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A note from a reader on BABIP

Reader Abbot Katz checks in with this note on batting average on balls in play.

It has been some time now since the BABIP established its place in the sabermetric canon, and understandably so. BABIP means to aim a quantified scrutiny at a rather interesting problem: the extent to which a batter’s skill at directing 90 mile-per-hour pitches away from the best preventative efforts of sagely-positioned, gloved men can be assayed.

Yet, I have long experienced a measure of unease with the BABIP, and while my hermetic disquiet won’t suffice to give pause to a sabermetrician—and it shouldn’t—perhaps this simple example will:

Imagine two hitters, A and B, both of whom assemble 600 at-bats, 180 hits, and 100 strikeouts. A hits 15 home runs, however, while B musters 40. Both players hit .300, of course, but their respective BABIPs look like this:

A -- .340
B -- .304

And therein lays the conundrum. In what manner shape or form are we entitled to conclude, on the basis of the evidence placed before us, that it is A who more adeptly interposes batted balls between the defenders assigned to thwart him? How can we possibly formulate such a judgment when the data affords us no warrant to do so?

All we know is that B outhomers A, and all we have is a metric

(Hits-HR)/(AB-HR-SO+SF)

which falsely skews its conclusion. And that is because by informing both tiers of the fraction, the subtracted home runs pare the numerator artificially for power hitters, culminating in lower BABIPs.

Again - why should we be entitled to thus declare that high-home run achievers commit inferior skills to the challenge of turning balls in play into hits? That inference is simply not available to us.

In fact, BABIPs typically exceed players’ averages ; but for big power hitters, the relationship undergoes a curious inversion. Babe Ruth’s .342 lifetime average turns into a BABIP of .340. For Hank Aaron, the split stands at .305/.295; yet Rod Carew checks in at .328/.361. Can we thus assert, with the appropriate, straight-faced measure of confidence, that Carew’s ball-in-play facility truly overwhelms Aaron’s by 66 points?

The inarguable mathematical point is this: that, all other things being equal, the player with more home runs suffers a relative decrement in BABIP. All else is speculation. If we proceed from the eminently clear-eyed premise that home runs tend to be hit harder than the average ball in play, we can go on to propose that, were these fence-clearers to fall short by a few feet, they would nevertheless fall for hits in greater profusion than typical batted balls - thus resulting in a higher projected BABIP for power hitters.

That too qualifies as conjecture, albeit a sensible one. Still, the fact is that the BABIP puts the caliper to a most intriguing property of the batter’s skill set in a manner that doesn’t quite measure up.

And thanks for sharing my unease.

1 These figures omit sacrifice flies, which contribute a very small effect.

Posted by Bryan Tsao at 11:38pm (10) Comments

Cardinals ship out Duncan for Lugo for no apparent reason

The Red Sox were certainly busy today. Mere hours after it was announced that the Red Sox had acquired first baseman Adam LaRoche, first baseman/left-fielder Chris Duncan has joined LaRoche in a Sox uniform, as reported by Nick Steiner here at THT Live along with an as-yet unnamed player.

Steiner touches on the fact that each player had fallen out of favor with their respective teams but then opines he's not sure why the Sox were motivated to do the deal, while it "looks like a clear win for the Cardinals."

I'm going to vehemently disagree. This is anything but a clear win for the Cardinals. It's a clear loss.

First, let's tackle the most well-known player in the deal: Lugo. Right here on THT Live on the 17th, I wrote about Lugo when his tenure with the Red Sox ended. I briefly ran through Lugo's history with the BoSox, then turned to this season:
This year, Lugo's offense has seen an uptick, hitting .284/.352/.367 in his best offensive display since his time with Tampa Bay in 2006 before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline in 2006. However, his defense has become atrocious: he's checking in at a cool -43.2 UZR/150.

To put that in perspective, when Yuniesky Betancourt was traded to the Kansas City Royals last week, he was the consensus worst shortstop in the game according to many bloggers. His UZR/150 on the year? -17.4.

So far this year, Lugo is 11 defensive runs below average under John Dewan's plus/minus system. This is horrendous in 243 innings given the numbers rack up as the season goes on. The season leader in 2008 was Betancourt (there's that name again!) at 14 runs below average in 1,325 innings.

As you can see, my focus was more on Lugo's "value" on defense. It's clear that his value on defense is nonexistent. Of course, this will likely change: once Lugo can fully heal from his knee surgery, he'll increase his range. However, Lugo's days as an average fielder are done. He will never reclaim his excellent range and was always brittle with the ball, resulting in booted balls or throws pulling the first-baseman off the bag.

Offensively, Lugo has gotten off to a strong (I guess one can consider it strong, relatively speaking...) start after two disastrous years in Boston; this is not in doubt. But can he keep it up?

R.J. Anderson at Fangraphs:
His ISO has sat well below .100 the past two seasons after never touching .105 or lower the rest of his major league career. His walk rates are still quite solid, same with his strikeout rates. His BABIP hit a rough spell in 2007 but has since bounced back fine. He hit a lot of grounders last season, and now he’s hitting a lot more fliners. Lugo’s tendency to hit a home run has all but vanished. He still makes contact, doesn’t swing out of zone, and he’s seeing fewer balls in the zone.

He's certainly got the potential to remain a league-average bat and should see his defense creep back up to non-horrendous levels, but he's not the answer to the Cardinals' middle infield problems. Not even close.

Now, let's turn to who the Cardinals gave up. This is where it gets baffling.

Chris Duncan, as I first mentioned at Fire Brand of the American League, helps solve some of the Red Sox's woes against right-handed hitting. They have long struggled against right-handers on the season, and Duncan provides a clear advantage there:
Duncan will be arbitration eligible after the year. Duncan burst on the scene in 2002, hitting 22 home runs in 280 at-bats for a line of .293/.363/.590. The year after, he bopped 21 homers in 375 at-bats for a .259/.354/.480 line.

It was downhill from there. He saw only 222 at-bats in 2008, hitting .248/.346/.365. In 2009, he drew the ire of Cardinals fans, hitting .227/.329/.358 in 260 at-bats before being optioned to Triple-A Memphis. That tends to happen when you're 1-for-31 since June 29.

Duncan's off-year notwithstanding, he provides an immediate boost to the Sox's hopes of hitting right-handed pitching: he has a career .270/.366/.485 line against right-handers. Let's not talk about his splits against left-handers.

I should also note that despite Duncan's poor year in 2008, he still managed to post a .749 OPS against right-handers, albeit with no power. Duncan will report to Triple-A Pawtucket where he will attempt to get back on track and provides tremendous depth for the Sox. Under team control at minimal (for the Sox especially, but still in general) cost, it is staggering to contemplate that Duncan provides the Sox with a power bat against right-handers... acquired for a sunk cost.

Sure, the Cardinals could have been afraid they would lose Lugo to another team such as the Mets if Lugo was given the choice of a team to sign with as a free agent. This is logical. What is not logical is giving up someone like Duncan for him.

Duncan will report to Triple-A Pawtucket and do what he could have done in Triple-A Memphis: try to reverse his struggles. He's virtually certain to come up in September and provide a bat off the bench. Provided he can do so, he's got a great chance at landing a postseason spot on the bench and a long-term spot as a bench player for the Sox.

As for the fielding, Duncan is not going to be confused with a gold glove winner out there in left field, but Fenway Park is the one place where being a good fielder in left-field is not an important consideration.

And we haven't even mentioned how the Sox suddenly find themselves with a possible (I stress possible because it's far from certain he can turn things around) replacement in left field for Jason Bay should Bay opt to depart as a free agent. The fit Chris Duncan provides to the Sox is so painfully logical that I would have guessed the Cardinals would have asked for a B/C prospect for Duncan instead of gladly taking on the Red Sox's trash.

Giving Duncan up is going to harm the Cardinals in more ways than one.

First, Duncan was apparently a great clubhouse guy, and his departure has shaken some of the ballplayers. Also, Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan (the latter to no surprise, given he is Chris' father) are very unhappy with this recent transaction. Congratulations to the Cardinals front office for ticking off coaches and players alike.

Second, Duncan provided no harm to them in Triple-A -- only obvious value. Given Rick Ankiel's struggles, the enigma that is Troy Glaus and the Cardinals' clear lack of a consistent power bat behind Albert Pujols, why didn't the Cardinals just hope for the best in Triple-A with putting Duncan back on track?

Sure, there's the theory that the Cardinals thought Duncan was cooked and done in St. Louis (ala Jeff Francouer in Atlanta) but there are some differences, starting with the fact that Francouer had a far bigger body of work in which he disappointed. Also, the Braves needed to make a move to get some offense in the lineup and leveraged Francouer to do that. The Cardinals did not leverage Duncan to get Lugo into the team -- Lugo could have been had for much, much less than Duncan. He was designated for assignment, for crying out loud. All the Sox wanted was an organization player -- someone -- as opposed to releasing him and gaining nothing. To their obvious delight, not only was Duncan available, but they squeezed a player to be named later out of St. Louis as well!

I am not opposed to the Cardinals getting Lugo. In fact, I think it was a smart move for them. But the cost of Duncan, angering the team and a player to be named later to me completely erases any benefit. They could have acquired Lugo easily without giving up Duncan, fan ire or no fan ire.

A clear win for the Cardinals? Not at all.

Posted by Evan Brunell at 7:18pm (11) Comments

Chris Duncan traded to the Red Sox for Julio Lugo; somewhere, Dave Duncan is punching a wall

 That would hurt a lot more in Fenway (Icon/SMI)

As first reported by my homies at VIva El Birdos, Chris Duncan has been traded to the Boston Red Sox for Julio Lugo.

Duncan, coming off a surgery to address a herniated cervical disk in his neck, was one of the worst players in baseball this year, being "worth" -.3 WAR in over 300 plate appearances. He is clearly not the same player that had a .399 wOBA in 2006; since the start of the 2008 season, he only had 11 homers in 482 at bats. That, combined with the fact that he had recently fallen out of favor with a lot of the fans, made it apparent that his days in St. Louis were numbered.

Lugo, on the strength of a -8.3 UZR, was also worth -.3 WAR this year. Similarly to Duncan, Red Sox fans were generally not his biggest supporters, although for different reasons then Duncan. Despite acceptable production in his two previous years with the team, he was signed to a bloated 4 year 36 million dollar contract, and was clearly not living up to it.

This appears to be a simple swap of two players who were under-performing and had fallen out of favor with the organization and the fans. Each team probably feels that a change of scenery would do the players well; so let's take a look at how each player projects going forward.

Lugo

Despite playing in the AL East, he was hitting at a league average level this year with a .329 wOBA. His value was mainly dragged down by an unsustainable (I hope) -46.3 UZR/150 this year. Considering that his career UZR/150 is 2.6, and he had been within five runs of average in each of his first two years with Boston, it wouldn't be disingenuous to project him to be an average defender going forward. That, combined with league average offense, and the positional adjustment awarded to shortstop, yields roughly a 3 WAR player per 600 plate appearances. The Cardinals will likely use him as a backup shortstop, or they might move him to 3rd base and play DeRosa in left.

Duncan

I already mentioned his offensive woes at the start, but ZIPS thinks he is capable of being an above average hitter, projecting a .340 wOBA for the rest of the season. His defense in left is atrocious, and given that the Red Sox already have Youkilis and Ortiz manning first base and DH respectively along with the newly acquired Adam LaRoche, I'm not sure where they are going to put him. At any rate, a slightly above average hitter with terrible defense in a corner outfielder is only a bit above replacement level.

This looks like a clear win for the Cardinals. They get a versatile player in Lugo, who projects to be an above average player going forward. Right in the thick of things in the NL Central, this is a minor, yet potentially fruitful move for the Cards. I'm not sure what the Red Sox got out of it though.

(Update: there is also a PTNBL being sent over by the Cardinals, according to Matthew Leach's twitter)

Posted by Nick Steiner at 5:06pm (7) Comments

Most Recent 10-game winning streaks for all 30 teams

Earlier today, Philadelphia's 10-game winning streak came to an end. In their honor, here is a list of the most recent ten-game winning streaks for all 30 teams. Included is the day they won #10 (which is also how they're ranked, from most recent to oldest) and also noted is how long the winning streak was by its end.

Before looking - care to guess what team has never won 10 straight? Any guesses which team hasn't done it since the LBJ Administration? Here they all are, broken up into fives:

PHI 7/21/09 (10)
COL 6/13/09 (11)
SDP 5/25/09 (10)
BOX 4/26/09 (11)
TOR 9/9/08 (10)

CLE 8/27/08 (10)
NYM 7/17/08 (10)
MIN 6/27/08 (10)
OAK 6/18/06 (10)

WAS 6/12/05 (10)
NYY 5/17/05 (10)
HOU 9/6/04 (12)
PIT 7/5/04 (10)
TBD 6/19/04 (12)

SFR 5/31/04 (10)
MIL 8/28/03 (10)
ARI 6/28/03 (12)
ANA 9/8/02 (10)
SEA 4/17/02 (10)

STL 8/18/01 (11)
CHC 5/30/01 (12)
ATL 4/27/00 (15)
BAL 9/18/99 (13)
CIN 7/1/99 (10)

KCR 8/1/94 (14)
TEX 5/23/91 (14)
CWS 5/26/76 (10)
DET 9/20/68 (11)
FLO -- NEVER

When Detroit did it last, the Vietnam War was in full swing, Nixon and Humphrey were campaigning for the president. There were only 20 teams in MLB and the A's were finishing their first season in Oakland. Earl Weaver was a rookie manager with only 74 games under his belt in Baltimore, and Hank Aaron became the eighth member of the 500-HR club just a few months earlier. Mickey Lolich was the winning picture that day and Al Kaline was their biggest star position player. When the winning streak began, Dizzy Dean was the most recent 30-game winner. (Denny McLain won #31 on 9/19/68.

I'm not sure which is less likely: the Tigers going 41 years without winning 10 in a row, or the Padres winning that many earlier this year.

Posted by Chris Jaffe at 4:16pm (12) Comments

Is LaRoche answer to Sox’s struggles?

The Red Sox today completed a trade to bring first-baseman Andy LaRoche to Boston in exchange for two minor league prospects: shortstop Argenis Diaz and starter Hunter Strickland. LaRoche will make about \$2.95 million the rest of the way, a salary that will be covered by Boston.

On the Sox's end of things, LaRoche gives the team a lefty bat with a history of success against right-handed pitchers, particularly in the second half. On the year, LaRoche is hitting .257/.360/.472 against right-handers for a .833 OPS. This jives nicely with his career .847 OPS against right-handers.

Also, LaRoche has first- and second-half splits like you wouldn't believe: a .773 OPS in the first half followed up by a .901 OPS in the second. Given the Sox needed hitting against right-handed pitching and it's the second half, LaRoche had to be considered one of the best bats on the market for the Sox to acquire.

Before the trade, I compiled a list of bats the Sox could go after and was less than kind to LaRoche in the process. However, since the Sox would use him exclusively against right-handers and the package they gave up (more on them in a moment) is dicey, I like this trade from Boston's perspective.

Fangraphs is less kind to the trade, viewing LaRoche as a backup at best on a contending team. I don't see it. LaRoche ranks 17th in first-baseman OPS against right-handers (out of 29 possibles with a minimum 150 plate appearances, ahead of names such as James Loney, Jorge Cantu, Paul Konerko and Nick Johnson). Last year, he ranked 15th, sandwiched in between Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera. "A reserve on any team really trying to win"? I don't see it.

Obviously, LaRoche needs to platoon and be held out against lefty pitchers, but how is this a problem? The Sox won a World Series with Trot Nixon as a righties-only right fielder.

The Sox have a ton of different ways they could go with the trade:

- Install LaRoche as the starting first-baseman against righties, moving Youkilis over to third and disabling Mike Lowell until he proves he really can run.
- Put LaRoche and Lowell in a constant platoon against right-handers, with LaRoche receiving the bulk of the at-bats. Mark Kotsay would likely lose his job here.
- LaRoche would receive the majority of the at-bats against righties because Lowell would be able to man third against lefties while LaRoche rides the pine.

Right now, the Red Sox are essentially in a Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell/Mark Kotsay platoon. LaRoche is an appreciable upgrade from Kotsay, and the platoon handedness switches as to alleviate some of the pressure facing Lowell on defense and baserunning. It is possible the Sox opt to disable Mike Lowell to make room for LaRoche on the 25-man roster (Diaz was on the 40, so no move needs to be made there) but it's more likely the Sox delay any decision by disabling Kotsay, who has been battling a calf injury.

Defensively, LaRoche is average to below-average. This may have normally been a concern with fielding whizzes Youkilis and Lowell in the fold, but Lowell's balky hip has given him a terrible -15.7 UZR/150 at third (just a year ago, he finished at 15.6) so LaRoche's defense might actually prove an upgrade while he is on the field.

On the Pirates' end, they shed some much-needed salary for a player that was unlikely to return to Pittsburgh, anyways. It also opens up playing time for Steve Pearce, who they may hand the first-base job to. Pearce is hitting .287/.375/.505 on the year in Triple-A and performed poorly in a 12 at-bat cup of coffee earlier this year. Pearce didn't endear himself to long-term success by saying after his demotion that he needed to play every day to contribute. Well, maybe he'll get his chance, but he still profiles as a career tweener -- and one that apparently can't hit if he doesn't play every day.

Diaz, 22, is a fielder with tremendous range and is considered one of the best fielding prospects in the game. He lacks focus on routine plays, as he's made 18 errors so far on the year. (Some of these errors are due to him botching balls he shouldn't have even come close to getting to, though.) He has absolutely no bat, as his .253/.309/.310 line in Double-A suggests. However, he's got the glove to at the very least bounce around the majors in what could constitute a Nick Green-type career (prior to Green's "breakthrough" this year). Diaz could end up being the Pirates' shortstop for the next few years, but won't be anything past that unless he can shore up his fielding on routine plays. If he does that, he has the chance to be an eerily-similar version of Jack Wilson.

Strickland, 20, was drafted in 2007 and posted a 3.35 ERA in Single-A Greenville. Nothing he does overwhelms you, and he's likely to move to the bullpen. He's far too off to be anything but a possible arm at the moment.

For these two players, which the Red Sox won't miss (they are very deep in defensive shortstops in the system), the club has drastically upgraded their offense. With a team OPS of .768 against right-handers (behind the Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Angels, Orioles, Rockies and Rangers), they needed the upgrade, especially given the team is working on a four-game losing streak in which they have totalled eight runs. Think that's bad? The Boston Globe notes the Sox have hit .194 since the All-Star Break. That's bad.

LaRoche presents them with the upgrade needed to move forward with more confidence in their offense.

Posted by Evan Brunell at 2:34pm (6) Comments