Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Big Series for the Phillies

As the Phillies march towards the post-season, the goal is obviously to win the NL East outright instead of having to worry about the performance of so many other teams and squeaking in via the wild card. As it stands, though, the Phils have a great chance to set themselves apart from the SF Giants this week in the Wild Card standings. The Giants are in a virtual tie for the Wild Card lead with the Phillies, and have been the beneficiaries of a return to form by Barry Zito, the unlikely emergence of Andres Torres (5.4 WAR, 5th among all batters), a career season by Aubrey Huff, and super-rookie Buster Posey.

As the Phils prepare for the returns of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Giants will send Zito, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez to the mound in the 3-game series. All three pitchers have two things in common, one of which is dependent upon the other:

First and foremost, all 3 pitchers are outperforming their FIP by significant margins, and while the Giants defense, led by Torres, has been fantastic, the Giants are now playing two DH's (Burrell and newly acquired Jose Guillen) in the corner outfield positions, significantly damaging the quality of their outfield defense (Torres can't be everywhere) and providing teams with higher line drive rates to really begin to take advantage.

As one might have expected, these three Giants starters are all stranding runners at higher rates than normal. While the Major League average strand rate is about 72%, Zito, Cain, and Sanchez are all stranding more than 76% of runners and exceeding their career strand rates by 4.4%, 0.9%, and 5.2%, respectively. While this isn't meant as a knock on the Giants, who have put together a strong season, it seems reasonable to expect that the performance of these three starters will begin to regress, hopefully immediately if the Phils have anything to say about it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why the Phillies Will Win the NL East

At 62-50, the Philadelphia Phillies are currently 2.5 games behind the Braves in the NL East, and 1 game back in the Wild Card. While last night’s 15-9 loss wasn’t the best demonstration, the Phils have been quickly gaining ground with their improved play over the past 3 weeks, despite playing without All-Stars Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Shane Victorino.

While the Phillies offense will undoubtedly benefit from the return of these three players, what the Phillies really need is consistently strong performances from their pitching staff. The Phightins’ 5-man rotation has accumulated the following line this year:

A few things strike me about this data set. For starters, Roy Oswalt is the poster child for pitching statistics in sabermetrics. His ERA is essentially exactly where FIP and xFIP would suggest, with a 71.8% strand rate that is essentially exactly league average. The Phillies should be encouraged that Oswalt should continue to perform the way he has all year.

The next thing that jumps out at me is the difference in strand rates for the pitchers in the context of their careers. Halladay’s strand rate is 7.7% better than his career numbers, but I’m hesitant to suggest he will fully regress back to his career mean given his dominance of the National League this year. While I expected Hamels’ strand rate of 82.2% to decrease, xFIP seems to indicate that his ERA is not due entirely to the increased LOB%. This is good news for Phillies fans, who have seen Hamels approached this season with renewed vigor and focus. Oswalt has been discussed, which brings us to Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton.

Blanton has not been nearly as bad as his traditional numbers indicate. His strikeout rate and walk rates are better than his career averages, but he’s being killed by a .331 BABIP (vs. career .303) and a HR rate 35% higher than his career average. While I am loathe to rationalize his increased home run rate on mere luck, I am more than happy to predict a regression to the mean for both his BABIP and LOB%. Assuming these regressions, Blanton would be a strong #3 on most teams, and a stellar #4 on any, including the Phils.

Prior to yesterday’s lambasting, Kendrick had been one of the luckier pitchers in the league, with his ERA outperforming FIP by a healthy margin. A short outing and 6 earned runs later, and his numbers are a little bit closer to where they should be. I expect Kendrick’s BABIP to increase, with his LOB% staying about the same or increasing slightly. Something like a 5.00 ERA the rest of the way probably isn’t unreasonable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the Phillies have many other options, unless they seriously consider throwing Vance Worley into the picture.

Assuming the Phillies regain their health and don’t suffer any catastrophic setbacks, I think it’s fair to expect that they will be able to take the division. Even with Kyle Kendrick's shortcomings, the Phils have a legitimate chance to win each time their top 4 starters take the hill assuming the continued excellence of the top 3 and a return to form by Joe Blanton. The return of the core of their lineup, coupled with the projected improved performance of their starting rotation bodes well for another NL East crown, especially as the Braves begin to deal with injuries of their own.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The WAR of Jim

The Reds' recent acquisition of Jim Edmonds got me thinking about his career and the value he's added to his clubs. It seems like not so long ago that Edmonds was teaming with Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen in a formidable St. Louis offense in the mid-2000's. In addition to his offensive prowess, Edmonds had a knack for highlight reel catches, with his backwards diving catch against the Royals in 1997 a prime example of his abilities.

It seems fairly obvious, though, that what we see with our eyes often does not tell us the whole story. Spectacular catches are often the result of a bad jump or a poor read, with the dive or jump serving as compensation for the mis-play. The common perception of Edmonds was that he was a defensive master, and statistical evidence seems to disagree with the visual conclusion. Although Edmonds' performance was above average, his UZR/150 of 3.1 runs places him in the "good, not great" defensive category. This performance, however, is good enough to contribute to Edmonds' WAR and confirms that his defense was an asset to his team.

Edmonds' primary contributions have come via his bat. His 12.5% career walk rate, .376 OBP, and .242 ISO suggest a patient batter with a knack for extra base hits and his .325 career BABIP indicates a propensity for line drive contact. For those who were able to watch Edmonds in his prime, he was arguably one of the top multi-tool threats of the era. He could beat you with his glove and bat and was a long-ball threat capable of changing the game.

As I contemplated his career, I wondered how he stacked up to his contemporaries. A cursory look at his peers with as many or more WAR features the stars one would expect (Bonds, Clemens, A-rod, Maddux, Johnson, Pujols, Bagwell, Chipper, Griffey, Big Hurt, Mussina, Pedro, Glavine, Jeter, Larkin, Thome), all of whom I expect to someday be enshrined. I found myself more interested in the case of the three position players already enshrined in the HOF who rank closest in WAR to Edmonds. All three players were perceived as superstars during and after their careers and also played as many or more seasons than Edmonds.

A plot of career WAR (courtesy of FanGraphs) can be seen below:

Viewing Edmonds through this spectrum seems to validate him as a Hall of Famer. Brooks Robinson clearly maintained his greatness for longer than the other three players and accumulated greater WAR over the course of his career. While Gwynn's best seasons were not as good as those of the other three, the slope of his WAR is less severe, indicating he maintained his skill set better relative to the other players, though that skill set at its peak was not as impressive.

Edmonds' career seems to compare most favorably with Snider's, with both having similar skill sets. Snider's four best seasons exceed Edmonds' four best in WAR, but both have an eerily similar WAR graph afterwards. Snider was an exceptional talent, a legend in every sense of the word, so it's not surprising that his best few seasons were better than Edmonds'. This does not, however, exclude Edmonds from the conversation for the HOF.

In the world of some stone-aged HOF voters (that is, the world of un-quantifiable intangibles like "leadership," "greatness"), the idea of comparing Edmonds to any of these players seems laughable, but the numbers place them all in the same category.

That Edmonds, in his power hitting prime, was over-shadowed by Albert Pujols' freakish displays of offensive prowess doesn't make his abilities any less intimidating or his contributions any less valuable. Overwhelming sentiment is that Edmonds was merely a "very good" power hitter in an era of power hitters. Statistics indicate, however, that Edmonds was a tremendously valuable player who, unfortunately, played in the shadow of a once-in-a-lifetime talent.

For those voters who have recently elected players like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, while excluding such talents as Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven, there should be no question that Jim Edmonds is a Hall of Famer. I won't hold my breath, though.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Deeper Look at the Career of Albert Belle

Every year around HOF selection time, when analysts discuss future potential HOF inductees, players are measured against their contemporaries, arguments comparing eras are made, and there is general disagreement regarding worthiness of HOF candidates. The Hall has been established for the purposes of “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, (and) Connecting Generations,” and I have no doubt that baseball writers take their votes very seriously.

Anyone who has ever visited Cooperstown understands that the Hall is serious about preserving history. The museum is a veritable cornucopia of baseball delights, with artifacts ranging from early era baseball to tokens from more recent achievements, such as Carlos Zambrano’s 2008 no-hitter. The museum is a fantasy for any baseball geek who appreciates the history of the game, and one could conceivably waste days just gawking and salivating.

The Hall certainly has the ability to connect generations. I took my first visit to the Hall in the summer of 1994 with my grandfather, born in 1912, and my father, born in 1946. My grandfather, who met Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as a child, recalled his times attending Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers games. My father reminisced about the times he spent at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field during his youth. I could see the twinkle in my grandfather’s eyes as he recalled attending cold spring games with my then-10-year-old father. The Hall instantly brought them back forty years as I stood by, ready to carry on our family’s seemingly inherent love for baseball.

Finally, the Hall honors excellence, or at least claims to. Recognizing the contributions that players and non-players alike have made to the game is one of the hallmarks of the Hall (no pun intended), but it has been generally assumed that those players who have exceeded the abilities and performance of their peers will get into the HOF, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe withstanding for obvious reasons. Though the Veteran’s Committee has undoubtedly damaged the integrity of the Hall with some of its questionable selections, one could argue that no doubt exists that the very best players have received the honor of enshrinement. As an example, Enos Slaughter’s induction was delayed by sportswriters who were bothered by his racist past, but felt that his performance on the field was too good to deny, eventually earning him induction.

Fast forward to the current HOF arguments that take place. Baseball writers stand in limbo on players from recent generations. Fred McGriff and Tim Raines are just a couple of players who seem prone to being on the losing ends of battles they should be winning. The waters have been muddied and, given steroids accusations, it’s hard to know who to vote for, much less how to predict who will achieve HOF status.

I can say with certainty, however, that I know of one deserving player will not be inducted into the Hall of Fame, given his ability to only garner 7.7% and 3.5% of votes in his first two years of eligibility:

Albert Belle

The first thing old-school BBWAA writers always seem to remember is that they hated Albert Belle. Each year, writers mention Belle’s speckled past, his run-ins with reporters, and his generally poor demeanor. I don’t deny that Albert Belle was not a pleasant man to be around, nor do I deny that his sophomoric and childish antics clearly didn’t endear him to the general baseball public. I also don’t deny, however, just how good of a hitter Albert Belle was.

The mid-90's Cleveland Indians, with those stacked lineups, was like a modern day Murderers’ Row. That the 1995 Atlanta Braves were able to win a World Championship while navigating a lineup of Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, a splash of Eddie Murray, and, of course, Albert Belle is nothing short of spectacular. Belle was the linchpin, having hit 50 regular season home runs, while Ramirez and Thome hadn’t quite blossomed into the stars they’d become, and Murray was at the end of his career.

With a career OPS+ of 143, Albert Belle finished in the top-10 in MVP voting five times (his reputation probably cost him the 1995 honor), hit 30+ home runs in eight consecutive seasons (including seasons of 48, 49, and 50), finished his prematurely-ended career with nine straight 100+ RBI seasons, and was generally one of the most feared offensive forces of the decade.

One of the classic arguments in the Hall of Fame debate regards the amount of time over which a player accumulated stats. Extra points are given for extended periods of greatness, but abbreviated careers are not penalized if the body of work is strong enough. Just ask Sandy Koufax or Kirby Puckett. Kirby Puckett’s career, it seems, is actually a great point of comparison.

So here you have it. Player A vs. player B. Extrapolated over a 162 game schedule:

Does the HOF reward longevity? Absolutely! But does exactly 1.5 extra years of service overcome such an obvious offensive shortcoming? Player A, as you might have guessed once seeing the power numbers, is Albert Belle. Belle’s offensive performance generally dwarfs Puckett’s. Belle hit for more power and batted with more patience than Puckett, as his OPS+ of 143 bests Puckett’s 124.

Does Albert Belle belong in the HOF? It’s hard to say, but assuming Kirby Puckett belongs in the Hall (on the first ballot, no less), so does Belle. Both players’ careers were cut short by injuries they could not have prevented, yet Puckett’s good guy image (dubious, considering his many, many personal vices and scrapes with the law) and accessibility to the press put him over the top. I understand the argument that Puckett won a World Series while Belle did not, but the idea that Kirby Puckett was a career “winner” is poorly founded. For the ten years that Albert Belle was a regular in the Big Leagues, his teams posted a regular season record of 786-766 (.506 win %), which included two playoff appearances and a World Series defeat. Puckett’s teams went a combined 924-953 (.492 win %), which included a World Series Championship.

I also understand that the common man could look at Kirby Puckett and feel inspired. When a 6’2”, 225-pound behemoth hits 50 home runs, it makes sense. When 5’8”, 210-pound Kirby Puckett is making jumping catches and knocking doubles off the wall in the Baggy Dome, it inspires the non-professional-athlete in all of us and gives that glimmer of hope: “Hey, he’s just like me!” This is why fans love players like David Eckstein.

I’m not dispelling the notion that Kirby Puckett was a great player or that he accomplished much and brought joy and hope to countless baseball fans, rather I seek to question why the BBWAA can’t get over its obvious grudge. Why should Puckett (or any other player with a short career) benefit from the “brilliance” they displayed in such a short amount of time while Belle is penalized for not having done it “long enough?” When Puckett retired, a sadness permeated baseball, a great career had been cut short. When Belle retired, there was almost a sense of relief, he was finally out of the game.

Statistical analysis in baseball has come a long way, even since the mid-1990’s, but even on the most superficial of platforms, looking at the typical baseball-card-numbers, it isn’t hard to see who the better hitter was. I hope the Veteran’s Committee rights this wrong when the time comes, but I won't hold my breath.