THT Mailbag: Double Stuff Edition

It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve run a mailbag, so this one is especially long. I hope you guys enjoy, and check back for another mailbag next week.

Working the Count

I know that your data sources provides stats such as P/PA and LD%. Has there ever been any consideration towards tying results together? For example, I think it would be interesting to know a batters LD% when he sees one P/PA, two P/PA, three P/PA, four P/PA, etc. Or, it would be interesting to know what a batter did in four-plus P/PA versus three P/PA. I believe it would show who works the count to his benefit, as a batter, as opposed to who allows himself to get so deep in the count that it hurts. Does this make sense?

- Steve L., Monmouth County, New Jersey

Dave Studeman: Yes, your question does make sense, and it could be the next area of inquiry of Sal Baxamusa’s great series of articles about pitch sequences. The obvious source for this study would be Retrosheet, though I’m not sure about the quality of the hit type data in Retrosheet.

A Shortstop By Any Other Name

Carlos Guillen is now 31 years old and entering the final year of his contract. Many in the Detroit media have speculated about him switching from shortstop to first base permanently based on his increasing number of errors (28 last year, I believe). He is so valuable because his offense stands out at such a demanding defensive position. Do you see him being a valuable player as a first baseman? Wouldn’t he become just an average offensive first baseman if he were to play it permanently?

- Mike F., Washington, D.C.

David Gassko: It is true that Guillen stands out in large part because he is such a great hitter at a such a tough position. Looking at the projections that Chris Constancio and I have done for The Hardball Times Preseason Book, Guillen projects to be worth 8.89 wins above replacement over the next three seasons. That’s a heck of a lot.

If we move him to first base, it’s true that Guillen is compared to a much higher baseline, but his defense also improves relative to average. He goes from being an average fielding shortstop to one of the top fielding first basemen. Now whether or not this would actually be the case remains to be seen, but you could see how a guy with Guillen’s athleticism would make a lot of plays around the bag.

Anyway, when all those changes are factored in, Guillen’s total wins above replacement drops to 6.91 over the next three seasons. Now that’s still a very good number (1.5 wins above average), but obviously two wins is a substantial drop.

According to our fielding projections, Guillen can still hold his own at short, in which case he should absolutely stay there. But he would still be a valuable player even as a first baseman.

Quick Hook?

My questions involve measurement of real-time individual pitching efficiency:

What is/are the best measurement/s that exists other than ERA? How “direct” are these measurements? Do any of these measures involve “real-time” pitching variables?

And last, but not least, how can I obtain data (at no/low cost) to review, especially innning-by-inning MLB cumulative (frequency) pitch data for the last 10 or more years to date?

- George V.

Dave Studeman: We’ve written a number of articles about pitcher statistics, and we track a number of them here at THT. Personally, I’m a big fan of Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), which is a purely “direct” statistic (if I understand your question correctly). I also use the batted ball data that was published in the THT Annual (and will be made available on our site soon).

I’m not sure what you mean by “realtime” pitching variables, but Retrosheet is the best source of baseball data for the type of analysis you’re considering. You’ll need to download and parse their play-by-play files. And you should definitely check out Matthew Carruth’s IPORT article.

Chewing Cancer

Major League Baseball players like to claim that they are giving 100% to the team. If they are playing with a mouth full of tobacco slobber, make that about 85%. When a batter hits an in-the-park homer, he runs farther than 100 meters. Can you imagine a sprinter racing while chewing tobacco? When kids see their MLB hero with a mouth full of cancer-causing tobacco, it can be a case of monkey see, monkey do.

The Minor Leagues prohibit tobacco use on the field. The Major League Baseball Players Association has negotiated their “right” to chew toxic tobacco while playing. Isn’t it time for the wise majority of the Major League Baseball Players to clean up the tobacco mess?

- Jerry H., Redding, California

John Beamer: I couldn’t agree more with you. Chewing tobacco is a disgusting habit and one that has been strongly associated with MLB since time immemorial. Moreover, the link to cancer has been strongly proven. Originally players used it to keep their mouths moist so they could spit more frequently into their glove or on to the ball (ergo the spitball). Estimates vary to how prevalent the stuff is in the majors, but between 1998 and 2003 the number remained at 35%. Interestingly, in the minors the substance was banned in 1993 and usage has declined from 32% in 1998 to 25% in 2003.

That said, not all chewing is tobacco—quite a few players these days chew gum, which is of course fine. MLB should be setting an example and banning the stuff from the game. It is a disgusting, filthy and needless habit.

Line Drive Swing

The 2007 edition of the book says that batters’ control over the percentage of their batted balls that are line drives is “largely random from year to year” with a correlation of 0.13 (significant at a 1% confidence level). However, there may be some individuals that do possess the skill of consistently having line drives as a high percentage of their balls in play. Look at Michael Young‘s data for the last four years and he’s never had a LD% lower than 25%. That’s a superb level—4th best in the majors last year according to the 2007 book—so it strikes me as not a random fluke if he can do at least that well for four years consecutively.

Are there other batters who have the ability to consistently have much higher than average LD%? How does one identify them in advance (other than wait until they do it four years in a row because presumably if they did it for just one year, one would regress their expected LD% significantly back to the average?

- Michael W., Detroit, Michigan

David Gassko: First of all, remember that with a large enough sample, any unlikely event will happen, say, hitting a large number of line drives a year. You’d expect a few dozen players just by chance to be above-average in line drive percentage four years straight.

That said, hitting line drives is most certainly a skill, one that we accounted for in our Hardball Times 2007 Season Preview projections. They are heavily regressed to a league average of .194, but Young actually ends up with the second-highest (league-and-park neutral) projected line drive percentage, at 21.4%.

Here are the top-five batters in projected line drive percentage for 2007 (again, league-and-park neutral):

NAME           LD%
M. Loretta    .216
M. Young      .214
B. Roberts    .207
A. Kennedy    .206
T. Helton     .206
The Yips

Have you ever experienced a catcher that has suddenly lost his throwing control? Our young man is a good catcher with a previously strong, accurate arm … but his control left him over a two day span. He can’t even throw the ball back to the pitcher … the ball lands at the pitcher ‘s feet or goes over his head. The situation is much like Steve Blass or Rick Ankiel experienced .

- Fred K., Nevada, Missouri

Steve Treder: Blass and Ankiel are two good examples of this phenomenon striking pitchers at the major league level in recent decades. But there has been at least one case of it plaguing a big league catcher: Mackey Sasser. He was a backup catcher for several teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who had a generally decent throwing arm, but was from time to time afflicted with a weird inability to accurately return the ball to his pitcher.

Two examples of this happening to otherwise outstanding major league second basemen also come to mind: Steve Sax, with the Dodgers in the early 1980s, and Chuck Knoblauch with the Yankees in 1999-2000. Each suddenly encountered inordinate difficulty in making an accurate throw to first base on routine grounders. Sax was able to overcome his problem, but Knoblauch really didn’t, and the Yankees decided to shift him to left field as a result.

Such an issue is almost certainly psychological in origin, as opposed to being caused by a specific injury or a particular flaw in technique. Once it occurs, the anxiety it creates no doubt itself becomes the cause of the problem.

Chris Constancio: The Braves originally drafted Dale Murphy as a strong defensive catcher with questionable hitting skills. By the time he was on the verge of a major league job, however, Murphy’s arm was erratic when trying to throw out runners and occasionally had trouble returning the ball to the pitcher. Murphy briefly considered quitting baseball before he was moved to first base and eventually the outfield. He went on to have a very productive career, of course.

Measuring Clutch

I’ve been going through the Hardball Times Annual, and the chapter on clutch got me wondering. The clutch measure credits a player with his contribution towards the percentage chance of winning an individual game. This obviously means that plays later in a close game have more impact.

Couldn’t you apply the same technique to the whole season, such that you multiply the Win Expectancy score each player gets within a game by the percentage change in playoff odds that that game has. Thus, you can identify clutch players in the course of a pennant race for example. This would obviously weight the results towards good teams, but I think it could be pretty interesting to see which players contributed proportionally more in games that mattered most, since these are the sorts of players that conventional wisdom would crown MVPs. It would be interesting to see a comparison of say Justin Morneau and Derek Jeter.

- Jeff M.

Dave Studeman: Yes, you absolutely can do what you’re suggesting. This has been discussed by many people in the past, but I don’t know anyone who’s applied the methodology to an entire season.

I did something like it for the 2005 World Series. You can view the results in this article(scroll to the end to see the results). It’s a lot easier to apply the math to a short series, but I also think it would be pretty interesting to see the results, particularly in a tight pennant race. I’d love to see Carl Yastrzemski‘s results from 1967.

John Beamer: David Appleman of Fangraphs also did a graphic WPA of the classic Sox/Yankees ALCS in 2004. This combines the win probability across the full seven games, and well, is quite astounding.

Funny Numbers

It is a false premise that the goal of an option year is to create a “fair buyout price.” The buyout is merely a slightly deferred payment, and the goal of the team option is to confer a benefit upon the team, just as a player option confers a benefit upon the player. And securing this benefit for one side or the other is part of the overall contract negotiation of course. (Have you looked at Mark Shapiro’s track record on getting team options into contracts? It’s obscene.)

Option year buyouts are not particularly relevant to the option year itself, but rather are just a part of the total guaranteed money in the contract. This is a more straightforward way of looking at such terms, and more significantly, it is one that speaks directly to the principal interests of both parties to the deal.

Looking at Alou’s deal, this is what both sides really see:

2007: $8.5 million, of which $1 million is deferred to 2008.
2008: $6.5 million (team option)

This reflects the direct fees for services rendered and properly frames the team’s business decision for 2008—the “buyout” portion of the team option is already a sunk cost. What is left, the $6.5 million, is what I often refer to as the “net option,” i.e., the real cost of picking it up.

- Jay S.

Dave Studeman: If a team could buy or sell player contracts (just like stock options are bought and sold), then Alou’s contract would have value for 2008. The question that Sal asked is, how much value would it have? That’s a critical point in contract negotiation and evaluation.

The buyout clause can be viewed as a consideration by both the team and club to price the value of that option year. Unfortunately, teams and agents vary widely in how they value option years (if they do so at all), so the buyout clauses aren’t as enlightening as they might be. But the idea of the articles—how much is an option year worth?—should be receiving more consideration by all parties involved.

The simplified “accounting” way you handle it is also the way Major League Baseball reports salaries. But no good accountant would handle it that way. He (or she) would recognize that the option year has value to the party that holds the option, and would value it in some way. Generally Accepted Accounting Procedures (known as GAAP) call for them to do so. Sal was asking, what valuation approach might work, given what we know about contracts?

The Last Word

Many commentators bemoan the recent DirecTV-MLB deal and the Atlanta Braves’ role as a bargaining chip in the tax avoidance deal between Liberty Media, Time Warner and CBS as evidence that baseball risks alienating its fans. But baseball is no different than any other sport that is part of a global battle for talent – demanding that baseball to compete with other sports for the best athletes. If baseball revenues stall and owners can’t pay top salaries, many top athletes will be drawn to other, more lucrative sports. Most two-sport athletes like Jeff Samardzija probably would not consider baseball if it couldn’t compete financially.

This scramble for talent is magnified as baseball expands globally. Major League Baseball’s marketing efforts have spawned fans across the world, leading to new sources of players. The explosion of Latin American and Asian scouting has undoubtedly improved the game. Imagine if young boys in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere spurned their dreams of becoming the next A-Rod in pursuit of becoming the next David Beckham. In the U.S., the best athletes play baseball, basketball and football. In most of the rest of the world, they play soccer.

International competition forced soccer to abandon some of its old traditions, to the disgust of purists, and the sport has thrived. Advertisements surround playing fields and have become the dominant features of players’ jerseys. In England, most matches are only shown on pay-per-view television. Even team websites require subscriptions. The top teams feature players of all nationalities. Arsenal, one of England’s “big four,” regularly fields a lineup without any English players, yet its fans are no less passionately devoted to the team. English fans have even endured what they perceive to be an even greater indignity—foreign ownership. In the recent years, numerous have been taken over by foreign owners. Manchester United and Liverpool, the two most storied teams in England, are now owned by Americans. But the sport still thrives.

Baseball faces similar challenges. Corporate ownership and in-stadium advertising are a reality of modern baseball. But before we wax rhapsodic about the golden age of baseball, where owners were people deeply connected with their communities and ran their teams for the benefit of their cities, let’s remember that this august group includes Charlie Comiskey, Connie Mack, and more recently, Carl Pohlad and David Glass. They ran their teams as profit-making businesses, regardless of the feelings of the players or fans. It is true that Liberty Media isn’t as connected to the city of Atlanta as Ted Turner, and it won’t run the team as a vehicle to promote John Malone. But it will run the team as a business that requires investment and attention to maintain the support of its customers – the fans. If a league with professionally-run teams can bring in more revenue by putting advertising around the field and leveraging revenues from satellite television, it may just the price of attracting the world’s best athletes to the sport. The rest of the world has adjusted. Baseball fans must, too.

- Jason Barkham, Los Angeles

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