Baseball: June 2009 Archives

Here is the view of Angels position players (with 100 PA or more) from the sabersphere (i.e. Fangraphs):

                    RAR   WAR  Worth  Paid  Value
Torii Hunter        27.6  2.8  $12.4  $7.1  $5.3
Chone Figgins       22.8  2.3  $10.3  $2.4  $8.0
Juan Rivera         20.9  2.1   $9.4  $1.3  $8.1
Mike Napoli*        14.3  1.4   $6.4  $0.8  $5.6
Bobby Abreu         10.6  1.1   $4.8  $2.0  $2.8
Kendry Morales       8.4  0.8   $3.8  $0.5  $3.4
Erick Aybar          6.8  0.7   $3.1  $0.2  $2.9
Howie Kendrick       6.0  0.6   $2.7  $0.2  $2.5
Maicer Izturis       1.9  0.2   $0.8  $0.7  $0.2
Vladimir Guerrero*  -1.4 -0.1  -$0.6  $6.1 -$6.7
Jeff Mathis*        -1.5 -0.1  -$0.7  $0.2 -$0.9
Gary Matthews Jr.  -11.8 -1.2  -$5.3  $4.1 -$9.4
                   104.6 10.6  $47.1 $25.5 $21.6
* Figures do not include defense.
RAR and WAR, as usual, are runs and wins above replacement level. Ten runs above replacement are worth approximately one win. The column I call "worth" is the dollar equivalent of those wins (in millions of dollars, of course), which is typically taken to be about $5 million per win. The "paid" column is that player's annual salary prorated through 66 games according to Cot's (note: for Kendry, I included a portion of his $3M signing bonus). The column I call "value" is the difference of "worth" and "paid," i.e. how much profit (or loss, ahem, GMJ) the player has yielded for the team. These figures do include defensive performance, except for the Napoli and Mathis (Fangraphs doesn't know how to value catcher defense) and Vlad (most of his PA have come as a DH), and are adjusted for positional value (a left fielder is expected to hit better than a shortstop, for example). The table is sorted according to "worth."

A few positive observations. The Angels are on pace to blow away their total "worth" from last year ($78.0M) by almost 50% while keeping salary roughly constant. So far, Juan Rivera was the deal of the offseason for the club, with Abreu deserving an honorable mention. Figgins is almost as "valuable" as Rivera, and even more so than Hunter, and Aybar has earned more than 16 times his salary at short. Surprisingly, Kendrick has earned more than 14 times his salary, most of that coming from his defensive performance, and Napoli and Morales have both exceeded their pay by about 800%. Overall, this is solid performance from a lineup that has been the recipient of much griping, even in spite of some concerns I have about UZR (Fangraphs' defensive metric) undervaluing the Angels defense.

There are some not so positive things, of course. Because of his injury and subsequent ineffectiveness, Vlad has been a big drain. Jeff Mathis is worthless. And Gary Matthews Jr. is, well, even less than worthless. There's not much more to say about GMJ that hasn't already been said. His underperformance, along with Vlad's, almost negates the overperformance of the rest of the outfield. There's still hope that Vlad comes around, but I will continue to dream every night about GMJ being released.

Up next, a similar breakdown of Angels starting pitching.

Regression fallacy

In a recent explosion of offense, the Angels have cruised to two lopsided victories over the San Diego Padres while scoring 20 runs and hitting 7 balls over the fence (4 of them by Torii Hunter). And this comes on the heels of a humiliating 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays that finally deflated whatever air was left in the party balloons at the end of a disappointing 4-5 road trip. This just goes to show you, there is no such thing as momentum in baseball. And thank God for that.

We've already heard a lot about Scioscia's "chewing out" session after Thursday's game. If the Angels continue to win, we'll probably hear a lot more about how it "turned things around" and "inspired" the team to step up and "elevate" their game. Mark Gubicza said as much in a mindless rant during the 5th inning of Thursday's game. I'm paraphrasing, but he accused the entire offense (with the exception of Torii Hunter who had an RBI hit in the inning) of "not taking responsibility" for their play and "stepping up" to get that clutch hit. What the hell does that even mean? If baseball players had the ability to do that by sheer force of will alone, don't you think they would do it, like, all the time, maybe?

I'm not going to be the pushy stat geek and bring up the R2 value of the most recent study on clutch hitting (or the nonexistence thereof) or compute the kurtosis of team batting-average. You can get that lots of other places. But there are a few simple facts about statistics that border on obviousness. For example, you can't win every game is an expression of the statistical fact that, well, you can't win every game, just like you can't flip 500 coins and get 500 heads. The probability isn't actually zero, but it's so close to zero that it might as well be zero. Similarly, you'll often hear commentators (ahem, Rex) talking about players "going good," like the Force is with them. Players get hot and cold, and the industry secret to success is knowing how to deal with being cold. Sometimes when players slump they try to consciously change what they've spent their whole life learning how to do unconsciously: when to swing, when not to, when to release a slider, how to go back on a fly ball, etc. This approach rarely ends well at the big league level. Just ask Howie Kendrick.

This is called a regression fallacy. Highly random things, like coin tosses and batting averages, fluctuate naturally. Everyone knows this in baseball as streaking and slumping. But it is incorrect to attribute a cause to a natural fluctuation. This works both ways. Just like Howie didn't necessarily go from hot to cold because he did something wrong, the Angels didn't necessarily go from cold to hot because they did something right, in other words, there's no "stepping up." Of course baseball is ultimately played by humans who genuinely feel things like confidence and frustration, but that's not what makes a good (or bad) baseball team.

Oh great, another stat geek trying to tell everyone that everything they know about baseball is wrong, their favorite team sucks, all their hopes and dreams will come to naught, etc., etc. Well yes, maybe, but that's not my point here. What I mean to say is that, this season, the Angels are, have been, and will continue to be a good baseball team. A frustrating road trip doesn't mean the team has gone soft, and an exhilarating home stand isn't evidence that they've gained an edge. They're trying to win every day. I still think that, barring catastrophe, at the end of the year they'll have somewhere in the vicinity of 85-90 wins, which should be enough to edge the Rangers by a few games.

We've become so used to beating up on the Angels offense in recent years that we haven't noticed that it's actually become competent. It's not great, but it's at least average. Scoring 4 to 5 runs a night, as the Angels have on average, would give your team a decent chance to win a ball game if the pitching came through, and that's where the Angels have won their bread in recent years. Except for this year, where, while the starting pitching has been pretty good, the bullpen has been stupendously bad, and for no discernible reason. I still claim that this team's ultimate problem is in the pen, not in the batter's box. Without a healthy and effective Scot Shields, the Angels have lacked a late-inning fireman to come in the game and throw strikes. Pitching behind in the count has killed them with walks and hittable pitches. What is annoying is that this should be a reliable group of guys, although I still don't think Bulger is any good and Arredondo is just a kid. Get well soon, Scot. If you could take 6 of those bullpen losses and turn them into wins, the Angels would be 37-23, 12 games over .500 and 2.5 games up on Texas. That's made all the difference in our perceptions.

So in summary, Mr. Gubicza, don't blame "not taking responsibility" when things go bad. Blame something you can actually point to, like relievers not throwing strikes. You don't have to plot it or run a linear regression analysis or whatever. But it should be something you can actually tell someone how to fix, like, for example: throw more strikes. Otherwise, despite how many fancy-sounding words you use, in the end, you aren't saying anything more intelligent than "you suck!". I can give viewers that kind of commentary for much less than what Fox is paying you, but unfortunately, I can't do it with your greasy Superman coif. That costs extra.

Don't mess with Texas?

Note: The stats below were current when this was drafted on 6/1. Since then, Texas has split its last 4 games while being outscored 23-18.

It's the burning question in the AL West this year: Are the Rangers for real? Texas swept the Angels in Arlington last month, in what ultimately proved to be a fairly non-competitive series. Angels fans have watched the standings nervously ever since. Currently the Rangers are 30-20, 4.5 games up on the 25-24 Angels. Can it possibly last?

My unprofessional opinion is, in a word, No. Allow me to explain.

  1. Park factors. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the Ranger offense, at this point in the season, is a fake, a mirage created by their infamous hitters' park. Consider their offensive home/road splits:

    Home: .292 / .362 / .526 (.888 OPS)
    Away: .249 / .294 / .447 (.741 OPS)
    That's a 147 point swing in OPS. Just how big is that? It's almost the difference between Todd Helton at altitude (1.049 OPS) and Todd Helton at sea level (.872 OPS). According to ESPN's park factor report, Rangers Ballpark is currently generating 20% more offense than the average park. That's a lot, but it's not unheard of for this field. It was 22% above average in 2003 and 2004, and almost 25% above average in 2002. Last year it came in 14% over average--the highest in MLB. Only once since 2002 has Rangers Ballpark come in below average, and then it was just 2% below the mean.

    This stuff is real. Check out the career home/road splits for some current Ranger franchise players:

    Michael Young (5620 PA)

    Home: .324 / .372 / .483 (.854 OPS)
    Away: .280 / .324 / .409 (.733 OPS)
    Hank Blalock (3543 PA)

    Home: .303 / .370 / .530 (.900 OPS)
    Away: .246 / .300 / .412 (.711 OPS)
    Ian Kinsler (1869 PA)

    Home: .329 / .401 / .554 (.955 OPS)
    Away: .250 / .320 / .413 (.734 OPS)
    Pretty extreme stuff. All three of these guys have an OPS of at least 120 points higher at home than on the road, enough to turn a mediocre hitter into an All-Star. And with Kinsler, the split is almost twice as big. These aren't small samples either, there are almost 10,000 PA between them. Just for fun, let's see how Ranger posterboy Josh Hamilton did over his first full season in Texas:

    Home: .345 / .408 / .611 (1.019 OPS)
    Away: .263 / .331 / .448 (.779 OPS)
    In Arlington, he was Albert fucking Pujols. Away from Arlington, he wasn't much better than average. But park factors work both ways. Ranger pitchers must do worse at home, right? Well, that's not the way it's played out so far this year. Check out their pitching splits:

    Home: 4.73 ERA, 1.462 WHIP
    Away: 4.71 ERA, 1.437 WHIP
    Almost exactly the same, what's up with that? Do Ranger pitchers have some magical ability to pitch an extra 20% better at home to make up for the park factor? Of course not. The distribution of quality innings is not evenly split between home and away right now, but that will even out as the season goes along. Here's what the Rangers' pitching splits looked like when 2008 was all said and done:

    Home: 5.47 ERA, 1.547 WHIP
    Away: 5.26 ERA, 1.606 WHIP
    There's a little oddness in the higher road WHIP, but the ratio of total runs allowed at home, 511, to runs allowed on the road, 456, is about 12%. Even if Texas has a better staff this year than last, which I am willing to grant, they can't continue to perform equally well at home and road.
  2. Strength of schedule. According to ESPN's Relative Power Index, the Rangers have played the third easiest schedule in the American League. The Angels, by comparison, have had the hardest. This will also even out as the season goes along, and Texas will finally have to meet New York and Boston, who have had their number over the years, instead of beating up on Oakland and Houston.
  3. Injuries. The Rangers have been fortunate to have just about everyone healthy this season, but teams rarely enjoy that for an entire season. Already Josh Hamilton looks like he's going to be on the shelf for awhile, and they'll be in real trouble with a few injuries to their pitching staff, which brings us to...
  4. Nolan Ryan. Seriously, this guy is insane. The curmudgeonly, senile. you-damn-kids-have-it-so-soft-I-did-it-this-way-when-I-was-your-age kind of insane. No pitch counts? Is he trying to serially murder his pitching staff, or is that just an accident? Not everyone can throw 125 pitches a game, most of them over 95 mph, for 40+ games a year the way that Grandpa Nolan did back in the day. But modern pitchers also pitch longer and more effectively over their careers too, with less risk of exploding their arms like Sandy Koufax and Frank Tanana. They have a young staff as it is, but if they work them the way the old fart wants them to this year, they're in for some hurt over the long haul. And that's not just for this year.
I can't guarantee that the Rangers won't continue to luck out all season long and win the division, but I can say the odds are against it. Even at the beginning of June, I still hold by my pre-season prediction: the Angels win 85-90 games and win the AL West by 4-8 games. After the start they've had it might be on the lower end of that scale, but I'm not hitting the panic button. Yet.

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