Ten Things I’ve Learned This Offseason

There haven’t been any blockbuster mega-deals so far this year, and the free agent talent was a tad below average. Still, there’s been plenty of action, hasn’t there? The blogosphere has been alive with the sound of wails and “huh”s? This is baseball; there’s always something to make you gnash your teeth. Taking a look back over the previous two months, here are some of the things I was surprised and dismayed to discover:

Where you can find anything you want to know about baseball.

The absolute highlight of the offseason hasn’t taken place in the hallowed halls of Major League Baseball, but right here on the Internet. It’s a truly exciting, inspiring and time-consuming development, and way more interesting than paying someone $17 million a year. I’m talking about the newest feature on the Internet’s best website, Baseball Reference’s Play Index.

Site proprietor Sean Forman has taken the play-by-play files of Retrosheet (which cover the years 1957 through 2006) and created an interface that allows you to drill deeply into the data. There is so much to find in these files, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a few tidbits I quickly found while preparing this article:

  • In 1968, Bob Gibson’s opponents batted .108 with runners in scoring position and two outs against him.
  • According to Bill James’s Game Score, the best-pitched game of this period was Dean Chance’s start against the Yankees on June 6, 1964. Chance went 14 innings, struck out 14, walked two and gave up only three hits. The Angels lost in the 15th.
  • Robby Thompson was caught stealing four(!) times on June 27, 1986 by the Reds’ Bo Diaz. No one else has been caught as many times on the basepaths in the Retrosheet era.

I could go on, but part of the fun is finding these nuggets yourself. Go ahead, pay Sean’s low annual fee of $29 and have a ball.

The Cubs are big spenders.

Every year, it seems that one or two unexpected teams step forward to keep the free agent market frenzied. This year, it was the Cubs who opened wide their wallet, signing Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Mark DeRosa, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to multi-year deals. This is an intriguing development for a team that is actually up for sale. Think about it: the Cubs feel they’re more likely to be sold with those outrageous contracts on their balance sheet than without them. Says a lot about the kind of people who buy baseball teams.

Meanwhile, there’s been an excellent thread over at The Book Blog reviewing the relative sanity of each deal, based on a deceptively simple table that takes into account the average free agent salary, length of contract, inflation and aging.

The surprising finding is that most of this year’s free agent deals fit pretty well into the parameters, with Carlos Lee one of the biggest exceptions. Lee will receive an astonishing $17 million a year for the next six years, when he’s only worth $8 million to $10 million a year at most.

Fielding park factors

Speaking of fielding left field in Minute Maid Park … You might have missed it, but a real sabermetric breakthrough occurred on Anaheim Angels All the Way. Chone/Sean Smith used Zone Rating to calculate fielding park factors for every outfield in every ballpark. I don’t fully understand the math, but David Gassko looked at the list and summarized …

Of the 90 fields, 37 are significant, or about 40%. The following parks have significant park factors in all fields: BOB, Dodger, PNC, Skydome. The following have significant park factors in two fields: Ameriquest, Camden, Comerica, Coors, Fenway, Joe Robbie, Metrodome, Pac Bell, Wrigley.

Here is a list of the parks and fields that hurt fielding stats the most, with Minute Maid’s (Enron in this list) short left field leading the charge.

Ballpark      POS  ZR adjustment
Enron         LF       -.045
Fenway        LF       -.042
Joe Robbie    LF       -.039
PNC           LF       -.039
PNC           RF       -.039
Camden        RF       -.036
Metrodome     RF       -.026
Metrodome     CF       -.024
PacBell       RF       -.022
Ameriquest    LF       -.021

Just imagine what Lee’s Zone Rating will look like in Houston.

Meanwhile, here are the outfields that have the greatest positive impact on fielding stats. You’ll notice that right and left field in Fenway are two of the most extreme fielding outfields in the majors, but in opposite directions.

Ballpark      POS  ZR adjustment
Fenway        RF       .026
Skydome       LF       .022
Dodger        LF       .018
PacBell       LF       .018
BOB           LF       .017
Comerica      LF       .017
Turner        RF       .017
Angel         LF       .016

The White Sox want more young pitchers.

I’m a big fan of Kenny Williams. He doesn’t get the best of every deal (who does?), but he always seems to have a plan and it’s usually not what people expect. In my book, that’s a recipe for success.

This offseason, Williams evidently decided the Sox needed to bolster their young pitching, and why not? Their rotation isn’t exactly old, but it is expensive and getting older. Plus, the Sox’s farm system was relatively lean. So, while most observers expected Williams to deal his pitching surplus for outfielders, he focused instead on great young pitching. Giving up Brandon McCarthy for John Danks was a surprise, but getting two hot young prospects who are almost ready for the majors, in exchange for one who is ready, seems like a pretty good exchange.

Here is a link to the Cheat’s scouting report on all of the pitching prospects the Sox have obtained.

Offseason books help fill the emptiness inside.

In addition to the Hardball Times Annual, I’ve read three different annual player books. One of them is truly unique.

John Burnson has picked up the legacy of John Warner Davenport, who published two works in the late 1970s that used graphics to highlight and explain baseball stats. John Burnson’s book, The Graphical Player, contains a set of standardized graphs (one set for pitchers, the other for batters) for more than 700 major league players. There is no other book like it.

Sometimes graphs allow you to see something new, and graphs almost always add valuable perspective. John achieves both attributes in his displays. I particularly enjoyed the graphs of relative age, competition and home/road, lefty/righty splits. The “big picture” graphics in the back of the book were outstanding too, such as runs created leaders by position, star maps and (particularly) the minor league depth graphs.

Still, it would be nice if John varied the format a bit. Graphs are great, but numbers and words add context and break the monotony. Also, the standardized graphs can look like mush for certain players. That’s a problem when you have to set specific axis lengths the same for all players. Still, the Graphical Player is a fine achievement and deserves a good, long look.

Next year’s projections

Two perennial offseason favorites have also hit the bookshelves: The Bill James Handbook and Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster. Both books contain projections for next year, as well as other interesting analyses and stats.

The Handbook included some neat stats that capture baserunning and fielding prowess, but the most interesting analysis was Bill James’s look at “manufactured runs.” I thought his approach to something that has historically been hard to define was sound and interesting. Otherwise, the Handbook included many of the stats you’ve come to expect from James and Baseball Info Solutions.

Even though I don’t play fantasy baseball, I’m a big fan of Ron Shandler’s Forecaster. This year’s version included Shandler’s projections and comments, as well as Rick Wilton’s injury report and other valuable stats (I particularly like the PQS Pitching Logs). But I was disappointed in the quality of the general baseball essays; I didn’t think they were as insightful as previous years’.

Speaking of projections for next year, there are plenty to choose from. In addition to James and Shandler, you can download Tangotiger’s Marcel projections (so simple even a monkey could do them), Dan Szymbroski is publishing his ZiPS, Chone/Sean has his CHONE projections. I’m sure there are a lot more I’m not aware of.

The most interesting take on projections has been given by Sean/Chone, who found that Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system did the best job of projecting this year’s performances. Nate Silver at BPro is probably busy creating his 2007 figures right now.

Seattle Mariners’ fans will develop bald spots from chronic head scratching.

There have been some real bizarro moves this offseason, too. My top three:

  • The Angels just signed Shea Hillenbrand for $6.5 million. Why? The guy is a below-average hitter at first base, and a poor fielder, to boot. He was two Win Shares below a bench player in 2006. There are a ton of potential first basemen/designated hitters in the world. I could see signing Hillenbrand to a minor league contract, but $6.5 million???
  • The Mariners traded Rafael Soriano to Atlanta for Horacio Ramirez, a flame-throwing reliever for an average groundball starter. I don’t think this deal is as one-sided as many Mariners fans do—it’s easier to succeed in the bullpen than in the rotation—but it’s still a curious move. Still, it doesn’t compare to…
  • Mariners traded Chris Snelling and a young reliever for Jose Vidro. This is not only astonishing on the surface (Vidro ceased being an All-Star second baseman several years ago) but the Mariners didn’t get the Nationals to throw much money into the deal. They’re on the hook for $12 million of the $16 million Vidro is due over the next two years.

The Vidro deal was truly highway larceny on the Nats’ part. Amazing.

Here is a link to an eloquent Mariners fan’s lament.

Mark McGwire won’t be voted into the Hall of Fame anytime soon.

The Hall of Fame ballots were distributed a month ago, giving sportswriters everywhere a chance to get on their high horse. Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. are surefire first-timers, which allows the distinguished members of the BBWAA to rail against Mark McGwire and other suspected steroids users.

I find it fascinating that writers such as Sportsline’s Scott Miller justify their position by comparing steroids to the Enron debacle and our entire court system when the player in question hasn’t been found guilty of anything (except using a supplement that was legal at the time). And how do these same writers justify voting for players who certainly took amphetamines without a prescription?

Ah, I’m not going to argue this one. I admit that this is a very gray area, and sportswriters are being forced to make an ethical decision without enough guidance or facts. But I would like to put to rest the contention that McGwire’s Hall of Fame credentials are anything but sterling. His OPS+ (which is adjusted for the offense of the league) is the 11th best of all time. His WPA stats rank him as the fourth-most valuable batter of the past 30 years. McGwire was clutchy, with a 1.059 OPS with runners in scoring position. Based on his achievements alone, he belongs.

The best leadoff hitters.

Patriot has posted his list of last year’s best leadoff batters. His conclusion:

Although he may not fit the ideal prototype of a leadoff hitter, Grady Sizemore still comes out on top in most categories as the top leadoff hitter in the game in 2006, with Jose Reyes, Alfonso Soriano, and Johnny Damon close behind in many categories.

I also want to give a shout-out to David Appelman’s great work on his cutting-edge plate discipline stats, in which we see why Corey Patterson improved and Brad Wilkerson declined.

WPA Stolen Bases

I wrote an article about 2006′s Win Probability Added for the Hardball Times Annual, reviewing top games, pitchers (starters, relievers) hitters and clutch batting. Unfortunately, I didn’t have room to include the WPA impact of stolen bases.

There’s no shortage of space on the Internet, so I thought I’d throw a few facts atcha. If you take every conceivable independent baserunning event (stolen bases, caught stealing, pick offs, even balks), you find that altogether they cost their teams 5.7 WPA points, or 11 games. Here’s a list of the WPA and Leverage Index of each type of baserunning event:

Play                     WPA      LI
SB                      42.27    1.23
Balk                     3.12    1.25
Double Steal             1.18    1.72
Defensive Indifferenc    0.54    0.89
CS with Error            0.38    1.94
CS Double Play          -1.24    1.21
Picked Off              -7.34    1.38
Caught Stealing        -44.63    1.14

There were twice as many stolen bases as runners caught stealing last year, but the overall impact of the two combined was negative. Pickoffs can be brutal, too. Note how they often occurred in high-leverage situations.

Admittedly, this is a pretty broad brush I’m using here. The impact of a stolen base depends on more than the simple game situation (outs, inning, score); it also includes things like the quality of the batter and pitcher and the count. But it’s not a bad place to start. When you include The Book‘s finding that disruptive runners have an “enormously negative influence on the batter,” it’s hard not to conclude that stolen bases are overrated. Speed is great, stolen bases maybe not so much.

Here are the leaders in stolen base WPA:

Name              WPA    LI
Suzuki I.        0.60  1.22
Crawford C.      0.58  1.18
Patterson C.     0.45  1.18
Phillips B.      0.39  1.69
Roberts B.       0.38  1.45
Rollins J.       0.34  1.11
Jeter D.         0.32  1.21
Lee C.           0.31  1.54
Ramirez H.       0.31  1.20
Cabrera O.       0.30  1.17

Yes, Carlos Lee was one of the best basestealers in the majors last year, stealing 19 bases and getting caught only twice. You might have expected him to rank among the 10 least valuable “base stealers:”

Name             WPA    LI
Hall B.         -0.58  1.73
Carroll J.      -0.49  1.06
Zimmerman R.    -0.36  1.24
Sanders R.      -0.33  1.33
Hart C.         -0.31  1.27
Martin R.       -0.30  1.09
Vazquez R.      -0.27  3.85
Lamb M.         -0.27  1.79
Langerhans R.   -0.24  2.79
Counsell C.     -0.23  1.06

There are a number of surprises on this list, perhaps none bigger than Craig Counsell (15 stolen bases, caught stealing only eight times). The problem is that his stolen bases occurred in relatively low-leverage situations (LI of 0.98) and he was caught stealing in more important situations (LI of 1.22). Bad timing.

Finally, I would like you to know that I’ve developed tennis elbow from playing too much Wii tennis. I may have to go back to playing Line Rider all the time.

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