Saturday, July 31, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

(Yes, I know it isn't actually Friday.  Oops.).

Two things, mostly unrelated. 

First, I really love the trading deadline.  Trades have always been one of the great things about baseball, going back I believe basically to the dawn of professional baseball leagues.  Yes, the other major North American sports have trades, but I don't think it looms nearly as large in the culture of the NFL, NBA, or NHL as it does in baseball  -- I don't think fans obsess about old mistakes, or spend nearly as much time concocting trading ideas, or argue years after the fact whether a trade sense or not..  Dumping trades have always been a part of major league baseball, perhaps most famously with Connie Mack's dismemberment of his great A's teams.  But with free agency, dumping trades have become far more common, since now contract length is another variable to consider, not just cost (in other words, now you can trade three months of a great player for years of a good player or a prospect, something that didn't make sense when teams owned the rights of their players to the grave).  The trade deadline excitement that we know and love today is about twenty years old, and I think it's just terrific.  Even if it screws my roto team more often than not, and after being a serious player in the 1990s Brian Sabean apparently has gone gun-shy.  Oh well.

Second thing that's been on my mind this week...stability!  From 1903 through 1952, the National and American Leagues were totally stable: same sixteen teams, same sixteen locations (I suppose you could date it from 1905, when the World Series was permanently set up).  Then from 1953 through 1973 there were tons of franchise relocations, and from 1961 through 1998 several waves of expansion.  There was one island of stability in there from 1978 through 1992, with no expansion, realignment, or relocation; that's the current record.  I think the most notable tweak in those years was the switch from a best of five to best of seven LCS, in 1985 -- although those were also the years in which the rules for free agency were evolving, and we had a major disruption in 1981.  Anyway, then Bud Selig took over and things started going haywire again.  But now, suddenly, things appear to be stable again.  From 1998 through this year, the only significant change was the Expos moving to Washington in 2005.  So 1998-2004 (seven seasons) was basically stable, and so has the current six seasons.  Now, as long as Bud Selig is around, there's always the threat of change for the sake of change, or (even worse, and more likely) change to overreact to minor complaints...but neither expansion nor franchise shifts appear to be on the table for now.  I don't like the current arrangements very much at all, but I do like stability.  I think you can make a case that the current run since 1998 is the most stable since 1953 -- for most fans, the longest they remember.  I'm rooting for another decade of it.


  1. Jon, I think that the evil four letters and the media in general has made the trade deadline more of a big deal than it really is, after all, there is still another month to go where guys who've cleared waivers (and it's general practise for teams to put _everybody_ on waivers) to be traded. There is still a lot of time to go before the "real" trade deadline has occurred. Nevertheless, I do agree that it is a big day and one in which my Dodgers has done yet another horrible job.

    So, fwiw, eff you ned colletti!

  2. I thought a bit today about why the MLB trade deadline looms so large, and it seems to be related to the fact that the MLB playoffs are more different from the regular season than any of the other three sports. (The NFL's one-and-done playoff format roughly enhances the relatively high importance of each regular-season game, while the grind of the NBA and NHL playoffs require depth of assets developed in the regular season).

    MLB playoff series are unique in that they are far more amendable to random good and bad luck than the lengthy regular season. Moneyball icon Billy Beane made this point accurately - if somewhat bitterly - in explaining why his stat-friendly A's won so many regular season games and so few postseason series.

    Given the importance of each game in a short MLB playoff series, what is the most important factor in such a series? Pretty obviously, quality starts. Correspondingly, the thing we pay attention to at the trade deadline is movement of quality starters. There's a bit of interest in whether Lance Berkman can recapture some magic late in his career with the Yanks, but let's be honest, not that much.

    Nowhere near as much interest as Roy Oswalt giving the Phillies three all-star caliber starters, or at a lesser level, the Dodgers attempting to improve with Ted Lilly (Greg's comment above notwithstanding).

    Moving in another direction, in the spirit of JB's recent argument that economic factors, more than hype, determine much does it really matter that the Phils landed Oswalt?

    Oswalt's WHIP is around 1.1 - which is roughly the same as the Phillies' putative other third starter, Jamie Moyer (assuming he's healthy in October). How much more likely are the Phillies to win an Oswalt start than a Moyer start? Marginally so, if at all. How much more likely are they to win a series with Oswalt as third starter than Moyer? Even more marginally so. How much more likely are they to win the WS with Oswalt than Moyer? Not much more likely..maybe 1-2%?

    For the Phils Phanatic, it probably feels like a lot more than 1-2%, since the quality starter is such a visible factor in the playoffs. Those Philies Phans probably don't want to hear that Oswalt largely doesn't matter, in the same way that we don't want to hear that the 1988 presidential election was determined by economic factors (as opposed to that regrettable whack-a-mole photo of Dukakis in the tank).

    (Aside for Greg: Lilly's WHIP is around 1.1 as well. At much less cost than Oswalt. I'm sure Dodger nation is largely uncomforted by that, however).

  3. Very interesting point about baseball playoffs being different than other sports. Knock-outs like the NFL are def. different but I wonder if it's really true as far as NHL or NBA goes. Now, I know next to nothing about hockey so I'll put that aside but the NBA is I don't think quite as you might think. The drawn out schedule of the NBA is a demand driven thing (i.e. ABC wants the Finals to start on day x so the league works the dates back from there), the NBA playoffs used to go much faster. Also, rotations tighten in the playoffs; teams that would normally play 10-11 guys during the regular season grind now play no more than 3 off the bench.

    That said, I do agree that baseball is definitely sport that depend much more on luck/variability. But, the A's don't win in the post-season because they don't have the huge "stars", I firmly believe that. I agree that you can smooth out the curves during the regular season with average to above-average players but to win in the post-season, you need the stars (who are stars largely because of their stats) and Oakland simply can't afford those.

    As many others have said on Dodgers blogs, in a vacuum, Lilly isn't a horrible pitcher, as his WHIP indicates, but he didn't just roll off a plane and decide to play for the Dodgers, he was traded and what the Dodgers gave up made this deal into a negative. The Dodgers' problem right now isn't pitching, Ted Lilly is coming in not to be a Oswalt type front of the rotation pitcher, he's here to be a #4-5. Anyway, I'm disgusted by Ned Colletti and his continual gutting of young, team controlled asset for over the hill "veterans". Eff him and Joe Torre.

  4. Greg, thanks for engaging me in this discussion. First, to clarify: when I was thinking about the NBA playoff "grind", I specifically had in mind Rajon Rondo, and how in spite of their three stars, the Celtics won a championship (and were thisclose to another) due in large part to Rondo's rise to elite PG status. That rise happened over the course of the season(s), and it was duly reflected in the progression of the 2008 and 2010 playoffs. Oh, and, also - I guess hockey isn't the greatest comparison in that goalies (e.g. Roy, Brodeur) can steal Cups by standing on their heads for two months, which isn't the same as the regular season.

    I'm intrigued by the argument that teams like the A's don't have enough stars to win short playoff series. The nerdy 'Nate Silver stats wonk' in me rebels against the idea; though on the other hand it does seem like stars matter, stats be damned.

    Went over to Baseball Prospectus to check out the WARP (Wins over Average Replacement Player) for Oswalt and Moyer. In 2010, Oswalt has been worth around 3 or so extra wins, while Moyer has been worth around 1. So Oswalt is about 2 wins per year better than Moyer, and we just ended July, so gross that up to 3 over a full season.

    (Of course, as recently as 2008 Moyer's WARP was 2.9 while Oswalt's was 3.5 - roughly the same. 2008 results are likely to be within variance for 2010, yes?)

    Anyway, Oswalt is worth (maybe) 3 extra wins vs. Moyer in a year, and a playoff series is about 2-5% as long as a year. So Oswalt is worth about (maybe) 0.1 extra wins in a playoff series vs. Moyer. How often does 0.1 extra win in a playoff series swing the outcome of that series? How often does that pave the way for 3 series wins, and a World Championship?

    And yet, I can't deny that I buy your stars argument, particularly where teams like the A's are concerned. Who can forget that 2001 ALDS, where the A's had the 3-time world champ Yankees on the ropes, up 2-0 and about to tie game 3, when Derek Jeter ran all the way over to the first base line to grab an errant throw, shovel it to Posada to tag Giambi, winning the game and sinking the A's?

    Who knew back then, other than stats nerds, that Jeter was arguably the most overrated infielder in history, a player of historically poor fielding range (since improved, in fairness)?

    One imagines Nate Silver and his buddies sitting around watching that game, and Silver crunching a bunch of numbers and declaring confidently, "If Jeter has to move way out of his normal position to field a ball, there's no way the Yankees win this game".

    Certainly, certainly. Unless mystique and aura are real...

  5. toward civil society through high politics

  6. CSH - No worries, it's an interesting conversation to say the least.

    I will be the first to say that I am not a close observer of the Celtics, but don't you see his growth as a long term progression from the Celtics' last ring in '08 (when he was just a bit player/contributor) to now in '10 being a fully fledged star. I don't know if I could agree that his growth was a result of THIS season rather than just growing into an elite player. Now, I will say that the NBA, unlike MLB doesn't have a minor league for players to mature into "ready" players.

    I think that in baseball, "star" fielders are worth more than "star" pitchers simply because pitchers take the ball every 5th day (boy do I miss the days of ironman starters who pitched on 3 days' rest) while fielders play basically every day and are at bat much more often.

    The Jeter play that you mention is very interesting and I have to admit that I wasn't thinking of it when I made my initial statement about stars. For me, someone who is a star is someone who has outstanding statistics to back it up. That said, I also believe in Beane's belief in not overpaying for stars. As you yourself correctly points out, such is Jeter's mystique that it overshadows the fact that he's an overrated fielder.

  7. I think the "stars" argument about the A's works like this: Over the course of a season, a player is going to balance out to about what his projected stats SHOULD be. If the guy is a .250 hitter, he's gonna be a .250 hitter, and his 5-for-5 game will be balanced out by a 0-for-15 slump. It's a long season, and there will be enough ups and downs to get you back to your level. However, if you were to pick out three, five, or seven games at random, you may get some fairly odd numbers.

    You see where I'm going with this, obviously. Now, a "star"- or at least, a star based on performance- is going to have some pretty gaudy numbers, which means, for lack of a better work, consistency. A lot less of those downs, y'know? And so, in three games, or five games, or whatever, there's less chance of finding a down spot. Thus, more production, and a better chance of victory.

    That's how I understood it/rationalized it to myself, at least. Though certainly, I may not be communicating the idea very well...

  8. Colby, I think you hate the nail bang on the head, another way to define a "star" is simply someone who consistently performs at a higher level than compared to his peer.

    Now, over the course of a 162 games, a collection of average to slightly above average players will be able to cover each other and over any major inconsistencies because as Colby mentions, the season's long. And given a small sample (i.e. in a playoff series), everyone will regress to the mean not to mention the odds of player b papering over the weakness of player a decreases.

    All of that create the end result of the A's, competitive during the regular season, falter during the post.

  9. @Greg and Colby - interesting argument, that the star hitter is the top performer who is consistent, as opposed to those with high year-long (smoothed) averages that hide periods of inconsistency. Interesting to encounter that argument precisely when one of the big stories in baseball is "Will you hit your damn 600th home run already A-Fraud?!?!?!"

    A-Rod's slump is a fresh example, but I certainly agree that there's a difference between "Science of hitting"-type good hitters and streaky ones who catch lightning in a bottle. An example of a streaky one might be Sosa in his MVP-winning season of 1998, where he hit 66 home runs...and led the league in whiffs.

    Among "science of hitting"-type hitters, two of the most prominent are Wade Boggs (never popped up all season) and Ted Williams (practiced hitting so many thousands of hours he learned to see where on the ball the bat made contact). Two others, one from recent vintage and another far past, might be Tony Gwynn Sr. and Joe DiMaggio.

    From here, I'm going to assume that Williams, Boggs, DiMaggio and Gwynn Sr. are pretty close to the best representations of "science of hitting"-type hitters. Testing Greg and Colby's theory, did they tend to be more consistent in the postseason?

    DiMaggio won 9 WS, Boggs won 1 (late in his career), the other two came up empty. What about batting averages?

    Williams: Regular Season: .344
    Williams: Postseason (25 ABs): .200

    Boggs: Regular Season: .328
    Boggs: Postseason (154 ABs): .273

    Gwynn Sr: Regular Season: .338
    Gwynn Sr: Postseason (108 ABs): .306

    DiMaggio: Regular Season: .325
    DiMaggio: Postseason (199 ABs): .271

    Only Gwynn was even close in the postseason. Admittedly there's better pitching faced in the postseason, but if these four master hitting technicians could not avoid postseasons marked by down moments, really, who could?


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