Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

Here are the things that made an impression on me Opening Week, not counting the Star Wars fans already waiting in line for their own opening.

Alex Sanchez uses steroids.

Ah, the irony. The guy who led the major leagues in bunt hits last year and only hit two home runs is accused of doping. As he says in the linked article, My goal is to bunt hard enough to get the ball past the pitcher toward the second baseman… Maybe he needed some extra oomph to push his bunts that far.

Of course, David Letterman had a good take on the situation last night, reading an official MLB press release to his audience:

Baseball is disappointed that Tampa Bay Devil Ray Alex Sanchez tested positive for steroids. Bud Selig would like to announce that instead of a 10-game suspension, Sanchez’s punishment will be . . . . . to continue playing for the Devil Rays. Baseball fever – catch it!

Dusty Baker makes strange choices.

Speaking of comedy routines, Dusty Baker recently pulled Neifi Perez off the bench to pinch hit, when he had three (or even four) better options available. Living here in Chicago, I sometimes see people walking down the streets shaking their heads for no apparent reason. I guess this is why.

Last year, Dusty Baker said that “walks are overrated unless you can run.” I don’t know if he really meant it, but Cub Reporter also analyzed this Dustyism in some detail, and found that apparently batters under Dusty’s tutelage actually learn to walk more often.

Heart/head? Left foot/right foot? Foot/mouth? Why have I started shaking my head?

Win Shares don’t agree who’s going to win the pennant this year.

The Balls, Sticks and Stuff guy posted a column that looked at the net Win Shares each team gained and lost during the offseason, and concluded that the Braves would win the AL division once again. Meanwhile, the Baseball Crank posted a column that analyzes the Win Shares aging rate of each team’s players and concluded that the Braves would finish last in the division.

Now, neither author is claiming his is an authoritative study. And as a Win Shares fan, I hope analysts avoid the use of Win Shares to produce “authoritative” forecasts. Why? Because a Win Share is a blunt tool, a singular number that describes what happened in the past, not what might happen in the future.

Here are two more sophisticated forecasts regarding the Braves:

  • John Dewan publishes a weekly email with a Stat of the Week. In last week’s email, he noted that Spring Training stats have sometimes proven to be indicative of in-season performance. Specifically, he’s found that a hitter with a positive difference between their Spring Training slugging percentage and their lifetime slugging percentage of .200 or more alerts us to a step forward in the coming season. Based on this analysis, the number one candidate for a breakout year is Andruw Jones (followed by Gabe Gross and Carlos Lee).
  • At the Sabernomics blog, JC ran a study to predict 2005 batting and pitching performances, and found that Chipper Jones is likely to have a big comeback year.

NL East teams beware.

The Red Sox traded Byung-Hyun Kim to the Rockies for Charles Johnson and a minor league pitcher, then waived Johnson.

This is one of the stranger deals of recent times. An example of two wrong signings making a right trade. Four years ago, the Marlins signed Johnson to a five-year $35 million contract, after which he seemingly lost the ability to both hit and field at his previous levels. The Marlins managed to pawn him off to the Rockies, where his stats were inflated by Coors Field. No one was fooled.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox signed Kim to a two-year deal last year, whereupon he quickly pulled a Johnson. Both were very, very good players at one time, but neither one is currently worth more than a replacement player. Colorado sent $2.6 million to Boston to equalize the salaries.

Johnson was promptly signed by the Devil Rays, from whom he promptly requested a leave of absence for personal matters.

Contract options really do have value.

Options in player contracts are often misunderstood, or ignored altogether. But several recent developments have brought them to the fore.

I recently read a paper by a couple of Finance professors who analyzed three years’ worth of free agent contracts and developed a model that predicted salary levels very well (an R squared of .84). They then examined the 18% of contracts that included option years and found that options really do have an impact on salaries.

In particular, if the team held an option for a year beyond the length of the contract, players were typically paid 11% more than the model predicted. If the players held the option, they were paid about 12% less than predicted. In other words, teams and players were literally paying for the right to have an option year in the deal.

By the way, the paper was published in September 2001, but I just read it, so I’m allowed to call it a “recent development.” You can download it here.

During the offseason, J.D. Drew signed a contract with the Dodgers that allows him to opt out of his contract after two years, and Aramis Ramirez just signed the same sort of deal with the Cubbies. In other words, these are player options, and they are powerful options because they are essentially two or three year options (instead of just one-year options). That means the players are receiving more value than their stated salaries in both cases (Drew’s contract calls for $11 million a year, and Ramirez’s calls for $10.5 million a year).

Speaking of sports economists, Skip Sauer notes that the baseball business is going very well. Don’t feel bad for the owners. In fact, crybaby Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad is the 272nd richest person in the world, according to Forbes.

Carlos Lee is a bully.

As a faithful reader, I’m sure you remember that I bragged last week about seeing Carlos Lee throw out Scott Podsednik at the plate, even though I missed Damaso Marte’s plunking of Lee. Well, according to this article, Marte plunked Lee on purpose in retaliation for bullying him in the White Sox clubhouse last year.

Lee was a bully to Marte. He often ridiculed Marte’s poor upbringing in the Dominican Republic, would sneak up and slap Marte on the back of the neck and would make Marte the butt of his jokes. In other words, Lee was a participant in the kind of selfish behavior the Sox tried to distance themselves from during the past offseason.

I never know what to make of stuff like this. Are the White Sox just covering their tracks after trading Lee? If clubhouse chemistry is so important to them, why the heck did they sign A.J. Pierzynski?

Maybe the White Sox really are good clutch hitters.

In my White Sox preview a few weeks ago, I looked at the Sox’s record outstanding record of batting with men in scoring position last year and concluded that they wouldn’t maintain that pace this year.

Here’s an email I received from reader Jim Mohl in reply:

I’m inclined to agree with your assumption that their RISP BA will regress towards the mean this year. But I decided to do some additional checking, and guess what I found. 2004 was not unusual for them. On the contrary, it was the 3rd year in a row they hit a lot better with RISP than they did overall. How much better? 23 points in 2004, 18 in 2003 and 22 in 2002.

How unusual is that? Here is the entire list of teams that batted at least 18 points higher with RISP in a single season over the last 3 years, other than the ChiSox:

- Houston (+23) and the NY Mets (+18) in 2002;
- K.C. (+30), Seattle (+26), Oakland (+23) and Toronto (+18) in 2003.

That’s it. Nobody else did it in 2004! That’s 6 teams that appear once on the list and the ChiSox are 3-for-3. 9 occurrences out of a possible 90, or 10%. The chances of the White Sox (or any one particular team) doing it 3 years in a row purely by chance is therefore .10 ^ 3, or .001. 1 chance in 1,000. The chance of ANY of the 30 teams doing it 3 years in a row is .001 x 30 = .03. Only 3%. I think we can safely conclude that something is going on here besides pure chance. Maybe there is such a thing as clutch hitting after all.

Thanks Jim; excellent research. Let’s keep an eye on the White Sox’s clutch hitting in 2005.

Speaking of previous columns, I was wrong in one of them.

Last week, I also noted that all five AL Central teams line up consecutively when you sort AL teams alphabetically — a coincidence that naturally roused my suspicions. What could the Friends of Bud be up to? Why no St. Louis in the AL, for instance? In fact, could this be why the Browns left St. Louis?

Well, it turns out that a renegade owner has already done something about this conspiracy. As several readers pointed out to me, Arturo Moreno changed the name of his ballteam from the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, thereby interrupting the AL Central’s dominance of the middle of the alphabet. Methinks I was getting a little too close to the truth…

The high school record for consecutive baseball wins has been broken.

The La Cueva Bears of Albuquerque, New Mexico broke the record for most consecutive victories by a high school team, by beating Highland 15-1 and 11-0 in a doubleheader for their 70th consecutive win.

The previous record of 68 was set by Archbishop Malloy High of Briarwood, New York in 1963-1966. The Bears’ streak began in 2002.

We should all thank this man.

Baseball players are not heroes just because they play baseball. But in my book, this guy is, even though he probably prefers one-dimensional Tetris to baseball.

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