hand, the rotation has been an utter disaster.

Key stat: 5.59

That's the ERA of all of the Brewers' starting pitchers aside from Gallardo, whose 3.84 mark is the only one that's better than the park-adjusted league average. Braden Looper (4.77) has eaten innings but done little else worthy of note. Jeff Suppan (4.87) and David Bush (5.85, including 8.24 since the end of May) have combined injury and ineffectiveness, while Manny Parra (6.42) has been dreadful. Fill-ins Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClung, and Mike Burns combined for a 7.25 ERA as starters, not only revealing the organization's sheer lack of rotation depth, but also compromising their bullpen depth via their absence from the relief corps (in the cases of the first two) and their short starts. As a unit, the Brewers rank 15th in the league in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.444), and dead last in rotation ERA (5.19).

The fault here lies with Melvin for his failure to replace Sabathia and Sheets with anything approaching adequacy. Getting a full season out of Gallardo, who was limited to just four starts in 2008 due to a torn ACL, was enough to partially offset those front-end losses from the rotation, but when it came time to open the wallet last winter, the best the Brewers could do was to sign Looper to a one-year, $4.75 million deal with incentives and an option. The bigger problem, of course, is the four-year, $42 million deal they're still paying to Suppan, who's rewarded the Brewers with a Looper-like 4.80 ERA through 91 starts thus far. Freed of that obligation, they might have been able to afford another midrotation starter who could have helped keep them afloat
As for the Indians...
Key Stat: 5.75

That's the ERA of the starting pitchers aside from [Cliff] Lee, who was traded to the Phillies on July 29. The only starter besides Lee with at least 10 starts and an ERA below 4.92 is Aaron Laffey, for whom the team didn't even have space in the rotation until the season was already going down in flames. Laffey's also the only starter this side of Lee with a Support-Neutral Winning Percentage above .500. For all of the bullpen's woes, the starters simply didn't give the Indians a chance to win; aside from Lee, their combined SNWP is just .431.

In retrospect, it's clear that the cast that GM Mark Shapiro assembled behind Lee offered too much risk. Shapiro's plan hinged on rebounds from mostly-lost 2008 seasons by Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes, and [Fausto] Carmona — with a comeback from Tommy John surgery by Jake Westbrook supposed to provide a mid-season lift. None of those pitchers miss many bats, so it's not terribly surprising that the Tribe staff is last in the league in strikeouts. Pavano was erratic and homer-prone; the team eventually dealt him to the Twins in early August. Reyes made just eight starts before needing TJ surgery. Carmona put up a 7.42 ERA through 12 starts before being sent all the way down to A-ball to iron out the mechanical problems which first took hold last year. Despite an initially promising return, he's been pummeled for a 10.72 ERA over his last five starts. To that unhappy brew, add a parade of lefties (Zach Jackson, Jeremy Sowers, David Huff) each more hittable than the last, and rough introductions for a couple of mid-season acquisitions (Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco), and you've got a rotation whose ERA bests only Baltimore's, but without the high-upside prospects which mitigate the Orioles' showing.
Definitely a pair of disappointments, though I'm more optimistic about the Brewers' chances of rebounding than I am of the Indians, who appear headed for a very lean year, with or without the braintrust that got them into this mess.

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Friday, September 18, 2009


Friday's Child (Slight Return)

Three things:

• A hearty congratulations to Pete Abraham, who is leaving The Journal News for The Boston Globe and in doing so will move from covering the Yankees to the hated Red Sox. As any Yankee fan with an Internet connection knows, Pete's been THE go-to beat reporter for all things Yankees for the past few years, punching well above his weight against the city's major dailies because he took to the medium of blogging much more readily than his competitors.

In retrospect, that's hardly a surprise. Pete's been at the Journal News for the past decade, and back in 2004, he interviewed me for an article he wrote about the baseball blogosphere and threw a high compliment my way: "[Alex] Belth and many other bloggers were first inspired by Aaron Gleeman, Jay Jaffe and David Pinto, the Willie, Mickey and the Duke of this fledgling genre. They were among the first and are now three of the best-read bloggers."

Such flattery.

It wasn't until 2006 that Pete added blogging to his beat chores, but in doing so he's set an example of which the rest of the industry is only beginning to catch up (likely while muttering under their breaths). "Blog" was just another four-letter word in the world of mainstream sports reporting, and while there are still hundreds if not thousands of his peers who still don't get it, he took to it like a duck to water. Not only did he manage to create a durable, enthusiastic community at the LoHud Yankees Blog, as it's officially known, but he intuitively understood that things like pregame lineup postings, audio snippets and in-game notes were what his audience craved, and usually scooped the competition with his tidbits of info about injuries and roster moves (sadly, he was never any good at telling me when the Yankees game would be rained out, but that's a small quibble borne of the fact that the press guys are just as in the dark about said topic).

It was only a matter of time before he moved up in the world, and I had high hopes he'd remain in the New York market. As happy as I am for the big lug, he move to Boston is a bit of a kick in the stomach for his Yank-flavored audience, but you can't begrudge the man his due. He's earned this one, and I wish him nothing but the best.

• Twenty-seven years after it was published, I'm finally the owner of a copy of the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract. Though my curiosity had been piqued as a 10-year old when I read Dan Okrent's 1981 Sports Illustrated article, I'd never actually owned my own copy. I borrowed the '82 from a friend that fateful summer and kept it for a couple months, but if memory serves, I returned it once a minor feud over baseball cards was settled. I've been hunting for my own copy for the better part of the past decade and on at least two other occasions had thought I'd secured a copy, one through a bookseller who regretfully wrote back to say he no longer had it in stock, the other by an unscrupulous eBay retailer who refused to ship internationally despite making no note of that on the sale page.

Published by Ballantine, the '82 was the first of the mass-market James books, and because of that, it was a landmark, for it introduced such key concepts as the Pythagorean Method, the Defensive Spectrum, Defensive Efficiency, Runs Created, Isolated Power, park effects, the age 27 prime, pitcher run support, and so much more to the great unwashed audience. All of those concepts are still in use today, and they remain fundamental to the field of sabermetrics.

• This week's Hit List is here, with the Yankees on top, the Dodgers second, and the Red Sox third:
[#1 Yankees] Big Man: As the Yankees close in on 100 wins, lost amid A.J. Burnett's meltdowns, Andy Pettitte's fatigued shoulder and the never-ending drama that is the Joba Rules is the performance of CC Sabathia. He leads the league in wins (17), is second in innings (213 1/3) and ranks among the top 10 in SNLVAR, ERA and strikeouts. The Yankees have won 11 of his last 12 starts, a span over which he's put up a 2.75 ERA.

[#2 Dodgers] Coming Back: After seeing their division lead dwindle to two games while their rotation takes turns foregoing Clayton Kershaw, Randy Wolf, and now Chad Billingsley, the Dodgers fall back on strong performances by Hiroki Kuroda, Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland to beat up on the Giants and Pirates and restore their NL West lead. Andre Ethier homers on back-to-back nights against the Bucs, the latter a 13th-inning game-winner which marks his sixth walkoff hit of the year. In doing so, he becomes the first Dodger to reach the 30-homer plateau since Adrian Beltre in 2004.

[#3 Red Sox] Dice Is Nice: Daisuke Matsuzaka throws six shutout innings against the Angels in his first big-league appearance in nearly three months. Though his ERA still stands at 7.05, Matsuzaka's return is well-timed given the potential diceyness of the team's current rotation situation. Elsewhere amid a seven-game winning streak, Jon Lester tosses eight shutout innings against the Rays two days after a rocky 23-pitch stint is washed away by the rain. He's riding a 17-inning scoreless streak and has allowed just 11 runs over his last eight starts, and now ranks third in the league in strikeouts (211), fifth in SNLVAR (5.9) and sixth in ERA (3.29).
Tough to believe I've got only two more of these to do this season. Where does the time go?

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Thursday, September 17, 2009


One for the Ages

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
— Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

That Satchel Paige was one of the greatest baseball players of all time isn't exactly a controversial topic these days. Even casual fans are probably familiar with the colorful Paige's aphorisms ("Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you"), and have some understanding not only of how brightly he shone amid the high-caliber talent which was so cruelly deprived of the opportunity to play major league baseball by the game's segregation, but also the fact that even a forty-something-year-old version of the pitcher found success at the major league level once Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier. It's certainly a tale worth telling and retelling, though as engaging as the oft-repeated lore surrounding the pitcher's career and character is, repetition has tended to distort and oversimplify the truth about him.

Luckily, Larry Tye has come along to boldly confront the myths surrounding Paige in an excellent new biography, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. I received a copy in the mail several weeks ago and had been itching to dive into its pages before finally getting an opportunity during my recent trip to Buenos Aires.

Many of those myths surrounding Paige, of course, were of the pitcher's own making via interviews and as-told-to autobiographies, and they were a crucial part of his public relations strategy. In his preface to the book (published as an excerpt at Bronx Banter), Tye explains Paige's obfuscation about his birthdate:
Satchel knew that, despite being the fastest, winningest pitcher alive, being black meant he never would get the attention he deserved. That was easy to see in the backwaters of the Negro Leagues but it remained true when he hit the Majors at age forty-two, with accusations flying that his signing was a mere stunt. He needed an edge, a bit of mystery, to romance sportswriters and fans. Longevity offered the perfect platform. "They want me to be old," Satchel said, "so I give 'em what they want. Seems they get a bigger kick out of an old man throwing strikeouts." He feigned exasperation when reporters pressed to know the secret of his birth, insisting, "I want to be the onliest man in the United States that nobody knows nothin' about." In fact he wanted just the opposite: Satchel masterfully exploited his lost birthday to ensure the world would remember his long life.

It was not a random image Satchel crafted for himself but one he knew played perfectly into perceptions whites had back then of blacks. It was a persona of agelessness and fecklessness, one where a family's entire history could be written into a faded bible and a goat could devour both. The black man in the era of Jim Crow was not expected to have human proportions at all, certainly none worth documenting in public records or engraving for posterity. He was a phantom, without the dignity of a real name (hence the nickname Satchel), a rational mother (Satchel's mother was so confused she supposedly mixed him up with his brother), or an age certain ("Nobody knows how complicated I am," he once said. "All they want to know is how old I am."). That is precisely the image that nervous white owners relished when they signed the first black ballplayers. Few inquired where the pioneers came from or wanted to hear about their struggles. In these athletes' very anonymity lay their value.

Playing to social stereotypes the way he did with his age is just half the story of Satchel Paige, although it is the half most told. While many dismissed him as a Stepin Fetchit if not an Uncle Tom, this book makes clear that he was something else entirely – a quiet subversive, defying Uncle Tom and Jim Crow. Told all his life that black lives matter less than white ones, he teased journalists by adding or subtracting years each time they asked his age, then asking them, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" Relegated by statute and custom to the shadows of the Negro Leagues, he fed Uncle Sam shadowy information on his provenance. Yet growing up in the Deep South he knew better than to flaunt the rules openly, so he did it opaquely. He made his relationships with the press and the public into a game, using insubordination and indirection to challenge his segregated surroundings.
While Tye digs deep — the book's bibliography and end notes are both at least 35 pages long, and he interviewed more than 200 Negro League and major league opponents and teammates — and lays waste to some of the tall tales surrounding Paige, what emerges is an altogether more nuanced and ultimately more compelling version of the ageless pitcher. Some of Paige's embellishments, such as his account of his pitching the championship finale for Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1937, don't stand up to the light of day. Others, such as the masterful control which allowed him to throw the ball over a chewing gum wrapper with amazing consistency or his brazen penchant for calling in his outfielders and then getting the crucial strikeout(s), he finds well-documented.

As always, there are the quotes, most of which really did come out of Paige's mouth in some form or other. Asked by his manager if he threw fast consistently, he replied, "No sir, i do it all the time." Asked about his philosophy of pitching, he warned, "Bases on balls is the curse of a nation... throw strikes at all times. Unless you don't want to." Of course, it's interesting to learn that the six rules for staying young for which he's credited were partly the work of Collier's Richard Donovan, as the sidebar to a three-part profile from 1953. And, as Tye notes, not always taken to heart by the font of wisdom from which they supposedly flowed.

Through it all, Tye meticulously tracks Paige's peripatetic ways, noting not only his myriad stops both on his way up (he began pitching professionally in Chattanooga in 1926) and down (his last major league appearance was with the Kansas City A's in 1965; his last regular duty was with the Triple-A Miami Marlins from 1956-1958) but also his numerous barnstorming tours, not to mention the countless times he jumped teams to collect a bigger payday, often by less-than-honorably walking out on his contract. The book's appendix even has a well-compiled statistical thumbnail, collecting the best-researched data on Paige's time in the Negro Leagues, majors, minors, East-West All-Star Games, North Dakota, California Winter League and Latin leagues (though it misses two late stints in the minors in Portland and Hampton, Virginia).

The author offers a good deal of insight into the conditions Paige played under and the men he played for, such as Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee and Kansas City Monarchs co-owner J.L. Wilkinson (whose business partner, Tom Baird, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan). If I have a quibble about the book it's that he doesn't go into great enough detail about many of the men he played with and against, particularly Josh Gibson, though the portraits of barnstorming rivals Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller do stand out. He's acutely aware of the generation gap between Paige and Robinson, or Paige and Indians teammate Larry Doby, who broke the American League color line in July 1947, and doesn't sugarcoat Paige's mixed emotions at being passed over as the man to break the majors' color barrier.

In all, Tye's created an impressive work that never feels bogged down by its lofty ambitions or the weight of the author's research; his prose is a breeze, for the most part. He makes a convincing case for Paige not only as one of baseball's all-time greats but as an agent of social change, covering seemingly millions of miles as he lay the groundwork for the game's integration, delighting fans and winning over doubters and even the occasional bigot while building a legacy that might be matched only by Babe Ruth's in its importance to the game and the nation. This one's a keeper.

For more about the book, see Tye's web site.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Bummer in Boston

I missed this bit of news while I was gone got wind of it this morning, just hours before getting a note from host Chris Villani. Sadly, the ESPN station which carried my Boston radio hits has gone off the air, with the staff laid off. Villani has already landed some other work at WWZN 1510 as well as WEEI, but "The Young Guns" are no more, taking the Baseball Prospectus slot that I'd held for the past year with it.

I'm sorry to see our weekly spot go. It was a ton of fun while it lasted both at WWZN and ESPN, and I'd like to extend a hearty thanks to Villani and the rest of his crew for putting together a smart show that consistently rose above the general inanity of sports talk radio, and wish them the best of luck in the future — hopefully one which finds us working together again.



Halo Effect?

I spend a lot of my time at Baseball Prospectus exploring the margin between teams' expected performance as based upon variants of Bill James' Pythagorean formula and their actual performance, looking for reasons why it happens and cues as to what it portends. In Tuesday's edition of Hit and Run, I explore the Angels' penchant for beating expectations:
According to our Adjusted Standings page, through Sunday the Angels were 11.5 games above their third-order Pythagenpat projection, a fancy way of saying that they've won over 11 games more than the combination of events on the field — their hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, and outs of all kinds, as well as those of their opponents, all adjusted for park, league, quality of competition and temperature of porridge — would suggest. That's by far the top mark in the majors this year, and while it's not enough to break the single-season record of 16.0, set by last year's Angels, it does crack the all-time top 10, and place them in select company:
Rnk  Year Team         W-L    Pct    R    RA   AEQR  AEQRA   D3
1 2008 Angels 100-62 .617 765 697 754 725 16.0
2 2004 Yankees 101-61 .623 897 808 911 831 12.7
3 1970 Reds 102-60 .630 775 681 757 676 12.6
4 2007 D'backs 90-72 .556 712 732 708 739 12.2
5T 1954 Dodgers 92-62 .597 778 740 782 749 12.1
5T 2005 White Sox 99-63 .611 741 645 740 684 12.1
7 1905 Tigers 79-74 .516 512 604 524 601 11.9
8T 1924 Dodgers 92-62 .597 717 679 717 684 11.7
8T 2002 Twins 94-67 .584 768 712 759 741 11.7
10 2009 Angels 86-56 .606 786 679 777 739 11.5

Projected across a 162-game schedule, the Angels' current performance is the equivalent of outdoing their third-order projection by 13.1 games, which would rank second on this list. However, it's a misnomer to say they're actually "on pace" for such a finish, since teams that are outperforming their Pythagorean records by wide margins in either direction tend to regress to the mean. Case in point, they lost on Monday night to reduce their D3 (the difference between their third-order wins and actual wins) to 10.9.

Still, making the list is remarkable enough; from among a field of over 2,200 team-seasons dating back to 1901, just one percent of them have turned in a season at least 10 wins above expectation. What's even more remarkable is that this marks the second year in a row that the Angels have exceeded expectations by at least 10 games, and the third year in a row they've done so by at least eight games, both of which are firsts. Only five teams have even managed the latter feat in back-to-back years
From there, the discussion turns to some of the generalities of overperforming one's projected record:
We often talk of teams that over- or underperform their projected records as "lucky" or "unlucky," but it's a misnomer to chalk up the entirety of such discrepancies to luck. They generally stem from an irregular distribution of runs, so "randomness" may be a better term. Overachieving teams tend to win most of the close games but get blown out a few times. The 16 teams who exceeded their third-order projections by 10 wins or more while playing in the Retrosheet era (1954 onward) — call them the "Plus Tens" — went a combined 469-281 (.625) in one-run games and 324-170 (.656) in two-run games, but in games decided by six or more runs, they were just 223-259 (.462), a mark that includes the 1954 Indians' 20-5 record in such blowouts. All told, those teams went 1016-710 (.586), right in line with their overall .589 winning percentage, while outscoring their opponents by 125 runs in such extreme games. That's the equivalent of a 95-67 team outscoring their opponents by just 11 runs over the course of a season, about nine percent of the run differential such teams have historically posted.

...A major factor in outperforming one's projected record is having relatively more success in higher-leverage situations, such as hitting well with runners in scoring position, or being especially stingy in late-game relief. As I noted last year, a strong bullpen is a consistent means of such overachievement; the correlation between a team's cumulative WXRL and its D3 is .42, whereas it's just .20 for SNLVAR. Of the 16 Retrosheet-era teams above, the 1977 Orioles were the only ones who failed to finish in their league's top three in WXRL.
This year's Angels are set to buck that trend given a bullpen that currently ranks sixth in WXRL, though that's the product of a wretched first month, after which they've been the second best bullpen in the league by that measure. Of course, it also helps that the team is second in the league in scoring, and first in OPS with runners in scoring position. They've been clutch on both sides of the ball to the extent that you don't often see. How well that holds up remains to be seen.

• • •

Due to travel — I was halfway around the globe in Buenos Aires and Montevideo last week — I never got a chance to post a link to the September 4 Hit List.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009


The Circuit Gap

In today's Baseball Prospectus/ESPN Insider double cheeseburger special, I grapple with the American League's persistent advantage over the National League in interleague play. The AL has gotten the upper hand in each of the past six years and has won at a .566 clip over the past five, or .560 over the past three.
To figure out what the strength of the two "teams" are that could produce a result where one won at a .560 clip, we turn to what Bill James called the Log5 method, one I've referenced in my articles on schedule strength and one that Clay Davenport uses — literally millions of times a day — to generate the daily Playoff Odds reports. The formula boils down to WPct = .500 + A - B, where WPct is the observed outcome percentage (.560) and A and B are the two teams. Since we also know that in this case, the winning percentages are complementary (A + B = 1.000), it's simple algebra to determine that a .530 team playing a .470 team would produce that observed .560 winning percentage.

...One revealing aspect about the AL's advantage over the NL is that even the lousier Junior Circuit teams are beating the Senior Circuit ones consistently. Sticking with the last five years of data (including this unfinished season) and splitting each league into upper and lower halves in terms of interleague records — the 35 best (or worst) team-seasons in each half in the AL, 40 in the NL — we find that AL's better half, which won at a .561 clip in those intraleague games, boosted their winning percentage to .610 in interleague games. The lower half, which produced a measly .438 winning percentage in intraleague, kicked NL tail at a .523 clip. The NL's better half posted a .551 winning percentage in intraleague play but just a .447 mark in interleague play, while the lower half dipped from .450 to .421.

This tendency persists if we break the teams into smaller groups. Here it is in quintiles:
Group   Intra   Inter
AL1 .594 .595
AL2 .550 .627
AL3 .504 .587
AL4 .458 .466
AL5 .392 .556

NL1 .580 .439
NL2 .538 .449
NL3 .503 .461
NL4 .460 .408
NL5 .418 .414
Granted, we're not talking about huge sample sizes here (14 seasons apiece in the AL groups, 16 in the NL groups), but… wow. Every NL grouping, from the best 20 percent to the worst, won significantly less than 50 percent of its games against the AL. The top three AL groupings dominated interleague play, and while the fourth AL group won less than half its games, the bottom grouping won at a robust .556 clip, thanks to a couple recent Orioles teams going 11-7, a couple of Royals teams posted winning records (including 13-5 in 2008), and just two of the 14 teams in the group finishing below .500 in interleague play.
There's no shortage of theories as to why the AL enjoys such an advantage, from the DH rule to the evolutionary pressure of keeping up with the AL East arms race to the decrepitude of the NL's worst teams to the notion that the AL somehow enjoys a market size advantage, but that's a topic for another day, and maybe another writer, as I'm mostly interested in the practical applications for this when it comes to strength of schedule and Hit List rankings.

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Bag Job

One of the post-9/11 Yankee Stadium policies that made attending a game so annoying during the park's twilight years was their ban on bags and backpacks:
Accompanying the regular renditions of "God Bless America" were heightened security procedures that subjected patrons to no small litany of hassles while doing little to make them more secure. Given the cursory frisking procedures and lack of metal detection capabilities, it would have been possible to gain entry with a 9mm handgun jammed down the back of one's pants and a Bowie knife sheathed in one's sock, but without those, the organization simply inflicted its increasing paranoia and greed upon paying customers. Backpacks and briefcases were immediately banned from the ballpark after September 11, as though any potential ticketholder might be a terrorist smuggling in a tactical nuclear weapon swiped from the imagination of some z-grade thriller. Not even Shea Stadium—located only two miles from LaGuardia Airport—stooped to such extremes. Anyone coming to the park while porting one of the banned bag types—say, from work—was forced to check it for a fee at one of the bars or restaurants across River Avenue. Anyone wishing to schlep a bagful of items into the stadium — say, a scorebook, a jacket, and reading material for the long subway ride home — was forced to place those items in a flimsy, clear plastic grocery-type bag available outside the turnstiles. No other types of bags, such as ones with reinforced handles, were allowed, first for vague "security purposes," and then, once fans began pressing Yankee security to explain these increasingly irrational and seemingly arbitrary requests, "because you're not allowed to bring bags with logos inside." As you may have divined, I had many a terse confrontation over this policy.
Thankfully, the ban has finally been lifted and the team's policy has been officially updated, bringing the Yanks into line with the several hundred other professional sporting facilities in the country. This isn't to congratulate the Yankees on finally showing some common sense, but merely one last Bronx cheer for over eight years of idiocy and inconvenience.

Hat tip to Neil deMause, who also passed along potentially good news about Yankees playoff ticket prices. A rare week when the morons, imbeciles, crooks and thugs running the non-baseball side of the operation do more than one right.



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